Thane opened his eyes in time to see Trelidor drop Nahlia off the edge.
For a moment, none of it seemed real. As if he'd just watched a stranger die rather than a friend.
Thane was no raw recruit. He knew that death always felt this way. Denial came first, especially on the battlefield. It kept you focused on the fight in front of you rather than the friends you couldn't save. It should've been familiar by now after losing Kira and his father.
Still, this had to be another of Trelidor's mind games. Nahlia had survived Whitecliff, Raidenwood, and all the fights before this moment. He didn't understand everything about her power, but he knew it was like Trelidor's. He'd seen her recover from dozens of wounds that would have killed most ordinary people.
She can't be dead.
Cole and his men continued firing their weapons, but it was no use. Their enemy stood within his dome of crystal-light, utterly untouchable. They might as well have shot bullets into a mountainside for all the good it did.
Trelidor rounded on the line of Templars, striking back with swift blades of Moonshard. This time, Nahlia wasn't there to block the attacks, and Cole’s men dropped one by one.
Cole took cover behind an exhaust shaft and Thane followed. A hundred burns screamed across his arms and face as he crawled. Worst of all, he'd spent almost all of his strength during his previous fights. Like a muscle, a body's tolerance for Ethermancy waned with disuse. Thane's skills had increased these past few months in the Ethereal, but the lack of physical practice brought a price. He might be able to manage one or two more attacks, but that wouldn't save them.
Trelidor moved closer, striking any man who emerged from cover. His movements had been calm before—almost graceful. Now he attacked with far more ferocity. Whatever Nahlia had done, she'd interrupted his ritual with the comet.
Does that mean he needs us gone before he could take control again?
Cole must have realized the same thing because he ordered his remaining men to retreat.
A score of Templars dashed toward the staircase structure.
Reptilian shrieks echoed from the sky above. Bursts of orange flame mingled with the comet's pale light.
Thane braced himself for an attack. But no ... Trelidor's dragonriders weren't attacking the platform. They were engaged with another group.
It might have been her, but it was too dark to tell. Maybe they still had a chance to—
The retreating Templars toppled over. Cole did the same, gritting his teeth and clutching his throat.
Thane felt a familiar tightness in his chest. The dark cloud of Moonfire ripped through him, but Thane was ready this time. He resisted as best he could, crashing into Trelidor's willpower with his own.
Slowly, Thane struggled back to his feet and launched a burst of flame around the corner.
Trelidor was quicker. A blade of crystal-light speared from his fingers, bright as a flash of lightning. Thane ducked back behind his cover, one second too slow. The attack tore a white line of pain across his side. Another attack cut his cheek, missing his eye by mere inches.
A veil of darkness descended on the world as the Moonfire returned. This time, the sense of despair wasn't just some trick he could overcome. His father was gone. Nahlia was gone. So was General Ozel, and almost all the men they'd brought. For all he knew, Relyn and Elias were gone too.
Thane resisted enough to keep himself and Cole alive, but even that was an uphill battle. The veil of darkness smoked toward black as death approached.
"Trelidor!" A female voice shouted.
Thane turned to see Ciena Raider emerge from the staircase structure. A blade appeared in her hand, bright red like a setting sun. She stepped forward, and her presence chased away the Moonfire. Not just inside Thane, but in all the surviving Templars. Thane felt the collision of willpower like a summer storm against a winter gale.
Up above, the dragons continued to fight through the air. One broke away from the others and soared for the platform. Thane squinted against the dark sky, struggling to make out any details. White stripes on black wings?
One of his, then.
The creature spread out its dark wings before landing on the platform a few paces away from where Thane lay. This wasn't just any dragon. It was his dragon, Icaro.
With Trelidor distracted, Thane rose to his feet and mounted the saddle with newfound strength. He wasn't looking forward to riding with his wounds, but it was better than staying here.
"Cole!" He shouted from the back of the dragon. "Get on!"
Cole climbed into the saddle behind Thane. Neither of them said anything, but they both knew their destination.
They had to find Nahlia.
Ciena stepped out under the twilight-colored sky. All around her, the stars threw down their spears, and lines of burning white fell toward every horizon.
She and Alexel stared at each other for a long moment. Templar corpses littered the path between her and her enemy. Other Templars fled past her and retreated down the staircase while Thane Solidor took to the air on his dragon.
Finally, Alexel stepped forward once they were alone. He inclined his head, more interested than surprised. "I see. Perhaps it was cruel of me to spare you. I should have ended your misery."
A chill gathered in her heart, and it spread to her fingers. Ciena took several deep breaths, staying alert for any attacks—mental or physical.
"I believed you still had potential..." He shook his head. "But no. Not after what I made you do. You're a broken thing. Broken, with no hope of a future."
Those words cut as deep as any blade, mostly because they were true. No matter what happened tonight, the world had no place for her. Ciena only knew how to fight, and no amount of fighting would ever redeem what she'd done. No amount of good deeds could erase the crimes she'd already committed.
And they were her crimes. Alexel may have lied to her and manipulated her, but the choice to fight had still been her own.
Ciena shook her head and stepped forward. The time for words had passed. Alexel Trelidor knew his crimes, and he knew his sentence. It was up to her to serve as Aegon's sword.
Alexel raised his hand, and blades of crystal light shot forth.
She'd seen this before in Starglade, that day when he ripped through her Templar captors. As terrifying as it seemed, it was only Ethermancy—no different from Zidane's fire.
Ciena felt the energy approach from every direction. Not just in front of her—that was only a distraction. Alexel conjured more blades behind her, above her, and to either side. She pulled each one from the air, just as Dazen had taught her to feed on fire.
His attacks continued tearing through the air. So close, that Ciena felt the wind on her skin. None pierced her defense, however. They all faded to clouds of icy white smoke.
A familiar coldness surged into her body then, but she'd already seen this trick too. Just as a Justicar could choose rage over serenity, so could a redeemer choose death over life.
Ciena pressed her will against his, and the sensation left her.
"Interesting," Alexel said. "I see I chose my apprentice well. Perhaps, instead of killing you, I should make you mine again."
This time, she saw the words for what they were. A useless ploy to break her resolve. For a brief moment, Ciena dared to hope—what if Alexel had nothing but this small bag of tricks? He may have been a powerful Ethermancer, but so was Zidane.
Justicars were the best at opposing Ethermancy and resisting such tricks. Without the ring to control her, he had no advantage.
Alexel grabbed the hilt of his sheathed sword and several feet of crystal emerged. His blade was as silver and pale as a promise of death.
Ciena inclined her head. So, he had a second Etherite sword?
Of course he does.
If Steelbreaker was truly his greatest weapon, why would he give it away?
That didn't matter. This was who she wanted to be. Justicars weren't soldiers. They didn't go on killing sprees. They didn't seek personal vengeance. They stood and fought the most difficult battles. They fought so that others might live.
This was a duel. A duel was something Ciena could handle—something she'd trained for her entire life.
And so she went forth to war. She raised her blood-colored blade in a promise of justice. Her muscles became iron, fueled by the surrounding storm. Their blades crossed, and the sky above echoed their clash.
Aaron Cole grasped the saddle straps as Thane's dragon flew around the palace. All the while, he strained his eyes to see through the blur of darkness.
Dozens of balconies and landing platforms stuck out from the main structure. Nahlia could have landed on any one of them. With her healing abilities, she might have even survived the fall.
She has to be alive. Cole refused to believe otherwise until he saw her with his own eyes.
Finally, they circled around the north side where Trelidor had dropped her.
"There!" He pointed over Thane's shoulder to where a figure lay on one of the platforms.
Thane tugged the dragon's reins and they banked around. As they drew closer, Cole glimpsed pale skin and red hair.
It was Nahlia, and she wasn't moving.
His breath caught in his throat as the dragon stretched out its dark wings. They hit the platform a second later, and he leaped off the saddle and ran to the spot where she'd fallen.
Nahlia lay there on the stone surface with a puddle of dark blood beneath her.
Cole sank to his knees and pulled her head to his chest. His daughter's face had once been so alive. Now her lips lay pale and still. Blood streamed from her nostrils, and one of her cheeks was purple where more blood had pooled.
This was his fault. He never should have let her come to fight Palatine. Cole could have stopped it if he'd insisted. He'd told himself that Nahlia wouldn't have listened to him. He'd thought morale would be higher if he supported her decision to fight.
But damnit, he didn't even try to stop her. To hell with morale and everything else. None of it mattered in the end.
Cole's eyes blurred with tears as he squeezed her lifeless body.
He'd lost friends before. He'd lost his wife, his parents, and his brother.
That didn't prepare him for this.
Nothing in the world could have prepared him for this.
Nahlia's life didn't flash before her eyes when she died. But time did slow to a crawl.
Only seconds had passed after Palatine stabbed her and flung her from the tower. Still, she remembered those last few seconds of her life with vivid clarity, as if everything had happened in slow motion.
She remembered the night air rushing past her face as she fell. She remembered crashing onto a platform several stories below. In one last desperate attempt to live, Nahlia had even conjured a barrier to slow her descent. If not for that, she might have missed the platform entirely.
For all the good that did me.
There was no question of whether she had died. Elias was right about one thing—death had a sense of finality that was nothing like falling unconscious. There was a moment of pure terror as life left her. Intense pain shot through her body as her bones shattered. Regret filled her when she thought of all those she couldn't save. More regret followed when she thought of her parents and friends, and how they would all blame themselves.
Thane would see it as a personal failure that he'd lost his fight with Palatine.
Her father would convince himself he could have prevented her from fighting.
Elias would wish he'd been in Dragonshard rather than Villa Solizhan.
As for her mother ... who could say? Nahlia didn't know the woman anymore, but they still loved each other.
But it was over. She'd tried to fight Palatine, and she'd lost.
The real question is ... where am I now?