You have a soul. It’s damaged, but it’s there. Don’t let them take it from you.
“Talk to me,” she says now. “Just for a moment.” The gully is filled with scraggly trees that are blue in the starlight. But she finds a long, flat rock and sits, pulling me down with her.
“Look at me, Elias.” She takes my chin in her hand. “The Nightbringer baited you. And I gave him the perfect bait. He knows you, like he knows all humans. He expected you to help me and knew you would later feel guilty about it. He’s always a step ahead of us. But the cost this time is thousands of lives—tens of thousands—”
“The concerns of the human world are not—”
“He’s playing a tune and you are dancing to it. That is your concern. The Nightbringer wants you chained to the Waiting Place. It serves his purposes perfectly. Because if you are trying to control things there, you are not fighting out here.”
“If I am chained to the Waiting Place, it is because of my own choices—not because of the Nightbringer.”
“You’re chained because of me.” She releases me, her face in her hands. Seeing her this way feels wrong. No, I realize. It feels wrong to see her this way and not give her comfort.
“You died, Elias, and still you could not let yourself fail. You promised to save Darin and so you did, though it led to your own imprisonment. You promised to serve Mauth and so you do, though it will lead to the destruction of my people. You are so—so—” She throws up her hands. “So stubborn! And the Nightbringer knows it! He is counting on it, for it allows him to wreak havoc in the human world without anyone to stop him.”
Laia’s disquiet swirls around her, a weight too heavy to carry alone. “You said yourself the forest is sick. The ghosts are not coming through. I tell you, the source of these ills is the Nightbringer. If you want to fix the Waiting Place, you must stop him from tampering with the spirits.”
Though I’m certain I had the good sense to put a foot of space between us, our knees touch. She pulls my hands to her heart, and my pulse judders in response.
“Thank you for helping me,” she says. “I know it cost you. But if you hadn’t helped me—”
“You’d have been fine.” This, I know. “You’re tough and smart. You’re a survivor, Laia. You always have been.”
She smiles and looks down, her hair falling into her face. “It is sweet to hear you say my name,” she whispers.
A desert wind gusts through the gully, and I breathe in the scent of her, sugar and sweat and something unknowable that makes my head spin. I push her hair back from her face, and find my thumb lingering on her cheek. It is flushed, though the night is cold.
Laia looks up at me as if she is going to speak, and her fingers press into my forearm. My own desire stirs at the depth of hers, and I imagine her fingers digging into my back, her eyes on me like they are now, her legs around my hips—
Stop. You are the Banu al-Mauth.
But the voice fades when she rises to her knees on the rock and brushes her lips against mine. She is careful, like I might flee. But her wildly thudding pulse matches mine, and I drop my hands to her waist and pull her close, my lips parting hers. Closer still when she moans, her nails grazing my neck. The sound that it elicits from me is nothing close to decent.
She pulls away, smiling, and I wish she had not, for in the space that opens between us, tumult takes hold, the cold reality of my present sweeping over the horizon of my mind.
I am a fool. Holding Laia, kissing her, touching her, letting myself want her. All I’ve done is given her hope.
She must sense it, for she tilts my face toward hers. “Elias—”
“That’s not my name.” I pull away and stand, grasping for the coldest version of myself: Mask, Soul Catcher, Chosen of Death. I think of the thousands of ghosts I created, the thousands who died because of me—friends and enemies and people whose names I never even knew.
The Nightbringer was right about humans. Murdering and smashing and forgetting.
“Please,” I tell her. “I could not live with myself if more suffer because of me. Stay away. Leave me in peace. Find someplace safe to—”
“Safe?” Laia laughs and it is a terrible sound. “There is no safe place for me in this world, Elias. Not unless I create it for myself. Go then to your duty. I will go to mine.”
Before she turns her back on me, I am gone, windwalking east, flying faster and faster until sand turns to scrub and scrub to trees. I do not stop until I am at my cabin. There, the only sound is my ragged breathing. And once it slows, the silence settles in. I am so used to hearing the soughing of the ghosts that their complete absence is unnatural.
A small figure emerges from the trees. She looks around with innocent curiosity, and I know her immediately. The child from Aish who recognized me. Of course. She and her family could not have survived the assault.
“Welcome to the Waiting Place, the realm of ghosts, little one,” I say to her. “I am the Soul Catcher, and I am here to help you cross to the other side.”
“I know who you are,” she says. “Why didn’t you help us? I looked for you.”
“You must forget the living,” I say. “For they can hurt you no longer.”
“How can I forget? That silver woman killed Irfa and Azma at the same time. Azma was only four. Why did she do that, Soul Catcher? Why didn’t you help?”
The child is but one ghost, but it takes me hours to pass her on, for how do I answer her queries? How do I explain Keris’s hatred to an innocent?
When it is done, when I have finally answered every question and heard every hurt, small or large, she walks into the river. I wait for the old sense of rightness to fill me. All the way home I wait. It does not come, not even when I enter my cabin and light the lamps.
Home, I tell myself. I am home. But it doesn’t feel like home anymore.
It feels like a prison.
XXVIII: The Blood Shrike
Something sits on my chest.
The fact sinks into my consciousness slowly and I don’t move a muscle. Whatever it is, it’s warm. Alive. And I don’t want it to realize I’m awake.
The weight shifts. A drop of warm water plops onto my forehead. I tense. I’ve heard of Karkaun water torture—
Two small hands dig into my face and pull the way one’s face simply shouldn’t be pulled. I open my eyes to find my nephew sitting atop me, drooling happily. When he sees I am awake, he smiles, revealing one perfect, pearly tooth that was not there when I left.
“Ba!” he declares as I sit up gingerly.