The conference room was cluttered, the cool breeze of the air conditioning threatening to blow the already chaotic piles of documents littered around it out of any semblance of order they might once have had.
“I thought paperless offices were the wave of the future?” Val said, holding a half dozen folders spread out like playing cards in her hand.
“I haven’t been home in four days,” Tam said, running her hand through the tangled mess her hair had become. “I don’t think I’ve showered in three. There’s been a lot to keep track of.”
“Have you slept?” Anna asked, placing a small cup of tea down in the limited open space near Tam’s laptop.
“Maybe?” Tam said. “That sounds familiar. Sleep is that thing you do in a bed right?”
“JB would you please take Tam back to her apartment,” Anna said.
“Can’t sleep yet,” Tam said. “There’s too much going on. We need to stay ahead of it.”
“We need to stay capable of dealing with it,” Anna said. “Go. Rest now. Val and I can ride this whirlwind for a while.”
“I’ll be ok, I’m perfectly awake,” Tam said, struggling to suppress a yawn.
“<Somnia>,” James said as he walked by her with a stack of aging books.
Like a balloon deflating Tam slumped down across her laptop, her arms just missing the tea cup Anna had left for her.
“Did you just put a sleep whammy on our magician?” Val asked.
“That was the precursor of a sleep spell,” James said. “Normally it wouldn’t have been enough to put an infant to sleep at naptime, but I suspected Ms. Le might have rather limited resistance to it under the present circumstances.”
“Just how long has she been working?” Val asked, concern slowly coloring her words.
“I think she’s been on this since she got back from Atlantis,” JB said, lifting Tam from her chair and carrying her towards the door. “I checked in with Cynthia yesterday and Tam’s gone back to her apartment a few times but even then she was in research mode. I’ll make sure she stays home this time until she’s rested and back up to speed.”
“What did you folks find in the Drowned City?” Val asked, looking over to Anna.
Anna paused and her gaze went distant for a moment.
“The Drowned City had more that called it home than just the scholars we saved,” Anna said. “There were ancient beings there as well, things that predate the dawn of humanity.”
“From Ms Le’s reports I believe they were older than that,” James said. “There are creatures which dwell in the myth-worlds which predate the formation of the Earth itself. Vast, cosmic powers which devour stars and to whom death is nothing more than a brief slumber before eternity passes and they can rise again to greet a new day.”
“And you met these things?” Val asked, her eyebrows arched in disbelief.
“No,” Anna said. “We saw shrines to them, and discovered texts in Old Atlantean which described their resting places.”
“Why would that put Tam into ‘all work, no play’ mode?” Val asked.
“We visited their resting places too, looking for an option to get back,” Anna said. “That wasn’t good. Most of the tombs were empty.”
“Like grave robbers got there first?”
“No, like something inside pushed itself out, despite all the bindings that the tombs were wrapped in,” Anna said.
“That…doesn’t sound good,” Val said. “Why didn’t you mention it before this though? We’ve been running around everywhere for weeks now dealing with all kinds of stuff. Some of it couldn’t have been as important as stopping the end of the world.”
“It’s not the end of the world,” Anna said.
“If the cosmic entities I spoke of had awoken we would not need to question their arrival. They are less creatures as we understand them and more cataclysms given a name and identity,” James said. “For as busy as we have been of late, we have yet to encounter any problems of the scale the Drowned Ones would bring.”
“So why is Tam melting down?” Val asked.
“She is trying to understand how the tombs could be empty without an apocalypse occurring,” James said.
“She’s been doing more than that too,” Anna said. “We’ve been busy because things are moving around. Different people and, in some cases, creatures, are rushing in to fill the power vacuum which PrimaLux’s collapse created. Some of them, like Sycorax, were freed from the binding arrangements they made PrimaLux, others are simply opportunists who seem this as a gold rush on PrimaLux’s former areas of operation and assets.”
“So did PrimaLux have deals with these Drowned Ones? Is that what was holding them out in the myth-worlds?” Val asked.
“We’re not sure,” James said.
“That’s part of what Tam was researching,” Anna said. “The rest was trying to get a handle on the overall trends we’re seeing to determine if there’s some larger player at work.”
“That sounds like a lot of detective work,” Val said.
“In this case, it is less about discovering who is guilty for a past crime and more about predicting who might be the next victim of a future one,” James said. “Ms. Le was able to isolate the incident with the school bus by finding a correlation between PrimaLux’s mining operations and the cage spells they employed on a number of Earth spirits.”
“The Old Green Man was the next spirit on the list to awaken and fortunately she sent me out there in time,” Anna said.
“Was she right then?” Val asked. “Do we need her working here to head those kind of problems off?”
“Yes and no,” Anna said. “Yes, her efforts are invaluable, but no, we don’t need her here at the moment. She’s already located the next issue we need to work on. We need to deal with that before we move on, otherwise we’re going to become too scattered. Let her rest for this one, and we’ll have a much better chance with the next problem, and the one after that, and so on.”
“I’m going to guess this is one we can handle with just the two of us?” Val asked.
“I believe so,” Anna said. “All we need to do is save the souls of a small town.”
Val cut her bike’s engine and wiped her face. She hadn’t swallowed the Gobi Desert but she was covered with enough dust that it felt like she had.
“When you said ‘small town’ you weren’t kidding, were you?” Val asked.
Anna had already parked and was pulling off her riding leathers.
“Bright Springs wasn’t a big city even during the gold rush,” Anna said. “From Tam’s notes there were only a few small strikes in the hills we drove through.”
“I’m surprised it’s still here,” Val said. “I thought little old west places like this turned into ghost towns and blew away a hundred years ago?”
“That was my understanding too,” Anna said. “Bright Springs held on though it seems. Tam says it’s location made it a convenient stop in the early 20th century for travelers and it had a well regarded restaurant to draw people in.”
“With a resume like that, if this was the east coast there’d be back to back strip malls here,” Val said looking down the single road which defined the beginning, middle, and end of Bright Springs. Along its left side sat a Post Office, a gas station, and a church. On the other side of the road there was a cemetery, a restaurant named ‘The Silver Spoon’, and a store that either served as a combination convenience store/hardware store or was the town dump. From the lack of organization of the various old fashioned tools strewn about the last store’s porch it was hard to determine its actual function.
“It worries me that no one is around,” Anna said. Underneath her riding leathers she wore one of her standard business suits, the sharp black lines standing out against the dusty backdrop of the town and marking her as a strange sort of alien visitor.
“They had to have heard us coming,” Val said. They’d parked in front of the gas station, both because it was the most reasonable place for travelers to stop and because it gave them the best view of the town, such as it was.
The pumps were old, maybe even the original ones which had been installed when the gas station was built a century prior. Val didn’t know if current safety regulations would allow for a pump to remain in service that long, but more important in her view was that there was no chance it was a self service station and yet no one was coming out to help fill up their tanks.
She looked inside the small station and while the lights were on, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside.
“What were the terms of the deal that PrimaLux had on this place again?” Val asked.
“In return for the town’s mineral rights, PrimaLux agreed to maintain the town in the condition it was at the time,” Anna said.
“There was an exceptional clause in there though wasn’t there?” Val asked. She didn’t want to put away her helmet and gloves. If anything, getting back on her bike and heading on out of town seemed like the smartest idea she could imagine. Something was nibbling at the corner of her vision, a hiccup in the world, that left her jumpy. Leaving would mean leaving Anna behind though and that wasn’t going to happen.
“Yes, it’s what drew Tam’s attention to this place,” Anna said. “There was a buyout clause on PrimaLux’s control of the mineral rights which said that if PrimaLux was ever required to give up their claim, the current holder of the deed would be reimbursed for the remaining physical wealth which was left behind.”
“And when they collapsed, they lost the mineral rights and the new owner of the deed was owed enough money to cover the value of anything that’s buried under the town. How does that get converted to souls though? Shouldn’t souls be priceless?”
“I gather from James that they are, in this context at least,” Anna said. “The key is that the mineral rights contract gave PrimaLux the right to anything more than two feet below the surface of Bright Springs.”
“How far down does that go? Do they own the opposite side of the planet too?” Val asked.
“No, the rights only go to the center of the Earth,” Anna said. “What’s more important is what is included just below the surface.” She nodded towards the graveyard.
“They own the corpses too?” Val asked, feeling sickened but not particularly surprised given Prima’s other projects.
“The corpses wouldn’t be that much of a problem,” Anna said. “The real tricky part came in a tertiary ‘Associated Value’ clause. The townsfolk at the time read it to mean that if there were any minerals in the soil that were part of a larger vein then the whole vein would be covered under the deed. What the wording actually enforced was that anything in the soil belonged to Prima and anything related to it did too.”
“So put a corpse in the ground and the person’s soul was theirs too? That seems like a stretch,” Val said.
“The wording is tricky, long, and in Latin,” Anna said. “It allowed them to get away with a lot more than would have been reasonable, though on the other hand it did require them to keep the town in the exact state it had been when they bought the mineral rights.”
“I was thinking about that part as we rode here,” Val said. “With mystic legalese like that causing problems, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to put the contract owner in violation of the deed and get it nulled out?”
“In theory, yes,” Anna said. “From how the contract was written, I would expect it to be terribly fragile. That it’s survived for over seventy years though argues it may be more resilient than we would think.”
“So what’s our plan then?” Val asked.
“I thought we would start by talking to the townspeople and asking what they know and what they wish to do,” Anna said. “Instead, it seems like we must first find the townspeople, and discover what it is they are hiding from.”