Toast and oatmeal were the staple options for breakfast at the Wayward inn. All smoked and dried meats had been tossed during the first few days of the plague as fear of infected food moved through the small town. Fresher fruits and vegetables had been used up or gone bad, leaving Barnen with only a few pickled and preserved selections. He had access to a pump for water that Mateo was fairly confident in, given how none of his fellow residents were showing any signs of illness or infection, but mostly his drinks came in the form of sterile alcohols with long shelf lives. Toasting the bread helped hide when it had gone stale, but the flavor grew old quickly, even with the small selection of preserves that could be enjoyed with it. Therefore Mateo had decided that oatmeal was the ideal breakfast of the day, and he sat focused on his journal as he waited for the bland meal to soak and soften.
Yesterday had not been very productive, between drunken conversation with Carmyle and time spent puzzling over events at a house that were, even now, fading from his mind. Well, not fading, perhaps, but certainly being dismissed as unreasonable. Unrealistic. Unreliable, at best. But today he would do better. Today he would visit the morgue, perhaps speak to its dieners. It was his hope to be able to see any of the bodies, but at the very least he wanted to learn how they were being disposed of. Perhaps the corpses themselves were playing into the spreading of this unknown plague.
Briefly, he considered returning to other homes he’d visited to see how those families were doing, but the thought drew up Sabbis’ words from the other day and Mateo grimaced at their memory. The rahkanna was right – most people didn’t want to see a healer who could not offer any help. They had plenty to deal with already, just as Panella had. He should just focus on the bodies, on the morgue, on what could be found there. Perhaps there would be answers. Perhaps then he could reach out with earnest offers of aid.
“Um, excuse me?”
It was the second time she spoke but the first time Mateo truly heard her. Startled, he looked up. His gaze met the tired and cautious eyes of a young woman, no older than her mid-twenties. She stood timid and small before his table, clutching a hat in her hands that was as soaked as her burgundy cloak from the downpour outside. The poor thing looked awful.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“No, you’re not interrupting,” Mateo hurriedly assured, his brow creasing as he sat upright and attentive. “What is it? What can I do for you?”
“Well, you’re the physician, right? The healer from the temple?”
The woman drew in a shaky breath. “It’s my daughter, sir. She’s only just started to get ill, I thought- I-I thought if it was early enough, maybe there was still something you could do.”
Mateo was already out of his seat, throwing his supplies into his pack before she finished her statement. He tossed its strap over his shoulder and pulled his cloak on, looking to the woman expectantly. “Take me to her.”
They hurried across town through heavy rain, moving as quickly as slippery footing would allow. All the while the woman, Nidiyna, spoke with rushed nerves as she described what she could to Mateo.
“Last night she went to bed, she said her stomach did not feel good? She said it was like a pit, like it hurt. Cramps.”
“Was she nauseous?”
“Not last night, no. But this morning she did throw something up. Like dark. She said everything was very like sweet. Like sick but sweet.”
“Everything smelled sweet? Tasted sweet?” Mateo’s brow creased as he kept pace behind her, hand over his forehead in vain attempt to block the rain from his face. It did not matter. His head, arms, and entire self was already soaked.
“I don’t know,” Nidiyna admitted, leading them around a turn and down another street. “I don’t know what she meant. She was crying.” The woman sounded as though she were on the verge of tears herself. Mateo admired her focus.
They reached her house in minutes, Nidiyna throwing the door open and beckoning the healer inside. A man was there waiting, and the two greeted each other with a tight hug.
“I found him,” Nidiyna announced, gripping his shoulders tight. “I found the healer. He’s here with me. How is Shindia?”
“She is calmed, for the moment.” The man drew back from their embrace, his hands resting on Nidiyna’s arms. His pale blue eyes, an intense contrast to his thick dark hair and deep brown complexion, never settled on her face. His gaze was instead lost above her forehead, looking but not seeing. They never looked to Mateo, either. “She is sitting in bed. She wanted to play with her doll. You said you brought the healer?”
“Hello,” Mateo spoke up. Immediately the man’s head turned to him, a smile of acknowledgment spreading across his face.
“Ah, there he is.” He reached a hand out and Mateo took it. “Thank you, thank you for coming. I am Kareem.” Kareem placed his other hand over Mateo’s and gave it a firm shake before patting his forearm.
“Mateo,” the introduction was a matter of reflex. His mind was on the mention of the girl.
“We had heard there was someone in town from the temple. Good man… good man to show up.”
“May I see her?” Mateo asked, looking from Kareem to Nidiyna. “May I see your daughter?”
“Yes, of course.” Nidiyna motioned. “Right this way.”
She led him through a house not too unlike Panella’s in layout and size. The detail stood out to Mateo. Homes with such similar construction often popped up in towns that saw a rapid influx of people. Infrastructure such as water and waste disposal could be strained in locations with unplanned growth. Though he knew little on the history of Dosalda, there was plenty he was beginning to piece together, and every little insight felt like one step closer to their salvation.
As Nidiyna led him through a house that was hauntingly familiar, Mateo could guess where they were going before they even arrived. The parallels were understandable but unsettling nonetheless, granting him uncanny familiarity to a home he’d never stepped foot in. Especially when he walked into the same room that had once housed a dying man just to find a young girl sitting up in bed. She looked to be about seven, eight at best, and was toying with the yarn-like hair of a patchwork doll.
“Shindia?” Her mother called as they stepped into the room. The girl raised her head. “Sweetheart, how are you feeling?” Nidiyna sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed, pressing a hand to the child’s forehead. The little girl looked down at her doll, saying nothing. Nidiyna squeezed her shoulder. “I want you to meet someone. This is Mateo Gulverres, he’s a healer and he’s come to take a look at you.”
Mateo was drawing out his large handkerchief as Shindia’s mother introduced him. The smile was lost behind the article as he tied it around his mouth and nose, but he stepped closer to her bed. “Hello, Shindia. Is it alright if I talk to you for a bit?”
The girl did not raise her gaze but nodded, running her fingers between strands of colorful yarn. Mateo scanned the room briefly, finding a small chair that he moved to her bedside. The furniture was clearly sized for a child, and as he sat it gave the comedic appearance of a giant attempting to squat on a small stool. He placed his pack on the ground.
“Why do you have that thing on your face?” Shindia had finally looked up and now her small brow ruffled as she looked at the healer.
“This?” Mateo pointed to his face mask. “It’s something healers will wear when working with patients, but for me, it can also help me focus and feel calmer,” he explained as he pulled out his journal. He looked at the little girl again. “Do you have anything like that? Something that makes you feel calmer?”
Shindia held up her doll.
“Who is that?” Mateo asked.
“Tell me about Anya?”
“She’s my sister.” The girl focused on her toy. “I really wanted one so mom made her for me.”
A small sound came from nearby. Mateo looked to where Nidiyna perched on her daughter’s bed. The woman’s eyes were red and her cheeks wet, and she turned away to clear her throat.
“I see,” Mateo said, turning back to Shindia. “Does Anya help you feel better right now?”
Shindia nodded, tugging the doll’s hair.
To his surprise, the child shook her head in disagreement.
“Everyone who’s been sick has died,” Shindia mumbled. “Am I going to die, too?”
“Well,” Mateo tried not to let hesitation betray his answer. It was hard for him to lie, even when he knew lies would be assuring – an unfortunate detriment to bedside manners. Was it better to lift people with empty hope than it was to bring them down with heavy truth? Even the temple seemed conflicted on that answer. “I am here to do the best I can to make you feel better, and I think because your mother came and got me so quickly when you started to feel sick, we have a pretty good chance.” He kept his tone light and cheerful. “Your mother said you started feeling bad last night. Can you tell me about that?”
“My tummy hurt a lot.” Shindia combed the doll’s hair out with her fingers, lingering on the strands of yarn. “It just felt like there was a deep hole in it. I was really hungry but it hurt too much to think about eating.”
“Can you think of anything earlier in the day that would make your tummy hurt? Did you eat something that you didn’t like or drink anything that didn’t taste good?”
Shindia shrugged, her attention still rapt on Anya. “I was tired yesterday so I took a nap. When I woke up it felt like I had swallowed string and I couldn’t stop coughing.”
Mateo made a few notes in his journal and stood from his diminutive chair. Rooting through his medical pack, he grabbed several items and headed to the girl’s bed, sitting on the side opposite her mother. “I need to be able to touch you so I can look at a few things, is that alright?” He waited for Shindia to nod before continuing. The healer held up a wooden tongue depressor. “Can you open your mouth wide and say ‘ah’?”
She did and he leaned in, analyzing her mouth. Her breath smelled sweet. He checked her eyes and held a few fingers to her neck to feel her pulse. It was weak.
“Have you eaten anything today?”
“I haven’t felt hungry.”
“Your mother said you got sick this morning. You haven’t been hungry since then?”
Shindia shook her head.
“Well, would you try eating something for me?”
The child shrugged, then nodded. Mateo looked to her mother. “Could she get a bit of bread? And water- has your family been drinking water? Can I see a cup of it?”
Nidiyna left to see to his request. Mateo tapped the tongue depressor idly against his palm, turning his attention back to the young girl.
“You know it’s very important when you’re sick that you get good food and drink.”
“I don’t want to throw it up again,” Shindia admitted to her doll. “It hurts.”
The healer nodded. “I understand. That’s why we’ll do just a little, and then you can tell me how you feel after that, okay?”
Nidiyna returned shortly with a slice of bread and glass of water. Mateo took both, scrutinizing them closely. He drew his handkerchief down to sniff at the bread and tore off a piece of it to analyze and taste. He took the water to a more direct source of light and pulled out a magnifying lens to inspect it as well. As Nidiyna watched the healer curiously he asked her a series of questions: Did the whole household eat this food? Yes. And did they all drink the same water? Yes. Did any of this recently come from a neighbor? No. Did either Nidiyna or Kareem feel any symptoms of illness? No. Did Shindia leave the house to play the other day or any time recently? No, she hasn’t left since quarantine. For his part, Mateo could not find anything amiss with either food or drink, so he offered both to Shindia and watched as the young girl delicately managed them.
“Do you have anything that she was sick on this morning? Clothes or bedding?” Mateo asked her mother. Nidiyna grimaced and shook her head.
“We sent it out this morning when the bell wagon came by. I didn’t want anything lingering.”
“Sorry, the bell wagon?” Mateo’s forehead wrinkled.
“She means the corpse collector,” Kareem’s voice came from the doorway. Mateo hadn’t noticed the man lingering. “It is just a more pleasant way to speak of her. She comes by every morning and you can hear the bell on her wagon ring. Families bring out their bodies or dirty clothes and items and she carts them away to the morgue and the furnaces.”
Mateo had all but forgotten the faint sound of a bell he’d thought he’d heard days ago, when first visiting Panella. “I see.”
“I’m sorry we did not keep anything,” Nidiyna bemoaned. “If we had known it could help-”
“No, you’re fine,” Mateo shook his head. “Please, don’t worry about it. You were right for not wanting to keep anything around that might spread the illness.” He chalked it up as another reason why he should pay a visit to the morgue. “Do you mind if I stay to watch Shindia for a while? I’d just like to keep an eye on her, maybe start offering some things to help her feel better.”
Nidiyna nodded ardently and Kareem agreed with a soft “Yes, please. Whatever you could do. Is there anything you need from us?”
“Nothing in the moment, thank you. I’ll let you know if something comes up.”
The healer stayed with the girl for the better part of the day. Though his intentions were mostly to observe, they still played together with Anya and he coaxed her into talking. She told him about her sister doll, and he found out about friends she had to stop seeing when the town grew cautious and closed, and learned how she wanted to grow up to be a tailor and practiced by making clothes for her toys. Mateo told her stories about his day-to-day life in the temple and did his best to keep them interesting for her young attention span.
“Do you see your family much?” Shindia asked, her voice stronger and more lively as she warmed to the healer. She especially liked it when he sat in the tiny chair, much to the chagrin of Mateo’s knees.
“Not since I moved to the temple, no,” he admitted. “They live far away and it’s difficult to travel to see them. We do try and write each other letters, though.”
“Have you helped very many people feel better?”
“As many as I can,” he assured with a hidden smile.
The healer made sure she ate and drank a little every few hours and asked her often how she was feeling, keeping notes all the while. Through all of it, the girl never reported any nausea or much pain, though she did admit it hurt to breathe now and again. Still, she was bright and attentive as they talked and played, and by the evening he noticed no downfall in her mood or condition. This was curious. All reports and accounts he currently had mentioned the illness progressed quickly. Though this was far too soon for him to tell if Shindia was doing better because of her care or due to the illness weakening, he still allowed the oddity to give him some hope for the girl.
As he packed to leave, Nidiyna suggested he stay for dinner. When he politely refused, Kareem insisted. “It’s the least we could do.” Mateo relented but found his appetite lacking. Neither were offended when he did not eat much.
The healer assured them he would return early the next day and requested that they try and keep anything for his examination if she became sick in the night. They agreed. He said goodnight to both Shindia and Anya and then went, leaving the home with every intention to return to the Wayward. He had plenty of new notes from the day to go over, and he wanted to make certain he’d not missed or overlooked anything.
The morgue loomed tall and imposing before him, its brick and mortar mass shadow-like against the backdrop of early night in the dark, quiet town. Smoke billowed lazily from three tall smokestacks, smelling ashen and woodsy with an underlying odor; like garbage tossed into a campfire. It did not carry the harsher scents Mateo associated with cremation, the more repugnant notes of burning hair and flesh. A morbid observation to some but an important one to the healer as he worked to figure out what the town was doing with their deceased.
If not burning, were they burying? Dosalda lacked a large plot within the town’s walls to handle so many bodies at once. Was there a mass grave somewhere? A place to drop the afflicted, all final preparations waived? Did catacombs stretch beneath the cobblestone streets? Did the morgue have allowances to travel beyond Dosalda’s walls for the sake of disposal? These questions brought him here, hoping their answers would give him insight into the spreading plague. Mateo stepped toward the heavy iron doors of the building, reaching out for them.
He gave one an exploring push. It opened, much to his surprise. Somehow he felt it should be barred off and locked up like so much else of the quarantined city, not open and inviting. The juxtaposition was almost a mockery.
Mateo drew back, gazing up at the intimidating building with secondary consideration. He could project so much onto it, so many emotions and feelings – inviting, frightening, malicious – but all of those thoughts only came from himself. A morgue was just a building, a place of service, of work. He was here because he knew that, because he was hoping it would offer him answers. Not just it, the building, but it, the people who worked there, whose jobs were to clean up during this town’s darkest times. Colorful adjectives like intimidating, like mocking, like welcoming, they did not belong in the moment.
The healer pressed into the iron door once more, and once more it opened, as a door should. Then he stepped through it and into the silent building.
It was dark inside, much darker than he felt it ought to be. Reflexive nature told him he should call out, to say a questioning greeting as he entered, to announce his arrival and treat this whole visit as the casual inquiry he reasoned it should be. But the darkness outside in the town and the darkness that greeted him within warned him to keep silent, to not announce himself. He felt he now walked the line of ‘welcomed’ and ‘trespassing’ and was not keen to learn which he would be received as. The healer shuffled quietly onward, moving through a broad corridor that led him to a square room.
The layout of the building was not quite what he expected. He should have ended up in a reception area or front desk, someplace ready to greet the public. Instead, the smallish room was nearly empty, lacking anything of service. The dim lighting came only from a single oil lantern mounted on the wall near him, but it was not enough to cast away the shadows that lined the room and cloaked its corners.
Across from him stood another set of heavy, broad iron doors, similar to the ones he’d passed through. Red light bled through the gap beneath them, spilling across the floor. There were two other doors in the room, one heading off to the left and the other to the right, and in comparison they were bland and ordinary, completely unassuming. Mateo made conscious thought to try them first. The red light ahead of him was compelling enough, certainly attention-grabbing, and it could easily be a hint of the furnaces he was most curious about, but those iron doors somehow felt so final. He reasoned that going through them now could risk overlooking any other smaller details.
Mateo headed to his right, moving carefully in the dark. He tried the knob of the simple wooden door. It didn’t budge. For a moment he thought back to the abandoned house and he lingered, holding the knob firmly, as though testing its resolve. A beat passed and he shook himself from the spell, turning to move for the one now across from him. It gave under his attempt, opening with a low creak.
The room it revealed was far more expansive and yet even darker than the false reception he currently stood in. This place was long and ward-like, stretching off to his right. Narrow windows, little more than open slots, ran along the wall across from him just below the ceiling, letting in whatever light still existed from the world outside. Their faint glow cut the room in dotted lines as they traveled the full length of the wall to the far end. Mateo stood still and silent in the doorway, waiting for his eyes to acclimate as he strained to make out the features of where he was.
Dozens of tables, divvied between two long rows, filed down the room. Their tops appeared to be carved from some form of polished stone, and Mateo noted they were quite cold to the touch as he placed a hand upon the nearest one. The entire room was chilled, certainly cooler than the evening outside, and the healer even noticed puffs of his own breath. He moved on through the room, flanked by tables as he walked between the rows, searching for anything of note.
Large, pale clothes draped across many of the tabletops. A few of them bulged, betraying something underneath. He closed in on the nearest one, eyeing the outline of what was very obviously a figure, even in the dim lighting. The healer reached to draw the linen back but hesitated, his fingertips just brushing the cloth. It felt wrong, dishonest somehow, having slipped in unannounced to look at bodies. He should have been by during the day when workers were present to greet him. Or earlier in the morning, when the bell wagon was out and doing its rounds so that he could speak to the collector when she returned. But he hadn’t done either of those. He was here now, in the dark, alone, and though the sensation felt dishonest, certainly there was no harm to be found in just looking. Mateo pinched the cloth carefully, drawing it back. Below it was the face of Toby, Panella’s brother-in-law.
Some people claimed the dead often looked like they were just sleeping, but Mateo knew that was due more to the mind’s desire to reject the notion of loss or its struggle with mortality. Toby looked unmistakably dead, and indeed, if Mateo were ever to see a sleeping person appear this way, he’d be immediately questioning their vitality. Toby lay with his eyes closed and his mouth slack, and even in the darkness Mateo could see the bluish tint of his lips and the paleness of his skin. He’d been stripped and the healer noted his body still had that odd, hollowed look to it, only now it was more prominent in his inanimate state.
Mateo set his pack beside him on the table, pulling out and donning his leather gloves. He pressed down on the deceased man’s chest with one hand, recalling the way it gave beneath him when he’d previously done so. The sternum had not so much bowed beneath the pressure, as though weakened, but instead had pushed down completely, like his ribs were little more than a collapsible box instead of a firm cage. It was the same this time, a response that did not seem right for a human body to have. Mateo pushed down again, using more force. The chest depressed further, again not bent or cracking. Then it shoved back, knocking against his hands with force.
Mateo withdrew immediately, startled by the response. In a second he shook his head, steadying himself with a deep breath. Gas buildup was natural in bodies. He’d likely just disturbed a pocket of it and the built-up pressure had shoved back against his touch. He gave the chest another press, and once more it gave under his hand. Then it pushed back, firm against his touch. Toby’s mouth opened wider, a wheeze escaping it.
The sound was unnerving but not particularly surprising. The deceased had their own assortment of odd shifts and groans they often performed, and they only grew more active when being handled. It reinforced his speculations of trapped air or gas, but the body did not look bloated otherwise. Mateo moved his prodding down to the stomach, curious to see how softer areas would respond. This time when he pressed in, he felt movement beneath his fingers. This time when he pulled back, his motions were more frantic and he knocked into the heavy table behind him.
Mateo chided himself for his nerves, embarrassed before the empty darkness. There was no excuse to be jumpy when dealing with a corpse – they were already dead, it wasn’t as though they could do anything more. The movement was likely maggots, though how quickly they’d appeared certainly led to a new line of questions in his mind. Momentarily removing his gloves, Mateo fished a leather bundle from his pack, turning to the empty table behind him.
He unrolled the bundle, revealing a line-up of assorted tools: Clamps, syringes, pliers, a small saw, and a collection of sharp knives. The healer selected a slim scalpel, its polished silver reflecting in the shaft of moonlight just overhead. He then drew his handkerchief from his pocket, tied it securely over his nose and mouth, and pulled the oiled leather gloves back on before returning his attention to the body.
Mateo poked, pressed, and pinched carefully before finally settling his hold on the cold flesh. With a steady hand he pierced the skin, cutting a long, thin line down the cadaver’s stomach. Setting his blade aside, his fingers slipped into the incision. Carefully he pulled the cut open.
Something did squirm within, but it was not maggots as Mateo had expected. No anticipated smell of rot or decay hit his nose and there was no metallic scent of coagulated blood. Perplexed, the healer reached in, pulled out one of the writhing forms, and held it up to his face for a better look. There in the darkness of the morgue, poised over a cold body, Mateo looked on in wonder at the long black worm that dangled and twisted in his fingers, its likeness almost identical to that of a large, fat nightcrawler.
A sound came from farther up the room, a dull thud like something heavy falling onto stone. Mateo lifted his head, placing the strange worm beside the corpse as his eyes scanned the darkness for movement. The vermin squirmed toward cold flesh, crawling its way back up and into the incision. Mateo lifted the cloth back over the body, a habit to try and leave things the way he’d found them, and quickly bundled up his tool kit, shoving it and the gloves back into his bag.
He gripped the strap of his pack, running his hand along it absently as he stepped away from the body. Again his mind was torn between calling out for an answer or remaining silent so as to not reveal himself. He started slowly up the aisle that ran between the two rows of tables, very aware of his footfalls, and made effort to keep them muted as he moved to explore the noise. All around him lay several other cloth-draped figures. Not every table was full, but certainly the majority were. Curiosity begged him to pause and investigate them, to look for signs of further decomposition and the oddity of the worms, but first he wanted to discover the cause of the noise. The dead were not going anywhere anytime soon.
Something at the far end of the room clicked, then creaked. Mateo stopped in his tracks. Red light flooded the end of the ward as a door opened far ahead. A figure stepped in, lithe and fair, wearing what looked to be a thin dress or gown that billowed and rippled around them. They glided into the darkness, their form illuminated by a dancing halo of red-orange light from the furnaces. Mateo held his breath. He watched as the stranger moved to a cloth-draped table and leaned over it. They did nothing that he could discern for a few seconds, then rose and drew back. Slowly, stiffly, the figure on the table sat upright, still covered head to toe in its shroud.
A chill ran up Mateo’s back.
The silhouette bathed in burning light turned, moving with ethereal grace as they stepped toward another table. Mateo’s throat tightened as he witnessed a second body sit up. Then another, this time without the presence of the stranger at its side. And then another, and more, body after body sitting up on their cold slabs, moving down the rows of tables toward the healer.
Mateo retreated backward, his caution of being silent and unseen wholly forgotten as his eyes darted between the bodies now animating around him. His scuffling footsteps echoed off stone walls, catching the ear of the alighted figure. Their head turned in his direction, eyeing the darkness that filled the ward beyond the red light. The healer turned completely, ready to run.
Something grabbed his arm, stopping him before he could even begin. A pale hand clutched at his sleeve. Mateo yelped, wrenching to try and break free, but the hand held strong. Slowly the corpse nearest to him sat up, the cloth that covered it slipping from its face. It was Toby, head still tilted back, mouth still hanging open. With a lurch, Toby’s head fell forward, his mouth closing with a hard crunch, and he turned closed eyes to the healer. Mateo cried out, yanking again in an attempt to free himself, but Toby held him like a vice.
The skin on Toby’s chest and stomach pulsed and moved. Cold flesh exposed stringy, unsettling outlines that churned and sank away again. The corpse leaned toward the healer, dragging him in closer with a firm pull. Mateo staggered, his struggle to escape overwhelmed by the unnatural strength of the dead thing. Toby’s mouth fell open. A stream of dark worms poured from it, writhing and coiling. Mateo screamed, an echoing noise that only grew louder as his own voice bounced between stone walls, raising to deafening levels, and the room filled with crimson light.
The healer jerked forward with a start, flailing and gasping. It took a minute for the fog in his mind to clear before he registered the bed he’d just been sleeping in. Stunned, he looked around in utter confusion, trying to make sense of his sudden awakening. His forearm ached, burning with the memory of his nightmare, and he squeezed it gingerly.
It had all just been a dream? Clearly here he was, sitting up in bed, trying to calm his racing heart in his rented room. On the end table nearby, his oil lamp flickered with a low wick, casting a sleepy red light with its small fire. Mateo let out a long, steadying breath, and frowned. The dream had felt far too real. He’d never experienced one that vivid before.
He fell back onto the bed, smoothing his palms over his eyes and forehead and into his hair where his fingers clutched and gripped as he worked to collect himself and his thoughts. What did he do when he left Nidiyna’s? He knew he’d thought about going to find the morgue, but he’d also thought about saving it for later, for when it was lighter out. So then he must have simply come back to the inn, right? Had he been so exhausted that he’d gone straight to bed? Had he shared another drink with Carmyle and the alcohol now afflicted his memory? He did have a mild headache. Mateo heaved a deep sigh, lowering his hands to his sides. He was a mess. Perhaps the stress of the plague was hitting him harder than he thought.
A noise from outside his door jarred him from his thoughts and he turned his head toward the sound. The gap near the floor was dark. The lamps must be out in the hallway. He turned to look back up to the ceiling but heard another creak and a shuffle. It sounded like someone was lingering just outside. His mind returned to the soft noise that’d come a previous night, the sound of a subtle creak just before the loud boom.
Already vexed by his startled awakening and lapse in memory, Mateo had no interest in sitting idly by as more oddities threatened to manifest around him. Spurred on by frustration, he tossed his blankets aside and pushed himself out of bed, heading over to the door. With no thought spared for hesitation, he grabbed the knob and threw it open.
The hall beyond was empty, though a rush of cold air met him and behind him, his oil lamp flickered. Mateo leaned his head out to look up the hall. No one was present and, just as he suspected, none of the lamps along the walls were lit. He turned to look down the other way. His grip on the knob tightened. Several doors down stood a figure.
Mateo did not recognize her, not from the few faces he’d seen around town. She stood still and silent, directly in front of another door, so close that her nose nearly brushed it. She was wearing a long, flowing dress, sheer and white, that appeared to glow in the lightless hallway. He debated on calling out, wanting to demand answers of who she was and where she’d come from even as his nerves warned him that perhaps he did not want to catch the attention of this stranger, but before he could settle on whether to shout or retreat quietly back to his bed, the woman took a step forward, moving straight through the closed door, and vanished into the room beyond it.
Mateo’s mouth fell open.
The healer whirled around, as though expecting to see himself still sleeping in his bed. Was this a dream again? Still? He looked back out into the now empty hallway. He did not know what to do. He did not realize how hard his hands were shaking until he released his grip from the doorknob and did not realize how weak his legs felt until he took a few small steps out into the hallway. He was jittery and anxious. He needed to make sense of what was happening, of these odd sightings and experiences he kept finding himself subjected to.
Mateo crept to the door the woman passed through. He paused outside it, hesitated, then leaned in, pressing his ear to the wood. He thought he could hear voices, though he could not make out words or tones. Everything was too muffled, too soft, too-
“What are you doing?” The venomous shout came from behind him. He cried out in alarm, staggering back into something sturdy, lost his balance, and crashed to the ground. With a mad scramble, he turned to look up, a mixture of shock and relief filling him as he recognized the familiar face of Sabbis glaring down at him in the darkness.
The rahkanna was clearly far less than happy at Mateo’s presence. Sabbis’ lips were curled in a snarl of sharp teeth and his long ears were folded back as his eyes narrowed into suspicious slits.
“Why do I find you prowling outside Carmyle’s room?” Sabbis hissed his demand again.
“I wasn’t- I’m not-” Mateo stammered.
The door behind him threw open and Carmyle leaned out. She wore a long shirt with loose pants and her hair was tussled. She looked as though she’d just been woken from sound slumber.
“What’s going on? What’s all the commotion about? Sabbis?” She’d not yet noticed the man on the floor.
“I found this one stalking outside your door,” Sabbis hissed venomously as he pointed a clawed finger down at Mateo. “I knew there was something odd about him!”
“I- Wait, excuse me?” Mateo sputtered up at the accusatory rahkanna. “You knew what?”
“Sabbis, calm,” Carmyle sounded like she was still half-asleep, unable to muster patience for her angry companion. “Mateo?” She finally looked down, her forehead knitting as she pondered the man at her feet. “Why are you on the ground?”
“Because Sabbis startled me,” Mateo answered sheepishly. His cheeks were starting to burn.
“Hey. Get up.” Carmyle reached a hand down to the healer. Mateo took it and she helped him to his feet. “Sabbis, get your hissy-fit back into bed. Mateo, are you alright?”
“I… don’t know,” Mateo admitted. He tried to sneak a glimpse over Carmyle’s shoulder into her room, eyes searching for any sign of the unknown woman. From what he could see, no one was there. He turned his gaze back to Carmyle, feeling ashamed and embarrassed as she looked him over with confusion and concern.
“I don’t know. There’s just been a lot of-” He paused as another thought interrupted him. “Um, Carmyle? Did we have any drinks tonight or anything?”
“Drinks?” The woman raised an eyebrow. “Naw, you came back in from your work and went straight to your room. I asked if you wanted to play darts but you weren’t interested, remember?”
“Yes...” Mateo agreed, as though the lie might jog his memory. He shook his head, drawing a blank. “No, actually. No, I don’t remember.”
“You should probably get back to sleep.” Carmyle gave his shoulder a firm pat. “You really sound like you could use it.”
“Yeah, I- think you’re right.” Mateo agreed once again, though this time with more honesty. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be back in his bed, trying to settle his mind. “I’m- I’m sorry I… woke you up by standing outside your door.”
Carmyle smirked, the expression exhausted. “You didn’t wake me up, Sabbis’ shouting did.”
“Well, I’m sorry I made Sabbis shout at me by standing outside your door,” Mateo offered. He frowned, something in the moment still nagging at his mind. Mentally he shifted through a jumble of notes – memories, confusions, thoughts, and dreams. “But I thought you and Sabbis shared a room? You said you couldn’t hear much over his snoring?”
“Yeah, that’s why I chased him away into his own,” Carmyle flashed him a grin. “It’s not like Barnen didn’t have rooms to spare, right? Now come on. I want to get back to sleep. You should, too.”
Mateo nodded. As Carmyle disappeared behind her door, the healer turned and sheepishly headed back to his room, head ducked down and eyes cast to the floor. Sabbis was already gone, likely slipped away while the two of them had been talking.
Back in the isolation of his room, he let out a sigh and stared over at his bed. Sleep would be good, as long as ridiculous nightmares weren’t going to wake him back up. In the morning he would reset his focus on Shindia. Having her in mind while he puzzled over the illness would help him forget the strangeness of the night. And perhaps he would take an actual trip to the morgue, preferably sometime in daylight. At least visiting the real building and seeing how it differed from the one in his dream would help to put his mind at ease.