Arkh lowered the letter in his hands, and looked to the mote of light hovering above the bedroll. Though it had reached its intended destination, the letter had come at a terrible price—one that the people of this town were only just beginning to pay. Had Banagher known what would happen, Arkh had no doubt that things would have played out very differently. “And yet, here we are,” he mumbled softly.
“What was that?” Asked Fritz, to his left.
“Oh,” Arkh said, surprised that he’d spoken out loud. “Just… nothing. Just talking to myself.” He tapped the letter with his finger for a moment, then held it out to the Elf. “You should keep this.”
Fritz held up his hands in abdication. “It means a lot more to you than me.”
“I know,” Arkh said. “That’s why I want it to be on you. I don’t trust myself with it.” Hesitantly, Fritz reached out a hand and took the letter, wordlessly tucking it away. “Thank you,” Arkh said, and got up.
He wandered around the house for a long while, studying each room in detail before moving on to the next. He pulled open drawers, studied cabinets, even flipped through what books he could find, all before returning everything exactly the way he’d found it. He wanted to explore, he wanted to be distracted, and he wanted to take a moment away from the others. Mostly, however, he wanted to learn about the life of those he’d never had a chance to save.
When the General Orlaith had died, Arkh was okay with it. Well, not okay with it, but he’d accepted it. He’d had the time and opportunity to give her the care she’d deserved, and when she finally did die, she did so only after having a true fighting chance. Beyond that, she’d gone willingly, and had done so in sacrifice to a Fey ritual of life. When she died, she did so without pain, and surrounded by those who had cared for her, if only briefly. Arkh had, quite literally, done everything he could for her, and felt no guilt in her passing.
But when Arkh looked to the mote, all that was left of Danagh, he felt nothing but guilt. Two brothers, both dying of an inexplicable disease, had longed to spend their final moments with each other, and neither had gotten the chance to do so. They both died alone and afraid, and, in Danagh’s case, without anyone watching over him in his final moments. This was a man that Arkh had never met—had barely even been aware existed—and yet he felt guilty that he hadn’t been there to help.
Arkh was suddenly overcome by a feeling of chained rage. He felt his innards clawing to escape as his thoughts came to all those in New Turath he’d so casually left behind, to track down the mercenaries. His blood boiled as he realized how many had died because of, and how many had been exposed to, this monstrous plague. Every single one of them wouldn’t know why they were dying, and wouldn’t know how to stop it. His shoulders slumped in guilt and anger as a hundred-thousand voices silently asked “why” to the heavens, and he felt them all within him. Guilt and grief and impotence and a burning rage all tore at him from nowhere, and he slammed his fist to a nearby tree trunk in hatred of everything.
Realizing what he’d done, he withdrew his fist from the splintered wood, and quickly looked around to see if his friends had noticed. Confident that they hadn’t, he sheepishly tucked his bloody hand into a pocket, and shuffled himself to a corner to inspect it.
As he plucked slivers from his knuckles, he wondered if his anger wasn’t directed at the plague, but rather himself. The plague had done exactly what it had been designed to do, he imagined, and take advantage of the fact that no one understood it. It traveled by way of ignorance, and by now, had spread far beyond anywhere he could have set foot since contracting it. He’d been hesitant before to move forward, not wanting to expose others, but now realized that he was wrong to think so. He’d let his fear of making things worse prevent him from actively making them better, and he realized that it would behoove him to simply assume that, by this point, everyone in Vulcanica had been exposed.
He hissed through his teeth as he pulled out the last sliver, then popped the cork on a nearby bottle of whiskey. He took a small swig before emptying the remaining contents on his hand, and then promptly felt foolish for doing so. He was, after all, already dying of a disease not known for leaving survivors—fussing over a minor infection was a relatively pointless affair. He shrugged internally, stuffed his hand back into his pocket, and resumed his inspection of the house.