The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 3

The world was going to end, but, predictably, there were more pressing matters to deal with.

“How is the food distribution going?” Jen asked. From the back of the gymnasium’s stage she couldn’t make out much that was happening in the throng of people who’d spread out over the hastily put together cots and blankets that filled the space.

“Slowly,” Connie said. “Jimmy B has people bringing in the basics like water and some simple meals that we’ve been able to confirm are compatible with their diet but we have to be careful. Turns out they’re all allergic to peanut butter. And nuts in general.”

“How did we find that out?” Jen asked, hoping the answer wasn’t going to be via the most obvious and painful manner.

“One of the kids,” Connie began and Jen’s heart sank in concern. “They popped open a pack from one of the vending machines and complained that it smelled like a skunk’s butt.”

“Are they ok?” Jen asked, clinging to hope that the smell would have prevented any further contact.

“Yeah,” Connie said. “They threw the pack away and grossed out some of the others. We had to have that area sanitized with bleach, which they love the smell of by the way, and the people who were near it are still feeling a bit queasy but no one’s broken out in hives or had trouble breathing.”

“Did they have anything like peanuts on their homeworld?” Jen asked. That people from another planet had become her primary concern seemed somehow less strange than that even transdimensional aliens could have peanut allergies, but it was also more or less the life she knew she was signing up for when she joined the Second Chance Club, so Jen just rolled with it.

“I guess they do,” Connie said. “When we described what kind of food peanuts are and how they’re grown, it rang a bell with one of the Ulitani biologists.”

The Ulitani weren’t human and their planet wasn’t a different Earth. Despite that though, the similarities between the two species of sapient life were unbelievably numerous.

Physically the Ulitani were indistinguishable from Earth’s humans unless you looked down into their  DNA. Culturally they were as diverse as any metropolitan city on Earth and despite the small number which Jen and Val had been able to save from the warzone there was still a wide variety of body types and ethnicities present. That they should be affected by some of the same issues as Earthlings were made sense when viewed from that angle.

None of that changed the fact that it was statistically implausible that life had somehow managed to evolve so near to identical under the different environments presented by Earth and Ultil.

“The last of the portals are sealed tight,” Sarah said, joining her team as a small pack of Ulitani headed past them to the restrooms.

“Will that be enough to keep any counter attacks from coming through entirely, or will it just slow them down some?” Connie asked.

“For the present, they’re bottled up,” Sarah said. “Probably.”

“That’s only possibly terrifying then,” Connie said, looking up from the paperwork she’d been filling out.

“What options do the Law Binders have for reaching us here?” Jen asked.

“On their own? None. At least as far as James and I have been able to determine,” Sarah said. “The problem’s going to be when someone else decides to lend them a hand like we helped these people.”

“We knew that would be a possibility going into this though, didn’t we?” Connie said.

“It’s not just a possibility,” Jen said. “It’s going to happen. If not with the Law Binders at first then with someone else.”

“We were talking about plans to pre-empt that though I thought?” Connie said.

“We were,” Sarah said. “Still are in fact. You can put that down as a work-in-progress. James has some ideas he wants to try, a few of which even sound like they could work.”

“Expect them not to,” Jen said.

“Can we afford to be that negative?” Connie asked.

“I’m sorry,” Jen said. “I should be more specific. Expect them to accomplish a different goal than the obvious one that’s tied to them.”

“Meaning what?” Connie asked.

“Meaning anyone who knows how to move an army from one world to the next is going to be aware of the kind of traps and defenses we can set up to block their efforts,” Sarah said. “We’re pretty good, but there are people and powers out there that are a lot older and a lot more specialized than we are.”

“Some of them might wind up on our side, but we’re just as likely to make even more of them into enemies,” Jen said.

“Does that mean we’re going to need to run away again?” Elteri, a young Ulitani who was passing by asked. Her older sister paused with her and looked eager to know the answer as well.

“No,” Sarah said. “We’ve got what’s called the homefield advantage here. If anyone comes to get you here they’re going to have to get through us. They might know more about moving from one world to the next, but no one knows more about this world than we do.”

“Us and our friends at least,” Jen said. “That’s the reason we brought you here and that we’re going to bring all the other people who need help to this world.”

“Someone might be able to follow you, but if they do they’re not going to be very happy about it,” Sarah said.

“What do you mean?” Elteri asked.

“Let’s say some of the Law Binders showed up here now. Do you know what would happen to them?” Sarah asked.

“You’d blast them?” Elteri guessed.

“I wouldn’t even have to,” Sarah said. “Here try to shoot that crate with this.”

She handed the girl one of the Law Binder’s disruption pistols. The girl checked the safety on the pistol, verified it was loaded, and turned to Sarah after assuming a firing stance with the weapon pointed at the ground and her finger resting away from the trigger.

“Is there anyone over there?” Elteri asked.

“No, that’s just a box of old flyers for last year’s play,” Connie said.

“Clear, clear, clear,” Elteri said, and when no response was forthcoming, sighted down the pistols barrel and then squeezed off a single shot.

There was no bang or flash of light. The only change was a translucent bubble which formed a few millimeters out and all around the girl.

Sarah reached forward and touched the bubble, popping it with an audible snap.

“I couldn’t move,” the Elteri said. “But it didn’t hurt. It was like everything was frozen.”

“That’s exactly what will happen to any Law Binder’s who try to attack us here,” Sarah said.

“Why would anyone try to bring them over then?” Grashia, Elteri’s older sister, asked.

“Many reasons, most of them bad,” Jen said. “In part it would make the frozen Law Binders a problem we’d have to deal with eventually. When you assault a fortress you usually want to plan for a number of different offensive options, some of which will be designed to work together.”

“What can we do about that?” Elteri asked.

“Like Sarah said, we have the home field advantage,” Jen said. “So there’s a lot we can do to set up the conditions for any battle before an attack even begins.”

“What about us though?” Grashia asked. “What can we do? Probably nothing right?”

Jen could hear the pain and weakness in Grashia’s voice. Losing not just a home but a homeworld left deep wounds in any psyche and these were children who’d grown up being persecuted since they were born, for no other reason than the beliefs their parent’s held. Elteri’s familiarity with the Law Bringer’s disruptor was probably only part of a wide knowledge of stolen weaponry. It wasn’t the sort of thing a girl her age should have been force to learn.

“Right now, there are some things you can do,” Connie said. “If you’re settled in, I can take you over to JB and get you into one of the volunteer brigades. We didn’t know we’d need to extract you as quickly as we did so there’s a ton of logistical stuff that we’re behind on.”

“Longer term, there’s something even more important you can do though,” Sarah said.

“Like a mission?” Elteri asked, offering the disruptor back to Sarah. Jen noticed that Elteri had placed the weapon’s safety back on and had disconnected it ammo pack, performing both actions without apparently being consciously aware of what she was doing.

“Yeah, it’s fairly long term,” Sarah said. “And a lot more crucial than you’re going to believe.”

“What is it?” Grashia asked, doubt clouding her features.

“We need you to make this place your home,” Sarah said. “You and the others.”

“Why?” Elteri asked.

“The spell that froze you? That’s a blanket restriction that exists here and applies to everything from your world,” Sarah said. “If a bunny rabbit tried to nibble on someone, it would get frozen. If you can become a part of our world though, we can start setting up even stronger defenses that will affect only new arrivals like the Law Bringers. We need to be able to tell you apart from them, magically speaking that is.”

“What do we need to do to do that?” Elteri asked.

“Meet people here, form relationships with them, even something simple like ‘that bus driver that I say ‘Hi’ to every morning helps, and get to know the place well enough that you just know where things are and who lives around you,” Sarah said.

“But that is a bit longer term,” Jen said. “We’ve got you setup here for tonight, and maybe a few days longer, but we’re going to need to find you all a real place to live before too long.”

“And for that to happen, we need to get everyone squared away with a place to sleep, their food plans, and any medical care they need,” Connie said. “The volunteer squad is handling those things, but we have over three hundred Ulitani and about a dozen Earthlings, so they can definitely use some help.”

“We’ll get to it!” Grashia said, and lead Elteri away towards where JB was gathering a small crowd.

“I’m glad there’s something for them to do,” Connie said after the girls had left.

“Yeah, this is a big change for them. Keeping active should help give them time to process it better,” Sarah said.

“It does leave open the question of where we’re going to find for them to live though,” Jen said. “We had to get them away from the Law Binders. That’s certain.”

“But this is earlier than we’d planned to start taking in mass refugees from other worlds,” Connie said.

“And this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Sarah said. “On Ultil there are still thousands of people hiding from the Law Binders, and Ultil is small potatoes compared to some other worlds.”

“A lot of those worlds we can’t do anything about though. They’re too distant for us to reach yet, right?” Connie asked.

“But they won’t be forever,” Jen said.

“Yeah, over time our celestial position will drift and new worlds will come in range,” Sarah said. “Some of which we know are locked away for very good reasons.”

“We can’t hide what we’re doing either,” Jen said. “For people to know we can offer them sanctuary, we need to be seen taking people in and protecting them. That kind of information spreads, usually to all of the places you don’t want it to.”

“The worlds we most want to save people from, they’re going to be the most ready for us aren’t they?”

“Not at first, but over time, yes,” Jen said. “They’ll learn all of our tactics, our strengths and our weaknesses. They’ll learn how to plan around what we can do and how to exploit the things we can’t.”

“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success,” Connie said. “How do you fight a war like that?”

Jen smiled and nodded towards the Ulitani.

“Simple. You don’t fight it alone.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 2

There was a ring of worlds in the sky, planets hanging like jewels on a string, arranged in a circle that curved out to infinity and beyond. From each world to the next, currents of light flowed carrying hopes, dreams, terrors, and the sound of countless voices. On some worlds the light shone brightly, on others it suffused the land, and on some it found new expression in the souls that called to it and gave back their own light in return.

Spinning along on the string, not so different from the rest, the Earth hung serene against a sky of endless stars until flames began to rain down on it.

Oceans were stained red as the falling fires burned everything they touched. On the land a single spark was enough to set a continent ablaze and in the storm that followed everything was reduced to ash.

The threads of light that bound the worlds together weren’t spared the violence either. Out into the heavens, cosmic bands of light burned along with everything else, snapping one by one, until the planet finally spun loose, spiraling off into an ever emptying cosmos, it’s untethered orbit carrying it beyond sight, sound, or hope.

Tam closed her eyes and the maelstrom of electricity which surrounded her faded away. Breathless, she drifted back down to the center of the scrying circle she’d assembled in her sanctum.

“You look like you’ve seen about a thousand ghosts,” Val said, stepping forward to offer her a hand up. She hadn’t had a chance to clean up after her last mission so the smoke of a battlefield still suffused her and reminded Tam uncomfortably of the vision of the burning Earth she’d witnessed. She hadn’t been close enough in the vision to see any people, but she could hear the echoes of a world screaming.

“More like a few billion,” she said, wiping her face and pulling in a deep breath to reclaim what sense of calm she could manage to find. “That wasn’t one of the fun visions.”

“What did you see?” Anna asked. She looked like she wanted to offer Tam a comforting hug but held back knowing how raw and scrambled Tam’s emotions could be come out of a taxing vision.

“This time it was the Earth burning in divine fire,” Tam said.

“You’re sure you’re safe when cast those divination spells, right?” Cynthia asked. She was sitting glued to her seat, just as she’d promised. Like Anna, she visibly was holding herself back to give Tam to recover from the spell.

She could have waited elsewhere, but the strain of watching her girlfriend casting such taxing spells was less than the strain of imagining all the things that could go wrong. Or of not being there to offer what support she could. With the evidence before her of the kind of price Tam paid for glimpses of the future it was always tempting to interrupt Tam’s casting, especially when the visions Tam saw tore cries of pain and anguish from her, but those visions had saved too many people already for Cynthia to try to argue that Tam should stop.

“For reasonable definitions of ‘safe’, yeah,” Tam said. “This one bordered on dangerous only because of the divine element, but gods-who-might-yet-be aren’t quite as troublesome as ones who are, if that makes sense.”

“It sounds suspiciously like an admission that you’ve been pushing farther than we discussed would be wise,” Anna said. “Was it worth it?”

“I think so,” Tam said, grinning sheepishly. She hadn’t known she would turn up something as profound, and she had overextended herself, but her intuition had paid off. “Since we declared Earth as a sanctuary world, we’ve been making our share of new friends, and with them come a whole lot of new enemies.”

“You don’t say,” Val said probing a bullet hole that had punched through her enchanted shirt and been stopped by the under armour she wore.

“Remind me to fix before we leave,” Tam said, nodding at the damaged gear.

“Sarah can handle it,” Anna said. “Or James. You are going to rest and cast nothing until your eyes stop glowing.”

Tam held up a hand to her face and saw a golden radiance reflected off her palm.

Yeah. She’d definitely be pushing it she decided.

“Ok. That might be good,” she agreed, mentally pushing off the debut of her next show by another month. “Let me fill you in on this though before I turn in.”

“I’m going to call in sick too,” Cynthia said. Tam flinched at that. Cynthia had responsibilities too and while the side work she did with the Second Chance Club was every bit as life saving as her fire fighting, there was a limit to how much the two activities could co-exist.

“I’ll be ok,” Tam said.

“I know,” Cynthia said. “I’m going to make sure of that.”

“I’ll get JB to talk with your chief if you like?” Anna said. “I’m sure we can work out an arrangement so you won’t have to spend time off. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the recovery opportunities we can get from here out.”

“That’s ok,” Cynthia said.

“Hey, we’re all about helping people right?” Val said. “So let us help you help us.”

Tam smiled and sighed. That was what she was fighting for.  Everyone around her and everyone who supported them. She thought of the angry gods in the vision raining fire down on the Earth and felt a fierce determination rise within her.

“She’s right,” Tam said. “We’re going to need everything we’ve got for what’s coming next.”

“You said the Earth was burning?” Anna asked. “Were you peering into the Nightmare Realm again?”

“No,” Tam said. “That’s the problem.”

The Nightmare Realm was one of the many psychoplanes which captured and reflected the thoughts of the minds in worlds it was adjacent to. It was an avenue Tam had turned to several times in order to discover information that was otherwise hidden behind strong wards or stronger wills. Visions from the Nightmare Realm tended to be more symbolic than literal in nature, but they could still offer valuable and surprisingly detailed insights into the plans and ambitions of people with malice in their hearts.

“You saw the real Earth on fire?” Val asked, her brows furrowing in concern.

“Yeah, and I got a sense of what brings us to that juncture too,” Tam said. “Before I worry you too much though, any kind of future sight is inherently unreal.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Cynthia asked.

“Basically? There is no future. Or, if we’re being accurate, no past either,” Cynthia said. “In a metaphysical sense, the future is always the possibility of what can be, and the past is always the collection of what might have been, both defined by the conditions which exist in the present.”

“Ok, so because I have a bullet hole in my jacket the past has to be one where I was shot sometime recently?” Val asked.

“Yep. Or one where you cut a very convincing fake bullet hole in the short, or where there was a freakish manufacturing defect in it that just happens to look like a bullet hole. There are other factors, like the bruise on your side, that help solidfy the idea that its a bullet hole, but on a fundamental level if we could change that hole so that it wasn’t there now, we could make it so that it was never there at all.”

“But the past can’t be changed like that can it?” Cynthia asked.

“No. Not by mortals or gods,” Tam said. “What’s done is done, barring some really unwise uses of time magic and even those tend to use cheats. The future isn’t quite so set in stone though.”

“Makes sense,” Val said. “I can either fix the shirt or leave the hole there.”

“Right, and when I look forward, I’m going to see a future where you did one of those two things,” Tam said. “My looking forward though doesn’t determine which one you do. I’ll probably see a future where you do fix the shirt, since that’s the most likely outcome, but if you choose not to then that future simply doesn’t come to pass.”

“Does it not exist or is it a parallel timeline that we simply don’t encounter?” Anna asked.

“How could you tell the difference?” Val asked.

“Normally we could not,” James said joining them with tea for all. “Mortals can’t normally move across time. We go forward and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes things, or even people, fall through from one timeline to another though. It’s not common but it’s happened enough that there is a general consensus that some things do cause parallels while others don’t. Obviously it is not an area which is very conducive to study.”

“Yeah. Make a mistake and your timeline implodes, which tends to reduce the number of papers you can publish a bit,” Tam said.

“What about immortals?” Val asked. “They’re not quite as limited as we are right?”

Aranea stepped out from empty air to fold Val into a hug from behind.

“We pass through time the same as mortals do, we just see a bit more of it usually,” she said, revealing that she’d been spying on the proceedings without displaying any shame over it.

“Forwards and backwards, right?” Tam asked. Aranea was a fascinating person to question, but she tended to grow cryptic and silent when probed for details on things outside a human perspective.

“Yes, though as you say, looking forwards is often either depressing or infuriating,” Aranea said, apparently in a rare communicative mood. “What’s the point of watching a version of tomorrow which never arrives.”

“In this case, it’s to make sure that tomorrow never arrives,” Tam said.

“Avoiding the Earth being reduced to cinders seems like a good thing,” Anna said. “Did you vision show you enough to tell you how to avoid that fate?”

“Not precisely,” Tam said. “But that’s how future visions are. What I can say for sure is, people are going to escalate. We can’t be a refuge for the oppressed and not get their oppressors all kinds of bent out of shape about it.”

“From the pep talk Charlene gave us, I think she has every intention of bending some oppressors out of shape,” Val said.

“Yeah. The problem comes in when we have to stand alone against all of them,” Tam said. “Earth’s not a naturally high magic realm. We don’t have the kind of casters other worlds have, or the same sort of spirits and gods protecting us, no offense Aranea.”

“None taken,” Aranea said. “My dominion is what it is. It is what I am. I need not be supreme outside it.”

“How did they move against us in your vision?” Anna asked.

“They came at us from beyond our sphere,” Tam said. “They never manifested on Earth, they attacked the strands that bind us to the rest of the multiverse. After destroying everything on the surface of the planet.”

“That doesn’t sound easy to fight against,” Val said. She wrapped her arms around Aranea’s which were hugging her around the waist. It was a scene that would have been surprising if Tam didn’t know Val as well as she did. For all that Val was tough in a fight, she wasn’t hard or brittle.

“I suspect if the burning Earth  was easy to avoid, Tam would have seen a different vision,” Anna said. Tam could almost hear the wheels turning in Anna’s head. Plans were forming there.

“Yeah, that’s kind of the problem,” Tam said, hoping to help bring clarity to Anna’s thinking. “I saw this vision because I was looking for our world’s most probable future. To get to it I had to skip over a bunch of other ones where things went even worse but there was a good chance we could find an answer to avoid them.”

“When did you’re vision take place?” Anna asked. “It can’t be soon can it?”

“Six months,” Tam said. “What I saw takes place a bit less than six months from now. That’s how long we have to figure out how to save the world.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 1

The battlefield was alive with explosions, shrapnel and little else. The war had raged for only three days but already the front line of the fighting had been rendered lifeless, weapons with no will or vitality of their own either programmed or enchanted to seek out foes had lost the ability to distinguish what a friend looked like.

In their wake, fields that had once been green were scorched ash gray and torn apart.

Val and Jen raced from one crater to the next, each dodging automatic weapon fire with a fleetness that only their rapidly dwindling enchantments could grant them.

“Can you see who’s shooting?” Jen called and they both rolled to their backs on the edge of a crater than provided far too little cover to be considered safe.

“No,” Val said, wrapping a length of duct tape around a grazing wound she’d taken on her leg. “I don’t think the Devouring Eye’s troops could have flanked us like this, unless Tam was wrong on their dreadnaughts still be operational?”

“That wouldn’t be like her,” Jen said. She wrenched one of her fingers back into its socket and turned it 360 degrees so that the threads would catch and hold it in place properly. Her other hand was missing below the wrist but it had been worth it to trade even a nice enchanted silver hand for surviving the grenade that had landed at their feet. “With comms down we can’t check though.”

“Thoughts on how we get out of this?” Val asked, peeking over the lip of crater at the legion of troops advancing through the distant smoke. “We’ve got a company of Law Binders inbound. With James’ primary portal down, and about a legion of other Law Binders sitting on our alternate gateway out, I’m feeling like we’re a little short on exits.”

“If it was just the two of us, this would be trivial,” Jen said. “We could sneak past that primary line and have our pick of escape options.”

“Yeah, but we’ve got three hundred refugees who aren’t going to be so easy to sneak past the army that’s here to kill them,” Val said. She traced a glowing glyph on her arm and flinched as a bomb burst just outside their crater sending a hail of hot rocks peppering over them.

Three more bombs detonated, bracketing the crater Val and Jen were huddled in. They froze as the last one fell and Val finished tracing her arm glyph. Shadows stole up from the earth and wrapped each woman in a cocoon of sheltering night. No eyes could see them and no sensors detect them as long as the mystical darkness shrouded their presence.

After a few minutes of silence, the air above the crater flashed with heat but no light was visible.

“Broad field laser weapons,” Jen said, nodding in approval at the weapons efficiency. One sustained blast put out enough energy to vaporize any human target within two thousand yards. “That complicates things.”

“Yeah, we can’t exactly sneak through those,” Val agreed.

“No, I mean it complicates things for them,” Jen said. “They really should have held those in reserve. Poor tactical management to break them out at this stage.”

“Our enemies can cook everything on this battlefield, us included, and that’s bad for them?” Val asked, a moment before a thought occurred to her. “Oh, wait, I guess it is.”

“Yeah. Area denial weapons are great but they deny the area to your troops as well.”

“Unless you’re troops have armor that will leave them unaffected by the beams,” Val said, understanding where Jen’s thoughts were going.

“Armor that, by its very nature has to offer full body concealment,” Jen said.

***

Two minutes later the pair was clad head-to-toe in the shimmering, mirror armor worn by the special forces infantry who’d been sent out to neutralize them. The armor wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was close enough that by the time anyone thought to question them, a quick snap kick would make for a viable answer.

“I can get our refugees,” Val said, adjusting her helmet and turning to see if Jen needed any help. “This will let me get through the Law Binders perimeter and from there I can use one of the short distance teleport enchantments Tam gave us before we lost her.”

“Good,” Jen said. There was a tear in one of her sleeves, but the enchanted silver of her current set of arms made the gap in the armor irrelevant. Her arms could protect her from more punishment than a tank’s frontal plates. All the stolen armor needed to do was provide her with a disguise “I can take the Law Bearers primary control nexus down. It would be more efficient to suborn it and issue false orders, but without Sarah…”

“Yeah, I know,” Val said, putting a reassuring hand on Jen’s shoulder. “Opening the Earth as a sanctuary world wasn’t going to be easy but I don’t think any of us fully anticipated what we were getting ourselves into.”

“Anna knew,” Jen said. “She talked with me after we made our original vote on how we were going to handle the Preservers. This kind of warfare? She knew it was exactly the kind of thing we’d been landing in the middle of.”

“She was still in fully favor of it though,” Val said, not having to guess at her absent teammates state of mind.

“She was,” Jen said. “I don’t know if it was that she thought we could handle it based on our past successes or if it was just inevitable.”

“Knowing Anna? A little bit of both probably,” Val said.

She looked out at the blasted wasteland in front of them. It hadn’t even been two weeks since she’d first visited the area and she could almost see the ghost of the green fields rolling before her leading to the quaint hilltop village with cheery little puffs of white smoke coming from a half dozen chimneys.

The reality before her was far bleaker though. The green fields were gone. The village was gone. Even the hill the village had stood on was gone. Wiped out by a merciless force bent on conquest and subjugation.

Exactly the sort of force that Charlene had pledged them against.

Val sighed. She wished, for the hundredth time that she could have been faster, or stronger, or offered better planning options.

“It’s going to be ok,” Jen said.

“No, it’s going to be better,” Val said. “Ok would have been if the people we’re helping didn’t lose their homes.”

“Ok, yeah, that suck,” Jen agreed. “But even if we’ve lost contact with Anna and the rest, you know they’re still working on the problem on the Earth side of things. All we need to do is get those people off this planet and back to ours. Anything past that is a problem for tomorrow, and for more of a team than just you and me.”

Val huffed a short laugh.

“I thought I was supposed to be the one giving pep talks to the newbie,” she said.

“You looked like you needed one more than I did,” Jen said, smiling.

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Val asked, curious about the lack of impact the carnage seemed to have on her companion.

“Exactly like this? No, but I mean we don’t have Law Binders on Earth. Similar to it though? Yeah. I traveled a lot in my training and there’s a lot of places in the world where bad things have happened, and a fair number where they’re happening still. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve lived through some of the worst things that humans have done to each other.”

“Military training is supposed to help with this, but I guess it only goes so far,” Val said. “And I never saw duty in a combat zone. I can’t help thinking what it’s going to be like if one of these groups tries to bring the fight over to us.”

“It’ll be ugly. People will get hurt. Probably a lot will die. From what Tam and Sarah have worked out though it sounds like that will mostly be on the invaders side.”

“Yeah, and that makes sense I guess. Moving troops isn’t easy under the best of conditions, and this would be harder than shooting a company of them to the Moon.”

“Speaking of which,” Jen said. “We’re going to need to make sure that the stable portal we have Tam and Sarah open for our refugees gets taken down thoroughly, so the Law Binders can’t send a few squads through after us. That’s going to mean someone needs to stay behind here, makes sure it’s closed, then finds their own portal back. I know you have seniority here, but I’d like to be the one to do that since I was part of the initial team that connected with these people.”

It was a reasonable argument, but Val was still going to refuse it and claim the responsibility for herself until an even better idea came to her.

“Just meet me at the refugees hold out,” Val said. “I have a short detour to make first, then we can all get out of here.”

***

Jen almost felt bad about taking down the control nexus. None of the people inside were carrying the sort of enchantments she bore and so it was less of a battle to overwhelm the forces present and more of a trivial chore. Kick here, head butt there, a leg sweep just to mix things up. Most of them didn’t even get the chance to reach for their weapons before they were on the ground and unconscious.

The only members of the aggressor force Jen put a lasting hurt on were the ones who carried the insignia of the Law Binder’s Inquisitors. The refugees had painted a frighteningly clear picture of the atrocities the Inquisitors were responsible for and given that their standard weapon loadout included variable setting pain sticks and vials of flesh dissolving “Confession Enhancers”, Jen had little trouble believing the accusations were true.

With their commander out of commission and the Law Binder’s central nexus a burning ruin, Jen’s run back to the refugee’s hold out was a thankfully untroubled one. The troops acted on the last orders they’d received by thanks to the work she and Val had done which had left them stranded on the wrong side of the Law Binder’s advancing forces, the army’s troops were all marching in the wrong direction to find their quarry.

Checking with an aerial spirit to make sure she was unobserved, Jen sprinted the last quarter mile to the hold out and arrived to find the refugees all prepped and waiting within the transit circle Tam had drawn on the ground before stepping back to Earth to setup the matching circle there.

Everything was ready. Except for Val, who was nowhere to be found.

A wall of the stadium sized hidden venue exploded and in drove one of the Law Bringers Laser Pulse Field Tanks.

Jen lept at the tank, her few remaining enchantment glyphs blazing. She didn’t have enough left to destroy the tank, and she probably wasn’t fast enough to get inside before it fired and killed everyone in the building, but she had to try.

Or maybe she didn’t.

Halfway through her flight, Val popped out of the top of tank.

“Sorry! Little late!” she said. “Time to go though!”

Jen landed on the side of the tank and shook her head.

“What did you do?”

“Grand Theft Tank? Is that a thing?” Val asked. “We really have to leave though. Like now.”

The two of them sprinted towards the refugees, each activating the emergency recall glyphs they carried. The primary teleportal had been destroyed, and the alternate mana reserve to power the emergency portal had been overrun by Law Binders. That left only using their personal teleport glyphs inside the unpowered confines of Tam’s emergency portal and hoping Tam could find the magic needed to power the entire affair from her sanctum on Earth.

“The portal’s going to remain open if we don’t close it,” Jen said.

“I don’t think so,” Val said. “Remember how Tam said nuking a portal was a really bad idea because the portal stays open but it’s orientation is shifted off into warp space or something?”

“Wait, a nuke?” Jen said. “What did you do?”

“Those Laser Tanks put out a lot of power,” Val said. “I don’t know the math, but I know it’s enough to make a really big boom.”

“You fed its output back in on itself!” Jen said, listening for, and hearing, the high pitched whine of a reactor going critical.

“Yep. I think we have about a minute and then this place is going to be glass.”

“Think Tam can get us back in a minute?” Jen asked, pressing her glyph tighter against the ground.

“Definitely,” Val said. “But that reactor is sounding a bit louder than…”

She didn’t get to finish her sentence before a blinding flash burst over them.

When her eyes cleared three hundred refugees, plus herself, Jen, Tam, Anna, and the rest were standing in the middle of a football field whose stands were on fire.

“Made it out in plenty of time,” Val said and swayed back in Aranea’s arms.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 4

Jen paused a moment to catch her breath. Her plan had worked to about 90% efficiency, which was a fair bit better than she’d been expecting it to work. That last 10% though? She was going to be feeling the bruises from that for the next several days.

“I didn’t think they’d fight quite so hard,” Connie said, panting harder than Jen. She’d taken a few nasty hits too, but nothing appeared to be broken or busted, which was something of a miracle given the sort of armaments the Preservers had been packing.

“You should have let me help,” Aranea said, rubbing her fingers together as though to sharpen them.

“No, Jen was right.” Sarah avoided the need to pant for breath by remaining collapsed on the ground where she’d tumbled at the end of her banishing spell. “This had to just us mundanes. If you’d joined in, we’d have to deal with the Preserver’s gods too.”

“They have my Val,” Aranea said. “They will have to deal with me shortly anyways.”

The party was still outside the limits of the farmhouse sanctuary the Preserver refugees had fled too. Following the Jen’s declaration that they would not be allowing the Preserver War band to drag the refugees back into slavery and/or death, a minor scuffle had arisen. There were trees left standing in a half mile radius  anymore, but Jen still counted it as a far more restrained conflict than several of the worst cases that she had planned for.

“No worries there,” Val said as she pulled herself through a faintly shimmering field in otherwise empty air. Jen suppressed a chuckle at the weird struggle. She would have offered to help but Val managed to pop herself out of whatever the obstruction was that was blocking the partially formed gateway. Tam followed a moment later, slipping through the portal with the quicksilver slipperiness of an accomplished escape artist.

“You made it back!” Cynthia shouted, glomping Tam into a hug before the magician could answer.

“This wasn’t meant to be a one way trip,” Anna said, pulling herself free from the portal as the air fizzed with light and grew still. Zoe helped her up from the ground where she’d stumbled and raised an eyebrow at the disheveled state of Anna’s mountaineering clothes.

There were burn marks on each of the three and bright red stains that could only be one thing.

“Don’t worry,” Anna said, noticing the detail Zoe had picked up on. “None of its ours.”

“You folks had some fun too?” Sarah asked, no rising from the ground or even turning to look at the new arrivals.

“A little bit,” Val said. “Looks you had nice little dust up here too. I take it the ambassadors weren’t feeling very diplomatic?”

“Not after we explained they weren’t going to get their people back,” Jen said.

“I still think carrying a pocket nuke counts as cheating,” Sarah said.

“Pocket nukes? Lovely. Are we going to need a radiation scrub if we stay here any longer?” Val asked.

“Sarah dealt with the device before it went off,” Zoe said. “The devastation you see around us came from some of the other devices they carried.”

“Sent it down a transdimensional warp?” Tam asked, looking over to Sarah without leaving Cynthia’s embrace.

“Just the fissionable material within it,” Sarah said.

“Clever.” Tam said.

“I asked myself ‘what would Tam do’ believe it or not,” Sarah said. “The misdirection seemed to keep them guessing for a a few extra moments.”

“They were willing to destroy themselves to get at their runaways?” Anna asked.

“Not exactly,” Jen said. “The bomb was on a timer, and they had some means of recalling back to the Tower of the Sky. I think the plan was to arm it on a short timer and then head back to their own world to avoid the blast.”

“Those are pretty nasty tactics,” Val said. “Fighting them’s going to be all kind of fun.”

“I’d hate to do it on their homeworld,” Connie said. “They could barely deal with the air or the gravity here and they still put up a hell of a struggle, even after Sarah rendered their weapons inert.”

“What did you do with them in the end?” Anna asked.

“Sent them home,” Sarah said. “Just like we’d talked about. Connie had just finished planting the last of the Banishing Mines when they arrived. Knew we’d have to use them on somebody and fortunately I think it turned out to be right people that we sent back.”

“Good. Were any killed or seriously injured?” Anna asked.

“No deaths – and that made fighting them more than a bit tricky I have to confess,” Jen said. “Serious injuries? If we don’t count their prides then nothing too serious. They’ll all be able to walk again, eventually.”

“Even better,” Anna said. “That leaves the chance of finishing this up peacefully still on the table.”

“You just assaulted both their primary stronghold and a fully armed diplomatic team,” Zoe said. “Peace seems like an odd thing to be hoping for at this point.”

“She’s right,” a giant of a woman said, appearing before them as she stepped off the farmhouse’s property. “They’re not going to let us live in peace. They can’t.”

More giants joined her as a contingent of the Perserver’s refugees emerged from hiding.

“Oh, I think we’ll find they’re more than capable of letting the matter drop,” Anna said. “It’s largely a question at this point of what it will take to convince them of that fact.”

“If they let us go, others will flee too,” the giant said.

“Then we should help you prepare for that,” Jen said.

“I can arrange for a number of new Club membership applications to be drawn up,” JB said over their comms.

“We do not understand this,” the giant said. “Why did you fight with them?”

“Because what they intended to do to you is abhorrent,” Connie said.

“Why should that matter to you?” the giant asked.

“Because how we react to actions that are unconscionable determines who we are,” Cynthia said.

“The history of our people contains an uncountable number of hideous crimes,” Anna said. “We’re a species drenched in massacres, and oppression, and hatred. We know those things all too well.”

“Some of us are unwilling to allow that continue,” Zoe said. “The mistakes of our past have to be something we can learn from. We have to better than we were. Striving for that is the definition of what makes us human.”

“Those sound like your words, Duinella”, one of the other Preserver refugees said.

“We have not met many on your world who feel as you do,” Duinella, the refugee’s apparent leader, said.

“There’s more humans out there who would agree with these people than you might imagine,” Aranea said. “Most of them seem to be content to lead their lives quietly and enmeshed in their own problems. It’s strange given Earthling’s reputation for violence, but if you engage with enough of them it becomes easy to see.”

“The answer seems obvious but I must ask anyways,” Anna said. “Do you wish to request asylum on our world?”

“We do not know how to do that,” Duinella said.

“Or what it costs,” another refugee said.

“Why would the Earth want us?” a third refugee asked.

“I can’t speak for the Earth,” Anna said. “The words I can offer come only from myself.”

“No,” Jen said, putting a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “She speaks for all us too.”

“All of us,” Aranea said.

Anna smiled at the support.

“There are those who will disagree with me, “Anna said. “There are people who will raise valid concerns and ones who thrive on fear and hatred who will find you the perfect scapegoats to target. I cannot claim that any solution we can offer is perfect, but what I can offer is this; if you ask for our aid, we will work with you to bring you into our fold. If you need housing, we will find communities you can live in. If you need food, we will share our surplus and help you find jobs and a means to support yourselves. I’ve left notes in your previously dwellings making similar offers to any of your other people who are still assembling or remained behind, and you are free to accept or reject it as individuals or as a group.”

“And what do you ask in return?” Duinella asked.

“The same things that we ask of each other,” Val said. “Try to make this world a better place. Help out the people around you who need it. Give what you can and stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

“And when the others come back?” Duinella asked.

“We just showed them that we can pass in and out of their most secure stronghold,” Anna said. “The note I left with Ambassador Bram explains that our visit was a polite one. If they refrain from further hostilities they won’t need to see what an impolite visit looks like.”

“All they need to do is wait and our two worlds will fall out of alignment,” Tam said. “We can be a temporary problem or a long term one. The ball’s in their court on which way things go on that front.”

“What if they demand our return before the alignment ends, as a price for peace?” Duinella asked.

“Peace can’t be bought with injustice,” Jen said.

“If they come back looking for a fight, we’ll dissuade them,” Tam said. “There’s lots of tricks that can thrown off their aims.”

“And if that doesn’t work, we’ll spread the world about the kinds of resources the Tower of the Sky has,” Val said. “Open warfare’s not going to go well for anyone, and if it takes a massing of troops from every world that’s even barely aligned with theirs to get them to realize that, then so be it.”

“We place nice when we can,” Anna said.

“And when we can’t, we play to win,” Zoe said.

***

Charlene sat in her customary seat at the Council’s convocation. Being called before the assembly for the second time in a year was an interesting change from the decades where she hadn’t seen them at all.

The current session was better attended than even the case brought against her by PrimaLux had been. There might have been a few open seats left, or their owners could have been obscured by concealments of one kind or another. Charlene had no interest in piercing the veils of emptiness in either case. She wasn’t in attendance to listen to anyone else. She was there to make sure they listened to her.

“Potestates,” the Chairman said, calling the meeting to order with the mere mention of her name. “We are gathered again due to your actions.”

“Yes,” Charlene said.

“You do not seek to evade your responsibility this time!” one of the PrimaLux founder screeched. “You’re not going to blame it all on your little humans?”

“My agents carry no blame here,” Charlene said. “Even the ones who formerly swore their allegiance to you.”

There were muffled guffaws from the chamber, but Charlene paid them no mind. Even the oldest of the council’s members could appreciate a few dramatics but clever quips decided very little in the grand scheme of things.

“The charge against you this time is violation of another realm’s sovereign rights.” the Chairman said. “What answer do you make to this?”

“I could answer that the incident in question involved both a conflict within my realm and one provoked in a foreign realm by the powers there in violation of diplomatic protocols. That would be answer enough.”

According to the Council’s laws, Charlene’s people had every right to defend themselves while under a diplomatic charter, and every right to banish the Preserver War Band once the War Band attempted violence.

“But you are not going to make that answer?” the Chairman said, a note of uncertainty hanging in his otherwise calmly eternal voice.

“No,” Charlene said. “That answer supposes that I am willing to accept that status quo we have engineered. That is no longer true.”

“What do you mean by that?” the Chairman asked, his tone turning grave.

“Plainly, if my realm, if the Earth, can be a haven to anyone who is oppressed, who is enslaved, who is beaten, or degraded, then we will stand on the shore of the sea of worlds and welcome them,” Charlene. “Too many of those here, too many of those in power everywhere, draw their power from debasing others. That will not stand any longer.”

“There are those here you are declaring war upon with such a pronouncement,” the Chairman said.

“Then they should run,” Charlene said and with that she left, a single white feather drifting through the air the only mark of her passing.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 3

Jen wasn’t interested in hunting under normal circumstances, but tracking down the otherworldly interlopers from the Preserver’s realm had put a spark to her imagination.

“We know at least one of them has been here a while,” she said as she turned through the old binder of rental receipts that had been left behind.

“That would explain how they’ve got so many bolt holes to run to,” Connie said, picking up a suitcase that had been similarly abandoned. It’s contents included an assortment of plus sized clothes which matched the ones strewn about the otherwise empty apartment.

“They must be really annoyed that we’re finding them this quickly,” Sarah said. Between her fingertips she held a lattice of light that slowly morphed from a revolving pyramid to a smooth sphere to a multi-pronged ball of spikes.

“I have the next location identified,” James said over their comms. He’d been making it a point to be more ‘present’ for the various teams assignments, despite remaining incapable of being physically with them most of the time. “Thank you Sarah, the fidelity on your tracking spell has been superb.”

“You’re quite welcome James. I’m going to release it for a bit, until we find their next sanctum,” Sarah said. “I don’t want the pattern getting flooded with the markers we have here.”

“I’ve got a plane on standby at the FedEx airfield for you,” Jimmy B said also over the comms. Road noise was clearly audible in the background as well as chatter between his car’s driver and another passenger. Like the rest of the support staff Jimmy did a lot of multi-tasking to keep the Club’s activities running smoothly. “From the coordinates James gave me, the nearest runway I can put you into will be about thirty minutes from the target site.”

“That’s going to give them a fair bit of time to see us coming,” Jen said, brushing through the pages of receipts with her prosthetic fingers. There was a pattern in the rental bills. she could see it’s outline but she wasn’t sure what the various bits of data added up to.

“They might be able to see us already,” Sarah said, slowly collapsing the spellwork lattice to a point of light.

“They do seem to be keeping a pretty substantial headstart on us,” Connie said. None of the clothes in the abandoned suitcase held any identifying information.

“They can’t track any of you with the same tools you’re using to locate them,” James said. “You’re a part of this world, your essences are indistinguishable from the overall background of Earth’s vitiac field.”

“We need to come up with some more comprehensive stealth options then,” Jen said. “They’re definitely aware when we get close, but even if they can detect us this far away they don’t seem to be willing to act on it until we get closer.”

“They must have a limited number of escape options, and yet something about meeting with us is causing them to burn them without hesitation,” Connie said.

“It’s not one group fleeing us,” Jen said, the secret in the receipt numbers crystalizing at last in her mind’s eyes. “They have so many hideouts because they have more than a single cell here. They’re burning them because they can’t afford a cascade failure of their secrecy if we apprehend one or more of them.”

That insight suggested a number of other facts about the interlopers. The primary one in Jen’s view was that they would only need to be worried about a cascade failure, one where a single group could expose the whole organization, if they weren’t using classic ‘cell network’ tactics where each group was isolated from the rest. That put some significant boundaries on their level of training and their likely goals and motivations.

“How did they have time to put that together?” Connie asked.

“I can think of one option, and it’s not a great one for Anna’s team,” Sarah said.

“Yes. If the Preserver’s have sent these people over in organized teams, they could have been trained and prepared to move in weeks ago, when the alignment just began to make travel practical.” That was one possibility, and likely the worst when coupled with the lack of long term security in their organizational structure. There was another explanation though, less hostile in a sense, but no less problematic.

“That would mean that Anna and her team are walking into a trap then?” JB asked. “What options do we have to address that?”

“Very few,” Sarah said. “Moving within the Tower of the Sky via Earthly magic takes longer than standard modes of locomotion which means any help we could send wouldn’t arrive there for a week at a minimum.”

“Unless we violate the warded doors and force a path directly to their central palace,” Connie said.

“I don’t think we’ll need to,” Jen said, biting her lip as her visions of the Preserver’s plans spun together and flew apart, seeking the ones that fit the available data. “Whether the governing powers there are behind this or not they’ll want to send a team through for ‘investigation’ purposes. We can discuss the matter with them and base our actions on what they have to say.”

“I have a return portal opening in Tam’s primary conjuring circle,” James said.

“Excellent timing,” Jen said. “The coordinates we found for the next sanctum are closer to the Club than here correct?”

“Yes. We’re about half as far away as you are,” James said.

“Good, let’s meet the new arrivals at the next sanctum then,” Jen said. “We will wait for their arrival before entering so they can see a pristine site.”

“I’ll give them the record of our investigation so far, as Anna requested,” JB said.

“Signal us to let us know who came back with them ok?” Jen asked. “I have a suspicion who Anna would have sent home under ideal circumstances, but who’s actually there may tell us more than the Preserver’s realize.”

“Should we get going to airport then?” Connie asked.

“I’m not racing you this time,” Sarah said.

“I let you use magic last time!” Connie protested.

“And I learned my lesson, thank you very much.”

“There is one thing I want to do before we leave,” Jen said, looking around for any writing instruments that might have been left behind.

***

The party from the Tower of the Sky consisted of Aranea, Cynthia, and Zoe. Just as Jen had been afraid it might. Anna knew there was trouble brewing on the Tower of the Sky, and she’d gotten the primary team’s loved ones to a less dangerous spot. On the plus side though, she clearly felt her primary team could handle staying behind. That she valued the prowess of Val and Tam over the might of an actual Goddess and a professional first responder said a lot about the bonds between them, as well as Anna’s estimation of their chances versus the odds arrayed against them.

“This is our investigation team leader, Jen,” Zoe said, leading the party of Preserver diplomats forward.

The Preserves were massive by Earth standards. While they appeared to be human, the shortest of them stood six foot and eight inches tall and had a physique a body builder could spend a lifetime trying to acquire. Despite his rippling muscles though, the diplomat looked winded from even the short walk from the car to the edge of the farm house’s property than Jen and her team waited outside of.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Jen said, offering the Preserver’s a short bow. She was wearing her “nice” arms but after all the martial arts instruction she’d pursued, a bow always felt more appropriate, especially when meeting with people who might or might not be adversaries.

“The renegades are in there?” the leader of the Presever’s team huffed, fighting to draw breath from Earth’s thinner air and heavier gravity. For people who lived on top of a mountain higher than any on Earth, it seemed strange that they would find Earth’s air pressure thin, but such were the oddities of transdimensional physics. Different worlds meant different rules.

“Yes, quite a few of them in fact,” Jen said.

“What is your perimeter detail?” the Preserver Captain asked, without wasting time on pleasantries.

“You’re looking at it,” Connie said from the bottom of a hip deep hole she’d dug at the boundary of the farm’s property.

The Preserve Captain huffed in disdain. “No wonder the quarry has been escaping you.”

Jen suppressed a smile. It was a joy to work with people who couldn’t see beyond the noses on their face. It was the ones who knew to ask the right questions who were occasionally troublesome to predict.

“This site is unique,” she said, gesturing to the farm house in the distance and distracting him from the seemingly menial work Connie was doing. “At previous locations we’ve arrived to find them empty. This time we seem to have caught up with your errant citizens.”

“They are no citizens of ours,” the Preserver Captain said.

“You’re turning them over to us then?” Jen asked.

“No. We still own them. They have violated the Supreme Order and will be sentenced accordingly,” the Preserver Captain said. “Merely by being here without a Sacred Writ, their status and rights have been revoked. The Justicars will determine what their punishments will be beyond that.”

“You still own them?” Jen asked, lightly. It was exactly the phrase the Preserver’s shouldn’t have used, but before she authorized a the diplomatic incident Jen calmly gave the Captain a chance to back away from his blunder.

He wasn’t going to. She could see the nature of their society too clearly in the pieces and clues she’d picked up so far. She knew the broad strokes of the reality which had driven the people huddling in the farm to flee their world for one where they could barely stand without pain or manage to catch their breath after the faintest of exertions.

“They are not your concern,” the Preserver Captain said. “Leave now. We will deal with them, and any others you have allowed to escape.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Zoe said.

“These are ours. Your rules and laws do not apply to them.”

“Do any of the laws of this realm apply to you?” Aranea asked. There was a hopeful note in her voice and hunger in her eyes which reminded Jen that Aranea was, at heart, something decidedly inhuman.

“Before we get into esoteric topics like that,” Sarah said quickly. “Perhaps our guests would like to review the data we’ve collected about the people waiting in that building? There might be options for approaching them peacefully.”

“Peace with the corrupted?” The Preserver Captain took a half step back as though to ward off the terrible idea. His troops seemed similarly disgusted with the concept.

“How did intend to apprehend them?” Cynthia asked.

“They will be leashed as the corrupt must be,” the Preserver Captain said.

“And how will you get these leashes on them?” Zoe asked.

“Our binding circles can ensnare a simple dwelling like that. It will be a simple matter to pacify them with Barrage cannons once they have no hope of escape.”

“Barrage cannons?” Aranea’s eyes were alight with a hungry joy. The Preservers were far over any tolerable line which meant there was very little to hold back Aranea. Jen knew they had to at least make the attempt to prevent an incident that would spark a war between the worlds though.

“There is a complication to your plans,” she said. “Whatever rights these people do not have on your realm, there are inalienable rights we grant any sapient being here.”

Or, at least there were rights which neither Jen nor anyone else associated with the Second Chance Club would ever allow a person to be deprived of.

“We will not allow you to drag these people off into slavery or death,” Connie said, climbing out of the hole to back Jen up.

“We’ve let that happen before. We’ve been a people who did that to ourselves,” Sarah

“Never again.” Jen said it first but every one of her friends echoed her.

Except for Aranea who smiled and asked in a slow voice, “But, please, do try to argue the point.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 2

It had been a grueling week, climbing to the summit of the Tower of the Sky, but despite that Anna knew they’d only passed the easiest of the trials that lay before them.

“For a world with as many bridges to Earth as this one has, you’d think someone would have imported the idea of elevators by now,” Val said, dusty her hands off and helping Aranea onto the summit top ledge they’d finally arrived at.

Anna had been the first to the top, but apart from her team who were completing the climb as she watched she had seen a hint of anyone else on the desolate peak.

“I expected more of a welcome party,” Aranea said, her wariness giving voice to Anna’s own concerns.

“They’re here,” Tam said, pulling herself up the last few feet with Val’s help.

“I thought they knew were coming?” Cynthia asked, turning as she reached the top to help their last member, Zoe, complete the climb.

“They do,” Anna said. She didn’t have any supernatural senses to draw on, the enchantments she carried for this mission were of a different nature entirely. Intuition was a sufficient substitute though.

“Yeah, no one puts the seat of their government on the top of a mountain at the edge of the world if entertaining visitors is high on their list of priorities,” Zoe said.

“I’m not really seeing a seat of government here,” Val said, gesturing the empty plane in front of them.

The Tower of the Sky was roughly the size of Olympus Mons, three times as tall as the tallest mountain on Earth, but where the Martian mountain rose in a broad incline, the Tower of the Sky jutted straight up from the mist shrouded lands below. Anna’s party had been lucky to find a doorway which lead them to a cave two thirds of the distance up the mountain, but from there it had been a grueling multi-day effort to scale from one shelter to another.

Once formal diplomatic arrangements were made, Anna hoped that a repeat of the trip would prove either unnecessary or significantly easier. She knew there were doorways which opened directly into the Grand Celestium, but those were barred to the uninvited.

“You’re not seeing anything because they don’t wish us to see anything yet,” Anna said. It was only partially a guess. Even without establishing a dialog or offering any overt information about their culture, The Preservers who claimed the Tower of the Sky as the center of their realm, communicated a tremendous amount of detail about themselves both in the warnings they gave and the things they chose not to say.

“They should keep their palace tidier then,” Aranea said, her eyes narrowing and her lips curling in a dangerous smile.

Anna wasn’t certain what the extents of the spider goddess’ powers were but seeing past whatever illusion the Preservers had woven over their palace was clearly within her purview.

“None are permitted to gaze upon the holy city,” the Preserver War Captain said, his veil of invisibility shredding as he spoke. Other Preservers followed suit, stepping out from behind their concealment spells to show that they had Anna’s team surrounded in a half circle which left only a fall from the cliff as a means of escape if Anna ordered an escape.

Tam had briefed them on the Preservers who rules the world dominated by the Tower of the Sky. They were another branch on the human family tree, albeit one native to a foreign world. With their world’s lighter gravity they grew to greater sizes than Earth natives typically achieved, but were otherwise similar to Earthlings in terms of physical capabilities and genetic diversity. The guard patrol, of course, were particularly large and imposing specimens, with the sort of overly large and muscled proportions one would more commonly find in animated characters or a comic book.

“We come as envoys,” Anna said. “If your city is to remain closed to us, then please send forth someone we may treat with over our mutual concerns.”

She didn’t like the weapons they were aiming at her team, it suggested the negotiations were going to take longer than she’d hoped, and while it was worth taking the time to handle the Preservers correctly, she didn’t have an unlimited window to deal with them before the next closest world’s alignment became a critical problem.

“Why should we care about your concerns?” the War Captain asked. He didn’t step forward to loom over Anna, or try to use his physical presence directly. If anything, the distance he kept suggested to her that he wished to avoid contaminating himself with her presence any more than required.

“Because our concerns involve people from your world crossing into ours,” Anna said.

“That is not possible,” the War Chief said, shaking his head and wrinkling his nose at the idea. “All of our people are pledged. No one would leave.”

“Then the person who wore this wasn’t one of yours?” Anna asked, producing a glittering grey metal disk. The pattern work etched onto the disk’s face caught the unfiltered sunlight of the mountaintop and glowed with a orange-yellow warmth.

“A Castigator’s Seal? Where did you get that?” the War Captain asked, leaning forward as though he intended to inhale the Seal.

“We found this in an abandoned home on our world,” Anna said. “There was evidence that someone had been living for for several months.”

“How?” the War Captain asked, his brows furrowed.

“It would have been a few days after our worlds came into a close enough alignment for transits to be practical,” Tam said.

“And they weren’t alone,” Val said. “This wasn’t a one off occurrence from the signs of habitation we found.”

“They were a prepared and practical group,” Zoe said. “We dropped in on them unannounced and they still managed to vanish before we could catch up to them. The only things which were left behind was objects like this which were stored in secure rooms.”

“So you can see why we have concerns,” Anna said, making direct eye contact with the War Captain. “A group of people with no claim on our realm, and the ability to apparently vanish at will? That seems like a potential problem for both of our worlds, don’t you agree?”

It made for a good cover story by virtue of being true. Anna was less concerned about the group of otherworldly ninjas though than she was able to military might of the Tower of the Sky which might follow them.

The Tower was the closest realm to Earth and would remain so for another turning of the moon. The Tower’s moon, fortunately, not the Earths, which meant another two weeks. If nothing significant happened to connect the two realms more strongly, then the Tower and Anna’s Earth would drift apart again. If, however, a military sorte was to take place, the separation would be reversed, and even more doorways between the two world would open up, bringing with them all manner of troubles.

“Come with me,” the Warp Captain said, signaling to the other soldiers to stow their weapons.

Without further preamble, he led Anna and her team through the veil that hid the Grand Celestium, revealing the vast crystalline structure that dominated the peak and soared another thousand meters in height.

The Warp Captain offered them no tour, moving directly up a long spiraling staircase to bring them to a garden that was festooned with flowers in every shade of yellow and blue.

“Wait here,” the War Captain said, addressing his soldiers and Anna’s team in the same breath.

“What curious apartments they’ve built here,” Aranae said, holding her hand close to one of the flowers and allowing a small translucent arachnid to wander across her fingers.

“This place must be fun in a storm,” Val said, taking a seat at the table in the center of the garden.

“Who do you think they’ll send to meet with us?” Cynthia asked.

“Someone expendable,” Zoe said, taking a seat at the table as well.

Anna remained standing. It was useful for Val to sit, because it showed her team wasn’t inclined towards violence, assuming the War Captain or his superiors could read the posture of the team correctly and identify who their primary fighter was. It was also useful for Zoe to start the conversation sitting because it showed a lack of deference which a sharp negotiator would pick up on. For as polite as Anna had been, her team hadn’t come to the negotiations to bow and scrape before the Preservers. The diplomatic mission was intended to run in both directions so that each party could leave with the feeling that no further contact was needed. If Anna gave into demands from the Preservers and accepted their authority as higher than her own, they would endlessly be looking for additional concessions, and that would inevitably lead to exactly the sort of situation she was trying to avoid.

To her relief, the diplomat who was escorted in by the War Captain looked shrewd enough to recognize the various factors in play and took a seat in the center of the table, opposite and empty one which Anna slid into.

“Please excuse the undignified welcome,” Ambassador Bram said. “We take the defense of our borders very seriously.”

“We understand, and as no harm was done, the matter can be ignored in favor of resolving the more pressing issue before us,” Anna said.

“Yes, the artifact you brought to us. Can you provide any proof as to your claims of how it was found?” Bram asked.

“We have a series of case notes we can share with you which document the steps which lead to its discovery,” Anna said. “We are also willing to escort a party of your choosing to inspect the location. It’s likely your people will know to look for things we are unaware of.”

“Good. War Captain, arrange a party for immediate departure,” Bram said.

“So you do consider this a serious matter?” Zoe asked. “Your War Captain didn’t seem to think we had anything to say worth listening to.”

It was a comment meant to bait out a hostile response, but Brams reacted to it coolly, to Anna’s surprise.

“The matter of a missing Castigator is what makes this a serious issue,” Bram said. “If he is not apprehended, the gates between our worlds will not close when the scheduled time has elapsed.”

“Good, you are aware of the danger we face as well then?” Anna asked. It didn’t mean that the Preservers wouldn’t move to an expansionist footing if an opportunity presented itself, but at the very least they didn’t seem to be on one already.

“Yes, and we appear to be of like minds on the subject,” Brams said. “Continued contact between your realm and ours can lead to nothing but chaos.”

“I can’t imagine chaos is all that desirable for people who live in a glass house on top of a mountain?” Zoe asked, playing the part Anna needed her to play perfectly.

“No one desires chaos,” Brams said. “Order is the goal of all life, from the smallest of bacteria to the grandest of divine powers.”

Aranea smirked at that but let the comment slide. Anna guessed Aranea didn’t agree with that assessment but saw no value in correcting Ambassador Brams’ views on what a divine entity might think.

“How soon will your team be assembled?” Val asked, leaning forward to join the conversation.

“They should be available in no more than a hundred breaths,” Brams said.

“Good,” Val said. “It took awhile to get here, but I’m glad we were able to work things out so quickly.”

“I’m afraid there is still much more to discuss,” Brams said. “I will have to ask that some of you remain behind when the investigation looks into this matter.”

Stay behind as hostages. Anna knew it was what he meant and had anticipated the eventuality. It was why she’d brought a larger than normal team.

“Zoe, would you escort the investigation team when they arrive?” she asked. “Perhaps you can take Aranea and Cynthia with you as well since the team may have several members and need to split up.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes, clearly seeing Anna’s move for what it was. Anna was maneuvering her original team’s loved ones back to Earth, and it’s relative safety after each of them, Zoe, Cynthia, and Aranea had insisted on coming along for the lengthy mission.

“I’d be delighted too,” Zoe said. “Just don’t stay here too long ok?”

“That won’t be a problem,” Anna said, knowing that Ambassador Brams had no intention of letting anyone who remained behind ever leave.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 1

Anna glanced across the boardroom table and smiled. Her next move was going to give everyone at the table exactly what they’d asked for, and exactly what none of them wanted to have. Before she could unveil her masterstroke though, her phone buzzed. Tam was calling.

This surprised Anna for a number of reasons. Tam had only been researching cases and plotting out the changing ley lines of the world when Anna last checked. That sort of work didn’t tend to lead to emergency calls. Also, and more worringly, Anna’s phone had been off. She’d powered it down before she came into the meeting with the Androska Enterprises executives precisely because she knew she couldn’t afford any interruptions.

“Please pardon me,” she said in the thickly Russian accented English she’d been using in her dealings with Androska. “I must take this.”

The collected executives looked either startled, or annoyed. There’d been an unofficial agreement that, since the timing on the deal had to occur within a razor thin margin of time, no one would call for any delays. Anna herself had insisted on it as a condition for moving forward with the highly favorable terms she was offering.

“My associate can complete the final paperwork, if you like?” Anna offered as she rose from her chair, nodding to Sarah who had been sitting beside her quietly through each of the meetings which had setup the transfer of a significant portion of Prima Lux’s old Mediterranean holdings.

No one liked changing team leads in the middle of the deal, and they would like it even less when Sarah revealed the particulars of the deal which none of the Androska executives had managed to grasp. Or at least they wouldn’t as long as Sarah could keep them sufficiently distracted with the wealth and influence that hung dangling before them like a shining star.

Anna spared a glance at Sarah who offered a small nod and calm blink of her eyes. It was a trivial bit of body language but it reassured Anna that the deal was going to go through exactly as planned. Sarah had the same read on the executives that Anna did. If she’d needed to, she could have enchanted her words to carry the weight of authority and sincerity, but professional pride and an utter lack of necessity kept that option off the table. With the understanding she’d developed over the course of a month of negotiations, Sarah could have  sold the Androska executives their own company and turned enough profit to buy it back out from under them. In another like she might have jumped at the opportunity to do just that but given the duties and burdens the Androska executives were going to be saddled with, she found it easy to suppress her natural urge towards mischief.

“I believe our next point to review is the holdings on Crete?” Sarah said, speaking for the first time to the frowning executives. There was an air of disagreement that lingered in Anna’s wake but no one appeared to want to slow the proceedings any further.

Anna closed the door to the conference as she stepped out into the hallway, and accepted the call from Tam.

“Sorry to interrupt, but we appear to have a global level issue developing,” Tam said as soon as the connection was made.

“How much lead time do we have, and what do you need us to do?” Anna asked, dropping her faked accent. Tam was not an alarmist by nature, and Anna saw no reason to doubt her claim.

“Less than day,” Tam said. She didn’t sound desperate or panicked. She sounded focused and intent.

“Good, that’s time to assemble everyone if we need,” Anna said. “Can you describe the situation?”

“Cynthia and I were just called into a fairy realm,” Tam said. “We met someone there who asked us to evaluate the closest realms to Earth and warned that if we mishandled things, we’d basically have a War of the Worlds scenario on our hands.”

“That certainly qualifies as a ‘global issue’,” Anna agreed, blowing a short breath out through her lips. “I take it you’ve also reviewed the realms in question?”

“Yeah, just finished in fact,” Tam said. “Short form: It looks like Kael was right. Since we broke Prima Lux, the realms have been drifting into new orbits around each other, for lack of a better vocabulary to describe it with. The ones which are coming closest to us aren’t terribly pleasant, and it looks like they’ve made some inroads already.”

“I have many questions, but we should all gather. The others will need to hear the answers too,” Anna said, glancing at her watch. With JB’s social magic, she knew she could back at the Club within a couple of hours. That wasn’t a lot of time, except things like global threats didn’t tend to allow for much leeway when it came to responses. Their options would be limited as it was, carving off one hundred and twenty precious minutes might be too high a price to pay.

“Val and Aranea are traveling at the moment, it’s going to take them a bit longer to get back than you and Sarah,” Tam said. “Jen’s already here, but Connie’s out too, as are James, and Jim, and most of the rest of the associates we’ve been collecting.”

“Put out the call to as many as you can,” Anna said. “Anyone who can’t make it, we’ll bring up to speed once they’re free, but we’ve known that global conflict was a possibility for a while now, and our best bet it to engage it before it can come to us.”

“On it!” Tam said, and hung up the call.

Anna spent a moment considering her options for the meeting that was taking place. If the deal went through, the Androska executives would gain personal control over the frankly staggering resources Prima Lux had possessed in the countries which bordered the Mediterranean Sea. In fiscal terms it was a sizable windfall, but on a personal level it would make each of them the inheritors of various mystical contracts and bonds which Prima Lux had spent centuries building into a nearly untouchable portfolio.

It was the sort of power which transcended wealth. The sort of power which set its possessors as the equal of nations on the world stage. And, since Anna was offering it to them, it was the sort of power that came with some unexpected liabilities.

Prima Lux had held a tremendous amount of leverage over the people, powers, and creatures they entered into contracts with. Anything Prima Lux offered, they made sure was more than offset by restrictions which would prevent the people in question from being able to claim the reward they believed the contracts gave them.

When Anna setup the deal for the contracts which had given Prima Lux such vast power and influence, she had made certain to leave out the crucial bits of leverage which allowed them to exercise that power without paying for the privilege. The contracts which Androska was in the process of accepting would give them every bit as much power as Prima Lux had possessed but would also compel them to not only honor the original terms of the contract but also the pay the outstanding ‘fees’ that were due to the peoples the power had been drawn from.

Throughout the world, Anna had engineered deals like that and all of them were executing at the same time, so that when the first of the new owners tried to exercise their authority, they would all be called to task and forced to use their new power and plenty of the old wealth for the betterment for those who had been only taken from for so long.

Giving up on that was heartbreaking, but a truly global war would take so much more from the people who had nothing to spare as it was that Anna knew she had no choice but to back out rather than spend the next twelve hours reviewing the documentation they still had to go through. She hoped she could still close the deal after the issue Tam found was resolved, but she knew it would be an even longer shot that the current arrangement had been. Sometimes that was how things went though.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she re-entered the room, “A new development has arisen. We must terminate these negotiations now.”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s a need for that,” a familiar voice said, as Zoe, the former head of Prima Lux’s security said, stepping into the room from the Androska Enterprise’s side of the table.

Anna smiled and raised an eyebrow. When she’d left Zoe early that morning in a Zurich penthouse, Zoe hadn’t made any mention of being involved in a major deal. She’d only had a small, mysterious smile that Anna had done her best to nibble the details out of her, to no avail.

“Androska Enterprises doesn’t need to review any of the remaining documentation,” Zoe said. “We’ll be signing as is. Or I should say, we have signed the papers under the current terms. If you can instructed your attorneys to execute their copies of the contract transfer papers we can consider this transaction concluded.”

The Androska executives erupted in a cacophony of angry demands and accusations, but Zoe quieted them with a wave of her hand.

“My apologies,” she said. “I am aware the Executive team needs to officially approve the transfer before the papers can be properly executed. I have a matter I was supposed to bring up before making the announcement that the deal was approved.”

She passed out a series of envelopes, one to each executive.

“These are your termination notices,” she said. “Effectively as of an hour ago, none of you are employed by Androska Enterprises. You will find the severance arrangement details within your individual packages. To forestall further questions, Androska Enterprises hasd appointed a new board, which has terminated your contracts. Your severance packages have been reviewed and you will find the bills for your outstanding debts for documented cases of criminal mismanagement of company assets detailed within your envelopes.”

“This is illegal. You can’t do this,” one of the executives said.

“Sadly, if you’re knowledge of the law was accurate you probably wouldn’t has commited quite so many felonies,” Zoe said. “I will grant that you can, and probably should, fight the charges that are being brought against you, but I believe we both know that you not going to win. If you were innocent, there would be a chance, and if you were still influential enough you could simply buy the verdict you need, but then if you were that innocent or that influential, I wouldn’t have been able to do this in the first place.”

“This is ridiculous!” another executive said.

“I agree. Officers, please escort them from the room. I believe you have multiple warrants for each of their arrests.”

What followed was several minutes of shouting and chaos, but the room was eventually cleared of the enraged executives.

“What just happened here?” Sarah asked.

“My company bought Androska Enterprises,” Zoe said.

“I am curious as to why?” Anna asked.

“You planned to saddle them with Prima Lux’s debts, financial and mystical, isn’t that right?” Zoe said.

“Yes. It felt karmically suitable,” Anna said.

“Perhaps, but the problem with using Androska to manage the distribution of resources is that even if it would lead to their own destruction, those fools would still grasp for what power they could get and would run with it to as corrupt a place as they could find,” Zoe said.

“There are several provisions in place to prevent that,” Anna said.

“Provisions which they would spend all their time and energy trying to subvert,” Zoe said. “Better to let someone carry the load for whom it’s also karmically appropriate and who has no interest in weaseling out of the requirements.”

“Are you sure?” Anna asked. “The burdens of these contracts aren’t light ones. I would never have asked you to carry anything like this.”

“I know,” Zoe said with a broad smile. “And that’s part of why I had to do it. I have a lot of ground to make up if I’m going to properly rival the good you’ve done. This should help me catch up a bit quicker than I could have otherwise.”

“Thank you,” Anna said, her mind turning to how the two them could properly celebrate the occasion.

“Yeah, it sounds like you had perfect timing Zoe,” Sarah said. “What came up on the phone though Anna? Did you know she was going to do that, or is something the matter back the Club?”

“Oh, you might say that. According to Tam, we’re about a day away from the end of the world.”

“And suddenly it feels like I’m falling behind again,” Zoe said.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 11 – Act 4

Finding what you were looking for, Tam observed, seemed to rarely correlated with getting what you wanted.

As the swirling lights above them settled into fixed positions, Tam felt the emotional vertigo they’d induced subside as well. It was an impressive effect. Even with an awareness of mind altering magics, and some general defenses against it, the Luminids had managed to bring some of her deepest worries to the foreground. It wasn’t a devastating attack, but it didn’t need to be. Fairylands played with the senses as a matter of course, but it was the traveller’s intent that shaped the aspects of the realm they encountered.

Someone who was searching for a lost child might encounter mazes to block their path, or guardians to challenge their resolve, but their path would lead them towards the child (however circuitously) until their intent changed.

Should someone have followed the call Tam heard but with an unkind intention, the Luminids would have drawn that out and turned it around, so that the unkindness was focused inwardly and the path through the fairyland would have changed to reflect the traveler’s altered desire for self destruction.

As traps went, it was a more effective one than Tam would have imagined given the strength and simplicity of the call which she’d felt. She’d brought Cynthia along largely because it had seemed like a relatively inexperienced caster had been requesting aid with what would probably be a minor matter in a strange and beautiful realm.

Tam the lingering traces of shadows which had clouded her heart. She’d tried sharing the weirder elements of her life with her first few girlfriends and had met with mixed results. She’d backed away from that with later relationships, hiding the parts of who she was that were harder to understand, but that hadn’t done much for the health of those relationships. With Cynthia, she felt a level of acceptance and trust that let her dare to hope for more than she’d had with her last few girlfriends, but painful experiences weren’t the easiest thing in the world to let go.

Shaking her head to clear the last of the mental fog that had wrapped her up, she turned to the more immediate at hand.

“Those burns happened a long time ago, didn’t they?” Cynthia asked the young boy who was sitting on a slowly drifting cloud less than a dozen paces away from them.

“That’s an accurate assessment,” the boy nodded and added, “I’m Kael. Thank you for answering my call.”

“You said there was a problem we needed to know about?” Tam said. She didn’t reach out to gather in any more magic. In part she sensed it wasn’t the time for hostile gestures, and in part fairy magic was notoriously fickle. Casting it was always somewhat fraught with peril and even holding onto it for too long could lead to the sort of changes that involved hiding new and unusual animal parts where you’d once looking completely human.

“Many problems in fact,” Kael said. He flickered and reappeared on the cloud in a different position. It was a bit unnerving, but it was better than watching him teleport all around them.

“We’ve already got a list with many problems on it,” Tam said, thinking of the stack of files piled up in her inbox.

The traditional source of requests for the Second Chance Club’s help were the letters which Charlene curated. She reviewed each one which arrived and assigned the Club’s resources to help the people as best the Club could manage. Often that took the form of connecting the requesting, potential member with an established member who had the capacity to help them. Since Tam and her team had taken down Prima Lux though, the scope of the issues they took on had widened considerably.

On one hand that was good. By being proactive, they’d managed to head off problems that would have affected fair more people than the Club would have had the resources to assist. The cost to that though was a backlog of cases to work on that could have kept an army of associates busy.

Bringing on Connie, Sarah and Jen had helped with that to a degree. As had the other recruitment they’d done. Somehow though there was always more work to done than people to take care of it.

“It’s possible you may know of these issues already then,” Kael said, blinking to a new position on the tiny cloud again. “I know the Potestates care is usually focused on Earth though, so do many of the entries on your list include issues in neighboring realms?”

“Neighboring realms? Like here?” Cynthia asked.

“This is a preserved domain,” Kael said. “The problems I speak of are in worlds less sanctified than this one.”

Tam grimaced. Her team had already gone to hell once, without her, and had escaped through good luck as much as good fortune or planned. If there were more problems unfolding in the worlds that were connected to Earth, then she wasn’t sure she wanted to subject anyone she knew to the trouble of dealing with them.

“Charlene Potestates organization is pretty wide spread, but even with as good as my friends are, I don’t think we can reasonably handle even one world’s problems, much less the local corner of the multiverse,” Tam said.

“I suspect you’re not aware of the extent of the Potestates true influence,” Kael said. “But the problems I speak of are not one which are confined to other worlds. Since the fall of the organization known at Prima Lux, the strictures and wards which its founders used to secure their holdings on your Earth have fallen away. That has opened cracks in the borders of your world. You saw the result of one such crack earlier today.”

“The water elementals?” Cynthia asked.

“Were you the one who placed the enchantments on the fire suppression pipes?” Tam asked. Kael’s broader claim wasn’t hard for her to accept. She’d known even before they took down Prima Lux that there would be fall out from creating a power vacuum like that. Most of her work over the last  several months had been centered around mitigating the impact of that fall out and charting the changes which had resulted from shifting magical balance of the world.

“I was,” Kael said. “Water finds a path into whatever it encounters. They were beginning to seep in on their own, but they would have become lost in the currents of the Earth if there hadn’t been a stable pool for them to inhabit.”

“What about the fire?” Cynthia asked.

“A practitioner on your world objected to their presence,” Kael said. “The elementals exert an influence their native material wherever they exist. That proved to be inconvenient for the one who owned the building they were sheltered in.”

“So he lit the place on fire?” Cynthia’s outrage carried a note of professional disgust that Tam recognized. People who solved problems with fire tended to be oblivious to a myriad of better solutions available, and there were enough naturally occurring and accidental fires that she never reacted well to cases of arson.

“Water spreads,” Kael said. “Very little other than fire can contain a water elemental, and the practitioner in question was able to fuel the flames with his hatred, so it was easy to encircle them.”

“I take it he was human?” Tam asked.

“Yes,” Kael said.

“Of course he was.” Tam closed her eyes. “We’re really good at destroying things out of blind hatred.”

“No,” Kael said. “As a species you are no more talented at that than any other. You may have some prodigies who descend to the bleakest of depths but so too do you have ones who rise to the most ennobled of heights.”

“I guess most of us just float along in the middle?” Cynthia asked.

“You change and move, as all living things must,” Kael said. “The practitioner is an outlier, I believe.”

“And the Water Elementals?” Tam asked. “Are they an outlier as well, or are we looking at a broader trend there?”

“For all of the problems which plague you, your world is still a shining jewel compared to other worlds,” Kael said. “With the barriers unbarred, there are many more than the Water Elementals who will seek entry to the Potestates home.”

“The Second Chance Club?” Cynthia asked.

“I think he means the Earth,” Tam said, to which Kael nodded.

“She is one of the primary powers that remains on your world, and thanks to her victory over Prima Lux, the one with the most influence over its fate at this moment,” Kael said.

“When you say ‘seek entry’ what do you mean?” Tam asked. “Are we talking individual travelers and small groups or are we talking armies?”

“That depends on you,” Kael said. The cloud disappeared and Kael settled slowly to the ground on his half clipped wings.

“I’d prefer individuals if that can be arranged,” Tam said.

“Then you will to seek audiences with the realms nearest to you and work outwards,” Kael said. “That is the message I wished to delivery, and the problems I wish to avert.”

“What happens if we don’t get a diplomatic corp in place?” Tam asked, there being several unpleasant alternatives that she could think of.

“I don’t know,” Kael said, blinking a few feet closer. “What I fear though is war. Across the worlds. With power enough to shake the foundations of the cosmos.”

“That would be bad,” Tam said. “Especially since we don’t have that kind of power on Earth.”

“You have more power than you know, and more resources to draw on than you can imagine,” Kael said. “My concern is the lengths to which the Potestates will go to defend what is hers.”

“I’ve never seen Charlene with her back against the wall, but I would guess she’d be willing to do almost anything to keep her people safe.”

“That’s what I fear,” Kael said. “The Potestates has shown wisdom in the past, and has been able to negotiate shrewdly to find workable solutions to complicated problems. Earth and her sister worlds are not over supplied with wisdom though and the powers in other worlds can be far less than wise.”

“You think they’ll push her to fight? Or push us all to war?” Tam asked, trying to imagine what a war across the worlds would look like. Fighter jets flying through lands of leaping rainbows and nightmares from the subconscious rampaging through city streets. Wars on Earth left devastation and horror in their wake. War on a cosmic level might not even leave that much behind.

“What are your thoughts on preventing that?” Tam asked. Kael didn’t look like a cosmic mover and shaker, but Tam wasn’t fooled by his appearance. The wounds he displayed were real enough – she knew how deep injuries could appear no matter what form their bearer took – but his youth was likely only a relative feature. If he was a boy, it was likely only in comparison to entities which could look back and recall the birth of the universe.

“To enlist your aid,” Kael said and smiled.

Tam groaned inwardly. That couldn’t be the extent of his plan. Any creature aware of the multiverse would have to know better than to leave it’s fate in the hands of a few well meaning humans. Tam had known other humans for a little over thirty years but it had only taken her a tenth of that to see that humans were not exactly great with delicate situations. They tended to break things. All of the things. Everywhere, eventually.

“Can we do that?” Cynthia asked.

“You’re the only ones who can,” Kael said, fading as he spread his hands wide to them and the people in the park around them which he had returned them to. “If your world is going to have the chance to grow, you are the ones who are going to have to create it.”

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?”