Dealing with an annoyed deity, even a minor one, was not on Anna’s agenda for the day.
“We don’t know where Val is,” she said. “That’s what I’m leaving to find out.”
“And why have you not already left?” Aranea asked. “She has been missing for several minutes now. Maybe longer.”
Anna knew punching a goddess was a bad idea. It didn’t mean it seemed any less appealing, but it did restrain her long enough to notice the alien emotion that was hiding behind Aranea’s eyes.
As a spider goddess, Aranea suffered the emotion like it was something she had never been designed to experience, which, potentially, was true.
“How did you know Val was missing?” Anna asked, ignoring Aranea’s question in favor of a hunch.
“She is part of my web,” Aranea said. “Now her strand is broken. Cut off.”
“Would walking into an area that was starved for ley lines be enough to break your connection to her?” Anna asked.
“Certainly not,” Aranea said. “I am of this world. My web covers any part of it I care to claim.”
Anna suspected that everything Aranea had said was only a fragment of the truth, and even then only true from a very specific point of view. Despite that, the larger claim, that Aranea’s link to Val should have remained if Val was still on Earth seemed proven by the fact that Aranea had noticed her absence at all, which meant Val, Connie, and Sarah were almost certainly elsewhere. Given the wide varieties of “elsewheres” which existed, that could range from pleasant, to annoying, to supernaturally horrific, but since Val hadn’t contacted them, and everything else seemed to be going rather poorly, Anna was willing to bet that Val’s team had landed in one of the less pleasant elsewheres that there were.
“Come with me if you like,” Anna said, picking up a backpack Jimmy B had put together for her.
“Where are you going?” Aranea asked. “Do you know where to find my Val?”
“I know where to start looking for her,” Anna said. “And I know someone who can help us.”
While traveling with Aranea would address Tam’s concern about Anna going into the deserted Chinese military base alone, Anna wasn’t inclined to rely on as unknown a quantity as a goddess who had sworn to bring about her team’s downfall as her sole support. Better by far to enlist the aid of a club member who was so conveniently placed along the way that Anna had to believe Charlene had worked her usual magic from behind the scenes to provide Anna with the backup she truly needed.
“Tell me who that is and I will carry us there,” Aranea said. The tone was imperious but the offer was uncharacteristically helpful for a deity of any sort, and especially for a spider-aspected one, who were usually more predatory in nature and less concerned with rendering aid.
“Her names is Jennifer Kelly and she is staying with a family about an hour from here,” Anna said.
Aranea frowned and plucked at the air for a moment.
“I have not claimed this area, so she is outside my web,” she said, giving up on whatever invisible task she was performing. “We will need to proceed using mortal methods.”
Meaning no teleportation, and no getting magically around the roadblock that was set up leading to the base and the town nearby.
“I hope you are used to driving through heavy traffic,” Anna said as they left the conference room and headed for the garage.
Anna had claimed that Jennifer Kelly was an hour away. When they arrived at the gas station where Jennifer was waiting for them though only 27 minutes had passed.
“One presumes you drive slower when your passengers lack immortality?” Aranea asked. She didn’t wobble as she got out of the car. Goddesses don’t wobble. Any perturbations in her movement held some deep ritual significance and were most definitely not the result of wearing a mortal body and being subject to some of its limitations.
“You’ll have to ask Val after we find her,” Anna said, scanning the parking lot for Jen.
It had been a few years, and more than a few cases, but Anna was able to recognize her backup easily enough. The prosthetics arms were one clue, Jen had opted for a clockwork aesthetic in their design, so they attracted attention as much for their artistry as for the fact of their existence. Beyond the mechanical bits though, the woman wearing them was extraordinary as well.
Born the daughter of a history professor from Senegal and a youth counselor from Des Moines, Jen had inherited her father’s height and her mother’s grace. The pulled back afro she wore set her apart from the people around her as much as anything else, but it was the warmth of her smile and the cheer in her eyes that Anna first noticed.
“Grandma Russia! Hi! You brought company?” Jen asked, peering quizzically at Aranea.
When they’d rescued Jen, Anna and Tam had also tracked down the pirate’s base to rescue some of Jen’s family who’d been kidnapped earlier. One of the pirates had made the mistake of asking if Anna was “mother Russia come to life” and Anna had flippantly responded with “Grandma Russia”. The nickname hadn’t stuck with Tam but Jen had found it endlessly amusing.
“She brought herself,” Anna said. “Jennifer Kelly, may I present Her Holy Radiance, Aranea Darkest Goddess of Spiders.”
Jen rocked back slightly at the declaration but otherwise held her ground.
“Uh, who now?” she said, trying to process both the title and the possibility that it might be real.
“We don’t have time for this,” Aranea said. “Even with your driving, it is going to take us too long to get to where my Val was lost.”
She got back in the car and glared at Anna and Jen. Anna sighed.
“She’s not wrong. We should get going.”
“Are you for real on what she is?” Jen asked. “She’s an actual goddess?”
“Of Spiders. Yes,” Anna said. “If it’s a comfort, I doubt she’ll be the oddest thing we encounter on this trip.”
“Okay, and here I was thinking I had some weird things to tell you about since the last time I saw you,” Kelly said, heading to the car’s back door.
“I’m sure you have,” Anna said. “For now though let me bring you up to speed on the situation. We’ve already lost one team. I refuse to lose another.”
Getting past the roadblock proved to be less of a problem than Anna had feared. Between Mr. Fong and Tam, the police stationed at the barrier knew to expect their arrival and had the obstructions clear away before they arrived. That was fortunate for the obstructions since Anna wasn’t planning on stopping for them regardless of where they were.
With tires squealing a song of how badly they needed to be replaced, the rental car skidded to a smoking stop just past the open gate of the military base.
“I think you were faster this time,” Aranea said, unclenching her hand from the door handle and leaving only small permanent marks on it.
“That was awesome!” Jen said. “I forgot how cool riding with you was!”
“Thank you,” Anna said. “This is the part where it becomes less cool though.”
She was already taking in the layout of the base. The buildings all matched what she expected to see from the plans they’d studied and the video feed Val had provided. There was a charge in the air though that felt out of place.
“You said the base was deserted,” Aranea said. “But we are far from alone here.”
“Earth people or Not-Earth people?” Jen asked. She didn’t move the same as Val did, she didn’t have a distinct ‘fighting stance’ that she fell subconsciously into when danger was present. Despite that Anna got the sense Jen was as ready for an attack as anyone not packing the gift of foresight or a bucket load of magical enhancements could be.
“Monsters,” Aranea said, sniffing the air as her expression grew colder.
“People-monsters or Creature-monsters?” Jen asked. “Meaning, can we talk to them or do we go straight to the butt kicking?”
“If it looks like a creature, we can try talking to it,” Anna said. “If it looks like a person, knock it out.”
“I was thinking we would do the reverse,” Jen said.
“If it looks like a creature it may be acting on instinct, and a friendly, fearless approach may signal that you are not prey,” Aranea said. “If the monster can speak, then listening to its words will be perilous for a mortal.”
“The soldiers and the townspeople left without a struggle,” Anna said. “That suggests something capable of exerting some form of mind control. Hence we knock talkers out and speak with them once it’s safe to have a conversation.”
“And once they are at our mercy,” Aranea said.
Anna shrugged for Jen’s benefit. Aranea wasn’t wrong, just somewhat skewed.
They proceeded into the base on foot. Tam and Aranea had both been in agreement that taking a car into an area where magic had suddenly reappeared could lead to some rather unstable, the mildest of the unusual ones being the engine exploding. Anna was also glad to be moving on her own though because there were too many buildings in the compound where trying to chase someone inside of would have been impossible in a car.
The lack of immediately visible monsters was a small reassurance that things hadn’t gotten as bad as they could have, but the storm clouds overhead worried her. They didn’t look like they were going to release a downpour of rain so much as a torrent of flaming embers. Given the lack of asbestos umbrellas, Anna kept her eyes on the entrances of the building as they walked deeper into the base towards the sound of breaking wood.
Each structure they passed took on more of a grey, ashen complexion in the deepening gloom beneath the storm clouds. Anna recalled that the base used large yellow numbers on some of the buildings, but when she looked for them all she saw were their blackened and crumbling remains etched on walls were showing early signs of mold and decay themselves.
“What is that sound?” Jen asked, as a new and unsettling rasping filled the air.
“The screams of the damned,” Aranea said. “Why was my Val here. She should never have come to a place like this.”
Before Anna had a chance to answer, she heard a low growling and looked up in time to see something like a squid with goats legs descending on her.
Then it was flying away from her and crashing into the building it had leapt off.
“I’m guessing you didn’t want to wait and talk to that one, right?” Jen asked. Bits of goop from the creature had covered her sandal where she’d kicked it but she wasn’t making a move to wipe it off yet.
“Ambush predators are the exception to the ‘try talking first’ rule,” Anna said.
“Good. Nice to know. The next question of course is what is that thing? Or was it?” Jen asked.
“It’s still alive,” Aranea said. “But we can change that.”
“It doesn’t look like it is in any shape to try another ambush and we have more important things to do,” Anna said, moving towards the horrible rasping sound.
“Right, screams of the damned,” Jen said. “Does that mean that we’re dealing with demons?”
“Think of it less as our having to deal with them, and more as them having to deal with us,” Anna said.
The buildings grew more weathered as they traveled deeper into the base, some collapsing in places from age despite Anna’s memory telling her they had been pristine and new in the video feed Val shared only a little over an hour earlier.
She was expecting to see a pit to the Underworld when they reached the source of the breaking wood and rasping, but instead a more curious sight greeted them.
In the middle of a large collapsed building, a group of purple skinned, seven foot tall, three horned people in blue coveralls and backwards baseball caps were lugging lumber in wheelbarrows of bone, cutting metal plates with fire from their mouths, and sawing boards in half with what looked like the spines of some metallic creatures.
“Ah, I see,” Aranea said. “It would seem someone is setting up an annex here.”