Elvia completed the cantrip without the need for somatic components, freeing her hands to direct her Spirit and her Familiar. Across the operating table, her machine-nurse, Rosemary, a low-tier healer trained in offering support to her betters, watched with mouth half-open as she went about a two-surgeon operation solo.
Presently, Kiki, her Alraune, kept their patient well-sedated and securely tethered to the table with a proliferation of tendrils.
"Wound looks clean," Elvia spoke to her imaginary co-surgeon. She was used to operating without aides-de-camp. Things had not been easy at GOS since Director Astor left to pursue her political venture, nor were they better here at Nightingale. In the beginning, she had moped in Sylvie's arms, but over time, she grew accustomed to the cold shoulders. If anything, she considered the proliferation of low-tier Mages and NoMs assigned to her a badge of honour. Her lack of malpractice had annoyed the blue-bloods to no end, but there was little else her bullies could do in case Lady Astor materialised again to enact a new round of Purges.
A gentle suffusion overcame her patient's open wound, a broken femur resulting from a drunken, late-night meeting with a taxi.
Elvia focused the viridescent vitality gathered near her fingers. "Sen-sen, follow my lead."
With her right hand, she directed the Ginseng's prehensile whiskers to remove the debris still embedded in the flesh. Sen-sen wasn't as skilled as Kiki, who was experienced by now, but as her Familiar, its Empathic Link guaranteed ease of communication. Concurrently, with her left, Elvia stabbed at the ruined flesh with jolts of healing energy.
A thrill coursed through Elvia's veins as she conjoined the broken bone. Simply put, it was a pleasure to heal.
Underneath her steady lay-on-hands, the man moaned as the tissue of his thighs rapidly began to regenerate. The itch that resulted from magical healing, no matter how repressed, was something that tugged at the soul.
"Ma'am." The nurse offered a sheet of gauze.
Elvia glanced up. A curious anomaly the Ginseng's vitality effected was the ability to uplift a certain offensive organ. In Oriental medicine, the plant was considered "Yang", which Elvia took to mean vigorous.
"... Sen-sen, lower the dosage. Rosemary, can you cover that up? It's in the way."
"Beginning suture," she informed the machine-nurse. "Kiki, keep him still."
A glamour from Kiki was enough to send the man back into the void for another five minutes.
The machine-nurse obediently handed over one tool after another. Elvia threaded the hair-thin tendril generated by her Ginseng Familiar through the incision, well-practised after hundreds of sutured bananas, grapes, and NoMs. Once in motion, her hands moved like little white butterflies, working the wound to see the dermis restored.
"Good. We're done. Please clean up." Elvia withdrew her Familiars. "Heart-rate is depressed. Blood Pressure normal. Blood oxygen saturation is holding. Thanks, Rose. Give him a 5mmg Remove Disease immuno-infusion once he's settled."
"My pleasure, Dr Lindholm." The machine-nurse wiped the blood from the patient's leg, revealing only a pink scar. The perfection of the heal was enough to draw a gasp. "Ma'am, how did you do that?"
"Practice?" Elvia stepped back with both hands raised. "Sterilise! — Okay, I am going to make a cuppa, yourself?"
"I'll keep an eye on the patient."
With her heart still singing, she ducked into the break room, where already, a big jug of English Breakfast simmered on the stove. She poured herself a cup, added milk and sugar, then checked her Message band.
Six missed Messages. But Elvia didn't much feel like returning them.
Under the pale hospital light, she began to mull.
Her resounding success with her present patients had thoroughly validated the Yinglong's generosity. Sen-sen was an amazing boon to her Affinity in more ways than one. Never in her life, never in any medical books, had she heard of a newly-bonded Spirit Familiar having both high-ability and unwavering obedience. For instance, though her Alraune followed her lead, communication errors, disagreements and incomprehension of context often resulted in less than sterling results. With Sen-sen however, she had acquired a simulacrum, one with which she could generate as many pairs of helping hands as her concentration could muster.
The control, the finesse, the exactitude offered by Sen-sen was orgasmic compared to the primitive prodding afforded by vague fingers or rune-scripted surgical tools. As a practitioner of magical medicine, she could imagine a future where, if she possessed the knowledge, no injury was an obstacle. If a Mage wasn't dead on arrival, she could arguably keep their biometrics above the threshold. If they were— she could even enact the kiss-of-life Gwen had performed on Magister Walken.
But the blessing of restoration wasn't free, and for this Elvia could not help but envision Gwen's bitter face while she revealed her new patron.
Was her action a form of betrayal? Elvia had wondered after the fact.
To Gwen, perhaps. But not to herself.
Even without the Yinglong's divine intervention, she wanted the means to achieve her desire, one her mother, her uncle, and their parents had harkened after— the Hand of God. Given the opportunity, why shouldn't she resolutely accept the personal cost?
With complete empathy, she understood her companion's emotions— for all her vulnerability, Gwen's affection was like a rolling, all-consuming tide. And like a moody sea, Gwen was full of ebbs and flows, hiding a Kraken beneath her undertow.
She wanted to change the future, even though her patron said there was no diverting the Yangtze of fate. Whatever will happen— will happen, and the best a demi-god or she or anyone could do was fudging the details.
Who was to die?
Who was to live?
Who was to grieve?
It was a matter of delicacy.
If she were to beg the Oracle of Delphi, the Seeress would say that no matter the histronics, Troy would burn, Agamemnon would die, and Priam would be made mince.
But if an actor could stay Pyrrhus' wrath for just an hour, then perhaps a hundred souls could flee his coal-eyed rampage. If another could keep the gore-clad avenger pinned at the palace, maybe Polyxena may live, and possibly Polites' blood need not pollute Zeus' marbled palace.
That was the boon the Yinglong had offered her, a seed of subversion. She would be the stone to trouble the yellow river of predestination, even a little bit, and in exchange, she would be the Yinglong's Vessel to overlook the Calamity.
But why was Gwen the Calamity? Shouldn't the calamitous sorceress be Elizabeth Sobel? Already, the Void Witch had consumed whole cities, resulting in the death of untold thousands, consumed human and Demi-humans, maybe even Dragons, alike.
"Thy Sobel art merely a seed-spawned ivy strangling the princely trunk that once nourished her." The Yinglong's thoughts had boomed across the toiling firmament. "The Calamity is uncertainty, an anomaly, usurping the fate of others."
Sincerely, Elvia had begged for clarity, but the Yinglong spoke only in riddles, as was expected of a being older than the Nazarene— older than western civilisation. All it could promise was that when the time came, when the divergent rivulets of destiny coalesced over that fateful battlefield, she would make a choice, and it would matter.
That was the power which Sen-sen bestowed.
"Magnificent one, may I inform Gwen?" She had demanded of the Yinglong. "If she usurps fate, won't she be able to change the fate of millions?"
"Mayhap the Calamity will trouble the river more than most," the great voice reverberated within her skull. "But the burden of change art for thee to bear. If thou wilt dispose mine divine vision, then so be it."
It was an answer Elvia took to mean that if she changed enough of the future, then the exact location of the vision, as well as the participants involved, would change beyond recognition. Tianjin would fall, the Undead would rise, but she would not know where Percy was, or Gwen, or Richard, or Lulan, or Golos. What good then, would the foresight do? Who could she save?
"Great Dragon." She had taken as much liberty as she dared. "What does it mean that Gwen consumes the fate of others?"
"Thou should question thy Devourer" The Yinglong began to settle back into its long slumber. "Coax from thy Calamity the truth of her cruel conception, if thou would risk thine curiosity. But recall, Vessel, that thou art destined to restore mine child. This, thou wilt perform above all else."
It was a duty Elvia had promised to deliver, though presently, her mental map remained incomplete. So many questions remained from the vision. Why were they in China? What happened to Uncle Jun? Why did Percy, Gwen's coddled brother, turn into a monster? Why did fire, flood and Undead simultaneously unleash upon Tianjin?
"DR LINDHOLM, please respond." The crimson Message Glyph bloomed beside Elvia's ear. "You are needed in Emergency."
Elvia tipped her tea and disappeared her tea set into the Storage Ring Gwen had given her. She felt the weight of the Contingency Ring acutely on her ring finger as well, a symbolism her friend had not previously noticed, which had made her dejected for days.
"I am here!" Elvia saw the gurney before it arrived at her station. "What's the status?"
The machine-nurse passed over the data slate. "Code Orange. Spider Curse. Acute pulmonary interference. In situ Weiss-Hermann portable Ventilator via trach. Infusions of 5mg of Prilosec PAC, 1mg Stirgenix and 12mg Ipratropium compounded with 30-70 W-S."
Elvia's eyes browsed the transfer papers, then looked down at the patient, Magus William Fitzgerald of Kildare, holder of the Queen's Gallantry Cross. The man's body, what's left of it, was a sunken, sallow husk of a human being. For a Combat Mage to live so long and fruitfully from the 70s was itself a small miracle.
"He's unwell." Elvia replaced the slate, realising her higher-up's ploy. "Shall I ease his discomfort until the surgical team arrives?"
"No, Dr Lindholm. You are to heal him," the machine-nurse related the orders from the head surgeon with sparkling eyes. "Magus Fitzgerald is in your care, Dr Lindholm. Please confirm the handover and nominate your staff."
Elvia recognised the churlish tone. It told her more than she needed to know— more than the hidden condition of her patient, at any rate. Magus Fitzgerald was not likely going to survive his ordeal, not when the Spider-Curse required an open cardiothoracic operation involving individual manipulation of major organs. From what she could see, merely attempting a thoracotomy of the pleural cavity would put the Magus six-feet-under. Even if they managed, resuscitative efforts would likely fail due to the Magus' spent vitality.
She met the nurse's smug eyes.
"I see," Elvia confirmed the handover Glyph, then Messaged her colleague. "Dr Witherspoon?"
"Sorry, Elvia, I am a bit preoccupied here," came the reply a moment later. "Perhaps ask for someone from the ICU?"
Elvia rang a few more of her stationed colleagues, each providing an excuse or were occupied in actuality. Feeling a cold stab of ice in her chest, she considered her options. Some of the staff she could beg, some others she could commandeer. What she needed was someone to clarify her limited knowledge base.
If it weren't so soon since the new year, she could ask Sylvie.
Or if Emily had been here, her friend would bring a whole gaggle of healers, both senior and junior, who would grudgingly aid their mistress's "pet".
But Sylvia was away up north in Scotland, and Emily was back with her family. As for the other Doctors, they would only fight her if Kiki and Sen-sen took their place. In that case, Magus Fitzgerald was as good as dead.
"You," Elvia's lips pronounced as her eyes scanned over the self-satisfied handover nurse. Many of the senior nurses were more knowledgable than the doctors; what they lacked was magical talent. "You can be my assistant."
"… What?" the machine-nurse, whose name-tag read "Georgia Fields", spluttered. "I am Dr Hope's assistant."
"And now you're mine." Elvia pulled back her lips so that she showed teeth, a habit that Gwen often affected. "What's wrong? Magus Fitzgerald doesn't have time to squander."
"I…" The woman was sweating. Elvia knew the healer of middling-talent didn't have the authority to refuse her demand. Each Doctor had their assistants and aides not because of official assignment, but because of preference and habit. Whatever her excuse, the hospital's hierarchy was absolute. "I need to return to Magus Hope."
"Don't you want to save the Magus? The note here says he expects me to do my utmost. Well. Ergo, I command you to stay and aid me."
The woman gulped. "Who… else is with us?"
"No one." Elvia placed her hand on the forehead of her patient. "Its just you and me, nurse Fields."
"You're insane!" The woman's eyes widened. "You're trying to drag me down with you!"
"Am I?" Elvia cocked her head. "Is Magus Fitzgerald going to die?"
"No! But…" Her eyes darted back and forth.
"Follow me. Or not. It's our positions on the line." Elvia commanded. "Kiki!"
Her Alraune leapt from her pocket to rest atop the gurney. "Keep nurse Fields close, and keep Magus Fitzgerald sedated."
"Kiki!" The floral Sprite twirled, sprinkling the unique sorcery of her species over the weakly breathing Magus. A few more tendrils, green and wax with new buds, teased the machine-nurse.
"Bless! Aid!" Elvia bolstered the man's vitality.
On the diagnostic panel, the Magus' biometrics stabilised. It was a temporary boost, one that would fail as soon as the spell's duration rang out. Nonetheless, Elvia was confident Sen-sen's bolstered buffs could remain active for at least twenty-four hours— for such was the efficacy attained by having a demi-divinity strengthen one's access to the Positive Plane.
With Nurse Fields confused and tottering on the verge of blind panic behind her, Elvia savoured the peculiar satisfaction she felt for her tormentor's internal agony, wondering if this was what Gwen observed when Consuming her foes.
Soon, both passed the sterilising threshold of the operating theatre. Vivian, Elvia's former machine-nurse, appeared with a fresh supply of sanitised tools.
"You sit this one out, Rose," Elvia commanded her sympathiser to leave, leaving Nurse Field on the verge of breathless asphyxiation. "Fields— dress me."
"I really must protest." Fields made no move, perhaps realising this was her final chance. "I need to return to Magus Hope."
"NOW, Miss Fields!" Elvia knew that she would call upon Sen-sen's abilities, but had not expected that the first time she would utilise it would be against her nurses. Inexpert and with poor focus, a wave of Dragon Fear radiated from her petite body, turning her already ultramarine eyes so blue that her audience grew bedazzled.
Rosemary, being spared the brunt of Elvia's intimidation, took several steps backwards, then fled from the theatre. Nurse Field stood ram-rod straight and stiff as a board, appearing as though every nerve had fired at once.
"M-Ma'am!" the nurse stammered, then almost without thought, pulled open the scrubs and dressed Elvia with trembling hands. "I, I obey."
"For the sake of keeping your bowels dignified, please don't deny me again, Nurse Fields." She nixed the Essence-tap so that no more gut-clenching fear twisted her victim's spine. A surge of guilt coursed through Elvia's chest, battling the unbidden happiness leaking from somewhere unseen. "Please lend me your knowledge. We have a hero to save."
* * *
Magister Amanda Hatchley had received the news too late that a Gallant Cross recipient had been delivered to her beloved college, and knew that her arrival at London would prove a fruitless formality. Still, it was her desire, her duty even, to ensure that some poor sod from her school did not suffer the consequences of degrading failure when a futile request had been laid across their lap.
She didn't mind the "black mark". Come budget-time; there would be plenty of alumnae defending the college.
Instead, as an administrator, she was wary that should the students perceive their instructors as willing to push them under the Golem, the moral implication would impact morale. Thereby, once she found whoever the hell decided to pass Fitzgerald on to the provisional medics, a public shaming would be in order. Her only hope was that her culprit, likely a third-son or daughter, did not have the clout to get away with so blatant a deflection of duty.
"Ma'am, we're here," her driver unobtrusively reminded his mistress of their arrival.
Hatchley alighted from the saloon like a storm on heels. Hospital Directors often suffered short-lived holidays, but hers had died from malpractice within forty-eight hours.
In the lobby, she hailed the first Matron to cross her path.
"Director Hatchley?" the older woman paused. "What's the matter?"
"Where's the patient?"
"Magus Fitzgerald! Gallant Cross! Is he dead?"
"Ma'am?" The Matron appeared confused. "We haven't heard a death knell since last week."
Amanda Hatchley stopped in her tracts. She could hardly believe it. The bleating goats are hiding mortuary reports now? Was that why no one could answer her Messaged enquiries? Who did they think they could fool? "Take me to Emergency. Bring me an audit report of all incoming and goings since this morning's shift."
Hatchley tapped her foot the whole agonising two minutes it took for the levitation platform to descend and take her down to Emergency. Nightingale, as a teaching hospital, was not equipped with the sprawling Emergency rooms usually seen in the Great Hospitals like Royal Alfreds. Theirs was a three-theatre affair, with no more than thirty beds available, of which no more than ten had attendants.
Inside, the atmosphere was not at all what she had anticipated.
There was no anxiety, no grim faces, no Matrons in a huff.
Instead, everything appeared business as usual.
"Where's Magus Fitzgerald?" she demanded of the desk nurse, who quickly rose halfway through a sandwich.
"Ward 3, Ma'am."
Amanda Hatchley wasted no time. Such was her fury that a conga-line of nurses and a few junior doctors followed her from the levitation platform down to the section housing the Intensive Care Recovery rooms.
As soon as she was through the door, she caught a headful of perfume smelling like fresh lilies. Dispelling the scent with her hand, she pulled back the curtain, expecting more than anything to see an empty bed.
Instead, a stunned, half-naked old Mage with greying hair with a half-shaved chest stared back at her, mid-way through picking at the pink scars crossing his chest.
"… Excuse you, ma'am." The man slowly pulled up his surgical gown.
"… Magus Fitzgerald?" Hatchley's eyes swerved to the diagnostic panel. The blood pressure and heart rate were all within acceptable parameters. The oxygenation was well over ninety per cent!
"Aye, tis I." the Magus' hinted strongly of his place of origin. "You are?"
"Director Amanda Hatchley, Nightingale's College."
"A pleasure then." The man extended a hand. The two shook.
Amanda Hatchley wanted to ask why the man was alive and well, but the proposal proved too absurd for the present. "I am happy to see you're doing well."
"A wee too well." the Magus took a deep breath. "I haven't breathed like this since… I can't recall, really, not since the Boers struck me with that corrosive Cloud Kill. We got the blondies back though, kicked up Firestorm from up on high."
"May I?" Hatchley indicated to the spectrographic metre on the wall. "I wish to confirm your health if that's alright with you, sir. A thorough head to toe, if you may permit me."
"Go ahead." Magus Fitzgerald's face took on a dreamy look. "Quite the Cleric you've got there, the blonde girl. A celestial, hahaha. When I woke, I had thought the Lord's Angels had come for me. Yer know— we really need one like her at the Isle. Is she battlefield trained? Knighted?"
"One moment, Sir William. Who is the Magus' attending physician?" Hatchley turned to the Matron.
"Dr Lindholm, ma'am."
"Elvia?" A vision of fine, flaxen hair demurely drifted across Amanda Hatchley's mind's eye. "Where is she now?"
"… in theatre, Ma'am. There's an NoM patient Dr Witherspoon did not wish to operate on."
"She is?" Hatchley raised a brow. If she, as an upper-tier physician, had been present to perform Fitzgerald's operation, she would have been exhausted by now. Did the girl utilise Faith? If so, where was she collecting it? "That's admirable. I'll stay here with Magus Fitzgerald."
Her attention returned to the Magus. "I'll make the enquires, Magus Fitzgerald. For now, please relax. Eye of Discernment!"
The Director swept her all-seeing vision through the Magus' body. The trachea had healed admirably with minimal scarring of the oesophagus. The right lung remained absent, meaning Elvia had not regenerated one from scratch. The bronchi tubes were cleared of the Spider-Curse's ruination, as well as old growths. The left lung was presently functioning under the auspice of a restored pleural membrane, flushed with oxygenated blood from vibrant pulmonary vessels.
Interestingly, where the intercostal musculature married the diaphragm, obstructive scarring from prior injuries had been suppressed. The work was far from the hand of God, but it was the sort a senior healer might achieve with a small team of specialists; that or a Relic-Attuned Cleric empowered by Faith. Elvia Lindholm, to her knowledge, was neither.
"Who was with Elvia?" she turned to her Matron.
"Nurse Fields, Ma'am."
"I meant the attending specialists." Hatchley cocked her head.
"How's it look?" Below her data slate, Magus Fitzgerald appeared to delight in the very act of breathing. "How long have I got?"
"I fear you have more to give to the Mageocracy," Hatchley stated with a tone of complete seriousness. "Your respiratory system is delicate, but only compared to a completely healthy Mage sans sustained injury such as yours."
Magus Fitzgerald's brows furrowed. "That's… impossible, you know. I was at Black's. They said it could not be done."
"It is done now." Hatchley did her best to keep a straight face.
The Magus' expression grew hearty. "When can I go back to the Isle? I have friends there, students, Apprentices, still fighting."
Hatchley nodded. "Matron, who was with Dr Lindholm?"
The Matron gulped. "… Just Nurse Fields. Ma'am."
The room was suddenly hushed.
"Are there recordings of the surgery?"
"Send them to my office." The Director of Nightingale's teaching wing felt her scalp crawl. "Magus Fitzgerald, I would advise one more day on restoratives. Matron, as soon as Elvia is done, send her over."
* * *
Gwen had half a mind to teleport to London when after almost a day, Elvia still hadn't returned her Messages. The anticipation was making her hungrier than ever, shocking even Richard when they caught up for luncheon.
When, after two family-sized shepherd's pies, she privately explained the ordeal to her cousin, he disappointingly declined to comment on Elvia's condition, citing that one should not piss off the boss's boss. Instead, he spoke at length about the Isle, the Dwarves soon to arrive, and his willingness to serve as her proxy in regards to the press.
"I am good with NoMs," Richard sold his services over a cold stout. "Let me at 'em. And the paper press! What a brilliant idea! You've been a busy bee, cousin."
But inevitably, the conversation returned to that of Elvia. What could the girl be doing? She demanded of Richard. Even if Evee's working, surely she could take a Message and fire off a quick response?
"Have you thought Elvia might be busy doing her things?" Richard politely interjected after the fifth complaint. "You know, like you? Like me? Having— like, goals?"
And that was the end of their luncheon.
An hour later, with Richard back at King's, the distraction caused by Elvia's lack of response ballooned. Gwen felt such repression that she could hardly concentrate on Magus Keridwen Le Guevel's lecture.
Not that it was interesting— the Magus was getting her to memorise the history of England and musical chair of Noble Houses.
Thus far, her instructor had been very patient with her disinclined pupil.
"Let's take a pause." Le Guevel replaced the dictionary-sized edition of Twurp's Peerage of England and the Kingdom. "What a face you're making, Gwen. Remember the basics when dealing with Nobles. Don't let your true emotions show."
"I know, I know…" Gwen sighed. When it came to money, she could play poker with the best of them, but when it came to the matter of interpersonal relationships, her face took on a life of its own in the worst manner. When she was deliriously happy, she grinned and laughed and smiled to excess. When the mood soured, her bitch-face could cure meat into biltong. "What am I to do?"
"Try smiling, dear."
Gwen grinned for the imaginary cameras.
"Try to smile with your eyes. Disconnect it from the thoughts in your head. Its a masquerade. Your face should be calm like a lake, static, placid, reflective— oh Gods." Magus Le Guevel snorted when Gwen fluttered her lashes. "My dear, you reminded me of a short-changed whore in Soho trying to coax an extra florin from a tight-fisted John."
"… I am sorry, what?" Gwen performed a double-take. A flush of heat touched her cheeks. Had her ears deceived her?
Her instructor's smile was pure wickedness. Where the Magus had been a Victoriana flower, she promptly grew smokey and alluring. There was something about the woman's expressive eyes that hinted at hidden and exciting things, making Gwen's heart palpitate. "Did that wake our kitten up?"
"Shouldn't you be instructing me on social propriety?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "That was a bit crass, don't you think? What would your nobles think?"
"Poor kitty." Le Guevel's amusement proved as annoying as it was disarming. "I knew you weren't paying attention. Lady Grey didn't employ me to teach you how to be polite, Guinevere, I am here to teach you how to be..."
Le Guevel twirled a finger.
"Be what?" Gwen was now wide awake.
Her instructor wetted her lips ever so slightly. With no discernible change to the setting of the library's tutor room, the atmosphere had shifted toward that of a sleazy jazz saloon.
"... Limber, dear. How to be more limber."