Ciena tried to stand, but she only got as far as one knee. The world shook and spun, threatening to send her back into the snow.
"Raider!" The Battlemaster's voice sounded far away, as if through water.
Bullets soared past her ears, shattering their ranks.
Another student knocked her over in his retreat, and her face hit the snow again.
A pair of strong hands grabbed her shoulders, hauling her to her feet.
"Go!" Vash bellowed. Even as she struggled to stand, he shoved her away from the approaching horde. "Get inside!"
Ciena turned to see the rest of the battleclans retreating up the hill into the academy's inner-courtyard. She staggered to keep up, and Vash followed close behind. They passed under the stone archway, and the wooden doors slammed shut a second later.
At least all the noncombatants would be safe underground. By now, it must've been ten minutes since she sounded the alarm. A few minutes later, and they'd all be getting slaughtered out there beyond the gate.
Ciena's breath still echoed hard in her ears, drowning out the shouts. Her vision was a blur, and she whirled around in search of someone she knew.
Elias? She tried to call his name, but the words didn't come.
Members of Bear, Fox, Raven Clan scattered around her, fear and confusion plain on their faces. There was no sense of order, and half of them hadn't even drawn their weapons yet.
The wooden doors shook with the force of a battering ram. The Templars were coming through, and the battleclans were all that stood between them and the lower levels.
"Form ranks!" The Battlemaster roared over the cacophony.
Veterans and Seekers moved to obey, and her peers struggled to remember their training.
"Swords out," another of the Seekers shouted. "Archers to the wall,"
Vash climbed a small snowbank at the front of the army, then turned to address them. His dark cloak thrashed in the wind as he raised his blade.
"Did you see them?" He shouted louder than Ciena had ever heard. "Those are Templars coming through those doors! They live to kill our kind, and now they're coming for us. "
A short pause followed as he met their eyes. "I know that you're afraid, but never forget who we are. We are Aeons; the descendants of legends. Each one of you is worth a hundred Templars, and tonight we're going to show them that."
Vash thrust his arm toward the shaking wooden doors. "Seekers, Soldiers, Battleclans of Whitecliff. This is what you've been trained for. This is what you've been preparing for your whole lives. Fight now! Fight now for Whitecliff!"
The crowd broke into a roar, and Ciena set her jaw, drawing her own sword as the rain pelted her face. Lightning struck again, and she drew in a breath, letting it fill her with strength and resolve, just as it had that day in the Gorge when she defeated Wolfe Clan.
Only this time she wasn't fighting for glory. She was fighting to defend her home and her race.
The doors groaned louder as the battering ram ripped them apart. Shards of wood flew out, and Ciena made her way to the front lines.
Nahlia paced back and forth in her cell, listening to the chaos outside. The ringing of the warning bells, roaring thunder and gunfire, the battle cries of each side as they clashed.
Thane was telling the truth this time, but had she been too late? Would they have enough time to evacuate? Nahlia would never forgive herself if—
She paused as heavy boots stormed down the corridor. She shoved her necklace in her pocket and tried to make herself small in the shadows.
Unfortunately, prison cells weren't known for their spectacular hiding spots. The best she could do was lay flat on the ground beneath Ciena's fur cloak.
Flickering torchlight rounded the corner as the footsteps grew louder. Five or six of them at least.
"These cells are empty too," one of the voices said.
"Quit complaining," an older man shot back. "You'd rather be down there in the vanguard?"
"Hell yeah I would," the younger one replied. "Came here to kill Aeons, didn't we? Bad enough the Knight Commander had us in that castle for—"
"Hold up," a third voice broke in, thick and raspy. "Think I found one."
Nahlia heard the click of a firearm, and her head popped out just in time to see a pistol slide it between the iron bars.
She scrambled against the door. An explosion sounded, and the bullet hit the ice where she'd been lying.
"Damnit," the Templar sneered.
"Outta the way." The older voice again. "I'll take care of this one."
"No, wait!" Nahlia sprang to her feet, raising her hands in submission. "I'm a human!"
That gave them pause. She leaned into the torchlight, gesturing to her dark eyes. "Just look."
The officer grabbed her by the cloak. He had a wrinkled face and a short gray beard. 'Where you from, girl?"
She swallowed. "Northshire."
"And what do the Aeons want with you?"
"My father's a Templar," she stammered. "They caught me spying—trying to help him."
His eyes narrowed again. "What's your father's name?"
"I..." She shuffled, and her necklace fell from her cloak pocket, filling the cell with blinding white light.
"It's a trick!" The younger man exclaimed. "That's Etherite, that is."
"No!" Nahlia struggled to break free from his grip.
"Sorry." The officer brought his pistol to her forehead. "No survivors."
"Let her go," Another voice said from down the corridor.
The officer turned to look, and a throwing knife took him in the eye.
Nahlia pushed him back, and his gunshot hit the cave ceiling.
The others took up swords against their assailant, but Elias Raider was too quick. He charged forward, spinning his dual blades as swift as quicksilver.
"Evening, Nahlia," he called out over the clash of steel. He parried, dodged and whirled around, running his katana through another man's shoulder.
"Elias!" She pointed. "Behind you!"
He turned to see a larger Templar charge him with a shield, pinning him up against the wall. Both his arms were trapped, and he couldn't swing his swords. Elias tried to push back, but the other man was built like a blacksmith.
A crelan darted down the tunnel next, leaping onto the man's back. In the same motion, he ran a dagger across his throat.
The last Templar slashed at the crelan. Yimo dismounted his victim, dodging the next few attacks. He made a faint at the man's face, then dropped and spun to an ankle-sweep.
The Templar fell in the shadows beyond the torchlight. Nahlia heard the sound of steel breaking skin.
A moment of silence followed, and the smell of death filled her nostrils. Yimo made no quip as he cleaned his blade on the fallen man's cloak. For once, the crelan's face was solemn, and his hands were shaking.
Still gasping for breath, Elias pulled out the keyring and unlocked the door to Nahlia's cell. "You alright?"
Nahlia gave a brisk nod, stepping around the bodies. "Thanks."
"We better get underground," Yimo said. "They'll send half the army this way once they realize their squads are missing."
Ciena swung her sword in a broad arc, spraying water and blood as she sheared through the neck of a Templar soldier. No matter how many she killed, more always followed.
She thought she saw Howler Clan fighting to her right, but she didn't dare look. One wrong move could mean her end. Ciena let the battle rage take her as she slashed and parried, emptying her world of all but the present moment.
A Templar tried to push through, and she stabbed him in the kidney. She reverse-swung just in time to open another's throat. Ice and blood clouded her vision, but she didn't let go of her sword. Not for one second.
Despite everything, the Templars continued to gain ground in the inner courtyard. Shield-bearers and pikemen replaced the line of swordsmen, forming a wall around the broken gate. The shields were as tall as her, and wide as tree trunks.
Ciena struck a shield, but the steel was thicker than her sword. Someone from Howler Clan tried to push through the gaps, but a Templar ran him through with a spear. Even the archers didn't slow them now.
We need to pull back.
Ciena couldn't see the battle around her, but she felt the struggle in her comrades. She felt it in the currents of the Ethereal that bound their minds. Their anger, their fear, their desperation.
Worst of all, she heard their dying shouts over the clash of steel. Familiar voices. People she'd trained with for years.
Inch by inch, the shield-bearers kept up the forward match. Gunshots followed, and the archer's bodies rained down from the wall above.
"Pull back!" Vash finally gave the order as the Templars prepared a second volley.
Ciena saw two members of Wolfe Clan fall into the snow, screaming in pain. One bullet took Ceathen in the head. Another took Marcus in the back as he fled.
There was no time to help them. No time to think. Ciena pushed through the fleeing stampede and dashed for the safety of the tunnels.