Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(3)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(3)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

She will be vexed with me. This isn’t the first time I’ve disappeared on her when I’m supposed to be training as Soul Catcher. Though she is a jinn, Shaeva has little skill in dealing with dissembling students. I, on the other hand, spent fourteen years concocting ways to skip out on Blackcliff’s Centurions. Getting caught at Blackcliff meant a whipping from my mother, the Commandant. Shaeva usually just glowers at me.

“Perhaps I too should institute whippings.” Shaeva’s voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. “Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?”

“Shaeva! I was just . . . ah, are you . . . steaming?” Vapor rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman.

“Someone”—she glares at me—“forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts.”

And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry . . . after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I’m sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face.

Shaeva tugs at my arm, her ever-present jinn warmth driving away the cold that has seeped into my bones. Moments later, we are miles from the border. My head spins from the magic she uses to move us so swiftly through the Forest.

At the sight of the glowing red jinn grove, I groan. I hate this place. The jinn might be locked in the trees, but they still have power within this small space, and they use it to get into my head whenever I enter.

Shaeva rolls her eyes, as if dealing with a particularly irritating younger sibling. The Soul Catcher flicks her hand, and when I pull my arm away, I find I cannot walk more than a few feet. She’s put up some sort of ward. She must finally be losing her patience with me if she’s resorting to imprisonment.

I try to keep my temper—and fail. “That’s a nasty trick.”

“And one you could disarm easily if you stayed still long enough for me to teach you how.” She nods to the jinn grove, where spirits wind through the trees. “The ghost of a child needs soothing, Elias. Go. Let me see what you have learned these past weeks.”

“I shouldn’t be here.” I give the ward a violent if ineffectual shove. “Laia and Darin and Mamie need me.”

Shaeva leans into the hollow of a tree and glances up at the snippets of star and sky visible through the bare branches. “An hour until midnight. The raid must be under way. Laia will be in danger. Darin and Afya too. Enter the grove and help this ghost move on. If you do, I will drop the ward and you can leave. Or your friends can keep waiting.”

“You’re grumpier than usual,” I say. “Did you skip breakfast?”

“Stop stalling.”

I mutter a curse and mentally arm myself against the jinn, imagining a barrier around my mind that they cannot penetrate with their evil whispers. With each step into the grove, I sense them watching. Listening.

A moment later, laughter echoes in my head. It is layered—voice upon voice, mockery upon mockery. The jinn.

You cannot help the ghosts, fool mortal. And you cannot help Laia of Serra. She shall die a slow, painful death.

The jinns’ malice spears through my carefully constructed defenses. The creatures plumb my darkest thoughts, parading images of a dead, broken Laia before me until I cannot tell where the jinn grove ends and their twisted visions begin.

I close my eyes. Not real. I open them to find Helene slain at the base of the nearest tree. Darin lies beside her. Beyond him, Mamie Rila. Shan, my foster brother. I am reminded of the battlefield of death from the First Trial so long ago—and yet this is worse because I thought I left violence and suffering behind me.

I recall Shaeva’s lessons. In the grove, the jinn have the power to control your mind. To exploit your weaknesses. I try to shake the jinn away, but they hold fast, their whispers snaking into me. At my side, Shaeva stiffens.

Hail, traitor. They slip into formal speech when they speak to the Soul Catcher. Thy doom is upon thee. The air reeks of it.

Shaeva’s jaw tightens, and immediately I wish for a weapon to shut them up. She has enough on her mind without them taunting her.

But the Soul Catcher simply lifts a hand to the nearest jinn tree. Though I cannot see her deploy the magic of the Waiting Place, she must have, because the jinn fall silent.

“You need to try harder.” She turns on me. “The jinn want you to dwell on petty concerns.”

“The fates of Laia and Darin and Mamie aren’t petty.”

“Their lives are nothing against the sweep of time,” Shaeva says. “I will not be here forever, Elias. You must learn to pass the ghosts through more swiftly. There are too many.” At my mulish expression, she sighs. “Tell me, what do you do when a ghost refuses to leave the Waiting Place until their loved ones die?”

“Ah . . . well . . .”

Shaeva groans, the look on her face reminding me of Helene’s expression when I didn’t show up to class on time.

“What about when you have hundreds of ghosts screaming to be heard all at once?” Shaeva says. “What do you do with a spirit who did horrific things in life but who feels no remorse? Do you know why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes? Do you know what will happen if you do not move the ghosts fast enough?”

“Now that you mention it,” I say, my curiosity piqued, “what will happen if—”

“If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it. Hope to the skies that you never see that day.”

She sits down heavily, sinking her head into her hands, and after a moment, I drop beside her, my chest lurching unpleasantly at her distress. This is not like when the Centurions were angry with me. I didn’t bleeding care what they thought. But I want to do well for Shaeva. We have spent months together, she and I—carrying out the duties of Soul Catcher mostly, but also debating Martial military history, bickering good-naturedly about chores, and sharing notes on hunting and combat. I think of her as a wiser, much older sister. I don’t want to disappoint her.

“Let go of the human world, Elias. Until you do, you cannot draw upon the magic of the Waiting Place.”

“I windwalk all the time.” Shaeva has taught me the trick of speeding through the trees in the blink of an eye, though she is faster than I.

“Windwalking is physical magic, simple to master.” Shaeva sighs. “When you took your vow, the magic of the Waiting Place entered your blood. Mauth entered your blood.”

Mauth. I suppress a shudder. The name is still strange on my lips. I did not know that the magic even had a name when it first spoke to me through Shaeva, months ago, demanding my vow as Soul Catcher.

“Mauth is the source of all the world’s fey power, Elias. The jinn, the efrits, the ghuls. Even your friend Helene’s healing. He is the source of your power as Soul Catcher.”

He. As if the magic is alive.

“He will aid you in passing on the ghosts if you let him. Mauth’s true power is here”—the Soul Catcher gently taps my heart, then my temple— “and here. But until you forge a soul-deep bond with the magic, you cannot be a true Soul Catcher.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re jinn. The magic is part of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. Instead it yanks at me if I stray too far from the trees, like I’m a wayward hound. And if I touch Laia, bleeding hells—” The pain is excruciating enough that thinking of it makes me grimace.

See, traitor, how foolish it was to trust this mortal bit of flesh with the souls of the dead?

At the intrusion of her jinn kin, Shaeva slams a shock wave of magic into their grove that is so powerful even I feel it.

“Hundreds of ghosts wait to pass, and more come every day.” Sweat rolls down Shaeva’s temple, as if she’s fighting a battle I cannot see. “I am much disturbed.” She speaks softly and glances into the trees behind her. “I fear the Nightbringer works against us, stealthily and with malice. But I cannot fathom his plan, and it worries me.”

“Of course he works against us. He wants to set the trapped jinn free.”

“No. I sense a dark intent,” Shaeva says. “If harm should befall me before your training is complete . . .” She takes a deep breath and collects herself.

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