“I know you’re awake, you stopped snoring a few minutes ago.”
The gig was up. Nan was on her way to see the Grim Reaper. Or Saint Luke. Saint Luke was the one that acted as border security for the Pearly Gates, right? No, probably not. Nan never paid much attention in church, the pastor’s voice just had a way of lulling her to sleep. Saint Luke, however, wouldn’t sound like a female schoolteacher with a permanent honey-dripping smile etched on her face.
Nan opened her eyes.
The woman hovering above her couldn’t have been past her mid-thirties. Her dress had a black sleeved mantle that spanned from shoulder to sternum, splitting into a shin-length draping of fuzzy cyan material. Orange hair, freckles, green eyes. Classic ginger. Completely normal. Not a saint or a devil, but…
“You have cat ears.”
Her left ear, as orange as her hair, flicked twice upon mention, as if bracing itself for some moronic barrage of questions. Nan would have obliged, had she not felt so bleary.
The woman smiled. “I think they’re closer to bat ears.”
Nan blinked. “Whua?”
“I have a tail, too. And wings, but I keep ’em bound.” She stood, releasing a quiet creak from the bed. A thin, stringy appendage with a tuft of dark fur on its end waved in greeting.
“Izusa Keme, Soother and named Mystic.”
Something unfamiliar itched at the back of her head. Her words were more than language, verbal information delivered by sound. The sensation cried out under a sheet of glass that she was too lethargic to push away. She focused on returning the doctor’s courtesy instead.
“Nan Beauchamp, college student?” It felt right state to, at least, state some kind of title. Even it if was unimpressive. She reached out her hand.
Izusa did the same, though haltingly. She wavered between looking at Nan and her offer like she wasn’t sure if it was okay to grasp her hand or not. It put a mite of worry in her heart. Was she contagious or something? Izusa ended up pressing lightly against her palm and letting go. Weirdest handshake of the century.
“By far, you’re the calmest arrival I’ve had this year. Are you feeling alright? No wooziness?”
“Only a bit. My eyes are a little blurry though.” It was like someone smeared all but the center of her vision with murky water. The girl found herself blinking rapidly, then moving her eyes around in a vain attempt to clear them up.
“That’s normal, just tell me if it worsens or doesn’t pass in a cycle, okay?”
“Okay.” Nan sighed. An entire day? What was she in for?
Izusa gave a light hum of approval. “I have to do a quick spot check, then we can roll you out of here for something to eat.”
Nan let herself fade along with her crawling suspicions, they weren’t doing her any good. She was in presumptively good hands, strange mutations or not. A relief, to be honest. The faintest bit of dread nipping at her heels must have been misbegotten; some lingering sentiment from a dream long lost to her conscious mind.
Vaguely familiar splotches of brown and white surrounded her. A simple cube-ish structure sat aside the bed, a drawer or a desk of some kind. The thing snaking up from its center was decidedly not a wood eating superworm with a glowing blue eye, but a curly lamp.
She lifted her arms when asked, only flinching slightly at the cold touch of something that at least looked like a stethoscope. The room was warm and smelled faintly of cinnamon. She felt safe, but a bit sluggish, a bit confused. She recognized exactly none of the instruments mounted to the walls, one of which looked like the unholy child of a curved scalpel and a reflex hammer.
“I don’t have any money on me, do you need to call my parents?” Nan grimaced, if this was going to be like any of the other times she checked in at the hospital, quiet would be at a premium. Ma and Pa doted on her entirely too much, confinement to a bed meant no escape from their affections.
“Don’t worry about that, even if you came with coins, we couldn’t take ’em.” Izusa hid a yawn with her hand. “Repeat your ABCs, please.”
That was worthy of a raised eyebrow, but Nan did as requested. Probably just testing her for a concussion. Her memory was kind of hazy, the last thing Nan remembered was walking her way back from Mona’s ice cream place. Pavement to hospital building was quite the transition.
“Hyulic…” That was not a letter. Another foreign sounding bit of gibberish danced at the tip of her tongue, though she opted to look up at Izusa rather than let it spill.
“Out of native letters? Don’t think about the translation spell too hard. Just go with what feels right, It’ll save me an hour and you a headache.”
“Gin and… Pylt?”
“Yep.” Izusa clapped her hands together, “That’s all of them. Now I need you to sit really still for a second. Okay, Nan?”
Nan held up her palm, halting Izusa’s approach. “You messed with my brain?”
“No no no. I wouldn’t poke around with a kid’s brain, I messed with your soul.”
“My what?!” With a burst of fright, Nan managed to bolt upwards and swing her legs off the mattress. Bare feet met wood, and promptly gave out.
She teetered, but found little control over the motion. She tried to realign herself on the bedframe, only to barrel forward. Her muscles coiled and uncoiled almost uncontrollably. ‘this is wrong,’ she thought. Every impulse she sent through her lower body returned more motion than asked for. The most that Nan could do was shift the path of her fall into Izusa’s arms.
“What’s wrong with me?! Where’s my mom an- “
“Hush.” Nan found her head gently buried in the space between Izusa’s shoulder and neck. The mantle of her dress was as soft as it looked. A hand stroked idly at the top of her head. A faint warmth that was a bit too much for skin accompanied the same something she felt earlier for an instant.
Like a cool breeze, the panic washed over and around her, leaving a drowsy feeling in its wake. After a while, Izusa detangled herself and helped Nan back into a seated position.
She felt better. Fully aware of just how peculiar the sudden shift in emotion was, but unable to care about it overly much. Much more pertinent was erasing the image of herself blubbering like a child in front of a stranger. She considered kicking her legs nervously, but common sense murdered the idea.
“Are you calm?”
Izusa kept a steady grip on her shoulders. Nan preferred it that way. She didn’t trust herself to not fall again.
“Are you certain?”
“Alright, Nan. I’m going to dispel your whym restraints. Stay still, okay?”
A collection of golden cogs and turning rods jutted out in a bell-shaped mass. Nan felt it. An intangible breeze. The unplaceable something waxed beyond her ability to glance through. The scent of cinnamon came, rushing to offer itself. On impulse, Nan’s something— Nan’s whym accepted. The glass ceiling over her perception shattered. A reserve space swelled, now a full breath of air where a pitiful wheeze in the depths of her being once stood. Her entire body tingled, it was like stretching out after a cramped tram ride.
“Did it work?”
Nan, nodded. The least, and most she could manage at the moment.
“Hah! That makes twenty-six without a knock out!” Izusa’s hands trembled slightly, Nan failed to notice her words, or her letting go. Whym signatures flowed through a great portion of things. The blue curly lamp, herself, Izusa, and whatever, or whoever, lingered outside of the windowless room.
“Do you think you can channel?”
Nan blinked, drawing her attention from the network of whym surrounding her. She wondered if what she felt was similar to someone getting their first pair of hearing aids. There was just so much that she failed to notice before.
“Like this.” Izusa held out her palm. This time, she could feel a tiny piece of Izusa’s whym separate, a storm of sorts parting with a sliver of itself. The piece fell into her palm with a flash of light, revealing a single slow turning cog.
“Oh, that. I can try.” Nan copied Izusa’s gesture, squinted, and let out a breath. She imagined a cog appearing in her hand just like the other. Nothing. She frowned, looking inwards like one of the corny Japanese tv shows her brother was addicted to.
Her palm flickered, a bright purple splotch that refused to settle into a coherent form rested just above her skin. Nan felt for the current of her whym, imagined it rushing outwards into the splotch.
Purple flames danced above Nan’s palm, three of them, circling lazily around a much larger fourth. More whym flowed out of her and into the flames, feeding them, hastening their lazy path around the formation’s center. In a few heartbeats the little burning solar system dwarfed Nan’s hand. The smaller bits spun themselves into a blur.
“This is wicked!” Nonchalant, “frosty” Nan let out a rather uncharacteristic shriek. One could call it girly even. At this point, Nan didn’t care about the weird nagging sensation that nestled in the back of her head. Here in her palm were freaking purple orbital fireballs created with minimum effort.
“Okay, good, now stop.”
“Stop?” The flames went from a circular path to an elliptical one. Nan lifted her chin, the air around her took on the pleasant chill of peppermint. “How do I stop?”
One flame escaped its orbit, then the others. They burst against the ground, the wall and Izusa’s face, each with a sharp crack that made Nan cringe.
She shut her eyes. Izusa was dead. After being shown nothing but kindness, she burned her to a crisp without so much as a moment to scream in agony. The fire would spread, it would kill her, and probably a lot of people in the building, too. In what twisted circle of hell was it okay to let a kid experiment with magic? Why did she let herself do it? ‘Nan, what have you done?!’
A hand, surprisingly uncharred, found its way to Nan’s shoulder.
“Well, that could have gone better. You’ll gain more control over your whym as you work with it.”
Nan’s lips felt like gelatin. “B-b-but, the fire! It was everywhere! I hit you in the face!”
“You were going to commit arson and manslaughter with your invocation sigil?”
“You can’t do anything by just expelling whym, silly!”
Izusa had one of those snorting laughs just like her friend, Gina. It managed to be annoying and endearing at the same time. When was the last time she saw Gina? Right before she woke up?
Odd. Gina was the forgetful one, not her. Why was it so hard to recall the events of a few hours ago? Walking back to the dorms. Gina dropped some pinned insects on the road and scrambled to retrieve them. Nan remembered pushing her back on the sidewalk. Bugs were creepy, anyways. Definitely not worth being hit by car.
Her leg muscles twitched, only to invite the sensation of broken bones sliding against one another.
She couldn’t see. Couldn’t let out anything more than a wordless gurgle. Not in pain, but in sheer incomprehension.
Shattered ribs flailed against the ruins of her chest cavity. It was her blood! Her own blood soaking through her clothes! Her own blood choking her from the inside!
“Are you with us?” Izusa pawed at Nan’s cheek. Her voice retained its chipper tone, but she furrowed her eyebrows in concern.
The gig was up, the illusion lifted, the reality that mirrored the strangest of delusions thrust into plain sight, as irrevocable as the swelling store of whym that continued to grow within her.
“Yes, you died.”
Author’s note: The initial version of this chapter was ugly beyond belief, and thus, saw many editing passes. My apologies to whoever had to shift through it.
If you missed the atrocity and feel the need to whet your curiosity, you can find it here
I’ll comb over the other chapters momentarily, then upload the newer ones.