Chapter 1: 0 - The Fool
It’s been three weeks since Asra’s left.
Your last goodbye had been anything but. The two of you parted with sharp tongues and frustrated tears, a combination that promised nothing but estrangement. It’s been three weeks since Asra’s left. The two of you haven’t so much as spoken since.
This is fine. (It really isn’t.) Your primary goal in coming to Vesuvia has always been to help; when your aunt grew far too sickly to manage her shop, you’d immigrated to the little seaside commercial city just to aid her in her time of need; and now, you are standing your ground in the same city you’d first fallen in love with all those years ago, even at the height of the worst pandemic to date:
The Red Plague.
No one was safe. No one could predict who would be next afflicted. No one has yet found a cure. All anyone can do is wait in the purgatory-like state between dying and death.
It drove you absolutely mad that people were passing away in the hundreds -- every day! -- and the two most powerful magicians in Vesuvia weren’t necessarily powerless to stop it, but unwilling.
You can’t possibly expect me to sit here complacent and watch the whole city burn, you remember spitting angrily.
Asra had frowned. I don’t - that’s exactly why I want you to come with me. Let’s get out of here, before it’s too late.
What struck you then as remarkably selfish only serves now to bring a bitter taste to the back of your tongue. It wasn’t unlike Asra to run away when things got too close for his comfort. You shouldn’t have been so foolish as to expect a different reaction from him, of all people, the person who skipped town when the straw wasn’t even close to breaking his back.
I could never abandon someone in need, you’d said, coldly. Though I wouldn’t expect you to empathize with that.
It’s been three weeks since Asra’s left.
You don’t know when he’s coming back. If he’s coming back. All you can do is divert your efforts and attention where they’re needed the most:
The royal palace.
The Count and Countess had recruited hundreds of the region’s most acclaimed doctors and physicians and surgeons and experts, all in pursuit of a cure for the plague that had managed to claim what is about to be a third of the population of Vesuvia. Though you consider yourself an expert neither in medicine nor health-related matters in general, you do have an abundance of knowledge in the realm of the metaphysical; and if you’ve learnt anything in your time of practicing magic, it is that a disaster of this scale is no longer within the realm of all things ‘ordinary.’
Fortunately, you've never been all that well-versed in 'ordinary,' anyways. Quite the contrary.
So here you find yourself at the front gates, greeted by a pair of frazzled-looking guards. The taller one introduces herself as Bludmila, the shorter one, Ludovico.
You incline your head in greeting. “Good day to you both. I’ve come to inquire about joining the Royal Plague Commission.”
The one called Ludovico sighs inwardly, a contrite expression passing over his worn features. “Sorry, but I don’t think there’s even enough space for you right now. We’ve got all the doctors we need, believe you me.”
“Oh, but I am not a doctor,” you say. You draw your magic up and let it flow past your fingertips, illuminating the air around them in a bright golden glow. You can feel your eyes flash brightly with a little trick Asra had taught you - one to ensure you’d never find yourself in need of a torch ever again.
The dots connect in their heads. The guard on the left -- Bludmila, was it? -- gasps sharply, dropping her iron spear to clatter loudly against the cobblestone as she points directly at you.
“You!” She exclaims, recognition alight on her face. “You’re-” She cuts herself off, before whispering your name as though she expects its very invocation to produce some sort of magical result. It’s very endearing, you’ve always thought, how the townsfolk revere both you and Asra.
“Yes quite. Now, about the commission?”
Both guards nod so swiftly their hats threaten to topple right off their heads.
“Right this way!”
The tearoom you were led into to wait is ornately decorated in fabrics and draperies from all across the world. Prakran silks line the floor-to-ceiling length windows, Nevivonian blown glass fixtures litter the decorative wooden shelves along the eastern wall; and, interestingly enough, you spy a curiously covert mural in a far corner of the room boasting a scene from a Southern war tribe victory.
Bright paint was used. The garish intensity of the blood and gore draws your eyes in until you can’t help but to study every detail of the artwork. It looks like the tribe of predominantly pale-haired warriors have conquered their enemies. The battlefield is littered with severed limbs, broken weapons, and oddly enough...miniscule, bright red beetles.
Before you have time to ponder this further, the double doors behind you open with a great groan, and the telltale click-clacking of high heels alerts you to what you know can only be royal presence.
You rise from your perch on the couch and turn to bow deeply.
Good-natured (yet strangely subdued) laughter sounds above you. “Somehow, I recall telling you that a formal address is not necessary in the slightest.”
Nadia Satrinava is as regal and ethereally beautiful as you remember her being, even despite the obvious duress that has befallen her. As a long time friend of Asra’s, the both of you have grown somewhat familiar, as well.
Yet still, you reach out to take her right hand in yours and bring it up to your face, just barely brushing the satiny softness of the skin there with your lips.
“Always a pleasure, Nadi.”
She smiles down at you indulgently before moving to take the seat opposite your own. Her handmaiden comes bustling in the room not two seconds later with a tray of tea.
“We’re out of your favorite, Milady, so I just brought a regular old herbal blend, I hope that’s alright!” She sets down the tray onto the table between the two of you with a harsh clatter, cups and pot rattling angrily.
“If it’s not, I can totally go bully the kitchens into making something more to your liking!” She hurriedly takes the pot in her hand and begins to pour scalding hot liquid into one of the cups, paying little attention to the task as she rambles on. “Would that be better? I know you like to have the best of the best, especially for guests!”
“Ooh, I knew I should’ve made sure to put in a double order of tea last month! It just slipped my mind, what with all that’s going on! Especially since things started to really pick up ever since the Count--”
The room falls eerily still. Portia jumps, realizing with a start that she’s been talking so fast and absentmindedly that the cup she’d been pouring into had long since overflowed.
Nadia’s eyebrows twitch once, twice, before smoothing back into the perfect picture of poised elegance. “The tea will more than suffice. Instead of fretting over meaningless things such as these, I’d much prefer you to begin work on sourcing available vendors for the Masquerade and all related festivities.”
“Y-yes Milady, right away, Milady!” Portia bobs her mane of bright-orange locks in an obedient salute and scampers out of the room, probably relieved at being given an excuse to escape the tense atmosphere.
Nadia turns back to you, features slightly pinched with irritation. From this close, you’re able to see just how deep the frown lines framing her downturned lips run, just how bruised and swollen her under-eye bags are, just how much she has aged since you’d last seen each other.
You want to ask if she’s okay. You want to ask why she’s pushing herself to the point of visible stress. You want to ask just how bad things have gotten.
(You want to know why Asra hadn’t done anything about it.)
Instead, you ask:
“The Masquerade’s still on this year?”
She sighs a heavy sigh, one that tells you this isn’t the first time she’s had this conversation, nor will it be the last. “Yes. My husband’s wishes. He’s insisted upon a celebration larger than any of its predecessors this year especially, in honor of his fortieth birthday.” Her fingers massage firmly at her temples.
Speaking of the Count...there is a distinct lack of his boisterous laughter and booming presence in the halls. Not once have you heard his telltale shriek of outrage since you’ve been here.
An odd occurrence indeed.
“Speaking of the Count…” You begin, but Nadia is quick to cut you off in a rare act of avoidance.
“Let us not speak of him.” She deadpans. “Anyways, I believe I’ve been summoned here to entertain a request of yours, have I not?”
“Alright. Enlighten me, then.”
There’s no good reason why Nadia would deny you your wish to serve the people of Vesuvia; of anyone, she understands best what it means to want to give back. If anything, from the look of weariness and exhaustion on her face, the efforts of managing the Plague could use some additional assistance, assistance that would be more than welcome in the form of a familiar and capable face.
So why are you nervous? Why do you feel an uncomfortable churning sensation in the pit of your gut? Why are you sweating? Why do the hairs on the back of your neck stand stick-straight, as though something is about to go terribly, horribly wrong?
“I want to join the Royal Plague Commission.”
Nadia blinks once. Twice. Brushes a stray strand of amethyst hair behind her ear before blinking once more, mouth agape. “I beg your pardon?”
“I want to help, Nadi,” you sigh, leaning forward in your seat to reach for her hands. “Asra...he left. He tried to get me to go with him and I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not while the city is in shambles, not when there’s still something that can be done. Please, don’t let this have been in vain. Let me help Vesuvia -- let me help you. Please.”
She is as guarded as you’ve ever seen her. “Asra would undoubtedly have my head for this.”
“Asra isn’t here.”
It hurts to say. But it’s the truth.
As though this is her last stand, either to convince you or herself, you cannot tell, she warns you in a tone of voice you would almost describe as ‘pleading’ if begging was something Nadia Satrinava was known to do. Her eyes shine bright with barely contained emotion. “I cannot guarantee your protection from the Plague. The commission works hands-on with patients in various stages of affliction. Should you come into contact with a contagious case…”
“I know the risks,” you whisper, gripping her hands even tighter, thumbs pressing into the coolness of the rocks adorning her fingers. “And I accept them. Anything to help.”
You think, briefly, of a time just before the Plague had begun to sweep through the city. It had been a quiet afternoon spent in the upstairs of the shop with Asra and Faust, lounging around in bed on a rare off-day. The three of you laid coiled up together amongst the silken sheets, suffering through the surplus of body heat in what had been proving to be the warmest springtime season to date.
He’d looked at you then in a way you’d never before been looked at. Somewhere deep inside, you knew what he was going to say; and still when he’d whispered so quietly, so reverently, I’d do anything for you, you had the gall to blush as though it was the first time he’d told you something like this.
Anything? You asked.
Anything. He responded.
It’s been three weeks since Asra’s left.
He isn’t coming back.
“Anything,” you say, jaw set, heart heavy.
And you mean it.
Chapter 2: XIII - Death
The Quaestor makes an appearance. And so does Doctor Zero-Six-Nine.
cw: canon-consistent descriptions of the conditions in the dungeons during the height of the plague (blood + gore).
When one hears of an official royal institution -- for example: a commission -- there are certain connotations that come attached to the title, like the notion of sturdy oak desks, elegant fountain pens, with servants eagerly waiting to assist you in whatever task requires additional work.
Despite this, you were not expecting complete and total pampering.
You also were not expecting to be lead straight into the dungeons.
One of the elusive members of the Royal Court meets you just outside of the tea room once Nadia had confirmed your registration into the commission and you had officially been dubbed a volunteer.
They are fairly tall and slight in build, looking alarmingly slender even when cloaked in the medical garb that covers them from forked head to leather-clad toe. The only part of them visible to you are a pair of wide-set blood red eyes set like rubies embroidered into sickly greenish skin.
They blink one after the other, as though not fully accustomed to human bodily function. You find it more than just a little unsettling to watch.
“Quaestor Valdemar,” they say from behind their pristine white surgical mask. “Head Surgeon and Chief Doctor of the Royal Plague Commission.”
Just as you begin to introduce yourself, they interrupt you.
“I know who you are.”
They do not elaborate.
Valdemar spins on their heel and walks away without waiting for you to follow, even though you assume that you are meant to, so you do. They lead you down hallways and corridors you hadn’t even known to exist, and you had fancied yourself adequately acquainted with most of the palace’s inner workings.
After a while, brick turns into cobblestone, windows turn into mounted torches, doors turn into metal bars made passable only by whispered enchantment, and once-breathable air has now been sullied by the thick, potent scent of iron and rot. You rush to cover your nose and mouth just as the Quaestor stops abruptly in front of you.
When they pivot around, their surgical mask is hooked just underneath their sickly green jaw. They take a heaving inhale as their eyes flutter shut in something you can only think to liken to pleasure, before exhaling forlornly.
It is only when they speak do you feel the beginnings of chills running down the length of your spine. Now that their mask is down, you can see their mouth move...and in extension, their two (?) sets of razor-sharp, abnormally large teeth.
“I suppose I should address you as Doctor Number Three-Four-Two, but you are not a doctor, are you?” They lean into your space at this, sniffing curiously at your neck. You barely manage to stand your ground.
“It would be factually inaccurate. I loathe little other than factual inaccuracy, this you will come to learn.”
That’s great. Could you get your mouth full of canines away from my jugular, please?
Valdemar draws back, but only slightly, still close enough for you to feel the hot wash of their breath on your face -- that is, you should feel their breath. Oddly enough, you can’t feel anything from them: no breath, no body heat, no aura.
The closer you study their slim face, their sunken features, the odd angular sharpness of their bones, as though they were not meant to fit inside of their body, the more you realize that something is wrong. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s just something about them…
“Down here, we value the pursuit of total objectivity. Objectively, you are not a doctor, but a witch, and so I shall call you Witch Number Zero-Zero-One.”
And then their teeth unfold from the thin, chapped confines of their lips one-by-one in what takes you several moments to realize is supposed to be a smile.
“Interesting. You do not take offense.”
Your face remains impassive. “Getting huffy won’t cure the Plague any faster.”
“Oh? You came to cure?”
What else would you have come to do?
What else are they doing down here?
You must take too long to answer for their liking. The Quaestor spins back on their heel to lead you further into the dungeons, and continues on like they hadn’t expected a response in the first place.
“Now where have I heard that before?”
The only sounds that exist in this small, dank, confined hallway are the sharp click-clacks of their workboots. It sounds as though they are rapping against the cobblestone with increasing intensity the closer the two of you emerge to a strange pulley-and-lift contraption.
“In you step. There is no time to waste!”
Despite your trust for them depleting alarmingly fast by the second, you have no choice but to enter the oddity, passing through from the damp stone to cold, impersonal metal. It chills you right through the soles of your shoes.
It should make you feel better that the Quaestor themselves are stepping inside with you, but all you can feel is a mounting sense of dread.
Especially when they fix their deep-set, blood red eyes upon yours and smile once more. “And now, the fun begins.”
The contraption gives a sudden jolt, and then the both of you plunge into endless darkness.
If you had been horrified at the conditions in the city, the dungeons put into an entirely new perspective what the gravity of the situation really is.
Above, one was not unlucky enough to come into even the most remote of contacts with a Plague victim. Those afflicted and their entire family were shut up in their houses (marked infected with a piece of red cloth nailed to the front door) and locked inside until the Plague took its course.
Down below, it is very, very different.
Your first thought upon entry into the main dungeon is that the metal used for all the equipment is foreign and colored a strange pinkish-reddish hue, one of which you’ve never seen before.
You then realize that it is not metal you are looking at, but an abundance of limbs — some still attached to the poor soul still unlucky enough to feel their deterioration, but most completely severed from their once-vessel and now left to litter the floor like waste.
The main dungeon is circular in build, reminiscent of the coliseum. Only, instead of the stage being an open expanse or dirt, there is a raised fixture at the dead center with some kind of surgical table bolted atop of it. That, too, is covered in gore.
Surrounding the working area are cells. And judging from the evidence of light slipping between gaps in the door frames, they are in use.
You stop dead in your tracks, just underneath the arch of the entryway. “ Prisoners are being held alongside plague victims?”
The Quaestor stops as well.
“What did we say about factual inaccuracy,” they deadpan, not even turning around to dignify your outburst with their appraisal. “Those are the sleeping quarters.”
Distantly, a few discordant moans of pain echo loudly in the chamber.
The bodies littering the corners, the floor, the surgical table… were some of them still alive?
Oh, Empress above, you’d known it must have been bad, but conditions like these were so abhorrent they almost seemed intentionally so.
Had Asra been right? Would it have been better to leave?
All around you, the dungeon swims in and out of view, a black film settling over the corners of your periphery. Your breath leaves you in short, staccato pants as you struggle to breathe around the thick humidity of the stagnant air.
A chorus of groans erupts from somewhere you can not discern in your addled state. It frightens you badly, sounding like something out of a nightmare, and you stumble backward, only to hit a disconcertingly moist wall and go down.
You land on something warm and pliable. When you look down, it stares back up at you.
Something like a scream must leave your lips, for the Quaestor has finally turned around to face you. They wear a frighteningly blank expression.
“A doctor you are not, indeed.” Then, they spin on their heel and leave your field of vision, muttering something about ‘spineless new hires.’
Time escapes you after that. Never before have you been surrounded by such depravity, such gruesomeness; surely you’d dealt with injuries both physical and spiritual in the past, but never before had it felt so all-consuming, so...distinctly unlike anything man-made.
The plague itself has not even had a chance to enter your bloodstream and you already feel the oppressive weight of fluid in your lungs as a cold chill breaks out all over your body.
What the hell kind of disease afflicts the unafflicted?
Not a normal one, your mind whispers back to you. Something else whispers to you as well, heavy in the pocket of your trousers. The cards are urging you to run your trembling fingers over their expanse and pull at them for guidance, but you cannot for the life of you focus on anything other than the terrible condition you’ve found yourself in.
Fortunately, you are not left to stew in discomfort much longer.
With your vision blurring in pain as it is, it’s difficult to determine just who exactly is picking you up off of the cold, metal ground, but you are able to depict some defining features: for one, a vibrant shock of unruly red hair; for another, a strange, elongated face that curves down and out like the beak of a bird. It is a disconcertingly pure white, given the conditions of the dungeon.
The beaked creature carries you in its arms, which are a cloak of the darkest night you have ever seen. The only things that exist are the creature’s rubied eyes - eerily reminiscent of the Quaestor - and the coldness of its touch.
It tries to speak, but the sound is muffled and distorted.
What are you? You try and fail to ask. Your consciousness is failing you rather quickly, and you’d like to try and commune with the entity that has taken you from your place of suffering.
Its eyes stare back at you, unseeing.
Death, you think.
And then your world succumbs to a veil of darkness.
When you next awake, it is in a (blessedly lit) bedroom.
Well…’bedroom’ might be a bit of a stretch.
Much to the chagrin of your pounding head, you look around and note that it’s little more than a makeshift office, of sorts; papers and scrolls and books and fountain pens strewn across every available surface (yes, even the floor.) The only available seating besides the crude chair sat in front of an equally crude desk is the cot you’re currently laid upon.
“Ah, so you’ve finally decided to join the land of the living. We’ve missed you dearly.”
You bolt upright.
To your immediate left, sat on the floor by your bedside, is an intimidatingly tall and gaunt man, smirking as though he’s said something particularly clever. What catches your eye is not the deep violet depressions underneath and around his eyes, nor is it the alarming lack of color in his face; no, it’s…
His hair. The same fiery auburn of the creature that had rescued you from the dungeons.
“Your beak!” You cry. “Where did it go?”
He seems genuinely confused at your outburst. “My what…? My- oh.” A shadow of amusement passes over his features before extinguishing just as quickly as it had arisen. You wonder what he’s seen, to train himself so thoroughly out of genuine expressions of joy. “My mask, you mean.”
“A customary thing, really. All of us doctors here are required to wear it, unless you fancy the constant stench of gore and decay. Some do.”
You think of the Quaestor removing their surgical mask only when you’d reached the dungeons and swallow hard.
He is clearly thinking the same thing, for his expression sours further. “I see you’ve gotten acquainted with our Quaestor dearest. A charming one, aren’t they?”
“Not at all,” you deadpan.
This finally gets him to crack a smile. A ruggedly attractive smile, at that; the kind of smile more dangerous than any disease running rampant within the dark, dank walls which confine you.
It strikes you then how his smile is not the only attractive thing about him, and you flush despite yourself.
“Doctor Ilya Devorak, Number Zero-Six-Nine,” he faithfully recites before his grin turns into something a little more salacious, “but you can call me ‘handsome.’”
“No, I don’t think I will.”
Although you’ve been acquainted for only a few minutes (and admittedly charmed by his looks, against your better judgment), you know exactly his type - the type to play and schmooze in hopes to overcompensate for a deeper, underlying flaw. It’s only a matter of time before it rears its ugly head. And when it does, you will be exactly as you are in this moment: nonplussed, and swayed neither left nor right.
You came here to serve the people of Vesuvia. If Asra of all things hadn’t been able to keep you from your goal, then some smooth-talking doctor is the least of your concerns.
It’s time you got out of this uncomfortably itchy bed. Fool alive, what was that mattress made of? Hay?
Swinging your legs over the side of it, you attempt to stand and then immediately regret this decision when all your balance and coordination leaves you at once.
The doctor is by your side before you even hit the ground; familiarly strong arms wrap around you and hold you upright against an equally firm chest.
“Hey now! You’ve only just awoken after a good eighteen hours’ rest. Slow and minimal movement, please. Oh. That reminds me - did you happen to have eaten before you came? It’s probably best to get some food into you, even if it’s light. The kitchens should have sent down breakfast by now...or was it lunch that was just delivered? Arghguhg, I can’t for the life of me rememb--”
The mouth on this man.
With all the fluff and drabble that fell past his lips, something of interest did manage to hold onto your attention.
He’s still rambling to himself when you interrupt: “Eighteen hours?”
His trap snaps shut as he blinks down owlishly at you.
“Why, yes. You’ve been asleep since yesterday night.”
You’re about to ask why - what reason, after all, would you have for a spontaneous mini-coma? And then you remember: the horrible chills, the sudden onslaught of perspiration, the vicious burning behind the backs of your eyes, and above all, the notion that--
“The Plague is magical.”
The doctor nearly drops you, before remembering himself. Still, though, he draws away, almost defensively. “I beg your pardon?”
It’s all coming back to you, now; the pieces fit so neatly where they hadn’t before. “The plague. Nothing man-made has an energy and pull of that caliber. I’ve scarcely felt things stronger, and all within an entirely different realm than our own.”
“Oh, come off it.”
And here it is: the flaw you anticipated, and unearthed far more quickly than you’d thought. The doctor’s once-amicable and inviting features now contort themselves into something sour -- something as unpleasant to look at as it no-doubt feels to make.
“Magic has its place independent of medicine, and medicine is something I know. Medicine isn’t felt - it just is.”
“Then how would you describe my symptoms, doctor? Perspiration. Chills. Intramuscular aching. An acute burning sensation behind both of my eyes.”
He stays silent.
“I’ve never come into direct contact with a Plague victim before,” you continue on, urgency straining your voice. “And I was still afflicted, even if it was only a figment of my imagination. A pull of that intensity, an aura that persuasive...that is the mark of magic.”
“So what? You’ll have us wave a wand and cure the city?”
You feel everything in you shut down almost instantly. “If that’s what you think magic is, then there’s a reason why you don’t understand it.”
A retort is on the tip of his tongue, but you no longer feel like finishing the conversation. Nothing you say will make a difference in his mind, you’re sure, and you aren’t about to waste your (still very depleted) energy on his close-mindedness.
His mouth parts, a gasp fills his lungs, his pallid face grows pink with emotion--
And then he is interrupted by four sharp, succinct raps at the door.
“Doctor Number Zero-Six-Nine, Doctor Number Three-Four-Two, you are being summoned for daily instruction,” calls the Quaestor’s familiarly bleak deadpan.
“The subject? Vivisection.”
The doctor’s scowl deepens impossibly further.