The irises of his eyes brighten. I see myself reflected within, and then I feel as if I’m falling into a nightmare. A scream claws its way out of my throat, for in Keenan’s eyes I see ruin, failure, death: Darin’s mangled body; Elias turning away from me, impassive as he disappears into an ancient forest; an army of fiery, enraged faces advancing; the Commandant standing over me, drawing her blade across my throat in one clean, deadly stroke.
“Keenan,” I gasp. “What—”
“My name”—his voice changes as he speaks, his warmth souring, twisting into something foul and grating—“is not Keenan.”
He jerks his fingers away, and his head is flung back as if by an otherworldly fist. His mouth opens in a silent howl, the muscles of his forearms and neck bulging.
A cloud of darkness breaks over us both, knocking me back. “Keenan!”
I cannot make out the crisp whiteness of the snow or the undulating lights in the sky. I lash out blindly at whatever attacks us. I can’t see anything. All is obscured until the blackness curls back from the edges of my vision, slowly resolving into a hooded figure with malevolent suns for eyes. I take hold of a nearby tree trunk and grab for my knife.
I know this figure. The last I saw him, he was hissing orders at the woman who frightens me most in this world.
Nightbringer. My body trembles—I feel as though some hand has taken me by my core and now squeezes, waiting to see when I will break.
“What in the bleeding skies did you do with Keenan, you monster?” I must be mad to scream at him so. But the creature only laughs, impossibly low, like boulders grinding beneath a black sea.
“There was no Keenan, Laia of Serra,” the Nightbringer says. “There was only ever me.”
“Lies.” I clutch my knife, but the hilt burns hot as fresh-forged steel, and I drop it with a yelp. “Keenan has been with the Resistance for years.”
“What are years when one has lived for millennia?” At the look of dumb shock on my face, the thing—the jinn—lets out a strange sound. It might be a sigh.
Then it turns, whispering something into the air, slowly rising up, as if to depart. No! I lunge forward and grab on to him, desperate to understand what in the skies is happening.
Beneath the robe, the creature’s body is burning hot, powerful, with the warped musculature of a demon instead of a man. The Nightbringer tilts his head. He has no face, only those damned fiery eyes. Still, I can sense him sneering.
“Ah, the little girl has fight in her after all,” he says. “Just like her stone-hearted bitch of a mother.”
He shakes me, attempting to free himself, but I hold tight, even while squelching my revulsion at touching him. An unknown darkness rises within me, some atavistic part of myself that I did not know existed.
The Nightbringer, I sense, is no longer amused. He jerks away hard. I make myself hold on.
What did you do to Keenan—the Keenan I knew? The Keenan I loved? I scream in my mind. And why? I glare into his eyes, the darkness rising, taking over. I sense alarm from the Nightbringer, and surprise. Tell me! Now! Quite suddenly, I am weightless as I fly into the chaos of the Nightbringer’s mind. Into his memories.
At first, I see nothing. I only feel … sadness. An ache that he’s buried beneath centuries of life. It permeates every part of him, and though I am bodiless, my mind nearly collapses from the weight of it.
I force myself through it, and I stand in a cold alley in Serra’s Scholar quarter. Wind bites through my clothing, and I hear a strangled cry. I turn to find the Nightbringer changing, screaming in pain as he uses all his power to morph into a redheaded child of five. He staggers out of the alley and into the street beyond, collapsing on the stoop of a dilapidated house. Many seek to help him, but he does not speak to anyone. Not until an achingly familiar dark-haired man stops and kneels beside him.
He scoops up the child. The memory shifts to an encampment deep in a canyon. Resistance fighters eat, chatter, train with weapons. Two figures sit at a table, and my heart drops when I see them: my mother and Lis. They welcome my father and the redheaded child. They offer him a plate of stew and tend his wounds. Lis gives him a wooden cat that Father carved for her, and she sits beside him so he is not afraid.
Even as the memory shifts again, I think back to a cold and rainy day in the Commandant’s kitchen months ago, when Cook told Izzi and me a story about the Nightbringer. “He infiltrated the Resistance. Took human form and posed as a fighter. Got close to your mother. Manipulated and used her. Your father caught on. Nightbringer had help. A traitor.”
The Nightbringer didn’t have help, and he didn’t pose as a fighter. He was the traitor, and he posed as a child. For no one would think a young, starving orphan could be a spy.
A snarl echoes in my mind, and the Nightbringer tries to fling me from his thoughts. I feel myself returning to my body, but the darkness within roars and fights, and I do not let myself release him.
No. You will show me more. I need to understand.
Back in the creature’s memories, I see him befriend my lonely sister. I grow uneasy at their friendship—it seems so real. As if he truly cares about her. At the same time, he wheedles information from her about my parents: where they are, what they are doing. He stalks my mother, his covetous eyes fixed on her armlet. His hunger for it is like that of a starving animal in its potency. He doesn’t want it. He needs it. He must get her to give it to him.