A good night’s sleep did help. Korin woke refreshed, clear. Things were making sense again.
He was late enough down to breakfast that all the rest of the borders were gone, so he ate in the kitchen, listening to the girls chatting as they cooked. They talked about family, about plans, about the actor who kept coming around to flirt with Lily, about Verania’s sister who had moved north. Korin didn’t contribute much, but he felt included and welcome, and that was wonderful.
The afternoon he spent back in his room, studying, but with much greater focus than before. He no longer felt like he was flailing around. But with clarity came a sharper sense of the gaps in his knowledge and a growing conviction of where he needed to go.
Twice, now, he’d been in the academy and both times he’d been driven out. The first time he’d been unprepared and the second time he’d been ambushed. He needed to go back and he needed to make sure he had time to get a solid feel for the place.
These things he knew: the blight that had affected both Dustin and Shaiera had been caused by a person. There was no other explanation. It was contagious, but it had responded to Korin and to his magic with an aggression that a less experienced, less capable healer would not have been able to overcome.
What else Korin knew: that there was some power in the academy that shouldn’t be there. It hadn’t caused the blight, but it was connected, somehow.
It was getting harder and harder to see any explanation other than that there were still knights alive. That they were here in Triome. The power behind the blight, it wasn’t normal magic. It wasn’t like anything Korin had ever seen except on the battlefields of Ulek.
The one thing that kept Korin from locking his theory down was that the power at the academy hadn’t felt exactly the same. Nikki had interrupted him before he’d gotten a good read, but Korin was almost certain the power at the academy was not the same power he’d felt while healing his two patients.
Almost certain. But all logic implied there had to be a connection. Which was why he needed to go there.
This time, Korin made an effort to pay attention as he made for the academy. Especially once he got into the deserted neighborhoods, he stopped and looked around, listened, made certain he wasn’t being followed. Making sure no one was around to interrupt him.
In daylight, the academy looked harmless. As before, it seemed to be inviting him in. Korin stood in the entry, but didn’t yet step inside. Instead, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He sank into himself, focused on his body, listening to his thoughts, reminding himself of himself. Who he was, who he wanted to be. Not what this strange place wanted to make him.
Then he stepped inside, opened his eyes, opened himself.
With slow, but deliberate steps, he traversed the grounds. All the while, he listened, trying to reach out with every sense. “I’m here,” he murmured. “Talk to me.”
As he reached the central courtyard, the whispers started. Low and incomprehensible at first. Korin stopped and waited. He could be patient.
As before, he felt power move around him. Thick and heavy like a fog rising up from the ground, surrounding him, as the voices started to resolve into words.
Searching. Lost. Trapped.
Were they talking to him? Or of him? “Can you hear me? Can you talk to me?”
Trapped trapped. Angry. Dead leaves and bits of rot swirled around Korin as a sudden wind rose.
“Who are you?”
Alone. All alone.
Black roots, thick as fingers, erupted from the ground around Korin’s feet. They clamped over his feet, wrapped around his ankles. Stay.
Korin had been through enough horror that he didn’t panic. Instead, he willed a firm no, and sent his own magic into the roots, cutting them off from whatever source was guiding them so they fell away.
Even still, that moment—Korin hesitated to call it an attack—had been far less aggressive than the blight. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t causing the blight. Korin was now certain of that.
What he was also becoming sure of was that this was magic outside his experience, and he was going to need help figuring it out.
“I’ll come back,” he promised to whatever lingered here. Trapped, it had said. What could that mean? Korin had reached the limits of his own knowledge.
He made his way carefully back out of the academy and headed back towards Marta’s.
He felt so much calmer today. The exhausted alarm that had gripped him yesterday at the thought there might be knights still around—that they might be here, close—had faded into a grim resolve. Korin wasn’t going to let any more people get hurt. He wasn’t going to stand by and let the knights claim any more victims. He would find them. He would stop them.
For that, too, he was going to need help. Which led Korin’s thoughts back to Ádan.
Korin wanted Ádan. What had seemed so complicated last night had, with sleep, settled into an almost painful awareness of his desire. Yes, there was still guilt. But there was also need. To feel someone’s touch, their desire—to know he was wanted, to feel safe with someone—Korin craved that like he needed air.
To not be alone.
That Ádan wanted him too was clear. That all he was waiting for was for Korin to get his head on straight.
Korin made it home and opened the door to his room. Like magic—like he truly had some innate gift for being exactly where Korin needed him to be—Ádan was there. Waiting. And with sudden clarity, Korin knew what he needed to do.