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Ádan looked up as Varajas came into the study with yet another stack of books. “Where did you find those?”

“Don’t ask,” Varajas said, dropping them onto the growing mound of to-be-reads. V’s clothes were filthy with dirt and cobwebs and a layer of dust had turned V’s dark copper skin to gray.

Across the table from Ádan, Nikki made a disgusted face. He pointed. “Are those worms?”

Varajas glared coldly at him. “Ádan said to find all the books. I have now found all the books.”

The last few days had been dedicated to searching—first through the safehouse, which was easy, and then through the ruins of the Academy, which was…messier. Anything they could find with writing in or on it. Records, journals, histories, pamphlets—even small stashes of fictions that various knights and recruits had tucked in hidden nooks and crannies.

This study was never going to be the same. Fine hardwood furniture that had probably cost a fortune to import from the south was now covered in the dust and grime of the moldering books piled high on every surface.

Nikki held out his hand and the—yes, worms—crawling on the surface of several of the books Varajas had just deposited erupted into tiny flames, twisting and turning black until they crumbled to nothing.

Varajas sat down heavily on the remaining chair at their table. “Oh yes, that’s brilliant. Let’s set things on fire in the huge pile of paper we’ve just created.”

“Afraid you’re going to get singed?”

“Enough,” Ádan said firmly. The two of them had been bickering like this for days. Boredom and proximity and the stress they all were feeling, but if he let it continue, it could escalate into real conflict. “Nothing gets better from us fighting with each other.”

“Who died and made you—” Nikki stopped, his face turning bright red. The playground taunt wasn’t so funny anymore.

Ádan ignored it and went back to reading.

Not that the book in front of him was particularly compelling. A bound ledger from two hundred years ago, mostly tracking food and other supplies moving in and out of the Academy. Grain and meat and fruit, weapons, raw iron, wood. Line after line of expenses and payments with the occasional note about a new trade agreement.

So boring, Ádan could barely focus, but he couldn’t put it down till he’d read through every line. He couldn’t afford to miss any hint, even the most oblique reference, that pointed at the knowledge he was after.

Nikki slammed his book closed. “This is pointless.”

This, too, was an argument that had been ongoing. And every time, Ádan responded with, “We don’t know that.”

Ádan hadn’t looked up from his book, but out of the corner of his eye, he caught Nikki and Varajas exchanging a look, one he could read easily enough. They’d been having this conversation without him.

They didn’t have all the facts. To be fair, that was because Ádan hadn’t shared all the facts. But things were bleak enough already. Everyone was snapping at each other. The last thing anyone needed was for Ádan to admit that he’d been given charge of the knife, but that it wouldn’t talk to him. That Derian had warned Ádan that knife would creep into his dreams and whisper to him in his waking hours, and that he had to be on guard for its lies and its manipulations but—jokes on everyone! Ádan didn’t have to worry about any of those things because he hadn’t been able to forge the connection he was supposed to have. He had failed in that once, central part of his duty.

He’d have to confess that he’d already failed and he didn’t have the first idea why.

“Let’s be realistic.” Varajas’s voice had that careful, patient quality of a person talking to a particularly stubborn toddler. “Even if some knight before us wrote down anything about the knife and what it is and what we should do with it—which they probably didn’t—and even if that information happens to be in one of the few random books they didn’t drag to Ulek when they fled—which it won’t be—it still won’t be enough. None of us—not even you, Ádan—understand this magic. And my suspicion is Derian didn’t either. And not the Grandmaster who came before him, or the Grandmaster who came before that. That’s how we got to this place.”

Nikki took over. “The knife got to all of them. It destroyed us. The Darkivels, the church—they would never have been able to do it if we hadn’t already been broken. Now there’s just three of us, and if the answer to how to survive this stewardship were in a book, I suspect someone would already have read it.”

“So what, then?” Ádan demanded. “If you have a better idea, I’d love to hear it.”

Another look passed between them, one that promised Ádan wasn’t going to like what came next. “Two things,” Nikki said. “First, we need to go to Ulek.”

Ádan snapped his answer. “I’ve been to Ulek.”

Varajas, still patient, “We need to go back. You want to dig through books? Fine, but if there actually is something useful to find, it’s not going to be here. It’s going to be there. Beyond that, there could be survivors still. People who escaped, who hid. If there’s anyone at all….”

It was the truth Ádan had been trying to avoid for weeks. “Wishing there were more than three of us isn’t going to make it true.”

“Which is why we want to mount a serious search,” V said. “Now that the wizards and the church have backed off—we know our hiding places better than they do. We have a better chance of finding anyone who’s left.”

Ádan closed his book, leaned back in his chair. “It’s wishful thinking. It’s dangerous even to hope. We can’t plan for the future based on the chance someone else escaped.”

“We need help!” Nikki slammed his hand on the table. “The three of us aren’t enough. Tell me you can see that.”

“It’s what we have.” Ádan resisted raising his voice. “It’s all we have. We have to find a way to make it work.”

“That’s the other thing,” V said. “The second thing we need to talk about. If there isn’t understanding to be found in these books—in any books—then either we need to learn a lot about magic that none of us know. Or…we need to recruit someone who already does.”

Someone who understood this kind of magic. “You’re talking about Korin.”

“Yes.”

“No,” Ádan answered immediately. “Korin doesn’t want to be involved. He’s said as much.”

“Korin’s already involved,” Nikki said. “Thanks to you. He already knows our secrets. And we all saw what he can do against the blight—against those people who were tapped into the knife’s power.”

“We’ve already put our trust in him,” Varajas added.

Ádan stood so fast he almost knocked his chair over backwards. In that moment, he didn’t see the room or his friends anymore. Only a body—Derian’s body—rotting as it hung. “No. I’m not dragging Korin in. That’s final. We’ll find someone else.”

“Who?” Nikki demanded.

“I don’t know. Another wizard we can trust. Or I’ll learn the magic somehow. Or maybe you’re right and we’ll find a survivor—someone who knew more than we do.”

Derian’s body swinging. The creak of the rope. Ádan heard it. Ádan saw it. Except it wasn’t Derian’s body hanging, was it?

It was Korin’s.

“I will find a way.” Ádan spoke clearly and carefully. “I’ll find an answer. One that doesn’t put—” Korin “anyone else in danger.”

“What if that answer doesn’t exist?” Varajas asked gently.

Ádan was resolute. “I’ll find it.”

“But—” Nikki started.

Ádan was done. He had to get out. Away from this argument. Away from this underground tomb and the dead men who had lived here. Away from the knife. Away from everything.

“I’ll give you an update as soon as I have one,” he said sharply. And walked out.

What Ádan needed more than anything right now was Korin. He needed to see Korin, to touch him, to remind himself that Korin was all right. That Korin was safe.

Fortunately, Korin was easy to find. He wasn’t at Marta’s, but Ádan’s next stop was Reneé’s shop, where he found the two wizards in the back, drinking coffee and talking intently. They fell quiet as he got close, but as soon as Ádan came in sight around the shelved, Korin brightened. “Ádan!”

“Hey, Sunshine. Wizard Reneé.”

Reneé gave him a nod. Then, to Korin, said, “I can see that you’re done with me now. You boys run along. I’ve got work to do.”

Outside, Ádan dragged Korin into the narrow alley between Reneé’s shop and the next, pressed him against the wall, and kissed him thoroughly. He pulled back to Korin’s smile.

“Hi,” Korin said, sounding a little dazed.

“Hi.” Somehow, everything seemed easier, better, just being here with Korin. “You got any plans tonight?”

Korin shook his head, still smiling.

“Good. I was hoping for a quiet evening at your place. If that’s all right.”

“That can probably be arranged.” Korin took his hand, pulled him towards the street.

Ádan followed, knowing this wasn’t a solution to anything. Knowing he was only avoiding his real problems. But needing this all the same. Besides, he wasn’t going to find any answers tonight, no matter what he did. So he might as well take the escape while he could.

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Barbara J Webb

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