Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 8 – Act 1

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

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

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

Val and Aranea were conspicuously absent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were the illusions doing?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that important?” Connie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walking?” Tam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was slightly more complicated,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

“She didn’t…?” Tam began to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you met Val before?” Connie asked.

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

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

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

“Exactly like that, yes,” Anna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you tell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now what do we do?” Connie asked.

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

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

All they did was dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 3

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

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

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

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

“Do we rush them then?” Connie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How hard would that be?” Connie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a ‘but’ coming,” Val said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry too,” Val said.

“For what?” Sarah asked.

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

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

“Why did you do that?” she screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

“Good little ones,” Connie whispered in Chinese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 2

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aranea frowned and plucked at the air for a moment.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 7 – Act 1

A team was lost. Despite multiple contact options, and careful planning, a team of highly skilled people had vanished without a trace. Anna didn’t mean to break the handle of the chair she was in, but under the circumstances it seemed like a reasonable response.

Val, Connie, and Sarah had ventured into an empty Chinese military base and discovered it was as barren as it appeared, right up until something, or someone, had snatched them away, leaving the video feed from Val’s headcam an empty black and the audio feeds drowned in an eerie silence.

“Mr Fong, what is the status of your investigation team?” Anna asked through clenched teeth.

“What happened?” he asked. “Why did the video feed go dead? What is your team doing?”

“We don’t know,” Tam said. She was an ocean away, still back in North America, working the problem from the center of her sanctum at the club’s headquarters. Anna was grateful for that. If she’d been local, Tam would probably have wanted to do the same thing that Anna was about to do, and it was better if at least one of them remained outside the radius of whatever was happening.

“You said you had a live connection to them via the base’s WiFi,” Mr Fong said. “Even below ground the network should be strong. We have repeaters all over the base, even inside the fallout shelters, if they managed to find one.”

“They’re not in the base anymore,” Tam said. “It’s not just the video and audio feeds that cut off. I had three different kinds of trackers on each of them. All signals are out.”

“What does that mean?” Mr Fong asked. “Was something waiting for them when they went through the door in the basement? Are they…”

“They’re not dead,” Anna said, in part because she was willing their survival to be true, and in part because she knew Tam would have given different information if the life monitors on any of the three had been extinguished.

“I can’t say what they ran into.” Tam said. In the background, glasses rattled and Anna could hear Tam pouring a voluminous quantity of liquid into a tub. “I do have a guess as to why we can’t contact them though.”

“My superiors are not going to be happy about this turn of events,” Mr Fong said. “Foreign nationals with unmonitored access to one of our military installations is going to go over quite poorly.”

Anna breathed in slowly, and glanced over to JB, who stepped forth to pick up the diplomatic efforts.

“Offer them the assurance that their fears are unfounded,” JB said. “At present, the foreign nationals in question are either in a location which is experiencing known issues with monitoring and telemetry, which our team will be making a priority of fixing, or they have been removed from the base far enough that the monitoring which is in place has lost track of them.”

“It’s the former the Generals will be more concerned with,” Mr. Fong said.

“The Generals need to consider that the information in the base is already exposed,” Anna said. “With the footage we’ve provided and the satellite imagery you’ve obtained on your own, the story of the base being empty has too much support for them to overlook or wish away.”

“They are saying though that there is no proof the secrets have been broadcast outside of our national borders yet,” Mr. Fong said. He didn’t appear to hold any personal concerns in that regards, instead merely relaying what the current state of his party was.

“I can address those fears,” Tam said. “Have your intel people access the North Korean server I pointed you to earlier. You’ll see virtually every secret that’s kept on that base is located in poorly encrypted folder on the server. If they need help translating any of the Russian notes that were added to the information, let me know. My Russian’s terrible, but I’ve got some good translators who could use the extra work.”

Mr. Fong gave a low chuckle. “So you’re scheme to allay the General’s fear is for me to show them that it’s far too late to be afraid and that what they were concerned with came to pass months or years ago?”

“I know that’s not going to make them happy,” Tam said. “The important thing though is that they don’t try to shut us out at this point.”

Mr. Fong left the line to consult with his people for a moment before returning.

“I am afraid there is a sentiment gaining strength in the room that, in light of the breeches we’ve already had, allowing any additional foreign interference in an internal matter is tantamount to abandoning our security entirely.”

“I believe there are other servers, with information on other bases, is that not correct?” JB asked.

“That was brought up,” Mr. Fong said. “It is being met with a claim that our intelligence assets can find and neutralize those without outside help.”

“I thought that might happen,” Tam said. “Please have the General’s check their personal emails. Privately.”

“There isn’t supposed to be any out of band communication,” Mr. Fong said.

“Tell General Cheng and Yang that they will want to review their messages somewhere especially secure,” Tam said, ignoring Fong’s objection.

It was a violation of the terms they’d agreed to follow in working with the government officials, but Anna could hear from the tone in Tam’s voice that she was unconcerned with respecting either the letter or spirit of their agreement.

Anna also had no doubt what was in the documents Tam had emailed to the Generals. It was blackmail material. Under other circumstances, it could have been used in a more gentle manner, perhaps offered as a gift without obvious strings attached to curry favor slowly. Each moment that Val and the others were missing though was a moment they might not able to recover from, so time was of the essence, and therefore less subtle methods were called for.

A few minutes later Mr. Fong was back on the line.

“The Generals have agreed to allow you to continue handling this mission,” he said.

No conditions, no warnings. Anna wondered how good the information was that Tam had turned up, but in terms of the overall content she knew it had to involve money, sex, shame, or some combination of the three to have produced such instantaneous results.

“I ask again then, what is the status of your investigation team?” Anna said.

“Still assembling,” Mr. Fong said. “There was a problem with some of the full environmental suits, but they should be ready within the hour.”

“I’m not sure if sending them in at this point is a good idea,” Tam said. “We still don’t know what’s happened there.”

“I agree,” Anna said, taking another calming breath to put herself into a properly diplomatic mindset. “But it is also unreasonable to ask the Generals to delay their official investigation. They have been gracious enough to allow our presence largely because we have been providing more timely information than they could collect on their own.”

“That is how several of the Generals have phrased it,” Mr. Fong said. “But I inclined to support Ms. Le’s position. I do not know if I can send in the team my staff has been assembling to a situation with unknown hostiles. I’ll need more time to assemble a properly equipped combat team to accompany the medics and researchers I intended to send.”

“Were there going to be no guards accompanying the team originally?” JB asked.

“A small contingent,” Mr. Fong said. “For a situation like this however, I would want at least four combat ready troops for each non-combat personnel present.”

“That might not be enough,” Tam said. “In fact more troops might make it worse.”

“Whoever is responsible for this did manage to subjugate an entire base of trained personnel,” Anna said. “But, we can’t expect that to sway the General’s decisions can we?”

“Unfortunately, we cannot,” Mr. Fong said. “Which is why I want to use as many troops as they will let me in the hope that at least some of them may be able to report back.”

“You will send in drones first though of course,” Anna said.

“Yes, but I believe we both know those won’t fare any better than your team did,” Mr. Fong said. Anna avoided breaking the other handle on her chair off in response to that.

“In the interim, there is only one option open to us,” she said instead.

“No!” Tam said, correctly guessing where Anna’s thoughts were trending.

“The investigation team needs to know what they’re going into,” Anna said. “And our people need backup.”

“Are you proposing to send in another of your teams?” Mr. Fong asked.

It was a delicate question. Anna knew the diplomatic issues they’d avoided by delivering Val’s team’s presence on the base as a fait accompli would be in full force if she tried to request entry permission for another set of ‘foreign nationals’. With Tam’s blackmail material they might be able to push it through but the more they leaned on that the faster the Generals would try to fight back. As it was there were certain to be repercussions to Tam’s actions but so long as they were postponed into a future where her team was safely reassembled, Anna had few worries about what the Generals would try to do.

“No,” Anna said. “I am proposing sending myself in.”

“Oh.” Fong’s surprise sounded genuine, as though he’d never conceived of the notion of a commander doing fieldwork themself.

“You can’t go in there alone,” Tam said.

“And you can’t join me,” Anna said. “Even if you could get here in time, we’re going to need someone working the problem outside it’s area of effect.”

Tam grumbled but was silent for a moment.

“Ok. That’s the smart play,” she said at last. “But that doesn’t mean you need to tackle it alone.”

“If JB goes with me, we’ll have no one here to interface with the Chinese government,” Anna said.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t go,” JB said. “It would just mean Tam would have to do double duty with magic and diplomacy.”

“I would prefer the the spellcaster working the now obviously magical problem not be unduly distracted,” Anna said. Having JB along would have been useful. Their skills weren’t entirely limited to making friends and influencing people. After losing Val though, Anna was rather less than eager to put anyone else in harm’s way.

“Isn’t that James’ job?” JB asked.

“Normally, yes,” Tam said. “Unfortunately, he’s busy tracking down signs of an apocalypse at the moment.”

“An apocalypse?” Mr. Fong asked, clearly alarmed at the casualness of Tam’s reference to it.

“Not on this Earth, probably” Tam said. “He’s sunk into some deep scrying to find the source of the problem and make sure it’s not going to wash over onto us. As long as it’s a disconnected realm, it shouldn’t be something that will endanger anyone here, and there’s decent odds it’ll be on an empty Earth.”

“And if it’s not?” Mr. Fong asked.

“Then we’ll step in, if we’re able to,” Tam said. “For now James has that handled, but only if we don’t bother him.”

“Fair enough,” JB said. “I’ll have to bring him some take-out when we get back and get caught up on where he’s at. We’ve been so busy lately I haven’t been keeping up with his work like I should.”

“We’ll all get take-out when we get back,” Anna said.

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re going alone,” Tam said. “JB’s needed there, and I have to stay here, but we do have other options.”

“Such as?” Anna asked.

“Jennifer Kelly,” Tam said. “She’s a club member. She joined a few years ago, one of my first cases.”

“I remember her,” Anna said, trying to call to mind Jennifer’s face. “Young woman? Double amputee?”

“No, she was born without fully formed arms,” Tam said. “We rescued her from pirates.”

“Oh yes, I recall,” Anna said. “She took three of them overboard with her and we arrived in time to prevent a fourth from shooting her from the deck while she fought the other three underwater.”

“Yeah, and that was after she took down the first six of them who tried to jump onto the boat she was on,” Tam said. “The point being, she can handle herself in a bad situation, and with Val missing, you’re going to need backup who can do that.”

“Yes, but there’s travel time to consider still,” Anna said. “Unless, are you about to tell me that she’s already in the area?”

“Strangely enough, yes, I am,” Tam said. “She just called in to our voicemail to see how we’re doing. She’s currently in a town about fifty miles from the base, staying with a family that she trained with for the last six months. You’ll drive right past there to get to the base.”

“I see,” Anna said, unable to keep the smile from her lips. Quietly she added, “thank you Charlene.”

“It sounds like you are ready to leave immediately then?” Mr. Fong asked.

There was a swirl of dark smoke beside Anna’s chair and an inverted pop as an unhappy goddess of spiders stepped into the room.

“No,” Aranae said. “No one is leaving until someone tells me where my Val has gone!”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 6 – Act 4

Sarah looked at the globe of light in her hand and felt a pit of dark fear open in her stomach. She was a magician.That magic was accessible meant she had far more tools and resources to work with than she’d expected to be able to use. Unfortunately, that meant so did everyone else, including the monsters whom she hadn’t anticipated having to deal with.

“So, that changes things a bit doesn’t it?” Connie asked, staring entranced at the swirling licks of red flame in Sarah’s hand.

“We’ve still got to find the statue,” Val said. “And the people who’ve disappeared.”

“All we need to do is wait for them to break through the door downstairs to take care of the people part of the problem right?” Connie asked.

The banging from below them had subsided. That was the opposite of a good sign as far as Sarah could tell. Things that were banging at a door were things that were being kept safely on the other side of the door. Things that stopped banging either didn’t need to anymore, or knew a better path to use, and in either case that wasn’t likely to be good news for her team.

“Probably not,” Val said. “I don’t think what’s in the building with us is human, or ever was.”

“Do we typically run into aliens on missions like this?” Connie asked, looking up to the ceiling. It was a good impulse in Sarah’s book. Too few people thought about perils that lurked overhead and too many ambush predators tended to exploit that.

“Not aliens,” Sarah said. “At least not in the sense you mean. Think of these more like cryptids – creatures that exist on this planet but are a couple paces away from normal.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Connie said, visibly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“It’s worse than it sounds then,” Sarah said, with an apolgetic shrug.

“Cryptids aren’t inherently hostile,” Val said. “Not all of them at least, and only few without a good reason. This whole setup though? It just smells wrong.”

“Yeah, literally,” Sarah said. “There’s faint traces of sulphur, that’s a demon scent unless I miss my guess.”

“Demon like ‘from hell’ demon?” Connie asked.

“The Chinese mytho-sphere connects more easily to different realms than the American one does,” Sarah said. “Unless I miss my guess, our friendly statue decided to get not-so-friendly at last and used its decades of bottled up rage to punch a hole straight through to one of the hells that’s mythically tied to this area. So not the Judeo-Christian hell, but a really unfriendly place just the same.”

“Just to make sure I’m clear, you’re saying the myths that exist around a place are basically true on some level?” Connie asked.

“Not quite that,” Sarah said. “We can go over it later but the short form is, if a plane, or world, or realm, exists which aligns with the stories told in another place, those stories can, sometimes, pull the two closer together.”

“But wouldn’t it take magic to do that?” Connie asked. “I thought this place was a dead zone? Did the statue just have enough stored up that it didn’t need to worry about that?’

“That could happen in some cases, but it’s not how things went down here,” Sarah said.

“How can you tell?” Val asked.

“If the statue had charged up over time, the spirits within it would have enacted their vengeance as soon as they had enough power to,” Sarah said. “They’re not complex entities, so planning or putting off their revenge till an optimal time wouldn’t have been an option. If it was, they could have managed to not be stolen in the first place.”

“I see,” Val said. “And if they broke out as soon as they had the power too, there wouldn’t be any magic left over for you to cast that light spell with, right?”

“Yep,” Sarah said.

“So if the statue isn’t responsible for all this, what happened here?” Connie asked.

There was scurrying around them from out in the darkness. It was the kind of furtive, hungry movement which left Sarah wishing she had been able to bring along a small gang of disposable thugs.

Given the time to properly setup on operation, Sarah’s first inclination was to work the human element of it, and play with the magical situation as circumstances demanded. People weren’t perfectly predictable of course, but they did tend to follow enough familiar patterns that acquiring the proper sized army of muscle was rarely a problem. Even with Santiago Martin where she’d theoretically been alone, she’d felt reasonably secure in counting Martin’s goons as working for her interests. They didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but the end result would have been the same.

With Connie and Val though the equation was somewhat different. Partially she had the lingering sense of the debt she owed to Connie for resolving the issue with the Mind Devourers and partially her professional pride balked at the idea of considering people expendable when she was the one who’d asked for them help.

“The statue did have something to do with this,” Sarah said. “This flame isn’t supposed to be red. It looks like this because it’s absorbing a miasma of hate that’s lingering here. Unless there’s another major spirit artifact in the area, my bet is that the whole ‘spirits finally release their rage’ scenario is what happened, but it was some other event which set the whole thing in motion.”

“I’ll be happy to hear any theories you have on what that could be, but we need to get moving,” Val said, taking a heavy step towards the end of the hallways they were in. The skittering drew away from the entrance and went silent.

“Where are we going?” Connie asked.

“We need to see what we’re dealing with,” Val said. “I want to try to head outside. Let’s see what sort of problems we encounter with doing that.”

“Is there any outside to go to?” Connie asked. “Those windows look pretty dark.”

“If we’re lucky there won’t be,” Sarah said. “If this was a trap that hurled us into the cosmic void, I can get us back, probably. If the darkness is because we’ve fallen into some spirit’s realm, we’ll have to deal with whoever claims dominion here. Or of course someone could have snuffed out the sun, which would be less than ideal too.”

“So now our statue can destroy celestial bodies?” Connie asked, raising an eyebrow at the notion.

“It would explain why Tam hasn’t been able to make contact with us yet,” Sarah said, falling in behind Val as Val marched with crashing steps into the staff room.

“You’re not terribly comforting,” Connie said with a scowl, following the other two.

“I try not to be,” Sarah said. “These kinds of situations don’t tend to be very forgiving of people who get too comfortable.”

“You’re frequently tossed into nightmare voids while infiltrating foreign army bases?” Connie asked.

“I’m a retrieval specialist for ancient relics and supernatural artifacts,” Sarah said. “Though, honestly, that specific scenario has only happened a handful of times now, so I can’t say I’m totally familiar with the script for it yet.”

“Well, the next line is going to depend on what’s waiting around that corner,” Val said, pausing at the end of the corridor to listen for movement in the next room.

“Is there any chance they might be friendly?” Connie asked. “Or at least non-hostile?”

“Certainly,” Val said and stepped forward.

A scissor like pair of metal claws flashed out from both sides, each pair aiming for her neck.

Sarah watched Val dodge the claws, maybe by ducking under them?, then there was a flurry of motion, followed by Val whirling around and two large bodies with impossibly long arms being flung through the windows on the opposite wall of the staff room.

“Always a chance they’ll be friendly,” Val said. “Just, you know, didn’t turn out to be the case this time.”

More skittering sounded, this time from behind them and overhead.

“Follow me,” Val said and took off for the door at the far end of the staff room.

“If it’s the cosmic void or whatever out there, is it safe to jump into it?” Connie asked.

“Safer than being eaten by a crab demon,” Sarah said, knowing the cosmic void was not safe in any sense of the term, but also knowing that working the kind of magic she’d need to throw around to defeat an army of demons was a fantastically bad idea in a realm of an unknown lord who almost certainly was a more potent spellcaster than she was.

She readied a transit spell as they ran for the door. There was no time to test if it would work, or make any adjustments needed for the local variations in the principal aspects of magic, but having a spell ready, even if it was a long shot, was far better than drifting off endlessly into the less-empty-than-she-would-prefer void.

Despite running as fast as she could, Sarah was still the third one to reach the door. A stab of panic flared through her when Val and Connie disappeared on exiting the door. If space was warped, the two of them count be shunted far enough away from her that her spell would never be able to reach them.

She started to release the spell anyways as she stumbled through the door, only to find her companions waiting on the other side for her, surrounded by the buildings and streets of the army base rather than the emptiness she’d feared.

“This doesn’t look like it used to,” Connie said, spinning slowly around to take in their environs.

The army base retained the layout it had previously possessed but the sky it sat under was an unearthly mix of purple dots of light smeared across an undulating red tapestry. From the far edges of horizon all around them, a brilliant green fire cast shadows that danced around the landscape out of time with the flickering of distant fire light.

The buildings were changed too. Decay and rot pockmarked each structure, with empty windows of opaque darkness offering no hint of what the structures contained.

The worst part though were the webs which hung on every building. They were cast from strands as thick as climbing rope and woven so tightly in spots that it was impossible to see what lay inside them.

“What sort of flies are those supposed to catch?” Connie asked.

“Ones we do not want to run into,” Val said. “Sarah, what are our transport options? This is definitely not our Earth. Can you get us home, or even somewhere else?”

“I can do somewhere else,” Sarah said. “But I’ll almost guarantee it will be worse given the nature of magic I have to work with here.”

“Worse than giant spiders?” Connie asked.

“Here the giant spiders are hiding,” Sarah said.

“What do you need to improve on where you can get us?” Val asked.

“Time to study the magic here,” Sarah said. “Or a native guide.”

“The last set of natives we ran into didn’t seem too eager to talk,” Connie said.

“Then we’ll find some that will,” Val said. “If we fell into this realm, then there’s a path back to our own.”

“That’s true, but it could easily be on the far end of wherever this place is,” Sarah said.

“It’s probably in the city,” Connie said.

“Why do you say that?” Val asked, looking in the direction that Connie was facing before adding, “Oh.”

Beyond the base, the nearby town stood, it’s buildings adorned with tall, sharp spires that hadn’t been present in their original world. Hung from one spire to the next, a single giant web formed a canopy for the town.

Tiny forms, too distant to be identifiable, squirmed and wiggled on web, with each twitch sending a burst of eerie light showering down onto the town below.

The falling embers only provided small illumination to the buildings they landed on, sketching their shadowy outlines against a backlight of pulsing green that seemed to originate from the heart of the city.

What caught Sarah’s eye though were the two figures, dancing in a chaotic spiral atop a mound on the great web. As they spun, a mad cry rose from one set of lips and was completed the other. Sarah recognized the words they sang in unison. They were the ten thousand names of creation being sung in reverse.

“Oh joy,” she said. “It’s the apocalypse.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 6 – Act 3

The absence of the statue didn’t surprise Connie. She was used to trekking into foreboding areas and discovering that the treasure she sought had long since been looted. It wasn’t a typical result for an archaeological expedition, but Connie tended to take part in fairly atypical ventures.

“The good news is the people who left here with the ‘Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’ statue almost certainly included General Fong,” Sarah said, as she inspected the empty display case. “There’s no sign that this lock was forced open and he was the only one who knew the combination.”

“That does not mean that my cousin left with the statue willing though,” Mr Fong said. Connie thought she detected a hint of frayed nerves in their official contact with the Chinese government. With a missing army base and a missing town to deal with it wasn’t hard to see why he might be having a bad day, but it seemed like the news of the statue’s loss outweighed the earlier problems somehow.

“Nothing’s certain yet, but there are good odds that he and the rest of the people are still alive,” Val said. She was stalking carefully around the room, being sure to get a decent view of everything in it with the headcam she wore. Tam would be reviewing the data live and recording it for later analysis but, apart from minor military secrets, Connie didn’t think the footage would reveal much of interest.

“Why do you think the people are still alive?” Mr. Fong asked.

“Because there was no aggressive force used to clear the base,” Val said. “It’s possible that whatever reason caused your soldiers to leave lead them to their deaths somewhere else, but that’s kind of inefficient. If it was a hostile external force, then killing everyone where they stood would be faster and easier than taking them somewhere else to do the same thing, especially since they wouldn’t have the element of surprise at that point. If base personnel left for any other reason, they’ll probably still be alive.”

“Could they have fallen into another world?” Anna asked. “Like what happened on the beach that took us to Atlantis?”

“Not with the lack of ley lines,” Tam said. “Most of our world is pretty solid when it comes to the borders with alternate realities, and that’s even with a fair amount of magic coursing through the land and sky.”

“We still have to check the bomb shelters, right?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” Val said. “Let’s head to the nearest one next.”

“It will be in the basement of the staff building you’re in now,” Mr. Fong said.

“Is there any security on it that we should be concerned with?” Val asked.

“Not if it hasn’t been sealed,” Mr Fong said.

“According to the monitors, it’s still open,” Tam said.

“Can you guide us to it?” Val asked.

“Already on it,” Tam said. “Check your phone, the building schematic is downloading now and I’ve got a navigation program setup to guide you through the halls to get there.”

“It is somewhat concerning that you have access to schematics for our military bases,” Mr. Fong said. “Those are not stored in any publicly accessible areas as far as I’m aware.”

“You’re not wrong,” Tam said. “These weren’t in any public forum.”

“And it is a crime to violate our secure databases,” Mr. Fong said.

“Fortunately I didn’t have to do that either,” Tam said. “I’ll send you the trace log for these documents. They came off a Russian intelligence server that’s located out of Pyongyang, North Korea.”

“But there’s no connection between…” Mr. Fong began and then stopped himself. “Yes, please send me the log, as well as any other information you have on the intelligence server.”

Connie felt sorry for Fong. He was staying so calm, but she could hear each new piece of news grating on his nerves as his day kept getting progressively worse with new and varied problems.

“We’re headed downstairs,” Val said. “I’m not sure what kind of reception we’ll have below ground though? Tam, what’s our range on our comms and video like here?”

“Limited,” Tam said. “No magic link ups, but I do have you connected to the base’s WiFi network.”

“That’s supposed to be secure as well,” Mr. Fong said. Connie could hear his grimace over the audio feed.

“Yeah, sorry there, that one I did have to crack myself,” Tam said. “Without it though, we’d have no method of showing you that we’re on the up and up here.”

“We will accept it for now, so long as you provide us with a detailed account of the exploit you used to gain access to our network,” Mr. Fong provided.

“That’s perfectly reasonable,” Tam said. “You’re not going to like it though.”

“Yes, it goes without saying that I won’t be happy with a security hole which allowed someone to gain access to a sensitive, military network,” Mr. Fong said. “Or did you mean that I would personally find it distasteful?”

“Umm, both,” Tam said.

Connie hear Fong let out a long sigh.

“My cousin used his birthday as his password again, didn’t he?” Mr. Fong said.

“Close. His wife’s,” Tam said.

The line went silent for a long moment before Fong returned.

“We’re on the level with the bomb shelter,” Val said. “Should the emergency lighting be on?”

Connie stepped out of the stairway and found the rooms beyond lit with only the sharp red light of what she presumed were exit signs. The writing on them was wrong though. The characters weren’t Chinese, or any other language she could recognize.

The basement level of the staff building was used primarily for archives, so the scant light that was present illuminated little more than rows of shelving, labeled based on department and year. Some had been moved creating a wider path down the center of the room, though Connie couldn’t be sure how recently that had been done.

“That is not a good sign,” Mr Fong said. “If the emergency lighting is on here then it should have been on upstairs as well.”

“I have somewhat worse news,” Tam said. “The video feeds are not showing the basement level as being dark.”

“What’s the status of the fire suppression system?” Mr. Fong asked. “That should show the state of the emergency lighting as well.”

“Fire suppression reads normal across the board,” Tam said. “I’m not seeing any alerts, alarms, or warnings in any of the buildings on the base.”

“There’s no alarms blaring down here,” Val said. “It’s only the lights. Can those be set separately from the rest?”

“Let me check,” Mr. Fong said.

“I think they’re linked to the same monitoring system,” Tam said. “What I’m seeing on the video feed does not match what the system is reporting.”

“I have a technical engineer here,” Mr Fong said. “He’s from the company who installed the security system on the base. He tells me that there are provisions for a manual override of the monitoring system. They’re primarily for diagnostic purposes, but the physical hardware can be decoupled from the software.”

“That’s something of a relief,” Sarah said, shining a flashlight over the shelves.

They hadn’t moved far into the room yet. Val was only a couple steps past the door and was still signalling for them to hold their position.

“Where would the manual override be done,” Val asked, the wariness in her posture a warning sign of trouble to come.

“The control is back up on the first floor,” Mr Fong said.

“Tam can you navigate us there?” Val asked.

“Don’t we need to check out the bomb shelter first?” Sarah asked, starting to step forward.

Val threw an arm out and blocked her path.

“No. First we find out what the story behind this weirdness is, then we walk into the obvious trap.”

“But there’s no magic here,” Sarah said.

“You don’t need magic to darken a room and setup a kill corridor,” Val said, herding her team back into the stairwell.

Once they were all outside the room, she closed the door and placed a short baton in the parallel handles as a bar to prevent them from opening.

“Why are we locking people in there?” Sarah asked.

“Because anyone in that sort of defensive position is not going to spend a lot of time chatting with intruders like us,” Val said. “If they’re smart, they’ll wait till we get back, but worried people have a hard time being smart. I’m betting, if there’s someone waiting in the dark, they’ll try to follow us once they hear us going back up the stairs.”

They climbed in silence back up to the first floor only to discover that since they’d left the main level, it to had switched to emergency lighting only.

“Tam, what is the system saying the status of the lighting here is?” Val asked.

“No alarms on your current level either,” Tam said.

Below them, there was the clank of metal on metal as the basement doors tried to open were blocked by the baton.

“We’re not alone here,” Connie said, looking through the dim lighting for possible exits and areas of cover.

“Doesn’t sound like they’re getting through the bar on the door yet,” Sarah said.

“No, I mean we’re not alone up here either,” Connie said.

“But the base was empty,” Sarah said.

“No, we thought the base was empty and the monitors told us it was empty,” Val said. “That doesn’t mean it actually was.”

“We are not seeing anyone on your headcam,” Mr. Fong said. “Are there any soldiers about? Or is it the maintenance staff?”

Connie kept her eyes peeled but she couldn’t answer Fong’s question.

“We don’t have visuals on any personnel here,” Val said.

“How do you know you are not alone then?” Mr. Fong asked.

“I can feel it,” Connie said.

“Feel it?” Fong asked.

“It’s a combination of processing barely audible sounds and scent awareness,” Val said. “We take in a lot more sensory data than we’re consciously aware of. Some of it gets processed as a gut feeling more than direct awareness.”

“That sounds easy to confuse with hysterics,” Mr. Fong said.

“She’s not confused, or hysterical,” Val said. “Her hearing just isn’t as good as mine. I count at least three people in the room beyond this one.”

“Confront them then!” Mr. Fong said. “Demand answers. We have to know what is going on.”

“There are a few problems with that,” Val said. “First, they know where we are, second, they are armed, and third, I am not entirely sure they’re still human.”

“Not human? What else could they be?” Mr. Fong asked.

“That is not the right question to ask,” Tam said. “Not in this situation.”

“Why do you believe they might be non-human?” Anna asked.

“Well, for starters, two of them are clinging to the wall waiting to ambush us the moment we step into that room,” Val said, loudly enough for her voice to carry clearly.

There was a silence that followed her words, but a moment later when she took a single step forward there was a decidedly unnatural skittering sound from around both corners of the corridor that led into the general staff room.

Whatever moved did so quickly and with enough force to suggest it possessed a sizeable mass. Fortunately, from Connies point of view, whatever it was chose to retreat in the face of Val’s awareness of their presence. That thought cheered her up for all of two seconds, which was as long as it took her to look to the far side of the staff room.

“I hate to add to our woes, but the windows over there are supposed to be looking outside aren’t they?” Connie asked.

“Oh, yeah mean the ones that are pitch black?” Sarah asked.

“We arrived in the mid-afternoon. How long have we been here?” Val asked.

“A half hour, tops,” Connie said.

“That’s how long it’s seemed to us,” Val said. “What time is it in the rest of the world though?”

She waited for an answer but after a few seconds it was clear none were forthcoming.





There was another bang of metal on metal from the stairway below them.

“What happened?” Sarah asked.

“The comms are down,” Val said.

“That’s kind of suspicious timing for them to drop don’t you think?” Connie asked.

“Not at all,” Val said. “Someone or something is cutting us off.”

“How can there be non-humans here though?” Sarah asked. “There’s no magic to sustain them.”

“Are you sure of that?” Val asked. “Try a simple spell.”

Sarah traced her finger in the air and said “Light”.

Within her hand a softly glowing orb of illumination gathered, wisps of power being pulled from the aether to form a sphere the size of a tennis ball. As Connie watched though, the warm, golden light changed to an angry red flame.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 6 – Act 2

Chinese military bases are not the easiest of places to wander into when you are not a part of the Chinese military (or a defense contractor, or a government official, or really anyone who has any business being on a military base at all).

“Well, at least we know why they went radio silent,” Val said checking the ignition of the staff car that was parked in the center of the road.

“I’m not sure ‘they all just up and left’ counts as knowing much about what’s going on here,” Sarah said.

They were standing on a road that was empty of anything except themselves and a few oddly parked cars, in a base which was empty of anything except themselves and a reasonable amount of military hardware, weapons and other materiel, just outside a very small town, which was also notably empty of any other people.

“I feel like we’re on a movie set after shooting is done for the day,” Connie said, holding a pair of rifles that had been left haphazardly on the ground. “Except these aren’t filled with blanks.”

“JB and I are discussing matters with our contact in Beijing,” Anna said over their earbud comms. “Keep us informed what you find there.”

“So far we’re finding a great, big, frightening amount of nothing,” Val said. She knew what military bases should look like. A Chinese base wasn’t the same as an American one, but there were certain inevitable similarities in any modern armed force. From little things like the need to keep weapons secure and well cared for, to somewhat more significant elements like the need for actual soldiers to be present on the base itself.

“I’m not seeing any radiation issues there,” Tam said over their earbuds. “And their systems don’t have any records to suggest health problems in the area.”

“So no nuclear or biological weapons then,” Sarah said. “That’s comforting at least.”

She pulled her hat tighter onto her head. It was a baseball cap with a TV station logo on the front. Perfect for pretending to be a foreign reporter looking to do a slice of life story. It wasn’t the best role Sarah had ever put together but on short notice it was the strongest she could assemble the right documentation and support to back up.

Her special passport and letter of introduction however were somewhat wasted since there didn’t seem to be anyone in a fifty mile radius to show them to.

“It’s great to know what didn’t happen here, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we had any idea what actually did,” Val said.

“Should we split up to search the place?” Connie asked. She was used to working alone since most people couldn’t keep  up with her when things got really tough. In the catacombs in the Peruvian Andes, she’d already seen that wasn’t the case with Val, but Sarah’s level of physical aptitude remained to be seen.

“Nope,” Val said. “We don’t know what’s going on, and the last thing you do when things get weird is split up.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said, scanning the buildings around them. “There’s probably not any supernatural predators lurking in the shadows here, given the lack of ley lines, but ‘probably not’ and ‘definitely not’ are very different things.”

“Point taken,” Connie said, though a part of her was feeling eager to tangle with whatever might come leaping out of the dark interiors of the buildings. Another, far more sensible part of her, remembered that whatever it might be, it had taken out an entire army base and a small town. Encounters like that, her sensible side told her, were ones to avoid if one wished to publish papers in any state other than posthumously.

“Our governmental contact is being patched into this audio and the video feed from your headset Val,” Anna said. “They have agreed to allow you to continue the immediate investigation and are assembling a task force to conduct an official inquiry into the disappearances.”

“Hello governmental contact,” Val said after the click that registered another person joining the conference line.

“Hello Ms. Perez, you may call me Mr. Fong,” the man’s English was smooth and clear. Val guessed he’d been educated in England for several years based on the slight London accent he bore.

“Any relation to the General Fong who’s in charge of the base I’m at now?” Val asked. She turned to give the new viewer a look at the empty base around her.

“He is my cousin,” Mr. Fong said. “Though this matter seems broader than our family connection now.”

“I am going to guess you would prefer if we not poke around into every nook and cranny here, right?” Val asked.

“Yes, please leave the detailed investigation to my task force,” Mr. Fong said. “Our primary concern is to locate our missing personnel and civilians.”

“That may be a tall order,” Sarah said, peering into another empty car. “There’s no sign of damage to the base so far, and no sign of any struggle taking place.”

“It’s like everyone just got up and left willingly,” Connie said.

“Is there an evacuation area that people could have fled to?” Val asked, as she started walking down the road towards a staff building they hadn’t checked on yet.

“There are bomb shelters on the base,” Mr Fong said. “Our internal cameras show no one inside them though.”

“You should check on those anyways,” Tam said. “It wouldn’t be impossible to fool the video feeds to show an empty room.”

“Agreed. Our analysts have verified the video signal, but it is worth being sure,” Mr. Fong said.

“Where would the townsfolk have gone?” Val asked. “Are there separate bomb shelters for them, or would they come to the base for that kind of protection?”

“No,” Mr. Fong said. “The town is not a military target, so no bomb shelters were built for it.”

“And the civilians wouldn’t have been allowed onto the base if people believed a disaster was incoming?” Val asked.

“It would depend,” Mr. Fong said. The slowness of his words wasn’t from lack of fluency but rather careful consideration. The relationship between the China’s military and civilian population was no less complicated than anywhere else in the world, and how any particular exceptional circumstance was likely to play out might vary greatly depending on both what sort of calls needed to be made and who was around to make them when the time came.

Inside the staff building, Val, Connie, and Sarah found things in much the same state as they’d been outside.

What mess there was looked to be of the long standing variety of a busy office rather than the hurricane aftermath of a place that had either been ransacked or the site of a terrible struggle.

Most importantly, there was no blood on the ground, or the walls, which Val thought she should have felt more grateful for. She’d pictured entering the staff building and finding it to be an abattoir, with bits of all the missing people strewn about. Instead it was relatively clean, and mundane.

Somehow that was almost worse.

A bloodbath would at least have been explicable. The fate of the people who were missing would be decided and done with. The mundane emptiness that greeted her instead spoke of something far less reasonable happening to them. Possibly something that couldn’t be avoided or fought at all.

“I am going to have to assume that you all can read Chinese characters,” Mr. Fong said. “From the standpoint of what information may be exposed in your search. Please let me know if you need help translating anything though.”

Val hadn’t expected a government official to sound so reasonable and accommodating. The press tended to portray Eastern and Western interactions as far more acrimonious in delicate affairs like ‘unsanctioned searches of military facilities’. While that might be true on a larger and more public scale though, when it was people dealing with other people, things tended to go a little better. Or at least they did when it was people like JB and Anna who were handling the diplomacy.

JB’s talent for knowing people and making the right contacts never ceased to amaze Val, and Anna’s ability to cut through unnecessary bureaucracy and keep people focused on what was important to everyone while not slighting each individual’s concerns was the kind of skill that a thousand years in a business school couldn’t replicate reliably.

For as nice as it would have been to have them both in the field for a case this strange, Val had to admit that the decision to send them to Beijing directly to setup proper relations with the relevant officials had been the right one. Thanks to their political work from the Chinese capital, and Tam’s cyber work from the team’s home office, Val, Connie, and Sarah had been able to pass effortlessly through customs and arrive at the military base alone and unescorted without violating international law, or being shot at over a misunderstanding even once.

“This looks like it could be something important,” Connie said, coming out of an office with a single printed sheet of paper.

The writing on the sheet was nothing more than a series of ones and zeroes.

“Is that a coded message?” Anna asked, as Connie held the sheet up for Val’s headcam to send the image to the observers.

“We do not print out encrypted messages,” Mr. Fong said.

“It’s not encrypted,” Tam said, also viewing the image from Val’s headcam. “The binary is the header for an image file.”

“Someone printed a picture? Or misprinted it I guess?” Val asked.

“That’s not how pictures print,” Tam said. “Are there any other sheets like that one?”

“Nope,” Connie said. “The printer I found it in is dead.”

“What about the other devices there?” Anna asked. “Are they still working?”

“The computers seem to be,” Sarah said, from a nearby office. “They were powered down but they boot back up okay. This one’s asking for a password, I think.”

Val moved to show the others the monitor of the computer Sarah was at.

“That’s the standard login screen,” Mr. Fong said. “It looks like it’s operating properly.”

“Should we log in?” Sarah asked, looking at the unfamiliar keyboard.

“I think that’s the kind of fine detail work our host would prefer we leave to his people,” Val said. Fong had allowed operational security to be compromised a lot as it was with Val and her team roaming an empty base. Giving them access to the network was a much deeper level of intrusion though. One which Val would be just as happy to be able to claim she’d had no access to should the situation turn messy. That Tam had already raided the base’s central systems made that decision even easier, but Fong didn’t need to be made explicitly aware of that.

“Do we know what the picture was of?” Anna asked.

“There’s not enough of the image here to say,” Tam said. “This part of the header is all metadata. It does have the filename though. Does ‘Heaven’s Yoke’ mean anything special here? I’m not finding a lot that seems relevant in my searches yet.”

“In the dance of life we are bound by Heaven’s Yoke,” Mr Fong said, reciting a verse he’d heard countless times. “It was part of a poem my Uncle wrote about his favorite piece of art.”

“That piece of art wouldn’t happen to be a statue of two figures carved in jade, would it?” Val asked.

“How did you know that?” Mr. Fong asked.

“The statue is what originally drew our attention to your base,” Anna said. “Do you know where it is normally kept?”

“Yes, it has a special display case in my cousin’s office,” Mr Fong said. “My uncle had it installed a long time ago. It’s hermetically sealed and crafted from bulletproof glass and steel plating.”

Val picked a path through the staff building, letting Fong guide her deeper in until she reached the General’s office.

All of the supplies, and computers, and weapons were still present. Even the display case stood in its proper position, its door securely closed and its frame undisturbed, but the statue that should have been within was nowhere to be found.

The Second Chance Club – S2 EP 6 – Act 1

Val strolled into the conference room ready to receive the latest mission briefing with three cups of coffee in her hands. For the first time though, she’d brought too few.

“We have a guest joining us today?” she asked, sliding a cup in front of Tam and another in front of Anna. The third cup went to Connie, with Val mentally kicking herself for forgetting they had acquired a fourth teammate.

“More of a client I think?” the newcomer said. She had the sort of soft muscle tone that told Val she wasn’t a fighter, but even Val’s relatively short experience with the Club’s work had taught her that didn’t meant the newcomer wasn’t likely to be dangerous in her own right.

“Val, this is Sarah Friedman. Sara, this is the last associate we’re waiting for, Valentina Perez,” Tam said. She’d taken her usual position, sitting behind the laptop that had control of the various monitors placed around the conference room.

“She’s got a job she needs some help with,” Connie said.

“I’m going to guess someone’s brought Charlene up to speed on this already?” Val said, trying to get a read on the situation.

“They have,” Charlene said from the speaker phone in the center of the table. “It’s somewhat outside of our normal purview but I believe with Ms. Friedman making the request we can extend the offer of support.”

“She got us the recipe we needed for the folks down in Peru,” Tam said, calling up a picture of an weathered page of very neat handwriting on one monitor and some slightly less-withered looking Living Husks on another monitor.

“Are we sure that’s the right recipe?” Val asked.

The process that created the Living Husks, left them nigh unto skeletal with skin that had a calcified look to it.  The worst part though was their eyes which were covered over by a black goo. The goo didn’t seem to impair their vision but it left them with features that did an excellent job of hiding the fact that they were still human beings and not some form of alien entity.

The people in the picture still had the hard, sharp ridged skin, and the goo covered eyes, but they’d managed to put on a slight amount of weight. They were remained painfully thin, but they no longer looked like crusty plastic wrap stretched over a pile of bones.

“So far it looks like the right one,” Tam said, showing some other photos of the medical staff in Peru who was caring for the Husked victims. “The big danger with reversing the condition is that the curse shrivels up all of the internal organs. Dispelling the curse is relatively straight forward, but if you remove the curse so it won’t keep draining them, you’re left with no support for a body with all its organs shrunk to the size of a peanut.”

“That sounds sort of fatal,” Val said, sitting down at her chair. She didn’t really need any coffee so she didn’t miss it’s absence but she was curious how the newcomer took hers. She’d have an opening to find out if they had to take a break, she decided.

“It is,” Tam said with a nod. “That’s what was hard about finding an effective cure.”

“Brother Davos’ recipe gets around the problem by concocting a paste that the curse doesn’t register as being food,” Sarah said. “The victim’s body does though and can use the nutrients, and the magic, in the paste to slowly rebuild itself.”

“Which is the downside to the treatment,” Tam said. “It’s not quick. Sometimes we can literally wave a magic wand and make things alright, but this time it’s going to take between six to eight months before we can even consider trying to weaken the curse itself.”

“There’ll be danger there too,” Sarah said. “Curses don’t usually break cleanly. There could be all sorts of weird effects to deal with from breaking that many, even if they’re spaced out.”

“I have some thoughts on that,” Tam said. “If we were to bring in a curse eating doll maybe?”

“I believe we are drifting somewhat off topic,” Anna said, before Tam and Sarah could fall down the rabbit hole of speculating about magical theory.

“Oh, yeah, sorry there,” Tam said. “Today’s discussion is about a more immediate problem.”

She clicked a few times and on the main monitor the image of a statue carved from radiant green jade appeared. The statue was all carved from one piece, but represented two figures with their hands raised, palms touching as they whirled. It looks like they were caught in a moment in the middle of a dance, with each somehow leading the other.

“This has no formal name,” Tam said.

“The family who owned it called it ‘Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’,” Sarah said. “It’s never been exhibited however or shown in any museum.”

“Let me guess, despite being a secret, someone stole it,” Val said, knowing how their missions tended to go.

“Yes, many decades ago,” Sarah said. “The family the statue belongs to are Tibetan. Back in the early 1960’s, the statue was taken by Chinese troops during a period when they destroyed a large part of Tibet’s cultural heritage.”

“I presume the value of the jade was enough to secure this statue being claimed as plunder rather than destroyed with the rest of the artifacts?” Anna asked.

“Probably,” Sarah said. “As a pure work of art, it would fetch a fortune if it was put up for sale. As a cultural artifact it’s priceless and, with the magic it holds, there is no shortage of people who would desire to claim it.”

“Has it changed hands a lot since it was stolen originally?” Val asked.

“No,” Tam said. “It’s been a part of the officer’s collection who took it in the first place. He passed away around the turn of the century, but the statue stayed with his estate and was claimed by his eldest son, who was also a part of the military.”

“How did he manage to hold onto it?” Val asked.

“The city both the father and the son have listed as their home town has almost nothing in terms of ley lines moving through it,” Sarah said. “Most of the otherworldly things that would want the statue don’t deal well with environments that starve them for the stuff they need to exist on this plane.”

“Does that mean that the statue has magic powers and our military guy doesn’t know that?” Val asked.

“We don’t know what Colonel Fong Tao knows about the statue,” Tam said. “It’s possible he’s completely ignorant of what his father passed down to him. It’s also possible that he’s an accomplished sorcerer and has bent the spirits within the statue to his will.”

“What kind of spirits does the statue hold?” Anna asked.

“From what the family told me,” Sarah began, “it’s the spirit of the original Tibetan sculptor who did the figure on the right and the spirit of the African sculptor who carved the figure on the left. I’m not sure if the timing quite works out for that to be true, or at least not the whole truth though.”

“You think your contacts lied to you?” Val asked. It was never a good sign when the mission parameters were based half on conjecture and half on outright lies.

“Not lied specifically,” Sarah said. “They had a family tradition with the statue that’s been broken for over fifty years now. From what they described though, it sounds like the statue may hold several spirits.”

“How many is several?” Val asked, visions of an army springing forth from the statue filling her mind.

“I would guess five,” Sarah said. “The jade itself is of very high quality but according to the tale it was disguised as little more than a pretty rock until it came into the possession of the original sculptor.”

“That could be mythologizing the sculptor’s skill to some extent,” Tam said. “It’s not uncommon to hear of great crafters who can turn common materials into the sublime.”

“I considered that, but the jade of the statue was said to be of Burmese origin, and unless it was mistaken for having much less value than it clearly has now, I don’t see how it would have wound up in the hands of a Tibetan commoner many centuries ago.”

“Ok, that would be one spirit then, where are the other four from?” Val asked.

“The Tibetan sculptor is responsible for the ground beneath the figures and the one which appears in Tibetan dress,” Sarah said. “That means that they left part of the statue unfinished though.”

“Yeah,” Val said, picturing the statue with a bigger lump of jade where one of the figures was. “Why would they do that?”

“The story says that a merchant saved them from drowning and in repayment all the sculptor could offer was the half finished statue,” Sarah said. “They had done such an extraordinary job carving their figure though that it gained the spirit of the land around them.”

“That gives us two spirits then,” Val said. “I’m guessing the third spirit was from when the other sculptor finished the piece?”

“Exactly,” Sarah said. “That’s why tales of its magical abilities begin to arise. Supposedly when the African sculptor who finished it completed the piece it took on such a profound spirit of unity that the African sculptor felt they had to meet the Tibetan one before either of them passed away.”

Val nodded and accepted that. After seeing a town rewind in time over and over, two ancient artists geeking out over one another’s magically awesome work seemed easy to imagine.

“At that time, travel between sub-Saharan Africa and Tibet was more than a little perilous,” Sarah continued. “The African sculptor wouldn’t be deterred though. They journeyed through lands overrun by bandits, passed by fields of warfare, and walked through trackless deserts, all without shedding a drop of blood or speaking a harsh word. When the sculptors passed away their spirits were said to inhabit the statue as well.”

“That was a the statue’s doing?” Val asked.

“That’s what the family I spoke to said,” Sarah said. “They believed that the statue exudes an aura of peace that and that the only reason it was lost is because it was protecting the family from the Chinese soldiers who came to kill them all.”

“If someone in the Chinese army, especially someone with enough clout had access to something like that, would we be looking at a very different outcome for them and the statue?” Val asked.

“We would be, if they hadn’t ripped the statue from its homeland, and brought it to a mystical dead zone,” Sarah said. “No magic, no special powers to evoke from the statue.”

“The good news is, we know where that dead zone is!” Connie said, as Tam brought up a map of China and began zooming in.

“The bad news is, being a mystical dead zone means that not only will the statues natural peace generating aura be suppressed, so will any chance for Tam or myself to assist with the magical skills we have,” Sarah said.

“No enchantments either I take it?” Val said.

“We might be able to arrange a few tricks you can carry in with you,” Tam said, “They’ll be pretty minor though and they won’t last long.”

“That’s not a problem,” Val said. “I mean it’s not like we’re going to bust into an army base and yank the thing under their noses right?”

She looked around the room for confirmation.

Anna looked interested in the answer to that question as well.

Connie looked concerned.

Tam and Sarah looked sheepish.

“Wait, seriously?” Val said. “Colonel Fong keeps his priceless jade statue in the middle of an army base? And we’re going to waltz in there, bust the place up, and motor on out, without any magic to call on?”

“That does sound like a rather tall order for a historical artifact,” Anna said. “What is the time scale this needs to be done on?”

“That’s the difficult part,” Sarah said. “You see the downside to taking a Statue of Peace from its rightful owners is that the spirits inside are likely to get a little annoyed.”

“And by annoyed she means ‘filled with the kind of vengeful rage that can twist them into demons’,” Tam said.

“How long does that take?” Val asked.

“It differs. A lot. Generally less than fifty years though,” Tam said.

“Which means if the statue’s spirits have held out this long, they probably don’t have a lot of peace and calm left to draw on,” Sarah said.

“Oh, and the army base?” Tam added. “Yeah, it kind of went radio silent about twelve hours ago. So, that’s not what you would call the best sign.”