Author Archives: dreamfarer

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.

“Tam?”

Silence.

“Anna?”

Silence.

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.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep5 – Act 4

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance in seeing a mirror which contains something which isn’t in the area its reflecting.

“Hello, who would you be?” Connie asked in a calm, unaffected tone, because the situation she was in was growing weirder by the moment and fully acknowledging that was not a great survival strategy in her experience.

“I’m Sarah Friedman,” the reflection in the mirror said. “Or one of them anyways. My other self is holding the mirror isn’t she?”

“Yeah, hi Sarah,” the Sarah Friedman sitting in the room with Connie said. “Any signs of the Mind Devourers there?”

“Nope,” Mirror Sarah said. “Santiago’s room is as cut off as he claimed it would be. To get in here they’d need to be able to batter through the shields in your world first, and from the outside you can’t even see that they’re in place.”

“How did Santiago build such a sanctum?” Anna asked, glancing around the room and admiring the subtle spider web of carvings that adorned the walls.

“He stole it,” Sarah said. “This originally belonged to a Persian mathematician. Santiago ‘liberated’ it about a decade ago from Iraq. He had the whole room shipped to Madrid and built this house around it.”

“The interest in the arcane is new, but that does sound like Santiago,” Anna said.

“Why would he be concerned about having a magical panic room installed before he knew about Brother Davos’ book though?” Connie asked. “Did he make an enemy of a wizard or something?”

“Knowing Santiago? I would guess he made several mystics into enemies, most likely starting the same day he became aware of the occult,” Anna said.

“For someone as successful as he is, he’s surprisingly inept and easy to fool,” Sarah said. “I mean I had a whole scheme laid out and he bought into it in the first five minute of my pitch. It was disappointing really.”

“Never underestimate the power of inherited wealth and sociopathic levels of misplaced confidence in one’s own abilities,” Anna said.

“I try not to, but then I suppose some people might accuse me of similar levels of overconfidence,” Sarah said.

“You are trapped in a panic room, surrounded by hostile armed guards,” Connie observed.

“And cut off from magical means of escape,” Anna added.

“Which, I admit, would be a problem if I wanted to escape,” Sarah said. “As it is though, all I need to do is hold that door closed when Santiago starts banging on it and my problems will largely sort themselves out.”

“How long do you presume the Mind Devourers will remain in our world searching for the Golden Record?” Anna asked.

“The air here is toxic to them, and there are creatures in our world who find them to be delicious, so I doubt they’ll last till dawn tomorrow,” Sarah said. “It’s not ideal, but I’ve spent a plenty of nights locked up before, and at least this time I have company to talk to.”

“As agreeable as that sounds, I believe there are certain problems we may encounter,” Anna said, walking to one of the walls and tracing her finger over the grooves.

“Will we? I thought I had this fairly well thought through?” Sarah said.

“Yeah, we talked it over for about a week before she put the plan into motion,” Mirror Sarah said.

“Part of the plan depends on the Mind Devourer’s removing the threat of Santiago and his goons, correct?” Anna asked.

“Yes, either permanently, or driving them off long enough that we can vanish before they return,” Sarah said.

“And what if Santiago and his men wait out the Devourer siege in safety?” Anna asked.

“I can hold them out of this room,” Sarah said. “Magic can’t cross the boundary of the walls, but inside here a Seal of Janus will render the door just as unopenable as it would anywhere else.

“And when they realize that and retreat to the other panic room?” Anna asked.

“There is no other panic room,” Sarah said, though with a trace of uncertainty in her voice.

“That does not sound like Santiago,” Anna said. “Nor does this room look like it belonged to a Persian mathematician.”

“What? Of course it did,” Sarah said. “This is the most hidden room in this building and those carvings on the walls are absolutely Sina Kashkouli’s Seventh Equation. That was the first thing I double checked.”

“Also this room is magically sealed,” Mirror Sarah said. “I can vouch for that.”

“I have no doubt all of that is true,” Anna said. “Come here though and look at the inside of this crack.”

Connie followed along, unsure what she would be looking for but curious nonetheless.

“Ok, it’s a bit of damage to the plaster,” Sarah said. “It’s fine though, it’s not obscuring any part of the Equation.”

“Which is why it wasn’t repaired,” Anna said. “It’s not the damage which is important though. Consider the material the damage reveals.”

Sarah leaned in close and studied the crack for another minute before pulling back and cursing.

“It’s plastic! He had a replica made with the same dimensions and markings as the original!”

“Which makes this the second most secret room in the house,” Anna said. “I’m sure the original chamber is here as well, but that will be reserved for Santiago’s own use.”

“I can’t believe he fooled me!” Sarah said. “I was sure he would put me in his anti-magic chamber after I showed him how I could slip away from any other cage he put me in. It just didn’t occur to me that the jerk would have two rooms set up like that.”

“I’m sure the cost was prohibitively unreasonable,” Anna said. “And it’s the sort of thing that only a desperate and paranoid and very wealthy individual would do. The cost aside though, I’m honestly impressed he found someone capable of replicating the original with a functional level of fidelity.”

“This changes the plan drastically,” Sarah said. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

“Why?” Connie asked, noticing how, with the door closed, the walls looked almost perfectly smooth with no means of egress available.

“With only one safe room, Santiago wasn’t about to dynamite the walls and ruin it,” Sarah said. “If this is a spare though, and he figures out how I played him, there’s very little chance that he’s not going to do something unpleasant about it.”

“If we leave the room however, the Mind Devourers will find us once the sun goes down,” Anna said. “And that is in roughly fifteen minutes I believe.”

“Can Tam fix that? Fix them finding us that is?” Connie asked.

“She won’t be landing for another two hours,” Anna said. “Also, if there was something she could do, then I presume Sarah could manage it as well. Tam has said Sarah is likely a stronger caster than she is.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Sarah said. “But I can say that I don’t have many tools at my disposal at the moment that will deal with even a single Mind Devourer, much less the hunting party that’s likely to burst through the veil between worlds as soon as it thins out.”

“Ok, well then, we look for other options,” Connie said. “Is there another place where we can be invisible to them?”

“The original room Santiago stole,” Anna said. “But that isn’t practical. He will have it defended well.”

“Can we fight for it?” Connie asked.

“Also doubtful,” Anna said. “Anyone guarding that room will have shoot on sight orders and will be behind several security arrangements.”

“Damn. I think I know where it is then,” Sarah said. “You just described his master bedroom. There’s a shower and jacuzzi area within it but if the plumbing is actually fake then it would be just the right size for the original Chamber of the 7th Equation.”

“What about stealth? Can we sneak into it?” Connie asked.

“I can’t,” Sarah said. “I’ve worked with the guards before. I don’t have the right leverage on them to work with anymore. How about you Anna?”

“No, Santiago will have given his security explicit orders concerning me,” Anna said.

“Ok, then what are our options for stopping the Mind Devourers from arriving in the first place?” Connie asked. “You said they’re here already. Can we negotiate with them?”

“Our only bargaining chips are the book, which they cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to retrieve, and our minds, which they would want for dinner,” Sarah said. “I’ve worked from worse positions before, but let’s put that option somewhere lower on the list than our first choice shall we?”

“You mentioned the air here is toxic to them, can we use that to fight?” Connie asked.

“We could if they didn’t know where they were going,” Sarah said. “Tricking them onto this plane would be a fantastic method of incapacitating them. Since they know where they’re going though, they’ll be cloaked in encounter suits, which means they’ll be able to last here for hours.”

“What about the creatures that find them delicious?” Connie asked.

“Cats and Ichthyoids,” Sarah said. “If we could wrangle enough of either or both that would be effective at driving the Mind Devourers away, but against a hunting party we would need dozens of cats, or at least three octopi.”

“Mind Devourers don’t like octopuses?” Connie asked.

“It’s more a matter that they can’t see the minds of either Ichthyoids or Cats, and both can see Mind Devourers clearly even when they’re not manifested on the physical plane. Cats object to the Devourers presence and will kill them like they would kill other vermin, eating them mostly for the intoxicating effect the Devourer’s corpses produce. Octopi are…less pleasant. They consume the Devourer’s psychic energy and grow smarter with each one they ingest. There is a good reason Mind Devourer’s avoid the oceans, even within the psychic plane.”

“Sadly, we do not have a ready supply or either animal,” Anna said.

“What about stopping them from arriving in the first place?” Connie asked. “You said they can only enter our world because a part of them is bound into the book and while it’s here so are they.”

“It’s somewhat more complicated than that,” Sarah said, “but that is the basic problem we have.”

“How do we cleanse the book then?” Connie asked. “Without destroying it. We still need the recipe in there to cure the Living Husks.”

“Fire,” Sarah said. “Specifically Holy Fire. Brother Davos placed a bunch of blessings on the Golden Record, and a big one was that it couldn’t be burnt. Given the church of his day, I’m sure it’s fairly obvious why that was a concern.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have that as an option either,” Anna said. “Santiago is rather far from a pious enough man to include a chapel in his house.”

“We’re in Madrid,” Connie said. “There are churches everywhere here.”

“None close enough to get to before sundown, not even with my driving,” Anna said.

“I can do it,” Connie said.

“We can’t risk the book…” Sarah started to say but Connie cut her off.

“I can do it. Give me the book.” Connie didn’t waste time with additional arguments. Time was ticking, each precious second an unrecoverable instant that could spell the difference between disaster and triumph.

Sarah looked into her mirror, pained indecision splashed across her face.

“I don’t have a better idea,” Mirror Sarah said and held out the book towards the glass on her side.

Sarah gave Connie one last probing look, swallowed and reached into the mirror to grab the Golden Record.

“Move fast,” she said.

***

The wheels of the stolen motorcycle caught fire as Connie finished skidding to a halt.

Getting out of the secondary panic room had been trivial with Anna’s help. Escaping the guards had been only moderately challenging thanks to Sarah’s interface with their efforts to apprehend the escaping prisoners. Once Connie was out of the door to Santiago Martin’s house though things had gotten difficult.

She was much too far away to make it to the nearest church before the sunset. At least if she followed anything like the roads that were in place, or gave the slightest care for personal property or general public safety.

The motorcycle she arrived at the church with wasn’t the first one she’d stolen on that trip. The two earlier ones were either smashed beyond recognition or crumpled into flaming balls of wreckage. There was a crashed car along her route too but the only injuries anyone suffered were minor ones where she’d knocked down, or in some cases vaulted over, pedestrians who were in her path.

With the last rays of the sun sinking below the horizon, Connie felt a dreadful weight reaching out and pressing on her mind.

That meant it was time for fire!

The gas tank from an otherwise unrelated truck was difficult to run with but she managed to splash roughly the portion of petrol onto the book that she intended to before bursting into the Basilica De San Francisco El Grande while a mass was underway.

A flame from a votive on one of the side tables leapt as she ran past it and passed the book over it. The small flame lit a conflagration around the Golden Record, forcing Connie to drop it to the end of the chain she’d snagged for that exact occasion.

For all the excitement the unexpected gout of fire caused in the congregation, the light around the book didn’t drive away the shadow that was taking shape. If anything it made the Devourers that much more desperate to reclaim their prize, and the interior of the enormous cathedral began to sink into darkness as the Devourers moved across the gap between the worlds.

Whirling the book over her head, Connie launched it towards the altar where the priest was gazing at her like she was a mad woman.

“Bless the flames!” she yelled, planning to pick up the book and carry it to the sacred candle on the altar if need be.

The priest, perplexed but cognizant of the darkness that was consuming his church made a simple sign of the cross over the book and the fire on it surged to a bright, stunning, white.

By the time Connie arrived at the altar, the fire had snuffed out, leaving the book in pristine condition, it’s old cover burnished to a shiny gold by the glow of the magics it held while the darkness in the cathedral had vanished leaving only a fading memory of its presence behind.

She’d done it. The Living Husks were going to get their second chance.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 5 – Act 3

Automatic weapons in untrained hands have generally terrible accuracy. At a distance of ten feet however, accuracy is not of paramount importance. Since the guards were at most six feet away from them, Connie was reasonably certain she and Anna were effectively sitting ducks. Also, Santiago Martin’s men were far from untrained in handling their weapons, so adding in a few feet by running away had a very low likelihood of helping.

“Are you going to invite us in?” Anna asked, offering the chief of security a predatory grin.

Connie didn’t envy the man. She could feel a hungry chill radiating off Anna that spoke of a predator cloaked in frost and snow. Even before Connie had seen confirmation of magic in the world, she would have known instinctively to be wary of something with that sort of demeanor which turned up at her front door and asked patiently to be invited inside.

“Mr. Martin says you’re supposed to come in,” Hector, the chief of security said. It was supposed to be threatening. Combined with the menace of a deadly weapon in his hands it was supposed to signal to the listener that they were being captured. What it was not supposed to do is place a pleased expression on the listener’s face.

Connie followed Anna inside, neither hiding nor attempting to add to Anna’s menace. Val had a particularly kinetic method of dealing with armed security guards, one which Connie felt comfortable playing along with.  Anna’s tactics were different story though and Connie was certain she couldn’t play that game anywhere near well enough to be a help.

“You may go and tell Santiago we’ve arrived,” Anna said. “I’m sure your friends can keep us entertained in the interim.”

Hector started to refuse, but checked himself. Connie guessed he had to report back to Santiago anyways once the she and Anna were apprehended, and so couldn’t defy Anna’s order without also defying Santiago’s wishes. Connie knew bosses who acted like that. If Santiago Martin followed the general inclinations of the breed, he wouldn’t have specified how to handle the guests beyond ‘make sure they’re alone’, and even if he intended to shoot Anna and herself  in the lobby, he wouldn’t approve of Hector, or any of his henchmen, acting on their own initiative. When bosses like that wanted something done (or in this case somebody killed), they were very particular about who did the deed and how it was performed.

With a sneer of disapproval, Hector left and Anna turned to the other two security guards.

“Interesting,” was all that she said after looking them up and down.

When she tried to reach into her coat pocket to pull out a cell phone one of the guards stepped forward and poked her in the ribs with the barrel of his rifle.

Anna looked slowly down at the barrel and then back up to meet the man’s eyes.

Whatever the man saw in her eyes made him take a step back which allowed him to fade from Anna’s apparent attention as she turned to check her email.

“Ilyina”, Santiago Martin said, emerging a minute later from a hallway behind his chief of security. “Why are you here?”

“Not even a hello Santiago?” Anna asked. “It’s been close to twenty years now hasn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t remember,” Santiago said, violently chewing on the end of a cigar. “Why are you here?”

“Can’t I be dropping by to visit an old friend?” Anna asked.

“No, you can’t,” Santiago said. “Not today. Why are you here?”

“Ah, the eternal question of life,” Anna said. “Though in this case, it is a bit clearer than in others. You have acquired a new book. And its owner. I want them both.”

Santiago stopped chewing. His men looked at him for some sign of what to do but it took him a good long moment before he was able to sputter anything out.

“How,” Santiago sounded pained when he finally spoke. “How do you know this?”

“Santiago, my friend, when have I ever not known more than you about something secret?” Anna said. “I think the question you should ask is how you thought you were going to keep this hidden from me?”

“Should I kill her?” Hector asked, raising his weapon to aim it at Anna’s head.

“No, don’t be a fool,” Santiago said. “Shooting her is probably just what she wants. Put her in with the other one.”

“Yes, by all means, gather us all in one place,” Anna said said. “You’ll be able to keep a much better eye on us.”

Santiago scowled. He didn’t try to step forward though, or even to the side of his bodyguard’s protective shadow. He didn’t like Anna playing with him, but his fear of her seemed sufficient to keep him from taking risks just for the sake of salvaging a scrap of his pride.

The guards took a moment to process the idea that they were intended to escort Anna and Connie somewhere. Normally that would have been followed up by a bit of bluster and a show of strength but, before they could get to that, Anna began walking in the direction they were supposed to escort her with Connie following close behind. With nothing else to do they settled for falling in step behind her and Connie, though they kept their weapons trained on both of the women.

The guards mumbled to each other, trying to sort out how they weren’t in the lead. Their confusion wasn’t surprising, Anna took a series of turns through the house as though she omnisciently knew where they were taking her before they offered any directions at all. Unlike the guards, Connie knew Anna wasn’t actually omniscient, she was simply well informed by a knowledgeable source and a good understanding of their hosts tendencies.

Once Connie had discovered the address where the book was being held, she and Tam had ‘procured’ the floor plans of the building and Anna had called out the various uses Santiago would be making of the different rooms in the house. There were at least three where he might be hiding the book’s owner, with a possible fourth if he’d remodeled without filing the proper building plans. Knowing Santiago as she did, Anna chose to walk towards the most likely “fourth” room, and from the guard’s response  Connie saw that it had been the correct choice.

“Do you think Val’s going to have any problem getting us out?” Connie asked in English as they walked down a hallway with carpeting that cost more than Connie’s yearly salary as a librarian.

“I doubt we’ll be here long enough to trouble her with that,” Anna said, pausing at a blank section of wall and waiting for the guards to catch up.

Connie had to suppress a smile of her own when she saw the look on their faces. The wall was featureless and uninteresting, at least until one of the guards pressed his palm to a panel which lit up and scanned his hand. A moment later a section of the wall slide inwards and pulled to the side.

Beyond the opening lay a room containing only a light bulb, two chairs, and a woman tied to one of the chairs.

Before the guard could order them to “get in there”, Anna and Connie had walked into the small room and Anna had taken the seat opposite the bound and blindfolded woman.

“Hello,” Anna said after the guards closed the door to the room. “You can let go of the ropes whenever you like.”

With a laugh the woman rolled her shoulders and the ropes which had appeared to be tied painfully tight fell away into a clump on the floor.

“You are disturbingly observant,” the woman said as she removed her blindfold.

“And you would be Sarah Friedman unless I’m mistaken?” Anna said.

Connie blinked at that. Her briefing hadn’t been able to turn up anything about who the book owner might be, and there wasn’t anything shockingly unusual about Sarah (assuming Anna was correct) that would make identifying her a trivial task.

“And now you’re just disturbing,” Sarah said. “Which is a good quality for one of Martin’s minions I suppose,” she paused, met Anna’s eyes and added, “but you’re too clever to be working for him aren’t you?”

“You’re quite observant yourself,” Anna said. “Le Li Tam sends her regards.”

“Oh! Tam’s here? That’s wonderful!” Sarah said. “Wait, no, Martin got his hands on Tam? That seems pretty unlikely.”

“It is,” Anna said. “Tam and one of our other associates are still inbound. My name is Anna Ilyina and this is my associate Constance Cruz. We’re affiliated with the Second Chance Club.”

“Ilyina? Interesting. I thought you were still doing development work in impoverished areas?” Sarah said.

“The programs that I setup are still running, but the day to day work is handled by others,” Anna said.

“Now you’ve move to personal rescue work I take it?” Sarah said.

“I’m not sure,” Anna said. “Are you in need of a rescue?”

“Well, I am being held captive and bound in an unknown location, inside a mystically neutral room,” Sarah said.

“Yes, but Tam has mentioned you a few times,” Anna said. “So I must ask again, do you have any need of a rescue?”

“Not really,” Sarah said. “For the moment this room is both convenient and comfortable.”

“How long will it remain so?” Anna asked.

“I would venture to guess about two minutes after sundown,” Sarah said.

“What happens then?” Connie asked, knowing that things tied to the day/night cycle that closely didn’t tend to be overly pleasant.

“Mr Martin is going to receive some visitors,” Sarah said. “I have something which they will be able to trace here, but, as long as I’m inside this room, they will be blind to my presence. Santiago’s presence on the other hand? That will be somewhat more obvious.”

“These visitors, would they be looking for the journal of a 17th century Benedictine monk?” Anna asked.

“Also called “The Golden Record”, yes, that is their quarry,” Sarah said.

“That’s not the title the Index had it under,” Connie said.

“It wasn’t the journal’s original title,” Sarah side. “An aquan scholar in 1850 catalogued it as that after they discovered that it contained a recipe for the Elixir of Life.”

“The Elixir of Life? Are you sure this is the same book as the journal Brother Davos wrote?” Connie asked.

“According to Brother Davos it is,” Sarah said.

“But the Brother Davos we’re looking for never wrote any other books,” Connie said.

“Correct. I didn’t say according to Brother Davos’ writing though,” Sarah said.

“You’ve spoken with the Benedictine personally?” Anna asked.

“He’s the one I’m retrieving the journal for,” Sarah said.

“Then the Elixir works? I thought there were fundamental issues with creating immortality potions?” Anna asked.

“There are, and the recipe in the book isn’t what it claims to be,” Sarah said. “Brother Davos is not immortal, but he is sequestered in a pocket realm which is out of sync with our time. For him the year is still 1683 and it has only been a week since his journal was lost.”

“How does Santiago factor into this?” Connie asked.

“He knows the book is supposed to possess the secret to eternal life,” Sarah said. “He thinks he can make it work because he thinks he knows how to find the original cipher for some of the coded sections in it.”

“He would think this because?” Anna asked.

“Over the centuries the journal has changed hands hundreds of times,” Sarah said. “Brother Davos didn’t put a curse on it, but between the magics he wrote into it and the ceaseless travels he undertook, the book wasn’t well suited to staying put. The most recent possessors tried to fix that by binding it to their minds, which meant it was impractical to reclaim it without their awareness. Santiago Martin didn’t care about that and was more than willing to run through the traps and snares that were laid out guarding the book once he was shown the right bait. That then made it easier to follow along and snatch the Golden Record from his grasp at the last moment.”

“Who were the previous possessors of the book?” Anna asked.

“A sect of Mind Devourers,” Sarah said. “They’re not usually able to enter this plane, except being bound to the book means when its here a part of them is as well, and the rest can follow.”

“Mind Devourers?” Connie asked. “And they’re coming here?”

“They’re already here, in a sense,” Sarah said. “They’re waiting on the psychic plane, clawing at the walls between worlds. At sundown the walls will thin and they will be able to surge through to claim vengeance on those who took what wasn’t the Devourer’s possession in the first place. Not that the distinction matters to them.”

“Why didn’t Santiago take the book from you when he captured you?” Anna asked.

“I don’t have the Golden Record,” Sarah said. From her pocket she drew forth a small mirror. “She does.”

She turned the mirror to face Anna and in its surface Connie saw Sarah’s reflection, which should have been impossible given the angle, holding an ancient tome, which Sarah clearly didn’t possess.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 5 – Act 2

Connie hated remote controls. As the nadir of human design efforts, they represented a breed of device that tested the patience of even the most tech savvy of users. Tam, being considerate of her new teammate, had thought ahead however and rigged a more user friendly version of the standard remote by ripping off the keys which were never going to serve a useful purpose. That left only a few keys on the remote Connie was expected to control the various projectors and monitors she had at her disposal for the meeting, which made the whole presentation a more manageable problem.

“This is an impressive amount of information you’ve compiled on someone who we know nothing about,” Anna said, gesturing to the thick packet of information Connie had placed in front of them all.

“Thank you,” Connie said. “I know it’s probably too much to read through, so I thought we’d go through the summary page on top and you could ask questions from there. The rest of the packet is in case you need help falling asleep on the flight out.”

“Where are we going to be flying?” Val asked, skimming through the packet more care and attention to it than Connie had expected.

“Madrid,” Connie said. “At least if you all agree with the research I did.”

“I can promise you her research is solid,” Tam said. “These dossiers are bigger than the ones I usually give because she tracked down a ton of things I don’t usually look for.”

“We know so little about what’s actually going on I felt like I had to go pretty far afield,” Connie said.

“Why don’t you bring us up to speed then,” Anna said. “I gather that our previous mission included locating several individuals who were afflicted with an unusual disease?”

“The Living Husk effect is a curse rather than a disease, which means we can’t rely on the usual medical options for affecting a cure,” Connie said. “Instead we have to turn to the supernatural. I can claim I’ve brushed up against some magical things, but nothing like what you folks deal with regularly, so if I get any of the magic stuff wrong, please correct me.”

“No worries,” Tam said. “There’s a lot to take in there. I ask James to fact check for me all the time.”

“Ok, so, we’ve got about fifty seven people afflicted with a curse that they ingested when they were left to starve in a series of subterranean catacombs. The curse selectively shuts down their higher brain functions, and causes their bodies to appear withered, while at the same time sustaining them at full motor efficiency for an undetermined period without food, water, or sleep.”

“It sounds like that could have some useful applications,” Val said, looking up from the dossier.

“It could, if reversing the effect didn’t generally kill the victim,” Connie said. “But, thanks to Tam’s index, we’ve found a viable recipe for fixing the condition. Or rather we’ve got a line on a book which has a recipe like that. The only problem is that the book is lost.”

“Can we find another copy of it somewhere?” Val asked.

“According to the index? No,” Connie said. “The book we’re looking for was the personal journal of a Benedictine monk, and wizard, who traveled to New World in the 1600s. While there he roamed a lot farther than any official explorers traveled, and encountered the Living Husks during his passage across the Andes. His guides though they were a bad omen and confused them with a number of different demons and monsters, but Brother Davos saw the humanity that remained in the husks and managed to create a cure for the condition.”

“He didn’t leave any record of it?” Val asked.

“It’s not a strictly nature cure. The summary didn’t list much beyond the fact the meal requires a skilled wizard to prepare. Being a Benedictine monk, Brother Davos wasn’t terribly interested in spreading around the idea that he could also work magic, so the original journal is the only copy of the cure that the index knows of.”

“Does the index have a listing of all the books that have been made?” Val asked.

“No,” Tam said. “It’s only interested in books that contain information on magic and even then it’s far from complete. If a book’s not registered with the index directly, or recorded in a ledger the index can access, the index won’t have any connection to it. So there might be another copy of Brother Davos’ journal out there, there might even be a hundred, but we’ve got no leads on them if so.”

“That’s about typical isn’t it?” Val said and went back to reading.

“Fortunately we do have a lead on this copy,” Connie said. “It’s lost!”

“That sounds less like a lead and more like the definition of the absence of one,” Anna said. Connie expected her to look at Tam, but Anna didn’t. She was focused solely on Connie.

“I would agree, but the index knows where all of the books it catalogues are,” Connie said. “So a book that’s ‘lost’ wouldn’t be listed in the index, unless the book itself wasn’t lost, meaning it’s owner knows where it is. The lost designation doesn’t refer to the book therefore, it refers to the owner. Or at least that’s what I was able to piece together after talking with the book for a while.”

“They’re lost in Madrid?” Val asked.

“Yep, and since it’s kind of hard to be lost in a city these days, we had to look for another explanation beside ‘they’re roaming around the streets in a drunken stupor’,” Connie said. “It turns out asking the right questions is enough for the Index to solve that particular riddle.”

“You asked it what other books the owner had and where they were?” Val guessed.

“That was my first thought, although that didn’t give me the answer we were looking for,” Connie said. “It turns out they own books in several cities around the world. Kind of a disturbing number in fact.”

“Why disturbing?” Anna asked.

“Anyone wealthy enough to have multiple homes around the world should be wealthy enough to afford a smartphone with GPS to tell them how to get where they need to go,” Connie said. “A more likely alternative, in light of their wealth, was the possibility of their being kidnapped, possibly for ransom, or possibly for something relating to the book, since its apparently still with them.”

“Easy enough to believe,” Anna said. “Though Madrid’s not a particularly common spot for kidnappings to occur.”

“Only takes one to mess up a given person’s day,” Val said.

“It gets weirder,” Connie said. “The houses where the owner stores their other books don’t actually exist. At least not on this Earth.”

“And this is where we usually call in James,” Val said.

“Yep, he’s still working on tracking down what the story is with our missing person’s homes,” Connie said. “Since I couldn’t help with that, I kept digging and that’s how I turned up Madrid. See the other thing the index could do is say which book is closest to the book you’re asking about. I think it usually answers that in terms of content – basically suggesting a book that’s most like the one you asked about. In this case though it was able to tell us the closest physical book to the one we need, hence why we’re going to Madrid.”

“How precise was the index able to be?” Anna asked.

“I have a street address and apartment number,” Connie said.

“Jimmy B has our tickets ready I presume?” Anna asked.

“Two tickets for the next flight out and as many as we need for the one after that,” Tam said.

“Excellent. Connie, you’re with me. Let’s find our missing book and its owner,” Anna said.

***

The Madrid-Barajas Airport took more time to leave than it had taken the inbound flight to get there, though in a large part that was because both Anna and Connie made separate stops to help English speaking tourists navigate the confusion of one of the world’s largest international airports.

In one case, a bus load of children from New Jersey had somehow managed to get separated from their chaperones. The children weren’t displeased with this but the chaperones were in a panic until Anna helped them communicate with the airport staff. Reuniting with the children was more time consuming than expected as a resourceful young boy had taken it on himself to arrange transportation to their hotel, reasoning that the chaperones would find them there and it would be a fun joke to be the first to arrive.

The chaperones saw the matter in a somewhat less amusing light. With Anna’s help the found the children just as they were boarding a private shuttle which was being billed to one of the chaperones credit cards.

The other delay involved Connie playing translator for a group of women heading to a fabric arts tour of Spain. The customs official wasn’t happy with the crafting implements they brought and thought their story was suspicious until Connie was able to convey that they weren’t looking to travel around the countryside stabbing interesting people but rather looking for locally produced fabrics they could bring samples of back for their various projects.

“Now for a long slow drive into the city,” Connie said as they stepped into the car rental agency where Jimmy B had a vehicle waiting for them.

“Don’t worry about that,” Anna said. “I know a shortcut.”

***

Connie didn’t get motion sick. As far as she knew she was biologically incapable of experiencing motion sickness due to a quirk in how her inner ears worked. That still seemed to be true, but it didn’t really help make Anna’s driving any less terrifying.

“I get to drive back,” she said as she staggered out the car.

“Certainly,” Anna said, hiding a small smile. “If we wind up having a car to drive.”

“Why wouldn’t we have a car?” Connie asked.

“These sort of affairs tend to end unpredictably,” Anna said. “I like to avoid making assumptions, or getting my hopes up.”

“Fair enough,” Connie said, examining the building they’d parked beside. It was a newer structure for the road it was on, having been remodeled within the last six months from what Connie’s research turned up.

The remodeling had cost a small fortune. Since it’s owner had several large fortunes that hadn’t proved to be a problem, but Connie had to question his taste. The accents and styling of the buildings sharp angles and harsh color palette screamed of a need to be noticed and recognized as special in the same manner than a five year old might make that demand.

“It’s nice to see that Santiago hasn’t changed in the last twenty years,” Anna said, clicking the automatic locks on the car as she headed towards the front door.

“I still can’t believe that you know Santiago Martin,” Connie said. “Or that he’s the one who owns this place. I was only able to track it back to a holding company.”

“Santiago has a complicated relationship with taxes and personal liability,” Anna said. “When I knew him, he was still creating the layers of isolation that were required to allow him retain the phenomenal wealth he’d inherited.”

“You said you worked in finance before being part of the club. Is that how you knew him?” Connie asked.

“No, we met through a mutual friend who thought we would hit it off,” Anna said. “Nothing ever came of it though. Santiago was charming, but not the right kind of charming I’m afraid.”

“Will he remember you?” Connie asked.

“I should hope so,” Anna said. “If not for me he’d be in a Polish prison still.”

“What had he done wrong then?” Connie asked.

“Not kidnapping,” Anna said. “Which means if he has indeed abducted our book owner, this will be a new venture for him, but it seems out of character for the man I knew.”

She knocked on the door and the speaker next to it squawked to life.

“Yes?” a burly voice asked in Catalan.

“We’re here to see Santiago,” Anna said. “Please tell him Anna Ilyina and a guest are here.”

“One minute,” the man said.

Precisely sixty seconds later the door opened. Inside stood three armed men with automatic weapons pointing at Anna.

“Oh good, he does remember me,” she said.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 5 – Act 1

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.”

“Yep.”

“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.”

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep4 – Act 4

Connie focused on the gun pointed in her direction. It was hard not to since the man behind it seemed all too eager to pull the trigger.

“Looks like we might be about to have some fun right now,” Val said. The swagger in her voice broke Connie’s gaze free from the threat of death that was pointing at them.

Val was smiling.

She was relaxed.

For a moment, Connie wondered if she knew the men who had found them, but then she saw the leers on the men’s faces. This wasn’t a friendly encounter, and it was going to end quite badly.

Connie smile and relaxed as well. Bad situations were her stock in trade.

“How many do you want?” she asked Val. There were a total of five men with rifles they could see in the passageway that led away from the bridge they were standing on. The corridor took a turn where the man farthest back was standing though, which suggested there could be more waiting around the corner.

Connie rather hoped there were.

“Three or four,” Val said, cracking her knuckles. “If that’s not being too greedy?”

Val clearly wanted to take a crack at all of them men in front of them. Or was it crack all of the men in front of them? Connie couldn’t picture things being resolved without a plethora of broken bones.

“That’ll be fine,” Connie said, gauging which of their opponents she would be able to get to first.

Since the men hadn’t opened fire the moment they saw Val and Connie, getting into striking range could have been as easy as letting the men come to them. Val’s words suggested she had something else in mind though, and as far as Connie was concerned, anyone who could appear out of nowhere in a forgotten dungeon in an inaccessible area of the Peruvian Andes was owed the benefit of the doubt in terms of being able to handle a bunch of half drunk guys who didn’t look like they could spell “gun” much less use one.

“Pretty girl thinks she can handle us?” the biggest guy said. “You can’t handle nothing, I’ll make you…”

Connie never got to hear what the guy was going to make Val do. There was a thundercrack that shook the bridge and swallowed the meaty, shattering sound of the leader’s rifle being slammed into his face hard enough to fracture his jaw into millimeter long bone fragments.

Val was standing beside him. She’d moved in the blink of an eye to close the distance and engage with their foes. Connie wasn’t sure how that was possible, but she wasn’t about to object to it either.

A band of disciplined men might have reacted properly to an enemy appearing in the midst. With coordinated fire, they could have caught Val with a few rounds and started to turn the tide in their favor. A bullet wound or two might not have killed her but it would certainly have slowed her down. Even a simple retreat might have bought them the time they needed, as the silver fire of the magic Val unleashed was sputtering out as fast as it had flared up.

The hired goons were not a disciplined fighting force though, which wasn’t surprising. They weren’t hired for for their skills or aptitude. Their value came from the facts that they asked no questions about their assignments and were willing to hurt, maim, or kill when ordered, without complaint. Even more importantly though, they were loyal, and would take that loyalty to the grave if need be (mostly because they knew they would wind up in the grave if they proved disloyal and being dead with their pride was better than being dead without it.)

Fortunately for them neither Val nor Connie were going to make them choose between loyalty and death. Unfortunately for the men, that wasn’t a kindness. Kindness was for later, when their lives were no longer endangered.

The leader with the shattered jaw blacked out from the pain and the severe head and neck trauma the strike to his face caused. He would recover but it would take over a year and he would never again be able to hold a gun due to the damage his hands suffered. While he recuperated, a missionary would visit him every day and read to him. Theirs would become a lifelong friendship which would eventually lead to the broken jawed leader taking up vows and living a life of service.

The rest of the men suffered similar fates, though their long term prospects differed based on their ability to take the chances life offered them.

The second biggest man fired his rifle the moment Val struck but it was pointing up at the ceiling. He hadn’t meant to keep it clear of his friends, but luck was on his side. It was somewhat less lucky that the unexpected recoil made him drop the rifle and that as he bent down to grab it he met Val’s rising knee with his face and then her descending elbow with the back of his head.

That took the fight out of him by virtue of shutting off his consciousness for a long enough period that the fight was quite over by the time he opened his eyes. He could, at that point, have risen and charged after them, but the head trauma and unconsciousness left him weak and nauseous to the point where laying down and trying not to fall off the swirling ground was an overwhelmingly agreeable option.

His recovery was faster, in part because he moved back home to be with his family, and spent long enough feeling lost and confused that he was willing to listen, at last, to what his grandmother had to say. The life that him found after that as a fruit seller lacked the action he desired as a youth, so he supplemented it by opening a boxing gym, though he never got in the ring himself, prefering to coach and guide people the way his grandmother had guided him back onto the path of charity of the soul.

The third, fourth, and fifth guards were all in range to strike back at Val after her initial onslaught and she only had two hands to brush their guns aside with. As Val had planned though, Connie was there.

As the guard to Val’s right rushed to get his rifle pointed at her, and not at his two friends, Connie stepped up and caught him with an open hand chop to the throat.

He tried to gasp for air but couldn’t. He tried to look for help, but his eyes were streaming with tears from the pain. He collapsed to his knees and shivered at the icy clutch of death that gripped his heart, but he didn’t perish.

The strike to his throat didn’t crush his larynx. In another moment he was able to draw breath, though that was the moment after Connie landed a crushing hammerblow to the his temple.

Val dispatched the remaining guards with simple Muay Thai kicks and elbow strikes, limiting the permanent damage she did, but ensuring that each blow would cause a debilitating amount of pain.

The three guards would recover and later try to find employment together, working as hired thugs again, until the youngest of them was shot. It was a wound that should have been fatal, the bullet passing through his left lung and grazing his heart, but thanks to a miracle of surgical skill, the young man pulled through. The other two were shocked to discover how much the cared for their young friend, and how little interest they retained in lives that could only end in violence. With their prayers answered by his recovery, the three fled across the Pacific and became the crew of their own fishing boat based out of Vietnam. The youngest married one of the locals and together they all formed an unusual but supportive little family.

“We should get going,” Val said once the five men in the corridor and the three around the corner were down.

“What is with these guys?” Connie asked. “Where did they come from?”

“Funny story that,” Val said, leading them downwards as best she could. “From what Tam told me, there were apparently people who found these ruins before you did.”

“Why didn’t they publish anything about their find? This whole place is a goldmine!” Connie said.

“Not for the kind of gold they wanted,” Val said. “See it turns out that hidden ruins that no one knows about are a great place to stockpile all sorts of illegal things.”

“But the treasures here are literally priceless!” Connie didn’t try to lower her voice even though she knew it would be far wiser to.

“It’s old pots and funny scribbles on the walls from what they can see,” Val said. “Or it mostly is. The catacombs they have some serious respect for.”

“The ones they put us in? Why’s that?” Connie asked.

“They’ve observed that if you stick someone inside the catacombs they eventually turn into living husks,” Val said. “Let them out after they’re fully turned and you’ve got a mindless but highly obedient workforce who can never answer questions or incriminate anyone.”

“That’s what they intended to do to us? Wait, that’s what’s happening to Joe and Tam?” Connie asked.

“Nah, the husking process is an effect of eating the glowing fungus down there. Without any other food, people trapped in the catacombs eventually turn to that and it turns them into the things you saw.”

“Can they be turned back?” Connie asked.

“Tam thinks so, but it’s not necessarily easy, especially not if the guys running this place catch wind of it. If they think these people can speak about what’s been done to them then the only option for keeping the husks silent will be to kill all of them.”

“How do we stop that from happening?” Connie asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and I’m guessing they have a lot more guys than those eight.”

“Yeah, there’s a small army here,” Val said. “Fortunately, we have an answer for that. Our first step though is to rescue Tam and Joe.”

The trip down to the lower bridge involved only three more brawls, but each one raised the time pressure they were under in Connie’s mind. Sooner or later, probably much sooner, someone would notice the pile of unconscious bodies they were leaving in their wake and then a general alarm would be raised.

For as amazing a fighter as Val looked to be, and even with her own bare knuckle prowess added to that, Connie was reasonably certain that they couldn’t beat an entire army on their own.

“You said you needed my help earlier?” Connie asked when they reached the right level for the catacombs.

“Yeah, Tam’s our info person and she’s a bit overworked,” Val said. “We’re hoping you’ll agree to join us and take some of the load off her.”

“I’ve already got a job though,” Connie said.

“So does she,” Val said. “Associates can pursue their own interests in addition to working for the Second Chance Club. Oh, though in your case? Your old job might not be something you want to go back to.”

“Why?” Connie asked, her eyes narrowing.

“You know how the private library you work for helped fund your expedition? Well, it turns out they were hoping you’d fail and declare this area clear of any interesting ruins.”

“That’s not quite how things work, but why would they do that?”

“They’re kind of in league with the cartel that’s running this place,” Val said. “The articles that you found that led you here? Those weren’t supposed to be published, but it happened and now they’re trying to limit the damage done to their operation.”

“They expected me to fail?”

“The coordinates you originally had were a bit off,” Val said. “Apparently they thought you’d give up before you went too far afield and found the stuff they didn’t want you to see.”

“Yeah, but I told them about our breakthrough,” Connie said. “I…oh…I told them that we’d discovered we weren’t at the right digsite, but that we’d find the right coordinates and that we’d be moving the exploration tomorrow.”

“And that’s when they sent in the goons,” Val said, leading them over the bridge to the vault.

“Note to self: resign with extreme prejudice when I get back,” Connie said.

“What does that mean?” Val asked.

“I’m not sure yet, I think I’ll just get creative when the time comes.”

“Looks like we’ll need a bit of creativity now,” Val said, stopping before the vault door. “I was kind of hoping this would be easier to open from this side.”

“Oh, it is,” Connie said.

“You can crack safes?” Val asked.

“It’s a hobby,” Connie said. “I’ve got a lot of hobbies.”

She stepped up to the vault door and with a dramatic flourish, pulled on its handle and watched it slide effortlessly open.

“The lock wasn’t engaged,” she said. “You can’t open it from the otherside if it’s closed but from this side all you’ve got to do is pull.”

“Darn,” Tam said. “I could have used a bit more practice time. How did it go getting here?”

“Only hit a few guards,” Val said. “Plenty left though.”

“Yeah, you said there’s an army of them, but we had an answer for that?” Connie asked.

“That we do,” Tam said and whistled.

From the quickness with which she stepped aside Connie was convinced to make room so the door would be clear. That proved to be a fantastic idea as a moment later a giant pack of wolves came charging out of the darkness and out towards the ruins Val and Connie had just snuck through.

Or not a giant pack of wolves but rather a pack of giant wolves. Or both? And were some of them a bit more bipedal than a wolf really should be?

“This is going to sound crazy, but were those werewolves?” Connie asked.

“Yeah, and funny thing, the army upstairs? They’re not packing silver bullets. I checked,” Val said.

“Let’s get you folks and the Living Husks to safety,” Tam said.

“But what about all of relics?” Connie asked, horror struck at the idea of the artifacts being collateral damage.

“Oh, most of the werewolves are archaeologists,” Tam said. “They’ll take care that nothing’s damaged too badly.”

“They’re what now?” Connie asked.

“Archaeologists, I mean anyone can have a hobby right?”