Walking into the University was harder for Theodore this time. The sight of the library tower, with its three stories of books amassed from the world over, filled him with a bitter jealousy. He put it from his mind. Life had stuck him with other responsibilities.
The governor’s letter instructed him to present himself to the medical research wing. Crossing the school’s ramparts, and a woman was shouting at them the moment they set foot in the lobby.
“Get out!” She said. Her pastel green robes marked her as a graduate of healing magic studies. “No fairies allowed in the medical ward! You need to leave!”
Oboe didn’t say anything. She’d been quiet since they left the market district. Her eyebrows arched and she looked at Theodore to tell her what to do.
“My name is Theodore Grayweather, the Ranger Deputy, and this is my assistant Oboe.” He handed the woman his badge and the letter. “We’re here by special request of the Governor.”
She scrutinized both items thoroughly before returning them. “I see. Good.” She pointed towards the stairs. “Dr. Stillwell will be expecting you. Proceed to the Research Quarantine on the third floor.” She glanced at Oboe. “I think it would be best if you left the animal down here in the lobby. They’ll have a fit if you come in with that thing.”
This was the second time today this was a problem. “Why aren’t fairies allowed inside?” Theodore said.
“Stillwell’s orders. No outside magic is to be let in until the epidemic is over.”
“I’ll be good,” Oboe said. She sat stiff in one of the lobby chairs to demonstrate. “I’ll wait here.”
“Hopefully this will be quick,” Theodore said.
Two flights of stairs later, the graduate led Theodore into Research Quarantine. He’d read and heard the word epidemic, but the reality had not clicked until he stepped into the ward. An entire laboratory, the space of a warehouse, had been cleared to make room for a sea of white hospital beds arranged in a grid. Every last one was filled. The patients looked drained of color, miserable and languid. The healthiest of the subjects had machinery looming over them. A smoldering haze of shifting light poured out of lamps on the machines onto the patients.
Doctor Stillwell was lording over one of these machines, adjusting and tuning it. He had a wild shock of graying brown hair, and a jaw like a boulder. His eyes were sharp and he was dressed in pastel green robes.
“Ranger Deputy is here to see you, Doctor,” the graduate said before marching off.
“Sorry for arriving so late,” Theodore said. “I missed my trolley.”
Stillwell’s handshake was firm. “If this is indicative of your performance in general, we are both in trouble.” He wheeled the machine around to face another bed. The patient in the original bed reached out to grab the doctor.
“Wait!” He said, hoarse. “Not yet! I need more! Please!”
He pulled the hand off his robes with care. “You need to trust us. We aren’t going to let you die. Other people need this as well.”
The patient gave a pitiful, desperate look while Dr. Stillwell ignited the lamp of the machine over the next bed.
“What is this illness?” Theodore said.
The doctor motioned for Theodore to follow him to the relative privacy of a workbench.
“Before you ask, no, it’s not contagious.” He sighed, looking more exhausted now that they were away from the patients. “Not in any typical sense, anyway. These people are suffering from a deficit of magic.”
That didn’t make any sense. “Magic is toxic to the human body.”
Stillwell rolled his eyes. “Yes. Wild, raw magic is poisonous to human beings. You can drown in the sea, that doesn’t mean you don’t need fresh water to live. All life needs at least a trace amount of magic to exist. What’s happening here is that these people have had the magic they need drained out of them.”
“How is that possible?” Theodore said.
“The first reported case was from a Duke Ambergrail. His symptoms developed a little over six months ago, shortly after a fairy broke into his home. The fairy in question was dealt with but the damage was done. The duke’s condition has only worsened with time.”
Theodore connected the dots. “That’s why you won’t let fairies into the medical ward. …And why there’s a ban on fairies in the city?”
Stillwell nodded. “Ambergrail banned fairy creatures from entering his district of the city and a few of the neighboring dukes followed his example. Not that it helped. The number of cases has only exploded since then.”
Something bothered Theodore about this story. He remembered the hunt for the Tall Man, and how Flip had profited by feeding into mistrust towards magical creatures. “If fairies aren’t allowed inside, how do you know that they’re even the cause of this?”
“From what I understand, the city watch has already jailed a half-dozen fairies violating the ban,” the doctor said. “I’m told the attacks appear to be organized. They’re enchanting people while they are unaware.”
This didn’t make sense. “Fairies are made out of magic,” Theodore said. “Why would they drain humans of it?”
Stillwell grimaced. “I’m not going to pretend I understand what these creatures are thinking. If you want to know more about the attacks, you should speak to the duke. We need you to get to the bottom of why these attacks are happening before it gets any worse.” He swept an arm out toward the vast room of patients. “We can’t keep up with this. We can treat the magic deficiency by beaming ambient magic into the body, but we don’t have enough machines to treat everyone.”
“What if you brought people into the Whirlwood Valley?” Theodore said. “It’s overflowing with ambient magic there.”
“You’re suggesting I take these sick people into a place crawling with Red Caps after they’ve been victimized? Ridiculous. It’s too risky.”
“I’ve lived safe there for well over a month,” Theodore said. “The Red Caps are gone.”
“These attacks suggest otherwise,” Stillwell said. “Look. I’m the healer here. Leave treating the patients to me. You’re a knight. What I need you to do is get to the bottom of this mess and put a stop to it.”
Theodore cringed to be called a knight, but could not argue. There were more than a hundred sick faces here. His duty was clear.