Thane led his team through the maze of city streets. Several squads of Templars jogged behind him, their boots thundering against the cobblestones. If this were any other night, the sound would have broken the near-silence of Hightown. Now, the roar of distant gunshots drowned out everything else .
The comet loomed above them, casting the sky in perpetual twilight. Smaller streaks of white broke off from the main body and fell toward the horizon. Were those natural breaks, or were they Trelidor’s doing? No one could say. All they could do was run—making the most of every second.
When Thane spotted a skirmish up ahead, he cut through a narrow alleyway. Better to avoid any pointless fighting. They emerged in the street that bordered the palace’s outer wall.
More gunshots echoed from the east as the Templars fought for control of the main entrance. Thane ran in the opposite direction, stopping when he reached the postern gate. It looked like any other part of the wall—bricks of bright limestone covered by gardens of green foliage.
He twisted off his ring and pressed it to one particular brick, just below eye level. To an onlooker, it might have looked random, but this single brick had sigils beneath the surface. One sigil listened for the crystalline patterns inside the Solidor rings. The other sigils transferred energy, powering the mechanisms that opened the doors.
Stone ground against stone as two pieces of the wall pivoted inward to reveal a tunnel. It was just wide enough for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder.
Thane and General Ozel led the way with Nahlia and Cole following close behind. The passage went on for a dozen paces before it opened into the palace’s western courtyard.
Thane hadn’t expected to get this far without a fight. He’d expected to find more Palavan soldiers like those fighting near the main gate. Maybe even more of Palatine’s undead.
But as he stepped into the comet’s half-light, what he saw was far worse.
Several squads of the palace guard stood at the top of the wide stone staircase. Archers, spearmen, and swordsmen alike. Amid their ranks loomed two more familiar faces— Kavar and Elvira Solizhan.
“There you are, cousin,” Kavar called out. His complexion was almost as dark as Thane’s, but his beard was more unkempt and his hair fell down to his shoulders. “Figured this was your secret way in.”
Aunt Avelyn pushed her way to the front lines, just behind the shield wall. No doubt she was looking for her son, Dazen.
Like Ashara, Dazen specialized more in dragon riding than traditional combat Ethermancy. That meant he was probably fighting in the air rather than here on the ground. For all they knew, he was with the group that retrieved the Codex from Villa Solizhan. Would it matter to Dazen that Palatine had nearly killed his mother during the Clansmeet? Would it matter that Avelyn was here now, fighting against them?
No ... Dazen wouldn’t fight his own mother, nor serve the man who’d tried to kill her. Unfortunately, the truth only held so much weight through all the lies and the fog of war.
Thane had regained his powers after months of struggling. Now, when he was finally at his full strength again, he might need to use those powers to kill his own kin and countrymen.
That’s what Palatine does. He divides families and nations and makes them destroy each other. Why stop now?
The archers raised their bows as Thane stepped forward. Nahlia followed, and he felt the energy gathering inside her as she prepared her defenses.
“Stand down!” Thane said to the assembled guards.
“Ignore that order!” Kavar snapped. “Thane Solidor is a traitor, planning to take the throne from his father.”
“My father is already dead,” Thane shouted. “Palatine murdered him when he broke their alliance.”
“There’s no Palatine here.” This time, it was Faidon Nirvada who spoke. He was a distant cousin from the Solizhan side, but he looked more like a northerner with his pale skin and blond hair.
“Alexel Trelidor,” Thane said. “Whatever he’s calling himself today.”
“If the king is dead,” Kavar replied, “then where’s his body?”
Thane couldn’t announce that he was the one to burn his father’s body. That would only cause more suspicion. He also couldn’t explain to these guards that Palatine had raised the dead. Why would they believe him? Thane wouldn’t have believed it himself if he hadn’t seen it.
“I could ask you the same question,” Thane retorted. “You’re the one who seized control of the palace.”
“This man isn’t your prince,” Elvira spoke up. Her hair was about the same length as her brother’s, but it fell to her shoulders in a bundle of dreadlocks. “I heard he doesn’t even have his Ethermancy anymore. Instead, he brings an army of Templars here to fight his battles.”
Lightning gathered in her palms, and she threw a bolt directly at Thane. Thane caught the strike and threw it back, knocking her off her feet.
“You heard wrong,” Thane said. “I am your king, and I’m only here for Palatine. The rest of you, stand aside. My quarrel is not with you.”
No one else moved, but the air was like a taut bowstring. Both sides raised their weapons, each waiting for the other to strike first.
“It’s too late for that,” Kavar said as his sister regained her footing. “The Templars have broken the peace of the Clansmeet. Dozens of the other leaders are missing, and for all we know, you killed your father.”
“Do you actually believe your own words?” Thane snapped. “Or does Trelidor have you spreading his lies for him?”
“Surrender,” Kavar roared. “Send away your Templars and answer for your crimes.”
Aegon. Perhaps it didn’t matter what they believed. This would only end in blood. Even so, Thane saw flashes of doubt in the guards’ eyes. They all saw how pointless this was, too.
“We don’t need to fight,” he said to the opposing ranks of black-clad soldiers. “A foreign ruler has taken control of our palace, but none of you need to defend him. You have a choice.”
“Yes,” Kavar began pacing in front of the guards, and his voice echoed all throughout the courtyard. “Alexel Trelidor is our ally—he was invited here by our king. Your former prince left you more than a year ago and joined the Templars. Now he returns with an army of them.”
Flames sprang to life in his cousin’s palms. “We fight for Dragonshard.”
Then he and the others attacked, blasting Thane’s army with a tidal wave of flame.
Nahlia raised a barrier between the two groups. A wall like glowing moonlight filled the courtyard, stretching twenty paces in every direction. It didn’t last long though. Nahlia knew better than to waste her strength delaying the inevitable.
Fire flashed on both sides as the barrier fell. Rifles exploded, and arrows loosed.
Thane charged forward, summoning flames between his palms. If he could take out his cousins, the others might surrender.
Several brave guards ran down the stairs, raising spears and shields to block Thane’s path.
Nahlia was on Thane’s heels, knocking aside the defenders with bursts of Moonshard. The guards slammed into each other with bone-breaking force.
Black powder flashed at the edges of his vision. The smell of smoke filled his nostrils. Spears and arrows flew toward him, and Nahlia deflected them all with barriers on all sides.
Two Justicars met them at the top. Faidon slashed forward with his katana, and Thane jumped, a surge of fire lending him extra height. Even as the Justicars moved in their Rage Trance, Thane passed over their weapons.
He planted a boot in Faidon’s face and kicked off, shattering his optics and flipping backwards through the air.
Faidon leaped off the landing, attempting to follow Thane. Nahlia knocked him back to the ground with a barrier in mid-air.
Thane twisted his body as he flew, kicking off against a marble statue at the base of the staircase. From there, he released another explosion in front of him as he soared forward, shattering the glass window above the door.
A second later, Thane landed on the vestibule’s stone floors. Glass fragments rained down around him, and several of the plants caught fire.
The other Ethermancers moved to follow him through the doorway.
Good. Let them turn their backs on his army.
Faidon was the first one through, closing the gap with impossible speed. Thane released a torrent of fire from his palm. The Justicar darted left and right, pushing off the stone pillars on either side of the corridor.
Nahlia entered the palace behind Faidon, launching a barrier at the Justicar’s back.
Faidon stumbled forward and landed on his stomach. Thane seized the advantage and released more fire from his hand.
The Justicar absorbed the attacks. Not just Thane’s fire, but Nahlia’s next barrier. While some of the flames singed his hair and reddened his skin, it wasn’t enough. He rolled over onto his back, wiping sweat from his eyes.
Aegon, but Justicars were strong. Thane had never fought one in earnest until today, but he’d always heard they were the best at resisting Ethermancy.
Nahlia threw up another barrier around the doorway, keeping the others at bay. She couldn’t hold that forever though. He had to finish this now.
Faidon sprang to his feet, katana in hand. Thane kicked off the fountain behind him, flying straight into the other man.
Faidon absorbed the blow, just as he’d absorbed the flames. Kicking him was like kicking an iron bar. The other man grabbed Thane’s ankle before he could kick off again. He pulled, twisted, and forced him to the ground.
Thane rolled onto his back, kicking at his opponent with his free leg. Faidon deflected with his forearm, angling his blade for the kill.
Thane drew as much energy as he could hold. Not fire this time—his opponent would expect that. Instead, he released an upward burst of pure kinetic energy.
Faidon dropped his katana and the blast sent him several dozen feet into the air.
“Thane!” Nahlia’s voice called out from the entrance. She’d dropped her barrier, and Kavar and Elvira charged in behind her. A blast of fire took her in the face, and Kavar shoved her limp body to the side.
No sooner had she spoken than Kavar’s cousins’ attacks filled the corridor. Thane pushed out a heatward in all directions. Smoke and flame swirled like a whirlpool around him.
At the same time, Thane picked up the fallen katana and launched himself into the air. The Justicar had already begun to fall, and Thane aimed the blade for his heart as he soared toward him.
No time for mercy now. It was their lives against his and Nahlia’s.
Faidon deflected the weapon with his forearm, and it sliced through his shoulder instead. The blade broke leather, skin and muscle. Faidon grabbed Thane by his jerkin, and the two spun as they fell.
They hit the stone floor a heartbeat later—Faidon on his back and Thane on his feet. Only a few seconds had passed, but everything felt longer in the heat of battle.
Kavar and Elvira were on him next, and a dozen flaming projectiles prevented him from striking a killing blow on the fallen Justicar. Thane gave ground and retreated farther into the palace.
His cousins’ attacks came far more ruthless than before. Each one was an explosion, sending up fragments of stone all around him. Pillars and statues crashed into the floor. Shards of glass fell from the higher windows.
Thane spun and flew through a maelstrom of steel and flame, dodging left and right, moving his body with the force of small explosions. Faidon slashed at him with his sword, but Thane was quicker. He lurched across the chamber from pillar to pillar, feet never touching the ground. One minute he was near the floor, then the ceiling.
Kavar and Elvrira bombarded him with their explosions, but Thane threw everything back. Fire and smoke choked the air until the chamber was a furnace.
Every second was an exercise in focus and raw willpower. They forced him to keep moving, but his body could only endure so much until exhaustion set in. His own will was strong, but three against one left no room for error.
Get up, Nahlia. I need you now.