“I’m not ready for you to join with me,” I say, and she recoils in frustration. I do not wish to hurt her. But I will not be betrayed again. She has not met the Nightbringer since the flood. This is an opportunity to see if she truly is my ally instead of his. “Let’s stick to the plan.”
Something thuds atop the tower. A voice speaks, and I clench the hilt of my dagger, fighting back the urge to disappear, and trying desperately not to give myself away by coughing.
“Whip up the winds to spread the fire.” The Nightbringer’s thunderstorm voice rolls across the roof. “And take the storm north. Slow the rats who flee until the Martials can slaughter them.”
“Yes, Meherya,” a voice responds. From what Elias told us, it must be Azul, the jinn who can control the weather.
Azul leaves, and the sandstorm howls past, the thick grit billowing toward where the Tribes evacuate the city. Behind me, the screaming intensifies as the Nightbringer’s kin set houses alight. The sand efrits, it turns out, are excellent actors.
I tense, hoping to the skies that the Nightbringer does not pay close attention to those screams. But he hardly seems to notice them.
Instead, he stares out at Nur. In Aish, Sadh, and most of the villages in Marinn, he always found the tallest building in the city from which to witness the carnage. As despicable as it is, at least it’s predictable. He bows his head, and something flickers behind him.
Maro, Rehmat told me when Elias and I first conjured up this plan. The jinn who steals the souls for him. The two of them will be distracted by the exertion required to perpetrate such a vile theft. And confused when the souls do not appear. When they are deep in their work, I will tell you.
That is all she is supposed to do. Elias will neutralize Maro. And I will take the scythe.
The screams from the city rise in pitch, but the Nightbringer remains immobile. I try not to fidget, waiting for Rehmat to appear. But she does not. Soon, he will realize that we have tricked him. That the screams are not human. What in the skies is taking her so long?
Suddenly, his back goes stiff. He turns toward the sandbags. Toward me.
“Laia!” Rehmat whispers in my ear. “Let me in—”
I ignore her and stand, dagger high. The last time I saw him, he was not exactly reasonable, but not murderous either. “Hail, Meherya,” I say. “You have something I want.”
Distantly, a building crumbles, and the jinn fire roars closer. Smoke curls through the air, stinging my eyes, my throat.
“Come to watch a city burn, Laia?” he says. “I did not think you had such a taste for blood. Or punishment.”
Though his presence has always twisted the air around him, the Nightbringer’s shadow seems to drag with some new weight. The hatred in his flame eyes is bottomless. He unsheathes the scythe with a flick of his smoky hand and holds it to my throat.
Rehmat manifests beside him.
“Meherya,” she says. “Stop this. This is not who you are—”
“You.” He turns his wrath upon her, but the malice drains out of him, and there is only pain. “Traitor to your own—”
“Do you remember nothing?” he cries. “Who we were, what we lost, what we suffered—”
Laia. She speaks in my mind. Let me in. Please. He is lost. He will kill you.
But he does not kill me. Instead he lowers the scythe, and I back away, astonished. Waiting for some new cruelty. But he ignores me completely.
“Come back to me,” he says to Rehmat, sheathing the weapon. “Help me remake this world for our kin. You were a warrior, Rehmat. You fought and burned and died for our people. For our—our children—”
“You dare invoke our children?” Rehmat’s voice is raw and terrible. As she speaks, I shift toward the scythe, readying my dagger. “When you murder other children at will? I will never join you, Meherya. I am not who I was. As you are not who you were.”
“Do you not understand why?” he pleads with her. “I do this because I love. Because I—”
I lunge for his back, slicing through the straps of the scythe. As he turns, as his fiery hands rise up to snatch it back, I call out, but not to Rehmat.
Almost instantly, a voice screams out from behind the Nightbringer.
It is Maro, a Serric steel blade coated in salt at his neck. Behind him, hood pulled low, stands Elias.
The Soul Catcher’s gaze shifts to me briefly. I can’t help, he’d said. And yet when I called, he was there. As if he catches my thought, he shrugs and jerks his head toward the stairwell. Get out of here.
Scythe in hand, I go.
XLIII: The Soul Catcher
Maro does not put up much of a fight. His skill is limited to soul stealing. The Nightbringer would not keep him so close, otherwise. The touch of my salted dagger elicits a cringe.
To my relief, Laia is gone. When she screamed my name, I had not a whisper of hesitation. It doesn’t matter that I said I wouldn’t help. It doesn’t matter that I need to interrogate Maro to figure out what the hells he’s doing with the ghosts. When she called out, all that mattered was her.
But now she’s gone, and the Nightbringer turns toward me. I drag Maro back a few steps. The soul-stealing jinn wears his shadow form, and he is narrow-shouldered and slender, almost emaciated. When he opens his mouth, I dig in my blade, and he gasps, huffing in pain.
“You’ve been stealing ghosts, Maro.” I fix my gaze on the Nightbringer. “Tell me how to get them back.”
“You cannot get them back,” the Nightbringer says. “They are gone.”
“What have you done with them?”
“They feed the maelstrom.” Maro’s fear makes him talk. “It must be fed if we are to breach the wall between worlds.”
“Silence, Maro!” the Nightbringer hisses, but all his wrath is for me. “Release him, human.” His magic lashes out like a whip, and it burns the skin of my arms so badly that I nearly release Maro. But Blackcliff has trained me well. I hold on to the jinn and reach for Mauth’s magic. I need a shield—something to protect me so that I can spirit Maro away and question him without the Nightbringer’s interference.
But the magic is too far away, just like when Umber chased me. The power fills me slowly, like droplets in an empty bucket.
“Give me back my ghosts,” I tell the king of the jinn, “and I’ll let him go.”
The Nightbringer’s flame eyes narrow, his attention drifting to the city, to the screams of the efrits, louder than before as the fire draws closer. Understanding lights his gaze, and it is terrible to behold.