Val strolled into the conference room ready to receive the latest mission briefing with three cups of coffee in her hands. For the first time though, she’d brought too few.
“We have a guest joining us today?” she asked, sliding a cup in front of Tam and another in front of Anna. The third cup went to Connie, with Val mentally kicking herself for forgetting they had acquired a fourth teammate.
“More of a client I think?” the newcomer said. She had the sort of soft muscle tone that told Val she wasn’t a fighter, but even Val’s relatively short experience with the Club’s work had taught her that didn’t meant the newcomer wasn’t likely to be dangerous in her own right.
“Val, this is Sarah Friedman. Sara, this is the last associate we’re waiting for, Valentina Perez,” Tam said. She’d taken her usual position, sitting behind the laptop that had control of the various monitors placed around the conference room.
“She’s got a job she needs some help with,” Connie said.
“I’m going to guess someone’s brought Charlene up to speed on this already?” Val said, trying to get a read on the situation.
“They have,” Charlene said from the speaker phone in the center of the table. “It’s somewhat outside of our normal purview but I believe with Ms. Friedman making the request we can extend the offer of support.”
“She got us the recipe we needed for the folks down in Peru,” Tam said, calling up a picture of an weathered page of very neat handwriting on one monitor and some slightly less-withered looking Living Husks on another monitor.
“Are we sure that’s the right recipe?” Val asked.
The process that created the Living Husks, left them nigh unto skeletal with skin that had a calcified look to it. The worst part though was their eyes which were covered over by a black goo. The goo didn’t seem to impair their vision but it left them with features that did an excellent job of hiding the fact that they were still human beings and not some form of alien entity.
The people in the picture still had the hard, sharp ridged skin, and the goo covered eyes, but they’d managed to put on a slight amount of weight. They were remained painfully thin, but they no longer looked like crusty plastic wrap stretched over a pile of bones.
“So far it looks like the right one,” Tam said, showing some other photos of the medical staff in Peru who was caring for the Husked victims. “The big danger with reversing the condition is that the curse shrivels up all of the internal organs. Dispelling the curse is relatively straight forward, but if you remove the curse so it won’t keep draining them, you’re left with no support for a body with all its organs shrunk to the size of a peanut.”
“That sounds sort of fatal,” Val said, sitting down at her chair. She didn’t really need any coffee so she didn’t miss it’s absence but she was curious how the newcomer took hers. She’d have an opening to find out if they had to take a break, she decided.
“It is,” Tam said with a nod. “That’s what was hard about finding an effective cure.”
“Brother Davos’ recipe gets around the problem by concocting a paste that the curse doesn’t register as being food,” Sarah said. “The victim’s body does though and can use the nutrients, and the magic, in the paste to slowly rebuild itself.”
“Which is the downside to the treatment,” Tam said. “It’s not quick. Sometimes we can literally wave a magic wand and make things alright, but this time it’s going to take between six to eight months before we can even consider trying to weaken the curse itself.”
“There’ll be danger there too,” Sarah said. “Curses don’t usually break cleanly. There could be all sorts of weird effects to deal with from breaking that many, even if they’re spaced out.”
“I have some thoughts on that,” Tam said. “If we were to bring in a curse eating doll maybe?”
“I believe we are drifting somewhat off topic,” Anna said, before Tam and Sarah could fall down the rabbit hole of speculating about magical theory.
“Oh, yeah, sorry there,” Tam said. “Today’s discussion is about a more immediate problem.”
She clicked a few times and on the main monitor the image of a statue carved from radiant green jade appeared. The statue was all carved from one piece, but represented two figures with their hands raised, palms touching as they whirled. It looks like they were caught in a moment in the middle of a dance, with each somehow leading the other.
“This has no formal name,” Tam said.
“The family who owned it called it ‘Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’,” Sarah said. “It’s never been exhibited however or shown in any museum.”
“Let me guess, despite being a secret, someone stole it,” Val said, knowing how their missions tended to go.
“Yes, many decades ago,” Sarah said. “The family the statue belongs to are Tibetan. Back in the early 1960’s, the statue was taken by Chinese troops during a period when they destroyed a large part of Tibet’s cultural heritage.”
“I presume the value of the jade was enough to secure this statue being claimed as plunder rather than destroyed with the rest of the artifacts?” Anna asked.
“Probably,” Sarah said. “As a pure work of art, it would fetch a fortune if it was put up for sale. As a cultural artifact it’s priceless and, with the magic it holds, there is no shortage of people who would desire to claim it.”
“Has it changed hands a lot since it was stolen originally?” Val asked.
“No,” Tam said. “It’s been a part of the officer’s collection who took it in the first place. He passed away around the turn of the century, but the statue stayed with his estate and was claimed by his eldest son, who was also a part of the military.”
“How did he manage to hold onto it?” Val asked.
“The city both the father and the son have listed as their home town has almost nothing in terms of ley lines moving through it,” Sarah said. “Most of the otherworldly things that would want the statue don’t deal well with environments that starve them for the stuff they need to exist on this plane.”
“Does that mean that the statue has magic powers and our military guy doesn’t know that?” Val asked.
“We don’t know what Colonel Fong Tao knows about the statue,” Tam said. “It’s possible he’s completely ignorant of what his father passed down to him. It’s also possible that he’s an accomplished sorcerer and has bent the spirits within the statue to his will.”
“What kind of spirits does the statue hold?” Anna asked.
“From what the family told me,” Sarah began, “it’s the spirit of the original Tibetan sculptor who did the figure on the right and the spirit of the African sculptor who carved the figure on the left. I’m not sure if the timing quite works out for that to be true, or at least not the whole truth though.”
“You think your contacts lied to you?” Val asked. It was never a good sign when the mission parameters were based half on conjecture and half on outright lies.
“Not lied specifically,” Sarah said. “They had a family tradition with the statue that’s been broken for over fifty years now. From what they described though, it sounds like the statue may hold several spirits.”
“How many is several?” Val asked, visions of an army springing forth from the statue filling her mind.
“I would guess five,” Sarah said. “The jade itself is of very high quality but according to the tale it was disguised as little more than a pretty rock until it came into the possession of the original sculptor.”
“That could be mythologizing the sculptor’s skill to some extent,” Tam said. “It’s not uncommon to hear of great crafters who can turn common materials into the sublime.”
“I considered that, but the jade of the statue was said to be of Burmese origin, and unless it was mistaken for having much less value than it clearly has now, I don’t see how it would have wound up in the hands of a Tibetan commoner many centuries ago.”
“Ok, that would be one spirit then, where are the other four from?” Val asked.
“The Tibetan sculptor is responsible for the ground beneath the figures and the one which appears in Tibetan dress,” Sarah said. “That means that they left part of the statue unfinished though.”
“Yeah,” Val said, picturing the statue with a bigger lump of jade where one of the figures was. “Why would they do that?”
“The story says that a merchant saved them from drowning and in repayment all the sculptor could offer was the half finished statue,” Sarah said. “They had done such an extraordinary job carving their figure though that it gained the spirit of the land around them.”
“That gives us two spirits then,” Val said. “I’m guessing the third spirit was from when the other sculptor finished the piece?”
“Exactly,” Sarah said. “That’s why tales of its magical abilities begin to arise. Supposedly when the African sculptor who finished it completed the piece it took on such a profound spirit of unity that the African sculptor felt they had to meet the Tibetan one before either of them passed away.”
Val nodded and accepted that. After seeing a town rewind in time over and over, two ancient artists geeking out over one another’s magically awesome work seemed easy to imagine.
“At that time, travel between sub-Saharan Africa and Tibet was more than a little perilous,” Sarah continued. “The African sculptor wouldn’t be deterred though. They journeyed through lands overrun by bandits, passed by fields of warfare, and walked through trackless deserts, all without shedding a drop of blood or speaking a harsh word. When the sculptors passed away their spirits were said to inhabit the statue as well.”
“That was a the statue’s doing?” Val asked.
“That’s what the family I spoke to said,” Sarah said. “They believed that the statue exudes an aura of peace that and that the only reason it was lost is because it was protecting the family from the Chinese soldiers who came to kill them all.”
“If someone in the Chinese army, especially someone with enough clout had access to something like that, would we be looking at a very different outcome for them and the statue?” Val asked.
“We would be, if they hadn’t ripped the statue from its homeland, and brought it to a mystical dead zone,” Sarah said. “No magic, no special powers to evoke from the statue.”
“The good news is, we know where that dead zone is!” Connie said, as Tam brought up a map of China and began zooming in.
“The bad news is, being a mystical dead zone means that not only will the statues natural peace generating aura be suppressed, so will any chance for Tam or myself to assist with the magical skills we have,” Sarah said.
“No enchantments either I take it?” Val said.
“We might be able to arrange a few tricks you can carry in with you,” Tam said, “They’ll be pretty minor though and they won’t last long.”
“That’s not a problem,” Val said. “I mean it’s not like we’re going to bust into an army base and yank the thing under their noses right?”
She looked around the room for confirmation.
Anna looked interested in the answer to that question as well.
Connie looked concerned.
Tam and Sarah looked sheepish.
“Wait, seriously?” Val said. “Colonel Fong keeps his priceless jade statue in the middle of an army base? And we’re going to waltz in there, bust the place up, and motor on out, without any magic to call on?”
“That does sound like a rather tall order for a historical artifact,” Anna said. “What is the time scale this needs to be done on?”
“That’s the difficult part,” Sarah said. “You see the downside to taking a Statue of Peace from its rightful owners is that the spirits inside are likely to get a little annoyed.”
“And by annoyed she means ‘filled with the kind of vengeful rage that can twist them into demons’,” Tam said.
“How long does that take?” Val asked.
“It differs. A lot. Generally less than fifty years though,” Tam said.
“Which means if the statue’s spirits have held out this long, they probably don’t have a lot of peace and calm left to draw on,” Sarah said.
“Oh, and the army base?” Tam added. “Yeah, it kind of went radio silent about twelve hours ago. So, that’s not what you would call the best sign.”