Korin stumbled out of the safehouse and into the still-dark city streets. He had no idea what time it was or whether it was safe. He only knew he had to get away from Ádan and the knights and their cursed knife.
The soft, feminine voice was the last thing Korin expected, and at first he couldn’t make sense of it. “Hello?”
A young woman, across the street but moving towards him. Out of sheer reflex, he opened his wizard sight and immediately saw the telltale black lines of the blight. Barely started in the poor young woman, but unmistakably there.
“Master wizard,” she said again. “I’m sorry. I know it’s late. But I’ve been looking for you. I heard you’ve been helping people. Healing people who are sick like me.”
Korin nodded. Off-balanced and confused. “Who are you?”
“Is it true?” She grabbed his hand before he could pull back. “Is it true you can heal people like me?”
“Oh thank you,” she breathed, tugging on his hand. “We need your help. My mother. My brother. They’re all sick.”
The last twenty-four hours had been so horribly surreal, and this was possibly the strangest moment of all. But Korin’s tired, abused mind was slowly kicking back into gear. Taking in what the girl was saying. “Your whole family has it? It’s contagious?”
“I don’t know. Everyone’s so sick. And I heard—people they said you could help.”
“Yes. All right.” Too much to think about. But this was something Korin could do and do right. He could think about the rest later. “Take me to your family.”
She didn’t surrender his hand. Leading him through the quiet, pre-dawn streets. They headed north, towards a part of town he didn’t know. The girl’s flesh was feverishly warm against Korin’s. “I’m so glad I found you. Everyone will be so happy to see you. I’m Aiya,” she smiled.
“How long have you been sick?” Korin asked the question automatically. Trying to organize his thoughts—this situation—into a narrative that made sense.
“Sick? Oh, yes, I don’t…I’m not sure.”
Korin gave her a closer look. Examined her with his wizard sight. Her temperature was high. Her heart rate alarmingly fast. “Do you feel all right? Maybe we should stop.”
“No!” She pulled harder against his hand. “No, you have to come with me.”
Korin didn’t want to upset her. “It’s okay. I’m with you.” He looked around at the unfamiliar streets she was leading him through. “Where are we going?”
“This way.” She squeezed. “It’s not much further.”
Except it was. They kept walking, past houses and shops, past stables and gardens. Until the buildings grew sparser, the trees thicker, and the street dwindled into a dirt trail.
Aiya was taking Korin outside the city. Out into the jungle. “Where are we going?” Korin asked again.
“It’s really not much further,” Aiya promised.
This time, she was telling the truth. Korin heard the people before he saw them, a cheerful chattering that blended with the wind through the thick leaves into a pleasant white noise.
Except something about this was off. All those people, talking happily. Awake in the pre-dawn hours. Outside the city, so many…
Aiya called out, “I’ve brought the wizard!” As she dragged Korin forward into the clearing.
The talking died away. Leaving a strange silence. Something about this was wrong. Very wrong. He followed Aiya into the clearing, saw the people—all the people—and, more important, saw what stood at the center of the clearing.
A tree. Tall, black, twisted, dead. A perfect twin of the tree he’d seen in the cave below the academy.
And the man standing before the tree, with his face shot through with the black lines of the blight and the rest of his body blistered and peeling. His eyes were pure black, and his hair was shock white. He raised a hand, pointed at Korin, and the black energy boiled out from him, crossed the clearing, wrapped all along Korin.
Korin knew no more.