I was born twice, once of hope and once of horror—once of the mortal world and once of Elphame. The second time, the pain was mine alone to bear, and I came out twisted and broken, like the other creatures haunting these lands. Like everything else worth having in Elphame, survival wasn’t mine to keep. I had merely chosen to die on a different day. Each day between now and then, when the end finally came with my name, would be a struggle for the next. The day I put on these wings was the last day I didn’t hurt. I’d known it wouldn’t be easy, but I’d been foolish enough to think it wouldn’t be this bloody hard. That was my fate, as it was for each Crow before me—to be Taken from my home and brought into this land to suffer, to crave a home that I was not sure even existed anymore, one where my heart was whole, my body loved and my soul left untarnished and unbroken.
I had been told to accept who I was, who I had become—a Crow, a Wildling, a Soul-Eater, told to face the horror of it all or I’d never heal from it. But I wasn’t born in the pits of hell like the rest of this new world. I was dragged through it, and it was all too much to carry on a broken back and with a soggy soul. I couldn’t put my pieces back together when I didn’t understand how I had gotten so broken and why I had been fated with this life. It was in our nature—mortals—to question every intricacy of life, to wonder, to grieve over the baggage we carried. And the person I had grown to count on, Solas, had no answers for me. He hid more within his dark soul than I dared to understand. He was the only one yet to remove the mask he’d carefully constructed in the Golden Court. He still wore his every day, and I wondered if he had ever spent a day without it. Even in all of his secrets and lies, I envied his ability to choose his next step with such ease and not crumble under the weight of each decision. But I suppose one did not become a king or maintain that throne with an iron fist by worrying over the small stuff, like the condition of his soul or anyone else’s.
Like a game of chess, I played back every move that brought me into my living nightmare. From the moment I had met Nix, then Faolan, to me now sitting in the forest on the edge of Solas’ territory in the Dark Court, I relived each memory in hopes I had missed a clue to my freedom. Solas had said I was free—but I wasn’t, not really. I wasn’t free from Elphame, free to go back to Whitwick. No matter what he said or what I tried to convince myself of, I was no freer with Solas than I had been before him. I merely sat in a different cage with enough windows to almost believe I was still wild. Deep inside, beyond the prison with no bars, my Malice, my magick, threw itself against my ribs like a feral, caged animal. She craved release, but I couldn’t risk it. I knew, with one misstep, the windows on my cage would be shuttered. I could see it in Solas’ eyes when I would allow myself the courage to look. He, like me, sat on the edge of one wrong move, one bad decision, one shove over the edge. I had walked through hell, but my soul knew I was still there, and nothing I could do could change it.
Zephyr’s shadows slinked around my ankles and darted between the grass and the woods. They slid along the earth as if no one owned them. It didn’t matter how far they ventured. I could hear them in the back of my mind, like a soft melody playing in the background from miles away. We whispered our secrets and dissected our memories, always coming full circle to death. Everything in Elphame was solved in death. Countless lives were exploited until they couldn’t beat their own hearts. For everything beautiful, there were hundreds of horrors. Every smile hid an ocean of tears. Every laugh had covered screams by the dozens. This place, Elphame, was a beautiful forest in the middle of hell. And the Dark Courts were just a roomier prison than my last. And like my previous one, I’d wreak havoc until I was let out.
I inched through the trees and motioned to the shadows, to the small wood and moss-built hut tucked into the thick underbrush, not twenty feet in front of me. “Ready?”
“We are, but are you?” the shadows replied.
I pulled my dagger from my pants and nodded. “He is the last in the Dark Courts to answer for what they did in Whitwick.”
“Solas has asked you to stop hunting his people, that he would deal with it. He will not be happy.”
“Does it look like I care what he has to say? He said he’d deal with it but hasn’t. So, I will—and will do it in whatever manner I see fit,” I answered. “They came to my home and killed my people.”
“Garon did not kill your people.”
“Yes, he did. He pushed a child in front of a horse to be trampled on the day of my Taking. He may not have wrung the child’s life from his body, but he killed the boy, just the same.” I groaned and paused against the tree. “Listen… If you don’t want to help me, go home.”
“We said we would, so we will. We just do not understand your need for vengeance. It consumes your humanity, which is the only thing that keeps you separate from the rest of Elphame.”
“You don’t get it. None of you do. Fae hunted us, and someone has to pay for it. It can’t always be me who pays for what Fae did. Nix and I have spent weeks hunting them all down. If I have to suffer in Elphame, they can damn well suffer, too.” I steadied myself once again. “Those who had no choice but to come, I left them with a pulse. I understand what it’s like to be forced or have no choice. But those who came for no other reason than to revel in the death of children don’t get to walk away without paying for it. Nothing is free, and this is their payment.”
“We are glad this is the last. It is uncomfortable to watch,” the shadows finally replied.
They didn’t understand my need to punish those who tormented my people, who freely killed without penalty. We would always be lowly mortals if no one showed them any different. And I didn’t care what Solas said. His people did not get to kill children and not suffer for it.
“Go grab him.” I pointed my knife toward Garon’s house. Garon was no bigger than I was and much less powerful. I had stalked him for days for this very moment. He knew I was there, and I knew he was terrified, just like the others had been. None of them liked the tables being turned, of finding themselves on the receiving end, hunted like animals.
With a blast of shadow, they were gone and ate up the ground like splashed ink, between Garon’s hut and where I stood, waiting. I knew Solas wouldn’t be pleased. But I didn’t care, not as much as I should have. Zephyr wouldn’t say a single thing about it because he knew it would be pointless to argue with me. When I first started hunting my enemies, Zephyr warned me that it wouldn’t help extinguish the fire that burned in my soul, but he understood my need to snuff out what haunted my dreams. His understanding was the only reason the shadows had been allowed to help me. If Zephyr had disagreed, he’d have called them home, and I’d be out here alone. But I’d still be out here, and I’d still do what I needed to do. The shadows saved time, not lives.
Garon was spat onto the ground, half-dressed. He was a troll of a man, younger than most other trolls I had seen. His skin held a tint of green, like his hair, and not a single scar marred his body like they did mine. He jumped to his feet and spun in a circle, his green eyes widening when they landed on me. He took one step back, but the shadows were a black wall that gave him no space. He darted his eyes around as the wheels in his mind probably looked for a way out.
“Hello, Garon.” I smiled. “I wouldn’t run if I were you. You won’t like what will happen if you force me to chase you down.”
“Perdita,” he replied. His voice was softer than I thought it would be. In my dreams, he had sounded monstrous, deep, rumbling. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I appreciate a man who gets straight to the point. I remember you, the day of my Taking,” I answered, and his eyes grew wider. “The Dark Courts were forbidden to cross into Whitwick. They are not allowed to partake in the Taking of a Crow. Why, oh why, were you in the mortal realm, wreaking havoc?”
“Many of us went.”
I nodded. “This is true, but those who went were forced. You went because you wanted to go.”
“To refuse the call is to forfeit your life.”
I rolled his words over in my mind. “I’ll tell you what, Garon. I’ll give you the same chance I gave everyone else I hunted down. You answer my questions, and I won’t make you suffer.”
He lifted his hands as if I would care he was unarmed. “I request a trial. You cannot kill me simply because I crossed the Gate. That decision is for the throne to make, not you.”
“I’m not going to kill you for breaking Dark Court law,” I answered. “But I’m going to make you suffer for taking the lives of my people. Whether you broke your laws to do it or not has nothing to do with me.”
“I am Fae. My laws protect me. I request a trial.”
“Alas, I am mortal, and my laws don’t give a shit about you.” I cleared the space between us and held my blade over his stomach. “You can choose your fate, unlike the choice given to me or my people. Answer my questions or suffer. Trust me when I tell you, your suffering will help me sleep better tonight.”
He met my eyes and saw the truth. “What questions do you have of me?”
“You said that to refuse the call is to forfeit your life. Who made you go and why?”
He shook his head. “We’re not allowed to talk about Her.”
“She is blood and bones,” I whispered, and he nodded. “Very well, if you can’t talk about Her, I guess I’ve no more questions for you.”
“Wait, wait…” His voice raised in panic. “I have other information you may like.”
“You must give me your oath that you won’t kill me,” he replied.
“I give you my oath. I won’t kill you,” I replied.
“You coming here wasn’t a mistake.”
“This isn’t news to me, little troll.”
“It should be. Haven’t you ever wondered why only Wildlings have been called into Elphame? For decades, only Wilds have become Crows.” His question piqued my curiosity. “The Caller of Crows has been looking for another Soul-Eater. With only one Soul-Eater in Elphame who is unbendable to her will, She calls on Wildlings in hopes of finding another.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Whenever we went to Whitwick, we were never allowed to harm a Wildling. We were told if we felt another Soul-Eater in Whitwick, we were to steal them back into Elphame, no matter the cost.”
“And bring them to Her?” I asked, and he nodded. “Have you ever felt one there?”
“There is only one left, and he is already here. We’ve never felt another like him outside of Elphame,” he answered. “Of all the Crows to come, you are who She hates the most.”
I smiled. My secret was still safe. “Why does She hate me?”
His eyes grew wide as if I should have already known. “Because, Perdita, Solas stood against Her for you. You closed the Gate, and he let you live.”
“Why should he kill me for that?”
He swallowed hard. “Wouldn’t you wish to kill that which controls Solas?”
“I’m currently in that same boat, controlled by another,” I replied. “That was worth your life, Garon.”
My Malice flowed from me in a hot jerk and coated his body with my hate. I ate his energy in massive pulls and rolled his mind in my hands like a pearl. I pulled every drop of his magick from his soul and fought not to let him fall to the ground, a shriveled husk.
“But you gave me your oath.” He groaned.
“I said I wouldn’t take your life. I won’t be the one to kill you. You've earned your life if you can make it back from the Sluagh. But remember this day, little troll, because it was the day I gave you a chance when you gave my people none. The next time I come, it will be for your life, and I won’t give you the break I’m giving you now.”
I motioned for the shadows, who picked his limp body up off the ground. They’d dump him in the caves of the Sluagh. If he made it out of there in one piece, without his magick, he’d have earned another day in a land that made us work for each and every one of them. And if he died, I’d feel nothing for his passing. He got the same chance I had been given when I came here—make it or die trying.
At that moment, I should have felt something more than satisfaction. It should have bothered me to punish the troll, but it didn’t. It felt like crossing the last thing off a list. Like the others, Garon had come for my people and didn’t expect me to come knocking. But now they’d know nothing was free, no matter what side of the Gate you stood on. I didn’t kill any of them, but they certainly thought they’d die at my hands, just as my people thought they’d die at theirs. In my mind, we were almost even. Almost.
Garon, and those before him, were what it took for me to feel I wouldn’t be hunted by the fog in my dreams. Those I could hunt down, I did, and I felt the balance restored as I exacted my revenge. I walked away and carried on as if I hadn’t just terrorized a man, and it reminded me of how Solas and Zephyr could hold a conversation while in the middle of battle. To be honest, Garon, dead or alive, wasn’t worth the mourning or guilt. The day he killed a child was the day he’d forfeited his own. So, I strolled through the forest and left whatever would become of him behind me, where it belonged. When the shadows returned, we didn’t speak another word of what I had done. It was over. And I felt a little less broken because of it.
“Do you know why She is looking for another Finis?” I asked the shadows.
“Perhaps, if She were to get one at a young age, She could groom them into a shadow of herself. But outside of controlling Elphame with one, there is no other reason to risk trying to control a Soul-Eater,” they replied. “She would be a fool to even try. Your kind is not easily controlled.”
“Curious how Solas ended up with two of us,” I answered and left it in the back of my mind to pick at later.
“He’s not foolish enough to believe he could control either you or Zephyr.”
“Yet, he tries.”
“He’ll die before that happens,” they replied.
I rolled a shadow over my knuckles and released it back into its murky brethren, only to replace it with a new one. I practiced daily how to use my Finis’ abilities without leaving a trail of soulless bodies behind me. Calling a soul without eating it or wanting to eat it would take decades to learn, if ever. The desire to keep pulling would never go away, or so Zephyr, the only other Soul-Eater alive, had informed me. With Garon, I felt that hunger to keep going. For now, I’d use souls already trapped, shadows, practice or I’d risk eating half of Elphame. Eating this world was much more appealing than leaving it whole. If all were gone, nothing but a whisper left in the shadows, I’d finally have peace. The want to end it all edged on a demand from my soul. What a sweet ending that would be.
Nix’s voice drew me out of my twisted thoughts—a dark place my mind always went to when I was alone and there was no one to keep it at bay. I spent my days wandering, looking for a way back home, and when I couldn’t find it, I looked for anything untainted to take my thoughts away from where I was. But the darkness was always there and always willing to hold my mind with ease. It was a sad life when the only peace was found in the dark, when the only ending in sight carried with it the destruction of all.
“I see you’ve paid a visit to Garon,” Nix piped up from my side. “You smell like troll turd.”
“Indeed. It was short and sweet. Unlike the others, I didn’t have to chase the troll across half of Elphame. He was dumped in Sluagh territory, and I think he’ll fare a little better than the last one I dumped there,” I answered.
“My money is on the Sluagh.”
I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. A broken heart made some things funnier than they should be. “He had a few interesting things to say, but nothing different than what the others already said.”
“I’ve asked around, but no one knows why another Soul-Eater is needed. Some are speculating that it is to repopulate the Finis line.”
I cringed. “Zephyr is family. That’s just—”
“Gross,” Nix finished my sentence. “No one wants to talk about it, given that mentioning Zephyr’s name terrifies everyone. Your guess is as good as mine as to the why of it. Maybe it’s for power or control—of what or why, I don’t know. But no one in Elphame gets out of bed for less than that.”
“I don’t blame others for not wanting to talk about Zephyr. I wouldn’t want to,” I replied. “Did you hear anything else? Any news on the horn I’ve heard? That blasted thing hasn’t shut up in weeks.”
Just weeks after I had closed the Gate, the world popped like a bubble in my mind, and I woke to the blaring sound of a horn. Everything had slowed, and the wind screeched in my ears, but only for a moment. It was a long enough stretch of time for me to feel the edge of warning on the whine still hanging in the air. Of what I was being warned, I was yet to know. Sounds became sharp as a knife, yet dull and lifeless, as if the sound ate the energy around it and spit out something made of broken glass. Birds and insects fell silent, leaving only the sound of a horn in the distance. The world shimmered in my view, like looking out from inside the Gate. Since then, everything felt not quite right, off in some way, tilted slightly, just enough for me to notice. Each breath was like eating soupy air, thick and full, and burned my throat. The alarm had clawed at the back of my brain until I had told Nix. And still, the unease wouldn’t leave entirely. It stained the air like rotting fruit. Every sound, every word, echoed with a whisper of a horn.
“I’ve heard nothing,” he answered. “People always forget to look down, so I hear things not meant for my ears, but no one has mentioned it. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to find out?”
“Since the war, no one speaks openly with me anymore, if at all. I don’t think it would matter. It doesn’t look like anyone else is hearing it. No one else responds to it.” I rubbed the center of my chest. I released a long breath, trying to will the dread to leave. “It feels like fate is following me around, deciding when to brain me with a rock. Something is coming, and we better find it before it finds us.”
“I’ve poked around, listened in, but there’s no mention of any horn or a feeling of unease aside from the usual anxiety all of us feel in Elphame.”
“Keep your ears open. Others may be holding their cards close to their chest, scared of what may happen if they were to show them.”
“This is why I left this place, willingly. The games we play are tiresome. More of us would live if we weren’t so ready to die in secret.”
“It wouldn’t be Elphame if we worked together,” I replied dryly. But I couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to save themselves over others. I had been there before, choosing between my life and that of others—and had chosen myself.
We walked through my favorite part of the forest, a place where small white flowers bloomed. They reminded me of snowdrops back home that burst through the frost to become the first beauty of the spring season. They reminded me that it didn’t matter how harsh the conditions were. Beauty could still be found if I looked hard enough for it. Some days, I really had to dig for it. On other days, I stomped them out and cursed their beauty.
“Do you trust me, Perdi?” Nix asked.
“Of course.” I smiled and felt that truth all the way to my soul. “I trust no one more than you.”
“I feel the same.” He looked up with a hearty smile. He was not my blood, but he was the only family I had brought from Whitwick Gates, my home. “Perdi, I need you to come with me and ask no questions. Today, I need your trust more than ever.”
“Whenever anyone asks for blind trust, it’s either going to hurt or it’s going to make me mad. Which one will it be?”
“Both. Yeah, probably both.” His smile vanished.
Both it would be.
I frowned for a moment but followed him anyway. I was curious, not fearful. Of all the things that Nix was, the reason for my death would not be one of them.