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Part Five: Inchoatus Ludus

An Oh, My Goddess story
By Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ah! Megami-sama Kousuke Fujishima, Kodansha, AIC, Animeigo, Studio Proteus, and Dark Horse Comics.

Notes: It's an alt, as should become apparent shortly, since I've read most of the U.S. manga, seen some of the OAVs, and not watched the movie.

I am so hung-over it's not even funny. I hope I was supposed to post this today.

Keiichi staggered to a halt, blinking blearily. What had happened? His hands were blackened with grease, and pocked with shallow gouges. His jeans were worn through at the knees, and the pain there told him that he had likely hurt himself somehow.

Yet… he couldn't remember. Why, he asked himself, was the world such a scary and unfriendly place? His hands stung, the grease… motor oil? The thick black substance. It was seeping into the cuts on his hands, burning slowly. Whimpering, he looked around. Where was he?

He recognized the street, and smiled gratefully. "I'm not far from home." He managed exactly three steps before a sharp stab of pain in his ankle made him limp, and he hissed, working his way ever closer to the house.

When he got there, Banpei blocked his path, shaking his robotic head, and offering his impassive smile. "Hello?" Keiichi called weakly. "Anyone?"

In a disorienting rush, he reached towards the robot, and it stepped backwards, shutting down. His hand fell to his side, his memory of the incident fading… Why was Banpei outside and shut down?

He glanced at the sky briefly, darkening with the sunset, but more with the promise of rain. What had he been thinking about?

After a moment, Skuld appeared, breaking him out of his reverie, and freezing when she took in his appearance. "Keiichi?" she squeaked. "What happened to you?"

He looked at his hands, and shook his head. "I don't remember."

Skuld grimaced, and frowned at Banpei. "Sorry," she explained, pulling the robot to one side, "but I think… one of his capacitors burned out, and he thinks you're…" trailing off, she blinked, and shook her head. "I'll look at him later." The girl paused, staring at Banpei in consternation. "How did that happen? I thought…" trailing off, the goddess shook her head. "Time enough to worry about that later."

He nodded, climbing the steps, and eyeing the robot suspiciously. Dismissing it for the moment, he strode into the house, trailed by Skuld, and met Belldandy and Urd inside, conversing with someone else in low tones.

Drawing to a halt, he studied her, recognizing… "Megumi?" he asked, stunned by her facial markings. She looked like… a goddess. "What's going on?" The last thing he could remember, he was riding… he had picked out a ring, and was riding home. What had happened?

Belldandy was on her feet in the instant he spoke, eyes wide with worry. "Keiichi?" she asked. "Are you okay? What happened?"

He shrugged worriedly, dismissing his sister for the moment, and not wanting to touch Belldandy with his blackened and bloody hands. "I… I'm sorry. I can't remember."

Belldandy nodded solemnly. "I'm going to replay your memories, Keiichi. Is that okay?"

He returned the nod, remembering her mentioning that she had done that once before, long ago. Closing her eyes, she touched her forehead to his, and he was momentarily blinded by a surge of memory. "Accident?" he asked numbly, as Belldandy drew away. "I crashed?" He stared at his hands. "I guess that explains it…" But then… why had he abandoned his bike?

Urd raised an eyebrow suspiciously, after conferring with Skuld. Nodding, the eldest approached Keiichi, saying, "Let me try." He shrugged, and Urd placed one hand on his face, frowning intently. The surge of memory repeated again, more weakly this time. The goddess blinked, and the memory replayed a third time, before dissolving into a different memory, this one not of pavement and flames, but soft curves and—

They drew apart, Keiichi collapsing to the floor, eyes wide in shock, and Urd simply staring, jaw agape. Gathering her wits, Urd's hands clenched into fists. "I'll kill her," she stated, "that's all there is to it — I'll kill her!"

The three remaining women stared in confusion, while Keiichi slowly brought his hands to his head. "It… I… How…" but as much as he remembered what he had done with the demoness… "Why?" He couldn't find an answer.

Skuld frowned, peering at Keiichi, on the verge of sobbing as he sat on his knees, eyes wide but unseeing, and Urd, simply shaking her head back and forth and shuddering in rage. "What happened?" Skuld asked. Keiichi didn't look hurt badly… at least not in a way that couldn't be fixed.

Belldandy stood near Megumi, who had approached to see what the trouble was about — and because mortal or not, Keiichi was her brother, Skuld supposed. Which still meant that Keiichi could be the Lady's brother, she realized.

Banpei had detected Keiichi as a demon earlier, before it had failed. Had it failed, and then mis-detected him, or… "Wait a minute!" she cried out, pointing a finger at Keiichi. "Why did Banpei think you were a demon?"

Urd calmed herself, and shook her head quickly. "It's not like that," she muttered. "He'll stop showing up like that after he's been away from Mara for a few days. It's just a side-effect."

Skuld frowned, confused. What had that kind of side effect? "I don't get it," she grumbled, pouting as Belldandy reached down to gently touch the quivering Keiichi's head.

There was a momentary, yet subtle, surge of power, and then the goddess stood straight up, managing to say only, "Oh, my!" before she collapsed, limp, and had to be caught by Urd.

Lowering her unconscious sister gently, Urd muttered, "It's not your fault, Keiichi. Go take a bath. We'll… we'll sort this out somehow."

Collecting himself enough to nod weakly, though still seeming confused, Keiichi wandered towards the washroom, leaving Skuld and Megumi to stare at each other in confusion.

Keiichi sighed, thankful for the temple's furo. It was, at least, some comfort to him, in the light of…

He shuddered, remembering.

How? How could he have done… that?

He shuddered again, splashing himself with cold water from the wash-bucket. Worse, was the betrayal that… as little as he wanted to admit it… he had enjoyed it. He clenched his eyes shut, shaking his head. "How?" he asked, confused.

Remembering that Mara was cute was simple. She was cute. But enough for him to simply abandon Belldandy? Not that cute. No one was.

And still, somewhere, some part of him… was glad that it had happened. And that part frightened him most of all.

Urd restrained herself forcibly, remembering to respect the Lady — and that the doublet system made destroying Mara a bad idea… Beat her within an inch of her life, then.

Megumi seemed distant, though she couldn't know the specifics yet. The vagaries, perhaps… and that might be enough. "Is my bro…" she caught herself, shaking her head for a moment as the two personalities continued to mesh. "Is Keiichi okay? And Belldandy?"

Sighing, Urd shook her head. "He'll be fine," she mumbled. "Just… needs some time to recover." Her thoughts turned to Belldandy, who had recovered shortly after Keiichi left and immediately busied herself in the kitchen. As if summoned, she returned, seemingly composed, bearing a tray of teacups and a small kettle of tea.

She smiled brightly at Urd, offering a cup of tea, which the eldest of the three sisters accepted, wondering what to say. That Belldandy would forgive it, she had no doubt. Keiichi had obviously been spelled when Mara had…

Cutting that line of thought short, she cleared her throat. "What happened to Keiichi was probably just to throw us off… if the Lady's awake, then so is her brother. He's probably searching for the Once and Future King before we can."

Megumi nodded knowingly. "This is too true — ever he would…" she struggled for a moment, one mode of speech wrestling with another. "You're right. He would do that. I'm… We should find the Once and Future King, and then decide what we need to do from there."

At a questioning look from Belldandy, Megumi added, "It's not that I have no concern for Keiichi, it's just… we have little time to act. I'm sorry…"

Belldandy shook her head, saying, "It's not a problem. I… I need to speak with Keiichi…" She rose, bowing slightly to Megumi again, and disappeared down the hall, gathering up the completed scarf in passing.

Pocketing the scarf carefully, Belldandy made a note to present it to Keiichi soon. Leaving it in her pocket would make it seem as though she had allowed her affection to Keiichi to waver, and it hadn't, so she didn't want to let him think it had.

Sighing thoughtfully, she paused before the door to the furo. Keiichi… She pushed the memories of he and Mara away, dismissing them as unimportant. She only needed to wait a moment before Keiichi opened the door, his eyes widening at Belldandy's presence. "Um…" he began, nervously, his eyes searching about wildly, unable to remain on her. Clad only in his jeans, his hair still wet, he cast about, mumbling, "I'm sorry…"

"Keiichi?" she asked, wondering how much things between them had fallen apart.

"Er…" He dropped his head, intent on inspecting his toes. "Yes, Belldandy?"

She smiled. At least he hadn't tried to call her anything less personal. "Keiichi, I wanted to tell you… tell you that I trust you."


"I know… I know what happened. And… it's okay, Keiichi. I trust you, and more importantly… Keiichi?"

He looked up at the questioning tone in her voice, flinching when he met her eyes. "Yes?" he managed, not looking away.

Belldandy gently clasped his hands, trying to project all of the affection she could to him, and he relaxed very slightly. "I love you, Keiichi." He blinked, mouth opening silently, but she shook her head, silencing him. "I will always love you, Keiichi. For now, and forever." Still not giving him time to speak, she leaned forward, and very gently placed a kiss on his forehead. "Always remember that."

She released his hands and stepped back, her smile widening as her own gaze dropped to the floor, and she faintly blushed. "Keiichi… Keiichi is wonderful to me."

He stared at her blankly for a moment, seemingly in shock, before he found the impetus to move again, and fumbled briefly in one pocket. "Um," he mumbled, "I… Belldandy? I know that, well, this isn't really the time for it, but I need to ask you, and if I don't do it now, I… I…" He trailed off, shaking nervously, and withdrew a hand from his pocket, clenched tightly.

Sinking to his knees, he held his fist out before him, head bowed. "Bell… Belldandy, will you marry me?"

She clasped his fist in her hand, and he released his grip, a simple gold band falling into her hand. "Oh!" she breathed, flustered. Maybe things wouldn't need to be patched up that much. "Of course, Keiichi!"

He raised his head, his eyes meeting hers, and he smiled. "I… I… I love… I love you too, Bell-chan."

She shook her head in wonder, inspecting the band as she slipped it on. It fit perfectly. "Where did you get this?" she asked, not remembering him gathering it from her memories of the events she had recovered from his mind.

"Oh," he chuckled, climbing to his feet again. "I, ah… grabbed that earlier today, you know…"

She glanced to one side, seeing the younger of her elder sisters return, Keiichi in tow.

Skuld smiled happily, remembering only after a moment to hide her smile. She whispered to Urd, while Megumi concentrated, sifting through her older memories still, "Urd! See? He can't do anything to us — and what he tries, just brings us closer together!"

Urd stared at her for a moment, then raised an eyebrow and glanced at Belldandy and Keiichi, holding hands nervously. There was a glint of metal from Belldandy's hand, and all of Urd's attention was swept from Skuld's odd behavior. Never mind that her youngest sister was not actively interfering, Belldandy and Keiichi… "Oh," she murmured back to Skuld, hoping that the announcement could wait until after they had managed to resolve their current situation, "that's very true, Skuld. That's very, very true."

Megumi glanced at Belldandy, then studied Keiichi more thoroughly. "Are you okay, Keiichi?"

"I've been better," he said after a moment, though only after a reassuring squeeze of Belldandy's hand, he amended, "but not much. What's going on? Why are you dressed like that, and what's with the marks on your face?"

Nodding, Megumi explained, "It's a very long story, Keiichi… one that I don't have time to explain completely, right now. I, and my servants, must locate someone. The way is hidden, and couched in riddles… we need to find him before I will have enough time to explain."

Keiichi grinned boldly, releasing Belldandy's hand and cocking his head to one side. "Need my help?"

Megumi nodded solemnly, and Urd sighed in relief at Keiichi's easy acceptance of the situation. "Yes," Megumi explained slowly, "we don't know his name, though there's normally a pattern in these. I am going to try and access Yggdrasil, and locate a pointer to him."

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and a soft glow formed about her. After a moment, she spoke, though the voice was no longer wholly Megumi's, "There lives a boy, and he is the recipient of both a Fate and a Destiny… Fated to change the world, Destined to die. His name is as in the days of Caliburn, though the blade will bear a new name in this age. His home is on the sea, in a place of protection and assistance for generations." She opened her eyes, quirking her lips in a smile. "That was easy… now we simply have to decipher the riddle."

Keiichi blinked, he and Belldandy taking seats at the table to consider things, Keiichi sitting between Megumi and Belldandy. "Uh… well," he began, tapping his chin thoughtfully, "what's 'Caliburn'?"

Megumi frowned, shrugging, "That's simple. Caliburn is another name for Excaliber, the sword of King Arthur Pendragon."

"Pen…" Keiichi seemed to wrestle with that for a moment. "Okay, okay… The movie we watched last night, right?"

"In a small sense… yes."

Sighing, Keiichi shook his head. "Okay, well, I don't get the rest of it… but I think I get the other part. The city on the sea — that's Sasebo, right?"

All four women blinked at that, staring at Keiichi. Megumi found her voice first, "How… why do you say that?"

Keiichi grinned, waving his hand dismissively. "It's nothing," he explained, "just that the kanji for 'protection', 'assistance', and 'generation' can spell out Sasebo, and it's a port city. Doesn't that put it on the ocean?" At their stares, he shrugged defensively, "I did a report on it a few years ago, in high school…"

The women shared a glance, then a mutual nod. "That's where we need to go," pronounced Skuld.

Megumi rose. "We should be departing soon, then. The name will have to be puzzled out when we get there."

Keiichi blinked, shaking his head. "Wait, Sasebo? That's going to take a while to get there, I mean…"

He trailed off at a shaking of Megumi's head. "It is… not likely to be safe for you there, Keiichi. We will go without you."

"But, what if something happens?" he protested.

The women shared a nervous glance, and shook their heads in unison. "You're much better off here," Urd assured him. "We can't be hurt, but… you can."

He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned darkly. "Fine," he grumbled.

Holding hands in a circle with the other women, Megumi put Keiichi out of her mind. He was not Fated or Destined that she knew of, and couldn't possibly be worth Destiny's time to conceal… he would be in no danger as long as he stayed within the temple.

The three sisters united their wills, and in a flash of light, were elsewhere. The king's Fate was tenuous — giving him the sword might not be enough. Destiny would attempt to thwart them at costs.

Megumi lowered her hands, the goddesses doing the same, and studied her surroundings. Below her, Sasebo was spread out, the last vestiges of sunlight fading from the sky as the stars emerged.

Keiichi smiled slightly, his back to the women as he left the room, walking into the temple's back yard. "So sorry," he said softly, feeling them depart, "that you couldn't rest longer. Mara, come."

In a flash of darkness, she was summoned, and standing at his side, looking at the temple behind him warily. "Master?" she asked worriedly. "Is something wrong?"

He shook his head. "No, but they will have felt you being summoned. They will sense my next move as well… Mara, I wish you to go to Sasebo and make certain that you are prepared for their arrival. When the time comes, I will lend you my power for a seal."

Mara nodded, and Keiichi reached out a hand, gently stroking the side of her face. "I will have completely subsumed this form's persona soon. When that happens, I can no longer hide within and forge his memories."

Leaning into his touch, Mara sighed, "Will it last long enough?"

Merely grinning, Keiichi commented, "It had better. They rush themselves, not realizing that they lend me clues… Tell me, Mara, what would the name of 'five dragons' be in this age?"

Mara blinked, considering. "Tatsugo? Fifth dragon?"

Keiichi raised an eyebrow. "Or Pendragon, in an older tongue. Yes, that sounds correct. There should be another clue first, though. Another name?"

Furrowing her eyebrows, Mara searched, her programs delving deep into the abyss to scan through the records her kind held there. They were all open to her, now that Destiny was back. "There's… a Tatsugo Sannosuke in Sasebo… and he has a friend named Mizuumino Choji."

"Well, well…" Keiichi's grin widened. "Choji, hmm? I think that Sannosuke is the King, and unless I miss my mark, Mizuumino would be his Lancelot. Excellent."

Mara nodded, focusing more on Keiichi than either of the names. "You… want me to go to Sasebo now?"

Keiichi nodded. "Indeed. I will go with you. Don't worry about the boy, just… my sister and her servants. You will know what to do and when to do it."

She nodded dutifully, stealing one last kiss from her master before departing.

Sannosuke paused in the middle of the road, one hand instinctively going to his bokken. At his side, Choji did the same, each of them scanning in a different direction.

"Something feels… wrong," Choji said softly.

Sannosuke nodded. "I know what you mean," he responded. "I keep getting this feeling…"

Both of them turned to face the end of the road, suddenly dimming as the streetlights near the next intersection flickered, then turned out. "Oh, man…" Choji muttered, his hand compulsively tightening around the handle of his blade and then releasing it. "That can't be good."

"Just a power failure," the other boy reasoned. "Now let's hurry before it gets really dark."

Choji grunted, striding forward slowly. He wasn't sure why, but the impulse to protect his friend suddenly rose within him — odd, since Sannosuke was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

The darkness before them seemed to coalesce into a pair of forms, one of them a woman, glancing briefly at the boys, then away. The other scanned about himself, seemingly unconcerned as the lights flickered back on, banishing the darkness, but not the dark man or woman. The woman sighed, walking away quickly with a fond glance at the man.

The man seemed as though he was made of the night itself, refusing to be clearly illuminated even beneath the streetlights. He glanced at the boys, a long fall of jet-black hair hanging from his head to swing slightly with the suddenness of his motion. Smiling slowly, he raised a hand towards them. "Boys," he commanded, "give me your names."

Choji spoke first, "I'm… I'm Yamamoto Daisuke, and this is my friend, Hamada Kintaro. Is something wrong?"

The man grimaced distastefully, and shook his head. "Nothing to concern either of you… put away your weapons." And with that, he vanished, disappearing into the night that had seemingly given him up in the first place.

Sannosuke glanced at Choji, both boys surprised to see that they had indeed armed themselves. "What was that about?" Sannosuke asked. "Why did you lie?"

Choji put his bokken away, shaking his head. "I have no idea," he admitted. "It just seemed like a really good idea."

For a long moment, Choji was afraid that Sannosuke would criticize him for his lie, but the other boy shook his head, muttering, "Yeah, that was creepy. I can't blame you. Let's hurry home."

Mara trailed the goddesses warily, wondering what to do — and when. The goddesses were all too busy looking for the Once and Future King to notice her — as long as she kept her distance.

Even providing that the power between the two opposing forces, Fate and Destiny, should be matched… Mara was no counter for the three sisters combined, let alone their might with Fate added. Destiny would probably be able to stop the sisters, and could counter Fate… but both at once? It seemed hopeless.

Mara sighed, watching as the quartet of goddesses strode into a large circular courtyard, ringed in ancient iron lampposts.

From the other direction, a pair of boys were approaching — boys that Mara dimly remembered from seeing when Destiny had shifted them both through space… Her jaw dropped, as she realized the significance. There was a circular fountain in the center of the courtyard, a perfect circle of stone, and…

Fate was about to win this one — the boy, whichever was the King, would receive his blade there, whatever he would name it. The goddesses stopped to confer, and Mara saw something beyond the simplicity of the water and stone.

A circle of iron. Rules were rules, after all… Alighting on a rooftop, she extended one hand towards the circle of iron within the stone. Circles could amplify her power just enough — if her master truly would lend her the power…

Preparing herself, she cast out, setting the ward that defined the circle as an impenetrable prison.

The goddesses reacted swiftly, countering with their own forces to easily shatter her ward, but… but it didn't shatter, and she knew by the dizzying rush of power through her that her master had indeed trusted her enough to allow her to use it.

Keiichi grinned, unable to help himself. Mara was using his power, so must have found something. He allowed himself to slide through the night to her side, and glanced about warily. The streets were oddly deserted, except for his sister, the goddesses… and the two boys he had seen earlier. The goddesses and his sister were separated from he and Mara by a wall of power, a ward thinner than paper, but strong enough to stop the goddesses.

The boys had lied — that much was obvious now. But he could hardly fault them for a survival instinct. Better, Mara had proven herself loyal and worthy of his trust. He hadn't thought she would be untrustworthy, but what little fear he had once had of that had vanished.

The goddesses stared at him in shock, speaking in one voice, "Keiichi?"

He snorted, shaking his head. The boys had stopped some distance behind him, doubtlessly unnerved by his presence. "No," he said softly, "I am Destiny, once known as Justine."

Feeling the betrayal washing from each of them was more than reward enough — they had known. They had to have known. There were more than enough signs, as much as he had tried to hide it, save… they hadn't wanted to see the truth. "There is no 'Keiichi', not as you have known him."

He spared a momentary glance towards the boys, summoning a thing of shadows and nightmare to dispatch them, and then ignoring them again. "There never was. I am all that has ever been." He took a moment to savor their expressions, ignoring the sound of the struggles behind him.

Skuld, her eyes moist with unshed tears, her expression warring with anger and contempt. He had wormed his way into her heart, little as she would want to admit it, and then reveled himself to be worse than she had ever thought of him.

Urd was upset… for her sister, of course, but more so with herself. Urd had been his servant before her ultimate betrayal, an incarnation and hundreds of years in the past. She should have known more than anyone, and wanted so for her sister to be happy that she did nothing.

And Megumi, so confused, her integration much less… planned than his. Her awakening had been disorienting, struggling to deal with the sudden coexistence of two personae, where he merely had to reacquire a lost part of himself. But he had been manipulating events from his dream, having intended this day to come from hundreds of years ago, when he willingly cast himself to oblivion.

And Belldandy… simply offering him a forlorn look. Could she not believe it, still? Could she possibly hope that somehow it was only a passing thing? He was torn between labeling her a hopeless romantic, and just plain hopeless. "Hmm," he drawled slowly, savoring the moment, and taking control of the ward from Mara, leaving her to drift to his side, obviously drained from the effort. "What to do… what to do…"

Sannosuke and Choji stepped back, not fully comprehending what was transpiring before them.

The man simply looked at them for a moment, and then away, and in that instant, there was a rushing sensation of… something… and from the night itself, cloaked in deepest shadow, lined with glowing red eyes, as though it had stepped out of deepest nightmare, some apparition stood before them. Beyond that, it was silhouetted against the lamplight, too many limbs covered with jagged contusions and barbed points…

Both boys had their weapons ready in an instant, neither of them using their practiced kendo stances, but older, more familiar stances.

Choji led in, baiting in the creature, and Sannosuke followed a half-heartbeat behind, striking at the thing's eyes while it was over-extended. It howled noiselessly, as the boys withdrew, Choji nursing a gash along his forearm, eyes bright with intensity.

They shared a nod, and this time Sannosuke led the charge, moving in from the creature's new blind spot.

Urd watched, knowing that the wall of force before her couldn't hold them forever… but it could hold them. For an hour, perhaps longer… but long enough. And behind that wall, Keiichi — no, she told herself, Destiny — mocked them, not even bothering to see that the King was dispatched, instead watching them, smirking to himself.

But she could find nothing to say — nothing to do that could change the situation. The boy her sister had fallen in love with had never been. Nothing more than a passing moment, a mask… something designed to deceive them.

His eyes turned to her, mirth draining from them completely, and seeming to ignite with anger. "And you," he muttered, grimacing. "You should have known. You should have known that you could never hope to betray me, and escape unscathed."

"Bastard," she spat, crossing her arms over her chest angrily. "This is why I betrayed you. You can't see beyond your own selfish needs." He shrugged, seemingly unaffected by her words. Urd spared a momentary glance behind him, at the two boys, fighting whatever horror he had allowed to emerge… and slowly winning. Perhaps… perhaps if she were to stall him…

"Does it hurt, Urd? Does it hurt to be betrayed?"

"You're damn right it hurts, you idiot!"

He grinned sardonically, "So you know how I felt when you betrayed me, damning your own sister to centuries of being alone?"

Urd gaped, not having considered it before. "But," she managed, struggling to find the words she needed, "I…"

Mara sneered, shaking her head, and wrapping her arms about herself, shivering. "'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one', Urd?"

Urd frowned nodding. "Well… yes."

Keiichi snorted, turning away from her to face Skuld.

"And you," he mused, looking directly at her. "What about you?"

She grumbled, shaking her head. "I should never have trusted you at all," she muttered.

"No, you shouldn't have. Ironic now, for all of the pain and trouble you caused 'Keiichi', you get this as repayment." Growling, she raised her hammer, causing him to laugh. "I think not, Child. If you damage me, you damage your precious 'Lady', don't you?"

Swearing an oath vile enough to make Urd glance her way, she threw down her hammer. "I hate you!" she declared. "I'll never forgive you!"

"That's too bad," he said sarcastically, drawing Mara to him with one arm. "Because it makes no difference to me whatsoever."

Leaving Skuld to tremble in inarticulate rage, he turned his attention to Megumi.

"Ah," he murmured to her, "your rage is oh-so-sweet, like a fine wine to be savored." He grinned sardonically, "I promised I would wreak my vengeance upon you, 'dearest sister.' And now… I have."

She bowed her head in defeat. "This contest… you won, my brother. You won." She gathered some of her lost bearing, unshed tears glimmering in her eyes. "You always win."

"As long as I win, this contest can never end." He paused for a moment, as if considering. "Do you know," he commented, "I would have let you win… had you asked? But no… you had to attack me. You had to make her," he gestured at Urd, "betray me."

She shook her head slowly, the tears trickling down her cheeks slowly. "But, it's not the way things were supposed to be," she protested. "I… I thought…"

He shook his head, dismissing her. "It is of no import. My vengeance is come, and will not be halted."

Belldandy stepped forward, shaking her head slowly. "Keiichi," she warned, "look behind you."

Urd sword loudly at that, hissing, "Belldandy!"

He snorted derisively, as Mara broke free to look behind him. No matter if the thing of nightmares and shadows was killed by mere children, they didn't have the proper sword, and couldn't stand against him. Aside from which, he had destroyed many Kings when they did have their blades.

But… why had she warned him? He felt the faint surge at the edges of his perception that warned of an attack. He turned in time to see one of the boys behind him, raising his bokken menacingly.

"What," he asked, "makes you think that will harm me?"

The boy yelled loudly, smashing his bokken down across Keiichi's head.

Keiichi made no move to respond, as the wooden blade was reduced to fragments, shards, and then dust, long before it ever touched him. Shaking his head slowly, Keiichi frowned. "Boy," he warned, "I am Destiny. I am a force of entropy. No mere wooden blade can ever hope to harm me." He raised a hand, drawing his power to himself, and the boy — the King, Urd decided belatedly — steadfastly stood his ground, not budging. "I will kill you," he commented, "it's just a matter of when." The dark power of entropy-made-force wreathed his hand, crackling darkly. The boy's companion growled low in his throat, but dropped his weapon to clamp one hand over a spreading spot of redness in his side.

"Keiichi!" Belldandy called to him, and he ignored the boy, who still made no move to run, instead tending his wounded ally, as the Concept turned to look at her.

"Yes, Belldandy?" he asked her, smiling sardonically once more. "Are you going to tell me that you can still forgive me, even after all of this? That you think that somehow this can be undone?" He shook his head, laughing softly. "Are you that trusting and innocent, even now?"

Belldandy stepped to the very edge of the ward, smiling wanly. "No, Keiichi… I wanted to give you this." She reached into the pocket in the front of her dress, and produced the scarf she had woven for him.

He stared at her dumbly for a moment. "Is this some kind of joke?"

She shook her head, holding it towards the edge of the ward. "No, Keiichi. I made it for you. It… It's cold in the Abyss, so I hear. I don't want you to be cold."

Urd felt her jaw drop, as Skuld and Megumi joined her in gawking at Belldandy. Even Keiichi was stunned, his eyes widened. "What? How… how long have you… you knew I was Destiny?" he asked, panic tingeing his voice.

Belldandy nodded, pressing her hand against the unyielding ward. The thin, shimmering plane of force rebuked her touch, stinging her hand like nettle, but she persisted, still pushing forward. Her voice wavering at the pain as she continued, she said, "Of course I knew, Keiichi. I always knew."

A tear slipped from her eyes, and she managed a smile, still trying to give him the scarf. "How?" he asked, struggling with something internally, seemingly left speechless and insensate.

"It doesn't matter to me, Keiichi," she stated, tears flowing freely, making no headway against the barrier that confined her, and not giving up despite that. "I said I will love you forever… and I still mean it."

Stunned, Keiichi staggered back half a step, the ward wavering briefly before collapsing outright, leaving Belldandy to pitch forward, colliding with Keiichi's chest. He put his arms around her belatedly, shaking his head. "How… how can you love me, after everything I've done to hurt you? How? It's… it's not possible…" he said, blinded to the reality of the situation. "Even you… even you have to hate me!"

Megumi ignored him, rushing to the boys, and trailed by Skuld. Urd tried to tell herself to move — to run after her Lady, but couldn't, completely transfixed by the events transpiring before her. "Love doesn't need a reason, Keiichi," Belldandy whispered, kissing him once on the lips, and then stepping away, leaving the scarf in his hands.

He stared at scarf, eyes wide, and shook his head slowly, snapping his attention to Mara's sudden scream of anguish. The demoness fled, unable to watch further, and Keiichi growled, "No! I cannot let you deceive me so!" He raised one hand, free of the scarf, and prepared a blast of energy that could easily destroy Belldandy even with her most powerful of wards. The crackling energy wreathed his hands, the stuff of chaos and destruction. Something that could hurt any of them aside from Keiichi.

Megumi spun, raising her hands to ward against Keiichi's attack. Urd cursed herself, still frozen and unable to assist her Lady, but Belldandy shook her head, smiling lovingly into Keiichi's eyes, completely unafraid. "A goddess can't lie, Keiichi. You know that."

The energy faded, and Keiichi was left to stare blankly again. "No…" he whispered, shaking his head. "Mara!" Summoned, the demoness reappeared, seemingly stunned herself. Not giving her enough time to react, he wrapped an arm about her, and in an implosion of shadow… was gone.

Sannosuke stared at the women who studied Choji gravely. "Well?" Sannosuke asked after a moment. "What happens next?"

One of the women smiled, meeting Sannosuke's eyes. "I come to bear you your weapon to use in this day and age, Tatsugo." She placed her hands on Choji, and a rush of water issued from her palms to wash across the boy's wounds, washing the blood — and the wounds — away. "Rise, young one."

Sannosuke relaxed instantly. This one, at least, was kinder than the strange, dark man that had vanished with the dark woman… leaving them alone with a quartet of women in white. She reached towards him, stroking his face gently, and the stinging pain of his wounds vanished, leaving him feeling invigorated. "Thank you," he murmured, unsure of what else to say.

She smiled softly, and beckoned him to follow her, walking to the shallow courtyard fountain. "Now, I give you a new weapon, since you have lost your own." So saying, she produced a wooden blade from a burst of light in the depths of the fountain. A fountain that Sannosuke knew was far too shallow to conceal such a thing. "Name this weapon as you see fit."

He stared at the blade, considering, as the other three women converged on some point further away, whispering softly and worriedly with one another. "I name it… 'Hoshi-no-shinzou'," the boy pronounced, ignoring the other women, and replacing his lost bokken with the new wooden blade. "Now… can you explain to me just what the hell is going on here?"

She laughed lightly. "You're about to meet your Fate, Tatsugo…"


To be continued.

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