Relyn crept through the dark corridors of the Ashmount Prison. She’d never liked this place, but the layout was more than familiar. Her parents had dragged her along for plenty of inspections as a child. More importantly, she and Rhia had spent hours pouring over the schematics together. They’d imagined how they would escape if they ever ended up here. Either that or they planned how one of them might sneak in and break out the other.
Quiet as a mouse. Swift as a shadow.
Did other Ethermancers chant to themselves like this? Probably not. She couldn’t imagine Thane doing something so ridiculous. The chanting served a purpose though. The monks in her family’s estate used to recite affirmations every morning. According to them, speaking a phrase was enough to make your mind believe it at a subconscious level. And Ethermancy—especially this kind—was all about belief.
She rounded a corner, slipping behind a pair of guards en route to the first security checkpoint. Like all Vassaj soldiers, they wore jade green uniforms with yellow trim and buttons.
Soft as a whisper. Inconspicuous as a stone.
One guard glanced over his shoulder and looked directly at her.
Relyn didn’t lose focus. She didn’t even stop moving. Instead, she continued her silent mantra and projected her will into his.
Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see.
If the man caught a flicker of movement, it would be no more alarming than if he saw his own shadow. If he heard the scuttle of footsteps on stone, he would assume it was his fellow guards.
Even as his eyes seemed to touch hers, his gaze floated by as if he’d seen nothing but the brick wall behind her.
The guard turned his attention forward again, and Relyn smiled beneath her black mask.
Unlike her older sister, Relyn would never be a Justicar. For whatever reason, she lacked the natural affinity for that Order. Maybe it was the fact that she didn’t enjoy melee combat. Maybe she lacked the proper aggression.
It didn’t matter now. There were other paths an Ethermancer could take.
In its most advanced form, an empath could make people see things that weren’t really there. Palatine had used this skill on Ciena to make her fight her parents during the Battle of Dragonshard.
That had been a terrible war crime on Palatine’s part. Relyn had killed many people and hadn’t flinched, but that was the stuff of nightmares. It made her sick to her stomach.
“The first step is perception,” Ilsa had explained early in her training. “Before you can influence someone’s emotions, you need to understand them. You can’t fill a calm man with rage, but you can amplify a man’s anger into hatred.”
Palatine had wormed his way further into Ciena’s mind than any empath Ilsa had ever heard of. If he could control her that way, he knew exactly how it would affect her.
He knew, and he’d gone through with his plan anyway.
Still, you could always learn from your enemies. And despite the horror of that moment, she and Ilsa had studied his techniques together. Relyn—who had spent years training in stealth—had asked the most important question of all; if you can make someone see things that don’t exist, can you hide things that do exist?
It turned out you could. And while Relyn might never be a Justicar, she’d learned the one skill any Sile’zhar would envy.
She’d learned true invisibility.
The two guards continued toward the first checkpoint. Several officers sat behind a long wooden desk, and squads of crossbowmen stood on both sides of the iron gate. This was the only way in and out of the Ashmount, and the lifts and stairwells lay just beyond.
Relyn had briefly considered wearing a disguise—posing as a higher ranking clan member and conducting a surprise inspection of the prison. That would have been safer, but there wasn’t time. At most, she would need several days to steal a uniform and badge. Not to mention the time to forge the paperwork.
They didn’t have days. They might not even have hours.
Instead of a disguise, Relyn wore her black nightsilk armor, complete with a mask that covered everything below her eyes. A hallmark of the Sile’zhar, nightsilk was woven from the giant spiders of the Hinaso Forest. It was as flexible as ordinary silk but strong enough to deflect a bullet.
Thane always complimented the way she looked in this; he said it fit her better than anything else. She respected a man who found armor attractive. Some men might have found it intimidating, but not Thane.
And he was right, of course. It fit her figure perfectly.
She followed a few paces behind the guards as they drew closer to the gate. It was a massive iron portcullis. The sort of thing you’d expect to see in an ancient castle. It stretched from the ceiling to the floor and must have weighed as much as a small mammoth.
Relyn paused when they reached the desk, and she hid in the shadows as they showed their badges and signed their names in the ledger.
Finally, the gatekeepers worked the cranks on both sides of the gate and it rose from the floor.
And now for the tricky part.
Reyn’s heart beat faster, and her palms were sweating inside her gloves. She projected her invisibility throughout the room as she followed the two men through the gate. All it took was one person to notice something amiss, and the illusion could break.
Fortunately at her skill level, only another Ethermancer was likely to see through the illusion without conscious effort. Clan Vassaj didn’t waste Ethermancers on positions like this.
Unless a special prisoner warrants extra security. Or if they’re expecting a break-in.
In that case, the best place to hide would be in plain sight.
Focus, Relyn chided herself.
As she walked, her eyes wandered over the officers at the desk. They were hunched over with no passion for their jobs. There weren’t break-ins in the Ashmount. The building was too large and imposing. No one tried.
Even if an Ethermancer charged through the front door, they had a dozen different ways to stop him. Toxic gasses, poisonous darts, and trap doors that could be lowered with the push of a button. Any intruder would be dead long before he reached them.
And because these guards were so confident, Relyn walked right by them. Just another part of the daily monotony.
She released a breath once the crossbowmen were out of sight, but she wasn’t done yet. Her marks continued down the hallway toward the stairwells and mechanical lifts. They would probably take the lift up, but she couldn’t risk riding with them. Unlike the lifts in Dragonshard, these worked with a system of manual counterweights.
If these guards rode together every day, they likely had their body weights memorized. No one liked being told they were a hundred-and-ten pounds heavier than they thought.
The stairwells were all locked though. She needed a keychain now.
Relyn quickened her pace as the men neared a drain in the floor. She half-ran, half-tip-toed to get ahead of them
Soft as a whisper. Swift as a shadow.
As they stepped closer to the drain, Relyn stuck out her boot to trip the second man. It was a strange sensation as she wasn’t able to see her own feet. Illusions were like lies that way—you had to believe them yourself if you expected them to work.
Relyn snatched the keychain from the man’s belt as he stumbled. She used her free hand to drop a handful of copper pennies, and they fell through the grates with a metallic clang.
“Shiban!” the man cursed as he fell.
The first guard laughed as his partner caught himself. “Ah, hitting the saké before work again?”
“You know I’ve been sober for six months,” the fallen guard retorted. He patted his belt, and a slow horror spread across his face. “My keys...”
“What about your keys?”
The two of them looked down the drain, and Relyn made her way around the corner.
The stairwell was empty—thank Aegon—and she finally had a chance to release her illusion. It felt like returning to her bedchamber after hours of formal dinners.
Relyn didn’t particularly like climbing stairs, but she savored every moment of the solitude. With the hard part behind her, she stepped out on the thirteenth floor.
Two guards waited just outside, and even her mental Ethermancy wasn’t enough to explain the loud creak of a door opening on its own.
“Hey!” One of them aimed his crossbow in her direction. That single word was enough to shatter her illusion like a glass. Another guard raised his weapon as well.
Relyn didn’t freeze. Instead, she straightened her posture and cleared her throat. “Is that how you address a threat, guardsman? If I were a real intruder, I could have killed you both by now.”
The guards glanced at each other, but they didn’t lower their weapons. She had to tread carefully here. Nightsilk or no, a bolt from a crossbow could still kill her at this range. More likely, it would slow her down enough for them to capture her.
Relyn stepped closer, pointing at the man on the left. With her other hand, she retrieved two poisoned needles from her belt pouch. “Sergeant, what’s the proper response if you encounter an intruder on this floor? Keep in mind that this floor contains a Class A threat.”
The man opened his mouth to reply. Before he could, Relyn jabbed a needle into his windpipe.
The second guard fired his crossbow. Relyn ducked behind the first man’s unconscious body, and the bolt hit the wall behind them.
She dropped the body and charged toward the second man, throwing a quick jab at his left eye. Predictably, he moved both hands to defend himself, and she drove a knee into his solar plexus. The man staggered back, yelling for help as he fell.
Good. Better to let the other guards come to her rather than risking another surprise encounter. She wanted the floor clear for when her husband showed up.
The guard’s back hit the brick wall, and Relyn jabbed the needle into the side of his neck.
More footsteps thundered down the southern corridor a second later. Relyn ducked down the western hall to her right, then she moved around to flank them.
Quiet as a mouse. Swift as a shadow.
She rounded two more corners and approached the guards from behind. Three of them approached their unconscious comrades with raised weapons.
Relyn reached out with her mental Ethermancy. Don’t turn around. The danger is in front of you.
One by one, she stuck three needles in the backs of their necks.
After a quick sweep for more guards, Relyn moved back to the western side of the tower. Nahlia’s cell was right where the file promised, but she wasn’t alone. Another woman sat beside her on the bed. She looked like Nahlia’s mother.
Had Lady Trelian been captured too? Why would she leave that out of the message?
Either way, time was short. Relyn reached out and connected with Thane through their soulbond.
’I found Nahlia,’ she said. ‘Thirteenth floor. Western side. Fifth window from the right.’
’Good,” Thane’s voice replied in her head., ‘Moving into position now.’
Relyn lowered her invisibility and approached the cell. The only light came from the evening sun as it pierced through the narrow window.
Nahlia immediately sprang from the bed. “Who are you?”
“It’s alright,” Relyn held out a hand, then slowly removed her nightsilk mask.
Her eyes widened. “Relyn?”
She nodded as she moved to unlock the door. “Miss me?”
“How’d you get in here?” Nahlia asked.
“Through the front door, but we can’t leave that way.” Relyn opened the iron gate and gestured the two women out. “Thane’s about to blow a hole through that wall.”
Nahlia complied quickly. Lyraina stepped out as if she had all the time in the world. That rubbed Relyn like a pebble in her boot. Just because this woman asked for their help didn’t make her entitled to it.
The sound of propellers drew nearer. The other prisoners began murmuring and shouting from their cells as they realized what was happening.
The Raptor’s Claw appeared outside the cell’s outer window a minute later. Its massive dragonbone hull blocked out the evening sun.
Relyn pulled a shard of glowing white Etherite from her belt pouch and offered it to Nahlia. “If you have your Ethermancy back, we could use a shield right now.”
Nahlia accepted the shard but passed it to her mother.
I guess that’s a no.
Lady Trelian grasped the crystal in her hand, then raised a dome of pale light around the three of them.
’Ready when you are,' Relyn said to Thane.
The airship lowered its ramp outside the window and Thane stepped out. The wind lashed at his black cloak as he raised both hands, eyes narrowed in concentration.
Aegon, but he looked good when he was about to destroy something.
Fire shot out from his palms. For a moment it seemed to shrink, then it brightened from orange to blue.
“Close your eyes,” Relyn said to Nahlia, “and cover your ears.”
The fire turned to the blinding white of a furnace. The pressure increased until the swirling ball of flame was no bigger than her fist.
Even as Relyn followed her own advice, the floor shook beneath her feet. She felt the force of the explosion in her chest, and every bone in her body seemed to rattle.
When she opened her eyes again, the window was big enough to walk through. Her ears were ringing. Smoke filled the air, and fragments of stone and iron littered the floor.
“Alright.” Relyn shoved them both through the opening. “Now get on the ship. Hurry.”
Lyraina moved toward the ramp, but Nahlia spun around.
“Wait,” she said, “what about Yimo?”
Relyn frowned “Who?”
“Yimo. From Wolfe Clan.”
Nahlia grabbed the shard of Etherite from her mother and stepped back into the corridor. “I can’t leave without him.”
“Shiban,” Relyn hissed. Nahlia might have mentioned this before they blew open the Aegon-cursed wall. Now every guard in the prison knew they were here. As if the massive hovering airship wasn’t enough of a hint.
Nahlia ran down the hall, shouting Yimo’s name.
To Relyn’s surprise, a male voice actually answered.
Nahlia’s footsteps echoed down the hall as she ran. Relyn charged after her. Unfortunately, they were heading toward the lift and stairwells.
“Relyn Vash!” Yimo exclaimed when they reached his cell. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”
Like Nahlia, Yimo wore a gray prison uniform. Only his was several sizes too large. Relyn fumbled for the right key and stuck it in the door. The lock came open a second later, and Yimo stepped out.
“I gotta say though, your parents’ place is—”
“No jokes,” Relyn snapped. “We need to move. Now.”
Just then, the door to the lifts slid open. Rhia Vassaj stepped out, flanked by a crossbowman on either side.
“Shiban,” Relyn cursed again. “Run!”
The crossbowmen fired their weapons. Nahlia reacted just as quickly, raising a barrier of Moonshard that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Relyn seized the distraction and flared her invisibility.
Nahlia dropped her barrier a second later and followed Yimo back toward the airship. Relyn pressed herself against the iron bars of the nearest empty cell. They couldn’t outrun a Justicar, but she could at least slow her down.
Relyn drew two poisoned daggers and bent her knees.
Rhia’s footsteps grew closer.
Three. Two. One.
She struck from the shadows and tackled her sister.
Rather, she tried to tackle her. Charging a Justicar felt like slamming into a mountain. Rhia only stepped back a few inches as she spun to meet Relyn’s assault. Her hands blurred with impossible speed and seized both of Relyn’s wrists.
Relyn gritted her teeth against the iron grip. Her sister twisted harder, and the blades fell to the floor. In the same motion, Rhia swept a kick at her legs and knocked her down as well.
Relyn tried to move. No use. Her sister was already on top of her, holding one of Relyn’s own blades to her windpipe. For a split second, she thought Rhia would slit her throat. Then the other woman’s eyes widened in recognition.
Black powder erupted from down the hall. Rhia pulled the blade away from Relyn’s neck and deflected the bullet in midair.
Relyn flared her invisibility again. Normally, a trick like this wouldn’t work in combat against another Ethermancer. It certainly never worked when she was sparring with Thane.
But her sister had never seen true invisibility before, and the display left her stunned.
Relyn rolled free and bolted down the hall. Thane must have seen through her illusion because he holstered his pistol and ran ahead of her.
They reached Nahlia’s cell a second later. By now, the others had all boarded the airship, and the ramp hovered just a few feet from the broken window.
Thane jumped first. He took a few steps up the ramp, then spun around to wait for her. The ramp shifted a few more feet away.
Aegon. It would be close, but she could still make the jump with a running start.
Relyn kicked off the precipice. Just as her boot left the ledge, something punched into her back. Numbness spread through her body, taking control of her muscles. She stumbled, falling forward and missing the airship’s ramp by mere inches.
“Relyn!” Thane’s voice shouted as he reached for her. Too late.
She fell from the thirteen-story prison toward the street below.