The jinn know I'm coming. The moment I reach their grove, I'm unnerved by an expectant sort of quiet. A waiting. Strange, how silence can speak as loudly as a scream. Yes, they know I'm here. And they know I want something.
Hail, mortal. My skin crawls at the choral voice of the jinn. Come to beg forgiveness for your existence?
"I've come to ask for help."
The jinns' laughter knifes at my ears. "I do not wish to trouble you." It irks, but humility might serve me well. I certainly can't brazen my way through this. "I know you suffer. I know what was done to you long ago is the heart of your suffering. And I've been imprisoned too."
You think the horrors of your puny human prison can begin to approach our torment?
Skies, why did I say that? Stupid. "I just . . . I don't wish pain like that on anyone."
A long silence. And then: You are like her.
"Like Shaeva?" I say. "But the magic bonded with her, and it won't bond with me--"
Like your mother. Keris. The jinn sense my dismay and laugh. You think not? Perhaps you do not know her as well as you think you do. Or perhaps, mortal, you do not know yourself.
"I'm not a heartless, murdering--"
The magic of the Soul Catcher will never be yours. You are too deeply linked to those you love. Too open to pain. Your kind is weak. Even Keris Veturia could not release her mortal attachments.
"The only thing my mother is attached to is power."
I sense that in their arboreal prison, the jinn are smug. How little you know, boy. Your mother's story lives in your blood. Her past. Her memory. It is there. We could show you.
The silk in their voices reminds me of the time a Senior Skull tried to tell fourteen-year-old me to come to his room so he could show me a new blade his father gave him.
You wish to know her better. Deep in your heart, the jinn say. Do not lie to us, Elias Veturius, for when you are in our grove, your subterfuge is for naught. We see all.
Something rough slithers past my ankles. Vines rise up out of the earth like giant, bark-encrusted snakes. They twist up around my legs, locking me into place. I try to draw my scims, but the vines bind the weapons to my back and coil around my shoulders, holding me fast.
"Stop this. Sto--"
The jinn shove their way into my mind, probing and turning and examining it, bringing their fire to places that were never meant to see the light.
I push back at them, but to no avail. I am trapped in my own head, in my memories. I see myself as a babe again, looking up into the silver face of a woman whose long blonde hair is darkened with sweat. The Commandant's hands are bloody, her face flushed. Her body trembles, but when she touches my face, her fingers are gentle.
"You look like him," she whispers. She doesn't look angry, though I always thought she would. Instead, she appears perplexed, almost bewildered.
Then I'm watching myself as a young boy of four, wandering through Camp Saif, a thick jacket buttoned up to my chin against the chill winter night.
While the other Tribal children have clustered around Mamie Rila to hear a terrifying tale about the King of No Name, I watch as young Elias walks to the rocky desert beyond the circle of wagons. The galaxy is a pale cloud across the onyx sky, the night bright enough for me to pick my way forward. From the west, a rhythmic thump draws close. A horse materializes on a nearby ridge.
A woman dismounts, her gleaming armor flashing beneath heavy Tribal robes. A dozen blades glint from her chest and back. The wind whips at the hard, dry earth around her. In the glowing starlight, her blonde hair is the same silver as her face.
This didn't happen, I think wildly. I don't remember it. She left me. She never came back.
Keris Veturia drops to one knee but remains a few feet away, as if she doesn't want to scare me. She appears so young--I can scarcely fathom it is her.
"What is your name?" At last, I recognize something about her--that hard voice, as cold and unfeeling as the land beneath our feet.
"Ilyaas." The Commandant draws my name out, as if searching for its meaning. "Go back to the caravan, Ilyaas. Dark creatures walk the desert at night."
I don't hear my response, because I am now in a room outfitted with nothing but a cot, a desk, and a wide fireplace. The arched windows and thick walls, along with the scent of salt, tell me I'm in Navium. Summer has come swiftly to the south, and heavy, warm air pours through the window. Despite that, a fire burns in the grate.
Keris is older--older than she was when I last saw her months ago, just before she poisoned me. She lifts up her undershirt and examines what looks to be a bruise, though it is difficult to tell, since her skin is silver. I remember then that she stole the Blood Shrike's shirt of living metal, long ago. It has fused to her body as closely as her mask has fused to her face.
Her ALWAYS VICTO tattoo is clearly visible beneath the silver of the shirt, except now it says ALWAYS VICTORI.
As she feels out the bruise, I notice a strange object in the room, all the more unusual against the simplicity of the quarters. It's a crude clay sculpture of a mother holding a child. The Commandant studiously ignores it.
She drops her shirt and puts her armor back on. As she stares into the mottled mirror, her gaze shifts to the statue. She watches it in the reflection, wary, as if it might come to life. Then she turns on her heel, snatches it up, and tosses it, almost casually, into the hearth fire. She calls through the closed door. Moments later, a slave enters.
The Commandant nods at the burning sculpture. "You found it," she says. "Did you speak to anyone of it?" At the man's denial, the Commandant nods and beckons him closer.
Don't do it, I want to tell him. Flee.
My mother's hands blur as she breaks his neck. I wonder if he even felt it.
"Let's keep it that way," she says to his slumped body, "shall we?"
I blink, and I am back in the jinn grove. No vines drag me down to the Forest floor, and dawn paints the grove red and orange. Hours have passed.
The jinn still scuttle through my mind. I fight back, shoving them out, pushing into their consciousness. Their surprise is palpable, and their guard drops for a moment. I feel their rage, their shock, a shared, deep pain--and a swiftly suppressed
panic. A furtiveness.
Then I am cast out.
"You're hiding something," I gasp. "You--"
Look to your borders, Elias Veturius, the jinn snarl. See what we have wrought.
An attack. I feel it as clearly as I'd feel an attack on my own body. But this assault doesn't come from outside the Forest. It comes from within.
Go and see the horror of ghosts who break free of the Waiting Place. See your people ravaged. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.
I curse, hearing the Augur's words from so long ago thrown back in my face. I windwalk to the southern border with a speed that would rival Shaeva's. When I arrive, thousands of ghosts cluster in one spot, pushing against the border with single-minded violence, almost feral with the desire to escape.
I reach for Mauth, for the magic, but I might as well be grasping at air. The ghosts part as I make my way through them, their shrieking disappointment reverberating in my bones.
The border appears whole, but spirits might still have escaped. I run my hands over the glowing gold wall, trying to find any weaknesses.
Far in the distance, the red and blue of Tribe Nasur's wagons gleam in the morning light, the smoke of cook fires fading into a stormy sky. To my surprise, the encampment has grown--and moved closer to the Forest. I recognize the green-and-gold-draped wagons curved in a circle not far from the shore of the Duskan Sea. Tribe Nur--Afya's tribe--has joined Aubarit's.
Why is Afya here? With the Martials so belligerent, the Tribes shouldn't congregate in one place. Afya's savvy enough to know that.
Aubarit appears from a dip in the land just ahead.
"Fakira." I step out of the Forest, my pulse still thundering in warning, though I sense nothing out of the ordinary. "Now isn't really a good--"
"Elias bleeding Veturius!" I know the small woman who shoves past Aubarit by the fire in her eyes, for in every other way, she is unrecognizable. Her face is lined, and the kerchief that hides her usually impeccable braids cannot mask their disarray. Purple shadows nest beneath her eyes and I smell the sharp tang of sweat. "What the hells is going on?"
"Zaldara!" Aubarit looks scandalized. "You will address him as the Banu--"
"Do not call him that! His name is Elias Veturius. He is a foolish man, just like any other foolish man, and I suspect he is the reason Tribe Nur's ghosts are stuck--"