The Illumination of Karen
The next time Karen opened her eyes, she was in a bed, in an unfamiliar room, with a stranger by her side, offering her warm broth in a cup. She managed to drink only a little before falling asleep again. The same episode played out several times in succession, the only thing changing between them was the brightness of the room, and the person feeding her. After a while though, she managed to stay awake for a little longer, drink a little more broth, and even nibble on some bread. Sometimes, Thisha was also there, sitting by her bedside. When she finally felt strong enough to converse, she found out that she was in a hospital, not far from the waterfront. Thisha had recovered considerably faster than Karen, but had been allowed to stay with her for the time being. They had been brought, still unconscious, to the hospital by a group of people from the harbour. That was all that the staff could tell them of how they came to be there. Thisha was very obviously relieved once Karen started improving significantly, but was otherwise heavily marked by the deepest sorrow. For Karen however, the greatest shock was still to come. After her first longer conversation with Thisha, during which she had learned everything stated above, she had slept again. Upon waking anew that same evening, she had felt strong enough to try and stand up by herself, and so removed her covers. It was the first time she had used her own arms and hands since swimming in the sea, and now she saw that her right hand was missing. It had been cut off above the wrist and a bandage with poultice covered the remaining stump.
She was utterly stunned by the discovery, which shock to her still very weak body, sent her crying herself to sleep soon thereafter. Having slept so much already though, she woke up in the middle of the night. After several hours of mourning her lost limb, strands of reason started to make their way into her depressive lines of thought: Even though Karen had been right-handed all her life, this loss probably meant less to her than to most people. She was not depending on it for her livelihood, for example. She was not a carpenter, a tailor, a scribe, or any other of the multitude of professions in which manual skill is vital. Of course, her work at the bookshop required quite a bit of writing, but she could probably maintain her position until she’d learned to write left-handed. And aside from that, she could think of no aspect of her life where a lack of her most skilled hand would be more than a handicap or inconvenience. She didn’t, as some might, consider the possibility of having a magician regenerate her hand.
The very few masters of The Art who are able to regenerate limbs are constantly swamped with work of the most serious kind. They use their skills to help the many victims of truly horrific accidents, disease, or war. The people who need a new liver, a new lung, or a new face. In all of Arcaport, there are usually only a handful of such individuals at one time. For it is only those who have studied for considerably more than a century who are capable of it, those who have achieved agelessness. And once they have been in practice for some time, most of them give up in the face of a never-ending stream of sufferers. They usually end up either studying another aspect of Focus, or moving to a smaller community, where their efforts feel more significant. Karen knew this, and therefore also that she had no chance of getting it done that way. What she did know, was that her own studies might very well, in time, allow her to grow her hand back on her own. It might take her several decades, even a hundred years of study. But for one who aims at living forever, that is less depressing than it would be to the common man.
Thinking of her studies reminded her at last of her exam. She didn’t even know what day it was right now. Even though she’d been lying there in deep thought for a long time, it was still dark outside. Thus, she got up, intending to find a clock or calendar. But now that her mind had started focusing on more quotidian things again, a few other sensations became apparent as well. Her stumpy arm ached, she was very hungry, and she needed to go to the bathroom. Tackling the most urgent problem first, she located the closest toilet, which was connected to her room. Moving about was rather iffy, and she reeled about like a drunkard at first. It dawned on her that she had probably received some heavy painkiller in her broth, for which she was thankful. Having relieved herself, she went out into a corridor, at the end of which sat a night-nurse, reading at his desk. Upon spotting Karen, moving down the hallway as though she had just learned to walk, he immediately got up to assist.
“Madam! May I help you?”
“It’s miss, actually.”
“I’m sorry. May I help you, miss?”
“I would very much like some of your painkiller broth, and whatever else I might get to eat at this hour.”
“I would also like to know what hour this is, and on which date.”
“It is five o’clock in the morning, on the 12th day of Invido. Now, as soon as I’ve helped you back to your bed, I shall go and fetch those other items for you.”
“Capital. Let’s go.”
Two days later, at three p.m. of the 14th, Karen stood outside the entrance to Arcane University, with Thisha at her side. During the two days that had passed, she had focused entirely on regaining as much strength as possible. She had eaten gradually more and more, walked a little, and made sure to get a lot of sleep. It was only on the morning of that very same day that she had been able to convince the doctors of her fitness to go home. Telling them that Thisha was her live-in valet, had helped. The girl had nowhere else to go, so Karen had indeed offered her to stay at her place for the time being. They had hurried back to the apartment, had a change of clothes, and made it to AU in time. The exam was set to start at three o’clock, which, according to academic tradition, actually meant that it would start at three twenty.
Karen still felt weak. In the morning, when leaving the hospital, she had been in quite good spirits. She had not taken any pain-medication since the day before, instead relying on her body-control to negate her aching arm. The journey had also started out rather well, but as they progressed through the day, she had felt more and more sapped. It was obvious now that she had underestimated the toll taken upon her during her underground adventure. When looking in the mirror at home, she had seen a far thinner version of her usually spare form. Standing there now, in front of the gates, she was exhausted, she felt a bit hot, and her head swam slightly. Had it been any other event, she would have immediately gone back home if feeling like this. But for this exam, she refused to quit. Thisha followed her inside, where they made their way through a large entrance, several stairs and musty old corridors, to an oak-panelled auditorium. Thisha was allowed to sit in the back together with a few other friends and family members of applicants. There were around thirty aspiring wizards there, at least ten more than usual. Among a small group of surprisingly young attendants, Karen recognized Alexia, chatting with great animation. They were the only ones who were not obviously older than herself. A second later, Alexia had recognized her and came running over.
“Karen! How are you? You look awful!”
Karen stammered a bit. She really wasn’t sure what to reply. The situation that Alexia had brought her into had started her entire adventure. But she had hardly considered that episode since it happened. In light of all that had passed since, it really seemed insignificant. In the end, a vague “It’s been a bit rough” was all that passed her lips in reply.
“You certainly look it. And I’ve been so worried. I hope it wasn’t all because of what happened at the summoning?” Alexia’s voice was full of concern, her sincerity nigh on palpable. While Karen wasn’t sure about what to think of her, and she was curious about the summoning, she wasn’t up to any sort of conversation right now. Hiding her mutilated arm from view, lest Alexia spot it and make more of a fuss, Karen replied:
“Maybe we can catch up later. I’m not too well, and had best concentrate on the task at hand.”
“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry to tax you. Good luck!”
With only a minute to go, everyone took their seats at the front of the hall. Desks and benches were worn pearl-smooth with centuries of use, feeling almost soft even though made of wood. After the distribution of the flowers, and a short introduction as to the parameters of the examination, an hour-glass was turned over and the trial began.
Karen started to focus in the manner she always did. But it was difficult to get a full grasp of her inner self, let alone attain the kind of focus she had when feeding the lichen. It wasn’t going her way at all. Already on the way over, her arm had started aching again, and she hadn’t been able to fully negate the pain. Now the pain increased, her head swam even more, and her impending failure with all its implications clouded her mind. She became aware that she was tense, hot, and short of breath. She tried to relax, but her sweating and panting had attracted the attention of several other attendants, who came to her aid. They asked her if she was alright, and made as if to lead her out of the room, to which she replied: “No, please. Just give me a few more moments… to collect… mys…” and fainted.