Dr. Cantillon sits in silence, watching me for… for what? Is there some reaction to that she’s expecting?
“…A story? What?” I finally ask.
“Yes. A story. I said it was more accurate, not that it was a useful explanatory metaphor.”
“Explain it, then! What is that even supposed to mean? Are you saying, what, we’re all characters stuck in someone’s book about how awful magic is?”
I read a book with a twist like that once. It was terrible.
“Pfhah. Don’t be ridiculous.” Dr. Cantillon snorts out a single hollow laugh. “Although I suppose we are a long way off from being able to say precisely what counts as ‘ridiculous,’ where magic is involved, and it’s not the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard. If it were true, I’d have some choice words for our author… but I’m digressing again. No, that’s not what I mean. It’s simply the way I phrase my understanding — my very limited understanding — of how all this seems to work in practice, not a statement on the structure of the universe.”
“I mean, okay. I’ve seen enough of magic to get that a lot of it works on a sort of dream logic. I assume you’re talking about something like that and calling it story logic instead. But I’ve had magic for a month, so I don’t see what that has to do with the disease that’s been trying to kill me every day of my life.”
“And in that month, you’ve started treating your immune disorder by stealing others’… health, whatever that means here,” the doctor says in a voice with no particular feeling behind it. “You’re clearly no longer facing the same type of problem.”
I glance away, folding my arms over my stomach.
“Relax. I’m not here to chastise you. I’m still frustrated with the sheer insane abstraction of it, that’s all. The idea of ‘health’ as a single thing you can suck out of one person and place into another does not sit well with the way we practice medicine.” She scratches something into her notepad at what looks like it would be a frantic pace for anyone else, but seems to just be how she writes.
That doesn’t make me feel better at all, but I bite my lip and nod. “Okay. I’m listening. Please explain.”
“Gladly. So. As I understand it, a Keeper’s magic has two central components. The first is largely self-explanatory: it’s the shape of your power. What it is. The parts of the world you can change and control.”
“Right. My Messenger talked a bit about this.”
“If they talked about the second aspect, I’d be very interested in what they had to say.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if things were that easy? If we understood it well enough to know what we should call it? I’ve heard some older Keepers refer to it as a theme, a term which I frankly will not use because I find its implications odious, but I’ve yet to come up with a better one myself. Vector, maybe? But that doesn’t quite cover it… well, anyway. I’ll keep this as simple as possible, and please understand that I am not talking down to you. This is the only way I know to explain it.” She sets her notepad on the counter and folds her hands in her lap, squeezing them tightly enough that it looks like it should hurt. I catch a glimpse of the page she’s been writing on, and it’s… is that even Clarish? I think those are letters, at least, but they’re written in such an exaggerated parody of a doctor’s shorthand scrawl that I can’t see how they could be legible to anyone.
“It is… what your magic is about. What it’s saying about you, or the world. The story it’s telling, to return to my original phrasing. This part is far more difficult to pin down, but it’s at least as important to the forms a Keeper’s power actually takes. Especially to the limits of what they can do. Is this starting to follow, now? Does it make any more sense of your experiences so far?”
On my first day, Vyuji called my disease the origin of my magic. She compared the idea of fixing it with my power to a snake eating itself whole.
“Then… my magic is sickness and is about… also sickness? That’s the story?” The words feel like puking up sand. What she’s saying makes sense, it feels true, but that’s… it’s hard to breathe all of a sudden. It’s not who I am. It can’t be what I am. It can’t.
“It’s uncomplicated, if nothing else. Our best efforts to treat you failed, so magic… changed your condition into something it could treat. It gave you a way to take your own transfusions from the world — ones that don’t last so much longer or do so much more to fix you, from the way you’ve described it, but are helping, at least so far.” Dr. Cantillon says, and exhales through gritted teeth.
“I should note, this is all just my current best guess. To my knowledge, while most Keepers can see the shape of others’ magic in their souls, there’s no way to quantify this part with unnatural senses. It can only ever be reasoned out by the Keeper and those who know them, guessed at by observing their life and magic. And since I doubt you’d want this, I’m not saying that simply to comfort you. Or to offer false hope that your power will turn out to be based on something completely different. But there may be nuances to it we don’t yet understand. Or something more complex that’s currently showing itself in connection with illness for obvious reasons.”
“Something like what? Fine, it’s a magic mystery no one can actually know, but can I change it somehow? You… I don’t know, you mentioned Keepers who knew about these things? Could one of them help?”
Dr. Cantillon raises one hand, closes her eyes, and shrugs apologetically. “I’m afraid that’s mostly up to them. I certainly don’t have the power to summon any Keepers. I would love to get Iona’s thoughts on this matter, for instance, but it seems her schedule is always a bit too tight to fit me in. And if she were inclined to share her lifetime of knowledge with the scientific community, I expect she’d have found a way to do it by now. But then, perhaps most Keepers are more apt to make time for one of their own than for probing questions from someone like me,” she says with another flat, lifeless smile.
I’m not going to go knock on the Fianata estate’s door, but the girl whose help I refused yesterday looms large in my thoughts. Would she have known about any of this? Would it matter? I have no idea who she is or what she can do, just… a lot of reasons to think she couldn’t wave her hands and save my life. Not because of any problem with her, but because it sounds like no one can.
“If I weren’t a Keeper, and my sickness wasn’t… inextricably wrapped up with my soul or whatever it is now, would this be a problem? Could someone else have fixed me?”
“That is… a complex question,” Dr. Cantillon says, very slowly.
“I’m not going to explode on you or anything. Promise. I just… want to know.”
“Right, right. Can’t be too careful, sometimes.” She purses her lips, nods, and reaches for her notepad. “Well, it is a legitimately difficult question. Saying anything about magic with certainty tends to be. In a case like yours, though… there are Keepers with healing powers, yes? Do you know any stories of one walking into a mundane hospital and curing a hundred incurable conditions in a day’s work?”
“No. I don’t think that’s ever happened.” And I’ve checked, obviously.
“To my knowledge, it hasn’t. Oh, there’ve been grander miraculous contributions, like Saint Nistla’s creation of vaccines, but short of Emergence and the consequences thereof, magical healing has never played a reliable part in conventional medicine, even as a last resort. Why do you think that is?”
I used to wonder about that myself. But since it couldn’t be that no Keeper had ever wanted to eradicate, say, cancer or inborn diseases, I figured it was just one more way in which the world wasn’t what anyone wanted it to be.
Now, of course, I know the likely reasons all too well. I have to worry about my own life first, but if I could, I’d save everyone on the seventh floor. If I could, I’d make it so no one would have to die ever again, and everyone who’s ever written self-satisfied junk about how death is natural and nice and Gives Life Meaning could see how they felt when they weren’t forced to accept it.
But I can’t do any of that. I’ll probably never be able to. All I can do is take and take to buy myself and only myself a little more time and there will never be enough. It will never be enough.
“They’re busy doing Keeper things, or they’re focused on something no one else can do like treating Harbinger corruption, or… they can’t. Their magic doesn’t work that way,” I answer immediately.
“All correct, in different cases and to different degrees, but that last one is the main obstacle. For some reason, something about whatever mysterious factors make someone a Keeper and shape their power, there simply haven’t been any who could do such things on a large enough scale to matter. There’s always some cost, catch, or complication preventing magical healers from eradicating illness in one crowded hospital, let alone their city. Not unlike the way your healing works, although your limitations do seem… unusually severe.
“In almost every case where a Keeper has healed someone beyond our ability to help, they were going above and beyond for someone personally important to them. It almost always ends up being a complex, arduous task in ways you wouldn’t expect it to be for children who can knit mortal wounds shut with a touch,” she sighs.
“It’s… ugh, I know full well how this sounds, but it’s as if some aspect of magic doesn’t want to make it too easy for us. These sorts of arbitrary, ridiculous restrictions are what I’m thinking of when I refer to your disease as a ‘story,’ incidentally. I could be wrong, of course. Maybe diseases are just difficult because Infezea made them that way, and it’s still laughing at us from beyond the grave.”
Dr. Cantillon smiles — a thin, bitter expression, but real in a way the one she greeted me with absolutely wasn’t.
Something about it makes a pit open up in my stomach.
“Anyway, I’m explaining all this as context for the answer to your question. As to that, here’s my best guess. It would have been difficult. There may have been complications. But yes, very likely there would have been some Keeper, somewhere, with some ability to cure you or mitigate your symptoms. Whether they would have is another question, and since the answer to that question is ‘probably not,’ I really wouldn’t advise wasting too much thought on what could have been.”
I know that. I’m not stupid. No miracle was ever going to save me until I made one for myself. That may not be a sure thing, but I’m still in a better situation than I ever was before.
So why does everything feel so pointless? Why am I crying?
“I’m ah, certain none of this has been what you wanted to hear. I do apologize for that,” Dr. Cantillon says, with a note of unease in her voice very different from the sharp, forever-frustrated tone she uses most of the time. “But we should discuss potential next steps.”
“Like what? It doesn’t… nothing you’ve said makes it sound like there’s anything I can do. Anything but keep hunting and hope Emergence does something for me. Unless that’s part of the story too.”
“It would be best for you to be evaluated by a team of experts, somewhere that’s equipped to handle your unique issues. Some of the uncertainties about your power are dangerous, to you and everyone else. I can’t condone you continuing as you have been without investigating the short and long-term symptoms of being… drained. I don’t think any of the local hospitals are up to it, but there are places in Alelsia where-”
“In Alelsia?” I snap. “You want to send me to live under the sea with a bunch of priests for… for how long? Until they decide it’s safe for me to exist?”
“What good would priests do us?” she snorts. “Alelsia is the heart of magical scholarship, not just the seat of the Church. It’s where you’ll find specialty hospitals catering to children in situations like yours — not all of them, but certainly the best ones.”
“How likely do you think it is that they’ll have someone who can fix this?”
“That depends on what you’re expecting when you say ‘fix this.’ Given what we’ve been discussing, I doubt they’ll be able to cure it outright,” she admits without hesitation.
“I figured. It’d be too easy if they could, after all. My curse-story-disease wouldn’t like it.”
“It’s not that simple. They may still be able to assist you, and the potential complications surrounding your ability are…” She pauses in mid-sentence, looks me over, and groans, almost seeming to deflate for a moment. “Oh, you’re not going to do it, are you?” she asks, quickly fixing her posture.
“Afraid of scrutiny from the authorities, or insistence that you stop using that facet of your power altogether?”
I say nothing, which is probably just as good as an answer.
“Well, that’s honestly about what I expected. I’ve made similar recommendations to other Keepers, none of whom have ever taken them.” She gives a slight shake of her head, scrawls something in her notebook, then closes it and tucks it back into her pocket. “For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re making a mistake, both for yourself and for any other current or future Keepers struggling with something similar. And while I’ve never had a case exactly like yours, I’ve never heard of a Keeper being condemned solely for the way their magic works. I would be shocked if they couldn’t make some accommodation… but I have no way of forcing you to accept my advice. And I wouldn’t use it if I did. There’s more than enough insanity in my life without shoving myself into Keepers’ personal drama.”
“…Is that that, then? Are we done?”
“I suppose so. Until anything changes, or I come up with anything else that may be of interest to you. If I gave up on you children whenever you didn’t listen to me, I’d have no patients… heh,” she chortles to herself. I have no idea why.
Our appointment goes on a little longer — just enough for Dr. Cantillon to call Dr. Hines back in and tell him to keep doing what he’s doing until further notice. I’m barely listening. I don’t have much more to say, to them or anyone.
So as soon as we’re finished, I grab my cane and leave. I just want to do something that matters. Something that helps, even if it will never ever be enough. I want to murder Seryana and eat her soul. Maybe it’ll feel like killing Yurfaln felt again. Maybe, even if it’s only for a few beautiful moments, the pain will stop. No one can help me make that happen. No one can help me with anything.
No one except, maybe…
“Vyuji,” I hiss, right as the elevator opens on the ground floor. A day ago, I would’ve been worried about who might see me talking to myself and what conclusions they’d draw about me. Right now, it seems like an absolute waste of thought. I really can’t be bothered.
“Yes, Liadain?” And she’s already there, waiting for me just outside the nearest exit.
“When were you going to tell me?”
“I’m not watching over you and what you’re learning at all times, you know. I thought you’d prefer it that way. Tell you what?” she asks.
Not that it’s ever taken more than the slightest prompting for her to know exactly what I’m talking about when I call her… ugh, not important. I have bigger problems.
“…I’m not even sure how to say it? That my magic or my disease or my soul or all three at once have apparently turned into ‘a story about dying of an illness,’ and because of that story it’s impossible for me or anyone to cure what’s wrong with me?”
“Ah,” Vyuji says simply. “That is a lot to unpack. Give me a moment, please,” she says, and vanishes.
“Vyuji?” I open the door and ask the empty air.
Someone on their way out gives me an odd look, then quickens their pace a little. I keep walking. I guess it isn’t the biggest surprise if even she has nothing to say about this.
“Here I am. Apologies.” Maybe fifteen seconds later, she blinks unceremoniously back into being, floating at a height that brings her gaze level with mine.
“…Oh. Where did you go?”
“Just making sure of something. As to your question… I’d have told you when you asked, or when it was important for you to know. Whichever came first.”
“How was it ever not important for me to know?” I glare at her through the corner of my eye, but don’t slow down. She follows right along, motionlessly drifting sideways.
“Would it have been helpful for you to know? Or would it have built an insurmountable wall in your mind? Paralyzed you with the false impression that there is no way forward for you? It still may have done that, from the sound of it, but at least now you already know how much you can accomplish.”
My steps falter. Of course it did. Of course hearing that even magic can’t do anything about the useless, broken body I’ll be stuck with for what’s left of my life feels a lot like crashing into an infinite wall, then trying to get past it by smashing my head into it until one of us breaks. “What’s… what’s false about it, then?” I choke out.
“What you’re saying isn’t exactly wrong, but it is far too simple. Emergence isn’t just a process of physical transformation — you must understand that by now. It changes how you interact with the world, and it with you. It changes what you are. That is what your soul is attempting to do with your disease, and your magic is not your enemy,” she says. Thoughts of the one too-happy rehab nurse who said the same thing about my body race through my mind. Should I be thanking my soul like she told me to thank my skin for keeping my organs in place? Thanking it for what?
“Magic is not playing out some melodrama at your expense. It is what it is, what you are — that much can’t be helped — but I meant it when I promised that it will give you a way to survive. The very worst scenario I can imagine is that yours becomes a story of eternally dying, racing to stay ahead of death’s ever-advancing threshold but never quite crossing over. And I’m confident you can do much better than that.”
“How? What can I do that’s ‘much better’ if the only thing I want is to get better, and that… can’t ever happen?”
“Oh, Liadain.” There’s a softness in Vyuji’s voice, and in her faint smile, that I’ve only heard once before, right when I first made the Promise — it’s the tone I can’t help but think of as motherly. “You’re thinking far too small. Too… human. ‘I want to get better’ is a helpless little girl’s prayer, a wish upon a seashell. It’s beneath you. Do you remember what you asked for when we first met? Complete immortality. To be free from death or destruction, forever and by any means. That is a dream worthy of a Keeper, and it’s one you can very much achieve.”
She spreads the tendrils and stems of one flower-hand into a broad, flat surface, as if opening her palm, and sets it lightly on my shoulder. She’s warmer than I expected, somehow. “So keep growing. Keep becoming more than the defective shell that carries your true self around would ever allow you to be, if you didn’t have the power to grow so very far beyond it. And as you do, imagine what form your eternity will take. If a life spent forever desperately fleeing from death sounds like no life at all, all you need to do is find your way to stop fleeing. Your illness is a part of you, and it may always be, but it’s a part that will change with the rest of you. If you can’t be rid of it, make it into something that serves you. I can’t tell you precisely how to accomplish that, but I hope my promise that you can means something to you.”
I wasn’t expecting much from Vyuji. I’m not really sure why I called her at all. Maybe for someone to vent on, even knowing that’s never helped once in my life, or to confirm how terrible everything was when she gave me some confusing, cryptic answer that didn’t help at all. But somehow, this is…
“I think it kind of does, actually,” I murmur.
It’s not that I feel good now. Not even better, really. Everything is still terrible. But it’s something. Some way to make sense of all this that comports with what I’ve just learned and doesn’t mean all my goals are impossible.
“Then I’m glad I could serve my purpose,” Vyuji says. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Not now. There’s something I still need to kill before things get any worse,” I sigh. “I should get to that. But thanks.”
“Happily.” She smiles a little wider, waves with her open hand, and disappears.
I start my hunt at the house from last night. I’m not expecting to find a trail I missed the first time, but inspecting the house could still tell me more about Seryana. And I have no better ideas.
Nothing jumps out to my senses on the way, so I transform a few blocks from the house. Like when I visited the scene of Irakkia’s attack, the place is barricaded and guarded.
“Morning,” the tall, portly uniformed man on the sidewalk calls to me. “Please, please tell me you’re here to cleanse this place.”
The police do pay more attention to me than last time, though, which makes sense. The site of Irakkia’s attack was a shore where a Harbinger happened to choose some victims. This house was Seryana’s nest, a place so polluted with her presence that it was somehow less real while she was here. Judging by those strange shifting curtains, I think she was trying to cut it off from the rest of the world and drag it physically into her Wound.
Whatever she was doing made an impact — it still reeks here. It did starting from two blocks away.
“I don’t think I can do that. Sorry,” I tell him. “I’m the Keeper who found it. The Harbinger got away, so I wanted to see if anything here leads back to… it.”
“Oh,” he grumbles. “Well, that’s your right. Good luck.”
“Out of curiosity, can you smell that?” I grit my teeth and gesture vaguely at the house.
He shudders full-body, making a face like he’s about to be sick. “Seriously? Fucking Goddess, I’ve been doing my best to tune it out, but I think I could still smell that if I cut off my nose!”
I nod slowly, not sure what to do with that. “Um. You’re probably right,” I say. “If you want a break, you should maybe keep your distance while I’m in there. Just in case something happens.”
“Well. if you really think that’s for the best, don’t mind if I do. Don’t mind that at all. Take care, kid.” And without a moment’s delay, he jogs off down the street.
I can’t think too poorly of him. It’s not his… well, no, it’s kind of his job, but it would be a sign of some horrible mental pollution if any normal person didn’t want to keep their distance from this miasma.
And as soon as I approach the door, I’m glad I sent him away.
<It was good of you to come looking for me in an old ruin like this, my love.> Seryana’s acrid breath tickles my neck. It even feels filthy, like a thin film of damp dust settling over my skin wherever it touches.
<But there was really no need! All you had to do was seek me, call for me, wish for me to be by your side! I will always, always, ALWAYS be right here.>