Almost immediately, I drop, choking on the foul smoke pouring out. Through squinted, tear-filled eyes, I stare at what should be a staircase.
There is nothing but a wall of flame.
Even if the Soul Catcher hadn’t welcomed me to the realm of death, an emptiness yawns at my core. I feel dead.
“I died choking in a prison stairwell, steps from salvation?” Damn it! “I need more time,” I say to the Soul Catcher. “A few hours.”
“I do not choose when you die, Elias.” She helps me up, her face pained, as if she genuinely mourns my death. Behind her, other spirits jostle in the trees, watching.
“I’m not ready, Shaeva,” I say. “Laia is up there waiting for me. Her brother is beside me, dying. What did we fight for if it was just going to end like this?”
“Few are ready for death,” Shaeva sighs. She’s given this speech before. “Sometimes even the very old, who have lived full lives, fight against its cold grasp. You must accept—”
“No.” I look around for some way to get back. A portal or weapon or tool I can use to change my fate. Stupid, Elias. There is no way back. Death is death.
Nothing is impossible. My mother’s words. If she were here, she’d bully, threaten, or trick the Soul Catcher into giving her the time she wanted.
“Shaeva,” I say, “you’ve ruled these lands for a thousand years. You know everything about death. There must be some way to go back, just for a little while.”
She turns away, her back stiff and unyielding. I pivot around her, my ghost form so swift that I see the shadow that passes across her eyes.
“When the seizures began,” I say, “you told me you were watching me. Why?”
“It was a mistake, Elias.” Shaeva’s eyelashes glint with moisture. “I saw you as I saw all humans: lesser, weak. But I was wrong. I—I should never have brought you here. I opened a door that should have remained shut.”
“But why?” She’s dancing around the truth. “Why did I catch your attention in the first place? It’s not as if you spend all your time making moon-eyes at the human world. You’re too busy with the spirits.”
I reach for her hands, startled when they pass through her. Ghost, Elias, remember?
“After the Third Trial,” she says, “you sent many to their deaths. But they were not angry. I found it strange, since murder usually results in restless spirits. But these spirits didn’t rage about you. Other than Tristas, they moved on quickly.
“I didn’t understand why. I used my power to see into the human world.” She laces her fingers together and fixes her black gaze upon me. “In the catacombs of Serra, you ran into an cave efrit. Murderer, it called you.”
“If your sins were blood, child, you would drown in a river of your own making,” I say. “I remember.”
“What it said mattered less than your reaction, Elias. You were …” She frowns, contemplating. “Horrified. The spirits you sent to their deaths were at peace because you mourned them. You bring pain and suffering to those you love. But you do not wish to. It is as if your very fate is to leave a trail of destruction. You are like me. Or rather, like I was.”
The Waiting Place suddenly feels colder. “Like you,” I say flatly.
“You are not the only living creature to have wandered my woods, Elias. Shamans come here sometimes. Healers too. To the living or the dead, the wailing is unbearable. Yet you didn’t mind it. It took me decades to learn to communicate with the spirits. But you picked it up after a few visits.”
A hiss cuts through the air, and I spot the all too familiar glow of the jinn grove getting brighter. For once, Shaeva ignores it.
“I tried to keep you from Laia,” she says. “I wanted you to feel isolated. I wanted something from you, and so I wished you to be fearful. But after I waylaid you on your journey to Kauf, after you spoke my name, something awoke inside me. Some remnant of my better self. I realized how wrong I was to ask anything of you. Forgive me. I was so tired of this place. I only wished for release.”
The glow grows brighter. The trees seem to tremble.
“I don’t understand.”
“I wanted you to take my place,” she says. “To become Soul Catcher.”
At first I think I’ve misheard her. “Is that why you asked me to help Tristas move on?”
She nods. “You are human,” she says. “Thus you have limits the jinn do not. I had to see if you could do it. To be Soul Catcher, you must know death intimately, but you cannot worship it. You must have lived a life in which you wished to protect others but found that all you could do was destroy. Such a life instills remorse. That remorse is a doorway through which the power of the Waiting Place can enter you.”
She swallows. I’m certain she hears the call of her kindred. “The Waiting Place is sentient, Elias. The oldest magic there is. And”—she grimaces apologetically—“it likes you. Already, it has begun to whisper its secrets to you.”
I grasp at something she told me before. “You said that when you became Soul Catcher, the Nightbringer killed you,” I say, “but that he brought you back and chained you here. And now, you live.”
“This is no life, Elias!” Shaeva says. “It is living death. Always I am surrounded by the spirits. I am bound to this place—”