Anna was only one chapter away from the end of the world, but her time had run out.
“Find anything in that Apocalypse Codex?” Connie asked, looking up the Cataclysm Chronicle she was reading.
The Tessered Library might not have been literally endless, but it didn’t lack for reading material on any conceivable subject, as the mound of books the size of a carnival pavillion around them attested.
“Nothing new I’m afraid,” Anna said, standing and stretching as she looked over the stacks of books piled around them.
The Infinite Librarians had been more than willing to work with the Earth’s representatives once the full scope of the problem was laid out before them. Even the most isolationist among them had seen the kind of existential threat which the High One’s gathered forces represented.
A victory over the Earth meant new belief in the High One’s power. New belief meant new converts. New converts meant an expanding sphere of influence for the conquering tyrant. Every believer, on every world, was another inroad the High One had to conquering it, and ever follower was another life he could burn up to fuel his insatiable need to control and demean all those he could grasp in his clutches.
Where the Infinite Librarians had the will to help, and the Tessered Library had all of the information Anna could ever desire, there was an element which was lacking. Even with as man carefully worded search requests as Anna could devise there was still far too many books to go through on apocalypses if they hoped to find the solution to the one which lay in the Earth’s future, at least in the time they had available.
One part of the problem was that worlds didn’t tend to be destroyed by outside aggression. Far more frequently a world’s destruction came at the hands of the people who called it home. In some cases that was instigated or orchestrated by a foreign power, but generally even that wasn’t required. People were all too often content to leave their worlds a barren wasteland rather than give up a shred of the power they possessed.
That was good in the overall scheme of things, since constantly having to fend off attacks from worlds with radically different physical and magical laws wasn’t Anna’s idea of a delightful career to spend the rest of her life pursuing. Under the current circumstances though, the unprecedented nature of the High One’s assault meant that she and Connie had done a lot of reading with very little pay off.
“I’ve got another binding ritual here that works on deities,” Waverly said. Waverly wasn’t part of the Infinite Librarians staff. She was a retro-archaeologist who had volunteered to help with Anna and Connie’s task in return for access to the Earth and the opportunity to record as much pre-cataclysm information about it as she could. It was an odd line of work but with an entire section of the Tessered Library being devoted to future histories of world ending events, Waverly assured Anna that there were a lot of grants to be had in studying the event which preceded an apocalypse.
“Will the binding be castable on Earth?” Connie asked, flipping through her own book at a pace that suggested she was sight reading entire pages at a time.
“I think it comes from your world, so that part should be fine,” Waverly said. “The real trick is whether it’ll be enough to contain a god whose got a half dozen other worlds pumping him up.”
“Add it to the stack we’ll be returning with then,” Anna said. “We’ll cast all of them and see how the High One enjoys dealing with that.”
“Speaking about returning, shouldn’t we get going?” Connie said. “We had to have used up the time that Charlene was going to buy for us right?”
“We did. About an hour ago.”
“Why are we still here then?” Connie asked, jumping to her feet.
“I am feeling rebellious,” Anna said.
Waverly looked up from her book at that, eyes narrowed in intrigue.
“We’re not going back?” Connie asked.
“We are. We have to,” Anna said. “I simply don’t want to go back without a better answer than the one Charlene knew we would find here. One that doesn’t leave so much of the burden on her shoulders.”
“I wasn’t in that meeting. What did Charlene think we could get from here? Wasn’t it just the Librarian’s help in stopping the High One.”
“The Librarians don’t have a fighting force,” Anna said. “They’re not going to be able to help us with defeating the High One and his allies. What they’re going to be able to do is help us with the restoration afterwards. Any knowledge which is lost or destroyed in the battle will have a backup here.”
“But if we win, why would we need that?”
“Victory in this case means survival. Nothing more,” Anna said. “So long as one Earthling is alive at the end of the conflict, and the Earth remains capable of bearing life, we will have won.”
“Okay, yeah, I guess that has been what we’ve been saying,” Connie said. “It just wasn’t sinking in like that. Even if we win our world’s not going to be there is it?”
“In a sense, no,” Anna said. “There’s no avoiding the fact that a global attack like this will change things. And not likely for the better. At least not overall.”
“People usually band together in times of tragedy though don’t they?” Connie asked.
“Yes, and whatever happens, there will be people who rise together, who represent the best of what we can be. They’ll inspire others too, but not everyone, and not forever. In the wake of trauma there are wounds which will be slow to heal. Some people will reach out, and others will turn inwards. Fear and hate can grow too easily for there not to be a ripple of malice which spreads out from this attack and infects those who find comfort in becoming the demons they fear.”
“There’s a thing about demons though,” Waverly said. “They can be fought. And they can be tamed. All you need to do is show them the path back to being angels.”
Anna glanced over at their new volunteer.
“You sound like you have some experience with that?”
“I’ve walked in some pretty dire places,” Waverly said. “And I’ve learned from some of the best.”
“Is that why you’re helping us?” Connie asked.
“Well that and I can’t let my wife have all the fun,” Waverly said, fiddling with the gleaming pink ring on her finger.
Penk’s hand was on fire. He was unhappy about that, but given that he was the one who’d applied the plasma blade to it, the agony coursing through his nerves was a welcome relief.
The Pure One’s philosophy went beyond purity of body and blood. It had started with eugenics of course, because how could a people truly be worthwhile if they weren’t reaching closer to perfection with each generation. What was the alternative? Swilling around in chaos no better than pigs rutting in the mud?
Like all parts of the Pure One society, that initial belief had grown and evolved until, with the aid of the Elders, the laws for the Purity of Thought had been drafted.
Penk was in violation of several of those laws.
It was inevitable do to the nature of the task laid before him. He had to interact with other cultures, he had to treat them as having inherent worth because if he didn’t, the would be no retribution on the Earth. No cleansing of its taint from the pristine lands Penk called home.
It wasn’t a philosophical problem for Penk that the Pure One’s lacked the might to cleanse their world or close all the portals between it and the Earth. The road the Pure Ones had followed to achieve the domination they enjoyed had been a costly one. Only a single generation had passed since the impurities of their world had been washed away in blood, and their strength was still rising to recover to where it had been before the first great night of purging had been enacted.
The recovery wasn’t supposed to have taken that long of course. The initial estimations had said that on the day of victory the consolidation would begin and that with none to oppose them, the Pure One’s leadership would be able to guide their people to an eternal golden age.
That golden age had arrived for some. For the most worthy. For the ones who were the most pleasing to the Elders.
For the lesser citizens of the new world though? Especially the ones who were born inferior? There was still so much work for them to do to be worthy of their place within the golden world of the future.
Penk knew he was worthy. He’d been appointed Supreme Marshall and given command of all of the Pure One’s forces who were dispatched to rid the Earth of the vermin who threatened them.
That worthiness had its limits though. Better to bring home a hand withered by fire than one bearing an Earthly plague.
Or even the chance of an Earthly plague.
It shouldn’t have come to that of course. While Penk was leading the Pure One forces, he certainly hadn’t put himself in a position where he should have been at risk. His command sphere was meant to be safely away from the field of battle around the sunken city in the latest of the Earth’s mystical realms they were scouring clean of effective resistance.
In the end, the Divine Fire would purge all life from the Earth and all of its associated realms, but before that could happen, the Pure Ones and the other mortal forces in their coalition had to clear out the pockets of resistance which might be capable of diverting the assault. For all his foolish ego, the High One was not stupid and knew better than to risk allowing some hidden god, or secret savior to emerge at the Earth’s last moment to spare it from its fate.
Ensuring that the path was clear through the Earth’s mystical realms was the task laid before Supreme Marshal Penk, and it was one he knew he was destined to succeed. The Earth’s own fate had told him so.
What hadn’t been mentioned in that destiny was the swarm of phasing eels, each no longer than Penk’s smallest finger but millions in number who had come squirming through the walls of his command sphere with teeth that dripped liquid pain.
The threat had been contained. In the grand scheme it was at best a mild annoyance. At least for Penk. Several others in the command sphere had taken more bites than he, enough that a full body cleansing was required.
Dying in a stream of plasma which cooked off every organic molecule in your body to a fine, inert mist was probably more than mildly annoying from perspective of the fallen crew members Penk had to admit but such a death at least carried a modicum of worthiness with it, and they would be remembered as Pure, which was all people of their caliber could really aspire to.
As a new wave of defenders arose to protect the sunken city, Penk shook his head. The Earthlings were putting up a good fight, but what was the point of a good fight that couldn’t be won?
How wasn’t it the better, nobler, and simply more sensible thing to recognize when the odds against you were impossible and submit to your fate. The Pure Ones would not offer to spare any of them, but there could be mercy in how the defenders of the Earth would be sent to meet their fates.
The Pure Ones believed in mercy after all, even for those who were anathema. What they didn’t believe in, and what the Earthlings would never be given, was a choice in what happened to them. They would be burned to ash, no question asked and no quarter given.
There would be no second chances for Earth when its defenders fell. Just silent emptiness. Pure. How all things ultimately must be.