Anna was in peril. Her opponent’s forces were closing in from all sides and her resources had dwindled to practically nothing. What was worse though was that no matter where she looked, she couldn’t see a plan that would let her escape.
“At the very least, you did better this time than last,” Zoe, the former Director of Prima Lux’s Special Assets division, said from the other side of the polished table between them.
“It is some comfort to be improving,” Anna said. “But it is infuriating that I can’t see how this is going to end.”
Despite Anna’s deepest focus and concentration on it, the chessboard refused to divulge any secrets as the outcome of the match being played.
“I have three plays that put you in checkmate in five turns,” Zoe said. “You can block them but not without leaving me an opening that lets me checkmate you in eight turns.”
“Let’s play it out,” Anna said. “I want to see what it looks like for next time.”
“I have to confess,” Zoe said. “I expected you to be a stellar player already. You have the mind for it.”
“Being smart is no match for being experienced,” Anna said. “Especially not when your opponent is both smart and experienced.”
“Just not smart or experienced enough to win when it really counted,” Zoe said.
“Are you sure of that?” Anna asked.
“I will admit that, as private villas in the south of France go, this view from my own Elba is quite lovely,” Zoe said. “For as pleasant as the climate, and the companionship, is however, it doesn’t change the fact that you outplayed me when I was at the pinnacle of my game with the best resources I could have asked for.”
“Can you outplay someone who’s tacitly complicit in their own plan going astray?” Anna asked. “It seems like the results of that encounter were due to a team effort more than anything else.”
“Are you suggesting that I sold out my former employers?” Zoe asked, with mock offense.
“Not intentionally perhaps,” Anna said. “On some level though you certainly knew the limitations of your position, and I have every confidence that you were able to workout what you truly wanted for yourself and your team, at least on a subconscious level.”
“I think you give me more credit than I am due,” Zoe said. “I can promise you I wasn’t trying to lose in that struggle.”
“And you demonstrably did not,” Anna said, gesturing to the house and grounds around them.
“Does this represent anything more than highly tempting bait though?” Zoe asked.
“You haven’t signed onboard with the club yet, so I can see why it might look like that,” Anna said. “There’s no strings attached to this however. This place is yours regardless of whether you want to stay independent or choose to become a member.”
“It’s a valuable resource,” Zoe said. “Why wouldn’t you put it to better use?”
“A few reasons,” Anna said. “First, even if you remain independent, I might want to bounce ideas off you and that will be easier if we have a place to meet. Second, this was once one of Prima Lux’s possessions. With their disintegration, Tam has been picking up their former holdings for a song. This particular piece of property however wasn’t directly owned by Prima Lux. It purchased via a bit of embezzlement by one of the senior managers. Establishing any sort of legal claim over it is going to take years, years during which having an actual caretaker living in the house will ensure that it is maintained in fine condition. Lastly, we both know that you could maneuver yourself into a position much nicer than this if you chose to. Since I don’t wish to fight against you again, arranging for a comfortable, if temporary, retirement seems like an easy solution to that dilemma.”
“So it’s not meant to be a gilded cage?” Zoe asked.
“Is there gold enough to make a cage that could hold you?” Anna asked in reply.
“I’m not sure,” Zoe said. “I can only say that I haven’t seen one which is gilded enough yet.”
“Perhaps it needs to be gilded with something other than gold then,” Anna said a moment before her phone began to buzz.
The caller ID on the display read “James Baughsley”, but the Second Chance Club’s senior Arcanist shouldn’t have had any reason to disturb Anna while she was on vacation. Unless of course something had gone terrible wrong.
“Anna? We have a problem,” James said, confirming her suspicions the moment she identified herself.
“What’s happened to Tam?” Anna asked.
“She’s missing,” James said. “But how did you know it was her?”
“You’re calling me, which says the issue is either supernatural, because it’s you calling, in which case you would have called Tam first if she was available, or the issue is with Tam herself,” Anna said. “How long has she been missing.”
“Twenty four hours,” James said. “She went to the beach with her girlfriend and no one has seen them since.”
“Are there any signs of magical foul play?” Anna asked.
“Always,” James said. “The Crystal Sands beach they visited is a thriving tourist area at the moment, but even so there were traces of an incursion from the sea.”
“Any reports of strange sightings?” Anna asked.
“No, and that’s the odd thing,” James said. “I can’t perform a full ritual there while the crowds are around, but even without that, an incursion on the scale I can detect should have been visible to someone.”
“That suggests they were targeting Tam directly. Can you work any kind of magic there to help locate her?” Anna asked.
“Not there,” James said. “I would need to setup a temporary lab, and that would attract enough attention to spoil any spells I tried to work in it.”
“See if you can do anything from your own lab then,” Anna said. “I’ll be on the first flight home.”
“Leaving so soon?” Zoe asked.
“My apologies,” Anna said. “It may be for nothing.”
“Of course,” Zoe said. “Because in our line of work, apparent problems so often work out to be nothing to be concerned about.”
“There is always a chance of being pleasantly surprised,” Anna said. “But, yes, in this case I doubt I will be. Le Li Tam has gone missing.”
“This would be the same Le Li Tam who out fought a PrimaLux strike team and penetrated the wards which were keeping some cosmic entities imprisoned in Aaliyah’s sanctum?” Zoe asked.
“Yes, the same,” Anna said.
“I believe I will travel with you then,” Zoe said. “If you would tolerate my company?”
“I might even find it quite agreeable,” Anna said.
The flight back from France to the US took time. Passing through customs took time. Traveling from the airport to the Crystal Sands beach took time. Anna counted each minute of that time, and each second, but no matter how tightly she clutched at them, the sands flowed ceaselessly through the hourglass.
“What do you expect to find here?” Zoe asked, as they stepped out of their rental car onto the shimmering sands of the beach.
“I expect to find several normal people enjoying a day at the shore,” Anna said. “What I hope to find is some communication from the one responsible for Tam’s disappearance.”
“And if that someone is still around?” Zoe asked.
“Then we’ll discuss Tam’s return,” Anna said.
“Do you have any pieces to play though?” Zoe said. “We just arrived here.”
“There are always some pieces on the board,” Anna said. “Even if occasionally that means using your opponent’s pieces against them.”
“This should be rather enlightening then,” Zoe said.
“James, can you provide any more specific coordinates for where Tam was last seen?” Anna asked, tapping her earbud which was in place since she was back on duty.
“I am afraid I can’t,” he said. “Something has left the mystical energies in that area threaded like the Gordian knot. I can say that Tam had expressed interest in being close to the ocean. She was looking forward to swimming with Cynthia.”
“We’ll search along the water’s edge then,” Anna said. “Tam may have left us some breadcrumbs to follow.”
“Jimmy B says he didn’t see anything when he searched for her,” James said. “He is suggestion caution nonetheless. I gave him some warding charms and they burned out before he had a chance to search more than a small area.”
“Why aren’t we carrying warding charms?” Zoe asked.
“The ones we have access to are demonstrably insufficient in this case,” Anna said. “Also, I would rather not tip off the person or persons responsible for Tam’s disappearance that we are here, if at all possible.”
“Reasonable,” Zoe said. “I do wonder if we shouldn’t have brought more backup though?”
“I left a message for Val,” Anna said. “Until we know what we’re dealing with though, I would prefer to limit our exposure.”
“Personally risky, but strategically sound,” Zoe said. “That’s entirely in character for you isn’t it?”
“It’s not my preferred mode of operation, but you and I are the best resources I have for negotiation and information gathering, so I work with what is available,” Anna said.
“And what might you be gathering information on?” a woman in dark blue and green robes asked. Her clothes were wholly out of place for a day at the beach, but she didn’t show any signs of sweltering in them.
“Unless I miss my guess, you,” Anna said, turning around to evaluate the woman.
She was tall, easily a full head and shoulder over Anna, who wasn’t short by any reckoning. Her skin tone changed depending on the angle, ranging from the pink of an oyster shell to the blues and blue-greys of the rolling ocean waves
“You do not wish to know me,” the woman said, “You wish to understand the fate of your friends.”
“That too,” Anna said. “But to understand what has happened to them, I believe I will have to understand you.”
“I see why the First Light had such trouble with you,” the woman said.
“Do you have a name?” Anna asked.
“I have been called Sycorax,” the woman said. “You needn’t give me yours in exchange. Your reputation precedes you, daughter of Iron and Snow.” She nodded towards Anna. “And yours as well, Fallen Child.” She nodded toward Zoe.
Zoe turned to glance at Anna, a deceptive smile curling her lips.
“You got the nicer epithet,” she said.
“Be glad she doesn’t know you as well as she thinks she does,” Anna said. “Though if she knows me, then perhaps she will be reasonable and provide the information we need on Tam?”
“Of course,” Sycorax said. “Why else arrange all this if not to allow you the chance to destroy yourselves?”
“And why would we do that?” Zoe asked.
“To save Tam,” Anna said. “Go ahead, set your trap.”
“And you will walk into it?” Sycorax asked.
“On one condition,” Anna said.
“Are you in a position to set conditions?” Sycorax asked. “You may have dismantled PrimaLux but you will find I am not quite so fragile as they were.”
“I imagine so,” Anna said. “PrimaLux had investments around the world. It allowed them to develop rapidly, and gave them a wide power base, but it also made them a broad target. I will guess that you are more individually potent than they were, but with a smaller scope to your reach?”
“Not a smaller scope,” Sycorax said. “Rather, a better appreciation for the value of patience. PrimaLux wanted to achieve their aims as quickly as they could. I am more concerned with seeing my plans come to fruition at some point, regardless of how far in the future that might be.”
“And Tam represented a threat to those plan?” Anna asked.
“You all do,” Sycorax said. “I had agreements in place with PrimaLux which prevented me from exercising my powers on this world. So long as those were binding, there was no reason for conflict between us. With PrimaLux gone however, new opportunities have arisen which must be seized.”
“It would have been better to find a path we wouldn’t oppose,” Anna said.
“Possibly, but this method is so much more certain,” Sycorax said. “State your condition.”
“Swear on your name that what you tell me about Tam is true,” Anna said. “I will follow her but only if the path you speak of will truly lead to her.”
“Foolish snow born, of course I will swear to that on my name. Why would I use false bait for a trap when you will destroy yourself so readily if your Tam is truly in distress?” she said. “The one you seek walks below the sea, pursuing wisdom. She will never find it alone though, and all who follow her will share her fate.”
“And you will open the path to follow Tam beneath the sea?” Anna asked.
“It already lies before you,” Sycorax said, gesturing down the beach.
The tourists were gone, the beach empty, and the sky a stranger purple-gray. The waves which lapped against the shore contained strange shapes in them and seemed to be made of nothing more substantial than clouds.
Anna turned to Zoe.
“Thank you for coming this far,” she said. “I’ll go on from here alone. Please return and tell the others what has happened. It should help them retrieve us.”
“I don’t think so,” Zoe said. “I’ve had the comm open this whole time. They know as much as we do. I think I’ll travel with you for a bit longer.”
“Your presence will change nothing Fallen Child,” Sycorax said.
“That’s alright,” Zoe said. “What’s a little mortal peril if you’re facing it with a friend?”