The First Steps – 4.08

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The entrance to the building itself was unlocked, likely in anticipation of our arrival. It brought us to the inside a narrow corridor with a staircase at the back, wrapping around the backside and upwards to the second floor. There were two doors to the left of the passage—one next to us and one closer to the stairway.

That one smells like the bathroom,” Aeria said, gesturing to the door further away. It was likely that entrance led to a hall that housed both the hearth and privy room for all the people living here. Water was probably piped through it every few hours to clean it out, but the smell was another story.

Regardless, Elsa knocked on the door next to us. It opened to reveal a small girl with brown hair, who grabbed onto Elsa’s arm and immediately tried to pull her inside. “Tanya, what’s wrong?

“My brothers have gotten worse!” she cried. “Mommy and I are trying to help, but they’re burning up!”

“We have a basic Antipyretic Supplement already made,” I said preemptively when Elsa turned to me. “I can have two cups ready to drink within five minutes, catalyst included. That should remove them from immediate danger.”

Elsa found that acceptable and sped off to the room on the opposite end with the child while I unshrank my apothecary kit off to the side of the main room. The left compartment contained an assortment of components that were needed in preparing medications for common ailments, while the right compartment had the alchemic additives that were ready to be used with Aeria’s help. The center compartment had multiple drawers, laid out in five rows of four smaller ones and two paired rows of larger ones at the bottom, and held the other tools and implements I brought with me.

Two medical cups from one of the center drawers were set aside. A flask of water, distilled by Salamander flames, from the left section was then poured into each cup halfway. Last was five red drops of the Antipyretic Supplement and a single golden drop from the Catalyst, dripped into each cup. That should be enough for the children based on their ages. “Aeria, your turn.”

She landed on the rim of one cup and hummed as she released her magic in the form of sparkles of light. The droplets began to resonate with them, showing that they were ready to be infused into the foundation of the water. She continued to hum as I stirred over the course of a minute, until the entire contents of the cup were a swirl of red and gold. Then we did the same to the second cup.

Once done, I carried them into the children’s room. It was cramped and stuffy, which wasn’t a surprise given the room wasn’t even half the size of the previous one. Such a small space combined with the fact that it had seven people and two bunk beds inside of it.

The patients, the two boys, were both red from the fever as they laid in the bottom bunks of their beds. Ragged, raspy coughs tore out of their throats hard enough to make their sweat-slickened bodies jerk and their noses ran with mucus out. Even as Elsa and their mother tried to cool them off with soaked rags, it would be a miracle if they lived through the day in their current state.

“Give them this,” I said. “It should suppress the fever.”

Elsa extended her ‘fingers’ so they wrapped around the cups. Then she set them down next to a bucket of chilled water, where a pair of thermometers had been placed next to the bag she’d brought with her. She turned to Aeria after sampling them with her digits. “They can’t sit up, so they’ll need to be drip-fed.

Okay.” She fluttered over at the implied command and wove the air between their mouths and the cups into tubes. Suctioning the medicine out in small increments, she arranged so that it would drip into their mouths slowly and let them swallow it at their own pace. Once enough of it was ingested, the fever would be broken and the immediate threat to their lives subdued.

Still, it was strange. I was told they were only suffering from a slight fever, insomnia, and coughing only a day ago. A gradual increase would be one thing, but if the fever climbed high enough to put them in this much danger in less than a day something was seriously amiss.

Something had to have caused it, but these children weren’t in any condition to tell me. I had to wait until they finished enough of the medicine to break the fever before I could. But their mother should know something, so I retrieved a reservoir pen and small paper pad to write down whatever information I could inquire from her.

Miss Bancroft explained that they first started showing signs of illness around a week ago. It was an occasional cough, but that was commonplace around this season due to the rain and they had been playing outside at the time. It was only a bit after that they had trouble sleeping and the fever wouldn’t settle.

“The apothecary whose place is on the edge of the district raised his prices, but a lot of us wives know some home-cures for the simple stuff to get around that. I tried all the ones I could, but the boys were just getting worse bit-by-bit until I decided to go see Elsa’s boy for help.”

“Can you tell me the cures in question?” I asked. Folk cures were usually more or less enough for simple maladies, since if they weren’t effective then they wouldn’t be passed down. But since the people who made them might not know why they worked, they could end up exacerbating the issues through a misdiagnosis.

She listed off a number of herbs that were commonplace and easy to gather from the nearby woodlands and fields. None that would worsen their condition from what I could recall off the top of my head. There had to be something else. “And no one else has been showing the same symptoms getting worse in the community?”

Miss Bancroft shook her head. “My boys have gotten it worse than anyone else. I make my little girl drink some brew just in case she comes down with it, but she’s been fine. Me too.”

Then it can’t be something contagious. If it were then her daughter would likely be affected as well, given she was only slightly older than them from what I could tell and constantly around them. The preventative measures she’s taken could help mitigate the worst of it, but for her to not have any signs means it’s something specific that’s happened to them.

This one’s done!” Aeria’s announcement drew our eyes to the oldest boy as the air-woven straw vanished. His cup was empty, so it should have broken his fever.

Tanya crawled onto the bed and then pressed her forehead to his to be certain. “He’s still a little hot, but it feels like he cooled down a lot. I think the medicine worked.”

Elsa reached for one of the medical thermometers that laid on a cloth, by the bucket. It was a glass rod with a spherical bottom, lined on the inside with small orbs that marked the degrees. The fluid inside of it rose depending on the temperature it was exposed to and would give a better reading than the child could using only her forehead.

I checked the results myself afterwards to be certain. The fluid had risen past the red sphere that served as normal human body temperature by roughly two or so others, marking it as a low-grade fever. An improvement, but not what was supposed to happen. “Something must be—”

Sweetie.” Elsa’s tone was soft, but there was an undercurrent in it that stilled my tongue before I could bring up the discrepancy. Judging by the subtle way she shook her head, I gathered she came to the same conclusion then. “While we wait for Aldwin’s temperature to drop too let me borrow your notepad and pen.

I handed them over without a word, leaving her to find an empty page to write on. As she did so the youngest one finished his medicine as well and we measured his temperature. It was the same as his brother, reduced to a low-grade fever but not broken entirely.

They’re past the worst of it,” she lied, looking directly into my eyes as she passed the notepad back to me. “Will you give us some privacy while Tanya and I clean the boys up a little?

Taking a look at what she had written as my spirit fluttered onto my shoulder, we both nodded in understanding. “Right. Miss Bancroft, if you’ll follow us.”

She seemed to understand something was amiss from her expression but didn’t contest it in front of her children. Silently, she followed us out into the main room where sunlight was being filtered through the oiled linen cloths on the window. Then, once the door softly shut behind us, she asked, “What’s going on?”

I told the truth. “Miss Bancroft, in the simplest way I can explain, something abnormal induced or exaggerated the boys’ illnesses. We believe it to be due to either a curse or some kind of monstrous influence.”

Because of how medicines made by alchemy work, whatever ailment they meant to treat should be gone entirely if it was properly made and the proper dosage was given. An antidote could treat any normal poison, regardless of the actual kind of poison. A vulnerary could close and heal any normal wound if the body was capable, due to how it was composed.

Even though it was only the antipyretic itself to go with the activation catalyst, it should have worked so long as they were made properly. And I know I didn’t make a mistake with the process or the dosage I gave them. That meant it wasn’t caused by a natural illness.

Miss Bancroft’s brows knitted together as she drew the first and obvious choice given the circumstances. “You’re saying someone cursed my boys?”

“A curse like this wouldn’t last as long as it has without something to bind it to them, or them ingesting a magical concoction made to do so,” I explained from personal experience. A curse of illness was a relatively simple Maleficium spell to cast, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it before during my earlier years in the academy. But once the spell wore off within a few hours or was dispelled the body would return to normal instantly.

Besides, anyone who could make a spell last that long upon them wouldn’t do something as trivial as this. Nor waste time in killing them over the course of days from an elevated fever and lack of sleep. Not when there were more efficient ways of doing so.

“Unless they picked up some kind of cursed object, the most probable cause would be due to something monstrous in nature.” I concluded by showing her what the Mountain Spirit had written down. She had come to the same conclusion and wanted to check them without scaring them, leaving it to me to explain to their mother. “I’m not certain how they could have encountered a monstrous species that would do this to them remotely close to the town, but did they venture out of beyond the farmlands at any point prior to the symptoms manifesting?”

Veralis’ farmlands had never been as expansive as the ones around Alice’s homeland from what I could tell. They never needed to be since the town itself was set up as part of a trading route in the past, meant to allow for those heading to the capital to catch a reprieve before continuing along their way. There was always a flow of goods until it grew to its current state, so farming wasn’t a necessity.

And since farming wasn’t essential for survival the land itself was rented out by the council to those who would pay for its use. They would, in turn, hire laborers to work the fields or take care of the animals. The laborers got paid per day, the owners could take the proceeds from what was produced, and the town also took a percentage of that if I remembered correctly.

The land beyond it were largely considered ‘waste’ or uninhabited lands that weren’t encroached upon due to the cost of doing so. It wasn’t exceedingly dangerous, and the flora and fauna weren’t anything out of the ordinary most of the time. But there was always a risk that a monstrous species could have taken residence, as had been the case in the past.

“No. They know better than that, but…” Miss Bancroft went silent for a moment in thought. “Sometimes I know they go play by the woods near the western edge of town. I told them not to since the rain had been going on for a while, and the water there might have overflowed again.”

Those woodlands were the same one where I found Aeria, albeit more to the northern side than the western side. Because of how the river ran, a smaller branch curved off there and wild berries could be found along the lush greenery leading to a pond. I could understand why the children might play there.

I could also understand why they might avoid mentioning anything that could get them into trouble with their parents. But them not mentioning a monstrous species even while they lay bedridden and fevered seemed far-stretched. Unless… it was one that got to them without them even realizing it.

The door opened and closed before I could draw a conclusion as Elsa approached Miss Bancroft. “Did you see the swelling that Charles had on his lower leg? And that Aldwin had on the back of his thigh?

She nodded. “They said the mosquitos got to them when I asked. Even though we drove them out of this district, they’re still around. Lots of folks get bitten by them and sometimes they swell up.”

Elsa’s stone lips pulled down into a worrying frown. “Those were Bloudfly bites. They’re monstrous insects that normally live in wetland areas, feeding off blood and parasitizing other creatures in order to reproduce. The boys are as sick as they are because they were implanted with the eggs, and I’m afraid they’re close to hatching.

She then explained that as the eggs broke down and the larvae started to hatch, they released a substance in the blood that spiked the host’s temperature while feeding off the blood inside of them. The hotter their surroundings the faster their metabolism and growth, hence why their symptoms began to grow at an exaggerated rate. In order to quell their rising temperature, the host would seek water and die from their bodies failing by the time the larvae were ready to emerge. The larvae would then break through the skin and seek out water to finish its growth into a pupa and then a mature adult.

Worse, they could apparently exercise control over their lesser counterparts with some form of magic native to them once they reached maturation and absorbed enough mana. Mosquitos would likely be their counterparts in this instance. Too many of them in one place could create swarms of the bloodsuckers, which was a nightmare from a purely clinical standpoint.

The abnormal growth rates. The clear and present danger they posed the lives or livelihoods of others. The use of magic in some form. Those factors, along with the ability to cope with higher levels of mana, were among one of the reasons that they were classified as a monstrous species.

Regardless, they shouldn’t be here in the first place. “They aren’t native to this particular area if they need a wetland like a marsh or mire to thrive in. Even if they were, they would have been wiped out given the threat they pose to the population in a commonly traveled town such as this one.”

Elsa shook her head. “They can use the weedbeds in ponds as nest instead of marshlands, though it’s not ideal. As for how they might have gotten here, during this season migratory birds pass through the area on their path. The forest in the north would provide them with water, food, and shelter along the way.

I suppose if one of the migratory birds had been hosting an egg and it hatched there, the larva could have easily used the lake as a nest. And if it found something like a wild dog to infect it could reproduce as well. But if there were a lot of them then we’d have heard news about it, so it had to be recent too. “How urgent is the situation?”

Right now, they aren’t in immediate danger and the eggs can’t hatch very quickly since we lowered the fever. That medicine you made will last for about four hours, and you can make more to keep it that way for now. But removing them is dangerous since they’re softened enough now that they’d break if handled roughly, which would release the toxins in their bodies.”

I doubted Miss Bancroft understood what that would entail but, considering how she looked almost ill with worry, she understood well enough that it would likely be fatal to the children considering all the factors already in play. Her youngest children dying because they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time was something that wouldn’t sit well with any rational mother. “We need to take them to the hospital.”

“…They’d likely turn you away considering what the costs would entail,” I pointed out, after considering what would be needed to treat them and the urgency. Hospital visits were not inexpensive to begin with. The fees for the emergency service and the need for a Medeor, a magic user who acted as a professional healer, would be far more than she could ever hope to pay for two children. And that wasn’t even accounting for the fact that she was paying for her oldest children’s apprenticeship fees already.

It’d be a different story if her older sons were full members of their guilds. One of the common benefits of joining the bigger guilds was that the families of full members would be taken care of from birth to death. While it may still be expensive, the debt could be worked off at a discount and she wouldn’t lose everything.

Miss Bancroft started breathing out frantically as she backed away, her hand at her chest as strength left her body. Fortunately, Elsa caught her before she could hit the ground and told Aeria to seal off the room. That way the children couldn’t hear as she began to sob loud enough that her cries bounced off the solidified walls of air.

You won’t lose them.” Elsa said gently, guiding the woman back onto her feet. “Wilhelm’s family has dealt with this before since the mountains we lived on had a lake with marshlands on the edges. If that isn’t enough, I can call in a favor to get them treated. We just need time.

“I’ll pay anything,” she begged, clinging to Elsa’s fibrous arms. “Just… just save my boys. I already lost my husband. I can’t lose them too. I can’t!

We will,” Elsa told her. “Is there a neighbor you can stay with until we’re done? Or do you want to stay at Wilhelm’s place while we work here? It wouldn’t be proper for you to go to work in this state.

You want me… to leave them alone?” she asked between the sobs, voice hoarse. Realistically, she would be a hinderance. Her grief and worry would put more pressure on us and worry the children, which could further exacerbate the situation.

No, but you don’t want them to see you like this.” Elsa expression grew softer despite its stone composition. “Believe me, it’s hard on them in ways that will last even when they get older. They might never get over it, so it’s better if they get to see you smile when they’re all better instead of being sad.

She seemed to consider Elsa’s words, looking towards the children’s bedroom as she worked to get her breathing under control. Wiping away her tears, she then stood and asked that she at least tell them that she was going out. Aeria dropped the wall and allowed her to do so, leaving the three of us to talk.

Kowler.” I tensed at the tone of her voice. It was soft, but she sounded… disappointed. “Telling a mother that she can’t afford to save her children is one of the worst things you could have possibly said.

“I was pointing out a fact, so that we could find an alternative solution rather than wasting time they don’t have.” And, in my opinion, it would have been far crueler for her to take them up there only to be turned away because they were poor. Seeing how lives were to be bartered at a price was one of the reasons I didn’t like being around Mother anymore. “I didn’t mean for it to come off as being harsh if it sounded that way, but it was the truth.”

Elsa only sighed in a frustrated manner. “You’re too much like Theo after all. In both the good ways and bad ways.

Please don’t be mad at us,” Aeria said quietly. “He’s sorry.

I’m not mad. It’s just…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I’m going to take their mother with me, give her something to help her get some rest, and get a message to Wilhelm before I come back with the recipe and components we need. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’ll need you both to do your best in helping.

This was admittedly already more than I expected to deal with today. But she already sounded disappointed with us as it were, I didn’t have anything to go back home to for the rest of the day, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the finding the prospect somewhat intriguing. It wasn’t the sort of experience I had the chance to deal with often.

“Very well. Where do we start?”

 

 

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