Exhausted, Korin couldn’t move. He was hunched over, eyes closed, knees aching from the stone floor. He couldn’t even summon the energy to fall all the way forward.
Ádan helped Dustin out. Korin had no idea how long he was gone. All Korin could think about was breathing. But Ádan did come back. He knelt in front of Korin, their knees touching. “What was that?”
“Eaten alive.” Those had been Dustin’s words. They grated against Korin’s throat. His whole body was in rough shape. But he was here, and the blight was gone, and the rest could be repaired.
He opened his eyes, saw Ádan’s look of concern. “I’ll be okay,” Korin reassured. He risked a deeper breath. Rolled his shoulders to ease their stiffness. Opened and closed his hands.
Oh, but that was a mistake. Ádan was watching and his eyes went wide in an expression Korin had seen far too often. The same look Marta had given. Surprise. That would turn to revulsion. Or at best, distance.
Ádan caught Korin’s left hand. Korin froze as Ádan gently pried open his fingers to look closer at the scarred flesh. Korin flushed, embarrassment and fear warring with something akin to desperation as Ádan's touched the shiny, puckered skin. Ádan traced his thumb over the rough flesh, like a caress. “What happened?”
Korin was so mesmerized by Ádan's touch he answered the question. “My father.”
Ádan’s grip tightened; his finger stopped moving. Belatedly, Korin realized how that must have sounded. “No, not like that. He didn’t…it wasn’t his fault.”
Ádan's movements resumed, a featherlight touched along the lines of the scarring, a contact that ran through Korin like an electric shock. “Tell me,” Ádan said softly.
No one had ever touched Korin like this. Jonathan hadn’t ever wanted to see the scars, and Korin had understood that. They were strange and ugly and Korin didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. In the freezing south, Korin had gotten away with wearing gloves all the time. Even when he and Jon had…
But those thoughts hurt too much. Loss twisting around fear and betrayal and an anger Korin had no right to feel. So he refocused on Ádan, on the feel of Ádan’s calloused thumb stroking Korin’s palm, on the question Ádan had asked. “Our little mining town, we were isolated. Not big enough or comfortable enough for any wizard to want to live there full time, and no reason for any of them to visit. When my gift started to show, no one was around to tell me what it was or what it meant.
Memories of that day were still bright and clear, even more than a decade later. “I was playing with the fire. Making shapes. It was—I don’t know how much you know about magic, but the most dangerous time is always those early bursts of power. When you first realize the world around you is malleable. Or at least, parts of the world. Fire’s an easy place to start.”
“It’s different up here,” Ádan said. “Not so many open flames. Gifted kids mess around with wind and water. Rainstorms, if you can believe.”
Korin could believe. In his time at the school, there had been horror stories of gifted children who had called down blizzards and worse. Yet another bad mark against wizards. “I was lucky I didn’t hurt anybody. I was at the fireplace, making little animals out of the flames. A game. I thought they were pretty.”
Korin reflexively clenched his fists at the memory, trapping Ádan's fingers in his own. Ádan didn’t pull away.
“My father came in, saw…I don’t even remember. A fox, or maybe a wolf. All made of fire. Next to me. He didn’t know what it was, or that I was doing it.
“He grabbed the poker out of the fire. I’d left it there. He tried to…it was really very brave of him. He thought it was some sort of demon, trying to take me. He didn’t understand it was just a game and I thought he was attacking my friend.”
Korin closed his eyes. He could still remember the sudden sizzling pain. The strangely sweet smell of his own flesh burning. “I grabbed the poker, trying to stop him. It all happened so fast, neither of us were thinking.”
Korin had immediately fainted. When the agony finally dragged him back awake, he’d been two days on the road, on his way to the school. “Father took me to the wizards to save my life. And they kept me there, knowing what I was. But there weren’t any real healers at the school of the Crystal. They knew enough to keep me from losing my hands, but they couldn’t fix me.”
The worst part had been his father’s guilt. How he’d barely been able to look at Korin after that. Korin had visited home a couple times during his school years, but he’d never felt comfortable, and his father had always seemed unhappier having Korin there in front of him, a physical reminder. In the end, it was easier not to go back.
“But you’re a wizard now,” Ádan said. “A healer. I don’t…I’m sorry if this is insensitive; I don’t mean to be, but, why don’t you fix them?”
Ádan wasn’t the first person to ask that. Korin looked up, got caught in the liquid depths of Ádan’s dark eyes. There was no judgement. Nothing but honest curiosity. And warmth. Like Ádan might honestly care. “The longer an injury’s part of you, the harder it is to change. It’s easy to set the body back the way it’s supposed to be when the body remembers what that was. But I was a kid when I got hurt. Those hands don’t belong to me any more. These, now, these are mine.”
Ádan’s thumb pressed into Korin’s palm as his eyes studied Korin’s face. What he was looking for, Korin couldn’t tell. After a long moment, he gave Korin’s hand one last squeeze, then let go. “We should get you home, Sunshine. You look wrung out.”
“I feel it. That was…I don’t know. Blight—that’s a good word for it. I thought it was some corruption the Knights were inviting into themselves, but it’s not just that. This was malevolent and aware and…” Korin didn’t know what else. It wasn’t magic, not as he understood it. Or anything else he’d been taught about. “It felt evil.”
Ádan stood, offered a hand to Korin which he took, grateful. His legs were still shaky, but with Ádan's help, he found and kept his feet. “Did they create a weapon?” Korin asked. “Some power they summoned and lost control of?”
Ádan shook his head. “We should keep our minds open.” A thrill ran through Korin at Ádan's use of we. “Too easy to jump to blaming everything on a bunch of dead men.”
“They made it easy,” Korin replied bitterly. “They went out of their way to soak up so much blame for everything, that blame started to rub off on the rest of us.”
“Now that’s hardly fair,” Ádan said with a laugh.
Easy for him to laugh. He hadn’t lived through it. By his own admission, Ádan had lived here in Triome where the echoes and repercussions had long since faded away. “They’re just a story to you. But I was there. I saw them. Ritalle kicked the knights out over a hundred years ago. For me, it’s just been a matter of weeks.”
“I know.” Ádan was no longer laughing. Korin couldn’t read the look on his face.
Not that Korin cared at the moment. “Don’t tell me what’s fair. Fair would have been if every single one of those murderers had been rounded up a hundred years ago, not just kicked out your door to be someone else’s problem.”
“I don’t know if that’s—“”
“It’s their fault!” Korin was yelling and he didn’t care. “People are terrified of me because what I do looks too much like what the knights did. Master T-Teriad heals one broken farmer and suddenly we’re all demon-worshipping sybarites,” that he stumbled over Teriad’s name only made Korin madder, “just like they were. It wasn’t stories about the knights, it wasn’t lies. And they’re the reason…”
Korin was shaking. Still weak from the fight, far too on edge, he’d lost track of his better judgment. “You wouldn’t understand,” he finally finished.
“I guess not.” Ádan sighed and his smile came back, although not as strong as it had been. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”