Ciena leaned against the balcony rail, preparing to jump.
By now, she’d tried to talk herself out of it in a dozen different ways.
I’ll regret it if I jump.
Things will get better if I wait.
The pain will fade.
But she didn’t deserve happiness after this—not after what she’d done. There would be no redemption or forgiveness for her.
Besides, what did her future hold but more killing? Alexel Trelidor would rule this realm soon enough. Ciena didn’t know the details of his plan, but it was clear he would succeed, killing all who opposed him.
Up above, the comet streaked the night sky like a written promise of death. He meant to use that somehow. It was just one more of his tools.
She grasped the stone railing until her knuckles turned white. The metal band of her ring shone in the comet’s light, taunting her. As long as she wore this cursed thing, Alexel controlled her.
Even touching the ring felt as wrong as cutting off her own finger. In fact, she’d tried that too. She’d tried severing her finger, her hand, and even her whole arm. Her mind hit a wall everytime, and Alexel’s command echoed in her skull.
Aegon, that voice—that cursed voice. It wormed its way into her thoughts, making its will her own. It was like a fever dream she couldn’t wake from. Like a sickness she couldn’t fight. Obeying it felt so much easier. And judging by the number of Alexel’s followers, most people did exactly that.
Jumping was her only path to freedom. It was the only way to avoid murdering more innocents.
Using the stone column for support, Ciena stepped onto the balcony railing. The wind picked up as soon as both boots were on the rail. She wrapped her arm around the pillar, fighting down waves of dizziness and vertigo. Lights filled the city streets below, but the base of the palace appeared as nothing more than a blur of darkness.
This isn’t surrendering, she reminded herself. This is seizing control. It was fighting back in the only way she could.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor behind her. The chamber door creaked on its hinges as someone swung it open.
Her chest tightened until she could barely breathe. He’d come to stop her from jumping. He feared he would lose his favorite new weapon after months of sharpening her.
Ciena didn’t turn around. Instead, she leaned farther over that black abyss. He would not have her. Like a rod of steel, she would break before she would bend. All she had to do was let go of the pillar, and—
That voice. It wasn’t his. It was...
She glanced over her shoulder. There, her twin brother stood in the doorway.
It can’t be. Ciena grabbed the pillar with her other hand, turning around to face him. Elias’s blond hair was dripping wet and plastered around his forehead. More water dripped down his leather armor, puddling around the tile floor.
“Ciena?” He repeated her name, limping forward. Something had burned through the right leg of his trousers, and the skin on his upper thigh was red and blistered.
“No.” Ciena shook her head to clear it. The sight of him made her heart swell, and her muscles freeze. She’d nearly dropped her guard entirely. “You’re not real!”
This was another illusion—another of Alexel’s tricks. For all she knew, she’d never even left the Ethereal. Maybe if she jumped off this balcony, she would escape the dreams once and for all.
Ciena clenched her teeth and prepared to let go of the pillar, her resolve hardening to stone.
“Wait!” Elias held up his hands in submission. “Ciena, it’s me. Your brother.”
“He knows I’ll break free,” she said. “That’s why he’s sending me illusions of you. He wants me to stay here.”
“Who?” His voice was so calm. Not accusatory or condescending the way others were. It sounded like he genuinely wanted to understand. Only her brother talked to her like that.
“Alexel.” Ciena waved her free hand. “Palatine. Whatever the hell you want to call him.”
“So that’s where you’ve been these past few months,” he muttered, more to himself. “We came for you in Starglade, but he got to you first.”
Her mother had said they were coming for her, but Ciena hadn’t listened. Just one more thing she’d done wrong. Zidane was right—in the end, she could only blame herself.
Elias stepped closer as if approaching a wild animal. “I’m not an illusion,” he said. “It’s me—the real me.”
The wind blew fiercer, and chills ran down her spine. She grabbed the pillar with both arms. A part of her wanted to believe it was her real brother. This moment felt so real, but so had all the others before it.
Ciena held his gaze for a long moment, then her eyes fell to the floor. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“Whatever happened to you,” he said, “we can figure it out together. But first, you need to come down from there.”
“No.” Her teeth chattered as she struggled to form words. “Something’s wrong with me.”
What sane person would do the things she’d done? These same revelations had struck her countless times before. She knew killing brought her no peace, but she persisted every time. She thought she fought for some noble cause—to make this world better. Now, it was clear that jumping was the noblest option. To rid the world of the blight that was Ciena Raider.
“If I walk away now,” she told him, “it will happen again.”
Elias opened his mouth to reply, but Ciena cut him off, “I killed our parents.”
“What?” Her brother only looked confused. “No. You couldn’t have. I saw Mother in Thornhaven only a few months ago.”
“I killed them tonight!” Ciena shouted to be heard over the wind. “Tonight at the Clansmeet. I didn’t know it was them, but...” Her voice broke, and she released one hand from the pillar, holding it up to reveal the blood on her fingers. “It’s her blood—Mother’s blood. I murdered her. Her, and father, and the others. They’re all gone.”
Elias’s mouth made a thin line, and his brow furrowed. Still, he looked too calm. He wouldn’t be so calm if he believed her.
“You think I’m mad,” Ciena said.
“No,” he replied at once. “But you need to come—”
“You’re right about me,” she broke in. “That’s why I have to jump.” She loosened her other hand from around the pillar. “If you are my real brother ... I’ll only hurt you if I stay.”
“Wait.” His body lurched forward as if he wanted to grab her, but he restrained himself. “Tell me how it happened.”
Ciena screwed her eyes shut. That was the last thing she wanted. But then, they were his parents too. She owed him an explanation. Otherwise, the truth would die with her, and Elias would hear nothing but the lies Alexel told.
So she gave him the story in broad strokes. The words poured out in a rush as she explained how Alexel found her in Starglade, how he took her to his enclave and gave her the tools to learn Ethermancy. She told him how foolish she’d been, focused on her own power and never looking at the big picture.
Finally, she told him about the evenings events.
“I thought I was defending them by killing the Templars,” Ciena said, “I’m sure they saw something different too. Alexel even told them it was the Templars who attacked ... but it was me. I murdered those people. He knew I couldn’t resist a fight.”
As she spoke, her brother’s face became more grave. Slowly, the belief shone in his golden eyes. His breathing increased, and he brought his chin to his chest.
“Now you know why I have to do this,” Ciena said.
“No,” Elias’s voice came out in a rasp, and she barely heard it over the wind. “It wasn’t your fault.” He met her eyes again. “You said it yourself, he controlled you.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “I knew who he was all along. Deep down, I knew, but I didn’t care.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Elias repeated. “Palatine’s been manipulating people long before he met you. The Templars, the Purge—they’ve been his tools for the past two decades.”
“I still put this ring on my finger,” she retorted. “I still trusted him.”
That last part wasn’t really true. She had never trusted Alexel. She’d suspected him from the start, but he’d been ten steps ahead of her. He knew she was a fighter, and he took every advantage of that. The things he’d done with Ethermancy ... she hadn’t known any of that was possible until it was too late. And while she might not have trusted him, she still accepted the lessons and the tools he gave her.
“I understand you need to take responsibility,” Elias said. “But I forgive you.”
“Don’t tell me what I shouldn’t do.” His voice went harder than she’d ever heard it before. “They were my parents too. But you’re my sister, and I love you.”
Ciena looked away. “I’m sorry.”
“The ring,” Elias took several more steps forward. “It’s Etherite?”
“And it’s bonded to one of his? We’ve seen this before. With Nahlia and—”
“I know how it works,” Ciena snapped back. “He’s controlling me with it. If I could take it off, I would, but I can’t.”
Elias considered that for a moment. “Could someone else remove it?”
“I don’t know.”
He took another step. “What if you let me try?”
Ciena hesitated for a moment, then shook her head. “I can’t take that risk. You could be him in disguise. If you get close enough, you could pull me off of here and use me to kill my real brother.”
“And what if you’re wrong?” he said. “Do you remember the way you felt in Whitecliff? When the bullet hit me?
“So do I,” he said. “I remember the look on your face. It was the last thing I saw before I passed out. I’d never seen you look like that before.”
Ciena didn’t reply, but the image filled her mind’s eye. The hole in his chest, the blood running down his jerkin...
“If you leave me now,” he continued, “I’ll feel the same way you did then. Can you really put me through that?”
“But how do I know?” Ciena’s voice rose. “How do I know this is really you?”
Elias took a deep breath. “Palatine thinks you’re only good for fighting, but I know there’s more to you than that. You’re more determined and focused than anyone I’ve ever met. I know that you hate being alone, even though you push people away. I know you would sacrifice everything for the people you love.”
Ciena’s heart beat quicker and her eyes burned. This was her real brother.
“If Palatine wanted to stop you, he would make you fight, because that’s all he sees in you. I’m asking you to stop fighting and to let me help you.”
Ciena didn’t move from the rail, but she extended her blood-stained hand with the ring.
Even as Elias stepped forward, her blood turned to iron as if preparing for a fight.
“It’s alright.” Her brother’s hand found hers. “It’s just me. You’re safe.”
His fingers twisted around the ring’s metallic surface. Her own hands were far colder now than they had been in the throne room, and it twisted free easily.
Elias let the ring roll from his hand, and it plummeted into the darkness below.
Ciena didn’t dare feel relief yet. She’d already tried to remove the ring once. This could be another illusion.
But as it fell, something inside her changed. It was as if her body and mind had spent the last few months as a clenched fist, and now she could finally stretch again. Tears filled her eyes, and every inch of her ached with pain.
Elias grabbed her wrist and pulled her down from the railing. The two of them crashed on the floor, and he pulled her head to his chest. The tears ran down her cheeks, wet and hot. She wrapped her arms around her brother’s shoulders as her body racked with sobs.
Alexel had planned to leave her here, either bent or broken. Whether she’d jumped or continued to serve him, it didn’t matter. Either way, she was no threat to him or his goals.
Only, he hadn’t counted on Elias showing up.
Removing that ring wouldn’t fix her any more than seeing Elias again would. That path would be long and hard.
Still, this was the first step toward healing.