I’d say it’s impossible, but the Commandant trained the word out of me.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” I search her eyes for doubt, fear, uncertainty. But all I see is that fire. Ten hells.
“I am sure.”
“Then I’ll find a way.”
That night, I visit the Soul Catcher.
I find myself walking beside her on a scanty path through the woods of the Waiting Place. She wears a shift and sandals, and appears untouched by the bite of the autumn air. The trees around us are gnarled and ancient. Translucent figures flit between the trunks. Some are nothing but niveous wisps, while others are more fully formed. At one point, I’m certain I see Tristas, his features contorted in rage, but he’s gone a moment later. The figures’ whispers are soft, melding into one murmuring rush.
“Is this it?” I ask the Soul Catcher. I thought I had more time. “Am I dead?”
“No.” Her ancient eyes take in my arm. In this world, it is unscarred, unblemished. “The poison advances, but slowly.”
“Why am I back here?” I don’t want the seizures to begin again—I don’t want her controlling me. “I can’t stay.”
“Always so many questions with you, Elias.” She smiles. “In sleep, humans skirt the Waiting Place and do not enter. But you have a foot in the worlds of the living and the dead. I used that to call you here. Don’t worry, Elias. I won’t keep you long.”
One of the figures in the trees flutters closer—a woman so faded I cannot see her face. She peers through the branches, looks under bushes. Her mouth moves as if she’s speaking to herself.
“Can you hear her?” the Soul Catcher asks.
I try to listen beyond the other ghosts’ whispers, but there are too many. I shake my head, and the Soul Catcher’s face holds something I can’t decipher. “Try again.”
I close my eyes this time and focus on the woman—only the woman.
I can’t find—where—don’t hide, lovey—
“She’s—” I open my eyes, and the murmurs of the others drown her out. “She’s looking for something.”
“Someone,” the Soul Catcher corrects me. “She refuses to move on. It has been decades. She hurt someone too, long ago. Though she did not mean to, I think.”
A not so subtle reminder of the Soul Catcher’s request the last time I saw her. “I’m doing as you asked,” I say. “I’m keeping my distance from Laia.”
“Very good, Veturius. I’d hate to have to harm you.”
A chill runs up my spine. “You can do that?”
“I can do a great many things. Perhaps I shall show you, before your end.” She places her hand on my arm, and it burns like fire.
When I wake up, it’s still dark out, and my arm aches. I roll up my sleeve, expecting to see the knotted, scarred flesh where my injury was.
But the wound, which healed days ago, is now raw and bleeding.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
“You’re insane,” Faris says as he, Dex, and I stare at the tracks in the dirt behind the storage building. I half believe him. But tracks don’t lie, and these tracks tell quite a tale.
A battle. One large opponent. One small. The small one nearly got the better of the larger one until the small opponent was knocked out—at least that’s what I assume, since there’s no dead body around. The large opponent and a companion dragged the small opponent into the storage building and escaped on horseback, out a gate in the back wall. The horse had the Gens Veturia motto carved into its shoe: Always victorious. I think back to Cook’s strange tale: They brought the demon low and escaped victorious.
Even days old, the tracks are clear. No one has disturbed this place.
“It’s a trap.” Faris lifts his torch to illuminate the shadowy corners of the empty lot. “That crackpot Cook was trying to get you to come here so she could ambush us.”
“It’s a riddle,” I say. “And I’ve always been good at riddles.” This one took me longer than most—days have passed since Cook’s visit. “Besides, an old crone against three Masks isn’t really an ambush.”
“She got the jump on you, didn’t she?” Faris’s cowlick tufts out, as it always seems to when he’s agitated. “Why would she even help you? You’re a Mask. She’s an escaped slave.”
“She’s got no love for the Commandant. And”—I gesture to the ground—“it’s clear the Commandant is hiding something.”
“Besides, there’s no ambush to be seen.” Dex turns to a door in the wall behind us. “But there is salvation half-touched by shadow. The door faces east. It’s only in shadow for half the day.”
I nod to the kiln. “And that’s the sleepless spire of suffering. Most of the Scholars who work there are born and die in its shadow.”
“But these tracks—” Faris begins.
“There are only two silver-skinned she-demons in the Empire,” I say. “And one of them was getting tortured by Avitas Harper that night.” Harper, suffice it to say, wasn’t invited on this little outing.
I examine the tracks again. Why didn’t the Commandant bring backup? Why didn’t she tell anyone she saw Elias that night?
“I need to talk to Keris,” I say. “Find out if—”