Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 4

In the arena, the fight had shifted, in the viewing booth where Anna sat the battle had only just begun though.

“Your concerns about the High One and our other enemies are quite reasonable,” she said, taking another sip of the light, sparkling beverage that accompanied the lastest course in their meal.

“And yet you elected to come here anyways,” Careema said. “For reasons I will wager that have nothing to do with providing an entertaining fight against one of our most talented warriors?”

“The event tonight proved to be fortuitously timed,” Anna said. “But our reasons for coming here are simply what we claimed them to be. I plan to enlist Castorvell’s aid and cooperation in ending the threat posed to my world.”

“I don’t see how we can afford to offer that aid,” Careema said. “The problems of other world aren’t ones we can shoulder lightly, and certainly not when there’s so much risk connected to them. The other delegates will speak with their own voices, but I believe there will consensus that our own peoples must come first.”

“That will be useful,” Anna said, picking up a skewer that held slices of various fruits. “Convincing a group of people who have all reached a reasonable conclusion to see things in a new light is significantly easier than dealing with the those who cling to their positions due to unthinking hate or bigotry.”

“And what new light would you have us see things in?” Careema asked.

“Keep an eye on the entertainment,” Anna said as Val deployed her first stratagem.

***

Val had been blasted into the lava, but it was Jen who rose in her place. Kinslayer wasn’t displeased by the change though. Val had warned her that she had a few unusual gambits to try out and this one looked to be an exciting turn around that was sure to keep the crowd invested in the fight.

“Hi, I’m Jen. Nice to meet you,” the new comer said. “Mind if I hit you really hard?”

“Oh, bring it on!” Kinslayer said, deploying a pair of shields from the gauntlets she was wearing.

Jen brought it on and then some. With her hands of steel, she picked up globs of lava that splattered off Kinslayer’s shields with the force of cannonballs. Jen’s spinning tornado kick hit significantly harder than that.

Kinslayer didn’t rest though. The instant she stopped tumbling backwards she was on her feet again, surging back to batter Jen with blows that cracked the sound barrier with each swing.

Jen dodged one swing after another, her movements as fluid as an ocean wave and just a little bit faster than Kinslayer’s fists, until they weren’t quite fast enough.

Kinslayer caught her with an unexpected kick that lifted Jen thirty feet into the air. The crowd gasped as the fight went aerial with Kinslayer leaping after the stunned and ascending form of the woman she’d been fighting.

Jen was just starting to recover as Kinslayer’s huge form flew up beside her, matching the speed at the top of Jen’s arc.

“This is gonna look great!” Kinslayer said, winding up for a haymaker to send Jen plummeting back down to the fiery stage like a comet.

“You’re not wrong,” Jen said and grinned.

Kinslayer unleashed her blow only to have it pass through the cloud Jen left behind as she teleported away.

It wasn’t an instant later when Kinslayer heard an echoing bamf of a teleportation portal opening above her but as she twisted around she saw that it wasn’t Jen who’d teleported in but a new woman.

“Hi,” Nike said and then slammed Kinslayer with a fist that carried the weight of a freight train behind it.

Kinslayer crashed into the lava, shattering the ground and dropping to the lightning level below it. As she rose to her feet, electrified chunks of bright orange stone dripped down all around her.

Nike wasn’t far behind but Kinslayer was ready for the assault. With a yell, she met her new foe, meeting her in mid-air again. Rather than meeting an attack with an attack though, Kinslayer showed her crafty side.

The net that she shot from her wrist band did more than grapple Nike. It wrapped her up like a mummy, leaving her to plummet into the raging storm at the center of lightning level.

When Kinslayer landed back on the ruined lip of the ring which was all that was left of the lava stage, she expected the cheering of the crowd that greeted her. She also expected the bamf which announced another teleportation effect.

“Nice shot with the net,” Val said. “You had to know it wasn’t going to be that easy though right?”

“I would have cried if it was,” Kinslayer said, rolling her shoulders.

Val smiled and dropped into a ready stance, the mystic writing on her arms and shoulders blazing with renewed energy.

***

In the viewing box, Careema’s smile matched Kinslayers.

“That was unusual to see in a Grand Arena match,” she said. “I’m not sure that it helps your case though, even all three of your champions aren’t going to be enough to stand against our Kinslayer.”

“That’s clear already?” Anna said. “Good. It was an important point we needed to drive home.”

Careema narrowed her eyes in mild confusion.

“I must confess, I’m not certain how showing us that you are weak aids your case that we should help you?” she said. “We’ve been able to evaluate the strength of your enemies on our own, so I can’t imagine you’re trying to fool us into thinking a difficult war for you will be an easy battle for us.”

“Not in the slightest,” Anna said. “Perhaps you would like to place a wager on the outcome of this battle though?”

“Is that really fair?” Tam asked.

“She didn’t say which side our new friend would be betting on,” JB said.

“You expect your champions will still win?” Careema asked, watching as Kinslayer punched Val through a concrete wall and then caught Jen in a crushing bearhug as Val tapped out and Jen teleported in to replace her.

“It certainly doesn’t look like they will does it?” Anna asked. “So overmatched, despite their advantages.”

“Yes. They appear to be fighting against an overwhelming force,” Careema said, suspicion creeping around underneath every word.

“It’s more than just an appearance,” Anna said. “Your champion has unplummed depths of strength to draw on. She’s not even fighting at close to her full strength yet.”

Careema turned away from the spectacle of the battle to regard Anna with the same suspicious, searching look she’d been evaluating the fight with.

“How would you know that?” she asked. “I’ve watched Kinslayer fight a number of times, and this is easily the most impressive output I’ve ever witnessed from her. Far weaker opponents have gotten her on the ropes before, though never quite as well or as often as your champions have.”

“I’m going to guess she was playing to the crowds there,” Tam said. “Not faking it, but self-handicapping to keep the fight interesting. It’s Showmanship 101.”

“But you’re suggesting she has power to spare even beyond this?”

As if to punctuate Careema’s words, Kinslayer missed Nike with a punch and demolished half of the remaining area of the lava stage.

“Yeah,” Tam said. “Quite a bit I believe. Though she’s probably not used to tapping into it so her control may be a little wobbly if she tries to draw on it.”

“How would know that?” Careema asked.

“Tam is something of a wizard when it comes to data,” JB said. “And magic too I suppose.”

“Even if we can’t match our foes, I like to know as much about them as possible,” Tam said. “You asked what was going to happen when we ran out tricks to defeat our enemies with, but that was the wrong question.”

“What was the correct one?” Careema asked.

“What is going to happen when they run out of secrets,” Anna said.

“So you’re going to beat our champion because you’ve learned her secrets?” Careema asked.

“Not alone we’re not,” Tam said and gestured back to the Arena.

***

Val wiped a smear of blood from lips. Kinslayer’s last punch had been a little wild but it packed as much force as her last three put together.

“Probably about time to step things up, right?” she asked.

“Yeah, if you’ve got any surprises left, now’s the time to use them,” Kinslayer said.

“It has been an honor and delight fighting you,” Val said.

“Same. I can’t remember the last time I had this good a match,” Kinslayer said. “After we’re done you’ve got to bring your friends around for the Champions meal.”

“We’ll be sure to save you a seat at the table,” Val said with a teasing smile as two teleportation portals opened side her.

It wasn’t Jen or Nike who stepped out of them though.

In place of the humans Kinslayer and the crowds had expected, a giantess and a refugee from the Pure Ones realm emerged.

“Kinslayer, please meet Duinella and Pynni,” Val said. “Duinella, Pynni, meet the strongest fighter I have ever met.”

“Nice to meet you,” the giantess and the Pure One said in unexpected unison. They turned to each other and nodded before the three of them crashed in Kinslayer like a wave of fists and feet.

Val parried an attack, opening Kinslayer up to a devastating blow from Duinella’s massive fist. Kinslayer’s armor glowed with power from absorbing the hit and released the glow instantly back at the giantess.

Before the return strike could land though, Pynni was there, guiding the force away with here glyphs that decorated her hands.

Kinslayer blocked Duinella’s hit the old fashioned way, absorbing the blow with her arm shields but that let Val duck underneath the left shield’s guard and sneak in a punch that sent Kinslayer flying off her feet.

As if on queue, there was a commotion from the side of the arena that distracted the trio of fighters while Kinslayer struggled to rise.

“Hey! If you get help, so does she!” a fighter who looked like a praying mantis said.

And with that, the rest of the fighters in the Grand Arena came pouring onto the stage.

***

The victory dinner was the grandest the Grand Arena had ever seen. To unfamiliar eyes, differentiating it from a full riot was only possible by noticing that the various groups weren’t actually destroying anything that the melee hadn’t already trashed as it spilled out off the central stage. Also food and drinks were still being served which was typical for most riots.

“You have to come back next year!” Kinslayer said. Her armor showed what looked like century of battle damage, but her wound had long since been patched up. The Castorvell fight medics were every bit as good as their reputation made them out to be.

“Putting on another show like that is going to be hard,” Val said, raising a bottle of a green beverage to offer Kinslayer a refill.

“Particularly if our world gets wiped out,” Nike said.

“You had five fighters who beat every single one of ours,” Careema said. “I’m not thinking that’s actually a concern for you anymore is it?”

“Yeah, I may have to move to Earth after this just to train,” Kinslayer said.

“It worked for me,” Duinella said. “Their doors are open, and some of them are so damn friendly.”

“Not all of them,” Pynni put in, “but yeah, my people have run into some really good folks too.”

“You’re not from Earth?” Careema asked.

“Nah,” Kinslayer said. “They’re offworlders. I could tell that right away when my counters started getting scrambled up.”

“Your counters?” Careema asked.

“Counterspells,” Tam said. “I noticed the fighters use a lot of counter-magics to mitigate the worst of what their opponents can do to them. Val, Nike, and Jen had to carry Earth style enchantments, but Duinella and Pynni were suited to ones from their home realms which work under a very different set of laws than ours do.”

“Do they now?” Careema asked, slowing glancing over at Anna.

“I see you’ve worked out the lesson we were trying to convey,” Anna said. “Do you think the other diplomats will have caught it?”

“You don’t need us to battle the High One do you?” Careema said. “You’re not asking us to send you an army, you’re showing us how to make our own forces even stronger.”

“We need allies because so many people need a second chance,” Anna said. “We would take them all in, but our world is too far for some of them to reach, and the more safe harbors there are the better it is for those who need a new start and for those who are willing to offer one.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 3

Val stepped into the arena and prepared to die. The crowd loved it. As her image appeared above the stage, projected as a fifty foot tall giant, cheers erupted and only intensified when her “time to mortality” odds finished calculating.

“Any last minute questions?” Kinslayer asked from behind the entrance door.

“Nah, we got this,” Val said, waving to the crowds and dancing along to the high energy musical number they’d picked for her “theme song”.

It was more than a little strange to be approaching a ‘battle to the death’ with neither fear nor animosity towards her opponent. If she’d been pressed, Val would have said that Kinslayer didn’t even feel like an opponent. From interviewing the other fighters, and from their discussion before the match, Val thought it would be more accurate to call Kinslayer her partner in the fight. Or maybe co-conspirator.

Not that the actual fighting part would be fake. Neither one of them knew who would emerge victorious in the end, but with the various safety systems in place and the frankly ludicrous levels of healing available, the narrative of the fight being a grim and deadly affair couldn’t have been farther from truth if they were actors staging the fight under the most carefully controlled conditions. Even pain and shock wouldn’t be an issue. Not with the various enchantments Val was carrying (and which Kinslayer had promised she had analogous methods of achieving).

Despite the trappings of gore and blades that littered the outskirts of the stage, Val felt like she was walking into the the best viewed pillow fight of all time.

Then Kinslayer made her entrance.

The crowd that had been pumped up by Val’s appearance, exploded when their local favorite appeared. From the poppy electric tune the Arena had selected for Val, the music changed to a heavy, grinding wail as the lighting shifting to dark blues and neon purples. A banshee wail rose from Kinslayer’s biggest fans and soon threatened to drown out both the music and the cheers.

Val held back a smile as Kinslayer climbed onto the stage but slashing through the ropes with a battleaxe nearly as big as she was. The battleaxe was only one of the many weapons Kinslayer was carrying where Val had entered the ring unarmed. It was part of making sure the fight was a fair one, but the crowd lost its mind when Kinslayer twisted the axe from the stage and began howling louder than they could. She wasn’t holding back at all.

Val finally smiled. The crowd had no idea what they were in for.

***

For all that the Grand Arena hosted spectacular blood sports, the natives of Castorvell were a surprisingly gentle people. Anna found herself weighing how much of a problem that was likely to be as she swirled the drink in her goblet.

“It’s not that we are unconcerned about your plight,” Careema said, slicing a paper thin wafer of meat from her steak. “The documentation you provided of the worlds which are aligning against your Earth have more than convinced us that your need is dire. Already however I have heard the opposition marshalling it’s counter arguments to the requests your are expected to make.”

“We tried to anticipate some of those and provide the data to prevent the ones that didn’t have any real substance from becoming an issue,” JB said. The salad on their plate was proving to be a delightful puzzle, with the flavor varying wildly based on the exact combination of components JB managed to skewer for each bite.

“That certainly helped,” Careema said. “At least to an extent. In knocking down the easy counter arguments, I’m afraid you’ve left behind only the difficult ones, and given those who don’t wish to provide you with any aid the time to refine their positions.”

“I imagine that they would have prepared their arguments around the more troubling aspects of our mission regardless of any warning we gave them,” Anna said.

“Our hope was to get those issues out in the open earlier rather than later when things might be a bit too stressful to think through them carefully,” Tam said. She’d joined them once Val left the locker room to head for the arena. Arriving in time for the third course of the evening had meant missing a few rounds of unusual cuisine but the later dishes had more than measured up to the earlier ones.

“I think you will find that, as on your world, diplomatic debates here are not always carried by the force of reasonable discussion,” Careema said.

“Self interest will always play a role,” Anna agreed. “The question is how many of those who will be meeting with us will be motivated by an interest in supporting the faction they represent and how many will define the ‘self’ in self-interest in a more personal manner?”

Careema was silent for a moment, evaluating Anna, before speaking.

“It varies,” she said. “All of the ambassadors will at least pay lip service to shepherding the good of Castorvell. A sizable number, though far from the majority, could be induced to support your position for the right sort of remuneration I believe.”

Anna chewed on the bite of mixed salad that she took, enjoying the citrus flavor and soft crunch of the combined components before responding.

“Those are the people we’re least interested in speaking with,” she said. “If it wouldn’t compromise your position, I believe our best path would be to speak with those who are opposed to a connection with us based on their principals.”

“That will not be a small audience I’m afraid,” Careema said.

“All the better,” Anna said. “If there’s a consensus on our world being too dangerous to engage with, then we can address that directly and perhaps convert a large number of them at once.”

“And if they have a bunch of individual concerns, we can hopefully show them how we adapt to different problems so that they can feel comfortable we can handle theirs,” Tam said.

“I’m not sure how adaptable you will be able to be in this case,” Careema said. “The principle issue my people have is that this is to some extent a problem you’ve brought on yourselves. The argument which seems to have the most weight is that you chose to upset the metaphysical balance between worlds, and in doing so kicked a nest of venom hawks. The peril you’re in now is a very obvious consequence of your actions, and one that is highly likely to spread to anyone else who becomes embroiled in your troubles.”

“They’re not wrong,” Anna said. “But their view is incomplete.”

“If there is more to see than this High One who opposes you, many will be even more resilient in their refusal to become embroiled in the conflict,” Careema said. “I thank you for sharing the details you have of your battles with him, but to be honest, they terrified many of us with what sort of damage our world might incur.”

“We did manage to stop his rampage,” Tam said. “Even his worst hit only wound up causing him problems.”

“But you didn’t stop him, did you?” Careema asked. “He still sits on his world, his followers convinced that he can do no wrong, and from each defeat or setback he is capable of learning.”

“That is one of the reasons why we have come here,” Anna said. “It’s not just him either. It’s the Pure Ones, and a half dozen other tyrants, each with the power to end all life on our world.”

“But we’ve stood against all of them,” Tam said. “And together we can do more than that.”

“You’ve stood against them for now,” Careema said. “How many times can you find tricks to survive though? And what will the cost of those tricks be? Or do you think the High One and his ilk will stop? Do you think there’s a limit to his hate? Or that he will see the light if you simply hold out long enough?”

“No,” Anna said, shaking her head. “The High One will never run out of hate for us.”

***

Kinslayer didn’t waste any time on spectacle. The moment the fight was joined she went for a killing blow.

Battleaxes the size of car doors, as a rule, aren’t meant to move at speeds that rival high velocity bullet fire. That didn’t stop Kinslayer from hurling he first weapon at a velocity that put sniper bullets to shame.

Had the axe hit Val it would have split her in two evenly and painlessly. She wouldn’t even have finished the downstroke of a blink in the time it took the axe to complete its flight.

Instead, because it was an evenly matched battle, Val snatched the weapon out of the air and swung it in a wide arc to release it right back at Kinslayer. On her arms blue runes blazed to life, setting her aglow bright enough that even the people stuck in the cheap seats could make her out just fine.

The rapid exchange was too fast for most of the crowd to follow, but everyone understood what the two sonic booms, one from Kinslayer’s throw and the other from Val’s return meant. It was exactly what they’d hoped to see, even if they could only really see it on the smaller instant-replay projections that were broadcast near their seats.

Kinslayer drew a pain of daggers that burst into flames and squared off against Val but Val responded with a massive hand clap that released a wind with enough force to douse the flames and blow Kinslayer back to the edge of the ring where a pit of acid awaited to claim her.

There was no physical mechanism which would have allowed an attack like that to work. Two human sized hands couldn’t capture enough air to move that volume of air. The sorcery that Tam had tied into Val’s breath however cared not in the slightest about trivial matters like “physical laws”. Castorvell was far more forgiving of breaches in the “immutable constants of the universe” than Earth was and Tam had taken full advantage of that.

“Beautiful move!” Kinslayer said as she slammed into Val with her shoulder.

Both women went for headbutts at the same time and the resulting crash shook some of the people in the front row out of their seats.

“You move wonderfully!” Val said, breathless in appreciation rather than from a lack of stamina. “I expected more force but less speed, but you move like your light as the wind!”

They parted by the barest fraction of an inch and both went for a wicked punch to chest. Their fists met and produced a flash of light from the compressed air that blew them back a handful of body lengths away from each other.

“Wow! You matched me!” Kinslayer said. “I was afraid your body weight would limit how much force you exert.”

“Yeah, Tam cooked a few tricks into the strength spells,” Val said. “It’s some of her best work really. Normally I can’t go all out like this without a lot more wind up.”

Kinslayer drew a pair of spiked clubs and slammed them into the ring’s floor causing a vast shower of stone shards to fly in a fan towards Val. Before the shards could reach her though, Kinslayer was there, leaping over the wave to bring both clubs down on Val’s crossed arms.

If it was possible to win a “ring out” victory by knocking your opponent out through the bottom of the ring, Kinslayer could have claimed victory then. She didn’t so much knock Val through the floor though as blast a crater into the arena which punched through the ring and into the carefully setup “lava stage” that had been rigged up beneath the main ring.

As the lava stage rose so that the crowd could view it, they heard a titanic booming within an ever flowing geyser of bright orange molten rock.

With a whirl of earth-shattering clubs, Kinslayer spun geyser away from inside the center of it to reveal that she’d hammered Val down to her knees.

A close up view from the projection showed that both fighters had sustained considerable “battle damage” but the joyfully grins on their faces were impossible to miss too.

“Oh this is the best!” Kinslayer said. “I can’t believe we get to fight on the lava stage! No one’s usually able to hold up long enough to carry the fight here.”

“I can see why,” Val said with a laugh. “That was a hell of an attack sequence.”

“I know you’ve got some more tricks in your bag though,” Kinslayer said.

With a mighty wind-up she slammed one of the clubs down and destroyed all of the “safe” portions of the lava stage in one hit. When the smoke cleared though, it wasn’t Val who rose and pushed the club away.

With arms of gleaming steel, Jen stood from spot where Val had been and unleashed a kick that knocked Kinslayer back fifty feet and submerged her completely in the bubbling lava.

“Yeah, we’ve got a few tricks left,” Jen said.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 2

Val wasn’t fond of fights to the death, especially not when they were ones she was likely to lose.

“This is your first death battle, I believe?” Kinslayer asked. Val wasn’t sure if the heavier woman was literally made out of stone or if her muscle definition was simply so advanced that she might as well have been.

“Not my first. Hopefully not my last either,” Val said, suppressing the urge to whistle at the sheer size of Kinslayer’s blue skinned arms.

“Ah, there’s nothing to worry about there,” Kinslayer said as she pulled her gloves on.

“You think she’s going to win?” Jim asked. He was busy unpacking the medical supplies kit they’d brought along but paused waiting for Kinslayer’s answer.

“In the Grand arena? Everyone has a chance in the Grand Arena. The fights wouldn’t be very interesting otherwise.”

“They’re not broken up into weight classes though are they?” Tam asked.

“No, there wouldn’t be any point to that,” Kinslayer said. “The audience wants to a see a contest between equals. Just because one fighter is smaller than the other doesn’t mean they’re any less dangerous.”

“That’s the angle the announcers will be playing with me, right?” Val asked.

“I think they’re going to talk about the enchantments you’re carrying to start with,” Kinslayer said. “Most of the audience will be sitting far enough away that they won’t really see the size difference between us except up on the giant projections that get cast over the stage, and everyone knows those skew the sizes because of the point of view they’re sent from.”

“So they’re going to make you look like the underdog?” Val asked, shaking her head, but still smiling.

“One of the advantages of being the home court star,” Kinslayer said. “Don’t worry, I’ve lost folks enough money when they bet against me that there’ll be plenty of folks in the stands who will be rooting for you.”

“People really want to see you dead that badly?” Tam asked.

“Well, dead in a death match? Sure,” Kinslayer said. “There’s some who wouldn’t mind seeing me permanently ended either – I’ve been dealing with jerks like that since I started fighting – but most folks just want to see some good back and forth with a decisive win at the end.”

“Doesn’t get much more decisive than death,” Val said, standing as Kinslayer gestured for her to rise.

“That’s why the Death Matches caught on so much for the Grand Arena battles,” Kinslayers said. “The smaller venues go with a lot of other win conditions and different combat scenarios but the Grand Arena is the end of the road all of the seasonal tournaments build towards, so we don’t get to experiment much here. For the Grand Arena, the fights always end in death. Which brings to why I’m here. What sort of death would you like to go with?”

***

Anna watched as the first pair of fighters leapt onto the central stage. They didn’t exactly resemble frogs but their overall shape was close enough that Anna had a hard time thinking of them as anything else.

“The Bedni are are the champions from one of the junior leagues,” Careema explained as the two fighters began to hop around the ring, circling each other in a manner that was far more serious than their somewhat comical movements would suggest.

“They’re underaged?” JB asked, nibbling on a roasted vegetable that had been dipped in a shockingly bright pink sauce which gave the dish a light sweetness.

“No, no, no,” Careema said. “Underaged participants aren’t allowed in the Grand Arena. The league itself is a junior one. It’s only a few decades old now, because the Bedni were isolated for so long.”

“How old are the senior leagues?” Anna asked.

“Our oldest league is the K’ra Circle,” Careema said. “It’s traditions go back tens of thousands of years. Sadly their tournament cycle only culminates once every century so we won’t see them fight for another forty three years.”

“Your world’s history must be fascinating to study,” JB said, going back for seconds of the mild dish.

“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” Careema said. “It’s been one of my passions since I was little. Sadly not one which is widely shared however.”

“If our negotiations work out, perhaps we can arrange for an educational exchange,” Anna said. She was sipping from a mildly toxic beverage which Careema had poured for them both. It wasn’t alcohol but it had many of the same properties, though supposedly without the danger of hangover afterwards.

“I imagine we’ll be able to work out at least that much,” Careema said. “The rest of the items you’ve spoke about may be a harder to sell to some of my associates though.”

“Not to open the discussions too early, but which do you see as being challenging?” Anna asked. There was a balance between waiting to make her case equally to everyone and walking into the meeting with a solid strategic understanding of what factions existed and how they were likely to react. From her read on Careema, Anna felt reasonably secure that if she over reached a little, the native ambassador would do no more than gently correct her.

“The trade and cultural exchange items you have on the agenda should be ones we can reach preliminary agreements on easily enough,” Careema said. “There will be contention between the ambassadors on my side around whether our standard models for welcoming a new island to the fold can be applied to a new world as well.”

“I can see where there might be significant differences to overcome there,” Anna said. “From what I gather your world as a whole can boast far greater diversity than mine, but your ‘melting pot’ states were planned as such where ours arose more organically.”

“That alone will bring the more scientifically minded on board,” Careema said. “The chance to study such a mix of cultures is something they won’t allow the rest of us to pass by, regardless of what other costs there might be.”

“And there will be other costs,” Anna said.

“Yes, that’s likely to be where the real sticking points will arise.”

“Your world has a global consensus on the illegality of slavery, doesn’t it?” Anna asked.

“The global powers are in agreement on that point,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands are left to practice their own laws, but in general overt slavery is not present even among the ones we know about.”

“Perhaps that could be a starting point then?” Anna asked.

“It might win some allies to your banner,” Careema said.

“But others will be driven away by the call to action putting a stake in the ground like that represents?” Anna’s guess was driven by her experiences with the humans she’d met and worked with (or against) over the years, but it seemed to be an accurate predictor of alien mindsets as well.

“Exactly,” Careema said. “When your benefactor first made contact with us, many jumped at the offer of access to a whole new world of information and discovery. Back then the trip was far too difficult to do with more than a few people a few times per year.”

“You learned quite a lot even from that though, it seems,” Anna said, raising a yellow and silver flower from her plate with her fork and taking a bite of it. The food was not only safe (for values of safe which included toxins similar to alcohol), but delicious as well.

Anna had been the one to request a meal with locale cuisine which Careema had modified only by suggesting that they stick to local dishes which were safe for humans from Anna’s world to consume. While enchantments could render nearly anything edible, it was considered a sign of respect to the cook and the host to partake of their food without such filters in place.

“Less than we would prefer, but enough to know that dealing with your world can be a volatile affair,” Careema said.

“That will be a difficult point to argue against,” Anna said. “While we may present some unusual challenges though, I would guess they are not unique in terms of ones you’re world has already been faced with.”

“True,” Careema said. “We’ve had islands where civil wars were routinely fought, where the divide between classes had grown perilously wide, and where internal diplomacy broken down as often as it succeeded. Your present circumstance however goes well beyond anything in either of our histories.”

“Unfortunately that is accurate as well,” Anna said as she watched one of the frog warriors catch the other with a perfectly timed kick. The victim was thrown out of the ring to land on the twirling spikes just below the stage. Losing in the Grand Arena was an ugly thing, but Anna knew that losing at diplomacy would look even worse.

***

Val and Jim had moved to the entrance to the Grand Arena along with Kinslayer, but they all moved aside as the Bedni warrior who’d lost the fight was carried past them on a stretcher.

“I really thought I was going to be able to dodge that kick,” the fallen warrior said.

“I spent the last two months practicing different timings with it,” the victor said, walking beside the stretcher. “I knew I’d be able to sucker you in with it eventually.”

They kept talking, reviewing the details of their battle as though one of them wasn’t pierced through in a dozen places and leaking blood like a sieve.

“So the Death Matches really are survivable,” Jim said, nodding in acceptance of information he hadn’t believed until he saw it with his own two eyes.

“Well of course they are,” Kinslayer said. “Everyone knows there’s an element of theater to the matches, and for most of them it’s only enjoyable because they can see through the illusion enough to know that no one is really getting killed.”

“There’s still some danger though right?” Val said without glancing over to Kinslayer. The Grand Arena lived up to its name, with a ring that was several times larger than the ones Val typically fought in.

“Yeah. Always,” Kinslayer said. “I know you’ve been checked out, so our medics can fix you up if something goes wrong, but I’d still like to avoid overworking any particularly fragile spots on you.”

“Humans don’t deal terribly well with head trauma,” Val said. “If you’ve got an opening though, go ahead and take it. I’ve got more protective charms above my shoulders than anywhere else.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kinslayer said. “It’s pretty much the same with me. I like keeping my face pretty so I make sure it’s pretty well hardened up. If you’ve got any cutting or piercing attacks, they’ll bounce right off. Go for my arms or legs with those. Lots of blood there, the crowds love it.”

“Are you sure you want to win this?” Jim asked.

“Of course,” Kinslayer said. “But what’s more important is putting on a good fight. I could win every match I was in and lose all my fans if I made it a boring but technically perfect fight.”

“So this is really just entertainment then?” Jim asked.

“No. It’s a real fight,” Kinslayer said. “Once we get into the arena, I’ll be coming at Val as hard as I can. I gotta give the crowds an honest effort.”

“It’s better if we’re on the same page to start with,” Val said. “And the more we know about each other going in, the faster we get to the good parts of the fight.”

“If we’d never met before stepping into the ring together, we’d spend a whole bunch of time sizing each other up, and feeling each others styles out. It makes for a slow start. That’s why most of the fighters get to know the other people at their level in their league pretty well.”

“It’s a lot easier to dance when you know what your partner’s steps are going to be,” Val said and held out one glove for a fistbump.

“Oh, we’re going to put on a great show today,” Kinslayer said, tapping Val’s glove with her own.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 7 – Act 1

Anna tasted the deadly drops of poison on the spikey fish as her host deposited the delicacy on her tongue.

“You will notice a sharp tingle as the poison begins to react with the saliva in your mouth,” Careema said, her blue hands tracing a line gently around Anna’s upper lip.

“It’s subtle,” Anna said, turning the alien morsel over in her mouth and searching for the sensation of the poison starting to take effect. A moment later she didn’t have to search though. “Oh, there it is. That’s quite pleasant. Invigorating, with just enough bite to warn about what’s to come.”

“You’re tastes are quite refined, Ambassador Ilyina,” Careema said, nodding in approval.

“Thank you, Ambassador Karns, both for the compliment and sharing this with us,” Anna said. She nodded to JB who was sitting beside her in the ambassadorial viewing box. Below them the Crestfall Grand Arena of Sport was hosting a multi-species aerial cheerleading troupe who were busy warming up the crowd in preparation for the night’s combat related festivities.

Following Anna’s lead, JB accepted one of the spiky appetizers from Careema’s aide. Unlike Anna, JB’s reaction to the dish wasn’t quite so mild though.

“It’s important to move quickly to the next step of the dish,” Careema said, seeing JB beginning to sweat from the searing heat of the fishes toxin. She offered her guests a brief toast and sipped from the peach-like beverage that had been delivered with the meal.

Anna sipped hers quickly, but turned to make sure JB was in no more distress than the heat of the dish would account for. JB, for their part, guzzled a bit more of the peach drink than the others did, but was able to flash a small smile afterwards and nodded to Anna to reassure her.

Anna suppressed a chuckle. Coming to Castorvell had been JB’s idea. It was a world which had swung into proximity with the Earth a few decades ago, but one which there’d been little contact with even among the more advanced world walkers. Little hadn’t meant none however, and JB had assured Anna that despite the myriad perils Castorvell offered, they were exceedingly unlikely to come to harm there.

As the peach beverage mixed with the toxic fish, Anna felt the fire that was building on her taste buds fade, to be replaced with a cool, milky sweetness which brought a pleasant dreaminess to her thoughts. It wasn’t perhaps the ideal state to conduct negotiations with an alien power from, but Anna was confident that she would be recovered before any actual negotiations were conducted.

Visting Castorel, and attending the Grand Arena of Sport was a precursor to all that, serving as an opportunity for Anna and Careema to better understand each other before venturing into the more dangerous waters of interplanetary diplomacy.

***

Down in the locker rooms, far below the cheering masses of the stadium, Tam dug her thumbs into Val’s shoulders and then along either side of Val’s spine.

“Any pain in any of that?” she asked, peering over Val’s shoulder to find her friend breathing in slowly with her eyes closed.

“Not a bit,” Val said, opening her eyes and flashing a quick smile, before she pulled the towel from around her neck and began putting on her gloves.

“Ok, you’ve got too many enchantments on you for me to tell if you’re lying,” Tam said. “So I’ll just say, please take it easy out there. The beating you took fighting the High One was no joke, and even with our best healing, there’s no guarantee that everything’s back where it’s supposed to be.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m really ok,” Val said. “You and James did some great work patching me up, and it wasn’t really as bad as it looked. A lot of what you saw was me trying to sell the whole fight to buy you time to work out how to save the day. I think you had it a lot worse than I did. I took a few hits, but you tanked a nuke there.”

“I just redirected a bit of energy,” Tam said. “If I’d known what to expect…well, it probably still would have hurt, but I might have at least aimed it better.”

“We all walked out of there,” Val said. “In my books, that’s an unqualified win.”

“What was Aranea’s take on it?” Tam asked, turning to check with Jim who was taking Val’s blood pressure.

“She wants to eat the High One,” Val said. “I mean, she’s more subtle about her plans than that, but her overall goals are pretty simple and direct.”

“Sounds like someone else I know,” Jim said, as he took the stethoscope out of his ears. Beyond maintaining the Club’s vehicles, Jim had turned out to be quite capable of as a physical therapist as well. Apparently bodies were just another type of vehicle that he could keep tuned up. “Blood pressure, respiration, and pulse are all good, and her reflexes are phenomenal as always.”

“Probably helps that I’m carrying enough magic to glow like a Christmas tree,” Val said, flexing her hand and feeling joints that had been nursing torn ligaments respond with strength and flexibility that should have taken months to regain.

“The tests I just ran are without the effects of the magic whizzbangs you’ve got going on,” Jim said. “You’re borderline off the charts when it comes to reaction time.”

“You sure you’re using the right charts?” Val asked.

“It’s a long term effect of the magic we use,” Tam said. “Particularly the kind you usually carry. You’re still human without it, but it’s shifting you bit by bit towards the top end of the sustainable spectrum.”

“Would training help with that?” Jim asked.

“The training Val does is pretty much what’s responsible for the change,” Tam said.

“Some of the magic is rubbing off on my permanently when I work out enough with it?” Val asked.

“Not exactly. It’s more that the simplest of the enchantments you carry reconfigure your muscles and nerves and circulatory system for optimal performance. It makes it easier for the bigger enchantments to take you beyond that. When you exercise and recover with those enchantments in place, your body is rebuilding itself closer to the optimal state rather that how it was before. James used a much stronger version of the same effect in the healing that he did.”

“He said Val was easier to heal than someone else in her condition would have been,” Jim said, offering with a gesture to tie up Val’s gloves for her.

“It’s true. When your body starts off in good shape, it’s easier to help it heal. If you’re in fantastic shape to begin with then there’s a base of muscle and solid bone to build on. With people who aren’t in as good shape, the work has to be a lot slower and more gentle.  In fact it’s usually easier and more effective to start with mundane medicines and use magic to augment their effects by small degrees.”

“I don’t think we would have had time for ‘small degrees’ of improvement,” Val said. Jim handed her a mouth guard, which she slipped into place, before punching the air a few times.

“That’s why I’m worried,” Tam said. “You don’t have to do this you know. Going out to fight in the arena isn’t going to make or break the deals Anna’s putting together. If this feels too soon, we can still sit it out.”

“No need,” Val said, through the mouth guard. “I feel good.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” a blue skinned woman who matched Val in height and almost doubled her in mass said. “I’ll be your opponent tonight.”

***

The second course of dinner arrived with far fewer toxic dishes to choose from. JB had recovered from the first round well enough that Anna wasn’t concerned about either of them partaking in the second, but she did feel the need to satisfy her curiosity over the message that the dishes sent.

“Your selection of refreshments is wonderful,” she said. “I would have expected our two people to have very different preferences though, or even be incapable of ingesting the same substances.”

“Oh, and why would that be?” Careema asked. She paused in offering a something that looked like the head of a dandelion to Anna.

“We hail from different bio-spheres,” Anna said, accepting the dandelion head gracefully. It tasted like spun sugar with a hint of citrus.

“Interesting. I suppose that would be a problem on your world,” Careema said.

“You’ve found a method of avoiding that here?” JB asked.

“Bridging the gaps between cultures and physiologies was more essential for us,” Careema said. “My Castorvell differs from your Earth in many particulars, but one of the most profound is that our land masses are far smaller and more scattered than yours are. Life here grew along very different evolutionary pathways, until we finally made the discoveries necessary to cross the great oceans and connect with one another.”

Above them, the aerial cheerleaders dispersed out into a pattern that could have been a living firework with how their outfits glittered and caught the light. Anna saw that some of them possessed natural avian characteristics while others were members of landbound races who used prosthetics to achieve their graceful flight. Many weren’t close to human in appearance but all of them were beautiful in the air.

“Your world has a long history of blending cultures together I see,” Anna said.

“And a long history of failing to blend together,” Careema said. “We’ve studied your world since it was first possible to move from one world to the next. We’d hoped we’d find a template for how to handle our trickier problems.”

“Did you come up with anything?” JB asked.

“Just that we should be grateful for the success we have made,” Careema said. “I am not making any judgments on your world in that. You’re conflicts and strifes fall on different lines than the ones we contend with, I think in a large part because those who truly do no wish to be a part of the global community can isolate themselves on their islands and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. There are bolt holes and refuges on our oceans which had gone unseen for centuries or millenia. The people who lurk there usually wind up either dying out or evolving into something strange even to our eyes.”

“Are efforts made to reconnect with them?” Anna asked.

“Periodically,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands attract attention every decade or so when someone decides to drop by and compare notes with the people who live there. It doesn’t always turn out well, but even the people who remain isolated will occasionally be glad for new information or tools from the outside world.

“I imagine that many of them are drawn in by a show like this too,” JB said.

“We have a good attendance tonight, but it looks like everyone is local,” Careema said. The Grand Sporting Arena was the size of a professional football stadium on Earth, which meant that there was no chance that Careema could have determined the status of everyone present. Unless she was using magic to monitor the crowd. Which she almost certainly was.

With the end of the cheerleader’s display, the music picked up into a triumphant fanfare, drawing everyone’s attention to the ring in the center of the enormous stadium.

“This should be a good match,” Careema said. “I believe it is your companion who is up first.”

“Do you know who her opponent will be?” Anna asked, scanning the people on the side lines. As she looked at the tiny specs far below, the air shimmered and magnified whatever she was looking at it.  She saw an overlay with each target’s name and basic information. Unfortunately none of the bystanders were anyone Anna knew.

“Most likely Kinslayer,” Careema said. “She’s usually the one they send when it’s a fight to the death.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 4

Kenyan magic wielders, it turned out, were rather delightful to work with. When Jen had described them as ‘friends’ she was only relaying information James had provided, but Rehema, their primary contact with the casters who were on site, had a sense of humor even the impending apocalypse couldn’t put a dent in.

“So, we’re having a little sunshine today, a bit of wind too, seems to be a hot air front is passing through,” Rehema said. The scrying spell that provided a remote view of her location showed the constrained avatar of the High One blazing with light and the tornado force winds that were spiraling around him as his power built ever higher to overcome the barriers Rehema and her companions had erected against him.

“That particular wind bag is more dangerous than he looks,” Jen said, “Are you going to be okay holding out for a few more minutes?”

“Oh? Against an angry, white man with a lot of power who wants to invade us?” Rehema asked. “Yes, I think we have some experience with that.”

“He has figured out how to turn your own power against you yet?” Jen asked.

“He’s working on it,” Rehema said. “Seems like a clever little thing too. He’ll work it out eventually, but for the moment we’ve got him under wraps.”

“Yes, clearly I’m not just playing with you to raise false hope,” the High One said, cutting into their communication spell.

“Pardon me,” Rehema said and chanted a few words in what Jen guessed were several different languages, none of which she was familiar enough with to place. “There, we should be secure again.”

They weren’t. Jen knew it, and Rehema did too. Most of the trap the High One was caught in was woven with temptation and curiosity rather than raw power or complex spell weaving.  James hadn’t been sure if they could secure a communication link with Rehema’s group that the High One wouldn’t be able to manipulate and eavesdrop on. Rehema had convinced him it was possible – she had a much deeper understanding of that sort of casting than either he or Tam did – but she’d also been the one to explain why it wasn’t necessary.

Blocking out the High One would have allowed them to speak privately but would have left a very obvious hole of silence that he could have intuited a great deal about. By allowing him to listen in to a conversation which “should” have been secure against him, the conversation could be sharpened into a syringe to inject all sorts of half-truths and misperceptions into him which his ego would simply lap up.

Rehema had also been the one to suggest the modifications to Jen’s original idea, which had turned the defense against the High One’s attack from “Operation: Regifting” to “Operation: Returned with Interest”. Jen had liked the “Regifting” plan, it had a beautiful symmetry to it but, as was pretty common in her experience, even a plan from a brilliant mind could be improved by having more minds work on it – especially when the additional mind belonged to someone like Rehema who had even more direct experience with the matter than Jen did.

“I presume the interloper will eventually be able to break through the protections you have on this conversation in time?” Jen asked, knowing that the High One could already hear every word she said.

“In time yes,” Rehema said. “Don’t worry though, if the security of our connection is violated though we’ll know it immediately. Even an attempt to breach my protections will leave our voices sounding scrambled. No information can escape without us knowing about it.”

Their voices weren’t going to screech of course, though from what Rehema said it would have been possible to engineer that as an option since she could draw on techniques the High One hadn’t had a chance to observe yet.

“Good,” Jen said. “We need this time to finalize our plans. James was able to contact the Lightning Pixies of Andelver. If you can control the flow of the High One’s power and space it out enough they’re pretty sure they can absorb another thousand blasts like the one he first attacked us with.”

“We may want to taunt him a little bit,” Rehema said. The scrying image showed her adding new threads to the barrier around the high One. Each thread was studded with sharp silver barbs which leaked a viscous black oil. It was most likely a poison, certainly not fatal to the High One’s avatar but just as certainly annoying. “He doesn’t know how much of his power we can hold, but once he sees that we can divert each blast to a world he has no access to, he’s going to withdraw.”

“I agree. The more of his power we can bleed away here, the better. How much do you think you can handle compared to his first blast?”

“Since it only has to be temporary storage? We can safely handle a hundred times the force he used against you,” Rehema said. “The only thing holding us back from managing more is the need to transfer it to Pixies at a rate they can safely absorb. If we need to risk more, we can probably managed four to six times as much as that before we start leaking power out and damaging the world around us.”

“We should be in good shape then,” Jen said. “This ‘High One’ is playing at being a conqueror but he revealed his weakness with the first attack.”

“Yes, sacrificing followers for power is never a viable long term strategy,” Rehema said. “He doesn’t have enough real depth to draw on to even approach our safe limits. The cost is too great. I think if we’re lucky we’ll be able to goad him into launching an attack that’s maybe four to five times as powerful as the one Le Li Tam dealt with.”

Jen hoped Rehema was wrong. Their plan would work regardless, but the more the High One committed to his attack, the better the Earth’s position would be. In the worst case, the High One would withdraw and abandon the force he’d already spent on the attack. That was the closest to a winning play that he could make, but Jen felt fairly certain it wasn’t the course of action the High One would pursue.

He’d taunted Val and Tam. He’d tried to taunt Jen. He was confident in his supremacy both in terms of power and intellect, and that confidence was the real toxin, not the one on Rehema’s barbs, which was going to bring him down.

“What if he only commits the same amount of power to this next attack that he did to the one Tam handled? Will we have enough to resist his future attacks then?” Jen asked. That wasn’t an actual issue. The High One was going to commit much, much more than his first attack. He needed to feel the sting in his ego of his victims underestimating his potency. He needed to be given an excuse for the truly grandiose display of his power which the well justified insecurity which lay buried beneath his swagger and confidence demanded.

“He’s already a bit beyond that,” Rehema said. “I think we’re holding back twice the power Tam did, though to be fair, there are a lot more of us to carry the load. After he releases this attack though, he won’t get to make another one. The Pixies will be storing that energy for us in place he can’t reach because there’s no connection from his world and theirs except through ours. We’ll be able to draw that magic back to fight against him on a even footing whenever he comes back.”

“And if he comes back with more next time?” Jen asked.

“He can’t,” Rehema said. “He wants us now. Whatever he expends on this strike is going to be as much as he’s capable of paying.”

That wasn’t vaguely true either. The High One had, by Tam’s estimation, sacrificed one hundred thousand lives to fuel his first attack. With followers numbering in the billions, he was capable to expending that many lives almost ceaselessly, and would be quite capable of sacrificing an unimaginable number more.

“He may grow desperate though,” Jen said. “Desperate people may sacrifice more than they intend, or ever should.”

“That would work out even better for us,” Rehema said. “We can take the power we gain from this strike to slow the next and then safely absorb that too. He’ll fall into a cycle of spending more and more of his dwindling resources. In the end he just can’t win because we have a resource he can never touch or damage in our alliance with the Pixies.”

Jen laughed. It was a joyful, relieved sound. It was also dismissive of the High One in just the right degree and at just the right moment to finish baiting the trap for him.

The whole trick was laid out before him, with the benefit of each part of it being true. If the High One attacked with even hundreds of times the force as his original attack, Rehema and her companions were capable of channeling the attack to another world. The Pixies had every reason to accept the magic gifted to them too and would be a bastion the High One couldn’t assault without first destroying the active defense offered by the magic wielders on Earth. It was a plan that couldn’t lose.

Unless the High One saw the hidden flaw in it, the one Rehema and Jen had every reason to be blind to. The one Jen knew he couldn’t resist exploiting.

When the High One’s avatar finally self-destructed and released all of the energy he’d invested into it, it wasn’t filled with six times the force of the original blast. It wasn’t filled with a hundred, or even a thousand times the force of the original blast. When the High One finally attacked the Earth with his true fury, the blast was ten thousand times stronger than the first attack he’d unleashed.

A billion people perished, fed into the all consuming maw of the High One’s ego.

As apocalyptic blasts went it was perfectly sufficient to claim the title. The attack held not only enough force to overcome the gravitational binding energy of the Earth and reduce the planet to an ever expanding cloud of dust, it held enough additional force to punch through the portal between Earth and the Pixie’s world and inflict that same fate on that world as well.

The High One had seen the danger in Jen’s scheme and acted with the will and ruthlessness necessary to end all the threats posed by the Earth and her allies.

Except Rehema and her companions didn’t try to hold the energy of the attack at all. They weren’t overwhelmed by it and neither were the Pixies because the final layer of the barrier around the High One was a gift to his world;

Just as the Earth couldn’t refuse the power offered by the High One, neither could his world refuse the power the Earth returned to it.

If the magic had still been the High One’s he could have easily controlled it, but to slip the force past the Earth’s natural defenses, he’d had to make a gift of the power, freely severing it from himself, and so he had no say at ll as the blast he’d intended to destroy the Earth with returned to his realm.

Jen’s original plan had called for ‘regifting’ the magic to the High One’s world and allowing the blast to do unto him what he had tried to do unto them.

Rehema’s idea had been more subtle and, ultimately, more destructive by virtue of not trying to damage anything.

Instead of returning the High One’s attack as a blast of force which he could have sacrificed another billion people to deflect or mitigate, the “Returned with Interest” plan proposed by Rehema had sent the force stolen from a billion lives back to the living people who’d been left behind.

They weren’t necessarily ‘good people’, or in any sense worthy of being empowered. The magic they received wasn’t a blessing. It did empower them, but it also carried with it the High One’s greed and lust for more power.

“It’s done,” Rehema said. “The worst among them are rising as rivals to the High One’s throne. They see him for the fallible, and weak tyrant that he is and they hunger to take everything they can from him.”

“They’re going to fail but it’ll be a difficult and costly mess for the High One to sort out,” Jen said.

“Yes, but those aren’t the one’s he will need to worry about,” Rehema said.

“True. It’s the best among them, the one’s who can see the mistakes they made in following him and who can awaken others to walk away from the lies and hatred the High One built. They’re the one’s who are going to give that world the second chance it desperately needs.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 6 – Act 3

Being blind and trapped underneath billions of tons of molten rock turned out to be surprisingly relaxing for Jen.

She couldn’t feel the heat or the pressure of course. If her armor had failed to the point of allowing even a single crack in the shell that covered her, Jen would have been dead before she was aware anything was wrong. True to James’ promise though, the crystal armor suits had held up and shielded their wearers from the blast they’d generated.

As the enchantment that projected the illusion of vision into her eyes flickered back to life, Jen saw that the armors had performed even better than original advertised.

“Sareesh are you ok in there?” she asked, looking at the enormous crystal covered Core Serpent which floated just below Connie’s spinning form.

“Yes, I seem to be,” Sareesh said. “I’m also nicely warmed. Are we returned to the Primal Flames?”

Jen saw a small text message appear on the side of her vision indicating that “the Primal Flames” were the Core Serpent’s analog for heaven or the afterlife in general.

“Nope,” Sarah said. “You’re still in the Middle River.”

Another text pop up translated ‘Middle River’ to ‘place of the living’. James had mentioned anything about a cultural translation aspect of the communication spell, but Jen could easily imagine it was something Sarah had seen fit to add. How Sarah knew Core Serpent culture well enough to provide translations was a question Jen added to a list of conversation topics the next time they were relaxing off duty together somewhere.

“This doesn’t taste like the Middle River, though it is pleasant,” Sareesh said.

“I think it’s our Middle River,” Connie said. “Right? We made it back to our Earth when the portal flipped.

Jen checked the telemetry display on the armor readouts.

“We’re about a hundred miles away from the projected target location,” she said. “But we are on Earth, in roughly the same thermal zone as Sareesh’s people are used to.”

“That’s not what tastes different though Sareesh,” Sarah said. “The armor you’re covered in is designed to maintain the wearer’s body in as pleasant a state as possible.”

“How am I covered in armor?” Sareesh asked.

“When Connie linked up with you I was able to join you into the spell we were casting,” Sarah said. “Making a new suit of armor on the fly took a ridiculous amount of a power, but fortunately a lack of power was the one problem we didn’t have. In hindsight, you might have saved the whole endeavor in fact. Without you to bleed the extra energy into I’m not quite sure where I could have shunted it into.”

“Do we know if the rest of the spell fired correctly?” Jen asked.

“I’m getting confirmation of that now,” Sarah said, sharing a picture of the top of the hole they’d plummeted into.

From whatever camera’s viewpoint Sarah had conjured into existence, they saw that hole had mostly been filled in with a splurt of rock that had erupted through the shaft as was cooling with preternatural rapidity.

“It’s not quite the plug we’d hoped for,” Sarah said. “The hole still descends almost a hundred feet from the surface, but the structure beneath that looks like it’s fused into a contiguous mass with with the bedrock.”

“That could have gone a lot worse then,” Connie said.

“It might still,” Jen said, looking at a set of new data that had appeared on her heads up display.

“What am I seeing?” Sareesh asked. The Core Serpent didn’t have the same senses as a human so, technically, it wasn’t “seeing” anything. For ease of communicate the translation spells substituted “sight” words for “interfacing with my primary sense”. Jen wasn’t sure how the data the crystal armor provided was being provided to the Core Serpent but if they spent a significant amount of time together she made a note to find out.

“That’s another High One blast charging up,” Sarah said. “Telemetry says his avatar has appeared in Nairobi.”

“Can we get there in time?” Connie asked.

“Not a chance,” Sarah said. “The suits are still recalibrating. If we tried to teleport now we’d wind up as solid crystal all the way to our centers.”

“Tam’s still offline too,” Jen said, receiving a confirmation to her query from Val. “I think we’re covered though.”

“We’ve got a team in the area already?” Connie asked.

“Not Club members,” Jen said. “We have friends who are local though. Charlene put out word to them after the High One’s first attack.”

“They’re not going to be able to resist or overcome him with force,” Sareesh said.

“Val says they’ve been briefed on that,” Jen said.

“If they vent the blast downward like we did, is it going to cause problems?” Connie asked.

“Give me a second,” Sarah said and began weaving a series of spells whose verbal components ran through two dozen different languages.

“While she works on that, we need to consider what our next step will be,” Jen said.

“We’ve got to put a lid on the High One don’t we?” Connie asked. “He’s dropping bombs with more force than nukes on us, and he can place them apparently anywhere. It’s not going to take him six months to end the world if he can do that. We won’t last more than another few days.”

“Yeah. What Sareesh said earlier though is still true. We don’t have an effective weapon to strike back at him with,” Jen said. A smile crept across her lips as she spoke.

She was facing the literal end of the world, her foe was an actual god and was smiting her Earth with apocalypse scale blows, and yet in the face of all that she found her mind was clear and she was able to work the problem where other people would have fallen apart.

Let Anna handle the strategy for a war between the worlds, and let Charlene tackle the cosmic big picture behind everything. The High One had become a tactical problem and that was her milieu.

“You said before that drastic action was not required?” Sareesh said, his tail twitching with concern.

“No drastic action from you or yours is required,” Jen said. “Your family will be cooling even quicker without your contribution of heat to keep them warm. Please, consider which of them will need attention first and how soon we’ll need to deliver the radioactives and what the minimum quantities we’ll need to procure will be. We can handle the rest.”

“It will take some calculations to determine that,” Sareesh said. “I will begin at once.”

“That leaves us free to work on the High One I guess,” Connie said. “You’ve got a plan though don’t you?”

“Not a specific one,” Jen said. “Not yet. We know that we’re a threat to him though, and if he fears us it means we’re capable of hurting him.”

“Can we be sure of that?” Connie asked. “He could be doing all of this just to keep his own people in line.”

“That’s a weakness then,” Jen said. “From what Tam said, the first blast represented the life energy of over a hundred thousand people. Even if he has billions of followers to draw on, that’s too many people to toss away on something trivial. Even if he spent those lives for nothing more than theater, it tells us that he needed that theater to keep his followers in line, which says there’s a real possibility of discontent there.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Connie said. “Even people who start out solidly in a corrupt tyrants’s corner can wind up disgruntled when the tyrant decides to tyrannize them for a change.”

“From what we’ve seen the High One’s rule is built on the same model of fear and intimidation just like a whole bunch of corrupt authorities here,” Jen said. “That’s not always easy to undermine, but at the same time it’s a fairly fragile base to rule from.”

“Can we attack him on that level?” Connie asked. “Take away his power by turning his followers against him?”

“Not directly,” Jen said. “People who follow evil rulers wind up investing a lot in the lies they’re sold. The leader says they need to fear something and the people rejoice because they were already afraid and now they understand who to destroy. Anyone who speaks against the lie just gets lumped in with the ‘others’ they’ve been taught to hate and fear.”

“I can’t believe everyone on the High One’s world is just a mindless minion though,” Connie said. “There’s got to be some who can see that what he’s doing is wrong.”

“Absolutely,” Jen said. “Those are the ones who started this in a sense. The people who fled the High One’s world were all able to see him for what he is. And they’re working to open other people’s eyes too.”

“I feel like backing their play would be a good approach,” Connie said. “They understand the people there and the situation on the ground a lot better than we do.”

“That’s true, and in general I’d agree,” Jen said. “The one problem is the time scale involved. The High One knows that a protracted campaign of subterfuge isn’t going to go well for him. Even if he can hold onto power, each conversation will open the door to others beyond that, and weaken his hold across everyone he controls. That’s one reason why he’s pushing to end this conflict quickly. He’ll have our world destroyed, or at least eliminated as a viable refuge for those who object to his rule, before his local detractors make any headway at all.”

“And we can’t do anything to spot it?” Connie asked.

“No. We can’t fight him directly,” Jen said. “He’s meeting us in a power-based struggle because that’s where he has the advantage. Even if we were willing to match the force he’s assembled and sacrifice millions of lives to stop him, he’s confident he’ll win because he had more experience manipulating people on that scale.”

“So we change the game then?” Connie asked. “Attack him in an arena where the outcome is decided by something other than raw power?”

“Yes, and that arena is his followers. They’re the resource he knows can’t be taken from him and that he can spend however he sees fit. Their also unmatched by any resource we have.”

“There are other realms of Earth where that might not be true,” Connie said. “I mean, we’ve been to one Hell already. What would happen if we threw one of our nastier realms at him, or at his followers.”

“We’d be confirming every fear the High One ever stoked in his people,” Jen said. “They would sacrifice themselves to the last person if the alternative was being slaughtered by demons.”

“We have a more immediate problem,” Sarah said, finishing her spell. “Connie was right to ask about the fallout from the next attack.”

“Is it going to hit us?” Jen asked.

“Not directly,” Sarah said. “If our friends in Nairobi use a variation on the spell Tam used, the blast will reach this low, but it’ll miss us by a few hundred miles. The problem comes from what it’s going to hit. You know those Hells Connie mentioned? Well there’s a real good chance the blast is going to tear a portal between Earth and one of the not so fun underworlds. The good news is the portal won’t be on the surface, the bad news is it might be close enough to suck us in, and it’ll definitely drop a whole bunch  of nasties down here where they can grow big and strong without any natural competition to hold them in check.”

“We’ve got to stop that blast then,” Connie said, powering up her armor for a rapid ascent.

Before she could take off though, Jen swooped in front of her.

“I think I’ve got it,” she said. “We don’t need to stop the blast. We need to make it bigger. A lot bigger.”