Through the dark streets, they ran. Ádan cut through crumbling courtyards and tight alleys. The monsters followed behind. Slower, but untiring and implacable. Korin fed his body energy to keep going, but he couldn’t keep from stumbling over uneven ground in the dark.
Korin had no idea how long they ran before Ádan turned sharply and pulled Korin into an open building. He pushed Korin back against the wall and pressed against him in the darkness. “Shhh,” he whispered in Korin’s ear. “Don’t move.”
Korin did his best. His gasping breaths were too loud, and he couldn’t suck in enough air to make them stop. His chest heaved against the warm weight of Ádan's body.
And this time, he felt the magic as Ádan cast it. A shiver in the air that deepened the shadows around them and dulled the sounds from outside.
The monsters lumbered by the crumbling house in which Korin and Ádan stood hidden. They didn’t turn, didn’t look. Kept going into the night.
Neither Korin nor Ádan moved for quite some time. Korin was aware of his heart pounding. Of the heat coming off Ádan. Ádan's hand pressed against the wall next to Korin’s ear. Ádan's rough breathing that stirred Korin’s hair.
Korin had used his magic like a weapon again. It had come easy, reflexively. Even though it hadn’t worked, the very fact of it made him sick inside. Korin put his hand on Ádan's chest and pushed him away. “I think they’re gone.”
Ádan took a couple steps back, visibly flinching when he put weight on his right foot. Considering the force with which he’d been thrown against a building, he was probably lucky he could walk at all. “What were those things?” Ádan muttered, easing his head around the corner to look up and down the street.
That should have been Korin’s biggest concern. What they were. Who they were. Why they were after Korin. Or he could focus on the churning in his gut at how quick and easy it was for him to toss his every moral code to the side. But all he could think about was, “You’re a wizard-knight.”
“I am.” Ádan turned back to face Korin. Not that Korin could see anything but the vague shape of him in the darkness. “And we should probably talk about that, but not in the street. Especially not with those things still out there.”
“You lied to me.”
“Yes.” It was something that Ádan didn’t try to deny it. “Now are you coming?”
Korin couldn’t argue with the need to get off the street. “Where?”
“Someplace safe. Someplace these things shouldn’t be able to follow.”
Korin nodded. Realized Ádan probably couldn’t see the movement. Said, “Okay.”
This time they moved slower through the street. Ádan led cautiously, noticeably limping. After a couple blocks, Korin couldn’t stand it. “Wait,” he said softly.
Ádan looked around alert for danger. “What is it?”
“Nothing. Hold still.”
Ádan froze as Korin lay his hands on Ádan's hip and thigh. The fresh injuries were easy to find and easier to heal. Korin knitted muscle, eased bruises, and erased the web of fractures that marked where Ádan had struck the wall. “Okay?”
Ádan caught Korin’s hands. “Korin…”
Korin pulled away. “Keep moving.”
With his body back in fully working order, Ádan moved like a shadow. Silent and swift through the dark, abandoned streets. Korin’s own footsteps sounded too loud and echoey, the decaying stone beneath his feet both crunchy and slippery. And all the while, as he tried and failed to ghost along like Ádan, Korin’s every nerve was on alert for the sound of the monsters returning.
Korin was working so hard at being quiet, he didn’t notice where they were going. Not until the crumbling archway that led to the academy was before him. “What are you—“
Ádan cut him off with a sharp gesture, knifing his hand through the air. He pointed ahead, at a decaying mansion that sat with its back to the academy wall. If this was Ádan's idea of safe…
After one final careful look all around, Ádan climbed in through one of the wide ground-floor windows. Korin followed. Ádan stayed at the window, unmoving, watching out. Korin waited, hidden behind the wall. Given the deeper darkness inside the house, no one from the street would be able to see Ádan. Korin knew he was there and could barely pick Ádan's shape out from the shadows.
Ádan in his dark clothes that blended into the darkness like he was part of it. In this city of bright colors and brighter sun, Ádan dressed for exactly what he was doing now. How had Korin never noticed that?
After an indeterminate amount of waiting, Ádan waved for Korin to follow him deeper into the decaying house. Between delicate marble columns that surrounded what had once been a sprawling, open dining room. Through an inner courtyard that had grown into its own micro-jungle. Up a wide, spiraling staircase that pitched to one side and looked ready to fall at any moment. Into an upstairs bedroom, where Ádan led them into a closet the size of Korin’s room at Marta’s.
On the back wall, Ádan sketched a glyph, his fingers leaving glowing traces of the lines as he drew them. The wall before him dissolved, opening into a dark staircase leading down. “Go ahead,” Ádan whispered. “Once I’ve closed the door behind us, we can have light.”
Once revealed, the secret passage—for what else could it be?—was in much better shape than the rest of the house. No rot in the wood. Fresh paint. And fresh mage-lights along the walls that Ádan called awake with a wave of his hand.
Korin counted the steps as they descended. One flight down, then two, then three. Deep below the city streets before they reached the next door that Ádan opened with another magic glyph.
Korin walked into an underground palace. A mix of firelight and magelight danced and reflected off multicolored glass and burnished gold. Fake stained glass windows with bright light behind gave the illusion of openness, and the mosaicked ceiling and walls erased any hint of being in a cave. The furniture, the lamps, the fireplaces, all ornate and lush, rich fabric and polished wood and layered in more gold than Korin had ever seen in his life.
Korin knew—everyone knew—that the knights had money. They’d had kings and princes among their ranks. Before their disgrace, they’d been the first choice of profession for noble sons and daughters who showed any leaning towards magic. Korin had heard plenty of speculation that their immense wealth had contributed to their downfall. Although Korin had never heard those words from anyone with magic of their own. There were greater temptations in the world than anything a few coins could buy.
“This is where you live?” Korin asked, overwhelmed by the opulence.
“It’s a safe house.”
Korin didn’t miss the way Ádan hadn’t answered his question. “Am I allowed to be here?”
Once again, Ádan evaded. “Come on. We should talk to Nikki and V sooner rather than later.”
“No.” Korin planted his feet. “We have to talk about this. You and I. I want to know what you’ve dragged me into.”
“What do you want me to say?” Ádan asked. “Would it help if I apologize? Because I can. I do. I’m sorry for everything that’s happened. There’s a lot I would have done differently. But…we’re here now. And we’re just going to have to move forward.”
Ádan was sorry. Korin turned away, his fists clenched, his chest too tight to continue. Ádan had lied. Ádan would have done it all differently. Being with Korin was a mistake. “How could you even…how could you be one of them?”
Ádan's hands were a warm weight on Korin’s shoulders. “I’m truly sorry."
Korin had fought his way through the recent weeks and months by dividing the world into black and white, into good guys and bad guys. People to blame for the horrors he’d seen verses the people who were victims. He wasn’t ready for the world to be more complicated. A more complicated world could break him wide open.
But he’d managed this far on simply willing himself to keep going. “I need to understand what’s going on.”
“Just bear with me a little longer. Once we’re settled in, once I know we’re safe, I’ll answer your questions.”
What choice did Korin have?