Magnum Opus Debilito
Prof. Cassandra Lobiesk
It began as an ordinary morning, quiet, contained, a calm before the storm.
Up until Tessa's father barreled in, the door slamming in his entrance.
Tessa groaned. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and set herself to a sitting position. She looked at her father, who seemed ready to burst with news. It was so like him to do so. He loved to collect gossip and rumor and news, and he loved to tell anyone who would listen. That included his most dutiful and intelligent daughter.
He widened his eyes and cleared his throat. "There's a plague running through the kingdom."
"Nonsense," Tessa said, reaching for her spectacles on the side of the bed. She smoothed her golden-brown hair with her palms and placed the spectacles just at the bridge of her nose. She blinked. "The kingdom doesn't get plague."
"No, no, this is true!" He insisted.
"And I tell you it's not," she insisted back.
"The Derlingwitherses have gone mad."
Tessa snorted. She climbed out of her bed and pulled on her night robes. She moved toward her dressing area, and her father dutifully turned his back as she changed behind the screen. "Silvia's family was never exactly right in the head to begin with. So this is nothing new."
"True, but Tessa, this is a different kind of mad."
"One of the king's soldiers found Silvia dead in her bed this morning."
The clatter on the floor had been caused by Tessa's hairclip. She folded the changing screen and stared at her father, whose back was still facing her. "I'm decent now. And repeat that last bit. Silvia what?"
Her father nodded eagerly, the excitement sparking his mousse brown eyes with a vibrant glow. "Dead. They say that she was murdered by her husband, and that he's gone off and killed the children as well. The entire family's either dead or missing by now."
Tessa frowned. "That's a rather gruesome rumor. Are you sure it's true?"
"Would I lie about any of this?"
She refused to dignify the question with an answer. Instead, she shrugged. "It's nothing to do with us anyway. And most of this is probably untrue. Silvia might be dead, but I doubt it had anything to do with her husband. For all we know, the rest of the family had gone to visit another village or other, and Silvia was just unluckily hit by cutthroats and thieves."
A brief silenced entered the room as her father pondered this train of thought. Tessa was beginning to head out of her room when he spoke. "Yes, that might be the case, but are you really willing to dismiss the rumor that there might be a plague?"
"Father," she sighed. "Tarshia is the Kingdom of Three Gifts for a reason. One of our blessings is that there is no plague in the kingdom. Rest easy, I'll confirm your rumors when I reach the laboratory."
But when she arrived there, she found that all anyone could give her was more rumors. Try as she might, Tessa was unable to shake off the feeling of foreboding this time, and she began to worry.
"They say it's lycanthropy," one of her assistants whispered excitedly as they worked. "It was a full moon last night, and Rhodric Derlingwithers must have been one afflicted lycan. Hadn't he been acting strangely the past few days?"
"He probably received a bite from a feral when he tried to travel the borders of the kingdom."
"Are you sure it's lycanthropy? Maybe vampirism might be a better explanation," another joined in on the theories. "It was Silvia's throat that they found the injuries in. Perhaps her husband's cravings could no longer be sated."
"No, no, I hear it was a jealous faery who'd gone and taken Rhodric and the children away. Silvia was probably in the faery's way. There was no other sign of trouble in the house, right?"
Tessa couldn't properly decide whether to laugh or believe the rumors to be half-true. The only fact that she could discern from the conversation was that Silvia was dead, and her family was missing.
She lightly swatted one of her assistants with one of her ledgers. "This is not a tavern. Get back to work."
The assistants scurried and followed their instructions whilst whispering amongst themselves. Tessa sighed. At least their hands were busy.
It was later that day that the director took Tessa aside to speak with her.
"We need you to examine Silvia Derlingwithers' body."
Tessa could feel her heart skip a couple of beats. A part of her was curious over the death, but another part warned her of the potential disaster her involvement would lead to.
"I suppose it's not advisable to refuse?"
The director fought the smirk emerging from his lips. Instead, he shook his head. "You're a full-fledged alchemyst, probably one of our best. If you don't know what's happened to Silvia, there's not much else anyone can do."
"The others have been calling it Magnum Opus Debilito," the director commented.
Tessa swallowed the nausea threatening to rise out of her stomach. She was only too glad that she had worn a mask over her face, and that her hands were exceptionally steady. An alchemyst did not shirk from scientific study. And what Tessa saw could only be classified as a medical marvel.
Silvia Derlingwithers was most definitely dead. There was no doubt about that pronunciation. The matter of the death, however, was what had most of the alchemysts boggled. It was no vampire wound, no werewolf bite. And by the look of the sheer violence on the throat and the head, it was clear that the attack had not come from some ethereal fae creature, either.
"The Great Work diminished," Tessa muttered, trying to understand why her fellow alchemysts had named this prognosis so. The implication had an eeriness to it, and she shivered in spite of her usually unbothered nature. To busy herself, she began brushing the pieces of straw scattered over the body. "Do you think it had something to do with a rabid animal?"
"A rabid creature, perhaps," the director replied, then added, "or a rabid person."
"And her family?"
"The king's soldiers are searching for them as we speak." His tone seemed dismissive. But years working under the director had given Tessa insight into his behavior.
"You're omitting a few details there."
"Yes, well, you don't need to know the rest," he said uncertainly.
She stared pointedly at him.
He sighed. "The soldiers have also gone missing."
"You're kidding. The king's men?"
He nodded. "They haven't returned, and it's been hours."
"It's hardly a surprise." Although, somehow her skepticism was beginning to lessen the more she looked at Silvia's corpse. "They'd only found her dead this morning."
"The king's scout returned, though," the director continued. "He was the only one who did."
"Has he said anything?"
"That's the odd part. He's been muttering about curses ever since he came back. Nothing else."
Tessa's mind spun. The ominous feeling began to churn at her stomach again, and she wondered how much of her kingdom was being affected by this madness, this Magnum Opus Debilito. It was an affliction, she surmised, but of what?
"What are you trying to tell us?" she asked the corpse before her.
Silvia Derlingwithers' corpse was a normal human figure from the shoulders down, aside from the amount of straw that seemed to litter her body. But her face was ghastly to behold, as though somebody had taken the time to mash the head with a mallet in order to crack the skull open. It was what had caused Tessa's nausea, seeing the brain displayed so publicly, the stench overpowering any potion they used to cover the decaying smell. After further examination, Tessa lifted the cloth and tried to cover the dead body.
Silvia's mouth moved.