By Geoff Bottone
The Red Dragon Inn 9 – The Undercity is live on Kickstarter! Today we dive into a tale from the Undercity. Let’s meet Doctor Terci, a surgeon in the Undercity trying to make an honest living in a world of magical healing.. This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing story. Follow this link if you missed Chapter 1 or Chapter 2.
“Now then,” Terci said, tying off the bandage around the young man’s arm and threading the ends back in through the wrapping, “that should do it. I’d leave it on for three days or so. Be sure to come back in and see me if your fingertips start to turn strange colors or tingle.”
The young man, a freckle-faced, amateur adventurer still looking for a party, looked up at Terci with round, saucer-like eyes. “But you said you got all the poison out.”
Terci smiled, gave the tightened bandage a final once over, and began transferring their dirty tools to the tray. “I did say that. And I did, in fact, get all the poison out. The tingling extremities and discoloration I mentioned, while a sign of some types of poisoning, are also prevalent in secondary infections, the early stages of gangrene, that sort of thing.”
“How likely is that to happen?” The adventurer clutched his freshly bandaged hand against his chest and slowly stood up. “And what do I do if it does?”
Terci carried the tray of used physicking tools over to the small sink in the corner of the room. They turned the spigot, waited for the pipe to stop groaning and for the water to start running mostly clear. Then they placed the tray under the water and left it to rinse.
The doctor clucked their tongue, thinking.
“Well, the good news is that you came to me right away, and I was able to clean out the wound quite well—if I do say so myself. I’d say your chance of infection is less than…hmm…let’s call it two percent, which is quite low.”
They turned around. The adventurer had become notably paler in the last few moments, though not so seriously that Terci was concerned that he was going to faint. They could tell, just by looking at the adventurer’s concerned expression, that he didn’t quite understand just how good a 98% chance of avoiding infection was. But then again, after treating so many adventurers in Greyport, Terci had become convinced that none of them had a proper understanding of probability or, indeed, survival bias.
“Listen, listen.” Terci smiled, and was about to reach out a reassuring hand when they realized that they still had their thick gloves on. They took them off and carefully placed them beside the sink before attempting the gesture. The muscles of the adventurer’s shoulder were quite tense. Oh dear.
They tried again. “I promise you that you are going to be fine. Just fine. I’m mentioning possible future symptoms so that you’ll be prepared in case you experience them. I doubt that’s going to happen, but if you do, come back here. I’ll do some exploration in the wound, use leeches to increase the blood flow to the area and remove all the dead tissue, apply a healing salve, and then stitch you back up again.”
The adventurer slowly backed away from Terci, toward the door.
“Free of charge!” Terci said, and then regretted saying it.
“Thanks very much, Doctor Terci.” The adventurer completed his retreat to the door. “I appreciate all the help.”
“You’re welcome, of course. I’d also recommend that you get plenty of liquids and lots of rest. Three gold, please.”
The young man had the door halfway open when Terci’s words brought him to a halt. He reached across his body with his uninjured hand and fumbled around in a rather saggy pouch before producing the payment. He handed it out to Terci. One of the coins was of modern minting, while the other two featured the stylized, angular profiles of one dwarven monarch or another. Terci beamed as they took the money. The adventurer had apparently had some success after all.
“If you’re satisfied with my work, please refer a friend, associate, co-conspirator, or lackey, and both of you will get half off on your next visit!”
“Uh, okay,” muttered the adventurer, who was already outside, as he shut the door with a bang.
Terci held their pose of smiling professionalism for a long moment, just in case the patient decided to come back in to shower them with gratitude, tips, or useful questions regarding his health. When the door didn’t open up again after several tense heartbeats, Terci let their smile falter and their spine relax. They locked the door, returned to their cluttered desk, and began to write.
There was a knock on the door.
“Just a moment!” Terci set their quill pen back in the hole on the side of the inkwell and rubbed their eyes with the heels of both of their palms. They took a quick circuit of their surgery, closing their notebook and checking themselves over in the cloudy mirror near the examination table. Coat on straight. Spots of blood from Patient 35 that made Terci look hard-working and experienced. Hair tangled, but presentable. Bags under eyes visible and heavy.
Terci unlocked the door and opened it. Standing on the landing outside was a tall, slender woman with purplish-red skin, upswept horns, and long, dark hair that had been tied into a ponytail with almost military discipline. She wore a sleek dark cloak over a similarly sleek mostly-dark outfit. A pair of spectacles with black lenses were perched on her nose, preventing Terci from seeing her eyes.
“Hello!” said Terci. “Won’t you please come in?”
The horned woman slipped into the room and shrugged off her coat in a single, graceful gesture. She hung it up on the peg next to the door as Terci went around the surgery, putting on their gloves and placing a set of clean instruments onto a tray. Terci noticed that the woman’s cloak was hung in such a way that an inside pocket was visible. The ragged edge of a scroll poked out of the lip of the pocket.
“Have a seat on the table,” said Terci, gesturing, “and please tell me what I can do for you.”
“I’m doing a little renovation around the old cave,” said the woman, “and somehow—I don’t know how—I managed to injure my hand. It’s so minor that I don’t feel like there’s any reason to bother the Temple with it. But I do want it looked at, and a friend of mine said that you do quality healing work, so I thought I’d stop by.”
Terci smiled, “Oh, that’s excellent. I’m very indebted to your friend. What’s their name?”
The woman smiled back, her small teeth looking very sharp in the surgery’s lantern light. “He’d rather I didn’t just give out his name. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, of course,” said Terci, picking up their magnifying lens. “That’s fairly common. I’m just glad that word of my practice is getting out there, and that people are trusting me with their health. Speaking of which, I want to make sure you understand that anything you say to me will not leave this office, and that you don’t have to give me your name if you don’t—”
“It’s Petra,” said the woman, who was now peering at Terci intently over the tops of her spectacles.
“Um,” said Terci, more than a little surprised at this admission. “I’m sorry?”
“Petra,” said Petra. “And don’t worry, Doctor Terci. I have nothing to hide.”
“Even still,” said Terci, “mum’s the word and all. It’d be awfully difficult for me to retain my patients if I was cavalier with their information. Especially in the Undercity. Now, you said you had injured your hand?”
Still wearing a faint smile, Petra held out her hand, which Terci took. They found the skin surprisingly warm to the touch. They also saw a row of three small puncture marks, evenly spaced, on the skin of Petra’s hand between her thumb and her forefinger. Terci studied the wounds under their magnifying lens. The wounds seemed clean enough on the surface, but there was no telling what they looked like on the inside.
They put the lens down and took up an irrigation syringe and a small bowl. “I have to wash out the punctures. Just to make sure they’re clean, you understand.”
Petra held her hand over the bowl and Terci sprayed water onto the wound. They were surprised to see that Petra’s hand seemed to steam a little.
“Well, that’s unusual,” they said, as they expelled the last of the water from the syringe. “You seem to run quite a bit warmer than most of my other patients. I was concerned it was a fever at first, but you seem otherwise well. Lucid. Responsive. That sort of thing. So I assume, I hope, that this is simply the resting temperature for your species, which I haven’t had the pleasure of treating before. Anyway, in the event that this isn’t normal for you, do let me know and I can prescribe an elixir for the rebalancing of your humors, which should bring your internal temperatures down quite swiftly, and to safer levels.”
Petra had neither moved or spoken for quite a while now, not even to voice the occasional “um” or “er” or “uh huh” that were common responses to Terci’s other patients. It was a little unnerving, and coupled with Petra’s unwavering, sharp-toothed smile, doubly so.
Why do I feel like a minnow who has met a shark? Terci thought.
To Petra, they said, “Ah, but I’m babbling. Ahem!”
“I don’t think so, Doctor Terci.” Petra favored Terci with a smile, and they could see that she had pressed the tip of her tongue against the back of her sharp teeth. “And you’re right, my species does tend to run a little hot.”
“Oh, good. Good.” Terci turned away and, with a bit of a clatter, placed both the irrigating syringe and the now half-full bowl of water on the table. “Some salve, I think, and a bandage. Yes, both of those will do, and you’ll be just fine.”
They scooped some salve from an open jar and slathered it on Petra’s hand. As they wrapped a bandage around the wound, they said, “I must say, it’s an interesting wound–most unusual, though not at all serious. What did you say made it?”
“An animal,” said Petra, with a cold grin. “A small one, that thought it was more of a threat to me than it actually was.”
Terci considered the wound. If it had been inflicted by an animal, the puncture wounds suggested a bite rather than a rake with claws. They tried to think of any small animals, magical or mundane, that had a three-toothed bite pattern. They wanted to ask Petra some follow up questions, but her expression, and the way she had delivered her last statement, made them reconsider.
“How strange,” said Terci instead, as they tied off the bandage.
Petra held her hand before her eyes and flexed her fingers experimentally. “Oh, that’s much better! Thank you so much, Doctor Terci!”
Petra hopped off the table and crossed the room to her cloak, which she lifted off of the hook and swung around onto her arms in one smooth, dancer-like motion. The action of the cloak created a sharp breeze that blew through the surgery, stirring the damp air.
“You’re welcome, of course!” said Terci, clasping their gloved hands in front of them and putting on their most professional air. “Now, I’ve thoroughly irrigated the wounds and applied a topical salve, but there’s still a chance that some debris remains in the wound. Give it a look in a few days and, if it’s discolored, swollen, or warm. Well, that is to say, unusually warm. For you. You should come back and I’ll have another look at it.”
Petra smiled again. “It would be my pleasure. How much do I owe you?”
Petra dug around in her coat pockets, extracted a heavy pouch, and counted out three coins from within. “That’s very reasonable. Thank you, doctor.”
Terci remembered to take their gloves off and place them on the table as Petra extended her uninjured hand. Her fingertips were warm as Terci took the gold from her. She smiled again, pleasantly enough despite the sharpness of her teeth. Behind her tinted spectacles, however, her eyes were invisible, and could have conveyed any one of a number of intentions.
“I must be going,” said Petra, with a little half bow, “but I really appreciate you seeing me and treating me. I’ll be sure to stop by again if I need any more healing.”
“Oh, very good, I’d be happy to treat you. Oh! Almost forgot! If you’re satisfied with my work, please refer a friend, associate, co-conspirator, or lackey, and both of you will get half off on your next visit!”
“I will,” said Petra, before dashing out the door and closing it behind her.
Terci waited until they were sure that Petra had gone before letting out a long, low sigh. Rattling the slightly above room temperature coins in their hand, they moved to lock the door…
And noticed a rolled up scroll laying on the floor, just underneath the coat hooks.
Terci sat at their desk, staring at the scroll that now rested atop their open logbook.
They had rushed out into the tunnel to catch up with Petra and to give her back her scroll, but the horned woman was nowhere in sight. Terci then spent the next few minutes walking up one end of the tunnel and back, before walking up the other end of the tunnel and back. They hadn’t seen anyone, and they realized that all they were doing was dithering, so they came back inside.
And then, there was the matter of the scroll.
Terci had sworn, when they had opened their practice, that they would honor patient confidentiality above all else. After all, the only way one could win the trust of, er, certain individuals, was to be studiously resolute in not asking any questions about those same individuals’ places of residence, professions, or real names.
This is why the scroll presented a bit of an issue. It might contain useful information that would allow Terci to return it with all due swiftness to Petra. Contrariwise, it could also contain useful information that Petra did not want anyone–not even her well-meaning primary care provider–to see.
“All right,” they said, as they began to unroll the scroll, “look for an address, or something similar, while avoiding looking at any other incriminating information. Memorize said address, or something similar, while forgetting the rest. Then bring the scroll to Petra. Then forget about the whole mess in toto, and maintain your professional reputation.”
With that, Terci took a deep breath and yanked the scroll open, only to realize that the promises that they had made to themselves were going to fall, almost immediately, to the wayside. For it did not contain things that they were hoping it contained, such as student notes, or a treatise on novel uses for the herbs common to the troll clans, or even something written in ancient elven hieroglyphs.
It turned out that it contained a floorplan for a very large building. Thirteen steps led up to a large set of double doors that provided ingress. The left wing of the building was about half as long as the right wing. The right wing also seemed to contain five divots–perfect semicircles–carved into the outer wall on the front for some reason that Terci could not determine.
More disturbing was the dotted red line that had been drawn from the building’s back door, through several unlabeled rooms and hallways, to a large red X marked down in the center of a large room in the back. Along its winding track, the dotted line passed several ominous red skulls, which grinned up from the parchment at Terci in a most disturbing way.
Terci assumed that the floor plan was not a treasure map. It looked quite a bit more sinister, in fact. They wondered what Petra was doing with it. Then they wondered what Petra was planning to do with the information that it contained.
It was somewhat easy for Terci to maintain a useful level of cognitive dissonance as long as their patients never told them anything. No matter who a person was, whether an outlaw, thief, rapscallion, or ne’er-do-well, everyone deserved treatment, and Terci was happy to give it to them, and knowing very little about their personal history made the treatment that much easier to give. However, once they had heard about daring break-ins into the caverns of the elderly, or knife fights in alleys, or floor plans with skulls on them…well, that became a bit trickier.
Terci leaned back in their chair and stretched, listening as their spine popped in a most satisfying way. Their constant low-level fatigue and their cramped, subterranean office space weren’t conducive to sorting out moral dilemmas, and that meant that there was only one thing that the doctor could recommend.
It was time for coffee.
Dressed up in their coat and their wide-brimmed hat, Terci ventured up staircases and sharply sloping ramps to the street level of Greyport. It was a bright sunny day in the city, but the brim of their hat gave them enough protection to enjoy the day without squinting. They waved amiably at passersby as they wandered up the city streets toward the neighborhood around the Mages’ Collegium, and their eventual destination.
Startusk’s was quite a long uphill hike away from Terci’s office, but the little shop served the best coffee in Greyport. Only the very best coffee would get Terci’s brain matter fired up enough to deal with the issue of the scroll, which now weighed very heavily inside of the pocket of their coat. Though they could not stop themselves from turning the moral implications of the scroll over and over in their mind, they tried not to think too deeply about it until they had the proper fuel inside of them.
And so, Terci walked, past little shops and quaint little houses, near buildings bearing plaques that said that they had survived–or mostly survived–the Day of Red Fire, around earnest young priests collecting donations for the Temple, and underneath banners advertising the yearly masked gala at the Thieves’ Guild.
At last, Terci reached the door to Startusk’s and opened it. A tiny bell jangled. Several exhausted Collegium students–huddled over their potions and pastries–turned to regard Terci quizzically as they walked in. Behind the counter, a large, very muscular orc in an apron smiled at them warmly.
“Doc! Good to see you!”
“Phyll! Likewise. How’s business?”
“Oh, can’t complain. The usual?”
“Yes. Though, I will say, if you have a pot that’s been cooking for a few hours, Give me that. I need the dregs to keep my brain alive.”
Phyll chuckled as he began to pour black liquid into a metal cup. “You know, doc, if you ever returned your empties to me, you’d get quite a bit of gold back in deposits.”
“I’ll try to remember that for next time,” said Terci, handing over their coin and taking the hot cup of coffee. “Though I’d probably need to rent a wheelbarrow.”
Phyll laughed. “Now that I’d love to see. Have a good one, doc. Don’t be a stranger!”
“I won’t, Phyll. See you around!”
Their eyes had adjusted enough to the light of the surface that they no longer needed to wear their hat. With it clipped on their belt, and with half-drunk coffee in hand, Terci wandered the streets of Greyport, nodding pleasantly at other pedestrians and admiring the architecture of the city’s numerous buildings. Their mind was already working much more efficiently thanks to the caffeine infusion, and they felt that they were already making headway into the issue of the scroll.
Unfortunately, the headway that they had made led Terci to believe that their options were very limited. They didn’t know what building the floor plan referenced, or what, if anything, the symbols on it actually meant. There was also no other identifying information that would allow Terci to get the scroll back to Petra. Based on that, it seemed that all Terci could do was put the scroll in a drawer until Petra eventually came back for it, return it to her, and then forget all about it.
Terci sipped their now-cold coffee and frowned. Something about the scroll still bothered them. They didn’t like it when written information nagged at them. It reminded them too much of their days in Physickers’ College.
They rounded a corner and found themselves on a wide street that passed the surface headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild on the left and one of the city’s largest banking and mercantile houses on the right. Tall, wrought iron fencing topped with ornate but sharp decorations walled off the courtyard of the guild, and through it, Terci could see what they could only assume to be initiates sweeping the paving stones and hanging up decorations. A leaning banner across the guild’s entrance–which was in the process of being straightened thanks to the efforts of several initiates and the encouraging shouts of several henchmen–proclaimed that the much-advertised gala would be taking place tomorrow night.
Something caused Terci to pause in their wandering and take another slug of ambient temperature coffee. They regarded the large building with its reinforced doors and barred windows with a sudden and intense interest. They had walked past the Thieves’ Guild numerous times since their coming to Greyport, but they had never paid this much attention to it until now.
It was a very large building, built of pale, blue-gray stone. It had narrow windows that resembled arrow slits, which were blocked off by iron bars to prevent any potential unusual ingress or egress.
A flight of steps led up to a pair of double doors. Not in the middle of the building, as one might expect. In fact, the two wings of the building were of vastly different sizes, with the left being about half as long as the right, and….
Terci gulped down the rest of their coffee and retreated to the opposite side of the street. There, they slipped behind one of the trees planted along the sidewalk, took the scroll out of their coat, and scanned it as surreptitiously as they could. Courtyard? Check, but lots of buildings had those, especially in the posh part of Greyport. Steps leading up to a pair of double doors? Check, but not surprising, considering that it was a sort of public building. Asymmetry between the left and right wings of the building? Check, that was strange, certainly, but any building could look like that, especially if someone had built an addition onto an existing structure. That happened all the time, probably quite a lot in the years just following the Day of Red Fire.
No, the only way the floorplan could be of the Thieves’ Guild headquarters is if it had these matching divots on the facade on the right-most wing, but clearly it didn’t have those, and so…
Terci looked up, and counted five recessed, semi-circular alcoves that had been built into the front facade of the building’s right wing. Standing in each of the alcoves were statues of former, famous guild masters, all of whom likely died under perfectly ordinary circumstances.
Terci hastily rolled up the scroll, now damp from their sweating hands, and shoved it back into the inside pocket of their coat. The plan matched the building. The plan showed the ground floor of the Thieves’ Guild. Terci’s brain worked faster than they could comprehend, making intuitive leaps of logic that caused them to rise to ever higher levels of paranoia and panic. Petra had plans for the Thieves’ Guild, which seemed to also show a plan for a break-in. And skulls. Skulls were usually a bad thing, except when mentioned and drawn in medical textbooks, but the floor plan was most certainly not a medical textbook.
Terci needed to get underground. They needed to get back to their office, sit in the quiet and in the dark for a minute, and think about what they were going to do with this information. No matter how Terci tried to spin the information in their mind, it always seemed to lead to something nefarious. A backroom break in. A string of mostly innocent thieves dealt with in a permanent, but unspecified, manner. Some final, gruesome act in a very large room.
Time to leave the surface behind, get underground where it was quiet, and really think about what they were going to do next.
Terci hurried along the tunnel to the small door that led to their surgery. They found it unlocked and ajar. Never a good sign. Plucking a good, sharp scalpel from their kit, they pushed the door open and stepped inside.
“I have a sharp knife and medical training, so stand down before I…AAAAH!”
Terci dove for the floor as a very large, and seemingly very angry dire bat swooped across the threshold and into the surgery. The bat took one circuit of the small room before alighting on the underside of the shelves above the sink. Terci started to get up as the bat wrapped its wings around itself and glared at them balefully.
A blonde dwarf, who was rooting through Terci’s desk, turned around, looking somehow vigilant and apologetic at the same time.
“Who are you?”
“Doctor Terci,” said Terci, getting up. “This is my office.”
“Sorry that Viv started you,” said the dwarf, “And sorry that we let ourselves in. We’re hot on the trail of someone, and it’s made us forget our manners. ”
“So,” said Terci, judging the distance between themselves, the dwarf, and a tray of surgical implements. “You’re not trying to rob me?”
The dwarf lifted one hand apologetically toward the ceiling. With the other, she tugged at the mantle she wore. A small brass emblem, belonging to the Runoff Rangers, came into view.
“I’m Ygella. I’m a ranger. And I promise we’re not here to rob you.”
“Oh, good. Good!” said Terci. “Glad that’s all settled then, Officer, er, Ygella. Pleased to meet you, and that’s, ah, quite the healthy specimen of a dire bat you have there. Erm.”
They took a moment to compose themselves before stepping forward and gently shaking the Ygella’s now outstretched hand. “Doctor Terci, at your service. I’m guessing, based on your statement, that you’re not here for medical assessment or treatment.”
The dwarf looked up at them from beneath her knitted brows. “No, we’re both fit as fiddles. But what I do want to know is if you’ve seen a suspected criminal that I’ve been tracking for the past little while. Tall lady. Horns. Dark glasses. Name of Petra.”
Terci clasped their hands behind their back to wring them where the dwarf wouldn’t see.
“Ah, I see. Interesting!”