This is another dream, Ciena told herself. None of this is real.
Slowly, she uncurled the fingers of her shaking fist. The heat of battle had left them numb and swollen. She grasped the ring between her thumb and forefinger, twisting, pulling. It didn’t slide free.
“Ciena,” Alexel called her name. Heavy footsteps echoed from across the throne room.
Heart racing, she pulled harder. No use.
Alexel moved into the edge of her vision, stepping around the bodies without so much as a downward glance. A trickle of blood ran down his temple, but the bullet hole was already gone.
Despite her shaking and her wounds, Ciena forced herself to sit up and meet his eyes. In a room covered in blood and corpses, his face was the most normal sight. It anchored her back to reality.
“What happened?” she heard herself ask.
“The Templars betrayed us,” Alexel said.
Not what I meant, and you know it.
“They seized this opportunity to lure the Aeon leaders into one place, murdering anyone who opposed them.” After a pause, he added,”You defended us.”
All lies. Every Aegon-cursed word. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Templar corpses strewn about the marble floor.
Ciena had seen the truth of things when the bullet pierced Alexel’s head. The pain had either surprised or distracted him, forcing him to drop the illusion. In that brief span of time, she’d seen the Aeons she killed.
“My parents...” Ciena’s voice came out raspy, as if she’d been shouting all night. “Are they...”
No. Why even bother asking? She already knew the truth. He would only tell her it wasn’t her fault, but of course it was. Ciena had willingly followed this man, knowing in her heart what he truly was. She’d known from her first day in the enclave when she saw that sea of Etherite rings around the dining pavilion. Only an emperor wielded such wealth and power.
Alexel hadn’t even bothered to keep his plans a secret. Ciena had followed him because she shared pieces of his goal. But not once did she consider the cost. Not once did she question the fate of those who opposed him.
She’d done this to herself, acting all the while as if it were a game or a dream. These last few months—one absurdity after another. Ethermancy, legendary swords, and ancient techniques. All that talk of taking back her city and bringing peace to the realm. It all felt like a story, and she’d treated it that way—relishing in her own victories and talents. Never thinking, never looking at the bigger picture. She’d gotten more powerful, but she was just as stupid and impulsive as ever.
Ciena closed her eyes as if to fight back tears, but none came. Aegon. What the hell was wrong with her? If there were ever a time for tears, this should have been it. Without her rage, she was nothing but a hollow shell.
Alexel still loomed above her. A chill needled her bones when she met his eyes.
He knows. She was an open text with all her intentions and suspicions laid bare.
Ciena looked to the side where Steelbreaker lay on the stained marble floor. She stretched out her arm and grasped its leather hilt. On some other plane, her legs pushed her up.
I could end this now.
They only stood a few paces apart, and Alexel’s allies were too far away to intervene. He carried a sheathed sword at his hip, but he couldn’t draw it in time to defend himself. Not against a Justicar’s speed.
Her wounds still screamed from where her parents had cut her, and her body felt drained like a towel wrung dry. But she could ignore the pain, and she could push herself further. After all, what did she have to lose?
Before Ciena could move, a cold sensation spread through her stomach and arm. The pain faded as Alexel healed her wounds.
The chill inside her cracked to ice. Despite everything, Alexel didn’t see her as a threat.
He turned his back to her then, as if to cement that fact. “You’ve had a difficult time, my apprentice. Go now and rest. Return to your chambers and wait for me there.”
Something in her mind felt compelled to obey his orders. Ciena turned around, sick to her core, the room spinning.
“Leave the sword,” he said, “but keep the ring on your finger.”
Again, she tried to resist on principle, but his will pierced her through their bond. Her fingers loosened their grip and Steelbreaker clattered to the floor.
Thane watched as Trelidor spoke with the young woman near the throne room door. A moment ago, she’d appeared as a Templar Dreadknight. But something had changed when Fang shot Alexel Trelidor. The mass illusion had shattered around them, and they saw the scene for what it was.
No doubt Thane had Ilsa to thank for that. As an empath, she would have been the first to see through the shroud and track it to its source.
Thane’s heart still pounded from his near brush with death, and the young woman looked even worse. In fact, she’d looked horrified when Thane finally saw her face. There were never any riflemen, bullets, or smoke. No shattered glass or broken furniture. Only her.
Trelidor called her Ciena.
With those golden eyes, it could have been her. What if it was Palatine who came for her back in Starglade? What if he’d spent the last few months training her, sharpening her into an instrument of his will?
Thane could only imagine the training she must have gone through to gain so much power, so quickly. There was a reason Ethermancy took years to master. Without a foundation of control, the wielders would lose themselves to it.
But then, this was Palatine, the tyrant who tore about families and nations in his quest for power. Why would he care about the longevity or mental health of his followers?
“Do you believe me now?” Thane asked his father. Trelidor’s other allies had taken refuge in another room. For the first time, they had some measure of privacy.
Except for Thane’s guards, of course. They’d returned to his side shortly after the Clansmeet’s abrupt end. Now, four of them surrounded Thane like sentries. Even now, they awaited his order to attack the king.
His father didn’t answer the question. But he did notice the other Ethermancers. “Leave us,” he told them.
The four didn’t move, and the king narrowed his eyes to daggers.
“They aren’t yours,” Thane said. “They’re mine.”
His father inclined his head, shifting his gaze to where Trelidor stood. “So, what he said was true. You are powerless, aren’t you?”
“And what about what I said? You’d have to be blind not to see it now.”
“Enough.” The king’s voice wasn’t loud enough to echo, but it had an edge like steel.
Thane set his jaw. Blind had been the wrong word. His father knew the consequences from the beginning. His excuses last night were mere ploys to make Thane hand over the Codex.
If it hadn’t been for Ilsa and Fang, then Trelidor would have killed them all, including Aunt Avelyn, Aaron Cole and probably Thane himself. He would have slid into power without contest.
At least his aunt had escaped, along with Nahlia’s father, Ilsa, and Fang. They would spread the truth, and Dragonshard might have a chance.
Thane shot another glance at the doorway and the bodies that covered the floor. If he’d harbored any doubts about seizing the throne, then this sight chased them away. Once Trelidor dismissed his Justicar, Thane would give the signal.
After several long moments, Ciena Raider turned to leave, dropping that glowing red sword in the doorway. Thane held his breath as the footsteps faded.
The king stepped forward before Thane could move. “Palatine.”
The silver-haired man turned around. “I don’t answer to that name, Solidor.” He picked up a cloth napkin from the table, dipping it into his water glass. “While I may take pride in my lineage, it won’t do for a ruler of this continent. Not yet, anyway.”
“You tried to deceive us,” the king said.
“I deceived some people.” Trelidor wiped the blood from his temple, revealing the undamaged skin beneath. “But those antics were for the crowd outside. I trust you can block mental Ethermancy.” He gestured a hand in Thane’s direction. “Even this boy saw through the farce for what it was.”
His father’s eyes darkened. “I invited these leaders into my home. I promised them safe conduct. Even the Templars came here in good faith.”
“With an army,” Trelidor countered.
“Aaron Cole brought an army,” he agreed, “and you brought a monster.”
Trelidor stepped past him, gazing out the tall windows. The sky was brighter than it had been before, and the horizon glowed white. Brighter than two full moons. “You can’t have everything, your majesty. You said you wanted to avoid war for Dragonshard. I honored your request. Sometimes, assassinating a few leaders can save thousands of lives on both sides.”
He turned around, putting his back to the throne. “As for your honor, it’s safe. No one blames you for these deaths. Hundreds of your guests saw the same thing—the Templars betrayed this peace. Now, we will instate new leaders who are loyal to us.”
“What if I refuse?” his father asked.
“Refuse what? You’ve held up your end of the arrangement. Your part is done.”
“And if I tell you and yours to leave my land? Will you send your mad Justicar after me too?” The king furrowed his brow. “I should have burnt that girl when I had the chance.”
Trelidor’s lips curled up at that. “Are you so certain you could?” He waved the thought away. “Regardless, you have nothing to gain by retracting our deal now. You want to do so on principle? Fine. We’ll let the record show that you disapprove of my actions here tonight. But I doubt the ruthless King Solidor is afraid of a few killings.”
The king held his ground. “We promised them protection. How am I supposed to trust you—as an ally—after what happened tonight?” He gestured toward the room where the others had gone. “How are any of them—”
“I don’t require your trust,” Trelidor broke in. “As I said, your part is done. My army has already landed. There is no going back. To try would be foolish.”
His father squared his shoulders and stepped forward. “A threat?” Then the king shook his head. “No, that’s not your way. You never threatened the others, either.”
“But I gave them a fair chance,” Trelidor said. “They chose to fight.”
“Yes.” The king said with a slow nod. “You are a man of your word.”
Then, without warning, every oil lamp flickered out, shrouding the room in shadow. Thane whirled to see his father stretch out his hand. A bolt of white lightning shot across the room.
Trelidor reacted quickly, erecting a sphere of white light between himself and the king. It was exactly like Nahlia’s barriers.
Lightning flashed again. The room switched between pitch black and blinding white.
Thane took cover behind a pillar. He’d seen his father fight before, but never like this. Mere seconds had passed, but the king must have shot Trelidor at least fifty times now. Where did he even get the energy?
Trelidor erected a barrier around Thane’s father, encasing him within a sphere. The king dismissed the barrier as quickly as it appeared. More lightning spidered across the room. Windows shattered in showers of glass. Stone pillars cracked and splintered, collapsing the galleries above. Carpets and banners erupted in flames.
One bolt rebounded in Thane’s direction, but his guards deflected it.
“Orders?” Kresimir shouted to Thane.
“Go,” Thane told them. “Defend your king.”
The first man charged into the fray, and the other three followed. Their movements looked jagged in-between the bursts of black and white.
Thane took cover in an alcove. He felt like a coward, hiding here while others fought for Dragonshard. But what could he do? He’d tried and failed too many times to regain his Ethermancy. Running into this fight would be suicide.
Orange light bathed the room as the other four attacked their enemy. The scents of smoke, dust, and ozone filled the air. Thane closed his eyes and mouthed a silent prayer to Aegon, hoping against hope they could end this war tonight.
Trelidor may be powerful, but he couldn’t possibly.—
Something smacked into the wall beside him. Thane opened his eyes to see Kresimir’s head, eyes wide in shock. The rest of him lay only a few paces away.
Several heartbeats passed, and the sounds of battle faded. First the crackling flames, then his father’s bursts of lightning.
Thane knew the outcome before he looked. He felt it through the bond with his father. He felt the change in his soul as a part of it broke away.
When he finally emerged from his cover, he saw Palatine standing there in the dark hall, surrounded by mutilated corpses and burning banners.