More than war, more than in a graveyard, it is within the pristine white walls of a medical ward that we find him. His sockets hollow, his bones bleached, smiling his eternal smile: Death.
People expect magic to have all the answers. It doesn’t. While pumping someone full of mana and invoking the Heal spell is nearly always the answer, it can’t solve every medical malaise. A broken bone wrongly set that has healed crooked, an unruly heart refusing to pump blood to a regular beat, a liver struggling to cope with the copious amounts of liquor guzzled by its owner every day. These are but a few of many cases where magic is helpless.
Magic can accelerate the natural rate of healing, regenerate organs, and relieve fatigue. But all it does, on a closer look, is restore the body to its ‘normal’. If this ‘normal’ turns out to be a frail and sickly constitution, then that is where the effectiveness of the arcane expires.
Ageing cannot be reversed, disease is still very much a threat, and organ failure still requires surgical attention. When spells fail, scalpels are what healers turn to.
I was only sixteen when I first took up the surgical knife. It was sharp. The skin of the cadaver more unzipping than being cut away at its touch, revealing a glistening tapestry of greyish flesh and sinew beneath. Formaldehyde is a powerful appetite stimulant. It was certainly disconcerting to have to deal with sudden cravings for a side of fish while I took a corpse apart, piece by clammy piece, and then sewed it all back together. (Magic, unfortunately, couldn't suture the dead.)
And I wasn’t alone. Undergoing training together with me were the newly promoted Tier 2 light mages of our clan. Each of them with pale faces and quivering hands as they waited for the subject of the day to be wheeled in on a gurney, covered with pale blue cloth. At times they would cast pitying glances at me. Who made me have a bloodline that awakened the Heal spell at Tier 1 and a talent that led to an early awakening? All of them had at least five years on me.
Nowadays, it was considered a glorious thing to donate one’s body to the noble cause of medicine after one’s soul vacated it. The days of young medical students robbing graves for bodies to dissect were behind us. As were the days when an entirely new word had to be coined for murders by young medicos starved of corpses to dissect.
In those days, the demand had even spawned a new profession. Corpse collectors had roamed battlefields and graveyards doing what their name suggested and selling their wares to the highest bidders.
We left the faces covered. It helped us pretend that the body in front of us hadn’t been one of us not so long ago. That it too had belonged to someone with a family – people who had cried at the news of their passing. People who would be distraught at the thought of their bodies being dissected by a group of wisecracking twenty-year-olds.
And indeed, we would often get requests from the sons, daughters, mothers and fathers of the departed, asking for their bodies back.
I had just peeled back the layers of tissue, exposing the deathly still heart of a mother when the instructor asked me to sew her back up. She might have been willing to donate her body to medicine, but her son hadn’t been able to accept her choice.
Over time the novelty faded, the sense of drama waned. Our hands no longer shook and the moon-faced, mousy-haired girl who had thrown up her breakfast at the very sight of the corpse on the first day, now worked on the ribs with her hammer and chisel, sending flecks of bone flying as she sought to uncover a cadaver’s lungs.
As we deconstructed the corpses in front of us into, skin, muscle, organ, and bone – tidy little piles of tissue to be poked and prodded before we put them all back together again – we slowly, but surely started to lose that sense of awe we had towards the human body. The sense of mystery that surrounded its ability to respond to our wills. Its birth, its death.
Maybe it was in that room that my too young self left her compassion behind. Maybe, it was in that room that I began to treat the body objectively – as but a machine to be maintained. Every disease, just another problem to be solved.
Then I regained it, watching Veer bleed out from the same kinds of cuts I had so blithely inflicted upon my cadavers. I had turned Feral, my claws sharper than any scalpel, and he had fought me and won. Barely. As the Tamer inked the mark of our bond into my skin in his blood, I poured my mana into him, watching the blood stop its outflow and the wounds knit together. He had placed more priority on confirming our bond than treating his injuries; it was sheer luck that the fool survived.
Healing and emotion intertwined in my mind yet again.
I graduated from cadavers to the delivery ward. From the dead to nascent life.
The first time I delivered a baby, it was a premature delivery. Born on the cusp of the twenty-seventh week, the little creature was like a chick that had fallen out of its nest and just as unprepared to meet the challenges of surviving in the outside world. Ripped away from the all-providing environment of the womb, with lungs that had yet to fully form, I witnessed her turning purple as she drowned in air. I looked down at my palms that had held her – palms larger than her body – and I could feel myself distancing myself from the situation. Growing detached. Cold.
It was me who broke the news to her mother. I can still see her face twisted in despair. I can still hear her wail.
As Healers, we often have to do with Death. Most times, we are its enemies, but at times, we serve as its ambassadors. We escort life into this world, and at times we have to escort it out.
Maybe my lack of empathy for my patients made me more efficient, more rational in the face of a judgement call, but Death stayed away from me and mine. And despite my acid tongue and atrocious bedside manners, more and more people came to me with their eyes brimming with hope and unshed tears. With each one I sent back to their regular lives, healthy, my reputation grew. People travelled from far and wide to receive my care.
The warm spring of success had just about thawed my frozen heart when he came. The little boy with a throbbing head. He had the sweetest smile I had ever seen and he smiled despite the bolts of lightning his migraine was shooting through his head. Seeing him made me want to have a child of my own despite the image of the palm-sized purple corpse that assaulted me every time I closed my lids.
My palm glowed with a soft white radiance as I placed it atop his head, my mana seeping into him in a diagnostic net. The wrongness popped out at me immediately. A tumour the size of an almond, at the forefront of his brain, pressing against it, causing him a world of hurt.
No healer in our clan had ever seen a case like this before, the only record of it lay in a century old memoir of one of our ancestors who had met a beggar in a similar situation. He had, he wrote, excised the growth and the headaches had disappeared. Other than a slight lisp to his speech, the beggar had come out unscathed.
Since no one else had any experience with this and I was widely recognized to have the steadiest hands, I was the one to perform the surgery.
My form had never been better, my movements never more fluid. The skin seemed to part under my scalpel of its own accord, the section of the skull came away with extreme ease, I cut through the dura without scratching the delicate organ beneath and the light pink wrinkles of the brain lay exposed to me. The dark red of the tumour in sharp contrast to it. A few precise flicks of my wrist and it was excised, laid aside on a plate beside the operating bed. My mana surged and dura, bone, flesh, and skin all came together without a single scar to remember the operation by. It was magical.
Watching the boy racing around the ward with that disarming smile on his face, I couldn't bring myself to remonstrate him. Or restrain the smile of my own that curved my lips.
I was already at the peak of Tier 3, I decided it was time for us to have a child.
Twenty-seven weeks into my pregnancy, I woke up drenched in cold sweat, tormented by nightmares of suffocating children. Only a quick diagnostic spell cast with fumbling hands assured me that my boy was safe and comfortable within me. That he would soon be in my arms. Warm and breathing.
The year after Mars was born was the happiest in my life. And the happiest in the lives of my proteges. Their acid tongued mistress had suddenly mellowed out. They could hardly believe their fortune. Much to their graduated seniors’ envy.
Mars was a year and seven months old when the boy came back. Bruno had just been born and Anil and his wife were already starting to stir up trouble. My words had been growing ever sharper and just the other day a botched spell had earned one of my students a tongue-lashing that had left her in tears. When I heard that he had come back to visit, I couldn't help but smile. If not for him, I might never have overcome my trauma and Mars might never have been born, making my life significantly incomplete.
But when I finally laid eyes upon him, my smile slipped. The slim boy I had seen was now a pudgy monstrosity with rolls of fat hanging off him. His bright, charming smile substituted by an ugly grimace of bared teeth, his large expressive eyes now looked beady in his swollen face, all sparks of intelligence in them dowsed by the viscid darkness of inexhaustible hunger. Purple bruises covered his mother’s arms as she strained to hold him in her bosom as he struggled furiously, snarling as he strained to break away.
In that moment I knew, without a shred of doubt, that I was responsible. It wasn’t a boy in that body anymore, but a demon. A demon summoned by an incision a millimetre deeper than necessary in the most delicate, and the most important organ of the body. He had no control over his hunger anymore, nor any of his baser urges.
I could envision his future. A bundle of uncontrolled violence, gluttony and lust, all wrapped up in a three-hundred-kilogram frame.
Reaching out, I lightly tapped his forehead with a finger. My fingertip flashed white and his struggles stilled. Calm returned to his eyes for the first time in months. Then they shut, forever.
His mother sank to her knees. Cradling his still body, she rocked back and forth, wracked with great heaving sobs. I stood there, numb, retreating again to the comfortable confines of detachment, locking my empathy away where it couldn't hurt me anymore.
In that moment, I completely comprehended the Aspect of Healing. An interpretation of it, that ironically, ran utterly counter to it. Pestilence.
Healing, I realized, was equal parts life and death. In rejecting the former, I had just embraced the latter.