I awoke feeling as if I ought to have fallen, but had not.
Something was absent. It took me an uncounted amount of time to grasp what it was, but I did succeed. I felt no aches, no pains. My body simply was, with no internal struggle or external damage. I felt free, light, as if I would float away if I was not tied down.
I was tied down. I was tied down!
My eyes snapped open, revealing foreign shapes and colours. An indoor space with lighting from beyond reality.
The mage hive. I had awoken in the hive, and I was tied down. Free of pain, but not free. A prisoner.
I had to get free! I had to escape! I had to... No, I had to keep calm, observe, and understand what was happening. Then, and only then, I could decide how and when to act.
First, I listened. Even the sounds were foreign to me. No goats, no birds no creak of metal expanding from the heat of the sun. The sun... Was it even morning? How long had I slept? Did morning even exist down here? How far down was I? Could I find a way to leave on my own? Where was Skids?
No, I had no way of answering those questions now. It was best to put them aside and concentrate my thoughts on what I could know. Such as what new sounds I was hearing. A soft, deep hum. That had to be fans, for ventilation. That would be important down here. There was also another hum which I could not recognise as anything familiar. The sound was coming from above me. Ah, the magical light source. Most of the ceiling tiles were a dull white, but one was spilling light out of hundreds of mirrorlike facets. Was the humming part of the magical process producing the light? That was probably not helpful information at this moment.
What else could I hear? Not much, as external sounds were blocked by white walls on three sides and mint green curtains on the other three. Six sides. The wide angles and extra walls gave me the sensation that the room was about to burst open or collapse in a heap as logic reasserted itself. But there was nothing in reality which said all rooms had to have square corners. That was simply all I had seen, and I had never questioned it. I had never questioned a lot of things.
Enough listening. I wasn't getting anything useful from my ears, though the process had helped to calm me down. It was time to look and feel. I was lying on my back on a rather firm mattress, dressed in a long white robe. My hands were tied... no, they were encased, in fuzzy yellow mittens. The mittens were in turn attached to the frame of the bed by a strap which let me raise my hands almost enough to put them on top of my knees. But what was holding the mittens closed? I pulled myself up into a sitting position to get a better look.
"I'll take those off for you, dear."
"Oh! Oh. Uh... hello?" I said to the mage whose arrival I had missed. From the white robes with yellow collar and belt, and the expression of combined concern and wisdom, this was clearly a carer, but not one I remembered meeting. I remembered Penlo had spikier hair and had circular arm art, while this carer had tattoos which were wavier, reminiscent of dangeropes.
"Hello, I'm Krima Ra. I'm sorry about the restrains, but they were necessary to ensure you didn't injure yourself in your sleep. You were rather violent at times." Krima did something which let the mittens' cuffs loosen, and I eagerly withdrew my hands. I now had a much better view of the small, neat bandages covering each of the places I had recently been wounded.
"Er, I am Chloe... She. According to the... paperwork? Documentation? Um, I do not remember seeing any paper. Er..." What was I supposed to say? What was someone in this situation meant to do?
"Relax, dear. You can sit or recline if you like. I apologise for not being here when you awoke. Your friend Skids Dro has already been notified and should be here shortly. How are you feeling?"
I relaxed a little and stayed seated. "I am not feeling any pain or illness. I feel better than I have in a few days. No, longer." Before running my hand into the fence, I had suffered a few days of unwellness, though it was nothing a good cup of ginger, fennel, and cinnamon tea could not soothe. "I am feeling thirsty though," I realised.
"Please let me know if your condition changes, or you experience any discomfort or pain. I can send for some water, if you like. Or you could try the juice?"
"Water will be fine," I quickly decided.
Krima made a series of simple gestures with both hands. I realised that while ra was not wearing gloves, ra had thick yellow wristbands and yellow-painted fingernails. The gestures were clearly some kind of magical signal, like Skids had used to activate the ABAM and open the hidden entrance to the hive. "Your water will arrive momentarily," ra said. I notice ra was somewhat more formal than Skids, most likely since ra was acting in a professional capacity, much like a cleric. It was downright bizarre to be comparing a mage favourably to a cleric, but... here I was, doing exactly that.
I wanted to ask Krima how the magical signalling worked, but I had more pressing questions. "Can you tell me what was wrong with me? And why I got sick so quickly and why my muscles were acting so strangely?"
"Not fully at this time. While we were able to treat your symptoms and repair your wounds, the precise cause of some of your symptoms is unclear at present, specifically the muscle spasms and clenching. We should know more in a few hours when the results of your scans come back. That should tell us more precisely what we are dealing with. However, you definitely had an infection from your wounds, and that has been dealt with, which is why you are feeling so much better. Ah, here's your water."
Another new carer in similar attire to Krima had entered through the curtains and presented me with a small bottle of water. The sides of the bottle flexed as I gripped it, and I almost dropped it before realising it was not going to shatter in my hand. Though the bottle was clear and smooth like glass, it did not feel as cold as glass. Perhaps it was similar to the material of the window-doors, though much thinner. "Oh, thank you," I said belatedly, but the carer — perhaps a junior carer? — was already leaving.
I quickly determined that I needed to unscrew the lid, and was soon able to eagerly drink the contents. The water was cold, refreshing, and not particularly notable otherwise. That was comforting. The lid was made of a green material similar to that of the bottle, but rougher, thicker, and much more rigid. Whatever it was, it was definitely not glass, wood, or any sort of metal. Nor was it bone. It seemed to be something artificial. Magical. Fascinating.
Krima took the empty bottle from me and placed it in a basket by the wall. "Are you still feeling fine after drinking?" ra asked in the same calming tones as before. Actually, there was something inherently calming about all the carers I had encountered. There was something about their faces, their movements, their body proportions... I could not point at anything specific, but in every case it added up to a person who exuded competent concern. "Chloe?"
"Hmm?" Oh, that was my name, and I had been asked a question. "Yes, I'm not in any pain. Sorry, there's a lot to think about."
"I understand. No need to be sorry."
"Um, actually, could I use the washroom?" I could remember using one in the clinic last night. Fortunately mage washrooms were not significantly different functionally from what I was used to using, though they were rather different in shape and aesthetic since they were mage rooms. Actually, had that been last night? "And what time is it? How long was I asleep?"
"Yes, I can lead you there, and there's footwear for you in the bottom drawer," Krima said, pointing at a boxy storage unit beside my bed. "It's quarter past six," ra said as I opened the drawer. "You were out for around seven hours."
"Is Penlo still here?" I asked while examining the footwear. They were something like sandals, but made of something squishy instead of strips of leather. Standing up in them felt rather strange, but they fit fine.
"No, Penlo's on the shift before mine. We only cross paths extremely briefly. Can you walk in those?"
I took a couple of exploratory steps. "Yes, all good." The squishiness was surprisingly comfortable.
"Then step this way," ra said, parting the curtain.
The trip to and from the washroom was uneventful, with little to see but closed curtains, and a few open curtains showing only empty beds. There was little to hear beyond what I had heard already, as the carers were effective at protecting rall's patients' privacy from each other. They clearly had some way of knowing what was happening in each room though, a fact which I deduced from Krima's swift arrival after my awakening.
There was one new thing I heard, however. "Was that music?" I asked once I was back in my own room, sitting on the side of my bed with my feet still in the squishy sandals. I was not especially familiar with music, only hearing it once each week at convocation, and on rare occasion when Mother played her wind-up music box.
Krima looked confused by that question, though ra tried to hide it. "I don't think so. What did you hear?"
"One of the other curtains was briefly opened and I heard a repeating tone," I explained. "It was not really musical though."
"Oh, that's an audible pulse relay. It lets a carer in the room hear changes in the patient's heartbeat."
"That's important? I mean, I know the heart is important of course, but... Hmm, I suppose if it suddenly gets faster or slower you might have time to do something to save them before it's too late?" If so, I could see why magic was so attractive. Why wouldn't people want to save more lives if there was a way?
"Yes, that's right," Krima said, sounding amused. Or was I imagining that? "It also makes a continuous tone to alert the attending carers that a patient's heart has stopped."
"So you know they have died?" That was a bleak thought. A continuous droning note of death.
"So we can attempt to restart their heart."
"Pardon my language, but rusting what? You can restart a heart with magic?" I was shocked both by the possibility and by the fact that I'd finally found something for which magic was incredibly practically useful, after Skids telling me it 'doesn't work like that' multiple times.
"With aether, technically, but yes, we can. And it's not quite as simple as applying aether, but it is quite common, and saves many lives."
"Does it change people?" I wondered. "I mean, are they different after being brought back? And what's the difference between magic and aether? Is aether magical or not magical?"
"I'm no seer — and I know you aren't either — but if I remember what I was taught, 'magic and aether are two sides of the same coin'. And the body naturally uses aether to make the heart beat. As for your first question..." Krima stopped to consider it carefully. "I suppose some people are changed merely by the experience of coming very close to death, but that's not unique to restarting hearts. There's nothing like what I think you're implying."
During the last couple of sentences, Skids breezed into the room, looking just as I remembered, except more alert. "Already asking the tough questions, I see, 'Chloe'. How're you doing?"
"All good," I said. "Except we do not know what was causing all the shaking and spasms yet. Not until the 'scan results come back'. In...?"
"About three hours," Krima filled in at my prompting.
"What might the scan results show?"
"Potentially, muscular or nervous abnormalities in your arms, or a brain abnormality. Or it could be a simple chemical imbalance. It's too soon to tell."
"Brain abnormality. Can that be fixed?" Magical glass and footwear seemed innocent enough, but I was not so willing to let mages do anything to my brain. But if it was necessary... But could I trust them if they told me it was necessary? But would they lie about something like that? But...
"Potentially, but again, it's too soon to tell. I don't think you have anything to worry about at present."
"Great," Skids said. "Can we get some food?"
"Yes, that's not a problem," Krima said. "Do you know the way to the eatery?"
"Yeah, saw it on the way in. Left down the hall from here, then a right and two lefts."
"Yes, that's it."
"You ready for some brekkie, 'Chloe'?"
"Breakfast, y'know. I'm sure we can find something you don't mind eating."
"I, yeah, alright." I was unsure what was more unusual: having a choice of breakfast foods, or eating mage food at all.
"Your blue wig is in the top drawer, if you want to wear it," Krima said.
Did I? The wig was quite uncomfortable and I did not think appearing to have blue hair was really very important. "I—"
"You should wear it," Skids cut in, snatching the wretched thing out of the drawer and placing it on my head before I could protest. "Come on, lets get some tucker."
"Tucker?" I asked, bewildered as I followed Skids out through the curtain.
"Food. You must be famished after yesterday. Those sandwiches weren't much."
"I suppose." There was too much to see and worry about to really consider eating. "Where did you sleep?"
"Found a room at a very basic hotel just a couple of hexes away. I think your room is larger and nicer than mine."
"The buildings are six sided. Hexagonal. So the layout of streets is hexagonal too."
"Oh, like our square city blocks," I said, understanding. "Wait, didn't you say a right and two lefts?" I asked, as Skids was trying to take another right turn.
"Are you sure? I thought it was two rights and a left."
I pointed at a green sign on the wall in front of us, with a bold arrow pointing to the left. "Your letters are a bit different to ours, but I am fairly sure that says 'eatery'."
"Oh. Right. Heh."
"You would be completely lost without me," I joked. It had been a very long time since I had done that intentionally.
"Yeah, if I hadn't met you I'd probably be in the ocean by now," Skids said in the same good-humoured tone.
"Have you ever seen the ocean?"
"No. Only pictures. It is frighteningly big."
"Yeah. I can only hope something that big knows what it's doing. The seers say there's a lot more water than there is land."
"Wow." We had taken the final corner, and the eatery was laid out before us. It was a wide open space about the size of the Wilison farmhouse, containing a couple dozen tables, well spread out. The floor was the same as in the rest of the clinic: a hard grippy surface in lemon yellow, with a pattern of thick white lines making foot-sized hexagons. The tables were unsurprisingly also hexagonal, each with six seats around it. Each table and chair was of a single vivid colour, with no apparent pattern to their distribution. Only five of the tables were occupied, most by only a single person.
Skids waved me over to the closest empty table, and I picked a deep brown chair which reminded me of the dress I had been wearing before changing into the white robe. "Where are my clothes? They were not in the drawer with the wig."
"I expect you can collect them when you're ready to leave," Skids said as dro fished dro's scryer from dro's ever-present backpack. "So, what do you want to eat?"
"Where's my handbag?" I asked instead.
"Middle drawer. I think you were almost asleep when we put it there." Dro finished working the scryer, and looked pleased at the results. "Here's the menu for the eatery. We can order whatever you want."
"Are there pancakes?" I asked, rather than attempting to read the green lights.
"Can do. With syrup?"
Skids made some more adjustments to the scryer, followed by a hand gesture. "Your pancakes should be out in a minute."
"Wow." That was fast. Another benefit of magic. "Hey, Skids, about the hexagons...?"
"Are hexmages related to hexagons in some way? Or the number six?"
Skids shrugged. "Don't think so. It's something mathy, but not hexagons."
"Oh." That would have been too simple. "A simpler question then: why were you in such a hurry for me to put the wig on?"
"Your carer was about to lose ra's cool."
"You didn't notice? Ra was clearly bothered by having to deal with an outsider without any role markings, on top of all the big questions you were asking that had nothing to do with your health or treatment."
"Oh." I had not noticed that. "Me not really having one of your mage roles is really a big problem for mages?"
"Yeah, it's kind of a big deal. That, and your... femaleness. It's not actually entirely unheard of, but it's considered... uncivilised."
"We call your kind uncivilised," I muttered. "I do not know what the clerics would say about the 'roles' thing though, because no one has ever mentioned it. But given all the importance put on men and women being in their proper place, I am sure they would take a very dim view of it. Ha, 'dim'." I had not intended to make a joke that time, but it helped me to relax given the rather serious topic.
"What do you think about it?" Skids asked, leaning forward. Dro was seated in the chair opposite mine.
"I... it's strange, but everything about mages is strange to me. It's just one more thing. I thought you were a man when we first met, because of the trousers. Then as 'Mary' you were disguised as a woman. After learning that you are a mage I suppose I put you in your own 'mage' category. And after seeing a few carers up close, they all seem to have a sort of... similar carer quality, which you do not have. I suspect I shall fit you into a 'drone category' once I meet a few more drones. Maybe."
"Or maybe I'm special," Skids said, grinning. "Hey, here's your pancakes."
"Ahh!" I was startled by the rapid arrival of... a mechanical bird? A huge dragonfly machine? Some kind of hovering, whirring demon? It alighted on the table in front of me, released a plate-sized package, and whirred away. Its motion was definitely more akin to that of a dragonfly than a bird. There was no flapping or gliding. "What was that? A demon?"
"Nah, just a winjeel."
That didn't explain anything at all. "If you say so."
"They deliver packages, that's all. I'll help you get it open." With only minimal difficulty, we got the top of the flimsy-sided box folded open, revealing a stack of pancakes, a white knife, spoon, and fork, and a sealed container of what had to be the syrup. "Unscrew the lid, pour it over, and dig in," Skids instructed.
"They're so... perfectly round and flat," I said, unsettled by the pancakes' unnatural regularity. "Were these made by a person?"
"Nope. Ahh, here's mine!" Skids said, with what I felt was excessive cheer. A second 'winjeel' whined its way into the eatery. This one was slightly larger than the first, and carrying a larger load.
I kept closer watch on the thing's movements, taking particular interest in the blurry inner parts. "Are those just... fans?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Skids said, opening dro's own packaged breakfast. "Mmm, smells so good!" The box held a stack of something akin to hexagonal pancakes with dents, a container of syrup just like mine, another container of some kind of sauce, and a large pile of golden-brown lumps.
"It flies... with fans," I reiterated.
"Yup," Skids said, dipping one of the bite-sized lumps into the sauce and popping it into dro's mouth. "Don't look so disappointed," dro said, while chewing.
"But... it's just fans!"
"Sure, but what's moving the fans?"
"Magic?" I guessed. "And the fans are strong enough to lift an entire plate of pancakes, and it stays upright, and it landed perfectly on the table. Alright, that is very impressive. But what are the lumps you're eating?"
"Fried potato balls."
"Are you going to eat your pancakes?" Skids' eagerness was audible even through the half-chewed potato.
I carefully poked at the pancake stack with the side of the supplied knife, and found that the knife was flexible. "I'm not sure about this."
"They're good, really. I prefer the waffles, but there's nothing wrong with the pancakes."
Realising that I actually was hungry in spite of the disgusting display of Skids talking while eating, I drowned the stack in syrup and began to eat.
"Mmm." That was as complex an opinion as I was willing to offer with my mouth full.
Skids rapidly finished the potato balls and started attacking the 'waffles'. "So, wass nex?"
I finished chewing and swallowed. "What was that?"
"What's next for you?" Skids asked between mouthfuls.
I thought through the question over the course of one and a half pancakes. Even healed, there was no way I could go back home now. My fate would be far worse than exile. The only way to earn the slightest consideration right now was to do something extreme. Like 'destroy an entire hive of mages' extreme. And there was no way I could actually achieve something like that, even if I was willing. But it was not something I was at all seriously considering. Contrary to every implication of the codex and the clerics' teachings, these people were not my enemies. I was not especially welcome here, but they had given me aid. I was not going to attack or sabotage these people in an attempt to become a hero to my own. But what options did that leave?
"Assuming I get my 'scan results' back and there's nothing major and I am free to leave the clinic... I really do not know. There is no one relying on me, no one waiting for me, no one expecting anything of me, and no schedule. No schedule!" I echoed. Eating breakfast with no schedule or plan or expectations was like being given a bike after riding the same rail route ever day, and being told to find my own path. "I cannot go home, I do not belong here, and I have no idea how to survive outside. Or anywhere."
"Hey, don't worry about that, Charity. I won't abandon you, not after practically dragging you here."
It was nice to have someone call me by my actual name again. Stupid five letter name limit. "Thanks, but... What am I supposed to do? Go back to Wonambi with you and become a mage?"
"There's no need to rush into that. I'm not going back quite yet, and you're welcome to tag along and help out."
"I suppose you plan on going to more Pure cities to try to find where someone is missing from. And you could use some help with that, right?"
"Right, but first I need to get my spinnerbike back from where I hid it, near your house."
"Well you had better do that soon. If the clerics get their hands on it first, all you will find is a solid lump of iron."
"They'd better not mess with it if they know what's good for them," Skids said with more than a hint of danger.
"If you want to be sure it stays intact, you had better get back to Forrester's Crossing before noon. If they find it this morning, they are certain to purify it with molten iron. I doubt whatever magic makes it work will survive that."
Skids dropped a forkful of waffle and stood up fast enough to knock dro's chair over backwards. "We need to make sure that doesn't happen, or a lot of people aren't going to survive!"
"Hey, I get that it is very valuable but that's a bit extreme!"
"Huh? But I thought you said it was inflammable."
"What? No, it uses inflammable air. Come on, we need to find the quickest way to get from here to there. Forget the food."
"But, isn't inflammable air safe?"
"No, it's extremely explosive! Why would anything inflammable be safe?"
"Because inflammable means not flammable?"
"No it doesn't!"
"Yes it does!"
"No it... Never mind what it means, it's definitely explosive and we can't let anyone 'purify' it!"
Skids' words finally got through to me. My people were in grave danger, and it was up to us to do something about it. Or to not.