Kenyan magic wielders, it turned out, were rather delightful to work with. When Jen had described them as ‘friends’ she was only relaying information James had provided, but Rehema, their primary contact with the casters who were on site, had a sense of humor even the impending apocalypse couldn’t put a dent in.
“So, we’re having a little sunshine today, a bit of wind too, seems to be a hot air front is passing through,” Rehema said. The scrying spell that provided a remote view of her location showed the constrained avatar of the High One blazing with light and the tornado force winds that were spiraling around him as his power built ever higher to overcome the barriers Rehema and her companions had erected against him.
“That particular wind bag is more dangerous than he looks,” Jen said, “Are you going to be okay holding out for a few more minutes?”
“Oh? Against an angry, white man with a lot of power who wants to invade us?” Rehema asked. “Yes, I think we have some experience with that.”
“He has figured out how to turn your own power against you yet?” Jen asked.
“He’s working on it,” Rehema said. “Seems like a clever little thing too. He’ll work it out eventually, but for the moment we’ve got him under wraps.”
“Yes, clearly I’m not just playing with you to raise false hope,” the High One said, cutting into their communication spell.
“Pardon me,” Rehema said and chanted a few words in what Jen guessed were several different languages, none of which she was familiar enough with to place. “There, we should be secure again.”
They weren’t. Jen knew it, and Rehema did too. Most of the trap the High One was caught in was woven with temptation and curiosity rather than raw power or complex spell weaving. James hadn’t been sure if they could secure a communication link with Rehema’s group that the High One wouldn’t be able to manipulate and eavesdrop on. Rehema had convinced him it was possible – she had a much deeper understanding of that sort of casting than either he or Tam did – but she’d also been the one to explain why it wasn’t necessary.
Blocking out the High One would have allowed them to speak privately but would have left a very obvious hole of silence that he could have intuited a great deal about. By allowing him to listen in to a conversation which “should” have been secure against him, the conversation could be sharpened into a syringe to inject all sorts of half-truths and misperceptions into him which his ego would simply lap up.
Rehema had also been the one to suggest the modifications to Jen’s original idea, which had turned the defense against the High One’s attack from “Operation: Regifting” to “Operation: Returned with Interest”. Jen had liked the “Regifting” plan, it had a beautiful symmetry to it but, as was pretty common in her experience, even a plan from a brilliant mind could be improved by having more minds work on it – especially when the additional mind belonged to someone like Rehema who had even more direct experience with the matter than Jen did.
“I presume the interloper will eventually be able to break through the protections you have on this conversation in time?” Jen asked, knowing that the High One could already hear every word she said.
“In time yes,” Rehema said. “Don’t worry though, if the security of our connection is violated though we’ll know it immediately. Even an attempt to breach my protections will leave our voices sounding scrambled. No information can escape without us knowing about it.”
Their voices weren’t going to screech of course, though from what Rehema said it would have been possible to engineer that as an option since she could draw on techniques the High One hadn’t had a chance to observe yet.
“Good,” Jen said. “We need this time to finalize our plans. James was able to contact the Lightning Pixies of Andelver. If you can control the flow of the High One’s power and space it out enough they’re pretty sure they can absorb another thousand blasts like the one he first attacked us with.”
“We may want to taunt him a little bit,” Rehema said. The scrying image showed her adding new threads to the barrier around the high One. Each thread was studded with sharp silver barbs which leaked a viscous black oil. It was most likely a poison, certainly not fatal to the High One’s avatar but just as certainly annoying. “He doesn’t know how much of his power we can hold, but once he sees that we can divert each blast to a world he has no access to, he’s going to withdraw.”
“I agree. The more of his power we can bleed away here, the better. How much do you think you can handle compared to his first blast?”
“Since it only has to be temporary storage? We can safely handle a hundred times the force he used against you,” Rehema said. “The only thing holding us back from managing more is the need to transfer it to Pixies at a rate they can safely absorb. If we need to risk more, we can probably managed four to six times as much as that before we start leaking power out and damaging the world around us.”
“We should be in good shape then,” Jen said. “This ‘High One’ is playing at being a conqueror but he revealed his weakness with the first attack.”
“Yes, sacrificing followers for power is never a viable long term strategy,” Rehema said. “He doesn’t have enough real depth to draw on to even approach our safe limits. The cost is too great. I think if we’re lucky we’ll be able to goad him into launching an attack that’s maybe four to five times as powerful as the one Le Li Tam dealt with.”
Jen hoped Rehema was wrong. Their plan would work regardless, but the more the High One committed to his attack, the better the Earth’s position would be. In the worst case, the High One would withdraw and abandon the force he’d already spent on the attack. That was the closest to a winning play that he could make, but Jen felt fairly certain it wasn’t the course of action the High One would pursue.
He’d taunted Val and Tam. He’d tried to taunt Jen. He was confident in his supremacy both in terms of power and intellect, and that confidence was the real toxin, not the one on Rehema’s barbs, which was going to bring him down.
“What if he only commits the same amount of power to this next attack that he did to the one Tam handled? Will we have enough to resist his future attacks then?” Jen asked. That wasn’t an actual issue. The High One was going to commit much, much more than his first attack. He needed to feel the sting in his ego of his victims underestimating his potency. He needed to be given an excuse for the truly grandiose display of his power which the well justified insecurity which lay buried beneath his swagger and confidence demanded.
“He’s already a bit beyond that,” Rehema said. “I think we’re holding back twice the power Tam did, though to be fair, there are a lot more of us to carry the load. After he releases this attack though, he won’t get to make another one. The Pixies will be storing that energy for us in place he can’t reach because there’s no connection from his world and theirs except through ours. We’ll be able to draw that magic back to fight against him on a even footing whenever he comes back.”
“And if he comes back with more next time?” Jen asked.
“He can’t,” Rehema said. “He wants us now. Whatever he expends on this strike is going to be as much as he’s capable of paying.”
That wasn’t vaguely true either. The High One had, by Tam’s estimation, sacrificed one hundred thousand lives to fuel his first attack. With followers numbering in the billions, he was capable to expending that many lives almost ceaselessly, and would be quite capable of sacrificing an unimaginable number more.
“He may grow desperate though,” Jen said. “Desperate people may sacrifice more than they intend, or ever should.”
“That would work out even better for us,” Rehema said. “We can take the power we gain from this strike to slow the next and then safely absorb that too. He’ll fall into a cycle of spending more and more of his dwindling resources. In the end he just can’t win because we have a resource he can never touch or damage in our alliance with the Pixies.”
Jen laughed. It was a joyful, relieved sound. It was also dismissive of the High One in just the right degree and at just the right moment to finish baiting the trap for him.
The whole trick was laid out before him, with the benefit of each part of it being true. If the High One attacked with even hundreds of times the force as his original attack, Rehema and her companions were capable of channeling the attack to another world. The Pixies had every reason to accept the magic gifted to them too and would be a bastion the High One couldn’t assault without first destroying the active defense offered by the magic wielders on Earth. It was a plan that couldn’t lose.
Unless the High One saw the hidden flaw in it, the one Rehema and Jen had every reason to be blind to. The one Jen knew he couldn’t resist exploiting.
When the High One’s avatar finally self-destructed and released all of the energy he’d invested into it, it wasn’t filled with six times the force of the original blast. It wasn’t filled with a hundred, or even a thousand times the force of the original blast. When the High One finally attacked the Earth with his true fury, the blast was ten thousand times stronger than the first attack he’d unleashed.
A billion people perished, fed into the all consuming maw of the High One’s ego.
As apocalyptic blasts went it was perfectly sufficient to claim the title. The attack held not only enough force to overcome the gravitational binding energy of the Earth and reduce the planet to an ever expanding cloud of dust, it held enough additional force to punch through the portal between Earth and the Pixie’s world and inflict that same fate on that world as well.
The High One had seen the danger in Jen’s scheme and acted with the will and ruthlessness necessary to end all the threats posed by the Earth and her allies.
Except Rehema and her companions didn’t try to hold the energy of the attack at all. They weren’t overwhelmed by it and neither were the Pixies because the final layer of the barrier around the High One was a gift to his world;
Just as the Earth couldn’t refuse the power offered by the High One, neither could his world refuse the power the Earth returned to it.
If the magic had still been the High One’s he could have easily controlled it, but to slip the force past the Earth’s natural defenses, he’d had to make a gift of the power, freely severing it from himself, and so he had no say at ll as the blast he’d intended to destroy the Earth with returned to his realm.
Jen’s original plan had called for ‘regifting’ the magic to the High One’s world and allowing the blast to do unto him what he had tried to do unto them.
Rehema’s idea had been more subtle and, ultimately, more destructive by virtue of not trying to damage anything.
Instead of returning the High One’s attack as a blast of force which he could have sacrificed another billion people to deflect or mitigate, the “Returned with Interest” plan proposed by Rehema had sent the force stolen from a billion lives back to the living people who’d been left behind.
They weren’t necessarily ‘good people’, or in any sense worthy of being empowered. The magic they received wasn’t a blessing. It did empower them, but it also carried with it the High One’s greed and lust for more power.
“It’s done,” Rehema said. “The worst among them are rising as rivals to the High One’s throne. They see him for the fallible, and weak tyrant that he is and they hunger to take everything they can from him.”
“They’re going to fail but it’ll be a difficult and costly mess for the High One to sort out,” Jen said.
“Yes, but those aren’t the one’s he will need to worry about,” Rehema said.
“True. It’s the best among them, the one’s who can see the mistakes they made in following him and who can awaken others to walk away from the lies and hatred the High One built. They’re the one’s who are going to give that world the second chance it desperately needs.”