Perhaps they have been weakened by their imprisonment. Perhaps their magic is limited. All magic comes from Mauth and even I have noticed a dip in Mauth’s strength, a torpidity.
So what, I argue with myself. The Nightbringer is stealing ghosts to fuel his magic?
It is as good an idea as any. If Mauth is the source of all magic, and he is Death, then it would follow that ghosts might be linked to that magic.
If I could get to the Nightbringer himself—I might be able to test the theory further. I reach the garrison’s flat rooftop and drop out of my windwalk, shading my eyes. The buildings all around are engulfed in flame. I won’t be able to see anything from here.
As I make to leave, something gleams in the air. A figure appears out of the smoke billowing across the roof, cloaked and flame-eyed, with a wickedly curved scythe held loosely in one hand. It is attached to a long handle and its dark shine is familiar.
The scythe, I realize, used to be a sickle. A sickle that the Nightbringer used to kill Shaeva months ago.
“Have you come to thank me, Usurper?”
The Nightbringer speaks softly, but his voice no longer makes my skin crawl. Nor do I feel apprehension when I look at him. He is but a living creature, who loves and hates, desires and mourns. A creature who is interfering with my work in the Waiting Place.
Mauth’s magic rises, sensing the threat. “You tamper with the spirits, jinn,” I say. “You tamper with Mauth. You must cease.”
“Then you are not here to thank me.” The feigned surprise in the Nightbringer’s voice grates on my nerves. “I cannot think why. There is so much less work for you, now that you have no ghosts to pass.”
“What are you doing with the spirits?”
“Silence, worm!” Umber appears out of the flames beside the Nightbringer. “You dare to speak to the Meherya thus? Faaz! Azul!” Two jinn materialize from the flames. “Khuri! Talis!”
“Peace, Umber.” The Nightbringer sheathes his scythe and four more jinn appear. The first two—Faaz and Azul—I saw breaking buildings and altering the weather. The third—Khuri—is in her shadow form. The last, whom I assume is Talis, wears his human face, and I recognize his dark eyes and compact body. He accompanied Umber after I killed Cain.
And he was the jinn who cast thoughts into the minds of Laia and the others. He brought their deepest fears and darkest moments to life.
The Nightbringer glides closer. Shadows seethe around him, deeper than before and eerily alive. They writhe with some fey devilry that drags on him like a weight. Despite that, his power is unaffected. If anything, he appears stronger.
The air flickers behind the Nightbringer. Another jinn. One Umber did not call to. I squint—what is he doing? I take a single step toward that jinn, for there is a whiff of ghost about him, a sense of the dead nearby.
That is as far as I get. The Nightbringer snaps his fingers and Khuri steps into the shadows, reappearing seconds later with a limp human figure.
“You are Mauth’s creature now, boy. So dedicated to your duty,” the Nightbringer says. “Shall we test that dedication?”
The figure is bound with chains made of the same sparkling metal as the Nightbringer’s scythe. Her clothing is dark, and her long hair obscures her face. But I know who it is. I know her shape and her grace because the Augur put her in my head and I cannot get her out.
The Nightbringer grabs Laia’s hair and yanks her head back. “If I slit her throat, Soul Catcher, would you care?”
“Why are you taking the ghosts?” I force myself to ignore Laia. “To strengthen your jinn? Yourself?”
“Not a single word for the woman you used to love,” the Nightbringer says. “And your kind think that I am cruel. Do you even remember those you’ve killed, boy? Or are there so many that their faces fade together? The latter, I think. That is how humans go through this life. Murdering and smashing and forgetting. But—” He looks at the city around him.
“I understand every death caused in service of my purpose. I do not take them lightly. Am I not kinder than you and your ilk, who cannot recall face or form of your foes? Your homes and lives and loves are built upon the graves of those you never even knew existed—”
Laia, who hangs limply from the Nightbringer’s hand, suddenly comes to life. Her chains go flying toward Umber, who screams when they touch her. I expect Laia to disappear. To escape.
Instead, she lunges for the Nightbringer.
For a moment, they tumble back in a tangle of shadow and flesh. But when he rises, he has Laia’s wrists caught in one of his hands.
“You cannot kill me, girl,” he sneers at her. “Have you not learned?”
“So everyone keeps saying,” Laia gasps, glaring at him, at the other jinn. “But you are all monsters. And monsters have weaknesses.”
“Monsters?” He twists her around until she faces me. “There stands a monster. Walking through a city burning, ignoring the screams of his own kind. Without a care for anything but his precious ghosts. He will not mourn you if I kill you slowly.”
“Can’t kill me,” she gasps. “Star—”
“Perhaps I’ve overcome that little hiccup,” the Nightbringer says. “What of it, Soul Catcher? Would you like another ghost for your kingdom? Or maybe I will reap her soul too. Would you let her die, knowing her spirit will never cross the river?”
My attention flicks again to what’s happening behind the Nightbringer. The girl thrashes, clawing at him.
But she’s not “the girl.” Cain made sure she never would be again.
If she let herself be cowed, I could look away. Instead she defies the Nightbringer, kicking and fighting even as he squeezes the life out of her.
A memory surfaces—a day long ago at Blackcliff, the first time we saw each other. Skies, the determination in her, the life. Even then, she was an ember ever burning, no matter how much the world tried to quench her fire.
Our eyes meet.
Walk away, Soul Catcher, I tell myself. Look to the jinn behind the Nightbringer. Figure out what he is doing. Save the spirits from whatever skies-awful fate he is inflicting upon them.
But for a moment, just a moment, the wrathful, imprisoned part of me, the old me, breaks free.
And I cannot walk away.
XXV: The Blood Shrike
The dark stone tunnels beneath Antium are laid out in a grid, meant to allow ease of movement when the weather is wretched. If you know the tunnels, traversing them is child’s play.
For me, they are a nightmare, stinking of mold and death, littered with the detritus of our flight from Antium months ago. Clothes and shoes. Blankets and heirlooms. And now my blood, a trail of it that any tracker could follow.