123 Beneath The Mask Pt.1

    The long howls of a grieving mother echoed along the halls of the sanatorium.

    Namjoon watched mournfully as the haggard woman wept at the bedside of her child, her wails adding to the heaviness he felt in his chest. He reached out to touch her, comfort her, do whatever he could to alleviate her pain. But he knew that nothing he did now could bring back the woman's child from the afterlife.

    He had failed to save him from the plague.

    The grieving mother clung to her child's lifeless body with hot tears streaming from her eyes. With desperation she shook him, her voice high-pitched and delirious as she tried to rouse her child from his deep slumber.

    "Please, Madam," Namjoon's voice was soothing as he reached out to comfort her. "He is no longer with us."

    The woman wailed even louder. "No, no, no!" she cried, voice heavy with denial. "He's still with us. My boy hasn't left me-he's just asleep!"

    Namjoon did his best to coax the aggrieved woman from her child's body, but she did not bow down without resisting. Eventually, he managed to pry her hands away and she grasped onto his robes like she had been reduced to a vulnerable infant. She cried noisily, burying herself deep into Namjoon's embrace as if it was the only safe place in the world left for her.

    Sharing her anguish, Namjoon allowed her to smother him. Despite knowing that he had done his best to save the child, Namjoon couldn't escape from the guilt that gnawed at his insides.

    If only I tried harder. If only I knew more. If only-

    The door suddenly opened. "Oh, apologies, I did not know you were occupied."

    Namjoon turned to the door and was surprised to find a blond gentleman loitering near the entrance. He gently pushed the woman away. "Sir Vernon-"

    "I see you are busy," Vernon interrupted as he began turning away, "I can return later-"

    "No, it is fine." He cleared his throat and the woman looked up with tear-stained eyes. "I will talk to you later, Madam," Namjoon spoke endearingly. "Please take care on your way home."

    The woman nodded as she peeped at Vernon and then back at Namjoon. Briskly, she brushed past the blond gentleman, too mournful to even remember how much she feared the Waekugin.

    Once the two men were alone, Vernon turned to face Namjoon and observed his weary visage. "Your dedication is admirable," he began as he approached the physician, who was busy covering the child's cadaver.

    Namjoon tossed him a look as he walked unsteadily over to where the washing basin was. "My dedication means nothing if my patients die."

    Vernon was silent.

    With his head hanging low, Namjoon leaned over the counter. "I could not save him..." Vernon heard Namjoon murmur. "I promised that widow that I would save her child. I promised her that he would return but I-" He punched the table, causing a porcelain cup to roll over the edge and shatter. Namjoon sighed as he pressed two fingers to his temple.

    "You tried your best," Vernon said in a bid to comfort him. "You cannot save everyone."

    Namjoon glanced over his shoulder in time to see Vernon draw closer to him.

    "But I am glad that you were able to save Brahms," Vernon placed his hand over his heart to demonstrate his sincerity, "of which I am eternally grateful for."

    Namjoon managed a small smile.

    "I have come to enquire as to when Brahms may be discharged from your care," he added. "As you can imagine, he has been very keen to recover in more comfortable lodgings."

    "He can be released as early as tomorrow," Namjoon replied wearily as he dipped his hands into the cold water. "He has recovered quite well, and I am sure that recuperating under a different roof will benefit him." After drying his hands, Namjoon tottered to the other side of the room with Vernon following closely behind. "I will write you a list of things that... he must do to- to aid his recovery."

    Vernon raised a brow as he observed Namjoon reach for a fresh sheet of rice paper and ink brush. He started to write with shaky movements, earning a questioning stare from Vernon, who couldn't help noticing how he leaned on the table for support.

    "He- he must drink plenty of clean water," Namjoon instructed. "And of course, he must avoid foraging in the lands from now- from now onward." He turned to Vernon, allowing him to see the dark shadows under his tired eyes. Like the linen he used to cover the corpse, Namjoon's face was also pasty white. "Ensure that everything he eats is washed and cooked properly before consumption." Namjoon handed the piece of paper to Vernon and he accepted it.

    "Thank you," he replied as he sceptically glanced at the sheet of paper.

    Noticing his expression, Namjoon queried, "Is there- is there something the matter?" He gestured at the sheet. "Have I written something... illegible?"

    "No, that is not it," Vernon answered quickly, his face slightly flushed. "Your penmanship is excellent. It is just that..." He cleared his throat as he hesitantly admitted, "I am afraid my reading ability is not quite on par with my other communication skills."


    "But it is not something I cannot overcome." Vernon folded the piece of paper and tucked it away in his suit pocket. "I thank you once again." He bowed slightly and was about to leave when he suddenly halted. "Are you sure I do not have to pay for your services? I feel awful not doing so." Vernon rummaged through his suit pockets as if searching for his wallet.

    Swiftly, Namjoon responded, "No, please, I insist. No money is needed."

    Vernon was hesitant to comply.

    "This sanatorium was not founded with profit in mind," Namjoon explained. "Its purpose is to provide healthcare to those in need; to never turn a patient away." He smiled sadly as he remembered the person who taught him that. "With that in mind, I hope you will honour this sanatorium's ethos."

    Seeing the determination in Namjoon's haggard countenance, Vernon obliged. "You really are admirable, Sir Namjoon. Most people would have jumped at the mention of money."

    "Well, I am pleased to say I am not like most people." He gestured toward the door which led to the foyer.

    Vernon followed suit. "No," he agreed, "you are very different from the Saimese I have encountered so far."

    "Different?" Namjoon's tone was suddenly edgy. "How so?"

    "I find you are more... open-minded," Vernon replied, carefully emphasising his chosen adjective. "You were the only one who helped us when we first arrived. Many had turned us away, too afraid of the colour of our skin, our eyes, our attire... of us."

    Namjoon stopped to face Vernon.

    "But you were not."

    The pair stood apart from each other, both standing tall, with their eyes locked into an implicit stare down. As if trying to read his mind, Namjoon searched Vernon's unwavering, odd-coloured eyes but with little avail. Despite his deceivingly amiable appearance, he was not a man who could easily be read.

    "I guess you could say I am not afraid of you," Namjoon said with a small chuckle, but something about it seemed forced. "Regardless of your appearance or your race, your blood is the same colour as mine."

    "Indeed," Vernon muttered, a small smile gracing his lips. "It is reassuring to know you think of us that way-"

    Namjoon watched as Vernon's expression suddenly morphed to one of surprise and then impassiveness as his gaze fell on his office, where the door was slightly ajar. Following his eyes, he noticed his blade mounted on the wall. "That sword," Vernon murmured as he continued to stare, his tone suddenly cold, "is it real?"

    Namjoon was quiet. "...Yes," he eventually replied.

    "How curious," Vernon's voice was noticeably low. "I was not aware that physicians here were also trained to wield a sword." He turned to face Namjoon, his body language somewhat stiffer. "I did not take you for a fighter, Sir Namjoon. Are you an accomplished swordsman?"

    "Some will say I am..." Namjoon replied wryly as he tore his eyes away from the blade. "But that was a long time ago." He shifted his gaze to meet Vernon's. "I am a man of medicine now."

    Vernon steadily eyed Namjoon before letting out a hum in response. "I see," he broke away from their locked gaze as he took a step forward, "well, I shall not detain you from your tasks any further."

    Namjoon stepped aside to allow Vernon to amble by.

    "Take care of yourself too, Sir Namjoon," the blond gentleman murmured as he passed, his voice returning to its original warmth. "It would be a shame if the physician became the patient." And with those words, he departed.

    Once Vernon was nowhere to be seen, Namjoon let out a long breath. He pinched the bridge of his nose to try and alleviate the pent-up tension that was slowly building up, but with little success. It was proving harder to suppress the sharp pain from affecting his train of thought. Damn it, he cursed as he squeezed his eyes shut. I must not fall ill now. His head pounded as each moment passed.  Just a little more. I can keep going just a little more-

    "Master Namjoon!"

    The sudden sound of a voice calling out to him made Namjoon grimace as the throbbing pain pulsed at the same time. Reluctantly, he peeped through his lidded eyes and saw a blurred figure standing before him. Bright light poured in from outside, temporarily blinding his vision and causing him to wince.

    "Master Namjoon!" the blurred figure shouted again, its voice loud and distorted. Like a jarred ringing in his ears, the blurred figure's voice grated on his eardrums. "Something bad has happened! Chim Chim, he..."

    But Namjoon couldn't hear the rest. For as the blurred figure continued to jabber, the ground swayed underneath his feet and the room spun round and round like he was at the bottom of a whirlpool. Namjoon fought to maintain his balance as he struggled against the overwhelming pain. And like the sea current, it pulsed through his head repeatedly; wave after wave that increased in dizzying strength.

    "Master Namjoon?" The blurred figure's voice was softer this time, much to Namjoon's relief. With a wary step, it drew closer, allowing Namjoon to see its face with a little more clarity. He squinted and for a moment, he thought he recognised who it was. "Master Namjoon, are you-?"

    But before he could utter the blurry figure's name, Namjoon's vision went dark.
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