I dreamt of few things. I dreamt of the soft screaming that comes from those suffering with no hope. I dreamt of carving into flesh. I dreamt of a certain smile I should never see again.
Occasionally I would wake up, at least enough to relieve or feed myself in a polite fashion. The short walk being slightly less painful than the thought of the alternatives. At first I awoke in a tent alongside the river, then in a bed in a crowded hospital, or as close to one as I had ever seen, and finally I started waking in a bedroom.
My delirium began to lift, and I started processing some details about the room I found myself in. There weren't many. There was a window that showed a slice of the city, and given none of that slice was a road full of people meant at some point a poor soul had the unenviable task of dragging my lifeless body up at least one storey. Another bed lay next to the one I occupied, and it appeared to have been recently utilised, so my privacy did not appear to be a high concern for my benefactors. Under my neighbour's bedframe were a scattered selection of personal affects, so I sent my head and shoulders flopping off the side of my mattress to check under my own. Blood rushing to my head triggered a persistent and fairly intense headache, but the wonderful sight of my belongings made the pain well worth it. My luggage. I put my feet to the ground and gave them a gentle testing, most of the soreness from running and walking had faded, but any being left at all meant I can't have been out of the world for too long. With all the caution the dangerous act warranted, I slowly stood. It was more successful than I had really expected, as I didn't find much trouble beyond an onslaught of nausea. But I had something that needed doing, so a bit of suffering wouldn't keep me bedridden. Not for a few minutes, at least.
After an attempt of bending down resulted in my brain swimming in my skull, I decided to instead indelicately drag out one of my cases with my foot. A few swipes later and it was before me, but still firmly on the ground. Suppressing groans, I sat, and opened my case of what was medical supplies, and now was a pile of glass and noxious fluid, having not survived the boat crash. Protecting my delicate fingers with a handkerchief, I pulled out a shard of glass that had been part of a bottle of disinfectant, and turned its interior side to the light, revealing a small cylindrical lump in the glass. I gave it a quick wipe down before breaking it apart with a little bit of magic combined with a little bit of bludgeoning, freeing a pill-sized metal object. A minute of minor engineering later, and it was safely secured in a cavity of my belt buckle, and I sighed out some lingering stress.
An hour or so later, I heard the door open behind me, as well as Gilia's voice take a sharp trip from relief, to the shocked anger of a parent seeing their child with some miraculously manifested paint.
"Oh, Mr. Ash, you're aw-"
Gilia stopped short as she saw the codition of the room. The one she had secured for me. I had spent the time since waking sorting my belongings, everything that survived well enough to stay in use was set aside and repacked. Everything else, I gently hurled away from my luggage.
"Ah... I assure you I will have the room sorted within a moment or two."
Gilia closed the door and leaned against its frame, not being able to come in much further without stepping in my mire.
"Don't push yourself, please. Your friend has been the one in the other bed, in case you didn't know. It's been difficult to tell when you've been taking stuff in. So if he doesn't mind it then there's no need to rush."
I stopped getting up from my position on the floor, and relaxed my back into the bedside, letting the bloodrush from my attempted rise fade back down before opening my mouth again.
"Probably for the best to leave it until later, I fear I would've proven to be bluffing. How do my patients fare?"
This provoked Gilia to massage her face, fingers pressing into deep shadows under her eyes.
"Marilla and Yoren passed. I was told their organs were too far gone. The others... It's been hard to get answers out of the doctors. They start explaining and then someone starts screaming and they rush off. They have been saying that Sylvi might need surgery. Would you be able to act as a sort of... interpreter for us? When you're feeling better."
"Of course! Though, if I may impose, there's a few things that will help in getting me back to working order..."
I trailed off as I saw Gilia slowly, subtly, tense up. She motioned me to go on.
"I'd like to partake in a proper meal, my past few meals, at least those I can remember, have left me with quite the appetite for something more solid. If you can arrange one, I am also in rather sore need of a bath, especially if I'm to be on the same street as a surgery. But, most importantly..." I saw her pre-emptively wince, "Before any of that I need you to take a break. The last thing in the world this city needs right now, is another patient."
Gilia shifted, opening her mouth to object, but ultimately just sighed and slid to the floor.
"Okay, Mr. Ash, you're likely right. Though... That's some advice you need yourself. You fell over half-dead when we got here."
"That is a quite fair point, and in future it may be a good general rule to avoid emulating my behaviour, particularly if you wish to live long."
A laugh bubbled out of her, both warped and pushed along by her lingering anxiety and stress.
"Hah, I'll keep that in mind."
"While you're at it, I'd like if you tucked one other thing away in there as well..." Eyebrows danced amusement and suspicion at me, and I continued, "Please, just call me Ash, without any Mr, or sir, or anything else. For one thing, I think I might be younger than you."
"Sure, Ash, I won't forget that either."
We shared a smile, sitting on the floor of a room filled with torn clothing and broken things.
Some hours later, I was walking through the city, occasionally supported by Gilia or Efe. The latter was purple with bruises, but he still insisted on coming along when he saw myself and Gilia heading out of the inn that was our temporary home. We chatted idly as we walked, though hesitantly, partially due to the awkwardness of unfamiliarity, but also due to the dust in the air that made the physical act of speaking unpleasant in and of itself. Spitting out a mouthful of grit, Efe turned the conversation away from the passing of two particular sheep.
"I admit, I did not think the city's name would be so... true. Is it always such?"
I gave a helpless shrug, and Gilia enlightened us.
"More or less. It's probably been like this since they started digging that," She nodded towards the mountain-like mound darkening half the city with its shadow, "and it'll stay like this until they're finished."
Efe eyed the pile of rock with disdain.
"I wish them speedy digging."
"Perhaps you should gab a shovel and assist matters along, make the very world itself your nemesis!... And so forth."
Efe narrowed his eyes, but still smiled at my teasing.
"Yes, I shall be a miner of such calibre that the rock itself will flee from me, for fear of destruction!"
We shared a laugh, though Gilia's mirth in comparison was more moderated, not being as quick to forget our current place in the world. Though she had the last laugh, figuritively this time, as myself and Efe quickly found ourselves choking on some dust.
After another round of spitting particulates of rock back into the wind, Efe fielded another question.
"What are they digging for?"
To this, we could only guess at an answer.
Walking through the city of Dust, we saw strata of houses, as newer neighbourhoods were made from rock brought from increasingly unfathomable depths. As we neared our destination, the air became increasingly tolerable, dust kept at bay through liberal use of magic. Potentially this was a measure to keep the hospital cleanly, but I'd wager personal comfort was a priniple motivator. As I saw more wood and other more expensive seeming materials start to make up part of the housing, I grew increasingly confident in my hypothetical gamble. And dancing hand in hand with the luxury of clean air was safety from the magic storm. In the neighbourhoods of low buildings and cramped apartments all made from rock, there was still the clear remnants of disaster. There was detritus on the streets still being cleared, homes that had been gutted by wind or fire. And stains of dark reddish brown. Yet the richer streets went untainted from misery.
And then we were there. The Hospital of Sekhyama, and temple to the same. It was an impressive structure, the largest I had ever seen, and seemingly dedicated any coin that would go into gilt and grandeur into further bulk. The result was an eight storey behemoth, with a tentative ninth storey sprouting from the roof's centre, the base of the building long enough to compete with a modest street.
Surrounding the collosus of a building was a sea of makeshift medical tents, with doctors and nurses swimming through it. Sometimes a patient would move from tent, to building, or vice versa. But mostly they moved elsewhere, and I knew that direction would lie the morgue. Or as close to one as they could fit all the bodies in.
Our perspectives returned to the grim reality, we walked towards a gathering of stressed and crying people, centred on a clearly overworked woman. The sight of us was not a pretty one to her eyes, particularly one of. She looked our way, reining in her exasperation.
"Hello Ms Sylva, I don't have any news for you."
Gilia, whose last name I now knew, winced.
"My apologies, Ms Waxier, and I'm not here for just that today. This is Ash, a doctor, he's... largely recovered. We were hoping he might be allowed to see the people from Vigil?"
Her mild glare switched from Gilia to me, and quickly morphed into a wide-eyed look of surprise.
"Oh, the zo-", she hurriedly broke herself off with a forced cough, "Ahem, nice to meet you, I'm Perla Waxier, a nurse and secretrary, mostly a secretary, especially these past few days. Are you here to... pitch in?", a smile and a nod is all I got in before marched onwards, "Great! I'll flag down Dr Phanderval, he was the one who treated you and the rest of the Vigil folk, he'll have to sign off on you being fit to work. And you'll need to shadow someone until you know how everything is working, it's what we've been getting all the outside doctors and nurses doing, Dr Phanderval should be free for that as well so we can kill two birds with one stone. Or heal two birds with one bandage!"
She finished with a slightly anxious grin, and I gave a polite, if shelshocked, chuckle.
"I'll defer to your planning and judgement. Speaking of helping hands..."
I motioned to Efe, who took the opportunity to step forwards and introduce himself.
"Good day to you, Ms Waxier! I am Efe. If you need anything or anyone manhandled, I'm yours."
Taking in Efe's hair, which was now only half contained by the chaotic braids, and his distinctly visible bruising, Ms Waxier did not appear convinced of Efe's utility. But, given his winning smile, and considerable muscle mass, she resolved to give him a chance. With the caveat that he, like myself, would require doctoral permission.
So we stewed in the anxiety and dread of those around us, all hoping for good news but anticipating the worst.
Then Efe and I left with Dr Phanderval, and then Efe was spirited away to clean and carry. So it was just Phanderval and I, swimming from one patient to another, one localised disaster to the next. I did nothing but watch. I tried to step in, help take the pain away from a whimpering child, but the doctor fixed me in place. With a glance.
"I understand. But you're a fool. You're going to die on your feet, and everyone you could help will die with you. You will not lift a pencil, or cast a whiff of magic, before I tell you that you won't die doing it."
I nodded, but the reluctance would be plain even were he blind. So he kept an eye on me as I shadowed him. In between bursts of excitement, I brought up Ms Waxier's slip of the tongue.
"... I believe she was about to call me a zombie, do you know why that might be, doctor?"
Phanderval whispered Waxier's name like a curse.
"Yes. That bit where you dropped like you'd had your strings cut, and-"
"Sorry, strings cut? Like my hamstrings?"
Phanderval face was overbrim with scrutiny.
"No, like a puppet, have you never seen a God-damned puppet? Don't answer, I don't care in the slightest. You fell over like you were dead, and people you brought in were as cold as any corpse. Not even the world itself going mad has been enough to keep everyone here from their precious gossip. And about that stunt-"
Several someones were shouting throughout the treatment areas. I looked towards my escort.
"Two minutes until what?"
Ignoring the interruptions, he continued furiously lecturing.
"That stunt you pulled, chilling down your patients. Never do that again. It might've helped, maybe, they did all make it to us. But I'd bet your life all you did was nearly kill yourself to stave off problems that didn't come up. Anything short of freezing isn't worth the effort. And if you try that I will make sure the Courts hang you, if I can stop myself from doing it first. Understand?"
"Of course, I can't imagine doing that without years of practice at least."
He searched my eyes for insincerity, and found none, at least none he could prove. With a hurrumph, he led us to a row of people. All dying, or dead. Recent arrivals, or patients who had complications beyond what even the doctors' medicine and magic could treat. The despair seeped into me, and started to leak from my eyes.
"Why are we here, Dr Phanderval?"
Another shout rang out through the courtyard.
"I'm here to do my damned job. You? Just watch."
"Five! Four! Three! Two! One! N-"
The 'now' was cut off by a flood of activity, doctors rushed from bed to bed, stopping at each one for mere moments. And it was all they needed. Mortal wounds closed, flesh reknit in front of me, and hidden by it were far grander feats still. As God's gaze fell upon us, the tides of death shifted in our favour. But mere minutes later we were hidden again by the ground, and the miracles ceased. Dr Phanderval walked back to me, I had not moved in my transfixation. His voice was kinder now, or perhaps just less stressed.
"We have some time before more people decide they should start dying on me, let's go see the ones you brought."
I had no words, so I simply followed.
I was herded through the entrance lobby, Phanderval pausing briefly to make inquiries about the hospital director. I only caught the fact he or she was busy, my lingering stupefaction hindering my ability to friendlily eavesdrop. Then we were through a pair of sliding doors in the back of the building, and into a small, bare room, with a few others inside. I was almost about to ask, but luckily for myself, realisation struck first. I was in the wonder that made this building capable of acting as a hospital, perhaps the only such 'room' in the city, one of the only ones on surface of the world; an elevator. Perhaps a bit sillily, I found this one bit of technological or magical wonder almost as awe inspiring as the intervention of God I witnessed outside.
Thus I found myself on the fifth floor, with the remaining patients that I had foisted upon this innocent staff. It took Phanderval a long while to run down everything that was going wrong inside them. I could not bring myself to talk to them overlong. They looked so thankful, so worried. And I now knew their chances.
"They... don't have the worst prospects."
Gilia and I were back in the inn. Efe was still helping out, most of his injuries being surface level.
"... That has cleared up nothing for me."
Gilia's expression was bleeding patience. I still took a breath to collect my thoughts.
"In short, the doctors have little idea how they are. For most of them. There are a thousand things that could go wrong, or are already going wrong. Normally this would be solved neatly by the suite of unique diagnostic instruments the hospital possesses, but there are ten times, a hundred times maybe, more people waiting than they can see in a week. Then there are those among your townsfolk where the problems are known, but either require intensive surgeries, or possibly organ transplants. In the end, the same root problem, with the same solution; there are too many people needing care, the only thing to do is hope that everyone else dies first."
My mouth was in the general shape of a smile, but my eyes held tears. On Gilia's face, neither.
After talking who specifically faced which issue, and just how helpless we were to do anything but wait and see for all, I went back to the room I woke up in. I sorted my belongings, and watched a spent Efe collapse into sleep, having only managed a few murmurs to me that might have been a 'goodnight' or somesuch.
All in all, it was a productive, and even good in places day. All the more a shame that I discovered my blood in a great many places it should ideally never be.