A garden claw was tilling Patton’s brain. Somewhere a drill burrowed through his head feeling bright orange. He closed his eyes tight, trying to block out the sound. Someone pried open each eye and flashed a light in it, driving the scent of burnt squash into his brain. Movement induced a symphony of pain that was so lyrical, so enchanting, that he wanted to swim in the music, let it drown him. It was all he could do to keep breathing, the motion of his chest like Christmas lights and tinsel glittering on the tree, the sound of his breath electric knives cutting his nerves in tastes of apple pie and pork chops. There was no comprehension, no confusion, no thought, just muddled sensations.
Then something happened, and things quieted down to mere madness, and he slept.
When next he woke his eyes saw, ears heard, tastes and smells were where they were supposed to be, and everything hurt. There was still no comprehension and no thought, but at least the sensations were clear. Perhaps too clear. He didn’t know, and didn’t know he didn’t know, any more than a worm in the dirt does. He just was.
He slept again.
This went on again and again, but there was no memory of it. He hadn’t progressed to having memory, just instincts and sensations. The ever-present now. More sleep, the great healer.
Something snapped, and suddenly he was awake and alert. He was lying in a bed in a hospital room — at least it looked, sounded and smelled like a hospital room, all hushed, clean efficiency. He wondered where he was and what he was doing here, but his thoughts came out like Place know this I not. I know here not why! He reacted, appalled at his own thoughts. Whoever was in his head wasn’t him!
He was still trying to get his thoughts to form correctly when a nurse came in. “I’m glad to see you’re awake, we’ve missed you!” She made some notes over on the desk, then approached his bed. “How are we doing today?” The nurse raised the head of his bead and fluffed his pillow. “Dr. Feeley tells me you can have whatever you’d like for breakfast, dear. What would you like?”
At the nurse’s question Patton’s brows got heavy and he rolled his eyes at her like some psychopathic killer. His voice became that of an alien monster. “I WISH TO DEVOUR THE UNBORN!” he said just as Dr. Feeley walked into the room, reading a chart. The doctor looked up at the startled nurse.
“Eggs. He would like some eggs.”
“Are you sure he’s ready for that?” she asked. She clearly expected Jello to be on the menu, not eggs. The doctor just looked at her, so she turned back to Patton and asked, “How would you like them cooked?”
“Beezlenut! Rah! Rah!” He sounded like a crowded football stadium.
“Hardboiled, please,” interpreted Dr. Feeley. The nurse scurried away.
The doctor came and stood next to the bed. “Mr. Patton? I am Dr. Feeley. Elaine called me and asked me to make sure your special needs were taken care of, as well as your injuries.” Patton’s face relaxed at the news that the witches had contacted the doctor. It meant Dr. Feeley was a wizard, at a minimum.
The doctor continued. “I can tell from your reactions that your understanding has returned, but things are still sorting themselves out inside your head. I expect it will clear up by tomorrow, but I cannot guarantee that. You may not realize it, but your magic has received a massive blow, the likes of which few Mages have survived before. Some scrambling is to be expected.
“There is lasting damage, don’t get me wrong! Some of which will be visible even to Mundanes. We will go over that later, when your thought processes are back to normal. In the meantime the best thing you can do is rest, and eat what you can. Even the ‘unborn’ if you can stomach them!” Smiling, Dr. Feeley reached out and gave Patton’s hand a gentle squeeze, then left the room.
Patton lay there pondering that touch, for in that brief contact he’d gotten an amazing glimpse of Dr. Feeley’s aura. It had the crisp, clean colors of sky and snow, wisdom and honesty, but behind that was a shadow of secrets being kept. He had no idea what it meant.
“So how are you feeling today?”
“Better, think I.” Great! thought Patton. My thoughts are finally straight, but my speech is channeling Yoda! He tried again. “Better. I. Think.”
“Hmm.” Dr. Feeley made a note on the chart, then said, “Just a couple more hours, I think, then your speech will be back to normal. I suspect your thoughts feel normal, yes?”
“Yes.” Patton didn’t dare try to string words together yet.
“Good. I think it is time to take a look under those bandages.” The doctor raised the head of the bed, then came over and slowly, gently, removed the bandages that had formed a cap around Patton’s head. Patton’s head felt strangely cool, which he attributed to the fact that he’d effectively been wearing a hat ever since he’d arrived at the clinic.
A moment later Dr. Feeley said, “Oh, my!”
“What’s up, doc?” (Patton was unaware that he had just formed a complete sentence.)
Dr. Feeley scowled briefly (he didn’t like to be called “doc”) and said, “You have lost all your hair, and from the looks of your scalp, it is permanent.”
Patton lifted his hands and cautiously felt his head. Everything above his eyebrows and behind his ears felt completely barren, with not even a wisp of hair or a hint of stubble from the top of his head to the base of his neck. “Mirror?” he asked.
The doctor went into the bathroom and came out with a large hand mirror. Patton held it up and looked at the new image.
The face in the mirror didn’t look much the way he remembered. His face was really thinned out, as if he’d been on a starvation diet for the last six months. His cheekbones were now sharply defined, and even his nose seemed to have lost weight. His eyes were a far brighter blue than he ever remembered, but the sockets seemed deeper, darker. Even his neck seemed thinner, ropy.
He remembered his eyebrows as being somewhat bushy, but now they seemed even more so, although that might be because there wasn’t any other hair on his head to divert ones attention.
His face still had bits of a beard — that part hadn’t seemed to change. It was too thin to grow out into a real beard — at least the one time he’d tried he hadn’t been pleased with the result — and right now it was stubble since he hadn’t been shaved in several days.
The loss of his money, his house, his normal life, his ability to talk normally, and if that wasn’t enough, now his hair! It was just too much for him, and he put down the mirror, put his face in his hands, and sat there silently sobbing.
“How are things today?”
“Much better. It seems I can construct sentences once again, which is quite a relief. Any idea as to what happened to me?”
“My theory is that a large amount of manna was released near you. Some of it was instantly converted into other forms of energy, which is what destroyed your kitchen and threw you through the window. Some of it your aura attempted to absorb into your chi, which overfilled. That’s what scrambled your thoughts and senses. And some of it fried your hair. The hair damage is more common than you might think, which is why most Mages will recognize it for what it is.”
“Any idea why I didn’t split my skull or break any bones?”
“I suspect that on some instinctual level you were able to deflect the energy elsewhere. I can teach you to do that consciously, if you’d like.”
“I’d like that very much. I’d rather have magic save my life than kill me!”
“First I need to check your disk.” Dr. Feeley walked up to Patton and opened the front of his pajama shirt. He lifted the three inch disk that Patton was wearing around his neck and looked at it. Then he went back to the desk and made a note on the chart.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, what is that thing?”
“It’s a crystal similar to the one Elaine gave you, except with a much greater capacity.”
“Really? It doesn’t look anything like it!”
“Theirs was natural, while this one is a synthetic crystal originally intended for the computer industry. It has far higher purity and a near perfect crystalline lattice. If I were to use this material to make a battery with the same capacity as Elaine’s it would be smaller than your pinky’s fingernail.”
“You call this a battery?”
“Yes, for magical energy. It has a charger that collects manna via the crystal’s surfaces and the chain and stores it in the crystalline lattice, but you can reverse the circuit and use it to power a spell. Most charms are crystal based and work the same way.”
“Gee, there seems to be a lot to this magic — it’s not just simple wish fulfillment.”
“I understand you’ve been taught how to light candles?” Patton nodded. “Then you already know that it’s not mere wishing. I will teach you a little more, but I must warn you — you will spend your whole life learning about magic and still only scratch the surface.”
Patton opened his eyes to find the Gruff sisters were entering his room.
“Hello, Scotty, how ya doin’?” asked Margaret.
“Oh, Patton! You look terrible!” exclaimed Yvonne, and she raced past Margaret and threw her arms around his neck. Elaine and Margaret followed, and for a moment all was hugs and kisses.
Eventually Patton was able to free himself enough to say “Thanks for the compliment. I’ve missed you, too.” Yvonne squirmed around to sit next to him on the bed, her hands clamping his arm to her chest. Elaine pulled up a chair on the other side and sat in it, with Margaret sitting on the arm.
“Do you know what happened to you?” asked Elaine.
“Dr. Feeley told me what the paramedics found, and what he thinks happened.”
Margaret said, “More importantly, do you know what caused it?”
“Yeah.” Patton was quiet for a moment, remembering, while Yvonne stroked his arm and everyone waited for the story. “I found a rock. At least I thought it was a rock. It had strange symbols carved in it, so I took it inside to clean it up and get a better look. Turns out there was a crystal ball inside that rock. I dropped it on the floor, it shattered, the ball popped out and blew up.” He closed his eyes to get control of his emotions. “And here I am.”
“Dr. Feeley said you were out of it for quite a while,” said Yvonne, pressing his hand to her face.
“I don’t remember.” Actually he did remember, he just wanted to forget the mixed-up sensations, confused thoughts, the terror of not being able to communicate. Unfortunately they seemed to be buried like a bit of sand in his oyster brain. He wondered if time would turn the irritating recollection into a pearl of memory.
“We came as soon as we were told you could have visitors,” said Elaine. Margaret just sat there looking protective, like she wouldn’t let him out of her sight until he was back home.
“There was a get-well card for you at the desk,” continued Elaine. “We brought it in with us. It’s from Robert Meadows. Do you him?”
“Never heard of him. Who is he?”
“He’s the Prince of Detroit, the head of the magical Mafia in that city,” growled Margaret.
Patton thought Well that could explain the protective look. “No clue,” he said.
Elaine went into lecture mode. “The dozen or so largest cities in the country each has a ‘Prince’ who controls the magical crime in that city. Even though the largest only has fifty or sixty wizard members, these gangs are the biggest long-standing organizations of wizards around. They aid and direct the actions of Mundane criminals, most of whom don’t know that their bosses are wizards.
“The Princes all know one another, trade with one another, and try to gain advantage over one another. Most of the time they get along well enough with each other, other than succession battles when one dies or is killed by a member of his own gang, but friction is developing between the Princes of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington as those cities grow toward one another.”
“So for some reason the Prince of Detroit knows about you and has an interest in you. That is not a good omen.”
“One other thing,” added Margaret. “The card was mailed in Rochester. That suggests he has someone local to us. I’d watch your back if I were you.” Dr. Feeley came into the room right about then.
“What can I do about it?” asked Patton.
Dr. Feeley interrupted. “Not much right now. I want to do some tests, but I suspect you have an unusual ability to absorb magical energy. I have agreed to show you how to deflect energy. Hopefully that will allow you to survive an encounter with run-of-the-mill wizards long enough to run away from them.”