The morning of the sixth day has come.
Infected in the past 24 hours: 163 ppl.
Died in the past 24 hours: 140 ppl.
Gone missing: 12 ppl.
Number of dead at the moment: 840
Number of infected: 335 ppl.
Less than seven days remain. A governmental emissary will arrive tomorrow.
I stagger out of Lara Ravel’s house at half past five, starving and mildly woozy from the infection to find myself surrounded by the plague. The afflicted leprous figures march about in packs, and patrolling the streets are a new brand of soldier: the Humpback’s men. Unlike the oafish bandits, these fellows sport a seemingly unlimited supply of Molotov Cocktails, which they lob at anyone and everyone from worrying distance. Their purpose, it seems, is simply to rile things up.
|One hit is from these is fatal.|
These new annoyances, however, are the least of my worries.
The first thing I do in the morning is visit Rubin, who should have completed the improved vaccine. Sure enough, he has. (This differs significantly from Kevin’s experience of Day 6, in which the vaccine failed miserably). Yet his conscience weighs heavily upon him. The Haruspicus was aware that Rubin was keeping the body of the first infected, Simon Kain, for inspection and research. What he didn’t know that it was I who told Rubin to hold the body illegally, to keep it under wraps, though we both knew it might come out sooner or later. He confesses to me that he can’t take it anymore: he has to come clean to the Kain family.
I panic, of course. He can’t do that. It would ruin my reputation if it came out that he had kept the body under my instruction. So much rests on that one lie. I tell him to keep it—that I’ll handle it—that he has to stay and continue his research. He reluctantly agrees, though he holds onto the vaccine.
The consequences of my decisions are at hand. I get several letters and hear whispers from the townsfolk. The Inquisitor is coming tomorrow. But, more upsetting, there has been an incident in the Cathedral.
I arrive early morning to find the Cathedral utterly dead—nearly 800 people wiped out by the Sand Plague. Something got in. To my relief, however, the finger of blame isn’t pointed at me, but to the leading women of the town. The shabnak—the she-cannibal—was accused of breaking in and giving the people infected water to drink. Hours later, streams of infected flooded the streets while a few were left to clean up the remains in the Cathedral.
|They did a good job cleaning up.|
Saburov outlines the plan: I will interrogate the women of the town and decide who is the vector. Of course I know better; all I have to do is draw their blood and examine it for traces of the virus. It takes a bit of convincing, but I take a sample from Anna Angel, who tells me Klara (the Devotress) is also a prime suspect.
The real gem here is Ospina, who practically spits venom when I whip out the syringe. She does her best to advise me in the “proper way” of finding the shabnak. I’ve transcribed the entire conversation here (with a few minor adjustments for clarity):
ME: Ospina, you are accused of being a cannibal. They will come for you soon.
OSPINA: What is a shabnak? It is a malicious spirit who wears the flesh of a woman on his bones. Shabnak can be known by a characteristic attribute – his hands are long, all toes are of the same length, and the teeth are shown on all body from under the skin
ME: Thanks for the lesson.
OSPINA: That’s it … I am always glad to help you. If you want I’ll help you catch the monster. If you do not cope with that yourself … almost a week has passed and the people still perish, perish, perish …
ME: Help me. Where do I start? Perhaps from the survey of suspected?
OSPINA: Yes. You gather all women who cause your anxiety in the Cathedral, for now it is empty. Build a bonfire at the entrance. Order them to strip naked and survey them carefully … Search for sharp edges under the skin, but you will not find. And then …
ME: I have a more reliable way. Let’s look at your blood.
OSPINA: It is not necessary to take blood. Search for the teeth. Let me continue … sooner or later one of them will break and rush away crying – right into the fire. And then her essence will become visible! She will turn all black, howl, crook her fingers – everyone will realize at once that this is not human.
ME: Of course. And now stand still. I have a few needles; don’t worry.
After taking her sample, I find Klara at the Saburov Manor. She won’t allow me to take her blood; she considers herself above reproach. And then an extraordinary claim: she says that she and the Devotress are two different people, though the Devotress looks just like her. She tells me that, with all my science and system, I have no right to investigate her. I appeal to Saburov, who has effectively adopted the little whelp, who tells me I can draw her blood, but when I return she has disappeared.
I rush around town, furious, asking everyone for information. I track down Mishka, a young boy living out in the train yard, and he tells me I’m a hunted man. That the Devotress—who is undoubtedly the shabnak—is searching for me with murderous intent.
The Thing Coming From the Steppe
I scour the rest of the town and receive a tip from Spichka, a young boy holed up in the Tanner’s District. He saw the Bone Cannibal just now, rounding the Abattoir. If I hurry, I may catch it. Heart pounding, I draw my revolver and prepare to finish this once and for all. A true vector! The real, tangible foe in all of this—a discernible victory. With the shabnak gone, it will be only a matter of time till the virus dies out.
Rounding the Abattoir, I see it: a hunched, gangly figure with a white face and long neck. Hardly a thing that could pass for the Devotress. As I step toward it, the air thickens and I begin to choke. I aim my pistol at its (admittedly small) head, fire two shots, and watch as the thing goes limp.
|Shabnak or Animated Totem?|
Upon closer inspection, I can’t say this is any sort of shabnak. I don’t know what it is—some kind of clay golem, animated by the weird cultic rituals of these steppe barbarians. It was just an illusion.
I find Klara mourning his corpse when I return. Stricken with grief, she holds out her arm and lets me take a sample, which I immediately rush to the microscope. The blood is irregular, strange indeed, but there is no sign of the Plague. I return to her and give my analysis. Yet, knowing that the Inquisitor will come tomorrow, and that she will want blood, Klara says she’ll offer herself as a sacrifice. She’s somehow responsible, she says—and they will need someone to blame anyway.
I resist—she cannot do this. It isn’t right. She is an inexplicable anomaly, there’s no doubt about that, but she is no vector. It’s true: she’d be an easy solution. She’d placate the Inquisitor. It would be an easy solution. But it wouldn’t be right. I tell her the decision is her own, though I don’t think she should turn herself in.
They Want to Burn the Apiary
My final task for the day is a seemingly impossible gambit. The humpback, with his league of arsonists, wants to deliver a deathblow to the Olgimskiy family: he’s going to burn down the Apiary, a nexus of disease that has produced wave after wave of infected (or so they say). While I could care less for the Olgimskiys, the Apiary will be indispensible to my research. They can’t burn it down. The only thing for me to do, then, is to kill the humpback.
It’s late evening when I arrive, and raining. I approach the main entrance to see the Humpback near the tunnel, four arsonists arrayed around him, Molotov cocktails at the ready. I check my revolver: I’ve only got four bullets. Whatever. I rush the first two, a headshot each, then whirl to the next, take him and his companion out, then stand, facing the Humpback. He’s got an alarmingly good throwing arm. I pocket the gun, bare my fists, and approach him, strafing left and right, trying to get in a good punch. The close range is too much, however, and he’s too good a shot. I go down once, twice, three times, until, frustrated, I rush out to the streets to trade a needle for a bullet. When I come back I find him there, standing crooked with that dull cow-eye look. Fearless, I run up to him, gun at the ready, and take him out with a decisive shot.
|The entrance to the Apiary, sans two psychopathic arsonists.|
Finally, a true victory. I’m not worried about the Inquisitor tomorrow. I think we’ll get along just fine; if anything she ought to admire my work.