Nan wasn’t quite motivated to open her eyes; she didn’t remember closing them. Perhaps there’d been some mistake in the cosmos that would right itself if she stayed still and kept that little burbling swell of panic in her belly from persuading her to scream.
“I know you’re awake, you stopped snoring a few minutes ago.”
The Grim Reaper wasn’t so easily turned away, or maybe it was Saint Luke. Saint Luke was the border security guy for the Pearly Gates, right? No, probably not. Nan wasn’t so keen on her biblical lore. Not when most sermons tended to lull her to sleep. In any case, she doubted that either would sound like the most patient of elementary teachers; the ones that could smile while shepherding a herd of puppies hooked on sugar and caffeine.
So 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. Pretty in the way grandparents would gush over and pinch cheeks long after the appropriate time.
More importantly, instead of a halo or a pair of horns, she had…
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’m a bit closer to a bat, I think.”
“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.”
In an unfamiliar place something itched, clawed at a sheet of glass that she was too lethargic to push away. She focused on returning the doctor’s courtesy instead.
“Nan Beauchamp, undergrad?” It felt right, stating some kind of title at the least. Even if it 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 touch her. 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.
“You’re the calmest arrival I’ve had this year. Are you feeling alright? No wooziness?”
“Only a bit. My eyes are blurry though.” It was like someone smeared all but the center of her vision with murky water. She found herself blinking rapidly, 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 kind of bug hit her?
Izusa gave a light hm of approval. “I have to do a quick spot check, then we can roll you out of here for something to munch on.”
Nan let the spot of dread leaning against her neck fade. It was a paper tiger; some lingering sentiment from a dream long lost to her conscious mind, nothing more. She felt safe, albeit sluggish and a bit confused. The room was warm and smelled faintly of cinnamon.
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 gleaming purple eye, but a curly lamp when seen through the non-fuzzy part of her vision.
She lifted her arms when asked, only flinching slightly at the cold touch of something Izusa snatched up from a tray beside her. It looked enough like a stethoscope, but the instruments that were brought along with it mocked her attempts at recognition. As long as the more weird ones stayed away from her skin, she’d have no complaints.
So, instead of ‘What the hell is that unholy combination of a reflex hammer and scalpel for, and why does it need a light?’ Nan thought of practical questions.
“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, there would be no escape from Ma and Pa’s doting. She didn’t hate them for it, quite the opposite really, Nan was just the kind of person that shied away from public displays of affection.
“Don’t worry, 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 recalled 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 your brain, I messed with your soul.”
“My what?!” 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.
Everything was wrong wrong wrong. Impulses 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.
Carried by a cool breeze of cinnamon laced air, 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. More pertinent was erasing the image of herself blubbering. 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 again. The intangible scraping against glass. The elusive something. This time, it waxed beyond her ability to overlook. The scent of cinnamon came stronger. Flint against steel, spark against tinder, flame against the chill of night. Nan’s something- her whym broke free and swelled; a full breath of air where a pitiful wheeze in her depths once stood. Her entire body and something more flushed with vigor, a dullness within her will tumbled away like fog chased by the wind.
“Did it work?”
Nan, nodded. The least, and most she could manage at the moment.
“Whew! That makes twenty in a row without a hitch!” Izusa let go, her tail lashing happily about. Nan hardly registered her words.
Gold, the woman’s whym was gold. A whirling mass of something akin to both liquid and gas, running from her middle into lines across her body like a system of veins fed by a hurricane. Passageways of lifeless silver streaked across the walls, as similar motes burrowed into a few of the odd instruments on Izusa’s tray. The vibrant purple of the lamp matched the trails coursing through Nan’s palms and fingertips.
The new layer of sight didn’t blot out what her eyes picked up, it simply existed in a parallel space with none of the headache she imagined something like that would bring. Even the bits of silver she “saw” under and behind her failed to make her anything other than awed at the new world of sensations unfurled.
“Do you think you can channel?”
Nan stared in askance, for the moment, pulling her attention from the whym signatures 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 see a tiny piece of Izusa’s whym separate, a storm parting with a sliver of itself. The piece fell into her palm with a flash of gold, 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, this time ‘reaching 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 into the splotch.
Purple flames danced above Nan’s palm, three of them, circling lazily around a much larger fourth. More whym bled 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!” Nan preferred to maintain a cool, unflappable appearance but she couldn’t help herself. 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.
“Good, now stop,” Izusa said.
“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. It’d probably kill a lot of people in the building, too. In what twisted circle of hell was it okay to let people 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.
“Don’t fret. Control comes with practice.”
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, barely audible over Nan’s heartbeat, 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 store of whym that continued to swell within her.
“I died,” Nan admitted.
“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.