Heeding the mysterious Aeterna’s warning, Essie makes a plan after escaping the rebels: retreat to her ship alone and live the rest of her life in peace.
But life has a funny way of ruining everything. A discovery leaves her reeling, and she finds herself in Chief Ryka’s settlement, searching for the Nossebi tribe.
With war on the horizon, the stakes have never been higher. When truth turns to lies and allies to enemies, when the world’s future hangs in the balance, only she can do what must be done.
Will love be enough? Or will she have to sacrifice her loved ones to save the world from destruction?
Don’t miss the conclusion to the Aeterna Chronicles. If you’re a fan of Firefly, you’ll love this YA science fantasy packed with emotion, deadly foes, and vicious battles.
In the early-morning hours before dawn, Essie sneaked out of Amani’s house. She walked along Issamun’s narrow roads, keeping to the shadows. The house had provided comfort and rest for the past two nights. Two days it had been since the fight inside the rebels’ quarters, and Uzel, the rebels’ leader, had been killed. Essie’s injuries had healed well, so it was time to leave.
There was another reason why she couldn’t stay, and Mergen’s words had been clear: Anyone who stays with you, their life will be forfeit too.
Mergen, the prince’s bodyguard, was an Aeterna, a race that hunted half-breeds like Essie, who was part-nomad, part-Aeterna. The Aeternas were an advanced race, traveling through portals and ships in the sky. The reason they hunted half-breeds baffled her: their Seer had prophesied that one of the three half-breeds would bring doomsday and the destruction of worlds. Essie’s father, Nyko, had also warned her against meeting other Aeternas. Mergen had spared her life on the condition that she stayed away from Dalkhaish and the prince.
So Essie had left Raz, Mon, and Simin, the three people she cared most about. Their safety mattered most. Then there were the few dozen Zanderans, the oasis’s inhabitants, who had come to her rescue. Somehow, they believed—likely misguided—she was a revered Guardian or priestess who was supposed to protect some kind of stone. The burly white-haired woman who had welcomed her in the rebel compound had alerted them to her location.
Essie was no priestess. Nor did she have any stone. She had tried to protest, but Hatim, the leader, wouldn’t listen.
How quaint that these two beliefs were at odds with each other. Could she be both a guardian-slash-protector and a doomsday bringer? Unlikely.
The Zanderans’ constant bowing and reverence, even Amani’s smiles and friendliness, were awkward. Essie didn’t like the fact that she slept in a warm, cozy bed while Amani and the others huddled on the cold floor.
Her presence among these people would put them in danger, she reckoned. So Essie resolved to leave. The only safe place for her was her ship in the desert. The Aeternas would never find her there.
A ping alerted her two blocks away from the exit as she hoisted her bag over the low wall. Moments later, Lai confirmed that a group was headed toward Amani’s house.
“Good to see your scanner is finally working,” Essie murmured under her breath.
Lai, a limited artificial intelligence program attached to her brain, could see through her eyes and hear her voice. Its goal was to protect her. Essie had given up trying to understand how Lai operated and relied on the program’s guidance. As sad as it might be, Lai had become her only friend.
Before traveling to Issamun, Essie had left the AI on the ship, but Lai had managed to find its way back. The program had hijacked a drone, flown to the city, and blocked an attack, saving Essie’s life just in time. For that, she was grateful. Now Lai was back inside her brain, more or less intact.
“Nadir has entered the house,” Lai said. “I count eight searching the house for you.”
Ugh. “Is he still bent on retrieving the bounty on my head?”
“No, Essie. The prince’s bodyguard lifted the bounty on you. From his speech patterns, he and his men are arguing whether or not it’s safe to bring you back to the oasis. They do sound upset.”
Essie had no intention of going back to the oasis.
The best option for her was to stay away from the people she loved and cared about. A sense of emptiness and dejection came over her. How she hated that feeling of loneliness. But if it meant keeping everyone safe, she would stay alone.
Simin, who had been her companion for the past eight years and was now the queen of Dalkhaish. Mon, a twelve-year-old boy who had crossed the desert with her. Raz, who was now king…
“Your heart rate is rising, and your temperature is elevated,” Lai chimed in. “I assure you there is no danger from the Zanderans. You are safe.”
Darn Lai. At least the thing couldn’t read her mind. Just the thought of the prince took her breath away. Get a grip, Essie. Raz is gone. He was never meant for you.
Two nights ago, she and Raz had parted ways without exchanging a word. She should have apologized for leading him to believe she was Simin, the princess he thought he had been wed to.
Double darn. Why should she apologize? Raz had betrayed her. He had arranged for the king’s removal, with unintended consequences. He had lied, too.
Lost in her thoughts, she failed to notice shadows slithering behind her until it was too late. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one shadow lift its arms in her direction. The dim light caught the glint of a blade, the edge of a rounded cap, and green trousers—the rebels’ uniforms.
Essie cursed and ran, clutching her small saddlebag. She trusted Lai’s scanner, but it could cover only a certain distance.
A whiz sounded, and she ducked in time as a blast of heat swept past her. An arrow! Instinctively, she weaved her way through the narrow path—the safest way, she reckoned, was to run in a zigzag. As the shots rang behind her and missed, she realized her Aeterna gene was indeed at work and fighting to save her life. In a surge of adrenaline, her body ducked and dodged the blasts.
These heated blasts flaring past her looked to be the same weapon Mergen had used. Where did the rebels gain such advanced weapons when Dalkhaish mainly used arrows and crossbows instead of pistols?
Good thing Uzel, the rebel leader, was dead. With such weapons, he could easily take over any city.
A quick backward glance told her that three guards or more were chasing her. She left the narrow path and headed for a pile of rubble and debris. Her chances were slim, but she focused on the next step. It was almost as if her foot found its balance on the uneven pile of rocks and her hand a good grip to hoist her body over a jagged wall.
A thud sounded behind her. Angry growls and shouts reached her ears. If she were to trip now, there would be no way to evade these guards. Confronting them was a no-no. She had been in the throne room when Uzel was murdered, though not by her hand. Many of the guards would recognize her.
Could she fight them? Unlikely. Not only was she outnumbered, but she also had only a single blade under her sleeve. Her feet flew above the last broken wall. It was as high as her chest, and it amazed her how instincts and adrenaline fueled her movements, even though she had never been athletic. The distance between her and the rebels grew.
She smiled as grunts sounded behind her. The guards were struggling to get past the wall; soon enough, no running footfalls followed.
A distant noise caught her attention. Lai called out, but Essie ignored her and made for the narrow paths between the houses. Her mind raced, trying to map the exits from the city. The guards at the gates didn’t look too closely at those leaving.
Essie registered Lai’s voice at the same time as the wall that appeared before her. It was Issamun’s outside wall, but no exit was in sight. In fact, she was trapped in a corner. Which way were the gates?
Essie turned back the way she came and froze. The sound of boots thudding on the ground cut into the silence.
Three walls surrounded her. She dove to the wall on her right. Her fingers reached high, scraping to find purchase. Her boots slipped, and she landed back on the ground. It was too slick, too smooth.
On her left was a house with a bent gutter. Essie stepped back. It was a slim chance for her to reach for it, and… But she hesitated for far too long.
Two figures emerged, their swords swinging before them. Another three appeared, wearing the telltale green uniforms.
Essie loosened the knife from her forearm. The hilt slid into her hand, and she gripped it tight. One against five was terrible odds. Even with the other blade in her boot, she doubted she could take all of them. Maybe not all of them, she reckoned, but at least two. She trusted her instincts. They had helped her survive so far.
The fierceness in the men’s gazes made Essie stagger. She regained her balance quickly. Show no fear. The loathing surprised her and indicated capture wasn’t an option. These men were out for her blood. She noticed two of them carried pistols on their belts, and none retrieved them to finish her quickly. Instead, they brandished their swords, which meant torture, a slow death, or worse, was on their minds.
Essie swallowed and retreated. For each step she took backward, the men took two forward until the gap between them narrowed. The blade she held before her looked tiny next to their sharp swords.
On her right, a burly rebel with a scar on his cheek stepped forward. “Our leader Uzel is dead because of you,” he spat from between gritted teeth. “You Dalkhaish filth think you’re better than us? You’ll pay for this. They won’t recognize your pretty face when I finish with you.”
Another rebel on her left moved closer, cornering her farther into the wall. “We’ll make it slow, pretty face. Don’t worry.” His grin revealed blackened teeth.
A shudder ran through Essie, and she steeled herself. Don’t lose focus.
“Lai?” she murmured. “Any suggestions on how to fight five men?”
The burly man hesitated and glanced at the others. They merely tilted their chins, encouraging him forward. His sword lifted to her chest. With a swift swing of her dagger, she sidestepped, and her blade slashed the man’s arm. He yanked it back, staring at the blood on his sleeve, more surprised by her swift action than pained. Then his eyes darkened, the sneer disappeared, and his lips thinned.
“I’m afraid there is no exit on my scanner,” Lai replied. “With some diligence, I can guide you through climbing the wall on the right.” Essie glanced at the side wall with the broken roof and gutters. There were crooks and cracks where she could find handholds, but that option wasn’t workable at the moment.
The hilt of her dagger dug painfully into her palm. Focus. Heck, make it quick. If I have to die, make it quick. She took a deep breath as the men moved in unison toward her.