Ciena faced her enemy from across the crowded courtyard. The undead swarmed around them like feral dogs, clashing with the Templars on either side. Smoke blocked out the sky as rifles roared. Grenades exploded into darker clouds of smoke, shaking the ground beneath her boots.
Despite the chaos, Ciena only had eyes for her enemy.
Alexel Trelidor—the one who had started all of this. The tyrant who broke down the world and reshaped it to his will. Just like he'd done with her.
Her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths as she remembered the pain from Dragonshard. She curled her remaining fingers around Steelbreaker's hilt, clutching it for strength.
She was ready. She had to be ready. More than a decade of training had honed her body, mind, and soul for this single moment. That was the Justicar's way—they fought so that others could live in peace.
Alexel stood there for several heartbeats, unarmed amidst the battle. Then a vertical line of silver light split the air in front of them.
Despite all their haste, they were still too late.
Their eyes met across the battlefield, and a triumphant smile crossed Alexel's pale face. He reached out and grabbed the hilt of the crystal blade, angling at her like a promise of more pain.
Ciena stepped forward, forcing the fear aside. He was taunting her. That was his real strength—to break his enemy's will before the fight even began. A confident opponent wouldn't resort to such games. In fact, Alexel wouldn't have met them here outside the palace if he believed his shield would hold.
He's not invincible.
Still, Ciena's knees shook as she closed the distance. Despite all her preparations, she was more afraid now than she'd been two years ago. But of course she was. She'd climbed Dragonshard in a rage-filled haze, too young and foolhardy to understand true loss.
Elias stood beside her—a comforting presence she'd lacked before. She may not have her swordhand, but at least she had him.
Alexel said nothing as they moved to intercept each other. A symphony of shouts and blasts filled the surrounding battlefield, drowning out any words they might have spoken. Ciena let the Serenity Trance wash over her as well—catching her thoughts in a storm of perfect clarity.
Finally, she raised her crimson blade, and their weapons met.
Thane fell into a defensive stance with his arms stretched to either side. He conserved his own power for now—after everything he'd endured tonight, his reserves felt as barren as this part of the city. Instead, Thane raised his heatward as Ashara's attacks closed in. The flames surrounded him like a tornado, and he hurled them back across the courtyard.
Ashara kicked up snow as she dodged right, lashing out with more projectiles. Sweat rolled down Thane's forehead as the heat closed in. His muscles protested, and his arms shook as he focused on the surrounding ward. Still, he held his ground as they exchanged blows, neither gaining the advantage.
Unlike so many of Thane's opponents, he actually knew Ashara. Their father had made them spar for hours when they were younger. The late king had kept them so focused on each other—fighting for his praise and favor—that they never had time to rebel against him.
But he and Ashara had fought back. It hadn't been easy, but they'd eventually closed the wedge between them.
We can beat this too.
Ashara's next attack hit the street, sending a burst of broken cobblestones toward his face. Thane kicked from the ground, vaulting over the stone shards and meeting his sister head-on.
Their attacks clashed like two opposing armies, sending ripples of flame in every direction. Ashara's retinue staggered back, and shields of Moonshard erupted between them and the duelists.
Thane got closer until they were just a few paces apart. They circled each other, stepping over the sea of corpses and broken blades. Ashara hit him with everything she had, but Thane kept absorbing her blows, throwing them back as swiftly as they came.
Thane pushed off lampposts and statues, always moving, attacking from every angle at once. Ashara did the same—a perfect mirror of his own movements. Even now, after years apart, he knew all her tricks. He knew the arc of each attack and the power behind it. He knew when she would oppose his techniques, and when she would dodge.
Thane sent kinetic bursts into the enemy shield wall, hurling himself back and forth, rarely touching the ground. When it came to raw power, he knew he outclassed her. Ashara had specialized in dragon-based warfare as they grew older, while Thane had kept expanding his soul to hold more energy. He'd refined his techniques over thousands of hours, focused on large-scale destruction.
But was that enough? To strike her down would burn Thane's own heart to ash. Whoever won this fight would follow in Kalazhan's footsteps—just another pawn in fate's game. Thane saw himself in that pattern but seeing it wasn't enough. He couldn't escape it anymore than Ashara could break her own bonds.
Buildings caught fire on either side of the street as they fought. Windows shattered, and stones erupted in clouds of dust. All the while, the enemy waited behind their walls of crystal light.
Even if he were to incapacitate his sister, would it matter? Trelidor's Ethermancers wouldn't let them walk away. They would do as they'd done before. They would let him tire, then swoop in like vultures to destroy what remained.
Thane's next blast hit Ashara in the stomach. For a split-second, she looked ready to double over and collapse on the street. Then she drew in a deep breath, regained her footing, and fell back into her combat stance. Thane caught glimpses of scorched skin beneath her burned tunic and a flash of blood in the firelight. Then the skin reknit itself, and the pools of angry red became healthy bronze once again.
More of those Moonfire sigils. Either that or the Redeemers had already healed her.
Regardless, Thane didn't hesitate. For the first time since their fight began, he drew on his own reserves, pulling the last of the energy from his rings. The pressure built in his soul, then the palms of his hands. Finally, he shot several bolts of lightning across the street, each one colliding with his sister. The force of his attacks slammed her back against the nearest building. It still pained him to hurt her, but wounds could heal. He couldn't bring her back from the dead if this fight went too far.
Thane staggered forward, closing the distance. An idea took form in his head as he walked. He might still save Ashara without killing her, or without even removing her cuffs and collar. But it would take time, and—
Footsteps echoed behind him as the other Ethermancers approached. They'd been content to stand and watch before, but they had no intention of letting him win.
Blades of Moonshard followed a second later. Thane sent an explosion into the ground and propelled himself upward.
Another Redeemer formed a wall above his head, blocking his retreat. Thane sent another burst upward and hurled himself back into the fray. More crystal blades broke against his dragonbone breastplate. The armor didn't shatter, but the force of it knocked him back to the ground.
Thane tried to oppose their attacks, but he couldn't break them all. Experience and skill could make up the difference in many fights. But after a certain point, everything but raw power and numbers ceased to matter. Thane might have put up a better fight in ideal conditions. But in his exhausted state, with twelve against one, he'd never stood a chance.
Another attack sliced through his right leg where his armor was weaker. Thane collapsed on the street, and his Moonfire rings didn't heal the wound. They'd been drained, just like the pouch of empty crystals on his belt.
An enemy Sanctifier hit him with a wave of fire, and Thane drank the power into his soul. At least they were still feeding him more ammunition.
Unfortunately, the enemy seemed to realize the same thing. They stopped attacking from range, and three Justicars stepped forward instead.
Thane gritted his teeth and released the power he'd taken seconds before, sending a web of lightning in three different directions. The Justicars absorbed the energy as easily as Ciena would. They didn't even break stride as they raised their blades.
Damnit. Sanctifiers were the only Order with no defense against ordinary weapons. They knew that just as well as he did.
One cut and his story ended forever.
Thane gazed back at his sister, hoping to see some spark of recognition there. But Ashara's blue eyes were like chips of dark ice as she stepped forward to join them. Even Ciena hadn't been able to resist Trelidor on her own, and her will was stronger than any of them.
If Ashara were going to help him, she would have done it already.
He scanned the smoking rooftops, thinking he might see Relyn there, or Nahlia, or anyone. But Nahlia had gone to the palace, and Relyn would have avoided thoroughfares like this one.
Thane met his sister's eyes again and spoke from his barren throat, "I yield."
Ashara shook her head as if she'd been expecting that. "Trelidor doesn't need you alive. Not anymore."
"You're going to kill your own brother?" Thane demanded. She may not be herself right now, but any words were better than nothing.
Once again, Ashara looked at him with cold disinterest. "Of course not." She gestured to the masked figures who closed in around him. "They are."
The enemy Justicars didn't slow their pace or let the exchange distract them. They only raised their swords for the kill.
Ciena and her brother struck in perfect unison. Even when she couldn't see Elias, she felt his movements through the threads of their soulbond. When she swung high, he swung low. When she dodged left, he leapt to the right. Every swing was like a dance step, and they each knew their parts.
Still, Alexel reacted with impossible speed, blocking both their attacks at once.
Ciena fell into cobraform and made a low lunge toward his chest. Alexel raised his blade and redirected Steelbreaker so that it missed him by mere inches.
Elias swung in a wide arc from the right. Their opponent moved in a blur as he adjusted his grip and knocked Bloodsong back.
The impact sent her brother staggering.
Bloody hell. They were Justicars, but he still matched them in strength and speed. Two years ago, Ciena hadn't understood this. Now, it was clear as glass. He had Justicar techniques.
But how? Had he learned those from scratch, as the Cultivators had? Or had he crafted Justicar sigils into his rings?
Ciena couldn't say, and it didn't matter. He wasn't invincible.
She forced all doubts and questions from her mind, focusing only on the moment. The clash of their blades, and the intricate web of strikes and parries between them. She felt the cobbles shifting beneath her feet, and the way her boots kept traction against the ice and snow.
The Templars had all stepped aside to give the duelists room, but that space favored their enemy right now. As long as he had room to maneuver, they couldn't surround him. No matter how fast she and her brother moved, he was always one step ahead—always facing them both from the front.
We need to force him into a corner, Ciena thought. That, or a narrow space where he can't keep his distance.
Ciena ducked Alexel's next blow and took a swing at his legs. In the same moment, Elias attacked with an uppercut. Predictably, their opponent gave ground rather than trying to parry them both at once.
That was when Ciena saw the stone bridge, ten paces away. Like so many other bridges in Sunfall, it was long and narrow with the river raging below. If they could force Alexel that way, they could finally use their numbers to their advantage.
Ciena charged her opponent head-on, turning Steelbreaker into a chainwhip and striking in a blur. The crimson weapon flashed in the darkness like a flickering flame, and even Alexel struggled to block it.
He tried to raise several barriers of Moonshard between them, but Elias opposed them as quickly as they formed.
Alexel only fought faster, matching their speed with his own ferocity. This was nothing like the smooth elegance she remembered from Dragonshard. He was more desperate now. Maybe even afraid.
Eventually, Ciena broke her focus with the whip. Alexel put her back on the defensive with several quick slashes from his own silver blade.
No matter. They'd gotten him to the bridge.
Elias kicked off from the ground, launching himself over their opponent's head to get behind him. Ciena reshaped Steelbreaker into a full shield, pushing Alexel back the way one army pushes another.
They'd reached the center of the bridge now. Alexel ignored Ciena's shield and focused on her brother. The two exchanged several quick blows until Alexel conjured blades of Moonshard behind Elias.
The blades must have pierced the weak spots in her brother's armor because he staggered forward, gritting his teeth in pain.
Ciena tried to intervene but Alexel pulled the same trick on her. Fortunately, she felt the blades coming. She was faster than her brother at reshaping, and Steelbreaker became a shield behind her back.
Alexel seized his advantage against her brother and knocked him back with a powerful swing. Elias raised Bloodsong to parry, but his footwork was too weak. The force of the blow sent him stumbling to the side.
Their swords collided again. Elias still hadn't regained his footing, and the impact knocked him off the bridge.
Steelbreaker became a blade once again. Ciena fell back into cobraform and lunged at her opponent's exposed back. Her opponent spun around, and their weapons met several times until she was the one giving ground.
But as they fought, Ciena caught a flash of crimson behind her opponent. Elias had turned Bloodsong into a pair of climbing hooks, and he was almost back on the bridge.
Alexel didn't know Elias had survived the fall. Now, she just had to keep him distracted.
After several more quick exchanges, Alexel struck Ciena with an arcing blow from above. Ciena raised Steelbreaker to parry. It was a familiar move—one she'd done a thousand times before. Her muscles tensed as she braced for the impact, and she flared her Ironblood to strengthen them even further.
Alexel's blade vanished before their weapons met.
Before she could comprehend what was happening, her opponent reformed his blade on the other side of Steelbreaker. Her own body was too tense to react in time. With nothing to stop his blade, it clove straight through her armor, piercing skin, muscle, and bone.
Pain shot through Ciena's arm as history repeated itself once again. She watched in a daze as her left hand separated from her body. Steelbreaker clattered to the stone floor, and the hand itself fell from the bridge, plunging into the river below.
Her hand. Her only hand.
Alexel's blade hit the ground as he followed through on his swing. He swung again, aiming to cut her down in her moment of shock.
Elias leapt in to put himself between them, and Bloodsong caught the silver blade.
Ciena fell to her knees as her brother pushed Alexel back. Her Moonfire rings worked to reform skin around her bleeding stump. Now, her left arm was a perfect mirror of the right—broken and useless.
Now, when it mattered most of all, she truly had nothing left.