Excerpt from A Torch Against the Night
(An Ember in the Ashes 2, book #2)
by Sabaa Tahir
Chapter 1: Laia
How did they find us so fast?
Behind me, the catacombs echo with angry shouts and the screech of metal. My eyes dart to the grinning skulls lining the walls. I think I hear the voices of the dead.
Be swift, be fleet, they seem to hiss. Unless you wish to join our ranks.
“Faster, Laia,” my guide says. His armor flashes as he hastens ahead of me through the catacombs. “We’ll lose them if we’re quick. I know an escape tunnel that leads out of the city. Once we’re there, we’re safe.”
We hear a scrape behind us, and my guide’s pale eyes flick past my shoulder. His hand is a gold-brown blur as it flies to the hilt of a scim slung across his back.
A simple movement full of menace. A reminder that he is not just my guide. He is Elias Veturius, heir to one of the Empire’s finest families. He is a former Mask—an elite soldier of the Martial Empire. And he is my ally—the only person who can help me break my brother Darin out of a notorious Martial prison.
In one step, Elias is beside me. In another, he is in front, moving with unnatural grace for someone so big. Together, we peer down the tunnel we have just passed through. My pulse thuds in my ears. Any elation I felt at destroying Blackcliff Academy or rescuing Elias from execution has vanished. The Empire hunts us. If it catches us, we die.
Sweat soaks through my shirt, but despite the rank heat of the tunnels, a chill runs across my skin and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I think I hear a growl, like that of some sly, hungry creature.
Hurry, my instincts scream at me. Get out of here.
“Elias,” I whisper, but he brushes a finger against my lips—shh—and tugs a knife free from the half dozen strapped across his chest.
I pull a dagger from my belt and try to hear beyond the clicking of tunnel tarantulas and my own breathing. The prickling sense of being watched fades—replaced by something worse: the smell of pitch and flame; the rise and fall of voices getting closer.
Elias touches my shoulder and points to his feet, then mine. Step where I step. So carefully that I fear to breathe, I mimic him as he turns and heads swiftly away from the voices.
We reach a fork in the tunnel and veer right. Elias nods to a deep, shoulder-high hole in the wall, hollow but for a stone coffin turned on its side.
“In,” he whispers, “all the way to the back.”
I slide into the crypt, suppressing a shudder at the loud crrrk of a resident tarantula. A scim Darin forged hangs across my back, and its hilt clanks loudly against the stone. Stop fidgeting, Laia—no matter what’s crawling around in here.
Elias ducks into the crypt after me, his height forcing him into a half crouch. In the tight space, our arms brush, and he draws a sharp breath. But when I look up, his face is angled toward the tunnel.
Even in the dim light, the gray of his eyes and the sharp lines of his jaw are striking. I feel a jolt low in my stomach—I’m not used to his face. Only an hour ago, as we escaped the destruction I wrought at Blackcliff, his features were hidden by a silver mask.
He tilts his head, listening as the soldiers close in. They walk quickly, their voices echoing off the walls of the catacombs like the clipped calls of raptor birds.
“—probably went south. If he had half a brain, anyway.”
“If he had half a brain,” a second soldier says, “he’d have passed the Fourth Trial, and we wouldn’t be stuck with Plebeian scum as emperor.”
The soldiers enter our tunnel, and one pokes his lantern into the crypt across from ours. “Bleeding hells,” he recoils quickly at the sight of whatever lurks within.
Our crypt is next. My belly twists, my hand shakes on my dagger.
Beside me, Elias releases another blade from its sheath. His shoulders are relaxed, his hands loose around the knives. But when I catch sight of his face—brows furrowed, jaw tight—my heart clenches. He meets my gaze, and for a breath, I see his anguish. He does not wish to deliver death to these men.
But if they see us, they will alert the other guards down here, and we’ll be neck-deep in Empire soldiers. I squeeze Elias’s forearm. He slides his hood over his head and pulls a black kerchief up to hide his face.
The soldier approaches, his footsteps heavy. I can smell him—sweat and iron and dirt. Elias’s grip on his knives tightens. His body is coiled like a wildcat waiting to strike. I clamp a hand onto my armlet—a gift from my mother. Beneath my fingers, the armlet’s familiar pattern is a balm.
The light from the lantern reaches the edge of the crypt, the soldier lifts it—
Suddenly, further down the tunnel, a thud echoes. The soldiers spin, draw steel, and hurry to investigate. In seconds, the light from their lantern fades, the sound of their footsteps fainter and fainter.
Elias releases a pent breath. “Come on,” he says. “If that patrol was sweeping the area, there will be more. We need to get to the escape passage.”
We emerge from the crypt, and a tremor rumbles through the tunnels, shaking dust loose and sending bones and skulls clattering to the ground. I stumble, and Elias grabs my shoulder, backing me into the wall and flattening himself beside me. The crypt remains intact, but the ceiling of the tunnel cracks ominously.
“What in the skies was that?”
“It felt like a land tremor,” Elias takes a step away from the wall and eyes the ceiling. “Except Serra doesn’t have land tremors.”
We cut through the catacombs with new urgency. With every step I expect to hear another patrol, to see torches in the distance.
When Elias stops, it is so sudden that I barrel into his broad back. We’ve entered a circular burial chamber with a low, domed ceiling. Two tunnels branch out ahead of us. Torches flicker in one, almost too far away to make out. Crypts pock the chamber walls, each guarded by a stone statue of an armored man. Beneath their helmets, skulls glare out at us. I shiver, stepping closer to Elias.
But he does not look at the crypts, or the tunnels, or the distant torches.
He stares at the little girl in the center of the chamber.
She wears tattered clothing. Her hand is pressed to a leaking wound in her side. She has the fine features of a Scholar, but when I try to see her eyes, she drops her head, dark hair falling into her face. Poor thing. Tears mark a path down her dirt-streaked cheeks.
“Ten hells, it’s getting crowded down here,” Elias mutters. He takes a step toward the girl, hands out, as if dealing with a scared animal. “You shouldn’t be here, love.” His voice is gentle. “Are you alone?”
She lets out a tiny sob. “Help me,” she whispers.
“Let me see that cut. I can bandage it.” Elias drops to one knee so he’s at her level, the way my grandfather did with his youngest patients. She shies away from him and looks toward me.
I step forward, my instincts urging caution. The girl watches. “Can you tell me your name, little one?” I ask.
“Help me,” she repeats. Something about the way she avoids my eyes makes my skin prickle. But then, she’s been ill-treated—likely by the Empire—and now she faces a Martial who is armed to the roots of his hair. She must be terrified. She inches back, and I glance at the torch-lit tunnel. Torches mean we’re in Empire territory. It’s only a matter of time before soldiers happen by.
“Elias.” I nod at the torches. “We do not have time. The soldiers—”
“We can’t just leave her.” His guilt is plain as day. The deaths of his friends days ago in the Third Trial weigh on him; he doesn’t wish to cause another. And we will, if we leave the girl here alone to die of her wounds.
“Do you have family in the city?” Elias asks her. “Do you need—”
“Silver,” she tilts her head. “I need silver.”
Elias’s eyebrows shoot up. I cannot blame him. It is not what I expected either.
“Silver?” I say. “We don’t—”
“Silver,” she shuffles sideways like a crab. I think I see the too-quick flash of an eye through her limp hair. Strange. “Coins. A weapon. Jewelry.”
She glances at my neck, my ears, my wrists. With that look, she gives herself away.
I stare at the tar-black orbs where her eyes should be, and scrabble for my dagger. But Elias is already in front of me, scims glimmering in his hands.
“Back away,” he snarls at the girl, every inch a Mask.
“Help me.” The girl lets her hair fall into her face once more and puts her hands behind her back, a twisted caricature of a wheedling child. “Help.”
At my clear disgust, her lips curl in a sneer that looks obscene on her otherwise sweet face. She growls—the guttural sound I heard earlier. This was what I sensed was watching us. This was the presence I felt in the tunnels.
“I know you have silver,” a rabid hunger underlies the creature’s little-girl voice. “Give it to me. I need it.”
“Get away from us,” Elias says. “Before I take off your head.”
The girl—or whatever it is—ignores Elias and fixes her eyes on me. “You don’t need it, little human. I’ll give you something in return. Something wonderful.”
“What are you?” I whisper.
She whips her arms out, her hands glowing with strange viridescence. Elias flies toward her, but she tears past him and fastens her fingers on my wrist. I scream, and my arm glows for less than a second before she is flung backward, howling, clutching her hand as if it is on fire. Elias pulls me to my feet from the dirt where I am sprawled, pitching a dagger at the girl at the same time. She dodges it, still shrieking.
“Tricky girl!” She darts away as Elias lunges for her again, her eyes only for me. “Sly one! You ask what am I, but what are you?”
Elias swings at her, sliding one of his scims across her neck. He’s not fast enough.
“Murderer!” she whirls on him. “Killer! Death himself! Reaper walking! If your sins were blood, you would drown in a river of your own making.”
Elias reels back, shock etched into his eyes. Light flickers in the tunnel. Three torches, moving toward us swiftly.
“Soldiers coming,” the creature whirls to face me. “I’ll kill them for you, honey-eyed girl. Lay their throats open. I already led away the others following you, back in the tunnel. I’ll do it again. If you give me your silver. He wants it. He’ll reward us if we bring it to him.”
Who in the skies is he? I don’t ask, only bring up my dagger in response.
“Stupid human!” the girls clenches her fists. “He’ll get it from you. He’ll find a way.” Then she turns toward the tunnel. “Elias Veturius!” I flinch. Her scream is so loud they probably heard her in Antium. “Elias Vetu—”
Her words die as Elias’s scim rips through her heart. “Efrit efrit of the cave,” he says. Her body slides, lands with a solid thump, like a boulder falling. “Likes the dark but fears the blade.”
“Old rhyme.” He sheathes his scims. “Never realized how handy it was until recently.”
Elias grabs my hand, and we bolt into the unlit tunnel. Maybe through some miracle, the soldiers didn’t hear the girl. Maybe they didn’t see us. Maybe, maybe—
No such luck. I hear a shout and the thunder of bootsteps behind us.