Chapter 035: Mysteries of a forest

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The forest was thick, but by no means impossible to get through. Especially not with Muse leading them, as she was obviously used to traversing this kind of terrain. Rink was following and listening for anything out of the ordinary, while Mirise was drawing a rudimentary map of the island as they went along. Markus was walking next to Allen, assisting in keeping James steady.
 
"So what are we looking for, exactly?" Rink asked Muse.
"For the time being, I just want to get deeper inside the forest," she replied. "I want to find a place to start from, so to speak... I haven't seen any real tracks so far. Finding an animal trail, or a water hole would be helpful..."
"I haven't heard much around us either, just some small stuff..."
"How do we even know there's anything else here?" James asked. "What if it's only small animals?"
"Even then, as long as something lives here, which we've confirmed, they have to live off of something," Muse explained. "There's something to eat in this forest. We can be sure of that."
"Mushrooms, berries, roots, finding anything at all'll be better than running on the same sack of rice," Allen added.
"Oh, come on, if you hadn't come along-"
"-we would at most have gotten another day or so out of it," Rink said, interrupting James. "We would have had to do this, Allen or no Allen. So we might as well make the best of the situation."
"Right, right..."
 
James elected not to say anything else as they continued, and while they didn't seem to get much closer to anything, after a short while, Rink stopped walking, almost in the middle of a step. Mirise almost bumped into her, and Muse stopped and turned around after noticing the rest of them had stopped as well.
 
"Rink?" Muse looked at her.
"Hold on... everybody quiet for a moment..." Rink closed her eye and started turning her head slowly. After a few moments, she stopped and started looking again. "There. I'm sure of it now."
"What?"
"In that direction," Rink said and pointed into the forest, a bit to the right of the path they were currently on. "I've been trying to figure it out for a while... there's a lot of things in the way, and there's a lot of sounds here, but there something there that's distinctly different from all the other sounds I've been picking up."
"What is it?" James asked.
"I have absolutely no idea," Rink replied with a shrug. "I've never heard anything like that before. Except..."
"What?"
"There's... one part about it, that reminds me of... but no, can't be."
"Just tell us, if nothing else so we could prepare for any nasty surprises," Allen said.
"I don't know about nasty, and I don't know how it's possible... but there's a certain thing about it that reminds me of Mirise."
"Me?" Mirise exclaimed in surprise.
"Just a really small part of it, but... it's one I've not heard in anything else. I don't know what that means."
"What are the chances we'd find someone like Mirise here?" James asked.
"It's not someone like Mirise," Rink stated. "Most of... whatever it is... doesn't sound like that, and most of Mirise sounds different too. But..."
"We should check it out, at least," Muse said. "You think it's something non-native?"
"Almost certainly," Rink replied with a nod. "It's something that's alive, and it's not like anything else I've heard here. But I don't know what it could be."
"I'd rather find it before it finds us," Allen commented.
"Well... it's not moving, as far as I can tell. It hasn't moved since I first thought I heard it..."
"Maybe it's sleeping?" Mirise offered.
"Seems likely."
 
They agreed that since they had no other clues as to where to find anything useful anyway, they might as well check out what it was that Rink had picked up on. Mirise was especially curious. With Rink now taking the lead, they continued through the forest, soon coming out in a small clearing. The ground was a bit more damp with less trees as shelter, but it had definitely been cleared out by someone, being far too neat to be entirely natural. And that was the smallest bit of evidence that they weren't alone - there was also a ring of stones around the remains of a campfire, and at the side of a large rock at the other side of the clearing...
 
"Over there," Rink said and pointed towards it. There were some things on the ground, some jars, a bag, lying around... whatever it was. But it was moving. Only a little, but there was something alive on the ground.
"Be careful..." Muse walked up in front of Rink, with her bow at the ready. The two of them approached slowly, and as they got closer, noticed that it seemed to be a person, but... different. Closing in even further, Rink heard a groan coming from it, but it didn't seem like it had noticed them. The rest of the group were approaching as well with a bit of a distance to Muse and Rink, prepared for whatever might come at them.
 
Nothing ever did come at them. Rink and Muse realized it wasn't going to do anything, and waved for the others to come closer. As they gathered a few steps away from the being lying on the ground, it rolled over, revealing what the source of the mysterious sound was.
 
Its shape was largely humanoid, with a stocky build, lying under a brown blanket. But its skin was not of a colour expected in a regular person - and not a single colour, either. It was primarily a matted blue, with instances of a more grayish shade, and some quite dark spots. Its eyes were closed, but on its neck seemed to be several slits, and on the sides of its mouth, two thin growths could be seen, almost like a moustache made out of skin. A white tuft of hair was situated at the back of its head. It was breathing heavily, shifting about, not sleeping but appearing to be in pain. At this point, it was clear to some of the party what they had ran into.
 
"What is that?" Muse asked.
"I think... it looks like a fishman," Mirise replied. "If that's what Rink heard... does that mean..."
"What's one doing here, though?" Allen commented.
"Please..." the fishman spoke, still not looking at them. "If there is... somebody here..."
"Let me see!" Markus exclaimed and walked past the others, who were still keeping a distance to their discovery.
"Markus, wait-" Muse started.
"He's clearly in pain!" Markus interrupted and crouched down next to the fishman. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
"My body... my skin..."
"What?" Markus said and pulled off the blanket. The fishman was wearing only a simple white tunic, and Markus could quickly see several more of the dark spots on his uncovered arms and legs. It became immediately obvious to him that it wasn't a variation in skin colour - it was something else entirely. "This is... bad."
"What?" Rink asked as she joined Markus, the others following in various states of caution.
"It's... he's got some kind of necrotizing fasciitis..." Markus explained and stood up, keeping his eyes on the fishman. "It seems like it's still in the early stages, but he absolutely needs immediate help!"
"And... using real words, that means..."
"It's an infection. It affect the body's soft tissue, and, well, kills it. If not treated, it's going to spread, and if it gets really bad, you can lose entire limbs because of it."
"So how do you treat it?"
"I have to cut away the affected tissue to prevent it from spreading any further..." Markus stated and reached into his inner coat pockets, eventually pulling out something wrapped in plastic. "A-ha, I knew I had a scalpel here somewhere."
"Aren't those, like... really sharp? You just carry those around in your pockets?" Rink asked.
"It's for exactly this kind of situation," Markus replied with a sly grin. "But I would like to have some more equipment, I should have brought... Mirise?"
"Yes?"
"Could you run back to Cassandra and grab my medical kit? I can get started here, but I need some more things... the small white case with a green cross on it..."
"Of course!" Mirise replied and looked at the map she had been drawing. It didn't have much in terms of landmarks and really only covered the path they had been going, but she figured it would be enough to quickly find her way to the ship and back again. "I'll be back as soon as I can," she added before starting to jog in the direction they had landed.
"Also..." Markus looked back at the fishman, then the others. "We need to get a fire going, I need boiling water for sterilizing... I have gloves in the kit, but at least it's not the kind of thing that spreads by just touching it..."
"Right," Rink said and looked around where the ailing fishman was lying. She spotted a cauldron among his possessions, which she hauled over to the campfire. "Well, fire will be no problem, but we still need to fill this up with water..."
"Hold on," Muse said and looked around. "If he set up camp here, there should be a water source nearby..." she continued and looked up at the rock that the fishman appeared to have been using as his natural shelter. She went up to it, looking around it before disappearing behind it but soon returning from the other side of it.
"Any luck?" Rink asked.
"Yes, but... it's weird," Muse replied. "There is a hole with water on the other side here, but I didn't see any animals around, and it didn't have any visible source."
"It'll have to do," Rink commented and stood up. "Help me with this cauldron, will you?"
"Okay," Muse replied and put her bow down on the ground. Rink had no problems carrying the empty cauldron on her own, but filled up with water, it wasn't going to be a one-woman job. Muse showed the way to the water hole, and while it wasn't big, they had no issues lowering the cauldron and filling it up with water. They hoisted it up, and Muse lowered a cupped hand into it bringing it to her mouth to take a small drink - and immediately spat it out again.
"Something wrong with the water?" Rink asked.
"It's... it's salty," Muse answered. "This is sea water!"
"That's... odd," Rink noted. "But it'll do, especially since we're going to boil it anyway." They returned to the others, where Markus and Mirise were helping James dismount Allen and get seated on the ground. Allen had apparently grown tired of carrying him, and turned back into a human once James was off.
"Are you really going to help him? It's a fishman..." James whispered to Markus. "They're supposed to be violent, don't like humans..."
"I've heard that too, but... he's seriously ill, James," Markus replied and stood up. "It's my duty as a doctor to help him."
"If you say so..."
"Alright, we've got the water," Rink said as she and Muse put the cauldron down next to the stones circling the fireplace. "I just need to get some firewood..."
"So what about the food situation?" James asked. "This isn't what we came here for."
"We should help out however we can," Rink replied as she collected bits of trees lying on the ground at the edge of the clearing, breaking off some low-hanging branches to add to the fuel as well. "That said, there's probably no need for all of us to be here with Markus, so..."
"If one or two of you could stay and help, at least, that would be good," Markus stated as he crouched down next to the fishman again. "Can you hear me? It's going to be fine, I'm going to help you..." He got no reply, the fishman clearly teetering on the edge of unconsciousness.
"Well, it's not much of a question, really..." Rink looked around at the group. "James isn't going anywhere, Markus has the surgery to do, Mirise helps Markus, and I'm no hunter... so that leaves the two survivalists among us."
"Me, and..." Muse started.
"Me," Allen added.
"What about you, Rink?" James asked. "You could hear where things are..."
"I could, but I really don't think I'm suited for it," Rink replied from next to the fireplace, lighting a match and setting fire to a little pile of firewood she had piled up. Bringing matches everywhere in the case of wanting a smoke was becoming a better and better idea by the day. "I grew up on a farm, and while I've had to fend for myself... I've been a city girl. I used my skills to get money for food. I know nothing about hunting in a forest. I could listen to everything that's around, but I wouldn't know what to listen for."
"I'm sure we'll be fine," Allen assured them. "I know how to track things."
"And you don't want to be too many when hunting," Muse added. "I'm more used to hunting as just a pair anyway..."
"So that's decided, then," Rink noted. "The two of you look for food, and the rest of us stay here and assist Markus in saving that guy."
Muse and Allen nodded at each other and took off into the forest again, in the direction opposite the one they had come from.
"Just be careful," Markus said as they disappeared. "I don't want two more patients."
"Water's heating up, not quite boiling yet," Rink said.
"Well... come help me bring him over to the fire," Markus requested and nodded towards the fishman. Rink assisted in the transfer, and soon Markus was on his knees next to the cauldron, his patient in front of him. Markus removed the fishman's tunic and looked down at his body - he could identify six spots that required immediate attention, thankfully none of them dangerously large yet, most of the affected areas being on his right arm and right upper torso but with smaller instances of the infection showing up all over his body. Tracing the initial cut with the scalpel in the air first, he brought the blade down to the fishman's scales...
 

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