The gate closed behind us with an ominous shudder, the sound of the bar metaphorically and literally locking us in. We were committed now, surrounded on three sides by the makeshift, manned Legion walls, and the Nostrum Sea on the last side.
I started to have some self-doubt. What had I just dragged us into? Did I really think I could make a difference on my own?
Artemis reassuringly squeezed my shoulder, getting some sort of idea what I was concerned over. A good reminder, that I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t trying to single-handedly solve a plague by myself. There was an entire Army Legion here. I was a 14-year-old girl. Birthday was coming up though, just another week and change! There was no way I was the only healer here. Sure, I was powerful. Sure, I had a solid grasp on what I wanted to do. This wasn’t a dam with a small leak, where one well-placed girl could stick her finger and fix the problem. This was a full flood, where it’d take dozens of people working together to fix and rebuild. My major contribution was already done – letting the people who could do something about it know about the problem, namely that there had to be a source or reservoir for the plague, and work off of that.
“Elaine.” Artemis said, seriously.
“Yeah?” I asked, tilting my head back to look at her.
“Stay inside the Argo. Don’t look outside as we’re going through.” Artemis said kindly, velvet-wrapping the order.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because it’ll end terribly.” Kallisto jumped in, surprising me with his analysis of my skills. “You’ll be obligated to help someone. Then the next person. It’ll be unstructured. Messy. More people will come, demanding healing. Then what? You’ll be obligated to help them. You’ll be out of mana. And I’ll tell you, people, next to a healer that can heal them, fix them, but isn’t? It’s not gratitude you’ll be getting. It’ll be hate. This plague’s been going on for months. These people here are likely stressed, scared, terrified. Give them hope, and snatch it away? They’ll tear you apart, and I mean that in a very real, visceral way. Then we have to step in. Then suddenly, it’s the Rangers invading the town, putting people to the sword. Coinflip if the city’s in a bad way, and it sparks a riot. The 3rd legion here isn’t helping that – usually when they show up, it’s ‘exterminate them all’.”
“I’m not trying to scare you. It’s just one possibility. The fact that it’s a likely possibility, and the price to avoid it is small, means I agree with Artemis – stay in, don’t look outside.”
I crossed my arms and pouted.
“When will I ever heal anyone?” I demanded.
“Carefully. In a controlled manner.” Maximus said. “Clinics are common in the first place. People know there’s a place to go and get healed. Heck, some healers might be here, betting they can get enough experience to level a ton. Others might be here to earn their fortune. A healer with the right skills, and a good business sense, could get enough money to last a lifetime from a plague.”
“If they live.” Julius pointed out.
“If they live.” Maximus agreed. “It’s the rare healer that’ll fall to a plague. No, it’s exploiting enough sick and angry people that’ll do it. It’s a fine, fine balancing act to try and make a fortune in a plague. Too much, and you get a mob. Too little, and you don’t make a fortune. Easier to charge almost nothing – or to charge nothing at all, and try to simply gain dozens of levels.”
“Listen.” Origen grunted. We all turned to him, listening carefully. Artemis started grinning madly, but didn’t bother enlightening the rest of us.
He rolled his eyes at us.
Artemis’s cackling turned into full-on laughter.
“Listen! There’s a bard of some sort using a powerful skill!” Artemis said.
We all went very quiet, and I could softly hear some notes drifting by, subtle, under the noise of the Argo creaking along, the sounds of anguish and misery getting louder as we approached the town.
“Hey, I got offered a class like that.” I realized. “Sound-related, weak healing over a large area.”
“Yeah, the dude’s probably getting a level a day, or more, at this rate. His only limit is his mana regeneration.” Maximus observed.
I could hear us entering the town. I was concerned that we didn’t seem to stop at the gates at all. That implied that there was no guard, or that the guard was so busy that guarding the gates, one of the fundamental guardy-jobs, was so low priority it was being completely neglected.
It was aggravating, not being able to stick my head out, see the town.
I could smell it though. The rotting stench of foul death and decay, mixed in with the normally-cheery sea breeze.
“How can they possibly quarantine the town if it’s also a port?” I asked.
“Either they have their own ships, or they sank everything. Knowing the 3rd, knowing how they’re usually ‘slash and burn’, and knowing they don’t have any ships – they probably sank everything down to the fishing boats.” Julius grimly guessed. “I’d need to poke around somewhat to find out more. Probably have archers nearby to shoot down anyone trying to swim for it.”
“That’s going to cause a lot of starvation.” I pointed out the obvious, remembering how much of my diet was fish when I lived in Aquiliea. Heck, most of the towns in the Republic were on the shores of the Nostrum Sea, and sea shipping made most of the inter-town logistics. According to Maximus’s lessons.
There were grim looks all around.
“Plagues are bad business. People start dying. Food gets interrupted. Starvation causes more problems. Services are interrupted – sewers, baths, water, guards, food, entertainment, everything. It causes more problems, more deaths, and it spirals horribly.” Julius said.
“How are they usually handled?” I asked.
“Usually, we just contain it, and let it burn itself out. This one’s been going on a bit longer than normal, from the reports I got, but it’s nowhere close to the record.” Julius said. “If it wasn’t for you being so sure that there’s a source that can be turned off, we’d have skipped this place entirely.”
“Not a source.” I said, correcting. “A place where it’s stored. This could be a bad water source. Fleas. Rats. Sewers. It’s not the same as a source. Subtle difference, but it’s there. Either way, if you figure out what the reservoir is, and get rid of it, that’ll go a long way to getting this treated.”
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Medicine] has reached level 125!]
“How do you know all this? More reincarnation knowledge?” Maximus asked.
“Kinda. A little bit of reincarnation knowledge with [Memories of a Distant life] sharpening them is giving ‘structure’ for [Medicine] to work off of. [Oath] is multiplying my medical knowledge, and all of it combined is letting me see and know enough to get you all started.”
Maximus nodded. “Makes sense.”
We quieted down as we kept travelling through the town, probably to the main guard barracks where we normally set up.
The sounds of agony and misery were getting louder. A woman, finding her husband had succumbed. A man, grieving over his son. An old woman, a young boy, both begging for food on the street, weakness in their voice.
They didn’t have much time left. Not from the strength left in their voice.
The sound of a scuffle, no holds barred. An agonizing crack, something breaking badly.
It would be nearly impossible to get any sort of medical attention for that. I closed my eyes. What Kallisto said earlier rang true. I couldn’t heal them all. Not here. Not now. I –
[*Error* All Skills -1 level.]
[Reminder: Oaths are Binding.]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Celestial Affinity] has reached level 144]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Affinity] has reached level 39!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Resistance] has reached level 39!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Conjuration] has reached level 39!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Fire Manipulation] has reached level 39!]
Pain. Pain wracked me, tore through my body. I started to scream and thrash, trying to make it go away, trying to make it stop. It didn’t care about [Center of the Galaxy], nor did my attempt at [Vastness of the Stars] do anything about it. This was pure torment, direct from the System, penalizing me for turning my back on someone. I screamed, screamed myself raw and hoarse, and thrashed in torment, as it felt like my whole body was burning up, then freezing, then thrown onto a bed of nails, followed by more indescribable torments.
It was agony. I tried everything to make it stop. Throwing flames wildly. Clawing at my arms, my face. Curling up, rolling over.
Nothing I did would make it stop, would stop the pain from invading me. I still saw, still heard, the world around me, but I was no longer processing it.
After time – indeterminate length, with the pain killing all other senses – the pain stopped, and I found myself lying on the floor of the Argo, coated in sweat, having soiled myself, panting and gasping, tunic in shreds where I’d torn myself. Walls of stone surrounded me, and my fingernails were bloody where I’d been scratching at them, at myself.
“Elaine? Elaine are you ok?” Artemis asked, peeking over concerned.
[Center of the Galaxy] instantly worked its magic – not that it had ever stopped working, just whatever the System had done completely bypassed the skill, totally different from when Lumberjack and co and broken it – and I healed myself, fixing all of my immediate, obvious problems.
“Yes.” I said, sitting up.
“What happened?” Artemis said, dissolving the walls, rushing in next to me, embracing me.
“[Oath].” I said. “I heard the fight outside, the person getting hurt. I knew he’d be hurt, be in major trouble without healing. I thought about what you said before, and made the conscious decision to not help. I got notifications – lost a point in all my skill levels, a System reminder that oaths were binding. Then pain.”
Artemis said nothing, just holding me tighter. Maximus edged forward a hair, still looking wary.
“Elaine, throw up [Veil] around us, right now.” He ordered. I did as he said, seeing him relax.
“Ok, good. No more repeats of that. We should’ve done this in the first place. Didn’t think this could happen.” He said.
“Yeah. Why was this response so much worse than last time?” I asked him. “Any ideas?”
He hummed to himself thoughtfully, as I opened my chest of supplies. Spare tunic, spare tunic, ahha! Time to change.
“My best guess – and it’s only a guess mind you – is that last time you accidentally violated your [Oath]. This time, you deliberately violated it.”
I frowned at him.
“I had a good reason! Usually that works for the System! It didn’t complain when I let Arthur and Artemis fight, it didn’t complain when I waited to heal Idiot Mage, it lets me spar, it was OK when some people in Virinum didn’t get healing – why was this different?”
“No idea. Perhaps it was the way you intended things? Like with Artemis and Arthur, you always intended to heal them after. They weren’t your patients then. You did heal Idiot Mage as close to the first moment when you were able to. The people in Virinum were ok with their current state, they just wanted an improvement. This, though… this was the first time you heard someone that needed help, and chose to turn your back.”
“Why on Pallos did I level?” I asked.
“You leveled?” Artemis asked with surprise.
“Yeah, right after I lost some of my skills, I got them right back.” I said.
“Were those the skills at the cap?” Maximus asked.
“Yup. Ah – they were ready to level anyways?” I puzzled it out.
“Probably. No matter how you slice it, it’s bad.”
“Do you think I’ll be ok when healing people in a clinic?” I asked, suddenly worried. If I was going to be penalized even when giving it my all….
“Unlikely. You weren’t penalized in Virinum, or any of the towns and villages we stopped at – you were genuinely giving it your all. I strongly suspect that as long as you’re trying, as long as you’re not turning you back on someone who needs help, that you’ll be fine. It’s only if you decide not to help someone that punishes you. Granted, we’d need to try it out a few more times to know that’s the case… and I suspect you’re against that idea.” Maximus finished, as I furiously shook my head.
“Right. Artemis, stay here with Elaine. She was cooped up for weeks to entertain you, now you can be cooped up with her to entertain her.” Maximus said. “We’ll knock twice on [Veil] to let you know when it’s a good time to come out.”
Blah. Waiting. I let him out, then flopped down, looking at the ceiling.
“Hey healy bug, what do you want to play?” Artemis asked cheerfully, sitting down next to me.
I mutely shook my head, continuing to stare up. I’d been given a lot to think about.