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Page 64

While she's gone, I change the dressings, but I can't stop thinking about the blast, the Nightbringer throwing me out of the way, the brother and sister who died. Skies, they were so young. That little girl couldn't have been older than ten and her little brother--Najaam--no more than seven. I promised my parents I'd keep him safe.

"I am sorry," I whisper.

I could have saved them if I had moved faster, if I had not taken the route I did. How many other Scholar children have been ordered to stay in the city? How many others have no way out? How many are expected to die along with their Martial overlords if the Karkauns take Antium? Musa's voice rings in my head. We need you as a voice for the Scholars. We need you as our scim and shield.

Though Cook told me not to, I leave the crumbling little shack in which we've taken shelter and walk outside, wincing from the way the movement pulls at the gash on my face.

The house I am in faces a large square. There are heaps of rubble on either side and more dilapidated cottages beyond them. Across the square, dozens of Scholars remove the bricks of a still-smoking shack, trying to get to those trapped inside.

Boots thud beyond the square, their rhythmic tattoo growing louder. Quick as lightning, word spreads. The Scholars disappear into their houses as the patrol marches into the square. The house I am in is set back, but still, I make my way up the stairs, dagger in hand. I crouch beside a window to watch the patrol's progress, waiting for the screams of the Scholars.

I hear only a few, from those the Martials have found and dragged out, whipping them into a line to no doubt save Martial lives from the Karkauns' destruction.

When the Martials are gone, the remaining Scholars emerge again, back at the rubble of the ruined house. I am wondering how they communicated so quickly when the stairwell creaks.

"Girl," Cook rasps, "are you here?"

When I get down the stairs, she jerks her head to the north. "Come with me," she says. "And don't ask questions." She no longer holds the gourd of tea, and I want to know what she has done with it. But I hold my tongue. As we head through the square, Cook does not spare a glance for the Scholars.

"Cook." I run to catch up with her. It's as if she knows what I am planning to ask. "These people. We could help them. Get them out of here."

"We could." She sounds utterly unsurprised at my suggestion. "And then you could watch as the Nightbringer takes the ring from the Shrike, sets his accursed subjects free, and destroys our world."

"I am the one who has to get the ring," I say. "Not you. You could rally the Scholars, show them the way out of here. You said yourself that the Karkauns will overrun the city. What do you think will happen to these people when they do?"

As I speak, we slink past a group of Scholars putting out a fire alongside Martial auxes. They are children--teenagers dragging buckets of water when they should be getting the hells out of here.

"That's not our problem," Cook hisses, and grabs me, pulling me away before the aux soldiers see us and press us into service. "I have other things to do while you get the ring."

"What other things?"

"Retribution!" Cook says. "That bitch of a Commandant is here, and by the skies, I'll--"

"You'd trade vengeance on Keris Veturia for thousands of lives?"

"Getting rid of her would save thousands more. I have waited years for this. And now, finally--"

"I don't bleeding care," I say to her. "Whatever your vengeance is, whether it works or not, it is not as important as the Scholar children who will die if there is no one to help them. Please--"

"We're not gods, girl. We can't save everyone. The Scholars have survived this long. They'll survive a bit longer. The mission is all that matters. Come now. There's little time." She nods to a building ahead. "That's the Black Guard barracks. The Shrike will be arriving within the hour. When that happens, you'll know what to do."

"What--that's it? How am I supposed to get in? How do I--"

"You need a plan that the Nightbringer can't pick out of your head," she rasps. "I've just given you one. There's a stack of clean uniforms in a basket outside the gates. Take it in and up to the laundry closet on the second floor. Watch the hallway from that closet. When the time comes, you'll know what to do. And if the Shrike threatens you, tell her I sent you. Go."

"You--why would I--do you know her?"

"Move, girl!"

I take two steps, then turn back. "Cook." I look in the direction of the Scholar neightborhood. "Please, just tell them--"

"I'll be waiting here for your return." Cook grabs my daggers from me, including the one Elias gave me, ignoring my protests as she glances about furtively. "Hurry up, or you'll get us both killed."

Uneasy without my blades, I go around to the front of the barracks. What does Cook have planned for me? How will I know what to do? I spot the basket of clean laundry and balance it against my hip. Taking a deep breath, I pass through the front gates and across the cobblestone courtyard.

The ground rumbles, and across the street, a projectile slams into a building, leveling it in seconds. The two legionnaires who guard the barracks entrance take cover, as do I. When it's clear no more missiles are coming this way, I make for the door, hoping the legionnaires will be too distracted to notice me. No such luck.

"You there." One of them holds out a hand. "We need to search the basket."

Oh skies.

"No idea why we even need uniforms," the other legionnaire says. "We're all dead anyway."

"Shut it, Eddius." The legionnaire finishes searching the basket and waves me on. "Go on, girl."

The central room of the barracks is lined with cots, perhaps for men to sleep on while taking shifts at the wall. But they all stand empty. No one in the entire damned city is sleeping through this.

Though it's clear the barracks are almost entirely abandoned, I skirt the cots carefully and skulk up the stairs, unnerved by the silence of the place. At the top of the stairs, a long hallway stretches into darkness. The doors are shut, but from behind one, clothing rustles and someone gasps in pain. I keep walking and get to a laundry closet. The cries continue. Someone must be injured.

After half an hour, the cries transform into screams. It is definitely a woman, and for a moment I wonder, is it the Shrike? Has Cook injured her? Am I supposed to go into the room and take the ring while she lies dying? I creep out of the laundry closet and inch down the hall toward the cries. A male speaks, and it sounds like he's trying to soothe the woman.

Another scream. This time I cock my head. It doesn't sound like someone who is injured. In fact, it sounds like--

"Where is she?" The woman wails, and a door in the hallway slams open. I bolt back into the laundry closet just after catching a glimpse of a woman pacing the room. At first, I think she is the Blood Shrike. But she has no mask, and she is very pregnant.

In that moment, I understand the sounds that came from the room. I understand why Cook asked me if I'd met Nelle. Nelle taught me remedies for moon-cycle pain and ways to prevent pregnancy--but she also showed me tricks for relieving pain during childbirth and afterward. I had to learn them because delivering babies was one of the very first things Pop taught me, one of the main things he did as a healer.

And I understand, finally, how I am going to get the ring from the Blood Shrike.

L: Elias

As I come up over the wall, as I force myself to ignore the havoc wreaked by the possessed Karkauns, I hear the lupine snarls of a group of Martial soldiers tearing at each other, completely possessed.

I have always loathed the city of Antium. Everything about it screams Empire, from the high, forbidding walls to the streets architected in levels to repel attack. For the first time, I am glad that the city is so quintessentially Martial. Because the forces arrayed against it--and within it--are great, and the defenses are terrifyingly flimsy.

I windwalk down the wall, racing toward the stairs that will take me to the ravening masses of possessed Martial soldiers below. There are h

undreds of ghosts to be found, magicked, and set free.

The stairs disappear two by two under my feet, and I am nearly at the bottom when I recognize a head of blonde hair ahead of me, battling through the possessed soldiers. Her face is dark with ash, streaked with tears as she swings a great war hammer, trying to knock her countrymen aside. From the west, a great groan sounds, the splintering of wood and warping of metal. The Karkauns are nearly through the gates of the city.

"Stop!" My voice, amplified by Mauth's magic, explodes across the area beneath the wall. The possessed turn to me as one, my magic drawing them in like a cobra's gaze draws a mouse.

"E-Elias?" the Blood Shrike whispers, but I do not look at her.

"Come to me," I order the spirits forward. "Release those you have possessed."

These ghosts are more feral, and they resist, curling away from me. My anger rises, and I find my hands are on my scims. But Mauth's magic takes hold, and an unnatural calm settles over me. No, part of me scrambles against the intrusion of the magic, which is more aggressive than before. Mauth is controlling my body. My mind. This isn't right.

But isn't it? I must join with the magic to become the Soul Catcher. First I needed to release my attachments to the human world. And now I must let go of myself. My identity. My body.

No, something deep within screams. No. No. No.

But how else will I move so many ghosts on? Their presence here is my fault. The suffering they've brought about is my fault. I can never undo it. All the deaths they have caused will be on my conscience until the day I pass from this earth. But I can stop it. And to do that, I must surrender.

Take over, I tell the magic. Become me.

"Release the humans you've possessed." The ghosts shy back at my order, so bewildered at their own deaths that they seek only to hold, hurt, love, feel once more. "There is nothing for you here. Only pain."

I draw them all close with the magic. Mauth sinks into my very soul with every second that passes, becoming irrevocably bonded to me. The Blood Shrike and Faris gape, and they do not see their friend Elias Veturius. They do not see the man who escaped Blackcliff, who broke his vows, who defied the Commandant and the Emperor to break into Kauf Prison. They do not see the boy they survived Blackcliff with.

They see the Soul Catcher.

The ghosts sigh and release the bodies they have possessed, passing on from this world. First dozens, then, as I let the magic take over, hundreds. The chaos fades as this small group of soldiers, at least, returns to themselves.

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