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The rock whistled by Korin’s ear, missing him by inches. Korin flinched away, watched it strike the ground, which was all the distraction Nikki needed to close the distance between them. A rough grab at his shoulders and a push and Korin fell backwards again to the hard ground. Then Nikki was on top of him, a knee pressed against Korin’s chest and Nikki’s sword across his throat.

Korin’s calm focus had shattered and the strange power around him responded. The whispering voices from before had returned. Fight back. Danger. Kill him. So easy.

Korin dug his fingers into the cold, brittle ground and tried not to listen. “Get off me.”

The sword pressed closer, its cold sharp edge denting Korin’s skin. “Make me,” Nikki answered.

Yes. Make him. Kill him. Strike out.

Like the ground here knew him. Knew what Korin could do—what Korin had done.

All the nightmares, the fears, the anger, flooded through Korin like a burst of adrenaline. His hands twitched, power at the ready. He could strike. Nikki was right there. Korin wouldn’t have to move. He could tear Nikki apart, inside to out, before Nikki knew what was happening.

He will bind you. He will hurt you. Fight back.

Another voice. Teriad’s voice. The memory as clear as if Teriad were here beside Korin. “I’m sorry, but I can’t forgive this. I can’t forgive you. Go away. Now. I can’t teach you any more.”

“No,” Korin said. To Nikki. To the whispers. To Teriad. “Get off me.”

“What are you doing here?” Nikki leaned down so his face was inches from Korin’s. His sword kept an even pressure against Korin’s neck, just shy of what would break the skin. “You don’t belong in this city. You’re not wanted here. We don’t need you.”

He’ll kill you, the voices whispered. Fight back. Fight back.

“You may have Ádan fooled, but I know what you are.”

It was too much. “Get off me!” Korin backed the words with power, shoved Nikki away and scrambled to his feet.

Nikki rolled like a cat and was instantly up, triumph in his eyes. “That’s it. There you go. Show me what you’re really made of.”

Now he was standing, without a sword pressed to this throat, Korin’s mind started churning again. Coming up with questions. “What are you doing here? Are you following me?”

“What are you doing? What do you want with Ádan?”

Was Nikki jealous? Was this something else? “I don’t see how my…” Korin stumbled for the right word, “how Ádan and I are any of your business.”

“Ádan’s my friend, which makes him my business. And I won’t stand by and watch him be used and corrupted by someone like you.”

Strike now, while he doesn’t expect it. Korin shook his head against the voices. “What are you even talking about?”

Nikki pointed his sword at Korin. “You’re lurking around a graveyard in the middle of the night. No, not just lurking. You were doing something, wizard. Were you listening? Were the voices talking to you?”

“I’m here for a reason.” Nikki’s accusations cut too close to the bone. “A good reason. I’m trying to help people.”

“Of course you are.”

Frustration, anger, and—yes—fear pushed Korin’s voice louder. “I am trying to help. And not by ambushing people in the middle of the night in a place…You call this a graveyard, but it isn’t. A graveyard is something you build to honor the dead. The dead here, they don’t deserve honor. They don’t deserve respect. This place is wrong, and somehow, despite the fact the knights have been gone from here for a hundred years, they’re still creating victims.”

“Victims.” Nikki took a step forward. The tip of his sword was shaking. He wasn’t in any better control than Korin, which made him dangerous. “You want to talk victims? You’re so happy the knights are gone, but you think your kind aren’t just as bad?

“Let’s talk about a town that doesn’t exist anymore because, after they threw out one of your kind, every single man, woman, and child fell to the plague. Let’s talk about the man who begged me to kill him because he’d pissed off a wizard and couldn’t sleep for the nightmares that came every time he closed his eyes.”

Korin had heard stories of bad acts. There were always a few stories. Which made the horrific rumors and people’s fears even harder to fight. “Those were abuses. They shouldn’t have happened. I’m not like that. My order, I’m a healer—“

Nikki laughed. A dark, bitter sound that echoed against the Academy’s crumbling stone walls. “Healer? Really?” He took another step forward so the point of his sword rested against Korin’s breastbone. Korin braced himself, but didn’t move.

“Do you even know your own order, Korin of the Staff? Do you know why there’s not a single one of you in Triome? Do you know the body count you healers have racked up? Do you know why people are terrified of that sigil you wear?”

“Stories,” Korin said with more confidence than he felt. “Exaggerations. It’s because of the knights. People see magic and they think… I’m not…” like that, he meant to say, but he couldn’t get the words out. Not with Teriad’s voice still echoing in his head. I can’t forgive you.

Nikki’s smile was bitter. “You’re not what? Go on. Tell me what you’re not like. Tell me if I dug deep enough, that I wouldn’t find stories about you. Tell me you’re innocent. Stand there in the darkness that reaches for you like a brother and tell me another lie about how you’re not the monster the world thinks you are.”

It was too much. Nikki’s words, Korin’s guilt, and the maddening whispers rising up from the blighted ground. Korin took a step back.

And ran.

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