Ádan had never known the Academy as anything but a haunted ruin. Once upon a time, it had been beautiful, as grand as the Royal Palace or the School of the Balance. A tiny city all on its own, it had housed over a thousand knights, trainees, and allies. It had been wondrous.
That story ended before Ádan had been born.
Now the grounds and gardens were overgrown, the training fields choked with bushes and weeds. Beautifully carved stonework that had weathered hundreds of years without a sign of age was now crumbling. The grand hall, the barracks, the libraries, the schools, all collapsing in on themselves.
It wasn’t a natural decay, and it would only speed and spread if Ádan didn’t get good at his job fast.
In the center of the Academy, Ádan found the tree. Not everyone could see it. It wasn’t real—not yet—merely a shadow of the power that lay in the underground deep below. But Ádan had touched the knife. He’d sworn the oath, and the tree couldn’t hide itself from him.
And that was the extent of the power Ádan was able to exert over it.
The shadow-tree reached up into the sky, its bare branches twisting around to block the sun no matter where Ádan stood. Ádan reached out to touch its black, rotting trunk, but his hand passed through the air because of course nothing was there.
“Talk to me,” Ádan murmured. “Listen to me. You might as well. We’re going to be together for a long time.”
Silence. If the tree—the knife—truly had a voice, Ádan had yet to hear it.
Derian had talked about the knife’s voice. How it—she, Derian always said she—had whispered to him, a constant companion in his ear, in his mind. Derian’s faith in Ádan had been such that they’d only once discussed the dangers of the whispered temptations and threats the knife could offer. They’d never discussed the possibility that the knife might refuse to speak to Ádan at all.
“Are you angry?” Ádan was angry. “Are you lonely?”
Derian had taught Ádan as much as he could in the short time they had together. Ádan knew what the knife was—as much as Derian had. The truth of the knife—where it came from, who had made it—had been lost ages ago. All they knew was the power it held. Death, corruption, decay.
It couldn’t be destroyed. Ádan knew that too. Generations of men and women had tried. It could only be guarded, contained. And look where that had brought them.
“Do you miss him?” The knife had whispered to Derian, and Derian had talked back. Derian had spoken of the knife like she was—not a friend, exactly, but a companion. One with whom the relationship was complicated, but one he knew he’d never be free of.
Except in death.
“He’s gone, but I’m sure you know that. I’m all you’ve got. You’ll have to talk to me sooner or later. Or are you just going to sulk in your cave for the next hundred years?”
Footsteps rustling in the dead grass warned Ádan he wasn’t alone. “Baby, don’t be like that.” Varajas’s voice was gently mocking.
“Not helpful, V.”
“Swear to God, Ádan, it was creepy enough when the Grandmaster would talk to that thing. Don’t you start.”
Varajas still didn’t understand. Neither did Nikki. And Ádan wasn’t sure how to explain it to them. For the millionth time, he regretted how quickly they had to flee Ulek. If they’d had time for Derian to teach them the way he’d taught Ádan…
Ádan turned his back on the tree. He ignored the way he could still feel it like a cold breath on his neck, a whisper scratch across his back. Ignored the way it made his skin crawl.
Ignored the way the shadows changed. The fact that they were no longer empty, twisting branches. A new shadow stretched out before him, a shadow that looked exactly like a body hanging, swinging in the nonexistent breeze.
Ádan absolutely didn’t turn around, didn’t look. Didn’t want to see if there was an actual body hanging there now, because he knew who that body would be. Instead, he started walking towards the Academy gate. Varajas fell in beside him.
“What did you see?” he asked.
Ádan felt a brief moment of panic, thinking V was asking about the body in the tree. But after a pause, Varajas added, “In Ulek.”
A creak from behind them—the sound of rope slipping and stretching. Ádan walked a little faster. “What do you want me to say? That everyone’s dead? That it’s going to be lifetimes before anything grows there again? That you can still smell the blood that’s been ground into the dirt?”
Ádan hated the soft tone of compassion. The last thing they needed right now was to start feeling sorry for each other. But all the same, it loosened something inside him, made him confess, “I saw him, V. Is that what you want to hear?”
Another creaking sound from behind. Exactly the same as Ádan had heard in Ulek. “They put magic on his body to keep it from rotting, but that didn’t keep the birds away. They’d pecked out his eyes. His face was a mess. Unrecognizable.” Except that Ádan would have known him anywhere. “It was just him, alone. Lysander talked the Dukes into burying King Kolyn, but…” Ádan couldn’t think what else to say.
And he did look back, because he couldn’t help himself. Because he’d never in his life been someone who could simply not look.
And yes, Derian’s body hung from the upper branches of the tree. It looked exactly as Ádan had seen it. Was the tree simply echoing his memories? Or was this a taunt, a gesture of cruelty?
Or worse, was this, in some strange way, the tree trying to make him feel better?
“We knew he was dead,” Varajas said.
Yes, Ádan had known. But knowing and seeing were two different things. Death was an abstract tragedy. Seeing what they’d done to him—the hatred and disrespect poured into that display—“He deserved so much better.” Better from the people Derian had spent his life trying to protect. From the knights who had failed him in the end.
“You coming inside?” V asked as they passed through the Academy gate and put a wall between Ádan and any more visions the tree wanted to give him.
That had been Ádan’s plan, but, “No. I need to—I’m going to—I have another errand to run.”
Varajas wasn’t fooled by Ádan’s stumbling evasion. He put a hand on Ádan’s shoulder. Wordless acceptance. “Tell Korin hi for me.”