Shaeva plunges me into a darkness so complete that I wonder if I’m in one of the hells. She holds fast to me, though I cannot see her. We are
not windwalking—it feels like we are not moving at all. And yet her body thrums with the tang of magic, and when it spills over to me, my skin burns as if I’ve been set alight.
Gradually, my vision brightens until I find myself hovering over an ocean. The sky above rages, thick with sallow yellow clouds. I feel Shaeva beside me, but I cannot tear my gaze from the water below, which seethes with huge forms rippling just below the surface. Evil emanates from those forms, a malevolence that I feel in the deepest parts of my soul. Terror fills me like I’ve never felt in all my life, not even as a child in Blackcliff.
Then the fear lifts, replaced by the weight of an ancient gaze. A voice speaks in my mind:
Night draws close, Elias Veturius. Beware.
The voice is so soft that I must strain to hear every syllable. But before I can make sense of it, the ocean is gone, the dark returns, and the voice and images fade from my memory.
The knotted wood joists above my head and feather pillow below it tell me instantly where I am when I wake. Shaeva’s cabin—my
home. A log pops in the fire, and the scent of spiced korma fills the air. For a long moment, I relax into my bunk, secure in the peace one feels only when they are safe and warm beneath their own roof.
Laia! When I remember what happened, I sit up too quickly; my head aches something vicious. Bleeding hells.
I need to get back to the village—to Laia. I drag myself to my feet, find my scims tucked haphazardly beneath my bed, and stagger to the cottage door. Outside, a freezing wind tears through the clearing, stirring
the packed snow into wild, waist-high tornadoes. The ghosts wail and cluster at the sight of me, their anguish palpable.
“Hello, little one.” One of the shades drifts close, so faded I get only the barest impression of her face. “Have you seen my lovey?”
I know her. The Wisp. One of the first ghosts I met here. My voice when I speak is a rusty growl.
“Elias.” Shaeva appears at the edge of the clearing, a basket of winter herbs on her wrist. The Wisp, ever shy, vanishes. “You shouldn’t be up and about.”
“What’s wrong with me?” I demand of the Soul Catcher. “What happened?”
“You’ve been unconscious for a day.” Shaeva ignores my obvious ire. “I reeled us here instead of windwalking. It is swifter, but more detrimental to a mortal body.”
“Stop, Elias.” Shaeva sits at the base of a yew tree, settling into its exposed roots and taking a deep breath. The tree almost appears to curve around her, fitting itself to her body. She pulls a handful of greens from the basket and tears the leaves violently from their stems. “You nearly got yourself killed. Is that not enough?”
“You shouldn’t have grabbed me like that.” I cannot hold back my anger, and she glares at me, her own temper rising. “I would have been fine. I need to get back to that village.”
“You imbecile!” She casts her basket down. “The Blood Shrike had a dagger in her gauntlet. It was an inch away from your vitals. Mauth tried to pull you back, but you did not heed him. If I had not arrived, I would be shouting at your ghost right now.” Her scowl is fierce. “I let you aid your friends despite my misgivings. And you squandered it.”
“You can’t expect me to remain in the Waiting Place and never have any human contact,” I say. “I’ll go mad. And Laia—I care for her, Shaeva. I can’t just—”
“Ah, Elias.” She rises and reaches for my hands. Though my skin is numb from the cold, I take no comfort from her warmth. She sighs, and her voice is heavy with shame. “Do you think I have never loved? I did. Once. He was beautiful. Brilliant. That love blinded me to my duties, sacred though they were. The world suffered for my love. It suffers still.” She draws breath raggedly, and around us, the wails of the ghosts intensify, as if in response to her distress.
“I understand your pain. Truly. But for us, Elias, duty must reign over all else: desire, sadness, loneliness. Love cannot live here. You chose the Waiting Place, and the Waiting Place chose you. Now you must give yourself to it wholly, body and soul.”
Body and soul. A chill runs up my spine as I recall something Cain said to me long ago—that one day, I’d have a chance at freedom. True freedom—of body and of soul. Did he envision this, I wonder? Did he set me on the path to freedom knowing that one day it would be wrenched from me? Was this always my destiny?
“I need some time. A day,” I say. If I’m to be chained to this place for eternity, then I at least owe Laia and Mamie a goodbye—though I’ve no idea what I’ll say.
Shaeva pauses. “I’ll give you a few hours,” she finally says. “After that, no more distractions. You have much to learn, Elias. And I do not know how much time I have to teach you. The moment you took the vow to become Soul Catcher, my power began to fade.”
“I know.” I nudge her with my boot, smiling in an attempt to dispel the tension between us. “Every time you don’t feel like doing the dishes, you remind me.” I mimic her sober voice. “Elias, my power fades . . . so make sure you sweep the front steps, and bring in firewood, and—”
She chuckles. “As if you even know how to swee—sweep—”
Her smile vanishes. Frantic lines form around her mouth, and her hands clench and unclench, like she’s desperate for weapons she doesn’t possess.
The snow around us slows its swirling. The wind goes soft, as if cowed, and then ceases completely. The shadows in the trees deepen, so black they seem like a portal to another world.
“Shaeva? What the hells is happening?”
The Soul Catcher shudders, riven with dread. “Go inside the cabin, Elias.”
“Whatever’s going on, we face it tog—”
She digs her fingers into my shoulders. “There is so much you do not yet know, and if you fail, the world will fall. This is but the beginning.
Remember: Sleep in the cottage. They cannot hurt you there. And seek the Tribes, Elias. Long have they been my allies. Ask about the stories of the dea—” Her voice chokes off as her back arches.
“Bleeding hells! Shaeva—”
“The moon sets on the archer and the shield maiden!” Her voice changes, multiplies. It is a child’s voice and an old woman’s layered over
her own, as if all the versions that Shaeva was and ever could be are speaking at once.
“The executioner has arisen. The traitor walks free. Beware! The Reaper approaches, flames in his wake, and he shall set this world alight. And so shall the great wrong be set right.”
She flings her hand up to the sky, to constellations hidden behind thick snow clouds.
“Shaeva.” I shake her shoulders insistently. Get her inside! The cottage always soothes her. It’s her only sanctuary in this skies-forsaken place. But when I try to pick her up, she throws me off. “Shaeva, don’t be so damned stubborn—”
“Remember all that I say before the end,” she whispers. “That is why he has come. That is what he wants from me. Swear it.”
She lifts her hands to my face. For once, her fingers are cold. “Soon you will learn the cost of your vow, my brother. I hope you do not think too ill of me.”
She falls to her knees, knocking over the basket of herbs. The green and yellow leaves spill out, the bright color incongruous against the ashen snow. The clearing is quiet. Even the ghosts have gone silent.
That can’t be right. The thickest concentration of ghosts is always around the cabin. But the spirits are gone. Every last one.
In the Forest to the west, where moments ago the shadows were only shadows, something stirs. The darkness moves, twisting as if in agony, until it writhes into a hooded figure cloaked in robes of purest night.
From beneath the cowl, two tiny suns stare out at me.
I have never seen him before. I have only heard him described. But I know him. Bleeding, burning hells, I know him.