Theodore descended the stairs of the medical tower, rehearsing his arguments in his head. He found Dr. Stillwell in a dim room sharp with the scent of cinnamon and frankincense. He was leaning over a table, a talisman pressed to his brow. The doctor was holding a hierogram, the symbol of the Mother of Magic, his lips trembling in soundless prayer. Theodore was startled to walk in on this private moment, having never imagining Stillwell as a man of faith, but worse was the shock when he saw why.
Below Stillwell, a body was laid out on an exam table and covered with a clean white sheet. Theodore stiffened as he realized what he was looking at. It was a corpse.
“Good evening,” Stillwell said. He slipped the hierogram back under his robes. His eyes were sunken and tired. Today had not been kind to him. “You’re back sooner than I thought you’d be. Tell me you’ve found something.”
Theodore could not help but stare at the shrouded body. The air was heavy, spiced to mask the smell of morbid reality.
“What happened?” Theodore said.
“Cardiovascular failure,” the doctor said, staring into space. “Without a thaumaturgic grounding, his body went into shock. By the time we got the machines on him again, it was too late.”
The moment hung like a wet towel.
“I misjudged his constitution,” Stillwell said. “He was young. I thought he could hold out longer. I thought we had time to tend to the others.” He wiped his hands on a wash cloth and tossed the rag to the floor. “Now I’ve another damned body on my conscience.”
“I’m sorry,” Theodore said. Deeper words than that were hard to find.
Stillwell sighed. “So am I. For the sake of the others upstairs, I hope you’ve had better luck than we have.”
It took a moment for Theodore to put himself back on track. “…I believe I’ve found the cause of the epidemic.”
“Already?” He perked up, eyes focusing again. “You weeded out the fey responsible for this?”
“Not exactly. I believe there is a misunderstanding. Fairies are not the cause of this condition. The fairy ban is.”
Stillwell narrowed his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“You had it backwards,” Theodore said. “Fairies aren’t the reason people are suffering from a deficit of magic. They’re suffering because we aren’t allowing fairies to interact with them.”
“That’s ridiculous. What about the attacks?” He said.
“Dream sowers lost their licensed territory because of the ban,” Theodore said. “Now they’re starving. Those creatures are trying to deliver enchanted dreams to stay alive. We’re all suffering because of the ban. There isn’t enough ambient magic in the city. We need those enchantments to stay healthy.”
The doctor moved across the room, putting the table and the body between them. “And you are basing this… theory on what, precisely?”
This is what Theodore dreaded. “I investigated the convicted fey and spoke with the community in the Whirlwood. There was no malicious intent. They just want to help their own people.”
“Let me get this straight,” Stillwell said. “You asked the convicts why they did it, and they proclaimed their innocence. So, you believed them.”
“I have character witnesses,” Theodore said, hot with discomfort. “I believe them.”
Stillwell squeezed his forehead, world weary again. “Mother’s mercy. I can’t believe someone in your position could be so naïve. Do you know nothing about fairy biology? They are driven by instinct to take advantage of us, and therefore we’ve no choice but to doubt their motives. They are parasites!”
Theodore’s temper flared. The fairies were more than that. Oboe was more than that. “Ghasts and fairies are creatures of magic. If they cast a spell on one of us, that should expose us to purified magic. Enough to cure those people upstairs.”
“Are you suggesting we bring fairies in to enchant human beings?” Stillwell clenched a fist. “Out of the question! They could cast curses, transform bodies, or worse! It’s too dangerous!”
“But it will work!” Theodore said.
“We don’t know that,” Stillwell said.
“But the explanation makes sense. You said yourself that the number of cases exploded after districts were added to the ban.”
The doctor waved at the corpse between them. “People’s lives are on the line. I’m not going to have you gamble on conjecture!”
Theodore banged a hand on the table. “This is the University! This is the seat where we advance our understanding of the world through hypothesis and experimentation! If we aren’t willing to at least investigate this idea, we are already risking people’s lives! I know that I’m right, but if you won’t trust me then that means there is only one answer! We need to test this idea to disprove it!”
The two of them glared at one another, until Stillwell’s eyes drifted toward the body again.
“I don’t like it, but you are correct. We’re short on ideas and treatment options. There’s a chance this could work. I owe it to my patients to find out.” He turned away. “I’ll ask for a volunteer. Bring in a subject of your own. If the data bears out your theory, then maybe we have an answer for our dilemma.”
Relief washed over Theodore. The doctor had given up ground. All Theodore needed was show him the truth.