I’m sharing a longer story today than the others I’ve posted, this one was written not long ago in response to a Reddit short story prompt based on the challenge Jim Butcher apparently used to inspire the Codex Alera series. It involved mashing up a real world element with a supernatural one, in this case, I chose ‘The unquiet dead’ and ‘In the doctor’s surgery’. Enjoy!
“What’s the situation?”
Dr Andrews glowered at Artemis, the bags under the shorter woman’s eyes showing she’d once again gone too long without adequate food or sleep. “What do you think?”
“This is the first time it’s happened in the surgical area. We’ve had to push two more urgent operations.” Dr Andrews broke off to run her hands through her hair, but stopped herself before her hands actually made contact.
“The whole room is contaminated, there’s no point even disinfecting the area if it’s going to get destroyed again before we get the chance to operate. We’ve already extended hours to try and catch up on the work we couldn’t do last week. The staff room being messed up was bad enough, the surgical suite is another thing entirely. Some of the equipment in there the hospital can’t afford to replace, and that’s not even considering what would happen to our insurance premiums and reputation if this activity occurred during an operation.”
Artemis frowned, “You’re sure no one is conducting magical ceremonies in the area? There shouldn’t be so much poltergeist activity so soon after I quieted the area without something drawing spirits here.”
Dr Andrews’s anaesthetic nurse exits the room, his gloves and face mask removed now it was clear no surgery would be occurring in the suite beyond in the near future. “This is a hospital. We do our best, but I’m sure this room has seen it’s share of death over the years.”
Dr Andrews nodded thoughtfully, “Unfortunately, Ryan is right.”
Artemis shook her head, consciously modifying her tone to avoid giving offense. Medical staff were used to being the most educated people in the room, small wonder that they’d assume their knowledge of the living would explain the behaviour of the dead. “Death isn’t enough to draw or trap spirits. I cleared this room less than a week ago; unless something unnatural is going on, there’s no way there should be enough psychic build-up to explain an event of this magnitude.”
“Death isn’t enough?” Dr Andrews folded her arms, “What is, then?”
“Death is natural, much as humanity tries to stave it off. For a spirit to be motivated enough to stick around once I instructed it to leave…” Artemis stopped and shook her head, “What did the witches you have on staff say?”
The irritation on Dr Andrews’s face had ebbed, and the woman looked nothing short of exhausted. “The same thing you did, more or less. They couldn’t explain what’s drawing or powering all of the activity.” She threw her hands up, sagging against a wall as though without its support she’d just sink right onto the floor to rest.
Not a good idea with poltergeists at work—you had to stay on your toes when the dead were uneasy. As a necromancer who frequently cleared haunted buildings, Artemis knew this better than most. “Strange. Even stranger that my first cleansing didn’t stick. I’ll try and communicate with it, see what I can find.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” The nurse—Artemis had forgotten his name—began, but Dr Andrews put a hand on his arm.
“Let her do her job, Ryan, not like we can do anything to fix this problem.”
“Doesn’t seem like she can, either.”
Artemis narrowed her eyes, but didn’t waste time arguing with the man. Her track record spoke for itself, and she didn’t need to defend herself against every petty barb thrown her way.
Artemis stepped into the brightly lit surgery suite, the stainless-steel surfaces and blindingly white counters scattered with equipment, as though the room had been the site of a very localised hurricane. The nostril-stinging scent of alcohol-based sterilizer was strong enough to make her head throb, and a nearly empty gallon container lying in the corner looked to be the cause. She made sure to avoid the area as she laid a circle of salt and ash in the centre of the room, before returning to the centre.
Artemis nudged a torn box of latex-free gloves aside with one booted foot, placed her backpack of supplies next to her and knelt. “Spirit, I command you, show yourself!”
Nothing happened, proving that this was no ordinary disgruntled or confused spectre. Artemis placed a battered metal dish on the ground, it’s blackened sheen in sharp contrast to the surgical steel scattered over the room.
“I bring offerings of life,” she laid some cherries in the dish.
“I bring offerings of self,” Artemis drew her silver athame from her bag and pricked her finger. Blood emerged sluggishly, and dripped in sickening fashion over the fruit, its bright red indistinguishable from that of the cherries.
“I bring offerings of light,” she set a zippo to the dish, and blood and fruit ignited, burning black, consuming the offering within moments. Artemis heard a gasp from behind her, but didn’t turn around. Most people had never seen a necromancer at work before, certainly not one of her calibre.
A wind stirred the detritus of the room as the smoke from the offerings fractured, then coalesced in the centre of the room into the rough shape of a man. Artemis opened her mouth to speak, then stopped as another figure formed, followed by a third.
Three spirits? No wonder the room had been so thoroughly destroyed. A frown quirked the edge of Artemis’s mouth. Her sacrifice would not hold three unquiet shades for long.
“Why do you linger here?”
A rattling noise echoed through the room and Artemis rose, holding tight to the ceremonial knife. Blood dripped slowly from her finger, the pain only strengthening her hold.
“By blood and power, I command you!”
“Justice!” The furthest figure croaked, wavering as it moved forward as though on the edge of breaking apart.
“What justice do you seek?”
“What is the meaning of this?” The door at Artemis’s back was shoved open, but caught on an overturned equipment cart. A pair of scissors skidded by as an inrush of air dispersed the shapes Artemis had forced the spirits to assume. The necromancer held her breath, but the circle bounding her in with the spirits was not broken. Good, that was good.
“Don?” Dr Andrews’ voice sounded close, but Artemis did not turn to see what confrontation had interrupted her ceremony. If this ‘Don’ was on a first name basis with Dr Andrews, their conversation should take up enough time for Artemis to solve this mystery, once and for all.
The necromancer worked quickly, as she smeared still-warm ash from the offerings onto her hands, and began winding shadows around her hands and forearms.
The voice that responded to Dr Andrews sounded male, and frustrated. “Andrews? Ryan tells me you’ve brought an unauthorised practitioner onto the grounds. If she’s not accredited, any damage done isn’t covered by insurance. The magical maintenance team is working on a solution, this isn’t your fight.”
“I disagree, Don, when it’s keeping me from my work.”
Artemis steeled herself for the inevitable, and used the athame to carve a thin slice down the length of her forearm. The blood mingled with the shadows and twined around her shoulders until she was wearing a mantle of dark power. The whites of her teeth and eyes showed briefly, before she was swallowed by shadow, remaining motionless in the circle as the athame dropped soundlessly to the floor.
Don’s voice softened, as his concern for Dr Andrews bled through. “Valerie, you were stood down until a surgical suite became available. There’s nothing you can do, and I can see you haven’t slept enough. Why aren’t you catching up on your sleep in the quarters?”
Dr Andrews’ determination just barely edged out the exhaustion in her voice, “My work keeps people alive; this haunting is stopping me from doing that! I need to see it done, Don. Surely you understand that.”
“I can’t tell you what to do, Andrews,”
Not Valerie anymore, Artemis noted, just a concerned colleague, then, nothing more. The relief that swept over her allowed the shadows to flare briefly before she wrestled them back under her control.
Don continued, “—but I can’t allow unauthorised magic use on the premises.”
“You don’t need to allow anything,” she didn’t often hear her own voice like this, Artemis noted absentmindedly. It sounded different, far more resonant, a possible affect of channelling three spirits without allowing their will to subsume her own. A brief thread of panic started to rise, but she crushed it with the same ruthless determination she used to keep the unruly shades in check. “My power is not within your control, nor is it anything that could be authorised and documented.”
She turned at last, and saw first the shocked face of Dr Andrews and her nurse, Ryan. The two of them were shouldered aside as a short, muscular man wearing a white coat and a scowl entered the room. The scowl was replaced by a look of determination as he took in her new form, the silvery gleam that then rolled over his irises and skin all too familiar. “All that happens within these walls falls under my purview, sorcerer.”
“Necromancer, if you please. I do not deal with demons.” Artemis bared her teeth in a vicious parody of a smile, anger at the man allowing the furious shades within her to take the shape of large wings behind her. “My quarrel is not with you, paladin. These spirits have become trapped. My role is to discover their purpose here, and free them.”
Don considered this for a moment, his holy glow once more invisible beneath the fluorescent glow of the bright hospital lighting. Eventually, he gave a brief nod, and stood back to shield the two much taller medical staff from Artemis, as she raised arms and eyes upwards, her control over the shades now almost distressingly easy.
There was a scuttling noise as the nurse attempted to flee the room, but with a wave of her hand Artemis slammed the door shut. Her action drew a sharp glare from the paladin, but he did not interfere further.
She spoke aloud, not wanting to have to explain everything to the paladin and (more importantly) Dr Andrews once this was through. “Who were you, in life? Why have you become this, in death? What binds you to this place, spirits? Speak!”
The voices flow then from her own throat, as the dark power within Artemis drew her eyes once more to the cowering nurse. “Justice!” The accusation was a wail, a tremulous note suggesting both age and agitation.
The last accusation ground from Artemis’s throat in an undeniably male baritone, and she felt the barrier break beneath her silent foot as she trod slowly towards the nurse. Ryan, Dr Andrews had called him. The patients hadn’t known his name, just his face, as he injected their death into waiting IVs while they were prepared for surgery. Just his impassive expression, as he watched them thrash and fail, during surgery, before they finally stilled for good. Their final moments had been filled with his quiet determination that he had the power, the right, to snatch them from their waiting families, their beloved pets, their lives.
Artemis’s disgust mingled with the rage of the dead she had bound and was absorbing, her distress at the thought of consuming them in their entirety lost in the flood of rage at the actions of this man, this pathetic creature who dared snuff a life for no reason beyond a twisted sense of entitlement.
“Stop.” Don’s voice, too, had the resonance of channelled power.
“I warned you, Paladin, you lack the strength to keep me from my rightful prey,” Artemis seethed.
“That may be true, but I can cleanse the spirits from you and render you simply human, for the moment. Would you be so strong without their essence bolstering yours?”
“He’s a killer!”
“She’s lying!” The nurse spoke, and drew glares from paladin and necromancer alike.
“Do you truly believe your actions went unnoticed? The coincidences had begun piling up, you were never going to operate today, shades or no.” Don’s lip was curled, and sidestepped as the prostrate man grabbed for his leg.
Dr Andrews’s voice was small, the fury in it a cold, precise thing—not the blazing inferno of Artemis, nor even the righteous disgust of the paladin.
“You killed them? You?”
Ryan’s eyes darted back and forth, seeking an escape or a justification that could hold up to the deserved flood of disdain he now faced. “They were old, already on their way out! How overworked is the hospital already? Doctors and nurses running on empty, never enough resources to go around. Think of the people would die while we patch up the same patients over and over. I saved them! Made these few go in their sleep; who could ask for more?”
Artemis stepped forward once more, her mantle flared around her shoulders like a ghastly, many-handed cape. The smoke-like tendrils were withdrawn on the left from the silvery glow that emitted from the paladin by her side, his face locked into an expression of stern and solemn grief.
“Sorcerer, I will handle this. Keep hold of the shades until I am done, lest they harm the other patients.”
The spirits within Artemis howled for vengeance, but she held them back with a resolution that left her sweating and shaking. She nodded once, sharply, and stepped back to allow the paladin to do his job of binding the recalcitrant nurse.
Or so she assumed. As she stepped back, a visibly shaking Dr Andrews ran past, the item in her hand the familiar silver of Artemis’s ceremonial athame. A steely gleam in the nurse’s hand likewise caught her eye as Don reached out, the man’s eyes now closed as he called on his guardian spirit or god to bind the man before him.
“No!” Artemis dove and caught Dr Andrews by the hand. The spirits within her flared, and the hilt of the knife pressed into her palm as she moved to intercept the flashing scalpel. They fell in a tangle, the knife driving home with a jolt into the arm of the still glowing paladin.
The nurse, Ryan, slashed out, catching Artemis along one side of her face. The shades fled Artemis with her blood and rose again as shadows, their shapes this time noticeably less human.
The man’s smug grin wavered as the shadowy forms over him deepened, their voices void of anything close to mercy.
The scalpel in the nurse’s hand turned as his wrist shook with the effort to prevent it. “Help me!”
Artemis sneered, too drained for any further response, but the coward wasn’t looking at her. Dr Andrews had crawled clear of the pile, and made it to her feet.
“Do no harm, Ryan. I believe that, even if I forgot myself for a moment.”
“Andrews, Vivian, please,” his eyes pleaded, the emotion there true, now it was for himself he wept.
“You’re a murderer, Ryan. What’s your life, from here?”
Dr Andrews’s face was resolute, as she turned her back on her former colleague, and the shadows and scalpel alike drew closer to his prone form.
When it was over, Artemis watched, slightly hazy from the power expenditure and the after effects of adrenaline, as the form of the paladin struggled to rise with her athame still planted in his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you. Lot of arteries thereabouts.”
He stilled, “Know a lot about medicine, do you?”
“More than I’d care to, after today, but that instruction comes directly from your doctor.”
Don turned his head to see an exhausted Dr Andrews slumped exhausted in the corner, an emergency blanket draped over her sleeping form. The staff had noticed Artemis doing it, but either her glare or the ritualistic scars dotting her forearms had prevented them from saying anything, though she was sure Dr Andrews would hear of it when she awoke.
“Not her, she pretty much just gave some instructions for triage, and fell asleep. I meant that guy.” Artemis jerked her head to indicate the efficient, bearded man who had taken over things once the spirits had left the room and allowed the terrified staff outside to enter.
Don’s gaze was troubled as he looked at the blood still pooled on the floor among the debris. “What happened?”
Artemis held his cool, silver gaze as she answered, unwavering and unashamed. “Justice.”