Every inch of the healer was sore as he came to with a groan. His head was pounding and pain shot along his impacted arm from the way it was pulled and distorted behind him. He rolled his head from side to side and slowly opened his eyes.
He was back in the tavern, though not in his own room. His arms were bound behind him and his legs were roped to the chair he found himself in, keeping him from being able to struggle or move much.
“So this sort of happened sooner than I was expecting,” he could hear Carmyle before he could see her. Boot steps sounded around him and she circled into view, wringing a towel in her hands before she ran it along the leather that covered her forearms. It was smeared with stains of red and gorish brown. The woman in the gown was sitting on the bed again, smiling pleasantly with an otherworldly sense to her as she watched. Sabbis was off to the side, arms folded over his chest which was now closed in a more healthy and natural manner.
“I mean,” Carmyle continued, “I thought it would be soon but I was still going to give it another day or two, you know? I didn’t expect you to walk in on me while I was emending Sabbis and all.”
“What is going on here?” Mateo asked, his voice weak and quivering. His mouth felt dry and it was hard to talk without coughing. Just to his right he could see a raised basin. Worms writhed and coiled within it, moving through a black mud.
Carmyle laughed his question off.
“Oh, no. No no, that is way beyond what we’re going to get into. Too much, you know...” she tossed aside her soiled towel and grabbed an empty chair, pulling it up before Mateo as she took a seat across from him. She turned her attention to working off her left glove, carefully peeling it down from above her elbow. “… too much history wrapped up in all of this, and so many tangents, this and that. All that matters is I came here to perfect my art and now I think I’ve finally done it!” She gave Mateo an accomplished smile as she slipped the glove from her hand and dropped it into her lap.
“What… art?” Mateo asked, his eyes darting around the room. To his left there was a table, a small knife rested atop it. It looked to be carved from bone. His throat tightened and he felt his stomach twist.
“Oh! Hold on, there’s a name for it.” Carmyle snapped her fingers as she worked to recall the term momentarily lost to her. “Something something, art of death… Familiar!” She turned her head to regard the woman sitting on the bed. “What’s the word again?”
“Necromancy?” The woman in the gown offered, her smile unfaltering, laughter hanging at the edge of her voice.
“Yeah, that’s it!” Carmyle returned her grin to Mateo. “Necromancy! I preserve the dead.” She reached out with her ungloved hand and took a fistful of mud and worms from the basin. “And then I make them perfect. To the point where you would never know.” She smiled broadly at Mateo, clearly prideful of her art. The healer watched as worms crawled through her fingers and tumbled back into the basin.
“So… wait...” Mateo murmured out weakly, her statement connecting thoughts in ways he now regretted. “Shindia… I did see her die, didn’t I? And Toby… at the morgue?” He stared dumbfounded at the woman across from him. “Did you craft this plague?”
“Well I needed somewhere to work and I needed a lot of subjects to work on if I was going to get it right,” Carmyle stated and dropped her handful back into the basin. She shrugged her shoulders as she flicked her fingers clean. “The most fickle thing about what I do is I can make the body look completely unaffected but I lose something in the personality. The demons can only work with what they have, so-”
“Demons?” Mateo repeated. He’d never heard of such a thing. “What...” He looked to the worms again.
“Yeeaah, yeah! You’re getting it!” Carmyle encouraged him like a teacher to a child. “See? You didn’t need the whole story! Anyway,” she continued, so calm and casual in the face of his panic and fear. “The demons can only work with what they have, and so much of the personality is wrapped up in the soul.” She brought her gloved hand to her chest as though she were referencing an organ that rested there. As a man of Gah’lia, Mateo understood concepts of the soul. As a healer and practicing doctor, he also understood that it was not such a physical thing.
“And the problem always is, when someone dies,” Carmyle opened her hand and threw it forward, as though tossing something from her grip. “Whoosh! There it goes! Bye bye, soul! So I was having to find ways to, you know, sort of… kill the body without the soul realizing it should be going somewhere. That way it would linger long enough for the demons to nab!”
“What do they...” Mateo hesitated, certain he did not want to know the answer to his question. “… do with it? With the soul?”
“Oh,” Carmyle casually reached for the knife, grabbing it off the table as she turned her attention to her bare hand. “They consume it. Gotta pull something apart to really know how it works, right? Shame I guess but it’s the only way to really perfect the mimic.” She motioned with a nod over to the rahkanna that stood nearby.
“Sabbis was one of my first attempts at a more complex copy, but I didn’t really know about all that soul stuff back then. I was just a baaaby,” she chided herself playfully. “Plus I was still getting better at the whole ‘preservation’ deal. He still needs a little mending and adjustments from time to time because of it and he won’t ever perfectly be who Sabbis was but… meh. He keeps the grumpy attitude and that’s basically close enough.”
She brought the tip of the knife to her pointer finger and pressed it to her flesh until red beaded against the blade. When she drew it away the blood pulled out into the air, lingering impossibly like a long thread.
Mateo jerked at his bonds, challenging them, until the harsh pain of his shoulder forced him to stop with a low cry. The motion rattled and shuffled his chair but did nothing else.
“Don’t,” Carmyle said, sounding bored. Her attention was focused now on the strand of her own blood as it hovered in the air, and she weaved the bone knife in and out around it, periodically returning to her fingertip to draw more out. The act was not unlike watching someone sew.
“Anyway, so the good news is I’ve gotten better since Sabbis. The bad news is I’m still having trouble tricking the soul into sticking around, so a lot of this town is pretty close to perfect but there are still so many just missing a… hmm, a little something.”
Mateo recalled how Panella and her family did not recognize him and the way Shindia avoided the question about Anya. He swallowed as he felt a queasy sensation settle in his stomach and throat.
“The best news, however, is that when you showed up, it got us looking into Gah’lia. Because honestly, we hadn’t thought about Her or Her followers up until now? I mean,” Carmyle leaned back as she worked, holding casual conversation while strands of blood took shape in the air before her. “In hindsight, that maybe seems a little silly, but honestly it’s just that you all don’t...” she paused from her blood-weaving and turned to Mateo, wiggling her fingers at him as she searched for the words she wanted. “You’re not… There’s just not a lot of you, you know? The Goddess was sort of way below what we figured we needed to worry about. But then you did it, you showed up! And we were all like ‘Oop, guess we need to look into this Goddess stuff now after all!’ and I’m so glad we did! Because as it turns out? You guys are the perfect subjects for this!” She fixed Mateo with a broad, appraising grin. He felt only cold dread.
“What… what do you mean?” He asked weakly.
“See, the real issue with when people die and their soul pops out,” Carmyle turned her attention back to her dagger, swirling it through the air. Blood coiled around it in a continuous strand, weaving intricately with impossible detail along the bone blade, “isn’t the soul part itself. It’s the fact that Omed’ra has this um…” She paused again, moving her knife in a circular motion as she thought. “Has this… Familiar!” Once more her head turned toward the woman on the bed. “What’s that thing called? It’s that stupid bird with the interesting name you’re always talking about!”
“A Warden,” Familiar responded warmly, her eyes sparkling brilliantly as she smiled.
“Yes! A Warden!” Carmyle turned her expression back to Mateo, her face bright and excited. “It shows up every time the soul is out and scoops it away before we can catch it! But Gah’lia doesn’t have one of those!”
In a fast motion she plunged the dagger into Mateo’s chest. He cried out at the intense pain, his body jerking in its restraints. At the same time Carmyle pulled her bare hand from the hilt of the blade and reached into the basin, grabbing up a handful of mud and worms. She slammed her hand over the healer’s open mouth and Mateo choked and wretched as he tasted dirt and felt the squirming creatures delve into his throat. Carmyle kept her hold firmly over his mouth as she waited, shoving the healer’s head back in a way that made it nearly impossible for him to struggle. Tears welled in his eyes and he tried to draw in frantic breaths through his nose as muck quickly filled his airways.
“That means no one whisks your soul away and we have all the time we need to make you into the truly perfect imitation,” Carmyle’s voice was low and warm, full of fondness at the thought of her creation. “You’re going to be my masterpiece, Mateo! No offense, Sabbis.” The cat man hissed from where he stood near the wall but said nothing more as he watched.
Mateo jerked and thrashed futilely, drowning in mud and worms as his uncontrolled gasps for air pulled more and more of the black sludge into his lungs. He grew colder as red streamed out around the dagger hilted in his chest. From the bedside the beautiful woman in the long white gown watched with pride and adoration as Carmyle held him down until he went still and struggled no longer.
White limestone-covered walls rose up into the sky, reflecting the rays of the setting sun which painted it in all the splendor of the evening colors. Vibrant oranges and reds, deep purples swirling in its shadows, the Temple of Gah’lia stood with all its recognized majesty and strength as it was approached by the cloaked figure that walked down the dirt road toward it.
Doors pulled open before him and Mateo reached up to draw back the hood of his cloak, casting a look at the attendant who welcomed him in with a nod.
“Mateo Gulverres, you’ve returned from your journey out.” The older woman smiled at him. “Were you successful in learning much of the plague that ailed Dosalda?”
“Yes,” Mateo answered softly, his hand moving to squeeze the strap of his medical pack as it hung from his shoulder. “Servator Alegra, I need a moment to speak with the head priestess. Is she available?”
“Priestess Malursa is busy with her lectures at this time,” the Servator informed him warmly. “You’ve had a long trip, Mateo. Why don’t you help yourself to the dining hall and rest in your quarters? I’ll have someone send for you as soon as she’s available.”
“Yes, thank you,” Mateo agreed with a nod, both hands now gently wringing the strap of his pack. “I will do that. It’s been… a long journey.”
The Servator watched him go as she closed the main doors behind him and returned to her post.
Mateo did not head to the dining hall to eat. His footsteps retraced paths that he knew were familiar to his history and he moved without hesitation in his steps. It was natural to lift his head and observe the alabaster carvings and intricacies that were displayed through the halls as he traveled. It was natural to smile and drop his gaze again as others passed by. It was natural to squeeze the strap of his pack or run his fingers over the fabric of his cloak as he walked. He did all the things that felt natural in motion, in memory.
When he arrived at his room, the roommate that he shared his space with was already out for the day, leaving Mateo the place to himself. He pulled his cloak off and slipped his medical pack from his shoulder, setting it down at the foot of his bed. Then he sat on the edge of his cot and reached into his pocket to pull out the medallion decorated with Gah’lia’s holy symbol.
The mass inside writhed and squirmed. It was amused, darkly entertained. Inwardly it was allowed to feel these emotions. Outwardly it displayed the nature of the body’s original state, pulling from memories, both of the muscles and of the mind. Mateo slipped the symbol back into his pocket. It would not have been of his nature to toss it aside, and so the mass within did not follow through with the thought. They were denied certain freedoms in this way.
Eventually another arrived for Mateo and he was led to a room his memories only harbored one or two recollections of. The office of the Head Priestess was decorated but not lavish. She often kept memorabilia of people she’d met and places she’d been, and so beautiful knickknacks of carved figurines, decorative beaded works, and vivid cloths and tapestries brought the room to life with unspoken history and implied stories. The Priestess Malursa herself stood awaiting Mateo, long robes of white and scarlet adorning her and her dark hair was pulled back tightly in braided rows and suspended with fastenings of polished stone that shone like fine jewelry. She smiled at him as he entered.
“Healer Gulverres,” her voice was soft and warm, a higher register but rich and full all the same, not airy. “It’s good to see you. I understand the quarantine would have made it difficult to send letters of your progress, but as you are before me once more, I must assume you were successful in your task?”
“I have learned much while I was at Dosalda,” Mateo nodded, resting his eyes on the priestess. It was natural to look at her as he spoke to her. “The plague has subsided and Dosalda’s gates are once more open for travel and trade.”
“That is very good to hear,” Priestess Malursa praised warmly. “Where you successful in finding a treatment for it, then?”
“Not so much, Head Priestess,” Mateo admitted with a grimace. “The plague more so… ran its course while I was present. I did get valuable information,” he briefly held aloft the journal he carried clutched in his hands, “but its sudden coming and going still troubles me. I was hoping for your blessing that I may continue my absence from the Temple to try and track down the plague’s source or find any sign of it arising elsewhere.”
The Head Priestess frowned but nodded at her Healer’s request.
“If the Goddess calls for your path to lead you out into the world, then I am not the one who will stand in your way. Please speak to the Servators to gather what supplies you need before you go.”
Mateo nodded his gratitude.
“Thank you, Head Priestess.”
“Goddess guide and keep you, Healer Gulverres,” Priestess Malursa bade him farewell. Mateo gave his thanks once more and left.
Carmyle lounged in the cold grass, eyes closed as she breathed in the cool night air. Familiar hummed and sang a pleasant tune that she recalled from her childhood. Sabbis sat upon the back of his horse, staring sentinel down the roadway to the grand building in the distance.
“He returns,” the rahkanna hissed just as Carmyle felt herself dozing off. She pushed herself up into a seated position, blinking rapidly before letting out a yawn and stretched. The humming ceased as Mateo walked into view and she stood and grinned, welcoming his approach.
“And you made it back out,” Carmyle stated as the healer arrived with a sack over his shoulder. “How did it go? Any odd looks? Did we get any hiccups?” She took his face in her hands and tilted him this way and that, looking him over as if for seams or imperfections. She even went so far as to pull his mouth open and glance inside, like checking the teeth of a horse. “I know you all crawl up here sometimes if you’re not seated well.”
“Nothing odd that I could tell,” Mateo told her softly, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth once his face was his own again to contort and control. “Names and faces are clear. Everything felt like retracing a memory.”
“My masterpiece,” Carmyle appraised proudly. Familiar smiled. Sabbis rolled his eyes and grumbled out a gravely hiss.
“Alright, everyone, back on the horses.” In a snap Carmyle’s tone changed, her words commanding, her mind focused. “We’ve dallied enough! It’s time to get serious.” She climbed onto the back of her dark steed as Mateo tied his pack to the saddle of his own white horse. Familiar smiled adoringly up at her with eyes that shone in the light of the three moons.
“My sweet flower girl, you are finally becoming.” She praised warmly with a voice that sang like songbirds and bubbled like a babbling brook.
“I’m just getting started,” Carmyle responded with a wink and grinned. She pulled on the reins of her horse, drawing it back into a rear with a bugling neigh, and as Familiar took a seat behind Sabbis the trio of beasts rode off into the night, unfaltering in stride and untiring in endurance.