Due to the worst illness I’ve had in decades, I’m taking a week off for recovery.
Apologies for the delay!
Tam couldn’t beat the High One. She knew that the moment he arrived. From the sizzling aura of power he carried, to the thoughtless ease with which he broke the wards she’d erected, it was perfectly apparent that he carried more than enough power to simply brute force a path to victory through any fight she could put up. That alone was almost enough to seal his doom though.
As Val moved to draw the High One’s attention, Tam tried to step forward. The High One carried too much power to be a native of any Earthly realm. That gave her one weakness to work with.
She gathered the shreds of the wards he’d broken and read from them the core nature of the power the High One wielded. Each erg of it came from a the spirit energy of a willing sacrifice. That was another weakness to use against him.
Anna stopped Tam before she could move further. Val wasn’t going to win her fight against the High One but Anna saw what Tam wanted to overlook. Every moment that Val spent fighting was another Tam could spend observing and preparing.
The High One’s existence was was anathema on Earth. Tam spent a moment confirming that, to be sure the rest of her observations were corrected for accurately.
With a blink her eyes were covered in solid shadows, turning a shade of black deeper than the farthest reaches of space. Gazing into the blinding light at the core of his being, she saw that the avatar before them was conjured and fueled entirely by his faithful. The god’s investment in the matter did not equal theirs however.
Where the High One’s followers threw themselves onto bonfires in his name, giving every spark of energy left in their lives to his cause, he sat someplace impossibly distant, far away from any peril and directed his avatar with no more concern for its safety than a chess player had for one of their pawns.
Tam followed this one further, peering down into the roots of the magic that let the High One bridge the gap between their worlds.
That magic started in the High One’s world, and through it, Tam caught glimpses of how alien its landscape was.
Cities rose over desolate fields where chained demons slaved to pull life from the ever eroding soil. Each city was dominated by a massive central edifice which exalted the High One’s likeness above a population that huddled within the high walls, ever fearful of the heretics who lurked beyond.
Across a globe larger than the Earth, billions were clustered in these massive enclaves, each singing the praises of the High One and each hating the others for not signing his praises in the same manner they did.
From his throne on high, the High One offered his followers nothing, and collected from them everything they had, and they gave it willingly and eternally and without question.
Or most of his subjects did.
There were whispers of the Unfaithful. Of those who sought to live outside the High One’s dominion. Who refused to immolate themselves at his whim. Even moreso than the Heretics who lived within the other great cities, the Unfaithful served as the great boogeymen of the High One’s world.
Unlike many worlds however, the High One’s boogeymen were real.
Tam saw the reflection of the group the High One was looking for in the intent to which his power was leashed. All of those who fell upon the fires, a new soul igniting every second to add to the the thousands and tens of thousands who’d burned to fuel the avatar’s crossing, all of them understand that the Earth was where the Unfaithful had fled, accepting sanctuary from those who were forever lesser by virtue of having no place in the High One’s creation.
To the best of her knowledge, Tam didn’t think the Unfaithful had reached out to the Second Chance Club yet, but she wasn’t surprised that they had heard of Charlene’s offer of sanctuary for those who were being oppressed. For as much work as Tam and her teammates were doing on the ground, Charlene was clearly doing more behind the scenes, handling the sort of issues that would have taxed any of her associates beyond the breaking point.
That was another mark against the High One’s seeming omnipotence.
For all of the trouble they’d gotten themselves into and out of over the years, the one thing Tam knew was that if they ever truly needed her help, Charlene would be there for them. Since they seemed to be on their own for the moment, that suggested that the High One was a threat that was still in their league, appearances to the contrary.
Buoyed by that thought, Tam began to pick apart what she could see of the mechanics of the High One’s avatar.
They were a compromise between the mystical laws of his realm, where all magic was bound to his will, and the Earth’s laws, which could never be constrained under a single yoke. The High One was only able to bridge that fundamental gap by spending the steady stream of mystical energy to, essentially, pay for the use of Earthly magic which would normally be untouchable by something not of an Earthly realm.
That was good for the Earth, in the sense that the ambient level of magic would rise from the exchange while remaining free and clear of the High One’s influence. It was less good from Tam’s perspective though since it meant she couldn’t simply call on a great Earth spirit to disperse all otherworldly magics and be done with the issue.
For as long as he could afford to pay the price, the High One would be tolerated by the fundamental laws of the Earth. The moment he chose not to though, he would be expelled. Unfortunately, waiting him out wasn’t going to be an option. Even with a life being lost every second to allow him an agent on Earth, it would take centuries before his power ran dry.
Val was helping to spend that along by forcing the High One to draw on more power to defend himself from her, but even her efforts weren’t going to amount to enough in the end. Especially not once he starting being more efficient with the force he brought to bear against her, blinking away from her attacks rather than blocking or absorbing them.
It was the blinking evasion that gave Tam the final weakness she needed to turn against him.
Each time he disappeared and reappeared, the High One wasn’t teleporting. He was making use of the Earth’s animosity to his existence and letting it push him out of existence before clawing himself back within it somewhere else a fraction of a moment later. Watching that process, and the after effects it produced, gave Tam that last pieces to the binding spell she’d been working on.
As Val fell at the High One’s feet, Anna finally allowed her to act and Tam uttered a single word.
She couldn’t overcome the High One’s power, couldn’t bind him in mystical chains too strong for him to break. Any amount of power she put against the High One would fall far short of the power he could raise to oppose it.
So she didn’t use her own power. She used his.
Every drop of energy that the High One paid to remain upon the Earth, Tam turned against him. Any power he spent trying to do anything in fact, got turned against him. Assaulting the High One would serve no purpose. She knew he was too disconnected to feel anything that happened to his avatar, and he could oppose any change to it with the power of his world which it carried.
So she didn’t try to change the avatar, or injure the god, she just made the price of doing almost anything at all, impossibly steep.
“Thank you Tam,” Anna said. She’d remained standing and watchful during the whole confrontation.
“He’s not going anywhere now,” Tam said. “Or doing anything.”
Frozen in place like a statue, the High One couldn’t even glare in defiance of his fate. Tam could feel the scorching energy he put out as he fought the binding, and then watched the High One cool as he worked out what had been done to him.
“Can you allow his to speak,” Anna asked. “He seemed chatty and I have a few questions for him.”
“Sure. That’s no problem,” Tam said, relaxing the part of the spell that left the god mute.
“Very clever,” the High One said as the binding fell away. “I’m glad to see you can do that.”
His meaning was crystal clear. In trapping him, Tam had revealed one of the tricks she could use against him, and herself as a caster able to pull such a feat off. When he returned, and she knew that he would, it would be armed with that knowledge.
“You spent a great deal to interrupt our conference,” Anna said. “Next time it might be more efficient to simply send a letter requesting a meeting of your own.”
Anna’s meaning was clear as well. She’d spoke with James about the requirements for crossworld incursions like the High Ones, and she was offering him a less costly rematch whenever he desired, so long as he left the others who were present out of the matter.
“Our worlds are moving ever closer,” the High One said. “I achieved my position by taking power that was being squandered. I see you traveling along a similar path. Soon you’ll close enough that we’ll be able to meet in a more personal manner.”
Tam wasn’t sure which of them the High One was addressing, but she knew that comparing himself to Anna was not a good play overall. Anna could be a forgiving person, but that didn’t mean she was equally forgiving of everyone.
“Don’t worry,” Anna said. “As your world drifts closer to ours, we’ll make sure to point out the differences between what we have to offer and what you supply your followers with in ways that are clear for all to see.”
Billions supported the High One. Which also meant that billions could turns against him.
“Please do,” the High One said. “Show us all what you have to offer. The strife, the wars, the chaos. Let’s let everyone see the misery and anarchy your sins bring. I’m sure once the truth of this world is revealed, people will still flock to embrace it. That sounds so much better than the peace and community my creation enjoys.”
“Wonderful,” Anna said. “So you agree to let your subjects freely choose which world they wish to live in? They can leave your dominion and embrace our, presumably, far more terrible world?”
The High One sneered but before he could respond, Anna continued.
“But no, that’s not what brought you here is it?” she said. “You don’t wish to see the truth. You can’t bear the idea that, for all its faults and flaws, someone would choose the Earth over you.”
She walked up to him, and stared directly into his eyes.
“You call our world a sin, because it doesn’t give you what you want, and so, like a crying child who can’t get what he wants, you lash out. Not out of fear of what we might do to you, but because you know what you are, and how unworthy a thing that is.”
Watching his eyes for a moment, she turned and walked away.
“Your people say they love you,” she said. “They sign your praises, but you know what they are truly praising. You know the image they hold of you, the great lie you have sold them, and how, for all your power, you will always be so far from true greatness.”
“We’re done here,” the High One said.
“I didn’t say you could leave,” Tam said. The High One’s avatar offered all sorts of insights into his power and his mind. She saw no reason to give up her investigations of it.
Until it began to go critical.
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” the High One said. “And neither are you.”
The explosion that rocked the abandoned subway terminal was at first mistaken for an earthquake, and then an underground nuclear test, before knowledgeable experts were able to review the pattern and determine that it could only have been from something out of the world.
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.
Anna was happy to see her teammates assembling, enough so to override the concern for what had brought them together.
“This is an interesting meeting place you have chosen,” Mezzinora said, peering over the edges of her sunglasses.
Anna followed the Dark Elf’s gaze as it tracked across the hastily arranged conference area setup in the unused rail station under the airport’s main terminal. The collection of people were a more motley group than any boardroom meeting Anna had ever chaired, but each of them also held more power than any corporation short of the now-defunct PrimaLux.
“I apologize for the somewhat ramshackle conditions,” Anna said. “Time is of the essence though, and this was the most accessible venue which could meet all of our guests needs.”
Jimmy B had boggled when Anna presented him with the list of requirements for the various attendees to her hastily assembled summit. Normally all he had to worry about was dietary restrictions and occasionally ley line issues which he could recruit James to work out. This meeting’s guests however had specific needs in terms of subterranean depth, ambient radioactivity, wavelengths of light which must and must not be present, and a dozen different compounds which were required to remain present in the air within fairly tight concentrations.
Anna had chuckled to see the look of disbelief that had crept over Jimmy B’s eyes as he read through the list. As expected though, when he got to the end he’d flashed her his usual smile, given a thumbs up, and said, “don’t see any problems here, I’ll have a spot for you in ninety three minutes.”
In the end, it had, in fact, taken him ninety two minutes and twelve seconds, but Anna suspected he’d hurried the last few preparations just a little to claim victory on his original prediction.
“There’s no need to apologize,” Mezzinora said. “I wouldn’t be here to represent my people at all if you hadn’t saved us from the Fire Servants.”
Anna looked out over the crowd and looked for the form of a miniature dragon composed entirely of lava that she’d seen earlier. Spying Xores speaking with one of the goggle wearing velociraptor’s off to one side of the group near the stairs, she drew Mezzinora’s attention to where the Fire Servant was floating.
“How is the reconciliation going?” she asked. “Our seating arrangements are still flux, so if you’d prefer to be on the other side of the chamber from Xores, that can be arranged.”
“That…that won’t be necessary,” Mezzinora said. “After you brought our peoples to the negotiating table we’ve discovered that we have quite lot in common. Xores and I came together in fact. We think we may have similar arguments to advance to the group as a whole.”
Anna blinked. It had been an unexpected task to prevent a war at the Earth’s Core (or one version of the Earth’s Core at least), and one that she hadn’t been sure she’d been wholly successful at.
No two peoples who have battled for centuries were likely to establish truly cordial relations within a span of a few weeks, but once the main source of their conflict (the limited space in the hottest areas around the core) had been addressed (by providing access to new hot spots for both the Dark Elves and the Fire Servants to grow into) there had been a road opened for them to find a new future down.
“And you each carry the full ambassadorial powers of your governments?” Anna asked.
“Yes, it’s what we commiserated about on the trip to the upper lands,” Mezzinora said. “Xores thinks you meant to punish us both for being the most strident voices against the Armistice when you set us up as the ones to speak for it in the end.”
“It wasn’t a punishment exactly,” Anna said, “You were just the most effective people to convince to change your minds.”
“Is that what you plan to do here?” Mezzinora asked.
“I think this is more of an informational session,” Tam said, joining them with her laptop open as she put the finishing touches on the presentation she’d put together for Anna.
“There must be some sort of argument you wish to convince us of though, is there not?” Mezzinora asked.
“I believe they expect the information they have be convincing on its own,” Duinella said, joining the group along with Tam, who she’d been speaking with a moment before.
Anna gazed up to take in the giant woman’s expression, which held the look of guarded concern Anna had expected to see there.
Despite her human appearance, Duinella was more of an alien than either the Dark Elf Mezzinora, the Fire Servant Xores, or any of the other attendees of the meeting. She hailed from another world where a group of tyrants who called themsevles “The Pure Holders of the Sky” held sway. The only thing “pure” about them however was their pure hatred of “less species” by which they meant anyone not part of their hierarchy.
That heritage provided Duinella with an insight into the problem Anna had assembled their guests to debate. If debate was the right word. Debates at least had the possibility of reaching a consensus something Anna suspected wasn’t going to be very likely when the topic was the impending end of the world.
Once those assembled had time to mingle, collect refreshments and sort themselves into their proper seating locations, Anna took the small stage in front of them.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, quieting them down without having to raise the volume of her voice noticeably. “I know you each face significant challenges, some of which we have been able to assist with, some of which still require attention. That is part of the reason I called you all here today. There is a more pressing overall concern though.”
“More pressing than finding a source for the dwindling wonder which sustains Our Realm?” Duke Wellbagun, the unique noble, asked.
“Yes,” Anna said. “In short, we are faced with the end of the world.”
There was a ripple of disbelief from the crowd as muttering broke out. Anna pointed at the screen to her left and clicked forward to the first slide Tam had prepared for her. It showed a vision, in picture perfect clarity of the Earth burning in a rain of Divine Fire.
“I am not speaking in general, or uncertain terms,” Anna said. “We are roughly six months away from an extinction level event which will destroy life on the prime Earth we are on now and any mirror or shadow Earths which retain a connection to it.”
“That’s not possible,” Sycorax, the Queen of Atlantis said.
Anna clicked forward to the next slide. Equations and arcane symbology covered the screen. A few gasps arose from those in the crowd capable of reading and understanding it.
“It is not only possible, at this moment it appears to be inevitable,” Anna said.
“But there are no signs or portents to herald such an apocalypse,” Xores, the lava dragon, said.
“The threat that can do this comes from worlds which are beyond our immediate sphere,” Tam said, stepping forward to support Anna. “You can see the warning signs, but you need to know where to look. Since the aggressors aren’t part of our realms, their fate is disconnect from ours and the usual future castings don’t acknowledge what we can do to each other.”
“This is all going well over my head,” Mezzinora said. “Could you give it to us in simple terms?”
“Of course,” Anna said, “For those who wish to discuss the more specific details of how we know what we know, Tam will be available until we break up for the day.”
“The simple version is this,” Tam said, stepping in front of the podium to more directly engage her audience. “Some of us come from very different versions of this world. At one point in the past, those different realms were more closely aligned with each other, with what we call ‘the Prime Earth’ acting as the foundation they were all connected by.”
She looked around and saw everyone was following her and continued on.
“Over time, the realms became more distinct and, in many cases, more isolated. There are ones where transit is still relatively easy, such as to the lands of your King and Queen, Duke Wellbagun. There are also ones where the transit is not so easy, such as to the Risen Atlantis you rule over Sycorax. In all cases though, there are paths that can be taken to get from one realm to another. We are all, ultimately, part of the same whole.”
“Well, not all of us,” Duinella, the giantess, said.
“Yeah, and that’s the heart of the problem we’re faced with here,” Tam said. “See, the multiverse is a lot broader than just Earth and the realms that grew out of it.”
She nodded and the presentation clicked to the next slide.
The image began with a view of the Earth, which separated into the mundane planet and a million overlapping shadow layers. As the camera pulled back, the solar system and the Milk Way galaxy became visible, rendered with artistic license but showing all the while the same bifurcations into separate but connected layers.
“On the physical plane, we have the cosmos of space,” Tam said. “Out as far as information can travel, and expanding faster than light, we have endless space, filled with endless varieties of peoples and places, though all bound by the same fundamental physical laws.”
The video had pulled back far enough that the superstructure of the universe itself was becoming apparent.
“Most of the diversity in the physical cosmos is unexplored, and beyond a certain distance, unexplorable. We can never travel by physical means to the farthest corners of our physical universe, and the isolation of distance acts as an insurmountable barrier to prevent many far flung worlds from ever meeting each other.”
The view in the video began to move back inwards, rushing through the Virgo super cluster, into the Milky Way and speeding towards the Solar system.
“So, aliens from another galaxy, or even from another solar system, aren’t much of a problem,” Tam said. “We’re not likely to run into them and even if we do, there’s so much space out there that we should be able to coexist.”
The display reached Earth and began to pull out again, this time passing through a scintillating crystal sphere that surrounded the planet at an unspecified distance.
Outside the sphere, there was a constellation of similar spheres, each with a different world inside, each with their own shadow layers.
“This is where our problem comes from,” Tam said. “Worlds beyond our own which are not part of our physical cosmos. Ones which should not be part of ours and yet…”
The video showed the crystal spheres touching, and occasionally overlapping, as the worlds moved in dizzying celestial dance
“And yet, sometimes there are connections that are made,” Tam said.
“Why is that a problem? Is one of them going to crash into us?” Mezzinora asked.
“No, for various reasons, worlds within different spheres don’t collide with each other,” Tam said. “The apocalypse that we’ve seen coming isn’t a natural or supernatural disaster. It is intentional and perpetrated with malice against us by the rulers of these worlds.”
The video highlighted a half dozen of the nearest crystal spheres.
“What motivation do they have to destroy us?” Sycorax asked.
A lightning bolt split the ceiling and cast the room into darkness.
As the thick haze of smoke and dust rolled away from the center of the room, the darkness was broken by the harsh white light streaming from the golden haired man who rose to his feet.
“You have transgressed against your betters,” the High One said, his voice crack the stone foundations around them. “Now you will pay for your presumptions.”
Val wasn’t used to riding in limousines, but under the circumstances, she found she quite enjoyed it.
“We should be at the airport in plenty of time,” Laura said from the front seat. Outside the limo’s window Val watched as a highway full of cars sat in bumper to bumper traffic, inching forward across ever road rage inducing mile to the next exit. By contrast, the surface road Laura had pulled off onto two exits back had virtually no obstructions on it. The nearest vehicle ahead of them was a bike that was good quarter mile away and gaining distance as the rider ignored even the pretext of observing the speed limit.
“Think we should tell Anna that?” Val asked, smiling as she sank bank into the cushy rear seat. For as good as it felt to relax after a successful mission, not having to race (and lose) against Anna again arguably felt better.
“Are we supposed to tell her anything?” Laura asked.
Val laughed. Anna hadn’t intended to be intimidating. Val had seen her when she wanted to cow someone and nothing about the quick mission to resolve Laura and Stephanie’s difficulties had called for that level of force. Even without meaning to though, Anna radiated an aura of confidence and leadership that was damn hard not to get swept up in.
“You can tell her, and any of us, anything,” Val said.
“Really?” Laura asked. “I mean it’s kind of my first day on the job.”
“All the more reason,” Val said and did her best impersonation of the Russian accent Anna occasionally lapsed into when she wanted to appear more serious than she was. “You bring fresh perspective, yes? See things with new eyes, things rest of us might miss.”
“Ok. I can’t get over all this though. I mean, twenty four hours ago I thought I was going to be on the run for the rest of my life, and now I’m…in a club I guess?”
“As long as you want to be,” Val said. “From what Tam said, you’ve earned it.”
“All I did was hit a few guys with a stick.”
“Yeah, but who those guys are matters kind of a lot,” Val said. “Most people wouldn’t try that with a mob boss and two corrupt cops. In my book, that took guts.”
“Didn’t you walk into a whole warehouse full of his goons though?” Laura asked. “Alone.”
“Kinda had to. Didn’t want anyone getting too hurt,” Val said, and shrugged. It was probably the least dangerous thing she’d done that week. Just getting out of bed was a bigger peril some days, given how cranky Aranea could be when it was cold and she hadn’t gotten to sleep in properly.
“They brought six ambulances in when you were done though, didn’t they?” Laura had only been arrived at the skirmish after the shooting stopped and it was safe enough for Jimmy B to call in a ride to take Val home.
Technically the EMTs who’d shown up had only had to render first aid to most of the goons who’d been in the “all hands” warehouse meeting. The police had been the ones to take the majority of them away on various charges which they now had confirmation of thanks to the wire Val had worn. A few though? Well there was the saying about omelettes and eggs, but in this case it was more “crime rings” and “bad guy’s arms and legs”.
“There’s an excellent chance that everyone they took away will regain the full use of the limbs within a few months,” Val said. “Which, I will remind them is a lot better than things could have gone when I stop in here next time.”
“You’re coming back?” Laura asked.
“Yeah. Charlene, our boss, doesn’t like to give up on people,” Val said. “She usually checks in on the people we deal with, or has us check in on them, to see if they can learn from their mistakes.”
“Does that happen often?” Laura asked.
“Eh, I never count on it, but I’ve been surprised more times than I expected. I don’t know how this crew will go. The cops are probably a wash. There’s too much of a support network for ones who misuse and abuse their power, and they have too much invested in their self justifications. The other ones though? The career gangster types? Maybe? It’s a tough job to pull out of, but the ones who don’t get jail time might be willing to take up the offer to get out of that situation and move elsewhere.”
“I feel like I got really lucky there,” Laura said. “A few more years, and I could have been in that warehouse too.”
“That’s why we try to reach out to people we hurt as well as the ones we help,” Val said. “You can wind up in a bad place through a bunch of decisions where you didn’t have a lot of good options. Doesn’t mean you didn’t chose to be there but it might mean you’ll be willing to chose something better if you get the chance.”
“I can’t believe I get to chose this,” Laura said, her voice quiet and respectful.
“Driving for a living?” Val asked. “Or did you want to tackle more of the stuff we get involved in?”
“Stuff like taking down mob families?” Laura asked. “I don’t know if I can handle things like that.”
“You definitely don’t have to put yourself on the line like that,” Val said. “If you want to work with Jimmy B on the transportation side of things, that is going to be incredibly valuable.”
“Come on, anyone can drive a car,” Laura said.
“Yeah, and anyone can be there for someone else when they need it,” Val said. “Doesn’t mean it happens often enough, or that the people who step up aren’t doing something special.”
“I’m just a kid though,” Laura said.
“You’re a young lady with a hell of a lot of guts,” Val said. “And before you try to deny it, please remember that I just walked into a building with about a bajillion guys with guns who were ready to shoot me as soon as they saw me, so it’s just possible that I know what I’m talking about there.”
“See, but I couldn’t do that,” Laura said. “I can’t take down entire criminal organizations by myself like a superhero or something.”
“To be fair, I just dealt with the armed goons,” Val said. “It was Anna and JB tag teaming them on finances and administration that really closed things down.”
“What did they do?” Laura asked.
“I don’t know the exact details, but what Anna usually does is put together a pretty clear trail to lead the official investigators to where the bad guys have all their money hidden,” Val said. “JB’s got contacts basically everywhere, so Anna’s breadcrumbs get fast tracked to people with jurisdiction who we know will handle it right.”
“I thought things like subpoenas and warrants took time to put together though,” Laura said. “You always here about cops working on cases like this for months or years.”
“Cops can’t do the kinds of things Tam can,” Val said. “Some of which is just unreal. Like not ‘sort of illegal’, but like ‘sort of impossible’.”
“What does sort of impossible mean?” Laura asked.
Val hesitated for only a moment, and then sighed.
“Ok, this is something you’ll run into sooner or later since you’re in the Club now,” she said. “Short form: magic is real, and the world is about a billion times weirder than you can imagine.”
“You say that like it doesn’t explain how you managed to go all action movie hero on my old bosses crew,” Laura said.
“You believe me? Good. You don’t know how hard that is for some people to accept,” Val said. “Of course it doesn’t help that magic is flakey as hell. I was able to take on the building like that because we had the right alignment of stars and there are about fifty club members who lent me their speed, and toughness, and strength.”
“That sounds kind of cool. What other kind of stuff can you do?” Laura asked.
“It varies a bit from day to day. If you’re interested, James is our resident mentor, and he will happily talk your ears off for days if you get him started.”
“Is it hard?” Laura asked.
“Even that varies,” Val said. “I’ve tried to cast spells a couple times and that is just not my jam. They either fizzle or something completely unrelated happens. Tam though? She’s one of the best casters on the planet I think, and she only picked it up a few years ago.”
“What determines if you be good at it?” Laura asked. “Is it like a blood thing, or do you make a pact or something?”
“Nope. Or at least not for the kind of broad spellcasting Tam does. From what she said, real magic working skill comes from the caster being able to see a different world and needing to make it real. There’s a lot more to it than that – rules upon rules upon rules, built on math, and lost languages, and mythology, and so so many books. Magic supposedly always has a price but I think in a lot of cases the price is just all of the random stuff you need to keep crammed into your brain and all the time you have to spend on the most boring research in the world.”
“Would it be hard to learn just one spell do you think?” Laura asked.
“Depends on the spell,” Val said.
“I was thinking something to make transitioning a little easier,” Laura said.
“Good news/bad news there,” Val said. “One thing that our world doesn’t support is permanent transformations, so there’s no simple spell that will do all the work for you. Which sucks. Good news though is that there are definitely spells that can help the body heal and process things better and faster. So the hormones and stuff you’re working with now? James can probably set you up with some techniques that will make those a lot more effective and/or remove a bunch of the side effects. Just, you know, expect a migraine or two trying to memorize all the things you have to in order to make the spells work.”
“That would definitely be worth it,” Laura said.
“Yeah. I wish we could share things like that with the whole world, but up until recently it’s been more likely that people would hurt themselves with miscasting than that they’d get anything good out of it.”
“It’s different now? What happened?” Laura asked.
“There was an organization called PrimaLux,” Val said. “They were one of the major players in the mystical world. They’d scored a bunch of the paths that let magic flow into the world and closed them down so they’d have a better hold on it. They wanted a monopoly but they never quite managed to it get. Then we sort of destroyed them.”
“You destroyed them?”
“They messed with us one too many times. Even sank a boat we were on. After that they had to go. So we took them out of the picture. Without them around, there were a bunch of power vacuums and a lot more power on the table, so things got a bit unstable for a while.”
“How did that turn out?”
“There’s a couple of problems that we’re still working on,” Val said with a sheepish grin/
“Like what?” Laura asked, genuinely curious.
“The world’s kind of going to end,” Val said. “In about six months as far as we can tell.”
“Six months?” Laura laughed, having reached the end of what she could take seriously.
“That’s what the current forecast says. We’ve managed to change it by twenty minutes recently though.”
“Wait, are you serious?” Laura asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Val said. “For what it’s worth though, we are working the problem, and we’ve worked against some really long odds before.”
“You sound awfully calm about it,” Laura said as she pulled up to the entrance to the private airfield beside the main airport they’d been heading towards.
“My girlfriend has assured me that no one other than her is going to get to cast me into the abyss,” Val said. “Since she’s literally a goddess, I figure it’s safe to trust her when she says that.”
Before Laura could process how likely Val’s words were to be real, she saw the plane which had landed a few minutes earlier open it’s door and let its passengers out.
It’s not even vaguely human passengers.
With a shrug, she put the limo into park. This was her life now. Time to get used to it she guessed.