Tam felt one of the most delicately crafted spells she’d ever woven ripple and shatter as four people appeared atop the electronically etched ritual circle in her sanctum. Turning to them as the shards of magic she’d been holding collapses around her, frying circuit boards and fouling wireless relays, a huge smile burst across her face.
“Oh! Sorry for the mess!” Sarah said, as she stepped off the platform and shook her finger to get rid of the sparks that were dancing around their tips.
“You made it back!” Tam said, throwing her arms wide as though she was going to hug them all. She paused though as she got a better look at their number. “Or most of you did?”
Val and Aranea were conspicuously absent.
Tam’s arms sagged down as she looked from one face to another.. Anna was her usual self. Calm, collected, and smiling to see Tam. That was a good sign.
Connie looked a little staggered by the transit, which was unsurprising, and therefore reassuring in a sense. Trips back from any unearthly dimension were disorienting, and escaping from a hell-ish otherworld was usually a hundred times more so.
Jen looked a little different than the last time Tam had seen her, but the sharp gleam of joy in her eyes was unchanged. She was looking around Tam’s sanctum and drinking in the myriad odd bits and baubles that had accumulated there over time.
“Where’s Val?” Tam asked. “She didn’t stay behind, did she?”
“No, she and Aranae headed off for some quality time,” Anna said, stepping forward and putting her hands on Tam’s shoulders. “It’s ok Tam, you can breathe now.”
Tam hadn’t noticed she’d been holding her breath and managed to let it go in a long, relaxing breath.
“I’m glad you made it back,” she said, and pulled Anna in for a quick hug. “Things looked pretty bad from here.”
“They weren’t particularly good on our end either,” Anna said.
Tam sniffed and smelled an odd mix of sulphur and decay that permeated Anna’s suit. No blood though, so that was good. She let Anna go and turned to see how the others were doing.
“It turned out ok,” Connie said. “I think. The world is saved, right?”
She’d thrown off the disorientation of the spell and was taking in the room with a more casual interest than Jen.
“It’s saved from the Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’s Dancers at least,” Sarah said. She was still rubbing her hands, so Tam passed her a towel. Most of the residual burning she felt was illusory, but even a purely symbolic act of cleaning could help disrupt the lingering threads of magic which could cause actual pain.
“Tell me what happened!” Tam said. “I couldn’t scry directly into wherever you went, so all I was able to do was monitor the new ley lines that were running into the base. I wound up so busy dissipating the backflow of rage that was trying to surge out of them, that I couldn’t even try to overcome the barriers between the worlds to re-establish contact.”
“Were you able to view us once we entered the base at least?” Anna asked.
“Not the real you,” Tam said. “As soon as you crossed its border, there was some distortion and you were replaced by an illusion.”
“What were the illusions doing?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing,” Tam said. “You came to a stop and then stood there for a while before turning around and leaving. When you reached the edge of the base the illusions just disappeared.”
“We never stopped moving once we entered the base,” Anna said.
“I figured as much,” Tam said. “The drones we dispatched couldn’t follow you either. The ones we sent in lost contact and the ones outside the base showed you vanishing the moment you entered.”
“I’m not surprised,” Connie said. “It looked like the whole area was being pulled to hell the deeper in we walked.”
“Looks in this case were only slightly deceiving, “ Sarah said. “It’s more accurate to say ‘hell was being pulled to the base’, given what we found at the construction site.”
“I wondered about that,” Tam said. “The feedback on the ley lines looked like someone was doing some serious metaphysical remodeling of that area.”
“The dancers managed to punch a breech to one of the local hells,” Sarah said. “No surprise right? Turns out the lord of that realm got his teeth kicked in hard enough that he was all for setting up shop on our world and kicking his former realm into oblivion.”
“Given that the ley lines in that area stabilized a few minutes ago, I’m going to guess that’s not what happened though?” Tam said.
“The difficulties with allowing a new annex of hell to be setup on Earth aside, there was the issue of the missing people which lead us to object to the demon lord’s plans,” Anna said.
“As one of the missing people, I’d like to give a hearty ‘thank you’ for making that decision,” Connie said.
“I don’t know, it seemed like your team had things pretty under control by the time we got there,” Jen said.
She’d settled into one of the swivel chairs in the small coffee nook Tam had cobbled together near the ritual circle. Some rituals were longer than others and some of them required a level of wakefulness no human could manage without the aid of caffeine. The others joined Jen, plopping down into cushy chairs or grabbing space on the floor as they settled in for an informal debriefing.
“Val had things under control, maybe,” Connie said. “I make no claims to having a clue what we were going to do there.”
“As that teams resident magic expert, I second the ‘didn’t have a clue what to do’,” Sarah said. “I’m not even sure how Val knew that would work. Tam, did you give her specific lessons in out of control dancing artifacts?”
“Uh, no, why, what did she do?” Tam asked.
“She had us join the dancers,” Jen said. “It was clever. They were expressing their rage through the dance, so we joined it and they started listening to us.”
“How did you know what to say? I mean, how to move?” Sarah asked.
“Body language says a lot more than most people are aware of,” Jen said.
“But we were so small compared to them” Sarah said. “Usually to influence someone you need to be able to catch a certain amount of their attention. It doesn’t help trying to send subtle signals if the targets is completely oblivious.”
“We had the statue and the statue holder though,” Jen said.
“Oh yeah! I hadn’t even thought of that,” Sarah said. “I was so lost in how big the explosion was going to be I missed that we put Fong and the statue at the center of the our circle.”
“Was that important?” Connie asked.
“You danced within the dancer’s circle, but around the dancer’s physical embodiment, it sounds like?” Tam said. “If so it means when you caught their attention, they found themselves both dancing around you and right in the middle of you. Their original physical form and your dancing would have reminded the spirits of what brought them together in the first place and that they weren’t the monsters their anger had temporarily twisted them into being.”
“Not that they calmed down right away or anything,” Jen said.
“Seeing General Fong did seem to tick them off a bit,” Connie said.
“We’re lucky he was sincere in his apology,” Sarash said. “If he’d just been terrified and trying to save his skin, the dancers would have really lost it.”
“What price did they extract from him?” Tam asked.
“None,” Anna said. “Not because they were forgiving, I think, but because he gave his pledge before they could ask.”
“He promised to reunite them with their family,” Sarah said. “He’s walking there now.”
“Walking?” Tam asked.
“Yes,” Anna said. “He pledge to carry the statue back to the original owners, himself, by walking the whole distance to Tibet on foot. Along the way, he will have only the food and shelter which people will freely offer him and only those who he meets on his journey may travel with him.”
“I think he experienced all of the suffering the statue had born witness to,” Sarah said.
“I liked that at each place he stops, he’s going to tell the statue’s story and share what it was meant to represent,” Jen said. “I think the original artists would have liked that.”
“What happens if he doesn’t make it back to Tibet?” Tam asked.
“The pledge he swore made no allowance for failure or death,” Anna said. “He explicitly bound himself to complete the task in this life or the life beyond.”
“I can see why the dancers agreed to it and let him go,” Tam said. “How did the rest of you get home though?”
“That was slightly more complicated,” Sarah said.
“I can imagine,” Tam said. “Hells aren’t normally all that eager to let people leave.”
“That’s the complicated part,” Sarah said. “Whatever that realm is, it’s not a hell anymore. Something about the dancers’ energies started to change it, and the things inside it.”
“What about the demon lord?” Tam asked. “Did he just reclaim his control over his realm?”
“When we went to deal with the dancers we left the demon lord awith Aranea,” Jen said.
“And when we came back she was picking her teeth with one of his mandibles,” Connie said, sticking out her tongue in disgust.
“She didn’t…?” Tam began to ask.
“As far as we can tell, yes, she did,” Sarah said. “So, he’s not exactly going to be a problem anymore. Except, you know, maybe as indigestion.”
“Ugh,” Jen said and nudged Sarah who was sitting on the ground beside her with her foot.
“Anyways, with the demon lord out of the picture, getting everyone else back where they belonged was the first thing the dancers did,” Sarah said.
“Just so I’m clear, Val is dating Aranea right?” Connie asked. “I mean I get not have any arachnophobia at all, but an actual spider goddess?”
“I’m not sure either one of them has put a particular name on what they have yet,” Anna said. “There is some attachment there though. Perhaps exactly the sort of attachment that ‘it’s complicated’ was invented to describe.”
“More power to her!” Jen stamping a foot as punctuation.
“Val?” Sarah said. “I mean, sure, I can get how hanging with a goddess could be a thrill, but it does seem a bit dangerous.”
“Nah,” Jen said. “Aranea got the better part of the deal, and is in more danger, I’d say.”
“Have you met Val before?” Connie asked.
“Nope,” Jen said. “Sometimes you can just tell by how somebody carries themself though. I can’t wait to spar with her.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Anna said. “It would be nice to have you around for a while. Perhaps even permanently if you’d be interested?”
“What, like become a full time associate?” Jen asked, her breath catching a little.
“Exactly like that, yes,” Anna said.
“I’d…I’d be delighted to,” Jen said. “I didn’t think you needed any more associates though? Or that I qualified?”
“You’ve always qualified,” Tam said. “We didn’t invite you before because Charlene said you had some other goals you wanted to work on, but Anna and I both made a case for having you join us back then.”
“Wow, I didn’t know,” Jen said. “I guess Charlene was right though at the time. I had a lot of things I wanted to learn, and a lot of things I needed to learn that I had no idea I needed.”
“I know that feeling,” Sarah said. “I thought I was pretty talented with magic and people and if nothing else this showed me that I’ve still got a ton to learn about both.”
“There’s a spot for you as well,” Anna said.
“Doing what?” Sarah asked. “You’ve already got a world class spell caster on your team.”
“I’m good,” Tam said. “You’re better. At least at magic.”
“You’re relative skill rankings are less important than the fact that we would have two reliable people to handle mystical threats in the field rather than placing all of the burden on one person’s shoulders,” Anna said.
“Do I count as reliable?” Sarah asked. “I led us into pretty bad situation there.”
“And played your part in getting us out of it,” Anna said. “Just as you did with the Golden Record.”
“Thanks,” Sarah said. “And I guess joining is the least I can do after you, you know, saved the whole world for me.”
“That’s the business we’re in,” Tam said. “Second chances, where they’re needed, no matter how big or small they may be!”