There was a ring of worlds in the sky, planets hanging like jewels on a string, arranged in a circle that curved out to infinity and beyond. From each world to the next, currents of light flowed carrying hopes, dreams, terrors, and the sound of countless voices. On some worlds the light shone brightly, on others it suffused the land, and on some it found new expression in the souls that called to it and gave back their own light in return.
Spinning along on the string, not so different from the rest, the Earth hung serene against a sky of endless stars until flames began to rain down on it.
Oceans were stained red as the falling fires burned everything they touched. On the land a single spark was enough to set a continent ablaze and in the storm that followed everything was reduced to ash.
The threads of light that bound the worlds together weren’t spared the violence either. Out into the heavens, cosmic bands of light burned along with everything else, snapping one by one, until the planet finally spun loose, spiraling off into an ever emptying cosmos, it’s untethered orbit carrying it beyond sight, sound, or hope.
Tam closed her eyes and the maelstrom of electricity which surrounded her faded away. Breathless, she drifted back down to the center of the scrying circle she’d assembled in her sanctum.
“You look like you’ve seen about a thousand ghosts,” Val said, stepping forward to offer her a hand up. She hadn’t had a chance to clean up after her last mission so the smoke of a battlefield still suffused her and reminded Tam uncomfortably of the vision of the burning Earth she’d witnessed. She hadn’t been close enough in the vision to see any people, but she could hear the echoes of a world screaming.
“More like a few billion,” she said, wiping her face and pulling in a deep breath to reclaim what sense of calm she could manage to find. “That wasn’t one of the fun visions.”
“What did you see?” Anna asked. She looked like she wanted to offer Tam a comforting hug but held back knowing how raw and scrambled Tam’s emotions could be come out of a taxing vision.
“This time it was the Earth burning in divine fire,” Tam said.
“You’re sure you’re safe when cast those divination spells, right?” Cynthia asked. She was sitting glued to her seat, just as she’d promised. Like Anna, she visibly was holding herself back to give Tam to recover from the spell.
She could have waited elsewhere, but the strain of watching her girlfriend casting such taxing spells was less than the strain of imagining all the things that could go wrong. Or of not being there to offer what support she could. With the evidence before her of the kind of price Tam paid for glimpses of the future it was always tempting to interrupt Tam’s casting, especially when the visions Tam saw tore cries of pain and anguish from her, but those visions had saved too many people already for Cynthia to try to argue that Tam should stop.
“For reasonable definitions of ‘safe’, yeah,” Tam said. “This one bordered on dangerous only because of the divine element, but gods-who-might-yet-be aren’t quite as troublesome as ones who are, if that makes sense.”
“It sounds suspiciously like an admission that you’ve been pushing farther than we discussed would be wise,” Anna said. “Was it worth it?”
“I think so,” Tam said, grinning sheepishly. She hadn’t known she would turn up something as profound, and she had overextended herself, but her intuition had paid off. “Since we declared Earth as a sanctuary world, we’ve been making our share of new friends, and with them come a whole lot of new enemies.”
“You don’t say,” Val said probing a bullet hole that had punched through her enchanted shirt and been stopped by the under armour she wore.
“Remind me to fix before we leave,” Tam said, nodding at the damaged gear.
“Sarah can handle it,” Anna said. “Or James. You are going to rest and cast nothing until your eyes stop glowing.”
Tam held up a hand to her face and saw a golden radiance reflected off her palm.
Yeah. She’d definitely be pushing it she decided.
“Ok. That might be good,” she agreed, mentally pushing off the debut of her next show by another month. “Let me fill you in on this though before I turn in.”
“I’m going to call in sick too,” Cynthia said. Tam flinched at that. Cynthia had responsibilities too and while the side work she did with the Second Chance Club was every bit as life saving as her fire fighting, there was a limit to how much the two activities could co-exist.
“I’ll be ok,” Tam said.
“I know,” Cynthia said. “I’m going to make sure of that.”
“I’ll get JB to talk with your chief if you like?” Anna said. “I’m sure we can work out an arrangement so you won’t have to spend time off. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the recovery opportunities we can get from here out.”
“That’s ok,” Cynthia said.
“Hey, we’re all about helping people right?” Val said. “So let us help you help us.”
Tam smiled and sighed. That was what she was fighting for. Everyone around her and everyone who supported them. She thought of the angry gods in the vision raining fire down on the Earth and felt a fierce determination rise within her.
“She’s right,” Tam said. “We’re going to need everything we’ve got for what’s coming next.”
“You said the Earth was burning?” Anna asked. “Were you peering into the Nightmare Realm again?”
“No,” Tam said. “That’s the problem.”
The Nightmare Realm was one of the many psychoplanes which captured and reflected the thoughts of the minds in worlds it was adjacent to. It was an avenue Tam had turned to several times in order to discover information that was otherwise hidden behind strong wards or stronger wills. Visions from the Nightmare Realm tended to be more symbolic than literal in nature, but they could still offer valuable and surprisingly detailed insights into the plans and ambitions of people with malice in their hearts.
“You saw the real Earth on fire?” Val asked, her brows furrowing in concern.
“Yeah, and I got a sense of what brings us to that juncture too,” Tam said. “Before I worry you too much though, any kind of future sight is inherently unreal.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” Cynthia asked.
“Basically? There is no future. Or, if we’re being accurate, no past either,” Cynthia said. “In a metaphysical sense, the future is always the possibility of what can be, and the past is always the collection of what might have been, both defined by the conditions which exist in the present.”
“Ok, so because I have a bullet hole in my jacket the past has to be one where I was shot sometime recently?” Val asked.
“Yep. Or one where you cut a very convincing fake bullet hole in the short, or where there was a freakish manufacturing defect in it that just happens to look like a bullet hole. There are other factors, like the bruise on your side, that help solidfy the idea that its a bullet hole, but on a fundamental level if we could change that hole so that it wasn’t there now, we could make it so that it was never there at all.”
“But the past can’t be changed like that can it?” Cynthia asked.
“No. Not by mortals or gods,” Tam said. “What’s done is done, barring some really unwise uses of time magic and even those tend to use cheats. The future isn’t quite so set in stone though.”
“Makes sense,” Val said. “I can either fix the shirt or leave the hole there.”
“Right, and when I look forward, I’m going to see a future where you did one of those two things,” Tam said. “My looking forward though doesn’t determine which one you do. I’ll probably see a future where you do fix the shirt, since that’s the most likely outcome, but if you choose not to then that future simply doesn’t come to pass.”
“Does it not exist or is it a parallel timeline that we simply don’t encounter?” Anna asked.
“How could you tell the difference?” Val asked.
“Normally we could not,” James said joining them with tea for all. “Mortals can’t normally move across time. We go forward and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes things, or even people, fall through from one timeline to another though. It’s not common but it’s happened enough that there is a general consensus that some things do cause parallels while others don’t. Obviously it is not an area which is very conducive to study.”
“Yeah. Make a mistake and your timeline implodes, which tends to reduce the number of papers you can publish a bit,” Tam said.
“What about immortals?” Val asked. “They’re not quite as limited as we are right?”
Aranea stepped out from empty air to fold Val into a hug from behind.
“We pass through time the same as mortals do, we just see a bit more of it usually,” she said, revealing that she’d been spying on the proceedings without displaying any shame over it.
“Forwards and backwards, right?” Tam asked. Aranea was a fascinating person to question, but she tended to grow cryptic and silent when probed for details on things outside a human perspective.
“Yes, though as you say, looking forwards is often either depressing or infuriating,” Aranea said, apparently in a rare communicative mood. “What’s the point of watching a version of tomorrow which never arrives.”
“In this case, it’s to make sure that tomorrow never arrives,” Tam said.
“Avoiding the Earth being reduced to cinders seems like a good thing,” Anna said. “Did you vision show you enough to tell you how to avoid that fate?”
“Not precisely,” Tam said. “But that’s how future visions are. What I can say for sure is, people are going to escalate. We can’t be a refuge for the oppressed and not get their oppressors all kinds of bent out of shape about it.”
“From the pep talk Charlene gave us, I think she has every intention of bending some oppressors out of shape,” Val said.
“Yeah. The problem comes in when we have to stand alone against all of them,” Tam said. “Earth’s not a naturally high magic realm. We don’t have the kind of casters other worlds have, or the same sort of spirits and gods protecting us, no offense Aranea.”
“None taken,” Aranea said. “My dominion is what it is. It is what I am. I need not be supreme outside it.”
“How did they move against us in your vision?” Anna asked.
“They came at us from beyond our sphere,” Tam said. “They never manifested on Earth, they attacked the strands that bind us to the rest of the multiverse. After destroying everything on the surface of the planet.”
“That doesn’t sound easy to fight against,” Val said. She wrapped her arms around Aranea’s which were hugging her around the waist. It was a scene that would have been surprising if Tam didn’t know Val as well as she did. For all that Val was tough in a fight, she wasn’t hard or brittle.
“I suspect if the burning Earth was easy to avoid, Tam would have seen a different vision,” Anna said. Tam could almost hear the wheels turning in Anna’s head. Plans were forming there.
“Yeah, that’s kind of the problem,” Tam said, hoping to help bring clarity to Anna’s thinking. “I saw this vision because I was looking for our world’s most probable future. To get to it I had to skip over a bunch of other ones where things went even worse but there was a good chance we could find an answer to avoid them.”
“When did you’re vision take place?” Anna asked. “It can’t be soon can it?”
“Six months,” Tam said. “What I saw takes place a bit less than six months from now. That’s how long we have to figure out how to save the world.”