The morning of the sixth day has come.
Infected in the past 24 hours: 165 people
Died in the past 24 hours: 110 people
Gone missing: 23 people
Number of dead at the moment: 660 people
Number of infected: 311 people
Less than seven days remain. A governmental emissary will arrive tomorrow.
The Bachelor has bad news for me. Possibly because it came from a butcher instead of from the twyrine bride, the heart that I brought him yesterday failed to produce a vaccine for the Sand Plague. Evidently, the low-level immunity possessed by the steppe natives is more low-level than it is immunity—their blood produces effective antibodies but in such low quantities that eventually the Sand Plague will overwhelm the immune system anyway. Once again, the Bachelor's experiment fails.
We are running out of time. The town is descending into anarchy as the Sand Plague, unchecked by any sort of cure, continues to extend its tendrils throughout the town. Bodies litter the streets as bandits and arsonists clash violently with guard patrols. Every now and then an infected person slips through the quarantine because the guards are too busy fighting off looters. Impatient with the Bachelor's and my fruitless search for a vaccine, regular townsfolk have decided to take matters into their own hands. At a loss to explain the mind-boggling scale of this calamity, they're looking for a scapegoat to blame for the epidemic's onset. It's a good old-fashioned witch hunt, and the witch they've settled on is the mysterious Devotress.
|Artemiy Burakh is many things, but a sympathetic listener he is not.|
Here's the thing though: I believe her. Something fishy indeed seems to be going on; I meet her in two locations over the course of the day, and there's no way she could have been traveling between them without me knowing. The doppelganger is holed up in the graveyard with poor little Laska and informs me that the Apiary (or the first level of it, anyway) is now open to exploration, though she gleefully hints that I may not like what I find: "Absolute hell. You'll see." Meanwhile, Klara is hiding at Anna Angel's house and seems abjectly terrified by her predicament. She says she doesn't even know what she's doing in town. She has no memory of how she got here and feels trapped by the chaos and odd phenomena swirling around her. The Rat Prophet has been appearing to her too, scaring her with ominous pronouncements that she can't understand. If I can get some solid answers out of the Prophet, she says, at least then she can face the angry mob with some certainty about who she really is.
Having been the victim of misguided, rumor-fed hatred myself, I feel for her and agree to help, even though the hatch to the Rat Prophet's underground chamber is still in the middle of a plague zone. Infected areas have only gotten more harrowing; in addition to the increased numbers of contagious victims milling about in the streets, plague clouds are even more prevalent. There's even a new kind of mist accompanying this next stage of the epidemic: brown and fetid, it actually chases me around until either it catches me or I reach a safe haven indoors. It's almost as if the Sand Plague is developing agency.
This seems like a crazy thought until I meet with the Rat Prophet. (It's amazing how open-minded one becomes when one encounters things like a tuxedo-wearing person with a rat's head and a subterranean lair.) According to him, this mess has never been a wholly natural occurrence; if I don't believe him, perhaps I should ask my good friend the Devotress. After all, she's the personification of the Sand Plague itself.
I immediately call him a liar, which he shrugs off with a "believe what you want" attitude. Honestly, I'm not sure what to think. I certainly have no reason to trust him. Then again, unlike the town's conniving nobles, he has no reason to lie. If he is telling the truth, then the townspeople are right to fear the Devotress. As I climb back out of the hatch, I wonder what I will tell Klara. In the meantime, though, she'll have to wait. The Bachelor has another idea.
It's a long shot, he admits, but it's one of the only options left. The experiment with the blood of the steppe people failed, but there are other natives of the steppe: the cattle. The animals have been bearing up quite well throughout this ordeal—none of them have died of the Plague or even contracted it. Maybe the cure will come from them.
The only problem is that almost no cattle remain in the area. Most have already been slaughtered to provide food for the town as it languishes under quarantine. The only people who might have an idea where to find more cows serve in the Order of Bulls and live in the Apiary and the Abattoir. Up to now those areas have been closed to us. However, the imminent arrival of the State Inquisitor has led Fat Vlad to hastily lift his dubious lockdown of the Apiary, and as the trusted heir of Burakh I can now get in and speak with the Order. In fact, one of my Adherents, known as the "Mother Keeper," is a leader in the Order. She can tell me where to find a bull.
|The battered door to the first section of the Apiary. Looks like even the guard isn't too happy to be standing in such close proximity.|
My Adherent is waiting for me up four or five flights of stairs. Since all of my Adherents are children, I'm not expecting an adult. But I also was not expecting to see a five-year-old flanked by three bodyguards:
|Meet one of the cult's prominent figures, a girl who has not yet learned how to read.|
To put that number in perspective, I've accumulated less than 20 of those pills over the past six days. Thankfully, I haven't been popping too many of them thanks to my innate resistance as a steppe native, but I'm still staring at only 13 doses in my inventory when I exit the Apiary. The pharmacies around town stock them, but only in small quantities. Children on the street sometimes have them for trade, but with the infected areas swelling in size, there aren't many children around either. Briefly, I entertain the idea of killing and robbing some guards, who carry large quantities of medicine on them at all times. I quickly quash those thoughts. The crime I committed on Day Two is still a raw spot in my memory. If I'm going to get those pills, I'm going to have to run all over town, check every single shop, and hope.
It takes a sizable chunk out of my funds, but I meet the deadline with only half an hour to spare. "Mother Keeper" blithely tells me to meet the Worms at a hill south of town. They will bring the bull. I will bring whatever optimism I have left that all this scrambling around was worth it.
After exchanging curt greetings with the Worms, I inject the bull with a sample of the Plague, then take a blood sample back to the Bachelor. I wait with bated breath while he examines the sample under his microscope.
Once again, the experiment fails.
The bull's immune system is the exact opposite of what we found with the steppe people. When infected, the bull's body is able to slow the Plague's growth to a crawl. However, without any way to fight off the small amount that remains, the bull will die, same as any other creature.
I had figured that I would be angry, or at least annoyed, that all my energy and sacrifice was for nothing as usual. The most I can muster after hearing the bad news is resignation. I don't think I was honestly expecting good news in the first place. The only option left is to find the blood of some bull-human hybrid that can both retard the Plague's reproduction and kill whatever's left, and, as the Bachelor helpfully points out, no such animal exists. There is no final cure. We're done.
Before going to bed, I troop over to Anna Angel's house to see Klara again. Expectantly, she asks me what the Rat Prophet said. I reply that he said she is not responsible for the epidemic, that she is here to help people. By now I've decided that the Prophet was right, but I lie for two reasons. First, I just don't have the heart to tell Klara that, knowingly or not, she has the blood of the entire town on her hands. Second, I'm afraid of what she might do if she resigns herself to being an angel of death. She can be on our side for the time being. We're going to need all the help we can get.