Chapter no 34 – Elias

A Reaper at the Gates

We have twelve hours until the Martials arrive. Twelve hours to prepare a few thousand Tribesmen who are in the worst fighting

shape they’ve ever been in. Twelve hours to get the children and injured to safety.

If there were any place to run, I would ask the Tribes to get the hells away from here. But the sea lies to the east and the Forest to the north. The Martials approach from the south and west.

Mauth pulls at me, the tug getting more painful by the minute. I know I must go back to the Forest. But if I don’t do something, thousands of Tribespeople will be massacred. The Waiting Place will be filled with even more ghosts. And where will that leave me?

The Tribes, it’s clear, plan to stand and fight. Already, the Zaldars who still have their wits are readying horses and weaponry and armor. But it won’t be enough. Though we outnumber the Martials, they are a superior fighting force. Ambushes in the dead of night with poisoned darts are one thing. But facing an army on a field when your men haven’t slept or eaten properly in days?

“Banu al-Mauth.” Afya’s voice is stronger than it was even an hour ago. “The salt works. We still have many dead to attend to, but the ruh have been released. The spirits no longer plague their families.”

“But there are too many dead now.” Mamie appears behind Afya, pallid and exhausted. “And they must be given burial rites.”

“I spoke to the other Zaldars,” Afya says. “We can muster a force of a thousand horse—”

“You don’t need to do that,” I say. “I’m going to take care of it.” The Zaldara looks dubious. “Using . . . your magic?”

“Not exactly.” I consider. I have most of what I need, but there is one thing that will make what I must do a bit easier. “Afya, do you have any of those darts you used during the raids?”

Mamie and Afya exchange a glance, and my mother steps close enough that only I can hear her. She takes my hands.

“What are you planning, my son?”

Perhaps I should tell her. She would try to talk me out of it, I know she would. She loves me, and that love blinds her.

I extricate myself, unable to meet her eyes. “You don’t want to know.”

As I leave the camp, Mauth summons me with enough force that I think he will pull me to the Forest the way he did after the jinn took me to Laia.

But this is the only way.

The first time I killed, I was eleven. I saw my enemy’s face for days after he was gone. I heard his voice. And then I killed again. And again. And again. Too soon, I stopped seeing their faces. I stopped wondering what their names were, or who they left behind. I killed because I was ordered to, and then, once free of Blackcliff, I killed because I had to, to stay alive.

Once, I knew exactly how many lives I had taken. Now I no longer remember. Somewhere along the way, a part of me learned how to stop caring. And that’s the part of me that I must draw upon now.

As soon as I reason through it in my head, the connection between Mauth and me slackens. He offers no magic, but I am able to continue my journey without pain.

The Martial army stops to camp along the crest of a low plateau.

Their tents are a dark stain against the pale desert, their cook fires like stars in the warm night. It takes a half hour of patient observation to figure out where the camp commander is and another fifteen minutes to plan my entrance—and exit. My face is known, but most of these people believe I’m dead. They will not expect to see me, and there lies my advantage.

The shadows hang thick between the tents, and I let them cradle me as I make my way through the periphery of the camp. The commander’s tent is in the center, but the soldiers have erected it hastily, for instead of a clear area around it, other dwellings are staked close by. Access won’t be simple—but it won’t be impossible, either.

As I approach the tent, darts ready, a great part of me screams against this.

You will know victory, or you will know death. I hear the Commandant whisper in my ear, an old memory. There is nothing else. It’s always this way before I kill. Even when I was hunting Masks so Laia could free prisoners from ghost wagons—even then I struggled.

Even then it took its toll. My foes will die, and they will take a bit of me with them.

The field of battle is my temple.

I draw close to the tent and find a fold that is hidden from anyone inside. Ever so slowly, I cut a slit. Five Masks, including the commander, sit around a table within, eating their meal and arguing about the coming battle.

They will not expect me, but they are still Masks. I will need to move swiftly, before they raise the alarm. Which means first taking them out with the darts Afya gave me.

The swordpoint is my priest.

must do this. I must cut off the head of this army. Doing so will give the Tribes a chance to run. These Masks would have killed my people, my family. They would have enslaved them and beaten them and destroyed them.

The dance of death is my prayer.

But even knowing what the Masks would have done, I do not wish to kill. I do not wish to belong to this world of blood and violence and vengeance. I do not wish to be a Mask.

The killing blow is my release.

My wishes do not matter. These men must die. The Tribes must be protected. And my humanity must be left behind. I step into the tent.

And I unleash the Mask lurking within.

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