Gas lamps hissed to life.
Light struck the slab with a raw and commanding stroke of light. There, a shrouded figure lay, made stark by the beam. Cigarette smoke and fluffy doxbells filtered through the gaslight, drifted from tall, staggered pews. Dozens of sets of eyes peered into the operating stage, leaned eagerly on narrow railings.
A presentable woman in white stepped into the beam. "Good evening" she said, rolling up the sleeves of her surgeon's coat.
"Good evening, Doctor Krolë " chorused the railings. A girl in a diener's smock followed, carried a tray of implements. Knives, saws, a bowl of something grey and liquid.
The girl set down her tray, flicked her wrist. Cloth fluttered, bright under the lamps. Titterings of interest spilled from above. The figure, revealed, was nude. A young man, grey in the face. His sternum was split, splayed to reveal thoracic innards. Where one foot should be, there was only a splintered wreck of bone. On high, shadowed faces turned, gestured with glowing cigarettes. Someone whispered "soldier."
"Before you become excited" said Doctor Krolë, frowning. "This subject was injured by an industrial shear." The audience stilled, settled.
"He did not bleed out, though. How would you say he died?"
A pale hand rose from the stands. "Yes, Tove?" said Krolë.
"Blood poisoning, sir" said a milquetoast blonde.
"Good. And how can you tell?"
"Blackening and swelling of the extremities."
"Quite. What else can we glean from this cause of death?"
The stands thought for only a moment. A palm went up. "Gregore?"
A fellow towards the back spoke up, uneasy. "Sir. He was likely unmedicated."
"Again, true" said the woman in white. She gestured for her diener to take up a scalpel. "Now, while Catrine works, someone tell me why you all look so rightfully concerned."
There was a soft, wet tearing. The diener had begun to cut. People watched the scalpel flicker in her hands, shifted uneasily. A hand raised.
"If he was unmedicated, that means pathogenesis may be in effect."
"You're right, again. How could we tell if that was the case?"
Tove watched the diener peel back fatted flesh. She swallowed. "We'd find evidence in the lungs."
The doctor nodded. "Very good." She turned to the diener. "Catrine, remove the superior lobe, please."
Catrine pulled a blade over purple tissue. She lifted a dark lump, handed it over.
Krolë plucked up a scalpel, drew a split through the lobe. "We may detect latent plague by the presence of buboes in the lung" she said, peeling the organ open. Black, wet nodules shone on the flesh. "These are fruiting bodies. A massive disposition, such as this, indicates long-term infection. This subject had not been exposed to grisodate in some time."
She set the lobe down. "Plague will have fully matured within the bones" she said, took up the bowl of grey liquid. "There is life within this cadaver. Disinfection is necessary to prevent imminent reanimation."
At this, she upended the bowl over the corpse. It seized, jaw clacking. A plume of rotten smoke erupted from the slab, turned the beam of gaslight into an opaque pillar of blue-grey.
From within the smoke, Krolë spoke.
"Class is dismissed."
"Don't like this very much, Scotloff" muttered Karl. He sniffed the bitter air, wiped his nose. "Not many possibilities for what could've happened. I don't like any of them."
"Aye" agreed Scotloff. She squinted, lifted a hand against the white glare of snow. A cabin stood in the distance. Squat, made of stone, built against a hillside. Thached roof sagging with snow. Its windows were dark. No smoke crawled from the chimney.
They walked to the cabin. Karl held a woodcutter's axe at his side. He shuffled his boots in the crunchy snow. "Poor old thing. Living on her own" he remarked. "Shameful no grandkids took her in."
"No good fretting," said Scotloff. "What will be will be." She stopped by the hill. Frowning, she pointed to the ground. "Take a look."
Karl scrunched his moustache. "Bloody chickens're frozen to the ground."
They advanced to the cabin's oaken door, skirted around a rooster and white hens frozen upright. Karl thumped the wood with a woolen mitt. Accreted snow shook free of the planks. "Oi, Ol' Nan. It's Karl and Scottie out here. Just checkin' in."
"Karl, don't kid yourself" Scotloff grumbled. She grabbed the door's latch and jiggled it. It didn't budge.
"Frozen." She looked at Karl expectantly. "You want to use that axe, or shall I?" she said. Karl looked miserable. "Oi, nah, I'll do it" Karl mumbled, eventually. He hoisted the axe.
Scotloff stepped back, tread on a chicken. She kicked some snow over it.
Karl let into the door with the axe's weighty steel wedge. There was a crack of ice. Boards splintered. After a few more whacks, the door swung open crookedly in its frame. Karl stepped back, axe held with uncertainty. Scotloff stepped up, patted him on the back. "I'll take it from here."
She stepped through the door frame. It was dark, save for the sunlight which fell through behind her. A cobble-brick fireplace opposed the door. Its mouth was dark and cold. Facing it was a wicker rocking chair. A still figure slumped there.
Scotloff crept to the figure, boots tracking snow over the creaking floor. She crept around the chair, looked down. A white-haired figure slumped there, chin tucked to a bony chest. It stirred slightly.
The figure stirred again, jerking its chin. Scotloff startled, scrabbled backwards to the door.
There was a tattoo of thin heels striking the floor, a thin crash as the wicker chair tumbled. The figure seized in the dark. Scotloff heard a wet tearing of flesh. Sticky, partially-coagulated liquid spattered against the floor.
Scotloff stumbled out the door and into the snow. Karl looked at her with concern. "What's the mat-"
"Plague!" Scotloff screamed. Pointing to the cabin.
Through the doorway scuttled the twisted body of Ol' Nan, propelled by all four limbs. Frozen sheets of flesh dropped from the twisted frame. Slushy grave water gushed over its snapping mandible.
Karl raised his axe as the thing bore down upon him.
Stories lurk in the cultural memory of the Coast. Stories, told by nursemaids to children who won't take their medicine. Stories, whispered by those old enough to remember streets overrun by scuttling dead.
Plague is feared above all other ailments. Unlike other diseases, it is seemingly invisible, inexorable. * Countless humans are infected. They live with it all their lives. Children are infected before they are merely a red speck in the womb.
Folk do not fear it within themselves, though. They fear it in others, for plague emerges only after death.
In the bones of corpses, plague instills new life. The honored dead are revivified, transformed into skeletal grues. **
When a carrier of plague dies, pathogenesis begins its work. Dormant sickness awakens, spreads, flourishes in the nutrient slurry of tissues beginning to rot.
While skin and viscera are left to spoil and bloat, plague takes hold of muscle, gristle, and marrow. Black buboes proliferate, burst from the lungs. They wind tendrils into the porous meat of bones, sprout from fibrous muscle. All the while, the affected corpse appears perfectly, innocuously rotten.
Some time after the host's death, the grue becomes motile. *** Its mode of locomotion is uncouth. Devoid of human grace, it lunges and scrabbles about, often falling into a scuttling gait like that of a beetle.
Once motile, the grue will look for someone to bite.† The closest person will do. An attacking grue is apt to leap, biting at the face and neck.
If it cannot find someone to bite, a grue will find a place to hide. A swamp. A puddle. The larder. The gap under your doorstep. Some place where it might leap out and nab someone by the ankle. Grues are apt to hide together, despite possessing no outward means of communication.
A fresh grue is a living skeleton sleeved in rot. Whatever flesh it still possesses is spoiled and spare. The putrefaction burbling within it erupts as grave water, adding a septic element to its bite.
An old grue is another matter. It is plague distilled, devoid of excess flesh. Its resemble a corded, black skeleton wound in wiry sinews, bursting with nodules and buboes.
Plague, as it exists today, is contained. The availability of grisodate tonic in metropolitan areas has made grues a relatively uncommon horror. †† The last epidemic occurred in Firlund in 3.388. Few wish to relive a time where death by disease was so rampant that grues ran unhindered on the cobbles. †††
Coastal folk (Firls, especially) are apt to burn their dead. A Northern funeral is a cautious, solemn affair, carried out with enough hurry to ensure safely while maintaining respect for the deceased. Only the Alagórians, claiming pious respect, are possessed of the hubris to bury any of their dead.
Regardless of burial practice, all peoples know plague. In every Coastal tongue, the word for grue is the same. It is this awful noun which gives the tongue of the Firls a particular adjective: Gruesome.
This one's had a few rewrites. (If only to fix broken backlinks and footnotes.)
Plague began as a notion designed to ensure the burial of dead adventurers. It hasn't really done that. Rather, it has spawned some new thematic level of body horror.
There's this disease in the air, and it's in everyone. You could see it, but only if you had eyes in your lungs. Thus, all you are left with is anxious dread and the desire to drink a lot of tonic.
Also, I have been asked if plague is viral. It is not. Unlike our own Black Death, the plague of the Coast is fungal. Remember the fruiting bodies. The blobby photos in this article are those of slime mold.
Another thing, related to something I've been asked: Notably, mice are unaffected by plague. They have their own illnesses to contend with. Humans are, from the knowledge of current scholars, the only creature to be affected. This has raised a mild hysteria in a portion of the Southern population, who suppose that humanity, weakened by plague, will die out, leaving mice to inherit the world. I'll be writing about other illnesses, including those which affect mice, later.
* Not even bansheeism or blight compare in the fear which plague elicits.
** The time frame for grue transformation varies worryingly. A dead person who has carried plague for years will already have it fully developed in their marrow. They will transform in twelve hours. A person who has taken patchy, too-sparse doses of grisodate will merely have buboes in the lungs. They will become a grue in a week.
*** A grue is not dead. It is an organism in its own right, crafted from a wreck of human flesh. To humans, though, a grue is not a creature. It is the plague's most deadly symptom. A grue is plague. A group of grues is plague. A ruined hospital full of grues is said to be full of plague.
† Most who are bitten by a grue do not die by their wounds. They expire by the toxic nature of the bite. Infection, including blight and blood poisoning, are both fearful results of grue-bite. Fresh grues are most infectious. Old grues are strongest. Both spread plague. Grisodate is essential in the treatment of such wounds.
†† Slums and undercities are a different question. In those squalid gutters, a grue is not uncommon. In the country, too, grues may overrun villages which cannot afford their salt.
††† Plague outbreaks usually begin with a sudden epidemic of pox, which opens the floodgates of unmitigated mortality.