The angels were gone. All of them. Something had swept them away, but try as he might, the High One couldn’t recall how that had happened. Or when. Something was off in his world, and, worse, within himself. A piece of time was missing. Or perhaps had never been?
Recreating the angels wasn’t a problem. They weren’t anything more than messengers after all. For all their terribly majesty, they were nothing more than constructs he’d put together and breathed life into. They existed only so that there’d be someone around to handle all of the trivial issues and headaches like famines and flood and smiting people whose words, or deeds, or thoughts drifted too close to the heretical. He could have done all of that himself, but what was the point of supreme power if you had to do all the work yourself?
When the angels came back though, there was something wrong about them. They still basked in his radiance. They still spent their days singing praises to his greatness. They still had no will of their own, just like the good little servants they were.
Except, he wasn’t sure of that last point.
The angels never said anything out of line. They didn’t rebel. They didn’t even hesitate in responding to his commands. It wasn’t anything as definable as that. There was just something that always seemed to nag at him out of the corner of his vision when they were around.
The High One frowned as a suspicion picked at his mind. It felt like his angels were watching him. Which of course they were. He was the center of their universe. He was why they existed and everything they loved and cherished.
But that wasn’t how it felt like they were looking at him.
If he had to put a word to it, it felt like they were waiting. Not for an order of what they would be required to do next, and not to see what their god might desire of them. No, it felt like there was a joke they all knew. A barely suppressed laugh they all shared and they were waiting to see how long the joke could go on before he realized he was the butt of it.
It was a paranoid suspicion. Unworthy of an all-knowing, all-powerful god. That didn’t stop it from bothering the High One. He knew it couldn’t be true. He knew that he was the sole creator of his angels. He knew every molecule and fiber of their being, and he knew there was no disloyalty in them anywhere. But he still felt a chill everytime one of them walked passed him, or even time one of them was outside of his all-seeing field of vision.
The High One tried taking them apart. Predictably it didn’t help. His angels submitted to him because that was how they were designed. They went to their destruction with love and joy on their faces. He was sure of it. He watched them and he was sure of it more than anything else.
If only that suspicion wasn’t picking away at the back of his mind. If only he didn’t have the sense that there was some memory that even his omniscience couldn’t turn recall. Some memory that made him question if the reality he saw, the reality he controlled, wasn’t flawed somehow. It was a preposterous idea, but it pulsed in his thoughts and corroded his happiness no matter how he tried to dismiss it.
With no other recourse, he looked across his world and throughout the depths of time for an answer to his unease, pushing down into ever more trivial layers of detail until he divine patience reached its limit.
Exhausted, he tried smiting some of the unbelievers that had risen to oppose him. That had always relieved his worries in the past. It should have helped in the present. It didn’t.
No matter how he destroyed them, he felt the echo of laughter waiting to pounce on him in the silence that followed.
It was a child’s laughter, and it was familiar, despite the fact that he’d never heard it before. In fact he never heard it at all. Reviewing every child who had ever lived in his world, the High One found that the laughter he imagined belonged to none of them. No child had ever mocked him as the one he kept thinking he was hearing did.
The laughter never came closer than that though. There was never any laughter in his presence. Only awe, and fear, and, occasionally, screaming.
It wasn’t until he allowed himself to sleep that he understood what had happened, and was able to fully hear the laughter that echoed off the celestial dome of his world.
“You broke my world,” the High One said.
No one responded. Not because no one was there. The High One knew he was surrounded on all sides. Beset by enemies of magnificent and terrible prowess. Enemies who didn’t believe he was worth acknowledging.
A thousand of his people died with each enraged huff of his sleeping breath as he drew in power subconsciously. His world had once held eight billion people. It’s population was a bit over five billion, with some scattered number of them disloyal and empowered heretics that he’d gotten around to destroying yet. He still had plenty of lives to consume, plenty of followers who would sacrifice everything for him, who he could rip all their tomorrows from for a more convenient today. It was hard not to kill at least a few of them whenever we felt troubled, or annoyed.
Tossing and turning in a simple, gossamer thin dream though, he found he had no need for stolen power. More importantly, he understood what had happened. He remembered the child who had begun to destroy his world. He remembered the nightmare queen who had stopped the child. He remembered exactly how helpless he had been in their presence.
He could sacrifice every follower he had and still not be sure that he could overcome the nightmare queen. Worse, without his followers, without the other people on his world, there would be nothing to hold the child back. The queen had only convinced the World Ender to stay their hand because of what it would do to the High One’s followers.
If none of his followers remained, or if even too few remained, there would be no mercy and no reprieve from the child’s wrath.
The High One woke and couldn’t control the shaking that gripped his limbs. He was supreme. He was the greatest. Everyone knew that. Everyone except for him in the brief moment following waking.
The moment passed quickly enough though. In the light of day, in his light, he felt foolish. It was just a dream. It wasn’t real. He was what was real. He was everything. Or at least everything that mattered.
But it was still intolerable. The laughter in the dream wasn’t real, but even the thought that it could be was intolerable. He had to be the greatest. He had to be supreme. Unquestioned. Unchallenged.
He wasn’t though.
In his own world, he was supreme. No one did or could challenge him there. Even the heretics existed only because he needed the diversion.
The problem was the other worlds. He’d struck out against the one that sought to take from him. That ones sought to shelter those who were anathema to his reign. He’d tried to destroy that shelter and he’d failed.
For the moment.
The apostates. The ones who questioned his right to rule. Who challenged his divinity. They hadn’t escaped him yet. Not truly. No one could escape damnation. Not after they spoke the forbidden words. Not after they gave him names which held no respect, ot obedience, or devotion. The ones who fled his world were heresies made flesh and the aliens of Earth believed they could shelter from them High One’s wrath against the damned.
An angel was watching him.
The angel burned. It would never laugh at him. It wouldn’t even hint of laughing at him.
Did it matter if the World Ender came? No. No it did not. It had been a foolish dream, but it showed the extent the High One would go to to put things right. To establish his proper dominion.
If he couldn’t have the world as he wished it then he would burn it down himself. Better an empty world of ash than one where those who were willing to worship him could rule themselves. A world like that would be empty and meaningless by definition. By existing he gave the mindless masses purpose. Their lives could be measured by how well they served the High One. The ones sacrificed to see his whims fulfilled were blessed in their death with the knowledge that their god saw them as worthy and derived value from their existence. There wasn’t anything else that could matter to them more.
For all his simmering rage however, the High One was no fool. From the dream he took the lesson which his interaction with the Earth should have taught him. There were other powers out there, beyond the borders of his dominion. Powers which in their own milieus and with time to prepare could exceed his own. For a brief period at least.
The High One had not gained his supremacy by accident. He had ascended to his throne through cunning and guile as much as by treachery and charisma. Being able to read his opponents and understand where they were vulnerable was the first skill he’d developed as a fledgling divinity. Everything else flowed from his flawless mastery of it.
Against the agent of the Earth he didn’t have the same base of knowledge or insight as he’d possessed against the gods of his world whose power he’d usurped, but it didn’t matter. They weren’t his equals. It was only their connections with support from other worlds which allowed them to overcome his earlier gambits, and those hadn’t been truly serious attempts.
Two billion dead souls might have disagreed with the High One on that final point, but even if they’d still been alive, it wasn’t like he would have heard them speaking. As it was, the echoes of the departed had less than no reason to correct the errors which crept into his thinking.
Content in the notion that his effort to collect information on the Earth’s capabilities had paid off exactly as he desired, the High One paused to consider how best to utilize what he’d learned.
The Earth was building a coalition of worlds. The agents he’d met and others were moving to various worlds both near and far, making contacts and drumming up support to save their planet from the extinction event which lay in its immediate future.
They were going to fail at that. The High One could read the future of their world as easily as he could his own. He knew it was going to perish in a rain of divine fire. It’s fate was sealed, and so revenge was barely a consideration. The question which played through his mind instead therefore was how he could insure that the death of the Earth was put to the maximum possible advantage for himself.
He could scour the planet by himself. He still had billions of lives to spend, and the power he’d originally spent, while no longer pledged to him, could be converted back to his cause with crafty words.
Doing all the work by himself would leave him in a poor position though. He would need to expend considerable resources to ensure his victory and that would leave him weakened in the face of similar threats from other worlds.
No, the High One decided, he would not risk being devoured. Not when he could use those who were in the best position to assault his world as the vanguard of an assembly targeted at the Earth. Better by far to make the destruction of a the Earth a joint venture among a select group of worlds and position himself as the foremost to pick through the ruined world’s corpse.
Then he could turn his attention to conquering the allies who had fought with him.