The old man was shockingly spry. He led Korin on a long chase, away from the market, through streets of progressively-more-rundown houses, into a pocket of the city that seemed like another world.
This neighborhood had once been affluent. The boarded-over storefronts and crumbling houses were built with the same fine materials as the mansions up on the cliffs. They were twice the size of anything in Marta’s neighborhood, and surrounded by little gardens and courtyards that were overgrown now, but had to have been beautiful once.
Every inch of it was abandoned. Like everyone had forgotten this part of the city even existed.
Understanding came into focus as Korin came around a corner and saw the great marble archway at the end of the street. The grounds through the arch, left to grow wild. The remains of once-great buildings, now charred and broken rubble.
Before they’d retreated to their last castle stronghold in Ulek, before they’d started the war that had taken everything from Korin, the Wizard-Knights’ seat of power had been here in Triome. Their academy had been one of the great jewels of the city, a place of knowledge and power from which they’d influenced the world, until they’d given in to corruption and ruin and been driven out at the start of their long path down to destruction.
These ruins, wasn’t this what Korin had come here to see? Wasn’t this why he’d come to Triome rather than go anywhere else in the world? To spit on the graves of dead men and women who had brought so much harm to the world. It was a petty, petty urge and Teriad…
Teriad would have let it go. He would have turned his back on the war that was decidedly ended. Would have borne neither grudge nor regret.
Teriad had been a better man than Korin.
Korin had lost track of the old man. And now that he was here, he couldn’t look away. He needed to see more of the place, to touch the ruin, to reassure himself that the war and the horrors it had brought were over.
The Knights’ Academy, alongside the school of the Balance and the royal palace, had been one of the three great landmarks of Triome. Once, the Knights’ power had spread through the world. They had trained here, built armies, consulted with kings and queens. In its prime, the academy had been a center of learning, a voice of justice, a force for peace. Before the Knights had fallen.
Korin hadn’t been alive to see the start of the conflict that had destroyed his family and broken his world. The war had truly started here, a hundred years ago, when the King of Ritalle had broken centuries of tradition to ally with the church and the wizard orders against the scourge the knights had become. The knights had been on the defensive ever since, their strongholds lost one by one, until all they had left was Ulek. Mighty Ulek, its royal castle high in the mountains. Ulek, one of the five great kingdoms. Ulek, where the King himself had been a Knight.
Ulek, where Teriad had died. Where Lia had died. Where Jonathan had died.
As Korin stepped through the arch, into the shadows of the great walled compound, the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. Korin tucked his new bundle of clothes into his shirt so his hands were free to pick up one of the crumbled bits of stone, and he threw it at the closest ruined building with all his might.
It felt good, that tiny jolt of violence. He’d fought so hard to stay calm the last few weeks. He hadn’t dared draw attention to himself. He couldn’t afford to let anything show. Not the anger, not the fear, not the deep, desperate loss.
Signs of the battles waged here still showed. Scorched remains of great stone buildings rose out of lawns thick with twisted weeds. Dead trees, warped and charred pointed up to the sky. It was nothing like the fields of Ulek, but Korin could feel the echoes of the same rotted magic, the same bloody fights.
The anger he’d been fighting, the pain, all bubbled up with a shocking suddenness.
“Your fault!” he called into the echoing emptiness. “All of it!” He marched forward, scooping up more rocks to throw as he went. More cracks in the stillness as his missiles struck the fractured marble and crumbling granite of the fallen buildings.
Bodies stretched out on the barren ground. Bleeding. Screaming. Wounds festering with oozing magic. Rotting skin. Soldiers catatonic after outsider spirits ripped away their souls.
It was the Knights’ fault, and it had started here. At the center of the world.
Korin’s arm ached from the unaccustomed exertion, but he kept throwing. Rage like he’d never known. He wanted to hurt this place, to break it again. To destroy.
Angry boy. A whisper in the air around him. It was true.
Rage. Power. So pure. So perfect.
The voices swirled around him. Whispering. Caressing. Stoking the fire inside him.
Show them you will not be bound. Show them you will not be silenced.
How had he gotten this far in? And why was it so dark? The afternoon sun had been high in the sky. Korin’s hand fell to his side and he took a step back. What was he doing? How did he—
A hand on his arm yanked him back against a broken column as the whispering voices dissolved into screeching, hideous laughter.
Another hand across Korin’s mouth stopped his shout, and a voice whispered in his ear, a voice backed by warm, living breath. “Hush.”
Korin blinked as he took in his…attacker? Rescuer? What was happening? What had just happened?
He couldn’t turn his head enough to get a good look, just an impression of dark clothes and dark skin, a tall man with high cheekbones and broad shoulders and…familiar, somehow.
“Come on,” another soft breath. “With me.”
The stranger kept a grip on Korin’s arm as they crept back across the grounds. Unnatural darkness surrounded them, thickening to impenetrable blackness at the edge of Korin’s vision. Like a viscous fog over everything, except that Korin could see just fine.
How had Korin walked into this?
They made it back to the arched entrance, passed beneath it, back into the heat and light of the afternoon. The stranger released Korin, turning to watch behind them. Korin looked too, but the grounds seemed the same as they had before Korin went in—shady, but sunlit, crumbling…interesting.
Korin felt the urge to return and deliberately turned himself away from the academy. Took his first good look at the man who’d dragged him out. Recognized him. One of the young noblemen from the marketplace—the one who’d stopped his friend from assaulting the old man.
“Some friendly advice,” the firstborn stranger said with a strained smile, “if you’re looking to commit some vandalism, there are better—”
For the second time in ten minutes, the stranger grabbed Korin and shoved him back against a wall, but this time he pulled a knife and held it below Korin’s chin as his other arm crossed Korin’s chest. He leaned down—he was quite a bit taller than Korin—and the cold edge of the blade pressed just above the lump in Korin’s throat.
The firstborn man’s face was inches from Korin’s, and despite the threat, Korin couldn’t help but notice how attractive his attacker was. A sign of just how wrong everything was inside his head right now. The sharp edge of a knife poised to kill him, and all Korin could think about was the strong body pressed against his own and and the sharp, handsome face glaring down at him
“I’d better not see even a hint of magic in those eyes, Sunshine.” The stranger’s other hand gripped the sigil that had fallen free of Korin’s shirt as they’d escaped. “What were you doing in there?”
Korin would have loved to have lived a life where this counted as the scariest moment he’d ever experience. Sadly, it didn’t even rank in the top three. “I don’t know,” he answered calmly, truthfully.
Dark brown eyes bored into Korin’s. Searching. “You’re a wizard of the Staff. You’re trying to tell me you weren’t in there riling those things up on purpose?”
“What things? What happened?”
“You really don’t know, do you?” the stranger said in a low voice, like he was talking more to himself than to Korin.
Korin answered anyway. “I was curious. That’s all. Next thing I know I was throwing things and yelling things and there were voices and it was way too dark.”
“Place is haunted, Sunshine, and you woke it right the hell up.” The man stepped back and slid his knife back into the sheath tied to his thigh. Korin spotted four more knives—three on the man’s belt and one poking out of a tall leather boot—along with the slim sword hanging at the man’s right hip.
He looked Korin up and down, his expression thoughtful. “New to the city?”
Korin nodded, daring to relax a little. “Just yesterday. I’m Korin, by the way.”
“Ádan.” He paused again, then seemed to come to a decision. “You drink, Korin? I can never remember which orders—”
“I do, but only if you’re buying.”
Ádan grinned, his face transforming into something beautiful. “Come on, then. I don’t know about you, but I could use one.”