Thane jogged through the streets with Nahlia by his side. They'd met another group of Templars along the way, and now several squads followed them through the palace district. Cramped streets and tenements gave way to towering mansions as they ran. Iron lamps lined the street on either side, casting their crystal light on the snow-covered cobbles.
He and Nahlia faced sparse resistance along the way. Some might have called that good luck, but Thane knew better. If Trelidor didn't bother defending the palace, that meant he was confident in his shield. That, or he had a trap waiting for them.
If not both. Vauldenport had seemed easy, and that had ended with half their Ethermancers dead.
Thane's first suspicion was confirmed when they reached the main thoroughfare. The shield glowed in a massive crystal dome above the skyline, taunting them with its indestructible light. Seven stories high, it was the largest sigilcrafted construct he'd ever seen.
Cole's group will take it down, Thane tried to reassure himself.
It didn't work, of course. So much about this plan hinged on faith and prayers. But even if Cole's army failed, there might still be other ways inside. All Ethermancy could be opposed—even sigils. Though in this case, it might take hundreds to overwrite this shield. Growing up in Dragonshard had given Thane an advantage in this area. He may not be an expert like his aunt Avelyn, but he knew more about sigils than anyone else in their group.
They passed under a stone archway, and the next few steps were a welcome relief from the wind. Up ahead, the thoroughfare widened for the final stretch into the palace. But as they stepped back into the street light, an army of enemy soldiers blocked their path.
Thane stopped running, and Nahlia and the Templars came to a halt behind him. As his eyes adjusted to the street ahead, he saw the truth.
An army of corpses stood before them. They wore the gray leather of fallen Templars, and their skin sported hundreds of red cuts and burns. Some carried rifles, but they made no effort to use them. Others wielded steel sabers, and these charged Thane's group like a pack of feral wolves.
Nahlia reacted first, raising her staff and conjuring a wall of Moonshard between them and their attackers.
Shrieks followed as more undead poured out from the manors on either side. Thane fell into his combat stance and pulled a burst of energy from his rings. Then—by some unspoken agreement between them—Nahlia lowered the first shield and conjured two more to guard their flanks. At the same time, Thane's flames shot out in front of them, bright white like a furnace. The force of his attack knocked them from their feet, turning them to ash before they hit the ground.
"Behind us!" someone yelled.
Thane whirled to see more undead pouring out of the tunnel. And just like that, his second suspicion came true.
"Pick your targets," a sergeant ordered. "Aim for the eyes."
The Templars lined up and released a storm of bullets. Several corpses collapsed before they reached the line. Cole had prepared them well, but bullets weren't enough to stop these things. For every one that fell, a dozen more broke through, assaulting the line.
"Keep moving!" Thane shouted to Nahlia over the confusion.
Steel bolts rained from above as crossbowmen revealed themselves in the windows. Cries of pain followed as more Templars fell.
Nahlia propelled both her barriers outward, and the corpses staggered back like falling dominos. Thane pushed his way through the crowd to reach the next wave. One bolt ricocheted off his helmet as he ran. Another struck his left shoulder, but it failed to puncture his dragonscale armor.
The Templars parted with raised shields, all too eager to let him through.
He released a burst of flame to their left, turning more of their attackers to ash. Blood and steel blurred at the edges of his vision as an equal number of Templars fell.
He whipped around to face Nahlia again. She struggled to hold three separate barriers as she fought—two with her own power, and one from her staff which floated in the air above her.
"Go!" he shouted back to her. "Get to the palace. I'll handle them."
Nahlia gritted her teeth as she met his eyes. For a second, she looked ready to object, then seemed to think better of it. She'd fought these things in Dragonshard. She knew they didn't die from ordinary bullets or blades.
No ... only fire could cleanse this taint.
Finally, she gave Thane a nod and redirected her shields forward, plowing through the enemy like snow. The Templars needed no encouragement to follow. Sergeants echoed Thane's order to push toward the palace, and the army followed Nahlia down the thoroughfare.
Thane moved in the opposite direction, releasing his power in earnest. Swirls of orange and red blocked his vision, and the destruction sent clouds of smoke into the air. The next few minutes became a blur as Thane destroyed swarm after swarm.
But still, they kept attacking in a mindless horde, throwing themselves into the furnace. Once their troops had reached relative safety, it didn't take long for the chains of dread to tighten around Thane's chest.
A group of powerful Redeemers and empaths must be controlling these things. But why would they keep throwing away troops? Why not go after Nahlia and the Templars? Better yet, why not go straight to the palace and surround them there?
The answer came to him a second later. They'd sprung this trap to separate Thane and Nahlia. These corpses weren't meant to kill him—only to distract and weaken him.
At some point, the tide finally ceased. Ash and broken blades littered the street around his boots. Thane scanned the surrounding buildings, looking for another sign of his enemies. The only sound was the crackling flames.
Thane kept up his heatward along with bursts of kinetic energy to keep the smoke from his face. Still, no one came, and his brain took that as permission to stop standing. Waves of exhaustion sent him to his knees, and his heartbeat echoed inside his ears.
The battle had only begun, and he'd already pushed himself so far. Thane's own father had been a terror on the field, and his soldiers whispered how he never tired. Thane's instructors had drilled this into his head whenever he'd asked for a break.
Now, Thane wondered how true those stories were. He was far stronger now, and he'd probably faced more foes than all the other Solidors in recent memory. For all that, this part never got easier.
He shook his head to snap his focus back into the moment. Keep moving. Find Nahlia.
A layer of sweat dripped from his forehead and he wiped it dry on his sleeve. His knees shook as he forced himself to his feet. As he did, several dark figures emerged from the curtain of smoke.
Redeemers, with their long robes, Palavan complexions, and bone-white hair.
Justicars, clad in Sile'zhar nightsilk from head to heel.
Sanctifiers, pushing away the fire and smoke with every step.
A fresh wave of adrenaline raced through his veins as he took in the sight of so many Ethermancers.
Aegon, he couldn't take them all. Perhaps Ciena could have done it—she'd survived that ambush in the Raidenwood dungeons. But Ciena Raider was a force of nature with her shapeshifting blade. Thane was still an exceptional Ethermancer in his own right, but that meant little in this age of living legends.
Thane forced himself to stand tall, but his eyes scanned the surrounding rooftops, looking for an escape.
Just then, another figure caught his eye in the street ahead. A young woman—a Sanctifier, judging by how the elements parted to form her path. Her pale blue eyes flashed in the darkness, and curls of thick raven hair fell around her shoulders.
His younger sister stepped forward as her black tunic billowed in the night wind. She inclined her head, revealing a leather collar around her neck. At least, it looked like leather, but Thane also spotted the faint glow of Etherite beneath.
His eyes burned at the sight of her half-dead expression. She saw him, but she also looked through him like a pane of glass. Trelidor could show her anything right now, the same way he'd shown Ciena those visions at the Clansmeet and made her kill her own parents.
"Ashara?" Thane removed his helmet and tossed it aside on the street. "It's me—your brother."
She scoffed at him, eyes narrowing. "I'm not blind, Thane. I can see your face."
The chains tightened even harder around his lungs. Ashara had still seemed like herself when they last talked, but that was months ago. Aegon only knew how much Trelidor had sunk his claws in her since then.
"What happened?" he asked her.
"You know what happened." Ashara spit out her words as she closed the distance between them. "You left me with him."
Thane stiffened. The adrenaline fled his limbs, leaving his blood as a frozen river.
"You left me with the man who killed our father and destroyed our home. You traded me for an airship." She took another step forward and sparks flashed between her fingertips. "Was it worth it?"
Thane clenched his hand into a fist to keep it from shaking. No. He hadn't traded her for anything. Ashara had chosen to go to Sunfall. This had been her contribution to the war, and they'd accomplished so much in the two years that followed. To blame him was to cheapen her own sacrifice. The real Ashara would have seen that, but this wasn't her. Just like Thane hadn't been himself that night in Dresten. Unseen hands of fate moved them, and Trelidor knew how to push people to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors.
And Sanctifiers destroy out of rage.
It was a flaw they'd inherited from Kalazhan—through his Codex. They'd never seen the artifact itself, but it sent ripples throughout the Ethereal, touching the minds of all his descendants.
"Was it worth it?" Ashara demanded again.
Thane couldn't answer that. As a leader, he didn't know if any of his choices were right or wrong. But standing there, watching her suffer in Trelidor's grasp, nothing else mattered. He'd lost his only sister—probably forever.
Elias had saved Ciena, but she only wore a single ring. In addition to Ashara's collar, Thane also spotted cuffs around her wrists—more leather bands with unbreakable crystal beneath.
"I'm sorry this happened to you," Thane finally said.
What would a good and noble ruler have done differently? He couldn't answer that either. All the good rulers were dead.
"I'm sorry too," Ashara said in a mockery of her own sarcastic smile.
No more words passed between them. The sparks became flames in her hands, and she charged forward.