Final Refuge

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Summary

Mateo Gulverres is a follower to the lesser known Gah'lia, the Ascended Goddess. In a religion that praises experimentation, understanding, and science over demands of blind faith, Mateo's natural curiosity with the macabre and more gruesome aspects of life has led him on a path of medical inquiry and exploration. When rumors of an unknown plague affecting the small town of Dosalda cropped up, Mateo is quick to volunteer himself to head to the town and try and make sense of the inexplicable and deadly illness. Working alone in a town closed up in quarantine is dismal enough, but when events start occurring that defy reasonable explanation, the practicing doctor soon questions if his slip in sanity is just a side-effect of an on-setting illness, or if there's something far more unimaginable at play in the silent town...

Genre:
Horror / Fantasy
Author:
TalonR
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
7
Rating:
4.8 4 reviews
Age Rating:
16+

Part 1

This story is a snippet from a greater anthology, offered here in stand-alone form as a sample. If you enjoy this and would like deeper insight/lore to answer questions seemingly left hanging, please be sure to check out my work The Skeleton Throne. ------

Rain fell heavy on the lone figure walking down the dirt road toward distant stone walls that rose as grim sentries. His cloak was soaked but did its part to keep the water from seeping in and chilling him. Mud splattered his boots and his legs ached from the journey. Carriages would only bring him so far, the drivers had warned. Then the last few miles would be wholly on his own.

The sky was gray and dismal, the evening still early. As he reached the closed gates, a voice called out from above, nearly swallowed by the heavy rain. He drew his hood back, wiped the water from his face, and looked up at the guard.

“Can’t come in!” The man yelled from the tower. “Haven’t you heard? Town’s been closed over a month now for quarantine!”

“I know,” the stranger shouted back, cupping his hands around his mouth to be heard through the downpour. “I’ve been sent by the temple! I’m a priest, a healer!”

The cloaked man reached beneath his sopping garment and withdrew a large talisman. It was crafted from a shining white metal and hung on a thick braid of leather. Upon the talisman was etched the image of a circle, the world of Lendral, and above that an arch, a shelter over the world. Resplendent wings of intricately detailed feathers embellished the arcing structure, trailing along either side of its bowing curves. Above the tips of the wings, included for detail but clearly not designed for impressiveness within the composition, a small halo and sun-like rays branched outward and upward, touching the top of the medallion.

The guard in the tower squinted down. Though he could not clearly see the details of the medallion, the metal it was crafted from satisfied him well enough. He drew back, his form sagging. “So the Ascended One extends Her providence to our plight? You think you’re gonna come on in and mention some prayers the good folk here haven’t thought of yet?”

“I’m a practicing physician!” The stranger retorted, his patience waning. He slipped the symbol beneath his cloak once more. “I’ve been sent to study and work towards a cure!”

“Fine,” the guardsman relented. “Step back for the gate! And mind the wall ditch. It’s gotten a bit messier since we’ve been unable to toss the refuse out too far.”

The stranger drew his hood up over his head and fell back as the guard worked levers on top of the wall. The large gate yawned open, a small bridge slowly falling forward with a groan to give passage over the thin moat that encircled the town’s stone wall. The man stepped onto the wooden platform, pausing to look at the trench below. It was filled with a thick, black sludge that smelled of sickness and waste but also something earthy. Covering his mouth and nose with his cloak, he continued in.

The cobblestone of the town’s main road soon greeted him and the gate raised shut, its closing thud punctuating his fate. Now he too was locked within the quarantine.

“Welcome to Dosalda!” The stranger stopped to face the gate guard who called down once more. The public official raised a hand and waved in mock cheer. “Or as we’ve been taking to call it, ‘Refuge!’”

“Bit of dark humor there, don’t you think?” The stranger’s brow furrowed. The guard shrugged off his statement.

“You do what you need to keep going in times like these, healer.” The man on the tower turned his back to resume his uneventful watch of the vacant roads beyond the wall, leaving the stranger to face the empty streets of the town alone. With a sigh the soaked figure continued on through the rain, shielded by his damp cloak as he searched for a place to stay.

The streets were devoid of people. Behind closed doors and boarded windows he could sometimes make out noises or voices, but mostly the town was blanketed by a heavy silence, save for the patter of thick water droplets falling. Through the rain, the smell of smoke lingered in the air, though not the pleasant scent of wood smoke from cozy hearth fires. It was something heavier that offended his nose and lingered as a stench through the town.

He reached a tavern a little ways down the main street, something he was honestly surprised to see open. Barnen’s Wayward, it was called. It sounded pleasant enough.

The atmosphere inside was graciously dry and warm, a refreshing change from his hours walking outdoors, and it smelled a little too heavily of flowers. Only three souls were found inside. A man stood behind the front counter, broad and round with a large white mustache and no hair on his head to speak of. He leaned upon the countertop, arms crossed as he addressed the pair opposite him. There was a woman with short red hair dressed in casual travel garb and a rahkanna man, a cat-like species of people with tall ears and broad muzzles. The three stopped in mid-conversation as the newcomer entered, a grin still on the woman’s face from the laughter she’d just silenced. The rahkanna looked over with a deep scowl.

“What is this?” the cat hissed, his voice a throaty growl. He sat up, craning his neck toward the dripping, cloaked figure, his face contorting as though he were being forced to witness something dirty. “New blood in the tavern? Barnen, have they opened the gates and you haven’t told us we could go yet?”

“I’m afraid if you lot left that would be the last of my customers,” the innkeeper joked dryly. He turned to the stranger, raising an eyebrow. “Well don’t just stand there at the door getting my floors wet. Come on in. Get that cloak off. Who are you? Where’d you come from?”

“My name...” the stranger stammered as he approached, working to shuck off his garment. It felt three times heavier from the liquid it held. He had long black hair, wavy and thick, pulled back into a ponytail, and a bit of scruffy facial hair that gave him a charming, unkempt look. “...is Mateo Gulverres. I’m from the temple to the north.”

The woman gasped, a look of shock and amusement upon her face. “From the temple?” She turned to swat at the rahkanna, giving a throaty chuckle as she leaned into him. “Look, Sabbis! Gah’lia finally sent someone to give this town its last rites!” She giggled. The cat sneered and turned his head away, dark brown fur bristling. Judging by the glass before her, Mateo wondered if she’d perhaps enjoyed a bit too much to drink.

“They let me in because I’m a practicing physician, a healer,” he explained, eyes moving between the three. Barnen gave him a tired smile.

“Well, it’s certainly uplifting that anyone from the temple is trying, anyhow.”

“I’m going to need a room.”

“I know, I figured.” Barnen turned to the two across from him. “You hear that? You both don’t need all my rooms now, do you?”

“I do like my space,” the woman scolded playfully as she sat upright. She settled her attention on Mateo, flashing him an impish grin. “Sabbis and I have had this place to ourselves since being the last lucky travelers to arrive before the quarantine kicked in. We were just supposed to be passing through. Doesn’t look like fortune favored us much, though.”

“Fah,” Sabbis huffed. “I was not the one who wanted to take the detour south.”

“Oopsie,” the woman sniggered, unperturbed.

“Are you alright?” Mateo’s brow furrowed.

“Who would be in this forsaken plague town?” Sabbis remarked, his tail lashing. “But do not mind Carmyle. She has been drinking much since we arrived.”

“Mmm, going to enjoy my last few days before that illness gets me. Keep my good friend Barnen here in business single-handedly until then.” Carmyle lifted her mug and took another long swing. Then her eyes lit and she gasped in sudden excitement, turning to Mateo with a broad grin. “Does the temple forbid drinking, healer?”

“No,” Mateo answered, brow still furrowed as his eyes moved quickly from Carmyle to the bristled Sabbis and back again. “But I’d rather not right now. I need to rest after my trip so I can get to work.” He turned to Barnen again, raising a hand in request. “Ah, so, a room, please?”

“Of course.” Barnen nodded, reaching below the counter. He retrieved a key from a small lockbox and held it out for the healer. Mateo walked up to accept it, prompting another drunken laugh from the woman. She leaned on the bar top, cheek propped in hand as she eyed him with curious study. A smirk rested on her face.

“Make sure she gets water,” Mateo said as he gave the woman a polite frown and cast his gaze to Sabbis.

“Oooh, he’s considerate,” Carmyle mused. “Already doing a good job. Such a thoughtful one.”

Mateo nodded to Sabbis and the innkeeper as he passed them all and headed upstairs to his lodging. He found the door matching his key several rooms down. With the amount of space available, the town must have seen far more traffic when it was open. The healer frowned. Hopefully there would be something he could do to help see Dosalda back to those days once more.

He unlocked his room and stepped inside, eager to peel out of wet clothes and set them aside to dry. Then it was a matter of sorting through his pack to check for water damage or leaks. He rooted for several minutes and, finally satisfied, sat on the edge of his bed. Mateo’s shoulders sagging with a sigh and he ran his hand over his face and through his hair.

“Gah’lia, may Your grace help me,” He murmured, the words as much of a prayer as they were a statement of exasperation.

Mateo lived at The Temple of Gah’lia to the northeast, just south of the Great Ossres Lake. He’d always held an interest in medicine and medical care, a field of study Gah’lia encouraged in Her people. Temples all over Lendral offered boarding to the devout who wished to pursue education, boasting libraries unmatched by most the world and professors of subjects not commonly taught elsewhere. Over the course of his time spent there – nearly twenty years now – he’d been sent to local farms and settlements to tend to ailing families and often joined other healers as their assistant, keeping notes of their work and organizing their research and findings. Dosalda marked the farthest he’d ever been from the temple and was certainly the largest task he’d ever agreed to undertake.

When word of a mysterious plague first reached the temple, many there felt a push from their goddess to see, to study, to assist. Mateo had been one of the first to volunteer, and due to the danger of the unknown illness itself, the temple had been reluctant to send any of its people out, so he’d offered to go alone. Now, perched before the beginnings of his daunting task, he felt the first threats of worry and doubt. It was easy to be confident back then, surrounded by books and high walls and vaulted ceilings, where plague and death were not imminent.

“Give me strength and keep me steady,” he recited the common prayer, though in the moment the words felt as though they hit only the ceiling and fell back down to him. Doubt and unease could do that to someone, he knew. Followers of the Goddess were not unaccustomed to moments when they felt unheard. This they were expected to work through. This was but a trial to pass during the first years as one learned how to hear the Goddess’ soft voice. It was unsurprising to him that now, so far from places familiar and safe, the old feeling would return. Mateo reached into his pack and drew out the intricate medallion, the symbol of his goddess. He traced his fingers along its edge, waiting for the moment to pass. Then he set it aside.

It was time to rest. Tomorrow would be the start of it all.


That night found Mateo restless, grappling with fitful, dreamless sleep. As soon as the sky outside his window brightened with the first rays of cloud-masked sun he sat up, groggy but relieved for any excuse to cease his vain struggle.

Mateo dressed and grabbed his pack. It was not eagerness that drove him but a practical sense of work. Barnen was already up and stationed behind the counter when the healer arrived. The round man looked as though he were about to doze off but straightened to attention and turned as Mateo descended the stairs.

“You’re up early,” the innkeeper noted, judging the man’s wrinkled clothes and the dark rings under his eyes.

“Not really much else for me to do than get started,” Mateo admitted, head foggy. Barnen shrugged.

“Breakfast before you go?”

“I suppose something quick couldn’t hurt.” The healer glanced about for where to sit other than the bar counter. Most of the room’s tables and chairs were shoved and stacked aside, leaving the floor space open. It seemed only a few were left out for the handful of stranded travelers staying. Mateo headed to a small table set up with two chairs and placed his pack on it.

The bag was constructed specifically for use with medical tools, filled with unique pouches and sleeves to hold vials, needles, and all sorts of instruments. Leather helped keep it waterproof and it was lined for extra padding. Mateo was not accustomed to carrying the weight of it for long and lugging it around the day before still had him stiff and sore.

Barnen vanished through a door behind the counter as the healer sat and pulled out a journal, pen, and ink well. He flipped past several pages in the book – records and notes from studies and lessons both afield and at the temple – until he came across an empty one. There he slipped the book’s sash into the crease and began writing.

“Fever, fast onset,” it was a recap of what he knew coming into Dosalda. “Pallor of the skin, cold sweats, oily feeling,” these were all sent to the temple by word of letter when the town first reached out. There’d been no issue with crops, no odd weather or intrusion of vermin to mark the occasion. One moment the people of Dosalda had been happy and healthy, going about their day-to-day lives like normal. And the next-

“Queasiness and loss in appetite,” he continued his notes, murmuring. The clink of dishware on wood startled him and he looked up to see Barnen standing there, having just set down a plate of toast and a small jar of preserves.

“Quite the thing to be going over on an empty stomach,” the innkeeper noted.

“Oh.” Mateo glanced at his journal before offering a half-smile up at the round man. “I’m a bit dulled to it now, I suppose.”

“You work with this sort of stuff much?” Barnen asked, clearing his throat. The healer looked down. His thumb smoothed across the used pages of his book; a collection of sketches and scrawled notes.

“I do. I suppose a lot of people would consider it more unpleasant but I find it rather fascinating. The body is such a complex thing. The ways it breaks can be...” he trailed off, lost in thought as he flicked at page corners. He looked up at Barnen again, tapping his fingers rapidly against his journal. “Well, it’s a puzzle, isn’t it? So many people think the unknowns of this world are wrapped around the moons, or the legends of old, or unexplored lands, when really all the mystery we need is right under our fingertips. Literally, I suppose.”

“Well,” Barnen said with a nod. He breathed out a deep sigh in show of contemplation. “That’s definitely a bit too much for me this early in the morning. You enjoy your toast.” He gave the Mateo a smile and turned, leaving him to his breakfast.

The healer’s face flushed. His thumb now dragged along his lower lip instead of the pages of his journal as he tried to ignore his embarrassment. It was not uncommon for him to get a little lost when he talked about his passions.

Mateo’s interest in the gruesome began at a young age. The first time he saw death was in the form of birds left behind by stray cats. Exposed bones and stringy tendons opened his mind to a world of wonder hidden just beneath the guises of colorful plumes and thoughtless songs. Before he was two digits old he’d delved into pulling open the pellets of barn owls, trying to discern and reconstruct their contents. Once he brought home a small, sick rabbit, and for two days he agonized over keeping it warm and aided it in eating and drinking. His mothers made him throw it out the morning they realized its fur shifted and pulsed with maggots, not breath. They worried such a thing would scar a child his age, but Mateo found himself entranced by the lingering thoughts of holes in skin and white heads moving inside them. Mateo had certainly been a unique child. Still, his mothers had been surprised when he ended up in Gah’lia’s temple to pursue his curiosities. Their house had never been a place where the Ascended One was spoken of regularly, let alone favorably.

Medicines were not widely developed across Lendral’s cultures, save for superstitious understandings of wives’ tales and herbal lore. Study of the body and its health was a newer field. Often when people fell ill, they prayed. If they prayed to Omed’ra and were lucky, then the Sun would shine down on them and their ailments would fade by miracle. When they prayed to Gah’lia, hoping for the same blessings, She told them to make note of their ailments, their habits, and to find the link among them. And if they failed, at least their information would be around for the next poor soul who needed it.

Gah’lia encouraged knowledge and the pursuit of furthering understanding. Omed’ra encouraged thoughtless worship and blind following. Mateo was interested in knowing the hows and the whys of life’s dirtier parts. So he’d become a healer.

He took a drink of ale. Then paused and stared curiously at the mug in his hand, realizing he’d not noticed Barnen set it down. He also hadn’t noticed the few bites of toast already missing, the flavor of preserves lingering on his tongue. This was another thing that sometimes happened when the healer was lost in thought. He sighed in chagrin, more so to himself, the only real witness to his minor stupor, and turned back to his notes. He’d only written a few words more and they mostly consisted of things he was certain this illness wasn’t. Mateo frowned. This was likely as far as he was going to get without talking to anyone in town. The healer packed up his journal and focused on finishing his breakfast.

Outside the world was damp from the rainfall of the night before, but the skies had stopped weeping for now. Unfortunately, they continued to harbor an endless sea of clouds, all varying shades of deep gray as they hung heavy and ominous. There was the faintest sound of bells but Mateo could not tell if they were distant echoes through the town or the simple ringing of his ears from fatigue. Either seemed just as likely.

Stepping out into the streets, the healer mulled over where to start. Dosalda’s doctor had been lost well and early into the plague, according to information provided, and her clinic had shut down when her assistants fell ill shortly after. With no medical contact in the town he would have to take a more direct route: going door to door and speaking to those who would answer. The thought was not appealing but it was a start. Mateo’s footfalls sped with purpose and he shifted the strap of his pack where it rested on his shoulder, fidgeting with the weight of it. His eyes drifted downward as he walked. They typically did.

The damp weather had drawn out a squirming carpet to cover the cobblestone. Several large worms – night crawlers – writhed along the roads and footpaths, struggling to make their way down between the gaps in the laid stones and return to the ground from whence they’d crawled. The healer paused to watch them. He was more accustomed to the small garden worms around the temple and this much larger species piqued his curiosity. He stooped down and picked one up, bringing it closer to his face to examine. It curled and flicked between his fingers. Mateo set it aside and continued on, mindful of the creatures as he went.

The first door he reached offered no answer, even as he knocked his third time. He pressed his ear against it to listen but heard nothing through the thick wood. With a sigh he drew back and pulled out his journal, noting the address before moving on. Another door, another knock, another pause. He waited, nervous but hopeful.

This time he was rewarded with a muffled voice and the soft sounds of shuffling. The door before him pulled slowly open, just a crack, and a glimpse of a face peeked out. It eyed him wordlessly for a beat, then drew back. The door opened fully, revealing an older woman who looked up at the stranger at her threshold. He pulled out his holy symbol as a matter of reflex.

“Greetings, ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you during this troubled time. I’m from the temple to the north. My name is Mateo Gulverres and I’m here as a practicing physician. The temple has sent me to assist with matters of the plague. Do you-” he faltered as a cough from within the house caught his attention. His eyes flicked over her shoulder, seeing little more than shadows and dark doorways. “… have a moment?” he finished, reminding himself of the company standing a mere foot away.

“Do any of us have much more than a moment, sarei?” The woman answered glumly. “You say you’re from the temple? Well, bless you and the Goddess for your time. I’m Panella, Panella Carpenter. Why don’t you come on in.” She gestured for him to enter. He did, drawing a large handkerchief from his shirt pocket to tie around his mouth and nose. The place smelled of stale air and sickness.

The woman could have easily been as young as forty or her late thirties, nearly as young as Mateo himself, but she looked tired and worn, her eyes dark and her skin wrinkled. The weight of what the town was going through added years to her face and she walked with a slouch as she led him into her humble home.

“Is someone in your family afflicted?” The question seemed frivolous but Mateo felt it the polite way to broach the topic.

“My sister’s husband,” Panella frowned. “Came down with it just days ago. This is a week after we lost our maddy to the illness, you see. First losing a parent and then about to lose a spouse, my sister can hardly manage.” The woman’s hands shook and her lip quivered. “I can’t say he’s going to be much for a visit but- oh, as a healer you’ll certainly want to see him. Yes, what am I thinking. Please, this way. I’ll take you to him.” She turned, gesturing for him to follow as she moved farther into the home.

Mateo did not immediately follow. His attention was captured by something else in the moment. The way she rambled, the way her words tumbled out one after another without much thought behind them, this was all something he’d seen before. Experienced before. Knew before. The healer reached out a hand, not to touch her but to win her attention. She stopped and turned to him.

“Actually, before we see him, would it be alright if we could just sit and I could ask you some questions first?”

Panella grimaced but nodded. She altered their course, leading him to a small parlor. He set his pack down and took a seat in the large, worn chair she gestured him to. It creaked as he sank into it, its red padding worn and faded. Panella sat across from him in a chair with a higher back, forcing her to appear more stiff and upright. The furniture all around was mismatched and old, with not one piece looking like it belonged alongside another. The hodgepodge was charming in its own right but whispered details and assumptions to Mateo of the woman and her home.

“Is it alright if I take notes?” the healer asked. Panella nodded. She looked so tired. Mateo retrieved his writing necessities, setting his inkwell on a nearby end table as he rested his journal open in his lap. “I won’t be recording all of this verbatim, so do not concern yourself over your word choices. I just like to have the ability to jot anything down if I notice a detail or two that might be important.”

“I don’t mind, sarei.”

“So how have these few weeks been for you?”

The question drained what little liveliness Panella had left in her weary frame. She propped herself awkwardly in her chair, hand to her chin and gaze askance. For a moment she was silent and still as death, and he could have believed he was sitting across from nothing more than a life-sized doll. But there was the smallest tremble at her mouth, and her eyes reddened and shined, betraying all forms of words and thoughts currently unsaid.

“It hasn’t been easy.”

They were humble words, Mateo thought, summing up so much that likely could have overfilled the pages of his journal and then some. But the exhaustion found in suffering often brought about a humbleness more driven by apathy than any form of virtue.

“Go on.”

“It’s just that no one expected all of this to happen to us, sarei. You think of disasters befalling towns and you imagine there must be some sign, like the sky turning dark at noon, or the ground rumbling, or just… anything at all, but that doesn’t happen, does it?” She turned to face him but her eyes stared through him, looking beyond even the wall behind his chair. “One day everything is normal as can be, and the next people are falling ill, and they’re not getting better, only worse.” The woman’s eyes sharpened, refocusing. “You know our local doctor was one of the first to go? Should have been a sign, I’d think, but I don’t know why Omed’ra would send such a plague, ’less we did something to anger Him.”

“Omed’ra cares little for the sufferings and elations of mortals.” Mateo’s response was reflexive, nearly thoughtless, as though he were reciting his part in a practiced group prayer. If it were not for Panella’s incredulous look, he wouldn’t have even realized he’d spoken at all. He could not even bother to feel embarrassed at her wide-eyed stare, offering the poor woman little more than a shrug of apology. “I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s just I grew up in the temple. Omed’ra is a force of nature. Droughts happen whether we’re good or bad, tornadoes hit those who are helpful or harmful. Disease is just a fact of life. It’s not something sent by the Sun. If we could keep our focus on what’s been happening and not speculate about God, that would be most helpful.”

It was never his intention to be rude, but the man didn’t know how else to get them back on topic. Twenty years in the temple left him unaccustomed to individuals who still spoke of the Sun with reverence or fear. Panella was silent for a beat longer, recovering from his abrupt statement, and he granted her his patience until she cleared her throat and nodded.

“Fair is fair, sarei. I’ve heard rumors of how Gah’lia’s priests are.” Panella turned her attention to one of the many rings on her fingers. She toyed with it absently, her hands trembling. “As I was saying, it came up all at once. The doctor wasn’t the first to grow sick but she was the first to die from it. It was the little Baylen boy, Carton, who fell ill. He was about eleven. The Baylen’s couldn’t think of anything out of the ordinary that would have brought it on; he had no bites or scratches or bruises. Just one day he was out playing like a regular child and the next it was all the fever and horrible coughing and the-” Panella trailed off, face souring at the memory. He guessed the details were not ones she wanted to repeat, and so he did not push. He did make a note of it in his journal, though.

“The doctor fell ill after caring for him for a few days,” Panella continued, her voice distant. “Then she went pretty quickly, dead within the next two nights. The Baylen boy was lost about a day after that.”

Mateo’s brow wrinkled. Death on all counts was regrettable but he could not help but find it curious that a healthy adult, one who better understood medical care no less, would fall ill and wholly succumb much quicker than a child.

“It started spreading after that,” Panella continued, not noticing or simply not acknowledging Mateo’s hurried writing. “Not even from one home to the next but more random. A family across town says their father is ill, then another of the Baylen’s falls. Then Taddis the grocer. It seemed like you couldn’t guess who would or wouldn’t catch the awful sickness. You could sit next to someone actively ill and be fine while the spinner who hasn’t left her home in weeks would suddenly come down with it.”

“Does this town share a single water source?”

Panella frowned. “No, every quarter in town has its own pump.”

“Yes, but do they draw from the same well? Or the same source?”

“Sarei, I’m not certain. I don’t know the town’s water,” the woman admitted helplessly. Mateo nodded, offering her a smile hidden behind his handkerchief.

“Of course, ma’am, I understand. Please, if you would keep going, then. This has all been very helpful so far.”

Panella nodded. She seemed dazed and distracted. “I suppose after that was when the mayor enforced the quarantine, saying we needed to close up for the good of others. The last we did was send word to neighboring settlements to let them know what was going on before we closed the gates. People would try everything they could to keep from catching whatever was going around. Some went into isolation, others burned just about everything they owned, worried sickness would nest in it. We even had group prayers to call to the Sun. ’Course none of it ever helped.”

“Can you think of any similarities between when your maddy came down with the plague and when your sister’s husband did?” Mateo pried, hoping for anything insightful. “Did they eat any similar foods? Exhibit similar behaviors? Did they both bathe just before it happened? Went for a walk? Talked to the same people? Just any little thing that could come to mind?”

Panella shook her head. “Not that I know of, no.”

There were more questions he could ask, finer details he could root for, but it didn’t feel appropriate in the moment. With a motion, the healer encouraged her to continue. Panella huffed, about to speak, then stopped abruptly. She blinked once, then several more times, her mouth twisting as tears finally fell. Trembling hands squeezed each other, then moved to wrap around herself.

“The worst part is- Oh healer, do you know what the worst part is?” The older woman’s voice broke. Her words grew strained and hushed. He could see the divots of her throat deepen as it tightened. “It’s the selfishness,” she admitted, hands balling into fists as they shook against her sides. “The selfishness, always.” She sniffed loudly, moving a hand to quickly wipe at tears, though the effort didn’t matter. Several more streamed down her cheeks to replace them. “I know my sister has it hard with her husband, but it’s tough for me, too. I lost a parent, too. I’ve barely been able to mourn, though, not even a proper funeral, and I can’t- I’m stuck here, watching my sister as she breaks down over her husband. We can’t even talk about our maddy together when she has someone else she’s dealing with. It’s like I need to be strong for her, but even then, what does that help? She’s withering, healer, she’s withering and breaking down every day, and it’s not even the plague – it’s not even the sickness that’s tearing her apart now. And all this time I keep watching her, all this time I just keep thinking woe to me for having to deal with this all so quietly. Woe to me for not having another to speak to about it.”

Panella’s voice choked, contorting into a sob as she buried her face in her hands. Mateo set his pen down. He knew this moment had been coming from the start, from the way her words rambled and spilled upon first bringing him into her home. This was another thing Gah’lia trained her followers and students in – practicality and logic of mind, but empathy and understanding of heart. Emotions could bleed just as the flesh could. Shame and guilt could fester as sickly as any wound. Emotional pain was still a symptom of the plague that afflicted the town.

Mateo listened as she continued on, through tears and choked hiccups, to talk about her own feelings of loss and fear that had grown through these past several weeks. He listened to her talk about how she often awoke fitfully in the night, about her nightmares that made sleep just as harrowing as wakefulness, and about dark thoughts of whether she should choose her own way out before the illness made that choice for her. She was exhausted when she finished, her eyes simultaneously full of relief and shame. She’d ridden herself of a great burden – how dare she not suffer its weight in silence for longer while another in her home struggled with illness.

“I want you to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of with any of that,” Mateo assured. “Everyone is hurt by this in their own way. Your pain does not negate that of your sister’s, and it does not make you selfish to feel it.”

“Thank you, healer,” Panella offered him the faintest of smiles.

“I think it is time I see the patient now, please,” Mateo retrieved his journal from his lap. Panella drew in a deep breath, collecting herself. She stood and smoothed her hands over her shirt, placing on her face a practiced and composed smile that did not quite reach her eyes.

“Right this way, sarei.”

They resumed their path through the small house, continuing toward their original destination, and Panella soon stopped them outside a dim bedroom. The air was worse here, more than anywhere else in the home; a miasma so present Mateo felt he was stepping through a physical barrier. From within the room came coughing and labored breathing, as well as a woman’s hushed voice interspersed between the fits. She sounded exhausted, worried.

“Saia?” Panella called. Mateo held back as she entered to speak to her sister. “A healer from the temple has come by. He’s asking if he can come in and see Toby.”

Whatever response Saia gave was inaudible. Panella returned, face downcast, but she nodded. With a gesture she granted him entrance and Mateo moved past her into the dim room, eyes scanning as he adjusted to the darkness.

The room was sparsely decorated and dirty. An attempt at cleanliness had been made at some point, but it’d only left piles of garbage pushed away into corners or stacked against walls. Shutdown of the town meant that garbage and waste collection itself were halted, leaving refuse to pile up, and in homes like this where tending to the ill was a priority, there was little thought or strength to spare. Everything was pushed to the side to make space as needed. What made it worse was the lack of airflow through the room. More than just illness, the miasma collected the suffocating smell of rot and rubbish.

The most prominent feature of the space was the bed and the figure laying on it. He was wheezing with every labored breath and his mouth hung open. His skin looked almost yellow and lamplight reflected an oily sheen to it, but more striking than that, he was thin in a way that struck the healer as incorrect. Mateo had seen emaciation before – poor souls who were practically skeletons held together by parchment-thin skin – but this man was not that. His bones were not prominent from fat and muscle deterioration. Skin sagged but it did not show definition of skeleton beneath it. He appeared hollow in a way, like if one could take a man’s body, maintain its plumpness, but then reach beneath and slowly carve the insides out. It was a ghoulish thought but Mateo could not shake it as he eyed the ailing man.

Beside the bed, in a chair just as mismatched from all furniture as the ones Mateo had seen in the parlor, sat a woman who shared a resemblance to Panella, though notably older. She did not even attempt to offer a smile as her eyes raised to him, nor did she try and stand. He was not offended. She looked tired, barely on the brink of consciousness herself.

“Do you mind if I take notes?” Mateo asked. She shook her head. Again the journal was lifted and opened.

“May I ask why the windows are shut?”

“The chill was too much for him,” Saia answered, her voice barely a whisper. Mateo nodded as he wrote.

“Has he managed to eat or drink much of anything?”

“Yesterday he did drink a bit, but yesterday he wasn’t like this. He could sit up then.”

The healer’s head continued to bob as he made more notes. He cast another searching look around the room before turning to Saia. “My apologies, may I use the chair for a moment?”

Saia stood in wordless agreement. She looked as though she was not fully within the moment. Moving toward the head of the bed, she backed herself against the wall and out of the way as she quietly watched her fading husband. Mateo took her seat, scooting it closer to the bed.

“Can you hear me, sir?” he asked the man. “My apologies, what is his name?”

“Toby.”

“Can you hear me, Toby? Could you move your eyes or blink to show me you hear me?”

Toby’s head slowly turned and he gave a weak nod.

“I’m just going to check a few things, alright?” Mateo produced a pair of leather gloves from his pack and pulled them on. They were slim, not like bulky working gloves, and their oiled hide was smooth and flexible. He placed his hand to Toby’s chest and gently pressed, feeling the curious way it gave beneath him. He watched it rise and fall with each of the man’s labored breaths, its change in elevation hardly noticeable. He ran his fingers along the man’s arm and noted the slick residue collected on his glove. He made more notes.

With Saia’s assistance, Mateo managed to get water into the ailing man. He checked him for sores and welts, hives and lesions, and any sort of oddities or markings on the skin. He checked his eyes carefully, his fingertips, his mouth. He wrote more notes.

Toby grew less and less responsive even as Mateo tried to engage him with questions and small talk. The man’s awareness was fading, either by illness or fatigue. When it was clear to him that there was nothing more to gain from this visit, he excused himself, not wanting to intrude on their day any longer.

“I’m afraid with how far gone he is there is little more I can offer other than suggestions for how to keep him comfortable,” he admitted to Panella as she saw him out. “I wish I could do more, but we simply do not work miracles.”

“I understand, healer,” Panella assured. She sounded lost and apathetic, a contrast to her words.

“Thank you, at least, for the chance to get this information. I know that may not seem like much, but it’s still something that may help save lives while I am here. If it is alright, I’ll come by and check on you all again later.”

Panella attempted to smile at that. Her mouth twitched and that was all that could be mustered.

Mateo headed back to the tavern. There was much he had to think about, and he needed time to pour through his books and consider possible treatments for what he’d seen. There had been no marks on Toby’s skin, which he found odd. No welts, no swellings, no redness or rash. Not even blotchy patches. He also could not shake the odd appearance to the body – the thinness that looked unnatural, better described as being concave rather than withered. He needed to see more. He needed to figure out who in this town he must speak to in order to gain access to the bodies of those already deceased. Perhaps he could find answers in things he could more readily pick apart.

The thought of corpses drew his attention to the smell of smoke still present in the air. Was it bodies they were burning? Or possessions of the plagued? Or refuse? The scent of it didn’t strike him as offensive enough to be the latter.

Carmyle was in the tavern speaking with Barnen, though their conversation came to an abrupt halt as Mateo entered and both heads turned to him. The healer thought little of it; certainly the inn’s residents were still not used to seeing another come and go. The young woman was decidedly more sober this evening, and her brown eyes were curious and scrutinizing as he walked by.

“Hey,” she spoke up as he passed, pivoting in her seat to watch him. “Already out doing work, huh?”

“Yes.”

“So, have you found anything?”

Mateo paused at the stairs, turning to address her. “I mean, I just started,” he admitted with a shrug.

“That’s fair,” her tone was one of casual apology. “I don’t mean to keep you. I just figured since you’re stuck in here with the rest of us and all, but,” Carmyle made a gesture of dismissal and turned back to Barnen. The two did not immediately start up their conversation again.

Mateo frowned. He didn’t mean to come across as annoyed or impatient. His thoughts were just preoccupied and he was eager to get to his room and work, but that single-mindedness wasn’t something most people could easily read from him, so more often than not, annoyed or impatient was how he was perceived.

“How is your head feeling today?” the healer offered. Carmyle turned, cocking a brow as she gazed over her shoulder at him. “I mean after your drinking last night,” he explained.

She smirked.

“It’s fine. Thanks for the concern.”

“Good.”

Mateo nodded. That was enough socializing to not seem aloof, he wagered. That would do. He turned and continued to his room to pour over his journal.

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