It takes many days for the ghost to speak his pain. Listening to it chills my blood. He suffers each memory, a rush of violence and selfishness
and brutality that, for the first time, he must feel in all its horror.
Most of the ghosts have passed quickly. But sometimes their sins are so great that Mauth does not let them move on. Not until they have suffered what they inflicted.
So it is with the ghost of Marcus Farrar.
Through it, his brother remains at his side, silent, patient. Having spent the past nine months tied to his twin’s corporeal body, Zak has had plenty of time to suffer what he was. He waits, now, for his brother.
The day finally comes when Mauth is satisfied with Marcus’s suffering. The twins walk beside me quietly, one on each side. They are empty of anger, of pain, of loneliness. They are ready to pass on.
We approach the river, and I turn to the brothers. I sift through their minds dispassionately and find a memory that is joyful—in this case, a day they spent together on the rooftops of Silas before they were taken for Blackcliff. Their father bought them a kite. The winds were fair, and they flew it high.
I give the brothers that memory so that they might slip into the river without troubling me further. I take their darkness—that which Blackcliff found within them and nurtured—and Mauth consumes it. Where it goes, I do not know. I suspect, however, that it might have something to do with that seething sea I saw when I spoke to Mauth, and the creatures lurking within it.
When I look back at the twins, they are boys once more, untainted by the world. And when they step into the river, they do it together, small hands clasped.
The days go swiftly now, and with Mauth joined fully to me, I cycle through the ghosts, dividing my attention between many at a time as easily as if I am made of water and not flesh. The jinn chafe at Mauth’s power, but though they hiss and whisper at me still, I can usually silence them with a thought, and they trouble me no more.
At least for now.
When I have been back in the Waiting Place more than a week, I suddenly feel an outsider’s presence far to the north, near Delphinium. It takes me only a moment to realize who it is.
Leave it, Mauth says in my head. You know she will bring you no joy.
“I would like to tell her why I left.” I have let go of her. But sometimes old images drift to the shores of my mind, leaving me restless. “Perhaps if I do, she will cease to haunt me.”
I feel Mauth sigh, but he speaks no more, and in a half hour I can see her through the trees, pacing back and forth. She is alone.
She turns, and at the sight of her, something in me twists. An old memory. A kiss. A dream. Her hair like silk between my fingers, her body rising beneath my hands.
Behind me, the ghosts whisper, and in the ocean tide of their song, the memory of Laia fades away. I draw on another memory—that of a man who once wore a silver mask and who felt nothing when he did. In my mind, I put on the mask again.
“It is not your time yet, Laia of Serra,” I say. “You are not welcome here.”
“I thought—” She shudders. “Are you all right? You just left.” “You must go.”
“What happened to you?” Laia whispers. “You said we would be together. You said we would find a way. But then . . .” She shakes her head. “Why?”
“Thousands across the Empire died not because of the Karkauns but because of the ghosts. Because the ghosts possessed whomever they could and made them do terrible things. Do you know how they escaped?”
“I failed to hold the borders. I failed to uphold my duty to the Waiting Place. I put everything else first—strangers, friends, family, you.
Because of that, the borders fell.”
“You didn’t know. There was no one to teach you.” She takes a deep breath, her hands pressed together. “Do not do this, Elias. Do not leave me. I know you’re in there. Please—come back to me. I need you. The Blood Shrike needs you. The Tribes need you.”
I walk to her, take her hands, look down into her face. Whatever I want to feel is dulled now by the steady, soothing presence of Mauth, the thrum of ghosts in the Waiting Place.
“Your eyes.” She runs a finger across my brows. “They’re like hers.”
“Like Shaeva’s,” I say. As they should be. “No,” Laia says. “Like the Commandant’s.”
The words trouble me. But that too will fade. In time.
“Elias is who I was,” I say. “The Soul Catcher—the Banu al-Mauth— the Chosen of Death—that is who I am. But do not despair. We are, all of us, just visitors in each other’s lives. You will forget my visit soon enough.” I reach down and kiss her on the forehead. “Be well, Laia of Serra.”
When I turn away, she sobs, a soul-deep cry of wounded betrayal. “Take this.” Her voice is wretched, her face streaming tears. She tears
a wooden armlet from her bicep and shoves it into my hands. “I don’t want it.” She turns away then, makes for the horse waiting nearby.
Moments later, I am alone.
The wood is still warm from her body. When I touch it, some part of me calls out in rage from behind a shut door, demanding to be set free. But a second later, I shake my head, frowning. The feeling fades. I think to cast the armlet to the grass. I do not need it, and neither does the girl.
Something makes me put it in my pocket instead. I try to turn back to the ghosts, to my work. But I am perturbed, and eventually I find myself at the base of a tree near the spring not far from the ruins of Shaeva’s cabin, staring out at the water. A memory rises in my mind.
Soon you will learn the cost of your vow, my brother. I hope you do not think too ill of me.
Is that what this feeling is inside? Anger at Shaeva?
It is not anger, child, Mauth says gently. It is simply that you feel your mortality. But you have no mortality anymore. You will live as long as you can serve.
“It’s not mortality I feel,” I say, “though it is something uniquely mortal.”
“A type of sadness,” I say, “called loneliness.”
There is a long silence, so long that I think he has left me. Then I feel the earth shift around me. The tree’s roots rumble, curving, softening, until they fashion themselves around me, into a sort of seat. Vines grow, and flowers burst from them.
You are not alone, Banu al-Mauth. I am here with you.
A ghost drifts close to me, flitting about in agitation. Searching, always searching. I know her. The Wisp.
“Hello, young one.” Her hand drifts across my face. “Have you seen my lovey?”
“I have not,” I say, but this time I give her all of my attention. “Can you tell me her name?”
I nod, feeling none of the impatience I felt before. “Lovey,” I say. “What about you? What is your name?”
“My name,” she whispers. “My name? She called me Ama. But I had another name.” I sense her agitation and try to soothe her. I seek a way into her memories, but I cannot find one. She has built a wall around herself. When she tilts her head, her profile manifests briefly. The curves of her face strike a deep and visceral chord. I feel like I’m catching a glimpse of someone I’ve always known.
“Karinna.” She sits down next to me. “That was my name. Before I was Ama, I was Karinna.”
Karinna. I recognize the name, though it takes me a moment to realize why. Karinna was my grandmother’s name. Quin’s wife.
But it couldn’t be . . .
I open my mouth to ask her more, but her head whips around, as if she’s heard something. Immediately, she is back in the air, vanishing into the trees. Something has spooked her.
I run my mind along the borders of the Forest. The wall is strong. No ghosts lurk near it.
Then I feel it. For the second time this day, someone from the outside world enters the Waiting Place. But this time, it is not a trespasser.
This time, it is someone returning home.