No one was sure how, or where it started. The first to come down with it was a young healer from the far south. She died a few days after, but the disease had already spread to others.
They never knew her name, or where she came from, but she accidentally started an epidemic.
They called it the Mage Eater, for only mages came down with it, and it devoured them from the inside out, feeding on their magic. It spread with an alarming rate, taking down cities at a time. There was no way to stop it, for it killed all healers who pursued it. Only when it seemed like every healer in the country was drained or dead, did it take the Great Mages. Was it accident?
"Niko's late." Commented Tris softly. "He's never late." Sandry went over and put an arm around her friend's shoulder's.
"He'll be here." She promised the redhead. About an hour later, there was a knock at the door. They all jumped up, and raced to get it. Briar won.
"Where have you-" He stopped when he saw that the figure in the doorway wasn't Tris's teacher at all, but a woman around the same hight. Silver streaks in her hair was the only indication of age on her, and she was sopping wet. Despite the heavy rain, it seemed she had neglected to put on an oilskin.
"Tosa Smokefingers, I never!" Cried Sandry's teacher, Lark, coming over. "Do come in, you're soaked to the bone." Tosa ducked inside the cottage, her dark brown hair sticking to her solemn face. Something was wrong. The children had only met Nikarlen Goldeye's sister a few brief times, but they knew the worry lines that creased her forehead did not belong there. Lark guided the larger woman to the fire and sat her down.
"I can't stay long." Tosa's deep voice was cracked. "I have to ride out to Summersea, but I knew I should come here first." She nodded her thanks as Daja brought her a cup of tea. "I'm sorry for ruining your carpet, but I forgot to put on a rain coat, I was in a rush to get it over with."
"What's wrong?" Asked a curt voice. Rosethorn had come out of her workroom.
"I'm here to tell you why Niko's so late, and why he won't be able to come for awhile." The huge mage shivered, casting her eyes down. It was Sandry who realized what she was going to say before she said it.
"N-no...!" The young thread mage cried, dropping her dust cloth. "It couldn't..." Tosa nodded sadly.
"I'm afraid it is. Niko came down with the Mage Eater last night."
"No! NO!" There was the sound of a large book striking the ground as Tris leapt up. "No!" She shouted again, her voice rising. Lark sat stone still, face pale.
"Niko tested himself." Tosa rose suddenly. "I am sorry to be the bearer of such ill news." She whispered, closing her eyes. Then she swept out the door, leaving a trail of water droplets in her wake. The rain began to pour down harder than ever, and lightning flashed dangerously close to the cottage.
"Tris! Please!" Sandry stumbled over to her hysterical friend, wrapping her arms around her. "Niko will be fine. I'm certain of it, please calm down!" Finally, it took all three of the other children to calm Tris down enough that the storm was following a natural pattern. Rosethorn, who hadn't moved since Tosa had left turned back to her workroom.
"I should go talk to Crane-"
"But you won't be needing to go anywhere." Drawled a voice from the door, one that sent Little Bear, the dog, scurrying under a chair. Dedicate Crane stood there, running his long fingers through his short black hair, cut just to his earlobes. He was a tall man, with a black strip accenting the hem of his yellow habit, marking that he served the air gods. His usually thin mouth was pressed even thinner. "And I believe we need to do a bit more than talk." There was an edge to his voice the Briar only remembered hearing during the Blue Pox epidemic. He didn't like the air dedicate at all, and he knew Crane didn't like him, but he had seen something behind the cold, arrogant front in his days working in the greenhouse, he was sure. Rosethorn nodded, and went into her workroom, green habit swishing, only to emerge again in a moment. Her and Crane sat at the table talked far into the night. Every now and then, one of them would blow top, and begin yelling, only to be hushed by Lark.
This is going to be one hard Fall. Briar commented mentally. All three girls agreed silently.
Working in the greenhouse was much the same as it had been during the Blue Pox. Crane was never happy with whatever anyone did, and there were people being ordered out right, left and center. But the real trouble came a couple weeks into the research. The newest was a young female novice from the earth temple. Her name was Hako, and she was pleasant enough, with steady hands. Briar liked her, despite the odd chain she wore around her neck. She was working with a scalpel to move the disease from tray to tray, when he brushed by her. Somehow, the girl stumbled, and the scalpel's blade flashed dangerously. Briar had never seen Crane move so fast. He was in between the two in an instant, and had caught Hako's wrist, his other arm pushing Briar out of harm's way. Hako's eyes widened. Clearly she could see something Briar couldn't. She dropped the small knife, pulled out of Crane's hold and ran. Two others chased after her. But Briar noticed that Rosethorn was watching Crane. He realized why when the tall dedicate shuddered beside him, and slumped against the table. When he did, Briar's eyes locked on something on the arm he had grabbed Hako with. A thin tear in the cloth of the man's robe revealed a small, shallow puncture in his arm, already dripping with a silvery goo.
"Crane." Rosethorn's voice cracked with emotion. She stumbled over to the other dedicate. "Crane." She put her arms around him. He made a movement that might have been an attempt to push her away, but it failed. Briar tilted his head to the side, which helped him to see magic better. There was magic, all right. It was seeping through Crane's arm to the rest of him, and moving quickly.
"Crane..." Rosethorn whimpered again. He seemed to just sag against her, his dark brown eyes going blurry. The two other novices came back, dragging Hako, who was struggling. Everyone looked at her.
"It was an accident, Hako. Why did you run?" It was Ospery, Crane's apprentice. "Why?" Hako didn't answer, instead, she began to fumble with the chain around her neck, pulling out the pendant, a small vial. Suddenly, Rosethorn shouted.
"Stop her!" But it was too late by the time anyone moved. The chain broke with a snap as Hako yanked at it, flinging it on the ground.
And then she slumped to the floor herself. Dead. "None of you touch that!" Called Rosethorn, holding Crane up. "Get a cloth and pick it up! Never mind her, she died the instant she took it off!" One of the novices nodded and ran off quickly to get a rag. Crane said something too quietly to hear, and Rosethorn turned back to him. "Isas?" She asked fearfully "Isi?" He didn't respond. Osprey came forward slowly.
"Is... Is he dead?"
"No... No, not..." No one wanted to finish that sentence. Rosethorn looked at Osprey, and beckoned her forward. "Help me out here." Osprey came over and took one of his arms.
"Where are we going to take-"
"Discipline." Rosethorn said without hesitation, her face serious. Osprey didn't argue. She knew there was no arguing with Rosethorn when she had that look on her face.
Daja, Tris! Briar called silently. Tell Lark Rosethorn's bringing Crane to Discipline!
Why? Tris asked.
She hates him. Daja pointed out at the same time.
I don't know! He snapped, jogging to catch up with Ospery and Rosethorn. Just tell her!