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Page 60

But a few require judgment, and those spirits take longer to deal with, for they must suffer the hurt they inflicted on others before they are free. Each time I recognize what a spirit needs, I find myself willing it forth from the magic and giving it to them.

It takes time. Long minutes pass, and I get through a dozen ghosts, then two dozen. Soon, all the ghosts in the vicinity flock to me, desperate to speak, desperate for me to see them. The villagers cry out for help, perhaps hoping my magic will offer them respite from their pain. I glance at them and see not humans but lesser creatures who are dying slowly. The humans are mortal, unimportant. The ghosts are all that matter.

The thought feels unfamiliar. Strange. As if it doesn't belong to me. But I have no time to dwell on it, for more ghosts await. I fix my gaze on them, barely twitching until the last of them has moved on, even those who found human bodies to squat in.

When I finish, I observe the devastation they've left behind. There are a dozen dead bodies that I can see and probably dozens more that I can't.

Distantly, I feel something. Sadness? I push it aside quickly. The villagers look at me with terror now--they're simple creatures, after all. In any case, it's only a matter of time before fear transforms into torches and scims and pitchforks. I'm still mortal, and I've no wish to fight them.

A young man steps forward, a hesitant look on his face. He opens his mouth, his lips forming the words thank you.

Before he can finish, I turn away. There is much work ahead of me. And in any case, I don't deserve his thanks.

* * *

Days pass in a blur of villages and towns. I find the ghosts, call to them, gather them close, and send them on. In some villages, doing so takes only an hour. In others, it takes nearly an entire day.

My connection to Mauth grows stronger, but it's not complete. I know it in my bones. The magic holds back, and I will not be a true Soul Catcher until I find a way to merge with it fully.

Soon, the magic is powerful enough that I can hone in quickly on where the ghosts are. I send hundreds on. Thousands remain. And hundreds more ghosts have been created, for the spirits wreak havoc wherever they go. One evening, I reach a town where nearly everyone is already dead, and the ghosts have already moved on to another town.

Nearly three weeks after the ghosts' escape, when night has fallen and a storm has broken over the land, I take shelter on a grassy knoll free of boulders and scrum, just a few miles from a Martial garrison. The drums of the garrison thunder--unusual this late at night, but I pay them no mind, not even bothering to translate.

Shivering in my soaked leather armor, I gather a bundle of sticks. But the rain doesn't let up, and after a half hour of trying to light the damn fire, I abandon it and hunch miserably beneath my hood.

"What's the use," I mutter to myself, "of having magic if I can't use it to make a fire?"

I expect no response, so when the magic rises, I am surprised. More so when it hovers over me, creating an invisible, cocoon-like shelter.

"Ah . . . thank you?" I poke at the magic with a finger. It has no substance, just a sense of warmth. I didn't know it could do this.

There is so much you do not yet know. Did Shaeva know Mauth well? She was always so deeply respectful of the magic--fearful, even. And like a child who watches his parents' faces for cues, I picked up on that wariness.

Did the magic feel anything when Shaeva died, I wonder? She was bound to that place for a thousand years. Did Mauth care? Did he feel angry at the Nightbringer's foul crime?

I shudder when I think of the jinn lord. When I think of who he was--a Soul Catcher who passed the spirits of humans on with such love--versus what he has become: a monster who wants nothing more than to annihilate us. In the stories Mamie told, he was only ever called the King of No Name or the Nightbringer. But I wonder if he had a true name, one us humans never deserved to know.

Though it's discomfiting, I am forced to admit that the jinn were wronged. Grievously wronged. Which doesn't make what the Nightbringer has done right. But it does complicate my view of the world--and my ability to look on him with unadulterated hatred.

When I finally arise, warm and dry due to Mauth's shelter, it's long before dawn. Immediately, I'm aware of a shift in the fabric of the world. The ghosts I'd sensed lurking in the surrounding countryside are gone. And there is something else--some new fey darkness in the world. I can't see it. And yet I know it exists.

I stand up, scanning the rolling farmland around me. The garrison is to the north. Then there are a few hundred miles of Illustrian estates. Then the capital, the Nevennes Range, Delphinium.

The magic strains north, as if wishing to drag me in that direction. As I reach out with my mind, I feel it. Chaos. Blood. A battle. And more ghosts. Except these do not come from the Waiting Place. They are fresh, new, and imprisoned by a strange fey magic that I've never before seen.

What in the ten hells?

The ghosts are, I know, sometimes drawn to conflict. Blood. Could there be a battle in the north? At this time of year, Tiborum is often harassed by the Empire's enemies. But Tiborum is due west.

Mauth nudges me to my feet, and I windwalk north, my mind ranging out over miles. I finally come across a cluster of ghosts and just ahead of it, another. More of the spirits arrow toward a specific place, wild with hunger and rage. They yearn toward bodies, toward bloodshed, toward war. I know it as surely as if the ghosts tell me themselves. What bleeding war, though? I think, bewildered. Are the Karkauns murdering Wildmen in the Nevennes again? If so, that must be where the ghosts are headed.

The drums of a nearby garrison thunder, and this time, I listen. Karkaun attack imminent. All reserve soldiers to report to South River barracks immediately. The message repeats, and I finally understand that the ghosts are not, in fact, headed to the Nevennes.

They are headed to Antium.

PART IV

SIEGE

XLVI: The Blood Shrike

The Karkauns have no catapults.

No siege towers.

No battering rams.

No artillery.

"What in the bleeding hells," I say to Dex and Avitas as I look out over the vast force, "is the point of having a hundred thousand men if you are just going to let them sit outside a city, burning through food and supplies for three days?"

Maybe this is why the Commandant plotted with the Karkauns to sneak up on Antium. She knew they'd be stupid enough that we could destroy them quickly--but not so stupid that she couldn't use the chaos they caused to her advantage.

"They are fools," Dex says. "Convinced that because they have such a large force, they will take the city."

"Or perhaps we are the fools." Marcus speaks from behind me, and the men on the wall swiftly kneel. The Emperor gestures us up and strides forward, his honor guard in lockstep behind him. "And they have something else planned."

"My lord?"

The Emperor stands beside me, hyena eyes narrowing as they sweep across the Karkaun army. The sun fades, and night will soon be upon us.

"My brother speaks to me from beyond death, Shrike." Marcus sounds calm, and there is no hint of instability in his demeanor. "He says the Karkauns bring warlock priests--one of whom is the most powerful in their history--and that these warlocks summon darkness. They have no siege weaponry because they do not need it." He pauses. "Is the city prepared?"

"We'll hold, my lord. For months, if need be."

Marcus's mouth twists. He's keeping secrets. What? What are you not telling me?

"We'll know by the Grain Moon if we will hold," he says with a chilling surety. I stiffen. The Grain Moon is in three bleeding days. "The Augurs have seen it."

"Your Majesty." Keris Veturia appears from the stairs leading up to the wall. I ordered her to shore up the eastern gates, which are the strongest and which keeps her far from both Marcus and Livia. My spies report that she is not deviating from her assigned task.

For now, anyway.

I'd wanted

to get her away from the city, but the Plebeians support her enthusiastically, and getting rid of her will only undermine Marcus further. She has too many damned allies. But at the very least, she's lost much of her Illustrian support. The Paters have, it appears, remained in their own villas the past few days, no doubt preparing for the battle to come.

"A messenger from the Karkauns has arrived," Keris says. "They seek terms."

Though Keris insists on Marcus staying behind--yet another play for power--he waves her off, and the three of us ride out, joined by Avitas at my side and by Marcus's personal guard, who form a protective half-moon around him.

The Karkaun who approaches us rides alone, bare-chested and without a flag of truce. Half of his milk-pale body is covered in woad, the other half in crude tattoos. His hair is lighter than mine, his eyes practically colorless against the woad he's used to blue them out. The stallion he rides on is enormous, and he is nearly as tall as Elias. A necklace of bones circles his thick neck twice.

Finger bones, I realize when we are closer.

Though I only saw him distantly in Navium, I know him immediately: Grimarr, the warlock priest.

"Do you have so few men, heathen"--he looks between Keris and me--"that you must ask your women to fight?"

"I was planning to cut off your head," Marcus says with a grin, "after I'd stuffed your manhood down your throat. But I think I'll let you live just so I can watch Keris gut you slowly."

The Commandant says nothing. She meets Grimarr's eyes briefly, a look that tells me, sure as if she'd spoken it, that they have met before.

She knew he was coming. And she knew he was coming with a hundred thousand men. What did she promise this monster of a man that he would do her bidding and bring a war to Antium, all so she could take the Empire? Despite the fact that the Karkauns appear to have no war strategy, Grimarr is no fool. He nearly bested us in Navium. He must be getting something more than a weeks-long siege out of this.

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