Disclaimer: AMG is not mine. Mr. Bubbles is the property of 2K Games. Brumaks are the property of Epic Games.

Choix

Chapter 26

Blaze of Glory



"False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil."

Socrates



Krieg adjusted the flower vase again to make sure it was just right. The goddess lying on the bed below him made no sign of approval or disapproval, remaining in her comatose state.

The rampant adjusted it again and looked down at her.

"One day," he said. "I will earn your forgiveness." He took a breath. "Until then, I must say goodbye. I have arranged for you to be returned to Heaven after we leave. You will be cared for."

The goddess said nothing.

Before Krieg could continue, the lights in his room turned red and a loud horn blared in a steady rhythm. He responded immediately, reaching for his weapons and armor before the voice even came over the loudspeaker.

"ACTION STATIONS! ACTION STATIONS! ALL PERSONNEL SET CONDITION X-RAY! REPEAT! ACTION STATIONS! ACTION STATIONS!"

888

Peorth hugged Tabitha to her chest as Metheus placed his hand on the tall crystal, activating the scanner that glowed a soft red.

"Wynn?!" she cried. "What's going on?! What is it?!"

The scanner verified his identity, and the crystal softened to a thick, viscous liquid. Reaching inside, he pulled out his carbine and rapier.

"Wynn?!"

"We're under attack," he said simply as he fastened his weapons to his belt and armor. He started out the door. "Stay here."

Peorth watched and listened as the comm jewel on his bracelet squawked. "My Lord, all recovery agents report combat ready. The Inquisition is at Condition X-Ray."

"Understood," he replied into it. "I'm heading to the CP."

The door closed, leaving the goddess and child alone.

"Maman," Tabitha whimpered. "Is everything okay?"

Peorth hugged her. "Everything's fine, Petite. Everything's fine."

888

Carestia sat next to Krieg in the briefing room and whispered just loud enough for him to hear. "When the alarm went off, I think I lost ten years of my life. I thought..."

"Yes," Krieg replied, cutting her off. He took a deep breath. "I thought we were discovered as well."

They two had spent three hours at their pre-assigned battle stations, waiting for some kind of attack or assault against the palace, but none had materialized. Finally, they received orders to report to the briefing room where supposedly Metheus would tell them and the rest of the Inquisition what was going on.

"RISE!"

Every recovery agent in the room stood up as Metheus entered and approached the podium at the front of the room. Taking his place behind it, he gave it a three-count before looking up at them.

"Sit."

As one, they all sat down, and Metheus began his briefing.

"Three hours ago, the palace received word that a column of Fury Ants on patrol on our side of the Styx had failed to respond to a communication from Nidhogg," he began. "This coincides with the detection of two aerial contacts that crossed the Styx and returned to the Heaven side shortly after. Those Fury Ants have been confirmed destroyed in what we can only assume was an aerial attack."

The demons in the room muttered to one another at this. If true, it meant that war was just over the horizon.

For Carestia, it meant something else.

"Interesting," she whispered to Krieg.

"Since it is unlikely that Fury Ants would be chosen as a first-strike target," Metheus went on, "We can assume that they fell prey to a close air support mission after engaging another target. To sum it up," he said, slapping the podium with his hand. "Valkyries have landed in Hell."

Carestia listened eagerly.

"At this moment, we are taking a passive posture," Metheus went on. "The goal is to draw these Valkyries in closer, whittle them down with our guard forces and then crush them once they are too far from their lines for Heaven to easily help them. That's what the Hellriders are going to do. We, in the meantime, will increase our security here with an emphasis on our tier one personalities, the most vital of which, aside from Her Majesty of course, is our... beloved crown princess, Belldandy."

"We'll take that one."

Metheus looked up in surprise. So did Krieg, as the announcement came from the demoness sitting next to him. Carestia matched Metheus's stare as if daring him to contradict her.

"You will?" Metheus asked with a hint of amusement.

"That's right," Carestia told him. She gestured to Krieg. "We'll augment the Elites. That should free up more agents for other security details."

The high inquisitor arched an eyebrow. The pause prompted Carestia to continue speaking, something she knew was always a bad idea yet couldn't help.

"Unless, of course," she said. "You know someone more qualified than Basken and I."

Krieg's eyes went wide, and it took a moment for Carestia to realize her slip. Cursing to herself, she hoped Metheus missed it.

Finally, the inquisitor nodded. "Very well. You'll take command of Her Highness's security detail. Coordinate with the Elite Guard. "Next, we need three agents to..."

Krieg leaned over to her and whispered. "You nearly killed us both."

"I still may have," she whispered back. "Metheus isn't stupid. Watch your back and don't go anywhere alone."

He nodded and sat back. Both the rampants waited nervously for the briefing to end.

888

Skuld heard the knock on the door, and her heart skipped a beat. Sentaro had left about half an hour ago, but perhaps after their long "talk," the boy had more to "say."

The young goddess took off her headset and started for the door. As she did, she made a silent promise to her sister that she would never give Keiichi a hard time again. Finally understanding how her older sister felt made her realize that she'd been the villain in their romance manga of a life since she shoved her way into it.

Throwing open the door, she smiled. "Sentaro! Did you forg..." Her eyes went wide and she quickly slammed the door shut, throwing her back against it.

"Oh, crap!" she whispered in panic.

The person on the other side of the door knocked again.

"Skuld," Lind's even voice came through the oak. "We need to talk to you."

The Norn rushed to the laptop and started typing furiously, throwing everything she'd been working on behind a password even as Heaven's top Valkyrie knocked again.

"Skuld..."

"Skuld's gone," Skuld called back, lowering her voice to as low an octave as she could. "You've got the wrong room! This is... This is Biff! I'm a... um... a biker! Yeah! A big, mean biker! A...A... Hell's Baboon! We're rough and tough and bad!" She continued typing as fast as she could, her fingers missing keys in her panicked rush.

Her finger jabbed the enter key, and she whirled around as Lind casually pushed the door open, taking the lock and some of the doorframe with it. She nodded to the Norn as other Valkyries entered.

"Good evening, Skuld," she said.

"Oh, Lind!" Skuld said in surprise. "I didn't hear you knock. What's up?"

One of the Valkyries turned her laptop toward himself and started working. Others were setting up their own equipment throughout the room.

Lind looked down at her. "Where are they now?" she asked. "It's important that I know."

"Who's 'they'?"

"Skuld," Lind said, a hint of warning entering her voice.

Knowing the jig was up, Skuld turned defiant. "Forget it!" she said. "I'll never talk! And you'll never find them! I have my computer locked with a forty-three thousand digit, fractal encryption code synched with the atomic clock at the Naval Observatory in Maryland! There is no way in Heaven, Earth or Hell that you'll ever find their loc..."

"Twenty-two miles, north-north-east of Point Echo," the tech spoke up, looking over the information on Skuld's computer. "It looks like they passed into Hell proper about an hour ago."

Skuld blinked at him in surprise.

The tech shrugged at her. "I'm good at math."

"How many?" Lind asked him.

The tech turned back to the holotop. "It looks like four goddesses and a mortal," he said in disbelief.

"Morisato san," Lind breathed. "Two of the goddesses are surely Urd and Lady Frigga," she continued, turning back to Skuld. "Given the audacity of the plan, I'm willing to bet the third goddess is Miranda and the fourth..." She held a finger up expectantly as another Valkyrie standing behind her lowered a cell phone.

"Ma'am, Lieutenant Gaeriel isn't answering her cell!"

"Lieutenant Gaeriel," Lind finished.

She turned back to Skuld, who was starting to get a very bad feeling about how this was going. "I need to speak to Miranda."

The Norn found her courage and scowled. "No... way..." she bit out. "You can just turn around and walk out that door right now, because I will never... ever..."

"Ma'am, we brought that ice cream you asked for," a new Valkyrie announced from the doorway, holding up two plastic bags filled with half-gallon containers of ice cream.

"I...Ice cream?" Skuld whimpered, here eyes starting to mist up.

Lind turned back to her. "Yes," she sighed. "I thought we might get hungry so I had one of my Valkyries make a run to Rock Cold Creamery..."

"That's... the best... kind!" Skuld breathed, her legs going wobbly.

"But since we're not going to be here long, I guess we'll just toss it all in the garbage disposal." She nodded to the Valkyrie who started scooping German Chocolate Cake flavored ice cream into the drain.

"No! You can't!" Skuld cried.

"Hmm?" Lind asked. "What was that? I can't hear you over the disposal."

Skuld actually flinched as the whirring sound of the hotel kitchen's garbage disposal started grinding up the nuts and coconut in the ice cream.

"STOP IT! STOP IT! YOU'RE WASTING IT!" Skuld cried in agony, her hands clamped over her ears to try to blot out the horrible sound.

"Skuld, I don't want to hurt them," Lind told her. "I don't even want them to fail in their mission. But if I'm going to be able to do anything to help them, I need to speak to Miranda."

Another half gallon went down the disposal with a sickening slurping sound.

"Aww," the Valkyrie with the scoop whimpered. "That mint chocolate delight looked super yummy..."

"Will... Will you call off your dogs if I help you?" Skuld asked, shivering in emotional pain.

888

Miranda led the group down the steep hill, careful to avoid the razor-rocks that jutted up at them like stone phalanxes. They had entered the main realm of Hell not long ago, and if they thought the demon side of the Styx was bad, they hadn't seen anything yet. The sky overhead was either black or red depending on the weather, and not a blade of grass was yet to be seen. Volcanoes in the distance constantly belched black smoke into the air with no hint of slowing or abating.

As they reached the bottom of the hill, Miranda heard a new transmission come through her earpiece. The voice on the other end forced her to freeze.

"Wild Card One, this is Arc Light, come in."

Miranda didn't move. Keiichi looked between the goddesses in puzzlement.

"Is that Lind?" he asked.

"Who's Wild Card One?" Urd asked.

"Wild Card One, this is Arc Light, come in."

Miranda said nothing. Lind tried again.

"Arc Light to identify Eta Team," Lind said. "Miranda, Basken, Zuriel, Lei Gong, Elra, Bendis, Wynn, Lukos. Come in, over."

The Valkyrie bit her lip and clicked her bone mic. "There are no more Wild Cards, Commander," she bit out. "They're dead or rampant. And you would know better than anyone as you tried to banish one and sidelined me."

"We all took an oath to defend Heaven," Lind replied. "I don't doubt that everything you've done, you've done with that goal foremost in mind."

"Gracious of you," Miranda replied coolly.

"And it is with that goal in mind that I must consider what to do now," Lind told her. "A goddess is being held in Hell against her will. My oath dictates that I must make some effort to retrieve her while that same oath tells me to do what I must to safeguard the rest of Heaven. It would seem that your actions have taken the choice away from us."

"The choice?" Miranda asked. "You mean the initiative."

Lind ignored the outburst. "As a result, I have little choice but to assist you in your plan."

Miranda went all in. "Then send me a couple of Seraphims with a few squads of back-up."

"Negative."

"For shit's sake, Lind!" Miranda growled. "Give me a couple of birds and this can be over in two hours!"

"Negative on air support at this time," Lind repeated. "Hell's air defense array went active after our last incursion. They'll fire on any bird straying into their territory. You're it."

"So much for help," Miranda grunted. "I'd rather not have it. After everything I've given up for this mission, I'm not about to lose it all by trusting in the same Valkyries who both caused and exacerbated this situation."

"Beggars can't be choosers," Lind pointed out. "Think about the mission."

"When have I ever failed a mission?" Miranda asked bitterly. "I'll complete this one. You want to help? Fine! Help! If not, then stay out of the way!"

"Think about what you're doing, Miranda," Lind said. Her tone softened. "You are the last of an elite unit. You have a wealth of experience we're in desperate need of. Don't throw it all away."

"Potential not used is still lost," Miranda said. "We'll be in touch." She tapped her bone mic, ending the conversation. She stood there, lost in thought for a moment as the others watched.

Finally, Urd stepped forward. "Okay, fess up."

Miranda looked up at her. "What?"

Frigga joined her stepdaughter a moment later. "Yes," she agreed. "The time has come for total truth between us."

"When we asked you how you were going to get us over the Styx, you went dodgy," Urd said. "Now you're refusing to let Lind help because it's too risky? How did you get us over the river? What did you give them?"

Miranda didn't answer.

"Whatever it was, it must have been worth whatever hit Hild would take as a result," Frigga went on gently, sympathy touching her eyes as a suspicion came to her mind. "What did you trade, child?"

The Valkyrie looked away for a moment, her teeth gritted in frustration. Finally, she turned back to them and gave them an answer.

"Me," she said. "I gave them my immortal soul."

888

Carestia took a deep breath as she and Krieg walked down the hallway toward Belldandy's quarters, a part of her still certain that they had been discovered ages ago and the Inquisition was just waiting for them to dig themselves too deep to get out again.

All of the arrangements had been made. Because of the heightened alert, Nidhogg was closely guarding the hardlines in the palace, so their only hope was to get out of the castle and get to either the Styx or the team of Valkyries making their way toward them. But first, they needed the princess.

"Last chance to back out," she muttered, checking the action on her carbine.

Krieg didn't answer. She took that as a vote to continue on. They approached the two Elites standing outside the door, and Carestia nodded to the door. "Open it."

The Elite hissed in response. Carestia growled at him.

"We have orders to escort the princess to Lord Metheus," she bit out. "And I haven't the time to entertain the concerns of a lesser being. Open it."

Realizing he was speaking to a superior officer but not liking it one bit, the Elite opened the door and allowed them inside. The rampants passed two more Elites who watched them warily as they approached Belldandy, who was rising from her bed to greet them.

She bowed to them in greeting. "Carestia san," she said. "Is something wrong?"

"We're to escort you to the Inquisition, Principessa," Carestia told her. "Lord Metheus wishes to move you around to foil any attempts on your person."

Belldandy nodded in resignation. The Elites began to form up around her.

"Not you," Krieg noted. The Elite captain looked at him in puzzlement. "Lord Metheus wants the guard around Her Majesty doubled. Your Elites will report to the throne room. We'll handle the princess's security."

The captain barked a firm negative to this, and the others fingered their weapons.

Carestia allowed a flash of rage to come over her face. "You... dare... question the High Inquisitor?" she breathed.

The captain growled, and at that point, the rampant was certain they were going to have to fight here in Belldandy's chambers. Too early in the plan for it to work, too late to back out.

Ironically enough, it was Belldandy who came to their rescue.

"Captain, please," she said gently, placing her hand on the Elite's arm. "There is a compromise here, I'm certain. Perhaps three of you go to the throne room. Ssselessmeshala can accompany us to make sure my defense is more... robust?"

The captain hissed bitterly, not liking this idea, but realizing that it was probably the best he could get. He nodded at Belldandy and gestured to Ssselessmeshala, who nodded in acknowledgement.

Carestia sighed as if bored by the whole thing. "Have it your own way," she muttered. She turned and led them out, Krieg taking up the rear. She looked behind them momentarily to make sure the Elite captain wasn't getting any ideas about following them. Satisfied that they were alone, she led them further downward, toward the Pit.

With Peorth living with Metheus, Carestia knew the Pit was unoccupied at the moment. She also knew the one great irony of the Pit, one that only she, Krieg and Metheus now knew. The inescapable prison was the only escape from the palace. A tunnel at the bottom of the slime-pit led to a drainage way that led out of the castle. Everyone who had ever sat in that cold, despicable place had done so with salvation waiting for them a mere thirty feet below.

She led the goddess and the Elite into a steel-walled room that acted as a kind of waiting room where prisoners sat until the Pit was ready to accept them or the guards were done beating them. The door shut behind them.

Suddenly, her soulblade was at Ssselessmeshala's throat as she whispered to him from behind. "If you make one move, I'll..."

The next thing she knew, she was colliding with the steel wall where the Elite had thrown her. She turned just as the shadowy creature grabbed Krieg by the throat and lifted him two feet into the air.

She leapt onto his back again and pressed the blade to his throat. "Let's try this again, shall we?" she asked painfully.

"Stop it!" Belldandy demanded. "What are you doing?!"

Ssselessmeshala froze, weighing his options as Carestia responded to the goddess.

"We're getting you out of here," she said. "Just as soon as we deal with your little Boy Scout here..."

"No!" Belldandy commanded. "Leave him alone! Ssselessmeshala, release Mr. Krieg!"

None of them moved. Belldandy's eyes narrowed in anger.

"Now!" she thundered.

Slowly, the Elite lowered Krieg to the floor while Carestia removed the knife from his throat.

"Now, please explain," Belldandy asked in a kinder voice.

Carestia didn't move her eyes off the Elite as she spoke. "We're leaving," she said. "We're bringing you back to Heaven."

Belldandy blinked. "A trick," she accused with just a hint of hopeful doubt in her voice.

The demoness finally turned to her. "No," she said. "Basken and I want out. The only chance we have surviving that kind of choice is to buy our freedom... with you."

The Norn said nothing.

"You wish to stay?" Krieg demanded.

"No," Belldandy whispered. Fire returned to her eyes. "But we can't leave yet."

"Why not?" Carestia asked, furrowing her brow.

"I can't leave without Peorth," Belldandy said.

"Peorth's gone," Carestia told her. "She's Metheus's woman now. He's got her mind-fucked to the point where..."

"Peorth comes with us," Belldandy interrupted. "Please don't misunderstand," she went on. "I appreciate the risks you're taking, but I also appreciate the fact that you're not doing it strictly for my benefit. You need me... as much if not more than I need you. Peorth comes with us or there will be no bargain."

The demoness threw a look to Krieg, who shrugged. Springing Peorth would actually be harder than rescuing Belldandy. The Elites were fearsome warriors, but not the brightest when it came to intrigue. Peorth, on the other hand, was watched twenty-four-seven by a member of the Inquisition, and a zealot at that.

"What about Fido here?" she asked the goddess, cocking her head to the Elite.

Belldandy turned to Ssselessmeshala, looking up at him. "Ssselessmeshala, I'm returning to Earth. You are welcome to come with me. If not, I will understand, but we will have to incapacitate you until..."

The Elite shook his head and whispered in response, prompting Belldandy to smile. "Then I will look to you for protection," she said.

"If we're going to do this, we need to go now," Krieg rumbled. "It will not be long before the Elites realize they have been misled."

"Fine, let's go," Carestia replied, leading the way.

888

"Miranda, for the Almighty One's love, why?" Frigga asked in quiet horror.

"Don't take that tone with me, Milady," Miranda growled back. "Your pity is neither desired nor requested." She backed off her confrontational tone a moment later and explained. "It was the only way to solve certain problems. There was no way to get over the Styx undetected without someone on the demonic side willing to help."

"So they know we're coming?" Keiichi asked.

Miranda shook her head. "Demonic contracts aren't like wishes. They can be negotiated to a certain point. No one knows, on either side. The demon I contracted with was willing to go as far as helping me and whoever I bring with me over the Styx." She gave them a sardonic smile. "My soul was worth that much, at least. Once I crossed the river... I knew I wasn't coming back over it."

"I don't know what to say," Frigga said.

"Say nothing," Miranda told her. "I traded my soul for the opportunity to right a wrong. And I intend to do exactly that. Belldandy is just a bonus. My mission is to get my three Wild Cards out of Hell."

"But the cost..." Gaeriel whispered.

"The price," Miranda corrected.

"What's the difference?" Keiichi asked.

The Valkyrie turned to him. "A cost is something you lose. A price is something you give. It's my soul, and I got a fair trade for it. I have no regrets. And I won't have any regrets unless we fail." She shouldered her carbine. "So, on that note, if we could move this along..."

"Are those rampants really worth it?" Gaeriel asked.

Miranda turned to her. "There is no greater love in Heaven or Hell as that between those who've faced death together," she told her. "You're young, you haven't seen much combat. One day you will, and when you do, you'll know that the Valkyries on either side of you are worth dying for."

Gaeriel looked at her feet and thought of her teacher. "Yes... I understand."

The Valkyrie officer turned to the others. "None of you wouldn't be here if you didn't love Belldandy the same way and not a one of you would have chosen to not make the same sacrifice. Now let's go. I'm done wasting my time here."

She started walking again. The others fell into step behind her.

888

"This will be more difficult than you realize," Carestia warned Belldandy as the group approached Metheus's quarters.

"Is Metheus there?" Belldandy asked hesitantly.

"No," the former pilot told her. "But Peorth is watched by a member of the Inquisition at all time. She'll have to be dealt with first. Are you prepared for that?"

Belldandy paused as she mulled this over. "Try not to harm her," she said.

"Right, whatever," Carestia replied.

"It's important," the Norn told her. "It's not enough to seek forgiveness, you must make yourself worthy of it. You have to be the goddess you wish to be. That means you should not kill unless you must."

The soldier thought on this and finally nodded. "Very well. We'll do it your way. But I honestly believe there will be no other way."

"We shall see," Belldandy said.

Carestia nodded to Krieg, who took up a position on the far side of the door. Raising her hand, the demoness banged on the door and waited.

"Qui-est ce?" Belldandy smiled at hearing her friend's voice, but Carestia and Krieg knew they would have to act quickly.

"Her Majesty's Inquisition!" Carestia thundered, raising her carbine. "Open the door!"

Belldandy heard the lock click, and the door opened a hair. Carestia and Krieg shoved their way inside.

"Where is she?!" Krieg demanded as they covered the room.

Peorth, blinking in shock, looked at them in frightened puzzlement. "Who?!"

"Your minder!" Carestia demanded. "Where is she?!"

"I don't kno... Belldandy?!" Peorth cried, catching sight of the Norn and her Elite.

"Peorth!" Belldandy replied happily. "I'm so happy to see you sa..."

"Maman?"

Belldandy's blood went cold and her face turned white as a little girl entered the room.

"You see the beauty in what he's doing now, goddess?" Tabitha asked her as she gestured to the screen and the horrors being inflicted on her Keiichi. "It's important not to inflict third degree burns too quickly. It kills the nerves and he'll cease to feel the pain. So it's important to burn him only a little at a time..."

Tabitha's eyes went wide at the sight of Belldandy. Her wrist shot up to her lips to call for help, but a blast of wind hit the demon dead on and slammed her up against the wall. The demon girl screamed as the hurricane-force winds pressed her into the stone so hard she was leaving an imprint.

Belldandy, her eyes red in rage, approached her, her hand outstretched as she actively tried to increase the pressure on the girl.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Peorth screamed. "STOP IT!" She grabbed Belldandy's arm and was rewarded with a vicious slap across the face from the Norn's other hand.

"You have to give him some credit," Tabitha taunted her. "We haven't heard him beg yet. Tough guys usually call out for their mommies. Does your Keiichi have a mommy? Or will he call out for you? Let's find out..."

Tabitha screamed in pain as Belldandy's rage and hate added power to her attack. The Norn felt someone grab her arm again and she lashed out again. Unlike Peorth, however, Ssselessmeshala wasn't fazed by the strike. He held her arm and whispered to her the same words she had to him, words about forgiveness and what must be done to attain it.

Belldandy felt the rage storm start to subside, and the wind began to slacken. Finally, with a deep breath, the Norn fell to her knees.

Peorth ran to Tabitha and hugged her.

"Are you all right?! Are you okay?!"

"Get away from her," Carestia ordered, gesturing with her carbine. "Now!"

"Stay away from her!" Peorth ordered fiercely. "She's just a little girl!"

"She's one of them," Krieg rumbled. "A recovery agent."

"Liar!"

"Maman! I'm scared!" Tabitha whimpered, quietly reaching for the transmitter on her wrist.

"Just get out!" Peorth ordered. "When I tell Wynn of this, he'll..."

"She was my interrogator," Belldandy whispered.

Peorth looked at her and blinked. Belldandy, on her knees, her eyes pointed at the ground as she relived her shameful moments of weakness in the demon girl's power, whispered again.

"Wynn tricked you."

The other goddess shook her head in disbelief. "Non," she whispered. "I mean... surely... he..." She looked down at Tabitha. "Petite?"

Tabitha licked her lips nervously, knowing she was caught. She took a breath and...

"MR. BUBBLES!" she screamed.

Carestia was knocked to the ground as something massive smashed the wall at her right. Mr. Bubbles hooted angrily and raised his arm drill.

Krieg turned and opened fire on the monster. Fiery red tendrils of demonic energy bounced off the creature's armor as it crashed toward him.

"KILL THEM!" Tabitha screamed at it. "KILL ALL OF THEM! KILL THEM, MR. BUBBLES! KILL THEM!"

Krieg barely managed to duck under the spinning drill bit as Mr. Bubbles swung at him. The rampant wrapped his arms around the drill arm and grit his teeth as he fought against the creature's strength. Mr. Bubbles hooted in rage.

"Elra! Kill it!"

The Seraphim pilot leapt up onto the creature's back and drew her falchion, struggling to hang on as Mr. Bubbles thrashed beneath her. Suddenly, the creature broke free from Krieg's grip and swung around, knocking the rampant away.

Carestia lost her grip on her sword, and the weapon went flying across the room as she concentrated on just holding on.

Belldandy looked to Ssselessmeshala, who was careful to keep himself between Mr. Bubbles and his mistress. "Ssselessmeshala! Please help them!"

The Elite hissed and leapt forward, grabbing the creature's drill arm before it could attack again. Momentarily steady, Carestia screamed down to Krieg.

"Sword! Sword!"

The rampant drew his broadsword and threw it up to the pilot. Carestia caught it by the hilt and turned it, ramming the blade down through the top of the creature's helmet.

"MR. BUBBLES!" Tabitha screamed in alarm as the monster hooted loudly in pain.

Mr. Bubbles stumbled for a moment then fell forward, landing on the floor with a crash. His drill arm spun for a moment more then fell silent.

Carestia grit her teeth and stood up, retrieving her weapons before stalking back toward Tabitha.

"Now then," she purred. "Where were we?"

Tabitha stepped back against the wall as they approached. She looked up and found Peorth standing against the fall wall, her head bowed and her hand over her heart.

"Maman!" she called out in a whimper. "Maman! Don't let them hurt me! Please!"

Peorth didn't answer. She stared downward as a tear fell from her eye and hit the floor below.

"Well, Principessa," Carestia noted. "You were saying?"

Belldandy swallowed guiltily, more than aware that her actions were in direct contradiction to what she had asked of the demoness. Even so...

"She should be sealed," she said. "Vile person though she is... I... I do not wish her... de... d..." She bit her lip angrily and gave up. She wanted to say she didn't want to see the demon girl dead, but she could not tell a lie, even subconsciously.

"Seal her," she ordered.

Carestia turned back to the girl as Krieg looked for a flash seal. "You're lucky she's in charge," she noted. "I'd rather have you killed." Tabitha stared daggers at the rampant. "You're a zealot," Carestia went on. "A creepy, soulless zealot entirely too devoted to the Inquisitor."

"And you," Tabitha hissed, "... are nothing but a treasonous whore. To betray Hild is one thing, but to betray our Lord Inquisitor... that you will come to regret."

"You are very loyal to him," Belldandy muttered acidly. "I wonder what he's done to deserve such loyalty."

Tabitha smirked at her. "Change is coming, Princess." She made the title a curse. "You think rampancy is unique to gods? There are those of us who feel Hild has become too eccentric, too weak. Some of us seek a stronger horse on whom to wager, a demon not bound by the rules imposed by the Almighty One. Our Lord Metheus can be that for us. Hild will not sit long on the throne of Hell, I guarantee it!"

"There's nothing more dangerous than a convert," Carestia noted.

"You don't speak from faith," Belldandy whispered in amazement. "You know this as fact."

"Did you think it coincidence that nearly twenty recovery agents were able to fight alongside you to retrieve Peorth without any of them questioning for one second what Her Majesty wanted?" Tabitha asked Carestia. "Did you think our Lord Inquisitor accepted just anyone into the Inquisition?"

"He's been planning this?" Carestia asked in a horrified whisper.

Tabitha smiled as Krieg pressed the flash seal against her hand. She hissed as the connection took hold. "My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

And then she was gone.

888

They rushed back to the Pit, hoping to beat the inevitable alarm they knew would come once someone walked past Metheus's room. As they descended the stairs, Belldandy put a hand on Peorth's shoulder. The brunette hadn't said a single word since Tabitha was sealed.

"Peorth?" Belldandy asked.

"I'm all right," Peorth whispered as they continued down the stairs. "I just thought... with time... I could change him back."

"Perhaps there is still hope for him," Belldandy replied sympathetically.

"Non," Peorth told her with a shake of her head. "There was a time when doing something... like that... would never have occurred to him as something possible even to a demon." She looked up at the Norn, tears in her eyes. "I don't know what it was," she said. "But it wasn't Wynn. I know that now."

The reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the steel waiting room. Carestia stopped suddenly and raised her weapon. The others saw what she was aiming at and froze, a gasp coming from Belldandy.

Metheus stood there, rapier drawn.

"Metheus," Carestia said in quiet greeting, her rifle not moving an inch.

"Going somewhere?" the Inquisitor asked them.

Krieg slowly moved to the left, quietly trying to bracket the rampant between them.

"We're leaving," Belldandy announced, pushing her way between Carestia and Metheus. "It's time to go."

"You swore an oath to Her Majesty," Metheus pointed out. "You can't just leave."

"One of the things I've come to appreciate about rampancy, Lord Metheus," Belldandy began, "Is the doors it opens. I swore an oath to the Almighty. I swore an oath to Mo... Hild," she forced out. "No matter what act I take in support of one, I violate the other. They've become... just words."

Metheus smiled. "And now you understand," he said. "And you must also understand that you will not be able to escape the choices you've made." He slowly circled her as he had before.

Ssselessmeshala hissed and leapt forward but stopped suddenly as Metheus's rapier flashed up like a bolt of lightning, resting the point at the Elite's throat. Carestia and Krieg raised their weapons, but Belldandy raised a hand, bidding them to lower them.

"My choices were my own," she told him. "I accept responsibility for them."

"Easy to say now," he replied, lowering his rapier. "You're a rampant," he bit out. "By their own laws they'll put you down like a rabid dog just for that. But they don't need that reason, do they? They can execute you for murder as well."

Tears sprang to Belldandy's eyes as her crime was thrown back in her face. She knew she would have to answer for what she had done to Nyd, to Heaven and to her sister.

"So be it," she whispered.

"And you two," Metheus said, turning to Carestia and Krieg. "You really think Heaven will simply let you go? Two rampants trading a third for their freedom? They'll have you pressed against a brick wall with carbines to your heads before your seventh minute in Heaven has passed."

"Then we die there," Krieg growled. "In Heaven. As gods! Rampant, yes, but gods! Gods by choice!"

Carestia nodded. "So be it."

His eyes came to rest on Ssselessmeshala. "Hell, they won't even bother killing you," he said. "They'll send you back and let Hild do it." He didn't give the Elite another thought, instead stepping slowly toward Peorth, who looked away sadly. "Peorth..."

"Leave her alone," Belldandy bit out. "Have you not done enough to her?"

He didn't listen to the goddess. "Peorth... I'm sorry... about what I did. I had to be sure. It's... complicated..."

She nodded. "Oui... It is."

"Peorth... stay with me," he whispered. "I'll make this up to you. I swear I will. We can still be together."

Peorth still wouldn't look at him.

"Stay... and I'll let the others go free," he said.

At this, she did look at him, but with anger in her eyes. "Mon Dieu," she whispered in amazement. "Listen to yourself. You're bargaining with me as if you're arguing the price of a suit! The Wynn I knew would be falling over himself trying to make amends for the things he's done, not trying to capitalize on them further!" She shook her head. "You... You're sick! It's not your fault, and I understand that... but you're sick. There's nothing left of Wynn in there." She laughed at the irony as she tapped her chest. "Only in here."

"Fleur..."

"The Wynn I know," she whispered at him, "Would, at the very least, step aside and let us go. And if he couldn't bring himself to do that, then he should at least have the common courtesy to kill me outright... instead of destroying me a piece at a time like Hild did to him."

He stepped back and gestured to the door to the Pit.

"I'm not going to kill you," he said quietly. "There are some choices even I won't make."

"You'll let us go?" Carestia asked. "Just like that?"

"I have my reasons," he said, not facing her. "See you at the next Fifty-Eighth reunion."

Krieg motioned for the others to move, but Metheus raised his hand again.

"Before you go," he rasped. "You have something else that belongs to me. I have plans for it. I'd appreciate having it back."

Carestia blinked and grit her teeth in disgust as she pulled the flash drive from her pocket. "You know," she said as she tossed the imprisoned Tabitha to him. "I'm not sure whether to root for you or not."

"It's the future," Metheus said, catching the flash drive out of the air.

"And what kind of future will it be?" Belldandy asked him.

He smiled at her. "One of our own choosing, Princess. Which is more than gods can claim." He turned and started out the door. "I'll give you half an hour before I raise the alarm."

888

"You think Skuld's okay?" Keiichi asked quietly as he looked up at the red stars that populated Hell's night sky. Camped for the night under a rocky overhang, the five would-be rescuers had huddled together, not even risking a fire.

"She's fine," Miranda told him. "Go to sleep."

He looked over at her and found that the others were sound asleep. All but her.

"You'll need your rest when the time comes," she told him.

"I can't sleep," he confessed. "I'm worried."

"Of course you are. We're close, very close. Probably see action tomorrow."

"No, I mean... about Belldandy," he went on. "Urd said she's changed. But... I mean... Could she really have changed that much?"

Miranda looked at him and shook her head. "If I thought a person could really change that much, would I be here now, trying to bring them back?"

Keiichi thought on this for a moment. "You gave up everything for this," he said.

"You'd do the same," she remarked.

"I don't know," he said. "Would I give up everything for just the chance?"

"Didn't you already?" she asked. "Did you think when they were torturing you they'd just stop if things got too rough? You've made that choice already, Keiichi. Don't worry about it."

"I just want to get her out of there," he whispered.

"We'll get her out," Miranda promised.

He bit his lip and turned to her again. "Is there any way to... well... take back your contract?" he asked.

"Keiichi," she sighed, "I'm all right with it. I spent my whole life willing to give my life for others. This will be a little harder... but still worth it."

The boy paused for a moment. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Yeah," she replied. "Me too."

888

"Get down! Get down!" Gaeriel hissed at them as they all ducked behind the boulders and rocks that littered their side of the road. The Valkyrie tried to duck a little lower as Keiichi felt the ground rumble beneath him.

They had been walking for nearly three days and aside from the attack by the Fury Ants, they hadn't come across a single patrol. Miranda finally had to admit that the intelligence Lind and the Combat Division were giving them was solid, steering them away from the patrols. But the closer they got to the capitol, the harder it was to dodge them.

The ground rumbled again, and he leaned toward Urd. "What is it?" he whispered.

"Shh!" Miranda shushed him. "Brumak."

"A what?"

A chest-rumbling roar answered him, and the boy peered around the rock he was hiding behind to catch a view of a nightmare.

It walked on two legs, like a tyrannosaurus almost, but its grey face was flat. The whatever-it-was carried what appeared to be guns on both its arms and a giant howitzer on its back, forcing it to hunch over.

He pulled back behind the rock, his face ashen.

"What the hell is that!?" he whispered in a shocked gasp.

"Brumak," Gaeriel said again. "And it's looking for us."

"What?!" Frigga replied in shock.

Miranda looked around her own boulder. The creature and its crew were definitely in a search configuration. "Sure as hell are," she agreed. "Stay quiet, it may just pass u..."

Something whistled out of the boulders on the other side of the highway, striking the creature in the side. The Brumak howled in pain as the object exploded, knocking it over and coming to rest fifty feet from where they were hiding. Red lances of light then shot toward it, striking at the crew sections at the top of the creature.

"Stay here," Miranda ordered as the firing tapered off. She held her carbine up and circled around, keeping the Brumak's body between her and the other side of the road. She saw two Brau Daemons taking cover from the hostile fire behind the creature's body. They didn't notice her, and she quickly raised her weapon and fired a short burst, killing both of the lesser demons.

Ducking behind cover, she waited, knowing her fire would draw more. But something tickled at the back of her senses. Something about the way that ambush played out. Killing a Brumak with one shot was a difficult thing to do... unless you practiced it constantly with daily drills...

"Wild Cards!?" she called out. It would only mean something to someone who recognized it. Otherwise, they'd just return fire.

Instead, she got a question tinged with a familiar accent.

"Who is it?!"

Relief and irritation flooded through the Valkyrie simultaneously, but it wasn't time to celebrate yet.

"It's Miranda!" she called back. "You fucking assholes could have killed us!"

Silence.

"Show yourself!" the woman called back to her.

"Fuck you! You come out first!" Miranda called back.

888

Krieg reloaded the particle bazooka while Carestia swore in Italian.

"How do we know it's not a trap?" he asked her as they both stared at the road below them. "They could be impersonating her to draw us out."

"Why would it even occur to them to do that?" she asked. "Metheus let us go. There's no point in him playing this game."

"Who is it?" Belldandy asked, hiding behind a rock nearby.

"It's Miranda," Peorth breathed beside her.

After swimming out of the Pit and into the drainage line, the group had made their way out of the castle the way the original Seven had made their way in. After dodging patrols for a day and a half, the mounted Brumak patrol had found them and stalked them for four hours before Carestia, Krieg and Ssselessmeshala had found a good place to ambush it.

"There's no way it's this easy," Carestia muttered. "We need a way to make sure."

Peorth quietly made her way to Carestia and spoke quickly into her ear. The rampant blinked at her and shrugged. "Okay, if you say so." She raised her voice and called out across the street again.

"What did Peorth tell you to tell the Combat Division and the Grigori?" she demanded.

They waited for an anxious ten seconds before the reply came back.

"That they can go fuck themselves!"

"It's her!" Peorth said with a smile, her first in days.

Carestia took a breath. Now it was time to do something shitty. She handed her carbine to Krieg. "Basken, watch them."

"Eh?" Peorth asked as the rampant turned the weapon on the two goddesses and the Elite.

"Carestia san!" Belldandy gasped in shock as the demonic soldier stood up and started down the hill. "What are you doing?"

She paused for a moment. "There's no deal yet," she told them. "Until there is, I can't risk you just taking off on your own. Hopefully, it'll just take a minute."

Ssselessmeshala hissed.

"And don't think for a moment, Elite, that I value your life more than my freedom," she breathed. "Krieg, if he looks at you funny, put a round in him."

"Yokai."

"You're no better than Metheus," Peorth gasped out.

Carestia paused. "No... I'm not. But if I'm lucky, I'll survive a little longer than him." She turned and started down the hill again.

888

Miranda watched her former subordinate stop at the edge of the road and hold her hands up.

"Sergeant Elra," she greeted.

"Colonel," Carestia replied. "I need to speak to someone with authority before we can go any further."

The words put Miranda on edge automatically. "I don't have a whole lot of time," she said. "We're here to get you out. Are Basken and Wynn with you?"

"You know I wouldn't tell you that," Carestia said. "And I sincerely doubt someone as AURAF as you has any authority in Heaven. If you don't have someone with authority here with you, then do you have secure communications with someone who does?"

"Why?" Miranda asked.

"I want to make a deal," the rampant called back. "At a secure location not far from here, I have two goddesses, one of them an acquaintance of yours. The other is..."

"Belldandy!?"

Miranda turned and found Frigga marching out from behind her boulder. "Lady Frigga..."

Frigga ignored her and walked up to the center of the road. "You have Belldandy?" she demanded.

Carestia nodded. "That's right."

"Is she safe?"

"She is."

Frigga breathed a sigh of relief. "Then what is there to talk about?"

"We need some... assurances," Carestia told her.

"Like what?"

"Basken and I want our freedom," the rampant said. "We want to come home... without ending up on the executioner's block."

Frigga looked hesitant. "My dear... you've done some very awful things... I'm not sure even I could grant you pardon in the Almighty One's name."

"We understand that we must earn our... forgiveness..." Carestia told her. "We only want the opportunity to do so. You have daughters. I have a son. I would do anything to see him again, and I know you would do the same for Belldandy. Death and sealing off the table. We'll take anything else."

"Done," Frigga said without hesitation.

Carestia seemed wary. "Just like that?"

"Just like that," Frigga said. "You will make amends for your actions, but in return for Belldandy you have my assurance that death and sealing will be taken out of consideration."

The rampant chewed on that, thinking that perhaps this had all happened a little too easily. However, the only other option at this point was to renege on the offer, which would only cause more problems later. She nodded and turned to the hill, pumping her fist up and down three times.

The signal given, Belldandy and Peorth came down the hill, trying not to slide on the loose rock and gravel.

"Moder!" Belldandy cried. "Moder!"

Frigga rushed up and embraced her daughter, tears running down her face. "Are you all right? Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"

Before Belldandy could answer, something caught her eye. Pulling away from the goddess she rushed to the man approaching from the other side of the street. She wrapped her arms around Keiichi and hugged him fiercely as she wept.

"Keiichi! Keiichi! I'm so sorry! I..."

"It's okay, it's okay," he said quietly. "I love you, Belldandy! I love you so much!"

"I love you, Keiichi!"

"Are you okay?" he asked, not willing to let her go just yet. "Is the baby... Is the baby okay?"

"We're fine!" she cried back, smiling. "We're both fine! It's going to be a girl, Keiichi! We're having a girl!"

He hugged her harder and choked back a sob.

Miranda, standing next to Carestia and Krieg, watched the two embracing. "I think you've earned your place in Heaven just for this," she whispered.

"It's a start, I guess," Gaeriel agreed.

"There is much left to atone for," Krieg replied.

"You will," Miranda told them. "In the meantime, we're still not out of this. I need your LACE and any intel you can provide. Where's Wynn?"

"He's gone."

She turned to the response and found Peorth looking back toward the capitol. "He's just gone."

"There's a lot to back-brief you on," Carestia told the Valkyrie. "A lot."

888

Her eyes shut, Belldandy reveled in the feeling of being in Keiichi's arms again. For a moment, just a moment, it was like the last few weeks had never happened.

Then she felt it, a presence, a pair of eyes on her. Opening her eyes, she found Urd standing nearby, staring at them.

Belldandy swallowed as the guilt returned in full force. "Neesan..." she began.

Urd didn't stick around to listen. She turned and started for the Valkyries, who were standing beneath the body of the Brumak.

"We got what we came here for," she said with a touch of bitterness. "Shouldn't we be leaving?"

"Back the way we came?" Miranda asked. "I don't think so." They were standing around a floating, holographic map, showing them several markers and several dots that Carestia claimed were part of an ever-tightening noose of patrols. "We need a new exit." She tapped her bone mic. "Arc Light, Rescue One...." She paused suddenly, looking at Carestia and Krieg and allowing a smile to bloom across her face. "Scratch that," she said. "This is Wild Card One."

"Go ahead, Wild Card," one of Lind's Valkyries replied.

"Inform Division Actual that our primary target has been recovered along with three secondary targets. We're preparing to exfiltrate the area, but we need a new exit. I have new intel suggesting that we've been allowed to infiltrate this far, but if we backtrack we're going to run into heavy resistance."

"Hold one, Wild Card!"

"You're saying they let us get this far in?" Urd asked in amazement.

It was Carestia who answered her. "Hild is wary of giving the Valkyries any kind of victory, no matter how small, lest it become a rallying point. If she attacked while you were close enough to escape, any survivors who made it out would become heroes." She smiled evilly. "Whereas tortured prisoners paraded through her throne room for all of Heaven to see would have a much better effect for her."

"So what do you think?" Frigga asked. "What do we do now?"

"They'll jam any hardline not attached to their network," Krieg supplied. "Otherwise, we could just use one of the old combat hardlines left over from the Golgotha Campaign." He pointed at a nearby area on the map.

"Wild Card One, Division Actual."

Miranda tapped her mic. "Wild Card One, go."

"I've been speaking to our techs and young Skuld," Lind said. "And I believe we have a way out for you."

"That's good news," Miranda quipped.

"Don't celebrate yet," Lind cautioned. "We have a way to break through the hardline jamming surrounding Hell's capitol, but you need to be on top of an existing hardline for it to work. A temp won't do it."

Miranda looked up and caught Krieg's eye. "Will an old combat hardline work?" she asked Lind.

"Possibly. If it's still functioning."

"All right," Miranda said, tapping an area of the map. "We'll head north and look for a leftover hardline." She looked up and found Ssselessmeshala. "You, Elite, you're Belldandy's bodyguard?" At the Elite's nod, she continued. "That's your sole job from now on. No matter what happens, she gets through the line. Understand?"

He nodded again and hissed.

"Okay, Krieg, Gaeriel up front. Urd, Carestia in the back. Noncombatants in the middle. Let's get off this street."

888

"I want her found, Inquisitor," Hild growled as she walked the perimeter of her throne room, her hands clasped behind her back. "Alive and unharmed."

Walking beside her, Metheus nodded as Tabitha, no worse for her sealing, followed behind them. "General Corus has already dispatched forces to cut them off, and measures are being taken to plug the... holes... in our security." He gave an almost imperceptible gesture to the group of Elites sitting on their knees in the center of the throne room, Recovery agents surrounding them with live carbines.

Hild whirled on him. "Yes, that does bring up a fascinating topic," she bit out. "Two of your Recovery agents did this!"

"Two rampants," he corrected. "And an Elite."

"And an Elite," she allowed, the idea troubling her more than anything, but still not willing to let Metheus off the hook. "Rampants like you..."

"Were they?" he asked.

She grit her teeth, angry at this cat and mouse game. "You vouched for them..."

"I did nothing of the kind," he bit back in response. "You did, remember? When you confronted them about their desire to be true demons. You said they were fully turned. That they wouldn't turn back. What reason did I, your loyal servant, have to question your judgement?"

Hild was filled with fury at the accusation, but even she had to admit the truth in his words.

Metheus backed off a step and his voice cooled. "Your Majesty, they didn't truly understand," he said. "They didn't experience what I did, didn't see Heaven's betrayal up close as I did. They, like all rampants, clung to hope. Just like Belldandy. Belldandy..." He sighed. "With her influence, is it any wonder they began to think they could go back?"

The dark lady said nothing.

"No, that they turned doesn't really surprise me," he went on. "What surprises and frightens me to death is that the Elites turned." He regarded them quietly for a moment before turning back to her. "Belldandy had free run of the palace, access to key areas, use of your facilities. Your Majesty," he continued in a whisper, "There's no telling how many personnel have been... exposed... to her influence."

"Including yourself," she noted.

Hatred flashed over Metheus's eye. "Yes... She tortured me, lectured to me and then stole away in the night with my Peorth."

"It is true, Your Majesty," Tabitha broke in. "The Lady Peorth did not wish to leave, but they told her that if she did not go with them they would kill me." Tabitha looked at the floor guiltily. "I was not authorized to break my cover, though I did manage to summon my familiar without their notice. They killed him then sealed me... Please, Your Majesty, they will kill Lady Peorth for rampancy! That's why they took her!"

Metheus raised a finger to shush the demoness. "A secondary concern at the moment," he said. "Though it pains me, we must first look to the security of your kingdom."

"What do you suggest?" Hild asked, still on the fence.

"A top to bottom sweep of the entire political and military landscape," Metheus told her. "The Inquisition will root out those who've been influenced by Belldandy and will assure there is no threat to yourself or your kingdom."

"And how will they 'assure' such a thing?" Hild asked.

"The way the Inquisition has always made such assurances," he said. He raised his hand in a casual wave to the Recovery agents nearby.

As one, six carbines went off, and five Elites fell to the floor dead.

Hild gave it another minute's thought, cursing herself for having to even spare that much. Her Belldandy was out there somewhere. She didn't have time for these distractions.

"See to it," she hissed.

He bowed and turned to Tabitha. "Until we know for sure the other Elites are loyal, I want you to detail a team of Recovery agents we can trust to act as Her Majesty's security detachment."

Tabitha smiled predatorily.

"It will be as you command, My Lord."

888

"Come on, up you go!" Frigga said, pulling Belldandy up onto the outcropping as Keiichi pushed from below. Once she was up, Keiichi jumped and grabbed hold of the outcropping, scrambling up, leaving Carestia and Urd alone for the moment.

Urd caught the rampant staring at her and stared back.

"What?" Urd demanded.

Carestia set about removing the traces of their passage, brushing away their footprints. "Miranda talk to you yet?"

"She talks about things," Urd agreed cautiously. "If you mean about the deal she made, then yeah, she told us."

The rampant looked at her in puzzlement. "No... what deal?"

"Ask her, it's not my business," Urd told her.

"Fine," Carestia replied. "In that case, did she talk to you about your mother and Metheus?"

Urd blinked. "No, why?"

Carestia leapt up onto the outcropping. "None of my business. Just wondering."

The Norn growled and climbed up herself. She didn't like these rampants. They might have a desire to return to godhood, but they still acted like Inquisition thugs. As she cleared the cliff face, she fell into step with the others. They were marching over the desolate wasteland known as Golgotha, where Heaven had mounted its largest offensive action during the war.

"How do we know this is going to work?" Urd asked as she walked next to Carestia. "I mean... how many hardlines can there be here?"

"Hundreds," Carestia told her, taking a moment to check behind them before continuing on. "The demons had their entire army on the other side of the mountains behind us to keep us out and there are no natural hardlines between them and the capitol. So, conscript units... hundreds of them... flew through the triple-A and over the mountains in Seraphims. Once they were clear, they fast-roped here and set up hundreds and hundreds of combat hardlines, establishing a link with Heaven behind the lines so the main force could come through and cut the demonic army off from the capitol."

"That sounds like suicide," Urd whispered.

"For a lot of us it was," Carestia said. "But there's no way the demons found all the hardlines. Like I said there were hundreds, thousands, just waiting to be opened. That's why this entire area is jammed. If it wasn't, it would be the back door to Hild's house."

"Who else knows about these hardlines?" Urd asked.

"You mean counting us?" Carestia asked with a smile.

"Yeah, counting us," Urd said.

Carestia counted on her fingers for a minute then turned back to her. "About six or seven hundred thousand members of Hild's military."

Urd's eyes drooped in resignation. "So you're saying it's almost certainly a trap?"

"Let me put it this way, Senora," Carestia went on. "The High Inquisitor of the demonic realm was one of the Valkyries who fast-roped onto this little piece of paradise. It's not something you forget about."

888

Belldandy refused to let go of Keiichi's hand, to the point where when the boy started to go behind a boulder to relieve himself, the Norn tried to follow him. He didn't really mind her wanting to be close, it just concerned him. The way Urd spoke of how she changed had made him fear the worst, but so far she seemed just as she had always been if a little more clingy than before.

They stopped for a quick rest, and Keiichi fished a piece of jerky out of his pack, breaking it half and offering a piece to Belldandy, who took it with a smile. The boy chewed thoughtfully and looked at his girlfriend, finding her gaze resting on Urd, who had spent as much effort as she could afford on not being near Belldandy.

"Belldandy?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

"Neesan hates me," she answered in a sad whisper. "I... I understand why... after what I did..."

Keiichi paused, remembering what Urd told him.

"I... missed some things... didn't I?" Belldandy asked. "Neesan and Nyd..." She looked down at her finger, at Nyd's ring, the ring she had not yet found the courage to return. "I took him from her." Tears sprang to her eyes. "I... Keiichi, I don't even know how to begin to atone for a crime like that..."

"Belldandy..." He wasn't sure what to say.

She saw the look on his face, and her eyes went wide. "There's more," she whispered in awe. "Isn't there? Almighty in Heaven... how... how could there be more? What more could I have possibly done to her? I..."

"Now's not a good time to go into it," he said.

"Keiichi, tell me!" she begged. "I need to know! I can't seek forgiveness for something that I don't know I've done! Please! Just say it!"

He looked at her with haunted eyes, knowing that there was no way to say it without hurting her more. "Belldandy... Urd's pregnant."

Belldandy looked as if someone had just punched her in the stomach. Turning around she rushed off behind a boulder. Keiichi followed and heard the sounds of retching as the goddess threw up her small lunch. He took her by the shoulders and gently moved her hair back.

"Belldandy," he whispered sympathetically.

"I want to die," she whispered, causing his eyes to widen in horror. She whimpered in misery and said it again. "I want to die. I've caused so much pain to the people I love... how... how do I live with that? I turned my back on the Almighty... on Moder... on Urd... on you..."

He grabbed her roughly and turned her around so she faced him, a look of intent anger on his face. "But you turned back!" he hissed. He looked away for a moment, searching for something he could say to make her see what he meant. "No one forced you to turn back," he said quietly. "You made that choice on your own. Belldandy, everyone has been touched by this in one way or another. No one's getting away without getting hurt this time. But if we don't hold on, if we don't accept it and move on with our lives... then what's the point of any of it? Where's the good in any of it?"

"Sometimes, there just isn't any good in any of it," she told him quietly.

"You never would have said that before," he whispered.

Her eyes flashed with anger, causing him to freeze where he stood. "I'm not what I was before," she bit out.

"Belldandy..."

She swallowed and looked away, ashamed of herself, at what she had become. "Keiichi... I don't think... I'm afraid that I... That I'm no longer what you wished for..."

He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Belldandy, you will always be what I want. I love you." The boy smiled comfortingly and took her hand, squeezing it. "You're going to be the mother of my child."

The goddess smiled and clasped his hand in hers. "Keiichi, I..." She paused as the sleeve on his arm rode up, revealing the burn scar on his arm. Her face fell. "Keiichi..."

"Hey!"

They both looked up and found Gaeriel ten feet away, waving them down. "Miranda says we gotta go. Come on."

Keiichi turned back to his girlfriend. "We have time," he said. "We have time to work through all of this, one step at a time. Promise me... that you're not going to do anything we can't undo, okay?"

She nodded slowly. "Hai, Keiichi. I promise."

He smiled. "Come on. Let's go home."

888

"Wild Card, be advised, heavy jamming makes aerial intel unreliable."

"Understood, Arc Light," Miranda replied. Before she could go further, she saw Krieg motion her forward to the front of the group. "Stand by." She dashed up to the front and saw the hulking man pointing at something in the distance, past a dusty field littered with boulders and seated at the foot of a large, barren hill.

"Seraphim," he rumbled as Miranda raised her power binocs to her eyes.

"It must be left over from the Golgotha Campaign," Gaeriel noted.

Miranda nodded. "It's a wreck. Must have crashed here and the crew..." She raised her gaze to the top of the hill and adjusted the binoculars to search other spectrums until she found what she was looking for. "Combat hardline at the top of the hill," she announced.

"There's no way it's this easy," Gaeriel muttered.

"We could bypass it," Krieg told her.

"We could," Miranda muttered. "But there might not be another one for forty miles."

She gave the situation some thought and finally nodded. "Nothing left but to go for it," she said. "Let's go."

888

"Anything?" Lind asked, looking over the shoulders of Skuld and her tech.

The technician shook his head. "Golgotha's jammed to the hilt. If it wasn't for Skuld chan's bone mics, we wouldn't even have comms."

"Will the hardline penetrators work?" Lind asked.

Skuld nodded. "I tweaked them a little, but they have to have a strong signal to home in on." She looked sheepish. "They're going to have to send an activation signal from there first."

"And in the meantime we can't even be their eyes," Lind said.

888

Krieg opened the wrecked Seraphim's door and swept the inside with his carbine. Content, he gave a quick nod to Gaeriel, who tapped the mic crystal at her throat.

"We're clear, bring 'em up."

The other warriors rushed Belldandy, Peorth, Keiichi, Frigga and Urd up to the wreck, and Miranda rushed them behind it.

"Why are we running?" Peorth asked breathlessly. "If you haven't detected anyt..."

"Metheus knows everything we know about this area," Krieg interrupted. "It's possible he's anticipated this move."

"And if he has?" Frigga asked.

"I don't want to think about it," Peorth told them. Her eyes went to the top of the hill. "Is it up there?"

Miranda was rooting through her pack as she answered. "That's it." She pulled a blue orb the size of her fist from her pack. "We have to get this to the top of the hill and activate the hardline. Let's hope Lind's little trick works."

Keiichi looked over the tail section of the wreckage and saw a red star rising rapidly over the horizon.

"Guys!" he cried.

Carestia saw it and grabbed the boy and Belldandy, dragging them behind the Seraphim as the star exploded in the air, raining down slivers of red light that embedded in the ground and boulders nearby and clacked against the hull of the downed craft.

"Definitely a trap!" Gaeriel remarked as she searched the boulders for targets. Another star shot into the sky. "Incoming!"

"One side, dears!" Frigga said, pushing Urd out of the way. Raising her arms, she erected a shield around them. The star exploded, and the fiery rain came down right on top of them, bouncing off the elder goddess's shield like hail on a tin roof.

"How long can you hold that shield up?" Miranda asked.

Frigga smiled. "My dear, without those ants draining it, I can stand here forever!"

"Great, can you walk too?"

The elder goddess smiled as she got the gist of Miranda's idea. "Of course."

"Then let's go."

As one, the entire group started up the hill... but suddenly stopped.

It took Keiichi a moment to realize the goddesses were no longer next to him. He looked back at them and blinked. "Um... What are you guys waiting for?"

Peorth pushed against something she couldn't see. "I... I can't go any further..."

"I was afraid of that," Miranda said as another red mortar exploded over them. "Back to the wreck!"

"What?" Keiichi asked in confusion. "What's going on?!"

"They got the hill barricaded!" Gaeriel told him. "It's a charm that won't allow gods to go through! Come on!"

The group made their way back to the wreck where Gaeriel, Krieg and Carestia took up firing positions over the craft.

"Now what?" Belldandy asked.

"They'll keep tossing mortars at us until they figure out it won't work," Carestia told her. "Then they'll charge."

Keiichi saw sun glinting off metal out in the field of boulders and flinched as a magic bolt struck Frigga's shield near his face. He ducked back behind the wreck as the Valkyries and the rampants opened fire.

"Arc Light! Arc Light! This is Wild Card One! We are under heavy fire from multiple contacts! Need assistance!"

Kneeling behind the wreckage, a protective arm around Belldandy, the boy listened as Miranda gave Lind a rundown of the situation. Ssselessmeshala stood over them, ready to step between Belldandy and any adversary that presented himself.

"No, you don't understand!" Miranda was shouting into the mic. "We can't open the line because of the barricade! You breaking it that way isn't going to work!"

"What's the problem?!" Gaeriel shouted as she threw a few more rounds at the demon soldiers who were making their way slowly toward them, ducking behind boulders whenever one of the Valkyries got a bead on them.

Miranda shook her head in angry resignation. "They want us to activate the hardline so they can send a DEW pulse down and break the barricade!"

"Are they stupid?!" Urd asked. "If we can't get past the barricade, we can't signal the hardline! If we can't signal the hardline, we can't break the barricade!"

"Just another fucked up adventure in Heaven's service," Gaeriel muttered the curse she had heard her teacher use in the past.

Keiichi listened and held Belldandy tighter. Once again, her safety was at stake and he was powerless. At least this time, he wasn't alone. It didn't sound like Miranda had a way out of this either. If the barricade kept the goddesses from going up the hill then...

He blinked in sudden realization.

"Morto e sepolto," Carestia growled.

Belldandy gasped in shock as Keiichi suddenly wrenched out of her grip. "Keiichi!"

"I just have to get close, right?!" he asked, snatching the orb out of Miranda's hand. The Valkyrie blinked at him. "There's no trick? No magic words?"

It was as if the Valkyrie suddenly realized he was even part of the group. "Yes!" she replied.

"Absolutely not!" Belldandy cried. "No! I... I FORBID IT!"

"Keiichi! Don't!" Urd agreed. "We'll find another way!"

"They stopped mortaring us!" Keiichi shot back. "I have a shot!"

"It's too dangerous!" Urd argued.

"I don't care what you do!" Gaeriel shouted as she fired on another target. "But whatever it is, do it fast!" She caught one out of the corner of her eye and fired at it. "They're getting closer! We gotta clear the cover! Glassers!"

"Glassers!" Krieg and Carestia shouted back in unison, drawing grenades out of their pouches.

Miranda didn't have time for a debate. She had to get on the line with the others. Keiichi met her gaze with his own, the same glare he had given her when she suggested he shouldn't come with them. She rubbed the orb between her hands and shoved it into his.

"It's charged," she said. "Just get it to the top of the hill. The hardline should open automatically." Without another word, she turned and started firing on the approaching demons.

"Keiichi!" Belldandy screamed, as the boy started up the hill, scrambling over the sharp, craggy outcroppings.

"Give him some cover!" Gaeriel shouted. The Valkyries' carbines lashed out at the glassed boulders near them, shattering them and denying their use to the Hellriders.

Belldandy ran after Keiichi, trying to stop him, but the invisible barricade prevented her from going any further no matter how much she struggled against it.

"Keiichi!"

Ssselessmeshala hissed, rushing out to grab the goddess's arm. The Elite was too late. A red bolt from a Hellrider weapon struck Belldandy's shoulder, bringing the goddess to the ground. He grabbed her and pulled her back under the umbrella of Frigga's shield.

"Keiichi," Belldandy cried weakly.

"Get out of the way," Urd told Ssselessmeshala as the Norn knelt next to her sister. She examined Belldandy's wound and found it already festering. She bit her lip nervously. Hellrider weapons encouraged spiritual festering. The Norn knew enough healing to treat a wound like this with time, but they didn't have much of that to work with.

Nyd could heal her in a few moments, she cursed to herself. On a hunch, she closed her eyes and let her mind drift back to her time with him, to their joining. The knowledge, she knew was there, lingering like the rest of him...

Belldandy's eyes fluttered as they focused on her sister. "Neesan..."

"Shut up!" Urd growled as she slammed her palm against Belldandy's wound. The middle Norn cried out in pain as Urd poured healing energy into Belldandy's arm. Urd shut her eyes and let Nyd's memories guide her, knitting the wound shut while simultaneously cleaning away the rot.

"How is she?" Peorth asked, kneeling next to Urd.

"She'll live," Urd said, pulling her arm away and returning to the fight.

"Belldandy?" Peorth asked, taking the Norn's face in her hands. "Can you hear me?"

Belldandy blinked her eyes open. "Neesan?" Not seeing Urd, she shot up. "Keiichi?! Where's Keiichi!?"

888

Keiichi drew his hand back and nearly fell down the hill when a bolt of red light struck the rock he was reaching for. Gritting his teeth, he placed his fingers in the burnt hole left behind and used it as a handhold. His feet struggled to find purchase in the pebbly hillside as he continued scrambling up one-handed. His other hand carried the orb Miranda had given him. She said he just had to get close. If he could do that...

Another energy bolt blew a chunk out of the hill to his right. He didn't stop. He was only twenty feet from the top of the hill, and the boy wondered exactly how close he had to get.

"Come on, dammit!" he panted as he continued climbing. "Come on!"

He risked a look downward and saw the Valkyries still fighting below. Gathering his strength, he reached out again and pulled himself another foot closer.

"Come on, come on, come on!" he urged the orb. "Work, dammit! Work!"

For the first time since Metheus had tortured him, Keiichi didn't feel hopeless or useless. This was something he could do, that only he could do.

And he was going to do it... no matter what.

"Come on!" he shouted at himself as the ground above him evaporated under an energy bolt. "Just a few more feet! After living with Urd and Skuld, that's nothing!"

He reached up again and suddenly found there was nothing there. He was at the top. Blinking, he raised the orb up.

"WORK, GOD DAMMIT!" he screamed.

There was a flash a few feet to his right as a column of blue light appeared.

888

"Hardline established!" Miranda heard in her earpiece. "Sending DEW pulse."

"He did it!" she cried, turning to look up the hill.

Belldandy turned and found Keiichi at the top of the hill next to the open hardline. She smiled.

"Keiichi!"

"It's open!" he shouted down. "Tell them it's open! Tell th..."

A bolt of red light smashed into his chest, cutting off the rest of his statement.

Belldandy's eyes went wide. "K... K..."

"Keiichi!" Urd screamed.

The boy stumbled and fell into the column of light and disappeared without a trace.

"What the hell is going on?!" Carestia demanded.

"They... killed him," Peorth gasped out.

"What?!" Gaeriel cried. "Who?!"

"K...Keiichi," Belldandy muttered. "They killed Keiichi."

"Who's down?!" Krieg demanded. "Who's hurt?"

"Keiichi," Belldandy muttered again, looking down at the ground. "They killed Keiichi..."

Peorth saw the look in the Norn's eyes. "Belldandy..."

Belldandy ignored her. She stood up and turned away from the hill, her gaze resting on the demons firing at them from behind their boulders and trenches. She started forward.

"Belldandy!?" Frigga cried. "What are you doing?!"

Ssselessmeshala leapt out in front of her and hissed as an energy bolt struck his stomach, knocking him to the ground.

The Norn ignored her mother and the Elite and continued on, oblivious to the fire around her. She heard a Hellrider call out to the other demons.

"Not the Princess, you dogs! The Princess is not to be harmed!"

She took another step toward them. She was their Princess... A princess of Hell...

"Belldandy!" Peorth cried as the love goddess flew out to her. She tried to grab the Norn's arm, but an energy barrier knocked her back. "Belldandy..." Peorth gasped, looking up at her friend in shock.

Dark energy radiated around the Norn, flowing upward like steam from a wet sidewalk on a hot day.

They killed him, she thought. The one hope I had anchoring me to what I was...

Fury washed over her. The wind began to blow around her, faster and faster.

"Angel come forth," she growled hatefully.

With a flash of blue light, Holy Bell rose from Belldandy's shoulders, her face hidden by a black cowl, the goddess's desire to hide what she had truly become. Ash fell from her grey wings as they extended to either side.

Dark clouds gathered over head, swirling angrily as pitch black tornadoes descended from the sky toward the demons.

"I'll destroy you..." Belldandy whispered bitterly to herself. "All of you..." She raised her tear-stained face. "ALL OF YOU!" she screamed. Holy Bell extended her arms toward the demons, and the tornadoes rushed down toward them in response, chewing up the ground they touched and launching boulders through the air.

Seeing this much raw power heading toward them, the Hellriders either braced themselves behind cover or ran.

"We have to stop her!" Gaeriel cried to the others, raising her voice to be heard over the howling wind.

"She's driving them off," Peorth argued.

"We've been firing to keep their heads down, not kill them!" Miranda replied. "For every demon she kills, a god is going to die in Heaven!"

The tornadoes began to come together to form one giant storm of howling hatred. It bore down on the demons, not blowing them away like a regular storm, but wanting to tear them apart.

"We gotta do it fast!" Gaeriel said. "That hardline won't stay up forever!"

Frigga stepped toward her daughter. "Belldandy!" she called. "Belldandy! Stop this!"

"You're not going to talk her down," Carestia told them sadly. "Not from this..."

Frigga lowered the shield and closed her eyes. She started forward.

"Ms. Frigga?" Peorth asked.

"There's only one of us with an angel powerful enough to stop her now," Frigga said without turning to them. She looked sadly up at Holy Bell, once the portrait of angelic beauty and now...

She swallowed painfully. "Tempestuous Violet... Come forth..."

The godly queen's angel sprang up in a flash of purple light. Violets adorned the angel's soft purple hair and tear filled eyes gazed at the goddess and angel before it.

Tears filled Frigga's eyes. "Belldandy!" she cried again. "Please... Come back to us! This isn't you!"

Belldandy didn't turn back, but did reply. "I can't be anything else anymore," she said. "Keiichi was my last chance... my last hope to redeem myself... My reason for everything... For living..." Her shoulders hunched in despair. "Look at her, Moder!" she cried, her hands going to her face to catch the tears. "That's what I am now! Anger and hate and shame! That's all I have left!"

"I can't let you continue like this!" Frigga told her in a pleading voice. "You have to calm down... you have to stop... For every Hellrider you kill, a god in Heaven will die... Please, my Belldandy! Please stop!"

"You don't understand," Belldandy wept. "They took him from me... I'll never be whole now... Never..."

The tornado hung in the air before them, consuming, dragging every loose thing or person toward it.

"Belldandy!" Frigga begged.

The queen felt a presence next to her and turned to find Urd there, a look of anger on her face.

"Urd..."

The elder Norn's hands balled into fists as she glared at Belldandy's back.

"YOU DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT!" she screamed angrily at her half-sister.

Hearing her voice, Belldandy flinched. "Neesan..."

"You don't have the right to choose this path," Urd bit out. "Not after all the people who worked and fought and..." Her breath caught in her throat for a moment. "... died," she finished. "Died FOR YOU! Is this what they fought for?! IS IT?!"

"Neesan..."

"You... are not... the only one hurting," Urd bit out. "Do you think this is what Keiichi wanted? He came here to save you from exactly this!"

The wind began to slacken. They heard sobs and realized that Belldandy was crying.

"If you want to stay here and kill demons and turn your back on everything you want to be, everything Keiichi saw in you, then that's fine!" Urd shouted at her, a tear running down her face. "But dammit... that's not going to make anything right!"

The others watched in amazement as Urd turned and started up the hill.

"I'm going home," she muttered to them painfully as she passed. She turned back to Belldandy. "I'm going home!" she shouted again. "And I'm going to take my pain and my anger and I'm going to do something good with it! Something Nyd would have wanted me to do with it! I'm going to raise his son and be the kind of goddess and mother he would have been proud to have raising his child!" She regarded her sister a moment longer before muttering. "Keiichi would have wanted the same."

She turned and walked into the hardline.

"Urd..." Peorth whispered. She squared her shoulders. "She's right," she announced. "One way or another, it's time to go." The love goddess turned to Belldandy. "Will you come?"

Belldandy's head fell forward as the tornado dissipated into nothingness. Holy Bell descended and merged with the goddess. Frigga rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her daughter.

"Belldandy..."

"I... I'm coming," she whispered.

Miranda saw movement among the boulders and raised her carbine. "Enough! Time to go!"

Frigga and Peorth took Belldandy by either arm and helped her up the hill. The Valkyries and rampants stepped carefully up the hill, facing the regrouping demons. When they reached the top, Frigga and Ssselessmeshala guided Belldandy through the hardline. Gaeriel hopped through next.

"Peorth, you, Basken and Elra are next," Miranda ordered. Krieg and Carestia paused, and Miranda faced off with them. "Are you waiting for me to order you?"

"No, Ma'am," Krieg replied.

"You're coming, right?" Carestia asked.

Miranda said nothing. Peorth blinked.

"You are coming, right?" Peorth repeated the rampant's question.

"Not this time," Miranda said.

"But..."

"Not everyone gets to die for this cause," Miranda told her. She turned to the rampants. "You got your deal. Get going. I'd hate to think I wasted a perfectly good soul for this."

"Colonel," Krieg whispered.

"NOW!"

"But..." Carestia began as Krieg took her arm. "Wait... Colonel!"

The two disappeared into the blue light. Miranda turned and saw Peorth still standing there.

"You waiting for the next song to play?" Miranda said with a smile.

Peorth shook her head. "You can't do this."

"It's already done," Miranda said. "Once I set foot on Hell's side of the Styx, the contract was sealed. I can't leave."

"Why?" Peorth asked.

"Why did you go after Wynn?" Miranda countered. She looked at the hardline. "Because I loved them. All of them. Because they all should get to go home, to live better lives than this."

The demons were at the Seraphim now, moving cautiously up the hill after them.

"Go, Peorth. Now," Miranda said.

"I won't leave you here!" Peorth cried, tears in her eyes. "Not another one..."

Miranda's face turned harsh. She lashed out with her hand and grabbed Peorth's pony tail.

"Damn, stupid woman!" she growled. She shoved Peorth toward the blue light. "I said GO!"

Peorth disappeared. Miranda removed her bone mic and earpiece, ignoring Lind's demands for an update. She crushed the equipment in her hand, unwilling to give the demons the technology for their own use. Taking an unsteady, frightened breath, she turned to the approaching demons and tossed her carbine aside. Behind her, the hardline lost power and closed.

She drew her katana and planted it into the ground in front of her in surrender.

Miranda waited for them.

888

Belldandy's eyes fluttered open. She was lying face-down on the floor inside a large room filled with Valkyries and healers darting to and fro. Focusing her eyes, they came to rest on her sister kneeling over someone lying on the floor. She saw Urd smile and help the person up.

Keiichi winced, his hand going to a burnt patch on his left shoulder.

"Keiichi," she whispered, struggling to her feet. "Keiichi..."

He saw her and smiled. "Belldandy!"

"You're alive," she whimpered, new feelings of shame for what she had almost done washed over her. "Thank the Almighty..."

"It's her..."

She looked around and found several of the other gods and goddesses staring at her in awe.

"It's Belldandy..."

"She's here..."

Someone started to clap, then another. One of the Valkyries started to chant her name and others took up the call.

"Belldandy! Belldandy! Belldandy! Belldandy!"

She smiled at the welcome, felt their relief and their happiness rest over her troubled soul. The goddess gave a happy cry as two Valkyries lifted her into the air.

"BELLDANDY! BELLDANDY! BELLDANDY!"

Nearby, Gaeriel knelt next to Peorth, embracing the goddess as she cried for Miranda. Krieg and Carestia offered their weapons to the Valkyries and waited to be arrested or shot. Frigga stood between them and the soldiers, telling them what should be done.

The Norn blinked, lost in her happiness as she felt Keiichi reach up and take her hand, squeezing it. She was home. She was home!

"BELLDANDY! BELLDANDY! BELLDANDY!"

She blinked again and searched the crowd with her eyes. "Neesan?" She looked behind her. "Neesan?!" she called out again. Finally, she caught sight of her sister walking toward a lift. "Neesan!" she cried. "Neesan! Wait!" The goddess started to struggle to get free of the crowd. "URD! WAIT!"

The elder goddess heard Belldandy but ignored her. She walked into the lift and hit the first button her fingers found. The door shut, cutting off the sounds of adulation. Urd leaned against the wall of the lift and started to sob.

888

"A report from the 198th," Tabitha remarked, handing the document over the desk to the Inquisitor. "The Princess has escaped with the help of the rampants. She's gone."

"Hmm," he said simply, quickly scanning over the report before putting it aside.

"You are not concerned?" the demon girl asked him.

"Why should I be concerned?" Metheus replied, looking over a new report. "The Hellriders failed to retrieve her, not the Inquisition. Though I imagine General Corus's competence and-or loyalty will soon come into question..."

Tabitha smiled. "And I'm quite sure my Lord Inquisitor has a suggestion in mind for an officer to replace him?"

"It is my job to advise Her Majesty," he said simply.

She regarded him carefully, unsure as to how to approach this next topic. "I am sorry about Lady Peorth, My Lord," she said.

He lowered the report. "It was the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

"Will My Lord seek out a new consort?" she asked. "Someone more fitting for the political nature of the role of Inquisitor's woman?"

Metheus smiled. "No. As I said, it was simply the wrong place at the wrong time." He picked up another report. "That may change. Hope remains."

Tabitha blinked. "Then you haven't given up on her?"

He glanced out the window of his office at the Lake of Fire and firefalls across it. "A king needs a queen, Tabitha. That hasn't changed."

The demon girl smiled. "And a king you will be, I'm sure, My Lord."

"Perhaps," he allowed. "Just perhaps."

888

"So they let them go?" Keiichi asked. "Just like that?"

Sitting at Belldandy's bedside, the boy watched as Frigga took a seat on the other side of the bed. Belldandy, sitting up in that bed, smiled. She had to admit she felt much better after three days of rest in Heaven, though she was still concerned for the baby. Who knew what effect her... ordeal... might have had.

Skuld has been gone a long time, she thought. She said she would be back in no time...

"Well, son, I wouldn't say 'just like that.'" She smiled and pulled a bento out of her purse, offering the lunch to Belldandy. "They've been offered positions as caretakers in primitive realms, but their right to travel has been restricted to that realm and Heaven. Their powers have been severely limited, and they are on a sort of probation. Still," she went on. "Elra gets to see her son, and Basken has offered himself up to the healers to help their research with rampancy and the comas they've caused."

"Oh," Keiichi said.

"They made out very well with their deal," Frigga went on. She turned a disapproving eye to her daughter. "Much better, I would add, then you, Belldandy. You needn't do this!"

"I must," Belldandy went on. "I've hurt people, and I must face judgement for that."

"But to not seek some sort of consideration..." Frigga went on. "Belldandy, it is very possible that you could face death..."

Keiichi squeezed Belldandy's hand fearfully.

"If that is what the Council decides," Belldandy said quietly. "Then I will accept it."

"Belldandy..." Keiichi whispered.

Eager to change the subject, Belldandy cut him off. "I wonder what's taking Skuld," she said. "She went to call for a healer an hour ago."

As if saying her name aloud summoned her, a gentle knock came at the door and Skuld poked her head in. Her expression told them she was both angry and troubled.

"Skuld?" Frigga began. "What is it?"

Skuld bit her lip. "Um... There's a problem."

Belldandy blinked. "A problem?"

"Yeah," Skuld said. "There's um... no appointments for you, Oneesama."

"Oh," Belldandy said, a little deflated. "They must be busy." She smiled. "We'll try again tomorrow and..."

"No, Oneesama, you don't understand," Skuld said, her fists clenched at her sides. "I called every healer in the book. It's not that there are no appointments available.... it's that there are no appointments available for you."

Keiichi jumped to his feet in shocked anger. "What?! You mean just because it's Belldandy, they're not going to come!?"

Skuld closed her eyes, trying to control the anger in her. "The moment I mentioned Oneesama... they just... went cold and said nothing was available. They won't see her."

Belldandy looked down at her blanket. "I guess... I can't blame them... After what I did..."

It was her own fault and she knew it. She also knew that the healers would make their disapproval known the moment she demanded that she be tried for Nyd's murder. Ssselessmeshala was still in holding until the Valkyries decided what to do with him. The healers had no one else to direct their anger at.

Frigga stood up. "I'll take care of this." She pulled out her cell phone and dialed some numbers. After a few rings, someone must have picked up. "It's me," she said. "I have a favor to ask... I know I have no right to, but..."

888

"Of course. I'll be right over."

Urd watched Eir hang up the phone and start looking for her medical bag.

"Something up?" Urd asked her. She had spent the last three days with Nyd's mother in her house by the Elysium Sea, unwilling or unable to face Belldandy and aware that if she stayed at her own home, she would have to do exactly that. Eir had welcomed her in and made her feel comfortable and at home. The Norn had to admit, she felt lucky to have Eir as her mother-in-law.

"Yes," Eir said as she searched the living room. A note of acute disapproval entered her voice. "It seems that your sister needs a healer to check on the baby, but none of them will see her."

Urd blinked. "Can... Can they do that?"

"There is no rule saying they can't," Eir said with a sigh. "Though that's only because one has never been necessary before."

"So... you're going to see her?" Urd asked.

"I am."

Urd let a silent moment pass between them. "How can you do that?"

Eir gave her a surprised look.

"I... I don't mean that you shouldn't," Urd said. "I just... after what she did... you're the last person Frigga should be asking..."

The healer smiled. "Urd, you knew my son better than anyone. You tell me how he would feel if he were here now and knew what his fellow healers were doing."

Urd looked away but answered. "Ashamed," she said. "Ashamed of them... and angry."

She looked up as Eir put a hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. "I have to go," she said. "If for no other reason than to remind them how unacceptable their behavior is." Her eyes widened as they came to rest on her bag's hiding place. "There it is!"

The Norn didn't move. Eir regarded her for another moment. "Do... Do you want to come along?"

"No," Urd said. "I can't yet."

"I know you're hurting," Eir told her. "But I also know that if you're just waiting for the moment when your anger and pain will just disappear, then you're in for a very long wait. You have to let her in again. Be angry. Be hurt. But don't deny your sister your love."

"Eir... I appreciate you letting me stay here," Urd said. "And I know you want to help, but... I just need some time."

"Then take some time," Eir told her. "But also make room in your heart for the idea of forgiveness." She hugged her daughter-in-law. "I'll be back soon."

Urd watched her walk out the door and took a breath.

The idea of forgiveness, huh?

She saw the phone nearby and walked over to it. Picking it up, she dialed a number and waited.

"Yes, the Chief Magistrate's Office, please," Urd said. "Tell him the deputy surgeon general's wife would like to make a victim's impact statement."

888

"A lot of people came to this," Keiichi said nervously as he sat down. "Is it always like that?"

Sitting down next to him on one of the semi-circular audience benches overlooking the Council's Judgement Stand, Peorth shook her head. "This is a big deal," she said. "You have to understand how popular Belldandy is. She's seen as an example of what a goddess should be. And the stakes here are very very high."

"I know," he breathed. "I guess... I don't know... I just assumed we'd rescue her and we'd go back to Nekomi and..." He sighed.

"That could still happen," Peorth told him reassuringly.

"I don't know, Peorth san," he said. "Sometimes I think... she doesn't want that to happen. Like she wants to be punished for what happened in Hell and she won't take no for an answer."

Peorth smiled. "Don't worry. Justice in Heaven is quite fair. If Belldandy is truly looking for punishment, I doubt she'll find much here."

"I haven't seen Urd around lately," he said. "How's she doing?"

Peorth's smile fell. She had seen Urd twice over the last few days. It was hard to tell with the Norn, who was still deeply grieving.

"What did I miss?" Gaeriel asked as she sat down next to Keiichi.

"Nothing yet," he said. "Skuld is a few levels down with Frigga. Best we could do was the nosebleed section."

The crowd hushed as Belldandy entered the Stand and faced the Council, who floated in a semi circle over her.

"Belldandy," the chief magistrate began. "We have reviewed the specifics of your case and have come to our decisions. Are you prepared to hear them?"

The Norn didn't hesitate. "Hai."

"Very well." There was a pause as the magistrate prepared to read the official statement. "After reviewing the evidence and testimony, on the charge of the murder of the God Nyd, this council finds Belldandy... guilty as charged."

The crowd erupted in shocked boos and cries of foul-play. Belldandy merely closed her eyes in acceptance.

"They can't do that!" Keiichi cried, having already jumped out of his seat. "I mean... they..."

"THE AUDIENCE WILL BE SILENT!" the magistrate thundered. The room calmed.

"On the second charge, Rampancy, this council finds Belldandy guilty as charged."

Belldandy said nothing. She had known the truth, and this only confirmed it.

"After reviewing the extenuating circumstances, testimonies and the victim's impact statement from the victim's wife, it is the judgement of this court that the traditional sentence for both crimes, death, be... commuted."

Belldandy felt the breath leave her chest in relief.

"Since a death sentence, even delayed, would deny the child within you a parent, Dr. Nyd's wife has begged for an alternative sentence," the magistrate continued.

Belldandy's eyes searched the audience and found Urd sitting in the front row, her face expressionless.

"However, your powers in the hands of a rampant goddess pose a clear and present danger to Heaven and her aligned realms," the magistrate continued. "It is therefore the judgement of this court that your powers be sealed and that you be taken from this place to another realm for a period no less than two hundred and not to exceed five hundred years."

Keiichi leaned over to Peorth. "Quick, what does all that mean?"

She whispered back. "They're going to banish her. Take her powers away and banish her."

Belldandy nodded at the sentence, silently accepting it.

"A recommendation for a proper realm has been submitted and accepted," the magistrate told her. "You will be sent to Realm Four-Oh-Three..."

The Norn's eyes went wide.

"... a realm you are already familiar with and where you will have little trouble securing a living for yourself and your child. This court stands adjourned."

The council disappeared, leaving Belldandy alone. The audience began to mutter to themselves. Keiichi fought his way down to her, Peorth and Gaeriel just behind him. He finally managed to get to the goddess and took her hands in his.

"Belldandy, are you okay?" he asked. "I knew this was a bad idea... Look, maybe we can appeal or something or..."

The goddess wasn't listening. She was smiling. "It's all right, Keiichi."

"It's not all right!" he cried. "They're going to take your powers away and send you to live on some strange world and..."

"Well, he's right about that," Peorth said with a grin, nudging Belldandy knowingly. "It is indeed a strange place..."

Keiichi blinked. "What? What am I missing?"

Belldandy looked at him with dancing eyes. "Keiichi... Realm Four-Oh-Three is Earth."

His jaw dropped.

The goddess had to suppress a laugh of delight. "Keiichi... We're going home!"

888

Watching Keiichi and Belldandy hug, Gaeriel didn't notice Lind and Gwydion approach her from behind. When the weight of their shadows finally grabbed her attention, she turned and quickly saluted.

"Commander! Colonel!" she cried.

"Lieutenant," Lind greeted. "I think it's appropriate that we find you here at a place of judgement, given the conversation between us that is long overdue."

Gaeriel swallowed nervously. With all the debriefings and attention Belldandy's rescue had sparked, there had been no time to address the very real charge of disobeying orders that was doubtless coming her way.

"I've given the matter some thought," Lind told her. "And with Belldandy's rescue and our own... involvement... I can't very well discipline you, can I?"

The young officer felt relief wash over her... but only for a moment before her teacher spoke up.

"With all due respect, Commander," Gwydion said. "I think that's a horrible idea."

Gaeriel felt the blood rush from her face.

"Are you suggesting we punish the Lieutenant after all?" Lind asked.

"Action is certainly appropriate in this instance," Gwydion told her. "Given the Lieutenant's actions."

"Gwydion sensei!" Gaeriel gasped out, feeling betrayed by his words.

"What do you recommend?" Lind asked with only the barest hint of a smile.

"Well, Commander," he went on. "Typically when punishment is called for but cannot be officially dealt out due to political constraints, a Valkyrie is reassigned to a... less than pleasant duty..."

"Very true..."

Gaeriel felt like crying. They were going to send her to patrol the Styx or worse.... Earth...

"As I recall," Gwydion went on, "In response to this recent action, the Council has approved the stand-up of a new unit of Helljumpers, and the post of officer-in-charge of this unit still stands empty, a duty position that can hardly be called 'comfortable.'"

"Agreed," Lind said. "It would be a very demanding post..."

"One which, I believe, Lieutenant Gaeriel has demonstrated to be sufficiently cursed with suitability for," he finished.

"She is the last Valkyrie to ever fight under a Helljumper commander," Lind allowed.

Gaeriel felt her cheeks flush red with pride as she realized they were playing with her. Lind finally allowed a smile to peek through, and she handed Gaeriel a patch, the same one Miranda had left for her in the temple in Nekomi.

"The newly re-activated 7th Special Operations Squadron needs a good officer to lead it," Lind told her. "If what we've learned from Sergeant Elra and Private Basken is true, Heaven will need Helljumpers to defend her. I want you to be the first."

Gaeriel saluted. "Yes, Ma'am!"

888

Flush with victory, Gaeriel rejoined her new friends, leaving Gwydion and Lind alone for the moment.

"Elra and Basken's testimony was convincing, then?" he asked the commander.

"Yes," Lind replied. "Hell is hard enough to deal with when they play by the rules. A Hell run by rampant gods and demons... the idea was frightening enough to scare the Council into approving not only new Helljumpers, but an increase in Valkyrie end-strength and the right of the Division commander to demand conscriptions if needed."

Gwydion took a breath and shook his head. "Is that why they didn't come down harder on them?"

"Elra and Basken?" Lind asked. She sighed. "The time may come, Gwydion sensei, when we'll need every bit of knowledge and experience we can get."

"It's too bad then that we lost Colonel Miranda," he whispered.

"Agreed," Lind replied. "I fear we were much safer with her, rampant though she was, than we are now without her."

"What did the Almighty say?" Gwydion asked. When Lind looked at him, he elaborated. "I mean when you told him about Metheus's plans to overthrow Hild. What did he say?"

Lind looked away. "Two words," she said. "'I know.'"

888

"Welcome to Babies Abound!" the sales girl greeted with a wide smile. "Is there something I can show you today?"

Belldandy smiled and bowed in greeting. Standing behind her in a long overcoat and wide-brimmed hat that did little to conceal his shadowy face, Ssselessmeshala studied the store, searching for threats.

"Hai!" Belldandy told her. "I was here several weeks ago, and I remember seeing an oak crib that was simply lovely!"

The woman's face fell. "I'm very sorry, Miss. We just sold the last one." She pointed down the aisle. "To that woman there."

Belldandy turned and felt her breath catch in her throat. Standing at the end of the aisle, admiring the cribs, was her sister.

"Urd..." she breathed.

Her fingers found the ring that still rode her finger. Gathering her courage, she walked down the aisle.

Sensing her approach, Urd turned and caught the other Norn's gaze. Belldandy didn't shy from it this time.

"Neesan," she began. "About Nyd san..."

"He was a good god," Urd told her, looking down at the crib.

"Hai," Belldandy agreed. "He asked me to tell you... that he would be okay. I know it's not..."

"Belldandy... I forgive you."

"Huh?" The Norn was shocked.

"He wouldn't have wanted me to hold onto my anger," Urd told her. She smiled. "He probably would have said that it dulled my eyes... or something like that." She looked at her sister. "He would have been the first to forgive you."

"Neesan," Belldandy sobbed, rushing forward and embracing the elder goddess. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean for it to happen! I truly didn't!"

"I know," Urd said.

Belldandy gently took the ring from her finger. "I... I found this in his hand," she said, offering it to her amazed sister. "He didn't want to let it go, and... I thought that by holding onto it, it would be a reminder of all I have to atone for. It's yours, isn't it?"

Urd wiped her eyes and nodded. "Oh, Belldandy... You have no idea what this means to me..."

"I'm so sorry, Neesan," Belldandy said again. "That you and he didn't have more time..."

Urd smiled. "We didn't need it," she said. Her hands went to her belly. "In the time we did have, we loved enough for a lifetime."

888

Urd left Babies Abound and found Peorth waiting for her on the sidewalk.

"Did you get what you wanted?" the love goddess asked.

The Norn smiled. "Yeah. Got the crib too. They're going to deliver it."

"Bon!" Peorth said, starting down the sidewalk alongside the other goddess.

"So have you decided how long you're going to stay?" Urd asked her as they strolled.

Peorth shrugged. "With Belldandy down here without her powers and Hild and... well... with Hild still out there, I kind of don't want to leave her alone, you know?"

"I doubt you have to worry about that," Urd told her. "The Grigori has people watching her all the time now. She, Basken and Elra are the only rampants to ever be spared death. They want to see what she'll do now."

Peorth said nothing.

Urd caught the meaning of her silence. "You're afraid he'll come," she said. At Peorth's glare, she went on. "Wynn."

"Metheus," Peorth corrected her. "Wynn died in the Spark."

"Then you've given up on ever..."

"Seeing him again?" Peorth finished. She smiled. "I see him every night."

"Huh?"

Peorth tapped her chest. "In here. There's a piece of him, of Lucky Jack, right here, where he and Gorgeous Rose can be together. Like it should be."

"What will you do now?" Urd asked her.

The other love goddess took a breath. "What I should have done before," she said. "I'll mourn him... and then I'll let him go. I can't go on like I was before. Either he's gone or he's not."

She looked at her friend. "I've made my choice."

Silently, the two friends walked side-by-side toward the temple.

The End

Author's Notes:

Whew! That was close! I was hoping to get this chapter finished before I left, which is now about three days. I want to thank you all for keeping up with this fic. I know it took awhile and you've all been great.

See you in six months.

Sincerely,

Davner

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8

Miranda hit the ground hard and fought for breath. She heard the guards who had dragged her here walk out, the door closing behind them. The Valkyrie blinked disorientation out of her eyes and saw a young girl kneeling over her with a smile.

"Colonel Miranda?"

"Retired," Miranda quipped tiredly.

The girl offered her a glass of water. The Valkyrie had given up her pride after days of the demons beating her just for the fun of it.

She drank.

The girl rose and stepped away. Miranda's eyes tracked her.

"So what's your story?" the Valkyrie asked.

"The torture will stop now," the girl told her. "I'm sure you're happy to hear that."

"Demons don't help others out of the goodness of their hearts," Miranda pointed out. "So I'm not happy about it. Not until I know the punchline."

"We bought your contract," the girl told her seriously.

"Why?" Miranda growled.

"Because we have a use for you," a familiar voice spoke up.

Her head whipped around and saw a familiar figure lighting a cigarette. Metheus knelt next to her and offered it to her, placing it between her lips.

"Corporal," she greeted.

"Colonel," he returned.

He smiled. "You understand that by signing a contract with a demon, you have sworn loyalty to the demon who owns that contract. Now that I've purchased that contract, that means me."

"Good for you," Miranda bit out. "So what do you want from me?"

Metheus smiled and shared a look with Tabitha. "You're a highly-trained, intelligent warrior," he said. "The Inquisition needs highly-trained, intelligent warriors."

"You're offering me a job?" she asked incredulously.

"An important job," Metheus told her. "A job you have years of experience at."

"Which is?"

His grin touched his ears. "A recovery agent is something of a hunter, Colonel," he explained. "Like you. We hunt demons who, for various reasons, need to be eliminated." His voice turned cold. "And there are demons that I need eliminated." He stood up and offered her his hand. "I'm giving you a chance to kill your old enemies, Colonel. Today... is the first day of the rest of your life."

Miranda looked up at him for several moments...

... then reached up and took his hand.