He didn’t make it far. Shaky, his legs could barely carry him. He had to stop. He leaned his forehead against the wall, eyes closed, hands clenched at his sides. He had no idea how long he stood that way, trying to purge all thoughts of the insidious touch of that horrible magic.
From far behind came the grinding sounds of stone reforming. Ádan closing the portal. Then Ádan’s footsteps approaching, stopping at a cautious distance. Giving Korin space.
“There’s always been a secret order within the wizard-knights,” Ádan said. “An order with a sacred duty above all else. Grandmaster Derian chose me for the order. I was one of the last. Now I’m the only. That thing in there—the knife, the tree—we were the guardians. For centuries, this has been the heart of our purpose, a purpose kept secret even from most of the Knight orders and certainly from the world.
“It’s evil. It’s death. It’s corruption. And over time, it corrupted us. It destroyed us. Derian—in the end, he sacrificed everything just so I could get away with the knife, bring it back here, where we guarded it from the start. Nikki and V, they didn’t know until the night we escaped from Castle Ulek with it.
“The three of us, we’re all that’s left. And that isn’t enough. We need help.”
Korin shook his head, reflexive denial, but Ádan kept talking.
“Even if I can rebuild us, even if I can find some way to keep the knife hidden and protected from people who would abuse its power, I can’t stop the corruption from happening. The power creeps inside. It’s insidious. And it’s aware. I know you felt that. Heard it. It wants free, and it will do everything in its power to make that happen.
Ádan touched Korin’s shoulder, rested his hand there. “You, Korin. We need you. When I saw you cure the blight in that old man, I knew it. If there’s anyone who can figure out a way to protect us, to keep us safe over time—“
“No.” Korin turned, pushed Ádan away. “No! I can’t. I won’t! And you shouldn’t ask me to.”
“I have to,” Ádan answered calmly.
“No.” Korin’s stomach twisted. He felt sick. “No. Even if I wanted to help you, even if I thought—I’m not the man you want. You don’t know me. You don’t understand.”
Ádan’s lips turned up in a sad little smile. “You’re not any kind of puzzle, Sunshine. You bleed for people and it shows. I do know you. I had you figured out the day we first met.”
Korin wrapped his arms around himself. How was it so cold down here? “You say you know it talked to me. Do you have any idea what it said? It knows me. It wants me. It knows…I can’t help you. I can’t save you from corruption. I’m already corrupted.”
“It’s true. It’s been true all along. In the academy, it’s been talking to me. And it felt—“ Korin couldn’t look Ádan in the face. “I’m a hypocrite. I’m a liar. I hate you and I hate the knights and it’s all their fault, but really it isn’t. Really I’m the one who failed. I’m the one who abused my power. I killed. I took lives. And that thing in there, it knows.” Corruption. Teriad had known. Teriad had warned them.
“You killed people who were trying to kill you.”
“There’s always an excuse,” Korin said, echoing words Teriad has said a hundred times. “Every killer, every abuser, every person who uses the power they have to hurt someone else—they always have an excuse. If I’d been a better man, if I’d been what Teriad—“
“Teriad is dead,” Ádan interrupted, his voice flat.
“He died without ever taking a life, without ever using his gift to hurt anyone.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” The rage in Ádan’s voice made Korin look up. “All of you,” Ádan continued. “You people. You’re all so fucking eager to die for your beliefs. Meanwhile the assholes just keep going. Which means if you good, moral people get your wish, all we have left is a world full of assholes. You ever think of that?
“Teriad’s dead. Grandmaster Derian’s dead. King Kolyn is dead. And all for what they believed in. Well, good for them. But that doesn’t do shit for those of us left behind to clean up their mess. Those of us who are a little less interested in dying dramatically for a cause and a little more focused on keeping the world from ending.
“I’m sick and fucking tired of it. You did what you had to do. Yes, you killed those people. You survived. And that’s how you get to be here, with me, and how you get to keep fighting. You’ve got a chance to help people, to keep making things right, and that’s something Teriad won’t ever be able to do again.”
Ádan didn’t understand. “I can’t help you! I can’t be near that…that thing. I don’t want—“ The reminder, the temptation, the memories, the power…
Any of it. “I don’t want this. I don’t want you.”
Korin turned and walked away.
Ádan didn’t follow.