"Damn you!" It is half snarl, half cry. Gibran makes Afya laugh like no one else. He loves with his whole heart--his family and his friends and his many lovers. And he's young--too young for such a horrific fate. "Get out of him," I bellow. "Get out! Get--" On my fifth blow, Gibran finally loses consciousness. The ghost oozes out of him, slumped, as if exhausted, and disappears. Back to the Waiting Place, I hope.
"Gib!" Afya returns from where she's retreated, dropping the pan. "Did it kill him? What the hells happened? Where did that thing come from?"
"It escaped the Waiting Place." If Gibran dies, it will be me who killed him by failing to pass the ghosts on. Don't die, Gibran. Please don't die. "Are there others?"
Afya shakes her head, but I can't be sure until I check the whole camp myself. I'm certain I saw more than one ghost escape.
"How did they escape?" Afya asks. "What happened?"
"I failed." I look into my friend's eyes. I make myself do it, because it's true and she deserves to know. I think she will be angry, but she just grabs my shoulder and squeezes.
"I have to figure out if there are any more." I shake her off. Her understanding is a gift I don't deserve. "Keep everyone near the river--inside it, if they're able. Ghosts hate water."
"Help me get him up," Afya says, and when I've slung Gibran's arm around her neck, she drags him away. But she has only gone a few dozen yards when she freezes. Her body goes stiff, like a bow string yanked taut, then slack as wet dough. Gibran falls to the ground, and she takes a deep, wolflike sniff of the air. She turns toward me, eyes white as snow.
Afya moves at me with impossible speed. The contrast between the familiarity of her face and form and the violence of her actions raises a chill along my spine. She has her frying pan in her hand, and I know that if she hits me with that thing, Soul Catcher or not, I'm going to have one hell of a headache. She swings it at me clumsily, and I catch her wrist, squeezing hard enough to make a normal woman drop the pan.
But she only growls at me, a guttural moan that chills my blood.
Think, Elias, think. Battle can't have been the only thing you learned at Blackcliff.
A little girl, hiding until now, rushes past us trying to escape. Like an animal sensing weaker prey, Afya rips away from me and bounds after the girl. The child pumps her small legs, but she isn't fast enough. When Afya leaps upon her, the girl's neck cracks, and the thing that has possessed my friend grunts triumphantly. I howl in rage.
Deep in the Forest, the jinn laugh. I ignore them, drawing on the Mask deep within, refusing to allow myself to get distracted.
No human could hear the jinn, but the spirit within Afya stops and tilts its head, listening. I use her inattention to send a throwing knife straight at her face. The hilt hits her square in the forehead. Her eyes roll back, and she thuds to the dirt. For the moment, I push my concern for Afya aside and step over her prone body, scanning the area around me for more ghosts.
And suddenly, I feel a flicker of magic within me. The little magic I received when vowing myself as Soul Catcher responds to something greater. Thin tendrils of darkness coil like smoke out of the Waiting Place toward me. Mauth!
For a moment, Mauth's magic fills me. The ghost that oozes out of Afya is no match for this power, and I wrap the magic around the spirit to bind it and then fling it back to the Waiting Place. I spot the last ghost a hundred yards away, lurking inside the body of a young woman attacking her family. I whip the magic out like a shepherd's crook and hook the ghost. It howls in rage, but I yank it out of the girl's body and send it flying back to the Forest.
Skies, the power--the ease of it. It's like I was born to it. I want to crow, I am so happy. Finally--finally--the magic has come to me.
Afya moans, and I drop beside her. Already, a goose egg rises on her head, but she's not seriously hurt, not like Gibran. I reach for her, thinking to carry her to her Tribe, but the moment I do so, the power that suffused me dissipates.
"What--no--" I grasp for it with my hands, but it leaves me, dark tendrils disappearing back into the Forest. I feel strangely desolate, as if my own strength has left me. The only trace of the magic is a tug from Mauth--that dark insistence that's always there when I leave the Waiting Place.
Aubarit appears behind me, her hand at her mouth when she sees Afya. "The Zaldara--her brother--"
"I'm sorry, Fakira," I say. "It was my fault the ghosts escaped."
Another tug at my gut from Mauth. This one stops me in my tracks. It feels different from before. Not impatient--urgent.
Jinn laughter fills my ears, and the sound is edged in vengeance and flame. Do you smell anything, Elias Veturius? Smoke, perhaps?
What are they up to? The jinn cannot escape their imprisonment in the grove--that, at least, I can be sure of. The magic of the Star has locked them there, and their only power is their voice. Voices can be ignored.
And voices can be used. Come home, Elias. See what awaits.
Shaeva's cabin. My sanctuary. My safety. Sleep in the cottage. They cannot hurt you there.
I fly to the trees without an explanation to Aubarit. The second I'm through the border I sense interlopers--many of them, far to the north. It's the same presence I felt for weeks lurking around the edges of the Forest. In the brief time that they are in the Forest, I see them in my mind's eye. Larger than ghuls or wights, but smaller than wraiths. Efrits.
The jinn must have warned them, for they flee the Waiting Place. Even if I windwalk, they are too far away--I will never catch them.
Long before I reach the clearing, I know. Before I smell the smoke, see the dying flames, before I walk past the spot Shaeva died and the place where I was named Soul Catcher, I know.
Still, I do not believe until the glowing embers of Shaeva's cabin are burning through my boots. The efrits did not just set it alight; they broke the beams and razed the garden. They destroyed it--and the magic it was made with. My sanctuary--my home--is gone, and I will never get it back.
And all the while, the jinn laugh.
XXII: The Blood Shrike
Grimarr and his men attack the next night at sundown, just after Avitas and I return to Navium. Having destroyed much of the Southwest Quarter, they aim now for the Southeast. The bombardment is swift and merciless, and by the time the sun has faded, the Quarter is hotter than a pyre. Drums echo from all corners of the city, ordering evacuations. The ballistae on the watchtowers sing, and the Commandant has troops amassing near the beaches in case of a land invasion, but other than that, we do not counter the Karkauns.
I know the Commandant will have me blocked from entering the Island. She'll have a phalanx of guards around it. The very thought of it enrages me. You could fight her. You could enlist the Black Guard and lay a trail of bloody havoc.
But skies know that if Grimarr takes the city, Navium will need every soldier it can get.
I make for the Southeast Quarter with Harper, Dex, Janus Atrius, and a handful of other Black Guards at my back. The shouts and screams of men and women bring my attention back to what is before me: utter devastation. High buildings have been reduced to rubble and ash, as terrified Plebeians try desperately to escape the Quarter. Many are injured, and though there are some soldiers giving the evacuees orders, no one appears to know where the hells the Plebeians are supposed to go.
Hope is stronger than fear. It is stronger than hate. The sentiment rings through my head. Then Livia's words: I am thankful every day for the Plebeians. Their support of both the Emperor and myself is a comfort during this trying time.
And Quin's: She cares about one thing: power. How can I take it away from her?
A tenuous plan forms in my head. "Dex, open the Black Guard barracks. Get out the word that the Plebeians should take shelter there. Gens Aquilla has a manor north of here. It's a half hour walk, at most. Order the caretaker to clear out the lower levels of the house and provide food, drink, and a place to sleep. We'll be using it as an infirmary."
"Gens Atria has a house close to the Aquilla manor." Dex looks to his uncle, who nods.
"I'll give the order to have it opened," Janus says.
"Take the men." I gesture to the other Black Guards. "Get physicians to both manors. Find medical supplies from the outer districts. And make sure every single person, physician or patient, knows that they are there by order of the Blood Shrike."
After Dex and Janus leave with the men, I turn to Harper.
"Get me information on the assets of every Pater who was at the Island the day we arrived," I say. "Every ship. Every last scrap of lace or drop of rum or whatever the hells they trade in. I want to know how those Paters make their money. And get eyes in the homes of Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius. Argus's wife was spotted at the dressmaker's spending obscene amounts of money two nights ago. I want to know why she wasn't in mourning with the rest of the family."
While Dex immediately took to horse, Harper merely shifts on his saddle. What in the bleeding skies is wrong with him?
"Did you not hear me? Go."