A Sign Of Things To Come
Tags: [Story] [More of Shallya's Work] [Mutant Child] [Ominous End?]
It was high noon when Vesper crested the last hill and laid eyes on Ostermark’s capital for the first time in her life. Bechafen was an enormous city by her standards, with more than 10.000 inhabitants, she had been told. The temple she grew up in could have fit inside the city’s walls a hundred times, probably many hundred times.
Vesper raised her petite hands to provide some shade from the sun, scanning the city for a white-washed temple like the one she grew up in. The heat was sweltering, even on the hilltop, with a weak, cool breeze grasping at locks of her tangled hair. The initiate paused her search for a moment to run her fingers over her forehead, sighing quietly as she felt the thin sheen of sweat pool along her fingers. A few drops ran into her hair, the rest she shook off her hand, to the ground. The hooded robe really was not made as summer wear, at all. She reached up and pushed the hood back, free from her neck with a small shudder. The cloth clung hesitantly to her skin for a moment, only to let go, leaving an uncomfortable wet patch.
Standing on the tips of her toes to add a few inches to her unimpressive five feet and a few inches, the novice let her eyes scour what she could see of the city once more. Finally, she caught a glimpse of what she thought could be a temple of Shallya. It was situated in the rich district of town, opposite to the gate she was close to. With a small smile on her lips, she set off towards the city gate.
Some twenty minutes later, Vesper crossed the threshold into the city, giving a small nod to the two guards keeping a watch over the surrounding lands, and again to the two standing on either side of the entrance inside. Immediately, the initiate felt enclosed. Not to a claustrophobic degree, but the large city and the mere knowledge and feeling of thousands of other people going about their daily lives around her was quite breathtaking. She did not even realize that she had stopped to look up at the two-story buildings until one of the guards cleared his throat quietly. With a mumbled “sorry,” the girl continued down the main street, into the city.
It would not take long for young neophyte to realize just what conditions many of Bechafen’s inhabitants lived under. There were beggars on every street. The coughs and groans of the malnourished, the sneezes of the diseased, it was all only a few steps away from the main avenues running through the city. She continued onwards, passing through a wonderful market that was absolutely brimming with exotic and wonderful things. A troupe of performers awed her for the better part of ten minutes, and the herald’s news for double of that. The war against Archaon’s forces had left much turmoil.
Finally, wrestling herself free from the grip of the lively, beating heart of the city’s commerce, she set off down a less-travelled street. As she walked, the houses became progressively less well-maintained, the kids playing in the streets increasingly thin, and the amount of people sitting or standing around without work or a goal in life grew ever bigger.
After a long walk, she came upon a small square lined with ramshackle houses and empty food-stands. A group of kids were fighting over some sort of toy, and several groups of people were dotted around the open, unpaved area, many of them looking ill or even crippled. The initiate paced to a free bench and set down her things, drawing in a deep breath, feeling the familiar tingle of satisfaction that she always felt as she was about to start work in an area.
Vesper opened her bag of medical supplies and looked up, smiling at the lone, elderly man with a measure of surprise. Normally, she would be crowded with patients the instant she was ready. She reached out her left hand and placed it on the man’s right forearm, a calm, serious expression settling on her face. Often, people needed someone to listen just as much as they needed physical assistance, so she always remained prepared for both. The man looked down at where she touched him. He was visibly surprised for a moment, then relaxed.
It turned out that he had a minor infection in a wound on his leg. The ardent novice cleaned the injury and patched him up again efficiently, receiving the deepest thanks from the man. Like everyone else she had treated after the night the temple burned down, he commented on how cool and soothing her touch was. She merely smiled to him at the remark, otherwise conversing idly as she worked. The more focus she could take off someone’s wound, the better.
After the man had been treated, it seemed as if the rest of the square became less wary of her. Vesper wondered briefly why they had been cautious at all, given the mission of all Shallya’s faithful, but quickly let the thought go. There were plenty of wounds to bandage and heal, and plenty of minds to mend.
Hours passed as she treated everyone who came to her in the small square. The stench of sweat and long-unwashed clothes hung in the air from the crowd of people around her that needed treatment, even long after the summer sun fell below the walls of the city. At some point, someone offered her a meager meal, which she declined as politely as she could. These people obviously needed it more than her. “Give it to the next beggar you come across, madam. Thank you, and go with Shallya’s blessing.” Vesper gave the middle-aged woman a smile, and returned to stitching up someone’s wounded arm.
Finally, as night truly settled on the square, the initiate started to pack up what remained of her supplies. She finished the day off with blessing every single person present along with promising to come back the day after, and then set off back towards the market square.
A frail, bony hand gripped her left sleeve and held on. Vesper was forced to lurch to the side a little. The initial fear of being gripped vanished quickly, as she looked into the eyes of an obviously desperate woman, somewhere in her thirties. Ragged blonde hair surrounded her starved face.
“Please, miss. Please! It’s my boy. Please, you have to help him! You have to help!” Her voice was pleading, but still barely more than a whisper.
It was hard to say if she was truly so weak that she could barely speak, or if something else was the matter. The startled girl put what she hoped was a calming hand on the woman’s shoulder, smiling peacefully to her. “I will gladly help your son, ma’am. I promise that he will be fine. Take me to him.”
Before turning to lead Vesper down an alley by her sleeve, the blonde-haired woman’s eyes turned abruptly painful as the initiate said that the boy would be fine. It took only twenty seconds for the stumbling novice and the hunger-wracked woman to reach a collection of planks and clay that could only be classified as a house in the most liberal sense of the word. It was more a hut on the verge of collapsing than a proper building. The low-hanging ceiling was wet despite it being summer, and it arched downwards heavily, forcing even the petite novice to bend down as she entered.
Inside was darkness. A figure rustled around in the back of the one-room hut, but with no light inside the house, she was unable to truly distinguish much of anything in there. “Ma’am, I am going to call upon Shallya to create light for us, so I can see while I work. Please, do not be alarmed. This is an entirely harmless prayer.”
The young initiate waited for a few seconds, more sensing than seeing a slow nod from the woman, now standing just inside the hut after closing the door. Vesper mumbled the words she had been taught so many years ago, now, and held out her hand. From nowhere, a small sphere of light flickered into existence, almost as if someone had breathed out and the globe had followed. A milky-white, cloudy ball formed, and a soft light illuminated the entire hut.
Vesper’s eyes focused on the woman first. She looked scared, oddly, but determined as well, standing guard at the door. The girl followed the older woman’s eyes as they flickered from her and to the back of the hut. What Vesper saw made her jolt backwards. She exhaled sharply as her head bumped against the soft, wooden ceiling, her eyes rapidly taking in the sight in front of her.
A boy, probably around ten or eleven years of age. As so many others in Ostermark’s capital, he bore the distinct signs of having had too little food for too long. But that was not what had shocked the initiate. The boy’s hands… Where he should have had hands, his arms transitioned into obscene, orange-red crab-claws big enough that it seemed a wonder that he could even stand up with them. Despite this obvious mutation, he had not charged the foreign girl entering his home. He whimpered in the light, and pressed himself up against the back wall. Vesper cast a glance at the woman by the door, her voice at once frightful and accusing.
“What has he done to become a mutant? What horrible deed runs in your family’s blood? How have you restrained him from attacking me?”
The questions hit the older woman like lashings from a whip. She shrunk away from the novice, though remaining committed to guarding the door. Her voice was tearful and desperate as she spoke.
“I-I don’t know! I don’t… Two months ago, his hands started to change. He has always been a good boy, I swear by the twin-tailed comet itself! We have done nothing to deserve this, miss. I only wish that someone could change him back-“
Her voice broke. She abandoned the door, running over to cradle the equally frightened boy in her arms. When she looked up again, her face was lined with trailing tears. There were no more words, she could not speak, only look desperately at the untried initiate, hoping for a miracle.
Vesper’s lips parted, but she stopped herself from speaking. It was impossible for her to suppress a very sharp tinge of fear as she looked upon the mutated boy. She certainly had no idea how to cure mutation, if there was a cure at all. But how could this boy be a mutant at all? He could not have made the journey to Mordheim and back here unnoticed, and there was not a hint of chaotic insanity in him. Yet, he still bore those enormous, scissor-sharp claws.
She swallowed, wet her lips, and hesitantly spoke once more. “I… I’m very sorry, ma’am, but I can’t change what has happened to your son. I don’t know of any cure for mutation. Your secret is… Safe, with me, but I cannot help you.” She glanced at the boy, meeting his eyes briefly. They were wide, scared, and above all, contained a deep-rooted sadness. Far too much bad had happened far too quickly to such a young boy, Vesper thought before bowing her head and hurrying out the door.
For the first five minutes, the initiate scurried through the mostly empty streets of night-time Bechafen. Her thoughts whirled unrestrained, but kept returning to the look in the boy’s eyes. He had not been mindless. He was an innocent victim of a cruel world. What did that mean for the mutants that had attacked Mercy’s Light? Had they once been what this boy was now?
Vesper’s light run slowed gradually. She wandered slowly through the city, across the empty marketplace, past noisy taverns and whorehouses, barely noticing what was around her. She knew the general direction she had to take to get to the noble district, and certainly needed time to think before meeting her sisters in faith. So lost in thought was she, that she did not notice a young man walking opposite to her stopping dead in his tracks, glancing at her robes and the red heart and drop of blood over her chest. The man paced ahead of her towards the noble district, and was soon out of sight once more.
After more than half an hour of wandering, the tired, pale initiate stepped through the gate to the noble district. She sent a smile to a guard in a metal breastplate and asked for directions to the temple of Shallya. Upon receiving the directions, she offered a blessing to the guard and walked off purposefully. The temple was some four hundred steps up ahead, in the middle of a lavish, paved square. “Perhaps a bit too authoritative”, Vesper thought. Especially the five steps up to the double doors seemed an odd choice to the ascetic, giving servant of Shallya who now stepped up them.
Having knocked on the door a few times, she was received by a lightly panting, dark-haired abbess in white robes. The initiate noted the lack of the bleeding heart upon her left breast, but the revered mother certainly smelled like Vesper sometimes believed she did after a long day working in a crowded hospital. They exchanged brief pleasantries, the woman introducing herself as Abbess Syrith. She was in her late twenties, surprisingly tall and certainly very good-looking, Vesper noted mentally.
The initiate was shown to a small, sparsely furnished room with a prayer mat, a small desk and chair, and a roughly hewn bed. The abbess excused herself, and left the tired girl to drift off to sleep in the small, cool room.