“To speak with you,” the jinn says. “Without rancor or dissemblance.”
At my hesitation, he throws up his hands. “If I’d wished to harm you, I’d have done it while you eavesdropped. Dozens of jinn lay steps away, all of whom would have loved to see you dead.”
“Dozens of jinn who can barely muster their power, apparently.”
Talis’s back goes rigid. Interesting. “What are you doing in the Sher Jinnaat, Soul Catcher?” he asks.
Sher Jinnaat. The City of the Jinn.
“Is the Nightbringer stealing ghosts to restore the magic of the jinn?” I lob the question at him like a blade, in the hopes of catching him off guard. Confusion flashes on his face, and surprise. I might not be exactly on the mark, but I have hit close to the truth.
“You answer my questions,” I say, “and I’ll answer yours. An honest conversation, just like you wanted.”
“Ah, a human bargain with a fey, like in the stories your Kehannis tell.” Talis laughs. To my surprise, the sound is not menacing but warm, and a little sad. “Very well, Soul Catcher. One for one. You first. Why are you here?”
The Commandant’s interrogation training kicks in. If you must, offer the shortest answers you can while maintaining the illusion of cooperation.
“Reconnaissance,” I say.
“What did you learn, Banu al-Mauth?” he asks. “That we aren’t as great a threat as you feared? That your precious humans are safe?”
“As for your second and third questions,” I clarify, lest he think I’ve lost count, “I learned that you struggle with your powers, but that you are still a threat. Regarding the fourth, humans are not precious to me. Not anymore. Only the Waiting Place matters. Only the ghosts.”
“Lies.” The jinn motions me to walk with him toward the escarpment. “What of Laia of Serra?”
A fifth question. Yet none of my answers have given him any real information. This is too easy. Either he will go back on his word and refuse my questions, or there is something else afoot.
“Some names are etched into the stars,” Talis goes on. “Melody and countermelody, a harmony that echoes in the blood. I hear such harmony in your names—Laia-Elias.” He speaks them so they sound like one word, so they sound like a song. “You might seek to deny her, but you cannot. Fate will always lead you back to her, for good or for ill.”
“I am not Elias anymore. And Laia is my past,” I say. “The Waiting Place is my present and my future.”
“No, Soul Catcher,” Talis says. “War is your past. War is your present. War is your future. The Augurs knew it—they sensed it when you were but a child. Why else would they choose you for Blackcliff?”
My nightmare rears its head. The army behind me, the bloody scims in my hands. The maelstrom, churning and insatiable.
Talis slows, his gaze fixed on my face. “What did you see, just then?” There is a strange undercurrent of urgency in his tone. “The Augur’s foretelling?”
I am surprised, but I hide it. Now I understand why he wasted his other questions. This was the one he wanted to ask from the beginning.
But Cain was desperate to keep the prophecy a secret from the jinn. If the Nightbringer hears what I have to say, it will be the end of all things. The Augur was cryptic and manipulative, but he never lied. Not outright. If he was afraid, perhaps there was a reason.
“You’ve asked enough questions for now. My turn,” I say, and though Talis glowers, jaw tight with impatience, he nods.
“Why is the Nightbringer stealing the ghosts that should be going to the Waiting Place?”
Talis is silent for long enough that I wonder if he’s going to answer the question.
“Revenge,” he says.
I think of my own answer earlier. Reconnaissance. The more questions he gets out of me, the more likely it is that he can ask about the foretelling.
Think, Soul Catcher. Think. The Nightbringer isn’t using ghosts to gather magic. He’s using them for revenge. What flavor of revenge? My nightmarish visions come to mind, and I cast another guess.
“What does the Nightbringer’s theft of the ghosts have to do with the maelstrom I’ve seen in my nightmares?”
Talis swings his head toward me, unable to mask his shock. “What nightmares?”
I do not answer, and he looks ahead, frustrated. “He seeks to create a gateway of sorts, between Mauth’s dimension and your own. He wishes to return all the suffering that has been cleansed from the world back into it.”
And though the Sea of Suffering churns, ever restless, verily does Mauth preside, a bulwark against its hunger. Aubarit spoke those words to me. And now it appears the Nightbringer seeks to pierce that bulwark. To what end, I don’t yet know.
“Suffering is a state of mind, a feeling,” I say. “It can’t do anything.”
Talis shrugs. “That sounds like a question.”
Damn you. “How is the Nightbringer planning to weaponize this suffering?”
“Suffering is a monster, waiting to be released from a cage. You have only to look at your own mother to know the truth of that.”
“What the bleeding hells is that supposed to mean?” The question is out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
“Keris Veturia’s suffering runs deep, Soul Catcher. My brethren mistakenly believe that she is but a human stooge, a servant to carry out the Meherya’s plan. But her suffering is why he sees himself in her. Why she sees herself in him. Suffering is the cup from which they both drink. It is the language they both speak. And it is the weapon they both wield.”
The Mother watches over them all. So Keris is more essential to the Nightbringer’s plan than I realized. The rest of the foretelling makes little sense, but that part, at least, must refer to her.
And though “watches over” sounds benevolent enough, when it comes to Keris, it isn’t. Likely she’s dispatched spies to surveil the Blood Shrike and Laia.
I regard Talis with new suspicion. This little game has gone on long enough. Time to end it.
“What is the Nightbringer’s intent in releasing this suffering?”
“To cleanse the land of his enemy swiftly,” Talis says softly, “that the fey might live in peace.”
Bleeding, burning hells. He wants to kill all the Scholars at once. And he’ll use this maelstrom to do it.
“Do you see now why war is your fate? I know well the Oath of the Soul Catcher. To light the way for the weak, the weary, the fallen, and the forgotten in the darkness that follows death. There is no one to light the way for them now, Elias. No one to protect the spirits. Unless you take up the torch.”