An Ember in the Ashes Page 61

Arrows streak toward us from the tower, and the legionnaires have dropped level now. They draw scims and glide across the cliff face. My hand itches toward a weapon, but I resist—I have to keep hold of the ropes so we don’t plummet to the desert floor.

“Keep them off me, Hel.”

Her legs tighten around my hips and her bow twangs as she launches arrow after arrow into our pursuers.

Thwunk. Thwunk. Thwunk.

One howl of agony is joined by another and another as Helene draws and shoots, fast as lightning striking. The arrows from the tower thin as we drop, clattering off our armor uselessly. Every muscle in my arms strains to keep us dropping steadily. Almost there...almost...

Then a searing pain shoots through my left thigh. We slide fifty feet as I lose control of the descender. Helene grabs me as her head snaps back, and she screams, a girlish shriek I know I should never, ever mention.

“Damn it, Veturius!”

“Sorry,” I grind out when I get hold of the ropes. “I’m hit. They still coming?”

“No.” Helene cranes her neck back and stares up the sheer cliff face.

“They’re going back up.”

The hairs on the back of my neck rise in warning. There’s no reason for the soldiers to stop the attack. Not unless they think someone else will take over for them. I peer down at the dunes, still two hundred feet below us. I can’t tell if there’s anyone down there.

A gust of wind blows out of the desert, knocking us hard against the cliff face, and I almost lose control of the ropes again. Helene yelps, her arm tense around me. My leg burns with pain, but I ignore it—it’s just a flesh wound.

For a second, I think I hear a peal of deep, mocking laughter.

“Elias.” Helene looks out at the desert, and I know what she’s going to say before she says it. “There’s something—”

The wind steals the words from her mouth, sweeping out of the dunes with unnatural fury. I release the descender, and we drop. But not fast enough.

A violent gust rips my hands from the ropes, halting our descent. Sand from the dunes rises in a funnel around us. Before my disbelieving eyes, the particles weave together, coalescing into large, manlike shapes with grasping hands and holes for eyes.

“What are they?” Helene slashes the air uselessly with her scim, her strokes increasingly uncontrolled.

Not human and not friendly. The Augurs have already unleashed one supernatural terror on us. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume that they’d trot out another.

I reach for the ropes, now hopelessly tangled. The pain in my thigh explodes, and I look down to see the arrow being slowly pulled through my flesh by a sandy hand. The laughter echoes again as I hurriedly break off the arrowhead—I’ll be crippled for life if it’s dragged through my leg.

Sand buffets my face, biting at my skin before solidifying into another creature. This one looms over us, a miniature mountain, and although his features are poorly defined, I can still make out his wolf’s smile.

I smother my disbelief and try to think back to Mamie Rila’s stories. We’ve already dealt with wraiths, and this thing is big—not like a wight or a ghul.

Efrits are supposed to be shy, but jinn are vicious and cunning...

“It’s a jinn!” I shout over the wind. The sand creature laughs as delightedly as if I’m juggling and pulling faces.

“Jinn are dead, little Aspirant.” His screams are like a wind out of the north.

Then he swoops in close, eyes narrowing. His other brethren form up behind him, dancing and somersaulting with the zeal of acrobats at a carnival. “Destroyed by your kind long ago, in a great war. I am Rowan Goldgale, king of the sand efrits. I will claim your souls as mine.”

“Why would a king of efrits concern himself with mere humans?” Helene plays for time as I frantically untangle the ropes and straighten the descender.

“Mere humans!” The efrits behind the king hoot with laughter. “You are Aspirants. Your footsteps echo in the sand and the stars. To own souls such as yours is a great honor. You will serve me well.”

“What’s he talking about?” Helene asks me in an undertone.

“No idea,” I say. “Keep him distracted.”

“Why enslave us?” Helene asks. “When we would—ah—serve you willingly?”

“Stupid girl! In these sacks of flesh, your souls are useless. I must awaken and tame them. Only then can you serve me. Only then—”

His voice is lost in a whoosh of wind as we drop away. The efrits shriek and streak after us, surrounding and blinding us, tearing my hands from the ropes once more.

“Take them,” Rowan bays at his cohort. Helene’s grip on me loosens as an efrit works his way between us. Another pries the scim from her hand and the bow from her back, shrieking in elation as the weapons drop to the dunes.

Yet another efrit saws at our rope with a sharp rock. I draw my scim and shove it through the creature, twisting, hoping steel will kill the thing. The efrit howls—in pain or anger, I can’t tell. I try to take off its head, but it flits up out of reach, cackling nastily.

Think, Elias! The shadow-assassins had a weakness. The efrits must too.

Mamie Rila told tales about them, I know she did. But I can’t bleeding remember any of them.

“Ahhhh!” Helene’s arms jerk free of me, and she holds on with only her legs. The efrits ululate, doubling their efforts to pull her away. Rowan puts his hands on either side of her face and squeezes, imbuing her with an otherworldly gold light.

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