Ciena and her brother waited outside the palace’s eastern wall. Midnight had come and gone, and even the upper bridges were shrouded in darkness.
Footsteps echoed from farther down the street. She snapped her head around to see Hankrim skulking in the shadows with a dozen more mercenaries in tow. The group broke apart as they drew nearer—some kept their distance while others vanished into the darker alleys.
Good thinking, that. Crowds would only draw attention at this hour.
“The guards?” Elias asked.
Hankrim gave a knowing nod. “A third never showed up for their evening shifts. Kidnappings, I hear. People suspect Palavan spies.”
“Anyone injured?” he asked.
Keeping the guards alive was more than a question of morality right now. If they killed one guard—even by accident—his family would remember. They would tell everyone they knew until the whole city saw them as dangerous Ethermancers. No better than Alexel Trelidor and his new empire.
Hankrim made a leveling gesture with his hand. “Injured, yes. But no one’s dead yet.”
“Good work,” Elias said.
Ciena nodded in agreement. “But let’s hold off on the cheers and celebration until the fighting’s done.” She tried to sound composed as she spoke, but her body felt like a coiled spring. It seemed that no matter how much experience she had, waiting was always the worst part of any battle.
“And the rest of your men?” Elias asked. “They’re in position?”
“Aye. Five more squads around the western gate. Three more on this side.” He fingered the holstered pistol at his hip. “One signal from me, and they’ll move in.”
Even after Hankrim called all hands on deck, they still had less than two hundred soldiers in total. It seemed like a pitiful number to attack the palace. Then again, the Templars who forced them out twelve years ago hadn’t had a large army either.
Poetic justice is the best kind. A fitting end for Cladius’s reign, if that was where the night finally took them.
After hammering out a few more details, their group broke into motion.
The outer walls were almost thirty feet tall. High enough to give most attackers pause, but not a pair of Justicars. Elias put his back to the smooth stone and cupped his hands for her to stand in. Ciena stepped up with her right boot, and he launched her into the air.
They’d practiced this move back in Villa Solizhan before they left. Once her brother flared his Ironblood, he had more than enough strength to hurl her upward. But as with most Justicar abilities, accuracy was the real challenge. Sometimes, he would throw her directly into the wall. More often, he would overcompensate and throw her too far away from it.
Thankfully, that week of bruises had paid off. Ciena soared upward and grabbed the crenellation. Then she flared her own Ironblood, forcing a burst of extra strength into her left arm and shoulder. From there, she hurled the rest of her body onto the battlements without losing her momentum.
Two guards spun around when she landed, at least a dozen feet away. Steel shone in the moonlight as they drew their sabres. Ciena charged forward before they could scream.
No killing, she reminded herself. That made things more difficult, but not impossible.
Instead of drawing Steelbreaker, she landed a punch in the first man’s stomach, then elbowed his partner in the face. They hit the stone floor on their backs, breaths flying free from their lungs.
Ciena grabbed the nearest man by the neck, squeezing between her bicep and forearm.
The other man tried to scurry away, gasping for air. “We’re under a—”
She stretched out with her right leg, and her boot struck his already-bleeding nose. He fell forward again. This time, he didn’t get up or try to scream.
Ciena adjusted her grip on the first man and continued squeezing until his body went limp. Finally, she uncoiled her limbs and pulled out a vial of Eclipse from her belt. According to Relyn, one drop of this stuff was enough to keep someone unconscious for several hours. It wasn’t necessarily safe, but neither was kicking someone in the head. Relyn had used it on her own sister during the Battle of Dragonshard, and she’d survived.
Rhia... Her thoughts drifted to the other woman as she worked. Even after everything Alexel had done, her friend still served him in Sunfall. Was this her choice, or was Alexel enslaving her too? Ciena hoped it was the latter. At least she had a chance of saving her that way.
With both guards unconscious, she spared a quick glance at her surroundings. The battlements were empty for as far as she could see, and there was no movement in the towers or the palace windows.
Too good to be true.
Sure, the Onyx Company had thinned their ranks, and the siege hadn’t been kind to them either. But Cladius knew they were coming. He must have something planned.
Ciena leaned over the edge and motioned for the others to follow her up. Hankrim threw the grappling hook. She caught it in her gloved hand and secured it in the crenellation.
The air shifted behind her as more opponents revealed themselves. Ciena dropped the hook and drew Steelbreaker from its scabbard. The blade’s crimson light was nearly blinding in the darkness. She spun around just as two explosions erupted in rapid succession. Her body moved on instinct, and the Etherite blade sliced the bullets in midair.
She blinked away the red light and saw four guards at the base of the nearby tower. The first two reloaded their rifles while two more aimed in her direction.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Elias running on a nearby rooftop. He kicked off the edge, jumped over the street, and landed behind the riflemen.
The night wind thrashed her braids as she raced down the battlements to join him. The second pair of riflemen fired their weapons, but she deflected their shots with the flat of her blade.
Even as her brother attacked the squad from behind, two of the guards held their ground, raising their bayonets as if she’d be stupid enough to impale herself.
They struck like cobras as she closed in. Ciena was quicker as she swept Steelbreaker in a wide, vertical arc, cleaving the rifles in two.
Elias grabbed one rifleman in the same chokehold she’d used before. Ciena kicked the second man in the legs and knocked him off balance. He hit the ground like a fallen tree. She reversed her grip on Steelbreaker, smacking the hilt down on his forehead.
Something cracked beneath her blow. Damnit. Too hard.
Alarm bells sounded from around the main guardhouse.
“Great.” Elias released his grip on the unconscious rifleman. “So much for subtlety.” Then he gave Ciena a flat look when he saw her victim. The man’s forehead was purple now, and he wasn’t breathing.
“That was an accident, “ Ciena said with a shrug.
“Oh well.” Hankrim stepped up beside them. “One less mouth to poison, yeah?”
Elias turned to the mercenary then pointed to the ringing guardhouse farther down the wall. “Do something about that, would you?” And with that, her brother set off down the nearest staircase into the garden.
“What?” Hankrim said. “How am I supposed to—”
“Your problem,” Ciena hollered as she followed her brother down the stairs.
The garden below had seen better days, but many of the sculptures were still intact, including Silana’s statue of Raiden.
Strange. You’d think an Aeon piece like that would be the first thing to go.
They continued down the winding cobblestone path and under the wooden veranda where they reached the palace itself. The doors were all locked, but Steelbreaker had a way of solving that problem. Ciena drove the crystal blade through the brass lock, taking the handle along with it. Shards of metal and wooden splinters clattered to the floor as she yanked the weapon free.
“And now we search,” Elias muttered as he followed her through the opening.
They’d already scouted Marketbridge and saw where the walkway met the bottom of the palace. From that vantage, Elias had placed the tunnel in the middle of the palace under the great hall. He’d drawn several maps and diagrams to prove his point, but it was still just a guess.
Their boots echoed on the flagstone floors as they walked. Only a few oil lamps burned in their sconces, but Steelbreaker’s glow lit their path as well as any lantern.
Some aspects of the palace looked the same, but others were nothing like what she remembered. Sheets of cloth draped the artwork and furniture, and a thin layer of dust covered everything else.
This is what you betrayed us for, Cladius? What good is power if you’re alone in this bloody place?
“Keep your eyes open,” Elias whispered. “This is too easy.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” she replied. If taking the palace were this easy, the Onyx Company could have done it months ago without their help. Bringing Ethermancers along felt like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.
A stampede of footsteps sounded behind them. She spun around expecting an ambush. Instead, Hankrim and the other mercenaries emerged through the open door.
“Done so soon?” she asked.
Hankrim gave a breathless nod. Sweat coated his forehead, but he looked unharmed. “The guards— they just ... retreated.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Retreated?”
Another nod. “They had us outnumbered, but they ran through the main gate and locked themselves inside.”
“Yeah.” Ciena let out a breath and turned back to her brother. “I don’t like this at all.”
“How far to the main hall?” Hankrim asked.
“We’re taking a right at the end of this corridor,” Elias said. “Then it should be through those doors.”
“Right.” Hankrim turned back to address his own men. “Fletcher, take your men and scout ahead for traps. Burke, Parry, bring your squads around from the other side—make sure no one flanks us.”
The mercenaries sprang into motion once again. Ciena and her brother followed the scouts toward the main hall. Once again, there were no traps or ambushes.
“Dozens of wet boot tracks ahead,” one of the scouts noted. “Probably those guards we chased in here.”
Ciena followed the prints to the set of double doors at the great hall’s entrance. Whatever their uncle was planning, it was waiting for them inside.
“Stay back,” Elias said to the mercenaries. “We’ll handle this.”
Hankrim and the others complied, taking positions behind the marble pillars on either side of the walkway.
A thousand memories bubbled to the surface of Ciena’s mind as she approached the doors. They’d eaten family meals in this room for the first ten years of her life. Now, it was about to become a battleground.
She’d walked these halls a hundred times in her dreams, but dreams were too easy. You could experience a place with all your senses, but that was nothing without the journey it took to get there.
She raised Steelbreaker, preparing to deflect a storm of iron and steel. One by one, she let the memories fade, adding the emotions to the whirlwind of her Serenity Trance
Several long heartbeats passed, then Elias unlatched the oaken doors and kicked them open. The only sound was the groaning wood and creaking hinges.
The hall wasn’t full of soldiers as she’d expected, but it wasn’t deserted either. Oil lamps burned along both walls, and several candles shone at the far end of the table.
She and her brother stepped inside. A few dozen guards stood at the room’s opposite end, but they didn’t raise their weapons.
Wood ground against stone as someone pushed a chair away from the table. Slowly, Cladius Raider rose to meet their gaze.
Ciena’s breath caught at the sight of her uncle. He was older than she remembered, with his brown hair thinning at the temples, and a pair of spectacles on his nose. His face was thin, clean-shaven, and wrinkled from long days in the sun.
“Elias ... Ciena.” He inclined his head, projecting his voice across the vast space. He didn’t sound threatening, though. If anything, he sounded relieved.
She took another step forward, trying to process the absurdity of the moment. If she released her full strength, it would only take her a second to close the distance between them. Another second, and those guards would fall like sheaves of wheat.
Did their uncle have a death wish? How was he smart enough to plan this moment, but stupid enough to come himself?
There was a short pause before Cladius spoke again, “It’s time we talked.”