I step toward her immediately; the small bit of my mind that still feels human draws me to her, as ever. As I approach her, I expect Mauth to pull at me or take over my body, as he did when I encountered the Shrike. But though I feel him there in my mind, still a part of me, he does nothing.
Laia has seen me. "Elias!" She runs to me, throwing herself into my arms, almost sobbing. As she does, my arms come up around her of their own accord, as if it's something I've done many times. I feel strange. No, not strange.
I feel nothing.
"It wasn't the ring," she is saying. "I don't know what the last piece of the Star is, but there might still be time to find out. Will you help me?"
Yes, I want to say.
"No" is what comes out of my mouth.
Shock fills her eyes. And then, just like in the Mariner village weeks ago, she goes completely still. Everything does.
The voice in my head is not my own, nor is it the jinn's.
Do you know me?
Long have I waited for this day, for you to release the last shreds that bound you to the world of the living.
The same, Elias. Look.
My body remains before Laia, frozen in time. But my mind travels to a familiar place. I know this sallow yellow sky. This black sea that roils with unknowable creatures just under the surface. I saw this place once before, when Shaeva pulled me from the raid.
A blurred figure approaches, hovering just above the water, like me. I know who he is without him saying so. Mauth.
Welcome to my dimension, Elias Veturius.
"What the ten bleeding hells," I say shakily, pointing to the sea, "are those things?"
Do not concern yourself with them, Mauth says. They are a discussion for another day. Look. He waves his hand, and a tapestry of images unspools before me.
The images begin with the Scholars' war on the jinn and unravel from there, threads of darkness blooming like spilled ink, darkening all they touch. I see how the crimes of the Scholar king reached far beyond what he ever imagined.
I see the truth: that without the jinn in this world, there is no balance. They were the destined gatekeepers between the worlds of the living and the dead. And no one, no matter how skilled, can replace an entire civilization.
They must return--even if that means war. Even if it means destruction. For without them, the ghosts will continue to build up, and whether in five years or fifty or five hundred, they will escape again. And when that happens, they will destroy the world.
"Why can't you just set the jinn free? Make them . . . forget what happened?"
I require a conduit--a being from your world to harness my power. The amount of power required to restore a civilization would destroy any conduit I chose, human or wraith, jinn or efrit.
I understand then that there is only one path forward: freedom for the jinn. But that freedom will come at a price.
"Laia," I whisper. "The Blood Shrike. They--they will suffer. But--"
You dare to put those you love before all of humanity, child? Mauth asks me softly. You dare to be so selfish?
"Why should Laia and the Shrike pay for what a Scholar monster did a thousand years ago?"
There is a price for greed and violence. We do not always know who will pay it. But for good or ill, it will be paid.
I cannot stop what is to come. I cannot change it. Bleeding hells.
You can give those you once loved a world free of ghosts. You can do your duty. You can give them a chance at surviving the onslaught that must come. You can give them a chance to win, one day.
"But not today."
Not today. You have released your ties to strangers, to friends, to family, to your true love. Now surrender to me, for it is your destiny. It is the meaning of your name, the reason for your existence. It is time.
It is time.
I know the moment everything changes. The moment Mauth joins with me so completely that I cannot tell where I end and the magic begins. I am back in my body, in Antium, standing before Laia. It's as if no time has passed at all since she asked for my aid and I rejected her.
When I look down into that beautiful face, I no longer see the girl I loved. I see someone lesser. Someone who is aging, dying slowly, like all humans. I see a mortal.
The girl--Laia--speaks, and I turn to her.
"The jinn have a part to play in this world, and they must be set free." I speak gently because she is a mortal, and she will take this news hard. "The world must be broken before it can be remade," I say, "or else the balance will never be restored."
"No," she says. "Elias, no. This is the jinn we are speaking of. If they are free--"
"I cannot keep the balance alone." It is unfair to expect Laia to understand. She is only a mortal, after all. "The world will burn," I say. "But it will be reborn from the ashes."
"Elias," she says. "How can you say this?"
"You should leave," I say. "I do not wish to welcome you to the Waiting Place--not yet. May the skies speed your way."
"What the hells has that place done to you?" she cries. "I need your help, Elias. The people need you. There are thousands of Scholars here. If I cannot get the Star, then I can at least get them out. You could--"
"I must return to the Waiting Place," I say. "Goodbye, Laia of Serra."
Laia grabs my face and peers into my eyes. A darkness rises in her--something that is fey, but not. It is more than fey. It is atavistic, the essence of magic itself. And it rages.
"What have you done to him?" She speaks to Mauth, as if she knows he has joined with me. As if she can see him. "Give him back!"
My voice, when it comes, is an unearthly rumble that isn't my own. I feel shoved to the side in my own mind, watching as I incline my head. "Forgive me, dear one," Mauth says through me. "It is the only way."
I back away from her and turn east, toward the Forest of Dusk. Moments later, I am through the masses of Karkauns ravaging the city, then beyond them, speeding through the countryside, at last one with Mauth.
But though I know I go now to my duty, some old part of me twinges, reaches out to whatever it is that I have lost. It feels strange.
It is the pain of what you have given up. But it will fade, Banu al-Mauth. You have endured much in a short time, learned much in a short time. You cannot expect to be ready overnight.
"It . . ." I search for the word. "It hurts."
Surrender always does. But it will not hurt forever.
"Why me?" I ask. "Why do we have to change and not you? Why do we have to become less human instead of you becoming more so?"
The ocean waves thunder on, and it is man who must swim among them. The wind blows, cold and brittle, and it is man who must protect against it. The earth shakes and cracks, swallows and destroys, but it is man who must walk upon it. So it is with death. I cannot surrender, Elias. It must be you.
"I don't feel like myself anymore."
Because you are not yourself. You are me. I am you. And in this way, we will pass the ghosts through, that your world be spared from their predations.
He falls silent as we leave Antium far behind. Soon, I forget the fighting. I forget the face of the girl I loved. I think only of the task ahead.
All is as it must be.
Cook finds me beside the stables moments after Elias disappears. I stare after him, disbelieving. He is not the Elias I left even two weeks ago, the Elias who brought me back from the Nightbringer's hell, who told me that we would find a way.
But then I remember what he said: If I seem different, remember that I love you. No matter what happens to me.
What in the skies happened to him? What was it inside me that lashed out at him? I think of what the Nightbringer said to me in Adisa: You know not the darkness that lies within your own heart.
Deal with Elias later, Laia. My mind reels. The city has fallen. I have failed. And the Scholar slaves--the
y are trapped here. Antium is surrounded on three sides. Only the north end, built against Mount Videnns, is not overrun with Karkauns.
That is where Cook and I entered the city, and that is how we will escape. That is how we will help the Scholars escape.