Ciena leapt over the rubble and craters, trading blows with Alexel Trelidor. He dodged and parried her every strike, effortless as a gliding falcon. His single blade looked more like a dozen—a cage of silver-white light surrounding him on every side.
Blasts of Moonshard filled in the gaps as he lashed out. Only seconds had passed since their fight began, but her head already ached from the battle of will. Even without those extra skills, Alexel was still too good.
She’d expected him to rely on his powers. Instead, he fought like a man who'd spent thousands of hours in the dueling ring. He was no Justicar, but he pushed his body to its limits.
No, beyond its limits. With his healing, he could take risks that most fighters couldn't.
The pair danced around the platform at an ever-increasing speed. Sparks flew from the crystal blades, and her vision blurred as bright lines spun against the darkness.
But Ciena didn't rely on her eyes. Her instincts knew what to do.
Fall into Moonform when her opponent became aggressive—use his own power against him. Two steps backward, sword up, body nimble and quick.
Switch back to Lionform to disrupt his rhythm. Switch to Cobraform jabs to keep him guessing. Lunge. Uppercut. Side sweep.
It worked. For several moments, Ciena fought this ancient tyrant. She survived, but that wasn't enough.
Just as she opposed his Moonshard, Alexel opposed her Ironblood. Ciena had none of the speed or strength she'd grown used to these past few months. Her hands shook with each collision of their blades. Her opponent was physically superior to her in every way. But that was nothing new. She'd been fighting Elias her whole life.
Ciena parried and twisted away from his next strike. Too slow. Alexel forced her blade to the ground with one hand. With the other, he thrust a fist into her side.
Her ribs cracked. She swung her red blade in a wide arc, warding him away. The pain weakened her arms, making her slow and sloppy.
Alexel struck again. Ciena pushed strength into her legs and flipped backward, putting more distance between them.
I can't beat him like this.
More pain ran through her body when she hit the ground—at least two broken ribs, and a strained muscle in her right arm. She also had too many bruises, cuts, and scrapes to count.
Alexel had no such wounds. Not for lack of trying on Ciena's part. She'd landed a few kicks, and she'd even scored a hit with her blade. That cut would have crippled an ordinary man, but not him. Any wound she inflicted, Alexel healed as if it had never happened. Fresh skin grew over every line of blood, quick as flowing water.
Her opponent continued forward again, raising his silver blade.
Ciena gripped Steelbreaker's hilt, but she had no anger left to draw from. She'd been truthful with her brother on that account. Her own mistakes had gotten her this far, and vengeance had never helped before.
Even without him opposing her powers, the Rage Trance would have eluded her. Here, against the strongest foe she'd ever faced, Ciena was more vulnerable than she'd ever been before.
But there was one skill she hadn't tried. A skill she'd learned, but never mastered in battle. A skill the Grandmaster had discouraged her from practicing.
He'd claimed it wasn't enough. Now, it might be her only hope.
Even if Ciena found her rage again, Alexel would still win. Raw power also made her wild and predictable.
Battle Serenity was something else entirely.
Their blades continued to clash in a crystal symphony. As her body performed the dance of thrust and parry, her mind wandered back to that night in Rhia's home, grasping desperately for the words of Vashet.
Feel the emotion like a storm around you. Step inside the storm, but don't become it.
Feel what? Her anger was gone. She had nothing—
Ciena overextended her next swing. Palatine swung his blade faster than she could block. She staggered back, and a rush of air grazed her windpipe.
Fear. The dance of battle kept that in check, but it still loomed around her, seizing her bones with its icy chill. Fear of dying on this tower. Fear of failure—of never fighting again, of never redeeming herself.
Grief. It still hit her in waves, like violent gusts of summer wind. Grief for her parents, and all the people she had killed.
Mingled awe and disgust for her enemy. Alexel had the power to accomplish anything, but he chose this. But then, Ciena would have become the same if she'd risen faster into power. She would have been a tyrant too.
Beyond those surface emotions, a warmth kindled inside her like embers shining through ash. Despite everything. Her brother was alive. He'd always understood her, and he proved that tonight when he saved her from herself. They loved each other, but only one of them deserved that love.
Anger. Rage. Hatred. it was still there, buried deep inside her soul beneath the layers. Only, this wasn't the gathering storm that waited to strike her enemies. In fact, it wasn't directed at them at all. It was for the person she disdained most of all. The person who could never do the right thing, no matter how hard she tried.
Ciena felt each emotion in turn. They swirled through her and around her. One by one, she let them go until they faded away.
Already, a weight lifted off her shoulders, and every dodge and parry came easier than the first.
As her self-loathing faded, compassion remained. Compassion for herself? Somehow, that seemed wrong. She didn't deserve it after what she'd done. Her victims couldn't forgive her, so why should she forgive herself?
Doubt. It was just one more thing to let go. This fight wasn't about her, or her own redemption. This was about stopping Alexel.
That was her calling now, and she would see it through to her dying breath.
Ciena charged forward, and her senses came alive. Even as her muscles burned and sweat ran into her eyes, Serenity found her.
A flash of light caught Cole's gaze, and he snapped his head up toward the western horizon.
Another meteor had broken off from the comet, and this one was bound for Dragonshard.
What? Trelidor wouldn't do this—not when he was on top of the tower. But what if he still hadn't regained control?
The meteor trailed white fire as it closed the distance between them. Closer. Closer. The air crackled and roared, and it hit the ground in a burst of blinding light. The impact shook their platform.
Cole had already been on his knees, but the shockwave knocked him flat on his back. His ears rang, and white spots clouded his vision. The platform shook and tilted beneath their feet.
Thane's dragon let out a roar of a complaint.
"We need to go," Thane said as he moved toward his mount. "Now."
Cole couldn't help but agree as the ceiling caved in from a nearby room. This whole tower was coming down.
"She's gone, Lyraina," Cole shouted. "We have to go."
All around them, glass windows shattered and stone pillars crumbled down into the darkness. Other platforms and balconies snapped off as the tower rocked and shifted.
Lyraina remained over Nahlia's body, hands pressed down around her wound. She still didn't answer. She didn't even glance up at them.
Cole yelled her name again, but his own voice sounded far away in his half-deafened ears. He moved forward to grab her. Thane was already in the saddle behind him.
But when he looked down at Nahlia, the skin around her wound began to close. Cole froze, his breath caught in his throat. Nahlia's chest heaved, and she sucked in a breath of fresh air.
Lyraina opened her eyes and fell forward, barely catching herself before she hit the stone floor.
"Take her," she mouthed to Cole. "Go!"
Cole knelt down and slid his arms beneath his daughter. Her wound had closed almost completely, and there seemed little risk of opening it again.. She hadn't regained consciousness, but he felt the pulse of blood pumping through her body.
He carried Nahlia onto the dragon's saddle. Lyraina fell in behind him, looking like she could barely stand.
"Hang on!" Thane shouted as he moved the reigns.
Another second, and they were airborne. With one hand, Cole held the straps as tight as he could. With the other, he held onto Nahlia's unconscious body.
The dragon flapped its wings and they took flight over the city.
Even as the tower rocked back and forth, Ciena pressed her advantage against Alexel. Deep in the serenity trance, he could do nothing to hurt her. Every Ethermancy attack he mustered, she opposed.
She shifted her weight as she fought, matching the platform's ever-changing angles. It moved back and forth like a ship's deck in a storm.
Before, her mind hadn't been able to follow the fight. She'd moved on instinct until the battle was a blur of crystal light. Now, her mind and body worked in perfect unison. She felt everything—the comet's energy coursing through the air, and the night wind on her face. She felt every flaw in her movements—as clear as misplayed notes in a song.
Her opponent fared less well. Every move he made, Ciena saw it in her mind's eye before it happened. Every feint was clear as glass, and every movement was a written promise.
Elias used to fight this way when they sparred together. Back then, Ciena would wonder why her fury was no match for him. Now, she understood.
All her life, she'd tried to be stronger and faster. But strength and speed were nothing compared to this.
Alexel glided forward with a swift uppercut. The world slowed. In her moment of clarity, she saw the path of his blade, and her own muscles itched to parry.
But no ... Alexel would expect the same. Parrying was the safest move, but risks won battles.
Ciena side-stepped the blow, keeping her own weapon tight across her body. Her opponent overextended. She planted her boot in front of his, and he staggered forward.
Steelbreaker leapt for his heart.
A wall of Moonshard appeared between them at the last second. The force of it threw her back.
Damnit. She should have opposed that.
Alexel rolled and spun around, regaining his footing in half a heartbeat.
Still, she almost had him.
He's not invincible.
The tower shifted again, sending Alexel toward her.
Ciena thrust her blade forward as he fell. Alexel raised another barrier, but she was ready this time. She opposed his will, and the wall of crystal light vanished before it formed.
Steelbreaker tore through his chest, breaking skin, muscle, and bone. Ciena pushed and twisted, burying her blade up to the hilt.
Her opponent sank to his knees, gritting his teeth in pain. Relief flooded through her as he collapsed, but this wasn't over.
Ciena moved to pull her blade free and strike again. Before she could, light flashed in the corner of her vision. She raised her right arm to block the strike. Alexel hadn't swung hard, but Ciena screamed when the crystal cut her wrist.
All at once, blinding pain shot through her body from her severed hand up to her shoulder.
The tower shook again. The platform tilted further. Her right hand fell to the ground, and the sight of it chased away her clarity, numbing her senses.
They fell backward together. Steelbreaker came free from Alexel's chest and Ciena grabbed it with her remaining hand. The surface inclined further, and she struck her blade into the stone floor, catching herself mere inches from the platform’s edge.
Alexel loomed above her. His wound was healed, and the wind blew his silver-white hair across his face.
A dragon landed behind the tyrant, and he climbed into the saddle behind the rider. He stared at her for several long heartbeats, and the dragon spread its wings once the surface was too steep to stand on.
"A pity you chose the wrong side," he said to Ciena. "You had so much potential."
Then he raised his hand and hit her with a blade of Moonshard.
Ciena had no strength left to oppose him. No room to dodge. The blade struck her shoulder and she fell over the edge, pulling Steelbreaker free from the stone.
Night air pierced her cheeks as her body flipped and spun. City lights blurred in lines of orange and yellow. Ciena still clutched Steelbreaker, hoping against hope she could catch herself on some part of the tower.
Wings of shadow swarmed at the edge of her vision.
Something grabbed her from behind, and the world faded to blackness.