Val looked like a hundred miles of bad roads and a trip full of loosely observed speed limits. From the state of her bike, which was still cooling off outside the Second Chance Club’s mobile headquarters, Tam guessed it was closer to a thousand miles and that local speed limits had passed into the rear view mirrors much too fast to be observed at all.
“How do you keep up with this?” Val asked, seeing Tam and Cynthia entering the mobile home’s side door. Papers were taped to every wall and stacked on every horizontal surface. Val’s jacket was hanging by one sleeve from a peg on the wall over the dining nook where she had a trio of laptops setup.
“She usually has a bit more room to work with than the inside of an RV,” Jim Baughsley said from underneath the driver’s seat, where he was tinkering happily away. Tam was glad to see the Second Chance Club’s resident mechanic taking a turn out in the field. Jim had been the one to teach her ride a motorcycle after Anna and Val left her in the dust one too many times. She still had to work to keep up with Val, and she valued keeping her skeleton intact too much to try to outrace Anna, but thanks to Jim’s patient tutelage she had grown to love the machines he spent so much time and energy enhancing for them.
“Plus you usually don’t see my office when I’m at this stage in the preparations,” Tam said, clearing a seat for Cynthia to sit on.
“Well, the good news is that I’m farther along than it looks like,” Val said, tapping a few keys on the laptop to her left before swiveling it on the small dining table so that Tam could see the results.
“Ok, that looks like a housing division,” Tam said. “Why are we buying a housing division? And who are these old West refugees you were talking about.”
“They’re not technically refugees, or from the Old West,” Val said. “But they have lost their homes. The short form is Bright Springs was a bust, and we had to blow it up. Several times since the place was stuck in a time loop. It was kind of fun for a while but eventually we made the destruction stick, and then we had to deal with the fallout, which includes finding homes for people who haven’t had much contact with the outside world since the 1930’s. The good news is, with the town demolished all of the ghosts and the people are free to leave. The bad news is, they’ve got nowhere to go..”
“That’s a bit more than I expected you’d have to deal with,” Tam said, settling for understatement to convey her dismay.
“You gave us plenty to go on,” Val said.
“A time loop though?” Tam asked, disbelief eclipsing concern for the moment.
“Yeah, there was some kind of spell so anytime the town changed, or someone tried to leave it, the whole place blew up and reset everything to exactly how it was when the mineral rights deal was signed,” Val said.
“Oh good,” Tam said, breathing a sigh of relief. “That’s not a time loop.”
“Time loops are bad I take it?” Cynthia asked.
“In a wide variety of ways,” Tam said. “The short form is they take a lot of power and things go bad when they break. Like divide the universe by zero kinds of bad.
“I am kind of glad I didn’t know that half a day ago,” Val said. “So what was happening there?”
“Probably some kind of wide area restoration spell,” Tam said. “It would have prevented the town or anyone in it from changing much, but they still would have been part of the normal flow of time, not bubbled off or anything weird like that. It was still a good idea to move the townsfolk away though. We’ll need to head out there at some point and ground out whatever remnants of the spell remain, but for now we can focus on dealing with any weirdness that’s lingering around them.”
“Cool,” Val said. “I’d hate for all this careful research to go to waste.”
“As a warning, I’m betting that if you’ve found a place that seems great there’s about a 50% chance it’ll have some strange things going on of its own. Like tends to call to like,” Tam said.
“So 50% chance that this housing development is normal? That sounds like fantastic odds compared to what we’re used to,” Val said.
“If it looks normal when we get there, I’m going to be really worried,” Tam said. “Our chance for finding a “normal place” is probably less than 1%, maybe even zero. The other chances we’re looking at are for the various flavors of horror story that we might walk into.”
“Should you be walking into this place blind then?” Cynthia asked.
“Sadly the only method of detecting a lot of supernatural traps is to spring them,” Tam said.
“That figures,” Cynthia said. “What I meant though was do you have any resources to find out what’s going on with the area before you go in there?”
“Yeah, JB normally handles that kind of thing,” Val said. “Charlene’s got them working on another project though so we’re a bit understaffed at the moment.”
“We’re going to pay for that if we’re not careful,” Tam said. “Fortunately, in this case James might be able to help out.”
“You’re not going to drag poor James out into the field are you?” Jim asked.
“Nope,” Tam said. “Just ask him to put us in touch with one of his guildmates in the area.”
“James is in a guild?” Cynthia asked.
“Several as it turns out,” Tam said. “For a guy who’s pretty dead set against going out and meeting people, he’s got a surprisingly large array of associates and friends.”
“Is that why he’s got that Owl in his lab?” Val asked. “I’m going to be jealous if he’s got his own Hedwig.”
“No, he uses the internet like the rest of us,” Tam said. “He’s an arcane scholar, not a Luddite.”
“You think he’ll have a guildmate near this development?” Cynthia asked.
“It’s in Vermont and I know he’s got a few friends there, whether they’re right nearby is an open question but if there’s anything odd with the development there’s a decent chance they’ll have some sense of it.”
There was a knock on the door.
“I can get that,” Jim said, having extricated himself from beneath the driver’s seat.
“Are we expecting more visitors?” Tam asked, knowing that Anna wouldn’t have bothered to knock.
“No good ones,” Val said, rising from her seat and moving past Tam and Cynthia.
Tam bit back an objection that she could take care of herself. With how tired she felt, she wasn’t sure that was entirely true and she appreciated Val acting as a shield for Cynthia too.
“You’re not the one I came here to destroy,” a woman said when Jim opened the door.
Jim started to square up, the wrench in his hand clenched as an undersized club, when Val laid her hand on his shoulder and shook her head.
“Aranae?” she said. “Uh, nice to see you I guess?”
She stepped back and allowed the Spider Goddess to step into the increasingly cramped confines of the RV.
“I was hoping it would be,” Aranae said and planted a small kiss on Val’s cheek. “Your friend James reached out to me. Impressive that he knows how, dangerous too, but I won’t be adding him to list to throw into the Abyss. You might want to let him know that. He seemed a bit worried on the subject.”
“You’re going to do what now?” Tam asked.
“It’s complicated,” Val said.
“Not tremendously so,” Aranae said with a smile that was strangely lacking in malice or menace. “Hello, you must be Ms. Le?”
Tam glanced up to Val to see how dangerous the situation was. Val offered a sheepish shrug that told Tam both more and less than she needed to know.
“The only Aranae I know of is a pre-Hellenic deity,” Tam said. “She was either the first spider, or the mother of spiders, or a mortal woman who wove so finely that she became the embodiment of what it means to be a spider.”
“Like Arachne from the Greek myths?” Cynthia asked.
“A precursor myth, or one possible precursor,” Tam said. “Myth’s get kind of messy.”
“Yes,” Aranae said. “We do.”
“Why did James get in touch with you?” Val asked.
“We have an interest in common,” Aranae said. “There is a lovely shattered web. It used to be called Bright Springs. There is also a storm coming which is going to sweep up the threads of magic which blanket the ruins of the town.”
“Does the storm have a name?” Tam asked, a single unpleasant idea forming in her mind’s eye.
“Yes,” Aranae said, with a nod of satisfaction that Tam understood her.
“Scratch what I said about waiting to deal with Bright Springs then,” Tam said. “If the wrong kind of storm sweeps through Bright Springs and picks up all that energy it’ll be a disaster.”
“Like a Cat 5 hurricane?” Val asked.
“Like start building an Ark,” Tam said.
“Okay, I guess Anna can bring our townsfolk to a motel or something for a few days then,” Val said.
“If we’re not there to clear it first, it’s going to turn out to be the Bates Motel,” Tam said.
“There is another option,” Aranae said. “But I will need to abduct one of you to serve as my companion, a mortal life to allow a divine will to work within this world.”
“You’re willing to clean up Bright Springs?” Tam asked.
“The threads of magic would be useful in my web,” Aranae said. “So I don’t need to ask for a sacrifice or payment beyond the uncontested right to what I collect.”
“I’m happy to go with her, if you can handle stuff here Tam?” Val asked.
“Are you sure?” Tam asked. “She did say she was here to destroy you right?”
“All three of you,” Aranae said.
“Yeah, that’s, a thing,” Val said. “It’ll be ok for now though.”
“Come outside when you’re ready to be abducted then,” Aranae said. “I’ll start casting the strands to return us to Bright Springs.”
She turned and stepped out of the RV, but not before flashing Jim a toothy smile that left him blinking and pale.
“Val, seriously, are you sure about this?” Tam asked, grabbing Val’s wrist to prevent her from following Aranae.
“I am,” Val said. “Aranae and I are kind of, I don’t know, dating? It’s weird, but I think that’s because we’re still working things out.”
“What about the whole ‘destroy you all’ part?” Cynthia said.
“I’m working on that,” Val said. “Worst case, if this all goes sideways, we’ll know more about her than we would have, but I don’t think either one of us really wants to fight it out at this point.”
“So you’re dating a Spider Goddess?” Tam said.
“She’s nicer than she tries to let on,” Val said. “And we have fun together. And to be honest, I was kind of hoping to look her up anyways when this bunch of headaches was all done, so getting to spend a little time with her might be kind of nice.”
Tam looked for any sign of external compulsion or geas that might have been laid on Val but the only thing she could find in Val’s eyes was eagerness and delight.
“Be careful then, please,” Tam said. “If anything comes up that you’re not sure of, call me. If you can’t get through, then walk away and call me. I’ll be there whenever you need, okay?”
“Definitely,” Val said and pulled Tam in for a hug before joining Aranae outside the RV.
Tam watched her leave and then turned to the piles of paper Val had left behind in her wake.
“She either loves Aranae, or she just wanted to get away from this nightmare,” Tam said.
“No reason it can’t be both,” Cynthia said. “Can I give you a hand organizing it?”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” Tam said.
“You almost worked yourself into a coma,” Cynthia said. “I’d like to help make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
“It won’t,” Tam said. “And we don’t need to go through these. I know Val did a solid job on them. What we really need to do next is talk to whatever friend James can find in the area.”
James, as it turned out, had plenty of contacts to drawn on, one of whom even lived in the town Val had selected for relocating the citizens of Bright Springs.
“Oh yeah, I know that development complex,” Elizabeth Victoria said after Tam explained the situation to her. “They put it up where the Moon Valley Acres farm used to be. It’s a nice place. But…”
“I promise, whatever you say, I’m not going to think you’re weird or crazy,” Tam said. “I’ve worked with James for several years now.”
“Well, the missing cows you can read about in the newspaper, or online I guess,” Elizabeth said. “That’s what most people would consider weird. Most people don’t know about the family of werewolves that moved in recently though.”