“Why do you fear him?” I ask. “If you’re both jinn?”
“His power is a hundred times my own,” she says. “Some jinn can ride the winds or disappear. Others can manipulate minds, bodies, the weather. But the Nightbringer—he possesses all of these powers. More. He was our teacher, our father, our leader, our king. But …” She looks away. “I betrayed him. I betrayed our people. When he learned of it—skies, in centuries of life, I have never known fear like that.”
“What happened?” I ask softly. “How did you betray—”
A snarl ripples through the air from the grove. Ssshhhaeva …
“Elias,” she says, anguished. “I—”
Shaeva! The snarl is a whipcrack, and Shaeva jumps. “You’ve upset them. Go!”
I back away from her, and the spirits jostle and teem around me. One separates from the rest, small and wide-eyed, her eyepatch still part of her, even in death.
“Izzi?” I say in horror. “What—”
“Begone!” Shaeva shoves me, knocking me back into burning, painful consciousness.
My chains are loose, and I’m curled on the floor, aching and freezing. I feel a fluttering on my arms, and a pair of large, dark eyes regards me, wide and worried. The Scholar boy.
“The Warden ordered the soldiers to loosen the chains so I could clean your wounds, Elias,” Tas whispers. “You must stop thrashing.”
Gingerly, I sit up. Izzi. It was her. I’m certain of it. But she can’t be dead. What happened to the caravan? To Laia? Afya? For once, I want another seizure to take me. I want answers.
“Nightmares, Elias?” Tas’s voice is soft, and at my nod, his brow furrows.
“I also have bad dreams.” His gaze skitters briefly to mine before breaking away.
I don’t doubt it. The Commandant manifests in my memory, standing outside my jail cell months ago, just before I was set to be beheaded. She caught me in the middle of a nightmare. I have them too, she said.
And now, miles and months from that day, I find that a Scholar child condemned to Kauf Prison is no different. So disturbing that the three of us should be linked by this one experience: the monsters crawling through our heads. All the darkness and evil that others perpetrate upon us, all the things we cannot control because we are too young to stop them—they have all stayed with us through the years, waiting in the wings for us to sink to our lowest. Then they leap, ghuls on a dying victim.
The Commandant, I know, is consumed by the darkness. Whatever her nightmares were, she has made herself a thousand times worse.
“Don’t let the fear take you, Tas,” I say. “You’re as strong as any Mask as long as you don’t let it control you. As long as you fight.”
From the hallway, I hear that familiar cry, the same one I’ve heard since I was thrown into this cell. It starts as a moan before disintegrating into sobs.
“He is young.” Tas nods in the direction of the tormented prisoner. “The Warden spends much of his time with him.”
Poor bastard. No wonder he sounds mad half the time.
Tas pours spirits onto my wounded fingernails, and they burn like the hells. I stifle a groan.
“The soldiers,” Tas says. “They have a name for the prisoner.”
“The Screamer?” I mutter through gritted teeth.
My eyes snap to Tas’s, the pain forgotten.
“Why,” I ask quietly, “do they call him that?”
“I have never seen anything like it.” Tas looks away, unnerved. “Even with blood as his ink, the pictures he draws on the walls—they are so real, I thought they’d—they’d come to life.”
Bleeding, burning hells. It can’t be. The legionnaire in the solitary block said he was dead. And I believed him, fool that I am. I let myself forget about Darin.
“Why are you telling me this?” A sudden, horrible suspicion grips me. Is Tas a spy? “Does the Warden know? Did he put you put to it?”
Tas shakes his head rapidly. “No—please listen.” He glances at my fist, which, I realized, is clenched. I feel sick that this child would think I’d strike him, and I unfurl it.
“Even here, the soldiers speak of the hunt for the Empire’s greatest traitor. And they speak of the girl you travel with: Laia of Serra. And—and the Artist … sometimes in his nightmares, he speaks too.”
“What does he say?”
“Her name,” Tas whispers. “Laia. He cries out her name—and he tells her to run.”
The voices on the wind wrap around me, sending jolts of unease down to my core. Kauf Prison, still two miles distant, makes its presence known through the pain of its inmates.
“About bleeding time.” Faris, waiting at the supply outpost outside the valley, emerges from within. He pulls his fur-lined cloak close, gritting his teeth at the freezing wind. “I’ve been here three days, Shrike.”
“There was flooding in the Argent Hills.” A trip that should have taken seven days instead took more than a fortnight. Rathana is little more than a week away. No bleeding time. I hope my trust in the Cook was not misplaced.
“The soldiers at the garrison there insisted we go around,” I explain to Faris. “Ten hells of a delay.”
Faris takes the reins of my horse as I swing down. “Strange,” he said. “The Hills were blocked off on the east side too, but they told me mudslide.”