Thane awoke to a cold, dark blur. He raised a hand to his face and found it slick with water. The droplets ran down his cheeks, soaking the furs beneath.
"There you are." Kira's voice from the other side of the bed. "Finally!"
He sat up, wiping his eyes dry. He felt the front of his shirt found that drenched as well. "What happened?"
"I was about to ask you that. You passed out. Not gracefully either, more like a falling tree." She pointed to the empty basin on the nightstand. "I dumped that on you when nothing else was working."
The shard's pull was that strong? Thank Aegon he'd been sitting in bed when Nahlia summoned him. What if he'd been walking around the castle? Or worse, out in the streets?
He'd have to keep his guard up from now on. In the meantime, he could use this to his advantage.
"So..." Kira made a vague gesture to her head. "Did you ... go somewhere?"
"It was Nahlia," Thane said with a brisk nod. "She's going to tell Elveron."
"Um, who?" She cocked her head to the side.
"Whitecliff's Headmaster—the one Mason wants me to assassinate. Nahlia's planning to confess everything to him tonight. When that happens, he'll ask her how we've been communicating..."
Thane unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the gem beneath. Crescent-shaped and coated with silver, it hung from a chain around his neck. "That's my chance. I can use the connection to summon him into the Ethereal. If I do that, we can finally go home."
Kira frowned. "And all you have to do is kill someone, right?"
"I've killed people before," Thane grasped the necklace tighter. "You know that."
"In battle," she retorted. "Defending your home. And even then, you showed restraint."
That day in the Black Stepps. The day he'd led the defense on Dragonshard's outer borders and spared an army of fleeing Templars. Those same men had regrouped the next day, armed with stronger weapons than before. They pushed Thane's army back, eventually surrounding the city.
"I did," Thane said with a shake of his head. "And it nearly cost us the war. I won't make the same mistake again."
Nahlia sat alone in Whitecliff's chapel, huddled in one of the oaken pews, gazing up at the stained-glass windows of the Archaeons. Kalazhan controlling a great, raging fire. Treluwyn reviving a fallen soldier. Raiden with his sword of pure red Etherite.
She came here with the intention of confessing everything to the Headmaster, but her resolve crumbled the closer she got to his office. While her conscience demanded it, it could mean losing everything. Not just her father, but her own life as well.
Was she ready for that? The answer had seemed obvious before, but the walk across the courtyard had been as long as a sleepless night.
Besides, Thane seemed far too calm about all of this, almost like it was part of his plan all along.
I'm missing something ... but what?
Was she doing the right thing by confessing her treason to Elveron? Or would that only make things worse? Should she tell one of the other masters instead? Maybe she'd been too hasty in her conversation with Thane? It wasn't too late to go back and ask for more answers ... to negotiate a different solution.
Aegon above. Nahlia wanted to scream and throw up her hands in frustration. She looked up at the marble statue of Aegon at the head of the chapel.
"Please," she whispered. "Just tell what I'm supposed to do."
As usual, Aegon gave no reply. Not that she expected anything. Not after all those years of cold, uncaring silence.
But then ... what of her Ethermancy? Didn't that come from him? The Testaments said Ethermancy was a gift, and so did Aeonica.
Of course, both texts could be mistaken. She barely even believed in Aegon after all. Why would he choose her for this power and not one of the faithful? Most Aeons would call her a heretic if they'd heard the things said. Why would Aegon want anything to do with her?
A question rose up inside her then, and she turned back to the statue. She spoke below a whisper, too quiet for any mortal ears to hear. "Am I a Redeemer?"
She heard a voice then, heavy and certain in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was real, or maybe it was just the imaginings of her sleep-deprived mind. Regardless, the answer was the same.
Nahlia released a breath, grasping the pew in front of her. Of course, the question was far too bold. To presume to belong to a legendary order of Ethermancers, founded by Trelywyn herself? Ridiculous.
"That's fine," she said in the same low whisper. "I'm not a Redeemer yet. But I want to be. More than anything. I want the courage to do what's right, even when it feels impossible."
Again, no answer.
Even so, Nahlia knew what she had to do.
"This is different from before." Kira leaned in closer to meet Thane's gaze. "If you do this, then where's the line?"
"Trust me." Thane closed his eyes just as a headache began to take shape. "I'm not happy about it either."
"So you know it's wrong, but you're going to do it anyway?"
He gritted his teeth. "You think Mason gave me a choice?"
Kira's lips pulled back in a grimace. "And since when do Aeon princes take orders from people like him?"
"When their homes are at risk," Thane retorted. "It's my duty to keep Dragonshard safe. I thought you understood that."
"I understand sacrifice. Not murder. What do your Testaments say about putting your duty or family above your moral code?"
Thane shook his head. "You're reading the Testaments now, too?"
"One of us should. For once, stop worrying about family, or duty, or honor. Do you what you know is right."
"And what is 'right'?" Thane turned to face her, still keeping most of his concentration on the necklace in his hand. "To run away?"
"Is that really so crazy to think? You're allowed to come and go, and I've already gotten out of here once."
"And where would we go?"
"Valaysia, or The Ember Isles. Anywhere without war. We could live in a small house somewhere. Just the two of us."
A place without war. To give up the throne and leave his family behind. The decision seemed impossible, but Thane knew it was what he wanted. Even if he killed Elveron tonight, he'd never truly be free. He and Kira could never be together, and the wars would never stop.
"Unfortunately," Thane said, "When you're the heir to a nation, few decisions are as simple as that."
"No," Kira agreed. "But it's not too late for you to walk away."
"Fine." He stood, gesturing out the window. "Let's say we run. We make it past the Templars and the walls of Dresten. We make it past the sea and Valaysia's eastern shores. We start a home somewhere on the edge of the world. Even if we make it that far, there won't be a single night we can rest in peace. Not for the rest of our lives."
He slumped into a chair near the hearth. Its warmth did nothing to drive out the chill from his hands. "I can run from my duty, but I can never escape it. My father would send bounty hunters. So would the Templars. The rulers of Valaysia and Palavar would try to capture me, and we could be hostages all over again."
"Then we fight," Kira said. "But at least we'd be fighting for our lives instead of murdering people in the night." She gestured to the necklace."I don't want to see the man I—"
"Kira." He threw up a hand. "Please. Don't say it. Don't make this harder."
"I'm not afraid to say it." She rose to her feet and closed the space between them. "I knew I loved you that day you came back from the battle of the Black Stepps. Everyone in court whispered about you, saying you were weak for sparing the Templars. You could have burned them all that day, but you didn't. You showed restraint like an Aeon from the stories. At that moment, I knew you'd make a better king than your father ever would."
Thane glanced down at the embers in the hearth "You think this is one of your songs or poems? Where noble intentions are always rewarded?"
She stiffened. "I spent three years as a slave, Thane Solidor. You think I don't understand the real world?"
"No." Thane ran a hand through his hair. "No, I'm sorry."
She knelt down and took his hand in hers. "Maybe you don't feel the same way. Maybe you never will, but I'm not scared to admit it. Not now. Not when any day could be our last."
Thane looked into those deep blue eyes. Eyes filled with strength and determination. A promise of freedom, and true happiness. It wouldn't be easy, but was all he'd ever wanted.
The door of Elveron's office was open when Nahlia reached the back of the chapel. She took a shuddering breath and knocked on the stone archway.
"Nahlia Cole?" The Headmaster looked up from his ledger, his bearded face lit by a dozen candles.
"Yes, I'm sorry to bother you Headmaster, but do you have a minute? It's important."
"Of course," Elveron gestured to a chair opposite him. "Please."
She shuffled inside, dragging the heavy door shut behind her. For all the good that would do; this entire enclave would know of her treason by morning.
A long sword sat above the fireplace behind the Headmaster's desk, and the windows offered a view of the Gorge below. Other books and trinkets lined the shelves, but Nahlia paid them no heed. The wooden chair felt less comfortable than stone, and she was shivering and sweating all at once.
"Is everything alright?" he asked.
Nahlia shook her head. Another pause followed as her lips attempted to form actual words. "The first day I arrived here in the enclave, you and the other masters asked if I'd been in contact with any other Aeons..."
"Yes." He steepled his fingers. "I remember."
"Well..." Her eyes fell to her lap, despite her best efforts. "I wasn't completely honest with you that day. A man came to me in the Ethereal the same night the Templars attacked us. His name was Thane Solidor. He promised to help free my father in exchange for information on this enclave."
The Headmaster nodded again, his expression calm in the candlelight. Was that a good sign, or a bad sign?
"And what have you told him?"
"Nothing about our location," Nahlia said quickly. "Only basic information. The number of students here, the names of the clans..."
Elveron scratched his short beard. He looked like he might open his mouth again before Nahlia broke in, "But I'm not working with him anymore. I made a mistake, and I want to do whatever I can to keep this enclave safe."
The Headmaster gave an absent nod. "And this 'Thane Solidor', how did you communicate with him from within the enclave?"
"With this." Nahlia pulled out her necklace, setting it down on the wooden desk between them.
"This?" He glanced down, brow furrowed. "This is a sigil necklace of Clan Trelian. Looks to be made of silver."
"That's what I thought," Nahlia said. "But I've tested it. We're able to summon each other into the Ethereal."
Elveron's hand hovered over the jewel before he picked it up. "Etherite emits light," he murmured, "but not heat. And the Trelians were always a humble clan, less likely to flaunt their riches."
The Headmaster placed the necklace on a stone tablet. He slid open a drawer, pulling out a small mallet.
Nahlia rose from her seat just as Elveron struck the gem. A blinding light burst out from the crack, as bright as the sun breaking through a wall of storm clouds. The silver shell cracked away, revealing a piece of crescent-shaped Etherite inside.
Thane and Kira filled their travelsacks with as much food and clothing as they could carry. They'd need it for the journey ahead. He still felt a tinge of guilt for leaving his family behind, but this was for the best. Ashara could rule Dragonshard in his place. She would probably make a better ruler than him anyway.
"Ready?" Kira called out from near the open window. Her black hair was tied back in a tail, but it still blew with the force of the night wind. "Just follow my lead."
Reluctantly, Thane followed her out onto the shingled roof of Kyroth's estate. Thank Aegon she preferred to crawl. He wasn't sure he'd be brave enough to stand up here even if he tried.
The route was surprisingly simple, with only a few minor drops where the upper roofs met the lower sections. Eventually, they reached the third level, and a drainpipe that would take them down to the street.
"Going down is easy," Kira explained as she shrugged her travelsack higher on her shoulders. "It's climbing up these things that's the hard part."
Well, that's reassuring.
Kira slid down the pipe as swift as a squirrel climbing down a branch. He lost sight of her before she reached the bottom, her dark form obscured by the night mist.
Thane spent an embarrassing amount of time climbing off the ledge and coiling himself around the pipe. It might as well been made of solid ice for how cold it was.
He loosened and tightened his grip, scooting down inch by inch. The salty wind continued its assault from over the Frozen Sea, blowing his cloak around him like a shroud.
"Come on," Kira hollered from below. "Just a little farther."
Thane snuck a glance at the cobblestones below. Still another twenty feet at least.
He loosened his grip on the pipe, then felt the same pull as before. The necklace.
Oh Aegon, not now.
His eyelids grew heavy, and his hands felt numb. He tried to fight back, but its pull was even stronger than before.
"Thane!" Kira's voice was muffled and distant. "Hang on!"
His fingers lost their grip, and he let go of the pipe. The night air stung his face and the street rose up to meet him.