Glem Grayson Hughes. Marday, Virgo 27th, 2353 AA. 6:58 AM. Westridge Terrace (Arroyo Athenaeum – Infirmary).
Glem’s patient was Jonette Moore, a fourth-year aspirant who had suffered a severe urdic contusion in morning sparring practice. Since then, the fingers in her right hand curled inward involuntarily on endless repeat. She explained that the gesture was a cantrip—a personal, practiced habit to help her execute a specific type of sorcery—in this case, kinetic barriers. But now she couldn’t control her fingers, and she was understandably upset.
“Is it permanent?” Jonette asked.
“Absolutely not,” Glem assured her. “Informally, we call this a ‘cantrip twitch.’ All sorts of things can cause it, but since your wyrd took a hard hit, your nervous system is still subconsciously trying to protect itself. You’ve built up a muscular association with barriers, so your body keeps making the gesture, even though mentally you realize the damage is already done.”
“Is it chemical then?”
She’s interested in the principles behind it. Answering patient’s questions was one of the most crucial ways you could put them at ease. Unfortunately, we still don’t really understand the relationship between motor-functions and sorcery. But I’ll do my best.
“Partly chemical, mostly magic. Truth is, we don’t understand how cantripping actually works, so cantrip disorders are still largely uncharted territory.”
“How do you treat it then?”
“I’ll get you a couple pills that will relax the transmitters that link your body to your wyrd. You’ll have to lay off on sorcery for the rest of the day because your urdic coordination will be out of whack, but by tomorrow? You should be right as rain.”
The girl exhaled heavily and gestured thanks, as if Glem had already healed her.
“So,” Glem began as he handed Jonette two tablets of agitaxin and a paper cup of water. “Did you learn anything from this experience?”
The girl looked at him like it was an unfair and tedious question. She sulkily swallowed the pills and chased them with the water.
“You’ve already made your mistake, right?” Glem prodded. “And you’ve already paid the price. Might as well get as much out of it as possible.”
“I don’t know,” Jonette said flippantly. “Don’t get hit? Don’t walk into a counter-attack?”
“Come on now,” Glem said, trying to keep his voice encouraging rather than didactic. “If there’s something in this situation that will keep you safe in the future, don’t you want to figure out what it is?”
“Sparring is so stupid,” Jonette complained. “I want to be an Arcanist! Not a Keeper. Why do I need to know how to fight?”
Glem nodded sympathetically.
“I hear that. I hated combat training. Was absolute garbage at kinetic sorcery. And I still can’t compete with Keepers or Archivists. But doing magic when our fight-or-flight responses are active makes our wyrds much stronger and more responsive.”
Jonette nodded and bowed her head, thinking.
“I kind of stuttered. I was going to launch a bolt at my partner, but I got scared because he hits hard, and I tried to switch my magic to form a barrier.”
“And his spell hit you right when you hesitated,” Glem concluded. “If I had to guess what happened, you had all that energy shaped by intention and ready to go as a bolt. Then you doubted yourself, and his attack caused an urdic backflow. He made you swallow your own magic. You essentially got hit twice right as you tried to protect yourself. Now your body is reliving that trauma, because your wyrd is bruised.”
“So… what’s the lesson? Don’t hesitate?” she said.
“That’s one insight,” Glem said, nodding. “Hesitating is often more dangerous than just taking a hit in the middle of a fight. And who knows? Maybe your bolt would have struck him first, and then his attack would miss. But there are other potential answers as well.”
“You said yourself, you don’t want to be a Keeper,” Glem said. “When I had to spar, I always turtled up. Used my barriers proactively, and waited for my opponent to get frustrated or make a mistake. Then I would let them have it.”
“Kostor is really good. He’d never give me an opening.”
“Well, you aren’t looking to win, right? If your defense is solid, you’re less likely to get injured. And I know the proctors probably tell you to be more aggressive, but just ignore them. Don’t treat sparring as ‘fighting class,’ so much as ‘staying safe class.’”
Jonette nodded thoughtfully. Her nerves had given way to introspection. And the twitch in her fingers was already becoming less frequent.
“Any other questions?” Glem asked.
“How long will it take my wyrd to get better? It’s still really sore.”
“That will take a couple days,” Glem admitted. “Wyrds heal much faster than flesh, but it’s still a pretty bad bruise. I’m gonna write you a note to excuse you from sparring and high-energy sorcery practice so you can recover though.”
Jonette surprised him by shaking her head.
“No. I want to try what you said. If I can protect myself while I’m injured, it will be easier to protect myself when I’m feeling good.”
“You don’t want to reinjure it,” Glem cautioned. “How about I write you the note so you can judge things on a case-by-case basis?”
The girl bobbed her head, smiling. Glem smiled back and pulled a medithurge’s note from the cabinet. He filled out the form in a crisp, legible script, signed it in cursive, and handed it over.
“Wow. You’ve got really good handwriting for a doctor,” Jonette observed.
“I break stereotypes for fun,” Glem said, grinning. “I’ll have the nurse bring you some pain meds, and then you’re good to go. Take it easy, okay?”
“I will. Thanks, Med.”
Jonette’s fingers still periodically tightened into her cantrip gesture, but Glem could tell she wasn’t afraid anymore. He indulged in a self-satisfied smile. It felt good. The answers weren’t always so clean-cut. Sometimes people came in with permanent injuries. But on the whole, medicine works. We help people. It was the closest thing to objective good Glem could think of, and he was proud to be a part of it.
He walked out of the clinic room and sauntered to the medisoph station, finding Liaire, Sima, and Khanzi charting and chatting with Drav and Hace. Shouldn’t you two be killing monsters?
Liaire was the charge soph, in her mid-twenties, while Sima and Khanzi were new graduates. They were all pretty, in different ways. Which means Hace is probably hitting on them.
“Hi Med. Hughes,” Khanzi said.
“Good morning, ladies,” Glem said to the nurses.
“No ‘good morning’ for us?” Drav asked, gesturing to himself and Hace.
“‘Good riddance,’ more like. Don’t you two have anything better to do than bother my sophs?”
Hace shook his head.
“We really don’t. Nobody needs transport. Nothing needs slaying, exorcizing, or banishing.”
Most Keepers assisted in the Archives during their ninth year, because it meant the most combat and the least downtime. But Hace and Drav had served there since their sixth year, and when Glem said that the infirmary was having trouble staying on top of all the spooks that were cropping up, Hace said it was time for a change. As a side benefit, they were permitted to take training seminars on field medicine and combat triage. But they were so efficient at clearing out pests that most of their shifts were spent helping with patient transport, chatting up sophs, studying in the break room, or doing whatever menial labor Glem could think up on the spot.
“So you already got rid of that ponophage that fucked with my ritual last Venday?” Glem asked, folding his arms skeptically.
Drav and Hace gave him dour looks and emanated frustration.
“We specifically searched for it at the start of our shift,” Hace said. “All we found were a couple weak-ass echoes. Both procedure rooms are clear. The triage ward is clear. Hell, we looked into every private patient room and came up empty.”
Glem sighed. Nothing to help it. Hace and Drav were very good at their jobs. Hace had a very sensitive wyrd for egregores, and Drav had learned to translate his monstrous kinetic power into bindings. If the spook was hiding, it was fiendishly intelligent. More likely, it had moved on from the hospital to hunt bigger game with less risk of discovery.
Ponophages were the preeminent magical pests plaguing mediclaves and hospitals. They formed from the ambient anguish of patients and concerned family, and continued to feed on the limitless supply of pain that resulted from ailments and injuries. Normally, they were fairly easy to detect because their presence induced feelings of discomfort or exaggerated pre-existing pain in people. But in a hospital, weak ponophages could hide in the ‘shadows’ of patients’ naturally-existing symptoms, growing stronger all the while. Once they were sufficiently powerful, they could do real damage by attacking patients in precarious conditions, or disrupting delicate medical procedures.
“Aren’t you supposed to be ninth-years?” Glem insisted. “Go study or something!”
“Don’t be mean,” Liaire reprimanded Glem and added primly: “They’re just making sure we’re adequately protected.”
Glem raised an eyebrow and snickered. I’d sooner hire wolves to play sheepdog. Liaire was a good soph, but she was easy prey for a pretty face, even though Hace was about four years her junior. Glem could tell that he wasn’t making a conscious effort to flirt; he flattered women on reflex, joked easily, and was generally affable. But I don’t think Liaire knows that, and the last thing I want is a lovelorn soph pouting after a one-night stand. Glem decided to let it slide and continued with what he came to say in the first place:
“Just saw Jonette Moore in room two-twenty. Urdic contusion with a small cantrip tick. Gave her some agitaxin and a note. She just needs some priosol for urdic pain and then she’s good to go.”
“I’m on it,” Khanzi said and left the desk.
Glem gestured appreciation at Khanzi then turned back to the idiots:
“Listen, if you seriously have nothing better to do, go restock the anima carts.”
“From noble protectors to cheap muscle,” Drav lamented, then turned to face Hace with faux-outrage: “I told you we should have stayed in the Archives!”
“And miss out on the delightful company?” Hace scoffed gesturing at both Sima and Liaire.
“Socialize on your own damn time. These ladies have plenty to do without you—”
The PA interrupted:
“Code: rapid response. Room two-twelve. Rapid response, room two-twelve.”
“Duty calls,” Glem said.
“Could be the phage,” Hace said.
Everyone started down the hallway at a brisk walk. Something that Glem appreciated about medicine was its deliberate pace. Contrary to the breathless, desperate drama of symvision soap operas, you never ran in a hospital, even when time was of the essence. You gradually became familiar with the urgency of life and death stakes and learned to keep your head cool even when the world was burning down around you.
A sandy-blond haired boy who looked to be about seventeen was seizing on the bed of room two-twelve. Looks tonic-clonic. Fortunately, the boy’s color was good, and he was drawing breath. Glem looked at the diagnostic monitor next. His pulse and respiratory rates were climbing. Pulse ox was good. But etheric density is at three percent!
“Urdic pressure is gone and his BP’s rising,” Amilla—the soph who called the code—reported. “He got witched yesterday and suffered a miscast. Seemed stable all last night. We planned on discharging him this morning, but…” she shook her head. “I think his wyrd collapsed.”
Seems like. Most amagia gave off a palpable urdic pressure, but the boy was a black hole. Glem knelt to the bed and reached out delicately with his wyrd, probing him with sorcery. Holy shit. No field integrity. No metaphysical structure whatsoever. The only traces of his wyrd were in tattered streaks, loosely orbiting his body.
“Sima, get me four milligrams of lorazepam and ten milligrams of isolomine. Liaire, I need a cage orb.”
The lorazepam would ease the seizure while isolomine would reduce his failing wyrd’s stress on his brain. After the drugs were administered, the animus would allow Glem to create a barrier that would restructure the boy’s shredded wyrd enough to retain ether.
“Can we help?” Hace asked.
“Not yet,” Glem said. “Stand by.”
Hace and Drav moved to the side of the room watching intently. Sima returned to the room in a few seconds with the drugs. Amilla padded the bars on the bed with blankets while Glem administered the drugs via IV. The tremors began to subside after a few seconds. Liaire presented Glem with the animus.
Glem slotted the orb into his license and began to negotiate with the spirit. Cage anima were a specific type of metaphysic spirits batched to be exceptionally expedient and cooperative for structural urdic triage. After Glem completed the requisite mudras, the spirit formed a sort of net that captured the patient’s wyrd, cinching the tatters back into a cohesive field. It wasn’t a permanent fix, but it would allow him to retain and respire urdic energy for about an hour.
The boy’s vitals stabilized. Glem saw that he had left-sided facial drooping when he checked the boy’s pupils, which were equal and dilated normally.
“Call CT and tell them we need the scanner,” Glem said to the room at large.
The immediate danger had passed. Now we just need to find out what the fuck happened.
— 8:04 AM —
Glem sat in his office, alternating between Nyka Simonson’s test results on one incanter screen, and a local news article on the other. Apparently six incidents of apparent urdic had happened throughout Arroyo over the past three weeks. What the hell. Whatever happened to that boy already killed four asfalis people, and fucked up two other amagia.
When Nyka was admitted for his witched miscast, he had received a CT scan which came back completely normal. The post-seizure scans revealed possible early ischemia, which was a pattern classically seen in urdic collapse. And that’s what caused the seizure. But why was the collapse nearly an entire day late? Doesn’t make any damn sense.
The other preliminary labs had come back negative for pathogens, toxins, and everything else that could account for the seizure. But that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Conventional drugs would leave traces, but alchemical substances would transume—be magically absorbed into a person’s wyrd—shortly after being ingested. I don’t know what could cause a wyrd to just suddenly collapse, though.
According to the incident report that the admitting medithurge wrote, Nyka had suffered his miscast with an optic animus while trying to use some sort of energy-intensive beam spell. Which also doesn’t explain anything. If he was going to suffer a collapse, it would have happened then and there. His wyrd might be structurally weak from the miscast, but it wouldn’t rapidly degrade and fail in his sleep when he wasn’t stressing it.
Glem considered going to the break room to speak with Hace and Drav. They only had a meager grasp of magic medicine, but Glem found that he could occasionally shake things loose by forcing himself to explain complex concepts to laymen. Before he could decide though, there was a knock on his door.
“Come in,” he said, expecting a soph or tech with a test result.
Instead, he found Alinore Valmont standing outside, flushed and breathless.
“Med. Hughes. Do you have a moment?”
Glem stood from his desk and gestured a greeting.
“Lin Valmont! It’s been a hot minute. How’ve you been?”
Glem wasn’t terribly familiar with Lin, but he liked what he knew of her. She was driven, responsible, and one of the few Keeper aspirants who could put Hace in his place. She was not only impervious to his natural charms, but capable of challenging him in every aspect of their discipline. Without her to keep him from getting complacent, he wouldn’t be nearly as sharp as he is.
“Ninth year’s a bitch, but you know, I’m hanging in there,” Lin said, smiling.
But she seems less-than-invulnerable today. Must be tired.
“What about you? Medithurgy everything you dreamed?”
Glem sank back in his chair, tilted his head to the side, and shrugged self-consciously. He knew where this conversation ended up, and he wanted to route it away from the “what’s it like being a genius?” talk as quick as possible.
“That and then some. What can I do for you?”
“The sophs told me you were assigned to Nyka Simonson,” Lin said. “I heard he suffered an urdic collapse earlier this morning, and I have some information that may be pertinent to his condition.”
Damn. Word travels fast.
“Please come in,” Glem said, gesturing for her to enter.
She obliged and closed the door behind her before sitting across from his desk.
“Nyka’s one of my students. He was in my class yesterday when he injured himself.”
“You saw him get witched?” Glem asked, reaching for a notebook.
Lin’s cheeks pinkened slightly and she took a deep breath before continuing:
“I don’t think he was witched. I was covering for him because I didn’t want to see him punished for a stupid mistake.”
Glem gave her a hard look. There are no white lies in medicine, Valmont. He made a mental note to circle back to that point later.
“What mistake would that be?” Glem asked.
“He took boost juice yesterday morning,” Lin explained. “Wanted an edge for his binding exam. His wyrd is plenty strong already though, and he’s not dysviric, so it was just—”
“Beyond overkill,” Glem said, nodding. “You should have told the soph, Valmont. We tend to be pretty discreet when it comes to infractions.”
“I know,” Lin said, nodding her head apologetically. “That’s why I wanted to tell you now. I think the juice may have catalyzed his collapse.”
Glem held his hard look for a moment, but frowned as the question caught his interest. There are lots of ways boost juice could cause urdic collapse. But the onset doesn’t match. If he had some sort of toxic or allergic reaction, it would have happened shortly after he took the drug. And if it had amped his wyrd to the point of popping, it would have ruptured when he miscast.
“If the juice was going to make his wyrd collapse, it would have happened earlier. Not hours after the fact. This is just as strange as him being witched.”
“Have you heard that this is the seventh incident of urdic collapse in Arroyo in the past three weeks?” Lin asked.
Glem nodded and turned his incanter screen to show her the article he had been reading.
“I was just looking into it. One of the CT techs mentioned it,” Glem said and paused as he did the math. “You think drugs are responsible?”
“I’m no Alchemist, but it seems possible. I’ve reviewed all the information that is publicly available about the victims and this seems like the most plausible common link.”
“And you know for a fact that Simonson took juice?” Glem asked.
“He confessed when I called him out on it. Said he got it in North Arroyo. He offered to give me a more specific location, but…” she shook her head. “I just told him to never go back. Wish I pressed him harder now.”
Glem considered the possibility and leaned back in his chair with a deep breath.
“Acute withdrawal can lead to urdic collapse. Instead of an energy surge, the withdrawal erodes your urdic integrity until it systemically fails. But that doesn’t happen after just one dose. You need to form a bad habit for the deprivation to hit somebody that hard.”
“Do you know if there are additives or ingredients that could accelerate withdrawal? Or just erode a wyrd steadily after transumation? If the juice was cut with something else—”
“It’s definitely a possibility.” Glem acknowledged.
Modern alchemy had yet to crack the formulae for the mythological regenerative potions of Homer’s age, but apart from miracle cures, alchemy could do damn near anything to a person’s body. And there were definitely reagents that could induce severe addiction after a single hit. And that’s exactly the kind of reagent a drug dealer would cut their product with. The stresses of the spell, paired with an acute onset of withdrawal from a potion…
“I’m not an alchemist either though, so I have no idea what those reagents would be,” Glem said, and drummed his fingers on his desk. “What does your schedule look like today?”
Lin coughed a laugh.
“Awful. I’m supposed to attend a crim lecture…” Lin checked her phone. “Eight minutes ago. But if people are dropping dead due to tainted drugs, I want to let the AKF know as soon as possible.”
Good to know your priorities are in the right place. Well, for the most part. Glem cleared his throat. He felt awkward lecturing a former classmate. But this is the job.
“I won’t pretend that this would have turned out any different if we knew he had taken juice, but in the future, please be more forthcoming when your students are hospitalized, alright?”
Again, Lin pinkened slightly. She bobbed her head and gestured sincere apologies. Glem nodded at her and gestured something to the effect of “what’s done is done.”
“Well, seeing how you’ve already missed your lecture, you want to accompany me to the alchemy lab and share your hypothesis with somebody who might actually be able to make sense of this?”
“Sounds good,” Lin said.
— Alinore Valmont | 8:26 AM | South Faculty Wing and Tower—
Lin followed Glem to Master Plath’s office. She was the Arroyo Athenaeum’s head biomedical alchemist, and a former advisor on Glem’s thesis committee. When they knocked on her door, she called that her office hours began at three PM.
“We’re actually here for a medical consultation, Master Plath,” Glem explained.
They heard rustling behind the door, and a few seconds later, a willowy woman with a motherly, if-somewhat spacey demeanor answered the door.
“Med. Hughes,” she said, smiling pleasantly. “And Alinore Valmont, unless I am mistaken. You said you needed a consultation?”
Lin found herself wondering if Plath would have recognized her even if she wasn’t the daughter of the former Archon. She liked to believe she had earned her reputation based on her own merits, but it was always hard to tell from the shadow of celebrity. And my entire experience with alchemy is limited to general ed. requirements.
“Yes, Master Plath,” Glem said. “Can we come in?”
“Of course, of course,” she said, gesturing for them to enter. When she sat back behind her desk, she asked pleasantly: “What is this about?”
“A seventh-year student just suffered from seemingly spontaneous urdic collapse,” Glem said. “Lin was proctoring him when he suffered a miscast yesterday, and he seemed stable, but this morning he coded. Suffered an ischemic seizure.”
“That’s awful,” Plath said seriously. “But I must confess, I don’t see how I can help.”
“He told me that he had taken boost juice yesterday morning,” Lin explained. “And we suspect that acute withdrawal may have caused the collapse. But to my knowledge, he’s never used juice before.”
Glem continued before Plath could broach an objection:
“We were wondering if there are any alchemical reagents that can induce extreme dependency after a single dose. There have been six other incidents of spontaneous urdic collapse throughout Arroyo over the last three weeks, and Lin thinks tainted drugs might be responsible.”
Lin wasn’t sure if she imagined it—Plath had a ghostly complexion to begin with—but the woman seemed to pale at the news. She folded her hands together and bent her forehead to them in consideration.
“It’s certainly possible,” she said, frowning. “Such substances would be highly controlled though. The only place you’d find them is in the artifice lab, another closed amagiate facility, or deep within the Faed. Asfalis drug dealers, or even hedge alchemists, wouldn’t be capable of using them properly.”
“Maybe that’s what happened,” Lin suggested. “An amateur might have heard that the additives are addictive, and decided to incorporate them haphazardly into their product.”
Plath nodded, gravely concerned.
“Nymph resin is the most addictive substance I can think of. But I doubt a single dose could lead to collapse… unless…” She sighed deeply and adjusted her glasses. “If it was combined with a powerful stimulant, there could be a considerable additive effect.”
Lin looked between them and said:
“I think that should be enough information for me to approach the AKF with.”
“It’s… certainly worth looking into,” Plath agreed.
Again, Lin detected a very slight tremor in her voice. She’s not telling us something. Plath continued:
“Write down your amail address. I’ll do some research and send my findings. But right now, I’m afraid I need to print tests for my nine o’clock class.”
Lin obliged. The three of them exited Plath’s office. Glem and Lin walked out of the forum together. I’m bad at reading people. But I swear—
“You get the sense that she knew something?” Glem asked.
Lin nodded emphatically.
“Yes. I thought it was just me, but she seemed scared when you mentioned the tainted drugs.”
Glem looked disturbed.
“She’s usually not shy about sharing what she knows. In fact, she usually doesn’t shut up.”
They stood a moment, each considering alternate explanations for the reaction. Then Glem looked at his watch and said:
“I have a ritual at nine-thirty that I need to prep for.”
“And I need to be on the other side of campus in fifteen minutes,” Lin observed. “Thanks for helping me, Glem. Err, Med. Hughes.”
“I prefer Glem from friends,” he said.
Lin beamed. She had never considered Glem a friend before, but she was pleased that he regarded her as such.
“I may have more questions for you later. I’m going to consult my mentor tonight and see if he has a contact with the AKF’s vice division. Hopefully they’ll take me seriously if he can provide an introduction.”
“Keep me posted,” he said. “And take care of yourself, Lin.”
“You too, Glem,” Lin said.
— 5:47 PM | Westridge Terrace (Upper-Class Girl’s Dorm – Yew) —
Once Lin had finished with her afternoon classes, she walked back to the upper-class girls’ dorm to pick up her car. She briefly considered driving straight to Carroll’s house in San Marino, but a shower sounded amazing and she decided that the fading summer heat was a sufficient excuse to indulge.
She got a couple odd looks walking toward her room, but nobody spoke to her. What’s their problem? Finally, she caught sight of a friendly face. Senice Cole was ducking out of her room next door. She smiled at Lin, but also wore a sort of funny expression.
“Hey Lin, did you, uh… get a dog?”
“A dog?” Lin repeated.
“Oh. Guess not. Um. I think something got into your room.”
Ah fuck. Lin clenched her teeth and cinched her brows. I swear to Jesus, I thought that thing vanished! Must have figured a way back inside. Or maybe Pensey found it and brought it back in. God knows what it got up to in there while we were both gone.
“Pensey picked up a stray cat,” Lin explained. “I’m sorry. Was it loud?”
Senice’s expression switched from amusement to panic.
“You should check on that cat,” Senice said seriously. “Because I’d gamble with god that we heard a dog in there. Like, a big dog.”
Lin raised her eyebrows and looked down the hall toward her dorm room door.
“You want company?” Senice asked.
“I’ll be fine. Thanks, Sen,” Lin said. “Actually, you should probably clear out in case it’s a gremlin or something.”
Senice looked like she was going to say something else, but nodded and shrugged, then emanated a farewell. Lin gestured goodbye and waited for her to disappear around the corner before unlocking the room to her suite. She only made it half a step inside before freezing.
The place was trashed.
There were cartoonish claw marks gouged in the hardwood. Lin’s mattress had been dragged from her bunk, bedding strewn across the floor, damp in a spot. Is that piss? Pensey’s desk had been kicked away from the wall and her study lamp lay on the floor, misshapen. The symvision, Lin’s game console, and Pensey’s laptop incanter were all mercifully untouched. But their leather couch—their room’s greatest luxury—had been eviscerated. The back leather was sliced to the extent that it appeared to have an intentional tiger stripe pattern. Its interior cushioning lay everywhere. One of the arm cushions had been ripped off, wholesale.
“What… the… fuck?”
She looked to the window, which was shut and latched. I did unlock the door, right? She turned to face it, suddenly unable to remember, and saw that the keys were still in the lock. Then she felt an urdic quiver from directly behind her. A surprisingly strong, but dense wyrd. It faded quickly—gone by the time she spun to face it—but it had come from the other side of the couch. Lin raised her right arm and started to approach, ready to fire a kinetic bolt. Then she heard a mewing sound.
Lin spied a black shape rummaging through the corpse of her couch. A second later, a black tail shot straight up, and the kitten’s head emerged from the cushion.
“You little shit!” Lin hissed and snatched the kitten by the scruff of its neck. She gestured at the room. “Did you do this?”
The kitten squirmed and mewed pitifully.
Lin continued to hold the cat by its scruff and reassessed the damage. She realized, with horror, that the claw mark on the floor were longer than the kitten’s entire body, stretched tail to toes. And the central gash in the wood was wider than its paws.
“How did you do this…?” Lin asked, bewildered.
She turned it to face her, demanding an answer and feeling stupid for it in the same breath.
Then the cat smiled at her.
Later on, Lin would tell herself that she had been holding it by the back of its neck too hard, or that she was holding it up at an odd angle. But in that moment, Lin knew it was deliberately smiling at her. There was a sudden draft of urdic energy. She watched as the cat dissolved, from the tip of his tail to the tips of his ears. It was gone in a second, but the last things to disappear were its goddamned eyes and teeth.
Lin was so astounded—and so offended—that she only belatedly tried to catch it.
“You fucking… Ginsburg!” Lin bellowed. “Get back here!”
There was no answer. Lin lowered her head, only to discover another patch of slashed wood.
“Fuck,” she said, sniffling.
Why am I crying? She stormed toward the door. It’s just a fucking couch. She thought of Athren, MIA. That’s a convenient excuse. He’s fine. Stop being such a little sister. She thought of her thesis project—still a question mark, even though you only have until Sagittarius to get it approved. Lin slammed the door. Carroll will give you an extension. You’re fine.
Okay. The sneering voice in her head continued: how about your half-dead, stroked-out student in the infirmary?
Lin’s face crumpled. Her composure broke. Nobody could see her, and it was too much. Just… Too damn much. She bashed the back of her head against the door, then slumped to the floor. It was staring you in the face, Lin. What does everyone have in common? Vice. She heard it in Carroll’s voice. If you figured it out earlier, you could have saved Nyka. You call yourself a detective, you stupid, useless bitch?
“Fuck!” she screamed.
She lowered her head to her knees and exhaled heavily, then took a shuddering breath. Her next coherent thought was: Thank God cries of frustration aren’t anomalies in the Yew dormitory. She snickered at herself. Though they rarely come from my wing. She swallowed, red-eyed, and started trying to undo the damage around her. Where do I start?
She righted her mattress and tossed the sheets which had been stained a dark yellowish green and smelled like concentrated animal urine. She moved to push Pensey’s desk back into place. Muscle only, too pissed to use my wyrd right now. I’d probably break it. She started tearing up again. Why? You just cried! She forced herself to exhale and wiped her eyes.
If Az saw me like this, he’d lose respect for me. He’d be sweet about it, tease me to keep my spirits up, but deep down… I’d never live it down. She shook her head. And if Pen sees me like this… She heard a key click in the door, and turned just in time to see it start to open. Shit! You didn’t even go to the bathroom to clean yourself up!
The door swung open, and just like Lin, Pensey took a half step inside before her eyes bugged, and she stopped midstride.
“What happened?” she asked in a small voice, taking in the carnage.
Lin snorted a laugh. But before she could come up with something snide or clever, Pensey had already crossed the room to embrace her. She read my face. I’m completely falling apart and she could tell at a glance. Lin was startled by the hug at first, but reciprocated, sniffling again.
“Tell me what happened,” Pen asked, voice still soft, but now reassuring.
Lin swallowed. It was like she was taking in the wreckage of their room for the first time again. Do I tell her about Nyka? About Athren? Or do I tell her that the experiment she adopted is a half-Cheshire chimera?
“I’m not even sure where to start,” Lin said.
“Take all the time you need,” Pensey said.