Dr. Eman Burdock was afraid to go out. This was a town fresh from calamity.
Two days ago, in the gray light just after dawn, there had been what felt like an earthquake. The flow of magical power had ceased, causing every light to go out, every mechanical device to stop functioning. Tiny little Averieom, best known for its medical school, its training and research, its nurses and doctors, had panicked. Dr. Burdock had stumbled out of his house into the street, shell-shocked, barely aware of what he was doing, and had run almost straight into a mob.
Most of the people were as shocked and afraid as he was. But a few thought they knew what was going on, and their muttering quickly grew louder until it became shouts and wails. “The Select did this to us!” they cried. “They cut off our power! They’re leaving us in the cold on purpose!”
“Why?” asked someone else in the crowd. It wasn’t Dr. Burdock; he was too dismayed to speak. “Why would they do that?”
“To teach us a lesson. To prove their power over us. Because they felt like it. Who knows? The Select have always looked down on us and treated us like children. This is just more of the same. Down with tyranny! Down with the Select!”
Some in the crowd protested. Most Averieans saw the Select as their benefactors. Technology from trading with Jalseion improved everyone’s lives. The liaison between the Jalseion Academy and the Averieom Medical Sanctuary kept this town relevant in the larger world and much better off than some villages. The flow of magic current from Averieom’s Well, facilitated by the Select, lit the lamps, heated their homes, and powered everything from transports to large manufactories to automated butter churns.
”We have no proof the Select had anything to do with this,” someone said. Dr. Burdock thought he recognized the voice of Lani Alver, the grocer on Capital Street. Count on her to be a voice of reason, he thought, though his shoulders refused to relax. “It could be an attack from Thyrion. It could be that there’s been some terrible accident and power will be restored soon.”
A ripple ran through the crowd, caused by a commotion on the opposite side of the press. Someone new had arrived, rousing the people to new heights of agitation.
“The Well is empty!”
It was a thin cry, completely unrecognizable in distress. Dr. Burdock’s breath stopped in his throat, and he could feel his eyes widening and widening. His knees locked, his hands froze into claws, and goose pimples crept to life across his shoulders, his arms, his neck.
He’d known it. Hadn’t he? He’d felt it, he had. The Well was empty. The magic was gone.
Other voices questioned, demanded proof. Other people could not bring themselves to believe the word of a single witness. Eman Burdock didn’t have to ask. He needed no more proof. He stumbled back until he hit a brick wall, cold and rough through his thin nightshirt, and he stood and he stared, and he knew.
The mob went wild, then. Eman stood against the wall, paralyzed by understanding and fear, as shop windows were smashed, as light poles were dragged down, as people scrambled and screamed and struck out in panic and fury. There should have been sparks when the light poles were pulled down, their wires snapped, but the air remained unshattered. He saw folks run by with burning brands, with goods stolen from Lani Alver’s grocery, from Ib Naro’s butcher shop, from the Busuns’ general store. The cries against the Select multiplied and grew, and voices of reason were drowned out, for this magical disaster must surely have a magical cause, and all must be laid at the feet of those agents of magic.
Eman stood still and made no attempt to stop them. He was a hare, nerveless and crippled under the eye of an eagle. All his tattered mind could manage was to pray, with little hope and less courage, that none of them would remember that he, too, had been Select.
The Well was empty.
He didn’t remember how he made it to the Medical Sanctuary. He was in the street; then he was leaning on the door, locked behind him. The entryway before him was dark, only dimly lit by the newly risen sun, by fire outside the window. He needed to find lamps for the windowless rooms inside the building. Or candles. Did they have any candles? A defunct technology from a forgotten age, only produced now for sentimentality, for cultural rituals and the love of nostalgia.
Instead, he hid in one of the exam rooms and did nothing else till the others arrived. It was a very cold stretch of time. Long, and cold, and empty, and alone.
A few hours later, when the town outside had been silent for some time, other members of the Sanctuary came to the building to regroup. They gathered in the entryway to discuss the situation. “Smoke is rising from Jalseion,” said Dr. Pemry, head of the Sanctuary. “It is our duty to assist our allies.”
Terror filled Eman’s chest, heavy as stones. “What, what about the damage to Averieom?” he forced out. “Surely we also have a duty to our home.”
Dr. Pemry looked at him with heavy eyelids, mouth small and disapproving behind his neatly trimmed beard. “Averieom’s damage is quite superficial.”
“Still, shouldn’t some of us stay here? Needy and injured will come to the Sanctuary for healing, as always.”
Every person in the circle of medical professionals looked to Dr. Pemry, and Eman knew he had made a point.
Their leader offered a slow nod, accepting, and Eman’s head felt like it would float off in relief. “Very well. We shall maintain a presence here, just in case.”
The others began to gather medical supplies, arrange transport, and organize themselves into teams for the search and rescue efforts. Eman helped where he could but never volunteered for a team. By the end of the day, he was the only doctor in Averieom.
Now, on the morning of the second day since the disaster, Dr. Burdock stood at a front window, peeking through the shade. The only time he’d left had been for a quick run, in the dead of night, to his house for food supplies. The running water still worked, so he would not have to worry about that.
What did worry him was outside. That crowd the first dawn had been people he knew. Friends, neighbors, patients. He had seen them looting stores owned by other neighbors, heard them calling death down on a group he belonged to. It had been horrifying to witness.
He knew he should be ashamed of his cowardice, but there was no room in him for shame. He would stay in here until it was safe. Until he could be sure that anger and panic no longer ruled his fellow citizens. If anyone was hurt and needed his help, they could come and he would do his best. But he would not put himself in danger.
In the past two days he had patched up various cuts and gashes, burns, and a broken limb or two, and heard a lot of gossip. The mood of the town was unsettled and confused. People were still afraid. That meant they could still turn on him.
A sudden thump and thud in the back of the clinic made Dr. Burdock start, nearly banging his head on the window. He whirled around, breath jumping in his throat. Maybe it was just the wind. A child throwing a ball against the wall. Something falling off an exam table.
More muffled noises, and these sounded like voices. Maybe not, then. Dr. Burdock ducked against the wall, hiding from the hallway leading back into the clinic building. More looters, vandals? Thieves looking for drugs and medical supplies? If they didn’t see him, he’d be able to get out….
And go where? He’d already run. This was supposed to be his sanctuary, too.
“Is anyone here?” A rough voice, strained and masculine, but not threatening. “We need medical assistance. I’m sorry to come in the back door, but it was closest to our path and we’ve journeyed far.”
A hand to his chest as if to calm his beating heart, Dr. Burdock moved slowly toward the voice. This was why he’d stayed at the clinic: to help the public in a way that would not endanger himself. He was a doctor. He must be a doctor.
“H…hello?” he called. “Who are you?”
“I am a bodyguard to the Select of Jalseion. I’ve brought Guide Calea Lisan for help.”