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Page 10

Darin cries a warning, but I stride forward into the clearing, caution overcome by rage. Elias's armored form is pinned against a tree, every muscle straining against invisible bonds. He thrashes, an animal in a trap, fists clenched as the whole of his body leans toward the center of the clearing.

Shaeva kneels, black hair brushing the ground, skin waxy. Her face is unlined, but the devastation emanating from her feels ancient.

The Nightbringer, cloaked in darkness, stands above her. The sickle blade in his shadow hand glows, as if made of poison-dipped diamonds. He holds it with light fingers, but his body tenses--he means to use it.

A snarl erupts from my throat. I must do something. I must stop him. But I find I can no longer move. The magic that ensnares Elias has gripped Darin and me too.

"Nightbringer," Shaeva whispers. "Forgive my wrong. I was young, I--"

Her voice fades to a choke. The Nightbringer, silent, brushes his fingers across Shaeva's forehead like a father giving his benediction.

Then he stabs her through the heart.

Shaeva's body seizes once, her arms windmilling, her body jerking up, as if yearning toward the blade, and her mouth opens. I expect a shriek, a scream. Instead, words pour out.

One piece remains, and beware the Reaper at the Gates!

The sparrows will drown, and none will know it.

The past shall burn, and none will slow it.

The Dead will rise, and none can survive.

The Child will be bathed in blood but alive.

The Pearl will crack, the cold will enter.

The Butcher will break, and none will hold her.

The Ghost will fall, her flesh will wither.

By the Grain Moon, the King will have his answer.

By the Grain Moon, the forgotten will find their master.

Shaeva's chin falls. Her lashes flutter like a butterfly's wings, and the blade embedded in her chest drips blood that is as red as mine. Her face goes slack.

Then her body bursts into flame, a flash of blinding fire that fizzles into ashes after only seconds.

"No!" Elias shouts, two streaks of wet on either side of his face.

Do not make the Nightbringer angry, Elias, I want to scream. Do not get yourself killed.

A cloud of cinders swirls about the Nightbringer--all that is left of Shaeva. He looks up for the first time at Elias, cocks his head, and advances, dripping sickle in hand.

Distantly, I remember Elias telling me what he learned from the Soul Catcher: that the Star protects those who have touched it. The Nightbringer cannot kill Elias. But he can hurt him, and by the skies, I will not have anyone else I care about hurt.

I hurl myself forward--and bounce back. The Nightbringer ignores me, comfortable in his power. You will not hurt Elias. You will not. Some feral darkness rises within me and takes control of my body. I felt it once before, months ago when I fought the Nightbringer outside Kauf Prison. An animal cry explodes from my lips. This time when I push ahead, I get through. Darin is a half step behind, and the Nightbringer flicks his wrist. My brother freezes. But the jinn's magic has no effect on me. I leap between the Nightbringer and Elias, dagger out.

"Don't you dare touch him," I say.

The Nightbringer's sun eyes flare as he looks first at me, then at Elias, reading what is between us. I think of how he betrayed me. Monster! How close is he to setting the jinn free? Shaeva's prophecy answered the question moments ago: one piece of the Star left. Does the Nightbringer know where it is? What did Shaeva's death gain him?

But as he observes me, I remember the love that roiled within him, and the hate as well. I remember the vicious war waged between the two and the desolation left in their wake.

The Nightbringer's shoulder ripples as if he is unsettled. Can he read my thoughts? He shifts his attention over my shoulder to Elias.

"Elias Veturius." The jinn leans over me, and I cringe back, pressing against Elias's chest, caught between the two of them: my friend's pounding heart and despair at Shaeva's death, and the Nightbringer's eldritch wrath, fueled by a millennium of cruelty and suffering.

The jinn doesn't bother looking at me before he speaks. "She tasted sweet, boy," he says. "Like dew and a clear dawn."

Behind me, Elias stills and takes a steadying breath. He meets the Nightbringer's fiery stare, his face paling in shock at what he sees there. Then he growls, a sound that seems to rise out of the very earth. Shadows twist up like vines of ink beneath his skin. Every muscle in his shoulders, his chest, his arms strains until he is tearing free of his invisible bonds. He raises his hands, a shock wave bursting from his skin, knocking me on my back.

The Nightbringer sways before righting himself. "Ah," he observes. "The pup has a bite. All the better." I cannot see his face within that hood. But I hear the smile in his voice. He rises up as wind floods the clearing. "There is no joy in destroying a weak foe."

He turns his attention east, toward something far out of sight. Whispers hiss on the air, as if he's communicating with someone. Then the wind snatches at him and, as in the forest outside Kauf, he disappears. But this time, instead of silence to mark his passing, the ghosts who fled to the borders of the Waiting Place pour into the clearing, swarming me.

You, Laia, this is because of you!

Shaeva is dead--

Elias is condemned--

The jinn a breath from victory--

Because of me.

There are so many. The truth of their words breaks over me like a net of chains. I try to stand against it, but I cannot, for the spirits do not lie.

One piece remains. The Nightbringer must find only one more piece of the Star before he is able to free his kin. He is close now. Close enough that I can no longer deny it. Close enough that I must act.

The ghosts tornado around me, so angry I fear they will tear off my skin. But Elias cuts through them and lifts me to my feet.

Darin is beside me, grabbing my pack from where it has fallen, glaring at the ghosts as they ease back into the trees, barely restrained.

Before I even say the words, my brother nods. He heard what Shaeva said. He knows what we must do.

"We're going to Adisa." I say it anyway. "To stop him. To finish this."

IX: Elias

The full burden of the Waiting Place descends like a boulder dropping onto my back. The Forest is part of me, and I can feel the borders, the ghosts, the trees. It's as if a living map of the place has been imprinted on my mind.

Shaeva's absence is at the heart of that burden. I gaze at the fallen basket of herbs that she'll never add to the korma that she'll never eat in the house she'll never step foot in again.

"Elias--the ghosts--" Laia draws close. The usually mournful spirits have transformed into violent shades. I need Mauth's magic to silence them. I need to bond with him, the way Shaeva wanted me to.

But when I grasp at Mauth with my will, I feel only a trace of the magic before it fades.

"Elias?" Despite the shrieking ghosts, Laia takes my hand, her lips drawn down in concern. "I'm so sorry about Shaeva. Is she really--"

I nod. She's gone.

"It was so fast." Somehow, I am comforted by the fact that someone is as stunned as I am. "Are you--will you be--" She shakes her head. "Of course you're not all right--skies, how could you be?"

A groan from Darin pulls our attention away from each other. The ghosts circle him, darting close and whispering skies know what. Bleeding hells. I need to get Laia and Darin out of here.

"If you want to get to Adisa," I say, "the fastest way is through the Forest. You'll lose months going around."

"Right." Laia pauses and furrows her brow. "But, Elias--"

If we speak more of Shaeva, I think something inside me will break. She was here, and now she's gone, and nothing can change that. The permanence of death will always feel like a betrayal. But raging against it when my friends are in danger is the act of a fool. I must move. I must make sure Shaeva didn't die for nothing.

> Laia is still speaking when I take Darin's hand and begin to windwalk. She goes quiet as the Forest fades past us. She squeezes my hand, and I know that she understands my silence.

I cannot travel with Shaeva's swiftness, but we reach one of the bridges over the River Dusk after only a quarter hour, and seconds later, we're beyond it. I angle northeast, and as we move through the trees, Laia peeks at me from beneath the wing of hair that has fallen over her eye. I want to speak to her. Damn the Nightbringer, I want to say. I don't care what he said. I only care that you are all right.

"We'll be there soon," I begin, before another voice speaks, a hateful chorus that is instantly recognizable.

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