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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.

Drunkard's Walk V / Oh! My Brother! Book II:
Another Divine Mess You've Gotten Me Into

by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel

5. In Which Things Come From Hell In A Hand Basket


What does it mean to be human? To be human is to be aware, always, even if only unconsciously, of one's flaws... and to try and transcend them, always, in one way or another. This is how we are unlike the monsters who call themselves gods.
— Tendo Kasumi, in "Together Again 1996" by Chris Davies

No more games, I'm gonna change
What you call rage
Tear this motherfucking roof off
Like two dogs caged
I was playing in the beginning
The mood all changed
I've been chewed up and spit out
And booed off stage

— Eminem, "Lose Yourself"


Asgard, Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 7:24 AM Tokyo Time

"Damnit, Thor, this isn't funny!"

Chris paced the width of Bilskirnir, Thor's hall, whilst the deity in question was busy laughing himself sick. "That's what you think. Skuld? With a servitor? Shakespeare couldn't write a comedy like that."

"That's my point!" Chris yelled, throwing his hands up. "I love her, really I do, and she's a good kid, but can you imagine her with a minion? This leads to all sort of scary bad things, usually ending with a mob, pitchforks, and torches."

Thor reached for a pitcher on the longtable and refilled his tankard, then took a long drink. "There's not much you can do, Chris — our little sister has brought this on herself. And now that the girl knows about the greater world, through the actions of another mortal yet, she can't even be declared a nonbeliever. Someone has to take responsibility for the mortal and for what she may do."

With a groan, Chris collapsed into a chair and buried his face in his hands. "Man, I don't even like Megumi, but even she doesn't deserve to be drafted into this." He sighed. "Isn't there anything else we can do?"

Thor scratched at his beard and thought for a while. "I suppose we could ask around. One of the Eastern or really ancient pantheons may have something else they use other than servitors and soldiers, but I wouldn't expect too much."

"Yeah, well, thanks. Even if you don't find anything, I appreciate the help."

"I'm not a busy guy, and feasting and wenching does get old after a while."

A chuckle came from Chris as he watched one of the serving girls walk by. He jerked a thumb in her direction. "With scenery like that, I can't imagine it'd ever get old."

Thor looked at the girl, noted her buxom figure, and then rolled his eyes. "Go on, get out of here. It's too early in the morning for your attempts at guy talk."

With a laugh, Chris stood. "Yeah, I better get going before something else sets that guy off."

"Touchy, is he?" Thor asked.

"You wouldn't believe it, sometimes I think he's the second coming of Modi."

Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 1:46 PM

Megumi slipped as quietly as she could into Skuld's workshop. She had planned this out very carefully so that no one was around: Keiichi, Belldandy and the jerk were all at classes, Doug was on an interview for a job, and Urd... well, she didn't know where Urd was, but there was work to do in Skuld's shop, so she could pretty much guarantee that Urd would be somewhere — anywhere — else. Megumi herself had blown off her own classes this afternoon to take advantage of this opportunity.

She paused just past the threshold to take a long, quiet breath. Then she boldly called, "Skuld-sama."

The micrometer Skuld had been holding clattered on the steel floor of the forge area as the little goddess whirled around, her eyes widening at the unexpected manner in which Megumi had addressed her. "Megumi?"

"Skuld-sama," Megumi repeated, dropping to one knee and bowing her head. "I have come to a decision. Will you take me as your Soldier?"

Skuld's mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments. "S-soldier?" she finally managed. "No!"

Megumi looked up. "Aw, c'mon."

Skuld crouched down to pick up the micrometer, never taking her eyes off Megumi. "You have no idea what you're asking for."

"On the contrary," Megumi replied, defiantly glaring at the younger girl, "I know exactly what I'm asking for."

"No, you don't!" Skuld all but shrieked, the micrometer now clenched in her small hand forgotten and creaking slightly in her grip. "You don't! You're asking to be my slave! No, you're asking to be my weapon! I don't want a weapon!" She turned and hurled the micrometer across the workshop. It struck the supernaturally-hard ceramic face of the shop's furnace and shattered.

Uncaring, Skuld turned back, seized Megumi by the upper arms and hauled her to her feet with a strength out of proportion to her tiny frame. Her eyes sought out those of the mortal girl. "Every cycle I have to grow up and lead the Valkyrie. Every cycle! Each and every one of them is a weapon, and they all answer to me. I have enough weapons! I don't want any more!"

"Skuld..." Megumi whispered.

"Why?" the smaller girl demanded. "Why do you want to do that to yourself?" Something in her voice — Megumi couldn't tell exactly what — changed as she added, "Tell me true, Megumi!"

The intensity in Skuld's eyes seemed to take control of her, and Megumi found a preternatural calm coming over her. "I want to be able to protect myself from Mara," she said in a small, quiet voice. "I want to be able to fight back. To attack her."

"Don't be stupid!" Skuld spat. "A Soldier is no match for a demon, especially not a demon first class like Mara!" She spun and stalked a few steps away.

Released from whatever power had momentarily taken hold of her, Megumi clenched her fists. "Then what the hell am I supposed to do? Just let her get at me any time she wants?"

"No!" Skuld spun back to face her. "You don't need to be a Soldier for that! Just swear service and you'll be under my protection."

Megumi scowled. "The protection of a thirteen-year-old girl?"

Skuld scowled back at her with an almost physical intensity. "No," she snarled, "the protection of a goddess. You forget already Who I am in the larger order of things, Megumi. Swear simple service to me, and you become mine. If Mara attacks you, it will be as though she attacked me — and if she attacks me, she attacks all of us — Urd, Oneesan, Niichan, and me. You will be protected from her by the threat of overwhelming retaliation. You don't need to turn yourself into a weapon to be protected."

There was a long pause. "But I want to," Megumi finally said in a quiet, almost abashed tone. "I want that power, so I can feel like I make some kind of difference."

Skuld's expression softened. "Oh, Megumi... you do make a difference. That's the most amazing and infuriating thing about you mortal creatures — every little thing you do changes the universe! Why do you think we gods are so obsessed with you? You each have an ability to unravel and reweave destiny that rivals anything my sisters and I can do!"

"Free will," Megumi whispered as comprehension dawned.

Skuld nodded. "Free will. It's bad enough that you're being forced to give up some by being sworn to me, but I won't let you give up any more than you have to!" She clenched her hands into fists, planted them firmly on her hips and declared, "I will not make you a Soldier. So you have a choice: Servitor, or getting your memory wiped." She took on an imperious air as she eyed the mortal girl. "What's it going to be?"

Megumi sighed and wrapped her arms around herself as she stared at the floor. What choice did she have? Sure, she could go back to the life she'd had before Doug and his motorcycle blasted through the temple doorway, and she'd never miss a thing. But the very idea made her stomach clench painfully. There really was only one choice — and a restored ignorance would not protect her from Mara.

"Servitor," she whispered. She looked up. "When do we do this? How do we do this?"

"When?" Skuld echoed. "Now, if you want."

Megumi nodded once, briskly. "Yeah, get it over and done with."

Skuld studied her for a long moment. "Okay, then."

Straightening up from her almost hunched posture, Megumi unfolded her arms and let them hang at her sides. "How do we do this?" she asked again. "Is there some kind of ceremony?"

Skuld took Megumi's right hand in both of hers. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I just ask you three times if you wish to enter my service, and you say 'yes' each time." She smiled. "That's it, more or less."

Megumi closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. "Sounds easy enough."

"It is."

As she stood there with her eyes closed, Megumi felt her heart begin to race. In just a few moments, everything will change. I'll never be the same again.

"Are you ready?" Skuld's voice had suddenly changed again — still that of a girl, but with a power, authority, and most of all an age completely out of keeping with the thirteen-year-old Megumi had come to know. It was a voice she had heard only twice before, both times in irritation or even anger, and she snapped her eyes open in near-panic before she realized that this time it was gentle, even amused.

She stared in mixed wonder and terror at the girl, and realized that something immense and ancient, wise and powerful, now looked out from behind her eyes. "Maiden," Megumi whispered, and she unconsciously dropped back to her knees. Her mind tried to encompass the idea of a being that was both aeons old and yet a child, and failed.

"Morisato Megumi," Skuld/Maiden — still holding her hand — intoned formally. "I offer you a place as My servant in the mortal world. In exchange I will empower you to do My bidding, and you will receive My guidance and protection." Somehow, Skuld seemed to loom over her. "Do you of your free will wish to enter My service, to act as My hand and My voice when I so require?"

Still caught in the girl's ancient/young eyes, the strange phrasing barely registered to Megumi's mind. "Yes," she murmured. "I do."

Skuld's eyes refused to release hers, even as her hands still held Megumi's own. "Do you accept Me as your Mistress, to serve and obey Me?" The voice seemed to bore into her like some burrowing creature, seeking something buried deep within her.

"I do," Megumi responded, her voice louder and more certain.

The grip on her right hand tightened. "Do you swear yourself to Me, for now and for evermore?"

With a sudden and complete confidence, Megumi declared, "I do." Her voice seemed to echo around her as though she were in a great hall rather than the small workshop.

"Morisato Megumi," Skuld/Maiden announced, "I accept your petition and bind you into My service. So mote it be." Before Megumi could respond, a sensation like a great switch being thrown filled her, sending vibrations through her body and striking her mute with surprise.

Then Skuld lifted Megumi's hand to her lips and kissed the inside of her wrist, right over the vein that pulsed there with her racing heart. There was a moment of searing, burning cold when Skuld's lips touched her skin — too long for comfort, too short for pain — and then it was over. Skuld released her hand, and Megumi numbly let it drop down to her side.

"And now," Skuld said, still with the voice of the Maiden, "Payment for your service." She pressed her fingertips to Megumi's breastbone.

"Payment...?" Megumi managed to squeak before a star exploded in her chest. A flood of energy roared through her, filling her up from toes to fingertips until she thought she would burst at the seams with it. As it threatened to erupt through her very pores, her eyes shut and her mouth opened in a silent cry, and her back arched involuntarily. Then the torrent of power calmed and seemed to sink into her very bones.

It left her alert, invigorated, filled with a frantic nervous energy — she wanted to leap up and pace, dash out the door, climb a tree, something. She felt alive, more alive than she had ever felt before. Even her senses seemed sharper — colors brighter, sounds clearer, textures, scents, everything just a little bit more than before. She tilted her head when she realized that she could now hear something like a distant orchestra, playing a tune that was maddeningly familiar.

"I have given you a small measure of Celestial energies, the better to serve Me," the Maiden explained.

"Energies?" Megumi turned attention back to Skuld. Something seemed ... different about her. Something like little glimmers of orange-golden light seemed to flicker around her and along the surface of her skin.

Skuld/Maiden nodded. "These are the same energies that make up the human soul, so you could say that I have simply ... made your soul bigger than it was." She smiled. "You will find it has improved you in many ways. The music I am sure you are hearing, by the way, is the Symphony — the music made by the Universe itself. You can perceive it now because of My gift. The Symphony will reveal many secrets to you, once you learn to listen to it correctly."

"Wow," Megumi breathed.

"Serve Me well, Morisato Megumi," the Maiden said, and then Skuld was herself again. The golden glints of light vanished, as did the sense of ancient Presence. Nothing alien looked out of the girl's eyes now. "I think," Skuld said softly in her own voice, "I think I'm going to go have a bit of a lie-down now." She made her way to the door, not quite staggering but clearly a little unsteady on her feet, before turning back to Megumi once more.

"You may want to take a little time to get used to the... changes in yourself, Megumi," Skuld said. "I'll tell Belldandy that you might want to stay over tonight."

Megumi nodded. "Okay. Thank you... Mistress."

Skuld winced. "Don't call me that. Just call me by my name."

"Right," Megumi replied. "Either way... thanks."

Skuld gave her a weak smile. "You're welcome." She started through the door, then stopped and looked back again. "And cheer up — now you get to play with the really cool toys."

Megumi chuckled. "Sounds fun."

"It is," Skuld agreed, then slipped through the door and out into the yard.

For several minutes Megumi stood there, staring at the door of the workshop and rubbing the wrist Skuld had kissed, running her fingertips over the raised golden lines that formed the outline of a stylized hammer.

Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 2:21 PM

Belldandy was still laughing her musical laugh when Keiichi, smiling somewhat more than fondly at her, pushed open the temple gates. Stepping aside, he held the gate wide and allowed Bell to enter before him, then followed, shutting it behind them.

Across the yard, they spied Megumi, simply sitting on the engawa in the warm Spring sun. She was leaning back with her arms supporting her, and her head thrown back so that her hair hung down loosely behind her neck. As the two of them drew closer, they could see that her eyes were closed and that she had a broad, almost ecstatic smile on her face.

Before either of them could greet her, she spoke. "Strings," she said without preamble, lifting her head and opening her eyes to look at Belldandy. "Violins mostly, but some basses and I think a couple of guitars, oddly enough. It's a lively melody, a little like a folk dance, but it's got a very faint dark counterpoint that adds a little poignance and a lot of depth."

Keiichi glanced in puzzlement at Belldandy, and was concerned when her laugh died and her smile drained away. "Oh, Megumi — you didn't," she whispered. "Not already..."

"Didn't what?" he asked, reaching for Belldandy's hand. "What did she do?"

Megumi shifted her weight to her left arm so she could hold up her right. Keiichi was stunned to see something that looked like a cross between a tattoo and a brand on her wrist, in the shape of a hammer. "I swore service to Skuld about half an hour ago, and it came with the package," Megumi announced matter-of-factly. She lowered her hand and returned to her two-armed position, closing her eyes again. "This is so cool. I could, like, sense you two out on the street."

Keiichi shared a look with Belldandy, then turned back to his sister. "What came with the package?"

"Symphonic perception," Belldandy replied softly. "Megumi is now able to hear the Symphony, the music generated by the Universe and all within it."

"Yeeeeahhhh." Eyes still closed, Megumi drew the word out and let it fade away. "It's like..." She visibly struggled for a description, then gave up and shrugged without lifting her hands, which had the effect of making her upper body bob up and down. "It's very cool," she repeated.

Keiichi released his grip on Belldandy's hand and knelt in front of his sister. "Megumi, you didn't have to do that!" he declared fervently. "You knew that Bell-chan and Chris were both looking for ways around it, so you wouldn't have to get all... mixed up in this. Why didn't you wait?" He looked over his shoulder

Megumi pushed herself upright and opened her eyes once more. "So I wouldn't get 'all mixed up in this'? Like I wasn't already? Or are you saying that I was better off ignorant while weird shit happened to me?" Her tone was low and dangerous.

"Um..." Keiichi swallowed and looked up at Belldandy.

"We didn't want you feeling as though you had no choice, Megumi-chan," Belldandy said.

"Right!" he added. "We didn't want you forced into this against your will!"

Megumi's mouth twisted into a tiny smile. "Who says I was forced?"

Keiichi glanced again between Belldandy and his sister. "Well, that angel..."

Megumi shook her head. "You don't get it, Bro. I wanted this. Heck, I wanted more, but Skuld wouldn't take me as a Soldier." Her smile broadened at the thought. "She actually threw a fit when I asked to be a Soldier." The smile disappeared and she stared into his eyes with a seriousness that he rarely saw in her. "Believe me, Keiichi. Even if that angel hadn't said I had to do this, I would have volunteered as soon as I learned about it. This is what I want."

Helplessly, he looked back over his shoulder at Belldandy again. The goddess was frowning, not in disapproval, but in apparent thought.

"Are you certain about this, Megumi?" she finally asked.

Megumi thought about it for a moment. "Yeah, I am. That it covers both our butts with your dad is just gravy. I mean, I'm disappointed that I don't get to be a Soldier and kick a certain demonic tush, but if you ask me, this Symphonic Perception thing almost makes up for it."

She turned her attention to her brother. Closing her eyes again, she tilted her head to the side, as though she were straining to hear some faint sound. Which, Keiichi realized, she was, in a way. "You're a... clarinet? No... an alto saxophone, big bro. A soloist, not nearly as loud as Belldandy, but definitely audible. Jazzy little tune you've got there, too. I like the bit that sounds like a revving engine." She tilted her head the other way. "Oooooh! You two harmonize!"

Belldandy's frown vanished into a small smile, and she reached out to pat Megumi's shoulder. "Of course we do, dear."

"It's just so strange," Megumi replied, her eyes still closed. "Your melodies are nothing alike, you wouldn't think they'd go together at all, but they do! They do!"

"I still don't like this," Keiichi announced as he rose. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

Belldandy shook her head. "Megumi has made her choice, fairly and honestly. I'm afraid we must respect that." She turned back to Megumi, whose dreamy smile had returned. "Megumi, there are other Celestial senses you'll probably develop over time. If you have any questions or any problems adjusting to them, please come see me, all right?"

"Sure," Megumi murmured distractedly. "Thanks!"

Belldandy turned back to Keiichi. "I'm going in to check on Skuld. Swearing Megumi to herself probably took quite a bit out of her."

Megumi nodded, her eyes still closed. "Oh yeah, she looked pretty wiped when we were done. Said she was going to lay down for a bit." She started tapping the ground with one of her feet. "Oooh, what's that from?"

Belldandy squeezed Keiichi's hand, pecked him on the cheek, and headed into the house while he stood numbly and watched his little sister experience the world with a mode of perception he might never possess or understand.

Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 4:15 PM

The flight from Heaven was always a pain for Chris. Unlike his sisters and the majority of other Celestials, who could make the journey almost instantaneously, for him it required a significant length of time, as he had to fly there — a trip of not only distance, but also from one plane of existence to another. Due to that, he tended to try to catch rides as much as he could, and usually ended up particularly irritated when he couldn't. It was a boring trip.

Further, after spending a good chunk of his day running around with Thor grilling every pantheon he could come up with on some way he could keep Megumi from getting drafted, he was tired, irritated, and frustrated beyond belief. Having to explain your goal to hundreds of gods — some of whose frames of reference were absolutely alien — was bad enough, but having to explain why was a ridiculously involved philosophical argument in the making.

Thus, Chris was already in a somewhat ill humor when he landed in the yard of the temple, results or no results. He paused to gaze quizzically at Megumi, who was sitting in another section doing an awfully good impression of meditation. With a mind to ask, he dropped out of no-time a few meters behind her.

Only to have Megumi suddenly roll forward, as if she sensed his presence. She scrambled to her feet and whirled to stare at him wild eyed. "What the hell?! Drums and synth?!"

"Okay," Chris drawled, holding up his hands, "calm down, I didn't mean to..." He trailed off and slowly lowered his arms, his expression darkening as her words caught up with him. "You didn't. Please tell me you didn't go and freaking swear to her! Tyr's Testicles, what the heck were you thinking?"

"I was thinking I didn't want to be a pawn anymore!" she shouted, slowly stalking toward him. "I'm thinking I didn't want to be a tool for that bitch every time she wanted to play another game with my brother! I'm thinking I deserved to know what was going on!"

She shouted her last words into Chris's face, and he whirled away, and began to stalk around aimlessly, muttering to himself and gesticulating wildly, before storming back up to her. "Did you ever think that there may have been a bleeding reason we didn't want you to do this? That we might have actually been trying to protect you? While you were just an ordinary mortal Mara had rules about what she could do to you. She could only do little things to you because you were a non-combatant. Now, though..."

"Little?" she shrieked. "Getting turned into a car is little?"

Chris stared at her balefully. "Yes. Compared to what she's allowed to do to you now that you've willingly entered the game? You better believe it! You're no longer one of the prizes, you're now part of the opposing team. You've become a target!"

"What do you care? You can't stand me!"

"For Fnord's sake, Megumi, you're probably going to be my sister-in-law some day! I may not like you a lot of the time, but damnit, you're family and I care about you!"

Megumi stared at him, eyes wide, shock clearly on her face. "You..."

Chris spun on his foot and stalked toward the house. "Just don't talk to me right now."

Family? He thinks of me as family? He cares about me? Megumi stared after Chris as he strode around the corner of the house, all the anger and frustration he was feeling like a palpable miasma to her expanded senses. And that wasn't the only thing she could sense — all during his rant, the Symphony kept singing "Truth! Truth!" to her.

She humphed and crossed her arms. I'm not going to feel guilty about not liking him, I'm not. It's mutual, I don't have to like him. Megumi tried to stare balefully after him, now that he was out of sight. Argh! Now I'm feeling like I can't be annoyed at him because of what he said, and I'm annoyed at him because I can't be annoyed at him. "That's what I get for arguing with a guy called 'Paradox'," she growled.

"What's that?" a male voice asked from behind her.

Megumi eeped and spun around so quickly it made her a little dizzy. Doug Sangnoir stood there, his sport jacket hooked on one finger and slung over his shoulder, a curious expression on his face. "Don't do that!" she squeaked. "Sneaking up on people and surprising them!"

Not that she was very angry to see Doug, surprise or no surprise. Whether in jeans and a T-shirt, or in slacks, dress shirt and tie, Megumi privately thought that he was very easy on the eyes, even if he were more than twice her age to hear him talk. If only he weren't married, she mused, not for the first time. She tilted her head slightly, and tried to pick out his melody line in the Symphony.

Huh. He's almost as loud as Bell-chan or Chris. Not a solo like big bro, either. Electric guitars, brass, and some kind of woodwind — a recorder, maybe?

Doug shrugged and looked sheepish. "Sorry. Didn't realize I was sneaking up on you. What was that about paradox?"

"Oh, I just had an argument with the big jerk," Megumi replied airily as she shifted her perceptions back to the physical.

"Another one?" Doug's lips quirked into a smile and she rolled her eyes.

"Yes," she said with no small amount of sarcasm. "Another one. He got upset that I swore myself to Skuld this afternoon."

"Ahh." Doug nodded knowingly. "I see."

Megumi eyed him suspiciously. "You're not angry? The way you were talking the other night, I'd expect you to be just as annoyed as he was."

Doug frowned. "Annoyed? No. Not even disappointed." He studied her for a moment. "I think you misunderstood why I gave you the advice I did. I didn't want to dissuade you from entering Skuld's service..." At her skeptically raised eyebrow he stopped and then added, "OK, well, maybe I did, a little — but that wasn't my main reason! My main reason was to make sure you were informed before you made your choice. It was your choice, not mine. And I've no real right to be annoyed or overjoyed at whatever decision you made."

She searched his eyes. "So, you're not bothered by the fact that I'm now Skuld's servitor?"

He shrugged. "Eh, a little. But it's not something I can ethically throw at you. You made an informed choice. And Free Will — I'm sure you remember that concept!" he added with a grin, "means you get to choose the option I don't approve of, and I have no complaints coming."

Megumi found herself nodding in agreement. "That's a surprisingly mature reaction."

Doug feigned shock as he pressed a wide-open hand against his chest. "Mature? Moi? Heaven forfend!"

She giggled. "If it helps, so far only you and Belldandy have responded like that."

He dropped the mock shock and straightened his tie with the hand he had pressed to his chest. "I suppose I could be in worse company," he replied.

"Mmm," she agreed, with a nod of her head.

"So, I take it Chris didn't react as well?"

She grimaced. "No. He blew his top at me, in fact."

A look of concern entered Doug's eyes. "Maybe I should check on him."

"Maybe you should." Megumi shrugged, then waved in the direction in which Chris had left. "He went that way, just a few moments before you showed up." Not going to admit that I'm concerned too, nope, not at all.

"Thanks." Doug stepped around her, then halted and put a hand on her shoulder. "You know, if you have any problems with things... you, know, coping with whatever changes you..." He grimaced. "Look, you can always talk to me, okay? I may not have answers, but I'll always have ideas."

Megumi smiled at him and patted his hand. "Thanks. Really."

He smiled back. "You're welcome." He drew a deep breath. "I really should go check on the big lug now."

"You do that," she said, and turned to watch him trot along the same path Chris had taken when he stalked off. To her inner ear, the guitars and horns of his personal symphony were muting themselves, and the woodwind was coming to the fore. Interesting.

"I should get out of here," Megumi muttered to herself, "and give everyone a chance to cool down."

I found Chris at the far back end of the temple property, between a couple of the smaller outbuildings, yelling at some birds. His voice was oddly muffled — a side effect of the reinforced wards that I'd noticed when the traffic noise outside the walls had been reduced to almost nothing.

Oddly enough, the birds were sitting still for his rant.

As I got close enough to hear him, he said — shouted, rather — "You lot satisfied now, or do we need to sacrifice a goat or something?"

Ah. The angel he'd mentioned. For a moment I was tempted to chuck a stone at one of its host bodies, just to see what would happen if I beaned a bird in the head. But I didn't, because that would have been needlessly cruel to the bird in question.

One of the ravens cawed at him. It wasn't anything close to human speech, but I swear there was an almost gloating satisfaction to its raucous cry. Chris just stared up at it and spat, "Good. Now get the fnord out of here."

"You heard the man," I called out as I approached. "Beat it. Or I might decide to see how many crows I can catch and strangle in a single afternoon." The damned bird made a noise annoyingly like a raspberry before it and its companions flew off. Their fading calls sounded suspiciously like someone yelling "Baka! Baka!"

To hell with avoiding needless cruelty — I would have given anything for a pellet gun right then and there.

I yanked my eyes from the ever-more-distant specks that had been the ravens, and looked over at Chris. He was standing right next to the tree trunk, head bowed, pounding his balled fist slowly against the rough bark.

"Want to talk about it?" I asked.

"No," he snapped without looking up. Then he abruptly spun and asked, "You ever get the feeling that everything in your life is already laid out and you can't change it, that you're being railroaded from birth to death?"

I raised a single eyebrow. "I'm the house guest of the Fates, and their counterparts in at least one other universe have outright admitted to forcing me down their desired path. So I think that's a rather silly question." I studied him closely. "Are you talking about Megumi? Or yourself?"

"I'm talking about everybody, but mainly me," he growled. Then he looked up and grimaced. "Well, yeah, Megumi, too. I've got the sneaking suspicion that she got set up by the Big Guy, that she never really had the chance to say no to this."

I thought back to what Belldandy had said to me about doing her best to ensure Megumi's right to decide was respected, and wondered if he were right. "You think?"

Chris nodded grimly. "Thor and I just spent the entire day going from one end of Heaven to the other, talking to anyone who might have an idea how to get her out of this with both her freedom and her memory intact. And I don't mean just human gods," he added with sudden vehemence. "We talked to a few deities so alien that they didn't know what we were when we walked up to them!" He frowned and brooded for a few moments.

"And...?" I prompted.

"We found an out for her," he said so softly I almost didn't hear it.

"You did?"

He nodded. "It was a precedent, something a god for a species of blue goopy things from some galaxy on the ass-end of the universe got away with. Closest thing in human terms is, well, kind of a cross between a priestess and an intern. Don't ask me to explain it, but it would have given Megumi at least twenty years like she was, at the end of which she could have just said, 'no thanks, I don't want to be a lesser divine critter' and walked away, no harm no foul."

My eyebrows shot up. "Sweet deal."

He nodded. "You better believe it." He reached into a pocket, pulled out a wad of multicolored paper, and waved it in front of me. "There's even a standard form for it! With blanks for god, pantheon and applicant species yet!"

I suppressed the sudden desire to grab the wad and see what Heaven's paperwork looked like. "But after all that, when you got back Megumi had already gone ahead and done the deed."

"Yes!" he snapped. He glared at the form and with a little whumpf! it suddenly went up in a burst of flame, as if it had been a ball of flash paper and his eyes a match. I raised an eyebrow at his unexpected, almost instinctive, use of magic.

Oddly, the smoke smelled of lavender.

"So you think God — Big-G God, the Lord of Hosts, Harold be his name — somehow manipulated things to rob Megumi of her free will?" I asked.

"Ha!" he barked scornfully. "What free will? Free will doesn't exist."

I raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon? You care to explain that little ex cathedra pronouncement?"

"You want an explanation?" he asked, turning the force of his full attention upon me for the first time since I'd caught up with him. "You really want an explanation?"

"Sure," I said with a wave of my hand. "Indulge me."

"Okay then." Chris gave a smirk that was almost pure evil before he took on a blatant parody of a lecturing academic. "Let's start with the standard definition of God, shall we? He's said to be infinite, right? God's omnipotent — He can do anything. He's omnipresent — He is everywhere. He's omniscient — He knows everything. Agreed?"

"All right," I said. "I don't actually believe all of that, having met too many gods, but for the sake of this argument, I'll agree to those base assumptions."

"Good. Now, if you look at it a specific way, all of those are aspects of each other, but that's an argument that I could go into another day," he blithely overrode my burgeoning attempt to interrupt. "Now, if we accept that somehow, someway, the Old Boy created the universe, and we accept that He's omniscient and omnipotent, then we have to accept that there's no free will."

"That's a lot of ifs, you know. 'If I had steak, I could have steak and eggs, if I had eggs.' Not the strongest foundation for an argument, I hope you realize," I pointed out. I thought for a moment. "Okay, knowing what I know about the way gods operate, yeah, I can buy that they can spawn universes. But, omnipotence isn't needed to create a universe — depending on how you like your quantum mechanics served up, Brownian motion can create new universes. If you're a bit more rigorous about your 'many worlds' theory, then you'll need at least a kick-ass particle collider. But nothing near omnipotence." I smirked back at him. "Besides, omniscience in a 3-space is a party trick, if you live in more than four dimensions."

He frowned, and I held up a hand. "But!" I quickly interjected to forestall his reaction. "But, like I said, I'll grant you all those axioms. Omnipotent, omniscient, creator of worlds. Okay, there it is, right there on the package. Now how the hell do you conclude that those attributes have to add up to no free will?" My demand must have caught the attention of Urd, who wandered over to listen.

"Simple. If His Nibs is that powerful, and that knowledgeable, then he has to know how it all ends out. He knows everything, which means at the moment of creation, He knew that if He created the universe, or universes, in a specific way, exactly how everything would end up. Thus, free will can't happen, since as part and parcel of Himself creating the universe, He would have set the value of every quark, electron, or whatever that is what causes your brain to make whatever decision it does."

I shook my head. "That doesn't follow at all. First, you're postulating a completely Newtonian style universe there. But the universe isn't Newtonian. It's governed by things like quantum mechanics, which is probabilistic — based on the averages of random events — and Chaos, which is based in complex feedback loops that rely on those random events.

"Second, you're making the unwarranted assumption that the ability to create implies the ability to extrapolate all future behaviors of the creation." I grinned at him. "Any competent computer programmer will tell you that's complete bunk. It is amazingly easy to create a system so complex that its behavior is unpredictable while still being completely deterministic. In which case," I grinned again, "free will may be a bug, not a feature."

"Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Primus, you've made a fundamental assumption here — that because quantum mechanics are probabilistic to our limited understanding, that it's also probabilistic to a being so far beyond us as to make the human-to-amoeba comparison a massive understatement. We don't understand all the factors that affect behavior in a quantum realm. A three-Omni being — and heh, nice term there — would. Secondus, any competent computer programmer will also tell you that any system that is completely deterministic is also completely predictable given enough computing power to calculate the outcome. The problem, of course, being that it's often too computationally expensive to do so — and the cost goes up by exponential factors. In that case as well, a truly three-Omni being would have enough intellectual computing power to predict the outcome of the system. Thus," Chris waved his hand dismissively. "I say bah. He clearly wanted them to think..."

"Are you suggesting free will is not just an illusion, but an active deception, then?" I asked. I frowned, trying to reconcile this with Belldandy's assurances about Megumi's free will and her oath to me. There had to be an error in his reasoning — well, above and beyond the "three-Omni" assumption. Omnipotence and omniscience I can easily extrapolate from higher orders of dimensionality — but it doesn't make me a "real" god if I can mess with a one-space as it moves across a sheet of paper while following its time arrow, or see the entire pattern it draws in the process. It was the creator aspect that I quite honestly was not willing to concede in the real world, though I'd already surrendered that point for the purpose of this discussion.

Damn. Kierkegaard had covered this kind of thing, I knew it. But I'd put off reading him even though Maggie had encouraged me to give him a try. Now I was regretting it. And philosophy wasn't my strong point; I wasn't going to recreate Kierkegaard's lifework with just a couple minutes' frantic cogitation.

"Okay, that's enough of this, 'Niichan," Urd demanded, interrupting my chain of thought. "Stop messing with Doug's head."

I turned to her, frowning. "Messing with my head? He's just screwing with me?"

Urd made an indelicate snort. "It's a philosophical argument that's been going around for centuries — one of the better works on it is by Hobbes. It's a variant of the old 'Can God create a rock He cannot lift?' question, redone as 'Did God limit his omniscience to allow free will?' The answer to it is a bit simpler though, since no one really agrees on a solution to the former."

"Which is?"

Chris answered me, a slightly sour expression on his face. "Faith. To resolve it, you have to have faith in God that He did give you free will, and that He doesn't know how you're going to choose. Or, if you want, His Nibs is really a Four-Omni being — the fourth being Absolute Goodness."

"And you don't like that?" I asked him incredulously.

"Chris is a skeptic," Urd laughed. "He doesn't like fuzzy answers like that."

I scowled at her. "'Riiiiight. What's a cubit?'," I quoted, and got an honest chuckle in response. I turned my focus to Chris again. "You're a god. How can you be a skeptic?"

"Concentration," Chris said primly, and walked back into the temple with a vaguely offended expression on his face.

I stared at his retreating back for a moment, and then turned back to Urd. "Shouldn't that get him docked divine brownie points or something for being disloyal?"

"Oh, Father is very fond of 'Niichan," she said breezily. "He cuts Chris a lot of slack because of it." The she gave me a wink and a saucy grin and followed her brother.

When they were both out of sight, I looked up at the sky. "I suppose you're expecting me to say something pithy and insightful now." I looked back down at the temple. "Fuck that. You're all nuts."

I headed off to the house myself, then stopped after a few steps and looked back up.

"Except for Belldandy, of course."

Nekomi Ginza, Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 6:52 PM

I probably should have waited until I was a little more used to the Symphony before going out in public.

Megumi grimaced briefly as the flood of individual themes and leitmotifs washed over her and all but overloaded her still-new Celestial senses. From moment to moment different melodic lines would surface out of the oceanic gestalt of the Symphony and demand her attention before they were whisked away and drowned out by others. At times it got so overwhelming that she had to find a place to sit down and wait it out before she could force herself to attend to the material world enough to continue on her way. Hell, enough to walk without bumping into people.

Cool, yes, she thought, remembering her initial reactions, but real hard on the concentration. Unconsciously she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the bench onto which she'd collapsed a minute or so before, her grip so tight that she was almost denting the painted wood. As the pedestrians around her approached and receded, an instrument would surface out of the Symphony — a trumpet, or a glockenspiel, or even a kazoo — peal forth an incredibly beautiful melody, then fade away again into the great mass of harmony that now underlaid everything for her.

Oh, yeah, trying to make my way down a crowded street was really a bad idea. In spite of herself, though, she laughed softly. Bad was relative. The experience was... transcendent. That was a word she'd never used before, not for real. She rolled it around in her head a bit. Transcendent. Yes, exactly. The idea that this kind of beauty lurked, hidden, under the surface of what she had laughably called "reality" just a day earlier was overwhelming and illuminating at the same time. It was a whole new level of existence, and it pushed her to a whole new level as well. And Belldandy had hinted that this was just the beginning, that there were even more modes of perception that she couldn't even guess at. Modes that she'd probably acquire.

Megumi shook her head in disbelief. It's like, since Doug got here, every time I turn around the world gets bigger. She thought of Mara and shuddered. And a little scarier.

A sudden discordant shriek cut across the flowing harmonies of the Symphony, propelling Megumi off the bench, onto her feet and almost into the street. "Aaah!" she yelped before clamping her mouth shut and gritting her teeth. What the hell...? Whatever it was, it was as welcome as a chainsaw during a string quartet.

She spun around, searching the crowd flowing past her in both directions, trying desperately to match Celestial "sounds" to individuals. For a few moments, she feared it was hopeless. There were too many, and it was all too new to her. But just as the painful, grating howl started to soften around the edges, Megumi saw her — a cloud of blonde hair, half a head above most of the crowd — and saw red.

"Mara," she hissed to herself and took off after her before she could think about it.

Megumi trailed along behind the demon for several blocks, trying not to look like an unskilled private detective pursuing his quarry. She was certain that every move she made, though, was shouting out "I'm following her!" to everyone around her. It was only slightly reassuring that despite her fears no one actually seemed to notice what she was doing. It just made her half-suspect that everyone was politely ignoring how obvious she was, before she mentally kicked herself for being stupid.

Following Mara, even when the crowd obscured her, was almost trivially easy thanks to her ability to hear the violent, angry themes she emitted over the Symphony. Megumi found that she didn't even have to look in the demon's direction; all she had to do was follow the nerve-jangling Celestial screech.

Even if she hadn't had the Symphony to guide her, though, Megumi would have had no problem tracking Mara through the crowds — between her voluminous blonde curls and the skin-tight red leather dress she wore, Mara was spectacularly easy to spot. And then there was the trail of trouble she left behind her... It seemed like she couldn't walk three meters without shoving someone, or poking something, or just waving her hand — and when she did, an argument started, or something broke, or once, even, there was a horrifying screech of tires in the street.

And no one even looks at her! Megumi fumed, then blinked. A tall blonde gaijin in red leather causing trouble everywhere she goes, and no one notices her? It's like she's invisible. But I can see her... Realization struck her suddenly. And I can do something about all the trouble she's making.

Never taking her eyes off the back of the demon's head, Megumi wracked her brains for what little she'd learned about Mara's weaknesses from Keiichi, Chris and the goddesses over the past couple of weeks.

Two blocks down, on the other side of the road, a certain shop with which she was familiar came into view, and Megumi grinned.

It wasn't her normal practice, but — Mara reflected with a malicious little grin — there was no better way for a demon first class to relax than simply walking among the animals and personally adding just a little more misery to their short, pointless, dirty little lives. And it took so little effort to reap such great crops of personal satisfaction!

She chuckled to herself as she idly waved a finger at a child's toy robot. It shattered in his hands, and as the boy began crying his mother angrily berated him for breaking the plaything. I'll never get tired of seeing a child's smile turn to tears, or watching an optimistic spirit get crushed by the mindless cruelty of the world. It gives me such a warm feeling to know that I make a real difference in people's lives!

I just feel so fulfi... Mara never completed the thought because at that moment something large, square and brown collided with her, knocking her to the ground with unexpected force. "Ow! Fuck!" she growled as she rolled onto her back. Directly overhead was the bottom of a large cardboard box, and off to one side of the box was a pair of clearly feminine legs tapering down to white ankle socks and sneakers. Two sets of delicate fingertips maintained a precarious grip on opposite edges of the box's bottom.

Somewhere around where Mara presumed a head would be, a female voice muttered, "The hell? What did I run into? There's nothing here! Oh... uh-oh." The box shifted and bulged, and as Mara's eyes widened, an ominous rip appeared in the brown paper tape sealing its bottom flaps. "Oh no!" the anonymous female squealed as the rip shot from one side of the box to another.

Several dozen plaster tanuki statues took advantage of this moment to escape their confinement and rain down upon Mara. With the impact of each of the good luck tokens, the demon gave a grunt of pain. As they piled up over her body, she clenched her teeth, squeezed her eyes tight, and suppressed a scream of mixed fury and outrage.

"Oh my, oh no!" the mortal blathered on. Mara kept her eyes shut — perhaps if she didn't see the damned things, they wouldn't affect her as strongly. She didn't actually believe that, but not seeing what was happening would help her maintain what little dignity she had left. At least the girl couldn't see her — she could be thankful for that.

Until the blithering girl stepped on her hand, twice, while trying to gather up the statuettes. And then dropped the tanuki again in the process, hitting several places on a humanoid body that were still rather sensitive even if that body were a celestial vessel instead of being naturally-grown. Despite her best efforts, Mara emitted squeaks of pain at the impacts as all the while the girl kept muttering things like, "Oh, no, they can't be damaged, don't let them be damaged, he'll kill me!"

Mara growled in frustration. Until the fool girl gathered up those damned tanuki statues, she was stuck here, flat on her back, in the middle of the sidewalk, frozen in place by the holy energy the blessed figurines emitted.

The girl stepped on her hand a third time, and this time Mara cried out as all the mortal's weight came down upon it and stayed. Mara's eyes snapped open to see the back of the girl's head as she straightened up from a crouch to her full height, and then bowed to the elderly shopkeeper who had come out to investigate the commotion.

Every motion of her body ground the girl's heel further into the back of Mara's hand. Her physical Vessel couldn't actually be damaged by such a minor assault on it, but it still hurt like hell, and Mara began imagining the horrors she would inflict on the girl in retribution for this indignity. She glared at the back of the girl's head, as if the force of her gaze would start the process early.

That's odd. She looks kind of familiar.

"Excuse me, sir," Mara realized she was saying to the shopkeeper. "I need to run back to the shop over there," she gestured but Mara paid no attention to the direction indicated, "and get a new box. Would you please watch my tanuki for just a minute and make sure no one steals them?"

"Certainly, child," the old man replied affably as Mara fumed.

"Thank you! I'll be right back!" The girl bowed again, then turned on her heel — the one still planted firmly on the back of Mara's hand. The demon gave up and howled at the pain as the girl pushed off and ran down the street.

"Hurry, you bitch, so I can kill you when you get back!" Mara screamed into the uncaring sky as dozens of tanuki stared placidly at her.

Megumi ducked around a corner and dashed along one of the narrow side streets that joined the main roads of the shopping district. As soon as she was sure she was out of Mara's hearing, she fell back against the side of a building and laughed herself silly.

When her laughter finally faded into gentle chuckles, Megumi pushed herself to her feet and continued down the street at a much more relaxed pace. "Well, that's a good start," she murmured to herself, a smile gracing her face. So she wasn't a Soldier. She'd just proven that she could still get a little revenge on Mara. And boy, had it felt good. Even if she had had to spend all of her latest handout from the parents to do it.

She mused on just how much harder it might have been; apparently the Celestial infusion Skuld had given her had done more than just give her the ability to hear the Symphony — the box of tanuki figurines had to have weighed at least fifty or sixty kilograms, but she'd had no problems at all lifting it. Keeping it from falling apart until the right time, yeah, that had been tricky. Actually carrying it and running into Mara with it, not so much.

Strength like that could come in pretty handy.

With a pensive but sly smile, Megumi wondered what else about herself might have been "improved" as well.

Tuesday, May 20, 1997, 7:28 PM

Swearing a blue streak, Mara stormed into the apartment she was using as her base in Nekomi. She slammed the door behind her so hard that a pair of framed pictures on the walls to either side of it shook and fell, their glass shattering and scattering over the floor.

She didn't give it a second thought. It was a furnished apartment — it wasn't like they were hers.

The damned girl had run off and never returned. The old man had watched the tanuki as he'd promised — and discouraged anyone from touching them for almost half an hour before he gave up and gathered them himself. And although he had incidentally freed Mara from their influence in the process, she had cursed him and his shop as soon as she was able, because the stupid ditz who'd trapped her there had run off and never come back to take her punishment.

...who'd trapped her...


"Dammit!" Mara screamed. "The bitch set me up!"

And with that realization came another.

"That was Morisato's sister!"

Mara whirled, a savage snarl on her lips, and made a sharp, violent gesture at the telephone, which obediently shot into her hand. She punched in an improbably long sequence of digits, each thrust of her finger barely controlled enough to avoid damaging the buttons. Holding the receiver to her ear, she waited, fuming and swearing under her breath, until it was answered.

"Garnash?" she growled into the receiver. "Mara. I want a wardbreaker, and I want it yesterday."

Wednesday, May 21, 1997, 3:38 PM

I kicked off my shoes at the door and stuffed them in the cubby that now had my name on it — thanks to Urd, surprisingly enough. Standing up straight, I yanked off my tie and drooped my way to my room where I dumped it, my jacket, and the plastic portfolio I'd bought to carry my resumes. Then I stumbled into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.

That done, I felt somewhat refreshed and almost human, and I went in search of company. This I found in the person of Belldandy, who was in the kitchen — as she often was at this time of day. I'd known she was there almost from the moment I'd entered the house; she was softly singing to herself, although I couldn't make out the words until I stuck my head in the door to see if I would be in the way or not.

Luck was with me — whatever dinner was tonight, it had not taken over the kitchen to the point that my presence would interfere. "Good afternoon!" I announced myself, a bit more brightly than I actually felt.

Belldandy turned and smiled. "Doug! Good afternoon!" She held a large bowl in the crook of one arm and was slowly beating its thick brown contents with a whisk held in the opposite hand. The greased and floured cake pans on the countertop gave away what she was making. "How did your job search go today?"

I shrugged, then sat down at the table which served as work surface, informal dining and family meeting space. "I had an interview just after lunch with a Dr. Morozumi over at the NIT robotics lab. It was pretty grueling, but I think I might have a chance — he seemed reasonably impressed with me."

"Oh, that's wonderful! Best of luck to you on it!" she declared.

"Thanks," I said with a slightly tired sigh.

Belldandy smiled reassuringly at me, then turned her attention back to the cake batter. She wasn't ignoring me — the moment I said something the conversation would be up and running again as if there hadn't been a pause — it was just a natural, comfortable break in the flow. And in that break, she began to sing again.

It was, I believe, the first time I'd ever heard her soft singing from close enough to make out the words, and I wasn't too surprised to discover that they were entirely improvised. It was little more than a recap of the recipe turned into a song, almost as though she were reminding herself of every step, but done so in a way that didn't sound trite or childish.

You hear something like that done on a television show or in a movie, and sometimes you want to cringe, because they try to make it "real", but all they succeed at is "bad". Well, this was real, but it was a delight to hear, as though somehow she were channeling all the pleasure she got from cooking for her siblings and Keiichi into the song. It felt like there was a faint trace of magic in her song as well, and it made me think of all the myths around the world which blended music and creation. I briefly wondered what it might do for my metatalent if someone were to accompany her on some instrument.

As she finished beating and began to pour the batter into the pans, I said, "You have a lovely voice."

"Thank you," she replied as she used a rubber spatula to scrape every last bit of the rich brown batter out of the bowl. "I get a lot of practice — many of the major magicks my sisters and I work are focused through music." She shot me a crinkle-eyed smile. "Not quite like yours are, of course." Satisfied the bowl was now perfectly empty, she set it down, then handed me the spatula and the whisk.

"Huh. I'd like to see that someday," I said as I accepted the utensils and began licking chocolatey goodness off them.

Gently shaking the cake pans to level their contents, Belldandy shrugged. "You'd certainly be welcome to observe. We don't do that kind of casting very often, but perhaps something will come up soon."

I nodded. "Thanks." I pursued a particularly recalcitrant drop of batter around the wires of the whisk for a few moments before I added, "So, do you know anything, well, pop, rock, that kind of thing?"

Belldandy turned toward me with a mischievous glint in her eyes and smiled. "<Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go,>" she sang in English without preamble.

"<I wanna be sedated
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, oh...
I wanna be sedated.>"

I burst out in delighted laughter, and I would have clapped if I hadn't had a chocolate-coated kitchen implement in each hand at the time. "I would never have figured you for a Ramones fan."

As she turned back to the cake pans and carried them over to the oven, she said, "Oh, I enjoy quite a lot of different kinds of music."

Huh. "Do you know any Metallica?" I asked, not sure if I were genuinely curious or just making trouble.

Bell closed the oven, set the timer, and then laid a forefinger to her chin as she thought about it. "I don't think so."

I grinned. "I know a few songs of theirs you might like which I could teach you."

She smiled at me. "I think I'd like that."

So I did.

By the time we were done with that, having sung the afternoon away together, I was helping her make dinner.

Which is to say, she was letting me help much in the same way that a mother lets her five-year-old help — I was given tasks of little danger or importance and kept out of the way of the grown-up cooking. I recognized it for what it was — a polite but territorial chef who nevertheless was enjoying my company and was appreciative of my willingness to help, without actually wanting to indulge it — and I took no offense.

I also took advantage of the time to pump her for information on Mara. From the questions that Belldandy would answer, I got a lot of data to consider, enough to start doing a first approximation of a tactical evaluation. Stuff like recent history, behavioral traits (and boy, was the flirt I'd met not what she usually was like), known magical abilities, and the tactics she'd used the last few times they'd clashed.

As a side bonus, I also got a complete breakdown of the strange categorization the Celestials used in that universe — the "First Class, Unlimited", "Second Class, Limited" stuff. I noticed but did not comment upon its almost perfect resemblance to the Japanese system for drivers' licenses, and I wondered if whoever were responsible for implementing it had been having just a little too much fun that day. Maybe one too many flagons at the meadhall before going back to the desk after lunch... Or would that be bowls of ambrosia? I'm not sure — I never did get a definite answer as to who in which pantheon or pantheons had set up the classification system. Or why, come to think of it...

But I digress. I got a fair amount of information on Mara, with most of it focusing on their mutual history after Belldandy responded to Keiichi's wish — particularly Mara's activities during that time, at least the ones they knew of.

I did notice, though, that while there were broad hints that Mara and the goddesses had known each other for quite a while before that point, Belldandy proved more than a little reticent to cover the topic. After several of my verbal probes into the area were deftly deflected, I studied the back of her head for a few moments.

"Is there something you're not telling me, Belldandy?" I asked quietly as she quickly and deftly sliced vegetables. "Something about Mara you don't want me to know?"

I didn't mention her oath to me, but I didn't have to.

Belldandy didn't turn around, nor did she hesitate. "Yes," she replied in a voice as soft as my own.

I took a moment to think it through before I asked, "Does it affect how I might defend myself or others against her?"

She stopped chopping, but still did not turn around. She tilted her head to the right, rippling her long, long hair all the way down to her calves. I counted five before she finally said, "Not that I can see, no."

I nodded to myself. Fair enough.

"Then I don't need to know it," I said.

She let out a long breath, and started slicing again. A moment later, she said, "Thank you."

I smiled. "You're welcome."

Nekomi Institute of Technology campus, Friday, May 23, 1997, 12:35 PM

As I've mentioned already, the job search did not produce immediate results — a fact that I tried not to let get me down, with mixed success. Belldandy apparently noticed, though, and the next thing I knew, I had a regular lunch date. Either together with Keiichi, or just by herself when his class schedule wouldn't allow it, Belldandy (basket in hand) would inevitably find me along about noontime every day that I went out on interviews. Next thing I'd know, I'd have a goddess' arm looped through mine, and I'd be led — gently but firmly — to an ideal spot for a picnic, no matter where we were. Somehow, there was always at least a small plaza with a table handy, or a perfectly-sized patch of grass that got sun at just the right time.

Not long afterward a tablecloth or blanket would be adorned with a small but veritable banquet. As time went by and Belldandy grew better acquainted with my preferences, the selection evolved and mutated, but no matter what she laid out, it was, well, excellent.

And it didn't take me long to notice that on those days during which my job search had been or was about to be particularly frustrating, the selection was always strongly biased in favor of those favorites and comfort foods of mine that she'd discovered. It made me wonder at times just how close a watch the three goddesses were keeping on me. But I also realized that despite whatever they could foresee, they were also pointedly not interfering.

I appreciated that, insofar as the paranoia that still lurked in the back of my mind allowed me. The fact that a perfect job hadn't appeared the first day, or even the first week, did a lot to assure me that I was proceeding entirely on my own merits, and not getting an unwanted and unfair divine hand.

It made finally finding a position that much sweeter than it would have been had they decided to "help" me.

So it was that I was in a brilliantly good mood that Friday late in May when I stepped out of the front door to the Engineering Quadrangle to find that my usual lunch partners had already set up a picnic on the lawn in front of the building. I waved to them, then jogged over to join them.

I toed off my loafers and stepped onto the blanket, dropping to my knees and clasping Keiichi's shoulder briefly as I said hello. Belldandy turned one of her brilliant smiles on me and giggled as I half-bowed over her hand and kissed it with a gallantry that was somewhere between half-past mock and a quarter to serious.

Keiichi was openly chuckling by the time I straightened up. "With that kind of greeting," he said, "you must have good news."

"Do you think so, Keiichi?" Belldandy asked him, then turned to me and clasped her hands under her chin, her eyes opening wide and shining to match her smile. "Did you find something, Doug? I do hope so!"

I grinned silently for a few moments, but then relented. "Good news I have," I said. "Morozumi-sensei called me back for a second interview, which is always a good sign. But even better, when we were done he flat out offered me a job as his new lab assistant. It doesn't pay a lot, but it's enough to let me contribute meaningfully to the household finances. And it's in my field of expertise, to boot." I settled myself in a little more on the blanket. "Even better, I start immediately."

Keiichi looked up from where he'd been salivating over the food Belldandy was setting out. "Immediately?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yup. As soon as I'm done here with you and lunch, I head back into the lab and go right to work." I chuckled. "He's apparently rather short-handed."

Belldandy clapped her hands. "I'm so happy for you."

"Yeah," Keiichi added. "That's really good news."

"And I have you to thank, Keiichi — you and Skuld," I continued. "If you hadn't suggested checking the admin building for extra listings, I'd've never found it. And without Skuld's paperwork I never would have gotten it." I smiled thoughtfully. "If there were a Norse or Asatru temple nearby, I'd go and make an offering in thanks, but since there aren't, I guess I'll just have to hug the stuffings out of her when I get back to the temple tonight."

Keiichi's eyebrows shot up. "She'll complain if you try that."

"Yeah, probably," I agreed. "Which is what'll make it fun to do."

Both of them chuckled at that, and as Belldandy started serving lunch, I added, "It's so close to perfect that I am, of course, naturally suspicious that certain lovely ladies of my acquaintance did something magical to make it turn out that way, but I am too happy about it to make a fuss. Or even inquire closely." Although I was pretty sure by this point that it was not the case, I was not above doing a little teasing. I took the bento that Belldandy handed me, and looked her directly in the eye as I said, "Thank you."

She blushed, smiled, and looked away.

Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 23, 1997, 7:25 PM

"No, I can't, sorry," Keiichi replied regretfully. "The sempais need me at the clubhouse tonight." His voice was filled with obvious resignation.

He stood in the temple yard with Chris and Doug, and glanced anxiously over his shoulder at the gate. Inside the house behind them, Belldandy was cleaning up from a dinner that had included Megumi. From what he understood, the goddesses and his sister were planning on some kind of private talk, during which Chris and Doug had planned to go out and celebrate Doug's new job.

Chris rolled his eyes. "What do Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber need you to do this time? MacGyver up a formula one racer from paper towel rolls? Clean the work bays with a toothbrush?"

"Cut down the mightiest tree on the campus with a herring?" Doug added, garnering a deeply puzzled look from Keiichi and an annoyed one from Chris. Doug simply grinned insouciantly.

Keiichi shrugged. "They never tell me until the last moment," he sighed.

"You've got to stop this, man." Chris pointed a finger at Keiichi's face; having gotten used to the Canadian and his habits over the previous year, Keiichi didn't flinch or frown at what to a native Japanese was at the very least an impolite gesture. "Every time you pull off the impossible for them, they up the ante. They're going to get you killed."

"I am what I am," Keiichi said with a lopsided grin. "I must be true to my nature, as Belldandy says."

Doug clapped him on the shoulder. "You're a better man than I am, Hunka Tin. Me, I'd've strung them up by their ears after one too many of those stunts. Then again, that's being true to my nature." He looked thoughtful. "You know, I could do that for you right now, if you'd like. So you can come on out with us, that is." He cheerfully ignored the glare that Chris shot him.

Keiichi couldn't tell if Doug were joking or not. He quickly shook his head and waved his hands rapidly in front of himself. "Oh, no, no thanks. That's okay. It's really not a problem."

"Oh well." Doug suddenly put his hands on Keiichi's shoulders, spun him around to face the gate, and gave him a gentle push. "You go have fun then."

"Don't stay out too late," Chris added with a sudden burst of mischievousness.

"And call so we know where you are."

"And don't spend too much."

"And don't leave with anyone we don't know."

"And don't drink anything that anyone you don't know gives you."

"And don't drive with anybody who looks like they might be drunk."

"And don't..." Laughing, Keiichi dashed out the gate before he could hear any more of the mock-parental litany.

Back in the yard, Doug shared a grin with Chris. "Nicely done."

"Thank you."

"I didn't think you had it in you," Doug continued with a smirk.

Chris pulled himself to his full height in simulated offense. "I, sir, am a wild party. I happen to be a pretty relaxed and funny guy when I'm not busy reacting to Captain Jumps-to-Conclusions."

Doug winced and cringed. "Ow. I guess I deserve that." He straightened. "So, relaxed and funny guy, do you know any good places we can celebrate?"

Chris nodded. "Follow me."

"...and then suddenly I just knew — I had to turn it just so, and then say these words, and then twist it like so, and turn it like so, and say those words." Chris shrugged, then took a long swig from his beer. "The scales leveled out, and Mara started swearing a blue streak. Keiichi came back to his senses, and we got everything cleared up right away."

"Huh." I shook my head, and took a good pull on my soda. "And you still don't know who it was who told you?"

"Nope," Chris leaned his chair back on two legs as he took on a speculative look. "No one's talked at least, and believe me, I accused just about everyone whose spheres include magic, might relate to magic, or even hint at magic. I even badgered the poor sod who watches over stage magicians, just on the off chance." He made a sort of "oh well" gesture with both hands. "I'm sure someone's pulling a fast one on me, probably the Boss himself, but hey, I'm not arguing with the results."

I nodded and drank more cola. "I still can't believe I can take Mara out with disco music." I shook my head again, but this time with a grin. "Next time I run into her while I've got my helmet, I know exactly what I'm going to do."

Chris looked dubious and a little pitying. "You've got disco in that thing?" He paused. "My sympathies."

"Disco, blues, jazz, rock, classical — you name it. Just like Sister Mary Ocarina." I grinned wider at the confusion on his face.

"Sister Mary say what?"

I made a dismissive gesture. "Extremely obscure less-than-pop culture reference. Don't worry about it."

"If you say so." He brought his chair back down to all four legs and looked at his watch. "Ten o'clock," he announced. "You may not have to work tomorrow, but I have early classes to slack through. And speaking of your work, congrats again."

"Thanks," I said, and lifted my soda up to him in something halfway between a toast and a salute. I waited until he clinked his mug against it, and then drained it dry. "Time to call it a night, then."

Chris drained his beer in one sustained gulp, and went to slam the glass mug down on the tabletop, only catching himself at the last moment. "Damn," he said, and then burped slightly. "Excuse me!" He lifted the mug again and studied it. "I've really got to stop drinking with Thor. This stuff is like water to me now."

Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 23, 1997, 10:27 PM

In their rush to get back out the front door of the house, Doug and Chris both tried to go through it at the same time, got wedged in it together, backed up, tried to go through it at the same time again, and got stuck again.

Feminine laughter echoed down the hall behind them.

Growling at each other, they twisted sideways so that Chris spilled out the door onto the engawa, while Doug fell backwards onto the hallway floor. He immediately launched himself headfirst through the door, did a forward roll, and came to a stop seated on the edge of the wooden walkway.

On the other side of the stone block that served as the step up to the house, Chris was settling himself down as well. "That was..." he muttered, more to himself than to Doug.

Doug heard him anyway. "Disturbing? Scary? Something Man was not Meant to See?" he offered.

"No," Chris snapped, glaring half-heartedly at the older man. "Something I didn't want to get caught up in. At all."

Without looking at him, Doug nodded and shuddered theatrically. "Agreed."

As Keiichi pulled into the temple grounds at close to eleven PM, he spied Doug and Chris sitting together on the engawa, a little to one side of the main entrance. From what he could tell, they were apparently engrossed in a conversation. He parked his bike, dismounted, and strolled over.

As he got closer, he realized that he could hear shrieks of feminine laughter from inside the house. Both men, he noticed, were looking at him and wearing bemused smiles. "You don't want to go in there," Doug said before Keiichi could greet them.

Keiichi stopped with one foot on the step. "I don't?"

A throaty squeal that sounded suspiciously like Urd drifted out into the yard, and the two men traded glances. "No," Chris replied. "You don't."

Keiichi gave the entrance a dubious look. "Why not?"

"The Fates," Doug intoned dramatically, "are having a pillow fight."

One foot still on the step, Keiichi goggled at him.

"And when the Fates have a pillow fight, mortals die," Chris concluded in an ominous rasp.

"Really?" In spite of himself, Keiichi felt his eyes go wide. Then he fell over backwards when a down-filled, queen-sized, medium-firm ComfortSoft flew through the door and smacked him square in the face.

They watched him lie there for a moment. Then Doug grinned and said, "Nah. But it sounds good, doesn't it?"

Keiichi removed the pillow from his face, slowly rose to a sitting position, and considered glaring at their guest.

"Oh, dear!" Belldandy appeared at the door, a stricken look upon her face. Megumi peered out from behind her, one hand over her mouth obviously smothering giggles, the other holding a pillow by a corner. "I'm so sorry, Keiichi! I didn't mean to hit you with that!"

As she helped him to his feet, Chris stood up and stretched. "Okay, that's it. You four have been enjoying yourselves for the last half-hour or so and that's more than long enough. I'm exercising big-brother privilege — it's time for bed for all of you."

"You're not my big brother," Megumi said defiantly.

Chris stared down at her tiny form from his full six-foot-plus height. "I'm a brother, and I'm big. That's good enough for me." His expression softened. "Look, guys, fun is fun, but I've got classes tomorrow morning!"

"And I have big-brother privilege over you, Megumi," Keiichi interjected quietly but with a gentle good humor. He had one hand in Belldandy's and the other still clutched the errant pillow. "C'mon, it's late."

Megumi deflated, then snorted and smiled. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"Of course he's right," Doug offered from his seat on the engawa. "It's the word of god, after all."

Megumi growled playfully and hit him in the face with the pillow she still carried.

Sunday, May 25, 1997, 9:43 AM

I suppose that Skuld's workshop was bespelled so that it would be reasonably comfortable to work in no matter the weather outside. That's just a guess, not a declaration; my magesight was — and still is — too crude for me to identify specific spell effects; all I could tell was that the shed was thoroughly warded and enchanted. And having seen her furnace and forge appear from a simple wooden wall and floor, I knew that already without taking the time to see if it glowed on the magical level.

In any case, the point was moot — with the shed door open, the late May morning was the perfect temperature for light labor, which was (fortunately) what we were doing. The forging of the new frame components had been finished a few days earlier, and after a day or so of careful welding, it now sat completely assembled on a stand in the middle of the floor. Skuld had cobbled the stand together from handy chunks of scrap steel — it didn't need to do much more than hold the cycle steady at a comfortable height to work at, but it did it well.

The sunlight streaming through the open doors set the bronze-hued metal all a-sparkle, and bathed Skuld's raven hair, turning it into a gleaming sable halo. Accompanying the torrent of light was a fresh spring breeze, which somehow combined with the scents of oil and hot metal to produce an improbably pleasant blend, like an exotic perfume intended for a gas station attendant.

The task before us that morning was installing (and in some cases re-installing) the various cables and lines and wiring that ran the length of the bike. As per our agreement, Skuld was once again hard at work, although by this point I think that the promise I'd forced out of her was no longer her primary motivation — the excitement of the project, especially in the wake of the ideas she and Megumi had come up with, had taken hold of her and was now driving her.

Chris and I were both there, freshly showered after a morning kenjutsu lesson. Our role thus far had mostly been watching Skuld's energetic work, but occasionally we'd provided an extra hand or two for particularly complex or recalcitrant parts of the job.

Megumi was also present, but was not directly involved in the work on the floor — Skuld had her at the back of the shop fabricating some parts. I hadn't paid attention to what she was supposed to be making, but she was working at the metal lathe on and off. There was some kind of aural dampening field around the machine so while she had on heavy ear protectors (along with shatterproof goggles), only the faintest droning whine reached us where we sat in the middle of the floor ten feet away.

I glanced over at Skuld, who was on her knees with her head practically inside the frame of the motorcycle. A thin bundle of brightly-colored wires was looped several times around one small hand, while the other was busily engaged in stuffing the end of the bundle somewhere deep within the bike. Turning my head, I looked at Chris, who took that same moment to lift his eyes from the wiring harness he was working on and look back at me.

I grinned and waggled my eyebrows mischievously. His went up a little, as if to say, "Okay, what are you planning?" I turned the grin into flash of a smile, and then shifted my attention back to Skuld. She'd been so focused that she'd completely missed the byplay between us.

I waited a couple minutes, then idly, conversationally, I said, in English, "You remind me of the girl." It had to be English, it wouldn't work in Japanese.

Skuld's head popped up and she looked at me over the top of the frame. Her mouth opened and she shot me a curious look, but before she could ask, Chris did. "What girl?"

I turned slightly and looked him straight in the eye, wondering if he'd get the reference. "The girl with the power."

I saw the light come on, and he grinned at me. Skuld saw it and scowled, realizing already that we both had a script and she didn't.

"What power?" he asked knowingly, and I smiled conspiratorially.

I turned back to Skuld. "The power of voodoo."

"Hoodoo?" she asked in spite of herself. As I'd expected she would, she used English because we were.

"You do."

"Do what?" she demanded, exasperated.

"Remind me of the girl!" Chris and I chorused together.

Skuld stared at us for a long moment. Then she growled and went back to work.

I couldn't help it. I started laughing at the expression of confused outrage on her face. Chris joined me, and after a moment, Skuld herself began snickering. We didn't get much work done for the next few minutes, but you know, I don't think any of us cared. What was built in those few minutes I think turned out to be just as important as my bike.

When we had managed to trail off to simple chuckles, Chris turned to me. "You, sir, are a very silly person. I respect that."

I inclined my head with a smile. "From you, sir, I shall take that as a compliment of the highest caliber."

"Oh, cut it out, you two!" Skuld groused, only half-seriously. "I think I liked it better when you were nasty to each other all the time."

I rolled my eyes melodramatically, which got me a broader grin from Chris. "So," I asked, ignoring Skuld's complaint, "which movie did you know that routine from?"

"Labyrinth," he replied. "Bowie's 'Magic Dance' number."

I nodded. "Too dangerously musical for me, more's the pity from what I hear. I got it from the original source — 'The Bachelor and the Bobby-soxer'."

Chris nodded. "You can't go wrong with the classics," he intoned sagely.

"What are you two talking about?" Skuld enquired testily from the other side of the motorcycle.

"Where the routine we just pulled on you came from," Chris answered.

"Surely you didn't think we came up with that on the fly, did you?" I added.

"No, I didn't. And don't call me 'Shirley'!" She smirked at us over the top of the frame.

"Oooh... She's got potential," I said to Chris.

"But she needs training," he replied.

"There're a lot of gods of time, but none for comedy," I volleyed.

"We can petition to have her reassigned," he offered.

"But only if she can do the job."

"It's a difficult job, but I'm sure she's up to it."

"'Skuld Punchline-maker'. What do you think?"

"Mm. Could work."

"You think your boss will go for it?"

"He does like a good joke..."

"Talk about comedy," Skuld groused. "You two sound like a stand-up team." She looked like she couldn't decide whether to laugh or snarl.

I flicked an amused look over at Chris. "So, who's on first?"

He didn't miss a beat. "What's on second?"

"I don't know!" I zinged back.

"Third base!" we crowed together, and started laughing. Skuld looked disgusted at first, but the laughter was infectious, and it took only a few seconds before she was giggling with us again. It was a good, comfortable group laughter, the kind you share with friends.

It took a minute or so for us to settle back down, with only the occasional snicker. Chris, who had laughed perhaps the most of the three of us when he saw that Skuld had joined the fun, rubbed his eyes. "Whoa," he grunted. "Overdid it some there, I'm a bit woozy."

Skuld's eyebrows shot up and her smile vanished. "Woozy, 'Niichan?"

He grimaced, still rubbing. "Yeaahh... like I just stood up too fast. Laughed too hard, I guess. I..." He stopped short, dropped his hand, shook his head, and blinked his eyes several times as if trying to clear them. "I..." he tried again. "...I feel weird."

"Oh, no..." Skuld breathed.

I shot a glance at her. "'Oh, no'?"

"'S nothing..." Chris continued, his voice slurring slightly. I was already turning and reaching for him when he added, "I..." and his eyes snapped open wide. I barely had time to catch his shoulders and keep him from cracking his head on the floor as his body went stiff and started convulsing violently. Skuld was there at his side barely a moment after me. I laid him down as gently as I could before the force of his gyrations tore him out of my hands, and stepped back, helpless in the face of what looked like a grand mal epileptic seizure.

"Megumi!" Skuld bellowed as she tried to cradle Chris's wildly-shaking head in her arms. There was a palpable pulse of power in her voice. "Get Belldandy! Now!"

Megumi most expressly did not whistle while she worked under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances. The precision machining task that Skuld had set her to was both critical to the rebuild and a challenge to her skills, but she was meeting it with a glee that she'd only barely felt in previous projects. This, this is what it means to serve Technology, she realized. To build the future with my bare hands and the tools of a master.

She glanced over to the center of the shop, where Skuld, Chris and Doug were seated on the floor, laughing, as they surrounded the still-skeletal frame of what was going to be the most advanced motorcycle in the world.

She smiled at that thought. The most advanced motorcycle in the world.

And she was building it.

Well, part of it.

Still smiling, she turned her attention back to the wave guides Skuld had asked her to fabricate. She was still roughing this one out, but in a minute or two she'd have to pay special attention to make sure it came out exactly right.

She was intently concentrating on the delicate work at hand when Skuld's voice suddenly rang in her ears, impossibly cutting right through the acoustic field, the howl of the lathe, and the professional-grade ear protectors she wore.

"Megumi! Get Belldandy! Now!"

As if Skuld's voice had hooked directly into her nervous system, Megumi found herself involuntarily spinning away from the lathe, the cutting tool in her hand sending up a shriek of protest as it sliced across the once-pristine perfection of the half-formed wave guide, leaving behind a coiling length of spall and a hideous gouge. On its own, one of her hands reached out and slapped the lathe's huge red emergency shut-off button as the other ripped off her hearing protectors. The next thing she knew, Megumi found herself dashing around the motorcycle and out the door. Something had been going on — out of the corner of her eye she had seen Chris laying on the floor shaking and writhing — but she couldn't stop to look, because all that mattered to her was getting to the house and finding Belldandy.

Once in the sun she sprinted full speed across the yard and flung herself into the house. Belldandy was in the kitchen, Megumi knew it almost instinctively, and she skidded to a halt at the door. "Bell!" she gasped. "Workshop. Skuld needs you. Sent me," she added between heaving, panting breaths.

"Oh my!" Belldandy laid down the knife she'd had in hand, and immediately stepped to Megumi's side. Graceful, delicate fingers gently touched her face. "You have served your mistress well, Megumi," Belldandy whispered. "Rest now."

Exhaustion suddenly flooded her body as Belldandy swept past her, and Megumi collapsed, clinging desperately to the doorjamb in an effort to remain vertical. For the first time since Skuld's voice had... "grabbed her brain" was the only way she could describe it — for the first time since then, she could actually think of something other than finding Belldandy.

Skuld gave me an order. The thought ran through her brain as she slowly brought her breathing under control. And it just... took me over. I had no choice, I was just... executing her command. Automatically. Until Belldandy released me. For the first time she truly realized what the goddesses and Chris had meant about losing some of her free will.

Suddenly it didn't seem as though she'd made that great a deal after all.

Megumi was out of the shop like a shot, and a short eternity of convulsions later Belldandy showed up, dashing through the door in a way that somehow blended worried haste and utter graceful serenity in a single efficient pace. A panicked-looking Urd was right behind her, which was fortunate because it took all three of the goddesses working together to stop — or at least calm — Chris's seizures.

I was expecting that they'd tap me to carry the big lug back to his bed, but I was pleasantly surprised when they levitated him instead. I trailed along behind and at the door I met up with Megumi, now devoid of her ear protectors and goggles. She looked a little freaked out and more than a little shaky. Having felt the power in Skuld's voice when she'd told the older girl to get Bell, I figured I had a good idea why she was disturbed.

"Is he going to be okay?" she asked, her eyes following the floating Canadian down the hallway.

"I don't know. We'll have to ask the girls." I offered a supporting arm, and wrapped it around her shoulders when she accepted. I was momentarily surprised to realize how tiny she really was — the top of her head barely reached my shoulder. Together we continued onwards to Chris's room, arriving just in time to see Urd cast a spell that swapped his clothes for sleep wear. (One tiny, snarky corner of my mind was far from surprised that Urd had such a spell in her repertoire.) Then they levitated him into the bed and pulled the covers up to his chin.

The goddesses then each took a turn kissing Chris's forehead before quietly slipping out of the room. To my utter surprise, Megumi wriggled out from under my arm and added her own, before staggering back to reclaim my support.

Before the goddesses closed the door behind them, I got a glance at his face — he looked peaceful, like he'd simply fallen asleep. For all I knew he was asleep by now. I hoped he was.

A few minutes later I was seated at the low table in the dining room. Megumi, still shaken from what I could tell, had chosen to sit on the engawa and after seeing to it that she was okay, I went back in. I found the goddesses all in their accustomed places, with fresh cups of tea in front of them, tea Belldandy could not possibly have had time to prepare.

A fourth was placed at my usual seat. I nodded at the implicit invitation and dropped down onto the cushion. I wrapped my fingers around the little ceramic cup, letting the near-painful heat of the tea seep into my hands.

"So," I said after a few minutes of the kind of silence you find in hospital waiting rooms. "What was that all about?"

After a moment's hesitation, and a shared glance between the sisters, Belldandy told me.

It took her nearly ten minutes.

"You've got to be shitting me," I said when she was done, despite her oath to me. "You can not be serious."

"We're very serious," Belldandy said gravely. "This is as things are, and as they must be."

I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed. "<I'll take your word for it, Scarlett, ma'am,>" I said in English. "But trust me, every time I learn something more about the life and habits of the gods, it just gets stranger and stranger."

She smiled, a little sadly I thought, even as Urd snickered and Skuld emitted a brief little giggle. "If you think so," Belldandy said. "But you must admit, mortals sometimes look almost as strange to us."

"But most of the time, we don't get the chance to sample your side of things," I pointed out, involuntarily glancing in the direction of Chris's room.

"True enough," she replied, nodding. She paused a moment, then went on in a softer voice. "I would ask you to give me your oath not to speak of this — to Chris or anyone else — until it's complete."

I hardly thought about it before I answered, "I so swear."

It was only because it was Belldandy asking, of course.

Monday, May 26, 1997, 6:14 PM

I'm not sure exactly what the three of them had done to Chris, but he woke up the next morning completely fine, and completely unaware that he'd lost an entire day. I'm not sure how his mind handled that — and I didn't question him at all for fear of messing up whatever delicate balancing act Belldandy and the others were performing with his mental state. While he seemed to acknowledge that there had been a Sunday, he didn't seem to know or want to dwell on what might have happened therein, and switched immediately and seamlessly to any other topic at hand.

If I hadn't known what was going on, I'd probably have been furious at what was clearly mental manipulation. But as improbable as it seemed, Belldandy had sworn blood-oath to tell me Truth, so I had to trust her description of the problem and the needfulness of what they were doing.

But, brother! What a way to run a railroad!

Accepting the truth of what she told me, and not worrying about it, those were two different things, though. I spent the hour or so between getting home and dinnertime on Monday sitting on the engawa just turning the whole ferkokter mess over and over in my head. Mind you, I wasn't looking for an out to the oath I made to Belldandy. I was just trying to find some kind of sense in it all.

I couldn't find any.

I really hate the word "ineffable". As far as I'm concerned, it's the ultimate weasel-word, a cop-out for people who don't want to explain something, and don't want you to question their lack of explanation. The very concept that something is beyond human understanding offends me in a way that few things or people ever have. But it was looking more and more like the only thing to call the reasoning behind what Chris was going through.

Either that, or Chris's Boss was a 24-karat lunatic.

Or both.

So there I was, on the Group W bench... Sorry, I mean, there I was on the engawa, trying not to blow any (more) mental circuit breakers, and basking in the enticing scents starting to drift out of the kitchen. I was just starting to give up on useless theological speculation for the evening when I heard it.

An Ami-Rachel argument.

About two blocks away and approaching fast, judging from the volume.

I groaned and dragged my hand down my face. Chris so didn't need their shit right now, even if he didn't know it.

Rachel and Ami both paused for breath as they pushed open the gate and stepped into the temple yard. They glared at each other, more out of force of habit than for any actual reason, as they stepped through together almost in lockstep.

Behind them, the gate slammed shut, and the wooden latch fell into place with its distinctive clatter.

"Do you two do this crap all the time?" came an irritated male voice from behind them. Rachel yelped in surprise, and Ami spun about, her fists clenched.

Behind them, leaning against the wall next to the gate with his arms crossed and one knee bent to put a booted foot up against the stone, was Doug Sangnoir. "I mean, really," he continued. "It's annoying, tedious, and unattractive." He wearily pushed off from the wall and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I mean, yes, you guys have a bum deal, and yes, it sucks, and yes, you don't like it."

"What do you you know about it, huh?" Ami demanded.

"Yeah!" Rachel added. They shot each other a momentary nasty look.

He tilted his head and gave them a look that clearly said, "are you idiots or what?" "I know everything about it. None of you three were all that reticent about telling me, remember?"

Ami unclenched her fists and reached up to rub the back of her neck. "Oh, yeah, right."

"Look," Doug said softly, fatigue in his voice suddenly plain. "Can I give you guys a little advice?"

Ami fixed him with a suspicious look. "What's that?"

Doug sighed. "It's suggestions offered by one person to another in an attempt to be helpful, but that's not important right now. You told me that you two are stuck until you either give up or Chris makes a choice, right?"

"Right," Rachel said, trading brief glares with Ami.

"Okay." He rubbed his eyes. "Try being, if not friends, at least civil to each other. From my privileged outsider's point of view, your mutual sniping just irritates him. He's not going to pick either of you if he's irritated at both of you, you know."

"I suppose," Ami grudgingly admitted, and Rachel echoed her.

"But!" He held up a finger. "Don't go all the way in the other direction by trying some stupid sitcom 'who can be nicer' competition. That's going to irritate him just as much, because he's going to see it's exactly the same behavior, only with fake smiles pasted over it. Just... treat each other with a little respect, and try to leave the other person with the dignity you would like them to leave you with."

"Well, that's all well and good until he decides," Rachel grumbled. "Then what good is dignity?"

"It means less pain," Doug said gently. "It means you at least won't have to suffer a twist of the knife if you lose. And maybe you get to keep two friends afterwards.

"Then again..." he added thoughtfully. "Tell me, girls, do either of you know anything about Boolean algebra?"

They shared a glance of mutual puzzlement at the radical change in subject. "A little," Rachel admitted. "From a programming course I took."

Doug nodded. "Then you know the difference between XOR and OR, right?"

"Sure! XOR is 'exclusive or' — A or B but not both. And OR is..." Her eyes suddenly widened and she started shaking her head. "Oh, no. Oh, no no no..."

"'Oh no' what?" Ami demanded. "What's he talking about?"

"No!" Rachel shouted. "No way!"

Doug shrugged. "It's possible."

"What is?" Ami asked in growing agitation.

Rachel pointed to her. "I'm not sharing!"

Ami's eyebrows shot up into her hair. "What?" she shrieked.

"There are two different kinds of 'OR' in computer programming, and in language," Doug explained calmly. "One that allows only for one alternative or the other, and one that allows for either alternative — or both together. From what you've told me of Belldandy's analysis of the wish, it seems to me that you've got a simple OR situation here, not an XOR. You," he pointed at Rachel, "might be Chris's true love. Or you," he swung his hand to point at Ami, "might be it. Or," and he raised both hands to point at the two of them simultaneously, "you both might be his true loves together."

He winced at the resulting dual shriek of outrage, and waited patiently for the flood of objections and accusations to subside somewhat. "Look," he finally said. "If it is both of you, that doesn't require that you two feel anything for one another, since it's his feelings that are the linchpin. But wouldn't it be better if you were at least polite to each other? It would make him happier, and presumably, his happiness is important to you.

"And as far as sharing him is concerned, isn't half a happiness better than no happiness at all?"

Then he frowned. "On the other hand, if you want to be really self-centered about it, it's entirely possible that until the situation is resolved, the two of you are effectively immortal. And since you both have to be around for that, wouldn't it make things better for everyone — not the least yourselves — if you were on good terms with each other between now and the end of time?"

They walked off together quietly, both looking to be deep in thought. I found that a little surprising — I would have thought that surely someone must have brought some of those points up to them before, but apparently not.

I wondered what would have happened if I'd mentioned my final speculation — that the two of them acted more like squabbling best friends than rivals who hated each other's guts.

They probably would have killed me.

There's only so much truth the human mind can handle, after all.

Still, whatever that wish really did in the long term, it would be better if they were friends — or at least polite to each other — through it all.

In the mean time, I now had at least some hope that they would stop screeching endlessly at each other. That was sufficient payoff for meddling, as far as I was concerned. Playing the part of the all-knowing grandfatherly advisor was so not my style, and I intended to do as little of it as possible. Except, of course, when it made my life easier or a little more pleasant.

As soon as they were out of sight and earshot of Sangnoir, Rachel and Ami shared a glance and a nod, and went into a huddle. Their conversation was marked by a quiet, serious intensity thoroughly unlike their usual interactions.

After a brief but furious discussion there was a pause followed by a round of jan-ken-pow followed by another shared nod, and then they shook hands. Had there been an observer nearby, he would have noted oddly identical expressions of mixed reluctance and determination on both their faces.

Chris glared at the lawnmower, and went over the checklist in his mind. New spark plug. Done. Drain last year's oil and fill reservoir with new. Check. Top off gas tank. Duh. He half-heartedly kicked one of the large wheels at the back of the mower, then double-checked the throttle for the fifth time. "Why the fnord won't you start?" he growled.

"Oh, Chriiiis..." two familiar voices sang out with a surprising harmony. Chris's danger senses pinged and he shot up straight from where he had been studying the recalcitrant four-stroke engine. Spinning in place, he spied Ami and Rachel approaching him, in perfect step with each other and wearing broad, inviting smiles.

And not a word of argument between them. No snide comments, no snipes, no veiled insults. Just a pair of smiles aimed at him.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! a little voice blared at the back of his brain as Ami latched on to his left arm and Rachel his right. To his shock and enjoyment, he found himself pinned firmly between two sets of generous endowments.

"To..." he started, but his throat was suddenly dry. He stopped, swallowed several times, and tried again. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, ladies?" He hoped it sounded nonchalant and relaxed, but to his ears it just seemed incredibly lame.

"We're asking you out on a date," Rachel breathed into his right ear.

"You're... what?" he stammered.

"Both of us," Ami murmured into his left.

"At the same time," Rachel clarified.

"We'll go dutch, of course," Ami continued.

"Can't expect you to cover two dates at once."

"So we'll pay our own ways."

"Friday night."

"Dinner at seven."

"Movie at nine."

"We'll come by to pick you up at six-thirty."

"Got it, loverboy?" Rachel punctuated this with a playful lick of his ear.

Chris's higher brain functions had already short-circuited; all he could do was nod and stammer, "S-s-s-sure."

"Great!" A small hand was laid against his cheek and gently turned his face to Rachel's. "We'll see you then." She kissed him, softly but with obvious passion.

Another hand laid against the opposite cheek and turned him to face Ami. "Dress nice," she said and kissed him with an almost identical blend of passion and gentleness.

Then, as if they had rehearsed it, they stepped away from him, turned and walked off — once again in step with each other, their hips and derrieres swinging and rolling in perfect, delightful unison. A few meters away they stopped, put their heads together for a moment, giggled, and turned to wave at him.

"Bai-bai!" they chorused, then giggled again before resuming their slow, deliberate exit around the house.

Chris stood, stunned into silence, until he heard the temple gate slam shut. He blinked, took a long breath, and then murmured, "And I thought they were scary when they were fighting."

Out on the sidewalk, as the gate banged shut behind them, Ami drew a deep breath and risked a glance at Rachel. Her heart, she was surprised to note, was pounding as though she'd just finished the department fitness course.

She found that Rachel was looking at her, wearing an uncertain expression that Ami was sure mirrored the one on her own face.

"So," she said as a passer-by glared at them and stepped around the pair.

"So," Rachel echoed.

Nothing else was said for several long seconds.

"We need to decide where we're taking him, you realize." Ami was surprised to hear herself speaking.

Rachel nodded slowly. "Want to discuss it over dinner? I know a good ramen place near my dorm."

Ami nodded, and surprised herself further by smiling at her rival. "Sounds good. Let's do it."

Rachel smiled back. "Cool. C'mon, it's this way." Without thinking about it, the college student grabbed the police officer's hand, and led her down the street. Without thinking about it, the police officer let her.

Friday, May 30, 1997, 6:41 PM

I think I must have forgotten the simple but fulfilling pleasure that comes from doing what you love at a job you like.

Don't get me wrong. I have no regrets about being a Warrior. I'm needed, I'm good at what I do — one of the best, in fact — and I like to think that my actions in the Warriors made my home Earth a better place overall.

But when the battle's over, when the bad guys are dead or locked up, at the end of the day, I'm not a cop or a soldier or — god help me — a hero. I'm an engineer. That's the career I chose for myself, it's what I studied very hard at a very prestigious university to learn. And it's something I love to do. I love the thrill of creating something, whether it's a machine or a program, that fulfills its purpose with efficiency and elegance, that I can admire when I'm done. I love solving problems and turning the solutions into things that other people can use.

Which is why I was coming home a bit late that Friday night.

I'd been almost an hour overtime at Dr. Morozumi's lab, not because he was a slave driver (although some of the other assistants called him as much behind his back), but because I was hip-deep in a challenging robotics problem. This might be a surprise, because with the difference in the state of the art between Homeline and this world you would think that there wouldn't be a problem Morozumi could throw at me that I didn't already have an answer to. You'd be right — mostly — but it wasn't finding the answer that was the challenge. It was implementing the solution I knew using only local materials and methods, and without letting my touch-enchantment "help" any. That was testing me, pushing me.

And I was enjoying the hell out of it. So much so that I lost track of time a little.

Of course, as soon as I saw that it was quarter after six, I shut down and cleaned up and made a break for the door. No way was I going to miss Belldandy's cooking.

Mama Sangnoir's favorite son is not stupid.

I skidded to a halt a few blocks away from the temple, though, when I turned a corner and saw a sight that stopped me cold: Chris arm-in-arm-in-arm with both of his bookends. And wonder of wonders, he wasn't trapped in the middle of a fight between the two of them. Rachel and Ami were, as far as I could tell at that distance, being reasonably courteous to each other, and actually smiled and laughed together once as I watched.

Holy shit. I was truly and honestly stunned. They actually took my advice. I'd been hoping they'd at least try to be friendly, but this was way beyond anything I'd expected. As the three of them closed the distance between us, I forced the surprise down and schooled my face into an honestly pleased expression. "Chris," I said, nodding a greeting when they got close enough, "Ladies. Going out for the evening, I take it?"

Chris turned a smile of mixed confusion and pleasure (leavened with just the tiniest amount of dread) upon me. "We are on a double date," he declared. "The three of us," he added unnecessarily.

"Well then, have a good time," I smiled broadly, "and do not allow me to delay you any further." I made a broad, sweeping bow to usher them on their way.

"Thank you, kind sir," Ami said with mock solemnity as they passed, and then the two girls broke out into giggles. Ah, young love.

As I straightened up, I called after them, "Enjoy yourselves! I'd say don't do anything I wouldn't do, but you're already well past me on that count."

That got me more giggles and a bark of laughter from Chris as they continued on down the street. I stood and watched them for a few minutes, then turned back towards the temple and dinner, and took off again, my face threatening to split wide with the grin I was wearing.

One block west of and three hundred feet above the temple complex, Mara sat in a rough approximation of seiza and fumed. "What kind of penny-ante operation is Garnash running?" she growled into the brisk wind, which would have chilled her had she been mortal. As it was, all it did was whip her hair into a frenzied mass that she tried to ignore as long as it didn't get into her eyes or mouth. "Ten damned days for a wardbreaker! They ought to be stockpiled!"

They probably were, she realized, but Garnash was a little prick, liking to play his dominance games. He was probably sitting there in his tiny, run-down office in Niflheim, getting off on giving her a hard time, just because he could. "That's the problem with working for Hell," she growled through gritted teeth. "Everyone's just looking for a chance to screw everyone else!"

Including her, to be absolutely honest. Garnash was only getting even for the last time she screwed him over, which had snagged Mara her plum assignment on Earth right out of his scaly little hands. Of course he'd want to screw with her requisitions, just to make her life harder.

Like it wasn't hard enough.

At least disco had been dead for almost fifteen years now, thank the Pit. She was never going to forgive Garnash for that one. Hues Corporation, her ass. She knew a demon-backed recording act when she saw one. Without even leaving Hell, Garnash had managed to set in motion with one hit song no less than three social trends that benefitted their side, and made her life a misery for most of a decade. Someday... someday...

Mara ground her teeth and seethed. She hated waiting. She hated playing politics. She hated having to fight her way through Garnash's little vendettas just to get her job done. It was killing her inside. She needed to vent. Just walking among the animals and ruining their days wasn't enough any more — after her run-in with Morisato's sister it seemed like all the joy had drained out of it. She needed something new, something big, something...

Something like that blasted mage, who was coming down the street. Coming down the street without so much as a shield spell up and nary an item of enchantment on him.

A thin, evil smile slowly spread across Mara's face. He was so complacent and undefended that he was practically inviting an attack.

It would be terribly bad manners to turn down an invitation, now wouldn't it?

I was only about ten meters from the temple gate when it happened.

Back home, the metabiologists call it "class 1 post-natal acquired precognition". We in the Warriors just call it a "danger sense". Sooner or later everyone on the team develops one.

And at that moment mine popped up for the first time in a while, tapped me on the mental shoulder, and said, quite simply, "duck."

Not being in the habit of ignoring my danger sense, I ducked.

Hell, I dropped flat to the ground.

An energy bolt screamed over me, about where my chest had been to judge by the sound and the heat it radiated. It hit the wards around the temple with a sound like a thrown rock hitting a water tower, and they flared momentarily into visibility, all glowing white arcs, Norse runes, Enochian characters and binary code.

Somewhere overhead a female voice — a familiar female voice — swore in a language I didn't know.

Shit, I thought even as I rolled onto my back and kippupped in time to avoid a second bolt sizzling past me. It's Mara. And there I was without helmet or armor or anything — just my bare hands and my oft-maligned wits.

I didn't even consider calling for help. The muffling effect of the wards was enough to all but block out nearby traffic noise; my voice didn't stand a chance. I was on my own.

"Shit," I repeated out loud. I tracked the bolts' trajectory back and spotted her, hovering a good 15 or 20 meters in the air. I ran a quick tactical evaluation.

Weird. This was a demon first class, unlimited? Really? Had to be that power-down thing Belldandy had mentioned, because I was pretty sure I could take this bitch out all by myself.

Right, then. Time to use some of my time-honored strategies.

"Marie! Sweetie honey BAY-bee!" I called up, ducking another bolt as it zorched by. "You're not still mad about that lunch, are you? Honest, I didn't mean to stick you with the check!"

"I'll give you a check!" she shrieked, and rained down a torrent of smaller energy blasts upon me. I dodged and rolled, and when I came back up on my feet again, I realized ruefully that she'd cleverly herded me away from the temple gate. I glanced up over my shoulder at the walls, but that option was closed to me, I knew — the wards were keyed to allow entry only through the gate; trying to vault over them would have zapped me just as thoroughly as it would have her. Industrial strength magical protection — gotta love it, except when it screws your life up.

"Oh, great! How much? Because I've got rent due in a couple of days!" I couldn't dodge forever, though. I needed to get her into hand-to-hand range, then I could beat her down long enough to dash through the gate. I quickly scanned the ground for a rock or something else I could throw. No dice. The Japanese keep their streets too clean.


Double dammit, because she took advantage of my momentary distraction to lob another levinbolt at me, and this one I didn't see in time to dodge. I threw myself back anyway and resisted the urge to wince at the anticipated pain, and was pleasantly surprised when it hit my field and simply fizzled out with a long, low farting whistle, kind of like a deflating balloon.

Mara's eyes grew wide for a moment, and then she shrieked to high heaven. She seemed to swirl in place for a moment before hurling herself down, hands outstretched into claws before her as she stooped like a hawk at me.

Well, I'd wanted her to get within arm's reach...

Tactical had suggested no real hand-to-hand skills. Couple that with what looked like a monumental, almost mindless rage now consuming her, I realized that what was coming next wasn't going to be pretty.

Easy, yes, but not pretty.

I batted her hands away from my neck with my left forearm, and drove my right fist into her face with the combined power of her momentum and my strength. I heard and felt a muffled crack just as I followed up with a full-force palm-thrust into the center of her chest. She was still flying, and the rapid one-two combination to targets well over her center of gravity not only knocked her backwards, but literally flipped her ass-over-teakettle a couple times before she plowed shoulders-first into the sidewalk across the street.

Shaking out my stinging hands, I used all the speed I had to dash across that street before she could get back up. I gave myself a split-second to check out my handiwork — she had a broken nose, and it was bleeding out all over her face — before I delivered as hard a kick as I could into her ribs. I felt something snap under my toes, and she shrieked, this time in pain rather than anger, as the impact lifted her partly off the ground.

In her lab Urd paused, a beaker in one hand, a pipette in the other, as an unfamiliar sound reached her ears. A soft, rhythmic tapping, gentle at first but slowly growing more insistent, was coming from... somewhere.

She laid down the implements of her craft, took care to bank the various burners and capped the more volatile reagents she had been using. Then she turned away from the workbench, eyes closed and head cocked, trying to locate the source of the sound.

It couldn't be any kind of vermin — they stayed away from the whole complex at Belldandy's request. Urd briefly considered the possibility that an imp like Mara's flunky Senbei might somehow have gotten in, but with the wards running at a level they had never seen before, it was a virtual impossibility.

Slowly she crossed to the center of the outbuilding that served as her lab, and listened carefully, trying to identify the direction the soft, repetitive "thud, thud" came from.

I'm certain I've mentioned elsewhere how I feel about demons, but let me just reiterate it so that the hypothetical reader of these journals can understand. They're celestial creatures that prey upon mortal suffering, and who do everything they can to increase that suffering. They're sadists, predators. Scum.

I hate them, pure and simple.

Combine that with the stress I was still feeling despite the recent improvements in my life, and I suppose it would adequately explain why I'd completely forgotten my plan to run inside the temple as soon as I'd gotten a momentary respite in the fight. Instead, I dropped to my knees to straddle Mara's torso, and began pounding her face in. Not as hard as I could — without my gloves and their polykev plates I could conceivably break my fingers if I used too much force — but hard enough that I smashed her already-broken nose flat, and possibly broke one or both of her cheekbones. Her face was already starting to swell, and blood had smeared all over it, running into her blond curls and staining them deep crimson-brown.

It was a savage beating I gave her, savage and uncontrolled. All my anger, all my frustration, all my fear and hate and despair welled up out of me and I pounded them all into the demon's face, one furious blow after another.

"How do you like that?" I grunted between hits. All the while she was hissing and spitting at me, sounds of pain but not of surrender. "How does it feel to be the victim?" Flesh smashed against flesh. "How does it feel to be the helpless one?" Again.

She was trying to worm her hands up toward her face. I brushed them aside with each strike. "And here I thought you would be tough!" Her hands slid past mine and covered her ears, where a pair of complicated little earrings hung and jingled merrily with every one of my blows. "So much for the fearsome demon first class!"

And at that moment she screamed as she tore the earrings right out of the lobes of her ears.

Well, the next thing I knew, a plasma grenade went off in my face, and sent me flying. I hit something hard, and my sight blacked out.

When I could see again, a few moments later, I found myself in a heap at the base of the temple wall, the sidewalk beneath me swimming and filling my somewhat-blurry vision. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a blob of familiar color that could only be the front gate. How nice of her to deliver me right to the door, I thought muzzily.

I shook my head a couple times and slowly forced myself to look up.

On the ground where Mara had been were the earrings, sitting in a drying puddle of blood.

An almost entirely uninjured Mara floated a meter or so above them cloaked in fire, the two slashes of red on her forehead blazing like the heart of a furnace. Insane rage twisted her face into something inhuman. Her shredded earlobes were the only visible wounds left on her body; they were streaming blood that sizzled and vanished in little black flames.


My mental fuzz burned away under a surge of panic-driven adrenaline. Suddenly clear-minded, I ran another tactical on her.

Double shit.

Belldandy had mentioned "limiters" in discussing Chris' little problem; I realized too late that Mara's earrings had been limiters, suppressing the full extent of her power. Now I was finally, truly, looking upon a demon first class. Now I saw the opposition I had been expecting.

Not that I was happy about it, mind you. The last time I'd faced an enemy of that power level, I'd been part of an eight-person dogpile, and I only managed to get one hit in. Worse, one-quarter of that dogpile had been Hexe and Shockwave, two of the most powerful single individuals on Earth at the time.

By myself? Well, the best I could hope for was to last long enough for the goddesses to notice what was going on outside their front door and come to my rescue.

And that was going to be a longshot.

An irreverent part of my mind whispered, She's going to take you apart. This is what you get for not controlling your temper.

I did not deign to remind that part of my mind that she had attacked first. Instead, I hunkered down and set myself to receive her charge as she screamed and hurled herself at me again, her hands streaming fire and the ground under her rippling and cracking from the wake of her passage.

As Urd followed the banging across her shop, it grew louder and more insistent, leading her to the wooden box of junk Skuld had brought from Asgard weeks before, still carelessly perched on the end of her secondary worktable.

She stopped an arm's length away from the box, tilted her head and eyed it suspiciously. "Now what's gotten into you?" she muttered, and reached for it.

With a crack the box exploded into a shower of wooden shards and random flotsam. Urd flinched back with a wordless cry, unharmed but more than a little startled. The agitated banging had stopped, and bits of junk — a fractured gem, a broken cogwheel, a dozen or two other items of random divine kipple — lay scattered on the floor in a fan-shaped pattern whose narrow end started below the now-broken box, and whose wide end was defined by one of the lab's exterior walls.

A wall, Urd realized when she looked up, that now had a neat, round, 2.5-centimeter-wide hole punched into it.

A sudden foreboding ran through her body like a chill, and she dashed out into the yard.


Belldandy nearly dropped a saucepan when a sound like a gunshot went off in her kitchen, followed by a wind that set the pages of her cookbook frantically fluttering.


Keiichi threw himself backwards as a gust of wind went past and the seat was torn off his motorcycle. Eyes wide, he slowly raised and studied the sheared-off stub of the carbon steel wrench he held in his hand.


In the temple yard, Skuld yelped as a shockwave knocked her off her feet.


Megumi dropped the circuit probe and clamped her hands over her ears as a cannon-shot rang out across the temple yard, vainly trying to block out the far louder Symphonic reverberations that assailed her: drowning out all the other themes around her for a moment were a dozen voices howling their agony to the skies — in perfect, heartbreakingly beautiful harmony.

Just before the stone wall surrounding the temple, it struck the wards.

They flared white for an instant, then shattered.

It all happened too quickly at the time. It wasn't until much later that I slowed all the action down in my mind and figured out what occurred when.

Mara was coming at me like a meteor — and I mean that literally. She'd all but turned into a creature of living flame, barely humanoid, flying at me again with arms outstretched. Her face had warped and distorted into something animalistic, its fanged maw open like a shark's.

She was little more than a meter from me when there was a crack like a miniature blast of thunder simultaneous with a sound like a sledgehammer smashing a boulder. As what felt like sand and gravel pelted me from behind, something slapped into the palm of my hand. Reflexively, my fingers closed on it — it felt to be about the same size and shape as the hilt of my bokuto, and I squeezed my hand tight around it. I felt a pulse of energy ripple through me like a wave of heat.

And then two thoughts rang out in my mind at the same time:


One of those thoughts came from me.

One of them didn't.

Almost reflexively, I flicked my eyes down toward my fist. In it I was holding a cylinder of wood, warm and smooth, a couple-three centimeters across and no more than 15 or so centimeters long. I barely had time to recognize the tsubo stick from Urd's lab before there was a sound like a branch breaking. As if spring-loaded, those 15 centimeters of wood exploded out into a two-meter quarterstaff, with my hand at its exact midpoint. One end had buried itself in the ground, and the other...

The other had punched into Mara's chest just below her left breast, and jutted out of her back just under her shoulder. Unable to stop her headlong flight at me in time, she had skewered herself on it like a charging cavalryman upon a set pike. Her flame-beast form guttered like a candle in a strong breeze and the fire vanished as her arms dropped limply to her sides. Left behind was a blood-soaked blonde whose eyes, wide with shock, slowly traced the line of the staff from my hand all the way up to her chest.

She opened her mouth, and a small trickle of blood ran from one corner. "Oh," she rasped in a near-whisper, "hell..."

There was a faint sizzling sound, and I looked at the entry point. For a moment, I thought I saw something like golden sparks crackling around the edges of the wound, but I blinked and they were gone.

Behind me, I heard the gates of the temple burst open with a rattle, but I paid it no heed. With a sudden, graceless yank I pulled the staff up and then out of her body. Mara, her eyes still wide, fell to her knees with a cry of pain, and clapped a hand over the gaping hole in her chest.

I brought the staff up to my eyes and for several seconds studied its plain, uncapped shaft of pale cream-colored wood, down which ran rivulets of black blood. A faint glimmer of orange-golden light limned the end of the staff and extended thirty centimeters or more beyond — a long, flat, pointed shape like a spectral spearhead.


As the wounded demon at my feet mewled in pain, I shifted my grip to hold the staff with both hands, aimed the ghostly point back at Mara, and raised the weapon over my head in order to deliver the coup-de-grace.

Chris settled into his seat and made himself comfortable. The girls' plan for the evening was simple — dinner and a movie. Dinner itself was simple — a small, informal restaurant on the far side of the street that marked the eastern edge of the NIT campus. It was a step up from a ramen joint or a kissaten, but not so much so that Rachel's share of dinner would strain her college student's budget.

Rachel and Ami sat on the opposite side of the table from him, chatting animatedly about the movie choices for the evening. He wanted to shake his head in disbelief, but limited himself to a bemused smile — he'd never seen the two girls acting like, well, like friends before. It was a pleasant change, and Chris hoped that it wasn't just an elaborate act put on for his benefit.

If it is, it's a freakin' good act, he thought, then watched as a minor disagreement between the two girls nearly launched one of their usual arguments — only to have both girls back off and control their tempers with visible exertions of willpower. No, not an act — something they're working at. He nodded approvingly. If they can keep this up...

He never finished the thought — a sensation stole over him, one that he'd felt only a few times before. "Oh, no," he muttered. "Not now!"

Across the table, both Rachel and Ami had gone quiet and were staring at him, their faces pale with sudden worry.

He felt his Full Manifestation surge its way forward through his mind and take control, shoving him to the back of his own head even as he railed at it from within.

"Marller!" it whispered, and stopped time.

"Marller!" Chris whispered, and vanished from the table.

"Marller?" Rachel turned to Ami with a mystified look. "Who the hell is Marller?"

"I don't know and I don't care," Ami spat as she began gathering up her belongings. "Let's just get to the temple!"

"The temple? Why the temple?" Rachel demanded.

Ami gave her a half-lidded look of disgust. "When is it ever not the temple?"

Rachel closed her eyes and grimaced. "Right. Stupid question."

The one advantage his travel medium gave him over most of the other gods, Chris mused as his body shot across the Nekomi sky under the control of his Full Manifestation, is that he never teleported cold into an unknown situation — or worse, a crossfire. Arriving in a timestop allowed him to study his destination as though it were a wax museum diorama and work up a plan or two for dealing with things once he released time to its normal flow again. Of course, that sometimes meant he had to guess at who was doing what to whom, and why, but his intuition on such matters had never failed him yet.

Well, hardly ever.

So Chris's mind went into overdrive when he dropped down into the street in front of the temple gate. A wounded Mara lay at Doug's feet; a furious Doug stood above her, about to drive a quarterstaff through her? He felt his Full Manifestation blink in surprise when they both realized that even though she was still grievously wounded, apparently at Doug's hand, Mara's power was unrestricted by her limiters. His eyes flicked up to the sign on the temple door above the pair, the sign he'd placed there a few weeks earlier as a joke:

"Beware of Doug."

The Manifestation's attention turned slightly to the side, where his sisters, Keiichi and Megumi all stood, frozen in position. Varying expressions of horror and shock painted their faces, save for Megumi, whose vicious grin betrayed an unholy glee.

To the other side of Doug and Mara, the temple wall had been shattered, as if someone had fired a howitzer through it. He narrowed his eyes and engaged his mystical senses, and realized that with the physical wall, the mystic barrier behind it, the wards that had been so laboriously raised and reinforced, had been destroyed as well.

He also realized that the staff in Doug's hands was more than just a piece of wood — he could feel its ambiguously powerful aura pulse at him even without looking at it.

He turned his attention back to Doug and Mara. After a moment's thought, he stepped forward and restarted time.

With no warning, I suddenly felt a sensation of presence next to and a bit behind me. I didn't even need to look out of the corner of my eye to know who it was.

Mainly because Belldandy cried, "Chris! Stop him!" at pretty much that moment.

I tried to drive the staff forward, but Chris must have used his no-time thing, because before I'd even finished formulating the intent, his hand was already clamped around my wrists like a vise.

"Bad idea," I growled. "Move it or lose it, Chris."

Belldandy's order galvanized his Full Manifestation in a way that surprised Chris from where he watched in the back of his own head. For a moment he worried, but he realized it wasn't a compulsion, but more an instinctive reaction — if he'd wanted to, he could have ignored it.

He briefly wondered why he hadn't wanted to ignore it.

Doug growled a vague threat when the Full Manifestation grabbed his wrists with one hand, but Chris dismissed it. As Doug struggled in his grip, he tried to take the staff from him with his other hand.

A low-powered but painful shock, something more than just electrical, made Chris draw his hand back involuntarily. "Ow! Son of a..." he muttered.

As Belldandy called out, "Please, Doug, don't kill her!", he grit his teeth and tried again. He managed to wrap his hand around the staff before a longer, more powerful shock forced him to let go, the muscles of his hand spasming open.

"No... freakin'... way!" Chris swore under his breath as he tried once more, and a third shock, far more powerful than the previous two, seared into him. The jolt was so intense that his vision almost greyed out and he was barely able to hold onto consciousness. Reluctantly, he relinquished his weakening grasp on the staff — but not his hold on Doug's wrists.

"Bell," he grated angrily, "I don't think it's going to let me take it away from him."

Chris ignored my threat, and his grip on my wrists kept me from finishing Mara off. He couldn't take the staff away from me, though, and when he gave up, I thought I could almost feel a sensation of ... well, smugness coming from it.

"What are you going to do, Chris?" I asked in a low, dangerous voice. "The moment you let me go, I'll kill her, I swear it. Take her away first, and I'll hunt her down."

"Don't, please!" Skuld screeched. Somewhere beyond her, I could hear Megumi softly chanting, "Do it! Do it!"

"Why?" I snarled. "Tell me why I shouldn't destroy a demon."

Skuld didn't answer, and I turned my head just enough to catch sight of Belldandy, who had one hand curled up before her mouth and mixed fear and worry in her eyes.

"By your oath to me, Belldandy," I demanded, "tell me true why I should not kill her now."

For a moment there was no sound but the traffic noises around us.

"Because she's doubletted, and killing her would kill a god somewhere in Heaven," Belldandy whispered. "And because..."

She took a deep breath. "And because she's our sister."


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This work of fiction is copyright © 2007, by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel.

"Oh! My Goddess", and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Kosuke Fujishima, KISS and Kodansha Ltd., and are used without permission.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

"Christopher 'Paradox' Angel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Christopher Angel.

"Maggie 'Shadowwalker' Viel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.

Lyrics from "I Want To Be Sedated" recorded by The Ramones, written by Douglas Colvin, John Cummings and Jeffrey Hyman, copyright © 1978, WB Music Corp. and Taco Tunes Inc. (ASCAP).

These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.

For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk V Concordance at:


Other chapters of this story can be found at:


"Oh! My Brother!" can be found at:


The Drunkard's Walk discussion forums are open for those who wish to trade thoughts and comments with other readers, as well as with the authors:


Many thanks to our prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.

Thanks to Rob Kelk for telling us about NIT's Dr. Koichi Morozumi from volume 18 of the "Aa! Megami-sama!" manga.

C&C gratefully accepted.

This page was created on August 3, 2007.
Last modified May 08, 2019.