“Stop stop stop! What are you doing?” Alyssa tugged at her hair, feeling like she was going insane. “You just changed his bandages! He has a festering, pus-filled wound! You didn’t even rinse off your hands before going to tend to the next poor man.”
Everything about this place reeked of the start of an epidemic. Figuratively and just possibly literally. The field hospital, which definitely was not worthy of the name, was little more than a single-room building with a dirt floor. Honestly, it looked like they had taken over some stables and hadn’t bothered cleaning before kicking the horses out. The floor was dirt and half the injured were lying on beds of straw that looked more like feeding troughs. The other half were lying straight on the floor. Apparently there were not enough beds to go around.
Not hygienic in the slightest. Though honestly, the beds were far from the worst part about the hospital. Neither was the fetid stench. She didn’t know how these people, doctors or patients, could stand to stay in the room. It did not have enough ventilation.
First of all, the injured men outnumbered the makeshift beds. Maybe thirty of the hay-stuffed troughs were spaced around the room. There was about a person and a half for each. Roughly forty to fifty people lay in varying states of health on the dirt floor. Many, especially those on the floor, had ragged blankets wrapped around them. Being right in the middle of the day, Alyssa didn’t know how they could stand that. The wooden building did little to keep out the heat of the sun. Once it turned night, the walls probably wouldn’t do much to keep in the heat.
From what she could tell, there was an average of three limbs per person in this room. And that included herself, Kasita, and the doctors in the average.
One man who had some wrappings tied around his bare chest turned on his side and spewed out brownish red liquid from his mouth, filling the room with a vile odor. It splashed onto a spot on the floor that clearly had seen such an occurrence before. Another man on the floor, already significantly closer to the next bed over, pressed himself up against the wooden sides of another bed to get as far away from the vomiting man as possible. As for the vomiting man, Alyssa didn’t know what was wrong with him. He had a thick layer of sweat covering every bit of exposed skin. The bandages around his waist and chest had clearly been white at one point in time, but were now encrusted with an orange color with whatever bodily fluids had seeped into them. His arms were withered almost to the point of being nothing more than skin and bones. Given that he had presumably been a soldier just a week ago, he had atrophied far too fast to be normal. The red in his vomit was probably a sign of some kind of internal bleeding, but Alyssa only knew some basic first aid, not in depth medicine. Even had she been an experienced doctor, she might still not know what was wrong with him given the simple fact that magic existed. For all she knew, this was the effect of the goblin poison Oz had mentioned.
There were… Alyssa wasn’t sure if they were nurses, doctors, or just random people from off the streets. Whatever their profession, they were men and women just trying to make the injured men more comfortable. Alyssa couldn’t tell if they had no medical training at all or if medical training in this world was just that abysmal. Three, including the older man she had just been shouting at, ran off to deal with the vomit in what was clearly a routine. None wore gloves. Which shocked Alyssa at first, but given the lack of latex in this world, fluids and bacteria would probably just cling to anything they wore more than their bare skin. Of course, the point was moot when none of them bothered to wash their hands.
Alyssa marched on over as well, though she was sure to keep a slight distance between herself and everything else. Tzheitza had been concerned about her catching some demonic plague, but here, she was bound to catch a mundane one. One of the three doctors had grabbed a bucket and was in the process of shoveling the detritus off the floor. The other two were trying to steady the man who vomited. A tremor in his body shook his shoulders violently enough that it took both people to hold him down. Some kind of seizure?
“You,” she said to the man shoveling vomit. “What is wrong with him?” She wasn’t talking about the seizure patient. He was probably going to die soon. Hopefully, even. Not to be morbid or self-centered, but having his soul eaten by Tenebrael would almost certainly be a mercy compared to what he was going through. That she would benefit from his death at the same time was hardly a consideration.
No, Alyssa gestured to the man on the floor. He looked well. Good even. His skin wasn’t pale or sickly. His muscles were still quite intact. If not for him missing one leg below the knee, she would have wondered why he wasn’t standing guard outside.
The doctor glanced down then back up to Alyssa, looking at her like she was an idiot. “His whole foot’s off.”
“Yes. I can see that. My eyes are entirely functional. Is he sick? Does he have a high fever? Is his amputation festering with infection?”
“It isn’t.” The doctor didn’t answer. The soldier did. “I feel fine, all things considered.”
Alyssa looked down to him. “Are you in pain?”
He pressed his lips together, eyes hard.
Pride? Ugh. “It’s fine if you’re in pain. Your leg is off. It would be strange if you weren’t in pain. How about this question then: When your bandages are changed, is there yellowish or greenish pus? Inflammation?”
He shook his head.
“And are they giving you anything for the pain? Something that couldn’t be delivered to the barracks next door?” For her second question, Alyssa turned to the doctor. The moment she saw them about to answer in the negatives, she just about lost her mind. “Then why is he still here? Why wasn’t he moved the first time you had to shovel vomit off the floor? Even if you needed him nearby, even if he couldn’t move his littlest finger, you should have shoved him off in some corner. If his leg—”
“We are trying to work here. You said you were looking for someone, but all you’ve done is disturb the patients.”
Alyssa. Wanted. To. Scream. “I’ve disturbed the patients? You’ve—”
A hand clamped down over Alyssa’s mouth, cutting off her raised voice. “I’m sorry,” Alyssa’s voice said from behind her. “I’m afraid my sister has become distraught at seeing so many injured hu— people. Please, carry on. I’ll talk to her.”
The older doctor glared, but he didn’t say a word as Kasita dragged Alyssa a few steps away.
“Do I need to remind you, sister, why we are here?” she hissed once they were a safe distance away. “Do you want to get kicked out?”
“I don’t understand what led these doctors to believe that their efforts are doing any kind of good. Why is that man even still here?”
“Maybe one of the others is a friend of his. He’s giving them support. Not our business nor our problem.”
“Then he would be better off giving his support from afar. All they’re doing is risking infection, crowding up an already crowded room, and putting other patients at risk.”
Kasita frowned, leaning against the wall next to the door out of the field hospital. The face she wore at the moment was nearly identical to Alyssa’s. Darker skin, brown hair, brown eyes, and a much more reasonable chest size compared to her usual. It was still larger than Alyssa’s, but not as big as her usual form. Kasita and Alyssa weren’t exactly the same—they were sisters, not clones—but someone passing by would see an obvious familial resemblance in an instant. Alyssa wasn’t sure why the mimic had chosen to go out like this. Kasita could appear as just about anything. It would have been a trivial matter to turn into a bracelet or even just a friend rather than a family member.
Alyssa hadn’t complained more than the token comment about how creepy it was to look at herself walking around. According to Kasita, a family member displaying obvious familiarity with another would be less likely to be checked for mimics than a random person showing up. Which didn’t make much sense to Alyssa. She was a random person who had shown up and no one had accused her of being a mimic.
“Risk is good,” Kasita said after a moment of silence. Her voice was a quiet whisper, not loud enough to be heard more than a step away. None of the doctors nor their patients would be able to understand a thing. “If these humans are killing their patients, then we just need to sit around and wait. We’re here for the dying, after all.”
“We’re here for one dying person. Not all of them.” Alyssa pointedly gazed at the man who had just vomited. The two who had been holding him down weren’t anymore. His seizures had stopped for the moment. They occupied their time just dabbing at the sweat covering his face. “It probably won’t be long for that one.” It was a wild guess. Not being a medical professional, Alyssa really couldn’t tell for sure. But he did not look good in the slightest. His seizure must have torn open his wounds again. Where his bandages had been crusty and orange, dark, almost black blood was spreading over the once white cloth. And still the two attending him just stood around wiping at his sweat. Had they given up completely?
The bucket man walked past them, opening the door and leaving the hospital with his bucket in tow. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t even give them the mildest of glances.
“Is this typical after a battle?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t participated in many human conflicts. Even if I wanted to, I’m not any use.”
“Nonsense. You’re probably more valuable than any single soldier. All you would need to do is slip behind enemy lines and report on troop movements, plans, leader positions, and equipment. And if you wind up sabotaging supplies, that could be huge. Even just impersonating an officer for a moment and sending some of the enemies off into an ambush could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
“Yes, well, that relies on them not checking for mimics or other monsters. Something that I understand is quite common for exactly the reasons you’re proposing.”
So Kasita kept claiming. But Alyssa hadn’t seen any evidence of anyone checking. Not at the Observatorium. Not inside the Northgate Barracks or here. That wasn’t to say that Kasita was lying. Surely magic could check for mimics. It was just that she doubted it was as common as Kasita believed. Of course, if all it took was one time, the paranoia might be justified.
“What about monsters? Do elves have hospitals? Either permanent ones or something temporary like this?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t spent much time among the sick and dying. Human or monster. As much as I enjoy human suffering,” she paused to wrinkle her nose, “the smell is disagreeable.”
As she spoke, Alyssa’s scowl deepened. Not at Kasita’s words. She barely heard the mimic. It was the two doctors, leaving their seizure patient that prompted her frown. They barely wiped their hands on their aprons before moving to another patient. One of them glanced in her direction while wiping her hands only to snap her head forward the second she met Alyssa’s eyes. Which just made her scowl more. It felt… suspicious. Wrong.
Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. It certainly fit in this situation. People of this world were geniuses sometimes, but utter idiots other times. They built these great towers and the giant palace. But they couldn’t start a fire without magic. Given how abysmal medical knowledge had been on Earth until the twentieth century, a society like this couldn’t be expected to have anything resembling good practices.
But there was a corollary to Hanlon’s Razor. Namely, but don’t rule out malice. The city had just been attacked by a few shadowy operatives who sought to take out key targets in order to weaken the city enough to actually march an army down here to conquer it all. Who was to say that they didn’t have other shadowy operatives running around deliberately sabotaging recovery efforts.
Granted, it seemed a bit foolish to kill off injured soldiers who were almost certainly out of commission permanently. Unless, of course, they were going to get their limbs regrown or replaced. That seemed a bit of a stretch though. Even for Tzheitza’s blue potion. But there was just something about the way the one doctor glanced in her direction. It was like she knew she was doing something wrong.
“Kasita?” Alyssa said in a voice even softer than their earlier whispers. The mimic actually had to lean forward. Her volume wasn’t helped by the way Alyssa turned her head to stare at the seizure patient. “What are the symptoms of the plague?”
As it turned out, monsters were just as concerned with the plague as humans, though it didn’t seem to affect most monsters. Elves, mostly. Which might mean their physiology was more than superficially similar to that of humans. It also meant that demons were almost certainly bad news for everyone, not just humans.
“He doesn’t have the plague,” Kasita said, matching Alyssa’s tone. “His eyes are blue. That’s the first thing to change whether he survives and changes or dies.”
The door hit the wall with a thud. It made Kasita jump slightly… or maybe she jumped knowing that if she had been leaning against the wall on the other side of the doorway, she would have been smashed. It wouldn’t have hurt her, of course, but it would have been a bit difficult to explain.
Especially to the person marching into the room.
Captain Oxart strode in like she owned the place—she probably came closest to owning it out of anyone. And she did not look happy. Her gaze swept around the room before coming to a stop on Alyssa. Behind her, the doctor who had left with the bucket only moments ago leaned forward and whispered something in her ear. That something made the captain’s lips press together.
“You again,” she said, tone much more akin to when Alyssa and Ipo had interrupted her paperwork than the pleasant conversational tone during Alyssa’s occasional potion deliveries. “If Tzheitza sent you, you should have come to me. None here are authorized to accept potions. You certainly shouldn’t be disturbing my men.” Her eyes flicked over to Kasita. “And who is this?”
“My sister, Kasita.” The answer came surprisingly automatically. It was also the easier point to address. Alyssa’s eyes flicked to the doctor over Oxart’s shoulder. She really didn’t like the way he was just standing there, right behind the captain, watching with his sunken eyes. “Can we speak privately for a moment?”
Oxart narrowed her eyes, but nodded. She didn’t even need to say a word. Turning her head slightly toward the doctor was enough to send him moving around her to resume seeing to the patients, though Alyssa did note that he kept his eyes on them more than the injured. “What is it?”
“We came here looking for Ipo.”
“We heard he was here,” Kasita added in.
“Guardsman Ipo was not injured in the attack. He was never here. Or, if he was, it was only to visit another of my men.”
“Right. And we would have left once we saw him not here… but…” Alyssa licked her lips and resumed the soft whisper she had been using with Kasita. “How well do you know the… attendants here?”
Once again, Oxart looked around the room. This time, she paused ever so slightly on each of the doctors. When she locked eye contact with Alyssa, she looked more confused than angry. “I don’t see anything suspicious. What are you trying to tell me?”
“Well, it’s just that… They’re…” Alyssa took a deep breath, glancing to Kasita for support.
The mimic just smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
So much for that.
“When we first met, I told you I was a traveler. That is true, but what I didn’t say was that I am not a willing traveler. I arrived here through magical accident and have been searching for a way home, a place called America. Nobody else has heard of it, so I will be surprised if you have. But that’s not the point. The point is that we are extremely magic deprived. We don’t even have potions. At least, not like you know them. We’ve had to make do with more mundane methods of survival.
“Because of this, we have extensively researched the human body and everything that can cause harm to us. From simple cuts and scrapes, general illnesses, all the way to the most vicious diseases and even which parts of the brain do what. More importantly, we’ve devised methods to treat and cure just about everything that can possibly go wrong.” Alyssa looked over to where one of the doctors had started changing bandages. He took off the old ones and dropped them into a bucket before pulling new ones from a basket. All without washing his hands between, of course. “Frankly, every single person here would have been fired for gross incompetence, barred from working in any medical capacity for the rest of their lives, and, because of the military nature of the situation, likely investigated under suspicions of deliberate sabotage and possibly treason.”
“Treason,” Oxart said, voice hard as stone and just as cold. “These are good people. I’ve known Banfry for years.” She nodded ever so slightly toward one of the doctors. Which exactly, Alyssa didn’t bother trying to figure out.
“Yes.” Alyssa ran her fingers through her hair. “I am sure they mean well if you know them… but that doesn’t change the fact that they are doing more harm than good. They are potentially killing your men, Captain Oxart.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. “You think you can do better?”
“No. No I don’t. I was a… lumber hauler. But I know enough to know that, at the very least, they need to be washing their hands before and after… everything. Every single thing. There are little… monsters that live in all of us. They can’t think, so maybe they don’t count as monsters. My people called them bacteria. But anyway, they’re small enough that you can’t see them without special equipment and they can hurt us. Most of the time, our bodies fight them off naturally, but when we’re injured, they can make us very sick. And they can spread. If that doctor over there touches a patient’s injuries and then just wipes his hands on his shirt before moving on to the next, the second patient can get the bacteria passed on to them when they might otherwise not have it.
“And it’s more than just washing hands. If possible, everyone should be given private rooms. If not, they at least need to be separated from each other enough so that when that guy,” Alyssa paused to point, “throws up, it doesn’t get all over the poor guy on the floor between him and the next bed. That can transfer bacteria as well.”
Alyssa took a deep breath, feeling something like an idiot. She knew what she was saying was right, if heavily dumbed down, but the look she was getting from Oxart, a woman undoubtedly more worldly experienced than Alyssa—especially regarding this world—was not an encouraging one.
“Monsters,” she said, tone flat. “Living inside us.”
“Yes—No…” Alyssa slapped her forehead with a groan. “They’re single celled—which probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But we’re made up of millions—”
“Captain.” Kasita cut in, actually stepping forward to partially block Alyssa and Oxart off from each other. “I don’t know you, but you’re well decorated,” she said with a gesture toward the almost trench-coat-like uniform that Oxart wore and the few shiny bits of metal attached to her chest. “Presumably knowledgeable about many monsters as well, right?”
“Then you should be well aware that monsters come in many shapes and sizes. Not all of which have been cataloged with the guild, though maybe your books are different than those our people had. Still, who is to say that an unknown monster can’t be hiding right under everyone’s nose?” She smiled a bright, almost too-wide smile.
“Thank you sister!” Alyssa said in a hurry, putting an arm on Kasita’s shoulder and slightly pulling her back before she could give herself away. “Forgive Kasita, she is a little overeager. But she isn’t exactly wrong. Like I said, they aren’t quite monsters. But like she said, there are millions of creatures that most people haven’t even discovered yet. Even my people, well versed in all this, were discovering new—”
One of the doctors shouted out, garnering the attention of the others. All three of them rushed over to the poor man who had just been vomiting. He shook again. Another seizure. But where his movements had been quite violent earlier, now they were weak, barely shaking tremors. Two held him down again. The third came over and mostly just looked at him. As if he didn’t know what to do.
To be fair, Alyssa didn’t know what to do either. Except that he should be turned on his side to prevent him from drowning on his own vomit. Although, at this point, that might be more of a mercy than anything else.
The third doctor leaned back and moved to a corner of the room where a number of supplies were stored. Fresh linen and such. He took a small jar off a shelf. It had something in it. Something small, black, and a bit shiny. Whatever it was moved as well. Not just because he shook the jar taking it off the shelf, but under its own power. It was alive.
He pulled the cork off the jar and slammed the opening down right on the patient’s arm. Which gave Alyssa a clear view of just what was inside.
“A leech,” Alyssa said in disbelief. An actual leech. It latched on to the man’s arm and started undulating. No wonder the man was so emaciated. “If I’m ever injured, please do not take me to a place like this,” she whispered to Kasita. At this moment, she felt so grateful to have made contact with Tzheitza. The potioneer might have backwards theories on medicine, but at least she also had magical potions that actually worked.
Though, she did remember reading a thread on the internet recently that mentioned some modern medicinal uses for leeches. What those uses actually were slipped her mind. Regardless, she didn’t think seizure treatment was among them. And it had been on the internet, making its validity suspect.
Whatever the doctor had been hoping the leech would accomplish obviously did not pan out for him. The seizure did subside, but so did the rise and fall of the patient’s chest with each labored breath.
The female doctor looked across to her colleague and shook her head slightly as she released the patient’s shoulders. Two of her fingers were pressed firmly against the patient’s neck. Checking for a pulse? At least they had that going for them. Alyssa still wouldn’t want to be under their care.
Alyssa found herself with a renewed interest in medical magics. And to figure out how much it would actually cost to get Tzheitza to make her a vial of that blue healing potion. Anything she could do to take care of herself over being subjected to barbaric practices. Once she had her phone back, she might spend a little time looking into homemade medicines. Penicillin was just bread mold, right? Surely a guide existed on the internet of how to refine it into something useful.
As for her phone… Alyssa moved a few steps closer to the body. Tenebrael hadn’t ever appeared the instant someone died, but Alyssa wanted to be ready. If needed, she would be tackling the angel to the ground to keep her from running off.
Alyssa’s eyes widened at that giggle. She just about rushed over to clamp her own hand over the mimic’s mouth. But she didn’t want to move further away from the corpse. Instead, she just ground her teeth and clenched her fists, hoping that Kasita wasn’t about to do something that would give her away.
“Even if you don’t believe in tiny monsters, keeping your men together like this can only harm morale when one inevitably succumbs to the void.”
“Thank you, Kasita. But perhaps not the time.” How long had it been before Tenebrael had shown at the other deaths? Less than a minute for the first burglar back on Earth, but she had said that she had been running late. Svotty had been long enough for her to kill the guard and order Bacco and Cid around a bit. Probably a minute or two at the least. The troll? More than that, but it had been an extremely busy night, presumably.
It took a full minute, but she spotted it. There! A black feather! Two. Three. A dozen of them.
Tenebrael appeared in the room just at the foot of the patient’s bed, scattering more feathers everywhere with her appearance. They disappeared the second they came into contact with anything solid, save for Alyssa, but Alyssa didn’t have eyes for any one of them. Her focus was on the angel’s back. The black feathered wings were already diving toward the corpse. Like with the festival, she didn’t even seem aware that Alyssa was standing a step away.
So Alyssa took another step forward and gripped the angel’s wrist like a vice.