Smokey air from the annual rice burning thick in the air – farmers destroying the unusable parts of their fields once harvesting had completed – the investigators woke to a blood-red sky and debilitating hangovers, undercut by the ear-splitting noise of an incoming fax. Arcane symbols scrolled out of the transmission, causing Tommy to frown; the twisted sigils were not unlike those used in his society’s warding rituals to protect their sensitive buildings from untoward intrusion.
Ismene thoughtfully placed a small glass of stomach-settling bubbly water next to the mostly-sleeping Seth, who was using his limited consciousness to try and roll over, shutting out the bright, red sun. Ignoring the tossing and turning, slightly moaning, greaser on the couch, Tommy began to sketch out copies of the spell the group had received. “It’s a charm of ignorance,” he offered. “In that others will ignore us when the ritual completes.”
“Will it help keep us from being possessed?” Ismene asked, worried that the powerful spirits the ritual would summon could overpower their own wills.
“Possibly. It would become a battle between our spells and those beings.” His lack of surety did not inspire confidence.
Roger, having left as the party wound down late into the morning hours, met the group later at Ismene’s new studio, the art gallery-turned-TV studio which would serve as the future home of Pandora’s Box. Clustered around an oversized map of the Rio Linda area, fresh doughnuts in hand, the group tried to formulate a more concrete plan than “sneak in, stop a magic ritual, escape without dying.”
Ismene produced eight golden coins, rough-punched, and spreads them on the table. “Elijah gave these to me when we met at Doctor Long’s house,” she explained. “I think there’s a little Greek written on them.”
“We have to cross the river!” Seth exclaimed, happy to find any opportunity for his one piece of advice to come into play.
“Somewhere near the construction site there’s a river of the dead–” Ismene began.
“The River Styx” interrupted Tammy.
“–yes, that one,” she continued. “And we have to cross it in order to interrupt their ritual.”
Seth was furiously scribbling in a notepad, suddenly hit with a burst of inspiration. “What are you doing, Seth?” Ismene asked after several minutes of discussion between the rest of the group.
“I know what costume I need to wear,” he smiled broadly. “I need to be a Navy seal! That way I won’t draw any attention at all in the river.”
After quiet investigation of the coins, Roger called for the group’s attention. “These coins are certainly from another place. They radiate strangely, out of tune from everything else on this plane. And,” he adds, “it seems a small hole has opened up in the center.”
Taking one, Ismene held the coin up to her eye. “Careful,” cautioned the calm Roger, “if one is to observe, one is to be observed.”
“This is wild,” Ismene whispered in awe, looking about the room with the coin held like a lens before her eye. “It’s like the world has gone red, and I don’t see any of you.”
“‘Gone red?'” Tommy asked, reaching for a coin of his own.
“It’s hazy, and I don’t see a lot of buildings. It’s like a blasted hell-land.”
“I concur” nodded Tommy, taking a quick look about the room through a coin. Seth frowned and nervously looked away from the group, a gesture that went largely unnoticed.
“Whatever this ‘crossing’ is, I don’t like the idea of being on the other side,” Tammy frowned, crossing her arms.
“Of course, dear – there’s booze on this side,” Ismene tittered.
“I would urge caution in the use of those coins,” offered Roger. “Perhaps this is not the place where these items are to be used, and too long a gaze could result in unintended consequences.”
Ismene tossed her coin lightly onto the table, marking a turn in the conversation. “If we can stop their ritual by destroying their machines, what’s to stop them from making more machines in the future?”
“We must destroy the institutional knowledge,” Roger opined flatly. “That will mean killing a lot of people.”
Nobody liked the sound of that, giving voice to their previously-unspoken fears.
“Not all of those people are bad,” Ismene’s frown deepened. “Some of them may be possessed, by otherworldly beings that work with or for the demon lords.”
“What if we make like a stamp?” Tammy offered. “When I go clubbing, they stamp my hand signifying that I’m old enough to drink. We could stamp everyone’s hand and drive out the possessing entities.”
“I really like that idea,” Ismene considered. “Tommy, can you come up with patches or stamps that can help us?” He nodded.
Roger made a disgusted face. “Marking the flesh of others is abhorrent. We’re better off killing them.”
Ismene, Tommy, and Tammy gave Roger a long side-eye.
“If we can knock the demon out of them, we don’t need to kill them.”
“If you say so,” he frowned, looking unconvinced. The rest of the group decided to let the conversation drop.