Category Archives: Second Chance Club

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 3

The crunch of warm sand between her toes was a sensation Jen knew she would never get tired of. Sure, it was inconvenient when she needed to use her feet for delicate work, but having each step offer a soft but firm massage that sent a pleasant amount of heat radiating through the tired muscles she abused so often? There wasn’t much in the world that could compare to that.

“So,” Connie said, looking around the beach and unpacking their gear from the boat they’d been riding in for the last seven hours, “The island is real.”

“You were starting to wonder weren’t you?” Sarah asked, rising out of the surf in a shimmer of green and blue as she regained a fully human form.

“Maybe not wonder whether it was real so much as wondering if we were going to be able to find the place,” Connie said. She didn’t pause once the gear was safely on the beach, turning to secure the anchor on the small boat so that it wouldn’t drift away in the surf.

“Sorry there,” Jen said. “I must have plotted the route here wrong. We probably could have saved a few hours if we’d made a direct approach.”

Six hours into the sea voyage, Jen had begun to question the wisdom of trying to map the team’s course. Just because she’d been on a boat didn’t make her any kind of a sailor. Her talents lay in other areas, and she was ok with that. It was still hard to accept making a mistake that had cost them so much time, especially after Jimmy B had managed to score them a flight that got them from North America to the South Pacific in less than sixteen hours. If he could pull off an impossible feat like that, Jen felt she should have at least been able to get them through the rest of the trip in something close to the estimated time.

“I’m pretty sure your route was the most direct one,” Sarah said. She shook herself like a cat and through some spark of magic managed to wind up completely dry when she was done.

“We had to turn around three times,” Jen appreciated Sarah’s attempt to console her, but it was a little annoying too. She had to own her mistakes just like anyone else.

“Exactly,” Sarah said. “This place isn’t where it appears to be on the satellite scan. In fact, I’m pretty certain that without the turns we made, we would have sailed through open ocean no matter which path we tried to take.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Connie said, walking up to join them and passing Sarah a backpack. Jen had offered to carry one as well, but Connie had talked her out of it.

Jen was the team’s combat specialist (though that had yet to be put to the test). As such, she needed to be able to move freely and hide in good ambush positions when the opportunities presented themselves. Better, in Connie’s view, that one of them stay as unencumbered as possible, and if that person happened to be the one who would have issues getting gear out of a tightly packed backpack, the allowing Connie to carry the load she typically bore on an expedition seemed like the wisest course all around. Jen wasn’t sure she agreed with that, but she did like the idea of staying free to move and fight as needed, so she went along with it. This was only their first mission, feeling out team tactics and roles like that was something they’d have to experiment with to get right and letting Connie carry what she claimed was a typical load was as good an experiment as any other.

“It could be worse,” Sarah said. “That there’s a boatload of magic on this island at least explains why it vanished from the satellite photos last year. Or, if not why, then at least how.”

“If it took specific turns to get here though, doesn’t that diminish the chance that Marcus made it here?” Jen asked. The series of events that she’d constructed in her mind included a number of possible variations on what the teenager might have encountered. A magical vanishing island triggered a whole lot of warning flags but Jen had to agree with the others that it was too significant an item for them not to investigate.

From the beach, the island looked bigger than the satellite photo had suggested it would be. It was a good hundred or so meters before the tree line began and the two peaks that dominated the center of the island looked like they rose at a kilometer or more above the ocean. Seeing it’s size, left Jen recalculating the effort which searching it was going to require, but also more willing to consider the possibility that Marcus had landed somewhere and managed to remain hidden and/or lost for several days. There was enough space on what should have been a tiny blip of an island to get lost for a month or more by her estimation.

“Normally, I’d say accidentally stumbling into a place like this would be impossible,” Sarah said. “In this case though, I think the magic might make it more likely he’d wind up here, than not. Once we made the turns, I think the island started calling to us.”

She started walking inland as she spoke, her attention pulled by somehow unseen beyond the thick vegetation of the tree line.

“Is that why you went into water?” Connie asked, as she and Jen followed along in Sarah’s wake.

“Partly,” Sarah said. “I’ve felt minor compulsions like that before and since it seemed related to the waters around the island I thought it would be easier to pick out why we were being called if I got closer to it. Also, being able to turn into a mermaid is not a chance you get in many places and I was not about to pass that up!”

“I thought this place was supposed to be mundane this time of year?” Jen asked. “Are we going to find another rift to hell lurking in the trees like we did at the military base?”

It seemed like a remote possibility at best, but then so did having a companion who’d been able to leap into the water as a human and come leaping back out a moment later clad in blue and green scales with functional gils on her neck.

“I don’t think we’ve got to worry about hell beasts or portals to other worlds here,” Sarah said. “From what the ocean was whispering about this island, it’s a natural part of the currents here. It’s its own source of magic, and it comes and goes on a fairly regular cycle.”

They reached the treeline and Jen noticed that what she’d mistaken for palm trees were nothing of the sort. In fact they didn’t look like anything she’d encountered before, or possibly even anything that existed anywhere else on Earth.

The long trunks were wrapped in a smooth blue-black bark which smelled faintly of cinnamon and vanilla. As the wind coasted through their high broad leafed branches the individual leaves twisted and flowed as though they had life and independent movement of their own. The rustling and whistling they produced might have made a gentle song but there was an eerie undertone to it that set Jen’s nerves on edge. It didn’t sound as though the trees were threatening them, more that they sensed violence in the wind and were afraid of what was to come.

“How long do the cycles last?” Connie asked. “Are we in any danger of being trapped here?”

Sarah was still ahead of them but from how she was turning her head, Jen got the sense that she was listening intently for the call she’d spoken of rather than paying attention to where they were going.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said slowly. “The ocean was surprised, as much as water can be surprised, I’m translating a bit here, that the island was back so soon. I get the sense that the cycle is usually longer than it was this time, so we might be on unstable ground.”

“All the more reason to find Marcus and get him out of here,” Jen said. No one was saying where the island went when it wasn’t hanging around on Earth and even if it was a land of rainbows and back massages, Jen didn’t want their first mission to wind up with them trapped in some far off realm. Especially if that would mean that the other three would have to come rescue them. Joining the Second Chance Club had been exciting enough on its own, but at least part of the point was supposed to be to make things easier for Anna and Tam to repay them for saving her.

Apart from the moaning wind playing through the treetops, the island was strangely silent. No call of birds, no buzzing of insects, just the sound of the trees and, in the distance, running water.

“I think we should head towards the waterfall,” Sarah said, pushing through the underbrush to forge a new trail.

“What waterfall?” Connie asked. She’d fallen behind Jen, the heavy pack she was carrying slowing her more from bulk than weight.

“I can hear one too,” Jen said. “Should this island have a waterfall?”

“I’m not sure it should have anything,” Sarah said. “The more I listen to the islands voices the more wrong this whole situation sounds.”

That sounded like an excellent argument to Jen for why they should leave. A voice was buzzing in the back of head, scrambling around and forming questions that she couldn’t quite put words to yet. Even without the fully formed questions though, her gut was telling her that there was something wrong.

In her mind, she felt like a chess piece, except one which had stumbled onto Monopoly board. Moving one square forward might still be a thing she could do but its impact would be radically different than what she expected because she wasn’t playing the game she thought she was.

“Is Marcus what’s wrong?” Connie asked. “If this place isn’t supposed to be here now, could he have, I don’t know, called it back into being because he needed a place to hide?”

Jen puzzled over that for a moment. A few pieces didn’t line up – like why the island would be moaning if it was providing shelter to a lost traveler – but that might be due to her missing information on it still. Whether it was true or not though, she liked how Connie was thinking. It was good to know that the team had someone who thought along different lines than she herself did. That made Connie a valuable resource when it came to putting plans together and checking for holes in existing ones.

They arrived at the waterfall after some more trailblazing through the underbrush. Sarah had grown quiet and distant as they drew closer and as the moaning of the trees grew deeper and more ominous.

Jen wanted to check the area out but Sarah walked straight forward, exiting the trees and heading towards whatever was behind the waterfall without saying a word.

Through the water, Jen saw the mouth of a cave. It was dark and uninviting, but that didn’t slow Sarah.

“What’s in there?” Connie asked, breaking the silence.

Sarah didn’t answer. Or stop. Or even slow.

Jen stepped in front of her and stood solid like a wall.

Sarah opens her eyelids and gray smoke roiled where her eyes should have been. She tried to move around Jen, but Jen stepped to the side to block her. She tried to push past Jen, but that didn’t work either. Jen flexed back with Sarah’s shove and then stepped into it, pushing Sarah off her feet onto her butt.

“What happened?” Connie asked, rushing up to join them.

“This isn’t what we thought it was,” Jen said. “It’s a trap.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 2

Finding a needle in a haystack is a relatively simply endeavor. Choose the right needle, setup a sifting machine with some powerful magnets, and the work can be all but guaranteed. Finding a teenage boy lost in the South Pacific though? That presented a few more significant challenges.

“I’ve plotted out the points where we have tracking data for Marcus,” Jen said, bringing a map up on their central display monitor. Her prosthesis were back in her room, charging up, so she typed with her toes, though given the speed she typed at she would have used them regardless. In response to her clicks, a line in red traced in from points off the map, dotting a path across the featureless blue of the area of the ocean she had focused in on. The line ran to the center of the map and then simply stopped in the middle of the open ocean.

“Here’s the course he’d plotted out originally,” Jen said, calling up another overlay which put a black line onto the map. It matched the early part of Marcus’s actual trip but began to deviate at a time marker which matched Marcus’s first reported sighting of the other boat which seemed to be following him. At first the deviation was slight, a few turns to ascertain if the boat was actually following him but over time it curved more sharply away, each point showing an increasing degree of concern.

“What are the current’s like in that area?” Sarah asked. “Is some of this that he wasn’t expecting the extra drift from being off course, or are we seeing panic take hold over the course of several hours?”

“I don’t know,” Jen said. “He didn’t report anything like a strong drift in the printed logs we got.”

The family had included all of the electronic data they’d been able to collect. It didn’t point to a definite destination, but it painted a vivid picture nonetheless. Jen could only imagine how her parents would have reacted to seeing similar charts if she’d been lost at sea.

“Even if the currents dragged him farther off course than he expected, it shouldn’t have mattered,” Connie said. “His boat had a fairly good navigation system onboard. GPS would have given him an accurate position for the whole trip. He might have had to fight with the winds a bit to get back on course, but that should of been trivial for someone with enough skill to attempt an around the world sailing trip.”

They looked at the map as though it would offer some new clue in response to Connie’s observation. Even something small that might help them resolve the mystery. The ocean guarded its secrets well though.

“His trail just ends,” Sarah said. “What would explain that?”

“A lot of things, potentially,” Jen said. She didn’t like any of the options but they needed to consider each of them, no matter how unpleasant they were. “The most obvious one is that the other boat caught him there and someone smashed the radio gear. It would explain the sudden signal loss and why he never made it to Australia like he’d intended.”

“That’s unlikely though isn’t it?” Connie asked. Her brow was furrowed and she was reading the secondary data from the transmitted logs.

Jen had looked that over as well but hadn’t wanted to clutter the diagram with the data on the reported weather patterns, ocean temperatures, and seasonal fish migration patterns. If Connie could extract some meaning from them that would be wonderful, but Jen guessed they wouldn’t get that lucky.

“Why’s that?” Sarah said. “Was Marcus a particularly good sailor? Or was his boat extra fast?”

“No to both of those,” Jen said. Connie was right about the first scenario being unlikely but walking through them point by point was a part of brainstorming, and she knew better than to ever discourage someone from asking questions. “I mean according to his parents he was a very talented sailor, which checks out with them allowing him to do a solo circumnavigation of the globe, but they didn’t provide any info on him winning awards, and there’s plenty of people out there with more experience than a dedicated hobbyist would have, so it wasn’t amazing skill that would have helped him get away. Also, he was in a sailboat. It was a good sailboat, but those are limited by the wind, where a motor boat is not.”

“That makes it sound like whoever was chasing him could have easily caught him? But it also sounds like you agree with Connie. Where’s the unlikely bit coming in?” Sarah asked.

“Because we don’t have any log messages saying that they were gaining on him,” Connie said, when Jen nodded to her. “It’s on thing to be able to catch someone on the ocean, it’s another thing entirely to sneak up on someone who’s already spotted you.”

“Yeah, you’d think once it became clear that they were getting too close for comfort, Marcus would have started sending out Maydays,” Jen added. “Especially when he was so diligent about sending log information at all other times.”

“That makes an unfortunate amount of sense,” Sarah said, sighing and  sitting back in her chair. “Unfortunate because it strikes out the simplest and most mundane answer, though maybe it gives us a better chance of finding him still alive?”

“Let’s hope so,” Jen said. There were several other scenarios that lead to grim endings but none of them had definite supporting evidence in their favor. “The next most obvious reason would be that whoever was pursuing him knocked out his radio before coming into range.”

“I suppose we can’t rule that out, can we?” Sarah asked. “It would explain why he went radio silent without needing something like a giant whale to come up and swallow him and his boat.”

“Hold onto the whale theory,” Connie said, glancing to Jen who again nodded in agreement. “There are issues with this option too. Take a look at the timing of Marcus’ personal logs compared to the automated positioning logs the boat transmitted.”

She flicked a document up onto the central monitor to show the communication logs with their time stamps.

“The last thing that was received was an automated log message,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, it wasn’t too long after one of Marcus’ personal messages though,” Connie said. “In his last message he says the other ship is about three miles away. It would be possible to knock out a boat’s communication system from that far away, but it would take some fairly sophisticated and expensive gear to do it.”

“And we know the time window they would have had to act in because the automated log messages were coming in at regular intervals,” Jen said. “Even if Marcus’ ‘three mile’ estimate was off, they still would have been over a mile away, at the absolute closest, when the radio signal was lost.”

“And gear which some random ocean goons would have access to would not be able to shoot at radio that was a mile away,” Sarah said, following the thought to its logical conclusion. “But where does that leave us? Are we into my territory now?”

“We don’t have to assume magic was involved yet,” Jen said, and zoomed the map out to show a slightly larger swath of the South Pacific.

“That’s good, because for the last few weeks the seasonal patterns of the ley lines in that area have left it almost entirely mundane,” Sarah said. “I checked with some of the my contacts and that’s typical for where we are in the cycles that hold sway down there, but with the lack of ambient mana in the area, I’m not even sure if Tam would be able to pull a rabbit out of hat that had a rabbit pre-loaded into it.”

“Wasn’t that also supposed to be true of that Chinese military base that had a portal to hell open in the middle of it?” Jen asked. As reintroductions to the team went that had been more thrilling that Jen had expected. It had turned out fine, but she hoped they’d do a bit better on a mission she’d suggested they take.

“Sort of,” Sarah said. “The base was supposed to be in the equivalent of a magic dead zone. No ley lines there ever. Places like that are more common than not on our world. The ocean’s a different sort of beast though.”

“Ocean magic is really strange isn’t it?” Connie said. “James was describing how it worked but we didn’t have time to get into it fully.”

“It’s not strange, or not any more than any magic is, it’s just its own thing,” Sarah said. “Where the land is solid and changes slowly, the ocean is constantly changing, so the magic that runs it through acts the same.”

“How can we be sure this spot of ocean was free from active ley lines then?” Jen asked. She leaned forward, and tipped her head in curiosity. This was new information, tactically useful information in particular, so it had her full attention.

“The ocean appears featureless to us land dwellers, but it has its own locations and territories,” Sarah said. “With the amount of interaction between the land and the seas today, there’s a pretty fair number of people who keep track of how things sit with each major body of water in the world. They know where the magically active zones are and where the calm waters run. Oh, and the Bermuda Triangle is not one of the active areas, almost ever. I was disappointed to find that out too.”

“Nice,” Jen said. “But does that means we have confirmation there wasn’t supposed to be any magical activity in that area around the time Marcus went missing?”

Sarah shrugged and rolled her hands in a limiting gesture.

“We know what the known ley lines were doing,” she said. “I can’t rule out whether people brought their own source in, or found something esoteric materials in the area to tap into.”

“Ok, so general magic of the kind you’re familiar with is still on the table, but less likely than even it’s usual ‘rarely seen’ status?” Jen asked.

“Pretty much,” Sarah said.

“The good news is, there’s lot of mostly non-magical things that could have happened to Marcus, though I’m not quite sure how to characterize our leading contender,” Jen said, zooming the map out a bit further and calling up a new line on it.

From the spot where the line of Marcus’ reported positions ended the new line began, graphing a path in yellow that led to a tiny dot of green on the map.

“This is one possible projection of Marcus’ course following the loss of radio signal from him,” Jen said. “It presumes he didn’t sink, and didn’t have any working electronics on board anymore, maybe due to a lightning strike or something like that.”

“Plausible,” Connie said. “We don’t have any proof that the boat he was worried about actually was hostile.”

“Or that it was really there,” Sarah said. “We’ve only got Marcus’ logs for any of this after all.”

“That’s true,” Jen said. “He could have been hallucinating, or just mistaking a normal boat for something sinister. If so, if there weren’t actual bad guys out to get him, then it’s not critical for us to know that. The important thing is that he drove intentionally off course, and then lost radio signal.”

“I see some other islands in the area too,” Connie said. “Any reason you picked this one as the most likely landing spot? I think it’s a little farther from his original position than a couple of the ones to the east.”

“It is but not by all that much,” Jen said. “It has one other important quality though. Here’s a satellite photo of that region from ten years ago.”

An image which looked identical to the one which had been displayed appear on a side monitor.

“And here’s a photo of the region from last year.” The image appeared on another side monitor.

“They look pretty similar to me,” Sarah said.

“They are…except, wait, where’s the island?” Connie asked, pointing to the area on one year old image which showed barren sea where an island had been ten years previous.

“And here’s a photo from yesterday,” Jen said.

It showed the island exactly where it had appeared ten years ago, which was also in the exact place where it had not been the previous year.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 9 – Act 1

After traveling the world solo for several years, the concept of receiving physical mail was a little odd to Jen. She’d stayed with various teachers for weeks or months at a time but she’d never had their houses as places where people sent her mail. Most of the correspondence she’d had was via email, and the few physical items she’d needed had been specially shipped. The letter on the table in front of her therefor was something of an oddity.

“Got something from home?” Connie asked, coming into the breakfast nook and heading to the coffee machine.

“Nope,” Jen said, sifting with her foot through the small stack of papers which had been inside the envelope. “It was in my mailbox but it’s not from anyone I know.”

“Huh, I wonder why it was left for you?” Connie asked. The coffee machine beckoned and not even the mystery of the letter was enough to alter the beeline she made for it. “What’s it about?”

“It sounds like someone’s asking to join the Club,” Jen said, scanning through the initial greeting on the first page. There was lots of establishing who the sender’s family was and how they’d heard of the club, which amounted to a barely disguised argument for why the writer deserved the club’s help. As Jen read further though, the tone of the text changed, growing more desperate. “Wait, no, they’re asking for help, and offering to join the club for it.”

“What kind of help?” Connie asked.

“Their son is missing,” Jen said as she sat up straighter and read the rest of the letter aloud. “Marcus was an accomplished mariner despite being only 16. We supported his desire to try for a solo circumnavigation of the globe by sail in part because we knew he was capable of it, and in part because we were afraid he would attempt with or without our support.”

A vivid memory of the ocean spreading to the horizon in every direction came to her. She’d preferred to fly when she could before the incident where she first met Anna and Tam. Since then she’d forced herself to travel by boat a few times, but she hadn’t yet managed to do so without remaining wary at all times.

“Sounds like quite the boy,” Connie said, bringing her freshly poured cup over to sit on the other side of the table from Jen. “I don’t like we’ve gotten a letter about him though.”

“Yeah, listen to this,” Jen said. “Marcus’s trip was largely uneventful until he entered the South Pacific. He called in several times to report that he’d sighted another boat on a similar heading as his own. After a few days it seemed like this other boat was following him. The last transmission that we received from his indicated that he was changing his heading and would be a few days late getting into Sydney, which was his next planned stop.”

The scene that played out in Jen’s head was not a pleasant one. She pictured it as her story except without Anna and Tam’s timely intervention. As soon as the thought occurred to her, she cast a silent hope against it that the reality of the situation was something else.

“Do they give the location of where that transmission was from?” Connie asked. Whether she saw Jen’s inner turmoil or not, Jen wasn’t sure, but the question did serve to ground her back into the situation at hand, rather than the one she’d escaped from long ago.

“I think so,” Jen said. She moved some of the pages over with her right foot. She could have used the prosthesis to ‘look more normal’ but she was so much faster with her feet and more comfortable with them than with the prosthesis that she didn’t see a point in putting on a show. Connie wasn’t judging her, and even if she had been, Jen was (more or less) at home, and at home she did things her way. “It looks like there’s a few pages of technical data after the note.”

“So what are they asking us to do? The maritime authorities in the area should be all over this right?”

“That’s the next thing our writer friend gets to,” Jen said and resumed reading the note aloud. “There was a registration issue with Marcus’s boat that we didn’t learn about until this situation came up. Because there was no record of the Asterion’s Promise even leaving port, much less being in their waters, the authorities haven’t been willing to search for him at all. They say they’ve seen no sign of him and haven’t received any distress calls so there’s nowhere to start looking, but we can’t accept that. Our boy needs a second chance! Please can you help us?”

“Wow, that’s pretty intense,” Connie said. “It does sound like it came to the right place though.” She eased back from the table and took a slow pull from her coffee.

“Yeah, it’s not that far off from what happened with me,” Jen said, looking over the pages another time, trying to shake the imaginary scenarios that were leaping into her mind to show her various fates Marcus could have suffered.

“You’re a sailor?” Connie asked, putting her cup back down on the table but folding her hands around it to capture the warmth.

“Well, I was on a boat, so I kind of, I guess?” Jen said. “It was supposed to be a vacation cruise though, not a solo sail around the world.”

That sparked a question in her mind. She’d been attacked because vacation cruises were taken by people with money. Not that she was wealthy, but for the pirates that attacked her boat, even the traveling money her parents had given her was enough to tempt their interest. Someone doing a solo sail around the world wouldn’t be traveling in luxury though. So why target him?

A personal vendetta? That seemed unlikely when the target was a 16 year old.

The sailboat itself? It would have value, and the gear on board even more value in terms of being simpler to liquidate. With only one person onboard the ship, it would make stealing the boat and the gear as easy as possible, so theft could be an answer. Doubly so because Marcus was unlikely to have kept his attempt a secret. Jen bet that if she checked his social feeds there’d be all kinds of posts about the trip. Even beyond that, he would probably have talked to people in the different ports of call that he stopped into for resupply. Any one of he talked to could have had dangerous connections.

“Maybe that’s why the letter was left in your mailbox then?” Connie said. “You’re our resident expert on mayhem on the high seas. I’ve sailed a bit too, but it’s been for specific expeditions and I haven’t had to do much more than tie off a few lines and haul stuff around when the captain needed heavy things moved.”

“We’re talking sailing?” Sarah asked, wandering into the room with a heavy book of spells open in her hands. “Do we have a new crisis on the High Seas or something?”

“Missing person,” Connie said, pointing to the papers in front of Jen, without reaching forward to grab them.

“Someone wrote us a letter about it,” Jen said and shifted the papers towards Connie and Sarah with her foot.

Sarah looked up from the spell she was studying, her interest captured by the letter.

“Not a great time for this to come in,” she said as she scanned it’s contents.

“Yeah, it’s just us three, JB, and Jim here today,” Connie said. The rest of the Club’s associates were tied up on other projects, or (in Tam’s case) finally taking a well deserved break to spend time with a loved one.

“This isn’t the kind of thing where waiting is going to produce better results,” Jen said, concern blossoming in her heart at the thought of a delay. “Do you think we should try to handle it without the others?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. Each of them were accomplished in their areas of expertise. Together they had an array of skills similar to the ones Anna, Tam, and Val brought to the table and with JB and Jim to back them up they had a solid support system to draw on.

Despite that, it felt weird to Jen to contemplate taking off on their own. She’d been with the club officially for less than a month, and with Connie being a member only slightly longer than that, and Sarah a bit less (officially).

“Can we get in touch with them?” Connie asked. “It wouldn’t hurt to get their input on how to tackle something like this.”

That was the counterpoint to immediate action that was rolling around in Jen’s head too. Maybe they didn’t need to check in with the senior associates to ask permission, but drawing on Tam’s knowledge, or Anna’s experience could prevent some fairly terrible missteps.

“It wouldn’t hurt us, but we’ve seen how run down they’ve gotten,” Sarah said. “Do you really want to ask Tam to come back in and spend a night workshopping a problem like this?”

Connie sighed and shook her head.

“Anna’s not much better off, I think,” she said. “She hides it well, but if you listened to how she talked about getting to spend some more time with Zoe, I think she’d needed a serious vacation for a while now too.”

Jen thought back to the trip she’d taken with Anna to Chicago. Grandma Russia had mostly been her usual self, strong, confident, and a furious driver. There’d been little things though that suggested some of that was a facade though.

From what Jen knew, Anna had spent years in high finance, and had learned to project an exterior of ice and perfect cool as a result. Hiding weakness wasn’t entirely a choice anymore since it had grown so automatic for her, but even effective efforts to hide fatigue and stress could leave clues to someone’s real inner state.

In Anna’s case, Jen thought those clues might come in through her storytelling. When she’d met Anna originally, Anna hadn’t explained things, she’d spun a tale which drew the listener in so that they understood what Anna was saying just as she wanted them too. On their trip to Chicago, that narrative capacity had been there, but Anna had often cut herself a bit short, as though weaving the full tale was just a little more effort than she could manage.

“Ok, so we can handle this on our own,” Jen said. “Are you both onboard with a trip to the South Pacific then? Or would you want to stay behind and work the problem from here?”

With a team of only three, leaving any resources behind might have a big impact on the mission, but Jen didn’t want the others to feel forced to join her on what might turn out to be a complete waste of time. Marcus could be long past helping already, however much Jen hoped he wasn’t.

“I’m in!” Connie said. “I’ll need about an hour to pack and I’ll be good to go. I can coordinate with JB to see about getting transport if you’d like?”

“That would be excellent,” Sarah said. “I’m in too, and I’ll go with you too. I’ll need about two hours though between packing and brushing up on the current mystic alignments that are in place around the South Pacific.”

“I’ll need around two hours to pack too,” Jen said, thinking ahead to the kind of gear she’d like to bring compared to the gear that was readily available in the Club’s base.

“I can help you pack once I’m done, if you’d like?” Connie asked.

“Thank you, that’d be great,” Jen said. “I’m a little familiar with the islands in that area, I’ll try to see which ones were close to Marcus’ last known position in case he had to beach his ship on one for repairs.”

“Good thinking,” Sarah said. “And don’t worry, if he’s out there, we’ll find him!”

Jen wasn’t worried about that. Her imagination was all too happy to show her scenarios where they found Marcus in any number of horrible conditions. None of those were productive though, so she bent focus to a more useful purpose – working on a way to avoid those scenarios and bring him home, safe and healthy.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 8 – Act 4

Connie had thirty different tabs open on each of the fifty tablets, laptops and smartphones that were strewn around her and yet they still weren’t enough to keep up with her needs.

“Well, that looks like a recipe for burnout if I’ve ever seen one,” Val said, leaning through the doorway of the empty office Connie had laid claim to when the team returned from their last excursion.

“Oh! You’re back!” Connie said. “Did things go okay?”

Val was still in the same set of clothes that she’d been wearing when Connie had last seen her. The leather jacket looked a bit worse for having survived a trip through an Actual Hell, but her boots and jeans had held up surprisingly well. Better than their wearer based on the state of Val’s unkempt hair.

“Yeah, Aranea has a place in town. We got back yesterday,” Val said. She picked up one of the tablets and began scrolling through the article that was on the open browser tab.

“No weird time shenanigans there I hope?” Connie asked. Before joining the Second Chance Club she wouldn’t have thought to ask that particular question, but James was bringing her up to speed on the perils of planar travel as fast as he could.

“Tuesday was a little fuzzy, but that was probably more the margaritas’ fault than anything actually weird happening with time,” Val said.

Connie did the mental math. If Val and Aranea had gotten in yesterday and everyone else had returned a week ago, then they’d enjoyed a nice little vacation somewhere. Connie felt the itch of curiosity to hear the details but a more rational part of her wondered if she really wanted to know what a spider goddess did for ‘fun’?

“Are you back for a bit, or just stopping to check in?” she asked, instead of delving for vacation details which she probably wouldn’t be able to un-hear once she was told them.

“Was going to get cleaned up, but it looks like you could use a hand here,” Val said. “Is there another crisis brewing? No. Wait. Scratch that. There’s always another crisis brewing. How big is this one?”

“End of the world,” Connie said. “Oh, sorry, that was last week. Looks like we’re fresh of out of apocalypses. Apocali? Apocii? That’s not really word that should need a plural is it?”

“Welcome to the Second Chance Club,” Val said, smiling and taking a seat on the floor beside Connie. Despite her disheveled appearance, Val smelled wonderful. Like freshly cleaned cotton sheets that had dried in the wind and sunshine.

“This isn’t for a crisis, I’m just trying to get caught up,” Connie said.

“On?” Val asked, picking up a cell phone that was displaying an image of Tokugawa era spider statue from a Japanese artist.

“Everything,” Connie said. “I thought I had a pretty eclectic background before you folks recruited me. When I see the kinds of things we’ve gotten into already though, I’m left feeling like I’m woefully under educated for keeping up with everyone.”

“So, your plan is to learn everything there is about everything?” Val asked.

“Not exactly,” Connie said. “I mean, obviously that’s impossible. It is impossible right? The club doesn’t have like a god-memory tiara or something does it?”

“Nope.” Val laughed. “Though, believe it or not, I looked for pretty much the same thing when I was sitting where you are.”

Connie leaned back, placing her hands carefully so she wouldn’t smoosh one of the devices she was surrounded by.

“What was your onboarding like?” she asked.

“Well, we didn’t go to hell,” Val said. “So, easier than yours I’d say.”

Connie laughed and ran a hand through her hair. She still hadn’t really processed that experience. In hindsight it was terrifying, but it had been so hectic while she was there and it was such a brief event that was so disconnected from everything else, that she had a hard time believing it was real. The more days that passed, the more the whole affair felt like a dream.

Except for the bit where they were getting daily updates from Mr. Fong on his cousin’s progress towards Tibet.

Modern technology could have returned the Unity statue to its rightful holders within hours of the team’s return, but in this case the journey held an element of penance which couldn’t be avoided without reigniting the spirits’ wrath, and no one wanted that, not even the spirits themselves.

“I felt pretty overwhelmed,” Val said. “Before I signed on, I’d had no idea about the whole mystical, otherworldly stuff that was out there, and after the first time we ran into something I couldn’t explain, I wanted James and Tam to teach me everything about everything.”

“How long did it take them?” Connie asked. Her smile said she was joking, but there was a note of sincerity in her question too.

“I’ll let you know when they’re done,” Val said.

“You seem to have the basics down at least,” Connie said. “I feel like I’m flying blind even in terms of the simple things.”

“That’s because you’re like Tam,” Val said. “You’re used to either knowing something, or knowing where to look to find it out. Or figuring it out on your own I guess?”

“What other options are there?” Connie asked.

“Experiencing it,” Val said. “I didn’t come up with that. It’s something James told me. I thought he was saying that there was stuff we’d just have to suffer through, and to a point that is true. What he meant though is that there’s always going to be things we haven’t learned about. Or that we’ve learned incomplete or incorrect things about. It’s kind of inevitable given that we deal with a lot of unique people and situations.”

“I can see the value of keeping an open mind, but walking into hell blindly on purpose seems like a great plan if you want to get stuck there forever.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Val said. “If you can do research related to the case your working, then by all mean, stock up on all the info you can. The key there is the ‘all you can’ part. I know I don’t have the best memory in the world, so I read for the high points of things. Anything else and my brain turns to much and I absorb nothing.”

“That can leave out some important details though,” Connie said.

“It can, but that’s what we’ve got each other for, and James, and JB, and everyone else in the club,” Val said. “We’re each good at something but that doesn’t mean any of us have to be perfect at any of it.”

“Yeah, but information is supposed to be my ‘thing’,” Connie said. “I mean you hired me on as a librarian didn’t you?”

“Charlene is the one who makes all the hiring decisions, so you’ll need to ask her if it was your amazing Dewey Decimal skills that drew her attention. If I had to guess though, she picked you because you bring a whole lot more than that to the table.”

“I’m not sure that my archeology background is going to help on many cases,” Connie said.

“You might be surprised,” Val said. “I didn’t think my training in leading a squad was ever going to come up, but then I never pictured that I’d be leading a team into a demon infested Chinese military base either.”

“You got us in, you got us out, and no one got hurt,” Connie said. “Well except for the demon lord I guess. I’m not sure he counts though. Anyways, put me down as happy to follow you again and curious why you didn’t think you’d get to lead?”

“Because we have Anna,” Val said. “And she’s amazing.”

“Granted,” Connie said. “But she can’t be everywhere.”

“Yeah, I’m seeing that now,” Val said. “And I’m seeing something else too. Anna’s an excellent leader, and there’s a ton of stuff I can learn from her, but my training is a bit different from hers. She thinks big picture. Very strategy focused. I’m used to smaller scale stuff. Fewer people. Shorter timeframes. I’m tactical. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Anna can handle tactics just fine too, but I can handle them well enough that if I step up, she’ll be able to keep an eye on what’s going on overall, which I think is what she naturally tries to do.”

“So you’re saying I should be looking at the things Tam doesn’t do, or at least things that I can do better?” Connie asked.

“Not exactly,” Val said. “It doesn’t have to be a competition. We’ve seen your work already, and I’ve seen you in the field. You don’t have anything to prove. You absolutely belong here and we’re lucky to have you with us. That’s true regardless of your skill in any area relative to any of us. What I’ve suggesting is just find what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and then see what those things can add to the team.”

“What if what I’m good at is reading a ridiculous number of articles looking for answers to an ever expanding series of questions that pop in my head?” Connie asked.

“That sounds super valuable to me,” Val said. “With one catch.”

“What’s that?” Connie asked.

“It’s only good if it’s good for you,” Val said. “Doing something because you think we need you to, or because you’re pursuing some imaginary ‘good enough’ target is just going to leave you burned out. Tam was pushing herself like that, and she had a good cause, but outside of the short term, that sort of work does more harm than good.”

“Even if it means saving the world?” Connie asked.

“Things get a little fuzzy there,” Val said. “Do you destroy yourself to save the world? What happens the next time the world needs to be saved? Do you hold back? Is there a world left to be saved if you do? Sometimes you get stuck with a rotten deal of the cards and there’s just no good answers.”

“What do you usually choose to do then?” Connie asked.

“I cheat,” Val said. “If that’s not possible, then I hit things. Or get hit by them. My role on the team is kinda simple sometimes.”

“I could do with simple about now,” Connie said. “But I really want to read these too.”

“Split the difference?” Val suggested.

“Read half of them?” Connie asked.

“Sort of,” Val said. “You read the first one that looks interesting and I’ll pick out the others from the pile that I know we’ve run into before or are likely to come up. If you have any questions, you can ask me and that might save time doing research on it. At least for now.”

“That’s…really generous of you,” Connie said. “Are you sure though? I mean you just got back?”

“Let’s be honest,” Val said. “I just had a week off. I owe you all some time after you covered for me like that.”

“There really wasn’t much to cover,” Connie said. “We haven’t had any problems come up since we got back.”

One of the phone’s beside her rang. The number on the screen was just digits. No one in her phone book.

Val picked it up.

“Hello?”

The caller on the other end of the line sounded frantic but the volume was so low Connie couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“Glowing red cracks on the box and eerie moaning from them?” Val asked. “Sure, let me check. Connie, got any suggestion on a sealing agent for a Voxable Puzzle Box that seems to be exploding, slowly?”

Connie blinked. She’d never heard of a Voxable Puzzle Box. Her fears rose to swallow up her thoughts but before they could another idea flitted to her awareness.

“Scrub the cracks with salt and then drip molten silver onto them,” she said. “I was just reading an article on warding a room from otherworld intrusions and they mentioned the salt and silver trick worked on other things too.”

Val repeated the instructions and then listened to the phone for a minute.

“Ok, excellent, glad we could help,” she said before hanging up.

“It worked?” Connie asked.

“Like a charm,” Val said. “Literally. That was the sealing charm they needed. The box is safe and secure now. Crisis averted.”

“Neat! I guess, with a little help, sometimes people can make their own Second Chances!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 8 – Act 3

A strange yellow orb hung in the sky, beaming deadly radiation down across the land. Or at least Tam found it strange. Having been cooped up in her sanctum for more nights than she could remember, fresh air and bright sunlight seemed as alien to her as any facehugger or creature from beyond the stars could be.

“Come on, it’s just a little sunshine,” Sarah said. “You’re not a vampire, it can’t actually hurt you.”

She pulled on Tam’s arm to lead them down the stairs from the Club’s current offices. Tam squinted and groaned. She could argue that sunlight was capable of doing all sorts of bad things to a person but she knew that wouldn’t change Sarah’s resolve to her away from her cauldrons and iPads.

“There’s still stuff to do though,” she groaned, the protest pressed out of her by the sheer number of tasks that were pending in her queue. “We don’t know what formed that sinkhole in Mumbai. Or why Anchorage is reporting purple stars appearing at midnight?”

“James is working on that,” Sarah said, dragging Tam further down the street. Tam wasn’t making a particular effort to resist. On some level she seemed to know she needed the intervention.

“James is working on a lot of things,” Tam said, not quite willing, or able, to give up without more of a struggle.

Not that she had a lot of energy left. She was tired. Even with the extra help from both Connie and Sarah, it still felt like the world was resting on her shoulders.

“And if he wasn’t agoraphobic, I would be dragging him out here too,” Sarah said.

“But what if there’s some monster that’s inhaling whole villages or something?” Tam said.

“Then those villages have a big problem to deal with,” Sarah said.

“They’re not going to be able to though!” Tam said.

“And neither are you,” Sarah said. “Did we stop the first sinkhole from forming?”

“No.”

“Can we stop all of the bad things in the world before they happen to someone good?”

“No.”

“Can we help anyone at all if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open?”

“Maybe,” Tam grumbled. “No.”

“You like to help people,” Sarah said, stopping and turning to face Tam. “I get it. It can be kind of addictive. But you’ve got a responsibility to help yourself too.”

“You sound like my girlfriend,” Tam said.

“Good. I’ve met Cynthia. She’s a lovely woman. Very sensible,” Sarah said.

“Did she put you up to this?” Tam asked.

“No, though she has been calling for you pretty regularly,” Sarah said.

A police car passed on the street, it lights twirling. Another problem. Another thing to worry about.

“Why haven’t I gotten those calls?” Tam asked.

“Because she’s trying to respect your time,” Sarah said and mimicked Cynthia’s voice, “I’m just calling to check in, how’s Tam doing? No, no, don’t interrupt her if she’s busy, I know she needs to concentrate. No, it’s ok, you don’t have to let her know I called, everything’s ok here. I don’t want to worry her.”

Tam massaged the bridge of her nose.

“Oh, that’s not good at all, is it?”

“No,” Sarah said. “Or yes. I mean on the positive side, you’ve got someone in your life who truly cares you. That’s uncommon to rare in my experience. On the other hand, they’re stressed out and aren’t sure what to do to make things better for you, which is depressingly common.”

“Ugh, I have got to carve some time off for her,” Tam said. “We were supposed to go out together two nights ago, and I had to bail to deal with the bog lights in Kemeri.”

“No,” Sarah said, shaking her head.

“No, what?” Tam asked. “That really was why I had to cancel. I didn’t want to bail!”

“I know that,” Sarah said. “What I’m saying no to is ‘carving some time’ for your girlfriend. That’s not healthy or sustainable. You can’t make spending time with her just another chore on a ToDo list.”

“That’s not…” Tam started to object but then slumped in defeat. It was a painfully accurate characterization of how she’d been picturing making time for the woman she loved.

“Yes, that’s not what you’re going to do,” Sara said. “Instead you’re going to come with me and we’re going to solve a problem the old fashioned way.”

“Without magic?” Tam asked.

“I try to do as little without magic as possible,” Sarah said. “And in this case I think we need to use one of the most ancient magics there is.”

Tam sagged further. Ancient magics tended to deal with primal energies, which were either incredibly difficult to summon, or incredibly difficult to control. Or both. Most times it was both.

“I don’t know if that’s wise,” Tam said. “If I cast a big spell now, I can promise it’s going to go sideways starting with the first syllable.”

“That’s the beauty of this magic,” Sarah said. “It’s not big at all.”

Tam didn’t trust that. Maybe it wasn’t big by Sarah’s reckoning. Sara had more experience casting high tier spells than Tam did though, and that could have easily distorted her view of what a less experienced caster could manage, especially when said caster was already exhausted. On the other hand, if and when things did go wrong, having Sarah there gave the best chance to someone being able to get the spell back on track, and it would serve Sarah right to be stuck with the legwork to make that happen.

“Ok, where do we go for the casting then?” Tam asked.

“You’ll see!” Sarah said. “We’ve just got a few stops to make first.”

***

The first stop in question turned out to be a basketball court. Not a venue Tam had been expecting, but Sarah moved with purpose as she strode along the sidelines.

Her target was a high school aged girl who was tying on a new pair of shoes.

“Just won those, I’m guessing?” Sarah said.

“Yeah, what of it?” the girl said, looking up at the two women. Her hair was woven into cornrows and hung halfway down her back. It showed wonderful braiding work, better than Tam had ever managed for her friend Ayisha when they were teenagers, but where Ayisha had always had a smile when she saw Tam, the basketball playing girl’s dark brown eyes held only suspicion.

“I’m off my game,” Sarah said. “I could use a practice round against somebody with some skill.”

“Two on one?” the girl said. “Sounds like a hustle.”

“Nah, just me,” Sarah said. “My friend’s a nerd, I don’t think she even knows how to play.”

Tam wanted to take offense. She knew the rules of basketball. She’d even played before. A while ago. Ok, over a decade ago. But she could sort of dribble still. Probably. If she had an hour or so to practice first.

“What do you want to play for?” the girl asked.

“Those shoes are around a $100, right?” Sarah said. “Let’s play for that.” She flashed a small handful of bills to show she could cover her end of the bet.

“Now I know you’re a hustler,” the girl said.

“Afraid to take my money?” Sarah asked.

“You afraid to lose it?” the girl asked.

“Depends if I get a good match in or not,” Sarah said. “My name’s Sarah.”

“McKenzie,” the girl said.

“First to eleven?” Sarah suggested.

“Sure, I’ll even let you start out,” McKenzie said, tossing Sarah the ball.

Tam may not have been able to play basketball all that well, but she was able to follow the flow of the game easily enough.

Sarah put in a valiant effort, but it clear from the start that McKenzie was in a different league entirely. What was the most interesting to Tam though were the half dozen moments when Sarah could have easily cheated with a quick spell or a whispered incantation but chose to play it fair instead.

With the match concluded, the two players came over to where Tam was sitting.

“I’m more out of shape than I thought,” Sarah said, passing the folded bills over to McKenzie.

“You’ve got a decent fake out,” McKenzie said. “Can’t use it on someone who’s reading you though.”

“It was my go to move for a while,” Sarah said. “Seemed like all the balls I sunk this time were just straight shots though.”

“Yeah, well, I had to give you some space for those or you’d have gotten more of the fakes through,” McKenzie said.

“You ever do any coaching?” Sarah asked.

“What? Me? Nah. I’m not a coach. I’m still in school,” McKenzie said.

“I don’t know, one of my friend’s daughter’s plays in a youth league and they could definitely use someone with your eye,” Sarah said.

“Well if they’ve got any openings, you let me know, ok?” McKenzie said.

“Sure, you around much?” Sarah asked.

“I’m here every day,” McKenzie said. “Or at least every day there’s someone looking to lose some coin.”

“I’ll let you know then,” Sarah said. “Thanks for the match.”

***

As they continued on the journey, Tam couldn’t help but notice the smug expression on Sarah’s face.

“You look awful happy for someone who just got beat and lost a hundred dollar,” Tam said. “I’m hoping the spell’s going to turn out a little better than that.”

“Believe it or not, I think the magic turned out just fine,” Sarah said.

“What magic?” Tam asked. “You didn’t cast anything during that game. I mean you had some golden opportunities, but I didn’t see one spell go off.”

“They’re going to take away your magician card,” Sarah said. “I never said I was going to cast a spell. I said we were going to work some magic. And we did.”

“The basketball game was magic?” Tam asked. Her brain felt like a lake of sludge on top of her shoulders. She knew she should be looking at the situation from a different angle. Sarah had played the most basic of magic tricks on her – set her up to expect one thing and then did something totally different while Tam was distracted. Even knowing that though, the wheels in Tam’s head were still stuck in the sludge and she couldn’t work out what had really happened.

“Yes. The most ancient kind of magic,” Sarah said. “It was communication. I talked to McKenzie and now the world is changed.”

“I am about five paces behind still,” Tam said. “Break it down for me in more detail ok?”

“Sure,” Sarah said with a gentle laugh. “Ok, McKenzie’s out there everyday hustling to make ends meet. She’s good at basketball, but playing games for money is only going to take her so far. It’s hit-or-miss when people will be willing to play, and dangerous if she plays the wrong people. She’s smart though, so she knows that and tries to only take the safe bets. Meaning the people who aren’t going to break her legs when she wins.”

“That sounds good?” Tam said.

“It’s not,” Sarah said. “She’s playing the odds and the odds always turn on you eventually. What she needs, what she knows she needs, is something more stable. And she needs people in her life too. Did you notice that we played one-on-one?”

“Yeah. That’s not usual is it?  I thought basketball was usually five-on-five?”

“That or three-on-three is more common. McKenzie can’t do that though because she’s not exactly flush with friends. Especially not ones that can play like she can.”

“So, coaching?”

“Yeah. It’s something she’s naturally gifted at. More than that though, the youth team I talked about? They really do need help, and McKenzie is the perfect person to provide it. She can be there as a coach, and as a friend in a way that none of the adults who are working with the kids can be.”

“I feel like there’s a lesson here for me?” Tam said.

“There is,” Sarah said. “What you’re doing isn’t wrong, you’re just going about it wrong. You can’t fix all the world’s problems. And that’s good. If you could the world wouldn’t need the rest of us.”

“But the problems still need to be fixed, don’t they?”

“Some of them, but you’ll get a lot more done by giving people the little bits of help or information they need to fix both their own problems and other peoples’,” Sarah said. “We don’t need special teams swooping in to save us all the time. In a lot of cases, we can make our own second chances.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 8 – Act 2

Jen felt a little strange being back home. Chicago was still Chicago, the architecture, the roads, even most of the people were largely unchanged, but when she looked up at her house the sheer familiarity of it felt alien somehow.

It was a strange and unsettling sensation. How could something she knew so well, which looked almost exactly the same as when she left it, feel so vastly different? Everywhere she looked she saw a thousand little details that leapt out and summoned memories that were decades old. She knew this place. It was a part of her. Heck, half her dreams were still located in that house. Despite the memories and the familiarity though, it still felt new.

Maybe because she’d never noticed all the details in that she could recognize. When it was her home it was a part of her everyday world. Seeing it again though made each little bit of it jump out it her like they’d never done before.

“Coming back is always strange isn’t it?” Anna asked, as she paid for their cab fare.

“This is the first time I’ve been away for so long,” Jen said. “It seems so different, but I know it’s not. It’s me.”

“That’s always comes with travel,” Anna said. “Coming home, we see through new eyes as our perspective changes. Things seem smaller as we see more and more of the world.”

“Yeah, I kind of got more than I bargained for there,” Jen said. “It’s hard to believe it was just three years ago that I was kidnapped by pirates. And I wasn’t even supposed to be on that boat!”

“I imagine the pirates wished you’d been absent even more than you did, given how things ultimately turned out for them,” Anna said.

“Would you believe one of them still writes to me?” Jen said. “He doesn’t have my address, but he writes to the police station in Changwon and one of the officers there forwards the letters on when she gets the chance.”

“I guess you could say that you made an impact on them,” Anna said.

Jen went to speak and then caught the pun Grandma Russia had made. It was clever given that Jen’s primary interaction with the pirate crew who’d boarded her boat had been Jen acting as an ambush predator and taking them out one by one as they’d foolishly trickled down to the lower deck to see what had happened to their compatriots.

It had been a terrifying experience, but also a turning point in Jen’s life. She could have died. Easily. By all rights she should have.

It had been a last desperate effort that had sent her and three of the pirates over the side of the ship. She didn’t have a plan for how to fight them in the water, or any idea at all what to do about the men who were still armed on the boat. All she’d been able to think was that if she died in the ocean, they might never find her and so she’d get to live on as a mystery, rather than becoming a poor, armless, dead girl.

Death hadn’t been an unlikely outcome of that fight either. Under normal circumstances she should have drowned, or been shot. Thanks to the miracles that were Anna and Tam though, she’d been given a second chance.

They’d done more than rescue her too. In the aftermath of the failed kidnapping, Jen found the last of the fears that had always held her back falling away.

Since she was a little girl, she’d yearned to travel the world, and her parents, reasonably she had to admit, had always been worried about how dangerous it would be. Talking them into allowing her to make a solo trip to New Zealand had been a monumental effort, and they hadn’t known about the cruise to South Korea at all.  To say they were surprised beyond reason when they learned about the pirate attack was only wrong in terms of how much more shocked they were when Jen told them that she was going to extend her trip and travel to every one of the continents.

“How long has it been since you’ve been back home?” Anna asked.

“It’s only been two years,” Jen said. “It feels like twenty though. Or two hundred.”

“Did you let your parents know you were coming to visit, or is this a surprise?” Anna asked, seeing Jen hesitating on the sidewalk.

“It’s a surprise,” Jen said. “I wasn’t able to keep in touch all that well while I was traveling, so I figured they wouldn’t be expecting me and, really, this kind of surprise is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How could I pass it up?”

“An understandable sentiment,” Anna said. “Though it does leave open the question of whether or not your parents will be home, doesn’t it”

“Oh it’ll be a couple of hours before my Mom and Dad are back,” Jen said. “Mom’s got classes and office hours until at least 5:00 pm and Dad’s community outreach programs usually go till 7:00 pm.”

“And it’s 3:00 pm now,” Anna said. “Did you plan to wait outside for them?”

“No, I’ve got a key still.” Jen said. “I thought we could drop our stuff off and head over to the Field Museum to check out the dinosaurs Tam wanted us to help with the security on.”

“Will we be able to make it here and back in time?” Anna asked.

“With Chicago traffic?” Jen said. “It’ll take at least two hours to get there. And probably the same to get back. Unless of course you drive!”

Anna started to raise her forefinger as a precursor to a question but the gleam in Jen’s eye told her all she needed to know.

“You called for a rental car?” It was a question though Anna was certain enough of the answer that it only barely qualified as one.

“It should be here in about five minutes,” Jen said. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”

She unlocked the front door and dropped her bags on the couch that was took up the nearest wall of the small living room. Anna joined her inside, placing her bags on the floor in front of the couch. The decor was a hodgepodge of typical American furniture, mostly second hand, with wall hangings from places as distant as Senegal and as nearby as the corner craft store.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Jen said, heading towards the kitchen. Anna considered offering her a hand in writing the note she was no doubt leaving to cover the case where they didn’t return in time, but she checked herself.

Jen clearly didn’t need any help with that, and respecting her capabilities was something Anna wanted to make sure she did properly. The prosthesis Jen wore were more limited than organic arms would have been, but that didn’t mean Jen herself was limited. She had alternate methods of accomplishing things, and there would certainly be some tasks where she would appreciate assistance, but she was just as capable of asking for help as anyone with hands was.

In time, Anna knew she would learn the ins and outs of how to work best with Jen. Until then, she was resolved to handle moments of doubt through listening and observation, and to give Jen the same consideration and respect Anna gave to the rest of her associates.

It was a simple approach to dealing with someone new, but it had never failed her in the past.

***

On the ride over to the Field’s Museum, Jen was able to carry on an animated conversation, something few of Anna’s other passengers seemed capable of when she was in a rush.

“So, Tam says the dinosaur bones might be stolen tomorrow night?” Jen said.

“Yes,” Anna said, banking hard to the right as she slid through an intersection. The police car that had peeled out to tail her hadn’t made the corner onto the road she was leaving, so there was no chance they’d be able to follow. “Apparently there will be a confluence happening tomorrow night which is bringing a sort of black market for mystical artifacts to Chicago.”

“Why wait till tomorrow night to steal them though?” Jen asked. She had her feet up against the dashboard and was riding the changes in velocity as though the car was a strangely shaped surfboard beneath her.

“Only some of the bones will resonate with the confluence,” Anna said. “For tomorrow’s Mystic Market those will be the only ones with any trade value. Also, people like Tam and Sarah tend to track down those who steal mystically empowered artifacts before they’re put to misuse, so the longer the thieves have to hold onto stolen property, the more danger they run of being caught.”

“Can’t they just zip over to another world or something though to hide out?” Jen asked.

“Our recent experiences aside, crossing between worlds is fairly rare,” Anna said. “Also, if the thief can cross, then so can the people chasing them.”

“Does the museum staff know that they’ve got magic dino bones to protect?” Jen asked.

“It’s possible but I don’t believe so,” Anna said. “Tam and Sarah reviewed the staff records and didn’t recognize the names of anyone as a practitioner they were familiar with. That’s not a guarantee of course. There are plenty of wizards and witches and so on that operate on their own, or in societies which none of us have encountered to date.”

“Even so, I was looking at Tam’s library; it seems like I’ve got a lot to catch up on there.”

“You’ll find that stays true for quite a while,” Anna said. “Each case in fact seems to take us in new directions with plenty to learn.”

“That sounds like half the fun of what we do,” Jen said.

“Fun is a part of it,” Anna said. “Also terror, though this case shouldn’t have so much of that.”

“Let’s hope not,” Jen said. “Cause it looks like we’re here.”

***

It wasn’t the first time Jen had been to the Field’s Museum. As a kid she’d pestered her parents to take her back to it any time a new exhibition showed up. On none of those trips however had she gotten to go backstage and visit the museum’s security office.

“You must be Ms. Ilyina?” an older man in a crisp black suit said. He was seated in front of a bank of monitors that displayed the status of the museum’s various security systems. “And Ms. Kelly?”

Anna nodded and said “Indeed we are Mr. Washington. It was a pleasure to speak with you earlier.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” Washington said. “Anyone who can call in a budget increase, even a temporary one, for my team is someone I’m more than happy to meet with.”

“The museum has a fine staff,” Anna said. “There were a few holdouts, but with a little negotiation, that was easily sorted out.”

“I can’t imagine ‘easily’ applies to anything about getting extra money from the board,” Washington said. “Given that you did though, how can I help you in return?”

“I’d like to talk over the museum’s security, particularly around the dinosaur fossil exhibits,” Anna said. “There may be an attempt to remove one or more of the major bones during working hours tomorrow.”

“I’d like to say that’s impossible, but I’ve been in this business too long to believe that,” Washington said.

“Impossible is the goal we strive towards, not a destination we can ever reach,” Anna said. “In this case though I believe our striving will be fairly simple.”

“If the security window you’re concerned with is tomorrow, I can schedule people for extra shifts, but we’re not even close to overstaffed, so I can’t promise that will mean much of a boost in terms of coverage,” Washington said.

“What if we had a some people you could deputize for the day,” Jen said.

“They’d need to be vetted,” Washington said. “Anyone with access to the security systems needs to go through a background check and we won’t have time to run those before tomorrow.”

“We may not need that for our deputies,” Jen said.

“What are you planning?” Washington asked.

“My father is a youth counselor,” Jen said. “He works with at-risk kids and has an outreach program where he and his fellow counselors manage about fifty kids. Tomorrow’s not a school day, and kids will blend in with the crowds really well. Give them an earbud to stay in communication with your full time guards, and a day’s pay and you’ll have fifty extra sets of eyes keeping track of anyone who tries anything shady.”

“That…that could definitely help,” Washington said.

***

The next day when the museum opened, the crowd had a higher than normal percentage of teenagers in the mix. Teenagers who spent the entire day at the museum, absorbing art, and culture, and having fun with science and a chance to hang out with each other.

That they were also always where the thieves needed people to not be, and always looking right where the thieves needed people to facing away from for at least thirty seconds, was something which only Anna and Jen noticed and got to enjoy.

The day ended with a peaceful close and no dinosaur bones missing from the museum’s collection and that was just fine with everyone except a pair of grumpy thieves who woke the next day to discover several of the other items they’d stolen previously for other Mystic Markets had vanished while they were at the museum.

The smarter of the two thieves understood what had happened, seeing that someone who’d been in a position to take their stuff could as easily have taken something more precious, like their lives.

Not wanting to waste the second chance they’d been given, the two thieves had given up their life of crime and had instead become security specialists, in the process making significantly more money at significantly less risk than they ever had before.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 8 – Act 1

Tam felt one of the most delicately crafted spells she’d ever woven ripple and shatter as four people appeared atop the electronically etched ritual circle in her sanctum. Turning to them as the shards of magic she’d been holding collapses around her, frying circuit boards and fouling wireless relays, a huge smile burst across her face.

“Oh! Sorry for the mess!” Sarah said, as she stepped off the platform and shook her finger to get rid of the sparks that were dancing around their tips.

“You made it back!” Tam said, throwing her arms wide as though she was going to hug them all. She paused though as she got a better look at their number. “Or most of you did?”

Val and Aranea were conspicuously absent.

Tam’s arms sagged down as she looked from one face to another.. Anna was her usual self. Calm, collected, and smiling to see Tam. That was a good sign.

Connie looked a little staggered by the transit, which was unsurprising, and therefore reassuring in a sense. Trips back from any unearthly dimension were disorienting, and escaping from a hell-ish otherworld was usually a hundred times more so.

Jen looked a little different than the last time Tam had seen her, but the sharp gleam of joy in her eyes was unchanged. She was looking around Tam’s sanctum and drinking in the myriad odd bits and baubles that had accumulated there over time.

“Where’s Val?” Tam asked. “She didn’t stay behind, did she?”

“No, she and Aranae headed off for some quality time,” Anna said, stepping forward and putting her hands on Tam’s shoulders. “It’s ok Tam, you can breathe now.”

Tam hadn’t noticed she’d been holding her breath and managed to let it go in a long, relaxing breath.

“I’m glad you made it back,” she said, and pulled Anna in for a quick hug. “Things looked pretty bad from here.”

“They weren’t particularly good on our end either,” Anna said.

Tam sniffed and smelled an odd mix of sulphur and decay that permeated Anna’s suit. No blood though, so that was good. She let Anna go and turned to see how the others were doing.

“It turned out ok,” Connie said. “I think. The world is saved, right?”

She’d thrown off the disorientation of the spell and was taking in the room with a more casual interest than Jen.

“It’s saved from the Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’s Dancers at least,” Sarah said. She was still rubbing her hands, so Tam passed her a towel. Most of the residual burning she felt was illusory, but even a purely symbolic act of cleaning could help disrupt the lingering threads of magic which could cause actual pain.

“Tell me what happened!” Tam said. “I couldn’t scry directly into wherever you went, so all I was able to do was monitor the new ley lines that were running into the base. I wound up so busy dissipating the backflow of rage that was trying to surge out of them, that I couldn’t even try to overcome the barriers between the worlds to re-establish contact.”

“Were you able to view us once we entered the base at least?” Anna asked.

“Not the real you,” Tam said. “As soon as you crossed its border, there was some distortion and you were replaced by an illusion.”

“What were the illusions doing?” Sarah asked.

“Nothing,” Tam said. “You came to a stop and then stood there for a while before turning around and leaving. When you reached the edge of the base the illusions just disappeared.”

“We never stopped moving once we entered the base,” Anna said.

“I figured as much,” Tam said. “The drones we dispatched couldn’t follow you either. The ones we sent in lost contact and the ones outside the base showed you vanishing the moment you entered.”

“I’m not surprised,” Connie said. “It looked like the whole area was being pulled to hell the deeper in we walked.”

“Looks in this case were only slightly deceiving, “ Sarah said. “It’s more accurate to say ‘hell was being pulled to the base’, given what we found at the construction site.”

“I wondered about that,” Tam said. “The feedback on the ley lines looked like someone was doing some serious metaphysical remodeling of that area.”

“The dancers managed to punch a breech to one of the local hells,” Sarah said. “No surprise right? Turns out the lord of that realm got his teeth kicked in hard enough that he was all for setting up shop on our world and kicking his former realm into oblivion.”

“Given that the ley lines in that area stabilized a few minutes ago, I’m going to guess that’s not what happened though?” Tam said.

“The difficulties with allowing a new annex of hell to be setup on Earth aside, there was the issue of the missing people which lead us to object to the demon lord’s plans,” Anna said.

“As one of the missing people, I’d like to give a hearty ‘thank you’ for making that decision,” Connie said.

“I don’t know, it seemed like your team had things pretty under control by the time we got there,” Jen said.

She’d settled into one of the swivel chairs in the small coffee nook Tam had cobbled together near the ritual circle. Some rituals were longer than others and some of them required a level of wakefulness no human could manage without the aid of caffeine. The others joined Jen, plopping down into cushy chairs or grabbing space on the floor as they settled in for an informal debriefing.

“Val had things under control, maybe,” Connie said. “I make no claims to having a clue what we were going to do there.”

“As that teams resident magic expert, I second the ‘didn’t have a clue what to do’,” Sarah said. “I’m not even sure how Val knew that would work. Tam, did you give her specific lessons in out of control dancing artifacts?”

“Uh, no, why, what did she do?” Tam asked.

“She had us join the dancers,” Jen said. “It was clever. They were expressing their rage through the dance, so we joined it and they started listening to us.”

“How did you know what to say? I mean, how to move?” Sarah asked.

“Body language says a lot more than most people are aware of,” Jen said.

“But we were so small compared to them” Sarah said. “Usually to influence someone you need to be able to catch a certain amount of their attention. It doesn’t help trying to send subtle signals if the targets is completely oblivious.”

“We had the statue and the statue holder though,” Jen said.

“Oh yeah! I hadn’t even thought of that,” Sarah said. “I was so lost in how big the explosion was going to be I missed that we put Fong and the statue at the center of the our circle.”

“Was that important?” Connie asked.

“You danced within the dancer’s circle, but around the dancer’s physical embodiment, it sounds like?” Tam said. “If so it means when you caught their attention, they found themselves both dancing around you and right in the middle of you. Their original physical form and your dancing would have reminded the spirits of what brought them together in the first place and that they weren’t the monsters their anger had temporarily twisted them into being.”

“Not that they calmed down right away or anything,” Jen said.

“Seeing General Fong did seem to tick them off a bit,” Connie said.

“We’re lucky he was sincere in his apology,” Sarash said. “If he’d just been terrified and trying to save his skin, the dancers would have really lost it.”

“What price did they extract from him?” Tam asked.

“None,” Anna said. “Not because they were forgiving, I think, but because he gave his pledge before they could ask.”

“He promised to reunite them with their family,” Sarah said. “He’s walking there now.”

“Walking?” Tam asked.

“Yes,” Anna said. “He pledge to carry the statue back to the original owners, himself, by walking the whole distance to Tibet on foot. Along the way, he will have only the food and shelter which people will freely offer him and only those who he meets on his journey may travel with him.”

“I think he experienced all of the suffering the statue had born witness to,” Sarah said.

“I liked that at each place he stops, he’s going to tell the statue’s story and share what it was meant to represent,” Jen said. “I think the original artists would have liked that.”

“What happens if he doesn’t make it back to Tibet?” Tam asked.

“The pledge he swore made no allowance for failure or death,” Anna said. “He explicitly bound himself to complete the task in this life or the life beyond.”

“I can see why the dancers agreed to it and let him go,” Tam said. “How did the rest of you get home though?”

“That was slightly more complicated,” Sarah said.

“I can imagine,” Tam said. “Hells aren’t normally all that eager to let people leave.”

“That’s the complicated part,” Sarah said. “Whatever that realm is, it’s not a hell anymore. Something about the dancers’ energies started to change it, and the things inside it.”

“What about the demon lord?” Tam asked. “Did he just reclaim his control over his realm?”

“When we went to deal with the dancers we left the demon lord awith Aranea,” Jen said.

“And when we came back she was picking her teeth with one of his mandibles,” Connie said, sticking out her tongue in disgust.

“She didn’t…?” Tam began to ask.

“As far as we can tell, yes, she did,” Sarah said. “So, he’s not exactly going to be a problem anymore. Except, you know, maybe as indigestion.”

“Ugh,” Jen said and nudged Sarah who was sitting on the ground beside her with her foot.

“Anyways, with the demon lord out of the picture, getting everyone else back where they belonged was the first thing the dancers did,” Sarah said.

“Just so I’m clear, Val is dating Aranea right?” Connie asked. “I mean I get not have any arachnophobia at all, but an actual spider goddess?”

“I’m not sure either one of them has put a particular name on what they have yet,” Anna said. “There is some attachment there though. Perhaps exactly the sort of attachment that ‘it’s complicated’ was invented to describe.”

“More power to her!” Jen stamping a foot as punctuation.

“Val?” Sarah said. “I mean, sure, I can get how hanging with a goddess could be a thrill, but it does seem a bit dangerous.”

“Nah,” Jen said. “Aranea got the better part of the deal, and is in more danger, I’d say.”

“Have you met Val before?” Connie asked.

“Nope,” Jen said. “Sometimes you can just tell by how somebody carries themself though. I can’t wait to spar with her.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Anna said. “It would be nice to have you around for a while. Perhaps even permanently if you’d be interested?”

“What, like become a full time associate?” Jen asked, her breath catching a little.

“Exactly like that, yes,” Anna said.

“I’d…I’d be delighted to,” Jen said. “I didn’t think you needed any more associates though? Or that I qualified?”

“You’ve always qualified,” Tam said. “We didn’t invite you before because Charlene said you had some other goals you wanted to work on, but Anna and I both made a case for having you join us back then.”

“Wow, I didn’t know,” Jen said. “I guess Charlene was right though at the time. I had a lot of things I wanted to learn, and a lot of things I needed to learn that I had no idea I needed.”

“I know that feeling,” Sarah said. “I thought I was pretty talented with magic and people and if nothing else this showed me that I’ve still got a ton to learn about both.”

“There’s a spot for you as well,” Anna said.

“Doing what?” Sarah asked. “You’ve already got a world class spell caster on your team.”

“I’m good,” Tam said. “You’re better. At least at magic.”

“You’re relative skill rankings are less important than the fact that we would have two reliable people to handle mystical threats in the field rather than placing all of the burden on one person’s shoulders,” Anna said.

“Do I count as reliable?” Sarah asked. “I led us into pretty bad situation there.”

“And played your part in getting us out of it,” Anna said. “Just as you did with the Golden Record.”

“Thanks,” Sarah said. “And I guess joining is the least I can do after you, you know, saved the whole world for me.”

“That’s the business we’re in,” Tam said. “Second chances, where they’re needed, no matter how big or small they may be!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 4

As prison camps went, the area where the humans who’d been dragged to hell were gathered lacked certain classic elements. Like walls. Or guards. Or really anything that was stopping the humans from leaving.

The mass of villagers and military personnel weren’t in any danger of escaping though. They stood, spaced apart at regular intervals, in a spiral formation that was centered directly beneath the dancers far above.

Each human, and several of the local demons, stood under the rain of glittering embers that fell from the dancers’ steps, their faces upturned and their arms stretched upwards to gather in the motes of light that were descending on them. It was an eerie sight. No one, human or demon, was stirring within the circle the glittery radiance that was raining down on. Apart from a slight swaying and a voiceless moaning, they all might have been statues.

“That does not look safe to go into,” Connie said, halting the head of the procession she was leading. Around her, the small army of animalistic demons who’d ‘taken them into custody’ stopped just behind her. None of them looked eager to join their companions or overseers in the scintillating storm.

“Yeah, this is as far as we go,” Val said. “Our next step is to work out how we get those people out of here and back to Earth. I’m presuming if we get touched by the glitter rain, we wind up as mind zapped as they are, right?”

“I could cast a spell to be certain, but it’s about a 99% chance that you’re correct,” Sarah said.

“More important question then, does that stuff need to touch our skin or is proximity enough?” Val asked.

“That I will check on,” Sarah said and began weaving one of her favorite analysis spells. In a sense, the current problem was relaxing. A falling hail of mind controlling dust was just another sort of trap, and recovering lost relics involved dealing with all kinds of weird traps.

“While she does that, let’s work out our best path out of here,” Val said, turning to Connie.

“That’s a lot of people to move at once,” Connie said.

The space before them was a wide open park in the center of more a few dozen buildings which had been capped with the weird, fleshy spires that rose above the city and supported the web the dancers were spinning atop.

The park hadn’t been designed to hold tens of thousands people, and certainly couldn’t have done so with them arranged in a spiral but, through some non-euclidean aspect of the hellscape’s geometry, it managed the trick of containing them all nonetheless.

“I’m not sure we can move them,” Val said. “Not directly at least.”

“What other options do we have?” Connie asked. “We can’t leave them here can we?”

“We can, if we have someone else move them instead,” Val said and pointed up.

Connie glanced up at the giants atop the web, who’d grown beyond the size of the largest buildings in the town and were continuing to swell.

“The dancers? They’re going to squish everybody here if they come down off that web,” Connie said.

“They were originally small enough to fit in that display case that we saw,” Val said. “So size shouldn’t be the biggest problem.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely not a problem,” Sarah said as she completed her spell. “The bigger they are the more this realm is affecting them.”

“And that’s not a problem how?” Connie asked.

“It’s more complex than this but think of it like putting a hot plate against a block of ice,” Sarah said. “The dancers are the hot plate and they’re pouring a ton of energy into this place. Eventually that energy is going to turn the ice to water and then steam and then everything explodes because the pressure has built up too high.”

“Extend the metaphor a bit please,” Val said. “How does them getting bigger relate to that?”

“This place equates power with size,” Sarah said. “The more in tune with the environment the dancers become the ‘colder’ they’ll be, meaning the more energy they’ll be able to retain within themselves rather than dumping it into the world.”

“And this is a good thing?” Connie asked.

“It buys us time,” Sarah said. “Ultimately, if the dancers break the barriers around this world, it’s not going to matter, but the fact that they haven’t done so yet is, in part, because being here is changing them. It’s like a natural defense this place has, sort of an immune response. Warp the dancers into the image of this place and their rage will try to vent itself somewhere else instead.”

“Wouldn’t that solve the problem?” Connie asked. “If they start dumping their anger on some other hell then they wouldn’t blow up this one?”

“It would, if this place would last that long,” Sarah said. “The thing is, hells are usually pretty full of negative emotions to start with. That the dancers are able to pump theirs in at all is a sign that they have far more than this place can handle, and from the light show they’re putting on, it’s pretty clear that they’re adding it at a faster rate than this place can bleed it off.”

“What’s the story on interacting with the glitter rain?” Val asked.

“Any contact with it, and we’ll fall under the dancer’s influence,” Sarah said.

“Then we definitely can’t help these people directly,” Val said. “So, next question, what can you do about getting us up to the dancers?”

“Transporting us to the web is pretty easy, this place is designed to draw people onto it, but why would we want to do that?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Val said. “Tactically though, the dancers are the centerpoint of this, so they’re the spot we need to strike at to make the problem fall apart.”

“There is another option,” a new voice said.

Val and the others turned to see four new arrivals moving through the crowd. Anna, and Aranea were familiar but the woman with the clockwork prosthesis was new, as was the spider-headed man who was bound in thick ropes of webbing.

“And that would be?” Val asked. She hid the relief and surprise she felt at seeing them. She had to play it cool for the newbies sakes.

“This one was the lord of this realm,” Aranea said, gesturing to the webbed up man-spider. “He was trying to create a place for himself on your world.”

“More importantly, he can sever the connection between this place and our world,” Anna said.

“So it can go kaboom and we’ll be safe?” Connie asked.

“And the people who are already here?” Sarah asked, her eyes gaze hardening.

The demon lord chittered something, apparently able to understand them, while lacking the capacity to reproduce their speech.

“He says so long as you’ve not consumed part of this land, he can restore you to your world,” Aranea said. “But that you will have to agree to allow him to return with you, or he will not be able to bring you across. He is lying in that claim, as a note.”

The demon lord chittered again, and Aranea chittered back at him.

“Even if he was telling the truth about that, it doesn’t help the people out there in the park,” Sarah said. “That energy they’re gobbling up? It’s from the dancers, but the dancers have started changing to be a part of this world. Everyone here, except for us, has taken in a bit of this place’s essence.”

She didn’t have a spell ready that could prove her claim to the others. The humans gathered in the park didn’t look demonic, but then trusting what your eyes showed you was a risky prospect no matter where you where, with a hellscape being nearly the poster child for places that deceive your perceptions. Happily the others seemed to understand that intuitively as well.

“That makes your decision even easier then,” Aranea said. “Save yourselves. Staying here benefits no one.”

It was a reasonable argument in Sarah’s view. Disconnecting the two worlds would mean saving billions of lives, potentially. That it was at the cost of literally damning ten thousand or more souls to oblivion didn’t sit right with her though.

“We can’t do that,” she said, feeling like she was venturing onto new ground with the declaration. Self sacrifice was all well and good, but standing on principal with no rational platform to support her arguments made Sarah feel like she was falling into a catastrophic error. Everything was going to go horribly wrong and it was going to be her fault. Somehow that was still better than the alternative though.

Val chuckled and walked through the crowd of fuzzy, weird demons to put her hands on Aranea’s shoulders.

“You gotta have more faith in me than that,” she said, and gave the spider goddess a quick kiss on the cheek. “Sarah, portal us up to the web, and bring General Fong up with us.”

“General Fong? How am I supposed to find him?” Sarah asked. She had at least a dozen spells on hand that could do the trick, but any question that delayed getting squished by the dancers seemed like a worthwhile question to ask.

“He’s the one at the center of the spiral,” Val said.

“How can you tell?”

“Because he’s the one who unlocked the statue case remember? And this all centers on what his family did.”

“Isn’t he the worst person to put in front of the dancers?” Sarah asked.

“Yes, and the only one who can give them what they need,” Anna said, nodding in agreement with Val’s plan.

“Ok,” Sarah said. “Here goes the illusion of safety we are blissfully enjoying at the moment then.”

She began casting the transit spell. Since she wasn’t trying to escape this particular hell but rather go deeper into it, the magic flew effortlessly from her fingers. As she wove the threads of it around to ensnare the other people who were present she ran into a few problems. Namely, Aranea and the demon lord.

“We’ll stay here,” Aranea said. “I need to speak with this one some more.”

Since transporting a goddess against her will was in no circumstance ever a good idea, Sarah withdrew the strands of magic she’d set aside for Aranea and the demon lord, and instead focused on casting the last strands to the center of the spiral to retrieve General Fong.

Handily so much demonic energy wasn’t fun. She felt rage, amplified by the dancers’ fury, burn within her. The spell tried to buck out of her control. It wanted to deliver them all to the center of the web, but not free like Sarah wished. Humans were prey, and prey was to be cocooned on the web, until it could be liquified.

“Bad spell. No treat for you,” she growled, speaking Chinese since the realm recognized the language of the part of Earth it was closest to.

The spell growled back, a hungry, mindless force, trying to follow the channels of pain and suffering that had been carved into it for so long. Sarah spoke faster to it, shaping the intent of the effect with more words and gesture to convey exactly what the spell had to do, creating new paths for it to flow down, while resisting the cruelty it was trying to inspire in her.

It wouldn’t hurt that much to leave a few of them trapped, would it? Just a little joke?

No, Sarah demanded, she would not torment or even tease anyone like that. Not until she knew them a lot better than she did at the moment, at any rate.

The spell’s resistance to her demands faltered after that and a moment later, the assembled group, plus a confused General Fong, were standing atop the web and at the center of the dancers’ circle.

“Now what do we do?” Connie asked.

“Now, we dance,” Val said, holding out her hand.

It wasn’t magic. What they did on top of the web, surrounded by beings that had outstripped the power of a hell, wasn’t a spell. It wasn’t mystical, or arcane, or powered by any enchantments.

All they did was dance.

As they spun in a circle within the dancers’ circle though, two things happened.

First, Sarah felt Val altering the pace and steps of their whirling jig. She was matching and reacting to the dancers’ movements with the intuition of a fighter, speaking to them through the language of rhythm and position to reach out to the giant beings in a way that words never could.

Jen was the first to mimic Val’s movements and expound on them. While her prosthetic arms didn’t have the same expression as Val’s flesh and blood ones did, Jen was able to ‘speak’ with them in her own way that was as clear as anything any of the rest were able to convey.

The second thing that happened was the General Fong roused from the daze and fell, weeping to his knees.

His tears joined the glitter rain as he clutched the dancers’ statue to his chest. With each tear that fell the glitter rain changed, its sparkle being replaced by the rainbow sheen of pure water falling in their place.

In the end, it only took a few words to save the world.

What mattered was how truly the General meant them, and how willing, in light of everything that had happened, the dancers were to offer him a second chance.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 3

Sarah had an excellent idea of just how much trouble she was in. As she huddled behind a flipped over car which was both on fire and screaming in metallic pain, she added up all of the assets they had available and weighed them against the challenges that were in plain view which they had to contend with. That was nowhere near a full accounting of the problems they needed to contend with in order to get home safely but it was enough to confirm her lowball estimate on how utterly and completely doomed they were.

“The next patrol is about five minutes away,” Connie said, passing a pair of night vision binoculars over to Val. They’d scavenged from the buildings on the military base with mixed results. The binoculars were unenchanted but still functional. Other pieces of hardware had been replicated as inert copies, or, in a few unfortunately exciting cases, had been crafted from more organic and living materials. Having an automatic weapon try to bite her hand off had convinced Sarah that relying on tools from hell to fight the creatures of hell might not be the safest of options.

“We can’t wait that long,” Val said. “The dancers are picking up their paces already.”

Above them, two dancing figures swirling around each other, spiraling atop an enormous web that stretched over the unnatural towers which rose from the town whose border they were camped out on. The dancers were unbound spirits whose rage had broken through the boundary between the Earth Sarah preferred to call home and a realm of self proclaimed demons. That wasn’t a good thing either for Earth or for the hell in question.

“Do we rush them then?” Connie asked.

“There are a number of downsides to that idea,” Sarah said. “The biggest one being that the moment we leave cover and move closer to the city, we’ll be stepping on the web the boss of this place has spun around his lair.”

“How sure are you that Mr. Demon Lord doesn’t already know that we’re here?” Val asked.

“Oh, the Demon Lord? He definitely knows we’re here,” Sarah said. “He’s not the problem though. It’s all his minions figuring out that we’re roaming about that’s going to get us drowned in demons.”

“How does that work?” Connie asked. “If their boss knows we’re here why wouldn’t he have just sent them up against us already?”

“He’s got bigger worries at the moment,” Sarah said. “Specifically those two.”

She pointed at the dancers, gesturing to where the giant’s steps were falling on the web. With each footfall, sparks flew free and a pulse of energy traveled out through the web and sank into the ground, leaving glowing trails in its wake.

“What are they doing?” Connie asked, entranced by the glowing lights.

“In broad terms? They’re pouring the rage from their kidnapping into the land,” Sarah said.

“This is a hell though, is anyone going to notice?” Val asked.

“Probably,” Sarah said. “For them to be dancing freely up there, they’ve got to have enough power that the denizens are afraid to challenge them. Pump that much new power into a place the walls around it will tend to crack.”

“So we’re going to have the things from this world pour out into ours?” Connie asked.

“If by ‘things’, you mean raw energy, and by ‘pour out’, you mean explosively detonate into, then yes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” Sarah said.

“How big of an apocalypse are we looking at?” Val asked and shook her head at having had to ask d question like that.

“For this place? Probably a complete one. If the dancers aren’t stopped they keep going until there’s nothing left to vent their anger on, which means nothing larger than a molecule. Earth wouldn’t have been affected except as we learned, the border between the two is really thin at the moment.”

“Which is why we need to stop them from dancing,” Val said.

“It might be easier to separate the two worlds,” Sarah said.

“How hard would that be?” Connie asked.

“At this point? Impossible,” Sarah said. “But still easier than stopping those two.”

“How do we make it easier then,” Connie asked.

“We don’t,” Sarah said. “We’re cut off here. No allies, no home field advantage, and no means of escape.”

“Wait, if their boss is distracted, does that mean you can use magic freely now?” Val asked.

“Sort of yes, and sort of no,” Sarah said. “Yes, I can cast without attracting his attention. As long as the dancers are busy destroying his realm, the Demon Lord isn’t going to care what I do with the magical equivalent of pocket change that I can work with.”

“There’s a ‘but’ coming,” Val said.

“But, using the ambient magic in any hell is kind of fraught,” Sarah said. “A little can get a lot done, but some of it always stays with you. Use too much and the magic doesn’t just twist the caster, it twists the effect the caster was going for.”

“Ok, don’t push it too far then,” Val said. “Priority one is making it back home safely. Priority two is stopping those dancers.”

“What about rescuing the people who are lost here?” Connie asked.

“We don’t know what the story is with them,” Val said. “They might just need to know where to go, they might have been transformed into gorillas. Once stuff gets this weird, all possibilities are on the table. So no plans for what we do with them yet. We can evaluate our options once we find them.”

“I’m not sure our options are going to be much better then, or that we’ll be able to find them in time,” Sarah said.

“You said stepping on the web will bring the minions in right?” Val asked.

“I did, and I’m sorry we’re in this boat,” Sarah said. “I thought this was going to be a fairly simple pilfering operation. Getting stuck in hell while the world explodes was pretty far down my list of likely scenarios to worry about.

“I’m sorry too,” Val said.

“For what?” Sarah asked.

“This,” Val said and jumped over the car to long on the exposed webbing line on the other side.

The skittering and rattling in the near vicinity went silent for a bar fraction of an instant and then amplified loud enough that Sarah had to shout to be heard over it.

“Why did you do that?” she screamed.

“We need guides who know where the people are gathered,” Val said.

“How is getting swarmed by demons going to accomplish that?” Sarah asked.

“Simple,” Val said. “We’re not going to get swarmed. Connie, you’re with me. Sarah, watch our backs and make sure nothing comes at us from the military base.”

“Ok, I can do that,” Sarah said. It wasn’t going to be enough, but she was certain she could manage it.

Connie jumped onto and over the car as well and Sarah watched as several dozen creatures that looked like a mad science experiment in bonding together sea life with discarded human body parts came scrambling over the ground and hopping from the sides of buildings at them.

Sarah expected a brief but ultimately pointless battle to follow but instead, Val and Connie simply raised their arms, not in surrender but with their palms facing up, like a dog trainer teaching a puppy to stay.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

They didn’t answer, but she noticed that the demon creatures had stopped as well. All the skittering, all the rattling, all the strange and unearthly noises had faded to a quiet broken only by the distant screams that formed the natural background of the hell.

Listening closer, Sarah could hear both Val and Connie speaking in low whispers.

“Buddhist sutras?” she said, straining to hear the words.

“Good little ones,” Connie whispered in Chinese.

“Gentle now, we’re not here to hurt you,” Val whispered, also in Chinese.

Each repeated the others words, moving slowly and carefully forward as they did.

The demons went from fearful of the strange behavior, to worried at what their own responses should be, and on to simply perplexed and confused.

“Take us to the humans,” Val urged gently.

The demons scuttled away from her, their multitudinous eyes turned in every direction except for straight at her.

“”We know your need to capture us, it’s ok, just take us where you need to take us,” Connie said.

There were sounds that could have been growls, or could have been food stuck in a creatures throat, but none of the demons advanced on the two women.

“Just show us where to go,” Val said. “That’s a good little one.”

A few of the demons started to trot off in a similar direction to one another, the leaders turning to look behind and see if anyone was following.

“I think we’re good to go,” Val said. “Come on Sarah.”

She joined the other two as the rest of the demons closed ranks around them forming both a picket that would be difficult to escape from and also the weird pack Sarah had ever imagined walking with.

“How did you do that?” she asked. “You didn’t use any magic there but they’re not eating us.”

“Tam gave me a crash course awhile back on dealing with extra-dimensional creatures after she and Anna wound up in Sunken Atlantis for a while,” Val said. “If they didn’t respond to polite requests in their native tongue, then the runestone’s we’re carrying would have given us enough of an edge to fight this wave off and we’d have a clear shot to the center of the town.”

“But they’re demons,” Sarah said. “They’re not supposed to respond to polite requests.”

“They probably wouldn’t have under normal circumstances, but we’re doing what they wanted us to do in the first place and with their boss offline for the time being they were probably looking for some kind of orders that made sense.”

“What do we do when we get to the people though?” Sarah asked. “Even if we can find them, we don’t have any options for stopping the dancers up there.”

“Yeah, that what makes this easier,” Val said. “The dancers are a great big problem that we can’t do anything about, so we get to take a pass on worrying about it, at least until we’ve dealt with the problem that we can do something about.”

“But finding the people is going to be meaningless when the dancers detonate this place and our home world,” Sarah said.

“Yep, it will be, assuming that no other options show up for stopping the dancers or preventing the apocalypse in some other way,” Val said.

“So this is just something to do for the sake of doing something then?” Sarah asked, able to see the value in a good distraction, but unable to focus on it properly thanks to her brain’s efficiency at calculating and recalculating the destructive force the dancers were likely to unleash.

It wasn’t absolutely certain that the explosion they’d generate would be capable of destroying the planet. The physical structure of the Earth was remarkably sturdy. The blast wouldn’t have to blown the planet to space dust in order to eradicate all life on it though, and it wouldn’t have to turn the planet into a scorched ball of carbon in order to damage it enough to make the distinction between Earth and hell largely irrelevant.

Sarah cursed how much more she knew about what was going on in terms of the powers that were being gathered than her compatriots did. They could still function where she was simply melting down.

“No, this isn’t about killing time before the end of everything,” Val said. “And it’s not about avoiding our fears. To be honest, I’m terrified of things like this. Those giants up there, and the things that laid this web? Those are not things I can fix by punching them, and sometimes I think that’s all I really bring to the team.”

Connie tried to speak, but Val held up a hand.

“Those times are when I’m at my low points though,” she said. “And times like this demand more than that. When things get hard, all we can do is look for what we can do to make them better. There’s almost always something, even if it’s something little, even if it doesn’t seem to matter. If we make the world better for someone else, buy them a second chance they might not have had? That’s when amazing things can happen, because nothing is completely isolated. Whatever we can do, whatever good we can create, it all adds up, because we’re not in this alone. Even cut off like this, I know the others have our back.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 2

Dealing with an annoyed deity, even a minor one, was not on Anna’s agenda for the day.

“We don’t know where Val is,” she said. “That’s what I’m leaving to find out.”

“And why have you not already left?” Aranea asked. “She has been missing for several minutes now. Maybe longer.”

Anna knew punching a goddess was a bad idea. It didn’t mean it seemed any less appealing, but it did restrain her long enough to notice the alien emotion that was hiding behind Aranea’s eyes.

Concern.

As a spider goddess, Aranea suffered the emotion like it was something she had never been designed to experience, which, potentially, was true.

“How did you know Val was missing?” Anna asked, ignoring Aranea’s question in favor of a hunch.

“She is part of my web,” Aranea said. “Now her strand is broken. Cut off.”

“Would walking into an area that was starved for ley lines be enough to break your connection to her?” Anna asked.

“Certainly not,” Aranea said. “I am of this world. My web covers any part of it I care to claim.”

Anna suspected that everything Aranea had said was only a fragment of the truth, and even then only true from a very specific point of view. Despite that, the larger claim, that Aranea’s link to Val should have remained if Val was still on Earth seemed proven by the fact that Aranea had noticed her absence at all, which meant Val, Connie, and Sarah were almost certainly elsewhere. Given the wide varieties of “elsewheres” which existed, that could range from pleasant, to annoying, to supernaturally horrific, but since Val hadn’t contacted them, and everything else seemed to be going rather poorly, Anna was willing to bet that Val’s team had landed in one of the less pleasant elsewheres that there were.

“Come with me if you like,” Anna said, picking up a backpack Jimmy B had put together for her.

“Where are you going?” Aranea asked. “Do you know where to find my Val?”

“I know where to start looking for her,” Anna said. “And I know someone who can help us.”

While traveling with Aranea would address Tam’s concern about Anna going into the deserted Chinese military base alone, Anna wasn’t inclined to rely on as unknown a quantity as a goddess who had sworn to bring about her team’s downfall as her sole support. Better by far to enlist the aid of a club member who was so conveniently placed along the way that Anna had to believe Charlene had worked her usual magic from behind the scenes to provide Anna with the backup she truly needed.

“Tell me who that is and I will carry us there,” Aranea said. The tone was imperious but the offer was uncharacteristically helpful for a deity of any sort, and especially for a spider-aspected one, who were usually more predatory in nature and less concerned with rendering aid.

“Her names is Jennifer Kelly and she is staying with a family about an hour from here,” Anna said.

Aranea frowned and plucked at the air for a moment.

“I have not claimed this area, so she is outside my web,” she said, giving up on whatever invisible task she was performing. “We will need to proceed using mortal methods.”

Meaning no teleportation, and no getting magically around the roadblock that was set up leading to the base and the town nearby.

“I hope you are used to driving through heavy traffic,” Anna said as they left the conference room and headed for the garage.

***

Anna had claimed that Jennifer Kelly was an hour away. When they arrived at the gas station where Jennifer was waiting for them though only 27 minutes had passed.

“One presumes you drive slower when your passengers lack immortality?” Aranea asked. She didn’t wobble as she got out of the car. Goddesses don’t wobble. Any perturbations in her movement held some deep ritual significance and were most definitely not the result of wearing a mortal body and being subject to some of its limitations.

“You’ll have to ask Val after we find her,” Anna said, scanning the parking lot for Jen.

It had been a few years, and more than a few cases, but Anna was able to recognize her backup easily enough. The prosthetics arms were one clue, Jen had opted for a clockwork aesthetic in their design, so they attracted attention as much for their artistry as for the fact of their existence. Beyond the mechanical bits though, the woman wearing them was extraordinary as well.

Born the daughter of a history professor from Senegal and a youth counselor from Des Moines, Jen had inherited her father’s height and her mother’s grace. The pulled back afro she wore set her apart from the people around her as much as anything else, but it was the warmth of her smile and the cheer in her eyes that Anna first noticed.

“Grandma Russia! Hi! You brought company?” Jen asked, peering quizzically at Aranea.

When they’d rescued Jen, Anna and Tam had also tracked down the pirate’s base to rescue some of Jen’s family who’d been kidnapped earlier. One of the pirates had made the mistake of asking if Anna was “mother Russia come to life” and Anna had flippantly responded with “Grandma Russia”. The nickname hadn’t stuck with Tam but Jen had found it endlessly amusing.

“She brought herself,” Anna said. “Jennifer Kelly, may I present Her Holy Radiance, Aranea Darkest Goddess of Spiders.”

Jen rocked back slightly at the declaration but otherwise held her ground.

“Uh, who now?” she said, trying to process both the title and the possibility that it might be real.

“We don’t have time for this,” Aranea said. “Even with your driving, it is going to take us too long to get to where my Val was lost.”

She got back in the car and glared at Anna and Jen. Anna sighed.

“She’s not wrong. We should get going.”

“Are you for real on what she is?” Jen asked. “She’s an actual goddess?”

“Of Spiders. Yes,” Anna said. “If it’s a comfort, I doubt she’ll be the oddest thing we encounter on this trip.”

“Okay, and here I was thinking I had some weird things to tell you about since the last time I saw you,” Kelly said, heading to the car’s back door.

“I’m sure you have,” Anna said. “For now though let me bring you up to speed on the situation. We’ve already lost one team. I refuse to lose another.”

***

Getting past the roadblock proved to be less of a problem than Anna had feared. Between Mr. Fong and Tam, the police stationed at the barrier knew to expect their arrival and had the obstructions clear away before they arrived. That was fortunate for the obstructions since Anna wasn’t planning on stopping for them regardless of where they were.

With tires squealing a song of how badly they needed to be replaced, the rental car skidded to a smoking stop just past the open gate of the military base.

“I think you were faster this time,” Aranea said, unclenching her hand from the door handle and leaving only small permanent marks on it.

“That was awesome!” Jen said. “I forgot how cool riding with you was!”

“Thank you,” Anna said. “This is the part where it becomes less cool though.”

She was already taking in the layout of the base. The buildings all matched what she expected to see from the plans they’d studied and the video feed Val had provided. There was a charge in the air though that felt out of place.

“You said the base was deserted,” Aranea said. “But we are far from alone here.”

“Earth people or Not-Earth people?” Jen asked. She didn’t move the same as Val did, she didn’t have a distinct ‘fighting stance’ that she fell subconsciously into when danger was present. Despite that Anna got the sense Jen was as ready for an attack as anyone not packing the gift of foresight or a bucket load of magical enhancements could be.

“Monsters,” Aranea said, sniffing the air as her expression grew colder.

“People-monsters or Creature-monsters?” Jen asked. “Meaning, can we talk to them or do we go straight to the butt kicking?”

“If it looks like a creature, we can try talking to it,” Anna said. “If it looks like a person, knock it out.”

“I was thinking we would do the reverse,” Jen said.

“If it looks like a creature it may be acting on instinct, and a friendly, fearless approach may signal that you are not prey,” Aranea said. “If the monster can speak, then listening to its words will be perilous for a mortal.”

“The soldiers and the townspeople left without a struggle,” Anna said. “That suggests something capable of exerting some form of mind control. Hence we knock talkers out and speak with them once it’s safe to have a conversation.”

“And once they are at our mercy,” Aranea said.

Anna shrugged for Jen’s benefit. Aranea wasn’t wrong, just somewhat skewed.

They proceeded into the base on foot. Tam and Aranea had both been in agreement that taking a car into an area where magic had suddenly reappeared could lead to some rather unstable, the mildest of the unusual ones being the engine exploding. Anna was also glad to be moving on her own though because there were too many buildings in the compound where trying to chase someone inside of would have been impossible in a car.

The lack of immediately visible monsters was a small reassurance that things hadn’t gotten as bad as they could have, but the storm clouds overhead worried her. They didn’t look like they were going to release a downpour of rain so much as a torrent of flaming embers. Given the lack of asbestos umbrellas, Anna kept her eyes on the entrances of the building as they walked deeper into the base towards the sound of breaking wood.

Each structure they passed took on more of a grey, ashen complexion in the deepening gloom beneath the storm clouds. Anna recalled that the base used large yellow numbers on some of the buildings, but when she looked for them all she saw were their blackened and crumbling remains etched on walls were showing early signs of mold and decay themselves.

“What is that sound?” Jen asked, as a new and unsettling rasping filled the air.

“The screams of the damned,” Aranea said. “Why was my Val here. She should never have come to a place like this.”

Before Anna had a chance to answer, she heard a low growling and looked up in time to see something like a squid with goats legs descending on her.

Then it was flying away from her and crashing into the building it had leapt off.

“I’m guessing you didn’t want to wait and talk to that one, right?” Jen asked. Bits of goop from the creature had covered her sandal where she’d kicked it but she wasn’t making a move to wipe it off yet.

“Ambush predators are the exception to the ‘try talking first’ rule,” Anna said.

“Good. Nice to know. The next question of course is what is that thing? Or was it?” Jen asked.

“It’s still alive,” Aranea said. “But we can change that.”

“It doesn’t look like it is in any shape to try another ambush and we have more important things to do,” Anna said, moving towards the horrible rasping sound.

“Right, screams of the damned,” Jen said. “Does that mean that we’re dealing with demons?”

“Think of it less as our having to deal with them, and more as them having to deal with us,” Anna said.

The buildings grew more weathered as they traveled deeper into the base, some collapsing in places from age despite Anna’s memory telling her they had been pristine and new in the video feed Val shared only a little over an hour earlier.

She was expecting to see a pit to the Underworld when they reached the source of the breaking wood and rasping, but instead a more curious sight greeted them.

In the middle of a large collapsed building, a group of purple skinned, seven foot tall, three horned people in blue coveralls and backwards baseball caps were lugging lumber in wheelbarrows of bone, cutting metal plates with fire from their mouths, and sawing boards in half with what looked like the spines of some metallic creatures.

“Ah, I see,” Aranea said. “It would seem someone is setting up an annex here.”