Nahlia opened her eyes to ash and blood. A sharp pain twisted its way through her skull, and her face felt like she’d been hit with a blast of fire.
Screams and gunshots echoed from outside as the battle waged on. Thane and his cousins were out of sight, but orange light flashed in the room beyond the vestibule.
Nahlia rolled onto her back, pulling the ambient energy from the air. Strange how easily it flowed with the comet looming up above. Her pendant had run dry hours ago. Any other night, she would have been powerless until it replenished itself.
Energy sickness was still a concern if she kept on fighting, but she had at least another hour before that happened. Besides, Palatine would have the same problem when they faced him.
She forced Moonfire into her veins, healing the burns on her face and neck. When she removed her helmet, she found the leather portions were melted and misshapen. Thank Aegon she’d worn that, or she would have lost half her hair in that blast. For some reason, her powers couldn’t regrow hair. You’d think Treluwyn would have thought of that, considering...
Nahlia shook her head. Priorities.
She pushed herself to her feet, still feeling like she might topple over at any moment. Her vision blurred as she shuffled forward, and waves of nausea rose from her stomach to her throat. Every sound and flash sharpened the pain in her skull.
Her power could heal some headaches, but not the sort where someone slammed her against a stone wall. This much she already knew from experience.
Slowly, Nahlia made her way from the vestibule into a wider atrium where Thane fought his cousins. They flew like burning meteorites through the dark chamber. Their fight was almost too quick to follow—looking more like twelve people rather than four.
Aegon. Thane was far better now than he’d been against Zidane. All these months without his powers, he’d still been training in the Ethereal, preparing himself for this moment.
Nahlia raised a protective dome and charged into the circular atrium. Heat and stone fragments broke against the shield like water against a boulder.
Before, she’d only used her barriers to slow down her enemies. It had helped Thane, but it wasn’t enough. They’d still been able to oppose her—It was the same trick Thane had used the first time they sparred together. What’s more, they’d begun to ignore her. They knew Thane was the real threat, and that she was nothing but a hindrance.
“Grenades!” Cole shouted.
On his command, a score of men lobbed their powder-filled canisters behind the enemy shield wall. Screams and explosions followed. Cole ducked his head as shards of metal shot out in a dozen directions.
Nahlia and Thane had led three of the enemy Ethermancers inside, turning the tide in their favor. With Ozel defending the central lines, Cole’s riflemen were more than a match for Dragonshard’s archers. With every volley, the enemy’s line weakened.
As the smoke from the grenades cleared, Cole heard something like a shrieking bird. Either his ears were still ringing from the blast, or...
“Wards!” General Ozel bellowed.
Cole snapped his head up to see three black-feathered dragons descending from above. They shrieked again, and orange light filled the night sky. Torrents of flame crashed around them, and the heat closed in.
Ozel’s heatward held back the attacks. Sweat coated Cole’s forehead as the flames broke. The fire had stopped several feet above him, but it felt like inches.
Others weren’t so lucky. Fire broke the Templar’s right flank. Explosions followed as the flames found their powder horns. Smoke and ash choked the air, blocking out the comet’s light.
Cole glanced left, blinking furiously to quell his stinging eyes. Somehow, that line still held against the dragon’s assault. When he brought his attention forward again, fire covered the enemy’s lines as well.
What the hell? They’re attacking their own people?
Those must have been Palavan riders then. Either that, or they were the Ethermancers from Trelidor’s enclave. No way Dragonshard’s riders would burn their own guards.
The three dragons banked around in the air as if preparing for another assault.
Cole turned to his lieutenant in the central line. “Have the men push forward. Now!”
The enemy archers made this easier as they turned and retreated for the palace gate. Cole’s own men continued firing, taking scores of them in the back as they fled. One by one, the guards toppled over, forming piles three or four deep. Others fought and struggled to funnel themselves through the narrow entrance.
Poor bastards. But Thane had given them a chance. If one or two would have stepped forward and refused to fight, the others might have followed. Cole had already known they wouldn’t, though. He’d been a soldier once—he remembered the pressure and confusion all too well.
Unfortunately, it carried a steep price.
Nahlia expanded the range of her shield and knocked two of Thane’s cousins from the fight. The blond-haired Justicar twisted his body through the air and hit the ground on both feet. His landing shattered the tile floor beneath his boots and he darted straight toward her.
Nahlia raised her own katana, but she knew better than to get in a duel with a Justicar. That would be like meeting Elias blade-for-blade. Worse even, since Elias wasn’t an Ethermancer.
Instead, she threw up a barrier of Moonshard between them.
The Justicar rushed toward the wall of white light. But instead of knocking him back, the barrier cracked and shattered like a pane of broken glass.
Nahila hit him with several more in rapid succession. Each one from a different angle, faster than blinking. Still, he dodged and opposed each one, moving closer with each heartbeat.
She instinctively raised her sword to parry. In one fluid motion, the man knocked it away and swung at her throat. Nahlia dodged left, feeling the wind of the blade against her chin.
Aegon. That would have been her last breath if not for all those months training with Elias.
The man followed through on his sweep, then darted toward her with another attack.
If Elias were here now, he would tell her not to hold back. This man certainly wouldn’t.
She pushed Moonfire into the Justicar’s body, targeting his arms and legs as he moved. In her mind, she felt two possibilities—heal him, or break him. Give life, or take it.
The world seemed to slow as he closed in. Fear and desperation welled up inside of her. She thought of her mother—her betrayal, her greed, her quest for power at any cost.
Nahlia gritted her teeth and felt the Justicar’s bones as his legs slammed into the tile floor. She twisted the Moonfire around the bones as if they were broken and she might mend them.
Aegon forgive her, but she pulled against them with all her mental might. She pulled until they snapped.
The man staggered to the ground, screaming in pain. The momentum of his run carried him forward, and he nearly collided into her. Nahlia tried to get away, but he grabbed a fistful of her leather jerkin as he fell. With his other hand, he swung at her with his katana.
The pain of his injuries had left him far slower than before, giving Nahlia enough time to draw her dagger. She stuck it straight into the Justicar’s windpipe. Blood pooled in his mouth and he fell back.
At the same moment, Thane released a burst of energy that sent his other two cousins flying across the room. The dark-haired woman skidded across the floor, rolling through shards of glass and stone.
She landed only a few paces away from Nahlia and sprang to her feet. It didn’t take long for the woman to notice her there, kneeling over the fallen Justicar.
Nahlia forced herself to stand, erecting a barrier between them as the fire closed in. The force knocked over a stone pillar to her right. The woman darted forward as the pillar fell.
It fell slowly compared to the surrounding fight. She should have been able to make it.
Nahlia’s blood was already boiling from before, and her next attack came far easier. She forced Moonfire into the woman’s spine and pulled.
The woman threw back her head, mouth wide in a silent scream. Her body went as stiff as a broom, then she toppled forward.
The pillar crushed the woman’s limp body as it hit the tile floor. Blood splattered several paces in every direction.
Nahlia looked up to see Thane slamming the male Sanctifier against the wall. The other man’s face was blistered and burned. It looked more like burning embers than flesh. Thane stood above the fallen man. He was breathing hard, and sweat plastered his dark hair to his forehead.
They’d won ... she’d won. Elation and horror fought for dominance inside her heart. With every fight, she only grew more dangerous.
More like Palatine.
Somehow, she’d justified killing two people. Unlike that night on the Black Steppes, this was no accident or surge of emotion. This was a calculated decision.
Nahlia shook her head. This wasn’t the time to put her feelings under a veritable magnifying lens. She could settle that later. Too many people depended on her now.
Besides, one fear clouded out the others: she was already this dangerous, and she didn’t even want to hurt anyone. Neither did Thane.
If the two of them could do this, what would Palatine do to them?
She met Thane’s gaze again. Closer inspection revealed several burns and cuts along his forearms and hands. Nahlia stepped closer to heal him.
Before she could, Thane’s eyes widened. “Behind you!”
Nahlia whipped around and put up a shield on instinct. At least a dozen palace guards slammed into it. A storm of black powder followed, and a flurry of bullets took the men in the backs.
Her father was the first one inside, leaping over the bodies. “Clear!” he hollered back to the others. General Ozel and Avelyn followed, along with several squads of Templar riflemen who began securing the room’s other entrances.
Her father ran straight for her. “Are you alright?” He squeezed her shoulder and glanced at the bloodstains that covered her armor.
Nahlia bit her lip and gave a brisk nod. “I’m okay. None of it’s mine.”
Her father and the others seemed uninjured, so she turned her attention back to Thane. Healing didn’t come as naturally to her as it did before. For a second, she almost thought she would hurt him rather than heal his wounds. Did killing change her somehow?
Never again. She tried to tell herself that, but the thought rubbed her like a lie.
Did her mother and Palatine lie to themselves too? Was this how it started?
“We need to get to the lifts,” General Ozel said.
Thane nodded a quick thanks to Nahlia. He kept his posture straight and dignified in front of his officers, but his eyes looked as weary as she felt.
Finally, he turned to the other man. “Your lead, General.”