Nahlia ran for the door, and the dead followed.
She passed under the archway from the throne room into the antechamber. The corpses had risen out here too. Only minutes ago, these guards had all been lying lifeless on the floor. Now, they climbed the stairs, armed with broken spears and steel.
Heart racing, Nahlia bolted right, running along the balcony toward another set of doors.
A guard’s corpse beat her there, swinging its blade in wide, vicious arcs.
Nahlia hit the thing with a barrier, knocking it back several paces. Two more corpses lost their balance behind it, tumbling down the stairs like dominoes.
More corpses closed in from the throne room and the opposite staircase. She spun around, hitting them with a second barrier. Then a third.
Relief flooded her with every burst of Moonshard from her fingers. A part of her feared she would lose her Ethermancy at any moment, just like Thane when he’d lost faith in himself. Even now, the doubt loomed around her like a dark mist.
Her blood chilled whenever she met her enemies’ dead gaze. Only adrenaline kept her moving now. That, and all the fighting instincts Elias had drilled into her. Ethermancy or no, these things would have killed her without contest five months ago.
Nahlia’s hands shook as she fumbled with the door’s brass handle, still holding Lady Raider’s katana in her off-hand. She pushed open the doors and ran into another empty ballroom. This one had a domed glass ceiling, revealing the night sky above.
She reached the opposite door and tried the handle. Locked.
Dozens of corpses funneled through the entrance behind her.
Nahlia tried the handle again, but it refused to move up or down. She pushed, then pulled.
Footsteps echoed throughout the room as the corpses stampeded closer.
“Is anyone there?” Her voice came out high, her words jumbled together. “Please!” She banged on the door as hard as she could.
A guard-corpse reached her before the others, swinging its sword in a neck-high arc. Nahlia deflected the glance and drove her own blade down on its exposed wrist. The hand came off easily, and her own katana hit the marble floor.
The corpse rammed itself into her, undaunted by the wound. Nahlia lost her balance and staggered back. The corpse forced her to the ground, pressing its weight against her. It scratched at her face and neck. She tried to push it away with a barrier, but it clung to her with an iron grip.
Nahlia pulled more energy from her pendant and made a larger barrier between them. This one sent the corpse several dozen feet into the air. It hit the ceiling, and a shower of glass rained down around them.
More corpses piled on to fill its place. Another tackled her and dug its teeth into her neck. A spear struck her ankle, and a blade slashed her exposed arm.
Nahlia screamed for help, praying to Aegon that anyone would hear. Her vision blurred and darkened. She couldn’t take another breath with so many bodies piled against her chest. She couldn’t scream—couldn’t move.
In one last desperate act, she forced Moonfire into her attackers, trying to heal them.
She tried to pull their life away instead, the way she’d killed that Sile’zhar on the Black Steppes.
Again, she failed. There was no person there to heal or wound. Not anymore. These things moved, but they weren’t alive.
Gunshots echoed from nearby. One after the other. The corpse on top of her went limp and fell forward.
“Nahlia!” a man’s voice shouted her name.
She launched another dome around herself, sending the other corpses back. Her former attacker lay motionless on the floor with a bullet in the back of its skull.
They can be stopped!
Dead or alive, nobody could move without a spinal cord.
She rolled to the side and snatched up her katana. The corpses ignored the gunshots and continued their assault. To her left, one held a sword. To her right, a spear.
Nahlia fell into Moonform and sidestepped their attacks. She parried the sword-wielder and slashed her blade across its chest. It didn’t even slow down. She followed through on the swing and plunged her blade into its windpipe. This time, it let out a shriek before its body went limp. Blood poured out from the wound, sputtering from its open mouth.
She tried to pull her sword free, but it didn’t budge. The weight yanked her down, and she released the hilt. More surrounded her—too many to count. She picked up another sword, and the hilt was slick with blood.
Nahlia slashed, dodged and parried, using bursts of her Moonshard barriers to keep the larger horde at bay. One enemy kicked her on the back of the knee and she stumbled forward. Her sword clattered to the ground, and the corpse tackled her.
Adrenaline raced through her veins as she recalled the feeling of being buried. Aegon. That would not happen a second time.
She positioned her hands on either side of the corpse’s head—using a hold that Elias had taught her, but she swore she’d never use—she twisted its neck until it snapped.
More gunshots sounded from nearby. Two more corpses fell.
Nahlia met her father’s eyes from only a dozen paces away. Aaron Cole ran forward along with Ilsa and Fang. He dropped his smoking pistol and pulled a sword from his scabbard.
Nahlia pushed herself to her feet and staggered toward him. She’d been so caught up in the fighting that she’d forgotten to heal her ankle. Now it screamed at her with every step.
She threw up a dome around the four of them and fell into her father’s arms. He pulled her close to his chest, squeezing his own muscular arms tight around her back. Nahlia would have stayed that way for a long time, but this last barrier had left her pendant nearly drained.
Aegon. She’d been sloppy before, using barriers when her sword would have sufficed. She never imagined the battle would last this long. But as she gazed beyond her wall of light, over two-dozen enemies remained.
Her father and Fang were skilled swordsmen, but you couldn’t beat an enemy horde that didn’t fear you. Nahlia had lasted this long, but without her Ethermancy, she was an average fighter at best.
Nahlia pulled away to look at her father, hoping to see a plan in his eyes. He only nodded, showing no surprise at her sudden skill in combat or use of Ethermancy. There was only resolve there.
They would die fighting, then.
At least they were together after all these months. Here, at the end.
Thane wandered the lower halls, purposeless and alone. All the ballrooms were empty, with no sign of the guards or party guests, much less his allies.
At least they’d escaped. Cole was a survivor. So were Fang and Ilsa. Aunt Avelyn knew the palace well, and she should be able to find a dragon back to her villa. Cole and Fang would return to their armies, regroup, and attack Palatine from a place of strength.
As for Thane ... he was king now. For all the good that would do him and his people.
Ice ran through his veins as he walked. Despite their disagreements, his father had been one of the strongest Ethermancers in the known world. He’d ruled a kingdom of thousands, maintained control of a human army during the Purge, and kept their lands independent for decades.
Now, he was gone.
His body lay dead in his own throne room. As powerful as King Solidor had been, he was no match for Palatine.
Thane harbored no illusions about his own strength. He’d fled the throne room after his father’s death. To do anything else would have been suicide. But despite everything, a small spark of hope kindled inside him. When it mattered most, his father had done the right thing. That meant…
Thane jumped as a woman’s voice echoed from somewhere down the hall.
He broke into a jog past the open ballrooms, straining his ears to hear.
Someone banged on a door further down the hall. More screams followed.
“Nahila?” he called out her name, but the screaming stopped. Thane continued down the hall, opening one door after another. All empty.
When he reached the last door, he heard the sounds of battle beyond. Thane had lost all his weapons in the previous fight, but he threw open the door anyway.
Several dozen figures fought in the Glass Ceiling Room. Every lantern had been snuffed out, but the comet flooded the space with pale blue light. Thane recognized Nahlia and her father in the middle of the room, along with Fang and Ilsa.
The others were ... Dragonshard guards?
But something was wrong. The guards had open wounds in their chests or stomachs that should have been lethal. Others were missing hands or entire arms. Their movements were clumsy, and their eyes glazed over.
Thane scanned the crowd and saw more familiar faces. Lord and Lady Raider … the members of the Fallen Moon Chapel, and other rural clan leaders of Dragonshard.
Nahlia and the others continued struggling against the undead horde. She wasn’t using her Ethermancy. Her pendant must have already run dry.
Finally, Thane saw his father.
This is Palatine’s work.
Palatine had raised them somehow—animating their corpses without restoring their lives. Some perversion of the power Nahlia possessed. The two of them were both Redeemers, but they used their powers in different ways. Two sides of the same coin.
Nahlia had resurrected Elias, but Palatine had raised these bodies as abominations.
Nahlia gave life through healing, but she’d also taken it from that Sile’zhar on the Black Steppes. One action embodied the ideals of her Order, the other was its counterpoint.
Justicars were meant to protect the innocent and bring justice to those who abused their power, but Ciena Raider had murdered a room full of helpless people, and she’d done it under the control of a tyrant.
What if Thane’s power was the same? He was a Sanctifier. To Sanctify meant to cleanse. What needs cleansing? He’d wrestled with that question for years. In Whitecliff, his doubt had become crippling.
Now, when he looked at these walking, desecrated corpses, Thane had his answer.
Aegon had given him the power to destroy. Some things needed to burn.
The realization hit Thane like a tidal wave, and he felt an oasis of energy all around him. His pendant, and his rings. The comet above, and the nexus below. It swirled around him, and inside him—a storm waiting to be unleashed.
“Nahlia!” Thane shouted over the clamor. “The comet!”
It didn’t take her long to feel its energy. Less than a second later, Nahlia threw up another barrier around herself and the others.
Without a second thought, Thane stepped forward and drank in the comet’s power. He didn’t feel anger, rage or fear. Just calm clarity. The energy felt like a cool drink of water after days in the desert.
The fire erupted from his palms, lashing out at the undead. It wasn’t an orange fire of destruction, but a silver fire of cleansing. Like the light of Aegon himself. It surrounded Nahlia’s barrier, spreading like a furnace around the ballroom.
One by one, the corpses turned to ash.