With a thunderous implosion, the Earth was vaporised. Tearing a dimensional rift in the heavens
It was roughly three minutes from Mars to Earth.
Three minutes that Angus would remember with disturbing clarity.
Three minutes before everything he had ever loved and sworn to protect vanished into nothing.
Three minutes in which he knew that something terrible was going to happen. It started the moment he saw the Hootsman break from the battle and, leaving nothing but a faint glow behind, shooting off faster than the speed of light towards Earth.
"Follow him!" Angus ordered, his voice still firm and calm, and everyone obeyed his order. What he could not voice were his worry and confusion. Under his banner and command, he had led the united armies of Earth into the battle of Mars. In their advances against the demon horde, carefully considered optimism had turned to cautious hope as he felt their victory was drawing near.
But now he was taken with the daunting premonition that something wasn't right. He was the one supposed to know. There was nobody he could ask what was going on. Nobody but one.
But the coms stayed quiet while their ship burned as hard as it could to keep up with the cyborg. They couldn't dream of catching up to him.
"Sir, we're hailed from Earth. No known signature."
"Put it through." An irrational short moment of hope that it would be the Hootsman. Could he have reached Earth this quickly?
A loud crackling hiss filled the command room before a voice overlaid it while the communications officer did his best to clean up the signal. It wasn't the Hootsman.
"Positive. Whom am I speaking to?" In the current moment, Angus wouldn't even dream of considering the lack of formal address. The voice was distantly familiar, but the distortion was still too strong as that he could recognise it.
"Ralathor. The Hermit, as you call me."
"Where are you?" Angus raised his voice in alert attention. Any other time he might have been thrilled to have a chance to speak to the Hermit whom he had seen only a very few times in his life. But being contacted by the legend now of all times felt less like an honour and more like the worst omen.
He could never have imagined how right he should have been.
"Listen to me closely."
Angus did listen. Cold terror froze the blood in his veins as he heard about the hell portal being about to be opened underneath Dundee. That Zargothrax was right there. The war above Mars with all its lost lives, nothing but a mere distraction for the true horror raising in the darkness. Bringing upon the destruction of the galaxy, maybe even the universe, from below the very city he called his beloved home.
"Whatever happens next, Angus, you must kill him." The Hermit spoke without panic or urgency like he was merely stating a fact that was not to be questioned, as if he was talking about the undeniability that Monday was followed by Tuesday.
"Wait, hold on -" Angus wouldn’t question the words of the Hermit but he needed more information. More time. Time for his mind to fully grasp what he had just heard if he didn’t want to stand frozen in his spot.
"If he does how I asked of him, the Hootsman will prevent the portal from being opened. But it won't guarantee the wizard’s death."
"If he survives, do not hesitate. Do not linger." The Hermit’s voice wasn’t raised to barking an order at him, yet, Angus felt his control of the situation slipping away. Ralathor wasn’t in command and Angus wasn’t ordered to follow; he told him what needed to happen and Angus would do what he needed to do. But he wanted to understand what was happening to him, his friends, the people who trusted him with their lives, and to the universe.
"What is the Hootsman going to do?"
"He will destroy the portal and the surrounding rift space. The destruction will be absolute."
A sickening sensation overcame Angus, but his brain already flooded with the adrenaline of the battle knew better as to stay quiet now. "Absolute? What do you mean by that?"
"Earth will be destroyed. I'm sorry."
Angus felt his heart hamming in his chest, rushing in his ears. The words caused upset voices on deck. He didn't know how these two sentences could be equally horrifying when the first was of such magnitude that he barely grasped his meaning. But almost as disturbing was the coldness in Ralathor's words as he said he was sorry. An apology added seemingly just for politeness sake. Earth, destroyed. What a shame. Just two more circumstantial facts.
"That's billions of people down there!" Angus shouted, his voice ringing from the walls of the deck and in his own ears. To think that he was so close to follow the Hermit’s instructions because they were delivered with the sound of reason. There was no reason in the acceptance of the death of billions of people - and all the other forms of life surrounding them - as circumstantial.
"And it's the price that must be paid to save this universe."
Angus almost laughed. He had half expected this reply. Yes, he even saw the math behind it but there had to be variables that he could twist to his favours. One that the Hermit hadn’t thought of or discarded as not relevant to the cold nature of a calculation. This wasn’t how honour and doing the right by his people worked.
"There has to be another way!” If there was something he could do, he’d figure it out. “Where are you now?"
"Where I've always been." Through the strain in Ralathor's voice, there was something almost akin to melancholy, Angus registered with a desperate sense of relief. The Hermit wasn’t devoid of all emotion, so there was hope.
"In the caverns? Is the Hootsman there already? We're almost there, just hold-"
"Angus, you must kill him! I'll find you after-"
The connection was abruptly cut.
And the world seemed to stand still for a moment.
It was slow.
A blinding light growing in front of them, like a flicker of a torch illuminating a small fraction of the universe that, for a moment, reduced the sun to the fragile flame of a candle.
And somewhere in his mind, Angus imagined that it only seemed so slow because nothing of this magnitude was supposed to also possess speed.
Or maybe it was his mind not wanting to see reality at the speed it happened.
The glow engulfed Earth in its sickening embrace, blinding the screens for a merciful second.
Then it was back and before the terrified eyes of those who waged a war far away to protect their home, the light collapsed and swallowed everything it touched.
Billions of lives. Millions of years leading up to them. History, rising and falling civilisations and cultures, their tragedies and triumphs that paved the way for those who dreamt of tomorrow. Countless threads of fate, destiny, and chance.
Not even a speck of dust left to be discovered by curious wanderers of the future.
A rift exploded in the centre of the glow. Light cracked and exploded in thousands of colours falling into a vortex of chaos.
Angus stared at the picture in front of him. Where his beloved earth had been seconds ago was now nothing but this terrible wound in space, relentlessly ripping itself apart.
He did not process what that meant. He wouldn't for a very long time.
Like filtered through thick cotton the sounds around him came back to him, panicked shouting, questions, curses, demands for orders.
"Sir, what should we do?"
There was comfort in guidance.
"That's- is that a wormhole?"
How could he give them guidance if that meant to move on, every step towards what was coming next turning Earth into an afterthought?
He barely listened. Ralathor's words echoed distantly in his mind. He barely grasped what had happened, but he did understand what was asked of him.
"I have to go there…" he whispered, his voice blank from the shock.
How long ago had that been?
With all that happened, it felt like a lifetime. Maybe an eternity.
He stared at the map of the solar system. The planets slowly moving around the sun. All of them including Earth. Their own position was marked, too. Close to Earth. But when he looked up at the screen, there was nothing now. Only empty space.
What a terrible loss of life. The heart of the empire, just gone. Staring at it now, at nothing - he might as well look at any other minuscule part of space - but this emptiness made his heart clench tight and sunk a heavy feeling in his stomach. His breath shuddered only for a moment as he exhaled. Memories of those lost filled his mind, and he let them wash over him with calm acceptance.
"How could he have even survived that?" he mumbled more to himself, but Ralathor, who had given him the time with his thoughts till now, answered anyways.
"He must have been shielded by the powers he tried to summon. Allowing him to pass through the rift the explosion of the portal caused."
"Hm." An explanation. Sure. But satisfying, it was not. Maybe his brain tried to find a way to justify all this death, but even after the long-deserved victory, he knew he couldn't. There was no justification. It merely had been the only option.
And yet, he remembered the guilt and anger strangling him when he had been lost on the other side. The horror of even imagining having to make such a decision, the ice-cold shudder caused by the coldness of Ralathor's voice had stayed in his memories and the confusion over how the Hootsman could have done this just because of one man's words.
They had decided to destroy his home just like that. May it have been the only option to save the universe, their universe as a whole, but still. The helplessness of that moment he could not forget. Just watching the total destruction that had left nothing and no one left alive.
"How did you manage to get through it then?" He dragged his eye from the screen. Staring at the nothing was making him nauseous.
Ralathor stayed quiet for a moment before he looked at him.
"I wasn't on Earth when this happened. The Hermit was."
For a few moments, Angus just stared at him, until he really understood what he was saying. That the time he had spoken with Ralathor the Hermit from the legends of old had also been the last time he had ever done so.
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It wasn't the first time I died. It won't be the last."
Angus clenched his teeth, "It's still dying, though. I got some experience with that now, too." He paused. "But you. Do you remember it?"
"I remember the last words I said to you. I think you underestimate how sudden this death was. There is nothing to remember. The moment I saw the light of that explosion, I was dead."
Angus looked back at the screen and the empty space displayed on it. While the idea was unsettling, it was also strangely comforting. Terrible, but soothing in a gruesome way, that most if not all people on Earth wouldn't even have noticed that they would die. That it was just like that - over. Someone in another room flicked a switch.
He wanted to say something, anything, to take his mind off these thoughts, but as he saw the downright brooding look in the Commander's face he stayed silent for a moment longer. Ralathor wasn't looking at him. He seemed lost in thoughts.
"What are you thinking about?"
A brief moment followed in which Angus wasn't sure the other had even heard him. Then Ralathor said:
"I've been alive for quite a while now. And I've been trying to make things right for most of it. That seems to be my part - my destiny if you will." The smile was weak, carrying a hint of grim amusement. "And still, when I received that call for help - I would have never imagined what I was getting myself into." He paused, then added, "I guess none of us did."