Tam couldn’t beat the High One. She knew that the moment he arrived. From the sizzling aura of power he carried, to the thoughtless ease with which he broke the wards she’d erected, it was perfectly apparent that he carried more than enough power to simply brute force a path to victory through any fight she could put up. That alone was almost enough to seal his doom though.
As Val moved to draw the High One’s attention, Tam tried to step forward. The High One carried too much power to be a native of any Earthly realm. That gave her one weakness to work with.
She gathered the shreds of the wards he’d broken and read from them the core nature of the power the High One wielded. Each erg of it came from a the spirit energy of a willing sacrifice. That was another weakness to use against him.
Anna stopped Tam before she could move further. Val wasn’t going to win her fight against the High One but Anna saw what Tam wanted to overlook. Every moment that Val spent fighting was another Tam could spend observing and preparing.
The High One’s existence was was anathema on Earth. Tam spent a moment confirming that, to be sure the rest of her observations were corrected for accurately.
With a blink her eyes were covered in solid shadows, turning a shade of black deeper than the farthest reaches of space. Gazing into the blinding light at the core of his being, she saw that the avatar before them was conjured and fueled entirely by his faithful. The god’s investment in the matter did not equal theirs however.
Where the High One’s followers threw themselves onto bonfires in his name, giving every spark of energy left in their lives to his cause, he sat someplace impossibly distant, far away from any peril and directed his avatar with no more concern for its safety than a chess player had for one of their pawns.
Tam followed this one further, peering down into the roots of the magic that let the High One bridge the gap between their worlds.
That magic started in the High One’s world, and through it, Tam caught glimpses of how alien its landscape was.
Cities rose over desolate fields where chained demons slaved to pull life from the ever eroding soil. Each city was dominated by a massive central edifice which exalted the High One’s likeness above a population that huddled within the high walls, ever fearful of the heretics who lurked beyond.
Across a globe larger than the Earth, billions were clustered in these massive enclaves, each singing the praises of the High One and each hating the others for not signing his praises in the same manner they did.
From his throne on high, the High One offered his followers nothing, and collected from them everything they had, and they gave it willingly and eternally and without question.
Or most of his subjects did.
There were whispers of the Unfaithful. Of those who sought to live outside the High One’s dominion. Who refused to immolate themselves at his whim. Even moreso than the Heretics who lived within the other great cities, the Unfaithful served as the great boogeymen of the High One’s world.
Unlike many worlds however, the High One’s boogeymen were real.
Tam saw the reflection of the group the High One was looking for in the intent to which his power was leashed. All of those who fell upon the fires, a new soul igniting every second to add to the the thousands and tens of thousands who’d burned to fuel the avatar’s crossing, all of them understand that the Earth was where the Unfaithful had fled, accepting sanctuary from those who were forever lesser by virtue of having no place in the High One’s creation.
To the best of her knowledge, Tam didn’t think the Unfaithful had reached out to the Second Chance Club yet, but she wasn’t surprised that they had heard of Charlene’s offer of sanctuary for those who were being oppressed. For as much work as Tam and her teammates were doing on the ground, Charlene was clearly doing more behind the scenes, handling the sort of issues that would have taxed any of her associates beyond the breaking point.
That was another mark against the High One’s seeming omnipotence.
For all of the trouble they’d gotten themselves into and out of over the years, the one thing Tam knew was that if they ever truly needed her help, Charlene would be there for them. Since they seemed to be on their own for the moment, that suggested that the High One was a threat that was still in their league, appearances to the contrary.
Buoyed by that thought, Tam began to pick apart what she could see of the mechanics of the High One’s avatar.
They were a compromise between the mystical laws of his realm, where all magic was bound to his will, and the Earth’s laws, which could never be constrained under a single yoke. The High One was only able to bridge that fundamental gap by spending the steady stream of mystical energy to, essentially, pay for the use of Earthly magic which would normally be untouchable by something not of an Earthly realm.
That was good for the Earth, in the sense that the ambient level of magic would rise from the exchange while remaining free and clear of the High One’s influence. It was less good from Tam’s perspective though since it meant she couldn’t simply call on a great Earth spirit to disperse all otherworldly magics and be done with the issue.
For as long as he could afford to pay the price, the High One would be tolerated by the fundamental laws of the Earth. The moment he chose not to though, he would be expelled. Unfortunately, waiting him out wasn’t going to be an option. Even with a life being lost every second to allow him an agent on Earth, it would take centuries before his power ran dry.
Val was helping to spend that along by forcing the High One to draw on more power to defend himself from her, but even her efforts weren’t going to amount to enough in the end. Especially not once he starting being more efficient with the force he brought to bear against her, blinking away from her attacks rather than blocking or absorbing them.
It was the blinking evasion that gave Tam the final weakness she needed to turn against him.
Each time he disappeared and reappeared, the High One wasn’t teleporting. He was making use of the Earth’s animosity to his existence and letting it push him out of existence before clawing himself back within it somewhere else a fraction of a moment later. Watching that process, and the after effects it produced, gave Tam that last pieces to the binding spell she’d been working on.
As Val fell at the High One’s feet, Anna finally allowed her to act and Tam uttered a single word.
She couldn’t overcome the High One’s power, couldn’t bind him in mystical chains too strong for him to break. Any amount of power she put against the High One would fall far short of the power he could raise to oppose it.
So she didn’t use her own power. She used his.
Every drop of energy that the High One paid to remain upon the Earth, Tam turned against him. Any power he spent trying to do anything in fact, got turned against him. Assaulting the High One would serve no purpose. She knew he was too disconnected to feel anything that happened to his avatar, and he could oppose any change to it with the power of his world which it carried.
So she didn’t try to change the avatar, or injure the god, she just made the price of doing almost anything at all, impossibly steep.
“Thank you Tam,” Anna said. She’d remained standing and watchful during the whole confrontation.
“He’s not going anywhere now,” Tam said. “Or doing anything.”
Frozen in place like a statue, the High One couldn’t even glare in defiance of his fate. Tam could feel the scorching energy he put out as he fought the binding, and then watched the High One cool as he worked out what had been done to him.
“Can you allow his to speak,” Anna asked. “He seemed chatty and I have a few questions for him.”
“Sure. That’s no problem,” Tam said, relaxing the part of the spell that left the god mute.
“Very clever,” the High One said as the binding fell away. “I’m glad to see you can do that.”
His meaning was crystal clear. In trapping him, Tam had revealed one of the tricks she could use against him, and herself as a caster able to pull such a feat off. When he returned, and she knew that he would, it would be armed with that knowledge.
“You spent a great deal to interrupt our conference,” Anna said. “Next time it might be more efficient to simply send a letter requesting a meeting of your own.”
Anna’s meaning was clear as well. She’d spoke with James about the requirements for crossworld incursions like the High Ones, and she was offering him a less costly rematch whenever he desired, so long as he left the others who were present out of the matter.
“Our worlds are moving ever closer,” the High One said. “I achieved my position by taking power that was being squandered. I see you traveling along a similar path. Soon you’ll close enough that we’ll be able to meet in a more personal manner.”
Tam wasn’t sure which of them the High One was addressing, but she knew that comparing himself to Anna was not a good play overall. Anna could be a forgiving person, but that didn’t mean she was equally forgiving of everyone.
“Don’t worry,” Anna said. “As your world drifts closer to ours, we’ll make sure to point out the differences between what we have to offer and what you supply your followers with in ways that are clear for all to see.”
Billions supported the High One. Which also meant that billions could turns against him.
“Please do,” the High One said. “Show us all what you have to offer. The strife, the wars, the chaos. Let’s let everyone see the misery and anarchy your sins bring. I’m sure once the truth of this world is revealed, people will still flock to embrace it. That sounds so much better than the peace and community my creation enjoys.”
“Wonderful,” Anna said. “So you agree to let your subjects freely choose which world they wish to live in? They can leave your dominion and embrace our, presumably, far more terrible world?”
The High One sneered but before he could respond, Anna continued.
“But no, that’s not what brought you here is it?” she said. “You don’t wish to see the truth. You can’t bear the idea that, for all its faults and flaws, someone would choose the Earth over you.”
She walked up to him, and stared directly into his eyes.
“You call our world a sin, because it doesn’t give you what you want, and so, like a crying child who can’t get what he wants, you lash out. Not out of fear of what we might do to you, but because you know what you are, and how unworthy a thing that is.”
Watching his eyes for a moment, she turned and walked away.
“Your people say they love you,” she said. “They sign your praises, but you know what they are truly praising. You know the image they hold of you, the great lie you have sold them, and how, for all your power, you will always be so far from true greatness.”
“We’re done here,” the High One said.
“I didn’t say you could leave,” Tam said. The High One’s avatar offered all sorts of insights into his power and his mind. She saw no reason to give up her investigations of it.
Until it began to go critical.
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” the High One said. “And neither are you.”
The explosion that rocked the abandoned subway terminal was at first mistaken for an earthquake, and then an underground nuclear test, before knowledgeable experts were able to review the pattern and determine that it could only have been from something out of the world.