Elias ran toward the gates of Redcliff Enclave. Guards lay dead or unconscious on either side, and shards of wooden splinters stuck out from the snow.
Explosions sounded toward Raidenwood, echoing through the mountains like distant war drums. He didn’t know what was happening in the city, but he knew Nahlia was in danger too. He'd felt something on his way back—some disturbance through their soulbond.
When he finally passed through the gates into the enclave proper, the answer to both his questions hovered in the sky above.
It looked like Thane and Relyn's ship, but the Raptor's Claw was older, with scuff marks and scratches across its brown hull. Each one was a testament to the miles they'd flown.
This ship looked brand new, with every inch polished to a mirror shine from the twice-tough glass that covered the bridge to the long pontoons on either side.
A rope shot out from the back ramp and half-a-dozen Sile'zhar began their descent. More unconscious guards lay on the ground outside the dojo, and the enclave's residents ran in every direction.
"Elias!" A familiar voice shouted over the chaos.
He turned to see Klarin, one of his three remaining apprentices. The girl had been sparring with Nahlia less than an hour before.
"What's happening?" he demanded. "Where's Nahlia?"
"She's over here." Klarin pointed to where she lay in a bed of hay outside someone's house.
Elias ran over to her and knelt in the snow, cradling her head in his lap. Her body felt half-frozen. Now, more than ever, he wished he had a cloak to give her.
"An older woman carried her out here," Klarin said. "Maybe ten minutes ago."
Elias narrowed his eyes. "This woman—what did she look like?"
"I don't know. Blue robe ... red hair?"
Lyraina. He thought he'd seen her on the mountain path, but he hadn't believed his eyes. In the two months they'd been in Raidenwood, Nahlia’s mother hadn't visited this enclave once.
"And where did she go?" Elias asked.
The girl gave a helpless shrug.
"I saw," his other apprentice, Caelus, spoke up. "She climbed on Jasna's dragon and took off. Looked like she went west."
Aegon. What the hell was happening here? Had Lyraina attacked her own daughter and fled? No. She'd always been a wildcard, but he couldn't imagine her doing that. For all her faults, she did seem to care about her.
Elias glanced back down and found Nahlia gazing up at him through half-lidded eyes.
"Nahlia?" He took her hands and warmed them between his own. "What happened? Are you hurt?"
She gave a weary nod, and Elias realized she didn't have any Etherite. Her belt pouch was missing, and she wasn't wearing her pendant either.
I'm an idiot. He yanked Bloodsong from its scabbard, dulled the edges with his mind, and placed the hilt in her hand.
"Here," he told her. "Heal yourself."
For a moment, Nahlia closed her eyes and seemed to focus on the crystal dagger. Then she winced and gave her head a sharp shake. Whatever was wrong, this wasn't helping.
"They're coming back out!" Caelus shouted.
Elias snapped his head up and followed the boy's gaze toward the dojo. A group of Sile'zhar emerged from the exit, and their leader carried a black orb in his hand. Treluwyn's Codex.
If they'd taken that so easily, then where were the masters? Aegon. He had so many questions, but Nahlia was in no state to answer. Perhaps he could have intervened and stopped the Sile’zhar. That's what Ciena would do, but it wasn't worth it. A Codex was just an artifact. He wouldn't abandon Nahlia and his apprentices for it.
The Sile'zhar climbed the rope ladder and disappeared into their airship. The sun dipped below the horizon as the ship gained altitude, growing darker as it flew.
But still, the ramp didn't close. He glimpsed a light from within the ship's cargo hold. A pair of figures rolled something out—metallic and cylinder-shaped.
The barrel rolled down the ramp, and a dome of Moonshard formed around the airship's lower hull.
"Take cover!" Elias shouted.
The barrel landed inside the dojo, and a deafening explosion tore through the enclave. Elias ducked his head and flared his Ironblood, protecting himself and Nahlia. He felt the bomb's impact in his bones. Shards of wood and metal flew by like leaves in a storm. Even here, hundreds of feet from the source, the heat prickled his skin.
Elias glanced up again. Nothing but smoke and hypnotic flames filled his vision. When he finally spotted the airship, it was moving toward him.
The next few seconds happened in a blur, and no one had time to react. The ship itself had been unscarred by the blast. Now they were already dropping a second bomb on the enclave.
"Nahlia!" he put a hand to her cheek and shook her. "Wake up! We need you."
The barrel fell from the ship.
"Nahlia!" he shouted her name again, but it was no use. Moonshard could stop any explosion, but she was in no condition to save anyone. Running was no use either. He'd already seen the damage that first bomb had done. Even with his Justicar speed, he wouldn't clear it.
This was the end.
Just then, a burst of pale blue filled his vision. Elias looked up to see the bomb colliding with the crystal shield. The ground shook, but the flames didn't touch them.
His heart pounded as he glanced in awe at the Moonshard barrier, then back at Nahlia. Her eyes were still closed, and she looked as weak as before.
As the shaking subsided, he sat up and turned to the center of the crowd. There stood Yimo atop a short ridge. He held one hand extended toward the sky, clutching half of Varion's staff.
"Hey!' he said with a cheerful wave. "I fixed it!"
Ciena lay beside her fallen enemy in the Raidenwood dungeon. She'd won, but that victory wouldn't save her. The Sile'zhar's poison still crawled through her veins. Several hundred pounds of bricks crushed her spine, and she was bleeding from more than a dozen wounds.
Only a Redeemer could save her now, but Nahlia was all the way in Redcliff, and Aegon only knew where Lyraina was. The older woman had vanished soon before the enemy attacked the city, and no one had seen her since.
That left Ciena to die alone in her own palace.
Darkness surrounded her, and even Steelbreaker's glow had faded. A few distant flames burned down the corridor, but they were no brighter than embers.
And Varion ... her eyes fell to where he lay in front of her. A blue glow shone from within his clenched fist—a light she hadn't noticed before.
Using the last of her strength, Ciena stretched out her forefinger and pried his fist open. Like his father, Varion wore a different ring on each finger. Each one appeared as an unremarkable silver band at first glance, but there was more. The light came from the gaps where metal met flesh. It was the same color as the sigils on his staff.
Could it be?
Ciena didn't know much about sigilcrafting, but she knew it let Ethermancers craft objects that mimicked their abilities.
Justicars reinforced stone, glass, or metal, increasing its strength tenfold. She'd seen that in the doors outside Raiden's tomb, and in the airship's hull.
Sanctifiers made wards and currents that moved energy from one place to another. These had been everywhere in Dragonshard—controlling the climate, heating the baths, and moving the lifts.
As for Redeemers ... Varion's staff could conjure solid shields of Moonshard, or storms of needle-like blades.
But why would he stop there? If he could make a weapon like that, then why wouldn't he do the same with healing? Why wouldn't he make an object that healed himself?
Excitement flared in Ciena's chest as soon as the idea hit her. Nahlia had once described Moonfire as a process that required intense concentration and emotion. She'd always wondered how Alexel could do it with no apparent effort. Alexel, and then Varion with his neck wound tonight.
The answer was simple now—they weren't healing themselves.
Ciena grasped Varion's ring between her thumb and forefinger and twisted it free. Her eyes grew heavy as her consciousness threatened to fade.
Strength and Fortitude.
She slipped the first ring on her own finger, and a burst of cold Moonfire rushed through her veins.
Quiet as a mouse, Relyn followed her guards through the top floor of the palace. Shouts and crashing furniture echoed from every room as their enemies searched for Raiden's Codex.
Kalia—the little traitor—had already told Rhia about the locked safe in Ciena's bedchamber. Fortunately, they'd prepared for this moment and built other safes throughout the palace. No one outside their inner-circle knew about those. They'd even hidden small shards of Etherite in these safes to confuse their enemy's senses.
As always, the best place to hide a needle was in a stack of other needles.
As for the real Codex, they'd locked that in a vault beneath the dining room table in the lord's apartment. In hindsight, they should have hidden it somewhere even more obscure, like the first-floor privy, or the wine cellar. At least that way, Relyn might have had a chance to snatch it and run.
No one had expected the invasion to come this quickly though.
More bombs echoed from outside, rattling the windows on their hinges. Flashes of orange flame reflected off the flagstone floors as she ran.
Shiban. This was bad.
Her guards stopped when they reached the apartment. Relyn was still invisible to their eyes, but Hankrim glanced over his shoulder, waiting for her orders. That place was probably crawling with Ethermancers—each one of them more skilled than her.
Relyn's instincts told her to wait until someone stronger arrived—let Thane or Ciena deal with them.
But then ... what if they had their own problems? What if they were counting on her to keep Raiden's Codex safe? Relyn didn't need to remind herself of the stakes. Trelidor already had a fleet of airships now. Once he learned Ethersmithing, it was all over. They would lose their last real advantage.
Relyn dropped her invisibility and let her guards see her face.
Hankrim met her eyes and nodded. Somehow, that simple gesture filled her with courage. The Onyx Guard were ordinary men and women caught up in a war of powerful Aeons. Relyn may be one of those Aeons, but she knew that feeling all too well.
Despite everything, they did their jobs. She would do hers too.
"Go," she whispered to Hankrim.
Hankrim pulled the door open, and the Sile'zhar attacked at once. Fire filled the corridor, and Relyn and Hankrim each dropped to their stomachs.
Her other guards were too slow. The projectiles took them in their chests. Screams of pain followed as the flames ate them alive.
Still laying on the stone floor, Relyn nocked her crystal arrow and aimed at the Sanctifier in the doorway. No sense in holding back now—not when every second was life or death.
Flames sprang to life in the man's hand, and Relyn let the arrow fly, taking him between the eyes. She and Hankrim used the opportunity to regain their footing, and they charged in the apartment together.
No sooner had they passed through the foyer when another Sile'zhar swung at them with a katana. Hakrim raised his own blade and parried the man's strike, but his enemy moved with Justicar swiftness. One second, their blades were locked together. The next, the Sile'zar reversed his grip and struck again, taking Hankrim in the leg.
Hankrim lost his balance, and the assassin plunged a dagger into his neck, driving him into the wall.
Relyn reached out a hand and summoned back her crystal arrow from the dead Sanctifier. It spun through the air, and she caught it in her gloved hand.
The Justicar moved for her next, leaping forward with both blades. Relyn pretended to charge the man. Then she made herself invisible at the last moment, stepping to the side and leaping over the nearby sofa.
Her opponent stumbled forward, crashing into a wooden cabinet.
Relyn nocked her arrow again and shot the man in his lower back. Not quite a lethal blow, especially through nightsilk.
Something slammed into the side of Relyn's head, and she fell face forward toward the floor. An arm seized her from behind, and a needle pierced her neck. Searing pain followed, and her body went limp.
Her attacker—a black-clad Sile'zhar woman—turned Relyn around and lowered her against the nearby stone pillar. Relyn couldn't see the woman's face behind her mask, but she had an inkling...
The first Justicar pulled the arrow from his back and stepped toward Relyn with a raised blade.
"Leave her," the woman snapped in Valaysian.
The man hesitated. "Why?"
"Because she's my sister."
All around her, the others continued ransacking the apartment, emptying chests and flipping over tables.
"Thanks for the warning," Relyn muttered.
Rhia remained silent, not confirming or denying anything.
"You don't want them to know?" Relyn asked through gritted teeth. "Back in Tongshan, you called me the traitor. But you're the one fighting for a cause she doesn't believe in."
Rhia inclined her head. "That's not why we joined Trelidor. We did it for the future of our clan."
"That wasn't good enough for me." Relyn glanced out the tall glass window, and the flames that covered the city. “I'd rather die than win like this."
Rhia remained silent for several long seconds. More furniture crashed to the ground, and the explosions continued outside.
"It's not too late," Relyn said. "You can still turn your back on Trelidor. The others accepted me, and they took Ciena back after Dragonshard. They'll take you too. I know they will."
"Lady Vassaj," a gruff Valaysian voice shouted from the dining section of the apartment. Rhia spun around, and Relyn followed her gaze. She couldn't see much from this vantage, but she already knew what the man had found.
"Good work," Rhia said. "Now let's get out of here."
Footsteps sounded from the foyer, and several more Sile'zhar moved to investigate with raised weapons.
A second later, Ciena burst into the room with her crystal chain whip. The weapon moved on its own, striking her enemies like a scorpion's tail.
Relyn blinked as Ciena stepped into the apartment's main chamber. Blood covered her from head to heel, and five silver rings shone from her hand.
Slowly, Ciena turned to face Rhia who still held Raiden's Codex. Neither of them moved or spoke for several heartbeats.
Then Rhia turned and jumped out the window.