When Korin woke up, he was sitting upright on the ground, tied to the tree, his arms bound tight and flat against the trunk. It was still dark. Dark again? How long had he been unconscious? The clearing was eerie, full of long, dancing shadows, with only flickering firelight to illuminate it.
Korin quickly closed his eyes again, wanting time to think before anyone noticed he was awake.
Korin ached all over, like he’d been beaten, but the ache came inside out, not outside in. The death magic—the blight, had hurt him at his very core.
But he could fix that. Korin let out his breath, focused, called a burst of energy to—
Sudden pain as something solid and heavy struck the side of Korin’s head. “None of that,” said a raspy voice from outside Korin’s range of vision. “I’ve no interest in breaking you, Korin of the Staff, but I can’t have you doing any magic. Care to find out how many blows to the head it takes to make you forget how?”
Korin didn’t answer, but he did open his eyes. He tried to look around, but they’d looped rope around his chin and his forehead tight enough he couldn’t budge.
“Too scared to talk?” the voice walked into view—the blighted man who had done the magic that knocked Korin out. He crouched down in front of Korin, leaned in close. The energy of the blight seethed and writhed in his skin.
The man grinned, displaying his near-toothless mouth. “No, not scared. I see rebellion on that pretty face.” His gaze flicked up, at whoever stood behind Korin. “Plot all you like. Nult there is sensitive to magic. He’ll know if you start up any tricks and respond accordingly.”
With the previous blow still pounding in his head, Korin wasn’t eager to test that statement. “How do you know who I am?”
“We’ve been watching you. You and your wizard-knight friend. Oh yes, we know about the two of you. Undoing all our good work. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist little Aiya, even if you managed to escape from Nult last night.”
Korin flinched against the rope, struggled instinctively before he regained control of himself. Nult—the monster from last night—that monster was behind him.
The blighted man smiled at Korin’s flare of panic. “Yes, that’s better.”
Korin struggled again as the man reached out to touch Korin’s cheek in a twisted mockery of a caress. The hand that touched Korin was missing three fingers. “You’ll make Her happy. So young. So healthy. How lucky we are you chose to come to Triome. Staff wizards make the best sacrifices, but I’m afraid we ran out of you.”
It was too much to try to wrap his mind around. “I don’t understand,” Korin whispered, recoiling from the touch as much as his bindings allowed.
“It’s all right,” the blighted man soothed. “You don’t have to.”
He stood, moved away, and was replaced in Korin’s narrow line of sight by Aiya. “Oh, Korin, thank you,” she said, ecstatic. “Thank you for coming here.”
How had he missed the madness in her bright eyes? Or maybe it was only visible now because she wasn’t acting any more. “You lied to me.”
She nodded, patted his shoulder. “It’s for the best. I promise. It’s going to be so beautiful.” She sighed. “Since I brought you, your death is mine. I can finally offer a death to the Lady.”
“Aiya,” snapped the blighted man, off to the side where Korin couldn’t see. “Come away from him.”
“But he’s mine,” she whined. “And he’s so perfect.” She leaned in close, resting her knees on his thighs. “You’ll make Her so happy.”
The only way Korin could fight his rising panic was to focus on questions, to try to figure this out. “Who are you talking about? What lady?”
“The Lady of the Tree!” Aiya sounded offended that he should have to ask. She reached above his head to stroke the rough bark with a joy on her face that was almost sexual. “The Pale Woman. Mother of snakes. Daughter of the void. She commands death and chaos and everything goes to her in the end. She’s the greatest power in the universe.” Her voice raised in fevered devotion as she spoke. “The Lady cares nothing for the lies of the Shepherd and the Prophet. The Light has no power over Her. On the day she’s made whole again, she’ll open her eyes and devour—“
“Aiya!” This time, the blighted man grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her back away from Korin, interrupting her increasingly disturbing speech.
“I’m sorry,” the blighted man said. “Don’t let her upset you. It’s better if you can relax.”
The absurdity of that statement pierced through the haze of terror that was fogging Korin’s brain. “Relax?” To his own ear, his voice sounded clearer, more like himself. “You’re planning to kill me.”
“Yes, of course. But the Lady prefers her sacrifices…unblemished. Plus it’s more comfortable for you, don’t you think?”
The veneer of reason had hidden it, but the blighted man was every bit as far gone as Aiya.
Korin’s fear broke, leaving a cool sense of clarity in his mind. For the first time since he and Ádan had been attacked in the street, he felt sharp, alert, there. He couldn’t afford any more time wasted on panic. On confusion. On regrets and second-guesses. He had to think.
He was immobilized. The ropes were tight and wrapped thick all up and down his body. He’d lost feeling in his arms, which was probably for the best given the angle they were pulled back around the tree. They were going to hurt. Assuming he ever had the chance to feel them again.
Magic—a quick strike he could probably pull off before the monster behind him could react. But…what? Even if he freed himself or—and Korin’s mind flinched at the thought—killed Aiya or the blighted man, Nult was still back there. An Nult hadn’t been affected by any magic Korin had thrown at him.
What did that leave?
Nothing. Korin could do nothing.
He could give up. Teriad had given up. With that thought came the memory of Ádan, full of rage at the idea that surrender in the name of one’s ideals was preferable to fighting back. Anger at those who had laid down their lives for something greater.
Life. Life was something greater. Life was what Korin fought for. What Teriad had fought for. Until he’d stopped fighting.
Because that was what Teriad had done. He gave up. Offered up not just his own life, but Jon’s and Lia’s as well. Had they been given a choice? Or had they just followed Teriad blindly? As Korin would have if he hadn’t already been sent away?
Korin felt guilty, responsible, but more than that he was angry. At the knights, yes. At himself, absolutely. But mostly at Teriad. Because if Teriad had truly believed in life, in fighting always for life, that would have included fighting for Jon and for Lia. For Teriad himself.
Korin had made a mistake. A desperate mistake. And Teriad had sent him away. There’d been no second chance, no benefit of the doubt, no forgiveness for the apprentice who had followed him with absolute loyalty and obedience for five whole years.
Maybe, just maybe, Teriad had been wrong.
Korin wanted to live. Wanted desperately to live. And how was that different from anyone?
The sudden relief brought on by this train of thought made Korin smile.
The blighted man saw. His eyes narrowed. “Nult, show him—“
That was all he got out before a flash of blinding light exploded in the clearing.