Charlene didn’t often sit alone. Her days and nights were filled with some many projects and tasks and issues to work on that the closest she normally came to solitude was the rare one-on-one meeting with someone who needed a few private words of counsel.
Considering the boardrooms, and mansions, and yachts which her more public work transpired in, the sight of her sitting alone in the greasy, messy kitchen of a small dinner would have surprised many of those who know of her. Even among her staff, the waitresses apron she wore would have seemed out of character to some.
For those who knew her though, the one’s she’d allowed a glimpse into the person she really was, seeing her helping out a waitress who needed a day to turn her life around was the definition of her character.
Even a day before the end of the world. Even with the High One’s forces, and the Preservers, and the Pure Ones, and the Overseers, and all the rest who had pledged themselves against the Earth gathering their forces, even with all of that, helping a single life bloom was how Charlene chose to spend her last few hours.
“Need a hand cleaning up in here?” Jim asked as he knocked the dirt from his shoes before coming inside.
“I wouldn’t object to that,” Charlene said, not trying to hide her weariness.
“I’ve got the resupply for tomorrow in the truck outside,” Jimmy B said. “I’ll help you get things straightened up in here first though before we bring in any more clutter.”
“That will save us a few headaches,” Charlene agreed, and rose to her feet to help Jim as he began washing the remaining dirty plates and silverware.
“We’ve got this,” JB said, gesturing for her to stay seated. “You had a long day on your feet there. Take a break for a bit.”
“I have plenty of stamina for this sort of thing,” Charlene said.
“Yes, we know,” James said, the last of the four to step inside. “You could wait tables for a thousand years if you wanted and never get an order wrong, all we’re saying is that, for this at least, you don’t have to.”
Charlene raised an eyebrow at James’ presence with the group. Leaving his sanctum wasn’t easy for him, and there hadn’t been any dire need for him to venture out at this point.
“Is everything going well with our other preparations then?” she asked.
“Oh, of course not,” JB said. “Crises all over the place. No one has enough time, and none of our allies feels they’re even close to ready..”
Charlene’s smile was caught somewhere between nostalgia and wistfulness.
“So pretty much exactly what you’d told us it would be,” Jim said. For a big guy who was more used to dealing with grease around an engine than in a wash basin, he was nonetheless making good progress on the pile of dirty dishes left over at the closing time rush.
“They will be ready though,” James said. The arrangement of goods on the shelves bothered him but he waited for Charlene’s nod before getting to work reorganizing them. She knew that by the time he was done, the most used items would all be in easy reach and that the placement of the rest would allow for easy and intuitive access.
When they’d first met he would have created a very different layout, one focused around his own unique connections and uses for the materials and equipment. In the years he’d worked with her, he’d come to see the value in empathy and developed a real talent at understanding other perspectives. Those skills had bolstered his magic and his understanding of the arcane world in general, but that hadn’t been his end goal. He’d simply been inspired by the examples he saw around him.
“How about our own teams?” Charlene asked. “Their assignments were looking like they would be difficult to complete on time. Are they still looking like they’ll make it?”
“Unfortunately no,” James said. “Each team has encountered a set of unique challenges, and will need to take exceptional steps to resolve them. I asked each if they felt as though they could manage that and return before the High One’s forces struck, but I am doubtful of their responses.”
“Let me guess,” JB said. “They all came back with something like ‘we’ll get it done and be there, no matter what it takes’?”
“In an amusing twist, those were Tam and Sarah’s exact words, while Anna’s were ‘we might need extra time, tell the High One to wait for us’. She seemed to think that was a viable option?”
“It might be,” Charlene said.
The others turned to look at her, each trying to determine if she was serious, or the even less likely possibility that she was trying to tell a joke.
“It all depends on how he’s asked,” she said. Somehow the mystery her answer suggested was more comforting than any other response could have been.
“Who will be the one to ask him though?” JB asked.
Their eyes were still turned to her, since they all had their suspicions of why their leader was so seemingly unconcerned over the coming apocalypse.
Jim believed that Charlene was going to handle the matter personally, and that was enough for him. True, she’d never made any overt display of power or capability in front of him. Tam and James routinely wielded more mystical might than Charlene had ever called up in even the most dire of circumstances. Despite that, Jim had faith in her, and believed that when the need arose, she was have the situation well in hand, no matter it took to accomplish that.
James’ guess was similar, though he knew the scale of force which opposed them, and so he had a better idea how much Charlene would need to let her human facade slip away in order to defend the Earth against the High One’s forces. He expected her to take the lead, but kept his mind turning on all the myriad things the rest of the club and its allies could do to lighten the burden on her.
Jimmy B didn’t consider the matter in terms of power. Power wasn’t his thing. For him the campaign against the Earth was a series of events. He looked to Charlene as their guiding light in how to arrange those events so they’d play out in the Earth’s favor, but the idea of her doing all the work herself seemed ludicrous. Why gather allies, and why have the club at all, if not to call on them when there was an occasion like this where everyone was needed and everyone could help.
It was the haunted look in JB’s eyes which worried Charlene the most though. Of all of her associates, JB was the one who looked as though they knew that the time to say goodbye was fast approaching.
In a sense, all of them were correct in their guesses but Charlene hadn’t shared her own vision of what was to come with anyone them, and didn’t see any reason to change that.
There were changes that would come, and losses too. No future was wholly certain though, and there was no need to borrow troubles from a tomorrow which might never come to pass.
“Well, whatever happens tomorrow, at least this place is setup to handle the morning rush,” Jim said, as he placed the last of the dishes on the drying rack.
The kitchen wasn’t miraculously clean and shiny. Rooms that are used build up dings and scuffs that only a full restoration can really get out. Short of that however, the small room looked great. Jim had the dishes stacked neatly in the drying rack where they could be pulled or put away as needed. James had all of the supplies in order. Jimmy B and JB were stocking the shelves with new supplies. Everything was ready for a day which might never come.
“A toast if you’re all willing?” JB asked, passing out five glasses from the drying rack and filling them with a bottle of wine he’d brought along in an ornately decorated box.
“To Charlene,” James said.
“Our leader, and our example,” Jim added.
“She always throws the best parties!” Jimmy B finished.
Charlene nodded in appreciation of the compliments and tested the wine. Unsurprisingly, given that JB had provided it, the wine was excellent. Charlene smiled in approval, but the smile faded into a soft frown at the thought of the wine being one more thing that could be lost in the apocalypse.
“To our friends in the field who aren’t able to join us here tonight,” Charlene said.
“To Val and Connie, who were both stronger than I’ll ever be even before they got their hands on any magic,” Jim said.
“To Tam and Sarah, who came to me asking to be taught, but who taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined,” James said.
“To Anna and Jen, who could lead us into hell and make the devil himself chauffeur us out,” Jimmy B said.
“And to all the others who have stood with us,” JB said. “They traveling by many strange roads to meet the path we walk on but we wouldn’t have made it this far without them.”
“That’s the most important thing to remember,” Charlene said. “This world has been in peril many times before. There have been countless tyrants and calamities that have threatened to destroy it. What has seen the world through has always been those who are able to cherish those who are different from themselves finding the strength and understanding to stand together.”
“What we cannot face alone, we must face together?” JB said.
“Yes, but even when there is no one beside you, if you hold to your bonds with each other, you will never be alone,” Charlene.
She didn’t meant to sound gloomy, and didn’t intend to attempt to convey the grand secret of the universe in a short, pithy package. She cared about all of them though, both those who were present and those who were fighting on distant shores.
James saw hints of the conflagration that was massed against them, but even with all his study, he was only able to grasp the tiniest fraction of what it meant when many worlds united to destroy a single other one. For the coming storm to destroy the world as the tapestry of fate depicted, it would need to crash onto the Earth with power beyond that of all of the gods in every corner of the world and all the realms which were connected to it.
Every Shadow-Earth, every Lost Continent, every Hidden Parallel Earth and Crosstime Reflection, they would all burn, along with all of the defenders who would fight for them. Mortal minds couldn’t property envision the scale that destruction would take place on. They lacked any real frame of reference to provide the needed context.
Even with an immortal perspective the destruction was unfathomable. Not unprecedented though. Charlene couldn’t understand what would drive someone to the place the High One strode towards, but she could believe all too easily that a heart of such malice existed. She’d seen it happen before. She’d failed to stop it before.
With only a few small hours left in the Earth’s penultimate day, Charlene looked within and asked herself if she truly believed that the people she’d gathered, her Second Chance Club could create the miracle which was needed. The miracle that could have saved the first world that was given to her stewardship. Within twenty fours, she would have her answer.
“Or maybe we could start a bit sooner than that,” the High One said, his voice booming from everywhere around them at once.
Dashing outside, everyone saw the sky shatter into pieces as the apocalypse began.