“This way,” Ashara said as she pulled the grating off the ventilation shaft. A gust of icy air blew out from the opening, sending goosebumps down Ciena’s arms.
Huh. Guess that explains how this tower stays so bloody cold. They probably had mechanical fans somewhere that worked like the palace lifts. Strange to imagine Ethermancers building things like this. All the ones she knew were too busy killing each other.
“Take a left once you’re inside,” Ashara told them. “Then a right. From there, you’ll need to climb the first vertical shaft you see. It’s a dozen feet up, and there aren’t any ladders.”
“Won’t be a problem,” Ciena said. She’d made higher jumps than that during the battlegrounds in Alexel’s enclave.
“Wait.” Elias turned to the princess. “You’re not coming with us?”
“I think I’d be more useful in the air,” she said. “Especially if the enemy has dragons too. Pendyla still has some fight left in her.”
“Makes sense,” Ciena said. Then she rounded on her brother, “We should talk about your leg.”
“My leg is fine,” he said.
“I know you were expecting to have Nahlia heal you up, but I doubt she’s waiting in there.” Ciena gestured with her thumb down the dark tunnel. “Face it—you can’t climb a twelve-foot shaft with only three good limbs.”
“She makes a fair point,” Ashara said. “You could always come with me instead.”
Ciena nodded as she climbed into the opening. “You know I’d want you by my side any other day, but—”
Elias grabbed her forearm. “I can’t let you face Palatine alone. Not after what he did to you last time.”
She let out a breath. “And what if Nahlia’s already up there? You want me to waste time helping you climb?”
Just then, an explosion sounded from farther down the hall, loud enough to shake the floor.
Ciena jumped, hitting her head on the tunnel ceiling. “What the hell was that?” Gunshots had been echoing from downstairs for the past hour, but this was far closer.
Ashara took a few steps back and glanced down the corridor. “Sounds like your friends are getting creative with the lifts.”
“Alright,” Elias said after a short pause. “Go. I’ll be in the air.”
Thane climbed to his feet and glanced around at his companions. “Everyone alright?”
A murmur of replies rolled through the crowd—mostly the Ethermancers and the Templar officers speaking for their squads. It hadn’t been a smooth ride, but at least they’d hit the emergency brakes in time. It would have been an even rougher ride down if they hadn’t.
General Ozel and Nahlia stepped off the lift behind Thane. The three of them rounded the corner and faced the final staircase.
A young Valaysian woman stood at the top, silhouetted against the sky. She looked almost like Relyn, except she had sharper features and a yellow tattoo across her face. Thane had already met Relyn’s parents at the Clansmeet. Could this be her older sister?
The woman turned on her heel and sauntered away, nonchalant as a cat.
Thane led the others up the staircase, stepping out onto the flat rooftop. It was well past midnight now, but the sky was still awash with color—shades of blue and green against the comet’s bright streaks. The wind tugged at their clothing, threatening to pull them over the edge.
And this is why I never came up here before.
The Valaysian woman knelt down and opened a tent flap several dozen paces from where Thane’s party emerged.
Alexel Trelidor stepped out from the tent a moment later, and his followers gathered around in a loose semicircle. Thane recognized some from the Clansmeet such as Lord and Lady Vassaj. The rest were strangers. More Ethermancers from that island enclave, no doubt.
Trelidor took several long strides forward, closing the gap between the two sides. His silver hair and dark tunic blew freely in the night wind.
“We’ve had enough casualties for one day.” He spread out his arms as if addressing a crowd of thousands rather than dozens. Then he looked directly at Thane. “You think you need to fight me to regain your palace? You’re mistaken. Surrender to me, and Dragonshard is yours.”
Thane didn’t bother with a reply.
“Very well.” Trelidor turned around to address the cluster of Aeons behind him. “Leave them to me.”
They dispersed without question. Some mounted the larger dragons and took flight. Others retreated into the ventilation shafts.
Amid the chaos, Thane noticed another woman, bound hand-and-foot with a canvas hood over her face. A prisoner? She was far too short to be Ashara, but she could have been Relyn.
When Thane tried to get a closer look, however, she’d already vanished.
The Templars took positions with their rifles trained on their foe. Thane surveyed the battlefield as he waited. The platform was two-hundred paces across. The only obstacles were the roof access structure and several more cylinders for the ventilation shafts. Cole’s riflemen and grenadiers took advantage of this cover, but a skilled Sanctifier would have no trouble getting around it. He had to assume Trelidor had similar tricks.
The dragons took flight, carrying off the last of Trelidor’s followers. Silence fell over the platform as they faded into the darkness. Thane’s heart punched his ribcage and sweat coated his palms. Scores of them would die within seconds of him giving the order to attack. Not that delaying would help matters either. It was never wise to let your enemy strike first.
Slowly, he turned to Cole and nodded once.
“Fire!” Cole shouted to his men.
A dozen rifles exploded in unison.
Trelidor responded by creating a barrier of Moonshard between himself and the group.
Thane set to work opposing the barrier. The effort was far easier than he’d imagined—like picking up a pebble when he expected a boulder. A fragment of the barrier snapped under Thane’s will—a small hexagon-shaped hole, no wider than his hand.
This never happened when he sparred with Nahlia. Her barriers were either active or inactive—like solid sheets of crystal-light. Whenever he opposed one, she was defenseless until she created a new one.
Other pieces of Trelidor’s shield broke apart as Nahila and General Ozel mounted their own oppositions.
Cole ordered his second squad to fire. Trelidor filled in the gaps as quickly as they appeared.
Aegon. This wasn’t one barrier. This was a hundred smaller pieces linked together in a larger structure. Thane tried to oppose the entire network rather than the parts, but it was like focusing on every star in the sky. It was too much for a single mind to comprehend.
Every time he shifted his focus between parts, his attention waned and his thoughts became a blur. Unlike Trelidor, he hadn’t practiced with this sort of thing.
How could they fight this enemy when they knew nothing about him?
Without warning, Trelidor’s barrier expanded and burst forward like a tidal wave. Cole’s men lost their footing, and the force of it threw them back.
Thane shot several bursts of fire across the platform, but Trelidor erected another shield around himself. Ozel conjured several explosions behind the shield, taking chunks of stone from the platform. The Templars fired their rifles and threw their grenades.
As the smoke and dust cleared, the silver-haired man remained undamaged.
“Are you quite finished?” He took several casual strides forward. “Brave of you to climb so high, but you’re too late.” He gestured up to the comet which had already begun to split apart.
“Now,” he said, “you’ll die for nothing.”
The Templars pulled out their powder horns and scrambled to reload their weapons.
Trelidor gestured with his arm, and a thin disc of light shot toward them. Nahlia’s shield blocked the attack in front of Thane and the surrounding Templars, but their enemy shot two more discs on either side of them.
The discs hit the Templars at the waist, slicing through armor and flesh. Screams of pain followed and they fell to the ground clutching their open wounds.
Trelidor continued forward slowly and deliberately. With every step, he shot ten more discs of light. Thane managed to oppose several of these, but his enemy was too quick. The discs turned to spikes then, even faster than before. They curved around Nahlia’s barrier and struck the men from the sides.
More screams followed. More explosions. More blood.
Even as Trelidor attacked their ranks, he maintained the unbreakable shield around himself. The shield held back fire and bullets alike.
The world became a blur of black and white as the spikes tore through Thane’s allies.
This isn’t working.
One of Cole’s officers staggered into Thane, bleeding out from his neck. To his left, Aunt Avelyn collapsed on the ground, clutching her stomach.
Thane had told them this was a suicide mission, but a part of him never truly believed it. A part of him wanted to believe they could still win.
Not like this we can’t.
With nothing else to lose, Thane left the safety of Nahlia’s shield and charged his enemy.
Ciena felt her way through the tunnel, following the sounds of battle. Those explosions and shouts were definitely coming from the roof this time. The sound was too close to be anywhere else.
Footsteps echoed from ahead. Ciena drew her blade and rounded the corner.
There, a female form stood at the far end of the tunnel, bathed in a faint blue light from the shaft above.
“Ciena? What are you doing up here?”
“Where else would I be?” Ciena lowered her blade and stepped forward into the light. Only then did she notice Steelbreaker’s hilt sticking out from Rhia’s scabbard. “Let me guess, you’re Alexel’s new apprentice now that he’s done with me?”
“What?” Rhia’s eyes widened in shock. “No. Of course not. He just told us you were resting.”
Ciena gritted her teeth, forcing herself to stay calm. This wasn’t her friend’s fault, even if she’d been the one to retrieve the Codex. Ciena had assumed the worst before, but now it was clear that Alexel withheld information from all of them.
“I’m not resting anymore.” Ciena stepped forward and held out her hand. “Can I have my sword back?”
Rhia hesitated. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“What are you doing in the vents?”
“I’m going to see Alexel.”
“You can’t,” Rhia said. “He’s fighting a group of Templars and Ethermancers. He told the rest of us to take cover.”
Ethermancers? That must be Nahlia, Thane Solidor, and the other friends her brother had mentioned. If that were the case, she had to hurry.
“One way or another,” Ciena said, “I’m going up there to see him.” She almost threatened Rhia more directly but thought better of it. The last thing she wanted was to start killing her friends on top of everything else.
The other woman tensed her muscles, shifting her feet into a fighting stance. “I know that look. I’ve seen it before.”
Ciena said nothing, but she adjusted the grip on her sword hilt without raising it.
Rhia swallowed hard. “Whatever’s going on—”
“I know about the comet,” Ciena snapped. “Alexel never said anything about mass murder.”
“Mass murder is exactly what the Templars did to our race,” Rhia shot back. “It’s the whole reason they exist. You of all people should understand that. You’ve been talking about killing Templars since the day we met.”
“On the battlefield,” Ciena said. “Not like this. Besides, it’s not just Templars. He made me kill half the Clansmeet for him. He made me...” She trailed off, unable to speak of her parents again so soon.
Rhia’s eyes widened, then narrowed. So, she hadn’t known that part of Alexel’s plan either.
“You’re exhausted,” Rhia said after a short pause. “Whatever happened to you, we can figure it out. But now’s not the time.”
“This is the only time. If we wait, he’ll be sitting on a throne in Sunfall. Any chance of fighting back will be—”
Rhia drew Steelbreaker from its scabbard, and the crystal blade filled the tunnel with red light. In the same moment, Ciena stopped talking and raised her own blade.
Another explosion sounded from the rooftop, shaking the walls.
There was a flash of movement behind Rhia. A dark figure moved from the shadows and struck the other woman on the back of the head.
Rhia stumbled forward. Ciena seized her wrist and twisted. Bones snapped around her hand, and she loosened her grip on Steelbreaker’s hilt.
The other figure threw a dark sack over Rhia’s face and wrapped a forearm around her neck. The sack must have been poisoned, judging by how quickly Rhia’s body went limp.
“I thought you went with the princess,” Ciena said as she picked up Steelbreaker from the floor. But when she looked up, she didn’t see her brother there. Instead, she saw...
Relyn eased her sister’s body onto her lap. Her own hands and feet were bound with steel manacles, but she’d still managed to sneak up on both of them.
Ciena stood over the limp body of her friend, feeling ice run through her veins. “Is she...”
“Alive,” Relyn said as she loosened her grip. “Just unconscious.”
After a pause, she met Ciena’s eyes and nodded to the opening above them. “Go Ciena. Do what you came here to do.”