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Korin expected the blow, but it didn’t come. He didn’t question, didn’t think, but pulled a wave of bright energy through himself to erase all the damage the blighted man’s magic had done to him.

The ropes fell away. Not from anything he’d done. It startled Korin, but he reacted on instinct, scrambling from the tree. As he pushed away, he looked back and saw Nult, a heavy stick raised in mid-swing, struggling against it as though some invisible person stood beneath him, holding it up.

Or as though someone were using magic.

Korin scanned around, taking in the scene as fast as he could. There were more people than he’d realized. In the light of the fires that ringed the clearing, he counted Aiya, the blighted man, and five more. Plus Nult beside the tree, and the other horrifying monstrosity lumbering over to help him.

“Get him! Get the wizard!” the blighted man shouted and the creature turned its attention to Korin.

A knife whistled through the air and sunk deep into the center of the blighted man’s chest. A knife Korin recognized. Ádan's. The blighted man looked down, a frown that was more annoyance than pain on his face. “Come out, come out,” he called in a singsong voice as the rest of the blighted man’s people spread out around the fires, brandishing sticks and knives, searching for their attackers.

Korin tried to get to his feet, ready to run, but with his attention split between the blighted man and the monster approaching him, he was caught off guard by attack from a different direction. Aiya tackled him from behind. “You’re mine!” she screamed. “Mine!”

They rolled together, struggling. She was stronger than she looked. Stronger than she should have been. She pinned Korin face-down on the ground, her hands on his wrists, knees on his back. “She’ll have you,” Aiya hissed. “She’ll know my loyalty.”

Searing cold at every place she touched him. It froze. It burned. It was agony. The dark magic of the blight in its purest form. Aiya was forcing it into Korin, driving the magic through him. Korin could feel it dissolving his flesh, rotting him from the outside in. Killing him.

It would have killed him, if Korin had never touched this magic before. Aiya’s power was brutal and fast. It gave him no time to think. If Korin hadn’t already developed an instinctive response to the crippling invasive corruption, he would have been lost.

But Korin had fought the blight. Korin had healed the blight. As his body screamed at the pain, Korin’s magic instinctively launched a counter-attack.

It wasn’t enough. The blight had been insidious, but undirected. With Aiya’s hands on him, her power directed at him and only him, Korin was overwhelmed. Every inch she gained was more pain, another part of him lost to agony. Lost to the invasive, twisted power.

And then it was gone. Aiya was gone. Without resistance, Korin’s magic ripped back through his own body, undoing the damage Aiya had done. All as he rolled over, struggling to sit up and see what happened.

Ádan was there. Ádan had broken cover to pull Aiya off Korin. He’d saved Korin, but as Korin watched, Ádan collapsed beneath Aiya’s hands which radiated putrid, decaying power.

Before Korin could make a move to help, Nult’s club slammed into his shoulder and he was knocked back down to the ground. Nult lifted the weapon again, ready to bring it down on Korin’s head, but it froze in the air like it was stuck. Korin turned his head to the side and saw Nikki next to one of the fires, one hand extended like he was pushing up against the club, the sweat of his exertion rolling down his face. But two more of the blighted people were closing in on him from behind. In the opposite direction, Varajas danced with the other brute, a flaming sword in his hand, a look of fierce concentration on his face as the fire behind writhed and flared in a flaming cage that held two more of the blighted people.

“Korin!” Ádan yelled, his voice rough and breaking. Aiya’s magic was tearing him apart, the same as it had Korin. Only Ádan had none of Korin’s defenses.

None of the knights did. Whatever magic they had, whatever skill as warriors, they were helpless against this withering magic these men and women had summoned. Outmatched by the same malevolent power they were supposed to be guarding against.

Korin scrambled forward, out from under Nult. He reached out for Aiya, was just able to grab her calf. He couldn’t reach Ádan, but he flooded Aiya with magic, pushing pure healing power through her with enough force it should keep going into Ádan. Now it was Aiya’s turn to scream.

Aiya dropped Ádan and kicked free of Korin’s hand. She turned her power back on Korin, but he had the advantage this time. She couldn’t push past his wall of power. He treated her like he had Dustin and Shaiera, like a victim of the blight, sending sparks of healing energy through her body to drive away the darkness.

Everything else fell away. The clearing, the battle. Nult, the blighted man. Ádan and the other knights. All Korin knew was Aiya and the twisting energy inside her. Every searching tendril and writhing thread. Korin grabbed her hands, held them tight.

Korin healed her.

She screamed again and fell to her knees. She reached out for Korin as she had before, but the blight was gone from inside her and it seemed her power was gone as well.

That was the answer. That was why they’d come after Korin, why they’d targeted wizards of his order. The blight wasn’t the result of their power. It was the source of it.

Ádan was still on the ground, unmoving. But before Korin could get to him, monstrous hands grabbed Korin’s arms and yanked him into the air with implacable strength. Korin’s shoulders popped out of their sockets with a throbbing pain as he kicked and struggled. He was trapped. No way he could escape Nult’s hold through any physical means.

But now Korin knew how to fight back. The pain was distracting, but no worse than what Korin had already faced today. He focused around it, to the hands like iron on his arms.

The blight had a stronger hold on Nult. It had reshaped Nult into the monster he was, stretched him, grown him, and filled him. But in doing so, it had weakened him. Parts of him were all blight. No wonder had hadn’t noticed or cared about any of the damage Ádan and Korin had tried to do to him. His blood, his guts, his very heart were sludgy messes of rot radiating out the magic of death.

If Korin could—

“Hold the wizard!” The blighted man yelled at Nult. Korin’s head whipped around to see what was happening. The blighted man had pulled Ádan's knife out of himself, but his attention was on Nikki, not Korin. Nikki, his own flaming sword in hand, who had beheaded one of his attackers and now danced in and out of the reach of the other blighted brute, harassing him with quick, searing slices.

The blighted man grabbed Aiya by the hair. She was still sobbing, but she didn’t pull away. In fact, she turned her face up to him, mouthed, “Yes.”

He brought the knife straight down.

A fountain of blood soaked his arm and splattered on his face. The blighted man laughed wildly. With Aiya’s encroaching death, the power within him grew.

In a matter of seconds, that power would be directed at Nikki, at Varajas, at Ádan, who had no defenses against it.

But only if Aiya died.

Korin couldn’t touch her, could barely see through the haze of his own pain. But he’d healed her once already. His magic knew the shape of her.

Korin closed his eyes, tried to shut out everything else. With all the force of his magic, he willed into being the Aiya that had been there only moments ago. An Aiya who wasn’t fountaining blood, who wasn’t choking on her own bodily fluids, who wasn’t dying.

She screamed. The blighted man stabbed her again. Korin felt the piercing force of the knife like it was cutting through his own body. He pushed back, knitting lungs and blood vessels and flesh back together.

“Kill the wizard!” The blighted man screamed, full of fury. “Kill—“

His shriek cut off. Korin looked to see Ádan—alive and standing—with a wire pulled tight around the blighted man’s neck. It wouldn’t work, Korin wanted to call out, but he couldn’t get the air. Nult, obedient, was squeezing Korin between his two giant hands. Crushing him.

A flaming dagger tumbled through the air from across the clearing, buried itself in the blighted man’s stomach. From the corner of his eye, Korin could just see Nikki’s look of fierce concentration as the flames spread and engulfed the man. Ádan pulled away as the man’s skin blackened and melted in the magical fire. The blighted man collapsed to the ground. Even the magic of death couldn’t save him from that.

Nult froze, then dropped Korin. Korin gasped for breath as the enraged monster rushed Ádan.

More magic spun around Nult. Not from Korin. Korin could hardly make sense of what was happening. Ádan dodged Nult’s wide swing as Nult tripped, like someone had just shoved his shoulder. Varajas darted in from one side as Nikhil came up from the other. The three knights moved in and out, a chaotic dance that Korin’s exhausted mind couldn’t follow. He knew how to fight Nult, but he couldn’t find the words to say it.

Dimly, he was aware of the rest of the group fleeing into the dark jungle. Of Aiya spitting at him, then running. Of Ádan and his friends whittling away at Nult with a skill and grace that would have been beautiful if Korin could just keep his eyes open. But as adrenaline faded and pain and exhaustion took its place, Korin was losing the battle for consciousness.

He lay down. Easier that way. He heard his name, but he didn’t have the energy to respond.

Korin fell into darkness.

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