Author Archives: dreamfarer

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 4

Anna was walking into an ambush. There was a warm comfort to that. She could manage uncertainty and navigate delicate political situations but sometimes it was nice to know exactly what she was getting herself into right from the beginning. The moment she stepped into the gas station office, the world came to life and everything went wrong in just the way she hoped it would.

She’d waited a few moments after Val entered the Post Office on the off chance that things were more or less as they appeared to be. When Val didn’t emerge after a minute though, Anna knew that the buildings weren’t as empty as they seemed to be.

She could have followed Val, and normally would have. Second Chance Club associates backing up their partners was a standard operating procedure but if Tam’s guess as to the nature of Bright Springs was correct then Anna didn’t have any concern about Val being able to handle herself.

Plus, the Post Office wasn’t the building that was inviting her to enter.

From the outside, the gas station had looked well lit with only a few pieces of simple furniture on the floor and and walls. Waiting inside however, she found three men and two women, all armed, and all with the sort of sour looks that said there was violence in the offing which they had little taste for.

“Before we get started,” Anna said, “which of you is the one I can have a nice  conversation with once the unpleasantries are taken care of?”

The largest bearded man in the room twitched at that and, rather than answering with words, swung the baseball bat that he was holding.

It was a good swing, solid and from the shoulder. If Anna had stayed in place it would have cracked into the left side of her neck with enough downward force to shatter her collarbone and disable her left arm. The only flaw in the attack was the moment’s hesitation that preceded it.

Anna wasn’t the fighter that Val was. She did ok when they sparred but that was only because Val held back and Anna didn’t.  That was how she always fought, which was unfortunate for the man swinging the bat at her.

From the position where he had the bat readied, and the grip he held it with, Anna could see exactly where his swing was going to go well before he decided to make his attack.

With a small side step, she slid away from the blow, allowing the man to overextend himself. As he started to tip forward off balance, she grabbed his shirt sleeve and forced him hard into the door beside her.

The gas station door was old, and hadn’t been built with the sturdiest of materials to begin with, so when the man struck it with the full force of his face and torso, the door shattered into kindling.

Then the town exploded.

Anna blinked and spit dust out of her mouth.

She’d wound up on the ground somehow.

Beside her Val was rising to her feet as well.

“Well that sucked,” Val said, shaking her head to clear the ringing away from her ears.

The explosion had rippled through the town fast enough that Anna could barely recall it, but given the immensity of the blast she was having a hard time understanding why she was around to remember anything at all.

“Things did not go well in the Post Office?” she asked, getting to her feet. They were back at their bikes, but this time the lights were on in all five of the buildings that made up Bright Springs.

“I may not have been as diplomatic as I should have been,” Val said.

“I don’t think any amount of diplomacy would have avoided that,” Anna said. She had her suit jacket back and Val was wearing her own racing jacket again.

“Well, at least we found the townsfolk,” Val said, dusting herself off.

“And now you’ll regret that you did,” the baseball bat wielding man said as he exited the gas station flanked by the other ambushers.

“Aww, did you find some friends to play with? They’re just adorable with those little sticks,” Val said, stepping forward into a casual fighting stance.

“We don’t want to fight you,” the short, older woman of the group said. That she was clutching a branding iron raised questions that none of the others were leaping to answer.

“You are not wrong about that,” Val said. Five on one weren’t great odds, but watching the five townsfolk move as a group told her they would be more a danger to each other than to her if a serious fight broke out.

“What Hilda means is that it’s too late for you, so there’s no point in fighting anymore,” the other woman said.

The resemblance between them was too strong for Anna to believe the taller woman was anything other than Hilda’s sister.

“And why was it that you were so intent on fighting before?” Anna asked.

“We were trying to save you,” the man with the baseball bat said.

“You have an odd method of saving people,” Anna said.

The townsfolk glanced at the weapons and nervously dropped their arms to their sides to show they weren’t threatening violence anymore. Anna noted that they didn’t actually drop the weapons though.

“We wanted to get you out of here before you did anything,” Hilda said. “Then you went and broke the door and now the town’s got you.”

“I broke a window too,” Val said. “Or I guess the Post Office manager’s face broke a window. Kind of the same thing really.”

“You shoved him through a window?” Anna asked. “We weren’t even inside for two minutes?”

“Technically I didn’t shove him,” Val said. “It was a knee strike, and what can I say, he deserved it.”

“Miller must be fuming in there,” Hilda said. “Poor Bill, he’s gonna get it for sure.”

“Sounds like I need to go have another ‘discussion’ with Mitchy,” Val said.

“No! Don’t do that!” the baseball man said.

“If you break anything in the town, the judgement comes,” Hilda said.

“The Judgement? That why the town seemed to explode?” Anna asked.

“It didn’t seem to, it did,” the baseball man said. “Anytime the town changes from how it was when the contract was signed, the Day of Judgement comes and sets it all back to how it was.”

“Like Groundhog Day?” Val asked, but the townsfolk replied with only confused silence.

Tam had speculated that the ‘town being kept as it was’ clause in the contract could have a component of temporal manipulation involved, but she hadn’t given them the full details on what a time loop that could hold a town in stasis for a century would entail.

“So when I broke the door, and Val broke the window, everything reset?” Anna asked. “And somehow that has made us a part of this town?”

“Yeah, that’s how I got stuck here,” a smaller man at the back of the group said. “I stopped in to grab a bite because I’d heard of the restaurant here from my grandmother. Backed into the gas pump by mistake and that was it for me, I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

“When was that?” Anna asked.

“1961,” the man said.

To Anna’s eyes the man couldn’t have been older than his mid-thirties but she knew that deceptions were the easiest form of magic. Not that the deception was complete. The man might look like he was in his thirties but there was a quality to his eyes that suggested sixty years of weight those thirty plus years were never intended to bear.

“Why couldn’t you leave?” Val asked.

“We don’t know,” Hilda said. “Anyone who’s here is a part of the town through. Anything happens to them, or the town, and it all gets rolled back like you saw.”

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without a reset?” Anna asked.

“It varies,” Hilda said. “I know we had one time where we went about three months with time passing like it does for everyone else. Other times it just seems to skip back whenever it wants. Sometimes two or three times per day.”

“So anyone who’s here when the town resets gets added on as a permanent resident?” Val asked. “How come you’re not overflowing with population here?”

“Most people cannot find Bright Springs, I imagine,” Anna said. “We did because we knew of it through PrimaLux’s contract. He did because he knew of the restaurant from his mother. Without a connection to Bright Springs, we might have driven right through and never noticed it.”

“It seems like that,” Hilda said. “Back before this all started, we never had all that many people come through, but afterwards it was like nothing else existed at either end of the road.”

“What happens if you try to leave?” Val asked.

“If we get too far away that seems to be the same as taking something from the town,” Hilda said. “We wind up back wherever the town wants us to be.”

“Is that why you were in the gas station?” Anna asked. “Did the town put you there?”

“And gave us the weapons,” the baseball man said.

“We only wanted to knock you out and dump you outside of town before the next reset,” Hilda said.

“So you were concerned enough for her well being that you expressed it with a baseball bat?” Val asked.

“No,” Anna said. “It wasn’t for my sake. They didn’t want another member of the town to spend eternity with.”

“Not one the town didn’t like!” the baseball man said.

“But it was for your sake too,” Hilda said. “Who would want to be trapped like this? Never able to move forward or change at all.”

Anna and Val looked at one another.

“The guy who holds the deed that set this up I would imagine,” Val said.

“Perhaps we should all go pay him a visit?” Anna suggested and began walking towards the Post Office.

The others fell into line behind her, Val trusting her insight and the townsfolk having nothing better to do at that point.

Inside the Post Office, Bill was dutifully reading a handbook on postal regulations which looked like he’d read it a few thousand times already.

“Hello?” he said followed swiftly by, “You shouldn’t go in there!”

Anna ignored that and marched into the office of Mitchel Miller to find the man backed into a corner and pointing a gun at her.

“Under the circumstances, that is a singularly ineffective threat, don’t you think?” Anna said.

Miller’s gaze flicked around as more people entered the room before returning to Anna.

“Mitchel Miller,” she said. “Former PrimaLux Director of Natural Resource Development for their Americas division. This is quite the golden parachute you arranged for yourself.”

“What is she talking about?” Hilda asked. “Mitch has been here as long as the rest of us.”

“Of course he has,” Anna said. “This is the one place on Earth where he was safe from the machinations of his former employer.”

“Mitch? What are they saying?” Hilda asked.

“You weren’t the one who arranged the original deal, were you Mitchy?” Val said. Miller swung the gun to point at her but didn’t answer. “You had one of your flunkies come and make the offer after you bought some land here so that you’d be a legit part of the town.”

“Then you put together a deal that would snare the souls of the dead to power the time loop that you caught the town in,” Anna said. “The deal required PrimaLux to create the loop but since it was self sustaining and got them the resources they wanted, it was easy enough to convince them to take the offer.”

“Strange time loop,” Val said. “It seems like it rolls forward with regular time.”

“That’s what we thought,” Hilda said. “We get set back, and the town gets set back, everything just like it was, but the rest of the world keeps moving on.”

“It’s the perfect tool for someone who wants to live forever, but also continue to exert their power on the outside world,” Anna said.

“There is one odd bit though,” Val said. “I’m not a legal expert, but I thought the deal stipulated that the Additional Value clause or whatever it was that gives the owner control over the souls of the dead only came into force if PrimaLux had to relinquish ownership of the deed. Kind of a payback for the loot they were losing.”

“That’s true,” Anna said. “Which suggests that the transfer didn’t happen when PrimaLux fell. It happened right after the deal was signed.”

“And who could have been the one to get the deed from PrimaLux?” Val asked. “Could it be Mister Mitchy Miller himself?”

She strode over to him and slapped the gun out of his hand.

Firing it would have been useless. It just would have reset the town and they would have done the same scene all over again until it turned out how they wanted.

“Why, what do we have here?” she said, pulling a thin envelope out of his coat pocket and tossing it to Anna.

“This would look to be the signatory sheet for the Mineral Rights contract,” Anna said.

“It doesn’t matter if you destroy that one,” Miller said. “It won’t void the contract. There are still copies on file in safe locations, and I’m still the owner!”

“That is true,” Anna said. “Which is why you’re going to sell us the Mineral Right deed and we’ll put an end to this ourselves.”

“Why would I do that? I would never do that!” Miller said.

So Anna threw his nameplate through the window.

And the town reset.

She and Val marched back into Miller’s office. Miller objected to their presence. So Val threw Miller through the window, again.

And the town reset.

They didn’t talk to Miller or make him any offers after that. They merely repeated resetting the town until he ran out to meet them before they could enter the Post Office.

“I will get you for this,” he said, offering them the contract.

Val tossed him in through the window this time.

And the town reset.

“You don’t deserve it, but this is your second chance,” Anna said when he hobbled out to them the next time. “Here’s one dollar. This pays for the contract. You’re going to take it and walk out of here and pray that the rest of your life passes by without you ever seeing anyone from Bright Springs or either of us again.”

“Because if you do to scheme against us or them,” Val said, “we’re going to make sure the ghosts you’ve been abusing get a second chance at their revenge on you.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep2 – Act 3

Ghost towns are supposed to be haunted. It’s the juxtaposition between the apparent emptiness of the buildings and streets set against the weight of time and memories that provokes fascination and dread. Walking through a ghost town involves brushing through hints and whispers of a past that foresaw a very different future than the one which arrived. The ruined windows and barren storefronts whisper a voiceless testament to mortality, quiet enough to be overlooked by a bit of bravado but clear enough to raise goosebumps on those who are either particularly sensitive or looking for a thrill.

Val wasn’t sure she fell into either category, but when she scanned the few buildings which made up Bright Springs, she didn’t feel like she was gazing on anything with ties to the afterlife.

There was something off about Bright Springs, something that made the hair on the back of her neck itch, but it wasn’t an absence like a proper ghost town should have had.

“I could swear we’re being watched,” she said, looking for the spots a sniper would naturally gravitate towards.

“That wouldn’t be unexpected,” Anna said. Her gaze was fixed on the Post Office across the street. “If so however, they seem willing to allow us to make the first move.”

“Where do we start then?” Val asked. It wasn’t a big town, but wherever they went in it she was sure they would find something. Whether it was something that wanted to be found or something they wanted to find was another story.

“Do you see a light on over there?” Anna asked, pointing at the Post Office’s dark windows.

“No,” Val asked, trying hard to see what Anna was talking about. “Do you?”

“It appears I am being invited inside,” Anna said. She brushed off her suit and straightened her shoulders, but didn’t move forward.

“But they don’t want me?” Val asked. There was roughly zero chance of an invitation like that turning out well. Despite that, history suggested there was a fifty-fifty chance that Anna would accept it anyways.

“Do you see any lights on anywhere here?” Anna asked, stretching the fingers on each hand as she contemplated the situation.

“Only the one inside the gas station,” Val said, nodding to the empty building behind them.

“Interesting,” Anna said. “To me, that building looks completely dark.”

“That’s probably not a good sign, is it?” Val asked. Separate perceptions of their surroundings either meant they were being drawn to different, and potentially disconnected, places, or someone was controlling what they could see. Neither was ideal, but neither was completely surprising either.

“Perhaps not, but I do think we can make use of it,” Anna said, unbuttoning her suit jacket. “Let me borrow your racing jacket.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not going to fit,” Val said. The difference in the two women’s builds wasn’t as much a concern as the difference in their height. Anna in Val’s racing jacket would find the bottom of the jacket reaching her navel and the sleeves would barely make it halfway down her forearms.

“We don’t need to wear them,” Anna said. “Just drape it over your shoulders.”

“Ok,” Val said and shrugged off the jacket she wore. “Why are we doing this though?”

“I want you to be my spokesperson,” Anna said. She took Val’s jacket in exchange for her own and dropped it onto her shoulders like a black leather cape.

“That’s not exactly my forte,” Val said, folding Anna’s coat and carrying it over her left arm.

“Whoever is inviting me into the Post Office and you into the gas station has some particular ideas about us,” Anna said. “Since they don’t know us, they probably think I am the leader since I’m older, and you’re my protection.”

“That’s not exactly wrong,” Val said.

“I wouldn’t have asked you to talk Misha over to our side when we took down PrimaLux if I didn’t think you were just as socially adept as I am,” Anna said. “I have a little more experience, but you’re good at reading people. Go see what our friend in the Post Office wants. I’ll deal with the ones they wanted you to tangle with.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to stick together?” Val asked.

“It would but I noticed that the light in the Post Office is only on when I’m the only one looking at it,” Anna said. “As soon as you turned to it, the light went off. I’m guessing the same was true of the gas station.”

“I don’t see a light on inside it at all anymore,” Val said.

“And I do, or I did until you just looked at it,” Anna said. “Take a look at the Post Office.”

“It’s lit up now.”

“And now?” Anna asked, turning to see it’s dark windows staring back at her.

“The light just went off,” Val said.

“Then I believe our invitations are for one only,” Anna said.

“Great. I guess we shouldn’t keep them waiting any longer then, should we?” Val said.

“I suspect they’ve waited quite a long time already, but we do have other matters to attend to,” Anna said.

There was no need to make plans for what to do if they wound up in trouble. Walking into such an obvious trap meant they were in trouble already.  The key was determining exactly how much damage they would need to do in order to get out of that trouble.

***

The door to the Post Office swung open with the creak of a problem long in need of repair. The light Val had followed inside turned out to come from a central ceiling light with an ancient filament bulb above a battered old counter, behind which row of post office boxes sat.

A tall, thin man sat behind the desk working on a crossword puzzle in folded newspaper. His suit looked overly formal for a post office clerk while also being worn and threadbare enough that Val had to wonder why he wouldn’t have chosen something simpler if he wanted to put on a professional appearance. Also, she didn’t pay much attention to men’s fashion, but something about the cut of his suit seemed archaic. Not “Wild West Boom Town chique” but the cut of his lapel and the overall fit of the suit was definitely from earlier in the previous century.

He looked up when she stepped through the door and blinked in confusion.

“Hello?” he asked, sounding unsure as to whether that was an actual word in English anymore. “Can I help you?”

“I think that’s my question for you,” Val said. She and Anna were in Bright Springs to rescue the town after all. It seemed like the Post Office clerk was going to be the last person who could give them the answers they needed to do so though.

Before the clerk could answer, another man stepped forward from the back office area. Where the clerk was tall and thin, his manager was tall and solid. His features held hard lines of masculine beauty that had been chiselled from granite, and his frown looked tight enough to squeeze diamonds out of coal.

“Don’t worry Bill,” the manager said. “I’ll handle this one.”

Val compressed a chuckle into a short huff. She’d grown up with plenty of meatheads who lived in the gym long enough to turn themselves into perfectly taut specimens of testosterone fueled muscle. Contrary to the stereotypes, some of them managed to be decent guys too, but the gleam of malice in the managers eyes was familiar enough that she knew he wasn’t going to be one of the chill bodybuilder types.

“This ought to be good,” she said and glanced towards the manager’s office to see if he wanted to conduct their discussion in private or whether Bill the clerk was going to get a ring side seat.

“Please, step into my office, Ms…?” the manager said, fishing for her name.

“I’m with the Second Chance Club,” Val said, following him into an office that took up the back half of the Post Office.

The manager’s space was subtly different again from what she’d been expecting. Where Bill’s outfit and the faded decor of the reception area spoke of a time decades gone by, the manager’s office held a timeless quality. Nothing within it spoke to a particular time period, but everything spoke of wealth and privilege.

Val was half certain that when she’d stepped through the door to the Post Office, she’d done the equivalent of walking into a fairy ring. She might still be on Earth, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other rules which applied as well. Rules such as names being the key to far more influence over someone than they normally would be.

“I am afraid I have not heard of your organization,” the manager said. On his desk a name plaque gleamed in polished gold reading “Mitchel Miller”. It probably wasn’t his real name, but it was still something to work with.

“We work for Charlene Potestates,” Val said. James, JB, and Tam had all cautioned Val against giving her own name out freely in an unfamiliar realm, but Charlene herself had instructed her employees to use her name whenever they were in unfamiliar lands.

“Oh,” Miller said. “Her.”

His frown turned the delightful shade of sour disgust that told Val she was speaking with exactly the person she needed to be.

“Nice town you have here Mitch,” she said, dropping into one of the chairs in front of Miller’s desk without brushing off the road dust from her pants. She was tempted to prop her feet up on his desk but she knew that would push him over the edge and for the moment she was willing to play things closer to how Anna would have handled them. Diplomatically.

“Why are you here?” Miller asked.

“We’re here to oversee that the revision of ownership for Bright Springs is handled properly,” Val said.

“On whose authority?” Miller asked, sitting behind his desk and scowling at her.

“The Second Chance Club is acting as a neutral party in this affair,” Val said. “At the request of principals from the now defunct PrimaLux Holdings, we are tracking down some accounting irregularities with the older and more exceptional contracts which Prima had on the books.”

The “PrimaLux Principal” in question was Anna’s new friend Zoe, the former Director of Special Operations for PrimaLux, and the request was more along the lines of general tipoff which Zoe had provided to Tam about areas to look into where problems were likely to arise. Val channeled her inner Anna though and decided that Mr. Mitch Miller did not need to be enlightened any more than was convenient for her to tell him.

“There’s nothing for you to shove your noses into here,” Miller said.

“Right, nothing going on here at all,” Val said. She kicked her feet up and dropped them on Miller’s desk.

Anna could have kept him talking, could have dragged Miller around in circles until he was so dizzy from the debate that he collapsed and told her what she wanted to know. Tam knew she didn’t have that kind of patience though. Miller was already annoying her, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before he crossed the line and she was forced to feed him his teeth. Guys like Miller were predictable to a fault. They had to be right, they had to be the most important person in the room, and they absolutely couldn’t tolerate the thought of being called to task for their wrongdoings.

“Get out here!” Miller yelled, jumping to his feet.

Just like Val knew he would.

She took one foot and shoved the desk hard enough to push Miller into the wall.

“No,” she said, and folded her leg back without rising from the chair.

Angry purple veins roared to the surface of Miller’s face as he went crimson with rage. Rather than leaping over the desk at Val though, he began to scrambled to push it away so that he could reach one of the drawers.

She kicked it again, crushing his hand in between the edge of the desk and the window, which brought a torrent of profanity pouring from his mouth. He favored gendered insults, but made time to insult her heritage, her family, and her sexual proclivities as well.

“You’ve got one good hand left,” Val said. “If you want to keep it intact, don’t try to reach for gun in that drawer again.”

“I am going to kill you, you little…”

Val didn’t give him a chance to finish his threat. If he was going to use his mouth to spew hate then she was going to teach him what the consequences of that should be.

Stepping onto the desk, she didn’t bother with any fancy moves.

His mouth was vomiting words, so she shut it.

With her knee.

Hard enough that he crashed through the window behind them and tumbled into the street as the bloody, shattered mess he deserved to be.

Then the town exploded.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 2

The conference room was cluttered, the cool breeze of the air conditioning threatening to blow the already chaotic piles of documents littered around it out of any semblance of order they might once have had.

“I thought paperless offices were the wave of the future?” Val said, holding a half dozen folders spread out like playing cards in her hand.

“I haven’t been home in four days,” Tam said, running her hand through the tangled mess her hair had become. “I don’t think I’ve showered in three. There’s been a lot to keep track of.”

“Have you slept?” Anna asked, placing a small cup of tea down in the limited open space near Tam’s laptop.

“Maybe?” Tam said. “That sounds familiar. Sleep is that thing you do in a bed right?”

“JB would you please take Tam back to her apartment,” Anna said.

“Can’t sleep yet,” Tam said. “There’s too much going on. We need to stay ahead of it.”

“We need to stay capable of dealing with it,” Anna said. “Go. Rest now. Val and I can ride this whirlwind for a while.”

“I’ll be ok, I’m perfectly awake,” Tam said, struggling to suppress a yawn.

“<Somnia>,” James said as he walked by her with a stack of aging books.

Like a balloon deflating Tam slumped down across her laptop, her arms just missing the tea cup Anna had left for her.

“Did you just put a sleep whammy on our magician?” Val asked.

“That was the precursor of a sleep spell,” James said. “Normally it wouldn’t have been enough to put an infant to sleep at naptime, but I suspected Ms. Le might have rather limited resistance to it under the present circumstances.”

“Just how long has she been working?” Val asked, concern slowly coloring her words.

“I think she’s been on this since she got back from Atlantis,” JB said, lifting Tam from her chair and carrying her towards the door. “I checked in with Cynthia yesterday and Tam’s gone back to her apartment a few times but even then she was in research mode. I’ll make sure she stays home this time until she’s rested and back up to speed.”

“What did you folks find in the Drowned City?” Val asked, looking over to Anna.

Anna paused and her gaze went distant for a moment.

“The Drowned City had more that called it home than just the scholars we saved,” Anna said. “There were ancient beings there as well, things that predate the dawn of humanity.”

“From Ms Le’s reports I believe they were older than that,” James said. “There are creatures which dwell in the myth-worlds which predate the formation of the Earth itself. Vast, cosmic powers which devour stars and to whom death is nothing more than a brief slumber before eternity passes and they can rise again to greet a new day.”

“And you met these things?” Val asked, her eyebrows arched in disbelief.

“No,” Anna said. “We saw shrines to them, and discovered texts in Old Atlantean which described their resting places.”

“Why would that put Tam into ‘all work, no play’ mode?” Val asked.

“We visited their resting places too, looking for an option to get back,” Anna said. “That wasn’t good. Most of the tombs were empty.”

“Like grave robbers got there first?”

“No, like something inside pushed itself out, despite all the bindings that the tombs were wrapped in,” Anna said.

“That…doesn’t sound good,” Val said. “Why didn’t you mention it before this though? We’ve been running around everywhere for weeks now dealing with all kinds of stuff. Some of it couldn’t have been as important as stopping the end of the world.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Anna said.

“If the cosmic entities I spoke of had awoken we would not need to question their arrival. They are less creatures as we understand them and more cataclysms given a name and identity,” James said. “For as busy as we have been of late, we have yet to encounter any problems of the scale the Drowned Ones would bring.”

“So why is Tam melting down?” Val asked.

“She is trying to understand how the tombs could be empty without an apocalypse occurring,” James said.

“She’s been doing more than that too,” Anna said. “We’ve been busy because things are moving around. Different people and, in some cases, creatures, are rushing in to fill the power vacuum which PrimaLux’s collapse created. Some of them, like Sycorax, were freed from the binding arrangements they made PrimaLux, others are simply opportunists who seem this as a gold rush on PrimaLux’s former areas of operation and assets.”

“So did PrimaLux have deals with these Drowned Ones? Is that what was holding them out in the myth-worlds?” Val asked.

“We’re not sure,” James said.

“That’s part of what Tam was researching,” Anna said. “The rest was trying to get a handle on the overall trends we’re seeing to determine if there’s some larger player at work.”

“That sounds like a lot of detective work,” Val said.

“In this case, it is less about discovering who is guilty for a past crime and more about predicting who might be the next victim of a future one,” James said. “Ms. Le was able to isolate the incident with the school bus by finding a correlation between PrimaLux’s mining operations and the cage spells they employed on a number of Earth spirits.”

“The Old Green Man was the next spirit on the list to awaken and fortunately she sent me out there in time,” Anna said.

“Was she right then?” Val asked. “Do we need her working here to head those kind of problems off?”

“Yes and no,” Anna said. “Yes, her efforts are invaluable, but no, we don’t need her here at the moment. She’s already located the next issue we need to work on. We need to deal with that before we move on, otherwise we’re going to become too scattered. Let her rest for this one, and we’ll have a much better chance with the next problem, and the one after that, and so on.”

“I’m going to guess this is one we can handle with just the two of us?” Val asked.

“I believe so,” Anna said. “All we need to do is save the souls of a small town.”

***

Val cut her bike’s engine and wiped her face. She hadn’t swallowed the Gobi Desert but she was covered with enough dust that it felt like she had.

“When you said ‘small town’ you weren’t kidding, were you?” Val asked.

Anna had already parked and was pulling off her riding leathers.

“Bright Springs wasn’t a big city even during the gold rush,” Anna said. “From Tam’s notes there were only a few small strikes in the hills we drove through.”

“I’m surprised it’s still here,” Val said. “I thought little old west places like this turned into ghost towns and blew away a hundred years ago?”

“That was my understanding too,” Anna said. “Bright Springs held on though it seems. Tam says it’s location made it a convenient stop in the early 20th century for travelers and it had a well regarded restaurant to draw people in.”

“With a resume like that, if this was the east coast there’d be back to back strip malls here,” Val said looking down the single road which defined the beginning, middle, and end of Bright Springs. Along its left side sat a Post Office, a gas station, and a church. On the other side of the road there was a cemetery, a restaurant named ‘The Silver Spoon’, and a store that either served as a combination convenience store/hardware store or was the town dump. From the lack of organization of the various old fashioned tools strewn about the last store’s porch it was hard to determine its actual function.

“It worries me that no one is around,” Anna said. Underneath her riding leathers she wore one of her standard business suits, the sharp black lines standing out against the dusty backdrop of the town and marking her as a strange sort of alien visitor.

“They had to have heard us coming,” Val said. They’d parked in front of the gas station, both because it was the most reasonable place for travelers to stop and because it gave them the best view of the town, such as it was.

The pumps were old, maybe even the original ones which had been installed when the gas station was built a century prior. Val didn’t know if current safety regulations would allow for a pump to remain in service that long, but more important in her view was that there was no chance it was a self service station and yet no one was coming out to help fill up their tanks.

She looked inside the small station and while the lights were on, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside.

“What were the terms of the deal that PrimaLux had on this place again?” Val asked.

“In return for the town’s mineral rights, PrimaLux agreed to maintain the town in the condition it was at the time,” Anna said.

“There was an exceptional clause in there though wasn’t there?” Val asked. She didn’t want to put away her helmet and gloves. If anything, getting back on her bike and heading on out of town seemed like the smartest idea she could imagine. Something was nibbling at the corner of her vision, a hiccup in the world, that left her jumpy. Leaving would mean leaving Anna behind though and that wasn’t going to happen.

“Yes, it’s what drew Tam’s attention to this place,” Anna said. “There was a buyout clause on PrimaLux’s control of the mineral rights which said that if PrimaLux was ever required to give up their claim, the current holder of the deed would be reimbursed for the remaining physical wealth which was left behind.”

“And when they collapsed, they lost the mineral rights and the new owner of the deed was owed enough money to cover the value of anything that’s buried under the town. How does that get converted to souls though? Shouldn’t souls be priceless?”

“I gather from James that they are, in this context at least,” Anna said. “The key is that the mineral rights contract gave PrimaLux the right to anything more than two feet below the surface of Bright Springs.”

“How far down does that go? Do they own the opposite side of the planet too?” Val asked.

“No, the rights only go to the center of the Earth,” Anna said. “What’s more important is what is included just below the surface.” She nodded towards the graveyard.

“They own the corpses too?” Val asked, feeling sickened but not particularly surprised given Prima’s other projects.

“The corpses wouldn’t be that much of a problem,” Anna said. “The real tricky part came in a tertiary ‘Associated Value’ clause. The townsfolk at the time read it to mean that if there were any minerals in the soil that were part of a larger vein then the whole vein would be covered under the deed. What the wording actually enforced was that anything in the soil belonged to Prima and anything related to it did too.”

“So put a corpse in the ground and the person’s soul was theirs too? That seems like a stretch,” Val said.

“The wording is tricky, long, and in Latin,” Anna said. “It allowed them to get away with a lot more than would have been reasonable, though on the other hand it did require them to keep the town in the exact state it had been when they bought the mineral rights.”

“I was thinking about that part as we rode here,” Val said. “With mystic legalese like that causing problems, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to put the contract owner in violation of the deed and get it nulled out?”

“In theory, yes,” Anna said. “From how the contract was written, I would expect it to be terribly fragile. That it’s survived for over seventy years though argues it may be more resilient than we would think.”

“So what’s our plan then?” Val asked.

“I thought we would start by talking to the townspeople and asking what they know and what they wish to do,” Anna said. “Instead, it seems like we must first find the townspeople, and discover what it is they are hiding from.”

 

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 1

Anna stopped her car before it careened off the side of the road. It was a tricky feat. She’d been driving at triple digit speeds on a road that was barely adequate for pedestrians. Time being of the essence though, she hadn’t been left with much choice.

“Can you see if the school bus is down there?” JB asked over their commlink.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Anna said, looking over the lip of the ravine she had almost plunged into.

“And the children?” JB asked. There was a commotion in the background, words chanted in Medieval French and modern Spanish.

“There is movement within the bus,” Anna said. “They’re too far away for me to see if all of the children are safe though.”

Below her, teetering precariously against the edge of the cliffside, the Yellow Star #5 school bus was perched a quarter of the distance down the incline with only friction and a too small rocky outcropping keeping it from tumbling down.

“We’ve got fire and rescue trucks inbound, but they’re at least twenty minutes away,” JB said. “How stable does the bus look?”

It shifted an inch and then another inch more.

“Not stable enough,” Anna said and popped open the trunk of her car. Inside, lengths of chain and metal cabling awaited her. She reached past those, digging into the depths of the trunk to grab the chainsaw that lay underneath. “I’m going to have to cut them free.”

“Are you sure?” Val asked. “That wouldn’t be easy for a full rescue crew, and we only get one shot at this.”

“I am open to other suggestions,” Anna said. The chainsaw was a specialty model. It’s diamond tipped blades and oversized engine were guaranteed to cut through anything. The guarantee was mere marketing hype, but with the enchantment Tam had placed on it the hype could, in this case, be believed.

“Ok, get one of the drones going,” Val said. “I know we don’t have much time, but I’ve got an idea, I just need to see the layout of everything.”

Val had one of the video equipped drones from her back seat in the air in less than a minute.

“Wow, that’s pretty terrible,” Val said., inspecting the scene on a widescreen monitor.

“The roads are in miserable shape,” Anna said. “And I don’t think our not-so-friendly mountain spirit Old Man Green is done with his tantrum yet.”

“That’s ok,” Val said. “I think we can work with this. Though on a side note, since when do mountains get to decide to have their own personalized earthquakes? That seems pretty unfair to everyone else involved, no?”

“We’ll take it up with the mountain when the children are out of danger,” Anna said, scanning the path down the not-quite vertical cliff face to the bus. There were hand holds, but it wouldn’t be a simple climb even unencumbered. With the chainsaw in tow she was going to have a decidedly “fun” go of things.

“Yeah, right, good point,” Val said. “Ok. Here’s my plan. We don’t need to get the kids out, we just need them to safe. So rather than lifting them up right awaty, we’re going to drop the bus down.”

“That seems like it would be dangerous for the children,” Anna said.

“They’re not going to be in the part that gets dropped,” Val said.

“How is that going too…?” JB started to ask, but Anna supplied the answer in the form of her own question.

“You want me to cut the bus in half? How is that not going to be more dangerous for the children?”

“If you cut an opening to get the kids out, then as you change the number of kids in the bus, its weight will change.  That will cause the bus to move, and you don’t have the equipment to secure it properly.”

“Cutting the bus in two will also cause the weight to change,” Anna said. “Rather drastically.”

“Look at how the bus is situated though,” Val said. “The ledge it’s on is wide enough to hold it, but the front end is hanging off and dragging the rest slowly over the side. It’s only hanging on because the back axle shattered and the back tires are all deflated.”

“I see, remove the front end and the bus will stay settled on the ledge regardless of how many children are extracted from it. Especially since the engine will fall away with the rest of the front, meaning all the weight that’s capable of pulling the rest over the edge will be gone.” JB said before asking. “But can the chainsaw handle that sort of load?”

“Easily,” Tam said, switching to English for a moment as her chant completed. “And we should have a full day before Old Man Green acts up again.”

“That will give us time to be in a better position for the rescue workers,” Anna said. “But we have minutes at most before we’re out of time and options. Are you sure this will work?”

“No,” Val said. “I’m gambling on the chainsaw being implausibly good, and the ledge holding up during the cutting process. I can’t be sure about either of those, but I think this is the best chance we have.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Anna said and began her descent.

The wall was rough from the landslide that had scoured the road out. If she’d been climbing for fun, Anna would have felt the need to add a few flourishes to the climb to impress whoever she was climbing with. On a solo climb though, and with dozens of little lives on the line, she kept her work neat and controlled.

The bus shifted three more times as she crawled down to it, but she didn’t let that distract her or hurry her pace. She was already traveling as fast as she could without running a serious risk of falling. A fall which would leave the trapped children with noone to saved them.

“Sorry you got the call for this one,” Val said.

“I was the closest,” Anna said.

“Yeah, but this kind of thing is my job,” Val said.

“What are those drones showing you? Do I look like I’m getting too old for this?” Anna asked, allowing a trace of levity into her voice.

At fifty six, she knew she’d lost some of the resiliency she enjoyed in her youth. Aches took longer to go away, if they ever disappeared fully at all, and her sleep wasn’t as restful or brief as it had been when she was at her prime. Despite that though, she was happy with how well she’d managed to keep up with her younger teammates.

The trick was to be aware of her actual limitations and reserve the times when she exceeded those to only when it was truly important. For example, when the lives of a busload of children were on the line.

“You’re looking fine,” Val said. “And you’re doing as good as I would have. Probably better. I just like being out in the field.” Her worry wasn’t entirely unfounded Anna knew. If something went wrong, the younger woman would have had more reserved of strength and endurance to meet the challenge with. Anna’s strategy therefore was to substitute experience for stamina and make fewer mistakes. It was a good plan, but inwardly she was all too familiar with the limits of how well one could simply choose to avoid mistakes. Sometimes they just happened, and all she could do was pray this would not be one of those times.

“The next school bus which plunges off a cliff is all yours,” Anna said, grunting as she pulled herself across the cliff to the bus’s rear door.

She’d chosen that end of the bus because it was where the children were gathered, as far from the end that was pitching down as they could get. Anna wasn’t sure if it was an intentional strategy on their part but it was a fortunate one in any case. Their combined weight at the end of the fulcrum the bus teetered on was enough to balance the weight of the engine which gravity was insisting should take a rapid trip towards the bottom of the ravine.

“Is anyone hurt?” she asked when she got close enough for the children to hear her.

“The driver!” one of the fifth graders said, pointing towards the front of the bus.

Anna looked through the back window and saw a woman her own age collapsed in the aisle seat, having fallen out of the driver’s seat at some point in the descent. Anna saw the woman’s chest rise and fall, but other than that the driver was unresponsive.

That complicated things. Anna began to unclip herself from her climbing harness.

“I need someone who is brave and small,” she said, scanning the children’s faces. Two tiny girls both with the same face and same pig tailed hair looked back at her from the horde that had gathered at the window.

“This door is too broken to open,” Anna said, pointing at the twisted mess that had once been the rear exit door. “So I’m going to pass this harness and rope to you. I need one of you to take it to the driver and put the harness around her shoulders.”

It was a lot to ask anyone, especially a fifth grader, and not even vaguely a good idea with a person as injured as the driver, but since the alternative was a fatal plunge to the ravine floor, Anna didn’t hesitate.

“I can do it!” one of the twins said. Her sister stuck out her tongue at her and looked away with aloof disinterest.

Anna passed the climbing harness to her volunteer and climbed onto the bus’s ruined back bumper to add weight in an effort to counteract the effect of the little girl moving forward.

The bus shook and slipped a few more times before the girl had the driver clasped into the harness, but once she did Anna wasted no time hauling the woman to the back.

With the bus as secured as she could make it, she instructed the children, “stay towards the back here, I need to do some cutting,” she held up the chainsaw, “and it’s going to a bit loud. Don’t worry though, I’m just making it so we’ll be safe enough to get out here.”

The children, without exception, looked puzzled but accepting. Anyone who promised safety in the present circumstances was worth listening to in their book.

Anna climbed to the top of the bus and walked forward, keeping a careful eye for end of the ledge.

“It looks like the kids are away from the cutting zone,” Val said. “I’ll keep an eye on them in case they freak out when the sparks start flying but I don’t know if you’ll hear me over the chainsaw.”

“I’ll cut slow,” Anna said.

“No. Don’t,” Val said. “The weight will start shifting when the front end begins to fall. This will be safe if you can make a fast, clean cut.”

“Do chainsaws make cuts that fast through metal?” Anna asked.

“That one does,” Tam said.

Anna had never known Tam to exaggerate her achievements. If anything she tended to undersell herself unless she was on stage and performing a well rehearsed routine. Fearing that this might be the first time she encountered a claim which one of Tam’s enchantments couldn’t live up to, Anna kicked the chainsaw to life and touched it to the bus’s roof.

It slide through the metal like it was cutting through a thin slice of paper.

It took no more than a flick of her wrist for Anna to carve a circle into the bus which she dropped down through, making sure to land on the correct side of the ledge’s end.

The children gasped at her arrival, but their shock turned to a quiet confusion when she flashed them a calm smile before turning back to her work.

Starting at the spot where the floor and wall met between the second and third seats, Anna plunged the mystically sharpened chainsaw into the frame and sliced a cut across the floor, up the other wall, across the roof and down the last wall and fast as she could spin her arms around.

In a mighty shower of sparks, the front of the bus surrendered to gravity and hurtled down to crash into the bottom of the ravine. The remaining bit where Anna and the children were enjoyed a less dramatic fate, settling onto the ledge where they had landed with a solid thump which said it wasn’t going anywhere no matter how people shifted their weight, or who was rescued from it.

“Thank you so much!” each child said as they were pulled, one by one to safety.

All except for the twins.

“Can I be your sidekick!” the volunteer twin asked.

“I just want that chainsaw,” the other said.

People made all sorts of uses of the second chances they got but something told Anna that she should keep an eye on these two over the next decade or two.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 4

Sycorax waited on the beach, enjoying a pleasantly cool beverage with little swizzle stick in it. She would have preferred a tiny umbrella but she could sense her prey drawing near and she wasn’t going to miss their arrival for a minor aesthetic concern.

Once she’d banished the last of the field agents who worked for the detestable Potestates, she could claim the titles she’d lost long ago to PrimaLux and its founders.

“That’s gotta be her,” a muscular young woman said. Another, taller, woman stood beside her. The two weren’t sisters. There was no family resemblance between them. The hard lines they had chiseled their bodies into though were points of similarity strong enough to blur that line.

They had arrived dressed for a day at the beach, unlike the previous pair. Both wore knee length shorts and sports bras with colorful patterns. The only thing out of place about their ensemble were the laced gloves each had hanging over their shoulders.

Sycorax ignored those. Doubtless, they were some form of enchanted weapon, but no sorcerer’s tool could endanger her. Her mastery of the mystic arts exceeded that of any earthly caster by a margin as wide as the Milky Way.

“Greetings to you, daughter of the rock, and to you, daughter of prosperity,” Sycorax said. She knew their names, but what she cared about was their essence. Name a quality of the essence and bind them to your words. It was the simplest of magics, but Earth dwellers were so careless with their identities that simple magics always caught them in Sycorax’s experience.

“This is the witch?” the taller woman, Nike, asked.

“No,” Val said. “She’s not a witch. Witches aren’t bad guys. Well except for Yasmin Jones, but that’s just till she pays me back the five hundred bucks she owes me.”

Sycorax smiled. The daughter of the rock wasn’t taking the situation seriously. It was as good as over already.

“But she is the one we’re looking for right?” Nike asked.

“Oh, definitely,” Val said and shrugged the gloves off her shoulder. They were big puffy things, red, with laces that secured them over a good part of the wearer’s wrists.

Sycorax kept smiling. She’d seen a wide array of mystic talismans employed to thwart her aims over the centuries, but these had to be the silliest ones anyone had yet chosen to wield.

“Come now, Earthborn champions, it is time for you to follow your destiny and sacrifice yourselves in an attempt to save those dear to you,” Syrcorax said. It had been so long since she’d been able to sport with earthly mortals, it would have been fundamentally wrong not to enjoy toying with them.

And what could the harm be? They were already doomed. The poor fools were simply too limited to see it.

From the moment they’d arrived, Sycorax had felt their intention pressing in on the space around her. Valeria Perez and Oyenike Lapido, two warriors who did not kill (an absurdity in Sycorax’s view), had come before her with the sole purpose to retrieve those she had already lured to the depths of her Lost Ocean.

It wasn’t a question of whether they could escape or not. The two women didn’t have any interest in walking away. All of Sycorax’s schemes and contingency plans for them refusing to fall into her trap were unnecessary. The fools had no thought for their own safety. Their only concern was reaching their friends in time, before the fold between the world unraveled.

“Lace me up?” Nike asked.

Val helped secure the puffy gloves on Nike’s hands before wiggling her own hands into the oversized gloves she’d brought.

“Offer me tribute and I will set you on the path you need to walk,” Sycorax said. “Deny me the honor I am due and you will wander for all eternity.”

It wasn’t true. They would perish before more than a handful of days had passed no matter what they did. Extracting offerings from her prey pleased Sycorax though, and would grant them the small measure of immortality in that she might some day remember them if she spied their treasure, whatever it might be, in the gleaming horde she planned to collect from the Earth.

“She wants us to give her what she’s due?” Nike asked.

“Think she knows what she’d asking for?” Val asked.

“Pretty sure she wouldn’t be asking for it if she did,” Nike said.

It occurred to Sycorax that neither woman was speaking to her. Neither in fact seemed to be acknowledging anything she said. That set her left eyebrow twitching. She was an Elder Being. She was not to be ignored.

Val stepped up to her, hands held in front her body in what could have been supplication.

It wasn’t.

Sycorax felt her jaw shatter as something with the force of a runaway cement mixer collided with the side of her face.

Blinking back pain she hadn’t experienced in an eternity, she struggled, stumbling backward but keeping her feet beneath her.

A city bus hit her in the ribs, fracturing them.

It wasn’t possible. She wasn’t made of mortal clay. She couldn’t be broken.

Val disagreed.

Sycorax tried to spin their names into a binding.

A red glove collided head on with her face and the words were broken to pieces.

Rubbing blood from her lips, she blinked and found the two hard women standing over her.

She’d fallen?

“How?” She gasped out with a weak breath.

“You out magicked Tam, and social-fu’d Anna,” Val said. “So I decided not to take any chances.”

“”But you cannot hurt me!” Sycorax said. The pain was nothing. The damage was nothing. She wasn’t human. All wounds could heal in an instant if she chose. All pain could be ignored or forgotten. Except none of that should have occurred in the first place.

Not from a human.

And certainly not from so small a creature as one of the women which Potestates employed. They had the credit for felling PrimaLux, but PrimaLux’s downfallen had been more attributable to its founders shortcomings and the weak links of failure sown throughout the organization.

“We can’t hurt you?” Nike asked. “Ok, I guess we can keep going.”

She raised her right hand but Sycorax flinched away, raising her hands to ward off the blow.

“So here’s how this is going to work,” Val said, towering over Sycorax like one of the primordial titans. “You’ve got a whole spiel you want to lay on us. We’re not listening to any of that. We’re going to rescue Tam and the rest. All three of us. Whatever fate she meets, you’re going to meet it too.”

“Oh and if you think you’re immortal,” Nike said. “Allow us to assure you that with what we can do to you, that’s the last thing you want to be.”

Sycorax looked from one woman to the other. She considered the stratagems available to her. Every path open to her ended in disaster. Worse, none led to the recovery of her stolen titles.

“We can’t go after them,” Sycorax said. “They are in a labyrinth of corrupted desire.”

“Yeah, we know about that,” Val said. “James figured out how your puzzle box is setup.”

“Then you know that seeking them will ensure we cannot find them,” Sycorax said. “And even if we did, we could never escape. The labyrinth will turn our intentions against us. The more we struggle to achieve them, the harder the resistance will be.”

“Let us worry about that,” Val said.

“Sacrificing me won’t save them,” Sycorax said. It was what PrimaLux and so many others would have tried, so she had made certain to close that loophole in her trap’s design.

“Lucky for us we don’t work like that,” Val said, and lifted Sycorax to her feet.

Sycorax felt her wounds knit back into place. The damage done was an illusion because the body she wore was as much illusion as reality. She couldn’t quite forget the blows she’s suffered though. They were a puzzle and an irritation and a mystery. She found herself following Val and Nike as much to learn the answer to their strength as anything else.

“They lie at the bottom of the Lost Atlantic, in the ruins of Drowned Atlantis,” Sycorax said as they stepped across the fold and into the other Earth.

“What’s that  tower?” Nike asked, looking out across the long descending hill which was the ocean floor. Around the tower tower strange beasts of a thousand different shapes soared and swooped. The world before them was unmistakably alien, but it shared a fundamental connection to the one they knew. It wasn’t home but even the strangest alien elements felt somehow familiar and alluring.

“That was my first snare,” Sycorax said. “It is what drew the daughters of Lighting and Fire into this realm.”

“James said it was a Tower of High Atlantean Sorcery,” Val said. “And that it was an illusion, which I guess is bad.”

“Imagine a library with all the knowledge you could ever seek,” Sycorax said.

“That doesn’t sound that bad,” Nike said.

“Now imagine trying to find what you need there, amidst a sea of infinite knowledge,” Sycorax said.

“It’s called the Dewey Decimal System,” Val said.

“Or Google,” Nike said.

“But it wouldn’t really be a trap if it was organized would it?” Val said. “Or if it didn’t come with a compulsion to keep studying a problem endlessly.”

“You understand more than your companion did,” Sycorax said.

“Not really,” Val said. “Tam bypassed the tower, and I’m just repeating what James told me.”

“Yes, I planned on that. She was adept enough to see the danger. As I expected, she sought deeper, more dangerous answers, which led her to her doom,” Sycorax said. “As for her mentor, his work is irrelevant. He makes no mark on this world, his own domicile confines him more securely than my trap ever could.”

“Wrong on both counts,” Val said. “Tam wasn’t seeking answers. She was looking for mysteries that you hadn’t explored yet. And James? Everyone makes a mark on the world. James just does it from behind the scenes, by supporting the rest of us.”

“How do you know this?” Sycorax asked.

“Because I told them,” Tam said, stepping from a shadow from behind them.

“But you are trapped in the Great Depths! You can’t be here. Drowned Atlantis does not give up those who cross its borders!” Sycorax couldn’t see how her plan had come undone. Nothing that was happening made sense by the rules she knew.

“The Sovereign of the Realm decides its rules,” Anna said. She and a party of twenty others, including Cynthia and Zoe, stepping from around a bend in the path which lead down to the bottom of the ocean.

“Drowned Atlantis has no sovereign,” Sycorax said, eyeing the party with suspicion. In its ranks were men in monastic robes from centuries before, women in laced dresses from the turn of last century, and people in suits from decades past.

“It had no Sovereign,” Anna corrected her..

“Bow before your Queen,” Cynthia said, gesturing to Tam.

“That is absolutely not necessary,” Tam said.

“How?” Sycorax asked. “How is she Queen?”

“Drowned Atlantis has been collecting scholars and seekers of the unknown for a long time,” Tam said. “Time runs differently in the Depths though so most, or maybe all, of them are still alive and searching for the answer that drew them here.”

“But they are not Atlanteans,” Sycorax said.

“They weren’t,” Anna agreed. “But once Drowned Atlantis claimed them, they, in turn, gained a claim on it.”

“It was a clever trap,” Zoe said. “You just missed the part where someone else might change the rules of the game on you part way through.”  She shot Anna an accusatory look.

“But none of them was a sovereign,” Sycorax said.

“Funny thing about that,” Cynthia said. “We explained things to them, and the New Atlanteans were all pretty happy to elect Tam as Queen once she promised her first royal act would be to set everyone free.”

“There is a more important matter at hand though,” Tam said.

“Take care,” Sycorax said. “You may be able to order my execution, but my death curse can strike down even the Queen of Atlantis.”

“She’s really into the whole death thing, isn’t she?” Val asked.

“People play hardball where she comes from I guess,” Nike said.

“We have no intention of taking your life,” Anna said.

“We wanted to understand why you would do this,” Tam said.

“We figured it wasn’t just for power,” Cynthia said.

“There are other, better methods of acquiring power than baiting people like this,” Zoe said. “But I know PrimaLux carved a lot of mystical power base out of people like you, so I was able to guess what it was that connected you to this place, and what it was they’d taken from you.”

“The fold to this world is unraveling already, so we don’t have long,” Tam said. “But before it fades, we want you to have this.”

She handed a coral encrusted ring to Sycorax.

Sycorax blinked, her breath escaping in short, panicked gasps.

“My ring?” she asked.

Tam nodded.

As Sycorax put her finger through the ring, the encrusted coral fell away and a brilliant circle of multi-hued crystal was revealed.

“I was looking for my lost titles,” she stammered, unable to believe what she held in her hand.

“The titles were only the smallest portion of who you are, Daughter of the Seas,” Tam said. “Take back what was lost when your realm fell below the waves. Reclaim the Heart of the Ocean. Atlantis is reborn and it is yours once more.”

***

A mountaintop retreat was about as far as they could manage to get from the sea, and in Tam’s view that was the best possible location for their debriefing session.

“So what does it mean that Atlantis is back?” Nike asked.

“For us? Less than you might think,” Tam said.

“Atlantis is a mythical land,” James said. “It’s history touches on our own in only a few spots.”

“So we can’t take a boat out to visit it then?” Val asked.

“Not unless the boat is driven across the waves by a sprite who knows which stars to follow,” James said.

“Think of it like it’s on another world, which is close enough to the truth,” Tam said. “We can get that with some magical cheatery but otherwise its in its own little corner of reality.”

“But you’re still Queen of it right?” Cynthia asked.

“Not exactly,” Tam said. “I was Queen of Drowned Atlantis. When we restored Sycorax’s position and brought Atlantis back, it wasn’t drowned anymore, so no more sunken city, no more Queen to rule it.”

“What about all those people you found?” Val asked. “Why did they stay with Sycorax when the fold started coming undone? I thought they wanted to get out of Atlantis?”

“They wanted out of Drowned Atlantis,” Tam said. “Aka the dead version of the city. Sycorax’s Atlantis will be a living, breathing place.”

“And one without the corruption of intention turning their efforts against them,” James said.

“Plus, there is one other thing in its favor,” Anna said.

“Yes, the fold is gone, but a bridge remains open,” James said.

“I was wondering if you would do that,” Zoe said. “Why give Sycorax a second chance to cause you trouble? You know she’s capable of it.”

“She has lived in a world dominated by powers who seek to tear each other down,” Anna said.

“She needs a chance to see another way for things to be,” Tam said.

“And that’s what we do,” Val said.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 3

Val woke to the buzzing of a phone that she was certain was both turned off and missing its battery.

“This cannot be a good sign,” she grumbled, slapping her hand on the nightstand trying to find the horrid device so she could shatter it into a thousand pieces.

It took several seconds before she managed to find the wiley little rectangle and when she did her fingers somehow brushed both the “Accept” button and the “Speaker” option. Not that either Accept or Speaker were available on the back of the phone where her hand landed, but then that didn’t seem to matter any more than the missing battery did.

“Ms. Perez,” James said, his voice far clearer than her phone’s external speaker should have produced. “There has been a development which Ms. Ilyina has requested your aide in resolving.”

“Ugh, tell Anna to go to hell,” Val groaned and felt the sleeping form next to her begin to stir.

“I’m afraid that might be where she is,” James said. His concern sounded real but it was so restrained by the tension in his voice that it didn’t quite penetrate the haze which still gripped Val’s only partially awake mind.

“That’s good,” Val mumured, flinging the phone to the other side of the room, before her brain finished parsing James’ words.

“I believe she is counting on you to extricate both herself, Ms. Le, and their companions,” James said, his voice no more distant than it had been before she tossed her phone away. “Failing that, I will need to give it my best try.”

Val sat bolt upright.

“What?” James did not do field work. James was abysmal at fieldwork. If ever anyone was specifically born to live in a library and read books, it was James.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t go out. Val, and Anna, and Tam had dragged him out to celebrations more than once. Each time though illustrated just how poor he was at dealing with things like “exciting situations”, or “the hint of danger”, or even just “normal people”.

“James, what has happened?” Val asked, fully awake and alert.

“Ms. Le and Ms. Ilyina have gone missing,” James said. “Ms Le has been missing for over a day now. Ten minutes ago, Ms Ilyina stepped over into the world where we believe Ms. Le is being detained.”

“Anna knew where she was going?” Val asked.

“Yes,” James said. “She spoke with an entity calling themself Sycorax who claimed to have captured Ms Le.”

“Good,” Val said. “That means Anna has a plan. Did she tell you to call for me, or is this standard procedure?”

“She requested we contact you immediately,” James said.

“Damn,” Val said. “I’ve got to get moving now then.”

“Unfortunately the general conditions for our respective locations are not suitable for portal transportation, and I am afraid I did not think to enchant any of your belongings to accommodate it under the conditions we do have.”

“That’s ok,” Val said. “I would have thrown out anything with special mojo on them even if you had thought of them.”

After the PrimaLux work, Val had been stuck dealing with a bunch of the fallout from Prima’s Special Assets team, including the subdual of some genuinely icky mystical beasts. When the time had rolled around for her to take a vacation, she’d been feeling rather aggressive about having a nice stretch of uninterrupted time off without any of the magical hijinks that characterized her work life.

Of course, even that hadn’t worked out exactly as planned.

“Is someone else trying to destroy you?” a goddess asked, clearing the sleep from her eyes as she propped herself up on her elbow on the bed beside Val.

“I’m sorry Aranae,” Val said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I can take this outside if you like?”

“No, don’t worry,” Aranae said. “I’m already awake.” She yawned. “Sort of.”

“My apologies for interrupting your vacation time,” James said, sounding embarrassed enough that Val had to wonder if whatever spell he was using allowed for a visual as well as auditory connection. Val doubted it, James was too scrupulous to omit mentioning something like that, and too conservative on his expenditure of the club’s resources to waste the magic when a voice link was sufficient for his needs.

“It had to be done,” Val said. “Damn those two though. Couldn’t they wait one more week before they got in trouble again? Or even like five days?”

“When I cast you all into the Abyss, I can make sure they land on the bottom,” Aranae offered.

Val shook her head and gave the goddess beside her a gentle bap on the shoulder.

“So no teleporting home?” Val said. “How soon can Jimmy B have a car out front for me?”

“One will be there in five minutes,” James said.

Val groaned.

“I love that boy, but does he have to be so damn efficient all the time.” She’d been hoping for at least an hour to say goodbye to her…she wasn’t exactly sure what Aranae was to her when she took a moment to think about it. An enemy in theory? A frenemy? Whatever it was, it was complicated enough that they’d have to work it out some time else.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to need to leave before the sun rises anyways,” Aranae said.

Val inhaled and held her breath for a moment before sighing away her regrets.

“You know how to find me, right?” she asked.

“When I care to,” Aranae said, mischief crinkling her eyes.

Val turned and kissed Aranae back down into the pillows, her lips tingling from the slightest hint of Aranae’s venom. Pushing around a literal goddess carried certain risks, but their relationship, brief as it had been, had consisted primarily of play fighting and even more playful flirting, at least once they’d made it beyond the initial awkward stage, so combining the two seemed like fair game.

“Stay in touch,” Val said when she broke the contact between them, “At least until you’re ready to cast us into the abyss.”

Normal relationships were for normal people, Val decided, and despite the dangers of dating a goddess of chaos, she was kind of curious to see how it would turn out.

With Aranare’s smile to encourage her, Val she hopped out of bed, and got dressed. There wasn’t time to gather her things, but she knew she could count of Jimmy B to have her back there. That was how the Second Chance Club worked, and even with the lack of sleep, she wasn’t about to let her friends down.

***

While teleportation wasn’t an option, Jimmy B was able to work his own brand of magic and got Val back to the Second Chance Club’s headquarters in record time. Inside a small gathering awaited her as soon as she stepped inside.

“The good news,” JB said, “Is that nothing’s changed.”

“The bad news,” James said. “Is that nothing’s changed.”

“Ok, bring me up to speed then,” Val said. “It sounds like whoever this Sycorax is, they jumped Tam out of the blue, and then surprised Anna too?”

“I’ve done some more scrying and it’s not quite that simple,” James said. “Please take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt though. There were significant distortions to sort through, so seeing what happened clearly was even more difficult than usual.”

“I thought difficulties tended to make overt spells fizzle?” Val asked.

“In most cases yes,” James said. “In this particular situation though there was a large enough violation of mundane reality that disguising it would have been close to impossible. With Ms. Le and Ms. Ilyina having been present, I had our connections to draw on to help navigate the shadows which cloud the actual past.”

Val knew that James was simplifying things for her. A fully detailed explanation would involve delving too deeply into the sort of arcana metaphysics that required years of study she hadn’t put in and had no intention of ever pursuing.  She could work with the simplified version and rely on Tam to handle the finer details.

Once she got Tam back of course.

“So what did you see?” she asked.

“Ms. Le and her friend Ms. Williams were enjoying a day at the beach when they were drawn in by a…” James searched for a simple term for the phenomena. “A fold between worlds.”

“Like one world overlayed the another?” Val asked.

“Exactly that,” Jame said.

“What was the other world like?” Val asked. “You’d mentioned ‘Hell’, which leaves me wondering why Tam wouldn’t have jumped right out of there?”

“I couldn’t see the world they stepped over too distinctly, but I was able to measure its properties to a degree,” James said. “It is a Lost Ocean, meaning a world where the bottom of the ocean is traversable as easily as the land because the waters have been removed, leaving bare the secrets that were once hidden in the depths. What Ms. Le saw was a world like our own but filled with mysteries. Please understand I do not mean mysteries such as you would find in a detective novel. These mysteries are creatures and things which have been lost or hidden for a reason.”

“Like demons?” Val asked.

“Some demons fall into that category. Also some places, and some mystical creatures which were once residents of our world but were banished or left of their own accord,” James said.

“So, dangerous then?” Val said. “Could Tam not get away from that on her own?”

“I believe she could have,” James said. “At least originally. When the fold occurred, she and Ms. Williams would have been standing within both worlds. Ms. Le is practiced enough to shunt them back fully to our own world if she’d chosen.”

“But she didn’t?”

“That is where the trap lies,” James said. “The fold would have at first looked like the start of an incursion. Incursions are far more rare than they are believed to be, and in the overwhelming number of cases bring more benefit to our world than peril. Ms. Le may have been concerned about those who would try to profit from the creatures that might become stranded in our world, or she may have simply wished to investigate what would have seemed like a very odd occurrence. Once she stepped into the other world though, she would have felt the trap’s pull.”

“That had to be an unreal trap if it caught her. I’ve seen Tam escape some pretty incredible stuff,” Val said.

“In this case I believe she was trying to protect others,” James said. “Exploring mysteries is a temptation for any researcher into the arcane, but in this instance, someone, likely this Sycorax, weaponized the natural curiosity mysteries evoke and turned it into a compulsion. I have no doubt that Ms Le would be capable of breaking free of the enchantment if she chose to, but from reading the threads of the spell that remained it our world it seemed clear that the compulsion would have then reached out and drawn in another victim instead.”

“So she went with it and headed in to find out how to break the compulsion safely?” Val asked. “That sounds like our Tam. Why didn’t she send Cynthia back though?”

“I am not sure,” Jame said. “It would have been the sensible thing to do.”

“Yeah, unless, could she have known that the compulsion was artificially created?” Val asked.

“Almost certainly,” James said.

“That’s why then,” Val said. “If she knew that someone was behind the magic that trapped them then she wouldn’t separate from Cynthia and risk this Sycorax picking off her girlfriend while Tam was distracted playing riddle games or whatever.”

“I suppose it’s possible that Ms. Williams would have elected to remain with Ms. Le as well,” James said. “I doubt firefighters are used to leaving people behind in dangerous situations.”

“Probably not, and even more so in this case,” Val said. “So what about Anna?”

“Ms. Ilyina and Ms. Skillings arrived at fold’s location and were greeted by a person calling themselves Sycorax. We have a transcript of their dialog and an audio recording if you wish to review it.”

“I will, but summarize it for me,” Val asked.

“Sycorax admitted to trapping Ms Le and invited to Ms Ilyina to enter the trap as well,” James said. “Sycorax claimed that they were going to capture you all and that you would go willingly.”

“Interesting plan,” Val said. “There’s an obvious method of disrupting it – I can just stay here – but I’m going to bet that’s not an option is it?”

“Very likely not,” James said. “Folds are unstable and short lived by their nature. That this one still exists and connects these our two worlds is probably only due to Sycorax’s interference. If they have reason to believe you will not be joining the other two in their trap, then they can release the fold and strand our friends in a world which is will be exceedingly difficult to return from.”

“So Anna went in to ensure the trap stayed open for a while longer, and to buy me time to use what she learned by talking to Sycorax? I’m willing to bet that Tam can get them all back, but Sycorax has engineered this to demonstrate that at the very least it’s going to take a while. If it’s months or years, that’s a long time for me to have to hold the line on my own. Of course if we’re all lost forever then there’s nobody to hold the line, so that’s bad too.”

“It does not seem as though they have left you with any good options,” James said. “What are you going to do?”

Val thought for a moment and then smiled.

“I think I’m going to pick up a friend, some old gloves and then introduce this Sycorax to a few very bad options.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 2

Anna was in peril. Her opponent’s forces were closing in from all sides and her resources had dwindled to practically nothing. What was worse though was that no matter where she looked, she couldn’t see a plan that would let her escape.

“At the very least, you did better this time than last,” Zoe, the former Director of Prima Lux’s Special Assets division, said from the other side of the polished table between them.

“It is some comfort to be improving,” Anna said. “But it is infuriating that I can’t see how this is going to end.”

Despite Anna’s deepest focus and concentration on it, the chessboard refused to divulge any secrets as the outcome of the match being played.

“I have three plays that put you in checkmate in five turns,” Zoe said. “You can block them but not without leaving me an opening that lets me checkmate you in eight turns.”

“Let’s play it out,” Anna said. “I want to see what it looks like for next time.”

“I have to confess,” Zoe said. “I expected you to be a stellar player already. You have the mind for it.”

“Being smart is no match for being experienced,” Anna said. “Especially not when your opponent is both smart and experienced.”

“Just not smart or experienced enough to win when it really counted,” Zoe said.

“Are you sure of that?” Anna asked.

“I will admit that, as private villas in the south of France go, this view from my own Elba is quite lovely,” Zoe said. “For as pleasant as the climate, and the companionship, is however, it doesn’t change the fact that you outplayed me when I was at the pinnacle of my game with the best resources I could have asked for.”

“Can you outplay someone who’s tacitly complicit in their own plan going astray?” Anna asked. “It seems like the results of that encounter were due to a team effort more than anything else.”

“Are you suggesting that I sold out my former employers?” Zoe asked, with mock offense.

“Not intentionally perhaps,” Anna said. “On some level though you certainly knew the limitations of your position, and I have every confidence that you were able to workout what you truly wanted for yourself and your team, at least on a subconscious level.”

“I think you give me more credit than I am due,” Zoe said. “I can promise you I wasn’t trying to lose in that struggle.”

“And you demonstrably did not,” Anna said, gesturing to the house and grounds around them.

“Does this represent anything more than highly tempting bait though?” Zoe asked.

“You haven’t signed onboard with the club yet, so I can see why it might look like that,” Anna said. “There’s no strings attached to this however. This place is yours regardless of whether you want to stay independent or choose to become a member.”

“It’s a valuable resource,” Zoe said. “Why wouldn’t you put it to better use?”

“A few reasons,” Anna said. “First, even if you remain independent, I might want to bounce ideas off you and that will be easier if we have a place to meet. Second, this was once one of Prima Lux’s possessions. With their disintegration, Tam has been picking up their former holdings for a song. This particular piece of property however wasn’t directly owned by Prima Lux. It purchased via a bit of embezzlement by one of the senior managers. Establishing any sort of legal claim over it is going to take years, years during which having an actual caretaker living in the house will ensure that it is maintained in fine condition. Lastly, we both know that you could maneuver yourself into a position much nicer than this if you chose to. Since I don’t wish to fight against you again, arranging for a comfortable, if temporary, retirement seems like an easy solution to that dilemma.”

“So it’s not meant to be a gilded cage?” Zoe asked.

“Is there gold enough to make a cage that could hold you?” Anna asked in reply.

“I’m not sure,” Zoe said. “I can only say that I haven’t seen one which is gilded enough yet.”

“Perhaps it needs to be gilded with something other than gold then,” Anna said a moment before her phone began to buzz.

The caller ID on the display read “James Baughsley”, but the Second Chance Club’s senior Arcanist shouldn’t have had any reason to disturb Anna while she was on vacation. Unless of course something had gone terrible wrong.

“Anna? We have a problem,” James said, confirming her suspicions the moment she identified herself.

“What’s happened to Tam?” Anna asked.

“She’s missing,” James said. “But how did you know it was her?”

“You’re calling me, which says the issue is either supernatural, because it’s you calling, in which case you would have called Tam first if she was available, or the issue is with Tam herself,” Anna said. “How long has she been missing.”

“Twenty four hours,” James said. “She went to the beach with her girlfriend and no one has seen them since.”

“Are there any signs of magical foul play?” Anna asked.

“Always,” James said. “The Crystal Sands beach they visited is a thriving tourist area at the moment, but even so there were traces of an incursion from the sea.”

“Any reports of strange sightings?” Anna asked.

“No, and that’s the odd thing,” James said. “I can’t perform a full ritual there while the crowds are around, but even without that, an incursion on the scale I can detect should have been visible to someone.”

“That suggests they were targeting Tam directly. Can you work any kind of magic there to help locate her?” Anna asked.

“Not there,” James said. “I would need to setup a temporary lab, and that would attract enough attention to spoil any spells I tried to work in it.”

“See if you can do anything from your own lab then,” Anna said. “I’ll be on the first flight home.”

“Leaving so soon?” Zoe asked.

“My apologies,” Anna said. “It may be for nothing.”

“Of course,” Zoe said. “Because in our line of work, apparent problems so often work out to be nothing to be concerned about.”

“There is always a chance of being pleasantly surprised,” Anna said. “But, yes, in this case I doubt I will be. Le Li Tam has gone missing.”

“This would be the same Le Li Tam who out fought a PrimaLux strike team and penetrated the wards which were keeping some cosmic entities imprisoned in Aaliyah’s sanctum?” Zoe asked.

“Yes, the same,” Anna said.

“I believe I will travel with you then,” Zoe said. “If you would tolerate my company?”

“I might even find it quite agreeable,” Anna said.

***

The flight back from France to the US took time. Passing through customs took time. Traveling from the airport to the Crystal Sands beach took time. Anna counted each minute of that time, and each second, but no matter how tightly she clutched at them, the sands flowed ceaselessly through the hourglass.

“What do you expect to find here?” Zoe asked, as they stepped out of their rental car onto the shimmering sands of the beach.

“I expect to find several normal people enjoying a day at the shore,” Anna said. “What I hope to find is some communication from the one responsible for Tam’s disappearance.”

“And if that someone is still around?” Zoe asked.

“Then we’ll discuss Tam’s return,” Anna said.

“Do you have any pieces to play though?” Zoe said. “We just arrived here.”

“There are always some pieces on the board,” Anna said. “Even if occasionally that means using your opponent’s pieces against them.”

“This should be rather enlightening then,” Zoe said.

“James, can you provide any more specific coordinates for where Tam was last seen?” Anna asked, tapping her earbud which was in place since she was back on duty.

“I am afraid I can’t,” he said. “Something has left the mystical energies in that area threaded like the Gordian knot. I can say that Tam had expressed interest in being close to the ocean. She was looking forward to swimming with Cynthia.”

“We’ll search along the water’s edge then,” Anna said. “Tam may have left us some breadcrumbs to follow.”

“Jimmy B says he didn’t see anything when he searched for her,” James said. “He is suggestion caution nonetheless. I gave him some warding charms and they burned out before he had a chance to search more than a small area.”

“Why aren’t we carrying warding charms?” Zoe asked.

“The ones we have access to are demonstrably insufficient in this case,” Anna said. “Also, I would rather not tip off the person or persons responsible for Tam’s disappearance that we are here, if at all possible.”

“Reasonable,” Zoe said. “I do wonder if we shouldn’t have brought more backup though?”

“I left a message for Val,” Anna said. “Until we know what we’re dealing with though, I would prefer to limit our exposure.”

“Personally risky, but strategically sound,” Zoe said. “That’s entirely in character for you isn’t it?”

“It’s not my preferred mode of operation, but you and I are the best resources I have for negotiation and information gathering, so I work with what is available,” Anna said.

“And what might you be gathering information on?” a woman in dark blue and green robes asked. Her clothes were wholly out of place for a day at the beach, but she didn’t show any signs of sweltering in them.

“Unless I miss my guess, you,” Anna said, turning around to evaluate the woman.

She was tall, easily a full head and shoulder over Anna, who wasn’t short by any reckoning. Her skin tone changed depending on the angle, ranging from the pink of an oyster shell to the blues and blue-greys of the rolling ocean waves

“You do not wish to know me,” the woman said, “You wish to understand the fate of your friends.”

“That too,” Anna said. “But to understand what has happened to them, I believe I will have to understand you.”

“I see why the First Light had such trouble with you,” the woman said.

“Do you have a name?” Anna asked.

“I have been called Sycorax,” the woman said. “You needn’t give me yours in exchange. Your reputation precedes you, daughter of Iron and Snow.” She nodded towards Anna. “And yours as well, Fallen Child.” She nodded toward Zoe.

Zoe turned to glance at Anna, a deceptive smile curling her lips.

“You got the nicer epithet,” she said.

“Be glad she doesn’t know you as well as she thinks she does,” Anna said. “Though if she knows me, then perhaps she will be reasonable and provide the information we need on Tam?”

“Of course,” Sycorax said. “Why else arrange all this if not to allow you the chance to destroy yourselves?”

“And why would we do that?” Zoe asked.

“To save Tam,” Anna said. “Go ahead, set your trap.”

“And you will walk into it?” Sycorax asked.

“On one condition,” Anna said.

“Are you in a position to set conditions?” Sycorax asked. “You may have dismantled PrimaLux but you will find I am not quite so fragile as they were.”

“I imagine so,” Anna said. “PrimaLux had investments around the world. It allowed them to develop rapidly, and gave them a wide power base, but it also made them a broad target. I will guess that you are more individually potent than they were, but with a smaller scope to your reach?”

“Not a smaller scope,” Sycorax said. “Rather, a better appreciation for the value of patience. PrimaLux wanted to achieve their aims as quickly as they could. I am more concerned with seeing my plans come to fruition at some point, regardless of how far in the future that might be.”

“And Tam represented a threat to those plan?” Anna asked.

“You all do,” Sycorax said. “I had agreements in place with PrimaLux which prevented me from exercising my powers on this world. So long as those were binding, there was no reason for conflict between us. With PrimaLux gone however, new opportunities have arisen which must be seized.”

“It would have been better to find a path we wouldn’t oppose,” Anna said.

“Possibly, but this method is so much more certain,” Sycorax said. “State your condition.”

“Swear on your name that what you tell me about Tam is true,” Anna said. “I will follow her but only if the path you speak of will truly lead to her.”

Sycorax laughed.

“Foolish snow born, of course I will swear to that on my name. Why would I use false bait for a trap when you will destroy yourself so readily if your Tam is truly in distress?” she said. “The one you seek walks below the sea, pursuing wisdom. She will never find it alone though, and all who follow her will share her fate.”

“And you will open the path to follow Tam beneath the sea?” Anna asked.

“It already lies before you,” Sycorax said, gesturing down the beach.

The tourists were gone, the beach empty, and the sky a stranger purple-gray. The waves which lapped against the shore contained strange shapes in them and seemed to be made of nothing more substantial than clouds.

Anna turned to Zoe.

“Thank you for coming this far,” she said. “I’ll go on from here alone. Please return and tell the others what has happened. It should help them retrieve us.”

“I don’t think so,” Zoe said. “I’ve had the comm open this whole time. They know as much as we do. I think I’ll travel with you for a bit longer.”

“Your presence will change nothing Fallen Child,” Sycorax said.

“That’s alright,” Zoe said. “What’s a little mortal peril if you’re facing it with a friend?”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 1

Sunlight was supposed to darken skin tones and brighten the sand it shone on. That it seemed to be doing the reverse left Tam with a snarl of irritation wrinkling her nose.

“Should the sun be doing that?” Cynthia said, slowly taking her sunglasses off.

“Not on this planet it shouldn’t,” Tam said, sketching a quick circle in the sand around their towels and umbrella.

It had been Cynthia’s idea to spend a day at the beach. The weather was perfect for it and neither of them had anywhere to be, with Cynthia enjoying a day off from her fire department, and Tam in-between shows and back in town while she began to prep the next one.

The Crystal Sands beach wasn’t exactly a quiet hideaway where they could enjoy the beauty and peace of nature in each others company. There were far too many other people present for that to be true. It was a beautiful spot even with the crowds though, and up until she’d noticed the peculiar inversion of the sunlight, Tam had been focused quite intently on enjoying her girlfriend’s company.

Being apart as much as they were wasn’t ideal, but it had been working out for them in the months since they’d met aboard a doomed ocean liner. Video calls made things easier than they would have been in the ancient days before civilization and cell phones existed, but it was the sweetness of the days they got to spend together which made the night’s alone worth it.

Since the sun probably hadn’t decided to change its normal mode of operation, there was in all likelihood someone responsible for its current state. Someone Tam would need to deal with, from the strange itch she felt clawing away at her.

That put “Operation: Make Them Regret Ruining a Perfectly Good Date” as “Go for Liftoff” in Tam’s mind. All she needed to do was find the person who needed to be launched to the Moon, and then strap them to a rocket or other suitably explosive device.

“A magic circle?” Cynthia asked, looking at the design in the sand Tam had etched around them.

“Yeah, wait, you know about those?” Tam asked.

“You have seen my library, haven’t you?” Cynthia’s laugh was a bit forced but also a sign of how well she was holding things together.

“Ah, right, fantasy books for days,” Tam said. “Just a heads up, things are always weirder than any book version of magic will show.”

“Weirder than the sun casting shadows?” Cynthia asked. “Because that’s kind of weird.”

“What you don’t enjoy long walks on the beach under the moonlight?” Tam asked as she scribbled Etruscan script in large sloppy glyphs around the outside of the circle.

“Aww, did you do this for me?” Cynthia asked, gathering together the picnic lunch that she’d brought for them to share.

“I kind of wish I had,” Tam said. “I don’t have any idea how you pull off an effect this big though.”

“That’s a little frightening,” Cynthia said. “I thought you said figuring out how other magicians did their effects was a speciality of yours?”

“That’s stage magic,” Tam said. “This kind of thing is more than just an illusion, or, hmm, maybe it’s not.”

“I’ll admit, I’m pretty much completely fooled by it,” Cynthia said.

“Look at the people around us though,” Tam said, gesturing to the horde of beach goers who were still busy enjoying both sun and surf.

“They’re not seeing any of this, are they?” Cynthia asked.

“I don’t think they are,” Tam said. “Which means, whatever the effect is, it’s centered on us.”

“But we’re safe inside your circle right?”

“Safer,” Tam said. “I won’t say ‘safe’ until I know what exactly this effect is.”

“How do you find that out?” Cynthia asked, putting her t-shirt back on.

“We find the person who’s causing this,” Tam said.

“That means leaving the protection of the circle though doesn’t it?”

“Like I said, things are often weirder than what you read in books,” Tam said. “Try stepping across the circle.”

Cynthia paused and waited for some sign that Tam had been kidding. When she saw that Tam was serious, she shrugged and stepped past the line in the sand.

Except when she put her foot down, it was still within the circle.

“Did the circle get bigger when I tried to leave?” Cynthia asked.

“And smaller when we’re closer together,” Tam said. “I had to set it up so that we could move within it, otherwise we could be trapped on this beach for the rest of our lives.”

“That’s not the worst fate I can imagine,” Cynthia said, running a finger tip up along the outside of Tam’s arm.

“Sadly the rest of our lives wouldn’t be particularly long in that case,” Tam said. She felt a stab of temptation abandon the current crisis in favor of running away to safety with Cynthia but she knew she’d been right when she said they wouldn’t be safe at all until the problem was dealt with. If they ran, the best cases scenario would be that whoever was behind corrupting the sun would continue to track them down, endlessly.

“I wouldn’t object if you wanted to make the circle very very small,” Tam said, a gleam of mischief in her eye which she shook her head to dispel. “But we do need to go,” she added with a sigh.

The sun-darkened sea was rolling onto the black shore, its waves crashing with less force each subsequent time they met the land, as though the shadowed sun was stealing not just the illumination from the environment but all forms of energy as well.

In the sea, shapes swam, alien and unfathomable but with each time they joined the surge of the tide, Tam got a closer glimpse of the creatures and to her eyes they appeared as confused and disturbed as she felt.

She shivered and Cynthia stepped close, shrinking the circle to its smallest radius around them. Cynthia pulled Tam into a one armed hug and, facing the water with her asked, “Where do we look first?”

Tam took a moment to marvel at the woman beside her. As they walked forward, the vista around them grew increasingly strange with each pace they took, their world shimmering away and being replaced by somewhere humans may never have walked before. Despite that, Cynthia was reacting to it all as calmly as though it was the typical day at the beach they’d intended to spend together.

“The sun, or whatever that is, is shining over the ocean, so that’s probably where we’ll find whoever’s doing this,” Tam said.

“Do we need a boat?” Cynthia asked.

“I don’t think so,” Tam said. “If I’m wrong though we’ll know in a hurry.”

Taking Cynthia’s hand she stepped forward again, expanding the circle around them, and marched straight into the oncoming waves, chanting in a low voice as she did.

The farther she lead them though, the farther away the ocean became until at last they were standing on a barren shoreline which looked nothing like the Crystal Sands beach where their picnic and umbrella had been left behind.

“I feel like we went through a portal to Narnia or something, but there’s no magic wardrobes here or looking glasses to fall through,” Cynthia said.

“The circle is our looking glass,” Tam said. “It’s not so much designed to keep things out, I didn’t have the time or materials to manage that. Plus I think the geometries of the beach would mess up any attempt to make a new boundary for the sea.”

“So if it’s not a shield to keep bad stuff away from us, what is it?” Cynthia asked.

“Well, you and I could see what was going on but no one else could,” Tam said. “Since the sun didn’t look like our earthly sun, it seemed more likely that what we were seeing wasn’t a change to Earth but a glimpse into one of the worlds which overlaps with ours.”

“So, wait, Narnia, or things like it, are real?”

“More or less?” Tam said. “Think of it like fairy gold, if you can remember any stories that use it. When you get the stuff, it looks like gold, smells like gold, weighs as much as gold, and so on, but the next morning it’s just a pile of dry leaves. There are whole worlds that have that same relation with ours. While they’re aligned both sides are real to the other, but when they drift apart any bits that are left in the wrong world fizzle out and become something else.”

“Oh neat,” Cynthia said, her eyes bright and smiling.

“Neat?” Tam asked.

“I always thought of Harry Potter as existing in a parallel world, but with the magic they have it bothered me that there was no proof that a wizard from their world had ever made it to ours,” Cynthia said. “If their wands would just turn into sticks and their potions into energy drinks then it could still work out.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Tam said, “Although I should warn you that I haven’t found anything about a real Hogwarts out there. Some things are just fiction, and other worlds are usually stranger than that.”

“Like here?” Cynthia asked, looking around.

The distant shore they stood on lay under a purple sky, broken only by electric blue clouds and a black disk ten times the diameter of the sun they were familiar with.

In the air, dozens of great wyrm-like creatures flew with a buoyancy that suggested they were floating in an aetheric water rather than the open, and empty sky.

Beyond them, down an ever descending hill which mirrored the ocean floor of the beach they’d been on, there were plants of light blue growing in abundance. In the distance, soaring up from a deeper spot on the hill, a tower of multi-hued coral rose to touch the sky. From it’s summit, waves of black rippled into the sky and where gathered into a swirling mass around the sun as it moved.

“I think it’s pretty obvious where our culprit is,” Cynthia said.

“Yep,” Tam said, “Which is why we are going nowhere near there.”

“Don’t we need to stop whatever is happening?” Cynthia said.

“Unfortunately, I think what was happening already has,” Tam said. “If I’m right, that’s a tower of Atlantean High Sorcery. This wasn’t an attack, it was a trap, and I walked us right into it.”

“So our next move is to walk right out of it, except we can’t because?” Cynthia asked.

“Because if we leave, the trap will reach out and bring some other sensitives in instead,” Tam said.

“Sensitives? But I’m not sensitive,” Cynthia said.

“I refer back to your library,” Tam said, offering a smile. “Being sensitive isn’t some genetic thing that you have or don’t have. It’s a state of mind that you cultivate. Just reading fantasy novel doesn’t let you start casting spells, but it helps keep your mind receptive to new ideas and new realities. That way when you run into someone working with mystical energies you stand a better chance of accepting the magic and incorporating it into how you view the world.”

“So once you see a real magician in action, there’s no going back?” Cynthia asked.

“Not exactly. People are surprisingly good at ignoring the parts of the world that don’t apply to them. A lot of actual magic gets chalked up under ‘I didn’t see that right’ or ‘Yeah, that’s weird, so?’ It’s strange to sweep that kind of stuff under the rug but it’s what works for some folks.”

“Doesn’t sound fun to me,” Cynthia said. “I’d rather know what was out there, especially awesome stuff like the things you do.”

“You literally save people from being burned alive,” Tam said. “Believe me you’re work is way more awesome than mine is.”

“Well, since I don’t see any burning buildings around here, I just need to know how I can help,” Cynthia said.

“We can’t go forward, because that Tower is going to call to me too much. If we go inside, I’m going to be lost in an endless library of imaginary books. That’s the trap part of this,” Tam said.

“Why would someone make a trap like that?” Cynthia asked.

“To get rid of someone like me,” Tam said. “I’m not that far into my studies of the arcane and I’ve already run through most of the available books, even with as good as library as the Club has. The prospect of what that Tower could contain is putting an itch in the back of my head that’s kind of hard to ignore.”

“I thought you said the books were illusions though?” Cynthia said.

“They are, but even an illusion can hold real secrets.”

“So what do we do?” Cynthia asked.

“We can’t walk back to where we came without first disarming the trap that’s pulling sensitives into this world, but there is another option, if you trust me?”

In answer, Cynthia turned to Tam and kissed her, pulling her into surprisingly soft embrace.

“We survived a sinking ship, where you go, I’m going too,” she said.

“Then we take the long way round,” Tam said, her breath still a little quickened.

“Towards the tower?” Cynthia asked.

“Around and past the tower, down into the lands that would correspond with the bottom of the ocean in our world” Tam said. “There are real things in the deeps, below the illusions. If we can go far enough away from our home, they might be able to help us make it back.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 4

The council chamber was wreathed in the sort of darkness which only grudgingly gave ground before the light. Charlene didn’t dislike the darkness, it was convenient to be able to recline back and enjoy the anonymity provided by the obscuring shadows. She did wish however that she could see whether the council had finished assembling so she could make a guess at how long it would be before her fate was decided.

A spotlight from high above illuminated a sharply defined circle in the middle of the half moon table the council sat behind. No witnesses stood within its confines as yet, but Charlene guessed that several might be called before the proceedings were finished.

She didn’t feel concerned for the fact that she was on trial. She had faith in the actions she’d authorized and the people she’d entrusted to carry them out. She was determined however that none of the associates she chose to employ should have to bear witness for her. It was one thing to stand before the Council’s merciless gaze herself, it was quite another to expose her people to their inquiries.

A rap of a hammer on wood from the head chair brought her attention back to the present from memories she’d hoped to never revisit. Memories of the last time she’d stood before the Council for judgment and the price her associates had paid then.

“A complaint has been lodged,” the Chair said. “Will the Accuser pursue their suit.”

“We shall.” A trio of voices spoke from the shadow drenched seat on the far opposite side of the conference table said.

Charlene wrinkled her nose. Of course all three of the founders of PrimaLux had chosen to appear. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen them act independent of one another. In theory that should have been a good thing, each one’s excesses tempered by the others’ caution, but in practice each of the founders held such similar vile opinions that they functioned as little more than three mouths that spoke with one voice. If one sunk to a new low, the other two would not be far behind in joining them.

“And will the Accused put forth a defense against these claims?” the Chair said.

“I need make no defense,” Charlene said, lounging in the shadows. “The charges are groundless and without merit. I will prove that the only ones worthy of censure are the ones who bring these false complaints.”

It was a risky strategy to pursue, but Charlene didn’t feel like tolerating PrimaLux’s aggressions any further. A prosecution and defense could easily end in a compromise finding, one where Charlene admitted no guilt but was required to help PrimaLux restore some of what they had lost as a gesture of good faith and friendship.

Charlene was done with both of those, at least as far as the founders of PrimaLux were concerned.

“Be warned, if you offer no defense and the complaints are found to have merit, you will be subject to the maximum censure this Council can apply,” the Chair said.

Given that the Council possessed the power to apply terminal penalties to those who breached its core principles, Charlene knew she was facing a certain amount of peril but her options were limited if she wanted to resolve her issues with PrimaLux for the foreseeable future.

“Thank you, but my declaration is unchanged,” Charlene said.

“We shall proceed to the declaration of the complaints then,” the Chair said.

A man in an impeccably tailored suit stepped into the pool of light the Council’s table wrapped around.

“State your name and relation to the relevant parties,” the Vice-Chair said.

“Ronald Smythe, esquire, Chief Legal Council for PrimaLux Global Holdings,” the man said. His words and body language spoke of overflowing confidence and control but they didn’t fool anyone on the Council. Ronald Smythe believed himself to be the top of the elite, but that wasn’t why the founders had brought him along as their representative. Ronald had been selected to represent them because he embodied the the best combination between competent and expendable.

“State your complaint,” the Chair said. Other people found the ponderous, humorless tones the Chair spoke in off putting but Charlene didn’t mind them at all. That the chair spoke the same as they always had, across all of the years Charlene had been on the Council, gave a feeling of familiarity to proceedings which should have lacked such comforts.

“Issue one,” Smythe read from a thick pad in her hands, “The party of the first part, hereafter referred to as PrimaLux Global Holdings, assert and attests that…”

He didn’t get to finish before a hammer rapped on wood again.

“Ronald Smythe, esquire,” the Chair said. “You were instructed to state your complaint. We are not interested having a document read to us which we can and have read for ourselves.”

Charlene smiled. PrimaLux had a lot of experience playing with mundane institutions, but it had been so long since anyone had moved against them that they were out of practice with the Council’s protocols.

“Could you clarify your request then?” Smythe asked. “I was led to believe that these were formal proceedings.”

“State the complaint,” the Chair said, consuming the last bit of patience the lawyer could hope to enjoy from them.

“May I confer with my clients?” Smythe asked.

“You may do as you wish,” the Chair said. What was left unsaid was that all actions have consequences. The Council had seen lawyers come to them, they knew the sort of twisting, half truths and misdirections which characterized mundane law. The Council was not an impartial body however and wasn’t concerned with dealing out a form of justice which consisted of rigid adherence to technical detail and slavish devotion to precedence when no two arguments they heard could truly be considered to come from equal circumstances.

Ronald Smythe, esq., unaware of what his actions were conveying to the Council, turned and walked out of the light to the inner side of the conference table where the founders of PrimaLux sat. After a few moments of speaking with them, he returned to the center of the spotlight, paler and fighting to remain in control of his stone faced features.

“Our complaint is that Charlene Potestates has acted with supernatural means to disrupt the legitimate and authorized workings of PrimaLux,” Ronald said, staring straight ahead.

“And what do you seek in exchange for this,” the Chair asked.

“We seek to take freely from her holdings and dominions, both in recompense of what we lost and as a punitive action to ensure no further damage will befall us,” Ronald said, without inflection.

“And what proof do you have to support this claim with?” the Chair asked.

“We can show that supernatural forces were employed in a direct assault on PrimaLux’s possessions and employees,” Ronald said. “Due to these losses, PrimaLux is facing a variety of fines and legal charges. Additionally, the assault endangered the containment of entities which require global armageddon protocols should they be released. Lastly, this assaults violates the covenant this Council is founded upon, that no member shall corrupt the workings of another.”

“How will the Accused answer these complaints?” the Chair asked.

Charlene flipped a folder open on the table in front of her. The illumination which filled the circle Ronald stood without barely lit the pages within the folder but that was sufficient for Charlene’s needed.

“Firstly by pointing out that these complaints are wasting our time,” Charlene said. “Of them all, the only one which is directly relevant to this Council is the claimed breach of our covenant. For completeness sake I will address them all however.”

She heard a small cackle from the founders of PrimaLux. They thought she was playing into their trap.

“They begin with a complaint stating that I used supernatural force to assault PrimaLux,” Charlene said. “This is irrelevant, but also untrue. I have taken no direct part in action against PrimaLux.”

“It was members of your organization who were responsible for the assault,” Ronald said. “We have proof that they were aided by supernatural powers not accessible by human beings. That leaves you as their primary source.”

“The enchantments used against PrimaLux did come from unusual sources,” Charlene said. “But they were not from myself, or anyone pledged to this Council as you can see in the sworn statements I have provided from the entities who did lend their power against PrimaLux.”

“The King and Queen of Unicorns?” the Chair said, flipping through a stack of papers Charlene had provided.

“Among others,” Charlene said.

“Why were we not given a copy of these affidavits?” Ronald asked.

“Because their purpose is to expose your lies,” Charlene said.

“Or support yours,” Ronald said. “They could be false, but we’ve had no time to prove that.”

“They are not false,” the Chair said. “I had just spoken to the ones who provided them. The supernatural powers used against PrimaLux were either of human origin or provided by people allied against PrimaLux’s interests.”

“Moving on then,” Charlene said. “The point about PrimaLux facing fines and legal actions is irrelevant because those are a matter for other courts, and, frankly, are the result of PrimaLux’s misdeeds and incompetence. That the mundane legal proceedings will ruin PrimaLux as a viable platform for pursuing the founders’ vision reflects on nothing more than their own failings and the failings of the path they have chosen to pursue in disregarding the sanctity of those they consider beneath them.”

“Agreed,” the Chair said. “This Council takes no interest in the state PrimaLux as an institution.”

“Their next point was related to endangering the containment of entities which are not meant to be a part of this creation,” Charlene said. “Does anyone else think that’s somewhat backwards? Or to be more specific, I would like to formally enter a complaint that PrimaLux was being used as part of the means to control things which this Council was never consulted about or agreed to allow a member to possess.”

“Your complaint is noted,” the Chair said. “We will address it once the remaining matters in this case are dealt with.”

“Yes, which brings us to the last issue,” Charlene said. “That my actions breached our covenant by corrupting the workings PrimaLux had been set to.”

“You can’t deny that PrimaLux’s purpose and personnel have been corrupted,” Ronald said, his body going rigid and a voice which was not his own spilling from his mouth.

“I don’t deny that at all,” Charlene said. “PrimaLux existed to further your ambition to drive humanity to extinction by creating ever more unbearable conditions for them and gifting the world with every better tools to destroy itself with. I won’t even begin to pretend to be sad that its purpose has been perverted, its personnel suborned, and your machinations broken.”

“There it is! She admits to working against us! She broke the covenant!”

“That is not what she said,” the Chair warned.

“Exactly,” Charlene said. “I am glad to see PrimaLux fail, just as I will be glad to see all such efforts fail. The distinction however is that PrimaLux’s failure was not brought about by my hand, but rather by the hands of humans, exceptional though they may be, who chose to step forward and interfere with what you were doing.”

“Prove it! Summon those humans here!” the things which had been Ronald Smythe demanded.

“I don’t think I will,” Charlene said, smiling to hide the worry that the Council would demand it over her despite her objections.

“Because it’s a lie!”

“No, because that would violate the covenant in truth,” Charlene said, spinning the one tale which might keep her people safe. “If I bring the people who destroyed PrimaLux here, so that they can see this Council, see all of you, and they begin asking questions about the sort of things you all do, how well do you think your enterprises will fare? I wasn’t the one who lead them to PrimaLux, or who informed them of its true nature. They discovered and destroyed something that three of our members had spent centuries working on. What sort of charges will you throw at me, if I give them the means to learn who you are by just looking around this table?”

***

After the Council meeting had adjourned, only the Chair and Charlene remained behind.

“You have your judgment against PrimaLux and its founders,” the Chair said. “What demands will you make for recompense?”

“I’ll keep them simple,” Charlene said. “There will be no retribution against my agents, or the former agents PrimaLux employed. Beyond that I will ask for no further strictures.”

“You don’t wish to bar them from repeating their designs?” the Chair asked.

“It will take them centuries to recover,” Charlene said.

“You may not be so fortunate as to have such exceptional agents at that time,” the Chair said.

“I don’t believe that will be problem,” Charlene said. “The world is full of exceptional people, they just need the chance to see that in themselves.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 12 – Act 3

Anna traced the final curve on the portrait she was drawing of the woman sitting across from her. The thin line in the picture which defined Zoe’s elegant jawline could have easily been a slash that cut from one end of her throat to the other. With her offhand, Anna smudged the pencil line to soften it. She wanted a smooth transition, not a violent demarcation.

“I’m impressed that you managed to cut off my communications links,” Anna said, glancing around the cafe and noticing the half dozen people in close proximity to them who were happily chatting away on the phone. “Very neat and precise.”

“Thank you,” Zoe said. “We pride ourselves on our professionalism.”

“I presume that’s why you chose to meet with me directly, rather than sending in your heavy hitter or a strike team like with Val and Tam?” Anna asked. She sketched a quick symbol under Zoe’s portrait and placed the drawing pad down on the table.

“I assure you, they will both be given every opportunity to reconsider their position,” Zoe said. “Your team is a tremendous asset, and would be valued as such.”

The drawing pad buzzed imperceptibly under Anna’s fingers. She let out a small puff of relief at the message the sensation conveyed.

“I was not aware PrimaLux valued that who served it,” Anna said. “You spoke of a flow of duties and rewards but from what we’ve seen, those rewards seem to be little more than an investment with a required rate of return. What they pay you will always be less than what you earn for them, no matter what form the remuneration takes. True loyalty from PrimaLux to those who serve its interests appears to be entirely absent.”

“And what would you see this ‘True loyalty’ involving?” Zoe asked.  She reclined in her chair with the easy grace of someone who knows they’ve already won and who wishes to savor the victory for as long as possible.

“Real loyalty can take many forms,” Anna said. “If your superiors discovered that you had failed to complete a mission and that failure had significant cost to them, would they be more concerned about the impact to their agenda or to the price you paid for trying and failing?”

“If I failed, would I have the right to demand any consideration from them?” Zoe asked.

“You are a valued asset are you not?” Anna asked. “Should valuable things be discarded because of an imperfection?”

“If the imperfection reduces their value sufficiently? Then, yes, certainly!” Zoe said.

“And once something is discarded, does it owe any duty to its former master?” Anna asked, folding her hands over the drawing pad and leaning towards Zoe with a smile.

Zoe paused, biting back her first retort, and smiling a cold but playful smile in return.

“You have some stratagem still at work, don’t you?” she asked.

“What would make you say that?” Anna asked, her smile unwavering.

“A discarded tool owes its former owner no further consideration,” Zoe said. “Their relationship is ended. But why would you make that point? To convince me to abandon my side and join yours? You are suggesting that a relationship built on true loyalty would never be discarded and even in the face of abject failure. That would be a superior position to be in, if it could occur, and if I believed there was any danger that such a failure might be in my future.”

“You’ve cut me off from communication with my team,” Anna said. “Certainly I can’t have any sense how the plan I worked out is coming undone.”

“And yet I can’t help but feel that you do,” Zoe said.

“That’s easily verified,” Anna said. “My communications are down, but yours remains intact.”

Zoe wriggled her fingers, flexing them in tight knots of anticipation.

“What an interesting move to make,” she said. “Do I call them and play into a trap you’ve set? Do I cut myself off to avoid being trapped and play into a separate trap? If you were only half as clever, this would be no fun at all, but could you be twice as clever as I believe?”

“I am doubtless less clever than I believe myself to be, but whether that is clever enough for you is something we have yet to determine,” Anna said, relaxing back into her chair.

Zoe fidgeted for a moment, caught on the horns of indecision, until she finally reached down into the purse she carried and brought out her phone.

“Doing nothing tells me nothing,” she said. “If you have another stratagem in play, I’m sure my team can adapt to it.”

She tapped the screen a few times and brought the phone to her ear, only to pull it away a moment later.

“You sabotaged my phone as well?” she said.

“It seemed only fair,” Anna said. “Also, I was hoping for an uninterrupted conversation with you.”

“You have my full and undivided attention now,” Zoe said, a hint of irritation coloring her voice.

“Good,” Anna said. “Perhaps you would like to know what my plan was then?”

“I believe I have the general details of it,” Zoe said. “Please though, break down the specifics, I suspect I know them tool but I’m sure you’re perspective on them will be enlightening.”

“Where shall we begin?” Anna said. “Perhaps with my overall aims?”

“You were looking to land a big catch,” Zoe said. “Someone sufficiently high in PrimaLux’s hierarchy that they could testify convincingly on our involvement in the cases you’ve encountered.”

“To what end?” Anna asked.

“Typically it would be to bring those responsible to justice, though given how you operate I imagine it was more likely that you intended to deal out a poetic form of justice yourselves and use the witness you procured to avoid the official prosecution that would come as a reprisal.”

“And the witness who was going to work with us?” Anna asked. “You clearly identified them early enough to put a comprehensive plan in place.”

“Vice President Claudia Goodwin,” Zoe said. “We’ve had recorded some disturbing marks in her profile for a while now. Not enough to terminate her but signs that she might not be as reliable as we would have preferred.”

“She was as much a honey pot as anything, wasn’t she?” Anna asked. “You were able to respond to our overtures as rapidly as you did because you knew she would act as a lightning rod for anyone seeking to undermine PrimaLux from within.”

“Let’s say she served multiple roles in the organization,” Zoe said.

“Served in the past tense? Then your plan did call for her elimination?” Anna asked.

“A requirement from my superiors,” Zoe said. “By preference I would have allowed her to continue serving as bait. She was uniquely well positioned for that and remarkably productive despite her misgivings.”

“Out of curiosity, what sort of fallback plans did you have if my teammate Ms. Perez defeated your security chief Ms. Collins?” Anna asked.

“Misha was the backup plan,” Zoe said. “Our Vice President was scheduled to meet her demise via a car bombing. Prima would benefit from being seen as the target of a terrorist attack instead of the perpetrators of one, and if Vice President Goodwin chose to flee without taking her car, Misha and her security forces would be there to arrange matters as needed.”

“That makes for a good story, but as we’re in the end game, be honest, you had more bases covered than that,” Anna said.

Zoe tilted her head and chuckled.

“You must come and work with me,” she said. “And yes, of course we were prepared for slim chance that encounter turned against us. Even if you had spirited Goodwin away safely, she wouldn’t have been able to testify to anything substantive about PrimaLux’s projects. The moment her escape was confirmed, our internal records of her would be wiped out and replaced with new data. Aaliyah, our counterpart to your Ms. Le, can be quite thorough. Once she pulled the trigger, Claudia Goodwin would be reduced to known mental health patient suffering from a variety of delusions, with the proper paperwork and doctor’s testimony stretching back years to support that claim.”

“That requires Aaliyah to remain in command of her data center though I believe,” Anna said.

“Aaliyah is in one of the most secure facilities in the entire PrimaLux portfolio,” Zoe said. “She is the spider at the heart of an invincible web. I have no concerns there.”

Anna studied Zoe for a long moment. Sketching her opponent had given Anna a keen sense of where Zoe held tension in her face. The taut micro-lines near her eyes, the slight tightening in her upper lip. As Zoe spoke though neither her lips nor her eyes betrayed any trace of a lie.

Under her fingers, Anna felt the drawing pad buzz once more. She scribbled a single character below the portrait she’d sketched and frowned a tiny bit. The game was done, and for as serious as it was to be in a contest against a giant like PrimaLux there was a part of Anna that couldn’t help but be thrilled by the moves and countermoves. She could already feel how much she was going to miss it.

“Your faith in your teammate is impressive,” Anna said.

“And not unfounded,” Zoe said.

“I agree. Between Tam and Aaliyah I believe the difference in their technical and mystical skills would be exceedingly difficult to measure, and in this case your team had the home team advantage,” Anna said.

“Yet in the face of that, my phone has been disabled,” Zoe said. “So what final enchantments has Ms Le woven?”

“She wasn’t the one weaving enchantments,” Anna said. “Your phone should be working again. You’ll mistrust what I have to say at this point, so please, contact your team. They can give you all the details you desire.”

Zoe gave Anna a look of surprise and reached for her phone.

“Speaker phone will save time,” Anna said.

Zoe frowned at that and waited for the call to go through.

“Aaliyah, what is our situation?” she asked as soon as the other woman picked up.

“We’re dead,” Aaliyah said.

“Explain,” Zoe said, her expression and voice frosting over.

“They got Goodwin,” Aaliyah said. “And I can’t give the orders to scrub her files.”

“Why?” Zoe asked slowly.

“Because she’s currently sitting on a chair in my worklab and bound within a circle that’s about as strong as the ones you use to keep your special guests under control,” Tam said.

“How?”

“They held open our portals,” Aaliyah said. “After, I would like to point out, destroying the strike team that Prima sent after her.”

“They’re not dead,” Tam said. “But by this point they’re probably wishing they were.”

“I congratulate you,” Zoe said, looking back at Anna. “That was well played, but still ultimately fruitless. Ms. Goodwin will be able to do a fair amount of damage to PrimaLux but we’ve survived worse.”

“I don’t think you have,” Anna said. “You see you were wrong about my primary aim. Saving Ms. Goodwin’s life was a secondary, though important, objective.”

“What were you after then?” Zoe asked, a twinge of fear in her eyes.

“PrimaLux,” Anna said. “All of it.”

“That’s not possible,” Zoe said. “No one could give you that.”

“Ms. Goodwin certainly couldn’t but we did identify someone who could,” Anna said. “You.”

Zoe looked to see if Anna was joking but when she saw Anna was serious she scoffed.

“Why and how would I give you PrimaLux?” she asked.

“You gave it to us because you were distracted,” Anna said. “Your security is impressive, but it is only truly impenetrable while Aaliyah is there to deal with esoteric threats that can bypass all of the static defenses.”

“But Ms Le was busy dealing with our strike team, there wasn’t an opportunity for her infiltrate our systems,” Zoe said. “And don’t say she did it when she apprehended Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s bunker is denied direct access to the majority of our systems to prevent exactly that.”

“Tam wasn’t the one who hacked your defenses,” Anna said. “I did.”

She flipped back the page she’d been sketching Zoe’s portrait on to reveal the touchpad beneath it. The characters Anna had sketched remained on the screen as instructions to the application Tam had installed before they began their mission.

“As soon as your phone was active, I was able to connect through it to the rest of PrimaLux’s systems and your login opens a great many doors,” Anna said.

“What did they get?” Zoe asked.

“As far as I can see?” Aaliyah said. “Everything. Anything we had a record of, they’ve forwarded to Interpol and everyone else we wanted to keep those secrets safe from.”

“To be accurate, the records will show that you forwarded that information,” Anna said, looking Zoe in the eyes. In the depths of Zoe’s soul she saw the image of a tool being discarded by its former master for a failure beyond any hope of forgiveness.

The frost shattered in Zoe’s expression and she sank back into her chair, silent for a long moment as she processed what had happened.

“This doesn’t prove that you were right,” she said at last.

“Of course not,” Anna said. “Our philosophy’s aren’t magic talismans to grant us the power to be victorious. What I believe about the value of people and how they should be treated doesn’t make winning easier. What it does is inform what I do with the victories I manage to achieve, and how I choose the changes I wish to see in the world.”

She offer Zoe a small smile of comfort. “Which is why I had this drawn up.”

She handed Zoe an envelope containing a membership application.

“What is this?” Zoe asked.

“A second chance.”