The wind wails like an angry spirit desperate for release. “We can shelter here for now.” Keenan drops his own pack. “The storm is too bad for us to find another camp anyway.”
“But we have to do something,” I say. “We don’t know if Elias went in, if he got Darin out, if Darin is alive—”
Keenan takes my shoulders. “We made it here, Laia. We made it to Kauf. As soon as the storm blows over, we’ll find out what happened. We’ll find Elias and—”
“No,” a voice speaks from the entrance to the cave. “You won’t. Because he’s not here.”
My heart plunges, and I clutch the hilt of my dagger. But when I see the three masked figures standing at the entrance of the cave, I know it will do me little good.
One of the figures steps forward, a half head taller than me, her mask a quicksilver glimmer beneath her furred hood.
“Laia of Serra,” Helene Aquilla says. If the storm outside had a voice, it would be hers, gelid, deathly, and utterly unfeeling.
Darin is alive. He’s in a cell yards from me.
And he’s being tortured. Into insanity.
“I need to find a way into that cell,” I muse out loud. Which means I need schedules for guard shifts and interrogations. I need keys for my manacles and Darin’s door. Drusius runs this part of the interrogation block; he holds the keys. But he never gets close enough for me to get a good hold on him.
No key. Pins to pick the locks, then. I’d need two—
“I can help you.” Tas’s quiet voice cuts into my scheming. “And—there are others, Elias. The Scholars in the pits have a rebel movement. The Skiritae—dozens of them.”
Tas’s words take a long moment to sink in, but once they do, I stare at him, aghast.
“The Warden would skin you—and anyone who helped you. Absolutely not.”
Tas shies like a struck animal at my vehemence. “You—you said that my fear gives him power. If I help you …”
Ten hells. I have enough death on my hands without adding a child to the list.
“Thank you.” I meet his gaze squarely. “For telling me about the Artist. But I don’t need your help.”
Tas gathers up his things and slips toward the door. He pauses there for a moment, looking back at me. “Elias—”
“So many have suffered,” I say to him, “because of me. No more. Please go. If the guards hear you and me talking, you’ll be punished.”
After he leaves, I stagger to my feet, jerking at the lancing pain in my hands and feet. I force myself to pace, a once thoughtless movement that has, in the absence of the Tellis, transformed into a feat of near-impossible proportions.
A dozen ideas race through my head, each more outlandish than the last. Every single one requires the help of at least one other person.
The boy, a practical voice inside says. The boy can help you.
Might as well kill him myself, then, I hiss back at that voice. It would be a faster death, at least.
I must do this alone. I only need time. But time is one of the many things I just don’t have. Only an hour after Tas leaves, and with no solution in sight, my head spins and my body jerks. Damn it, not now. But all my cursing and stern words to myself are for nothing. The seizure drops me—first to my knees and then straight into the Waiting Place.
“I should just build a bleeding house here,” I mutter as I pick myself up from the snow-covered ground. “Maybe get a few chickens. Plant a garden.”
Izzi peers at me from behind a tree, a wasted version of herself. My heart aches at the sight of her. “I—I hoped you’d come back.”
I look around for Shaeva, wondering why she hasn’t helped Izzi move on. When I grasp my friend’s hands, she looks down in surprise at my warmth.
“You’re alive,” she says dully. “One of the other spirits told me. A Mask. He said that you walk the worlds of the living and the dead. But I didn’t believe him.”
“I’m not dead yet,” I say. “But it won’t be long now. How did you …” Is it indelicate to ask a ghost how they died? I am about to apologize, but Izzi shrugs.
“Martial raid,” she says. “A month after you left. One second I was trying to save Gibran. The next I was here and that woman was standing in front of me … the Soul Catcher, welcoming me to the realm of ghosts.”
“What of the others?”
“Alive,” Izzi says. “I’m not sure how I know, but I’m certain of it.”
“I’m sorry,” I say to her. “If I had been there, maybe I could have—”
“Stop.” Izzi’s eyes flash. “You always think everyone is your responsibility, Elias. But we’re not. We’re our own people, and we deserve to make our own decisions.” Her voice trembles with an uncharacteristic anger. “I didn’t die because of you. I died because I wanted to save someone else. Don’t you dare take that away from me.”
Immediately after she is done speaking, her wrath dissipates. She looks stunned.
“I’m sorry,” she squeaks. “This place—it gets inside you. I don’t feel right, Elias. These other ghosts—all they do is cry and wail and—” Her eye goes dark, and she spins around, snarling at the trees.
“Don’t apologize.” Something is holding her back, making her stay here, making her suffer. I feel an almost uncontrollable need to help her. “You … can’t move on?”