A Torch Against the Night

Page 117


“Not entirely,” I say. “You left the Forest. You came all the way to get me.”
“Only because you were near my lands. Leaving for more than a few days is torture. The further afield I go, the more I suffer. And the jinn, Elias—you do not understand what it is to deal with my trapped brethren.”
SHAEVA! They cry out to her now, and she turns toward them.
No! I shout the word in my head, and the ground beneath me shudders. The jinn fall silent. And I know, suddenly, what I must ask of her.
“Shaeva,” I say. “Make me your successor. Bring me back to life, the way the Nightbringer did for you.”
“You are a fool,” she whispers, unsurprised at my request. “Accept death, Elias. You would be free of want, worry, pain. I will help you pass on, and all will be quiet and peaceful. If you become Soul Catcher, your life will be one of repentance and loneliness, for the living cannot enter the Forest. The ghosts cannot abide them.”
I cross my arms. “Maybe you’re too soft on the bleeding ghosts.”
“You may not even be capable—”
“I am capable. I helped Izzi and Tristas pass through. Do this for me, Shaeva. I’ll live, save Darin, finish what I started. Then I will tend to the dead and have a chance to redeem myself in full for all that I’ve done.” I step toward her. “You’ve repented long enough,” I say. “Let me take over.”
“I would still have to teach you,” she says, “as I was taught.” A great part of her wants this, I can see it. But she is frightened.
“Do you fear death?”
“No,” she whispers. “I fear that you do not understand the burden you ask for.”
“How long have you been waiting to find someone like me?” I wheedle. I have to get back. I have to get Darin out of Kauf. “A thousand years, right? Do you really want to stick around here for a thousand more years, Shaeva? Give me this gift. Take the one I’m offering you.”
For a second, her pain and suffering, the truth of her existence for the last millennium, is writ in her expression as clearly as if she’d screamed it out. I see the moment she decides, the moment the fear is replaced by resignation.
“Hurry,” I say. “Skies know how much time has already passed in Kauf. I don’t want to get back to my body just in time for it to burn to a crisp.”
“This is old magic, Elias. It is not of jinn or man or efrit but of the earth itself. It will take you back to the moment of death. And it will hurt.”
When she takes my hands, her touch burns hotter than a Serran forge. She clenches her jaw and releases a shrill keen that shakes me to my core. Her body glows, filled with a fire that consumes her, until she is no longer Shaeva but a creature of writhing black flame. She releases my hands and spins around me so rapidly that it’s as if I’m enveloped by a cloud of darkness. Though I am a ghost, I feel my essence draining away. I fall to my knees, and her voice fills my head. A deeper voice rumbles beneath it, an ancient voice, the Waiting Place itself, taking possession of her jinn body and speaking through it.
“Son of shadow, heir of death, hear me: To rule the Waiting Place is to light the way for the weak, the weary, the fallen, and the forgotten in the darkness that follows death. You will be bound to me until another is worthy enough to release you. To leave is to forsake your duty—and I will punish you for it. Do you submit?”
“I submit.”
A vibration in the air—the taut silence of the earth before a land tremor. Then a sound as if the sky is being torn in half. Pain—ten hells, pain—the agony of a thousand deaths, a spike through my soul. Every heartbreak, every lost opportunity, every life cut short, the torment of those left to mourn—it tears through me endlessly. This is beyond pain, the pinprick heart of pain, a dying star exploding in my chest.
Long after I’m certain I can handle no more, the pain fades. I am left shaking on the Forest floor, filled with a rightness and a terror, like twin rivers of light and dark joining to become something else altogether.
“It’s done, Elias.”
Shaeva kneels beside me in her human form once more. Her face is streaked with tears.
“Why so sad, Shaeva?” I wipe her tears with a thumb, feeling an ache when I see them. “You’re not alone anymore. We’re comrades in arms now. Brother and sister.”
She does not smile. “Only until you are ready,” she says. “Go, brother. Return to the human world and finish what you have begun. But know you do not have much time. The Waiting Place will call you back. The magic is your master now, and it does not like its servants to be away for long.”
I will myself back to my body, and when I open my eyes I see Tas’s frantic face. My limbs are free of the exhaustion I’ve felt for ages.
“Elias!” Tas sobs with relief. “The fire—it is everywhere! I cannot carry Darin!”
“You don’t have to.” I still ache from the interrogations and the beatings, but with the poison gone from my blood, I understand, for the first time, how it stole away my life bit by bit until it seemed to me that I had always been a shadow of myself.
The fire blasts up the stairwell and races along the beams above, creating a wall of flames behind and ahead.
Light flares above, visible through the fire. Shouts, voices, and for the briefest moment, a familiar figure beyond the flames.
“The door, Tas!” I shout. “It’s open!” At least, I think it’s open. Tas staggers to his feet, dark eyes filled with hope. Go, Elias! I throw Darin over one shoulder, sweep the Scholar child up in my arm, and fly up the stairs, through the wall of flame, and into the light beyond.