Chapter no 9 – Elias

A Reaper at the Gates

The full burden of the Waiting Place descends like a boulder dropping onto my back. The Forest is part of me, and I can feel the borders,

the ghosts, the trees. It’s as if a living map of the place has been imprinted on my mind.

Shaeva’s absence is at the heart of that burden. I gaze at the fallen basket of herbs that she’ll never add to the korma that she’ll never eat in the house she’ll never step foot in again.

“Elias—the ghosts—” Laia draws close. The usually mournful spirits have transformed into violent shades. I need Mauth’s magic to silence them. I need to bond with him, the way Shaeva wanted me to.

But when I grasp at Mauth with my will, I feel only a trace of the magic before it fades.

“Elias?” Despite the shrieking ghosts, Laia takes my hand, her lips drawn down in concern. “I’m so sorry about Shaeva. Is she really—”

I nod. She’s gone.

“It was so fast.” Somehow, I am comforted by the fact that someone is as stunned as I am. “Are you—will you be—” She shakes her head. “Of course you’re not all right—skies, how could you be?”

A groan from Darin pulls our attention away from each other. The ghosts circle him, darting close and whispering skies know what.

Bleeding hells. I need to get Laia and Darin out of here.

“If you want to get to Adisa,” I say, “the fastest way is through the Forest. You’ll lose months going around.”

“Right.” Laia pauses and furrows her brow. “But, Elias—”

If we speak more of Shaeva, I think something inside me will break.

She was here, and now she’s gone, and nothing can change that. The permanence of death will always feel like a betrayal. But raging against it when my friends are in danger is the act of a fool. I must move. I must make sure Shaeva didn’t die for nothing.

Laia is still speaking when I take Darin’s hand and begin to windwalk. She goes quiet as the Forest fades past us. She squeezes my hand, and I know that she understands my silence.

I cannot travel with Shaeva’s swiftness, but we reach one of the bridges over the River Dusk after only a quarter hour, and seconds later, we’re beyond it. I angle northeast, and as we move through the trees, Laia peeks at me from beneath the wing of hair that has fallen over her eye. I want to speak to her. Damn the Nightbringer, I want to say. I don’t care what he said. I only care that you are all right.

“We’ll be there soon,” I begin, before another voice speaks, a hateful chorus that is instantly recognizable.

You will fail, usurper.

The jinn. But their grove is miles away. How are they projecting their voices this far?

Filth. Your world will fall. Our king has already thwarted you. This is just the beginning.

“Piss off,” I snarl. I think of the whispers I heard just before the Nightbringer disappeared. He was giving these fiery monsters orders, no doubt. The jinn laugh.

Our kind are powerful, mortal. You cannot replace a jinn. You cannot hope to succeed as Soul Catcher.

I ignore them, hoping they’ll shut the hells up. Did they ever do this to Shaeva? Were they always bellowing in her head, and she just never told me?

My chest aches when I think of the Soul Catcher—and of so many others. Tristas. Demetrius. Leander. The Blood Shrike. My grandfather. Are all those who get close to me fated to suffer?

Darin shivers, gritting his teeth against the onslaught of the ghosts. Laia’s skin is gray, though she walks on without a word of complaint.

In the end, they will fade. You will endure. Love cannot live here.

Laia’s hand is cool and small in mine. Her pulse flutters against my fingers, a tenuous reminder of her mortality. Even if she survives to be an old woman, her years are nothing against the life of a Soul Catcher. She will die and I will abide, becoming less and less human as time passes.

“There.” Laia points ahead. The trees thin, and through them I spot the cottage where Darin recovered from his injuries at Kauf, months ago now.

When we reach the tree line, I release the siblings. Darin grabs me and pulls me into a rough hug. “I don’t know how to thank you—” he begins, but I stop him.

“Stay alive,” I say. “That’ll be thanks enough. I’ll have enough problems here without your ghost showing up.” Darin offers a flash of a

smile before glancing at his sister and prudently heading for the cottage.

Laia twists her hands together, not looking at me. Her hair has come free from its braid as it always does, in fat, unruly curls. I reach for one, unable to help myself.

“I . . . have something for you.” I rummage around in a pocket and pull out a piece of wood. It is unfinished, the carvings on it rough. “You reach for your old armlet sometimes.” I feel ridiculous all of a sudden. Why would I give her this hideous thing? It looks like a six-year-old made it. “It’s not finished. But . . . ah . . . I thought—”

“It’s perfect.” Her fingers brush mine as she takes it. That touch. Ten hells. I steady my breath and crush the desire that thrums in my veins.

She slides the armlet on, and seeing her in that familiar pose, one hand resting on the cuff—it feels right. “Thank you.”

“Watch your back in Adisa.” I turn to practicalities. They are easier to speak of than this feeling in my chest, like my heart is being carved out of me and lit on fire. “The Mariners will know your face, and if they know what Darin can do—”

I catch her smile and realize that, like a fool, I’m telling her things she already knows.

“I thought we would have more time,” she says. “I thought we’d find a way out for you. That Shaeva would release you from your vow or . . .”

She looks like I feel: broken. I need to let her go. Fight the Nightbringer, I should say. Win. Find joy. Remember me. For why should she come back here? Her future is in the world of the living.

Say it, Elias, my logic screams. Make it easier for both of you. Don’t be pathetic.

“Laia, you should—”

“I don’t want to let you go. Not yet.” She traces my jaw with a light hand, her fingers lingering on my mouth. She wants me—I can see it, feel it—and it makes me desire her even more desperately. “Not so soon.”

“Neither do I.” I pull her into my arms, reveling in the warmth of her body against mine, the curve of her hip beneath my hand. She tucks her head beneath my chin and I breathe her in.

Mauth tugs at me, harsh and sudden. Against my will, I sway back toward the Forest.

No. No. Ghosts be damned. Mauth be damned. Waiting Place be damned.

I grab her hand and pull her toward me, and as if she was waiting for it, she closes her eyes and rises up on her toes. Her hands tangle in my

hair, drawing me tightly toward her. Her lips are soft and lush, and when she presses every curve into me, I nearly lose my feet. I hear nothing but Laia, see nothing but Laia, feel nothing but Laia.

My mind races forward to me laying her down on the Forest floor, spending hours exploring every inch of her body. For a moment I see what we could have had: Laia and her books and patients, and me and a school that taught more than death and duty. A little one with gold eyes and glowing brown skin. The white in Laia’s hair one day, and the way her eyes will mellow and deepen and grow wiser.

“You are cruel, Elias,” she whispers against my mouth. “To give a girl all she desires only to tear it away.”

“This isn’t the end for us, Laia of Serra.” I cannot give up what we could have. I don’t care what bleeding vow I made. “Do you hear me? This is not our end.”

“You’ve never been a liar.” She dashes her hands against the wetness in her eyes. “Don’t start now.”

Her back is straight as she walks away, and when she reaches the cottage, Darin, waiting outside, rises. She goes past him quickly, and he follows.

I watch her until she is just a shadow on the horizon. Turn around, I think. Just once. Turn around.

She doesn’t. And perhaps it’s just as well.

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