The distant call for aid rose above the groaning din in the makeshift pesthouse. Gosma ignored it. She tied off the stitching she was working on and quickly assessed her current patient. The infection had spread into his organs. He probably wouldn’t last the night.
‘Sister!’ cried the voice again, louder and more emphatic. Gosma picked up her few remaining ministration supplies and pushed her way towards the voice, past the pallets, cots and rows of incense braziers. The waft of rot and burning spice filled her nostrils. In all her seasons, she had never seen plague like this before.
Like everyone else in Grovenheim, Gosma thought the festering Daemons had been driven back from the valley, off to ravage some other poor town in the Heaving Peaks. The townsfolk had celebrated and given praise to Sigmar – a banquet had been held in this very hall, and Gosma drunk orchid-bud wine alongside the Freeguild guardsmen who had fought so long and so bravely. She woke up to screaming the next morning as the plague took hold of its first victims, and she’d barely slept or eaten since. Truth be told, she could no longer remember how long it had been. Days and nights blended together into a single nightmare, from which she would give anything to be awoken.
Gosma pushed through a throng of people and saw who was calling out to her. It was a soldier lying on a cot, his left leg missing from the knee and his right shoulder criss-crossed with stitches. She recognised him – she had worked on him several days ago. She remembered sawing his leg and gouging the rot from his shoulder, but she hadn’t held much hope that he would survive. Yet here he was – wan and thin, but without the clammy complexion of the morbidly infected.
It took Gosma a moment to notice that he was clutching the rim of a barrow, inside of which lay another man wracked with pain and fever. A woman dressed in black and purple robes was trying to pull the handcart from the soldier’s grasp. Though her skin was corpse pale, she was clearly strong and showed no sign of illness.
‘Help,’ said the soldier through gritted teeth. ‘Don’t let her take him away.’
‘Sister,’ said the pale woman, her voice as calm and cold as a glacial lake. ‘This man is beyond your help. I will take him from your hands before his illness births more disease.’
‘Don’t let her do it,’ cried the soldier. ‘She kills the ones she takes! I hear them screaming as she wheels them away, then they fall silent in an instant.’
‘I am ending their suffering,’ said the pale woman. ‘It is a kindness for those beyond salvation.’
Gosma didn’t know what to make of the scene unfolding before her. She was exhausted, her mind clouded by the endless gruesome work she had been performing. Perhaps it was better if this patient was taken. From the look of him, he didn’t have much longer to live anyway.
Just then the man in the barrow let out a gurgling moan. Gosma looked down and saw a fist-sized cyst protruding from his thigh. The skin on the cyst was undulating, the pressure within causing it bulge outwards. Gosma had seen this before – it was ready to burst, and she had only moments left to act.
Gosma lunged over to the nearest brazier and pulled the poker from the embers. She spun back to the man in the barrow and plunged the red-hot metal into the heart of the cyst. The reek of burning flesh and evaporated pus hit Gosma like a battering ram, taking the air out of her lungs in an instant. The man screamed in anguish as the poker seared into his leg, and as he arched his back in pain, his muck-encrusted jerkin split down the middle. Gosma’s heart sank as she saw his exposed abdomen, swollen to hemispherical proportions by another, far-larger cyst.
The man’s belly burst open with a wet pop, sending a shower of maggot-filled pus flying outwards. The putrid eruption blasted Gosma to the floor. As she hit the ground, she saw the soldier she had saved – he had been covered in plump maggots, each the size of a swollen finger, and they were burrowing through the stitching on his shoulder and into the saw wound at the end of his leg. He was screaming. Gosma saw the pale woman moving towards the soldier, her black and purple robes untouched by the contents of the cyst, and her fingers glowing with amethyst light…
Jagged teeth sunk into Gosma’s skin and she cried out in pain. Her heart raced as she realised she too was covered in slime-coated maggots, and they were tearing at her by the score with their rows of razor fangs. She grabbed at the maggots and tried to pull them from her body, but they were already too far embedded in her flesh. Her hands burned when she touched the grotesque pupae, and she could feel the infections carried by them spreading through her palms and fingers.
A purple light washed over Gosma. The maggots recoiled and began to shrivel, each letting out a screeching wail. The cystic filth that covered Gosma started to evaporate, and her racing heart slowed to a crawl before – for a brief moment – stopping completely. The pale woman was looming over Gosma, her fingers splayed and her eyes glassed over. Gosma sat up, and the desiccated husks of the maggots fell harmlessly to the floor. She looked over at the soldier. He too had been saved from the carnivorous worms. He lay dead on his cot, still and peaceful, the grimace of pain gone from his face.
‘By Sigmar,’ said Gosma under her breath.
‘No,’ said the pale woman. ‘Not by Sigmar.’
Gosma looked up at her saviour. There was an endless well of strength in the woman’s cold and piercing stare.
‘Sigmar has forsaken this place,’ the woman continued. ‘But Nagash sees your struggles.’
Nagash. Gosma had heard that name as a child, in the bedtime stories that had been told to frighten her.
‘Nagash can end the torments of these people,’ said the pale woman. ‘Nagash can end your own nightmare. He offers his help to you freely.’
The woman extended her hand down to Gosma. Gosma took a deep breath and looked around her. No one in the packed hall had noticed her ordeal; they were all too busy enduring their own woes and maladies.
‘Will you accept Nagash’s help?’ asked the pale woman, her hand still outstretched. Gosma took hold of the woman’s hand and allowed herself to be pulled up from the ground.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Just tell me what I need to do.’
Gosma felt a grave chill spreading throughout her body.
‘There is nothing you need do,’ said the pale woman, her lips curving into a thin smile. ‘Be still, sister, and your end will come.’