But as Keris said, there are some things that do not die.

Pain lances through me, ice penetrating the fire that burns at my core. My legs give way, and I am on my knees, staring up at her, weeping in gratefulness.

Tears streak down her face as she comprehends what she has done. For Laia’s soul is intrinsically good. She drops the scythe, her body shuddering. But she does not understand fully. Not yet.

Though it takes great effort, I shift from flame to flesh, to the human form she knew, red-haired and brown-eyed, bleeding, fading away at the edges. Perhaps this, at the end, will bring her some comfort.

“Laia. Laia, my sweet love.” Though she will not believe I loved her, it is the truest thing I have ever said.

For though Rehmat lived within her, it is Laia of Serra who walked beside me on the last leg of this long journey. Laia of Serra who defied me and ensured the doom of her people and her world when she swore to defeat me.

The Sea will come for me now. It will punch a hole into this world. It will consume me. After months of hunting and killing and hoarding suffering, I realized that the despair of humans would never equal mine. That the only way to release the maelstrom, to bore a hole between this world and Mauth’s, was to pour a thousand years of my own pain into the Sea of Suffering.

“Do not weep, love,” I whisper to her. “This world was a cage. Thank you for setting me free.”

My body goes rigid, and the Sea is within me now, bursting out from Mauth’s dimension and through me into this accursed one. For a moment that feels like an eternity, I stare up at the sky, pale blue, with wisps of cloud ambling across it.

My memory takes me to the River Dusk. Rehmat sits beside me, warm skin pressed to mine, her dark hair piled high on her head. Our children are but babies, and they dance between flame and shadow, tumbling over me, giggling as Rehmat and I point out stories in the clouds.

Such a beautiful day.

And then all that I am, all that I was ruptures and splits. The Sea pours through me, compressing into something minuscule and impossibly heavy. Not darkness but emptiness, the whitest white, the absence of hope and the fullness of suffering—trenchant, tentacled suffering.

On the battleground below and in the Sher Jinnaat, my kind stop and pivot toward me. They feel it, the breach between worlds. They streak up, perhaps hoping to stop it. The Soul Catcher erupts out of the forest, moving beyond the strength of any human, grabbing a stunned Laia, tearing her away from the monstrous thing taking form within me.

My corporeal body disintegrates, but I still exist. The Sea wraps itself around me, consumes me. Every last scrap of my essence is suffering. Not the Meherya anymore, nor the King of No Name, nor the Nightbringer.

But something else entirely.

Part V

The Mothers

LXIII: The Soul Catcher


I do not know what makes Laia scream so, not until I am nearly to the plateau and see Darin slumped on the ground, his neck broken. Her cry is endless, sorrow upon sorrow, as if it is not just her screaming but a thousand sisters and daughters and mothers who have lost their loved ones to the madness of war.

She whips her scythe across the Nightbringer’s throat, hacking at him again and again. But something is wrong, for though his body jerks, his arms are relaxed. He uses no magic to stop her.

Because he has been waiting for this moment. Because if he wants enough suffering to release the Sea, then he is the only creature alive who can provide lifetimes and lifetimes of it, all at once.

His body shifts into his old human form. The air, already leaden, goes still. Far away, in a place beyond the ken of any human, a barrier tears open. Mauth’s power, deeply drained, fades entirely as the Sea of Suffering bursts through his wall.

I windwalk to Laia, snatching her away from the Nightbringer as he dissolves, transforming into a viscous gray smoke. A figure kneels within the pall, head tilted back, staring up at the sky. The Nightbringer’s spirit, flame eyes dim, seemingly at peace.

Then the Sea of Suffering breaks through him, and he explodes into a vast, spinning cyclone. Darin’s body disappears into the maelstrom, then two of the jinn who flitted too close, trees, rocks—

“Rehmat!” My feet slip, and though I windwalk, the pull of the storm is too powerful. A glowing figure appears and, without my having to explain, she merges with Laia. With all my strength, I shove them at the woods, at the trees that bend toward the maelstrom but have not yet broken.

The maelstrom drags my body back, away from Laia. I fight the pull, trying desperately to dig my heels into the ground, but the plateau is smooth, gray rock, and I find no grip. The Sea of Suffering rumbles. Hungry. So hungry.

My will is not weak. I will not die now, not like this. The maelstrom will not steal my life from me. It will not consume me. For I am the Banu al-Mauth, Chosen of Death. I am the Soul Catcher, the Guardian at the Gates.

But all my willpower is nothing against the force of the Sea of Suffering. It wants me and it will have me, for I am mere bones, blood, and pain, held together by skin and sinew. Laia. Laia, run. I see her, battling Rehmat as she tries to get back to me, as the jinn queen forces her away.

Our eyes meet for one frantic moment. Then the Sea of Suffering drags me into darkness and claims me, body and soul.

LXIV: Laia


Darin’s body disappears into the cyclone. But I have no time to mourn the loss, because I am suddenly aware that Elias is far too close to the storm. I reach for him, screaming when Rehmat holds me back.

You cannot save him, Laia. Her voice is anguished, for she, of all creatures, understands what this means to me. He gave his life for yours. Do not let it be for nothing.

I shout his name. Gray eyes meet gold.

He disappears between one moment and the next, as if he never existed. I lose the feeling in my body, and it is only Rehmat, infusing me with strength and forcing me to hold on to a tree branch, who keeps me from being pulled in after Elias.

“Let me go,” I cry, for the Nightbringer has won. Our battle is over. What have I done? What have I unleashed into this world?

My voice is lost—I can only reel at the knowledge that the Nightbringer is not dead, but transformed into the very suffering he sought to release into the world.

A collective scream from below as the maelstrom sweeps down from the plateau, a ravening gray funnel. Within minutes, it tears through Keris’s army, sucking up hundreds, then thousands of soldiers. With each life it claims, it grows larger, feeding off the suffering. A deep, eerie roar sounds from within it, the rage and pain of eons.

We cannot stop it. It will consume all because of me. Because I killed the Nightbringer and gave him what he wanted.

I thought I knew what it was to be alone. All those nights as a child in the great quiet of the Scholar’s Quarter, wishing for my parents and my sister. The silence of Blackcliff, when I thought I’d never see Darin again.