Aaron Cole followed his army through Midring. Clouds of dust swirled in the sky above, reflecting the orange flames from the battle below. Civilians clustered in their homes on either side of the street. Some only dared to peek out their windows. Others emerged from their front doors armed and ready for battle. They'd all heard whispers of a second revolution. Many of them had refused his call to fight, clinging to what little they had left.
But things changed when they finally saw the choice to fight laid before them.
There were no ranks of soldiers like in the old stories. No ... this felt more like the last human revolution—nothing but pure chaos to the untrained eye.
"We've already done this once," he'd told his officers before they left. "We can do it again."
Of course, that had been over two decades ago. A different age, and a different emperor.
Still, many of the tactics held true today. One minute, hundreds of his soldiers were jogging down a wide thoroughfare. The next minute, they broke into smaller squads, cutting through alleyways, flanking the enemy on the next street.
The Raider twins led the way up ahead, cutting down anything in their path. That included solid walls or stone blockades. Those crystal swords were like something out of a legend. Like so many other Aeon powers, Cole never would have believed them if he hadn't seen them with his own eyes.
The enemy threw hundreds of soldiers at the Raiders, and Cole suspected that many were Justicars in their own right. Still, their weapons broke against Steelbreaker and Bloodsong.
Yimo stood with the twins on the front lines, carrying a metal staff like Nahlia's. His had been severed into two smaller pieces which seemed to fit his short stature. The lad had good reflexes—as soon as someone yelled a warning, a wall of crystal light formed between them and the attackers.
Cole would have preferred Nahlia by his side, but he understood the need to divide their forces. Even if his army disconnected the shield's external power source, a short time window was the best they could hope for.
Only Nahlia could take over Palatine's Codex. For that to work, she had to be outside the palace when they broke the shield.
Unless that's what Rivian wants.
Cole pushed the thought from his head. Those pieces were already in place. No sense in wasting his energy on them now.
Focus on the shield, then the palace.
He and the others jogged behind the Raider twins until they finally regrouped with a larger force on Emerald Street. This was the most direct route to the district's northern half, and the Palavans held the high ground. Their crossbowmen and Sanctifiers waited behind a ten-foot barricade that stretched from one side of the street to the other.
Up ahead, the Raider twins looked ready to push on. His men probably would have followed them, too.
"Hold!" Cole shouted up to the front.
The army stopped moving, and Cole pulled out his pocket watch. Two minutes until midnight.
If Foster had found another way into the sewers, then this was perfect timing. If not, then this street would become a bloodbath for both sides.
"Move the riflemen to the front," he said to his nearest lieutenants.
The men carried his order to their sergeants a second later, and the troops shifted positions up ahead. A few bolts of lightning cut through the darkness as the enemy Sanctifiers tried to seize the advantage. Fortunately, Yimo and the Raiders remained on the front lines, absorbing the attacks.
Cole checked his pocket watch again. Twenty seconds.
He scanned the street up ahead, but there were no civilians in sight. That was one advantage of fighting at night, especially on a market street. They never would have risked this tactic during the day.
Several explosions sounded in rapid succession. The street caved in ahead of them, cobblestones separating like quicksand. The enemy barricade collapsed into the ground like a sinking ship, and the soldiers scattered to clear the blasts.
"Fire at will!" Cole said.
A storm of bullets and grenades tore through the chaos. A few enemy Sanctifiers survived the blast, but Cole's own Ethermancers were quick to engage.
His team continued through the trade district as Foster moved through the sewers beneath their feet. Templar sharpshooters emerged from the windows up above, striking from every angle. Cole's army had spent the past year in this city, familiarizing themselves with every back alley, tenement, and sewer tunnel.
The fighting went on for what seemed like hours. In reality, it took them less than forty minutes to get into the northern district.
The resistance only thickened as they drew closer to their goal. Until now, they'd fought only the local garrisons. But as they reached the power source, they faced Trelidor's most elite Ethermancers. These groups hid behind unbreakable walls of Moonshard as tight as any shield wall. Gaps appeared and vanished faster than he could blink, and glowing crystal blades emerged between them.
Cole remembered those blades. Trelidor had used them to decimate his forces in Dragonshard.
Bullets broke against the enemy shield wall as the Raiders worked to oppose the enemy's techniques.
It wasn't enough. Bullets were useless against Moonshard. His men had limited ammunition, and they couldn't waste it like this.
"Hold fire," he ordered after the last volley.
Cole aimed his own rifle at the attackers, looking for a weakness in the shield wall. There were none, of course.
"Tonight," Rivian had said, "the Templars will become the fourth Order of Ethermancers."
Could he help somehow? Could he aid Yimo and the Raiders in their battle of will?
It seemed absurd to perform Ethermancy on the same day he'd earned it. Some spent years working toward proficiency. But now they knew the truth of things—an Ethermancer's skill came directly from his soulbonds. The only limitations were the ones he built in his mind.
True, they grew stronger with training, but it wasn't like other skills. Many Ethermancers gained their strength in moments of desperation. Not just the Archaeons of the past, but many of the great Ethermancers of this age—Nahlia, Thane, and Ciena.
Why not him?
Why not now?
Rivian's voice continued to echo in his mind. "I will pass my power onto you. It's a power I share with Palatine—to awaken the strength in others."
Cole reached out with mental senses he hadn't known he had. He felt the minds of his soldiers as they fought—a sea of passion and struggle.
"You will do as you've always done. You will shatter walls and barriers."
Cole focused on the shields, willing them to break with all his might. He'd never done this, but he knew the theory. Ethermancers didn't hope for results, they expected them, as sure as they expected a slain enemy to fall. Some called it faith. Others called it strength of will.
That iron belief—combined with physical energy—powered their techniques.
A shield flickered out in the enemy line. The opening lasted only a split second, but that was still long enough for Elias to open the Redeemer's throat.
The riflemen readjusted their aim, filled with fresh resolve.
Cole broke another shield at the far end of the line. This time, his riflemen took the man down with a volley of bullets.
"You will topple empires and overthrow tyrants."
We can do this, he thought, echoing the speech he'd given his officers less than an hour before. This wouldn't be a repeat of Dragonshard two years ago. They were stronger now.
Cole and his men continued on, fighting with more skill and precision than he'd ever seen from soldiers. Like the Raider twins, every spearman and rifleman moved in perfect rhythm with one another—all united in a single purpose.
Finally, they reached the northern square. A three-story bank dominated the street ahead, and the power source waited somewhere inside. They'd probably locked it in a vault like the one Ashara had described in the palace. That would make things difficult, but not impossible. After all, they'd brought plenty of explosives.
The bank was the first thing that caught Cole's attention as they approached the square. He noticed the silence next. Unlike the other checkpoints, there were no soldiers or blockades impeding their path.
The Raiders must have thought the same because they slowed their pace up ahead. As the group crested the top of the street, he saw the sea of bodies between them and their destination.
Damnit. Cole's group hadn't been the first to arrive after all. The others all had orders to push through without him, and they'd failed.
Cole stepped to the front ranks beside the Raider twins. They each looked his way with uncertainty in their golden eyes.
The square sat silent for a long moment, then a sudden movement rippled through the sea. Bodies rolled over. Heads pivoted on half-broken necks, and fingers clutched fallen weapons.
Behind him, several spearmen staggered back. They hadn't been at the Battle of Dragonshard, but they'd all heard the stories. They knew what came next.
Elias and Ciena only raised their weapons, scanning the darkness up ahead.
A man stepped forward from the shadows, and the sea seemed to part for him as he walked. His black armor was as cold and sharp as his pale face. Long silver hair trailed behind him in the wind.
When he spoke, his voice filled every corner of the square. Cole felt it inside his own head—down to the marrow of his bones. His blood seemed to freeze, colder than the dead sea before them.
"Now," the man said, "doesn't this feel familiar?"
Alexel Trelidor stretched out his arms, and the dead rose around him.