Elias grimaces. “We could find it in Serra or Navium.”
Only we can’t go back to Serra, and Navium is in the opposite direction from Kauf.
“What about Raider’s Roost?” My stomach twists in dread at the idea. The giant rock is a lawless cesspit of society’s detritus—highwaymen, bounty hunters, and black market profiteers who know only the darkest corruption. Pop went there a few times to find rare herbs. Nan never slept while he was gone.
Elias nods. “Dangerous as the ten hells, but filled with people who wish to go as unnoticed as we do.”
He rises again, and while I’m impressed by his strength, I’m also horrified by the callous way he treats his body. He fumbles at the reins of the horse.
“Another seizure soon, Laia.” He taps the horse behind its left front leg. It sits. “Tie me on with rope. Head straight southeast.” He heaves himself into the saddle, listing dangerously to one side.
“I feel them coming,” he whispers.
I wheel about, expecting the hoofbeats of an Empire patrol, but all is silent. When I look back at Elias, his eyes are fixed on a point past my head. “Voices. Calling me back.”
Hallucinations. Another effect of the poison. I bind Elias to the stallion with rope from his pack, fill the canteens, and mount up. Elias slumps against my back, blacked out again. His smell, rain and spice, washes over me, and I take a steadying breath.
My sweat-damp fingers slide along the horse’s reins. As if the beast senses I know nothing about riding, it tosses its head and pulls at the bit. I wipe my hands on my shirt and tighten my grip.
“Don’t you dare, you nag,” I say to its rebellious snort. “It’s you and me for the next few days, so you better listen to what I say.” I give the horse a light kick, and to my relief, it trots forward. We turn southeast, and I dig my heels deeper. Then we are away, into the night.
Voices surround me, quiet murmurs that remind me of a Tribal camp awakening: the whispers of men soothing horses and children kindling breakfast fires.
I open my eyes, expecting the sunshine of the Tribal desert, unabashedly bright, even at dawn. Instead, I stare up at a canopy of trees. The murmuring grows muted, and the air is weighty with the green scents of pine needles and moss-softened bark. It’s dark, but I can make out the pitted trunks of great trees, some as wide as houses. Beyond the branches above, snatches of blue sky darken swiftly to gray, as if a storm approaches.
Something darts through the trees, disappearing when I turn. The leaves rustle, whispering like a battlefield of ghosts. The murmurs I heard rise and fade, rise and fade.
I stand. Though I expect pain to shoot through every limb, I feel nothing. The absence of pain is strange—and wrong.
Wherever I am, I shouldn’t be here. I should be with Laia, headed toward Raider’s Roost. I should be awake, fighting the Commandant’s poison. On instinct, I reach back for my scims. They aren’t there.
“No heads to lop off in the ghost world, you murdering bastard.”
I know that voice, though I’ve rarely heard it so heavily laced with vitriol.
My friend appears as he did in life, hair dark as pitch, the tattoo of his beloved’s name standing out in sharp relief against his pale skin. Aelia. He looks nothing like a ghost. But he must be. I saw him die in the Third Trial, on the end of Dex’s scim.
He doesn’t feel like a ghost either—something I realize with abrupt violence when, after considering me for a moment, he slams his fist into my jaw.
The burst of pain that shoots through my skull is dulled to half what it should be. Still, I back away. The hatred behind the punch was more powerful than the blow itself.
“That was for letting Dex kill me in the Trial.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have stopped him.”
“Doesn’t matter, seeing as I’m still dead.”
“Where are we? What is this place?”
“The Waiting Place. It’s for the dead who are not ready to move on, apparently. Leander and Demetrius left. Not me, though. I’m stuck listening to this bleating.”
Bleating? I assume he’s referring to the murmur of the ghosts flitting through the trees, which to me is no more irritating than the swish of ocean tide.
“But I’m not dead.”
“Didn’t she show up to give you her little speech?” Tristas asks. “Welcome to the Waiting Place, the realm of ghosts. I am the Soul Catcher, and I am here to help you cross to the other side.”
When I shake my head, mystified, Tristas flashes me a malevolent smile. “Well, she’ll be here soon enough, trying to bully you into moving on. All of this is hers.” He gestures to the Forest, to the spirits still murmuring beyond the tree line. Then his face changes—twists.
“It’s her!” He disappears into the trees with unnatural speed. Alarmed, I spin around and see a shadow pull free from a nearby trunk.
I keep my hands loose at my sides—ready to grab, throttle, punch. The figure draws closer, moving not at all like a person. It is too fluid, too fast.
But when it’s only a few feet away, it slows and resolves into a trim, dark-haired woman. Her face is unlined, but I cannot guess her age. Her black irises and ancient stare suggest something I can’t fathom.
“Hello, Elias Veturius.” Her earthy voice is strangely accented, as if she’s not used to speaking Serran. “I am the Soul Catcher, and I am pleased to finally meet you. I’ve watched you now, for a time.”