It all came back to the Knights.
The blight was tied to them. Korin was sure of it.
He shut the book he’d been studying—what was essentially the diary of a Wing wizard who’d lived in Triome a couple hundred years ago. The wizard had kept exceptional notes on his magical studies, as well as various diseases that had moved through the city and a couple cases of victims of magical attack. This was the fifth book he’d been through, and he’d barely dented his stack.
So far, he hadn’t found any mention of disease, poison, or affliction of any sort that was anything like the blight. That, along with the undeniable evidence that he had seen the knights in Ulek with similar-looking symptoms, the conclusion seemed inescapable.
But how? The affliction of the Knights had been tied to their magic. It hadn’t been a disease in the usual sense. Korin had seen no signs that it could spread. On the warfront, in direct proximity to the blighted knights, there had been no one like Dustin.
But here in a city thousands of miles away, a city where the Knights hadn’t set foot for a hundred years, the exact same affliction had struck an old man with no ties to magic, the Knights, or anything that should have made him sick in that way.
It was late. Korin had been reading for hours. But his mind was too spun up to consider sleep. Frustration with this mystery made him restless. He couldn’t bear to sit in his room any longer.
His last visit to the abandoned academy hadn’t gone well, but Korin had walked in without expecting trouble. If he went back now, he’d be better prepared. And the very fact that the place was still so energized suggested there were secrets to be found.
Some lingering pocket of corrupted power—even that didn’t sound right, but it was the best idea Korin had so far. It was a tempting narrative, and certainly a thing that happened in stories, but Korin was a trained and educated wizard. He knew—knew—magic didn’t work like that.
Magic was complex and challenging. There was a reason that, even after ten years of school and several more years of apprenticeship, most wizards spent their lives engaging in the sort of small-scale, domestic magics that kept the world running. Keeping lights on and trash burned and pipes clear and houses safe. Important, but relatively simple tasks. Because bigger magic was complicated and hard. And the steps beyond that, really understanding the workings beneath all the rote tricks and familiar processes…
The first lessons a wizard learned used familiar things as analogies. Think of magic as water, of its flow. Think of magic as fire, the way it spreads. Think of magic as lightning, that strike of power. But none of that was true.
Magic wasn’t water. It didn’t soak into things. It didn’t linger in pools. Magic did nothing of its own. If magic changed something, it was because some intent behind the magic wanted that thing to change. If magic corrupted something, it was because some intent behind that magic wanted a thing corrupted.
So what was the intent behind the blight? What was the intent lingering in the knight’s academy? And the most important question of all—who was driving it?
Triome at night was quieter than Triome during the day, but there were still a surprising number of people in the streets. Korin kept alert, but no one approached him. This was one situation where his wizard sigil kept him safe. Only the most desperate of criminals would risk accosting a wizard.
By the time Korin reached the academy, the moon had sunk behind the walls, and the grounds were buried in shadow. Korin fed a trickle of energy to his sigil, made it glow. Enough light he shouldn’t trip over anything, but not so bright as to call attention—he hoped.
Korin took several slow, deep breaths. Settling into a not-quite trance. His wizard sight was wide open. Thus prepared, he stepped through the open gateway and into the academy.
As before, he felt prickles of anger rise inside him, but this time he recognized the impulse as not his own. Alert and aware, Korin could feel the tingling pressure moving through him, like poisoned air. Dry, dead grass crunched under his feet and the dead black branches of weeds and shrubs seemed to cling to his legs as he pushed through them.
Teriad had talked to Korin and Lia about hauntings and curses and other magics that could make a place go bad, but it had never been more than theory. Teriad had believed their time better spent healing people, not places. There’d always been an unspoken implication that too much time spent on cursed ground could corrupt even the best wizard.
Spirits, or fragments of spirits, could get trapped in the world. Or could be bound, intentionally. But as he’d said to Ádan, hauntings like that couldn’t really talk to you. They were echoes of a person that used to be, not the person themself. Once disentangled, they were quick to dissipate. Spirits didn’t belong in this world and never wanted to stay.
Curses were stories told by people who didn’t understand magic. Like the fields around Castle Ulek, that would be known as cursed ground—probably for centuries—but what it was, was magic used to torture—the land, the air, the people—that had left behind its own pollution. It would be toxic, but not alive. Not aware.
Not talking to him.
Korin had heard voices—voices that had known him too well. Dustin’s affliction had been too complicated—too alive, too aware—to be the nothing but the result of contact with poisoned magic. Even the worst sort of poisoned magic.
Something was going on here. But what?
About a hundred feet in, Korin stopped. He was in the center of what once had been a wide open lawn. Parade grounds or practice fields, flat and empty, now overgrown with twisting, choking weeds, as many dead as alive. Korin closed his physical eyes, reached out his arms, stood still, and waited.
With his eyes closed, Korin’s other senses woke up. The rotting smell of death. The unnatural silence. And to his wizard senses, the presence of a heavy, creeping power.
Korin focused on the power, but didn’t move. He felt it reaching for him, surrounding him. A tingling presence, tiny tendrils of it poking at his flesh, up his legs, around his chest. Pressing against him, trying to get in. Like the power was trying to take root.
Power like he’d felt inside Dustin. Power unlike what he’d felt inside Dustin. The same and not the same. As Korin stood here, it presented no immediate danger. Maybe if he stood here a week, a month, or maybe if he—
A sudden blow to the small of his back sent Korin sprawling. He landed hard in the weeds, felt them cut against his face and his arms. The force of his landing made him bite his tongue and he tasted blood. He scrambled up to his knees, looking around for his attacker.
Nikki stood a few feet away, cloaked and hooded in dark grey and nearly invisible in the dim light. He had a sword in one hand and another rock in the other. “Hello, Korin,” Nikki said, and threw.