Chapter 9

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They were back in one of the poorer parts of town, although this time nowhere near the academy. 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? "Are we safe here?" Korin asked softly.

Adán'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 blackness 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."

Adán'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.

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