The sickness dripped from the walls of Taranteega like hot summer rain. It crystalized between floor planks in every house and spun webs between fence posts along the road. When a breeze shook the trees, leaves sang of the dying, while the earth grumbled in fullness, its belly stretching a little further with every body buried.
Twig could feel it. She was born of the earth and wandered its cradle most of her life. She could hear its whimpers when the crying of those around her grew quiet. She could smell heaviness in the air, the scents of sweat and urine fighting with the garlic and primrose oil that flavored every tea and clung to every bandage. Nothing could cure the illness that ravaged the land like locusts, but some pains could be eased, some symptoms slowed, before Death inevitably claimed the suffering, blind to age, ability, and potential.
Twig was not a healer. They looked at her and her kind as though she was, but it was a soft lie the people held, something to sleep on at night, a sort of kindling to keep their hope alive. She was a maladess, a collector, and hailed from a land far south of here. Her ability was rare but known. Her mission was simple: to travel other lands, collecting their diseases and keeping them safe, so her own people could study them, weaken them, and formulate them into a new blood that would prevent her own from ever catching them. It was a special magic, tinged with science, for which maladesses were crucial. Twig could take a portion of another’s sickness into herself and store it for a time without harm to her own person. She then transferred it into adamantine glass, to be carefully transported home. Yes, there was a perk to absorbing a sample from the ill; it did lessen the attack on the suffering’s body. It could give them a chance to conquer it, or at the least, live a little longer. Though extended life was not always a mercy.
She’d come to Taranteega only to pass through, but this new sickness, which many called red bark fever for what it did to the skin, had greeted her there, filtered down from the north. These villagers had no doctor. No refuge. They had only her, and she could not find it in her heart to leave them shivering and collapsing, sobbing for relief that would only come by passing to the world beyond.
“Twig.” Salone’s words were soft behind her, as though volume might break the bottles of adamantine glass sitting in a row beside her. Six in all, each faintly glowing blue. All full. And they could not be emptied except into another host. Empty, they were a chance at salvation. Full, they were a curse waiting to break from its cage.
Pulling her gaze from the bottles’ long necks, Twig turned to Salone. Salone was one of the few still well; a shock, given her age. Twig hoped she pulled through. She hoped she did not leave this town a graveyard.
“Who is it, now?” Twig asked. She hadn’t slept yet, and the morning was half-passed. Salone would not trouble her if it wasn’t urgent.
The old woman dipped her head. “Rill has it.”
She stiffened. “Not the boy.”
Taking a deep breath, Twig rose to her feet. Rill was a twelve-year-old boy who had already lost both parents and a sister. He was a great help to Twig and Salone, traveling back and forth to the river all day long, bringing in water to boil and drink and bathe in.
And he was so young. It was harder to bear the death of the young.
Salone held the tent flap as Twig passed through, then walked silently beside her as they crossed the village to Rill’s home. The smell grew heavier as they walked. Moans leaked from shuttered windows. Even after all these weeks, Twig had not accustomed herself to the symphony of misery. The sad sounds the dying made were the hardest part of her profession, but Taranteega and the red bark fever magnified them to the extent that she could not escape them, even in her dreams.
She could taste the sickness in the air before even entering Rill’s hut. She’d always had a sense for illness; it was one of the first things that had marked her as a maladess. Salone opened the door. There was no point in knocking. Most were too weak to answer.
Rill lay on a cot beneath the window, where the air was a little cooler. His simple shirt hung off a too-thin frame, but he had always been thin. Patches of red had already begun to appear on his skin, as though someone had leaned their elbows against his legs, arms, and cheek. His little sister knelt nearby, fanning him. She wasn’t even seven yet. She looked at Twig with wide eyes.
“You’re going to kill him,” she chirped.
Twig shook her head and, folding her skirt under her, knelt beside the child. “I have never killed a thing in my life, not even a spider.”
She crept her hand up the child’s back like the legs of an insect, earning a smile. Smiles were so rare here.
Placing her hand on Rill’s forehead, she confirmed the fever. To Salone she said, “You know I can do little for him without a taker.” Because Twig could move sickness into two places—adamantine glass or another, living, host. She herself would become host if she didn’t rid her body of any collected disease within three days of absorbing it. Which was why she never used her magic on anyone or anything without a viable release nearby. And the adamantine was full.
“His uncle will take it,” Salone murmured, and Rill’s sister bowed her head. “He said as much.”
“Last night, when you were with Balam.”
Twig pressed her mouth into a line. Rising, she slipped from the hut and strode down the dirt road to the next hut, where Rill’s uncle lived. She was surprised he was still talking. She was surprised he still breathed at all.
Cracking open the door, the rank odor of feces assaulted her. Holding her breath, she spied the man twisted in a blanket on the floor. No family or friends to tend to him. He was too far gone.
But he still breathed, barely. Whether he had made the promise or Salone pretended it, there was no way for Twig to know.
But he could give Rill a chance.
Closing the door, she filled her lungs with cleaner air, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Someone across the way watched her, where the road converged with another, in the weeds just off the path. A figure in shadow despite the full sun, long hair waving over its shoulders, clothing thick and tattered, thready ends catching the breeze.
Twig blinked. The figure vanished. Her pulse quickened. Surely Death himself had not come to claim all of Taranteega. He would not show his face to so many mortals.
“Twig.” Salone hurried down the road.
Twig met her. “I’ll do it, but we must be swift.”
Back in the hut, Twig moved her hands over Rill’s sleeping form, palms hovering two inches above his torso. She felt his heat dance between her fingers. Her consciousness lapped over him as ocean waves before dipping beneath his sweltering skin to the blood and tissues below. She sensed the fever as one senses a predator nearby. The illness turned its head to look at her.
Her hands came together, scooping as much of the fever as they could hold. Her knuckles tensed, skin tingled, as she beckoned the sickness into her core, to a special place only a collector had, almost like a second stomach. Three days. She had a vessel for the fever, but she always remembered the warning.
Rill inhaled sharply when she had finished. His eyes peeled open. He was still sick. Twig was not a healer. But so early in the illness, he would likely survive.
Twig explained nothing, only hurried from the hut, back down the road, and into the room that held Rill’s uncle. She barely noticed the stench as she crouched beside him, pushing her hands out, letting them hover as they did before. The fever sprang from her body and hungrily pushed its way into his, greeting the sickness that already tormented him.
As Twig had expected, Rill’s uncle took one last, shuddering breath, then fell still.
“You have saved your kin, today,” Twig whispered, clasping his still-hot shoulder. “You will wear that proudly when you meet Death.”
The wash basin was half-full, so Twig washed her hands well before stepping outside. Salone greeted her. “He will be well, thanks to you.”
Twig nodded. It was hard to feel proud, using her gift this way, but she was glad for the hope of health. “Call the grave digger. This one has passed.”
Salone’s shoulders slumped. “So has the grave digger. But his son is strong enough.”
His son was barely older than Rill. But Salone set off down the road to find him.
A creeping feeling, like a dragging hair, caressed the center of Twig’s back. Like a predator, she thought, reaching behind her and feeling nothing. She turned.
There, in the trees, stood the ragged figure, watching her.
The village was quiet, save for the moans. Twig was alone. Yet she trekked toward the trees anyway, never taking her eyes off the stranger. Never daring to blink. If this was Death come to witness the town’s destruction, she would plead for his patience. Even if he didn’t heed her, she knew he hadn’t come for her. The red bark fever couldn’t hurt her, unless she did something foolish.
The figure seemed to move farther away the closer she walked, tunneling back through the trees. Twig’s eyes watered, eyelids forced open until finally the shadowy being held still, and she reached it, surrounded by green foliage that knew nothing of human ailment.
This was not Death; the figure was a woman, tall and broad-shouldered. Ratted brown hair flopped over her chest. She wore trousers and a heavy coat, all the same shade of decaying brown, all tattered to the point of disintegrating, and yet the fabric remained firmly on her form. Her eyes were jaundiced and dark, her lips cracked, her face shaped young, yet carrying the wrinkles of the aged.
The stranger spoke first. “I have come looking for you, maladess.”
Twig allowed herself to blink; the figure remained with her. “And why do you have need of me, spirit?”
The woman laughed, and it sounded like a thousand beetles taking flight. “I am no spirit.”
She wavered, as though struck by the fever, and reached out to a tree bough to steady herself. Beneath her hand, the wood rotted, and the leaves turned to dust.
Twig stepped back, hand to her heart. “You couldn’t be.”
The woman met her eyes.
“You are one of his. You are Pestilence.”
All the woman said was, “I have been searching for you. Your kind are so rare, now.”
“Searching for me. Following me?” Twig gaped. Spun toward the village. Remembered herself and looked back, keeping the god in her sight. “Then you have done this. You, the creator of all pandemic, have brought red bark fever to this peaceful place.”
“Heal me, Maladess.”
She felt as though she’d been struck. “I am no healer.” How often must she repeat the phrase? “You of all creatures should understand that.”
“But you are,” she rasped, and coughed flies from her lips. “You are versed in the old ways, if you know my name. You know there is no doctor or potion in all this world that can change me.”
Twig’s mouth went dry. “Change you?”
She nodded, and Twig could hear the cracking of her spine as she did so. “All my life, I have been a servant of rot. All my life, I have suffered and reaped suffering. I have followed War and preceded Death in an endless parade to stock the coffers of the universe with the lives of mortals.” Another cough. “All mankind hates me. I hate me. What I would give for a simple, brief mortal life . . .”
She reached forward as though to touch Twig, covetous fingers curling. Twig stepped from her reach and shook her head.
“I cannot. I am mortal. I cannot take so much vileness into my body. Where would I expel it? I could never gather enough adamantine glass to bottle your plague. I would die, and it would unleash itself on all mankind. Mortals would cease to be.”
“We are cut from the same cloth.” Pestilence lifted a shred of her jacket, as though to demonstrate.
Twig shook her head.
“If you can cure me, their suffering will cease to be.” The god pointed toward Taranteega.
Twig’s lips parted. She dared not look back. “The red bark fever would end?”
Pestilence nodded. “Many would be spared, here and elsewhere.”
Suddenly cold, Twig hugged herself. “There is not enough glass,” she whispered. “And with people well, none would volunteer to take the pain themselves.”
“They would be honored by Death.”
“Would they?” Twig stared at the god’s dark, yellow-rimmed eyes. “Are you not his?”
Pestilence averted her gaze. After a moment, she said, “Are we not all our own?”
Twig shivered. The opportunity was frightening, but vast. To cure all of Taranteega? All those she had begun to call friends? To cure all mankind, even? Her own king would no longer need collectors branching out to lands far and wide, for they would all be healthy without their help.
But who would she find, within three days’ time, to take the illness given her? And despite Pestilence’s words, she was not a healer. She was a gambler, if anything.
Should she gamble on this?
“Come tonight,” she whispered, a new vibrato in her voice. “Come tonight and ask me again.”
Twig hadn’t noticed the quiet of the forest until then. As she turned back for her tent, a songbird fell from the tree the god had touched, its belly already crawling with maggots.
Twig tried to sleep. She’d been awake too long. Part of her wondered if she had slumbered, and Pestilence was all a dream. She wondered if she had somehow caught the red bark fever, too.
Her thoughts wracked her through the hot afternoon hours and into the cooling twilight, weighing her future and the futures around her. Salone was such a caring person. Would she offer sacrifice? And yet she had children and grandchildren, a few still surviving. Twig had no family of her own. The life of a maladess was a solitary one.
She could pass the illness into a dying man, as she had with Rill’s. But if taking the illness from Pestilence cured the dying, was such an act even possible? Was it truly merciful, or did she simply seal the plagued into a final, ravishing hell?
Pestilence appeared once the sky was black enough to highlight the stars. Twig felt the god’s presence as she had before. Like she wasn’t alone. Like the scent of poison on the rim of a cup. Slipping out into the night, Twig worried her hair and came around her tent, into the thick brush where the forest started. Not that she feared witnesses. No one was well enough to concern themselves with what the foreigner did beneath the cover of darkness.
“I need you,” Pestilence wheezed. She seemed older now, more hunched, but that might have been a trick of the shadows. An image came to Twig then, of a sickly woman aging and decaying with every hour of the day, succumbing to her wretchedness at midnight and being reborn a moment after, only to relive the same awful fate again.
“My name is Twig. You should know it, if you ask so much of me.”
Pestilence dipped her head in reverence. “A name of the earth.”
Somehow, the god’s reply comforted Twig. Pestilence was of the earth too, was she not? She had walked it long before Twig’s earliest forefathers dared to breathe.
“Lie down.” The command was little more than an expelling of breath, but Pestilence obeyed. The thought of having even that much power over a god should have overwhelmed Twig, but her attention was too caught on the pure look of hope in the sickly creature’s eyes, gleaming like starlight from her countenance. It brought a sliver of beauty to her ravished form. Any thought of changing her mind left Twig in that moment. She could not bring herself to deny what may be this god’s first taste of joy.
Twig swallowed against a tight throat. When she lifted her hands over Pestilence’s body, her fingers trembled. It was easy to think courageous thoughts. It was another thing to actually enact them. To put herself bodily in the hands of a killer, even if she was deity.
Far behind her, a woman cried into the night. The sound rose gooseflesh on Twig’s arms. Had someone died? Discovered the first symptoms? Or merely woken to new pains?
Refocusing, Twig didn’t feel heat rising from Pestilence’s body, but cold. A strange cold. Not like ice or snow. But . . . if fire could burn cold . . . yes, that’s what she felt. Something cold and wrong, that would hurt her if she touched it.
It took minutes for her consciousness to ease into the being before her, but whether that was due to her own fear or the nature of Pestilence, she was unsure. Dipping into the god’s body was like swinging an axe at an ancient tree, its trunk so thick the blade could do little more than spray sawdust with each pass. By the time Twig’s powers dipped below the surface, she was sweating.
She might as well have jumped into a hurricane-ridden sea.
She gasped, surrounded by waves and bullying currents, unable to right herself. She desperately tried to grasp something, to hold on, but her body seemed to have separated itself from the rest of her. She was distantly immobile and presently drowning.
She needn’t look for the sickness; it was all around her. Swirling and sucking, raging and whining. It was unlike any collection she’d ever performed, and yet she sensed every disease of her acquaintance in that vast and horrible ocean, swimming among rank strangers her mind could not fathom. Thousands of proverbial eyes gazed upon her, marking her an intruder, testing her with pricks like the end of a scorpion’s tail, each jab filled with poison.
It would overwhelm her within seconds. For half of one, Twig floundered.
Then she pulled on the one weapon she possessed: the strength of a maladess.
She beckoned the sickness to her. Illness pooled in her hands and snaked up her arms, hungrily seeking a way in. They found that strange stomach of hers, where she could store any malady for three days without harm. The bank that held her research until she could secure it a bottle or host. But these plagues overwhelmed her. They filled her gut until they spilled over. Her spirit retched and twisted, tore and shredded. She opened her mouth to scream, only to have it filled. She choked, seized, unfolded—
All at once, her eyes could again see. Sensation fell away until there was . . . nothing. No heat, no cold, no floor, no air. But there was color, in the muted way of shadows. Black and grays and strangled mauve light to emphasize curves and lines.
Darker than dead coals and fiercer than live ones, two eyes bore into hers. She should have been afraid, but fear was something of the body, and Twig knew with a surety that wherever she was, her body had not come with her.
“Who. Are. You?” His voice was brisk mountain wind whipping over rumbling earth. His countenance drawn by the hand of a skilled painter, yet the portrait was covered with an inch of silty water.
Twig reached for her voice. It sounded somewhere beyond her mouth. “You are . . . you are Lord Death.”
Had she died so quickly?
“You dare to taint one of my soldiers?” The shadows shifted. He was beside her, far from reach, yet close enough that she could feel the same sharp chill that had radiated from Pestilence. It was the only thing she could feel. “You, an insect of the earth, dare to challenge me?”
She should have shivered. Her thoughts did, even if her soul could not. “Have you no mercy?” Compared to his, her words were the mere snuffing of a candle. Nearly indiscernible.
“She is too much for you,” he snapped as a mountain rending in two. “Return her essence if you want to live.”
Death shifted again. Twig tried to follow, but her gaze was limited. The cold prickled from behind.
Return it? Slow thoughts braided together. Then I have her ailment in me. I have succeeded. Else I would be on Death’s shores now, not speaking to him . . . wherever this is.
Had she saved Taranteega? Had she saved the world?
“NOW.” Death bellowed, and it hurt. His anger was enough to crack her very spirit.
Twig steeled herself. “Must you have so many soldiers, my lord, that you cannot spare one?”
Her vision spun, and Death’s shadowy faced loomed over her as a nightmare. So close. “Do you wish for torment, Mortal?”
Her gaze dipped down to the inky flow of Death’s cloak. Death, the king of all ends. The shepherd of souls. The eternal god.
Surely he could not die.
Twig reached out. Her arms were heavy, almost not her own, but she pushed until her fingers dipped into the darkness of his clothing. Somewhere beyond their realm, she heard herself cry out. Here, she pushed all of pestilence into her keeper. Every fever, every boil, every ache and swell. It flowed out of her, eager for a host.
A deafening sound that could only be described as shattering surrounded her, piercing to her very center. Shadows bled together and cracked. Something heavy swung up and hit her in the stomach, knocking the air from her.
Twig, whole, gasped and opened her eyes, seeing overhead the dots of ten thousand stars, feeling the vastness of the earth at her back.
She was back.
She rose slowly—everything was weighted and stiff, but a hand grasped hers and hauled her to sitting. The world swam for a minute. Her ribs ached. She was terribly hungry.
The dark eyes of a plain but strong-looking woman scanned her face. A smile stretched her lips. “Maladess,” she said, her voice husky. “Twig. You have saved me.”
Twig blinked, clearing her vision, trying to understand the person kneeling before her. This was . . . surely this was not the god of plagues! So hale, so complete.
“I—” she started. Coughed. Shook her head. “I-I am no healer.”
The woman’s smile broadened. “But you are of me.” Her mirth fell. “He is not gone. He will fight off what you have given him. He will come for you. Death does not like to be cheated.”
Twig rubbed numb fingers together. “I know.” Her feelings were still so far away. Part of her wished they would not resettle. That she would not need to stomach that fear. Searching for some shred of bravery, she said, “But he will not come today.”
A cry echoed through the village, followed by a second and a third. Startled, Twig jumped to her feet. The rush would have knocked her over, had Pestilence not steadied her. She got only as far as the front of her tent when she heard a forgotten sound amid the cries.
“They are cured, for now,” Pestilence murmured, looking at Taranteega as though she saw all the world at once. Her smile returned. “For now.”
Twig blinked tears from her vision. “Where will you go?”
Pestilence turned, scanning the huts. “There . . . is a lake, beyond the Bridge of the Mountain. I think I will venture there. It is . . . beautiful.”
“I don’t know it.”
“You should come, before your work returns.”
Twig bit the inside of her cheek. “You think it will?”
“Death will find a way. But he will not find me.”
With a nod of her head, Pestilence faded like spilt oil beneath a heavy rain, until there was nothing beside Twig but a memory, and no voice but the joyous shouts of Taranteega.
As Twig stepped deeper into the town, however, she thought she felt something terribly cold graze the back of her neck. Something like fire, but wrong. Yet when she turned, there were only the black shapes of the forest behind her.