Sarah looked at the globe of light in her hand and felt a pit of dark fear open in her stomach. She was a magician.That magic was accessible meant she had far more tools and resources to work with than she’d expected to be able to use. Unfortunately, that meant so did everyone else, including the monsters whom she hadn’t anticipated having to deal with.
“So, that changes things a bit doesn’t it?” Connie asked, staring entranced at the swirling licks of red flame in Sarah’s hand.
“We’ve still got to find the statue,” Val said. “And the people who’ve disappeared.”
“All we need to do is wait for them to break through the door downstairs to take care of the people part of the problem right?” Connie asked.
The banging from below them had subsided. That was the opposite of a good sign as far as Sarah could tell. Things that were banging at a door were things that were being kept safely on the other side of the door. Things that stopped banging either didn’t need to anymore, or knew a better path to use, and in either case that wasn’t likely to be good news for her team.
“Probably not,” Val said. “I don’t think what’s in the building with us is human, or ever was.”
“Do we typically run into aliens on missions like this?” Connie asked, looking up to the ceiling. It was a good impulse in Sarah’s book. Too few people thought about perils that lurked overhead and too many ambush predators tended to exploit that.
“Not aliens,” Sarah said. “At least not in the sense you mean. Think of these more like cryptids – creatures that exist on this planet but are a couple paces away from normal.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Connie said, visibly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“It’s worse than it sounds then,” Sarah said, with an apolgetic shrug.
“Cryptids aren’t inherently hostile,” Val said. “Not all of them at least, and only few without a good reason. This whole setup though? It just smells wrong.”
“Yeah, literally,” Sarah said. “There’s faint traces of sulphur, that’s a demon scent unless I miss my guess.”
“Demon like ‘from hell’ demon?” Connie asked.
“The Chinese mytho-sphere connects more easily to different realms than the American one does,” Sarah said. “Unless I miss my guess, our friendly statue decided to get not-so-friendly at last and used its decades of bottled up rage to punch a hole straight through to one of the hells that’s mythically tied to this area. So not the Judeo-Christian hell, but a really unfriendly place just the same.”
“Just to make sure I’m clear, you’re saying the myths that exist around a place are basically true on some level?” Connie asked.
“Not quite that,” Sarah said. “We can go over it later but the short form is, if a plane, or world, or realm, exists which aligns with the stories told in another place, those stories can, sometimes, pull the two closer together.”
“But wouldn’t it take magic to do that?” Connie asked. “I thought this place was a dead zone? Did the statue just have enough stored up that it didn’t need to worry about that?’
“That could happen in some cases, but it’s not how things went down here,” Sarah said.
“How can you tell?” Val asked.
“If the statue had charged up over time, the spirits within it would have enacted their vengeance as soon as they had enough power to,” Sarah said. “They’re not complex entities, so planning or putting off their revenge till an optimal time wouldn’t have been an option. If it was, they could have managed to not be stolen in the first place.”
“I see,” Val said. “And if they broke out as soon as they had the power too, there wouldn’t be any magic left over for you to cast that light spell with, right?”
“Yep,” Sarah said.
“So if the statue isn’t responsible for all this, what happened here?” Connie asked.
There was scurrying around them from out in the darkness. It was the kind of furtive, hungry movement which left Sarah wishing she had been able to bring along a small gang of disposable thugs.
Given the time to properly setup on operation, Sarah’s first inclination was to work the human element of it, and play with the magical situation as circumstances demanded. People weren’t perfectly predictable of course, but they did tend to follow enough familiar patterns that acquiring the proper sized army of muscle was rarely a problem. Even with Santiago Martin where she’d theoretically been alone, she’d felt reasonably secure in counting Martin’s goons as working for her interests. They didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but the end result would have been the same.
With Connie and Val though the equation was somewhat different. Partially she had the lingering sense of the debt she owed to Connie for resolving the issue with the Mind Devourers and partially her professional pride balked at the idea of considering people expendable when she was the one who’d asked for them help.
“The statue did have something to do with this,” Sarah said. “This flame isn’t supposed to be red. It looks like this because it’s absorbing a miasma of hate that’s lingering here. Unless there’s another major spirit artifact in the area, my bet is that the whole ‘spirits finally release their rage’ scenario is what happened, but it was some other event which set the whole thing in motion.”
“I’ll be happy to hear any theories you have on what that could be, but we need to get moving,” Val said, taking a heavy step towards the end of the hallways they were in. The skittering drew away from the entrance and went silent.
“Where are we going?” Connie asked.
“We need to see what we’re dealing with,” Val said. “I want to try to head outside. Let’s see what sort of problems we encounter with doing that.”
“Is there any outside to go to?” Connie asked. “Those windows look pretty dark.”
“If we’re lucky there won’t be,” Sarah said. “If this was a trap that hurled us into the cosmic void, I can get us back, probably. If the darkness is because we’ve fallen into some spirit’s realm, we’ll have to deal with whoever claims dominion here. Or of course someone could have snuffed out the sun, which would be less than ideal too.”
“So now our statue can destroy celestial bodies?” Connie asked, raising an eyebrow at the notion.
“It would explain why Tam hasn’t been able to make contact with us yet,” Sarah said, falling in behind Val as Val marched with crashing steps into the staff room.
“You’re not terribly comforting,” Connie said with a scowl, following the other two.
“I try not to be,” Sarah said. “These kinds of situations don’t tend to be very forgiving of people who get too comfortable.”
“You’re frequently tossed into nightmare voids while infiltrating foreign army bases?” Connie asked.
“I’m a retrieval specialist for ancient relics and supernatural artifacts,” Sarah said. “Though, honestly, that specific scenario has only happened a handful of times now, so I can’t say I’m totally familiar with the script for it yet.”
“Well, the next line is going to depend on what’s waiting around that corner,” Val said, pausing at the end of the corridor to listen for movement in the next room.
“Is there any chance they might be friendly?” Connie asked. “Or at least non-hostile?”
“Certainly,” Val said and stepped forward.
A scissor like pair of metal claws flashed out from both sides, each pair aiming for her neck.
Sarah watched Val dodge the claws, maybe by ducking under them?, then there was a flurry of motion, followed by Val whirling around and two large bodies with impossibly long arms being flung through the windows on the opposite wall of the staff room.
“Always a chance they’ll be friendly,” Val said. “Just, you know, didn’t turn out to be the case this time.”
More skittering sounded, this time from behind them and overhead.
“Follow me,” Val said and took off for the door at the far end of the staff room.
“If it’s the cosmic void or whatever out there, is it safe to jump into it?” Connie asked.
“Safer than being eaten by a crab demon,” Sarah said, knowing the cosmic void was not safe in any sense of the term, but also knowing that working the kind of magic she’d need to throw around to defeat an army of demons was a fantastically bad idea in a realm of an unknown lord who almost certainly was a more potent spellcaster than she was.
She readied a transit spell as they ran for the door. There was no time to test if it would work, or make any adjustments needed for the local variations in the principal aspects of magic, but having a spell ready, even if it was a long shot, was far better than drifting off endlessly into the less-empty-than-she-would-prefer void.
Despite running as fast as she could, Sarah was still the third one to reach the door. A stab of panic flared through her when Val and Connie disappeared on exiting the door. If space was warped, the two of them count be shunted far enough away from her that her spell would never be able to reach them.
She started to release the spell anyways as she stumbled through the door, only to find her companions waiting on the other side for her, surrounded by the buildings and streets of the army base rather than the emptiness she’d feared.
“This doesn’t look like it used to,” Connie said, spinning slowly around to take in their environs.
The army base retained the layout it had previously possessed but the sky it sat under was an unearthly mix of purple dots of light smeared across an undulating red tapestry. From the far edges of horizon all around them, a brilliant green fire cast shadows that danced around the landscape out of time with the flickering of distant fire light.
The buildings were changed too. Decay and rot pockmarked each structure, with empty windows of opaque darkness offering no hint of what the structures contained.
The worst part though were the webs which hung on every building. They were cast from strands as thick as climbing rope and woven so tightly in spots that it was impossible to see what lay inside them.
“What sort of flies are those supposed to catch?” Connie asked.
“Ones we do not want to run into,” Val said. “Sarah, what are our transport options? This is definitely not our Earth. Can you get us home, or even somewhere else?”
“I can do somewhere else,” Sarah said. “But I’ll almost guarantee it will be worse given the nature of magic I have to work with here.”
“Worse than giant spiders?” Connie asked.
“Here the giant spiders are hiding,” Sarah said.
“What do you need to improve on where you can get us?” Val asked.
“Time to study the magic here,” Sarah said. “Or a native guide.”
“The last set of natives we ran into didn’t seem too eager to talk,” Connie said.
“Then we’ll find some that will,” Val said. “If we fell into this realm, then there’s a path back to our own.”
“That’s true, but it could easily be on the far end of wherever this place is,” Sarah said.
“It’s probably in the city,” Connie said.
“Why do you say that?” Val asked, looking in the direction that Connie was facing before adding, “Oh.”
Beyond the base, the nearby town stood, it’s buildings adorned with tall, sharp spires that hadn’t been present in their original world. Hung from one spire to the next, a single giant web formed a canopy for the town.
Tiny forms, too distant to be identifiable, squirmed and wiggled on web, with each twitch sending a burst of eerie light showering down onto the town below.
The falling embers only provided small illumination to the buildings they landed on, sketching their shadowy outlines against a backlight of pulsing green that seemed to originate from the heart of the city.
What caught Sarah’s eye though were the two figures, dancing in a chaotic spiral atop a mound on the great web. As they spun, a mad cry rose from one set of lips and was completed the other. Sarah recognized the words they sang in unison. They were the ten thousand names of creation being sung in reverse.
“Oh joy,” she said. “It’s the apocalypse.”