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

by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel

7. In Which People All Come Together At The End

 

You're not among the walking wounded any more.
There's a time to fall,
There's a time to rise above it all.

-- Journey, "To Be Alive Again"

All is rhythm, all is unity
I am laughing, as it's meant to be
Just amusing, I am using the
Word was given, making harmony
Moving slowly, dancing aimlessly
Endless circle, turning fearlessly
Resurrected, falling down again
Introspective, I'm just stating my views
Now you can choose, what do you feel,
Is it for real this time?

— Kansas, "Hopelessly Human"

Life is a mystery
Everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home.

— Madonna, "Like A Prayer"

 

Temple Hill Road, Nekomi Ward, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 9:44 AM

The incubus Zerethuel — or, as he vastly preferred to be known, Takano Watanabe — was not happy at all with his current position. Then again, he served Hell. Not being happy sort of went with the territory, he reflected. Remind me again why I thought joining this side was a good idea? he berated himself. Oh, right, more pleasures of the flesh with fewer rules and complications. Yes, he was weak, he knew it. His weakness manifested as an inability to resist the physical beauty possessed by so many mortals.

It also manifested as a strong desire to run screaming from the impending conflict.

The presence of his immediate superior Garnash immediately behind him — along with his rather large and distressingly sharp hellglaive — boosted his strength of will immeasurably, however.

Dammit.

Takano glanced to the left and right of his position, trying not to turn far enough in either direction to catch sight — or the eye — of Garnash. There were more forces here than he'd expected. Maybe Razielaingor had sent out his call over a wider area than just the Kanto Plain — surely this many demons couldn't be operating out of just one admin zone. There had to be a couple hundred here, at a minimum, loosely formed up into...

He frowned. What was the right word? Squads? Brigades? Platoons? The only collective noun on that scale he was really sure of was "orgy". Military organization was so not him, and if he had his preference he'd never even have to worry about it. It was enough to say that, had the higher-ups not erected standard mortal-repelling wards, traffic in front of the temple would have been forced to a standstill by the demonic throng.

Garnash stalked past, stopped, and backed up to snarl wordlessly at him. Takano gulped and straightened up out of the loose slouch he'd slipped into. Garnash sneered, then moved on, and Takano suppressed a sigh. If only he could cope with celibacy, he'd happily grab onto the coattails of whomever it was who was defecting.

That thought stopped him for a moment. Come to think of it, who is defecting? He straightened up once more, having started to slouch again after Garnash had passed, and risked craning his neck to look for all the First Classes. Lessee... Razielaingor, of course. Raeito, Ymir... He swiveled his head the other way. Dohguberuttu, Alanael... Who's not here?

Wait... that unmistakable cloud of gorgeous blonde curls was missing. Mara! Oh, no, Mara, not you. Now I'll never have a shot at you...

An explosion of cheering from his cohorts cut that thought short, and Takano shook himself free of the vivid mental images that had accompanied his spurt of regret. Another time, he thought ruefully, watching the hellish energy playing around the darkly squat and bulky structure of the wardcracker as it arrived in the mortal world.


Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 10:02 AM

That's odd, Keiichi thought with a flicker of a frown momentarily creasing his forehead. Is the temple... bigger than it was a few minutes ago? It was hard to be certain, but he was pretty sure that the interior of the wooden building had never been this... well, "cavernous" was the only word that seemed appropriate. I know I've been able to see the rafters and the roof before, but now they're so high they're hidden in shadows. And I'm pretty sure the altar wasn't so far from the door.

He glanced across the ritual diagram. It's probably something they're doing to give them more room to work. Belldandy and her sisters had taken their places along the circumference of the great circle that all but filled the temple floor. Pulses of light rippled outward from the smaller circles in which they stood, flowing out into the greater design and then fading. Each pulse reached further than the one before, like the waves of an incoming tide, until they met and the entire diagram flashed a bright white before settling down to a low, constant glow.


Eyes closed, Mara burrowed her nose into my right shoulder with a little grunt of pain as the goddesses began chanting and energizing the circle. By the time a solid-looking webwork of light had replaced the chalk diagram, she and I had come to a mutually comfortable arrangement, one that didn't hurt her any more than absolutely necessary and which put the minimum stress on me.

The latter wasn't too hard, I must admit. On any given day I can dead-lift just over a hundred kilograms with two hands and hold it over my head pretty much as long as I want, and on a good day I can double that; Mara's mere 45 kilos or so didn't tax me at all. The only real problem I had with holding her — other than inadvertently hurting her — was her hair. Even with my helmet on, that blonde mane of hers kept getting in my face every time I turned my head to the right.

I didn't need to do that very often, though — just to glance at the temple doors. They were closed and barred; Rachel and Ami had left their bench and now sat in seiza on either side of them. Bad position, I thought. A hostile comes through there hard and they'll be hit, either by the doors or by door fragments. Keiichi's much more wisely positioned. Which he was, on the far side of the circle from the doors. I wanted to shout at them to move, but the ritual was already starting.

I'd positioned myself to face Belldandy head-on, which was only common sense given that I was waiting for her to give me the high sign.

I felt more than heard the small moan Mara made into my shoulder. "You okay?" I asked.

"They're coming for me," she whimpered. "They'll never let me get away, even in death."

"Your bosses?"

Her curls rippled — the only thing I could see of her nodding head. "Maybe I should just stop this and hand myself over to them now."

"Too late," I declared with somewhat forced jollity. "The girls've started. You're committed now."

"Maybe I ought to be committed, thinking I could do this," she murmured.

I wanted to squeeze her reassuringly, but didn't dare. "Don't give up now, Mara. We'll get through this. Stay with me..." A faint scent of incense and ozone drifted into my nostrils, and the diagram of light blazed up, brighter and far more fierce, like a fire that's had gasoline thrown on it.

I looked up from Mara's hair in time to see... something uncurling itself from Belldandy's back. At first I thought it was simply a pair of wings unfolding — unexpected but not at all surprising — but then I saw bare skin beneath them, as though her back was swelling or bulging up above her shoulders. In the moment it took me to register that, a female head and torso followed the wings. A nude female torso, I realized after a moment's shock.

The angelic figure seemed to be... mated to Belldandy's back, and either mimicked or reproduced the movement of her upper body perfectly. Its features bore more of a sisterly resemblance to Bell than, say, Urd's did, and its hair, while more or less the same color, was thicker and wavier, and floated unrestrained about its head and body. Its wings were purest white.

"Ooooo-kay..." I muttered to myself, and glanced at the other two goddesses. They, too, had manifested their own winged apparitions. Skuld's seemed to match her in apparent age, although its hair was shorter and Hollywood blonde. And Urd's was two-toned like a classic Chevy, split right down the middle with black hair and wing on one side, and white on the other.

Just when I think my life can't get weirder...


Chris held his breath and waited for the moment that always came, when he got shunted to the back of his own head while Mr. Hyde took over the driver's seat.

It didn't come.

As the ward alarm rang out again, sending palpable vibrations through the steps in up through his feet into his legs, Chris felt the urge to swear. Of all the times that stupid thing chooses now to not take over?

He stopped that thought cold when a familiar chuckle echoed inside his head, bypassing his ears entirely. Now why, an equally familiar mental voice asked, would I need to take over?

Chris tried to ignore the fact that the voice was his own, the same voice in which he "heard" his own thoughts. I don't know, one would expect based on past experience...

I have only 'taken over' when you're too spaced or too stupid to react when you should. And for your information, and don't argue with me — I'm you, and you're me. I'm just the bit of your brain that used to be your subconscious.

Used to be... Chris frowned.

Gods don't have the luxury — or curse — mortals do to leave most of our thinking to roam free, uncontrolled. We have no subconscious, we always have our full mind available. You're just not able to take advantage of that yet, so I've been forced to monitor and control myself — which I wouldn't have to, if we were complete.

"What do you mean, 'if we were complete'?" Chris growled out loud, startling the angel-possessed raven on the railing next to him. The raven squawked and flapped its wings, before turning a beady eye on him.

Argue later, nimrod. Remember the demon army at the door? Take a look at yourself — I've 'taken over' and you're still in charge. You always were, you just never listened to yourself before.

Chris opened his eyes and looked down at himself. Damned if he weren't in Full Manifestation after all.

See?

Oh, shut up. I get this abuse from everyone else, I don't need it from you too.

Aye, aye, Captain!

I've got a notion to give you a piece of my mind.

Too late, I already have it.

Grr. Think you're clever, don't you?

Like the philosopher says, know thyself.


"Well," Ami said offhandedly from where she sat in seiza to the left of the temple door, "you learn something new every day."

"You bet. And just when you think the future in-laws can't get any stranger," Rachel replied in an equally casual tone from where she sat, also in seiza, to the right of the door. "So... what do you think? Separate creatures or not?"

Ami considered this, reaching up with one hand to tap a finger against her chin. "I'm not sure which would be more disturbing — finding out that my future sisters-in-law each actually have two heads, four arms and a pair of wings, or that they're in some kind of weird symbiosis with creatures that look like angels."

Rachel turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "'Look like'?"

Ami rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay, probably are angels. If they're not just previously-hidden body parts."

There was a longish pause.

"You know," Rachel mused, "you'd think that at times like this, when there's a demon army at the door howling for blood, and our boyfriend's sisters suddenly turn out to be a bit more... um... complex even than we thought, that we ought to be terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought."

There was another, somewhat shorter pause.

"I think we're just jaded," Ami offered.

Rachel thought about this for a moment, then nodded. "You're probably right. All the more reason we need to stay with Chris, then. After him, any other guy would be excruciatingly boring."

Ami glanced over her with a lopsided grin. "Oh, yeah, you can say that again." Then a sly smile slid onto her face. "You know, I wonder if Chris has more than the usual number of anything we might be interested in..."

They looked over at each other and giggled, despite the gravity of the moment.


Keiichi stood against the wall opposite the entrance of the temple, trying not to fret. Perhaps it was undue prejudice, but he didn't entirely trust magic on this scale, divine or not. And having seen Belldandy remove her limiter as she took her position in the great chalk diagram only added to it.

It was never a good sign when Belldandy removed her limiter.

And to be absolutely honest, Holy Bell and the other angels weirded him out just a little.

Okay, he corrected himself. A lot.

As the goddesses and their angels began to chant, flowing lines and circles of deep, luminescent colors sprang to life on the ancient wooden floor, racing along and replacing the carefully-scribed chalk. As they formed, something that was clearly writing appeared, lacing though every centimeter of the complex design. He recognized the script from previous exposures but could not read it. The lettering seemed at once familiar and strange, blending what seemed to be natural language, equations, and even something that looked like programming code into a seamless, living whole. The lines and runes of glowing red, blue and green pooled and ran across the floorboards as if carried along by controlled but powerful currents of invisible water, constantly in motion, never exactly the same from one moment to the next.

The overall shape was, as usual, a circle. Six smaller circles were spaced equidistantly around its circumference; Urd, Belldandy and Skuld each stood in one, forming an equilateral triangle. Glowing lines connected both the occupied and unoccupied smaller circles to form a six-pointed star at whose center was a seventh; in that seventh circle, Doug held a semi-conscious Mara in his arms.

Keiichi's attention was almost entirely upon Belldandy, the other participants barely registering on his peripheral senses. Thus it was that he was watching when Belldandy and Holy Bell, as one, swept their arms forward and pointed directly at Doug.


That's it, I thought, resolutely ignoring just how creepy the surprise double-decker effect the goddesses suddenly had going was. Showtime.

I dropped into magesight. The spell construct sprang into visibility around, above and below me, exactly reproducing the rendered image from Skuld's computer as far as I could tell. Already tiny pulses of lambent power were flowing along its multitudinous paths and circuits, maintaining the structure and energizing key nodes where most of the "initialization" took place.

It might have been purely psychosomatic, but I began to feel faint tingles along my skin, pulsing in time with the flows.

I quickly identified the node which acted as the "power input" for the construct, and put a metaphorical "finger" on it so I didn't have to search for it again.

I didn't have to search for the tether at all. I was standing on it. In it. Whatever.

Taking a deep breath, I nodded once to myself.

"System," I declared loudly enough for the computer to hear me over the goddesses' song. "'Supernova'. Play!"

As the first notes played — a low drone that sounded like a church organ opening up on a hymn — I felt the unmistakable rush of my metatalent opening up and shaping itself to match the form my subconscious had decided this song evoked. In this case, it was a metaphorical pipe, with me as an equally metaphorical "valve" in the middle. I fitted one end of the "pipe" to the Tether, the other to the goddesses' construct... and as the synth-drums entered the arrangement, I swung the valve to "full on".


While Doug had been studiously careful in holding her, Mara was distantly and somewhat absently pleased that despite their past antagonisms he was as good as his word — though vigilant, his stance and grip was relaxed, with a gentleness she thought might even be paternal.

Until he said "play."

She felt the change in him instantly. Every muscle in his body tensed. No, not tensed — became a steel cable stretched to its breaking point. His hold on her tightened reflexively, replacing the gentleness with discomfort that verged on, but did not quite reach, pain. His entire body began to tremble. And she wasn't sure, but she thought perhaps his body temperature was rising.

As Doug's trembles began to turn into full-blown shakes, he gritted his teeth. "Oh, gods," he hissed between them before abandoning all pretense of stoicism. "This is gonna HUUUUUURRRRRRRTTTTTT!"


Chris climbed back up the steps to the temple door as he slid Urd's Sharpie through a temporary slit in his armor and back into his pocket. As he re-manifested the sword on his right hand, one of Keferael's ravens shot over the temple roof and dropped to a perfect two-point landing on the railing next to him.

He eyed the bird. "Okay, I'm ready. You?"

The raven cawed and bobbed its head in an approximation of a nod.

Chris returned the nod. "Well, then, we just have to wait for..."

With a flare of shed power, the wards overloaded and collapsed. A bare moment later, the gates exploded inward.

"...that." He shook his head. "I knew I should've taken the time to put a lock on that gate."

Even as the possessed raven cawed its laughter, demons surged into the temple grounds like a swollen river spilling through a crumbling dam. As he stood there on the temple steps, weapons at the ready, Chris was amazed at their variety. Most seemed human or nearly so — infiltrators into the mortal world, he assumed, just like himself and his sisters. Others were... less so. Armor plates, tusks, claws, horns, wings, digitigrade legs — these were only a few of the demonic features he spotted. At least their owners were vaguely humanoid in form; others didn't even aspire to anything resembling human or animal. Chris was sure he had spotted a flowing blob of pustulent goo that wouldn't have been out of place in a grade-Z 1950s sci-fi movie.

The demon vanguard spotted him almost immediately, and with a bloodthirsty howl charged.

Only to slam face-first into the second ward that Chris and Keferael had laid out around the temple building.

It was a remarkably solid impact, as though they'd run into an invisible stone wall. This surprised Chris; he'd thought the ward would work more like an energy field than a solid object. Note to self: pay more attention when Urd discusses ward mechanics. After a moment, he mentally appended, if I survive.

He slowly walked back down the temple steps and up to the edge of the warded area. In the rear of the crowd, he could already see the wardcracker being slowly trundled through the shattered gates by a band of demonic teamsters. Well, that's to be expected, he mused before deliberately turning his eyes to the front row of demons, most of whom were rubbing bloody noses or bruised chins. "Did that hurt?" Chris asked casually. "It looked real painful."

In the back of his mind, his other self chuckled.

The responses to that ranged from wordless growls to explicitly-detailed anatomical impossibilities. Chris ignored them all, and continued. "I'm sorry, guys, but my sisters are busy and can't come out to play right now. None of my sisters," he emphasized with a scowl. "So you'd best move on."

"Or what, asshole?" one particularly mouthy demon demanded.

Chris fixed him with a flat look for a moment. To hell with the Doublet System. "Or this." His right arm flicked out, and the sword blade affixed to it passed through the ward as if it weren't there. The neck of the mouthy demon offered only a little more resistance.


Careful to avoid attracting the attention of anyone, especially his superiors in the Infernal hierarchy, Senbei slipped through the shattered gate. Using his tiny size and his black leather garb to their best advantage, he alternately hid and ran across the compound, ducking behind rocks and sliding through the shadows beneath the engawa surrounding the house, until he came to the temple proper. Secreting himself in the rafters above the temple's engawa, he settled in to wait.


I take a step to what's real
Or at least to what it is I'm chasing

It took me only a moment to realize that I had miscalculated — badly. For the second time in my life, I had made the kind of mistake that beginners in node magic rarely make more than once.

Because the first time usually kills them.

The tether wasn't a fire hose. It was a high-pressure main, blasting its way toward a turbine that could power an entire city. It was a raging whitewater river that could smash a fragile raft with a simple surge in the wrong direction. It was a jet powerful enough to slice through steel.

It was roaring through me, body and soul, completely out of control from the moment I completed the circuit, carving its way through me, threatening to rip the very fabric of my existence into a million shreds of evaporating primal energies.

As the song kicked into gear and filled my ears, I did the only thing I could.

I screamed.


As the goddesses' voices seemed to multiply, sounding first like six singers, and then nine, and then more, Keiichi raised his hand to shade his eyes. Already Doug was glowing as brightly as or even brighter than the magical designs on the floor. If he gives off any more light, I won't be able to see anything, Keiichi thought with no small amount of worry.

Almost at the moment Keiichi finished that thought, Doug screamed. As panic seized Keiichi, the older man and the woman he held were engulfed in a featureless pillar of white light so brilliant it cast sharp dark shadows against the walls of the temple. At the same instant, six immense shafts of equally brilliant, equally white light erupted from the pillar, lancing out horizontally. Three struck the goddesses, who seemed to absorb their power. Two struck the temple walls, apparently without effect.

And one engulfed Keiichi in an ocean of blazing white.

*SON,* a Voice whispered in the blinding glare.

Keiichi recognized it. "Kami-sama?" he murmured.

*SON. YOU ARE REQUIRED.*

He suddenly found himself much closer to the action.


Another step to reveal
All the shadows that I keep embracing

Morisato Megumi sat cross-legged and scowling on the bed in her dorm room. In the distance, she could hear the ritual resonating through the Symphony, and tried to ignore it. Let them go ahead and try to save that monster. See if she cared.

White light exploded from the walls and swallowed her whole.

*DAUGHTER,* demanded a Voice in the Light. *ATTEND.*

And then the room was empty.


He'd managed to kill another three demons before the closest members of the horde shook off their surprise and threw up wards of their own.

As soon as his blade had sparked off the new defense, Chris had backed off to stand at the base of the temple steps. He stood there, scowling, and simply watched as a band of imps trundled the bulky, primitive shape of the wardcracker across the temple yard. Behind him, Keferael launched itself into the air with a caw and settled to roost on the ridge of the temple roof, watching the action from above.

Chris wasn't sure what he had expected when Urd had first mentioned the wardcracker, but it certainly hadn't been something that looked like Leonardo da Vinci had put it together from scraps he had lying around the workshop. Large, he had pretty much anticipated — it was a siege engine, after all, and they rarely came pocket-sized. But stone and wood just didn't look right, in his opinion. He'd expected it to fit in with the general Celestial and Infernal aesthetic that he'd grown used to over the past few months; if it had looked like a Cadillac-sized 1950s canister vacuum as designed by a 1930s version of Peter Max, he wouldn't have given it a second thought. But something that didn't look much more advanced than the battering ram that was its mundane equivalent — no, not what he'd envisioned at all.

Absently, he rubbed around his right eye and suppressed a curse. He felt a headache coming on. He hadn't had a headache — or any other kind of illness, for that matter — since getting this god gig. Freakin' hell. Figures now of all times I'd get my first headache. And it's a big one... yow. He swayed suddenly as a wave of dizziness washed over him with a spike in the pain so bad his vision doubled. Only a clumsy grab for the temple railing kept him from falling over. "I do not need this right now!" he growled as he strained both to hold himself upright and to ignore the roar of demonic enthusiasm his sudden weakness precipitated.


There is a phenomenon, known to those who study the way matter functions on the atomic and molecular levels, called "self-assembly". To put it simply, pile all the right parts in the same place, provide a jolt of energy or some other trigger, and those parts will naturally fall together and build a far more complex structure.

What few know is that while self-assembly is not seen on the human scale, it is by no means limited to the nanoscale.


Failure forgets to fascinate
This light inside will resonate

Chris shook his head to clear it, and then immediately regretted it. The headache wasn't going away, and the effect of the wardcracker at this close range — the pulses of raw magic paired with nearly subsonic thuds that hit his chest like the shock of a flash-bang fireworks shell — was just pumping it up into something he thought might be a full migraine, given the unpleasant, foreboding sensations that were welling up in his stomach and the back of his throat.

The dizziness had only grown as well, and even his other self seemed close to panic — when (not if, but when) the ward fell, he'd be completely unable to fight. The horde of demons out there would roll right over him like a horned and fanged bulldozer. It was all he could do to focus all his attention on the rapidly-fraying circle of warding which was the only thing that held out every demon that made their home in the greater Kanto area.

Thus it was that he had no warning when the immense shaft of light struck him from behind with an almost physical blow.

He nearly exploded in rage when he was submerged in the blaze, until he felt the Presence.

*GUARDIAN.*

"Boss?" Chris whispered.

*YOU ARE SUMMONED.*

"Um, Boss? Since you've got that whole omniscience thing going on, I assume you can see the horde of great nasty demons out there?"

*YOU ARE SUMMONED.*

"If I leave, they come in here and do things I don't even want to think about to everyone and everything I love. I'm sorry Boss, I can't. Now, if you were to send some help, sure."

If you need help, you only need to ask, whispered the voice of his Full Manifestation.

"Ooookay. Help? Please?"

Not without, within. You must aid yourself.

"Okay, we've gone Zen, here. What?" Chris closed his eyes. He could feel the headache trying to crowd everything else out.

Send out your cry for help, open your eyes, and see.

"HELP!" Chris screamed, and opened his eyes.

And Saw.


He stared out into what seemed to be a universe of stars, and he could see that each point of light was not a star, but another self. Some familiar, some strange, some utterly alien, he could see each and every one, and could feel a link from himself to them, and from them to each other, forming a web of connections of unending complexity. And through that link, he could see the transcendent selves of other gods — his sisters, his friends, his enemies — all stretching out across a myriad of universes, worlds without end arrayed like pages in some great book. He felt himself grow into those worlds and more — and in the process finding echoes of himself in each one.

As he watched, he could see his cry for help spread out among his selves, and from each, either an eager "Yes!" or a regretful "No." From each that said "yes", he felt a sort of mental hand being stretched forth, and he reached for them all.

He pulled.

And in that moment

Paradox

Self-Assembled.


And shame dissipates with open eyes
Refreshing fate I can't describe

From untold numbers of universes they came, the parts of him who had never been part of him before. They came, and assembled themselves with him. Not to him, but with him.

And from his others, his selves, he heard a myriad explanations. "They are all but puppets." "The overmind is part of all their aspects." "But separate." "We are all separate." "But linked." "We have no overmind." "We have only the summation of the parts." "Different." "Not worse." "Not better."

And though he remained similar in nature, his potential, his actuality, became something else, something greater — a unity formed from their uncounted voices that transcended the worlds into which they had been born.

And first among these equals was the one who had called them, Christopher James Angel, the god of Moments, the Lord of Paradox: he who only was himself when he was an infinity of others. And as each voice joined the chorus, the composite Being they formed grew into dimensions beyond the three physical and one temporal to which they were accustomed, twisting and warping through space-time, rising to higher dimensionality after higher dimensionality, expanding, growing, unfolding.

Becoming.

Until the last of their parts joined them.

And They reached the Top.


"Greetings, youngling!" "Well, hello there!" "Hey, who's the new guy?" The chorus of ... well, "voices" was the closest analogue he had in his experiences, but they weren't voices, not really, nor were they not voices, nor were they "speaking" in any language he recognized even as he understood it... The chorus of greetings and hails and expressions of surprise was almost overwhelming. As was the "place" in which he found himself. Himselves. Themself.

Blast. It was obvious, wasn't it? At least to all of him at once.

But he/they/it didn't have the luxury to explore the experience right now.

He held up something that he thought of as a hand although it had far too many physical dimensions and not enough physicality. "Sorry, can't talk now, in a hurry. Family emergency. Later, I promise." Then, acting entirely on instinct, he gathered himselves together and sent them back out to the world/line/point from which the "I" who seemed to be in control of their vast, consolidated self had originally come.

There was a crushing, wrenching, tearing sensation, and then he was back in front of the temple.

Chris opened his eyes, and could see the demonic army, frozen in one of his time stops. And around himself, a legion.

Of himself.

Chris looked about at all the figures who surrounded him, who filled the yard around the temple from its porch to the edge of the fallen wards. To his momentary shock and surprise he recognized them.

They were him. There — there by the ward cracker was the gleaming form he'd dreamed of wearing in MegaTokyo. Over there perched on the engawa, holding a spear that repulsed him, was Kristas Two-Souls. Uneasily beside him, a Namekian variant of himself stood, his antenna twitching as his form grew steadily radiant with power. Kneeling in the yard, a miniature parody of himself, bouncing a small spherical bomb, cartoonish yet ominous-looking, in his hand. In the rear, towering over the others, was that an Autobot? Even the AI Paradox of the Matrix, his form seeming to flicker with green scan lines every second or so. All the versions of himself he had dreamed himself being, night after night, month after month, all of them and more.

And he knew the names and abilities of each one.

As did they.

"Well," he began, and swallowed. "You... we... I know what to do."

Wavelets of nods rippled across the crowd.

"Well, then... let's do it," he said briskly, and dropped the timestop as he finally let Kami-sama's summons carry him away.


Chris' cry for help drove its way through the heavy wooden doors of the temple, and the two mortal women in his life — already on their feet in response to Doug's own scream — sprang as one to answer. But before they and the four "honor guards" could do more than turn toward the entrance, they were engulfed in a brilliant white light that filled the ancient temple to the brim and more.

Mirroring each other, Ami and Rachel turned back and looked into the blaze.

The light was at once both blinding and transparent as crystal, painful in its intensity even as it carried with it a transcendent peace that stilled their panicked motion and bade them watch in silence.

And so they did, holding their wonder and fear in their hearts as they observed.

Where once the three goddesses had been the only figures at the edge of the circle of blazing power there were now six — three others had joined the ritual, occupying the lesser circles that had lain empty between the goddesses. On the far side of the great circle from Belldandy Keiichi now hovered, his arms spread and his face painted with a mixture of surprise, concern and determination. Winglike streamers of white energy stretched from his shoulders, reaching just far enough to touch the pinions of Urd and Skuld's angels.

Opposite Skuld, Megumi similarly floated, her features twisted in anger and outrage. Like her brother, she too seemed to bear wings of energy, but hers were less bright than Keiichi's, faintly grey in the face of his white. Like his, her "wings" stretched to touch the wingtips of Belldandy and Urd's angels.

And instead of being outside defending the temple, Chris now hung in the air facing Urd, with head back, eyes closed, arms hanging limply at his sides — and huge rust-colored wings stretching out to either side from his shoulders, their tips just brushing Skuld and Belldandy's wings.

Ami gasped at the sight, then sighed. "Oooh. I want a pair of wings. Think we'll get some?"

Rachel shivered at the thought and tore her eyes away to glance at Ami. "If Keiichi qualifies..."

Ami gave a delicate, ladylike snort. "Keiichi, nothing! If Megumi qualifies..."

For a moment they grinned at each other. Then, through the doors behind them came a sudden roar of voices. Before Rachel and Ami could respond to it, Chris's four friends barreled past and threw them open to reveal two armies surging toward each other. In the instant before Hiroshi and Louis slammed them shut again, the girls got a good look at the closest combatants. A glance shared between them as the slamming door echoed through the temple confirmed what both had thought they'd seen — most of the non-demons near the door had borne a resemblance of some sort to Chris.

"You think...?" Ami began.

"I'm not even going to try," Rachel murmured before they turned their attention back to the center of the temple. In the exact center of that paradoxically blinding and transparent dome of light, they could make out the forms of Doug and Mara, floating free and unfettered by gravity, slowly orbiting each other. Twin streamers of even more brilliant white energy connected their eyes, and a third joined them at the breastbone — right over their hearts.

Unconsciously, Rachel and Ami stepped closer together until they were shoulder-to-shoulder; almost automatically their hands slid into a firm grasp.


This time it feels like I've been
Touched by a Supernova

No, Keiichi reflected, he didn't entirely trust magic on this scale, divine or not. Not at all. And his sudden transportation into one of the previously unoccupied minor circles along the edge of the greater design did nothing to dissuade him of this opinion.

He was about to cry out in protest at his involuntary inclusion in the ritual when his vision flared white and the mix of magical tones and the battle outside the temple faded away. There was a moment of blissful silence and white oblivion.

Then, with no sensation of movement at all, Keiichi found himself seated in a comfortable leather armchair in front of a large, Western-style fireplace. He blinked, then looked about himself. To his right was a second armchair identical, as far as he could tell, to the one in which he was seated. Between them was a small table with an antique-styled electric lamp (lit and casting a pool of warm yellow light around the chairs) and a silver tray on which stood a crystal decanter of some amber liquid with two glasses. Craning his neck, he could make out walls lined with bookshelves filled to overflowing. A library? How...

The sound of a door opening directly behind him catapulted him from his seat. He spun in place, not sure what he could do if it were someone coming to harm him, but determined to face whatever danger it was head on.

The figure coming through the door looked at him with the eye not covered by the patch and nodded approvingly. "Oh, sit down, son. Your battle-readiness does you honor, but there is no threat to you here in my study."

Keiichi instantly recognized him — if the grey beard and hair and the stocky muscular form hadn't done it, the eye-patch would have. He wasn't in battle-stained leather armor this time, though; instead he wore a long red satin dressing gown over a white open-necked shirt and grey trousers, and his hair and beard had been neatly groomed. As he stepped around the chairs to take his seat, Keiichi realized he was wearing red velvet slippers, too.

"K-kami-sama!" he stammered.

"Yes, and you're Keiichi Morisato," Kami-sama replied as he unstopped the decanter and poured a measured amount of the liquid within into each of the glasses. "Now that we have that straightened out, do sit down. We have much to discuss, you and I." He held out one of the glasses to Keiichi. "Brandy?"


Inside, the Hand that touches hearts
Is touching mine

Megumi hadn't quite finished blinking in surprise when she realized that she was no longer on her bed — or, for that matter, in her room. Shock replaced her anger as she took in her surroundings. The sturdy, functional chair in which she sat was the first thing to register. The large, Danish-modern desk in front of her, made of some light-colored wood, was the next thing, along with the big, comfortable-looking velvet swivel chair behind it. A computer terminal of unfamiliar design sat at one end of the desk, and a gumball machine (of all things) rested on the other. There was nothing else on its surface — no blotter, pens, pencils, calendar, anything.

Her eyes flicked next to the famous "big blue marble" photo of Earth taken from space decades earlier, framed and hanging on the wall behind the desk. The wall was white — all the walls were white. As Megumi began to estimate the size of room at perhaps twenty meters by twenty meters, a doorknob rattled directly behind her.

She leaped from her seat and spun to see — nothing. There was a door — large, made of a darkly-stained wood at odds with the blankly-painted walls, with a fancy gold handle — but the only sound she could now hear was the susurration of the air conditioning, and the door resolutely remained closed. When after several seconds this showed no signs of changing, she turned back to sit down again — and stifled a shriek when she found a man had somehow seated himself behind the desk while her back had been turned.

Although he had a huge grey beard and long grey hair that flowed into it, and a craggy face seamed with lines and wrinkles, somehow he didn't seem elderly to her. And while the black patch that covered one of his eyes raised a little revulsion from the bit of Shinto she still harbored within her, it seemed to Megumi that he was anything but hampered by it; instead, the sharpness of his remaining eye, the way its gaze skewered her, whimpering slightly, to her chair, suggested quite the opposite. And he was built more like an athlete — a weightlifter, maybe, or a rugby player — than any elderly man she'd ever met before.

On top of that, he was wearing scarred and stained leather clothing that looked like nothing so much as armor. Megumi couldn't help feel more than a little terrified in his presence. She glanced about nervously, looking to see if he had a sword to go with it.

"Good morning, Miss Morisato," he intoned in a deep, resonant voice that made her want to relax and trust him, but she remained on her guard. "I've been meaning to have this little chat with you for a few weeks, but I haven't been able to work it into my schedule before now. However, a fortunate coincidence this morning has given me the opportunity to speak with you."

Megumi's eyes grew wide at this and she shrank back into her chair. "Where am I and who are you? And why did you want to talk to me?"

"Ah," he said, and smiled for the first time. Megumi couldn't help herself — all the tension drained out of her, and she felt comfortable and relaxed for the first time since being stolen from her dorm room. "My apologies, Miss Morisato. I should have introduced myself, as we will be related someday, in a manner of speaking."

"Related?" Megumi asked.

"Oh, yes!" he replied with a chuckle. "I am Belldandy's father, and I will eventually be your brother's father-in-law." He smiled again, which took the edge of terror off of her realization of his identity. "I am also essentially the CEO of the organization into which you convinced my other daughter, Skuld, to induct you."

"CEO...?"

"I'm your new boss, Megumi. And this is your employee orientation. Welcome to the family business."


Of all the places a summons from Kami-sama might have brought him, a dirt path in a forest was the last one that might have occurred to him, Chris reflected idly as he carefully surveyed his surroundings. Pine forest, old growth, the trees almost primeval in their size and age; heavy undergrowth everywhere but the narrow trail, little more than a line of bare earth, on which he had found himself. He was, he absently noted, no longer in armor, but still retained the other characteristics (as far as he could tell) of his Full Manifestation.

He was also quite alone.

"Okay, Boss, I'm hoping there's a good reason for this," Chris declared to the empty air, "because I don't like leaving the girls undefended with an army of demons screaming for blood outside the temple door."

"I assure you, son, there is," came a familiar voice from behind him. Chris whirled in place, automatically willing his armor and weapons into being, to find Kami-sama in his Odin aspect standing where seconds before he knew no one had been.

Chris banished his battle gear back to wherever it dwelt when he didn't need it and, disgruntled, muttered, "Still with the mind games, Boss?"

"And rest assured that your numerous other selves have matters at the temple well in hand."

Chris narrowed his eyes, but almost instantly realized that the Being before him was correct; it was, after all, the reason he had followed his instincts and called them all to the temple. For the moment, at least, one less fighter would not make a critical difference.

"All right," he said slowly. "What's this all about, then?"

Kami-sama smiled, a slight and indulgent upturn at one corner of his mouth, then inclined his head toward the path before them. "Walk with me, Christopher."


As I find my tears are all
Consumed by the Supernova

Urd blinked several times then rubbed her eyes as she tried to adjust to the new light level. "Bell...?" she murmured before her sight fully cleared.

"I'm here, Urd," Belldandy replied from somewhere to her right.

"Me, too," Skuld said from her left. "What happened?" she asked plaintively.

Urd's vision finally defogged at that moment, and after a quick glance, she wished it hadn't. "Oh, crap."

"What?" Skuld demanded.

The eldest Norn gazed around at the open space in which the three had unexpectedly found themselves, and the structures that ringed it. Familiar structures. "Father knows," she said simply.

Belldandy and Skuld paled. "Surely you must be mistaken," Bell whispered.

"I wish I were," Urd murmured. "And don't call me Shirley."

Despite the seriousness of the moment, Skuld rolled her eyes.

A flash of worry crossed Belldandy's face, but then her expression grew determined, and she squared her shoulders. "In that case, we will find Father and speak with him of our actions."

"No need," came a deep, male voice, and Kami-sama seemed to step out of the shimmering light. "I am here."


As the pain reached a crescendo, my vision blanked out in a sheet of blinding white light.

Why is it these things always go for for the cliched white-out or blackout? Why can't I get a gentle cross-fade, or maybe a bold wipe with a bit of an optical effect — or even better, a classic "dotted line racing across a map" — when I have to make a transition between levels of awareness or states of consciousness? It'd be a whole lot classier, and a lot more artistic.

Even better would be an iris out as I stuttered "Th-th-th-that's all, folks!" in a classically porcine style.

But no, it's always a fast transition to simple black or blinding white.

Feh. Amateurs.

Well, at least the pain had stopped. Of course, that was probably because I was out of my body now (as opposed to out of my mind, which I've noticed almost never stops the pain). Despite that, I felt surprisingly corporeal; although I couldn't actually see myself, I gave my chest a quick thump just to check, and yeah. Not just astral. Ectoplasm, maybe? Who knew?

So I'm standing there, and in a few seconds the blinding white dials down a few stops. It lets up just enough that I can start to see gradations of blinding white, kind of like photographic negatives of silhouettes, here and there, suggesting that I was in an actual place of some sort, as opposed to a mental construct.

Very interesting.

I was just starting to shade my eyes and squint to make out just what those shapes were when I heard it.

"Douglas Quincy Sangnoir."

A small still voice. I nodded to myself. "Of course. This whole thing was a setup from the start. Why am I not surprised?"


This time the Hope that lights the world
Is in my eyes

Watching people drink brandy in movies had not prepared Keiichi for the real thing. He managed not to react badly, but unlike the subtle wine-like taste he was expecting, the amber beverage was powerfully flavored and far stronger than the sake with which he was familiar. At least he knew from those films to merely sip it; if he had taken a full mouthful — or worse, gulped it down — he wasn't sure he could have avoided spitting it out in surprise. As it was he knew enough to consume it slowly and in small amounts, and that helped make it a bit more palatable.

Across the tiny table, Kami-sama savored his own glass for several minutes before holding it up and swirling its contents gently while apparently studying the fire through it. Keiichi watched him nervously as he took another tiny sip.

"You're wondering why I called you here," Kami-sama suddenly said without preamble, "given the... event you were part of when I did."

Keiichi nearly dropped his glass. "You know, what... what we were doing?"

Kami-sama barked a short, merry laugh. "Son, my job is all about knowing what's going on." Still smiling, he took another sip of his brandy, then added, "And sometimes helping others figure it out as well."

Despite their friendly tone, something about that suddenly set Keiichi to worrying. "Really?" he breathed, not trusting himself to speak at a normal volume.

"Certainly," Kami-sama replied, once again holding his brandy up to the fire and studying the flames through it. "There aren't as many frost giants around as there used to be, after all. I've got to have something to do with my time."

"Um..." was all Keiichi could think to say.

"So... having gotten that out of the way..." Kami-sama turned in his seat to look directly at him. "Let us talk about you... and Mara."


Megumi desperately wished she had a notebook, or a pad, or something on which she could have jotted notes. Kami-sama's introduction had started simply, but had quickly escalated to a very detailed examination of Heaven's operations, supported by a Powerpoint presentation that Megumi was pretty sure was displaying in more than the three dimensions in which she could see it.

At the end of it all, Kami-sama caught her eyes with his and asked, "I trust you now have a better idea of your position within our organization, and your role in our day-to-day operations?"

Outside, Megumi nodded enthusiastically. Inside she was frantically shaking her head "no!" and wondering if she could get a copy of his notes.

"Very good," Kami-sama said as he shut down the Powerpoint display, which vanished into the thin air out of which it had first appeared. As the lights in the office came back up to a comfortable level, he settled himself back into his seat. "Now, there's just one more thing before we're finished here."

"There is?" Megumi squeaked.

He smiled, a fatherly smile that should have made her feel like all was well with the universe and her place in it. Why it didn't, she had no idea.

She was afraid she was about to find out, though.

"We need to speak about you and Mara," Kami-sama said.

And there it was.

"Let's start with your mutual history," he continued, leaning back with a faint squeak from the pivots and springs of his chair.

Megumi took a deep breath, and told him.


There's a piece of my mind
That tries to fathom the stars

"I suppose I should start by offering you an apology, Christopher," Kami-sama said softly as they made they way along the path.

"An apology? For what?" Chris asked absently. The path, barely a deer-run where Chris had entered this... world? Space? Place? He mentally shrugged. The path had been barely visible to start with, but almost as soon as the two of them began to follow it, it had become a broad strip of packed white sand, wide enough for the two of them to walk side-by-side in full armor.

Kami-sama caught his eye and raised a brow. "For what? Well, I'm sure you're feeling a little... different now."

"Oh," Chris murmured. "That."

"Yes," Kami-sama said with a paternal chuckle. "That."

Chris stopped walking, and Kami-sama halted with him. "So. I'd suspected since that first meeting in your office that there was something more to me becoming a god than anyone was letting on." He waved a hand in a vague, expansive, inclusive gesture. "All this kind of proved it for me."

Kami-sama nodded. "You have to understand, son, we were in a bit of a hurry. We needed someone with certain... qualities..."

"Like a huge number of analogues in parallel universes?" Chris interrupted with a good-humored smirk.

"Just so," Kami-sama replied with another nod. "Among other things. And you fit the bill."

Chris frowned. "Did I ever really deserve a wish, or was it all a setup?"

Kami-sama clapped him on the shoulder. "You did indeed, son. You were already in the pipeline for a wish — have no doubts about that. We just... advanced your priority a little." He smiled gently. "If you doubt me, ask Belldandy. It was her Overself who moved you to the head of the wish queue."

"And the wish I made?" Chris pressed.

"Entirely your own." Kami-sama let go of his shoulder and turned to continue down the path. "Although we were prepared to... 'creatively misinterpret' any wish you made to get the result we needed, you made the perfect wish — for both you and us — entirely on your own." He paused after a step and looked back to Chris. "And believe me when I say that Heaven is in your debt for that." He started trudging down the path once more.

Chris considered that for a moment as he followed.


"Hello, girls," Kami-sama said.

"Father," they replied almost in unison — Belldandy with her head bowed over folded hands, Urd with eyes half-lidded in suspicion, and Skuld digging one toe into the ground and guiltily looking away.

He gestured, and four chairs — great, heavy throne-like affairs made of rough-hewn logs notched and planed and fitted together as though by a careless giant — appeared in a circle. "Come. Sit. And let us speak of why you have chosen to go ahead with a redemption which I declined to perform."

The three goddesses glanced among themselves for a moment before Belldandy straightened her back, lifted her chin, and seated herself demurely in the chair closest to her. Demurely, but not subserviently, for all that she was facing Kami-sama.

"Right," Urd said to herself, and took the seat to Belldandy's left. It would have surprised Keiichi to see her not in her usual slouch, but ramrod-straight.

And almost before she was seated, Skuld scrambled into the chair to Belldandy's right, imitating her sisters' postures without a thought, completing the wall of loving defiance facing Kami-sama.

"Well?" Kami-sama asked as he took the remaining seat.

Belldandy tilted her head inquisitively. "Why, should we have not?"

Urd almost chuckled at the audacity. Her little sister's sweet homemaker image was not all she was, though she rarely showed the other sides of herself. But she was Aesir, a warrior even if she wore a house dress and carried a casserole. And she was a Norn.

As were they all.

And despite the fact that all three of them called him "Father" and regarded him with loving deference, even Kami-sama himself was subject to them in the end, for not even the greatest of the gods was above the turnings of Fate.

Though some things are beyond even us, Urd thought sourly. Isn't that why we're here in the first place? If we could have averted Mara's fall from grace by simple fiat... Then she shook herself and returned her attention to the now and their confrontation with Kami-sama.

"Should you not have...?" he finally asked. "I forbade..."

"Umm, actually," Urd interjected raising a finger. "You didn't really forbid anything. You simply told us you wouldn't redeem Mara. You never said we couldn't try to do so by ourselves."

When Kami-sama smiled in response, Urd began to worry that perhaps she shouldn't have said anything.


"Douglas Quincy Sangnoir."

A small still voice. I nodded to myself. "Of course. This whole thing was a setup from the start. Why am I not surprised?"

"Why do you do this?"

"Do what?" I clamped down on my sudden, surging anger over being manipulated — again, dammit! — at the unexpected question. Instead, I forced myself to study the white and near-white shapes surrounding me, in the hope of getting a clue to where I was.

"You hate gods," the quiet voice whispered into my ear, "and you loathe demons. Yet you stood in the circle with a demon in your arms, playing a part in a ritual to Redeem her. Why do you bother? For another boast? Another glory to drape yourself with? Sangnoir the God-slayer is now Sangnoir the God-saver? Just a bit more proof that you're morally superior?"

I rolled my eyes. "God-slayer". Sure. One punch at the end of a long battle and I'm a figure of fucking legend. Well, since it frightened the rubes I'd gladly use the title I'd been given, but it dismissed the entire rest of the Warriors and their contributions to the fight. Which was, frankly, all of the real work — I'd whiffed on every attack but that last one. "You don't have a clue, do you?" I sneered, offended that this inhuman thing was trying to claim the moral and ethical high ground over me.

The voice declined to respond. Not that I was surprised. Well, then, that just meant it was time to cut loose a little.

I turned slowly in place, looking but not expecting to find the source of that little voice. "She's dying. Like I have to tell you that," I said, letting a little snarl creep into my voice. "And she wants to go home to die, but You. Won't. Let. Her. Well, screw that!" I shouted to the empty air.

"I don't care what she's done, I don't even care whether she's sorry for it or not now." The fact that I didn't have a focus for my anger just made me angrier. "All that matters to me is that she just wants one last view of her home before she, before she evanesces, and dammit, if I can help her I will."

And then I closed my eyes and forced myself to calm down. "Because even if I won't ever get home, at least I can make sure she will," I said much more quietly. "Because no one deserves to die alone and unloved, far away from home. Even a demon has that right, dammit. Even a demon! And if you deny her that, then you are a Being of consummate cruelty and evil, greater so than the demons you allegedly oppose, and unworthy of the devotion mortals offer you." I opened my eyes again, my lips set in a snarl at my invisible interlocutor. "And against such as you I have long ago sworn eternal war."


Or to contemplate the divine.
Don't need to look very far.

Although Keiichi was certain that Kami-sama knew everything about his run-ins with Mara already — he was Kami-sama, how could he not? — he duly recounted everything he could recall. Between carefully measured sips of brandy, he glanced over at Belldandy's father to see him nodding appreciatively at each story or anecdote.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, he was done, and Kami-sama nodded slowly. "She has... inconvenienced you, has she not?" he asked.

Keiichi couldn't help laughing, and somehow the sound of it echoing in the room with the crackling of the fire did not seem as disrespectful as he had feared it might. "I guess you could say that, sir. She scared the hell out of me the first few times we ran into her, but you know, after a while, she became just one of those things."

One grizzled, grey eyebrow lifted. "Just... one of those things?"

Keiichi chuckled nervously and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, life with Bell-chan — and Urd, and Skuld, and Chris — is never dull. There's always something supernatural showing up and making a mess of things. After a while, I just stopped worrying about what kind of thing it would be, and just... dealt with it as it happened, you know?"

"So even if Mara has been deliberately targeting you, or Belldandy..."

"Or anyone else."

Kami-sama acknowledged that with a nod of his head. "Or anyone else, out of malice?"

Keiichi shrugged. "After the fifth curse and the tenth transformation, it's hard to get worked up over the why. You just find the fix and get on with your day." He tilted his head and considered a moment. "Besides, isn't it in the nature of a demon to act like that? Why should I get upset over it? It'd be like getting angry at a bee for stinging."

"So you bear no ill-will toward Mara despite all she's done to you and yours," Kami-sama said, taking another sip from his own brandy.

"None," Keiichi replied. "'Hate the sin, not the sinner.' Isn't that what the Christians say?"

Kami-sama studied the fire through his brandy snifter again. "Some do, son. Some do."


It was the first time she had ever let it out — all the horror, all the fear, all the confusion and self-doubt and self-loathing that Mara's multiple violations had planted in her. All the terror and hatred that had blossomed when she'd discovered it had all been real and not the fevered imaginings of a diseased mind.

It all spilled out of her in a torrent of words and emotions that blurred together until Megumi found herself doing nothing more than howling wordless tears into Kami-sama's shoulder as he held her and gently rocked her back and forth. "There, there, child," he murmured as the stained and scarred leather against which she rested grew wet beneath her cheek.

Finally, the tears dwindled away, and she lay there, sniffling, against the dampened leather. "Mara has sorely tormented you," Kami-sama said softly as he pressed into her hand a silk handkerchief completely at odds with the scarred and stained leather armor he wore.

Megumi didn't notice the incongruity as she wiped her eyes and nose. "Uh-huh," she hiccuped around the brilliantly white cloth.

"Mara stole your body, your identity, your very substance from you."

"Yeah," Megumi whispered.

Kami-sama stroked her hair. "She transformed you into an inanimate object, for what you feared was forever, taking from you your very humanity."

"Yes," she moaned into his shoulder, and the leather scraped against the skin of her cheek and nose.

"All terrible crimes," Kami-sama agreed, "made more so by the abuse of power by one who had so much more of it than you. For these acts by themselves she surely deserves punishment. But is that all?"

Megumi lifted her face from where she had buried it against his leather armor and looked into Kami-sama's eyes. She wasn't certain what she had expected to see from this close, but all she could think of were her own father's eyes. Kami-sama had her father's eyes. "What?" she asked in confusion.

Kami-sama smiled again, a small, paternal smile quite unlike the broad grin with which he had welcomed her. "Has she not sinned against you in other ways?" he prompted.

"In other ways?" she repeated, and wracked her brains. Had she forgotten an encounter with Mara because it was so terrible, so horrifying, that she had buried it deep in her mind, never to be remembered?

No... somehow she knew that in this place, at this time, there was nothing hidden from her that she should know. And she had forgotten none of her dealings with the demon Mara.

But if that were the case, then...

Megumi frowned as she sifted through her thoughts and memories, seeking out what should have been obvious but wasn't. Until, finally...

She lifted her eyes again to meet Kami-sama's. "Yes," she said softly. "She has."


When You bring me
The reasons just to believe

When Doug screamed, when it all went white, Mara knew that they must have failed. She wondered how much longer she had left before the ritual, running wild, finished burning through the mortal who held her and turned its out-of-control energies on her.

She wondered how badly it would hurt, then dismissed the thought. It could not possibly hurt worse than her Fall.

Realizing this, she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and braced herself for the end — the Final end that came so rarely to god or demon.

She was still holding that breath with her eyes closed almost a minute later when she noticed Doug was no longer holding her. The grip had changed, and where there had been cool, slick leather under her shoulders and knees, there was now bunched cloth, smooth to the touch.

She opened her eyes and found herself gazing into a kindly face she hadn't seen in millennia.

"Father!" she gasped.

Then she burst into tears and buried her face into his shoulder.


In a matter of moments, the glare from the circle had grown too bright to even glance toward; it flooded the temple with light, banishing every shadow and every dark space between the rafters and around the tops of the columns, so bright that the colors of their clothing began to wash out.

Ami and Rachel clutched at each other, burying their faces in each other's hair away from the terrible light. They dropped to their knees and held each other upright as the floor beneath them began to hum and then vibrate in tune with a low, powerful rumble that seemed to originate from the circle before them. Within moments, the vibration had turned into outright shaking, and they struggled to remain upright as the floor beneath them bucked and rippled like an earthquake.

"What's happening?" Rachel shrieked, and Ami dared look into that overwhelming light again, in time to see seven pillars of pure white energy erupt from it, lancing skyward through the ancient wooden ceiling.


Outside, in the temple yard, the battle froze for a moment when seven great pillars of light exploded up and out of the temple. But with them came a surge of energy, a second wind that invigorated the endless variety of the defenders, and the battle was immediately re-engaged.


You bring me answers
I can't conceive.

"Tell me, Christopher," Kami-sama said as they continued on through the woods, "what are your thoughts about Mara?" The path, for all its width, had grown twisty and seemed to vanish completely into the forest not far ahead or behind them. Knowing Kami-sama, Chris half-suspected that the small segment of visible path just might be all there really was to it.

He frowned as the Boss's comment worked its way past his preoccupation. "Mara?"

Kami-sama nodded and made an affirmative noise. "You're at a critical juncture here, son, being asked to accept an enemy into your family. Are you really willing to take on another sister? Another responsibility?" He glanced sidelong at Chris, his one eye half-lidded in critical contemplation. "The two of you have been at each other's throats since the day you first met, after all."

"Don't remind me," Chris muttered, and Kami-sama laughed.

"Yes, that's well-worn ground we needn't go over again. But the question still stands — can you abandon your anger at her, your history with her, so you that can protect her like you do Urd, Belldandy and Skuld?" He stopped and turned to Chris, who had automatically stopped with him. "Are you willing to take on a contract, just as you have with them, and embrace her as a sister despite her demonic history?"

Chris stared at him, unbelieving, as around them the sounds of the forest seemed to swell. "Boss, in case you haven't noticed, I already have."

Kami-sama's lip quirked upwards into the faintest of smiles. "Indeed?" He clapped Chris on the shoulder. "Ah, good, good." Turning back to the path he began walking again. "Come along, son."

Chris frowned for a moment, trying to figure out just what had passed between them, before sprinting after him.


There was a long, long moment of silence, during which I began to wonder if I had just condemned myself. Good-bye, Maggie, I started to think. I did my best to get back to you. And Mara, I'm sorry for failing you.

Then the small, still voice spoke again.

"Not hubris or pride, then. Compassion. Empathy."

I nodded as surprise and relief washed over me. "Exactly."

"For a demon?"

"For a person," I corrected.

"An unlikeable person."

"So what? I don't need to like her to understand that she wants the same thing I want. I don't need to like her to know that I can help her."

"You don't have to help her, either."

"The hell I don't!" I bellowed into that white nothingness, my fists clenching as my anger reignited. "How can I say that I deserve to finally get home if I turn my back on someone else who wants exactly the same thing? I know how she feels! Exactly how she feels! And I'll be damned if I didn't help her when I could!"

"You could well be."

Oh, how I wanted to belt whatever face that quiet voice came from! "Don't give me that shit! I refuse to grant you any power over me, and I refuse to be bound by your hypocrisy!" I scowled as I spun in place again, looking for any hint of my interrogator. "If compassion for someone in pain is punished with damnation, well then, there are going to be a whole lot of good people in Hell who will have excellent reasons to hate you."

And then I let a sly smile creep across my lips. "And you know? If that's where I end up, I might just have to organize them and fight our way to your doorstep to register a grievance."

For a moment there was no response at all, and then, to my surprise, soft but hearty laughter blew through the white nowhere like a summer wind. "Somehow I have no doubt that you would do that very thing."

"You don't want to test me, old man," I warned, although I was smiling still. "I may have hubris enough for any two other people. But not here, not now. This is more important than that."

"Indeed it is, son. Indeed it is."

And then I was alone.


"The simple truth of the matter, Father, is that there is no justice in this, there is no rightness in this," Belldandy stated plainly. "No greater good is being served by denying Mara her request to see Heaven once more before she dies." She tilted her head as she studied the Leader of the gods. "One might even say there is deliberate cruelty here."

"Go, sis," Urd whispered.

Kami-sama tilted his head quizzically. "One might say?"

Belldandy lifted her chin and stared Kami-sama directly in the eyes as the mantle of Norn of the Present cloaked her in power and presence. "I might say, Father. I would say. In fact, I would say that you have been so concerned with Chris's final apotheosis that you have given up on Mara, that you have thrown her to the wayside like so much trash. I accuse you of having abandoned one of our own."

He returned her gaze steadily. "And wherefore do you care, daughter? Have you not been tormented by her shards in this and other timelines? Has she not actually killed all three of you outright in hundreds of worlds?"

"And have her unfallen fragments not helped us in dozens more?" Belldandy snapped. "There are worlds where she is a favorite older sister to my beloved Keiichi. There are worlds where she is a hero. There are worlds where she must live over and over as a mortal, always striving for and never reaching the divinity she cannot quite remember once possessing. If we are to judge her and determine her fate by a mere handful of timelines, why not choose these instead of those like the one we are in now?"

"She's still our sister," Urd said softly. "And we still love her."

"Even if she's been a real pain in this timeline and the others like it," Skuld added.

"If she must die," Belldandy declared, "then at least let her die with dignity within sight of the Golden City."


And how can I bring You doubt
When You bring me the sky?

There's something about brandy and a fire that's very relaxing, Keiichi thought to himself. It makes you admit things to God that you wouldn't if you were paying attention to what you were saying.

That he bore no ill-will toward Mara was as much a revelation to himself as it was an admission to Kami-sama. He hadn't realized that he'd relegated a First-class demon to the same level of inconvenience in his life that a traffic cone might present to him on a race track. I wonder if that means there's something wrong with me. And then, a moment later, I wonder if that means Kami-sama's going to be upset with me.

He glanced sidelong across the little end table at the satin-clad figure in the other chair.

"Your attitude does you honor, son," Kami-sama said suddenly, startling Keiichi. "It is a rare man indeed who could suffer so much at the hands of one like Mara and yet have neither anger nor a desire for revenge."

"Um, I don't know about that," Keiichi replied, again rubbing the back of his neck. "It just seems like it would be such a waste to hold a grudge."

Kami-sama nodded slowly, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "And what then is your opinion on redeeming Mara?"

He replied without hesitation. "If it would give her a few moments of happiness before she dies, why not? It seems to me that she deserves a little happiness, even more than most other people, if what Belldandy's told me about Hell is true."

Kami-sama set his snifter down on the table and reached out to clasp a large hand on Keiichi's shoulder.

"You are a good man, Keiichi Morisato. Never doubt that. I will be honored to have you as a son-in-law."

Keiichi gulped, narrowly avoiding flooding his throat with the last of the brandy in his glass.


Chris caught up to Kami-sama just as the path curved again, and slid in a loose patch of sand. He flailed his arms a moment to catch his balance, then leapt ahead to block their progress on the trail.

"Okay, Boss, what's going on?" he demanded.

"Going on, Chris?" Kami-sama replied with a raised eyebrow as he stopped and stood face-to-face with the younger god.

Chris raised a finger and held it before Kami-sama's face, and prepared to shake it for emphasis. "You're way too calm about all this, Boss. You're not surprised at any of this." As the forest noises around them faded away to silence he added, "This whole thing, from the moment you refused to redeem Mara, it was a setup, wasn't it?"

Kami-sama studied him for a long moment, and then with a faint smile nodded slowly. "Yes, son, it was."

Chris lowered his hand. "Why?"

"That critical juncture I mentioned?" Kami-sama's gaze burned its way through his eyes and into his brain. "It was not just your critical juncture."

He stepped around Chris and continued walking. "If Mara is redeemed, if she survives," he called back over his shoulder, "you will not just be family. The two of you will be working together. You are reflections of each other, counterparts and complements." He stopped on the white sand, but did not turn around. "That is, if you choose to; I cannot make you do this. But I hope that you will."

"So this is, what? My final test?" Chris called after him.

Slowly, Kami-sama turned back to face him. His mien was far more serious than it had been moments before. "No, son. You have passed all the tests long ago. You have fully embraced your true nature. No, this is... Consider this your first act in your new office. One that will set the tone for your entire tenure therein."

Confusion raced across both Chris's face and his heart. "My new office?"

Kami-sama nodded. "Of course. You did not think such a change in your very nature would not be reflected in a change in your duties and responsibilities, did you? You are the one born of many, and that makes you many things at once. You are Paradox," and Kami-sama counted off one finger. "You are Moments." A second finger. "You are the Guardian." A third finger. "And you are Champion Eternal." A fourth and final finger.

As Kami-sama ticked off the titles, Chris realized that the light was changing; behind the All-Father, the path ahead was slowly vanishing in a building glow of pure white.

"Boss?"

"Into your hands I place my trust and confidence, Christopher." The glaring light had begun to stream around and blur the edges of Kami-sama's form, bleeding over and starting to obscure his features.

"Wait a second there, Boss!"

And then the forest was gone, replaced by the brilliant white light on all sides. Nothing was left, not sand nor trees nor any hint of Kami-sama's presence, save for the voice that spoke once more from the light.

"Oh, and Christopher? Bring Rachel and Ami to my office soon. I think it is high time that the three of us finally met."

And at that, the light flared, blinding Chris, and he felt the call of the mortal world.


This time it feels like I've been
Touched by a Supernova

Mara buried her face in the white samite, refusing to look up at the One who held her. Instead, she wept — wept for her sisters, wept for herself, wept for the brother she had never really gotten to know. She wept, and her tears soaked the smooth, soft fabric beneath her face.

"Father, Abba, Daddy," she moaned softly. "I was wrong, I was bad, forgive me, please let me come home to die."

"Daughter..."

"I miss you, Daddy, I've missed you so much and I love you and I'm so sorry..." she cried. "Please let me see Heaven one more time, please let me come home. Oh, Daddy, I want to come home!"


Megumi straightened and looked Kami-sama in the eye.

"Forget about what she's done to me. For everything she's done to my brother Keiichi, I can never forgive Mara," she said, tears forgotten and her voice cold.

"Indeed?" he asked. "Although she did little more than taunt and inconvenience him, while her attacks upon you were far worse?"

"I love my brother, sir," Megumi said softly. "He's never had much luck with women. He's always fallen for the..." She glanced at Kami-sama, then continued. "For the bitches, and the snobs. Beautiful, elegant — but cruel and selfish. He's had his heart broken so many times that I was sure he would give up on women completely, that he'd never find someone who would love him.

"And then he met Belldandy." She closed her eyes and smiled. "The day I met her, I could see right away she wasn't one of the bitches, that there was something real about the way she got along with Kei." She laughed. "I told her she was practically a goddess. I guess I have good instincts."

Kami-sama chuckled, but said nothing.

"And to see how happy he is with Belldandy... I can only hope to be that happy someday." She shook her head. "Mara has chosen to attack my brother's happiness. That is what I cannot forgive."

"You know what my daughters are attempting?" Kami-sama asked.

"Yeah," she replied.

"I put its success or failure in your hands, Megumi Morisato. You need only say yea, and Mara is restored to her former glory, to look upon the vistas of Asgard once more. Say nay, and she perishes unredeemed."

Megumi found herself free of Kami-sama's embrace, standing several feet away and staring in shock at him, every muscle in her body tensed as if to flee. She couldn't remember tearing herself free, but she must have. "Are you crazy?" she demanded, forgetting for a moment just who she was speaking to. "You can't put that on me! At least bring in Keiichi to help decide!"

Kami-sama smiled gently at her. "Your brother has already forgiven Mara of all her trespasses against him. And, I daresay, any she may yet make."

Megumi blinked, opened her mouth, shut it, and blinked again. The tension of her body slowly faded as her expression grew thoughtful. "Yeah, he would've, wouldn't he? Keiichi never could hold a grudge." Her eyes narrowed. "Why does it even matter that I make a decision? Skuld explained how you all work, that what I'm seeing" — and here she gestured broadly at Kami-sama's leather-clad burliness — "isn't the real you, but a kind of puppet. Why should I have to decide the fate of a puppet? It's not like the real Mara is going to be affected. It's not like I'd be taking real revenge on her. Whatever happens here, the real Mara just goes back to wherever you spend your time and the puppet gets tossed back in a box or something."

Kami-sama gestured, and the floating screen from the Powerpoint presentation reappeared. "Normally, you would be correct. But Mara is... a special case. Her Fall was a terrible and destructive one."

Upon the screen played a film of a plate falling from a shelf. When it hit the ground, it broke, but most of its many pieces stayed together, retaining the general shape of a plate while still broken beyond repair. Kami-sama continued. "She shattered into an untold number of lesser beings, some of whom stayed divine, most of whom did not. They are all still connected, though, holding themselves, and her, together — however loosely." The film ended and the screen vanished again. "But her together-but-separate state is not stable. When one of her many selves dies..."

"...they all will," Megumi whispered, suddenly comprehending.

"Precisely," Kami-sama confirmed. "If you say nay, Mara dies unredeemed, tormented, permanently, for real, throughout the infinite timelines of the multiverse." Then he shrugged. "Of course, if you say yea, she is dying anyway, but she will at least have one last moment of joy before the end of her existence." He leaned in toward her, his eyes intent on hers. "What say you, Megumi Morisato? Will you take vengeance on Mara for your brother by denying her last wish?"

Horrified, Megumi took a step back. Her mind spun in place like tires in mud, thoughts racing and chasing their own tails. Above all stood the desire for revenge on Mara, the desire to hurt and punish her.

And it was not what she had expected.

If she had been given the chance to declare whether Mara lived or died, she could have chosen without a second thought. She could have condemned Mara to death in an instant.

But that was denied her. No matter what happened, Mara was dying already. In minutes, perhaps, she would be dead.

No, what she had been offered was the chance to torture Mara in the final moments of her existence. To snatch away the last hope she would ever have, to deny her a minute's comfort at the end.

Megumi could not execute Mara for her crimes. She could only inflict a final cruelty.

Why did death seem cleaner, purer than cruelty? Megumi envisioned herself ordering Mara's death, and could feel nothing but satisfaction at the idea. But ordering the failure of Mara's redemption, ordering her barred from Heaven for the last seconds of her existence — why did that horrify her?

Was hope that much more important than life?

And with that question, Megumi closed her eyes and envisioned herself in Mara's place.


Inside the Hand that touches hearts
Is touching mine

What seemed like an eternity later, Megumi lifted her head, opened her eyes, and met Kami-sama's gaze. Her face bore the marks of confusion, but when she spoke, it was with confidence and strength.

"I can't do that to her. So help me, I can't," she said softly but firmly. "I can't return cruelty with cruelty." She looked upward, as if seeing something beyond the ceiling overhead.

"Let it work."


"Mara."

"Yes, Daddy?"

"It's time to come home."

"Daddy?"

"Come home... Marller."


There is another phenomenon that, by the end of the twentieth century, had been noted many times over the course of the previous several hundred years: the universe seems to like symmetry.

Perhaps "like" is the wrong word. The universe is not a conscious entity, after all — probably — and anthropomorphizing it is the ultimate example of the pathetic fallacy — probably. So maybe it's better to say that something inherent to the nature or structure of the universe tends to encourage or produce symmetries. As a result, things both great and small often appear in complementary pairs: charges, spins, particles; genders; matter and antimatter; light and darkness; good and evil; death and taxes; Abbott and Costello.

This is important for many different reasons.

The reason that is relevant right now is named Paradox. Paradox, who moments ago had been an uncounted number of separate individuals spread across an infinity of universes.

Paradox, who has just self-assembled into a 12-dimensional hive-mind gestalt unlike anything seen before by god or demon.

Whether symmetry has anything to do with self-assembly is unclear. It probably does, somewhere down the line — one of the first rules of many different areas of study is that everything is connected to everything else. The degree to which this is true varies by the field being studied, but not the fact that it is true.

It is most certainly true here.

Megumi would come close to comprehending exactly what had happened after musing on the events of that morning some days later. Remembering Skuld's lecture on the nature of the Four and their male counterparts, she would almost immediately realize that Paradox and Mara were linked together in some way she could intuit but not quite explain intellectually — which, as an engineer, she would ever after find profoundly annoying.

What she would fail to grasp for several more years (at which time it would annoy her even further) was that even before his self-assembly the connection between Mara and Paradox was more than merely metaphoric, that like many other symmetrical pairs, they inherently and actively reflected each other. Almost all of their reflections were equal opposites, mirroring each other's state: male/female; newest/oldest; sworn to Heaven/servant of Hell; newly-born/nearly-dead; yet to combine/broken into uncounted pieces.

But in one thing they were identical: They were both gods, and they had both been in pieces for far too long.

Now, one of the odd things about self-assembly is that the state of the component parts being separate holds a kind of tension, like a spring pulled taut, that is relieved by falling together and fixing themselves in place.

So it was with Mara, who was once called Marller. Shattered though she was, her component personae still sought, however unconsciously, their original unified state — but distance (or something analogous to it in the 12-dimensional time-space inhabited by the gods in their true, whole forms), damage, the polar opposition (that is to say, the symmetry) of hell and heaven, and finally the equally separate state of her male counterpart (yet another symmetry) all combined to hold them apart — apparently until time and death severed their links once and for all.

Until symmetry was broken by Paradox's self-assembly, and the delicate balance of forces within Mara's multitudinous self was changed by one solitary incarnation changing sides.

After that, it was perhaps inevitable.


As I find my tears are all
Consumed by the Supernova

A deafening explosion like thunder reverberated within the temple, and Mara's floating figure was catapulted upward almost into the ceiling. Doug was flung to the floor at the same moment, where he tumbled bonelessly until he fetched up against the wall of energy that ringed the ritual space along its outermost boundary.

High above the floor, Mara hung motionlessly, her head thrown back, arms spread wide, blonde curls streaming in an unfelt wind. Ami and Rachel gaped, wondering what was coming next.

They didn't have long to wait.

There was a crack, and a flash of light, and instead of the fragile blonde, a brawny-looking man in what looked to be vigorous middle age hung in her place; he was dressed in jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt, and his silver hair was tied back into a ponytail. In one hand he held a medieval-looking battleaxe.

Almost as soon as his appearance had registered, there was another flash and crack, and now in his place there was a olive-skinned woman with a Roman nose and night-black hair, clad in black leather armor and holding a gleaming sword in one hand.

Once more, crack, flash, and a new figure: female again, in gleaming plate armor fitted to her lush curves, a massive broadsword held in salute before her hidden face with both hands. Almost as soon as she appeared...

Crack, flash. A woman with waist-length purple hair and golden wings in a long white gown; in one hand she held a staff with a circular headpiece of gleaming metallic gold. She was visible for barely a moment before...

Crack, flash. A black-haired Japanese woman in a colorful leotard with tights and leg warmers, a red headband visible across her forehead. Ami and Rachel hardly had time to register her when...

Crack, flash. A Middle Eastern beauty, with amber-brown hair cascading in waves through a headdress of fine golden chains, dusky skin, and wings, spread but held low. Then...

Crack, flash. A woman with the head of a lion, clad in a tight red sheath. Crack, flash. An Indian-looking woman in red robes and a golden crown, with eight arms. Crack, flash. A pale woman in black robes with black hair to her knees, a crow perched on her shoulder. Crack, flash. A black-skinned woman draped in brown and green cloth with a serpent coiled over her shoulders and a crossbow in her hand, hovering in a whirlwind of leaves.

Each appeared faster than the one before, until Ami and Rachel could no longer distinguish between them. There was only the humanoid blur that hung high above the temple floor — a blur of skin color, of clothing, of features, of hair — and the flashes that had merged into a continuous glow even as the cracks became a single, interminable roll of thunder that flooded the temple and shook it to its foundations.


This time the Hope that lights the world
Is in my eyes

From his perch in the rafters above the temple's entrance, Senbei watched as something beyond his experience took place. He had no idea what was happening, except that the one he had served so faithfully for so many years was going somewhere he could not follow. Hiding from the shafts of light blazing through the door, he huddled in the shadows, rocking himself back and forth and keening softly, "Noooo, Mistress Mara! Don't leave Senbei! Take Senbei with you, pleeeeease!"

*SUCH LOYALTY IN THE FACE OF THE PIT SHOULD BE REWARDED.*

The Voice was one Senbei had never heard before, and had never expected to hear. In shock, he stopped his rocking and looked upwards. "Master?" he whispered.

*FEAR NOT. YOU SHALL NOT BE SEPARATED.*

And then the rafters were unoccupied.


There's a light in my eyes
There's a light in my eyes

"WHAT'S HAPPENING?" Rachel shrieked over the deafening roar.

"I DON'T KNOW, BUT IT CAN'T GO ON FOREVER!" Ami howled back.

And it didn't.

The overwhelming noise of Marller's reassembly grew in volume and rose in pitch. Her floating figure blurred beyond any measure of recognizability as beings and creatures that were not even remotely human in form flickered through the process of joining themselves to her. As it spiraled up from a roar into a screech it suddenly ceased, leaving behind a quiet that was almost deafening in its unexpectedness, a silence that was all but undisturbed by the sounds of battle outside.

Ami and Rachel blinked, released their hold on each other, and turned as one to look to the center of the temple.

Six pillars of light still hid the Norns, Chris, and the Morisato siblings. Doug still lay sprawled on the floor, though he seemed to be stirring.

And where Marller had been hung a roiling cloud of energy, shot through with streamers of multicolored lightning.

It pulsed once, then a second time.

No fools they, Ami and Rachel dove for the floor.

Then that which had been Marller exploded, emitting a brilliant white shockwave which washed over the two women and passed — apparently harmlessly — through the temple walls.

Rachel and Ami glanced at each other across the floorboards, then as one raised their heads in time to see the familiar, blonde form of Marller drop out of the air and into the arms of a stumbling, smoking Doug.


The light of the Supernova glowing in my eyes

Rachel scrambled to her feet and absently offered Ami a hand up as the pillars of light vanished without a sound, leaving behind the rest of the ritual participants. With a wordless cry, the two mortal girls flung themselves across the floor to wrap themselves around a confused and stunned-looking Chris.

At the same time, Keiichi sprinted to Belldandy, and caught her up in a powerful and expressive embrace as Urd and Skuld joined them.

Megumi stood alone, arms wrapped around herself, and tried to look at anything but Doug, still standing at the center of the ritual circle, swaying slightly with Marller limp in his arms.

A few moments later, their embrace finished — or at least suspended for the moment — Belldandy and Keiichi turned their attention to Doug and Marller. Slowly, almost fearfully, they crossed the floor to the two. Belldandy held a loosely curled hand before her mouth, her concern written plainly upon her face.

They paused a step away from Doug, who stood unsteadily, wisps of smoke drifting up from the singed grey leather he wore. In his arms, Marller lay still, almost too still. Belldandy reached out tentatively to touch Marller, only to draw back her hand at the last second. She looked up at the goggled face. "Is she...?" she began as Urd and Skuld joined them.

"She..." Doug croaked, then coughed, spitting out a small puff of smoke. He wheezed, then tried again. "She's breathing," he croaked, his voice thick and hoarse. "I think... I think that's a good sign." He swayed, stumbling slightly as he tried to keep his balance, and Keiichi stepped forward, holding out his arms.

"Here, I'll take her," he offered.

"'Kay," Doug coughed, and handed her over ever-so-gently.

Belldandy brushed Marller's hair out of her face and caressed her cheek, then turned her attention back to the mortal who had made this moment possible. He was starting to sway even further, despite being relieved of his burden. "Doug," she asked, "are you all right?"

"Juuuuust peachy," he croaked. He raised his right hand as if to pat her shoulder reassuringly, but missed. He tried again, and missed again. Slowly, almost drunkenly, he turned his head to look accusingly at his hand.

Then he fell over.

Before he could hit the ground, though, Urd caught him. Scooping an arm under his shoulders and another under his knees, she lifted him up as though he weighed no more than a child. Then she looked down upon Doug and smiled. "Rest now, thou good and faithful servant," she murmured. "Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this," she added as her smile grew ever-so-slightly playful.

"Why don't you two take Marller and Doug back to the house and see that they're both comfortable while they recover?" Belldandy asked as she watched Megumi from across the floor.

"What about the demons outside?" Keiichi asked nervously.

"Haven't you noticed?" Skuld piped up. "It's quiet out there. Nii-chan must have beaten... them..." She trailed off as she remembered that Chris was in the temple with them. "Oneesan?" she asked, looking up at Belldandy. "Do you think...?"

Belldandy nodded. "Yes, I believe so. We'll know soon enough, in any case." She turned back to Keiichi. "Go on, it's safe. We'll be in after you in just a few minutes."

Acquiescing with a nod, Keiichi pecked Belldandy on the cheek, and then headed for the door followed by Urd. They were met there by Chris and the girls, who unbarred the portal and held it open for them.

Meanwhile, Belldandy crossed the floor, with Skuld at her heels. "Megumi?" she asked, standing before the girl.

Megumi looked up in surprise, as if startled out of deep thought by Belldandy's interruption. Eyes wide, she stared at the Norn of the Present for a long moment without speaking, then dropped to her knees. Reaching out, she took Skuld's hand and kissed it, then took Belldandy's hand and kissed it as well.

"Hey!" the younger goddess objected.

"Megumi?" Belldandy repeated, unfazed by this.

"I didn't really understand it before," Megumi said without preamble. "But you... you're all so much more than you seem to be, aren't you?"

Belldandy smiled, and next to her, Skuld silently went "ooooh" in comprehension. The older goddess reached down and effortlessly lifted Megumi back to her feet, then kissed the mortal girl on the forehead. "Yes, Megumi," she said, holding the girl's hands in her own. "We are. But then, so are you."

"What?"

"C.S. Lewis, one of Father's favorite authors, once said: 'There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.'" Her smile grew in brilliance as she released one hand so that she could raise it and cup Megumi's cheek. "You are an everlasting splendour, Megumi. I have it on the Highest authority."

Baffled, Megumi simply shook her head. "But you don't belong here! You should be in heaven!" she blurted.

Belldandy's gaze grew distant and loving. "Wherever Keiichi is, Megumi, there is heaven." She patted Megumi's cheek. "Why, this is Asgard, nor am I out of it."

Then she turned and left the temple as Megumi stared after her.

A moment later, Megumi felt an insistent tug, and looked down to see Skuld pulling on her hand. "C'mon. Let's go get some ice cream."


Keiichi and Urd paused on the temple engawa, stunned at the sight before them. Behind them, Chris, Ami and Rachel halted as well.

It was not the broken bodies of demons, already fading away, dissolving, or breaking down into dust in the light of day that rendered both speechless, although by itself the sight might have. It was not the crude stone and wood wardcracker broken in half as if by a monstrous karate chop, sprawled splintered in the center of the temple yard, though that, too, would have given them pause on any other day.

It was the army there contemplating its victory in quiet satisfaction — an army whose every member bore a disturbing resemblance to Chris.

It took a moment for their exit from the temple to be noticed, but when it was, the forces directly in front of them parted, forming an avenue of sorts for them. Wordlessly, the five of them stepped down, Urd and Keiichi careful of their burdens, and into the temple yard. As they passed, some of the Chris lookalikes bowed, some saluted, and others simply watched.

And some responded more vehemently.

"Colonel Sangnoir! Oh. My. God!"

They paused as a female voice rang out, one shaded with the distinctive accent of the southern United States. Keiichi and Urd exchanged a glance of surprise then turned towards the source.

There, shoving her way through the throng of, well, Christophers, was a woman in a spandex bodysuit that appeared to be based on a black-and-yellow variant of the flag of the Confederate States of America, from the era of the American Civil War. She was muttering something about the male genome being stupidly tall — with good reason, as she was all but invisible until she broke through the front ranks. She couldn't have been much more than a meter and a half tall, Keiichi noted, though voluptuously built in a way that almost made him blush. A wild tousle of dark coppery-red hair topped a thoroughly freckle-kissed face.

Finally free of the wall of her counterparts, she skidded to a halt in front of Urd and her load. She looked like she wanted to lunge into a hug of the unconscious man, but held herself back at the last second. She stared at his limp form, then locked eyes with Urd. "Is he... I mean, Colonel Sangnoir's not... I mean..."

Chris wracked his brains for a moment to pull her name up out of the knowledge he'd gained when his analogues had joined with him. Who was she again? Oh. Oh wow. Chris' eyes widened when he realized that this tiny woman was his analogue from Doug's home timeline — Captain Alena Jordan, codenamed "Rebel Yeller", from Warriors Delta in the Sinai Peninsula, recently promoted from lieutenant. Wow. "Captain Jordan," he began, "Alena..."

To his surprise she snapped to attention and saluted him. "Sir!"

He sighed. "At ease, soldier. I'm not your commanding officer."

She relaxed and grinned at him over Urd's shoulder. "Oh, Ah wouldn't say that, not here an' now." Then she grew serious again. "Is Colonel Sangnoir all right?" she asked.

"He'll be fine," Urd replied with an amused little glance down at her burden. "He just pushed himself to the edge and a little past."

Alena laughed. "The usual, then." She smiled fondly. "Ah can't wait to tell Major Maggie about this when Ah get back — she'll be so happy hear that Ah've seen him." She looked back up at Chris and grinned. "Not ta mention that Wetter Hexe an' Alpha've been goin' spare tryin' to find him. They'll be glad to have some mo' intel on his movements."

Keiichi cleared his throat. "I don't really want to interrupt, but Marller's getting a little heavy..."

The tiny redhead squeaked. "I'm sorry. Do you need a hand carrying her?"

"I think that's our cue," said Louis as he, Hiroshi, Juhachi, and Takeshi pushed their way out of the Chris crowd. "Sorry, Captain," he said with a bow to Alena, "but this is our duty as the honor guard for the Redemption." Behind him, Hiroshi had already relieved Keiichi of Marller's unconscious form. With a shake of her head, Urd had refused to hand over Doug, though, and Juhachi and Takeshi had settled for flanking her.

Alena looked a little nonplussed but nodded an acknowledgment. "Fair 'nough."

"C'mon," Juhachi said, "let's get these two inside. You can talk to your reinforcements later, Chris." He grinned back over his shoulder.

As Alena melted back into the crowd, the small procession began again, slowed only by the continuing salutations offered to Chris. It took several more minutes before they actually were able to enter the house. "By the way," a male voice drifted through the windows shortly thereafter, "anyone care to tell me where that crowd came from, and why they all look like Chris?" A moment's silence, then... "Except for the giant robot, that is."


Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Nekomi Ward, Saturday, May 31, 1997, 5:23 PM

My first thought on waking was, "Hey, I know this ceiling."

My second thought on waking was, "If I'm looking at a ceiling after what we had planned, it just might be a bad sign."

So I did a physical inventory and turned up... nothing wrong. Which to be honest surprised me. I don't remember being in particularly good shape toward the end there — in fact, I kind of expected not to wake up at all given what I'd felt happening to my body.

"Yes, you're alive," said a familiar voice — one I hadn't expected to hear regardless of the outcome of the ritual. I turned my head toward the voice, blinked twice, then propped myself up on my elbows to take a better look.

"Mara?" I asked. And not without at least a little justification. For one thing, she was alive.

Then there was her appearance. The Mara who had gone into the circle with me, while definitely female, could pull off the androgynous thing without much trouble had she cared to (and according to Chris's stories, she had cared to at least once in his experience).

Mara now actually had a figure that would make it a lot more work to pass as a male. The hair was the same explosion of golden curls, which worked very well with the new contours. And blood-colored broken "V" on her forehead was gone. In its place were blue marks not unlike her sisters': a pair of small shield shapes lurked at the corner of each eye, and on her forehead was a four-pointed star with the top point stretched out to make a kind of stylized sword-shape.

She was sitting on a cushion next to my futon as if she had been watching over me.

Seeing my reaction to her change in appearance, she grinned. "In the flesh, so to speak." She tilted her head. "How do you feel?"

I took stock of myself. "I feel good," I said with some surprise. "I feel better than James Brown. I feel better now." I narrowed my eyes and looked her up and down. "How do you feel?"

She laughed. "By which you mean, 'aren't you supposed to be dead?'"

"Yeah." I lifted myself up off the futon with my arm strength and pulled my legs under me in a classic "indian" position. "What happened?"

"I got better," she said with a smirk.

I gave her a Look, and she laughed again.

"The Redemption changed the conditions that were killing me, and I ... reassembled," Mara explained. "You can ask Bell for the details, but it boils down to that I'm no longer the multiverse's worse case of split personality." She looked smug for a second or two. "And once my Overself was back to normal, all my avatars were reset to their default base states." She made a sort of "as you can see" gesture, adding, "And voila, back to perfect health."

Then she smirked. "You, on the other hand, needed a bit more work under the hood."

I studied her for a moment. "How much work?"

She shrugged. "A fair amount. Belldandy knocked herself out putting you to rights."

"She what?" I started scrambling to my feet.

"Sit down, she's fine," Mara ordered, waving me back to my futon. "She didn't hurt herself, just used up all her energy. Sleep's how she recharges."

"No bullshit?"

"No bullshit," she confirmed.

"So now what?" I asked.

Mara got this serene look on her face. "Now, I go back to what I used to do before I Fell. I go back to who I was."

"Who you were?"

She smiled broadly through the serenity. "Exactly. I'm not Mara any more. I'm me again."

Okay, this was getting a little strange. "Yeah? Who are you then?"

She lowered her eyes, and the memory of old pain crossed her face. "When I Fell, I was no longer myself; my Name was taken from me, and I was made into Mara by Hell. When you and my sisters and brother Redeemed me, when my shattered self was healed, Father restored my Name to me. I am as I was. I am once again Marller." She smiled at me again, the same smile that Belldandy had. "But there's more."

I tilted my head. "Like what?"

She closed her eyes and lifted her chin, and for a moment her face was transformed into something more than the human guise she wore. Then she opened her eyes and looked into mine. "In one world, I was reborn as a dancer named Linna Yamazaki, who grew and lived as a mortal and came into her birthright on the eve of the Apocalypse. In another, I never Fell, and a people of horses and plains do me duty and worship. In yet another, I invest avatar after avatar, calling to myself each time the best and brightest in the arts of war to do battle against the Dark. I have been Sekhmet, Mylee, Ishtar, Michael, Athena and a billion others, and I will be a billion more before the worlds grow dim and cold.

"The Three were once the Four — the Maiden, the Warrior, the Mother and the Crone. I am whole again. I am the Warrior."

The memory of an 80s song lyric bubbled up from the depths of my mind, and I couldn't resist the urge. "Shootin' at the walls of heartache?"

"Bang, bang," Marller confirmed with a smile, and I laughed.

Maiden, Warrior... waitasecond. That rang a bell. I wracked my brain and found what I was looking for.

"Maiden, Warrior, Mother, Crone," I quietly recited the Shin'a'in warsong I'd learned from Dee so long before, during my two-and-a-half-year stay in Velgarth.

"Help us keep this land our own.
Rover, Guardian, Hunter, Guide,
With us now forever ride."
"Yes," Marller said with a smile. "Exactly."

I nodded thoughtfully to myself. "Chris is the Guardian, isn't he?"

She nodded. "He is now, after so long without one to take up the role." She held out her hand, fingers spread, and pointedly studied it, as if examining her manicure.

"So what about the other three? The Rover, the Hunter, and the Guide?"

"The Rover..." Her eyes grew distant and shaded. "The Rover has crossed your path once already on your journey, and will cross it again." She sighed. "Like Chris before today, he has not yet fully awakened to his divine status, although he is aware of his destiny. Which is as it should be."

"Hm." I tried to think of who the Rover could be. He had to be male, powerful, and a wanderer among worlds like me if he were going to run across me twice. No one came to mind, which led me to suspect he might be disguising himself.

"And before we get too far off the topic...." Marller interrupted my musings.

I looked up at her. "Yes?"

She reached behind herself and brought out something that looked like a CD jewel case, and held it out to me. Curious, I took it. It had no insert, so I could see through the clear plastic to the disk inside, which was the usual plain silvery polycarbonate save for a single word printed on it in large, black block letters: "GODS". I opened the case, took the disk out, and turned it over to examine it. The underside had the shimmery rainbow effect caused by the pits and plateaus of the data encoding; it was perhaps a bit too bright and rainbowy, but otherwise seemed completely normal.

"What," I asked as I put it back in the case, "is this?"

"I owe my very existence to you, Doug," Marller said softly. "Without your help in the ritual, I would be dead now."

"Not necessarily," I pointed out as I tried to hand the disk back to her. "Skuld's original plan had a definite non-zero chance of success."

Marller shook her head. "We both know how small that 'non-zero chance' was. You were the deciding factor in my survival." She took a deep breath. "In return, I am making a promise to you. Any time you ever need me, no matter where you are, no matter what universe or time, I will come, in one way or another." She tapped the jewel case in my hand. "This is a physical token of my promise. You need only take it out of the case and call my name, and I will respond."

I studied first the disk and then her. "You're serious. You're actually giving me a hot line directly to you. The real You — the Warrior, not just Marller."

She nodded solemnly. "Yes."

"And what would you do if I called on you?"

She leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes. "Whatever it is in my power to do."

I matched her, eye to eye, for a long moment, then nodded myself. Without taking my eyes off hers, I opened the case, took the disc out, and held it in my hand. "Marller, send me..."

I suddenly found her fingertips over my mouth as she shook her head sadly. "I can't return you home. There's something you must do on your journey — I-as-Marller don't know what — and I-The-Warrior am not allowed to prevent it. But anything else, ask and I shall do it. So mote it be!"

Just like when Skuld had promised to fix my motorcycle, and later when Belldandy had sworn on blood to always tell me the truth, Marller's marks flashed bright white, and I felt that solid click sensation through my mage gift. I suppressed the urge to sigh. She had gone ahead and locked it in. "I really wish you hadn't done that," I said softly as I removed her hand from my mouth. "I don't want a genie in a bottle."

Marller tilted her head inquisitively. "Then what do you want?"

I looked at the disc that I still held, then back up to her. "A friend? Someone to complain to when the road is hard and the days are lonely? Someone to offer advice and help, but not do the whole job for me?"

She thought about that for a minute, then slowly smiled. "I think I can do that."

"Of course, if you ever find you can send me right home," I added with a smirk, "I'll wish for that in a New York minute."

"Fair enough," she chuckled.

At that point my stomach growled rather loudly.

Marller laughed. "Exercising my godly omniscience, I determine that you are hungry." She rose to her feet and held out her hand. "C'mon. It's time for dinner anyway."

"Right." I let her hoist me to my feet — she was quite a bit stronger than a normal would be, surprise surprise — and rolled my head around my shoulders, making little crackling noises in my neck. "Say, if Bell's out cold, who's cooking?"

Her eyes widened. "I have no idea."

I crossed to the door and paused. "Who else in this house can cook?" I asked as I tugged on the pull.

The door slid open, and a glowing, winged shape shot into the room. "Mistress!"

Urd followed it in. "This little fellow claims to be with you, Nee-chan," she said with her usual sly grin.

Marller raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Mistress! Mistress!" The flitting glow screeched to a hover next to Marller's head, and I finally got a good look at it. It had a vaguely pixie-like appearance — an attractive, almost cutesy, miniature humanoid form, maybe thirty, thirty-five centimeters tall, male (or at least male-ish), with a surprisingly stocky build, a Byronesque shock of blond hair, and blurring hummingbird wings mounted on its back. Its entire body radiated a golden light, but its eyes burned like two tiny stars. A faint floral scent seemed to follow wherever it went.

Marller regarded the apparition quizzically. "And who might you be?" she asked it.

"Senbei!" it declared in its piping voice. "Senbei is Senbei!"

That seemed to mean something to Marller, because her eyebrows shot up into the cloud of golden curls that topped her head. "Senbei? Really?"

The tiny form nodded so fast it looked almost like a woodpecker at work. "Yes! Senbei did not want to be left alone, wanted to go with Mistress. Without Mistress Senbei has nothing, is nothing. Senbei wanted to enter temple but was afraid, and begged to be with Mistress. Almighty heard, Almighty said," (and here the piping voice deepened to the merely lower soprano range) "'Such loyalty is to be rewarded' and..." Senbei spun in the air like a hyperkinetic top, then came back to a steady hover. "Senbei changed!"

"Marller?" I asked. I glanced over at Urd, whose smile had lost its sly aspect, and whose eyes were suspiciously shining.

"Senbei..." Marller breathed, then spread her arms wide. The pixie shape shot forward into her embrace, stilling and folding its wings as she drew her arms around it. Marller silently cuddled the tiny thing, her eyes closed, for a minute or two, then opened them again. "Senbei was my ... my flunky," she said softly as the creature crooned happily in her arms. "And sometimes my only friend."

"Senbei loves Mistress," came a high, muffled voice from Marller's chest. "Senbei has always loved Mistress, even when the Pit forbade it."

"In that case," Urd said, her voice husky, "welcome to the family, little guy."

Senbei shrilled something and popped out of Marller's embrace to go zooming around the room again. He came to a spinning stop in front of the mirror on the low dresser where I kept some of my clothes. I chuckled when I realized that the little pixie-thing was checking himself out in it. He spun once to the left, and once to the right, then shot back over to hover in front of Marller.

"Senbei is so pretty now!" he declared, then seemed to wilt, as much as he could and still remain in flight. "But..."

"What?" Marller asked.

Senbei pouted. "Senbei misses his leather jacket."

Marller laughed merrily. "We'll see if we can find one that'll accommodate your wings."


Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Nekomi Ward, Sunday, June 15, 1997, 2:30 PM

"Tada!" Skuld announced proudly.

Megumi gunned the turbine and grinned like a maniac. "What do you think, Doug?" She was seated in the saddle of my reconstructed motorcycle as it floated in the bright sunlight of the temple yard, about thirty centimeters off the ground. Although a gentle breeze was blowing that afternoon, it seemed rock solid instead of drifting like a balloon. She had just flown it out of Skuld's workshop — a little unsteadily, as she wasn't used to flying bikes — and put it in hover-park to let me inspect it.

Since Marller's Redemption the two of them had refused to let me into the shop to work on the bike. They had claimed they wanted me to be surprised by the final product, so I humored them and spent my time playing skeeball, putting extra time in at the robotics lab, doing guy stuff with Chris and Keiichi, or bumming around with Urd and Marller. After the intensity of the previous few weeks it was a pleasant change, although if it had gone on any longer my inner adrenaline junkie would have started complaining. Fortunately, the Terror Twins had proudly announced the completion of the bike rebuild at dinner the evening of Saturday the 14th.

So there I was on Sunday afternoon, waiting in the yard for the unveiling. Belldandy (who was still the final judge of Skuld's promise) and Keiichi (who was interested in the results) were with me. We had been chatting idly for a little while when the shop doors slid open and out glided one of the most beautiful pieces of vehicle engineering it has ever been my pleasure to see.

Yes, I know. It still had the same basic lines it had had when I built it originally in MegaTokyo. But Skuld and Megumi had made a number of small changes — and one or two large ones — and frankly it was only superficially the same bike.

I walked around it slowly and took it all in.

"We reproduced the color-changing paint with a field effect," Skuld announced proudly, shouting over the turbine. "That way you can change license plates every time you go to a new world without having to worry about running out of that special paint you had." She got a hopeful look on her face. "Do you mind if I keep the paint, to study?"

"Sure, no problem," I shouted back absently. "What else did you add that wasn't on the plans?"

"A full stealth system!" Megumi crowed, and hit a control on the panel before her. She and the motorcycle faded from sight, betrayed only by a faint ripple at the edges, and at the same time the engine sound cut out entirely. Megumi's disembodied voice went on, "It's now radar-invisible, and undetectable in the infrared, visual and ultraviolet spectra."

"Even the turbine exhaust?" I asked.

Megumi sounded disappointed. "No, we haven't found a way to hide the exhaust plume from the turbine, so stay away from heat-seeking missiles."

"Heh. Okay," I said.

"We also added a noise suppression system," she went on, "which constantly samples the turbine noise and injects an equal and opposite waveform into the exhaust to cancel it out."

"It's variable, too," Skuld interjected, "in case you want some engine noise but not everything the turbine normally puts out."

I nodded approvingly. "Cool."

Skuld swelled up with pride in her work. "Next feature: a virtual cockpit."

I looked at her. "Virtual cockpit?"

"Yup," she declared. "A weak force field, just enough to keep wind and bugs out of your face and a comfortable environment inside. And like the noise suppressor, it can be dialed to any level between zero and full strength."

"And it's selective," Megumi added as she faded back into visibility. "You can reach out of — or fall through — the cockpit field without smashing into it."

I chuckled. "Well, if you kept all the saddle straps, I doubt I'll need to concern myself about that."

"Yeah, we did, don't worry about that — no less than the bike was before, that was what we agreed on," Skuld pointed out.

"Indeed we did," I agreed. "Is that all?"

"Nope," Megumi said, bringing the bike in for a landing, and then shutting it down. "It's also got its own local gravity field, to keep you in the saddle."

"And that's not all!" Skuld sounded like a presenter on a game show. "I was studying the enchantment on Skidbladnir..."

"That's Frey's magic boat the dwarfs made, that can fold up and fit in his pocket," Megumi added helpfully.

"You added that to the bike?" I asked, astonished. "Now that's majorly impressive."

Skuld pouted. "No, I couldn't make it work on the motorcycle. But I did make it work on the panniers, kinda!" She stepped around to the back of the bike, where a typical set of three lockable boxes sat on a rack around the rear wheel: two tall and thin cases hanging over the sides of the wheel (although they hung unusually high), and one larger, boxier one sitting atop the fender — all the same gloss black as the undisguised bike.

Skuld flipped the catch on the top box, opened it up, and then reached in — and in, and in, all the way up to her shoulder. "Ah ha!" she said after a moment, "there it is."

And with that she pulled out a garden rake that was clearly much too long to fit in a box the size of the top pannier. "All three boxes are much bigger on the inside than on the outside," she said proudly, "and the mass of their contents is ... elsewhere, so you don't have to worry about weighing down your bike with too much cargo."

The audience made appreciative noises, as did I. "How much can they carry?" I asked.

Skuld got a thoughtful expression on her face. "I'm not really sure," she admitted. "But Skidbladnir goes from about 15 meters long to about 15 centimeters, which is around a million-to-one reduction in volume. I don't think I got nearly as good a yield on the enchantment..."

"Because you're not a dwarf!" Megumi interjected.

Skuld stuck her tongue out at her Servitor before continuing. "But I figure it's still going to give you at least a 10,000-to-1 storage increase."

I blinked, then turned to her. "That's something like 1500 cubic yards. How the hell do I find anything in that? How the hell do I reach it all?"

Skuld smirked. "I've incorporated a smart search. All you do is stick your hand in and think about what you want and it comes to you automatically."

I shook my head. "That is just freakin' mind-blowing. That's the cargo capacity of a small barge."

"Oh!" Skuld reached under the top pannier and worked something, then with a yank lifted the entire frame off the bike. "And the frame comes off so you can take it inside with you instead of unpacking it where people can see, and each of the cases comes off the frame, too, if you don't want to take the whole thing somewhere."

I shook my head in disbelief. "Anything else I should be aware of?"

"Just one more thing," Megumi added. "The bike's construction is an almost 50-50 mix of technology and magic. Enough magic that it practically shouts its presence both to mage sight and the Symphony. So we've aura-shielded it."

I whipped my head around to look at her. "You what?"

"Aura-shielded it," Skuld repeated proudly. "And it's switchable, too. While the shielding is on, nothing below an archangel or a demigod will be able to tell there's anything magical about the bike. But if you need to do magical diagnostics on it, you can turn the shielding off."

I shook my head again. "I didn't know you could do that. Something new for me to investigate in magic. And here I thought I was an expert."

Skuld puffed up again, clearly delighted at the idea that she had come up with something I hadn't thought was possible. "All part of the service."

I walked around the bike once more, still shaking my head. "I have to admit it, Skuld, I was afraid you wouldn't be able to do it, but you did. You kept your promise and then some."

"So let it be judged!" Belldandy declared, and that was that for Skuld's obligation to me.

I got on the bike and spun up the turbine, then engaged the grav drive to get off the ground. "Just one question, though, Skuld," I said, looking down.

"Yeah?"

"The tires are on fire. Why are the tires on fire?"

"Relax. It's just a hologram. I thought it would look cool," she replied sheepishly.

I gave her a look. "I thought you said the red light around the wheels was wasteful."

"Shut up."


Tarikihonganji Temple Complex, Nekomi Ward, Sunday, June 29, 1997, 4:35 PM

Well, two more weeks passed more or less uneventfully — a strange and unnatural occurrence in my life, but one which I embraced gratefully.

Psycho Freddy and Leatherboy (okay, okay, Tamiya and Ootaki) finally came by and took away all the assorted auto parts — and the Ford Prefect — which they had dumped in the temple yard shortly before my arrival. Not long afterward, Keiichi mentioned a project he and Belldandy had been discussing around the same time, to build a bench to put out by the sidewalk at the temple gate, for the use of passers-by. This sounded like a good idea to both Chris and me, so we shanghaied Keiichi and drew up some plans (being careful to keep Skuld away from them, as we didn't want or need the bench to be able to transform into a 10-meter battle robot with fusion-powered beam weaponry). Having determined the needs of our project, we then went to a local lumberyard, bought our raw materials, brought them back to the temple, and went to work.

We sank a couple thick posts to support the bench in quick-crete the night before. The next day, as the concrete finished curing, the three of us spent several hours cutting, shaping, finishing and assembling the bench proper. The idea was to do something that had a very traditional Japanese feel to it, yet was a bit more sophisticated than a pair of stumps with a planed board nailed to them. Our final design partook equally of Bauhaus and Craftsman styles (mostly by accident, to be honest) but still managed to feel very classically Japanese.

It was also very sturdy, being assembled almost entirely using big carriage bolts, the nuts of which we spot-welded to keep from unscrewing (using a portable welder we borrowed from Skuld's workshop).

When we finished the bench along about mid- to late-afternoon, the three of us lugged it out to the sidewalk. (Being made of big, thick cuts of wood and heavy steel bolts, it weighed a good hundred, hundred and fifty kilograms. Chris or I probably could have manhandled it out by ourselves, but frankly, it wasn't that kind of job, and it was easier to share the load.) It took about ten more minutes to mount it on the posts with more carriage bolts (which then got spot-welded as well).

And when that was done we sat on it, that being the purpose of benches.

"So... kenjutsu lesson after dinner?" I asked after about five minutes of people-watching.

"Mmm," Chris replied. "I guess. I'm running out of things to teach you, though."

"Oh." I thought about it. "We can always just spar."

"True."

Five more minutes of silent people-watching, and then Keiichi stood up. He stretched and groaned, and then said, "Well, I have mid-terms to study for still. I'm going to try to get in an hour or so before dinner. I'll see you guys then."

Chris nodded thoughtfully. "Actually, that's not a bad idea." As Keiichi picked up the portable welder, Chris unfolded himself to his full height and stretched as well, setting off a fusillade of cracking-joint noises. "Got mid-terms of my own I should review for."

"Being an old man with only a full-time job to take up his time," I said, "I shall remain here to enjoy the afternoon sun." Then I grinned. "Consider it a... benchtest." The two of them groaned and threw their work gloves at me. "Hey!"

They glanced at each other and shared a laugh. "We'll see you at dinner," Keiichi said. "If Bell-chan lets you have any after hearing about that pun."

I sighed theatrically and shook my head. "Kids these days, no appreciation."

"In," Chris said, opening the newly-rebuilt gate. "Quickly, before he puns again." They dashed into the yard, grinning, and the gate shut behind them with a heavy slam and the jingle of the latch catching.

As soon as they were gone, I rolled backward off the bench and landed on my feet in a crouch. I pulled a Sharpie out of my shirt pocket, and carefully labeled the back of the bench "Group W" in large, block romanji letters. Giggling to myself, I returned the Sharpie to my pocket and vaulted the bench to drop back down on it in a perfect casual sitting position.

Just in time to hear the gate latch rattle again. I looked over to see it open. Out stepped Megumi and another girl whom I hadn't met before; she must have arrived during the woodworking. She was almost a head taller than the Megster — not a difficult or unusual feat, given Meg's height — with long, shining hair down to her butt. Not bad looking, either. Both were dressed for clubbing. Unusual on a Sunday, but not unheard of.

"No, don't wait up, Kei — Ama-chan and I are off to terrorize the einherjar," Megumi called back through the gate. Oh, so that's who she was. Megumi shut the gate and the two heartbreakers strolled past me — "Ama-chan" with a mirror in her hand, and Megumi wearing a necklace that seemed to be made up mostly of comma-shaped jade beads.

"Have a good time," I said with a smile as they passed, and got a pair of evil giggles in reply. Then they were down the sidewalk and making good time. They weren't too far away when "Ama-chan" glanced over her shoulder and commented, just loud enough for me to hear, "Hey, he's cute."

Megumi simply said, "He's married."

"Awwwwww." Then she giggled again, which faded into the sounds of the street as they strutted out of earshot.

I grinned and shook my head. Well, even if Megumi still is a bit chilly to Marller, at least she's making other Celestial friends. And I can't believe I think that's a good thing.

Almost before I finished that thought, there was a flash of golden light, and a young fellow with blue skin dressed in silks and a gold crown appeared, awkwardly holding a measuring cup. He glanced my way and seemed to recognize me. "Excuse me," he said, gesturing at the gate. "Is Verthandi present? Satyabhama is cooking and she sent me out to borrow a cup of sugar."

"Go right on in," I said. "She's in the kitchen. I'm sure she'll be delighted to give you whatever you need."

He made a sort of abbreviated bow. "Thank you." With a jingle and a thud from the gate, he entered the yard.

I laughed softly to myself. "Like Grand Central Station today."

Despite that, though, there was no other non-mortal traffic in front of the temple. I sat and basked, thoroughly enjoying the fruit of my labor and an afternoon without crises or other demands on my time. People-watching can be a lot of fun, and the occasional pedestrian this Sunday afternoon allowed me to indulge just the right amount.

Nobody joined me on the bench, though, until an elderly gentleman in a natty pinstripe suit and fedora walked up, whistling a tune I found vaguely familiar.

Unlike the other pedestrians that afternoon, he was a Westerner, with the most amazingly improbable "General Stanley" mustache: huge, bushy, white, and trimmed to be pointy at the ends without the waxed kind of tip that Victorian villains always seem to be twirling. Underneath it were brilliant white teeth, straight and regular and bared in a friendly smile as he nodded to me. "Ah, just what I need. May I join you?" he asked in English. As he nodded, his right eye vanished entirely into the shadow from the brim of his hat, and for a moment I could swear he had a beard.

Then he stood straight and no, he was clearly clean-shaven except for that humongous mustache.

I smiled in return and patted the bench beside me. "Of course. Please, sit down and rest yourself, sir."

"Thank you." He slowly and carefully lowered himself to the far end of the bench from me, and settled in. Then he held out a hand. "Harold Laird," he said, and I suddenly recognized both the tune he had been whistling and his voice.

I took his hand and shook it. He had a grip like a wrestler, and his palm was ridged with a swordsman's calluses. "Doug Sangnoir. Then again, you already knew that, didn't you?" I gave him a dubious look. "You weren't planning on me actually being taken in by that alias, were you?"

His eyes widened, and then he erupted in hearty laughter. "No, I suppose I shouldn't have. But my boys, when they heard that I intended to speak with you, insisted I take on the appearance of a mortal. 'You can't just go down there and say, Hi, I'm Odin, Father — what will the skalds think?' 'You've always done the disguise thing in the mortal world, Dad.' 'It's your idiom, Pop.'" He laughed again. "They're all good boys, just a bit hidebound."

I couldn't help it, I laughed as well. "And then you got around them by using the very same voice you used when you spoke to me during the ritual. You, sir, are as sneaky as myth and legend have painted this particular avatar of yours as being."

He nodded in acknowledgment. Still smiling, he took off his fedora and laid it on the bench between us, then dug into one of his pockets. "Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, I just wanted to give you the big picture. You've been so pivotal in recent matters that I didn't want to leave you in the dark. And your relationship with your commanding officer shows that you aren't automatically hostile to our kind." He pulled out a brightly-colored candy. "Gumball?"

"No, thanks," I said, holding up a hand, and he slid it back into his pocket. "First — my relationship with Hexe is a completely different thing. Unlike so many of you, she's making an effort to understand the human condition from the inside out. Far too many of 'your kind' seem to consider the human condition akin to a disease — when they're not treating us as toys to play with, break and throw away at their pleasure."

"Laird" looked pained. "That's an unfair generalization."

"It's not a generalization," I corrected. "But it is, I believe, a more than accurate description of the majority of gods." I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb at the temple complex behind us. "Other than Hexe, most of the few exceptions I've come across in my life are inside that wall.

"Which leads me to the second point. I dislike and distrust gods. But I am not irrational about it. You came here to speak with me, and you did so in a way that neither played to deific ego nor was cloaked in deliberate deception. For that, I at least owe it to you to hear what you have to say."

He inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," I replied. "So... back to topic. I think I've got a pretty good idea what was going on — Belldandy explained the deal with Chris to me a few weeks back."

"Good, good," he said, nodding, "but that's only half the story."

"Half the story...?" I echoed. "Oh, crap. Marller. It was all part of the same mess, wasn't it?"

Brilliant white teeth flashed again as he grinned at me. "You're very quick, son. I like that. Yes, as you've just intuited, Chris's situation and Marller's were intimately connected. Hm. How to cast this in terms that make sense to you..." He rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. "A great distance away on a time axis so alien to you that you wouldn't recognize it as time proper, there was... well, an incident for lack of a better term. In this incident the Warrior fractured, as you already know, into uncountable beings of lower dimensionality, many of whom Fell. What you don't know is that we lost several of our best people as well in that incident. In particular, the backlash from Marller fracturing is what killed her counterpart, the Guardian, outright."

I thought about that for a moment. "I presume that the pairing of the two is somehow critical?"

"Laird" nodded. "It's difficult to explain. It is a matter as much having to do with our native ecology as with our social structure, but yes: it was vital to our long-term needs that the Warrior and the Guardian both exist — or both not exist — in an equal and complementary state." He drew a deep breath. "For numerous reasons, although ending the shattered Warrior's existence was a valid resolution to the incident, we chose instead to try to heal her."

"And I'm guessing your reproductive cycle is too slow to let you grow a new Guardian fast enough on your timeline," I offered.

He laughed again. "The next time the other side says lower-dimensionals are stupid and witless, son, I want to hold you up as a counter-example. Yes, you're right on the money. We didn't have the time for a new Guardian to reach maturity; we expected the Warrior to perish outright before that would happen, which would put us back in the same situation. So we decided to make, as the phrase goes, a 'Hail Mary' play.

"We had noticed a timeline not unlike this one, in which an audacious experiment had taken a human male and, well, smeared him across all his analogues and counterparts in a very large number of the four-dimensional universes. This left him something very similar in nature to one of us, although he is currently limited to a four-dimensional experience of time and space."

"'Currently'?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Currently," he chuckled. "It turns out that he is descended from an avatar of one of our number, who has taken it on himself to guide his descendant into a full ascension. Regardless, this accident inspired us. We wanted a new Guardian who could withstand the fracturing, so we decided to start fractured and then unify. We found another individual with a large number of analogues and alternate selves and put him in a situation where he would undergo an apotheosis of his own similar to the other fellow's — but more controlled, less painful..."

"Chris," I said.

"Yes. Chris."

I studied him. "Belldandy told me all about this part. Where the whole idea was..." I paused and fished for an analogy. "Like taking a sheaf of roleplaying characters and looking to see if they would spontaneously form a player under heat and pressure."

"The concept was a bit more sophisticated than that, but yes." A shadow seemed to pass over "Laird"'s face for a moment. "Unfortunately, something went wrong with his apotheosis. Oh, it took — but it didn't go far enough, and instead of placing Chris as the controlling persona of the new Guardian, it left him as little more than a local kami of place, and the rest of the Guardian's... ahem... components only loosely linked to him." He sighed. "What we hadn't understood at the time was just how closely the Guardian and the Warrior had to mirror each other. Neither could be whole until the other was... and we had just made a Guardian as shattered as the Warrior."

I leaned back and looked up into the blue sky above. "Catch-22."

"Precisely."

We sat together silently as I turned this over and over in my head. Finally, I said, "You were stuck. If you stayed within the pattern you were used to, your only choice would have been to kill both the Warrior and the new Guardian and raise a set of replacements together from birth."

"Laird" bowed his head. "Yes."

"I presume something bad would happen if you did that, either because of killing the two of them, or because of the delay in raising and training their replacements."

He bowed his head even further. "Yes."

I nodded, more to myself than to him. "So rather than suffer whatever that bad thing would be, you tried something out of the box. You pulled in an outside force to give your locked system a kick in the ass." I tried to keep the igniting anger from my voice. "You used me."

"Yes." He straightened up and turned to face me directly. "You must understand, Douglas — you are a remarkable... catalyst, for lack of a better word in a mortal language. It's your greatest strength, in my opinion. One of your... acquaintances in another universe once swore in a private moment that you were chaos incarnate; she wasn't too far off, if you define 'chaos' as a force driving change and growth. And if there were a patron saint of free will, you would be it. Your very presence unbinds that which is bound to be. You can do what we can't. We needed you."

I locked eyes with him. "You could have asked me to help."

"Yes," he said, returning my gaze with his own, just as steady and serious. "We could have. But if we had, it might not have worked."

"Explain," I demanded, frowning.

"We have vast computing power at our fingertips, to put it in terms familiar to you, Douglas. We ran millions, billions of simulations. It boiled down to this: You would be immensely more effective if you had no idea why you were here. It didn't matter how we approached you — the moment you knew what we needed, the chance of success plummeted. Not back to zero — your involvement always improved the odds. But it was only when we dropped you in the deep end with no warning that those odds maxed in our favor."

I thought about that. If it were true — and I wasn't about to discount the possibility of a fancy lie for my benefit — but if it were true... damn. It was a decision I just might have made myself. And it wasn't like they had plopped me down in a Celestial warzone. I'd never been in any serious danger in this world that hadn't been of my own making.

I still didn't like it. I'd never like being jerked around by Celestials. But I could understand the reasoning behind this particular case.

And for the first time in my experience, a Celestial (other than Hexe, who really is more human than Celestial if you ask me, and Belldandy, who had sworn on blood to never lie to me) was taking the time to explain why he had done what he had done with me, instead of waving the "ineffable" flag and telling me that I couldn't hope to understand. It wasn't exactly an apology for messing with my life. But it was surprisingly close.

It was treating me as... well, probably not as an equal, but at least as a sapient worth talking to like a grown-up.

"Well," I finally said. "If you're not just feeding me a line calculated to appease me, I think I can respect that. The very fact that you're even talking to me about it... that goes a whole long way toward defusing the state of permanent pissed-off I have about you Celestials."

He chuckled. "I'm very glad to hear that."

"And I'm glad my involvement kicked things in the ass the right way," I replied. "Because it helped out a couple people that I guess I think of as friends now, I'm not going to hold a grudge over it." I caught his eye again. "This time."

He nodded and smiled that big smile again. "Fair enough."

I folded my arms behind my neck and leaned back again, digging my toes into the dirt under the bench to keep from falling over backwards. "So, I suppose you want your magic stick back now that this is all over."

"Laird" chuckled. "You do, do you?"

Without changing my position, I turned my head to look over at him. "Well, yeah."

"You're wrong."

I looked sidelong at him without changing my position. He was smiling still. I wasn't sure I found it reassuring. "Understand, son, that Heaven and Hell are less... antagonistic in this world and its parallels than you are perhaps used to. We're not enemies at each others' throats..." He chuckled, a little nervously perhaps, possibly at the thought of the howling demonic mob which had besieged the temple only a few weeks before. "Well, not usually. We're more like two competing teams in a cutthroat sporting event — each out to win over the other at all costs while the contest lasts, but outside of that contest we can be civil and even friendly with each other. In this skein of universes, Heaven and Hell share the same goal — the ultimate perfection of the human race." He chuckled again, this time with no nervousness at all, a rich, throaty chuckle full of irony. "We simply disagree on our methods and the definition of 'perfection'."

"Interesting," I said, "but hardly relevant."

He laughed outright, "Oh, but it is, it is. That little toy you now own — yes, it's yours to keep now, we won't take it away," he parenthesized at what must have been a look of shock or surprise on my face. "That little toy is an example of the cooperation between Heaven and Hell here. We do have our radicals, our renegades, and the occasional outsider who thinks he knows better how to manage things. We determined early on that we needed weapons that partook of both sides to address any 'third sides' that might arise." He gestured at the staff. "That was one of our first attempts, many eons ago. A pleasant little device, but just a bit underpowered for our needs despite having a trick or five up its proverbial sleeve. A steak knife, you might say, when we were looking to make a two-handed sword. It was forged, tested, and put away to be forgotten as bigger and better models were created for actual use."

"Forged?" I interrupted. "It's made of wood."

He gave me a Look. "Don't be so literal, son."

I snorted. "So your toothpick here is a prototype. Underpowered for a Celestial," I said slowly, "but not for a metahuman?"

He laughed again and clapped me on the back in an almost fatherly manner. "Precisely. And now, as you were its first true wielder, it's bonded to you, and will be for the rest of your life."

I stood up and pulled the staff from my pocket and studied it. It had remained in its 15-centimeter collapsed form since the day I'd almost killed Marller. For a moment I wondered if it, too, had a variant of the "Skidbladnir" enchantment on it before I forced my mind back to the matter at hand. "I'm not sure I like that."

"It just means you can never lose it, Douglas. It will always find its way back to you, unless and until you explicitly give its ownership over to another. Or you die," he noted with a cheerfulness that annoyed me. "It's not like it's sucking on your soul or anything like that," he added with a smirk. "That's why we're not taking it away from you — because it would just go right back to you anyway."

"Well, I suppose that's reassuring." I held it out at arms' length and thought "open" at it. With a sound like a tree branch breaking in half it obediently snapped open to full length. I gave it a careful once-over — that faint, transparent orange-gold spearhead was nowhere to be seen.

Good.

"So, do I get to part the Red Sea with this baby, then?" I asked. I held it out before me with one hand and my arms spread, as if I were Charlton Heston and expected the asphalt of the road in front of us to roll back and reveal bare ground.

He laughed. "Don't push your luck. Moses you aren't." He studied me for a moment with a smirk. "Aaron, maybe..."

"Yeah, right." I thought "close" at it, and it shrunk back down to hide in my hand with the same cracking-wood sound. "So, save me a lot of work and guessing. What does it do?"

"It doesn't really do all that much, actually," he replied, tilting his head to watch me. "It just kills gods. And demons. And anything else on the same general level. It is made from a twig of the True Yggdrasil and exists in several more dimensions than the ones you live in, which means it is completely unbreakable by any merely four-dimensional force or object."

"Well, that's good to hear," I said as I remembered the old joke: an unbreakable toy is very useful for breaking other toys. "But I know it does more. It flew into my hand when I needed it, for example."

"It did?" "Laird"'s eyebrows — just as bushy and white as his mustache — rose into his hair. "Well, I did say it has a few more tricks up its sleeve. I couldn't tell you what it else it might be capable of, though."

"Wonderful," I snarked as I slid the compressed staff back into my pocket. "Where's omniscience when you need it?"

"Laird" fixed me with a look. "I must have left it in my other suit."

And so help me, I had no idea how to respond to that.

So I didn't. I sat back down on the Group W bench and ruminated a bit. "So, that's it then."

He nodded slowly. "Yes, son, I believe it is."

"So... what song takes me out of this universe, preferably to my home?"

"Ah." He pointedly did not look at me. "That would be telling."

"Ah," I mocked. "That would be jerking me around at the end, after all."

He sighed. "Frankly, son, your presence is as important to Marller's recovery from her experiences as that of her family. If I — or she — were to tell you how to leave before you find it for yourself, could you resist using it right away? So yes, this is selfish of us, but you are still needed."

Dammit. It was very hard to work up a head of righteous anger when he was being so honest with me. And he had told me enough to reassure me, whether he meant to or not — there was a song to take me out of this world, and I would find it on my own. I suppose it was enough to know that, after all.

"All right," I said after thinking about that for a while. "Fair enough. Though you still could have just asked first."

"This is true," he admitted.

I sighed. "Look. I appreciate you actually making the effort to explain this all to me. In my experience, you gods tend to be a whole lot more arrogant and high-handed about things, which is one of my main complaints about your lot. So the fact that you felt you needed to do this — appreciated, really."

I turned and sat facing him across the bench. "But don't mistake this for anything beyond a temporary truce. You gods still have a lot to answer for, in my opinion." And I patted the bulge in my pocket where the staff lay.

"Understood," said Odin in his guise as "Harold Laird", those big, white teeth of his bared in another broad smile. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"And don't think that now that I've rubbed shoulders with some of you for a while that I'm going to start changing my mind, because, frankly, Mister, I don't want or need to believe in what you are," I said, my mouth starting to run away with me as an epiphany dawned. "But who... well, that's a different story.

"I believe in who Belldandy is, not what she is. I believe in who Chris is, who Urd and Skuld are. And I believe in who Marller is.

"They're my friends, kind of, maybe even family of a sort. Even if they weren't in the beginning, that's who they are now. I couldn't care less any more that they're gods." I gave him a lopsided grin. "Come to that, I doubt Chris is ever going to think of himself as a 'real' god, no matter what he accomplishes."

He threw his head back and laughed. "No, no, he won't, will he? We're going to have to work on that eventually. But I think we'll give him a few decades to settle in first."

I snorted. "Yeah, that should do."

"Well, then," he said, getting up from the bench and retrieving his fedora, "I think that just about concludes our business. I do want to thank you again for your help in this difficult matter, despite the, ahem, 'high-handed' way we pulled you in on it."

I stood as well. "You're welcome. Of course, this changes nothing between us."

"Nothing at all," he agreed amiably. "War it is, then?"

I grinned. "War it is."

"Very well," he said, bowing. "May the best entity win."

And with that, he turned and walked off down the street, back in the direction from which he had come, whistling once more. It was the same tune he had been whistling when he first appeared — Joan Osborne's "One of Us":

"What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home..."

Appreciating the irony I laughed out loud.

Hearing it, he stopped, turned back to me, smiled and tipped his hat. I sketched a loose bow, and when I looked back up, he had vanished.

The whistling resumed, though, and I chuckled softly to myself. After it faded into the distance, I chuckled once more, then re-entered the temple.

God is all things, I once heard a priest say when I was a kid. Apparently, among all the other possibilities, God — at least, this universe's God — was a big goofball. Somehow, I found that strangely reassuring.

As I passed through the brightly-painted gate, though, I thought of Maggie and sighed. It would be hard — it would always be hard — but someday I would get back to her. And knowing that Alena had been here, however briefly, and would have reported back to Hexe by now, that helped, a little. In the meantime, though...

I paused, holding the gate open as I took in the entire complex.

It wasn't — and would never be — a static picture. There perched on the house's engawa was Keiichi, surrounded by his books on all sides except for the one Belldandy had claimed as hers. As he slowly turned the pages of the one in his hands, she leaned against him with her head on his shoulder, an expression of pure bliss on her face.

Through the open shoji behind them, I could see Chris and Rachel poring over their own books.

Skuld stood at the door to her workshop, wiping her hands on a red cloth and wearing that manic grin which hinted that another new project had suggested itself to her.

And Urd was draped across the temple's front steps. She noticed me at the gate and waved. I grinned and waved back.

Above her on the temple roof, several ravens eyed me and cawed in suspicious unison.

A gentle breeze was blowing, rustling the trees in the yard. Drifting out of one of the house's windows was the faint sound of music; it faded in and out of hearing enough to keep my metagift from activating even if I had not been wearing my tuneplug, but not so much so that I couldn't recognize it. It was a tune that I'd privately decided was Keiichi's personal theme song — "I'm a Believer", by the Monkees:

"Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer!
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
I'm in love, I'm a believer!
I couldn't leave her if I tried."

I smiled and closed the gate behind me. I would never have expected it six weeks earlier, but... the last time I felt this comfortable and welcome was when I lived in the Kurata household.

And more — encounters like the one I'd just had aside, this was the first place in ten years where I really, truly felt at peace. Belldandy's influence, no doubt, but I didn't begrudge that — it was just the way she was.

I know that I'm going to have to travel unimaginably further before I finally find my way home, before I get back to my wife. I know that it's guaranteed to be anything but easy. I don't need the gods to tell me that; it's just the way my life runs and the way the dice roll.

But...

But for now, I have a welcome respite. A way station where I can regain my strength and balance for the tasks ahead. Whether I find that gate song tomorrow or a year from now, it doesn't matter, because I'll always be welcome here.

It may not have been home, but it was good enough for now.


And though home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration. — Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, chapter 35

EPILOGUES

Nirvana? That's the place where the powers that be and their friends hang out. — Zonker Harris, "Doonesbury"

Location: Meaningless. Time: Meaningless.

It was much easier the second time, Chris realized. Actually knowing what he was doing, and doing it on purpose, made a big difference.

And more of himselves joined with him this time — not just the ones ready and eager for battle, but the scholars, the diplomats, and the peacemakers as well. He realized then that there would never be just one version of his Overself, but that it would always be in flux, changing by the needs and demands of the moment, and the availability of the others who joined him to form it.

He figured he'd get used to it.

The process of expanding through and into eight more dimensions than he was familiar with, though — he wasn't sure he would ever get used to that. It was just freaky. Not to mention that the Being he became when he finally reached ... what was this place called, anyway? Not to mention that what he became couldn't even be perceived in human terms even though his mind kept insisting on trying to do so.

"Hey, it's the new guy again!"

Paradox nodded in acknowledgment, or at least performed its 12-dimensional analogue, while waving — or its equivalent. "I'm back like I promised."

"And we've been waiting for you." The voice/signal/communication came from something like behind him, and he turned to see...

His four-dimensional components kept overlaying their own interpretations over his 12-dimensional perceptions. That wasn't as annoying as it could have been, because he wasn't sure he would have recognized his four sisters here without the sensory confusion. Or maybe he would have, he realized as he stared at their true selves. They were nothing like human, but somehow he knew — that one was Belldandy, that one was Urd, there was Skuld, and there was Marller.

Or should he say, The Mother, The Crone, The Maiden... and The Warrior.

He did something that felt like smiling, and said, "Hey guys." Then he added, "Who're your friends?"

Accompanying his sisters were three more Beings, who flickered in his perceptions back and forth between their true appearances, and four-dimensional human overlays. Male overlays. One nudged another, and they laughed. "Friends? We're your brothers, Guardian," one said. His human appearances all tended toward the long and rangy, dressed in leather that flowed seamlessly through the spectrum from fringed buckskins to bomber jackets. He did something Chris interpreted as holding out his hand. "I'm the Hunter," he said as Chris did something he thought of as shaking it.

The second waited until Chris turned his attention to him. His overlays seemed far more variable than the Hunter's, ranging from tiny old men in academic robes to burly figures in armor. "The Guide. It's a pleasure to meet our new sibling."

"Hey there," said the last. The variety and number of his avatars outdid the Guide's — many were human, but almost as many weren't, ranging from outright aliens to things that looked like cartoon animals. Their clothes varied just was widely, from Japanese kimonos to olive drab military uniforms to outfits that wouldn't have been out of place on a comic book superhero. As he stepped forward, though, they collapsed together, leaving behind a single image that all Chris's component selves seemed to agree upon: a cheerful human male, muscular and swarthy with a streak of white in his black hair. He held out a hand in greeting. "Greetings, little brother. I'm the Rover. But most folks call me Ed."


Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity. — Gilda Radner

Temple Hill Road, Nekomi Ward, Tuesday, July 1, 1997, 9:44 AM

The incubus Zerethuel — or, as he vastly preferred to be known, Takano Watanabe — was not happy at all with his current position.

Oddly enough, the last time he had felt this way, he had been standing more or less in the same spot — across the street from the temple in which the Norns and the mortals they associated with lived.

And hadn't that been a fiasco. Just about every demon assigned to the Kanto Plain had run in there, expecting to interrupt a Redemption and drag Mara back to the Pit. The army that had ambushed them once they were inside and trapped, though, no one had expected.

Fortunately, Garnash and the rest of the local chain of command above him had gotten themselves slaughtered almost immediately, and Zerethuel had been free to make a strategic withdrawal.

And now, while they were still paying for their mistakes in the Pit, it was time for him to make a different kind of strategic withdrawal.

Being on the side of Hell wasn't what he'd thought it would be. Yeah, he got to experience the pleasures of the flesh as much as he'd wanted, but after all these centuries he was willing to admit it was all kind of empty. Fun, but depressing after.

He'd never used to feel that way, but something about himself had been changing over the past few decades. Maybe he was growing up?

Was that possible?

Who knew?

All he knew was that maybe... just maybe... he'd find something more fulfilling back on the other side.

Steeling himself, Zerethuel marched across the street before he could lose his nerve, and rapped smartly on the temple gate.

It rattled and swung open, revealing (to his sudden fright) Paradox, the ascended mortal, who was muttering, "...someone actually knocked, I can't believe it." Then he looked down on Zerethuel and said, "Can I help you?"

The demon looked up, up, up until he found the eyes under the shock of red hair that topped the man-mountain before him. He opened his mouth to reply, but all that came out at first was a frightened squeak. He closed it, swallowed, and tried again.

"Um. Hi. I'd like to speak with the Norns, please?"

The freckled face looming high above him slowly twisted into a scowl of suspicion. "And who should I say is asking?"

"Uh, my name, my real name, is Zerethuel," he said, biting his lip for a moment before adding, "I'm an incubus, but I want to switch sides." He wrung his hands as he watched surprise replace suspicion on the young god's face. "I was hoping they, you, could help me?"

The Lord of Paradox studied him for several moments, then slowly nodded. "Come on in, and we'll see what we can do for you."


Well, I'm on my way
I don't know where I'm goin'
I'm on my way
I'm takin' my time but I don't know where

— Paul Simon, "Me and Julio Down by the School Yard"

MegaTokyo, Japan. Friday, April 18, 2042

I could have gone out to eat with Nene and Sakuya tonight. Lisa Vanette scowled as she rinsed the remains of her dinner from the plate she held. But no, I had to stay in and be maudlin and alone.

When the plate was clean, the kitchen faucet shut itself off. She held out one hand and the dishtowel shot from its hook into her grasp; a few strokes and the plate was dry. As she slid the dish back into its place in the cabinet above the sink, Lisa waved the towel back across the kitchen and onto its hook, then growled with irritation at herself. It's been five years, girl. You need to move on with your life, she upbraided herself. Doug's not coming back, and you knew it from the start. Stop commemorating the date he left like it was a national day of mourning!

She turned from the sink to stalk back to her living room; another unconscious flick of her hand and the kitchen lights turned themselves out. Dropping heavily into her favorite chair, she resisted the urge to flounce melodramatically. It wouldn't have done any good, anyway — there was no one to impress but herself, and she was already as disgusted with her own behavior as she could get.

She settled in for a good long sulk and had begun to consider whether or not to supplement it with alcohol when her doorbell rang. She growled once more as she sprung from the chair, propelled by her irritation at the interruption. That had better not be Nene, trying to "cheer me up" again...

She stalked over to the door and yanked it open without bothering to check the peephole first. "Nene, I told you I..." she began, then stumbled to a halt.

Whoever the woman at her door was, she wasn't Nene. Instead of a petite blue-eyed redhead with a creamy complexion, Lisa found herself staring at a tall, aristocratic woman of approximately her own age, with olive skin, green eyes, and rich mahogany hair. Her stance reminded Lisa oddly of Sylia, that strange but attractive blend of elegance and battle-readiness. The most striking thing about her, though, was her clothing — she wore a belted tunic, close breeches, and calf-height boots all of a soft, supple leather so brilliantly white that it was almost blinding even in the dim, yellowish lighting of the hall, topped off with a cloak of the same color and material. Lisa's eyes widened when she spotted the sheathed sword and knife that both hung from the woman's belt, partially hidden by the cloak. They widened further when she realized that the outfit was not unfamiliar to her; she had seen one just like it, years before — buried in the depths of Doug's wardrobe.

"<Forgive me for the intrusion,>" the strange woman said in perfect English. "<My name is Delandra vel'deVarn, and I am looking for Colonel Douglas Sangnoir.>" When Lisa didn't reply right away, she added, "<May I come in?>"

FIN

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This work of fiction is copyright © 2012, 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.

"The Transformers", "Autobot" and other indicia are copyright by and trademarks of Hasbro, Sunbow Productions, Marvel Productions, Toei Animation and/or AKOM, and are used without permission.

"The Matrix" is copyright by and trademark of Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures and Larry and Andy Wachowski, and is used without permission.

"Bubblegum Crisis" and the settings and characters thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Artmic Inc. and Youmex Inc., and are used without permission.

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

"Captain Alena Jordan", "Rebel Yeller" 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.

"Helene 'Wetter Hexe' Diedmeier" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Helen Imre.

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

Quotation from "The Weight of Glory" by C.S. Lewis, originally preached as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942.

Lyrics from "Supernova", recorded by The Echoing Green, written by Joey "Joey B." Belville, copyright © 2000 by Echoing Green, The.

Lyrics from "I Feel Better Than James Brown", recorded by Was (Not Was), written by David "David Was" Weiss and Don Edward "Don Was" Fagenson, copyright © 1990 by Chrysalis Catalog.

Lyrics from "Shin'a'in Warsong", written by Mercedes Lackey and Leslie Fish, copyright © 1989 by Firebird Arts & Music of Oregon, Inc.

Lyrics from "One Of Us", recorded by Joan Osborne, written by Eric Bazilian, copyright © 1995.

Lyrics from "I'm a Believer", recorded by the Monkees, written by Neil Diamond, copyright © 1966 by Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc.

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

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

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/dw5conc.shtml

Other chapters of this story can be found at:

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/dw5.shtml

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

http://www.yggdrasil.org/omg/index.html

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

http://drunkardswalkforums.yuku.com/

Many thanks to all of our many prereaders over the years: Joe Avins, 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.


This page was created on 1 June 2012.
Last modified June 07, 2012.