Swift as a shadow, Relyn leapt between the inner-courtyard’s rooftops. Trees thrashed around her, and the clouds rolled by overhead. Raindrops rolled down the slick clay tiles, but her steps were true.
She took off with a running start and jumped from the barracks to the stables. This was the widest building in the courtyard, and it gave her a clear view of the wall.
To her right, Thane, Dejan, and Jasna were engaged in combat with at least three more Ethermancers. Ethermancers didn’t worry her though. Thane knew how to play that game. But unlike Nahlia and Elias, all it took was one stray bullet to bring him down.
So instead of helping Thane, she watched the other rooftops for signs of enemies.
Boots clattered below as a trio of riflemen charged up the nearby staircase. Riflemen? Really? What happened to Trelidor’s principles? Then again, nothing should have surprised her after those exploding corpses in Raidenwood.
Relyn reached into her quiver. Six ordinary arrows left. One special one. She grabbed the first by its shaft and nocked it in her bow.
The riflemen charged up the stairs. Relyn aimed for a spot two paces ahead of the first man and loosed the arrow. Without looking to see where it landed, she nocked another and released it a pace ahead of the other.
Both arrows took the soldiers in their necks between their armor and helmets.
As expected, the third man turned his rifle on her. He looked right at Relyn, but he wouldn’t see her. Clad in black from head to heel, she was just another shadow in the night.
Relyn sidestepped as she nocked a third arrow. The man fired his weapon, and his bullet shattered the roof tile where she’d been standing.
Her arrow took him between the eyes a heartbeat later.
People always said that modern firearms were better than arrows, but she’d never understood that.
“Bullets can pierce armor,” they said. But that only mattered if you couldn’t aim.
“Firearms require less training,” they said. That only mattered if you wanted to equip an angry mob rather than a group of trained fighters.
Meanwhile, arrows were quiet. You could reuse them, and you could reload in a fraction of the time. No cumbersome powder horns or little lead balls to deal with. And if a bow malfunctioned, it was probably your own fault. Unlike firearms with all their moving parts which could fail for any mysterious reason.
Although, she had to admit, she liked how Thane carried a pistol. It made him seem like a rebel who didn’t play by the rules. And unlike Trelidor, he didn’t feign self-righteousness about it.
Relyn scanned the horizon of jagged rooftops in the night. The rain had finally subsided, and she avoided looking directly at the Sanctifiers. No easier way to mess up your night vision than that.
Two Palavans emerged on the roof of the nearby barracks. They both aimed their rifles toward Thane. That just wouldn’t do.
The two figures were lined up perfectly—one standing directly between Relyn and the other. She reached into her quiver and pulled out her special arrow: Neckbiter. No one had ever named an arrow before, but she wasn’t about to let the Raider twins have all the fun. In her case, Relyn hoped future scholars would squabble over the word choice—whether it was an innuendo, or naive ignorance on her part.
At first glance, Neckbiter looked like an ordinary arrow. It had the usual bamboo shaft with silk woven around the nock, and Valaysian eagle feathers for the fletching. But instead of steel, the arrowhead was made of dark green Etherite. It may not be as impressive as Steelbreaker, but Relyn had big plans for this. Very soon, it would have some brothers and sisters to keep it company in her quiver.
Relyn knocked Neckbiter in her bow and loosed it against the crossbowmen. True to its name, the arrow tore through the first man’s throat and continued on to kill the second.
Aegon, but Etherite was scary sometimes.
She was still basking in her success when something slammed into her ribcage. She lost her balance and fell onto the tiled roof. She rolled over several times, emptying her entire quiver into the sand below.
“Shiban.” Relyn put a hand to her side, feeling for blood. That had definitely been a crossbow bolt, but it hadn’t pierced her nightsilk armor. She took a few deep breaths and felt around her ribcage. Nothing broken. Still, that was going to leave a nasty bruise.
That bolt had come from the palace. One of the balconies, maybe? Her other arrows were scattered in the street, but she had no intention of leaving Neckbiter behind.
She crawled back up the slick tiles until she was level with the barracks roof. From there, Relyn reached out her hand and tugged on her bond with the arrow. It wasn’t anything like a soulbond. Rather, the arrow was like an extension of her body. If she focused hard enough, she could almost feel its crystal head wedged inside its victim.
She didn’t focus too hard though. If she did, the feeling would make her sicker than a raft ride through the sky.
Relyn continued pulling on the arrow, imagining herself pulling on an invisible thread. Eventually, the arrow tore free with a spray of blood. It spun through the air, faster and faster.
Perfect. Now all she had to do was slow it down, and...
Shiban. It wasn’t slowing down.
Relyn let out a yelp and rolled out of the way. The arrow flew over her head and impaled itself into the stone wall behind her.
Well, thank Aegon no one was watching that. She pulled the arrow free and nocked it in her bow. A second later, she peeked her head over the ridge and took down the rude crossbowman who’d surprised her.
Her second attempt to retrieve the arrow was just as embarrassing as the first. Relyn probably could have caught it, but she wasn’t about to roll those dice. Not when the arrowhead could slice off her fingers like blades of grass. It would be a while before she could use this trick in front of anyone.
Maybe it would be easier to control if the whole shaft was crystal rather than just the head? She’d have to try that at some point. For now, she had a gate to open.
Elias stood guard near the manor’s front door while Nahlia healed the wounded inside. He itched to join Thane and the others, but these palace walls were more than twice as high as Raidenwood’s. Not to mention that twelve-foot wide moat that surrounded them. This wouldn’t be as easy as scaling a rooftop and leaping over.
Besides, he couldn’t leave Nahlia behind.
Elias was still scanning the courtyard when he heard the sound of footsteps on stone. But it wasn’t coming from over here. It was coming from the servants’ entrance down the hall.
“Who are you?” one of the civilian crossbowmen demanded.
Elias spun around to face the other doorway. There stood his apprentice, Trinadara, with a wounded Seleon over her shoulder.
“It’s alright!” Elias shouted as he jogged over. “They’re with us.”
Trin stumbled inside the room, and Elias saw the gaping wound in Seleon’s stomach.
“Come on.” Elias helped Trin lower Seleon to the ground, and he put the boy’s other arm around his shoulders. “We’ll take him to Nahlia.”
Until now, Nahlia had been hunched over a child with a broken arm, but she sprang to her feet when she heard her name.
A few members of the civilian army had dragged a dozen beds and sofas down into the vestibule, and they laid Seleon down on the nearest one.
An iron bolt stuck out from the boy’s stomach. Elias had seen such wounds before, and they always killed. Those bolts were star-shaped at the end which made it impossible for a surgeon to stitch the wound back up. Trin must have known the same because her eyes glistened with tears.
“He’ll be fine,” Elias told her. “Guard the front door.” The last thing they needed was an ambush while they were all distracted.
To Trin’s credit, she rose to her feet at once and made her way over. At least she wasn’t in complete shock.
“I’m gonna die,” Seleon said, “aren’t I?”
“It’ll be alright,” Nahlia said in a soft voice. “I’ve healed dozens of these.” She grabbed the bolt and tried to pull. It was a half-hearted effort—she must have known it would make the wound worse.
“Aegon,” she said, “I’ve never been good at this part though.” She looked up to meet Elias’s eyes, and he nodded.
But first, he pulled out Bloodsong and used its crystal blade to cut a strip of cloth from his tunic. He twisted the cloth into a rope and moved to place it in Seleon’s mouth.
“I’m not gonna scream,” the boy said.
“Screaming is fine,” Elias said. “This is so you don’t grind your teeth or bite off your tongue.”
The boy’s eyes widened, then he accepted the twisted roll.
Elias yanked the bolt free, and blood pooled inside the wound. Nahlia pressed down a linen cloth and forced Moonfire into Seleon’s body.
Seleon gritted his teeth. First at the bolt’s removal, then at the Moonfire.
“Don’t worry,” Elias told him. “It’s supposed to feel like ice in your veins.” Moonfire had never felt painful to him, but many people had described it that way. More often than not, their brains labeled it as pain because they didn’t understand it.
Nahlia could take it from here, so Elias rose to his feet. As he left, he put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t push yourself too hard.” Lyraina was still back on the airship, and she could always finish healing Seleon after they’d beaten General Palatos. But he knew from experience how she would work herself to exhaustion.
Elias made his way over to the front door. The storm had subsided, and the last raindrops rolled off the manor’s lower eaves, gathering in puddles between the cobblestones. The fighting above the gate had quieted too. The gate should be open any minute now.
He leaned against the wall, and he caught a glimpse of Nahlia as she continued healing Seleon’s wound.
Aegon, but she was beautiful. Several strands of dark red hair fell out from her braid, falling around the sides of her heart-shaped face. After all those months of seeing her unconscious, he appreciated the sight of her more and more.
People didn’t look like themselves when they were unconscious. In Nahlia’s case, she had none of the usual expressions he’d come to know: the way her eyes danced as she made her sarcastic comments, the way she shuffled her feet when she was nervous, or the passion in her eyes as she trained.
Trin cleared her throat from beside him. “Eyes on your opponent, Master Raider.”
Elias blinked, turning toward his student.
“What?” she protested. “That’s what you used to say to me.”
His lips curled at the edges. “I remember.” His apprentice was probably right. They were on a battlefield, and now wasn’t the time for such thoughts. Then again, what was that quote that Nahlia was so fond of?
“Love is our natural state,”he said, “while war is the thing we pretend is normal. The former is necessary for life. The latter only destroys.”
“I have no idea what the hell you just said.” Trin was almost blunt enough to be a miniature Ciena.
“It’s a quote from Senican Raider,” Elias said. “I’m probably getting the exact words wrong, but you get the gist of it.”
“I’m going to do what I want, and not feel guilty about it.”
Trin glanced back to where Nahlia was still healing Seleon. “You could just talk to her, you know.”
“I have,” Elias started to say, then he glanced back to his apprentice with narrowed eyes. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“I mean this year.” Apparently, she was ignoring his second comment.
“We’ve been busy,” he muttered. They’d been living under the same roof for two months now, but they’d spent almost every waking moment training or studying. Even when they’d formed their soulbond, they’d done it as a group effort, using a meditation technique that Lyraina had taught them.
As usual, the older woman gave no explanation as to how she knew these things. Speaking of talks we need to have.
But despite all this time training, he and Nahlia never had time alone—just the two of them. No more sunrise sparring sessions, and no more quiet moments in the library. Something pained her, and that pain made her push people away. She still carried all that trauma from her past battles with her, and he didn’t know how to help her fix it.
“You should try making her jealous,” Trin suggested. “You know how many of the girls in Redcliff Enclave would—”
“No,” Elias interjected. “I’m not using games or tricks.” Even if that particular one did work on Nahlia. He’d accidentally discovered that when the Solizhans had tried to set him up with Thane’s sister.
“So noble,” Trin deadpanned. “Just gonna wait ‘til the war’s over then?”
He opened his mouth to reprimand her, then changed his mind. The truth was, it felt good to talk to someone about this. Aegon knew Ciena had no interest in these conversations.
“I’ll talk to her after this battle,” he said.
“Good. And if you don’t, I can just tell her for you.”
“You do that,” Elias said, “And I’ll have you scrub the bottom of Highbridge.”
Trin snorted. “No one cleans the bottom of Highbridge. Is that even a real job?”
“Sure. It’s traditionally performed by insubordinate Justicar apprentices.”
He was about to reply again when the drawbridge began lowering over the moat.
“Nahlia,” he called over to her. “It’s time to go.”
Nahlia pushed herself to her feet and joined them by the entrance. “Trin should stay here with Seleon.”
“What?” Trin glanced back and forth between them. “No! I want to go with you into the palace. That was the plan.”
“She’s right,” Elias said. “Plans change in war.”
“Is this because he got shot? Because that wasn’t my fault!”
Elias grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her outside into the courtyard. Nahlia followed, scanning the shadows for potential ambushes. “This isn’t a punishment, Trin. Do you really want to leave him alone here?”
“He’s not alone.”
Elias lowered his voice, “Look at those civilians. They’re all shaking in their boots, and they can’t even hold their weapons properly. They’re brave enough to fight, but too young to realize how outmatched they are. By the time they do, it will be too late.”
His best teachers had always used this tactic on him—make him see the flaws in someone else rather than forcing him to look in a mirror. He hoped it worked.
“Fine.” Trin slumped her shoulders and made her way back inside. “I’ll protect the bloody posse while you’re gone.”
The drawbridge hit stone a second later, and Elias and Nahlia dashed for the entrance. Relyn was already waiting for them in the inner courtyard, and Thane led the other two Sanctifiers down from the wall.
Elias let out a breath of relief when he saw them. No casualties.
Once again, the six of them fell into formation with Nahlia and Elias in the front and the other four in back.
The palace’s front doors sat wide open, but the halls were eerily quiet as they stepped inside.
“Never a good sign,” Thane noted from his place in the back.
“How many Ethermancers did you face on the wall?” Nahlia asked.
“Three,” Thane replied. “All Sanctifiers.”
Elias narrowed his eyes, using Bloodsong to shine a red light in the shadows. Those three Ethermancers on the wall, plus the two they’d killed in the courtyard made five.
“This was too easy,” he said.
“Easy?” Relyn blurted out. “This is the most we’ve ever had to fight. Maybe our training is paying off?”
“He’s right,” Thane said as they continued down the marble-lined hallway. “I’m not surprised we won those fights. I’m surprised the enemy didn’t send more after us. Aside from Sunfall, Vauldenport is the largest city they control. Where are the rest of Trelidor’s Ethermancers? He’s supposed to have hundreds.”
Their group met no resistance as they reached the antechamber outside the great hall. Thane stepped toward the rosewood doors, then turned to Relyn. “If this goes badly, we’ll need an escape plan. Do you think you can disarm those cannons so the airship can land?”
Elias half expected Relyn to argue. Between the four of them, she was the weakest in a battle of Ethermancers, and Thane tried to protect her more often than she liked. He’d even suggested they bring Ciena for this mission and let Relyn guard the palace instead.
But Relyn must have sensed the potential trap ahead. Instead of arguing, she nodded.
“Be careful,” she said.
Once she’d vanished back into the shadows, Thane grabbed the door handles and pushed them open.
In many ways, the great hall reminded Elias of Dragonshard’s throne room. It was circular shaped with a domed ceiling and a balcony running along three-quarters of the wall. A massive glass window dominated the remaining quarter, offering a view of the Ember Sea beyond.
Marble pillars surrounded them, and the floor tiles depicted some mosaic mural. Elias couldn’t make out the details from down here. You probably had to stand on the balcony to see it.
Most importantly, the room was empty, with no sound but the echo of their footsteps.
“Great,” Elias said when they reached the room’s center. “You think he retreated?”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a man strode into the room’s southern doorway. Dressed in black leather from head to heel, his skin was lighter than most Palavans. Lighter than Thane’s, even. His silver-white hair stuck up on top of his head, and he carried a metal staff that glowed with a dozen sigils.
Thane inclined his head at the man. “General Palatos, I presume?”
“You presume wrong.” The figure took several long strides forward. He was younger than Elias had originally assumed. Probably no older than thirty.
“We’ve had enough dead generals for one war.” The man raised his hands, and the doors snapped shut all around the room. Elias felt his breath catch. It was probably some Moonshard trick—Lyraina did things like that all the time. Still, he didn’t like opponents he didn’t understand.
“I’ve always found it ... distasteful,” the man began, “to send such skilled Ethermancers to butcher the inexperienced. Especially the very young, and the elderly. It would be like if I sent Sile’zhar to kill your apprentices outside.”
He cast two rings onto the marble floor at their feet. Elias looked down, and he recognized his own craftsmanship. These were the Etherite rings he’d made for Trin and Seleon.
No. His blood boiled and sweat prickled his palms. When he glanced up again, the stranger was smiling.
“Ordering their deaths brought me no pleasure, but you three have upset the balance of power. I’m here to remedy that.”
“Who are you?” Thane asked, his tone equal parts accusation and threat.
“My apologizes,” he said. “ My name is Varion Trelidor. I believe you know my father.”