The immense underground cavern was a wonder in and of itself. Korin stood on a narrow walkway that ran along the wall about thirty feet up from the floor, and the ceiling was at least another thirty feet higher. The walls were covered with magic wards and symbols carved deep into the stone. They gave off a flickering, silvery light by which Korin could see, and yet, as he looked around, he felt like he was surrounded by a darkness so thick he might never find his way out.
At the center of the cavern, rising out of the ground, was a great tree. Its massive trunk was wider than Korin was tall, and its branches spread wide enough to brush the cavern walls with their tips. But the tree was rotting, black and twisted. Dead.
Not dead, came the familiar whisper, just like at the academy ground above. Trapped. We grow. We feed. We hunger.
The tree pulsed with the black energy of the blight. The power that both drew and repulsed Korin. As Korin stared, his eyes telling him that he both could and couldn’t see through the darkness, the tree faded, melting into the darkness, and at its center, Korin saw—the true heart. The source of the black, rotting magic. “There’s a knife sunk into the floor.”
“You can see it?” Ádan’s voice sounded very far away. The tree was closer. Realer.
Korin. Our Korin. Breathe our power. Reach for it. Take us. Claim us.
The magic swirled around Korin, called to him. Brittle black branches reached up towards him. He had only to stretch out his hand to touch them, to soak the power into himself.
Ádan had lied. “You knew what the blight was all along. You knew where it came from.”
“No. No, Korin, I swear it. I don’t know what’s causing the blight.”
This close, Korin knew Ádan was right. As he’d felt above, he now knew for true. This was the power of the blight, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t virulent, destructive. It was pure death, but also alive in a way Korin could feel at his core, but couldn’t understand.
You see us. You know us. The ones above are blind. They would keep us trapped. We belong to you and you belong to us.
The knife. The tree. Korin saw both, and neither—blinded by darkness, blinded by the watery light. In this room lived death. Pure, untainted, and raw. It curled around Korin, caressed him, filled the air he breathed. It resonated with the deepest part of his soul.
Our boy. Life and death. We are one. Make us whole. Take our power.
Korin touched one of the branches, felt the brittle wood curve and twist around his fingers. Like a caress.
A memory, pure and sharp, of reaching inside his attackers in Naktigan, of ripping and twisting, how it had felt. That intimate touch, his magic, his power, the life that was his to take.
Korin’s fists clenched and the branch crumbled in his fingers.