As workouts went, Val had put herself through tougher ones. Tam knew that Val’s work regaining the use of her legs had been rough, and the regimen Val went on before she, Anna, and Tam took down PrimaLux was one she claimed she never wanted to try again. Even compared to those though, her current training routine looked like it was pushing her pretty far past her limits.
“Should I get you a fresh towel or would a bucket and a mop be more appropriate?” Tam asked, wandering into the Club’s private gym during one of Val’s brief rest periods.
“Towel’d be nice.” Val’s breath came in short, hard pants. She was thirty seconds away from her next set of reps according to the schedule Tam had seen on tracking app but since Val was already ten sets past how many she was original supposed to do, it seemed pretty reasonable that her body was a bit winded.
Tam grabbed one of the bigger, more absorbent towels from the wall and tossed it to Val. It was a good throw but the towel still landed at Val’s feet.
“How long have you been in here?” Tam asked, pausing to observe her friend.
Sweat covered every inch of Val’s body, but it was the fatigue trembles Tam saw in Val’s muscles that surprised her. Tam was used to seeing Val go all out, so she knew what a tired Val looked like. This was beyond tired. This was someone who’d worked themselves to the point of exhaustion and beyond.
“I don’t know,” Val said, picking up the towel and wiping her face and arms dry. “What time is it?”
“Around 2:00am,” Tam said. “My show let out a little while ago.”
“How’d it go?” Val reached for a pair of fifty pound weights but waited for Tam to answer before beginning her next workout.
“Good. The crowd liked the new effects. The routine needs a bit more work overall but the bones are solid.”
Tam would have been happy to talk at length about the various ideas she’d come up with for fine tuning the performance. There was so much thought that went into each effect and each turn of phrase she used, that it was hard not to want to share it all. Val’s state of exhaustion suggested that there were more important topics at hand though.
“How are things going here?” she asked.
“Good,” Val said, too quickly. “Or, no new crisis at least. Anna and Jen were meeting earlier. I think they were prioritizing some of the low grade issues that have come up so that we can knock them out in between the bigger cases we still have to tackle.”
“Sounds good,” Tam said with a nod. “What’s got you going at it so hard tonight though?”
“Trying to work something out,” Val said and tried to lift the weights. Her arms didn’t so much refuse as visibly protest, quaking with the effort of repeating yet another set of exercises.
“Anything I can help with?” Tam wondered if calling JB would be a good idea. JB had a gift for working with people. Tam considered Val a friend, but if Val was having real problems, JB would be better at connecting with her and helping her sort them out.
“It’s stupid,” Val said, and redoubled her effort with the weights.
Calling JB would be effective, but Tam hesitated. If Val was ready to open up then there was no need to call in the big guns yet.
“I’ve done stupid plenty of times myself,” Tam said. “What flavor are you trying for today?”
“It’s for Aranea.” Val sagged to her knees and let the weights rest on the floor.
“She wants you to be more buff?” Tam frowned. Muscles were nice. Cynthia had some wonderful ones. For someone to have a taste for muscles that Val couldn’t satisfy though, their preferences would have to run pretty deeply into the ‘inhuman’ level of aesthetics.
Which would make sense for a Spider Goddess, Tam mused.
Except when she turned that idea over in her head, it seemed incongruous with how Aranea had acted previously.
“Nah, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care how I look,” Val said, flashing Tam a quick smile. “No, this is…well, maybe you can tell me how bad an idea it is?”
“It looks kinda bad from here, but lay it on me,” Tam said
“When we get enchanted up, some of those enchantments only act as enhancers right?”
“Yeah. There’s a class of magic that takes what’s present and magnifies it. Those are easier up to a certain point.” Tam liked talking about magic but she suspected Val’s problem lay in some other area. “Some of the other spells we use will replace a quality that there’s with something else. The whole ‘strong as 10 men’ thing usually just gives you a set amount of strength. Why do you want to stronger though? Have the enchantments lately been on the weak side?”
Tam knew that wasn’t true. They’d been a little less dependable than usual, thanks to the fluctuations in magic. She’d been able to compensate for most of that however by linking in more volunteers from the Club’s network of members to cover the shortfalls. That was a short term solution – she couldn’t rely on too often without burning people out – but it looked like it could get them through the bulk of their backlog before they started running out of useful volunteers.
“No, they’ve been fine.” Val sat back and raised a hand to reassure Tam. “Stronger than usual even. That’s part of what gave me this idea.”
“You thought that if the boost was stronger then having a better base to boost off of would give an even bigger effect than we normally get?” It was the obvious leap of logic to make, but if the enchantments had been working ok, Tam wasn’t certain why Val had bothered making it.
“Yeah, but that’s only part of it,” Val said. “What I’m thinking about is how strong I’d have to be to match someone like Hercules.”
“Which Hercules?” Tam asked.
“The Greek one. Son of Zeus. Twelve Labors. That guy.”
“He was a demi-god. Also, mythical. Also, a jerk.”
“Right, but what would it take to have the same…stature, I guess?” Val mopped her head with the towel and looked at Tam with a more intent and eager gaze than the question seemed to warrant.
Tam considered the question and the ones that were lurking behind it.
Val had never been one to pursue power for power’s sake. She tended to work with the load out of enchantments that were available and even occasionally refused some, preferring to hold them in reserve for later rather than expend resources needlessly.
For her to be working herself to the point where she could be enhanced to demi-god levels Aranea had to have put some fairly unreasonable demands on her.
“That’s not something you can do just by getting stronger,” Tam said, concerned that her words would be ignored since they probably weren’t what Val wanted to hear.
Instead though, Val sighed and chuckled softly and shook her head.
“Ugh, I probably should have asked you that before I tried this I guess.”
“Is there a new problem that’s come up?” Tam asked.
“Sort of?” Val said. “It’s not Club business, specifically though.”
“If it involves you and Aranea, it involves all of us,” Tam said and winced at the fire that had crept into her voice. “I mean, you know we’ve got your back right?”
“Yeah,” Val said with a disarming smile. “It’s not like that though. It’s…”
She paused, seemingly searching for the right words, though Tam noticed they were straying into the kind of personal space that Val didn’t usually talk about much.
“We’ve got your back whether you can talk about it or not,” Tam said. “I mean, knowing would help, but prying can be awful sometimes, so…whatever you need. We’re here.”
“How much do you know about gods?” Val asked, her expression relaxing she spoke.
“Bits and pieces, more about some, less about others,” Tam said.
“Words matter to them right?” Val asked.
“Yeah. Again some more than others,” Tam said. She tried to recall if there were any specific linguistic restrictions around spider gods in general, or for Aranea in particular in the any of the texts that had mentioned her in passing.
“Aranea was explaining how what she says is a bit different from what you or me might say,” Val said. “She can lie, but if she says something meaning it to be true, especially something about herself, it can change her so that it is true.”
“That’s true to some degree with almost everyone.” Tam nodded in agreement and understanding. “With humans we’re not defined by our words quite as much as conceptual beings like gods are but the idea of Daily Affirmations points to how repeating something over and over can begin to shift our psyches. With some like Aranea the effect is more profound I’d imagine.”
“It’s not just that words can change her mind though,” Val said. “They can change who she is. Unless the change is big enough that it tears her apart. Then it can kill her.”
“That would be a pretty severe change,” Tam said, beginning to see the scope of Val’s worries. It was one thing to know that a mortal lover could be taken from you. It was part of the deal with being mortal. An immortal lover though was another matter. Discovering that even a goddess had vulnerabilities had clearly been a bit of a rude shock. “For what it’s worth, I haven’t heard of a god dying because of that ever, I think? Or maybe in only a few stories.”
“Are those stories where they fell in love with a human?” Val asked.
Tam bit her lip. She wanted to say, but lying seemed like a terrible idea under the circumstances.
“Love can be an unstoppable force,” Val said. “Unfortunately that’s not always a good thing is it?”
“Not always,” Tam said, looking down. “But Aranea’s been around a while right? And you haven’t left her or anything – that’s usually the trigger for the god’s discorporation. It fits in too well with people’s experience with how all encompassing the pain of a broken heart feels. It was too easy for them to believe that kind of loss could slay even a god.”
“That’s more of a long term problem,” Val said. “I mean, sure, I’m not going to live forever, but we’ve got time to work that one out. What drove me to all this,” she waved her hand at the various exercise machines she’d overused, “is more immediate. It’s not just death, or rejection that can tear you apart. Aranea said try to become a cat would kill her because there’s no overlap between spiders and cats. She can only change so much before she rips in two.”
“And you’re afraid that being with you is going to change her like that?”
“How many stories do you know of a spider goddess settling down with a mortal woman?” Val asked.
Tam couldn’t think of any.
“She says I seduced her,” Val said. “I knew it wasn’t a good idea when I did it. I knew I was getting in far over my head even walking up to her. I’m just terrified now that I was right but not for the reason I thought. She said she was going to destroy us, then she said she wouldn’t hurt me, and I don’t think she was lying about either one. I don’t know how she can do both, and even if she could, I keep thinking about how just being with me is destroying who she is. I thought if I could swing the whole demi-god thing then things might work out. I could meet her halfway kinda. That was never going to happen though, was it?”
Tam drew in a long breath.
“The demi-god thing? No, I’m afraid not,” she said. “There’s no enchantment that would do that for you, and even if there was, it wouldn’t last forever.”
“Figured it was stupid,” Val said.
“It wasn’t,” Tam said. “It was caring.”
“Caring’s not going to save her though.”
“Workouts won’t,” Tam said, her eyes narrowing as an idea occurred to her. “But maybe you still can.”