“Ten bleeding hells!” I don’t believe it’s the Soul Catcher until I see her sitting on a rock a few yards away.
“I’m not dead,” I say quickly, like a child denying a wrongdoing.
“Obviously.” The Soul Catcher stands and shakes back her dark hair, her black eyes fixed on me. Part of me wants to poke her to see how real she is. “You are, however, in my territory now.” The Soul Catcher nods east, to a thick, dark line on the horizon. The Forest of Dusk.
“That’s the Waiting Place?” I never linked the oppressive trees of the Soul Catcher’s lair to anything in my world.
“Didn’t you ever wonder where it was?”
“I mostly spent my time figuring out how to get out of it.” I try again to pull Trera from the river. He doesn’t budge. “What do you want, Soul Catcher?”
She pats Trera between his ears, and he relaxes. She takes his reins from me and leads him north as easily as if she’s the one who’s been with him for the past two weeks. I give the beast a dark look. Traitor.
“Who says I want anything, Elias?” the Soul Catcher says. “I’m simply welcoming you to my lands.”
“Right.” What a load of dung. “You won’t need to worry about me lingering. I have someplace to be.”
“Ah.” I hear the smile in her voice. “That might be a problem. You see, when you stray so close to my realm, you disturb the spirits, Elias. For that you must pay a price.”
Welcoming me indeed. “What price?”
“I’ll show you. If you work quickly enough, I’ll help you pass through these lands faster than you would have on horseback.”
I mount Trera reluctantly and offer her a hand, though the idea of her otherworldly body so close to mine makes my blood turn to ice. But she ignores me and breaks into a run, her feet fleet as she matches Trera’s canter with ease. A wind blows in from the west, and she catches it like a kite, her body floating upon it as if she is made of fluff. Too soon for it to be natural, the trees of the Forest of Dusk rise like a wall before us.
Fiver missions never brought me this close to the Forest. Centurions warned us to keep a good distance from its borders. Since anyone who didn’t listen tended to disappear, it was one of the few rules no Fiver was stupid enough to break.
“Leave the horse,” the Soul Catcher says. “I’ll make sure he’s cared for.”
The moment I step into the Forest, the whispers begin. And now that my senses are not dulled by unconsciousness, I can make out the words more clearly. The red of the leaves is more vivid, the sweet scent of sap sharper.
“Elias.” The Soul Catcher’s voice dulls the soughing of the ghosts, and she nods to a space in the trees where a spirit paces. Tristas.
“Why is he still here?”
“He won’t listen to me,” the Soul Catcher says. “Perhaps he will listen to you.”
“I’m the reason he’s dead.”
“Exactly. Hatred anchors him here. I don’t mind ghosts who wish to stay, Elias—but not when they upset the other spirits. You need to talk to him. You need to help him move on.”
“And if I can’t?”
The Soul Catcher shrugs. “You’ll stay here until you can.”
“I need to get to Kauf.”
The Soul Catcher turns her back on me. “Then you better get started.”
Tristas refuses to speak with me. He first tries to attack me, but unlike when I was unconscious, his fists fly through my corporeal body. When he realizes he cannot hurt me, he rushes away, cursing. I try to follow, calling his name. By evening, my voice is hoarse.
The Soul Catcher appears beside me when the Forest falls full dark. I wonder if she’s been watching my ineptitude. “Come,” she says tersely. “If you do not eat, you will only weaken and fail again.”
We walk along a stream to a cabin filled with pale wooden furniture and handwoven rugs. Multifaceted Tribal lamps of a dozen colors light the space. A bowl of stew steams on the table. “Cozy,” I say. “You live here?”
The Soul Catcher turns to leave, but I step in front of her, and she collides with me. I expect cold to jolt through me, like when I touched the wraiths. But she’s warm. Almost feverish.
The Soul Catcher jerks away, and I raise my eyebrows. “You’re a living thing?”
“I’m not human.”
“I gathered that,” I say dryly. “But you’re not a wraith, either. And you have needs, obviously.” I look at the house, the bed in the corner, the pot of stew bubbling over the fire. “Food. Shelter.”
She glares and darts around me with unnatural swiftness. I’m reminded of the creature in Serra’s catacombs. “Are you an efrit?”
When she reaches for the door, I sigh in exasperation. “What harm is there in talking to me?” I say. “You must be lonely out here, with only spirits to keep you company.”
I expect her to turn on me or run away. But her hand freezes on the door handle. I move aside and gesture to the table.
She eases back into the room, black eyes wary. I see a flash of curiosity deep within that opaque gaze. I wonder when she last spoke with someone who wasn’t already dead.
“I am not an efrit,” she says after settling herself across from me. “They are weaker creatures, born of the lower elements. Sand or shadow. Clay, wind, or water.”