A torch against the nigh.., p.34
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.34

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

  I spot Bee, her thin arms shaking beneath a tray of dirty dishes from the mess hall. I sidle toward her, stopping often to avoid the scurrying bodies around me. She jumps when I speak in her ear, but covers her surprise swiftly.

  "Bee," I say. "In fifteen minutes, light the fire."

  She nods imperceptibly, and I move out of the kitchen and to the rotunda. The drum tower thuds six times. According to Helene, the Warden will head to the interrogation cells in a quarter-hour. No time, Laia. Move.

  I bolt up the rotunda's narrow stone staircase. It ends in a wood-beamed hallway lined with dozens of doors. Masks' quarters. Even as I get to work, the silver-faced monsters exit their quarters and head down the stairs. Every time one passes, my stomach clenches and I look down at myself, making sure my invisibility is still intact.

  "Do you smell something?" A short, bearded Mask stumps down the hall with a leaner companion, only to stop a few feet from me. He takes a deep sniff of the air. The other Mask shrugs, grunts, and moves on. But the bearded Mask continues to look about, sniffing along the walls like a hound that's caught a scent. He stops short at one of the beams I've anointed with oil, his eyes dropping to the pool gleaming at its base.

  "What in the hells . . ." As he kneels down, I slip behind him, to the end of the hallway. He spins at the sound of my footsteps, his ears keen. I feel my invisibility falter at the rasp of his scim leaving its scabbard. I grab a torch off the wall. The Mask gapes at it. Too late, I realize that my invisibility extends to the wood and pitch, but not the flame itself.

  He swings his sword, and startled, I back away. My invisibility drops entirely, a strange rippling that starts at my forehead and cascades down to my feet.

  The Mask's eyes widen, and he lunges. "Witch!"

  I throw myself out of his path, hurling the torch at the nearest pool of oil. It flares with a roar, distracting the Mask, and I use the moment to tear away from him.

  Disappear, I tell myself. Disappear! But I'm going too fast--it's not working.

  But it must work, or I'm dead. Now, I scream in my mind. The familiar ripple runs back over me just as a tall, thin figure steps out of a hallway and swivels his triangular head toward me.

  Though I wasn't sure I'd recognize him based on Helene's description, I know him immediately. The Warden.

  The Warden blinks, and I cannot tell if he saw me wink out of sight or not. I don't wait to find out. I hurl another can of blue-fire oil at his feet, rip two torches off the wall, and throw one down. When he shouts and jumps back, I swerve around him and hurtle down the stairs two by two, dropping the last can of oil as I do and pitching the final torch over my shoulder. I hear the whoosh of flame as the stair railing catches fire.

  I have no time to look back. Soldiers rush through the rotunda, and smoke pours from the hallway near the kitchens. Yes, Bee! I pivot around to the back of the staircase, the spot where Elias said he would meet me.

  A heavy thud sounds on the staircase. The Warden has leaped over the fire and stands in the rotunda. He grabs a nearby aux by the collar and snarls at him: "Have the drum tower deliver the evacuation message. Auxes are to herd the prisoners in the yard and muster a cordon of spearmen to prevent escape. Double the perimeter guard. The rest of you"--his crisp roar brings every soldier in earshot to attention--"proceed with the evacuation in an orderly fashion. The prison is under attack from within. Our enemy seeks to sow chaos. Do not let them succeed."

  The Warden turns to the interrogation cells, pulling open the door just as three Masks spill out.

  "Bleeding inferno down there, Warden," one of them says.

  "And the prisoners?"

  "Only the two, both still in their cells."

  "My medical equipment?"

  "We believe Drusius got it out, sir," another of the Masks says. "I'm certain one of the Scholar brats set the fire, acting in league with Veturius."

  "Those children are subhuman," the Warden says. "I doubt they are capable of speech, much less a plot to burn down the prison. Go--ensure the cooperation of the remaining prisoners. I will not allow my domain to descend into insanity over a bit of flame."

  "What about the prisoners down there, sir?" The first Mask nods to the stairs leading to the interrogation block.

  The Warden shakes his head as smoke billows from the doorway. "If they're not dead already," he says, "they will be in seconds. And we need every man in the yard, controlling the prisoners. Lock that door," he says. "Let them burn."

  With that, the man clears a path through the stream of black-clad soldiers, delivering orders in his high, crisp voice as he goes. The Mask he spoke to slams the interrogation door shut, throws a bolt, and secures it with a padlock. I sneak up behind him--I need his keys. But when I reach for the ring, he senses my tampering and swings his elbow back, connecting with my stomach. As I double over, gasping for air and fighting to maintain my invisibility, he peers over his shoulder but is pulled away by the rush of soldiers pouring out of the prison.

  Right. Brute force. I yank one of Elias's scims from my back and hack at the padlock, not caring about the racket. It's hardly noticeable above the roar of the approaching fire. Sparks fly, but the lock holds. Again and again I swing Elias's blade, screaming in impatience. My invisibility flickers in and out, but I don't care. I must get this lock open. My brother and Elias are down there, burning.

  We made it this far. We survived Blackcliff and the attacks in Serra, the Commandant, the journey here. It cannot end like this. I will not be done in by a bleeding, burning lock.

  "Come on!" I scream. The lock cracks, and I put all of my rage into the next blow. Sparks explode, and it finally opens. I sheathe the sword, and fling the door wide.

  Almost immediately, I drop, choking on the foul smoke pouring out. Through squinted, tear-filled eyes, I stare at what should be a staircase.

  There is nothing but a wall of flame.

  LII: Elias

  Even if the Soul Catcher hadn't welcomed me to the realm of death, an emptiness yawns at my core. I feel dead.

  "I died choking in a prison stairwell, steps from salvation?" Damn it! "I need more time," I say to the Soul Catcher. "A few hours."

  "I do not choose when you die, Elias." She helps me up, her face pained, as if she genuinely mourns my death. Behind her, other spirits jostle in the trees, watching.

  "I'm not ready, Shaeva," I say. "Laia is up there waiting for me. Her brother is beside me, dying. What did we fight for if it was just going to end like this?"

  "Few are ready for death," Shaeva sighs. She's given this speech before. "Sometimes even the very old, who have lived full lives, fight against its cold grasp. You must accept--"

  "No." I look around for some way to get back. A portal or weapon or tool I can use to change my fate. Stupid, Elias. There is no way back. Death is death.

  Nothing is impossible. My mother's words. If she were here, she'd bully, threaten, or trick the Soul Catcher into giving her the time she wanted.

  "Shaeva," I say, "you've ruled these lands for a thousand years. You know everything about death. There must be some way to go back, just for a little while."

  She turns away, her back stiff and unyielding. I pivot around her, my ghost form so swift that I see the shadow that passes across her eyes.

  "When the seizures began," I say, "you told me you were watching me. Why?"

  "It was a mistake, Elias." Shaeva's eyelashes glint with moisture. "I saw you as I saw all humans: lesser, weak. But I was wrong. I--I should never have brought you here. I opened a door that should have remained shut."

  "But why?" She's dancing around the truth. "Why did I catch your attention in the first place? It's not as if you spend all your time making moon-eyes at the human world. You're too busy with the spirits."

  I reach for Shaeva, startled when my hands pass through her. Ghost, Elias, remember?

  "After the Third Trial," she says, "you sent many to their deaths. But they were not angry. I found it strange, since murder usually r
esults in restless spirits. But these spirits didn't rage about you. Other than Tristas, they moved on quickly.

  "I didn't understand why. I used my power to see into the human world." She laces her fingers together and fixes her black gaze upon me. "In the catacombs of Serra, you ran into a cave efrit. Murderer, it called you."

  "If your sins were blood, child, you would drown in a river of your own making," I say. "I remember."

  "What it said mattered less than your reaction, Elias. You were . . ." She frowns, contemplating. "Horrified. The spirits you sent to their deaths were at peace because you mourned them. You bring pain and suffering to those you love. But you do not wish to. It is as if your very fate is to leave a trail of destruction. You are like me. Or rather, like I was."

  The Waiting Place suddenly feels colder. "Like you," I say flatly.

  "You are not the only living creature to have wandered my woods, Elias. Shamans come here sometimes. Healers too. To the living or the dead, the wailing is unbearable. Yet you didn't mind it. It took me decades to learn to communicate with the spirits. But you picked it up after a few visits."

  A hiss cuts through the air, and I spot the all too familiar glow of the jinn grove getting brighter. For once, Shaeva ignores it.

  "I tried to keep you from Laia," she says. "I wanted you to feel isolated. I wanted something from you, and so I wished you to be fearful. But after I waylaid you on your journey to Kauf, after you spoke my name, something awoke inside me. Some remnant of my better self. I realized how wrong I was to ask anything of you. Forgive me. I was so tired of this place. I only wished for release."

  The glow grows brighter. The trees seem to tremble.

  "I don't understand."

  "I wanted you to take my place," she says. "To become Soul Catcher."

  At first I think I've misheard her. "Is that why you asked me to help Tristas move on?"

  She nods. "You are human," she says. "Thus you have limits the jinn do not. I had to see if you could do it. To be Soul Catcher, you must know death intimately, but you cannot worship it. You must have lived a life in which you wished to protect others but found that all you could do was destroy. Such a life instills remorse. That remorse is a doorway through which the power of the Waiting Place can enter you."

  Shaaeeva . . .

  She swallows. I'm certain she hears the call of her kindred. "The Waiting Place is sentient, Elias. The oldest magic there is. And"--she grimaces apologetically--"it likes you. Already, it has begun to whisper its secrets to you."

  I grasp at something she told me before. "You said that when you became Soul Catcher, the Nightbringer killed you," I say, "but that he brought you back and chained you here. And now, you live."

  "This is no life, Elias!" Shaeva says. "It is living death. Always I am surrounded by the spirits. I am bound to this place--"

  "Not entirely," I say. "You left the Forest. You came all the way to get me."

  "Only because you were near my lands. Leaving for more than a few days is torture. The further afield I go, the more I suffer. And the jinn, Elias--you do not understand what it is to deal with my trapped brethren."

  SHAEVA! They cry out to her now, and she turns toward them.

  No! I shout the word in my head, and the ground beneath me shudders. The jinn fall silent. And I know, suddenly, what I must ask of her.

  "Shaeva," I say. "Make me your successor. Bring me back to life, the way the Nightbringer did for you."

  "You are a fool," she whispers, unsurprised at my request. "Accept death, Elias. You would be free of want, worry, pain. I will help you pass on, and all will be quiet and peaceful. If you become Soul Catcher, your life will be one of repentance and loneliness, for the living cannot enter the Forest. The ghosts cannot abide them."

  I cross my arms. "Maybe you're too soft on the bleeding ghosts."

  "You may not even be capable--"

  "I am capable. I helped Izzi and Tristas pass through. Do this for me, Shaeva. I'll live, save Darin, finish what I started. Then I will tend to the dead and have a chance to redeem myself in full for all that I've done." I step toward her. "You've repented long enough," I say. "Let me take over."

  "I would still have to teach you," she says, "as I was taught." A great part of her wants this, I can see it. But she is frightened.

  "Do you fear death?"

  "No," she whispers. "I fear that you do not understand the burden you ask for."

  "How long have you been waiting to find someone like me?" I wheedle. I have to get back. I have to get Darin out of Kauf. "A thousand years, right? Do you really want to stick around here for a thousand more years, Shaeva? Give me this gift. Take the one I'm offering you."

  For a second, her pain and suffering, the truth of her existence for the last millennium, is writ in her expression as clearly as if she'd screamed it out. I see the moment she decides, the moment the fear is replaced by resignation.

  "Hurry," I say. "Skies know how much time has already passed in Kauf. I don't want to get back to my body just in time for it to burn to a crisp."

  "This is old magic, Elias. It is not of jinn or man or efrit but of the earth itself. It will take you back to the moment of death. And it will hurt."

  When she takes my hands, her touch burns hotter than a Serran forge. She clenches her jaw and releases a shrill keen that shakes me to my core. Her body glows, filled with a fire that consumes her, until she is no longer Shaeva but a creature of writhing black flame. She releases my hands and spins around me so rapidly that it's as if I'm enveloped by a cloud of darkness. Though I am a ghost, I feel my essence draining away. I fall to my knees, and her voice fills my head. A deeper voice rumbles beneath it, an ancient voice, the Waiting Place itself, taking possession of her jinn body and speaking through it.

  "Son of shadow, heir of death, hear me: To rule the Waiting Place is to light the way for the weak, the weary, the fallen, and the forgotten in the darkness that follows death. You will be bound to me until another is worthy enough to release you. To leave is to forsake your duty--and I will punish you for it. Do you submit?"

  "I submit."

  A vibration in the air--the taut silence of the earth before a land tremor. Then a sound as if the sky is being torn in half. Pain--ten hells, pain--the agony of a thousand deaths, a spike through my soul. Every heartbreak, every lost opportunity, every life cut short, the torment of those left to mourn--it tears through me endlessly. This is beyond pain, the pinprick heart of pain, a dying star exploding in my chest.

  Long after I'm certain I can handle no more, the pain fades. I am left shaking on the Forest floor, filled with a rightness and a terror, like twin rivers of light and dark joining to become something else altogether.

  "It's done, Elias."

  Shaeva kneels beside me in her human form once more. Her face is streaked with tears.

  "Why so sad, Shaeva?" I wipe her tears with a thumb, feeling an ache when I see them. "You're not alone anymore. We're comrades in arms now. Brother and sister."

  She does not smile. "Only until you are ready," she says. "Go, brother. Return to the human world and finish what you have begun. But know you do not have much time. The Waiting Place will call you back. The magic is your master now, and it does not like its servants to be away for long."

  I will myself back to my body, and when I open my eyes I see Tas's frantic face. My limbs are free of the exhaustion I've felt for ages.

  "Elias!" Tas sobs with relief. "The fire--it is everywhere! I cannot carry Darin!"

  "You don't have to." I still ache from the interrogations and the beatings, but with the poison gone from my blood, I understand, for the first time, how it stole away my life bit by bit until it seemed to me that I had always been a shadow of myself.

  The fire blasts up the stairwell and races along the beams above, creating a wall of flames behind and ahead.

  Light flares above, visible through the fire. Shouts, voices, and for the briefest moment, a familiar figure beyond the flames.
/>
  "The door, Tas!" I shout. "It's open!" At least, I think it's open. Tas staggers to his feet, dark eyes filled with hope. Go, Elias! I throw Darin over one shoulder, sweep the Scholar child up in my arm, and fly up the stairs, through the wall of flame, and into the light beyond.

  LIII: Helene

  The men of Gens Veturia surround my parents and sisters. The courtiers look away, embarrassed and frightened by the sight of my family having their arms twisted around their backs, marched to the throne, and forced to their knees like common criminals.

  Mother and Father submit to the manhandling silently, and Livvy only casts me an imploring look, as if I can somehow fix this.

  Hannah fights--scratching, kicking at the soldiers, her intricate blonde coiffure collapsing about her shoulders. "Don't punish me for her betrayal, Your Majesty!" she screams. "She's no sister of mine, my lord. She's no kin of mine."

  "Quiet," he roars at her, "or I'll kill you first." She falls silent. The soldiers turn my family to face me. The silk-and-fur-clad courtiers on either side of me shift and whisper, some horror-struck, others barely restraining their glee. I spot the new Pater of Gens Rufia. At the sight of his cruel smile, I remember his father's scream as Marcus cast him over Cardium Rock.

  Marcus paces behind my family. "I did think we would have the executions at Cardium Rock," he says. "But as so many of the Gens are represented here, I don't see why we shouldn't just get this over with."

  The Commandant steps forward, her eyes fixed on my father. He saved me from torture, against her wishes. He calmed angry Gens when she attempted to sow dissent, and he aided me when his negotiations failed. Now she will have her vengeance. A raw, animal hunger lurks in her eyes. She wants to tear my father's throat out. She wants to dance in his blood.

  "Your Majesty," she croons. "I'd be happy to assist in the execution--"

  "No need, Commandant," Marcus says levelly. "You've done enough already." The words carry a strange weight, and the Commandant eyes the Emperor, suddenly wary.

  I thought you would be safe, I want to say to my family. The Augurs told me--

 
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