Around lunchtime, Korin returned to Marta’s. Lily’s brother was there with a shoulder he’d injured years ago and had never healed quite right. It was just the challenge Korin needed after a morning of mindless, repetitive assistance to Renée. While Korin worked, the girls moved in and out of the kitchen, doing the afternoon cleaning and starting work on dinner, chatting with each other, with Lily’s brother, with Korin. Marta came through, told Korin to make sure he wasn’t in the way with her usual brusqueness, but also set a paper-wrapped bundle down on the table next to him. One that turned out to have a flaky guava pastry in it.
It felt a lot like a home.
After Korin had fixed the shoulder—an impressive bit of magic given how long the injury had been there, not that Korin could say so—Lily’s brother told him about a fever and cough moving its way through the kids in his neighborhood. So Korin followed him home to scout out the problem.
Nothing serious, thank the Light. Korin triaged the worst cases and gave out a recipe for an herbal tincture that would help with the coughs. He promised to come back over the next few days to help with any more who fell ill and follow up on the rest.
It was getting dark. The end of an altogether productive day. What Korin might have called a great day, except for one tiny detail.
Korin had had all day to second guess his middle-of-the-night confession. The longer he went without Ádan materializing out of nowhere with a wink and a grin, the more Korin started to think he’d made a mistake. The conversation, certainly. The sex…maybe.
Doubts and second thoughts. Probably irrational. Definitely premature. But knowing that didn’t stop Korin from obsessing. Had he said the wrong thing? Done the wrong thing? Had he disappointed Ádan? Scared him away?
Was it too pathetic for words to go looking for Ádan?
Activity at Marta’s was starting to pick up for the evening, so no one noticed when Korin slipped back out. He didn’t have a solid idea of where to go if he wanted to fine Ádan.
Come to think of it, he had no idea where Ádan lived, where he spent his time, anything. What did Korin know about him? Ádan had effortlessly inserted himself into Korin’s life. He knew the friends and habits Korin had developed in Triome. But Ádan had shared…nothing.
All Korin could do was retrace the paths they’d wandered together. The restaurant near the docks. The marketplace. The sun sank below the horizon as he walked by the school, by Renée’s. And finally, for lack of any better idea, Korin turned towards the academy.
Which turned out to be the right choice. Before Korin had made it too far into the abandoned streets of this ruined part of town, he heard Ádan's voice ahead. But Ádan wasn’t alone.
“…of all people should know better,” Nikki’s voice was clear in the evening air. “It’s dangerous.”
Ádan's response was lower, but Korin could still hear him. “I know. I know. I made a mistake. How was I supposed to guess—“
“We can’t afford mistakes. Prophet’s balls, Ádan. I can’t believe you had sex with him.”
Korin’s face burned hot. They were talking about him.
“I didn’t think,” Ádan answered in a defeated voice. “I liked him, Nikki. I really did. But now…”
Korin didn’t want to hear the rest. He turned to go back the way he’d come, but his foot scraped the ground. The conversation stopped. Korin froze. He heard footsteps moving away, fading into silence, and then Ádan came around the corner of the building just ahead. “Korin?”
“I heard you,” Korin said in a surprisingly calm voice. “You and Nikki. I heard what you said. About me being a mistake.”
Ádan pushed his hand back through his thick dark hair, looking frustrated and dispirited and nothing like his usual buoyant self. “Korin, I’m sorry. It’s complicated and unfair and look, you have to know that—“
“What? What do I have to know?”
Ádan didn’t answer. They stood in uncomfortable silence, staring at each other.
Until a deep, raspy voice from the shadows behind Ádan said, “Grab the wizard. Kill the other one.”
Ádan whipped around and had his sword out before Korin could think. Two shapes in the darkness in front of them, and the sound of another behind. Adrenaline shot through Korin as his mind stuttered to a halt.
Ádan pushed Korin to the side, so Ádan was between Korin and all three attackers. But he was one lone man with a sword against three hulking brutes who were after a wizard.
They needed to see. Easy magic that didn’t require thought. Korin threw up his hand and shot a burst of energy into the air. White light filled the street. Korin got a good look at his attackers. And for the second time in as many minutes his mind froze.
They were men—probably. Too tall, too broad, disproportioned and lumbering. Like they’d been inflated from the inside, only their skin hadn’t all stretched out the same way. All three were missing fingers. One had lost an entire hand. One had his mouth open and his tongue was obviously gone. The other two were lacking an ear each.
“Light.” Korin stumbled back from the horrors. He blinked and looked again with wizard sight. These men—these creatures—were full of the writhing energy of the blight.
Ádan recovered from the sight faster than Korin. He jumped at the closest attacker, his sword a blur. These men were big and slow. Ádan’s sword sank deep into the man’s neck in what was obviously a killing blow. Ádan spun to face the next.
The giant that should have been dead grabbed Ádan’s arm. Stopped him short.
Korin acted without thinking. He reached out towards the giant, reached with his magic. Just as before, in Naktigan, he struck to kill. Sent his power deep inside the man to rip him open from the inside.
Ádan had a knife in his other hand, stabbed it hard into the monster’s chest. Right through his heart.
No blood. No sign the giant had felt any pain.
The monster lifted Ádan by his arm and threw him against the nearest building with enough force to crack the plaster wall.
The other two monsters advanced on Korin. He aimed his magic like a spear, a piercing beam of pure energy. Dangerous, uncontrolled, it should have burned them to dust.
No purchase. The power sank into them and fizzled into nothing. Couldn’t touch them or the blackness inside.
The ground broke at Korin’s feet. A wall of earth and stone, tall and thick, blocking Korin from the monsters. Ádan grabbed Korin’s arm. “Run!”
Another finger of stone reached up from the ground, pushed back at the giant that had thrown Ádan. Magic. Korin whipped his head around to find the other wizard.
But there was no wizard. There was only Ádan. Ádan pushing his hand through the air to send the stone wall rippling like a wave.
Ádan doing magic.
Ádan could do magic.
Korin yanked his arm free of Ádan’s grip. Everything snapped together. Ádan at the academy. Ádan’s evasiveness. Ádan’s interest in the blight. Korin’s suspicions and growing conviction. “There are some left. You’re one of them! You’re a—“
“Yes!” Ádan grabbed Korin’s arm again and pulled. “You can hate me later. Come on!”
As one of the monsters shattered the stone wall with a massive, swollen fist.