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These weeks had been both the worst and best of Ádan’s life.

The worst because of two things: the presence of Loukanos and the absence of Korin.

Ádan had done this to himself. He’d made his choice, and it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d had to live with hard consequences. And even on the worst day, he was still in a better place than Derian or King Kolyn or any of the other men and women who had died in Ulek. What right did he even have to complain? He was alive and whole, and no amount of his own personal suffering would even clear the ledger of what he owed those people.

All the same, it was a misery, living with Loukanos. Ádan was now certain the wizard never slept. Wasn’t certain he never ate. And now Ádan was here nearly all the time, the wizard responded with annoyed impatience every time Ádan demanded he needed to do either of those things.

Loukanos was sharp, cruel, petty, and vicious. But he was also brilliant. And Ádan was discovering in himself an aptitude for magic he’d never before had the time to explore. And in its own way, that made everything worse. Because when Ádan wasn’t miserable, he was ecstatic.

When Ádan did sleep, he was haunted by nightmares where Derian and Korin both hung, rotting, from the Ulek ramparts. Or from the tree. Sometimes they spoke to him. Told him it was his fault. His failure. Sometimes they said nothing, but stared at him with cold, dead eyes. Ádan recognized the guilt that drove these dreams for what it was, and determined the price one he was willing to pay if it kept Korin safe. If it kept Korin free of all of this.

Ádan wasn’t free, but when in his life had Ádan ever been free?

Today he was tucked in the corner of the study, on one of the only unstained chairs in the house, watching Loukanos work his way through a complicated ritual. Ádan watched the flow of energy as Loukanos carefully wove it through the body under his hands. Ádan watched every shift, every pulse, every line. He’d seen enough of Loukanos doing magic on corpses to work past his revulsion and actually focus on what Loukanos was doing.

This wasn’t too far off from when Korin healed people. It was that same sense of reaching through the body for the memory of some past state. Except this person was dead, and as far as Ádan had seen, even Loukanos couldn’t bring people back from dead.

But as Ádan watched, rotting skin regrew. The body filled back out. Still not alive, but it took on a sheen of health. As the ravages of death fell away, Ádan could see what had killed this man: a knife wound through the gut. It grew more and more pronounced as the magic continued, until it started bleeding, as though it had just happened.

The tendrils of Loukanos’s magic wrapped through the man, tight and squeezing as Loukanos put a hand over the man’s eyes. “What did you see?” Loukanos murmured. The magic flared, and the corpse took a breath.

Ádan held very still, hardly daring to breathe himself. Could Loukanos bring someone back from the dead?

“What did you see?” Loukanos demanded more insistently, as his magic flared brighter.

The corpse let out a long, low groan.

Then collapsed into mush on the table.

Loukanos pounded his fists in the oozing remains. Ádan tried not to gag at the sight. Before he’d come here, he thought he had a strong stomach. He thought he’d seen every horror, that nothing could still affect him.

Loukanos spun to glare at him. “How long have you been there?”

Fortunate for Ádan he had progress to report. Loukanos was at his most dangerous when he’d failed at something. “I have the research you wanted. About the blight.” He held up the bound notebook he was carrying.

Loukanos stalked over and grabbed it out of Ádan’s hand, heedless of the blood and viscera he was smearing on the cover. He flipped through the pages where Ádan had painstakingly recorded every relevant detail and observation he had found in journals, articles, and treatises scattered through the library of the Balance.

Ádan was proud of the work he’d done. Loukanos had wanted evidence of the blight, or the power that drove it, and Ádan had despaired in the beginning because he knew—he knew—that evidence would only exist in Ulek and here, and that Loukanos would be able to read into that the existence of the knife, even if he wouldn’t know exactly what he was looking for.

What Ádan hadn’t taken into account—what he hadn’t even thought about until he stumbled over an old Flame wizard’s journal talking about a monstrosity that had attacked him in the wilderness—the cult. The people who had tried to kill Korin. Who had been spreading the blight in Triome.

Once Ádan knew what to look for, Ádan found hints and clues of their presence all over the continent. Most focused in Ulek and around this city, but Ádan had cherry picked his data and assembled a report that made it look like the knife’s power was spread everywhere.

That was the only way in which he’d massaged the information. Other than that, he’d copied observations and thoughts and experiments with absolute integrity. Because if the conclusion wasn’t going to be pointing right at Triome as a hiding place, Ádan wanted to know Loukanos’s thoughts. If anyone could analyze and explain the cult—or maybe even identify the true nature of the knife—it would be this man.

As he read, Loukanos’s anger and frustration seemed to drain away. He wandered over to a chair, still focused on the notebook in his hand, and sat, flipping forward page after page.

“Interesting,” he murmured. And gave Ádan a long, considering look. “What did you get out of this?”

Ádan had already put together his answer to this question. It had to be carefully constructed. He couldn’t afford to play dumb—not only would it defeat the whole purpose of why he was risking himself like this, but Loukanos would probably see through it. On the other hand, he couldn’t give away that he knew too much. “There’s definitely a…power, of some sort. It’s too consistent, too wide-spread. Something the wizard orders aren’t tied to, and don’t seem to know about at all.”

“A power…yes.” Loukanos looked back down at the notebook, flipped forward some more. “Tell me, Ádan, are you a religious man?”

Ádan didn’t follow the change of topic. “I don’t go to church, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“But do you believe in the divine? The Shepherd and the Prophet. The Light watching over us.”

“I don’t know,” Ádan answered honestly. “I’ve had other things to think about.”

Loukanos nodded, as though that was the answer he expected. “The church and the knights have been in opposition for years. It’s no surprise there wasn’t a great focus on matters of faith in your ranks. And of course, before the knights existed to distract them, the church and the Brotherhood spent a great deal of time harassing wizards. And with good reason. The nature of our studies and practices means that, as a group, we look within for power, rather than without. It makes us no friend to the church.”

Ádan still wasn’t sure where this was going. “Whether or not there’s a God, the church is a creation of man, prone to corruption as much as—”

“Yes, yes.” Loukanos irritably waved Ádan’s argument away. “My point was not to argue about politics. My point is…belief. If one is willing to accept the presence of divinity, then does it stand to reason there might exist divinity’s opposite?”

Ádan raised an eyebrow. “You’re talking about evil? In a spiritual form? There are some who might say you fit that label.”

“And some who might say the same of you, if they knew the truth of your background. But finger-pointing and petty fears don’t make anything more true.”

Loukanos was talking about the knife, about the idea it could be more than just a creation of magic. “So your idea is that this…opposition—this divine evil—is responsible for the blight? For the people who’ve mutilated themselves? For…” he caught himself before he let too much slip. “For everything?”

Loukanos didn’t answer. Instead, he spread the notebook on the table and gave a flick of his hand towards Ádan. “Leave me to study. I’ll summon you when I have use of you again.”

Relieved, distressed, Ádan left.

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Barbara J Webb

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