“If we wait, we miss the gathering. We need those crowds if we want to pass unnoticed.” And he needs the Tellis. We cannot predict the Soul Catcher. If Elias starts convulsing again and loses consciousness, who knows how long that creature will keep him in the Waiting Place? Hours if he’s lucky. Days if he’s not.

A shudder rolls through Elias, sudden and violent, and his body jerks—too sharply for anyone with eyes to miss it. I am beside him instantly.

“Stay with me, Elias,” I whisper into his ear. “The Soul Catcher’s trying to call you back. Don’t let her.”

Elias grits his teeth, and the convulsion passes. I’m well aware of Izzi’s bewildered look, Keenan’s suspicion.

The rebel steps closer. “Laia, what’s—”

“We keep going.” I raise my voice so he and Izzi can hear. “A delay now could mean a difference of weeks later if the snows come early or the northern passes are closed.”

“Here.” Elias pulls a stack of kerchiefs from his pack and hands them to me. As I dole them out, he cuts a length of rope into ten-foot sections. Another shudder ripples across his shoulders, and he clenches his teeth, battling against it. Don’t give in. I give him a pointed look as Izzi huddles closer. Now is not the time. He binds Izzi to himself and is about to bind me to Izzi when she shakes her head.

“Laia on your other side.” Her gaze flits to Keenan so swiftly that I’m not sure I even saw it. I wonder if she heard Keenan imploring me to leave with him last night.

My body shakes with the effort of standing in one spot. The winds scream around us, as violent as a chorus of funeral shrieks. The sound makes me think of the wraiths in the desert outside Serra, and I wonder if fey creatures haunt this desert too.

“Keep the rope taut”—Elias’s hands brush mine, and his skin is fevered—“or I won’t know if we’ve been separated.” Fear stabs at me, but he drops his face close to mine.

“Don’t be afraid. I grew up in this desert. I’ll get us to Nur.”

We move east, our heads bowed against the onslaught of the storm. The dust blots out the stars, and the dunes shift beneath us so fast that we’re staggering, fighting for every step. There’s sand in my teeth, my eyes, my nose—I can’t breathe.

The rope between Elias and me tightens as he pulls me onward. On his other side, Izzi curves her reedlike body against the wind, clutching her scarf to her face. A scream echoes, and I falter—Izzi? Just the wind.

Then Keenan, who I thought was behind me, jerks on the rope from my left. The force of it pulls me down, and my body sinks into deep, soft sand. I fight to get back to my feet, but the wind is like a great, pressing fist.

I yank hard on the rope that I know connects me to Elias. He must realize I’ve fallen. Any second, I’ll feel his hands pulling me closer, lifting me to my feet. I scream his name into the storm, my voice useless against its rage. The rope jerks between us once.

Then it goes horribly slack, and when I pull it in, there is nothing at the end of it.



One second, I am using every ounce of strength I have to battle the winds and pull Laia and Izzi forward.

The next, the rope between Laia and me falls limp. I pull it in, staggered when it ends after only three feet. No Laia.

I lunge back toward where I hope she’ll be. Nothing. Ten hells. I tied the knots too quickly—one of them must have come undone. Doesn’t matter, my mind howls. Find her!

The wind screams, and I remember the sand efrits I fought during the Trials. A manlike shape rears in front of me, its eyes glowing with unrestrained malice. I stagger back in surprise—where the hells did it come from—then reach into my memory. Efrit, efrit of the sand, a song is more than he can stand. The old rhyme comes back to me, and I sing it out. Work, work, please work. The eyes narrow, and for a second, I think the rhyme is useless. Then the eyes fade.

But Laia—and Keenan—are still out here, defenseless. We should have waited out the sandstorm. The damned rebel was right. If Laia is buried in the sands—if she dies out here because I needed that accursed Tellis …

She fell just before we were separated. I drop to my knees and sweep out with my arms. I catch a scrap of cloth, then a patch of warm skin. Relief washes over me, and I pull. It’s her—I can tell from the shape and weight of her body. I draw her close and catch a flash of her face beneath the scarf, terrified as she wraps her arms around me.

“I’ve got you,” I say, though I don’t think she hears me. On one side, I feel Izzi jostle me, and then a flare of red hair—Keenan, still roped to Laia, bent over as he coughs the sand from his lungs.

I refasten the rope, my hands shaking. In my head, I hear Izzi telling me to bind Laia to myself. The knots were tight. The rope was whole and unblemished. It shouldn’t have come undone.

Forget that now. Move.

Soon, the ground hardens from treacherous sand to the dry cobbles of the oasis. I graze a tree with my shoulders, and light flickers dimly through the sand. At my side, Izzi falls, clawing at her good eye. I lift her into my arms and push forward. Her body shakes as she coughs uncontrollably.

One light turns to two and then a dozen—a street. My arms shake, and I nearly drop Izzi. Not yet!

The hulking shadow of a rounded Tribal wagon looms out of the darkness, and I fight my way toward it. I hope to the skies that it’s empty, mostly because I don’t think I have the energy to knock anyone senseless right now.