The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 11 – Act 3

As dates went, a trip to a magical fairy land sounded lot nicer than it turned out to be.

“Which direction are we heading now?” Cynthia asked, grabbing onto the nearest undulating vine. “I lost track of where gravity is about a mile ago.”

Tam spent a moment considering her answer. Given that she was dangling from Cynthia’s left ankle above a void that dropped into a whirlpool of rainbows, there was a decent chance that coming up with the wrong answer would have unpleasant consequences.

“If you can swing me towards the hill that’s floating over there like a cloud, I think we’ll be a little closer to an island of stability.”

The problem with fairy lands was that they tended to be a less of a ‘land’ and a lot more ‘fairy’. Tam didn’t know the name of the one she’d been called too – which was in itself a problem – but she was somewhat familiar with its type. It had some similar aspects to her Earth, important ones like ‘breathable air’ and ‘survivable temperatures’, but beyond that the physical laws she was used to where apparent more reminds of the rules the fairy land was breaking.

Grassy hillocks, for example, didn’t typically possess the proper density to float through the sky. Nor was the sky close enough that it showed marks of the paint brushes used to add in extra stars and other details.

“Are you sure there are any stable spots?” Cynthia asked, shifting her weight to begin swinging Tam towards the hill below them. “It feels like we’ve been looking for one for hours now”

“We probably have been,” Tam said. “Time runs pretty weird in places like this. It’s anchored to Earth though, so there are some limits to how weird it can get. And there’s got to be more stable spots. If it was just connected to the path that we walked down, the connection would be too weak for things like that to have lingered here.”

She pointed to a flock of flying creatures that was swirling around the outer rim of the rainbow vortex. Rather than birds, or even fish, the creatures were an amalgamation of metal and glowing plant life in the shape of Penny Farthing bicycles.

“I can’t even guess what those things are,” Cynthia said. Her eyes went unfocused and she shook her head. Tam knew exactly what she was going through. There were sight lines that induced a major case of vertigo if you looked in their direction for too long.

“Something unique to this place I’m sure, but the important part is that they resemble  something from our history. That should mean that this place has been around since Penny Farthings were popular, which means more than one tiny little jogging path as its anchor to our world.”

“Ok, so there’s hope still. Good. You ready to jump?”

“Not really, but waiting’s not going to make it easier.”

On a count of three Tam let go. The fall scrambled her inner ear spectacularly and she landed in a lump, avoiding injury largely thanks to the training in falls she’d picked up as part of her recently sparring sessions with Connie.

For a moment the world spun around her and the concept of ‘down’ became nothing more a polite suggestion which everything around her was ignoring. As severe as the dizziness had been though, its departure was just as profound. One moment she might as well have been in a tumble dryer and the next she was solid and fine, the ground below her, the sky above, and nothing moving in any direction other than the one it should.

Nothing except for Cynthia.

Where everything else was falling down towards the ground Tam stood on, Cynthia’s flight, after releasing her grip on the vine she’d been clinging to, was closer to a balloon’s which had sprung an unexpected leak.

She swooped down towards the rainbow vortex and Tam screamed, gathering light into her hands from all the stars around them. Before she could form the power into a spell though, Cynthia ricocheted backwards, buzzing low enough across the ground that Tam was able to bring her to rest via the expedient of a flying tackle that left them both prone on the soft and sweetly scented grass.

“Ok. I didn’t puke. And everything is surprisingly ok,” Cynthia said, picking herself up and looking around the expanse of waving grass that surrounded them. “I’m not eager for a repeat trip, but that was kind of neat.”

Tam took Cynthia’s offered hand climbed to her feet as well. The light she’d gathered into her hands had burst into a thousand fireflies which danced around them like puffs of dandelion in a summer breeze.

For a moment the image of Cynthia’s smiling face, softly lit against a rainbow strewn sky took Tam’s breath away. She wanted to ask how she’d gotten so lucky. She wanted spend forever enjoying the moment. In the end though a different emotion rose to the forefront of her mind, driving by the changing illumination from the sky above.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think this trip would be quite as ‘out there’ as all this.”

“It’s ok,” Cynthia said, reaching out and taking hold of Tam’s hands. “I signed up for a magical mystery tour, and that’s what we’re getting.”

“Yeah, but this is a lot more dangerous than you should have to deal with.” Tam looked down. The tableau was beautiful but one of the first rules she’d learned about fairy realms was that the prettier it looked, the more deadly it was likely to be.

“You get that my whole job is dealing with dangerous stuff right?” Cynthia stepped closer and put her hands on Tam’s shoulders.

“This is different though.” Tam looked up and met Cynthia’s gaze. “Fire fighting is dangerous stuff that you know the rules for staying safe from. With this though? Here the only rules are that the rules always change and there’s no path that’s ever even close to safe.”

“Didn’t stop you from heading in to check things out as soon as you heard the call though,” Cynthia said.

“It’s my job,” Tam said, knowing how weak a justification that was.

“Is it?” Cynthia asked. “I know you take care of a lot of supernatural things for the Club, but are you expected to deal with every problem everyone’s having?”

“No, of course not,” Tam said. “But when something seeks me out, it’s usually a good idea to pay attention to it before whatever’s happening gets worse.”

“That’s reasonable,” Cynthia said. “But so is bringing backup right? Or am I not reliable enough? Would you prefer Val? Or Anna? Would they be better here?”

Tam sighed and smiled.

“No, and yes.” Words tangled up in her brain for a moment as the colors in the sky shifted to a sequence of darker hues. Cynthia could have interrupted but instead she gave Tam a moment to sort her thoughts out. “I thought this would just be a bit of fun, but it’s more serious than that.”

“And your afraid I’ll get hurt?” Cynthia asked.

“No. I mean yes, I don’t want you to get hurt, obviously, but I…” Tam drew a deep breath. “Everyone has a limit on how much they can take. There’s a point beyond which the unusual becomes the weird, and then the weird becomes the disturbing. I think I’m used to being that to people.”

“Disturbing?”

“Well, weirder than they can take. At least long term.” Too many memories rose up to support that. Each failed relationship leaving tracks on the sand with steps that grew more unsteady the closer they got together, until the other one saw Tam for who she really was, then came the sudden and yet inevitable parting.

She knew she was filtering those memories though. Not all of her relationships had ended poorly. She was still friends with some of her ex’s. Under the swiftly darkening sky of the fairy land, Tam’s thoughts couldn’t help but follow a similar downward trend.

“But I don’t think you’re weird,” Cynthia said, holding Tam tighter without seeming to be aware of it.

“Yet.”

“Within 24 hours of when we met, I saw you casting spells and saving people on a sinking boat,” Cynthia said. “I didn’t run away then. Heck it’s part of why I moved in with you! Why are you worried about it now?”

“I know! It’s stupid!” Tam said, feeling like she was being irrational for worrying about the long term prospects of a relationship that was still fairly new. Despite her growing certainty that her mind was being influenced by outside forces she couldn’t help hearing a frightened and experienced voice within telling her that, whether it was rational or not, whether it was externally influence or not, there was nothing to suggest she was wrong to worry.

“No, it’s not stupid,” Cynthia said, her frown matching the concern in her eyes. “It’s something you’ve been hurt by before isn’t it?”

“I guess…yeah, it has been. I feel like I balance being normal and being myself a lot. Like stage magic was the easiest thing for me because I have so much practice putting on a show for people.”

“You’re not alone in that. Not even a little.”

Tam laughed and hugged Cynthia. The warm contact was reassuring but her heart still felt like it was being held in a vice.

They should be moving. Standing in one place letting fairies play mind games wasn’t a recipe for either success or continued sanity. She could do that. She could call up a bunch of different spells. Protect herself and Cynthia.

Instead she just held on.

“I’m not going to tell you not to put on a show for me,” Cynthia said, running one hand through Tam’s hair while the other returned Tam’s hug. “I can’t demand that, and I don’t want you feeling bad for the defense mechanisms you’ve spent a lifetime learning.”

“Even when they suck?” Tam asked through tears that had sprung up without her notice. A flicker of anger shot through her at the thought that the fairy land was making her cry, but Cynthia’s words washed the spark of rage away.

“They brought you to me,” Cynthia said. “If what you’ve shown me so far is only part of who you are because of them, then it means I get to look forward to seeing even more of you than I have. Not today, but when you’re ready. Bit by bit even.”

Tam looked up again and saw the darkening whirlpool in the sky reflected in Cynthia’s eyes. In the reflection the colors shifted back to their brighter hues. With a long, slow breath, Tam let herself get lost in those brighter colors.

“What we have now is pretty great, I think,” Cynthia said. “Relationships take time though. I know we kind of skipped ahead on the sleeping together part, and that’s great too, but it feels like each day there’s a bit more real intimacy. We know each better. We trust each other more. That kind of stuff can’t be rushed, it’s always going to take time.”

Tam chuckled with real joy.

“I’m pretty lucky,” she said, and breathed in deeply again, letting the bright colors in Cynthia’s eyes fill her up. “The fairies however. Their luck just ran out.”

She breathed once more, feeling her emotional center regain its stability. Gravity wasn’t the only thing out of control in the fairy land it seemed. With a smile, she started drawing in the fireflies of light again.

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t harm the Illuminids,” a young boy said from a few feet away to Tam’s left. He was several feet farther away and on her left the next time he spoke. “They didn’t mean any harm, they’re just cautious of spellbearers.”

“This is the one who was calling you, isn’t it?” Cynthia asked, without taking her eyes off Tam.

“I am,” the boy said. “There is a problem you must know of, and, alas, I cannot write letters.” He was behind Tam when he finished speaking.

Tam turned, her hands sparkling with collected power. The boy wasn’t a threat though. If he ever had been, it had ended when his gossamer wings were clipped in half and his eyes were scorched blind.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 11 – Act 2

In the aftermath of the fire, Tam felt covered in soot and suffused with smoke, despite the fact that she hadn’t been within a dozen miles of the building while it was burning.

“I still don’t get how you got those water people out there?” Cynthia said, as they jogged down the park lane.

“Technically, you were the one who got them out there,” Tam said, checking her watch to see if their pace was keeping her heart rate in the proper range.

“Oh, because I definitely knew what I was doing there. You had me hose them down and when the water stopped flowing they were just gone!”

“You gave them a lifeline out of there by bringing in the fire hose,” Tam said. “Elementals have a weird relationship with tangible forms. They need them but they’re not stuck in any particular one.”

“So they went from inhabiting the bubble bodies I saw to inhabiting the fire hose?” Cynthia asked, checking her watch as well. They didn’t normally get their runs in after Cynthia got out of work, but she’d been on shift for a few days and the two of them were falling behind in the workout schedule. Tam had suggested they head to the park to catch up a bit out of a desire to feel the clean wind in her hair as much as anything else.

“It was more the water in the firehose and the water it was connected to that the elementals bonded with,” Tam said.

“But the water was coming out at pretty high speed there,” Cynthia said. “How were they able to fight upwards against the stream?”

“They didn’t have to.” Tam said and quickened her pace to keep shoulder to shoulder with Cynthia. With shorter legs, she had to work a little harder and run a little faster but the exercise felt good. After too many months of holing up in her sanctum to work on the Club’s issues, she’d managed to institute a decent training program so that her body wouldn’t fall apart while her mind overworked itself to the point of exhaustion. Val had helped her plan out the program and Cynthia had helped her stick with it.

“The moment the water from the hose touched them, they were able to join with all of the water in that flow,” Tam continued. “Getting out of the building at that point was just a matter of shifting where their focus was. Kind of like paying attention to your left hand instead of your right foot.”

“How did you know I’d be there to help them though?” Cynthia asked.

They came out of the forested part of the park lane and entered the stretch the circled the park’s largest pond. There were more people around, some walking, some running, and some just enjoying the day. Their presence didn’t deter Tam from answering the mystical part of the question directly though.

“I didn’t. I heard the Water Elementals cry out for help and just went to them. I knew they were close but I didn’t have a sense of exactly where they were until you showed up.”

“That’s not just an odd coincidence though is it?” Cynthia asked and glanced over at Tam.

“Probably not,” Tam said. “Obviously Water Elementals aren’t usually big on hanging around in burning buildings. In this case though someone had enchanted the pipes that were part of the fire suppression system to become a part of their home.”

“Magic fire sprinklers?” Cynthia raised an eyebrow. “That sounds either awesome or awful. I guess more awful now that I think about it. Wouldn’t that have been a death sentence for the Water Elementals?”

“I was thinking about that,” Tam said. She was beginning to feel a bit winded, but better than that, she was feeling like the wind had finally pulled most of the smoke’s spiritual essence out of her. “If the fire suppression system had worked, it would have gone off well before the building was engulfed in flames. The Water Elementals would have been fine then because there would have been plenty of water around for them to inhabit.”

“So the person who put them in the pipes meant for it to be a good thing then?”

They passed by a large group of runners, several of whom were wearing coordinated jerseys bearing a logo of a donut segmented into four equal pieces, each piece with a different color.

“Maybe?” Tam said. “It feels like there was more going on there than that though. Enchanted pipes playing home to water elementals is weird enough, one’s that just happen to be in a burning building where the sprinkler system is broken though? That sounds potentially deliberate. Then add in that it was a building your crew got called out for and it moves from ‘potentially’ to ‘almost certainly’ I think.”

“This might add to that as well,” Cynthia said. “The fire wasn’t accidental either.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Tam said, picking up her pace. Her mind was starting to wander off into conjectures around the puzzle before them, which distracted her from keeping her jogging at the proper speed.

“I don’t know that officially yet,” Cynthia said. “The investigation will take a while but from what we saw it’s pretty clear it was arson by someone who’d watched too many movies.”

“Well, they did manage to burn the place down, so they couldn’t have been too far off right?” Tam asked.

“The tricky part about arson isn’t getting dried out decrepit old wood to burn,” Cynthia said. “It’s setting the blaze so that it takes out enough of the building that we can’t stop it while at the same time making the fire look natural. Thankfully that’s not a skill very many people have. Assuming this was a person that is.”

“Did you see any evidence that it wasn’t?” Tam asked, her eyes narrowing in concern.

“I did stumble on some enchanted pipes, and a group of Water Elementals,” Cynthia said. “Which makes me wonder if any other elementals were around there? Like Fire ones maybe?”

“Ah, yeah, that’s a good question to raise, but I can answer it for you. The fire itself was purely natural. No supernatural component of it.”

“And the cause of the fire?” Cynthia asked.

“It’s possible it was started by magic, or by a magical creature,” Tam said. “I don’t think a Fire Elemental could have done it without the Water ones knowing about it though. They’re supposed to be able to sense each other at fairly broad distances.”

“Any other magical creatures a possibility then?” Cynthia asked.

Another small pack of runners passed them, wearing the same team jerseys the previous pack had sported.

“Oh sure, lots,” Tam said. “But there wasn’t any evidence I could see of them being there. No phoenix ash sparkling in the wind. No smell of brimstone. No flaming hoofprints on the walls. For now it’s probably good to let the forensic teams sort things out.”

“They might miss something,” Cynthia said with a note of caution in her voice.

“True, especially if someone is using tricks they’re unfamiliar with to hide what happened. On the other hand though, if they are magical, they’re good enough to hide from me, and if I poke around for a better look, I’ll definitely contaminate the scene, and probably throw off the regular forensic results.”

“What about Sarah? Is this something that’s more in her area of specialization?” Cynthia asked.

“Not specifically, though she probably has different techniques than the ones I use so she might turn up something I missed,” Tam said. “Unfortunately she, Connie, and Jen are off in Mozambique at the moment.”

“What’s happening in Mozambique?”

“Quite a lot it turns out. In this particular case though, they got called in by a friend of James’ to help with a werewolf problem.”

“Mozambique has werewolves?”

“Not typically, and not this kind of werewolf before. The local magic wielders haven’t dealt with a Siberian werewolf before, and while it seems like they could kill the wolf pretty easily, our contact was more interested in bringing them in alive and getting them the treatment they need.”

“That sounds like a fun adventure.” Cynthing said, her complete lack of desire to join them an accent on every word.

“We have a betting pool going for which of them comes back and needs the lycanthropy cure for getting bitten,” Tam said with a grin.

“Who’s your money on?” Cynthia asked.

“Sarah. Connie’s used to being around critters that bite, and Jen’s too quick on her feet to get caught. Sarah though gets a bit distracted at times.”

“Huh. A wizard who loses all track of their surroundings. I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

“When was the last time I zoned out like that?” Tam asked.

“We’re off the path and heading towards the pond,” Cynthia said. “I’m sure you just wanted to take a closer look at the water though right?”

“What?” Tam asked, glancing up and stumbling to a halt. Cynthia was not wrong. Lost in the conversation, Tam had missed the last turn in the jogging trail and had lead them down a long worn path through the trimmed grass which would have brought them to the side of the pond.

She shook her head. That was unusually out of touch even given the questions she was mulling over in the back of her mind.

In the distance a car horn sounded, except it wasn’t from any make or model that had ever been assembled on Earth.

“Did you hear that?” she asked, reasonably certain she knew what the answer would be.

“Hear what?” Cynthia asked, the smile she was suppressing turning to a look of readiness.

“It sounded like a saxophone being played by a carburetor,” Tam said, closing her eyes.

She knew she could look around all she wanted and the only things she would see would be the normal denizens of the park. Listening however might be a different story.

“I definitely did not hear anything like that,” Cynthia said. Seeing Tam with her eyes closed, Cynthia chose to keep hers open for the two of them. They’d been sucked into another world before, and while the park looked normal so far, looks were all too often deceiving when  magic came into play.

“That’s good,” Tam said. “It means whoever is doing this is probably trying to get through to me.”

“So everyone else here should be safe then?”

“Safe-ish? I’d feel more certain of that if I knew what it was our mystery caller wanted.”

“Could they be looking for someone else?”

“If they’ve mistaken who I am, then sure,” Tam said. “There’s definitely a spell that’s reaching out to me though. I think the fire was the start of it.”

“So, not a good guy then,” Cynthia said, her arms and shoulders tensing.

“The odds favor it going like that,” Tam said.

“Why would a bad guy go to so much trouble to get in touch with you though? Don’t they normally just attack?”

“Depends on the bad guy,” Tam said. “Some of them just can’t do anything without making it as dramatic as possible.”

Another car horn went off somewhere far away. This one sounded like a duck inflating a whoopie cushion by screaming at it.

“I don’t think they liked that description,” Tam said.

“Should we go somewhere else in case they decide to change their mind on the whole ‘attacking you in public’ thing?” Cynthia asked.

“Probably not a bad idea,” Tam said, starting to walk towards the bridge over a stream leading to the pond which they’d been jogging towards. “If we can make it back to the Club, we’ll be pretty safe within the wards.”

A series of plaintive warbles that weren’t even pretending to be related to car horns echoed from a spot more distant than the earlier sounds.

“Or maybe that’s not a great idea,” Tam said. “I know this is going to sound strange, but I don’t think whoever’s trying to get my attention is after it for a bad reason.”

Bird chirps echoed from afar, not growing more distant, but not coming closer either.

“But they were involved with the fire?” Cynthia asked.

A see-saw sound replaced the bird chirps.

“I think so, but I’m going to guess they weren’t the ones who set it. I think maybe this is the person who led me there. Maybe because I needed to see what was going on?”

A bell dinged in the distance, but much closer than before. Tam smiled at the confirmation.

“I think I’m being invited to go for an otherworldly visit,” Tam said. “Care to come along?”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 11 – Act 1

Tam wasn’t surprised to see the wall beside her tumble down in flames. Walls tended to do that when they were poorly constructed and served no purpose in a building that had far greater problems. Problems like a fire that should have been handled long before it became the raging inferno that was devouring the greater part of the structure. The wall in the lobby of the mall’s anchor store was the first thing to collapse but it looked like a decent portion of the rest of the building was going to join it shortly.

“Can you do anything about this?” she asked, gesturing at the curtains of flame that covered each of the remaining walls around them. Around her an octet of teardrop shaped balls of sapient water floated a few inches off the smoke wreathed floor.

“No, this is too much even if we could reach our poolmates,” Valia, the leader of the water elementals, said. Her features were difficult to read in the glare of the fire light. With a body composed entirely of water, her eyes, mouth, and other features were merely shapes on the surface of her teardrop body.

“Can you reach out to them?” Tam asked. The heat of the flames didn’t bother her any more than the toxic gas because she’d had the good sense to leave her physical body behind.

Astral projection was a new trick James had taught her. She’d struggled with it for the longest time until she’d translated his metaphors to a format that clicked better for her.

James had tried to explain it as a loosening of the spirit’s hold on the body so that it could float free on the ‘Astral Sea’, but that conceptualization had been too terrifying to work for Tam. She had no interest in losing her hold on her body. She liked having things like lungs, and taste buds, and hair that Cynthia could run her fingers through.

In place of the poetic suggestions James had offered, Tam had decided to approach the issue mathematically. Her senses were ultimately just information and information could be transferred from place to place easily. Astral Projection therefore took the theories which underlay the scrying spells she already knew to a new level. Rather than casting her vision or hearing to a distant location, she worked out a formula to cast all of her sense together somewhere, wrapped in a lattice of thought and magic and a thread of her spirit so that she could not only experience the distant location, but interact with it magically if the need arose.

Tam hadn’t expected to need to use that aspect of her Astral Projection spell so soon, but the need had clearly arisen.

“We are cut off,” Valia said, the ripples in her body sharing the same connotation as a shiver of fear would in a human.

“Don’t worry,” Tam said, pushing the flames back with a flick of her hand again. Within the circle she’d cleared the temperature was rising, but far slower than it was in the rest of the burning mall.

Defending sapient water elementals in a burning, and thankfully abandoned, mall was not how Tam had planned to spend her Tuesday afternoon. With Cynthia being on shift for the day, Tam had scheduled time with James to work through some of the more exacting mystical measurements which recent experiences showed they needed to make.

From the Chinese military base they’d visited no longer being free of ley lines, to the appearance of an island in the South Pacific which was supposed to be on a decades long rotation to one of the mirror-Earth planes, to the overall rising level of magic they were encountering, it seemed as though the old maps and charts they relied on were perhaps a little too old to be worth basing their estimations and plan on any longer.

“Can you put the fire out?” Valia looked at Tam with eyes grown impossibly wide with hope.

There was a cartoon-ish aspect to the water elementals that Tam found charming, but she held back a smile. Their peril was real and even if circumstances had been more pleasant, she suspected the water elementals wouldn’t be pleased to be treated like amusing magical children.

“Not directly,” Tam said. “There’s a lot of energy to work with here, but I’m not familiar with the style of the magics that are in place already. If I tamper with them, I’m pretty sure I’ll just feed the fire even more power.”

“Ah. Yes. Don’t do that, please,” Valia said.

“Don’t worry. I can’t douse the flames but I can find a path out of here for you, if one exists,” Tam said. “I’ll need your help though.”

“We are in a poor position to either refuse your aid, or fail to offer the help you need,” Valia said.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I don’t really understand how you got stuck here.”

Water elementals could spawn in many places. Typically those places included streams, secluded ponds, and even rain storms. The middle of a building fire however was not exactly high on the list of possibilities, or even on the list at all.

“We were called to the constrained water which lived within the building,” Valia said. Tam could tell that the elemental was struggling to put concepts into English which had a much clearer expression in her native language.

“The constrained water?”

“Yes. It was held in pipes within the building. It ran throughout the structure, though there were many blockages,” Valia said. “Our home was up there before the fire began.”

She pointed to the ceiling and Tam saw the fractured and broken piping that lead to the mall’s fire suppression system.

“You were in the sprinklers?”

“Until the fire came.” Valia nodded, which bobbed her whole body.

“That explains why the fire swept through here I guess. It looks like your homes were the first thing that broke, so the water inside couldn’t douse the flames when they were just starting. How did you get stuck in there though?”

“We were called. Sigils with our pool’s name were etched into the pipes. They made the water within comfortable for us.”

Tam blinked and looked more closely at the ruins of the pipes which had dropped to only a half dozen feet above them. The sigils etched onto the pipe’s surface still glowed slightly in the fire light, though the water inside had long since poured out.

“I’m not familiar with those bindings,” Tam said. “Did they trap you in the pipes?”

“No. We were not trapped until the fire came,” Valia said. “The name of our pool made the water in the pipes a piece of our home. We were able to flow through it the same as we could our home pool.”

Tam tried to puzzle out why someone would have done that, but no obvious reasons leapt to her mind. The fire flared higher again distracting her further and she decided to shelve that question for a later time.

“Ok, we need to get out of here,” she said. “Unfortunately that’s going to mean going through one of the stores and there’s a lot more fire inside them than out here.”

They were standing at the entrance to one of the malls anchor stores. Time and decay had robbed the location of any hint of what it had once been, but even if there had been a logo left, the smoke that enveloped the inside of the store’s area would have made it impossible to read.

“Are there no better exits?” Valia asked. “I do not know if we all will survive the heat.”

“There were supposed to be several other exits,” Tam said. “Unfortunately the roof has already collapsed and cut us off from them.”

“Did the fire do that to trap us?” Valia asked.

“I think the roof on this floor fell in a while ago. There might have been some parts the fire brought down that were hanging on loosely before, but I don’t sense any intent within the fire itself.”

“If no one drives the fire, how could it have gotten so bad?” Valia asked.

“If I’m right? The fire itself isn’t malicious, but the person who set it was.”

“Will they have set traps in our path?” Valia asked.

“I don’t think they were planning to endanger you,” Tam said. “There were too many ignition points and they were spaced too far apart from where you were. I think the motive here was greed, pure and simple.”

In the flickering of the flames, she caught a brief glimpse of what she’d been looking for.

“Ok, time to go,” she said, and began walking to one of the stores beside the anchor. It had been a restaurant, if her guess was correct, and from the gust of air that blew out of the building through it, there was probably a door open on the far side of it.

The water elementals fell in step around her, forming a half moon as they relied on Tam to keep the flames at bay.

The interior of the restaurant was filled with thick, noxious smoke. Tam knew that if she’d been present bodily her lungs wouldn’t have been troubled by the poisonous gas. It was hot enough in the restaurant that they would have been seared beyond usefulness long before the poison could kill her.

With that cheerful thought, she marched forward, summoning a circle of wind to drive back to the smoke and carry the worst of the heat away from them. It was a stopgap measure at best. While the wind did reduce the temperature briefly, it also fanned the flames even higher.

“We are drying up,” Valia said, her voice growing thin and scattered.

“Hold together, we just need to get to the kitchen and then the stockroom,” Tam said. It was slow going, maintaining the winds and keeping pace with the rapidly dwindling speed the water elementals could manage.

“We cannot,” Valia said as one after another, the water elementals sank to the floor and began to sizzle and steam.

“No! Wait!” Tam scrambled to think of something that would save them.

The elementals had turned up in part because their cry for help had been so mystically loud and in part because they were close to Tam’s physical location. She wondered for a moment if she could reach them in time in person. It would offer her a wider array of effects to draw on, but looking at the elementals she saw there was no chance she could make it in time.

“Ok, huddle close to me,” she said and bent down to floor. She couldn’t draw a proper circle of protection around them since she had no physical form to work with but with some minor prestidigitation, she was able to shape the ashes on the floor into a crude approximation of the Seal of the Fimbulwinter.

Where the heat had been overwhelming one moment, the instant the Seal was completed, frost began to form within the circle.

“Thank you,” Valia said, her enter body heaving with the effort speech required.

“This only buys us a bit of time,” Tam said. “I can’t move the seal, and it’s not going to last very long.”

“Even a short respite is better than none,” Valia said, her voice gaining strength.

“Yeah, the problem is, I don’t know what we do when the Seal breaks,” Tam said. “The flames are going to be even bigger and hotter at that point.”

As if in answer to her question, a figure stepped out of the smoke from the kitchen. They were covered head to toe in the sort of gear one should be wearing when navigating a burning building, including a full face mask and sealed breathing apparatus.

For a moment Tam couldn’t place who the stranger was despite the sense that how they moved looked very familiar. The moment she pieced together the figure’s movements with a face from her memory though Tam smiled.

“Tam?” Cynthia asked, sounding only mildly confused rather than as stunned as Tam guessed she might have been. “What are you doing here?”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 10 – Act 4

Aranea looked tired. Her eyelids were drooping, her shoulders were slumped, and she walked with a shuffling gate that would have done a zombie proud. Val considered the sorry state of the Spider Goddess and grinned.

It had taken more than a little effort for Val to get Aranea out of bed. It was a cold, rainy day, and they’d had a monumental dinner the previous night. Together those factors had worked on Aranea’s spidery instincts to leave her sluggish and curled up under the blankets, unwilling to be drawn out until Val had lifted her from the bed and plopped her down in front of a stream of warm water in the shower.

A fresh mug of hot chocolate and the promise of a surprise had secured Aranea’s wakefulness. Hot chocolate wasn’t a terribly “spidery” beverage, but that hadn’t stopped Aranea from claiming it as her own. Some things transcended the bounds of culture, habit, and even species.

“You promised there would be a surprise,” Aranea said as they walked together under Val’s umbrella down the rain soaked streets. “It occurs to me that you didn’t promise that it would be a nice surprise.”

Val gestured down and skipped over the puddle in front of them.

“You’re correct,” she said. “I did not.”

“Will you make that promise now?” Aranea asked, skipping over the puddle in unison with Val. The burst of energy didn’t seem to cost her much, suggesting that her shambling was mostly a matter of mood and preference.

“I think I’d like to see how much you trust me,” Val said, angling the umbrella to keep the runoff from a gutter from splashing onto them.

“There is both the question of how much I trust your intentions, and how much I trust your knowledge of my tastes and desires.” Despite her words, Aranea continued walking along at her slow and plodding pace. If she was eager to learn what the surprise was, she was being adept at biding her time and appearing patient.

“Are there different answers to those two questions? Or are you willing to go through with this blind?” Val asked.

“We’ll see I suppose,” Aranea said.

Val felt a blip of adrenaline ping against her heart. Aranea’s fatigue might have been due to the meal and the environmental conditions but her emotional lassitude felt like someone who was fading away. Val tried to stuff that concern down. If Tam’s ideas turned out ok, the danger of Aranea redefining herself into non-existence would fade away. The alternative, that she’d have to return to her home realm and resume her usual existence was less pleasant to consider, but even that wouldn’t mean they could never see each other again.

A goddess who came to Earth once a year for a vacation would be a small enough variation on the central idea that made up Aranea’s being that it wouldn’t put her in any peril.

It would be something they could have together.

But maybe not enough to base a relationship on.

Val could imagine meeting Aranea for drinks once a year. Maybe on the anniversary of their original meeting. It would be a delight, and a sorrow. They might manage it a few times, but long term, the reminder of what they couldn’t have would be hard to live with. They would both have to move on, their lives diverging whether they wanted them to or not.

Val unspooled the movie that was playing in her mind and dropped the footage in a mental garbage bin. Was it a valid worry? Certainly. Had it happened to other people? Absolutely. Was it worth borrowing trouble from a future that might never arrive? One which she was specifically going to do her best to avoid? Definitely not.

“However this turns out, promise me you’ll be honest about it?” Val asked.

Aranea chuckled and turned to face her.

“You’ll offer no promise to me, and yet you would extract one the hardest ones I can be asked to make?” Aranea’s tone was arch, but she was smiling as she spoke.

“Yes, I would,” Val said, without shame or regret.

“Very well, I will be honest about whatever it is you intend to inflict upon me. Remember that you have only yourself to blame that.”

“That seems fair.” Val knew she was playing with fire, but on reflection, she had to admit it was one of the more fun aspects of the current stage of their relationship.

They walked a few blocks in the rain, Val holding her pace at a speed that was comfortable for Aranea and Aranea continue to march forward at Val’s direction despite the ‘surprise’ visibly nibbling away at her patience.

“There are a number of people gathered here,” Aranea said as they crossed the last  street before their destination.

“Yep. The convention isn’t open yet, but people started lining up last night.”

“It’s like a small city within a city.”

“This one’s been put on for a long time now. People know the crowds will be here, so they get permits for vending booths for concessions and pre-convention swag.” Val pointed towards the nearest both which was offering three flavors of fried dough and had accumulated a small crowd around it.

“Swag?” Aranea asked.

“Various bits of licensed merchandise,” Val said. “This con attracts a pretty wide fan base, so there’s plenty of stuff that people are looking for. New thing. Old things. Doesn’t matter what it is, someone out there will be collecting it.”

“And you think someone will have something in their collection which I might enjoy?” Aranea asked, her face a mask of disbelief and confusion.

“No. I’m not planning to woo you with props and memorabilia,” Val said. “We’re heading inside.”

She took them to one of the side doors which only the staff was normally allowed to use. Aranea’s eyebrows climbed even further up her forehead.

“You are a puzzling creature,” she said.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Val said. “I’ll be boring and predictable someday.”

She left out the ‘if we get to stay together that long’. Neither of them want to think of that.

Inside the convention center, away from where the exhibits were receiving their last minute setup touches, Val lead Aranea to one of the dressing rooms off the convention center’s main stage. Inside a woman with shockingly bright green hair and an uncountable number of tatoos was waiting for them

“I wasn’t sure you were going to make it! Let me see what we have here!” Georgiana Bell said, scurrying over to take a closer look at Val and Aranea.

“Who is this?” Aranea asked.

“Aranea, this is Georgie. Georgie, Aranea,” Val said, returning the hug Georgie offered. “So, how do you think she’ll work out?”

“Oh my god. She’s perfect!” Georgie said.

“Yes,” Aranea said. “But for what?”

“Georgie is a professional costume designer,” Val said. “Also a member of the Second Chance Club in good standing. And also, a serious competitor on the cosplay scene.”

“Cosplay?” Aranea asked.

“You didn’t tell her what we’re doing?” Georgie asked.

“It’s a surprise!” Val said with a smile.

Georgie punched her in the arm.

“That’s not nice!” George said. “Not everyone is comfortable getting up on stage in costume.”

“Costume?” Aranea asked.

“It’s what I do,” Georgie said. “I help make people up as different fantastical characters. It’s fun thing to do at conventions like this, and the contest brings out some of the best talent in the country. Val was supposed to tell you all this.”

“She had other ideas apparently,” Aranea said with a scowl.

“Tell her what theme you’re working with this year!”

“I’ve been working for the last six months on a spider-lady design, but my model backed out a month ago. I’ve been looking for someone new to wear the outfit since then but no one’s had the right look.”

Val watched Aranea’s eyes widen slowly as her understanding grew.

“Why do you not wear the costume yourself?” Aranea asked, cautiously.

“I…I don’t like being on stage,” Georgie said. “I love seeing my work up there, but I kind of pass out when I’m up in front of people like that.”

“And you say I would fit into the costume you’ve made?” Aranea asked.

“Your bone structure is flawless, and your skin is perfect for the makeup I’ll be working with. I’ll need to make a few alterations to the costume itself, but that’s always true,” Georgie said. “Are you sure you want to go through with this though? I don’t like asking people to do anything their uncomfortable with. I mean if you wanted to you could just do the contest and not worry about walking the con floor to show off the design.”

“Walking the con floor? You mean I would get to appear in front of everyone as a spider for the whole day? Including a stage appearance?” Aranea asked.

“Yep. You can spend a whole day with people thinking ‘what an amazing spider lady’ every time they see you,” Val said, grinning.

Aranea licked her teeth and for just a moment Val was sure she saw the tiny hint of fangs Aranea displayed when she was hungry for something. Val grinned wider.

“Yes,” Aranea said. “I believe I could be persuaded to spend a day like that.”

***

As the convention wound to a close, Val found Aranea in Georgie’s dressing room, packing away the costume carefully. Despite a day on her feet and then hours afterwards at various con parties, Aranea had a brighter glow of life about her than Val had ever seen before.

“So, how did you like my surprise?” Val asked.

Aranea stalked over to Val. Calmly, and wordlessly, she took Val’s shoulder’s in her hands, and leaned in. Val thought Aranea was going to offer her a quick kiss and an amused quip but she was mistaken. There was nothing quick about the kiss Aranea gave her. When they finally broke apart for air, the building’s lights were off and Val was left feeling drunk, high, and weak in her knees.

“This was a most enjoyable day,” Aranea said, watching Val with a satisfied smile.

“Wow,” was all that Val could manage for a few moments.

“That is how I felt all day,” Aranea said. “So many people seeing me as a mythical spider figure. Their awareness of who I was through a false exterior which matched my inner truth. That was ecstacy.”

“That’s what I was hoping for,” Val said. “I didn’t know if it would work though. Or how strong the effect would be.”

“How did you think of it?” Aranea asked.

“I had help,” Val said. “Tam had the general idea of getting people to add to your story, to see you like I see you, so that it would be a little easier for you to live like this full time.”

“You wanted them to see me as a human woman in a costume?” Aranea asked.

“No,” Val said. “I wanted to honor both of the parts of your nature. You as a spider goddess and you in your human form.”

“I…thank you,” Aranea said, blinking rapidly.

“So what do I get if I say I have another surprise for you?”

“My undivided attention.” Aranea said, clearing her eyes.

***

The college classroom was abuzz with chatter, as all classroom’s are before the teacher begins. The chatter quieted down as Dr. Tereg walked in with someone new though.

“Hello class, we have a special guest lecturer today,” Tereg said. “Please welcome Professor Aranea Arana, she’ll be presenting for some new findings to us today on Arthropoda Chelicerata Arachnida.”

Val watched from the door as Aranea walked to the podium beside Dr Tereg and greeted the class. The lecture hadn’t even begun and Val could hear the students saying ‘hey, it’s the spider-lady!’ and ‘did she bring any tarantulas this time?’.

Some of the students looked terrified at that notion, but the rest were fully onboard for a lecture from an instructor everyone could see had both a passion for her subject and a startling breadth of information about it.

Catching Aranea’s eye, Val saw her drinking in the the focused belief and attention of the students. It wasn’t worship, but something better; recognition and appreciation for the things she valued in herself.

Val smiled. Conventions only came around every so often, but there were so many other ways that Aranea could be cherished for who she was that the worry Val had been carrying was able to drift away.

She hadn’t had to ask Aranea to change who she was. That never worked in a relationship.

Becoming more than you’d once been though? Val thought back on all the roles she’d played, and how they’d defined her for a time. She was still many of those things. Still a daughter. Still a warrior. Still a rule breaker, when the need arose.

She could still draw on all of those things, but with each day she lived, she had the chance to become something more.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 10 – Act 3

As workouts went, Val had put herself through tougher ones. Tam knew that Val’s work regaining the use of her legs had been rough, and the regimen Val went on before she, Anna, and Tam took down PrimaLux was one she claimed she never wanted to try again. Even compared to those though, her current training routine looked like it was pushing her pretty far past her limits.

“Should I get you a fresh towel or would a bucket and a mop be more appropriate?” Tam asked, wandering into the Club’s private gym during one of Val’s brief rest periods.

“Towel’d be nice.” Val’s breath came in short, hard pants. She was thirty seconds away from her next set of reps according to the schedule Tam had seen on tracking app but since Val was already ten sets past how many she was original supposed to do, it seemed pretty reasonable that her body was a bit winded.

Tam grabbed one of the bigger, more absorbent towels from the wall and tossed it to Val. It was a good throw but the towel still landed at Val’s feet.

“How long have you been in here?” Tam asked, pausing to observe her friend.

Sweat covered every inch of Val’s body, but it was the fatigue trembles Tam saw in Val’s muscles that surprised her. Tam was used to seeing Val go all out, so she knew what a tired Val looked like. This was beyond tired. This was someone who’d worked themselves to the point of exhaustion and beyond.

“I don’t know,” Val said, picking up the towel and wiping her face and arms dry. “What time is it?”

“Around 2:00am,” Tam said. “My show let out a little while ago.”

“How’d it go?” Val reached for a pair of fifty pound weights but waited for Tam to answer before beginning her next workout.

“Good. The crowd liked the new effects. The routine needs a bit more work overall but the bones are solid.”

Tam would have been happy to talk at length about the various ideas she’d come up with for fine tuning the performance. There was so much thought that went into each effect and each turn of phrase she used, that it was hard not to want to share it all. Val’s state of exhaustion suggested that there were more important topics at hand though.

“How are things going here?” she asked.

“Good,” Val said, too quickly. “Or, no new crisis at least. Anna and Jen were meeting earlier. I think they were prioritizing some of the low grade issues that have come up so that we can knock them out in between the bigger cases we still have to tackle.”

“Sounds good,” Tam said with a nod. “What’s got you going at it so hard tonight though?”

“Trying to work something out,” Val said and tried to lift the weights. Her arms didn’t so much refuse as visibly protest, quaking with the effort of repeating yet another set of exercises.

“Anything I can help with?” Tam wondered if calling JB would be a good idea. JB had a gift for working with people. Tam considered Val a friend, but if Val was having real problems, JB would be better at connecting with her and helping her sort them out.

“It’s stupid,” Val said, and redoubled her effort with the weights.

Calling JB would be effective, but Tam hesitated. If Val was ready to open up then there was no need to call in the big guns yet.

“I’ve done stupid plenty of times myself,” Tam said. “What flavor are you trying for today?”

“It’s for Aranea.” Val sagged to her knees and let the weights rest on the floor.

“She wants you to be more buff?” Tam frowned. Muscles were nice. Cynthia had some wonderful ones. For someone to have a taste for muscles that Val couldn’t satisfy though, their preferences would have to run pretty deeply into the ‘inhuman’ level of aesthetics.

Which would make sense for a Spider Goddess, Tam mused.

Except when she turned that idea over in her head, it seemed incongruous with how Aranea had acted previously.

“Nah, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care how I look,” Val said, flashing Tam a quick smile. “No, this is…well, maybe you can tell me how bad an idea it is?”

“It looks kinda bad from here, but lay it on me,” Tam said

“When we get enchanted up, some of those enchantments only act as enhancers right?”

“Yeah. There’s a class of magic that takes what’s present and magnifies it. Those are easier up to a certain point.” Tam liked talking about magic but she suspected Val’s problem lay in some other area.  “Some of the other spells we use will replace a quality that there’s with something else. The whole ‘strong as 10 men’ thing usually just gives you a set amount of strength. Why do you want to stronger though? Have the enchantments lately been on the weak side?”

Tam knew that wasn’t true. They’d been a little less dependable than usual, thanks to the fluctuations in magic. She’d been able to compensate for most of that however by linking in more volunteers from the Club’s network of members to cover the shortfalls. That was a short term solution – she couldn’t rely on too often without burning people out – but it looked like it could get them through the bulk of their backlog before they started running out of useful volunteers.

“No, they’ve been fine.” Val sat back and raised a hand to reassure Tam. “Stronger than usual even. That’s part of what gave me this idea.”

“You thought that if the boost was stronger then having a better base to boost off of would give an even bigger effect than we normally get?” It was the obvious leap of logic to make, but if the enchantments had been working ok, Tam wasn’t certain why Val had bothered making it.

“Yeah, but that’s only part of it,” Val said. “What I’m thinking about is how strong I’d have to be to match someone like Hercules.”

“Which Hercules?” Tam asked.

“The Greek one. Son of Zeus. Twelve Labors. That guy.”

“He was a demi-god. Also, mythical. Also, a jerk.”

“Right, but what would it take to have the same…stature, I guess?” Val mopped her head with the towel and looked at Tam with a more intent and eager gaze than the question seemed to warrant.

Tam considered the question and the ones that were lurking behind it.

Val had never been one to pursue power for power’s sake. She tended to work with the load out of enchantments that were available and even occasionally refused some, preferring to hold them in reserve for later rather than expend resources needlessly.

For her to be working herself to the point where she could be enhanced to demi-god levels Aranea had to have put some fairly unreasonable demands on her.

“That’s not something you can do just by getting stronger,” Tam said, concerned that her words would be ignored since they probably weren’t what Val wanted to hear.

Instead though, Val sighed and chuckled softly and shook her head.

“Ugh, I probably should have asked you that before I tried this I guess.”

“Is there a new problem that’s come up?” Tam asked.

“Sort of?” Val said. “It’s not Club business, specifically though.”

“If it involves you and Aranea, it involves all of us,” Tam said and winced at the fire that had crept into her voice. “I mean, you know we’ve got your back right?”

“Yeah,” Val said with a disarming smile. “It’s not like that though. It’s…”

She paused, seemingly searching for the right words, though Tam noticed they were straying into the kind of personal space that Val didn’t usually talk about much.

“We’ve got your back whether you can talk about it or not,” Tam said. “I mean, knowing would help, but prying can be awful sometimes, so…whatever you need. We’re here.”

“How much do you know about gods?” Val asked, her expression relaxing she spoke.

“Bits and pieces, more about some, less about others,” Tam said.

“Words matter to them right?” Val asked.

“Yeah. Again some more than others,” Tam said. She tried to recall if there were any specific linguistic restrictions around spider gods in general, or for Aranea in particular in the any of the texts that had mentioned her in passing.

“Aranea was explaining how what she says is a bit different from what you or me might say,” Val said. “She can lie, but if she says something meaning it to be true, especially something about herself, it can change her so that it is true.”

“That’s true to some degree with almost everyone.” Tam nodded in agreement and understanding. “With humans we’re not defined by our words quite as much as conceptual beings like gods are but the idea of Daily Affirmations points to how repeating something over and over can begin to shift our psyches. With some like Aranea the effect is more profound I’d imagine.”

“It’s not just that words can change her mind though,” Val said. “They can change who she is. Unless the change is big enough that it tears her apart. Then it can kill her.”

“That would be a pretty severe change,” Tam said, beginning to see the scope of Val’s worries. It was one thing to know that a mortal lover could be taken from you. It was part of the deal with being mortal. An immortal lover though was another matter. Discovering that even a goddess had vulnerabilities had clearly been a bit of a rude shock. “For what it’s worth, I haven’t heard of a god dying because of that ever, I think? Or maybe in only a few stories.”

“Are those stories where they fell in love with a human?” Val asked.

Tam bit her lip. She wanted to say, but lying seemed like a terrible idea under the circumstances.

“Love can be an unstoppable force,” Val said. “Unfortunately that’s not always a good thing is it?”

“Not always,” Tam said, looking down. “But Aranea’s been around a while right? And you haven’t left her or anything – that’s usually the trigger for the god’s discorporation. It fits in too well with people’s experience with how all encompassing the pain of a broken heart feels. It was too easy for them to believe that kind of loss could slay even a god.”

“That’s more of a long term problem,” Val said. “I mean, sure, I’m not going to live forever, but we’ve got time to work that one out. What drove me to all this,” she waved her hand at the various exercise machines she’d overused, “is more immediate. It’s not just death, or rejection that can tear you apart. Aranea said try to become a cat would kill her because there’s no overlap between spiders and cats. She can only change so much before she rips in two.”

“And you’re afraid that being with you is going to change her like that?”

“How many stories do you know of a spider goddess settling down with a mortal woman?” Val asked.

Tam couldn’t think of any.

“She says I seduced her,” Val said. “I knew it wasn’t a good idea when I did it. I knew I was getting in far over my head even walking up to her. I’m just terrified now that I was right but not for the reason I thought. She said she was going to destroy us, then she said she wouldn’t hurt me, and I don’t think she was lying about either one. I don’t know how she can do both, and even if she could, I keep thinking about how just being with me is destroying who she is. I thought if I could swing the whole demi-god thing then things might work out. I could meet her halfway kinda. That was never going to happen though, was it?”

Tam drew in a long breath.

“The demi-god thing? No, I’m afraid not,” she said. “There’s no enchantment that would do that for you, and even if there was, it wouldn’t last forever.”

“Figured it was stupid,” Val said.

“It wasn’t,” Tam said. “It was caring.”

“Caring’s not going to save her though.”

“Workouts won’t,” Tam said, her eyes narrowing as an idea occurred to her. “But maybe you still can.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 10 – Act 2

Val wanted more. She hadn’t expected to though. Having an open ended series of casual but intense hook-ups with a goddess who was intent on destroying her seemed like it should have been enough to satisfy both her desire for affection and her love of danger.

Hearing Aranea say that she wanted to take whatever it was they had to another level scared Val in a different way though. She didn’t feel herself instinctively pulling away, or even wanting to be cautious. She could feel herself falling for the strange, and sometimes inhuman, Aranea and it felt right, though she couldn’t quite explain to herself why that was.

“If you had to pick a word for us, what would it be?” Val asked, shifting closer into Aranea’s embrace as they sat lazily on the couch and watched an old black and white movie named ‘Earth vs. the Spider’. It was an amazingly terrible film, but Aranea had a fondness for it. Val couldn’t get much out of the movie, but watching Aranea’s reaction to any of the scenes where a spider, even a fake one, was on the screen was delightful.

“If I had to pick a word, it would be inadequate,” Aranea said, shifting to turn a bit so her attention was more on Val than the screen.

“We’re inadequate?”

“No, my choice of word would be inadequate,” Aranea said, shaking her head quickly. “As you’ve noted, words have power, and I am more constrained by that power than any mortal would be.”

“Constrained how?” Val asked and then pulled back a bit, concerned she’d overstepped a boundary, “Unless that’s something you can’t talk about.”

“It is a secret, but not one I need to keep from you,” Aranea said, pulling Val back in close. “As a mortal, you are made of flesh and blood and you create ideas. I do not share those traits.”

“I would say you’ve got at least one of those traits down pretty well.” Val ran her fingers down Aranea’s bicep, around the curve of her elbow and up her forearm in a slow, teasing glide.

“You’re adorable,” Aranea said. “But you illustrate my point as well. This is not me.” She moved her hand under Val’s touch and turned it until their palms were touching.

Val watched as the nails grew an inch longer on Aranea’s hands, elongating into sharp, spiky tips.

“I know,” Val said, threading her fingers with Aranea’s. “You’re a shape changer. You can look like whatever you want.”

“What’s important is why that is so.” Aranea let her fingertips flow back into smooth curves.

“One of the perks of being divine?” Val resisted the urge to nibble on Aranea’s fingers. It was always tempting to flirt, but it didn’t feel like the right moment to distract Aranea.

“In a sense.” Aranea’s gaze was watchful, as though she could sense the desire Val was holding back. “Other beings shared the same capability though, and for the same reason.”

“Is it because you don’t have one specific form? Or maybe your original form can’t exist here?” Val turned from looking at their entwined hands to get a read on Aranea’s expression towards the ideas.

“My original form is lost to me.” Arenea glanced at Val, meeting her gaze, and then stared off wistfully, looking for a memory that was too distant to recall.

“Do you remember who you were then?” Val asked.

“Maybe? There are stories I carry in my mind, but I cannot be sure which of them were told to me by someone else, which I told to myself, and which, if any, of them are true.”

“Is that how it is for everyone like you?”

“I suspect so. It is not something which we have cause to speak openly about much.”

“Does it worry you?” Val shifted to sit up fully and give Aranea her full attention. The movie continued to play in the background, but as it wasn’t the first time they’d watched it, nor likely to be the last, Val wasn’t concerned about missing ‘the good bits’.

“Why would it worry me?” Aranea asked.

“I don’t know. I guess it leaves a lot of questions open. Things like ‘Am I who I believe I am?’ and ‘Are my choices ones I’m making or did someone else make them when they made me?’. There’s whole books of philosophy on stuff like that.”

“I think there can be no gods with questions like those, though, to be fair, I have not met them all.” Aranea smiled, reinforcing the idea that reality was even weirder than the extent of her divine knowledge could encompass. “Doubts about our nature are more difficult for us though. I said before that you are made of flesh and blood and create ideas. The reverse is true for me. I am more an idea than anything else, and with my power I create the flesh and blood you see before you.”

Val let her gaze drift inwards as she considered the idea. Aranea felt warm and solid beside her, but illusions were capable of affecting all of the senses according to Tam. It didn’t sound like that was quite what Aranea was talking about though.

“I think I get it,” Val said as the pieces started to line up in her head. “For humans, we’re primarily physical, so our bodies are a basic element of who we are. Our thoughts, on the other hand, come and go freely. We can change our minds, or even re-invent who we want to be. With you, if I’m hearing you right, being ‘Aranea the Goddess of Spiders’ is who you are. That’s the most basic thing that defines you. That concept. Your body’s only as much a reflection of who you are as the things I’m thinking about at the moment are a reflection of who I am.”

“Yes, which is why I am more constrained in my use of language than you are,” Aranea said. “Ideas I speak resonate within me.”

“Does that mean you can’t lie?” It was a tricky question since any denial of the ability to lie would have to be met with suspicion.

“I can lie easily. In some situations at least. No one expects spiders to be honest with their prey. Though we often are. What I cannot do, is lie to myself easily.”

“Is that a magical ban someone else put on you?” Val asked.

“No, simply a part of my nature. I am defined by the stories that make me up. If I lie to someone else, then there is the story within me that I have deceived them, and that is a truth in its own fashion. If I lie to myself, if I describe myself to myself with words that aren’t true, they will either fall silent, or they will become true.”

“So if you try to say ‘I’m not a spider, I’m a cat’, you’d either wind up being silent, or you’d actually become a cat?” Val’s mind leapt at the possibilities for how a trait like that could be exploited.

“Or I would rend myself asunder.” Aranea sighed. “It is one of the methods by which a god may die.”

“Trying to become something they’re not?” Val felt a series of misgivings bubbling up inside her chest.

“Yes. I am not a cat. I can tell you ‘I will become a cat tomorrow’, and I would be fine, if I didn’t intend to become a cat. If I believed that I would become a cat though, then those words would become real within me, and when I tried to become a cat the story of how I became a spider would fall apart, leaving me with nothing.”

“How much danger are you in day to day?” Val asked, voicing the simplest of her fears. “If we make plans and you get held up doing something, is that going to tear you in half? Or are you shackled to doing them even if you change your mind?”

“A missed lunch date isn’t enough to destroy me,” Aranea said. “It would be irritating and would leave me out of sorts for a while but eventually the discordance would subside.”

“Does phrasing help there?” Val asked. “If I said ‘let’s meet for lunch’ and you said ‘I might be available’, would that give you more leeway if something came up?”

“It would, though it is unsatisfying in its own right as well.”

“Because you can’t just say what you want to in the moment?”

“Being coy and seeking not to be constrained by my own words is close to my nature, but living like that means holding myself apart from the world.” Aranea reached to draw Val in closer. “Being bound by what I say to you makes my time here more real, more a part of who I am. I would not give that up lightly.”

It was hard not to take that as declaration of a word that neither of them had uttered so far. Val felt her heart begin to race and willed it to maintain a sane rhythm. The aching hunger she felt could chase Aranea away as easily as it might draw her in, and neither one of them would benefit if they rushed things too fast. Val’s past relationships had proven that time and again.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered.

“I know. And I won’t hurt you.”

Val didn’t ask her if she was lying. Aranea had pledged to destroy the Second Chance Club, or something like that. She couldn’t promise not to hurt Val. It had to be a lie. At least a small one.

Maybe Aranea would help them fake their deaths. Maybe she’d fight them but hold back enough that she could say she made the attempt without causing any serious or lasting issues. A Spider Goddess had to be allowed those sorts of tricks, and even more subtle ones.

But that wasn’t what was going to happen. Aranea wasn’t lying about not hurting her. Val knew that. Just like she knew she wasn’t going to let Aranea be hurt for her sake either.

“What word would you use, if you could? If you were a mortal woman like me?” Val asked, the hunger inside gnawing at her stronger than ever.

“One that I cannot use as I am now,” Aranea said.

Val searched Aranea’s face for…what? Clarity? Permission? Perhaps just confirmation of the connection that she felt.

“I took this form as a disguise,” Aranea said. “It’s one I’ve worn before. I’d grown fond of it. So few of my prey expect someone who looks like this to be a predator.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Val said, adopting a smile to diffuse the tension that had gripped her heart. “You looked deadly the first time I laid eyes on you.”

“And you were terrifying,” Aranea said. “Though less so than you are now.”

“I’m scaring you?” Val asked, blinking in surprise.

Aranea leaned forward and closed Val’s shock parted lips with a kiss.

“I fear myself,” Aranea said, pulling away only a few inches. “In keeping you, in losing you, in staying as we are, I teeter on the brink of the abyss, but in that uncertainty there is a joy that fills me.”

“It sounds like…” Val caught herself, not wanting to even voice the question much less hear the answer. She had to know though. If any of what she thought they had was real, she owed it to Aranea to be brave enough to ask. “It sounds like being with me is a danger to you. You don’t look like a spider at the moment. And you’re not acting like one. Is that costing you? Are you tearing apart bit by bit just from being here? Can you be the Goddess of Spiders if you stay here?”

“I don’t know,” Aranea said. “I’m changing. In you there is a different story of who I am than any I have ever known. I can feel it pulling at me. I don’t know what it means though. I don’t know if it will destroy me, or if I will survive as someone new. I have never faced something like this. I have never loved someone as I love you.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 10 – Act 1

Val scooped an egg out of the tray, and cracked it, separating the shell with one hand as she poured the contents onto the hot buttered pan. It was a performance as much as an attempt at making breakfast but for all her apparent grace the effort was marred. As the egg began to quickly cook in the pan, she watched the broken yoke run out across the pool of white that surrounded it.

Her attempt at a sunny side up breakfast was a flop.

So she whipped a spatula through the ruined egg and redeemed it into a scramble as best she could.

“A clever recovery,” Aranea said, sitting down on one of the high top chairs in Val’s kitchen. She snatched one of the cinnamon buns Val’s had pulled from the oven a moment earlier.

“Yeah, but now I need cheese and chives,” Val said, yanking the refrigerator door open to grab a bag of shredded cheese before turning to the drawer she kept her spices in.

Aranea watched the flurry of motion with confused amusement.

“Weren’t you going to serve the egg without those a moment ago?” she asked.

“When it was going to be sunny side up? Yes. Scrambled means cheese and chives though,” Val said, hastily adding the ingredients before the egg finished cooking completely. She wasn’t happy with the outcome – it certainly wasn’t an offering fit for a god – but it was also clear that Aranea didn’t look like it’s quality concerned her.

“I see how the many religions of this world arose,” Aranea said. “If something doesn’t have rules and boundaries, humans will invent some anyways.”

She made biting into the cinnamon roll look like a sin and Val had to resist the to kiss away the little bit of frosting that clung to the side of her mouth.

“It’s not about setting arbitrary boundaries,” Val said. “It’s just that somethings work better when they’re done a certain way. Sunny side up eggs have a flavor and texture that’s different from scrambled eggs, so you combine different ingredients with them to bring out the best parts. It’s all about taking the flavors you’ve got and getting them to be what you want.”

“My usual meals are the liquified remains of my enemies after their bodies have been broken down by my venom,” Aranea said, accepting the plate of the scrambled egg garnished with honey buttered toast from Val.

“So you’re saying you don’t know what you’ve been missing then?” Val said, cracking another egg into the pan for herself. Her second attempt went better than her first but she scrambled it anyways, to match what Aranea was having.

“That may be true,” Aranea said with a contented sigh. She brought a fork full of the eggs to her lips but her gaze remained on Val.

Val smiled back and took a bite of her own eggs. They’d turned out ok, a little under done but she wasn’t used to the stove in her apartment yet. With how often the Second Chance Club moved around she tended to eat out or eat the club more than she did at home. Thinking of that made her shake her head.

“What are you pondering?” Aranea asked, sensing even without divine awareness that Val’s musing involved her.

“I move a lot,” Val said.

“Yes. It’s quite fetching,” Aranea said.

“I didn’t think I would,” Val said, ignoring the compliment. “When my goal was to join the Army, I figured I’d be at whatever base I was assigned to for a while and then be moved to whatever my next assignment was. I didn’t picture that I’d be the one choosing to live in so many different places. Or travel as much as I have.”

“It’s a benefit of the life you’ve chosen?” Aranea asked. “Or a liability?”

“I don’t know if it’s either,” Val said. “It’s different, not what I expected, but I like it.”

“Would you give it up if a more expected pursuit was available?” Aranea asked. She’d stopped eating and while she didn’t sound concerned about the question, she was paying more serious interest to Val’s than she had been.

“No,” Val said with an easy laugh. “I didn’t know this was a life I could have, but I can’t deny how much it appeals to me.”

“Good,” Aranea said. “I would be displeased to find you were laboring in unhappiness.”

“But isn’t it your job to destroy me?” Val teased.

“Of course,” Aranea said, feigning proper severity. “I am pledged to cast you into the Abyss. You and all of the rest of your team.”

“And yet here we are,” Val said holding a fork full of scrambled eggs aloft. “You’re happy I’m not miserable in my job, and I’m happy to be making eggs with you.”

“It is an unexpected circumstance for me as well,” Aranea said, her pride slipping a little as her voice softened.

“How did we get here?” Val asked, easing into the questions that had been filling her mind since they first met.

“I believe you seduced me,” Aranea said, taking another bite from the cinnamon roll.

“What was seductive about me?” Val asked. “I just kissed you.”

“Yes, but it was when and why you kissed me,” Aranea said. “When I saw you, I knew you were my prey, but I wasn’t ready for that, and I certainly wasn’t ready for prey who walked right up to me, took my drink, gave me hers, and kept inching closer as she spoke to me until our lips met.”

“You know, the funny thing is, I didn’t know who you were then, I just knew you were dangerous, and you were alone, and you looked delicious.”

“I can look however I want you know,” Aranea said, blinking and changing her eye color with each blink.

“Yeah,” Val said, reflecting on the attraction she’d felt on first seeing Aranea and how it had changed over time. “It’s more than just the color of your eyes, or the shape you’re wearing though.”

“I am a goddess as well,” Aranea said. “There is an awe that mortals feel.in my presence.”

Val flicked a bit of scrambled egg so that it landed on Aranea’s nose.

“Awe, that’s definitely it,” she said, threatening to flick another bit of egg.

“You know I would eat anyone else who did that,” Aranea said.

“I do,” Val said, unfazed. “But not me.”

“Not you,” Aranea agreed.

“Why?” Val asked.

“Perhaps I’m saving you for later,” Aranea said. “Fattening you up for a feast when your team is cast down.”

“Are you?” Val asked, already knowing the answer.

“No,” Aranea sighed, her regal aura deflating to more of her true self.

“Why me then?” Val asked. “What do I have to offer a goddess?”

Aranea laughed.

“That’s a question many mortals have asked,” she said. “I wonder if it’s not backwards though.”

“Backwards?” Val asked.

“Beings like me have power, but it’s a circumspect sort of majesty,” Aranea said. “I am the Goddess of Spiders, but that means I am, to some degree, bound both by the nature of spiders and by the…worship of them, though that’s not quite the right word.”

“I don’t follow,” Val said.

“Worship in this sense is more than supplication and begging for divine favor,” Aranea said. “It’s an awareness of the divine as it exists embodied within the world. Each time someone is surprised by a spider, or sees silk threads catching the sunlight, or cleans out old cobwebs, my domain is enriched. They’re small bits of worship of course, and they are not mine alone, but taken together across years and centuries they give me strength and substance.”

“So your power comes from people?” Val asked.

“No more than yours comes from the gods,” Aranea said. “Which is to say both yes and no. We each draw strength from the world that we all create, and yet humans are so quick to bow and scrape for favor from those with more power than themselves that they never seem to question if that’s the proper form their relationship with the divine should take.”

“What form would you suggest it take then?” Val asked, meeting Aranea’s gaze and holding it with a willing openness.

“That’s a complicated question,” Aranea said, breathing a little quicker than before.

“And yet I’m betting the answer is ultimately a pretty simple one,” Val said.

“Yes, but which simple one?” Aranea asked.

“Probably the one that feels right, even if it’s scary as hell,” Val said, reaching across the counter and placing her hand on Aranea’s.

“As one of the gods, fear is quality which is largely unknown to us,” Aranea said. She looked like she wanted to pull her hand away, but she kept it in place, under Val’s hand as though its slight tremble didn’t betray the tempest within her.

“As a mortal, it’s a quality we’re rarely ever completely free from,” Val said, squeezing Aranea’s hand gently. “But I don’t think this has to be about fear.”

“What would you suggest?” Aranea asked.

Val drew in a breath, paused for a moment to consider her response and then let her feelings carry her forward.

“I like you,” she said. “Maybe even more than that. Not the Spider Goddess, though she’s cool too, but you, Aranea, the person who’s right here with me having breakfast, and who was there yesterday when I had to get groceries, and the day before when I was tired and sore after my workout.”

“That is only a part of who I am though,” Aranea said.

“I know, and that’s what’s great about this,” Val said. “Whenever people meet, they only show one small part of themselves to the other. Well, I like the part that I’ve seen, and I want to see more. I know there’s parts of you that I’ll never understand, and probably can’t even comprehend, but that’s true in any relationship.”

“And if there are parts you don’t like?” Aranea asked.

“The parts I see now, the you that I think I’m falling for? I think she’s worth those parts, if they exist, and she’s absolutely worth taking the risk to find out,” Val said. “Here’s the great thing though, and why this doesn’t have to be scary; we don’t have to rush anything. Whatever we call what we have, it’s not going to magically make it stronger, or keep us from getting closer if that’s what we both really want.”

“There is a power in words though,” Aranea said.

“I know,” Val said. “I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not on you to know what you want to do next, or what you want us to be just because I do.”

“Can I tell you a secret?” Aranea asked, looking away.

“Always,” Val said.

Aranea began to speak but hung frozen for a moment, unable to breathe, much less form words.

“It’s ok,” Val said. “I can be good with what we’ve got now. I can be good with whatever you need. I don’t want this to be hard, or painful for you.”

“I want more,” Aranea said over one long breath, as though admitting it to herself as much as to Val.

“How much more?” Val asked, a nervous, excited pulse beating a tremor throughout her body.

“That’s the part that scares me,” Aranea said. “I don’t know. I can’t find a bottom to this desire.”

“There’ll be one,” Val said, forcing her calmer, more rational voices to the surface. “We call it falling for someone because it feels like there’s no end to it, but we’ll wind up with our feet on the ground eventually.”

“And when that happens, will you still desire me as you do now?” Aranea asked.

“I hope not,” Val said, joy at the idea of what the future could hold beaming through her. “I hope what we have then is even deeper than what we’ve got now. All the good relationships that I’ve seen are like that. They all change over time.”

“I am unused to change,” Aranea said. “And yet I find it is what I want most of all now. It feels like sorcery, but you’ve cast no magic on me.”

“I think maybe I used one of the oldest magics there is,” Val said. “When you needed me, I needed you back.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 4

The first rule of escaping a trap is not to get caught in it in the first place. Since they’d been lured out to a magical island that was only occasionally present in the South Pacific, Jen decided that they’d probably failed the first rule.

And the second one too, in all likelihood.

“We need to figure out who did this,” Connie said.

“That’s the second key to getting out of here,” Jen said. “If we knew the motivations of the people who lured us here, we could make a guess at what they wanted and how they’re planning to handle us.”

“And maybe what they’ve done to Sarah?” Connie said.

Whatever spell had grabbed ahold of their resident magician seemed to have its talons in deep. Jen had been forced to knock Sarah down and sit on her to keep Sarah away from the waterfall and whatever doom awaited them inside.

“Maybe,” Jen said. “Or maybe that gives us a clue in and of itself?”

Wheels began to turn in her head. She’d been letting Sarah take the lead because Sarah had confidence and experience and strange mystical powers that Jen wasn’t fully up to speed on.

Sarah hadn’t been watching for traps though. She’d been following her instincts and leaning into her magic to find answers. That was fine for tactical level planning. Gut instincts and immediate information gathering were great in moments of crisis. Jen’s strengths lay in a different sort of leadership though.

As various observations turned over and over in her mind, new connections formed painting a bigger picture of the forces at play.

“What have you worked out?” Connie asked, watching Jen with a wary gaze as she tried to hit the delicate balance between pulling answers out while not disrupting the thoughts that were assembling those answers.

“Ok, try this on for size,” Jen said. “Let’s start with the assumption that someone lured us here for less than ideal reasons.”

“Do we have support for that?” Connie asked.

“Circumstantial, but it’s strong,” Jen said as Sarah grumbled and struggled beneath her. “In fact, she’s strong enough that keeping her down like this is a bit tricky.”

“Do we know what’s happening to her isn’t just a natural effect of the island?” Connie asked.

“Consider that we’re here because of a letter that was sent specifically to us,” Jen said. “The letter gave us all the breadcrumbs we needed to notice this place and, once we did, was there any chance we wouldn’t come and check it out?”

“Not really,” Connie said. “Even apart from Marcus being missing, this place would have been pretty high on my list of choice vacation destinations.”

“Ok, so add to that the ocean telling Sarah that the island’s presence is unusual, and that Sarah got hit by some kind of mind whammy right after we got here. Does it sound more likely that we’d be lured to an unusual spot which just happens to knock our team magician out of commission or is the safer bet that someone orchestrated this?”

“So, we’ve got enemies here who are out to get us, I’ll buy that, the question is what do we next?” Connie asked.

“The smart move would be; we haul Sarah back to the boat, retreat back to the Second Chance Club and trace back the letter to find who set us up,” Jen said.

“And leave Marcus to his fate?” Connie asked.

“We don’t have any proof that there ever was a Marcus,” Jen said. “All of the map coordinates and log files could have been faked.”

“Yeah, but the ports he pulled into would have records of his arrival and departure,” Connie said.

“We didn’t get any records for those,” Jen said.

“Oh, ah, I thought you’d checked on that,” Connie said. “Sorry. I should have looked in it.”

“No, that was my mistake,” Jen said. “I didn’t know about checking the port logs, and I didn’t think to bring you in on the research. I was too eager to get going on this, but I can promise you that’s not going to happen again.”

“That does argue in favor of Marcus not being real,” Connie said. “With how thorough the rest of the documentation was, its weird that his ‘parents’ would have left out some easy corroborating evidence like that. So we bail then?”

Jen stared at the waterfall and the cave beyond it. The darkness wasn’t exactly inviting, and she wasn’t ensorcelled by whatever spell had taken over Sarah, but there was still a temptation that she felt drawing her into it.

“We can,” Jen said. “We can run away. We can solve this problem the smart way and bring in the whole team on this. We can be safe, and clever, and stack the odds as high in our favor as they’ll go.”

“But you don’t want to,” Connie said.

“No.”

“Good. Neither do I. We came here to take the burden off the others, how about we teach this particular problem the error of trying to mess with us?”

“I say we do more than that,” Jen said. “I say we make an example out of them so that no one else makes the mistake of thinking we’re an easy target ever again.”

***

The plan had been a simple one. It shouldn’t have gone off-track. Not when it was set to trap three entirely mortal women.

Garg’nix paced in the Sealing Chamber, fire venting from his thirty seven different orifices.

“Please. Calm. Down,” Clyde Demorney said, forcing his voice and demeanor to stay cool and collected.

“They should be here already!” Garg’nix said. “We arranged for the Potestates people to fall into our clutches and We. Need. Them!” He ground out the last words like metal tearing through bone.

“We will have our subjects,” Demorney said. “And we will send a message to the one who calls herself Charlene Potestates. We just need patience.”

It was a lie of course. Demorney knew the Second Chance Club’s three newest recruits should have been captured an hour ago and the transformation ritual begun minutes thereafter. Each grain of purple sand that fell through the hourglass on the chair beside him was one step closer to Potestates discovering their operation before they had the leverage to hold her back, and that thought sent a horrified chill down to the bottom of Demorney’s bowels.

“We need the three!” Garg’nix insisted.

As demons went Garg’nix wasn’t one of the more clever ones, but it was a mistake to think his single minded obsessiveness made him stupid. If anything he was more dangerous because he placed all of his intellect into achieving the goal he sought. How well those goals lined up with a greater overall ambition was questionable but that was what Demorney brought to their compact.

“They’re on the island,” Demorney said. “We have them, whether or not they’re here right now, there’s no escape. Not when we control the wind and the waters and the soul of the island itself.”

“No escape? You said there would be no delay,” Garg’nix growled. He shambled over to glower above Demorney, a move Demorney allowed. It was posturing. Neither one could afford to hurt the other. Not when it took both of them to control the environment around them.

“There shouldn’t have been,” Demorney said. “We arranged for the false note to come through safe channels, we guided them through the currents that turn away man and beast when the island isn’t ready for them, and we cast the song to ensnare their mage. The agents of the Potestates should have delivered themselves to us without fail if they were truly worthy of serving her cause.”

“Then why aren’t they here?” Garg’nix demanded.

“Perhaps we misjudged them?” Demorney said. “They are only fledglings. We set our trap to capture the Potestates senior agents. Perhaps they weren’t able to work out the runes that promised a cure for their mage’s condition? Or perhaps they didn’t have the courage to split up and gather the components from within the haunted depths above us?”

“You said they could handle the traps,” Garg’nix said. “You said the traps would only weaken them. We need them alive.”

“I’m not sure that we do,” Demorney said. Garg’nix flared to his full height and began to emit an acrid odor, as Demorney hastened to add, “if they fell victim to the traps we set, then they may not have been real agents of the Potestates. If we’d tried to transform such weak specimens as that, the ritual would have collapsed and all our planning would be lost.”

“We need our own agents,” Garg’nix said. “The Potestates has destabilized the world. Now is the time to take land, take people, take power. We need them now.”

“And we will have them,” Demorney said. It was futile to make promises like that to Garg’nix but Demorney was too used to dealing business partners who could be swayed by reason to give up his attempts so easily. “If not this set, then the senior agents, when they come looking for their lost lambs.”

“We won’t have that long,” Garg’nix said and began pacing again.

“He’s not wrong about that,” Jen said.

Garg’nix attacked.

No words.

No pause.

Six hundred pounds of bulk powering four arms, each ending in six twelve inch long, spear tipped claws.

Jen snap kicked him into the basalt granite wall a hundred feet away on the other side of the chamber.

For a moment there was silence. Demorney worked his jaw but words would not come out. Not until he found the right one.

“How?”

“Mountain charm” Jen said, shaking the anklet she wore.

“There’s a lot more magic here than there’s supposed to be,” Sarah said. “Shockingly easy to make temporary charms with, but then you knew that didn’t you? I mean you two are the ones who are throwing all that juicy energy around. It’s like you’re inviting people to use your own magic against you.”

Demorney looked at the mage. The mage who was fully conscious and in possession of her own wits.

“HOW?” he demanded.

“We drowned her,” Connie said, dropping down from the rope the other two had been lowered into the room with.

Garg’nix started to peel himself out of the wall he’d been cratered into.

“Shouldn’t do that,” Jen said.

Garg’nix did anyway.

With a huff, he swelled to twice his normal size as a nimbus of fire blazed from every patch skin on his body.

And again he charged

Jen dropped him with an axe kick this time, slamming his head into the floor so hard that he was buried in stone to the bottom of his neck.

“This can’t be happening,” Demorney said, focusing on Sarah. “You can’t be free of the Whispers. The land itself sustains that spell.”

“Yeah, that’s why they drowned me,” Sarah said. “Or why drowning me worked. It was a lucky break on their part I guess?”

“We saw you turn into a mermaid,” Jen said. “Drowning didn’t seem like it would be much of a problem for you, and the ocean sounded like it had its own magics separate from the island. So it was an informed lucky break at the worst.”

“I will grant you that,” Sarah said.

“But..but…the traps, all of my wards, how could you get past them?” Demorney said. He was dead. He knew he was dead. The Potestates agents were supposed to arrive in the room exhausted and Garg’nix was supposed to make short work of them. Even if they had enough energy left to somehow overcome Garg’nix, Demorney should have had plenty of time to lay enchantment after enchantment on them to bind their wills to his own. They were not supposed to catch him at unawares. Not with the defenses he’d set. This could not be happening!

“You might need these,” Connie said and threw a small pack to him. It landed at Demorney’s feet and the hundred and eight runestones, and enchanted dolls, and other foci that he’d tied his traps to spilled out over the floor. “It was a bit of pain to get to some of those. Next time I’d suggest not tossing them onto ledges you can’t see. It makes clean up into a gymnastics workout.”

“You took everything,” Demorney said. “Everything I built up. You took it all again!”

“Pretty sure we’ve never met before,” Jen said.

“We haven’t but I’m betting the other team has,” Sarah said. “Phillip Demorney right? Or, wait, no, you’re the younger brother, Cooper? Calvin? Cankersore?”

“Clyde,” Demorney said, anger warring with despair.

“Clyde! Right!” Sarah said, “I heard of you. Pretty talented, supposedly. Not terribly bright, but a decent contract writer and aces at mystical fabrication. Tried to stake your claim on Majorca was it?”

“Yes,” Demorney said, his face reddening with shame.

“Shocking how people in other parts of the world can have a clue too isn’t it?” Sarah said, before turning to her teammates. “They kicked his butt off the island so hard, he’s physically incapable of returning there. Amusingly he tried the same thing in Singapore and New Zealand. Same results in both places.”

“Thanks to your Club,” Demorney said.

“Yeah, no,” Sarah said. “Tam told me about it over drinks one time. Cankersore here tried to take over New Zealand’s Avian Mysterium (it’s a mystic thing, I’ll explain later) while the Tam was there. She talked to a bird, who talked to an old lady, who talked to a little girl, who went all Gandalf against the Balrog on Canker here and tossed his butt off a mountain with a lightning bolt.”

“She cheated,” Demorney said.

“Yeah, an eleven year old fighting a grown man cheated. Conjure up some self respect dude.”

“What are you going to do to us?” Garg’nix asked without pulling his head out of the stone floor.

“We were going to shut you down and call it a day,” Connie said.

“But then other people might get it into their head to try something similar,” Jen said.

“So we’re going to make an example of you,” Sarah said.

“How?” Demorney asked, his voice smaller and more timid that he’d hoped it would be.

“By giving you just what you asked you,” Jen said.

“You wanted to be the winning team?” Connie said. “Congrats, now you work for the winning team. We’re taking you back to Charlene and letting her find a use for you.”

“We will never work for the Potestates!” Demorney said.

“Or we leave you here,” Sarah said. “Forever. Since kicking you off islands hasn’t worked out, we talked to this island, and it would be happy to have guests for the rest of your lives.”

“I am immortal,” Garg’nix said.

“Exactly,” Sarah said.

“We won’t accept this!” Demorney said.

“I will,” Garg’nix said, pulling his head out of the floor. “Whatever the Potestates desires, that will be my role.”

“Really?” Demorney said.

“This was my chance to usurp my masters,” Garg’nix said. “I am as free of them sworn to the Potestates as I would be were my binding to you to be completed, and she is far more terrible. My masters will not dare move against her like they would against you.”

“You raise an interesting and terrifying point,” Demorney said. “Very well, I believe I will accept those terms too then.”

“Wonderful,” Jen said. “This may not exactly be your second chance, but if you’re wise I would encourage you to reflect on the fact that it’s almost certainly your last one.”

Demorney swallowed a gulp. Accountability was something he’d never been fond of, but he was pretty sure it was what the rest of his life was going to revolve around.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 3

The crunch of warm sand between her toes was a sensation Jen knew she would never get tired of. Sure, it was inconvenient when she needed to use her feet for delicate work, but having each step offer a soft but firm massage that sent a pleasant amount of heat radiating through the tired muscles she abused so often? There wasn’t much in the world that could compare to that.

“So,” Connie said, looking around the beach and unpacking their gear from the boat they’d been riding in for the last seven hours, “The island is real.”

“You were starting to wonder weren’t you?” Sarah asked, rising out of the surf in a shimmer of green and blue as she regained a fully human form.

“Maybe not wonder whether it was real so much as wondering if we were going to be able to find the place,” Connie said. She didn’t pause once the gear was safely on the beach, turning to secure the anchor on the small boat so that it wouldn’t drift away in the surf.

“Sorry there,” Jen said. “I must have plotted the route here wrong. We probably could have saved a few hours if we’d made a direct approach.”

Six hours into the sea voyage, Jen had begun to question the wisdom of trying to map the team’s course. Just because she’d been on a boat didn’t make her any kind of a sailor. Her talents lay in other areas, and she was ok with that. It was still hard to accept making a mistake that had cost them so much time, especially after Jimmy B had managed to score them a flight that got them from North America to the South Pacific in less than sixteen hours. If he could pull off an impossible feat like that, Jen felt she should have at least been able to get them through the rest of the trip in something close to the estimated time.

“I’m pretty sure your route was the most direct one,” Sarah said. She shook herself like a cat and through some spark of magic managed to wind up completely dry when she was done.

“We had to turn around three times,” Jen appreciated Sarah’s attempt to console her, but it was a little annoying too. She had to own her mistakes just like anyone else.

“Exactly,” Sarah said. “This place isn’t where it appears to be on the satellite scan. In fact, I’m pretty certain that without the turns we made, we would have sailed through open ocean no matter which path we tried to take.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Connie said, walking up to join them and passing Sarah a backpack. Jen had offered to carry one as well, but Connie had talked her out of it.

Jen was the team’s combat specialist (though that had yet to be put to the test). As such, she needed to be able to move freely and hide in good ambush positions when the opportunities presented themselves. Better, in Connie’s view, that one of them stay as unencumbered as possible, and if that person happened to be the one who would have issues getting gear out of a tightly packed backpack, the allowing Connie to carry the load she typically bore on an expedition seemed like the wisest course all around. Jen wasn’t sure she agreed with that, but she did like the idea of staying free to move and fight as needed, so she went along with it. This was only their first mission, feeling out team tactics and roles like that was something they’d have to experiment with to get right and letting Connie carry what she claimed was a typical load was as good an experiment as any other.

“It could be worse,” Sarah said. “That there’s a boatload of magic on this island at least explains why it vanished from the satellite photos last year. Or, if not why, then at least how.”

“If it took specific turns to get here though, doesn’t that diminish the chance that Marcus made it here?” Jen asked. The series of events that she’d constructed in her mind included a number of possible variations on what the teenager might have encountered. A magical vanishing island triggered a whole lot of warning flags but Jen had to agree with the others that it was too significant an item for them not to investigate.

From the beach, the island looked bigger than the satellite photo had suggested it would be. It was a good hundred or so meters before the tree line began and the two peaks that dominated the center of the island looked like they rose at a kilometer or more above the ocean. Seeing it’s size, left Jen recalculating the effort which searching it was going to require, but also more willing to consider the possibility that Marcus had landed somewhere and managed to remain hidden and/or lost for several days. There was enough space on what should have been a tiny blip of an island to get lost for a month or more by her estimation.

“Normally, I’d say accidentally stumbling into a place like this would be impossible,” Sarah said. “In this case though, I think the magic might make it more likely he’d wind up here, than not. Once we made the turns, I think the island started calling to us.”

She started walking inland as she spoke, her attention pulled by somehow unseen beyond the thick vegetation of the tree line.

“Is that why you went into water?” Connie asked, as she and Jen followed along in Sarah’s wake.

“Partly,” Sarah said. “I’ve felt minor compulsions like that before and since it seemed related to the waters around the island I thought it would be easier to pick out why we were being called if I got closer to it. Also, being able to turn into a mermaid is not a chance you get in many places and I was not about to pass that up!”

“I thought this place was supposed to be mundane this time of year?” Jen asked. “Are we going to find another rift to hell lurking in the trees like we did at the military base?”

It seemed like a remote possibility at best, but then so did having a companion who’d been able to leap into the water as a human and come leaping back out a moment later clad in blue and green scales with functional gils on her neck.

“I don’t think we’ve got to worry about hell beasts or portals to other worlds here,” Sarah said. “From what the ocean was whispering about this island, it’s a natural part of the currents here. It’s its own source of magic, and it comes and goes on a fairly regular cycle.”

They reached the treeline and Jen noticed that what she’d mistaken for palm trees were nothing of the sort. In fact they didn’t look like anything she’d encountered before, or possibly even anything that existed anywhere else on Earth.

The long trunks were wrapped in a smooth blue-black bark which smelled faintly of cinnamon and vanilla. As the wind coasted through their high broad leafed branches the individual leaves twisted and flowed as though they had life and independent movement of their own. The rustling and whistling they produced might have made a gentle song but there was an eerie undertone to it that set Jen’s nerves on edge. It didn’t sound as though the trees were threatening them, more that they sensed violence in the wind and were afraid of what was to come.

“How long do the cycles last?” Connie asked. “Are we in any danger of being trapped here?”

Sarah was still ahead of them but from how she was turning her head, Jen got the sense that she was listening intently for the call she’d spoken of rather than paying attention to where they were going.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said slowly. “The ocean was surprised, as much as water can be surprised, I’m translating a bit here, that the island was back so soon. I get the sense that the cycle is usually longer than it was this time, so we might be on unstable ground.”

“All the more reason to find Marcus and get him out of here,” Jen said. No one was saying where the island went when it wasn’t hanging around on Earth and even if it was a land of rainbows and back massages, Jen didn’t want their first mission to wind up with them trapped in some far off realm. Especially if that would mean that the other three would have to come rescue them. Joining the Second Chance Club had been exciting enough on its own, but at least part of the point was supposed to be to make things easier for Anna and Tam to repay them for saving her.

Apart from the moaning wind playing through the treetops, the island was strangely silent. No call of birds, no buzzing of insects, just the sound of the trees and, in the distance, running water.

“I think we should head towards the waterfall,” Sarah said, pushing through the underbrush to forge a new trail.

“What waterfall?” Connie asked. She’d fallen behind Jen, the heavy pack she was carrying slowing her more from bulk than weight.

“I can hear one too,” Jen said. “Should this island have a waterfall?”

“I’m not sure it should have anything,” Sarah said. “The more I listen to the islands voices the more wrong this whole situation sounds.”

That sounded like an excellent argument to Jen for why they should leave. A voice was buzzing in the back of head, scrambling around and forming questions that she couldn’t quite put words to yet. Even without the fully formed questions though, her gut was telling her that there was something wrong.

In her mind, she felt like a chess piece, except one which had stumbled onto Monopoly board. Moving one square forward might still be a thing she could do but its impact would be radically different than what she expected because she wasn’t playing the game she thought she was.

“Is Marcus what’s wrong?” Connie asked. “If this place isn’t supposed to be here now, could he have, I don’t know, called it back into being because he needed a place to hide?”

Jen puzzled over that for a moment. A few pieces didn’t line up – like why the island would be moaning if it was providing shelter to a lost traveler – but that might be due to her missing information on it still. Whether it was true or not though, she liked how Connie was thinking. It was good to know that the team had someone who thought along different lines than she herself did. That made Connie a valuable resource when it came to putting plans together and checking for holes in existing ones.

They arrived at the waterfall after some more trailblazing through the underbrush. Sarah had grown quiet and distant as they drew closer and as the moaning of the trees grew deeper and more ominous.

Jen wanted to check the area out but Sarah walked straight forward, exiting the trees and heading towards whatever was behind the waterfall without saying a word.

Through the water, Jen saw the mouth of a cave. It was dark and uninviting, but that didn’t slow Sarah.

“What’s in there?” Connie asked, breaking the silence.

Sarah didn’t answer. Or stop. Or even slow.

Jen stepped in front of her and stood solid like a wall.

Sarah opens her eyelids and gray smoke roiled where her eyes should have been. She tried to move around Jen, but Jen stepped to the side to block her. She tried to push past Jen, but that didn’t work either. Jen flexed back with Sarah’s shove and then stepped into it, pushing Sarah off her feet onto her butt.

“What happened?” Connie asked, rushing up to join them.

“This isn’t what we thought it was,” Jen said. “It’s a trap.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 2

Finding a needle in a haystack is a relatively simply endeavor. Choose the right needle, setup a sifting machine with some powerful magnets, and the work can be all but guaranteed. Finding a teenage boy lost in the South Pacific though? That presented a few more significant challenges.

“I’ve plotted out the points where we have tracking data for Marcus,” Jen said, bringing a map up on their central display monitor. Her prosthesis were back in her room, charging up, so she typed with her toes, though given the speed she typed at she would have used them regardless. In response to her clicks, a line in red traced in from points off the map, dotting a path across the featureless blue of the area of the ocean she had focused in on. The line ran to the center of the map and then simply stopped in the middle of the open ocean.

“Here’s the course he’d plotted out originally,” Jen said, calling up another overlay which put a black line onto the map. It matched the early part of Marcus’s actual trip but began to deviate at a time marker which matched Marcus’s first reported sighting of the other boat which seemed to be following him. At first the deviation was slight, a few turns to ascertain if the boat was actually following him but over time it curved more sharply away, each point showing an increasing degree of concern.

“What are the current’s like in that area?” Sarah asked. “Is some of this that he wasn’t expecting the extra drift from being off course, or are we seeing panic take hold over the course of several hours?”

“I don’t know,” Jen said. “He didn’t report anything like a strong drift in the printed logs we got.”

The family had included all of the electronic data they’d been able to collect. It didn’t point to a definite destination, but it painted a vivid picture nonetheless. Jen could only imagine how her parents would have reacted to seeing similar charts if she’d been lost at sea.

“Even if the currents dragged him farther off course than he expected, it shouldn’t have mattered,” Connie said. “His boat had a fairly good navigation system onboard. GPS would have given him an accurate position for the whole trip. He might have had to fight with the winds a bit to get back on course, but that should of been trivial for someone with enough skill to attempt an around the world sailing trip.”

They looked at the map as though it would offer some new clue in response to Connie’s observation. Even something small that might help them resolve the mystery. The ocean guarded its secrets well though.

“His trail just ends,” Sarah said. “What would explain that?”

“A lot of things, potentially,” Jen said. She didn’t like any of the options but they needed to consider each of them, no matter how unpleasant they were. “The most obvious one is that the other boat caught him there and someone smashed the radio gear. It would explain the sudden signal loss and why he never made it to Australia like he’d intended.”

“That’s unlikely though isn’t it?” Connie asked. Her brow was furrowed and she was reading the secondary data from the transmitted logs.

Jen had looked that over as well but hadn’t wanted to clutter the diagram with the data on the reported weather patterns, ocean temperatures, and seasonal fish migration patterns. If Connie could extract some meaning from them that would be wonderful, but Jen guessed they wouldn’t get that lucky.

“Why’s that?” Sarah said. “Was Marcus a particularly good sailor? Or was his boat extra fast?”

“No to both of those,” Jen said. Connie was right about the first scenario being unlikely but walking through them point by point was a part of brainstorming, and she knew better than to ever discourage someone from asking questions. “I mean according to his parents he was a very talented sailor, which checks out with them allowing him to do a solo circumnavigation of the globe, but they didn’t provide any info on him winning awards, and there’s plenty of people out there with more experience than a dedicated hobbyist would have, so it wasn’t amazing skill that would have helped him get away. Also, he was in a sailboat. It was a good sailboat, but those are limited by the wind, where a motor boat is not.”

“That makes it sound like whoever was chasing him could have easily caught him? But it also sounds like you agree with Connie. Where’s the unlikely bit coming in?” Sarah asked.

“Because we don’t have any log messages saying that they were gaining on him,” Connie said, when Jen nodded to her. “It’s on thing to be able to catch someone on the ocean, it’s another thing entirely to sneak up on someone who’s already spotted you.”

“Yeah, you’d think once it became clear that they were getting too close for comfort, Marcus would have started sending out Maydays,” Jen added. “Especially when he was so diligent about sending log information at all other times.”

“That makes an unfortunate amount of sense,” Sarah said, sighing and  sitting back in her chair. “Unfortunate because it strikes out the simplest and most mundane answer, though maybe it gives us a better chance of finding him still alive?”

“Let’s hope so,” Jen said. There were several other scenarios that lead to grim endings but none of them had definite supporting evidence in their favor. “The next most obvious reason would be that whoever was pursuing him knocked out his radio before coming into range.”

“I suppose we can’t rule that out, can we?” Sarah asked. “It would explain why he went radio silent without needing something like a giant whale to come up and swallow him and his boat.”

“Hold onto the whale theory,” Connie said, glancing to Jen who again nodded in agreement. “There are issues with this option too. Take a look at the timing of Marcus’ personal logs compared to the automated positioning logs the boat transmitted.”

She flicked a document up onto the central monitor to show the communication logs with their time stamps.

“The last thing that was received was an automated log message,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, it wasn’t too long after one of Marcus’ personal messages though,” Connie said. “In his last message he says the other ship is about three miles away. It would be possible to knock out a boat’s communication system from that far away, but it would take some fairly sophisticated and expensive gear to do it.”

“And we know the time window they would have had to act in because the automated log messages were coming in at regular intervals,” Jen said. “Even if Marcus’ ‘three mile’ estimate was off, they still would have been over a mile away, at the absolute closest, when the radio signal was lost.”

“And gear which some random ocean goons would have access to would not be able to shoot at radio that was a mile away,” Sarah said, following the thought to its logical conclusion. “But where does that leave us? Are we into my territory now?”

“We don’t have to assume magic was involved yet,” Jen said, and zoomed the map out to show a slightly larger swath of the South Pacific.

“That’s good, because for the last few weeks the seasonal patterns of the ley lines in that area have left it almost entirely mundane,” Sarah said. “I checked with some of the my contacts and that’s typical for where we are in the cycles that hold sway down there, but with the lack of ambient mana in the area, I’m not even sure if Tam would be able to pull a rabbit out of hat that had a rabbit pre-loaded into it.”

“Wasn’t that also supposed to be true of that Chinese military base that had a portal to hell open in the middle of it?” Jen asked. As reintroductions to the team went that had been more thrilling that Jen had expected. It had turned out fine, but she hoped they’d do a bit better on a mission she’d suggested they take.

“Sort of,” Sarah said. “The base was supposed to be in the equivalent of a magic dead zone. No ley lines there ever. Places like that are more common than not on our world. The ocean’s a different sort of beast though.”

“Ocean magic is really strange isn’t it?” Connie said. “James was describing how it worked but we didn’t have time to get into it fully.”

“It’s not strange, or not any more than any magic is, it’s just its own thing,” Sarah said. “Where the land is solid and changes slowly, the ocean is constantly changing, so the magic that runs it through acts the same.”

“How can we be sure this spot of ocean was free from active ley lines then?” Jen asked. She leaned forward, and tipped her head in curiosity. This was new information, tactically useful information in particular, so it had her full attention.

“The ocean appears featureless to us land dwellers, but it has its own locations and territories,” Sarah said. “With the amount of interaction between the land and the seas today, there’s a pretty fair number of people who keep track of how things sit with each major body of water in the world. They know where the magically active zones are and where the calm waters run. Oh, and the Bermuda Triangle is not one of the active areas, almost ever. I was disappointed to find that out too.”

“Nice,” Jen said. “But does that means we have confirmation there wasn’t supposed to be any magical activity in that area around the time Marcus went missing?”

Sarah shrugged and rolled her hands in a limiting gesture.

“We know what the known ley lines were doing,” she said. “I can’t rule out whether people brought their own source in, or found something esoteric materials in the area to tap into.”

“Ok, so general magic of the kind you’re familiar with is still on the table, but less likely than even it’s usual ‘rarely seen’ status?” Jen asked.

“Pretty much,” Sarah said.

“The good news is, there’s lot of mostly non-magical things that could have happened to Marcus, though I’m not quite sure how to characterize our leading contender,” Jen said, zooming the map out a bit further and calling up a new line on it.

From the spot where the line of Marcus’ reported positions ended the new line began, graphing a path in yellow that led to a tiny dot of green on the map.

“This is one possible projection of Marcus’ course following the loss of radio signal from him,” Jen said. “It presumes he didn’t sink, and didn’t have any working electronics on board anymore, maybe due to a lightning strike or something like that.”

“Plausible,” Connie said. “We don’t have any proof that the boat he was worried about actually was hostile.”

“Or that it was really there,” Sarah said. “We’ve only got Marcus’ logs for any of this after all.”

“That’s true,” Jen said. “He could have been hallucinating, or just mistaking a normal boat for something sinister. If so, if there weren’t actual bad guys out to get him, then it’s not critical for us to know that. The important thing is that he drove intentionally off course, and then lost radio signal.”

“I see some other islands in the area too,” Connie said. “Any reason you picked this one as the most likely landing spot? I think it’s a little farther from his original position than a couple of the ones to the east.”

“It is but not by all that much,” Jen said. “It has one other important quality though. Here’s a satellite photo of that region from ten years ago.”

An image which looked identical to the one which had been displayed appear on a side monitor.

“And here’s a photo of the region from last year.” The image appeared on another side monitor.

“They look pretty similar to me,” Sarah said.

“They are…except, wait, where’s the island?” Connie asked, pointing to the area on one year old image which showed barren sea where an island had been ten years previous.

“And here’s a photo from yesterday,” Jen said.

It showed the island exactly where it had appeared ten years ago, which was also in the exact place where it had not been the previous year.