Chapter no 12 – Elias

A Reaper at the Gates

Though the sun hasn’t yet set, the Tribal encampment is quiet when I approach. The cook fires are doused, the horses sheltered beneath a canvas tarp. The red-and-yellow-painted wagons are sealed tight against

the driving late spring rain. Wan lamplight flickers within.

I move slowly, though not out of wariness. Mauth tugs at me, and it requires all my strength to ignore that summons.

A few hundred yards west of the caravan, the Duskan Sea breaks against the rocky shore, its roar nearly drowning out the mournful cries of white-headed gulls above. But my Mask’s instincts are as sharp as ever, and I sense the approach of the Kehanni of Tribe Nasur long before she appears—along with the six Nasur Tribesmen guarding her.

“Elias Veturius.” The Kehanni‘s silver dreadlocks hang to her waist, and I can clearly make out the elaborate storyteller’s tattoos on her dark brown skin. “You are late.”

“I am sorry, Kehanni.” I don’t bother giving her an excuse. Kehannis are as skilled at trapping lies as they are at telling stories. “I beg your forgiveness.”

“Bah.” She sniffs. “You begged to meet with me too. I do not know why I consented. Martials took my brother’s son a week ago, after they raided our grain stores. My respect for Mamie Rila is all that keeps me from gutting you like a pig, boy.”

I’d like to see you try. “Have you heard from Mamie?”

“She is well-hidden and recovering from the horrors your ilk inflicted upon her. If you think I will tell you where she is, you are a bigger fool than I suspected. Come.”

She jerks her head toward the caravan, and I follow. I understand her rage. The Martials’ war on the Tribes is evident in every burned-out wagon littering the countryside, every ululating wail rising from Tribal villages as families mourn those taken.

The Kehanni moves quickly, and as I trail her, Mauth’s pull grows stronger, a physical wrench that makes me want to sprint back to the Waiting Place, three leagues distant. A sense of wrongness steals over me, as if I’ve forgotten something important. But I can’t tell if it is my

own instinct prickling or if Mauth is manipulating my mind. More than once in the past few weeks, I’ve felt someone—or something—flitting at the edges of the Waiting Place, entering and then leaving, as if trying to gauge a reaction. Every time I’ve felt it, I’ve windwalked to the border.

And every time, I’ve found nothing.

The rain has, at least, silenced the jinn. Those fiery bastards hate it.

But the ghosts are troubled, forced to remain in the Waiting Place longer than they should because I cannot pass them through fast enough.

Shaeva’s warning haunts me.

If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it.

Mauth pulls at me again, but I make myself ignore it. The Kehanni and I weave our way through the wagons of the caravan until we reach one that sits apart from the rest, its black draping in sharp contrast to the elaborate decorations of the other wagons.

It is the home of a Fakir—the Tribesperson who prepares bodies for burial.

I wipe the rain from my face as the Kehanni knocks on the wooden back door. “With respect,” I say, “I need to speak to you—”

“I keep the stories of the living. The Fakira keeps the stories of the dead.”

The back door of the wagon opens almost immediately to reveal a girl of perhaps sixteen. At the sight of me, her eyes widen and she pulls at her halo of red-brown curls. She chews on her lip, freckles stark against skin that is lighter than Mamie’s but darker than mine. Deep blue tattoos wind up her arms, geometric patterns that make me think of skulls.

Something about the uncertainty of her posture reminds me of Laia, and a pang of longing flashes through me. I realize that I’ve frozen at the door, and the Kehanni shoves me into the wagon, which is lit brightly by multicolored Tribal lamps. A shelf along the back is filled with jars of fluid, and there is a faint smell of something astringent.

“This,” the Kehanni says from the door once I’m inside, “is Aubarit, our new Fakira. She is . . . learning.” The Kehanni curls her lip slightly. No wonder the Kehanni agreed to help me. She’s simply foisting me onto a girl who will likely be no help at all. “She will deal with you.”

The door slams, leaving Aubarit and me staring at each other for an awkward moment.

“You’re young,” I blurt out as I sit. “Our Saif Fakir was older than the hills.”

“Fear not, bhai.” Aubarit uses the honorific for brother, and her shaking voice reflects her anxiety. I immediately feel guilty for bringing up her age. “I have been trained in the Mysteries. You come from the Forest, Elias Veturius. From the domain of the Bani al-Mauth. Does she send you to aid us?”

Did she just say Mauth“How do you know that name, Mauth? Do you mean Shaeva?”

“Astagha!” Aubarit squeaks the oath against the evil eye. “We do not use her name, bhai! The Bani al-Mauth is holy. The Chosen of Death.

The Soul Catcher. The Guardian at the Gates. The sacred Mystery of her existence is known only to the Fakirs and their apprentices. I would not have even spoken of it, only you came from the Jaga al-Mauth.” Place of Mauth.

“Shaev . . . ah, the Bani al-Mauth.” I suddenly find it hard to speak. “She’s . . . dead. I’m her replacement. She was training me when—”

Aubarit drops so fast, I think her heart has failed.

Banu al-Mauth, forgive me.” I note the alteration of the title to reflect a male instead of a female—which is when I realize that she has not had some sort of fainting fit. She is kneeling. “I did not know.”

“No need for that.” I pull her to her feet, embarrassed at her awe. “I’m struggling to pass the ghosts on,” I say. “I need to use the magic at the heart of the Waiting Place, but I don’t know how. The ghosts are building up. Every day there are more.”

Aubarit blanches, and her knuckles pale as she clasps her hands together. “This—this cannot be, Banu al-Mauth. You must pass them on. If you do not—”

“What happens?” I lean forward. “You spoke of Mysteries—how did you learn them? Are they written down? Scrolls? Books?”

The Fakira taps her head. “To write down the Mysteries is to rob them of their power. Only the Fakirs and Fakiras learn them, for we are with the dead as they leave the world of the living. We wash them and commune with their spirits so they move easily through the Jaga al-Mauth and to the other side. The Soul Catcher does not see them—she— you—are not meant to.”

Have you ever wondered why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes?

Shaeva’s words.

“Do your Mysteries say anything of the Waiting Place’s magic?” “No, Banu al-Mauth,” Aubarit says. “Though . . .” Her voice drops

and takes on the cadence of a long-memorized chant. “If thou seekest the truth in the trees, the Forest will show thee its sly memory.”

“A memory?” I frown—Shaeva said nothing of this. “The trees have seen much, no doubt. But the magic I have doesn’t allow me to speak with them.”

Aubarit shakes her head. “The Mysteries are rarely literal. Forest could mean the trees—or it could be referring to something else entirely.”

Metaphorical talking trees won’t help me. “What of the Bani al-Mauth?” I ask. “Did you ever meet her? Did she speak to you of the magic or how she did her work?”

“I met her once, when Grandfather chose me as his apprentice. She gave me her benediction. I thought . . . I thought she sent you to help us.”

“Help you?” I say sharply. “With the Martials?”

“No, with—” She swallows back the words. “Do not concern yourself with such trifles, Banu al-Mauth. You must move the spirits, and to do that you must remove yourself from the world, not waste your time helping strangers.”

“Tell me what’s going on,” I say. “I can decide whether it concerns me or not.”

Aubarit wrings her hands in indecision, but when I chuff expectantly, she speaks, her voice low. “Our Fakirs and Fakiras,” she says, “they’re dying. A few were killed in Martial attacks. But others . . .” She shakes her head. “My grandfather was found in a pond just a few feet deep. His lungs were filled with water—but he knew how to swim.”

“His heart might have failed.”

“He was strong as a bull and not yet in his sixth decade. That’s only part of it, Banu al-Mauth. I struggled to reach his spirit. You must understand, I have been training as a Fakira since I could speak. I have never fought to commune with a spirit. This time, it felt as if something was blocking me. When I succeeded, Grandfather’s ghost was deeply troubled—it would not speak to me. Something is wrong. I’ve not heard from the other Fakirs—everyone is so concerned with the Martials. But this—this is bigger than that. And I do not know what to do.

A sharp tug nearly pulls me to my feet. I sense impatience on the other end. Perhaps Mauth doesn’t wish me to learn this information. Perhaps the magic wants me to remain ignorant.

“Get word out to your Fakirs,” I say. “Their wagons should no longer be set apart from the rest of the caravan, by order of the Banu al-Mauth, who has expressed concern for their safety. And tell them to have their wagons repainted to match the others in the Tribe. It will make it more difficult for your enemies to find you—” I stop short. The pull at my

core is strong enough that I feel like I might be sick. But I press on, because no one else is going to help Aubarit or the Fakirs.

“Ask the other Fakirs if they are also finding it hard to commune with the spirits,” I say. “And find out if it’s ever happened before.”

“The other Fakirs don’t listen to me.”

“You are new to your power.” I need to go, but I cannot just leave her here, doubting herself, doubting her worth. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. Think of the way your Kehanni wears her strength, like it’s her own skin. That’s who you must be. For your people.”

Mauth pulls me yet again, forcefully enough that, against my will, I stand. “I have to return to the Waiting Place,” I say. “If you need me, come to the border of the Forest. I’ll know you’re there. But do not try to enter.”

Moments later, I’m back out in the heavy rain. Lightning cracks over the Waiting Place, and I feel it hit within my domain: north, near the cabin, and closer, near the river. The awareness feels innate, like knowing I’ve gotten a cut or bite.

As I windwalk home, I turn Aubarit’s words over in my head. Shaeva never told me the Fakirs were so deeply connected to her work. She never mentioned that they knew of her existence, let alone that they had built an entire mythology around her. All I knew about the Fakirs was what most Tribespeople know about them—that they handle the dead and that they are to be revered, albeit with more fear than one would revere a Zaldar or a Kehanni.

Maybe if I’d bleeding paid attention, I’d have noticed a connection.

The Tribes have always been deeply wary of the Forest. Afya hates being near it, and Tribe Saif never came within fifty leagues of it when I was a child.

As I near the Waiting Place, Mauth’s pull, which by now should have weakened, gets stronger. Does he simply want me to come back? Does he want something more?

The border is finally before me, and the moment I pass through, I am blasted by the howls of the ghosts. Their rage has peaked—transformed into something violent and deranged. How in the ten hells did they get so riled up in the hour that I was gone?

They press close to the border with a strange, single-minded focus. At first, I think that they are all pushing at something close to the wall. A dead animal? A dead body?

But as I shove past them, shuddering at the chills rippling through my body, I realize that they aren’t pressing at something near the wall. They

are pushing at the wall itself. They are trying to get out.

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