A thick mist fell over the forest floor, shrouding Thane's vision. They had spent half the day trudging through the woods, and the other half waiting and planning on the outskirts of the city.
According to Relyn, the rogue Templars held Ciena Raider deep within the mine at the town's eastern edge. She counted well over sixty of them, armed with rifles and swords. They even had a score of horses.
Apparently, the Templars planned to abandon their shelter and set out for Raidenwood the next morning, which meant Thane and the others couldn't wait around for reinforcements.
Starglade might’ve been more defensible than a camp on the road, but the town was also too large for fifty men to hold. As a result, the Templars had spread their ranks too thin between the various buildings.
Thane suppressed a shiver as he knelt by a tall pine. The wind blew thick with snow, and its icy fingers found every gap in his clothing.
The town itself was a blur of orange at the bottom of the hill. It seemed peaceful now, but it was already a battleground.
He glanced to his right for the tenth time, waiting for the signal. Finally, he spotted a speck of white light on the horizon.
Here we go.
Orders sounded from below as a squad of Templars prepared to investigate . Footsteps echoed over the snow-covered hill, and Thane's stomach twisted at the prospect of fighting so many with nothing but a katana.
Still, he would sooner die than let himself become the least valuable member of this group. Ethermancy or no, he would lead the charge down this hill and pretend fear wasn't digging its claws in.
The white speck moved closer, revealing the form of a young woman beneath a hooded cloak.
A dozen Templars charged up the slope to face her. They passed Thane's hiding spot and lined up.
At least they had enough sense to bring that many. Someone skulking in the darkness warranted a small investigation. But a person flaunting her presence? They were right to be wary of that.
Of course, if they were smarter, they wouldn't have come up here at all.
Thane gripped his sword hilt and prepared to spring into action. Elias and Relyn would be nearby doing the same.
By now, all ten riflemen had their weapons trained on Nahlia. The Templar Order had always been proud of its black powder creations. They were deadly on a battlefield against charging foes, and their cannons made quick work of castle walls. But they also had their weaknesses. A good archer could nock an arrow in less than a second. Not the case for a rifleman. Once they pulled those triggers, they were like goats in a dragon's den.
"You there!" one man shouted to Nahlia. "Identify yourself!"
Nahlia didn't reply. She continued advancing toward the Templars with the pendant's light obscuring her face. Thane averted his eyes. One lost second of night vision could mean death in a fight.
"This is a restricted area," the Templar shouted again. "Just turn around and—"
"That's Etherite," an older officer declared. "Quit your blathering and take her out."
Thane closed his eyes and waited, counting down the seconds.
"Fire!" the officer bellowed.
The firearms exploded in a deafening roar. Smoke filled his nostrils, and he saw the flash of Nahlia's barrier through his eyelids.
Thane sprang out from under the tree and charged his foes. The officers had pistols, so he made for them first. He stuck a dagger into the first man's neck, then drove his blade into the other's shoulders.
Several Templars sprouted arrows from their backs, and more arrows rained down from where Relyn had nested in a tree.
A few survivors regained their wits and turned from Nahlia to Thane. Elias Raider appeared behind them, his dual blades tearing them to pieces.
The last survivor dropped his rifle and sprinted back down the hill.
"We're under attack!" he bellowed.
Thane relieved the dead officer of his pistol. Crafted of iron and lacquered wood, it was triple-barreled and nearly as long as his forearm. He extended his arm and lined up the runner in his sights.
“We’re under a—”
The runner fell with a squeeze of Thane’s finger.
"Back to cover," Thane told the others.
And so it continued. More Templars emerged from the town, and they began the charade anew. Nahlia hid behind her barrier, the Templars fired their rifles, and the other three cut them down.
The next group came more prepared than the last, with seven or eight swordsmen surroundings the others. Unfortunately for them, that still wasn't enough. Relyn picked off most from above, and Thane shot the rest with his stolen pistols.
More Templars charged up the hill, and the battle began in earnest.
The next time Thane drove his katana into a man's back, he let out a scream of rage. Not a battlecry, but a cry for the cycle of killing they found themselves in. Could he ever escape it?
Aegon forbade murder. It was a prominent command in the Testament of Virtue. A command heeded in times of peace, but no more than a footnote in the business of war. People justified their actions before a battle. They claimed that war was somehow different. Necessary.
If the Templars were smart, they would have stayed within the safety of walls and numbers. Apparently, all the smart ones had sided with Cole.
They kept charging up the hill as if they would find some glory here in this dark forest. As if they'd make the world a better place by ridding it of one more Aeon.
A large brute of a man charged Thane, oblivious to the twenty bodies around him. The brute swung his sword in a wide arc, still huffing from his uphill run. Thane stepped back to avoid the sweep, then swung his own, taking his throat. His opponent twisted as he fell. Blood spattered out a full foot from the wound, painting a red crescent in the snow.
Three more approached on his right. An arrow took the first between his eyes, and Elias Raider made a figure-eight cut with his blades, shredding through armor and flesh.
Thane let out another scream as he pulled his blade from a fallen man's face.
Nahlia stood behind her barrier, letting others do the killing. She probably thought this made her enlightened, the way she always talked about using her powers for peace. But a day would come when she didn't have the luxury of being an idealist. A day when she'd have to choose between taking a life or losing her own. When that day came, she'd become a killer too.
Thane picked up another pistol, pulled the trigger, and hit a charging Templar between the eyes. Another man emerged from a tree, sword swinging. Thane dropped his gun and reached for the dagger at his belt. The blade cut the man's sword arm, then flew up to slice his windpipe.
If killing was forbidden, then why did Aegon make it so easy? After what happened to Kira, he thought he would never fight again. That resolution had lasted no more than a day. Even without his Ethermancy, he had years of martial training with every weapon known to man.
Relyn took the lead as they moved down the hill.
In a proper town like Northshire, the homes were built in neat lines with streets filling the spaces between them. Starglade was the opposite. Buildings stuck out haphazardly from the earth, each one facing a seemingly random direction. Almost as if the miners had never even seen a real city before.
Little wonder their mine had failed.
The four of them clustered together as they passed under the crude wooden gate. Thane kept his eyes on the various windows, hoping Nahlia would be quick enough to stop any surprise attacks.
The town was quiet but for the howl of the wind, and the distant barking of wolfhounds.
This isn't right ... where are the others?
"The mine is that way." Relyn pointed toward one of the larger structures near the cliff’s base. "Just through that door."
"I'll take the lead," Elias said as he approached the doorway. He had a torch in one hand, and a katana in the other. "There's bound to be more of them inside."
"No"—Nahlia put a hand on his arm and took the torch—"let me go."
"How are your reserves?" Thane asked. He'd given her his pendant before the fight broke out, but she'd also blocked over two-dozen bullets since then.
"Good," Nahlia said with a quick nod. "I think."
She paused as if reevaluating. “The second necklace isn’t completely drained. I could hold off at least one more ambush.”
Aegon, they’d never make it through that cave alive. Depending on its size, Etherite could take anywhere between sixteen to twenty hours to regain its energy. And while there was bound to be fire inside, Nahlia wasn’t nearly practiced enough to convert that into healing or barriers. They were tired, injured, and still outnumbered.
“We shouldn’t go in there,” Thane said.
“What?” Elias gestured toward the door. “We have them pinned down!”
“Exactly,” Thane said. “A pinned enemy is a desperate one. For all we know, they think we came here with an army. Once they realize there’s only four of us—”
“Wait,” Nahlia interjected. “This is already open.” She grabbed the metal handle and heaved the door open.
Thane let out a breath. “Damnit, Nahlia, what are you—”
Nahlia let out a small shriek as she dropped the torch in the snow. She staggered back, putting a hand to her chest. "Oh Aegon."
Thane stepped over and peered into the building’s entryway. Corpses littered the stone floor, limbs broken and twisted at unnatural angles. Their skin was gray, dry, and wrinkled—like fruit left out in the sun.
He picked up the fallen torch and knelt down for a closer look. These Templars weren't killed by weapons. There were no cuts, no arrows, or bullet holes. No blisters or marks as if they'd been burned.
Someone else was here before them … but who? Who in Aegon's name could have done this?
Ciena woke to the sounds of gunfire. Was that real, or more hallucinations? Impossible to tell after being chained up in this cave for so many days. Or was it weeks?
She glanced up at Brickjaw who was sitting on a crate across the room, attempting to read a novel beneath the lantern. He must have noticed the commotion too, because he snapped his book closed and stood.
More gunfire echoed from somewhere down the tunnel, followed by panicked shouting and thunderous footsteps.
Brickjaw sauntered over to the large oaken door, peering through the iron bars in the window. "What the—"
The door burst open, and the force of it sent him staggering back. Half a dozen Templars piled into the small space.
"The hell's going on?" Brickjaw demanded. Blood gushed from his forehead where they’d hit him.
"Shut the door!" A gray-haired officer demanded.
One man shoved it closed, and two more began piling up crates.
"Why?" Brickjaw looked ready to hit someone. "Who's out there?"
"Aeon." One of the younger men knelt next to Ciena. His hands shook as he tried to reload his rifle.
Ciena drew in a hopeful breath at that. Was someone coming to rescue her?
The grizzled officer cocked his pistol, taking cover behind a crate. "Vicious bastard, he was. Took out a whole squad with naught but his bare hands."
Beyond the door, she heard the screams of dying men. Flashes of white shone through the iron bars. Ciena narrowed her eyes, trying to make sense of it.
"He's headed this way," the officer said. "Get ready."
Brickjaw took cover with the others even though he had nothing but a sword.
A moment of silence followed, then the door blew open in a shower of splinters. Even from twelve feet back, Ciena felt fragments of it hit her cheeks.
She opened her eyes to see the attacker in the doorway. Ciena was nearly six feet tall, but this man stood a head taller than that even. Every inch of him was corded with muscle, and pale-silver hair fell down to his shoulders.
Half a dozen explosions erupted in the small space as the Templars fired their weapons.
The Aeon stood as still as a statue, and the bullets shattered before him in blasts of white light.
One man threw a hatchet, but that broke with a wave of the Aeon's hand. A second man rushed him with his sword, only to be thrown straight up into the ceiling.
Smoke from their firearms filled the small cavern, obscuring her vision. Brickjaw charged into the fray only to die screaming a second later. More screams followed after that. Cries of pain, panic, and desperation.
The smoke settled, and she realized the attacker hadn't moved from the room's entrance.
The Templars lay sprawled across the floor, clutching their throats and chests. It was like they were being strangled or crushed from the inside. As if this man were draining the life from them.
Ciena had read of Ethermancy before. Justicars made themselves stronger or faster. Redeemers healed themselves and others. Sanctifiers controlled energy—usually fire— and turned it into a weapon.
But this? This was something else entirely.
The room fell quiet a second later as the Templars turned into gray, shriveled up husks. Ciena raised her eyes toward the strange Aeon again. Despite his silver hair, his face appeared quite youthful—no older than her parents.
A tinge of fear ran through her when they locked eyes.
"Do you know who I am?" His voice had a deep echo as if many voices were speaking at once. Her arm hairs lifted and she braced herself against the stone wall.
"You're..." Ciena’s voice came out dry and raspy, probably because she hadn’t used it in days. She cleared her throat and tried again, "You're an Aeon. An Ethermancer?"
"Correct. My name is Alexel Trelidor."
The echo in his voice had faded—perhaps she'd imagined it in the first place. His accent was sharp and melodic, not like anything she'd heard before.
"Are you going to kill me, too?" Ciena asked him.
"It would appear these humans have already done that."
She clenched her jaw. True, she must've looked awful right now, but she was still miles from death.
"My family is wealthy," Ciena said. "If you help me—"
Alexel Trelidor took a single step inside the room. He'd been so still until now, and the sudden movement shocked her into silence.
Ciena swallowed, glancing at Brickjaw's corpse. "Please. That man there has the key to my chains. If you—"
"I know who you are, Ciena Raider." He continued to close the space between them, stopping when he was only a few feet away. "I heard you were the very best Whitecliff Enclave had to offer. I heard you were discontent with your life there—that you craved conflict in the face of their coddling." He spread his hands out with both palms raised upward. "I felt the echoes of your power sending ripples throughout the Ethereal."
“Now,” his hands fell back to his body, "imagine my disappointment to travel so far and find nothing but a scared child. Begging and pleading for help."
Ciena narrowed her eyes as a dozen excuses rose up inside her. She had just lost her entire family and endured weeks of torture at the hands of her captors. She had just... but no. Despite everything, he was right. The world was full of suffering, and excuses were plentiful. In the end, weakness was a choice.
Alexel knelt down so his gaze was level with hers. His eyes were a bright, clear blue like a summer sky. The tattoo on his forehead was the exact same color—a crescent moon, turned upward like a bowl.
"I could free you,” he said, “but in doing so, I'd pour sand into your hands. That's not why I came here. I came here to watch you help yourself."
"I'd like nothing more," Ciena said dryly. "But I'm chained to a bloody wall."
"You place these limitations on yourself. Those chains are only iron, and iron can be broken."
"You think I haven't tried?" she shot back.
"Perhaps you have," he replied. "But your body is no stronger than a human's. It's your willpower that separates you from them. You've walked in the Ethereal. You've seen things no human has."
"You're talking about Ethermancy," Ciena said. "I know what it is, but I haven't been trained to use it."
"Is training what you want?"
Ciena nodded, letting him see the resolve in her eyes.
"I can give you that," he said. "But my enclave only accepts the strong. Strength is one thing that can't be given. You have to take it for yourself."
His enclave. Did this mean Whitecliff wasn't the only hiding place for Aeons? The very thought filled her with hope. Ciena had spent this past week believing everything she cared about was gone. Not just her family and her home, but any chance of avenging them.
She gazed past him toward the lantern that hung from the ceiling. As a descendant of Raiden, she could use Ethermancy to make herself stronger. To do that, she had to impose her will on the fire—transforming the flame and empowering her body.
She'd done this before, but only in moments of desperation. Many claimed that meditation was about equanimity, but she knew that to be false. What mattered most was focus and purpose.
Ciena clenched her teeth, pulling and twisting against the chains that bound her wrists. Even as she tried, a part of her knew it was hopeless. She'd just as soon shatter her own bones.
Alexel gave her a pitying look. He knelt down again and pressed his palm to her forehead. A cool burst flowed through her body, chasing out her hurts and pains. The cuts on her face, the raw skin on her wrists, the aches in her back. It all faded away as if it had never been there.
Ciena shut her eyes as relief flooded through her.
"I don't want to see you die, Ciena Raider. If you truly need my help, then I will give you an easy path to follow. I can release you from these chains, heal your wounds, and send you north to reunite with the other refugees."
Ciena's eyes flew open again. This man represented everything that an Aeon should be. If she became as powerful as him, no one else could ever hurt her. That was her future, not a life of cowering in the north with the others.
"No," she said. "I'll go with you, or I'll die trying."
He drew his hand back. Ciena let out a small cry of pain as every cut, scrape, and ache returned in a wave of pure agony.
"Then take heart from the pain," Alexel told her as he returned to his feet. "You want strength? Power? This is what the path looks like."
He put his back to her and clasped his hands behind him. Half a dozen rings adorned his fingers. "Now, break those chains and follow me."
Ciena closed her eyes again, reaching out and feeling the flame with her mind. But she didn't struggle against the chains. Not yet. Instead, she thought back to the moment her brother died. If she'd been stronger then, she could have prevented it.
It was too late to bring him back, but she could still bring justice to her enemies.
Strength and Fortitude.
Heat filled the muscles in her arms, and she siphoned more from the lantern. She reinforced her back, chest, and shoulders, filling them with so much strength, she thought they might burst.
The flame flickered out.
Aegon curse it. Of course. There was only so much oil.
Ciena didn't relent. She pulled more heat from the air, taking anything she could. Ice formed on the ground around her as she struggled. Despite everything, It still wasn't enough. That realization nearly broke her focus, but failure wasn't an option. She would break before she would bend.
Something metallic clang to the stone floor in front of her. A ring?
Ciena opened her eyes, but the room was black as pitch. Instead, she reached out with her mind and felt a treasure trove of energy there. More power than a score of lanterns.
She drank in the power, and a storm raged inside of her. Ciena pulled her arms together, and the chains shattered.
Thane followed Elias and the others through the downward spiral of the mine. Corpses littered their path the whole way through, each one as pale and shriveled as the last.
The tunnel forked several times, but they followed the trail of bodies. Elias skidded to a halt when the path finally terminated. The end of the cave had been hollowed out to form a storage room, about as wide as a city street. Various wooden crates lined the walls, and more bodies littered the floor.
Elias passed Relyn the torch and knelt down at the far end of the room, examining something.
“What is it?” Thane asked.
Elias held up two ends of a heavy iron chain. The links were severed, as if something had torn them apart. “She’s gone.”
Nahlia stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find her.”
“They couldn’t have gotten far,” Relyn said. “We were just guarding the entrance.”
“Mines always have multiple entrances,” Thane pointed out. “For air circulation, and in case of cave ins.”
“Let’s find the other one then.” Elias got to his feet and headed back through the doorway. Thane and the others followed.
Thane felt a draft at the last fork, and they took a sharp right this time. They jogged for several minutes until they emerged on the mountainside. Icy air stung his face, and the snow blew even thicker than before.
Elias cupped his hands and shouted his sister’s name. Relyn and Nahlia did likewise.
Thane glanced down to see two sets of footprints in the snow. The smaller set had a limp, but showed no signs of a struggle. He followed the trail further down the mountain where the trees opened in a clearing.
Here, the snow was even more disturbed. The imprint was almost the size of...
Thane paused as his eyes took in the markings. Footprints the size of shields with sharp, curving claws at the end. A tail as long as two spears, and wings as wide as wagons.
Whoever had taken Ciena was long gone, and they’d left on the back of a dragon.