Sneak peek: Elm Stone Saga 4: Haunted.

Elm Stone Saga 4: Haunted by Shayla Morgansen

Prologue

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It should have been a straightforward surgery. She was good – very good. It helped to be a sorcerer and Healer of great ability, of course, but so too was she simply an excellent surgeon. A hard worker at medical school. A devoted professional since her internship here at the Royal London. A steady hand and keen eye. Years and years of experience.

“Heart rate’s up,” Miranda stated calmly, hands buried in the open chest of her patient. He was undergoing a standard coronary artery bypass and everything was progressing perfectly normally. “What do we do?”

Her intern, Josie, was assisting for the first time, and glanced back at the beeping monitor to read the numbers on the display. She bit her lip nervously, alarmed by the noise; to Miranda, experienced surgeon and high priestess of the world’s largest magical nation, it was all perfectly minor and perfectly manageable. Distantly, beyond this operating theatre full of nurses, doctors and anaesthetists, her mind was connected to the telepathic circle of consciousnesses that were her twelve superhuman colleagues. Sorcerers like herself, they were the best of any that could be found, anywhere in the White Elm nation – Seers of the future, Displacers who could teleport with incredible accuracy, scriers of actual events past and present, Telepaths, and other Healers like Miranda. When they had a problem, it was worth panicking about, but an elevated heart rate, here, now, could so easily be managed.

Far away and deliberately tuned out from their frenzied discussion, the way a radio could be tuned in and out of a channel, Miranda knew that the council did have a problem, but her hands were in a man’s chest, holding his heart, prepared to stop it and reroute his bloodstream through a series of machines so she could operate on it safely. There was nothing she could gain for anyone by listening to the council. She couldn’t help. She could only stay focused on what she was doing. This was important work, too.

Josie pulled herself together. She knew this. Miranda knew she did.

“Uh, we need to give him–”

She didn’t hear the rest.

Miranda had experienced loss before, seen death, touched it, held it, but from across the world, Anouk’s death ripped at her and she gasped, shock radiating through her. Like a physical injury, tearing with pain, a sudden emptiness opened up in her mind where her telepathic colleague and friend had been just a second earlier. And it was like she reached into the chasm after her but closed her grip on only cold and nothing. She squeezed her eyes shut and winced against the sudden tumult of horrified voices in her head.

NO!

Anouk! Who else was with her?

Renatus and Aristea! I can’t hear him. Can anyone else hear him?

He’s not responding to me. Is he alright?

Renatus? Report in!

Qu’est-il arrivé ? What has happened?!

“Dr Rhode? Miranda?!”

She ignored the voices in the room with her as she tried to blink away the tears of disbelief that had sprung unbidden to her eyes and reached clumsily with her mind for the collective of voices in her head. The council. From all over the planet, they reacted as one, crying out for their friend and demanding answers.

What happened?! she asked the circle, and heard her usually calm, steady mental voice convey itself shakily into the chaotic telepathic conversation. At first no one responded to her. How did this happen?

They were in Prague, Lady Miranda, one of her senior councillors, Qasim, reported stiffly. We have lost Anouk and possibly some civilians. There was an explosive event. Magnus Moira seem to have been involved. We can’t contact Renatus. They were there with her.

They? Miranda asked bleakly, opening her eyes and staring blankly into the red of her patient’s incision, at the worried hands grasping and steadying her wrists. But she already knew the answer. Young scrier Renatus was capable of taking care of himself, and she would have said the same of Russian Telepath, Anouk, but Renatus’s apprentice, Aristea, was an untested element in an already unpredictable scenario. She wasn’t even old enough to be a junior member of the White Elm.

And they’d now misplaced her somewhere in central Europe amongst members of the enemy in the middle of an ‘explosive event’, whatever that was meant to be, that had killed at least one highly competent White Elm agent. The teenager could be dead.

Anouk was dead.

“Dr Rhode, are you alright?”

Josie’s concerned voice got through the mental voices and Miranda looked up and around the operating theatre. All eyes were wide and worried and on her. She became aware of the thick, slow progression of time, the blur of her familiar staff’s faces, the gluey echo of nearby sounds, and the floaty, ungrounded sensation of her whole body. The numbness. The fact that she had forgotten that her hands were on a patient’s heart muscle.

The fact that those hands were shaking.

Shock. She’d seen it enough to be able to diagnose herself. Forcibly she grounded her attention back into her own body, in this time, in this place, shutting her eyes tightly again. She could not perform this surgery. She needed to get out of here.

“I, uh… Migraine,” she claimed unevenly. She swallowed; her throat was dry. Anouk… “I think I have a migraine. Can someone…?”

Dr Bellucci nodded and stepped up to carefully take the heart from her, and she slid her wobbly hands from the chest and backed away. Her gloves and the sleeves of her robe were grimy with blood. Was Anouk’s death bloody? No doubt soon someone would find the body and project the gruesome images to the rest of the council. Miranda was almost sick at the thought of her friend, just alive and well minutes before, as a ‘body’.

She kept waiting for the black hole in her mind to fill and for Anouk’s dry voice to jump in, to explain she was only cut out by some dark blocking spell. She kept waiting.

Has anyone got eyes on the situation? I can’t get to them!

I’m nearby. All I can hear is screaming! What’s going on?

What just happened?!

Miranda staggered to the door and shouldered through to the sinks. She peeled off her gloves as quickly as they would come off and tore the operating gown over her head. She tossed everything into the bin in the corner and went to work scrubbing her hands under the tap, focusing on her breathing. In, out, get a grip.

Anouk was gone. Ten years on the White Elm council against the wishes of most of the people she knew, and now she had paid for her service with the ultimate cost. Miranda couldn’t begin to consider the massive consequences this particular loss would mean for the council’s political position, not right now; instead she watched the water pour over her hands, grounding herself back in the present moment.

Anouk, dead.

Renatus, missing in action.

Aristea, at risk.

Councillors, in a panic.

Lord Gawain, her co-leader? She could hear his voice among the others, trying to get things organised, trying to work out what was going on. He could use her help. She had already failed the patient but Dr Bellucci would see to it that he got the proper care. She had nothing else scheduled. No one would question it if she disappeared now after claiming a migraine.

She turned off the faucet and called for the attention of one of her magical colleagues, one of those better at Displacement than she was. In this state of shock, teleportation became an even less exact science. The reply was unexpected.

Miranda! Help, I need you!

Renatus? He was alive, at least, though she’d never heard his mental voice so strained and distressed. Was he hurt, too? Aristea? How was she going to get to them? She would have to risk an inaccurate Displacement.

Now, Miranda! Please!

The young councillor went suddenly from being a loud voice in her head to being a strong and obvious presence downstairs. He’d come to her. He’d never come to her, asked anything of her, wanted anything from her, arrogantly self-sufficient as he was. This fact, and the stress of his plea, cut through the numbness and she burst from the antechamber with her heart in her throat. He was there, in Prague – did he have Anouk’s body? Had she survived? No – only a death felt like a death. But perhaps she could be revived? Was it just her heart that had stopped? A stilled heart could sometimes be restarted… But after so many minutes… Miranda didn’t dare to hope. She just ran.

Miranda!!

The commotion in the foyer was obvious long before she saw it. Doctors and nurses ran either to or from it. She saw Lucia, a paediatric nurse just arrived for her shift, peering worriedly through the door. The door held open, the frantic shouting was perfectly audible.

“Someone get him under control. Did anyone see where he came from?”

“Just listen to me, I need to find Dr Miranda Rhode. I know she’s here. I need–”

“Sir, just let us–”

No! I need Dr Rhode. Miranda! Help!

“Miranda,” Lucia called tersely when she spotted the surgeon hurrying towards her, “there’s some guy demanding to see you–”

“Is he hurt?” Miranda asked, voice as clipped and calm as ever, the shakiness of a minute before disguised behind professionalism. The nurse shook her head slowly, glancing back into the foyer uneasily and standing back for her.

“Don’t think so.” Lucia held the door open for her. “There’s blood all over him but I think it’s the girl’s.”

Miranda never froze up at work but today was a special case, and the scene that greeted her was not one she could have prepared herself for. Renatus and Aristea belonged in Lady Miranda’s life – the foyer of London’s Royal Hospital was Dr Rhode’s. Yet here in that foyer stood Renatus, white and stricken, with Aristea’s motionless form cradled protectively in his arms and blood dripping all over the floor as he kept her out of reach of worried doctors. She’d never seen him like he was now.

The most powerful sorcerer known to the White Elm, all of twenty-two and with only a loose concept of restraint at the best of times, in a state of absolute panic and tensed ready to explode with enough magic to tear a hole through the floor and walls of the hospital if it helped get him the attention he wanted. The air around him wavered like the haze of heat. The whole room tingled with the inevitable.

“Just help us!” he shouted, backing away from the hospital staff like a caged animal. Staff and security not trying to approach him were speaking hurriedly into phones and drawing other patients away from the drama. “She needs Dr Rhode right now.”

His wildly seeking gaze found her just as she started forward again. His relief was almost tangible, as was the immediate drop in magical energy building in the room. He exhaled and stumbled toward her, shouldering past frightened doctors.

“Miranda…”

For all his shouting to get her here, Renatus now seemed lost for words as he brought his apprentice closer for her to inspect. She felt her stomach clench at the sight of the girl and understood why he had not waited for help to arrive onsite. Aristea’s pretty features were totally obscured by blood, pumping steadily from a deep, jagged gash along the left side of her face. Cuts could be closed, but eyes could not be regrown if punctured. Was her eye still there? The position of the cut made it seem very unlikely, and the volume of blood and displaced tissue made it impossible to know for sure.

She raised a tentative hand over the injury and yanked it away when a spark of crackly black energy ran the length of the cut. She sensed the stain of Lisandro’s magic, his specific signature as a Crafter. She shuddered, feeling cold. How had the dangerous renegade her whole council had been unable to find for almost a year managed to get this close to Aristea? Was her former colleague and brother responsible for Anouk as well?

“Renatus, what happened?” It was hardly relevant now, but the question was automatic. She remembered the presence of a dozen ordinary citizens, none of whom knew magic existed, all of them watching cautiously. She shifted to obstruct their view as another ominous shock of black lightning ran up and down the cut like electrified stitches. “Actually, don’t answer that. It was a hunting accident.”

“In London?” Lucia asked sceptically. Miranda nodded brusquely, thinking fast.

Someone, a patient across the foyer, pointed and raised his voice. “What’s that on her face?”

No time to think. Miranda waved the other staff away before they could get a good enough look to answer, gathering her wits in spite of the numbness in her senses and the chaotic activity in her head.

“I need an operating theatre immediately,” she said, pushing Renatus to get him walking back in the direction she’d come. “I need… I need…”

She faltered as she considered who to bring in with her. Most of her usual team were privy to or accustomed to her random acts of medical miracles, but they were all either in theatre with the bypass patient or off work this afternoon. The rest of the hospital’s doctors were excellent but not sorcerers, and might object to working with her if she openly confessed to practising witchcraft and heading a powerful grand coven.

Miranda glanced again at the injured girl. She didn’t need doctors. Only magic could pull that spell out of her wound.

“Emmanuelle and Teresa,” Renatus finished for her, vaguely, tightening his grip on his apprentice when someone came forth to take her. He turned away to block the other doctor, and was facing Miranda again. He was tall and looked down at her, but he looked so young in this moment. Had he just watched Anouk die? Then seen this happen to his apprentice, the girl he’d chosen out of dozens of potentials, who shared his unique history and who trusted him even when nobody else would? Miranda quickly brushed the emergency doctor away, insisting everything was okay, she had it under control, and got Renatus walking again, overhearing his murmur of, “I already called them,” even through the loud noise of the foyer and the loud voices in her head.

He’s not here. Where is he?

Can anyone see him?

What’s going on with Glen?

As if to confirm Renatus’s claim, once they passed through the doors and into the main passage towards the operating theatres, a storeroom door up ahead of them slammed open and a blonde sorceress in her mid-twenties wearing a green velvet dress fell or stumbled out. A few of the staff accompanying Miranda and Renatus hesitated at the unexpected appearance.

“Get us a gurney,” Emmanuelle Saint Clair snapped when she saw Renatus carrying the teenager. “Vite! Quick!”

Demands made in French in a central London hospital and exciting strangers appearing from nowhere holding bleeding girls with lightning on their faces would not go unnoticed, but an information clean-up would have to be carried out later. There was no time to contain the probable magic rumours now.

What’s going on? Lord Gawain asked in her mind. Is Renatus with you? Are they okay?

They’re here; it’s not good. But I’ve got this under control, Miranda confirmed grimly, all she was willing to promise. What about Prague? Anouk?

I’ll worry about all of that.

A gurney appeared and Renatus lowered Aristea onto it hesitantly.

“Is she going to be alright?” he asked, clearly frightened. He had to be pulled away; he was unwilling to release his apprentice into their care. The doctors took over with clear relief. The gurney sped things up and they raced past a bleak-faced Emmanuelle. Miranda hurried to be at the patient’s side. She wasn’t conscious – probably for the best – but the blood on her palms indicated that she’d been very aware of her injury when it first occurred, probably clutching at her face in pain. How had this happened?

“She’ll live,” Miranda said when Renatus kept pace with her and leaned closely over her shoulder, “but beyond that, I can’t tell you yet.”

A nurse, who had followed them from the foyer, just trying to do his job, asked Renatus what the patient’s name was and what had happened to her. Judging by his tone, it was not the first time he’d asked. Miranda knew how frustrating it was trying to get information out of a traumatised family member but this was the first time she’d been sitting on that side of the fence, too. She’d not even heard the nurse’s voice over her own noisy and terrified thoughts until now.

“There’s so much blood,” Renatus commented unevenly. He was obviously working very hard to keep himself together, and Miranda had privately thought for some time that Renatus suffered from a strong aversion to blood. Usually the picture of detachment, in this moment he was as shattered as any ordinary person ought to be. They turned a corner into the next hall. “Is this normal?”

Miranda shot him a look.

“Nothing about this is normal.”

Normal was day-to-day governance – council deaths, wounded teens, shell-shocked human weapons and magic in her hospital fell considerably outside the realm. Virtually borderless, the magical community Miranda’s council governed extended across the world, and any threat of Lisandro’s was their responsibility to address. Mostly he was underground, untraceable; then suddenly he was everywhere. Oneida was even now securing a crime scene connected to the former councillor, a dead mutineer nailed to a tree. Now this? It couldn’t be coincidence.

Has anyone seen Glen? Jadon’s voice asked again. I’m just getting a weird noise. Can’t anyone else hear that?

No.

No, I can’t hear anything.

I’ll check in on him.

Aristea’s head tipped to the side as the gurney was raced through the hospital and her blood began to stain a widening patch on the pale bedclothes. Renatus, keeping pace, groaned and covered his mouth with the clean back of his wrist, looking like he might be sick. Miranda grasped the girl’s wrist and, noting the erratic pulse, tuned straight into her nervous system. A cursory examination told her what she’d already suspected – the teenager was unconscious, in a state of shock, bleeding profusely. There were several torn veins and arteries. Fragments of a very nasty, raw spell were wedged into her flesh like splinters. The body was reacting as it normally would, inflaming the area, sending platelets to clot the tear and white blood cells to fight any entering pathogens. Sadly all of the body’s efforts were a waste at this point, because everything it sent to the injury to fix it was just pumped straight out.

They arrived at the doors of the operating room and Miranda paused to catch Renatus as the gurney went on without them. His tight, worried eyes widened as he realised he was to be parted from his apprentice, even briefly.

“No, Miranda–”

“Renatus, you need to get it together,” she told him, calmly but firmly. Aristea disappeared inside the theatre with the other medical staff. For just a moment, Miranda and Renatus were relatively alone – they mightn’t get another such chance. “Tell me what happened to her. Lisandro?”

“I need to–”

“Renatus,” Miranda snapped, trying to focus him. His attention was beyond her, following the girl he could no longer see. “You aren’t going inside my sterile operating environment looking like that.” She pointedly glanced over him, and he seemed to notice the blood on his own hands for the first time. If possible, he paled further, and she worried he might faint. She waved quickly in his face to recapture his attention. “You can see her again in a moment. You’ll scrub in, like everybody else. Tell me what we’re dealing with. How did this happen to her? Was it Lisandro?”

He was so lost, but he nodded quickly, trying to gather to himself the words she needed from him.

“She saw him before I did, and she ran… She wouldn’t stop, she wouldn’t let me stop her,” he explained hurriedly. “I tried. We couldn’t Displace. Otherwise I… He hit her with…” He gestured after her helplessly with his bloody hand. “I don’t know what it was. We’re wasting time.”

“Qasim says there are bodies everywhere,” Emmanuelle muttered after deflecting the nurse, texting hurriedly on her phone. “I know a medical examiner, one of ours. She can help them. Where were Aristea’s wards?” She looked up expectantly. Renatus turned to her with blank, empty eyes.

“She let them down,” he murmured miserably. Aristea’s wards instructor stared at him.

“She what? You let ‘er into that situation without wards?! Why–”

“I told her, I swear.” Renatus looked like he didn’t know what else to say. “Obviously, I told her. She was shielded – she shielded everyone – and then, I don’t know, she dropped them. This is all my fault,” he concluded aloud, pulling away and stalking a few paces down the hall, pressing his sticky hand to his face in distress and leaving a feral smear of blood before he could realise what he was doing.

He was right, they were wasting time. Miranda grabbed his arm as he paced back past her, staring with dread at his hands.

“Can you help us heal her?”

The expression on his face when he looked immediately to Emmanuelle was nothing short of broken. She gathered there was a huge story there she’d never heard, but now wasn’t the time. Emmanuelle cleared her throat.

“No, ‘e can’t,” she said flatly, offering no explanation. Miranda looked up at the ceiling and counted to three.

“Renatus, you’re no good to anyone like this,” she said irritably, not caring if she sounded insensitive. What was the point of a superpower like Renatus if he was shedding magic everywhere indiscriminately instead of concentrating it on a task as significant as this one? “Get a hold on yourself. There’s raw magic in your apprentice’s flesh. We,” she indicated Emmanuelle with a nod of her head, “can close the wound but you need to pull that spell out.”

He was so white. He swallowed. Visibly pulled himself together. “Whatever you need.” He rubbed a hand on his sleeve, wiping blood away so vigorously he pulled the sleeve up, revealing the tattoo he shared with his apprentice, half-hidden under a grimy layer of her blood. Emmanuelle, one of the few people he could reasonably call a friend, stopped him.

“You can wash your ‘ands,” she said, starting to lead him into the OR’s antechamber where the troughs and sanitiser were waiting. She paused, expression faltering. “Anouk…?”

Renatus shook his head and pulled away, sweeping between them to go inside the theatre. Emmanuelle glanced at Miranda, and the priestess saw that her junior councillor was every bit as destroyed by the confirmation as Miranda and Renatus were.

Inside was a circus. A whole motley crew of emergency doctors and nurses who had followed the excitement from the foyer was dutifully scrubbing in, preparing to do their part to help this poor girl. Emmanuelle weathered the disconcerted looks of hospital professionals eyeing her velvet dress and caught her leader’s eye. No one here was going to be able to help.

All at once, five pagers went off, and every non-witch in the room checked their urgent messages.

“It’s the emergency room… Oh, god,” Dr Chande murmured, glancing up at Miranda. “Have you got this under control? A school bus just crashed!”

“They’ll need all hands down there,” Miranda agreed seriously, ushering the whole team away. “Dr Saint Clair and I can handle things here.”

They milled out in a rush, the doors swinging in their wake, Renatus and Emmanuelle watching them go with looks of alarm. An illusion, but not their doing. Miranda suddenly became aware of a fourth and fifth White Elm presence in the hall. A mere second later, the door opened once more.

Miranda opened her mouth to protest.

“Don’t argue,” Teresa said immediately, staggering under the weight of the older man she was supporting. Glen?! Miranda and Emmanuelle abandoned the sinks to help. Renatus looked up from his hands as water washed his apprentice’s blood down the drain. “You have two patients, you need me.” The Welsh Telepath was rigid all over and visibly seizing, his eyelids fluttering and jaw locked. “Jadon thought something was wrong with him and he was right. I found him on his front lawn, like this.”

“You should not ‘ave come, but we’re not arguing,” Emmanuelle promised, backing through the doors to get Glen into the theatre where they could lay him down in sight of their other patient. His fair hair stuck to the sweat on his forehead; his thoughts were shut down. She looked up at Miranda, who’d known him much longer. “Does ‘e ‘ave a ‘istory?”

“Of seizures? No, I don’t think so.” Miranda checked him over. No other injury, but the timing couldn’t be ignored. Emmanuelle dealt more frequently than she did in healing chronic illness and disorders of the body, and she arranged Glen now with care and expertise. “Have you got this?” She waited for the French Healer to nod, settling her hands on his temples and shutting her eyes, then stood, gesturing for Teresa. “You’re with me, if you’re sure you’re up to it.”

“I felt Anouk go,” Teresa said, accented English uncharacteristically flat and toneless. The council’s best Illusionist, she was on indefinite leave while she recovered from trauma. “In this state I think I can handle some blood.”

Miranda tried not to let the pang in her heart distract her from what she needed to do. Anouk… She went to the teenager’s side. Another jolt of the black spell zipped up and down the open wound.

“My biggest concern is whether the eye is intact,” Miranda told her Romanian assistant, whose step faltered only slightly when she laid eyes on the job they faced. The surgeon tilted the lamp overhead so it was directly aimed at the injury site. Now Miranda could see in sharp relief the torn skin of Aristea’s cheek, eyelid and temple, the exposed fatty flesh of her cheek muscle, a little of the orbital bone… She refused to let her gaze slide to the unharmed right side of the face, unwilling to see the normal half and have to recall that this opened-up half used to look like that. Aristea had been blessed with symmetry, but that was unlikely to remain true after this surgery.

She carefully lifted the damaged eyelid, trying not to disturb the injury further. The eye was bloodshot and the surface of the cornea was rough, like it was peeling. There was minor scarring in the retina, too. But the eye was indeed intact and present. One had to take the time to accept small miracles.

“What’s this?” Teresa asked anxiously, gently wiping blood from the girl’s nearest hand. Miranda leaned over the prone body to look, and from the floor, Emmanuelle paid attention, Glen relaxing in her lap.

There was actually nothing to see, even under the blood. The skin was unaffected, but Teresa highlighted the arteries underneath for the three of them to see. Glowing, webbed across the palm and down the wrist, halfway to the elbow, blood vessels appeared cracked and, somehow, burned. Both younger Healers looked up at Miranda for an explanation.

“Burnout,” she realised quietly. “Too much magic. Renatus,” she called back through the doors. He appeared, looking, if possible, even paler than before. “What did she try to channel?”

“A ward,” he said, staying back at the doors and staring at his apprentice. “As big as a city square.”

The sorceresses looked at one another again, eyebrows raised. That was a big spell, and certainly explained the wear on the hand that had channelled the energy to create it.

It couldn’t be healed with magic, but would recover in time on its own.

“Could that be why she fainted?” Teresa asked the older sorcerers.

“She didn’t faint,” Renatus corrected. “I…” They all heard him swallow guiltily. “I couldn’t listen to the screaming.”

The work for the Healers was intuitive and wordless. Miranda slipped into a trance and slowed Aristea’s heart rate down as much as she dared. From the moment she touched the patient, each heartbeat was followed by a pause longer than the one before. As Miranda’s senses probed the jagged cut, she could feel the decreased flow of plasma and the sluggish behaviour of the blood’s many busy components. This was an ideal state, stealing time for Miranda to extend her own awareness into the body, repairing tissues, arteries and tiny blood vessels in the face that had been torn apart by the blast. It also kept as much blood as possible inside the patient, preventing it from being pumped out too fast by a panicked but well-meaning heart.

Teresa was as good as her word and did not seem put off, raising a hand above the wound, glowing fingertips twitching like she was playing an invisible piano. The council’s Illusionist had a sensitivity for energy that gave her the ability to produce mirages as convincing as life, and she probed the spell embedded inside Aristea’s skin to its deepest reaches, forcing it all into the visible spectrum. The lightning that had only flared briefly before now began to solidify in full view.

The magic didn’t want to be seen and certainly didn’t want to come out. It sparked dangerously. Unable to handle magic so harsh, Teresa worked as best as she could around it, but when she got too close, the spell shot forks of warning at her hand.

“He made it himself,” she commented quietly, so as not to disturb Miranda’s work. “I have never seen such a spell. Ow,” she hissed, whipping her hand away when the offending magic struck out at her again, this time missing her by millimetres, its heat briefly burning her fingers.

Renatus had been staring vacantly at the barely-breathing girl he cared so much for, but now glanced up. Dark magic was his thing. He strode over quickly, passing Glen and Emmanuelle, focus redirected. He brought his cupped hands down over the cut in Aristea’s face. The spell blackened and sparked and shot at him, too, but he acted impervious to the effects. If it hurt him, he didn’t show it.

The spell went a bit crazy, spitting and sparking, fighting for life as the determined sorcerer’s hands began to glow, much brighter than Teresa’s had. He tensed, fingers tightening around a bundle of energy they couldn’t see, and began to lift, arms straining like he was tugging on something very heavy.

“What is it?” Miranda asked softly, sensing the change as the magic was pulled slowly from the tissue she was working on. Renatus shook his head.

“Deliberate,” was all he said in response, and his tone was acid.

Emmanuelle left the recovering Glen to take over Miranda’s trance, keeping Aristea alive on a heart rate that was too slow for natural survival. Miranda felt no concern for the apprentice in this regard; she knew that Emmanuelle was diverting oxygenated blood to the brain and vital organs and prioritising the evacuation of carbon dioxide from those critical areas. The altered state made it easy for Renatus and Teresa to unpick the spell from Aristea’s ruined flesh and for Renatus to slowly, painstakingly, pull it free altogether from the wound. He backed away with a handful of black magic and the three Healers started the task of reconnecting the two sides of the cut and encouraging the body to reproduce the cells necessary to fill the gap left in between.

Then there was just the eye.

Just one damaged eye between this procedure in this moment and the chaos that would ensue once she left this moment behind. Anouk. Glen. The White Elm. The witnesses to magic in the foyer. Prague. Lisandro.

Miranda took a beat and looked down at her hands, bloody once again.

For now, in this moment, they were steady.

This moment was the only one she had any semblance of control over. She went to work.