Nahlia tossed and turned on her bedroll. People always said deserts cooled down at night, but that wasn’t the case here. It was well past midnight, and the Black Steppes felt just as warm as they did at sunset. This made sleeping a chore, especially for someone who liked the weight of a blanket.
Sand shifted from outside, and someone opened the tent flap. Nahlia cracked open her eyes as a female form crept inside.
Her bunkmate didn’t have guard duty tonight. Instead, she and the other hunters had gone out to strike the raptors head-on. Not only would this help the camp, but their hides fetched twenty silver moons a piece.
This woman was about the same height and build as Relyn. She wore a black leather uniform, including the scarf and desert goggles. She even walked like her—graceful as a dancer, hardly making a sound.
And yet, something was wrong.
Nahlia steadied her breathing, acting as if she were fast asleep. She reached out to the woman’s mind the way Ilsa had taught her, letting her awareness drift over the surface.
Ilsa claimed it was impossible to read someone’s thoughts without a powerful bond. In a way, this was true. You couldn’t read minds the same way you read books. it was more like reading facial expressions or body language, but on a deeper level. Never an exact science, but enough to gather clues.
That was the idea, at least. Even after six weeks of practice, Nahlia couldn’t make heads or tails of most minds. They were simply too wild and chaotic.
This stranger was different—utterly focused on a single goal. In a way, her thoughts resembled Thane’s. This was a mind who had spent decades training in meditation. A mind capable of Ethermancy.
The woman took another step forward, and Nahlia fought to keep her breathing calm. Memories of Raidenwood flashed unbidden in her mind—flashes of fear and pain. That didn’t prove this woman was a Sile’zhar, but it was enough.
Just then, a dragon’s roar sounded from outside the tent, followed by the cries of the desert raptors.
Nahlia seized the opportunity and conjured two separate barriers. One at the assassins’ face, the other behind her knees. The barriers snapped together like scissors, knocking the woman off balance.
She staggered back and hit the sand, launching a burst of flame as she fell.
Nahlia sprang to her feet and threw up another shield to deflect it. The fire filled the tent, spreading to the bedrolls, blankets and pillows. She held her breath as smoke choked the air.
The tent flap tore open a second later, and Elias raced inside, sword in hand. “Nahlia?”
The assassin greeted him with another blast of fire from her palm.
Nahlia reacted just as quickly, throwing a barrier between them. The white light split through the smoke, chasing away the darkness like a full moon.
Elias’s sword shone a bright orange as the Sile’zhar filled it with heat. Nahlia expected him to drop the weapon out of pure reflex. Instead, he hurled the blade straight at the assassin.
The woman fell backwards, screaming in pain.
Smoke filled every corner of the tent, and the air grew hot as an oven. Nahlia coughed, scrambling for the exit.
Elias snatched her wrist and yanked her the last few feet. The two of them stumbled out the flap and landed on their knees in the black sand.
The sounds of battle filled the surrounding campsite—shouts, black power, and roaring dragons. Fang’s men raced by in every direction, armed with swords and rifles. Like her, most hadn’t even put on their scarves or goggles.
Nahlia felt her neck for her mother’s pendant, then she patted the twine sack at her waist for the Codex. They were both still there.
“Come on,” Elias said as he pulled her off the ground.
The obsidian sand was sharp against her bare feet, but Nahlia healed the skin before it broke.
Behind them, the fire flickered out from the tent.
That can’t be good.
The Sile’zhar emerged from the opening. Her armor was torn at the shoulder, revealing a deep gash from where the sword had punctured her. Blood ran down her torso, but she seemed unfazed.
Nahlia met the woman’s eyes and confirmed her earlier fear. This was the Sile’zhar who had tortured her in Raidenwood.
“Nahlia,” Elias grabbed her wrist again. “We have to go.”
The woman stepped forward with the same quiet determination as before.
Several more of Fang’s men took quick notice of the conflict and pointed their firearms at the supposed enemy.
The Sile’zhar didn’t look at them or break her stride. She raised her hands, and the men erupted like torches.
“We can’t run,” Nahlia said to Elias. These assassins had come for her—for the Codex. She was responsible.
Nahlia stepped forward to face her foe amidst the forest of burning tents. Even if she couldn’t beat the Sile’zhar, she could at least keep her busy until...
Aegon. They needed Thane right now more than ever. They needed his Ethermancy, his experience, and the powers he wielded in the Ethereal.
Maybe tonight would be the push he needed to get them back.
The raptors attacked Thane like a tidal wave. They normally struck with caution, favoring careful ambushes over all-out assaults. Not today. Today, they rushed into volleys of bullets. They jumped into swords, risking their lives for the chance to end his. Even the wounded ones kept on fighting. They kept fighting until they were dead.
Thane squeezed the trigger of his pistol, taking one raptor between the eyes. Another appeared behind him, and he drove his blade through its open mouth.
The fight continued on as more reinforcements arrived. At least these mercenaries were no strangers to surprise attacks. Thirty seconds after Ilsa sounded the alarm, Thane had a dozen men at his side. Thirty seconds after that, and the whole camp was armed and ready for battle.
But Ilsa was right—these raptors were only a diversion for the real attack. Most likely, the Sile’zhar had sent one assassin after the Codex in secret. But there would be more of them out there. Backups in case subtlety failed.
Thane’s ears rang as rifles fired in all directions. His vision blurred between sights of black sand and orange flame. Up above, the dragon wreaked havoc on the camp, raining fire wherever the mercenaries clustered.
He staggered back from the front lines and let the others handle the raptors. Despite his own martial prowess, these men worked better as a team. He only got in their way.
Besides, Nahlia was the Sile’zhar’s true target right now. He had to—
Something snapped against the back of Thane’s helmet, and he stumbled forward. A hook grabbed his leg, and he hit the ground hard.
He rolled over to see a masked Sile’zhar holding the other end of a long chain whip.
Thane dove for his katana which had fallen in the sand nearby.
The Sile’zhar was quicker. He yanked the chain and dragged Thane through the sand by his foot. As the distance closed between them, the assassin drew a shorter blade and lunged forward.
The man collapsed halfway through the motion, putting his hands to his ears. He sank into the sand and Thane saw Ilsa standing behind him, looking intent and focused.
Fang appeared behind the Sile’zhar a second later, running a blade over his throat.
“On your feet,” Fang snapped. “I need you to kill a dragon for me.”
Aegon. Thane unhooked his foot from the whip and pushed himself off the ground. They all thought he was an Ethermancer, and he hadn’t needed to prove himself until now.
“We need to find Nahlia first,” he told them. “She’s their target.” No use keeping it a secret anymore. Not after Raider’s conscience had already gotten the better of him.
They made their way toward the northern edge of camp, taking a longer route to avoid the clusters of burning tents. Two more raptors tried to attack them along the way, but Ilsa used her Ethermancy and re-directed them toward each other. Other raptors were retreating toward the hills which meant the enemy empath was either distracted or dead.
He turned to see Relyn and one more hunter running down the hill. Behind them was another Sile’zhar, launching bursts of fire like meteorites.
“Form up!” Fang ordered his bodyguards. A score of them formed ranks and leveled their weapons on the assassin. Relyn fell into line beside them and nocked an arrow.
A volley of bullets and arrows tore through the air, hitting the Sile’zhar in a dozen spots.
The man fell to his knees ten yards away.
Aegon, was he still alive? Cursed nightsilk. The ones in the Mistwood hadn’t worn armor like this.
“At will!” Fang shouted to the line.
The riflemen were still reloading when Relyn loosed a second arrow. It soared through the air, caught fire, then burned to pieces before it hit its target.
Still on his knees, the Sile’zhar countered with another burst of fire in Relyn’s direction.
Without thinking, Thane raced forward to put himself between her and her assailant.
This was his chance to protect someone—to use his Ethermancy for something besides destruction. The fire raced toward him, and he forced away the fear and doubt. Doubt was a crack waiting to be widened and re-shaped.
Thane was ready. After months of practicing in the Ethereal, he’d convinced himself that Ethermancy was possible again. He felt the fire as it closed the distance in front of them, and he prepared his defense. This—
The fire tore past his arms and hit him in the chest. Hot pain erupted through his body and he fell backward into the sand.
“We’ll take her together,” Elias said in a harsh whisper. “If you can keep her busy, I’ll get a clean hit.”
Nahlia could only nod as she stared at the black-clad figure amidst the fire and smoke. Elias vanished into the shadows, and the Sile’zhar attacked.
Nahlia drew on the surrounding heat and threw up a wall of barriers. Not a single shield like before, but a dozen smaller shields interlocking with one another.
The Sile’zhar began shattering the barriers just as Thane had done in the Ethereal.
It didn’t matter. For every barrier she broke, Nahlia created two more in its place. The fight would never end this way, but that wasn’t the point. She wasn’t a killer. She only needed to keep the assassin busy while Elias snuck around.
The woman ceased her attacks on the barriers, and Nahlia felt a flame rise inside her chest, threatening to spread. Fortunately, she was ready for that too. Nahlia opposed the flame, and it died as quickly as it started.
Thane was right. Now that she knew what to look for, the assassin couldn’t keep using the same tricks.
When Nahlia looked up again, she caught a glint of glowing steel in the firelight as Elias snuck up behind the Sile’zhar. He raised his blade to finish her, but the woman dodged at the last second.
Elias fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Time seemed to freeze as the Sile’zhar met her eyes, a look of pleasure, and a silent threat.
She knew. She knew that Nahlia cared about him.
“The Codex.” The Sile’zhar spoke in a raspy voice as if she’d been shouting all night.
Nahlia crept forward, hands shaking with mingled fear and fury. As her focus waned, the sharp sand broke the skin on her bare feet. The smoke and ash stung her eyes.
Elias gritted his teeth on the ground between them, unable to move. She remembered that pain all too well. Once the heat reached your brain, the world became a fever dream and it was impossible to fight back.
Water began at the corner of Nahlia’s eyes, and something snapped deep inside her. Twice now, this assassin had threatened her, but this? Watching Elias suffer was worse than any pain she’d felt before.
Nahlia launched a barrier at her enemy, faster than an arrow.
The Sile’zhar was ready, and the barrier faded before it reached her.
Nahlia gritted her teeth and dug deeper. She brought her awareness inside the other woman’s body as if she were to heal her wounds. Healing felt natural to her, but there was a fine line between giving life and taking it.
Instead of healing her wounds, Nahlia seized the woman’s remaining life and tore it away. It felt as wrong as trying to rip off her own fingers, but that didn’t matter now.
The Sile’zhar toppled over, clutching at her neck. Even as she resisted, Nahlia pulled harder. She ground her teeth in rage, and drove her nails into her palms.
The Sile’zhar thrashed back and forth in the glass sand, eyes wide in a silent scream.
Nahlia stood over her, relentless in her assault. The woman’s throat constricted. Her heart stopped beating. Her blood stopped flowing. Every bone in her body snapped and shattered.
When Nahlia finished, all that remained of the Sile’zhar was a dry and shriveled husk, like the bodies of those Templars in Starglade.
Back then, she and her companions had all wondered the same thing—what sort of person could do something so terrible and so gruesome?
Now she knew.