"The city is lost. It belongs to Grimarr now." Skies help the poor souls who remain here under that fiend. I will not forget them. But right now, I cannot save them--not if I want to save those who do have a chance at escape. "Get out this order: Every soldier we have is to report to the Gap immediately. That is our last stand. If we stop them, that is where we will do it."
* * *
By the time Dex, my men, and I reach the Gap, just beyond the northern border of the city, the Karkaun force is on the march, bent on crushing us.
As I watch them pour out of Antium's northern gate and up the Pilgrim Road, I know that we will not win this battle. I have with me no more than a thousand men. The enemy has more than ten thousand--and thousands more they can call from the city, if they must. Even with our superior blades, we cannot beat them.
Pilgrim's Gap is a ten-foot-wide opening between two sheer cliffs that sit atop a wide valley. The Pilgrim Road curves across the valley, through the Gap and toward the Augurs' caves.
I glance back over my shoulder, away from the Karkauns. I had hoped when I arrived that the Pilgrim Road would be empty, that the evacuees would have gotten through. But there are hundreds of Martials--and Scholars, I notice--on the road and hundreds more emerging from the tunnel entrances to make their way up to the Augurs' caves.
"Get a message to Harper," I tell Dex. "Take it yourself. White smoke when the last person is through. Then he's to collapse the entrance to the caves. He is not to wait, and neither are you."
"That is an order, Lieutenant Atrius. You keep her safe. You keep my nephew safe. You see him on the throne." My friend stares at me. He knows what I am saying: that I don't want him back here. That I will die here today, with my people, and he will not.
"Duty first"--he salutes--"unto death."
I turn to my men--Masks, auxes, legionnaires. All have survived onslaught after onslaught. They are exhausted. They are broken.
I have heard many pretty speeches as a soldier. I remember none of them. So in the end, I dig up words that Keris gave me long ago--and I hope to the skies that they will come back to haunt her.
"There is success," I say. "And there is failure. The land in between is for those too weak to live. Duty first, unto death."
They roar it back at me, and we form up, row upon row of shields and spears and scims. Our archers have few arrows, but they ready what they do have. The rumble in the valley grows louder as the Karkauns surge up the rise toward us, and now my blood sings and I pull out my war hammer and snarl.
"Come on, you bastards. Come for me!"
And suddenly, the Karkauns are a distant rumble no more but a thundering, frenzied horde of thousands who want nothing more than to annihilate all that is left of us. In the pass behind us, my people cry out.
Now, I think, let us see what the Martials are made of.
* * *
After an hour, the Karkauns have ripped through the front half of our forces. All is blood and pain and brutality. Still, I fight, and the men fight beside me, as behind us, those fleeing the city continue up the road.
Faster, I think at them. For the love of the skies, go faster. We wait for the white smoke as the Karkauns keep coming, wave upon wave. Our force dwindles from five hundred men to four hundred. Two hundred. Fifty. No smoke.
The gap is too wide for us to hold it much longer. It is piled with bodies, but the Karkauns simply climb over them and down, as if the hill is made of rock and not their dead countrymen.
From the city, a hellish sound rises. It is worse than the silence of Blackcliff after the Third Trial, worse than the tortured moans of Kauf's prisoners. It is the screaming of those I left behind as they face the violence of the Karkauns. The wolves are among my people now.
We cannot falter. There are still hundreds on the Pilgrim Road and dozens emerging from the tunnels. A little more time. Just a little more.
But we do not have more time, for to my left, two more of my men fall, cut down by Karkaun arrows. My hammer slips against my palm, slick from the blood that drenches every inch of my skin. But there are more coming--too many. I cannot fight them all. I shout for aid. The only responses are the battle cries of the Karkauns.
Which is when I understand, finally, that I am alone. There is no one else left to fight at my back. All of my men are dead.
And still, more Karkauns surge over the wall of bodies. Skies, are their numbers unending? Will they ever give up?
They will not, I realize, and it makes me want to scream and cry and kill. They will tear through this pass. They will be on the evacuees like jackals upon injured rabbits.
I search the sky for white smoke--please, please. And then I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder. Stunned, I look down to see an arrow sticking out of it. I deflect the next one that comes at me, but there are more bowmen coming. Too many.
This is not happening. It cannot be. My sister is up there somewhere with the hope of the Empire held in her arms. She might not have reached the caves yet.
At the thought of her, of young Zacharias, of the two little girls who said they'd fight the Karkauns, I draw on every last bit of strength I have. I am a thing from the Barbarians' nightmares, a silver-faced, blood-drenched demon of the hells, and I will not let them pass.
I kill and I kill and I kill. But I am no supernatural creature. I am flesh and blood, and I am flagging.
Please. Please. More time. I just need more time.
But I have none. It is gone.
One day soon, you will be tested, child. All that you cherish will burn. You will have no friends that day. No allies. No comrades in arms. On that day, your trust in me will be your only weapon.
I fall to my knees. "Help me," I sob. "Please--please help me. Please--" But how can he help me if he cannot hear me? How can he offer aid if he is not here?
I whirl to find the Nightbringer standing just behind me. His hand rises and flicks, and the Karkauns stop, held back by the jinn's immense power. He surveys the carnage with dispassion. Then he turns to me but does not speak.
"Whatever you want from me, take it," I say. "Just save them--please--"
"I want a bit of your soul, Shrike."
"You--" I shake my head. I do not understand. "Take my life," I say. "If that is the price--"
"I want a bit of your soul."
I rack my mind desperately. "I don't--I don't have--"
A memory comes to me, a ghost out of the darkness: Quin's voice, weeks ago, when I gave him Elias's mask.
They become part of us, you know. It is only when they join with us that we become our truest selves. My father used to say that after the joining, a mask held a soldier's identity--and that without it, a bit of his soul was stripped away, never to be recovered.
A bit of his soul . . .
"It's just a mask," I say. "It's not--"
"The Augurs themselves placed the last piece of a long-lost weapon in your mask," the Nightbringer says. "I have known it since the day they gave it to you. All that you are, all that they molded you into, all that you have become--it was all for this day, Blood Shrike."
"I don't understand."
"Your love of your people runs deep. It was nurtured through all the years spent at Blackcliff. It grew deeper when you saw the suffering in Navium and healed the children in the infirmary. Deeper when you healed your sister and imbued your nephew with the love you have of your country. Deeper still when you saw the strength of your countrymen as they prepared for the siege. It fused with your soul when you fought for them on the walls of Antium. And now it culminates in your sacrifice for them."
"Take off my head then, for I cannot remove it," I say, sobbing. "It is part of me, a living part of my body. It has sunk into my skin!"
"That is my price," the Nightbringer says. "I will not take from you. I will not threaten you or coerce you. The mask must be offered with love in your heart."
I look back over my shoulder at the Pilgrim Ro
ad. Hundreds make their way up, and I know thousands more are in the caves. We have already lost so many. We cannot lose more.
You are all that holds back the darkness.
For the Empire. For the mothers and fathers. For the sisters and brothers. For the lovers.
For the Empire, Helene Aquilla. For your people.
I grab at my face and tear. I claw at my skin, howling, wailing, begging the mask to release me.
I don't want you anymore, I just want my people to be safe. Release me, please, release me. For the Empire, release me. For my people, release me. Please--please--
My face burns. Blood pours from where I have already clawed at the mask. Within, some essential part of me cries out at the recklessness with which I tear it away.
A mask holds a soldier's identity . . .
But I don't care about my identity. I don't even care if I am a soldier anymore. I just want my people to live, to survive to fight another day.
The mask lets me go. Blood pours down my neck, my cheeks, into my eyes. I cannot see. I can hardly move. I retch from the searing agony of it.
"Take it." My voice is as raw as the Cook's. "Take it and save them."
"Why do you offer it to me, Shrike? Say it."
"Because they are my people!" I hold it out to him, and when he does not take it, I shove it into his hands. "Because I love them. Because they do not deserve to die because I failed them!"