They left the wealthy part of town behind, following the river to the west, beyond any place Korin had yet explored. Here the city sloped down and the ground became soft and marshy. Clouds of flies and mosquitos rose around them. Korin tried ineffectively to wave them away.
“Yeah, the bugs are bad here. This is basically swampland.” Ádan slapped at something on his own arm. “But no one around here can afford to ward them off.”
The people here were a mix of human and firstborn, and none looked happy to see Korin and Ádan. Just because they were strangers? Because of Korin’s sigil? Korin’s breathing sped, his heart suddenly loud in his ear. “Are we safe here?”
Ádan's eyebrows lifted, like the question surprised him. Then a more thoughtful look crossed his face. “You’re safe.” He looked Korin straight in the eye. “I promise.”
The rush of heat that ran through Korin confirmed that their quiet time on the cliff had done nothing to stabilize his volatile emotions. He had to look away.
A small house—barely more than a shack—set back off the road was where Ádan pointed Korin. “In there. She’s expecting us.”
Korin knocked and the door opened and the smell hit Korin. Rotten and wet. The firstborn woman who greeted him was sallow and worn from exhaustion. “Master Wizard. Thank you for coming.” She looked over Korin’s shoulder at Ádan right behind. “Shaiera’s getting worse.”
Three single beds covered with netting lined the back wall. Only one was occupied. “I sent the boys away with their dad,” the woman said.
Korin wasted no time. He went straight to the little girl huddled shivering and moaning in the bed. He sat down carefully on the edge of the mattress and pulled back the netting. Took a closer look.
Nothing about this was right. The same sickness was inside the girl as had been inside Dustin, as had tried to get into Korin. And Shaiera looked to be in just as much pain as Dustin had been. Maybe more. But that was where the resemblances ended. Dustin’s skin had been peeling. This girl’s skin was rotting. She had a wet, rattling cough. Dustin had been hot to the touch, but Shaiera was ice cold when Korin touched her forehead.
Dustin had been old, where Shaiera was young. Dustin had been human. Shaiera was firstborn. Were either of these differences enough to justify the startlingly different symptoms? Because on the inside, Shaiera looked exactly the same. That pulsing, hungry darkness consuming her.
More than ever, Korin was convinced there was magic involved.
Korin stroked the girl’s cheek. “Shaiera, can you hear me?”
She whimpered, pulled her knees in tighter.
“She hasn’t spoken since last night,” Shaiera’s mother said. “She wasn’t this bad. It all came on her so fast.”
“How fast?” Korin asked.
“Two days ago she was just fine. Running around, playing with her brothers. Then yesterday afternoon the cough started, but it didn’t seem like anything. By yesterday eve, the rash started, and her cough got worse. That was when I went and found Lord Ádan. I’d heard people talking, earlier, that he was looking for people who were sick in a certain way.”
In less than a day, this little girl had gone from fine to far worse than Dustin had looked. “It’s the blight,” Korin said to Ádan. “I’m almost sure of it. Except that it’s behaving completely different.”
Ádan's expression one of carefully schooled calm. “If I’d known it was this bad I would have brought you here right away.”
“Last night I had no idea she’d get like this,” Shaiera’s mother was on the edge of tears.
“It’s all right,” Korin reassured her. “It’s going to be all right. Ádan, you know the things I need. Could you go find them for me?”
Horrible as it might sound, Ádan had been right about this making Korin feel better. All his own troubles faded and became inconsequential next to the suffering poor Shaiera was going through. And the fact that Korin could help her, could make her well, was better therapy for his own heartache than anything else in the world.
The blight might be hitting her worse than it had Dustin, but it was also hitting her faster, which would work in Korin’s favor. He stood up and to Shaiera’s mother said, “Help me move the bed around to where I can draw a circle.”
Not that the little girl in her bed weighed much of anything, but it gave her mother a way to help. So she didn’t have to just stand there and watch her daughter suffer.
Ádan returned with candles and salt and Korin prepared in the same way he had with Dustin. As he lit the candles, he felt the blight inside Shaiera pulse, like it knew what he was doing. Like it was getting ready to fight.
Korin smiled. It could fight all it wanted. This time, he was ready.
The magic went much smoother than before. Korin knew what he was doing, knew how to break into the heart of the disease. It didn’t have as firm a hold on Shaiera as it had on Dustin. Korin was prepared for when it turned against him and held it away, so all the time it fought him, it was eating into his magic, never into him.
It still took time and patience. Korin was peripherally aware of Ádan standing with Shaiera’s mother, offering quiet comfort. Korin was glad to have him there. Even if Ádan couldn’t actually do anything to help if Korin ran into trouble, it was nice to have a friend.
Korin drove the blight out of Shaiera, and then spent more time undoing the damage the disease had done. By the time he was finished, Korin was exhausted, but only in the usual way that happened after long, focused magic. He didn’t feel consumed, hollowed out by the battle.
Shaiera sat up, rubbing her eyes. Korin waved her mother over and stepped discretely back with Ádan as mother and daughter embraced.
“That looked like it went better,” Ádan said, his voice low enough to keep it just between them.
“Much. I’m getting the hang of this thing.”
Ádan gave Korin a speculative look that Korin couldn’t parse. “What?” Korin asked.
Ádan's lips curved up, an almost smile. He reached up to smooth a few stray hairs back from Korin’s face, his fingers brushing against Korin’s cheek in the process.
Korin couldn’t find his next breath.
Ádan's thumb traced the line of Korin’s jaw. “You have no idea how…” He trailed off, shook his head. Looked back at Shaiera and her mother, who were still too focused on each other to be paying any attention to Korin and Ádan. Ádan dropped his hand. “Come on, Sunshine. Let’s see what these ladies can tell us about what’s going on.”