They said that the wyrns started it. Those were the flesh feeders that brought madness, disease and the stench of the tomb distilled in their wake as surely as they begot fear in a child, but the wyrns never came this far North. They kept themselves hid in the darkened forests and I, who had never left Lamekh before, had never even seen one. But to Lamekh that Vermilia season came pestilence. A plague that grew subtly in fevers and sweats, rose into convulsions and fits and finally, in the days before death, a fit of a different sort that sent its victims spiralling into insanity. A madness that drove them to the streets to proclaim their visions of another world that overlapped our own, in which the Vav were not just tangible, but cruel masters, in which the Order was no more. The ravings of the insane.
In the soaring temperatures people were falling fast. Before long bodies began to litter the streets, festering in the heat of the sun. Soon none were allowed in or out of the city save to dispose of a body outside the gates. Bodies went out and nothing but news trickled back in, news that we had been sealed off from the rest of Quibbuts, that the Saffras would send only so much help, that they were to quarantine us. Our city was given up for gone. But true to their word the government sent in Amaranthines to act as plague doctors, though it seemedthey were heremore to dissect the festering corpses than to administer medicine. But then they decreed the disease waterborne, not only preventing the bodies from being dumped at sea, but sealing off our last contact with the outside world. Our trading stopped. Our city was dying.
And as it always did whenever there was dirty or menial work to be had, so the lot fell to the Duns to clear the streets. As our usual stream of revenue had mostly dried up, we took on the role of disposers. It was a curious thing, but no matter how closely we came into contact with the diseased, Duns were seemingly unable to contract the plague. The plague doctors got wind of this, and begantesting our blood for proof. One cornered me in the street once as I headed out for food. The plague had, at least, given some slight improvement to my state of affairs, in that the streets were now so empty of the living that I was free to come and go as I pleased, for once without fear of rebuttal or even ignorance. To those that could still trade in the market any sale was now one worth having. Even the Vav seemed to have left the city. Scant consolation really, when the roads were heaving with rotted flesh, swathes of flies hovering round them like the thunderheads that threatened to break in the sky and the drains running dry with crusted blood. Or perhaps all who lay in the streets were not yet dead, for the bundle of hair and rags I had taken for a corpse suddenly reached out a hand, parchment thin and yellow skin, to grasp at my ankle as I walked past. The grip was surprisingly strong and I could not shake her loose. For a woman it was, her hollow face peering at me through a matt of hair.
'Don't let them take me…'she rasped, her lips chapped to the bone and surrounded by sores.
'Who?' I asked despite myself, desperately trying to wiggle my foot free at the same time.
'The Vav,' she croaked and then she slumped forward, a crystal syringe embedded in her back. I glanced up, extricating myself from her flaccid grip. It wasn't a Vav, but it could have been one in human form. The plague doctors too wore grey cloaks, but their faces were hidden by something far more sinister. A mask of wrought metal like a great, hooked beak covered their faces like an iron crow. Only their eyes remained human and uncovered. And his were green.
'You're a Verdant,' I blurted. 'I thought the plague doctors were all Amaranthines.'
'Right now Miss they'll take anyone they can get.' His voice was pleasant, if a little muffled. He reached down to pull off the mask, revealing a youthful face, tanned and strong jawed. He squinted a little in his left eye.
'Wait a minute, I know you, you're that farmer from He who comes to us for Dehena.'
'S'right Miss,' he blushed a little, 'how is Miss Dehena?'
'She's fine,' I smiled. 'What are you doing out here anyway?'
'Saffras employed me,' he stuck out his chest proudly, 'said they needed a strong hand to assist in the operations.'
'Ran out of volunteers did they?' I glanced down at the woman lying prone by my feet. 'What is that, a sedative?'
The man shrugged. 'They're gonna die anyway. Save the medicine for those who can…' he trailed off.
'Afford it?' I supplied. He shrugged again. 'Listen Miss, can I ask you a favour?'
'I suppose. Should you even be speaking to me, outside of business hours I mean?'
'I don't know how you do things here in Lamekh, but in He if you can do a day's work then you're as good as anyone else. Never mind the Order. You'd still get paid less mind.'
'Fair enough. What do you need me for?'
'I need to take your blood.'
'My blood. You want to take my blood,' I repeated stupidly.
'Why do you need my blood?'
'Send it out to the Amaranthines for testing. Reckon they can find a cure from it’
‘It’s true then, about Duns being immune? I thought it was just coincidence!’
‘Alright then, how exactly do you plan on taking this blood?'
The man reached into the folds of his robes and brought out a vial and a long syringe.
'Oh. I suppose I should have expected that really.'
'You don't like needles?' the man asked, as I eyed the thing apprehensively.
'Seamstresses,' he said slowly. 'Doctors. Needle makers.'
'That was a rhetorical question,' I cut him off mid-flow. His face was blank.
'Never mind just do it,' I said, as he reached for my left arm. It took him several attempts to pierce the correct place, let alone actually extract any blood. After five minutes he had managed to fill the vial, leaving my arm lacerated, bruised and incredibly sore in the process.
'They really don't give you any training for this sort of thing do they?' I said.
The man shook his head, smiling, and replaced the vial in the folds of his cloak.
'Still I guess if it helps find a cure…' I trailed off, watching the blood drip down my arm on to the forehead of the woman beneath me.
'I have to go,' said the man, 'thank you though.'
'I'm Hupert by the way.' I shook his hand, with my other arm.
'I guess I'll see you again sometime.'
'Sure,' I nodded, glancing at the bodies that littered the streets. 'One way or another.'
Hupert began tredging back through the streets, winding his way carefully through the corpses. Another glance at my arm told me it was probably best to head back home. I have no recollection at all of that journey, but Gin assured me that when they found me collapsed upon the doorstep, the pool of blood that had gathered beneath was fairly substantial.