IV. The Sylphines

29 Nov

The removal of the bullet from the abdomen of the victim was a delicate operation. Tugau was placed under a strong soporific that desensitized his entire body. The chirugeon who cut into him was Dr. Ongle, the director of the Therapeutic Center.

Upon awakening from the unconscious ordeal, the first person that Tugau saw from his resting hammock was this skilled, successful surgeon. He was a short, somewhat frail, sickly looking man with a sharply hooked nose. Both his hair and eyes were the color of chestnuts. The medico had to identify himself to the patient he had opened up and saved.

“Good morning, Mr. Tugau. Let me introduce myself. I was the surgeon in the removal of the shot lodged inside you. My name is Ongle and I am director of the Center. Tell me this: do you feel any kind of pain at the moment? It is very important to me that you have no discomfort or suffering, so I wish you to be perfectly candid about your condition. Please tell me the truth.”

“I am having no distress of any sort,” calmly replied the patient.

“That is a good sign. In fact, it is remarkable.”

At that point, a willowy woman in an orange uniform stepped into the cubicle where Tugau had his hammock.

“This is the nurse assigned to look after you,” said the doctor. “She is Attendant Megaera and will supervise your everyday care and needs.”

Tugau saw a tall, slim young female who seemed to be an insubstantial apparition of some kind. A rare allurement radiated from her face and attractive torso. Her hair was a whitish flaxen shade, the eyes a bright, shining blue close to azure.

The patient doubted he had ever viewed such a beauty before. The charm of her thin shape threw a spell over him, making him forget his beloved Clotho for a time. He entered an unintended state of trance.

Tugau suddenly recalled his dead partner and looked off to the side. You must keep your self-control, said an interior voice.

Dr. Ongle excused himself and left the cubicle.

“Can I get you anything?” asked the attendant. Her voice was soft and pleasant to his ears.

“Yes, I want some saxifrage tea. I feel a sudden thirst for it.”

“I’ll get it for you at once, sir.”

“Thank you,” graciously said the patient, leaning back in his hammock.

Tugau began to understand how the ruination and death of Clotho had come about. It was not their love for one another that had destroyed her. It was a factor much more subtle and hidden, an influence neither of them had foreseen. But it had led both of them into an abyss that killed Clotho.

Blindly, he had convinced his beloved into accepting the role of companion of his chatan secundus. It was now evident to him that this had dragged her into his own interior diploid drama. She had become an actor in a chain of tragedy that she could not stand up against. The result was death and destruction of her still undeveloped harpine diploid nature. She lost her life as victim of his own biformal character by getting entangled in its complex web.

He had learned a sad lesson of the hazards involved when different strains of diploids become intimately involved with each other.

A sealed envelope arrived addressed to Tugau. He raised himself in bed so he was able to read it in comfort. The letter was from Electra and originated on the Isle of the Harpines, where she had withdrawn to live.

“I am here on my native island because there is nowhere else I could go for peace and solace. The death of my daughter and the imprisonment of my husband has been too much for me to bear in Diaema. My hope is to find an easing of my pain on this isle. I shall never return to the mainland or the place of my life’s tragedy. Best wishes for your recovery.”

Tugau insisted on rising to his feet as soon as he had enough strength to do so. Megaera brought him a walker support to lean on when she helped him out of his hammock. It took him several moments to establish equilibrium. Then he started to step forward, faster and faster.

“Good!” smiled the nurse. “I’ve never seen a patient with so much ambition. Don’t try too much at once, though. Try to moderate your pace. It can’t be done all at once. Slow and steady will get you there. That’s the formula. I’ve never seen any patient with your drive to recover.”

Tugau completed several circles about his cubicle, then along the nearest corridor. Megaera brought him a squab to rest on. His labored breathing became calm and normal.

“Your accent is a unique one, Megaera,” he told her one day. “From what region did you come to Diadema?”

“The Zenithal Mountains,” she informed him. “I am not the only person here from that area. Dr. Ongle was born there too and moved here to study and practice surgery”

“That’s interesting. I’ve read that poverty in your mountains drives many to emigrate to lower altitudes where there are greater opportunities for them.”

A shadow fell over her face, which he noticed. “Yes, that’s true,” was her only comment.

Tugau said no more about where she came from.

When the doctor visited him the next day, the patient posed a question to him.

“I’m hoping to leave the Therapeutic Center before too long, sir. When do you think it can be?”

Ongle waited a little before answering. “I have learned that the gallipot is now closed down and that your old job has disappeared. The bills and expenses that have accumulated for your care will be enormous. So, I have been thinking over a possible future that could benefit you a lot.”

The patient in the hammock perked up. “What is it?” he asked with excited curiosity.

“As this institution expands the need for a skilled botanic like you grows. Would you agree to stay here as our single herbal specialist? Up to now, each therapist and chirug has had to compound his own medicaments with the help of assistants. That is extremely laborious for all our staff. I can arrange for you to have a free apartment in our staff quarters. The job will enable you to pay off your debts to our Center quickly and efficiently. What do you say to the proposal I’ve made?”

Stunned and overjoyed, Tugau still hesitated. “I don’t know. Give me time to decide, please. I have to think it over for a while.”

“Certainly,” grinned the other.”But please make your choice before leaving us.”

Megaera introduced Tugau to three other nurse attendants, all of them from the Zenithals. The amazing similarity among them took his breath away. All were tall and lithe, with unusual beauty and personal charm. Their names were Sterope, Merope, and Alcyone. The last one, Alcyone, revealed to him that she was their leader, the head of their trio of nurses from the mountains. All three spoke with a Zenithal region accent.

The patient was walking ever greater distances outdoors. But he had to announce his decision on staying on at the Therapy Center soon. Time for leaving the hospital neared.

Late one afternoon, Megaera entered his cubicle to take his temperature. Once she removed the meter from his mouth, she surprised him with some whispered advice. “All of us nurses believe that you should accept the doctor’s offer and remain as our botanic. You are a person everyone can get along with. The work will be rewarding and very interesting for you. Stay and see.”

Did she wink one eye? Tugau was uncertain if he had seen that happen. He acted as if it hadn’t. That seemed best to him at the time.

“It appears to me that few natural herbals are used by anyone here. What would I be doing? There will be little use for one with my skills and background.”

Unexpectedly, she laughed. “Why are you talking that way? Are you supposing that you will be underworked here? Is that your idea of what lies ahead for you?”

He thought a moment. “Perhaps I can do much to advance the use of plant materials. You are right, Megaera. I will think it over tonight and give an answer to Dr. Ongle tomorrow morning.”

“If I were you, I ‘d accept it,” she told the patient.

Soon after finishing his breakfast of poached ovules Tugau saw the director of the Therapeutic Center walk into his cubicle. The two greeted each other, then Ongle asked the overhanging question. “Are you going to be with us permanently, my friend?”

The affirming nod in reply exhilarated the surgeon. “Good. We can get you going at once. How would you like beginning an inventory of all our medicinal stocks right away, this morning?”

“Fine,” beamed Tugau. “I’m ready to start at once.” He seemed to have had that idea in mind from the first time it was presented to him.

The botanic put on a working smock brought him by Megaera. “Good luck,” said the nurse. “All of us wish you the best of fortune in your work with us.”

He thanked her with joy on his face. A new stage had opened for him. But disappointment struck immediately. Tugau was shocked by what he discovered in the chamber where medicines were stored. He entered by himself, using a key card that Dr. Ongle had sent to him.

Minerals and compounds based on soil compounds, mostly salts, were the bulk of what was there. He sighed sadly. Only a few herbals were available. That was not his expectation. What did Ongle want him to do? he wondered.

The opportunity to ask that question came swiftly when the director appeared in the depository room as Tugau was examining its contents.

“What do you think of my treasury?” inquired his employer. “There are so many substances that exist, but we have been unable to put them to use with efficiency. My day is dominated with surgery. I need someone like you to set this storehouse in order and oversee its distribution among patients and former patients.”

Former patients?”

“Yes. They all need continuous therapy, treatment, and monitoring. Why should our care end with release? We continue to look out for our ex-patients. In reality, they never become fully disconnected from us. My prescriptions for them tend to be life-long in nature. I never write an end to any case I deal with.”

Tugau searched for what to say. “I find that amazing. But I have to ask myself why you want a botanic working on such a collection of materials as you have in here. From what I can tell, these are mostly non-organics, not plant products.”

The surgeon grinned as if some secret had been uncovered. “Yes, that is true. Leading herbalists have criticized the Therapeutic Center for the unique emphasis on mineral-based treatment given here. But what better way to counter such arguments than to hire someone with your background and experience? I want you to bring your knowledge into practical application for the health of our patients. There will be no limitations on your botanic work here.”

Tugau felt bold enough to declare his personal goals. “There must be no restriction of me in distributing herbal remedies. I hope that everyone recognizes that one condition of mine.”

He gave Ongle a hardened, stony look.

“That is the way I want it to be too,” calmly agreed the doctor. “Yes, that is how you shall be functioning, exactly as you say.”

Turau abruptly turned away. “I mean to make a complete, total inventory of all that is in here. Then, I will have a catalogue printed up for everyone involved.”

The canteen where employees of the Therapeutic Center ate their meals was a distance from the entrance of the main structure, necessitating constant exercise walking back and forth. Had that been a conscious decision of the management to help maintain the health of the hospital staff? wondered Tugau, eating at a tiny table next to a wide window facing the Center. As he finished his salmagundi salad of cardoon, he happened to look out at the main building. There were four tall, thin figures coming out of the entrance door. He recognized them at once as being Megaera and her three friends, Sterope. Merope, and Alcyone. Stepping vigorously, they all appeared to be hurrying toward the canteen in order to make good use of their break in work time.

He stared as if his sight was glued to the comely foursome. They grew more visible as they came nearer their destination, the lunch room where he himself was eating.

The sound of patrons of the place passing by him drew his attention for only a moment or so, creating a temporary distraction that was soon over. He turned his eyes to the small group moving closer toward the canteen.

But now, to his astonishment, there were only three of them.

He identified Alcyone, Merope, and Sterope. But there was no Megaera among them.

How could that be? Four had turned into three. Was he seeing with error? Had Megaera walked off somewhere on her own?

He had looked away only for a moment. How could so much have occurred in so short a time? His view was wide on both sides of the central cement walkway. She would not have gone far by now on the yellowish grass. Where was the willowy nurse who had taken such good care of him?

Tugau considered the idea that he had been mistaken from the beginning. Perhaps he had counted four bodies when there had actually been only three. Had he seen an optical illusion? Was this enigma all in his mind? he asked himself.

The botanic bit his lip. Was he involved in wishful perception? Did he really wish to talk with Megaera and imagined she was coming to be with him? There were several plausible explanations, yet none of them had the ring of verifiability. The entire experience was inexplicable.

He decided to ask the three about the missing nurse and where they last saw her. What they told him might throw light on the puzzle.

Tugau rose, paid his bill, and walked out before the group reached the canteen. He met and greeted them a little way from the entrance door. Then he got to what was bothering him.

“Isn’t Megaera eating lunch with you today?” he innocently asked.

Alcyone spoke for the group. “She went to the air terminal to await the globoid arriving from the Zenithals. Her baby brother is flying here. Megaera obtained permission to meet him.”

“Is that why she is missing? Did any of you see her go away on a trolley car?”

A reply came from Merope, standing in the middle.

“She left by herself, on her own. That was all, no big deal.”

Tugau smiled, said goodbye, and walked on, bewildered and baffled.

Tugau was flabbergasted as he studied the content’s of the medicine depository. He found large quantities of vitriol acid, colcothar iron, antimony, lead, arsenic, mercury, and laudanum. These substances were far from what he was accustomed to.

The use of opium-containing laudanum at the Center especially disturbed him.

At his next meeting with the director in the latter’s office, Tugau brought up his growing fears about patient safety with the heavy use of metals and metallics. “I am worried as to whether our patients are well protected when they take such mineral and metallic materials into them. Are they sufficiently warned of the possible toxic effects? I fear that some may be overdosing after leaving the Center without direct supervision. They cannot know the dangers they are facing.”

Ongle made a furtive grimace that contained anger in it.

“I don’t understand what you are complaining about. Look at any prescription that I write. There are always strict instructions on how much is to be taken, when, and warnings about negative signs to watch out for. All patients on these compounds are fully informed as to the risks they take. No one is treated without their complete knowledge and awareness. You exaggerate, Tugau.”

The botanic refused to give in. “I imply nothing, I merely state the truth: many of these materials are deleterious without proper supervision and tight control. That should be evident to anyone who studys what we have stored in the repository.” He paused a moment for breath,then went on. “There is doubt in my mind whether such compounds are really effective in a curative sense.”

The face of the director became totally sanguine, yet he succeeded in disguising his outrage.

“I should have prepared you better for the work you are doing. For many years, my approach here has been one of simple iatro-chemistry. Do you recognize what that refers to?”

“That is when a physician uses materials extracted from the soil, whether rock, mineral, or metal ore. But only a minority of medics in Provincia use those substances. For generations, our dominant therapies have been botanical. Plants and herbs are the source of most medicaments today, not what we find buried under the surface.”

“Are you familiar with the ancient medical practices in the Zenithal Mountains? We had centuries of development of folk remedies extracted from the ground. There were specialized persons with knowledge handed down over eons of time. They are still called spagyrists.”

Tugau fought for breath. “The old alchemists? They continue to treat the sick?”

“They possess extraordinary knowledge and wisdom, though laughed at and denigrated in other parts of Provincia. There is much that they could teach all of us, even the botanics in our cities.”

Glaring stares were exchanged back and forth. All at once, the facial color of Ongle returned to normal. He had thought up a proposal to present.

“Some time ago, I wrote a paper on this very matter, but never had it published. I would like to have you read it. My view of therapy with soil compounds is outlined in the work. Can I give it to you?”

Tugau answered with caution.

“Without obligating myself on anything, I will go though it, sir.”

Of all the people of the Therapeutic Center, only the director had a cottage all to himself. The rest of the staff occupied a residential hall with small apartments. Tugau was assigned to a vacancy at the end closest to the structure holding the patients in recuperation from surgery. He made himself at home there.

The women who were nursing attendants were at the other end of the same building, facing toward the open countryside. Tugau rarely saw the trio that he knew. He sat down in the evening and read his employer’s treatise. The first chapter dealt with parallel and similitude between the macromonde of the great world and the micromonde of a human being. It described analogies between the large and the small, then went into the intuitive knowledge that is possible because of the fundamental resemblances between the great and the small.

All at once, a loud noise sounded through the flat, coming from the corridor. The clanging din soon turned into violent shouting. What could it be? Tugau sprang to his feet, ran to the door, and quickly opened it wide to look down the hallway. What was causing the commotion?

He saw Megaera standing next to a towering male, each one of them shouting at the other. Sterope, Merope, and Alcyone stood immediately around their fellow nurse, as if trying to protect her from what was happening.

As he hurried down the hall toward the group, Tugau began to make out what the disputants were saying to each other.

“Don’t try to fool me,” yelled the young man. “I know treachery when I see it.”

First the co-workers of Megaera, then she herself, turned toward the botanic. Last of all, the male stranger turned to see what the others were looking at.

Tugau stopped a short distance from them. He stared at the group, they stared back.

The first person to address him was Megaera.

“This is my brother, recently arrived from the mountains. His name is Xuthus.” She turned her head and spoke to her sibling. “This man is the new pharmacist that Ongle discovered among the patients. He is busy cataloguing the medicine repository.”

The two men looked daggers at each other.

Silence continued uneasily for a short time, until Alcyone spoke. “I’m going back to my room,” she muttered. “Everybody else can do as they please.”

Once the process began, two more of the group did the same. Soon only the brother, sister, and the herbalist remained in the corridor, facing each other.

Suddenly Megaera made a proposal. “Why do we stay out here, Xuthus? Let’s go to my room and have a talk with Tugau.” She then looked directly at the latter. “What do you say? Will you come in with us.”

The nurse went to her door and opened it. She waved at Tugau to indicate he should be the one to go in next. Once he was inside, she signaled her brother to enter. Then she stepped in, closing the door behind her.

A cold wall of mutual disdain separated the two men. Megaera pointed to a stool, commanding her brother by gestures to sit down there. She then turned to Tugau and said “You can take the big chair.” She herself sat down on a plain xyloid seat and started to speak.

“I shall be the one who makes the introductions between the two of you. Tugau, here is my brother, just arrived from the Zenithal Mountains. He was the youngest child in our family, and I have always attempted to look out for him. We call him Xuthus, an ancient name among us.” She paused a few seconds as if waiting for something to happen.

“Xuthus, this is the new pharmacist of the Therapeutic Center. He was, until recently, one of our patients. In fact, I was his attendant nurse. Now he has recovered from his surgery. The director hired him, his first major duty being to catalogue all our medicinal stores of curative compounds and substances. It is a big and important job that he has.”

Her brother gave the herbalist a glare of unconcealed suspicion. “So, you serve Dr. Ongle. That is interesting. As his pharmacist, you are the person in charge of all his supplies. Am I correct?”

The man’s sister intervened. “He was trained as a botanic. That means that Tugau is not a spagyrist of metallic minerals, as were the pharmacists in the Zenithals.”

Xuthus gave the stranger a sharp, questioning look. “I can conclude that you have control over the supply of laudanum, can’t I?”

Megaera, now standing between the pair, all at once turned upon her brother.

“I believe that you are tired from your long journey, Xuthus. Why don’t you go into the bedroom and lie down? You will see and talk to our friend again, once you are rested up. Please do as I suggest.”

Meekly, Xuthus obeyed the command from his sibling.

Once he was out of the room, Megaera came close to Tugau.

“I apologize for his strange behavior. Back home, he was under medical treatment when he was a child. His therapist was Dr. Ongle. My brother’s problems are deep ones. He spoke of laudanum because it has become an addictive passion for him. You see, it began as a prescribed medicament for his violent fits of depression. His entire existence is now focused upon getting hold of and taking that material based on opium. What a tragedy!”

“It is a very potent compound,” noted Tugau.

“I know. It is laudanum that brings him to Diadema. That and a thirst for vengeance on Ongle, the one who put him in the prison you see that he dwells in.”

“It is the director he blames?”

Megaera nodded yes.

Her visitor decided to excuse himself and leave at once.

“The key to everything in the universe is chemistry. God was the original alchemist. The Divine Chemist created everything that exists through his calcination, congealing, distillation, and sublimation of everything left from the original chaos. All that we see about us grew out of the original material protyle. That was the primal source of all the chemical elements.

“The chemist in his laboratory can decipher and read the mysteries of creation through research. Everything can be analyzed by the explorer called a chemist. The three primary elements were salt, sulphur, and mercury. Everything that burns is made of sulphur. Whatever can be sublimated is mercury. All that then remains is a salt.

“There is nothing anywhere in the infinitum that is not also in man. The physician must first understand all of nature in the world before he can understand his patient. All illness and disease comes from the constituent elements of the universe and their effects on human beings. Cures can only come from these same influences outside the patient. That is the key to unlocking the secrets of nature and obtaining medicines that can cure.”

Tugau was breathless from reading the director’s treatise on metals and minerals.

How different this was from what he had learned at the botanic Gallipot under Alpheus!

Megaera came to the dispensary for a private talk with the pharmacist. He invited her to sit down beside his work desk. She began with an apology for what had happened the previous evening.

“I must ask for your forgiveness. My brother behaved badly. It had to do with what he feels about his dependence on laudanum.”

” Can’t he find therapy for it?” inquired Tugau.

“He doesn’t trust anyone. Not since his experience with Dr. Ongle.”

“Did the director make some horrible mistake in treatment?”

She nodded that his guess was right.

“My brother was just a teenager when he first went for therapy. Ongle diagnosed it as a case of cycloid depression. Xuthus was told that he suffered from a chemical insufficiency in natural minerals. The laudanum he began with was meant to rebalance his inner metallic minerals. My brother was supposed to achieve a new, higher equilibrium between his sulphur and his mercury through the influence of medicinal drugs, but it never happened. Instead, the new problem arose.”

“Xuthus placed the blame for that on Dr. Ongle,” said Tugau. “Is that fair?”

“A share of the guilt definitely falls on the doctor, but by no means all of it. My brother exacerbated the difficulty with his emotional reaction. He took to the laudanum with a passion at first because it symbolized his revenge on the oppressive forces weighing him down. That is what I believe happened to him.”

“What oppressive forces are you referring to, Megaera?”

She seemed to hesitate. “Our family was one of those shunned and discriminated against.”

“I don’t understand, so please explain.”

“Our neighbors called us a sylphine family, and we were that. My brother was not strong enough to live with and accept the name. That led to his depressive state of mind.”

“I still do not fully comprehend,” said the pharmacist.

“Sylphines in the Zenithals are a people who are possessed of air spirits. They are believed to be capable of wingless flight though sheer willpower. With colossal effort, they hurl themselves in all directions. Dr. Ongle is said to have similar origins. That is probably why he hired me, as well as Sterope, Merope, and Alcyone. Otherwise, it would have been hard for any of us to find jobs as nurses up in the mountains. That is the main reason we came to Diaema. It is the factor that brought my brother too, as well as revenge on Ongle.”

Tugau thought he felt his head spin. “You people, then, form a sort of cult that believes it is descended from air sylphines?”

She did not answer directly.

“It is very different in the mountains than it is here. The majority there have untrue ideas about us. They call us terrible names and are abusive. That does not happen here in Diaema and the Therapeutic Center. We are under the protection of Dr. Ongle here.”

Tugau thought a moment. “It appears to me that attitudes of hatred aggravated the problems of your brother. Maybe he lacked the mental strength to withstand the pressure.”

Megaera gave him a sad smile. “You have sharp perception and sensitivity,” she said quietly.

“I would like to get to know your brother better.”

“He plans to rent a room near the Center. We will be seeing him around here from now on. You will have opportunities to talk with him.”

Tugau soon returned to his rooms, his mind in a whirl. Had he become involved with a type of diploid he was unfamiliar with? What would it mean for him? How should he orient himself in the unforeseen situation he had fallen into?

The night that followed was when Tugau finished reading the treatise of the director. He marveled at the audacity of the conclusions reached. He had never before come across these radically original concepts anywhere.

“The agents of all illnesses and diseases are poisonous emanations from metals, salts, minerals, and distant astral bodies like the stars. These causes are specific, not general in nature. Abnormal quantities of salt, sulphur, or mercury in the body results in perilous disqualibria and sickness.

“A human being has an internal arch located in the abdomen that controls the flows of salt, sulphur, and mercury within the body. Its function is to regulate all body processes. When it goes off the track, imbalances result. If the arch does its job properly at all times, a person could live indefinitely, without a termination by death. If physicians knew enough about body chemistry, they could create a human embryo that would then grow up into an adult. The latter would never die, if the right balance of the three elements could be reached. Life would be unending.”

Tugau finished reading the work with many questions in his mind. He had met many unfamiliar phrases and ideas: seminal seeds from God, ultimate essences, sidereal bodies, astral corpses, aniada and grodinia germs, and hidden lusters. What did they mean? What was their practical impact on health and illness?

Tired and confused, he returned the volume to the office of the director. The latter invited him in for a review of the work. “What do you think of my treatise?” asked Dr. Ongle, smiling like a cat.

Tugau groped for an adequate reply that would not irritate or disconcert his superior. “I have never read anything as provocative in my life. The viewpoint is totally new to me and I have to think through the many new concepts I came across. How did you write such a work, sir?”

The face of Ongle turned icy cold.

“In the Zenithals, there are many similar explanations of sickness. We form a community with shared ideas held in common. The whole group thinks like me.”

A sudden revelation occurred in the mind of the botanic. “Are you speaking of the sylphines of the  Zenithal Mountains?”

Dr. Ongle appeared to undergo a jouncing jolt.

“How did you learn about sylphines?” he gruffly demanded. “Has someone here spoken of them to you?”

The pharmacist realized he had to prevaricate in order not to expose Megaera to her employer’s wrath. “I knew of that group before I came to the Center. It is difficult to remember exactly where I found references to them, but I have a tiny bit of information about sylphines. Who they are, though, remains a mystery to me. Do you mean to tell me that their ideas are like those in your treatise?”

Looking away, the director did not reply directly. “There is much that I dare not say to you yet. Let me say this much: I was born into a circle of sylphines, as my parents were before me. My position with them grew into one of leadership. I still remain an important, pivotal figure here in Diaema. There are several others like me working at the Therapeutic Center. I try to look out for their interest and protect them from outside threats.”

“Threats?” asked Tugau.

Ongle gazed directly into the herbalist’s chatoyant eyes.

“There are certain enemies of ours in the Zenithals. I have long feared that they will follow us here. They go by the name of Gnomi and have a history in the mining industry. Have you heard of them?”


The director considered for a couple of seconds.

“I can loan you a history of the Zenithal Mountains. You can learn a lot about the feud between the sylphines and the gnomi from what it says.”

Dr. Ongle went back to his office and took a thick volume from a shelf.

Tugau, busy with his inventory of the stores available in the safe room, heard the outer door of the substance repository open. He came out to see a skeletal figure of imposing height standing in the anteroom. It was clear at once to the botanic who it was: the disoriented brother of Megaera, the young man named Xuthus.

“Good morning,” said Tugau, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The answer was a jarring one. “Get me some laudanum, please. I beg that of you.”

“Do you have a doctor’s prescription? That is required by law.”

The mountainer’s expression changed from that of a pleader to one of threatening pressure.

“You do not understand my critical need. There is no time for a note to be written. Give it to me now and I promise to return with the writ you require.”

“I’m afraid that nothing like that is possible. Why don’t you find a doctor here at the Center and ask him for a prescript for that substance?”

Anger colored the face of the tall addict a crimson hue.

“Don’t you remember me from last evening? I am the brother of Megaera. We were talking when you came in and interrupted our heated discourse. The subject that concerned us was what I am here for now. My need for laudanum is a result of the malpractice of Dr. Ongle back home in the Zenithal Mountains. He is a treacherous dissembler. I know, for it was I who uncovered the truth of how he treated his patients with chemicals. That is why he enslaved me with large doses of laudanum and gained absolute power over my mind. He had, at that time, unquestioned authority over what I could say or do. But I revolted against subservience to him and unmasked him as a mountebank and bamboozler. He never forgave me for that.” Xuthus paused for breath, looking directly at Tugau with a knowing grin. “Ongle claims that he leads the sylphines, but that boast of his is a fraud. Only I know what, in reality, he is and whom he serves.”

“What do you mean?” asked the pharmacist.

“Do you know what a mountain gromus is?”

“Of course I do,” lied Tugau, determined to learn the truth by claiming to have knowledge he did not.

“Look at how short the doctor is. Notice how dwarfish his frame and bones are. He cannot qualify as one of the tall sylphines. We are big and large-boned, though slim and reedlike. No, Ongle cannot be what he says he is. He is a traitor and a spy, an enemy to all true sylphines.”

The botanic pondered briefly, then presented a proposal to his visitor.

“If I gave you a minuscule amount of laudanum, just enough to tide you over for a few hours, would you agree to see me later to determine how to proceed with your condition? I will need to know where you are staying in order to find you.”

The intruder accepted with surprising alacrity.

Tugau went back into the store vault to obtain what the addict needed. He took a pinch of tincture  of opium and poured it into a vial. When he returned to the anteroom, Xuthus greedily snatched it out of his hand and rushed away without a word. He had done what he thought he needed to quiet the fires in him.

After an hour of cataloguing, Tugau found himself unable to proceed further. Curiosity compelled him to take the history of the Zenithals and skim through it, on the lookout for anything about the sylphines or gnomi. At last, after a long hunt, he discovered what he was after.

“The aboriginal tribes living in our mountain region believed that the entire universe consisted of four fundamental material elements: fire, air, water, and soil. And there were four corresponding divisions in the mountain population, each one associated with one of those material principles. These tribes saw each element as inhabited by a special being with supernatural powers. The four divisions of human beings were identified with these invisible immaterial beings living in the elements. Salamanders were spirits that dwelled in fire. Undine creatures were the ones in water. Gnomi lived underground in earth, rock, and soil. Each of the types of spirit possessed special powers. The gnomus, for example, was capable of moving through solid earth or rock like a fish swimming though water. Female undines were so beautiful they could steal a man’s soul if he mated with one of them and gave her child. Such legends continue to exist in isolated villages and hamlets of the Zenithal Mountains.”

Tugau sat back and put down the book. He thought through what he had just read.

The sylphines and gnomi were primal enemies. Xuthus, whether disturbed or not in mind, had ingested the inter-group conflict and hatred so thoroughly that he had to identify his foe, Dr. Ongle, with the enemy diploid of the subterrane. The sylphines had ruled the air, while the gnomi were rulers underground.

What is the truth about Dr. Ongle? he wondered. Is he the one or the other? Or something else?

What did he have to do in order to uncover the true situation of these strange diploids?

The answer appeared to his mind in a brilliant flash.

Investigation in the form of a small felid chatan could be effective because no one pays attention to a stray cat. He would forget the larger shape from his past and become a small tom or a tabby. As a little animal that posed no threat to anyone he should have entre wherever he wished to go and listen.

Tugau decided to transform himself into the other half of his diploid nature, as a small shape.

Another idea occurred as well. Suppose all the sylphines were able to move between two forms: the human and the airborne one. What if Megaera, for example, were both human and a spirit of the air?

He would have to keep that possibility always in mind as he dealt with the group of sylphines.

The concept worked flawlessly.

He transformed into a small catling, black with a white-spotted face. A pretty kitten that was no threat to anyone or anything. How was this animal to enter and leave buildings and rooms in them? It could not open doors larger than itself. But there was one possible way, Tugau cleverly thought of. What if the transfer process from one form to the other were speeded up and kept completely hidden from the eyes of others? If the cat faced a closed door, the creature would transform itself back into its human shape. Once he had solved the problem by throwing open the obstacle, then the chatan could immediately turn into its feline form again. Quick transmutation into the human status then back into the body of a cat. Speed and timeliness were essential.

Can I work such a scheme with satisfaction he asked himself.

Tugau first tried experiments inside his apartment with the bathroom door as the barrier.

It worked perfectly. There was no disruption or delay in the movement back and forth between the two forms.

The best site for his espionage was the flat of Megaera. Glancing at his wrist timer, Tugau realized that all the nurses were still at work. It was an opportune moment to enter her apartment in felid form, hide somewhere under the furniture, and wait for the return of Megaera with the others. He suspected that the other sylphine nurses might come to the flat along with her, ready to discuss matters of great interest to him.

From the timber of the voices, the black and white young feline under the living room sofa identified the presence of Megaera and Alcyone when the pair entered from the hallway. They were discussing surgical operations that Dr. Ongle had performed that day. Alcyone was taking a critical view of his results as a chirugeon.

“The little doctor cuts, slices, and carves like a meat butcher at a slaughterhouse. I am always surprised that more of his patents don’t end up in their final form of flesh.”

Megaera then spoke in a thoughtful tone. “It was a joy to me when he took me off the surgical team and put me fulltime in the recovery ward. I don’t have to watch blood splattering on all sides.”

“Some day the fiend will make a big mistake that becomes public and ends with his prosecution and punishment under the law. I can hardly wait till that happens to him. Why do we stay here and work for such a person, Megaera?”

“We started in innocence and ignorance, and now it is not possible to escape his power in the field of medicine and surgery. We have become the prisoners of Dr. Ongle and work under him. It is as if he has doomed us to remain here forever. We cannot find a way to flee, not yet.”

Alcyone changed the subject to get away from the topic of the director.

“What are you going to do tonight, Megaera?”

“My brother left me a note saying that he wants to meet with me.”

“Where will that be?”

“Down on the walkway alongside the canal. By the big monument and the fountains.”

“At this hour the two of you will be alone and undisturbed.”

Not at all, thought the chatan. I intend to be there with the two of you.

The monument was dedicated to an unremembered early ruler of Provincia, the Overman of that land. Yellow tinted water flowed over and over through surrounding fountains. The only light was that from the star-filled sky. A hollow silence prevailed.

The chatan, first to arrive, hid beneath the marble rim of a fountain. It was sure that no one would suspect its presence. But anything said would be audible to its ears.

Out of nowhere, a bass voice sounded. Xuthus had arrived and found his sister already there.

“Megaera, I had to talk to you. It is necessary that we straighten out the differences we have. I tell you the truth: I came here to destroy the man who made me what I am today. As long as Ongle is alive, I can never be free of the addiction that he drove me into. That is the reason I am in Diaema. My aim is to kill him.”

“You traveled here through the air?”

“I flew in a globus. There was no alternative for me.”

“None of us have done so for generations. It is too terribly dangerous and exhausting.”

“No matter. I am here now and I must avenge what Ongle did to me.”

“But was what resulted intentional or a mistake in his judgment? It might have been accidental, Xuthus.”

“I have to believe that the doctor was aware of the risks of what he was doing to me. His motives have become clear to me. I have uncovered his true nature. He is not at all what he claims to be, a sylphine. Behind his outer disguise lurks the evil character of a gnomus. It was to prevent anyone else from learning this secret from me that he overdosed my mind and body with laudanum. That was the motive for his crime. The purpose was to take complete control over what I might say and reveal. His secret had to be concealed at any cost.”

“Do not attempt anything you will later regret, Xuthus. Remember, the addiction you suffer will not end with the death of the doctor who caused it. The problem will still be there.”

“I have to get back to my room,” said her brother. “That pharmacist has my address and said he was coming to see me this evening. He may already be there. I must be present to receive him and whatever he brings with him.”

“I must see you again, to keep you from turning into what you are not destined to become.”

“No promises are possible, Megaera. I will talk to you soon. We shall all be free of that monster in one way or another in a short while. Trust me.”

In a few seconds, both siblings were gone. Tugau changed himself from his feline form and hurried off for his meeting with the sylphine brother.

It was late, only an hour until midnight. Would Xuthus still be up, waiting for the promised laudanum? There was no way for Tugau to evade his commitment.

He knocked at the door of the rented flat and the brother of Megaera let him in. “You brought what I need?” asked Xuthus with his first words.

The botanic nodded yes and handed him a small paper package. “I have a day’s supply inside for you.”

Xuthus grabbed it from him and then rushed back into the kitchen to ingest in private. Tugau continued standing and waiting by the closed door. His mind was busy devising a scheme to hold back the addicted one from violent action against the director. Was that possible at this stage?

Tugau decided to attempt a diversionary tactic. When Xuthus returned, he was ready to maneuver.

“How do you feel now?” he asked the sylphine young man.

“Much better. I have to thank you for that.”

“Perhaps now is the time to talk with you about a plan I have.”

A plan?” inquired Xuthus with curiosity.

“To remove Ongle from his position at the Therapeutic Center. The idea occurred to me that he cannot continue in a high position if he loses his license to practice surgery and medicine. We must present a strong case against him to the Medical Board of Diadema. They have to be told of his crimes against patients like you. What if I prove that he is a danger to the sanity of those he deals with? In simple terms, he makes them crazy or demented. Take your sad case, for example.

“Even you must admit that your life has been anything but normal. He planted a strange idea in your mind, that you are a diploid with two different forms. That you have both a human and a non-human nature. He made you think that you are a sylphine who can fly high in the air.”

“But…but…” stuttered Xuthus in confusion.

“I will take you as a witness before the Medical Board of the city. No doubt, I will find others who can testify how he harmed their mental balance. You are not going to be the only accuser.”

“I am willing to help you, sir,” offered the one from the Zenithals, surprising the other.

“Call me Tugau,” said the pharmacist with an instant grin.

The two shook hands and the visitor left. He had accomplished more than he had expected or considered possible that night.

Director Ongle had a note delivered to Tugau. He was to report to his superior’s office as soon as possible. Without delay, the new employee complied.

“Sit down, please,” said the surgeon. When the summoned botanic was seated, Dr. Ongle asked an unexpected, unforeseeable question.

“What direction do you think medical treatment is going to take in the future?”

Completely astonished, Tugau had to grope for an answer. It would not do to antagonize, disgruntle, or insult this man who exercised so much authority over him, who could determine his future.

“It is hard to say specifically, sir. I feel there will be more preventive measures taken. People will be taught to eat healthier diets. Surgeries will be perfected and done earlier in an illness. Everything will be stepped up in time. There will be less waiting for things to happen.

“I also believe that means will exist to prevent imbalances in the equilibrium of elemental salts, sulphur, and mercury. As soon as any sign appears indicating the onset of sickness is near, balance will be strengthened and restored. There will be instruments for telling whether a patient needs more or less of a basic element. And they will be supplied in time to produce a cure.

“That is how I foresee the course of medicine progressing. What do you think we will see, sir?”

Dr. Ongle seemed disturbed by the reversal of roles. “I believe you have a good grasp of what is coming, Tugau. You surprise me with your width of vision. I agree with what you said about the future of elemental balancing. Your ideas are correct.

“In that specific area lies the reason I called you here this morning. I am planning to affiliate our Center with one of the leading mineral refining outfits in the Zenithal Mountains. They will produce certain compounds and we here will use them as medicaments. I intend to widen their use in Diaema and elsewhere through our example. This promises to be a major step in medical treatment. The initial actions will cover mercuric therapy and applications.”

Tugau felt troubled and perplexed. “Use of mercury will become dominant over plants and herbs?”

“In a word, yes,” answered the director. “You will have to put aside your training in botanics.”

“But what will my function be in the new system that is to be?” asked the disconcerted pharmacist.

“Your knowledge of chemistry will still be of value. There can be continued use of plants, but it will sink in time as spagyric science is applied. I believe you are capable of adjustments, Tugau. Your immediate task is to take charge of procurement of supplies. I am sending you to make contact with mining and smelting concerns in the Zenithal Mountains. You are to test for the purity of what we purchase there. Do you happen to know the name for mercuric ore?”

“Of course. It is called cinnabar. The color of the ore is a brilliant vermillion.”

“You are going to see a lot of it in days to come, my friend,” predicted Ongle with a slight grin.

Tugau decided that action had to be taken against the director at once, before the day arrived for him to leave for the Zenithals on his odious mission. That evening he went to see Megaera about the plan to bring malpractice accusations against Ongle. It now had immediate urgency.

“You see why the charges must be presented at once?” he told the nurse whose patient he had been. “He is planning to flood the Center with mercuric chemicals. Our obligation to medicine is to oppose and stop his polluting of everyone’s health with metals.”

She thought a second. “My brother can be a major witness against him. But there will also be corroboration by Sterope. Merope, and Alcyone. I myself have direct knowledge of what he does. We had to work for him, there was no alternative for women from the Zenithals. The Medical Board will hear the truth from us.”

Tugau made an instant decision. “I shall find the chairman of that Board tonight. His name and address were easy for me to find. It is unconventional, but necessary. It allows me to make an informal verbal presentation. I intend to go alone and speak in private.”

The residence of Dr. Cupax, chairman of the Medical Board of Diaema, was at the end of a cul-de-sac with many trees on both sides of it. Through the deserted streets under a cloudy, starless sky strode Tugau, his steps slow and noiseless. He glanced at the numbers on each house, searching for one in particular. At last, the right one came up near the end. He climbed up a steep series of stone steps to a large wychwood door. With trepidation he gave the brass knocker several light raps.

A domestic maid in uniform opened the door and asked him what he wanted.

“I have important business with the doctor,” said Tugau in a breathless voice. “Please tell him it is urgent that I talk with him. The matter is vital to the future health of all Provincia.”

The servant blinked in confusion. “What is your name, sir?”

He gave it and the woman went away, leaving the door open.

Tugau looked into the brilliantly illuminated entrance way. How much money does this medico earn annually? he wondered. It must be an ample amount to allow him to afford this. Will he be willing to hear a complaint against another leader in his field?

All at once, a small man in a tuxedo appeared and spoke at once. “You wish to see me about something you believe a health danger?”

“I am a qualified botanic and I have credible evidence of malpractice by a physician. Everything that I charge can be proven with witnesses.”

Ink black eyes stared at the night visitor with incredulity.

“Come in,” said Dr. Cupax in a commanding voice. “Let’s discuss this in my study.”

The two made their way to a folio-lined room. The doctor went behind a tecona desk while Tugau took a planewood chair in front of it.

“Tell me your story, please,” muttered Cupax severely.

It took surprisingly little time to describe the misdeeds of Ongle. When Tugau was finished, the medical official had questions he asked.

“According to what you say, these dangerous mercuries come from the Zenithal mountains and that is where the young man who became addicted to laudanum was treated there by Dr. Ongle. Isn’t that so?”

“Yes. Now the patient has come to Diaema with those symptoms created through malpractice. He can be made available easily.”

Dr, Cupax furrowed his brow as he considered his judgment of the matter. “I shall have to look into the question of jurisdiction. I doubt that we have the authority to consider actions that occurred far away, in the Zenithals. A case treated there has to be decided there, not here.

“As to mercury compounds, they are legally used in Diaema and often have positive effects on heart disease and hardening of the arteries. Scarlet fever and even syphilis can be alleviated with some of the mercuric compounds. I myself have prescribed calomel for digestive and alimentary problems. It is impossible to generalize about an entire system of medicinals.”

“What are you telling me, Doctor?” loudly protested Tugau. “Do I understand what you are implying?”

All at once, Cupax broke out in an obviously assumed smile. “It will be a difficult charge for you to substantiate and for my board to assume jurisdiction over. Even with witnesses, such cases are extremely difficult to prove. I must confess that what you told me is baffling. There are many holes in the accusations you make.

“I will take the matter up with the four other board members a month from now. If there is agreement, we will call you at the Therapeutic Center and have you scheduled for some future time. These cases are very slow, I know. But we have to be thorough at every step of the procedure.

“Everything depends on the decision of my colleagues. The conclusion, as you see, is not in my hands. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Tugau scowled cynically and asked a final question. “When will I know what the Board intends to do with this complaint, sir?”

“In two or three months at the earliest,” frowned Cupax.

The chagrined botanic shot to his feet. He recognized defeat when he faced it. This was for sure a blind alley for him and his comrades. He should have known better than to seek official assistance.

He said good night and stalked out of the study, then the residence of Dr. Cupax. The sense of defeat set all of him aflame with emotion.

It could not wait. He had to inform Megaera of his failure that very evening. Despite the late hour, Tugau went to her door and lightly knocked.

It took a little time before she appeared, wearing a velvet night cymar.

“I hope that I didn’t awaken you from sleep,” he apologized. “But this is so critical that you had to hear it at once. Can I come in and give you a report on what happened?”

Without a word, she opened the door wide and let him enter. Then she closed the door.

Both stood facing each other for a moment.

“I failed awfully. Nothing went right. Cupax is a petty, small-minded imbecile. He plans to delay any answer to my complaint, claiming long discussions with his colleagues lie ahead. The faker says that the Medical Board lacks jurisdiction over mercuric dangers that originate in the Zenithals. He completely frustrated me and all I said to him. I have never had such a disappointment with a medical authority as tonight.”

“What can we do now?” desperately asked Megaera. “Is Ongle the victor and we the defeated?”

“We cannot surrender to him,” gently murmured Tugau. “We must maintain our sense of justice.”

“What can I do with Xuthus? He could go over the edge in his craving for vengeance. Or he might turn and harm himself. If only I could make him leave Diaema.”

The last statement by her brought a sudden thought to life in his mind.

“An idea just struck me. Ongle intends to send me to the Zenithals to purchase mercurics and test them for purity. What if I arranged to travel there with your brother? He would be of enormous help to me in gathering evidence of criminality by the director and those in league with him.

“I might be able, with your aid, to convince Xuthus that it is vital that he accompany and assist me. Do you think he is persuadable, especially by you?

“My hope is based on what I have heard from all of you about Ongle’s connections to the gnomi. What if I can prove that he is associated with those underground diploids? What if I can find proof of criminal fraud in the medical claims based on spagyric minerals and metals?”

“Indeed,” she nodded. “You may have a way of saving Xuthus and prosecuting Ongle through such a trip as you are thinking of. You promise to keep your eye on my brother?”

“Of course. I will not leave him alone at any time. We will always stay together while there.”

“I can get up before dawn and go to see him,” she promised. “He will listen and heed my advice.”

Tugau then did something he had not anticipated. He surprised Megaera by taking hold and embracing her tightly. She had no prior warning of this, but did not resist. It became instantly welcome to her.

As he broke away to leave, she started to miss his close presence and the feel of his body.

Megaera had a hard time finding sleep that night after what had just happened to her.

The sister convinced her brother to give his consent to the request from Tugau. The latter received detailed orders from Director Ongle: where to go in the Zenithal Mountains, whom to meet with, what terms to agree to and sign, how to evaluate metallic and mineral sources. Preparations for the journey were put in place.

Tugau went out to the Diaema Air Terminal to purchase tickets. He paid for the fare of Xuthus out of his own pocket, charging the Therapeutic Center for his own. The fastest time was with the express airship, a globoid that made only limited stops on its way to the Zenithals. When this was finished, he took a trolley to the apartment of Xuthus to talk over plans, preparations, and arrangements.

It was a surprise how enthused the young man had become over the prospects ahead to ensure the defeat of Dr. Ongle. The sylphine was returning to the region of his earlier tragedy, but with the hope of overcoming his past. The projected trip filled him with ebullient zeal and new energy.

“Yes,” he told Tugau, “we two will perform wonderous things once we are there. My recollections and your leadership can be a potent combination. We two will entrap that demonic quack in his net of crime and lying. He shall suffer all the punishment he deserves. And I know how it can be done, my dear fellow.”

The botanic smiled hopefully. “Tonight we take leave of your sister and her fellow nurses,” he soothingly declared. “Early tomorrow comes our departure by globoid balloon for the distant mountains where we will determine our futures.”

Alcyone brought a molasses pie she had baked, Merope an apple empanada, and Sterope a honey gateau. It was Megaera who provided citrusade punch and posset.

A guarded atmosphere prevailed, since no one was certain what lay ahead for the two making the journey to the Zenithal Mountains. Every person present ate and drank. Each of them wore a mask to conceal any fears or doubts about the outcome. No one laughed too much. This was not the time to carry on.

The first to leave were Merope, Sterope, and Alcyone.

When Xuthus took the trash that remained out to the building’s refuse bin, Tugau was alone for the first time that evening with Megaera.

Only after embracing and exchanging kisses did one of them speak.

“I shall miss you terribly,” whispered the nurse.

Tugau looked deeply into her sky blue eyes. “If we are fortunate, this will not take us long. If we arn’t, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

No more was said, because no more talk was necessary.

Xuthus soon returned from outside. His sister said farewell with a hug and a kiss. She shook hands with Tugau and left for her own apartment.

The herbalist slept on a sofa in the flat of Xuthus that night. His luggage was there, ready for transport.

Their course set, the two males set forth in a horsecab before dawn the next morning.

They each attempted to encourage the other, lifting up their hopes for victory. Their battle would be reborn in the mountainous region where the sylphines had lost their long struggle against their enemies, the gnomi.


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