Jen wasn’t interested in hunting under normal circumstances, but tracking down the otherworldly interlopers from the Preserver’s realm had put a spark to her imagination.
“We know at least one of them has been here a while,” she said as she turned through the old binder of rental receipts that had been left behind.
“That would explain how they’ve got so many bolt holes to run to,” Connie said, picking up a suitcase that had been similarly abandoned. It’s contents included an assortment of plus sized clothes which matched the ones strewn about the otherwise empty apartment.
“They must be really annoyed that we’re finding them this quickly,” Sarah said. Between her fingertips she held a lattice of light that slowly morphed from a revolving pyramid to a smooth sphere to a multi-pronged ball of spikes.
“I have the next location identified,” James said over their comms. He’d been making it a point to be more ‘present’ for the various teams assignments, despite remaining incapable of being physically with them most of the time. “Thank you Sarah, the fidelity on your tracking spell has been superb.”
“You’re quite welcome James. I’m going to release it for a bit, until we find their next sanctum,” Sarah said. “I don’t want the pattern getting flooded with the markers we have here.”
“I’ve got a plane on standby at the FedEx airfield for you,” Jimmy B said also over the comms. Road noise was clearly audible in the background as well as chatter between his car’s driver and another passenger. Like the rest of the support staff Jimmy did a lot of multi-tasking to keep the Club’s activities running smoothly. “From the coordinates James gave me, the nearest runway I can put you into will be about thirty minutes from the target site.”
“That’s going to give them a fair bit of time to see us coming,” Jen said, brushing through the pages of receipts with her prosthetic fingers. There was a pattern in the rental bills. she could see it’s outline but she wasn’t sure what the various bits of data added up to.
“They might be able to see us already,” Sarah said, slowly collapsing the spellwork lattice to a point of light.
“They do seem to be keeping a pretty substantial headstart on us,” Connie said. None of the clothes in the abandoned suitcase held any identifying information.
“They can’t track any of you with the same tools you’re using to locate them,” James said. “You’re a part of this world, your essences are indistinguishable from the overall background of Earth’s vitiac field.”
“We need to come up with some more comprehensive stealth options then,” Jen said. “They’re definitely aware when we get close, but even if they can detect us this far away they don’t seem to be willing to act on it until we get closer.”
“They must have a limited number of escape options, and yet something about meeting with us is causing them to burn them without hesitation,” Connie said.
“It’s not one group fleeing us,” Jen said, the secret in the receipt numbers crystalizing at last in her mind’s eyes. “They have so many hideouts because they have more than a single cell here. They’re burning them because they can’t afford a cascade failure of their secrecy if we apprehend one or more of them.”
That insight suggested a number of other facts about the interlopers. The primary one in Jen’s view was that they would only need to be worried about a cascade failure, one where a single group could expose the whole organization, if they weren’t using classic ‘cell network’ tactics where each group was isolated from the rest. That put some significant boundaries on their level of training and their likely goals and motivations.
“How did they have time to put that together?” Connie asked.
“I can think of one option, and it’s not a great one for Anna’s team,” Sarah said.
“Yes. If the Preserver’s have sent these people over in organized teams, they could have been trained and prepared to move in weeks ago, when the alignment just began to make travel practical.” That was one possibility, and likely the worst when coupled with the lack of long term security in their organizational structure. There was another explanation though, less hostile in a sense, but no less problematic.
“That would mean that Anna and her team are walking into a trap then?” JB asked. “What options do we have to address that?”
“Very few,” Sarah said. “Moving within the Tower of the Sky via Earthly magic takes longer than standard modes of locomotion which means any help we could send wouldn’t arrive there for a week at a minimum.”
“Unless we violate the warded doors and force a path directly to their central palace,” Connie said.
“I don’t think we’ll need to,” Jen said, biting her lip as her visions of the Preserver’s plans spun together and flew apart, seeking the ones that fit the available data. “Whether the governing powers there are behind this or not they’ll want to send a team through for ‘investigation’ purposes. We can discuss the matter with them and base our actions on what they have to say.”
“I have a return portal opening in Tam’s primary conjuring circle,” James said.
“Excellent timing,” Jen said. “The coordinates we found for the next sanctum are closer to the Club than here correct?”
“Yes. We’re about half as far away as you are,” James said.
“Good, let’s meet the new arrivals at the next sanctum then,” Jen said. “We will wait for their arrival before entering so they can see a pristine site.”
“I’ll give them the record of our investigation so far, as Anna requested,” JB said.
“Signal us to let us know who came back with them ok?” Jen asked. “I have a suspicion who Anna would have sent home under ideal circumstances, but who’s actually there may tell us more than the Preserver’s realize.”
“Should we get going to airport then?” Connie asked.
“I’m not racing you this time,” Sarah said.
“I let you use magic last time!” Connie protested.
“And I learned my lesson, thank you very much.”
“There is one thing I want to do before we leave,” Jen said, looking around for any writing instruments that might have been left behind.
The party from the Tower of the Sky consisted of Aranea, Cynthia, and Zoe. Just as Jen had been afraid it might. Anna knew there was trouble brewing on the Tower of the Sky, and she’d gotten the primary team’s loved ones to a less dangerous spot. On the plus side though, she clearly felt her primary team could handle staying behind. That she valued the prowess of Val and Tam over the might of an actual Goddess and a professional first responder said a lot about the bonds between them, as well as Anna’s estimation of their chances versus the odds arrayed against them.
“This is our investigation team leader, Jen,” Zoe said, leading the party of Preserver diplomats forward.
The Preserves were massive by Earth standards. While they appeared to be human, the shortest of them stood six foot and eight inches tall and had a physique a body builder could spend a lifetime trying to acquire. Despite his rippling muscles though, the diplomat looked winded from even the short walk from the car to the edge of the farm house’s property than Jen and her team waited outside of.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Jen said, offering the Preserver’s a short bow. She was wearing her “nice” arms but after all the martial arts instruction she’d pursued, a bow always felt more appropriate, especially when meeting with people who might or might not be adversaries.
“The renegades are in there?” the leader of the Presever’s team huffed, fighting to draw breath from Earth’s thinner air and heavier gravity. For people who lived on top of a mountain higher than any on Earth, it seemed strange that they would find Earth’s air pressure thin, but such were the oddities of transdimensional physics. Different worlds meant different rules.
“Yes, quite a few of them in fact,” Jen said.
“What is your perimeter detail?” the Preserver Captain asked, without wasting time on pleasantries.
“You’re looking at it,” Connie said from the bottom of a hip deep hole she’d dug at the boundary of the farm’s property.
The Preserve Captain huffed in disdain. “No wonder the quarry has been escaping you.”
Jen suppressed a smile. It was a joy to work with people who couldn’t see beyond the noses on their face. It was the ones who knew to ask the right questions who were occasionally troublesome to predict.
“This site is unique,” she said, gesturing to the farm house in the distance and distracting him from the seemingly menial work Connie was doing. “At previous locations we’ve arrived to find them empty. This time we seem to have caught up with your errant citizens.”
“They are no citizens of ours,” the Preserver Captain said.
“You’re turning them over to us then?” Jen asked.
“No. We still own them. They have violated the Supreme Order and will be sentenced accordingly,” the Preserver Captain said. “Merely by being here without a Sacred Writ, their status and rights have been revoked. The Justicars will determine what their punishments will be beyond that.”
“You still own them?” Jen asked, lightly. It was exactly the phrase the Preserver’s shouldn’t have used, but before she authorized a the diplomatic incident Jen calmly gave the Captain a chance to back away from his blunder.
He wasn’t going to. She could see the nature of their society too clearly in the pieces and clues she’d picked up so far. She knew the broad strokes of the reality which had driven the people huddling in the farm to flee their world for one where they could barely stand without pain or manage to catch their breath after the faintest of exertions.
“They are not your concern,” the Preserver Captain said. “Leave now. We will deal with them, and any others you have allowed to escape.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Zoe said.
“These are ours. Your rules and laws do not apply to them.”
“Do any of the laws of this realm apply to you?” Aranea asked. There was a hopeful note in her voice and hunger in her eyes which reminded Jen that Aranea was, at heart, something decidedly inhuman.
“Before we get into esoteric topics like that,” Sarah said quickly. “Perhaps our guests would like to review the data we’ve collected about the people waiting in that building? There might be options for approaching them peacefully.”
“Peace with the corrupted?” The Preserver Captain took a half step back as though to ward off the terrible idea. His troops seemed similarly disgusted with the concept.
“How did intend to apprehend them?” Cynthia asked.
“They will be leashed as the corrupt must be,” the Preserver Captain said.
“And how will you get these leashes on them?” Zoe asked.
“Our binding circles can ensnare a simple dwelling like that. It will be a simple matter to pacify them with Barrage cannons once they have no hope of escape.”
“Barrage cannons?” Aranea’s eyes were alight with a hungry joy. The Preservers were far over any tolerable line which meant there was very little to hold back Aranea. Jen knew they had to at least make the attempt to prevent an incident that would spark a war between the worlds though.
“There is a complication to your plans,” she said. “Whatever rights these people do not have on your realm, there are inalienable rights we grant any sapient being here.”
Or, at least there were rights which neither Jen nor anyone else associated with the Second Chance Club would ever allow a person to be deprived of.
“We will not allow you to drag these people off into slavery or death,” Connie said, climbing out of the hole to back Jen up.
“We’ve let that happen before. We’ve been a people who did that to ourselves,” Sarah
“Never again.” Jen said it first but every one of her friends echoed her.
Except for Aranea who smiled and asked in a slow voice, “But, please, do try to argue the point.”