A torch against the nigh.., p.30
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.30

         Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir

  "That's because you asked who it is, Elias," the Warden says. "Instead of what."

  XLV: Laia

  Like so many nights before this one, rest is elusive. Keenan sleeps beside me, arm thrown across my hip, his forehead tipped down against my shoulder. His quiet breathing almost lulls me into dreams, but every time I get close, I jerk awake and fret anew.

  Does Darin live? If so, and if I can save him, how will we make it to Marinn? Will Spiro be waiting there, as he promised? Will Darin even want to make weapons for the Scholars?

  What of Elias? Helene might already have him. Or he might be dead, destroyed by the poison coursing through his body. If he does live, I do not know if Keenan will help me save him.

  But I must save him. And I cannot leave the other Scholars either. I cannot abandon them to be executed in the Commandant's purge.

  They'll begin tomorrow evening. At sundown, Keenan said of the executions. A bloody gloaming then, and bloodier still as twilight fades to night.

  I ease Keenan's arm away and roll to my feet, pulling on my cloak and boots and slipping out into the cold night.

  A nagging dread steals over me. Keenan's plan is as unknowable as the inside of Kauf itself. His confidence offers some reassurance, but not enough to make me feel like we will succeed. Something about all of this just feels wrong. Rushed.

  "Laia?" Keenan emerges from the cave, his red hair mussed, making him look younger. He offers his hand, and I wind my fingers through his, taking comfort from his touch. What a change a few months has wrought in him. I could not have imagined such a smile from the dark-visaged fighter I first met in Serra.

  Keenan looks at me and frowns.

  "You're nervous?"

  I sigh. "I cannot leave Elias." Skies, I hope I'm not wrong again. I hope that pushing this, fighting for it, doesn't lead to some other disaster. An image of Keenan lying dead floats through my mind, and I fight back a shudder. Elias would do it for you. And going into Kauf is a terrible risk no matter what. "I will not leave him."

  The rebel tilts his head, his eyes on the snow. I hold my breath.

  "Then we must find a way to get him out," he says. "Though it will take longer--"

  "Thank you." I lean into him, breathing in wind and fire and warmth. "It's the right thing to do. I know it is."

  I feel the familiar pattern of my armlet against my palm and realize that, as ever, my hand has drifted to it for comfort.

  Keenan watches me, his eyes strange. Lonely.

  "What is it like to have something of your family's?"

  "It makes me feel close to them," I say. "It gives me strength."

  He reaches out, almost touching the armlet but then self-consciously dropping his hand. "It's good to remember those who are lost. To have a reminder in the dark times." His voice is soft. "It's good to know that you were . . . are . . . loved."

  My eyes fill. Keenan has never spoken of his family other than to tell me that they are gone. At least I had a family. He has had nothing and no one.

  My fingers tighten on my armlet, and on impulse, I pull it off. At first, it is as if it doesn't want to come off, but I give it a good yank, and it releases.

  "I'll be your family now," I whisper, opening Keenan's hands and placing the armlet on his palm. I close his fingers around it. "Not a mother, father, brother, or sister, perhaps, but family nonetheless."

  He breathes in sharply, staring down at the armlet. His brown eyes are opaque, and I wish I knew what he felt. But I allow him his silence. He pulls the armlet onto his wrist with slow reverence.

  A chasm opens up inside me, as if the last bit of my family is gone. But I take comfort from the way Keenan looks at the armlet, as if it's the most precious thing he's ever been given. He turns to me and rests his hands on my waist, closing his eyes, leaning his head against mine.

  "Why?" he whispers. "Why did you give it to me?"

  "Because you are loved," I say. "You're not alone. And you deserve to know that."

  "Look at me," he murmurs.

  When I do, I flinch, pained to see his eyes so anguished--haunted--like he's seeing something he doesn't wish to accept. But a moment later, his expression changes. Hardens. His hands, gentle a moment ago, tighten and grow warm.

  Too warm.

  The irises of his eyes brighten. I see myself reflected within, and then I feel as if I'm falling into a nightmare. A scream claws its way out of my throat, for in Keenan's eyes I see ruin, failure, death: Darin's mangled body; Elias turning away from me, impassive as he disappears into an ancient forest; an army of fiery, enraged faces advancing; the Commandant standing over me, drawing her blade across my throat in one clean, deadly stroke.

  "Keenan," I gasp. "What--"

  "My name"--his voice changes as he speaks, his warmth souring, twisting into something foul and grating--"is not Keenan."

  He jerks his fingers away, and his head is flung back as if by an otherworldly fist. His mouth opens in a silent howl, the muscles of his forearms and neck bulging.

  A cloud of darkness breaks over us both, knocking me back. "Keenan!"

  I cannot make out the crisp whiteness of the snow or the undulating lights in the sky. I lash out blindly at whatever attacks us. I can't see anything. All is obscured until the blackness curls back from the edges of my vision, slowly resolving into a hooded figure with malevolent suns for eyes. I take hold of a nearby tree trunk and grab for my knife.

  I know this figure. The last I saw him, he was hissing orders at the woman who frightens me most in this world.

  Nightbringer. My body trembles--I feel as though some hand has taken me by my core and now squeezes, waiting to see when I will break.

  "What in the bleeding skies did you do with Keenan, you monster?" I must be mad to scream at him so. But the creature only laughs, impossibly low, like boulders grinding beneath a black sea.

  "There was no Keenan, Laia of Serra," the Nightbringer says. "There was only ever me."

  "Lies." I clutch my knife, but the hilt burns hot as fresh-forged steel, and I drop it with a yelp. "Keenan has been with the Resistance for years."

  "What are years when one has lived for millennia?" At the look of dumb shock on my face, the thing--the jinn--lets out a strange sound. It might be a sigh.

  Then it turns, whispering something into the air, slowly rising up, as if to depart. No! I lunge forward and grab on to him, desperate to understand what in the skies is happening.

  Beneath the robe, the creature's body is burning hot, powerful, with the warped musculature of a demon instead of a man. The Nightbringer tilts his head. He has no face, only those damned fiery eyes. Still, I can sense him sneering.

  "Ah, the little girl has fight in her after all," he says. "Just like her stone-hearted bitch of a mother."

  He shakes me, attempting to free himself, but I hold tight, even while squelching my revulsion at touching him. An unknown darkness rises within me, some atavistic part of myself that I did not know existed.

  The Nightbringer, I sense, is no longer amused. He jerks away hard. I make myself hold on.

  What did you do to Keenan--the Keenan I knew? The Keenan I loved? I scream in my mind. And why? I glare into his eyes, the darkness rising, taking over. I sense alarm from the Nightbringer, and surprise. Tell me! Now! Quite suddenly, I am weightless as I fly into the chaos of the Nightbringer's mind. Into his memories.

  At first, I see nothing. I only feel . . . sadness. An ache that he's buried beneath centuries of life. It permeates every part of him, and though I am bodiless, my mind nearly collapses from the weight of it.

  I force myself through it, and I stand in a cold alley in Serra's Scholar quarter. Wind bites through my clothing, and I hear a strangled cry. I turn to find the Nightbringer changing, screaming in pain as he uses all his power to morph into a redheaded child of five. He staggers out of the alley and into the street beyond, collapsing on the stoop of a dilapidated house. Many seek to help him, but he does not speak to anyone. Not until an achingl
y familiar dark-haired man stops and kneels beside him.

  My father.

  He scoops up the child. The memory shifts to an encampment deep in a canyon. Resistance fighters eat, chatter, train with weapons. Two figures sit at a table, and my heart drops when I see them: my mother and Lis. They welcome my father and the redheaded child. They offer him a plate of stew and tend his wounds. Lis gives him a wooden cat that Father carved for her, and she sits beside him so he is not afraid.

  Even as the memory shifts again, I think back to a cold and rainy day in the Commandant's kitchen months ago, when Cook told Izzi and me a story about the Nightbringer. "He infiltrated the Resistance. Took human form and posed as a fighter. Got close to your mother. Manipulated and used her. Your father caught on. Nightbringer had help. A traitor."

  The Nightbringer didn't have help, and he didn't pose as a fighter. He was the traitor, and he posed as a child. For no one would think a young, starving orphan could be a spy.

  A snarl echoes in my mind, and the Nightbringer tries to fling me from his thoughts. I feel myself returning to my body, but the darkness within roars and fights, and I do not let myself release him.

  No. You will show me more. I need to understand.

  Back in the creature's memories, I see him befriend my lonely sister. I grow uneasy at their friendship--it seems so real. As if he truly cares about her. At the same time, he wheedles information from her about my parents: where they are, what they are doing. He stalks my mother, his covetous eyes fixed on her armlet. His hunger for it is like that of a starving animal in its potency. He doesn't want it. He needs it. He must get her to give it to him.

  But one day, my mother arrives at the Resistance encampment without the armlet. The Nightbringer has failed. I feel his fury, overlaid by that yawning sadness. He arrives in a torch-lit barracks and speaks to a familiar silver-faced woman. Keris Veturia.

  He tells Keris where she can find my parents. He tells her what they will be doing.

  Traitor! You led them to their deaths! I rage at him, forcing myself further into his mind. Why? Why the armlet?

  I fly with him deep into the past, streaming along the winds to the far-flung Forest of Dusk. I feel his desperation and panic for his people. They face a grave danger at the hands of a Scholar coven bent on stealing their power, and he cannot get to them fast enough. Too late, he howls in the memory. I am too late. He cries out the names of his kin as a shock wave ripples out from the center of the Forest, throwing him into darkness.

  An explosion of pure silver--a Star, the Scholars' weapon--used to imprison the jinn. I expect it to disintegrate--I know the story. But it does not. Instead, it shatters into hundreds of shards flung across the land. Shards that are picked up by Mariners and Scholars, Martials and Tribesmen. Fashioned into necklaces and armlets, spearheads and blades.

  The Nightbringer's rage steals my breath. For he cannot simply take back these pieces. Each time he finds one, he must ensure that it is offered freely, in absolute love and trust. For that is the only way he can reassemble the weapon that imprisoned his people, so he might set them free again.

  My stomach churns as I hurtle through his memories, watching as he transforms himself into husband or lover, son or brother, friend or confidant--whatever is necessary to get the lost shards. He becomes whomever he transforms into. He creates them--he is them. He feels what a human would feel. Including love.

  And then I watch as he discovers me.

  I see myself through his eyes: a nobody, a naive little girl come to beg the Resistance for aid. I watch as he realizes who I am and what I possess.

  It is torture to witness how he deceived me. How he used information stolen from my brother to win me over, to get me to trust him, to care for him. In Serra, he'd been close--so close--to getting me to fall for him. But then I gave Izzi the freedom he'd offered me, and I disappeared with Elias. And his carefully wrought plan fell to pieces.

  And all the while, he had to keep his cover among the Resistance in order to carry out a plan months in the making: persuading the rebels to kill the Emperor and rise up in the Scholar revolution.

  Two actions that allowed the Commandant to unleash an unchecked genocide upon my people. It was the Nightbringer's revenge for what the Scholars did to his kin centuries before.

  Bleeding skies.

  A hundred little things suddenly make sense: How cold he was when he first met me. How well he seemed to know me, even when I hadn't told him about myself. How he used his voice to soothe me. How strange the weather was when Elias and I first set out from Serra. How the attacks on us by supernatural creatures stopped after he arrived with Izzi.

  No, no, you liar, you monster--

  As soon as I think it, I sense something deep within him that underlies every memory and shakes me to my core: a sea of regret he strives to hide, stirred into madness as if by some great tempest. I see my own face, then Lis's face. I see a child with brown braids and an ancient silver necklace. I see a smiling, crook-backed Mariner holding a silver-topped cane.

  Haunted. It is the only word to describe what I see. The Nightbringer is haunted.

  As the full weight of what this creature is rolls over me, I gasp, and he casts me from his mind--and his body. I fly back a dozen feet, slamming into a tree and sinking to the ground, breathless.

  My armlet glimmers on his tenebrous wrist. The silver--tarnished black for most of my life--gleams now, as if made of starlight.

  "What in the skies are you?" he hisses. The words trigger a memory: the efrit back in Serra, asking me the same thing. You say what am I, but what are you?

  A frosty night wind blows into the clearing, and the Nightbringer rises up on it. His eyes are still fixed on me, hostile and curious. Then the wind whooshes past, taking him with it.

  The woods are silent. The skies above are still. My heart thuds as madly as a Martial war drum. I close my eyes and open them, waiting to wake up from this nightmare. I reach for my armlet, needing the comfort it offers, the reminder of who I am, what I am.

  But it is gone. I am alone.



  XLVI: Elias

  "You're getting close, Elias."

  When I fall into the Waiting Place, Shaeva stares at me. There is a crispness to her--to the trees and the sky--that makes it seem as if this is my reality and the waking world is the dream.

  I look around curiously--I have only ever woken up amid the thick trunks of the Forest. But this time, I stand atop a rocky bluff that overlooks the trees. The River Dusk surges below, blue and white beneath the bright winter sky.

  "The poison is nearly to your heart," Shaeva says.

  Death so soon. "Not yet," I make myself say through numb lips, squelching the fear that threatens. "I need to ask you something. I beg you, Shaeva, hear me out." Pull it together, Elias. Make her understand how important this is. "Because if I die before I'm ready, I will haunt these damn trees forever. You'll never be rid of me."

  Something crosses her face, a flicker of disquiet that fades in less than a second.

  "Very well," she says. "Ask."

  I consider all that the Warden told me. You asked who, he'd said. Instead of what.

  No human controls the Warden. It must be one of the fey. But I cannot imagine a wraith or efrit manipulating the Warden. Such weak creatures could not best him in a battle of wits--and he spits upon those he perceives to have a weaker intellect than him.

  But then, not all fey creatures are wraiths or efrits.

  "Why would the Nightbringer be interested in a seventeen-year-old girl traveling to Kauf to break her brother out of prison?"

  The color drains from the Soul Catcher's face. Her hand flutters at her side, as if she is trying to catch herself on a bulwark that doesn't exist.

  "Why would you ask such a thing?"

  "Just answer."

  "Because--because she has something he wants," the Soul Catcher sputters. "But he cannot possibly know she has it. It has be
en hidden for years. And he has been dormant."

  "Not as dormant as you'd like. He's in league with my mother," I say. "And the Warden. The old man has been passing information about Laia to someone traveling with us. A Scholar rebel."

  Shaeva's eyes widen fearfully, and she steps forward, reaching out.

  "Take my hands, Elias," she says. "And close your eyes."

  Despite the urgency of her tone, I hesitate. At my obvious wariness, the Soul Catcher's mouth hardens, and she springs forward to grab me. I yank my hands back, but her fey reflexes are swifter.

  When she takes hold, the earth beneath me twitches. I stumble as a thousand doors in my mind fly open: Laia telling me her story in the desert outside Serra; Darin speaking of the Warden; Keenan's oddities, the fact that he tracked me when he shouldn't have been able to; the rope between Laia and me that came apart in the desert . . .

  The Soul Catcher fixes her black eyes on me and opens her own mind. Her thoughts pour into my head in a white-water rush, and when she is done, she takes my memories and her knowledge and lays the fruit of that union at my feet.

  "Bleeding, burning hells." I stumble back from her and catch myself on a boulder, finally understanding. Laia's armlet--the Star. "It's him--Keenan. He's the Nightbringer."

  "Do you see it, Elias?" the Soul Catcher asks. "Do you see the web he spun to ensure his revenge?"

  "Why the games?" I push up from the boulder and pace across the bluff. "Why not just kill Laia and take the armlet?"

  "The Star is bound by unbreakable laws. The knowledge that led to its creation was given in love--in trust." She looks away, shame in her eyes. "It is an old magic meant to limit any evil the Star might be used for." She sighs. "Much good it has done."

  "The jinn living within your grove of trees," I say. "He wants to free them."

  Shaeva's eyes are troubled as she stares down into the river below. "They should not be free, Elias. The jinn were creatures of light once. But as with any living thing that is jailed for too long, their imprisonment has driven them mad. I have tried to tell this to the Nightbringer. Of all the jinn, he and I are the only two who still walk this land. But he does not listen to me."

  "We have to do something," I say. "When he gets the armlet, he'll kill Laia--"

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