Chapter 5

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Exhausted, Korin couldn't move. He was hunched over, eyes closed, knees aching from the stone floor. He couldn't even summon the energy to fall all the way over.

Ádan helped Dustin out. Korin had no idea how long he was gone. All Korin could think about was breathing. But Ádan did come back. He knelt in front of Korin, their knees touching. "What was that?" 

"Eaten alive." Those had been Dustin's words. They grated against Korin's throat. His whole body was in rough shape. But he was here, and the blackness was gone, and the rest could be repaired. 

He opened his eyes, saw Ádan's look of concern. "I'll be okay once I've caught my breath," Korin reassured. 

Korin risked a deeper breath. Rolled his shoulders to ease their stiffness. Opened and closed his hands.

Oh, but that was a mistake. Ádan was watching and his eyes went wide in an expression Korin had seen far too often. The same look Marta had given. Surprise. That would turn to revulsion. Or at best, distance.

Ádan caught Korin's left hand. Korin froze as Ádan gently pried open his fingers to look closer at the scarred flesh. Korin flushed, embarrassment and fear warring with something akin to desperation as Adán's touched the shiny, puckered skin. Ádan traced his thumb over the rough flesh, like a caress. "What happened?"

Korin was so mesmerized by Adán's touch he answered the question. "My father."

Adán's fingertip followed the lines of the scarring, a light contact that ran through Korin like an electric shock. "Tell me," Ádan said softly.

No one had ever touched Korin like this. Even Jonathan hadn't been comfortable with the scars, and Korin had understood that. In the freezing south, Korin had gotten away with wearing gloves all the time. Even when he and Jon had...

Korin refocused on Ádan, on the feel of Ádan's calloused thumb stroking Korin's palm, on the question Ádan had asked. "Our little mining town, we were pretty isolated. Not big enough or comfortable for any wizard to want to live there full time, and no reason for any of them to visit. So when my gift started to show, no one was around to tell me what it was or what it meant.

"I was playing with the fire. Making shapes. It was—I don't know how much you know about magic, but that's how a lot of kids get discovered. Fire's easy."

"It's different up here," Ádan said. "Not so many open flames. Gifted kids mess around with wind and water. Rainstorms, if you can believe."

Korin could believe. In his time at the school, there had been horror stories of gifted children who had called down blizzards and worse. Yet another black mark against wizards. "I was lucky I didn't hurt anybody. I was at the fireplace, making little animals out of the flames. A game. I thought they were pretty."

Korin reflexively clenched his fists at the memory, trapping Adán's fingers in his own. Ádan didn't pull away.

"My father came in, saw...I don't even remember. A fox, or maybe a wolf. All made of fire. Next to me. He didn't know what it was, or that I was doing it.

"He grabbed the poker out of the fire. I'd left it there. He tried to...it was really very brave of him. He thought it was some sort of demon, trying to take me. He didn't understand it was just a game and I thought he was attacking my friend."

Korin closed his eyes. He could still remember the sudden sizzling pain. The strangely sweet smell of his own flesh burning. "I grabbed the poker, trying to stop him. It all happened so fast, neither of us were thinking."

Korin had immediately fainted. When the agony finally dragged him back awake, he'd been two days on the road, on his way to the school. "Father took me to the wizards to save my life. And they kept me there, knowing what I was. But there weren't any real healers at the school of the Crystal. They knew enough to keep me from losing my hands, but they couldn't fix me."

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