Val woke to the buzzing of a phone that she was certain was both turned off and missing its battery.
“This cannot be a good sign,” she grumbled, slapping her hand on the nightstand trying to find the horrid device so she could shatter it into a thousand pieces.
It took several seconds before she managed to find the wiley little rectangle and when she did her fingers somehow brushed both the “Accept” button and the “Speaker” option. Not that either Accept or Speaker were available on the back of the phone where her hand landed, but then that didn’t seem to matter any more than the missing battery did.
“Ms. Perez,” James said, his voice far clearer than her phone’s external speaker should have produced. “There has been a development which Ms. Ilyina has requested your aide in resolving.”
“Ugh, tell Anna to go to hell,” Val groaned and felt the sleeping form next to her begin to stir.
“I’m afraid that might be where she is,” James said. His concern sounded real but it was so restrained by the tension in his voice that it didn’t quite penetrate the haze which still gripped Val’s only partially awake mind.
“That’s good,” Val mumured, flinging the phone to the other side of the room, before her brain finished parsing James’ words.
“I believe she is counting on you to extricate both herself, Ms. Le, and their companions,” James said, his voice no more distant than it had been before she tossed her phone away. “Failing that, I will need to give it my best try.”
Val sat bolt upright.
“What?” James did not do field work. James was abysmal at fieldwork. If ever anyone was specifically born to live in a library and read books, it was James.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t go out. Val, and Anna, and Tam had dragged him out to celebrations more than once. Each time though illustrated just how poor he was at dealing with things like “exciting situations”, or “the hint of danger”, or even just “normal people”.
“James, what has happened?” Val asked, fully awake and alert.
“Ms. Le and Ms. Ilyina have gone missing,” James said. “Ms Le has been missing for over a day now. Ten minutes ago, Ms Ilyina stepped over into the world where we believe Ms. Le is being detained.”
“Anna knew where she was going?” Val asked.
“Yes,” James said. “She spoke with an entity calling themself Sycorax who claimed to have captured Ms Le.”
“Good,” Val said. “That means Anna has a plan. Did she tell you to call for me, or is this standard procedure?”
“She requested we contact you immediately,” James said.
“Damn,” Val said. “I’ve got to get moving now then.”
“Unfortunately the general conditions for our respective locations are not suitable for portal transportation, and I am afraid I did not think to enchant any of your belongings to accommodate it under the conditions we do have.”
“That’s ok,” Val said. “I would have thrown out anything with special mojo on them even if you had thought of them.”
After the PrimaLux work, Val had been stuck dealing with a bunch of the fallout from Prima’s Special Assets team, including the subdual of some genuinely icky mystical beasts. When the time had rolled around for her to take a vacation, she’d been feeling rather aggressive about having a nice stretch of uninterrupted time off without any of the magical hijinks that characterized her work life.
Of course, even that hadn’t worked out exactly as planned.
“Is someone else trying to destroy you?” a goddess asked, clearing the sleep from her eyes as she propped herself up on her elbow on the bed beside Val.
“I’m sorry Aranae,” Val said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I can take this outside if you like?”
“No, don’t worry,” Aranae said. “I’m already awake.” She yawned. “Sort of.”
“My apologies for interrupting your vacation time,” James said, sounding embarrassed enough that Val had to wonder if whatever spell he was using allowed for a visual as well as auditory connection. Val doubted it, James was too scrupulous to omit mentioning something like that, and too conservative on his expenditure of the club’s resources to waste the magic when a voice link was sufficient for his needs.
“It had to be done,” Val said. “Damn those two though. Couldn’t they wait one more week before they got in trouble again? Or even like five days?”
“When I cast you all into the Abyss, I can make sure they land on the bottom,” Aranae offered.
Val shook her head and gave the goddess beside her a gentle bap on the shoulder.
“So no teleporting home?” Val said. “How soon can Jimmy B have a car out front for me?”
“One will be there in five minutes,” James said.
“I love that boy, but does he have to be so damn efficient all the time.” She’d been hoping for at least an hour to say goodbye to her…she wasn’t exactly sure what Aranae was to her when she took a moment to think about it. An enemy in theory? A frenemy? Whatever it was, it was complicated enough that they’d have to work it out some time else.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to need to leave before the sun rises anyways,” Aranae said.
Val inhaled and held her breath for a moment before sighing away her regrets.
“You know how to find me, right?” she asked.
“When I care to,” Aranae said, mischief crinkling her eyes.
Val turned and kissed Aranae back down into the pillows, her lips tingling from the slightest hint of Aranae’s venom. Pushing around a literal goddess carried certain risks, but their relationship, brief as it had been, had consisted primarily of play fighting and even more playful flirting, at least once they’d made it beyond the initial awkward stage, so combining the two seemed like fair game.
“Stay in touch,” Val said when she broke the contact between them, “At least until you’re ready to cast us into the abyss.”
Normal relationships were for normal people, Val decided, and despite the dangers of dating a goddess of chaos, she was kind of curious to see how it would turn out.
With Aranare’s smile to encourage her, Val she hopped out of bed, and got dressed. There wasn’t time to gather her things, but she knew she could count of Jimmy B to have her back there. That was how the Second Chance Club worked, and even with the lack of sleep, she wasn’t about to let her friends down.
While teleportation wasn’t an option, Jimmy B was able to work his own brand of magic and got Val back to the Second Chance Club’s headquarters in record time. Inside a small gathering awaited her as soon as she stepped inside.
“The good news,” JB said, “Is that nothing’s changed.”
“The bad news,” James said. “Is that nothing’s changed.”
“Ok, bring me up to speed then,” Val said. “It sounds like whoever this Sycorax is, they jumped Tam out of the blue, and then surprised Anna too?”
“I’ve done some more scrying and it’s not quite that simple,” James said. “Please take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt though. There were significant distortions to sort through, so seeing what happened clearly was even more difficult than usual.”
“I thought difficulties tended to make overt spells fizzle?” Val asked.
“In most cases yes,” James said. “In this particular situation though there was a large enough violation of mundane reality that disguising it would have been close to impossible. With Ms. Le and Ms. Ilyina having been present, I had our connections to draw on to help navigate the shadows which cloud the actual past.”
Val knew that James was simplifying things for her. A fully detailed explanation would involve delving too deeply into the sort of arcana metaphysics that required years of study she hadn’t put in and had no intention of ever pursuing. She could work with the simplified version and rely on Tam to handle the finer details.
Once she got Tam back of course.
“So what did you see?” she asked.
“Ms. Le and her friend Ms. Williams were enjoying a day at the beach when they were drawn in by a…” James searched for a simple term for the phenomena. “A fold between worlds.”
“Like one world overlayed the another?” Val asked.
“Exactly that,” Jame said.
“What was the other world like?” Val asked. “You’d mentioned ‘Hell’, which leaves me wondering why Tam wouldn’t have jumped right out of there?”
“I couldn’t see the world they stepped over too distinctly, but I was able to measure its properties to a degree,” James said. “It is a Lost Ocean, meaning a world where the bottom of the ocean is traversable as easily as the land because the waters have been removed, leaving bare the secrets that were once hidden in the depths. What Ms. Le saw was a world like our own but filled with mysteries. Please understand I do not mean mysteries such as you would find in a detective novel. These mysteries are creatures and things which have been lost or hidden for a reason.”
“Like demons?” Val asked.
“Some demons fall into that category. Also some places, and some mystical creatures which were once residents of our world but were banished or left of their own accord,” James said.
“So, dangerous then?” Val said. “Could Tam not get away from that on her own?”
“I believe she could have,” James said. “At least originally. When the fold occurred, she and Ms. Williams would have been standing within both worlds. Ms. Le is practiced enough to shunt them back fully to our own world if she’d chosen.”
“But she didn’t?”
“That is where the trap lies,” James said. “The fold would have at first looked like the start of an incursion. Incursions are far more rare than they are believed to be, and in the overwhelming number of cases bring more benefit to our world than peril. Ms. Le may have been concerned about those who would try to profit from the creatures that might become stranded in our world, or she may have simply wished to investigate what would have seemed like a very odd occurrence. Once she stepped into the other world though, she would have felt the trap’s pull.”
“That had to be an unreal trap if it caught her. I’ve seen Tam escape some pretty incredible stuff,” Val said.
“In this case I believe she was trying to protect others,” James said. “Exploring mysteries is a temptation for any researcher into the arcane, but in this instance, someone, likely this Sycorax, weaponized the natural curiosity mysteries evoke and turned it into a compulsion. I have no doubt that Ms Le would be capable of breaking free of the enchantment if she chose to, but from reading the threads of the spell that remained it our world it seemed clear that the compulsion would have then reached out and drawn in another victim instead.”
“So she went with it and headed in to find out how to break the compulsion safely?” Val asked. “That sounds like our Tam. Why didn’t she send Cynthia back though?”
“I am not sure,” Jame said. “It would have been the sensible thing to do.”
“Yeah, unless, could she have known that the compulsion was artificially created?” Val asked.
“Almost certainly,” James said.
“That’s why then,” Val said. “If she knew that someone was behind the magic that trapped them then she wouldn’t separate from Cynthia and risk this Sycorax picking off her girlfriend while Tam was distracted playing riddle games or whatever.”
“I suppose it’s possible that Ms. Williams would have elected to remain with Ms. Le as well,” James said. “I doubt firefighters are used to leaving people behind in dangerous situations.”
“Probably not, and even more so in this case,” Val said. “So what about Anna?”
“Ms. Ilyina and Ms. Skillings arrived at fold’s location and were greeted by a person calling themselves Sycorax. We have a transcript of their dialog and an audio recording if you wish to review it.”
“I will, but summarize it for me,” Val asked.
“Sycorax admitted to trapping Ms Le and invited to Ms Ilyina to enter the trap as well,” James said. “Sycorax claimed that they were going to capture you all and that you would go willingly.”
“Interesting plan,” Val said. “There’s an obvious method of disrupting it – I can just stay here – but I’m going to bet that’s not an option is it?”
“Very likely not,” James said. “Folds are unstable and short lived by their nature. That this one still exists and connects these our two worlds is probably only due to Sycorax’s interference. If they have reason to believe you will not be joining the other two in their trap, then they can release the fold and strand our friends in a world which is will be exceedingly difficult to return from.”
“So Anna went in to ensure the trap stayed open for a while longer, and to buy me time to use what she learned by talking to Sycorax? I’m willing to bet that Tam can get them all back, but Sycorax has engineered this to demonstrate that at the very least it’s going to take a while. If it’s months or years, that’s a long time for me to have to hold the line on my own. Of course if we’re all lost forever then there’s nobody to hold the line, so that’s bad too.”
“It does not seem as though they have left you with any good options,” James said. “What are you going to do?”
Val thought for a moment and then smiled.
“I think I’m going to pick up a friend, some old gloves and then introduce this Sycorax to a few very bad options.”