Breakfast was sweet rice porridge and a whole orange all to himself. Korin was downstairs early enough to meet Marta’s paying boarders, but after a few minutes of silence and nervous, suspicious looks, Korin took his food and fled back up to his room.
He’d talked Marta out of a double handful of candles and bag of salt with promises to look at her cousin’s bad tooth. Other resources had been easily swiped from the kitchen. Lily had found him a small canvas shoulder-bag left by some previous boarder in which he could carry it all. Korin didn’t know exactly what he was going to need, but these were basic tools, always useful.
For the last five years—ever since his graduation into the order of the Staff—Korin had travelled with Teriad, his teacher, and Lia, Teriad’s other apprentice. Korin’s time at the school of the Crystal had made him a wizard, but Teriad had taught him the deep secrets of their order, had taught him how to be a healer like no other. Always on the move, through Torar and Aleton and finally Ulek. Korin and Lia had learned the hard way, with bloody hands and worn fingers and a growing knowledge of all the horrors that could be inflicted on the human or firstborn body.
Teriad had believed they had a duty to serve, to help anyone they could. As they travelled through lands growing increasingly violent in their fear and hatred of magic, nothing had tarnished his kindness or his faith. Even when he’d thrown Korin out, told him to leave and never come back, he’d done so in his soft, gentle voice and with tears in his eyes.
Korin closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed those thoughts—those memories away. The same as he’d been doing for the last few weeks.
Ádan was already waiting for Korin in the marketplace, a wide grin on his handsome face. “Morning, Sunshine,” he said cheerfully.
What was it about this man that his smile drove deep into Korin to touch pieces of his soul he’d thought would be numb forever? What was wrong with Korin that he was so easily touched? Jonathan was dead. Teriad was dead. Had Korin forgotten them so quickly? What had he done to earn happiness?
With those sober thoughts in mind, he asked, “You found him?”
“I did. The old man’s name is Dustin. He was a weaver—his family has a shop over closer to riverside. A few month ago, he showed up at the market, begging. Klie over there,” Ádan nodded towards a table covered in fancy dyed cloth, “she gives him what food she can spare, got some of his story from him. Apparently he ran off from his family when he started to get sick. Didn’t want any of them to catch it. Now he spends his nights over towards the Academy ruins. Lot of empty buildings over there, but Klie pointed me towards a couple likely places.”
As Ádan led, Korin considered the new information. That Dustin was just a man—no hint of magic in his background. That he’d started spending his time near the Academy after he’d gotten sick, not before.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Ádan said once they’d left the crowded market behind and moved onto quieter streets.
What thoughts could Korin share? It seemed like so much of his life had become wrapped in secrets. But they weren’t secrets Korin wanted to keep. And Ádan was a friendly face—something Korin’s life had lacked recently. There were some truths Korin could share without putting himself too much at risk. And it only seemed fair for Ádan to know what he was getting into.
“I came here from Ulek.”
Ádan nodded. “I guessed as much.”
Korin sighed. Ádan had guessed. Marta had guessed. He simply wasn’t good at hiding things. “The old man, the way he looked—I saw that in Ulek. I saw…” His stomach clenched and his throat tightened. So hard to talk about this. But Ádan had to hear it. If he was going to help Korin, he needed to know.
So Korin came at it from a different angle. “They say Castle Ulek was one of the most beautiful places in the world, up there with Castle Darkivel and the Royal Palace here in Triome. Growing up, there was a woman in my village who’d been there once when she was a girl. She talked about it like it was made of magic. The gardens that covered the mountains. The fountains. The topiary dragons. Like magic,” Korin repeated softly.
But he had to go on. “When we got there—my teacher, Teriad, he brought us there to help—when we got there, everything was already destroyed. Black and burnt and terrible. Nothing green left. The fountains and gardens had been torn up into battlefields. So much blood ground into the dirt that it had changed color. The smells—you can’t imagine. The very air was greasy with smoke and grit and…
This wasn’t helping. As Korin paused to get control of his thoughts, Ádan said, “Prince Lysander’s down there, along with a lot of my friends. I wasn’t allowed to go.”
“You’re better off,” Korin said. He’d been trying so hard not to think about this, to leave the war behind him. But Ádan was easy to talk to, and seemed genuinely interested in what Korin had to say. The words spilled out before Korin had a chance to second guess himself. “The knights turned to the worst sorts of evil magic you can imagine. There weren’t many of them left—hundreds, versus the tens of thousands that had them surrounded. But they held back armies of soldiers and wizards alike.
“They set loose demons. They raised the dead. All that was bad enough. Especially since the demons and undead didn’t care who they killed once they were set loose. Ulek’s own civilians were slaughtered along with their enemies. But that wasn’t the worst.”
Korin and Ádan had reached the decaying neighborhood that surrounded the Academy. It gave Korin a shiver to be talking about this so near the ruins of the Knights’ seat of power. “I was never on the battlefield. We were there to be healers, nothing more. But I heard the soldiers talking about it. And from a distance, I saw them. The knights. How they’d corrupted themselves. Made themselves stronger, faster, tougher to kill. But the magic they used—it left its mark.”
“The marks that were on the old man,” Ádan said thoughtfully.
“Yes. Marks that shouldn’t be there. Not in a city where the knights haven’t been for a hundred years. Not this far from the war. Not on someone who isn’t trained to magic.”
Ádan had no response to that, and he and Korin walked the rest of the way in silence, each mired in their own thoughts.
They were in sight of the Academy walls when Ádan pointed Korin to an abandoned building that had once been some sort of shop with a tiny apartment above. The door was broken in half, the remaining part hanging tilted on its hinges, and Korin slipped through the gap. After the brightness of the morning sun outside, Korin was momentarily blind in the shadows, but as his eyes adjusted, he spotted the old man—Dustin—huddled in the far corner of the room.
“I don’t have anything worth stealing,” Dustin said in a small, resigned voice.
Korin approached him slowly, knelt down next to Dustin. “I’m a healer. I’m here to help.”
“No help for me,” Dustin whispered back.
Up close, Dustin looked even worse. The skin on his face was loose, patchy. The black lines that striped up from chin to forehead looked and smelled of rot. Korin had seen plenty of that on the battlefield. He knew blood poisoning, had seen diseased limbs rotting away. If this were a natural poison, with lines of decay spread this close to Dustin’s heart, his brain, he’d be dead.
And as Korin sat studying it, the blackness pulsed, and a new tiny line reached out near Dustin’s eye, spreading just fast enough Korin was certain it wasn’t a trick of his eyes.
Korin took the old man’s hand, sank his power into the old man’s body. Brushed against one of those horrible black tendrils and felt it pulse. It grew, sent out tiny feelers to wrap around Korin’s energy, tried to suck him in.
Korin jerked back. No, this wasn’t natural. Somehow the corruption the knights had invited into the world was living in this man.
“I need space to work,” Korin said to Ádan. “A circle large enough Dustin can lie down in it. And there’s a cup in my bag. I need it filled with drinkable water.”
Ádan set to work. Korin stayed next to Dustin. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
“Like I’m being eaten alive.”
“Do you remember anything that happened before you got sick? Were you near someone else who looked like this? Did you come to this part of town? Did you eat anything different, or hurt yourself somehow?”
Dustin shook his head to all Korin’s questions. “Nothing different at all. Just woke up one day, and my hands were hurting and I saw the blight starting in my fingers.”
Not much of a clue, but more than Korin had known before.
Ádan cleared the space Korin needed, then left to find water. Korin set to work preparing the space. He helped Dustin lie down where Korin wanted him, then pulled a piece of charcoal out of his bag. With it, he drew a circle around Dustin and himself, then a second circle, slightly larger. On the outside, he placed thirteen candles, equally spaced. In the ring between the two circles, he set out nine more. All the while he focused on his breathing, slowing it down, sliding into the relaxed, focused state he needed for serious magic.
When Ádan returned with the water, Korin directed him back to the supplies. “Take the salt—as much as you can mix into the water. It doesn’t have to all dissolve. It just needs to still be fluid enough to drink.”
Ádan made a face. “To drink? Really?”
Korin didn’t answer. He didn’t want to lose focus. He’d never done this on his own. For the first time, he wouldn’t have Teriad watching over his shoulder, ready to save Korin if something went wrong.
Korin would simply have to do everything right.
Thirteen candles outside the circle. Nine within. “Pass me the cup.” Ádan did so, silently. He watched Korin with studious curiosity, but Korin had no thoughts to spare for Ádan as he sank into his work.
Korin pointed at the first outer candle, lit it with a burst of power. One after the other, all around. Flames to keep the outside away. Then next, the inner candles, turning in the opposite direction. One for each order. The power of a wizard—his power—contained within the circle. If the magic went wrong, the circle would hold it in.
Dustin lay on the ground, his eyes wide, watching Korin. Korin dropped to his knees beside the old man. With one arm, he supported Dustin’s shoulders to help him sit up. With the other, he held the cup to Dustin’s lips. “Drink. It’ll taste terrible, but the more you get in you, the easier this will be.”
Dustin gulped, gagged, but got control of himself and managed to get through the full cup of gritty salt water. Korin lay him back down.
“Can I do anything?” Ádan asked softly.
“No.” Korin stripped off his gloves. He wanted as few barriers between him and the disease as possible. He slid his hands beneath Dustin’s shirt—one high on Dustin’s chest and the other just below Dustin’s sternum. He closed his eyes.
With his wizard sight fully awake, Korin could see the writhing wrongness that had invaded Dustin and spread through the old man like a tree setting its roots. The worst part was that the malignancy was moving with its own life, twisting and reaching and pulsing. The worst part was, it was as aware of Korin as Korin was of it.
The world fell away. All Korin knew was the body beneath his fingers. The evil within. Korin breathed in, breathed out, and with every exhale, sent magic into Dustin.
Not against the invading power. Not yet. First he found the tiny grains of salt that were filtering out through Dustin’s stomach and into Dustin’s blood. A few pulses of Korin’s power sped that process, hurrying it along.
Salt, pure salt, held magic like little else. As it moved through Dustin’s blood, Korin pushed as much energy into the tiny grains as he could. To his open wizard-eye, a galaxy of glittering stars danced through Dustin, spreading and reaching until every limb and muscle and bone touched by black was also soaked in sparkling light.
The blight felt that power the same as it had Korin. Tendrils of rot reached for it, tried to draw it in. Except this time, it wasn’t trying to pull Korin into itself, but Korin’s weapon.
As it sucked in Korin’s bait, Korin studied it. Watched it pulse and writhe. He’d seen disease that moved, that fought back, but never as active as this. Never so virulent.
Its eagerness was working against it. Hungry pseudopods surrounded the glowing grains of salt, consuming them. Pinpoints of light shone out through the darkness as it started to dissolve.
The blight pulled in on itself, trying to get away from the perilous light. But Korin’s magic had spread all through Dustin’s body. There was nowhere for it to escape to.
Thick lines of darkness, like grasping fingers, reached out of Dustin’s chest and wrapped around Korin’s hands and wrists, locking him in contact with the old man. Cold pain lanced through him where it touched, and it invaded Korin’s skin, sinking into his own blood.
“Korin!” Ádan called out. Which meant he could see it. Like the lines on Dustin’s face, this intrusion was visible to anyone.
Korin didn’t have time to waste to wonder what that meant. Without understanding how it had happened, he was suddenly fighting for his life. He felt it, this pestilent, ravenous, decay as it moved through him like a poison in the blood. Invading and spreading with the speed of a wildfire. Oozing out his pores, trying to envelop him.
Another black tentacle reached out from Dustin, aiming for the circle. Trying to get out. And even worse, at it pounded against the inside circle, the candles on the outside guttered and dimmed. Something on the outside was trying to get in.
Korin, locked in his own battle, didn’t have the energy or the focus to reinforce the boundaries. “Ádan! Get out! I can’t—“
The thirteen candles flamed up with a sudden burst of power. Had Korin fed that to them without realizing? He couldn’t spare thought to worry about it. The outer circle was strong again and that was what mattered.
The corruption inside Korin threatened to consume him. But even as it surrounded and smothered him, Korin was studying it, learning the feel of it. How it felt moving through him. The taste of it.
He’d touched this magic before. Healed wounded soldiers with the dying remnants of this power still oozing through their blood. He’d never touched it while it was still alive and hungry, but those early encounters had taught him its shape.
He needed to focus. He knew how to fight back. Except it hurt so much. This dark blight spreading through him, scraping him away from the inside. His insides were rotting; Korin could feel it. Like his entire body was trying to dissolve.
Rot. Disease. Corruption. Yes, that was the key. Korin had faced all these things before. Never with such power behind them. Never so aware and malefic. Never so immediately threatening to his own life.
“Get out,” Korin commanded the blight, hating how rough his voice sounded, how difficult it was to draw enough breath to speak. “You don’t belong here.”
Korin struggled against it, fighting to heal himself. Starting with his fingers, locking them in his mind. His hands as they were, without this black invader. Inch by inch, piece by piece, Korin recreated himself as he had been before this disease invaded him.
Until the darkness was a tight ball inside him, pulsing and squirming. Trying to regain its hold. Korin wrapped it in a globe of power, fed it with a focused burst of healing energy, and smashed it into nothing.
Free, he could breathe again, move again. Healing Dustin was almost an afterthought. The blight had been in the old man longer, but it wasn’t as virulent and aggressive as it had been once it had touched Korin. Whether it was Korin’s young healthy body that had fanned its power, or his magic, Korin wasn’t sure. But now he understood its nature, he was able to clear its weaker hold on Dustin.
Korin was free. Dustin was free. The blight was gone.