Ciena slashed her blade, opening the guard’s throat with a spray of crimson. Her victim stumbled back on the rocky floor, eyes wide with shock.
Another man fired a rifle from across the narrow cavern. Deep in the Serenity Trance, Ciena felt the air shift as the bullet closed in. She stepped aside and let it soar past her left braid, ricocheting off the stone wall.
Lead rang against steel as Elias blocked a second bullet with his katana. Her twin kept his back to hers, spinning his blades through the darkness as their enemies surrounded them.
Twelve against two must have seemed like good odds. Unfortunately for the guards, she and Elias had faced worse odds beneath Whitecliff. They were practically children then—a far cry from the Justicars they were today.
Ciena whirled to face the three riflemen at the end of the tunnel. If she still had both hands, she would have pulled a throwing knife from her belt and taken one down from here. Alas, off-hands were a luxury from a bygone age. She couldn’t draw a knife without dropping her sword, so she charged her enemies instead.
Fire and smoke erupted from the barrels as they pulled their triggers.
Ciena ducked, rolled, and swung again. One man fell as she slashed her blade across his belly. Blood splattered her cheek as she followed through and leapt toward the second man’s chest.
He shifted at the last second, throwing off her angle by mere degrees. Instead of piercing his heart, her sword glanced off his leather armor.
Ciena gritted her teeth as she lost her momentum. Ironblood strengthened her body, but that couldn’t fix poor form. Even after two years of practice, her left hand felt wrong. It knew the basics of fighting, but there were a thousand details that made a perfect swing. The angle of your wrist, the tension of your muscles, and the placement of your fingers. Details that took decades to master rather than years.
The guard’s boot slammed against her shin. She stumbled forward. Her knees hit the cavern floor, and she dropped her blade to catch herself. The stone scraped her palm raw.
Steel flashed to her right as the third guard swung his sabre. Ciena grabbed her katana and sprang to her feet, knocking aside the blade with all her might.
Her opponent brought his weapon back for a parry. Too slow. By now, Ciena had found her footing again, and she finished the man with an overhand strike, cutting deep into his collarbone. The move left her sword trapped in his shoulder. The second guard preyed on her weakness, leaping with a dagger toward her left eye.
Ciena released the hilt of her own blade and threw her head back. Wind grazed her cheek as the dagger swept mere inches from her skin.
She lunged forward and grabbed her victim’s sabre before it hit the ground. She spun around, adjusted her grip and ran it through the last guard’s chest.
Aegon, but she missed Steelbreaker too. Her Etherite blade shredded most armor like wet paper. Even as she fought with steel today, the red crystal blade sat in a scabbard on her back. Close enough to feed her energy, but out of sight from prying eyes.
That was the problem with owning a legendary weapon—it made you far too easy to identify. Her possession of Steelbreaker wasn’t public knowledge, but it wasn’t a secret either. The guards and servants back in Villa Solizhan had seen the blade. So had Thane Solidor’s entire crew when they dropped her off on the eastern side of Raidenwood.
Rumors flew like ash in the wind, or so her mother had always claimed. And if Cladius Raider knew his niece and nephew were back home, that would make their job here a hundred times harder.
The sounds of battle faded behind her as Elias stuck down the last guard. He stepped up beside her, kneeling and cleaning his blades on a dead man’s cloak.
“You’ve gotten better,” he told her.
“I’d hope so.” She’d only been practicing every bloody day since her fight with Alexel.
“Not since you lost your hand,” Elias said. “I mean since Whitecliff. You’re even better now than you were then.”
Ciena shrugged. Her brother meant that as a compliment, but Whitecliff was the last time he’d actually seen her fight. He hadn’t seen her in Dragonshard. Even after two years, she still couldn’t hold a candle to herself that night.
In those final moments—with her body whole—she might well have been one of the strongest Aeons alive. She’d plunged her blade into Alexel’s chest. A few inches to the right and she would have pierced his heart and ended this war.
Instead, she’d failed, and Alexel had gone on to conquer more cities and declare himself emperor of Revera.
Now, she might never get a second chance. Her brother was hopeful about this mission in Raidenwood, but only because it came from his beloved Nahlia. She’d supposedly spoken to an Archaeon and gotten some divine assignment.
But then ... where was Nahlia Cole now? Moping around on the other side of the world?
She wasn’t coming back, but Elias refused to see that.
Her brother knelt by one of the taller guards and started retrieving his leather armor. Raidenwood was under siege from Trelidor’s army to the east, and these tunnels were the city’s main source of food and supplies. If their contact was right, then the final checkpoint was almost as secure as the main gates. She and Elias had prepared for this by dousing their golden eyes with Voidcap. Disguising themselves in guard’s uniforms was the next step.
Ciena frowned as she paced back and forth, eyeing the guards she’d killed. Aegon, she’d really made a mess of those, hadn’t she? Most had gaping wounds in their chests which made the upper portions of their armor unusable.
If her brother were in a lecturing mood, he would have told her she was overcompensating for her lost hand with more brute force.
Aegon curse him, but he was probably right.
She stepped down the slope to where Elias had killed his share of the guards. Much cleaner, of course. There was one woman there, but she was stocky, and shorter than Ciena by more than a full head. That uniform wouldn’t do.
Instead, she relieved a thinner boy of his armor.
“Feels like we’re graverobbers now.” Ciena averted her eyes as she yanked off the dead guard’s trousers. She tried to imagine him as a fervent Templar, like the ones who’d attacked the palace twelve years ago. The fact was, he would have been a child in those days. Now his only crime was defending his home.
Elias nodded his agreement. “We’ll avoid more fights in the long run this way.”
They took turns changing around a corner while the other stood watch. Her brother’s armor fit him perfectly when he was done. Typical.
Ciena stepped into the trousers and found them several inches too short. Thankfully, the boots came up high enough to cover the exposed skin.
“Do you remember art history class with Master Demeron?” Elias called out from around the corner.
Ciena began lacing up the front of her leather jerkin, frowning at the tight fit. “That depends,” she hollered as she attached Steelbreaker to her back. “I remember the lectures, but you know I never read the books.”
“I was just thinking of Silana Raider,” Elias said.
“She was a famous sculptor during the Neo-antiquity era.”
Ciena raised an eyebrow as she rounded the corner to face him.
“Just hear me out,” he said with a raised hand.
She shrugged as they walked side-by-side up the sloped tunnel.
“She was only twenty-five when she made her masterpiece. It was a marble statue of Raiden—the same one that sat in the palace garden when we were kids.”
Ciena grinned at the memory. The statue was over twelve feet tall, and she’d climbed up to his shoulders several times as a child. Her parents would have been furious if they’d found out. But to this day, no one had ever caught her. Not her parents, and not even her brother.
“Remember?” Elias prompted. “The one you always climbed when you thought no one was looking?”
Her smile faded. “Yeah. I remember.”
“The artists of Silana’s day favored precision and perfect proportions,” Elias went on. “She’d been practicing her anatomy and stonework for over eighteen years. Even in her twenties, she was among the best in the realm.”
Ah. So they weren’t talking about art history after all.
“When Silana finally finished the statue of her ancestor, she wept. Not tears of joy either. She wept because she knew that statue was the best work she would ever make—the most perfect statue anyone would ever make. She knew in her heart that she would never experience a moment like that again.”
Elias paused as if waiting for a reaction.
“Well...” Ciena blew out a long breath. “I hope that wasn’t meant to cheer me up. It’s relatable, I’ll grant you that. It’s also the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s also wrong,” he said.
“What?” She rounded on her brother, furrowing her brow. “Then what’s the bloody point? And who made the statue of Raiden?”
“Silana Raider made the statue,” Elias said. “But she was wrong to doubt herself. After she finished that piece, she made more than a hundred other works of bronze and marble. She invented the Abstractionist movement, creating new styles the world had never seen before. At the end of her life, her ‘masterpiece’ was considered one of her most mundane pieces.”
Ciena gave a slow nod as the cavern narrowed ahead. Unfortunately, the story didn’t help in any practical way. Hopes and wishes wouldn’t solve her problems.
“Did Silana lose her swordhand too?” Ciena asked. “Because as much as I’d like to face Trelidor again, I need to be realistic.” She waved the stump of her right forearm. “I can’t just invent a new fighting form where one hand trumps two.”
“And I’ve told you before—you don’t need to be as good as you were in Dragonshard. I’ll be there by your side when you fight him.”
“In the spirit of honesty,” she retorted, “I’d probably get in your way.”
Elias shook his head. “The problem is, you still see yourself as a fighter and nothing else.”
Ciena shrugged. “You think I should take up sculpture instead? I imagine good patrons are scarce these days.”
“I’m saying that you’ve always been a creative thinker. You’ve made do with less your entire life, and you’ve always kept pace with stronger opponents.”
Ciena didn’t reply. By now, the one-hand excuse was getting old, even to her own ears. Still, fighting and Ethermancy had been her only real talents. And while she was still a Justicar with a legendary blade, her brother had passed her in skill months ago. He’d taken to Ethermancy like a bird to the sky, and the gap between them was larger than ever.
The tunnel narrowed further ahead, blocked by an iron gate. A heavy chain bound the doors together, held in place with a lock on the other side.
“Well then.” Ciena pulled Steelbreaker from its scabbard, and the red glow chased away the darkness. “Unless you grabbed a key off those guards, I’d say there’s only one way through.”
She reached her arm through the iron bars, angling the blade toward the chain.
“Careful,” her brother said. “We only want to cut—”
“Got it.” Ciena slashed the blade across the metal lock, breaking the steel connector like an apple. It fell to the ground in two pieces. The chains loosened around the bars, and the doors opened with a shove of her shoulder.
Even as she returned the blade to its scabbard, Elias hid the severed pieces beneath several loose rocks. They’d be long gone from Raidenwood by the time someone found those.
The cavern twisted on for several more miles, sloping farther upward toward the city. They passed two more guard patrols along the way, but their stolen uniforms kept them from another skirmish. Both groups asked about the gunshots, but they didn’t seem particularly concerned. Gunshots were hardly a rarity in a city under siege.
Golden sunlight speared through the shaft as the cavern opened onto Marketbridge. An iron portcullis barred their path, similar to the door they’d broken through several miles back. Only this gate had a dozen soldiers standing guard on the opposite side, all armed with swords and firearms.
It was just after seventh bell, and they’d timed their approach to coincide with the guard change. Hopefully, she and her brother would just be two of many guards coming out of the cavern.
“Good evening,” Elias said as he stepped up to the closed gate.
Ciena wanted to put her face in her palm. Good evening? What’s next? Are you going to invite them over for tea? And to think he’d spent all those months in the Onyx Company.
The guard at the desk was a heavyset, bespeckled man in his late forties. “Password?” he muttered without glancing away from his ledger.
Elias cleared his throat. “Raven feather.”
The older man looked up, suspicion flashing in his dark brown eyes.
Damnit. Either Elias had mucked up the password, or the guard didn’t like his voice. Probably the latter.
“I don’t recognize you”—the man shot a glance over Elias’s shoulder—“or your partner.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “We only started over here this morning.”
The man hummed in consideration, adjusting his spectacles. Behind him, several of the guards fingered their holstered pistols.
Ciena took several deep breaths, letting the Serenity Trance increase her awareness. If she had to, she could draw Steelbreaker and cut through the iron portcullis. Two slashes would be enough to get through. From there, it was a small space with nowhere for the guards to run.
But this wasn’t like the tunnels below. If they started a fight here, the entire city would be on them in a matter of minutes. They’d have no choice but to flee.
“And where were you stationed before this?” the guard finally broke the silence.
“The palace,” her brother replied.
“Ah.” His chair groaned as he leaned back. “So you were in Cormac’s squad, then?”
“Is that some kind of test?” Elias said. “We both know the palace guards don’t work in squads.”
The man gave a slow nod as if expecting that. “So who’s your commanding officer?”
“We answer directly to Cladius Raider.”
“At least we did,” Ciena spoke up. “Until someone got too handsy with a kitchen girl.”
“Yes.” Elias gestured over his shoulder. “My partner really needs to learn some self-control.”
Before either of them could speak again, footsteps echoed from farther down the tunnel and a man’s voice called out, “Edwin! Claire! You two were supposed to be here an hour ago.”
Ciena released a breath. Those were the fake names they’d agreed on, which must make him their contact. He was a blond-haired man, no older than her and her brother.
“Come on,” he continued. “Quit sharing stories with the sergeant and get out here. I need you both up on Freebridge.”
Finally, the man at the desk nodded to another guard who pulled a lever. Chains and metal rattled behind the walls, and the portcullis rose. Ciena followed Elias through the opening and out of the cavern.
“You must be Hankrim,” she muttered as they trailed the newcomer through the crowd.
“Aye,” he said. “Sorry 'bout the close call there. You were earlier than I planned.”
“I thought we agreed on seventh bell,” Elias said.
“We did,” Hankrim replied. “And it’s just past six.”
“See?” Ciena raised her eyebrows at her brother. “Didn’t I tell you to get your bloody pocket watch checked out?”
The sun was well below the horizon now, casting the city’s lower bridges in shadow. Of all the levels that made up Raidenwood, only Highbridge got a proper view of the sunset. Every other level had its view blocked by the bridges above. The only real benefit to living lower was the protection from the storms. Then again, the lower you went in Raidenwood, the more you needed a good rainfall.
A north wind blew through the canyon, and hundreds of people huddled in their cloaks as they walked. Marketbridge had always been crowded, and the siege didn’t change that. Still, the last time she was here, the thoroughfare had been packed with street vendors.
Those carts of fruits and pastries had been a welcome splash of color against the grays and browns of the city. Now, there wasn’t a scrap of food in sight. Raidenwood was built for war, but every siege came down to food sooner or later. How much longer could these people hold out before Cladius surrendered?
After finding an inn and changing back into their street clothes, they followed their contact toward the eastern side of the canyon. From there, they climbed twenty flights of stairs down to Nightbridge. This bridge was so far down, the people lived in perpetual mist from the flowing river.
Hankrim stopped outside a featureless door and pulled it open. The three stepped inside, and the scents of spirits and burning fadeflower struck her nostrils.
Funny how there was no shortage of vices in a starving city.
Apparently, this was the place where Nahlia had first met Fang, Ilsa, and the rest of the Onyx Company. However, the tavern she described had sounded far more crowded, while this place was dark and dreary with only half-a-dozen patrons nursing their drinks.
Their guide led them through a pair of threadbare curtains into the backroom. Several black-clad figures reclined on leather sofas with a wooden table between them. More Onyx Company officers, most likely.
“We’re closed,” Hankrim told a pair of men at the door. “Clear out the front and lock the doors.”
The two men complied, and Hankrim clapped his hands together. “Alright. Gather ‘round, boys and girls. Noble blood has graced our humble bridge. Meet Elias and Ciena Raider.”
Elias wasted no time unpacking his travelsack. After a second of rummaging, he tossed a bag on the table with a metallic clatter.
Several of the mercenaries perked up like dogs at dinnertime. There were certain perks to working for Thane Solidor. For one thing, he was richer than Aegon.
“Yes,” her brother announced to the room. “That’s exactly what it sounds like. Consider it your down payment.”
“So what’s the job?” Hankrim loosened the tie around the bag and pulled out a handful of gold suns. “We sneaking into the palace? Assassinating your uncle?”
“Even better,” Elias said. “Where we’re going, no living person has ever set foot before.”
He let his words sink in, meeting each of the officers’ eyes. “We’re breaking into Raiden’s tomb.”