The High One sat on his throne above the world, saw his forces falling in defeat in battle after battle, and felt joy radiating through his heart.
“Tell me what you see,” the High One said, addressing the Spider Goddess who stood by his side.
“The Earth resists your invasion,” Aranea said. “You are fought on every front, and by more defenders than you could have foreseen or accounted for.”
“Yes. That is exactly what is happening,” the High One said, his joy undiminished. “And will they succeed?”
“No. They will not.”
The High One’s smile deepened. Even the Earthly goddess could see that he held all the cards.
Standing to the side, a stone statue that had once been an angel looked on him with mute lips and a disapproving gaze. There was no menace in it however. The Potestates could never return to the Earth. The High One had been precise in his banishment. She could neither see what he was doing, nor hear his final pronouncement of the Earth’s fate. There were no corridors left open for her to send help to her former protectorate.
On reflection, the High One wished circumstances could have setup otherwise, but the Potestates had been too big a variable to be allowed to remain free. She could have tarnished the work he planned.
It would have been so nice for her to see the devastation he was going to inflict on the Earth though. Of all the creatures crawling on that miserable rock, surely she was the one most deserving of that of suffering, and the one most capable of understanding how complete his victory was going to be.
It was ok though. He would content himself with knowing that all of the other worlds the Earthlings had reached out to were watching the struggle unfold and would see, with perfect clarity, what it meant to blaspheme against his holy self.
Below the High One’s throne atop Earth’s celestial sphere, the battles for its fate raged on. A thousand at a time, his allies forces continued to fall, and from each soldier who fought in the High One’s name a light arose to streak upwards and join the other which swirled around the High One’s throne.
Anna stood flanked by librarians, and two researchers, but her words echoed as though the greatest army the world had ever seen was arrayed at her back.
“Surrender,” she said, offering Supreme Marshal Penk and his forces a second chance at survival.
“Why would we possibly do that,” Penk asked. “You don’t have anywhere near the forces to contest with us.”
“We are not your enemy,” Anna said. “Surrender now, or the High One is going to harvest your souls to fuel his cleansing of the Earth.”
It was the third time she offered the Pure Ones a path out of their fate, and it would be the last time such an offer was extended.
“That’s ridiculous,” Penk said. “He needs us as much as we need him. Without our forces, his attack would be trivial for you to undo. You’ve faced his might before, and he knows it.”
“We have,” Tam said, stepping through a portal of smoke and fire with Jen to appear beside Connie on Anna’s right. “But it was far from trivial.”
“He wounded our planet with his first attack,” Connie said
“And his second one required turning to another world for help to survive,” Tam said.
“The Earth is cut off from the other worlds now,” Anna said. “You have us blockaded, so there’s no reprieve to be found there.”
“But do you know what it cost the High One the last time he attacked us?” Connie asked.
“His people died by the billions in a sacrifice to his ego,” Tam said. “He weakened his own power base immeasurably out of nothing more than spite for us, and to unleash another attack he’d need even more power than he used the last time.”
“So tell me, where do you think he intends to get that power? And, on a purely unrelated note, how much value do you believe he places on your lives?” Anna asked.
“That’s not possible!” Penk said. “He is not a god of our world. He doesn’t have any claim over us. We are Pure!”
“About that,” Waverly, one of the researchers said. “You can ask these fine, and semi-immortal, Librarians here for confirmation, but you do realize that you’re fighting in this conflict in the High One’s name, don’t you?”
The Infinite Librarians nodded as a group, offering confirmation of her words, leaving Penk gasping for words.
“Sir, another one of our cruisers has been destroyed,” one of the Pure One’s techs said.
“The moment we stop fighting, the moment the flow of souls begins to dwindle, he’s going to snatch the rest of you up. All of you,” Anna said.
“This is a lie,” Penk said, but the haunted look in his eyes told a different story.
“You see the soul shards rising from your fallen warriors,” Tam said. “None are rising from the ones we’ve lost though. You know why that is. You know who is gathering up your dead. Who’s corrupting them and turning them into a tool for his own ends.”
“Sir, communique from the High One’s command,” the Pure One tech said. “He wants to know why the fighting has slowed.”
Silence reigned on the bridge for a long moment in the wake of those words.
The High One wasn’t supposed to be monitoring the battle directly. At least not as far as Supreme Ambassador Penk knew.
“How will surrendering help?” his tone was defiant and disparaging, but he stood with no resolve in his spine. The truth had eaten it away and on some level he clearly knew the doom which await himself and the rest of his people.
“If you forswear the High One’s cause and ally yourself with us, you won’t be a part of his dominion any longer,” Tam said. “He won’t be able to lay a claim to your souls, like he can right now.”
“We can’t turn against him though,” Penk said. “He will destroy us.”
“Yes. He will,” Anna said.
A new portal appeared. The last to open before the end. Through it stepped Sarah, and Val, and Ambassador Brams.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Brams said. “Better that he destroys us at this point.”
“What do you mean?” Penk asked turning to face his temporary ally. The one he’d planned on betraying the moment the fighting was done. The one who was the closest thing he had to a friend anywhere in the reality he found himself trapped in.
“As long as you’re allied with the High One it’s not just your forces here who are fighting in his name, and who fall under his dominion,” Val said.
“All of our people, everyone we left behind, everyone who has supported us, the High One can claim all of them,” Brams said.
“And he will,” Anna said. “That was his plan all along.”
“But he can’t win without us,” Penk said. “He needs us.”
“No he doesn’t,” Val said.
“He already knows he’s going to win,” Tam said.
“And so do you,” Anna said.
“How…?” Penk attempted to maintain a stoic expression but as the blood drained from his face, a sea of despair replaced it.
“The fate of the Earth. You’ve seen it haven’t you?” Anna asked. “You know there’s no avoiding what’s to come.”
“Which means all the High One has to worry about is where his grand plan will place him when the appointed moment arrives,” Tam said.
“And that moment is getting very close,” Jen said. “Any second now he’s going to sense the change in the tempo of the fighting, and then he will act with all the inevitability of an asteroid impacting the Earth.”
“Why would you do this?” Penk asked.
“Our plan didn’t call for this moment. Not originally,” Anna said. “The most sensible path was to allow the High One to claim all of you. To destroy the cancerous civilizations you have built.”
“That was what looked sensible and safe, but we knew we could do better, that we could be better, than that,” Jen said.
“Anyone can be given a second chance, but you have to want to change,” Val said.
“You have to be open to admitting you were wrong, and be willing to start over,” Tam said.
“It’s up to you,” Anna said. “Take my hand if you want to follow a new path. We don’t offer any safety or security. It may not save you at all. But it is the right thing to do.”
“I…I don’t know if I can,” Penk said.
“I will,” the comm tech said, pushing her leader aside. “I have family back home.”
“I will too,” the navigation officer said. “I don’t care if we die. If this saves the man I love then that’s good enough for me.”
“We do as well,” Brams said. “Though it’s not like we had much choice. They have allies Penk.”
“Yes, the billions from Greenglim. We knew of them.”
“No. Far more than that,” Brams said. “Every refugee, every one they’ve given asylum to, more than we could have counted or imagined, they’re all standing with the Earthlings. We backed them into a corner and thought they’d give up, but they rose together. We were afraid of their guardian angel but we should have been fearful of the ones she was protecting us from.”
“All that against us, and yet still the High One is going to win,” he said. “Even if we unite with them, we know what will happen. We’re either fuel for the High One’s rage or victims of his malice. The Earth came together to stop us, but all their efforts are going to be in vain and take us with them.”
“We’re at the end,” Anna said. “It’s now or never. Take that one last leap. In the face of armageddon, in the face of a god’s wrath, do the one thing that seems impossible but is still within your grasp and have faith. Believe in us.”
The battle in the heavens and on the Earth below had turned. Across the mystic realms fires burned as pyres to mark the failure of the High One’s forces.
Above his throne though an ocean of souls as wide as the cosmos hung suspended. All the potential of every life that was lost swirled above the High One’s head as a storm fierce enough to tear asunder the fabric reality was built upon.
“Ah well, the time has come at last,” the High One said. “This has been fun but the Earthlings have had enough time to build up their hopes that they might turn the tide today. Fate must have its due though and so now they get to see the only thing left for them is despair.”
In the beginning there was darkness in the heavens and then came the word, and the word was the end of everything.
When the High One’s fire touched Supreme Marshal Penk he felt true purity at last. Pure, rarified, deified rage. The spark which landed on him did more than set his flesh on fire, it burned away at his essence.
Drowning in the agony of divine judgment, his eyes were opened for perhaps the first time in his life. The flames catapulted him to the end of the road the Pure Ones had spent their years racing down.
In an unendurable instant of pain, Penk saw everything the High One was. The absolute rejection of anyone lesser than himself and the absolute belief that everyone else was lesser.
And past all the pain, past the ego, and the rage, deep in the heart of High One’s inner truth, the cold serpent of ego forever devouring itself to appease an appetite which could never be satisfied with any amount of power, or worship, or dominion over others.
The High One had perfect purity because his hunger was the hunger of a void, an eternal emptiness where love, and self reflection, and compassion should have been.
He’d made himself into Penk’s vision of perfection, a truly Pure Soul, by removing everything which could have made him a person, everything which could have redeemed him.
Penk laughed as the world he was in ended in fire. Everything he’d done had been so blind and only when it was far too late, when his eye were dust and ash, only then could he finally see.
The High One felt the drain on his power as magics of the Earth fought against him, but he had plenty of power to spare and so the divine fires poured down refusing to be extinguished.
Anna burned as she’d always known she would. The fires from the heavens reduced the world to ash but flickered for an instant when they met the Winter inside her.
For all that she cherished her multicultural lifestyle, Anna was still as proud a daughter of the northern snows as she had been as a child. It had taken her a lifetime to discover the warmth inside her, but the frost? That had been there from the beginning. It was the armor the world couldn’t see, though sometimes others could hear it all too clearly in her voice.
Against that preternatural chill, the High One’s rage floundered for an instant. Anna was no deity, no cosmic power, but for a moment even the High One had to recognize how formidable she was.
Then all was ash and dust.
There was more resistance than the High One had expected, but that was ok. He was assured of victory. Any cost was worth it.
Tam’s mastery over the mystic arts was unparalleled on Earth. She’d pushed her talent father and harder than anyone else had ever dared go, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the High One’s final gambit.
Instead of fighting the fire, she threw her arms open to it, drawing it into herself freely in a move that surprised but didn’t concern the High One.
Across the world, another heart burned in time with Tam’s and together they turned to dust.
The gathered souls of the High One’s fallen troops were long since expended, their power somehow sinking down into hidden depths. That didn’t stop him though. He had personal power left. Enough to finish the world before him. Enough to be supreme. That was all that mattered.
Val didn’t have ice or magic to fight the High One’s fire with. She wasn’t magical, aside from carrying enchantments which were long since exhausted and far too weak to stand against the High One’s assault.
In her heart she carried the love of an absent goddess, not as a talisman against misfortune, but as a reminder of the incredible life she’d led.
There’d been hard knocks and beautiful blessings, moment’s Val would treasure forever and ones she couldn’t wait to forget.
Val’s journey into the fire was the hardest of them all though, because where Val herself felt nothing but the divine power burning through her, she left behind someone was all too aware of her passing.
And so it was finally done.
The High One could barely raise his head, or rise from his knees, but below him the Earth was nothing more than a dead ball of ash.
He was alone. And supreme.
He’d had to consume everyone around him to finish it. All of their lives and all of his power. It didn’t matter though. He was supreme and there was no one left to challenge him, to make him feel like he was lesser. Like he didn’t deserve the privileges he held.
“Oh, but you’re not entirely alone,” Aranea whispered in his nearly mortal ear.
The High One no longer burned.
He had made a mistake.
A terrible mistake.
He had drawn the souls and power from all those around him, except he’d forgotten that the spider goddess wasn’t his to consume. She was the last vestige of Earth, the last piece he had planned to destroy once his victory was complete so that no remnant of that world would remain.
“I am victorious,” the High One said, trying to trap the spider goddess in a web of fresh lies.
It wasn’t his best idea ever.
“I could kill you now,” Aranea said. “It was one of my plans. When we got to this moment, or maybe before, I thought I might eat you. A part of me still wants to, but I think this will be a better fate.”
She gestured to draw his attention to the wide vista before them where the Earth hung dark and dead against a field of stars.
“I think you’ve had enough time to build your hopes up that you’re going to be able to win today,” Aranea said. “Now let’s show you what hope really looks like.”
From the surface of the Earth a tiny spark began to rise.
As the globe spun another spark flickered to life.
Across the boiled ocean, another flared. And then another.
One by one, to a thousand by a thousand, to millions, and then billions at once, the Earth was bathed in a divine radiance the High One had no control over.
Green flashed beneath the shower of lights as the forests and jungles of Earth were restored, rising like a phoenix from their ashes. From the blasted soil, vegetation of every variety, including one’s never before seen on the Earth surged to life.
White settled down on the polar caps where snow and ice refroze from steam hot water vapor against all the rules of entropy.
In the vast spaces between the continent, the blue oceans refilled churning with mystery and life and cleaner than they had been in centuries.
The most impossible thing in the High One’s eyes though were the cities.
Not even rubble had been left. He’d specifically pressed his fires to burn every inch of concrete and every ounce of steel. There was to be no mark of the Earthlings left for anyone to remember them by.
And yet underneath the soft white clouds, he saw cities, vast and beautiful sprawling across the world and teeming with life!
The material world wasn’t alone either. In each of the mystical realms the High One’s diminished vision could penetrate he saw the same transformations taking place. Where death and emptiness should have reigned, life and joy were exploding everywhere.
And more than the Earth bore witness to the changes. All the other worlds had been watching too! They all were seeing the same things the High One was!
The Earth’s renewal.
It’s rise from the ashes.
And his failure.
“What…what is happening?” the High One begged, unable to process what he was seeing.
“A Second Chance,” Aranea said. “It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve been teaching everyone give each other this whole time. Did you really not foresee this?”
“But how?” the High One wailed.
“A miracle,” Anna said, her rising spark reaching the High One’s command bridge as she stepped back into the body she knew so well.
“More like billions of miracles,” Tam said, as she resumed her human form as well.
“This is all thanks to you,” Val said. “You gathered a force to unite everyone we’d brought together and they you showed them what a miracle looked like.”
“Did you really think we wouldn’t take that wonder and make it our own?” Sarah asked.
“We’re human. It’s what we do,” Connie said.
“Only we’re trying to be better than just that,” Jen said. “In the past we might have kept those miracles for ourselves.”
“We would have turned them inwards and sought dominion with that power just like you did.” Anna said.
“Instead though, we decided we were going to share this chance at a new world,” Tam said.
“And not just with the people who fled to our world for aid,” Val said. “We gave the power that we just took from you to all the spirits of all the people you killed to get it.”
“And they would like a word with you,” Aranea said as the sky around the High One blazed with the light of billions of souls who had one last thing they wanted to take care of before moving on.