Disclaimer: Final Fantasy is the property of Square Enix. I'm just making it try on funny hats.

Note: Because if I post the final drafts of the first two parts, I will eventually have to finish the third. LOGIC. Also note that this is based on the NES version, so we're dealing with Soft potions instead of Golden Needles, Coneria instead of Cornelia, etc.

[The Earth Cave, six days before Midsummer]

Ten seconds into the battle with the vampire, everything had already gone wrong. Arik had rushed in, of course, and now he stood frozen with his club held overhead, eyes startled wide and mouth caught open. Bao, suddenly bereft of back-up, lost her contest of reflexes; in the space of a blink, one of the vampire's chalk-white fists sent her flying into the cavern wall. The crack of the impact echoed through the chamber, and Mina cut off her casting with a gasp just in time to raise her sword against the monster streaming toward her through the guttering torchlight.

Will hated triage.

But unknown curses were a waste of precious seconds, and Mina had parried at least the initial assault, so he ran to Bao, who stopped struggling as he fumbled his hands under her tunic. Panic hissed in the back of his mind, but Will refused to heed it. Healing was difficult enough without distraction. Paring the world down to hands, light, and jagged breathing, he let the magic burst through his palms and into the bare skin of Bao's back.

Mina screamed.

Bao sprang up and past him, leaving Will light-headed as he threw himself into a spell to burn the flesh of the undead. The room blurred and watered as he turned; he scarcely caught himself against the wall before he fell. With his free hand he directed the energy out of his body and into a lightning-bright arc that struck the vampire's chest, eliciting an inhuman shriek. Bao tackled the flailing creature as Will's knees buckled.

There came a dull, heavy thunk, followed by Bao's shout of "The head, cut off the head," then papery silence as ashes filled the air.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Will looked up from the ground in time to see Arik snap out of his trance and fall forward amid the continuation of his earlier string of curses. Bao rose, stake in hand, and strode over to him. "Next time we have the element of surprise," she said, "let's try to keep it."

"Son of a bitch knew we was there," Arik rasped. His voice had never fully returned; Will didn't know if the fault lay with the magic or the delay, or if the whisper persisted for the same reason that even the most talented healers could not prevent scars. "Don't matter. He's dead now."

As Bao began to debate the merits of this philosophy, Will got to his feet and shuffled over to Mina, who was still red-faced and breathless as she wiped ashes and curdled black blood from her sword. A darker red stained the fabric over her left clavicle.

"You're bleeding." Will raised his hand, suffusing it with pale light, but Mina stepped out of range and used her free hand to daub her own magic over the wound. As the sparks settled, she winced and rubbed her shoulder.

"I'm fine," she said before he could ask. "It just stung a bit. Must've gone deeper than I thought."

The shadows in the room shifted before Will could press the issue. "Regardless," said Bao, in a tone that extended her dismissal to everything that was not the recent explosion of the vampire, "what matters is finding the altar and stopping the rot."

Will turned to where she stood with the torch. The fire illuminated the vampiric remains scattered over her hair and face, and Will wondered if there had, in fact, been enough vampire to account for all the dust. People had more blood in them than their shapes suggested; perhaps the veins of vampires were packed tight with ashes.

"Spread out, but don't wander out of earshot," Bao continued. "Mina, another light, if you will."

Once Mina had flicked a bit of fire magic onto a spare torch, they split off in pairs, Will following Mina along the eastern wall. The vampire had been something of a packrat; bones and old clothes lay in piles, decorated with pottery and broken bits of weapons and armor. A red braid, tied at either end with yellow ribbon, curled around a chipped wooden helmet to brush against a ceramic plate.

Mina wrinkled her nose. "Why do they always have to keep trophies?"

A skull grinned up at Will, embroidered handkerchiefs stuffed in its eye sockets. "This is even worse than Garland. These are all people he ate."

"Right," she said, turning to follow the wall again, "let's just find the altar. I don't want this stuff turning up in my dreams tonight."

Will followed her past the succession of keepsakes, trying not to keep count of how many victims would have been necessary to decorate the lair. Dragons, he had heard, hoarded gemstones, but the vampire's tastes seemed to run largely to the organic. The few shiny objects would probably disappear once Arik found them.

Just ahead of him, Mina's light illuminated an alcove that, on closer, inspection, ended in a little wooden door. "We've found another room back here," Mina called, angling her torch back around the corner and waving it for attention. "Will and I've got it." Before Will could suggest that the other half of the party be more directly involved, she pushed through the portal and lit up a narrow corridor beyond. The reek of decay made Will cough.

Mina frowned and pulled part of her cape over her lower face. "I'll be so glad when we go somewhere that doesn't smell like cows died in it," she muttered, heading down the passage with Will at her heels. Creatures with too many legs skittered and burrowed into the earthen walls as the torchlight flooded over them.

She halted. "Oh."

Will was about to ask what she'd seen when he felt something hot and oppressive flowing past her body and into his. His temples began to throb. Peering around Mina's shoulder, he saw at the end of the corridor an enormous stone plate sunk deep into the earth. Dark energy rose from it like a heat distortion, and Will had to fall back to forestall a migraine. Even Mina, who had a less pronounced sensitivity to magic, made it only a few steps closer before retreating with watering eyes.

"Can you tell what kind of curse that is?" she asked.

Will braced himself and took a step forward, only to be kicked back with enough force to stagger him. He grabbed Mina's shoulder to keep from toppling over. "Can't even try," he said. "Whatever did this, I don't think it was human."

Footsteps drew his attention to the other end of the passage, where Bao appeared minus Arik and her torch. Her question cut itself off as her gaze fell on the plate. Reaching into her knapsack, Bao strode past them, pulled out one of the black orbs, and held it over the plate. Will's brain hummed as if it had sprouted bee wings. When Bao put the orb away again, the sensation faded as quickly as it had come.

Mina, meanwhile, had stumbled backward and begun to sway. Even in the torchlight Will could see that all the color had drained from her face. "It's—it's down there," she managed, shaking off Bao's offer of support. She steadied herself and glared at them. "It's also full of worms. Don't ever do that again without warning me."

With a short nod, Bao cracked her knuckles and tried, bare-handed, to pry the plate from the ground. When that failed, she began kicking it.

"It's cursed," Will and Mina said in unison.

After a final kick that looked to be more stress relief than serious effort, Bao wiped her forehead and returned to the group. "Can you two do anything about it?"

Mina shook her head. "We can't even get close to it."

With an irritated glance at the plate, Bao headed back to the vampire's chamber, saying, "There's nothing else for us to do here, then. Maybe that sage knows something about it."

"This had better not turn out like that mess with the elves," Mina said under her breath. "We're not a delivery service." Will wanted to point out that they had accomplished far more in the way of making deliveries than they had in the way of restoring the balance of the elements, but he had learned long ago that it was unwise to play devil's advocate with the recently injured. Instead he made a note to inspect her shoulder when the party next made camp; the bloodstain seemed larger every time he looked at it, and conditions were ideal for infection.

As he re-entered the vampire's chamber, Will took a deep breath of the relatively less foul air. The sound of bickering drew his attention to the other end of the room, where Bao had cornered Arik and his suspiciously bulky sack.

"What did you find?" she asked.


"I'm not convinced." Bao snatched the torch from him and held it over the mouth of his bag. "Something in there is gleaming, Arik."

Arik scowled down at her. "What, I don't get no keepsakes?"

"A ruby the size of my fist is not a 'keepsake.' The vampire must have stolen it from someone. Perhaps the sage."

"Is it real?" Mina squeezed between the two of them and peered with glittery-eyed fascination into the sack. "I've never seen one this size that didn't turn out to be glass."

The task of discerning the value of treasure generally fell to Mina, as Arik had all the discrimination of a magpie and Bao became irritable in the presence of anything worth more than a few coins. Will didn't even try. In the clinic, the closest he had come to participating in financial transactions was when the poor, unable to afford what the wizards asked and unwilling to subject themselves to conditional charity, made their way to the apothecary's shed with offerings of eggs and produce. When a few apples could denote gratitude for anything from an eased headache to a reattached finger, it became difficult to think of money in anything but fluid terms.

Mina drew the gem out and turned it over in her hands, letting the torchlight reflect from the smooth surface as a brilliant, shifting star. Arik watched with sullen curiosity. When she looked up to give her report, her cheeks were flushed. "It must be real. The weight feels right, and I don't see any silvery bits in it. But the size of it..." She caressed the ruby with her thumb. "I wonder if the rot has anything do with it."

"Well, that's another thing to ask the sage." Bao grabbed the gem and tucked it away in her bag, to the audible displeasure of both Mina and Arik. She turned back in the direction they had come, back to the narrow, putrid tunnels and the dead things that crept in the darkness. "Let's not tarry."

[Coneria, forty days before Midsummer]

Thunder woke him. Groggy, heart pounding from some fast-forgotten nightmare, Will sat up on his pallet and tried to orient himself in time. He'd come back from the evening meal and lain down to rest, and if he'd managed to fall into such a deep sleep, he was probably stretching himself too thin in his master's absence—

Noise rattled the walls again, and this time Will recognized it as knocking. He rose and took hold of his lantern in the same automated motion, steering himself in the darkness toward the hook that held his robe. Once he had covered himself and lit the wick, he paused a moment to compose himself (but only a moment; the condition of whoever had come to see him wouldn't be improved by standing around in the deluge), then raised his lantern and cracked open the door.

At his threshold stooped a woman nearly as swarthy as he was, wearing the soaked but immediately recognizable uniform of a wandering monk. She was bent nearly double under the weight of the body she bore on her back, and little wonder; muscular as she was, the man she carried was half again her size, his limp arms as thick as an ogre's. His pale face lolled over her shoulder, slack and splotchy atop a raw, bruised neck.

She looked as if she wanted to speak, but the rain or her burden or Will's youth tied her tongue, and it fell to him to break the silence.

"I'm sorry, I don't handle funerals." Will lowered the light, letting the woman's face fall back into shadows. "If you go around back of the clinic—"

"He's not dead."

Will hesitated, took a deep breath, and opened his door to the storm. The woman staggered past him and lay the man's body carefully on the floor, then knelt beside it, sliding a knapsack from her shoulders. Will bit his lip as he slid the lock back into place; then he set his lantern on the floor and let training take over.

"How much time has passed since the injury?" he asked, resting his fingers against the ruined throat. With a little searching, he detected the ghost of a pulse.

The woman stared at her knees. "I don't know. It can't have been long." Something about that statement seemed to sit badly with her; she cursed, punched the floor, and mumbled an apology.

Maybe it didn't matter how much time had passed. Will had learned the questions by rote when he was still an oblate, but he had never been asked to apply them to a near-corpse fresh from a gibbet. Closing his eyes for concentration, he wrapped his hands gently around the man's neck and began to channel healing magic.

The chapped skin knitted smooth, but the contusions were another matter entirely. Internal injuries could present a challenge to a high wizard, and Will, scarcely even a mage, fumbled in mental darkness, trying to draw an outline of a healthy throat for the magic to follow. Impatience, inattentiveness, ignorance—the slightest error would fuse the windpipe shut and finish what the noose had begun, but delay carried equal risks for both patient and healer. Will forced the last of his strength into his magic, fighting to ignore the tremors wracking his hands and the stars bursting in his brain.

The patient's throat trembled with the force of a gasp.

"Look, it worked," Will managed, sinking back in exhaustion. He was certain that this was not a professional thing to say after a healing, but his body felt like a sack of pudding and his mind teetered on the edge of consciousness.

The cadence of the rain lulled him. Will had almost forgotten the woman's presence until he heard her say, "Thank you."

There was a rote response, but Will couldn't call it to mind. "I do what I can," he replied, opening his eyes and ignoring the inner voice that thought he sounded silly. As he wobbled to his feet, Will looked down at the results of his handiwork and was pleased to see that, while the scarring was extensive and fiercely pink, the skin around it was smooth, and the bruising had at least begun to fade.

The man twitched in his sleep, his breaths shallow and hoarse. Setting a hand against the wall for balance, Will let his gaze wander over his patient. Heavily muscled, hirsute as a dwarf, shaggy auburn hair tied back with a filthy bandanna—the man could not have looked more like a bandit if he had been holding a knife to Will's ribs and demanding gold. The city guard regularly caught and hanged gangs of robbers, and while it was possible that a few of them, through some quirk of the noose, lingered longer than their executioners were willing to stand around waiting on a rainy night, Will thought it unlikely that an order of monks had dedicated itself to saving them.

The woman took off her sandals and propped them up against the wall to dry. She seemed more inclined to stare at the hanged man than explain herself, so Will asked, "Who are you?"

There was a heavy pause, during which the only sounds were distant thunder and the man's labored breaths. When the woman spoke, her voice was measured. "Ling Bao, of the Temple of Divine Light. Who he is doesn't matter."

Circumstances suggested that his identity mattered a great deal to someone, but Will saw no point in pursuing the question. Instead he asked, "Why me?"

This time the hesitation was less pronounced. "I used to live around here. Back then, the apothecary was the only one who took the vows seriously. Looks like nothing ever really changes, at least as far as clinics go."

A stirring defense of his order declined to present itself. Instead Will said, "My master's away on business. Usually I just keep the potions organized."

"Oh? I had to stuff the straw back into the dummies." Bao sounded distant, and her gaze was focused somewhere between the hanged man and the opposite wall.

Deciding that there was no point in trying to prolong the conversation, Will made his way across the room to the storage area, keeping his hand on the wall for support.

He didn't need to bring the lantern. Securing the position of apprentice potions-keeper had been no challenge for Will, not after the wizards discovered that he kept his belongings so precisely organized that he could add new notes to his spellbook in total darkness. In a few decades or so, Will supposed that the same compulsive quirks would ensure that he succeeded his master in mixing and brewing all the clinic's the medicines. Now, all he had to do was let his fingers brush lightly against the rows of vials until he counted eight to right of the first purifying potion.

After leaving a tally mark in the inventory tome (seventeenth page, fourth line down, twenty-two ticks over—why would anyone need a light?), Will shut the door and came back to the room proper, where the hanged man still wheezed insensibly and Bao stared into a moody world a thousand leagues away from the real one. Ignoring his stomach's call for a post-healing snack, Will sat down on the floor to wait.

The hanged man's hand shot to his throat as he bolted upright. Gasping frantically, he glanced around the room with wild, bloodshot eyes until his gaze fell on Bao. He twice mouthed something before managing, in a dry croak, "Lottie?"

Bao's lips parted, but she only stared at him with one of the most intensely indecipherable looks Will had ever seen.

Meanwhile, the man's attention had returned to his neck. His thick fingers swept from the red bristles of his beard down to the hollow of his throat, then circled around to his nape. Locking eyes with Bao, he made a series of strained, shallow coughs. "Shit, you dead, too?"

"You aren't dead," said Will, setting the potion in front of him, "and you shouldn't talk yet. Drink this."

"The hell I ain't dead." The man spared Will a glare and made no move to accept the medicine.

Bao's jaw clenched. After a long breath, she said, in a tone increasingly divorced from the stilted one she had used with Will, "You should be dead, you idiot, I thought I was going to bury you when I cut you down—"

A broad, disruptive smile spread over the man's face. "Lottie," he said fondly.

She scowled and pointed to her black belt. "I haven't been Lottie since I left the woods. It's Ling Bao now."

The answering sound was so strangled and dry that Will had to rely on the man's expression to interpret it as laughter. "Sweet hell," he said in a graveyard whisper at odds with his grin. "Whassit been, ten years?"

"Fourteen." Bao's lips twitched, as if they had decided to curve upward regardless of her wishes. She stopped fighting them. "You idiot."

Whatever was happening in Will's shed was happening without him. Although the kitchen had closed hours ago, he knew where the cellarer hid the spare key, and if God hadn't meant for Will to filch a bit of dinner, God wouldn't have delivered a hanged man to Will's doorstep. He slipped out into the rain and locked the door behind him.

The cold water revived his senses and sharpened his focus. By the time Will had settled in the kitchen and eaten a bit of cheese (along with a hunk of bread, an apple, and the last quarter of a bottle of wine—God owed him), he had stopped musing on the nature of his supplicants' prior relationship and begun considering what he was meant to do with them if they didn't leave on their own. His master knew how to manage strange, likely criminal visitors, but his master was somewhere in the tiny settlements beyond the city walls. Will had once let a convalescing "adventurer" make a nuisance of herself for nearly a week while the apothecary was away, and he had no desire to repeat the experience.

But he was wet and the kitchen was cold, and there was no sense sitting around borrowing trouble. After coaxing the last few drops from the wine bottle, Will tided up and headed back across the muddy grounds. The rain glued his nightclothes to his body and ran in cold rivulets down his neck.

When he let himself back into his shed, he found himself in the middle of an argument.

"It's a sense of purpose, which is something you've certainly never had before—"

"I got a purpose," the man snarled, or at least tried to—the effect was rather spoiled by his broken-whisper voice and his clapping a hand to his throat in pain. Glowering, he added at a lower volume, "M'purpose is hittin' people over the head and takin' their things."

"And that's worked out so well for you. Excuse me for interrupting."

Will banged the door shut to get their attention. "You really need to drink that potion," he said, hanging his sodden cloak up to dry. "You don't want to develop an infection."

"An' just what if I do?" the man muttered, but he did, wincing, down the contents of the vial. In the relative silence, Will felt an odd humming in the back of his mind, as if something he'd forgotten years ago had woken up stir-crazy.

When the man finished, he rasped, "Didn't help. Y'got any whiskey?"

"Arik, no." Bao snatched the empty vial away before he could toss it into the corner. "You should be thanking..." She trailed off and gave Will a contrite look. "I never asked your name."

"It's William. Will, usually. Don't worry about it." Professionalism was still tricky; Will had yet to get the hang of the apothecary's easy indecorum. He tried to imagine how his other superiors would have reacted in his position, but he found it impossible to imagine them getting into such a situation in the first place. The clinic's high wizard in particular could always be counted upon to discover, before any spells were cast, exactly what had befallen his patients and how they intended to pay their impending debts.

The hanged man seemed to be unfamiliar with gratitude, let alone restitution. "M'neck's still broke."

"No, it isn't," said Bao.

"Well, it ain't fixed."

"Right, he only brought you back from the brink of death." She turned an appraising look on Will. "Which is quite impressive for a novice."

Before he could reply, she picked up her knapsack. Will noticed now that it had an unyielding shape, suggesting that it was reinforced with something tougher than the outer layer of cloth. Opening it seemed to be a complicated process, and when Bao finished doing so, the back of Will's skull buzzed.

The sensation dulled when Bao withdrew her hands, cupped around something that Will couldn't see. She studied his face for a moment before saying, "Huh, I thought you'd be Earth."

"I don't understand," said Will.

Bao reached into the bag again. "Here, try this one."

She opened her hands to reveal a black orb nearly the size of a human heart, so dark that it seemed to repel the light, and for a twisting moment Will was uncertain whether it was a real, physical thing or a hole cut through the world. On impulse, he reached out to touch it and felt nothing, not even cold, though his hand stopped as if it had met a barrier. The vibrations in his head trickled down through his limbs and torso.

The orb chimed. It wasn't a sound, not exactly, but Will didn't know how to describe the sense that he had been suspended skinless in a cataract while the water plucked his tendons like lute strings. He realized that he was gasping.

As Will got his breath and bearings again, Bao set the orb on the table and gave him a weary smile. "Well, that's three."

[The Melmond marshes, five days before Midsummer]

"Y'ain't eatin' your rabbit," said Arik darkly.

Will, who had witnessed most of Arik's curse-laden culinary battle earlier in the evening, straightened up and tried to pretend that the stringy meat had been spiced and boiled into tender perfection. Then he noticed that Arik's glare was directed across the campfire at Mina.

She shrugged. "I'm not hungry."

"Not hungry." Arik wheezed. "We fight a goddamn vampire and she ain't hungry."

"You should still eat," said Bao. "We don't know what's going to be in that cave tomorrow."

Mina shrugged again and got to her feet. "Bugs and undead, I'm sure. If we're in for such a big day, I'll go ahead and turn in."

Once she had disappeared into the tent, Will set down the bite of rabbit for which he'd been bracing himself and said, "I wish she'd let me have a look at that wound. The way she's been acting, it's probably not healing right."

"Perhaps." Bao shifted, refolding her legs. "More likely, her Orb is reacting to the rot."

"Or maybe she's just a bitch," said Arik.

Bao gave him a stern look. "You've got rabbit in your beard."

Taking advantage of the distraction, Will tipped the last of his dinner to the campfire and leaned back against the relatively solid land. After their first disastrous camping adventure outside the Marsh Cave, the party had learned how to identify and take advantage of firm ground, though Will doubted any of them had realized how much that knowledge would later benefit them. The dwarves had expressed concern over the rot, of course, but a world of nightmares lay between the rumors and the reality of the fuscous earth that oozed infection. Melmond hung from the rest of the continent like an gangrenous limb, and no amount of dwarven explosives would be able to amputate it. Will caught himself imagining Coneria overcome by the rot—streets and buildings sinking into the fetid dirt, corpses vomited from the graveyards—and tried to distract himself with constellations.

Grass stirred in the breeze and tickled his left wrist. A split-second later Will remembered that there was no grass beneath him, and he jerked upright as white-hot pain pricked his hand.

"Antidote" made it out of his mouth before fire swept through him, seizing up the muscles in his arm. Fast-acting, probably a spider—had to get the spider, but it was already gone or lost in his robes or skittering beneath his skin. The flesh at the base of his thumb bloomed purple.

Glass clinked as Bao upended the entire bag of potions into Will's lap. "Hell if we know," said Arik.

"They're labeled." Reconsidering Arik's literacy, Will added as he fumbled for the right vial, "And green."

Pain coursed up his arm with each heartbeat. Shaking, Will tried to uncork an antidote and slumped in relief when Bao opened it for him. Sweat broke over his face in icy beads.

"Here." Bao's free hand cupped the back of Will's head as she set the vial to his lips. The liquid slid down his throat like a cat shredding its way down a silk curtain. In response to his coughing fit, she thumped his back and asked, "Do you need another?"

Will coughed again and shook his head. The pain in his throat dulled as the cure took effect, bubbling cold through his veins. Tainted blood began to spurt from the tiny holes left by the spider's fangs.

"Hell of a bite," said Arik as the bloodflow slowed to a trickle. He looked speculatively from the shadows to the jumble of potions. "The green ones, yeah?"

"Mmm." A more articulate response lurked somewhere in Will's brain, but the analgesic properties of the antidote had already packed it snugly in wool. He let Bao support him as he turned his hand and watched the last drops of fluid glisten on his deflating palm.

Bao sighed. "Well, that's two who won't be keeping watch tonight."

"I'll be fine," Will said. Most of consonants cooperated. "Whoever takes first should keep an antidote on hand."

As generally happened when the issue of volunteering for the watch arose, Arik retreated to an earlier subject. "Didn't get this shit back in Coneria," he rasped, gnawing on a bone. "Y'know what else I miss? Imps. Get a damn good meal off an imp."

"I haven't had imp in years." Bao's voice was wistful enough to push Will from queasiness to full nausea. Wishing that the dullness in his limbs would affect his hearing instead, he rose up on his knees and accepted Bao's steadying arm as he made it the rest of the way to his feet.

Will nodded at her. "I'm going to sleep this off. Wake me if—" he didn't quite stifle a yawn— "you need me to take the watch."

Head sloshing, he let himself into the tent he shared with Mina. Near-darkness descended when he let the flap fall.

"Everyone's all right?" There was no mumbling, no rustling of a body fumbling into consciousness. "I heard something, but it sounded like you had it under control."

"Just a spider bite." Will compulsively rubbed his hand against his robe. "You can't sleep?"

"I'm not really tired. I'm just hiding from dinner."

Even in the firelight, Will had noticed the bruise-dark circles under her eyes. "Is it your Orb?"

She snorted. "I don't think it's fair to blame my Orb for that rabbit."

Mina seldom lied so much as she evaded, sprinkling crumbs of half-truths down the wrong paths. There was no point in cornering her just to watch her refuse to be diagnosed with a problem that she didn't want to have.

After wishing her a good night, Will tugged off his cloak and curled up beneath it on his bedroll, then drifted into nightmares of creatures that burrowed into his palms and devoured him from the inside out.

[Coneria, thirty-nine days before Midsummer]

The trick, Will had decided, was not to reflect. He hadn't slept the night before; even after he had retreated to other end of the shack, away from a conversation that was increasingly none of his business, he felt as if his insides had been replaced with taut, vibrating strings. Words that had no place in a city clinic, words with heavy vowels and audible capitalization, echoed inside his ears. He felt raw, as if something had cracked him open and left a void in his chest, and part of him ached to run naked into the storm and offer himself to the rain.

Instead he had locked himself in the storage room with a lantern and calmly filled a sack with various healing and purifying potions, trading a tally mark for each vial. When Bao called him out at dawn, he scribbled, "Gone to save world. Took some spare potions (recorded). Didn't tell high wizard, sorry" on a scrap of paper, left it as a bookmark in the inventory tome, locked the door to the shed behind him, and slipped his key into his rucksack without looking back.

That last step had probably been a mistake. He couldn't stop thinking about the key now.

"Here, watch this," said Arik, and with three words he arrested Will's thoughts in a way that the entire morning crowd at the gates had been unable to do. Adjusting the hood of his cloak so that it covered all his face but his mouth, he grabbed the arm of a passing child of indeterminate gender, then grinned down at it and rasped, "Boo."

The child ran off in a screaming panic. Bao crossed her arms and sighed. "Arik, that cloak is to hide you."

"Thought we was tryin' t'get someone's attention."

"Yes, but not that sort of attention."

Will refrained from pointing out that a burly man in a black cloak could only attract the wrong sort of attention. By the time logistics had come up in the previous night's conversation, he had already begun drifting toward the storage room, and for all he knew the cloak was the best Bao was able to manage on an early-morning supply run. The disguise seemed unnecessary—tying his bandanna several inches lower would have hidden Arik's new scars—but Will hadn't even known that an entire bandit gang had been executed the day before, let alone whether Arik had achieved any sort of local notoriety. While Will's understanding of the legal system was hazy, he didn't suppose that surviving a hanging was grounds for a pardon.

A small pack of armed fighters roved nearby. Keeping an eye on their faces, Bao reached into her knapsack and withdrew one of the black Orbs, setting Will's brain abuzz until she secured the leather flap again. A small boy who had been watching the fighters clapped a hand to the back of his head and began to whine. The fighters themselves evinced no reaction.

"No good." Bao slipped the Orb into the pouch at her waist, at which point the little boy stopped rubbing his head and ran off toward the fruit vendor. "We had the same problem at the temple. The only other person who reacted to any of them was Master Xue, and he's so old now he'd be lucky to survive the voyage to Coneria."

Will had never seen an elderly monk before. He wondered if they cloistered themselves by choice, or if they found themselves hunted down and confined to their temples as soon as their hair ran gray. "So what causes a reaction?" he asked.

Glancing at the approaching fighters, Bao dropped her voice. "We're not sure. My order teaches that everyone is born with an elemental affinity, so it might just be a matter of how strong that affinity is, or the Orbs could be looking for qualities that—"

Arik grinned. "Heh, she don't know."

"Well, you went and disproved that 'quality' idea all by yourself, you—excuse me." She took a few steps toward the fighters and said again, more loudly, "Excuse me! You're not going to the Temple of Fiends, are you?"

A stocky blond man at the head of the group halted, and his fellows followed suit. He eyed Bao with an exaggerated lack of regard. "Obviously."

"And not a mage among you," she said. "You do realize that the temple is crawling with undead?"

The leader flexed. "Dead, undead, it all stops moving when you hit it enough." As his companions laughed, he shot Bao a smug look and moved on.

She sighed. "At least I tried."

Arik elbowed her and whispered, "Tell 'em to take off their rings before they go in, yeah? Cuttin' off fingers is a right pain."

"Arik. No." Palming the Earth Orb, Bao resumed watching the crowd. Will watched a disheveled man, staggering and hiccupping his way through the gate, stop to twitch and slap at invisible irritants. She seemed to be ignoring that candidate.

A flash of color caught Will's eye, and he turned to see a lanky, fair-skinned red mage pause mid-strut and press a hand to her temple. The tattered hem of her cape and the battered feather in her hat suggested a level of activity to which most of Coneria's ostensible adventurers did not aspire. As she scanned the crowd, she caught Will staring and marched over to him.

"Good," said Bao under her breath. "This one's paying attention."

The red mage drew herself up in front of them, setting her hands on her hips. "Whatever you're doing to me, you'd better have a damn good excuse for it."

In answer, Bao opened her hands around the Orb, which drank the morning light and reflected nothing. The red mage bent toward it, her breathing shallow and her eyes unfocused, and extended her fingers as if there were hooks in her joints. The contact made her yelp.

As the red mage snapped out of her trance and slumped, shaking, against the wall, Will glanced around to see if the party had attracted any onlookers. Apparently, heated confrontations were nothing unusual for the crowd at the city gates, and with four lovers' quarrels and an increasingly belligerent episode of haggling taking place just within Will's earshot, any passers-by had better sources of entertainment than his party could provide. The haggling in particular threatened to erupt into airborne vegetables.

Will had heard Bao's spiel once already and had no desire to discover that it was, in fact, lunacy, so when he heard the opening notes, he opted to turn and watch the merchant involved in the price dispute ready an aerodynamic cantaloupe. "Here," Arik rasped into his ear, "bet you twenty he pulls a knife soon as he gets knocked in the head with that melon. Damn soft city boys ain't got no sense."

The customer's hand had already gone to his belt. "I don't have any money," Will pointed out. The merchant drew back his arm. "Er, should we do something about this?"

"Yeah, make sure that guard don't get interested over here."

Will followed the angle of Arik's thumb and saw one of the castle guards strolling up, sunlight glinting from his steel armor. The crowd parted for him, and in a single action he speared the merchant's cantaloupe and collared the customer. "Goddamned showoffs, all of 'em," Arik muttered as the guard's resonant voice threatened fines if certain actions were repeated. "They couldn't do that if they wasn't all armed."

Some things, Will decided, did not merit responses.

"Shit," said the red mage. She sounded more dazed than angry, but Will supposed that the anger was biding its time. As he had discovered the night before, a moment's contact with a resonating Orb was enough to bury all other emotions under a thin, bubbly layer of urgency. He was still waiting to feel properly upset.

Bao returned the Earth Orb to her knapsack, and the red mage's eyes unclouded, though her breathing remained uneven. She gave them a long look before saying, "Well, then. I'm Mina. Do you have names, or do you ambush people anonymously?"

"I don't like her," said Arik, and the red mage started at the ragged whisper of his voice. He glared at her from under his hood.

"You'd better learn to." Bao's tone summarily executed that line of conversation and put nooses around the necks of all attendant thoughts. If Arik demurred, he did so too quietly for Will to hear. "I'm Bao, this hulking idiot is Arik, and our white mage is Will."

A reflexive "Nice to meet you" made it out before Mina caught herself, but she didn't issue a crankier follow-up. Her pupils were still dilated.

Bao smiled cautiously. "It's good that you're taking this well."

Mina shrugged. "It's been a slow season. If the princess hadn't gotten kidnapped, I'd be trying my luck in Pravoka by now." She frowned and drummed her fingers on the pommel of her sword. "I really am taking this well."

"I think it's a side-effect of whatever enchantment is on the Orbs," said Bao, fount of speculative knowledge. "I wasn't worried at all until the morning I set out, and then I panicked for hours. All things in their time."

"Yeah, give it a bit," Arik advised, leaning back against the wall. His hood fell and obscured his face entirely. "Hit y'like a hangover."

Will's quiet dread—that everything would eventually sink in and crack him open—grew a little quieter; he tended to work better with the inevitable than the unknown. For a moment he wondered if last night's abortive break-down would be the extent of his panic, but he doubted he could adjust as quickly as Arik had. Arik didn't have much of a paradigm to shift.

After wasting a warning look on the black hood, Bao turned back to the red mage and asked, "Do you need to put your affairs in order?"

Mina rolled her eyes. "You should work on your tone, unless you're trying to make this sound like a suicide mission. And the only affair I had was going off to save the princess. Isn't that why everyone's here?"

"Not directly, no. But we might as well get off on the right foot."

"Yeah?" Arik peered down at the red mage with relatively little misgiving. "So what's the reward?"

"Isn't one, officially. The king's waiting for some prophesied warriors or other to show up, but he won't turn down anyone who brings his daughter back."

Something fluttered in Will's throat. "Oh," he said weakly. "We're prophesied."

The beginning of a laugh twisted into a short, choked thing in Mina's throat. If her expression was any guide, her thoughts had just begun to rearrange themselves around the empty place carved out by her Orb. Will hoped she managed this stage at least as well as he had the night before; nothing good would follow if she started rolling naked in the dirt.

"We'd rather not stay the night in the city," said Bao, in a tone that did not invite discussion.

Mina didn't seem the type to require invitations, especially to welcome distractions. She blinked away the remaining fog in her eyes. "Oh? Well, no need to explain. I'm not allowed back into Crescent Lake, myself."

Will glanced from Bao to Arik; the former radiated quiet distress, while the latter tilted his hood back, grinned affably, and asked, "Y'get ratted out?"

"More or less. Some people just can't let anything end gracefully."

As Arik nodded, his initial reservations apparently forgotten, Bao let out a long sigh and turned to Will. "At least you won't be a problem anywhere."

"Actually," Will said, "I killed a man in Pravoka last summer."

Bao stared at him.

"I was joking."

"You don't do it very well." Without giving him a chance to reply, she turned and began to walk away from the city and out into the fields. "Let's not delay any longer." Arik detached himself from the wall and followed swiftly after.

The red mage hesitated, then muttered, "Oh, what the hell," adjusted the weight of her pack, and set off after Bao.

Will was moving before he was entirely aware that he had decided to do so, but most of his decisions in the past day had been made without his conscious input. He had just caught up with the rest of the group when his brain creaked. "Did I just run away from home?"

"Ah," said Arik with satisfaction. "There it is."

[The Melmond marshes, four days before Midsummer]

Will awoke twice in the night to faint luminescence in the other half of tent. The first time he was so alarmed that he forgot himself and offered to help; the second time he stayed silent, listening to Mina curse under her breath as her magic fizzled out. A third time he woke to the sounds of her casting a sleeping spell over and over and pounding her fist against her bedroll when she remained awake.

When morning came, Will found her still awake and worrisomely ashen, even in the canvas-filtered light. Her skin, in the brief moment before she shook him off, felt cool and dry. "You're ill," he said, as she struggled to stand.

"No, really?" Mina raised her hand. At first Will couldn't tell what she wanted to show him, but then he noticed the faint glaze of white magic over her palm. The light evaporated before it became any brighter than phosphorous.

Taking it as permission, Will set his hand on the shoulder that had been wounded and let healing drip down through her tunic. She tore away from him with a gasp and grabbed the affected area.

"That shouldn't hurt," he said.

"I know." Mina hesitated, then tugged her neckline far enough to expose her injury. Bloodless and dry, it gaped in the depression just above her collar bone. It looked like a stab wound, Will noted, with tattered edges.

"It won't heal," she said, pulling her tunic back in place. "It stopped bleeding, but it won't close."

He was supposed to tell her what was wrong, in a friendly, efficient voice that would encourage her to accept medical assistance less grudgingly in the future, but his face probably gave him away even before he spoke. "I've never seen anything like this."

"Figures." She snorted and reached for the tent flap.

Worried that he had already exhausted her willingness to cooperate, Will hastened to add, "It could be poison."

"It could." Mina must have been in even worse shape than she was letting on; she let Will take her arm to help her outside.

In the sunlight, her pallor was so pronounced that all her blood appeared to have drained away from her skin. The skin under her eyes had gone a deep gray. "Stop staring at me," she muttered, shaking him off as she sat on ground. "Where are the potions?"

Apparently no other spiders had attacked in the night; no empty vials littered the campground, and someone—no doubt Bao—had returned the heap of potions to the sack, which lay near where Arik and Bao were dismantling their tent.

"Mina's ill," Will said by way of explanation. He plucked an antidote from the bag.

Bao strode past him, leaving a complaining Arik to finish the work alone, and knelt beside Mina. "It's nothing serious, is it? You look terrible."

"Hmph." Mina batted away Bao's hand. "Give me that."

The latter statement was directed at Will, who uncorked the vial and pressed it carefully into Mina's hand. Her weak grip worried him, but she got the potion to her lips without spilling any. She took a tentative sip.

With a shriek Mina flung the vial away and began to convulse, her eyes bulging. Her hands flew up to claw at her throat. As Bao tried to restrain her, she retched the mouthful of green liquid and then collapsed, shaking.

"Shit," said Arik, near whom the vial had landed.

"Actually, that's almost what it's supposed to do." Will bent over the spilled potion and brought up a drop of with his finger to examine. "If there's no infection to force out, the body expels it."

After a moment's consideration, Will licked the droplet on his fingertip. Hair-thin, white-hot wires shot through his extremities and then came screaming back, burning his throat and mouth as he coughed up a ball of green-tinged saliva. "The potion's fine," he reported.

Bao glared up at him from where she was half-cradling Mina. "What have we discussed about testing your medicines on yourself?"

Ignoring her, Will went on, "So it's not poison or infection." He rifled through his sack less in search of anything specific than in hopes of finding inspiration. His potions were meant for conditions from which Mina manifestly did not suffer; had she been turning to stone or burning with fever, he would have been on firmer ground. "That doesn't eliminate curses. Whatever curses were on that plate—"

"You can't do a damn thing about." Despite Bao's protests, Mina had half-sat up. Her hair formed a black curtain around her bowed head. "Help me get packed and we'll go."

Bao shook her head. "In your condition, you can't—"

"Lottie, y'wake up stupid today?" Arik gestured at the cave entrance with one of the poles from his half-dismantled tent. "Got a sage right in there."

Her preferred nomenclature being a cause she had all but given up, Bao sighed and helped Mina to her feet. "I suppose that's our best bet, then."

Although they finished packing quickly, Mina's condition had so degenerated by the time they set out that she could no longer walk even with support. After several minutes of disagreement, she ended up draped unhappily over Arik's shoulders. Bao's promise to take turns with him did not improve her mood.

"Like I'm enjoyin' this," Arik muttered, stooping clear of a stalactite as he entered the cave. He shifted her weight and scowled. "An' quit goddamn sniffin' me."

"I am not sniffing you." Mina's voice wasn't much louder or more civil than Arik's.

Will hefted his potion sack and followed.

The closest things Will knew to sages were high wizards, and he knew only one of those. The high wizard of the Conerian clinic lived in the wealthy district near the castle, wore wine-colored robes with elaborate white trim, and had probably never gone underground in his life. Unless Melmond's sage had gilded the interior of his cavern, Will didn't suppose sages and high wizards led terribly similar lifestyles.

What they did seem to have in common was a propensity to discourage visitors. The tunnel with the hungry guard-titan made a good analogue to the high wizard's terraced gardens stocked with trained wolves.

When the party at last arrived at what neat lines of pots suggested was the sage's actual dwelling-cave, Arik was still grumbling about the security. "I can't believe y'fed my ruby to a rock."

"It wasn't your ruby," Bao replied. From atop her shoulders, Mina made a noise that might have denoted agreement or a complaint about being scraped against the wall. "And if you want to hold the torch, you have to walk closer to me."

Arik pointedly did not. "Wouldn't be a problem if he had some lights or somethin'. Ain't he s'posed to be a sage? He ought t'have little fairies strung up on the walls."

While the world in Arik's head was no doubt a fascinating one, Will had no desire to explore it. He fell back, shifting the weight of his sack, and stooped to examine one of the clay pots. Even in the faint light of the increasingly distant torch, he could discern the shapes of the runes carved in rings around it. He couldn't read them, but he recognized a few characters from the high wizard's ceremonial staff.

"William!" called Bao, and he hurried to catch up again.

The party had rounded a corner and come to a wooden door set in the rock, under which seeped firelight. Before anyone could knock, the door creaked open, and a wizened, bearded face peered around it. "Ah, Light Warriors. I have been expecting you."

"Yeah?" said Arik, master diplomat. "So was your rock."

After shooting him a glare that might have killed a weaker man, Bao turned to the sage and made the best approximation of a bow that she could manage with Mina on her back. "I beg your pardon, Master Sarda. We found what we believe was your ruby, but I'm afraid it's no longer with us."

Arik scowled. "On account of she goddamn fed it to a goddamn rock."

Comprehension lit Sarda's face. "Oh, the titan, you mean? Impossible creature. I shall have another talk with it." Ignoring Arik's muttering, he held the door open and waved them toward the hearth at the other end of his room. "Come in."

As Bao entered, stooping to keep Mina's head away from the door frame, the joviality drained from Sarda's expression. "Is your companion ill?"

"No." Will discovered another thing sages had in common with high wizards; Sarda's full attention felt like a kick to the inner ear. "I mean, it's not a natural illness. I think she's cursed."

"The Earth Cave is thick with curses," said Sarda, following Bao as she carried Mina to the chair nearest the fire. Will noticed that he walked easily without a cane, despite the age carved deep into his face. "There are horrors in the depths undreamt of by those who walk in the sun."

"Wonderful," said Mina, who seemed to have rallied enough for sarcasm. Once Bao had gotten her upright in the seat, she braced herself against the armrests and shook off further offers of aid.

Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw Arik wander over to the mantel and the mélange of occult objects displayed atop it. Bao gestured sternly at him.

"First tell me," said Sarda, "what you encountered in the cave."

Arik started to say something about rubies before Bao elbowed him. "Mostly bugs and undead," she replied. "There were a few giants near the surface, and winged monsters made of stone."

"Gargoyles," said Will, whose formal education had asserted itself. "We found a plate covered with dark magic, and we're sure it's blocking the way to the Earth Fiend."

Bao nodded. "That was after we killed the vampire."

She started to elaborate, but Sarda waved her into silence and turned his attention to Mina. She winced when he set his hand on her face but didn't otherwise seem to have the energy to be a difficult patient.

"Cold as stone," he mused.

Mina glowered at him. "I don't feel cold."

Frowning, Sarda pulled down each of her lower eyelids, revealing conjunctiva the yellow-white of severe anemia. When he pulled down her lower lip, her gums appeared a bluish gray.

Will had seen patients with her coloring before. They tended not to be alive.

When Sarda reached for her hands, Mina pulled them back and said, "I can do it myself." With some help from her teeth, she managed to tug her gloves off, one at time. Her exposed fingernails were a chalky white.

Sarda pressed his fingers to her wrist, frowned, and leaned in to sniff her face. Mina drew back sharply and nearly fell from her seat. "Hmm," he said, ignoring her glassy-eyed glare. "Only one test remains." Without any further explanation, he released her arm and headed out into the cave proper.

As the door clicked shut behind him, Mina sank deeper into her chair, her breaths so shallow Will couldn't be certain that she was taking them. "He's crazy."

"Never met a sage who wasn't," said Bao.

"Too bad he ain't the funny kind of crazy." Arik drummed his fingers against the mantel. "Remember Ginny?"

"Yes. She bit me."

Will suspected that this story, like every other of Arik's, ended with some variation of "She's dead now, of course," so he moved in closer to Mina. She eyed him warily and said, "Don't touch me. I'm sick of it."

"I won't." A series of upsetting noises came from outside. After a glance at the closed door, Will asked, "How are you feeling?"

"I don't know." Mina's words ran together in little puffs of breath. "I can't feel anything."

In the background, Arik's anecdote stumbled toward a punchline, which was interrupted by creaking and clucking. Will turned to see Sarda standing in the doorway with both hands wrapped around an agitated chicken.

They stared in collective silence until Mina let out a weak, bitter laugh and said, "That's it, I'm going to die."

Sarda shook his head as he advanced toward her. "I fear you already have."

"Shit. Y'want to bite somebody, bite her." Arik jerked his thumb toward Bao. "She's used to it."

Ignoring him, Sarda held out the half-frantic chicken and said, "You must do exactly as I say, no matter how strange or repulsive you find my words. Let the consequences, whatever they may be, fall upon my shoulders."

While Mina's expression indicated that the sage had done nothing to convince her of his sagacity, her skin had gone ashen, and she slumped bonelessly in the chair. Even trembling seemed to require too much energy. If she had been deteriorating fast earlier, Will could describe her condition now as being in freefall.

Her pause might have been from hesitation, or perhaps the discovery that she was too weak to nod. "Fine."

With surprising dexterity, Sarda grabbed the chicken's legs in one hand and used the other to snap its neck. Bao ceased hovering anxiously at a distance and began hovering within an arm's length of Mina, where she watched as Sarda dropped the still-twitching bird into Mina's lap. "When I make the cut," he said, drawing a knife from beneath his robe, "you must drink the blood while it is still hot."

He gave her no chance to protest before opening the chicken's throat, spraying her upper body with crimson. Mina stared blankly at it. Before Will could move to assist, Sarda picked up the dead bird and pressed its wound to her lips. After a protracted moment, during which Arik offered his raspy but frank appraisals of Sarda's medical credentials, Mina closed her eyes and began to gulp. Her posture, Will noted as a chill, straightened with each swallow.

When Sarda pulled the chicken away from her, the slit in its throat was scarcely damp.

Mina blinked several times, stared at her right hand as she flexed it, and said, in a small, shallow voice, "Oh, God."

"I'm sorry." Sarda set the corpse of the chicken on a bare table, then turned and addressed Bao. "It is as I feared. Her flesh is cold, her blood stilled, her scent tainted with rot. She's a walking corpse, and no more human now than anything else you've killed."

Bao bristled. "Don't talk about her like she isn't here."

She and Sarda locked eyes. Neither backed down until Arik rapped his club against the wall and rasped, "Hey, what the bleedin' hell just happened?"

"Mina's infected," said Will. He felt stupid now for making assumptions; had the curses in the narrow passage been at fault, he would have been in worse shape than Mina. "The plate had nothing to do with it. The vampire bit her."

Muttering disjointed curses, Arik backed as far away from Mina as the wall allowed. She didn't seem to notice; she was using the edge of her cape to scrub at her face, which was already clear of blood.

"Correct," said Sarda, shifting his unwelcome attention to Will. "Without blood, a new vampire falls into torpor. If the creature survives, however, it will begin to adapt to its corruption. Soon the vampire loses all traces of its humanity and will gladly hunt and devour those it once loved."

"She's right here." Bao bared her teeth when she spoke. "Goddammit, you talk to her."

Another pause settled in, longer and tenser. Sarda broke it with a sigh.

"Your dedication is admirable," he said, "but sadly misguided. Melmond has suffered from the curse since the first stirrings of the rot, and your tragedy is an echo of one that has played out since before any of you were born. There is no cure for vampirism."

The high wizard believed only in funded and documented cures, but Will had learned how to fix things halfway—ruined hands that could still grip weakly, hearts that beat as long as they were kept from overexertion, crushed throats that admitted at least the ghost of a voice. His master liked to say that the limits of magic were invitations to try again from a different angle.

"We'll find one," said Will, with what he hoped was more confidence than he felt. Three days ago he hadn't even believed in vampires.

Bao nodded and curled her hand protectively over the back of Mina's chair. Mina let her cape fall and looked up with a start, parting her hair where it had fallen over her face. It was difficult to judge how frightened she was when her skin already looked like graven tallow.

"You do realize," said Sarda, "that the most sensible, and perhaps the kindest, course of action would be to slay her now."

Bao stepped forward, putting more of herself between him and Mina. "That won't happen."

"I see." He smiled thinly at her. "Well, I don't expect you've come this far by being sensible. How is Lukhan faring these days?"

Bao relaxed but did not remove her hand from the chair. "I couldn't say. He joined the Circle long before my time. They say he hasn't seen the outside world since the rot began."

Something shifted between them, as slight as a night breeze rustling a fallen leaf, and Sarda turned to the bookshelves lining the cavern walls. "Let it be on your heads, then," he said without rancor, "if you would take an old man's speculation over his experience."

Arik's club knocked against the wall again. "Ain't nobody asked me." Once he had commanded everyone's attention and Bao's special irritation, he shrugged. "She better not sniff me, is all."

Unperturbed, Sarda ran a wrinkled hand along a row of books, stopping at a cracked leather cover. "Vampires," he said, taking the volume and beginning to page carefully through it, "are defined by their generations of removal from their source. One tradition holds that slaying a vampire nearer the source will release from the disease any that he infected. However..." Sarda paused to lick his finger and separate two stubborn pages. "This belief has never been proven true, to the grief of many an adventurer. If anything, the destruction of a vampire increases the vampiric powers of those he infected. Yet the legends remains with us, and what is a legend but truth told slanted?"

A lie, Will thought, or wishful thinking passed along as fact. He didn't like to consider too carefully the legend sleeping in Bao's pack.

Sarda pulled a red ribbon from the front of his book and laid it over his current page. "Something must lie at the center, some unholy womb that bears these monsters. As for this creature's identity, I ask you: What causes the rot? What turns our fields to fetid bogs?" Sarda snapped the book shut. "I can imagine no father of vampires but the very force that corrupted the power of Earth!"

Bao's face lit. "The Fiend."

Nodding, Sarda crossed the room and removed a slender, rune-engraved staff from its nonessential support role in a clothing rack. "This rod's touch will shatter the cursed plate," he said, proffering it to Bao. "Slaying the Fiend might restore her to life; it is equally likely to release her to a natural death. And there remains the risk that she will fill the vacuum created when the source is removed. Were a Light Warrior to become the dark mother of all vampires, or perhaps even replace the Fiend of Earth—"

Bao took hold of the rod. "That won't happen."

"I pray not." The book he presented to Will, saying, "This journal contains all that I have learned and deduced about the rot. I have marked for you the section concerning vampirism, but read whatever other pages you wish. I keep no secrets from you."

As Will rearranged his pack to accommodate the volume, Sarda turned his attention to Mina. "As for you, your time is short. Men have been consumed by the curse in no more than three days, and I cannot say whether your connection to the Orb will impede or hasten the spread of the rot within you. Remember that you are better destroyed than corrupted."

That he had addressed Mina seemed to shake her out of her stupor. "I know that," she snapped. Her hands clenched into fists.

Sarda nodded coolly, without apology. "Take three of my chickens with you, but be sparing with them. Remain unaccustomed to blood for as long as your body is able."

Arik did the best he could to clear his throat. "So where's my present?"

Sarda turned and stroked his beard. "You may select the chickens." Without waiting for a response, he added, "Remain here until nightfall; you will find travel by day more trouble than it is worth. I shall prepare a room for you," and left.

As the door closed, Mina made a noise like a laugh and asked, staring at her hands, "So if it weren't for my Orb, would you have killed me?" The tremor in her lips belied her tone.

"Don't borrow trouble," said Bao. Her expression softened. "And of course not."

"Right, 'course not," Arik muttered, barely loud enough for Will to hear. "She's already a damned corpse."

Mina glared at him. "I'm dead, not deaf."

"Undead," said Will unthinkingly. He caught her expression and apologized.