The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 2

Val wasn’t fond of fights to the death, especially not when they were ones she was likely to lose.

“This is your first death battle, I believe?” Kinslayer asked. Val wasn’t sure if the heavier woman was literally made out of stone or if her muscle definition was simply so advanced that she might as well have been.

“Not my first. Hopefully not my last either,” Val said, suppressing the urge to whistle at the sheer size of Kinslayer’s blue skinned arms.

“Ah, there’s nothing to worry about there,” Kinslayer said as she pulled her gloves on.

“You think she’s going to win?” Jim asked. He was busy unpacking the medical supplies kit they’d brought along but paused waiting for Kinslayer’s answer.

“In the Grand arena? Everyone has a chance in the Grand Arena. The fights wouldn’t be very interesting otherwise.”

“They’re not broken up into weight classes though are they?” Tam asked.

“No, there wouldn’t be any point to that,” Kinslayer said. “The audience wants to a see a contest between equals. Just because one fighter is smaller than the other doesn’t mean they’re any less dangerous.”

“That’s the angle the announcers will be playing with me, right?” Val asked.

“I think they’re going to talk about the enchantments you’re carrying to start with,” Kinslayer said. “Most of the audience will be sitting far enough away that they won’t really see the size difference between us except up on the giant projections that get cast over the stage, and everyone knows those skew the sizes because of the point of view they’re sent from.”

“So they’re going to make you look like the underdog?” Val asked, shaking her head, but still smiling.

“One of the advantages of being the home court star,” Kinslayer said. “Don’t worry, I’ve lost folks enough money when they bet against me that there’ll be plenty of folks in the stands who will be rooting for you.”

“People really want to see you dead that badly?” Tam asked.

“Well, dead in a death match? Sure,” Kinslayer said. “There’s some who wouldn’t mind seeing me permanently ended either – I’ve been dealing with jerks like that since I started fighting – but most folks just want to see some good back and forth with a decisive win at the end.”

“Doesn’t get much more decisive than death,” Val said, standing as Kinslayer gestured for her to rise.

“That’s why the Death Matches caught on so much for the Grand Arena battles,” Kinslayers said. “The smaller venues go with a lot of other win conditions and different combat scenarios but the Grand Arena is the end of the road all of the seasonal tournaments build towards, so we don’t get to experiment much here. For the Grand Arena, the fights always end in death. Which brings to why I’m here. What sort of death would you like to go with?”

***

Anna watched as the first pair of fighters leapt onto the central stage. They didn’t exactly resemble frogs but their overall shape was close enough that Anna had a hard time thinking of them as anything else.

“The Bedni are are the champions from one of the junior leagues,” Careema explained as the two fighters began to hop around the ring, circling each other in a manner that was far more serious than their somewhat comical movements would suggest.

“They’re underaged?” JB asked, nibbling on a roasted vegetable that had been dipped in a shockingly bright pink sauce which gave the dish a light sweetness.

“No, no, no,” Careema said. “Underaged participants aren’t allowed in the Grand Arena. The league itself is a junior one. It’s only a few decades old now, because the Bedni were isolated for so long.”

“How old are the senior leagues?” Anna asked.

“Our oldest league is the K’ra Circle,” Careema said. “It’s traditions go back tens of thousands of years. Sadly their tournament cycle only culminates once every century so we won’t see them fight for another forty three years.”

“Your world’s history must be fascinating to study,” JB said, going back for seconds of the mild dish.

“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” Careema said. “It’s been one of my passions since I was little. Sadly not one which is widely shared however.”

“If our negotiations work out, perhaps we can arrange for an educational exchange,” Anna said. She was sipping from a mildly toxic beverage which Careema had poured for them both. It wasn’t alcohol but it had many of the same properties, though supposedly without the danger of hangover afterwards.

“I imagine we’ll be able to work out at least that much,” Careema said. “The rest of the items you’ve spoke about may be a harder to sell to some of my associates though.”

“Not to open the discussions too early, but which do you see as being challenging?” Anna asked. There was a balance between waiting to make her case equally to everyone and walking into the meeting with a solid strategic understanding of what factions existed and how they were likely to react. From her read on Careema, Anna felt reasonably secure that if she over reached a little, the native ambassador would do no more than gently correct her.

“The trade and cultural exchange items you have on the agenda should be ones we can reach preliminary agreements on easily enough,” Careema said. “There will be contention between the ambassadors on my side around whether our standard models for welcoming a new island to the fold can be applied to a new world as well.”

“I can see where there might be significant differences to overcome there,” Anna said. “From what I gather your world as a whole can boast far greater diversity than mine, but your ‘melting pot’ states were planned as such where ours arose more organically.”

“That alone will bring the more scientifically minded on board,” Careema said. “The chance to study such a mix of cultures is something they won’t allow the rest of us to pass by, regardless of what other costs there might be.”

“And there will be other costs,” Anna said.

“Yes, that’s likely to be where the real sticking points will arise.”

“Your world has a global consensus on the illegality of slavery, doesn’t it?” Anna asked.

“The global powers are in agreement on that point,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands are left to practice their own laws, but in general overt slavery is not present even among the ones we know about.”

“Perhaps that could be a starting point then?” Anna asked.

“It might win some allies to your banner,” Careema said.

“But others will be driven away by the call to action putting a stake in the ground like that represents?” Anna’s guess was driven by her experiences with the humans she’d met and worked with (or against) over the years, but it seemed to be an accurate predictor of alien mindsets as well.

“Exactly,” Careema said. “When your benefactor first made contact with us, many jumped at the offer of access to a whole new world of information and discovery. Back then the trip was far too difficult to do with more than a few people a few times per year.”

“You learned quite a lot even from that though, it seems,” Anna said, raising a yellow and silver flower from her plate with her fork and taking a bite of it. The food was not only safe (for values of safe which included toxins similar to alcohol), but delicious as well.

Anna had been the one to request a meal with locale cuisine which Careema had modified only by suggesting that they stick to local dishes which were safe for humans from Anna’s world to consume. While enchantments could render nearly anything edible, it was considered a sign of respect to the cook and the host to partake of their food without such filters in place.

“Less than we would prefer, but enough to know that dealing with your world can be a volatile affair,” Careema said.

“That will be a difficult point to argue against,” Anna said. “While we may present some unusual challenges though, I would guess they are not unique in terms of ones you’re world has already been faced with.”

“True,” Careema said. “We’ve had islands where civil wars were routinely fought, where the divide between classes had grown perilously wide, and where internal diplomacy broken down as often as it succeeded. Your present circumstance however goes well beyond anything in either of our histories.”

“Unfortunately that is accurate as well,” Anna said as she watched one of the frog warriors catch the other with a perfectly timed kick. The victim was thrown out of the ring to land on the twirling spikes just below the stage. Losing in the Grand Arena was an ugly thing, but Anna knew that losing at diplomacy would look even worse.

***

Val and Jim had moved to the entrance to the Grand Arena along with Kinslayer, but they all moved aside as the Bedni warrior who’d lost the fight was carried past them on a stretcher.

“I really thought I was going to be able to dodge that kick,” the fallen warrior said.

“I spent the last two months practicing different timings with it,” the victor said, walking beside the stretcher. “I knew I’d be able to sucker you in with it eventually.”

They kept talking, reviewing the details of their battle as though one of them wasn’t pierced through in a dozen places and leaking blood like a sieve.

“So the Death Matches really are survivable,” Jim said, nodding in acceptance of information he hadn’t believed until he saw it with his own two eyes.

“Well of course they are,” Kinslayer said. “Everyone knows there’s an element of theater to the matches, and for most of them it’s only enjoyable because they can see through the illusion enough to know that no one is really getting killed.”

“There’s still some danger though right?” Val said without glancing over to Kinslayer. The Grand Arena lived up to its name, with a ring that was several times larger than the ones Val typically fought in.

“Yeah. Always,” Kinslayer said. “I know you’ve been checked out, so our medics can fix you up if something goes wrong, but I’d still like to avoid overworking any particularly fragile spots on you.”

“Humans don’t deal terribly well with head trauma,” Val said. “If you’ve got an opening though, go ahead and take it. I’ve got more protective charms above my shoulders than anywhere else.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kinslayer said. “It’s pretty much the same with me. I like keeping my face pretty so I make sure it’s pretty well hardened up. If you’ve got any cutting or piercing attacks, they’ll bounce right off. Go for my arms or legs with those. Lots of blood there, the crowds love it.”

“Are you sure you want to win this?” Jim asked.

“Of course,” Kinslayer said. “But what’s more important is putting on a good fight. I could win every match I was in and lose all my fans if I made it a boring but technically perfect fight.”

“So this is really just entertainment then?” Jim asked.

“No. It’s a real fight,” Kinslayer said. “Once we get into the arena, I’ll be coming at Val as hard as I can. I gotta give the crowds an honest effort.”

“It’s better if we’re on the same page to start with,” Val said. “And the more we know about each other going in, the faster we get to the good parts of the fight.”

“If we’d never met before stepping into the ring together, we’d spend a whole bunch of time sizing each other up, and feeling each others styles out. It makes for a slow start. That’s why most of the fighters get to know the other people at their level in their league pretty well.”

“It’s a lot easier to dance when you know what your partner’s steps are going to be,” Val said and held out one glove for a fistbump.

“Oh, we’re going to put on a great show today,” Kinslayer said, tapping Val’s glove with her own.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 1

Anna tasted the deadly drops of poison on the spikey fish as her host deposited the delicacy on her tongue.

“You will notice a sharp tingle as the poison begins to react with the saliva in your mouth,” Careema said, her blue hands tracing a line gently around Anna’s upper lip.

“It’s subtle,” Anna said, turning the alien morsel over in her mouth and searching for the sensation of the poison starting to take effect. A moment later she didn’t have to search though. “Oh, there it is. That’s quite pleasant. Invigorating, with just enough bite to warn about what’s to come.”

“You’re tastes are quite refined, Ambassador Ilyina,” Careema said, nodding in approval.

“Thank you, Ambassador Karns, both for the compliment and sharing this with us,” Anna said. She nodded to JB who was sitting beside her in the ambassadorial viewing box. Below them the Crestfall Grand Arena of Sport was hosting a multi-species aerial cheerleading troupe who were busy warming up the crowd in preparation for the night’s combat related festivities.

Following Anna’s lead, JB accepted one of the spiky appetizers from Careema’s aide. Unlike Anna, JB’s reaction to the dish wasn’t quite so mild though.

“It’s important to move quickly to the next step of the dish,” Careema said, seeing JB beginning to sweat from the searing heat of the fishes toxin. She offered her guests a brief toast and sipped from the peach-like beverage that had been delivered with the meal.

Anna sipped hers quickly, but turned to make sure JB was in no more distress than the heat of the dish would account for. JB, for their part, guzzled a bit more of the peach drink than the others did, but was able to flash a small smile afterwards and nodded to Anna to reassure her.

Anna suppressed a chuckle. Coming to Castorvell had been JB’s idea. It was a world which had swung into proximity with the Earth a few decades ago, but one which there’d been little contact with even among the more advanced world walkers. Little hadn’t meant none however, and JB had assured Anna that despite the myriad perils Castorvell offered, they were exceedingly unlikely to come to harm there.

As the peach beverage mixed with the toxic fish, Anna felt the fire that was building on her taste buds fade, to be replaced with a cool, milky sweetness which brought a pleasant dreaminess to her thoughts. It wasn’t perhaps the ideal state to conduct negotiations with an alien power from, but Anna was confident that she would be recovered before any actual negotiations were conducted.

Visting Castorel, and attending the Grand Arena of Sport was a precursor to all that, serving as an opportunity for Anna and Careema to better understand each other before venturing into the more dangerous waters of interplanetary diplomacy.

***

Down in the locker rooms, far below the cheering masses of the stadium, Tam dug her thumbs into Val’s shoulders and then along either side of Val’s spine.

“Any pain in any of that?” she asked, peering over Val’s shoulder to find her friend breathing in slowly with her eyes closed.

“Not a bit,” Val said, opening her eyes and flashing a quick smile, before she pulled the towel from around her neck and began putting on her gloves.

“Ok, you’ve got too many enchantments on you for me to tell if you’re lying,” Tam said. “So I’ll just say, please take it easy out there. The beating you took fighting the High One was no joke, and even with our best healing, there’s no guarantee that everything’s back where it’s supposed to be.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m really ok,” Val said. “You and James did some great work patching me up, and it wasn’t really as bad as it looked. A lot of what you saw was me trying to sell the whole fight to buy you time to work out how to save the day. I think you had it a lot worse than I did. I took a few hits, but you tanked a nuke there.”

“I just redirected a bit of energy,” Tam said. “If I’d known what to expect…well, it probably still would have hurt, but I might have at least aimed it better.”

“We all walked out of there,” Val said. “In my books, that’s an unqualified win.”

“What was Aranea’s take on it?” Tam asked, turning to check with Jim who was taking Val’s blood pressure.

“She wants to eat the High One,” Val said. “I mean, she’s more subtle about her plans than that, but her overall goals are pretty simple and direct.”

“Sounds like someone else I know,” Jim said, as he took the stethoscope out of his ears. Beyond maintaining the Club’s vehicles, Jim had turned out to be quite capable of as a physical therapist as well. Apparently bodies were just another type of vehicle that he could keep tuned up. “Blood pressure, respiration, and pulse are all good, and her reflexes are phenomenal as always.”

“Probably helps that I’m carrying enough magic to glow like a Christmas tree,” Val said, flexing her hand and feeling joints that had been nursing torn ligaments respond with strength and flexibility that should have taken months to regain.

“The tests I just ran are without the effects of the magic whizzbangs you’ve got going on,” Jim said. “You’re borderline off the charts when it comes to reaction time.”

“You sure you’re using the right charts?” Val asked.

“It’s a long term effect of the magic we use,” Tam said. “Particularly the kind you usually carry. You’re still human without it, but it’s shifting you bit by bit towards the top end of the sustainable spectrum.”

“Would training help with that?” Jim asked.

“The training Val does is pretty much what’s responsible for the change,” Tam said.

“Some of the magic is rubbing off on my permanently when I work out enough with it?” Val asked.

“Not exactly. It’s more that the simplest of the enchantments you carry reconfigure your muscles and nerves and circulatory system for optimal performance. It makes it easier for the bigger enchantments to take you beyond that. When you exercise and recover with those enchantments in place, your body is rebuilding itself closer to the optimal state rather that how it was before. James used a much stronger version of the same effect in the healing that he did.”

“He said Val was easier to heal than someone else in her condition would have been,” Jim said, offering with a gesture to tie up Val’s gloves for her.

“It’s true. When your body starts off in good shape, it’s easier to help it heal. If you’re in fantastic shape to begin with then there’s a base of muscle and solid bone to build on. With people who aren’t in as good shape, the work has to be a lot slower and more gentle.  In fact it’s usually easier and more effective to start with mundane medicines and use magic to augment their effects by small degrees.”

“I don’t think we would have had time for ‘small degrees’ of improvement,” Val said. Jim handed her a mouth guard, which she slipped into place, before punching the air a few times.

“That’s why I’m worried,” Tam said. “You don’t have to do this you know. Going out to fight in the arena isn’t going to make or break the deals Anna’s putting together. If this feels too soon, we can still sit it out.”

“No need,” Val said, through the mouth guard. “I feel good.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” a blue skinned woman who matched Val in height and almost doubled her in mass said. “I’ll be your opponent tonight.”

***

The second course of dinner arrived with far fewer toxic dishes to choose from. JB had recovered from the first round well enough that Anna wasn’t concerned about either of them partaking in the second, but she did feel the need to satisfy her curiosity over the message that the dishes sent.

“Your selection of refreshments is wonderful,” she said. “I would have expected our two people to have very different preferences though, or even be incapable of ingesting the same substances.”

“Oh, and why would that be?” Careema asked. She paused in offering a something that looked like the head of a dandelion to Anna.

“We hail from different bio-spheres,” Anna said, accepting the dandelion head gracefully. It tasted like spun sugar with a hint of citrus.

“Interesting. I suppose that would be a problem on your world,” Careema said.

“You’ve found a method of avoiding that here?” JB asked.

“Bridging the gaps between cultures and physiologies was more essential for us,” Careema said. “My Castorvell differs from your Earth in many particulars, but one of the most profound is that our land masses are far smaller and more scattered than yours are. Life here grew along very different evolutionary pathways, until we finally made the discoveries necessary to cross the great oceans and connect with one another.”

Above them, the aerial cheerleaders dispersed out into a pattern that could have been a living firework with how their outfits glittered and caught the light. Anna saw that some of them possessed natural avian characteristics while others were members of landbound races who used prosthetics to achieve their graceful flight. Many weren’t close to human in appearance but all of them were beautiful in the air.

“Your world has a long history of blending cultures together I see,” Anna said.

“And a long history of failing to blend together,” Careema said. “We’ve studied your world since it was first possible to move from one world to the next. We’d hoped we’d find a template for how to handle our trickier problems.”

“Did you come up with anything?” JB asked.

“Just that we should be grateful for the success we have made,” Careema said. “I am not making any judgments on your world in that. You’re conflicts and strifes fall on different lines than the ones we contend with, I think in a large part because those who truly do no wish to be a part of the global community can isolate themselves on their islands and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. There are bolt holes and refuges on our oceans which had gone unseen for centuries or millenia. The people who lurk there usually wind up either dying out or evolving into something strange even to our eyes.”

“Are efforts made to reconnect with them?” Anna asked.

“Periodically,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands attract attention every decade or so when someone decides to drop by and compare notes with the people who live there. It doesn’t always turn out well, but even the people who remain isolated will occasionally be glad for new information or tools from the outside world.

“I imagine that many of them are drawn in by a show like this too,” JB said.

“We have a good attendance tonight, but it looks like everyone is local,” Careema said. The Grand Sporting Arena was the size of a professional football stadium on Earth, which meant that there was no chance that Careema could have determined the status of everyone present. Unless she was using magic to monitor the crowd. Which she almost certainly was.

With the end of the cheerleader’s display, the music picked up into a triumphant fanfare, drawing everyone’s attention to the ring in the center of the enormous stadium.

“This should be a good match,” Careema said. “I believe it is your companion who is up first.”

“Do you know who her opponent will be?” Anna asked, scanning the people on the side lines. As she looked at the tiny specs far below, the air shimmered and magnified whatever she was looking at it.  She saw an overlay with each target’s name and basic information. Unfortunately none of the bystanders were anyone Anna knew.

“Most likely Kinslayer,” Careema said. “She’s usually the one they send when it’s a fight to the death.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 4

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.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 3

Being blind and trapped underneath billions of tons of molten rock turned out to be surprisingly relaxing for Jen.

She couldn’t feel the heat or the pressure of course. If her armor had failed to the point of allowing even a single crack in the shell that covered her, Jen would have been dead before she was aware anything was wrong. True to James’ promise though, the crystal armor suits had held up and shielded their wearers from the blast they’d generated.

As the enchantment that projected the illusion of vision into her eyes flickered back to life, Jen saw that the armors had performed even better than original advertised.

“Sareesh are you ok in there?” she asked, looking at the enormous crystal covered Core Serpent which floated just below Connie’s spinning form.

“Yes, I seem to be,” Sareesh said. “I’m also nicely warmed. Are we returned to the Primal Flames?”

Jen saw a small text message appear on the side of her vision indicating that “the Primal Flames” were the Core Serpent’s analog for heaven or the afterlife in general.

“Nope,” Sarah said. “You’re still in the Middle River.”

Another text pop up translated ‘Middle River’ to ‘place of the living’. James had mentioned anything about a cultural translation aspect of the communication spell, but Jen could easily imagine it was something Sarah had seen fit to add. How Sarah knew Core Serpent culture well enough to provide translations was a question Jen added to a list of conversation topics the next time they were relaxing off duty together somewhere.

“This doesn’t taste like the Middle River, though it is pleasant,” Sareesh said.

“I think it’s our Middle River,” Connie said. “Right? We made it back to our Earth when the portal flipped.

Jen checked the telemetry display on the armor readouts.

“We’re about a hundred miles away from the projected target location,” she said. “But we are on Earth, in roughly the same thermal zone as Sareesh’s people are used to.”

“That’s not what tastes different though Sareesh,” Sarah said. “The armor you’re covered in is designed to maintain the wearer’s body in as pleasant a state as possible.”

“How am I covered in armor?” Sareesh asked.

“When Connie linked up with you I was able to join you into the spell we were casting,” Sarah said. “Making a new suit of armor on the fly took a ridiculous amount of a power, but fortunately a lack of power was the one problem we didn’t have. In hindsight, you might have saved the whole endeavor in fact. Without you to bleed the extra energy into I’m not quite sure where I could have shunted it into.”

“Do we know if the rest of the spell fired correctly?” Jen asked.

“I’m getting confirmation of that now,” Sarah said, sharing a picture of the top of the hole they’d plummeted into.

From whatever camera’s viewpoint Sarah had conjured into existence, they saw that hole had mostly been filled in with a splurt of rock that had erupted through the shaft as was cooling with preternatural rapidity.

“It’s not quite the plug we’d hoped for,” Sarah said. “The hole still descends almost a hundred feet from the surface, but the structure beneath that looks like it’s fused into a contiguous mass with with the bedrock.”

“That could have gone a lot worse then,” Connie said.

“It might still,” Jen said, looking at a set of new data that had appeared on her heads up display.

“What am I seeing?” Sareesh asked. The Core Serpent didn’t have the same senses as a human so, technically, it wasn’t “seeing” anything. For ease of communicate the translation spells substituted “sight” words for “interfacing with my primary sense”. Jen wasn’t sure how the data the crystal armor provided was being provided to the Core Serpent but if they spent a significant amount of time together she made a note to find out.

“That’s another High One blast charging up,” Sarah said. “Telemetry says his avatar has appeared in Nairobi.”

“Can we get there in time?” Connie asked.

“Not a chance,” Sarah said. “The suits are still recalibrating. If we tried to teleport now we’d wind up as solid crystal all the way to our centers.”

“Tam’s still offline too,” Jen said, receiving a confirmation to her query from Val. “I think we’re covered though.”

“We’ve got a team in the area already?” Connie asked.

“Not Club members,” Jen said. “We have friends who are local though. Charlene put out word to them after the High One’s first attack.”

“They’re not going to be able to resist or overcome him with force,” Sareesh said.

“Val says they’ve been briefed on that,” Jen said.

“If they vent the blast downward like we did, is it going to cause problems?” Connie asked.

“Give me a second,” Sarah said and began weaving a series of spells whose verbal components ran through two dozen different languages.

“While she works on that, we need to consider what our next step will be,” Jen said.

“We’ve got to put a lid on the High One don’t we?” Connie asked. “He’s dropping bombs with more force than nukes on us, and he can place them apparently anywhere. It’s not going to take him six months to end the world if he can do that. We won’t last more than another few days.”

“Yeah. What Sareesh said earlier though is still true. We don’t have an effective weapon to strike back at him with,” Jen said. A smile crept across her lips as she spoke.

She was facing the literal end of the world, her foe was an actual god and was smiting her Earth with apocalypse scale blows, and yet in the face of all that she found her mind was clear and she was able to work the problem where other people would have fallen apart.

Let Anna handle the strategy for a war between the worlds, and let Charlene tackle the cosmic big picture behind everything. The High One had become a tactical problem and that was her milieu.

“You said before that drastic action was not required?” Sareesh said, his tail twitching with concern.

“No drastic action from you or yours is required,” Jen said. “Your family will be cooling even quicker without your contribution of heat to keep them warm. Please, consider which of them will need attention first and how soon we’ll need to deliver the radioactives and what the minimum quantities we’ll need to procure will be. We can handle the rest.”

“It will take some calculations to determine that,” Sareesh said. “I will begin at once.”

“That leaves us free to work on the High One I guess,” Connie said. “You’ve got a plan though don’t you?”

“Not a specific one,” Jen said. “Not yet. We know that we’re a threat to him though, and if he fears us it means we’re capable of hurting him.”

“Can we be sure of that?” Connie asked. “He could be doing all of this just to keep his own people in line.”

“That’s a weakness then,” Jen said. “From what Tam said, the first blast represented the life energy of over a hundred thousand people. Even if he has billions of followers to draw on, that’s too many people to toss away on something trivial. Even if he spent those lives for nothing more than theater, it tells us that he needed that theater to keep his followers in line, which says there’s a real possibility of discontent there.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Connie said. “Even people who start out solidly in a corrupt tyrants’s corner can wind up disgruntled when the tyrant decides to tyrannize them for a change.”

“From what we’ve seen the High One’s rule is built on the same model of fear and intimidation just like a whole bunch of corrupt authorities here,” Jen said. “That’s not always easy to undermine, but at the same time it’s a fairly fragile base to rule from.”

“Can we attack him on that level?” Connie asked. “Take away his power by turning his followers against him?”

“Not directly,” Jen said. “People who follow evil rulers wind up investing a lot in the lies they’re sold. The leader says they need to fear something and the people rejoice because they were already afraid and now they understand who to destroy. Anyone who speaks against the lie just gets lumped in with the ‘others’ they’ve been taught to hate and fear.”

“I can’t believe everyone on the High One’s world is just a mindless minion though,” Connie said. “There’s got to be some who can see that what he’s doing is wrong.”

“Absolutely,” Jen said. “Those are the ones who started this in a sense. The people who fled the High One’s world were all able to see him for what he is. And they’re working to open other people’s eyes too.”

“I feel like backing their play would be a good approach,” Connie said. “They understand the people there and the situation on the ground a lot better than we do.”

“That’s true, and in general I’d agree,” Jen said. “The one problem is the time scale involved. The High One knows that a protracted campaign of subterfuge isn’t going to go well for him. Even if he can hold onto power, each conversation will open the door to others beyond that, and weaken his hold across everyone he controls. That’s one reason why he’s pushing to end this conflict quickly. He’ll have our world destroyed, or at least eliminated as a viable refuge for those who object to his rule, before his local detractors make any headway at all.”

“And we can’t do anything to spot it?” Connie asked.

“No. We can’t fight him directly,” Jen said. “He’s meeting us in a power-based struggle because that’s where he has the advantage. Even if we were willing to match the force he’s assembled and sacrifice millions of lives to stop him, he’s confident he’ll win because he had more experience manipulating people on that scale.”

“So we change the game then?” Connie asked. “Attack him in an arena where the outcome is decided by something other than raw power?”

“Yes, and that arena is his followers. They’re the resource he knows can’t be taken from him and that he can spend however he sees fit. Their also unmatched by any resource we have.”

“There are other realms of Earth where that might not be true,” Connie said. “I mean, we’ve been to one Hell already. What would happen if we threw one of our nastier realms at him, or at his followers.”

“We’d be confirming every fear the High One ever stoked in his people,” Jen said. “They would sacrifice themselves to the last person if the alternative was being slaughtered by demons.”

“We have a more immediate problem,” Sarah said, finishing her spell. “Connie was right to ask about the fallout from the next attack.”

“Is it going to hit us?” Jen asked.

“Not directly,” Sarah said. “If our friends in Nairobi use a variation on the spell Tam used, the blast will reach this low, but it’ll miss us by a few hundred miles. The problem comes from what it’s going to hit. You know those Hells Connie mentioned? Well there’s a real good chance the blast is going to tear a portal between Earth and one of the not so fun underworlds. The good news is the portal won’t be on the surface, the bad news is it might be close enough to suck us in, and it’ll definitely drop a whole bunch  of nasties down here where they can grow big and strong without any natural competition to hold them in check.”

“We’ve got to stop that blast then,” Connie said, powering up her armor for a rapid ascent.

Before she could take off though, Jen swooped in front of her.

“I think I’ve got it,” she said. “We don’t need to stop the blast. We need to make it bigger. A lot bigger.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 2

Faced with further confirmation of the end of the world, Jen drew upon one of the most ancient bits of wisdom that had ever been taught to her.

“Ok, let’s focus on one crisis at a time,” she said, filling away the news that the High One could no longer be resisted with Earthly beings under the heading of ‘urgent matter, but not something I can handle at the moment.’

“Our injured are being cared for,” Sareesh said. Jen thought of him as being small despite the fact that he was roughly the size of a blue whale. Compared to the others of his family though he did seem to weigh in as one of the more diminutive, being only three quarters as long as his eldest sibling. “The cooling we feel without their warmth though is already beginning to chill my tail. I would guess we have six thrums before it becomes a crisis though.”

Jen thought back to her first meeting with the Core Serpents. There too the issue had been someone trying to steal the warmth from the Earth’s core, or, more specifically the mythic reflection of the Earth’s Core which the Core Serpents called home. Winning the Core Serpents trust then had been a long process, with the ritual of introduction lasting over a week on its own.

In the Serpents view, that had been an extremely rushed affair, with the haste brought on by fact that their realm was only two “thrums” away from freezing. That had translated to something like six months, which suggested the current cooling was a few years away from being deadly to the Core Serpents.

As they were not completely foolish creatures, the Core Serpents took being a few years away from extinction as a fairly serious matter though.

“Six thrums should be fine for what we have in mind,” Sarah said. “It’ll take a little while to convince the authorities who are responsible for dealing with spent nuclear materials to agree to transport them here.”

“Yeah, but once people realize dumping all that stuff here is an option they’re going to breaking down the door to get in on it,” Connie said.

“We’ll need to have JB coordinate that carefully, or delegate it to someone trustworthy,” Jen said. “We’re going to need concessions from people in high places before our other crisis is resolved and having an unlimited storage facility for radioactive materials is a valuable card to have in our portfolio.”

“This ‘other crisis’,” Sareesh asked, “is it similarly imminent?”

“Unfortunately the one who was responsible for this attack is going to be moving against us again much sooner than six thrums from now,” Jen said. “As you said though, that’s not something Earthly entities can help with, so please, focus on your people.”

“I would,” Sareesh said, wariness creeping into his voice, “but is there a point? We barely survived one attack like this. If another is to arrive, is not more drastic action required?”

Jen felt the weight of his stare settle on her, as though his senses could burrow through the red crystal armor she wore and lay bare the secrets of her heart that she was too kind to burden him with.

“Or will even drastic action not be enough?” he asked, guessing at the worst answer he could imagine. “Is there no option to flee to hotter realms? Or can we not perhaps embrace the ice, freeze solid, and await the coming of the next ages fires?”

An odd, but fiercely protective pride boiled through Jen’s veins.

The Core Serpents were long lived on a scale unimaginable to humans. Sareesh had been born before humans discovered agriculture. He’d lived through the centuries that saw every event in human history play out, and yet for all that, he was still barely an adult in his people’s eyes.

It had been a blessing when the first calamity threatened them. Sareesh had the youthful vigor to respond to crisis and act as the best liason Jen could have hoped for. It didn’t change the fact however that his long years were lived so slowly that he was still able to feel fear in the same measure as a human child would, and that for a near immortal such as he, the prospect of death arriving in what would be less than a blink of his eye was soul rending.

Jen refused to let a soul as kind as Sareesh’s be rent.

“Drastic action on your part would be misplaced,” she said. “You don’t need to pay any price for this. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I believe our realms are much the same in that guilt or innocence rarely plays a role in either in who must pay for the misdeeds of the wicked.”

“That’s true when there aren’t people who can make the guilty pay their own damn bills,” Connie said.

“Which is kind of what our job is,” Sarah said.

Jen smiled. She hadn’t known Sarah or Connie long enough to say that she knew everything about them. Probably she’d never know anyone long enough to say that. People grew new mysteries all the time, even from themselves sometimes. Despite that she knew enough about her two teammates to know that they were exactly the people she could trust to back her up when it came to playing a game where the stakes had been raised higher than she could even see.

“But you are Earthly powers too,” Sareesh said. “You’ll no more be able to resist our attackers might than anyone else. Will you?”

Jen was please to hear the uncertainty in Sareesh’s final words. He knew they couldn’t beat the High One, but he was on the edge of being willing to believe it anyways.

“The good news is that our enemy doesn’t think we can,” Jen said. “In fact, thanks to our friend Tam’s work, he’s completely convinced of that.”

The lava around them rumbled and surged upwards, carrying the whole gathering a quarter mile closer to the surface Jen and her friends had descended from.

“Before we can worry about the next High One bomb though, we’ve got to take care of this,” Sarah said.

“What is happening?” Sareesh asked. “Why has the flow changed? Where is it moving too?”

“Into our realm,” Jen said. Her red crystal armor didn’t let her actually see through the lava, but the projection is presented her with was more than capable of treating the surging, burning rock as clear water and showing the pathway back to the surface they were being pushed through.

“How is that possible?” Sareesh asked Jen, as he looked back to his siblings to see if they were caught in the current too. They hadn’t been far off, the whole family huddling together for warmth, but even the small gap they’d left had been enough to safeguard them from the wholly unnatural effect that had gripped Sareesh and Jen.

“In our realm, if we blasted a hole straight down to the magma layer of the Earth, it would form a volcano,” Connie said. “The pressure of the magma is under would send it jetting upwards, possibly with enough force to create a mountain.”

“That didn’t happen this time because the of the High One’s blast wasn’t contained to our realm,” Sarah said. “The explosion punched a new, stable portal between our realms. Unfortunately, as the portal settles down, it’s merging our two realms together at the point of contact.”

“The physical laws of our two realms are in pretty even agreement about how pressure works,” Jen said. “Your realm has a lot of it, ours has very little, by comparison, so your realms substance will flow to ours which neither of us wants.”

“The good news is, this isn’t the worst portal calamity we worked out a plan for,” Sarah said.

“You have a plan to stop this?” Sareesh asked.

“Yeah, it’s just not a good one,” Connie said.

“But it will save my realm and yours?” Sareesh asked.

“If it works out right,” Connie said.

“Then I believe it is a very good plan,” Sareesh said.

“Don’t worry,” Jen said, angling through the current to float to Connie’s side. “We’ll make it work. You were right that it’s the only option we have for fixing all of the problems here together.”

“I hope so,” Connie said, glancing up to where the portal between the realms was rapidly approaching.

“Is there a role I can play?” Sareesh asked.

“We didn’t plan on endangering any of your people,” Connie said.

That had been one of Jen’s first  restrictions on the problem space. Sacrificing either humans or Core Serpents wasn’t an option. Under the circumstances any soul lost as part of the High One’s machinations might fall under his dominion which was the definition of unacceptable.

“We didn’t plan for protecting them either,” Sarah said as she began to work the spell they’d discussed.

“Oh yeah.” Connie said. “That’s going to be a problem isn’t it?”

“What will you need to protect me from?” Sareesh asked/

“To fix the portal, we need to flip it,” Connie said.

“It’s not a flat plane like most portals,” Sarah said. “The High One’s blast stretched it out into a tube. If we can reverse the direction of the tube in our realm them we’ll exit it deep within the magma layer of our realm, rather than far too close to the surface like we’re about too.”

“That sounds like an environment I would be much more comfortable with,” Sareesh said.

“You will be,” Jen said. “The problem lies in how we’re going to flip the portal.”

As she spoke, Sarah’s spell began to take form. A pulsing lacework of light grew increasingly complex strands between the three sets of crystal armor the women wore.

“Overwhelming force created the portal, and it’s going to take overwhelming force to move it,” Connie said, running her right hand along her left gauntlet to bring the three runes etched into the crystal glove to life. At her sides, Jen and Sarah did the same.

“The good news, as it turns it, is that the High One’s bomb trick relies on giving our realm a whole lot more magic than it normally has, so overwhelming force isn’t a problem,” Sarah said.

“For us,” Jen said.

“Yeah,” Connie said. “Our armors can withstand the forces they generate. Other people around us though?”

“We need to get Sareesh out of the blast area,” Jen said. “Sarah, can you manage a teleport in addition to the portal spell?”

“Not even on a good day with a lot of prep,” Sarah said. “Not with the kind of energy we’re talking about working with here.”

“Don’t hold back,” Sareesh said. “Save my people. Save your realm. I am an insignificant price to pay compared to those.”

The lacework around Jen faded and went dark.

“No,” she said. “No one is insignificant.”

“Yeah…” Sarah said slowly as an idea slithered into the word. “Connie, you’re a good rider, right?”

“State champ in the Youth division,” Connie said.

“Good. Get on Sareesh’s back,” Sarah said.

“What are you planning?” Jen asked.

“A good rider can forge a bond with their mount,” Sarah said. “It’s tenuous as hell, but all I need is a little bit to include Sareesh in the portal spell.”

“How will including him help?” Connie asked as she swam towards Sareesh.

“If it works, you’ll see,” Sarah said. “If it doesn’t, well, none of us will have to worry about what it looks like then.”

“The portals coming up,” Jen said. She didn’t need to look at Sarah to know if the plan could work. All she needed was faith, and Sarah had earned plenty of that already. “Do it.”

Connie reached Sareesh’s back just in time for the lacework to flare back to life. Each of the women activates the runes on their other gauntlet and then the main rune engraved over their hearts.

The explosion that followed shook the world.

Literally, seismographs on the opposite end of the planet recorded the deep shock that accompanied the portal’s inversion, and the experts who’d been called in to help understand the original blast got reams of new data to work with.

Deep in the center of the Earth, tired, and slightly disoriented, but otherwise unharmed four crystal armored figures floated and took in their good fortune to still be in the realm of the living.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 1

Jen climbed up from the pit where the Thomas Brothers warehouse had once been. In the center of an abandoned city block, there was a hole the reached down far enough that magma could be seen burbling in the depths below.

“Any sign of fatalities?” Connie asked. She’d made a similar descent into the second, larger  hole that had swallowed the warehouses parking lot and the old subway station annex that it bordered.

Jen shook her head and let Sarah help her out of the climbing harness that had done most of the work reeling her back up.

“We didn’t think there would be,” Sarah said, unclipping the last of the fasteners from Jen’s waist. “More importantly though, was there any sign of divine energies?”

“Thankfully, no,” Jen said. She waved the control panel of multicolored gems which Sarah had added to Jen’s left arm.  “Your sensing stones showed that the area is still severely overcharged with power but it seemed to all be Earth native magic.”

“It is now,” Sarah said. “That was the trick that let the High One bring a nuke’s worth of magical energy into our world. From the moment he stepped foot here, all that power was earmarked for conversion as a gift.”

“It came with some pretty serious strings attached,” Connie said, looking at the new proto-volcano that was forming below them.

“We were lucky Tam was able to vent the detonation downwards,” Jen said. “It’s left us with this problem to deal with but the results would have been a lot worse if that much force hard erupted upwards.”

“She picked up a good site for the conference they were having. This whole block has been abandoned for years,” Connie said. The swarm of disaster response vehicles and the crowd of onlookers behind them made that point hard to imagine but the general state of the other abandoned buildings in the area supported the claim.

“I guess her ‘keep away’ wards held until the High One showed up,” Sarah said. “Even in an ‘empty’ area in a city like this, I would have expected to find plenty of people lingering around, trying to keep to themselves if nothing else.”

“She said they had to bring some of the homeless people in the area to shelters when they were setting up for the conference,” Connie said. “I wonder if any of them lost anything important here?”

“I’ll make sure JB includes them in the discussions on the recovery efforts here,” Jen said.

“Speaking of recovery, how are Tam and the other’s doing?” Connie asked, turning to Sarah.

“Val’s not in great shape,” Sarah said. “She went toe-to-toe with a god though so we’re lucky to still have her around to be honest. Tam’s better physically, but mystically and mentally she’s pretty out of it.”

“Our guests at the conference are insisting on offering her their thanks and well wishes,” Jen said. “I think they all know that without her work, none of them would have walked out of that room.”

“Technically none of them did,” Sarah said. “From what I was able to get out of her, Tam threw a twist in the binding spell she’d laid on the High One and them stole some of his energy to cast a mass teleport spell on everyone there.”

“I’m guessing that wasn’t exactly easy?” Connie asked.

“To steal a god’s power you need to either be a god, or be very clever,” Sarah said. “And the clever ones still, inevitably, get burned.”

“What about Anna?” Connie asked.

“She briefed me and then went to a meeting with Charlene,” Jen said.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Connie asked.

Behind them a fire truck pulled up loaded with a variety of non-standard gear.

“Whether we should continue our policy of accepting all refugees, I’m guessing,” Jen said.

She turned to face the lead Firefighter as he approached carrying a black duffle bag as long as he was tall.

“Pardon me, I was supposed to bring this to you I believe?” he asked, glancing down at Jen’s clockwork arms.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, slipping out of her climbing boots and opening the duffle’s zipper with her toes.

“Does anyone know what happened here?” Fred Booker, the fireman, asked. He seemed a little out of his element, which Jen couldn’t blame him for. Dealing the aftermath of divine wrath wasn’t the sort of thing anyone on Earth had a lot of experience with. Or almost anyone.

“There’s lot to explain,” Jen said. “The short form is this is the result of an attack by a hostile foreign power.”

“The Russians?” Fred asked. He was old enough for the Cold War to have left an indelible mark on his psyche.

“No, a lot more foreign than that,” Jen said, reaching into the bag with her toe to make sure that what was inside was what she’d been told it would be.

Fred laughed, trying to go along with a joke he didn’t understand.

“Like aliens you mean?” he said.

“The reports will be out soon enough,” Jen said. “For now though, yeah, pretty much just like aliens, only less little green men from Mars and more weird science stuff.”

“It’s not science,” Sarah grumbled.

“Everything is science once it’s understood well enough,” Jen said.

“Aliens blew up a gas main?” Fred asked, still incredulous.

“There’s no working gas mains within five blocks of here,” Connie said.

“But I mean…aliens? I thought this stuff was just terrorists,” Fred said.

“It was a terrorist action,” Jen said and stepped into the open duffle bag with both feet. “But it was also something more than you’ve ever seen before.”

From the bag, glittering bits of sand flowed up her body, hardening into shiny silver plates as the flow of sand wrapped around her.

A moment after the transformation started, Jen stood encased in a shell of glittering crystals that were harder than diamond and yet moved with the suppleness of living flesh.

“How did you….” Fred started to ask before his words failed him and he was reduced to simply staring.

“Magic is real,” Connie said. “More now than ever before.”

Fred nodded, blinking as his view of the world rearranged itself in seismic mindquakes.

“What are you going to do with it?” he asked, indicating the suit, and perhaps more broadly the topic of magic in general.

“The attack caused only minor damage up here,” Jen said. “I need to go see what impact it had on the people who were underneath it.”

“I’m coming with you,” Sarah said, stepping into the duffle bag after Jen exited. The same sand flowed up her body, but the resulting armor plating was subtly different, hers having a blue-ish sheen where Jen’s seemed to take on a red cast.

“Same here,” Connie said, taking her place once Sarah was done. Again the final result differed for Connie from the other two, her protective shell looking thinner and less bulky by comparison, with a vibrant green tinge around the edges.

“What should we do?” Fred asked. “And what do you mean ‘the people below the blast’? Where there people down in the old subway tunnels?”

“Yes,” Jen said. “They were all evacuated in time though.”

“What’s below that then?” Fred asked.

“Far enough down? Apparently the lava,” Jen said and marched to the whole, her steps carefully controlled as though each one had the power to send her flying through the air.

“While we’re gone, keep an eye on the pit. If you see anything come up other than us, pull back and give them room,” Connie said.

“What else is down there?” Fred asked.

“We don’t know, but things that live in fire don’t always get on so well with people who can burn,” Sarah said.

Jen dropped over the edge, plummeting out of view in an instant.

“It’ll be ok,” Connie said. “We’re going to talk to some people who are just as affected by this as we are. They just happen to be made of lava. There could be creatures from their realm that get out and head here. All you need to do is keep people safe and stay away from anything that looks weird and scary. We’ll come back with people who know how to properly handle anything that gets up here.”

“If anyone else from the Second Chance Club shows up, you can let them know where we went,” Sarah said before dropping over the edge herself.

“And if you see anyone glowing weirdly, give them a wide berth and call the special emergency number you were given ok?” Connie said. “The man who’ll answer is named James and he can help you out with any weirdness you run into.”

“What should I tell my team?” Fred asked.

“Tell them the truth,” Connie said. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on but it’s definitely not something you’ve trained for so you’ll handle the things you do know how to deal with and leave the weird bits to the people who are used to dealing with them.”

“I can do that,” Fred said, relaxing into the idea. “Will you be ok with the weird bits though?”

“Probably not at first,” Connie said. “We’ll get there though. I hope. We’ve got some great friends backing us up on this one. It’s just a question if that’ll be enough in the end.”

With that she pitched herself after her teammates and felt the thrill of free falling all the way down and then straight through the glowing lava as thought it was as dense as marshmallow fluff.

Beneath the surface of the lava, normal vision became impossible. Lava being rather opaque, sensing things by the light they reflect was worthless endeavor to attempt. The crystal hardshells the women wore were ready for that however.

In place of natural light, the inside of the crystal suits projected and illusory image into the wearer’s eyes, showing them the outlines of each other and the other solid elements in their vicinity. Those were comforting things to be able to “see” in such an alien environment, even if they weren’t really “seeing” anything directly. What wasn’t so comforting was the whale sized serpents of fire that coiled and rose from the bright depths below them.

“Who are you, invaders!” a thunderous voice that rang their bones called out. “Do you plan finish wat your first assault has begun? Or did you think to evade our wrath?”

“Sareesh?” Jen asked, her voice as much as projection as the images of the Core Serpents the team could see spiraling around them.

“Jen?” Sareesh said. “Is that you?”

“Yes! Yes it is! Oh am I glad to see you Sareesh! I thought we were going to have to go through the whole Ritual of Sparking Names for an introduction again.”

The lava wobbled as the giant serpent laughed.

“I presume you don’t have a week to spare for the ritual this time, do you?” Sareesh asked.

“Unfortunately no,” Jen said. “We’re here to see how you’re doing. There was an attack that blasted a hole from our realm to yours.”

“We suspected that was the case,” Sareesh said. “There were a few that thought it could have been a natural catastrophe, but the damage was too severe and there was too little pressure coming from above.”

“Was anyone hurt?” Jen asked.

“Yes. We didn’t lose anyone, but you know how small our numbers have gotten. Even having only a few go dormant in recovery will leave us with very little warmth to go around in this chill sea.”

“We might be able to help there,” Sarah said. “I believe our of our support staff has the connections to get you a ready supply of spent radioactive fuel rods.”

“That would be of great assistance, but I fear there’s nothing we can do in return for you,” Sareesh said.

“That’s ok,” Jen said. “Our first goal is to make sure you and yours are ok. Recruiting allies to help stand against the person who did this is second on the agenda to that.”

“I do not mean we would choose not to help you,” Sareesh said. “I mean, I do not believe any Earthly power can assist you. We saw the attack building and had time to ready our defenses against it and we still couldn’t protect ourselves.”

“Could you do any better now that you know what you’re dealing with?” Sarah asked.

“No,” Sareesh said. “This attack turned our own powers against us. The more we try to defend the harder it will hit us.”

A moment passed in silence as the team understood what that meant. Even as he was bound up, the High One had learned from Tam’s spell and had used the magic to turn the Earth’s power against it.

None of them would be able to fight him the next time he returned.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 5 – Act 4

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.

Another weakness.

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.

“Stay.”

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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 5 – Act 3

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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 5 – Act 2

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.”