Hospitals did not exist. At least not in the way that Alyssa thought of them. To her, a hospital was a big building with patients inside. Said patients generally received care for injuries and illnesses. When they couldn’t get treatment, they were made comfortable as long as possible. Dozens of doctors and nurses would run around trying to deduce and fix problems, each with their own specialties ranging from brain surgeries to general practices.
Nothing like that existed within Lyria or, as far as she could tell, the whole world. Tzheitza had looked almost confused when Alyssa had been describing modern hospitals. Sick or injured people here either had their own home remedies that had been passed down through their family, usually some herbal treatments or religious prayer, or they went to people like Tzheitza. While potions could have a wide variety of effects from freezing a room to a gas that would corrode anything it touched, the majority of a potioneer’s clientele bought medicinal products.
A fair amount of what Tzheitza made were just placebos; mashed earthworms applied to a bruise every morning for a week wasn’t going to do anything that time didn’t already have in hand, but it made people think they had control over their own healing. However, she had a number of actual cures as well, that blue potion that fixed her bones and flesh among them. Tzheitza, all on her own, had apparently invented a paste that numbed the mouth, making her an extremely popular person to go to when people needed rotten teeth pulled.
There were magical cures as well, though it seemed that healing spells tended to work more on sickness than injury. The spells were Rank Five and up as well, making them both rare and far more expensive than the potions Tzheitza could offer. So most people stuck with potion makers or home remedies no matter what.
Which was all well and good, except it meant that people who succumbed to their injuries and illnesses did so inside their homes, rather than a singular location somewhere in the city. Just wandering aimlessly wouldn’t get her any closer to finding Tenebrael. Maybe someone would die while she was out, but probably not. Even if they did, that angel could easily pop into being inside the home without any sign that she was there, leaving Alyssa to walk right past unknowingly.
There were a few… compounds outside the city that did have sick people. Bedehouses. Some kind of cross between a hospital and a church where the only cure was prayer. Few actually walked out. Apparently the ill were less patients and more inmates. The only care they got was after death. Heavily cloaked and masked workers went in periodically and dragged out the bodies to be burned.
It sounded like exactly what Alyssa needed. Except…
“Do not go to the bedehouse, Alyssa. Do you understand me? Am I speaking clear enough for you?”
“You don’t have to talk like that if you don’t want to, Tzheitza. I can understand you. Most of the time.”
Tzheitza reached out, clapping a hand down on Alyssa’s shoulder. Her thumb pressed hard into Alyssa’s clavicle. “I speak clearly because I worry you are considering something foolish. Entering the bedehouse is akin to putting your head in a dragon’s maw. Maybe it ain’t gonna bite down, but do you want to take that chance? It is a domain of despair. No one within has any hope. It ain’t a sight ye want to see. Trust me.”
Dead bodies disturbed Alyssa. They probably did the same to just about anyone. But she could stomach it. She had to. Watching someone die would probably be easier without her being the one to kill them. And sick people who were dying anyway and couldn’t have anything done for them might take some solace in knowing that their deaths would have worth to at least one person. Which was an extremely morbid way to think about it… but it wasn’t like Alyssa could help them. She didn’t know how to make potions. Trying to cast magic meant to cure them might just kill them with the strange way some magics acted around her. Maybe mundane penicillin or vaccines could help, but she didn’t know how to make those either. If she had her phone back and could find guides on the internet, she might be able to help. But it was a catch twenty-two. No phone without dead people. No cure for dying people without her phone.
Tzheitza increased the pressure on Alyssa’s shoulder, eliciting a wince. “I see you there, thinking about ignoring me. If you go to a bedehouse, you won’t be allowed in my shop again. I won’t allow it. Ye haberin fool will get my shop condemned as a plague house. Wind up with gettin me killed too.”
All thoughts of leaving for a bedehouse fell by the wayside as Tzheitza let go of Alyssa’s shoulder. She rubbed at it a little, but only idly. Her thoughts were solely on what the potioneer said. “Is it really that bad?”
“Oh, aye. It’s that bad. Ye walked around the city. Ye’ve seen the buildings with the metal shutters blocking off windows and doors. Like that fake house ye followed that ganger into.”
Having spent a week delivering potions for Tzheitza, Alyssa actually had a decent exploratory coverage over the city. There had been a few buildings like that. Most of them had been in the poorer northern and western sections of the city, but she distinctly remembered that one building down the market alley. That had been in the more affluent part of the eastern districts, though that alley hadn’t been the brightest place.
“Those are plague houses. When someone first gets sick, they might be able to hide it and avoid going to a bedehouse. But the later stages always turn… gruesome. Entire families have been sealed off from the outside world. Adults. Children. Doesn’t matter. If there is even a chance of late-stage infection, they’ll be locked up for months just to ensure that everything inside is dead. Either an arcanist or my potions will raze the building after, just to be doubly sure that the dead stay dead. Otherwise… ye heard of Owlcroft?”
“Of course not.” Tzheitza spoke as if she had expected that answer. Which she should have since Alyssa had explicitly told her that she was from far away. “It used to be one of the largest farmsteads, just over west of Lyria. Used to. We don’t go there anymore. In the span of a week, the plague infected all two-hundred farmhands and spread to two neighboring villages after deliveries of food reached them. If an outbreak happened in the city, it would be a disaster.”
“Wait. Stop for one second. You said you have to make sure that the dead stay dead. Are you telling me… there are zombies wandering around a giant farm?”
Tzheitza shook her head. “Necromancers raise zombies all the time. No big deal. Not always enemies, but easy to deal with if they are. No. The plague doesn’t raise the dead. But it doesn’t kill everyone infected. It’s the ones that survive the initial infection that you have to worry about. They begin calling to Her.”
That was the part where she stopped talking. That part. Possibly the most important part. Alyssa mentally groaned. This was going to be another one of those things that everyone knew about but she had to ask. For a moment, she considered not asking. Irulon knew that she wasn’t from this world now. Asking her about common knowledge wouldn’t be strange in the slightest. But who knew when they would next meet. Alyssa wasn’t really planning on heading over to the Observatorium until she either had a phone or properly working hands. The bee oil, or whatever it was that Tzheitza had been treating her burns with, was working marvelously, but not fast enough for her tastes. The Taker could be after her right this moment and she still couldn’t effectively fight him off. Though she had reequipped her pistols, just in case.
So, not wanting the curiosity hanging over her until she could find Irulon, Alyssa looked up to Tzheitza and said, “Her?”
“Figures ye don’t know.” Tzheitza picked up a stone mortar that she had been using to grind a black feather into powder before grabbing Alyssa’s shoulder. Even though it looked like fine dust, she still picked up the pestle and started grinding more. “Her. The Demon of the Underworld. Just speaking Her name can be dangerous. Owlcroft is now a black pit leading directly to the Underworld thanks to the plague—Her plague. Arcanists are trying to close it, but I don’t think they’ve succeeded so far. Don’t help none that lesser demons keep climbing out to attack anything in sight.”
“So demons come from the Underworld.” Although Irulon had insisted that Alyssa had come from there, she had never actually asked what the place was. So it was basically Hell? Alyssa opened her mouth to ask if demons were always completely evil, only to realize that an answer from Tzheitza would undoubtedly be biased. Asking Kasita would probably give her a more accurate answer. “And this Her is their queen or god or something?”
“Or something,” Tzheitza grumbled. “One of the original Monster Lords. Escaped the First City’s destruction because she and her kind get along with other monsters about as well as they get along with humans.”
“Not at all, I take it.”
“An understatement. There was a war between Her and the Monster Lords that resulted in Her being banished to the Underworld. She’s been trying to escape ever since. The plague opening the pit was seen as a sign of the end times… but nothing has come of it so far. She hasn’t climbed out like her minions. No one knows why, but no one wants to risk another pit opening.”
“Hasn’t because she won’t or because she can’t?”
“A question for them arcanists, not me. All I know is that the guild was hired to send a team down. None of them returned… human. All exhibited signs of the plague, though not the deadly version.”
“Changed to demons. And they were killed?”
Tzheitza’s hands stilled. It only lasted a moment. If Alyssa hadn’t been paying attention, she might not have noticed the brief pause in the grinding noise. A deep breath followed that pause. “It was one of my last duties before I retired. That might have been where Tommik became the Taker… the look on his face as he ignored their begging…” She took in a sharp breath, scrunching up her lips like she had licked a particularly sour lemon. “Though none of us realized at the time.”
Alyssa kept carefully still. There were at least three different bombs in that one sentence and she wasn’t sure she wanted to comment on any of them. First, being told to kill what would undoubtedly be former comrades. The Taker had apparently enjoyed it a bit too much. And… they had begged? Had they been in the process of changing into something more monstrous? Or were they fully aware humans whose bodies had somehow been changed but were otherwise the same. That might be a question that Tzheitza asked herself. Alyssa kept her mouth shut. Not wanting to bring up bad memories, she changed the topic slightly.
“But wait, if survivors of this plague try to… summon this Her or whatever, why are they kept alive in the bedehouse? Similarly, why are they locked up inside their houses instead of being killed?”
“The plague, when it doesn’t kill them, changes them. Partially demonic. Hard to kill. Easier to starve. Worse, arcanists like to poke at them. Hence the bedehouse.” Her grinding stopped. “Haberin idiots.”
“How does the plague spread?” Alyssa asked, a bad feeling welling. “Is it airborne? Blood contact? Saliva or other mucus? Sexual? Fleas or parasites?”
Tzheitza shook her head.
“You don’t know.” Maybe it was none of the above. A magical plague could spread through magic. Through some esoteric whims of the creator. “Would it be bad if I had seen one of these metal shutters pried back, blood and meat leaking from the hole, and a dog eating said blood and meat?”
Whirling around, Tzheitza dropped the mortar, spilling a bit of the black powder as it hit the counter top. “Did—Did it touch ye. Did ye touch it?”
“No! No. The dog ran off down the alley.”
“The market in the eastern section of the city, down a back alley. Right next door to a place called Madame Webb’s Fine Threads… which was a nightmare to find, but it was right across the way from another tailor shop… uh. Clot’s Cloths? Or something like that. I saw it the day I brought Cid back here.” It felt like forever ago, but it had really only been two days.
Tzheitza grabbed a jar off the shelf and quickly dumped the feather powder into it. As soon as she sealed the top, she grabbed her potion bandoleer. “Wait here. I will be back soon.”
“Where are you going?”
“Need to alert the guard of a containment breach.”
“Shouldn’t I come show you where it was?”
“They’ll know. Ain’t so many plague houses that ye have to lead us around. Especially among the rich. Just stay away from any plague houses and the bedehouses. Ye should stick back and slather some ointment on yer burns.”
She left. Bandoleer over her shoulder, Tzheitza slipped into a pair of boots and trudged out of the potion shop at speed. Given that it was still right in the middle of the day, prime time for customers to meander in, this was probably something that Alyssa should have mentioned the other day.
But how could I have known.
Every time she found out something new about this world, whether it was the plague, the gang, the murderers involved with the gang, the slaves both state-sponsored and underground—the stupid angel getting worshiped, or any number of other things, every time something new popped up it just ticked her off more. Someone really needed to fix everything. Theoretically, Alyssa had at least some of Irulon’s ear… but the princess was a monster in human skin. Even if Alyssa went and drafted up some societal reforms, it was doubtful that Irulon would listen. At least, not so long as it didn’t benefit her in some way.
Irulon had older brothers and a father as well, all of whom seemed to have more of a direct handle on actually managing their people. But honestly, they didn’t seem all that great either. Brakkt dressed like an evil overlord and had threatened torture and death upon an otherwise innocent fairy. Maybe that was warranted, maybe not. Irulon’s other brothers, Alyssa didn’t know much about, but she did know that at least one younger sibling was absolutely insane and actually looked up to one of the more prolific murderers in the city. Their father had several wives. Possibly as many as one wife per child. And that was literally all Alyssa knew about the man who supposedly presided over all others. That might be a good thing. Or, at least, not a bad thing. Polygamy offended her sensibilities, but it was perfectly normal here for all she knew. However, the fact that she knew nothing else about the city’s ruler probably meant that he wasn’t all that invested in the people, content to sit atop the palace and play the fiddle as the city burned down around him.
That might be a bit melodramatic. Really, Alyssa was just irritated with it all. There were nobles, but she didn’t have any evidence that they would be any better. Rather the opposite. Aziz had been a noble before his death. One that had been kicked out of his house for being bad at magic. That didn’t exactly speak to a kind and compassionate family.
“You haven’t moved for nearly three minutes now. Something on your mind?”
Turning, Alyssa found Kasita leaning against the front counter. Or rather, she didn’t so much as lean as she draped herself over it. Her mannerisms were strange as always. Dragging her finger through some of the spilled powder, it disappeared as if she were a vacuum cleaner. Holding that same finger over the mortar and pestle, the black dust just fell from inside her skin, rejoining the rest.
Alyssa raised an eyebrow, but answered her question as well. “I am just frustrated. I have all these assumptions about how the world should work, but every little thing that crops up just throws my assumptions in my face.” Taking a deep breath through her nose, Alyssa let it out slowly. “Did you find anything?”
“Don’t want to talk about your problems? And, more importantly, what you are going to do to rectify them?”
“That’s just the thing. I don’t know what I can do. So no. I would rather focus on problems I can solve. Like reacquiring my cell phone. Asking Tzheitza about hospitals was pretty much a bust, though apparently there is a plague ridden hospice outside the city if I get desperate. So please tell me that you had a bit more luck.”
“Ufu~ I don’t know how much luck factors into it. I merely used logic and deduction to make my own luck, I suppose.”
Alyssa looked up, excited for the first time since Tzheitza said that she had no idea what a hospital was. “Well?”
“I’m not sure if you know this, but a week ago, there was a rather large battle. A battle in which several people were injured. Their injuries ranged from minor scrapes, knocks on the head, broken bones, all the way to deep gouges, amputated limbs, and heavy infection. The city is trying to treat the survivors at a large camp near the Northgate Barracks. A good number have already been released… or have already died. But it was a large battle and there were many injured. Two succumbed to their wounds while I was there earlier today and one other looked pretty close.”
“That’s great news!” Alyssa said before she could actually think about what she said. “I mean… for us. Not so much… You know what? Never mind.” Thinking about it a moment longer gave her a queasy feeling in her stomach, but she couldn’t let that stop her. “Shall we head over now?” Hopefully someone would die soon. Or… Alyssa couldn’t help but scowl at herself. She felt guilty for looking forward to someone’s death.
Kasita turned away from Alyssa, glancing around the shop. “Alone?”
“You are coming too, aren’t you?”
“If the Taker returns, I won’t be much of a defense for you. His blades will pass through my form with little resistance. Perhaps it would be best to recruit one of the humans? Where did that potion lady go? Or Oz?”
“Tzheitza ran off to deal with some plague thing. And I’d rather keep them out of the Tenebrael matters as much as possible. Heresy and all that.”
“The shop is probably being watched. They’ll know we left.”
“Northgate Barracks is a military instillation and isn’t far. There will be plenty of guards around. If Waters Street wants to attack there, tell them to be my guests. I’ll leave a note for Tzheitza telling her where we went.”
“If you’re sure…” Kasita hesitated a moment, giving time for Alyssa to say something. But the air remained silent. Nodding her head and shoving off from the counter, the mimic said, “Very well. I had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to return. I was in the room with the second man when he died. Just like the other night, I could feel something. Some presence in the air. I couldn’t see it the way you see things, but it was there. Only spent a second in the room—I barely realized it was there before it was gone, though I did try to call out. Nothing answered.”
“Yeah, well, Tenebrael is a bitch.”