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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
6. In Which I Change My Mind About Several Things, And Get Myself In Deeper Thereby
I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors,
But I think that God has a sick sense of humor,
And when I die I expect to find him laughing....
— Depeche Mode, "Blasphemous Rumors"
The deluding passions are inexhaustible; I vow to destroy them.
The Dharma gates are manifold; I vow to know them.
The Buddha way is supreme; I vow to master it.
Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
— The Four Great Vows of Mahayana Buddhism
You know your stripper from your paint
You know your sinner from your saint
Whenever Heaven's doors are shut
You kick them open, but
I know you.
— Peter Gabriel, "Steam"
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 30, 1997, 6:54 PM
Chris stood with a blank expression on his face, his arms crossed, his breath whistling from his nose as he tried to keep himself calm. Before him, Belldandy worked furiously on Mara's injured form, barking orders to Urd, who dashed in and out of the temple. A few feet away, Doug sat on the sidewalk in a sloppy seiza, staring blankly at Bell's first aid efforts, his face a study in shock. Doug's gone bye-bye, Egon. Chris absently noted that he still held the quarterstaff, its two-meter length now inexplicably shrunken to a six-inch hunk of wood.
The occasional passers-by walked unseeing around them, gently guided past by a glamour that one of his sisters — he hadn't noticed which one — had quickly cast.
He felt a soft touch on his arm. "Oniichan?" Chris turned slightly and saw Skuld standing hesitantly beside him, with a frowning Megumi hovering a couple of meters behind her. "Are you okay?"
"When," he began with a snarl, and Skuld recoiled slightly from his anger. Megumi actually growled and balled her fists at the sound. He stopped, closed his eyes, and took a long breath in and out through his nose. In a more controlled tone, he started again. "When exactly were you three planning on telling me about this?" He continued on, his voice becoming harsher as he gritted his teeth. "Did it never maybe occur to you I might want to know that I was busy trying to maim my fucking sister?!"
"We were going to tell you, Chris, and soon," Belldandy stated matter-of-factly, as her hands seemed to vanish into Mara's chest. The demon moaned softly. "We simply did not expect matters to get so... out of hand."
Chris gave a bark of humorless laughter. "'Out of hand'. That's a good word for it." He fixed his eyes on Mara. "It could have been me. I could have done this to her."
"No," Urd said as she reappeared through the gate and handed a small vial to Belldandy. "No, you couldn't have."
Although intent on her patient, Belldandy still managed a small nod. "The worst you might have done would be to eject her from her corporeal vessel. She would not have been truly harmed. This..." And here she lifted her gaze to Doug, her brow faintly wrinkling in what Chris knew to be the closest thing Belldandy had to a full-blown scowl short of her battle-rage. "This... is something completely different."
Skuld's lower lip quivered as she looked at the two. "Oneesan?"
Belldandy abruptly stood, the now-empty vial in her hand. "Enough. She is stable and can be moved now. When we get back inside we can continue this." She felt a tug on her dress and looked down to see Mara reaching up with a trembling arm. Belldandy knelt back down. "Yes, Mara?"
"Damn you... Belldandy..." the demon whispered hoarsely. "You're always... too good... to me. Even... went out of... your way to... make me look good... to Hell. You should just... let me... die..." She wrapped her hand around Belldandy's. "That way... you finally... win."
Belldandy smiled sadly as she gently squeezed Mara's hand. "If you die, no one wins, sister. We all lose." She looked up. "Chris, would you please carry Mara into the house? Gently."
Chris roused himself and nodded. "Sure. But we're not done here, Bell." He stepped toward Mara, who still lay shivering on the concrete, but stopped and turned to Doug, who still seemed to be in shock. With a growl Chris gave the older man a swift kick to the shoulder, nearly bowling him over. "All right, you, enough with the mental malfunction. Move, Captain Kill-em-all!!"
Then he knelt at Mara's side and carefully slid his arms under her shoulders and knees before standing back up with her in his arms. She made a few soft mewling sounds that might have been protests, a grimace of pain flickering across her face. To his surprise, she snuggled up to his chest as soon as he was on his feet, and he marveled for a moment at how light she felt.
Then he looked over at Belldandy. "Which bedroom are we putting her in?"
"Mine, please," Belldandy replied. Chris nodded slightly in affirmation, and with almost fanatical care carried his burden into and through the temple yard. His sisters and their guests followed behind him, their footsteps echoing dully from the flagstones of the walkway. As he turned toward the house, the gate clattered shut.
Hidden within a slash of shadow cast by the temple wall, the imp Senbei lurked, his customary black leather doing as much to help him blend in as his blonde hair did to hinder it. His large eyes were unreadable as he watched the serene but frantic treatment his mistress Mara received at the hands of the middle goddess.
When the once-mortal godling began shouting, Senbei shrank back further into the shadow which cloaked him. He knew he was no match for even the goddess-child, who could strike him down and snuff him out without a second thought, let alone the warlike Celestial newcomer. But his greatest fears were not of either of them — it was, instead, facing either of the mortals. The servitor would not just kill him, had she the chance — Senbei instinctively knew she would gleefully make him hurt first. And the wizard... Senbei simply shuddered and refused to imagine the awful possibilities.
The imp curled up deeper into the narrow wedge of shadow when the middle sister stood abruptly, silencing the godling's anger. His eyes lost their expressionless cast and grew wide when Paradox knelt and with extraordinary gentleness lifted Mara into his arms. "Mistress..." he breathed as Paradox then led the rest back into the temple.
For a moment, Senbei was torn. The temple was holy ground — anathema to his kind, even with its wards shattered. But his mistress was being brought inside its bounds. Two impulses warred within him for a moment, until the fear gave way.
He carefully waited until the last of the inhabitants had disappeared inside the distant house. Then Senbei held a breath he did not actually need and slipped through the hole that had been blasted through the temple wall. When holy power did not strike him down for his effrontery, he released his breath and scampered over to the closest window.
Chris paused at the front door to let Belldandy open and hold it for him. With exquisite care he slowly threaded Mara and himself through the entrance, then continued on to Belldandy's room. Once more he stood to one side, letting said sister ahead of him again to open the door and prepare the bed.
He laid Mara gently on the bed, and as she reclined he gazed at his newest sister with an unreadable expression. With an almost tender motion he smoothed the hair back from her face. At the touch, Mara's eyes opened and she stared up at him with a dazed smile on her face. "Thanks, ototo-kun," she murmured, and patted his hand clumsily before falling back into unconsciousness.
Filled with a sudden, overwhelming need to leave right now, Chris turned and fled the room, roughly shouldering aside Skuld and Megumi in his haste. And only Doug's inhuman reflexes kept him from being run down as Chris flung himself out the front door and into the yard.
Back in the bedroom, both Belldandy and Urd had watched Chris's departure with identical expressions of concern. Then Urd ducked her head for a moment as Belldandy worried her lower lip with her teeth. "'Niichan..." Urd breathed.
Belldandy closed her eyes for a moment. "As if matters were not hard enough for Oniisan already. He is not taking this well."
Urd lifted her head and favored her younger sister with a raised eyebrow. "Oh, you think?"
"Urd," Belldandy sighed. "Sarcasm doesn't help anyone right now."
"Then don't retreat into an airhead Captain Obvious persona, little sister," Urd riposted. "We have too much on our plates for that."
Belldandy nodded. "True enough." She reached out and brushed a curling lock of blonde hair away from Mara's face. "Though there is precious little we can do about much of it."
Urd turned her eyes upon Mara and studied her intently. "She is that bad off?"
"Yes." Belldandy caressed the sleeping demon's cheek. "The complications from her Fall combined with the damage from that... weapon..." She made the word sound like an obscenity before turning a stern gaze upon her sister. "Where did that staff come from, Urd? It was not in Doug's possession before today."
Urd grimaced. "Heaven."
Belldandy folded her arms and simply looked at her.
"I'm serious, sister," Urd continued. "It was in a box of random ensorcelled junk that Skuld brought down some weeks ago. It's been sitting on my side bench ever since. I'd been meaning to go through it and identify it all, but never got around to it." She frowned as a suspicion dawned. "You don't think..."
"I don't think it really matters one way or another," Belldandy replied, shaking her head. "Not at the moment. Afterwards, maybe..."
"So what do we do now?" Urd asked. "About Mara, and about everything else?"
"For Mara?" Belldandy sighed softly. "We've already done all we can. And it will not be enough. So we will gather everyone together and let them know."
Urd shook her head. "Poor Chris."
"Yes," Belldandy agreed. "Poor Chris." She caressed her sleeping sister's cheek once more. "And poor Mara." She studied the demon.
Urd was sure she saw a glimmer of moisture at the corners of Belldandy's eyes.
"And poor us."
As the door slammed behind Chris, Megumi and Skuld exchanged looks.
Then they stepped to the door, opened it just enough to peer out, and watched the young god's retreating back.
"'Niichan..." Skuld breathed, then shook her head. "He's not going to want anyone going after him."
"Then I'm probably the best choice to do it," Doug's voice came from behind them. They both started, having forgotten he was there in the emotion of the moment.
"'Scuse me," he continued as he slipped between them and out the door.
They watched for a few moments more as Doug raced after Chris, and both men vanished through the gate, one after the other.
Skuld let the door close, then turned and slumped against the wall next to it. Megumi did the same on the other side, and let herself slide down to sit on the floor. A moment later, Skuld followed her down.
The hallway was quiet for several minutes, with only the faint whisper of Urd and Belldandy's voices, unintelligible but audible, drifting down its length.
Megumi took a deep breath. "She's really your sister?"
"Yeah," Skuld said softly, and a little sadly.
Megumi shook her head. "Well, shit."
"Yeah," Skuld said, her eyes moist. "Yeah". She stood up suddenly. "C'mon, I have to get out of here, too," she announced and stepped outside.
Megumi blinked, then scrambled to her feet and followed, catching up with the girl quickly enough.
They crossed the temple yard almost all the way to the front gate. Skuld's determined march, and the matching expression on her face, inspired a strange mix of apprehension and amusement in Megumi. It was still hard sometimes to think of the girl as the goddess she was, and at moments like that, some of Skuld's more serious mannerisms seemed almost funny.
When they finally stopped — well out of earshot of the house, Megumi noted — Skuld turned to her and without preamble declared, "I should have said this to you days ago, but I forgot about it in all the excitement — I'm sorry about the command I gave you when 'Niichan had his... seizure. I shouldn't've done that without warning you it was even possible."
Megumi studied the girl for a few moments. "It was damned scary, Skuld. It was like someone else was running my body and I was just a passenger."
Skuld nodded contritely, ending with her head bowed and her face shrouded by her long hair. "Yeah, and I'm really sorry I did that to you. All I can say is that it was an accident, 'cause I was worried about 'Niichan, and if I'd had time to think about it I would never have done it. But things were just happening too fast." She peered up through her bangs at the older girl, her eyes mournful and glistening. "You're not mad at me, are you?"
For a moment, Megumi almost burst out in hysterical laughter. Skuld was ultimately one of the oldest and most powerful goddesses in any pantheon, someone who held the fates of every living creature in her hands. And at the same time she was a rueful child hoping she hadn't alienated a friend. The contrast was almost more than she could take. She drew a deep breath, then smiled and reached out to ruffle Skuld's cowlick. "No, kiddo, I'm not mad at you. Ooof!" Skuld had thrown herself at Megumi and clamped her arms around the older girl. Absently, Megumi noticed that the top of Skuld's head reached her shoulders. She's definitely starting to grow up.
"I'm so glad! I didn't want you upset!" Skuld mumbled into Megumi's upper arm.
"Well," she slowly admitted, "I was, for a little while. Like I said, scary. But I got over it. And anyway, you did warn me about it." Over the top of Skuld's head, Megumi grimaced. "Maybe I didn't quite understand exactly what you were trying to tell me, and maybe I should have asked more questions about what I was getting myself into. But I thought that losing some of my free will meant, you know, agreeing to take orders from you like a soldier in the Defense Force takes orders."
Skuld loosened her grip and leaned back enough to look up at her. "Well yeah," she said with a sniff, and quickly scrubbed at her nose with the back of one hand. "It did... does. But there's just a little more to it than that."
In spite of herself, Megumi laughed. "I should have remembered. If I've learned anything from you and your sisters, there's always a little bit more to it. For everything."
Skuld giggled. "Yeah, I guess."
Megumi ruffled her cowlick again. "Part and parcel of you guys being gods, I guess." She grew pensive once more. "Still, it was my responsibility, and my choice. I can't really be mad at anyone but myself, and that gets kinda boring after a while."
The little goddess giggled again, then hiccupped. "Are we okay then?" she asked softly.
"Yeah," Megumi said, stepping back to look down into Skuld's eyes. "Yeah, we're okay." She smirked, and a bit of mischief twinkled in her eye. "Boss."
"Oh, don't," Skuld whined, and lightly smacked Megumi's arm. "It's not going to be like that. It's not like that now."
"I know." Megumi grinned down at her. "I just like yanking your chain. Makes me feel more like an equal in this relationship."
Skuld stepped back, scowling, and shook a finger at her. "Keep it up, and I'll ask Freya to find you a boyfriend. Or worse, Aphrodite. Trust me, you don't want that."
Megumi blinked, then chuckled. "I'll take your word on it." She looked back at the house and sobered as her mind turned back to Mara and the events around her. "Now what happens?" she asked in a softer, more tentative voice.
Skuld's scowl vanished, and her eyes began to glisten again. "I don't know. We'll have to ask Belldandy."
"And is Chris going to be all right?" Megumi asked in an even softer voice.
"I hope so."
Senbei ducked back down into the bushes. It sounded like the Mistress was still alive, but badly injured. He bit his lip as he considered this. It was almost impossible to learn anything of his Mistress' fate out here. But he dare not enter the house proper — the goddesses would surely detect him as soon as he tried.
He would just have to lurk at windows until he found the right one. Senbei gave a little nod as he came to the decision.
That settled, he slipped back to the house, retracing his steps along the circuitous but sheltered route that he had used to follow the goddess and her servant.
I would have followed Chris at a respectful distance as he left the temple, had he cared to cooperate with a mere mortal, but the SOB cheated. Even though I was mere seconds behind him, he was already nowhere to be seen when I barreled through the gate and out onto the street.
Looking around, I growled softly when I realized he'd almost certainly invoked a timestop and then buggered off. He could have already been literally anywhere on earth or in heaven before I'd even reached the sidewalk.
"<Shit,>" I swore softly, looking up into the late afternoon sky. Unbidden, the image came to my mind's eye of a cartoon-style fluffy-cloud Heaven somewhere up there suddenly invaded by a fuming Chris, barreling past a protesting Saint Peter and bursting through the Pearly Gates as panic-stricken angels leapt out of his way.
I couldn't help myself; I smiled and snorted in amusement. Still smiling, I shook my head. "Good luck, guy," I murmured, then turned to head back into the temple. My amusement vanished. Time to face the music.
I had just closed the temple gate behind me when I heard the sound of running footsteps on the sidewalk outside.
There was a faint creak as the front gate to the temple eased open a bare crack, just enough to reveal a hazel-hued human eye. It flicked left and right, then up, just to be sure.
"What d'ya see?" Rachel's voice hissed from somewhere beyond the gate.
The eye (no doubt accompanied by its hidden partner) rolled once, squeezed shut, and then reopened after a two-count. "Nothing," Ami hissed back.
"Nothing? With all the freakin' blood smears out on the sidewalk?" The coed's voice carried her incredulity clearly. "It looks like they were practically having a war out here!"
"Well, they aren't having a war in here," Ami snapped. The gate suddenly swung wide, propelled by a vicious shove that left Ami with her arm outstretched.
Behind her, Rachel peered over her shoulder. "Huh." She shouldered her way past the policewoman and began to stride along the walkway to the house with a determined gait. "Okay, let's find out what happened."
"Screw that," Ami snarled. "I want to talk to Chris' boss about messing with our dates. I swear He's doing it on purpose."
"He may well be," said a voice. Behind them, the gate suddenly slammed shut. They spun around, driven by shock and surprise, to find Doug rubbing his nose and standing about where the gate had stopped when she'd shoved it open. "Ow," he added without any heat before giving the tip of his nose a final rub. "From what I've heard, it sounds like Chris's boss is a real asshole. I wouldn't put it past him to be jerking you guys around just for shits and giggles. But this isn't really a good time."
"The hell with 'good time'!" she spat.
Rachel nodded vigorously. "What she said!"
Ami shot her a grin, then turned her attention back to Doug. "We're trying to make this damned arrangement work, and he's stacking the deck against all three of us! Neither of us particularly feels like being a toy for his amusement!"
Doug sighed. "Look. I know that. I'm the one who suggested trying things this way, remember?" He rubbed his eyes, and Rachel realized that he was far more subdued than she'd ever seen him. "Believe me, I support your right to say and do this, and under any other circumstances I'd happily hold your jacket while you went to work on the Big Guy with a billy club, but like I said, this is a really bad time."
Ami opened her mouth to snarl another rejoinder, but snapped it shut when Rachel suddenly laid a hand on her shoulder. "Bad how?" the coed asked.
Doug took a deep breath. "Bad as in family tragedy."
Both girls' eyes went wide. "Who...?" Ami asked as Rachel demanded, "What happened?"
"A sister Chris didn't know he had," Doug replied softly. "And I almost killed her. I may still have." For a moment he stared sadly at his hands; then he looked back up at the two of them.
"Marller!" Rachel breathed.
Doug frowned. "No, Mara."
"But he said..." Rachel began, before Ami silenced her with a wave of a hand.
"The demon he told us about?" she asked in a low tone. "The one he's had so much trouble with? She's another sister?"
Doug gave them a sad smile. "Every family has its black sheep, y'know?"
Ami glanced across at Rachel. "You really want these people for in-laws?"
Rachel shrugged. "I was actually kinda half-expecting something like this, so, yeah, I'm actually cool with it, more or less." She peered closely at Ami. "What about you?"
"Feh." Ami dismissed the idea with another wave. "After my asshole cousin Jiro, I think I can cope with a demon sister-in-law."
"You might not have to," Doug pointed out solemnly.
Rachel's eyes widened again, and she raised a hand to her mouth as realization set in. "Oh, god, Chris must be feeling awful." She shared a look with Ami, and the two nodded.
"You just missed him, but he should be back soon," Doug said before they could ask. "I'm sure you're welcome to wait for him in the house."
Judging from the look on his face, the hug Rachel enveloped him in had caught Doug by surprise. She held him tightly and murmured, "Thank you. And don't worry, I'm sure they don't blame you."
His eyebrows shot up, and Ami smiled. "And if Chris does blame you, we'll set him straight," she said as she added her own awkward but companionable one-armed hug to the mix.
After giving me a completely unexpected double hug, the two girls took off at a run for the house. In spite of the seriousness of events, I had to smile — briefly — at their energy. With a shake of my head I headed for the house myself, wondering what was going to happen next.
When I got back inside, Chris was, of course, already there. His shoes were off and in their cubby, and he was speaking in low tones with Belldandy and Urd as his girls quietly bracketed him.
I blinked in momentary surprise.
For just an instant I suspected Chris of merely running around to the back of the temple and slipping in through the postern gate in the rear wall, but then I took a good look at him. His clothes were wrinkled and stained with sweat, and his face was darkened by a five o'clock shadow that hadn't been in existence only a few minutes earlier by my personal clock.
He was also about three orders of magnitude calmer than he'd been when he'd stormed out.
So, immediate obvious conclusion: He'd spent several subjective hours (at a minimum) in his timestop, venting somehow. Probably just screaming or swearing or something, as the goofy conditions of his particular godly gift (as I understood it) would pop him immediately back into normal time if he tried to touch — or punch, or break — something solid.
(Other than the ground under his feet, I guess. Or did he unconsciously fly just above the ground when timestopped? And why didn't air hitting his body make him... oh, hell, let's just note that I never asked him, and at this late date it's all academic anyway. Not to mention it's nowhere near relevant to the topic at hand. Speaking of which...)
After receiving a kiss on the cheek from each of his sisters, he headed off for the bath without a glance in my direction, escorted by Rachel and Ami — who, I noted, did not follow him into the furoba.
Belldandy did glance in my direction, though, and gave me a smile so faint and sad that her lips were almost in a straight line — a rare expression for her indeed, in my experience. "Doug," she said softly, "there will be a family meeting about Mara's condition in the dining room just as soon as Chris gets cleaned up and dressed."
I nodded. "I understand. I'll make myself scarce."
"Oh, no." She shook her head. "That's not necessary. On the contrary, we would like you to take part."
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 30, 1997, 7:40 PM
"I must be frank," Belldandy declared quietly. "Mara is dying."
Up until this point, their family meetings — at least those that I had been aware of — had all taken place in the kitchen, with the door shut and obvious (to me) wards raised against potential eavesdroppers. This meeting, though, took place in the dining room, with everyone in their accustomed seats.
Including Megumi and myself, and to my momentary surprise, Rachel and Ami.
Now Megumi's presence was understandable, as she was family twice over — once by blood to Keiichi, and once again by virtue of her service to Skuld.
And Rachel and Ami, I realized with a moment's thought, were both bound to Chris by various divine shenanigans. They may not have been Servitors, but their connections to him were apparently of similar strength or status. Not to mention that at least one of them was guaranteed to become a family member eventually.
But me? No, I was just the annoying house guest. As I took my usual place next to Skuld, I knew that I was not here as family. In fact, I rather suspected that I was there as defendant.
Some rather morose thoughts following along those lines were temporarily discarded when Belldandy began the meeting with her simple declaration. Looking up, I studied Belldandy's face, noticing out of the corners of my eyes the shocked expressions on almost everyone else. She had spoken without raising her eyes from where her hands lay clasped in her lap, so it was harder to read her expression, but I was pretty sure she was close to tears.
"She's stable and comfortable, for the moment," Urd took over from her younger sister, "but 'stable' isn't the same thing as 'recovering'."
I glanced around the table as silence answered her. Outside, a bird sang gaily for a moment, stopped, and sang again. Megumi did nothing to hide her obvious and malicious glee at Belldandy's announcement, but Skuld was biting her lower lip, her eyes wide and glistening with tears that threatened to spill out at any moment. Chris scowled furiously, his fists clenched so tightly that their knuckles were yellow-white against the surrounding red-flushed skin. Ami noticed, and laid her hand over his, while Rachel wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
"I thought you healed her wounds?" Keiichi asked cautiously. I nodded. I'd hurt her badly — it would have certainly been fatal without treatment — but I hadn't killed her outright. With the powers available to them, the goddesses should have been able to restore her with little trouble.
"We have," Belldandy said. "While regenerating her physical body is somewhat tiring, it was not at all difficult. But that isn't the true problem."
"Then what is?" I asked in growing confusion.
"The... weapon you used," her eyes darted almost fearfully toward the staff, now collapsed again and peeking out of my pocket, "affected her on more than just the physical level. It has somehow damaged her already-weakened Celestial structure, the web of forces and energies that make up her true being. They are unraveling... slowly, but not slowly enough." Her voice quavered and cracked, and she stopped. She covered her eyes with her hand, hiding the visible distress that I saw there.
"In a day, maybe less," Urd picked up, "all that our sister is will evaporate back into the primal energies of the multiverse."
Before they could say anything more, Chris abruptly stood up and walked out of the room, his face stone.
Exchanging a quick glance, Ami and Rachel stood and chased after him, into the evening twilight of the yard. Reaching her hand up to touch his arm, Ami stepped towards him, but found Rachel's stopping her. Looking over, Ami saw Rachel shaking her head slowly.
"Chris?" Ami said, choosing to try speaking first. "What's wrong?"
"Chris?" Rachel echoed.
Chris didn't say anything for a minute, but then sighed and began to shift idly back and forth on his feet, like he wanted to walk somewhere and stay where he was at the same time. He took a breath as if to speak, but just ended up holding it for a couple seconds, before letting it out explosively. He lifted a hand up, and noticed his fist was clenched and trembling. With quick steps, he strode to a nearby bench and sat, leaning forward, elbows on knees, his face in his hands.
"Do you two know what I was, a year and change ago? I was a nerd, who went to his job, came home, played video games and watched anime. That was it. I had one or two really good friends, and one brother. Then, all of a sudden, I have three sisters. I have semi-brothers. I have loads of people who want to be my friend, for reasons both pure and impure. Oh yeah, did I mention I'm suddenly a fucking god, too? And suddenly the dateless wonder had not one, but two hot women after him. And you know what? That was okay. I could deal with that. Hell, I could even like it, and love my sisters, and maybe make something with those two women. And I could almost forget that weeks would go by and I wouldn't talk to my parents, or I'd never even think of my brother or my old friends."
Ami sat down beside him, and began gently rubbing his back, as Rachel went to kneel in front of him.
"Even the enemies we got weren't so bad, even if half the time I wanted to, and sometimes even tried to, eviscerate some of them. Then finally, someone goes and does do that to one of them — the one I would have told you this morning I hated most — the same thing I was going to do, and lo and behold, she's another fucking sister! And now she's going to die, and... and... I just don't know. How am I supposed to deal with this? What else is That Jerk going to pile on me before I can't deal?"
His shoulders began to jerk, as he was fighting to not sob. Ami continued to rub his back, pressing herself to his side, while Rachel grabbed Chris's hands and pulled them from his face. "Oh Chris," she said softly, "whatever it is, whatever happens, you can stand it. You're stronger than you realize. And no matter what..." she trailed off and exchanged a glance with Ami, who nodded slightly, "we'll both be there to help you."
Megumi took advantage of the family meeting's collapse to slip out of the dining room. Skuld of course noticed, but Megumi just mouthed "Toilet" and the little goddess nodded understandingly.
Padding down the hallway, though, Megumi passed by the facilities without a glance. She'd swing by there on the way back to maintain the technical truth behind her absence, just in case Skuld could tell somehow through their bond. Megumi wasn't sure any more just how much she'd really put in Skuld's hands with her oath of service, but after what happened during Chris' seizure she wasn't going to take any chances. She was probably going to take some flak as it was; no need to make it worse.
With almost no conscious thought, Megumi halted at the door to Belldandy's room. She stared at it for a moment, then slid it open as silently as she could. Then she took one step and halted on the threshold.
Megumi stood in the doorway and stared at the figure on the futon. In the dim light of the hallway lamp shining in through the door, the blonde hair looked greyish, the pale skin all but white. Only the demon marks on her face, burning red like inflamed, fresh scars over her closed eyes, seemed to give Mara any color.
"I know you're there," Mara whispered. Her eyes remained closed.
"Yeah," Megumi spat.
"You've got every right to be angry with me," the demon said. "If it helps at all, I'm actually sorry I did what I did to you. It wasn't anything personal, you know. You were just... convenient."
"Convenient?" Rage bubbled up inside her, and Megumi struggled to control it. "I was a handy tool, that's all?" she hissed. "Used and thrown away when you were done with me?"
"I said I'm sorry about that." Mara's voice, though weak, still managed to sound annoyed.
Megumi slid entirely into the room. "Well, I don't care that you're sorry," she snarled. She dropped to her knees, leaned over, and spoke directly into Mara's ear. "I'm going to enjoy watching you vanish into nothingness."
Mara turned her head and looked directly into Megumi's eyes, and her expression changed from one of resigned annoyance to a look of horror mixed with shocked recognition, as if she were truly seeing something for the first time. Then her head fell back on the pillow as she looked up at the ceiling and her focus changed, as if she were looking at something a great distance away from her. When next she spoke, her voice was nothing but an infinitely tired whisper. But Megumi heard it clearly, as if echoing up from a well.
"Y'know, it's that kind of attitude that got me where I am now."
Belldandy's voice never deviated from its usual mild tones, but it struck Megumi like a whipcrack. She shot to her feet and spun to face the goddess, shame flooding her as her cheeks began to burn with its flush.
Belldandy stood in the bedroom doorway much as Megumi had a few moments before, a look of such intense disappointment on her face that Megumi's shame grew to include almost crippling guilt. She caught Megumi with her gaze and held her there for a moment before shaking her head sadly. "This is not worthy of you," she said simply, before stepping fully into the room. "Go back to Skuld and tell her what you've done."
As if propelled by a shove from behind, Megumi sprinted from the room without saying another word.
Belldandy watched her go, and shook her head sadly. Then she turned her attention back to Mara. "Oneesan..." she began.
"Can it, Bell," Mara snapped. "You don't need to say anything. Morisato's sister already let the cat out of the bag. Besides, I can feel it eating away at me. I'm dying. Finally. After all this time."
Wordlessly, Belldandy nodded as a single tear slid down her cheek.
Mara grit her teeth. "So. How long?"
"Less than a day, we think." Belldandy stared at her, eyes filled with a terrible agony. "Certainly by sundown tomorrow."
"I knew this was coming," Mara continued. "I knew that sooner or later my luck would run out. Nobody's survived as long as I have, after all. Not that I expected it to happen this way," she added with a sardonic chuckle.
"We'll do everything we can to make you comfortable, oneesan," Belldandy whispered.
"It's my own fault that I Fell, anyway," Mara continued as though she hadn't heard. "Foolishness and a hot head broke me. It's only fitting that they finally do me in, too. Still..." She closed her eyes and sighed.
Belldandy reached out and touched her hand. "Mara?"
"You know what I want, Belldandy?" As Mara closed her fingers around Belldandy's, she opened her eyes again to stare at the ceiling above her. "I'd really like one last look at home, before I go." She turned her head and gazed into her sister's eyes. "Bell... I want to see Heaven once more before I die."
Belldandy's eyes went wide. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Mara bit her lip and nodded. "I've spent far too many centuries taking my self-hatred out on you three, and then on Morisato, and after him Christopher — especially Christopher, for getting so easily what I lost, and for not being... for not being worthy of what he received from his wish. I regret it all. I miss you three. I miss Home. I know I won't have either for long after, but... I want to Redeem." Her grip on Belldandy's hand tightened with an almost desperate intensity. "While I still have the chance."
"Redemption..." Belldandy breathed.
Mara nodded. "Will you ask Father, please? Ask him to let me come home, just long enough to die there?"
Belldandy smiled, and squeezed Mara's hand once more. "Of course I will, oneesan."
Outside, Senbei lurked just below the window sill as he eavesdropped. Although by the laws of Hell and his own nature he was forbidden to have unselfish concern for the welfare of another, they did permit him to care for Mara's fate when it was cast in terms of his own self-interest; should his Mistress die, at best he would be reassigned to another demon first class, and at worst he would be shredded into his component Forces by her rivals and enemies.
But Senbei was very concerned for his Mistress, in ways that would have resulted in his permanent dissolution had any of the Pit's enforcers peered into his mind at that moment.
As Belldandy's had, his eyes widened when he heard Mara declare her intent to defect. Then his small face collapsed in despair and pain. Loyal he may have been to his Mistress. But other, greater, loyalties were literally woven into the fabric of his being — loyalties he could not defy.
Slowly, reluctantly, Senbei worked the magicks that would take him back to Hell.
After Belldandy left, Mara had only a few moments' peace before she sensed yet another visitor slipping into the room. He had ghosted in far more subtly than Megumi had, but she was not yet so far gone that she would miss a presence like his.
"Sangnoir," she said tonelessly, not bothering to open her eyes again.
"Yeah," he replied quietly.
"So," she let some of the resentment she felt at her fate bleed into her voice, "you here to sneer and gloat at me like Morisato's sister?"
There was the briefest pause. "No, I'm here to apologize."
Mara opened one eye and studied him. The arrogance that had infused his every movement whenever she'd watched him before seemed to have fled him. "For what?" she asked after a moment.
That got a raised eyebrow which spoiled the borderline penitent image he presented. "Well, for killing you, more or less."
"Feh," she said with a weak wave of her hand. "Fortunes of war. Not your fault. I let my temper get the better of me again, and suffered for it." Then, more softly, she added, "Like always. That's the story of my life, after all."
For a long moment neither said anything more.
Then Sangnoir shifted slightly, and what remained of his faint air of penitence seemed to evaporate. "I overheard what you said to Belldandy."
She closed her eye again. "Did you, then."
"Were you serious?"
Mara sincerely wished she had the energy to give a really good snarl at that moment. "Of course not. It's actually part of a diabolically clever plot. I will take advantage of my younger sister's trusting nature in order to storm and conquer Heaven entirely by myself in the few hours I have left before my wounded and weakened Celestial structure loses all coherence and I vanish into nothingness, reduced to my component energies."
There was another long moment of silence.
"I think I might see one or two very small flaws in that plan," Sangnoir said finally, in such deadpan tones of absolute seriousness that Mara could not resist a faint smile.
"Oh well, then," she said, matching his tone, "maybe I should come up with something else instead."
"Maybe you should." That same deadpan seriousness lasted only a few more moments before he gave in to a good-natured chuckle. "Okay, yeah, dumb question. It's just that..."
Sangnoir paused for a moment before continuing. When he did, his voice was underlaid with an open vein of raw pain that only the day before Mara would have jumped to exploit. "I know what it's like to be trapped far from home, with no way to get back. To be dying there... That's something I don't even want to think about. If you're sincere about this, then I'll do everything in my power to help."
For the first time since he'd entered the room, Mara opened both eyes. She looked him over. Dying she may be, but she could still read a mortal. He meant what he said.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Who are you, anyway? I thought I knew all the spellcasters active on Earth at the moment. And Hell can't find any records of you that aren't spying reports from the last few weeks."
Sangnoir smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm a dimensional traveler, from a parallel Earth." He paused and frowned in thought for a moment. "Or maybe not so parallel. But an Earth, no doubt about it. That's why you can't find anything on me. I'm not a local."
Mara nodded slowly. "Explorer?"
He shook his head. "Refugee." The pain had returned to his voice. "I was tossed out of my universe by an enemy, and I've been trying to find my way back for a decade now." For a moment he grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, before relaxing again. "So believe me, I really do know what it's like for you. Intimately. So you'll have all the help I can give, without reservation."
In spite of herself — in spite of habits and reflexes learned through agony and betrayal over centuries uncountable in the service of Hell — Mara was genuinely touched by the offer. It was almost certain that he was making it in complete ignorance of what he offered, but the fact that a mortal — one whom she had literally tried to vaporize not an hour earlier — was willing to help her evoked long-forgotten feelings in her, feelings of gratitude... and shame.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
Sangnoir sketched a small bow which while light-hearted in execution was anything but mocking. "All part of the service."
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 30, 1997, 7:56 PM
And so it comes to this, Belldandy thought, one hand on the telephone as she looked around the room. They were all there with her. Ami and Rachel sat on either side of Chris, their constant feud suspended as they both supported him. Even Megumi was here, although her hostility toward Mara was almost a palpable darkness in the corner where she sat near Skuld.
And almost diametrically across the room from the younger Morisato sat Doug. To her immense surprise, he did not mirror Megumi's enmity. Instead, one corner of his mouth flicked up in a ghost of a smile when he spotted her looking at him; he nodded fractionally, as though to confirm that he approved the course of action she was about to undertake.
Confused but grateful, she returned the smile before glancing finally at Keiichi, who sat by her side. He, too, nodded encouragingly. For a moment Belldandy wondered at her growing uncertainty, hoping it wasn't an intuition — or worse, a portent of a future near enough to almost be the present. Never before had she felt so keenly the lack of the omniscience possessed by so many of her other selves throughout the multiverse. The uncertainty was agonizing.
Before she could let herself dwell further on that, Belldandy forced herself to pick up the receiver and dial the long, long number that would connect her to Heaven.
I watched in frank fascination as Belldandy simply picked up the very mundane telephone and punched at least twenty digits into its keypad. I resisted the urge to shake my head, but geeze, the way Celestials did things in this universe. Every time I thought I understood them, there was a new twist.
A telephone link to Heaven?
"Weird" just did not cover it.
But I made a mental note to try the redial if I had a chance.
(What? I had — have — more than a couple philosophical questions about the nature of mortal existence that I think are rather important, and if I could reach some kind of Customer Service department, I fully intended to ask them.
Well, at least at first.
Belldandy finished dialing with a little flick of the fingers that would have meant nothing for anyone else, but which for her understated style was practically a grand flourish. She straightened up from the half-bow she'd made over the phone, and suddenly she radiated a confidence and determination that she hadn't had a few moments before.
"Hello, Megaera, it's Belldandy," she said firmly. "May I speak to Father, please?"
Whatever Megaera said in reply (and don't think I didn't raise an eyebrow at Bell talking to another aspect of the Three like a separate person), it wasn't what Belldandy was expecting. Some of that confidence evaporated. "Meg-chan, it's important. Could you please... Oh, wait! Don't transfer..."
Her face fell. This wasn't looking good, and I wasn't the only one who felt that way — Urd and Skuld were exchanging worried glances.
Megumi had picked up on the change in the atmosphere and looked positively gleeful. First Chris and now Mara... Someone really needed to give that girl a good talking-to, and I decided I'd whisper a word or two of advice in Skuld's ear after the current mess was cleared up.
Meanwhile, Belldandy had gathered her dignity and confidence again, and was standing tall and straight once more as she spoke into the receiver. "This is Belldandy, goddess first class, unlimited license. I need to speak to Father immedi... oh, please!" She almost wilted.
Across the room, Chris growled, prompting Ami and Rachel to hold his hands tightly and lean into him. "Are they giving you a runaround, Bell?" he asked in low, dangerous tones.
The expression in her eyes was bleak. "They put me on hold! I never get put on hold!"
In any other circumstances it might have been funny, but not now, not with Mara's life trickling away entirely too quickly. Skuld suddenly jumped and stared at me, and I realized that like Chris, I too had just growled in anger and frustration.
Belldandy's attention swiveled back to the phone. "Yes! Yes, please, I... Yes, I understand." Her shoulders slumped and the energy seemed to drain out of her entirely. After a few more moments she spoke again, almost mechanically. "Father, this is Belldandy. Mara is dying and wants to Redeem. Please respond as soon as you can."
Slowly, she hung up the phone and turned back to us. "They... I..." she began, and gestured vaguely, helplessly with her hands. Keiichi was there in an instant, and put his arms around her shoulders.
"They handed you off to voice mail," I said, and it wasn't until I'd spoken that I realized the cold anger I felt that betrayed itself through my words. (Only much later would I even be able to think about the fundamental humor and weirdness of phone tag and voice mail in Heaven.)
"Yes," Belldandy whispered, and bit her lip — something I'd never seen her do before. "I don't understand. Requests for a Redemption always have priority. And Father always takes them personally. Something is very wrong here."
Chris emitted another wordless growl, and both of his girls wrapped their arms around him in an attempt to comfort and calm him. Absently, I noted how good it was to know I wasn't the only one feeling that way.
"So now what?" Megumi asked (a little too eagerly, if you ask me) from the corner where she'd been sitting — and grinning — quietly.
"Now," Belldandy replied softly, "we wait."
A moment later, an explosive crack of thunder set the room shaking as a brilliant flash of purplish-white light flooded the room through the window. When our sight cleared and our ears stopped ringing, the eight of us sat dumbly for a few moments trading stunned looks as the scent of ozone filled the room.
Then Belldandy gasped and rushed out.
A moment later everyone else leapt from their seats and followed. At the end of the hallway, the door out to the yard was just slamming shut.
I was the first to reach it, although Chris was bare centimeters behind me. I flung it open, then stood to one side as everyone else piled through it first. Rachel and Ami were the last two, and I followed them out, closing the door behind me.
As I did, I glanced up just to confirm I what I thought I remembered. Clear, starry night sky, with a few wisps of cloud lit by the city lights.
And we'd just had a lightning strike in the yard.
I figured that the odds that this was a natural event were right up there with the chance that Arcanum would become a Buddhist monk, shave his head, and take vows of nonviolence and poverty.
A moment later, when I joined the circle that had formed, I saw that my supposition had been right on the money. Instead of the blackened and slagged blob of fused soil that natural lightning would have left behind, the bolt — if it had been a lightning bolt at all — had instead seared crisp, clear characters from an alphabet I'd never seen before into the grass and earth. Wisps of smoke drifted up lazily from their edges and tickled my nose with its burnt-leaves odor.
I looked around at the shocked and, yes, even despairing faces of the goddesses and resisted my first urge, which was to clap my hand to my chest, make a sound like an arrow hitting a target, and announce "'Message for you, sir!'" in a British accent. If there had been any hint that it would have been appreciated, I'd've jumped on it in an instant. But I didn't have to even look at the goddesses' faces to know it would have been worse than tasteless, because the message was far, far too short to be anything but...
"'No'," Urd whispered.
"'No'?" Keiichi looked a little ill.
"That's all it says," Megumi said, staring at the charred characters. I wondered if she'd even realized yet that she'd just discovered another benefit of her service to Skuld — the ability to read whatever "native" language the gods used in this universe.
Belldandy stood straight but closed her eyes. "Father has declined to Redeem Mara." She tried to take a deep breath, but it turned into a little hiccup-sob sound. Then she opened her eyes and looked directly at me. "Father has never declined a Redemption before. Ever." Anger washed over me like a cascade of ice water.
Ami turned to Chris. "You know, your Boss is a real dick."
Chris growled again, but it was an agreement.
"Okay," I asked, doing my best to keep my voice calm and steady, but failing. It came out more like a snarl. "Now what? We just let her lay there and die, far away from home?" I couldn't believe that God or whoever had just refused. I could imagine how I would feel in the same situation, and it drove me to levels of anger that I hadn't felt in weeks. This was why I hated gods, this whimsical, arbitrary cruelty.
"At least she will be with family." In the face of my anger, Belldandy had regained some of her determination. The near-collapse she'd exhibited a moment before was completely gone.
"No," Skuld declared firmly, a strange look that was equal parts determined and sly on her face. "We have one last thing we can try."
"What?" Urd demanded.
"'One last thing'?" Belldandy asked, concern and maybe a little dread seeping into her eyes. "Little sister, what do you mean?"
Five minutes later, as many of us as could had squeezed into Skuld's room and around her computer. Seated right in front where they could best see the screen were Keiichi and Belldandy on Skuld's left, and Chris and Urd on her right. Ami, Rachel and I stood just behind them and hovered over their shoulders, which gave us almost as good a view of the monitor. Megumi hung to the rear and loitered in the doorway, apparently unwilling to either leave or join the group proper.
"Now, little sister," Belldandy asked sternly once we were all settled into our places, "Explain. What did you mean, 'We have one last thing we can try'?"
Skuld sighed and taptaptapped away at her keyboard. The screen blanked, and an intricate three-dimensional webwork of glowing lines quickly sketched itself in — a webwork I realized that I had seen once before, peering through Skuld's barely-open door late at night. "Okay. This is the Redemption program."
Chris's head snapped up. "What?"
Belldandy's eyes went wide. "Skuld! How did you get that? Only Father..."
Skuld shrugged. "A little poking here, a little poking there. I've been sitting on it for a while."
My brow furrowed of its own accord as I studied her. "If no one's ever had a Redemption turned down before, why do you have it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Well, duh. Because I wanted to see how it worked. And see if I could make it so that we could run it, just because." Her disdain collapsed into a despondency that filled her eyes with unshed tears. "I never thought we'd actually need it, it was j-just an in-intellectual ex-ex-exercise..."
As Chris's expression softened, Belldandy gathered Skuld up in a silent but evocative hug; I thought I heard a single muffled sob from within her embrace. Chris reached around and over Urd to clumsily stroke her long black hair.
Meanwhile, Urd had leaned in to study the monitor screen. "Mmmm," she grunted. "Damn, that's complicated." She glanced to her right. "Chris?"
Chris turned to her without stopping his part in comforting Skuld. "You're asking me? Me? Need I remind you of my wonderful tendency to blow things up when I attempt spellcraft?"
I snorted, getting me an annoyed glance as I bent down over their heads and studied the screen more closely. It didn't look like any source code I'd ever seen. In fact, it looked more like something that could have been drawn by a medieval scribe equipped with a Spirograph, a French curve, and a glow-in-the-dark pen. "So just what is this?" I asked. "It looks more like some bizarre 3-D Hermetic ritual circle than a program."
"It's the way we do things here," Urd replied in a throaty whisper. "Or rather, in this case, the way Father does things." She shook her head. "I'm not sure we can pull this off. Between the three of us," and here she gave Chris a pointed look, "we can either stabilize the program or power it, but not both."
I frowned. "I don't understand. What makes it so difficult?"
"Everything." Skuld's voice, muffled at first by Belldandy's sweater, emerged like a submarine from below the surface of the ocean. "The program essentially takes her apart, strips out the Infernal influences, and then puts her back together again. If anything goes wrong at any point..." She bit her lip.
"I can guess." I could more than guess: any number of nightmare scenarios — ranging from a simple painful death, to Mara coming back as a brain dead, mindwiped stranger — danced in my fertile imagination. I tried to push them away and put up a cheerful front for the three goddesses and their brother. "Well, we'll just have to make sure nothing goes wrong with the hardware, eh? Let me at it — there's no system I can't improve." I rubbed my hands together briskly as I tried to adopt an air of casual confidence.
Belldandy looked at me over Skuld's raven tresses and shook her head sadly. "That will not be possible."
I stopped rubbing my hands. "Why not?"
"Because the program would be running on us," Skuld whispered. "We're the hardware."
"We must sing its flow into existence within our divine natures, and control that flow with our voices and wills," Belldandy elaborated.
"And at the same time, we must do the same to draw on and regulate the energies we must employ," Urd added.
"Both tasks," Belldandy continued softly as her eyes flicked over to the screen and its tumbling image, "are of such magnitude that they each require our combined full attention and strength, without our limiters." Skuld began to sob in her arms again. "It is an impossible challenge, even for us."
"Not to mention that it'll get His Nibs royally pissed off at us," Chris concluded sourly.
"Oh, you know I do that all the time," said Urd breezily.
Skuld looked to glare at her sister in her time-honored way. "That's why you never made first class."
Well, if Skuld could still snipe at Urd, I supposed things weren't completely hopeless. I almost smiled at that.
"So what happens after you succeed?" I asked.
An expression of fierce determination displaced Belldandy's normal domestic cheerfulness. "Then I will immediately take her to the gates of Heaven, so that she may at least die within sight of the Eternal City. I can do no less."
Skuld stifled a sob.
"And if you don't?" I pressed.
If anything, Belldandy's determined look doubled in intensity. "The same, Doug. The same. It will merely take less time."
I frowned. "If it comes to that," I said seriously, "then you're going to take me, as well."
"Because I will have some words to say to the cruel bastard who'd do this to her, even if it means breaking down the doors of Heaven to deliver them."
There wasn't a vote or anything — just the quiet, automatic assumption on everyone's parts that the goddesses would be going ahead with an attempt to Redeem Mara all by themselves, regardless of the risks. (And while no one said anything aloud, I could decode enough of that Escher's nightmare of a spell diagram to realize that a failure would be disastrous not just for Mara, but for everyone else involved in the ritual.) We just segued into a discussion of the logistics of the attempt.
The first priority, it quickly evolved, was getting the temple wards back up since my new toy had brought them down on its way to my hand. This wasn't just to protect the temple and the folks in it — the wards acted as a filter against external spiritual influences that might disrupt the program regardless of the goddesses' level of control. So Urd left the planning session to take care of this and dragged Chris along with her to help, despite his protests about his lack of skill with magic.
To my surprise, Ami and Rachel dropped into the seats they had vacated. I turned to them and raised an eyebrow.
"What?" Rachel demanded. "We're a part of this family, too."
"Yeah!" Ami chimed in. "Besides, Chris is going to need to know what got covered while he was gone."
I shrugged. "I'm not objecting." And I wasn't. I was just amused by the speed with which they took over the open seats.
Still, I glanced over to Belldandy, who was beaming for the first time in several minutes. "Oh, of course you can sit in!" Well, had there been any real problem, that would have settled it.
I nodded to myself. They'd probably need interpretations and explanations for any of the more esoteric stuff, but I figured I could provide whatever they needed. It was one of my specialties, after all.
However, there was something else to take care of first, as I recalled the phrase "already-damaged Celestial structure", and a suspicion I hadn't known I'd had suddenly gelled in my mind. "Belldandy," I said softly, "what weren't you three telling us before about Mara's situation?"
Her eyes widened slightly in surprise, then she inclined her head to me slightly. "That is very perceptive of you, Doug. But I should have realized you'd notice."
I shrugged. "To be honest, it was more a guess than anything else. Based on things said and not said." I held my gaze steady on her. "What is it?"
She studied me for a moment, then said, "You are familiar with the true nature of the gods, with our overselves, I believe."
I nodded. "Kind of hard not to be, with my boss. The one back home, I mean."
"Of course." Belldandy closed her eyes and drew a breath. "Millennia ago, when Mara Fell, it... broke her in a way that has rarely been seen. Her overself was... fractured. Few Celestials have suffered such a thing. Fewer still have survived, let alone as long as Mara has."
Hearing that, I risked a quick glance over at Ami and Rachel. They were sharing a look of dawning comprehension.
"Think of it as a kind of like a split personality," Skuld added quietly. "To the tenth power."
Belldandy nodded in agreement. "Each of her faces in each universe operates all but independently of the others. Some are still Divine. Most of the rest are Infernal."
"And a few are trapped in mortal reincarnation cycles," Skuld added with a visible shudder. "She's been just barely holding onto mere existence all this time." Her voice was a bare whisper.
"Until now," Belldandy amended, looking at me. "The damage she suffered at your hands has upset the delicate balance by which she's survived for so long. The frayed and tattered structure of her greater soul is finally coming apart, permanently." She paused and sighed. "All that really means, though, is that she is finally dying. She, and all her counterparts throughout the multiverse."
I absently chewed on my lower lip again as I thought about that. Knowing what I knew at that point about Chris's condition, I could understand why they didn't want to have to explain Mara's full situation and thus open that whole can of worms around him. Chris wasn't exactly volatile, but he did have a bit of a temper, and the revelation about Mara's sister status still had him on edge. And he'd already had one storm-out-of-the-house blowup that day. I thought some more, extrapolating his likely actions, and came to the same conclusion the goddesses likely had: the repercussions of this new revelation, coming right on the heels of the last one, might have sent him storming out again, possibly permanently — not just angry, but feeling like he'd been betrayed and lied to for over a year.
Best to follow the goddesses' lead, then, and let it lay until there were a better time to address it. I gave Belldandy a look and a nod to indicate that I understood. Then I turned my attention back to the problem at hand, and took another look at the spell diagram. "Mm. Skuld? Bell? What's so difficult about regulating the power going to this?"
Belldandy answered right away. "It's mainly a question of coordinating and balancing the flows. Any one of us could provide all the power the process needs, but it would be... unbalanced, for lack of a better term. In order to control the execution of the program and its effect on Mara, the three of us need to be equidistant from both each other and the center of the ritual space — but the power flow needs to be balanced across that space as well. If the energy needed were to flow in from only one side, the Redemption would fail catastrophically."
I considered that, suppressing a wince at how her words echoed my earlier thoughts. Instead, I studied the image still tumbling slowly on the computer screen. "Then, if I'm reading this thing correctly, it was originally designed to make use of a single power source at the center of the ritual." I pointed at one of the "knots" where several lines of code intersected. "Right here, I'd wager."
Skuld nodded. "Exactly. That's the way it's supposed to work. When Father Redeems someone, He feeds His own power into the process at that point. The perimeter feeds are my hack to the program, to let us run it ourselves. But then the power has to be perfectly smooth and perfectly balanced. That's what's so hard."
Without taking them off the screen, I narrowed my eyes. "How perfect is 'perfect'?"
The grimace that had to have been on Skuld's face was audible in her voice. "All three feeds have to be within no more than a few thousandths of a percent of each other in both intensity and flow."
Ah. Yeah. Suddenly the problem came into a somewhat clearer focus.
With that in mind, I studied the program/spell diagram a bit more, grabbing and rotating it with the mouse to study it from several other (stationary) angles. I couldn't read the actual code itself, but I could see the paths along which the energy was supposed to flow. "So..." I mused aloud as I traced a particular line with a fingertip, "you said you need all three of you to control the execution, right?"
"Right," Skuld answered.
"That's why you didn't hack this to support two controllers and one power source, then."
"Yeah." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Skuld worry her lower lip with her teeth.
I considered our options. "Is there a reason you can't just hook it directly to an... um... environmental power source?" Like a certain weird mana fountain spewing out in the temple that I knew of.
Skuld narrowed her eyes and shook her head. "No, that would be bad."
I tilted my head and stared at both her and Belldandy. "Define 'bad'."
"Natural sources of power are too wild," Belldandy answered. "They are given to unpredictable surges and drops. The Redemption needs a smooth, constant flow or else it will fail."
"Catastrophically?" I asked, echoing her last mention of failure, along with my earlier evaluation of the spell's rather less-than-satisfactory ABEND handling.
"For Mara, at the very least," Belldandy answered soberly.
Right. "So you need to be acting like a power filter as well. Hmmm." I chewed my lip for a moment as I considered what I had just learned. "You know, if it'll accept a mortal hooking up to its input, and I find the right song to do it, I bet I could tap into that funky node in the temple and act as the central feed for this thing." It would be far more power than I could actually use, but I just needed to be a conduit, after all. I figured that I should be able to handle that, at least for the few minutes a song would last. After all, I did that kind of thing any time I linked a song effect directly to a node or ley line.
"That 'funky node'," Belldandy said cautiously, "is a Tether, a line of Divine power feeding directly into Heaven."
I made note of that little tidbit of information and grinned broadly. "Even better. Now the real question becomes, if I were able to tap it, could I channel enough power to your spell for long enough?"
Skuld's eyes went wide, and she squirmed her way out of Belldandy's arms. She dove into a pile of random electronic junk behind the computer desk, pawed through it for a moment, and pulled out a gizmo that looked like a half-baked cross between a Geiger counter and an old Panasonic cassette player. She hit a button on it and waved it over me.
It bleeped a few times, then made a chiming noise. She bent over the device, her long black hair screening it from sight as she studied something on its back, presumably a display or readout. Then Skuld raised her head, a look of dawning hope in her eyes. "It just might work," she breathed.
"Skuld?" Belldandy whispered, and Skuld handed her the gadget. Bell studied the display for a few moments before exclaiming, "Oh, my, yes!" She looked up at me with the same growing hope. "You would be pushing your limits, Doug, and it would be just barely enough at that, but you could conceivably provide us with the power we need."
"Well, then," I said, standing. "There's only one thing for me to do now."
"You know," Chris growled at Urd, "you could have just said all you wanted from me was to stand guard while you repaired the wall and reset the wards."
Urd smirked at him. "Where's the fun in that? Besides, tell me you didn't learn something."
Chris resisted the urge to snarl at her. "I learned that despite how much wards are different from spells, they're still magic and I shouldn't be allowed near them." He lifted his hand and studied its reddened fingertips as the pain of their minor burns vied for his attention.
His sister sniffed. "I told you not to touch that runestone until I had it properly set."
"And that's not all you learned, 'Niichan." Urd stopped and studied him intently for a moment. "Assuming you paid attention, of course."
Chris rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes, I paid attention. I can now erect a basic ward with six pebbles and a felt-tip marker, assuming I don't cause a small fissile explosion first." He frowned. "I still can't believe you don't need some special ink made from wyvern's blood or something."
Urd looked shocked. "Are you kidding? That stuff is expensive and it doesn't last more than a couple days. And a Sharpie is permanent in a way few mystic materials are." She shrugged. "Besides, as you should already know, outside of alchemy it's not always the ingredients, it's the intent that focuses magic."
"Speaking of intent," Chris decided to change the topic before he got yet another lecture on spellcraft, "is this ward going to hold up if Doug's toy decides to make with the hurting and the causing of the pain again?"
Urd nodded. "The old ward was set up only to defend against attacks from outside the temple. That staff punched through its weak underbelly, you might say, popping it like a pin through a balloon." She grinned confidently. "The one I just put up is two-faced. It'll hold up to attacks from both sides. About the only thing that we'd have to worry about now is a wardcracker."
Chris raised an eyebrow at her. "What's a wardcracker?"
She smirked. "Just what it sounds like. It's the magical equivalent of a siege engine — attach it to a ward and it will basically try to pound its way through, overstressing the protections and eventually bringing them down. But," she added with a casual, dismissive gesture, "they're hard to come by, and only used in major pitched battles. Nothing we have to worry about."
"Good." Chris turned and studied the perimeter wall as though he could see the wards. "I don't want to have to..." Movement across the yard caught his eye. "Wait a minute. Now what's he up to?"
Stalking from the house to the temple was Doug, his helmet slung over the crook of his arm by its chin strap. He radiated a deep determination that was almost palpable, even at that distance.
"Urd, go in and check on Mara for me," Chris said without taking his eyes off Doug. "I'm going to go see what disaster Mr. Music Man's causing now."
Tarikihonganji Temple, Friday, May 30, 1997, 8:17 PM
"Yo," Chris said as he stepped into the temple.
"Hey," Doug replied absently. To Chris' mild concern, he had already pulled on his helmet and was sitting down indian-style in the middle of the floor, well away from just about everything and with his back directly in line with the door.
Chris began to slowly circle the older man, studying him from all sides. "So what, precisely, are you doing?" he asked.
Doug lifted his head and turned it in Chris' general direction. It was impossible to see his eyes behind those black goggles, but Chris didn't have to see them to know the older man was looking at him. "I'm on a mission from goddess," he said in a fair approximation of a young Dan Aykroyd. Chris snorted, and Doug favored him with what appeared to be a grin underneath the helmet. "Have you heard the latest?"
Shaking his head, Chris kept pacing. "No. Urd and I had just finished with the wards before I spotted you and followed you in here."
"Ah." Doug turned back to whatever he had been doing. "'Kay, then, here's the Reader's Digest version. I've volunteered to play power strip to the girls' computer."
Chris stopped pacing. "Say what?"
Without turning his head, Doug gestured at empty air. "I'm going to try to tap that node-thing, that... 'tether', Belldandy called it, and I'll be feeding the power I get from it to the girls so they can use it to sanitize Mara's soul."
"The tether? Really?" Chris looked at the empty air in front of Doug. His sisters had spoken of it, though not often, and he had never felt the need to investigate it. Grimacing, Chris shifted his focus out of the mortal realm as Belldandy and Urd had painstakingly taught him months before.
The world blurred and spun, then snapped back into a clarity beyond human sight. No longer was he looking at a room fashioned of polished wood and dimly lit by candle flames; instead, Chris now perceived the deeper reality below the physical world, a domain of fields and forces, expressed in terms of their fundamental mathematics and rendered into lines and tubes of geometric precision. And even these were not fundaments, for each element was at once energy, program code and data, all bound together in a complicated superposition of states.
It always made his eyes ache to do this. Chris privately thought of it as similar to what it felt like to wear a pair of glasses whose prescription was just slightly wrong for him.
Ignoring the faint throb that was already beginning to build behind his eyes, Chris turned his focus onto the center of the room where, sure enough, there it was — a single but massive line of execution, fed by a myriad of tiny threads stretching out to the horizon in all directions. It wasn't regular or consistent — knots of code would swirl by, forcing the huge streamer of light to bulge where they passed. Their sizes and intervals were just random enough to tease him into looking for a pattern he was sure wasn't actually there.
Next to it was the much smaller but far more intricate weave of datastreams and energies that indicated a living being, aglow with the warm golden-orange light of the soul within. Doug, Chris thought unnecessarily, noting that even for a living creature, Doug's structure was extraordinarily complex and energetic, but shot through with wispy tendrils of a cloudlike darkness. Huh. Must have to do with his powers.
Above and in front of Doug's structure, not a part but loosely linked to it, though, was another construct, much smaller but nearly as dense. Must be the Mark of Favor the girls were talking about. It was a tangled mess of energy, mostly sharp angles and straight lines.
Intrigued, Chris slowly walked around Doug, tilting his head, closing first one eye and then the other, studying the Mark from all sides. From some angles, Chris thought it might look a little like a cubist's vision of some great raptor. From others, it seemed like an eye. From still others, it was just an extraordinarily complex spell diagram.
Chris narrowed his aching eyes as he examined the complicated knot of data; it took a moment, but the facility with languages he'd received upon becoming a god applied even here. The knot was a glyph: name, image and warning all wrapped in one compact, efficient package. And he was sure that wasn't all — the Celestial Mark seemed to pulse with barely-contained power, far more than seemed necessary for a simple tag on a favorite follower.
Not to mention that he had the strangest sensation that it was watching him.
Maybe Urd was right and it was some kind of channel...
Chris shook his head. Whoever the Stormsdaughter was, he hoped she didn't hold any grudges over his battle with Doug when he first arrived — but he suspected he was out of luck on that count, based on the impression the construct gave of her. And here I thought some of the Aesir were freakin' scary... He sent reassuring, friendly thoughts toward the Mark, just on general principles, and turned his attention back to the one who bore it.
As he studied Doug's complicated pattern, he was surprised to see a thin datastream stretch forth from the older man's central core, reaching out for the execution path of the tether. Almost immediately, a much thicker tendril of code from the tether mirrored it, stretching back toward Doug. The two met.
To Chris' vast surprise, nothing terrible happened. Energies began flowing along the link and into Doug's pattern, where they circulated and transformed. Some of the energies were channeled by a particularly densely-wound knot of code at Doug's core, then directed back out — a quick glance at the outbound execution path showed mostly coding for visible light.
An almost equal amount of the siphoned energies, though, simply circulated within Doug's structure. Some seemed to be absorbed into his structure, but the rest slowly diffused outward through its boundary datastreams into the space beyond. Huh.
"Well," Doug suddenly said, and the unexpected sound jolted Chris out of his altered perceptions and back into his normal ones. The unexpected transition felt almost like a rubber band snapping back, and Chris stood blinking rapidly for several seconds as he tried to get used to polished wood and candles again.
"Well," Doug repeated, then groaned as he flowed to his feet and stretched, the popping of his various joints echoing through the temple. "It worked. I can tap the node." He pulled off his helmet, rubbed his eyes and sighed. "And let me just say, oh, joy, I get to drink from the fire hose."
The room was finally beginning to look normal again to Chris. He blinked his eyes a few more times, then managed to focus on Doug. "What's that mean?"
"It means," Doug groaned as he stretched again, his helmet dangling from one hand, "that whatever the hell it is that this tether thing is actually carrying, as far as I'm concerned it's like mana on steroids." He shook his head. "It's going to take everything I've got to hold on to the flow."
"But you can handle it, right?" Chris pressed.
Doug smirked. "No worries there. Tough — but doable."
"Good," Chris said with a curt nod. "So now what?"
Doug shrugged and grimaced. "Now comes the grunt work. I have to find a song that will let me be a power conduit for the goddesses." He shook his head and lifted his helmet to don it once more. "This might take a while."
In fact, it took almost two hours, as best as Chris could determine. It also took nearly three dozen songs, seven light shows, two fireworks displays, a brief ankle-deep flood of faintly green fish-smelling seawater, one accidentally-summoned air elemental, and a rather substantial explosion that had startled Chris into manifesting his armor, sent Doug tumbling backwards into a wall, and left a short-lived soot on everything in sight.
"Right," the older man had muttered to himself while still laying on his back after that last. "No more trying to force a song to do the job."
Chris wasn't exactly sure why he stayed and watched as Doug quietly and determinedly worked his way through song after song. The two of them did not speak to each other, and unless an unexpected power threatened to get out of hand Doug did not even acknowledge Chris' presence in the temple after that initial exchange. Even so, though, the atmosphere was cordial, welcoming even, as though Doug appreciated the company. Or perhaps the backup.
Chris couldn't deny that there was something strangely fascinating in the meticulous, even rigorous way in which Doug had searched though what seemed like an enormous library of music. The crisp, precise manner in which he snapped out verbal instructions to the computer in his helmet was very much at odds with the relaxed, even sloppy, persona Doug presented most of the time. There was a focus and discipline in it that Chris, to his surprise, recognized from his months of training with the warrior gods of a dozen pantheons — for the first time since his arrival in the temple, Chris could look at Doug and really believe that he was a member of a paramilitary force as he had claimed, instead of just a super-powered nutjob.
It was a fierce determination, Chris realized, coupled with an unexpected sense of ... protectiveness for Mara. Both were radiating from the man in waves that he could almost feel physically. He had no doubt that if he were to switch back to his Celestial senses again that he would actually be able to see it as code and energy emitted from Doug's structure and soul.
For the first time, Chris felt that he could actually understand Doug. Understand... and empathize.
It was well past nine-thirty at night when Doug suddenly rose to his feet with one impossibly smooth and graceful movement. Chris didn't fail to notice that he had gone from sitting cross-legged on the floor to standing without either using his hands or having to bend over or kneel first — and without any signs of cramping or muscle pain. It was the little things like that which emphasized at times how different from a normal human — and some gods — Doug was.
Chris shoved the irrelevant thought aside as he pushed off the support pillar against which he had been leaning for the last fifteen minutes. "Well?" he asked as Doug began unfastening the chin strap of his helmet.
Doug pulled the helmet off completely. The bird's nest it had left his hair in was a strange and comfortingly humorous contrast to the satisfied but almost grim expression on his face. "I've got it."
Chris nodded. "Time to tell the girls, then."
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 30, 1997, 9:58 PM
We marched back to Skuld's room, where three goddesses and three mortal girls were still poring over the Redemption program.
Or maybe just two mortal girls. Megumi was still loitering in the doorway when Chris and I got back. Seeing that, I suspected that she had never actually stepped into the room even after I'd left earlier. I glanced at her as she moved aside to let us in, and I could see a scowl hidden deep in her eyes, where she thought maybe no one could see it.
It didn't take a genius to realize that no matter what happened in the next 24 hours, Megumi wasn't likely to forgive Mara any time soon for what the demoness had done to her.
Anyway, we stepped past her and stopped just inside the door. All five of them were clustered around the screen, still energetically discussing the redemption process. I had no idea what either of Chris's girls could have had to contribute to the planning session, but whatever it was, the goddesses were clearly listening to it and taking it seriously.
Good for them. All of them.
All that discussion ceased when they saw us. Belldandy turned an expectant, hopeful gaze upon me, one that was also filled with the fear that those hopes were about to be dashed.
I hesitated a moment, not from any intent to maintain the suspense, but from the almost visceral impact of that gaze. I had not been blind to the responsibility I'd taken on with my simple offer, but somehow that one look from Bell brought it into such sharp focus that I was intensely grateful that I would not be disappointing her. Before her face could fall because of my delay, I smiled. "I've got a song," I said softly.
Relief washed over them all. "Thank Father," Belldandy whispered, an odd sentiment given the circumstances, but probably more an automatic response than anything else. Urd was smiling, one knuckle still to her lips in a leftover expression of uncertainty that was oddly endearing. And Skuld started crying again, but this time they were tears of joy instead of despair; I'd seen them on the faces of innocents rescued by the Warriors far too many times to mistake them for anything else.
Ami and Rachel grinned at each other, then Rachel gave me a thumbs-up. I shot them a quick smile and a two-fingered, Boy Scout-style salute. Then I pushed Chris toward them. "Go, sit with your girls," I murmured such that only he could hear me.
Then I turned back to the goddesses. "The performers could be viewed as a Christian rock band. Is that likely to cause a problem? Is it going to step on Anyone's toes?"
"No," Belldandy replied immediately. "That should not be a problem at all."
I nodded. "Good. Then let's talk numbers. I can give you... hmm. Call it five minutes and ten seconds of full power. The song's actually about 15 seconds longer than that, but it gives us a little margin for error. Will that be enough?"
"It should be," Skuld said, wiping her face with the back of her hand and smiling.
"Good. Will you need it right from the beginning?"
Belldandy and Urd conferred with Skuld. Then Bell looked back at me. "No. Much of the first part of the ritual is... initialization. It is only when we get to the second stage that we will need the power."
I nodded. "Okay, then. You just give me the high sign about ten seconds before you actually need it. You'll have to do something visual, though, as I'll need to have my external microphones cut off to keep your song from interfering with mine. I'll be watching you — just give a wave or something."
She nodded back. "That will be workable."
Skuld, her face now dry and eyes sparking with renewed energy and determination, leapt in. "Now that we have everything we need, we can finalize the ritual layout and everyone's positions within it."
I chuckled at the sight of her restored spirit. "Choreography phase, huh? Okay, maestro, where do we stand?"
"Skuld is exaggerating," Belldandy said with a tolerant smile. "Our positions are already determined by the very structure of the program. The ritual space will be formed around a modified greater Seal of Solomon inscribed on the temple floor. We three will be occupying our own subcircles at three of the six points, forming an equilateral triangle."
"A standard thaumaturgical triangle overlaying the Seal?" I asked, trying to visualize how the physical layout would correspond and coordinate with the spell diagram — and how the magical influences would stack and reinforce. "The Seal to contain, the triangle to focus?"
Absently, I rubbed my chin and nodded. "Chris won't be taking part, then." Which of course made sense given what I'd learned of his lack of magical skill.
"Not if you want this to work," he growled, and the girls — all six of them — giggled for a moment. Chris frowned at the sound of it, which just spawned another round of girlish laughter.
When the giggles subsided, Bell continued. "Now because she is the subject of the spell, Mara will of course need to be at the exact center of the pattern. Where under normal circumstances Father would also be positioned." Belldandy looked up from the diagram and gave me a cryptic look.
"Well, yeah. That's pretty much expected." I didn't give her expression any thought. "And I'll need to be at or near the diagram's power input, where your Father would plug in. Although I don't have to be standing on the tether as long as I can see it with my magesight, that still means I'll have to be..." Then I caught on. "Hey, that puts me..."
"Yes," Belldandy replied. "In the same place as Mara." She smiled, one of those, "Oh, I have a big favor to ask, and I just know you won't mind" smiles that always mean trouble. "Mara needs to be positioned about a meter to a meter and a half above the plane of inscription when the ritual starts; I was hoping you might support her during the process?"
I blinked. "I'm going to have to be at ground zero." Three simultaneous nods. "For a spell that burns through its subject, sorts through her component energies and throws away the bits you don't want?" Three more nods. "And you want me to hold her during this?" Another simultaneous nod. "One question," I said in a calm, quiet tone of voice that belied exactly how I felt about this prospect.
"Yes?" Urd said.
"Just what is the ritual going to do to me?"
Skuld grabbed my hands in both of hers. "Nothing," she said. "We think."
"Skuld!" Belldandy scolded, then turned back to me. "Doug, we know it will do nothing to you. Mara's Celestial signature will be a fundamental parameter of the ritual, and it will be unable to shift its focus from her, even by accident." She stared directly into my eyes while taking my right hand from Skuld and holding it in hers. "By the oath I swore to you, Doug, the ritual will do you no harm."
"I was just covering all our bases," Skuld grumped, releasing my other hand.
"In that case," I said, ignoring her, "I would be honored."
To my complete and utter shock, Belldandy rose to her feet and hugged me.
"Thank you," she murmured in my ear as I went stock-still. Belldandy smelled faintly of chrysanthemums and brown sugar. The warmth of her breath playing across my skin and the lush softness of her corporeal vessel against my body suddenly reminded me of Maggie. I felt a fleeting surge of entirely inappropriate arousal that was both achingly sweet and wrenchingly painful at the same time — the latter all the more so because I realized at that moment that I hadn't thought of my wife in some days, not even to bid her photo good night.
"Um," I stammered as she released me and stepped back half a pace. "You're welcome?" It took all my willpower to stand there entirely still, neither fleeing from the weight of my guilt nor giving in to a sudden need to ... ahem ... readjust my clothing.
I believe I may also have blushed, but no one commented on it, not even Chris.
Dear gods, I miss my wife.
Seeking some way — any way — to change the subject and divert the attention focused on me, I took refuge in my usual operating persona. "So, are the stars right for this ritual?" I asked with badly-forced facetiousness.
"If they are not," Belldandy replied with a quiet but earnest determination, "I will make them so." She fingered her earring meaningfully.
The calm confidence in that one statement unnerved me even more than the hug had. Belldandy was not one for grandiloquent pronouncements, so the placid reminder of just how much power she could wield if she so chose threw into sharp relief just what I was getting into. It didn't escape my attention that Belldandy had sworn only that the ritual would do me no harm; there was still a very real possibility that none of us had even spoken of, that channeling the power that they needed might well still be far more dangerous.
I didn't want to think about what the ritual might do to me that wouldn't be considered "harm", either.
I couldn't let myself dwell on those possibilities, though, or I'd surely lose my nerve. Instead, I simply asked, "So, when do we do this? The earliest I can manage would be just after midnight; that's when my metagift's 'clock' resets and I can use the song again."
Belldandy shook her head. "No, I think not. We needn't rush quite that much."
"Right," Urd added. "Mara's got more than twenty hours before her deterioration goes critical, by our best estimates."
"That's enough to let everyone have a good night's sleep," Belldandy continued, nodding to her sister. "It's best if we attempt this well-rested." By which, presumably, she meant me, because I suspected that no matter how human their bodies seemed, they could probably go without sleep for far more than one night if they needed it.
"So, when, then?" I asked.
The three goddesses glanced from one another, then Belldandy turned back to me. "Ten in the morning should be sufficient." She beamed. "There's no need to skip breakfast, either."
Which I suppose is Belldandy in a nutshell. It may be a family emergency, with the impending death of a Celestial and defying the will of the Lord God Almighty thrown in for good measure, but no one's going to lose sleep or miss the most important meal of the day if she has anything to say about it.
Chris chuckled. "Looks like Skuld and I are blowing off our morning classes, though."
"This is way more important," the little goddess huffed.
He nodded. "No argument there."
On a branch outside the window of Skuld's room, hidden by the enshrouding cloak of night, a raven cocked its head first to one side, then to the other. Then it spread its wings and launched itself into the star-strewn sky.
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Friday, May 30, 1997, 10:16 PM
"I don't think so, Skuld."
Megumi hadn't been fast enough, and Skuld had ambushed her right at the front gate. That's what I get for lingering too long, the older girl thought with more than a touch of annoyance.
"Please, Megumi?" Skuld turned puppy-dog eyes on her, but Megumi's hardened resolve withstood the assault. "It's our first major working since you became my Servitor, and I'd really, really like you to be there."
Megumi let out a puff of breath and tried not to look as angry as she felt. "Why?" she asked in a carefully-regulated tone. "What's so important about me being there?"
Confused and puzzled, Skuld just looked up at her and scuffed the toe of one shoe against the polished flagstone. "Because! Someday you're going to have to help me with a ritual, and I want you to see what one looks like. And you're kinda like my representative, so it's something you ought to know a little about. And besides, it's a Redemption — that's something no mortal's ever had the chance to see before. I'd think you'd be thrilled!"
Megumi closed her eyes and counted to ten, then opened them again to stare at the little goddess. "If it were anyone else," she began with a cold calmness that she certainly did not feel, "I might be thrilled. But for Mara? No." She bowed her head and her eyes disappeared behind the fringe of her bangs. "Unless it's an order?"
"What?" Skuld's eyes were wide with surprise and perhaps a little fear.
"I told you how I feel about Mara, Skuld, not an hour and a half ago," Megumi whispered. "What she did to me... and the doubts I had about my own sanity afterward, when none of you would tell me the truth... I'm not going to get over it just because she's your sister, and she's dying. It may mean that I'm petty, too petty to be your Servitor, but I can't forgive her." She lifted her head again and studied the girl for a moment. "Unless you're going to do that order thing and force me."
Skuld paled. "No! I told you I wasn't going to do that to you!" She wrapped her arms around herself; Megumi thought for a moment that she was actually shaking. "I'm not going to steal your free will like that, Megumi. I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to."
Megumi nodded once, sharply. "Then I guess it's good night, Skuld." She yanked the gate open, but paused just as she was about to cross the threshold. "I'll see you..." She glanced back over her shoulder. "Actually, I'm not sure when I'll see you next. Soon, I hope."
She stepped out and shut the gate behind her. It wasn't quite a slam.
Skuld stared at the gate, and bit her lip.
Hidden in the shadow of the temple bell's sheltering roof, Belldandy and Keiichi watched as Megumi and Skuld spoke briefly at the gate. Keiichi stood behind Belldandy with his arms wrapped around her waist and his chin — barely — resting on her shoulder; her hands were clasped over his, and she had inclined her head slightly so that her temple rested against Keiichi's cheek.
They were too far away to hear the discussion, nor would they have made the effort to eavesdrop if they could, but even at this distance they could see the vehemence and anger in Megumi's expression. As Megumi marched through the gate, Belldandy made a wordless sound of concern, and Keiichi gave her the faintest gentle squeeze in equally wordless reassurance.
The two watched in silence as Skuld slowly made her way back to the house. When the door had shut behind her, Belldandy turned in Keiichi's arms to face him and he relaxed his embrace to let her; before she could speak, though, he leaned forward and kissed her.
Drawing back, he looked deep into her eyes, which were filled with fear and worry.
"I know what you're going to say," he said softly. "No."
"But..." she began.
Keiichi shook his head. "I'm not going to leave. I don't care how dangerous this might get." He reached down and took her hand in his; raising it to his lips, he kissed her knuckles and then squeezed it gently. "Together, forever, remember? That doesn't just mean you staying with me. It means me staying with you, too." He kissed her hand again. "No matter what."
A tremulous smile slowly materialized on her lips as her eyes began to shine. "Oh, Keiichi."
"Whither thou goest," he whispered, "there go I."
"I mean, I don't remember all that much after so many rebirth cycles," Skuld said softly, "but I do remember that you gave really good advice before... before..." She trailed off uncomfortably.
"Before I Fell," Mara finished, her voice barely above a whisper but rich and dark with bitterness and anger. Her eyes were closed.
"Yeah." Skuld ran a finger along the edge of the chair in which she sat, letting her long black hair drape down around her face to keep her from looking at her long-lost elder sister on the bed next to her. Mara lay still, almost unnaturally so, and with her eyes closed she resembled nothing so much as a corpse laid out for viewing; only when she spoke did the illusion break. The rest of the time Skuld couldn't bring herself to even glance at her; the present was too painfully close to any of a dozen or more potential futures that hovered at the edges of her inner vision.
"You don't want advice from me, Skuld." Mara's voice held just the faintest hint of a snarl. "Not now. I don't have the right perspective for what you want to hear."
"I don't care!" Skuld viciously yanked her attention away from the potential futures surrounding them and dragged it back to the present. "I took a servitor," she blurted a moment later.
Mara's eyes narrowed. "The Morisato girl," she growled.
Skuld nodded without lifting her head, and watched her hair ripple with the movement. "Yeah."
"I could feel your Mark on her when she was in here before," Mara rasped, irritation audible in every syllable. "She's a good choice. Smart, creative. For a mortal, at least." The demon's breath whistled in a ghost of laughter, but it had a sharp, brittle undertone that set Skuld's teeth on edge. "Impudent, too, the little bitch. She'll keep you on your toes, that's for sure. If I didn't want to kill her for that tanuki stunt, I probably could come to like her."
"Well, you did do some pretty nasty things to her," Skuld growled.
Mara turned her head to look at the girl. "Well, duh. What part of 'demon' did you not get, kid? It's not my job to hand out lollipops and kittens, you know."
Skuld lifted her head and met Mara's eyes. Above and between them, her demon marks seethed and glowed like iron fresh from a forge, the only color in a deathly pale face. "You did your job well, then, Neesan. She hates you. She hates you so much I can hear it in her Symphony. I don't want her to hate you. I'm afraid it's going to do something to her, twist her or..." She dropped her head and hid behind her hair once more. "But I don't know how to make her not hate you without forcing it on her. And I promised her I wouldn't take away any more of her free will."
"Well, you're in luck, then, kid," Mara spat. "The problem's gonna solve itself soon enough. Don't worry about it."
Skuld's head snapped back up. "What do you mean the... Oh! Oh, Marl- Mara!" Her eyes glistened.
Mara bared her teeth in an expression that only slightly resembled a smile. "She won't cry when I die, kid. And when I'm gone, she'll've gotten what she wants — some peace, knowing I'm not going to screw with her ever again. The hate will fade away eventually and you'll've gotten what you want. Then she'll be happy, and you'll be happy, and every-fucking-one will be happy."
Tears welled up in Skuld's eyes and ran down her cheeks as she leapt to her feet. "Oh, Neesan! I don't want to be happy because you're dead!" she wailed, then turned and fled the room.
Mara watched her go. Abruptly, her demon marks faded, and the fury drained from her eyes. "Better that than having you mourn for me, kiddo," she whispered to herself.
Chris wasn't sure what Rachel and Ami might have contributed to the planning session while he and Urd had been dealing with the wards, but whatever it had been, it'd led to an obvious deepening of the relationship between them and his sisters.
Case in point: When it came time for the pair to leave, Chris had expected that, as was usual, they would simply say their goodbyes, and then he would walk with them to the gate. To his mild surprise, though, Urd rose from her inelegant sprawl to accompany them to the front door — where to his far greater surprise she hugged Rachel and Ami in turn for the first time ever, at least that he could recall. And not a quick, perfunctory hug, either, he noticed with some small astonishment, but a long, heartfelt embrace that was returned in kind by each of his girlfriends.
The scene was repeated on the doorstep when Keiichi and Belldandy emerged from the shadows of the yard to stand in the wedge of warm yellow light shining out through the doorway. "Oh, you're leaving," Bell said. "I hadn't realized it was quite so late."
"'Fraid so," Ami said with a small smile.
Rachel smirked. "We've got a busy day tomorrow. We need our beauty sleep."
Belldandy's laughter echoed musically around them. "Of course. Get home safely and have a good night, then." And with that she, too, embraced first Ami and then Rachel, just as warmly and unselfconsciously as Urd had, while Keiichi stood to the side and smiled approvingly at them all.
Chris blinked when he overheard her murmur "Thank you again!" in each girl's ear.
Releasing Rachel, Belldandy stepped back. With a smile that bore the faintest touch of an uncharacteristic melancholy, she said, "I believe that Skuld's sitting with Mara right now, otherwise I'm sure she'd be out here to say goodnight as well."
Ami shook her head and waved her hand dismissively. "That's okay."
Rachel shared a glance with her and added, "We understand, really."
"She'll be unhappy that she missed you, though," Belldandy added.
The two girls traded grins, then Ami said, "We'll be seeing her tomorrow, so no harm, no foul."
"Right!" Rachel added as Chris narrowed his eyes.
He cleared his throat before anyone said anything more. "Well," he began.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Skuld came barreling out of the house and slammed into Rachel, wrapping her arms around the taller girl as she skidded to a halt. "Good! I didn't miss you!"
Rachel chuckled, and Ami reached over to ruffle the little goddess' hair. "Almost, though," Ami said with a touch of laughter in her voice.
Skuld squeezed Rachel quickly, then did the same with Ami. "Good night, and thanks!"
At the moment Chris realized that Skuld's face bore the tracks of fresh tears, Rachel leaned down and wiped them away with a thumb. "You okay?"
Skuld put on a smile and nodded, then scrubbed at her face with the back of one hand. "Yeah. Just worried about Mara, that's all."
Rachel leaned back in and, to Chris' additional surprise, she kissed Skuld's cheek. "It's all going to work out. Trust us."
"Right." Ami stepped closer and ruffled Skuld's hair once more. "Have some confidence in yourself and your sisters, imouto-chan."
Chris gaped at the unexpected term of affection as Skuld suddenly burst into tears again and, with a wordless cry, wrapped her arms tightly around both of his girlfriends. They in turn wrapped theirs around her, dropping to their knees as one to put themselves closer to her level. Although Urd was smiling broadly and Belldandy was beaming at the group hug — and even Keiichi was nodding approvingly — Chris found himself feeling uncomfortable, as though he were intruding on an intensely private moment.
When the fnord did they all get so close? he wondered as he turned away slightly to give them the privacy that they didn't seem to think they needed. They've been friendly with each other before, sure, but this is a whole new level. Did this all happen just tonight, or did I somehow miss seeing it building up? He resisted the urge to look around for Rod Serling about to deliver a "Twilight Zone" monologue.
As Skuld's tears and the hug continued, Chris turned it over and over in his mind. He knew that he ought to think it was a good thing without reservation, but some dark, paranoid corner of his consciousness persisted in suspicions and misgivings.
Finally, after overhearing another murmured "thanks", Chris turned back in time to see Skuld releasing Rachel and Ami, the wide smile on her face a stark contrast to the newer tear stains there. Rachel gently cupped her cheek for a moment, then she and Ami looked up at him expectantly.
"Right," he managed to get out, then coughed and cleared his throat. "Right. Let me walk you two to the gate."
As they stood and took up positions on either side of him and slipped their arms through his, his sisters vanished back inside and closed the door, leaving the three of them to the night and the starlight. Overhead, the moon was a thin crescent, well on its way to the new moon and shedding only a bare fraction of the light it would at fullness. It took a couple minutes for their eyes to adjust, during which time the girls surprised him again by leaning their heads on his shoulders in an unspoken synchrony.
"So," he said, clearing his throat again. "Weird day."
They both giggled softly. "Yeah, you could say that," Ami offered.
There was a couple seconds' silence, and then he said, "I hope it doesn't have to become a bad day."
The three stopped at the gate. Ami turned and laid a hand on his chest. "It'll all be okay, Chris. Your sisters say so, and we trust them."
"Damned straight," Rachel murmured from where her head still lay on his shoulder.
Then there came a long moment of companionable silence, during which Ami resumed her position mirroring Rachel. Chris closed his eyes and savored the moment — no sound but the faint traces of distant traffic and the light breeze rustling the trees above, the warmth of Rachel and Ami's bodies enveloping his, the unexpected feeling of... contentment. This — this was what he'd been wanting. And this was something he didn't want to risk. He wracked his brain for the right way to tell them.
"You two seem to have made quite the impression on my sisters tonight," he murmured absently while he tried to find the right words for what he really wanted to say. "What did you say to them while I was out?"
He felt rather than saw Ami smile. "Oh, you know, things."
"Right." Rachel gave his upper arm a squeeze. "Just girl talk, Chris."
Unseen by the girls, he rolled his eyes. "I'm not going to get a straight answer if I press you two, am I?"
The only response was another matched pair of giggles.
Without thinking about it, he slid his arms around their backs and squeezed them tightly. On impulse he pulled both girls around and in close, turning their loose line into a tight double hug that Rachel and Ami immediately returned without complaint. Chris looked down at the tops of their heads, right below his chin where both had pressed their faces to his chest. After a moment's hesitation, he planted quick, almost furtive kisses on first Rachel's head, and then Ami's. The only response he got was a pair of pleased sighs and a moment of snuggling that tightened their collective grip on him.
The feeling of contentment only intensified; he basked in it, knowing how brief it was sure to be. Is it wrong to want both of them? one traitorous corner of his mind asked, not for the first time. Of course it is! another corner immediately responded as a mental picture formed of himself clad in a blue hakama, wielding a bokken and self-importantly reciting poetry. Disgusted at the image, he shoved the moment of selfish desire aside and forced himself back to the far more important matter at hand.
He gave the two girls another gentle squeeze, then began, "Ami, Rachel..."
"No, Chris," Rachel calmly and quietly said into his chest, "we're not going to stay home tomorrow."
"Or anywhere else away from the temple, for that matter," Ami added, just as calmly.
Chris, in his opinion, had had a less than optimal evening. A dual date that had already been stressful because of the uncharacteristic cooperation between his girlfriends, ruined by his Full Manifestation shouldering its way into control of his body. Said Manifestation hurtling back to the temple at something near supersonic speeds to find Doug about to kill Mara. Discovering Mara was his sister. Discovering that she was doomed anyway, and that Heaven — read, the Boss — wouldn't help even to grant her last dying wish. And that his other sisters were going to defy the Boss to perform a ritual that, regardless of their reassurances otherwise, he had more than a sneaking suspicion was, if not profoundly dangerous, at least far more dangerous than anyone was willing to tell him. And they were going to be relying on Doug for a critical part of it.
Too much had been completely out of his control over the past few hours.
No more. If there was one thing he still had control over, it was this.
It had better be this.
"The HELL you aren't!" he bellowed as his temper boiled over for the third and worst time that day. "I want you two far away from here in case anything goes wrong!"
As if they had teleported, the girls were suddenly out of his arms. They exchanged a glance and as one narrowed their eyes, and in that moment, Chris's burning rage guttered and flickered. They were supposed to be intimidated, and agree immediately, if not willingly, with his demands. This wasn't going according to the script.
The rage flared back up. He'd make it go according to the script. He took a deep breath in preparation for another bellow.
"That's as may be, Mister." Rachel scowled at him while poking him in the chest with her fingertip hard enough to make him exhale unexpectedly. "But it's not your choice to make."
"What?" Chris began, then tried to regain his momentum. "Now wait just a second..."
"No." Ami joined Rachel in poking him. "Let us explain something to you, Mister. When we, the two of us, got caught up in this whole wish mess, we didn't just get involved with you. We got involved with your sisters, and the Morisatos, and yeah, with Mara as well."
"Right!" Rachel said with a curt nod, her expression stern, verging on furious. She caught his eyes with hers, and Chris was paralyzed by the depth of seriousness he saw in them. "In case you haven't noticed, buster, we're all family here!"
"Maybe not formally," Ami allowed as Chris snapped his attention back to her. "Not yet, at least. But one of us will be, sooner or later."
"Regardless," Rachel jumped in before Chris could interject anything, "both of us think of your sisters as family already — and vice versa!"
"And win or lose, neither of us is going to walk away from that," Ami declared firmly.
"Damned straight," Rachel repeated.
Chris blinked. This was not going the way he had expected it would. "But..."
"Family stands by family," Rachel growled. "So we'll be here, even if it's only to offer moral support."
The two of them stood shoulder-to-shoulder and crossed their arms across their chests — the predictable result of which distracted Chris so much that what little anger he had managed to hold on to all but evaporated. As he tried to gather his thoughts, not to mention return his eyes to their faces, the two of them scowled a challenge at him. Just try to make us stay away, their expressions said. You won't like the results.
Chris opened his mouth, tried to think of an response, and then closed it again as a sudden cascade of possibilities and probabilities played out in his mind's eye. There was nothing he could say to object or dissuade them, he realized, that would not get him in trouble in one way or another. And they'd still show up anyway, no doubt about it.
"I'm not going to be able to talk you out of this, am I?" he asked, more rhetorically than anything.
If anything, Rachel's scowl grew deeper. "Not a chance in hell, Chris."
"You can rant and rave and do all the macho posturing you want," Ami added, "but it won't make a damned bit of difference."
"Um," Chris temporized.
Ami hmphed, causing another distracting ripple through her superstructure. "Besides, we heard the whole story from your sisters. You're going to need mortal witnesses."
He frowned. "Did one of them tell you that?"
She shook her head. "No. We decided it ourselves. Your boss is trying to sweep this under the rug for some reason. We won't let him."
That gave Chris pause. The Boss was acting squirrelly about this one. He didn't need to see Belldandy's distress to realize that. He considered the matter for several moments.
"Okay," he finally said. "I'm not going to tell you to stay away. I won't say I'll be happy if you're here. I really would rather you two be somewhere far away from ground zero — like the other side of the planet, maybe — but I'm not going to try and argue you into it."
Ami stepped forward and cupped his cheek with her hand. "It's very sweet of you to be worried about us, Chris, but we're big girls. Thank you for respecting our right to decide things like this for ourselves." She raised herself up on tiptoes and kissed him briefly. "We'll see you in the morning."
"Right," Rachel said as Ami stepped back, then took her own turn at kissing him. "Good night, Chris."
"Good night, ladies," he murmured through a faint smile, and they stepped through the gate. Catching it in one hand, he watched as they walked away, keeping an eye on them until they turned a corner and disappeared. His smile vanished as well. Taking a deep breath, he gently closed the gate and lowered the latch slowly so that it didn't clatter.
I wonder how fast I can get a good, solid lock on this thing, Chris thought to himself grimly. Or maybe I can get Urd to spell it shut so they can't open it. He turned back toward the house. Hmmm. I wonder if Skuld could hack the school and police computers to send them off on some wild goose chases tomorrow morning... He allowed himself a narrow grin — he didn't have to argue them into staying away if he could arrange it that they couldn't be here in the first place.
Akihabara, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 12:17 AM
"Just a moment, girls, just a moment," Takano Watanabe chuckled as he wormed his hand around the young lady clinging to his right shoulder. He paused to pinch her ass through the thin silken skirt that barely covered it, eliciting a startled squeak followed by a drunken titter, before continuing on to his jacket pocket, in which he fished for — and eventually found — his keys.
"'Scuse me, ladies." He flashed his most charming smile to his left and right as he extricated himself from their grips to a pair of matched pouts. "Gotta open the door after all, right? Be a shame to come all this way and not actually go inside." As he slid the key into the lock he looked over his shoulder at his two companions and added with a waggle of his eyebrows and a naughty grin, "Besides, we might scandalize my poor neighbors."
The two girls — for the life of him, Takano couldn't remember their names now (not that it mattered, really) — giggled in chorus. It was a pleasant sound, and he took a moment as he swung open the door to his apartment to imagine what other, equally pleasant, sounds they might also make in chorus. As he guided the two giggling, drunk women into his apartment, his grin broadened into a full, slightly evil smile. Takano loved his job, he really did. An incubus assigned to the mortal world? A Hellborn's life couldn't get any better than that.
It could get worse, though, he reflected when his phone began ringing almost as though it had been waiting for him to come home. "Bedroom's over there, ladies," he gestured with a waggle of his brows so over-the-top that it spawned another round of giggles. "I'll meet you there in just a minute," he added as he reached for the receiver, which gave another insistent ring.
As the girls sashayed down the hall arm-in-arm, their hips swinging in time with each other, Takano grinned a private little grin of anticipation, then snagged the handset off the insistently-ringing phone. "Watanabe here, and it better be worth it," he snapped, peevish at the interruption of his combined work and pleasure.
"Zerethuel," said a deep, gravelly voice, and Takano stiffened while at the same time giving an inner groan. Only one of his superiors in the Infernal power structure would address him by his true name in a phone call. And that voice belonged to Razielaingor, a superior considerably up the line from him. This didn't bode well.
"Yes, sir," he replied as deferentially as he could.
"Drop everything you're doing and report to the regional ops office in Nakano. We have a major defection in progress and we're assembling a little delegation to express our displeasure with it. You're part of it as of right now."
Shit! "Gotcha. I'll be there in half an hour — I have a couple guests that I need to dispose of."
"Hurry it up," Razielaingor growled. "And don't blow us off for one of your bimbos again. You do, and I'll yank your assignment to the mortal world so fast your head will spin — and that's before I snap your fucking neck for thinking only with your dick. This is a priority one redeployment, got that?"
"Um..." Takano glanced longingly down the hall to his master bedroom. "Understood."
"Good." There was a violent click as Razielaingor hung up.
Takano stood stock still for a moment as his mind raced. A major defection? That could only mean a first class unlimited was running to the Other Side... And that meant that this "delegation" was a war party, because a defector of that level was always protected by a fucking legion of angels until the process was done and they could bugger off to Heaven. Razielaingor was probably calling in every demon in the Kanto Plain, and then some.
Takano groaned. He really hated going up against angels. He was a lover, not a fighter; no matter how you cut it, he was screwed — and not in the way he liked. So much for this Vessel... And just when things were going so good, too.
"Um, ladies..." he called out apologetically as he turned and headed for the master bedroom, "something's come up. Looks like I'm going to have to take a rain check..."
Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 4:27 AM
Despite Belldandy's best intentions, I did not get a good, restful eight hours of sleep. Instead, I got about an hour of lying wide-awake in the dark, four hours of troubled dozing, and another hour or so of tossing and turning on my futon, futilely trying to get back to sleep after being jolted awake by a rather unpleasant dream.
Finally I just gave up on getting any further rest. I plodded down the hall to the bathroom, freshened up a bit, then came back to my bedroom and dressed. That done, I stole silently outside and swung myself up onto the roof as quietly as I could manage. I sat myself down facing the east and waited for dawn. At that time of year, sunrise in the vicinity of Tokyo takes place just about 4:30 in the morning, so I didn't have long to wait.
I took the time to lean back, close my eyes, and bask in those first warming rays of light. For a lot of reasons both symbolic and literal, daybreak is a very important time magically and metaphysically, and I'm certainly not one to turn down anything that might give me an edge, especially with something so critical as Mara's Redemption less than six hours later. As I basked, I spent the next ninety minutes or so thinking about the coming ritual and my part in it.
Don't misunderstand — I wasn't having second thoughts. Far from it — I was debugging the Redemption in my head, trying to eliminate all possible complications, problems and pitfalls from my part of the process, to make my contribution as perfect as possible. It might seem to the casual outside observer that I had relatively little to do — not much more than show up and stand in the right place — but that would be a deceptive oversimplification. I would be playing just as active a part in the process as any of the goddesses were, and more could go wrong on my end than simply not having enough power, or not enough power for long enough.
So I spent the next hour and a half building a fault tree in my head for my part in the ritual. I ruthlessly identified all the possible things that could go wrong and tracked them back to potential causes, then revised my mental plans for the ritual to eliminate — or account for — those causes.
By the time I heard Belldandy rise and begin her day, I had pared down the list of faults to a handful of things I could do nothing about, and one last thing that I could — with help.
I hopped down off the roof and went looking for Bell.
Tarikihonganji Temple, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 8:47 AM
"Okay, Bell, c'mon, what's this all about?" Chris demanded as they filed into the cool dryness of the temple after breakfast. Whatever it was, Belldandy had not taken the time to wash the dishes first before leading them in here, and in his experience any break that Belldandy made from her familiar routine was something to worry about.
"And what's he doing here?" Chris added after his eyes had adapted to the dim candlelight, and he realized that Doug was kneeling at the far end of the temple, facing the door. Belldandy shushed him and he winced; that had come out a bit more sharply than he'd intended.
"Thank you for coming, all of you," Doug said in a firm but calm voice, loud enough to carry through the entire temple. "Before we can start the ritual later this morning, there's something I need to do, if only to calm my mind before we start." One corner of his mouth twitched almost into a half-smile, as though he were amused at the thought. "I've always been something of an anti-theist," he continued. "But as Chris already knows, I'm that rarest of beasts, the Roman Catholic Jew."
This time he did smile, and it was a smirking, self-deprecating one. "So believe me when I tell you, I know from guilt." The smirk disappeared. "Now, while I'd like to think that I'm a good person, I know for a fact that I'm not necessarily a nice one."
"Oh, Doug," Belldandy interjected, "I've told you that's not so."
He held up a hand. "No, no, hear me out, okay? You haven't seen me in a real battle, or doing something distasteful because it's my duty. I try my best to be ethical, but I can't always afford to be moral." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "The important thing is, I'm thinking I need to address that before I get involved in something as inherently... well, holy, as a Redemption. Therefore, I believe it's absolutely necessary that I do this."
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then very clearly enunciated, "Bless me, Lord and Ladies, for I have sinned. It has been over thirty years since my last confession."
"Now, wait just a freaking minute!" Chris bellowed even as Skuld and Urd voiced their own objections. It took him a moment to realize that Belldandy was not objecting. "Bell?" he asked, turning to her. Next to him, Urd and Skuld fell silent and looked to her.
Belldandy studied Chris's face for a moment. "Doug came to me before breakfast to ask for this. While I do not believe that it is at all necessary, Doug does, and it will do us no harm — and him some good — if we hear him out."
"I'm not a freakin' priest, Bell," Chris growled.
"No, you're a god," Doug said from where he still knelt, unmoving. "You outrank a priest by a fair amount, you know."
"I'm not Catholic either, you!" the younger man shot back.
Doug laughed. "Neither am I any more, technically. I'm just using a familiar form." His mirth vanished, and for a moment it seemed like the shadows around him thickened a bit. "When we do this thing in a little more than an hour, I do not want to risk anything going wrong on my side. And for my peace of mind, that includes getting myself into as close to something like a state of grace as I can get." He chuckled again, but darkly. "You can take the boy out of the Roman Catholic Church, but you can't always take the Roman Catholic Church out of the boy..."
Chris looked to either side of himself. Urd's face held a thoughtful, speculative look; and Skuld, though frowning, was nodding apparently in agreement. Turning back to Belldandy he hissed, "You can't be serious."
His sister inclined her head and blinked at him. "Of course I am." She stared at him, a tiny wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. "If you do not wish to take part, you don't have to. You can walk out the door right now. But I have agreed to do this."
"I'm in," Urd murmured, a thoughtful expression on her face. "It feels right."
Skuld nodded. "Yeah, me, too." She looked up at Chris. "'Niichan?"
He looked at his sisters and shook his head. Somehow, it seemed almost... blasphemous for him to take part in this. At the same time, though, he realized that this was the most godlike thing anyone had ever asked of him, even counting the one wish he'd granted. It was, he discovered as he thought about it, a bit intimidating — and maybe even frightening, more so even than his first visit to Heaven and the Boss's office. He wondered why that was for a moment, before it dawned on him.
In all of the real "god stuff" in his life so far, he had been totally passive — it all had happened, or been done, to him. Even with Ami's wish (for all that granting it had changed and transformed him) he had still been little more than a vessel, at best a glorified delivery boy. All through everything he could tell himself, "I'm still Christopher Angel, I'm still an ordinary guy from 'Toon Town, Canada."
But Doug's simple request — "let me tell you all the bad things I've done" — carried with it the implicit subtext, "because you're a god, and I need you to forgive me in a way that is real and effective on a metaphysical level — I need you to wipe the register of my evil deeds clean." It demanded that Chris be a god in a way he hadn't ever tried to be one before: something, someone more than a guy who had acquired some beautiful sisters and who hung out with Thor and who got to fly. It meant suddenly taking a very real responsibility for the state of Doug's soul, however temporarily. Whatever that meant.
It meant, for the first time, actually believing he really was a god, instead of just some dork with superpowers and oddball friends. And doing something with it.
If only he knew what.
The whirlwind of thought that had raced through his mind must have been visible on his face, for Belldandy's faint expression of annoyance had vanished entirely, wiped away by concern and compassion. "Chris?"
"Bell," he whispered. "How do I... what do I do? I don't have a clue here."
Belldandy's eyes widened slightly, and her mouth formed an "O" of surprise. Then she nodded as if to herself, raised a hand and with infinite gentleness cupped his cheek. "Watch and learn, Oniisan." She turned from him back to Doug, who still knelt patiently at the back of the temple.
Urd tapped Chris on the shoulder. "Celestial sight, 'Niichan," she grinned, tapping the side of her face next to her right eye with a forefinger. "Don't worry if you don't understand right away. Just... go with the flow, okay?"
He shook his head. "Whatever you say."
"You'll do fine, 'Niichan," Skuld added, quickly hugging him around the waist before joining her sisters in facing Doug.
"Whenever you're ready, Doug," Chris heard Belldandy say as he concentrated on activating his Celestial senses for the second time in a day.
Somewhere in the background, as the physical world gave way to its counterpart of energies and code, Chris heard Doug reply softly, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight."
"Amen," murmured his sisters in unison, and Chris echoed them, half a beat behind.
"Bless me, Lord and Ladies, for I have sinned," Doug began again, and this time Chris paid attention on the celestial level as the older man seemed to settle into an almost trancelike calm. "It has been over thirty years since my last confession."
Not since his teens... Chris thought as Doug quietly launched into a careful and inexorable litany of sins.
"By my best estimate," he began quietly, "I have killed or contributed to the deaths of no less than seven hundred sentient beings, human and otherwise. All but one were in the course of executing my duty as I saw it at the time. The one who wasn't was also my first kill. That happened in London when I was 24, and it was an accident in a street fight caused by my carelessness..."
As Doug launched into a catalog of death that stunned him with both its breadth and detail, Chris's first reaction was an almost palpable revulsion. This is the guy I was starting to think of as almost a friend? He's a freaking psychopath! I can't believe that I've been leaving Skuld alone with him!
"...I disintegrated the space suits from around a pair of hostile aliens while they were in hard vacuum..."
But even as he thought that, he felt... the only way he could describe it was that an almost-visible mantle of divinity had settled over his sisters. They had somehow become... more. Studying the changes in their auras he realized, in a way that he knew he would never be able to verbalize, just what they had done. And he did the same.
"...By rotting the bindings on the ballista I caused it to explode violently, killing most of its crew — which was my intention..."
The world of fields and forces, code and energy, seemed to twist and warp, and then accelerate past him as his Celestial senses dove through them and into an entirely new level of reality. Chris reeled; the last thing he had expected was another shift in his perceptions. How much more is there to being a god that I haven't even had a clue about? He felt a momentary flash of anger at his sisters, then chastised himself. No one had ever told him being a god was a simple and uncomplicated thing, and during his training some of the Aesir — Thor, a couple others he thought of as stand-up types — had gone out of their way to tell him the exact opposite. And there had never been a point when his sisters had said "That's it, there's no more." He really didn't have a reason to complain.
But dammit, it would have been nice to have a syllabus, or a schedule of expected milestones, or something to give him an idea what to expect and when!
"...not realizing that they were enslaved sentient beings, I murdered at least twenty-one combat androids..."
Shaking his head, he glanced over at Urd, Skuld and Belldandy. On this level of perception they were no longer human figures, but intense, tightly-constrained fields of highly-organized energy; despite this, he found he could easily tell them apart.
A thought struck him, and he glanced down at himself.
Yup. Energy field. The weird thing, though, was that it looked right. Familiar even — like an old photo of himself that he hadn't looked at in a long time.
Um. Yeah, he thought before he turned his attention back to his sisters. They were not, as he had half-expected, passively listening to Doug's recitation. Instead, they were somehow... interacting with it. As Doug continued to pour forth accounts of death after bloody death, bits of that wispy darkness in his soul would rise to its surface one after another, where with a flicker of their energies his sisters would somehow draw them out of him. Tiny clouds of darkness swirled through the space around Doug, then vanished in bursts of ethereal golden fire.
"...I deliberately killed an elderly man by disconnecting his life support mechanisms while taunting him..."
"What are you...?" Chris's voice echoed strangely in this level of reality. Not that it was actually a "voice", he realized absently.
"Doug's guilt poisons his soul," Belldandy said simply.
"It festers and swells, like a boil," Urd added.
"We lance it and drain it, and he grows healthier," Skuld concluded.
"Wonderful images, there, guys," Chris groaned.
"...I slaughtered seventeen of Hanoi Xan's minions with a Gurkha kukri and a pair of chopsticks before I found my helmet..."
"You, too," he muttered in Doug's general direction as the metaphorical pool of blood around the older man grew several centimeters deeper. "I thought you said he didn't need this," Chris murmured to Belldandy.
"He doesn't," she replied, "not for Mara's Redemption. His long-term mental health, however, is a different matter."
"And it's important enough to do now?" Chris pressed.
"Yes," she said with a finality which told Chris that the topic was not open to argument or discussion.
"...I often select the most vicious and bloody means at my disposal in order to terrorize and demoralize my opponents..."
Chris idly noted that Doug had apparently run out of killings and was now embarking on a catalog of his lesser sins. The clouds of darkness drawn from his soul, consequently, seemed smaller and less substantial.
"Okay," he sighed. "Let me see if I can help."
"...I have committed the sin of Pride on an almost hourly basis..."
The process was entirely too close to magic for his comfort, but nothing seemed to go wrong — which only made him more nervous. But prompted by Belldandy's whispered instructions, vague as they were, Chris added his own efforts to his sisters'.
He wasn't quite sure exactly what it was he was doing; he suspected he lacked not only the vocabulary but even the proper frame of reference to truly understand the process, and that the "dark clouds" and "golden fire" were little more than metaphors, his mind's attempts to interpret sensory — or maybe metasensory — input from a level of reality it had never been intended to handle. Chris made a mental note to find out if what his sisters saw and what he saw even bore any resemblance to each other.
Regardless, though, it did seem that he was doing something. Following Bell's instructions, he was able to extract one of the little black clouds from Doug's structure. The next step, well, it didn't even have any kind of analogue in the physical world he preferred; he wasn't even precisely sure what it was that Bell was leading him through. All he knew was that the whatever-it-was that looked like a dark mist — some measure of Doug's guilt over some act, if his sisters' descriptions were as literal as he was afraid they were — seemed almost to catch fire, flashing into a golden energy. Part of that energy rushed back into Doug, he noted absently... and part of it went into himself.
"...I have entertained the thought of breaking my wedding vows to gain temporary comfort during my exile..."
Chris almost panicked when he realized that the energies were joining themselves to his own. Months before, the power he'd invoked by granting Ami's wish had run wild through him like a raging torrent, carving away parts of his mortal identity and replacing them with the stuff of godhood. For a moment, he feared that more of his original self was being burned away by his godly actions, turning him into even more of a stranger to himself.
Almost as soon as the fear had coalesced in his mind, though, it was rendered moot. He felt the energy born of... whatever it was they were doing... flowing into his very being, but instead of displacing him, it added itself to him. Instead of the dreaded sensation of becoming even more alien, Chris discovered that he was instead becoming... more of himself. He was not changing, he was growing — yet at the same time, centering himself and almost anchoring himself within the world.
"Whoa," he breathed. "What was that?"
The energy pattern that was Skuld paused to shift its attention to him and did something that his brain interpreted as a smile. "That, 'Niichan, is one of the things we get from mortals." Her smile broadened into a grin when she saw the surprise cross his face. "What, did you think it was all one-way?"
Chris shrugged as, once again following Belldandy's instructions by rote, he drew out another cloud of darkness and transmuted it in golden fire. "I, uh, actually I never really thought about it." He closed his eyes and breathed in sharply as another jolt of the golden energy suffused his being.
"...Worst of all, I sometimes give in to despair that I will never get home..."
"In the far distant past, 'Niichan, gods and mortals made a bargain," Urd said, burning away another darkness. "This ancient Covenant was the first contract, and like any good contract, both parties get something out of the deal."
"And this is the gods' share of the deal?" he asked.
Urd-as-energy did the same smile-analogue that Skuld-as-energy had. "It's part of it." With a flash of golden light, the last small darkness vanished.
Skuld did something to him that felt like getting elbowed in the side. "Sssh! He's done!"
As if by prearranged signal, the state of altered perception in which Chris had been collapsed into a cascade of colored streaks of light that accelerated, blurred and resolved themselves back into the temple interior. For a moment the polished and painted wood of the candlelit structure looked strange and uncanny, somehow alien to his sight, until he shook his head and forced himself to remember what was normal and what wasn't. The physical world, dammit, he thought. This is normality. Nothing else.
When his perceptions settled down, he turned his attention back to Doug, who sat with bowed head. "For these and all of my sins, I am sorry," he intoned quietly but with a sincerity that surprised Chris. "Have mercy on me, a sinner."
For a moment there was a stillness, a moment that seemed to fill the temple with an exquisite, palpable sense of peace. It was so physical a sensation that for a moment, Chris thought he could reach out a hand and curl his fingers around a bit of it, that he could then slide into his pocket and keep.
His hand twitched with the urge to do just that, and he had just begun to open his fingers when Belldandy stepped forward and cupped Doug's face in her hands, tilting it upward as she leaned down to him. Even on his knees, Doug's head still reached almost to her shoulders, so she didn't have far to bend to place a gentle kiss in the center of his forehead. Doug's eyes widened in surprise, and then shut as he drew a long, slow breath.
"Forgiven," Belldandy breathed when she broke the kiss, somehow less than a whisper and yet filling the temple to overflowing with the sound of her voice. Doug's eyes remained shut as she stepped back and Urd took her place before him.
Chris suppressed a groan of mixed annoyance and amusement when his eldest sister — no, next-to-eldest now, he'd have to remember that — leaned down and kissed Doug squarely on the lips. Doug's eyes shot open wide in surprise, but before he could react further, Urd broke the kiss. "Forgiven," she intoned in a smoky voice that seemed to raise the temperature in the temple by five degrees. Then she straightened up and stepped back.
He glanced at his youngest sister. After a moment's hesitation, Skuld darted across the floor and stood before Doug. She took his face in her hands just as Bell had, and looked deeply into his eyes. She searched the older man's eyes thoroughly, though Chris had no idea what she might be looking for, before nodding to herself. Releasing her hold on his face, Skuld leaned down to quickly peck Doug on the cheek. "Forgiven," she squeaked, then turned around to dash back to her siblings and past them out the door of the temple. As she passed, Chris noted the glow of a blush spreading across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
Belldandy and Urd shared a glance and a giggle, then followed her out.
Chris turned back and for the third time that day turned on his Celestial senses. Almost all the darkness was gone from Doug's aura. Not all of it, though; buried deep were still traces of something faint but old, wrapped firmly around the center of his soul. Huh. Wonder what that is... something he won't admit to? Chris thought. Or is that original sin? Is there really such a thing as original sin? Gotta ask Bell.
He dropped back into normal sight to note Doug, still kneeling, was gazing at him expectantly. Chris tilted his head and considered scowling for a moment. "If you think I'm going to kiss you..."
Doug's face suddenly contorted like a rubber mask as he affected an exaggeratedly effeminate pout. "Oh, please?" he simpered, but his eyes twinkled with mischief.
"Sorry, no," Chris managed to grind out, uncertain whether to growl or laugh. "You're not my type."
Looking mournfully down at the flat expanse of his very male chest, Doug replied, in a more normal voice, "No, I suppose not."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean by that?"
Doug looked up at him, eyes still twinkling. "Just that it's pretty damned obvious from your girlfriends that you and Russ Meyer are spiritual brothers."
"Russ...?" he began with a scowl before the name sparked a memory. He turned the rest of the question into a choked cough as Doug simply stood by, grinning. "Russ Meyer. Right." He groaned slightly as a series of images flashed across his mind. "Thanks a lot, guy. The last thing I need to think about right now is Valley of the Supervixens. I don't need the freakin' distraction."
Doug shook his head, grinning ruefully and chuckling. "No, I suppose you don't." He rose to his feet with that same boneless inhuman grace, stepped forward, and held out his hand. "Sorry 'bout that."
"I'll cope," Chris said firmly. He took Doug's hand and they shook. "Now, I don't have much of a handle on this part of the job, but if they say you're forgiven, you're forgiven. Okay?"
"Good." Chris then motioned toward the door with his head. "C'mon, let's clear out and give the girls a chance to set up the ritual."
Doug nodded. "Right." Together they strode to the door.
"So... what was that like for you?" Chris asked as he stepped aside to let Doug exit first.
Doug paused on the threshold and considered, closing his eyes for a few moments as he thought. He opened them again and said, "I don't think I could really describe it properly. All I know is, I'm a bit more at peace now than I've been in quite a while." He chuckled. "But if that's the way a confession is supposed to go, every Catholic priest I've ever encountered has been doing it wrong." He frowned. "They didn't give me a penance to do."
Chris snorted. "Trust me. Living with this bunch is penance enough, sometimes."
Doug emitted a sharp bark of laughter. "If you say so." He peered at Chris in the sunlight that streamed through the door. "How about you? What was it like on your side of things?"
Chris tilted his head. "I don't think," he said after several moments, "that I can really describe it either." He nodded, mostly to himself, as he considered the new, deeper feeling of being himself that he now had. "But I think it was a good thing that I took part."
Doug parted company with him as soon as they were in the courtyard, claiming to want to meditate and center himself in the time they had before the last preparations for the ritual, and Chris found himself at loose ends. As his sisters bustled into the temple with bags and boxes of ritual materials in their arms he tried not to be in their way — which, he was annoyed to discover, merely meant that he had to dodge out of their paths twice as often as he would have had he just admitted his curiosity and watched from the door.
Too proud to admit that, though, Chris forced himself away from the temple and back into the house. Lacking any other place to actually go, he found himself in the kitchen, surrounded by the unwashed dishes from the morning's breakfast. Doug's "confession" had taken so long that Belldandy hadn't had the time to come back and clean up as she had no doubt planned. That said something about the scope of Doug's sins, Chris thought as he turned on the sink faucet and let the water heat up.
Over seven hundred dead at his hands. Chris shook his head as he picked up the long-handled scrub brush Belldandy preferred, ran hot water over its head, then squirted dishwashing liquid onto it. And he could remember each and every one of them. And the way he was talking, I'll bet he can remember all of their faces.
Testing the stream from the faucet with the side of his hand, he found it a bit too hot and spun open the cold tap a bit, then shook the water off his fingers. If that'd been Thor or Modi, or even Sif, it would have been a boast, a recitation of just how badass they were. Checking again, he nodded at the more tolerable temperature. Without really thinking about it, Chris took the first of the dishes and began scrubbing it with the brush under the stream. This was more like a list of... of his failures. Except for the first, Doug didn't regret any of the deaths so much as he regretted not being able to find alternatives that accomplished his goals just as well but left them alive.
He absently rinsed and racked the first plate, and reached for the next while considering what he'd learned during the confession. Doug's very definitely someone who'll kill without a qualm if there's no better alternative available. And he's got some pretty strict criteria for "better". Chris shook his head without lifting his eyes from the task before him. That's a pretty twisted way of looking at things, if you ask me.
"Here, let us." Chris started as the feminine hand reached around him and snatched the plate out of his hand. Rachel squeezed around and in front of him, shooting him a quick smile as she then relieved him of the brush. "You've been scrubbing that plate for the last couple minutes."
"And ignoring us trying to talk to you," Ami breathed into the ear on the other side before shouldering him aside to take up a station next to her rival, dish towel in hand.
"Wha...?" Chris blinked in confusion for a moment before his heart fell. Aw, crap. I got so caught up in things that I forgot to find a way to keep them out.
Ami shared a quick grin with Rachel. "That's what I love about him — the eloquence that never deserts him even in the worst situations."
"Well," Rachel pronounced loftily as she rinsed the plate and handed to Ami, "he is a silver-tongued devil."
"Gah." Chris glowered at them for a moment, then spun on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen. Before he'd gotten five steps down the hallway, a matched pair of giggles chased after him.
He growled — softly — at the sound. I can't decide which is worse — the two of them sniping at each other like they used to, or the way they team up to tease me now.
He burst through the door to the yard only to stop short.
Chris groaned and resisted the urge to facepalm. "What are you four doing here today?"
It was the entire god squad — Juhachi, Louis, Hiroshi and Takeshi, smugly grinning at him. Louis had his hand out to the door — whether to open it or knock, Chris had no idea and quite frankly didn't care. We so need a freaking huge lock on the gate.
"We heard you're having a little party here today," Juhachi replied with a smirk.
Takeshi laughed. "You don't think we'd miss out on a chance to see your mysterious house guest in action, do you?"
Chris grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment as he gritted his teeth. "How the fnord did you find out about this?"
"Oh, a little bird told us." Louis pointed up and over Chris' head. He spun in place and looked up at the edge of the roof to see an annoyingly familiar raven, which greeted him with a raised wing and a single mocking caw. Behind it, another couple dozen of the birds dropped down out of the sky to silently perch themselves in an unnaturally even row along the roof's ridge line.
Drawing a deep breath as he felt a surge of irritation well up in his chest, Chris turned back to his friends. Louis's grin grew even wider as he added, "Keferael there happened to overhear part of your planning session last night and let us know what was up."
"I'm not going to let you bozos stop this," Chris grated.
As Louis and Takeshi shared an amused look, Juhachi chuckled and Hiroshi actually broke out in genuine laughter, short-circuiting Chris' growing anger and just leaving him confused. Again.
"Stop you?" Takeshi asked incredulously. "We're not here to stop you — we're here to help you."
Louis elbowed him. "Watch him."
"Watch him — you," Takeshi echoed automatically, then gave Louis a mock glare. "We're none of us passing the word back to the home office about this, that's helping him."
"Well, yeah, I suppose..."
"Guys..." Chris groaned. "I really don't need this right now."
"Look, Chris," Juhachi said softly, interrupting Louis and Takeshi, who promptly fell silent. "There are certain ways that things are done. And what's taking place this morning... well, protocol calls for an honor guard. More than just you, I mean." He held out his hand. "We're your honor guard." He smiled again. "Well, the rest of it."
Chris glared at Juhachi's hand as though it were an alien thing of unknown habits that might bite him, and did his best to put aside his gut reactions. They were serious, the Boss help him.
Deep within his soul, something stirred. Trust them.
Chris blinked. That... communication... had felt suspiciously like his Full Manifestation. But it had never bothered to talk to him before. That alone was enough to make him nervous. Still, he had no reason to doubt the advice of something that Bell had repeatedly insisted was nothing but him.
Even if he didn't entirely buy that.
Mentally shrugging, he reached out and grasped Juhachi's wrist in the ancient manner, and Juhachi closed his hand around Chris'. Chris allowed a smile, the first in a while, to cross his face. "Thanks," he said, all he trusted himself to say at first. "It's good to have you guys here. We're not ready to start yet, so c'mon inside."
It had belatedly occurred to Chris that Rachel and Ami had never met the borderline-Celestial crowd he hung around with during his "guy time". Maybe he had a chance to correct that before the ritual started.
"Guys, pull up a seat," he said, waving at the kitchen table. At the sink, the girls turned around with identical expressions of surprised curiosity on their faces. They looked so much alike in that moment that Chris could have laughed. Reaching out, he took each by the (slightly damp) hand and pulled them away from the sink.
Setting them down in their own seats with a quick introduction, Chris then turned his attention to the coffee Bell had already brewed earlier that morning, hoping there was enough left to fill six new mugs and top off the one he'd used at breakfast. It was suspiciously sufficient for the task, and Chris wondered whether it was conspiracy or divine foreknowledge — even with the most guileless of his sisters, it was sometimes hard to tell.
He returned to the table with his fingers laced through the handles of seven mugs. Miraculously avoiding painful spills, he distributed cups all around, took his own seat, and — with a certain amount of satisfaction — rescued the other six from the awkward silence that had fallen after the initial round of greetings had petered out.
By the time Belldandy slipped into the kitchen to announce that the ritual space was ready, Chris had — much to his surprise and pleasure — made considerable progress in uniting these two separate parts of his life. For once, he had navigated a potentially disastrous social situation without putting his foot in his mouth. Better yet, he'd managed to start a group conversation that took off and carried itself along without his intervention, allowing him to sit back and simply enjoy watching his girlfriends and his guy friends get to know each other.
When the door finally opened to reveal a solemn Belldandy, the kitchen was ringing with merry laughter spawned by Rachel and Ami stumbling over each other to tell a somewhat embarrassing anecdote about one of his early, disastrous attempts at a detente between the two girls. It was far from the first such story recounted by either side, but Chris couldn't bring himself to be upset. A little embarrassment, he thought, isn't that bad a price to pay if this is the result. Evidently Bell agreed, judging from the pleased (and somewhat ominously mischievous) smile she favored the boisterous table with after catching his eye.
As the laughter faded away naturally, her quiet announcement of "We're ready" cut across the room. It didn't dispel the merriment so much as put it on hold with an implicit promise of more later. Despite the sudden solemnity, Chris felt his lips curve ever-so-slightly into a faint, approving smile. He gave a curt nod, more to himself than anything, and said softly, "Okay, let's do this."
Belldandy returned the nod. "Onii-san, Doug's already in Mara's room with a stretcher. If you'll help him bring her into the temple, I'll lead everyone else to their places."
"Right." He turned to Ami and Rachel, and quickly kissed each one. "I'll see you after. Behave," he added with mock sternness.
"Who, us?" Ami retorted, while Rachel merely attempted a look of offended innocence. Chris rolled his eyes. He turned back to Belldandy, and leaned down to peck her cheek. "Good luck, Bell."
She beamed at him. "Thank you, Chris."
He nodded again, more to himself than to her. "Right, then," he declared as he stepped to the kitchen door, "I'll see you all in the temple."
He got perhaps five steps down the hall before he frowned in puzzlement. We have a stretcher?
Doug and Mara were speaking in hushed tones, and looked up with identical expressions of startlement when Chris knocked on the doorjamb. "It's time," he said simply.
Doug turned back to Mara, took her hand and squeezed it gently, and said, "Showtime it is, then. Good luck."
"I'll need it," she rasped as he laid her hand back down on the bed, and Chris was shocked to realize that she must not have the strength to lift it herself. In daylight she had at first glance seemed healthier-looking than she had the night before, but it was an illusion shattered by a closer look — her skin was an ashen shade that reflected the warm glow of morning without contributing anything to it.
To cover up the sudden surge of concern and fear, Chris blurted, "Bell said there's a stretcher."
Doug motioned with his head. "In the corner. Set it up while I bundle up our customer here?"
Chris nodded and retrieved the stretcher from where it leaned against the wall. It looked simple enough — two two-meter wooden poles and a canvas sling with tubes sewn into its long sides.
"Customer?" Mara's voice held neither heat nor strength — a weary curiosity was all that its hoarse whisper carried.
"Sure!" Doug proclaimed with a cheerfulness that Chris could have sworn was genuine as he began tucking the sheets around her, turning her into a lightly-wrapped mummy. "Doug and Chris's exclusive taxi service." He wagged an admonishing forefinger at her. "And don't think you're getting away without giving us a generous tip, lady!"
Chris laid the sling on the floor and slid the poles into position. There was just enough open space on the floor to accommodate it, although Doug had to hop around a bit to avoid getting cracked on the ankle or shin in the process. He snapped his head up at the sound of Mara's labored breathing, but he realized a moment later that she was laughing as best she could with her dwindling strength.
"You want a tip?" she asked as Chris stood. "Bet on Finnegan's Folly to win in the fourth at Belmont!" She tried to laugh again but instead began to cough.
Doug took her hand again as Chris slid in beside him. "And here I am nowhere near OTB," he murmured with a faint grin. "Some tip." He glanced up at Chris. "I like her. She's silly."
Chris rolled his eyes. "C'mon, we're ready here."
Doug nodded and waved at the bed. "We'll lift her with the bottom sheet — you take the end by her feet, and I'll take the one by her head, and we'll just pick her up and lay her down on the stretcher, sheets and all, in one smooth motion. Easiest and most comfortable way to do this, I think."
Chris nodded. "Right. Whenever you're ready."
Transferring Mara to the stretcher was as easily accomplished as it had been described, much to Chris' relief. Only as they lowered her to the floor did Mara make any sound; she whimpered faintly in response to the slight bounce, but then dismissed their concern with a weak smile.
Once they had hoisted the stretcher between them, Chris had feared the prospect of navigating the doors, but somebody — almost certainly Belldandy, Chris decided — had anticipated their need, and had left every door between the bedroom and the yard wide open.
Even taking extra time so as not to jostle Mara unnecessarily, it took them less than a minute to carry her out of the house, across the empty, still yard, and into the temple. Once inside, they carefully negotiated a narrow corridor of blank floor that led into the very center of the complex pattern of lines and symbols that had been painstakingly chalked onto the gleaming floorboards. There, to one side of a bare circle no more than a couple meters across, Doug's helmet waited for them.
Chris took a moment to glance around. The God Squad was stationed at the four quarters, facing outward, waiting calmly at attention with no fidgeting, to his considerable surprise. Rachel and Ami were sitting on a bench against the south wall, well away from the circle. Keiichi stood not far from them, intent on Belldandy's every move.
Chris' attention was drawn back to the task at hand when they stopped in the heart of the design. Doug caught his eye and nodded, and they carefully lowered Mara to the floor. As they did, Doug called out cheerily, "Delivery! I have a delivery for a Miss Belldandy! Is there a Miss Belldandy in the house?"
Chris stifled a groan but his sisters — even Mara, judging by the pained smile on her face — were clearly amused by Doug's attempt to lighten the atmosphere. Belldandy glided over, carefully staying within the unmarked "lane". With that same mischievous grin she'd worn earlier she innocently replied, "I'm Belldandy. Where do I sign?", prompting Chris to groan again. Doug is infecting my sisters with his sense of humor, no doubt about it.
Doug made a grand show of checking his pockets. "Clipboard, clipboard... I knew I had a clipboard when I left the office this morning." He patted his chest, as if the mythical clipboard might be hiding in a breast pocket, then donned an exceedingly overwrought look of despair. "I seem to have forgotten..."
He was interrupted by a deep, loud ring that sounded like it came from a gong. At the sound of it, Chris involuntarily snapped to attention, standing ramrod straight.
"What...?" Doug began.
"The wards!" Urd cried.
"We're under attack," Chris declared almost before he knew how he knew. From their bench, Ami and Rachel surged to their feet, and he waved them to stay put.
Belldandy's smile vanished and her eyes narrowed. "Somehow Mara's superiors must have learned of what we're attempting, and want to stop it."
Urd frowned as her eyes grew distant, then snapped wide in alarm. "They have a wardcracker! I can feel the feedback!"
"A wardcracker?" Keiichi asked.
"Damn, damn, damn!" Doug clenched his fists and grimaced. "I knew I should have added something to the protections when I had the time! Damn me for a fool!"
Skuld angrily muttered something that Chris couldn't make out. Belldandy apparently had no such problem, because she looked shocked and snapped, "Skuld! Language!"
"Sorry, oneesama," his youngest sister murmured. "But what are we going to do?"
Chris felt a wellspring of confidence and determination surge up into him from some unknown source. "You," he found himself saying, "are going to take your places and start the ritual."
Belldandy studied him for a moment, then nodded once, sharply. "Yes, of course."
He laid a hand on Doug's shoulder. The older man was still angry and agitated, muttering a string of epithets under his breath. "You," Chris said, "are going to calm yourself down and get to work right along with them."
"Yes." Doug grit his teeth and closed his eyes before taking a long, deep breath through his nose. He held it for what seemed to Chris an uncomfortably long time before letting it out slowly and carefully. His eyes opened and met Chris', and in that moment Chris saw all the masks and deceptive lunacy fall away from him, and suddenly felt a deep and unexpected kinship with this man — one warrior to another, each doing his best to fulfil the duty that defined him. Without words, Doug already knew what Chris was intending, and approved.
Before he knew it, the two of them were clasping hands. "Thanks," Doug said with a cocky grin. "I won't let them down. I swear it."
Chris nodded. "I'll hold you to that."
Doug's grip on him tightened for a moment, then released. Chris released his own grip. "Good luck out there," Doug breathed, then turned away to pick up his helmet.
The ward alarm rang again. As the deep ringing tone faded away, Chris spun on his heel and left the circle. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Urd, a stick of chalk in hand, beginning the process of completing the monstrously complex pattern which would define and anchor the tremendous energies they would be unleashing in a few minutes.
Just past the outermost ring of glyphs and runes, Chris turned to his left. His eyes fell upon Hiroshi, Takeshi, Juhachi and Louis, who had left their posts at the circle's compass points. A raven — no doubt one of Keferael's vessels — sat on Takeshi's shoulder.
He tilted his head. "Guys?"
Hiroshi glanced at his fellows and back at him. "We're with you, Chris. All of us."
Chris regarded them solemnly for a moment. "Thanks," he finally said. "I need you to be my rear guard. Stay in here. Don't let anything in until the ritual ends." His eyes flickered over toward Rachel and Ami. "I'm leaving everyone here I love in your hands."
"You can count on us," Juhachi replied without hesitation.
Chris nodded. "Thank you."
Without another word, he stepped past them to stand in front of Ami and Rachel. "Chris..." Rachel began, but Chris held up a hand and she bit back whatever she had intended to say.
Chris leaned in and kissed first Rachel, and then Ami, gently, deeply, and confidently. When he leaned back, he found both girls gazing at him with shimmering eyes. "Stay in here," he said softly. "Whatever you do, don't go outside until I say it's clear. Understand?"
Wordlessly, they nodded.
"Promise me," he insisted.
"I promise," they said in near-unison. Chris smiled approvingly. It wasn't a wish-level agreement, but he knew they meant it — this was a promise they would keep.
"Good girls." Chris reached out and cupped their faces — Rachel with his left hand, Ami with his right. "I'll be back for you two. I promise."
He was not surprised to feel the "click" of a contract locking into place.
Before the looks on their faces could convince him to stay, Chris spun and strode for the door.
With a slow deliberate tread, Chris stepped through the temple door, and positioned himself halfway down the stairs to the yard below.
The warning gong rang again. Its deep, rich tone seemed somehow more insistent, more demanding.
Today, he thought with a calmness that surprised him, is the day I earn my keep.
Chris closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed his armor into existence around him. The weight of the cool metal was a comfortable reassurance, and without opening his eyes he stepped through the first few positions of an old and long-familiar kata.
Behind him, in the temple, he could hear his sisters beginning the chant which initialized the ritual. Their voices were strong and sweet, and filled his heart with the palpable sensation of their presence. He couldn't help but smile.
There was a flutter of wings, and a raven dropped down to perch on the railing next to him. As he glanced over at it, the bird cawed, then slowly winked one eye at him.
Chris chuckled. "You got it, buddy," he said. Then he turned his attention back to the gate. He shook his head, still smiling faintly. "No point in putting it off," he murmured, and closed his eyes once more.
Turning all his attention within, Chris reached out, and for the first time ever, deliberately invited and embraced his Full Manifestation.
END OF CHAPTER SIX
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This work of fiction is copyright © 2008, by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
"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.
All 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:
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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.
C&C gratefully accepted.