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 hundreds 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
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.
“You came.” The Blood Shrike weeps openly now. “You heard me, and you came. Elias, the Karkauns on the wall, they’re killing us.
They’re about to break through.”
“I did not come for you.” It is my voice she hears—the merciless monotone of a Mask. And yet it is not me. It is Mauth. Stop! I scream at him in my mind. She is my friend.
But Mauth does not listen. “I came,” I hear myself saying, “because it is my sworn duty to protect the world of the living from the realm of ghosts. Leave me to my work, Blood Shrike, and I will leave you to yours.”
I windwalk away from her, moving swiftly to the next group of possessed soldiers. Why did I do that? Why was I so cruel?
Because it is necessary. I know the answer almost before I ask the question. Because I must pass the ghosts. Because my duty must come first.
Because love cannot live here.
I skim over the wall of the city looking for the next group of wayward ghosts, nothing but a flash of darkness to the human eye. Just outside Antium’s eastern gate, the Karkauns gather and march forward with a
battering ram the size of a Mariner trade vessel. They punch through the ancient gates of Antium like a fist through a paper screen.
No one mans the wall. No pitch comes pouring down. No archers fight back. The Martials have withdrawn. A familiar, pale-skinned figure makes her way from the battle, a group of men at her back. Keris Veturia. She appears calm as she allows the gate to fall.
A great groan echoes through the air, louder than the screams of the dying and the cries of those who still fight. Wood splinters, metal screeches, and a hair-raising howl of victory rises from the ranks of the Karkauns.
The eastern gate sags open, and the Karkauns pour in. The city of Antium, founded by Taius the First, seat of the Imperator Invictus and Pearl of the Empire, is breached. The lives of its people are forfeit.
I turn away. For it is no concern of mine.