Korin woke from his nightmare to a hand on his shoulder and Ádan's voice in his ear. “Easy, Korin. Easy.”
Korin’s heart pounded; his breath came too fast. He was trapped between the wall and Ádan's body. He pushed up, away, gasping.
Ádan lay where he was. He didn’t try to grab Korin or pull him back down. For which Korin was grateful.
The dream was already fading, and with it the panic. “I’m fine. I’ll be…I’m fine.” As the dream-induced terror faded, guilt crept in. “I’m sorry that I woke you.”
Ádan chuckled and slid an arm loosely around Korin’s waist. “It’s no hardship waking up next to you.”
The words, Ádan's hand against Korin’s bare stomach, sent a pleasant warmth all through Korin. Even as he blushed, fully awake now and aware of the fact that they were both naked in bed together like a pair of shameless hedonists. That Korin’s thigh was pressed against Ádan's awakening erection.
“Lie back down.” Now Ádan did tug on Korin, but gently. “You’re letting in all the cold air.”
“There’s cold air here?” Korin lay back, let Ádan pull Korin back against him. Ádan's arms wrapped around Korin’s chest and the warm, hard line of Ádan's arousal pressed against the small of Korin’s back.
But Ádan seemed content to lie there, his breathing slow and even against Korin’s hair. The silence stretched and Korin thought Ádan had fallen back asleep when Ádan asked, “Who’s Jonathan?”
Korin tensed. Ádan's palm stroked his chest, soothing. “You don’t have to tell me. That’s fine. But you said his name while you were asleep.” After a pause, Ádan amended to, “While you were in the nightmare.”
“He’s dead.” If Ádan had asked anything, said anything, Korin would have changed the subject. But he lay there, a silent, solid presence. With Korin, but not demanding. Not pushing. Which made it easier—made it possible for Korin to talk.
“I told you about Teriad, my teacher, and Lia, his other student. Well, Lia, she had a twin brother. Jonathan.” Korin was impressed at how steady he sounded speaking Jonathan’s name. “He didn’t have anywhere else to go, so Teriad let him travel with us.”
Tall and strong, with a dazzling smile that brought something magical to an otherwise plain face. Jonathan had taken instantly to Korin. Treating him first like a brother, and then later…
“Jonathan was like me. Like us.” Korin reached back to touch Ádan's thigh, running his hand down the line of smooth skin and hard muscle. “It’s dangerous in the south. I don’t know what it used to be like, but…it’s bad now. Because of…”
“Because of the knights,” Ádan finished for him in a soft voice.
Korin nodded and continued. “Jon and I had to hide. And we were always on the road. Never any privacy. We found time together when we could. I loved him. I think. I don’t know how you ever really know. I’m pretty sure he loved me. We never said it, because what was the point? It wasn’t like we could have a real life.”
“You never thought of running off together?” Ádan's question held no accusation. Just curiosity.
“Sure. Sometimes. But I was still learning from Teriad.” Korin considered his next words, tested them in his mind to be sure they were true. “The magic was more important. I guess that tells you something. I wanted to be a wizard more than I wanted us to have a life together.”
Ádan shrugged, a soft motion against Korin’s back. “In my experience, love isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Just because you have a duty to something else doesn’t mean you didn’t love him. We all have responsibilities. Priorities.”
“Except for you,” Korin noted. “Who has nothing better to do that pick up random wizards on the street and joining in on their dangerous crusades.”
“We’re not talking about me right now.” Something in Ádan's tone sounded off, but that was probably what Korin deserved, trying to joke in the middle of this story.
This story that Korin didn’t want to think about. Didn’t want to face. But Ádan deserved to hear it. Deserved to know the kind of person he’d taken into bed.
“Ulek went bad at the end. Really bad. The knights were desperate. They’d lost. Everyone knew it. Why they couldn’t just surrender…”
The silence stretched, but Ádan said nothing, giving Korin time to find the words.
“We weren’t on the front lines at that point. Teriad had settled us in at Naktigan—a trade hub, a little down the mountains. It was where most of the wizard wounded and a lot of the injured soldiers had been assigned. Teriad, Lia, and Jon were asleep. I was on shift in the wizard infirmary.”
Korin shook his head. “Infirmary. A bunch of tents all sewn together. It was cold and wet and only a small step up from leaving people lying in the mud. It was exhausting work. None of us had managed a good night’s sleep in weeks. We’d all been making mistakes. Teriad—he’d been working through a complicated healing—a Wing wizard caught in an explosion. Internal damage. Teriad, he lost focus at the wrong moment. The wizard died.”
Ádan’s arm tightened around Korin. Korin rested his hand over Ádan’s. “It happened. We lost people. But—everyone was on edge. Us. The other wizards. But even more, the people. The regular people who’d been caught in this, who had to stand by and watch some of the ugliest, bloodiest fighting in all our history.”
Ádan’s arm was too constricting. Korin pulled away, sitting up. He leaned back against the wall, his eyes on the other side of the room. Not looking at Ádan.
“I didn’t see the ritual. I heard about it, later. How the knights sacrificed their own. Bodies on the ramparts—enough blood to draw a circle around the castle. But I saw the results. That horrible black fog—it reached all the way down to Naktigan. We threw up wards. We didn’t know what we were warding against, but if you saw it, you knew you didn’t want to be in it. We warded the infirmary, but the town…
“I saw the people caught out in it. Their bodies just…dissolved. The screams…”
“Shepherd bless,” Ádan whispered.
“It was the final straw for the townspeople. And I can’t…I can’t blame them. Magic like that…”
This was the hard part. All Korin could do was push through it. “After the fog cleared, they came with torches. They’d set the tent on fire before anyone realized what was happening. It came from nowhere—we were all so tired—no one knew what to do. It was full of bedding and bandages and alcohol for cleaning wounds—the infirmary went up like a bomb.
“I got out. They were watching for any wizards who escaped.”
Korin’s voice sounded mechanical to his ears. He felt detached, like he was listening to someone else tell this story. “Five of them with swords and ropes and more torches. They had a noose around my neck before I could think. I didn’t think. I just acted. I…turned my magic on them. I killed them.”
Three words that couldn’t begin to encompass the horror Korin had felt as his magic ripped through them. The sickening knowledge of what he’d done.
“I ran to the barn where we’d been sleeping. Jon was down on the floor. I told him to run. To meet me outside down. Then I climbed into the loft for Teriad and Lia. I woke them up and I told Teriad what had happened. What I’d done.”
Korin didn’t dare look at Ádan now. If Ádan were wearing that same look of horror, of disgust, as Teriad had, Korin didn’t know what he would do. “Teriad didn’t care about the town. He didn’t care that I’d been attacked. What I did—it went against everything he believed.” I can’t forgive this. I can’t teach you anymore. “He sent me away. He disowned me.”
Naktigan had become a nightmare. Blood and gore in the streets—the oozing remains of bodies caught in the fog. Suffocating heat and smoke from the fires. The sparking air burning in Korin’s lungs as he tried to navigate out of the town without drawing attention.
So many bodies. Bodies of wizards who had escaped the burning buildings only to collapse of smoke inhalation or to be caught by the mobs. Bodies of townsfolk—like the ones Korin had left—the ones who had tried to grab wizards or soldiers who were still capable of fighting back. Or who had been caught in their own fires.
“Jon wasn’t where I’d told him to go. I hadn’t thought how bad it would be, trying to get out. I waited. And then I went back.”
Like Korin’s worst imagining of Hell, the fires had spread everywhere. And as if that weren’t enough, “There were pyres in the center of town. They were burning the wizards they’d been able to capture.” A pair of old fortune-teller women with no magic that Korin had ever seen were among the sacrifices in the square. A wizard of the Book who had lived in that town all his life. A wizard of the Sword, his battlefield wounds still fresh enough to be bleeding as his skin turned black.
“Most of the wizards had been in Naktigan because they were too injured to stay on the front lines. Us three Staff Wizards, we were the healers, the only ones able-bodied enough to have a chance. And of the three of us, I was the only one who fought back. Teriad and Lia surrendered. I watched them burn. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t save them.”
Korin could see the flames, smell the smoke, hear the screams.
“So now you know,” Korin finished.
“What happened to Jonathan?” Ádan asked softly.
“I don’t know. I never found him. But…everyone saw him with us. With Lia and Teriad and I. They would have…there’s no way he could have survived.”
Ádan sat up and put a hand on Korin’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. Korin, I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.”
Korin had been so braced for rejection, he froze. His brain couldn’t generate a response to sympathy.
Ádan leaned forward, kissed Korin on the forehead, then disentangled himself and got out of bed. “If I could take it all away from you, I could.”
He stroked a finger down Korin’s cheek. “Try to get some more sleep, Sunshine. The world always looks better in the morning.”
Ádan started dressing. “You’re leaving?” Korin asked, hoping that didn’t sound as pathetic outside his head as within.
“I should go. It’s late. Early,” he corrected himself with a grin, but something was off about his smile.
Korin wanted to tell him not to go. To beg him to stay. But something in the air between them had changed. Korin had changed it. Better to let Ádan go.
With a final wave, Ádan climbed back out the window and pulled himself onto the roof. Korin lay back down, unhappy and lonely in a way he hadn’t been since he’d arrived in Triome.
One small blessing. He had no more nightmares for the rest of the night.