“You sly, conniving little mongrel.” Drusius grabs Tas by the neck. “I knew you had something to do with this.”
Begging the skies for enough strength to at least knock Drusius off his feet, I spring forward. He sidesteps and shoves me into a wall. Just a month ago, I’d have been able to use his brutish attack to get the best of him. But the poison and the interrogations have stripped me of my swiftness. Before I can stop him, Drusius wraps his hands around my neck and presses. A streak of filthy blond hair flashes past. Darin dives into Drusius’s stomach, and the Mask stumbles.
I cough for breath and drop to one knee. Even during the Commandant’s whippings or the Centurions’ harsh training, I sensed my own resilience, buried deep where it could not be touched. But now, as I watch Drusius flip Darin onto his back and knock him senseless with a blow to the temple, I cannot harness that strength. I cannot find it.
“Elias!” Tas is beside me, shoving a knife into my hand. I make myself lunge at Drusius. My leap is more like a crawl, but I have enough fighter’s instinct left to drive the dagger into the Mask’s thigh and twist. He howls and grabs me by the hair, but I stab his leg and stomach again and again, until his hands stop moving.
“Get up, Elias.” Tas is frantic. “The fire is spreading too swiftly!”
“You can—you must.” Tas pulls at me now, using all of his weight. “Pick up Darin! Drusius has knocked him out!”
My body is frail and slow, so slow. It is worn out by the seizures, the beatings, the interrogation, the poison, the endless punishment of the past few months.
“Rise, Elias Veturius.” Tas smacks my face, and I blink at him in surprise. His eyes are fierce. “You gave me a name,” he says. “I want to live to hear it on the lips of others. Rise.”
I growl as I drag myself to my feet, as I move to Darin, kneel, and lift him over my shoulders. I stagger at his weight, though Kauf has left him far lighter than a man of his height should be.
Desperately hoping that no other Masks emerge, I lurch toward the stairs. The interrogation block is fully engulfed now, the beams of the roof aflame, the smoke so thick that I can hardly see. I stumble up the stone steps, Tas steadfast at my side.
Break it down to what you can do. One foot. One inch. The words are a garbled chant in my head, fainter and fainter when faced with the screaming panic of my failing body. What will happen at the top of the stairwell? We’ll open the door to chaos or order, and either way, I don’t know if I’ll be able to carry Darin out of the prison.
The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. I’m not ready for my release. Not yet. Not yet.
Darin’s body grows heavier by the second, but I can see the door that leads out into the prison now. I reach for the handle, pull it down, push.
It does not open.
“No!” Tas leaps up, clawing at the door handle, pushing with all of his might.
Open it, Elias. I drop Darin and yank at the enormous handle, peering at the locking mechanism. I fumble for makeshift lock picks, but when I shove one into the lock, it breaks.
There must be another way out. I spin around and drag Darin halfway down the stairwell. The wood beams that hold up the weight of the stone have caught fire. Flame races overhead, and I am convinced that the world has dropped away but for Darin, Tas, and me.
The shudders of a seizure take me, and I sense the approach of an inexorable darkness that dwarfs everything I’ve endured until now. I fall, my body worse than useless. I can only sputter and choke as Tas leans over me, shouting something I cannot hear.
Is this what my friends felt in the moment of death? Were they also consumed by this futile rage, made more insulting because it meant nothing? Because, in the end, Death would take his due, and nothing could stop him?
Elias, Tas mouths at me, his face streaked with tears and soot. Elias!
His face and voice fade.
Then a familiar presence. A quiet voice.
“Arise.” The world comes back into focus, and I find the Soul Catcher leaning over me. The stark, empty boughs of the Forest of Dusk stretch like fingers overhead.
“Welcome, Elias Veturius.” Her voice is infinitely gentle and kind, as if she’s talking to an injured child, but her eyes are the same empty black they’ve been since I’ve known her. She takes my arm like an old friend would. “Welcome to the Waiting Place, the realm of ghosts. I am the Soul Catcher, and I am here to help you cross to the other side.”
Avitas and I arrive in Antium just as Rathana dawns. As our horses clatter through the city gates, stars still glint above and sunrise has not yet graced the jagged mountains to the east of the city.
Though Avitas and I scoped out the land around the capital, we saw no sign of an army. But the Commandant is clever. She might have slipped her forces into the city and hidden them in multiple places. Or she might be waiting until nightfall to unleash her attack.
Faris and Dex join up with us as we enter the city, having spotted our approach from one of the watchtowers.
“Hail, Shrike.” Dex clasps my hand as he steers his horse to fall in with mine. He looks like he hasn’t slept in a year. “The Masks of the Black Guard are deployed and await your orders. I had three squads secure the Emperor. Another squad is out scouting for the army. The rest have taken over the city guard.”