“It’ll be fine. Humans get scammed every day.”
Gabriel glared across the street at a food stand wrapped in vibrant streamers. The “chef” was a small girl with blonde hair, tied in a taut ponytail with a red ribbon. She wore a colourful green dress and flip-flops. And she was toasting and serving up bagels faster than any human could.
“We can’t be certain that she’s only charging 600 yen for a bagel.” Gabriel glanced at Xana, but then turned her shimmering yellow eyes back on the blonde girl. “It could be a plan to gather faith, or worse.“
“But they think she’s a human too, right? Like me or you.” Xana sat on a bench, idly adjusting the collar of her hoodie. Honestly, the bagel stand smelled good to her; she’d have walked over to get one if Gabby weren’t there. She still might, she thought to herself.
“Yes, I’m sure they think she has brown or black hair, as do most people in this country, and the decoherence field has dulled their wits, so they won’t ask where a street urchin is getting the highest-quality grain.” Gabriel tapped her foot hard on the sidewalk, and a hairline crack formed. “But what they think is irrelevant, sadly. Demeter is a goddess of old, and she is not serving food for mere fun.”
“Why not? She could be.”
“A goddess like herself would not spend her time that way.”
“You spend your time that way.”
Gabriel blinked slowly. She was probably thinking of a retort so she could continue the conversation, but before she could, a cheery voice and a clap of the hands from behind them blasted away the silence. “Hey guys! What are you up to today?”
Xana and Gabriel turned. Behind them was a young woman in a red-orange summer dress. Her twin ponytails were done up with a hairband, and her exposed skin was covered in pink-white sunscreen.
It was Ririn. Ririn was always happy to see the two of them, especially together, but as a general rule she was just friendly. Xana didn’t really get it, but she was fun to shop with; she made better choices than Miss Templar most of the time, and didn’t just give you advice and tell you to sort it out like Shio. When Xana was feeling lazy, Ririn was the best person to shop with.
“We’re currently assessing the nature of this bagel stand,” Gabriel said. The edges of her lips twitched into a smile. “Or perhaps we’re arguing about an assessment I’ve already made.”
Oh, and Gabriel was open, honest and friendly with Ririn in turn. Xana didn’t get that, either – something about her having a noble soul – but it was interesting to see Gabriel actually open up to someone else.
“Ohh…” Ririn looked across the street.
“You know, the situation doesn’t look that bad,” Ririn said, staring at Demeter from afar. The goddess was spreading Greek yogurt and minced cucumbers across a flax seed bagel, and the young woman in front of the counter leaned in to watch her work.
“It’s not like she’s hanging out with Zeus, and she was nice to her daughter last time we met… she’s not gonna end the world just by selling bagels, is she? I met a fairy who just wanted to write...” Ririn rubbed the side of her neck, and she was starting to sound uncertain. “Maybe Demeter’s like that now?”
“Though that is possible,” Gabriel replied, “many demons – or the many gods cut from their cloth – would also exploit your balanced perspective to use you, a Liberator, for their own ends. I am not saying to be cruel, Ririn, only to be cautious.”
“Yeah… but look at her. She doesn’t look like she did before… well, she’s still super cute, but she looks relaxed!”
That much was true. Xana looked on as Demeter, with a big smile on her face, upsold her latest customer on a peach smoothie. That was the third one in the past ten minutes.
“But you’re not going to buy one of her bagels just because she looks cute, are you?” Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
Ririn clicked her tongue and squinted into the middle distance as if recalling something unpleasant. “Well, no, but…”
“Maybe I will then.” Xana sat up from her seat on a waist-high wall and started across the street.
“Wait, Xana!” Gabby cried, nearly stumbling as, on instinct, she tried to fly after her. She regained her footing faster than she’d lost it. “You don’t know what she’s put in those bagels!” she protested.
“Sure I do,” Xana looked pointedly at the stand, where Demeter was assembling one. “Whole wheat bagel, Greek yogurt, cucumber slivers, vegan options…”
“I believe Miss Gabriel,” Ririn agreed. “Sure, she looks cute, but I REALLY think she’s up to something…”
“Well, isn’t this a great way to find out what?” Xana asked, but she wasn’t waiting for an answer. She elbowed her way to the front of the line. Demeter smiled sweetly as she looked up at her.
“I’ll have an everything bagel,” Xana said, “with the cucumber Greek yogurt spread, some olive tapenade, minced cherry tomatoes, and make sure you don’t toast it.”
“That will be no problem at all!” Demeter said, and without skipping a beat, she spread the odd mixture Xana had asked for over an everything bagel. The perfected motion of her butter knife was like the flowing of a spiral-shaped waterfall, and it kept Xana’s eyes on what she was doing until the moment Demeter handed the finished bagel to her, wrapped in marble-white wax paper.
“Please enjoy your harvest!” Demeter said.
Gabriel ran up to Xana, Ririn walking behind her. Xana took her first bite just before Gabriel smacked the bagel out of her hands, and her tastebuds exploded.
“Oh. It’s… so good…” she muttered. Her knuckles buckled, and her vision faded.
Gabriel pushed open the door to the Liberators’ hideout, wings folded, a scowl on her angelic face.
Ririn looked at her appraisingly, tossing one of her knotlike ponytails in her hand. “You’re looking as good as ever… not even a scratch. So you got her, right?” She was referring to Demeter.
“Unfortunately, no,” Gabriel found herself responding in a voice almost too terse to suit the way she spoke. “She wasn’t fighting back – a frustratingly wise choice on her part. Rather, she used her protective powers as a harvest goddess to stall for time and then escape. I have a plan in mind to capture her, but we will need to find her again first. How is Xana?”
“Uh, well, she bounced back really fast…” Ririn trailed off.
“Well, what?” Gabriel stepped closer to Ririn. “Please, elaborate.”
“She woke up before we got here. I expected her to go back to her room or something, but she went into the kitchen and threw out Meat Balloon’s snacks!”
“...the ones manufactured by machines?”
“Huh? Yeah, I guess they are.”
The look on Ririn’s face took Gabriel that she did not see, but that was fine. It would be easier to explain by illustrating the point to her, so Gabriel took Ririn’s hand and led her into the kitchen.
The kitchen was spotless, save for the waste bins, which were filled to the brim with the various artificial foods the Liberators usually ate. Xana was there, wearing a clean smock a size too large for her. In one hand she held a watering can; in the other, a clear spray bottle filled with the sort of sterilizing mixture you would find used in a hospital.
“She isn’t human,” Gabriel noted aloud, as much to Ririn as to herself, “so what Demeter has done should wear off of her in an hour or two.”
Ririn breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good… Seeing Xana like this is just so weird. But, uh… what DID she do?”
“She affected Xana’s mind,” Gabriel began, then she paused. There were no ways to describe what Demeter had done in the vile terms it deserved – at least, none in human language.
Gabriel sighed. “If you were to ask Demeter herself, she would say that she awakened reverence for nature within Xana. In terms you two would use, Ririn, I would perhaps say that she… ‘turned Xana into an unstoppable eco-nut.’”
“Whaaaa!?” Ririn leaned back, looking mildly disgusted. “But that’s totally not what Xana’s like at all! You’re telling me that goddess brainwashed our Xana!?”
“Nothing so crass,” Gabriel told her, though that was as much an instinctive reaction to an accusation of brainwashing as anything else. Humans were fond of throwing that word around to describe any corrective measure a god, angel or demon took.
“Xana herself has not changed; rather, the tainted ambrosia Demeter bakes into her bagels has changed her perception of the world around her.”
“Oh, so it’s…” Ririn scowled, then balled her hand into a raised fist. “So she drugged her!”
Gabriel clicked her tongue. “Yes, now that you mention it, that is correct. Thank you.”
“So what do we do?”
Looking at Xana, Gabriel found herself frowning. She was cleaning out the air fryer that Taro had bought, wiping away the last traces of the store-bought canola oil she’d thrown out. It was disconcerting to watch… but it was harmless and ephemeral.
“Nothing, in Xana’s case,” Gabriel turned to Ririn. “As I said, she will recover shortly. The humans who ate Demeter’s bagels are not so fortunate; it will take days for them to return to normal. Thus, we should focus on stopping her.”
“But you said she got away last time, right?” Ririn walked out of the kitchen, away from Xana, who had finished her previous task. She’d now moved to the breadboard, where she was chopping up vegetables.
Gabriel suppressed the urge to go in and help Xana, instead gliding after Ririn. She sat on an armchair, looking pensive, though she kept eyes open and on her conversational partner – it would be rude not to, and Ririn deserved a measure of politeness.
“Yes, I did.”
“So how are we going to do that?” Ririn asked.
“More firepower.” Gabriel’s lips twitched upwards at the ends.
“Oh… well, I’m a Dx2. I can contribute a little… you think that’ll be enough?” Ririn asked.
Before Gabriel could answer, the door to the hideout swung open again. Shiori walked in, dressed for a performance. She looked exhausted, though, so it was more likely she’d just come back from one. A scowl rested on her face, dwarfing the one Ririn had worn in its implacability and intensity.
“You two know there’s a bunch of idiots getting hopped up on some magic bagels, right?”
“Yeah,” Ririn said, “we know.”
“You saw Demeter?” Gabriel turned to look at Shiori as she spoke.
“No, it’s just obvious,” Shiori said, without elaborating on the multiple leaps of logic she must have made to reach that conclusion. “I was at the cafe after my show, and it was totally empty. The only other person there was a guy eating a crepe. He had ‘snotty angel’ written all over him.”
Gabriel brightened, enough so that the mention of snotty angels rolled off of her like water off of a duck’s feathers. “A crepe, you said? I believe I know who that is. I also believe he will help us. As you will, will you not, Shiori?”
“Like I have a choice!” Shiori stomped off towards the kitchen. “Even less people showed up than usual. I’m NOT going to deal with that pixie asshole cutting into my business!”
As Shiori’s footfalls took her towards the kitchen entrance, Xana called out from inside. “No, big sis Shio! You can’t come in! I haven’t even thrown out your Kitty Kandy yet!”
Shiori’s face flushed so red with anger that Gabriel began to wonder if she might start to smoke from the ears. “What the hell? You can’t do that!” She sprinted into the kitchen, but stopped on a dime once she was inside. “Wait, you’re not even throwing it out! You’re eating it!”
“Meatface called me a bottomless pit, so I might as well be a trash can!” Xana spoke the way she often did: plainly impetuous.
Gabriel coughed laughing.
“Well,” she said to Ririn after seconds of laughter and moments more of dabbing her eyes with her fingers, “we should go find my friend. Three of us heralds would be best, but he alone will still be helpful.”
“Should we help Shionyan?” Ririn asked. “Or, uh… Xana, at this rate…”
The stomping Gabriel heard from inside the kitchen was angry, but it was harmless as well. Shiori would do many things, but hurting Xana was not one of them. Though, judging by the rattle of plastic against tin, she’d thrown Xana’s bottle of cleaner hard enough to “hurt” the waste bin it was doubtless now inside.
“No,” she said, “they will be fine.”
The strawberry crepe Uriel was eating was by no means the best he’d ever had, but finding that kind of quality and authenticity would be impossible outside of France or heaven. It was very good, still, not too sweet nor too tart and with soft but not limp cake.
It would be all the better if he could enjoy it in peace.
“You know, Lord Uriel,” said the suited man across from him, “you would cut a much more imposing figure if you joined me at the gym.”
Even in his disguise, Mastema spoke with the same voice and the same cadence. It was one mortals often found alluring, Uriel had heard, but he truly couldn’t see why.
“I wield magic as my weapon; my blade is merely a symbol of my station,” Uriel replied, candid in the privacy of the decoherence field. He wondered: if Mastema was so proud of his body, why did he wear his disguise even now? At least he had the good sense to carry his best features over between them, as Uriel did.
“As is your armour, yes, and your true protection comes from the Lord,” Mastema agreed, while speaking in that tone that suggested he didn’t really agree and in fact was about to contradict him. “But here and now, as a human, you conceal your body beneath those jeans and that orange jacket. Doesn’t that strike you as a missed opportunity?”
Uriel chewed on his crepe.
Uriel finished his crepe, and set his fork and knife aside with a dainty-held hand. “You’re wearing a suit, and even in your true form you wear quite a baggy toga over your chest. Who, exactly, is doing the concealing?”
Mastema flushed somewhat. “Well, that is simply a part of my body I am less proud of.”
“You mean that you haven’t been able to work on your upper body – or you’re choosing not to.“ Uriel chuckled to himself. “Perhaps you’re strengthening your legs for the day you need to flee from Gabriel’s wrath?”
“What are you– how preposterous!” Mastema leaned back, shocked.
“Now is it really?”
“Of course it is! Above all other complaints I have about what you imply, one would not simply escape from Lady Gabriel on foot! He would fly!”
“True, I suppose.”
A cutesy bell chimed, one attached to the cafe’s front door. Uriel pushed his plate forward to the centre of the table as Mastema recoiled, moving further into the booth and against the wall. Gabriel greeted the young lady working the register before she approached the two of them.
“Just as what I said was true,” Uriel remarked.
“Not at all,” Mastema said, straightening himself out. “You’ve merely put me on edge, Lord Uriel!”
Gabriel stopped in front of their table, folding her arms and glancing near but not quite at Mastema. “Good afternoon, Uriel.”
“And to you, Gabriel,” Uriel spoke in a breezy tone. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
“A demon,” Gabriel said, “or more accurately, a goddess who has once made the children of man her plaything. And not too long after she last did so; on a personal level, I almost admire her audaciousness.”
“Ah,” Uriel replied, “Demeter.”
“You don’t seem worried.” Gabriel’s words were verbal prodding between friends, not an admonishment. “She’s feeding them bagels that alter how they see this world.”
“‘No weapon forged against Him shall prosper.’ Her bagels are a transient concern, in that sense.” Uriel smirked.
“But you realize, of course, that the Lord is not her target.” Gabriel smirked back. “Or do you expect her to find Him and offer Him a bagel?”
Uriel laughed merrily. “Of course not. She’d have no better luck finding Him than any human. I only mean to say that her actions really aren’t that much of a concern, are they?”
Gabriel folded her arms and tilted her head, appraising him. “Sometimes, Uriel, I wonder if humans are more of a bad influence on you than you are a good influence on them.”
“You wound me.” Uriel jabbed his index finger at Mastema while looking at Gabriel. ”You’ll say such things to me, but not to the one who wears his suit and tie so tightly he becomes the mask?”
Mastema glared at Uriel over his finger, then paused as Uriel looked back at him. He looked like a man trying to will away his own scowl – unsuccessfully. “I would have you know, Lord Uriel, that those humans I work with experience exactly the prosperity – and the downturns – that I arrange for them.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Uriel said, the smirk on his face quivering into an amusing shape. “Lord of the Tables. He Who Charts. The Filler of Cells. By his type is the world set to order, and by his clicks are they too undone.”
Mastema’s mouth fell open like the beak of a squawking bird. “Only a small portion of my perceived job is the management of spreadsheets!”
Gabriel set her palm down on the table, and it shook as if she’d slapped it. “I would say that’s quite enough, you two. We need not fight each other when we have a foe to fight against together. It’s good you’re here, Mastema; three heralds is much better for us than two.”
“It is.” Uriel nodded, standing up and taking his purse from the booth behind him. “Just by your presence, we will be able to call upon more of the Lord’s might.“
Mastema clenched his teeth, and Uriel made an active effort not to laugh. He’d understood the implication well: Mastema’s presence was his greatest contribution. To Uriel, as heralds went, Mastema would do in a pinch. Gabriel, Uriel figured, understood the implication too – and she said nothing of it.
“Now, where is our victim?” Mastema asked Gabriel.
“Somewhere in Tokyo,” Gabriel replied. “But she won’t make herself hard to find. Come.”
“Xana!” Jeng Yun cried, a grin on his chiseled face. He was impossible to miss, a beanstalk among the locals, approaching the three girls as they walked down an Akihabara backstreet. “You look like you’ve really been working out!”
Xana had, partly on Shiori’s advice, though Ririn had thought it seemed weird. Most girls didn’t go to the gym, she said. But Shiori had offered a bevy of statistics to support both the benefits of going to the gym, and how often the masses did, and that was that.
Xana rubbed her temples, scowling at something past Jeng Yun rather than at him. “The only thing I’m working out now is my frustration. I can’t believe that little fairy swindled me. It makes me want to puke.”
“Oh, really?” Jeng Yun asked. “When I get mad, it helps to work out more! Want to see the results of my hard work?”
“NO!” Ririn shouted loud enough to turn a few heads, then she stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Yeesh, you’re obsessed… we’re busy, okay? We’re looking for Demeter. You know, that one Greek goddess.”
“Oh, really? Gabriel sent me a message about that.” Jeng Yun peered at Ririn. “She said she was taking care of it, and that Xana should rest up.”
“Well, she is, but…” Ririn jerked her thumb at Xana.
“I lead an active lifestyle,” Xana said, eyes lidded. “No more than three hours of sleep a day. Rest? What is that bullshit? I know Gabby trying to pull one over on me when I see it. Sometimes she does it with a blanket.”
Jeng Yun grinned and walked over to Xana, who stepped back and pulled herself inward as Jeng Yun stretched out his arms.
Shiori glowered at him. “Carrying her back isn’t going to get us all to sit on our asses in the hideout.” He’d get the message; when she spoke, most of the Liberators did, by this point. She’d done a good job of training them.
“Hmm…” Jeng Yun’s hands clapped his muscular hips, and he gave Xana an easy smile. “Well, if you want to be that active, how can I say no? But you’re going to have to keep up with me. I think I saw a demon three streets down. Come, my friends! Let’s go!”
Jeng Yun tore off in a tall blur.
“Well now we have to follow him!” Ririn grunted, taking several steps forward and raising her fist partway to shaking it at him. “He’s just going to scare a little girl!”
“Little girl my ass,” Xana muttered. But Shiori walked up the street to stay in step with Ririn, and Xana herself followed. Their brisk walking pace allowed them to keep Jeng Yun in sight, even if they couldn’t keep up with him this way.
“The real problem is that we can’t make a plan if we’re following him,” Shiori spoke in a dull, disinterested voice. “This usually happens, but we could cover all of Akihabara six times faster if I did the math.”
Xana perked up. “Maybe we can abandon him?”
“I wish…” Ririn frowned. “But if he meets her by himself, he’s probably going to try one of her bagels. They totally have that health food look.”
The girls made their way down a sleepy alleyway lined by cheap shops, passed a ramen place that Ririn noted for its value for money, and then turned onto a main street. Demeter’s stand was there, with six other customers lined up behind Jeng Yun, who was ordering enough bagels to cater for a small business.
“One?” Xana peered at Ririn.
Shiori exhaled through her teeth. Of course he was, she thought; the Liberators were full of men who had more guts than brains. “Devil Download!” she shouted, and her voice was muffled to the customers behind Jeng Yun by a decoherence field. In a blast of light, a huge purple figure appeared, looming behind and over Shiori.
“Give him a stomachache,” Shiori said, arms folded.
Angra Mainyu buzzed, a droning that filled the air around him. “The child of man who summons me to inflict less than even one of my sixteen scourges? How amusing… very well.”
Dark energy welled up, and Jeng Yun looked over, at first surprised, and then disgusted. His chiselled face was marred by a twisted frown, and he forced it back into a smile as he turned back to Demeter and waved one hand.
“Sorry,” Jeng Yun said, “I think I’ll have to cancel my order.”
“Oh? You’re not feeling well?” Demeter put a finger to her chin, looking contemplative even as she spoke quickly and easily. “Well, maybe I can give you something different first – a banana from Elysium from my recent harvest. It’ll settle your stomach and soothe your mind!”
“Don’t do it, dumbass!” Shiori sprinted towards Jeng Yun, with the other two girls and her demon following.
Demeter looked at the crowd of Liberators formed around her, dewy-eyed, with a smile that was melting away like morning frost in summer. “Oh, no… this was a trick, wasn’t it? At this rate, my harvest will be in danger!”
Clutching and patting his stomach with one hand, Jeng Yun waved the other. “No, it’s no trick at all! These are my friends. I was just ordering some food, but… perhaps the protein shake I had last night was expiring?”
A flash of light left the street blinding for several seconds. In its wake, a trio of angels appeared. One, a green-skinned woman in gold armour with proper trim; another, a handsome blue-skinned blond in a red tabard; and the last, a long-haired figure wrapped in a toga with hard muscles that looked like silver.
Demeter’s smile had long since vanished, replaced by the puckered, pouting frown of a child. “I would love to help you, human, but while these angels are here, there is no time for healing. They bring only destruction in their wake – most of all him, the purveyor of trials and plagues!”
“Come now, Demeter.” Mastema smirked, cupping his hands together tightly in front of him and spreading his wings. “My trials are not meant for you. And plague is a dull tool in my toolbox; it breeds unity, rather than testing the strength of one’s hatred.”
Shiori groaned. Of course he was here. Luckily, she was ready to put him in his place; her own demon was already here, and with a single tap she summoned another, the Mother Harlot of Babylon. Master Therion was another option, but she doubted she could stand two dowdy old geezers feeding off their own egos right now.
“He sure likes to yammer on…” Xana said, as if reading her mind, while taking out her smartphone as casually as if she’d just received a text.
“I don’t really like dogpiling an innocent girl like this, but alright! Let’s go!” Ririn summoned her own demons. “You too, meathead! Getting sick like that is your own fault anyway!”
“She would’ve totally done the same thing,” Xana muttered.
“Of course she would have.” Shiori agreed. “Devil Download!”
Demeter would not fall easily. Gabriel knew this. Her so-called “harvest” gave her an immune system against all manner of physical and magical attacks, the way that proper nutrition helped humans fight off sickness. By invoking the light of the spring sun, the demon – who looked like an innocent little girl – was as unbreakable as a mountain.
Facing her alone, Gabriel would reach a stalemate with her, whereby she would have to retreat or exhaust her energy, but Demeter was too slow to pursue her if she did so. Gabriel had known that, and she took advantage of the initiative granted by her great feathered wings. She gathered her fellow Heralds, combining their powers, and now she struck first.
She mouthed an insult at Demeter, but only reality could hear it. God’s Word blasted Demeter, a physically punishing sanction against her person. Then from Gabriel’s side, God’s Fire billowed out and struck the goddess. For a moment Demeter looked pained, skin sunburned and eyes downcast in enforced shame, but a smile grew on her face as a bulwark of energy grew around her.
“My,” Demeter mused, twisting her face back around into a mock pout. “You truly have me outnumbered… without allies, I can’t show you my true power...”
Shiori Koden took a step forward, the first of the humans to do so, as she often was. “There’s no point in complaining. You’re the dumbass who didn’t bring your friends so you could look innocent to the masses.”
Ririn scowled at Demeter. “Don’t think being a cute girl will save you this time! You’re in too deep!” That made Gabriel smile. She was showing more restraint than she usually did.
Mastema unleashed a blast of pale purple light that collapsed upon Demeter like an implosion of negativity. The empowering effects of her harvest waned, just slightly, and the ethereal shield around her broke.
“I don’t think that at all. What I think is… your Herald allies have made you too complacent!”
A burst of rainbow light echoed from the sky and struck the ground next to Demeter. A blue-skinned man wielding a vibrant cornucopia horn appeared next to her. Again Demeter changed her expression on a dime, now smiling with wicked confidence.
“Is that… one of those Norse gods?” Xana asked Shiori.
“Heimdallr, the messenger god. Honestly, they should be feuding, not helping each other. What the hell is this?” Shiori, for her part, looked no more amused than Gabriel was. Gabriel appreciated that.
“Perhaps we’ll tell you, humans, before our harvest truly begins… if you can make it to our snowy home in Sapporo!” Demeter declared.
Neither the angels nor the humans wasted any time in attacking Demeter and her ally while they were still there – an escape plan was clearly imminent. But Heimdallr provided a focus for Demeter’s protective abilities, and every blow against him was cushioned anew.
Ultimately, they were unable to stop the two from escaping in another shower of rainbow light.
But, Gabriel told herself with grim determination, that was fine; there was nowhere on this Earth to truly run from the Lord. As Demeter would soon learn.
“So Demeter found new friends, huh?” Xana asked.
“More like allies.” Shiori squinted off into the middle distance. “You think anyone hanging around that sleazy goddess is actually her friend? She betrayed Zeus like it was nothing.”
“Oh, you’re right.” Xana said. “Sorry. Sometimes I mix up the way demons act with humans, and humans call a lot of people they don’t actually like ‘friends.’”
Shiori crossed her arms. “I don’t do that though.”
“That’s right, big sis Shio.”
“Putting aside how she sees the demons aligned with her,” Gabriel said, resting both palms on the hilt of her sword, “we need to pursue her. She likely invited us to follow her without reservation for a reason. Can you tell me that reason, Shiori Koden?”
Shiori squinted. “Obviously? It’s because they have those power-up devices on their mountain and they’d rather take us out while Demeter’s there.”
Uriel nodded. “A fine plan, and one with fewer flaws than it would appear. While we could wait for Demeter to appear again, she has the advantage in that regard.”
Jeng Yun cracked his knuckles. This seemed like too long a conversation for a matter so simple. “Which means we just need to go to the bad guys’ hideout and defeat them.”
The fellow bodybuilder, Mastema, deflated a bit where he stood. It exposed what parts of his body he wasn’t working on. “Well, yes, but would you not wait for us to finish our explanation, son of man?”
“Ah, my apologies.”
Uriel continued his explanation, a soft smile on his face. “She can appear wherever she might choose – while she cannot defeat us in battle in that case, she will be planning her escape more thoroughly now that she is aware of us. By taking the fight to them, we leave them with nowhere to run.”
Ririn tapped the side of her head. “Wait, but couldn’t they just scatter and then do all this without those powerups?”
Mastema glanced at Uriel. “Ah… potentially, I suppose.”
Uriel shook his head. “On our way here, I took a quick detour to visit your lovely friend, the Dragon Stream expert. She’s confirmed that the movement of energy within it indicates that the powers of the sacred mountain are being invoked regularly.”
“So if we break their gadgets, they’re helpless. Just like Batman.” Xana continued her aside without speaking any more quietly. “You know, I wonder why the other superheroes they put him up against don’t just go for his gadgets.”
But Jeng Yun was glad she’d spoken up! This was a great conversation in the making. “Obviously, it’s because of honour! They’re all heroes, aren’t they?”
Ririn cocked her head, and an eyebrow too. “Uh… different kinds of heroes, right?”
Gabriel cleared her throat. “When all of you are ready, we depart for Mount Asahi.”
“Its Ainu name is ‘the playground of the gods,’” Shiori commented. “Ugh, they probably know that too. I’m not playing around with them.”
“That’s right!” Jeng Yun struck his palm with his fist. “It’s only villains who treat peoples’ lives as a game!”
“If our lives were a game, what would our stats be?” Xana wondered. “Level 50 boxer, level 15 light novelist, level 1 spooky angel…”
Ririn exhaled through her nose and approached the angels. “...Yeah, Miss Gabriel. Let’s get going.”
Mount Asahi had been transformed.
Plentiful greenery choked out the white of the snow. Even at a faraway glance, the peak resembled a thick boreal forest more than the summit of a vast mountain. When you did more than glance, it got even worse: reds and yellows and oranges poked out of the side of the mountain like a rash on skin. It was as if Mount Asahi had been turned into a flower bouquet.
It looked so weird, it made Xana want to puke. Like those giant flowers that have tons of holes inside them.
“Okay…” Xana squinted up at the peak. “She’s somewhere around here, right? Do you know where she is, Gabby?”
“I can sense several strong presences at the top,” Gabriel explained. She gestured to either side of the mountainscape with the flower in her hand. “But what concerns me is that I do not sense power flowing around the mountain. When you last fought her, she had the backing of a mighty apparatus, correct?”
“You don’t think she’d be able to build new ones that fast, do you?” Shiori asked. The question was honest, open, even though it sounded like Shiori usually did. She respected Gabby at least a little bit.
“Not whole cloth, per se,” Gabriel agreed, “but it would be strange to cause chaos unprepared. I myself only split up with Uriel and Mastema because the two of you can support me.”
“Well by that logic she must think her new allies are enough.”
“So it’s got to be more than the horn guy,” Xana thought aloud.
“Yes, that’s right,” Shiori said, and Gabriel stopped herself from speaking over her. That was okay, in Xana’s opinion; they were probably going to say the same thing.
“Either way,” Gabriel said without skipping a beat, “it’s clear that they wanted us to climb the mountain as a group, one force against another. That is why, even if the other two groups do not turn anything up, we will ascend the mountain at slightly different times and from different angles.”
“So we’re going to use mister Shadyhalo and Boxer as meat shields,” Xana said blandly.
“It’s a good plan,” Shiori said.
The three of them began their climb up the mountain soon after. It was long and tiring, and after a little pestering Xana got Gabriel to carry her some of the way like a rescued princess in a movie. It was nice; Gabriel’s warm wings provided some shelter from the mountain cold, and her arms were strong.
Still, no matter how comfortable she was, Xana did find herself wondering how the others were doing. Jeng Yun could get along with just about anyone, even Mastema, but Ririn was probably suffering through Uriel’s charms with every step.
Minutes passed, and the ground finally started to even out a bit. As it turned out, she didn’t need to worry that much.
Uriel and Mastema had blown a hole through Heimdall’s bulwark, with the help of Ririn’s friend Lailah. Demeter was trying to keep up with the hateful debuffs Mastema was tossing out, but they also had Jeng Yun’s fifth gym bro, Atavaka, keeping them pinned down.
The fight was sort of even, because Demeter’s magic was apparently just that cheap, but it wouldn’t be now that the Bad Girl Squad – as Xana had named it despite Gabriel’s protests when they separated into teams – had arrived.
“Come on, get up,” Demeter shouted with rising panic as she poked a fallen Titan with her sandal. “Our harvest is not yet over!”
“They really do think that throwing crowds at us will work, don’t they, Uriel?” Mastema smirked.
“Well, wisdom is a gift from God,” Uriel replied glibly, “not these gods. It’s no wonder their servants have no grasp of tactics.”
Shiori’s demon, Nergal, appeared and ravaged Demeter’s frontline with poison as soon as their bulwarks were down.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Shiori said. “Crusaders can be just as brainless.”
“Yeah, but that’s martyrdom, so it makes them more badass,” Xana pointed out.
“Well, minor differences between us aside,” Gabriel said, raising her voice a notch, “we’ve arrived to the battle. Surrender now, harvest goddess, and perhaps you can yet negotiate for a drop of water in the hell you’ve made for yourself.”
Demeter saw Gabriel’s eyes blaze with lightning, as Xana pulled out her phone. She knew.
“You’re right… you’re all absolutely right.” A frown so sad it could outdo a lost, wet puppy appeared on Demeter’s face. “At this rate, my harvest will be over. My brave allies cannot withstand your bedlam, and I cannot withstand your piercing, focused attacks.”
“So… does that mean you’re going to behave for real this time?” Ririn lowered her phone to look at Demeter, and Xana could hear the hope in her voice.
“I must protest,” Demeter said, though she kept her voice quiet and sullen. “I learned a great deal from my last meeting with the Liberators. Destroying humanity is no way to mend its wounds. Not through war, nor famine.”
“And so, you believe you have some other solution.” Mastema pursed his lips into an odd smile. “But I’m afraid there is no better way to guide the sons of man than the hard way. You can but jostle them, not destroy or transform them.”
“But that’s not entirely true,” replied Demeter. “We can use our powers to change humanity. Bound as you angels are by ancient covenants, you may not be able to… but our options are as plentiful as the greatest harvest.”
Xana tilted her head. “So you picked brainwashing people with bagels?”
“Brainwashing? I did nothing of the sort!” Demeter said. “I merely infused them with nature’s ambrosia, and they realized the beauty of the divine bounty on their own.”
“So you really did just use drugs to turn them into eco-nuts.” Shiori sounded unimpressed. “Just like Joshua Hawke. Couldn’t you do something more creative?”
“As a matter of fact… yes, much like Joshua Hawke.” Suddenly, Demeter brightened up, and Xana felt her stomach roil.
“So you got your ideas from somewhere else?” Ririn asked. “No way, though…”
“Yeah. No way,” Xana agreed. “All of the Acolytes have been defeated, except for the cool ones, which are on our side.”
“Correction!” Demeter beamed. “They were all defeated.”
A voice echoed out from the mountaintop forest.
“Wahahaha! Did you miss me, Liberators!?”
“That voice…” Jeng Yun scowled.
Shiori practically glared a hole into the trees. “Shit… you’re kidding me.”
“I don’t know who that is,” Xana said mildly, “but their attitude already makes me want to puke.”
A woman emerged from the trees, though calling her a woman was giving her a lot of credit. Her thick white sweater probably hid the worst of it, but she was more like a monster from a western comic, shaped like a human because some comickers have no imagination. Violent purple welts covered her distended skin, growing from large black scars. It was almost as nasty as the grin on her face.
“What, your friends never told you about me?” the crazed woman cackled. “I guess I’ll have to introduce myself. I’m Organ, the last real Acolyte left!”
“...as I recall,” Mastema’s voice was stern, “you had no care for the trial placed before you by Vanitas. Whether you succeeded or not was less important to you than what you could do because that trial was there. Yes?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Organ’s grin broadened, and Xana felt her stomach churn. “Especially now,” Organ continued with the speed and cadence of a raving lunatic. “A stay in the underworld can do things to a woman, you know! Hehahaha!”
“So that’s how,” Uriel muttered, then he looked lukewarmly at Demeter. “You may not have the endorsement of Hades or Persephone, but as a member of the Greek pantheon, you have some access to the treacherous path souls take.”
“Of course!” Demeter’s renewed smile matched Organ’s in a way Xana couldn’t quite describe except as revolting. “What greater harvest is there than souls? The bitter, salty tears of the parted… the nourishing copper of the coins left for them… and the will of some of those souls to move on! Those who can bloom even in death are truly worthy of helping our harvest!”
Gabriel appraised Heimdall, on one knee, coldly from afar. “Why would the Norse pantheon help with this folly? Her methods and ideals are hers alone, yes?”
With one hand still clutching his horn, Heimdall weakly raised a finger to point at Gabriel. “You are the ones with the luxuries of a singular ideal. Vanitas is scarcely different than your ‘Lord,’ who cast so many others to the depths. Even if the world ends, you are comfortable in your supremacy. The rest of us must truly fight to stop it.”
“It sounds like you’re trying to turn us against her.” Shiori arched an eyebrow.
Jeng Yun’s scowl froze on his face, rare for him. “I will not turn against my sister in the fight for justice.”
Uriel’s voice was patient – in that moment, maybe even more so than Gabriel’s. “If the Lord had no concerns, he would not have us, now would he?”
“So tell us,” a Titan moaned, “what you stand to lose.”
“Vanitas gave its name to a form of painting,” Uriel explained, his voice rising and quickening. “It is called ‘vanitas painting,’ and it is so named for its depiction of a world without God. Empty; in vain. Now, why would such art take its name from a being fully aligned with the Lord?”
“Wahahaha!” Organ’s unpleasant laugh rang throughout the mountain, echoing like the call of a demon. “You sound just like him, too! Maybe you DO have skin in the game? But guess what?”
She spread her gangly arms. “I don’t care! Now let’s get fighting, so I can crush you and those damn Liberators!”
As the Liberators and Xana reached for their phones again, Demeter’s smile broadened.
The battle was joined, but having come back from the dead made Organ one tough customer, the way it did for Xana. Their attacks would’ve had some effect, but her sheer bulk meant that the bulwarks Demeter provided went farther than their attacks could go. Uriel’s fireballs practically tickled the “bountiful harvest of tears,” as Demeter called it through maniacal laughs. Mastema did a bit more, and Gabby had enough focused firepower to maybe approach doing something, but it just wasn’t enough.
“She’s just shrugging off our attacks like nothing!” Ririn cried.
“Well, at least she has a reason.” Xana said mildly, fiddling with her phone. “They don’t always, right?” In reality, she was bothered too. She was just too focused on wiping that smug smirk off of Organ’s face.
“This sucks.” Shiori balled up a fist as she summoned Amaterasu. “You guys’ve forced me to focus on healing.”
“It’s okay,” Xana said. She’d finally gotten through the contract she’d made a bit ago, and now she could download the right devil for the situation. “If our attacks aren’t enough, we just need more attacks, right?”
“The average demon will fare far worse than even we are,” Mastema said. “I would caution you, child of the hollow world, in acting with no regard for tactics.”
“Don’t worry, Mister Shadyhalo.” Xana said. “The demon I have in mind won’t steal your glory.”
In a flash of dark light, Mot appeared. Demeter’s smile shrank and vanished, and Organ scowled as the mood at her coming-back party was suddenly ruined. The angels didn’t look impressed, but Shiori had her arms crossed, looking appraisingly at Mot without her usual disgust.
“We need to strike, now!” Demeter cried.” For our harvest!”
A group of Titans charged at the Liberators, but Uriel dispersed them with a sea of flame. Organ and her demon Matador attempted to strike them down, but she was scraping at their formation like it was an iron wall. None of them were stupid enough to take the bait and miss her, after all, especially now.
She might have won the stalemate eventually, though, if Xana hadn’t ended it. Nothing to puke about now.
“Oh, I get it,” Shiori said. “So that’s your plan.”
“Yeah.” Xana nodded, feeling an odd lightness in her chest at what felt like praise from Big Sis Shio. “You guys have never heard of burst windows, so I guess… just go all-out on the gross lady when Mot comes out of his coffin.”
“No, but I have heard of this!” Jeng Yun smiled and clapped Xana’s shoulder hard enough that she stumbled backward. “It’s when the hero realizes the powers he has could be used better to defeat the villain. It’s a classic plot!”
“It seems rather odd to me. Miss Shiori, we could buy time to discuss this if you’d just–”
“Not taking your suggestion.” Shiori dismissed Mastema.
Most of them were ready by the time the coffin lid broke, and a flurry of attacks licked at Demeter’s bulwark like an excited, slobbering dog. Demeter blasted Gabriel with almighty sunlight, but it couldn’t create a ward strong enough to keep them all away. Demeter’s real power was regulated, like the passing of the seasons – if you didn’t give her enough time to make a real bulwark, she’d be overwhelmed. Even Organ couldn’t do that for her anymore.
Not with the power of Beast Eye on their side.
Soon, Organ could barely stand, and Uriel dove in, sword-first, to spear her. An unpleasant squelching sound followed as her undead blood poured out of her last wound. Xana had to hand it to the guy: the pose he was in as he finished her off would make a kickass Renaissance painting.
“Ugh… damn… it…” Organ hacked and coughed. “Didn’t even… get to finish myself off… fuck… you.”
Organ slumped forward on Uriel’s blade, and he withdrew it from her body before cleaning it with a giant handkerchief.
“Your opportunity to surrender,” Mastema said coldly, “was itself a trial. Demeter, goddess of the harvest: for failing that trial, your fate has been decided.”
“Wow…” Xana muttered. “That’s actually a really cool line. Great job.”
“So… what now?” Ririn looked at their foes, and Xana’s gaze instinctively followed: mostly beaten, one dead, and one looking like a child about to sob her eyes out.
“Allow us to handle the fallen,” Uriel suggested, offering an open palm, “and return to your hideout to rest as the heroes you are. Especially you, Xana, and you, Jeng Yun.” Uriel winked with one eye at her, and with the other at Jeng Yun.
“Yeah, that sounds good. Hey wait!” Ririn said, and then her tongue lolled out of her mouth. “Don’t tell me you’re…”
Jeng Yun reached for his own shoulder. “I’m interested.”
“Okay, let’s go,” Shiori said, then she started down the mountain without waiting for anyone to agree.
“I’m so hungry…”
Xana laid with her back on the couch, arms stretched towards the ceiling as if some miracle were coming from the sky. The smell of rice permeated the apartment that the Liberators used as their hideout.
“Well you’re going to have to wait.” Shiori didn’t look up as she spoke to Xana. She was sitting on the floor, typing away at her laptop on the coffee table.
“At least Meatface probably knows how to make a good meat bowl,” Xana muttered.
“It’s going to be more meat than rice,” Shiori informed her.
Seiran popped open the door and slid into the apartment, fan held in front of her face. “It looks like you all did it! There were some strange trends in the Dragon Stream, but they’re gone now!”
“Yeah, that was all thanks to the girls and Jeng Yun…” Megakin rubbed his chin. “Only problem is, I’m starting to wonder if maybe Demeter had a point this time, yo… I mean, this wasn’t gonna kill half the world, right?”
“Well, the impact on the Dragon Stream was more positive than not… but it seemed… clear.” Seiran tapped her fan against her cheek. “It’s hard to describe, but you understand what I mean, right, Taro? ‘Impurity is the spice of life!’ It’s not killing, but it’ll still kill our variety!”
“I’ve never heard you say something like that,” Megakin said, “but I DO hear you keep callin’ me Taro. Stop that.”
“Vince is going to be so sad when he hears the angels stopped the brainwashing and purification,” Xana remarked from her position on the couch. “He’ll have to go from blaming God to blaming gods.”
“Well, the archangels definitely have their own motivations for helping us,” Shiori said. “Honestly, I’ve only been comfortable with it now that Gabriel’s interested in you. At least we can rely on her to be selfish.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Xana said. “All three of them are selfish in different ways. Uriel would never want humanity wiped out or anything. He likes your culture too much.”
“Yeah, a little too much.” Shiori seemed to agree with the thrust of her point, though; she’d stopped typing for just a second to consider it. “And the grey one’s never really going to be a problem. He’s past his prime.”
“I don’t know,” Xana said, “he’s still got some muscle.”
“Not what I meant…”
“Well, thanks for your hard work, Xana,” Megakin decided, putting his hands on the top of the couch to peer over at Xana. “I guess I’m glad it’s all over. Another incident solved by the Liberators and their best buds!”
Xana glanced askance at Megakin and nodded. “Yeah. At least until she shows up a third time.”
And so, with Demeter contained once again and her mysterious bagels out of circulation, Tokyo returned to normal – complete with the Liberators hanging out, laughing, and waiting on one of their number to finish cooking for a big group.
Hopefully, Demeter’s ambrosia hadn’t found its way into the soy sauce supply…