Being blind and trapped underneath billions of tons of molten rock turned out to be surprisingly relaxing for Jen.
She couldn’t feel the heat or the pressure of course. If her armor had failed to the point of allowing even a single crack in the shell that covered her, Jen would have been dead before she was aware anything was wrong. True to James’ promise though, the crystal armor suits had held up and shielded their wearers from the blast they’d generated.
As the enchantment that projected the illusion of vision into her eyes flickered back to life, Jen saw that the armors had performed even better than original advertised.
“Sareesh are you ok in there?” she asked, looking at the enormous crystal covered Core Serpent which floated just below Connie’s spinning form.
“Yes, I seem to be,” Sareesh said. “I’m also nicely warmed. Are we returned to the Primal Flames?”
Jen saw a small text message appear on the side of her vision indicating that “the Primal Flames” were the Core Serpent’s analog for heaven or the afterlife in general.
“Nope,” Sarah said. “You’re still in the Middle River.”
Another text pop up translated ‘Middle River’ to ‘place of the living’. James had mentioned anything about a cultural translation aspect of the communication spell, but Jen could easily imagine it was something Sarah had seen fit to add. How Sarah knew Core Serpent culture well enough to provide translations was a question Jen added to a list of conversation topics the next time they were relaxing off duty together somewhere.
“This doesn’t taste like the Middle River, though it is pleasant,” Sareesh said.
“I think it’s our Middle River,” Connie said. “Right? We made it back to our Earth when the portal flipped.
Jen checked the telemetry display on the armor readouts.
“We’re about a hundred miles away from the projected target location,” she said. “But we are on Earth, in roughly the same thermal zone as Sareesh’s people are used to.”
“That’s not what tastes different though Sareesh,” Sarah said. “The armor you’re covered in is designed to maintain the wearer’s body in as pleasant a state as possible.”
“How am I covered in armor?” Sareesh asked.
“When Connie linked up with you I was able to join you into the spell we were casting,” Sarah said. “Making a new suit of armor on the fly took a ridiculous amount of a power, but fortunately a lack of power was the one problem we didn’t have. In hindsight, you might have saved the whole endeavor in fact. Without you to bleed the extra energy into I’m not quite sure where I could have shunted it into.”
“Do we know if the rest of the spell fired correctly?” Jen asked.
“I’m getting confirmation of that now,” Sarah said, sharing a picture of the top of the hole they’d plummeted into.
From whatever camera’s viewpoint Sarah had conjured into existence, they saw that hole had mostly been filled in with a splurt of rock that had erupted through the shaft as was cooling with preternatural rapidity.
“It’s not quite the plug we’d hoped for,” Sarah said. “The hole still descends almost a hundred feet from the surface, but the structure beneath that looks like it’s fused into a contiguous mass with with the bedrock.”
“That could have gone a lot worse then,” Connie said.
“It might still,” Jen said, looking at a set of new data that had appeared on her heads up display.
“What am I seeing?” Sareesh asked. The Core Serpent didn’t have the same senses as a human so, technically, it wasn’t “seeing” anything. For ease of communicate the translation spells substituted “sight” words for “interfacing with my primary sense”. Jen wasn’t sure how the data the crystal armor provided was being provided to the Core Serpent but if they spent a significant amount of time together she made a note to find out.
“That’s another High One blast charging up,” Sarah said. “Telemetry says his avatar has appeared in Nairobi.”
“Can we get there in time?” Connie asked.
“Not a chance,” Sarah said. “The suits are still recalibrating. If we tried to teleport now we’d wind up as solid crystal all the way to our centers.”
“Tam’s still offline too,” Jen said, receiving a confirmation to her query from Val. “I think we’re covered though.”
“We’ve got a team in the area already?” Connie asked.
“Not Club members,” Jen said. “We have friends who are local though. Charlene put out word to them after the High One’s first attack.”
“They’re not going to be able to resist or overcome him with force,” Sareesh said.
“Val says they’ve been briefed on that,” Jen said.
“If they vent the blast downward like we did, is it going to cause problems?” Connie asked.
“Give me a second,” Sarah said and began weaving a series of spells whose verbal components ran through two dozen different languages.
“While she works on that, we need to consider what our next step will be,” Jen said.
“We’ve got to put a lid on the High One don’t we?” Connie asked. “He’s dropping bombs with more force than nukes on us, and he can place them apparently anywhere. It’s not going to take him six months to end the world if he can do that. We won’t last more than another few days.”
“Yeah. What Sareesh said earlier though is still true. We don’t have an effective weapon to strike back at him with,” Jen said. A smile crept across her lips as she spoke.
She was facing the literal end of the world, her foe was an actual god and was smiting her Earth with apocalypse scale blows, and yet in the face of all that she found her mind was clear and she was able to work the problem where other people would have fallen apart.
Let Anna handle the strategy for a war between the worlds, and let Charlene tackle the cosmic big picture behind everything. The High One had become a tactical problem and that was her milieu.
“You said before that drastic action was not required?” Sareesh said, his tail twitching with concern.
“No drastic action from you or yours is required,” Jen said. “Your family will be cooling even quicker without your contribution of heat to keep them warm. Please, consider which of them will need attention first and how soon we’ll need to deliver the radioactives and what the minimum quantities we’ll need to procure will be. We can handle the rest.”
“It will take some calculations to determine that,” Sareesh said. “I will begin at once.”
“That leaves us free to work on the High One I guess,” Connie said. “You’ve got a plan though don’t you?”
“Not a specific one,” Jen said. “Not yet. We know that we’re a threat to him though, and if he fears us it means we’re capable of hurting him.”
“Can we be sure of that?” Connie asked. “He could be doing all of this just to keep his own people in line.”
“That’s a weakness then,” Jen said. “From what Tam said, the first blast represented the life energy of over a hundred thousand people. Even if he has billions of followers to draw on, that’s too many people to toss away on something trivial. Even if he spent those lives for nothing more than theater, it tells us that he needed that theater to keep his followers in line, which says there’s a real possibility of discontent there.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Connie said. “Even people who start out solidly in a corrupt tyrants’s corner can wind up disgruntled when the tyrant decides to tyrannize them for a change.”
“From what we’ve seen the High One’s rule is built on the same model of fear and intimidation just like a whole bunch of corrupt authorities here,” Jen said. “That’s not always easy to undermine, but at the same time it’s a fairly fragile base to rule from.”
“Can we attack him on that level?” Connie asked. “Take away his power by turning his followers against him?”
“Not directly,” Jen said. “People who follow evil rulers wind up investing a lot in the lies they’re sold. The leader says they need to fear something and the people rejoice because they were already afraid and now they understand who to destroy. Anyone who speaks against the lie just gets lumped in with the ‘others’ they’ve been taught to hate and fear.”
“I can’t believe everyone on the High One’s world is just a mindless minion though,” Connie said. “There’s got to be some who can see that what he’s doing is wrong.”
“Absolutely,” Jen said. “Those are the ones who started this in a sense. The people who fled the High One’s world were all able to see him for what he is. And they’re working to open other people’s eyes too.”
“I feel like backing their play would be a good approach,” Connie said. “They understand the people there and the situation on the ground a lot better than we do.”
“That’s true, and in general I’d agree,” Jen said. “The one problem is the time scale involved. The High One knows that a protracted campaign of subterfuge isn’t going to go well for him. Even if he can hold onto power, each conversation will open the door to others beyond that, and weaken his hold across everyone he controls. That’s one reason why he’s pushing to end this conflict quickly. He’ll have our world destroyed, or at least eliminated as a viable refuge for those who object to his rule, before his local detractors make any headway at all.”
“And we can’t do anything to spot it?” Connie asked.
“No. We can’t fight him directly,” Jen said. “He’s meeting us in a power-based struggle because that’s where he has the advantage. Even if we were willing to match the force he’s assembled and sacrifice millions of lives to stop him, he’s confident he’ll win because he had more experience manipulating people on that scale.”
“So we change the game then?” Connie asked. “Attack him in an arena where the outcome is decided by something other than raw power?”
“Yes, and that arena is his followers. They’re the resource he knows can’t be taken from him and that he can spend however he sees fit. Their also unmatched by any resource we have.”
“There are other realms of Earth where that might not be true,” Connie said. “I mean, we’ve been to one Hell already. What would happen if we threw one of our nastier realms at him, or at his followers.”
“We’d be confirming every fear the High One ever stoked in his people,” Jen said. “They would sacrifice themselves to the last person if the alternative was being slaughtered by demons.”
“We have a more immediate problem,” Sarah said, finishing her spell. “Connie was right to ask about the fallout from the next attack.”
“Is it going to hit us?” Jen asked.
“Not directly,” Sarah said. “If our friends in Nairobi use a variation on the spell Tam used, the blast will reach this low, but it’ll miss us by a few hundred miles. The problem comes from what it’s going to hit. You know those Hells Connie mentioned? Well there’s a real good chance the blast is going to tear a portal between Earth and one of the not so fun underworlds. The good news is the portal won’t be on the surface, the bad news is it might be close enough to suck us in, and it’ll definitely drop a whole bunch of nasties down here where they can grow big and strong without any natural competition to hold them in check.”
“We’ve got to stop that blast then,” Connie said, powering up her armor for a rapid ascent.
Before she could take off though, Jen swooped in front of her.
“I think I’ve got it,” she said. “We don’t need to stop the blast. We need to make it bigger. A lot bigger.”