I did not know where I was, but a pale face loomed huge above me, its eyes pools of shadow. I screamed and smashed it with my fist. There was cursing and, as I attempted to rise, I was struck with, the Call to Slumber. I tasted ashes and fell unconscious again. As I drifted into an incoherent nightmare where I was somehow both an octopus and a gingerbread man and my legs were being eaten, I was relieved. I knew the spell’s sigil was that of Decimatia of Tytalus, Achlys’s mistress.
The next time I woke I was strapped down, and muzzled. I tapped the first few portions of “Sons of Mycetias, Rise as The Dawn” onto the bedhead. It may seem odd that we have an accepted knock code for “I’d prefer you didn’t treat me as is I was insane.” but Mentem duels often end with someone in need of a gentle rest under tight confinement. The person who came to untie me was Scipia, my sister.
Scipia was a corporeal necromantrix at that stage, although she’s more famous as a battlefield surgeon now. You may have heard she developed spells which allow you to graft a dead, but functional, limb onto a living person for the duration of a day? Disgusting, but effective. It doesn’t even have to be the person’s own limb. For a while there she was assembling grogs out of other grogs in a fashion I consider terrifying only now. Then it was awesome, and now it is awful. She had been suborned to the hospital because the hospice was already sorted out, and her ability to keep the walking dead combat worthy was directly relevant to keeping living combatants walking.
“Salve!” she said “don’t try to rise. You’ve lost a leg in battle.”
“I remember. It was eaten.”
“Yes. I surmised as much. The marks on the bone are distinctive.” and then she peered at where my leg should be and I thought…well, it was just a burst of emotions, really, focused on the determination to never look at what she was examining. It must, of itself, be horrible, both in material and implication, but with Scipia’s sigili, my stump was possibly covered in putrefying insect scales.
“Could you come up to the head of the bed?” I asked “I’d prefer not to strain my neck looking down at you.” As she walked up I asked “And if you could tuck in what’s left of my legs? It’s a bit cold.”
“One of them’s fine, and the other will be fine until dawn. Then the wound will reopen and I’ll magic it closed again.”
“Why are you holding me between days like this?” Wounds kept closed magically don’t heal.
“The injury’s too severe to survive without magical aid, and we simply don’t have the Corpus or Creo vis to spare. What little we have has been channelled to the combat magi. Our line is falling back. Losses are heavy. We may have to make a stand here.” She did not say “You are just an illusionist.” but I would not have resented her if she had. I was just an illusionist.
“Will I be fit by then?”
“No. We haven’t the time to either fix you or evacuate you.”
“So you prop me up somewhere with good line of sight and I cast as many spells as I can before the day ends, and my stump opens up and I die.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but only victors make choices.”
“We have one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Euthanasia. If I’m going to die anyway, you could harvest me for vis.”
“How strong are you in Corpus?” She asked, evincing none of the disgust common among magi for the idea of using the vis of other mages to fuel spells. Is it necrophagy if the magus asks you to do it?
“I’m not, but I’m quite skilled in Creo.”
“No, that’s only enough vis to heal…”and here she smiled “an injury like a missing limb. You’re more use alive, at least from a weight of fire perspective.”
“Anything I can do? Any preparation I can help with?”
“Sleep.” she said “The more fatigue you carry into the battle, the less use you are.”
It was not until the third day that I thought to ask where Achlys was.
It was Decimatia who told me that Achlys was dead. She was rebinding my stump at dusk, and I asked her how Achlys had escaped the ambush. I had assumed Achlys had dragged me back to Heartfoam.
“She never made it back.”
“You appeared in the courtyard with her Leap of Homecoming pin driven into the flesh of your back, between your shoulder blades.”
“To show you hadn’t stolen it.”
“No, why didn’t she…”
“We do not flee challenges. We are elevated by them.”
“I’m grateful she saved me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
“You would have done the same for her.”
“Yes, but because she was a more significant military asset than me. That’s not the sort of thing you can just mirror. I don’t understand why she saved me. Why not let me die and keep it with her, in case something worse came along? Something she couldn’t handle?”
“It’s not a real threat if you can just vanish like smoke. When you wade into the crucible of conflict, you must accept that you might fall, anything less is a game.”
“Then why take the pin into battle at all?”
“There’s no fault in flight if the scenario is hopeless. She must have assessed the challenge as worth her time.”
“How are you so calm about this?”
“I am pleasantly surprised at how well she turned out.”
“He death doesn’t seem to have saddened you at all.”
“Few masters get to review the entire life of a student, and weigh it. I am glad to have that opportunity, to measure my skill as a teacher. I am gratified that I did so well.”
“That’s just sick.”
“Nonsense. You think Toxophilus doesn’t know that you discussed euthanasia with your sister?”
“I hope he’d feel some sort of regret afterwards.”
“Why wish pain on those you love, Mararius?”
Then she wandered off to her other duties. Her House always needs the last word.
The next day Scipia was binding my wound at evening and said “Do you want to talk to Achlys’s ghost?”
“Really? Why not?”
“What would be the point?”
“To get some closure. To say goodbye?”
“How do you mean?”
“You seem to be suggesting that talking to her ghost is in some way talking to Achlys.”
“I don’t know what to say to that, beyond that I don’t understand it at all.”
“Ghosts aren’t people, Scipia. They are just fragments of people. They aren’t even the good fragments, or the fragments which represent the truest version of the person. That’s the soul, and it vanishes at death. Ghosts are just obsessions given bodies. I’m guessing the ghost has some final business?”
“Well, they all do.”
“Exactly. It can’t learn, can it? You have the same conversations with it over and over again?”
“She. She’s fixated on delivering a message, yes.”
“It’s not her, then. It’s a caricature. A bit of mental detritus. No more her, really, than a faerie. There’s no point in me talking to it.”
“It will give her some sort of peace.”
“No, it won’t really. Ghosts are just the energy that used to allow the soul to animate the body. They don’t rest. They don’t pass on to Judgement. They just dissipate back into the Magic Realm. They rise up and are gone. You may as well just cast Lay to Rest the Haunting Spirit on it. It’s not her.”
“It’s a fragment of her.”
“Is your fingernail you?”
“In a sense.”
“Not in any social sense. You say a fragment, and then you pretend its the whole. It isn’t though: it’s just a caricature close enough that people who need to can fool themselves. It’s an illusion.”
“She wants to talk to you.”
“No. She doesn’t really. Take a message of you like.”
“Are you sure? This isn’t a decision you can rethink later. Is this the cautious choice?”
“I’m sure. Ghosts aren’t people. Ghosts are just obsessions wearing the faces of people we knew. If I asked her why she saved me, could she answer?”
“Yes, she’s very coherent.”
“Is she coherent about anything but her final business?”
She paused, and thought “No.”
“Would it lie to finish its final business?”
“I don’t know.”
“So even if it was able to answer me, it might well lie.”
“Yes. I’m sorry I offered this to you. I thought it might help you face what’s coming with greater equanimity of spirit. It seems to have troubled you instead.”
“No. Thank you. My…forcefulness isn’t from sadness. I have made peace with her death. I don’t need to see her ghost.”
“Do you want to know what her business is?”
I thought about it. “No. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m going to die when the Diedne line reaches Heartfoam. That’s enough to have to worry about.”
She nodded, quickly finished what she was doing, and left.