Elias Raider patrolled the villa’s halls with one hand resting on his sword hilt. Things had been slow around here since the others left for Dragonshard.
He never thought he’d say this, but he missed traveling with the Onyx Company. Every day had a strict schedule with no time for aimless wandering.
Most of all, he missed Nahlia. He missed her smile, the sound of her laugh, and the way her face wrinkled up whenever she was annoyed.
Not to mention those morning sparring sessions. For the martial benefits, of course. Nothing to do with how nice she smelled, or the way she felt in his arms. Elias had his priorities in order, after all. There were dark artifacts to protect and wars to win.
Then again, you can never have too many reasons to fight.
Aegon. They really needed to resolve this Codex business so they could finish where they left off.
Elias gave his head a brisk shake. Enough daydreaming. Focus.
Tonight was Palatine’s last chance to strike. While the rest of the peninsula celebrated the Etherfall, Villa Solizhan remained locked up like a fortress. Thane’s aunt Avelyn had taken a dragon to the Clansmeet, but the others stayed behind to guard the artifact. Everyone from Lord Solizhan himself to the lowest soldier.
Elias double-checked his equipment as his route took him through the garden.
Katana, buckler, boot dagger, throwing knives.
The garden itself looked the same as the last three times he’d passed through. Palm trees blew in the night wind, and water rolled gently through the stream beneath the bridge. Everything was...
He paused, glancing down at the flagstone path. Was that mud?
A few smudges shouldn’t have stood out, but they did. These gardeners took pride in their work, and they normally kept the outer paths as clean as the halls inside.
Then again, maybe another guard had stepped off to investigate something?
Elias curled his fingers around a throwing knife, glancing from side to side. Where were the other guards, anyway? There were supposed to be at least two people out here at all times.
He quickened his pace, passing under the stone archway back inside the villa. Footsteps echoed down the hall to his left. Elias rounded the corner to see a guardsman patrolling the hall, twenty paces ahead.
The man wore a blue linen uniform and carried a spear and shield. And a helmet? That’s not right. The Onyx Company had all worn scarves and goggles on the Black Steppes, and that had made it too easy for a Sile’zhar to sneak in. No one wanted a repeat of that, so all the guards in Villa Solizhan had agreed to keep their faces visible. No exceptions.
Elias skidded to a halt, and so did the guard in front of him. The man’s shoulders tensed, and he lifted his left foot as if preparing to pivot.
Elias hesitated just long enough to adjust his grip and line up his shot.
The guard spun around, dropping his weapon and shield to either side. Elias’s knife soared through the air, taking his opponent between the eyes. Bursts of flame erupted from his victim’s palms, closing the distance between them.
Elias dodged left, charging forward as several oil lamps exploded in a shower of glass and sparks.
His drew his katana, but the man was already dead.
Elias didn’t recognize him. Of course, most folk looked different with knives in their foreheads and blood in their eyes. Still, while he didn’t know all the guards here, he did know all the Ethermancers. That ruled out an accident.
He knelt down and pulled the knife from where it struck, wiping the blade clean on the blue linen uniform. The imposter had the olive-colored skin of a Dragonsharder. Almost as if he knew how a Solizhan guard should look, but no one told him the no-helmets rule.
Could this be a Sile’zhar? Unlikely, considering that was a Valaysian sect. Besides, dropping his shield like that had been an amateur move.
Elias climbed to his feet and continued down the hall. He considered calling for help but decided against it. If this intruder snuck in through the garden, that meant the real guards were either dead or captured. Better not to announce himself if there were more ahead.
His instincts kicked in a second time as he neared the vault’s entrance. The last time he passed through here, the guards had all been talking and joking amongst themselves. How long ago was that? Couldn’t be more than an hour. Even if their conversation had died down, a cluster of people should have made some sound. Even the occasional cough or throat-clearing.
Instead, he heard nothing at all.
Elias put his back to the wall, drew another throwing knife and used its mirrored surface to spy around the corner.
Corpses littered the marble floor, and the first vault door lay wide open. Adrenaline flooded his veins as he prepared for a fight.
No. Don’t be stupid. Whoever killed those guards wouldn’t have much trouble finishing him too.
Steel flashed in the lamplight as a masked figure brought a dagger to his throat.
Elias raised his forearm to deflect the strike. He followed that with a quick punch to the man’s solar plexus, then a kick to the knee.
Something struck the back of Elias’s head like a rod of iron. Pain shot through his skull as he staggered forward. Several gloved hands seized him by the shoulders and slammed him hard against the wall.
Another masked figure struck him in the face, shaking his eyes in their sockets.
“Get his weapons,” a woman hissed.
His ears rang like a struck gong, and his attackers sounded far away. Aegon, now he really had mixed feelings about the no-helmet rule.
Someone unhooked his belt, taking the scabbard and the fake Codex he carried. Another set of hands patted him down and found his boot knife.
Elias tried to blink their faces into focus, but they all wore black nightsilk masks, leaving only narrow slits for their eyes.
The woman stepped forward until she was mere inches from his face. Her eyes were bright, green and undoubtedly Valaysian. Still, while the other Sile’zhar they’d faced were all in their thirties, this one looked no older than him.
“Where is it?” she hissed.
Elias spat blood on the floor. When he tried to speak, his lips were numb. “Where’s what?”
“The one in the vault was a fake.” She removed a black-painted orange from his bag and tossed it over her shoulder. “So is this. Where’s the real one?”
“I don’t know,” Elias said. It wasn’t even a lie. Several others carried bags like his, including Relyn, Ashara, and Thane’s grandfather. No one knew where the real Codex was except for the carrier.
“Fine.” She turned to one of her male companions. “Take one of his eyes. Maybe that’ll loosen his tongue.”
An olive-skinned Reverian stepped forward. Unlike the other two, he wore a brown leather flight helmet instead of a mask.
An orange flame sparked to life between his fingers, close enough for Elias to feel the heat around his left eye.
“Alright!” Elias shouted. “I’ll tell you!”
Another fist slammed into the side of his head. “Quietly,” the man behind him whispered. An arm wrapped around his neck and cold steel grazed his windpipe.
“Easy,” Elias said. “I’m just on vacation here. I’m not about to die for some dark orb of death.”
“Cute,” the woman said. “Now talk. You have ten seconds.”
Elias took several of those seconds to clear his throat and think. The vault had three separate doors, each one inside the other. The guards outside carried the first key, the steward carried the second, and Thane’s grandfather carried the third.
If the Sile’zhar—or whoever these people were—had broken in, they must have been all over the villa by now. Either that, or they’d brought a master lockpicker along.
The man behind Elias kept a knife at his neck, but his hand was shaking. Elias shot a glance toward the bodies in front of the vault. These three were clearly powerful Ethermancers, but they weren’t experienced killers. This was all new to them.
Hopefully, whoever carried the real Codex had noticed the attack and escaped. All he could do now was keep them busy.
“It’s not in the villa,” Elias finally said. “There’s a cave outside. I can show you the way there.”
“Sweet of you to offer,” the masked woman said, “but we’ll settle for directions.”
Which meant they planned to kill him once he stopped talking. In that case, they could all go to hell.
“Alright.” Elias took a good long breath. “Follow this hallway here, take a right, then a left. You’ll find a garden. It’s covered in muddy footprints because none of you lot are real Sile’zhar. Keep walking until you reach the cliff, just right of Kalazhan’s statue. When you get to the edge, jump off. If you hit the bottom and break your neck, you’ve gone too far.”
To his surprise, the woman gave a thin, dry chuckle. Belatedly, she nodded to her companions and turned away.
Big mistake, turning your back on an enemy. Then again, these were amateurs, like he’d said.
Oh well, nothing to lose now.
“You,’ Elias said to the man behind him. “Do you have the time?” Sometimes, an absurd question was just the thing to make an enemy drop his guard.
Elias grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted the blade away from his windpipe. Funny thing about wrists—they hated to be moved at odd angles. Rather than let themselves break, they’d bring an entire body along for the ride.
Elias twisted his own shoulders and hips, hurling the man around him and toward his companions. They all drew their weapons, for all the good raised weapons were in a dogpile.
Elias, being unarmed himself, did the sensible thing and ran.
That was when the hallway filled with fire.
He ran serpentine to dodge their attacks. One blast singed his ear while another tore through his lower leg. Hot pain erupted through his skin, spreading to his muscles. He tried to keep running, but he collapsed before he rounded the second corner.
Ashara appeared in front of him, throwing up a heatward against their attacks. Relyn loosed several arrows into the smoke-filled hallway. A masked man fell forward, sprouting an arrow from his shoulder. Ashara finished him with a blast to the face.
“Get him up!” Ashara shouted, struggling to hold her ward.
Relyn knelt down beside him, throwing his left arm over her shoulders.
“Aegon,” she grunted as she pushed them both up. “Almost forgot how heavy you are.”
“Sorry,” Elias still did most of the work with his good leg. “I’ll be sure to lay off the omelets if we get out of here.”
Ashara took his other arm and the three of them moved back to the garden.
There, they found at least ten other strangers waiting for them. Some wore black nightsilk, but most wore ordinary leather armor.
Ashara and Relyn let go of him, preparing to attack.
The masked Valaysian woman emerged from under the archway behind them. “Hold!” she shouted to the others.
Her allies remained still, and so did Elias’s companions.
She took another step forward and removed her nightsilk mask. Her black hair was cut short, barely reaching her chin in the front. A yellow falcon tattoo covered one half of her face, from her forehead down to the corner of her mouth.
“Relyn,” she began slowly, “is that you?”
Elias stole a glance at Relyn who was staring intently at their attacker. She swallowed hard, lowering her bow. “Rhia...”
“Friend of yours?” Elias asked.
“No...” Relyn shook her head. “She’s my sister.”
Elias glanced back and forth between them, finally seeing the resemblance. The yellow falcon was the sigil of Clan Vassaj, Relyn’s old clan before she left and took her uncle’s name.
After her family swore their allegiance to Palatine. So he was right before. These weren’t hired Sile’zhar. These were Palatine’s own people.
Rhia sheathed her small blades, stepping forward with her hands clearly visible “Relyn ... it’s not too late—”
“For what?” Relyn snapped back. “To side with Palatine?”
“He kept his promise to me,” Rhia said. “He taught me Ethermancy. You know mother and father would take you back if you asked them. We’re your family. You’ll always have a place with us.”
“And if I refuse?” Relyn’s hands turned white as they tightened around her bow. “What’s family worth to you then?”
Rhia’s face hardened, but she shook her head. “I could never hurt you.” She gestured to the surrounding Ethermancers. “But I can’t stop them, either. We have orders. ”
Relyn didn’t reply. A man took advantage of the pause and stepped forward behind Rhia. It was the broad-shouldered Sanctifier who almost took Elias’s left eye.
“Ashara,” he called out. “We only came for the artifact. No one else needs to die here.”
When Ashara replied, there was fire in her eyes. “Grandfather. Is he—”
“Wounded,” the man replied, “but still alive. We made sure of that.”
“How noble of you,” she scoffed, gesturing around the dark garden. “You attacked your own home, Dazen. You killed guards you’ve known since you were a child. What if your mother had been here instead of at the Clansmeet?”
The man was about to reply again, but Rhia held up a gloved hand. “We’re wasting time.” Then she turned back to Relyn, “Like he said, all we want is the Codex.”
Relyn stared down at the flagstone path, then met her sister’s eyes again. “If I tell you where it is, will you let my friends go?”
“Absolutely not.” Elias broke in. He wanted to step forward and bar her path, but he would lose his balance if he did. “This is bigger than any of us.”
“You have my word,” Rhia said loud enough for everyone to hear. “Give it to us, and no one will be harmed.”
Relyn turned to face him with an apology in her jade eyes. Then she reached into the bag on her belt, pulling out the real Codex. Harsh whispers filled the silence, and its dark surface reflected bright lines of moonlight.
Then Relyn turned back to her sister. “Take me with you. I’m ready to come home.”