Ciena followed Elias down a corridor of hollowed stone. Oil lamps and sculptures lined the walls, but the hall held none of the earlier commotion. Their route took them up a spiral staircase, and down an even fancier hallway with high windows and mosaic tiles.
As they walked, Elias explained the Codex and what Alexel was planning. None of it surprised her; Ciena had already guessed he would use Palavar’s fleet to conquer Revera. In hindsight, however, that idea made little sense. Palavar wasn’t known for its armies or military prowess. This invasion fleet could barely stand up to one of Revera’s cities, much less the whole bloody realm.
That sort of war wasn’t Alexel’s way. But destroying his enemies with Ethermancy and ruling the ashes? Turning this land into a blank canvas he could reshape as he saw fit? That sounded exactly like him.
Alexel had never shared this plan with Ciena though. If he had, would she still have followed him? Would she still have accepted his training and gifts?
No ... of course not.
Every warrior had to draw a line somewhere. Otherwise, she would reach a point where she was no better than her enemies. Alexel knew that about her. That was why he hadn’t shared the full scope of his plan. That was why he’d relied on mental Ethermancy rather than her loyalty.
But what of the others? Rhia and Dazen? Faidon, Kavar, and Elvira? Some of them had lived and trained with him for years. They must have known.
“Ashara?” Elias slid open the bamboo door and stepped into the princess’s chamber.
Because, apparently, her brother kept the acquaintance of princesses now.
“Out here!” a woman’s voice called back.
Ciena followed her brother down another series of short hallways and sitting rooms. Tomes and papers covered every surface in the main area. They probably would have covered the floor too if it weren’t for the servants. Three archways opened to three separate balconies and platforms. The first had a telescope, the second had several cushioned chairs and small tables. The third platform had a bloody dragon perched on top of it.
“You must be Ciena,” the princess said as she fastened a bag to the dragon’s saddle. White linen bandages covered her forehead and ear. They were a stark contrast to her otherwise dark complexion.
“Come on,” she said, “we need to get out of here. Pendyla’s not fond of carrying three at once, but we can make it to—”
“Wait,” Ciena interjected. She turned to her brother, then back to the other woman. “You’re leaving?”
“I looked around Kingsview and Lastlight,” Ashara said. “Someone’s working hard to keep us here. The lifts are all disconnected, and they caved in the stairs going up.”
Elias nodded. “We need to find the others, and we can’t do that from up here.”
“And what about Alexel?” Ciena asked.
The princess cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “Who?”
Elias gave her the bare bones of Ciena’s earlier story, explaining how Palatine had been here the whole time. Fortunately, he left out Ciena’s involvement in the Clansmeet massacre. Ciena had no doubt she’d pay for her crimes soon, but they had bigger problems now.
When Ashara asked about her father and brother, Ciena answered honestly—they were alive when she last saw them, but that was hours ago. A lot could have happened between now and then.
“So where’s Palatine?” Ciena asked again.
“My cousin landed on top of the palace,” Ashara said. “If I had to guess, I’d say Palatine’s up there too, surrounded by Ethermancers.”
“Relyn Vash went with him too,” Elias said. “But I’m sure she’s still on our side. She went with her sister to—”
“Sister?” Ciena broke in. Her breath caught in her throat as she braced herself for the answer.
Elias nodded. “Yeah, Relyn mentioned her before back in Whitecliff. Her name’s Rhia.”
Aegon. Ice filled her veins, and the room spun around her. They’d all been privy to Alexel’s plans. They knew, and they’d followed him anyway. It seemed like a small matter compared to everything else that happened, but it forced her to look at the past five months in a new light.
Ciena had thought she’d succeeded in her new world. Even though she’d lost her family, she thought she’d made a new life for herself. What if even that was a lie? What if Alexel had truly manipulated everything, and even her friends were a part of her training?
She’d already suspected Alexel’s hand at work that day when Amelie Reverius attacked her in the bathhouse. The act had seemed so out of character for her former rival. Reverius wouldn’t have expected to get away with murder, but she might have if she had the Grandmaster’s assurances.
Every fight, every training session, and every kill—it was all meant to prepare Ciena for tonight. Afterward, he’d discarded her like a damaged blade. And if Elias hadn’t come and removed that ring, he would have gotten away with it.
Ciena clenched her teeth, and she forced herself to steady her breath. “There are enemies in your home,” she said to the princess, “and your reaction is to run?”
Ashara narrowed her eyes. “We aren’t running. Like I said—we’re only regrouping with the others.”
“And what if they aren’t down below?” Ciena retorted. “What if we’re the only ones left? Even if they’re alive, they could mean to regroup with us here.” Ciena paused and pointed her finger upward. “If Palatine’s on that platform, then that’s where we need to be too.”
Ashara turned to Elias, and Ciena followed her gaze. The silence stretched for several long moments between them.
“You’ve been through a lot tonight,” he finally said. “And you’re lucky to still be alive right now. The last thing you need is more fighting.”
In some ways, Ciena couldn’t help but agree. She’d already fought and killed dozens, and there were limits on what an Ethermancer could do in one day.
Her brother’s face softened, and he lowered his voice. “Besides, we only have each other now.”
Ashara became suddenly interested in her dragon and she stepped outside.
“I get it,” Ciena said as the footsteps mingled with the night wind. “I’m your sister, but I’m also a Justicar. Justicars defend the helpless. They fight so others don’t have to. I don’t know if I chose this, or if Aegon chose me. Either way, the choice is made. I have to stay and fight.”
“And what about living to fight another day?” Elias retorted. “What about all the battles to come? You can’t fight those if you die tonight.”
“I wasn’t planning on dying,” she said.
“You know what I mean.”
She rolled her shoulders. “If we all followed that logic, no one would ever take risks. No one would ever stand up to tyrants when things get hard.”
Elias closed his eyes and pushed out a breath. “Less than an hour ago, you were ready to jump off a balcony. That’s not the act of a sane person.”
Her dear brother—not quite so blunt as her, but also not one to sail around the storm.
Ciena held up her right hand. “The ring was mucking with my head. But I’m thinking clearly now.”
“How do you know that? You said Palatine turned your own instincts against you before. How is this any different?”
“Alexel is powerful,” she said, “but he’s not invincible. He needed me at the Clansmeet. I don’t know why—maybe he had to save his strength. Maybe he couldn’t take them all himself. Either way, I can do things he can’t. He flew across the continent to get me in Starglade. He spent five months training me so that I could fight his battles for him. The last thing he wants is to fight me himself. Why else would he block off the roof?”
Her brother brought his thumb and forefinger to his chin, the way he always did when he was considering something.
“Besides,” she went on, “for as tired as I am, he’s probably worse off. He worked his mental Ethermancy on me and the Clansmeet for hours. And now he’s up there controlling a bloody comet of all things?”
Elias crossed his arms. “And you’re sure this is for the right reasons? It’s not about avenging our parents?”
“I’m done with vengeance,” Ciena said. “I know killing him won’t bring our parents back. It’s not about that. It’s about stopping him from killing anyone else.”
There was another pause. “You really think you can take him?”
Somehow, the question smoldered some of the fire within her, replacing it with cold dread.
She had only seen Alexel fight once, and that was against non-Ethermancers in the mines of Starglade. Other than that, he had sparred with several Justicar students around the enclave, but he mostly used his powers to suppress theirs. Hardly a demonstration of his true skill.
“I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “But that’s not the point. I think it’s worth trying.”
“Alright,” her brother said with a nod. “I’ll go with you.” He turned around and stepped toward the dragon’s platform. “Ashara, is there any other way to the roof?
She hesitated for a moment as she stepped back inside. “There are the ventilation shafts. They won’t bring us all the way to the roof—that path is sealed for defensive purposes—but they can take us to the top of the lift shafts.”
“Good enough for me,” Ciena said. “Let’s go. We have a tyrant to kill.”
When they reached the lifts, Thane sent the engineers inside to examine the four separate shafts. One platform was still operational, but Palatine’s people had sabotaged the lower controls. Now it could only be used from the top.
As for the other three lifts, they’d all been disconnected from their power sources and counterweights. Even the staircases had all been caved in, leaving them no way up.
“Alright,” Thane said to the engineer who’d given him the report. “Time for the backup plan—detach everything but the emergency brakes.”
They set to it immediately. As they worked, footsteps echoed from down the nearest hallway.
“Damnit,” Cole cursed under his breath. “Those scouts saw us. If they’re back, that means—”
“They have more Ethermancers,” Thane finished for him. “How long?” he hollered back to the engineers.
“We need a few minutes,” one woman called back.
“Too long,” General Ozel rumbled. “We can’t afford more delays.”
“I agree.” They needed to be at full strength to fight Palatine. Even that may not be enough. Thane turned and made for the lift. “Everyone inside. Now.”
Cole echoed the order, and three scores of Templars funneled into the shaft’s narrow entrance. The platform groaned under their weight as they pushed it to its limits.
Thane examined the section the engineers had already disconnected. It was a complex system of gears and chains. Thane couldn’t even identify most of the moving pieces there. Thankfully, you didn’t need to understand something to break it, especially when you were a Sanctifier.
There were three more identical connectors, so Thane found one they weren’t working on. The pieces were solid steel rather than iron. He would need to raise their temperature to 2500 degrees before they reached their melting point. Thane found the weakest leak, closed his eyes and pulled the comet’s ambient energy from around him. He pulled until his soul was burning inside his chest. Finally, he bound the heat to the weaker portions of the connector. The steel shone bright orange.
Eruptions of black powder sounded from nearby as Cole’s men fired at their attackers through the gate.
Thane was so deep in concentration that he barely heard the explosions.
The steel connectors clattered to the floor, and the platform wobbled beneath his feet. That was fast. But when Thane opened his eyes, he saw that Aunt Avelyn had been there working beside him.
Thane made his way to the opposite end of the lift, but General Ozel had already melted the connector there.
The Templar riflemen continued firing through the gate. The lift continued to shake and groan as if it might fall at any second.
“Alright,” Thane shouted to be heard over the clamor. “Positions.”
General Ozel stood opposite Thane on the circular platform, and the other two placed themselves on the edges between them, ninety degrees apart.
“Nahlia,” Thane said, “you’re in the center. Avelyn, you too.” He looked up to see them both already standing there. Cole and his soldiers all knelt down, bracing themselves for the flight.
“Once we let go of the brake, we’ll have half-a-second before the lift hits the ground. “Nahlia’s barrier is the signal, the rest of you—150 therums of combustion below the platform.”
The engineers had calculated this number exactly. Too little energy, and they wouldn’t reach the top of the palace. Too much, and they would crush their heads against the ceiling. The hard part wasn’t figuring out the amount, it was actually producing perfect combustion. The right amount of energy released into the right amount of physical space.
Even then, knowing the right amount and doing it were two different things. No one’s mind came with a built-in abacus, after all.
“Ready?” Thane called out to the others.
They were. Cole ordered the last few riflemen away from the gate. Aunt Avelyn erected her soundward to protect their ears.
“Now!” Thane ordered.
The engineer released the break, and the ground fell out from beneath their feet. In the same moment, Nahlia conjured a wide barrier beneath the platform. There was a flash of light from around the edges, and the collision caused half the men to topple over.
The barrier slowed their fall as they predicted, but the effort left Nahila visibly strained.
Thane kept his own feet in a wide stance as he concentrated on his part. He and the other three Sanctifiers hit the base of the shaft with four bursts of combustion.
The explosions propelled the lift upward, and they soared through the shaft.