Among the countless other irrevocable things lost in the onslaught of chaos, a few hours of my sleep also had to be thrown unto oblivion. First, after cleaning myself of mud, I lost hours making sure I would wake up. My body does not handle foreign bodies well, so I had to guide it through removing them. Instead of a fever that would leave me delirious, dehydrated, and potentially outright dead, I raised the temperature in my body piecemeal, in coordinated sweeps, hopefully giving any possible stowaways no place to hide. After my preemptive attack on my microbiology, I no longer had the choice to not sleep.
I was bludgeoned into consciousness by the sounds of people righting the barge, too many sounds to be coming from just two people. It was the beginnings of morning, and my foggy vision informed me that some strangers had pitched in to help. And some had come to argue. I shuffled towards the pair of new faces having a heated discussion with Sev, it was an unfocused thing, and I was far too groggy to interpret the details. But I did understand that the newcomers needed transport for the injured. The argument had cooled when they saw me coming, and I was able to break into it with a feebler voice than I remembered.
"You have injured? Bring me to them, I can help. We'll bring anyone who needs more than me back to the boat. There'll be room."
I grabbed the younger of the two locals and started walking away, who exchanged looks with the elder to see if there would be mutiny to my newly established leadership. There would not be, and as the local switched from being led blindly by me to being my guide, the discussion behind us was merely fraught. After an awkward minute of silence, I turned to my conscripted chaperone to ask a question, and managed a slightly fuller tone.
"How far away are we from my paitents-to-be?"
She, as I now noticed they were a she, glanced over me and seemed to suppress a wince.
"Thirty minutes..." She gave me a second appraisal, "maybe closer to forty, if we run."
I let out an involuntary whimper.
She led me from the mud of the riverbank to the mud of a path, and then we ran along it for close to an hour, every step a battle between foot and liquid earth. Along my river journey trees increased from an occasional treat to being almost as widespread as crops, and now we ran in a world where nothing but them seemed to exist. Every tree and brush here had been planted with purpose, slowly growing the Great Green Wall, as it was oft called. By edict of the heavens, humanity had saw to its cultivation, and now it fights to prevent dust and sand from turning everything I had passed through into a lifeless desert. And because of this great work, the path we were trudging through was filled with broken branches and three trees that had been hauled from the soil by the chaos. I wished for the sands and wind to scour this blighted place from the face of the world.
When we finally came into town, the sight of me did not inspire hope in a single pair of eyes. I was being supported along the last stretch by my guide, and having vomited from running had robbed me of my emergency reserves of dignity. I was placed gently on a seat in the townsquare and was nursed back to a more functional state through ample water and what food I could manage an appetite for. And finally I could see what I had to work with.
The entire square, as well as at least some of the town beyond it, was littered with injured people. And some who had succombed. Mostly people suffered from bluntforce injuries, either having objects hurled at them or having themselves been hurled by the winds. Others had shards of bark or wood embedded into their bodies, one group who had especially many of these wounds had apparently been near a tree that exploded. But the worst would be the injuries hidden in those caught more directly by the roiling magic. Inside them invisible storms would rage, and I would be completely unequipped to help.
I stood up, entire body shaking from exertion, and running on half a night's rest, at best. I quietly steadied myself, first meditatively, then magically. Anyone being taught magic by someone who has even an iota of responsibility will be warned direly to avoid working on their own bodies. Working on someone else means their own wills will subconsciously fight back, and if you make a mistake you may even have a chance to rectify it. Having my mother teach me mundane medicine, on top of my studies of the mystic, meant ample implicit and explicit warnings of the risks posed by painkillers and stimulunts. I knew all the dangers that could be known, and so when I was abusing my own body with supernatural forces, I did so with care. Receptors in my body that were screaming pain suddenly went quiet, and those in my mind responsible for telling me when I was awake found themselves having an awful lot of misfires. I made myself as hygienic as possible, using water and an alcohol that I dearly hoped was not kept around for drinking. Then I got to work.
First I checked on the town doctor, a middle-aged man who I could not discern many features of, due to him being covered in mud and blood. Unfortunately a good deal of that blood was his own. He had not waited for the few minutes it took for the storm to subside, and his heroic response saved a pair of children. Now he lay in the square, his life slowly slipping away like all those around him, leaving his apprentice of a few years their only defense against the encroaching death. There was nothing I could do to get him working tonight, but if he died the area might not have a proper doctor for years, maybe even decades if enough had rushed into the disaster like this one had. So I spent precious time stabilising him, before I moved to treating everyone else.
The hours difference between my arrival and the cessation of the storm had already performed a brutal triage. Most of those in danger of bleeding out from their wounds had already either done so, or miraculously survived. I passed through those that remained, constantly muttering prayers to god that they might live longer. My path was marked by stillness, where there was screaming or whimpering there was now only the sleep of recovery, or the one of death. It was hard to tell the difference in some, especially those I had rendered cold as ice, stopping their blood and cells from freezing with my will. Those were the ones I would be taking to the barge. In the end there were fourteen, everyone else would live, or would die without divine intervention.
When I sat back down, it was the afternoon. Someone came to me, bringing food and wine. It was the woman who brought me here. She gave me a smile overflowing with concern.
"You look exhausted, sir, you should eat something, and then please rest, Joral can handle the rest."
I winced at the 'sir'.
"Thank you, I am... a bit drained from the work."
I forced a chuckle out, and she politely chortled at my understatement. I looked like I belonged with the patients, possibly the deceased ones. But I had to remain working, even if invisibly. My chilling Efe was a potentially panic induced decision to try and reduce the risk of cell damage, especially to the brain, due to any heart trouble or, worst case scenario, magic. Falling asleep then just meant he would warm up. What I did to my current crop of patients was a bit more involved. I chilled them below freezing, without magic their cells would have ruptured, rather fatally. Which would happen still, should I fall asleep. But as long as I stayed awake, time would be effectively standing still for them, giving me a chance to deliver them to someone who can fix their ruptured organs, major blood loss, and whatever other horrors lurked inside their flesh. This Joral, who was probably the town doctor, or their assistant, was likely not up to those miracles. So, I continued to usurp my own brain and felt none of my exhaustion.
My once-guide busied herself while I ate and drank, and spoke to me again when I looked a little more alive.
"I've found enough volunteers to carry the ones you pointed out, sir. Are you sure there's no one else that needs to come?"
The second time hearing the 'sir' didn't make it feel particularly better. And her question came hesitantly. I had a worry that there was a pedestal in her mind being polished in anticipation of a new tenant.
"Everyone else who needs to go to Dust can go in a few days or weeks, or not at all depending on your doctor. Best to wait until things are less panicked there. And my name is Ash, I don't think we introduced ourselves in the rush."
She shook my proffered hand gently, hopefully fearing to break me rather than offend me. Maybe I was just letting me ego get out of hand.
"I'm Gilia, thank you so much for your help, Ash. How do we repay you?"
This I already had an idea for.
"I assume that the town will be sending someone along with us to look after the patients while they heal, am I correct?"
From Gilia's expression, it would seem that she had little clue where I was headed with this.
"Yes, you are. I'll be going, along with some of their family members. What do you want from us?"
She flinched at her own question, I think it came out more accusatory than she intended. I barreled onwards before she could address it.
"I would like to entrust one or two more people into your care. One being a new friend of mine that came out of our boat crash worse than I did, and the other being one of my oldest friends who I anticipate may see misfortune in the city. Namely, me."
I had trouble reading her expression, there were hints of too many emotions. Far more than I expected my reasonable request to illicit.
"Of course, but... we would have done that anyways. Insisted on doing it, really. We can give you some coin now, and the rest after we've recovered."
At this, I felt I had found the source of her emotions. She had likely worried I might want a full payment for my services, which, while on the surface isn't completely fair, would put the town in a slightly more precarious position. Not that my fee for a day's work would be able to drive a town destitute, but it wouldn't exactly help matters. I gave her the most winning smile I could muster.
"I'll have it all later, in one lump sum, please. Less the costs I incur while in your care. I'm somewhat afraid to enter a new city with jingling pockets, you may have noticed from our run here, but I am not exactly the most physically capable individual. I think I'd be a mugger's dream."
She chuckled out some of her tension, and nodded at this. I believe I saw some guilt remain, likely she felt I was taking pity on the town. She was underestimating how much it could take to keep me alive.
We walked back to the barge, there was little other option given the state of the road. Gilia and I headed the procession, idly chatting away as all the patients were carefully carried in stretchers behind us. The smell of dried mud and broken trees was a sweet relief from the smell of sickness and death. Not being able to resist ruining the improved mood, the first question I probed Gilia with was a risky one.
"How affected was your family?"
She gave me a sorrowful smile.
"Hardly at all. Our house is one of the largest and most well-built around, my grandpa always says that it does good for the entire town, but..."
Her last syllable was dragged out, weighed down by meaning. I tried a warm grin. At the very least I know my teeth were visible.
"It's funny how the things we want can become necessary expenditures."
I think her chuckles were getting closer to being genuine. This did leave one obvious question though, so I gave it a voice.
"What is your grandfather's occupation, that a large house is plausibly useful?"
"Oh, of course you wouldn't know, he's the mayor of Vigil. And officially some of the surrounding settlements. You briefly... met. He was the one arguing with the boatman."
I left the next obvious question, of whether Vigil was that town we just left, voiceless. It probably was. Instead I found a mildly more obscure one.
"Do you usually help him run the town?"
"Almost always, I'm about the closest thing to an apprentice mayor you can get, I'd bet."
I lazily returned some sarcasm.
"That doesn't sound particularly democratic."
She chuckled and shrugged. She returned some questions about me, and my family, but in my state even walking was leaving me breathless, so she took most of the weight of the conversation. By the time we returned to the barge, spirits were relatively high. Sev was taking a nap when we started trickling onto the bank, the barge, all feasible repairs having been seen to, and a sizeable portion of the goods gone, either lost in the crash, or traded to the locals. I hoped Sev was a good enough man to not take advantage of their position, but I didn't pry.
And then we were back on the river. Both the river and the barge were overcrowded, the occupants of each looking the worse for wear. The boatmen often had to squeeze through distressed family members, as they poked away at detritus in the river. Gilia slowly made a circuit through the boat, making sure everyone had a place to stay in the city, and contingencies in case their first choice had been destroyed. I sat on top of the remaining cargo, accompanied by the prone forms of my patients, shielded from the sun by a tarp. Immediately next to me was Efe, who would occasionally stir into a panicked pseudo-awake state, and I would calm him down. Hours went by like this, and the sun fell. So, I did not see when the trees gave way to wasteland. I had been looking forward to it, it meshed well with how my journey was going. Alas, Sev and Gurgen wrestled with the tarp until it formed a lumpy dome around myself, the patients, and some of the others who just wanted to sleep for a while. Watching peace envelop their faces as they drifted off filled me with immeasurable envy.
Sounds of the city slowly started to pierce through our cloth barrier from the world, and I started reversing the cold sleep. The stifling warmth of so many people, all under what was effectively a water and dust resistant blanket, helped a little. After I guided them out of freezing temperatures, the tarp could take them the rest of the way. I could fall asleep and everything would probably sort itself out. But, well, I may have already killed myself through overwork, so I figured I may as well get rid of that 'probably'.
I wriggled out of the tarp, and right into the biting cold of night. Around the barge in all directions were buildings, cramped together and illuminated by the light of candles and the occasional torch. A sight unlike any I had ever seen, and one I was in no position to appreciate. I shared some nods of general greeting with the other waking souls upon the boat, and looked towards the dock ahead. There, it seemed, a makeshift hospital was forming, inside what I guessed to be some sort of warehouse. Gilia pointed towards it, saying something to a man who's name I had forgotten. He immediately, and indelicately, jumped and scrambled onto solid ground, before sprinting towards the hospital in wet boots. There was some commotion over there, but I had no interest in it. Until someone who was tired enough to look like a doctor started walking towards the dock.
We delicately stopped and as the barge was being tied off, I stepped solid land. Well, wood, at least. I gestured to Gilia, silently asking for first attempt at negotiation. She made no attempts to stop me as I marched up to what I hoped was someone medically trained.
"Are you any kind of doctor?"
I did not have any pleasentries left in me. They started to say something, then broke it off. Presumably they were about to clarify what they actually were.
"Yes, how many injured or sick do you have?"
I pointed to the boat. Their gaze followed.
"Sixteen. Fifteen under the tarp, fourteen are in need of immediate care, the fifteenth is stable and has been set aside."
I entwined my fingers behind my head and brought my elbows together in front of me. They started turning back to me.
An avalanche of pain and exhaustion hit me, and I fell.