“Once upon a time, at the end of the world, a young man found a cave. He was likely looking for a place to hide from the fire and madness the world had become,” the Doctor said.
The burned boy nodded, biting his lips as the needle sank into his arm.
“Don’t twitch or I will not continue the story.”
The boy sat very still, eyes shining with tears but not crying.
“In this cave he found a mountain of warm and cooling sand, and under the sand he could hear a tumult of weak voices.”
“Were there children under there? Did he dig them out?” the boy strapped to the table asked.
“Be still or I will not continue the story,” the Doctor said, filling a syringe with steady hands. “Under the sand he found shells, large eggs greater in size than half his body. Some were cool and still, but others flickered with warmth and life.”
Both boys sat very still, as the needles moved from one to the other, leaving the first burning and the other shivering.
“The largest shell contained a red, coppery creature strong enough to help break the shards of shell away. This one held the gifts of strong connection to all the elements of the earth. It was strong, healed quickly, was not easily burned, and was endlessly loyal and protective of others. These gifts she left to those who inherited her blood. And over the centuries they were many. I created you out of one of them, Rades.”
The red-haired boy scratched at the fur on the back of his neck, near the injection site, and his foot twitched, as it did when he scratched.
“And what am I, Doctor Ash?” the cold boy on the table asked.
The Doctor took his pulse, and frowned. “Something not as resilient, clearly.”
“Tallis, wake up. Wake up, you’re dreaming,” Djaren said. It was past time to pull him up.
Tallis, Eljiah’s fellow medical student, jolted, shook his head, and opened his eyes. “Simeon lives in a cage, and he cannot speak,” he said, then blinked. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. Were my dreams leaking?”
Djaren nodded, not wanting to confess he’d noticed half an hour ago. Mental privacy was probably a rule even for people who weren’t Ellea. It wasn’t Tallis’ fault that he leaked. It was one of the reasons he was rooming with Eljiah, who wouldn’t notice. The former Professor was willing to overlook a lot of oddness in a roommate, which was helpful when dealing with Tallis.
The tall, emaciated young man was a Shandorian student in his final year of studies here at the medical college in Cambriol. He looked as if he might fall over and die at any moment. His skin was so pale it was almost translucent, and looked stretched too tight over his bones. The sunken skin around his dark, feverish eyes looked bruised, and you could see all his veins and the shape of every bone in his hands. Despite this, he was always kind, with his whisper of a voice and shy rabbit smile. He was odd even by Shandorian standard, but usually cheerful, and generous with his knowledge.
When he wasn’t at lectures, Tallis spent most of his time alone at his studies or upstairs in his small laboratory. Knowing what he did now, Djaren was unsure that was quite healthy for him.
“Was I breathing?”
Ah, the other reason Tallis needed a roommate. “You were,” Djaren reassured.
“Oh, good. Did I say something odd just now?”
“Simeon lives in a cage and he cannot speak,” Djaren repeated for him.
“That qualifies,” Tallis said, templing spidery fingers and tapping them nervously. “It seemed important at the moment. Apologies.”
“Do you have a theory on what it means?” Djaren asked. Mother had told him not to bother Tallis and to politely ignore his eccentricities, but Djaren suspected there might be something in them. Tallis was a puzzle and it was hard not to poke.
“None whatsoever. You wanted to know about that femur that Kara found in the sewers, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” That was another puzzle that no one besides him seemed to want to solve. Isakoa and Djaren’s other Tembelakan housemates were buried in their studies and didn’t have the energy to be curious. Eljiah felt it was an unsafe thing to be looking into, and Kara didn’t seem find the discovery of a human femur where it did not belong to be an uncommon event.
“It is human, and it isn’t terribly old. I mean, its owner was seventy at least, by the degeneration, but not dead centuries ago or anything. More like months, though of course I can’t be precise. I want to say it’s a she, but I have no empirical evidence.”
“What do you have?”
“She feels like a she. Or did. Simeon is a rather unusual name, isn’t it? I wonder where it came from. Ilna.”
“Let’s call her Ilna.”
“The old woman.”
Djaren nodded. Most people found speaking to Tallis unnerving and difficult. Djaren had theories that Tallis was a genius. “Where’s the rest of her?”
“In a bag, no, bleached, strung together, shoddy workmanship. I don’t know. I’m very tired. I’m not sure I’m making any sense. Sometimes being tired isn’t safe.”
“You’ve been very helpful, I think. I’ll do some more investigating around your guesses. Get some sleep, and make sure Eljiah does too.” Djaren hopped down from his seat on the desk, and put the femur back in his bag. Perhaps running right over here in the small hours of the night with his discovery had been rather thoughtless. Kara had said stupid, but she said that about a lot of things.
Tallis unfolded back up to his gangly height, and nodded amiably. “Yes, be careful walking back.”
“Kara’s waiting for me. I’ll be fine.”
“She can come inside next time, if she wants.”
“I’ll let her know.”
Djaren left the thin little slice of row house near the medical college, and found Kara lurking several houses down, coat collar high, eyes sharp in the darkness.
“It’s about time. I was worried.”
“You could have come in.”
“I know better than that.”
“He’s not a demon.”
Kara grimaced. “I don’t care if he’s not possessed. In Corestemar, demons are said to be tall thin things made of bone and white flesh, whose fingers end in bony claws and who foretell the hour of people’s deaths. He does all that.”
“He doesn’t eat the flesh of the dead.”
“How do you know? Have you ever seen him eat at all?”
“It’s really funny what you’re afraid of.”
“I never said I was afraid.” Kara glowered, snugging her coat against the night chill, and walking alongside him back to the main buildings of Cambriol.
“You hardly ever are, I know.” Djaren smiled ruefully up at the sky, looking for stars but finding only fog. “I wouldn’t have guessed thin medical students would be the one thing.”
“No one likes doctors,” Kara said.
“Uncle Eab—Eljiah wants to try and be one.”
“There’s still something wrong with taking people apart in order to put them back together.”
“I’ll admit the traditional forms of medicine here don’t agree with the Shandorian healers’ traditions or Sarvarthi academy herbalism, but it’s worth learning it all, don’t you think?” Djaren stumbled on a loose cobblestone, and corrected himself with a brief bout of flailing.
Kara looked at him and shook her head. “Are you going to try doing yet another major? That’s a different school altogether this time. Isakoa will throttle you. I will throttle you, and that’s if you don’t get cursed first by cutting up dead bodies.”
“You don’t get cursed from that, not really.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s just no real evidence. Now that you’ve started finally believing in legends, you pick all the strange ones.”
“Not strange, normal. In Corestemar. Only scum already cursed by the gods to be in the lowest caste touch the dead.”
“Didn’t you tell me about the time you robbed those corpses?”
Kara nodded, grudgingly. “I didn’t touch skin, though, or insides. And I’m no caste.”
Djaren bit back any statement Kara had made earlier about how having no caste meant you were lower than the lowest. He didn’t really want a fight. They had six more streets to be in each other’s company before parting ways at the college gate, and that wasn’t enough time. “I don’t think Shandorian dead curse people.”
“Because your Shandorians are just so much nicer and better than everyone else, rotting or not?”
“No, I didn’t mean that.” Djaren had been so sure that if he spent more time with Kara they would get along better, but somehow, familiarity seemed to make certain rifts worse. “Did I say something to make you cross with me?”
“Nearly every word you say always makes me cross.”
“You were born cross.”
“And you were born babbling stupid things and never stopped.”
“That,” Djaren considered, pausing in his pace, “is probably true.”
Kara laughed and tried to glare, but it was spoiled by the grin. “It’s cheating to give ground like that. I don’t win properly if you drop and curl.”
“What are we winning?” Djaren asked, finding Kara glower-grinning quite close now.
“Young gentlemen are to be in the dorms by eleventh hour,” the strident voice of a college steward interrupted rudely. “It is half past two. I ought to have you down for indecent behavior in the small hours!”
Djaren jumped. “We’re not indecent. I’ve a coat and everything.”
“Nahaka, I will kill you with your own club,” Kara hissed, correctly identifying the mimic a moment before Djaren did.