A clump of shadows is gathered at the foot of the door, black as spilled ink.
The shadows take shape, eyes glinting, and I begin to sweat. Why here? Why now? How can creatures of my own mind not be controllable by me? Why can I not will them away?
“Laia.” The shadows rise, morphing into a manlike shape. They take on form and color, and the voice is as familiar and true as if my brother is standing in front of me.
“Why did you leave me, Laia?”
“Darin?” I forget that this is a hallucination, that I’m in a Martial forge with a murderous-looking blacksmith yards away.
The simulacrum tilts its head, just like Darin used to. “They’re hurting me, Laia.”
It’s not Darin. My mind is slipping. This is guilt, fear. The voice changes, twisting and layering as if there are three Darins all talking at once. The light in the fake-Darin’s eyes goes out as quickly as a sun in a storm, and his irises darken into black pits, as if his entire body is filled with shadow.
“I won’t survive it, Laia. It hurts.”
The simulacrum’s hand shoots out to grab my arm, and a bone-deep cold jolts through me. I scream before I can stop myself, and a second later, the creature’s hand drops away. I feel a presence behind me and turn to find Spiro Teluman wielding the most beautiful scim I’ve ever seen. He pushes me casually to the side, holding the scim to the simulacrum.
As if he can see the creatures. As if he can hear them.
“Begone,” he says.
The simulacrum swells, titters, and then falls into a pile of laughing shadows, their cackles falling against my ears like slivers of ice.
“We have the boy now. Our brothers gnaw at his soul. Soon he will be mad and ripe. Then we shall feast.”
Spiro brings the scim down. The shadows scream, and the sound is like nails on wood. They squeeze under the door, a mass of rats escaping a flood.
Seconds later, they’re gone.
“You—you can see them,” I say. “I thought they were all in my head. I thought I was going mad.”
“They’re called ghuls,” Teluman says.
“But...” Seventeen years of Scholar pragmatism protest the existence of creatures that are supposed to be nothing but legend. “But ghuls aren’t real.”
“They are as real as you or I. They left our world for a time. But they’ve returned. Not everyone can see them. They feed off sorrow and sadness and the stink of blood.” He looks around his forge. “They like this place.”
His pale green eyes meet mine, careful and wary. “I’ve changed my mind. Tell the Commandant I’ll consider her request. Tell her to send me some specs. Tell her to send them with you.”
My mind whirls with questions when I leave the smithy. Why did Darin draw Teluman’s shop? How did he get in? Why can Teluman see the ghuls? Did he see the shadow-Darin too? Is Darin dying? If ghuls are real, then are jinn real too?
When I arrive back at Blackcliff, I attack my tasks with a single-minded focus, losing myself in the polishing of floors and scrubbing of baths so that I might escape the cyclone of thoughts in my head.
By late evening, the Commandant still has not returned. I head to the kitchen smelling of polish, my head aching with the indecipherable echo of Blackcliff’s drums, which have been pounding all day.
Izzi risks a glance in my direction while she folds a stack of towels. When I smile, she offers a tentative twitch of her lips in return. Cook wipes down the counters for the night, ignoring me, as usual. I think back to Keenan’s advice: to gossip, to keep myself busy. Quietly, I take up a basket of mending and sit at the worktable. As I watch Cook and Izzi, I suddenly wonder if they are related. They tilt their heads in the same way, they are both small and fair-haired. And there’s a quiet companionship between them that makes my heart ache for Nan.
Eventually, Cook turns in for the night, and silence fills the kitchen.
Somewhere in the city, my brother suffers in a Martial prison. You have to get information, Laia. You have to get the Resistance something. Get Izzi to talk.
“The legionnaires were in an uproar outside,” I say without looking up from my mending. Izzi makes a polite sound.
“And the students too. I wonder why.” When she doesn’t respond, I shift my sitting position, and she glances over her shoulder at me.
“It’s the Trials.” She stops her folding for a moment. “The Farrar brothers came back this morning. Aquilla and Veturius barely made it on time. They’d have been killed if they’d showed up even seconds later.”
This is the most she’s said to me at once, and I have to remind myself not to stare. “How do you know all this?” I ask.
“The entire school’s talking about it.” Izzi lowers her voice, and I inch closer. “Even the slaves. Not much else to talk about around here, unless you want to sit around comparing bruises.”
I chuckle, and it feels strange, almost wrong, like making a joke at a funeral. But Izzi smiles, and I don’t feel as bad. The drums start up again, and though Izzi doesn’t halt her work, I can tell she’s listening.
“You understand the drums.”
“They mostly give orders. Blue platoon report for watch. All cadets to the armory. That sort of thing. Right now they’re ordering a sweep of the eastern tunnels.” She looks down at the neat stack of towels. A strand of blonde hair falls into her face, making her appear especially young. “When you’ve been here for a while, you’ll learn to understand them.”