The Hellfire Chapel, Hell

With the Pandemonium destroyed, this is Hell’s most prestigious building: a colossal hall, similar to an oversized version of a baroque church. The effects of the battle with Abyss are still visible, though, since the roof has crumbled against its weight and scattered debris all over the place.

Another consequence is less visible: Oblivion, the Lord Of All Demons who sits on a red throne shaped like a horned skull, is missing his right hand.

Noriko winces when she notices it, but tries to hide her discomfort. By a quick calculation, there are at least six thousand Demons looking at her right now. At least they can hear Oblivion just fine: the booming voice of this large muscular Demon really doesn’t need a microphone.

Noriko Null, Slayer of Gods. By the powers invested in me by the Pandemonium and the Blood, I grant you an official pardon for your crimes.

-What crimes, he’s the one who kidnapped you – Kari Zel whispers.

You are, however, forever banned from setting foot on Hell again. Your companions are welcome to return to Hell whenever they desire, though.

-What sense does that make? – Quantum wonders.

-After all that happened, you’re still trying to understand Demon logic? – Noriko mocks him.

-Lord Of All Demons, I have a formal request – Torn suddenly interrupts, something that seems unusual both from his friends and Oblivion.

You have already been granted a pardon for your treason, Torn. You will not be reinstated as a member of the Seventh Circle: your link to Earth compromises your neutrality.

-Indeed. That is why I ask to be granted the title of Hell’s Emissary to Earth.

The request shocks the Demons in the audience, who start to whisper among themselves.

There is no such position, Torn. Hell doesn’t have ambassadors.

-Maybe it should. Maybe it’s time Demons join the galactic community – Noriko speaks up, earning a scolding frown from Oblivion. They look at each other, and her silver eyes light up.

I will ask the Pandemonium to vote on this, when its reconstruction will be completed; then I will follow Hell’s will. Now, it is time for the Slayer of Gods to return home.

Oblivion raises his right arm, and a red energy hand appears to replace the missing one. With a gesture he draws lines in the air: his energy cuts through the air, painting a pentagram of fire.

-Wait a second, we’re seriously leaving just like that? What about Torn? – Quantum complains.

-I will be back – Torn reassures them.

-Your family is here. You don’t have to return to Earth if you don’t want to – Noriko tells him.

-I know – is the predictably short answer.

-We’re gonna miss you. Say goodbye to the kids for us – Kari says, almost tearing up.

-You will see them again: Lesion really wants to visit Earth sometime, and she will live longer than all of you combined. Unless you get killed without my help.

-That’s a terrible joke – Quantum says.

-What joke? – Torn replies; as usual, it’s almost impossible to understand if he’s serious.

Your goodbyes are quite touching, but this interstellar portal isn’t self-sustaining.

After a handshake by Noriko, a fist bump by Quantum and a hug from Kari, Torn watches his teammates step through the pentagram and disappear.

 

Null Tower, New York City

The Operation Center is empty, as most of the people who have access to it are not on the planet.

Predictably, when a pentagram of fire appears in the middle of the room, it trips an alarm.

-Oh shut up – Noriko orders, and the alarm ceases. Once Kari and Quantum are with her, the portal behind them disappears without much drama. The can both finally take a sigh of relief, but they’re not alone for long: two Nullbots barge in, closely followed by Bob Null and Todd Slate.

-Thank God you’re alright! Where have you guys been!? – Bob asks.

-Hell – Kari and Quantum answer simultaneously.

-Sure looks like it – Bob adds, after giving them a look: they’re visibly exhausted.

-Everything’s fine, Father. Now, it’s better if all of you stand back, I don’t want to hurt you – Noriko warns them, pushing them away and signaling Todd not to come any close.

-It’ll just take a second. Open windows – she orders, and the room duly obeys by lowering all the one-way windows of the Operation Center. Noriko takes a deep breath, then stretches her right arm towards one of the windows and says with a stern voice:

-Update.

The reaction is extremely fast and strangely familiar: a bolt of lightning, unexpectedly coming from a clear sky, creeps through the window and reaches Noriko… without striking her.

The electricity flows freely around her arm, without touching her. It concentrates in a ball of power floating above the palm of her hand: she seems to be struggling to keep it there, but she’s clearly enjoying the sensation of being in control. Then she closes her hand. All her muscles clench, as the electricity flows inside her: it’s not a painless process, but she doesn’t scream.

-Well that’s new – Quantum comments, raising an eyebrow.

-Noriko, are you alright? – Todd asks, and this time she lets him come closer.

She opens her eyes. They’re extremely bright, but they slowly fade to their standard shade of silver.

-Sure. Absorbing information through electricity was the first thing I learned after… well, after Athena. But I’m learning how to control it; I don’t want to electrocute myself every time.

-I’d like an update as well. Where have you guys been? Where’s Torn? – he presses her.

-Leave of absence. Speaking of which… Kari, Quantum, you can go have some rest. Earth doesn’t seem to be in danger at the moment.

-Good idea. I think I’ll absorb a couple duplicates to learn what we missed, have a nice shower and hit the bed for the rest of the week – Kari says.

-It’s three P.M. – Bob tells her.

-And we’re far too tired to care – Quantum replies, immediately turning into energy to disappear.

Kari slowly walks away while Bob, Todd and Noriko look at her.

-Never thought I’d ever see Kari run out of energy – Noriko comments, mildly amused.

Bob gets closer: while he doesn’t want to intrude in her relationship with her boyfriend, he can’t help being worried for her.

-And what about you? You should ask Catherine to check you out.

-Maybe later. Come on, Todd, there’s work to do – she says, taking Todd’s hand and practically dragging him out of the Operation Center.

Todd has been in a relationship with Noriko for only a few weeks, but he’s known her for months: he knows she doesn’t like to admit weakness. But it’s been a long time since he’s seen her this energetic, and her enthusiasm is somewhat contagious.

-O.D.I.N, do you have a minute? – she calls, not once slowing down. Not even when the Tower’s holographic projectors create a semitransparent raven, which flies towards her only to land on her shoulder.

Awaiting instructions, ma’am – the bird says.

-Assume control of the company until tomorrow; call me only if something unusual comes up.

-Is that really a good idea? I’m still not sure we can trust… – Todd starts to object, but stops when all of a sudden Noriko grabs his shirt, pushes him against the wall and kisses him.

Ma’am? May I enquire if this qualifies as unusual? – the holographic raven asks.

-I’ll say – Todd replies, as soon as he’s able to speak again, but it’s not something that lasts for long: she’s already back to kissing him, interrupting only to give the next order to O.D.I.N.

-Block all communications to and from my room for the next… thirty… sixty…

She takes Todd’s hand again, practically dragging him in her room. He sees her fidget with the keypad on the wall, which he recognizes as the commands to the Sound Nullifier™.

Ma’am, would you please clarify the last order?

-I don’t want to be disturbed for the next… y’know what, don’t call me until I call you, okay? – she says, closing the door and completely shutting down O.D.I.N.

-What’s gotten into you? – Todd asks, and again he barely has enough time to speak before she’s pushing him against a wall and kissing him.

-It’s not what got in, but what got out. I’m free! Abyss is gone! I can’t feel her voice anymore!

-Really? That’s great! I’m so… – he tries to say, but Noriko is all over him again.

-I feel free. I feel in control. I feel ready – she says, throwing away her leather jacket and wasting no time whatsoever removing his belt.

-I want to feel you. I want to feel human – she says.

The rest of their clothes are discarded before they reach the bed.

 

Later

Noriko kisses Todd one last time before moving, from on top of him to his side. She takes a few moments to recover: they’re both out of breath, their naked bodies covered in sweat.

Her silver eyes are still shining from the afterglow of their passion, and she can’t stop smiling.

-I wasn’t too loud, wasn’t I? I wanted this to be perfect, but some things aren’t easy to control.

-No complains here. Was this really your first time? I mean… – he asks, immediately regretting the question. She responds by giggling.

-You sure know how to talk to a girl. But yeah, I might’ve… cheated a little… with my powers. I learned everything anyone’s ever written about sex.

-Hurray for research then. I think we wrote a few new pages together.

-Yeah, well, knowledge and experience are very different. I’m happy I have both now.

Awkward silence. It’s a rarity between them, and while usually it’s the sign that something’s wrong, Todd notices that she’s still smiling.

-I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that you’re happy. What happened?

-Do you really need a reminder? I’m a worse lover than I thought – she teases. He doesn’t buy it.

-I’m supposed to be the one you can be honest with, Noriko.

-I went to Hell and came back. It’s something that changes people.

-I thought you said Hell was just a planet like any other.

-I’m not talking about the planet – she cuts him off, rolling to her side. She seems surprised when he embraces her, but doesn’t pull away when he kisses the back of her neck.

-I’m still sick, you know. Abyss may be gone, but there are other voices in my head.

-I wasn’t making love to them – Todd answers, kissing her ear.

She’s facing away from him, so not only he doesn’t see her smile fading into sadness, but he can’t see her eyes changing from silver to pink.

When are you gonna tell him? I’m the one he loves, not you” – another voice thinks.

“Shut up Eve. He doesn’t even know you exist” – Noriko thinks back.

He loves the humanity inside you. But you can’t love anyone, can’t you?

-Noriko? Is something wrong? – Todd asks her, moving her head to kiss her on the lips; her eyes change back to silver at the very last second, as she stares at him.

You’re just using him because he makes you feel better. Just like Mom would”.

-I have to go to the bathroom – Noriko lies, quickly getting off the bed and running to the bathroom. She locks the door behind and she frantically reaches for a small plastic container inside the cabinet.

It’s full of pills, all unlabeled. Eve knows what they are, since she shares Noriko’s memories.

Fluphenazine? Does your boyfriend knows you keep antipsychotic drugs around?

Noriko takes a pill from the container and looks at it. There’s a knock on the door.

-You sure everything’s fine, Noriko?

Come on, lie to him, tell him you’re fine. This is self-destructive behavior, Null, I am very disappointed in you. Enough with this crap, gimme something to shoot!” – the voices argue.

“Enough voices” – Noriko thinks, taking another five pills and swallowing all of them.

Then she looks at the mirror. Her image stares at her, naked, her eyes silver once again. The voices are now silent, and she’s back in control.

For now.



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