The ghosts explode into the Empire like flaming stones hurtling from a ballista. The border wall is nothing but shreds.
I feel the spirits in the same way that I feel the contours of the Waiting Place. They’re bits of winter in a blanket of warmth and they move like a school of fish, closely packed and streaking in one direction
—southwest, toward a Martial village I sneak supplies from. The people who live there are decent and hardworking. And they’ve no bleeding idea what’s coming.
I want to help them. But that’s also what the jinn want—for it’s a distraction from my duty. Yet again, they’re trying to use my humanity against me.
Not this time. What matters now is not the humans whom the ghosts will possess and torment. It’s the border of the Waiting Place. I have to restore it. There will be more ghosts entering the Forest. They, at least, must be kept within its boundaries.
The thought has scarcely formed in my mind when the magic rises from the earth, winding its way into my body. It’s stronger this time, as if sensing that finally I understand how I’ve been manipulated by the jinn. Feeling Mauth, letting the magic consume me, is a relief—but also a transgression. I shudder at Mauth’s closeness. This doesn’t feel like using my physical magic, which is simply a matter of harnessing something that’s already part of me. No—this magic is something alien. It sinks in like a disease and colors my sight. The magic changes something fundamental within. I do not feel like myself.
But my discomfort can wait. I have more pressing work.
The magic allows me to see what the border should look like. All I need to do is apply my willpower to rebuild it. I gather my strength.
Far to the south, the ghosts close in on the village. Don’t think about
Mauth’s magic flares in response, his presence stronger. Section by
section, I rebuild the border, imagining great bricks of light rising all at once, solid and unbreakable. When I open my eyes, the wall is there, glowing as if it never came down. The border cannot call the escaped
ghosts back. But it can catch new ghosts who are bound for the Waiting Place.
And there will be many of those.
Now what? Do I go after the rogue ghosts? A nudge from Mauth toward the southwest is my answer. The windwalking comes easily— more easily than it ever has. And though I expect the magic to wear off the farther I get from the Forest, it stays with me, for this is Mauth’s magic, not my own.
The ghosts have scattered, splintering among the countryside into dozens of small groups. But I make for the village closest to the Waiting Place. When I am still a mile away, I hear screams.
I slow in a village square, and it is a testament to the havoc the ghosts have created that none of the villagers seem to notice that I appeared out of thin air.
“Thaddius! My son! No!” a white-haired man screams. A younger man twists the old man’s arms behind his back and pulls them up with inhuman, inexorable force. “Release me—don’t do this—aaa—” An audible crunch sounds, and the father slumps, unconscious from pain. The younger man lifts him up, as if he’s nothing but a pebble, and flings him across the village—hundreds and hundreds of yards.
I draw my scims, prepared to attack, when Mauth yanks at me.
Of course, Elias, you idiot, I chide myself. I can’t single-handedly beat up everyone inhabited by a ghost. Shaeva tapped my heart, my head. Mauth’s true power is here and here. The magic nudges me toward the closest group of possessed villagers. My throat grows warm, and I can sense, somehow, that Mauth wants me to speak.
“Stop,” I say, but not as Elias. I speak as the Banu al-Mauth. I pinion the possessed with my gaze, one by one. I wait for an attack, but all they do is stare balefully, wary of the magic they can sense roiling within me.
“Come,” I order them. My voice booms with a supernatural note of command. They must listen. “Come.”
They snarl and yip, and I cast Mauth’s magic out like a thin line, wrapping it around each of them, tugging them close. Some come in the bodies they have stolen. Others are still spirits, and they drift toward me with hostile moans. Soon, a small group of a few dozen spirits forms a half circle around me.
Should I rope them together with magic? Send them streaming back to the Waiting Place, as I did with the ghosts that plagued the Tribes?
No. For as I look at these tortured faces, I realize the spirits don’t wish to be here. They want to move on, to leave this world. Sending
them back to the Forest will only prolong their suffering.
The magic fills my sight, and I see the ghosts for what they are: hurting, alone, confused, regretful. Some are desperate for forgiveness. Others for kindness. Others for understanding. Others for an explanation.
But a few require judgment, and those spirits take longer to deal with, for they must suffer the hurt they inflicted on others before they are free. Each time I recognize what a spirit needs, I find myself willing it forth from the magic and giving it to them.
It takes time. Long minutes pass, and I get through a dozen ghosts, then two dozen. Soon, all the ghosts in the vicinity flock to me, desperate to speak, desperate for me to see them. The villagers cry out for help, perhaps hoping my magic will offer them respite from their pain. I glance at them and see not humans but lesser creatures who are dying slowly. The humans are mortal, unimportant. The ghosts are all that matter.
The thought feels unfamiliar. Strange. As if it doesn’t belong to me.
But I have no time to dwell on it, for more ghosts await. I fix my gaze on them, barely twitching until the last of them has moved on, even those who found human bodies to squat in.
When I finish, I observe the devastation they’ve left behind. There are a dozen dead bodies that I can see and probably dozens more that I can’t.
Distantly, I feel something. Sadness? I push it aside quickly. The villagers look at me with terror now—they’re simple creatures, after all. In any case, it’s only a matter of time before fear transforms into torches and scims and pitchforks. I’m still mortal, and I’ve no wish to fight them.
A young man steps forward, a hesitant look on his face. He opens his mouth, his lips forming the words thank you.
Before he can finish, I turn away. There is much work ahead of me.
And in any case, I don’t deserve his thanks.
Days pass in a blur of villages and towns. I find the ghosts, call to them, gather them close, and send them on. In some villages, doing
so takes only an hour. In others, it takes nearly an entire day.
My connection to Mauth grows stronger, but it’s not complete. I know it in my bones. The magic holds back, and I will not be a true Soul Catcher until I find a way to merge with it fully.
Soon, the magic is powerful enough that I can hone in quickly on where the ghosts are. I send hundreds on. Thousands remain. And hundreds more ghosts have been created, for the spirits wreak havoc wherever they go. One evening, I reach a town where nearly everyone is already dead, and the ghosts have already moved on to another town.
Nearly three weeks after the ghosts’ escape, when night has fallen and a storm has broken over the land, I take shelter on a grassy knoll free of boulders and scrum, just a few miles from a Martial garrison. The drums of the garrison thunder—unusual this late at night, but I pay them no mind, not even bothering to translate.
Shivering in my soaked leather armor, I gather a bundle of sticks. But the rain doesn’t let up, and after a half hour of trying to light the damn fire, I abandon it and hunch miserably beneath my hood.
“What’s the use,” I mutter to myself, “of having magic if I can’t use it to make a fire?”
I expect no response, so when the magic rises, I am surprised. More so when it hovers over me, creating an invisible, cocoon-like shelter.
“Ah . . . thank you?” I poke at the magic with a finger. It has no substance, just a sense of warmth. I didn’t know it could do this.
There is so much you do not yet know. Did Shaeva know Mauth well?
She was always so deeply respectful of the magic—fearful, even. And like a child who watches his parents’ faces for cues, I picked up on that wariness.
Did the magic feel anything when Shaeva died, I wonder? She was bound to that place for a thousand years. Did Mauth care? Did he feel angry at the Nightbringer’s foul crime?
I shudder when I think of the jinn lord. When I think of who he was— a Soul Catcher who passed the spirits of humans on with such love— versus what he has become: a monster who wants nothing more than to annihilate us. In the stories Mamie told, he was only ever called the King of No Name or the Nightbringer. But I wonder if he had a true name, one us humans never deserved to know.
Though it’s discomfiting, I am forced to admit that the jinn were wronged. Grievously wronged. Which doesn’t make what the Nightbringer has done right. But it does complicate my view of the world—and my ability to look on him with unadulterated hatred.
When I finally arise, warm and dry due to Mauth’s shelter, it’s long before dawn. Immediately, I’m aware of a shift in the fabric of the world. The ghosts I’d sensed lurking in the surrounding countryside are gone.
And there is something else—some new fey darkness in the world. I can’t see it. And yet I know it exists.
I stand up, scanning the rolling farmland around me. The garrison is to the north. Then there are a few hundred miles of Illustrian estates.
Then the capital, the Nevennes Range, Delphinium.
The magic strains north, as if wishing to drag me in that direction. As I reach out with my mind, I feel it. Chaos. Blood. A battle. And more ghosts. Except these do not come from the Waiting Place. They are fresh, new, and imprisoned by a strange fey magic that I’ve never before seen.
What in the ten hells?
The ghosts are, I know, sometimes drawn to conflict. Blood. Could there be a battle in the north? At this time of year, Tiborum is often harassed by the Empire’s enemies. But Tiborum is due west.
Mauth nudges me to my feet, and I windwalk north, my mind ranging out over miles. I finally come across a cluster of ghosts and just ahead of it, another. More of the spirits arrow toward a specific place, wild with hunger and rage. They yearn toward bodies, toward bloodshed, toward war. I know it as surely as if the ghosts tell me themselves. What bleeding war, though? I think, bewildered. Are the Karkauns murdering Wildmen in the Nevennes again? If so, that must be where the ghosts are headed.
The drums of a nearby garrison thunder, and this time, I listen.
Karkaun attack imminent. All reserve soldiers to report to South River barracks immediately. The message repeats, and I finally understand that the ghosts are not, in fact, headed to the Nevennes.
They are headed to Antium.