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.