Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep2 – Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not exactly wrong,” Val said.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s lit up now.”

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

“The light just went off,” Val said.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Miller said. “Her.”

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

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

“Why are you here?” Miller asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like Val knew he would.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am going to kill you, you little…”

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

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

His mouth was vomiting words, so she shut it.

With her knee.

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

Then the town exploded.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna paused and her gaze went distant for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like grave robbers got there first?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re not sure,” James said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s our plan then?” Val asked.

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

 

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 2 – Act 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It shifted an inch and then another inch more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was the closest,” Anna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll cut slow,” Anna said.

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

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

“That one does,” Tam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All except for the twins.

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

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

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

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lace me up?” Nike asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

Val disagreed.

Sycorax tried to spin their names into a binding.

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

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

She’d fallen?

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

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

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

Not from a human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let us worry about that,” Val said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or Google,” Nike said.

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know this?” Sycorax asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is absolutely not necessary,” Tam said.

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

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

“But they are not Atlanteans,” Sycorax said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She handed a coral encrusted ring to Sycorax.

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

“My ring?” she asked.

Tam nodded.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that’s what we do,” Val said.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 1 – Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Val sat bolt upright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Val groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once she got Tam back of course.

“So what did you see?” she asked.

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

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

“Exactly that,” Jame said.

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

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

“Like demons?” Val asked.

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

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

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

“But she didn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost certainly,” James said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Val thought for a moment and then smiled.

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