No matter how often I sneak out of the Waiting Place, it never gets easier. As I approach the western tree line, a flash of white nearby
causes my stomach to plunge. A spirit. I bite back a curse and hold still. If it spies me lurking so far from where I’m supposed to be, the entire bleeding Forest of Dusk will know what I’m up to. Ghosts, it turns out, love to gossip.
The delay chafes. I’m already late-Laia was expecting me more than an hour ago, and this isn’t a raid she’ll skip just because I’m not around.
Almost there. I lope through a fresh layer of snow to the border of the Waiting Place, which glimmers ahead. To a layperson, it’s invisible. But to me and Shaeva, the glowing wall is as obvious as if it were made of stone. Though I can pass through it easily, it keeps the spirits in and curious humans out. Shaeva has spent months lecturing me about the importance of that wall.
She will be vexed with me. This isn’t the first time I’ve disappeared on her when I’m supposed to be training as Soul Catcher. Though she is a jinn, Shaeva has little skill in dealing with dissembling students. I, on the other hand, spent fourteen years concocting ways to skip out on Blackcliff’s Centurions. Getting caught at Blackcliff meant a whipping from my mother, the Commandant. Shaeva usually just glowers at me.
“Perhaps I too should institute whippings.” Shaeva’s voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. “Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?”
“Shaeva! I was just . . . ah, are you . . . steaming?” Vapor rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman.
“Someone”-she glares at me-“forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts.”
And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry . . . after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I’m sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face.
Shaeva tugs at my arm, her ever-present jinn warmth driving away the cold that has seeped into my bones. Moments later, we are miles from the border. My head spins from the magic she uses to move us so swiftly through the Forest.
At the sight of the glowing red jinn grove, I groan. I hate this place. The jinn might be locked in the trees, but they still have power within this small space, and they use it to get into my head whenever I enter.
Shaeva rolls her eyes, as if dealing with a particularly irritating younger sibling. The Soul Catcher flicks her hand, and when I pull my arm away, I find I cannot walk more than a few feet. She’s put up some sort of ward. She must finally be losing her patience with me if she’s resorting to imprisonment.
I try to keep my temper-and fail. “That’s a nasty trick.”
“And one you could disarm easily if you stayed still long enough for me to teach you how.” She nods to the jinn grove, where spirits wind through the trees. “The ghost of a child needs soothing, Elias. Go. Let me see what you have learned these past weeks.”
“I shouldn’t be here.” I give the ward a violent if ineffectual shove.
“Laia and Darin and Mamie need me.”
Shaeva leans into the hollow of a tree and glances up at the snippets of star and sky visible through the bare branches. “An hour until midnight. The raid must be under way. Laia will be in danger. Darin and Afya too. Enter the grove and help this ghost move on. If you do, I will drop the ward and you can leave. Or your friends can keep waiting.” “You’re grumpier than usual,” I say. “Did you skip breakfast?” “Stop stalling.”
I mutter a curse and mentally arm myself against the jinn, imagining a barrier around my mind that they cannot penetrate with their evil whispers. With each step into the grove, I sense them watching.
A moment later, laughter echoes in my head. It is layered-voice upon voice, mockery upon mockery. The jinn.
You cannot help the ghosts, fool mortal. And you cannot help Laia of Serra. She shall die a slow, painful death.
The jinns’ malice spears through my carefully constructed defenses. The creatures plumb my darkest thoughts, parading images of a dead, broken Laia before me until I cannot tell where the jinn grove ends and their twisted visions begin.
I close my eyes. Not real. I open them to find Helene slain at the base of the nearest tree. Darin lies beside her. Beyond him, Mamie Rila. Shan, my foster brother. I am reminded of the battlefield of death from the First Trial so long ago-and yet this is worse because I thought I left violence and suffering behind me.
I recall Shaeva’s lessons. In the grove, the jinn have the power to control your mind. To exploit your weaknesses. I try to shake the jinn away, but they hold fast, their whispers snaking into me. At my side, Shaeva stiffens.
Hail, traitor. They slip into formal speech when they speak to the Soul Catcher. Thy doom is upon thee. The air reeks of it.
Shaeva’s jaw tightens, and immediately I wish for a weapon to shut them up. She has enough on her mind without them taunting her.
But the Soul Catcher simply lifts a hand to the nearest jinn tree. Though I cannot see her deploy the magic of the Waiting Place, she must have, because the jinn fall silent.
“You need to try harder.” She turns on me. “The jinn want you to dwell on petty concerns.”
“The fates of Laia and Darin and Mamie aren’t petty.”
“Their lives are nothing against the sweep of time,” Shaeva says. “I will not be here forever, Elias. You must learn to pass the ghosts through more swiftly. There are too many.” At my mulish expression, she sighs.
“Tell me, what do you do when a ghost refuses to leave the Waiting
Place until their loved ones die?”
“Ah . . . well . . .”
Shaeva groans, the look on her face reminding me of Helene’s expression when I didn’t show up to class on time.
“What about when you have hundreds of ghosts screaming to be heard all at once?” Shaeva says. “What do you do with a spirit who did horrific things in life but who feels no remorse? Do you know why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes? Do you know what will happen if you do not move the ghosts fast enough?”
“Now that you mention it,” I say, my curiosity piqued, “what will happen if-“
“If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it. Hope to the skies that you never see that day.”
She sits down heavily, sinking her head into her hands, and after a moment, I drop beside her, my chest lurching unpleasantly at her distress. This is not like when the Centurions were angry with me. I didn’t bleeding care what they thought. But I want to do well for Shaeva. We have spent months together, she and I-carrying out the duties of
Soul Catcher mostly, but also debating Martial military history, bickering good-naturedly about chores, and sharing notes on hunting and combat. I think of her as a wiser, much older sister. I don’t want to disappoint her.
“Let go of the human world, Elias. Until you do, you cannot draw upon the magic of the Waiting Place.”
“I windwalk all the time.” Shaeva has taught me the trick of speeding through the trees in the blink of an eye, though she is faster than I.
“Windwalking is physical magic, simple to master.” Shaeva sighs. “When you took your vow, the magic of the Waiting Place entered your blood. Mauth entered your blood.”
Mauth. I suppress a shudder. The name is still strange on my lips. I did not know that the magic even had a name when it first spoke to me through Shaeva, months ago, demanding my vow as Soul Catcher.
“Mauth is the source of all the world’s fey power, Elias. The jinn, the efrits, the ghuls. Even your friend Helene’s healing. He is the source of your power as Soul Catcher.”
He. As if the magic is alive.
“He will aid you in passing on the ghosts if you let him. Mauth’s true power is here”-the Soul Catcher gently taps my heart, then my temple – “and here. But until you forge a soul-deep bond with the magic, you cannot be a true Soul Catcher.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re jinn. The magic is part of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. Instead it yanks at me if I stray too far from the trees, like I’m a wayward hound. And if I touch Laia, bleeding hells-” The pain is excruciating enough that thinking of it makes me grimace.
See, traitor, how foolish it was to trust this mortal bit of flesh with the souls of the dead?
At the intrusion of her jinn kin, Shaeva slams a shock wave of magic into their grove that is so powerful even I feel it.
“Hundreds of ghosts wait to pass, and more come every day.” Sweat rolls down Shaeva’s temple, as if she’s fighting a battle I cannot see. “I am much disturbed.” She speaks softly and glances into the trees behind her. “I fear the Nightbringer works against us, stealthily and with malice.
But I cannot fathom his plan, and it worries me.”
“Of course he works against us. He wants to set the trapped jinn free.”
“No. I sense a dark intent,” Shaeva says. “If harm should befall me before your training is complete . . .” She takes a deep breath and collects herself.
“I can do this, Shaeva,” I say to her. “I swear it to you. But I told Laia
I’d help her tonight. Mamie might be dead. Laia might be dead. I don’t know, because I’m not there.”
Skies, how to explain it to her? She’s been away from humanity for so long that she can’t possibly understand. Does she comprehend love? On the days when she teases me about talking in my sleep, or tells strange, funny tales because she knows I ache for Laia, it seems as if she does.
But now . . .
“Mamie Rila gave up her life for mine, and by some miracle she still lives,” I say. “Don’t make me welcome her here. Don’t make me welcome Laia.”
“Loving them will only hurt you,” Shaeva says. “In the end, they will fade. You will endure. Every time you bid farewell to yet another part of your old life, a piece of you will die.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Every moment stolen with Laia is the infuriating evidence of that fact. The few kisses we’ve had, cut short because of Mauth’s oppressive disapproval. The chasm opening between us as the truth of my vow sinks in. Every time I see her she seems further away, as if I peer at her through a spyglass.
“Fool boy.” Shaeva’s voice is soft with empathy. Her black eyes lose focus, and I feel the ward drop. “I will find the ghost and pass him on. Go. And do not be careless with your life. Full-grown jinn are nearly impossible to kill, except by other jinn. When you join with Mauth, you too will become resilient to attack, and time will cease to affect you. But until then, be wary. If you die again, I cannot bring you back. And”-she kicks at the ground self-consciously-“I’ve grown used to you.”
“I won’t die.” I grip her shoulder. “And I promise I’ll do the dishes for the next month.”
She snorts her disbelief, but by then, I am moving, windwalking through the trees so rapidly I can feel the branches cutting my face. A half hour later, I hurtle past Shaeva’s and my cottage, through the borders of the Waiting Place, and into the Empire. The moment I’m clear of the trees, storm winds buffet me and my windwalking slows, the magic weakening as I leave the Forest behind.
I feel a pull at my core tugging me back. Mauth, demanding my return. The pull is almost painful, but I grit my teeth and continue on. Pain is a choice. Succumb to it and fail. Or defy it and triumph. Keris Veturia’s training, drilled into my very bones.
By the time I arrive outside the village where I was to meet Laia, midnight is long past and moonlight pushes meekly through the snow clouds. Please let the raid have gone smoothly. Please let Mamie be all right.
But the instant I enter the village, I know something is off. The caravan is empty, the wagon doors creaking in the storm. A thin layer of snow has already settled on the bodies of the soldiers guarding the caravans. Among them, I find no Mask. No Tribal casualties. The village is silent when it should be in an uproar.
I know it instantly, as sure as I’d know my own mother’s face. Is this Keris’s work? Did she learn about Laia’s raids?
I pull my hood up, draw on a scarf, and drop into a crouch, observing the tracks in the snow. They are faint-brushed away. But I catch sight of a familiar boot print: Laia’s.
These tracks aren’t here out of carelessness. I was meant to know that Laia went into the village. And that she didn’t come out. Which means the trap wasn’t set for her.
It was set for me.