Cook doubles back twice to make sure we aren't followed before she gestures me close to the cliff face. She nods upward. "There's a cave about fifty feet up," she says. "Leads deeper into the mountains. Stay here, and stay invisible, just in case."
"How the hells are you going to--"
She crooks her fingers. There is something familiar about the motion, and then suddenly she is climbing the sheer rock face with the spryness of a spider. I gape. It is unnatural--no, impossible. She is not flying, exactly, but there is a lightness to her that is distinctly inhuman.
"What the hells--"
A rope falls and smacks me in the head. Cook's face appears from overhead. "Tie it around you," she says. "Brace your feet on the wall, in the wedges, in whatever space you can find, and climb."
When I finally reach her, I am out of breath, and when I ask her how she did it, she hisses at me and starts off through the cave without turning back.
We are deep in the mountains before Cook finally suggests I drop my invisibility.
"It might take me a few minutes to wake up," I say to her. "I have visions, and I'm not sure--"
"I'll make sure you don't die."
I nod but find myself paralyzed. I do not wish to face the visions--not after what the Nightbringer showed me.
Though my mother cannot see me, she cocks her head, as if she senses my discomfort. My face flushes, and though I search for an explanation, I cannot find one. I'm a coward, I want to say. I always have been. Skies, this is humiliating. If she were just Cook, I would not have cared. But she is my mother. My mother. I have spent years wondering what she would think of me.
She looks around the tunnel and finally sits on the earth floor. "I'm tired," she says. "Damn Karkauns. Come. Sit next to an old woman, girl."
I ease down beside her, and for the first time she doesn't flinch away from me--because she can't see me.
"These visions," she says after a time. "They are frightening?"
I think of her in the prison cell. The singing. The crack. Those sounds that meant nothing until they meant everything. And even now, even when I do not comprehend who she has become, I cannot bear to tell her what I saw. I cannot say it, for saying it will make it real.
"Yes." I dig my feet into the ground, sliding them back and forth. "They're frightening." And what will I see now that the visions turn out to be from the past? Something else? Some other horror?
"Best get it done quickly then." Her voice is not exactly gentle, but it isn't harsh either. She hesitates and holds out a hand, palm up. Her jaw is tight, and she swallows.
Her skin is warm. Calloused. And though she might not look like my mother, or sound like her, or act like her, she still has her hands. I squeeze--and she shudders.
I shrug off the invisibility, welcoming the visions because they cannot be worse than holding the hand of a woman who bore me but who is disgusted by my touch.
The visions are upon me, but this time I walk through streets of fire, past walls burned black. Screams echo from blazing buildings and dread fills my bones. I cry out.
When I open my eyes, Cook is hovering over me, one hand on my face, the other still clenched between my fingers. Her face is pained, as if touching me is more than she can bear. She doesn't ask about the visions. And I do not tell her.
* * *
When we approach the entrance to the Mariner Embassy, a wet, crumbling set of steps that lead up to a wooden door, Cook slows.
"There should be two guards here," she says. "It has always been guarded. That lever there--it allows them to collapse the whole damn thing in case of an attack."
I draw my dagger, and Cook draws her bow. She pushes the door open gently, and when we enter, all is silent. In the streets beyond the building, drums thunder, and I am transported back to Blackcliff almost instantly. Carts rumble past, their occupants shouting requests, soldiers bellowing orders. Boots thump, marching in time, and a crisp voice directs a platoon to the walls. Antium prepares for war.
"This isn't right," I say. "Musa had people here. They were to have slaves' cuffs ready for us, maps, the Blood Shrike's movements . . ."
"They must have left before the Karkauns' attack," Cook says. "They can't all have gone."
But they have. I can feel it. This place has been empty for days.
We're on our own.
The ghosts explode into the Empire like flaming stones hurtling from a ballista. The border wall is nothing but shreds.
I feel the spirits in the same way that I feel the contours of the Waiting Place. They're bits of winter in a blanket of warmth and they move like a school of fish, closely packed and streaking in one direction--southwest, toward a Martial village I sneak supplies from. The people who live there are decent and hardworking. And they've no bleeding idea what's coming.
I want to help them. But that's also what the jinn want--for it's a distraction from my duty. Yet again, they're trying to use my humanity against me.
Not this time. What matters now is not the humans whom the ghosts will possess and torment. It's the border of the Waiting Place. I have to restore it. There will be more ghosts entering the Forest. They, at least, must be kept within its boundaries.
The thought has scarcely formed in my mind when the magic rises from the earth, winding its way into my body. It's stronger this time, as if sensing that finally I understand how I've been manipulated by the jinn. Feeling Mauth, letting the magic consume me, is a relief--but also a transgression. I shudder at Mauth's closeness. This doesn't feel like using my physical magic, which is simply a matter of harnessing something that's already part of me. No--this magic is something alien. It sinks in like a disease and colors my sight. The magic changes something fundamental within. I do not feel like myself.
But my discomfort can wait. I have more pressing work.
The magic allows me to see what the border should look like. All I need to do is apply my willpower to rebuild it. I gather my strength.
Far to the south, the ghosts close in on the village. Don't think about it.
Mauth's magic flares in response, his presence stronger. Section by section, I rebuild the border, imagining great bricks of light rising all at once, solid and unbreakable. When I open my eyes, the wall is there, glowing as if it never came down. The border cannot call the escaped ghosts back. But it can catch new ghosts who are bound for the Waiting Place.
And there will be many of those.
Now what? Do I go after the rogue ghosts? A nudge from Mauth toward the southwest is my answer. The windwalking comes easily--more easily than it ever has. And though I expect the magic to wear off the farther I get from the Forest, it stays with me, for this is Mauth's magic, not my own.
The ghosts have scattered, splintering among the countryside into dozens of small groups. But I make for the village closest to the Waiting Place. When I am still a mile away, I hear screams.
I slow in a village square, and it is a testament to the havoc the ghosts have created that none of the villagers seem to notice that I appeared out of thin air.
"Thaddius! My son! No!" a white-haired man screams. A younger man twists the old man's arms behind his back and pulls them up with inhuman, inexorable force. "Release me--don't do this--aaa--" An audible crunch sounds, and the father slumps, unconscious from pain. The younger man lifts him up, as if he's nothing but a pebble, and flings him across the village--hundreds and hundreds of yards.
I draw my scims, prepared to attack, when Mauth yanks at me.
Of course, Elias, you idiot, I chide myself. I can't single-handedly beat up everyone inhabited by a ghost. Shaeva tapped my heart, my head. Mauth's true power is here and here. The magic nudges me toward the closest group of possessed villagers. My throat grows warm, and I can sense, somehow, that Mauth wants me to speak.
"Stop," I say, but not as Elias. I speak as the Banu al-Mauth. I pinion the possessed with my gaze, one by one. I wait for an attack, but all they do is stare balefully, wary of the magic they can sense roiling within me.
"Come," I order them. My voice booms with a supernatural note of command. They must listen. "Come."
They snarl and yip, and I cast Mauth's magic out like a thin line, wrapping it around each of them, tugging them close. Some come in the bodies they have stolen. Others are still spirits, and they drift toward me with hostile moans. Soon, a small group of a few dozen spirits forms a half circle around me.
Should I rope them together with magic? Send them streaming back to the Waiting Place, as I did with the ghosts that plagued the Tribes?
No. For as I look at these tortured faces, I realize the spirits don't wish to be here. They want to move on, to leave this world. Sending them back to the Forest will only prolong their suffering.
The magic fills my sight, and I see the ghosts for what they are: hurting, alone, confused, regretful. Some are desperate for forgiveness. Others for kindness. Others for understanding. Others for an explanation.