Thane listened in silence as Aaron Cole addressed the Clansmeet. Could the Knight Commander sway them? That remained to be seen. For now, Thane was relieved to have one more ally here. Aegon knew he needed it.
Cole cut an impressive figure in his gray cloak and leather armor. Like the Raiders, he’d come prepared. When he first entered the room, he’d spent a long time scanning the crowd. Disappointment flickered across his own face, and Thane understood. He’d hoped to see his wife or daughter.
The frown vanished a second later, replaced by a calm confidence. Now Cole stood behind his chair, addressing the room. “Revera was once the most powerful continent in all of Aeondom, until the war ripped us apart. We’ve all fought each other. Many of us have done things we regret. We can’t change what happened, but we can choose to stop.”
Clever of him not to mention Palatine’s influence on all this. If he’d tried to shift the blame, then the others would have bogged down the talk with demands for evidence.
“As I’ve told you before,” he continued, “we want to make amends for the wrongs our race has committed against yours. We’ll return your lands, and the homes you lost. We can’t return your loved ones, but we can give you justice. The ones who started this conflict are all dead. There’s no reason for us to keep playing our parts—following the scripts they wrote for us. We can make peace today and unite against these invaders.”
“You speak of peace,” Elias’s mother broke in. “but those lands aren’t yours to give. Cladius Raider won’t surrender our city without a fight.”
Unfortunately, she had a point. This council liked to pretend they controlled all of Revera. In reality, they held only half of the total land, and oversaw less than a third of the population. The rest were rogue city states like Raidenwood and Vauldenport. Those cities would do as they pleased until someone forced them to do otherwise.
Cole explained how they would dispose of those leaders if they had to. After all, landlords like Cladius Raider were never promised a life-time of rulership.
Trelidor remained silent during this talk. And why wouldn’t he? Speaking up now would create a dichotomy between Palavar and the Templars, forcing them to choose sides. As the invader, chaos favored him.
Even so, Thane felt an unnatural skepticism as Cole spoke. Even the word “Templar” sent his blood boiling. His mind flashed back to the siege of Dragonshard, and how the cannons had destroyed the walls, smashing homes with the rubble. He remembered Kira, the deafening crack of black power, and the shards of metal lodged in her chest.
And with the heat of the anger came mingled guilt. If he couldn’t control himself and save the woman he loved, how could he lead a nation?
Thane let the emotions pass, recognizing them for what they were. Trelidor was a powerful empath, but Thane still had a choice. At a rational level, he knew that Cole was on his side. The Templars were just people, no different from the humans who made up Dragonshard’s army.
Still, Thane had only noticed the mental Ethermancy after Nahlia’s warning. And while Cole might be a competent leader, he lacked the charisma to sway this crowd, especially with the deck stacked against him.
“Trelidor,” Thane spoke up. “It’s a bit hard to think straight with all this emotional Ethermancy.”
The silver-haired man turned to regard him as if genuinely curious. He didn’t respond, however, and with his silence, he baited Thane to make an even bolder accusation.
Thane held Trelidor’s gaze, neither biting nor backing down. Weaker men couldn’t stand silence, and they scrambled to fill it with whatever they could. His father had taught him that lesson.
But one glance into Trelidor’s hard eyes told him the truth of things. Thane had believed Nahlia’s warning, but the weight of it hadn’t sunk in until now. These were the eyes of a man who wasn’t threatened by princes or kings. This was someone who could kill Thane without lifting a finger—someone who would stop at nothing to seize power.
“I agree,” Avelyn’s voice snapped the silence like a chicken bone. “It was subtle at first, but it’s gotten stronger over the last half hour. Really now, Trelidor? Are you so desperate to gain more followers?”
The older man’s eyes never left Thane’s. It was as if his aunt hadn’t even spoken.
“A bold accusation,” he finally said. “Are you so certain those emotions aren’t your own?”
More bait. Thane shot a sidelong glance at his father. The king remained impassive. Intrigued, perhaps, but not taking sides. At least that meant he wouldn’t stop him.
“I’m certain of nothing,” Thane replied, “So make it simple for us. Have you, or have you not performed emotional Ethermancy on the members of this council?”
Trelidor’s lips curled up at the edges. “You want to play that game, Prince Solidor? What do you know of Ethermancy? You—who lost his own power during the Battle of Whitecliff?”
Thane’s blood froze, but he held his ground. For one terrible moment, he worried that one of his companions had betrayed him. But no ... Zidane worked for Palatine. Of course he would go slithering back to his master.
“Loss of Ethermancy,” Trelidor mused. “It comes from a loss of will—a loss of control. Do you also shift that blame on others, as you blame me now?”
Thane couldn’t meet his father’s gaze this time. Such weakness could mean death in Dragonshard. But this wasn’t about Thane or his pride. This was about exposing a tyrant for what he was.
He bit down several retorts, struggling to keep his voice calm despite the tightness in his chest. “Emotional Ethermancy is a crime in this city. And to perform that here in a Clansmeet—that’s an act of war. Now, are you going to answer my question, or continue evading?”
“He won’t answer,” Aunt Avelyn said. “But we don’t need a confession.” She turned to her left. “Lord Raider, you’ve spent time in the capital. Surely you’ve felt mental Ethermancy before, despite the laws?”
“I have,” Lindilus Raider replied in his rich accent. “And I’ve felt it again today.”
“As have I,” Cole said. “Before the war. Even then, it was rare. Something only the arrogant Aeons used on those they considered beneath them.” He met Trelidor’s eyes from across the table. “Like a foreign conqueror giving his victims a chance to surrender.”
Trelidor rose to his full height. The movement was slow and deliberate like flowing mercury. “Well,” he said, “I see we’ve abandoned any pretense of subtlety.”
Gunshots echoed from outside the throne room, followed by the clash of steel and cries of pain. Thane felt the hair rise on his neck as he glanced at the others. Avelyn’s eyes were wide with concern. His father’s were narrow with suspicion. Even the king hadn’t expected this.
Trelidor continued, “My fellow Aeons, that fleet in the bay is not meant for you. I didn’t come here to fight you or take what’s yours. I came to fight our true enemy.” He pointed a pale finger at the Knight Commander.
“Stand with me now,” he said, “and I will keep you safe from what’s to come.”
The throne room held its breath for several heartbeats. The sounds of battle grew louder. Hands wandered toward sword hilts.
Then the doors burst open, and a Templar Dreadknight charged inside.
Ciena scanned the room and found more than a dozen people gathered around a polished wooden table. All Templars, clad in gray leather armor. Masks and helmets hid their faces.
Weren’t the Aeon leaders supposed to be here? Where was Alexel? Her parents? Lord and Lady Vassaj, the Solidors, and all the others? What had the Templars done with them?
One figure charged Ciena before she could ask. She fell into Sunform and met them blade for blade.
Shouts and protests erupted around the room as they fought. Their voices came out muffled and distant. Almost as if she were still dreaming. But that was impossible. She’d already left the Ethereal and cast aside her ring.
Ciena swept Steelbreaker in a neck-high arc, and the impact shattered her opponent’s blade. She transitioned to an upward stroke, opening the man from stomach to throat.
Two more Templars stepped forward—a man and a woman. They raised their swords and fell into Moonform.
Since when did Templars learn Aeon fighting forms?
Ciena rushed forward, and the pair split apart, attacking her from either side. They dodged rather than trying to parry her strikes. Smart. They’d seen her break the first man’s blade.
She lashed out in several quick flurries, but they kept their distance, letting her strike the air. Ciena drew more power from her blade, pushing her body to its limits.
The man retreated, knocking over broken chairs in his wake. Ciena leapt over the pile and flung herself toward her opponent.
A blast of fire tore through the air. She absorbed it on instinct, just as she’d done against Zidane. Thank Aegon for that week of training.
The man took advantage of the distraction, lashing out at her exposed side. HIs sword broke through her leather armor, cutting a line of pain across her right flank.
The momentum of her jump carried her forward before the sword cut too deep. She stumbled, twisted, and landed on her back.
Another blast of fire soared through the air, and she just barely absorbed it. These weren’t humans. These were Aeons. But why—
The two sword wielders closed in before she could finish her thought. Ciena sprang to her feet, deflecting both blows and lashing out with swift counter-attacks.
Those two weren’t as fast as her, but they predicted her every move. They fought like Amelie Reverius had.
The Serenity Trance.
Something else seemed familiar, too. A feeling of weakness, and of longing. A feeling that threatened to break her in a way no blade could. Her mind traveled back to Starglade, and how she’d almost stopped fighting. She remembered Zidane, and how he’d nearly broken her with words of hope.
Ciena’s skin prickled as her body continued moving through the fight. This is wrong. She’d left the Ethereal, but these Templars didn’t seem real. Her instincts told her to keep fighting. She would die if she stopped.
Ciena saw an opening against the female Templar and lunged forward. The woman side-stepped her at the last second, moving with a dancer’s grace.
More images flashed in her mind’s eye: her mother, back in Dresten, teaching her how to swordfight. Casella Raider had once moved just like the opponent Ciena faced today. They even had the same height and build.
She over-extended her strike, and her opponent’s blade cut through her spiked-bracer.
Ciena gritted her teeth against the pain. She twisted her wrist, using the leverage to disarm her opponent. Then, before the woman could retreat, Ciena ran her own blade through her chest.
Footsteps echoed behind her as the male Templar charged.
Steelbreaker came free with a spray of blood. Ciena kicked off the ground and spun, taking him in the shoulder, breaking through muscle and bone until her blade found his heart.
Thane ducked behind a fallen chair as the Dreadknight wrecked havoc through the room. Why in Aegon’s name had he given both his pistols to Fang? It made sense at the time—he couldn’t let someone in the palace see him with human weapons.
Now, it just seemed like a stupid reason to die.
Thane snuck a glance over the table to where Lord and Lady Raider engaged the intruder. Another hail of bullets tore through the room, shattering wineglasses, punching holes through the chairs.
Thane looked to his right. His father stood beside Alexel Trelidor, along with Lord and Lady Vassaj, and the other Dragonshard nobles.
The king didn’t move. He could have killed this Templar with a wave of his hand, but he didn’t. Neither did Trelidor. For someone who claimed to support Aeon rule...
And then the pieces clicked into place.
This woman who attacked them wasn’t a human. Twice now, Aunt Avelyn had tried to hit her with fire, and she absorbed the attacks. Between that and her inhuman speed she must be a Justicar.
Aegon. Thane was a fool for not seeing this sooner. Of course Palatine wouldn’t let them all walk out of here.
The Dreadknight had already slain the five Aeons closest to the door. Now she made her way toward Aaron Cole and the Spymaster.
Like the others, Cole dodged instead of parried. He must have seen the same thing as Thane—that was no ordinary sword the Justicar carried. It looked like steel, but every other weapon broke or bent against it.
The Justicar’s boot landed in Cole’s stomach, and he fell back.
Aunt Avelyn continued throwing flaming projectiles, but she was a sigilcrafter, not a combatant. Her attacks barely distracted the intruder.
Thane shot one more glance at the others behind the table. Stand with me now, Trelidor had said, and I will keep you safe from what’s to come.
To hell with that. He couldn’t let Nahlia’s father die.
Thane drew his own katana and charged the Justicar.
She must have heard him coming because she spun around and knocked his blade aside.
Just then, Fang and Ilsa burst into the room, each holding one of his pistols. Fang lined up his shot toward the back of the room and pulled the trigger.
Ciena jumped at the explosion of black power. The illusion shattered before her eyes.
Before, the Templars had all worn helmets and masks. Now, she saw their faces, clear as glass. The man in front of her was an Aeon, dark-haired and green-eyed with a dragon tattoo on his chest.
Her eyes darted toward the doorway where a Valaysian man stood with a smoking pistol. Ciena patted her torso and found it free of wounds. She looked toward the opposite side of the room where Alexel stood with half-a-dozen other Aeons.
The bullet sat lodged in the Grandmaster’s temple, and a trickle of blood ran down the side of his face.
Ciena’s vision blurred as she stumbled to the side. She’d been pulling energy from Steelbreaker for too long. Now its absence left her cold and empty. The wounds in her arm and side screamed at her, far more insistent than before.
Thane Solidor retrieved his fallen weapon, but he didn’t attack.
Others survivors took advantage of the pause and fled the room. Several of them shouted and argued, but their voices were muffled and distant. A dark-clad woman rushed through the open door, and so did the man who’d been laying on the floor behind her.
Slowly, Ciena forced herself to look down at the marble floors. Bodies and limbs were strewn everywhere, wet and red with blood. Most were Aeons she didn’t recognize.
Two figures lay to the left of the entrance—male and female—pale skinned and golden-haired. The man had a deep sword wound from his shoulder to his chest, revealing jagged lines of splintered white bone. The woman had a gaping hole in the center of her chest.
Ciena stared at them for several long seconds, not comprehending the gruesome sight. Some rational part of her realized she was in deep shock. This had happened to her once before—the day she watched her brother die.
Her hands shook. Her fingers lost their strength, and Steelbreaker clattered to the marble floor.
Again, she forced herself to look, to see the sight for what it was.
Those wounds. She’d done that. The man and woman who jumped forward to defend the others. The ones who looked like Templars, but fought like Justicars....
Those had been her parents all along.
“No.” When Ciena spoke, it was in a broken whisper. Almost a sob. A dizziness swept over her and she reached out to catch herself against the table.
The table was too far, and she collapsed on the floor instead.
How? How could this happen?
She’d thrown her ring in the fountain. No one should have been able to control her like this. She should have...
Ciena rubbed her fingers against the inside of her leather glove. She felt something there. Something heavy and metallic. With her hands still shaking, she grabbed the glove by the finger and ripped it off.
Finally, she saw the truth of it.
Alexel’s ring had never left her finger.