The poem Skuld recites is "Westward Ho," by Harry Harbord Morant. Butters is based on the character of the same name by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I don't own "Oh My Goddess," but I do love it immensely.
This is the final chapter of the Blessings Arc. It's a particularly bittersweet moment for me as it is to be the last piece of fanfiction I ever write as I've made the decision to start writing my own fiction instead of using the work of others. I've been writing fanfiction since 1997, starting with Tenchi Muyo then moving on to Slayers and finally Ah! My Goddess, and I think the AMG fanbase is probably the most supportive of the lot. So thank you for your readership and comments. I also want to thank WillZ for prereading this fic and having more faith in my writing than I did myself.
Blessings: Broken Bow
Love Outlasteth All
"The price of victory was our own innocence.
Life would never be the same again."
"Ghosts of the Roundtable"
Skuld rested the red orb, a large crack running through the middle, into the hole she had dug and set about covering it up again.
Gwydion watched, standing amid the ruins of the Arch Falcon, pieces of which were still burning. Skuld had insisted on staying until Eddas' CPU was found, and Gwydion remained with her. Urd had left to help the others locate the wounded and bring them to healers, but the professor refused to leave his student.
The young goddess finished and stood up, facing the grave. She clasped her hands in front of her.
"You weren't a thing," she said quietly. "As a matter of fact, I think you were the bravest man I've ever known. I wish I had better words."
Thinking for a moment, she pulled a small book from her pocket and turned to what seemed like a random page. Gwydion looked up quickly as she started to speak familiar words.
"The night's a trifle chilly," she recited. "And the stars are very bright... A heavy dew is falling... but the fly is rigged aright;... You may rest your bones till morning, then if you chance to wake... Give me a call about the time that daylight starts to break..."
Closing the book, she closed her eyes. "Good bye, Eddas."
When she turned, Gwydion expected tear-filled eyes. Instead, he found an intensity that was both new and familiar, a look he had seen on his students before.
"Skuld?" he asked.
"I want to fight," she told him. "Like you and Yazlyn and..." she swallowed. "And Eddas. I want to fight."
He looked down at her with conflicted eyes and sighed. "Very well," he relented. "Come with me."
The fighting had not been relegated only to Central Dogma or the skies above the Combat Division. The more reports Urd heard, the more she couldn't believe how lucky they had been. The Grigori had been all but wiped out, with Favrashi hunter-killer teams moving through their building floor by floor, exterminating any god they came across. Gods caught outside during the attack had tried to fight back, but many were simply swept aside by the advancing insurgents. Others had simply disappeared.
When a god or goddess died, their body sublimated, returning to the essence of The Almighty from which they were formed. This made identifying the dead very difficult. Often, a piece of clothing, a memento or piece of jewelry was all that remained.
Like the one Urd had just found.
Kneeling in the street near a shattered barricade, she could almost see what had happened. A group of gods had banded together and tried to hold off a Favrashi team, probably believing that help was on the way. But it never came.
She gripped the silver light pen in her hands and bit her lip, remembering seeing it clipped to the woman's front pocket where ever she went. Her employer had given it to her in thanks for her centuries of service. Now it was all that remained of her.
"Do you know who it was, Ma'am?" the Valkyrie standing behind her asked.
She nodded. "It's Marella," she said quietly. The goddess rose to her feet. "Someone will have to tell The Almighty," she said, starting to walk away.
"How could they do this?" the Valkyrie asked. "To their own people?"
Urd wanted to scream. The very people fighting and being killed in this "war" had no idea why war was even being waged against them. She looked down at the pen. Marella had probably died not even knowing why they were so eager to kill her.
And part of the problem was that it was a two-way street.
"Lord Michael," Gwydion greeted, trying to bow as the Archangel entered the Tactical Operations Center.
"Colonel," he replied, offering his hand. "Is it true? About Commander Lind?"
"I'm afraid so," the avenging angel replied, turning to the display cube. "As a matter of fact, given what we know, I'm willing to bet her death is what triggered this move."
"What makes you say that?"
On the other side of the room, Yazlyn spoke up. "Because it was sloppy. They had us, and the only thing that kept them from taking us whole was that they didn't feel they had time to double check things like the function codes. They were rushed. Whatever Lind stumbled over, it's a big deal."
"I'm sorry, you are?" Michael asked.
"I've asked Captain Yazlyn to join us," Gwydion explained. "These aren't demons. They're something totally different, and we need some serious out-of-the-box thinking before we make our next move."
"Next move?" Michael asked. "I thought they were crushed?"
Gwydion nodded to Yazlyn. "Show him."
Yazlyn tapped a few keys on her board, and her last conversation with Shasiel appeared on the display cube.
When it ended, Michael shook his head in disbelief. "She was one of them?"
"I doubt it," Yazlyn said. "Odds are they found her in Central Dogma during the attack, took her prisoner and tried to turn her when the monumental ass-kicking we handed them interrupted them."
"And this weapon?" Michael asked, turning to Gwydion.
"We don't know. If it exists, we have a fair idea of where. But we need to move very quickly."
Michael chewed his lip and nodded. "What is your plan?"
"We can't leave Heaven undefended," Yazlyn told him. "They'll expect a large-scale assault through the main hard-line that connects Heaven to the Roundtable. Which means that's where their forces are going to be."
"We intend to slip through the back door," Gwydion explained. "The Roundtable has hardlines from nearly every other realm leading to it. We're going to use one of them."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Colonel," Michael said. "But even if you go through another hardline, there's no guarantee it leads anywhere near the weapon. Wouldn't they just detect you and shift their forces to meet you?"
Gwydion looked at Yazlyn, who spoke up. "We believe we know the location of a hardline that will lead directly to the weapon. And we also have reason to believe that the Favrashi don't know of its existence."
"I see," the Archangel told them. "Very well. Colonel Gwydion, as of this moment, you are officially Division commander."
"Yes, My Lord."
Michael seemed to hesitate. "This has been a very dark day for us," he said quietly. "If you fail..."
"If we fail, My Lord, there will be literally no one left in Creation to point out our mistakes."
The god nodded. "The hopes of every life in Creation go with you then." He shook Gwydion's hand. "Commander."
With that, he walked out of the TOC, the weight of Creation on his shoulders.
Yazlyn looked to Gwydion. "What now?"
"Muster them up," he replied. "We leave for the staging area in two hours." He turned and started for the door. "In the meantime, there's something I have to do."
"That Gwydion never sought high rank is
a matter of common knowledge, as is his
heroic attempts to keep his students from
following his footsteps into roles as
valkyries. The fact that not only did three
of his students did, indeed, follow him, but
that two of them would go on to become
Division Commanders themselves, proved
that Fate is not without a sense of irony."
"Ghosts of the Roundtable"
Frigga swallowed nervously as she adjusted the jacket on her daughter. "There," she said nervously, rubbing Skuld's shoulders. She nodded as if to reassure herself of her own work. "Yes, thou lookst as one should. They... They say... a goddess who goeth to war in amber clad cannot be harmed by sling nor arrow."
Skuld nodded, squaring her shoulders and getting a feel for the outfit her mother had adjusted for her. The shirt and jacket were a very deep gold, made from reinforced quantum fibers like the kind valkyries wore.
Frigga took Skuld's face in her own. "Are thou certain thou wish to do this?" she whispered.
Skuld saw the doors open behind her mother and Gwydion emerge. She swallowed and nodded. "Lind tried to tell me something... before she died," she said quietly. "She understood." The goddess looked down at the floor. "People like Sensei and Lind and Yazlyn... I didn't understand before. But now I see it. It's more than a place, more than faces in a crowd. And I want to protect them."
"Skuld? Are you ready?" Gwydion asked.
Frigga stepped aside. Skuld nodded. "Hai."
The young goddess stepped forward, but Frigga's hand took her shoulder. At first, Skuld thought her mother was going to object. Then the matron spoke.
"I am so proud," she said, tears in her eyes. "To be the mother of a valkyrie."
Skuld blinked back tears of her own. Turning, she saw Gwydion waiting.
"Sorry, Sensei," she whispered.
"You're not a valkyrie yet, Skuld," he told her. "This is only the first step." He shook his head. "Are you absolutely certain this is the role you wish to take?"
"It's my choice, right?" Skuld asked.
"It is." He looked down at her, almost sadly. "It's a very dangerous life..."
"Hai," she replied seriously.
Nodding, he raised his hand, and she mimicked him. "I am a valkyrie of Heaven," he said.
"I am a valkyrie of Heaven," she repeated, copying him word for word as he spoke.
"I am Your sword. I am Your shield."
Gwydion heard the words and remembered the last time he had administered this oath. He could see Gaeriel, standing exactly where Skuld stood now.
"I am Your guide. I am Your guardian."
Don't do this, he thought. Don't lead her down this path.
It is she who leads me, he replied.
"I am Your sentry..."
Skuld saw him pause and waited, locking his eyes with hers. Finally, with a note of renewed pride, he issued the last part, and she repeated.
"I am Your avenger."
He lowered his hand. "You are a valkyrie," he said. "From this day forward, no one but The Almighty can take that away from you."
She nodded, feeling for the first time the awesome responsibility she had shouldered.
"But you are still my student until such time as I deem you ready for the trials," he told her firmly. His voice softened. "And I am proud of you."
"Thank you, Sensei."
Frigga blew her nose behind her, and Skuld sighed.
"Come on," he said. "We have work to do."
Keiichi opened his eyes and quietly yawned. Taking a quick look at the clock, he gently began the process of extricating himself from Belldandy's arms, a task the goddess never made easy for him. Finally succeeding, he rose and walked into the hall and toward the kitchen.
The boy filled a glass with water and pulled the cord on the blinds on the window over the sink.
He lowered the blinds, then opened them again, convinced that he must have been seeing things.
Nope, they were still there, at least a hundred people, milling around their back yard carrying equipment that looked suspiciously like weapons. He heard an engine turn over and glanced to the right, seeing some kind of six-wheeled vehicle parked where Belldandy usually hung laundry.
"Belldandy," he called.
"Hai?" the goddess called back sleepily.
"Do you know why there's a military-industrial complex in our backyard?"
Before she could answer, he saw a flash of movement pass the window.
"Gwydion! Urd!" he called through the glass.
The two gods didn't hear him. They were immersed in their own argument, which wasn't easy while Gwydion went from god to god, checking their progress.
"You should have told me!" Urd said angrily again. "You should have asked me!"
"It was her decision," Gwydion replied in an effort to dodge the question. He looked over an infopad handed to him by an avenging angel.
"She's a child!" Urd growled. "And she had been through a lot! She's not a soldier! How could you just let her do this?!"
"Because we're all soldiers now, that's why!" he finally shot back. "Because this isn't the kind of war where you pat the troops on the back on their way out and pretend nothing's going on until they get back! Our very existence is at stake. We resist or we perish! It's that simple!"
"What happened?" she asked quietly. "A week ago this is the last thing you would have allowed to happen."
He turned away from her for a moment, trying to find the words. Turning back a moment later, he answered. "When your father assigned me to Skuld, he said Belldandy was an expert in her field, but that he needed Skuld proficient in mine. He wouldn't explain why. I think Skuld has a larger role to play in all this, and I think The Almighty saw it from the beginning. I've fought it since the day I met her, but it's time to stop and realize that our own preferences are not what's guiding us anymore."
Realization hit Urd suddenly like a physical force causing her to step back. "You're taking her with you," she whispered in incredulous fright.
He met her gaze and nodded. "Yes."
She couldn't reply to that. There just weren't words that could justify her anger.
"Neesan! Gwydion sensei!"
Urd didn't turn to her sister's voice, instead continuing to glare at her paramour. It wasn't until Belldandy and Keiichi were actually standing there that she turned and stormed off.
"Neesan?" Belldandy asked, turning after her.
"Gwydion? What is all this?" Keiichi asked.
"There's a lot to tell you," Gwydion said quietly. "Let's talk."
"A hardline? Here?" Belldandy asked in shock.
Sitting at their kitchen table, Gwydion nodded before taking a sip of the tea Belldandy had prepared while he told them the story of the attack on Heaven.
"I don't get it," Keiichi admitted.
"There are points in space throughout each realm where the space is weaker," Belldandy explained to him. "Essentially doorways to other realms that are fixed in place. We call them hardlines because it's kind of like a physical phone line. Our travel mediums are like cell towers where we can go just about anywhere that particular medium exists, but there are some realms where travel mediums like mirrors or televisions don't exist."
She turned to Gwydion. "And you believe there's one here that leads to the Roundtable?"
Gwydion nodded. "Minuette's travel medium was painted artwork. She was pulling you toward your rock garden. I think she set up a dedicated hardline before she made her move on you. I have our tech guys looking for it now."
"It makes sense," Keiichi said. "She seemed real eager to get Belldandy there."
"And I think it will lead directly to their base," Gwydion said. "Or very close to it."
"And when you find it?" Belldandy asked.
"We'll attack through it," he told her. "Right now, time is only on our side because they don't have the angel tree, which means eventually they will attack again. Maybe a year from now, after they've moved their base to some realm where we'll never find it. We either strike them now or risk everything later."
Belldandy closed her eyes in thought. She opened them a moment later. "Then I should come with you."
"Belldandy!" Keiichi cried.
But Gwydion cut off his protest. "No. The one thing we still don't understand is why they want a Norn. Until we know for sure, at least one of you stays here."
The goddess' eyes widened in surprise. "'At least one?'"
Before a very uncomfortable-looking Gwydion could explain, that explanation bounded into the room and hugged Belldandy.
"Oneesama!" Skuld cried, wrapping her arms around her sister.
"Skuld!" Feeling something different in her sister, Belldandy held her at arms' length and blinked at her armor. "You... You've chosen a role?" she asked quietly.
For the first time since making her choice, Skuld looked uncomfortable. "You're not mad, are you?"
Belldandy hugged her again. "Of course not," she said. "If this is the path you wish to follow, then you should follow it."
"Got it!" the tech said, holding a glowing rod at the center of the rock garden.
Gwydion pushed his way to the front. "Any idea where it leads?"
"Negative," the tech said. "Should we send a probe?"
"If they detect it then this whole thing is for nothing," Yazlyn argued.
"Agreed. We're going to have to accept some things on faith," the teacher told them. He took a breath. "How long until the vehicles are ready?"
"We can leave in the morning," Skuld replied proudly. "Mr. Stryker is fully armored and automatic! It'll be a snap!"
He didn't face her. "Skuld, I'm putting you on Captain Yazlyn's team. You'll report to her for the duration of this mission."
"H...Hai," she said.
"Mission brief in three hours," he announced to the gathered war gods. "Weapons prep and vehicle maintenance has seven hours! Let's get to work."
"My sister has this strange affliction where
she believes she has to be the one to face
the ills of Creation herself. I used to think
this just made her cutely naive. Now, I know
it's just a natural byproduct of having
someone to love that damned much. It
doesn't make us any less idiots though."
From the diary of Lady Urd
Standing on the back step, Keiichi turned to his fiancé, who was staring down at the ground as if refusing to look at him.
"What does that mean?" he asked her.
"That word," he said again. "'Curahee?'"
She stared down at the wood of the railing. "It's their motto," she told him. "It's an ancient word. It means, 'together, we stand alone.'"
"You're worried about Skuld," he said.
"I have to go with them," she said quietly before finally raising her eyes to look at him. "You know that, right?"
It was his turn to look down at the ground. "I had a feeling," he said softly.
"I have a duty," she said. "To Skuld... to Heaven..." She looked at him again. "And to you."
He looked at her with a touch of surprise. "To me?"
"Hai," she whispered. "It's not just Heaven in danger. Earth is at risk as well. Heaven was my home, and I feel an obligation to protect it, but..." She turned and embraced him. "This," she said, squeezing him. "This is also my home, and I have a duty to protect it as well."
He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly, as much to hide the tears in his eyes as to show his support.
"I'll come back," she promised.
"I know," he choked.
"NEVER HEARD OF HIM."
AI of the Great Ship Gwydion
upon learning for whom he
"Skuld! Sit with us!"
The young goddess had been searching the crowd for Gwydion. Nearly thirty gods were packed into the temple waiting for the briefing to begin. Yazlyn called to her again and waved, and Skuld pushed through the crowd to them.
"Have a seat," Yazlyn offered. "You're going to be in our squad from now on, so you should get to know the rest of the guys. You feeling okay?"
"I'm a little nervous," Skuld said in a tone that said she was very nervous.
The older goddess smiled. "Don't sweat it. You're a Gatekeeper now. But you still have a long way to go, so you just stick with me and learn as much as you can."
"Hai!" Skuld replied.
Yazlyn gave her a half-threatening look.
"Er... Yes, Ma'am!" Skuld tried again. She was going to have to get used to the new world she had entered.
Yazlyn saw the doors open and shouted so the whole room could hear. "RISE!"
The other avenging angels stood and faced forward as Gwydion's cane could be heard clacking up to the front of the room. Skuld watched him carefully. He seemed tired, but at the same time more comfortable than she had ever seen him.
"Sit," he ordered. He looked out at them. "This is it," he told them. "Before we begin, some rumor control. For those of you who have heard otherwise, Commander Lind was reported killed in action along with her entire platoon in the Roundtable." There was some murmuring from the crowd, but not much. Most everyone knew by now that their former commander was gone.
"It is our belief that it was the attack on her unit that sparked the attack on Heaven; in essence, the commander forced their hand and by doing so may have saved all of us," he continued. "The only question now is what we do with the opportunity she's given us. This is it. We stop them here, or we never stop them."
Sentaro put on the brakes of his bike and looked down the hill at the temple yard. "Woah," he said. "What's going on?" he asked the larger man standing nearby.
Tamiya shook his head. "I don't know."
"Some have asked, 'why? Why are they doing this to us?'"
"You think we should go ask?" Otaki asked them. Before they could respond, Skuld and Banpei came up from behind them, their arms overloaded with silver cases.
"Excuse us," she said quickly, pushing between them.
"But as The Almighty as my witness, it makes no difference. We have never been challenged as we are right now. And we've never asked why we deserve to win."
Otaki and Tamiya looked to one another, and Otaki nodded.
Skuld felt the weight in her arms suddenly lighten. "Huh?"
"We'll carry those," Tamiya rumbled, swinging the cylinders over his broad shoulders.
"This isn't just our fight. It belongs to all the people of Creation, across every realm."
Skuld smiled. "Arigato!"
As Skuld led them down the hill, they passed Keiichi and Megumi welding a steel plate onto one of the Mr. Strykers.
"No one in those realms will ever know the sacrifices many of you are about to make. No statue will stand for you. No Great Ship will bear your name. No mortal woman will name their child for you."
The junior looked up and caught his fiance's eye as she worked with a group of valkyrie medics.
"Their survival will be your monument."
He looked out at them and saw their determination in the eyes that stared back. "It's time," he finished. "Curahee!"
"To my sister, Urd, I leave the most solemn of
responsibilities. I entrust the happiness of my
beloved Keiichi to you. You and he have always
shared a special relationship, and in the event
of my death, I can think of no other goddess
I would be willing to entrust his life and his
love to. Take care of him as I would."
From the last will and testament
of the goddess Belldandy
"I should go to bed soon," Belldandy told him as he placed a tea cup in front of her. "I have to be up very early tomorrow."
"Just a little longer?" Keiichi begged, sipping at his own cup.
She tried to smile encouragingly. "I'll be back before you know it," she assured him. "It's not forever."
"I know," he whispered, reaching across the kitchen table to take her hand.
Blushing, she looked away and sipped at her own tea. "Please promise you'll look after Neesan for me," she asked, changing the subject. "She's still very upset."
"I will," he said. "I talked to her this afternoon. It's going to be okay."
She smiled at him. "I know. You and Neesan have always had a close relationship. If anything were to happen to me, I would expect her to step in for me."
Keiichi's eye went wide. "Uh... Urd... 'Step in'... for you?"
She gave him an amused sideways glance. "Hai. You did wish for a goddess to always remain by your side..."
"Yeah, but... I mean..."
She smiled. "I'm only..." She broke off as her head began to swim. Her fingers went to her temples. "I..." Her eyes found her tea, and she looked up at him. "Keiichi?"
By the time her forehead hit the table, Urd was already walking into the kitchen.
"You're sure she's not hurt?" Keiichi asked quietly, looking at his unconscious fiancé.
"The pill you put in her tea put her in emergency recharge mode," the older goddess explained. "She should stay that way for a day at least. Don't worry."
He didn't look up at her, continuing to look at Belldandy. "I don't feel great about doing this," he said.
"Well, you should," Urd told him, pulling some of the defensive charms off Belldandy's clothes and applying them to her own. "She's not supposed to go."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
She paused. "Frigga had a vision in Heaven," the goddess told him. "She wouldn't tell me what it was about, but it was pretty obvious from the way she was acting. I'm supposed to go on this mission." She looked at him. "And I don't think I'm supposed to come back."
She looked down at her sleeping sister, remembering the last time she had been in this situation. It seemed like she had been living on borrowed time since that incident with Corus. Maybe it was simply time to pay up.
"Do you know why gods and goddesses treat her with near-reverence, Keiichi?" she asked quietly.
She didn't look at him. "I once told you that Belldandy was three things: a representation of the present, a goddess of fertility and a guardian of the World Tree. It's the last one that's so important. 'Guardian' in this case means many things, but when you boil it down, it means that it's all her. The World Tree can't grow without a Norn, without her, and in the future, without Skuld. When people look at her, they don't just see a naive young woman. They see the sunrise, a mother giving birth, a man and a woman holding hands. They see life anew."
Urd finally looked at him. "She's not expendable. She has a role to play, and she's going to play it. As a goddess of the past, my part as guardian is over. Creation can stand to lose me. It won't bear to lose her."
Keiichi looked down at the table. "I told her the same thing once," he confessed.
She nodded. "Because you see it too." Leaning down, she kissed her sister's forehead. "Be happy," she whispered.
Keiichi watched as his sister-in-law stood up and walked out the door without another word.
Skuld found Gwydion standing beneath the Buddha inside the main temple. The commander was looking up at the gilded statue pensively, wondering if that was how humanity really saw gods.
Turning at the sound of her voice, he found his student nervously approaching.
"What is it, Skuld?" he asked.
"Well, it's just..." She retreated for a moment before trying again. "I read that there's a tradition. When a student and teacher part ways, the student gives the teacher a memory coin as payment for teaching them."
"We're still a long way from that," Gwydion told her with a smile.
"I made you one anyway," Skuld said. "You know... Just in case..." Reaching into her pocket, she produced a small gold coin.
His face fell just a bit. "I don't take death letters, Skuld."
"Sensei, there's just a lot I want to tell you and..."
Gwydion smiled at her. "Skuld, a god who believes he's going to die tomorrow will usually find a way to make it happen." He took the coin and placed it squarely back into her palm, closing her fingers around it and squeezing her hand. "Tomorrow is not the end," he told her quietly.
She nodded. "Hai."
"Go get some sleep," he told her. "Tomorrow will be a long day."
He watched her as she turned and slowly walked away and tried to remember how he felt the night before his first fire mission. No matter how routine, there was always that lingering possibility that you wouldn't come back. He was surprised to find that he felt the same way now, that time hadn't dulled the sense.
It surprised him that he hadn't felt her approach, but there she was, a bottle of sake and two ceramic cups in her hand.
"Urd," he greeted her quietly. "About before..."
As he stumbled through his apology, she poured a cup of sake and pushed it into his hand before pouring one for herself. As the words left his mouth, she was there, crushing her lips against his. As she broke away, he was still trying to apologize.
"It's not what I wanted," he tried explaining.
The goddess placed a finger on his lips. "The Favrashi never asked what we wanted," she told him quietly. The goddess poured him a cup and handed to him before pouring one for herself. She held up her cup in a toast. "To one more night. Cheers."
He looked down at his cup and offered a wan smile before downing his own drink. She refilled them, but didn't drink right away, preferring to savor the moment. Her questioning eyes found him sipping at the sake.
"What if they had?" she asked quietly. At his questioning look, she elaborated. "What would you do if this was all just suddenly over?"
He turned away as he thought, downing the rest of the sake in his cup. "I'd stop," he finally told her. "Just stop." At her questioning look, he continued. "Despite my best efforts, I've been fighting my entire life. It would be nice to just stop."
"After this there'll peace again," Urd told him. "You can stop then."
"Peace is an illusion," he told her. "Brief interludes between conflict. Look at this situation now. We finally get the demons under some semblance of control and then..." He held out his cup for a refill and grimaced. "... damn sentient angels," he muttered.
She refilled his cup. "But what would you do?" she pressed.
He gave her a hopeful look. "I would hope that... I would be welcome to return here," he said quietly. "And write poetry about the goddess with the moonlight-colored hair who's become my muse."
Urd poured herself a third and leaned against the wall, smiling and letting the sake's effects wash over her. "Flattery will get you everywhere." At his smile, she turned serious again. "And go back to teaching?"
She was surprised to see him shake his head. "No," he whispered. "I can't."
"But why?" Urd asked, blinking in confusion. "You're good at it."
"I've lost two of my best students to war," he whispered. "I don't think I could bear to lose another."
"That would be a waste," she admonished him.
"Well," he finally relented, taking a bracing sip from his drink. "There is someone I'd be willing to teach."
He gave her a serious look. "My firstborn."
She swallowed nervously at the statement and all the baggage that came with it, not sure how she felt about the idea. Shaking her head, she put her sake cup on the banister. "Gwydion, I..."
"I shouldn't have said that," he confessed.
"I'm just... I'm not even mature enough to take care of myself!" she said with a laugh. Her tone turned wistful. "Let alone a..." She shook herself from the brief fantasy. "She'd be one quarter demon..."
"And half you," he told her with a smile.
"I didn't come here to talk," she told him, eager to get off the uncomfortable topic. "There's time enough to talk about that kind of thing if we survive tomorrow, right?" She punctuated this by sauntering toward him, reaching out and letting her fingertips trail over his good shoulder.
Taking his head in her hands, she leaned over and kissed him softly. "But," she whispered. "If it were to happen, she'd also be half you."
The windswept plateau stretched for miles, flat, rocky and barren save for the small dot of light that suddenly formed at an almost random spot. With a flash of light, this spot expanded and seven winged avenging angels emerged and began to climb to a higher altitude.
Pahana checked his small infopad, confirming his location and touching the comm gem at his neck. "We're in the Roundtable. Locator indicates we are three miles from Commander Lind's last known location."
"Aerial contacts!" he heard one of his valkyries call out. "Approaching fast! Captain, they outnumber us three to one!"
"Good," Pahana growled. "Then it's a fair fight." Raising his voice, he opened the comm link to the rest of his gods. "Cover the insertion team! Don't let the mongrel filth touch them!"
As the Avenging Angels turned to engage, darts of light shot toward them from the Favrashi defenders. Far below the exchange, the small dot of light from the hardline flashed again and three armored vehicles sped through it at their top speed.
Inside the second vehicle, Urd looked through the window and braced herself as one of the Favrashi flew down toward them only to be blasted from behind by one of Pahana's gods. The defender spun out of control and struck the ground near them.
"Dismount in two minutes," she heard Gwydion through her gem. He hadn't argued when she told him she was coming instead of Belldandy, probably knowing how futile it would be to fight and what a hypocrite he would sound like after allowing Skuld to come along.
Why did I come? she asked herself. For Belldandy's sake? Skuld's? Or my own?
In the third vehicle, Yazlyn hit a button in the aft compartment and watched the rear hatch open, revealing the same violet sky she remembered from when her life ended. It had been years since the love of her life had died while she was too injured to help her.
This time it would be different.
Reaching out to the weapon rack, her eyes didn't leave the desolate landscape as she pulled a lance from its hooks and heard it hum to life.
"Dismount in thirty seconds."
"You heard him!" Yazlyn barked. "As soon as this thing stops, we're right back to it."
The vehicles stopped near the cliffs where Lind had first spotted the cave entrance and the valkyries piled out, establishing a fast and dirty perimeter. In the distant sky, they could still see flashes from Pahana's Avenging Angels battling the Favrashi pickets.
While Yazlyn directed her troops, something caught Gwydion's eye, drawing him toward it. A glint of light reflected off something half embedded in the sand. Struggling to kneel next to it, he reached down and plucked it from the ground.
One of the Gatekeepers had spotted something similar not far away. "Remains!" he called out.
"Is it Lind?" Yazlyn asked.
Gwydion stared at the commander's insignia that once rode his student's collar. "It's her," he remarked quietly.
"How did they catch them on the ground?" an avenging angel asked incredulously.
"Ask questions later," Yazlyn told him. "We've got work to do." She stepped forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Old Man?"
He rose to his feet. "She's right. Let's get to it."
The cave entrance was no larger than a pair of double doors, but the corners and edges were so smooth Yazlyn knew it couldn't be a natural occurrence. "Stack up," she whispered to her team. The three other gods in her fire team lined up along the wall. As team leader, she took the third spot and followed as the point man led them to the edge.
She pointed her lance downward and touched her comm gem. "Ready," she whispered.
"Clear it," Gwydion's voice whispered back.
Yazlyn waited as the point man leaned against the next god, then the next god against her. When she was ready, she leaned back against the last team member. Once he was ready, he pushed against her and her down the line. The entire team rushed into the cave.
The anteroom was lit just well enough for them to see the room was empty. No sentry waited for them. As soon as she was satisfied, she hit her comm. "Clear. Proceeding."
The team restacked and proceeded further into the cave. Darkness pushed against them as they walked silently, weapons up and ready. When they could barely see, Yazlyn called a halt.
"Snakeyes," she ordered. The team members reached into their cloaks and found a small vial. Dabbing some of the amber liquid onto their fingers, they touched it to their eyes and blinked several times as the room lit up in shades of yellow and green. Satisfied, Yazlyn ordered the team to move on.
Three more chambers were cleared before they came upon their first pair of sentries. The tunnel diverged in two directions, and an armed god stood at each entrance, apparently oblivious to their presence mere feet from them. She gave a few hand signals to two of her troops, and they lowered their weapons, drawing small daggers instead.
The sentries were sublimating before they knew to scream.
"Some kind of storage area down there," Yazlyn explained, gesturing down the hallway. "We're getting some weird readings from it."
"And down this other hallway?" Gwydion asked as they walked, Skuld right on his heels.
"You're not going to believe it," Yazlyn told him. She led them further down the corridor until it ended in a cavernous room lined with computer terminals. A large window looked out over an even larger chamber that held a bronze-colored spire that reached from floor to ceiling.
"Kami sama," Skuld whispered. "It's a class three server!"
"A what?" Yazlyn asked.
"It's a back-up computer for when they have to take Yggdrasil down for maintenance," Urd explained, as her sister rolled up her sleeves and approached the main interface terminal. "A series of twelve of them can handle some of Yggdrasil's low-priority functions for a short time, but even one of them is still a very advanced supercomputer."
"Clever sons of bitches," Yazlyn cursed. "They put it together piece by piece."
"Can you access it, Skuld?" Gwydion asked.
Skuld typed in a few commands and watched the screen light up.
//PLEASE STATE IDENTIFICATION AND PASSWORD//
The young goddess tried a basic surface query, essentially asking the computer to identify itself.
//CLASS THREE SERVER, UNAFFLILIATED. IDENTIFICATION NUMBER BU773-R5. PLEASE STATE IDENTIFICATION AND PASSWORD//
"This is going to take awhile," Skuld told them.
"We don't have awhile," Yazlyn argued.
Skuld bit her lip, her fingers running over the keyboard. "Okay, there's something I can try, but..." She paused. "Did you guys check everywhere?" she asked suddenly.
"Yeah, why?" Yazlyn asked.
The goddess pointed at the screen. "I can't get a whole lot of information from this thing, but there's a lot of energy being diverted to the lower levels and this chamber here." She tapped the screen.
"That looks like the storage area," Yazlyn told them. She keyed her com. "Phobos, Cassandra, rally up at the store room." She turned to Gwydion. "I'm going to go check it out."
"I'll come with you," Urd offered.
Yazlyn looked at her, unsure of the offer, but not hostile to it either. "Okay."
Gwydion nodded. "Fine, but no fighting, you two. Understand?"
Urd rolled her eyes while Yazlyn snorted. "Okay, Dad!"
The two goddess double backed while Gwydion turned back to Skuld. Instead of finding the girl typing, she was holding her hands over the terminal, her eyes shut tight.
She didn't answer right away. The older god could sense the link she was establishing with the computer, could feel the raw power spark between the two.
Her concentration broken, her eyes fluttered open and she turned to him.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Well, Sensei, it just seemed that an 'it' has no choice in what it does, but a 'he' could..."
The verbal greeting shocked them.
"Um... Hi," Skuld called back.
"Skuld," Gwydion whispered. "Did you... Did you just bring this computer to life?"
The girl goddess didn't answer right away. "Would that be bad?" she asked sheepishly.
The computer didn't seem the least put off by their conversation.
I'M THE BEE YOU SEVEN SEVEN THREE DASH ARE FIVE!
Skuld had to shake her head. Unlike Eddas' voice, which had been computer modulated, this computer's voice sounded almost child-like, like a small schoolboy and just as innocent. It's next statement, however, made her rethink that in a heartbeat.
SO, YOU HERE TO DESTROY ALL OF CREATION? WHIPPEE!
"What have you got?" Yazlyn demanded as she and Urd entered the furthest most chamber in the storage area. The other two war gods stood near a small part of the wall.
"Check this out," the female of the two said as she brushed aside a lock of golden hair. She reached out and pressed against the wall, watching Yazlyn and Urd start as her hand passed right through it. "I think it's a dedicated hardline someone left open."
Yazlyn bit her lip and nodded before touching her comm crystal. "Gwydion, we found a hard line. We're going to check it out."
"Understood. Use caution."
"Roger. How are things up there?"
He paused before answering. "Progressing."
'CAUSE IF YOU LEAVE ME NOW, YOU TAKE AWAY THE BEST PART OF ME! OOOH OOH OOH WEEE, PLEASE DON'T GO!
Skuld and her teacher compared notes while the computer sang to itself. "Sensei, I think this is our best chance to stop whatever it is they're going to do," Skuld told him. "If it's intelligent, it can be reasoned with, right?"
Gwydion looked up at the machine and gave it some thought. "All right," he relented. "But don't tell it anything it doesn't already know."
She turned and stepped back to the terminal as Gwydion watched his student work. "So... what do you mean by 'destroy Creation?'"
WELL, GOLLY GEE, I MEAN JUST THAT.
The screen lit up with a schematic of the plateau. Different layers of rock each took on a different color, with the largest section being a deep red. A legend appeared at the bottom right part of the screen, identifying what each color meant.
Skuld swallowed and started to shake. "Sensei," she whispered fearfully. "Sensei!"
"What is it?" he asked, and she pointed at the legend.
"This... This entire mountain is... It's..."
Gwydion saw the chart himself and quickly tapped his comm. "This is the commander," he identified. "From this moment on, under no circumstances whatsoever is anyone to use energy projectile weapons while inside the mountain. All units reply with an affirmative."
The teacher listened as each war god replied, affirming the order. His eyes, however, never left the legend, identifying the red material that made up ninety percent of the mountain's interior.
"I'm not wrong, am I?" Skuld asked fearfully.
"No, Skuld," he said quietly. "That's tri-plutonium all right." He rose, his back straightening painfully. "This whole mountain is one big bomb."
Urd knew she could emerge anywhere, but was honestly surprised that she didn't reappear in another cave. Instead, they stood at the edge of a thick forest with tall pines reaching up to the sky. What was odd, however, was the size of the realm they emerged in.
Directly behind them, just beyond the hard line, was a wall of purple mist that extended around the forest. Urd guessed the forest itself was probably only four miles square. The mist, she knew, was the way light reflected off the quantum particles that reacted to nothingness. The entire universe of this realm was this tiny patch of land. Looking up at the sky, she saw blue sky and a distant sun, but it was confined to the walls of purple.
"Wow," the male war god escorting them pronounced. "A pocket universe?"
"Little bigger than a pocket," Cassandra quipped.
"Paper bag universe?" Phobos joked.
"Cut the shit," Yazlyn barked. "Stay sharp." She turned to Urd. "You ever see anything like this?"
"No," Urd said with a shake of her head. "It's not even supposed to be possible."
"Yeah, that's going around," Yazlyn muttered.
"Woah! Contact right!" Phobos announced, rasing his staff.
Urd's eye caught a flash of movement in the brush nearby.
"Don't shoot!" she heard whoever it was cry out. "I'm not one of them!"
"Hold up," Yazlyn ordered, raising her own rapier. "Come out slow!" she ordered.
Even as the goddess in the bushes stood up, Urd was hit with a flash of familiarity.
"Hands in the air!" Yazlyn ordered. "Slow!"
The goddess stepped forward, her hands toward the sky, but her eyes were locked squarely on Urd. "I knew you'd come," she said. "He said if anything went wrong to wait for you here."
The Norn's eyes traveled up and down the woman. Now it was bothering her. Her appearance and voice were both familiar. Blonde hair was held up in a tight bun and a long white robe hung from her shoulders.
"You two know each other?" Cassandra asked.
"What's your name?" Urd asked.
"Clio," the woman answered.
"No, I mean what's your name?" Urd said again with meaning.
The other goddess smiled. "Summer Rain." Her eyes went wide. "You don't remember, of course. I was in the carriage with you and Indulgent Charity."
It clicked. It was the goddess who had sat across from her on the ride to her first meeting with the Sixth Column. No wonder she was familiar. "You're Sixth Column," she identified.
Summer Rain nodded. "Indulgent Charity told me that if anything went wrong that you would eventually come here. To wait for you and help you any way I can."
"Is... Is he..."
The Norn nodded. "I'm sorry."
The Favrashi closed her eyes in sorrow. "He was a good angel." Her gaze locked onto them again. "There's a lot to show you. Come with me."
Yazlyn nodded and turned to the other war gods. "You two stay here and keep the door open. We'll be back soon."
At their nods, Urd, Summer Rain and Yazlyn started into the forest.
THE TRI-PLUTONIUM IS CON-NECTED TO THE... HARD LINES! THE HARD LINES' CONNECTED TO THE... DETONATOR! THE DETONATOR'S CONNECTED TO THE... INSTRUMENT PANEL...
Skuld rubbed her temples as the computer sang. "So, let me see if I got all this right," she said. "This whole mountain bomb is designed to disrupt the fabric of realmic space here and cause the entire universe to collapse?"
"But that would just destroy this one realm," Skuld worked through it. "But if you opened every hardline in the Roundtable just before the universe collapsed, the blast wave would travel through every realm and cause a chain reaction that would destroy every connected realm."
BOY, YOU CAUGHT ONTO THIS WHOLE THING PRETTY QUICK! SHOULD I START THE COUNTDOWN NOW?
"Uh... Not yet..." Skuld said. She tried to think of a way out of this. Where to start? "Um... What's your name?"
WELL, I TOLD YOU, I'M THE BEE YOU SEVE...
"Yeah, that's a serial number. I mean what's your name?" Skuld thought for a moment. Thinking of her time with Eddas had reminded the goddess of his penchant for l33t speak. She looked at the serial number again and nodded.
"Your name is Butters!"
"Butters?" Gwydion asked.
"Butters!" Skuld affirmed with a happy nod.
WELL, OKAY, IF YOU THINK IT FITS...
"What is all this?" Urd asked Summer Rain as they marched through the forest. Taking up the rear, Yazlyn's eyes darted to and fro, searching for a trap she could almost sense. Urd, meanwhile, kept her eyes firmly on the back of Summer Rain's head, still bothered by a sense of deja vu she couldn't explain. Although she remembered the Favrashi, there was something still bothering her.
"This is Sanctuary," Summer Rain explained. "A world anew. The plan was to raid Heaven, steal the Angel Tree and bring it here where we would use it to perpetuate our race." The angel snorted. "But as you know, things didn't go according to the plan."
The angel led them down a steep hillside. Below, Urd could see what appeared to be a cabin or lodge, the first building they've seen.
"That's our Alamo," Summer Rain explained. "It can house a hundred easily. Just in case."
"Your attack... I'm sorry... Their attack on Heaven," Yazlyn began. "After the ass-kickings we'd been getting from the Favrashi, I expected better. What happened?"
Summer Rain spared the valkyrie a backwards glance. "Your reconnaissance team arrived at the front gate," she said plainly. "The majority of the team was silenced, but two pickets escaped. We knew it was only a matter of time before you retaliated. We had to strike quickly."
Urd was a bit surprised when the angel led them past the lodge and not into it. "Where are we going?"
"There's still one question that you have," Summer Rain told her without looking at her. "One that Indulgent Charity was reluctant to answer. He knew as we all did that if you knew, Heaven's retaliation would be swift, final and overwhelming."
They were barely a quarter mile from the lodge when the three goddesses emerged in a small clearing several meters wide, bare except for a single plant growing in the center. Only three feet tall, it was barely a sapling, but blue sparks emerged from its tiny trunk and floated upward.
"What is it?" Yazlyn asked.
Urd didn't answer. She fell to her knees in front of it in total awe.
The Norn cupped her hands around the top of the plant, letting her spirit touch it, confirming what she sensed in her heart. "How?" she whispered, the shock evident in her voice.
"We had to wait centuries for the opportunity," Summer Rain explained. "We feared it would take an attack in order to get it, but fortunately a series of coincidences gave us our chance."
"One of you make sense!" Yazlyn ordered bitterly.
Urd didn't take her eyes off the plant, watching transfixed as it sent several more sparks up into the sky. She absentmindedly touched it with her fingertips and watched as a shower of sparks flew into the air as a result.
"It wasn't even a Favrashi," Summer Rain told them. "It was the anarchist, Celestin, who gave us the opportunity. His attack caused it to appear, and when it did, one of our angels obtained a cutting from its branches while you and your sisters fought him."
Urd shook her head in awe.
"What the hell is this thing?!" Yazlyn demanded.
"It's a World Tree," Urd breathed. "That's how they created this realm." She stood up and faced Summer Rain. "That's why they've been trying so hard to capture Belldandy and Skuld."
The angel nodded. "Yes. We were able to stabilize the cutting, prompt it to take root... But without a Norn... we can't make it grow."
"That's why this realm is so small?" Yazlyn asked. "Because that little plant is just a baby?"
Urd nodded. "It's not just any realm. With a World Tree, you can create a whole new system of worlds. It's Creation..."
"It's Re-Creation," Summer Rain told her. "Once the realms of Creation were swept from existence, the Favrashi would create a new existence, a universe without sin. Come, there's more to show you."
The angel turned and led them down another path. Had any of them looked back, they might have caught sight of the sapling growing just an inch higher...
"I don't know, what do you think?" Phobos asked.
Standing near the hardline, Cassandra shrugged. "Secret base, I guess."
"Two secret bases?"
The valkyrie shrugged.
Phobos stepped toward the woods.
"Where are you going?" Cassandra asked him.
"It's going to get dark eventually," he told her. "I'm going to get some wood for a fire."
"Don't go far," she warned him.
He gave her a sly smile. "I'll be right back."
The valkyrie rolled her eyes as the other god disappeared into the woods. Her eyes scanned the tree line as she waited.
Ten minutes went by.
Then five more.
"Phobos?" she called, hitting her comm necklace. "Phobos, sound off."
She was about to call Yazlyn when she felt something warm slide into her back. Her eyes closed as she began to sublimate.
Lying on her back under Butters' main console, Skuld could barely make out the conversation Gwydion was having with Yazlyn over the comm net. Before she got too into the weeds about what she wanted the computer to do, she had to make sure there wasn't a transmitter in him capable of warning the Favrashi. The work was slow since she was dividing her attention between the task at hand and her teacher's words.
"A Sixth Columnist?" Gwydion asked through the gem at his throat.
"Affirmative," Skuld heard Yazlyn's voice reply. "We're here getting the grand tour. I got Cassandra and Phobos watching our exit."
Gwydion paused. "This... angel... seem reliable?"
"Urd seems to trust her."
"Therefore, it is with the greatest urging that
I recommend you investigate the activities
of the goddess Urd. It strains suspension of
disbelief to think her actions and the reluctance
of the enemy to take action against her are
Letter from Color Sgt. Yazlyn,
507th Winged Infantry Regiment,
1st Combat Division, to Director
Shasiel of the Grigori
Yazlyn pushed another branch out of her way as she followed Summer Rain and Urd through the forest.
"Use extreme caution," Gwydion told her. "But proceed. Stay in contact."
"Roger," she said. "Roundhammer out."
Her fingers paused over the gem, intent on calling for an update from Cassandra and Phobos, but her eyes fell on Urd, and something stopped her. For all intents and purposes, they were alone, and there was something she still had to do.
She increased her pace and fell into step beside Urd. "So," she said casually. "Where's this thing with you and the Old Man going?" she asked.
Urd arched an eyebrow in surprise. "I didn't know we were having conversations," she said.
Yazlyn sighed. "Look," she began. "Gwydion told me about the function codes and what you did that kept that attack from being a whole lot worse. I guess..."
"What?" Urd asked. "So you're saying I'm trustworthy now?" Her voice was irritation wrapped in disbelief, but Yazlyn was determined to do the right thing here.
"I'm admitting... that I was wrong," the valkyrie told her. She paused and searched for the right words. Unlike her friend, she was no poet who could bend words to her will. "He's all I've got left," she said quietly. "And I don't want to see him hurt. Ever since that day..." She broke off.
Urd took a slow breath. "He... He told me that he wasn't the only one to lose someone he cared about in the Roundtable," she said quietly.
Yazlyn let out a short chuckle. "You don't have to be sly, Urd," she quietly. "Gaeriel and I were lovers. The three of us were very close, and losing her like that and seeing Gwydion... change... It was almost too much to take." She paused again. "And when I saw you taking an interest... I didn't want him to hurt any more than he already was."
Urd walked in silence for several moments before turning back to her. "He blames himself, you know."
"We all blame ourselves," she said quietly. "Gwydion turned inward, and I..." She paused. "Have you ever lost someone? Wait, that's not the right word..." Urd waited for her to find a way to say it. "Have you ever had someone you loved deeply ripped from your arms and murdered?" she finally finished.
Urd didn't answer.
"Because that's what it was," Yazlyn continued harshly. "They say to be a valkyrie you have to have some anger in you, that it's the only way to cope with a lifetime of combat. Well, I wasn't just angry. I hated, Urd. I hated them so much it hurt, like a ball of pain in my heart. It was the exact opposite of everything I had learned to feel when Gaeriel was with me. It was like a betrayal of her."
She looked Urd in the eye and grit her teeth. "It wasn't the demon in you I hated, Urd," she said. "I hate what I became because of them."
They both looked up and found Summer Rain waving at them from a group of large boulders nearby. A cave entrance just large enough for one to walk upright met them.
The moment between the two goddesses was broken. It was time to get back to work.
"Butters?" Skuld asked tentatively, crawling out from under the terminal. "Can I ask you something?"
WELL, SURE! I MEAN, WE'RE FRIENDS, AND FRIENDS CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING!
"Good," Skuld said softly. "You know your primary function? The one that destroys all life in Creation?"
OH, YEAH... IS IT TIME ALREADY? FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO!...
"NO!" Skuld cried suddenly. "I just want to talk about it!"
OH, OKAY, THEN...
"Just tell me more about it," Skuld prompted.
WELL, IT'S SIMPLE, REALLY... I EXPLODE AND THAT'S PRETTY MUCH IT...
"What about the hardlines?"
OH, THAT'S A WHOLE DIFFERENT TERMINAL! IT'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
Skuld turned and saw another computer interface nearby, this one rigged with a long range broadband transmitter. Turning back to Butters, she scrunched her face in thought. "So... your basic purpose is to just explode?"
"So... You wouldn't really care one way or another if the hardlines were closed, right?"
NO... BLOWING UP IS PRETTY MUCH BLOWING UP...
"Could you maybe... not blow up as much?" Skuld asked, squishing her thumb and forefinger closer together.
I DON'T THINK IT WORKS THAT WAY...
"Skuld? Any progress?" Gwydion asked.
The young goddess turned to the other terminal and booted it up. "Yeah, I'm onto something here," she said. "I don't think I can stop Butters from exploding, but I can order all the hardlines in the Roundtable to close."
"Confining the blast to this realm," he finished.
"Yeah! I mean, we'd lose the Roundtable, but it's not like anyone lives here..."
"Except the Favrashi," Gwydion said with a half-smile. An errant thought forced him to ask, "Can you select specific hardlines to open?"
"Well, I think so," Skuld told him. "Why?"
He looked down at her innocent eyes and shook his head. "Nothing," he told her. He had half a mind to have her open the hardlines to the demon realm and wipe them out for good.
But if genocide was wrong when the Favrashi did it, how would it be right if he did?
"Get to work," he ordered. "Let me know when you're ready."
His communications crystal blinked. "Go ahead," he ordered.
"Commander, this is Pahana," the Avenging Angel's rough voice came though clearly. "We're detecting a lot of contacts heading this way from the rough location of Heaven's hardline. Did you order reinforcements?"
He bit his lip. Gwydion had been afraid of this. "They must be a force that was anticipating a direct attack from Heaven," he explained. "The station here is practically deserted. What's their ETA?"
"They'll be here in twenty minutes," Pahana told him. "Your lingo five after that."
"Captain, I need you to hold them for as long as you can, then when you get the signal I need you and your entire unit to get out of the Roundtable as quickly as possible."
He turned to Skuld. "Skuld, you have a half hour to blow this place up!" He activated the crystal again. "Yazlyn!"
The stone walkway led to a large open chamber. Though deep underground, the cavern was well lit. Roman columns lined the white marble walls, and a stone table or altar sat in the center of the room on a raised dais below them.
"This is the Bonding Chamber," Summer Rain explained. "This is where a Favrashi takes a host."
She began leading them downstairs when Yazlyn's comm chirped. "Just a sec," she said, stopping.
"Gwydion?" she asked. She could barely make out the commander's voice. "I can barely hear you."
"Yazlyn, re... back... Imm... eed to exfil..."
"Say again," she requested.
She was concentrating so much on trying to make out the message that she almost missed the movement from behind the columns.
"URD!" she cried, shoving the other goddess down the steps as another god stepped forward and fired an energy bolt that ripped right through the center of the valkyrie's chest! She fell to the ground and rolled down the stone steps leading to the center of the chamber.
"YAZLYN!" Urd cried, raising her arms for an attack. Before she could get a bead on their attacker, however, she felt something clamp over her ears and the most dreaded sound in the world filled her head.
She clawed at the headphones, turning at the same time and saw Summer Rain smiling triumphantly at her. Sleep started to claim her as she fought, but the earphones must have been enchanted to stay on the wearer and wouldn't budge.
As her eyelids started their inexorable slide downward, Summer Rain regarded her humorlessly. "Well, it's not the way I wanted it, but we have our Norn."
It was the last thing Urd heard before she hit the stone floor.
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;
It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."
"A Tale of Two Cities"
Yazlyn felt the pain in her chest and struggled to move. She could see her attacker join Summer Rain and another god as they lifted Urd up onto the table.
Pushing upward, she tapped her comm crystal. "Gwydion," she breathed out before hitting the floor again. Through blurry eyes she could see her hand...
And watched the fingers as they slowly started to sublimate.
But there was no further reply.
Skuld stared at him. She had heard the valkyrie's cry, the weapons fire. "Sensei?"
Gwydion didn't turn to her.
"They have them, don't they?"
He tapped the crystal again. "Cassandra! Phobos! SITREP!"
He took a breath. "How long?" he asked her.
"I think it's ready," she said quietly. "I left the hardline we came through open. We can shut it from the other side."
Her teacher turned to her. "Start the countdown," he ordered. "Then gather our remaining gods and goddesses, leave one Stryker, and get back to Earth."
He started for the doorway that led to the storage chamber. "Hold the door open for us as long as you can, then shut it... whether we're there or not..."
Skuld ran up to him. "No way!" she cried. "I'm coming with you!"
"You have your orders!" he growled over his shoulder as he continued on.
"I'm not letting you go by yourse..."
He whirled around and slapped her so hard she fell on her butt in shock. Looking up at him in silent shock, she touched her cheek where she slapped him.
The face looking down at her was stern and would broker no argument. "You are a Valkyrie in Heaven's service!" he hissed. "You will follow the orders of your commander! Do you understand?"
Frightened at this change in him, she nodded.
"SAY THE WORDS, SKULD!"
"Hai, Sensei," she whispered. "I understand."
He pointed a finger at her. "Don't go picking up any bad habits from your predecessors," he warned her. "Now get out of here and you hold that door open as long as you can!"
She nodded again and watched him start down the corridor again as she started to cry.
Yazlyn placed her palms on the floor in front of her and pushed. She harnessed her anger, let it strengthen her and managed to bring herself to one knee.
She was dying, and she knew it. Even now her body was breaking down into the essence of the Almighty. Her vision was fading in and out, and just on the very edge of her perception, she could hear the voices of the dead...
And one in particular.
It's okay, the voice, that voice she fell in love with, told her. You can rest. Your part is over. Lay down your burdens and come to me. You can stop now.
Yazlyn took a pained breath. "Could you?" she whispered back.
The whisper brought their attention back to her. Summer Rain's lips curled up in a half sneer. "Eyes of the World, put that thing out of its misery."
One of the Favrashi stepped toward her, coming close enough for the valkyrie to feel his breath and apparently thinking her too weak to do much of anything.
Summoning what strength she had, she quickly pulled her rapier from its sheathe and slashed outward, slicing the god in two! He sublimated like a puff of smoke, and she fell forward, too weak to hold her weapon any longer.
The other Favrashi made as if to attack her, but Summer Rain held his shoulder. "Let her die," she told him. "She's already more smoke than goddess."
It was true. Yazlyn could barely see her own hand now, but she reached forward and tried to drag herself toward them, growling like a dying animal.
Stop, she heard Gaeriel's voice in her mind. It's okay, I promise. Everything will happen as it should, and cannot happen any other way.
"I'm not going to fail him again," she whispered weakly, managing to drag herself another inch.
You haven't. He's on his way here now, and when he arrives, he'll fulfill his own destiny.
Yazlyn stopped moving, too weak to move any longer, too weak to even cry.
My love, you've fought so hard. It's time to find your peace.
She managed to roll onto her back. Her vision was cloudy, and she realized that it wasn't her eyes, but the sight of her own body sublimating, the essence rising to the ceiling.
"I missed you so much," she whispered quietly.
I know. I missed you as well.
Then, Yazlyn closed her eyes...
And found peace.
Urd's eyes popped open the moment the headphones were pulled off her head. Seeing Summer Rain staring down at her, she lunged upward but was stopped by the restraints that bound her arms and legs to the altar. Looking up, she found her wrists wrapped in the same type of stone snakes that Corus had used on her and knew there was little point in struggling.
She did so anyway.
The Favrashi regarded her curiously. "When you came upon me in the forest, I wondered which part of me you would recognize first," she said. "My face or my voice." She smiled "Lucky me."
Urd groaned in her head and kicked herself mentally. She knew she recognized the angel's voice, but didn't put it together. She hadn't spoken during the trip to meet Indulgent Charity. No, she hadn't heard her voice until she had checked Gwydion's answering machine just before her arrest.
"You were a spy," she spat.
"I always knew Indulgent Charity was a weak link," Summer Rain replied. "Always the first to suggest a compromise rather than a course of action that would reclaim what is ours. Of course, I had no idea he would give you the function codes. I assumed it was a list of agents working within Central Dogma."
"Lucky us," Urd hissed at her.
The angel grimaced. "Quite." She motioned to the other angel and reached out to take a small wooden box from him. Urd tossed her head from side to side, searching for Yazlyn and swallowed when she found the valkyrie's sword and cape lying on the floor not far away.
"You didn't have to kill her," Urd growled at them.
"She killed quite a few of us," Summer Rain told her. "Including my sister, Han Ba. What she received was justice." The Favrashi opened the box. "And while I would prefer to extend to you that same justice, time has run out and instead I must extend to you a great honor." She removed a small object from the box, but Urd couldn't see what it was. "It is our wish to create a world without sin, without pain and without... impurity."
The object came into view and Urd recoiled as far as her bounds would let her. "No," she hissed, shaking her head as Summer Rain approached her with the angel egg in her fingers.
"You should be honored that a sinner, a half-breed, such as yourself would be allowed to join with one of our own," the angel told her as Urd felt the other Favrashi grasp her head, his fingers pulling her jaws apart.
"You will be the mother of our new world," Summer Rain told her as she dropped the egg into Urd's mouth. The other Favrashi clamped the goddess' mouth shut and hit her in the throat. Unconsciously, Urd swallowed.
"Now relent and meet your destiny."
"None of your damn business!"
Skuld upon being asked
about her role in the Last
Battle of the Roundtable
Stepping out into the dim light of the Roundtable's sun, Skuld watched as the other war gods loaded their equipment into two of the Mr. Strykers in preparation to leave. She had rigged the timer so that all she needed to do was press a button, but no matter what her teacher said, she wasn't going to start the countdown until she knew she had given him every chance in the world to escape. When the Strykers were ready to go, then she'd start the countdown.
"Lieutenant," one of the Gatekeepers called out. He pointed at the sky. "One of Pahana's?"
They all looked up and saw a pair of white wings floating lazily in the sky high above them.
Skuld studied it as the lieutenant, Valaris, hit his comm jewel. "Warbird, Warbird, this is Lighthouse One-Seven. Come in."
The god rolled in and started to dive. To Skuld's right, one of the Gatekeepers screamed in fear.
Energy bolts shot from the god, exploding all around them. Skuld was knocked off her feet and tossed several yards away, landing in a patch of soft sand nearby. She could feel the wind kicked up by the flying god's passage as she painfully opened her eyes. Her entire body throbbed in pain. She heard the sound of Gatekeepers firing up at the Favrashi ace and out of the corner of her eye could see it dive behind some rocks.
Another sound caught her attention and she looked up. Out in the open, twenty feet away, one of the Gatekeepers was rolling around on the ground, screaming in pain. Skuld could see his left wing was charred and blackened.
Gathering her strength, she pushed up off the ground and stumbled over to him. Although she didn't know the first thing about first aid, she knew it would be better to get him out of the open and behind something thick. She grabbed him under the shoulder pads of his armor and strained as she pulled him across the ground.
She caught something in her peripheral vision and her eyes shot open at the sight of Loki turning to head right toward her.
Oh crap! Oh crap! Oh crap!
She looked behind her, but the Strykers and rocks were still too far away. She could leave the wounded god and run, but...
Loki seemed to home in on her and increased his speed. Skuld swallowed back terror and stood up, placing herself between the Favrashi and the wounded war god.
Come on, Skuld! Think! Lakes! Sunlight! Spotlights! Come on!
Closing her eyes, she thought about the lake like Gwydion taught her to, watching the sunlight expand over it. Just to hurry things along, she tossed a couple more suns in the mix and some spotlights. The glare of light expanded quickly over the body of water in her mind, and she could feel the crackle of her shield start to form in front of her.
She jumped in fright when she heard the report of Loki's energy bolts, felt the impacts on the ground all around her, but she kept her eyes closed and concentrated on keeping that shield in place. A blast of wind struck her as Loki zipped past her no more than four feet above her head.
Her chest heaving, she opened her eyes and looked down. She and the wounded god were in a six foot circle of tranquil sand. Just outside that circle were pockmarks and scorched earth from where Loki's energy bolts had struck the ground or bounced off her shield.
She didn't waste time congratulating herself, instead kneeling down and grabbing the god again. By this time, two other Gatekeepers had found her and helped pull the wounded man to safety behind one of the Strykers.
Valaris was there as well, shouting into his comm crystal.
"Repeat! Pinned down by aerial contact! Need immediate air support!"
Skuld recognized Pahana's voice reply. "Roger, One-Seven. Be advised fast movers en route to your lingo. ETA three minutes. Recommend immediate exfil. Over."
Valaris waved to the other Gatekeepers. "All right, you heard him! Get in the Strykers! We're falling back! Move!"
Skuld looked back to the cave entrance as the others loaded the wounded god into the back of one of the vehicles. They ducked as Loki made another pass over them.
"Don't wait for me!" she yelled and ran toward the cave entrance.
"Skuld! Get back here!"
The skin on her arms burned as too many of Loki's energy bolts came very close to hitting her, but she continued running even as she entered the safety of the cave. Sprinting to the control room, knocking the occasional chair or box out of her way, she finally made it.
"Hi, Butters!" she said quickly, smacking the countdown switch.
"Bye, Butters!" she cried, running out of the control room again.
BYE, SKULD! BA-OOMBA BA-OOMBA BUBBLEGUM! BA-OOMBA BA-OOMBA BUBBLEGUM! MY MOTHER GAVE ME...
Skuld didn't pay attention to the countdown, instead running as fast as she could for the daylight at the end of the tunnel. She gave a silent prayer of thanks when she saw the Strykers still there. Running out of the cave, she nearly lost her head as Loki fired on her from the sky. Tripping, her body slammed into the Stryker next to Valaris.
"That was stupid!" he screamed before turning back to what he was doing. "Warbird, Warbird! Be advised friendlies west of cliff face! Target is airborne! Danger close!"
"Roger, One-Seven. Rolling in hot."
Skuld looked up and saw Loki suddenly turn as green energy bolts shot past him, near enough to singe the Favrashi's wings. Two Avenging Angels from Pahana's squadron shot by overhead, chasing after the angel.
The young goddess was pulled from the scene by Valaris, who picked her up and threw her bodily into the back of the Stryker, climbing in behind her a moment later.
"Let's get out of here!" he shouted.
Urd gasped. She could feel it, moving around inside her soul. Shutting her eyes, she tried to expel it, but couldn't summon her powers with the snakes holding her. She gasped as it tore through her spirit, studying her memories, forming itself to her, growing in strength.
Tears formed in her eyes. "Gwydion, help me," she begged in a whisper.
She could feel it pause as it noticed something. For the first time, it realized it wasn't alone in there. Urd felt it too, knew that the intrusion had been noticed by her other half. She grit her teeth and spoke, hoping it could sense her command.
"Fuck that bitch up," she hissed angrily.
She convulsed as the two consciences collided, turning her soul into a battleground.
When Division Bell had first attempted to take Belldandy, Holy Bell, as a reflection of Belldandy, welcomed it in, was courteous, tried to find some compromise or way to coexist. By the time she realized it was fruitless, it was already too late.
World of Elegance, as Urd's other half, was far less accommodating.
Summer Rain watched Urd convulse again and stepped back in shock as two angels shot out of the goddess and flew against the far wall. Their faces identical, the only way to tell them apart was their wings. One angel had pure white wings while the other had one white and one black.
It was this angel that had seized the intruder by the throat and threw it bodily against one of the columns, smashing the ancient-looking piece of architecture into rubble. The white angel, Brave New World, responded quickly, throwing herself at World of Elegance.
Summer Rain turned to the other Favrashi. "We must hurry. Go close the hardline."
He nodded and rushed to the stone corridor. Just as he was about to emerge on the other side, he saw the glint of metal whip out at him from his right and felt the burning blade pass through his neck.
Gwydion was stumbling down the hall even as the angel sublimated behind him. When he emerged in the cavern, he had to duck to avoid the two angels as they hurtled at one another at dangerous speeds. Parts of the ceiling were collapsing from the force of their collisions with the walls.
He caught sight of Summer Rain watching the battle and crouched downward behind a stone. He moved to the right, ignoring the pain in his chest and legs and circled around.
Even though she wasn't technically fighting, Urd could feel her strength drain away as two parts of her soul fought in the air above her. Every hit one of them took she could feel in her own body. It was worse than fighting a demon. At least when she fought them, she didn't have to feel the blow she gave to the enemy.
She watched Brave New World get a grip on World of Elegance's hair and bring her into a choke-hold. The blended angel broke the grip and fired several bolts of black energy into the other angel, who shrugged it off and launched herself at her attacker.
The goddess convulsed with each landed blow, crying out in pain. It hurt so much, she gave a half second thought to calling World of Elegance off. Instead she grit her teeth and told the angel to stop holding back.
World of Elegance grabbed her opponent and climbed quickly toward the ceiling. Grasping the angel by the hair, she rammed her face into the stone ceiling over and over again. Urd's eyes rolled into the back of her head from the pain.
Summer Rain saw more debris fall from the ceiling and turned to find a better place to shelter herself. Instead, she found Gwydion standing there, his sword leveled at her throat.
"Call it off," he growled, arching his head toward the angels. "Call it off... Or I'm going to kill you."
Summer Rain smiled. "You're an avenging angel, a god of honor and duty. You could not kill an unarmed opponent in cold blood."
"Watch me," he replied coldly.
Her smile grew. "Surrender now, and when the others arrive, we will spare your life."
"The others aren't coming," he told her with a smile. "The destruct sequence has been set. In thirty minutes the Roundtable will be destroyed and so will this place."
The Favrashi's face curled up in rage. "BASTARD!" She launched herself forward and found herself impaled on Gwydion's saber.
She looked up at his eyes, a look of confusion on her cold features. "What?" she whispered and slowly sublimated until there was nothing left.
Looking up, his eyes went wide as he stumbled to the right just in time to avoid getting hit with one of the angels as it was thrown against the wall.
A moment later, Brave New World followed, wrapping her arms around World of Elegance's throat and throwing her bodily to the other side of the chamber.
He pulled his gaze from the fighting angels and saw Urd on the altar, convulsing painfully with each strike.
If I don't put a stop to this, she's going to kill herself fighting it off, he thought.
"Bow," he called quietly. The one-eyed angel rose from his back. "Think you can hit the Favrashi without hitting World of Elegance?"
His angel smiled and closed his eye, concentrating his spiritual energy into his hands. From his fingers, a bow of light formed. Raising it, the angel aimed carefully and pulled back.
Gwydion closed his eyes and concentrated, lending his power to his angel. As his eyes shot open, Broken Bow released the arrow and the two watched as the bolt of light streaked across the chamber, embedding itself into one of the angels.
The two waited tensely. Finally, the angel with two white wings fell backward and dissipated into nothingness.
"We've still got it," Gwydion said with a slight smile. He limped to Urd's side.
"You came back for me."
She knew who it was who released the serpent cuffs and held her hand without having to open her eyes. When she did, she saw she was correct. Gwydion's concerned eyes looked down at her.
"Of course I did," he told her softly.
"Another god wouldn't," she pointed out quietly with a knowing smile. "How did you find me?"
He reached into his cloak and pulled out a small orb, the same he had shown her before her meeting with Hild. "Your taste in jewelry."
The goddess smiled softly. She could still feel the simple silver ring he had given her on her finger. She had never taken it off.
"Can you walk? We have to get out of here before the whole realm explodes."
Her eyes closed again. "Gwydion, I'm so weak," she confessed. She opened her eyes and found his again. "You should go... leave me..."
The avenging angel shook his head. "No. We're getting out of here together. Come on. Get up." She felt his arm move around her and pull her into a sitting position.
"I need a minute," she begged. "Just one minute."
He gave it to her, leaving her for a moment and painfully kneeling next to Yazlyn's cape and rapier.
Urd's eyes found him there. "Gwydion, I'm so sorry..."
He picked up the weapon and clipped it to his belt. "She's with Gaeriel now," he said quietly. "Come on. We have to leave."
She nodded weakly. "Help me."
Urd did her best not to lean too heavily on Gwydion as he supported her in the run across Sanctuary toward the hardline. If what he said was true, they only had about twenty minutes to reach the Stryker outside the Favrashi base and get to the hardline to Earth that lay three miles away.
As they passed a familiar clearing, Urd turned her head and saw that the World Tree had grown more than a foot since she had touched it. She put it out of her mind. There was no time to stop.
When they arrived at the hardline, Urd took one last look at the peaceful forest before letting Gwydion lead her through the portal.
The difference between the two realms was dramatic. The entire plateau was shaking under her feet as they rushed though the dark tunnels toward the entrance. They could hear Butters' unorthodox method of counting down reverberate through the stone.
BA-OOMBA BA-OOMBA BUBBLEGUM! BA-OOMBA BA-OOMBA BUBBLEGUM! MY MOTHER GAVE ME A NICKEL! AND TOLD ME TO BUY A PICKLE! BUT I DIDN'T BUY A PICKLE! INSTEAD I BOUGHT BUBBLEGUM!
Gwydion looked up and saw daylight ahead. "Come on!" he urged her, enduring the pain as he dragged her outside. What he saw made him stop in his tracks.
The entire Roundtable was coming apart. Arcs of purple electricity tore across the sky, literally slicing space time apart, leaving black patches of nothingness. Floating stones that normally floated lazily across the sky were being tossed left and right by the distortions in gravity and space.
Turning, he found that one of those bolts of nothingness had cleaved the remaining Stryker in two.
"That's going to make leaving difficult," Urd muttered.
"Come on," he urged, turning them both and starting in the direction of the hardline. "There's still time if we hurry!"
Urd struggled to keep up, but she was still weak from her ordeal in the Sanctuary. She just wanted to lie down and go to sleep, sleep for eternity, sleep and not wake up, but he wouldn't let her.
Pain lashed against the teacher as he helped/dragged his paramour across the plateau. If she were stronger and could fly, they would be at the hardline in no time, but Urd could barely stand as it was.
Another series of lightning bolts arced over them, and he watched wide-eyed as a floating island the size of a mountain crashed into the plateau a mile ahead of them. The ground lurched beneath their feet, and a wide fissure opened up right next to them. The plateau jolted downward, and Urd fell, sliding down toward the fissure of nothingness.
"Urd!" he yelled, diving forward after her. Summoning his strength, he launched Broken Bow ahead of him.
Below him, barely conscious, Urd couldn't stop her slide toward the fissure, but World of Elegance leapt from her back and reached out, grabbing Broken Bow's hand as they slid over the side. Gwydion found a protruding rock and grabbed hold of it, stopping their fall.
Holding Urd's hand on one side and Broken Bow's above her, World of Elegance looked down at the fissure and sighed in relief. Looking up, she winked at Broken Bow, and the two pulled Urd up.
Skuld flew out of the portal with a cry and turned back to it. The wind from the portal roared over her, cold and furious.
"That's everyone but the Commander and his team!" Pahana shouted, ducking as a bolt of lightning shot from the portal and sliced a nearby tree in half. "Comm! Can you raise them?!"
One of the avenging angels standing in the rock garden nearby shook his head. "Comm is all screwed up!" he said. "There's too much interference from the collapse!"
Pahana turned back to the portal as Skuld stood up. "Then we go back in there and get them! We don't leave our people behind!"
Skuld checked her watch. There wasn't much time left. Before she could tell Pahana that, another bolt of lightning shot from the portal and exploded nearby, forcing her to duck.
"Are the other hardlines closed!?" she asked.
"Central Dogma says everything is closed but this one," a tech shouted over the roar of the wind. "They want us to shut it now!" He held up a remote control for the portal.
Skuld snatched it out of his hand. "Just give them another minute," Skuld begged. "They'll just be another minute!"
Another earthquake sent them sprawling. Pulling Urd into his arms and climbing to his feet, Gwydion looked up and saw a broad swath of nothingness stretching across their path between them and the hardline. The wind was intensifying, and they had only managed to get a hundred yards or so from the cave.
He looked from side to side, searching for some other way out.
Urd seemed to sense his hopelessness. "Gwydion," she said weakly. "Before we die..."
"We're not going to die," he growled back. The lightning storm above them was raging, gathering matter into it in preparation for the imminent explosion. Despite what he said, it was over.
"I... I just want to say..." Urd continued. "That... That I love you..."
He looked across the expanse, thinking he could see the portal, watching it close.
It was time to stop fighting.
He held Urd close to him. "Hold on, love."
Above them, the Roundtable continued to tear itself apart as Urd lapsed into unconsciousness. The last thing she felt was her lover holding her tightly.
"Sometimes, the things that must be done are
the very last things you want to do. But if you
aren't prepared to do them, then I don't want
Commander Skuld in
an address to 1st Combat
Skuld watched, her soul numb, as the portal closed in front of her. Her hand opened, dropping the control switch that had been forcing the portal to remain open.
"Portal is sealed," the tech announced.
The words struck Skuld's heart like hammer blows. "They're gone," she whispered.
She heard her sister call her name, but couldn't bring herself to turn. She felt Belldandy's hands grab her shoulders and swing her around, felt her sister hug her tightly, but it just wouldn't register in her mind.
"Skuld!" Belldandy cried, giving her a shake. "Are you okay? Skuld?"
Finally, the young goddess' eyes looked at her. "Oneesama?"
"Oh, Skuld! You're okay!" Belldandy held her tightly, crying in relief. "Where's Neesan?"
It broke over her like a dam, and Skuld screamed in pain, clutching at her sister like a lifeline. "ONEESAMA!"
Belldandy held her as she cried, realizing what Skuld couldn't yet say. Tears ran down her face as she rocked the younger goddess.
"It's okay," she sobbed. "It's okay. Shhhh."
"Every god and goddess serves Creation. And while every god and goddess may consciously realize that, few are ever asked to sacrifice their very being for its protection."
Standing before the assembled mixed group of gods and humans, Michael turned to the simple boulder upon which the names of the valkyries killed in the Roundtable were etched, sitting on the very spot where the hardline had been. The portal now refused to open as there was nothing to open to. The entire Roundtable was simply gone, just as they hoped. With all the hardlines shut, the shockwave stayed in the same realm with no effects on any of the others.
"Their sacrifice was not a vain or empty one," he told them. "And it ennobles all of us. We remember them here, with this simple marker."
He turned back to them, to their sad, mournful faces. "Amen," he finished.
The group murmurred the word together. As the crowd started to move inside, Michael touched Belldandy's shoulder, prompting her to turn.
"This place is holy to us now," he told her. "It will be protected."
She nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.
As Michael stepped past her, Belldandy saw Skuld standing over the monument. The young goddess knelt down and placed a simple gold coin at the base of the boulder. Standing up, she looked down at the coin, the same one she had offered to him the night before the mission.
"I'll always remember you," she whispered, her head bowed. "All of you."
Belldandy tried to remain completely silent, but Skuld must have sensed her presence because her next words were directed to her.
"Oneesama," she sobbed quietly. "What have I done?"
"Oh, Skuld," Belldandy replied sympathetically.
"Maybe if I had waited just another minute..."
She lifted her head as Belldandy touched her arm. Her sister's blue eyes were moist with grief of her own. "Perhaps if you had, billions would be dead now."
Skuld looked away. "I don't care."
"Yes you do," Belldandy corrected her. "That's why you took that oath. Skuld, the role you've assumed for yourself isn't just about risking your own life, but balancing the lives of others against the greater good."
The younger goddess wiped a tear away. "Over the past six months, our relationship just got so good, you know?" Skuld said. "She didn't treat me like a kid, helped me with my studies and... And for the first time I... I really looked up to her like a sister. Like the way I look at you, Oneesama." She sniffled as more tears came. "I don't know if she saw me the same way or not, but do you think she knew... knew that I was the one who killed them?"
Belldandy pulled the girl bodily into her arms and hugged her tightly. "Skuld, Urd loved you," she sobbed quietly. "She knew, better than most of us, what was at stake. What you did would have made her so proud of you."
The young goddess cried into her sister's shirt. "I miss her so much, Oneesama!"
"I know," Belldandy whispered to her as she held her. "I do too."
"What do I do now?"
Belldandy thought on it for a moment. "Remember her like that," she said. "Remember her like that, and she'll always be with us. Always."
They always made it difficult for him, especially Belldandy. Whenever something bothered her, she didn't just sit on the back steps. No, she had to float to the roof of the temple to think about the things that were bothering her. And while it was quite easy for her to do so, when the time came for Keiichi to perform his duty as her fiancé and console her, he had to drag a ladder out of the shed, set it up, and climb to the roof in the middle of the night.
Stepping carefully, he finally found her sitting at the apex of the roof, looking out at the city lights of Nekomi.
"Hey," he called quietly, sitting down next to her.
She seemed to hesitate for a minute, then leaned against him. He reacted naturally, putting his arm around her.
"Thinking about Urd?" he asked softly.
"I'm an awful person, Keiichi," she admitted quietly.
She looked down at her lap, tears threatening to run down her cheek. "Everything she's done, everything she's sacrificed... And yet all I can think about is how her death impacts my life."
"Well... yeah," he replied. "Urd's always affected us in one way or another. Now that she's gone... There's a void. It's just natural to be aware of that."
She wiped her eyes with her fingers. "I'm trying to be strong," she said. "Skuld is devastated. She was close to all three of them. I'm trying to be there for her, but... I keep thinking back to things I did or said... I didn't even get a chance to say 'good bye,' or 'I love you.'"
Keiichi turned away for a second. "She did."
"Huh?" the Norn asked, turning to him.
"When we knocked you out," he admitted. "She leaned over you and said, 'Be happy.'" He turned to her. "She... She knew, you see."
He nodded. "She knew she wouldn't come back. Said Frigga saw something about it."
"Then why did she go?" Belldandy whispered, shutting her eyes and forcing tears out.
"For the same reason you were going to," he told her. "Because she loved you and Skuld. And she would have done anything to keep you safe."
The goddess let out a sob and embraced him. "Keiichi!"
He hugged her tightly. "It's okay," he whispered, choking back a sob of his own. "It's all right."
"Everything is going to be all right."
He tried not to, but he suddenly found himself chuckling. Belldandy pulled away and blinked at him. "What is it?" she asked, puzzled as to why he would be laughing now.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I was just remembering the first time I met her. When she was posing as a pharmacist in that silly pink nurse's outfit, and she gave me that medicine for your headaches."
She wiped a tear away and started to blush as she smiled. "You know that wasn't aspirin, right?" she asked. "It was... well... an aphrodesiac..."
His chuckles evolved into full blown laughter.
"She was always doing something like that," Belldandy said with a giggle. "I swear it was as if she couldn't leave any situation alone."
"Remember during the Miss Nekomi Pageant when she electrocuted Sayoko?" he asked.
"That's not funny! She could have been really hurt!" Belldandy admonished him. Keiichi waited several seconds, and finally saw Belldandy's lips curl up and her shoulders shake in a giggling fit.
He leaned back, resting on the palms of his hands. "I never told you, but Urd was the reason we had to go to that rock outcropping at the beach," he told her. "She said she could see our destiny written in some sea cucumbers..."
"Oh, Keiichi, please tell me you didn't fall for that..."
"We got to the rocks, didn't we?" he asked.
She laughed and hugged him and continued holding him as they reminisced. Finally, grief-spurred tears were replaced with tears of laughter, which over time finally tapered off.
"Thank you," she whispered, still holding him. "That's how I want to remember her."
He stroked her hair and held her tightly. "She's not really dead," he whispered. "As long as we remember her."
The two held each other as the moon continued its steady rise overhead.
"I don't want to hear your bullshit excuses!
I would have felt it if she died! I want her found!"
From a communique
issued to her field commanders
She cried out as she awoke, tossing the blankets off her body and then cradling them to her chest a moment later in fright. Looking from side to side, she began to wonder if it had all been a dream. Perhaps she was back in Heaven or in the temple residence back on Earth.
The furnishings of the room in which she found herself, however, discounted either of those possibilities. The small bed with the rustic wood frame she lay in was identical to three others like it in the room, like a hospital or dormitory.
Closing her eyes, she tried to get control of her breathing. Freaking out wasn't going to solve anything. Pulling the covers off her, she climbed out of bed and quietly opened the bedroom door. A long hallway met her on the other side, and she could see a light coming from what she guessed was a stairwell to her right. She quietly padded barefoot down the hallway toward it, straining her ears for the first sign of trouble.
As she approached the stairwell, her nostrils picked up the faint smell of cooking. Creeping down the stairs, she willed the wooden steps not to creak. Taking a breath, she steadied herself then quickly descended the last few steps, ready to do battle.
Gwydion looked up from the stove where a couple of eggs were sizzling.
"Urd!" he gasped.
"Gwydion?!" she cried back. She didn't waste time with questions. Instead, she flung herself at him and hugged him tightly even as he cried out in pain and fell backwards onto the kitchen floor.
Even as the pain racked his body, he held her. "I thought I might have lost you for good," he admitted in amazed relief.
"What happened? Where are we?" she asked.
Struggling to his feet, he found his cane and leaned on it. "We're in the pocket universe," he told her simply. "With the Roundtable falling apart around us, I knew we'd never get to the hardline to Earth, especially after you passed out. So I double backed here and managed to close the hardline just before the final explosion."
"So... we're alive, right?" she asked, still uncertain.
He smiled. "Yes, we are most certainly alive."
She leaned against the counter and let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "So this must be that lodge I saw. How long have I been out?"
"Five days," he replied. "I was starting to think... that you'd never come out of it," he told her quietly.
His concern both touched her and made her uncomfortable at the same time. "Okay," she said. "Now what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is that I haven't been able to locate another hardline out," he told her. "And my travel medium doesn't seem to work either."
"And it won't," she admitted. "This place was designed to be hidden and cut off."
"So we're trapped here," he finished.
"Great," she sighed. "Trapped on a tiny plot of land for the rest of our lives."
"Actually, that's something I wanted to ask you about," he told her, shutting off the stove as he went. "Follow me."
Puzzled, she followed him up the stairwell and down the hall to another flight of stairs that led up to a widow's walk on the roof of the lodge. Stepping out into the sunlight, Urd gasped at what she saw.
The violet walls were gone. Instead, she saw only blue sky and lush green forests divided by the distant horizon. Tall cliffs stretched beyond the horizon with massive waterfalls causing a gentle roar in the distance. Clouds floated lazily above them.
"It happened about the second day we were here," Gwydion told her. "I noticed the walls were getting further and further apart."
Without a word, Urd rushed back down the stairwell, and this time it was Gwydion's turn to follow as she rushed out the front door and into the forest. The avenging angel struggled to keep up with her and finally found her in a small clearing about a quarter mile from the lodge.
"Urd! What is it?" he asked.
The goddess stood beneath a tree that stretched a hundred feet into the air. Sparks of light floated from its branches into the sky above.
"It's growing," she said quietly.
"What?" he asked, a bewildered look on his face.
She turned to him and smiled. "The World Tree," she explained. "It's growing."
Urd continued as he walked up to her. "It's why they needed a Norn," she said. "They could plant it, but they couldn't make it grow. Then, when I arrived and touched it..." She trailed off and gestured to it.
"So, this isn't some pocket reality at all," he concluded. "It's the beginning of a whole new realm."
She nodded. "Have you seen any stars at night?"
He nodded. "As a matter of fact, I saw one for the first time last night."
Urd's eyes danced with excitement. "More will come as the realm grows. Gwydion..."
She shook her head. "They did it," Urd whispered in awe. "They created a world without sin. And as hidden as it is, it might be millenia before anyone in Heaven even notices it."
The soldier chewed on that statement. "Then it's up to us to find a way out of here," he announced. "If this World Tree is a cutting of the one on Earth, then maybe the two are connected, and we can..."
"Gwydion, stop," she ordered quietly. As he turned back to her in surprise, she continued. "Just stop."
"What is it?" he asked.
"Don't you see?" she asked. "It's your wish given life. There's no enemy here, no reason to fight. It's just the two of us." Her thoughts ran back to her last conversation with Frigga.
"Mother of a new world..."
"And I think... this is the way it's supposed to be," she finished.
He regarded her for several moments. "You're saying we have an entire realm to ourselves?" he asked.
She cleared her throat. "Well... I admit it's a little big for just the two of us."
"Just a bit," he agreed cautiously.
She arched an eyebrow at him and bit her lip with a hint of nervousness. "I'm not sure I'm ready to be Eve, Gwydion."
He reached out and took her hand. "Something tells me we have plenty of time to think on it," he told her.
"But if this is where we're supposed to be and if this is the role we're supposed to play... I'm glad I'm here with you." She smiled and shook her head. "It's just so big," she remarked, looking out at the forest.
"For now," he told her and smiled as an earlier conversation with his student came back to him. "Give it a million years, though, and maybe we'll start to find it crowded." He turned to her. "So what do you want to do first?"
She leaned forward and kissed him. Though she spent the last several days unconscious, she felt as if she hadn't been able to relax in weeks. For the first time since she had followed him to Heaven, there was no danger, no reason to be on edge.
She could finally relax.
"I want to take a walk," she said with a knowing smile after their lips parted. "Would you like to come with me?"
He caressed her cheek with his fingertips. "Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah, I would."
Taking his hand, she led him back down the path away from the World Tree, which seemed to pay its only tenants no mind as it sparkled and grew another few feet.
Mariko smacked at her daughter-in-law's hand as the younger woman tried to help her into bed.
"I don't need a babysitter to tuck me in!" the old woman exclaimed.
"Now, now, Kaasan," her son, Keiichi's uncle, said sympathetically. "You know what the doctor said. It's probably just exhaustion. You need your rest."
Outside, thunder cracked and lightning illuminated the room as if to underline how the elderly Morisato felt about the whole situation.
"It is not exhaustion!" she snapped at him. "I saw it!"
"Yes, Kaasan, we know," her son said with a sigh. "You saw a dancing rat at Keiichi's house. We know."
"Don't take that tone with me!"
Eager to change the subject, her daughter-in-law tried to intervene. "What was Keiichi's fiancé like?" she asked cheerfully. "I hear she's from Finland."
Mariko growled and pulled the covers up. "Just go!"
"Okay, Kaasan, we're going," her son said, giving up and leading his wife out of the room, turning out the lights before shutting the door.
Mariko huffed and rolled over in her bed, facing away from the window and storm outside. A sharp thundercrack caused her to open her eyes, and a moment later, a bolt of lightning illuminated the far wall, highlighting a shadowy shape projected from the window.
Blinking, she turned quickly back to the window as another bolt of lightning illuminated it again. Gasping, she held the blankets tightly to her chest.
Standing on the windowsill on the other side of the glass, Gan chan narrowed his eyes at her dangerously.
"KamisamaKamisamaKamisama..." Mariko whispered fearfully.
There was another thunderclap, and as lightning illuminated the room, Mariko screamed as Gan chan began to do The Monkey.