The Skeleton Throne

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Worms (Pt 5)

Shindia had grown worse. Nidiyna caught Mateo in the streets as he was heading through them to her place. She was in tears as she grabbed his arm and, with a look alone, begged for him to come to her daughter’s aid. Mateo did not know what he could promise her, and thus said nothing as he followed her back to her house.

He could not get the girl to speak today, her breath weak and wheezing. Her skin looked oily and she had that appearance not of being malnourished but instead being somehow hollow, just as Toby had looked when Mateo first saw him. The healer frowned as he took a seat beside her and pondered over the drastic change.

None of this had been occurring whenever he was with her, the changes always came overnight. Were they linked to periods of sleep or rest? When the body was no longer alert? It was the only lead he had so far, but for Shindia there was little he could do with that information now. She lacked all the vibrancy she displayed before, even as little as she’d shown while bedridden. But at least she had been alert, at least she had been curious and talking and playful. Now that was all stolen away and Mateo felt an ache in his chest as he recognized her in the same state Toby was before death had come for him. The healer felt upset, guilty even, having watched this child slowly wither and being unable to stop it.

“I’ll stay with her today,” he told Nidiyna and hoped his voice did not sound like an empty echo. “And tonight,” he added. “I don’t want to miss her progression.”

Nidiyna was in tears and shaking. She put a hand to her face but nodded wordlessly as she struggled to not lose herself completely in her emotion. She was barely holding herself together and Mateo had a feeling she understood the helplessness of his presence. Still he offered a sense of hope, if only a false one, and she wanted any hope at all to cling to for the moment.

Pillows were brought in so Mateo could assure his comfort as he spent the day beside the bed. A pitcher of water was also brought both for himself and for the ailing girl. Nidiyna fluttered to and from the room, wanting both to stay for her daughter but often growing overwhelmed at seeing her as she was. Kareem would come by to coax her away and after several moments of quiet sobbing from a few rooms over she would return once more to stand and watch quietly or sit across from Mateo and speak to the girl. Shindia did not respond, only lay still while struggling to breath, but her eyes would shift around from time to time as though to acknowledge the presence of her mother and Mateo. Anya rested by her cheek and remained dutifully at her side.

The day moved along in cruel progression forward, hanging somewhere between agonizingly slow as a household watched helpless, unable to do anything, but also moving all too quickly toward a moment everyone dreaded but knew they could not escape. It was dark out before Mateo even registered the setting of the sun and Kareem offered the grieving Nidiyna and the stoic healer dinner. Mateo stepped away to eat first, leaving Nidiyna with her child. He returned and Kareem followed, coaxing her to eat as well. She had no appetite and he did not push her to go, and so she remained and silently watched her daughter as Shindia’s eyes closed and her breathing grew more labored and tiring.

Rain began falling in the night. Mateo did not notice when it started but at some point he was aware of the sound of it pounding against glass panes of the window in the girl’s room. Kareem brought them a lantern as the healer and Nidiyna upheld their vigil through the night.

Exhaust gradually overcame them and both slept in brief spells always lasting less than an hour, Mateo to check on Shindia and her condition while Nidiyna often awoke in fits and had to work to keep herself from crying too loudly. They both managed slightly more restful sleep as the night progressed on.

Mateo awoke to the faintest hint of light in the sky, the time of twilight where it just whispered the promise of sun even though the morning would still be an hour or more away. At first he was curious what must have woken him, wondering if there had been a noise or a motion. It was with heart-sinking realization as he clued in to what actually roused him. The room was incredibly silent. Shindia’s labored breathing had finally halted.

He leaned forward carefully in his seat to look the young girl over, not wanting to awaken her mother just yet. Shindia was so still and calm. She looked finally peaceful after her days of struggling and ailment. Mateo let out a soft sigh. He was crestfallen but not surprised. He reached for his journal and opened it to make a note of the girl’s passing, both out of clinical habit and respect.

A tap on the window caught his attention and he turned, squinting at the darkness. The soft thump of rain continued to beat gently upon the glass but that was not the sound that he’d heard. There had been something far more firm, far more deliberate. Another tap came again and Mateo stood and walked to the window.

The world outside, though so faintly lit, was darkened all the more by the flickering lamplight and the way it reflected on the glass as Mateo tried to peer out through it. The healer leaned in close, practically touching his nose to the glass pane as he brought his hands up to cup around his eyes and block the glare, hoping that would help him see better into the night beyond the house.

A face stared back at him, pressed nearly as close to the glass as Mateo’s was. Though he managed to stop himself from shouting, Mateo did jerk back quickly, nearly stumbling in his sudden retreat. The unexpected presence was enough to set his heart racing from surprise but he felt a deeper chill as his mind worked through the shock and informed him that he actually recognized the features of the face beyond the window. He could still barely see the outline of it through the glass as the firelight dimmed the sharpness of its characteristics, but because he now knew what he was looking for it was easier to make out the appearance of the person who stared in at him from the darkness outside. Mateo watched as Toby reached up a crooked finger and tapped at the glass firmly again.

His mind reeled; what was happening? Was this another dream like the morgue? Was he still asleep? Or was this a hallucination, his addled mind playing tricks on him as it had done at the empty house beside Panella’s. He needed to know, he needed answers. Toby tapped again and Mateo turned to hurry from the room.

He moved as silently as he could in his rushed state. Leaving Nidiyna alone in the room with her deceased daughter was the last thing he intended to do to her, and he took every care to not wake her on his way out. But he was struggling, he was not in his right mind, he would be useless to anyone in this state while confusion plagued him. Besides, he could not even guarantee he was awake and this was not some elaborate dream.

Outside the young girl’s room he could hear the soft snoring of Kareem floating through the darkness. Other than that and the muted noise of rain on roof and windows, everything was silent. Mateo made it to the front door and opened it quietly, stepping out into the darkness beyond.

Quickly he rounded the corner of the house, heading to the side Shindia’s room was located. His eyes immediately fell upon the empty space by her window and he stopped, letting out a deep sigh as his shoulders sagged. Of course it was just his mind toying with him. How could it be anything different? Defeated and feeling ridiculous, he moved to return to the shelter of the house and resume his post at Shindia’s bedside, but as he turned to go something from further down the road caught his attention. He lifted his head and saw a figure shuffling away in the dark and the rain. Without a second thought Mateo hurried after it.

Though the figure appeared to be moving slowly, it quickly vanished around the side of a building, and by the time the healer could make it around the corner himself, the stranger was already more than a block away, heading down the road and moving to turn out of sight again. Mateo ran as fast as he could manage, his steps slipping on the wet cobblestone, but always he caught himself in his staggers and lurched onward. He turned down another alleyway the stranger had vanished into and once more they were far out of range. It were as though all his running covered no ground compared to their slow and lumbering amble.

“Wait!” Mateo cried out, not stopping to question if he should. The figure’s head tilted a little in his direction and from this distance he could still make out Toby’s features. “Toby, wait!” The healer charged after him but just as he was no more than a few steps away Toby turned the corner around another building and out of sight.

Mateo darted around the corner not more than seconds after, expecting to practically run into the man, and then skid to a halt, baffled as he once more spotted him nearly a block away. His jaw dropped in bewilderment and frustration. He could assume this was all a dream if it would stop feeling so real for even a moment. It had to be a hallucination, his mind playing the worst tricks on him, dangling him along with the promise of answers but always holding them just out of his reach. The stress of this town, of his mission, was all growing too much for him. Still he yearned for that tangible knowledge, for that unquestionable proof that what he was experiencing was nothing, just a figment.

If he could not reach Toby himself to acknowledge the man was only a fever dream, he would have to turn to the next best option. Surely he could get someone more sane of mind to tell him that they didn’t see the dead man that led him through the dark and quiet city.

The healer raced for the nearest door and pounded on it, calling out a frantic “Excuse me? Anyone! Please, I just need someone to answer!” Between his firm knocks he cast glances over at the lumbering figure in the distance, making sure Toby would still remain in his sight. Not a soul answered by the time it looked as though Toby were about to turn around a building again, and with a few choice words of frustration Mateo abandoned the door and ran down the street after his quarry once more.

As he rounded the street corner he resumed his frantic attempts for attention, rushing from house to house and pounding on the doors as he cried out for someone to answer, for anyone to respond. All the while he shot frantic looks to the distant figure who moved slowly away, always abandoning one door to rush to the next whenever he feared his unknown hallucination was growing too far, too distant. Door to door he knocked and shouted, never remaining long enough to register if anyone answered, always racing forward to turn another corner, to assault another door.

His mind was wrapped up in the chase now, wired and frantic, too focused on not letting go of that figure that led him on but still he barreled from one door to another, trying desperately to find one that would answer his pleas, would finally break him from this maddened spell. He had no track of where he was in the town, of where this chase was leading him or how long it had been going on. Round a corner, shout into the dim light of the morning, beat on a door as he hurried by, struggle to keep up with the figure so far ahead. Slip on cobblestone and stagger, fists pounding on darkened window panes. Scream and cry out for anyone to answer, to acknowledge, then race off toward his hallucination again. He was out of breath. Was it his running? Or his shouting? He had to keep going. A panic gripped him, a frantic need to continue. He turned and pounded at another door.

This one opened before his fist even connected with it, and as he saw the bright face beyond it the spell that held him was suddenly shattered. Mateo looked around, as though recovering from a daze, trying to understand why he was standing outside in the light drizzle of rain. He did not feel out of breath. His hands did not hurt from exertion, but his whole body was shaking.

Nidiyna beamed at him from inside her home, tears welling in her eyes.

“There you are!” She cried out, and before Mateo could say anything she drew him into a hug, sobbing as she wrapped her arms tightly around him in a grateful gesture.

“I don’t know what you did,” she managed out through her tears, “but you saved her. You saved my little girl!”

What? Mateo reflexively pushed himself back, breaking the woman’s strong hold. He stood upright, giving her a perplexed look. He tried to speak but found his mind blank, and in that absence of thought his voice refused to work.

“Shindia?” He finally managed to force the one word out. Nidiyna nodded, smiling brightly as she wiped tears from her cheeks.

“She’s been up and eating breakfast! It’s amazing! Thank your goddess for your help here, healer!”

“May I...” Mateo hesitated out his question, his mind once again spiraling, “… see her?”

“Of course, of course!” Nidiyna took his arm and pulled him into her home. She did not ask him what he’d stepped out for, did not ask at what point in the night he’d left. She was too overwhelmed by the miracle of having her daughter well once more to think too far beyond the moment.

Mateo followed her into the home and she led him to the kitchen where Kareem sat sipping from a cup and smiling as his eyes remained upturned. Across from him, seated at the table, Shindia was eating a piece of bread and humming as she kicked her legs that were a little too short for the chair she sat in. As Mateo and her mother entered the room the little girl looked to them both and smiled brightly. Without prompt she hopped from her chair and hurried over to Mateo, hugging him.

“Thank you,” she squeaked out, her voice weak but returned.

“Yes...” A lump caught in Mateo’s throat though it was not one of warm emotion. Something cold welled up from his stomach and tightened inside him. He gently drew away from Shindia’s hug and knelt down on one knee to get a better look at her.

Shindia smiled brightly. Mateo reached out and touched the side of her face, stroking some hair back over her ear as his eyes scanned her, not knowing what he intended to look for.

“How are you feeling, Shindia?” He asked her, his voice barely above a whisper as he forced it to work.

“Very good. Better than I’ve felt in days!”

Mateo nodded but did not understand. He lingered, not knowing what he was looking for, searching all the same. Her skin did not feel oily or look pale. Her breath did not smell unnaturally sweet.

“And… how is Anya feeling this morning?”

Shindia did not answer him. Though her smile remained, her expression faltered briefly with a look of confusion before it returned to the child-like brightness it already expressed, the moment nearly flawless. She looked up instead to her mother and reached for her with small hands. Nidiyna, still working to still her tears, scooped her daughter up in her arms. She did not notice the question or the answer that was missed, nor did she notice the way Mateo’s face paled as the healer worked to quell his onset of panic.

“Would you like to stay for breakfast?” Kareem offered from the table.

“Oh… no,” Mateo was quick to stand, his face flushing from the fast motion. He tugged at his sleeves, straightening them, and cast a look toward the room where he’d left his bag and items. “Um, it’s been a long night. I should get going back to the inn for some rest.”

“Yes of course, of course,” Nidiyna agreed sympathetically. Still holding her daughter with one arm, she reached out to squeeze Mateo’s shoulder, giving him a look of unfathomable gratitude.

“Thank you...” She more mouthed the words than spoke them as tears retook her eyes. Mateo nodded quickly, eager to gather his things and go.

He hurried back to the tavern, his eyes downcast as he walked quickly through the cobblestone streets, his pace nearing a jog. The rain had stopped for the morning and night crawlers littered the ground, writhing and squirming to return to the damp soil hidden beneath broad stones. His eyes saw them without his mind wholly registering their presence, his thoughts too caught up in the questions of the morning. The concerns of the morning.

The cold air brought him back to memories of a face outside a window, of a mad run through town, memories that vanished like a dream the moment he saw Nidiyna’s face. Was Shindia’s passing just a dream he’d been so caught up in the night before? He reached up to rake fingers firmly through his hair, his other hand clutching the strap of his medical pack as he carried it on his shoulder. He wished that could be the answer, that he’d just experienced an awful nightmare and Shindia’s recovery was just an unexpected blessing. But the thought did not convince him, no matter how much he wanted to believe it. Everything was wrong, everything felt so wrong.

As he pushed the tavern door open Mateo was aware of a conversation that abruptly stopped with his arrival. Sabbis was leaning over the counter, arms folded, speaking to Barnen. The rahkanna’s eyes were wider than usual, his expression surprised, something Mateo was not used to seeing on him. He worried instantly.

“Is… is something wrong?” Mateo asked, his overworked mind dreading that he would hear an affirmation to his concern. Barnen and Sabbis stared at him dumbly for a moment before the cat man stood upright and narrowed his eyes in his characteristic way.

“What? No!” He hissed out, ears drawn back as though Mateo’s confusion offended him.

“We just didn’t expect you to come barging in like that,” Barnen added much more calmly and his mustache crinkled up in a smile. “You were out all night.”

“Yes, I suppose I was...” Mateo wanted to be relieved by their responses but only felt all the more troubled. His exhausted mind was making him anxious, making him paranoid. “I need to get some sleep,” he muttered, turning and hurrying toward the stairs to escape the eyes of the two men who watched him move across the room.

Safely within the security of his temporary sanctuary, Mateo dropped his medical pack, shucked off his cloak, and collapsed into a seated position on the edge of his bed. He reached into his pocket and drew out his symbol of Gah’lia, bringing it to his forehead as he closed his eyes and rested his face against it. The cold metal offered no form of relief.

“Gah’lia...” he murmured out weakly in prayer and question. “Goddess, help me… What is going on? Is it just my mind? Is something plaguing me?”

No response came. This was not all too uncommon, as She rarely spoke back in words, but Mateo was at least used to a sense of intuition that heralded Her acknowledgment. Her unheard replies granted feelings of clarity or, at the very least, a sense of being heard. But here, in this small room above the tavern, his words felt trapped, as though they just hit walls and the ceiling and tumbled back down onto him, somehow confined by physical barriers. That was a sensation he was not used to, and as he raised his head to stare down at his symbol he felt his hands tremble and saw the way they shook as he clutched the cold metal token.

“Gah’lia?” He asked again, a bit louder, this time more of a plea for his Goddess’ attention. He did not need much, just the warmth of Her presence around him, the feeling that he was not alone. “Gah’lia…?” That feeling never came.

Tears streamed down Mateo’s cheeks before he even realized he was crying. He drew his legs up onto the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around them as he rested his head against his knees. He trembled and shook, his body feeling as weak as his mind, and now his spirit joined them. He was certain he heard a few sobs escape his throat before he slowly turned to lay in bed, holding his eyes closed until exhaust overtook him and he fell into restless and troubled sleep.

Mateo opened his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He felt awake, truly and honestly, without the cling of sleep on his body and mind. He pushed himself up and sat on the edge of his bed. His shoulder was sore from laying curled on it and he felt suffocated from sleeping in all of his clothes. His rested state did not come with calmness or a clear head, like one would enjoy after a good nap. Instead he felt somehow raw, like everything around him was stark or abrupt and difficult to handle. He stood from his bed and walked over to the window of his room, gazing outside.

The storm clouds that blanketed overhead for days now were finally beginning to disperse and Mateo could see evening rays of sun peeking through the gray and filtering the town with a soft yellow-orange glow. The scene should have been serene, should have been calming or uplifting, but it was not. It all felt so off and he grimaced at the quaintness beyond the glass. A knock drew his attention away and he turned as the door opened and Carmyle poked her head in.

“Hey,” she stated with cautious greeting. “Can I come in?”

“Um, sure, that would be alright,” Mateo nodded, pivoting from the window. He did not feel up for casual company but nor did he have the strength to turn her away. She stepped in and closed the door behind her before walking forward a few steps.

“So, rumor has it you’re not doing so good,” the woman’s usually playful tone was replaced with one of concern. He nodded and Carmyle sat on the edge of his bed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m not sure,” Mateo admitted. He was having enough trouble working through everything himself. It was hard for him to decide if he was willing to share it all with someone else.

“Oh come on,” she encouraged, reaching out to pat the bed beside her. “Hey, we are all we have cooped up here. If you don’t talk to me, who are you going to talk to?”

Mateo grimaced. She made something of a point. He was not about to talk to Sabbis, and Barnen was not high on his list. Prayers to Gah’lia were… not working. With a sigh he relented and moved to join her, sitting beside her on the small bed.

“It’s just that… since coming to town I feel like I have been… seeing things. Experiencing things. And I can’t make sense of them.”

“Like?” Carmyle prompted.

“Well-” Mateo drew in a breath, thinking back to the first occurrence. “That first night with the thunder storm, there was… I thought I heard a loud bang on my door. In fact, I could have sworn I saw it rattle from the force of something hitting it...”

“Oh yeah, I do remember you asking if we’d heard anything in the morning.” Carmyle confirmed with a thoughtful nod. “You never did tell me what it was you were talking about.”

“Yes, well,” Mateo frowned, his gaze fixed on the floor. “It was like a loud assault on my door. It was so loud I thought it must have woken you from down the hall. I suppose not, though.” He drew in another deep breath, trying to quell his nerves. Nerves or embarrassment? He wasn’t so certain.

“Then there was this moment in a house… I thought it was empty so I had gone in to look around.”

“So you were trespassing in some abandoned home?” Carmyle asked with a mischievous smirk. Mateo frowned.

“No, I wasn’t… I didn’t intend to trespass, I… was… hoping to find information, I suppose.” He hunched his shoulders defensively for a brief moment before they sagged. “I guess saying it in retrospect, yes, it was odd to just walk into an empty house. But it wasn’t locked- I mean it was locked, I-” He let out another sigh and closed his eyes.

“Hold on, let me start over. I was checking in on Toby, my first patient. The house beside his was empty. I had tried it the day before but no one answered so I left it. But the day Toby passed, something about it caught my attention, so I went to knock on the door again. It just… seemed like an idea, to try the doorknob. But it was locked tight. Then I stepped away and it… I don’t know,” he admitted, the scenario still not making sense to him. “It opened.”

“Oh yeah. Locked doors mysteriously opening are definitely the sort of things I see and think ‘Hey, this is absolutely something I should get a closer look at!’” Carmyle grinned and Mateo narrowed his eyes at her. His look caused her to laugh, a sound that hinted a tone of apology.

“You think I’m joking, but I’m serious! I think I’m just trying to say, I get it.

“Sure,” Mateo agreed with empty sincerity. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess I was attempting to convince myself that someone was actually in that building, inviting me in, so I headed inside. I mean, they weren’t, though. It was empty. Clearly it was empty, or at least I thought it was empty, but then something… charged me,” Mateo recalled, his brow furrowing.

“Charged you?” Carmyle leaned in, curious.

“Yes… from the darkness. I’d found an oil lamp and was going to look farther into the house, but before I could, something rushed me from the dark hallway.”

“What was it?”

“I didn’t see,” Mateo admitted. “It startled me out of there and I was back on the street in an instant. The door slammed shut behind me. I didn’t dare to check it again.” He let out another sigh, filling the pause as he recalled other events.

“Then of course there was the night Sabbis found me outside your door. I thought I had seen a woman in the hallway, and that she had walked into your room… And before that I’d had a dream of being at the morgue. Only it was so realistic that when I visited the building the next day, all of it was exactly as I’d seen in my dream.” He grimaced. “Only in the dream it had been filled with bodies and one of them, Toby… And the other bodies. And they all moved and sat up when a figure came into the room… A figure...” Mateo paused, lingering on the memory of the dream. “… who looked like the woman I thought I saw in the hallway...” his voice was weak as he spoke his revelation. He hadn’t thought about it then but recalling the details for Carmyle, just before Toby had grabbed him he’d seen a feminine form wearing a gown step into the ward. Immediately after that he woke, and in the hallway it had been a pale woman who seemed to glow wearing a long gown that stepped into Carmyle’s room.

They were the same woman.

The thought chilled him. He stopped speaking, his mouth drawing into a tight line as he stared pensively at the floor. If he was going mad it would make sense to him that he would see Toby’s face over and over. But the woman? Where would she have come from? Why would she have been in a dream and then also appeared as a hallucination in the hall?

“Mateo?” Carmyle’s voice snapped the healer back into the moment and he turned to her with a start, his eyes wide and his mouth slack.

“I’m… sorry...” Mateo hesitated out, still more fixated on his thoughts. “It only just occurred to me… I keep seeing a woman I’ve never seen before.” Carmyle gave him a blank, confused stare. He frowned again and gave his head a quick shake.

“Um, sometimes with trauma...” he began to try and explain, “you will see reoccurring images… I’ve seen Toby more than once. I saw him in my dream, like I was just saying. He was dead but he sat up and grabbed my arm… and then I saw him again, this morning… last night… I thought he’d been outside the window in Shindia’s room when she...” he trailed off again, wrapped up into his own thoughts. “When Shindia passed...” his voice grew soft in distraction and recollection. “I had been asleep near her bed and I awoke when I realized Shindia had passed… the silence in her room had stirred me. But then I heard a tapping at the window and I saw Toby standing outside it… And I headed out into the street to see him, but he kept moving away from me...”

“You were saying? About trauma?” Carmyle prompted, interrupting Mateo’s current train of thought. He looked to her again, frowning.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were just talking about seeing the same things.”

“Right.” Mateo shook his head. “I was trying to say, sometimes after a moment of trauma, you’ll see the same thing over and over again as your mind is dealing with your grief or with your stress… But it’s always going to be a recurrence of something you know. I saw Toby over and over again because he died the night after I met him. I knew his face so it would make sense I would see his face. But that woman, I’ve never seen her before in my life,” Mateo said, standing from the bed. He started pacing the room, his body needing to move at the speed of his thoughts.

“And then I saw her twice, unprompted, on the same night. That’s not… There’s something else to that, there has to be...” He started trying to draw as much of the figure up as he could in his mind. Had he seen her before? Was she perhaps another person from the temple? Someone else he’d seen in town during his passes between the houses? Were there other patterns to these odd moments that he hadn’t caught yet? The healer paced briskly, muttering softly to himself.

He paused. He looked back over to Carmyle who sat on the edge of his bed. She watched him silently, brow arched high.

“You… I’m sorry,” Mateo’s face flushed quickly in embarrassment. “This must all look… you must think I’m out of my mind...”

“Well… eh...” Carmyle flicked a hand, trying to play the statement off dismissively. “It’s a little… weird. Yeah, it’s a little weird,” she admitted. “But, I mean,” she clasped her hands together and leaned forward, resting them between her knees. “We’re all a little stressed out here, right? Sabbis and I, we’ve been here for weeks, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes start to think odd things. Like,” she glanced around the room before dropping her voice and leaning forward, conspiratorially. “Like Barnen? Seems completely unaffected? Just always at his counter whenever you head downstairs, always pleasant. Doesn’t that seem, you know, a little off to you?”

Mateo grimaced. He had noticed that too, in fact. The man was always pleasant and nice, ready to attend and be helpful. He hated the thought that his warm attitude somehow could make him off-putting. But just a few days ago even he’d asked Barnen about his schedule, trying to figure out why he was always ready at the counter every time Mateo headed down the stairs, no matter how early or how late.

“I suppose so...” he admitted softly.

“And the town’s been pretty spooky, empty as death since we got here. Oh,” Carmyle raised a hand to her mouth and sat upright, eyes widened a bit. “Sorry, was that inappropriate? I could have thought out my words better.” She smirked. Her concern was played up.

Mateo frowned. But this was the humor he’d seen her display already and it did not surprise him.

“What I mean is,” she continued, “since we arrived here, the streets are always so empty. Just that bell in the morning, and with all the rain we’ve had there’s just been piles and piles of worms. Like, have you ever thought about that?” She let out a little laugh, seeming more entertained by the scenario than honestly bothered by it. “It’s like we’re in the middle of a town of worms.”

“I guess that’s a way to think about it,” Mateo admitted weakly. He cast his glance out the window once more. From where he stood he could not see the road below but he could tell the sky was growing darker, even with the clouds dispersing.

“Honestly, the whole place has been unsettling. I can’t blame you if your mind starts coming up with all sorts of weird things to keep yourself on edge.”

“Thanks...” Mateo frowned. He could tell her sentiment came from a place of assurance, and for that he was grateful. Even if the way she shared it was… questionable.

“Look, I just wanted to make sure you knew you weren’t alone, alright?” Carmyle stood up from where she sat, flashing him a calm smile. “We’re all stuck here together and you should feel free to come to me or Sabbis at any time.”

“Yes...” Mateo mused, his thoughts wandering again. “Sabbis did inform me that you told him to apologize for the other night...”

“Oh. Yeah.” Carmyle waved her hand dismissively once more. “That oaf can get so agitated sometimes and I know he’s quick to snap at people. I didn’t want him making you sour on top of everything else.”

“Well… Thank you. For that.” Mateo’s gratitude was earnest as he looked back to Carmyle. “I really… I appreciate that. I know I’m used to being at the Temple and sometimes it’s not so easy to talk to people outside it.”

“Oh, no! Thank you!” Carmyle retorted with a smirk. “I have had just the best time learning about people from Gah’lia’s temple.”

Mateo paused. The response struck him as curious.

“I’m… sorry, what?” He asked. They’d shared one, maybe two conversations about Gah’lia that he could recall, and very little about temple life.

Carmyle met his confusion with a brief laugh and a third dismissive hand gesture.

“Oh, no, don’t worry about it. What I meant was, I’ve had a great time learning about you, you know, whenever I can actually convince you to talk to me.” She gave him a charming grin. “Hey, but I just wanted to check in. You seem like you’ve got plenty on your mind so I won’t distract you any longer. Just know I’m right down the hall if you need anything, okay?”

“Sure...” Mateo agreed, his brow furrowed. Carmyle left his room and he watched her go, eyes lingering on the closed door even after the creaking floorboards that signaled her departure trailed away and silenced.

He was alone again, able to sort through his thoughts at his leisure. But where just moments ago he’d felt inspired, like he was finally making connections, the newfound silence slowed his mind down, closed away troublesome thoughts, made it harder for him to focus. Or perhaps it made him not want to linger on unsettling moments and whatever overlooked revelations they may hold. It was as though he felt safer working through their mysteries with another person around, even if they weren’t involved. Like having a lifeline, someone he could reach out to who could pull him back if he felt himself too tangled in his thoughts or overwhelmed by them. And Carmyle herself was perplexedly calming, even with her mildly facetious attitude.

Mateo sighed and took a seat on his bed once more. He combed a hand through his hair, gripping his fingers in it. He wouldn’t go bother Carmyle now; she’d just left. Perhaps he could go downstairs where Barnen was and work out his thoughts there.

He reached for his medical pack and dug out his journal, flipping it open to a blank page and moved the red sash to settle in the crease. He should just jot down his thoughts to try and encourage them to flow, try and work through them more clinically. He pulled out his inkwell and pen and moved to the small table by the window. Then he stared down at the blank page. Its emptiness was daunting. He would feel so much better doing this with someone else around but he did not want to be a bother. Mateo closed his book, stood up, and paced the room.

Outside the sky continued to darken and as night settled in the healer gave up on his forced solitude, grabbed up his writing effects, and headed out of his room. It had been a bit, he thought to himself, perhaps an hour or so. He could just ask Carmyle if they could sit together while he wrote some things out. Explain to her that she was welcome to do whatever she wanted, that he just needed the company. He headed down the hall and over to her room. Hopefully she’d not gone to bed yet.

Pausing outside her door he could hear voices. She must be speaking to Sabbis. That would be alright. Sabbis seemed to behave himself better when Carmyle was around. Mateo drew in a breath, knocked, and then reached to open the door before he could talk himself out of simple company.

“Carmyle?” Mateo called in as the door creaked open, peeking his head into her room just as she had done with his. Then his eyes went wide and the grip of his hands slackened. The door swung freely open and his journal and writing tools fell to the floor.

Carmyle was sitting in a chair directly across from Sabbis. She was wearing long, dark leather gloves that pulled up past her elbows, and they were covered in blood and viscera. The rahkanna himself was slumped back in his seat, head tilted unnaturally back and eyes closed in a slack posture. His chest was flayed open to the point where Mateo could see protruding rib bones. Carmyle’s arm was buried in the cat man’s open chest cavity.

Behind her, poised delicately on the edge of her bed, sat a beautiful pale woman in a flowing white gown, her long hair spilling over her shoulders and resting puddled around her. Carmyle looked up from the torn open chest before her, her eyes wide in surprise but not concern as she saw Mateo standing at the doorway. The woman on the bed looked over as well, a broad smile across her face as her eyes sparkled and danced like rays of sun over water. Then Sabbis sat up, Carmyle’s hand still deeply inserted into his chest, and he looked over as well.

Mateo did not wait around to understand. Panic took him and he tore from the door, sprinting away as he raced down the staircase, threatening to trip in his hurry. Barnen was at the counter dutifully, looking like he was about to fall asleep but stood more alert at Mateo’s descent. The tavern owner gave him a slow smile, utterly unfazed by the panicked arrival.

“Evening. Could I get you anything? More toast?”

Mateo gave him a bewildered look, thoroughly perplexed by Barnen’s lack of response. The man waited quietly, smiling all the while as he anticipated Mateo’s response.

From upstairs Mateo heard amused cackling. Carmyle was laughing.

“I have to go,” Mateo blurted out, breaking himself from his pause and he rushed for the front door. It wasn’t an explanation meant for Barnen, it was a reminder to himself.

“Anything before you leave? I could heat up some water? Start some oatmeal for you?” Barnen called after. Mateo was not listening. He was already out the front door, slamming it behind him as he hurried into the streets.

What was going on? What did he just see? The woman was there, the woman in the gown. And Sabbis? With his chest pulled open? He was racing through the streets again, just like he had been several hours earlier. It had to be a dream again, he thought to himself. Like the morgue. Like Shindia. Like Toby. It had to be. There was no reality that he knew of that could contain all of this. Odd figures in darkness and bodies coming back from death and people with their chests torn open. Barnen’s apathy to Mateo’s panic. Nidiyna’s blind acceptance of her daughter’s miraculous rejuvenation. Mateo was running, though he did not know where he was running to. He wanted to get out of town, he wanted to leave.

He could head for the front gate. The city was under quarantine but perhaps he could still convince the guard to let him out. Perhaps he could even convince him of all this madness that was occurring. Mateo rounded a corner sharply, not registering the figures standing there until he collided with them and went tumbling to the ground. He landed hard on his arm and shoulder, crying out as pain shot up his side. Meeting someone on the streets was the last thing he’d expected.

“Whoa, there.” He heard a man speak up. “Sorry, sarei, we didn’t see you.” Mateo lifted his head as a hand was extended down to him and the healer’s jaw clenched as he saw Toby, looking healthy and dressed in clean clothes, smiling down at him, waiting expectantly for Mateo to take his offered assistance. His wife, Saia, looped her arm with her husband’s and eyed the healer with caring concern. Panella frowned, looking worried.

“Oh dear, he’s so startled he’s practically shaking!” Panella murmured out. There was no recognition in her eyes as she looked from Mateo to her sister and brother-in-law. “He may be hurt! Here, sarei, can you stand? We can take you to the doctor.” As she spoke Mateo was certain he could see something dark moving in her mouth. Long, thin shapes that slid over her tongue and disappeared down her throat. Worms.

Mateo swatted Toby’s hand away and clambered backward along the ground.

“S-stay away,” he stammered, his voice tight and panicked. The three exchanged looks of apprehension and confusion before turning their attention back to the man on the ground. “You… I don’t...” Mateo looked quickly between them. Neither Panella nor Saia acted as though they recognized him. And Toby… Toby frowned, grimacing in a mixture of defensiveness and embarrassment.

“I certainly did not see you, sarei, but to be fair, you shouldn’t be running through these streets like that!”

“Just-” Mateo shoved himself to his feet, wincing as his arm burned in protest. “Just… you… I don’t...” he was at a loss for words. Panic gripped him tight. Run. He staggered away from the three and took off down the streets again.

Houses were lighting up all around him, windows illuminated by candle light as the occupants inside adjusted for the coming darkness of night. He could see figures moving within them all. Ones that he knew had been empty were now lively with silhouettes as he raced down the streets. This was not the town he’d known these past several days. Something had changed, everything had changed so dramatically, so suddenly. Mateo was running aimlessly, turned around in this town that now looked so unfamiliar, tearing through a labyrinth of cobblestone and alleyways. He took another corner and came to a sudden and screeching halt, all color fading from his face as he felt his breath pulled away.

A woman stood before him in the street, wearing a long white gown that flowed down her slender form. She fixed him with eyes that shone and he felt cold, like a bright blue sky in winter that promised the warmth of spring but only offered a biting chill. She giggled delightedly and he felt swept up in the rush of a river, torn from the shore and pulled beneath churning currents, unable to catch any air. She stepped forward and smiled. Her entire form splayed open, covered in hundreds of yawning maws, each one shrieking in a nightmarish cacophony. Mateo felt the rush of falling as his head grew light and his body slumped.

All was dark before he hit the ground.

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