Icy wind whipped against the door flap to Calder's tent. Bursts of arctic air infiltrated every tattered seam. Had he the courage, or stupidity, to peer outside, he would have seen only swirls of white. The blizzard that descended on the camp last night showed no signs of letting up.
Calder adjusted the blanket covering his patient. Lord Barra should have known better than to attempt a rescue of the men and supplies lost in that crevasse. He should have listened to reason. Now the leader of their expedition had hypothermia. There was no wood for a fire, not this far north. Barra refused to accept sharing a bed and the body heat that came with it, but if his condition worsened, Calder wasn't about to let his patient, his friend, die.
He was thankful it was only hypothermia. Some of the team were developing symptoms of illness. The incubation time was oddly long, but he wondered if perhaps the extreme cold had somehow staved off the progression for a time. They mostly coughed, and a few had rashes. Hopefully that would be the whole of it. Lord Barra would not want to delay the expedition any further.
Their last night in civilization was the obvious source of this particular trouble. It was the last village they would see for over a month, so Lord Barra let everyone celebrate with an unending supply of drink at the tavern. They laughed and danced and talked for hours with the locals. The villagers had just returned from various wintering jobs in the south, and had plenty of tales to tell. One feisty old man had gone as far as Ukketia for a non-Guild mining contract. Looking back, that night was a breeding ground for illness. He should have stocked up on curatives.
Calder reached for Lord Barra's pack, hoping for some food, or a drink that wasn't melted snow. Instead, he discovered a brass box with a crank handle and a panel with small holes in it.
"What is this then?"
Lord Barra turned, opening one bleary eyelid.
"Bought it from an inventor several months back. He called it a radio. Said only certain elite citizens had them. Try it."
Calder inspected the device. It had a few dials and gauges, but the crank seemed like the most likely way to power it. He turned it a few times. A dim flicker of light illuminated the gauges. He wound the crank harder, until the machine buzzed. He looked to Lord Barra, sure he'd done something wrong.
Just then, something magical happened. The radio produced a faint melody. It was nearly drowned out by static, but Calder was amazed. He experimented with the dials, and managed to make the music louder and clearer.
He kept the radio powered for a long time. It made his friend visibly calmer. Calder started to nod off himself, when the music ended suddenly.
It was replaced by a Teraltian woman's voice.
"Good evening citizens. In today's news, quarantine zones have been set up in several southern cities, following the deaths of twenty working class individuals. Little is yet known about the illness, but authorities insist that it's nothing a good tonic won't cure."
The news continued on to the affairs of several upper noble families, politics, and a poetic tour of the newest and largest floating city, Caelspyr. But it was the first bit of news that had Calder concerned. Quarantine was nothing to brush off. He counted their team lucky that, though touched by illness, they did not encounter this new and deadly disease. Something terrible was happening at the same time that he had left his medical practice in order to join Lord Barra's expedition to the northern reach.
He couldn't allow himself to feel the pull back toward the capital. His friend needed him here. And venturing out into that blizzard would be foolhardy at best. Calder resumed his search for food, and uncovered a bottle of whiskey and some dried strips of meat wrapped in canvas. He offered them first to Lord Barra, then rationed the rest in case the storm continued.
Over the next few days, Lord Barra's condition stabilized. He and Calder spent much of their time listening to that wondrous radio. During the day, the music helped soothe and heal what medicine alone could not. But Calder began to dread the evenings. It was always the same innocuous tone from the newscaster, and the same implication of a dire problem being ignored.
"More cities across the continent report unusual cases of illness. It is not confirmed that these are the same disease."
Of course it was the same. Why would the government make note of it otherwise?
"A completely irresponsible riot in the Shunniran capital left three dead and a dozen in the hospital."
Calder suspected a good number of those hospitalized were not injured, but infected with whatever pandemic was working its way across the continent.
"Emperor Falkoun the Great has decreed that Caelspyr be opened to any citizens of noble standing, as well as respected merchants, and the Inventors Guild."
They were evacuating the land. Had it gotten so bad, so quickly? And still there was no word about what the disease was, or if anyone was researching a cure. Nobles would always in their own world, it seemed, too far removed from everyday danger that they couldn't recognize the signs.
Calder was one of the best doctors in Teraltis, trained by numerous master scholars at universities in all three countries of the continent. He couldn't ignore what was happening. Not any longer. He knew he had to go home.
The blizzard ended early the next morning, and the remaining members of the expedition team were now trickling in to check on their leader. He was able to speak coherently, but shivered and had a weakened heartbeat. Calder insisted that his friend remain in bed.
Lord Barra flatly refused this advice. He struggled to put fresh outer garments on so he could check the sledges.
"If we waste all of our supplies here, we will never reach the north pole!"
"If you exacerbate your condition and die, you will also never reach it."
"Are you the one leading this expedition now?"
Calder's mouth pulled to one side.
"We would have turned around the first time disaster struck if I were. There are so few of us left. I worry we won't make reach the pole despite any efforts we make."
Lord Barra grew quiet for a moment. His hands curled around the edge of the cot.
"This isn't about the expedition at all. You think you can make a difference for those suffering from that preposterous disease."
"You know I can. There are people out there who need my expertise."
"And what of those here at camp? I need you here."
The question drew a scowl from Calder. That was entirely unfair. Lord Barra had made it abundantly clear he did not share any of the affection Calder felt. And yet he was willing to manipulate those feelings to get what he wanted. But, it wasn't untrue either. Lord Barra was an adventurer to the core, reckless. If Calder left, who would tend the next bout of hypothermia? Or frostbite? Or a broken leg?
In the end, it was Calder who relented. He couldn't force Lord Barra to leave, and venturing back on his own might doom his friend and the rest of the team.
They continued their trek north the next day.
The weather was bitterly cold, and the blizzard left deep tracts of snow in its wake. With each labored step, Calder envisioned what damage the pandemic was causing, what lives it disrupted, the families affected.
It was then he realized that none of the team knew any of this was happening. They had a right to know, and if they agreed with him about heading back, Lord Barra would have to reconsider. He would wait until everyone was gathered for dinner. That would be around the time of the evening news bulletin.
Just as planned, when the team sat together with their dinner, Calder revealed what the radio had said.
"I'm afraid we've learned some terrible news."
He proceeded to tell of the disease spreading across the continent, and how it was serious enough that the emperor was evacuating key individuals to that flying playground for the elites of society. Calder couldn't meet Lord Barra's eye. The man was quietly fuming. But that was nothing compared to the team's reaction.
The four men and two women remaining of the expedition were on their feet, shouting at one another and Lord Barra. How long had he known? When were they going to be told? Were their families safe? How bad was this disease? Where was this device that this news purportedly came from?
To that last point, Calder ran to fetch the radio. He turned the crank until it lit up. The news had just barely begun.
"Sad news today as an entire portion of New Clifton is being abandoned due to plague fears."
That was enough to spark a new wave of anger and concern. One of the women stormed over to Lord Barra.
"If our doctor knew, so did you. How could you not tell us? My family is in New Clifton! Or they were. Who knows if they've moved since this happened?"
Calder jumped between them.
"I understand your concern, but the blizzard prevented us from sharing this news. And Lord Barra's been unwell. You know this."
"But to march us north instead of south?"
The rest of the team joined her in accusations. Why had they kept going at all? What kind of sick, entitled nobleman would play with the lives of his team like this? Lord Barra shouted furious retorts. The argument escalated. Several of the team were soon wielding tools as weapons. Calder tried to calm both sides down. He was pushed into the snow for his trouble.
The enraged mob lunged at Lord Barra. It was as if the team's minds were no longer their own. The scene reminded him of the news of riots. It couldn't be the same disease, could it? It seemed unlikely, but New Clifton was the closest city to the murky swamp that old-timer had been griping about. The pieces of a terrible puzzle were beginning to assemble in his head.
Calder cursed. He scrambled to his feet. He put himself between the mob and Lord Barra, who was punching every team member who came within range. Calder was beaten with a tent pole, and a knife cut through the outer layer of his coat.
Lord Barra looked far worse. He'd taken a few good hits before Calder could intervene. Bruises marred his face. Blood trickled down from his forehead and into his eye. His leg was bleeding. He had taken up a long knife of his own, and waved it in front of him. They had to get out of there, or the team was going to kill them both.
Calder looked to the sledges. Thank the gods they'd brought reindeer instead of dogs. He grabbed his friend by the coat and hauled him, still shouting, away from the fight. He took the knife and cut one of the reindeer loose.
Lord Barra groaned as he tried to mount the reindeer. The gash in his leg was staining his pant leg a deep red. Calder helped his friend up and away from the angry mob. A mallet hit Calder in the ribs, sending a wave of throbbing pain through his chest. There were no more worries about the citizens of Teraltis who could be saved. In the moment, there was only one thought: survive.
He leapt onto the reindeer. The animal jerked at the sudden burden, and of the mob surrounding it. Calder kicked it into a run. It swung its antlers at the mob before bolting.
The camp, the supplies, and their murderous team shrank away to nothing on the horizon. Calder turned to see his friend glaring at him. It was a look of accusation, a look that said 'is this what you wanted?', and ultimately, of defeat. For good or ill, they were going home.