Ádan eased the door open, lifting up on the handle at just the right spot that it wouldn’t creak. He slipped inside then closed it just as silently. His footsteps were whispers across the wood floor, quiet as a ghost.
It didn’t matter. “Ádan!” Loukanos’s voice from upstairs. Summoning him.
Ádan couldn’t hide from Loukanos, not with magic or without. This was one of the many truths Ádan had learned in his weeks of study with the Archwizard. It was one of the least terrifying. If Ádan had it to do over again, knowing what he now knew, he would never have agreed to this devil’s bargain.
Except that if Ádan weren’t here, Loukanos might be focusing all his malevolent power and brilliance on Korin. And that was unacceptable. Ádan would pay whatever cost was necessary to keep that from happening.
Loukanos was in his study. Ádan still couldn’t enter the room without gagging. The smells of mold, and blood, and rot were thick. Loukanos had a body on the table before him. It was breathing, Ádan noted, but judging by its swollen, decayed state, it was no longer alive.
“Did you have a nice nap?” Loukanos asked without looking up from where his hands were sunk wrist-deep into the body’s chest cavity.
It was possible Loukanos didn’t sleep. That was one of the things Ádan wished he had known before. He also didn’t seem to eat. Ádan was pretty sure Loukanos survived on energy he pulled out of the bodies both living and dead he came into contact with. However Loukanos was sustaining himself, he was derisive of Ádan’s need for both sleep and sustenance, and the interruptions they demanded.
For all Loukanos had sneered at Ádan’s potential as an apprentice, he was awfully annoyed these days when he didn’t have Ádan here to assist.
“Come look at this,” Loukanos said, ignoring the fact Ádan hadn’t answered his last question. “Tell me what you see.”
Ádan came closer. Lucky that he’d never been squeamish, even before he’d started training with the Knights. If Ádan had revealed any discomfort around the bodies Loukanos worked with, it would have been a weakness Loukanos would have delighted in using against him.
But even knowing that, Ádan couldn’t stop himself from flinching back as soon as he got a good, close look.
“Aha,” Loukanos said. “You recognize it.”
Not alive—couldn’t be alive—but the body was breathing and Ádan saw the tiny pulsing movements at its jaw that showed a heart was beating. Ádan had seen this trick before, with Loukanos recreating functions in the body to test various ideas. Ádan had gotten used to it.
This body was rotting, falling apart, its skin bloated and discolored and, in places, gone, to the point Ádan couldn’t identify either race or gender. But that wasn’t what had made Ádan pull back either.
More than decay. Black lines under the skin. Patches spreading out from open sores. A dark, spreading mold that had rippled as Ádan got close. “The blight.”
“Is that what you call it? Excellent. I expected you’d be familiar with it.”
This was dangerous ground. Ádan knew all sorts of things about the blight. Some things any knight would have observed. Some things he knew because of his training, his tie to the knife. And some things he knew because Korin had figured them out. He’d have to guard every word.
While some of his thoughts were organizing and arranging the correct story to tell, others were taking note of the fact that Loukanos had his hands—his power—deep inside the blighted corpse. Ádan remembered how the blight had reached for Korin the first time he’d tried to heal it. The way it had responded to his magic, had seemed to draw strength, how he’d been in danger of being consumed. Loukanos was having none of those problems.
“Be careful,” Ádan said as his truth construct solidified in his mind. “I’ve seen that spread into people. Corrupt them.”
“And that’s why you Knights should never have broken away from the Wizard Orders. You have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.”
This was the way to get information out of Loukanos. Not through questions. Loukanos hated questions. But if Ádan was patient, gave careful prompts—especially opportunities to insult other people’s facility with magic—Loukanos would talk plenty.
Ádan reached his hand carefully forward, ready to pull back if the blight reacted to him. “I saw Knights—towards the end of the war, a number of them—who were sick with this. It spread through them like a plague.”
“It’s not a plague,” Loukanos said. He pulled his hands from the body and the heartbeat stilled. “Watch.”
Moments after the heart stopped, the body ceased breathing as well. All the forced symptoms of life fell away. As they faded, so did the black lines and blighted patches.
“It loses interest once the host is truly dead,” Loukanos muttered.
“Interest?” Ádan carefully controlled his voice, kept the alarm from it. “Are you saying there’s intent—a mind controlling this?”
“There’s power; that much is certain. Power that exists here as well as in Ulek.”
Loukanos seemed to be in a talkative mood, so Ádan risked a, “I don’t understand.”
Loukanos picked up a towel to wipe his hands, then dropped the towel over the body and waved an idle hand. Both erupted into instant, intense flames and burned away like they were made of flash paper. “Do you know why bread molds?”
“Because it gets old?” Ádan was genuinely confused by the change of subject.
“Yes, but how does the mold happen? How does it spread from bread to bread, everywhere? Over and over, the same result?”
Ádan had honestly never thought about it, but two weeks with Loukanos had honed his mental reflexes to a razor edge. The answer came without him having to think. “Because it’s in the air, not the bread.” Ádan paused. “Are you comparing the blight to mold?”
“In a sense.” Loukanos gestured for Ádan to follow, led them out of the workshop. “I first noticed it in Ulek, that given the right environment, this blight would sprout. And then your dying knights somehow gave it a perfect environment. And now, it’s here in Triome. It makes me curious.”
Down the stairs, to the first floor library. “It’s time to make yourself useful. You know the signs and symptoms; that’s good. I want to know where else the blight has put in an appearance. Who else in the world has seen it.”
“You want me to research?”
“Yes, but not here. I can read my own books perfectly well. There’s a better library in the city.”
The School of the Balance. “You don’t want the other wizards to see you.”
Loukanos gave a thin smile. “I simply have no interest in exchanging meaningless small talk with my colleagues. So you’ll go in my stead. You were a student. They’ll let you in.”
“It’s a big library. It’s going to take me a while to go through it.”
“Not too long, I hope. You’d hate for me to get bored and have to seek out…other entertainments.”
By which he meant Korin. “I understand.”
“I hope you do. Now get out. And don’t return until you have answers for me.”