Nahlia watched the ancient palace crumble as Thane's fire consumed it from within. Stone walls turned to dust, glass windows shattered, and the golden domes toppled into the river below. Each broken layer revealed another glimpse of the structure's burning core, brighter than any furnace.
Her mother stood opposite her inside the Moonshard barrier, not turning to face the inferno at her back. Instead, she kept her palms pressed against the shield, feeding it with her strength of will.
Nahlia held her mother's gaze, pressing her own hands to the shield's exterior.
Lyraina's eyes flicked to someone over her shoulder, and Nahlia felt another Aeon approach. The sensation felt strange and familiar all at once.
Aaron Cole stepped forward to stand beside her on the stone bridge. Blood and ash covered every inch of him, from his gray leather armor to his pale skin. He gave her a reassuring nod as he pressed his own hand to the barrier.
Lyraina's blue eyes met his. Even as the fires spread, she held his gaze in a silent farewell. If any last words passed between their soulbond, Nahlia didn't hear.
By now, Thane's Soulfire had doubled in size, swirling around the broken palace like a massive tornado. Despite the pure white flames, the inferno twisted in lines of color, showing flashes of the other realms. Each one was like a rip in a plain canvas, revealing a painting beneath. She saw the Ethereal with its twice-bright stars and violet sky. She saw glimpses of another world too—sharper and more vibrant. Eternity?
Two black-clad figures stood in the heart of the storm. Nahlia couldn't make out their features from this far, but she knew it was Thane and Relyn.
The pair vanished a heartbeat later, and the fire stretched out to consume her mother next. Lyraina let go of the shield and took a deliberate step backward, passing into that realm of vibrant colors.
Nahlia blinked back her tears, stunned at her sudden disappearance. Had this been a sacrifice to save the city, or was this the ascension she'd always wanted?
Perhaps it was neither. Perhaps it was both.
The inferno slammed into the shield, shaking the ground beneath her boots. Finally, Nahlia understood her mother's warning. Soulfire couldn't break Moonshard, but the construct itself wasn't so strong. Thane's fire consumed everything it touched, even metal and stone. The shield couldn't support itself without her help.
Still pressing both hands to the crystal wall, Nahlia re-doubled her efforts, pouring forth every ounce of her will and resolve. Her father put a hand on her shoulder. He wasn't a Redeemer, but his presence strengthened her in more ways than one.
"Close your eyes," she told him. The storm was already too bright to face, and it was about to get even worse.
Chills ran down her spine as she faced the impossibility of this new task. She was the only one who stood between Revera and this all-consuming power. Her limbs shook with the effort, then she lost all physical sensation. Her mind and body separated completely, the same way they did when she entered the Ethereal. She was the shield itself now—a symbol of protection. A counterpoint to Thane's destruction.
Deep in the Serenity Trance, Ciena exchanged blows with the most powerful Aeon of their age. Her old hands had been a gift from Aegon, but also a passing dream. These, she'd forged herself. She'd earned them through countless hours of training and study.
Their swords clashed as she forced her opponent back through the courtyard. With every step, Alexel seemed slower than before. His strikes and parries lacked the effortless grace from the fight's beginning.
His Justicar sigils are fading, Ciena realized. Without those, he couldn't match her blade-for-blade.
And for the first time, she saw Alexel Trelidor as he truly was—just a Redeemer. Just a man. And like all Ethermancers, he relied on his tricks to win battles. He'd played his hand over the past few minutes. The others held their own against his army. She and her brother had outlasted his sigils, and they'd survived his Ethersmithing.
With all of that stripped away, this was finally an opponent she could beat.
Meanwhile, Ciena's new hands moved faster than she could think, and Bloodsong moved with them. By now, she'd landed more than a dozen hits on her opponent, and lines of crimson stained his dark armor.
Light flashed in the corner of her vision—so bright, it was like the sun itself had fallen. Ciena leapt back, shielding her eyes from the blast. Alexel did the same from across the courtyard. This wasn't him, then. The light came from the palace, but this wasn't his doing.
She sidestepped her opponent, putting herself between him and the blinding light. The ground shook beneath her boots, and many of the Templars and undead collapsed into the street. Ciena held her ground, never taking her eyes off Alexel.
Several long seconds passed, and waves of energy passed through her soul as well as her body. They left a hollow emptiness in their wake as if she were a ship at sea, and the tides had just taken half her crew.
Then the light blinked out of existence. Darkness shrouded the courtyard, followed by a sudden, echoing quiet. The Templars climbed to their feet, but the undead lay motionless in the snow.
Bloody hell. Thane and Nahlia actually came through. And that meant Trelidor's powers were gone for good.
Time to finish this. Ciena adjusted her crystal fingers around Bloodsong's hilt, flaring her Iron Blood and—
Nothing happened. No strength filled her muscles. No sense of clarity washed over her. Instead, she felt another wave of weakness and exhaustion. It was like waking from a dream of endless power, finding herself in a mortal body. She hadn't felt this way since Whitecliff.
Since before I became an Ethermancer.
Templars engaged Trelidor's troops around the courtyard. The enemy Ethermancers all ran for the cover of nearby buildings. Not just the Redeemers, but the Sanctifiers and Justicars as well.
They didn't just take Palatine's powers. They took everyone's, including hers.
Alexel must have realized the same thing because he raised his silver blade and charged toward her.
Ciena raised Bloodsong to parry. Crystal rang against crystal, and she staggered back under the sudden impact. She'd been stronger with her Iron Blood, but now he had the advantage again.
Her opponent struck again, putting her on the defensive with his superior reach and strength. Ciena's own muscles strained with every blow. Her bones vibrated from the impact, and Bloodsong felt like a lead weight in her hands.
And thank Aegon she hadn't lost those too. Raiden's powers were never truly hers, but she'd learned Ethersmithing from scratch, and no one could take that away.
Just like your sword training, she realized as she watched the Templars defeat Trelidor's Ethermancers.
Alexel might be stronger, but she'd faced stronger opponents her entire life. From the moment her uncle Cladius had taught her to fight, to the thousands of hours she'd spent in Whitecliff's Battlegrounds
Ciena hadn't been raised an Ethermancer like Alexel and his followers—she'd only learned those skills later, after a decade of struggle. This was the fight she'd trained for.
No Ethermancy. No tricks or games—just her and her blade.
Alexel slashed again, but Ciena didn't parry. Instead, she dodged left, and her crystal hand leapt for the opening.
Trelidor staggered back, and she pressed her advantage, following with several more strikes.
The fight continued, and her old instincts returned like long-lost friends. The Serenity Trance was gone, but her mind felt clearer than ever. It was as if she'd been dancing to Raiden's tune all her life, and now her choices were finally her own. And with that realization, the last of her fear vanished like shadows in the morning sun. She'd lost her brother once. She'd lost her parents, and she'd lost both her hands. After all that, losing her Iron Blood was nothing.
Another slash of silver crystal. Ciena switched back to moonform, shifting her body sideways, letting him strike the air. From there, she switched to cobraform, seizing the opening.
Bloodsong struck Alexel's sword arm, hitting bone.
His blade vanished in the same moment, switching to his opposite hand.
Ciena dropped her own blade and closed in for the kill. With her left hand, she pushed against Trelidor's blade, altering its course by mere inches. Her right hand lashed toward his throat. Her crystal fingers became blades, soaring forward like messengers from Aegon himself.
The blades broke Alexel's windpipe in three places, and his body went stiff.
She yanked her hand free with a spray of blood. Even as Alexel collapsed in the snow, she staggered back, wary of one last trick.
Nothing came. No healing from his Moonfire, no retaliation from his crystal blades. He only twitched on the ground, clutching his throat with his remaining hand. The sight looked surprisingly ordinary—no different from a dying human.
Ciena retrieved Bloodsong from the snow and plunged it in the emperor's heart, ending his reign forever.