Author's Notes: Thanks for all the reviews thus far, and a special thanks to HotelKatz for an idea which has been incorporated into this chapter. This is a difficult story to write, for a variety of reasons, and so I welcome new ideas from my readers. And I give credit where credit is due. I'm not even sure quite how long the story will wind up being, but I can safely say this is only the beginning.
Hagal smiled joyously. The Daimakaicho hadn't explained herself fully, and she would never need to. It wasn't that she lacked curiosity about her task, but Hagal had come to respect her leader even more deeply since events had been set into motion.
"Commander, it's time." She smiled genially, her skirts flowing about her tiny body. Deception was her chosen virtue, and even the Guard had learned to respect her despite her small, child-like form.
"Good." The Commander of the Guard replied stoically. Whatever grudge he may have held against Hagal for defeating him so easily had fled with the prospect of battle. Eternity without combat was boring, for members of the Guard. This is what they truly lived for. His blade glowed with energy, and for the first time Hagal could remember, the demon actually smiled.
"We won't have long. You need to take the gates before they can respond." Hagal warned.
"For the Daimakaicho!" And the Commander was gone, flying through the portal. The Guard Legion followed him.
Hrungnir floated beside Hagal as the last of the Guard vanished into the portal. "They are almost as dumb as my machines." The puppeteer observed. Machines followed him, ready to serve their master.
"But they will be a useful distraction." Hagal answered. "Is everyone ready?"
"Of course." It was Thrymr, the absurdly strong demon. She clasped her hands together, stretching her arms and cracking her knuckles. "A new challenge!"
"I am ready." Halvalth said, her voice soft and emotionless. The demon of sound didn't seem to care one way or another about the coming conflict, but she would do her part, Hagal knew.
"Hild-sama will be pleased with us." Hagal was cheerful. She didn't enjoy fighting the same way the Guard did, but she wanted the Daimakaicho's approval, and this was her chance to get it.
Time crept along, and Keiichi felt as if it were somehow out of sync with his body. He was worn out, stretched thin, like taffy pulled one too many times. But slowly energy returned to him, and he spent less of his time in that semi-conscious haze. The sounds of Nifelheim were all around him, a strange, unnatural rhythm that his mind struggled to understand.
His first time here had been caught up in the throes of battle, in the strange unreality of the Judgement Gate, and so he had not paid attention to the details of the place. It certainly didn't fit the description of the Christian Hell, or the mythological references in Western history. In fact, he couldn't find a single parallel in his admittedly thin knowledge of ancient religion. It was as if many had known of Nifelheim's existence, but no one had actually seen it for themselves.
Light reflected off the walls, and Keiichi wondered why there seemed to be more of them than was possible. The room seemed completely square, yet he could clearly make out five walls. His mind struggled to make sense of it all. Above all, he was a logical person, mechanically minded. Things had to add up, they had to make sense, and this place tested the limits of what his mind could wrap itself around. Sigils glowed in the floor of the expansive bedroom, bright orange symbols written in the divine language flowing around in circles.
That, at least, was familiar. Hild was returning. Where she went, or what she did when she wasn't with him, Keiichi couldn't say. But at least she relieved his perpetual, seemingly timeless, boredom.
"Hild." Keiichi's voice betrayed neither pleasure nor terror at the prospect of her visit.
"You're growing stronger." Hild's robes flowed about her form, as if they were as much a part of her as her skin.
"I guess." Keiichi shrugged.
"You are." A friendly smile crossed Hild's features, and she sauntered over to him, actually sitting next to him on the bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. Normally the demon preferred to hover, as if sitting on some imaginary chair.
"Any chance you'll let me out of here?" It wasn't as if Keiichi was hopeful at the prospect, but it had become something of an obligatory question each time the Daimakaicho came to see him. And, of course, she would smile and explain how the time wasn't right, and how demons had prices for everything. It was a dance they had done many times before.
The Daimakaicho nodded. "Actually, today, I thought we could go to Earth for awhile."
It was the immediate thought that came to him. But if it sounded too good to be true with Hild, it probably was.
The demon continued. "You need some fresh air. You need to clear your head."
"Can we see Belldandy and..."
"Of course not." Hild smiled again. "We still have to come to our arrangements. But I'd like to spend some time alone with you. Call it a date. Just the two of us." Her arm was around him, and Keiichi knew he was in trouble.
"So where are we going then?" At least he'd be getting out of this room for awhile.
"Opposite side of the world. We can't be having any Goddesses dropping in, of course. You know, your friend Velsper has a liking for Germany so I thought we'd go there." The Daimakaicho cocked her head slightly. "And didn't you take German lessons at Nekomi?"
"I was never very good at it." Keiichi grumbled. "So you're going to take me to a country where everyone will be taller than I am. Thanks." Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
"You'll find being with the Daimakaicho has its privileges." Keiichi struggled not to look at the demon's chest, her bosom threatening to pop out of its enclosure at any moment.
Her fingers snapped, and the portal opened again, drawing them both through. Reality bent and twisted in his mind, and suddenly he was beneath open sky again, the sun shining down on him, in a country he had never set foot in before.
Hild's arm was entwined with his, and she led him down the sidewalk, covered in quaint buildings and bizarre architecture. Her provocative outfit drew the admiring stares of passers-by, and more than a few envious looks in his direction.
"Where are we, exactly?" He wondered.
"Cologne. Interesting place, I once granted a wish to a young French officer not far from here. He wanted to conquer a few countries." Hild explained conversationally as they walked.
"What happened to him?" Keiichi was, admittedly, a little fuzzy on European history. It wasn't a subject he had ever concerned himself with.
"He conquered for awhile, like I promised him." She laughed. "But he wanted more, wanted to conquer the rest of the world. His payment wasn't high enough for that."
"Yes, Keiichi?" She stopped, turning her eyes to him. Her expression was happy, even somewhat concerned. It almost reminded him of Belldandy, which it was undoubtedly designed to do.
"Why are you doing this? You never wanted me."
She regarded him curiously and her expression shifted. For a moment, Keiichi saw the true personality, the real Hild, buried under deep layers of masks. "You're wrong. I did want you. Of all the mortals walking on this world, you are the most interesting."
Keiichi thought about this for awhile, heedless of the passers-by. Hild's eyes narrowed, and she reached within her swirling robes.
"Cigarette?" She offered.
"I don't smoke." Still, it was tempting. It had been years since he last smoked, ever since he met Belldandy. In fact, that had been one of the first changes he made when he met the Goddess. It just didn't seem right to have such a filthy habit around a being as pure as she was.
"But you did, once. Didn't you?" Hild pulled out a cigarette and put it in her mouth. Her finger glowed red-hot for a moment, flame summoned out of nothingness, and lit it. She took a long, delicious pull, a cloud of smoke wafting around her. He made the mistake of looking into her eyes, and he saw the orange flow of the cigarette reflected in them.
"Yeah, I did." He admitted.
"Do you see what I mean? You were purified, Keiichi. For the sake of your wish. You wished to have a Goddess like her by your side forever. Do you think someone like, say... me, could ever make a wish like that?" Tobacco smoke surrounded her, and he tasted the familiar desire.
"No. They only give wishes to the pure of heart." Keiichi challenged.
The cigarette nearly fell out of Hild's mouth, as she laughed. "Heh. It's all relative, Keiichi." She pointed to a tall German man walking down the street in an expensive-looking business suit. "That man over there cheated on his wife. But he got a wish, like you did. Now he's running a large corporation in this part of the world."
"I don't get it."
"Heaven picks the 'most pure' of mankind to grant wishes to, true. But you might as well say 'least bad' of mankind. All men are flawed. Goddesses are too, they just don't admit it." Hild offered the cigarettes to him again. "Last chance." The familiar smell had triggered an urge he thought he had suppressed. He did want a cigarette.
"Fine." He said, selecting a stick and placing it in his mouth. "Light?"
Hild smiled and obliged him, her finger tip touching the end of the cigarette. Her hand was dangerously close to his face, and he could feel the warmth of her. She seemed to know this, and for a moment he thought she would try to touch him. But she lit the cigarette and withdrew her hand. The comforting familiarity of the tobacco calmed his nerves. Yet he was still glad Belldandy couldn't see him like this. He felt a stab of guilt at that. This was definitely a guilty pleasure. It had been even before he met her.
Hild was either reading his mind, or was just incredibly perceptive. "Why feel guilt over your pleasures?"
"Sometimes you want to be more than you are." He answered.
"I don't." The demon replied.
"You're a liar."
A familiar BMW motorcycle passed by him, hauntingly similar to his own bike, and he realized he really was in Germany. If Goddesses and Demons could simply transport themselves to any part of the world, why had he stayed in Nekomi all the time? Why had he not gone and seen the world with Belldandy? Another cloud of tobacco smoke enveloped him, and he felt strangely peaceful.
"So, how about a beer, Keiichi?" Hild's arm was in his again, and they rounded a corner, conveniently next to a Kolsch brewery. "Alcohol is one of my favorite Earthly delights. I understand Urd loves it so much."
He allowed himself to be led, for the moment, feeling powerless to stop her. Who knew what the Daimakaicho might do if he resisted. There had to be a way out of this situation without giving her whatever it is she wanted. They sat down outside the brewery and a server came up to them.
He was shocked to discover he could understand her completely, much more than his pitiful amount of German should have allowed. Hild winked at him, obviously she had something to do with that. He ordered beers for them both, and the server vanished and reappeared with the tall beer glasses.
"I just realized, I have no money. Don't even have any yen on me, much less any euros." Keiichi smiled nervously. He had been transported the other side of the world by a demon who wanted to seduce him, and all he could think about was how there was no way he could pay for a beer.
"I think you're mistaken." The demon ran a finger down her cleavage, reaching inside and producing a fistful of the multi-colored currency. "Have you noticed a change in yourself?"
The demon peeled back the edge of her dress, exposing more of her breast, and Keiichi watched, enraptured by the sight.
"You didn't look away, or run away in fear. Don't you usually do that any time Belldandy accidentally shows you a little... something extra? Or even my daughter, doing it on purpose." Hild winked at him. Keiichi thought about that for a moment. Things had been strange since passing through the Judgment Gate. His desires had been unsealed, but yet there was something to what the demon was saying. Before he ever met Belldandy, he had been shy, unsure of himself, and completely hopeless around women. Now he was sipping beers with the most attractive woman anywhere he could see, and she was practically flashing him. It didn't even faze him.
"You've been through a lot of adventures." Hild placed her head in her hands and a look of lust crossed her features. "You even came to Hell to help me, which was sweet by the way, even if you were doing it for Belldandy. You've got self-confidence now, strength that you didn't have back then. But Belldandy prefers the shy Keiichi, the one who looks away in shame at a body like this."
"No. No, I've heard enough Hild. Belldandy isn't like that. If I'm missing a part of me, it's because you took it away." He was angry now, and he puffed the cigarette down to the nub. He wasn't on some date, he was being actively seduced by a demon. "That's what you do, you lie, you try to seduce me, and you want to use me for some purpose."
"True." Hild admitted. "I lie, I want to seduce you, and I have a reason for wanting to." She put out her cigarette and leaned over the table, close enough that he could feel her breath on his skin. The Daimakaicho was hypnotizing, her entire presence was a temptation, and she knew it. "What's wrong with that? You don't think Belldandy has reasons for wanting... the other you? She wants to seduce you, too, though she won't admit it."
"She doesn't lie." Keiichi managed. Beer seemed to flow endlessly here, the server coming by and replacing his empty glass with another, without even a word.
"But she doesn't tell you things she doesn't want you to know." Hild shrugged. "Not much difference, Keiichi."
"She also doesn't use some artifact to split me in two!" He felt like they were just rehashing the same subject, over and over again.
The demon offered him another cigarette, as if to calm him, and he grudgingly accepted. She leaned in close, her lips close to his own, lighting the stick with her breath. She whispered sensuously.
"I love you, Keiichi." It was barely audible. If he had heard words like that from a woman like her before meeting Belldandy... Of course she had to be lying, that was Hild's way. She had said words like that to others, casting doubt in their minds. The Daimakaicho was dangerous precisely because of her ability to manipulate feelings. He was a means to an end, nothing more.
She seemed to read his thoughts again. "Why can't you be both? I will tell you my price for letting you go." She leaned back in her chair, and took a long drag from her own cigarette. "I want you to give me a child."
Keiichi nearly choked on his beer. "What?!"
"That's right. You have no idea how lonely it can be in Hell. Your immortal counterpart will learn how boring eternity can be sometimes. I want a family." The demon finished her beer, placing the coaster on top of it. That, apparently, was the signal for the server to stop bringing them to her. "But it isn't as easy as just sex, Keiichi. Your spirit has to want the child, too. It's more spiritual than physical, for demons and gods."
"So that's why you don't just cast a spell on me." He scratched his chin in thought.
"It's all I ask for. After that, you can stay, or go back to Belldandy. Whatever you wish for. I'd ask you to consider staying with me, but it would be your choice."
He didn't even know what to say to that, and so he turned away in silence. Belldandy would forgive him if he did this thing, he knew. But that didn't make it okay, did it? And despite everything Hild had said, there had to be a deeper reason for this. He highly doubted the demon had just woken up one day with baby fever. No, there was a calculation in this somewhere, there had to be.
Hild paid for the beers, which Keiichi found odd in itself, and gestured for them to walk again. The sun was starting to set, and she led them to a park at the edge of the Rhine river. It must have been a local couples hangout, for there were many couples sitting on benches, watching the orange sparkles reflecting off the water.
"You're special, Keiichi." She said, not even really looking at him. "But not because you're so pure and innocent."
"I'm not listening." He turned away, trying to tune her out.
"You're clever and adaptable. You've seen enough to drive most mortals insane, and yet you're here, now, with me. Most mortals would be frightened out of their skin around me, after seeing what you've seen. Even a demon can appreciate that." Keiichi tried not to look at her, but it was difficult. There was emotion in her voice, she knew what she was doing. Her arm slid lower, and her hand brushed his, deliberately, he was certain.
"You want to use me or the child to trade for Urd, right?" Keiichi asked.
"Not exactly." Hild replied, sitting down on a bench and gesturing next to her. Keiichi remained standing.
"Why do you want her back so badly? What happened?"
"It's a long story." Hild's mask fell away again, and he suspected he was talking to the real Hild, supposing such a being actually existed underneath all of that. But he had seen that wistfulness once before, right before entering the Judgment gate. Underneath the haughty, flirty demon leader, there was a terribly wounded creature. But like so many aspects of her personality, it had been compartmentalized, filed away in some mental pigeonhole and hidden from prying eyes.
She indulged him anyway. "The Almighty and I went through that Judgment gate too. After Urd had been conceived. We were separated, and I raised Urd alone until he decided to take her away, too."
"You didn't love him?"
Anger seethed within the demon, suddenly, and Keiichi could almost see the emotions roiling within. "I loved him. And he loved me. I just had other motives, too. We all do. And it was his own gate, too. Self-righteous God deciding he wants to test our own love with some contrived gate in the name of realm purity. Only He does things like that, you know. I hate Him for that." She paused and looked at him, a flustered expression on her face. So he had gotten to her after all. It was a rare being, mortal or divine, that got the better of Hild. "I will take you back to Nifelheim now."
"No." Keiichi protested, sitting next to her, but keeping his distance. For a moment, he actually felt bad for the demon. He could hear the pain in her voice when she talked about the Almighty and her daughter. Maybe a part of her really did just want a family, to be loved, no different than any human did. "At least stay until the sun has set. I won't get to see that down there."
Hild turned to face him, a confused expression on her face. "So tell me. Would you have wished for me if I came through your mirror that day?"
"I don't know." He admitted. The sun dipped below the horizon, the twin peaks of an ancient cathedral cutting the sky in two.
"It's hopeless." Mara said simply. "You need three demons to open a portal to Nifelheim. We have two. And what's worse, it looks like the portal is stronger than it was before."
They had been trying all day, and even the energy summoned by Mara and Velsper had proven to be useless against the portal outside the temple. They all knew where it was, the entrance to Nifelheim, but it was impossible to budge against Hild's will without at least three demons. They only had two, if those two even counted anymore after the release.
"I could do it." Urd stated flatly. And she knew she could, half of her remained demonic, and she could sense that energy just below the surface of her thoughts. It was the same energy that flowed through her mother's veins. That part of her urged her to try it, to let loose her true self. But she couldn't let that happen. Down in Nifelheim she had almost lost herself, had come so close to allowing her own sister to die. No, she couldn't trust herself with that power. Unlike her mother, she had no control over it, no mastery of that energy. It had flowed violently into her thoughts, driving her mad. Urd might have greater power as a demon, but she had even less control than she did as a Goddess. Still, that part of her remained. That tinge of madness, that contrast between light and dark was who she was.
"No, Neesan." Belldandy protested. "You can't. If you succumb, you'll just be giving her what she wants."
And Urd knew she was right. It didn't make it any easier to accept. "We may have to bargain for him."
"You know what she wants, Urd." Mara replied.
"And we can't let you do it." Velsper agreed. "It would hurt Belldandy."
Urd cast a sideways glare at the former cat. "Thanks for caring about me."
"You're welcome." The demon answered, smiling. Urd couldn't tell if he was being serious, or if he was just that stupid. The Goddess didn't have a high opinion of Velsper's intelligence, anyone who thought manipulating the entire universe to retain forbidden doublet memories obviously possessed questionable judgment.
"We could always pretend to bargain with her." Mara began. "Then seal her. Wouldn't that feel good."
Urd frowned. "Who here is strong enough to do that? All of us together couldn't do that. And besides, you want to leave that idiot Hagal in charge of Nifelheim? She'd keep Keiichi down there forever just because she thought it was funny. Come on Mara, don't be stupid."
"What about the Almighty, then?" Skuld asked. "Maybe we can get Father to help."
Even Belldandy looked skeptical on that count, however. Generally, the Almighty let things play out as they would, only intervening in the most critical areas. But he had done a special favor for Keiichi, there was a small chance.
"It'd have to be from you, Bell." And that was truth, Urd knew. Of his three daughters, Belldandy was the kindest and most responsible. In other words, she was the least likely to call up Father whining about some trouble she got herself into. He would be forced to take her seriously. Urd knew neither she nor Skuld could claim that.
Keiichi sat on the stairs, watching the action with a distracted look on his face, as if he didn't know what he should be doing. He was neither God, nor mortal, not anymore. Questions rolled around in his mind, for he loved Belldandy, and hated seeing her suffer like this. But there was literally nothing he could do to help.
As the group walked back the temple, he trudged along, lost in thought. MotorHead was no help, either, the angel seemed just as lost as he was. With nothing else to do, he followed Belldandy into the temple and waited to hear what the Almighty would say. He only caught her half of the conversation, but it was enough.
"Father yes... please, we can't get through the portal and... she's done what?! So you can't... what about Lind and the Valkyries? ...Oh. I'm sorry."
All eyes were on Belldandy as she hung up the phone. "Hild has attacked Heaven's gates. That's why the portals are so hard to break open right now. Heaven's resources are devoted to countering her attacks."
Urd was shaking her head, and Skuld had stomped the floor in frustration.
"It's my fault for agreeing to help her get her throne back." Belldandy's face was downcast.
"Don't give me that, sis." Anger seeped into Urd's voice. "Hagal was worse, we did what we had to do."
"Yeah, it's not your fault." Skuld agreed. "We all helped, anyway. It's her fault. Maybe I should build another proton bomb and use it on her."
"Skuld, that's not very nice." Belldandy chastised.
"She violated Keiichi and attacked Heaven, big sis. We don't have to be nice to her, and I won't! And neither should you! Look at how bad she made you feel."
"Hate to say it, but the brat has a point." Urd agreed. "We're going to have to fight her. Somehow. And when Hild was kissing the... other Keiichi you didn't seem very peaceful about it then, so..."
Keiichi was horrified. Belldandy's hidden jealousy was a terrifying force, and Urd had just reminded Bell of something that had nearly triggered a typhoon. Leave it to Urd to say something stupid at a time like this, he thought. A blank expression crossed his Goddess's features for a moment and her aura darkened visibly.
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly, and the terrible aura began to fade away. Strength had returned to him, finally. In the days since his transformation, he had been weak, tired and confused, like his body wasn't his own. But he had improved since then, feeling himself and his jumbled memories again. It was as if someone had taken all the pieces of his mind and strewn them about, letting the chips fall where they may.
Of course, that was probably exactly what Hild had done to him.
She can't take our soul. MotorHead offered.
"I suppose not." He said aloud.
"What?" Belldandy asked.
"Nothing. Just talking to myself." Keiichi replied. "I have to get ready for work. Life doesn't stop just because a demon decides to screw around with my head."
"Hai. I'll go with you." His Goddess smiled at him, the rage forgotten again. Sometimes it was frightening how quickly Belldandy's moods could shift. But beneath it all, she was the most beautiful, kind being he had ever known. She wasn't perfect, despite his initial opinion of her, but if anything that made her all the more real to him.
Working sounded terribly mundane next to recent events, but there was something to that too. He needed time to think and figure things out. And at least MotorHead would finally get to work on bikes, something the tiny angel had been rather enthusiastic about for some time.
It'll get your mind off things, too. MotorHead offered.
Not sure I want my mind off this. It's hitting Bell harder than it's hitting me. He answered in his mind, careful not to vocalize it.
"You people are so stupid sometimes." Mara said acidly, interrupting his thoughts. Obviously her swearing allegiance to the Almighty had done nothing for her prickly personality. "I mean really, it's obvious to anyone with a working brain."
Urd and Keiichi faced the former demon and spoke in unison. "What?"
"If Hild is stirring up trouble with Heaven, well there must be dozens of demons roaming the Earth." Mara's arms flew wide. "So we go capture some of them and make them open the portal for us."
"That's actually not a bad idea." Urd looked at the former demon with new-found respect, and floated next to her. "We'd need bait to draw them out. You know, someone who looks really weak, but has enough purity to attract attention and make a tempting target."
All eyes fell on Keiichi. Belldandy's gaze was concerned but everyone else had a decidedly predatory expression on their faces.
"Oh no, not after all this..." Keiichi groaned.
Lind lived for combat. It wasn't that she enjoyed fighting, it was simply that it was her purpose, her reason for being. There was fulfillment in it, a strange sort of satisfaction at being useful, even if she despised the actual act. Her polearm shifted about, the energy contained within parrying the demon's attack. Her angels were about her, protecting her back from a second demon who had materialized from the void between realms.
All around her, in the timeless expanse at the gates of Heaven, the battle raged. There hadn't been an assault like this in eons, since long before her training days. Things had changed in the demon realm, she knew. Hild was reinvigorated somehow, testing the balance of power between Heaven and Hell again.
But none of that mattered. All that mattered was the fight, the conflict. Fire cascaded around her as the demon cast a spell that threatened to break her defenses. Cool Mint replied, a barrier of cold annihilating the inferno, restoring the thermodynamic balance.
For a moment, the demon was caught off guard. He had extended his attack too far, used up too much of his energy, and his own barrier flickered. Lind brought the mighty polearm down, shattering the barrier into shards of shimmering energy. The demon fell to one knee, exhausted. A vicious attack by the demon's partner was barely parried in time, and even then, only with Spear Mint's help. The one-winged angel had a determined look upon her face as she held back the attacker with her own barrier. She would hold. Lind reached out, her power shifting into a sealing spell, and the weakened demon was bound to the rock upon which he had fallen, locked away. Her other attacker, suddenly assessing the diminished odds, retreated back through the gate which he had forced.
"Lind. Our counterattack has pushed them back beyond the main gate. But we can't hold them there." It was Peorth, and the very fact that she was involved in this conflict spoke to the seriousness of it. Peorth didn't hold a Valkyrie license, she was a wish-granter, so she had probably been tapped as part of a reserve force.
"How many did we lose." Lind asked simply. All around her the remaining demons were retreating. Heaven had been saved, though that outcome had hardly been in doubt. Overrunning Heaven was impossible for them. But in the process, the demons had trashed the gate system pretty thoroughly, which seemed to have been their true goal.
"Fifteen of ours have been sealed. We've sealed twenty-one of theirs." Peorth reported. Well that was good news, at least. Usually in these sorts of conflicts, trades would be made, and having more imprisoned on their side would come in handy when the negotiations were made. But that wasn't her job, she was here to scour Heaven's gates of demons.
"We need to push them out of the gate network." Lind said simply.
"How? Hagal is leading the attack personally. Most of our losses were suffered fighting her and her lieutenants." Peorth sounded frazzled, but then that was to be expected. She wasn't a combat specialist, this wasn't her arena.
"Leave it to me." Lind answered, lifting her polearm and rallying the Valkyries nearby. Everyone in Heaven knew what Hild had done to Keiichi, and whatever else she wanted to do, she wanted to help her friend. Cool Mint and Spear Mint nodded in agreement. The main gate would have to be retaken.