A dragon swooped over the rooftops, raining fire on the fleeing Templars. Nahlia aimed her staff at the creature and sent a burst of energy through her fingertips, activating the weapon's top sigil.
Blades of Moonshard shot out from the end, tearing over the battlefield in streaks of blue light. Her attack cut through the dragon's left wing, and the creature let out a bird-like screech as it plummeted toward the ground.
The rider tried to kick off from his falling mount and continue fighting. Before he could, Elias turned Bloodsong into a javelin and speared the man through the chest.
Chaos filled the Outer Ring as more people fled from their burning homes. Dozens of soldiers waded through the water, pushing aside floating corpses. Some took shelter on the rooftops, but that still left them exposed to the dragons.
Less than ten minutes ago, she and Elias had been relaxing together in the Templar's hideout, believing they'd be safe for the next few days.
Now, nowhere in this city was safe.
She tried to make her way back toward her friends, jumping from one rooftop to another. Her vision flashed between white and black as the enemy's attacks broke up the darkness. Explosions of black powder echoed in rapid succession, leaving her ears ringing.
She tried to line up another attack with her staff, but it was no use from this distance. Her head spun, unable to tell friend from foe. Only the distant glow of red blades told her Elias and Ciena were still fighting across the street.
Lightning flashed to her left as a dragon rider attacked. Thane stretched out his arm from another rooftop, drawing the bolt to his open palm.
A second dragon swooped toward a crowded rooftop, bathing the army with red flame. A shield of Moonshard sprouted at the last moment. It was probably Yimo's staff, but she couldn't see him from this vantage.
Yimo dismissed the shield just as the rider corrected his course. Ciena lashed out with her whip, catching the dragon by its talons and reeling it in. A few more strikes from Steelbreaker, and the mount and rider stopped moving entirely.
Up above, Thane's ice tower stood tall and unbroken, reflecting the fires on its crystal surface. It wouldn't stay solid for long, though. A few well-planned strikes from the enemy could send the whole thing toppling over, releasing the water yet again.
Aegon. They had to get out of here, but the Templars had no order. They couldn't even move freely, much less form ranks and attack the gate toward Midring. If not for the Ethermancers on their side, they might already be dead.
More dragons swooped down from the sky—at least a dozen of them. Trelidor must have sent all the riders he had, hoping to end this fight in a single—
Nahlia paused as a black-clad form leapt from the darkness.
She tried to aim her staff at the man, but he sprang forward with Justicar swiftness. His katana knocked her weapon aside, and his dagger leapt toward her face.
Nahlia dropped the staff and fell into Moonform. Her left arm blocked the attack, forming a barrier of Moonshard between her wrist and the blade. She raised her right hand and conjured a wider blade of crystal light.
The Sile'zhar dodged to the side. At the same time, an arm coiled around Nahlia's neck and a blade of cold steel pricked her throat.
She froze, ready to raise her hands in surrender. The second assassin ignored her and sliced the blade across her windpipe. Nahlia's eyes went wide in shock. Her body felt numb and distant, save for a single line of burning pain.
Just as the world began fading to black, Varion's rings sent a burst of Moonfire toward the injury. Muscle and skin healed themselves. Her vision cleared, and feeling returned to her limbs.
Behind her, the assassin muttered something in Valaysian as she loosened her grip on Nahlia's neck. Even the male Sile'zhar shifted his attention toward her fallen staff. They thought they'd won.
Nahlia seized the distraction, grabbing the woman's arm and twisting her own body to throw her over her shoulder. The woman dropped her dagger as she fell, and it clattered farther down the roof.
The male Sile'zhar spun to face her.
Two months ago, Nahlia would have hesitated, looking for a way to defuse the situation. But hesitation meant death. If her mother hadn't drilled that lesson into her, these last few seconds certainly had.
She pressed her hand to the fallen woman's eye and sent a blade of Moonshard through her skull. Then she reached out an arm, using Ethersmithing to retrieve her staff. The weapon slid across the roof tiles and flew toward her.
Her opponent swung his blade just as the staff landed in Nahlia's hand. She adjusted her grip and activated the top sigil. A flurry of blades emerged from the tip, cutting through the assassin's chest. He fell backward, splashing into the water below.
Footsteps echoed on the rooftop behind her. Nahlia spun around, preparing her staff for another attack.
Instead of another masked assassin, her target was a messenger boy who raised his hands in surprise.
Nahlia let out a breath and lowered her weapon.
The boy seemed even more relieved as he spoke, "N-Nahlia Cole?"
"What is it?" The battle still raged around them, and she had to shout back.
"The Knight Commander sent me to get you."
Nahlia nodded and gestured for him to lead the way. As they walked, she raised a hand to her windpipe where the blade had cut her. The skin had healed, but the blood was still wet and warm.
Aegon. Two years ago, she'd thought Trelidor was a monster for surviving such wounds. When had she become that person? And how was she so calm? Somehow, the feeling of invincibility overshadowed the shock of near death.
Their route took them away from the fighting as they climbed over several more rooftops. They had to cross the street at one point, but most of the water had flowed elsewhere. Here, it only came up to her ankles.
At one point, Nahlia knelt down and grabbed a handful of water to wash her neck. It seemed like a silly thing to worry about, but she didn't want her father to know how close she'd come to dying. Aegon knew he had enough on his mind.
Finally, the boy led her up a stone staircase into a rundown tenement building. Puddles covered the wooden floorboards, and clusters of soaked civilians huddled in every corner of the first few rooms.
Voices echoed from a well-lit room at the end of the hall. Inside, Nahlia found Thane, her father, and half-a-dozen of their officers gathered around a wooden table.
No sooner had Nahlia entered the room than Marabella Lawguard appeared in the opposite doorway. Her father gave her a quick nod then turned to his Spymaster.
"The enemy has blocked every exit to this district," she said to the room in general.
"How long until we can break through?" her father asked.
"The Raider twins are leading several squads. Yimo went with them. They should have it open within the next few minutes."
"Trelidor will have planned for that," he said. "He'll have reinforcements beyond the gate."
"I have five-hundred more troops who can flank them on Emerald Street," a dark-haired officer spoke up from her father's left.
"Good. Once we have the bulk of our troops in Midring, we can move north as planned." He turned to the man on his right—Nahlia thought his name was Foster. "You'll take your men into the sewers, and—"
Foster cleared his throat. "Your pardon, Knight Commander, but the sewers will be flooded."
"Damnit, you're right." He let out a long breath and considered "You know the maps, so you'll have to improvise. Find the safest route you can, but I want those streets collapsed at both checkpoints."
He continued addressing the officers around the table, taking no more than ten seconds per person. Clearly, those meetings over the last month had paid off because everyone seemed to understand their role.
Once her father had dismissed all the others, he turned to face Nahlia and Thane.
"I went into the Ethereal," he told them. "just before the fighting started."
Nahlia's eyes widened at that. "So it worked?"
He nodded. "Just like we thought it would. I'm an Aeon now."
Her father had already made copies of his notes several days before, and he'd sent them away with the Raptor's Claw on their last supply run. Even if they lost tonight's battle, the secret was out forever.
"But that's not the important part," he continued. "Rivian came to me while I was dreaming. She said—" Another explosion sounded outside, shaking the building on its foundation. He shook his head and continued quickly, "I think we're playing into her hands. Whatever we're doing with Palatine's Codex, it's what she wants."
"Wait," Nahlia said, "you met an Archaeon too? Treluwyn said they couldn't speak to the living."
She only used the name 'Treluwyn' for lack of a better alternative. By now, they all knew she'd spoken with someone else the night she'd died.
"If Rivian's still alive," Thane mused. "Then she's not bound by the same rules as the others. This is what Treluwyn warned us about." He turned to face her father. "Did she say what she wanted?"
He shook his head again. "She wanted to give me Ethermancy. I refused, but she didn't give me much of a choice. She wants us to succeed against Trelidor, and that makes me question the entire plan."
Nahlia shivered. He was telling her this now? The plan had seemed impossible before. Not only did she and Thane need to enter the palace and find Palatine's Codex, but she had to replace the avatar inside of it. As far as she knew, no one but Lucan had ever done that.
"Your telling me this isn't enough?" Nahlia said. "That even if I rewrite Palatine's Codex, I might make things worse?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "For now, this plan is the best we have, and I think we should stick with it." He glanced back and forth between them. "But don't get tunnel vision. If another option reveals itself, then I want you to consider it."
"Knight Commander!" Mara called to her father from the doorway. "We've broken through the first gate."
"I'll be right there," he hollered back.
Her father pulled her close and kissed her forehead. Nahlia hugged him back, squeezing so hard, it would have crushed a smaller man.
"Be careful," he said when they finally pulled apart. "Both of you."
Then, after several seconds of hesitation, he grabbed his rifle from the corner and followed Mara out toward the street.
And just like that, he was gone. Whether they won or lost this battle, she might never see him or Elias again.
Nahlia pushed down the feelings before they could take root. Every soldier here had left loved ones behind. She was hardly an exception, and she couldn't let it distract her.
Speaking of loved ones. ... Nahlia spun to face Thane. "Relyn. Is she..."
"Relyn's alright," Thane answered at once. "We spoke a few minutes ago through our bond. She's heading to the palace now, and she'll meet us there."
Nahlia nodded. Relyn would be safer on her own, anyway. At least that way, she could move without being seen.
"Are you ready?" Thane asked.
Nahlia wasn't ready, but she nodded anyway. They all knew this would happen when they left Raidenwood. Victory was nothing but a distant dream, but they had no choice but to try.
She and Thane stepped out into the street, far away from anyone else. Thane planted his feet into a wide stance, and Nahlia conjured a perfect sphere of Moonshard around them. Then, still holding the sphere in place with her mind, she wrapped her arms around Thane's chest.
His breathing grew steady as he drew in power from his Etherite rings. Finally, he sent an explosion into the ground, propelling them up and over the wall.