“Then what are you?” I say. “Or”—I take in her deceptively human form, save for those ageless eyes—“what were you?”
“I was a girl, once.” The Soul Catcher looks down at the speckled pattern cast upon her hands by one of the Tribal lamps. She sounds almost thoughtful. “A foolish girl who did one foolish thing. But that led to another foolish thing. Foolish became disastrous, disastrous became murderous, and murderous became damned.” She sighs. “Now here I am, chained to this place, paying for my crimes by escorting ghosts from one realm to the next.”
“Quite a punishment.”
“It was quite a crime. But you know about crime. And repentance.” She stands, severe once more. “Sleep where you wish. I will not disturb you. But remember, if you want your own chance at repentance, you must find a way to help Tristas.”
Days blur together—time feels different here. I sense Tristas but don’t see him. As the days pass, I plunge deeper into the woods in my increasingly agitated attempts to find him. Finally, I discover a part of the Forest that looks as if it hasn’t seen sunlight in years. A river rushes nearby, and I spot an angry red glow ahead. Fire?
The glow intensifies, and I consider calling out to the Soul Catcher. But I smell no smoke, and when I get close, I realize it’s not a fire I saw but a grove of trees—enormous, interconnected, and wrong. Their gnarled trunks glow as if consumed from within by the flames of the hells.
Help us, Shaeva. Voices within the trees cry out, the sound grating and harsh. Don’t leave us alone.
A figure kneels at the base of the largest tree, hand stretched flat against the burning trunk. The Soul Catcher.
The fire from the trees trickles into her hands and spreads to her neck, her stomach. In the space of a breath, her body is ablaze, smokeless flames of red and black consuming her. I cry out, rushing toward her, but as suddenly as she is consumed, the flames die and she is whole again. The trees still glow, but their fire is muted. Tamed.
The Soul Catcher crumples, and I pick her up. She’s as light as a child.
“You should not have seen that,” she whispers as I carry her from the grove. “I did not know you would travel so deep into the Forest.”
“Was that the gateway to the hells? Is that where the evil spirits go?”
The Soul Catcher shakes her head. “Good or evil, Elias, spirits simply move on. But it is a hell of sorts. At least for those trapped within it.”
She collapses on a chair inside her cabin, her face gray. I tuck a blanket around her shoulders, relieved when she doesn’t protest.
“You told me efrits are made of the lesser elements.” I sit across from her. “Are there higher elements?”
“Just one,” the Soul Catcher whispers. Her hostility is so diminished that she seems like a different creature. “Fire.”
“You’re a jinn.” It dawns on me suddenly, though I can hardly make sense of it. “Aren’t you? I thought some Scholar king tricked the other fey creatures into betraying and destroying your kind long ago.”
“The jinn weren’t destroyed,” the Soul Catcher says. “Only trapped. And it wasn’t the fey who betrayed us. It was a young, prideful jinn girl.”
She pushes the blanket away. “I was wrong to bring you here,” she says. “Wrong to take advantage of your seizures to speak with you. Forgive me.”
“Take me to Kauf then.” I seize upon her apology. I need to get out of here. “Please. I should be there by now.”
The Soul Catcher regards me coldly. Damn it, she’s going to keep me here. Skies know for how long. But then, to my relief, she nods once. “In the morning then.” She hobbles to the door, waving me off when I try to help.
“Wait,” I say. “Soul Catcher. Shaeva.”
Her body stiffens at the sound of her name.
“Why did you bring me here? Don’t tell me it was just for Tristas, because that doesn’t make any sense. It’s your job to comfort souls, not mine.”
“I needed you to help your friend.” I can hear the lie in her voice. “That is all.”
With that, she disappears out the door, and I curse, no closer to understanding her than the first time I met her. But Kauf—and Darin—await. All I can do is take my freedom and go.
As promised, Shaeva delivers me to Kauf in the morning—despite the impossibility of such a thing. We depart from her cabin at a stroll, and minutes later, the trees above are bare. A quarter hour after that, we are deep in the shadows of the Nevennes Range, crunching through a fresh layer of snow.
“This is my realm, Elias,” Shaeva says to my unspoken question. She is far less wary now, as if my use of her name has unlocked a long-buried civility. “I can travel where and how I wish when I am within its boundaries.” She nods to a break in the trees ahead. “Kauf is through there. If you wish to succeed, Elias, you must be swift. Rathana is a mere two weeks away.”
We walk to a high ridge that overlooks the long black ribbon of the River Dusk. But I hardly notice. The moment I am free of the trees I want nothing more than to turn back and lose myself among them.
The smell hits me first; it’s what I imagine the hells must smell like. Then the despair, borne upon the wind in the hair-raising cries of men and women who know nothing but torment and suffering. The cries are so unlike the peaceful whispers of the dead that I wonder how they can exist in the same world.