Ciena stomped the snow from her boots as she entered the abandoned tenement building. Wooden boards covered every window, and most of the furniture was long-gone—probably stolen or burned for firewood.
Some golden age, Trelidor.
She summoned Steelbreaker as a blade, and the crimson light chased away the shadows. Relyn followed her through the door, nocking a crystal arrow in her bow.
Two weeks had passed since they'd first arrived in Sunfall. Some part of Ciena had expected the fighting to start as soon as they got here. No such luck. The Templars were still recruiting, setting traps, and capturing patrols throughout the city.
They seemed like smart preparations, judging by what Cole had said in the meetings. Still, time favored the enemy. Everyday was another chance for Trelidor to master Ethersmithing, or for his airships to bomb another city.
She'd never had to wait like this before. All her other fights had taken her by surprise. Now, every night felt like the eve of battle, and she hated that feeling. Bad enough they'd cooped her up in that airship for a week, making her pace the decks like a caged lion. Now she could barely leave the Templar's safe house.
Ciena still trained and studied her textbooks every day, but she'd never have her project ready in time. She'd already accepted that before she left Raidenwood. She'd have to fight Trelidor as she was, then hope to Aegon it was enough.
They climbed a creaking wooden staircase to the second level. There, a black-clad figure stood in front of another broken window, silhouetted in the evening light.
Rhia. As always, her black hair just reached her chin, and the yellow falcon tattoo covered half her face. A steel katana hung from her hip, and a few smaller blade hilts stuck out from her leather armor.
She'd thought about the other woman countless times in their years apart. Was Trelidor manipulating her now, the way he'd controlled Ciena in Dragonshard? The others had worn the same rings she had, after all. Although, that didn’t stop Dazen from switching sides after the battle.
Rhia tensed as Ciena crested the staircase, then she rounded on her sister. "You said you'd come alone."
"We are." Relyn lowered her bow and returned the arrow to its quiver. "It's just the three of us."
Rhia's pale green eyes darted back and forth between them.
"Relax," Ciena said. "I didn't come to put you in the infirmary."
To be honest though, she hadn't decided how to handle this yet. Relyn had spared her sister's life twice now, and both times had been a mistake. Whether or not that was Trelidor’s fault was irrelevant. She'd rather die than end up under his control again. Only seemed fair to extend Rhia the same courtesy.
Was that wrong? Dishonorable? Ciena couldn't say. For now, she'd do what she always did. She'd wait until the sand ran through in the hourglass, then do whatever felt right.
"You said you wanted to talk," Relyn said. "So, what do you want?"
Rhia hesitated. "What you said before—in Raidenwood—you were right. I can't make up for the things I've done, but—"
"Convenient," Relyn snapped back. "When did you decide this? After you destroyed Raidenwood, or after you gave Trelidor both Codices?"
Ciena nodded. She'd been about to ask the same question. Why now?
Rhia winced as if the memories of that burning city actually pained her. "I thought the fighting would stop once we took control. I was ready to destroy cities if I had to." She trailed off, then shook herself. "I thought we needed a strong leader to fix this world. I used to think people were weak if they couldn't do what it took to win."
Ciena raised an eyebrow. "Changed your mind, did you?"
"No." Rhia looked up and met her eyes. "I just realized something. I'd rather die opposing Trelidor than keep winning like this. As long as he rules, he'll never stop conquering."
"And our parents?" Relyn asked. "What do they think?"
"The same as before," Rhia admitted. "They want to stay on the winning side, and I can't convince them otherwise. Trelidor rewards loyalty, and he makes sure they profit from this war every day."
Rhia said that as if her parents were the only ones profiting here. As if she wasn't the next Ethersmith in line.
"Sorry," Ciena said. "But we're a little short on trust these days. Besides, how do we know he's not controlling you right now?"
Rhia held up both her hands, free of rings. "He's not controlling me, but I've seen what he's done to Ashara."
Relyn perked up at that. "Ashara's alive? When did you see her last?"
"Two days ago," Rhia said with a slow nod.
"Trelidor ... he gets in her head. He gives her commands, and she obeys them all." Rhia shuddered visibly, then shot Ciena another glance. "I didn't realize before ... this is what he did to you during the Clansmeet."
Anger flared in Ciena's chest and she stepped forward. "Wow. Not the sharpest chopstick on the table, are you? Didn't I tell you this two bloody years ago?"
“You did. Right before you knocked me unconscious.”
Relyn made a placating gesture between them. "You're in Trelidor's inner circle," she said to her sister. "If you really want to help us, then tell us something useful."
For once, Rhia didn't hesitate. "He knows you're in the city, and he's narrowed your position down to the Outer Ring, on the northeastern side."
Bloody hell. They'd tried to spread out their troops. Not enough, apparently. Far too many of their best Ethermancers were in that district, and one bomb could send them all to Eternity. They’d have to warn the others right after this.
"He's planning an attack," Rhia continued, "sometime in the next few days. He hasn't shared the details with me, but I think it will involve more black powder."
"There's more than twenty-thousand people in that district," Relyn noted.
"And if Trelidor destroys it," she countered, "then he can blame it on the Templars."
Aegon, but if that didn't sound just like him. The Templars would never destroy their own city, but Sunfall's population wouldn't know that. As far as they knew, this was Trelidor's city now, and Ciena's side were the invaders.
"And I also know he's studying Ethersmithing," Rhia went on. "It's all he ever does now. I haven’t seen his progress, but think he's planning something with the other Codices."
Ciena squeezed her hand into a fist. Fortunately, there were limits on how fast you could learn Ethersmithing.
Then again, since when did limits ever apply to Trelidor? He'd taken control of the Etherfall in a single night.
"Where's he keeping the Codices?" Ciena asked. Nahlia needed that information for her part of the plan.
"They're all in the palace vault," Rhia replied at once. "But you won't get that far unless you can open the outer shield.
"Right," Relyn said. "And we know that's powered by an external source, south of the palace."
"Actually," Rhia broke in, "it's north." She must have seen something in their expressions because she trailed off. "But you already knew that. You were testing me?"
Ciena nodded. "Lucky for you, you passed."
Rhia drew in a deep breath and continued. "There's also a redundant power source inside the palace, on the third floor. You'll need someone on the inside to disable it."
Once again, that aligned with everything Cole had said.
"You offering?" Ciena asked. Even after Cole fled the palace, he'd left several other Templars undercover there. They all had orders to attack the third floor once the fighting broke out. Unfortunately, that had always been their plan's weakest link. How far could a few dozen Templars get against Ethermancers?
"I can't make any promises," Rhia said. "But I figure I can probably make it farther than anyone else. Just tell me when."
Ciena glanced at Relyn who shook her head. Rhia could act all sweet and sincere, but they weren't to feed her a single crumb on the eve of battle.
"We'll take all the help we can get," Ciena said, "but we can't tell you when."
She frowned. "The shield won't drop unless both power sources are disconnected. If I don't know when you're attacking the other—"
"You'll know," Ciena broke in. "Trust me. Sunfall might be miles wide, but this fight won't be quiet. When we come for Trelidor, the whole city will know."