As prison camps went, the area where the humans who’d been dragged to hell were gathered lacked certain classic elements. Like walls. Or guards. Or really anything that was stopping the humans from leaving.
The mass of villagers and military personnel weren’t in any danger of escaping though. They stood, spaced apart at regular intervals, in a spiral formation that was centered directly beneath the dancers far above.
Each human, and several of the local demons, stood under the rain of glittering embers that fell from the dancers’ steps, their faces upturned and their arms stretched upwards to gather in the motes of light that were descending on them. It was an eerie sight. No one, human or demon, was stirring within the circle the glittery radiance that was raining down on. Apart from a slight swaying and a voiceless moaning, they all might have been statues.
“That does not look safe to go into,” Connie said, halting the head of the procession she was leading. Around her, the small army of animalistic demons who’d ‘taken them into custody’ stopped just behind her. None of them looked eager to join their companions or overseers in the scintillating storm.
“Yeah, this is as far as we go,” Val said. “Our next step is to work out how we get those people out of here and back to Earth. I’m presuming if we get touched by the glitter rain, we wind up as mind zapped as they are, right?”
“I could cast a spell to be certain, but it’s about a 99% chance that you’re correct,” Sarah said.
“More important question then, does that stuff need to touch our skin or is proximity enough?” Val asked.
“That I will check on,” Sarah said and began weaving one of her favorite analysis spells. In a sense, the current problem was relaxing. A falling hail of mind controlling dust was just another sort of trap, and recovering lost relics involved dealing with all kinds of weird traps.
“While she does that, let’s work out our best path out of here,” Val said, turning to Connie.
“That’s a lot of people to move at once,” Connie said.
The space before them was a wide open park in the center of more a few dozen buildings which had been capped with the weird, fleshy spires that rose above the city and supported the web the dancers were spinning atop.
The park hadn’t been designed to hold tens of thousands people, and certainly couldn’t have done so with them arranged in a spiral but, through some non-euclidean aspect of the hellscape’s geometry, it managed the trick of containing them all nonetheless.
“I’m not sure we can move them,” Val said. “Not directly at least.”
“What other options do we have?” Connie asked. “We can’t leave them here can we?”
“We can, if we have someone else move them instead,” Val said and pointed up.
Connie glanced up at the giants atop the web, who’d grown beyond the size of the largest buildings in the town and were continuing to swell.
“The dancers? They’re going to squish everybody here if they come down off that web,” Connie said.
“They were originally small enough to fit in that display case that we saw,” Val said. “So size shouldn’t be the biggest problem.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely not a problem,” Sarah said as she completed her spell. “The bigger they are the more this realm is affecting them.”
“And that’s not a problem how?” Connie asked.
“It’s more complex than this but think of it like putting a hot plate against a block of ice,” Sarah said. “The dancers are the hot plate and they’re pouring a ton of energy into this place. Eventually that energy is going to turn the ice to water and then steam and then everything explodes because the pressure has built up too high.”
“Extend the metaphor a bit please,” Val said. “How does them getting bigger relate to that?”
“This place equates power with size,” Sarah said. “The more in tune with the environment the dancers become the ‘colder’ they’ll be, meaning the more energy they’ll be able to retain within themselves rather than dumping it into the world.”
“And this is a good thing?” Connie asked.
“It buys us time,” Sarah said. “Ultimately, if the dancers break the barriers around this world, it’s not going to matter, but the fact that they haven’t done so yet is, in part, because being here is changing them. It’s like a natural defense this place has, sort of an immune response. Warp the dancers into the image of this place and their rage will try to vent itself somewhere else instead.”
“Wouldn’t that solve the problem?” Connie asked. “If they start dumping their anger on some other hell then they wouldn’t blow up this one?”
“It would, if this place would last that long,” Sarah said. “The thing is, hells are usually pretty full of negative emotions to start with. That the dancers are able to pump theirs in at all is a sign that they have far more than this place can handle, and from the light show they’re putting on, it’s pretty clear that they’re adding it at a faster rate than this place can bleed it off.”
“What’s the story on interacting with the glitter rain?” Val asked.
“Any contact with it, and we’ll fall under the dancer’s influence,” Sarah said.
“Then we definitely can’t help these people directly,” Val said. “So, next question, what can you do about getting us up to the dancers?”
“Transporting us to the web is pretty easy, this place is designed to draw people onto it, but why would we want to do that?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Val said. “Tactically though, the dancers are the centerpoint of this, so they’re the spot we need to strike at to make the problem fall apart.”
“There is another option,” a new voice said.
Val and the others turned to see four new arrivals moving through the crowd. Anna, and Aranea were familiar but the woman with the clockwork prosthesis was new, as was the spider-headed man who was bound in thick ropes of webbing.
“And that would be?” Val asked. She hid the relief and surprise she felt at seeing them. She had to play it cool for the newbies sakes.
“This one was the lord of this realm,” Aranea said, gesturing to the webbed up man-spider. “He was trying to create a place for himself on your world.”
“More importantly, he can sever the connection between this place and our world,” Anna said.
“So it can go kaboom and we’ll be safe?” Connie asked.
“And the people who are already here?” Sarah asked, her eyes gaze hardening.
The demon lord chittered something, apparently able to understand them, while lacking the capacity to reproduce their speech.
“He says so long as you’ve not consumed part of this land, he can restore you to your world,” Aranea said. “But that you will have to agree to allow him to return with you, or he will not be able to bring you across. He is lying in that claim, as a note.”
The demon lord chittered again, and Aranea chittered back at him.
“Even if he was telling the truth about that, it doesn’t help the people out there in the park,” Sarah said. “That energy they’re gobbling up? It’s from the dancers, but the dancers have started changing to be a part of this world. Everyone here, except for us, has taken in a bit of this place’s essence.”
She didn’t have a spell ready that could prove her claim to the others. The humans gathered in the park didn’t look demonic, but then trusting what your eyes showed you was a risky prospect no matter where you where, with a hellscape being nearly the poster child for places that deceive your perceptions. Happily the others seemed to understand that intuitively as well.
“That makes your decision even easier then,” Aranea said. “Save yourselves. Staying here benefits no one.”
It was a reasonable argument in Sarah’s view. Disconnecting the two worlds would mean saving billions of lives, potentially. That it was at the cost of literally damning ten thousand or more souls to oblivion didn’t sit right with her though.
“We can’t do that,” she said, feeling like she was venturing onto new ground with the declaration. Self sacrifice was all well and good, but standing on principal with no rational platform to support her arguments made Sarah feel like she was falling into a catastrophic error. Everything was going to go horribly wrong and it was going to be her fault. Somehow that was still better than the alternative though.
Val chuckled and walked through the crowd of fuzzy, weird demons to put her hands on Aranea’s shoulders.
“You gotta have more faith in me than that,” she said, and gave the spider goddess a quick kiss on the cheek. “Sarah, portal us up to the web, and bring General Fong up with us.”
“General Fong? How am I supposed to find him?” Sarah asked. She had at least a dozen spells on hand that could do the trick, but any question that delayed getting squished by the dancers seemed like a worthwhile question to ask.
“He’s the one at the center of the spiral,” Val said.
“How can you tell?”
“Because he’s the one who unlocked the statue case remember? And this all centers on what his family did.”
“Isn’t he the worst person to put in front of the dancers?” Sarah asked.
“Yes, and the only one who can give them what they need,” Anna said, nodding in agreement with Val’s plan.
“Ok,” Sarah said. “Here goes the illusion of safety we are blissfully enjoying at the moment then.”
She began casting the transit spell. Since she wasn’t trying to escape this particular hell but rather go deeper into it, the magic flew effortlessly from her fingers. As she wove the threads of it around to ensnare the other people who were present she ran into a few problems. Namely, Aranea and the demon lord.
“We’ll stay here,” Aranea said. “I need to speak with this one some more.”
Since transporting a goddess against her will was in no circumstance ever a good idea, Sarah withdrew the strands of magic she’d set aside for Aranea and the demon lord, and instead focused on casting the last strands to the center of the spiral to retrieve General Fong.
Handily so much demonic energy wasn’t fun. She felt rage, amplified by the dancers’ fury, burn within her. The spell tried to buck out of her control. It wanted to deliver them all to the center of the web, but not free like Sarah wished. Humans were prey, and prey was to be cocooned on the web, until it could be liquified.
“Bad spell. No treat for you,” she growled, speaking Chinese since the realm recognized the language of the part of Earth it was closest to.
The spell growled back, a hungry, mindless force, trying to follow the channels of pain and suffering that had been carved into it for so long. Sarah spoke faster to it, shaping the intent of the effect with more words and gesture to convey exactly what the spell had to do, creating new paths for it to flow down, while resisting the cruelty it was trying to inspire in her.
It wouldn’t hurt that much to leave a few of them trapped, would it? Just a little joke?
No, Sarah demanded, she would not torment or even tease anyone like that. Not until she knew them a lot better than she did at the moment, at any rate.
The spell’s resistance to her demands faltered after that and a moment later, the assembled group, plus a confused General Fong, were standing atop the web and at the center of the dancers’ circle.
“Now what do we do?” Connie asked.
“Now, we dance,” Val said, holding out her hand.
It wasn’t magic. What they did on top of the web, surrounded by beings that had outstripped the power of a hell, wasn’t a spell. It wasn’t mystical, or arcane, or powered by any enchantments.
All they did was dance.
As they spun in a circle within the dancers’ circle though, two things happened.
First, Sarah felt Val altering the pace and steps of their whirling jig. She was matching and reacting to the dancers’ movements with the intuition of a fighter, speaking to them through the language of rhythm and position to reach out to the giant beings in a way that words never could.
Jen was the first to mimic Val’s movements and expound on them. While her prosthetic arms didn’t have the same expression as Val’s flesh and blood ones did, Jen was able to ‘speak’ with them in her own way that was as clear as anything any of the rest were able to convey.
The second thing that happened was the General Fong roused from the daze and fell, weeping to his knees.
His tears joined the glitter rain as he clutched the dancers’ statue to his chest. With each tear that fell the glitter rain changed, its sparkle being replaced by the rainbow sheen of pure water falling in their place.
In the end, it only took a few words to save the world.
What mattered was how truly the General meant them, and how willing, in light of everything that had happened, the dancers were to offer him a second chance.