Ciena woke to shouts and thundering footsteps. She opened her eyes and took in the bedchamber—dark stone floors and sand-colored walls. A wardrobe loomed in one corner, and a massive window dominated the wall to her right.
The door burst open, and her mother rushed inside. She was dressed in leather armor with her golden hair in disarray.
Ciena bolted up in her bed. “What’s—”
“We’re under attack.” Her mother dropped the lantern and flung open the doors of Ciena’s wardrobe. After a second of rummaging, she tossed a bundle of combat fatigues on the bed behind her.
What the hell? This was the same dream she’d had for the past few months. The dream where she’d re-lived her memories of Raidenwood and trained her Ethermancy.
And yet ... something felt wrong. Was she supposed to be dreaming right now? She usually got here though meditation, focusing on the specific place and memory.
This time … Aegon ... what had she been doing before this?
They’d been traveling somewhere—her, Alexel, and Rhia’s parents. It was the night of the Etherfall. That’s right. Alexel had gone to Dragonshard for the Clansmeet. She’d traveled with him to find her family.
Or ... had they not left yet? Was that journey part of a different dream? A few vague memories bubbled up to the surface of her mind. There was a crowd of people in a palace, and then they’d all vanished, leaving her alone with Alexel in a vast empty space. Far too strange to be real.
Ciena jumped as something erupted outside. The floor shook beneath her feet, and glass shot out from the window frame.
She tossed the blankets aside and sprang out of bed. By now, she’d grown proficient enough at drafting that she could start this dream in her adult body, along with all her weapons and armor.
Steelbreaker lay in a scabbard on the floor beside her. She drew the Etherite blade, and its red glow chased away the darkness.
Her mother gazed at her in stunned silence.
“Ciena,” she began, “what happened to—”
Ciena made for the door. “Step aside,” she said. “You’re not real.”
Then she charged down the hallway, falling back into the dream. Steelbreaker felt lighter in her hand than most ordinary weapons, but the power lent it a weight of its own. She’d practiced with this blade several times already. The difference between Etherite and steel was even greater than that of steel and wood.
Someone shoved on the door at the far end of the hallway. An instant later, it turned to a chorus of banging and shouts.
Steelbreaker slashed open the metal lock and her enemies stumbled inside.
Ciena fell deep into the Rage Trance, becoming faster and stronger. True to its name, her sword shattered enemy blades and sliced through rifle barrels with little effort. She severed muscles like bread and cracked human bones like twigs.
Black powder erupted further down the hall, and bullets soared past her face. By now, Ciena’s eyes were quick enough to see them coming. She fell into Moonform and swept her blade in a defensive pattern, cutting the projectiles from midair.
She charged forward and closed the space in half-a-heartbeat, too fast for her opponents to reload or switch to their sidearms. Steelbreaker cut them down with ease. It felt less like fighting, and more like painting with a red brush.
Amid the chaos of battle, a memory flashed in her mind’s eye. Her parents—her real parents—standing at the top of a staircase in Dragonshard.
Dragonshard. That was no dream. She’d been there. That was real life, and this was the Ethereal. She knew the difference.
And if that was true, why was she in the Ethereal, now?
Training, another part of her responded. The urge to fight swirled like a storm within her soul. So strong was the call of battle, it drowned out everything else. There were Templars to kill, and power to gain. She needed to....
Aegon. She needed one bloody moment to think, but her enemies didn’t oblige. Instead, they surrounded her on all sides. Ciena continued to fight, dodging swords and bullets.
If I die, then I’ll wake up.
If she let one bullet take her, the dream would end. But that felt like giving up. That wasn’t the way of Clan Raider.
Besides … was she so certain this wasn’t real?
One swordsmen tried to flank her while the first kept her busy. Ciena feinted a stumble, and both men leapt for the kill. She fell to her knee and spun her blade, splattering the walls with more crimson paint.
Her body moved through the battle, and her mind struggled for answers. Reaching for the memories was like rolling a boulder up a hill, but she pushed herself to her mental limits
I was at a party in Dragonshard. I passed out...
Ciena jumped as a Templar emerged from around the corner. She parried his attack with the flat of her blade, reversed her grip, and took off his right leg at the knee. Steelbreaker’s edge must have delayed the pain because the man looked surprised as he fell back.
Think. She gritted her teeth. How did I pass out?
Ciena wasn’t the type to faint from heat or exhaustion. Did those sorts of people even exist outside of plays and storybooks? Probably not. Aside from that one time she took a blade to the head, Ciena had never fallen unconscious in her life.
But then ... that wasn’t true either. Technically, the Grandmaster knocked her out whenever they entered the Ethereal for a Battleground.
Her ring shared a bond with his. He could use that to send her into the Ethereal whenever he wanted. As an empath, he could also create illusions and make a full room seem empty. Mental Ethermancy was supposedly easy to resist, but it flowed easier through a bond.
What if she really had seen her parents in Dragonshard, but Alexel had tried to hide them from her?
Anger flared in her chest as she broke down a door to Raidenwood’s northern viewing platform. She approached the edge and stepped onto the balcony rail, using a stone pillar for support.
The river raged below, but all she saw was a blur of darkness. She had to jump if she wanted to escape this dream. Jumping wasn’t admitting defeat. It was seizing control. She would return to the physical world, find Alexel, and confront him about all this.
Footsteps echoed behind her as the Templars moved to investigate the open door. Her instincts told her to fight, but this wasn’t the fight that mattered.
Ciena leapt from the balcony, plummeting past the bridges that made up Raidenwood. Icy air strung her face as she fell through the canyon and into the river below.
When she woke, she was standing in Dragonshard again. The force of her fall sent her stumping forward, and she caught herself on the fountain’s stone edge.
Several courtiers shot her strange glances, but no one said anything. Great. She must have looked drunk or something. She glanced up at the landing, but her parents weren’t there. That didn’t mean they weren’t still in the palace though. Aegon only knew how much time had passed.
Still, this proved her theory—that trip to Raidenwood was no natural dream. Alexel had done this.
Ciena glanced down at her right hand and tore off her leather glove. There sat her Etherite ring. As long as it touched her body, she and Alexel had something akin to a soulbond.
She pulled off the ring and tossed it into the fountain. Priceless metal or no, she’d die before she let someone control her.
The crowds continued moving around Ciena, oblivious to what had happened. Had she just been standing there, asleep? She remembered falling over when she passed out, so that part didn’t make sense. At the very least, she should have been laying down.
Before she could think too much, gunshots echoed from near the throne room.
While the other guests scattered, Ciena drew Steelbreaker and ran toward the source of the sound. She climbed the stairs and burst through the double doors into the first audience chamber.
Two dozen Templars stood in a line, all with their rifles trained on her.
Ciena’s chest tightened when she remembered her ring back in the fountain. Then she saw the glowing red blade in front of her. More energy than a hundred rings.
She smiled at her opponents and let the Rage Trance take her.
Ilsa Nirvada sat with Fang outside the throne room. Technically, party guests weren’t supposed to be here, but Ilsa had a way of getting what she wanted.
“Surprised you aren’t mingling,” Fang noted in Valaysian. They often spoke Valaysian when they were alone. Not only because Fang preferred his own language but also to avoid eavesdroppers. That was the problem with palaces. It was far too easy for someone to linger around the corner, listening where they shouldn’t be.
And yes, Ilsa saw the irony in that.
She smiled at Fang, gesturing toward the closed doors with her wine glass. “History is being made inside that room.”
“As if you can hear any of it.”
She couldn’t, of course. The throne room doors were far too thick. No sense in having a private meeting if everyone could hear you from outside. Even so, she felt the emotions of those within.
Uncertainty and resolve warred for dominance inside the young prince, Thane Solidor. It was much the same for Aaron Cole, the Templar Commander who had entered the room just moments before. Things weren’t going well for either of them, which put Ilsa and Fang in an awkward spot.
Shouts echoed from outside the chamber, followed by gunfire and the clash of steel. Ilsa glanced over the balcony railing to see an armored figure burst through the double doors below.
The figure looked like a Dreadknight—a Templar soldier trained specifically to fight Ethermancers. Saul Mason had received such training, and so had Aaron Cole before he’d deserted.
However, this Dreadknight was female. Tall and athletic, covered in leather armor from head-to-heel. Odd. Unlike Aeons, Templars only used women for scout, medic, and sapper roles. They rarely placed them on the front lines, much less in a position like this.
A dozen other Templars followed her inside with their weapons drawn.
Fang drew his pistol, grabbing Ilsa by the arm and pulling her away from the balcony’s edge.
“Something is wrong,” Ilsa said.
“Of course something’s wrong,” Fang replied. “We’re under attack.”
He led her toward a doorway that was outside the Templar’s firing range. Ilsa held her ground before they passed through.
“No,” she said. “I mean this doesn’t seem real. Why would the Templars attack now, with their commander inside? Isn’t Aaron Cole arguing for peace?”
“Don’t forget,” Fang said. “All the Aeon leaders are in there too. This could all be a trap.”
Ilsa pursed her lips. Fang was right—it did feel like a trap, but not one laid by the Templars. How did they get here? Even if Aaron Cole had brought a few along, the guards never would have allowed rifles inside the city, much less the palace.
“I need a closer look,” she told Fang.
Fang grabbed her arm. “Don’t even think about going out there.”
Ilsa softened her voice and met his dark eyes. “Please. I need to—”
“Damnit,” he interjected. “And don’t try that Ethermancy on me either.”
She glanced down at Fang’s hand which was still encircled around her bicep. They’d already had this talk a dozen times: she wouldn’t use her empathy on him as long as he didn’t use his strength on her.
“Fine.” Fang let go, raising his pistol and glancing around the corner. “One quick look, then we get the hell out of here.”
Ilsa crept along the wall until she could see the strange women below.
The guards moved to bar her path, but she tore them apart with inhuman speed. One man tried to parry her attack, but the impact left his sword bent at a ninety-degree angle. Other weapons lay in fragments on the marble floor around them.
For the second time, Ilsa didn’t trust her own eyes. No Templar was this good, and that was no ordinary sword she wielded.
Ilsa peered harder, erecting a mental barrier, shielding herself from external influence. There was another empath here, far stronger than she was. Strong enough to affect hundreds of minds at once. Ilsa couldn’t break his hold, but she could see past it if she tried.
There was no smoke, no firearms, and no squad of attackers. Just one woman fighting back the Dragonshard guards. The way she moved reminded Ilsa of Elias Raider. She even looked like Elias, with the same strong jawline and golden eyes.
And that sword ... instead of steel, the blade was some sort of red, glowing crystal. Etherite?
Fang pulled Ilsa away from the sight. She breathed in gasps, recapturing her breath.
“There are no Templars here,” she told him. “It’s all an Illusion.”