Well, here we are, at last! Hereafter's final chapter. There is an epilogue. It'll be up in a few minutes.

I hope you've enjoyed this little project of mine. I didn't do it alone and I owe so many of my friends and readers for their help and support. Damlone, Blueberry, OnceNever, Weaver, KT, Cimar and... Bloody hells, there are a lot of you. I couldn't have done this without your help. As to you lovely readers of mine... What can I say? Your feedback, support, and comments have been a phenomenal help and hugely encouraging. Thank you.

Now that the sentimental stuff is out of the way, on with the story!

Judy wanted to be afraid, but she knew better. She felt the control he was exerting as the power built—a tidal wave of potency marshalling under the will of her fox in preparation for battle. It was beautiful. She was not prepared when he let it loose.

There was no scale she could compare it to. Reality bent under the pressure. She felt concerned as it washed over her, but her worry was short lived. The lust slammed into her. She fell to her knees holding her belly. She should have seen it coming. He was an incubus, but even that wouldn't have prepared her. Judy's head swam and roiled as wave after wave of power billowed out of the fox and into the world.

As her head cleared, Judy noticed the others were faring worse. Finnick was on all-fours, panting and gouging furrows in the concrete of the roof with his claws. Gazelle was standing, but only thanks to the wall of a stairwell behind her. The ungulant's thighs were pressed together and quivering as her eyes rolled up in her head and her mouth hung open. The howls and screams from the courtyard below were an anchor for her mind, and Judy pulled herself back to reality in time to see Nick in all his glory.

His presence weighed down the world. His fur danced like flames. Power dripped from his eyes, and he grinned with too many teeth—exultant in his freedom. For just an instant, his six wings flashed into being and were gone, leaving an afterimage in her mind. His Spear appeared, and he stood—regal and terrible—looming over the world as a god looked on ants.

He offered a paw to her and Judy took it. It took everything she had not to climax at his touch. If she did, there'd be no coming back and she knew it, so she gritted her teeth and forced down her desire.

"Impressive, little angel," the fox crooned.

Judy shuddered. His voice was pure, honeyed lust. "When this is over, I'll show you impressive."

She felt his smile turn hungry. "I can hardly wait."

Judy wobbled to her feet shaking her head to clear it. "What did you do?"

"Alas, nothing to worry about." He stretched, drawing her eyes. "I pulled everything within ten miles out of time. It'll keep the damage contained. But if Lollipop wins…well…"

"A stopgap," Gazelle rasped. "Will it be enough?"

Judy glanced at the Cursori and was surprised at the resilience of her fellow. She was shaky, but steadying.

"Reality will hold," Nick assured them. "This spell will reinforce it, but we don't have much time. We have latitude, but need to move quickly."

Finnick's pained voice cut in, "Then let me help, sire."

Before anyone could respond, the tiny fox opened his maw and roared. The mountains echoed and the heavens shook at the fury of what Judy had always assumed was an imp as the tiny vulpine twisted and changed—growing at a terrifying rate. In a matter moments, Finnick was eleven feet high at the shoulder with enormous horns curling around his ears and jutting forward by his jaws. The roof groaned under his weight.

Nick could only blink. Judy was staring slackjawed alongside Gazelle. Finnick was enormous. This day just kept getting stranger.

Nick snorted. "You weren't just employed at the palace, were you?"

Finnick wordlessly shook his huge head.

"What was your position, I wonder?" The flat look Nick got for a response confused him.

Judy breathlessly grabbed his paw. "He can't speak in that form."

"Of course," Nick grumbled. "And the only other person who would know is Lucifer."

"Who just happens to have left his memories with you," she commented. "Remember?"

"This is hardly the time," Nick retorted.

Gazelle cleared her throat. "Call me crazy, but I think it's a little bit relevant. Don't you?"

"Down the rabbit hole…" Nick groused. He'd have to be quick.

He closed his eyes and reached for the knot of memories that weren't his own. It was a peculiar feeling coupled with a burning sensation from the scar on his chest. Surprisingly, the knot shifted and shuffled, pulling the knowledge Nick wanted to the fore.

His eyes snapped open. "He was…my father's personal bodyguard and... warmount." Finn lifted his chin, exposing the Collar. "That was his mark of office and allowed me to serve my master at my full strength. Now, it stabilizes him, so he can serve again." He smirked. "Albeit mutely."

After a long breath the Devil smiled. "I think I like that collar where it is." The relief from the fennec was palpable.

Judy couldn't stop herself. "I'm sorry. Finnick, I—I thought you were an imp."

"We all assumed." Nick replied in his friend's stead. "He never corrected us."

Judy shook her head and sputtered, "Then what in the Nine Hells is he?"

"I'd comment on your vocabulary, Carrots," Nick commented, annoyed. "But I want to see the look on your face." Before she could snap at him, he plowed on leaving her speechless, "His momma was a behemoth." Finnick huffed a laugh. "And daddy was a Thunderbeast."

Judy wanted to ask, but Gazelle beat her to the punch. "Does that mean, his grandmother is…?"

"The Leviathan," Nick supplied.

Judy staggered as though the world was tilting under her feet for a moment. Gazelle seemed awestruck, but moved to place a hoof on the massive demon's side.

"Don't worry," Nick assured them. "He's the runt of the litter."

Before the situation got any worse, Judy clapped her hands. "Alright. Topics for later. Right now, we have a battle to win. They're distracted and confused down there, but that won't last. We need to move."

"Indeed." Nick turned to her. "We do."

She met his eyes levelly. "Yes. Us. You and me."

"Me and Finnick," Nick corrected. "Not you." His tone grew severe. "Not yet."

"No." Judy squared her shoulders, ready to fight. "I am not sitting this one out!"

His face was soft in contrast to his tone. "Judy, you have a job to do."

"We all do," she barked. "It's time to end this!"

"No. You need to understand the Empyrean while we hold them off." Nick drew himself up, marshalling his powers.

Judy goggled. "What? NO!"

"Your power is the one that can end this." Nick's paws carved spells into the air as he spoke. "We need you to get a grasp of it, so we can end this fight. And you can't do that in the middle of a battlefield."

Frustration boiled in her gut. "But—"

"No 'but's." He sighed. "We need this, Judy. Battle is the oldest form of communication there is. We'll go get acquainted with our enemies while you figure out our trump card."

"I sort of hate you right now." She hated sounding like a pouting brat.

"Needs must when the Devil drives." Nick shrugged. "Tell me I'm wrong on this one."

Judy forced her fists open. "Fuck."

"Later, I promise."

Judy snorted and punched him.

As much as she hated to admit it, Nick had been right. For a moment Judy had thought he had been getting all protective of his female. But his reasoning had been solid, and he hadn't been denying her. It was a small consolation.

"What do we do?"

Judy blinked at Gazelle. The Cursori had addressed The Devil plainly and openly, as a soldier would their commander. It was heartening, if a touch disturbing.

"Finnick and I will entertain our friends—" Nick stated—"while you protect Judy."

"Understood." So saying, the ungulant angel manifested her armor. It was light and elegant, accompanied by a great longbow and a quiver of arrows. "I'll also lay in cover fire where I can to support you."

"Good." Nick turned to Judy and whispered, "Work quickly. We don't have much time."

With that, her fox turned away. His armor flowed over his head and his great wings framed him. Finnick dipped a shoulder allowing Nick to mount up, Gazelle took up a sniping position by the wall, and Judy was left with no other option.

She touched the Bond.

You better save some of them for me.

I'll do what I can. They're terrified and insane, so we'll see.

You'd better.

In response, all she got was a feeling of amusement from the fox.

Nick leaned down to pat the shoulder of his steed. "Come on, Finn. Let's go crash an orgy."

The warmount roared, unleashing lightning over his hackles and horns. Nick screamed a battle cry and the two vanished over the side of the building.

There was a thunderous silence in their wake. It was only a moment, but felt much longer. In that tiny infinity, emotions tore through Judy. Annoyance, amusement, frustration, and anger played through her mind at the speed of thought. She wanted to fight. Then fear sparked through her, and her reasons for fighting were clear. Yes, she wanted battle. She craved it. However, she wanted to fight side by side with her fox—to watch his back and keep him safe.

Skyfire crackled across the sky, illuminating the land. Judy looked up and, in the wake of the skyfire, there was a shadow—a nameless form of hunger and fury painted against the clouds and black. It could have been a figment of her imagination, but the dread in her belly told her otherwise. The building shook and the sound of combat reached her ears. Very quickly, she sat and settled into a comfortable position. With the fear and worry echoing in her mind, she slipped into a trance. The only way to master oneself was from within.

Judy knew something was wrong from the moment her eyes closed. When she had attempted to scry, her mind had been assaulted. That art of looking between was troublesome in that respect. Looking inward to see beyond oneself exploited the strange overlap between internal and external landscapes, but it was a one-way door. She'd been attacked when she left the safety of her internal reality. The outside reality could not intrude on the inside.

Or so she'd thought.

In the blank everything of her mind, a silhouette was waiting for her. It was small and grotesque—only an outline of shadows. It stood patiently. Judy could see from it's writhing that it was eager to talk to her—fervently so. On the positive side, it took a lot of power to invade a mind, let alone so peaceably. Such attacks were intrusive and violent by nature, but Lollipop's presence was restrained and Judy felt no violation. The most it could be was an echo of a shadow and that was dangerous enough.

Judy glanced over her mindscape. She knew what she was looking for was nearby. There was a flickering glow in the distance. She couldn't get to it without provoking the form waiting for her. It was quiescent—if fidgety—but there was no guarantee it would remain that way if ignored. She approached carefully, well on her guard and ready to flee instantly. Whatever happened, she was adept at mental combat and they were on her turf.

"What do you want?" Judy addressed her visitor.

"You called for help." It tilted what passed for it's head. "I answered."

She sneered. "I did no such thing."

"It was only moments ago." A table and two chairs appeared, and Lollipop gestured for her to sit with a tentacle. "You've been begging for eons."

She carefully slid into her seat. "Uh-huh."

"Your futures sing and scream through my mind," it crooned as it sat as well. "Just as you sing and scream within them."

Judy idly checked her nails. "Metaphor isn't doing you any favors."

The shadow form shivered happily. "It's no metaphor, Little Light. You are a choir of suffering and ecstasy, begging for death."

"Futures, plural," she scoffed. "How can I have more than one?"

"Not all things are set. There is…give to your fate." It leaned forward entreatingly. "And mine."

Judy leaned back. "Get to the point."

"I have come to answer your wish." The figure wriggled and oozed. "You beg for oblivion and I will grant your request."

"No thanks," Judy replied, mildly. "And I haven't wished for anything."

Lollipop shook its head. "Not yet."

"Is it just me—" Judy's voice dripped sarcasm—"or do you seem saner here?"

Too-long arms spread in a grand, gelatinous gesture. "This place is Between. There is no room for misunderstanding in Between."

"I spoke too soon." Judy huffed. "Let's hear it. What do you want?"

The form dripped in silence before answering, "Free me."

She didn't miss a beat. "Not happening."

"I will be free." The form bubbled, heat coloring it's words. "Do it now and I will grant your wish."

"No, you won't. Not now, not ever." Judy crossed her arms dismissively.

It growled. "Release me."

"I said no."

It turned simpering. "I am not your enemy."

Judy couldn't help the eye-roll. "Are you the same entity that's trying to break into reality?"

"It's 'out' not 'in'." Several limbs slithered as the shadow shifted in its seat. "Big difference."

She fought down the urge to rub her temples. "You're trying to break reality. Therefore, you are my enemy."

It leaned forward, entreating. "I am offering you the peace you desire."

"By going back to your cell in Tartarus? Perfect! I accept." She clapped her paws in dramatically feigned delight.

"No," it stated with finality. "I will be free. If it is by your hand so much the better, but that is not what I would spare you from."

She sighed. "From what then?"

A claw punched into the tabletop. "From your mate."

Judy grunted in disgust and stood to leave.

"Your fate is not yet sealed," it pressed. "End him and spare yourself."

"And free you in the process, damning Creation and all my kind?" Judy clicked her tongue and smiled. "I'll pass."

The shadow heaved and snarled, "And accept your end as a warden-whore?"

She paused and turned to face the shadow. When Judy looked back, she saw the shadow had shrunk. It was now an image of herself, but quintessentially wrong. The form was scarred and blackened, with hollow eyes and sallow cheeks. The wings were tattered and branded, ichor oozed from old wounds and dripped from her eyes and mouth.

Judy scowled in distaste. "You're looking tired there, Lollipop. It's taking a lot out of you to be here. Are you sure you have the strength to spare?"

"You will fall. This—" it snarled and gestured to itself—"will be the conclusion of your journey. In the end, you will be cast adrift. Your children shall be abominations, writhing forever in the depths. They shall rise and destroy all you hold dear."

"Leave. Now. You'll see me in the flesh soon enough and you're almost spent," Judy sneered as she stood. "Save your threats for when we're face to face."

As she turned away again, the thing spoke—this time whining, almost pleading, "I've seen many things and all possible futures, but you...are an anomaly. You have vile silver white wings and black feathers. Birthed monsters and saints. But which are you? Which will you be? Why can I not see you?"

She snorted. "I thought you could see everything."

Lollipop whimpered. "Once. Less now. More again, soon."

"And we're back to riddles," Judy groaned.

"Your mate is more a monster than I could ever be. Your love will blind you and his will break you. You will beg for the release of death." Her withered doppelganger screamed and begged. "Destroy him before he speaks your name, or you will face all of time and more battling the serpent in the sun! Then you will be his Tartarus!"

A trill of unease flitted through her mind and was squashed. "You're ranting again."

"Ask your vicious little candle then." Lollipop spat, gesturing towards the blue glow in the distance with a mangled limb. "If you believe I lie, so be it. But that blessed fire of yours will speak the truth of it. Ask before your broken spirit heralds Creation's subjugation. No one will be safe. Not you, not the mortals…. Not even your offspring. Ask, little angel, and despair."

Judy stood for a moment in the silent expanse, unsettled and annoyed. As if the strange threats and warnings hadn't been enough, now she had to "talk" to the empyrean. That was all she needed. Mastering the power she'd inherited was her goal. She didn't want to have a conversation with it, let alone convince it, or negotiate, or—heavens forbid—have to build a relationship with it. Her life was complicated enough with dating the Devil and the apocalypse looming.

Head throbbing, Judy marched in the direction of the blue glow, grumbling with every step.

As she walked, the glow shrank. Instead of an inferno, Judy found a small ball of flame, roughly the size of her palm, floating above a simple pedestal at chest height.

"Huh." She leaned down to peer at it. "It's so small."

"Says the pint-sized juggernaut," the ball retorted, startling her. "Don't you know that size and power don't always match up?"

"Of course I know that. But you're supposed to be great equalizer against that…thing." Judy vaguey waved over her shoulder. "I don't see it, looking at you."

"I'm a fire, oh my bearer," the fire commented as it floated to eye-level. "You want me big? Feed me."

She eyed the little orb skeptically. "Feed you what, exactly?"

"Anything. Well… anything you don't mind losing," the fire stated conversationally. "Your predecessor fed her love for her bondmate, her emotions, love, morality. Look how she ended up."

Judy grimaced. "That's…a stark truth…"

"I think she assumed those were what sustained me." The orb pulsed in what Judy understood to be a shrug. "There's no such thing as getting something for nothing, and I am no exception. Just how naïve can you be?"

At that moment, the orb flared and grew. In the span of a breath, Judy was looking at a mirror image of herself composed of ethereal blue flames. "We need to talk."

"Awkward turn of phrase," Judy let slip.

Her blue double regarded her, unamused. "About your predecessor and repeating history."

"What do you mean?" Judy replied, uncertainly.

The fire paused, seemingly weighing its words. "Corruption is never fully removed. Even if your fox ascends, he will always be an ascendant demon. His wings will never be fully white."

"I can keep him in check. I matched him already," Judy retorted, defiant.

"Yes, in that Den of his. You fought with him on equal terms. Well done." The flat tone conveyed nothing. "How are you at fighting yourself?"

She balked. "Excuse me?"

The fire pulsed. "The Bond you share is a conduit that goes both ways. You share more than just each other's strengths."

"I figured that part out already. I'm getting more sarcastic by the minute," Judy snarked.

"And ruder. But that's a separate matter." The fire sighed. "The corruption in him will bleed across the bond to you. I've been burning it out of you while I've waited for you to get your tail in gear, but that's going to cost you."

She blanched. "So you've already been feeding on me?"

"On your power, yes. Don't worry. I only took a nibble here and there, and you have plenty. I only took enough to keep the pestilence on the other side of the Bond," it assured before turning grim. "If you complete the ceremony, it'll only be a matter of time. Even if I take power from you and him, you will eventually be infected with it irretrievably."

Fear trickled into Judy's mind. "What about him? Will he fall again?"

"What do you think?" It retorted acidly.

She laughed hollowly. "We're doomed then. There's no way out in the long term."

"Now, I didn't say that, did I?", the blue-Judy checked its nails.

Irritation blunted the wave of elation. "There's hope?"

"Of a sort." The Fire faced Judy squarely. "Listen up and listen well. Your Bond with him isn't a small thing. It means a soul-bond if you complete it, and that's eternity whether you like it or not."

"The hell are you talking about? I love him!" She slapped a paw over her mouth, but the words were out.

"Yes, you do." It lifted a perfect eyebrow. "But will you still love him in a few million years?"


"Eternity, rabbit." The Fire lifted a finger. "That's how long your battle will be—fighting the corruption in him and yourself. That is a dangerous proposition. There is a very real possibility that you will both end up utterly ruined."

Judy felt herself deflating. "And where in any of this is there hope?"

"You aren't in this alone." It let the statement sink in. "Test his resolve. He'll know what you know as soon as you open your eyes. But understanding it? That will take more. Help him understand."

Judy raked her paws hard over her ears. "How?"

"You're warriors." The Fire retorted. "You have your own language."

She rubbed the bondmark on her paw. "If I can't?"

"Then history repeats itself." The Fire shrank to a small orb again and pulsed a shrug. "You two end up like Aurora and Lucifer. And all that is will be consumed."

She clenched her paws, staring down the Fire. "And if he's resolved?"

"You'll face a future of labor and sacrifice in the name of preserving Creation in all its forms and majesty. There are no happy endings for creations like us." The orb returned to its pedestal and sat unmoving as Judy digested its words.

Nick felt right at home. He felt odd admitting that. It was both true and disturbing. The little slice of the Mortal Plane that he'd sectioned off was closer to a pleasure garden in Hell than a hospital courtyard. Between his sex-soaked power and Finnick's roar, the population of the courtyard was either panicked or distracted in whatever way their fractured minds could interpret lust. Nick hadn't seen such a display of misdirected desire since the Arena. That didn't stop them from mounting resistance, or him from striking them down.

As much as he wanted to simply vaporize the lot of them while his spell held, that wasn't the point. He was buying time for Judy to get her act together with her new toy. That said, he was enjoying himself, if growing increasingly bored. Finnick was having a blast shredding anything in reach or throwing lightening around, and it was gratifying to see angelic fletching sprout from the head or heart of an enemy. The little Cursori was clearly plying her skills as an archer. However, that was the extent of his pleasure.

The small fry he was eviscerating were no challenge, not even the devils. A spark of pale violet flame or a flick of the wrist would see them vanish from existence or fall to bloody chunks on the ground. In his mind, Nick kept recalling his duels with Judy and the fun they'd been. She'd grown so much in the time since he'd first met her. By comparison, the mob he was facing now was underwhelming.

Nick slipped from Finnick's back and landed on the ground, leaving the massive beast to dismember a particularly large devil as Finnick pleased. Another devil and a pair of cultists charged him and melted before they even got close. Another three were pinned to the ground by arrows moments afterwards. The angel with the bow must have assumed he was in trouble, because the arrows fell like rain on anything that got close to him. Looking up, Nick tossed a two-finger salute at the rooftop and the barrage stopped.

There were still plenty of enemies for him to pass the time with. Groups were even coalescing. There was a chance he might not be bored to death.

Then Judy hit the ground, and the whole game changed. He felt her awaken, but was instantly shut out. All he perceived from her was a jumble of emotions. There was no time to think about it, however, as the rabbit launched herself from the rooftop and slammed into the battlefield.

Her form was wreathed in light blue flame and a tongue of darker fire danced on her forehead. It was beautiful. Nick felt her strength and tried the Bond, but she held it shut. As she walked towards him, her face wasn't the determined look of a soldier focused on their task. She looked resigned, pleading—almost afraid.

There was a reason she wasn't letting him in. All he could do was follow her lead and trust her. They stood back to back as the remains of their enemies collected themselves. This was what she wanted. Then, naturally, they just had to be interrupted.

The ring of lunatics and monsters surrounding them stilled and parted. Nick felt his angel tense next to him and the intensity of the flames around her grow. She was angry.

"Are we all here then?" the latest avatar of Lollipop boomed.

"You've never been 'all here', buddy," he quipped back.

Judy didn't say a thing, which concerned him. At the very least, Nick had thought she'd say something defiant. It was her nature. And yet, all she did was seethe. There must have been something about this particular shape that upset her. Nick amended his assessment to 'badly upset her' as her fires continued to grow.

The massive water buffalo was dressed in a ratty cassock and priest's collar, covered with suppurating flesh, and carrying a grimy book. A festering slash across its arm was festooned with small tentacles. Nick saw the look pass between Judy and the abomination before it smiled. No good would come of this. Lollipop was baiting her and was not being subtle about it.

It opened its mouth and cheerfully proclaimed, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the—"

"Oh, shut up," Nick barked.

"Impatient for a bridegroom, aren't we?" the buffalo crooned, smugly. "Not a surprise considering you've already tasted the honey pot. Pity the blushing bride can't wear white."

"Is that book you've got an anthology of clichés?" Nick asked mildly.

Lollipop cocked his head. "How did you know?"

Nick had to blink. "You've got to be kidding me."

"This place has so many rules…" Lollipop whined.

"I prefer to think they're guidelines." Judy growled.

A dagger flared into being and it flew from her paw at the avatar of their misfortunes. Nick had to admire her gall, right up until Lollipop caught it.

"Temper, temper, little angel," the abomination crooned.

"It's 'temperature', moron." Judy smirked viciously and snapped her fingers. Blue fire lashed out from the dagger in Lollipop's hoof, engulfing his hoof and forearm. The monster screamed.

Nick felt a flare of pride. His angel baring her fangs—and so deviously—was a thrill.

"Is that how you want this to go?" Lollipop spat. Tentacles sprouted from the burned stump of his forearm. "As you wish it, angel. Buckwheats! Buckwheats for everybody!"

The water buffalo waved an arm and the ring of his minions around the pair screamed as one and collapsed. Nick watched in mild distaste as the bodies of the cultists and devils surrounding them liquified into a pudding or gelatin-like consistency before meshing together. Within moments, they were the hundred or so vaguely mammalian forms were reduced to a few dozen masses of flesh and limbs, which were, frankly, far more menacing.

They had room to fight and Nick was sure they'd handle their situation handily. Between the two of them, they certainly had the power to mop up, despite whatever surprises Lollipop had in store. That said, he was astonished when Judy stepped away, turned to face him and came to guard with her short sword and buckler.

"Carrots, what is this?" Nick chuckled weakly.

Her face was set as she leveled her sword at him. "This is necessary."

Lollipop's laughter cut through the moment. "Yes! Oh, yes! Necessity! Glorious, convenient necessity!"

"Shut it, puss bag," Nick snapped. "This isn't about you." He ignored the resulting babble and paced back from his angel. "Turning on each other is necessary? I don't blame you, but you could have waited until we'd beaten that."

"I'm not turning on you," Judy stated calmly.

"Uh-huh," he replied warily. "What is this, then?"

"You need to understand—" she pressed—"and this is the only way I know that you'll get it."

Nick's confusion melded into annoyance as Lollipop laughed and crowed, "Yes! Listen to your wife! Communication is so important in a marriage."

"Does he ever shut up?" Nick growled.

Her eyes met his. "You have a more important conversation to focus on, Nick."

His head cocked. Something else was happening—something he wasn't fully grasping.

Her smile was watery. "The oldest means of communication there is, no?"

She added a wink and Nick felt her press on the Bond. He came to guard with his spear, knowing something was about to happen. He felt the Bond open a crack and a wave of love came to him with a message.

Don't hold back.

Judy knew her fox was flying blind. She'd set it up that way. They circled each other cautiously, but she could feel his disbelief. He wasn't taking this seriously yet. It was too strange a circumstance—too silly a turn of events. She could also feel nothing beyond his disbelief. He was holding the Bond closed, just as much as she had been. She kicked herself mentally, but it was only to be expected. She'd shut him out, at first to set up a moment where they could talk freely, and now, he was hesitant. It made sense. All she had to do was get him to open up. It was up to her to make the first move.

The ring of devils around them tightened up to enclose them, but otherwise kept their distance. Lollipop was apparently buying into her strangeness. For once, Judy was glad their enemy was a raving lunatic—it was working in her favor.

Nick tossed out a jab, which she batted away. There was no force behind it. He was testing her, teasing her to get a reaction. In reply, she danced in close and sliced at his stomach. He quick-stepped back and swatted at her with the butt of his Spear. She caught it with her shield and slid down the haft, hoping to crush his fingers, but he dodged away again. Nick was getting the idea. He was less laconic in his stance, but still not convinced. It was enough, however, and Judy pressed her attack.

She built her offensive slowly, playing to his preferred tactic of drawing her in. She waited for her chance, falling into his pattern and giving him every opportunity to play his hand. Finally, she overstepped into a lunge and he struck, batting her forward from behind.

Judy rolled into the gentle, almost tender shove from her fox and repaid him. She swept through her roll and kicked his foot out from under him. As he fell he struck at her and she dove away from his Spear, but it was only a warding action. She closed the distance again. He slid up to a knee in time to parry and she hammered his guard with her sword.

She strained against his strength. She could see his arms trembling and smiled. Seeing her chance, Judy pressed hard on the Bond and sent a word.


Nick did not understand. His confusion and frustration grew with each pass he and the rabbit made at each other. He'd tried to fight with kit-gloves, but had been disabused of that idea. Judy's pommel strike to his ribs and follow-up kick to his knee left him sore in more than one way. All she kept repeating was the one word.


Over and over, she'd said it. He didn't understand at all. To look at it, she was begging him to fight her at full strength, but he didn't think she was suicidal. That said, she certainly wasn't pulling her own punches. She'd scored a few hits on him, leaving him irate, bordering on angry. Nick didn't want to hurt her and didn't know what she was after, but his patience was running out.


Please what, rabbit?!

In response, Judy did something incomprehensible. She closed her eyes and lunged, swinging at full strength. It was an absurd act—total commitment and blind…

It clicked.

Total commitment and blind faith. In each other. Their lives were on the line and she wanted him to trust her in the absence of their Bond. He wouldn't know her plans and couldn't tell if she was being honest. It was his trust she was after, in absolute terms.

Fear boiled in him for an endless instant as her blade flew towards his head and he made his choice. For the first time, he believed. The haft of his Spear flew to meet her blade and guided it to the ground where he planted a foot on it.

As you wish.

With her blade pinned he sent a vicious blow into her stomach, knocking her back. She rolled with it, vanishing her buckler and calling up a curved war dagger and a kukri. Now that he was committed, there was no going back. Nick pressed his advantage and attacked. Judy dished back as good as he dealt out and his preternatural healing put to the test. Whatever his armor couldn't handle, his flesh absorbed and he exulted in it.


The word hit his mind and his Spear changed on reflex. He swung wide and hard with the wickedly curved blade and felt it come to a jarring stop on her guard. The shaft slipped over her head, guided by dainty paws, and met a punishing kick once it was safely away from her. The gargantuan devil it eviscerated was of little note to Nick as he had to parry her riposte and duck under a flying tomahawk a moment later.

The next devil fell a moment after his rabbit rebounded off its chest. His Spear split what passed for the thing's chest and he sent a gout of flame after it in frustration. He'd been sure he'd had her that time. Another devil was crippled by a counter attack of hers that he smacked away and one more fell with a pair of daggers in its eyes—one thrown and one used as a hand-hold to stop her momentum after Nick had launched her away with a kick.

Nick had never experienced such fun.

Judy had what she wanted. Her demon was fighting like he had in his Den and she was keeping pace with him. She still had her trump card to play and the last test. More than half the devils were dead and the rest were either injured or crippled outright—collateral damage from their duel. Lollipop was shrieking and babbling in delight. Half of the sounds coming from the remains of her chief weren't meant for mammalian throats.

Judy allowed herself an instant of self-satisfaction that her little plot had worked out so well. The devils hadn't seen it coming, Lollipop was too insane to understand her behavior, and Nick had worked out the riddle. More importantly, he'd trusted her. That was the thing that had her fighting down tears. He'd trusted her without question. He'd let her hurt him and hurt her back just as hard. They'd traded beatings and evasions on equal terms, and it was time for the fight to end.

She reached for the Fire within her and it filled her. Reality bent and strained under the force of her attack. Her demon's weapon was batted away, leaving him open to a brutal kick pommel strike before he could blink.

Lollipop screamed in triumph, "Yes! Yes, broken angel! End your tormentor and free me! I will end your sorrow!"

"Oh, shut it, will you?" Judy mumbled as she held her blade against the fox's throat.

She was the victor. He was unarmed and pinned under her, hairs from death at her hand.

"You win, rabbit." Nick sounded resigned.

"I win." Judy's legs gave out, dropping her to half-kneel over his chest.

Her arm shook as she tamped down the Fire and lifted her fox's weary paw. She pressed the grip of her blade into his paw and aimed it at her own throat.

"What?!" Lollipop shrieked. "What are you doing, you stupid feathered rat?!"

Judy didn't say a word. She waited.

Fatigue-induced hallucinations weren't new for Nick. He'd had his fair share. That was why he knew this wasn't one. He wished it were, just because that would be less bewildering.



Why would you do this? What was the point?


Listen, Carrots, I'm not going to kill you. So it's time for you to explain.

He felt her finally open the Bond, but what she did next was all sorts of uncomfortable. Nick had felt similar things many times, but it was a new one feeling someone reaching into him though that particular route. Nick felt his rabbit reach out through the Bond and touch his power, pulling up his ability to control time. For an instant, there was silence, and then there was a flood.

Everything she'd experienced from his departure on the roof to opening her eyes forced its way into his mind. Meeting Lollipop, her conversation with the Empyrean Fire—her fears, her worries. And her plan. Finally, he understood.

"Sweet Misery, Judy…"

"What?" she huffed.

"What?" Lollipop echoed.

Nick couldn't help it. He laughed. It was so utterly ridiculous.

She didn't see it, but he could as clear as day, now. He opened the Bond and showed her. Their duel against each other had ended up a dance—two warriors learning and testing each other, compensating for their failures and weaknesses as much as exploiting them—communication on the level of mind, emotion, and soul regardless of the Bond. Nick saw what she went through with the Empyrean and Lollipop in her meditation. He understood her fear and laughed.

"What's so damn funny?" she demanded.

He placed the pad of his finger on her lips, stilling them. "You tried for conflict as your means of communication, and we ended up fighting together more than we fought each other."

She blinked. "We did?"

"Uh-huh. It's called collaborative problem solving." Nick shifted up to rest on his elbows. "If you were worried about us working together, I think you have your answer. We were battling flat-out and mopped the floor with our enemies. Nice misdirection, by the way."

Judy shook her head. "That just means we were in an impasse."

"And 'accidentally' beat the stuffing out of our enemies while we were at it." Nick lifted an eyebrow. "That is the goal, is it not? The Divine keeping the Devil in check and Creation defended?"

Her eyes goggled as though she couldn't believe her ears. "Well, yes, but—"

"And we both know you could have killed me back there. If the worst happens, you can save the world from me." He winked up at her. "I think that's enough for us to work with."

"Is that enough though?" Fear and hope warred across her features.

He smiled and saw her calm. "I've seen plenty of marriages work with a lot less."

"No." Lollipop gurgled.

Nick snorted in irritation. The few devils that weren't destroyed had fled, leaving the one nuisance to address. Lollipop would be the hardest to kill, despite looking more like a convulsing blob of necrotic pudding than a mammal now. It ranted as it rotted.

"No! Creation must burn! The Heavens must fall! The pillars of Being must crumble! The turtle be made into soup!"

Judy helped Nick to his feet, keeping an eye on their enemy. She fought the urge to back away as Lollipop writhed and grew, sprouting tentacles, limbs and claws as it expanded and absorbed the bodies that littered the ground. A cultist that had been playing dead shrieked and a wounded devil gurgled in distress as they were engulfed. Lollipop spread and expanded until they were hemmed in by a crescent of putrid flesh. Dozens of eyes opened and closed across the expanse—swimming across the surface like fish, bobbing to the surface and disappearing.

From the center of the meat, a blob forced itself forward and it cobbled itself into the shape of a vaguely mammalian face. It looked like it was formed by a mind that had only heard them described third-hand and not understood.

Three mouths split the cheeks. "Last chance, little angel. End the fox and free me. Or suffer for all time."

Judy felt Nick at her shoulder.

Judy, this isn't good.

What do you mean?

We don't have a lot of time left. I can feel my spell weakening.

How long have we got?

A few minutes, maybe. We're both tired and that…thing…is fresh as a daisy.

We have my Fire. That can kill it.

This is going to take both of us, sweetheart.

Judy glanced up at her demon. The look on his face said it all.

You have something planned, don't you? You did from the start.

Yep! It's time to play our trump card.

What do you mean?

It's the opportune moment, rabbit. Time for the next big step in our relationship.

"Do you, Verna?" Her heart soared at his words.

Judy could only smile up at her little slice of Hell. "I do, Piberius."

The moment the syllables left her lips, Judy felt the Bond open and deepen in ways she'd never dreamed possible. She felt him. All of him. The long years, the patience and cruelty, the stalwart loyalty and childlike wonder. Layer by tangled layer, her fox opened up to her down to his root, where she finally saw him—a fallen guardian seraph and a raging ocean of power held in check by an equally titanic will.

He was terrifying.

He was beautiful.

He was hers.

Golden light spilled from his hand as he took hers. His bondmark shrank to form a simple, elegant band on his finger. Hers mirrored his, glowing with the light of sunset and dawn.

Their lips meeting hadn't been part of the plan, but he couldn't have stopped it if he wanted to. They were grimy, covered in filth and sweat. The only witness was a mad homunculus which was actively melting into a puddle of tortured flesh. Nick was flat on his back and neither of them were the better for wear.

He wouldn't have had it any other way.

Power flowed between the two. Nick felt his strength and experience mingle with Judy's flexibility and prowess. It was a heady feeling. The realization that they were equals and stronger together than alone, or even in combination, slowly dawned on him as his strength returned and grew. As a pair, their power far exceeded the sum of the parts.

When he opened his eyes, blue flames danced on his fingertips.

Judy wanted to shout and scream and laugh until she was crying. She didn't know what to do with what she was feeling. Power flowed higher and harder, filling her and blunting the pain of her injuries. She felt wonderful. Then she saw her fox start to change.

His golden wings lightened to an ashen white and the darkness in his power vanished. As she helped him to his feet, she saw his armor was no longer a twisted mockery of flesh. Instead, the hard, cold, clean lines of the raiment of the Guardians adorned his frame. The only difference was the crest on his chest—the crest of the Throne of Heaven was replaced by a sigil she didn't recognize, but she didn't need to. She knew it was his mark, the mark of her husband.


"Yes, darling?" he replied.

She couldn't help but grin. "Let's clean house."

Nick smiled at her with a small bow. "With pleasure."

Lollipop erupted with laughter. "I won't fight you."

"Sure you won't," Nick retorted.

"I don't have to, but I will if you insist." The distorted face hitched in a shrug and the features began to drift across its surface. "I've already won, even if I am blind to the victory."

Judy eyed the writhing mass looking for an opening. "You assume an awful lot."

"Assumption is the blood of fools. You should know that after birthing of so many. " The face's many eyes fixed on her. "And seeing so many die."

"Your delusions never cease to impress," Nick cut in as his Spear manifested in his paw.

"You will call to me, angel." Lollipop continued, ignoring him. "You will beg for release and I will answer. Eventually."

"Enough," Judy spat.

Nick felt the daggers fly before he saw them. He was moving before either blade landed. He was inches from impaling Lollipop when the mouths opened and vomited bones, knocking him back.

"What happened to not fighting us?" Nick couldn't hide his annoyance.

"Where's the fun in that?"

A tentacle slammed into the ground where Nick had been standing. Judy's short sword carved a slab off it while Nick slashed another through. They were stronger and bolstered by their second wind, but they were running out of time. No matter how many limbs they shattered, or how much damage they did, it healed to the tune of insane laughter.

We need to create an opportunity.

Easier said…

Use the Fire.

It needs fuel.

What's I been using so far?

My power. Just bits, but that's enough.

Then take some of mine. I've got plenty.

Nick tapped his power and flooded the bond.

Judy winced as her fox's power hit her. It felt like a tsunami through a garden hose. Instinctively, she directed it to the little corner of her being where the Empyrean Fire sat, awaiting its next meal. It ate greedily, corruption and all. She felt the flame grow and grow until it was a flood to match what she'd received from Nick.

He felt Judy summon the flames and send them down the Bond. He let them fill him and guided them into his weapon. Nick drew back his arm and sent his Spear flying, not at the suppurating mass of flesh, but the rabbit. In a burst of fire, she spun out of the way in sync with his attack. One foot caught the haft of the spear and redirected it, the other she slammed into the butt heel first.

Lollipop only had time to grasp the misdirection before the Spear slammed into its body. It drove through, straight to the concrete and stuck there, pinning the monster and filling it with cold, blue, purifying fire.

As flames engulfed the monster, it shrieked. "Set me free!"

Nick closed his eyes and reached out to his Spear with his will. The work was not done.

The flood of power from his mate flew through him and his Spear into the monster. He opened himself as a conduit and rode it as it chased down the corruption through the ether. Nick sped it on its way. The fox hunted with the flames, scouring every shred of it they could find, all the way back to the source. He recognized the place—a room carved from the obsidian fundament of Hell, encrusted with Tartarus diamonds and carved with layer upon layer of spells—the door to Lollipop's cell. One of the locks was just a hair out of alignment.

Nick sent the fire to scour the room and was gratified at the shriek of pain he received in return.

Judy sat with her mate in the aftermath of the battle, dangling their feet off the bridge from the hospital to the mainland. His spell was long gone and the world had returned to its rightful pace in time. There were bodies littering the ground and an unholy amount of cleaning up would be needed, but that was a worry for another moment. Right then, she needed a quiet moment with her mate.

The fact of that word made her pause. She was married—soulbonded, in fact—to the Devil. She was the first angel since Celestine to complete the bonding ritual and with…him. Judy's eyes fell to look at Nick's paw, where the pale golden bondmark rested. Her own mark tingled on her finger and he nudged her.

"You ok?"

She hated to ruin the moment, but she had to ask. "Nick…. Do you really think we can make this work? All joking aside, this isn't going to be easy."

He laughed wearily. "Nothing worth having ever is."

"I'm serious," she persisted.

Nick eyed her, unconcerned. "How long did I wait to get my revenge on Buffy?"

"Yes, yes…" She prodded his ribs with her elbow. "You're patience incarnate."

He swatted at the offending limb. "We'll get you lessons."

Judy giggled, leaning into her husband's arm. The quiet stretched for a moment before Nick's chuckles broke the silence.

"What's funny?" she asked.

"You." He snickered. "'Happy ever after'…. I mean really, rabbit, I thought you knew better."

She pulled back, looking up at him. "What do you mean?"

"Happiness is transitory. It never lasts. It can't." He smiled down at her. "But it can always be found again."

Judy leaned back skeptically. "That's kind of a stretch, isn't it?"

"If you're willing to work for it, I'm game," he replied glibly.

She gripped his arm. "You sure?"

His paw landed on hers. "We only have eternity to get it right."

"But you really think we can?" she pressed.

Nick sighed in fond exasperation. "Judy, it only took a few billion years, two passes through Hell, and a near-apocalypse for me to meet you. We've got long odds covered."

Someone behind them cleared their throat, which pulled their attention from each other. Gazelle approached with Finnick padding along in her wake. No sooner had Judy stood than the Cursori kneeled.

"Really?" Judy groaned. "We have to start with this nonsense already?"

"Of course, Lady Divine," the ungulant replied.

Judy looked to the fennec. "At least you won't bother with this nonsense."

Finnick sneered through his smile. "I bow to no one but my master, toots."

"I'm right here, buddy," Nick drolled.

"Talk to me when your tail is on the throne, Devil Apparent," the imp countered.

Judy laughed. "I don't have orders for you. I assume you have someplace you want to be?"

"Yes," Gazelle intoned. "We want to check in with that Clawhauser fellow. Maybe see what help we can be in the aftermath."

"Sounds good to me," Nick interjected. "Off you go! We'll clean up here."

"Yes, my lord," Gazelle replied.

Judy looked at her fellow angel in astonishment.

In reply, the Cursori stood and shrugged. "Masters worth serving are hard to find, my lady, and you've earned my loyalty. Both of you."

With that, the Cursori swept her imp into her arms and took to the air on her wings. For the first time in ages, an angel could fly unhindered, thanks to the Wager's suspension. That was one of many, many things they would have to discuss in the days that followed. The list was enormous and grew with every passing moment. It was overwhelming. Judy's eyes flicked over her fox as he sat staring over the water and she decided it could wait a few more minutes.

She padded over to her fox and plopped down next to him. "So…. What now?"

Nick chuckled. "First a shower, and after that I think I promised you some praise."

"Why don't we have dinner first?" Judy proposed. "I'm starving."

Nick stretched. "How about dinner and a movie? The Masked Fox is out at the classics theatre on Fern Boulevard."

"And then The Diner?" Judy suddenly felt invigorated.

Nick clicked his tongue, chewing it over. "I'm not feeling that right now. How about something different?"

"Try everything, right?" She was feeling better by the moment.

A voice cut through the air that was deep and resonant but achingly soft. "A wise choice."

Both their heads snap up to see a Jackal in a tweed jacket with dark slacks leaning on a peculiar looking cane. His ears were unusually long and sharp looking, his expression mild and composed. A surprising sight, considering they were in the middle of a battlefield.

"And you are…?" Nick inquired cautiously.

"I have more names than I care to recall," the jackal replied blandly.

"That's terribly unhelpful," Nick commented.

"Why are you here?" Judy ventured.

"Official business—" the well-dressed canid stated, quickly amending—"Not with you."

Judy nodded, glancing at Nick. "Oh, good. And what is your business, exactly?"

"My own." the thin canid replied. "However, I do feel obliged to thank you for resolving this little issue with Mother."

"Mother?" Nick asked incredulously.

"It's a long story. One I do not have time for at present. Suffice it to say that I owe my existence in part to the being you just met." He set a small box on the ground by his feet. "Here are the tokens of my thanks. I'll leave it here until your curiosity overwhelms your wariness. I will promise you that it is completely safe."

He was instantly standing just in front of Nick. "But this I must be close for. Do not move."

Nick's paw hovered, ready to summon his Spear, but didn't move otherwise. The jackal smirked lightly. Very slowly and obviously, he raised his cane and used the end of the peculiarly shaped handle to prick his thumb. Before Nick could react, he reached up with his bleeding thumb and quickly anointed him with his blood.

"There," the jackal said with a ghost of a smile. "Now, you don't need that silly brew of yours. I'd suggest you drink it instead."

Nick remained frozen in pace. "Drink it?"

"That's what it was made for," the well-dressed male replied. "If you wish to know more ask my sister."

Nick squinted in confusion. "Your sister…. I know her?"

"You call her Leviathan." The jackal stepped back primly. "Incidentally, the seal that was used here…"

"The one Lollipop used to steal souls?" Judy inserted.

"Lollipop…" He snorted in amusement. "Yes. It was your father who designed it, but I would appreciate its discontinuation."

"It's not my style." Nick shrugged. "I have no interest in it."


Judy couldn't help herself. "Just out of curiosity, why do you care?"

"Call it professional courtesy. I taught him some of the principles used in it, so I have the right" The poised canid met her eyes and she shivered. "And you are in no position to gainsay me."

With that, the Jackal turned to leave, but Judy called out, "Are you—"

The ageless mammal with the soft, booming voice turned to her and smiled. He lifted his cane, gripping it by the shaft and it grew. In a moment, he was holding a scythe with a long, gracefully curved blade and intricate scrollwork along the pole. His jacket and slacks were replaced by simple, flowing cotton robes that were at once both completely black and completely white. All the while, he grew to colossal stature, towering over the courtyard. With a wave of the scythe, Nick and Judy saw the ghostly forms of the dead pulled from their bodies. The shades made their way diligently onto the small boat that appeared on the water beside the courtyard. Death silently boarded the boat, setting his scythe to the side and taking up the boatman's pole and pushing off into the spectral mist that had arisen around them.

He smiled at their astonishment, saying "I will speak with you soon", and was gone.

Judy felt herself sag in relief. "Well, that's concerning."

"Not really," Nick commented.

"What? How?" She couldn't help but laugh.

"He said 'speak' with us soon. That doesn't sound like he's coming to collect us. It also doesn't pay to worry about it." He shook himself and turned to her. "Dinner?"

Judy snickered. "Are you serious?"

"After a brush or six with Death? Yes." Nick padded over to the box Death had left for them and pocketed it. "When better to appreciate the good things in life?"

Judy gathered herself. "Alright, so where to?"

Nick scratched his chin. "I'm thinking creole."

"Creole?" A smile of anticipation crept across her face. "What's that? I've never had it."

"It's delicious and that's all the more reason, then." Her mate started jogging backwards towards the road. "Come on, Carrots, catch me if you can!"