Nahlia crept out of the stairwell and into the empty ballroom. Her legs felt like marmalade after that Aegon-cursed walk. She’d assumed those months of marching would have given her stronger legs. Apparently, stairs were a whole different quiver of arrows.
And there I go with the martial metaphors again.
That one had come from Relyn. In her own words, it sounded much better in Valaysian.
Music and conversation had filled these halls less than an hour before. Now the lower levels lay eerily empty. Quiet enough to hear the splashing water in the fountains and the echo of her boots on the marble floor.
Was everyone outside watching the comet? Unlikely. No room emptied this quickly. A few folk always stayed inside, regardless of the spectacle. Nahlia knew this from personal experience. Sometimes, you just needed a break from the bustling crowds.
But this was different. Something was wrong.
She reached the main vestibule and climbed the stairs toward the throne room. There, a dozen guards stood in front of the double doors, armed with spears and bucklers.
“Hold,” one man said as she approached.
“What happened down here?” Nahlia asked. She tried to put as much authority into her voice as she could muster. Unfortunately, her pale northern skin was enough to give her away as just another party guest. Her age didn’t help either.
“We don’t know,” the same guard said. His voice held some uncertainty. Fear, maybe? Nahlia glanced at the other guards, and her own chest tightened.
“Someone’s investigating now,” he continued. “The other guests are in the east garden. You should join them.”
“I’d like to see for myself,” Nahlia said.
“No one goes in.” He and another guard moved their spears into a cross. “For your own safety.”
Nahlia drew in a breath of energy from her pendant. The guards were only doing their jobs, and they were probably right to keep people out. Hard to justify knocking them aside like rag dolls.
“Please?” Nahlia tried again. “I’m an Ethermancer. I might be able to—”
“No one goes in,” he interjected.
Fine then. Not like I didn’t try.
Nahlia conjured a pair of barriers in the center of their group. The force knocked the men to either side of the landing, just as it had with the king’s guards the day before.
She winced as the guards slammed into the walls. “Sorry.”
Nahlia stepped across the landing, dropping the barriers when she reached the door. The heavy rosewood groaned as she pulled it open.
The room beyond was dark, but the light from the open door revealed the scene. Bodies covered the floor, and the scent of death filled her nostrils.
Oh Aegon. She put a hand to her mouth, taking in the sight of broken bodies and crimson splatters. These were Dragonshard guards. They wore the same black linen uniforms as those outside. Weapons littered the floor in splinters of wood and steel. Every oil lamp had been snuffed out, even the higher chandeliers.
Nahlia glanced left and right, expecting to see the killer spring out from the shadows.
The only sound was the guards scrambling to their feet behind her. They wasted no time slamming the door.
All her instincts told her to run, but her father might still be down here, along with Thane, Ilsa, and Fang. She released a breath and followed the staircase up toward the throne room proper.
The tall windows lay in shatters, and a cool wind blew through the opening, sending a shiver down her spine. Flames crackled on the curtains and tapestries—small specks of light breaking up the darkness.
More bodies covered the floor. Not guards this time, but highborn Aeons. Slowly, Nahlia searched the faces of the fallen. A guilty relief flooded her when she realized they were all strangers. Most were unarmed and wore formal dress tunics rather than armor. This wasn’t a battle then, but a slaughtering.
Who would do this?
Another part of her already knew the answer. Palatine had been here at the Clansmeet, deceiving them all under a different name. In fact, he might still be—
Nahlia froze when she saw two figures at the foot of the table.
Crimson armor. Golden hair matted with blood.
Lady Raider had a gaping hole in her chest, staining her armor a darker shade of red. Her husband’s wound was even worse—a straight cut from his shoulder to his heart—revealing severed muscle and white bone.
Her eyes blurred with tears as she knelt over the bodies. Nahlia knew what it felt like to lose a parent. She wouldn’t let Elias go through that.
Still, she hadn’t been able to revive anyone since Whitecliff. Whatever that power was, it was beyond ordinary healing. It required more energy and effort. More willpower, and more faith. It had left her utterly drained—unconscious for almost twelve hours.
There had also been something special about Whitecliff. A hidden power that made Ethermancy flow stronger. What had her mother called it? A nexus? A fragment from another comet buried deep beneath the earth, causing glowcrystals to form in the tunnels. Nahlia had drawn on that power. Even when her pendant was empty, she’d been able to pull energy from the nexus to save herself and Elias.
If her mother was right, then Dragonshard had a similar nexus beneath the palace.
Nahlia moved closer to Casella Raider’s body, clasping her hands over her wound.
“I can do this.”
She’d already brought back Elias, and that was five months ago. Since then, she’d learned so much.
“Please,” she whispered to Aegon. “Give me the strength to do this.”
Nahlia closed her eyes, grasping for the emotions she’d felt five months before. The words of her mother’s journal echoing in her mind, her faith in Aegon as his power filled her with strength and resolve. The memories all bubbled to the surface, hardening her resolve.
“Nahlia Cole,” a deep voice spoke her name from across the room.
She snapped open her eyes and looked up. A man stood only a dozen paces away. Everything about him was cold and sharp as a winter night. His face was young despite his silver-white hair, and his pale blue eyes seemed to glow in the darkness.
Ice ran through her veins as she rose to her feet. Nahlia knew that face—she’d seen it in Zidane’s memories.
“I hear you’ve learned to raise the dead,” he remarked. “Truly, a miracle, is it not? A display of Aegon’s grace and power.”
Part of her wanted to run, but she held her ground. It would take more than mockery to break her faith.
The silver-haired man shook his head. “There will be no revivals here tonight. At least not of the sort you’re planning.”
“You won’t stop me,” Nahlia told him, and she took a step forward. “You won’t hurt anyone else ever again.” Her voice trembled as she spoke, but she meant every word. Aegon had given her strength before in the depths of Whitecliff. He had kept her safe throughout her journey, in Raidenwood against the slavers, and in the Black Steppes against the Sile’zhar. She was a Redeemer now, and Aegon would give her the strength to face any foe—no matter how powerful or how terrifying.
Palatine inclined his head at her. “Foolish girl. I’ve had many prideful students, but I’ve never met one as arrogant as you.”
Lady Raider’s body twitched at her feet. Nahlia jumped back, barely suppressing a shriek.
It’s fine, she told herself through several deep breaths. Muscles do that sometimes. Everything’s fine.
“You get one taste of power,” he continued, “and you think you understand me? You—who has never walked the dark places of the world?”
A slow horror spread through her chest as more movement flickered in the shadows. To her left, a corpse seemed to roll over on its back. Another grasped its fingers around a sword hilt.
Nahlia picked up Lady Raider’s katana and prepared to throw up a barrier. She tried to feign courage, but her shaking hands gave away the truth.
Palatine spread out his hands on either side of him. “Let me show you the true face of Ethermancy. Let me show you why the world fears our bloodline.”
Slowly, the corpses rose to their feet. At least a dozen of them. Their movements were jagged and stiff. Blood seeped out from their open wounds, dripping down their clothing and pooling on the polished floor. Their eyes remained white, unfocused and careless.
For several long seconds, Nahlia froze in a way she hadn’t since before Whitecliff. She’d been prepared to face her enemy. She’d imagined someone strong, cunning, and powerful. But this? Aegon, not this.
This twisted everything she stood for. Everything she knew. This past year, Ethermancy has been her shield from fear. Her proof that Aegon was there protecting her as more than an absent creator.
How could he allow this?
“I promised your mother I’d let you live,” Palatine said. “But I can’t speak for them.”
Then, in unison, every one of the standing corpses turned to face her. Some took their first steps while others raised their blades.
Palatine remained still, and his smile was hard and brittle. “Now, run little Redeemer. If you can.”