Connie was surrounded by more technology than she’d ever imagined existed in one place, very little of which she could guess the function of. That wasn’t what worried her though. What concerned the otherwise stalwart adventurer was the fact that a hard drive was growling at her. It wasn’t inside a computer. It wasn’t connected to anything in fact. But it was growling at her.
“Don’t worry about Yeltzi,” Tam said. “She gets nervous anytime she sees someone not wearing a grounding strap.”
“The hard drive gets nervous?” Connie asked, stepping carefully around the shelf where the other components were starting to become restless.
“The hard drive’s just her shell,” Tam said. “Yeltzie’s a lightning elemental. Normally they don’t stay bound to a material object long, but Yeltzie got stuck in the drive last time someone tried to fry my systems and it took long enough for her to recuperate that she grew attached to it.”
“Is the rest of your lab alive like that?” Connie asked, taking stock of the escape paths that were open and how they were likely to change if parts of the room started moving.
“It varies,” Tam said, brushing away a circle of silver sand on her workbench to make room for leather bound tome she was carrying. “I do more of the arcane work down here than I really should, and sometimes the spells get a bit messy.”
“It still seems a bit unreal that you’re a stage magician who does real magic. And you do all the data handling work?”
“Not all of it,” Tam said. “JB manages a fair share too, especially on the ‘dealing with people’ end of things. And there’s James, he handles most of the really esoteric stuff.”
“Still, when do you sleep?” Connie asked.
“I’ve had the stage show on hold for the last few months,” Tam said. “So that’s made things a little easier. I keep hoping that things will slow down but it seems like everyday there’s a new problem coming out of nowhere.”
“Ok, what part can I help with?” Connie asked, looking around, unsure what any of the systems she could see did, much less which of them she should begin working on.
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Tam said. “Remember the Living Husks from the catacombs?”
“Yeah, you said there were others who had been put to work already right?” Connie said.
“More than there were still left in the catacombs,” Tam said. “Anna tracked them down though and we have them being flown to a hospital outside of Lima. Our job is to find the book that has the recipe to cure them.”
“Recipe?” Connie asked. “I thought it would be something like a spell?”
“It is,” Tam said, flipping open the book to a random page in the middle. “Spells take a lot of forms though. One of the most basic is simply knowledge that’s written down.”
“That’s just a book though,” Connie said.
“Think about what books were like when the written word had just been invented,” Tam said. “Before that, knowledge had to be passed from person to person. Oral traditions can be incredibly powerful, but there are things the written word can do that the spoken one just can’t match.”
“So it’s a spell as in a literal spelling out of what to do?” Connie asked.
“Possibly,” Tam said. “The Living Husk condition isn’t a biological effect – I mean, it affects their biology obviously, but it’s not brought about by a bacteria or anything like that. The transformation it invokes is definitely magical in nature. Since it’s tied to eating though, the magics we’re looking for to reverse or counteract it are probably culinary ones.”
“We’re not going to need to steal Idun’s apples are we?” Connie asked. “Which sounds ridiculous when I say it, but if you tell me that we need to visit a Norse Goddess it won’t even hit the Top 5 list of weird things I’ve seen so far today.”
“Idun’s apples would be a bit overkill for this,” Tam said. “I hope.”
“Wait, Idun’s real? I was just joking there,” Connie said.
“The best bet with mythology is to assume it’s at least partially true, if not in the this world, then in one that’s incredibly hard to reach when you want to get there and incredibly easy to fall into when you don’t,” Tam said.
“So noted,” Connie said. “Now how to I help? This looks like it’s in Sumerian? Or, no, Medieval French? Or Esperanto? I’m seeing bits of each of those on different pages.”
“This particular book is an index. The entries are in the native language each book was written in,” Tam said. “I would love to have it scanned but there are enchantments on it that I couldn’t replicate in a virtual environment.”
“It looks like the index covers a summary of the books, notes on the author, and the books’ locations?” Connie asked, trying to puzzle out an entry in Ancient Greek. “I take it you want me to read through it and see if I can find one of the books that mentions Living Husks?”
“Not exactly ‘read through it’,” Tam said. “One of the enchantments on the book is that it updates what’s inside in real time.”
Connie watched as the letters on the page started to squiggle, the location of one of the books changing from “Private Library, Houston, TX, USA” to “Aboard a plane bound for Singapore”.
“It feels like it’s adding pages too,” Connie said.
“It is, and they don’t all go in at the end,” Tam said. “The key with this book isn’t to absorb it all, it’s to look for the clues it will show you to lead you to the right listing, without getting distracted by the other questions you’re searching for answers to.”
“That sounds easy enough,” Connie said. “I mean, that’s basically one of about a thousand things I do on a normal day. Give me ten minutes!”
Tam checked the clock and noticed that two hours had gone by while she was lost in catching up on a few of the message forums she frequented.
“How’s it going Connie?” she called, without looking up.
“There’s a spell for boiling the poison out of a snake,” Connie said. “While it’s still alive. And it doesn’t harm the snake.”
“Why would you boil the poison out of a snake?” Connie asked.
“Pet Cobra? Or you need the purified snake as the ingredient in a larger spell,” Tam said. “How’s it going finding the recipe to cure the Living Husks?”
“The what? Oh god! Right! That! Sorry, I got distracted somehow,” Connie said.
An hour later Tam got up to get something to drink.
“Can I get you anything Connie?” she asked.
“There’s a book of billing receipts that were paid by god,” she said. “It says it covers the setup cost of creation. Why would god keep the receipts on creation?”
“Maybe we’re still under warranty?” Tam said. “Let me see.”
She sat down next Connie and read the entry Connie had found, struggling through the ancient Chinese to glean what she could from the summary the index had on the book.
“Am I mistranslating that?” Connie asked. “And is it real?”
“No and yes,” Tam said. “It is a book of receipts for creation, but the creation in question is only a minor shadow of Earth, think of it like adding an extension onto your house. Also, it wasn’t an all powerful creator who fashioned it. The Realm of Melting Stars was made by a mid-tier deity it looks like. So, yes, it’s real, but that’s kind of in the sense that a painting is real. We can look at it, admire its beauty but to step inside it, you’d need to be able to bend reality which sort of fuzzes the line on what’s ‘real’.”
“There is so much stuff in here like that,” Connie said. “How do you keep all of this in your head? I feel like my brain is about to explode.”
“I’m not surprised,” Tam said. “You’ve been at this for three hours now! Come on, let’s take a break and I’ll tell you the secret of how it works.”
It was so much later in the day when they stepped outside that Connie felt like she’d fallen through a time warp – which she had discovered were a real thing and had a catalogue of Vacation Destination books written about them for “the traveling quasels on a budget”. She still had no idea what a quasel was, or what sort of budget would allow one to casually wander through time, but something was trying to remind her that she had other, more critical things, to worry about.
“Ahhh! The Living Husks!”
It probably wasn’t the sort of thing she should have screamed as they walked in the door to the first coffee shop they passed, but for some reason none of the patrons did more than glance in her direction and shrug.
“It’s been a long ten minutes, right?” Tam asked, struggling to suppress a smile.
“I completely forgot about them,” Connie said. “That never happens though!”
“Not with regular books maybe,” Tam said. “Magical indexes though? Those you need to be a bit more careful with.”
“So, what did I do wrong?” Connie asked, as Tam looked over the menu behind the ordering counter.
“You tried to force a path through to the answer,” Tam said. “You wanted to know something, and so the book shifted its contents around trying to provide something that you would want to find. The problem is, the book can feel your intent, but it can’t read your mind, so it makes a bunch of guesses based on what it feels you reacting to. It’s like the magical equivalent of clickbait. It throw index entries at you until you bite on one and then it assumes that’s what you were interested in, even if you only read a few words of it because the title was really eye catching.”
“Ok, that’s weird. What was I supposed to do though?” Connie asked.
“Work with the book,” Tam said. “Magical things have a life to them. With a magical book you want to have something like a dialog, rather than just expecting it to statically provide information to you.”
“So I need to talk to it?” Connie asked. “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
“Everyone practices magic in their own way,” Tam said. “Part of it was trying to see what might work for you, and part of it was being curious what you would find in the index.”
“What else could I have found?” Connie asked.
“I don’t know,” Tam said. “That’s the trick I was talking about earlier. There’s too much information to absorb it all. I’ve only been able to handle it this far by learning where to look for general things I need, gathering the basics together, and then researching the specific bits that I need as I go. That might not be the system that works for you. You might need to build your own equivalent of a magical index in your head, or maybe you can memorize huge chunks of information at once and trade out the chunks as you need them. I’m betting you’ve already have a good idea what sort of learning works best for you, the trick is applying that in a situation where the knowledge set you need is highly situational and fluid even within a given set of parameters.”
“Interesting,” Connie said, mulling over the idea. “I think I can do that. In fact, I’m going to head back now. I think I see how I can get the index on my side. I just need to find some common ground with it. Thanks!”
Tam took her time with her coffee break. She’d timed it for right around when Cynthia was getting off work and so was able to waylay her girlfriend with fresh pastries, hot chocolate and kisses, in roughly that order.
“You seem pretty chipper for a long day’s work,” Cynthia said as they sat down at the booth Tam had saved.
“We’ve got our new associate, Connie, starting today,” Tam said. “So I get to offload some of the research work onto her now.”
“I think I love her,” Cynthia said.
“Hopefully the magic book I left her with won’t eat her,” Tam said.
“You mean that in a figurative sense of course,” Cynthia said.
“Mostly,” Tam agreed with a smile. “An index like that could literally pull her in, but the gift of walking into books is incredibly rare and if Connie has it, it would be really good to know that sooner rather than later.”
“Assuming she’s not eaten by the book, what did you have her researching?” Cynthia asked.
“A cure for a particularly weird transformation,” Tam said. “It basically turns people into super docile, low maintenance zombies. Reversing it is really tricky though. Most of the options just leave you with corpses, which is not what we’re going for.”
“I think I found it!” Connie said, bursting into the coffee shop with the book held open to one of the back pages.
“You found the cure?” Tam asked.
“Oh yeah, Spiney and me found about a dozen of them once I knew how to ask for what I wanted,” Connie said. “Most of them aren’t really practical of course. I mean where are we supposed to get the ground bones of a unicorn from? There was one that seemed really simple, but its book was listed as ‘lost’.”
“How is something ‘lost’ from the index?” Tam asked. “It knows where all the books it catalogues are, that’s it’s whole point.”
“That’s what we thought too, until we realized, it’s not the book that’s lost, it’s the person who has the book!”
“How does that help us?” Tam asked.
“Simple. They’re lost because they’ve been abducted. So all we need to do to save the Living Husks is to save this person too!”
“Who are they?” Cynthia asked.
“Oh, I have no idea, but I do know where we can find them!”
“So, we’re going to go in blind, to rescue someone from an uncertain fate and fight an enemy we know nothing about?” Tam asked.
“Pretty much, yeah.”