Ash drifted around Thane as he knelt in the dark courtyard. The enemy Justicars closed in from every direction, raising their blades for the killing blow.
Then something changed. His surroundings grew even darker than before. Thane blinked up at the skyline where the dome of crystal light had once dominated the scene, tingeing the courtyard with shades of pale blue. Now, in place of the shield, he saw a cluster of domes and spires—black silhouettes against the night sky.
They did it. The palace was open.
Even now, beaten and surrounded, a glimmer of hope flared to life in Thane's chest. He and the others had come to Sunfall for a final stand. But deep down, a part of him had believed they'd fail.
The others hadn't given up, though. Thane felt their determination through the threads of their soulbonds. Even now, Relyn and Nahlia pushed forward into the palace, and the Raider twins engaged Trelidor in the streets.
This wasn't over yet. If Nahlia rewrote the Codex, they could end all of this.
Thane calmed his racing thoughts, bringing himself back to the moment. Think. What are your options?
His rings hung from his fingers, dead and empty, just like the pouch of crystals on his belt. Beyond that, the enemy Justicars approached with caution, giving him no speed to draw upon. No fires burned within his reach.
His rings were empty, but he still had the crystals themselves. Those were worth something to an Ethersmith. Only ... Thane had failed at Ethersmithing before. He'd been the only one of his friends to fail. The crystals had torn him apart from the inside, like a storm of fire bottled up in his soul. His body and mind rejected it, certain it would kill him.
At least now, there was nothing to lose. No life to gamble.
Thane reached out with his mental senses, feeling the rings on his fingers. Working quickly, he drew the first one into his soul.
Just like before, the power threatened to rip him apart. It was even stronger than that split second when he'd absorbed the bomb in Raidenwood. It took even more concentration than when he'd pulled the heat from the river.
And yet ... this wasn't entirely beyond his control. Thane couldn't reshape it, but that didn't mean surrendering to its power.
He clenched his jaw as he struggled to rein in the storm. He felt the same pain from his practice sessions, but it was nothing compared to the death that awaited him, or the sight of his sister under Trelidor's control.
The air shifted as the Justicars swung their blades. Thane's eyes snapped open, and he cast out his palms, releasing the power from his soul. Even now, he didn't surrender to the pain. If he had, the crystal would have returned to his rings. Instead, Thane drew on Kalazhan's rage, releasing it on his enemies.
Something bright white erupted from his palm. It wasn't a blade, or an arrow, or any other physical weapon. Instead, the crystal emerged in a blinding white flame. His opponent's blade shattered from the impact. Even the steel fragments burned away. The flame tore through his foes, burning away armor, muscle, and bone.
Even after ripping them apart, the fire continued, blasting a hole through the manor's wall behind them. Aegon. Even the hottest dragon fire couldn't do that. But this wasn't fire or heat. This was pure chaos and destruction.
Two more Justicars closed in on Thane. Their allies' deaths had stunned them, but only for a split second. Thane drew another ring into his soul, releasing the power in another blinding rush of power.
Once again, the attacks seared through his enemies, unopposed. This wasn't some Ethermancy technique that manipulated the world—this was Etherite itself.
The death of Etherite.
Ciena was right—nothing was truly indestructible.
Thane pulled more power as the Sanctifiers and Redeemers joined the fight. One by one, his rings vanished from his fingers, and he sent a storm through the square, engulfing them all. This new fire cut through them like a hot knife through butter. This was the power Lucan had warned Ciena about.
What had he called it?
The Sanctifiers fell as quickly as the Justicars. The Redeemers put up a better fight as they frantically raised their barriers of crystal light. True to its reputation, Moonshard could block anything. Even this. Still, they didn't hold out for more than a few seconds. Thane's attacks destroyed the ground beneath their boots, and they burned like the rest.
Only his sister remained—a single dark spot among the inferno he'd conjured. Their eyes met across the courtyard, but hers betrayed no reaction to the surrounding chaos.
Eventually, Thane's fire leveled several more buildings before it faded out entirely. When it did, Ashara ran forward and struck with a blast of ordinary flame.
Idiot, Thane thought as he redirected the blast. Did she want to die? Hadn't she seen what he'd done? Then again, maybe she wanted exactly that. Ciena had almost jumped off Dragonshard to be free of Trelidor. Ashara also wasn't herself—that much was clear.
Thane stepped through the ashes of the fallen, pulling power from the crystals they'd left behind. Then he attacked Ashara with a blast of kinetic force. She staggered back several paces but didn't lose her footing.
Thane limped forward, not much better off. His body burned with a hundred cuts and bruises, and pain shot up his right leg. He gritted his teeth and hurled another blast at her. This one sent her flying back into the nearest stone wall.
He reached out with his senses, trying to remove the collar from around her neck. It didn't work, of course. As with all Ethermancy, possession mattered. This crystal belonged to Trelidor. Or Ashara. Whatever the rules were, Thane couldn't destroy it the way he'd destroyed his own rings.
His last resort, then.
Thane extended his senses to his sister's soul. He couldn't touch her collar or the chains that bound her, but he could touch this. Elveron and Vaulden had done it to Nahlia. Thane had studied the technique after that night in Redcliff. He hoped he'd never have to do it to anyone, least of all his sister.
And yet ... he'd known this moment would come. And in the weeks between Raidenwood and today, he'd prepared for it.
Thane reached out and found the rings of his fallen opponents. Then, like a rushing river, the power flowed through his own soul and into Ashara's. Thane worked faster than the others had against Nahlia. He was more experienced than them, despite their age.
The edges of her soul began to crack as Thane forced more power through, not letting her release it. He didn't look at her face. If he had, his resolve might have broken.
Finally, Ashara's soul shattered like glass. He felt the emptiness as if it were his own. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and her legs buckled beneath her.
Thane staggered forward and caught her before her head hit the broken street. He held her there for several long moments, resting her head on his lap. She didn't open her eyes or try to speak, but she was still breathing. Still alive.
A part of him feared she'd gone into a coma, just like Nahlia had after the Battle of Dragonshard. Then she opened her eyes, two seas of bright blue against her soot-stained face.
"Thane," she blinked several times, seeming to finally recognize him. "I'm sorry, I—"
"It's alright," Thane said. "It's not your fault. Trelidor did this to you."
"Sure doesn't feel that way," she murmured. Her voice sounded dry, and she coughed several times. Thane wished he had some water to give her.
Ashara's hand found the collar around her neck, and her fingers searched for release. Her body stiffened when she found nothing.
"We'll get it off," Thane said with more conviction than he felt. He didn't know how, but one of the Raider twins might. They knew more about Ethersmithing than anyone in the group. Especially him.
Her hand fell from the crystal collar to the center of her chest. He could only imagine the emptiness she must have felt there.
"My Ethermancy," she said. "It's gone, isn't it?"
Thane nodded. "I didn't know what else to do."
Ashara gave a visible shudder. "A part of me was still in there somewhere. It was like watching a dream pass by." She trailed off, lowering her voice. "I thought for sure we'd kill each other."
"So did I," Thane admitted, his own voice just above a whisper now.
Ashara lifted her head, and he helped her sit up on her own. Her eyes flicked to him, then she seemed to notice their barren surroundings for the first time. Not only had Thane killed Ashara's companions, but he'd destroyed many of the surrounding buildings.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Soulfire," Thane said. That was the word Lucan had given Ciena when she asked how to destroy Etherite. Of course, Lucan had supposedly invented the name himself, but that hardly mattered.
Her eyes narrowed in confusion, and Thane glanced back at the palace behind him. Despite everything he'd already been through, his part in this battle wasn't over.
"We should get you to safety," Thane told her. "I need to—"
"No," Ashara interrupted. "I don't want to be alone."
Well, he couldn't deny her that. Not after she'd spent so much time here, alone in this city with him. "Can you stand?"
She looked down at his bleeding leg and forced out a small grin. For the first time that night, she looked like her old self again. "Better than you can."
Together, they struggled to their feet and took several steps toward the palace. If someone were to see them now, it would have been unclear who was supporting the other.
"You sure you can help them in your condition?" Ashara asked.
Thane remembered Cole's final warning, and he gave a slow nod. "I'm the only one who can."