Thane was sipping his evening coffee when he heard the commotion outside. A little noise was hardly rare at this hour, especially for a city on the brink of war. Even so, he got up to investigate—mostly because Relyn still hadn't returned from her meeting across the city.
After climbing the ladder in the backroom, he pushed open a wooden hatch and emerged on top of the Templars’ hideout. From here, he had an unobstructed view of their surroundings.
An icy wind blew through the Outer Ring, and workers shuffled down the street with their heads bowed against the snow.
Nothing out of the ordinary, and no sign of the commotion he'd heard before. Maybe he'd imagined it? Or maybe he'd felt it through his soulbond with Relyn?
Thane was about to contact her when a flash of red caught his eye. He snapped his head up toward the wall that separated the Outer Ring from Midring.
A figure slid down the stone face, using a glowing red claw to slow her fall. Sparks trailed behind her like a falling meteor.
Thane charged forward, leaping off the roof and landing in a pile of snow. He turned around to face Casek—an older Templar who'd disguised himself as a beggar while he stood watch.
"Get everyone up!" Thane told him. "Now."
The man moved with surprising swiftness as he darted down the alley.
A second later, Ciena kicked off from the wall, not breaking stride as she raced along the rooftops. Thane rushed into the street to intercept her.
"They're flooding the Outer Ring!" she shouted in his direction, not slowing before she ran toward the hideout.
What? Thane glanced back up toward the top of the wall. As his eyes finally adjusted to the night, he saw Relyn wielding a bow with a glowing jade arrow. He followed the arrow's intended target and saw more figures with a crate.
"Get Nahlia and Yimo!" he hollered back to Ciena.
She kept running toward the hideout, giving no indication she'd heard him.
Thane turned his attention back to Relyn.
'Get out of there,' he tried to say through their bond. Trelidor's followers served him with religious zeal. If they wanted to set off that bomb, Relyn couldn't stop it.
The enemy retreated, sending a blast of fire in their wake.
Light filled Thane's vision as the bomb exploded. Fire and smoke shot out in all directions, and stone fragments crashed into nearby buildings.
Thane widened his stance, bracing for the river's impact. He'd stopped a bomb back in Raidenwood. He could stop a river too. Water wasn't energy, but it needed heat to move.
The water burst through the opening, far faster than he'd imagined
He reached out with his mental senses, pulling the heat from the river as it surged forward. Chunks of ice crystallized in the fray, shattering against rooftops as they fell.
Thane didn't think about Relyn or whether she'd survived the blast. It was him against the current now, and a lapse in focus might mean death. Not just for him, but for everyone in this district.
More ice formed around the opening as he pulled the heat away. For all his efforts, the river raged on, pouring out through the cracks. It struck his face a second later, knocking him off his feet. The cold engulfed him as the world blurred to blackness. Thane had grown up in a coastal city, and he was no stranger to the water. Still, this was worse than any current he'd ever faced.
The force of it pushed him farther back until he slammed against a brick building. Doors and windows shattered from the impact, and turrets of ice shot through his nostrils and down his throat.
Thane found his footing, and he sent a burst of kinetic force into the ground. He spun through the air and landed on the rooftop behind him.
"Thane!" a woman's voice shouted his name.
He turned to see Nahlia jumping between rooftops, making her way toward him. Yimo followed close behind, and more Templars began clearing out of the hideout.
"This way," Thane hollered back. He jumped off the building, freezing the water beneath his boots, and using a portion of the heat to warm his body. By now, the current had weakened as the river spread through the district. Unfortunately, that wouldn't last long. Cracks formed in the ice above as the river tried to escape in earnest.
Thane moved toward the opening, freezing more ice with every step. Nahlia and Yimo caught up to him a few seconds later, and they raised the metal staves they'd taken from Varion.
No sooner had they reached the gap than the ice shattered, releasing another surge of water.
Nahlia and Yimo raised their staves in unison. Two walls of crystal light met at an angle, extending below the water's surface, and rising dozens of feet into the air. More water continued flowing from the gap, filling the enclosure like a massive tank.
"Hold it there," Thane told them. "As long as you can." He spread out his hands and began freezing the water as it gathered.
The Raider twins joined Thane when they finally caught up. Sanctifiers were the best at absorbing heat, but any skilled Ethermancer could do it. And thank Aegon for that. If Thane had to move all this heat himself, he'd be useless in the coming battle.
Eventually, the ice reached the opening, and the river's pressure waned. Nahlia and Yimo dropped their barriers, and the resulting ice structure was taller than anything else in the district.
Thane dropped to his knees, and the frozen island shifted beneath his weight.
More Templars waded out from the surrounding hideouts, carrying crates of weapons above their heads. Finally, Thane saw the real tactical advantage of Trelidor's plan. Even if the river failed to kill his enemies, their black powder weapons wouldn't work. They'd be—
A chorus of bird-like shrieks followed, and a flight of dragons flew down from the night sky.
Thane rose to his feet, gasping for breath so he could warn the others.
Too late. The enemy dragons swooped into the Outer Ring, and their riders hit the water with bolts of lightning.
Rhia Vassaj made her way toward the shield's power source. Barely an hour had passed since her meeting with Relyn and Ciena, and the fighting had already begun.
At first, Rhia had assumed the Templars struck the first blow. Indeed, the palace guards confirmed her suspicion as she passed through the shield. They claimed the Templars had destroyed a wall between Midring and the district below. They'd been making smaller attacks for the past few months, and this was the natural escalation.
But if that story was true, the Templars would have attacked their own hideout.
No ... Trelidor did this. Once again, he'd attacked thousands of innocents for a chance to crush his enemies. But no one outside his inner-circle would see the truth. They wouldn't even question it.
Relyn and Ciena didn't believe her when she said she wanted to change sides. Rhia probably deserved that. She'd stolen Raiden's Codex and let hundreds die in Raidenwood. For Aegon's sake, she'd almost killed her own sister back in Valaysia.
Shiban. How did this happen? When did she end up on the wrong side of this war?
But she already knew the answer. It started that night in Tongshan, five years ago when her parents swore their allegiance to Trelidor. If Rhia were smarter, she would have left with Relyn and her uncle. But Trelidor had promised to make her one of the strongest Justicars alive, and she couldn't refuse.
The funny thing was, he’d kept his promise. He'd given her all the power she wanted. It reminded Rhia of the famous Valaysian curse:
'May you find the power you seek.'
But it was too late to take it back. Now, if she died here tonight, they would never know—
Rhia froze when she rounded the corner outside the vault. Dozens of bodies lay scattered there, staining the marble floor with their blood. They all wore the uniforms of palace guards and workers.
She drew her blade from its scabbard as she stepped forward. Up ahead, a squad of guards piled more bodies unceremoniously onto a luggage cart.
"What happened here?" Rhia demanded.
"Lady Vassaj." The soldiers straightened as she approached. "This group tried to ambush us."
"Templars in disguise," another man clarified.
Rhia frowned down at the bodies, noticing their firearms and explosives for the first time. Shiban. She'd known the Templars had spies in the palace, but this many? If the guards weren't Ethermancers, they might have had a chance.
"I'll need to examine the vault," Rhia told them. "Make sure the power source is secure."
The officer hesitated. "They never broke through the first door, Lady Vassaj."
"Thank you," Rhia said, "but I'll see for myself."
Another pause. "I only have the key for the outer door. My commanding officer has the other."
"Not anymore." Rhia reached into her belt pouch and produced a long silver key.
The guards unlocked the first door and pulled it open for her. Rhia stepped inside and let them close it behind her. From there, she walked through the dimly lit antechamber and pierced the second door with her silver key. Knowing the Templars, they'd meant to blow open both doors with explosives. That might have worked on the outer door, but the inner door was made of twice-tough stone—as unbreakable as the walls of Raiden's tomb. Even if they'd killed the guards outside, they still would have failed their mission.
A burst of old air sighed through the gap as Rhia pushed the set of stone doors apart. The vault was barely big enough to hold two people, and a steel pillar filled the room, extending from the floor to the ceiling. Bright white light shone from within the gaps, revealing the Etherite within.
Rhia raised her blade as she approached. She couldn't touch the pillar itself, but it had one weakness—the spot where the six wires met the ceiling. if she cut those wires, then the pillar would cease to power the shield. The Templars would still need to destroy the second power source, but they'd have a clear shot to the palace after that.
Rhia raised her sword and prepared to swing. Her blade wasn't Etherite, but she'd sharpened it this morning. This shouldn't take more than—
The outer door swung open behind her.
Rhia's body reacted on instinct, spinning to face the intruder.
Alexel Trelidor stood in the arched doorway, wearing black armor from head to heel.
Rhia swallowed and scrambled for an excuse. "I—"
Alexel kept his face blank as he strode through the antechamber. His steps echoed in the small space, sending shivers down her spine. When he finally spoke, his voice filled every crack and crevice of the room, "You know, you've always been a terrible liar."
Rhia clutched her weapon and took several deep breaths. Even as her heart raced in her chest, she found the clarity of the Serenity Trance. She let it guide her as she turned and swung. Time slowed as the blade cut through the air, severing the first few wires above the pillar.
Like so many others in this war, Rhia never saw the blade that pierced her. In the same moment she struck the wires, a line of hot pain sliced through her spinal cord. A fire spread through her body, consuming everything she had left.
Worst of all, her arm froze before she reached the final wire.
As long as that wire remained, the shield would hold.
Rhia stumbled forward, dropping her sword and collapsing on the marble floor. She couldn't feel her arms or her legs. Just the pain of the open wound. Blood dribbled down her chin, gathering in a pool around her cheek.
Trelidor loomed above her, and his crystal blade vanished as quickly as it appeared. He'd learned Ethersmithing, then. She never had a chance to warn Ciena.
He knelt down on the floor beside her, turning her head to face his. More blood gathered in her throat, and she couldn't breathe.
"Don't worry," Trelidor said in a softer voice. "No one needs to know about this betrayal. I'll tell your parents you died defending the empire."