Laia’s dark brows shoot up. “When were you planning on telling us?”
“I’m telling you now.” The Soul Catcher’s composure is grating and Laia’s nostrils flare.
“Before he died, Cain, too, spoke prophecy,” the Soul Catcher says. “It was never one. It was always three. The Blood Shrike is the first. Laia of Serra, the second. And the Soul Catcher is the last. The Mother watches over them all. If one fails, they all fail. If one dies, they all die. Go back to the beginning and there, find the truth. Strive even unto your own end, else all is lost.”
He speaks like a scribe reading off a page, like he isn’t delivering the last words of a creature that helped to cause untold destruction and death.
“That was all,” he says after a pause. “He died just after.”
“The first—the last—?” Laia shakes her head. “It makes no sense.”
“The Augurs are not known for their perspicuity,” the Soul Catcher says. “Before . . .” He shrugs. “I could never make sense of them.”
“Curse them,” Laia spits. “The jinn are murdering innocent people. The Nightbringer has a fleet headed for Sadh under Keris’s flag. The Tribal lands will fall unless they are stopped. We do not have time for Augur riddles. Though—” She considers. “He did get one thing right. I will strive to the end. I will not give up. Not until the Nightbringer is dead.”
“The troubles of the human world are not my concern,” the Soul Catcher says, and the finality of his words is chilling. “The Augur asked that I relay the message. He was dying, and I didn’t wish to deny his last request.”
He rises and makes for his bunk, carelessly stripping off his shirt as he goes. I’m silenced at the sight of him, at that stretch of golden skin, the planes of hard muscle, the ridges and runnels of scars across his wide shoulders, a mirror of my own.
If he was still Elias, I’d have thrown a pillow at his head for being so obvious about showing off his attributes. Now the sight just makes me sad.
Beside me, Laia plucks at the knots on her bedroll, then dashes her hand against her eyes. What can I say to her? It is torment to love someone hopelessly, with no chance of requital. There is no salve for it, no cure, no comfort.
I undo the knots and lie down with my back to her, so she can mourn in peace.
The fire dims and I try to sleep, but the jinns’ words scream through my head. You’ll see him dead and yourself upon the throne. If Zacharias dies, it will be because I did not protect him. I could not live with myself if I did not keep my baby nephew safe.
Without Marinn’s backing, the task will be difficult. Keris wants Zacharias and Livia dead. Grímarr lurks in Antium, tormenting my people and choking off my supplies. The Delphinium Paters lose faith. Our weaponry and soldiers are limited. Our food is running out. And the Commandant—she has all of those things. Along with a horde of jinn at her back.
My gaze falls on Harper. Other than Laia, everyone is asleep. No one would see if I let myself look at him. If I considered his beauty and his strength. But I make myself look away.
You are all that holds back the darkness. I draw on my father’s words, spoken just before he died. Those are the words I will live by. The words I will chant to myself.
I will find allies. I will protect my family. I will buy, borrow, or steal weaponry. I will recruit soldiers.
I will see my nephew on the throne. Even unto my own end.
The fire in the cabin burns low, and the Blood Shrike eventually falls into slumber, but I cannot sleep. A thousand worries march through my head, and finally I slip outside so my tossing and turning do not wake everyone up.
The night is freezing, the sky aglow with the spill of the galaxy. A comet streaks across the empyrean and fades into the dark, and I remember a night like this a year ago, when I stood outside a different cabin with Elias, just before he finally kissed me.
We laughed together that night, and on many nights after. Mauth gave Elias a splitting headache every time we kissed, but we’d steal a few hours, sometimes.
Once while Darin was recovering from Kauf, Elias and I hiked to a waterfall a few miles from the cabin. He was supposed to teach me to swim, but we learned other things about each other that day.
And after the requisite jokes about Mauth wanting to keep Elias chaste, we stuffed ourselves with cold pears and cheese and skipped stones on the water. We spoke of all the places we wanted to see. We fell asleep in the sun, fingers intertwined.
Part of me wants to sink into that memory. But most of me just wants to leave.
Every moment in the Soul Catcher’s cabin has been torture. Every second of staring at that dead-eyed thing in the body of the boy I loved makes me want to burn the place down. Shake those big shoulders. Kiss him. Hit him. I want to make him angry or sad. Make him feel something.
But none of it would matter. Elias Veturius is gone. Only the Soul Catcher remains. And I do not love the Soul Catcher.
Tas pads out of the cabin, shivering in a thin nightshirt, and I drape my cloak around him. We stare out at the treetops of the Forest of Dusk, mist-cloaked and purple this deep in the night.
The Nightbringer is somewhere beyond the borders of this place, raising hell with his jinn. Keris is out there with her army. To the west, Grímarr and the Karkauns torment the people of Antium.
So much evil. So many monsters.
Tas snuggles deep into the cloak. “This is new,” he says. “Warmer. But I liked the one you used to wear. It reminded me of Elias.” Tas looks up when I do not respond.
“You’ve given up on him,” he says.
“I’ve given up on the idea that there will be an easy answer to any of this,” I say.
“Why?” Tas asks. “You didn’t see what they did to him in Kauf. What the Warden did. They tried to break him. But he wouldn’t break, Laia. He never gave up. Not on Darin. Not on me. And not on you. Elias fought. And he’s still in there somewhere, trying to escape.”
I hoped that was the case, once. No longer. We are, all of us, just visitors in each other’s lives.
“I thought you were different, Laia.” Tas shrugs off my cloak. “I thought you loved him. I thought you had hope.”
“Tas, I do—” But as I say it, I realize it’s not true. All has been dark for so long. To hope is a fool’s errand. “Elias as we knew him is gone.”
“Maybe.” Tas shrugs. “But I think that if you were the one who got chained up in the forest, Elias would never give up. If you had forgotten how much you loved him, he’d find a way to make you remember. He’d keep fighting until he brought you back.”