The Skeleton Throne

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Worms (Pt 3)

Toast and oatmeal were the staple options for breakfast at the Dosalda inn. All smoked and dried meats had been tossed during the first few days of the plague as a fear of infected food moved through the small town populace. Fresher fruits and vegetables had been used up or gone bad, leaving Barnen with only a few pickled or preserved selections. He had access to a pump for water that Mateo was fairly confident in, given how none of the residents at the inn were showing any signs of illness or infection, but mostly his drinks came in the form of sterile alcohols with long shelf lives. Toasting the bread helped to keep it from going stale but the flavor grew old quickly, even with the small selection of preserves that could be enjoyed with it. Mateo therefore decided that today oatmeal was the ideal breakfast, and he sat to skim through his journal as he waited for the oats to soak and soften.

Yesterday had not been as productive as he’d desired, instead having spent his time in drunken conversation with Carmyle and puzzling over events at a house that were fading quickly from his mind. Or perhaps not fading but being dismissed as unreasonable, unrealistic. Unnecessary. Today he would do better. Today he would visit the morgue, perhaps speak to the dieners there in hopes of being able to see some of the bodies or at least learn about how the town was choosing to dispose of them, whether corpses could be part of the continuing spread of illness. He considered for a moment checking in on some of the other houses to see how families were doing but Sabbis’ words from the other day returned to him and he grimaced at their memory.

The rahkanna was right, most people were not going to want to see a healer who could not offer them help. They had plenty to deal with already on their own, just as Panella had. He would focus on the bodies, on the morgue. Perhaps there he would finally find some answers so that he could reach out with actual offers to help.

“Um, excuse me?”

It was the second time she spoke but only the first time Mateo actually registered her voice. He looked up quickly from his work to meet the tired and cautious eyes of the woman who stood timid and small before his table. She looked several years younger than him, perhaps somewhere in her mid twenties, and she clutched in her hands a damp hat, as soaked as her burgundy cloak from the rain outside.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.” She looked on the verge of tears.

“No, you’re just fine,” Mateo hurriedly assured, his brow creasing as he sat more upright and attentive. “What is it? What can I do for you?”

“Well, you’re the doctor, right? The healer from the temple?”

“I am...”

The woman drew in a shaky breath, mustering. herself. “It’s my daughter, sir. She’s only just started to get ill, I thought… I thought if it was early enough, maybe there was still something you could do...”

Mateo was already up and throwing his supplies in his pack before her statement was finished. He tossed its strap over his shoulder and pulled his cloak on, looking to the woman expectantly.

“Take me to her.”

As they hurried across town the woman, Nidiyna, spoke with rushed nerves as she described what she could to Mateo.

“Last night she went to bed, she said her stomach did not feel good? She said it was like a pit, like it hurt. Cramps.”

“Was she nauseous?”

“Not last night, no.” Nidiyna shook her head as she lead him quickly down streets through unrelenting rain. “But this morning she did throw something up. Like dark. She said everything was very like sweet. Like sick but sweet.”

“Like everything smelled sweet? Tasted sweet?” Mateo’s brow creased deeply as he hurried behind her, hand over his forehead as he tried vainly to block the rain from his face. It did not matter, his head and arms and entire self was already soaked.

“I don’t know,” Nidiyna admitted. “I don’t know what she meant. She was crying,” Nidiyna sounded as though she were on the verge of tears herself. Mateo admired her focus.

They reached her house in minutes. As they entered a man that Mateo assumed was her partner greeted Nidiyna with a tight hug.

“I found him,” she told him as she gripped his shoulders tightly. “I found the healer. He’s here with me. How is Shindia?”

“She is calmed, for the moment.” The man drew back from their embrace, his hands resting on Nidiyna’s upper arms. His pale blue eyes, an intense contrast to his thick dark hair and deep brown complexion, never settled on her face. His gaze was instead lost above her forehead, looking but not seeing. They never looked to Mateo, either. “She is sitting in bed. She wanted to play with her doll. You said you brought the healer?”

“Hello,” Mateo spoke up and the man’s face turned toward him, a smile of acknowledgment spreading across his features.

“Ah, there he is.” The man reached a hand out and Mateo took it. “Thank you, thank you for coming. I am Kareem.” Kareem placed his other hand over Mateo’s and gave it a firm shake before gently patting his forearm.

“Mateo,” he introduced himself reflexively, though his mind was more on the mention of the girl.

“We had heard there was someone in town from the temple. Good man… good man to show up.”

“May I see her?” Mateo asked, looking from Kareem to Nidiyna. “May I see your daughter?”

“Yes, of course.” Nidiyna motioned for him to follow. “Right this way.”

Kareem let go of Mateo and Nidiyna led him through a house not too unlike Panella’s. Homes in towns like these were sometimes constructed the same if the town had grown from a rapid influx of people all at once. Though Mateo did not know the history of Dosalda, there was plenty he was beginning to gather about it from what he was seeing.

As Nidiyna led him through a house that was hauntingly familiar, Mateo could guess where they were going before they even arrived. The parallels were understandable to him but unsettling nonetheless. It made him feel as though he’d been inside a person’s home before ever visiting them. Especially when he walked into a room in the same part of the house where Toby’s had been just to find a young girl’s bed in nearly the same position as the deceased man’s, though this time instead of a sickly older gentleman who looked on the verge of collapse he saw a young girl, easily no older than seven or eight, sitting up in a large bed and quietly stroking the yarn-like hair of a patchwork doll.

“Shindia?” Her mother called as they stepped into the room and the young girl turned to look up at her. “Sweetheart, how are you feeling?” Nidiyna asked as she took a seat on the side of the girl’s bed, reaching over to press a hand to her forehead. The little girl looked down at her doll and said nothing. Nidiyna tenderly squeezed her shoulder.

“I want you to meet someone. This is Mateo Gulverres, he’s a healer and he’s come to take a look at you.”

Mateo was drawing out his large handkerchief as Shindia’s mother introduced him. The smile was lost behind the article as he tied it around his mouth and nose but he stepped closer to the girl’s bed.

“Hello, Shindia. Is it alright if I talk to you for a bit?”

The girl started to tug at the yarn hair of her doll again but nodded, not looking up. Mateo found a small chair and drew it over to the bed. The furniture was more suited for the girl’s size and as he sat it gave a comedic appearance of a giant attempting to squat on a small stool. He placed his pack on the ground beside himself as he drew out his journal.

“Why do you have that thing on your face?” Shindia asked as she finally raised her gaze to look at him.

“This?” Mateo asked, tapping at his makeshift face mask. “It’s something healers will wear when working with patients, but for me it can also help me focus and feel calmer,” he explained as he found his note-taking necessities. He looked to Shindia once more. “Do you have anything like that? Something that makes you feel calmer?”

Shindia gave a small nod and held up her doll.

“Who is that?” Mateo asked.


“Tell me about Anya?”

“She’s my sister.” Shindia said, looking down at her doll. “I really wanted one so mom made her for me.”

There was a small sound from Nidiyna as she perched on Shindia’s bed and Mateo looked over at her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet, and she turned away to clear her throat.

“I see,” Mateo said, turning back to Shindia. “Does Anya help you feel better right now?”

Shindia gave a small nod, tugging at the doll’s hair.

“Everyone who’s been sick has died,” she said after a pause, her voice small and soft. “Am I going to die, too?”

“Well,” Mateo tried not to let hesitation betray his answer. It was hard for him to lie, even when he knew lies would be assuring, and that was a detriment to his bedside manner. Was it better to lift people with empty hope than it was to bring them down with heavy truth? Even the Temple seemed conflicted on that answer.

“I am here to do the best I can to make you feel better, and I think because your mother came and got me so quickly when you started to feel sick, that we have a pretty good chance.” He kept his tone higher and cheerful. “Your mother said you started feeling bad last night? Can you tell me about that?”

“My stomach hurt a lot,” Shindia said slowly. She combed the doll’s hair out with her fingers, lingering on the strands of yarn. “It just felt like there was a deep hole in it. I was really hungry but it hurt too much to think about eating.”

“Can you tell me anything before that?” Mateo prompted. “Maybe can you think of anything earlier in the day? Did you eat something that you didn’t like or drink anything that didn’t taste good?”

Shindia gave a small shrug as she kept her attention on her doll.

“I was tired yesterday so I took a nap. When I woke up it felt like I had swallowed string and I couldn’t stop coughing.”

Mateo made a few notes in his journal before he stood up from his diminutive seat. He drew several items from his medical pack and stepped over to the bed.

“I need to be able to touch you so I can look at a few things, is that alright?” Shindia gave a little nod and Mateo sat on the edge of her bed across from Nidiyna. He pulled up a wooden tongue depressor.

“Can you open your mouth wide and say ‘ah’?”

She did and he looked into her mouth. Her breath smelled sweet. He checked her eyes and held a few fingers to her neck to feel her pulse. It was weak.

“Have you eaten anything today?” Mateo asked.

Shindia shook her head gently.

“I haven’t felt hungry.”

“Your mother said you got sick this morning. You haven’t been hungry since then?”

Shindia shook her head again.

“Well, would you try eating something for me?”

She gave another little shrug and nodded. Mateo turned to Nidiyna.

“Could she get a bit of bread? And water, has your home been drinking water? Can I see a cup of it?”

Nidiyna nodded and stood from her daughter’s bedside, heading out of the room. Mateo turned his attention back to the young girl.

“You know it’s very important when you’re sick that you get good food and drink.”

“I don’t want to throw it up again,” Shindia said softly to her doll. Mateo nodded.

“I understand. That’s why we’ll do just a little, and then you can tell me how you feel after that, okay?”

Nidiyna returned shortly with bread and water. Mateo took both and looked them over carefully. He drew his handkerchief down to sniff at the bread and tore off a piece of it to analyze and taste. He took the water to a more direct source of light and pulled out a magnifying lens to inspect it as well. As Nidiyna watched the healer curiously he asked her a series of questions: Did the whole household eat this food? Yes. And did they all drink the same water? Yes. Did any of this recently come from a neighbor? No. Did either Nidiyna or Kareem feel any symptoms of illness? No. Did Shindia leave the house to play the other day or any time recently? No, she hasn’t left since quarantine. For his part, Mateo could not find anything amiss with either food or drink, so he offered both to Shindia and watched as the young girl delicately managed them.

“Do you have anything that she was sick on this morning? Clothes or bedding?” Mateo asked Nidiyna. She grimaced and shook her head.

“We sent it out this morning when the bell wagon came by. I didn’t want anything lingering.”

“Sorry, the bell wagon?” Mateo asked, forehead wrinkling in confusion.

“She means the corpse collector,” Kareem spoke up from where he was lingering outside the room. “It is just a more pleasant way to speak of her. She comes by every morning and you can hear the bell on her wagon ring. Families bring out their bodies or dirty clothes and items, and she carts them away to the morgue and the furnaces.”

Mateo recalled the faint sound of a bell a few days prior when first visiting Panella’s house. In the moment it had seemed so faint, as though his ears were tricking him, but now the memory made more sense.

“I see.”

“I’m sorry we did not keep anything,” Nidiyna began, disheartened. “If we had known it could help...”

“No, you’re fine,” Mateo shook his head. “Please, don’t worry about it. You were right for not wanting to keep anything around that might spread the illness.” He chalked it up as another reason for why he should pay a visit to the morgue. “Do you mind if I stay to watch Shindia for a while? I’d just like to keep an eye on her, maybe start offering some things to help her feel better.”

Nidiyna nodded ardently and Kareem agreed with a soft “Yes, please. Anything at all you could do to help her out. Is there anything you need from us?”

Mateo could think of nothing in the moment but thanked Kareem for the consideration.

“I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”

He stayed with Shindia to observe and spend time with her for the day. They played with Anya and she told him a little about her sister doll. He found out about friends she had to stop seeing when the town grew cautious and closed, and he learned how she wanted to grow up to be a tailor and practiced by making clothes for her doll. Mateo told her stories about his day-to-day life in the Temple and did his best to keep them interesting for her young attention span.

“Do you see your family much?” Shindia asked, her tone and attention growing brighter as she warmed to the healer. She especially liked it when he sat in the tiny chair, much to the chagrin of Mateo’s knees.

“Not since I moved to the Temple, no.” Mateo admitted. “They live far away and it is difficult to travel to see them. We do try and write each other letters, though.”

“Have you helped very many people feel better?” She asked.

“As many as I can,” he assured with a smile.

Mateo spent the better part of the day with Shindia. He continued to make sure she ate and drank a little every few hours and asked her how she was feeling, keeping notes all the while. Through all of it the girl never reported any nausea or much pain, though she did admit it hurt to breath now and again. Still, she seemed bright and attentive as they talked and she played, and by the evening he noticed no downfall in her mood or condition. He noted it as a curiosity. Letters to the Temple and stories he’d heard from homes here in Dosalda all mentioned the illness progressed quickly. Though it was far too soon for him to tell if Shindia was doing better because of her care or due to the illness weakening, Mateo still allowed the oddity to give him a bit of hope for the girl.

As he packed to leave, Nidiyna suggested he stay for dinner. When he politely refused, Kareem insisted.

“It’s the least we could do,” the man offered. Mateo relented in agreement and stayed but found his appetite mostly lacking. Neither were offended when he did not eat much.

Mateo assured them he would return early the next day to check in on Shindia and requested that they try and keep anything for his examination of she became sick in the night. They agreed. He said ‘goodnight’ to Shindia and ‘goodnight’ to Anya and then left, planning to head back to the tavern and go over his notes for the day, making sure he’d not missed or overlooked anything.

The morgue loomed tall and imposing before him, the brick and mortar building shadow-like against the backdrop of early night over the dark, quiet town. Smoke billowed lazily up from three tall smokestacks and at this close range it smelled ashen and woodsy, more like campfire smoke with a bit of garbage thrown in. It did not carry the harsh scents Mateo associated with cremation, the more repugnant odors of burning hair and flesh.

Perhaps it was a morbid observation to make but to the healer it was quite an important one as he worked to figure out what the town was doing with their bodies. If not burning, were they burying? The area did not offer a large plot to work with within the town’s limits and surely the demand would be too great to handle at a reasonable pace. Mateo would expect to see stacks of bodies, as gruesome as it may be, all awaiting proper burial, if burial were even the case. Was the morgue allowed beyond the stone walls? Did the city have a catacombs beneath it? These were the questions that brought him here and he hoped their answers would lead him to some clues regarding the plague as it moved. He stepped toward the heavy iron doors of the building and reached out for them.

He gave one a curious push and was surprised to find it opened. Mateo drew back, gazing up at the looming building with secondary consideration. Its heavy iron doors seemed almost inviting, an odd thought to cross his mind as a structure could not invite, could only stand, could only simply exist. His own desire to enter pushed him to project such thoughts, his own desires for learning, for answers. He pressed into the iron door once more and more more it gave readily to him. He stepped through it and into the dark building.

Reflexive nature told him he should call out, to say a questioning greeting as he entered. To announce his arrival and treat this whole visit as though it were simply casual inquiry. The darkness outside in the town and the darkness that greeted him within the building, however, told him to keep silent, to not announce himself until he could obtain a better understanding of who else was here, why it was open, and of what was being done within these stone walls. He felt he now walked the line of ‘welcomed’ and ‘trespassing’ and was not keen to learn which he would be received as. The healer shuffled quietly in, moving through a broad corridor that led him into a square room.

The layout of the building was not quite as he expected. He assumed the corridor would lead him to a reception area or front desk, someplace where a person from the public might be able to walk in and speak to someone if needed. Instead the smallish square room was nearly completely empty, lacking anything of service. A single oil lantern was lit and mounted on the wall just beside Mateo, the only source of light offered within the otherwise dark area. He stood in the mouth of the short hallway that had brought him here, his eyes scanning the room as though he were certain he were missing something obvious within it.

Across from him was another set of broad, heavy iron doors, and Mateo could see reddish light bleeding beneath them through the gap near the floor. There were doors to the left and to the right of him as well, though these were more standard and usual, and despite their completely uninteresting and nondescript design he thought to try them immediately. Naturally he was drawn to the sight of the red light, or perhaps he assumed that he should be drawn to it, as it was likely a hint of the furnaces, but he felt the other two options were worth exploring first. There was something that seemed so final about the iron doors ahead of him. Mateo did not want to leave anything smaller overlooked.

He headed toward the wall to his right, moving carefully in the dark even though his eyes were quickly adjusting to the dim light. Reaching out he grasped the doorknob and gave it a twist. It did not budge. For a moment the action brought his mind back to the house beside Panella’s. Releasing the knob from his hold, Mateo instead turned and headed toward the other door now directly behind him. This time as he tried it the door gave in and opened with a low creak.

The room beyond it was expansive and dark, even darker than the odd reception area. It was long and ward-like, and stretched out to his right. High up the far wall, just a foot below the ceiling, narrow slits of windows allowed in light from the dark night outside. They cast a faint glow that cut the room in dotted lines as they continued down the length of it. Mateo waited for his eyes to once again acclimate to the newest level of dim lighting as he strained to make out features of the room, carefully stepping as he explored in.

Two rows of tables ran the entire length of the room with just a narrow walkway between them. Mateo approached the closest and looked it over curiously. It was flat, its top made from some form of smooth stone, and was cold to the touch. In fact, the entire room was several degrees colder than outside, Mateo noted, and he realized he could see faint wisps of his own breath. As his eyes adjusting further he looked down the row of tables, trying to scan for anything of note in the darkness.

There did appear to be something on several of them; large, pale cloths spread across the smooth stone surfaces. He moved forward between the rows until he came upon one and stopped to look it over.

The long cloth was very clearly draped over a figure that lay on the table, its outlines in the dim light obvious to the healer. Mateo reached out to draw the linen back but hesitated. It felt wrong, dishonest somehow, having snuck in here to look at bodies. He wished he’d come by during the day, when someone should have been clearly present. Or perhaps, at least, earlier in the morning, when the bell wagon was out doing its rounds and he could speak to the collector when she returned. Still, he was here now, and just looking couldn’t cause any harm. He pinched the cloth carefully and drew it back to get a look at who was underneath.

Mateo recognized the face of Panella’s brother-in-law, Toby, even in the dim lighting. Eyes closed, head tilted back and mouth slightly open, his lips were bluish and his skin pale. He had no clothing on, likely stripped when he was brought in and set out. Mateo looked him over. He still had that odd look to him, not so much malnourished as he just seemed somehow hollow. The healer reached into his pack and retrieved his set of leather gloves, pulling them on. He pressed down gently on the deceased man’s chest with one hand, recalling the way it gave when he’d last tried the day before Toby died.

The sensation had been odd then because when he’d touched his sternum, the structure itself had not so much bowed, as though weak, but it had pressed down, as though the entirety of his ribs could be pushed in and out instead of holding firm like a cage. This time it did the same, but as the body beneath his fingertips was no longer alive, he did not concern himself with doing damage by exploring the sensation. He pressed down again, a bit firmer this time. The sternum and ribs gave, depressing easily at the push of his fingers. Then it pressed back up against his hold, like something from within was shoving back.

Mateo withdrew his hand quickly, trying not to start from the unexpected resistance. Perhaps there was a gas buildup in the body that he was disturbing and the pressure of it was pushing back out. He reached his hand forward again tentatively and pushed on the chest once more. Once more it gave in and then pushed back, firm against his touch.

The mouth of the body opened wider and Mateo heard it wheeze. It was unnerving but not particularly surprising. The healer was accustomed to the odd shifts and groans the recently deceased would perform on their own, let alone while being handled. The wheeze reinforced speculations of trapped air or gas but the body did not look bloated otherwise. Mateo reached down to push gently on the stomach, curious to see how a softer part would respond. This time he felt movement beneath his fingers, something firm and deliberate. This time he drew away much more quickly and knocked into the table behind him.

Mateo chided himself for his nerves, trying to calm back down. He hated it when he let himself be startled by death or corpses. They were dead, they were corpses. All sorts of odd things could be found in the body. So there was movement? Perhaps maggots had already set in. That could be it. He reached into his pack and fished around, pulling out a bundle of leather.

Turning to the empty table behind him he unrolled the bundle, laying out a set of tools. Clamps, syringes, pliers, a small saw, collections of sharp knives. Mateo drew out a small scalpel, its polished silver reflecting in the dim moonlight as it spilled into the room. The healer pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his nose and mouth before he turned back to the body. Mateo poked and pressed and pinched carefully before finally settling his hold on the cold flesh. With a steady hand he deftly pierced skin and cut a long, thin line down the cadaver’s stomach. Setting his blade aside he slid fingers carefully into the incision and cautiously drew the cut open.

Something did squirm within, but it was not maggots as Mateo had expected. No anticipated smell of rot or decay hit his nose and there was no metallic scent of coagulated blood. Perplexed, the healer slowly reached in to pull out one of the writhing forms and drew it up to his face for a better look. There in the darkness of the morgue, poised over a cold body, Mateo looked on in wonder at the long black worm that dangled and twisted slowly in his fingers, its likeness almost identical to that of a large fat night crawler.

There was a sound from farther up the room, a dull thud like something heavy falling onto stone. Mateo lifted his head, carefully lowering the odd worm back down onto the corpse as his eyes scanned the darkness for any signs of movement. The dark vermin squirmed across cold flesh and crawled its way back in through the incision to rejoin the mass within Toby’s stomach. Mateo lifted the cloth back over the body, a habit to try and leave things the way he’d found them, and quickly bundled up his tool kit, shoving it back into his bag.

Cautiously he gripped the strap of his pack, running his hand along it absently, and stepped back out between the two rows of tables. Again his mind was torn between calling out for an answer or remaining silent so as to not reveal himself. He started carefully up the aisle between the tables, very aware of his footfalls, and tried to keep them silent as he moved to explore the noise.

He could see several other cloth-draped figures laying out on tables all around him as he walked. Curiosity wanted him to pause and check them, to look for signs of further decomposition and even the oddity of the worms, but more so he wanted to discover the cause of the noise.

Toward the end of the room there was a click and then a creak and Mateo stopped dead in his tracks. Red light spilled into the ward as a door opened far ahead of him and a figure stepped in, someone lithe and fair, and to Mateo they looked feminine. They appeared to be wearing a dress or gown of some sort and it billowed around them as they glided into darkness, a halo of red and orange flickering light illuminating them from the furnace room they just stepped out of. Mateo watched as they moved to a cloth-draped table near their end of the room and leaned over it. When they pulled away, the pale cloth sat slowly and stiffly up.

A chill ran up Mateo’s back.

The figure bathed in burning light then turned and moved gracefully to another table on the opposite row and leaned over them as well. Mateo’s throat tightened as he witnessed a second body sit up. Then another, and then another, moving down the two rows of tables toward the healer.

Mateo began to retreat backward, trying to escape both the thought of being caught and of being present as long-dead bodies were animating around him. The sound of his scuffling footsteps caused the alighted figure to turn their head toward the darkness that encompassed him. Mateo turned completely and moved to run.

Something strong grabbed his arm and he let out a gasp as he tried to jerk away. The corpse of Toby sat upright up on his table, the cloth that covered him now dropped and bundled into his lap. The body was reaching out, holding Mateo’s forearm tightly, thought its head still tilted back, mouth hanging open. With a lurch its upper jaw and head dropped down, mouth closing with a hard crunch, and it turned closed eyes to the healer. Mateo cried out in alarm and yanked again in attempt to free his arm but the corpse of Toby held strong and tight.

He could see the skin on its chest and stomach pulse and move as a great twisted mass writhed just beneath. The corpse leaned toward the healer, dragging him in closer with a firm pull, and Mateo staggered forward as his struggle to escape was overwhelmed but the unnatural strength of the dead thing that held him. Its mouth dropped open and a stream of dark worms poured out, writhing and coiling. Mateo screamed and the room filled steadily with the crimson light that slowly approached him.

The healer jerked forward with a start, flailing and gasping as his mind cleared and he registered the bed he’d just been sleeping in. He looked around in utter confusion at his sudden awakening and reached a hand to his forearm that ached with the memory of a nightmare.

Had it all been a dream? Clearly here he was, sitting up in bed, trying to calm his racing heart in the dark room of his inn. Resting on the nearby end table his oil lamp flickered with a low wick, casting a lazy red light with its small fire. Mateo breathed out steadily and frowned. The dream had felt far too real. He’d never experienced one that vivid before. He dropped back onto the bed and brought his hands up to his face, smoothing his palms over his closed eyes and forehead and into his hair where his fingers clutched and gripped as he worked to collect himself and his thoughts.

What did he do when he left Nidiyna’s? He knew he’d thought about going to find the morgue, but he’d also thought about saving it for later, for when it was lighter out. So then he must have simply come back to the inn, right? Had he been so exhausted that he’d gone straight to bed? Had he shared another drink with Carmyle and the alcohol now fogged his memory? He did have a mild headache. Mateo let out a deep sigh before lowering his hands to his sides. He was a mess. Perhaps the stress of the plague was hitting him harder than he thought.

A noise from outside his door jarred his thoughts and Mateo turned his head toward the sound. The gap beneath it was dark. The lamps must be out in the hallway. Before he could look back up at the ceiling he heard another creak and a shuffle. It sounded like someone lingering just outside. The healer recalled the event of the footstep and the loud boom against his door from a few nights before.

Already vexed by his startled awakening and lapse in memory, Mateo had no interest in sitting idly by as more oddities threatened to manifest around him. Spurred on by frustration, he tossed his blankets aside and pushed himself out of bed, heading over to his room door. With little hesitation he grabbed the knob and threw it open.

The hall beyond was empty, though a rush of cold air met him and behind him his oil lamp flickered. Mateo leaned his head out to look up the hall. No one was present and, just as he suspected, none of the lamps along the walls were lit. He turned to look the other way and his grip on the knob tightened as he saw a figure standing quietly several doors down from his own.

Mateo did not recognize her as anyone he’d ever seen before. She stood still and silent, directly in front of another door, so close that her nose nearly brushed it. She was wearing a long, flowing dress, sheer and white, that appeared to glow somehow in the lightless hallway. He did not know if he should call out to her, his nerves warning him that perhaps he did not want the attention of this stranger even as he struggled with the desire to demand answers of who she was. Before he could decided on an action, to call out or to retreat quietly back into his room, the woman took a step forward, moving straight through the closed door, and vanished into the room beyond it.

Mateo’s mouth dropped open in shock.

The healer quickly turned to look his bed, as though expecting to see himself still sleeping there. Was this a dream again? Still? He looked back out into the now empty hallway. He did not know what to do. He did not realize how hard his hands were shaking until he released his grip from the doorknob and did not realize how weak his legs felt until he took a few small steps out into the hallway. He was jittery and anxious. He needed to make sense of what was happening, of these odd sightings and experiences he kept finding himself subjected to.

Mateo walked quietly through the hall to the door the woman passed through. He paused outside it, hesitated, then leaned in to press his ear against the wood. He thought he could hear voices beyond it though he could not make out words or tones. Everything was too muffled, too soft, too-

What are you doing?” The venomous shout came from behind him and Mateo cried out in alarm, staggering back. He hit something behind him, lost his balance, and crashed to the ground. With a mad scramble he turned to look up, a mixture of shock and relief filling him as he recognized the familiar face of Sabbis glaring down at him, though the rahkanna was clearly far less than happy at Mateo’s presence. Sabbis’ lips were curled to show off a snarl of sharp teeth and his long ears pulled back as his eyes narrowed into suspicious slits.

“Why do I find you prowling outside Carmyle’s room?” Sabbis hissed his demand again.

Mateo stammered.

“I wasn’t- I’m not-”

The door behind him threw open and Carmyle leaned out. She wore a long shirt and loose pants and her hair was tussled. She looked as though she’d just been woken from sound sleep.

“What’s going on? What’s all the commotion about? Sabbis?” She’d not yet noticed the man on the floor beneath her.

“I found this one stalking outside your door,” Sabbis hissed venomously at Carmyle as he pointed a clawed finger down at Mateo. “I knew there was something odd about him!”

“I- Wait, excuse me?” Mateo stammered up at the accusatory rahkanna. “You knew what?”

“Sabbis, calm,” Carmyle still sounded half-asleep, unable to muster patience for her angry companion at the moment. “Mateo?” She finally looked down, her forehead knotting as she pondered the man on the floor at her feet. “Why are you on the ground?”

“Because Sabbis startled me...” Mateo admitted sheepishly, his cheeks now starting to burn.

“Hey. Get up.” Carmyle reached a hand down to the healer. Mateo took it and she helped him to his feet. “Sabbis, get your… hissy fit back into bed. Mateo, are you alright?”

“I… don’t know...” Mateo reluctantly admitted. He tried to catch a glimpse over Carmyle’s shoulder into her room, eyes searching for the figure of the unknown woman. From what he could see, no one was there. He turned his gaze back to Carmyle, feeling shamed and embarrassed as she looked him over with confusion and concern.

“I don’t know… There’s just been a lot of...” He paused as another thought interrupted him. “Um, Carmyle? Did we have any drinks tonight or anything?”

“Drinks?” The woman raised an eyebrow. “Naw, you came back in from your work and went straight to your room. I asked if you wanted to play darts but you weren’t interested, remember?”

“Yes...” Mateo agreed, as though the lie might jog his memory. He shook his head, drawing a blank. “No, actually. No, I don’t remember...”

“You should probably get back to sleep...” Carmyle reached out and gave Mateo’s shoulder a firm pat. “You really sound like you could use it.”

“Yeah, I… think you’re right...” Mateo agreed once again, though this time with more honesty. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be back in his bed, trying to settle his mind. “I’m… sorry I… woke you up by standing outside your door...”

Carmyle smirked, the expression exhausted.

You didn’t wake me up, Sabbis’ shouting did.”

“Well I’m sorry I made Sabbis shout at me by standing outside your door,” Mateo offered. He frowned again, his mind still a busy mess going over memories, confusions, thoughts, and dreams. “But… I thought you and Sabbis shared a room? You said you couldn’t hear much over his snoring?”

“Yeah, that’s why I chased him away into his own,” Carmyle admitted with a grin. “It’s not like Barnen didn’t have rooms to spare, right? Now come on. I want to get back to sleep, you should, too.”

Mateo nodded. He turned and sheepishly headed back to his room, head ducked down and eyes cast to the floor. Sabbis was already gone, likely slipped away while the two of them had been talking.

As Mateo closed his door he let out a sigh and stared over at his bed. Sleep would be good, as long as ridiculous nightmares weren’t going to wake him back up. In the morning he would reset his focus on Shindia. Having her in mind while he puzzled over the illness would help him forget all of the strangeness of the night. And perhaps he would take an actual trip to the morgue, preferably sometime in daylight. At least visiting the real building and seeing how it differed from the one in his dream would help to put his mind at ease.

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