Chapter no 39 – Elias

A Reaper at the Gates

How did someone get all the way to the jinn grove without me knowing?

The border walls should have kept outsiders away. But not, I realize, if they’re thin and weak. Ghosts push against one spot, far to the east, and I slow down. Do I shore up the wall? Move the ghosts? Their agitation is like nothing I’ve seen before, almost feral in its intensity.

But if there is a human in the grove, skies only know what they might be suffering at the hands of the jinn.

I head for the interloper, and Mauth pulls at me, his weight like an anvil chained to my legs. Ahead of me, ghosts attempt to block my path, a thick cloud that I can’t see through.

We have her, Elias. The jinn speak, and the ghosts stop their wailing.

The sudden silence is unnerving. It’s as if all the Forest listens.

We have her, Elias, and we have torn her mind to shreds.

“Who?” I drag myself away from the ghosts, ignoring their cries and Mauth’s pull. “Who do you have?”

Come and see, usurper.

Did they somehow capture Mamie? Or Afya? Dread grows in me like a weed, speeding my windwalking. Their machinations have already led to the suffering of Aubarit’s Tribe. To Afya and Gibran being possessed by ghosts. To Mamie losing her brother, and hundreds of Tribespeople dying. The Blood Shrike is too far away for them to hurt. Of all those I love, only the Shrike and one other have been spared their predations.

But they cannot possibly have Laia. She is in Adisa, hunting for a way to stop the Nightbringer. Faster, Elias, faster. I battle Mauth’s draw, tearing through the increasingly frenzied ghosts until I reach the jinn grove.

At first, it looks as it always does. Then I see her, crumpled on the earth. I recognize the patchy gray cloak. I gave it to her long ago, on a night when I never could have imagined how much she’d one day mean to me.

In the trees to the north, a shadow watches. Nightbringer! I leap for him, but he disappears, gone so fast that if not for his laugh on the wind,

I’d have thought I’d imagined him.

I am at Laia’s side in two steps, hardly believing she is real. The earth shudders more violently than it ever has before. Mauth is angry. But it does not matter to me. What in ten bleeding hells have the jinn done to her?

“Laia,” I call to her, but when I look into her face, her gold eyes are faraway, her lips parted dully. “Laia?” I tip her head toward me. “Listen to me. Whatever the Nightbringer said to you, whatever he and his ilk are trying to convince you of, it’s a trick. A lie—”

We do not lie. We told her the truth, and the truth has freed her. She will never hope again.

I need to get her mind out of their clutches.

How can you, usurper, when you cannot lay your hands on the magic?

“You tell me what the hells you’ve done to her!”

As you wish. Seconds later, my body is as rooted to the grove as Laia’s is, and the jinn show me her purpose in coming through the Waiting Place. She must get to Antium, to the Blood Shrike, to the ring. She must stop the Nightbringer.

But her mission is forgotten as a fire rages in her mind, leaving her lost, wandering in a prison, forced to watch what happened to her family over and over.

We show you her story so that you can suffer with her, Elias, the jinn say. Cry out your rage, won’t you? Cry out your uselessness. The sound is so sweet.

My scims will do nothing against this. Threats will do nothing. The jinn are in her head.

A powerful yank from Mauth nearly knocks me to my knees, so sharp that I gasp from the pain. Something is happening out in the Waiting Place. I can feel it. Something is happening to the border.

Leave her, then, Elias. Go and attend to your duty.

“I will not leave her!”

You have no choice—not if you wish the world of the living to survive.

“I will not!” My voice is raw with rage and failure. “I will not let you torment her to death, even if stopping you tears my own body to shreds. All the world can burn, but I will not simply leave her to suffer.”

All things have a price, Elias Veturius. The price of saving her will haunt you for all your days. Will you pay it?

“Just let her go. Please. I—I’m sorry for your pain, your hurt. But she did not cause it. It’s not her fault. Mauth, help me.” Why am I begging?

Why, when I know it will do no good? Only mercilessness can help me. Only abandoning my humanity. Abandoning Laia.

But I can’t do it. I can’t pretend that I don’t love her.

“Come back to me, Laia.” Her body is heavy in my arms, hair tangled, and I push it back from her face. “Forget them and their lies. That’s all they are. Come back.”

Yes, Elias, the jinn purr. Pour your love into her. Pour your heart into her.

I wish they would shut the hells up. “Come back to the world.

Wherever they have taken you, whatever memory they have locked you in doesn’t matter as much as you coming back. Your people need you.

Your brother needs you. need you.”

As I speak, it’s as if I can see into her thoughts. I can see the jinn clawing at her mind. They are strange, warped beings of smokeless flame that are nothing like the beautiful, graceful creatures I saw in the city. Laia tries to fight them, but she weakens.

“You are strong, Laia. And you are needed here.” Her cheek feels like ice. “You have much yet to do.”

Laia’s eyes are glazed over, and I shudder. I hold her now. I call to her. But she will grow old and die, while I will live on. She is the blink of an eye. And I am an age.

But I can accept that. I can survive long years without her if I know that at least she had a chance at life. I’d give up my time with her—I would—if only she would wake.

PleasePlease come back.

Her body jerks once, and for one heart-stopping moment, I think she is dead.

Then she opens her eyes, staring at me with bewilderment. Thank the bleeding skies. “They’re gone, Laia,” I say. “But we have to get you out of here.” Her mind will be fragile after what the jinn just put her through. Any more pushing from the ghosts or the jinn would feel torturous.

“I can’t—can’t walk. Could you—”

“Put your arms around my neck,” I say, and I windwalk out of the grove with Laia held close. Mauth yanks at me futilely, and the earth of the Waiting Place shakes and cracks. I reach out to the borders; the pressure is immense. The strain on them makes me break into a sweat. I need to get Laia out of here so I can corral the ghosts—get them away from the edges of the Waiting Place, lest they break free.

“Elias,” Laia whispers. “Are . . . are you real? Are you a trick too?” “No.” I touch my forehead to hers. “No, love. I’m real. You’re real.”

“What’s wrong with this place?” She shivers. “It’s so full, as if it’s about to burst. I can feel it.”

“Just the ghosts,” I say. “Nothing I can’t handle.” I hope. Flat patches of rolling grassland appear through the trees ahead: the Empire.

The border feels even weaker now than it did when I first passed through it. Many of the ghosts have followed me, and they press against the glowing barrier, their cries rising eagerly as if they sense its weakness.

I go well beyond the tree line and set Laia down. The trees sway back and forth behind me, a frantic dance. I must return. But for just this one moment, I let myself look at her. The messy cloud of her hair, her worn boots, the tiny cuts on her face from the Forest, the way her hands grip the dagger I gave her.

“The jinn,” she whispers. “They—they told me the truth. But the truth is . . .” She shakes her head.

“The truth is ugly,” I say. “The truth of our parents uglier still. But we are not them, Laia.”

“She’s out there, Elias,” Laia says, and I know she speaks of her mother. Of Cook. “Somewhere. I can’t—I—” She slips back into the memory again, and though the Forest seethes behind me, it will have done me no good to get Laia out of there if she ends up in the grasp of the jinn again. I take her shoulders, stroke her face. I make her look at me.

“Forgive her, if you can,” I say. “Remember that fate is never what we think it will be. Your mother—my mother—we can never understand their torments. Their hurts. We may suffer the consequences of their mistakes and their sins, but we should not carry them on our hearts. We don’t deserve that.”

“Will it always be chaos for us, Elias? Will things never be normal?” Her eyes clear as she looks at me, and she is released, for a moment,

from what she saw in the Forest. “Will we ever take a walk by the moonlight, or spend an afternoon making jam or making . . .”

Love. My body turns to fire just thinking about it.

“I had dreams about you,” she whispers. “We were together—” “It wasn’t a dream.” I pull her close. It kills me that she doesn’t

remember. I wish she could. I wish she could hold on to that day the way I do. “I was there, and you were there. And it was a perfect slice of time. It won’t always be like this.” I say it like I believe it. But within my own heart, something has shifted. I feel different. Colder. The change is great enough that I speak even more adamantly, hoping that by saying what I

want to feel, I will bring it to life. “We will find a way, Laia. Somehow. But if . . . if I change . . . if I seem different, remember that I love you. No matter what happens to me. Say you’ll remember, please—”

“Your eyes . . .” She looks up at me, and my breath catches at the intensity in her gaze. “They—they’re darker. Like Shaeva’s.”

“I can’t stay. I’m sorry. I have to go back. I have to attend to the ghosts. But I will see you again. I vow it. Hurry—get to Antium.”

“Wait.” She stands, still unsteady on her feet. “Don’t go. Please.

Don’t leave me here.”

“You’re strong,” I say. “You are Laia of SerraYou are not the Lioness. Her legacy—her sins—they don’t belong to you any more than Keris’s legacy belongs to me.”

“What did you say to me?” Laia asks. “That night before you left months ago, when we were headed to Kauf. I was sleeping in the wagon with Izzi. What did you say?”

“I said, You are—”

But Mauth has lost patience. I am wrested back to the Waiting Place, back to Mauth’s side, with a force that rattles my bones.

I will find you, Laia. I will find a way. This is not our end. I scream it in my mind. But as soon as I get into the Waiting Place, the thought is dashed from my consciousness. The borders are bending—breaking. I go to reinforce them, but I am a cork in the face of a dam breaking.

All things have a price, Elias Veturius. The jinn speak again, an inexorable truth in their voice. We warned you.

A roar cleaves the Waiting Place, a ripping that seems to come from the bowels of the earth. The ghosts scream, their high keen rising as they throw themselves against the border. I have to stop them. They’re too close. They’ll break free.

Too late, usurper. Too late.

A collective howl goes up, and the ghosts of the Waiting Place, the tortured souls who are my sworn duty, break free of the border and pour into the world of the living, their shrieks like living death carried on the wind.

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