Chapter no 30 – Elias

A Reaper at the Gates

Banu al-Mauth.

As I wander the city of the jinn, a voice calls out, penetrating distantly, a hair-thin fishing line cast into an endless ocean. But I know who it is. Aubarit Ara-Nasur. The Fakira. I told her that if she needed me, she should come to the edge of the Forest and call me.

But I can’t go to her. Not with all that I now know. For I understand, finally, why Mauth forbids his Soul Catchers their humanity. Humanity means emotions. Emotions mean instability. Mauth’s entire purpose is to bridge the world of the living and the dead. Instability threatens that.

The knowledge brings me a strange sort of peace. I don’t know how I will release my humanity. I don’t know if I can. But at least I know why I should.

Mauth stirs. The magic rises up from the earth in a dark mist, fusing into a tenuous vine. I reach for it. The magic is limited, as if Mauth doesn’t trust me enough to give me more.

I leave the city of jinn and am immediately confronted by a cloud of ghosts so thick I can barely see through them.

Banu al-Mauth. Help us.

The plea in Aubarit’s voice is audible, even from here. She sounds terrified. Sorry, Aubarit. I’m sorry. But I can’t.

“Little one.” I startle at the ghost who has materialized before me.

The Wisp. She circles in great agitation.

“You must come,” she whispers. “Your people fade. Your family.

They need you the way my lovey needed me. Go to them. Go.”

“My . . . family?” My mind goes to the Commandant, the Martials. “Your true family. The desert singers,” the Wisp says. “Their pain is

great. They suffer.”

I can’t go to them, not now. I must pass the ghosts through or they’ll keep building up, the jinn will keep stealing magic, and I’ll be stuck dealing with an even bigger problem than I already have.

Banu al-Mauth. Help us. Please.

But if the Tribes are in danger, I must at least try to see why. Perhaps some small act of mine can help them and I can still return to the Forest

quickly and continue with my task.

I try not to pay attention to the way the earth cracks behind me, the way the ghosts scream and the trees moan. When I reach the southern border, I bolster the wall with my physical magic to make sure no ghosts follow me and make for the distant glimmer of Tribal wagons.

Once I’m out of the Waiting Place, I hear a familiar tattoo: Martial drums. The closest garrison is miles away, but the echo is ominous, even from here. Though the drumbeats are too far away for me to translate, a lifetime of Martial training tells me that whatever is happening, it’s not good. And that it concerns the Tribes.

When I reach the camp, it has exploded in size. Where before there were only Tribe Nasur and Tribe Saif, there are now more than a thousand wagons. It looks like a majilees, a meeting of the Tribes, called only in the most dire of circumstances.

Which puts thousands upon thousands of Tribespeople in one place. If I were a Martial general attempting to put down any hint of insurgency and take slaves, this would be the perfect place to do it.

Children scatter at my approach, hiding under carts. The stench is awful—sickly sweet—and I spot the carcasses of two horses left to rot in the sun, a cloud of flies buzzing above them.

Did the Martials already attack? But no, if they’d been through here, they would have taken the children as slaves.

To the north, I spot a circle of heart-stoppingly familiar wagons. Tribe Saif. My family.

I approach the wagons slowly, wary of what I’ll find. When I’m only a few yards away, a bizarre specter materializes in front of me. It’s not human—I know that right away. But it’s not transparent enough to be a ghost. It appears to be something in between. At first, I don’t recognize it. Then, its warped features become terrifyingly familiar. It is Uncle Akbi, the head of Tribe Saif and Mamie Rila’s older brother. Uncle put me on my first pony at the age of three. The first time I returned to Tribe Saif as a Fiver, he sobbed and held me like I was his own true son.

The specter shambles toward me, and I bring up my blade. It’s not a spirit. What the hells is it?

Elias Veturius, the strange half ghost of my uncle hisses in Sadhese. She never wanted you. What would she want with a squalling, pale-eyed thing? She only took you because she feared the evil eye upon her. And what have you brought but evil and suffering, death and ruin—

I recoil. When I was a child, I feared that Uncle Akbi thought such things. But he never said them.

Come—come and see what your failure has wrought. The specter drifts to the Saif camp, where six Tribespeople lie on cots in a row. They all appear to be dead.

Including Uncle Akbi.

“No—oh no—” I rush to him. Where in ten hells is the rest of Tribe Saif? Where is Mamie? How did this happen?

“Banu al-Mauth!” Aubarit appears behind me, bursting into tears at the sight of me. “I have been to the Forest a dozen times. You must help us,” she wails. “The Tribes have fallen to madness. There are too many


“What the bleeding hells happened?”

“A fortnight ago, just after you left, another Tribe arrived. They kept coming, one after another. Some had lost their Fakirs, and all were struggling to move on their dead—the same struggle I had with my grandfather. And then, two days ago—”

She shakes her head. Right when I disappeared into the Forest. “The ghosts of the dead stopped moving on altogether. Their bodies will not die, and their ruh—their spirits—will not leave them. Even those with grievous injuries linger on. They—they are monstrous.” The Fakira shudders. “They torment their families. They are driving their own kin to suicide. Your—your uncle was one of those. But you can see what has happened. Those who try to kill themselves also do not die.”

A thin figure materializes from one of the wagons and throws herself in my arms. I wouldn’t have recognized her had I not heard her voice, tired but still rich, still filled with story.

“Mamie?” She has wasted away to nothing. I want to curse and rage at the frailty of her once strong arms, the gauntness of her once beautifully rounded face. She looks as stunned to see me as I am to see her.

“Aubarit Ara-Nasur told me you dwell in the Forest, among the spirits,” she says. “But I—I did not believe it.”

“Mamie.” Tradition demands that I mourn Uncle Akbi with her. That I share her pain. But there’s no time for such things. I take her hands in mine. They are colder than I’ve ever felt them. “You have to disperse the Tribes. It’s dangerous having them all here in one place. Do you hear the drums?” From the mystified look on her face, I realize that she—and likely most of the rest of the camp—has not noticed the frenzy of Martial activity.

Which means the Empire is planning something even now. And the Tribes have no idea.

“Aubarit,” I say. “I need to find Afya—”

“I’m here, Banu al-Mauth.” Afya’s formality stings. The Tribeswoman shuffles toward me, shoulders slumped. I want to ask her how Gibran is, but part of me is afraid to find out. “News of your arrival spread quickly.”

“Get scouts out to all points other than the Forest,” I say. “I think the Martials are coming. And I think they’re going to hit hard. You need to be ready.”

Afya shakes her head, and her old, defiant self appears. “How can we be ready when our dead won’t die and we are haunted by their spirits?”

“We’ll worry about that when we know what we’re up against,” I say quickly, though I have no idea what the answer is. “Perhaps I am wrong and the Martials are just carrying out drills.”

But I’m not wrong, and Afya knows it. She moves off quickly, and her Tribesmen surround her as she begins giving orders. Gibran isn’t among them.

I consider the Tribes—there are so many. And yet . . . “Aubarit, Mamie,” I say. “Can you get at least some of the Tribes to head south— to scatter?”

“They will not go, Elias. Your uncle called a majilees. But before we could have it, three of the other Tribes’ chieftains were driven mad by the spirits. Two threw themselves into the sea, and your uncle . . .” Tears fill Mamie’s eyes. “Everyone is too afraid to leave. They believe there is strength in numbers.”

“You must do something, Banu al-Mauth,” Aubarit whispers. “The ruh of our own people are destroying us. If the Martials come, all they will have to do is round us up. We are already defeated.”

I squeeze her hand. “Not yet, Aubarit. Not yet.”

This is the work of the bleeding Nightbringer. He is sowing even more chaos by destroying the Tribes. Destroying my friends. Destroying Tribe Saif, my family. I know it, as surely as I know my name. I turn to the Forest, reaching out to Mauth.

Then I stop. Reaching for the magic to save the lives of people I love is exactly what Mauth doesn’t wish me to do. For us, Elias, duty must reign over all else. Love cannot live here. I must curtail my emotions.

My time in the jinn city taught me that. But I don’t know how.

I do, however, know what it is to be a Mask. Cold. Murderous.


Aubarit speaks up. “Banu—”

“Silence.” The voice is mine, but sharp and cold. I recognize it. The Mask within, the Mask I thought I’d never have to be again.

“Elias!” Mamie is affronted by my rudeness. She taught me better.

But I turn my face to her—the face of Keris Veturia’s son—and she takes a step back before drawing herself up. Despite all that’s happening, she’s still a Kehanni, and she will brook no disrespect, least of all from her children.

But Aubarit, perhaps sensing the storm of thoughts in my head, puts a gentle hand on Mamie’s wrist, quieting her.

Duty first, unto death—Blackcliff’s motto, which returns now to haunt me. Duty first.

I turn my mind to Mauth again, but this time, I consider. I need to stop the ghosts so that the Tribes can move them on. So that I can return to the Forest to do my duty.

I want so badly for the magic to respond. For it to communicate with me. To guide me. To tell me what I should do.

A child howls from nearby, a heartbreaking sound. I should go to him. I should see what’s wrong. Instead, I ignore it. I pretend I am Shaeva, cold and unfeeling, attending my duty because that is my only concern. I pretend I am a Mask.

Far in the Forest, I feel the magic rise.

Love cannot live here. I repeat the words in my head. As I do, the magic twines out of the Forest, inching toward the Mask in me while still wary of the man. I harness that old patience the Commandant drilled into us at Blackcliff. I watch, I wait, calm as an assassin stalking a mark.

When the magic finally seeps into me, I grab on to it. Aubarit’s eyes widen, for she must sense the sudden influx of power.

The paradox of the magic tears at me. I need it to save the people I care about, but I can’t care about them if I want to use the magic.

Love cannot live here.

Immediately, the magic fills my sight, and that which was hidden becomes apparent. Dark shadows cluster everywhere like malignant tumors in a tortured body. Ghuls. I kick out at those close by, and they scatter but come back almost immediately. They congregate near the tents where Aubarit and the other Fakirs have put those who are afflicted.

Relief sweeps through me, for the solution to this is so simple that I am angry I didn’t see the ghuls before.

“You need salt,” I say to Aubarit and Mamie. “Those afflicted by this malady are surrounded by ghuls, who hold on to their spirits. Put salt

around those who should be dead. The ghuls hate it. If you disperse those foul creatures, the afflicted will pass, and you should be able to commune with the spirits again.”

Aubarit and Mamie disappear almost immediately to find salt and to tell the other Tribes of the antidote. As they sprinkle the salt around the afflicted, the hisses and snarls of thwarted ghuls fill the air, though I’m the only one who can hear them. I walk with the Fakira through the camp, the magic still with me, ensuring that the ghuls are not simply waiting for me to leave before slinking back.

I prepare to return to the Waiting Place when a distant shout stops me in my tracks. Afya pulls her horse up beside me.

“The Martials have mustered a legion,” she says. “Nearly five thousand men. They’re moving against us. And they’re coming swiftly.”

Bleeding hells. The moment I think it—the moment my worry for the Tribes rises—Mauth’s magic leaves me. I feel empty without him. Weak.

“When will the Martials get here, Afya?” Tell me they’re a few days away. Perhaps if I wish for it, it will be true. Tell me they’re still outfitting their troops, preparing weapons, readying for the assault.

Afya’s voice shakes when she answers. “By dawn.”

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