The first rule of escaping a trap is not to get caught in it in the first place. Since they’d been lured out to a magical island that was only occasionally present in the South Pacific, Jen decided that they’d probably failed the first rule.
And the second one too, in all likelihood.
“We need to figure out who did this,” Connie said.
“That’s the second key to getting out of here,” Jen said. “If we knew the motivations of the people who lured us here, we could make a guess at what they wanted and how they’re planning to handle us.”
“And maybe what they’ve done to Sarah?” Connie said.
Whatever spell had grabbed ahold of their resident magician seemed to have its talons in deep. Jen had been forced to knock Sarah down and sit on her to keep Sarah away from the waterfall and whatever doom awaited them inside.
“Maybe,” Jen said. “Or maybe that gives us a clue in and of itself?”
Wheels began to turn in her head. She’d been letting Sarah take the lead because Sarah had confidence and experience and strange mystical powers that Jen wasn’t fully up to speed on.
Sarah hadn’t been watching for traps though. She’d been following her instincts and leaning into her magic to find answers. That was fine for tactical level planning. Gut instincts and immediate information gathering were great in moments of crisis. Jen’s strengths lay in a different sort of leadership though.
As various observations turned over and over in her mind, new connections formed painting a bigger picture of the forces at play.
“What have you worked out?” Connie asked, watching Jen with a wary gaze as she tried to hit the delicate balance between pulling answers out while not disrupting the thoughts that were assembling those answers.
“Ok, try this on for size,” Jen said. “Let’s start with the assumption that someone lured us here for less than ideal reasons.”
“Do we have support for that?” Connie asked.
“Circumstantial, but it’s strong,” Jen said as Sarah grumbled and struggled beneath her. “In fact, she’s strong enough that keeping her down like this is a bit tricky.”
“Do we know what’s happening to her isn’t just a natural effect of the island?” Connie asked.
“Consider that we’re here because of a letter that was sent specifically to us,” Jen said. “The letter gave us all the breadcrumbs we needed to notice this place and, once we did, was there any chance we wouldn’t come and check it out?”
“Not really,” Connie said. “Even apart from Marcus being missing, this place would have been pretty high on my list of choice vacation destinations.”
“Ok, so add to that the ocean telling Sarah that the island’s presence is unusual, and that Sarah got hit by some kind of mind whammy right after we got here. Does it sound more likely that we’d be lured to an unusual spot which just happens to knock our team magician out of commission or is the safer bet that someone orchestrated this?”
“So, we’ve got enemies here who are out to get us, I’ll buy that, the question is what do we next?” Connie asked.
“The smart move would be; we haul Sarah back to the boat, retreat back to the Second Chance Club and trace back the letter to find who set us up,” Jen said.
“And leave Marcus to his fate?” Connie asked.
“We don’t have any proof that there ever was a Marcus,” Jen said. “All of the map coordinates and log files could have been faked.”
“Yeah, but the ports he pulled into would have records of his arrival and departure,” Connie said.
“We didn’t get any records for those,” Jen said.
“Oh, ah, I thought you’d checked on that,” Connie said. “Sorry. I should have looked in it.”
“No, that was my mistake,” Jen said. “I didn’t know about checking the port logs, and I didn’t think to bring you in on the research. I was too eager to get going on this, but I can promise you that’s not going to happen again.”
“That does argue in favor of Marcus not being real,” Connie said. “With how thorough the rest of the documentation was, its weird that his ‘parents’ would have left out some easy corroborating evidence like that. So we bail then?”
Jen stared at the waterfall and the cave beyond it. The darkness wasn’t exactly inviting, and she wasn’t ensorcelled by whatever spell had taken over Sarah, but there was still a temptation that she felt drawing her into it.
“We can,” Jen said. “We can run away. We can solve this problem the smart way and bring in the whole team on this. We can be safe, and clever, and stack the odds as high in our favor as they’ll go.”
“But you don’t want to,” Connie said.
“Good. Neither do I. We came here to take the burden off the others, how about we teach this particular problem the error of trying to mess with us?”
“I say we do more than that,” Jen said. “I say we make an example out of them so that no one else makes the mistake of thinking we’re an easy target ever again.”
The plan had been a simple one. It shouldn’t have gone off-track. Not when it was set to trap three entirely mortal women.
Garg’nix paced in the Sealing Chamber, fire venting from his thirty seven different orifices.
“Please. Calm. Down,” Clyde Demorney said, forcing his voice and demeanor to stay cool and collected.
“They should be here already!” Garg’nix said. “We arranged for the Potestates people to fall into our clutches and We. Need. Them!” He ground out the last words like metal tearing through bone.
“We will have our subjects,” Demorney said. “And we will send a message to the one who calls herself Charlene Potestates. We just need patience.”
It was a lie of course. Demorney knew the Second Chance Club’s three newest recruits should have been captured an hour ago and the transformation ritual begun minutes thereafter. Each grain of purple sand that fell through the hourglass on the chair beside him was one step closer to Potestates discovering their operation before they had the leverage to hold her back, and that thought sent a horrified chill down to the bottom of Demorney’s bowels.
“We need the three!” Garg’nix insisted.
As demons went Garg’nix wasn’t one of the more clever ones, but it was a mistake to think his single minded obsessiveness made him stupid. If anything he was more dangerous because he placed all of his intellect into achieving the goal he sought. How well those goals lined up with a greater overall ambition was questionable but that was what Demorney brought to their compact.
“They’re on the island,” Demorney said. “We have them, whether or not they’re here right now, there’s no escape. Not when we control the wind and the waters and the soul of the island itself.”
“No escape? You said there would be no delay,” Garg’nix growled. He shambled over to glower above Demorney, a move Demorney allowed. It was posturing. Neither one could afford to hurt the other. Not when it took both of them to control the environment around them.
“There shouldn’t have been,” Demorney said. “We arranged for the false note to come through safe channels, we guided them through the currents that turn away man and beast when the island isn’t ready for them, and we cast the song to ensnare their mage. The agents of the Potestates should have delivered themselves to us without fail if they were truly worthy of serving her cause.”
“Then why aren’t they here?” Garg’nix demanded.
“Perhaps we misjudged them?” Demorney said. “They are only fledglings. We set our trap to capture the Potestates senior agents. Perhaps they weren’t able to work out the runes that promised a cure for their mage’s condition? Or perhaps they didn’t have the courage to split up and gather the components from within the haunted depths above us?”
“You said they could handle the traps,” Garg’nix said. “You said the traps would only weaken them. We need them alive.”
“I’m not sure that we do,” Demorney said. Garg’nix flared to his full height and began to emit an acrid odor, as Demorney hastened to add, “if they fell victim to the traps we set, then they may not have been real agents of the Potestates. If we’d tried to transform such weak specimens as that, the ritual would have collapsed and all our planning would be lost.”
“We need our own agents,” Garg’nix said. “The Potestates has destabilized the world. Now is the time to take land, take people, take power. We need them now.”
“And we will have them,” Demorney said. It was futile to make promises like that to Garg’nix but Demorney was too used to dealing business partners who could be swayed by reason to give up his attempts so easily. “If not this set, then the senior agents, when they come looking for their lost lambs.”
“We won’t have that long,” Garg’nix said and began pacing again.
“He’s not wrong about that,” Jen said.
Six hundred pounds of bulk powering four arms, each ending in six twelve inch long, spear tipped claws.
Jen snap kicked him into the basalt granite wall a hundred feet away on the other side of the chamber.
For a moment there was silence. Demorney worked his jaw but words would not come out. Not until he found the right one.
“Mountain charm” Jen said, shaking the anklet she wore.
“There’s a lot more magic here than there’s supposed to be,” Sarah said. “Shockingly easy to make temporary charms with, but then you knew that didn’t you? I mean you two are the ones who are throwing all that juicy energy around. It’s like you’re inviting people to use your own magic against you.”
Demorney looked at the mage. The mage who was fully conscious and in possession of her own wits.
“HOW?” he demanded.
“We drowned her,” Connie said, dropping down from the rope the other two had been lowered into the room with.
Garg’nix started to peel himself out of the wall he’d been cratered into.
“Shouldn’t do that,” Jen said.
Garg’nix did anyway.
With a huff, he swelled to twice his normal size as a nimbus of fire blazed from every patch skin on his body.
And again he charged
Jen dropped him with an axe kick this time, slamming his head into the floor so hard that he was buried in stone to the bottom of his neck.
“This can’t be happening,” Demorney said, focusing on Sarah. “You can’t be free of the Whispers. The land itself sustains that spell.”
“Yeah, that’s why they drowned me,” Sarah said. “Or why drowning me worked. It was a lucky break on their part I guess?”
“We saw you turn into a mermaid,” Jen said. “Drowning didn’t seem like it would be much of a problem for you, and the ocean sounded like it had its own magics separate from the island. So it was an informed lucky break at the worst.”
“I will grant you that,” Sarah said.
“But..but…the traps, all of my wards, how could you get past them?” Demorney said. He was dead. He knew he was dead. The Potestates agents were supposed to arrive in the room exhausted and Garg’nix was supposed to make short work of them. Even if they had enough energy left to somehow overcome Garg’nix, Demorney should have had plenty of time to lay enchantment after enchantment on them to bind their wills to his own. They were not supposed to catch him at unawares. Not with the defenses he’d set. This could not be happening!
“You might need these,” Connie said and threw a small pack to him. It landed at Demorney’s feet and the hundred and eight runestones, and enchanted dolls, and other foci that he’d tied his traps to spilled out over the floor. “It was a bit of pain to get to some of those. Next time I’d suggest not tossing them onto ledges you can’t see. It makes clean up into a gymnastics workout.”
“You took everything,” Demorney said. “Everything I built up. You took it all again!”
“Pretty sure we’ve never met before,” Jen said.
“We haven’t but I’m betting the other team has,” Sarah said. “Phillip Demorney right? Or, wait, no, you’re the younger brother, Cooper? Calvin? Cankersore?”
“Clyde,” Demorney said, anger warring with despair.
“Clyde! Right!” Sarah said, “I heard of you. Pretty talented, supposedly. Not terribly bright, but a decent contract writer and aces at mystical fabrication. Tried to stake your claim on Majorca was it?”
“Yes,” Demorney said, his face reddening with shame.
“Shocking how people in other parts of the world can have a clue too isn’t it?” Sarah said, before turning to her teammates. “They kicked his butt off the island so hard, he’s physically incapable of returning there. Amusingly he tried the same thing in Singapore and New Zealand. Same results in both places.”
“Thanks to your Club,” Demorney said.
“Yeah, no,” Sarah said. “Tam told me about it over drinks one time. Cankersore here tried to take over New Zealand’s Avian Mysterium (it’s a mystic thing, I’ll explain later) while the Tam was there. She talked to a bird, who talked to an old lady, who talked to a little girl, who went all Gandalf against the Balrog on Canker here and tossed his butt off a mountain with a lightning bolt.”
“She cheated,” Demorney said.
“Yeah, an eleven year old fighting a grown man cheated. Conjure up some self respect dude.”
“What are you going to do to us?” Garg’nix asked without pulling his head out of the stone floor.
“We were going to shut you down and call it a day,” Connie said.
“But then other people might get it into their head to try something similar,” Jen said.
“So we’re going to make an example of you,” Sarah said.
“How?” Demorney asked, his voice smaller and more timid that he’d hoped it would be.
“By giving you just what you asked you,” Jen said.
“You wanted to be the winning team?” Connie said. “Congrats, now you work for the winning team. We’re taking you back to Charlene and letting her find a use for you.”
“We will never work for the Potestates!” Demorney said.
“Or we leave you here,” Sarah said. “Forever. Since kicking you off islands hasn’t worked out, we talked to this island, and it would be happy to have guests for the rest of your lives.”
“I am immortal,” Garg’nix said.
“Exactly,” Sarah said.
“We won’t accept this!” Demorney said.
“I will,” Garg’nix said, pulling his head out of the floor. “Whatever the Potestates desires, that will be my role.”
“Really?” Demorney said.
“This was my chance to usurp my masters,” Garg’nix said. “I am as free of them sworn to the Potestates as I would be were my binding to you to be completed, and she is far more terrible. My masters will not dare move against her like they would against you.”
“You raise an interesting and terrifying point,” Demorney said. “Very well, I believe I will accept those terms too then.”
“Wonderful,” Jen said. “This may not exactly be your second chance, but if you’re wise I would encourage you to reflect on the fact that it’s almost certainly your last one.”
Demorney swallowed a gulp. Accountability was something he’d never been fond of, but he was pretty sure it was what the rest of his life was going to revolve around.