Day One: Examination

Daniel woke up with the feeling that he'd had uneasy dreams. That, combined with the strange, if comfortable, bed and the warm lump of weight against him as he awoke, meant that it took him a moment to remember exactly where he was.

Daniel stirred, blinking against the fuzzy shapes of the room about him until they swam into focus. He groaned, rolling over slightly into the weight as he remembered that yes...he was in the middle of a country town in Mosgrav. To solve a mysterious disease afflicting a colleague. And he was currently sleeping in the same bed as a bright young chemist.

The chemist has somehow made her way across the sea of bed during the night, and was curled up with her back against him, arms around one of the large pillows like it was a stuffed bear. It might have been at least partially because one of the windows seemed to have burst open in the night, extinguishing whatever was left of the fire, and leaving a puddle on the old wooden floor.

Daniel felt a slight flush under the fur of his face, and sighed. With the situation of the window, it couldn't be helped. But it still made for an interesting wakeup. He gently tapped her shoulder with his clawed finger.

"Mmm?" she stirred gently against him for a moment, and then seemed to come awake all at once. "Oh. Ah. Hmm.. Good morning." She turned toward him, scooting a little extra space between the two of them.

Daniel cleared his throat, holding the covers up somewhere around his neck. "Good morning. You seem like you slept well."

She frowned, her ears flicking slightly. "I feel rested, but I think I had a bad dream...." She shook her head. "No matter though."

Daniel frowned slightly "funny. I feel the same. My dreams were troubled, not that I know precisely what troubled them."

"Probably the storm," she sighed, gesturing to the window. "Looks like it got nasty."

"we'll have to see if we can get something to latch the window more effectively." He said. "The storm seems to have raged all night long."

She nodded. "I'll clean up the mess if you could get the fire going," she offered. "whenever you're ready to get up."

Daniel lay a moment more in the safety and comfort of bed, before he rolled out of it and stretched. "It's gotten a bit chilly for my liking." He admitted

She nodded and yawned as she got up after him. "I have to agree. I'm amazed the puddle hasn't frozen."

Daniel got to work on the fire. "I'm amazed we didn't turn into icicles in our sleep.'

"One more reason not to complain about sharing a bed then I suppose. If you'd had taken the couch you'd have died of hypothermia." She set about finding a rag and cleaning up the wet spot on the floor.

He chuckled "I suppose you can feel free to use me as a source of warmth. I wouldn't want you to *perish*"

"Is that a backhanded plea for my body heat I hear?" she asked with amusement.

Daniel coughed, nearly dropping a fire poker on his foot. "I wouldn't call it backhanded or a plea."

"Careful now," she said, her ears flicking with embarrassment. "I was only teasing. I *do* need to put on something more substantial before I'm an icicle though."

His own ear flicked. "hm. For the best. We've both got to brave the Mosgravian cold in due time today."

"I definitely prefer the spring in Astoria," she sighed. "would you mind heading down to see if Mirta has any tea while I get dressed?"4

"not in the least." He paused "however, I'd like to dress after...I think I can survive Mirta seeing me in my pajamas."

She chuckled. "If your dignity couldn;t bear it I'd understand."

"My dignity can survive this trial." Daniel drawled.

"I won't doubt it," she agreed with a wry smirk. "Thank you, doctor."

He gave her a little salute, before he walked out of the room and down the stairs.

Downstairs the candles and the fire were lit again, bathing the dreary little post office in a warm glow. He could hear someone working away behind the counter.

Daniel walked out and around to the counter with a half smile. "Good morning, Mirta."

Mirta popped up from below the counter. "Ah! Good Morning master doctor. I hope the room was alright..."

"it's a lovely room. Though we may want something stronger to latch that window with." Daniel said with a slight bow of his head. "It blew open and nearly chilled us to the bone, last night."

"Ah, I'm terribly sorry," he nodded. "I shall try to fix it today."

"Much appreciated. And...would you happen to have any tea?"

"Oh! Yes, certainly," he nodded. "Oh, and some mail came for you, doctor."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "Some mail, for me?"

"Yes, early this morning," he nodded. "I know one was from the Mayor's office. I'm not sure about the other two." He offered him a couple of letters.

Daniel took the letters in his hand, and turned them over "i'll be sure to read them, then... how interesting."

One was addressed to Doctor Delgrave and was a simple folded note, one to 'The Doctor from Astoria which had a handsome red seal', and another to 'the master doctor' which was in a simple folded envelope, but of good paper..

"hm." Daniel tucked them under his arm, and nodded to Mitya. "Just point me towards the tea and I think that's all I'll need for now."

"One second," he nodded. He reached down into some boxes and brought up a box of tea leaves. "There's a water closet at the top of the stairs too, if you didn't see it before."

"I had not." Daniel bobbed his head, taking the leaves ."But it will come in handy, thank you."

Mitya nodded and gave him a little salute. "let me know if there's anything else I can do for you, sir."

Daniel saluted him in return, keeping a firm hold of the letters and leaves. "In a little bit, Mitya. Once I'm properly dressed." And with that...he went back upstairs.

Fenya was dressed, and poking the fire up. "Have we achieved tea?"

"Tea, and correspondence." he chuckled. "and there's a water closet near the top of the stairs, Mitya pointed out."

"I'll get some water then," she nodded. "I wondered what the door was for." She grabbed the kettle from where it rested on top of the fireplace.

"Now we have our answer." He chuckled "and while you do that, I'll see what people had to say to me."

"I'll be curious to hear." She took the kettle and went to go fill it while he looked at his mail. Which letter to look at first?

He started with the one that knew his name. He opened the letter addressed to Doctor Delgrave.

A careful script read: "Doctor Delgrave, Our patient has lived through the night and has regained consciousness. If you would like to examine him before I send him on his way please convene at my residence before the noon hour. -Sasha Osgrov"

"...i'll be sure to do that, Sasha." Daniel drawled. He moved on to the letter bearing the red seal.

Cracking the seal he opened the letter on handsome and official parchment. "From the office of Mayor Vadim Tadibyov: The mayor is pleased that the noted Astorian doctor has chosen to visit our beloved town, and would be honored to receive his presence at his office in town hall during the hours of 9am to 5pm."

"I see." Daniel mused. "A meeting with the mayor, by five pm...and a meeting at Sasha's before noon."

Before he could read the final note, Fenya came back from the water closet and hung up the kettle on the hook over the fire. "How's the correspondence?"

Daniel glanced up at her. "Not bad. Sasha says we should come before noon if we want to examine last night's victim....and the mayor wishes to see me before 5pm."

"I see we've got a lot of visiting to do," she said. "Anything else?"

Daniel waved the last letter. "Just this. I haven't had the chance to read it yet." He opened it up, and read it over.

"Master Doctor I would be pleased to treat you and your associate to dinner tonight at Grandma's Pub. Please alert me by reply if you are able to meet. Of course I understand if a man such as yourself finds the evening hour quite busy. - Andrei Morozov."

"hm." Daniel raised his eyebrow. "....we've been invited to dinner."

"Well, that's charming if unexpected."

"isn't it?" Daniel mused. "By one Andrei Morozov, at 'Grandma's Pub.'. Shall I send a reply saying we'll attend?"

"I suppose?" she said. "Unless we'll be busy with something else-- or you think he's going to try to poison us."

"I can't imagine why." Daniel raised his eyebrow "I don't think I've made *that* many enemies yet in town."

"A bad attempt at humor on my part," she admitted dryly. "Though they do favor poisoning in Mosgrav."

Daniel raised his eyebrows "well isn't that..." He paused for a long moment. "Delightful."

"Don't have lunch with someone you know wants to kill you and we should be fine," she offered. She put some tea leaves in a couple of mugs as the kettle started to whistle.

"i'll..keep that in mind." Daniel said. "And aspire to stay on people's good sides." He nodded. "yours especially, chemist."

"I *do* know all the good poisons," she admitted, pouring hot water for their tea and putting the kettle back on top of the fireplace.

"Has anyone ever told you that you look radiant in the morning hours." He drawled.

Fenya smirked and offered him a cup of tea. "The immortalist is good at improving his chances of survival I see."

Daniel took the tea with a smirk. "I wouldn't be very good at my job if I wasn't, Fenya."

"Touche," she purred, falling gently into one of the chairs. "So... what does our morning look like?"

"Visiting our victim, perhaps taking a look at the...Rookery...and meeting some townsfolk in the hopes of tracing Elias' steps."

She nodded. "The Osgrov's first, then?"

"The Osgrov's it is." He said "after our tea, of course."

"Of course," she agreed, swirling hers around in her cup. "And we should potentially look into some breakfast."

"That might be a good opportunity to make a few connections...perhaps at the inn."

"Probably the best place if we're not looking at street vendors," she nodded.

"If we see any decent looking vendors, we'll stop. But I think we'd best find our way to the inn for a little breakfast."

"I'm sure our friend Mitya can tell us where to find the inn."

Daniel nodded, and sipped his tea. "once I'm dressed, we'll ask him then."

"Shall I step out of the room again?"

She paused. "Or ask while you dress?"

"If you could ask, we could kill two birds with one stone."

"It's my pleasure," she bobbed her head.

Daniel nodded to her, finishing his tea and placing his cup down.

She finished her own and stood, fluffing out her long dark hair. "Take your time. I'll be right downstairs."

Daniel nodded, watching her go. "I'll be down post haste."

A moment later she was gone with just the clicking of her heels down the stairs.

Daniel dressed himself, choosing a smart yet practical ensemble in mostly black, and topping it with his signature cloak. Once he was satisfied, he turned, and walked down the stairs with his bag over his shoulder.

Fenya was waiting for him, leaning against the wall. Mirta must have been in the back doing mail things because Daniel didn't see him.

Daniel gave her a half wave "did you manage to get directions, Fenya?"

"I did," she nodded. "Mitya says just take the right turn past the town square and the inn is up the street."

"not a bad walk then." Daniel tugged on his gloves. "Shall we?"

"Let's," she agreed.

Together, they walked out into the streets of town, hunting for the inn.

The sky was clearer this morning though by no means sunny. The mist had mostly gone though, and thanks to that, walking out of the post office they both got a full view of the Rookery in the distance. Standing at least 60 or 70 feet tall was a giant structure of pitted grey stone shaped like a narrow bell, with a graceful curve upward, topped with a large round bulb. It was difficult to tell from the distance, but it might have been covered in carvings.

"...." Daniel raised his eyebrow at it. "...what a strange, occult structure. We'll have to get inside."

"We will," she nodded. "You could certainly see the whole town from up there if nothing else. If there are any windows."

"If there are any windows, we'll have a birds eye view of everything this little hamlet can offer."

"Well, unless you want to go try to climb it now, we should probably leave it be for the moment."

"I'd like to at least get seeing the patient out of the way first, before we go hiking up an old rock."

"And me in my heels," she drawled. They passed by the little shops, many of which were open now. They could smell baking bread and smoking meat.

Daniel took a deep breath as they walked "at least this place smells nicer in the morning than it did in the dead of night."

"Almost overpowers the smell of mud," she chuckled.

"Almost." Daniel chuckled "and that is all I can ask."

They passed by the governor's manor, getting closer to the town square. A pair of gardeners were hard at work packing soil around the bases of withering plants.

Daniel raised his eyebrows "they should know those plants don't belong here..."

"I suppose it doesn't matter depending on who's telling them what to do?"

"the governor, I would suppose." Daniel scoffed. "They'll just keep dying in this state though."

"Hubris," she said, shaking her head as they passed and came toward the square.

"Unrelenting hubris and obsession with appearances." Daniel drawled "vanity."

"And not the fun kind," she agreed. "Oh good morning doctor!" an unctuous voice called as they reached the square. "in better spirits today I hope?"

Daniel had to stop himself from hissing out a long sigh. He whispered to Fenya. "is it the thrice damned clown?"

Fenya craned her neck up and looked over the courtyard, before leaning in and nodding. "It's the clown."

"Oh doctor! doctor! I've got a bellyache won't you come and check me out?" the clown laughed.

Daniel dragged his hand down his face before turning with a thin smile "I imagine it's connected to the bad taste you're spitting up. A true sign of unbalanced humors."

The clown paused for a moment and then let out a braying laugh. "OH! Am I the doctor today and you the jester? Let me give you my hat!"

"Keep it. I'd drop dead if I was seen in such a thing."

"Some doctor you are, killed by a hat!" he sniggered. "Let me read your palm!"

Daniel stared at him "do you ever...stop?" He pulled his glove off and shoved his hand towards the jester. "If it'll cease this song and dance, here."

Lukyan beamed brilliantly and grabbed his hand, tracing his claw over the lines. "Yes yes, I see. It was a mad passion that brought you here."

"The only thing mad here is you, jester." Daniel snarked.

"Not *your* mad passion, doctor. *Obviously*," he grinned. "But it looks like you'll have a chance to wield that too, as well as your scalpel. The thing you desire and the thing that desires you are both within your reach."

"the thing that desires me, Jester?" he snorted "and just what might that be?"

"Some great beast whose eye you've caught it seems," the jester grinned. "You might be able to avoid it. you might not."

"it wouldn't be this *vampire* of yours, would it?" he snorted.

"Could be. Could be." he nodded.

"Well why don't you tell your mystical spirits and fortune telling imps to pass along the message that I'm not interested, hm?"

"Oh I'm sure the beast already knows your feelings Big D," the clown grinned. "come back if you ever need a hint hmm? Press A not to die!"

"What the hell is he babbling about?" Fenya murmured, standing nearby.

"press a to...not..." He frowned 'what in the blazes are you on about, you absolute buffoon?"

"don't worry about it, don't worry about it," he grinned. "Go about your day. I'll be here if you need me. or not. We are Kitsunese if you don't please."

"...w...what?" Daniel frowned "Jester, you're as unfathomable as you are irritating."

Lukya gave a sweeping bow in reply.

"Wonderful. Pleased that that pleased you." With that, Daniel turned away from him "let's get going Fenya. I've had enough mirth for this morning."

Fenya nodded and beckoned him along. "*Someone*'s got enough mirth for all of us. That clown."

"What in the blazes was he even going on about." Daniel muttered 'press a to not die. kitsunese... this nonsense about a beast." He snorted 'Clowns like him are nothing more than madmen in funny hats."

"At least they have the courtesy to wear the uniform and warn you I suppose," she sniffed.

"I'd be more thankful if it didn't seem as if he was treating me as the punchline to his private joke."

She shook her head. "I wouldn't take it to heart if I were you. I'd imagine he's just pleased to have a new target. no doubt all the locals have become inured to his madness."

"I imagine so." Daniel murmured. "He'll get bored of me soon enough."

"He's likely got a short attention span." Past the commons, they turned down a street they hadn't been down yet, toward the north. There was another large house off across the street to the left where the sign of the faithful was displayed.

Daniel grimaced slightly. "the faithful.." he murmured quietly. "I wonder who lives in that house.."

"I suppose we could find out."

"I suppose we could...after breakfast." Daniel shook his head. "nothing good of venturing about on an empty stomach.

"I might bite someone's head off if nothing else," she mused..

"If it's the clown, I think I'd pay to see it." Daniel drawled.

"I'll keep it in mind," she promised with a smirk. They passed a couple of small houses which had a wide space between them through which they could see the smaller houses past them on the next street over. On the near side to them they approached a low, functional little building with a pair of men in uniform standing outside smoking.

Daniel raised his eyebrows, and stopped near them. "hello. Would this be the local home of law and order?"

One of them nodded. "Yes," he agreed in a thick Mosgrav accent. "Tadibya is protected by standing militia. You are... visitors?"

Fenya nodded. "From Astoria."

"mm hmm. Doctor Delgrave and my associate, Trifena Evgenii-Smythe . We're in town to look into Elias Bainbridge from the University." he agreed with Fenya, nodding

"Well Doctor if you run into any trouble just give a yell, eh?" The big bear's mustache wiggled below his nose.

"gladly." Daniel nodded his head slowly. "I doubt I'll have much trouble saving for the annoyance of street performers."

The other guard snorted. "Lukyan harassing you?"

"I get the feeling that's just his...way."

"You'd be right about that then, doctor."

"Wonderful. I'll strive to take the long way around him then."

One of them chuckled. "Good luck."

"thank you." Daniel chuckled "Now if you don't mind, I'll be on my way. Breakfast is calling."

The pub, as it turned out, was the very next building past the guard station. Unlikely to be an accident. It was a rough 2 story building with a sign in the shape of a knife and fork.

"Not the most imaginative inn sign I've seen." Daniel commented as he pushed at the door.

The door opened to a large public area with benches and long tables as well as a few smaller, more private tables along one edge. Across the room was a long counter with a number of stools. There were a few men and women at the stools and long tables, mostly dressed in laborer's clothing, though a few among them looked to be of the merchant class. A knobby-kneed child of perhaps 8 or so was weaving in between, delivering loaves of bread and mugs of coffee to the diners, while behind the counter a handsome and wizened old woman with a careful bun of white hair and a shawl over her shoulders minded a pot on the fire. The room smelled of a dense mixture of smoke and bread, lard and beer and coffee, along with the fishy stink of the laborer's clothes.

Daniel brushed his hand through his hair and around his ears before he stepped inside with a cordial smile.

Only a very few of the heads turned to him and Fenya-- but the woman behind the counter immediately looked up and fixed him with shrewd, clear eyes. "Welcome, strangers."

Daniel nodded his head to her, and approached the counter with a small wave. "Good day to you, ma'am."

"If you're looking for a meal, have a seat," she nodded to the two of them. "I'm Yana Bobkin. Folks around here call me Granny or Nana Yana."

"it's a pleasure to meet you, Yana." Daniel took a seat at the counter. "My name's Doctor Daniel Delgrave, of the Astorian University."

Fenya took a seat beside him, carefully gathering her skirts. "And I'm Trifena Evgenii-Smythe. Also with the University." "Huh. Don't get many fancy educations in these parts," the old woman grinned. She had almost all her own teeth, and those that weren't were replaced with gold ones. "You two here to knock a few heads together?"

Daniel laughed, "in a fashion. One of our...associates....found himself ill in town, and I was asked to deduce just what had happened to the poor sot."

"Aha I knew it!" She nodded, slapping the counter. "That Professor fellow, I'll bet."

"I'm sure you've ran into him? he wasn't a professor." Daniel chuckled "But Elias Bainbridge."

"Not a professor, eh? That's how he introduced himself. And I've seen him often enough." she nodded.

"of course he did." Daniel chuckled under his breath. "Would you know anything about his movements before he became ill? or when you noticed the symptoms?"

"Asked me a lot about the history of the town that one," she nodded, placing a couple of plates in front of them. Fresh bread and smoked fish, along with boiled eggs.

Daniel looked at the plate with a hungry appreciation. He nodded slowly. "he's a student of folklore, so I imagine your local history was of some interest to him."

"Seemed like it," she nodded. "he was all over the place asking this and that to my customers." The small child came up and offered them large mugs of hot coffee.

"What sorts of questions, may I ask?" He reached down and took a mug. "Thank you young one."

They looked up at him with big eyes and nodded. "That's Fofka," Nana Yana said waving her hand. "Not too talkative but good at staying out from under foot."

"Fofka." Daniel raised his eyebrow. "well, The coffee is much appreciated. Such a thing is a near necessity in the medical business."

"well we've always got the kettle on so stop in for coffee as often as you like," Yana offered

"I might very well take you up on that, given the number of things we have to do today." Daniel sipped his coffee.

The coffee was black as night and strong as an ox. It tasted like it might have been double, or even triple brewed.

Daniel didn't flinch. He just tipped it back. With coffee this strong he might not even *need* another cup.

Fenya looked a little startled, but grinned and drank heavily as well. "Got a long to do list huh?" Nana asked.

Daniel nodded. "We've got a mysterious disease and no clear leads...not to mention several people looking for my attention."

"Huh. Mysterious, is it?"

"I've never seen anything like it. No trouble with the lungs save for the shallow breaths. Slowed heartbeat, black blood..."

The woman snorted. "Black blood eh? Sounds like a hell of a *disease*. Is it catching?"

"We aren't sure as of yet. I haven't had the chance to check my sample." He raised his eyebrow. "...why do you say it like that?"

"Say what?" she asked with another gilded grin

"Disease."

"Well it don't sound like no disease to me," she said. "But I'm no educated doctor neither."

"what does it sound like to you, then?" He inquired with a raise of his eyebrow.

"Sounds like his *lelek* is out of control."

"...his lel.." Daniel downed the rest of his coffee before blinking at her. "I'm afraid you'll have to explain that to an outsider, Yana."

"Ah...." she nodded and tapped her chest. "His dark heart. His *lelek*. If the heart is damaged, the dark heart will try to move in."

"his...dark heart. Damaged in which way? blunt force? a wound?"

"A wound is possible," she nodded. "So's a heartbreak, or a crime, or a terrible secret."

"...." Daniel looked at his empty coffee cup, and closed his eyes. "hm. So if any of these come to pass...his heart rots? Is that what you are saying?"

"Aye," she nodded. "Though if he's strong enough he could fight the *lelek* off. If not, it'll seize him for its wickedness. A healer could fix him up, but we got none since the Faithful came through."

Daniel waved his hand. "You have a healer." His lips upticked in a slightly smug smile. "I'm one of the finest doctors the University has to offer. A doctor of thanatology, one who fights death itself. This wickedness is clearly some sort of infection. And any infection can be cured."

She grinned widely. "Oh is that so? well I'm pleased to hear it. Plenty of death around here to be fought with."

"I encountered an agent of it last night." Daniel said "and I saved the victim's life. If there's death to be fought here, then by the laws of science, I'll fight it."

"Brave man," she nodded. "Foolish maybe, but brave. I like that."

"I...don't...consider myself a fool. But thank you Nana Yana."

She nodded. "Well, I better get back to cooking-- unless ya need any more help, mr. doctor."

"For now, I think we're doing fine."

"Then please enjoy breakfast. On the house this morning for the great healer and company," she grinned. "But t'morrow I start charging."

Daniel chuckled. "you're generous. Thank you very much. I'll make sure this gift doesn't go to waste, then."

She chuckled and nodded and left the two of them to their breakfast.

Daniel glanced at Fenya, as he chewed on his bread.

"She seems nice. Ish."

"mm.." Daniel nodded. "I'm not sure if she believes in my ability to cure the man or not."

"No, she's hard to get a read on. She might be serious, or she might be laughing up her sleeve at us. I'm not sure."

Daniel nodded. "well....regardless...we'll solve this little mystery and show this whole town what science can do.'

"Seems like it'll be a big revelation to some people."

Daniel chuckled 'such as it is in a small town like this."

"Exactly," she nodded. "I think the only science they've mastered here is making coffee."

"and what a glorious science it is." Daniel said. "I could use coffee that strong back at the University."

"I'll see if I can weasel the method out of Nana over there," she said wryly.

"if you could, you would be my hero, Fenya. You would make a friend for life."

"Cheers, then" she smirked, raising her mug.

Daniel raised his own, though he'd already finished it. "Cheers, Fenya."

Soon enough they'd finished their breakfast, too. It was simple fare, but not a bad sign if they were going to be back for dinner.

Daniel stepped out into the morning air with a stretch. "not as bad as I feared. Quite good, in fact."

"I'll admit I've definitely had worse," she agreed. "To the Osgrov's then?"

"to the Osgrov's." He nodded. "And from there, we make what we will of the day. I'd like to see the rookery, myself."

"It's a curious structure certainly. Looming."

"looming, mysterious..." He smirked thinly "And likely one of the places our dear Elias visited before he fell ill."

"I can't imagine that he avoided it," she agreed. "Hmmm... should we follow the route we know, or take a chance there might be a shortcut up and around?"

"We have some time, and we probably should get to know the town" Daniel said "let's take a shortcut."

"Up this way then," she nodded, starting further up the road rather than back the way they'd come.

Daniel strolled alongside her, keeping his eyes on the streets as he went.

A little further up the street was a large, low building with a number of vodka bottles hung outside the door like a makeshift sign, or perhaps windchime. The windows were small and barred with iron. And it certainly didn't seem to be open.

"A bar, perhaps?" Daniel mused. "perhaps the one the clown is known to spend his time at."

"I'd bet on it," she nodded. "Probably won't be open until the end of first shift."

"Perhaps tonight we can ...have a drink together." He chuckled. "and hear the local gossip..."

"I could be persuaded," she agreed dryly. "Have you ever been in a Mosgravan drinking establishment before?"

"Never. I'm sure it will be...an experience. I take it you have?"

"I have *not*," she said with a smirk. "In fact my uncles strictly forbid it."

Daniel smiled , waving his hand. "well your uncle isn't here. So why not delight in a personal taboo? It's likely Elias ventured there, regardless. Someone might have more information."

She chuckled. "Very likely indeed. Alright, I'm persuaded."

"Then tonight, after dinner, we drink." he walked past the bar. "If nothing else, it'll be an interesting experience."

They were getting closer to the river, and with it the smell. One thing to thank the cold for, it kept the scent down. There were scattered, rough looking houses here, and warehouses nearby. They came to a crossroads. One direction would take them back the direction of the post office, and the other the direction of the farm.

"hm." Daniel thought to himself for a moment. "...which way was the good healer's house...?" He wanted to be out of this...ruffian's warehouse district post haste.

"further this way," she said gesturing toward the direction of the farm. "Ughh, I think we're going to pass the docks."

"wonderful. The smell will absolutely make my day." Daniel drawled as he followed her towards the farm.

They passed the warehouses, and could see the dock in the distances where nets full of fish were being unloaded and large men carried large boxes.

"hm. Seems fishing is a big industry around these parts..."

"I'm surprised anything edible comes out of that river."

"Oh , I doubt it's all that edible. Less than toxic, perhaps, but certainly not anything I would consider *food* "

"it's like eating fish out of the factory district in Astoria."

She grimaced. "Now I recall there was smoked fish with breakfast."

"...." Daniel frowned "cooking it that long likely kills any of the microscopic little beasties...." he hoped

"I'll defer to your opinion as a doctor," she said though she sounded less than enthused about it.

"Often disease...is caused...by..." he cleared his throat. "germs. Microscopic organisms...rather than miasma as some would claim. Quite a few of these organisms are killed by high levels of heat.""

"Disgusting," she said. "But I suppose at least they can be killed."

"Absolutely disgusting." He agreed. "But it's something *beatable* "

"I'll keep it in mind," she murmured as they walked. "Hey brother!" someone called from the other side of the street. "Got a light?"

Daniel glanced up and over with a raise of his eyebrow. "A light? " He reached into his pack "I suppose I have a pack of matches."

A black furred badger in a cap grinned and held out his hand, a large hand rolled cigarette in his mouth. "You're a saint, brother. You want some tobacco?"

Daniel handed him the matchbook with a chuckle. "I might as well, thank you."

The man passed him a palm sized paper bag of tobacco with a grin and lit up his own cigarette, before passing the matches back. "Smoke it in good health, brother."

"thank you." Daniel put the tobacco in his pack. No sense smoking it now. "And the same to you...comrade?"

Fenya shook her head as they started back down the street. "Mosgravan manners can be so different from Astorian, don't you think?"

"quite different." Daniel mused. "I imagine trade is done quite freely about these parts?"

"By the lower classes definitely," she nodded. "And no one's afraid to stop one another in the street. In Astoria you'd assume he was going to mug you after all."

Daniel chuckled. "I'll admit, I was concerned. But...he seemed like a friendly enough sort."

"I'd wager you don't have to worry *too* much about random assault. Although still a non-zero number."

"there's always ruffians. I can handle myself well enough, if need be."

"You were certainly quick enough last night," she said, not un-admiringly.

Daniel rubbed the back of his neck with a slight laugh. "well, thank you Fenya. I still wish I managed to tag the beast, but... such is life."

"Who knows... maybe you'll get another shot." They came out of the poorer district to a few rows of middling apartments and another cross-street but this time the decision was obvious. The northmost turn only led to the river.

"well... I'd certainly like to avoid the river." he mused, and turned the other direction.

They headed south down a row of nice houses, and Daniel was pleased to note that he recognized the street, though this time they were coming from the opposite direction.

"ah, and here we are. Back in familiar territory."

"Among the elite of the town it seems, such as they are."

"Such as they are." he chuckled softly. "....I'm quite curious about this healer. It seems most don't respect his authority on the subject. Given that Yana outright said there were no healers in town....Elias said much the same."

"That's true," she nodded. "I admit I'm curious about it myself."

"He seems...fairly competent. I suppose.." Daniel shrugged his shoulders "But I suppose we'll see."

As they neared Osgrov manner they found the building beside it, a small, one story affair with a single window and a little sign in it which said "Office".

Daniel stopped, and knocked at it's door. "I imagine this is where his practice is done? rather than on his kitchen table."

"That would certainly be my guess," Fenya nodded. A moment later Sasha was at the door. He had dark circles under his eyes this morning, and was wearing a formal coat instead of the dressing gown they'd seen him in the night before. "Ah. You got my note."

Daniel nodded. "I did. I hope your night was restful."

"As much as could be expected. Feel free to come in."

Daniel gave him a thin smile, before stepping inside. "thank you again for your assistance."

Sasha nodded, leading them inside. It was a small, decidedly functional space. What its function was was.... a little unclear. There were a couple of cots and things that Daniel recognized as medical instruments, but there was also a large hearth with kettles, and bunches of dried herbs hanging from strings on the ceiling.

Daniel glanced around with a slightly puzzled look. "hm. You certainly collect a lot in the way of herbs." he mused.

"The people here are reliant on them," he nodded.

"Do they have much effect? Aside from...well. those like that plant you used last night. Which i've seen here and there in Astoria, myself."

"Their efficacy is... situational at best," he said. "but there are times when it's useful. And they go some way to boosting my credibility."

"I can only imagine." Daniel hefted his bag on his shoulder. "The people around here don't trust in modern medicine, from what I've noted."

"No, quite the opposite," he sighed. "Anyway, our patient from last night is in back in the private room if you'd like to see him."

"it's the struggle." Daniel said with sympathy, patting his shoulder. "please. Let me see the patient."

He gestured and led them through a door in the back into a small extra room. There was a large (shuttered and shaded) window in here and their patient lying on a somewhat more comfortable bed than the medical cots in the front. Daniel could see right away that his color was better.

Daniel glanced over him. "Remarkable. I'm pleased our treatment worked so well."

"As am I," he nodded. He lit a lamp in the room. "Pavel-- doctor Delgrave is here to check on you."

The man in the bed stirred. "Mmm... Oh...doctor?" he seemed to have been napping.

Daniel bent over the bed with a slim smile "you may not remember me, sir, but we the ones who rescued you last night."

"Huh.... thank you," he said thickly, nodding.

"Are you feeling alright?" Daniel kept his eyes on the man's, noting the pupils.

"Mmmm... my neck hurts," he admitted. "And I feel weak. I had bad dreams."

"Bad dreams. hm? were they particularly vivid?"

"Foggy," he said, shaking his head. "Something was following me."

"perhaps the vampire?" He mused. "You're likely experiencing trauma from your injury."

"Maybe," he murmured. "Will he come for me again? Have I been marked?"

"he's just a man." Daniel consoled. "Men can't mark and track people like some kind of hellish predators. They're simply men. You're safe now."

"He was no man..." Pavel shuddered. "He had his teeth at my neck."

"he had a knife." Daniel corrected. "The wound on your neck wasn't a bite. It was a slice from a straight edged blade."

He reached up to touch the bandage gently. "Knife... perhaps. But he still had a monsterous thirst for my blood."

"We're dealing with some sort of madman." Daniel agreed. "...or simply an individual who wishes to partake in the blood of his fellow man. But such men are likely to make mistakes...sooner or later."

"If.... you say so, doctor," he nodded.

"I do. You say you feel weak? Likely due to the blood loss. But it will replenish in time. Eat red meat. Stay hydrated."

"Red meat?"

"Red meat. . Cow. Lamb. The like."

"yes," he nodded. "will that keep the vampire away?"

He could hear Fenya sigh from the doorway.

"It'll make it so you regain your strength. So you can clobber the 'vampire' instead." Daniel drawled.

Fenya cough-- clearly to cover a fit of laughter. Pavel nodded. "Ah. Yes. Anything else?"

"Carry a blade, I suppose." Daniel shrugged. "I mentioned hydration, but it's important. Try to avoid heavy workloads for now as you're likely to become dizzy."

"I will try," he nodded. "Though I am a stock worker."

"Then you'll be fine. Stocks are only taxing on the mind and the wallet."

Pavel gave him a puzzled look.

"Shelves, doctor delgrave," Sasha said.

".ah." Daniel cleared his throat. "This is most certainly not Astoria. Take a few days off."

He nodded. "Very well."

"Good. You'll be fine in due time, mr. Pavel."

"Unless there's anything else you'd like to ask him, Doctor, I'm going to send him home," Sasha said

"no. That should be all."

Pavel nodded and stood. He offered his hand to Daniel's to shake.

Daniel took his hand and gave it a firm shake.

The man said brief farewells, and headed out.

Daniel watched him go, before he glanced at Sasha. "Did his rest seem disrupted last night?"

"Yes," Sasha nodded. "He seemed quite restless. But not unusual given the drug I administered."

"I imagine it might have contributed to his panic dreams."

"Very likely. However I am sure he'd trade his life for a few bad dreams. Wouldn't you?"

"Very much so." Daniel agreed. He glanced at Sasha. "we really haven't had the chance to get properly acquainted, have we?"

"Unfortunately not," he nodded. "I'd say we were both in a bit of a hurry last night."

"not to mention the late hour." He offered his hand. "I'm Doctor Daniel Delgrave...of the Austorian University. I'm a healer."

He shook his hand. "Sasha Osgrov. A student of medicine as well. And your companion?" "Trifena," she introduced simply. "I'm a chemist."

"It's a pleasure." Daniel said. "Trifena and I are on an expedition to look into the state of Elias Bainbridge...who's fallen quite ill."

"So I had heard," he said, frowning.

"I'm surprised he hadn't spoken to you about it, given that you're a fellow doctor."

The doctor's ears twitched. "I'm afraid that Banbridge didn't hold me in high regard."

"May I ask why? He's a student of folklore, hardly someone versed in medicine."

"Yes," Sasha sighed. "he was trying to interrogate me about folk medicine and I told him he was wasting his time. We.... got into a rather heated argument."

"He's always been far too invested in that sort of thing." Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. "But it's good to hear that you're a man of modern medicine."

"I studied at the university of Mosgrav for several years," he said. "though I'm ashamed to say I was not able to finish my course of study."

"no? Did something happen, or was it simply a matter of ill timing?"

"I had to return to make certain that my sisters were cared for and that this town was not without its own healer, reticent as they have been to accept my efforts."

"ah, I see..." Daniel nodded in understanding. "You're an honorable man, then."

"Thank you," he nodded. "I admit my life has not gone according to my own plan. But... we must be able to adjust."

"such is life." Daniel agreed. "my academic career certainly hasn't reached the heights I dreamed of just yet....but hopefully this town of yours can change that."

"Oh? I'm curious why you'd say that."

"because of my field. The study of Thanatology." He waved his hand. "the study of death itself...and the hopes to use that knowledge to extend human life."

"Ah," he clucked, his expression darkening. "your interest is in the former town board then."

"That it is. If I can find the secret to their long life...perhaps I can use it to give everyone the gift of immortality."

"long life is hardly immortality, doctor," he said. "However I hope you are able to find the reason-- so that you can quell the notion of any supernatural origin."

"I doubt it's supernatural...likely a twist of the cells...some concoction. Something simple and easy to explain." He nodded slowly. "A longer life, while not immortality, gives us more time to search for the perfect solution."

"I more than agree," he nodded. "I wish you good luck in your research."

"Thank you. I might very well come to you for a bit of back and forth sometime. Having a fellow student of medicine around can only be a good help." He paused. "what do you make of this?" He pulled out the vial of Elias' blood.

"might I use your microscope, if you have one?"

"Is that oil?" he asked. "And certainly."

"that's Elias' blood." Daniel said with a frown. "though I understand the mistake." He moved to the equipment, and looked for some slides to put the blood on.

There was a small stack of slides next to the microscope.

Daniel took a slide, and spread some of the blood upon it, before slipping it into the microscope and taking a look.

It was difficult to see the sample through whatever inky darkness occluded it. He could certainly see blood cells but... they didn't look healthy.

"....disgusting." he muttered as he attempted to zoom in on them with a crank of the knob.

Fiddling with the knobs he managed to get the image a bit larger without making it too blurry. Well... the sample was definitely low in oxygen... that was one thing.

"Low on oxygen...considering his difficulty breathing and the slothful heartbeat , that's unsurprising..."

"Would that turn it black?" Fenya asked curiously.

"not...really.." Daniel said. "this is unusual."

"May I have a look?" Sasha asked.

Daniel backed away, and gestured. "it's as if there's some kind of secretion, or sludge taking the place of the fluid around the cells."

Sasha leaned in and peered at it for a moment, frowning. He stood. "That is.... odd. I wouldn't normally suggest this but...."

Daniel raised his eyebrow "but...?" he asked

"You might consider diluting the sample in order to get a better look."

"I do have more," He admitted. "in the vial. I took a substantial amount of blood." He glanced over "you wouldn't happen to have some distilled water, would you?"

"A small amount yes," he nodded. "I'll be a moment, it's in back." He headed into another door.

Fenya shook her head. "Now I want to see. Just out of curiosity."

Daniel glanced "please, be my guest." He shook his head. "this is going to sound...unpleasant....but it's as if the very fluid of his blood has started to rot."

Fenya leaned in and peered into the microscope with a fascinated expression. "That *is* unpleasant," she agreed pleasantly. "If that's the case one wonders how he's still alive!"

"I can't even fathom." Daniel mused. "blood shouldn't have this color or consistency... It's..." He frowned "it's not something I've ever encountered before."

"Do you think it could be a poison?" she asked. "Something that he's been injected with?"

"it could be a poison." he mused. "do you have any thoughts on that, as a chemist?"

"It's difficult to tell with the sample the way it is," she said. "I can't see *anything*. Hopefully Sasha's idea will help."

"I hope so." Daniel said. "I can't get a good look myself....the hope is I can see some bacteria...germs...floating about."

Sasha came back from the other room with a small jug of clear water. "Here we are. Let's see if this can clear things up."

Daniel nodded, and stepped away from the microscope with a thin smile "we can hope. Let's give it a try."

Sasha grabbed an eyedropper and another slide, setting the jug down. He sucked a little into the dropper and offered it to Daniel.

Daniel took the eyedropper. Leaning over the microscope...he let a drop hit the slide before he zoomed back in.

He could see the black blood and the water mixing on the slide, tendrils of black fog seeping into the clear liquid and turning it grey. And in the grey he could get a better look-- along with the blood cells there were tiny pinpricks of black.... something.

"here's something." he murmured, zooming in...this time on the black pinpricks.

There wasn't much more he could magnify the image-- but just as the sample was blotted out by darkness again as the black particles spread-- he saw one zigzag.

Daniel frowned, and jerked away from the microscope. "....well. It's alive." He said, "It seems we have a little germ of a friend after all. And one that can survive being away from its host a half day later."

Fenya bent down to check the sample again. "Really?... oh... its all black again now."

Daniel nodded. "Maybe another drop of water..." He raised the dropper and let another drop fall.

The drop of liquid overflowed the slide, and with it, black liquid spilled on the microscope's mirror. Three drops worth of undiluted black liquid.

Daniel grabbed Fenya, and eased her back and away from it ."damn it!" he hissed. "Keep away, the stuff's likely still infectious."

Fenya gasped as she was grabbed but easily hurried away. Sasha took a step back as well. "Thank you," Fenya murmured. "I'll.... keep my distance."

Daniel carefully slipped his face mask on, and switched out his thick leather gloves for a sterile pair of thinner leather gloves out of his bag, and nodded. "you have sterilization equipment, don't you?" He asked Sasha. "Blast, I shouldn't have been so careless."

"I have alcohol. Do you think it will need something stronger?" He frowned.

"perhaps. I don't know the nature of this foe just yet." Daniel said, retrieving a small cloth, and wrapping it around one finger from the middle.

"Here," he nodded, handing him a bottle of what looked like vodka. "I'll get something stronger."

Daniel nodded, and soaked the cloth in vodka. "Good. this'll take care of the initial cleansing."

Fenya wrung her hands as she watched while Sasha grabbed another glass bottle from across the room. He brought it over and uncorked it, moving to hand it to Daniel. There was a strong smell from it.

Daniel glanced at it, taking it in his hands and giving it a look. "this should do the trick alright."

Fenya gave a sniff and raised a hand. "Hold on... That smell-- is that chlorine bleach?" Sasha nodded. "It is. Powerful disinfectant. They use it in great amounts at the fish plant." "They may," she said dryly. "But I wouldn't use it anywhere you've just put alcohol."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. '....well? why not?"

"How do you feel about inhaling chloroform, doctor?" she asked with thick irony.

"....." Daniel paused for a long moment. "After that one time freshman year, I'd say I'm not feeling quite so warm on a repeat test."

Fenya raised an eyebrow but let it pass... for now. "Then I would douse the area thoroughly in pure water before getting the bleach involved." Sasha nodded. "I can finish the cleaning, doctor. Though I appreciate the gesture."

"Understood." Daniel sighed. "please be careful with it, we're not sure if it's contagious, and it's a nasty little bug if so. So...if you finish the cleaning, take great care. I wouldn't want a fellow healer getting sick."

"I will absolutely take great care," he nodded. "I wouldn't want to get sick either. Terribly inconvenient wouldn;t you agree?"

"Dreadfully so." Daniel agreed. "but thank you for your help. "

"of course. Pardon if I don't shake your hand on the way out."

Daniel chuckled darkly. "you're forgiven, given the circumstances."

They parted ways with the healer, and headed out into the street again.

"....well that was interesting, minus the setback." Daniel mused

"who hasn't tipped over the odd slide?" she said waving her hand. "But it certainly was..."

"Usually I try to avoid doing that with mysterious possibly incredibly deadly diseases." he drawled.

"Probably best practice," she admitted. "Though I'm still curious about the chloroform incident you mentioned.:

Daniel's ears tipped back in embarrassment. "Back in my first year of university, I was assigned a lab partner in my biology class. We had a ...fundamental disagreement on the theories surrounding how a disease is spread." He paused. "I may have called him the son of a fisherman and a sea cow, and told him that his theories were as dense as...well." "regardless, he took offense. And happened to have a few bully boys for friends. Next thing you know , I'm chloroformed in the back alley by the dorms and wake up surrounded by exactly the kind of gents one would wish were the product of some pugilistic fever dream."

"Goodness!" she blinked. "That wasn't exactly what I expected... what happened when you woke up?"

"I'm almost curious to ask what you expected." He said. "And as for how I got out of it..." Daniel spread his hands. "I fought as honorably as a man in that position could." He paused a moment "I went for the smallest one, gave him a harsh anatomy lesson, and slid between them while he was distracted. They may have been a crew of lumbering oxen, but he who's fastest wins."

Fenya's frown split into a rather nasty grin. "Congratulations on turning a bad situation around, doctor. As for what I thought... well, I suppose I assumed someone handed you the wrong beaker by accident or purpose. In the chemistry department that sort of thing gets passed off as a prank."

Daniel laughed, flashing a grin of his own at Fenya. "My thanks, Fenya. If you seek victory...don't be afraid of life's little shortcuts, I say." He chuckled softly "I see, however, that the chemistry department has just as wonderful a sense of humor as the medical wing."

"So it would seem," she chuckled along with him. "The Astorian university certainly has a *refined* culture."

"A refined culture of bitter rivalry, petty pranks, and unsolicited violence. Old Astoria U...." he put his hand to his heart. "where great minds foster, or die trying."

"As the motto goes *carpe faucium*," she snickered.

*Seize the throat.*

Daniel laughed out loud. "Fenya. Your sense of humor and my own share delightful similarities."

"Perhaps we should team up and put that miserable clown out of a job," she suggested with a smirk. "Speaking of which, where should we head to next?"

Daniel thought back to his timetable. "we have some time before our other meetings." he mused. "we should check on Elias, as we're nearby...and perhaps make our way to the Rookery to have a look about." He chuckled 'we can save thrashing the clown at his own game for the bar, later tonight."

"Sounds like a solid plan," she nodded. "You're right we're very close to the Chernoff house."

"an economy of movement is paramount in ...long expeditions like this." He shook his head. "i'd really rather avoid wasting time trudging back and forth needlessly."

"We'll probably want to save the Rookery for after lunch then, since it's directly on the opposite side of town from the farm," she said as they got started.

"perhaps we'll stop and get the mayor over and done with on the way then, provided we can cut through town and will likely pass them"

"I wonder if anyone's got a map of this town," she mused as they headed past the increasingly sparse houses toward the farm.

"Perhaps the mayor. He took a special run to a press a few towns over just to get some maps to try and bolster the town's tourist industry." he drawled. "or some such nonsense."

Fenya chuckled. "We can hope, at any rate."

"Either that or I'll take another crack at cartography and pray it's not quite so disastrous as last time."

"You seem to have quite a few disasters in your past, Danochka," she said with dry amusement.

"Such is the path of science." he chuckled. "....it was in New Astoria...on the trail." He paused a moment before he asked. "Danochka?"

Her ears flicked as she glanced over toward the farm. "Your given name is Daniel, isn't it? In Mosgrav you'd be Danochka."

Daniel's own ears flicked. "That's true." he mused. "i suppose so...one of the intricacies of Mosgravan language, I imagine?" He stuck his hands in his pockets, smiling slightly "Danochka."

"Mmhmm... sort of a foreign way of doing nicknames. But I think they have a nice sound to them..." They made their way to the front of the Chernoff farm, and found Darchik sitting folded up on the steps, drawing aimlessly in the dirt with a stick. She looked miserable.

"I have to agree." he nodded slightly "Something about it has an appeal, Fenya." He paused when he saw Darchik, and strolled on up to the little girl, bending at the knees to reach eye level. "Good morning, pumpkin." He said as genuinely as he could. "Penny for your thoughts?"

She looked up at him with quite the pout on her pale furred face. "I'm gonna be in trouble."

"you're going to be in trouble, hm? What happened, young one?"

The pout increased. "Lost it."

"You lost...what?" He asked curiously "perhaps it's something I can help you find."

She looked down at the dirt and scribbled in it with her stick. "My factory."

"your...factory?" Daniel asked

Darchik nodded quite seriously.

"what sort of factory is small enough that one can lose it?"

"It's made of wood," she said earnestly. "It's really important."

"If you tell me what it looks like, perhaps I can locate it for you?"

"It looks like a little wooden girl," she explained. "I think maybe I left it in the grove...."

"The grove?" He asked. "If I may ask...why do you call it a factory if it's a small doll of a girl?"

"’Cause that's what Iochka said it's called."

"hm. and who is Iochka?" He asked.

"Iochka Volkov. He knows stuff."

Daniel took out a small book, and noted the name down. "I see. Well. I'll take a look around the grove. It's near your home, isn't it?"

"It's near the church," she shrugged.

"near the church." He nodded. "well, rest assured, I'll find your factory. or at the very least look for it, pumpkin."

"Thank you," she nodded. "It's really important. Iochka will be mad if its gone."

"Does Iochka tend to get irrationally angry at things? Just what makes this factory so important?"

"Iochka's nice," she frowned. "Don't say he's bad."

"now I didn't say that." Daniel held out his hands with a grimace. "I simply asked a question. Jumping to conclusions will only lead to slippery slopes, young Darchik"

She looked up at him with big eyes. "A slippery slope?"

"That's right. A slippery slope. Full of treacherous misunderstandings, and tumbles into faulty logic. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

The little girl thought about it for a long moment. "Can I push someone else down?"

He laughed out loud. "You can, if you want to lead them to an incorrect assumption. Which can be quite the useful skill."

Darchik nodded quite seriously. "I'll do that then." Behind, Fenya smothered a giggle with her hand.

"good. But not me, because I'm trying to help you, Darchik. I was simply trying to gauge the level of upset this Iochka would get if I were not able to find your factory, in which case I would divert any wrath to myself."

She sucked on her fingers and nodded. "You'll talk to him if you can't find my factory?"

"i'll talk to him. " He said with a nod.

"You're nice," Darchik decided.

Daniel chuckled "I do try, young lady."

Darchik went back to playing in the dirt, this time with less of a miserable expression. "You have a way with children," Fenya commented.

Daniel straightened up, and stretched his back as he nodded to Fenya. "I've had experience." He chuckled softly. "you tend to learn fast how to deal with children when you're tasked with tutoring one who's reaction to things she dislikes is 'attempt to shoot it.' "

"Another disaster of yours?" she asked with pleasant amusement.

Daniel chuckled. "....I wouldn't call little Lulu Skyfire *my* disaster. That would be her parent's doing." He paused. "though I suppose I took on some of the responsibility by sponsoring her for the university's girls school."

Fenya blinked. "Hold on just a moment.... you're talking about *Lulu Skyfire*?"

Daniel raised his eyebrows at her. "I'm rather nervous to ask if you know her."

Fenya's voice was a little strangled. "Let's say I've had the pleasure. I do some tutoring at the girls academy."

"my deepest condolences. Rest assured, her mother is just as much a terror as she."

"*So I've heard*.... Goodness," she shook her head. "I never would have guessed."

"Yes. It was I who unleashed that little monster upon Astoria."

"Some type of grand experiment?" she asked teasingly.

He flushed, rubbing his neck. "in a fashion. Truth is, I owed her parents a bit of a debt after my misadventure in New Astoria. They saved my life, you see. And over the weeks little Lulu's particular brand of precocious mischief grew on me. So, in repayment of their kindness, I offered to get the girl some proper schooling in Astoria."

"Kind of you. Though maybe not kind to Astoria."

"Astoria's survived worse than one little girl." Daniel drawled. "Besides. If she raises a little hell on campus, I won't complain. Especially after they slashed my funding."

"How fiendish," she said rather admiringly. "Shall we knock, or go around to check on Banbridge?" she gestured to the Osgrov's front door.

"Let's at least say hello before we check up on Bainbridge. Just in case we need to run off to some hot water and alcohol for an emergency disinfection."

"Good point," she agreed and knocked on the door. A moment later, Darya answered the door. "Welcome back," the woman said dryly.

"Darya. What a delight." Daniel said. "I hope you're doing well."

"I'm delightful," she said. "Why don't you come in." She beckoned them stepping back into the hall.

Daniel stepped inside. "and how's the family?"

"Darchik's been in a mood all morning and the baby won't stop crying."

Indeed, they could hear the sound of a baby wailing from deeper in the house.

"Well... I've got a solution for Darchik's mood." Daniel chuckled 'I offered to help her find something she's gone and lost. As for the baby." He raised his eyebrow "what's the cause of her temperament?"

"As far as I can tell she's in a mood too," Darya sighed. "I've changed her, fed her, burped her, rocked her. Old Mistress Nika would know what to do but I'm at a loss."

Daniel sighed. "i suppose I can take a look." He raised his eyebrow "mistress Nika?"

"The old Mistress Morozov," she sighed. "She was our town's midwife and we've not seen her like since that fool church took her for a witch."

"ah, one of your immortals. A shame about the witch burnings." Daniel said. "I'll take a look, perhaps the child has a slight fever, or a mild ailment I could help with."

Darya nodded with a pensive look. "Alright, if you'd like. Though I'm no stranger to a fussy baby."

Daniel shook his head. "no I imagine not." He said with a smile. "but while you have a doctor in town, I might as well take a look." He tightened his cufflinks. "perhaps sometime soon we can sit down and have a chat about these masters and mistresses?"

"If you can get her to stop wailing I'll talk about anything you like," she said. She waved them in and led them up a narrow set of stairs.

Daniel smiled thinly "that's wonderful. Darya, I very much appreciate it."

Upstairs they swept into a small nursery room with a crib and a children's bed. There were a few toys scattered around-- this was probably also Darchik's room. The crying was incredibly loud here.

Daniel grimaced slightly. "oof..." he murmured. He stepped into the room and moved towards the crib. "Alright, let's see what I can do."

"Do you want me to stay, or will I only get under the doctor's feet?" the mother asked dyrly.

Fenya had already gone over toward the crib as well.

"Do whatever you wish, Darya." Daniel said. "just allow me to work." First, he checked the child over for any sign of fever or visible illness.

Well, there weren't any signs of fever, and the baby was a healthy weight. But it also immediately spat up on him.

"g....gh." Daniel said, using a handkerchief to wipe it up. "Delightful."

"I never did like babies," Fenya murmured with a sigh.

"Not the maternal type?" He asked dryly, as he held the baby up, and looked her in the eyes. "now...what's wrong with you, young one?"

The baby whined and cried as Daniel held her, squirming uncomfortably in his arms. A problem with digestion might cause crying like this. Or there was another fairly reliable possibility. The baby might have started teething.

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "....hm." He thought for a moment. "Darya. Do you have anything chewy of relative cleanliness? "

"Mmmm, hold on a moment," she said, reaching into her bag. "I have a rubber spoon. Will that do?"

"I suppose it would." Daniel said. "If it's what I believe it to be."

She handed him the spoon. It was about hand length, made of strong but pliable rubber. "Oh?"

Daniel offered the spoon to the baby, bouncing her gently in his arms "come on. Chew away." he murmured. "if this doesn't solve it, call me. What's likely the case here is your child's teething and in a spot of discomfort. Chewing on something rubber eases the pain. It's a reflex inborn in everyone." He paused "if chewing on the spoon fails to help, it's likely a digestion issue, of which I have a remedy or two."

The baby took the spoon in her mouth and started gumming on it determinedly, the crying stopping.

Darya raised her eyebrow. "She's a bit young for teeth."

"They could be coming in early, I suppose." Daniel mused. "how old is she?"

"A little under five months."

Daniel laughed. "while that's...perhaps...a tad early, it's not too far off the usual. She's just getting her teeth in a little early."

"Darchik's teeth didn't come for almost a year."

"Typically they start about 5 months in, according to most studies." Daniel said, gently bouncing the baby as she teethed. "Every child is different, of course. But on the whole, they tend to fit the pattern."

The baby made little babbling noises as she chewed, seeming happy now. "Well, doctor," Darya sighed. "It seems you are the better mother than I."

"you're a fine mother, Darya." Daniel said, and offered her the child. "It's just a matter of science."

Darya took the baby in her arms and bounced her. "I suppose."

"You can keep the spoon," Fenya offered.

Daniel nodded "your mistress Nika likely knew the same sorts of things, but learned from experience rather than rigorous research."

"I'm certain she knew a great deal," she said with a sigh. "She was supposed to help bring Darchik into the world."

"The Faithful carry with them all sorts of ...convictions." Daniel shook his head. "misguided as they are, they turn to barbaric sacrifice in the name of their horned god. You have my sympathies."

She bounced the baby in her arms. "You had questions for me. Come."

Daniel nodded, and followed her. "I did. Fenya, you don't mind a brief delay, do you?"

"Not if you don't," Fenya said with a smile.

"not in the least." he chuckled. "I've been curious about this town's....particular situation...since I've heard of it."

"Me too, honestly." Darya brought them into a small parlor and settled down with the baby on her lap, gesturing for them to sit as well.

Daniel took a seat, and folded his hands on his lap. "So...Darya. I wanted to ask you about the Masters and Mistress. "

Darya nodded. "Yes. I'm happy to answer your questions."

"I heard you were...favored...by the Mistress." Daniel ventured carefully.

"Speaking to my husband?" she asked

"We may have had a drink or two the other night." Daniel said with a wave of his hand.

"Men," she clucked. "Yes, I was one of the Mistress' pupils."

"why don't you tell me a little more about her, if you please."

"What would you like to know about?"

"You say you were one of her pupils...just what were you taught?"

"The first thing she taught me was how to read," she shrugged. "And she taught me what herbs do this and that."

"Herbs can sometimes make for decent medicine." Daniel nodded slowly. "..so she taught you some reading...some herbology..."

"I helped in birthing babies every now and then."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "...so training you to be the next midwife for the town, hm?"

"That;s what I was given to understand."

"And did she happen to mention anything about...her lifespan?"

"Not to me, I'm afraid, doctor. But it was common knowledge that she was many decades older than she appeared."

"She never mentioned it? Not even to claim it was some fell magic?"

"if it was fell magic I don't think she'd be mentioning it, do you?" she snorted.

Daniel shrugged his shoulders. "I suppose not." he sighed "then how about her as a person. What was she like?"

"She had a terrible sense of humor, and she smoked enormous, disgusting cigars, and she would flirt with anything with a cock between his legs."

Fenya snorted back a laugh in utter surprise.

Daniel choked, stiffening slightly "she sounds...like...a hell of a woman."

"She may not have looked her age but she certainly acted it," Darya said dryly.

"Clearly." Daniel said with a stiff smile. "and how old did she look?"

"About 25 or so."

"and yet she was over 100..." he breathed. "Fascinating..."

"And she took the secret to her grave as far as I know," Darya said, shaking her head.

"It won't be a secret forever." Daniel said slowly "I'll figure it out...and give it to the world"

"Do me a favor, doctor?"

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "yes, Darya?"

"if you do find it, I would like to be the first to know."

Daniel nodded. "From what I understand, that would very much be within your rights."

"I'd be pleased if you did consider it."

"Consider it a deal...in exchange for any help you could give me in finding it out."

"I'll let you know if I think of anything that could help you, then."

Daniel bowed his head. "you're a saint, Darya."

"hardly. I should call you one for helping with this little cabbage here," she said gesturing to the now sleeping baby.

Daniel chuckled, and gave her as warm a smile as he had in him. "It was nothing. I was happy to help. She seems happier now."

"Thank goodness. Maybe we can both get some rest."

"I should let you get to that." Daniel chuckled "I need to check on Elias, myself."

"Good luck to you on that matter," she said dryly.

"Have you heard anything this morning?" He asked.

"I wouldn;t want to interfere with your 'investigation'" she said. Daniel got the feeling she wasn't exactly well disposed toward Elias.

"You seem to dislike him." Daniel said bluntly. "Can I ask why? aside from his..." He paused for a moment. "well recorded eccentricities."

"What makes you think I need any more reason to dislike him?" she asked somewhat sharply.

Daniel shrugged. "the level of your disdain, mostly. It makes it seem more..personal."

"Doctor if you think my reasons for disliking him are personal, have you considered maybe you shouldn't be asking personal questions?"

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "......" He looked at Fenya "am I asking too many personal questions?"

"You're certainly asking personal questions," Fenya offered with a spread of her hands. "Too many is a matter of opinion."

"It's too many for me, doctor. Thank you very much," Darya hmphed.

Daniel spread his hands. "I don't mean to offend, Darya. But you have to understand where I'm coming from." He leaned in, and turned his expression stern and somber. "You have a *very* sick man staying under your roof. A man with a disease I've not encountered before, with symptoms so dramatic that I'm not quite sure what to make of it just yet." He gestured towards her. "A man that you spend quite a bit of your time insulting, and showing a blatant disregard for if he lives or dies. Can you guess why I might be curious just what your reasons for that may be, or shall I continue?"

Darya drew herself up in the face of his words. "Oh yes, doctor I perfectly understand the accusation. If you must know why I dislike the man currently lying in the bed in the field apartment right now I will have you know it is the same reason which I have disliked all the men whom have lain in it previously, all of whom I assure you are still very much alive and healthy. But you can talk to my *dear husband* about that. In fact you can talk to him about any other questions you have as well." She shouldered past him and stomped out of the room.

"I think I may have made her angry." Daniel said slowly.

Fenya watched her go with a mixture of surprise and resignation. "Seems like it."

"if you have any advice on how to ah, apologize for that sort of thing. I wouldn't say no to it." he thought for a long moment. "though there appears there's ...more to the whole thing than I initially thought."

"Well, I certainly wouldn't try to apologize right now," she said. "you'll need to give her time. But yes, I suspect you're right."

"Perhaps later today, or even tomorrow." He agreed. "she does need a bit of time to simmer down before I attempt it." He sighed. "....perhaps I should talk to her husband about it later."

"I might try to be a bit more delicate about the matter when you do."

"...." Daniel sighed "I'll do my best, but I'm afraid social delicacy isn't exactly my forte"

"At least try to duck if he goes to deck you then."

"I'll...do my best to." He drawled. "... Once I heal Elias however, I may very well deck *him* for all this nonsense drama we have to wade through."

"I think that would be entirely justified," she agreed dryly. "I may have to get in line."

"Let's go see if he's died yet or not." Daniel drawled, walking out of the house and towards the guest bed.

Fenya followed him out of the house into the open air. It was getting cold again and the clouds were gathering thickly.

Daniel looked up at the sky with a sigh "A storm's likely going to hit again, isn't it?"

"weather prediction isn't my specialty but it certainly seems like it."

"I can't wait." he shook his head. "The streets will become a slog of mud and mush once more."

"as if it had a chance to be anything else," she sighed. They arrived at the little hut in the field.

Daniel took a deep breath of the relatively clean air, and pulled on his face mask. "here we go."

The room looked much as it had the day before, but this time there was no trace of smoke inside. Instead now there was a slightly sweet, acrid smell in the air.

Daniel sniffed once. "...hm." He tried to discern the smell...was it one he'd smelt before?

It smelled somewhat familiar but it was difficult to place....

"I'm not the only one smelling that, Am I Fenya?"

She sniffed it as she stepped in behind him. "No... I definitely smell it too..."

"It's familiar but I can't quite parse it.." he walked up to the bedside and looked down at Elias.

Just as Daniel noticed that Elias' ears were darker than the day before, the patient's mouth dropped open and he gave a strangle yell.

"hhhh." Daniel jerked away, his fur bristling as Elias screamed. "he's worse than yesterday."

"Well that's not good news," Fenya said, smoothing down her tail.

"no it's not. The infection is spreading...his ears are dark with that oily blood..."

"Poor bastard," she murmured.

"His blood's infested with...those little microbes I spotted in the sample." He mused, and bent down to give him a full rundown. Temperature...heartbeat...breathing...

His heartbeat and his breathing were both slow his temperature.... was actually clammy.... cooler than it should have been.

"....his body temperature has dropped."

"You said he didn't have a fever before, right?"

"no. He didn't. But this is significantly worse than a baseline temperature."

"That's what I was going to guess."

"Regardless, it's clear he doesn't have much time left." Daniel murmured. "and this disease continues to operate in strange, strange ways."

"Do you think it's even possible to save him?"

"yes." Daniel said firmly. "it's never too late to save someone...even after the moment of 'death'

"That's a hell of a daring proposition" she said with a little smile.

"it's the very foundation my branch of medicine is founded upon." He said with a nod, glancing at Elias. "we can save him."

Elias groaned, his fingers twitching as he lay there.

Daniel mused for a moment. "I wonder if a sedative would ease his nightmares..>"

Musing on the idea, he's not certain whether it would or not.

"only one way to know..." He hesitated before he snapped his fingers. "no! A stimulant to try to quicken the pace of his heart!"

"Ah, like the other night!" Fenya nodded.

"exactly." Daniel mused, rustling in his bag. "I might have something on hand that could work."

"If you don't, I might be able to synthesize something if given a few hours."

"If it works, I could use you making more." He said, pulling a vial out from his bag "but I have something here that should do the trick for now."

"Oh good," she nodded. "I can set up my equipment in the post office. Assuming Mitya doesn't object."

"I doubt he'll mind." Daniel filled a syringe with the fluid, and administered it into the arm of Elias.

A moment later he groaned again and his fingers twitched more heavily.

".....Elias." he said slowly "can you hear me?"

He groaned, twitching and stirring, his eyelids fluttering.

"I think I made it worse. " Daniel said, watching him for a moment. "or better. Hard to tell at this stage."

Fenya leaned over his shoulder with a speculative look on her face. "Hmmmmm...."

Elias opened his mouth and Fenya winced, waiting for the scream. But he only groaned again.

"no scream...a good sign." He leaned in and listened to his heartbeat.

His heartbeat was *much* faster and stronger now-- not alarmingly strong but *almost* normal.

"that brought him back to stable levels...perhaps an antibiotic as well?" He reached into his bag, and injected a liquid antibiotic into the man.

Fenya quickly scribbled down what Daniel administered, and checked her pocket watch to add the time of day.

Slowly the twitching and trembling that Elias was doing started to slack off.

"I think that did the trick....I think it stabilized him enough that we might be able to keep him ...here...until we figure out exactly what this thing is doing to him."

"Buying him time buys us time," she nodded.

"That it does." Daniel said, and once more checked the man's breathing.

His breathing, too was stronger, like his heartbeat.

"There we go." He smiled wider. "We found the cocktail."

"Nicely done, doctor," Fenya nodded with an answering smile.

He dusted his hands off. "We should work on creating a bit more of the needed drugs..." he tapped his bag "I have a limited supply. And in the meantime, we continue tracking down the origin of this little bug, so we might better understand its nature."

"I'd say that's a good plan. And goals we can pursue in parallel."

He nodded slowly. "Between the two of us and the local healer, we should have the situation well in hand."

"I'll withhold premature congratulations but consider them on the horizon."

"premature congratulations breed bad luck." He said with a shake of his head. "but we should keep positive."

"Indeed. Anything left to do in here for now, or?"

"no, I think we'd best be getting on with our day. Especially given the additional tasks. "

She nodded. "A busy day for us."

"A busy day indeed....meeting with the mayor...finding a child's lost....'factory'....tracing Elias' steps and visiting an ancient relic."

He paused. "then dinner and drinks."

"Can't forget those," she agreed.

"I'll need them after today." he chuckled.

"Can i say that I will too?"

"Yes, yes you may" He chuckled. "we're in this together at this point, Fenya."

"Then I'll definitely need a drink tonight," she chuckled with him.

"you and me both." he chuckled. "Shall we?" he gestured out the door.

She nodded and the two of them headed out the door. "Where are we bound next? Did you still want to go see the mayor?"

"yes...let's see the mayor, then loop around to the orchard."

"we'll want to head back toward the town square then."

He nodded, and stepped out into the open air, taking in the smell of the incoming rain as he pulled his mask from his face.

The air smelled heavy with rain, and with traces of soot at chemicals presumably from the large fish processing plant by the river.

"mmm." He shook out his hair, and started on his way. "at least the rain will smother that fish smell."

"That will be a blessing. We'll just have to hope it doesn't rain fish," she said with dry amusement.

"given the strangeness of this little town, I would hardly be surprised."

"Under the right conditions it's possible," she nodded.

"After a big storm, or a tornado, I imagine."

"Exactly. water spouts pull little fish up into the clouds," she nodded. "I read a study on it one time."

He chuckled. "i remember that study, actually. Some people were convinced it was due to some land up in the clouds."

"As I recall the paper was written out of spite to put a break in that faction's funding."

"As all great papers are." he purred. "Spite is the driving force of science, sometimes."

"Does spite drive you, doctor?" she asked with a smile.

"Spite...has given me an edge on occasion. but what really drives me is my goal." He waved his hand "...death is mankind's enemy. And I wish to end it."

"Are you just that noble, Danochka?"

"Well..." He paused a moment. "I suppose there is quite a part of me that simply wants to stick it to the deans. And everyone who ever doubted me."

She smirked a little. "I don't blame you."

"They've called my science fantasy and madness again and again." he smiled thinly. "But who's the one who nearly brought back the dead? who's the one who'll find immortality?"

Fenya shook her head. "I can't imagine anyone's in a better position than you are."

"it's my life's work... " He shook his head. "it'll be for the betterment of our kind...and for a bit of personal satisfaction."

"An enviable combination," she nodded. They were coming to where the half-built church stood. They heard noise coming from it.

Daniel raised his eyebrow, and walked slowly towards it to try and peek inside.

It wasn't difficult to get a good view, and as they came closer the noise resolved into voices speaking in hushed tones-- minus the odd yelp or giggle. There was a small cluster of children hanging about, seated on various ledges of partially built stones.

Daniel glanced at Fenya. "...not the safest playground out there."

"Survival of the fittest I suppose?" she said with a little frown.

"In which case I think we found the ones lagging behind." Daniel drawled

"There's always a few I suppose."

"I'm contemplating if I should say something or not."

"Hmmm," she considered, peering through the half built stone arches. "I suppose you could? Children don't usually take kindly to that interference, though."

"True. But I don't expect to interfere as much as....possibly ask a few questions."

"I'll certainly back you up. Not that you need backup to deal with children."

"You'd be surprised." He drawled. "after meeting Lulu I know the true depths of savagery and violence that children can stoop to."

".....fair point."

He nodded to her, and slipped inside the arch. "excuse me, children?"

They looked up at him with the smooth coordination of a wolfpack orienting to its prey. Half a dozen pairs of eyes were suddenly on him.

Daniel's smile went a little rictus. "hm." he cleared his throat. "I hope you don't mind if I ask a few questions. I'm new in town, you see."

A lanky wolf boy of perhaps around nine or ten, with black hair cut sharply around his chin, crossed his arms. "What do you need, old man?"

"*old man*" Daniel's fur prickled in irritation. "I'll have you know I'm *quite young* for a doctor of my caliber, you little pest."

"Sure," the boy grunted. "whatever you say, old man."

"Indeed. Whatever I say, pipsqueak." Daniel countered. "so why don't you stop shooting your mouth off, and answer my questions."

"You haven't asked any, old man!"

"I was about to you insufferable *shrimp*!"

"well why don't you ask, huh? Got all day to stand around, old man?"

"What's your name, urchin?" Daniel sneered.

The boy sneered right back. "Ioseph Volkov the Third! How about you, gramps?"

"*Doctor* Daniel Delgrave. Of the *Astorian University*, you fetus."

"Oooooh, a doctor, I'm so impressed. Aren't we impressed boys?" The boys, and girls, jeered along with *The Third.* Fenya, standing behind Daniel shook her head with a sigh.

"I'm surprised your family made it to a third generation with this display of *charming* personality." Daniel drawled. "now shut up." he pointed idly to the boy. "This church, it's formally abandoned by the faithful?"

"How should I know?" he snapped. "Why doncha go ask a priest?"

"Why don't you *hold your tongue* " Daniel growled "Unless it's to answer *constructively* "

The boy looked like he was about to come back with another retort, when another little boy-- one with hair and eyes much like Iosef's but smaller and more slight of frame, burst out into tears.

Iosef looked from the boy, to the doctor and back. He squeezed the boy's hand and whispered something. The other boy sniffled and wiped his eyes, nodding.

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "my apologies for making you cry, young one. I simply ask that Ioseph here takes me seriously and answers my questions without the attitude."

Ioseph sighed. "Alright. Whatever. True, doctor," he boy offered crabbily. He got up and stuck out his hand.

Daniel took his hand and gave it a firm shake. "Thank you Ioseph." he said with a slim smile. "Let's start over, shall we?"

He nodded, and shook his hand just as firmly. "Sure."

"good." He cleared his throat. "I take it this place is fairly abandoned for you kids to have taken it up as your own personal playground."

Iosef nodded. "yeah. No one from the church ever comes around."

"have you any idea why those damned fools abandoned this ostentatious little project of theirs?"

"Sure, that's easy," he nodded. "It's because of the curse."

"the curse." Daniel said flatly

Fenya meanwhile choked back a scoff. "Yeah," Ioseph nodded. "Obviously."

"I just breezed into town." Daniel drawled "So I may need this...curse...explained to me."

Ioseph shrugged. "It's the curse the town leaders laid when the church had 'em executed," he said matter of factly. "They say they found the head priest on his way out of town just days later, with his heart torn right out of his chest."

"his...heart...torn from his chest." He frowned. "...was there anything else unusual about the corpse?"

"I mean,, just the usual you'd expect from Heart Eaters." "Blood everywhere!" one of the children from the chorus added. "Broken ribs!" another put in. "Black eyes!"

Daniel frowned deeply. "Explain what a heart eater is." He paused, his eyes widening "....and...circle back. What's this about Black Eyes?"

"Where are you from o--doctor?" Iosef snorted. "Who doesn't know about Heart Eaters? They're monsters that come in the fog. They can see evil with their lanterns and if they catch a person with a bad heart they'll tear it out and eat it!"

Quite a few of the children looked genuinely afraid of this idea.

"So a boogeyman." Daniel scoffed. "A wraith stalking about the night snatching up bad little boys and girls." "We have similar stories back in Astoria...but I assure you that the root cause is something far more mundane."

He shrugged. "It's your heart, doc."

"I doubt any heart eating fiend would want mine." He said with a snort. "....but tell me more about the black eyes."

"It's how you can tell their hearts were bad," he shrugged.

"Did any other part of them turn black? their veins, perhaps?"

"How should I know? I ain't a heart eater!"

"mmm. I suppose you aren't. But if you're not careful one might come for you."

He stuck his tongue out. "Heart eaters don't scare me. I know what I'm about."

"And what's that, young man?"

"I'm the captain."

"The captain of what, pray tell?"

He gestured to the other kids.

"and just what might this collection of trouble be?" Daniel drawled "...and how does it protect you from 'Heart Eaters'"

"We're Misha's Circle," he said. "As for how it protects us, that's a secret doc."

"Misha's...Circle." Daniel mused. "and who is this 'Misha' ?"

"Misha the Carver!"

"...the Carver." Daniel said "that sounds ominous."

"And vague," Fenya murmured. "Anything else you want doc? Don'tcha gotta go pay taxes or heal the sick or something?" Iosef asked.

"I don't owe any taxes to Mosgrav, thank you. Besides, the way things are going in the capital, I highly doubt there'll be anyone to pay taxes *to* by weeks end." He sniffed. "That's all...for now. But I know your name and face, boy. I'll be back."

"Gonna tell my dad on me are you, doc?"

"I might. I could get you and your little circle locked in your bedrooms with no supper."

"Joke's on you then. I bet you don't even know who he is." The other little boy tugged Iosef's arm. "*Iochka....*"

Daniel glanced, watching the boy out of the corner of his eyes, before he smiled thinly "Actually. I do."

Iochka crossed his arms. "Yeah well... don't tell him okay, doc?"

"Silence can be bought." Daniel said with a thin smile.

"I answered your questions!"

"This time. In this moment." Daniel crossed his arms. "But what's to say you don't go back to the *old man* insults and obstinance next time?"

"We've got a truce," he grumbled.

"There we go." Daniel said, offering his hand. "signed with a handshake. It's an unbreakable pact, do you hear me Ioseph?"

Iochka nodded, and shook his hand. "My word is my bond."

"As is mine." He said with a smile. "then I look forward to our next conversation."

The boy nodded. "yeah. Sure. You know where to find us."

"hanging about old , abandoned, cursed churches." He chuckled. "of course."

"How about you, doc? where are you hanging about?"

"By the post office. We're being put up there for the remainder of our stay."

"Got it," Iochka nodded.

"See you around, Captain." Daniel gave him an idle salute, before he turned and walked away

Fenya waited until they were quite a few paces away from the children to speak. "Well that.... hmmmm...."

"Hmm." Daniel nodded slowly.

"I *think* that went well?"

"it went as well as it could, talking to a fetus."

Fenya laughed and shook her head. "I can't believe he kept calling you *old man*. Well, I suppose around here they don't really live long enough to know what one looks like."

Daniel laughed. "No, I suppose to them, someone in their mere thirties must seem to be a grandfather."

Fenya nodded with a smirk. "Exactly."

"Goodness only knows what they think of *me*."

"only good things, I'm sure, Miss Fenya." Daniel said. "you're a fetching young woman." He glanced at her. "and a damn fine scientist. I can already tell."

"was it my my expert knowledge of chloroform?" she asked jokingly, her ears flicking with embarrassment.

"That and your particular field of study." he chuckled. "And your willingness to help me make more antibiotics."

"I can't imagine why I wouldn't be willing. I do love a good science experiment."

"Who doesn't?" He chuckled. "A good science experiment does wonders for the heart."

"Something the humanities department will never understand," she chuckled with him, though her ears were still a little pink.

"No, sadly not." Daniel laughed , shaking his head. "just look at poor Elias."

"No I'd wager his heart's not in such good shape at the moment."

"He could have used a little tinkering with chemistry or a spot of experimental biology."

"Experimental biology may be exactly what got him in this mess. Or experimental anatomy."

Daniel scoffed, covering his mouth with his hand. "...you may very well be right about that."

Fenya shook her head. "It's like my mother always said, if you're going to put something in your mouth you should know where it's been."

Daniel's face turned the slightest bit red, as he made a sharp sputtering noise.

Fenya smothered a laugh with the back of her hand, grinning. "Too much, Danochka?"

"No, No, it was ah. Exactly enough, I would say."

"Good then," she chuckled a little more and coughed. "So... that boy... you think it's the one Darchik was worried about?"

"yes." he mused. "yes i do. Darchik seems to be a part of his little child gang." He glanced up at the sky in thought. "which means this 'Misha the Carver' likely refers to woodcarving, if nothing else...given the 'factory' was described to me as a small carved figure."

"well at least it isn't a gang dedicated to the vampire or something then," she sighed.

"Thankfully." He drawled "I wouldn't put it past the kids of this town."

"Nor I," she agreed, shaking her head. "They seem to have interesting hobbies."

"I suppose one must when the only alternative is digging up turnips." he drawled, keeping an eye out for either the grove or the mayor's house.

They neared the town square again. Daniel could hear the grating voice of Lukyan catcalling someone else.

"great." Daniel moaned. "he's still alive."

"we could whip up some of that chloroform...."

"....I'm legitimately tempted. The town would call us heroes." He glanced at who was being harassed.

It looked like one of the guards-- in the same uniform he had seen earlier.

"That is, if the guards don't flatten him first, I suppose."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll be enough distraction for us to slip past."

Daniel nodded, and attempted to pass the clown without being noticed.

"Ah! There he is!" Lukyan called immediately, waving. "Master Doctor! this fine gentleman was just asking about you!"

"Kill me now." Daniel dropped his head into his hands. "Fenya, please, put me out of my misery."

"Hand me the pistol," she said flatly. The guard turned toward them, a tense expression on his face. "You are the astorian doctor?"

"...that would be me." Daniel said, looking up at the guard. "I hope I'm not in any trouble."

"No," the guard said. 'I am afraid that is someone else." "Oooh," Lukyan grinned. "What's the dish/"

"Please tell me it's Lukyan." Daniel drawled.

The guard scoffed and waved them away. "No. Sasha Osgrov sent me after you."

"Sasha Osgrov?" Daniel raised his eyebrow "whatever for?"

"He said there was somebody sick at his shop you'd want to look at."

Daniel frowned deeper. "....that doesn't bode well. I'll make my way there post haste."

The guard nodded. "Do that. It sounded fairly urgent."

"Understood." Daniel nodded, and turned to hurry towards Sasha's clinic. "come on, Fenya. I...have a bad feeling about all this."

"I'm not so keen on it either," she agreed, her soft steps squelching in the mud behind him as they turned heel and headed back nearly the way they'd come.

"Well...with any luck it's just a small thing...something we can deal with before finishing our other chores." He took a deep breath. "I hope."

A few minutes of quiet power walking later they found themselves back in front of Sasha's office.

Daniel pulled on his mask, and gestured for her to do the same. "just in case." he said, pulling on his thicker gloves.

She did the same, wrapping her scarf around her face. "Good idea."

Daniel nodded, and pushed open the door.

Inside there was a woman laying on one of the cots. Sasha was hovering over her. He turned as the door opened. "You got my message."

"I did. The guard told me you needed to see me right away."

"yes," he nodded. "She came in an hour ago, complaining of fatigue and night terrors. Now she's unconscious."

"Fatigue...and night terrors..." Daniel hissed through his teeth. "...similar symptoms to Elias. Let me see her." He walked over to the woman and looked her over with a frown. "...who is she, and where in town is she from?"

"Ulyana Ananov," he said. "She's an... entertainer."

"A prostitute," Fenya murmured.

Daniel's ears flushed and tipped back "ah." He leaned over her and began investigating her for any signs of blackening veins.

Her inner ears were pale, and it was difficult to see, but yes, if he looked carefully he could see that her veins showed signs of darkening. He felt his own blood pressure rising.

Daniel cursed under his breath, his heart pounding in his chest as his blood pressure rose. He Listened to her heart, his stethoscope held in his trembling hand.

It was slow.... not nearly as slow as Elias' but noticeable, and her breathing was labored.

"....it has enough in common." He said as he stood up. "To determine that it's quite likely that she's suffering from the same affliction as my colleague."

"I worried from what you said that would turn out to be the case," Sasha said.

"and you were absolutely correct." Daniel frowned. ".... I wonder if the two had any contact...or if they contracted the disease from the same source."

"We can ask when she wakes up," Sasha mused. "Assuming she *does* wake up," Fenya pointed out.

"Elias is still asleep, in a dreaming coma." He closed his eyes. "...we can hope she'll wake up at least a few times more before she falls into the same state."

Sasha nodded. "I understand... we'll have to make good use of the time we have then."

"we shall." Daniel took a deep breath."...." "Damn. I was hoping this would be an isolated case. But this brings further complications to the forefront."

Sasha nodded. "It seems it's spreading..."

"A deadly, and infectious disease is the last thing a town like this needs." Daniel murmured. "it was hard enough to stabilize one man...but if this becomes a big issue.."

"It would be really bad, I imagine, Fenya speculated.

"Terrible. We don't currently have the supplies to stabilize more than a few patients." He said, "And with the capital in the state it's in, I doubt much will come in the way of supplies even if we did appeal to the authorities."

He took a deep breath behind his mask. "we simply have to hope this is localized to....two...cases. Two cases who in all likelihood slept together."

"You think so?" Sasha asked. "That they slept together, I mean."

"Possible. Elias was a notorious flirt. I wouldn't be surprised if he frequented the local...entertainers."

"true, but I thought--- never mind," he shook his head.

"I always thought he...frequented both ballrooms, if you catch my drift. I could be wrong, however." Daniel shrugged.

"Ah... well that would explain that then," Sasha said, his jaw tight.

"hm?" Daniel glanced at him.

"Nothing," he said, waving his hand. "It's irrelevant."

"It could be relevant." Daniel said slowly. "Depending."

"It's mere lurid gossip."

"If it's to do with Elias, anything , even gossip...can have its place in helping us determine his footsteps, so we might better understand where he caught this thing."

"I really don't think this will add anything to our investigation, doctor. Please take my word for it."

"mmm." Daniel crossed his arms. "If you *insist* I *suppose* i'll drop the subject."

"I appreciate it," he said. "I must apologize for sidetracking us."

"You have my forgiveness."

Sasha nodded, and pushed his pale, fluffy hair out of his face. "That aside, what can I do to help you with this situation?"

"I'm...currently unsure." Daniel admitted, leaning against the counter as he thought. "I didn't expect another case so soon...the logical step would be to make some time to visit her place of work."

"That may be... difficult," he admitted.

"and why's that?"

"Given her source of income I have no idea where she works," he sighed. "Nor will she be likely to tell us; whether it's her own home or the, well, flophouses."

"the flophouses...are a likely vector for disease, unfortunately. If their standards of care are anything like those in Astoria."

Sasha nodded. "You aren't wrong..."

"I'll make them a stop on my way around town then."

"You can find them up by the river, toward the eastern side of town."

"Noted. Eastern side of town." Daniel murmured. "Keep an eye on her...if she starts to have night terrors, or her heart rate dips...give her stimulants and antibiotics." He paused another moment before he said "...and if she wakes up, get as much information from her as possible."

he nodded. "Of course. Do you have any other specific questions to ask?"

"What she's been doing the last few days. If she knows Elias...ask her if anyone near her has been acting strange...that sort of thing. Try to determine how she might have come down with the illness."

"Understood," he nodded. He picked up a tablet of paper nearby and scribbled down a few notes.

"thank you, Sasha."

"Of course I'll send you a message as soon as anything changes."

"I appreciate that. I'll keep an eye out for the couriers."

He nodded. "Good. Hopefully they will bring good news."

"That's my hope as well, Sasha."

Fenya sighed. "we should probably be on the lookout for anyone who seems sick as we move around town too, huh?"

"That's what I was thinking as well...ask people if they've had troubled sleep...fatigue."

Sasha nodded. "I'll ask anyone that I see today."

"And we'll ask those we run into as well."

"Good luck then," Sasha nodded.

"I'll see you later." Daniel nodded his head, before turning for the door. "Be safe, Sasha."

"You two as well." A moment later, Daniel and Fenya were out the door again, and headed down the street.

".....what a day this is turning out to be. My fears may very well be realized by night's end."

"Your fears?"

"that this is contagious." he murmured. "and that it's going to spread."

She nodded gravely. "yes... I thought you might mean that..."

"An unknown disease running rampant in a small town....without intervention, it isn't likely people will survive."

"not exactly where I wanted to spend my vacation-- though I suppose you may feel slightly differently?"

"It's not exactly where I was looking to spend mine, either..." he sighed. "but..." He glanced out at the town "we'll have to do what we can."

"well... it's not my area of expertise, but you can count on my help."

"I appreciate your help, Fenya. Truly. You may be able to help me fashion chemicals to keep these people alive, for one thing."

"I'll certainly do my best," she nodded. "It'll be an interesting challenge I'm sure."

"Perhaps you'll get the chance to prove your transmutation." he said with a smile. "And i'll find my immortality through this little nightmare."

"That would certainly be a light in the darkness."

"there has to be one." Daniel said. "This can't be *all* bad."

"I'll hold you to that," she said with dry amusement. "Shall we get back to the mayor's office or change of plans? It's just a bit after noon now."

He took a deep breath "the flophouses will be better to visit in the later afternoon.. Let's stick to the current schedule "

Fenya nodded. "Right. Well, if nothing else we're getting plenty of exercise. Though I wouldn't call this air exactly 'fresh'."

"hardly fresh" he agreed . "The place smells like a polluted river at the best of times."

"probably because of the polluted river," she agreed slyly.

"we may want to look into that, too" he mused. "I read a fascinating paper by a fellow scholar back at the University about the effects of factory runoff on a population."

"Hmm, that's a good point. Perhaps some kind of toxin chemical or a parasite...."

"Given it's mobility, my bet is on parasites....one that's been thriving in the polluted water. Or virus from the unsanitary conditions."

"wonderful," she sighed. "Maybe we *should* try to avoid the fish."

"I'm getting the sense that'll be more difficult than previously believed."

"Unfortunately you may be right...."

"I'm getting the sense that it's a *staple* of the region."

She sighed. "Danochka, if the whole town is consumed by this and we manage to get out alive.... I won't tell anyone if you don't."

Daniel glanced at her with wide eyes for a moment, before a sigh broke through his own lips. "....my lips will be forever sealed as well, Fenya."

This time when they returned to the town square, Lukyan was absent-- perhaps owing to the fact that it had passed the noon hour. The mayor's office was only a bit further up the street.

Daniel continued on his way, tapping his finger against his leather journal as he went.

The town hall was an ugly but functional two story building, with a single guard standing outside smoking.

Daniel approached with a wave ."I'm here to see the mayor."

The guard nodded to him. "Sure."

"I take it I'm expecting?" or security was just that lax.

"Sure," he grunted again. "I see we're safe from harm," Fenya murmured.

"Enjoy your smoke break." Daniel drawled, before walking inside with a nod towards Fenya.

Fenya followed him in through the gate toward the building proper. The double doors were wedged open with a large rock.

"......either the mayor isn't actually that important of a man, or home security and...." He glanced at the rock. ".....basic functionality isn't quite up to snuff around here."

"Well, I guess it's *technically* a public building since its town hall... but still."

"Still. You wouldn't get ushered in to see the district mayors that easily in Astoria.

"No you'd have to fill out a form in triplicate at least."

"Ah, the red tape of the capital." he drawled. "how I miss it."

"After you, doctor," she nodded with dry amusement, pulling the heavy door open, away from the rock.

Daniel gave her a little bow, before stepping inside

The building might have been quite lavish and modern... once. But that time was long past. The marble flagstones were covered in a thin layer of grime. The portraits on the walls were as well.

"....I'm getting the sense this place is not well cared for."

"No, it sure doesn't seem like it," Fenya agreed. There were four doors-- two on each side of the hall, and a wide staircase leading up to the second story.

"I'll have to ask the man about it, I suppose." Daniel glanced through the first door on the left.

The room inside had a long table, and more portraits hung up.

"...and not a single soul within it." He drawled, before checking the door on the opposite side of the hall

This door was also propped open with a rock. It was full of pew style benches facing a podium.

"...." He shook his head, "again with the rock." He tried the next door down on this side.

The next room was filled with boxes.

"wonderful." Daniel turned and checked the opposite door.

It was locked. Or maybe stuck. No rock.

"....." He took a deep breath. "Fenya. I don't think they have the keys. Or at the very least....there's *quite few* of them."

Fenya snorted. "Good one. Oh.... you weren't joking were you?"

"No, I'm downright concerned it's not a joke."

"That's.... concerning," she admitted.

"it is." Daniel drawled. "I suppose we'll see when we go upstairs." He started on his way up

She followed him holding up her skirts gently as they ascended. The upstairs immediately seemed a lot better kept. At least they dusted up here.

"The first floor is...disused, but it seems they prefer elevation." Daniel drawled.

"Seems that way," she agreed. There were lit lamps in sconces along the wall.

Daniel glanced along the hall, keeping an eye out for the mayor's office.

He didn't have far to look. There was a closed door with a brass plaque right near the stairs.

Daniel walked right for it, and pushed it open with the authority of a man invited

The man at the desk in the room was leaned forward with his head resting on his arms, which Daniel caught a glimpse of before he sat bolt upright eyes wide. "Hello! Yes?!"

"Good afternoon, Mayor." Daniel bowed. "I'm Daniel Delgrave, of the Astorian University. You sent for me."

He smoothed back the fur between his ears and nodded. "Yes! Yes! Thank you for coming. Is that an associate of yours in the doorway?" Fenya was lingering behind him.

Daniel glanced behind him 'Yes, this is Fenya. also of the University. She's a chemist."

"Ahh, yes, quite,," he nodded. "well come in the both of you, have a seat." He waved at a couple of comfortable looking chairs in front of the desk.

Daniel took a seat in one of the chairs. "You know, my friend, I was worried nobody was in, going by the vacancy of the first floor."

The mayor, a wolf of perhaps ten or so years Daniel's senior nodded. "Ah yes... I should have realized. We get visitors so rarely and everyone here knows the situation."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "might I ask what you mean by 'situation' ?"

"The offices downstairs are not typically used," he said waving his hand. "Barring for town meetings of course. It's mostly... records."

"That would explain all the boxes.." Daniel mused

"Indeed," he nodded. "Can I offer you a drink?"

"A drink would be lovely." Daniel nodded. "but...perhaps something non alcoholic. I'd like to have my wits about me."

He chuckled. "Of course, I understand. I will have someone get us some tea then." He pulled a cord beside his desk and Daniel could distantly hear a bell ring.

"There's someone else in this office?" Daniel asked with a raise of his eyebrow.

"My secretary, a few doors down," he smiled rather sheepishly.

"Good to know." Daniel chuckled. "While we wait...how have you been feeling, Mayor?"

"Feeling?" he cocked his head. "Ah you mean in the sense of my health?"

"Precisely." Daniel nodded

"Well enough I suppose," he chuckled. "A little tension in the neck and shoulders-- but I wouldn't imagine you'd be a massage doctor."

"Sorry, no, I'm a thanatologist."

"I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with the specialty."

"I study death, and the prevention of death."

"Ahh, a generalist then," the mayor nodded as the door clicked open behind them.

"More of a specialist." Daniel murmured. "My study is done in order to unlock the secrets of immortality."

Before the mayor could answer, the woman behind them asked "Can I help you, sir?" "Ah yes, my dear, please fetch myself and our guests so tea." "of course sir."

Daniel glanced behind him , curiously.

A young bear woman in a plain dress was already disappearing from the doorframe.

Daniel glanced back at the mayor. "where were we?"

"Ah, you were explaining your profession to me I believe."

"ah yes. I study immortality. Extension of the lifespan, that sort of thing."

"Ahh. I suppose you came here wanting to speak to our town board, then.... that's unfortunate," he said gloomily.

"...terribly so." Daniel said. "I came because a colleague said this place might hold some answers for me...but it seems those I'd wish to speak to are dead and gone. Again."

"Five years so I'm afraid," he sighed. "terrible business.... terrible."

"The church burned them, didn't they?"

"Yes," he nodded gravely. "So they did."

"....may I ask how the town allowed them to get away with burning them? I can't imagine many were happy to see the church attempt to assert that sort of control and cruelty upon your town leaders."

"We certainly were not," he said with a sigh. "But the Faithful had the backing of the military... owing to the situation in the capital at that time."

Daniel snorted. '...the military. Supporting such barbarous behavior with armed force." He tented his fingers. "your town leaders weren't witches...but they were people with a secret of scientific merit."

The mayor gave him a pained smile. "I agree with you wholeheartedly, friend doctor."

"I'm sorry for getting so off track...you mentioned in your letter that you wished to see me."

"Yes indeed," he chuckled. "But no need to apologize-- as I said we get very few visitors-- I simply wanted to meet you."

"it's an honor to meet you, Mayor." Daniel bowed his head. "i'm in town to help cure Elias' affliction, predominantly, with my interest in your town's ...ex-elders...secondary."

"Ah yes," he nodded. "The folklore professor... he's ill? That must be why he hasn't been back to dig through the records again."

"I'm afraid he's afflicted with something rather nasty." Daniel said slowly. "his blood's practically turned to oil."

The mayor grimaced. "That *does* sound nasty...."

"As mayor...have you seen anything like that before? Blood turning black...eyes turning dark...slow heartbeat and fatigue?"

He frowned, thinking about it. "Something about it sounds familiar...."

"Please, anything you can tell me would be a big help:

"Hmmm..." he rubbed his chin. "Well...." he looked rather sheepish.

"....yes?" Daniel asked with a note of mild confusion.

"You may think this sounds silly."

"I doubt anything will sound silly in my current situation, Mayor."

"well, it.... it sounds like a curse that I heard about as a child."

"would this be the one in which someone's heart is torn from their chest for being wicked?" Daniel drawled.

"No, quite the opposite" he said, shaking his head. "About those who died with improper burial."

"...hm." Daniel leaned back. "...I'll listen to the tale. Perhaps I can find the grain of truth in it. Please. continue."

"The story is that if someone dies and their heart is allowed to wither in their chest, rather than being burned and replaced with their phylactery, then the person's body would be invaded by their evil spirit and rise as a kind of ghoul."

Daniel's eyebrow raised "...I'm sorry...please repeat that for me."

"When you die, they take the heart out of your chest, burn it, and replace it with your phylacteries. To keep your body from rising as host to an evil spirit, supposedly. Or at least they did until the Faithful came."

Fenya coughed politely and covered her mouth.

"So under this summation of yours, Elias is already dead." Daniel said. "i'm afraid he seems to be very much alive..."

He spread his hands. "You asked me if it reminded me of anything, doctor," he said. "So I told you. I warned you it might sound silly."

"no." Daniel sighed, rubbing his face. "well yes. It sounds ridiculous to me, but every story comes from *somewhere* There's a scientific fact somewhere in there." He paused "tell me about the phylacteries."

"They were little dolls that master Yahontov made," he said. "And I presume his father before him but that's long before my time. They were supposed to hold all the evil in your other soul so it didn't affect your life."

"mm. and your 'other soul' ? what is it."

He scratched his head. "I'm afraid that's really all I know about the theology of it. you have a soul and an evil soul. And the evil soul wants to get into your body."

"Fenya, is that...something you've heard before?" Daniel asked.

Fenya frowned. "Maybe once or twice... it's not a common story I'm familiar with though."

"hm." Daniel thought for a moment. "your burial procedures....in addition to taking and replacing the heart...."

"yes?" he cocked his head.

"What else do you do?"

"Ah well, the body is buried in the graveyard, and the ashes of the heart are scattered in our sacred grove."

"Sacred grove, hm?" Daniel thought for a moment. ".....I was hoping I could find a connection between the change in burial practice and the start of this illness..."

"Well none of our birth or death rituals have been performed in five years I'm afraid."

"Then the timing doesn't add up." Daniel hesitated a moment. "there's a second case of whatever Elias has contracted in your town, Mayor."

He raised his eyebrows. "a second?"

"yes, an entertainer has had symptoms quite a lot like those Elias has displayed

"I see...." he nodded. "An entertainer as in...." "Yes, mayor," Fenya said, rolling her eyes. "Well then I suppose you know how it's spreading, doctor," the mayor nodded.

"It's...possible that it's spreading that way. It might be for the best to put a tighter lockdown on that sort of thing." Daniel cleared his throat. "but we don't know for certain until we investigate further."

"I see..." he frowned, tapping his fingers together. "Let me know if you want me to make some kind of official announcement-- for all the good it would do."

"It wouldn't do much good?" He cocked his head. "No offence, but aren't you the bloody mayor?"

"I am," he nodded. "But everything's supposed to go through the governor now."

"Installed by the military and Capital, I imagine?"

The mayor nodded and sighed. "Precisely."

"mm. So you've got little to no power, and the town's presided over by an outsider."

"So it goes, my friend doctor," he agreed.

There was a little knock, and the door opened.

"Ah. here's our tea."

Daniel turned to glance at the receptionist again

She nodded to him, and wheeled the little tray in. "Thank you, my dear," the mayor nodded. "Anything else I can get for you?"

"Have you been feeling alright, Miss? no lethargy, exhaustion, bad dreams?"

"I always have bad dreams," she said staring him in the face with a dry expression.

"Well that's a terrible shame." Daniel said. "You should try getting to bed at a reasonable hour with some hot tea and honey before bed. Preferably one made to relax the muscles. Decompress."

"Mmm. Thank you." she nodded, and looked at the mayor, who shrugged. "Any more questions, sir?" she asked.

Daniel shifted in his chair, and mouthed 'cheerful girl' to Fenya.

Fenya nodded back slightly. "If that's all I'll take my leave." "Yes, of course," the mayor waved a hand, and the woman left.

"...is she okay, Mayor?"

"My niece," he sighed. "She's always like that. I think she thinks it's amusing."

"hmm." Daniel chuckled softly. "I suppose it is, in it's own way."

The mayor nodded, and offered them each a cup. "Reminds me of me when I haven't had my coffee," Fenya said slyly.

Daniel chuckled "Perhaps we can grab some more coffee on our way out , just to keep both our spirits up." He took his tea, and had a sip.

It was a little weak, and a bit lemony, but basically fine.

Daniel sipped it slowly. "Regardless...where were we?"

"The governor, I'm afraid. "

"What can you tell me about this man?"

"Arrogant. Bullheaded. Former military." "Great," Fenya muttered.

"Just what we need. " Daniel murmured. "a stubborn Mosgravian military man."

"Hopefully we won't have to deal with him?" she offered.

"We can only hope.' Daniel drawled. "if we stay out of his way, we shouldn't have any cause to meet him."

The mayor sipped his tea. "Do you two think you'll be here long?"

"Oh, I hope not. Things in the capital are a bit of a mess and I do have my research to return to...but we'll be here long enough to...see what we can do about Elias and the other victim."

"well if there is some kind of sickness your presence is appreciated I'm sure. Old Pyotr could have whatever it is beaten in a heartbeat I'm sure but he isn't around anymore of course..."

"mmm. I assure you , I'll prove to be just as useful as your old Pyotr."

"I certainly hope so," he nodded.

"This won't become a problem...we have two patients, but i hope to stop it at that."

"Good. My office will of course help you in any way we can."

"It's good to know I have an ally in town." Daniel said with a small smile.

"Is there anything I can help you with right now?"

"At the moment?" Daniel thought for a second "any medical supplies would be appreciated."

"Not my office's specialty, but I'll see what I can do. I'll have whatever I can get sent to your lodgings by this evening."

"much appreciated." Daniel thought for a moment "we shouldn't have any trouble getting into your rookery, should we?

"The rookery?" he cocked his head. "what do you want to go in there for?"

"Retracing my colleague's footsteps." Daniel said. "it's likely that he's gone inside there."

"Ahh," he nodded. "Well no you shouldn't have any trouble, assuming the caretaker isn't too troublesome."

"the caretaker?"

"Old Rook. He's notoriously.... hmm.... difficult."

"hm. Anything the mayor can do to make things go smoothly for me?"

"Well... you could tell him I gave you permission to look around. But... he considers the rookery his own to guard after the Faithful incident."

"Send word to him that I'm coming and that I mean no harm. I'm simply conducting a scientific investigation."

He nodded. "Very well, doctor."

"thank you. And if you know of anyone else who might give us trouble....I'd appreciate it if you passed along a little help greasing the wheels."

"I'll certainly do my best," he agreed.

"Much appreciated. Can you think of anything else, Fenya?" he asked

Fenya considered. "You said that Elias was going through the records here. Was there anyone helping him with that?" "Hmmm.... he may have asked a few questions of my secretary, but other than that usually no one's around here, unless the Captain's stopped by to file some papers."

"Then I'll be sure to talk to your secretary then." Daniel nodded

"Feel free," he nodded.

"Oh and feel free to poke around the records room yourself if you need to for any reason."

"if we feel we must, we will." Daniel said. "But for now, I think your secretary can help save us a little of that time."

Mayor Tadiyov nodded. "Of course. Thank you for satisfying my whim and coming by, doctor."

"I'm quite pleased to have, Mayor Tadibyov. I'll consider you a friend and ally while I'm in town."

"I'm very pleased to hear it, doctor Delgrave." He stood and offered him a handshake.

Daniel took his hand and gave it a firm shake.

Tadibyov's handshake by contrast was practiced-- but still a little limp. The man nodded to him. "It's been a pleasure to meet you. And Ms. Fenya as well." "Likewise." Fenya purred.

Daniel smiled at him. "it's been an honor. I'll see you again, I'm sure" He said before he turned and headed out of the room with Fenya.

Fenya headed out with him back into the hall.

"that was an interesting encounter, wouldn't you say?"

"Certainly," she nodded. "For a variety of reasons."

"It seems his power in town's been all but stripped."

"The witch hunt--politically motivated perhaps?"

"I wouldn't be surprised. It sounds like a big attempt to get this town under the Capital's thumb...and away from the grip of it's immortal leaders and old power structure."

"Doesn't exactly seem to have worked out though."

"no. Now you have a town divided." Daniel mused. "between those looking to follow the capital and those invested in their old ways. A fragmented town full of strange disease and a structure that will not hold up the moment strain is put on the system."

Fenya shook her head. "Not exactly a great situation," she said dryly.

"no, it's certainly not. It's ...less than ideal. Especially with the capital on the verge of revolution."

She nodded. "Indeed.... we shouldn't expect much help in a tight spot."

"Meaning it'll be you and me against whatever decides to rear its ugly head, Fenya."

"If that's what circumstance decrees, then I'm pleased with my luck in lab partner at least," she chuckled.

Daniel laughed with her. "...frankly, I'm quite pleased, myself. You've proven both good company, and good help."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," she chuckled, flicking her ears. "Well.. shall we go interrogate the secretary or do you have another plan?"

"No, I think first we should have a chat with the morbid young secretary. If we know what Elias was looking for...we can trace his steps more effectively."

She nodded. "True enough. I think the mayor said that her office was down the hall?"

Daniel nodded, and strolled down the hall "I think she'll be hard to miss, given she's likely the only other person here."

There was another office with the door slightly ajar.

Daniel knocked on the door

"Come in."

Daniel pushed the door open and walked in with his usual slightly cocky smile.

"good afternoon."

This office had a more useful look than the mayor's own, with filing cabinets along one wall and papers stacked on the desk. The woman behind it looked up. "Mm. Hello."

"thank you for the tea." Daniel said. "do you have time for a brief chat?"

"As much time as I ever do."

"My name is Daniel Delgrave, of Astoria's University. Might I ask your name?"

"Fedosya Morozov," she nodded.

"Pleasure to meet you." Daniel nodded in return. "Fedosya, I heard you'd assisted my colleague Elias Bainbridge in his searching of your records?"

"Assisted is a strong word."

"Care to tell me about that?"

"What do you want to know?"

"what exactly was he looking for?"

She shrugged. "Mostly documents written by people who are no longer living. News articles. Journals, letters. Things like that. We mostly keep things like birth and death records, but we have a few more personal records that were donated."

"that makes sense." Daniel mused. "and I imagine he seemed fairly fixated on your old town leaders?"

"He was more interested in records or rituals performed and things like that," she shrugged. "But yes once I told him that wasn't something we kept a record of he was interested in the board."

"interesting." Daniel mused. "sounds like Elias, I suppose." He thought for a long moment, before nodding his head. "...and, when did you see him last? Did he seem well at the time?"

"A bit more than a week ago," she shrugged. "He seemed... tired."

"then he was already sick at that point." Daniel said. "His fatigue only got worse from there."

"has he died, then?"

"Not yet. we're still working to prevent it."

"One can hope he'll be grateful if you do."

"I take it he didn't show much gratitude for your help?"

"He seemed very focused on his research."

"Allow me to extend an apology." Daniel snorted. "on his behalf, though I hardly think he deserves it." He dipped his head. "most people from the University appreciate the assistance they get."

"The secondhand apology won't do anything for my opinion of him but-- I'll allow it not to color my opinion of the two of you."

"I appreciate it." Daniel said. "He's a bit of an idiot, Elias."

"You don't say."

"I hope he wasn't too rude. He's got a bit of a...reputation."

"I'm not surprised," Ms. Morozov agreed. "He was.... fine. No worse than many."

"you encounter a lot of unpleasant sorts?"

"People generally show up at my office when they want to complain about something."

"ah, yes...the clerical position's curse." Daniel frowned.

"So it goes," she nodded.

"you have my sympathies." Daniel paused a moment. "I'm sorry to ask this a second time, but I really need to know." "Have you felt any irregular fatigue or nightmares? Sluggishness of the heartbeat? In the last few days."

She frowned. "I've been feeling a bit tired," she admitted. "I assumed it was the miserable weather we've been having."

"The weather's been...bad." Daniel admitted. "But I'm concerned due to the fact you were working near him while his symptoms were developing."

"What should I watch out for?" she asked.

"darkening of the veins, ears or eyes. Fatigue. Nightmares. Restlessness. Slow heartbeat...trouble breathing."

She frowned. "Are nightmares really a medical symptom?"

"My theory is the disease places stress on the body, which causes a state of restless sleep that feeds off that stress to create a sort of fevered nightmare state. It's often shown that stress can lead to foul dreams. At least that's what was determined in Dr. Haley's latest research study 'The State of Sleep.' "

"I see," she said, frowning. "Alright. What should I do if any of this happens to me?"

"Come write or see me at the post office post haste and I'll get a start on treating you. We're currently looking into the disease so if I keep you healthy enough while we study it, I could find a cure and administer it."

She nodded. "Alright. I'll be keeping an eye out for symptoms then."

"Please do." Daniel nodded. "We simply must stay on top of things if we're to succeed in curing the two victims we have already."

"I'm no doctor but that sounds obvious," she agreed blandly.

"mm hmm. But you'd be surprised how many people think they can be obstinate and get in the way of such a simple concept."

"I'm a public servant, doctor. I'm not surprised."

"I'll do what I can to make your job as easy as possible then." Daniel nodded once. "If you know of any town medical records, I would be much obliged."

"I'm not certain anyone keeps records of that," she said. "But if they did they'd be at the Osgrov manor."

"mm." Daniel nodded. "I'll ask Sasha if he would allow me a look then. Thank you."

"Of course," she nodded.

"Stay safe, and let me know if you feel under the weather Ms. Morozov."

"Of course. Have a good afternoon doctor. Miss." she nodded.

With that, Daniel left the room.

Fenya followed him back into the hall. "What do you think?"

"She seems like a nice enough woman. bad position to be in." He paused. "I'm concerned because she was near Elias in a small area and she's having some ...fatigue problems. So warning her should help us mitigate matters."

She nodded. "Hopefully it's just the job and she doesn't get sick. Though if she does...."

"We'll have another patient to examine."

"One at an earlier stage."

Daniel nodded. "examining a disease at its earliest stage can do wonders for figuring out how to stop it....in which case we could save her life long before it was put into danger."

"Indeed," she agreed heading back toward the staircase. "That would certainly be... ideal."

"it would be. Of course, I wouldn't wish this on anyone...so I'd like to simply make do with what we have already."

"Not the type to go spreading a disease to see how it functions? No wonder you're on the outs with the department," she drawled.

"What can i say?" He drawled "I'm a bleeding heart."

"I won't tell," she smirked.

"please. As long as the blood doesn't start running black and thick as oil, I suppose it's nobody's business but our own."

"Exactly," she agreed, heading back down the stairs with him.

Daniel cracked his fingers. "I think we'll solve this one, Fenya."

As they headed back into the downstairs area Daniel's eye fell on the portraits again. This time he noticed there was something odd about them. For one, they were quite lifelike. And for two, they were all in the same rather dull brown color scale.

"....." Daniel stopped to look at them more closely. "...now what is this?"

Looking up closer the paintings were.... marvelously detailed. It was uncanny. "Hmm?" Fenya cocked her head and peeked over his shoulder. "Oh! it's a Doggrowtype!"

"mmm?" Daniel glanced over his shoulder at her.

"I don't know how much you know about optics, but... you know a painter's camera?"

Daniel nodded slowly "I think I've heard of it, yes."

"Doggrowtypes use a special lens and chemicals to burn a permanent image onto paper through a camera. These aren't paintings, they're images of life captured with light and chemicals."

Daniel whistled softly. "now that's an impressive invention."

"Isn't it? They showed us how to make the chemicals in one of my seminars. It's fascinating stuff."

"How long is the exposure?" he mused.

"Between five and ten minutes-- which is why they're all seated, as you can see," she nodded to the portraits.

"Then probably not much use for capturing images of the ill." Daniel shook his head. "which would be an exceedingly useful item."

"I'd love to find a formula that would make it faster," she agreed.

"if you think of it while we're here, I'd be quite impressed." he chuckled

"I'll certainly look into it," she nodded. "The process is expensive at the moment too-- these must be important people."

Daniel looked them over one by one. "the old town leaders?" he mused. "or the old mayors?"

There was a beautiful young wolf woman with pale fur and hair, and a wide, rather predatory smile. A handsome dark furred wolf man in the prime of his youth with cold blue eyes. Another pale wolf, this one a man with a serious expression, and a black bear with a very cute face and wide eyes.

"....hm. Fenya. do you think these might be the old Council?"

"Well, there's four of them, one of whom is a woman, so deductive reasoning says yes. Also it looks like the name plaques have been removed."

"Likely due to the ...problems...caused by the church." Daniel mused. "....how interesting. They all looked so... young."

"They do," she nodded. "And the Doggrowtype method isn't very old. So these are pretty recent."

"likely from just before their deaths." Daniel mused, brushing his hand over one of the paintings. "Meaning they really were...physically young and healthy."

"Then what we need is to find out how old they actually were, wouldn't you say?"

Daniel nodded. "exactly . That could be done with town records, or medical records from our friend Sasha."

She nodded.. "Hopefully the records exist."

"if not we will have to rely on word of mouth, as much as I hate to admit it." Daniel walked outside

"I'll admit I'm skeptical but even if those people were only say, 50... I hope I look that good."

Daniel chuckled to himself. "As do I. It's been my dream, ever since I was a young med student."

"to beat the sands of time. not...ah. Look good until I die."

"I won't spread tales of your vanity, Danochka," she chuckled covering her mouth.

Daniel snorted. "please, the dean would never let me live it down."

"The dean will be jealous he missed the boat."

"...on your research I mean."

Daniel snorted " he'd better be. I'll be lording over it until his inevitable demise, if I manage to find the secret."

She chuckled. "I'd say dump some on his grave but I don't want him to come back."

Daniel laughed out loud. "no. That's better spent on giving it to people who *actually* deserve it." He paused. "I. e everyone but that utter moron."

"It just goes to show that academics aren't the way to move ahead in academia."

"it's a popularity contest." Daniel snorted. "which if I had my way, I would fix. It should be about the science; the academics!"

"I'd imagine outliving the competition would help your chances, so there's that."

"One way to change the system, after all, is to outlast it."

"Indeed," she agreed. "Something Mosgrav wouldn;'t know much about."

"no. They prefer their change violent, sudden, and redacted a scant five years later."

"just invent political terms already, for goodness sake," she said gesturing.

Daniel laughed out loud. "do you think anyone ever...tried...pointing that out?"

"If they did they must have burned them at the stake," she chuckled. 'So I won't be the one to try."

"Maybe i'll send an anonymous letter." He drawled.

"Oooh, clever thinking."

"they'll never know it was me." he chuckled. "Should we check out the Rookery next, or the sacred grove?"

"Hmm, I think unless we want to go up near the river we'll basically run into the sacred grove on our way to the rookery."

"perfect. I'd rather avoid the toxic puddle they call a river anyway."

She nodded and gestured for him to follow her out of the town hall again. "As would I."

Daniel followed her down the street, his hands in his jacket pockets. "Hopefully we can find the girls....factory....and move along quickly."

"Factory.... that's right...." she paused. "You don't suppose...."

"I've had an inkling as well." Daniel said. "phylactery, right?"

"It certainly sounds a lot like it, don't you think?"

"Especially mispronounced by a young child." He said. "And it would make sense why one would tell her not to lose it."

"It certainly would," she agreed.

"While I hardly believe in such a superstition." Daniel said. "I wouldn't want to see the poor girl get upset. So I suppose we should find her 'evil spirit receptacle."

"I'm curious to get a look at it."

"same, admittedly."

They strolled back down the street toward the square, and across the street to the south of town, Daniel could see a large grove of pale trees that stood apart from the rest of the swampy forest.

"Now that must be the sacred grove..."

"It certainly stands apart," Fenya agreed.

"I wonder what sort of trees those are." He mused.

"Unfortunately I'm not much of a botanist," Fenya admitted as they approached.

"neither am I. A shame. they're rather beautiful."

They were tall, and slender with white, unbroken bark and pale green, almost grey leaves that reached toward the heavens. Hanging among those branches were some small objects tied by hemp cord that were tugged softly in the breeze.

Daniel shaded his eyes to get a better look at them all.

The little objects appeared to be small dolls carved out of pale wood, with aged stains on them. There were about a dozen or so swinging there. As for the type of tree,, he was no expert but the name 'Birch' came to him, though it could be any number of subspecies.

"They're some sort of birch." He mused. "it must be where they hang the phylacteries..."

"I suppose so," she said. "But if that's the case shouldn't there be... well... more of them?"

"Now that's the question." Daniel mused. "....i could be off base. It might be best to ask a local." He turned his eyes towards the ground.

The grass grew thick here, and more lushly than he had seen since further west in Mosgrav. Laying among the roots of the trees was another little doll.

Daniel scooped it up, and tossed it in his hand. "this must be it, hm?"

"Unless one of the others has come loose, I'd imagine so" Fenya nodded.

"I'm sure the girl will tell me one way or the other." He noted the curious growth of the grass. "....lush area, isn't it?"

"It is," she nodded. "It's certainly nicer than the rest of the growth we've seen around here."

"I wonder if the roots of these trees help ...protect it from the elements?"

"That could be. There's different trees about a hundred yards from here-- should we check if it's the same?"

Daniel nodded, and started towards the other patch of trees. "hm...Now you have my curiosity."

Fenya followed along after him, and as they passed the threshold of the white trees, the grass below them became more sparse and yellow.

"...and lo. The moment we leave, the grass returns to it's deadened state."

"So it does," she nodded. "Despite the tree roots here too."

She gestured to the perfectly ordinary thick brown trees that forested the area beyond the white grove.

"hm....I've heard that some trees provide certain nutrients that stimulate the growth of other plants. Perhaps it's a case like that."

"Very possible," she nodded. "It's also possible it benefits from the attention of the townsfolk in some way."

"If it's a holy site, I can only imagine it would." He said with a nod

"Perhaps they water it, or use some kind of fertilizer," she shrugged.

"that would make the most sense." Daniel said with a nod. "Nothing to get too excited about. Just an interesting little curiosity."

"Certainly something to note," she agreed.

"If nothing else, it's an attractive little area." he continued on towards the rookery.

Fenya walked with him as they continued back down the lane in the direction of the post office. The sun was high in the sky now--though difficult to see through the gathering dark clouds.

Daniel shaded his eyes. "....the storm's coming." he sighed. "hopefully we can get things settled before the rain begins."

"And hopefully Mitya's fixed that window," she murmured.

"The last thing we need is that window blowing open during the full force of the storm." Daniel chuckled. "though I suppose we could try switching places on the bed if it would make you more comfortable."

Her ears flicked in embarrassment. "I'm sure that's not necessary, but thank you all the same."

"Well, if you change your mind, just let me know." He said with a flick of his tail.

She nodded. "I will... say... Do you mind if I have a look at that doll? I didn't really get a good look at it and I admit I;'m curious."

Daniel nodded, and handed it to her, glancing over his shoulder at it as he did.

"I'm a little curious myself."

She turned it over in her hand, slowing her walk. The little doll was crude-- quite crude in fact. The ones hanging from the trees had seemed smoother in feature, whereas this was amateurish at best, covered in little nicks and scratches. It was broadly the shape of a peanut with a little face carved into it (poorly), and a dark, old brown stain across the pale body.

"hm." Daniel mused. " i wonder if she carved it herself."

"Maybe," she said, biting her lip. "Is this blood?"

"that's...what it might be." Daniel frowned, and leaned over her shoulder to get a better look. "hm."

She held it to show him. It *did* look like blood that had dried and soaked into uncured wood.

"....." Daniel took a deep breath. "yes, it seems she likely went and gave it a bit of her blood to complete whatever folksy ritual the whole thing entails."

"Imagine someone letting a five year old have a carving knife," she tutted. "They must have a lot of spare children."

"I suppose that's the nature of small towns. Nothing to do, lots of dangers..."

She shook her head. "I suppose we'll have to ask Darchik."

"I'll keep it in mind when we loop back that way." He glanced at the looming structure ahead, "For now, we step out of our usual field and dabble a little in archeology."

The rookery loomed over them as they reached the edge of the road near the post office where they'd have to break off to approach it. There was no formal path through the sparse grass, though there was a narrow track beaten by moderate use.

Daniel turned and started out over the narrow track. ".....i'm not surprised this isn't paved with stone at all."

"It seems like not many people have call to come this way."

"I suppose not. I wonder what's inside.."

"Hopefully we'll get to find out. ... doctor... do you see that?" she paused and pointed to the top of the bell shaped tower.

Daniel shaded his eyes and peered at the top of the tower with a frown. "...what is it?"

There was a thin plume of wispy black smoke trailing from the top of the stone tower out into the sky.

"...now that's strange." Daniel mused. "Smoke? What could they be burning in there?"

"I've no idea. Though... I suppose if there is a caretaker, like the mayor said, he might need a fire for warmth..."

"That's true. It's likely just the caretaker's fire." Daniel said. "or something symbolic for their local faith's purposes."

"True. I probably just didn't notice it the other day," she nodded.

"Nonetheless, we can always ask the man."

"If we can find somewhere to knock," she mused. As they came upon the tower, the base of it- at least the part they faced, was entirely smooth.

Daniel frowned. "well that's...." He paused. "hm. they said there was a way in."

"Maybe around the back?"

Daniel nodded, slowly walking around the edge of the structure.

Not only could Daniel not find any entrance to the tower as he walked around on it, he caught his boot on a half-buried rock and ended up half-falling right into Fenya as he came around back to the front.

"Oh!"

Daniel's eyes widened slightly, and he stumbled to his feet again with a flustered cough. "my apologies, Fenya."

"whoops!" Fenya chuckled embarrassedly and reached to help steady him. "Are you alright?"

He nodded, and attempted to gain some of his lost dignity back. "I'm..." He paused a long moment. "fine. I'm fine. Just slipped on a rock."

"They really ought to pave this area," she agreed. "Did you see an entrance?"

"no, I haven't seen anything." he sighed . "i'm admittedly a little puzzled."

"How odd," she mused, approaching the tower. She gave it a little knock.

It certainly didn't *sound* hollow. But then it was presumably a pretty thick stone.

Daniel gave it a solid kick with his steel toed boots.

They made a little more noise than Fenya's shoes, but mostly they just sort of knocked against his toes.

"Hm." Daniel waved his hand. "let's take another pass."

Fenya nodded, and walked around with him. "I wonder how you're supposed to get in and out? It's certainly not obvious...

"

"no it's not." Daniel said with a frown. "But there *has* to be a way in." He rubbed his chin as he thought. "perhaps some sort of ramp that folds upwards like a drawbridge?"

"Maybe?" she nodded, craning her head to look upward as she shaded her eyes.

Daniel looked along the wall for any seams or cracks...

He didn't see any, unfortunately.

Try as he might, Daniel couldn't think of how else one might get into the damned thing... but he did think it was likely someone else would know.

"...we're going to have to ask someone." Daniel sighed. "After all that walking. But it can't be helped."

"Well, at least we're close to home base?"

"At least." Daniel agreed. "why don't we go see what our host has to say on the subject."

"Good idea," she agreed. "Lets watch for stray rocks on our way back to the street," she teased lightly.

Daniel's face flushed red, and he coughed again into his hand. "...of course, Fenya."

She chuckled and they headed back to the street. It was only a few dozen yards further to the post office.

Daniel smoothed out his coat with a soft laugh. "I suppose I've teased you enough to have earned that, Fenya."

"I hope my teasing doesn;t offend," she said with a smile. "It's well meant."

"Not in the least." Daniel brushed his hair over his ear with a nod. "it's charming."

Her ears flicked gently and she smiled. "well I'm pleased to hear it," she said as they came back to the front of the post office.

Daniel gave her a small smile, before he pushed the front door of the post open.

"Mirta, are you in?"

The young man popped up from behind the desk. "Oh! I didn't expect you back so early."

"well..." Daniel chuckled "we had a bit of a question.."

"Oh? Ask away, of course," he nodded.

Mitya gave him a slightly nervous smile.

Daniel leaned on the counter. "Don't get too flustered now. We just need to know how to get into the rookery."

"The rookery?" he cocked his head. "why would you want to go in there?"

"Call it a professional curiosity." Daniel said

"Oh... well," he pushed his hair back behind his ear. "I've never been in there, but I think there's a cellar style entrance."

"A cellar style entrance. No wonder we missed it."

Fenya scoffed. "we looked up, but not down. A bit of an oversight."

"I suppose it can't be helped." He chuckled "now we know what we're looking for."

"So we do. Shall we go try again?"

Daniel nodded. "Thank you for the help Mitya. We'll see you later."

"Oh, sure. Uh, good luck, doctor. Miss." As they strolled out of the post office fenya sighed.

"Yes, Fenya?" Daniel asked, smoothing his hair out in the breeze.

"hm? Oh... I just suppose I see why Elias told everyone he was a professor," she chuckled slightly.

Daniel chuckled with her. "I suppose you can call yourself a professor." He winked. "...i would of course, not contradict you in the slightest."

"You're very kind," she said with a sly smirk. "I wonder if it's too late."

"Not if you're aggressive enough about it." Daniel smirked back.

"Well then, doctor," she said with amusement. "how about you help me be aggressive about it from now on?"

"Absolutely , Professor." he said with a flick of his tail . "We'll start with this groundskeeper."

"Sounds perfect, Doctor," she chuckled as they strode back out across the wet field toward the tower.

"So I suppose we'd best keep our eyes on the ground for the entrance to this subterranean nonsense."

"If we don't see it, maybe we should jump up and down," she said dryly.

"If nothing else, it may annoy the man into coming out."

"Just what I was thinking," she agreed as they reached the base of the rookery again.

This time, Daniel kept his eyes on the ground as he walked.

Daniel spotted the dirty handle of a door covered in mud and leaves.

Daniel bent down, and grabbed the door in his gloved fingers, giving the handle a sharp yank.

He saw the large iron lock as the mud fell away from it as it was lifted-- obviously it hadn't been locked. It revealed a large staircase downward.

"Well. That's convenient," Fenya said.

"isn't it?" Daniel said with a smug little grin. "looks like we have our way in."

"Well then doctor, is it ladies first or does a gentleman spring the trap?" she teased.

"allow me, professor" Daniel chuckled. "If nothing else I can amuse you if I slipped into the abyss" He took the first step down into the underground area

The staircase seemed well maintained under that first step. They weren't well lit but he could see a dull flaming glow from the bottom.

Daniel frowned as he trudged forward "watch your step...it's rather dim."

"I'll be careful," she nodded gently stepping down after him with a hand on the wall. At the bottom there was a short hallway, lit by small strange lights.

Daniel leaned in to look at the light in curiosity.

It sat in a dish and glowed like a flame, but there was neither an obvious fuel nor smoke.

"hm. Interesting... i wonder just how it works." He mused as he continued down.

"It might be some kind of chemical light," Fenya suggested. At the bottom of the stairs, he saw that the short hallway ended in... a stairway up.

"I'll be interested to hear your theories then." He frowned "what's the point in stairs down if they're just going to end in stairs up again." He gestured to them "it'd be more economical to just have it be a straight bloody line!"

"Hiding the door I suppose?" Fenya mused. "Seems foolish to me."

"incredibly foolish." Daniel scoffed, before walking up the stairs. "I'll never understand country people."

"I suppose to be fair to this crop of fools, this structure probably predates even their grandparents, unless I miss my mark."

"True." Daniel agreed. it's....quite the ancient structure, isn't it?"

"It certainly *seems* to be. But that's just my impression," she said as she followed him up.

"Which leaves me wondering why all the secrecy to get inside." he mused. "...and just what chemicals do they use to keep those lamps lit."

"Should I... appropriate one for research?"

Daniel paused a moment before giving a firm nod. "absolutely."

She grinned like the cat who got the canary and hurried a jar out of her bag.

Daniel shifted slightly so he was standing in front of her, as if to block her from sight.

There didn't seem to be anyone around but Fenya didn't complain about the gesture. She put the bottle on top of the flame, and slid a paper beneath it.

To her slight surprise, the light kept shining as she trapped it in the jar.

"fascinating little thing, isn't it?" Daniel mused. "...keep it safe, I suppose and we'll look into it tonight."

She nodded, and put it carefully in her bag. "even if it goes out, I can analyze the compounds."

"Indeed...a chemical structure like that might prove to be a pretty good source of long lasting light if harnessed."

"It may very well be," she agreed, smiling brightly. "Shall we press on?"

Daniel nodded, and gestured forward "up into the mysterious tower. I'll go first and bear the brunt of any unpleasant social encounters." He started forward again.

"If they ask us to leave, I'll ask to speak to their manager," she said dryly. The staircase led up to a large, round room that was clearly the body of the stature. It was bulbous and tall ceilinged, and without window, lit instead by the small smokeless flames. Along one wall there was another staircase that led upward and a few feet away in the floor was another large trapdoor.

"hm...looks like we have our choice of down or up." He looked around the massive round room, seeing if there was anything *in* there aside from the trapdoor and stairs.

There was a tapestry hung on one part of the wall breaking up the perfect circle.

Daniel walked towards it, craning his neck to take the tapestry in.

The tapestry was an old and confusing mess of hooded and robed figures that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a generation. But.... he saw something at the foot of it. What looked like a discarded piece of paper.

"...hm." Daniel walked over, and bent low to pick it up.

It was a small piece of crisp, white paper, slightly smudged and torn at two edges. Notebook paper. There was writing on one side.

Daniel raised his eyebrow, and read over the writing.

*hasn't been performed in over five years. Despite this it seems that the young children of the town have begun to imitate the ritual. I have yet to discover if this is a spontaneous mimicry or if one of the older townsfolk is telling them what to do. Likewise I still have been unable to gain access to the so-called 'cairn' and see this hoard of phylacteries myself. There must be thousands of them.*

"ah. so there's a cairn full of the town's phylacteries..." Daniel mused. "and this...must be from Elias' notes. Meaning he *did* make it in here."

Fenya cocked her head. "Oh? Wasn't his notebook torn up?"

"It was" Daniel mused. "...everything from the dates that would be relevant to our investigation...torn to shreds. And lo, here one lies in the shadow of the practices he so wished to study."

"Do you think that supposed caretaker shredded it?" she asked, peering over his shoulder at the paper.

"that's one guess. Be it him or another, it's someone who wanted to keep the fact that he found out about some old town ritual secret."

"Hmmm..." she frowned. "Well, finding one part of it is better than nothing I guess."

"Perhaps our thief's more careless than they'd like to believe." Daniel drawled "and we'll get lucky with some other scraps of Elias' journal."

"That *would* be lucky," she agreed.

"Then let's hope luck's on our side." He smirked thinly, before trying the trapdoor in the center of the room

The trapdoor rattled as he pulled on it. It seemed to be locked.

"Looks like luck decided we had enough."

Daniel gave it one more hard tug with a huff. "there's always upstairs."

She nodded. "maybe we can find a key."

"that's the hope." Daniel smirked as he started up the stairs. "And so far...no groundskeeper."

"No... which means we should either watch our backs or keep our eyes out for a body," Fenya murmured, following him upward.

"...the last thing we need is a body on our hands." Daniel muttered "I'm no criminal investigator."

"I'd rather not be implicated in a- death either," she agreed.

"So if the man's dead let's simply resolve to turn around and walk away." Daniel waited a moment before he offered a half sincere, "I jest, of course."

Daniel recalled that there had been a death the year prior in the chemistry department, and inquiries had been made about the potential involvement of several second year students, although ultimately no arrests had been made.

"Of course, doctor," she said with slight amusement.

Daniel raised his eyebrow slightly. "..." He glanced at Fenya out of the corner of his eye. "have you had to deal with that sort of unpleasantness before?"

Fenya coughed, her ears flicking. "Ah... looks like you heard about that."

"Word gets around campus, unfortunately." Daniel said.

"I hope you won't judge me for a bit of scandal," she said as they reached the second floor. The view of the room was blocked by the backs of what seemed like a row of bookcases creating a sort of hallway

"Certainly not." Daniel brushed his hair over his ear with a frown. "we've all been involved in a little scandal, after all." He glanced around at the bookcases, looking to see if he recognized any of the books within. "I'm more curious if anything."

The tomes were unfamiliar, and appeared to be in a language other than *lingua astoriana*.

"well, I wish it was as interesting as it sounds then," she chuckled.

"I imagine some poor fool found himself on the wrong end of a science experiment?" Daniel said with a note of jest in his voice.

"Just about," she nodded as they got to the end of the little 'hall'. It turned inward to the bulk of the room. "The idiot set himself on fire overnight."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "....he..." He walked into the main room proper, out of the little hall "lit himself on fire overnight."

"Mmhmm. It happens pretty regularly to first year chem students. But Tim wasn't a very popular young man." Peeking into the main room he saw a stone floor with an intricate pattern, and several raised podiums of stone. There were more shelves built into the area giving it a more square appearance and there were stones and knives and things on them.

"so everyone suspected murder, when the damned fool did himself in." Daniel snorted. He paused before the podiums, and looked down at the pattern below his feet. "hm... ritual objects."

"Well," Fenya drawled. "I can see why the church called them witches, but that's no excuse for barbarism. and exactly. They interviewed everyone who had been in the department that night. Working alone doesn't give you a very good alibi."

Daniel shook his head. "The school's...always out for a scapegoat. You learn that early in the Astorian University." he glanced at her "I'm pleased you got out from under their critical eye, however." He walked to one of the podiums and lifted a knife. "....these are tools of witchcraft, but I've never approved of the church's heavy hand."

The knife was made of black stone and it had more of the unfamiliar language carved into it. "Nor have I," she agreed. "As for Astoria, you're right about that. Thankfully they don't look too hard once a convenient scapegoat has presented itself."

Daniel held it up to one of the strange lights with a frown, trying to parse the unfamiliar language. "No, they certainly don't." he snorted. "They consider it all well and 'swept under the rug' "

"Indeed. So it was a simple matter of planting some evidence of what *should* have been obvious all along. Honestly, having to rig an investigation to get the true outcome is so Astorian i practically felt patriotic."

Daniel nearly dropped the knife as he coughed. "... damn!" He laughed out loud "....it's probably the most patriotic thing an Astorian can do, Fenya. I'm impressed."

Fenya chuckled and her ears flicked nervously. "Why thank you Danochka. But do be careful with those knives. They look very sharp.?"

Daniel's ear flicked as well. "...i'll be careful." He lowered the knife. "i'm just trying to parse this language."

"May I take a look?" she asked, coming up close to him.

Daniel nodded, and held the knife up for her.

She leaned in close and appraised it closely. "Hmmmm.... I've seen letters like this before...."

"you have?" Daniel raised his eyebrow "where?"

"Some of them are consistent with letters from ancient alchemical sigils. But.... there's more of them that I don't recognize."

"now that's interesting." he mused. "Perhaps the alchemical sigils you recognize stem from a similar root as this lexicon.."

"That might be the case," she nodded. "or it's possible they're being used in conjunction with another set of symbols. You can't exactly make words with alchemical sigils..."

"how interesting." Daniel mused. "I wonder if anyone in town knows how to read the things."

"Hopefully," she said with her brow knitting. "Or maybe there's a key somewhere in astorian."

"We could only be so lucky." He murmured, turning the knife over in his hands.

It had a certain weight to it. Carefully balanced.

"this is a nice knife." Daniel mused.

"I wonder if they're all the same?" Fenya mused. "Maybe take one... as a sample."

Daniel flipped the knife in his hand, and wrapped it with some cloth from his satchel before pushing it inside with his other tools.

"Shall we see if we can get up any higher?"

Daniel nodded "Do you want to take the lead this time, Professor?"

"Why certainly, doctor," she gave him a little curtsey and a smile. She looked around and didn't find a staircase, but a cord hanging from the ceiling. "We may have to climb."

Daniel raised his eyebrow. "how's your upper arm strength?"

"I was on the ladies rowing team for a semester," she said.

"then you'll have no trouble with this rope." Daniel said with a soft laugh. "mind if I ask you to go first?"

"Oh!" she chuckled. "No problem at all," she nodded. She grabbed the dangling rope and-- it pulled open a concealed panel in the ceiling.

A ladder started to slide down.

Daniel opened his mouth, before he closed it again. "...Well don't i feel foolish."

Fenya chuckled. "Mmmm... oops?"

"Well it solves the problem of climbing up." he laughed

"Still want me to go first?" she asked, helping the ladder to unfold the rest of the way.

"Since there's no risk of me falling upon you" He drawled. "i can climb my way up first if you wish."

She smirked and gave a little beckoning gesture. "Be my guest."

Daniel began climbing up the ladder, moving carefully up the rungs to the area above.

The room he ascended into was lit by more of the small lamps, and boxed into a square with more of the shelving. There were a bunch of boxes peeking out from beneath a large old piece of what looked like sailcloth, and there were a few sparse pieces of furniture. A table. A bad. A single chair. Rather than books, the shelves here were covered in a collection of small stones, bottles with small objects in them, and objects of what looked like pure detritus; things like fish bones and old springs. There was another cord hanging from the ceiling.

"I wonder if this is where the groundskeeper stays." Daniel mused as he looked over the room from the landing

Fenya came up behind him and had a look around as well. "Someone certainly seems to. And they're the neatest packrat I've ever encountered."

Daniel didn't immediately see anything in the room that stood out to him.

Daniel took a little stroll around the room, his hands behind his back "a collector...of...nothing in particular it seems."

There were a few pieces of quartz crystal among the rocks, but nothing strikingly valuable. Many of the bottles had preserved insects in them. There was a coin whose face had completely eroded away.A couple of pieces of glass jewelry.

"...i wonder why they've collected all this...discarded garbage."

"Reminds me of the sort of things little children bring home after a day at the park, don't you think?"

"It does." Daniel mused . "Children's treasures."

"Certainly a bigger collection that most ever achieved...."

"I suppose that's what happens when you keep it up for long enough."

"I guess so. Most people grow out of it of course."

"Our groundskeeper may not be 'most people' I suppose."

"Also very possible,"she said. "Especially around here."

"Indeed, the isolation really makes people hold tight to their particular quirks." Daniel mused. "move up or investigate this room more thoroughly?"

"Hmmm," she put a finger to her lip. "we don't know how much time we'll have to look around by ourselves..."

"then let's keep heading up." Daniel said, grabbing the rope and giving it a tug

The door slid open and the ladder came out, narrow, and leading up into the dimness.

After straightening it, he started his way up the ladder.

As he climbed it became apparent that the next floor was *not* lit.

"Maybe that light you took will come in handy." Daniel murmured as he climbed up.

"I'll pull it out then," she agreed. Daniel found himself in almost complete darkness as he reached the top of the ladder.

Daniel shimmied off to the side so Fenya could stand, and shaded his eyes. What he wouldn't give for a candle..

Fenya carefully shuffled next to him, pulling the small light out of her bag. It was still shining. It wasn't MUCH light, but it was enough to illuminate perhaps a three foot circle around them.

Daniel stepped slowly forward. "I suppose they ran out of 'magic' lights by the time they got up to this floor." He snarked

"I suppose they did," she said, shadowing him closely. The floorboards creaked under them.

He tried to make out *something* in the darkness as he walked

He made out.... the curved wall. It was *very* curved here. And the ceiling seemed quite low. Were they at the top?

"I think this is the final floor." He mused as he hugged the wall, and walked along it

The curve was tight, starting close at the floor and bulging outward, as if they were standing in a fishbowl. As he put his hand on the wall he realized that it was not smooth like the stone of the floors below was, nor was it stone at all. But rather it was rough and uneven, as if covered in poorly applied plaster, or wrinkled paper and glue.

"...." Daniel cleared his throat. "fenya? Bring the light closer to the wall."

"Of course," she agreed, coming up to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. She held the little jar up, Daniel could see the cracked and wrinkled surface of the wall-- white, rather than black like the stone.

"...now isn't that interesting?" He said, poking his finger at it. "it's not stone at all."

It was quite rough-- almost sharp.

It reminded Daniel of something.... "It's like papier mache," Fenya murmured, just as the thought struck Daniel as well.

Daniel nodded. "...it is. But why would it be coating the walls at the top of a stone tower?"

"I have no idea. It certainly looks solid from the outside...." she paused, her ears going low. "The whole thing couldn't be made out of the stuff, could it?" Daniel certainly didn't think that could be the case.

"no...there's no possible way it would stand up all these years made out of a child's bloody arts and crafts project."

"You're right of course," she nodded. "Thank goodness. But then why?"

"i'm tempted to peel some of it away." He drawled. "But I don't think the locals would take kindly to that."

As he spoke, Daniel heard footsteps below them.

Daniel cursed softly "...damn it." He waved his hand. "hide the light, Fenya."

She shoved it quickly in her back.

Despite this, the steps were coming closer. They hadn't brought the ladder up with them.

Daniel snuck over towards the ladder, intent on pulling it up before the other party saw it was down.

Unfortunately by the time he got there, he reached down to pull it up just as the other party was peering upward. A black cloaked figure in a feature obscuring hood.

Daniel's skin prickled, and he stumbled backwards in the darkness and away from the portal . "Damn" he whispered

He fell backward into Fenya, who righted him gently. "Steady there, Doctor," she murmured. "Snooping around?" a surprisingly warm, thickly accented voice called.

"I wouldn't call it snooping so much as a professional curiosity!" he called back

"Well then, would you like to professionally come down here, or are you going to professionally keep hiding in my attic?" Fenya fought back a snort of laughter.

Daniel groaned into his hands. "This is ridiculous." he muttered and started to climb down the ladder.

"I have to agree," she murmured as he climbed. The robed figure was waiting for him with crossed arms at the bottom of the ladder.

Daniel straightened up as he hopped off the ladder, and dusted off his coat with a charming smile. "hello. I wasn't aware this place was off limits."

"I'd say no one in town doesn't know that but you seem to be from out of it."

"We're from the Astorian University." Daniel said with a wave of his hand. "And when we expressed interest in going inside the Rookery, nobody in town told us otherwise. In fact most seemed puzzled but gave the impression it was open to the public."

"I see...." There was a gentle susurrus from inside the dark robe. "well I suppose that can't be helped."

"I hope we haven't offended." Daniel said with a nod of his head. "Would you be the Groundskeeper?"

"I would," he said. He reached out a hand-- or rather a claw, to shake. It was black and scaled with sharp nails obviously filed down.

Daniel shook the clawed hand with a quirk of his eyebrow. "it's a pleasure. I'm Daniel Delgrave, doctor of thanatology."

"A pleasure to meet you, Doctor Delgrave," he said nodding. "I'm Rook, as you surmised, the caretaker of this monument." Fenya finished her way down the ladder as well.

"it's a pleasure, Rook." Daniel dipped into a slight bow. "I have to say you gave me a fright." He chuckled. "don't run into many mysterious hooded figures as of late, you know?"

"My apologies. It is... traditional." He pulled back the hook to reveal a striking black-beaked head covered in dense black feathers and a pair of golden eyes. Some kind of corvid-- certainly not usual around here.

"oh!" Daniel said in slight surprise. "I suppose it must be, then." He smoothed out his ears, as they pricked back up . "I have to say it's rare to see an avian such as yourself this far north."

"Truly I am a bird without a flock," he agreed. "would you mind if we chatted on the bottom level? This one is my bedroom I'm afraid."

"I wouldn't mind in the least, Rook." Daniel nodded as he gestured. "Shall I go first?"

A few moments later the three of them were on the original floor in the room with the tapestry. Rook produced several chairs from a previously unseen corner.

"Please have a seat."

Daniel took a seat, and folded his hands upon his hip with a nod. "thank you."

Fenya did as well. "Yes thank you. I'm Professor Trifena Evgenii-Smythe by the way." "A pleasure to meet both of you," he nodded. "So, what brings you to my rookery?"

"As I mentioned, professional curiosity." He chuckled. "For two reasons...one...there's an illness currently infecting two individuals out in town that I'm looking to stop. And for that purpose I'm retracing Elias Bainbridge's steps before he fell ill. And two, I was curious if it held any information on subjects of my personal study."

"I see..." he said, clicking his beak. "Yes, Elias was here some weeks ago."

"I imagine he couldn't keep himself away." Daniel drawled. "might I ask if anything happened?"

"He asked for my permission to visit the cairne."

"And did you grant it?"

"I did."

"Can you tell us about the cairne?"

"It's where the phylacteries were kept. Are kept, I suppose."

"Why that phrasing?"

He shrugged. "The rituals are no longer being preformed. None of the phylacteries are removed, and no new ones join their ranks."

"Interesting. And he wanted to go there...likely to study the phylacteries themselves."

"Yes," Rook nodded. "He spent some time sketching them as I recall."

"Interesting. Can you tell me some about these phylacteries?"

"There isn't much to tell," he shrugged. "They're made from wood in the grove and each belongs to a citizen here. Mistress Nika would deliver a child and then Master Iosef would read its fortune. Master Misha would carve a totem from the family's tree, and Master Pyrotr would bind it to the child's heart and deliver it to the cairne."

"hm...and what was the purpose of these heart-bound wooden totems?" He asked "someone gave me a little information earlier...but you seem quite knowledgeable on the subject."

"It acts as a vessel or body for the second soul of a person, in order to keep it from trying to affect that person's own body."

"So you propose everyone has...two souls. I recall one is supposed to be evil? Or did I misunderstand."

"That is how I understand it as well," Rook nodded.

"Interesting concept, if one that's utterly outside of any scientific fact."

"As far as I was aware the soul in general was a realm outside of scientific fact," Rook shrugged. "But I'll admit I'm not very educated."

"is that so?" Daniel raised his eyebrow. "How did you come to be the keeper of this place, anyhow?"

"It is the only home I have ever known."

"you were born here?" Daniel asked

"Indeed."

He agreed with a nod, but Daniel got the sense that perhaps there was something he was holding back.

"I get the sense that there's something more that you're not telling me." he mused.

He raised a feathered eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"

"I'm good with people." Daniel lied with a smile. "reading expressions...I just have the feeling there's something more that you haven't told me."

"I can't stop you from feeling that way I suppose."

"Please, anything you can tell me, no matter how unrelated you may feel it is, is valuable to our investigation...one that can save lives in your own town."

He shrugged. "I'll tell you-- though I doubt you'll believe me, doctor."

"There's truth in any statement, if you look hard enough." Daniel said with a smile. "please go on."

"Very well. I was created here. Not born."

"...created." Daniel asked with a raise of his eyebrow.

"yes. I don't have any other details. I was only zero days old at the time," he said with dry wit.

Daniel laughed softly "I can forgive you for merely being freshly created." He leaned on his hand. "what makes you say you were 'created' rather than born?"

He shrugged. "It's what my creators told me, and I have never seen any evidence to the contrary."

"and who were your creators?"

"The four town masters, naturally."

"Interesting. So you say the town masters...created you. Out of what?"

"I'll be honest-- I never asked."

"huh." Daniel mused. "My guess is they simply took you in and raised you."

"An answer as possible as any other I suppose," he agreed. "Perhaps your parents did the same."

"For a given value of raised." Daniel drawled.

He shrugged. "My condolences. I only raise the idea that it is equally likely we've been lied to our caregivers about our origins. Pardon-- I'm assuming you don't remember the day you were born."

"While my memory is first rate, even I don't remember that day clearly." Daniel leaned on his hand.

Rook nodded sagely. "I rest my case."

"regardless." Daniel said. "it sounds like you grew up quite entrenched in their teachings."

"I would not hesitate to agree with that statement."

"How interesting." Daniel mused. "then do you know anything about this curse the children were talking about?"

"It depends on what curse. The one the masters put on the town, or another?"

"The first one...though I didn't know there were others."

He shrugged. "None particularly notable, but you never know what children might be gossiping about."

"That's absolutely true. Children have the...wildest...imaginations."

"Indeed. But if it's the curse on the town then yes, that did happen."

"why don't you tell me about that."

He shrugged and blandly replied. "As the town masters were horribly burning alive they swore that their deaths would mark the ruin of the town; that its heart would die and its people would become mad beasts cursed to wander the earth, and the wicked faithful would have their hearts torn out and devoured."

"why would they wish that on their own people?" Daniel frowned slightly.

"I'm afraid I can't speculate, as I've never been burned alive."

"Neither have I." Daniel snorted .

"I have to wonder if they somehow released a pathogen with their deaths..."

"I can't say that I don't believe it would be within their power."

"What would you call 'the heart' of this town?"

"The grove I suppose?"

"It certainly seemed healthy. The trees weren't rotting."

"Not that I had noticed either," Rook admitted.

"Yet, we have old stories of hearts torn from chests and people's blood turning black in their veins. How interesting."

"These are certainly trying times."

"they are...but I plan to stop this nonsense. What can you tell me about this 'vampire' roaming the streets."

"not much, I'm afraid. I spend most of my time in this tower. You caught me on a grocery run."

"ah. Groceries, quite important." Daniel nodded. "you haven't heard anything about a monster prowling the streets.?"

"Only a mention here and there. Idle gossip."

"I saw a tall, lanky creature attempting to slice a man's throat open."

"That does sound like a vampire," Rook agreed.

"or a lunatic" Daniel drawled

"who says not both?"

"I've never seen a vampire wandering about, where I've seen plenty of madmen. I go to the Astorian University, after all"

Rook chuckled. "I see. I suppose I've never seen a vampire either when it comes to it."

"perhaps if it's proven by science, I'll believe it. Until then however..."

"If there *is* a vampire of course, you could certainly be the one to prove it couldn't you?"

"I can imagine it would give me some degree of acclaim" he smirked slightly.

"Aren't vampires meant to be immortal as well, Doctor?" Fenya murmured with a chuckle. "Could be a lead."

"albeit one with some awkward tradeoffs" he drawled.

"Not a fan of blood, doctor?" the Rook chuckled, cocking his head in amusement.

"blood and I have an interconnected history" he snorted "but I've had a taste and found it wanting"

"I'm sure that's a fascinating story," Rook commented. "But I suppose you're the one asking questions here."

"precisely. We can save my blood drinking adventure for another time" he nodded firmly. "May I ask about the top floor of this structure?"

"You certainly may."

"Why are the walls coated in paper mache?"

"Paper mache?" he frowned. "I'm not sure I--- ah. Yes, I see what you mean." he nodded and seemed to reflect for a moment.

"may I ask?"

He rubbed his beak. "It is part of a..... ritual."

"a ritual? Care to explain it?"

"It is to keep this place from... leaking."

"one would think a better material would be used if that's the case. One less likely to turn to pulp"

"I certainly understand your perspective."

"can you explain it to me?"

"I doubt that I could, doctor. As I said. It's a ritual."

"mmm...well pretend I'm a mystical man, then"

He scratched his beak thoughtfully. "The paper is made from pulp of the fallen branches of grove trees. It has the same sort of protective and captivating power as a carved phylactery."

"how interesting...so there's something up there worth protecting in, essentially, a massive phylactery"

"Astute of you," he said clicking his beak. "That is the other name for this monument."

"interesting...and just what is it holding?"

"An evil spirit, obviously."

"mm hmm..who's?"

"I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that, doctor."

"hmmm" He leaned back "I have a theory, myself, on how all this can play into our little drama outside"

"I'm curious if you'd indulge me," Rook said.

"your elders ...they knew many secrets, clearly. These lights, long life, and.... 'curses'. It's my belief that perhaps this disease...labeled as an evil spirit or curse... Was kept in check by their 'rituals' by way of using a natural antibiotic in the Grove tree's wood. Something that could stave off infection, perhaps." He tapped his chin "meaning when they died, they laid their curse by way of sowing fear to scare out the Faithful, knowing full well that without their knowledge that the disease would spread once more. "

"That's a very logical train of thought," he nodded. "Sounds about right to me," Fenya murmured.

"Under every myth is a rational explanation" Daniel purred. "Misinformation or misunderstanding of a natural process"

"Well...." Rook said thoughtfully, as he scratched the underside of his beak with a black claw. "I suppose that all depends on what you consider natural or unnatural in the end."

"anything that can be scientifically assessed with repeated documentation" Daniel said "I believe my senses, and my data"

"A broad definition."

"I've seen some...odd...things. But for something to be natural, it must be repeatable, able to be documented, and scrutinized. Not like the subjects of fairy tales and household myths."

Fenya nodded. "If something works... reliably and repeatedly... that's science." "Mmm... well I suppose I won't contradict you," Rook offered.

"I appreciate your courtesy." Daniel drawled. "...that being said, even that which seems fantastical...may have a scientific truth hiding within it."

"Well, that being said-- did you have any other questions for me?"

Daniel thought for a moment 'hm. Have we missed anything, Fenya?"

Fenya put a gloved finger to her lip. "Mmm.... I suppose we could ask to see the cairne, like Banbridge did."

"Yes, I'd rather like to see this cairne myself." Daniel nodded.

Rook scratched his chin. "I suppose that I could show it to you. I'm afraid it's not all that interesting however."

"Interesting or no, it's another step in the footsteps of my colleague...and perhaps a step closer to the origin of his infection."

"Very well," he nodded. "But don't say I didn't warn you.

"You did, and the warnings are appreciated."

Rook stood. "Shall we then?"

Daniel stood, dusting off his coat. "Lead the way, Rook."

Fenya stood as well, straightening her skirts, ears flicking. The Rook nodded, kneeling in the center of the room where the trap door Daniel had been unable to open was. He lifted it.

"ah, for this we've got to burrow further into the earth then. Wonderful" Daniel chuckled.

"The earth is excellent for dampening power," Rook said as he started to descend the staircase.

"Dampening power." Daniel raised his eyebrow. with a flick of his tail, he followed Rook down.

The walls here were not stone but packed earth, aside from the sconces where the strange fires glowed forth from. This staircase led down, much further down than the first, and with Rook leading he couldn't see the end.

"may i ask about that fire you've got in here?" Daniel asked curiously as they descended "it's rather unique."

"Hmm? Oh. That was what the masters made for light."

"Do you know anything of its composition?"

"I'm afraid not. I'm a bit worried they'll go out in fact." "Hmmmm...." Fenya mused.

"If they did you'd be rather stuck in darkness." Daniel laughed "A shame , if you don't know how to fix them."

"I quite agree," he nodded. They reached the bottom of the staircase, and Rook stepped aside, giving Daniel a view of a cavernous area lined with shelves dug into the earth. Each one was inhabited by numerous nearly identical dolls, each covered with a splash of blood.

"....hm." Daniel stepped inside, gazing around the area with mild curiosity. "so this is where the ritual dolls are kept."

"That's correct," Rook nodded. Daniel saw as he observed that each was labeled with a cloth tag-- but the markings on it were meaningless to him.

"and what do these writings say?"

"I believe they refer to the families and specific individuals the phylacteries belongs to."

"...ah. Interesting. You can't read them then?"

"I'm afraid not."

"What language are they written in?"

"My masters referred to it as 'archaic'."

"Some folk language, then?" He mused, leaning closer to one to peer at the cloth tag.

"I never heard them speaking it, if that helps," Rook offered.

"It does. It might be some sort of code, then. Perhaps."

Fenya nodded. "It's true, it might be a cipher instead of a language...."

"It would make sense if the elders wanted to obscure their methods."

"reminds me of the university."

Daniel glanced over his shoulder at Fenya.

"You haven't had any of your fellow students try to hide their notes that way? "

"most of my fellow students are idiots." Daniel drawled.

Fenya shook her head sadly. "Almost a shame."

"by and large they make up for a lack of subtlety and cunning by being antisocial and isolationist instead"

She shook her head again. "The chemistry department all have shockingly long noses when it comes to sticking them in other people's research."

"I suppose when the secret to your success may lie in another's formula, it pays to be a bit of a snoop."

"What fascinating dramas the two of you seem to have," Rook drawled.

"Such is the life of the Astorian University's Elite." Daniel said "Fenya here is a professor, after all. And I'm an acclaimed doctor."

"What esteemed guests I have snooping in my tower," he chuckled. "Well.... have you seen what you wanted to see?"

"May I borrow one of these figures?" Daniel asked, gesturing to one of the phylacteries .

Rook's eyes widened. "One of the phylacteries?" he asked, sputtering

Daniel nodded once. "I'd like to examine a small sample under my instruments."

The caretaker scoffed. "I'm afraid I absolutely can not allow that, Doctor Delgrave. These are people's souls we're talking about-- and evil at that."

"hm." Daniel raised his eyebrow at them "awfully small containers for the evil in people's souls, wouldn't you say?"

"I imagine you'd think it should be bigger?" he grumbled, watching Daniel closely.

Daniel nodded as he looked closer at one of the 'vessels' "I've seen men all across Gaea, Rook. There's more evil in them than a child's doll could hope to hold."

"Maybe so," Rook nodded. "But be that as it may, I can not allow you to remove any of the phylacteries from the cairne."

"Perhaps I can take a small scraping?" He asked.

"I forbid it," he shook his head. "I am afraid I am going to have to ask both of you to leave."

Daniel held his hands up "I didn't mean to offend, good sir." He said with a thin smile "I'm not here to cause trouble. It was a mere request, and now that it's been denied, I will kindly drop the subject."

"I'm pleased to hear that," he drawled.

"Is there anything else you wish to show us?" Daniel continued ."Or anything else that our colleague wished to see?"

"This is where his tour ended."

"then perhaps we might as well be on our way." Daniel dipped into a low bow "Thank you for your time, Rook."

"Of course. You're certainly the most polite intruders I've ever hosted." He gestured for them to return to the stairs.

Fenya snorted.

Daniel started for the stairs with a shake of his head. "I feel it's fair to note that the locals told us this was more or less a public structure."

"Pardon me my amusement," he said, shaking his head as well. He followed the two of them up the stairs.

Daniel chuckled "I understand. You have to take amusement where you can get it, after all."

"It doesn't usually come to me by itself," he admitted wryly.

"Not many visitors to the pit of evil human souls, then?" Daniel asked with a wry smirk.

"Shockingly most people stay away from this place."

"I'm surprised. Perhaps you should think about opening a cafe down here. Light a few more lamps, serve coffee and scones. The ambiance would do wonders for your patrons, I'm sure." Daniel drawled.

"I'll consider the menu, I'm sure."

"We'll be there opening day." Daniel said with a soft snort. "until then.."

"Until then," he nodded. "I trust you can let yourselves out." He gestured to the stairs to the surface.

Daniel nodded, and started up the stairs "indeed. Be safe, Rook."

A couple of moments later and he and Fenya were above again, the sky steel grey, mist having gathered while they were beneath the earth.

"well. That was enlightening" Daniel said as he started along the path back to town

"It certainly was," Fenya purred. "Come on let's get out of here-- I have something for you."

Daniel nodded as he hurried along the path with her. "do you now? More than that light or knife we made out with?"

"We absolutely pillaged the place," she murmured with pride. "I got you a soul."

Daniel raised his eyebrow "how positively Astorian of us." He purred in return. "a soul? That should prove a fascinating research subject, don't you think?"

"I certainly think so," she agreed. "if nothing else it might be an amusing souvenir. Now no one can claim you haven't got one."

Daniel laughed. "That'll show my fellow students in the biology department."

"I rather thought it might," she agreed, chuckling with him. "where shall we head?"

Daniel flipped open his notebook "let's see...we had a few other appointments, but we may have some time before them.."

"I know we were supposed to meet someone for dinner-- I don't think we had any other engagements today? Oh-- we may want to give Darchik back her 'factory'."

"We also had a plan to visit the bar of ill repute" He pointed out "but that's a nighttime activity. For now we might as well give Darchik her phylactery back."

She nodded with a smirk. "Ah yes, how could I forget the bar."

He smirked back "no doubt it'll be instrumental in helping us trace the origin of this disease to its source."

"No doubt," she agreed. As they passed back into the town proper and well away from the tower, she reached into her bag and produced the wooden doll.

Daniel glanced at it with a curious smile on his face. "you've certainly got some quick fingers, Fenya."

"Don't give me *all* the credit," she smiled. "he had his eyes firmly on you."

"I can be terribly distracting, or so I've been told." Daniel chuckled darkly. "It seems to have served a purpose tonight."

"So it does," she agreed. "And I can attest to your ability as well."

"If you ever need me to draw the eye again." He purred. "just give the word."

"I shall certainly keep that in mind."

"we make a good team, Professor." He stuck his notebook back in his pocket.

"I'm starting to think that we certainly do."

"Perhaps we'll collaborate on a project back at the University." He said as he turned down the path to head towards the farmhouse.

"I could definitely see an intersection in our research," she said, walking down the increasingly familiar path with him.

"Immortality and the philosopher's stone are said to go hand in hand."

"So the legend goes," she agreed. The heavy clouds above them rumbled with the sound of distant thunder.

Daniel glanced up at the sky with a frown. "indeed. So it's worth the pursuit..." He paused "....tonight's walk is going to be far from ideal."

"Unfortunately. I'm expecting another rain storm."

"A shame I left my umbrella back home."

"Maybe we can find someone who'll sell one--they *must* have them here."

"It's possible... perhaps there's a store hiding here somewhere." He chuckled "though it's hard to pick them out when most buildings look the same."

"It's true," she nodded. "I could probably find the bakery but an umbrella shop... hmmm... well a dedicated one doesn't seem in the cards."

"Maybe a general store, if we're lucky." Daniel mused

"That would probably be our best bet."

"Keep an eye out, then, hopefully we'll catch one before the rainstorm."

Fenya nodded. "I'll do that."

"much appreciated Professor Fenya." he smirked, and gestured to the farmhouse ahead. "Now, let's go make a young girl's day."

The fog thickened as they walked through the increasingly familiar town, making it hard to see the farmhouse even as they approached.

"I hope the fog lets up soon." Daniel griped "With a madman running about, the last thing I want to be is lost in the fog."

"No that sounds like a recipe for a horror novel doesn't it?"

"it does. And I'm afraid I don't have many shots left in my revolver should we meet the fiend again."

"I wonder if that can be rectified?"

"The general store might stock bullets...if we're lucky. If not...well. I may have to find another means of personal protection if the streets are truly dangerous."

"Have you ever used a sword?" she asked with a chuckle.

"...a sword?" Daniel chuckled "... I can't say I have, outside of a few fencing lessons."

"Oh so you*have* had lessons," she teased as they arrived at the house.

"I didn't say i did very *well* in them." He chuckled.

"I suppose you didn't," she agreed, shaking her head. The fog thinned a little, and they found Darchik sitting on the steps again, now having drawn an elaborate scene in the dirt.

"Darchik." Daniel called "we found something of yours."

She looked up, a little 'o' on her face. "you found it?"

Daniel fished out her 'factory' and offered it to her. "right where you said you'd left it."

She hopped up and took the object gently. "Thank you so much!"

"you're quite welcome." Daniel nodded ."And we met your friend, as well."

She cocked her head. "Oh?"

"Your friend Iochka." He said "Charming little scamp, isn't he?"

She nodded. "I guess."

"I didn't tell him you'd lost your factory, but I did ask him a little more about them. And a little more from that Rook fellow."

"You saw Mr. Rook?"

"we did. We visited him in his home." Daniel nodded

"My momma says to stay away from him."

"Is that so? Does she say why?"

Darchik shrugged. "She says he's a dog without a leash."

"Which is funny cause he's a bird," she added.

"hm." Daniel raised his eyebrow "... interesting assessment. He seems..fine, however. Personable."

"Personable?" she asked, cocking her head.

"He gave us the chance to sit and talk with him. Personable means..ah. pleasant in manner."

"Oh. So he's nice?"

"precisely." Daniel nodded.

"I wonder why mom doesn't like him then...."

"I suppose I'll have to ask her." Daniel chuckled. "Regardless...it seems you have quite the interesting little object there, Darchik."

"You don't have one?"

"i'm afraid I don't." He shook his head. "It seems it's a local custom. We don't have anything of the sort in Astoria."

"Does that mean you're evil?"

Daniel chuckled darkly "I should hope not. I don't feel particularly evil. "

"Hmmm...." she looked him over, not seeming convinced.

"Do you think I'm evil?" He raised his eyebrow with a slight smirk. "I'm wounded."

"I don't know," she shrugged. "I just know the factories s'posed to stop you from being evil."

"From what I've experienced." Daniel drawled "your own actions and choices are what stop you from doing evil."

She cocked her head quite far, looking at him almost as if she were trying to turn him upside down.

"I understand your 'factories' are supposed to absorb the darkness in your hearts or some such." He waved his hand. "But outside, in the world I'm from, every man is in charge of managing the darkness in his own heart and their own actions."

"But how do you stop the bad you from doing bad things?"

"By learning what the right thing to do is, and holding yourself to that standard. You reign in those impulses and instead aim to do good with your energy, rather than evil." He waved his hand. "And should you fail, the law comes in and takes care of the rest."

She chewed on her thumb. "Huh....."

Daniel nodded. "as far as I've experienced, there's no external 'bad' me to get a handle on. Instead, there is simply my own morality to follow."

"Maybe you just haven't seen him."

"Is that so?" Daniel chuckled "have you seen your own bad Darchik?"

"Uh-uh. Because it's in here." she tapped the phylactery.

"indeed." Daniel said slowly. "But what about all the people outside of this town?"

"What do you mean?"

Daniel chuckled "people outside of this town...or at least, people in parts of the world i've visited, don't have factories to house their evil selves...but most haven't seen them wandering about, either."

The little girl seemed to turn that over in her head for a moment. "wait.... but that means that....." her nose wrinkled.

Daniel raised his eyebrow "yes?"

She opened her mouth to answer as the door behind her opened inward. Darya was there, baby in her arms. "Having a chat with my eldest are we, doctor?"

"Darya." Daniel said with a smile "how lovely to see you. I was returning something she'd told me she'd lost in town."

"How very kind," she drawled. "Darchik, sweetheart, keep better hold on your things." "Yes momma," she muttered grumpily.

"I simply wanted to help." He waved his hand towards her. "And it led us to some interesting places, so I certainly won't complain."

"Well. If you'd like you can keep drawing in the mud-- or you can come in and have some coffee."

"I wouldn't say no to some coffee." Daniel dusted his knees off, glancing at Darchik's drawing in the mud as he did

"Come on then," she nodded. "and you too, Darchik. It's going to rain."

Darchik pouted, but stood.

Darchik had scribbled what looked like a bunch of figures among the trees, with a giant figure standing over them, slightly apart, and holding something indistinct in its hands. A knife maybe?

"......" Daniel frowned at it briefly, before heading inside. He logged it away in his memory...and his notebook, before slipping it back into his pack.

Fenya hung back with him for a moment. "Some drawing, mm?"

Daniel nodded "unnerving to say the least"

"maybe we can get a chance to ask her about it?"

"perhaps. It depends on if I've offended Darya" he chuckled

"I'm not sure we've yet to do something that *doesn't* offend her," she admitted.

"one can tell from the merest glimpse of her expression" he nodded firmly

Despite this, she had two cups of coffee ready for them in steaming mugs on the table.

"It'll be a wonder if you two don't catch cold," she asserted brusquely.

Daniel chuckled , bowing slightly as he entered "my apologies. We were simply interested in your daughter's...imaginative...drawing" He sat at the table "many thanks for the coffee"

Darya waved a hand. "You're my guests aren;t you? sit."

Daniel took a seat and lifted his coffee "indeed. How's your young one been?" He gestured to her youngest "better?"

"Better," she nodded, watching Fenya take her seat as well. "Not quite so fussy, at least for the moment."

"I'm glad I could help" he chuckled and took a sip of his coffee.

The coffee was good. Hot and rich. "Mm." she nodded.

"How have things been here, since this morning?"

"well, our boarder hasn't died yet-- for better or worse."

"Given how much pain he's likely to be in..." Daniel shook his head "someone else in town has his symptoms."

She raised her eyebrows. "Someone else hmm?"

"an...entertainer...in town has manifested similar symptoms."

Darya snorted. "well I suppose that wasn't too unlikely."

"I suppose not. But it means it's likely communicable."

She frowned, her brow knitting. "Hmm."

"Something to consider in keeping your family safe....though we don't know how it spreads just yet. " He sipped his coffee. "it could be a...sexually transmitted disease, given the two parties involved."

Her jaw locked. "I think that's.... unlikely," she hissed.

"hm." Daniel sipped his coffee again. "I didn't necessarily say with each other. We've yet to investigate further for any other sick individuals." He raised his eyebrow "though your reaction is telling."

She locked him with laser focus eyes."I dare say we are coming close to a discussion we've had before," she snapped. "One which I believe I told you to take up with my husband."

Daniel held his hands up "...the topic didn't come up." He murmured. "perhaps we can try talking about it, between us?"

She raised a stern, quiet eyebrow at him.

"I'm only going to keep stumbling into these minefields if I'm not given a little context, Darya."

Fenya sighed. "Would you like me to take Darchik out of the room?" "I think you'd better," Darya breathed dangerously.

"Thank you Fenya." Daniel nodded slowly.

Fenya gently ushered the little girl out of the room and soon it was just Daniel and the seething Darya.

Daniel sipped his coffee. After another awkward moment, he took a second sip. And in another moment, he stalled with yet a third.

She crossed her arms. "*well* doctor? what is it you want to ask me?" Ice should have formed spontaneously around the room.

Daniel swallowed his coffee while it was still warm in the rapidly dropping social temperature. "I'd like to know just what's gotten under your skin with my less than esteemed colleague and your husband. I have my suspicions, but it'd be rude to assume."

"Oh no, please doctor," she breathed. "Do go on. I want to hear your *suspiscions*."

"I'm getting the sense there may have been a bit of an affair." Daniel tugged his collar.

"An affair."

"An affair." Daniel repeated.

"Do go on."

"Must I?" Daniel sighed in exasperation. "I'm a damned scientist, not a bloody hack of a so-called *psychologist*. Can't we simply be straightforward?"

"Yes why don't we," she said. "Tell me just what it is you surmise."

"The general thrust of all this nonsense, as much as I've been able to surmise, is my damned jackrabbit of a colleague attempted and perhaps succeeded in seducing your husband." He spread his arms out "there. Are we finished ? Or have I grasped at the wrong damned straws?"

She sucked in a breath through her nose and seethed further. "No doctor. you have your straws."

"I'd thought so." He sighed. "I'm terribly sorry. I can see why it's a sore subject for you."

"I'm glad that you can see that much at least."

"I imagine it's caused some strife between you and your husband?"

"Some, yes," she agreed with a curt nod. "The men he brings home are usually not this troublesome."

"It seems you two have a rocky relationship." Daniel nodded again.

"It has its benefits and drawbacks as any does," she said. "now. Do you understand why I say the curse is unlikely to be transmitted as you say *sexually*?"

"I...suppose I do." Daniel cleared his throat. "...regardless."

"Yes?"

"two people have it, and that's something to be concerned with."

"I don't disagree," she shrugged.

Daniel nodded. "as for your husband and your troublesome guest. I hope you can see that I'm not trying to add to your troubles here. They had their ...tryst...but I'm simply here as a doctor, not a dear friend of his or another problem in your life."

She fixed him with her steely gaze. "That remains to be seen, doctor. However-- I believe you are sincere."

"I ... appreciate that." He sighed. "I feel we didn't start off on the best foot."

"I doubt there was another foot available," she said grudgingly.

"I imagine not." he waved his hand. "but perhaps we can make one, hm?"

"Is that something you can do doctor?" she asked, with a slight wry edge to her voice. "make feet willy nilly?"

"I am a genius, after all." He smirked 'anything is possible with raw materials and some electricity.'

"Hmm" she sipped her coffee. "Well then I'll take your foot I suppose."

Daniel sipped his, "Then it's a fresh start, is it?"

"Let it be so," Darya agreed.

"Good." he chuckled. "now, I got to learn some interesting things about the town's history from the children about town and that Rook fellow..."

"Is that so?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"we learned a little about these...phylacteries, I believe they're called?"

"from old Rook?" she asked.

"Mostly from one of the scamps in town." Daniel drawled "though Rook had a few things to say about them as well."

"What do you mean?" she asked with a frown.

Daniel raised his eyebrow "...in what way?"

"About the 'scamps'?"

"Ah," Daniel leaned back and looked at the ceiling. "one of the young boys is going around playing local leader."

"As children do I suppose. I'm a bit surprised they even remember the tradition though."

"They must have picked it up from somewhere." Daniel mused. "Regardless, they're quite well informed on the subject."

"I suppose that they must have, " she mused. "Probably someone's drunk uncle..."

"Likely. They say it's going to protect them from danger so i can't see the...direct...harm."

"They say what is go--are they *making* phylacteries?"

Daniel blinked at her "....y.." "Yes?"

She looked momentarily horrified before her expression returned to its regular frown. "I.... see.'

"From the sound of it that's...less than ideal?"

"Well.... they can't be doing it *correctly.*."

"hm." Daniel tented his fingers and leaned forward "well i've seen the ones they've made...may I ask how one is made *correctly?* "

"I'm afraid I can't tell you," she said, shaking her head. "Only the town masters knew. Misha, specifically, made every one himself."

"A lot of work for one man." Daniel mused

"There are only a few births a week or month here," she said, shaking her head.

"so plenty of time and supply to whittle another doll from the grove's branches."

Darya nodded. "Indeed. And whatever else needed doing."

"They seem like they were productive people." Daniel noted "always with something to do."

"Indeed. As most of us are in this town."

"I imagine so. even if the streets seem quiet."

"No one likes the rain."

"Ever since we've arrived, it seems it's all this town has had."

"Maybe you brought it with you."

"Perhaps I did. Things are turbulent out there, after all. What with the whispers of revolution about."

"we are far away from there. Sometimes I am very grateful for that."

"It won't touch you this far out, that's for certain." He agreed

"No," she said, shaking her head. "the capital has their problems and we have our own."

"Can I ask about the problems this town's been facing lately?"

"I suspect you are familiar with most of them now."

"I suspect so, but it can't hurt to hear a little more."

"What do you want to hear? About the rain? The bad fish? The fact that we are having fewer children?"

"All that?" Daniel raised his eyebrow "I'm not one to believe in curses, but..."

"But it sounds like one doesn't it?" she said leaning on her hand.

"it certainly does." Daniel mused "When did it all start?"

"when else? Five years ago. And getting worse every year."

"So it all began when your local leaders were killed." He rubbed his chin. "yes, Rook said something of the sort as well."

"I imagine that's when his own luck turned if nothing else."

"If nothing else." Daniel paused a moment "Just what is the story with that man? He says he was created rather than born."

"That's correct," she nodded.

"May I ask?"

"About?"

"...all that? The creation of a man outside of the normal methods is a particular fascination of mine. Humor me."

"I wish I knew," she shrugged. "He's been around much longer than I."

"How long?"

She shrugged. "He's never said. I've never asked."

"Alright." Daniel paused for a moment "Darchik insinuated you weren't a big fan of the man. Is that true?"

Her lips pulled. "I have no idea why she would have said that."

"She said you called him a 'dog without a leash' or something of the like."

She scoffed. "Ah, that." She was quiet for a moment. "He was more polite when the masters were alive."

"ah... and once they were gone, he lashed out more often?"

"I wouldn't exactly call it lashing out but he doesn't know how to keep a civil tongue in his head."

"He was awfully blunt when we met him." Daniel chuckled. "It was almost refreshing, compared to the University."

"Mmm. Astorians," she waved her hand.

"It's certainly culture shock."

"For everyone involved, I'd wager."

"I hope our presence hasn't been *too* disruptive."

"Less than Banbridge certainly."

"I know I already asked but...do you have any idea about the sort of activities he'd gotten up to, ...outside of the obvious?"

"I wish I knew," she said shaking her head. "Once he told me he was trying to resurrect the dead town masters. But I think he was simply making a foolish remark."

Daniel snorted "Bainbridge?? He said *that?* "

She nodded. "Indeed. And then he did that stupid little chuckle of his."

"I'm in luck that I've never had to hear it." Daniel smirked.

"That is luck," she agreed.

"I'm starting to think he may have done something supremely stupid." Daniel mused "in his search for 'bringing your elders back' "

She raised an eyebrow. "You think he was serious?"

"knowing Bainbridge's studies and...idealism...he may well have been serious, at least on some level."

Darya scoffed. "Well. Huh."

"He was on the search for immortality, after all"

"and who better to ask then immortals....immortals now in your debt for resurrecting them?"

She raised her eyebrow. "But wouldn't he have already solved the problem if he could resurrect men burnt to ashes? He'd hardly need their help."

"True enough." Daniel mused. "but I can't presume to know the mind of a folklorist."

She snorted. "I can. The man was mostly interested in the old ways, and in debauchery. A terrible mix if you ask me."

"I have to agree, wholeheartedly, on that Darya."

"That's something we agree on then," she nodded.

"Did he mention any other goals?"

"he kept talking about 'publishing' and 'rebuilding his reputation'. I think at one point he said he'd 'show them all'. I stopped listening."

Daniel scoffed quietly "you're kidding me."

Darya shook her head. "No."

"I don't think all the papers in the world could rebuild the man's reputation." he chuckled softly.

"No, I think not," he clucked.

"All this just assures me that whatever he was up to here, he was willing to take dangerous, even risky steps to do it."

"I don't think he knew the word 'caution' in anything he did if you want my opinion."

"in affairs both research and otherwise." Daniel snorted "I once again agree."

Darya nodded and sipped her coffee, rocking the baby in her other arm.

Daniel sipped his coffee with a shake of his head. "at this point, I'm just hoping to figure this illness out. Once I do I'll cure the moron and send him shuffling home."

"I'm surprised you don't just smother him with a pillow," she muttered. "But that's why you're a doctor and I am not I suppose."

"Because my goal is to defeat death." Daniel said , sipping his coffee. "to give up on a mystery like this and simply kill the man just because I'm not much a fan of him would be giving a victory to the enemy."

"You're a stubborn man, I'll give you that," she said tilting her chin slightly toward him.

"You'd be surprised how often I get that." he chuckled with a slight nod towards her. "but thank you."

"It's the only compliment you're likely to get from me," she said, chuckling slightly with him.

"I'll take it." He finished his coffee."Thank you again for the coffee."

"Of course. Feel free to stop by for more while you run yourself ragged on a fool's errand."

"I'll feel free to." Daniel stood with a stretch . "Though, it won't be a fool's errand if I nip this little sickness in the bud before it becomes a real problem."

"Good luck, doctor," she nodded, standing as well. "I'll be seeing to dinner now. will you be joining us?"

"We've actually received an invitation to dinner." Daniel chuckled softly "perhaps tomorrow, though. I'm hoping tonight's dinner provides us a lead."

"No skin off my nose," she nodded.

"Indeed." Daniel paused. "as an aside...would you have any extra umbrellas lying about?"

"Didn't bring your own, eh?"

"I'm afraid I left it at the post.'

She shook her head. "Check the lefthand closet on your way out. Take the black one."

Daniel bowed his head. "much appreciated , Darya." He flashed a thin smile "I'm sure I'll see you again, soon."

"It probably can't be helped," she said dryly with a smirk. "Until then."

"Until then." He chuckled softly, and waved before he set out to get Fenya.

Fenya was waiting in the parlor with Darchik on her lap, telling her, from the sound of it, a modified version of Hansel and Gretel.

Daniel leaned on the doorframe, waiting a moment while she finished.

Darchik nodded to her and hopped off her lap with a satisfied look, and Fenya stood. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long."

"no." Daniel chuckled "I just finished up with Darya." He gave a little wave to Darchik. "you two seem to be having a nice time."

Darchik nodded with her fingers in her mouth. "Mith Fenya knoth fun thtorith."

"I imagine she does. She's quite the interesting woman." Daniel agreed, leaning down to pat her head. "Now you take good care of that factory of yours, hm? We'll see you later."

Darchik nodded seriously and plodded from the room.

"I see you found an umbrella," Fenya observed with a smile.

Daniel held it up with a chuckle "Darya was kind enough to allow us to borrow it."

"I'm a little surprised. Did she hit you with it first?"

"Shockingly no." He chuckled. "we reconciled somewhat, over our mutual distaste for my patient."

She smirked. "Mutual spite bringing people together since time immemorial."

"It's the great unifier." Daniel smirked "shall we brave the rain?"

"Lets," she nodded. "Hopefully it's a big umbrella."

"I'll let you have most of it, even if not." Daniel offered. "It's only polite."

"A sexist, are you, doctor?" she teased with a smile.

Daniel put his hand to his chest. "Not in the least, but how can I blame the bad weather for my less than personable attitude towards some of these locals when I'm bone dry?"

Fenya chuckled. "Touche. Out we go then." she gestured toward the door.

He nodded, and stepped out into the heavy air of town.

The heavy air had already started to bead up and fall, raindrops splattering on the already soft gravel roads.

Daniel opened the umbrella, and held it between them.

It did turn out to be fairly large-- if they stood shoulder to shoulder it would cover them both.

Daniel stepped closer with a nod, and started down the path towards town. "...how are we doing on time, Fenya?"

"We're approaching dinner time, but we have some wiggle room."

"Anywhere you want to visit?" he asked in amusement. "Given the bar is *post* dinner."

"Hmmm... we'll probably want to have a look around the slums at *some* point. For all we know there are already more people fallen ill."

"That's my thought." Daniel nodded. "do we have the time at the moment?"

She checked her pocket watch and nodded. "-- assuming we don't dawdle. And by dawdle I mean get caught up in something ridiculous."

He gave the umbrella a twirl. "Then let's hope for the best. Shall we?"

"Lets," she nodded. Her heeled boots crunched the gravel beneath them as they began to walk north.

"I have a concern that this illness is already spreading far faster than we anticipated." He mused as they headed towards the slums. "If that's the case, we may have to establish a quarantine."

"If it's already spreading, do you think a quarantine will help?" she asked

"if nothing else, it'll help slow the spread." Daniel pointed out. "Especially if any afflicted are added to the quarantine. Better a trickle than a flood, after all."

"Very true," she nodded. "Well, if it comes to that I'll certainly back you up."

"I appreciate your help. A Professor seconding my opinion is absolutely valuable in a situation like this, wouldn't you say?"

"I certainly would," she smirked. They walked up past the bar, which was now obviously open and full of early drunks. The sound of raucous laughter could be heard from inside.

"They're certainly having fun. I hope it's half as lively when we visit later." He mused, pushing on towards the residential part of town.

The air was noticeably heavier as they headed north on the long street, the air gaining a thick fishy smell, nearing the river.

"...wonderful." Daniel muttered. "it's just like the Astorian docks. My favorite."

"Mmm, charming. Seems they're the same all over." Indeed, like astoria, this area was teeming with large, brutish men shifting large boxes, lengths of rope and other heavy items. A massive processing mill with rows of black windows like the twinkling eyes of an insect pumped grime into the air from its many chimneys.

"Delightfully industrial. I'm glad the people of this town embraced such bustling industry." he drawled. "So far nobody seems too terribly ill, though."

"No, thankfully not," she murmured, staying close to Daniel. The workers here had thick brows, and mainly worked shirtless despite the chill, their bestial muscles shining with rivulets of rain water.

Daniel stepped a little closer to Fenya. "Not gents I'd like to get on the bad side of, however." he muttered

"No indeed," she murmured. "Nor the 'right' side should it come to it, speaking for myself."

"I would call that another facet of their bad side."

"Mmm," she nodded. They passed a spot where there was a knot of men huddled beneath a wooden building's outcropping sharing cigarettes and a bottle in a paper bag. One of the men gave Daniel a nasty look as they passed.

Daniel gave him a genial bow with as bright a smile as he could manage.

"*Vhat are hyu looking at, leetle boy?*" the man snorted, brow furrowed. His accent was so thick Daniel could hardly parse it.

"I'm afraid I don't have a clue what a leetle is." Daniel drawled "but I'm merely taking stock of my surroundings, good sir."

The bullyboys snickered and the glaring man snorted. "*Vhell hyu had better move along, leetle boy. Hyu vill be tekkin none hof our shahk.*"

"shahk?" Daniel asked, genuinely confused

"Hare hyu playink ghems, leetle boy?" the man demanded, sneering. Fenya cleared her throat. "Doctor we should...." A couple more of the men looked over her way.

"Professor, I think you're right." Daniel put his hand on his hip, flashing a smile as his fingers brushed the belt near his pistol. "enjoy your day gentlemen. We'll be off now."

"Hoh no, Hy theenk hyu should be stayhing vith hus for lesson, da?" The man sneered, and the other three pressed in close. One of them dropped the bottle on the ground where it shattered. "De lady, too, do?" Fenya stepped backwards, her arm in Daniel's. It looked like things were about to get ugly. Nearby, the shift whistle blew, cutting through the rain. The bully boys looked at one another.

Daniel's hand pulled away from his pistol and his eyes narrowed slightly "looks like you'd best go back to your work, gents."

The man spat on the ground and waved a hand at him. "Bah! hyu not vorth my time. Come." he waved to the others, and they shouldered past the two of them and into the crowd. Fenya watched them go nervously, looking visibly shaken.

Daniel let out a deep sigh , putting a steadying hand on Fenya's back "that...could have gone better."

"Y-yes I'd wager it could have," she agreed, adjusting her glasses. her ears were flat on her head.

He kept his hand on her for a moment, catching his own breath. His tail had bushed somewhat. "They're awfully quick to anger. I didn't think my remark was ...that smart."

"I think they were looking for a fight," she said, leaning against him slightly. "we ah, certainly stand out."

He nodded, not pulling away. "we certainly do. Good targets for irate locales spoiling for a fight."

"Yes, ah, I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to be drinking on the job either."

"I'd imagine not." Daniel drawled. "not that it'd stop louts like that."

"No," she shook her head, taking a breath. "I expect not."

"i'm sorry about that, Fenya."

"far be it from me to blame you for the actions of a load of dock louts."

Daniel nodded. "They're a little more...reactionary...than many of their Astorian contemporaries. "

"I suspect astorian dock men work longer hours," she observed. "less excess liveliness to burn off."

"Idle hands are the birthplace of lapsed morality, as Cromwell would say." he drawled. "Shockingly in this instance I'm agreeing with him."

"Shockingly," she agreed. "Well... shall we press on, or have we seen enough for the moment?"

"I've yet to see any sign of illness, but I doubt we'd see it in those hardy brutes. Let's press onward."

She nodded, staying close to him as they started to walk again. "I've always noticed the kind of gutrot men like these drink will stave off anything-- right until the moment they die of it."

Daniel kept close to her as well, trying not to show how badly he himself had been shaken. "Alcohol can cure any ill but the alcohol itself."

"Indeed," she nodded. They walked shoulder to shoulder in the rain. Eventually, as they passed the mill, the crowds of burly men started to thin out.

"Now, just to find the homes of the poorer folk in town. Or a market. Anywhere we can start asking about."

A market seemed to be exactly what they were heading into. Sad stalls with limp awnings were buffeted by the rain, while people with umbrellas, and some without, did necessary shopping despite the weather.

Daniel kept an eye on them, looking for anyone with visible signs of fatigue...or anyone who might look willing to have a word with them

One of the shopkeepers who was selling knitted goods, was standing a bit limply over her stall.

Daniel approached her, waving cheerfully in her direction "hello."

She coughed into her hand. "How can I help ya, master?"

Daniel glanced over the goods "I'm looking for a scarf." he said "...are you quite alright?"

"Plentya scarves as ya can see," she nodded, gesturing to a few. They were mostly undyed though there were a few that were. One brilliantly red, and a one in blue and black stripes. "M' fine, thank you for askin."

"You seem to have a terrible cough." he said. "i'm a physician, so I can't help myself when I notice these things." He pointed to the blue and black scarf "How much for that one?"

"It's the damned rain," she said, shaking her head. "Makes it feel like I can't breath." She named a relatively low price for the scarf, though it was probably a half-day's wages for anyone around here.

"I'll buy it. Do you want one, Fenya?" He asked , glancing at her. "would you like me to take a look? I might be able to do something to ease that trouble."

"They *are* quite nice," Fenya murmured. "Thank you for buying," she nodded. "But I don't know what ya could do for my chest."

"I'll take the red one as well." He said, forking over the money with a thin smile. "...as for your chest, I know a few handy tricks if you'd just let me do an examination." He paused "has anyone else around you had similar problems lately?"

She handed him the scarves, her breath heavy. "Similar problems?" "He's a doctor," Fenya explained.

He nodded. "I am. Shortness of breath, fatigue...a darkening of the veins, perhaps?"

She frowned and offered him her wrist. The veins where the fur was shortest were prominent and slightly darkened.

"Is there a poultice for it, doctor?"

Daniel frowned slightly as he took her arm to look it over. "I'm working on something of the sort, madam. But it's important for me to ask....how many people that you know of are experiencing similar symptoms?"

"I couldn't say," she said. "The air's been heavy lately. I know Katya was complaining of trouble breathing and having the sweats, Doctor."

"Katya?" He asked. "might you mark down her address as well? And...keep an ear out for any similar complaints."

"Ahh, what for, doctor?"

"I fear that it's a tad more than the heavy weather." He said "the more I know, the easier it will be for me to be able to find a solution however."

"Ehhh? Find a solution?" she blinked, frowning. "You don't have something for it?"

"not instantly." Daniel said, handing the red scarf to Fenya. "These things take study. Every affliction is different after all. It's all about finding its weakness and the right way to strike it down." He smiled thinly "and then , once i find that solution, the disease is cured."

Fenya took the scarf gently under her arm. "So you're a doctor, but ya don't know what this disease is?"

Daniel scoffed between his teeth "Only a bloody idiot would go around telling people they know anything about a *mystery plague* before they know a damn thing about it. That's what *research* is for."

She put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide. "Plague?" Her voice was loud, and attracted looks from a couple of nearby vendors and shoppers.

Daniel pressed his hand to his face with a long hiss of breath. "damn it." "It might *not* be a plague." he tried to defend "just a contagious and potentially deadly affliction involving the curdling of the blood." He paused "nothing to worry about. Especially since Doctor Daniel Delgrave, of the Astorian University is on the case for a cure."

She frowned deeply. "So it's serious then, is it? Plague or not? Am I gonna die, doctor?"

"I have children at home you know."

"I'm well aware that many of you have families." Daniel held his hands up. "But if I'm doing all I can to prevent death. But for that I need *information*. I need to know how many afflicted, how it's spreading, and it's nature."

"Needs information he says," she breathed. "tells me I might be dying and says he needs *my* help." she huffed.

"i'm afraid that's...how medicine works." Daniel said thickly. "Answers aren't simply manifested out of thin air. If I can *understand* this thing, i can end it. And I'm already making progress, but the last thing I want is it getting out of hand."

"getting out of hand!" she said breathlessly. "It's only my life and he doesn't want it getting out of hand."

Daniel grit his teeth. "Please. I *implore* you to calm down and stay rational about this."

"And how would you like me to stay rational?"

"By not getting so upset." Daniel frowned "Just because I don't have the cure *right this bloody moment* doesn't mean I can't find it before it's too late."

"Before it's too late?" she demanded hoarsely.

"...meaning before it spreads too quickly to be properly contained." he said with a tight smile on his face. "....hah."

"Listen." he tented his fingers before gesturing to her with both sets of fingertips "I understand your town used to work on a different sort of healing...but I'm trained in the medical arts, you see? I'm the man who will one day cure death itself...so a disease like this, given a little time, is nothing I can't solve."

Fenya, leaned in, nodded. "I can vouch for the doctor's skill," she said. "He cured a terrible plague back in astoria-- and-- while he hasn't got a cure yet, he does have something that will help stave it off-- isn't that *right* doctor?" She said, lying through her teeth.

Daniel flashed a bright smile. "That's absolutely correct." he said "let me just..." He rummaged in his bag for the drugs he'd given Elias. "find them.."

"Isn't it in my bag, doctor?" Fenya asked, batting her eyelashes with a smile.

Daniel nodded "that's right, I had you hold onto it. Thank you Professor." he bowed his head. "you've always been the greatest help to me."

"I do my best doctor," she said with a smile. She pulled out a vial and passed it to the woman. "two drops of this in your tea, at breakfast and before bedtime. Don't skip a dose. You might feel some cramping, but that means it's working. Is that everything doctor?"

The woman took the vial nervously, looking to Daniel.

Daniel nodded slowly. "it is. Just make sure to stay indoors and keep your workload as light as you can."

She nodded. "Right... have you got a clinic I should come by if it gets worse?"

"yes. I'm working out of the Post Office....but I'm sure we can use the small clinic in town. Sasha's clinic."

"Master Osgrov's clinic?" she asked. "you workin with him?"

"He's offered his help in addition to his clinic and it's facilities, yes."

"Hmmmm. I don't know if I approve of him, but if you're just working there it's fine," she nodded.

Daniel nodded with a smile "I am the head doctor on this case, after all."

She nodded. "Alright. I'll come see you if things take a turn for the worse."

"much appreciated. And if anyone else has symptoms like yours...tell them to stay indoors as well, and relay word to Sasha's clinic."

"or directly to me, via the post."

She nodded. "Alright. I'll do that."

"Much appreciated, ma'am." He bowed "thank you for remaining calm."

"Calm's my middle name. And come see me if you ever need more fine knitted goods."

Daniel nodded. "I will be sure to do so. And this scarf will do wonders against the cold."

Fenya nodded. "Indeed. But the doctor has a lot of business. So we must be going."

"Enjoy your afternoon, ma'am." He waved, and started off...if a little stiffly.

Fenya walked off with him and held out her hand. "Give me your scarf."

Daniel handed it to her as he walked.

"we'll boil these when we get back to the post office."

Daniel nodded. "for the best. Last thing I want is to become sick on the job." He sighed.. "But my fears are realized. it's already spreading."

"It seems that way," she frowned. "The dark veins are unlikely to be something else, unless I miss my guess?"

"the dark veins seem to be the telltale sign of this particular ailment. The shortness of breath...the fatigue...those are symptoms, but the *veins* are the sign."

"Some of these people we might have to shave to see it," she half joked.

Daniel laughed. "i'll buy a pair of clippers. and we'll go about town shaving all the dockworkers."

"I'll cook up some tranquilisers."

"you'd need enough to put out an elephant with those men." Daniel snorted.

"Good. Light doses are always harder," she grinned.

"Perfect." he smirked "then I'd say get working right away."

She nodded with a smirk back. "Of course doctor."

He checked his watch "but that'll have to wait until after dinner."

"yes, I think it's time to get back."

Daniel gestured towards town. "then let's be off."

She nodded and the two looped back the way they came. "I'll be glad to get out of this smell," she murmured.

Daniel nodded. "Any longer and I might have lost the sense in self preservation."

"I'd prefer to lose my sense of smell," she joked.

Daniel smirked, "likewise. I'd be surprised if it wasn't already starting to go by now."

"We'll have to see once we get out of this stench," she clucked.

Daniel nodded, holding the umbrella over them. "I think today's been very productive, stench aside."

"we definitely have more information than we did this morning."

"And more subjects, if the two we have in bedrest prove to not be enough."

She nodded. "Oh yes. It sounds like we have plenty more."

Daniel sighed "let's just hope the cure's not made from anything particularly rare."

The dock area had cleared a bit of the crowds-- probably many of them were now in the processing mill-- as they passed through. "Goodness forbid it involve gold, hmm?"

"if it does, then perhaps your alchemical experiments may very well come in handy." He winked.

"we can solve two riddles for the price of one."

"Defeat death and find your philosopher's stone." he said with a warm chuckle. "lucky us."

"It would definitely be a turn around as far as luck is concerned."

"I'd consider that the perfect ending to this little disaster"

"I couldn't imagine a better one personally," she agreed. They hooked around the street leading back south and the smell began to abate as they neared the bar and Grandma's pub.

"How anyone can stand it by the river, Is beyond me." He shook his head, as he made his way into the front door of the pub.

"Their senses are likely dulled by exposure," she mused. The pub was a little busier this evening than it had been that morning, full of the low hum of chatter.

Daniel glanced about, looking for the source of their invitation as he moved inside.

"Likely, though no less unpleasant.

A tall, slim man in a nicely cut astorian style suit waved to him from a quiet table in the corner. He had a sharp, lupine face, black fur and piercing green eyes.

Danie's eyebrow raised as he waved to the man in return, and walked up to him with the greeting of "good day, sir."

"Good evening," he said in a warm voice heavy with a Mosgravan accent. "the astorian doctor, I presume?"

Daniel nodded, slipping into the seat. "That's right. I'm Doctor Daniel Delgrave...of the Astorian University."

"And I'm his associate, Professor Trifena Evgenii-Smythe-- also of the university." The man nodded. "As you already know, I am Andrei Morozov. Please, sit with me."

Daniel nodded, and took a seat. "it's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Morozov."

"No no, the pleasure is all mine," he said, smiling broadly. "It's wonderful to have guests here from such a far and renown nation."

"An appreciator of Astorian Culture, I see." Daniel flashed a smile "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes, then."

"I can certainly imagine," he grinned. "Our town has far to go to rival the cities of astoria."

Daniel glanced around the pub. "indeed. but I take it you're one of those hoping to elevate this town into something greater?"

"That's correct. You have seen the mill on the river, yes?"

"Simply can't miss it." Daniel said with a slim smile.

"That is my mill," he said with a smile. "It was my father's before me but then it was not so great."

"is that so?" Daniel raised his eyebrow. "I take it you expanded it into the thing we see today?"

"Oh yes," he nodded. "In the last few years we are bigger than ever before. I hope that when I am old and my daughter is grown, it will be something for her to run proudly."

"Who wouldn't want to leave a legacy for their children?" Daniel nodded slowly. "Has the mill helped the town prosper in recent years?"

"Our revenue is increasing in terms of exports," he said. "quite noticeably. But I face a bottleneck. Our population is not growing, and few want to move here. I want to invest my money to make us a prosperous town, and attract more workers so we prosper yet more. But I am met with nothing but argument." he shook his head.

"I've heard the reason for the decline in population is trouble with birthrates. Is that true?"

"I'm no midwife," he said with a shrug. "But i've heard something about that. It has not yet effected my workforce,, but if it continues...."

"it'll only lead to a decline in workforce and productivity...not to mention the town's future."

"Indeed," he nodded gravely. "It is just one of the riddles I must solve for the sake of my beloved home."

Daniel nodded slowly. "A terrible shame.. How do the other locals take your desire to put your little town on the map?"

"Some of them are receptive," he said. "But some are stuck in the old ways."

"Those who still wish to adhere to how things were under your old town masters and mistresses?"

"Ah so you are familiar with the situation?"

"i've been slowly getting up to speed with town events."

"May I ask what brings you to town, doctor?"

"I'm here to cure an illness. One contracted by a colleague... and one that seems to be afflicting a fair few more than I previously suspected."

"Ahh business then," he nodded. "Your colleague. Would he be that Bainbridge man?"

"He would be." Daniel nodded "He's fallen rather ill."

"how troubling."

"it would seem the affliction's effecting a few other people around your town, as well." Daniel said, slowly and softly, as to not draw alarm.

Morozov rubbed his chin. "I see. That's even more troubling."

"it is. If it's not too much, might I ask you to check your workers for signs of infection?"

"Of course," he nodded. "How would I proceed?"

"If any of them seem sluggish, or like they're having trouble breathing...have someone check them over for blackened veins."

he raised a dark eyebrow. "Blackened veins?"

"This particular ailment darkens the blood. It seems to thicken it, as well, into what is almost a sludge."

He grimaced. "That's rather disgusting, isn't it?"

"It's not the most ideal illness in the world, no." Daniel drawled

"I suppose the most ideal one is one you wouldn't know you had," he mused.

"I suppose....however, any illness is , by its very nature...not ideal." Daniel leaned on his hands. "I'd like to cure this one, but it won't be easy if it starts to spread like wildfire."

"Understood. If I find any ill workers what would you like me to do?"

"Report it to me." Daniel said "....it's possible we'll have to enact a quarantine should things get bad, But my hope is your workers will be healthy."

"It is my hope as well," he nodded. "Illness among the workers tends to spread."

"it's true...hence why quarantine may become necessary."

"Indeed. But... it seems you are quite the selfless man. Coming to town to assist one man and taking the welfare of our town to heart."

Daniel smiled thinly . "I'm a doctor. It's my duty to defeat death at every turn. Perhaps, if I'm lucky, this investigation will bring me another step closer towards my ultimate goal while I cure your town of its ills."

"I see," he nodded, stroking his chin. "You have great ambition it sounds like."

"Ambition is necessary in a field like mine" Daniel chuckled.

"Medicine?" he chuckled with him.

"Thanatology." he corrected with a low chuckle "The study of death...and how to prevent it. The ultimate affliction."

"Thanatology," Morozov repeated, stroking his chin. "That sounds like a most impressive area of study."

Daniel nodded, folding his fingers before him. "I'm the premier thanatologist in Astoria. it's a very exclusive field of study."

"I can imagine not many would be up to the task."

"The hunt to end death once and for all is a task most shy away from." Daniel agreed

"But if you find your goal it will bring much good fortune to everyone-- yourself included, eh? I imagine the man who beat death would become a very rich man indeed."

"Rich, *and* immortal." Daniel laughed. "though the money is hardly why I'm pursuing this dream."

"Might I ask?"

"I find the concept of death repulsive." Daniel said. "It's a hard limit on the potential of our kind, forcing us all into the trap of mortality." He raised his hand "if I slay Death itself, then our kind is free to create and proper without the axe of age hanging over our necks."

Morozov smiled broadly. "Now that is ambition, my friend."

"Without ambition, we stagnate, Morozov, my friend."

He slapped the table. "Yes! this is what I have been trying to get across to my fellows, you see?"

"Then we're birds of a feather." Daniel chuckled "so to speak."

"So to speak," he chuckled. "But I believe this is a most excellent meeting of the minds."

"I have to agree, Mr. Morozov." He nodded firmly

"You may consider me a friend to you, I think, Doctor," he said with a smile. "Is there anything I can do to help you, beyond what you've already asked?"

"Well." Daniel chuckled "perhaps there is...but let me ask...did you have anything you wanted to discuss with me? You invited me to dinner after all."

"I did, I did," he nodded. "I must confess, doctor, it was terribly selfish. You see I have a great interest in your native country."

"Is that so?" Daniel flashed a smile "I can tell by your fashion sense, somewhat."

"I'm pleased you noticed," he nodded. "It's terribly difficult to get clothes like these here."

"You have to have them imported, I imagine?"

"Indeed indeed," he nodded. "And it's an expensive business as there are very few doing the importing."

"I can only imagine it gets downright expensive." Daniel shook his head. "it's a shame that trade isn't more open between Astoria and Mosgrav."

"It is," he nodded. "Perhaps though, we could do more to open it up?"

Daniel leaned on his hand. "a business proposition then?"

"Indeed! if it were something that interested you. Or if you are not-- perhaps you could simply make some introductions?"

"I could be convinced." He chuckled "though I'm hardly much of a tailor....though I do know a good one."

"I'm sure there are plenty of tailors in Astoria who might want to sell their services through you as a middleman, hmm?"

Daniel rubbed his chin. "Oh, I'm certain there are. Absolutely certain. Though...I likely won't be in town long after this plague is cured."

"Perhaps we could correspond?"

"Tell you what." Daniel said with a nod. "We'll give it a try. Perhaps I can be of service in exchange for all you can do to help me here."

"I would be in your debt, even so" he nodded. "and I am a man who pays his debts."

"As am I. So I believe this could be a rather fruitful partnership."

"I'm thrilled that you might be game for it," he nodded.

"If nothing else, it's interesting." Daniel chuckled "and who am I to deny a little assistance to a kindred spirit?"

"Well said, well said," he nodded. "you have my deepest gratitude."

"and you have mine." Daniel purred. "as there may be a way we can help one another."

"Excellent! And on that note, shall we eat?"

Daniel chuckled. "yes. Why don't we. Thank you again for the meal."

The meal came-- a quite hearty stew and brown bread, along with mugs of very drinkable beer (practically considered water in Mosgrav and suitable for giving to all but the most easily intoxicated). Over dinner, Morozov asked both of them many questions about Astoria. About the college, the capital city, culture and the rest.

Daniel offered all he could, telling the man in intricate detail of Astorian culture and especially the University.

Despite initial reservations...the food and drink more than suited his palate. He found himself enjoying the meal quite a bit by the end.

Fenya too chatted along, and seemed satisfied enough by the meal. Morozov was certainly cheerful, he seemed to love hearing about Astoria. The man had clearly been born in the wrong country.

"you certainly seem to love our country." Daniel said with a warm smile. "Have you ever thought of immigrating?"

"Perhaps when I retire," he said with a dreamy smile . "I couldn't leave my family's mill you see. Not until I know it's in good hands."

"ah yes. "Daniel nodded. "you mentioned you were leaving it to your daughter, yes?"

"Indeed," he nodded. "Once she's a little older I intend to teach her the family business."

"how lovely "Daniel nodded "I always thought more young ladies should get into the field of business. it's not something you see nearly enough"

"indeed," he nodded. "Some would say that it is because I have no son, but the women in our family have always done great things."

"I believe you." Daniel leaned on his hand. "Do you have a missus, then?"

"My wife Sofya," he said with a pleasant smile. "I assure you she is nothing short of delightful."

"I've yet to meet her." Daniel chuckled "but i'm sure she's all you say and more."

"Perhaps you would like to come and have dinner with us some time soon? When you are not busy attending to your research."

"Perhaps tomorrow." Daniel said, "I'll make a note of it, and be sure to attend."

"My family would be honored. Simply send us a note if something comes up and interferes, yes?"

"I'll be sure to do just that, my friend." He paused. "on the side of business however, loathe as I am to bring it up..."

"Yes, my friend?"

"If there's anything in the way of medical supplies or compounds that you could offer to my colleague and I in these trying times...or even if you know of anyone who might have such things and could put in a good word, that sort of thing could very well save lives."

He stroked his chin. "Ah.... there may be someone I could connect you with... but here is not the place to discuss it."

"then after dinner." he chuckled. "....it's much appreciated. With the support of an illustrious man like yourself....we'll beat this thing."

"Indeed we will," he said, standing and offering Daniel his hand. "I must be going unfortunately-- but the two of you please stay as long as you like and enjoy yourselves on my credit."

Daniel bowed his head. "A shame. I look forward to our next meeting."

"As do I," he said with a smile. "Until then my friend."

"Until then, my friend." Daniel said

And with that, the mill's master left the two of them at the table as the pub thinned out. Fenya leaned on her elbows, looking thoughtful.

"hm." Daniel leaned back in his chair "well that was certainly an interesting encounter."

"It was," she said, tapping her lip. "What do you think of him?"

"He was certainly excitable. Seemed enamored with Astoria, but rather tied to his mill here."

She nodded. "Yes.... that he did."

"He seems like he's looking for every opportunity to bring Astoria here if he can't go out to meet it." He shrugged 'how about you, Fenya?"

"he certainly seemed companionable," she said, frowning slightly.

"He did. But there's something on your mind."

She waved her hand. "It's nothing. I suppose I just didn't like him."

Daniel leaned on his hand. "Maybe we can talk more about it back at the post."

"Shall we get going then, doctor?"

Daniel nodded, finishing the last of his bread before he stood. "lets."

When they headed outside, the twilight was growing, and fog had begun to gather around their ankles. A little further down the street there was more noise coming from the bar.

"Did you want to put off our visit to the bar, or...?" he asked. "I do what to hear about your assessment of that man."

She glanced down at the bar and tapped her gloved finger on her chin. "What's your opinion?"

Daniel thought for a moment "He had more going on behind that smile than he wanted to let on. Perhaps he saw an easy way to get the things he wanted through a pair of 'like minded Astorians' ?"

She chuckled slightly. "I meant about the bar-- but I think there's definitely an element in what you're saying."

"ah." Daniel chuckled '...my apologies, Fenya."

She shook her head. "It's nothing, Danochka. But we ought to decide before we both catch a chill."

"Would you care for a drink with me?" he gestured. "though I understand not wanting to drink in such a dire situation."

She shook her head. "Let's go for a drink."

Daniel nodded, and pressed on into the bar, pushing the door open with a low chuckle. "we could use it after today."

There was a short set of steps leading down into the bar, which had stone walls and was dug somewhat into the earth. Rough hewn tables were shoved here and there, along with benches, but mostly patrons were either standing at the bar, or huddled around the one large table, shoulder to shoulder. At the top of the stairs, Daniel could see over them, and saw that a raucous game of dice was being played by the rough looking men-- older ones than they had encountered in the street mostly but some young. Behind the bar, a dark haired wolf woman was pouring drinks of vodka into shot glasses for the eager patrons, and cutting above the noise were the sounds of a strange keening and clacking song coming from a corner of the room.

First thing came first....Daniel led Fenya to the wolf woman at the bar. They were going to need a drink for this.

Immediately there were eyes on them-- if nothing else they were probably a quarter smaller than anyone else in the bar. Fenya drew herself up with a haughty chin as she muscled in a space at the bar for the two of them. "exciting place," she murmured to Daniel, just barely audible over the noise and music.

Daniel laughed "isn't? Far more lively than the student's bar on campus...." He glanced about , and strolled forward with the air of having owned the place. "It's charming in its way."

The woman at the bar grinned at the two of them. She was quite scantily dressed, with sleeves that stopped at her mid forearm, and a low cut dress that showed heaving bosom and lengthy cleavage. She leaned in especially close to Daniel. "Drink for you and the lady?" she asked with a grin.

Daniel's eyes glanced over the woman for the briefest of moments before they fell back on her eyes. He nodded "I'll have a vodka." He glanced at Fenya "and one for you as well?"

Fenya chuckled. "I doubt that they serve anything else." "Good thought, sister," the woman nodded, pouring two glasses. As she leaned near them Daniel got a whiff of a scent he was familiar with. Opium.

Daniel chuckled slowly. "ah." he glanced at Fenya "it's possible they serve something a tad stronger, I'd imagine."

"Not in bottles, handsome," she purred, pushing each of them a glass of the clear liquor.

"no I imagine not." he flashed a smile. "I might be interested, however." He picked up his glass, and raised it to Fenya. "to success, Professor."

"To success," Fenya nodded, and raised her glass with him, before downing the drink.

Daniel downed his as well, swallowing the burning liquid in a single gulp

There was an appealing burn to the vodka-- much better than the stuff they got in astoria. In fact-- it was exactly the same stuff that Konstantin had served him. Hadn't he said that his family distilled it?

Daniel tapped his glass on the table in thought "this tastes familiar." after a moment, he pointed "Konstantin served me the very same vodka" he mused at the bartender

The woman grinned widely. "Chernoff?"

"that's right." Daniel chuckled "the very same!"

"My big brother," she explained.

"Amazing!" he chuckled. "I had no idea his younger sister ran the bar!"

"I'm sure he has many more interesting things to talk of than me," she purred. "But I'm curious how you know him."

"He's...our host of sorts while we're in town." Daniel chuckled "....I'm the physician called in to cure Mr. Bainbridge."

"Mr. who?" she cocked her head.

"...Elias?" Daniel said "his...guest? the irritatingly inquisitive folklorist from Astoria?"

"Oh *Elias*," she nodded. "He's been around here a few times."

"I imagine so. He's not a man to give up drink."

"No he was drinking like a fish in here," she nodded. "You said he's sick?"

"Terribly sick. His blood's turning to sludge as it is."

"Well it wasn't my booze, I promise." She scoffed. "Sounds like he could use another drink if you ask me."

"I'm afraid I'm not comfortable tipping vodka down the throat of a man in a screaming coma." Daniel drawled. "i'd much rather save the drink for myself."

"Pardon me did you say a *screaming* coma?" she asked, pouring them each another drink.

"yes." Daniel said with a nod. "by which I mean the man's in a coma and should by no means be dreaming but somehow found the strength to manage a nightmare or two....of which he'll occasionally sit bolt upright and scream like a man possessed."

"*Scourge's blood*," she hissed. "I'd almost believe he *was* possessed. Poor bastard."

"I don't believe in possession." Daniel took a long sip of the vodka . "Which means his condition's curable. One that I intend to fix....especially as it seems to be somewhat ...." He hesitated a moment. "Catching."

The woman quirked an eyebrow. "Catching?" Fenya nodded. "Unfortunately."

"it's either stemming from a common source, or it's contagious." Daniel fussed with his gloves. "A woman in the market had it, as did a dancer currently in the care of Sasha at his clinic under my request."

She held up a hand. "That's terrible. But do me a favor and don't talk about it any more in my bar. It;'ll scare my customers."

"I don't intend to scare anyone." Daniel sipped his drink 'just be careful."

"Sure," she nodded. She bustled away, pouring more drinks down the line.

Daniel sipped his drink "hm. our host's younger sister.' He shook his head. "how interesting."

"very interesting," Fenya agreed, taking a long sip of her own drink. "I had no idea he had a sister."

"neither did I . He certainly didn't mention it. "

"I'd ask if they're on the outs, but she *is* selling his vodka...."

"She is...so they can't be *that* much on the outs. Perhaps it just...didn't feel pertinent to him to mention?"

"Perhaps," she said. "You've talked to him more than I have, does that sound right?"

"I'm really not sure." he shook his head. "he seemed pretty open...but I suppose in the end there was a lot he hadn't told me."

"Hmmm," she swirled her drink around in her glass. Across the room, someone slammed fists down on the dice table. A shouting match was starting.

Daniel glanced over his shoulder "well. this is likely to get interesting. "

Fenya looked as well. "Think they'll put bets on the fight?" she chuckled.

"probably. Should we weigh in?"

"Maybe we should," she murmured. There was a beefy dock worker in a stained sleeveless undershirt sizing up a narrow, knifelike man with an eyepatch and a greatcoat.

"I'm putting my money on the scrawny one."

"Interesting bet," she purred, narrowing her eyes at the two. The other gamblers had backed off. The one-eyed man was grinning as the big man inched closer to him.

"I've seen men as small as that in action. They make up for their size in their particular capacity for violence."

"I suppose he *is* already missing the eye." The big man went for him, and eyepatch almost *immediately* got him by the collar, a knife to the throat. where had the knife even *come* from?

"see what I mean?" Daniel chuckled softly

She whistled. "You're not wrong," she nodded. Behind the bar Konstantin's sister heaved a sigh. "At it again, Maxi? At least take him outside, I can't have this here."

Daniel clapped "Bravo, Maxi." He called it "hell of a fight."

A couple of the other large men had pulled Maxi's opponent away from him, and the narrow man sheathed his knife and took a bow. He blew a kiss-- and it wasn't immediately obvious if it was at the bartender or Daniel.

Daniel cleared his throat. "Scrappy gentleman, isn't he?"

"Very," Fenya agreed. "Seems like he's got an ego on him, too." She didn't sound unappreciative.

"He certainly does. Impressive, in it's own way." He leaned on his hand "I may have to meet his man."

He was in fact, swaggering right toward them-- or at least toward the chair. "You might get your chance."

"looks like it." Daniel downed his glass of vodka.

After his second full drink of vodka he was *definitely* feeling it. Just like he had the night before.

"great." he muttered, balancing the glass on it's side. "I need more practice with this damned stuff."

Fenya giggled and leaned slightly on him. "With what? Men with eyepatches?"

Maxi was ordering a drink quite close by.

Daniel flushed slightly "Fenya!' He shook his head with a chuckle "with the *vodka* Damn it." His shoulder lightly bumped hers.

"I'm sure I could handle men with eyepatches just fine."

She giggled again. "Let's find out. oooh, here he comes." She bumped him back. Maxi, drink in hand, strolled his way to Daniel. "Good evening my friend."

Daniel cleared his throat, and raised his empty glass. "Good evening, stranger"

He paused for a moment "good. Evening. My apologies."

Maxi smiled dashingly and raised his glass. "Unusually to see a pair of strangers around here."

Daniel leaned back, slightly against Fenya as he laughed. "We're a pair of academics from Astoria, passing through for a small medical job." He raised the glass with a smile. "I understand we're a rarity around these parts"

"A rarity indeed," he purred. "Though by no means unwelcome."

Daniel chuckled "well I'm pleased to hear it...seeing as how you deal with unwelcome company." he winked

"Oh him?" Maxi grinned widely. "He's just a sore loser, you see?"

"i noticed" Daniel drawled "he'll be even sorer in the morning, judging by the way you handled him"

"Maybe he'll learn not to have such a temper then, hmm? What about you? Do you dice?"

"dice?" Daniel raised his eyebrow "you mean gamble?"

Maxi smacked him on the shoulder in a... well... *probably* friendly way. "Exactly!"

"I've gambled here and there." Daniel said slowly "Cards and the like."

"Not dice then, eh?" he grinned. "Cards are alright but not exactly this lot's speed. Too much reading," he joked.

"It's a national pastime where I come from." Daniel laughed "but I imagine the intricacies go over louts like that lot's heads." He smirked slightly "though I've certainly *seen* dice played."

"Well if you care to play, I'm your man for a wager."

Daniel cracked his fingers. "i might as well give it a whirl. If for nothing else than the pleasant company."

"And how about the lady?" he asked with a smile. Fenya put her hands up. "I don't gamble, sir. I've studied statistics!" she broke out into a giggling fit.

Daniel chuckled "she's a Professor down at the University." He nodded sagely. "A real genius with chemicals and the like."

"The fairer sex are so often smarter than we brutes, eh?" he chuckled. "Hmmm, depends on the lady and the gentleman I think," Fenya giggled.

Daniel leaned on his hands , glancing up at the man. "Depends indeed." "I'm a renowned doctor. but I like to think I can hold my own in a number of ways."

"How about at dice, doc?" he grinned.

"Only one way to find out." He gestured. "shall we?"

"Good man," he grinned. "What shall we wager in?"

Daniel thought for a moment 'what's customary in these parts?"

"Oh, around here people mostly play for boring things like money."

"Well I wouldn't want to be *boring*." Daniel chuckled

Maxi looked him over with a smirk, looking, perhaps for anything valuable on his personage. "Neither would I."

"Then let's make it an interesting bet."

"Very well-- how about this. Best of three, loser owes the winner a favor."

"oh, Danochka, that's a dangerous bet," Fenya breathed excitedly.

Daniel paused a moment. "A dangerous bet." He offered his hand. "But one both profitable and *certainly* Not boring." "you're on."

Maxi slapped a pair of dice down on the bar with a grin. The bartender swished by and gave a half-disapproving smirk. "Swindling my customers again, handsome?" "Yes, dear," he purred.

"I think you'll find me harder to swindle than your average dockman." Daniel said with a wave of his hand. "why don't you...explain the rules to me."

"Oh I assure you, it's very simple," he grinned. He began to explain the rules, which were indeed, simple enough for even a drunk dock worker.

Daniel was actually familiar with the rules, but Maxi explained them as if he was a newbie.

An edge he hoped might ease him into a victory over the one eyed gambler. He flashed a smile "I think I've got the hang of it now."

"Well then, lets make our first roll, shall we?"

Daniel nodded and scooped up the dice. "Let the best man win."

Both the first rolls came up good-- but better for Maxi.

"Oooh, shame about that," he said with a grin. "But it's still anyone's game."

"I suppose it is." Daniel chuckled. "...I suppose it is. Anyone's game, my friend."

He shifted his hand, preparing to cheat on the next roll.

"Can I blow on your dice?" The drunk Fenya asked with a giggle.

Daniel held his hand with the dice towards her with a grin "I'd be delighted, professor dear. Perhaps it will bring me a spot of luck.""

Fenya leaned in and gently blew on Daniel's dice. And then the next hand began.

Daniel rolled an *excellent* almost a sure fire winner. Fenya squealed with excitement.

Maxi's dice came down.

The best possible result.

"Well... I think that's 2 out of three," Maxi chuckled. "Too bad."

Daniel stared at the dice for a long moment. "...." He fixed his tie with a soft hiss of breath "you're one lucky man, Maxi."

"That's what they tell me, my friend," the one eyed man said with satisfaction. "But I'm also a magnanimous man. What say you pay my tab for the evening and we'll call it even?"

Daniel spread his hands "a magnanimous man indeed." he offered his hand to Maxi with a wink "you have yourself a deal, good sir. I'll look forward to a rematch some day."

"As do I," he grinned, offering him his hand. "You're sharper than you seem, my astorian friend."

Daniel chuckled "I have a few tricks up my sleeve, after all"

he grabbed his hand, and gave it a firm and hearty shake

The man's hand was lean, and his nails trimmed. "I like that in a man, doctor," he chuckled. "Let's have a drink together and then I'll be on my way."

"Absolutely." Daniel nodded. "my treat. Have a seat"

"Don't mind if I do," he purred, having a seat with the two of them at the bar.

The bartender came over and smiled. "So how'd it go?"

"it was close, but Maxi here is a lucky, lucky man." Daniel leaned on the bar "I'll be covering his tab tonight."

"Should have expected that," she chuckled. "Shall I get you three another round?"

"Please. Of your finest vodka, if you don't mind"

"I don't mind at all,," she grinned and poured a glass for each of them.

Daniel nodded. "much, much appreciated." He chuckled "the sting of defeat , and the burn of alcohol."

Maxi raised his glass. "So it goes."

Daniel raised his glass "to a good game, and the hope for a rematch."

"To good sports," Maxi added with a smile. "Cheers!" Fenya declared. They all clinked their glasses together.

With that, Daniel slammed back a long swallow of the drink.

Daniel slammed it back without difficulty. The world momentarily doubled- but his vision righted itself surprisingly quickly. Just in time for him to feel a body fall against him.

"Whoops!" Fenya giggled as she grabbed Daniel's coat trying to right herself.

Daniel blinked, scooping her in an arm to keep her from toppling over. "ah! Fenya, seems your drink's gotten the better of you."

She looked up at him with wide, dark eyes. "No....no I rather... I rather sink--THINK! that drink hash gotten the *worst* of me!" She started off on another giggle fit.

She tried to right herself, and fell against him again.

Daniel kept his arm around here, patting her shoulder as he laughed. "I'd say it's knocked you flat, Professor Fenya. This might be the most I've heard you laugh since we've met." He glanced at Maxi with a little shrug and a smile.

Maxi chuckled. "Perhaps I'm not the only one who should be getting home about now?"

Fenya shook her head, smiling widely. "I laugh. Laughing is *normal*!"

"It seems so, Maxi." he chuckled "perhaps we can talk sometime soon, hm?" He smiled over at Fenya, "Even a couple of University stiffs like us can laugh, it's true."

"I'll see you around then, doctor. You should be able to find me. If you can't, just ask my dear Mila here." he motioned to the bartender, then waved as he headed out. Fenya was half leaned against Daniel and half against the bar.

Daniel waved back, shaking his head. Once he was gone, he turned his attention back to Fenya. "you look a tad dizzy."

She tried to smooth her skirt and stand but wobbled again. "I *am* a tad dizzy I'm afraid."

Daniel steadied her, looping his arm around her shoulder. "How about I help you get back to the room, hm?"

She leaned against him, "Hope that I didn't spoil the evening!"

"not in the least." He said with a chuckle as he paid the tabs, and headed for the exit. "I'd say it's been one merry night indeed."

She wobbled a bit, leaning on him as she walked. "Very merry," she grinned. "You even made friends."

"it seems I did, and a very dangerous friend indeed." He held her against himself, using his own far steadier gait to keep her balanced and on her feet as they went

"Knife man," she nodded sagely. The rain was drizzly and the sky was dark. The mist had gathered up, thick and visible around their ankles.

"Knife man, good gambler." He agreed, patting her back.

She nodded happily. "I bet he *was* cheating."

"Cheating well enough that he outcheated me." Daniel tutted his tongue. "But , we know for next time." As he leaned on her and walked, he kept his eye out ahead. He still hadn't forgotten the previous night's incident.

She gasped. "You were cheating?" she asked, sounding impressed.

Daniel nodded, "After that first roll , I could tell that blind luck alone wouldn't do much to help me win...so." he waved his hand "I used a trick or two I picked up at the University to try and tip fate in my favor....though, it seems, I didn't tip it quite enough."

"You'll just have to outcheat him next time!" she nodded.

Daniel gently bumped her shoulders. "I'll work on my technique." he winked "and we'll win for sure."

She bumped him back, staggering gently. "Yeah! then you can have a knife fight, danochka! or would it be a scalpel fight?"

"Scalpel on my end, knife on his." Daniel helped steady her again "Is that sort of thing up your alley, Fenya?"

Fenya giggled again. "Well, alleys are dark aren't they? So my alley has knife fights. sometimes."

"that they are." He laughed "Well, I like the man well enough, so I hope it wouldn't come to that...or at least that it stayed a *friendly* knife fight." "what's a stabbing between friends?"

"especially ‘Cause you could sew the loser up! right?"

"especially then." He chuckled "what's the fun if I couldn't? We can all have a drink and laugh about it after."

"Exactly," she nodded. She leaned a little closer to him as they walked through the rain. "It's cold."

He unhooked the umbrella from his side, and opened it up over them as they walked. "It's terribly cold." He said, glancing up at the sky. "Feel free to keep close , if it'll help you stay warm. Terrible time to get sick, in weather like this."

The sky was black-overcast without a single trace of moon or stars. Fenya leaned into him. "I don't want to get sick."

He frowned at the moonless night, and brought her in a little closer. "I'd rather avoid either of us getting sick." He admitted.

She was warm against him in the cold, even under her layers of dress. Dimly lit by street lamps, they could see the post office just ahead.

"nearly there." he said, rubbing her shoulder. "Then we'll get you into bed where you can sleep off the inevitable hangover."

She giggled. "Ooh, I might be able to mix up a hangover cure though...."

"is that so? That would be *invaluable* come morning"

Fenya nodded as they reached the post office. "yes I wouldn't want to suffer through whatever this leaves behind."

Daniel sighed with a bit of relief as the night's walk was uneventful. He smirked at Fenya. "neither would I. I can only imagine it'd be an absolute nightmare."

"I'll admit I've never been hungover before but the boys in the department look like they feel *awful*."

Daniel rubbed his neck "I can assure you Fenya, they were hardly exaggerating."

As Daniel came to the post office door, he noticed that it was standing slightly ajar.

Daniel frowned. "...well that isn't good." Slowly, he pushed the door open, and peeked inside with Fenya still held close and his free hand moving towards his pistol.

Fenya peered in with him. "What isn't good?" she asked. The post office was dark-- their friend Mitya must have left much earlier.

Daniel put his finger to his lips "Door was open." he whispered, and unholstered his gun. "Stay close, and behind me." Slowly , he eased into the room to look for anything amiss.

Fenya nodded, staying quiet as she eased in behind him. At first glance at least, the room seemed to be normal. Not that he was overly familiar with it.

Daniel eased a little deeper, peeking behind the desk as he approached it.

There was an overturned candlestick behind the desk, the candle itself a little ways away as if it had rolled. Some wax had gotten on a few fallen letters.

Daniel frowned, and lifted the candlestick with one hand as he glanced down at the letters "This was knocked over...I doubt Mitya would leave a burning candle out to fall to the ground. not near all this paper."

"Yeah that seems.... bad," Fenya agreed. One of the letters was addressed to Elizabeth Alekhin. Another to Lydia Osgrov.

Daniel read them over briefly. "...hm. I wonder if someone was trying to read these...or if they were incidental in whatever happened here."

Daniel couldn't find a signature on the one to Lydia, but from what he could read, it seemed to be a rather lurid love letter. He caught the phrase 'heaving breasts'.

"Heavens." He muttered, and tried the one to Elizabeth instead.

This one's handwriting made it all but impossible to read, but he *did* manage to make out the signature. Katrina Volkov.

"Interesting." He made a note of both. WIth that he stood, and looked around the back of the post office. "Now let's get to the bottom of this."

Fenya leaned against a wall. "I don't see anybody here now.... though they might be upstairs..."

Daniel nodded, and clicked the hammer back on his pistol as he offered a hand to Fenya. "then let's get upstairs and find out."

Fenya took his other hand and nodded. "Lets."

They weren't that loud going up the stairs-- but weren't that quiet either. Fenya tripped slightly halfway up and nearly pulled both of them down.

Daniel yelped, grabbing a hold of her to stop her from toppling down the stairs...and banging his knee on them as he went "Damn!!"

Fenya cringed and whispered. "Sorry!! sorry!"

"it's..it's fine." he murmured, gesturing up "no sense being quiet now, though. let's go." He hurried up the stairs, with her hand in his, holding tight to his gun just in case.

They burst onto the scene to find--- absolutely no one. At least at first glance.

Daniel peered around the room, his gun drawn as he investigated the shadows with a sharp frown.

Almost nothing was out of place as he checked around the room. Except..... had his luggage been unfasted when he'd left? he thought he'd closed the bag.

Daniel hissed through his teeth. "Son of a bitch." He hurried towards it, and flipped the top of his luggage open with the pistol's barrel.

There was..... his things in it. Though they did seem to be shifted around, nothing appeared to be missing. Or added.

Daniel frowned. "....Then why? Why rustle about in my things and not take a bloody thing?"

Fenya came nearby and leaned over him. "Maybe.... they didn't find what they wanted?"

"Indeed." he frowned, and put his hand on his bag. "I wonder if it has anything to do with the....items...we procured."

"Maybe.... you think Rook came looking for it?"

"It's possible." Daniel mused. "It's something we shouldn't discount...and it means I should keep my bag where I can see it at all times."

Fenya nodded, sitting down on the bed heavily. "dah.... damnit."

Daniel sat next to her. "Indeed." He frowned slightly "....this is troublesome. I'll have to have MItya reinforce his door and windows while we're here."

Fenya nodded and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Good idea."

He put his arm around her with a sigh "Now...what's the best way to stay secure *tonight* ." He looked up at the ceiling. "Make sure the door is locked, for one."

"maybe put a chair in front?" she offered.

He nodded. "Good point. I'll do that too...then we just need to secure the window."

"Not sure how we can manage that...." she shook her head against his shoulder.

"Perhaps barring it somehow..."

"Too bad neither of us is a mechanical engineeeeeer."

"a dreadful shame." he chuckled, glancing at the structure of the window. "though.."

She followed his gaze blearily. "Yesh?"

The window was high over the bed-- a couple inches down from the ceiling. It was about twice as long as it was tall-- and it was just tall enough for a large man to squeeze through. There was a hinge on the top, and a knob at the bottom where it could open or close, with a metal wedge to prop it open at the bottom.

Daniel looked up at it with a frown. "I could latch the hinge and try to wedge something between the top and the bottom of the frame....it might make it a tad more secure."

"oh! That's a good idea," she nodded. "Ummmm... what about.... the door stop?"

"Brilliant idea, Fenya." He nodded "that might just be the ticket."

She grinned. "We're a couple of smaaart academics."

He grinned back "that we are, Fenya. As brilliant as the day is long."

He gestured "want to give me a hand?"

She stuck out her hand. "Yes!"

Then she burst out in a giggle fit.

Daniel stared at her hand for a long moment. "wh..." Then he slapped his palm to his face with a muffled snort "ah, I get it."

She covered her face with both hands and gasped for air, trying to stop laughing. "Sorry!"

Daniel laughed with her, shaking his head. "no, no don't be." He smirked "You've got one interesting sense of humor, Fenya." he winked, and took her hand as he stood.

She squeezed his hand and stood, still drawing long breaths as she composed herself. "Sometimes being overly literal is just very funny to me."

Daniel chuckled "I can see the humor, admittedly." He shifted to latch the window shut, and held out his hand for the doorstop.

She managed her way to the door,, and brought back the doorstop, offering it to him. "Your wedge, doctor!"

"thank you , Professor." he smirked. "Now let's drive a wedge between us and our interloper." He worked to knock it into place.

Fenya broke into another peel of giggles. "As long as it's not just between us!"

"Certainly not." Daniel put his hand to his chest. "How could I do such a thing to a charming intellectual like yourself?"

"with a hammer!" she snickered.

Daniel laughed out loud. "Certainly. but I'm afraid I'm currently quite hammerless."

"Well that's good for me then," she nodded. The wedge meanwhile, was pretty satisfyingly stuck.

"That takes care of the window problem...now the front door" "Very good. Besides. there's much better things we can do with our night than get hammered."

"Didn't we get hammered already?" she giggled.

"Damn." Daniel dropped to the bed "I suppose we failed to avoid *that* tonight."

"Oops!" she shook her head.

"Alas." he hopped down, and steadied himself "I'm going to block off the front door."

"I'll help," she said wobbling after him.

He nodded back at her "need a hand down the stairs?"

"Maybe," she admitted

he offered his arm to her as he stood on the precipice.

She linked her arm with his. "I'll try not to fall again."

"I'd appreciate it. I'd put a damper on the night to have to tend to a broken leg." He lead her slowly down the stairs

They crept successfully back down into the postal area. "I have to agree."

Daniel walked to the front door and gave it a lock...and then dragged Mitya's chair over and jammed it under the handle

"There!" Fenya nodded with satisfaction.

Daniel nodded firmly "Now we're safe and sound, Fenya."

"yes. Good." she nodded leaning against him. "No vampire prowlers."

"No vampire prowlers." He let himself lean back with a shake of his head. "Though I'd make sure no vampire, wicked doppelganger, or ancient evil could get to us. The power of logic, and a little .45 reassurance can stop any phony supernatural foe we face."

She smiled widely. "given how you fought off the one before,, I believe you.:

He flashed a grin, as he helped her up the stairs. "I intend to do the same with any haunt this place deems fit to throw at us."

She let him help her, leaning close in to him, her ears flicking gently. "How gallant of you, danochka."

His ears tipped back as he cleared his throat. "Well. Gallant isn't something I'm often called."

"Do you fight off many vampires?" she teased.

"No I can't say I've made a habit of it yet." He put his arm around her as they crested the top step. "Though with my luck, perhaps it'll find its way into my routine."

"I imagine you'll get more people calling you gallant then," she nodded. "Hmmmmm." she leaned into him as they returned to their room.

Daniel glanced at her as they shuffled their way towards the bed. "I suppose I would. Wouldn't that be a change from 'whackjob' and 'madman' " He chuckled. "...what is it?"

"I was just thinking I might be a little jealous if you were running around saving people from vampires."

Daniel settled back on the bed, settling beside her with a curious raise of his eyebrow. "Jealous, hm?"

Her ears flicked and she giggled. "Its *our* thing."

Daniel's ears flicked atop his head in response, and he smoothed them out with the palm of his hand. His arm lingered around her as he chuckled. "I suppose it is, isn't it? So I'll be sure to honor that by saving any vampire hunting for when it's you and I together, hm?"

"Perfect," she nodded. "I can hand you the stakes. or bullets I suppose."

"and I'll trust you with the garlic and holy water concoctions." He purred. "and together we'll be an unstoppable team."

"Watch out vampires," she murmured half draped against him. She yawned widely.

He patted her back "Fenya and Daniel are on the case." He stretched "though...perhaps it can wait until sunrise."

"Don't wanna fight vampiresh drunk?" she giggled letting herself fall back on the bed.

Daniel kicked off his boots and dropped his overcoat, before hiding his bag under the bed. "Oh, it doesn't sound like the *best* idea."

"what if the vampires are *also* drunk?" she asked. ".... Doctor.... i don't think I can get my boots off."

Daniel glanced over at her, and tutted his tongue "well I'll just have to help you." He knelt before her ,and started removing her boots "If the vampires are drunk...hm. I suppose we'll have to cut them off."

Her boots were quite tall and intricately laced. It wasn't a surprise she wouldn't be able to remove them. "At the neck!" she laughed.

He worked his way from the top to bottom, loosening the laces as he went. "It wouldn't be in vain to aim for the throat, it's true." "Lovely boots, Fenya. These are quite well made."

She giggled, holding her feet still. "Why thank you. I happen to like them."

He pulled her first boot free. "As do I." He said, his tail swishing behind him. "you've got good taste."

The boot came off, revealing her rather delicate foot-paw. She wiggled her toes. "As I've noticed you do too. ooooh it feels good to have off though."

Daniel glanced at her foot before starting on her second boot. "There's nothing like kicking off your boots at the end of the day." He chuckled "but thank you."

"Nothing like it," she agreed. "You know Danochka....."

Daniel pulled her boot from her foot, and set it down next to the other one. "Yes, Fenya?"

"I think I may be rather drunk."

Daniel laughed "I think you might be, yes. *quite drunk* . But you're a charming drunk, so worry not."

"Me? charming?"

"you." Daniel nodded. "Absolutely charming."

"you flatterer," she giggled.

"Should I refrain?" He asked, his ears flicking

"On the contrary."

"Then allow me to continue." He chuckled 'For all the nonsense today had to offer, you were *quite* pleasant company."

"Why I could say the shame of you, doctor," she giggled.

"Shame has nothing to do with it." he laughed

"Oh no?" she asked, her ears flicking as her second boot came off.

"I certainly don't feel ashamed in finding you good company."

"even when I am most wretchedly *drunk*?"

"oh , I'm not in the most sober state myself." He laughed. "and even then."

"You sheem pretty sober to me," she teased. She patted the bed next to her.

He placed her boots off to the side, and hopped on the bed beside her "only because i'm trying *quite* hard to seem so."

"Then it's an effort that;s paying off!" she giggled.

He leaned against her with a chuckle, trying to kick his own boots off. "I wouldn't want to make a fool of myself after all."

She leaned into him, much more openly than she yet had, possibly because of the drink. "Certainly not."

He kept his arm around her as he leaned back. "Regardless, i'm a little worried about your potential hangover, Fenya."

"worried? About me?"

"Oh, very." He leaned heavily on her.

She slumped so that her head was slightly resting on his chest. "I'm touched."

He leaned back, rubbing her shoulder "well, we've gotten to know one another in the past few days. I'd say I've earned a little concern over you."

"Well... I suppose you're welcome to be concerned. It's a bit sweet," she giggled, her ears flicking.

Daniel put his hand to his chest "me, sweet? Now that's a concept"

"I know," she nodded sagely and drunkenly. "It's like finding out that *I'm* not all bad."

"shock, I think we've made a valuable discovery here tonight"

"Imagine! perhaps we should use alcohol in *all* our research!"

"that could yield some interesting results, I'm certain" he leaned back against her, before tipping down and falling on the bed

"Whoops!" she giggled as he fell next to her. "Yes indeed!"

"oops" he laughed "though I can't imagine the deans would much like that "

She held up a finger. "Maybe..... maybe.... they can shove it where the sun doesn't shine!"

He laughed "perhaps they'd actually learn a thing or two if they did"

"Like how to be polite to researchers!"

"and how to appreciate *real* science"

She curled her body slightly against him. "That will shock everyone involved!"

"we would revolutionize the scientific world, no doubt" He rested his arm under her head again, chuckling. "Amazing."

She lay happily on his arm, a big, drunken smile on her face. "We shaved the day."

"saved it even" he chuckled "though I suppose we couldn't save all it's fur"

She snickered leaning her head into his shoulder. "That would be funny."

Daniel chuckled, putting his hand atop her head. "wouldn't it? A day utterly defined by it's baldness."

She leaned into his hand. "Letsss not go bald."

"I'm sure you could alchemize something to prevent it, Fenya." His fingers idly ran through the strands of her curly hair, near her ears.

She giggled. "That might be worth asss much asss the gooold."

"Imagine all the fatcats back home." he laughed, his finger brushing her ear "with their thinning scalps and patchy fur."

"Oh I can *imagine* alright," she grinned, nuzzling his hand.

"They'd pay through the snout for a cure of that nature." He laughed, scratching the base of her ear.

Fenya couldn't help herself. She started to purr.

Daniel chuckled, continuing to scratch her ear. "well that's an awfully precious noise."

her ears flicked embarrassedly and she squirmed against him. "I can't exactly help it with you doing that!"

His own ears flicked, and he shifted to scratch along the side of her ear instead. "no I imagine I'd do much the same in your situation."

"What would you do if I did that?" she asked, her foot kicking gently.

who knows." Daniel chuckled. "It's a mystery."

"A mystery I;'ll solve!" she said, but it was cut off by a yawn. "when I'm not about to fall assleep."

Daniel laughed, and smoothed out the fur on her ears, before finally pulling his hand away "perhaps that's the best idea."

"Did you have sooomething else in mind?" she asked, still against his shoulder.

Daniel raised his eyebrow, his ears flicking "something else?"

She giggled and looked at him with golden eyes. "You said it's the best idea. as if you had another one."

His ears flicked back, as his face started to burn "ah, well...it...it would likely be in our best interest to get a bit of sleep."

"Yuuup, thaaaats what I said," she grinned widely.

His ears flicked more firmly, as he cleared his throat "i ah..well. Hm."

her moonlike yellow green eyes locked with his gaze, a big grin on her face.

Daniel's face was bright red under his fur, his ears flattening somewhat in embarrassment.

She can;t help but break into another giggle fit-- this time hiding her own face with her pillow.

Daniel sank into the sheets with a laugh of his own "you're teasing me, aren't you?"

She continued to giggle into the pillow, kicking her bare feet.

He laughed, shaking his head. "you are. And I'm the fool. Daniel the fool."

She sucked in a deep breath-- still on the pillow-- and crooked her finger, beckoning him closer.

He leaned in close to her, "hmm?"

She sat up suddenly and pressed her lips to his in a surprising move. "There! would I kiss a fool?"

His ears flattened as their lips met, his face burning with flustered surprise. "mmph!" His tail thumped against the bed before he managed "n-no, certainly not. I can't imagine why you would."

She giggled again, and then seemed to realize what she'd done-- covering her face with her hands.

Daniel cleared his throat. "well, the drink brings out something quite bold in you, Fenya" he laughed, his ears flicking atop his head.

Her ears flicked. "It must be my mosgravan side," she half-squeaked.

"well, it's certainly intriguing." he leaned over to rustle her ears again. "I have something to thank Mosgrav for."

She leaned into his hand, though with much more embarrassment this time. "I.... suppose I do as well. Goodness. No wonder my mother told me not to go in bars."

"I can certainly see her point." He laughed. "Do you regret it?"

"Not one bit!"

He smiled, his ear twitching "neither do I. So I'm rather glad you braved the bar with me."

"Good!"

"I wouldn't mind another, admittedly"

"Oh no?"

He chuckled "Well... you are charming?"

She flushed and her ears flicked embarrassedly. "I guess that makes two of us."

"Though perhaps we should save it for the morning." He teased. "after the hangover has passed."

"Maybe just *one* more. And then we'll be good and go to bed."

"It's a deal, Fenya." he purred "one kiss and then bed."

"One kiss and then bed," she agreed, ears flicking. She leaned in.

He leaned close, his hands resting on her shoulders as he took a deep breath.

Fenya let her lips press to his-- less chastely this time.

Daniel, now prepared and less surprised, returns the kiss with the same lack of chastity, pressing her slightly into the bed as he holds her.

Fenya hesitantly put her arm around him and leaned into the kiss.

The two Scientists embraced in atop their borrowed sheets, kissing deeply and eagerly in the Mosgravian night.

After the kiss finally broke, Fenya buried her face in Daniel's shoulder again.

Daniel brushed his fingers through her hair as he lay back with a smile on his face. "...well. I'd say that was even better than the first.."

She nodded against his shoulder, ears flicking. "Definitely." Came her muffled response.

"Ah.." his ears flicked "i'm feeling a tad dizzy." he laughed, "don't know if that's on account of the alcohol or..well.'

"As am I," she agreed, easing slightly off of him. "Perhaps we should.... call it a night."

"Perhaps we can" He laughed, tugging his collar. "If nothing else I'd like to get out of these clothes...." He paused "..an..and into some proper bedclothes."

"I'm glad you added that part or I might have felt misled!"

He flushed, his ears flattening again "...well hell, while we're both *drunk?* "

"I;ve heard it's... traditional?"

He raised his eyebrow "tradition, is it?"

"At least according to the sorts of trashy novels I've sheen passet around!"

His ears flicked "Well we can't discount a source that reputable, can we?" he joked

"We can't! though it doesn't mean its *good* advice."

He laughed "No, we can't. Given it's source I'd say it's dubious at best."

Fenya nodded against the bed. "Truth be told... I'm not certain how mush long I'm be awake."

"Then perhaps we'll put it on the backburner for another time, Fenya."

he winked at her.

She attempted to wink back, but just managed to close both her eyes. "Letsss change for bed."

"think you can get dressed on your own, or are you likely to fall over." he teased

"Ahhh... that's rather a difficult question!"

"isn't it?" he stood, wobbled a bit, but avoided falling down. "Let me just...change, then...we'll see if you need any help, hm?"

"Alright!" she nodded. "Try not to strain yourself!" she giggled

"mmm." Daniel smirked "we'll see if I can manage."

He started to undress himself.

He had.... some difficulty.

"hm." Daniel said, as he got his head stuck in his shirt.

Fenya giggled from the bed. "Not as eashy ash it lookssss."

Daniel wobbled, nearly falling over as he failed once more to get his shirt off his head. He was baring an awful lot of chest in the process, too.

"Oh my!" Fenya laughed. It was unclear which elicited the response, the chest or the falling.

Daniel finally tore his shirt from his head with a gasp of air. His ears were pricked up and his tail was bushed as he tossed it aside "dammit."

"Well done, doctor!"

Daniel huffed, smoothing out his tail with his hands "Just you wait, I'll ace the next bit."

"I'm sure you'll get full marks."

Daniel attempted to rid himself of his trousers next "are...you going to be watching this next part?"

"oh ahh.... perhaps not." she squeaks, burying her face in a pillow.

Daniel laughed, and started to pull them down, hoping that he didn't tangle his legs along the way

he did a bit-- but he managed to get them off at least.

Daniel tossed his clothes into a heap, and stretched "now where did I put those bedclothes.."

That was a mystery.....

He looked around with a frown "...dammit."

Ahah! they were right on the chair!

He grinned, and grabbed them. Now the hard part...he started to dress.

It was hard... but he DID manage to conquer the task.

He dusted himself off with a laugh "Hah! Well. that's done with." He glanced towards the bed. "now it's your turn."

Fenya was breathing evenly, face half-stuck in her pillow.

His ears flicked "you weren't looking, were you?" He asked with a raise of his eyebrow

She didn't answer.

His ears flicked "well regardless, the deed is done!"

Fenya snored.

"...ah, she's asleep." Daniel walked back to the bed, and tucked her in with a soft chuckle "I suppose it won't hurt to sleep in her clothes tonight."

He slipped into bed beside her, and stretched "it'll be a long day tomorrow, however."

The rain pattered against the window soothingly and as soon as Daniel eased into bed, Fenya's body shifted up against him, a warm weight.

He simply curled up against her, and let himself finally drift off to sleep.

Daniel is awoken sometime later in the black of night to the sound of loud banging.

Daniel shot up, looking first at the great window overhead.

*something* looked back at him.

Daniel was too startled to look away. He stared it dead in the eyes, rooted to his place on the bed. What in hell *was* it?

Whatever it was-- it was beating at the window, trying to get in. Was it some kind of starved dog??

Wait.... this was the second floor.

Daniel felt a chill run up his spine, as he leaned up and pressed at the window with both hands....trying to help it stay shut He hissed , using the opportunity to look the damned thing in the eyes...to get a logical shape of it...

he could see a face.... or something like a face, pressed to the glass. A pair of grey hands pushing at the window.

Daniel pressed back, his eyes narrowed against the horror on the other side. "what in the name of reason *are* you?" he hissed, nudging Fenya with his foot. "Fenya. I need that knife or my Gun."

Fenya was Out Cold.

Daniel grimaced "on my own then." He banged the window at the beast "SHOO!"

The thing banged another time-- and then vanished.

Daniel fell back to the bed, his heart hammering in his chest "......." then he leapt up, and grabbed the bag with the knife and his pistol belt.

The rain pattered outside. He managed to grab his bag.

He pulled it onto his lap, drawing the knife and settling back on the bed with Fenya. "....I won't be able to sleep after that." he hissed.

Strangely though, the pounding lull of the rain, and the alcohol in his system do take their toll, and he finds himself quickly dozing.

After it all...he did slip back into the land of dreams.

Day 2: Diagnosis == >