Anna looked at the destruction of her meeting and flicked a chip of concrete from her shoulder. A powerful being, probably a god, stood before her, but all she felt was annoyance.
“Get on your knees, crawl on your bellies, and your punishment will be lightened,” the High One said, smirking in triumph as the light from his body bleached the room to ever paler shades.
A tremor ran through the room as even the walls felt the gravity of his words.
The High One looked around the assemblage, and the crowd bowed further. For all the crushing weight of his command, falling under his gaze was a hundred times worse. Try though they might, the onlookers’ struggles against his will were ultimately futile. In the end, the High One knew, they would all prostrate themselves before him.
“And you would be?” Anna asked, standing before him without bothering to hide the chill of her accent.
She could feel the authority radiating from the High One. He was larger than she was. He commanded more resources than she did. Trillions of souls gave him obedience and would swear that he was right in all things. It didn’t mean that he was however.
The High One’s presence sought to fill his onlookers with fear but the frosty center of Anna’s heart was where fear went to die.
“I owe you nothing,” the High One said, sneering at her question. “You violated my realm. You stole those who belonged to me and gave safe harbor to blasphemers. I will not abide this.”
“Is this what the conference was meant to discuss?” Mezzinora asked, her voice trembling and she fought to bring her shaking limbs under control. For all the outward display of fear, the act of speaking at all was a testament to abundant reserves of courage she could draw on. None of the other guests were able to even manage that much in the face of the High One’s divine majesty.
“No,” Anna said, offering Mezzinora a small, reassuring smile. “This one is uninvited.”
She glanced over to where Val and Laura stood by the main entrance to the impromptu meeting room. Meeting Val’s gaze, Anna lifted a questing eyebrow and nodded towards the High One. Val returned a noncommittal shrug.
Anna understood her young friends meaning entirely. Val wasn’t sure how strong the High One was, or what her chances were against him, but, from the fire in her eyes, she was more than willing to find out the hard way.
“Do you think you can eject me from this world?” the High One asked. “Come, try then, let’s see what your pet sorcerer there can do. You should learn to despair properly.”
Anna placed a hand on Tam’s arm as the magician began to step forward.
“Like we need magic to beat your ass down?” Val said, strolling into the space the High One’s aura had cleared, and rolling her shoulders with a satisfying crack.
The other people in the room backed further away, in part to give Val more space to work, and in part because the show of resistance was enough to lessen the strength of the High One’s command.
The High One raised his hand in a slow, unconcerned gesture with his palm open. Before anyone could see what happened next, there was a loud boom and Val was across the chamber, embedded half a foot into the concrete wall.
“Please, come at me again,” the High One said with a smug smile.
Val had just extricated herself from the concrete when the High One waved his other arm. He did it slower this time, so that people could follow the gesture as another thundercrack sounded and Val was smashed deeper into the wall.
“That’s enough,” Anna said. She knew how things were going to end, and found it tiresome to listen to the godling prattle on.
“No. I don’t think it is,” the High One said and flicked a finger at the depression Val had been smashed into. An even louder boom followed as the wall collapsed entirely, sealing Val under tons of rubble.
“You will regret that,” Anna said, her tone calm and matter of fact. “What do you want?”
“I want you all to burn,” the High One said. “Not perhaps the whole of your world, not the ones who give themselves to my dominion freely and fully. Those may be spared. But those who have the idea that they exempt from my law, those who would reject my love? You will be reduced to ash, and from your ashes a better world will be formed.”
Val’s growl as she broke free from the collapsed stone and concrete was only technically a human sound.
The High One met her charge with a weary look and a blast of force that pushed her back harder than she could fight against.
Silver and blue lines of force burst to life along her skin as she pushed the enchantments she carried to their utmost extent.
Tam began the gestures for a reinforcing charm, but Anna restrained her again with a small hand motion.
Though the High One’s force seemed overwhelming, Val was able to advance against it, pushing forward by inches with each ponderous step she took.
The High One sneered at her approach at first, but grew amused as she drew closer.
“That’s it,” he said and turned to address the crowd. “Feel hope rise within you. Watch as your champion struggles to overcome my might.”
Val looked up, meeting his mocking expression with a snarl on her blood strewn face.
“Come on now, don’t let them down,” the High One said. “You are clearly the strongest one here. It is up to you to show them that they can stand against me.”
Tam made a small growl, but Anna didn’t remove her hand from Tam’s arm. The High One had probably just made a critical mistake, but Anna needed to sure.
“Just a few more steps and you’ll be close enough to strike me,” the High One said and then blinked, sending Val tumbling backwards.
Undeterred, Val halted her flight by digging a hand into the floor and leaving five long gouges where her fingers tore through the concrete. She rose in time for the steady wave of pressure to change to a hail of individual blows.
One snapped her head back, another crashed into her shoulder, spinning halfway around, while the next knocked her right foot out from under her.
Blow after blow landed, but Val pushed through them, the jerks of her body and head singing a lament of the punishment she was enduring.
“Such spirit,” the High One said. “I would say you would have made a fine warrior in my armies but you really wouldn’t have. No one could ever rely on a damaged, soiled thing like you to be their Champion could they?”
A faint smile crossed Anna’s lips as she got the confirmation she was looking for. Even gods could reveal weaknesses if you gave them the time to do so, it seemed.
Val cast a glance over to Anna as she rose again, and from the trickle of a smile that flashed across her lips Anna knew she’d seen the same opening Anna had.
With renewed strength in her step, Val pushed forward again, shrugging off the invisible blows as they intensified in speed. The glowing lines on her body had multiplied and cast off almost enough light to overwhelm the High One’s radiance.
“And now it comes,” the High One said. “You’re great, final effort. The single blow into which all of your hopes and…”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence.
All anyone saw was the comet trail Val left in her passing. All they heard was the deafening shockwave of her first connecting with the High One’s jaw.
“Almost good enough…” the High One said. He hadn’t been thrown back, hadn’t moved a muscle except for his neck which was slightly turned in the wake of Val’s titanic assault.
She hit him again, drowning out his speech with the thunder unleashed by her fists.
The High One tried to casually backhand her, but Val blocked the attack. Even from several feet away, Anna could hear the audible cracking of bones heralding the price Val had paid for that defense though.
With the High One’s arm temporarily immobilized, Val smashed him in the eye with the back of her free fist.
The strike didn’t disable, or even inconvenience, the High One as it would have anything mortal, but he still reacted to it with a displeased frown.
Instead of taunting Val further, he threw spoke a word in a language no one on Earth had ever heard. The wave of force that erupted should have done more than knock everyone to their feet. It should have obliterated everyone present. Instead it met Val’s enchantments and was drawn inwards, charging them to dazzling brilliance.
When Val next hit the High One, his blithe facade vanished. Her punch to his throat sent him staggering backwards two full paces before he regained control. For a moment of look of real anger flashed across his face before it was covered by a smarmy smile.
Val tried to follow up the successful attack with a vicious kick to his legs but the High One stopped her with a and open handed palm strike to center of her chest.
“You scored a hit!” the High One said, his voice dripping with feigned surprise as though he was congratulating a child on managing their first few steps. “Is the tide turning?” he added, gesturing to the crowd to the cheer Val on.
Val tried for another kick, but he simply wasn’t there in the instant it was meant to land.
“Oh no,” the High One said, vanishing again to evade another blow. “Your foe is using trickery. You’ll need to get clever or this fight that you were clearly winning will turn against you.”
Val swung in one direction, and then kicked in another, but the High One blinked away from the blows as though he’d never been there at all.
“Look people of Earth,” the High One said. “Look at how close the strongest among you is. Give her your trust. Sing her your praises. Let her draw from you all the strength she needs to save you from the terrible foe before you.”
Val continued to punch and kick, attacking faster and faster.
“Does she have your faith?” the High One asked. “Don’t hold back now. She’s almost fast enough. She just has to push a little bit farther. Try a little bit harder.”
Val let out a feral scream and her attacks blazed into a sphere faster than the eye could follow.
There was another thundercrack and for a moment the air was obscured with so much dust that no one could tell what the outcome of the fight had been.
Anna knew though.
As the dust settled, she wasn’t surprised to see Val laying at the High One’s feet.
“Or perhaps she wasn’t that close after all,” the High One said, a disappointed frown on his lips.
He peered down at the fallen woman at his feet.
“You didn’t even put up a good fight,” he said with a sneer, “So don’t try to comfort yourself with that. Trying your best wasn’t enough. Giving it all you had didn’t matter. All your resistance insured is that when your world burns, I will make sure to roast the ones you care about first, and I will keep them burning until the end.”
He turned to the crowd.
“This is all any of you can hope for,” he said. “To perish swiftly for your crimes, or to perish in agony for your resistance. As the mightiest of you has fallen, so shall the rest.”
His attention was drawn back Val as a low, pained laugh wheezed out of her.
“You’re demise will have no space for mirth in it,” the High One said.
“It’s not…why I’m…laughing,” Val said, fighting to get the words out through the pain.
“Then tell me, what hope still lingers in your heart,” the High One said.
“Come…come closer,” Val said, the effort of speaking clearly taxing her. “I’ll tell you.”
“Yes, please do,” the High One said. “Try to trick me. Lure me in for one final gambit.”
He bent down, within reach of her hands but keeping just enough distance that Anna could see he wasn’t perfectly confident in his ability to react to whatever Val had in mind.
“You made a mistake,” Val said, coughing up a bit of blood as she spoke.
“Because I am within your clutches now?” the High One said.
“No,” Val said, her voice only a whisper. “Not my clutches. You don’t get what I am.”
“And what are you?” the High One asked. “A god in disguise?”
“No,” Val said. “I’m not the strongest one on my team. I’m the weakest.”
And with that Anna let Tam go.