The screams echoing from the Tribal encampment are distinctly human, and they grow louder by the moment. I sprint toward them,
Aubarit and Afya following, the latter demanding that I explain what’s happening.
“Get to shelter.” I cut off the Zaldara‘s tirade. “I’ll answer your questions later—just hide.”
Dozens of people flee the Nur caravan, and as I approach it, I draw my scims. The closest screams come from a bright green wagon covered in mirrors. I know it well. It belongs to Afya’s little brother, Gibran.
The back of the wagon bursts open, and the handsome young Tribesman emerges. He grabs a man from within the wagon and tosses him like a rag doll.
“Uncle Tash!” Afya gasps and runs past me, toward her brother. “Gib,
Her brother turns to look at her, and the Tribeswoman slowly backs away, her face frozen in terror. Gibran’s eyes are pure white. He’s possessed. The escaped ghost has taken over his body.
Because I didn’t pass them through fast enough. Because there are too many, and they have no place to go but back into the world of the living.
Gibran lunges for Afya. Though she is a dozen feet away, he reaches her in one leap and lifts her up by her throat. The small woman kicks out at him, her face purpling. Before I can get to him, Gibran throws her too.
My Mask’s instinct kicks in, and I drop into a stalking crouch. If I can knock the Tribesman unconscious, perhaps something in Aubarit’s Mysteries will tell me how to exorcise the ghost.
But a ghost-possessed Tribesman is no ordinary foe. The way he threw Afya makes it clear that the spirit within him has physical powers far beyond what Gibran himself possesses.
My skin prickles. He’s seen me. I duck behind a wagon. He knows I’m coming, but I don’t have to make it easy for him.
In the distance, a group of men and women snatch up children and race for the river, Aubarit screaming at them to move faster. I scan the riverbank for Afya, but she has disappeared.
When I turn back to Gibran, he’s gone. Idiot, Elias. Never turn your back on a foe. I sheathe my scims—I don’t want to hurt him.
Too late, I hear a whoosh in the air—attack! Gibran is on my back, and I lurch to my knees beneath his unnatural weight. His arm, thin but muscled from months of battling Martials, comes around my throat, and he has the strength of five men. He babbles in my ear, his voice a fey growl.
“They razed it, burned it, corn silk and blood and flour—”
I know I can die as Soul Catcher. But by the skies, I won’t die by the hand of a ghost-possessed Tribesman choking the life out of me while gibbering in my ear.
I claw at Gibran’s arm, unnerved by his strength. Suddenly, a metallic thunk reverberates, and his hold loosens. Gasping and grabbing my throat, I back away from him to see Afya holding a cast-iron pan. She retreats from Gibran, who, though momentarily weakened, is getting to his feet.
“Run!” I bellow at Afya, leaping upon Gibran’s back. “To the river! Run!” She whirls as Gibran goes down. He’s impossible to keep in one place. I land a blow on his head. A second. A third. Skies, I’m going to have to kill him if I want the ghost out of him. I can’t kill him. He’s just a boy. He doesn’t deserve this.
“Damn you!” It is half snarl, half cry. Gibran makes Afya laugh like no one else. He loves with his whole heart—his family and his friends and his many lovers. And he’s young—too young for such a horrific fate. “Get out of him,” I bellow. “Get out! Get—” On my fifth blow, Gibran finally loses consciousness. The ghost oozes out of him, slumped, as if exhausted, and disappears. Back to the Waiting Place, I hope.
“Gib!” Afya returns from where she’s retreated, dropping the pan. “Did it kill him? What the hells happened? Where did that thing come from?”
“It escaped the Waiting Place.” If Gibran dies, it will be me who killed him by failing to pass the ghosts on. Don’t die, Gibran. Please don’t die. “Are there others?”
Afya shakes her head, but I can’t be sure until I check the whole camp myself. I’m certain I saw more than one ghost escape.
“How did they escape?” Afya asks. “What happened?”
“I failed.” I look into my friend’s eyes. I make myself do it, because it’s true and she deserves to know. I think she will be angry, but she just grabs my shoulder and squeezes.
“I have to figure out if there are any more.” I shake her off. Her understanding is a gift I don’t deserve. “Keep everyone near the river— inside it, if they’re able. Ghosts hate water.”
“Help me get him up,” Afya says, and when I’ve slung Gibran’s arm around her neck, she drags him away. But she has only gone a few dozen yards when she freezes. Her body goes stiff, like a bow string yanked taut, then slack as wet dough. Gibran falls to the ground, and she takes a deep, wolflike sniff of the air. She turns toward me, eyes white as snow.
Afya moves at me with impossible speed. The contrast between the familiarity of her face and form and the violence of her actions raises a chill along my spine. She has her frying pan in her hand, and I know that if she hits me with that thing, Soul Catcher or not, I’m going to have one hell of a headache. She swings it at me clumsily, and I catch her wrist, squeezing hard enough to make a normal woman drop the pan.
But she only growls at me, a guttural moan that chills my blood.
Think, Elias, think. Battle can’t have been the only thing you learned at Blackcliff.
A little girl, hiding until now, rushes past us trying to escape. Like an animal sensing weaker prey, Afya rips away from me and bounds after the girl. The child pumps her small legs, but she isn’t fast enough. When Afya leaps upon her, the girl’s neck cracks, and the thing that has possessed my friend grunts triumphantly. I howl in rage.
Deep in the Forest, the jinn laugh. I ignore them, drawing on the Mask deep within, refusing to allow myself to get distracted.
No human could hear the jinn, but the spirit within Afya stops and tilts its head, listening. I use her inattention to send a throwing knife straight at her face. The hilt hits her square in the forehead. Her eyes roll back, and she thuds to the dirt. For the moment, I push my concern for Afya aside and step over her prone body, scanning the area around me for more ghosts.
And suddenly, I feel a flicker of magic within me. The little magic I received when vowing myself as Soul Catcher responds to something greater. Thin tendrils of darkness coil like smoke out of the Waiting Place toward me. Mauth!
For a moment, Mauth’s magic fills me. The ghost that oozes out of Afya is no match for this power, and I wrap the magic around the spirit to bind it and then fling it back to the Waiting Place. I spot the last ghost a hundred yards away, lurking inside the body of a young woman attacking her family. I whip the magic out like a shepherd’s crook and
hook the ghost. It howls in rage, but I yank it out of the girl’s body and send it flying back to the Forest.
Skies, the power—the ease of it. It’s like I was born to it. I want to crow, I am so happy. Finally—finally—the magic has come to me.
Afya moans, and I drop beside her. Already, a goose egg rises on her head, but she’s not seriously hurt, not like Gibran. I reach for her, thinking to carry her to her Tribe, but the moment I do so, the power that suffused me dissipates.
“What—no—” I grasp for it with my hands, but it leaves me, dark tendrils disappearing back into the Forest. I feel strangely desolate, as if my own strength has left me. The only trace of the magic is a tug from Mauth—that dark insistence that’s always there when I leave the Waiting Place.
Aubarit appears behind me, her hand at her mouth when she sees Afya. “The Zaldara—her brother—”
“I’m sorry, Fakira,” I say. “It was my fault the ghosts escaped.”
Another tug at my gut from Mauth. This one stops me in my tracks. It feels different from before. Not impatient—urgent.
Jinn laughter fills my ears, and the sound is edged in vengeance and flame. Do you smell anything, Elias Veturius? Smoke, perhaps?
What are they up to? The jinn cannot escape their imprisonment in the grove—that, at least, I can be sure of. The magic of the Star has locked them there, and their only power is their voice. Voices can be ignored.
And voices can be used. Come home, Elias. See what awaits.
Shaeva’s cabin. My sanctuary. My safety. Sleep in the cottage. They cannot hurt you there.
I fly to the trees without an explanation to Aubarit. The second I’m through the border I sense interlopers—many of them, far to the north. It’s the same presence I felt for weeks lurking around the edges of the Forest. In the brief time that they are in the Forest, I see them in my mind’s eye. Larger than ghuls or wights, but smaller than wraiths. Efrits.
The jinn must have warned them, for they flee the Waiting Place. Even if I windwalk, they are too far away—I will never catch them.
Long before I reach the clearing, I know. Before I smell the smoke, see the dying flames, before I walk past the spot Shaeva died and the place where I was named Soul Catcher, I know.
Still, I do not believe until the glowing embers of Shaeva’s cabin are burning through my boots. The efrits did not just set it alight; they broke the beams and razed the garden. They destroyed it—and the magic it was made with. My sanctuary—my home—is gone, and I will never get it back.
And all the while, the jinn laugh.