Chapter no 45 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

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: Grímarr, 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 Grímarr’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, Grímarr is no fool. He nearly bested us in Navium. He must be getting something more than a weeks-long siege out of this.

“Deliver your message quickly.” Marcus pulls out a blade and casually polishes it. “I’m already wondering if I should change my mind.”

“My brother warlocks and I demand that you give up the city of Antium. If you do so immediately, your elderly will be exiled instead of executed, your fighting men enslaved instead of tortured and put to the pyre, and your women and daughters taken to wife and converted instead of raped and debased. If you do not give up the city, we will take it by the Grain Moon. This I vow to you on the blood of my mother and father and unborn children.”

Avitas and I exchange a glance. The Grain Moon—again. “How do you plan to take the city?” I say. “You have no siege


“Silence, heathen. I speak to your master.” Grímarr keeps his attention on Marcus even as my hand itches for my war hammer. “Your answer, my lord?”

“You and your corpse-stroking warlocks can take your terms with you to the hells—where we will shortly send you.”

“Very well.” Grímarr shrugs, as if he expected no less, and wheels his horse away.

When we are back within the city, Marcus turns to Keris and me. “They will strike within the hour.”

“My Lord Emperor,” Keris says, “how—”

“They will strike, and we must be ready, for it will be swift and hard.” Marcus is distracted, head tilted as he listens to whatever secrets his brother’s ghost whispers. “I will command the men at the western gate.

Keris, the Shrike will inform you of your duties.”

His cape whips behind him as he walks away, and I turn to Keris. “Take the eastern wall,” I say. “The defense is weakest near the central gate. Hold it, or the first level will be overrun.”

The Commandant salutes, and though her face is carefully neutral I can sense the smugness rolling off of her. What the bleeding hells is she up to now?

“Keris.” Perhaps this is a lost cause, but I say it anyway. “I know this was you,” I say. “All of it. I assume you believe you can hold off the Karkauns long enough to rid yourself of Marcus and Livia. Long enough to rid yourself of me.”

She merely watches me.

“I know what you desire,” I say. “And this siege you’ve brought upon the city tells me how badly you wish for it. But there are hundreds of

thousands of Martials—”

“You don’t know what I want,” Keris says softly. “But you will.


She turns and stalks away, the Plebeians nearby cheering her name as she passes.

“What the bleeding hells is that supposed to mean?” I turn to Avitas, who is at my back. My hand is slick, clenched around the hilt of my dagger. My every instinct screams that something is wrong. That I have irrevocably underestimated Keris. “She wants the Empire,” I say to Avitas. “What else could she possibly be after?”

He doesn’t get a chance to answer. Panicked shouts rise from the wall. When Avitas and I reach the walkway that runs along the massive structure, I understand why.

The sky is illuminated by the light of scores of pyres. Skies only know how Grímarr disguised them, because I’d have sworn those pyres weren’t there moments ago. Now they dominate the field, their flames shooting high into the sky.

Grímarr circles the largest pyre, muttering incantations. From this distance I should not be able to hear him. Yet the malice of his magic taints the very air, the words snaking beneath my skin.

“Ready the catapults.” I give Dex the order. “Ready the archers. The Emperor was right. They’re making their move.”

Down in the Karkaun camp, bound figures are brought toward the pyres, twisting in panic. At first, I think they are animals, part of some sort of ritual sacrifice.

Howls fill the air. And I realize it is a sacrifice. “Bleeding hells,” Dex says. “Are those—” “Women.” My stomach churns. “And . . . children.”

Their screams echo across the Karkaun camp, and when one of my men retches over the wall, I cannot blame him. Even from here, I can smell burned flesh. Grímarr chants and the Karkauns echo him, soon accompanied by the steady, deep beat of a drum.

The Martials on the wall are well and truly rattled now, but I walk back and forth among them. “Courage in the face of their barbaric ways,” I shout. “Courage, lest they bring their darkness upon us all.”

The chanting slows, each word drawn out longer until it is one unending low hum that seems to arise from the earth itself.

A distant howl tears through the air, high-pitched, like the screams of those on the pyres but with an unearthly tinge that raises the hair on my arms. The pyres go out. The sudden darkness is blinding. As my eyes

adjust, I realize the humming has stopped. Scraps of white rise from the pyres, looking for all the world like—

“Ghosts,” Harper says. “They’re summoning ghosts.”

From the Karkaun camp, screams arise from the men as the ghosts turn on them and plunge into the army, disappearing. Some of the men appear unchanged. Others jerk as if battling something none of us can see, their unnatural movements visible even from here.

Silence descends. Then the thunder of feet, thousands upon thousands of people moving at once.

“They’re rushing the walls,” I say disbelievingly. “Why would they


“Look at them, Shrike,” Harper whispers. “Look at how they’re moving.”

The Karkauns are indeed rushing the walls. But they run with inhuman speed. When they reach the forest of pikes poking out of the ground two hundred yards from Antium, instead of impaling themselves the Karkauns leap over them with unnatural strength.

Shouts of alarm sound from the Martials as the Karkauns come closer.

Even from a distance, their eyes glow a startling, pure white. They’re possessed by the ghosts raised by their warlocks.

“Avitas,” I say so quietly that no one else can hear. “The evacuation plan. It is ready? All are in place? You have cleared the way?”

“Yes, Shrike.” Harper turns from the approaching horde. “All is prepared.”

“Then see it done.”

He hesitates, about to launch a protest. But I am already moving. “Catapults!” I call to the drummer, who pounds out the message.

“Fire at will!”

Within seconds, the catapults rumble and flaming projectiles fly over the walls toward the possessed Karkauns. Many go down—but more dodge the projectiles, moving with that eerie speed.

“Archers!” I shout. “Fire at will!” With breathtaking swiftness, Grímarr’s possessed soldiers have blown past the markers we set out on the field.

A hail of flaming arrows rains down on the Karkauns. It hardly slows them. I order the archers to fire again and again. Some of the Karkauns fall, but not enough. No wonder they didn’t have any bleeding siege machines.

An alarm goes up from the men, and less than a hundred yards away, a group of possessed Karkauns lift massive glowing missiles, seemingly

unbothered by their flames, and fling them at Antium. “It’s—it’s not possible,” I whisper. “How can they—”

The missiles fly into the city, smashing into buildings and soldiers and watchtowers. The drummers immediately issue a call for the water brigades. The archers fire volley after volley, and legionnaires reload the catapults as fast as they can.

As the Karkauns close on the walls, I hear their hungry, beast-like snarls. Too quickly, they are past the trenches, past the secondary forest of pikes planted at the base of the walls to deflect a human army.

We have no defense now. In the space of minutes, the battle will go from strategy and tactics thought up in a distant room to the short, desperate strokes of men fighting for their next breath.

So be it. The Karkauns begin to scale the wall, brandishing their weapons as if they are possessed by demons of the hells. I draw my war hammer.

And then I roar the attack.

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