As they got close to the Academy, Ádan grabbed Korin’s sleeve and pulled him to a stop. Ádan lifted a finger to his lips, gesturing for silence, and Korin’s skin prickled as Ádan’s magic pulled shadows around them. Hand in hand, they crept forward. And as they crossed through the gateway, Korin’s heart sank.
Loukanos was there, standing in the center, before the shadow of the tree. At his feet writhed Varajas. As Korin refocused, he could see the strands of Loukanos’s magic sunk deep into Varajas, torturing him.
“Tell me where it is,” Loukanos demanded and closed his hand into a fist. The magic similarly clenched and Varajas screamed.
“I can feel, the power. It’s so close. Just tell me where it is, and I’ll let you die.”
Korin looked sideways at Ádan, whose expression had gone murderously cold. “You have to get Varajas out of here. When I get Loukanos’s attention, grab him and get away.”
“You can’t fight him alone. He’s an archwizard.”
Ádan had a point. But Korin wasn’t alone. And they didn’t have time for Korin to explain. “Loukanos knows you. He’ll be able to sink his power right back into you, unless you’ve figured out how to stop that somewhere in the last few minutes. I can’t protect you and fight him all at the same time. And…” Korin paused, steeling himself to speak the hard truth. “Whatever happens, he can’t get the knife. You know that as well as I do. If I fail, you have to get it away from here.”
Ádan grabbed Korin by the back of his head, dragged him into a desperate kiss. He pulled back, just as sudden, leaving Korin gasping. “Go,” he said.
Korin straightened and stepped forward. He felt Ádan’s magic slip away, and he called out “Loukanos!”
The archwizard didn’t turn. “Hello, Korin. I wondered when you’d show up.” He squeezed his hands into fists and Varajas screamed.
Korin couldn’t break Loukanos’s power—not when he’d had time to sink so deep into Varajas—but he could do the next best thing. He wove a line of energy in around Loukanos’s magic and Varajas passed out.
Loukanos gave a disappointed sigh. “Very well. If you want to talk. Let’s talk.” He turned, raised his hand, and now it was Korin’s turn to scream as the bones of his feet erupted out through his skin and drove into the ground, pinning him.
“It’s such a pity Teriad got to your first. Ruined you.” Loukanos twisted his wrist and Korin’s legs crumpled. “Such potential, wasted.” He squeezed his fingers into a fist and Korin couldn’t breathe, his lungs refusing to expand.
Loukanos’s power was like iron. Korin had healed himself through war, dark magic, and darker cultists. He’d spent weeks with Sheluna honing his understanding, his will. And even so, Loukanos’s magic had locked into him, taking control as easily as if it belonged to him.
Help me, Korin thought, turning pleading eyes towards the tree.
He wants me. You do not.
Korin focused on breathing, willing his body to remember how. Power, will, conviction. Korin was able to wrest back enough control to take a gasping breath before Loukanos’s grip tightened once more.
He’s cruel. He creates suffering. He causes pain. That isn’t what you want.
He’ll use my power. He’ll set me free.
“It’s your turn to answer questions,” Loukanos said, walking over to Korin. “And I’ll make you the same promise. A quick death—an end to your suffering. Tell me where it is. The power of the knights. Because I think you know.”
The pain was too intense. Korin couldn’t keep his eyes open. He couldn’t see if Ádan had gotten Varajas away yet. But at least he didn’t seem in any danger of losing Loukanos’s attention. Korin would have laughed, if he could. But all he could manage was his hand clawing helplessly at his throat.
“I’m sorry,” Loukanos said in a silky voice. “Did you have something to say?”
The pressure on Korin’s lungs let up. Korin dragged in enough air to say, “Go to hell.”
His lungs snapped closed again and now his skin started to burn. The new agony reawakened the pain in his legs, his feet, that had started to dull. He’s going to kill me. Like he almost killed Ádan. Is that what you want?
No. But she sounded unsure.
She didn’t like being locked away. She wanted to be free. And she was lonely. All that much, Korin had figured out. But her power corrupted everything she touched. It was the knife’s power the cultists had touched. The knife’s power, flowing through that old man, that had almost killed him even as Korin had tried to heal him. Korin couldn’t promise to set her free. Not as Loukanos undoubtably would. So what could he offer?
Loukanos’s power snapped and Korin’s magic, freed of all resistance, washed through him in a wave of relief. He opened his eyes to see a dagger stuck in Loukanos’s shoulder, and Loukanos focused on something over Korin’s shoulder.
“Well, well,” Loukanos said as he reached up and pulled the knife out, tossing it to the side. “More resourceful than I thought.”
Ádan stepped up next to Korin, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his feet. “V and Nikki are below,” he whispered. “They’ll do what needs to be done. I couldn’t leave you.”
“How sweet.” Loukanos raised his hands again. “You can die together.”
Korin struck. He reached directly for Loukanos’s nerves, burst energy through them. Loukanos flinched, but didn’t lose control. Korin’s power was pushed out, reflected back and Korin had to cut off the energy before he was incapacitated by his own magic.
Ádan was circling around and did something to draw Loukanos’s attention. Korin took advantage of the distraction to heal himself, then tried to reach in and grab Loukanos’s lungs the way he’d done to Korin.
But Loukanos gave an idle wave and Korin was knocked back down. He pointed at Ádan, and Ádan stumbled. Even the two of them together were no match. But Korin had known that going in.
He just wants to use you. He doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t care about anyone. All he wants is power.
And what do you want?
To learn. To help people. Korin looked over at Ádan. To be with him.
I don’t want to be alone.
I won’t leave you alone. I promise.
The branches of the tree reached for him, and Korin felt the power of the knife flowing into him. It pushed all the remains of Loukanos’s influence from his body and filled him with a crackling energy that threatened to explode out.
Korin focused. He had to keep control. “Together,” he said through gritted teeth.
“What?” Loukanos asked, turning to face him. “What do you mean—”
Korin sent the knife’s energy through Loukanos like a spear, shredding Loukanos’s defenses and driving him to the ground. Dark tendrils of energy shot through him, wrapped around him, held him down. Loukanos struggled, but all his power was nothing next to the knife. It broke against the dark spear like a wave against rocks.
Ádan looked at Korin, eyes wide. “What did you do?”
Korin ignored him, advancing on Loukanos. “She doesn’t belong to you. And neither does Ádan. And neither do I.”
“You arrogant little whelp,” Loukanos snarled. “You can’t—”
Korin twisted the magic, took away Loukanos’s ability to speak. “My turn now. You’re done.” He reached through the archwizard, sending his magic into all the places the knife had opened. “I’m not going to kill you. Even though you probably deserve it. More than anyone I’ve ever met, you deserve it. And you can thank the fact that Teriad “ruined” me. In fact, you should just take some time to think about the fact that you owe your life to him.
“But take that time elsewhere. Somewhere very far away. Because I don’t want to ever see you again.”
Korin reached in deeper, to Loukanos’s very center and up, until his magical strands were resting in Loukanos’s brain. “But I can’t just let you go. Not like this. Because even if you don’t come back after me, and the people I care about, you’ll just keep hurting people. And I can’t have that.”
Korin thought at the knife. You know what I need. Can you do it?
I can. Yes.
Then do it.
Loukanos screamed as the knife’s corruption moved through his brain, twisting as it went. “I’m taking away your magic, Loukanos. You don’t get to be a wizard any more.”
Loukanos writhed as the knife worked. Korin had known this was possible, but usually it was a punishment handed out by the entire council of archwizards, and it took that full council to accomplish. But the knife had the power to do this all on its own.
Korin shivered at that thought, but he didn’t tell the knife to stop.
When it was done, Korin released Loukanos from the magic that had been binding him. “We’re done with you now. Get out of our city.” He turned and walked out of the Academy. He didn’t look back.