Natalie never saw the strike from the pistol coming. Not truly. The professor changed tactics and swung it at her head so suddenly that she didn’t realise what was happening until it was too late. Instinct alone urged her to pull back, to try and twist out of the way, but it wasn’t enough. The cold steel of the gun’s handle struck Natalie’s temple with enough sheer force to make her head snap back again. It was enough to make her release her grip on Dr. V unwillingly, and stumble back a few small steps.
Oddly enough, Natalie didn’t feel any pain at first. In fact, she didn’t realise that she’d been hit at all. She was too preoccupied with the way her hearing seemed to fade, and her vision started to swim. It exploded into a random assortment of shapes and colours, only loosely related to what she was actually seeing. The strike, delivered to such a sensitive area, had robbed her of the mental acuity necessary to make such an obvious connection. Natalie had no idea that her balance was failing, or that her limbs weren’t responding the way she thought. She had no idea that there was a disconnect between her mind and her body at all. She had no idea that the professor was yelling at her, or pointing the gun at her properly now.
Natalie didn’t realise any of these things until several moments later, when her brain finished rebooting, and her awareness finally started to return. When the sound of the fire alarm began to start up again, and the strange shapes she was seeing began to form recognisable objects again. The pain was quick to follow, sharp and bright. Debilitating in its intensity. Against her own better judgement, Natalie raised a hand to her temple. The slightest brush of her fingers made the pain intensify so much it felt like her head was splitting open, and she wasn’t surprised at all when her hand came away bloody. Only afterwards did she remember Luuk, and the professor. Remember the imminent danger they were in. Even so, it took her much too long to muster up the willpower necessary to bury the pain. To shove it to the back of her mind, and focus on her surroundings again.
The first thing her gaze settled on was the professor. Dr. V stood just a few paces away, not far from where they’d been struggling earlier. His expression was free of the malice and condescension that Natalie had come to expect. Gone was the naked hatred that had haunted her for years, replaced by empty confusion. It was a look Natalie was uncomfortably familiar with. The expression of someone who had just had their memories wiped, and hadn’t been given any replacements. The fact that Dr. V had dropped his gun and wasn’t making any effort to retrieve it seemed to confirm her growing suspicions. Hope blossomed inside her, unfurling like a flower. Luuk had done it, somehow.
Luuk. As soon as his name passed through her mind, Natalie’s priorities shifted. Her growing relief was smothered by the urgent, almost frantic need to find him. It didn’t take her long. Natalie turned, and there he was, lying on the floor nearby. She rushed over as fast as her body would carry her. Fell to her knees alongside his prone form, paying no mind to the blood, and the stains it would leave. The expression on his face was oddly serene, but there was no mistaking the growing pool of red, or the ragged hole the bullet had left. Natalie didn’t need to look to know it was bad, but she did anyway, and the sight was enough to make her breath catch in her throat.
No. No. She couldn’t lose Luuk. Not now. Not so close to the end. He had just managed to win them their freedom singlehandedly, and this was his reward? That wasn’t fair. It hadn’t been fair to Tess, and it wasn’t fair to him. She had to do something. Think of a solution. There was nobody else around except Dr. V, and he wasn’t going to be helping anyone, so it had to be her. What could she do? First Aid wouldn’t be enough, but she couldn’t use her magic to heal him. Better mages than she had tried, back when magic had still been commonplace, but the human body was simply too complex. It was infinitely easier to break it than to fix it.
Natalie realised that she was starting to panic, and forced herself to take a deep breath. Luuk didn’t have much time, but she wouldn’t be able to help him at all if she lost control. Once she’d forced herself to adopt a semblance of calm, she began to think through her options. The university was bound to have a first aid kit nearby – they were required to keep one on the premises by law – but she had no idea where it was. She stuffed her hand into her pockets, began rifling through the abundance of markers in search of her phone, when her fingers found something else. Her last contingency plan. The final ace up her sleeve, taken from the little wooden box that she’d been protecting all this time.
The answer came to Natalie suddenly. Realisation struck like lightning. There was a way she could use magic to save him. She couldn’t use it to heal him, but she could give herself the skills necessary to tend to his wounds. She had everything she needed within easy reach, and it would only take a few seconds of preparation. The personal cost would be extreme, but it didn’t compare to Luuk’s life. It was an afterthought, a bridge she’d cross when she got to it. If Luuk survived, then Natalie would be perfectly happy to deal with the consequences. If not…well, at least she could rest easy, knowing that she’d done all she could.
Feeling oddly at peace now that she had made her decision, Natalie withdrew her final trump card from her pocket. At a glance, it didn’t look like anything special – a lump of clay roughly the same size and shape as a cork, fired to hold its shape. Up close, however, its true purpose was revealed. Carved into its surface were dozens of sigils, all woven together flawlessly. Most of them were too small to understand without a magnifying glass, but Natalie knew their meanings as well as she knew her own hands. Hardly a surprise, considering that she’d carved them herself. It was the most complex piece of magic she’d ever created. A veritable masterwork, designed with a single purpose in mind – to alter her own personal history. For all their planning, she’d never considered using it like this.
Natalie wasted no time in pulling a pen from her pocket. With the stamp held gently in one hand, she pressed the tip into the clay with the other. A few marks, hastily scratched into its surface, were all she needed. Lines that would change the original purpose of her sigils slightly, and dictate the path that her new past would take. Natalie’s ever-steady hands served her well, and after just a brief moment of inspection, she found herself satisfied. Then she took a deep breath, and rolled up one of her sleeves. Before she could start to hesitate, second-guess her chosen course or her work, she jammed the stamp into her arm.
Visually, the effect was similar to what Luuk had done to the professor a few moments ago. The marks began to unwind themselves into Natalie’s skin, but she didn’t notice. Her attention was focused inwards, and the experience proved to be a strange one. She could feel the new memories forming in her mind. They unfurled one after another, as if she were living an entire second life in an instant. As if she’d already lived this life, and simply forgotten about it before now. Most of the new memories were clearly incompatible with her old ones, but Natalie still felt like they belonged to her. The logical part of her mind knew that these new memories were fake, that she’d just implanted them into herself, but the rest of her insisted they were real.
Within these new memories, Natalie found a life in which she’d been born without magical powers. A life in which she’d gone to medical school instead of studying magic. She could recall the knowledge from her lessons, from her time spent working at the hospital, as easily as breathing. Knowledge that she could use to save Luuk. As soon as the disorientation began to fade, she turned her attention to him good and proper, and put it to work.
The blood is pooling beneath him, which suggests an exit wound. The trauma is to his chest, so there’s a big risk of internal organ damage, too. Nothing I can do about that now. The wound might be seal-sucking, so I’ll have to be careful. The last thing he needs is a collapsed lung on top of everything else.
Natalie’s mind rattled off the details and reminded her of important steps almost automatically. Her hands had lost the practiced stillness of a master craftsman, but now she moved with the calm precision of a medical expert, driven by a lifetime of muscle memory. Without missing a beat, she stripped off her jumper and used it to put pressure on the wound, and used the sleeves to bind it as best she could. It was sloppy, but the best she was going to manage without access to proper medical supplies.
Another presence tickled Natalie’s awareness while she was working. She looked up to see that an elderly lady and a young male student had arrived. They both hovered nearby, looking on with horrified expressions. Had the fire alarm brought them here? Had they really only been fighting for a few minutes? Stop. That wasn’t important right now. Natalie quickly called out towards them, ordered the elderly lady to call an ambulance, and the student to bring her the first aid kit. She wasn’t sure if it was the commanding tone of her voice or just the human instinct to help urging them on, but both hurried to obey.
Once they were off, Natalie turned her attention back to her student. He was pale, but that was only to be expected, with so much blood loss. Determined to get him in the recovery position and start tending to the wound on his back, she began repositioning one of his legs and both of his arms. At the same time, she began to speak. Natalie doubted he was responsive, but a little reassurance cost her nothing.
“Can you still hear me, Luuk? You’re going to be just fine. You’re in good hands, and I’ve seen people walk away from worse.” Any other time, that claim would’ve made Natalie pause. She had never actually seen anything of the sort – it was her new memories, still playing havoc with her mind. Against her own better judgement, she embraced the sensation. The skills this mental disparity offered were the only thing keeping Luuk alive right now, and she still had more work to do. She’d worry about the ramifications later, along with everything else, once he was stable.
When the student arrived with the first aid kit, Natalie asked him to set it down alongside her and unroll it. Without missing a beat, she ordered him to help roll Luuk onto his side, and then reached for her new supplies. While her co-opted assistant tried to put pressure on Luuk’s wounds, she set about using the bandages and dressings to patch up the exit wound on his back. When she was done with that, she set about replacing her bloodstained jumper with a proper dressing, too. Her hands were coated Luuk’s blood, wet and sticky enough to hamper her, but Natalie worked tirelessly, until she had done all that she could. Even then, there was no rest. She began a secondary assessment, methodically searching for any less-obvious injuries he might have that she could treat.
When the police cars and ambulances finally got close enough for their sirens to cut through constant buzz of the fire alarms, Natalie felt nothing but relief.