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Francesca did not realize she had used an indefinite pronoun until it began to kill her patient.
Someone, no one knew who, had brought the young woman into the infirmary with an unknown curse written around her lungs. Francesca had cast several golden sentences into her patient's chest, hoping to disspell the malicious text. Had it gone well, she would have pulled the curse out of the woman's mouth.
But the curse's style had been robust, and one of Francesca's mistakenly ambiguous pronouns had pushed the curse from the girl's lungs to her heart. There, the spiteful text had bound the once-beating organ into silence.
Now plummeting toward death, the girl bleated a final cry.
Francesca looked around the solarium and saw only white walls and a window looking out onto the city of Avel. Voices of other medical spellwrights sounded from down the hallway; they were also working to save patients wounded by the recent lycanthrope attack on the city walls. Both the infirmary and the neighboring sanctuary were in crisis, and so Francesca was alone.
To her horror, Francesca's first reaction was relief that no one had seen her mistake.
She turned to her patient. The girl's wide green eyes had dilated to blackness. Her distended neck veins betrayed no pulse.
Francesca's fingers tingled. This couldn't be happening. She never made mistakes, never used indefinite pronouns.
The patient had been able to whisper her name when the curse was still on her lungs. Now Francesca addressed the young woman: "Deirdre, stay with me."
Francesca could not see the curse; it was written in a language she did not know. But the golden countercurse she had cast now visualized the malicious text that spellbound the young woman's heart.
Invasive action was needed.
Spellwrights created magical runes in their muscles; presently, Francescaused those in her left forearm to write a few silvery sentences that glowed on her skin. With her right hand, she pulled the spell free. It folded into a short, precise blade.
Francesca moved with confidence. She was a remarkably tall woman, lithe, clothed in a wizard's black robe and cleric's red stole. Both her long hair and wide eyes were very dark brown, making her pale features more striking. An illiterate would think she had maybe thirty years. A spellwright would know she had twice as many.
With her left hand, Francesca tore off her patient's blouse. Deirdre's smooth olive complexion, small chin, and raven hair indicated her youth. Yet there was something mature in the creases around her eyes.
Just then the floor shook and the wooden rafters chirped--a small earthquake possibly, or the blast from another lycanthropic attack. Somewhere in the infirmary or the adjacent sanctuary a man wailed.
Francesca laid her left hand on Deirdre's shoulder. As a physician, she shuddered--cold, and full of doubt. Then she leapt into the safety of action.
After a few steady cuts, she lifted Deirdre's small breast upward to expose the lattice of bone and muscle. The next cut ran between the fifth and sixth ribs, starting at the sternum and traveling around to the spine. The blood that flowed was bright red. Encouraging. Darker, slower blood would have confirmed death.
Francesca pried the ribs apart and extemporized a spell to hold them open.
The distant wailing grew more urgent.
"Deirdre, stay with me," Francesca commanded as she slipped her hands into the girl's chest and found her heart. Francesca held her breath as she pulled off the malicious sentences.
The floor shook again. A second and then a third voice joined the wailing.
Francesca bit her lip and unraveled the curse's last sentence. The heart swelled with blood but did not beat. Francesca began to rhythmically squeeze the organ with her hand. She was about to call for help when the heart began to squirm.
It felt like a bag full of writhing worms.
"God-of-gods," Francesca whispered. When a heart was denied blood, its once-coordinated action might expire into a chaos of separate spasms.
She continued to compress the heart. But each time she squeezed, the writhing lessened. The muscles were fading into death.
Francesca did not stop, could not stop.
More voices had joined the wailing, which rose and fell in an eerie tempo. Though almost musical, the wailing was wholly unlike the devotional songs the Spirish people sang during daily worship.
Some new crisis was sweeping through the infirmary or the sanctuary. Perhaps more wounded citizens had come in from the lycanthrope attack. Perhaps one of the lycanthrope spellwrights had even breached Avel's walls despite the daylight.
But Francesca didn't care about any of that. Her hands had gone cold. Her legs trembled. She was leaning on her patient. The world dissolved into a blur of tears.
The girl's heart was still.
"Creator, forgive me," Francesca whispered and withdrew her hands. "I'm sorry." A painful tingling now enveloped her fingers. "I'm so ... so sorry."
She bowed her head and closed her eyes. Time became strange to her. She'd always been proud of her ability to prognosticate--to look forward into patients' lives and anticipate their chances of cure, their moments of danger. But she had not foreseen Deirdre's death; it seemed to jolt her out of time, out of her own body.
For a moment it felt as if she were someone else, as if she were standing in the doorway and looking at the physician who had just killed her patient. In this dissociated state, she felt both safe and profoundly numb.
But then she was back in her own body, blinking through tears. She had not wept before a patient, alive or dead, for time out of mind. But now she had used the wrong word, a damned indefinite pronoun. Now her carelessness had killed.
Hot self-hatred flashed through her. She bit down on her lip.
Then, as suddenly as it came, her anger vanished, and she remembered her last day at the clerical academy in Port Mercy. She had asked her mentor for parting advice. The ancient physician had smiled tightly and said, "Kill as few patients as possible."
The young Francesca had laughed nervously.
Now, standing beside the first patient she had killed, she laughed at the memory, could not stop laughing. The strange hilarity was like gas bubbling out of her. Kill as few patients as possible. It was suddenly, terrifyingly hilarious.
Gradually her laughter died, and she felt hollow.
Around her, the infirmary resounded with wailing. She took a long breath. Other patients needed her. She had to counterfeit composure until true composure came. By extemporizing a few absorbing paragraphs, she cleaned the blood from her hands.
The floor shook again. "Is he loose?" someone whispered.
Startled, she looked toward the door. No one was there.
The whisperer spoke again, "Is he loose already?"
Francesca turned around. No one was in the solarium, and nothing butminarets and the alleyways of Avel were visible out the window. The hallway? Empty.
A weak groan. "He'll be here soon. Help me up."
Suddenly Francesca understood who was speaking, and her own heart seemed to writhe like a bag of worms.
She looked down at Deirdre, at the being she had mistaken for a mortal woman.
"You're an avatar?" Francesca whispered. "A member of the Celestial Canon?"
"Avatar, yes. Canonist, no," Deirdre corrected, pulling her bloody blouse over her now miraculously intact and scarless chest. "Sacred goddess, I forgot the shock of coming back."
Francesca stepped away. "What the burning hells is happening?"
The immortal woman looked at her. "A demon named Typhon has invested part of his soul into me. He won't let me die."
"Won't ..." Francesca echoed, " ... let you die?"
The other woman kneaded her temples. "I'm Typhon's rebellious slave. The bastard can control most of what I do unless I find a way to kill myself. Given my restraints, self-assassination takes a bit of ingenuity. But if I can off myself, I win roughly half an hour of freedom after revival." She smiled at Francesca. "Today, my creative method of suicide was you."
Relief swept through Francesca. "You set me up? It was impossible to disspell that curse on your lungs?"
The other woman pressed a hand to her sternum and winced. "Not impossible; a few master clerics have managed it over the years. I'm always heartbroken when they save my life."
The hollowness returned to Francesca's chest. Failure. She had killed a patient after all. Despite sacrificing most of her life to medicine, she still wasn't a master.
Deirdre closed her eyes and quirked a half smile. "It's sweet to be free again. Almost intoxicating." She shivered as if in pleasure but then opened her eyes and grew serious. "Now that I've come for you, so will he."
Francesca took a step back. Nothing felt real. She laughed in disbelief. "I'm sorry ... but ... could you excuse me for just a moment? I'm punishing myself for killing you by going completely out of my bloody mind."
"You are Cleric Francesca DeVega?"
"Oh, I was a cleric until a moment ago when I went as crazy as a spring hare."
Deirdre frowned. "Have I pushed you too far? Forgive me. I shouldn't be so glib. You have a reputation for ... bravado."
Francesca laughed. "To hell with 'bravado'; I'll tell a superior he's an arroganthack if he's harming my patient. But now that my shoddy prose has killed, I--"
"Cleric," the other woman interrupted. "You were meant to fail. If you hadn't, I wouldn't be free. I'm sorry I pushed you. But right now, I need to break the demon's hold on you. Around your left ankle there is a fine silver chain. Show it to me."
Francesca blinked. "What?"
"On your left foot, there's an anklet. Show it to me."
"My lady avatar, with all due respect, I don't even own a God-of-gods damned anklet."
"Just show me your left foot," the woman said and pointed. "Now."
"You can't seriously ... oh, what the hell, here look." She pulled off her leather slipper and wool sock before lifting up her leg. She wore nothing on her foot but a few freckles. "See, my lady, there's nothing on WHAT IN THE BURNING HELLS IS THAT?"
Deirdre had reached out and unclasped a thin silver chain from Francesca's ankle. The semidivine woman now held it out. "I'm not a spellwright. I don't know how, but it prevents its wearer from sensing it. Typhon was using it to keep you in Avel. If you had tried to leave the city, it would have rendered you unconscious. Or maybe something worse. I'm not sure. Here, take it."
Francesca stared at the anklet as if it were a viper. "This can't be happening. And ... and what would a demon possibly want with me?" Her voice cracked on the last word.
Deirdre grimaced. "He wants to use your skills as a physician to help force a powerful spellwright to convert."
"Convert to what?"
"To the demon's cause. Look, I'll explain what I know as soon as we are somewhere safer, but now hurry and take the anklet." Deirdre was still holding the silver chain out. Her arm was trembling. "I haven't yet regained my strength. There's a nonmagical anklet on my left foot. Put it on your own foot. That way if a demonic agent catches you, he might think you are still bound."
Francesca started. She took the offered anklet, tucked it into her belt purse, and then found an identical one on her patient. After removing the chain, she fastened it around her own left ankle and discovered the skin around her ankle had grown calluses where the chain would have rubbed against it. In a few places, she had small scars where the anklet's clasp might have cut her. She must have been wearing the undetectable anklet for a very long time. For years perhaps.
Deirdre cleared her throat. "Do I have your attention now, cleric?"
"More than anyone else ever has," Francesca answered faintly.
"Good. I have an agent waiting on the street to take that anklet and hide it ..." Her voice trailed off as the floor trembled and the wailing surged. "Damn it all!" she swore.
"What is it?" Francesca asked. Suddenly, orange flashes speckled her vision. Again the floor shook. This time the ceiling rafters chirped and the wailing grew even louder.
Deirdre's dark face paled. "He's never gotten so close so fast." She beckoned Francesca to come closer. "Carry me. Quickly now, the aphasia's begun. My agents on the ground will be compromised. This is horrible. We must go before the beast arrives."
"Before ... whom ... before who arrives?" Francesca found it difficult to speak. The ideas were clear in her mind, but the words for them escaped her intellect. The orange flashes dancing before her eyes were growing brighter.
"Hear that wailing?" Deirdre asked. "He's touched those minds. They have thoughts but not words. It's called aphasia. You're beginning to feel it; you're slightly aphasic already. Now, unless we flee before he arrives, you may never speak a clear word again."
"H-him?" Francesca stuttered at the bedside. "The demon?"
More voices joined the wailing and began to rise and fall in an eerie cacophony of call and answer.
"Not Typhon, another slave. One I wanted to trap with that anklet. But my agents on the street are as good as dead. The beast has never moved this fast before. Damn me! We must flee before he enters the infirmary."
With difficulty, Francesca lifted Deirdre from the table. Her eyes could not focus. Deirdre wrapped her arms around Francesca's neck. The caterwauling rose into an ecstatic crescendo and then fell dead silent. The ground shook.
"Goddess, defend us," Deirdre whispered, tightening her arms around Francesca. "He's here."
Copyright © 2011 by Blake Charlton