Worms

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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. ------

Year 1069

Rain pattered heavily down on the dirt road as the figure walked along it toward the stone walls that rose like grim sentries. His cloak was soaked but did its part to keep the water from seeping in and chilling him. His boots were splattered with mud and his legs ached from the walk. Carriages would only bring him so far, the drivers had warned him. 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 he heard a voice call out above him, dimly sounding over the heavy rain. He drew his hood back, wiped the water from his face, and looked up to the town guard who shouted down.

“Can’t come in!” The man yelled from the gate tower above. “Haven’t you heard? Town’s been closed for over a month 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. The arch was embellished with resplendent wings of intricately detailed feathers that trailed along either side of its bowing curves. Above the tips of the wings, included for detail but clearly not designed for impressiveness and attention 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 make out the details of the medallion, the metal it was crafted from satisfied him well enough. He drew back, his form sagging with reluctance.

“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 doctor!” The stranger shouted up, his patience waning as he slipped the symbol beneath his cloak once more. “I’ve been sent to study and work towards a cure!”

“Fine,” the guardsman finally 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 stepped back as the guard worked levers on top of the wall. The large gate of the town yawned open, a small bridge slowly falling forward with a groan to give passage over the thin moat around the town’s stone perimeter. The man passed over it, pausing to look down at the ditch that lined the stone structure. Its contents were a thick, black sludge, and it smelled of sickness and waste, but also something earthy. He drew his cloak up over his mouth and continued in.

As he reached the cobblestone of the other side the gate raised shut behind him, its closing thud punctuating his fate. Now he too was locked within the quarantine.

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

“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 guard 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 man continued on through the rain, shielded by his damp cloak as he searched for a place to stay.

The streets were devoid of people as the man trudged through them. 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 road, something that the man was honestly surprised to see open, and he glanced up at the name before entering. 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. There were only three occupants inside that the stranger could see as he entered. 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 leaning forward with crossed arms as he rested on his own counter top. Across from him sat a woman with short red hair dressed in casual traveling garb and a rahkanna man, a cat-like race of people with tall ears and broad muzzles. The three stopped in mid-conversation as the newcomer walked in, a grin still on the woman’s face from the laughter she’d just silenced, and the rahkanna looked over at him with a deep scowl.

“What is this?” The cat hissed out, his voice a throaty growl as he sat up in his seat and craned his neck toward the cloaked and dripping figure. He looked as though he were being made 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 inn keeper joked dryly and turned to look at 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 cloak weighted by the liquid it held. He had long black hair, wavy and thick, pulled back into a ponytail, and a bit of facial hair on his upper lip and along his jaw and chin 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.

“Someone from the Temple?” She turned to the rahkanna and swatted his arm, giving a throaty chuckle as she leaned into him. “Look, Sabbis! Gah’lia’s finally sent someone to give this town its last rites!” She giggled again and the cat sneered before turning his head away, dark brown fur bristling. Judging by the glass before her and her mannerisms, Mateo wondered if the woman had already enjoyed a bit too much to drink.

“They let me in because I’m a practicing doctor, a healer,” he explained as he glanced between the three. Barnen gave him a tired smile from behind the bar.

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

“I’m going to need a room,” Mateo pressed gently. Barnen nodded.

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

The woman scolded playfully as she sat upright.

“I do like my space,” she said before turning and flashing Mateo 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 hissed through his front teeth. “I was not the one who wanted to take the detour south.”

“Oopsie,” the woman giggled again, unperturbed.

“Are you alright?” Mateo asked, brow furrowing in concern.

“Who would be in this forsaken plague town?” Sabbis hissed once more, his tail lashing in annoyance as he sat on his stool. “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 she gasped, growing excited as her eyes lit with a thought, and she turned a broad grin to Mateo.

“Does the Temple forbid drinking, Healer?”

“No...” Mateo answered, brow still furrowed as his gaze 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 up in request. “Ah, so… a room, please?”

“Of course.” Barnen nodded. He leaned down below the counter, retrieving a key from a small lock box. He held it out for the healer and Mateo approached to accept the object. Carmyle let out another drunken laugh as he leaned forward beside her. She rested her elbow on the counter and propped her cheek on her hand as she eyed him with curious study, a smirk resting on her face.

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

“Oooh, he’s considerate,” Carmyle mused, turning her attention to Barnen. “Already doing a good job. Such a thoughtful one.”

Mateo nodded to Barnen and Sabbis as he passed them all and headed upstairs to discover his lodging. He found the door matching his key several rooms down. With the amount of space available here, Mateo assumed the town must have seen far more traffic when it was open. He frowned, hoping silently to himself that there would be something he could do to help see Dosalda back to those days once more as he unlocked his room and stepped inside.

He removed his wet clothes, laid them out to dry, and sorted through his pack to check on his supplies and effects. When he was satisfied he sat on the edge of his bed with a sigh and ran his hand over his face and through his hair.

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

Mateo lived at the Temple of Gah’lia farther to the northeast, just south of the Great Ossres Lake. It was common practice for priests and healers to live at temples for the sake of access to their libraries and teachers as they studied and learned their practices. Mateo had always held an interest in medicine and medical care, a field of study Gah’lia encouraged in Her people. During his almost twenty years studying and learning there, he’d been sent out to local farms and settlements to tend to ailing families or often joined other healers as their assistant, keeping notes of their work and organizing their studies and findings. This was his first time being sent as far out as Dosalda, and certainly was the largest task he’d ever agreed to undertake.

When word of a mysterious plague 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 offer, and due to the danger of the unknown plague 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 himself caught by worry and doubt. It was easy to be confident in the walls of the Temple, where plague and death were not imminent.

“Give me strength and keep me steady,” he recited the common prayer, though for the moment he felt his words were falling short. Doubt and unease could do that to someone, Mateo knew well. The people who devoted themselves to the Goddess were not unaccustomed to moments when they felt unheard. It was something they were expected to work through, a trial to pass at the Temple, to learn how to hear their Goddess’ soft voice. It was unsurprising to him, now so far from places familiar and safe, that the old feeling would return. But he did not worry. It would pass.

Mateo reached into his pack and drew out his holy symbol again, the symbol of his goddess, and traced his fingers along it. He let out a low sigh. It was time to rest. Tomorrow would be the beginning of his task.


Mateo lay restlessly that night, falling in and out of fitful, dreamless sleep, and as soon as the sky outside his window started to brighten he sat up in bed, a mixture of groggy but relieved for the excuse to cease his attempts at slumber. He threw on his clothing and grabbed his pack, not so much eager as he was simply ready to begin his work. Barnen was already up and stationed behind the counter. The round man looked as though he were about to doze off but he stood up more attentively and turned as Mateo descended the stairs.

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

“Not really much else for me to do than get started,” the healer admitted, head still foggy from his uneasy night. Barnen responded with a small shrug.

“Breakfast before you go?”

“I suppose something quick couldn’t hurt,” Mateo agreed. He headed over to one of the small tables that circled the room and placed his pack carefully on it.

It was a bag constructed for medical purposes, filled with several different pouches for unique supplies and notes, and reinforced to help it hold its shape and guard vials, needles, and other tools inside from being bumped and crushed. Leather helped keep it waterproof and it was lined for extra padding. Mateo was not accustomed to carrying the weight of it for so long and his walk from the day before through the rain still had parts of him stiff and sore.

As Barnen stepped away through a door frame behind his counter, Mateo sat and pulled out a journal, pen, and small ink well. He flipped past several used pages in the book, records from previous studies and notes from research done at the temple, until he finally came across an empty page to begin. The journal had a sash of red sewn into it. The healer slipped the sash down the crease of the fresh page to mark the start of his research before he began writing, noting the date and recapping what little information he had coming into Dosalda.

“Fever, fast onset...” he murmured to himself as he jotted quickly. “Pallor of the skin, cold sweats, oily feeling...” These were all sent to his temple by word of letter when the town initially reached out to them. There’d been no issue with crops, no odd weather patterns 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. The clink of a dish on the wooden table startled him from his focus and he looked up to see Barnen standing there, having just set down a plate of toast and a small dish of preserves.

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

“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 as he spoke. Mateo looked back down at his work and idly ran his thumb through previous pages filled with sketches and 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 and breathed in a deep sigh 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.

Mateo felt his face flush with embarrassment. He lifted his hand and dragged his fingers along his lower lip as he stared down at his notes again. It was not uncommon for him to get a little lost when he talked about his passions.

Mateo’s interest in the gruesome subject began at a young age. Finding the remains of birds left behind by stray cats. Pulling open the pellets of barn owls and trying to discern their contents. He once brought home a young rabbit that he’d thought was sick and gave it a warm box and tended to it with water and insects. His mothers made him throw it out the day he brought it to them still alive but crawling with maggots. 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 small white heads moving inside them.

Mateo had been a unique child. Still, it was something of a surprise when he ended up in Gah’lia’s temple to pursue his curiosities.

When people were ill they prayed to Omed’ra, and if they were lucky the Sun would shine down on them and their ailments would fade as a miracle. When people were ill they prayed to Gah’lia, expecting much the same, and She told them to make a note of their ailments, their habits, and 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 pursuits 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 had become a healer.

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

Outside the world was still damp from the rainfall of the night before, but at least the skies had stopped weeping for now. Unfortunately they continued to harbor an endless sea of clouds, varying shades of deep gray as they hung heavy and ominous above. In the distance Mateo thought he heard bells, but the sound was so faint that he accepted it as a possible ringing in his tired mind.

Stepping out into the streets, the healer mentally worked through his options. The Temple had been informed that Dolsalda’s doctor was lost well and early to the plague and the town had no medical assistants to continue on the practice, much of her clinic quickly falling ill shortly after. With no direct 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, and Mateo shifted the strap of the heavy pack on his shoulder, fidgeting with the weight of it.

His eyes drifted downward as they typically did when he walked. Along the road Mateo could see several large worms, night crawlers, squirming lazily, exhausted, working to make their way down between the gaps in the laid stones and return to the damp ground from whence they 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 slowly between his fingers. He set it aside and continued walking, mindful of the creatures as he went.

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

From within he could hear a muffled voice and the soft sounds of shuffling. Finally a woman answered, cautiously drawing the door open, and looked up at the man standing beyond the threshold. He pulled out his holy symbol reflexively as he started speaking.

“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 doctor. The Temple has sent me to assist in the matters of the plague. Do you… have a moment?” Mateo’s eyes flicked to the dark house behind her as he heard a cough from further in. The place smelled of stale air and sickness.

“Do any of us have much more of 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 and as he did he drew a large handkerchief from his shirt pocket and tied it around his face.

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 the illness around her 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?” Mateo asked. The question felt frivolous but it seemed like the polite way to begin the topic.

“My sister’s husband,” Panella answered with a frown. “Came down with it just days ago. This is a week after we already lost our maddy to it. First losing a parent and then about to lose a spouse, my sister can hardly manage...” Her hands were shaking and her lips quivered. “I can’t say he’s going to be much for a visit but- oh, as a doctor you’ll certainly want to see him. Yes, what am I thinking. Please, this way. I’ll take you to him.” Panella turned, gesturing for him to follow as she moved further into the house.

Mateo recognized the ramble in her speech, the way she did not pause and just let the words flow out without much thought. He was used to this response from people under duress, people trying to appear strong but so badly needing an outlet for their fears and worries. He reached a hand toward her, not to touch but to gain her attention. Panella stopped and looked at him.

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

The woman grimaced and nodded. She altered their course and led Mateo to a small parlor. He set his pack down and took a seat in the large worn chair she gestured him to. It was padded with stuffed faded red fabric and it creaked as he sank into it. Panella sat across from him in a more upright but smaller seat with a high back and thinner green padding.

“Is it alright if I take notes?” The healer asked. Panella nodded, looking tired. Mateo pulled out his journal and writing essentials, setting his inkwell on a small table nearby as he rested the book in his lap.

“I won’t be recording all of this verbatim, of course, but if something comes up I’d like to be able to jot anything down while we talk.”

“I don’t mind,” she assured with a low sigh.

“So how have these few weeks been for you?” Mateo prodded gently.

Panella put a hand to her lower jaw as she propped herself awkwardly in her chair, her gaze cast to the side and her mouth quivering as her eyes began to redden and shine.

“Well it’s all been so...” From the moment she began speaking her voice was choked and hoarse and she paused to clear her throat and sniff. She blinked and a few tears rolled freely down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said reflexively, more to fill the space her pause left and less in earnest apology. She cleared her throat again and her voice sounded less strained. Resting her hands in her lap, Panella took a few breaths to collect herself. Mateo waited patiently.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she admitted, her gaze moving down again, unable to linger on the healer. “One day everything was normal as can be and then suddenly people started falling ill. 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 thing, ’less we did something to anger Him.”

“Omed’ra cares little for the sufferings and elations of mortals,” Mateo responded reflexively, gesturing with a dismissive brush of his hand. Panella gave him an incredulous look for the statement but he could only offer her a shrug of an apology for it.

“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 disease, not 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.” He did not mean to be rude but he did not know how else to say it. Twenty years in the Temple meant that the healer was unaccustomed to individuals who still spoke of the Sun with reverence or fear.

Panella took a moment to recover from the abrupt statement before she cleared her throat and nodded.

“Fair is fair, sarei, I understand how the mind’s of Gah’lia’s priests are…” She looked down to toy with a ring on one of her fingers, her hands still trembling as she recollected her thoughts. “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. The first one who actually came down with anything was the little Baylen boy, Carton. 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, grimacing at the memory. Mateo assumed the details were ones she did not want to repeat and he made a few notes about the case.

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

Mateo frowned as he wrote. Death on all accounts 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 would.

“It started spreading after that,” Panella continued, not fully cognizant of Mateo’s hurried writing. “Not even from one home to the next but more like at random. A family across town says their father is ill, then another of the Baylen’s falls. Then Taddis the grocer.” She listed off several individuals, their names and connections currently meaning nothing to him.

“Does this town share a single water source?” Mateo interrupted softly, giving Panella a curious look. The woman paused and frowned as she considered the question.

“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,” she admitted helplessly. Mateo gave his head a shake and offered her a smile.

“It’s alright to not know, ma’am. Even the information you’re giving me is helpful.”

Panella nodded. She seemed dazed and distracted, refocusing on Mateo again after a moment.

“Should I continue?”

“Please, do.”

“Well, after that...” she trailed off as she put her thoughts back in order. “I suppose it wasn’t too long after that the mayor established the quarantine and we closed up. The last we did was send out some letters to neighboring settlements to let them know what was going on before we closed the gates. They had to send them by bird because they were concerned people might carry the disease out if they took the letters themselves. People were trying everything; smoke-cleaning, burning, hiding away indoors, wearing several layers of clothes and breathing through scarves and masks to keep from catching anything. ’Course none of it ever helped. One day a household would be fine and the next someone was sick. And it didn’t always spread to the immediate family members, either. Sometimes a house would lose one and everyone else would be fine for weeks later.”

Mateo nodded as he listened, making notes as fast as he could.

“Can you think of any similarities between when your maddy came down with the plague and when your sister’s husband did? 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.”

Mateo nodded again. He wanted to pry for smaller details but didn’t feel it appropriate. With a motion, he encouraged her to continue. Panella huffed gently, trying to control her swelling emotions, but her voice broke once more and tears flowed freely. She wrapped her arms around herself and gripped tightly.

“You know, I just hate the whole feeling of… I know my sister has it so hard, but it’s tough for me, too? She’s losing a spouse, we both lost a parent… and I’m also stuck sitting here and watching her breakdown, and it’s not even the plague… it’s not even the sickness that’s tearing her apart now...” Panella’s head bowed slowly to the ground, her mouth contorting as she spoke, the pain she felt pulling it into a tight grimace. Her voice pitched higher.

“It’s just watching her lose all hope and knowing I can’t do anything for her… watching her exhaust herself and feeling so awful when I think about how it hurts me because… because it’s all so busy hurting her and I shouldn’t be thinking so much of myself...”

Mateo set his pen down upon the open page of his journal and simply listened. He was not unfamiliar with these moments of grief and shame; being someone from the Temple his compassion was opened to those who hurt, who ached, even when they were not the direct target of wounds or illness. Gah’lia taught Her followers to listen without judgment when people’s feelings bled as their bodies would when torn. Her emotional pain was still symptoms of the plague that afflicted the town.

He listened patiently 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 the ways she awoke at night often and fitfully, about her nightmares that made sleep just as harrowing as being awake, and about dark thoughts of whether she should chose her own way out before the illness made that choice for her. She was exhausted when she was finally done speaking and her eyes looked simultaneously relieved of a great burden and yet weak for not maintaining such a weight silently any longer.

“I want you to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of with any of that,” Mateo assured her after her words subsided. “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 said weakly, offering him the faintest of smiles. Mateo nodded.

“I think it is time I see the patient now, please,” he suggested softly. Panella drew in a deep breath as she collected herself, standing and smoothing her hands over her shirt. She offered Mateo a practiced and composed smile that did not quite reach her eyes.

“Right this way, sarei,” she gestured and as he stood she resumed their path through the small house, continuing toward their original destination.

Stopping outside a dim bedroom, Mateo heard the sounds of labored breathing and coughing from within. He could also make out a woman’s hushed voice, her tone exhausted and worried, barely a hoarse whisper. The air here was stale and heavy with sickness, a mild miasma so present he felt he was stepping into a physical barrier.

“Saia?” Panella called softly. Mateo waited as she entered the room to speak to her sister. “A healer from the Temple has arrived in town. He’s asking if he can come in and see Toby.”

Mateo heard no response but assumed one must have been given as Panella returned. She looked to him briefly before casting her eyes down to the ground and gave a small nod. With a gesture she motioned for him to enter and Mateo stepped into the dim room, eyes scanning as he adjusted to the darker area.

The room was sparsely decorated and dirty. It was apparent that there had been an attempt at cleanliness at some point, as all garbage was tucked into corners or tightly against walls, trying to preserve space as much as possible, but tending to the ill and the state of the town itself had caused orderliness to slip and allowed for waste and disarray to build up. There was no airflow in the room and so nothing to help keep the smell at bay and the air fresh.

The most prominent feature of the area was the bed and the figure laying on it. He was wheezing softly, his breathing clearly labored and his mouth hung open. In the low light his skin looked almost yellow and lamplight reflected a slight sheen on it. The man looked thin but in a way that struck the healer as what he could only describe as ‘incorrect’. Mateo had seen emaciation before, poor souls who were practically skeletons with thin skin stretched across them, but this man looked different. He could see bones but not so 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 reached beneath and slowly carved 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 broad wooden chair 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 her softly. She shook her head. He drew his journal out of his pack.

“May I ask why all the windows are shut?”

“The chill was too much for him,” Saia stated softly, her voice barely an audible 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.”

Mateo continued to nod and made a few more notes. He cast a look around the room before turning to Saia.

“My apologies, may I use the chair for a moment?”

Saia agreed with a weak bob of her head and slowly stood. 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 and scooted it closer to the bed.

“Can you hear me, sir?” He asked the man before turning his attention up to Saia. “My apologies, what is his name?”

“Toby...”

“Can you hear me, Toby?” The healer returned his focus to the man on the bed before him. “Can 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 bulky, 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 barely rise and fall with labored breaths. He ran his fingers along the man’s arm and noted the slick residue it left behind. He took a few 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 minor questions and talk, the healer working to uphold a sense of awareness from the man. When he felt there was no more he or anyone else could gain from his visit he excused himself with gratitude for their reception and patience.

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

“I understand, healer,” Panella assured him, though she sounded lost and apathetic.

“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.”

Panella attempted to smile at that. Her mouth twitched and that was all the energy she could muster.

“If it is alright, I’ll come by and check on you all again later,” Mateo offered softly. She gave a small nod. He thanked her again and left.

Mateo headed back to the tavern. He’d spent the better portion of the early day with Toby and returned with much to think about. He would need time to pour through some of the books he’d brought with him and consider possible treatments for what he’d seen.

There had been no marks on the body, which was something else he’d found odd. No welts, no swellings, no redness or rash. Not even blotchy patches of skin. And he could not shake the odd appearance to the body, the thinness that looked unnatural. Like there had been a concaveness to his chest and stomach.

Mateo also felt he should discover who he would need to speak to in order to gain access to bodies of those who’d already succumbed to the plague. Perhaps he could find answers in things he could more readily pick apart. The thought of bodies drew his attention to the smell of smoke that still lingered in the air, and he wondered if it was bodies they were burning, or possessions from the plagued, or refuse. He decided the scent was not quite offensive enough to be the latter.

Carmyle was in the tavern speaking with Barnen as Mateo arrived and both turned to look as the healer entered. She eyed him as he walked in and he noted that she appeared decidedly more sober this evening.

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

“Yes,” Mateo paused on his way toward the stairs to turn to her. She eyed the pack at his side curiously before raising brown eyes up to his face.

“So have you found anything?”

“I mean… I just started,” Mateo admitted, giving a small shrug. He did not mean to come across as annoyed or impatient, his mind was just preoccupied with thoughts of notes and books and he was eager to reach his room.

“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 conversation again.

Mateo frowned. They were all caught here with little distraction and he was the newest person she’d likely seen for weeks. He did not want to come across as completely uninterested and rude.

“How is your head feeling today?” He offered. She turned and raised an eyebrow over her shoulder at him. “I mean after your drinking last night,” he explained.

Carmyle smirked.

“It’s fine. Thanks for the concern.”

Mateo nodded.

“Good.”

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

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