Thane stumbled into a dark forest, propelled by the motion of his fall. A blunt weapon smacked him on the back of the head, sending him face-first into the undergrowth.
He rolled over in the dirt, prepared to spring to his feet. Something sharp pricked his windpipe, and he caught the glint of steel in the moonlight.
A man loomed above him, dressed in leather armor gilded with gold. He wore an Imperial Guard's helmet, distinguished by the half-sun that ran from his forehead to the back of his neck.
"Thane Solidor?" His voice was deep and powerful; a general on a battlefield.
Thane tried to escape the dream, but it was like pushing against the walls of a cave. Instead, he raised his hands in submission. "Headmaster Elveron?"
Surprise flashed across Elveron's face, and Thane kicked him in the shin. He staggered back enough for Thane to roll away and regain his footing.
"I don't want to fight you," he said from across the clearing. "Just let me go."
Elveron fell into Sunform and raised his sword again. "You sent a spy into my enclave, endangering hundreds of innocent lives. You betrayed your race to the Templars, and now you ask for mercy?" He took a step forward. "I knew your mother, boy. You should be glad she never lived long enough to see her son fall."
Thane gritted his teeth. "You think I'm asking for mercy? That was a warning, Headmaster."
It was the wrong thing to say, but he was still a Solidor. From the blood in his veins, to the marrow of his bones. His clan had always been among the most feared Ethermancers in Revera.
"Did Palatine send you?" The Headmaster continued forward, cloak billowing in the night wind.
Thane shook his head, forcing himself to maintain a firm posture. "Our clan stands independently."
Elveron waved a hand, cutting through the air like a dagger. "A story you tell yourselves. Palatine operates in a chain of deceit. Most who serve him never even know it. It's in his nature to lie, just as it's in your nature to be a mindless servant. You're all pawns; you and the Templars."
The other man's hold tightened over his mind, and his muscles tensed at the restriction. Elveron cast his sword into the undergrowth, followed by his cloak and his helmet.
So he is an Ethermancer. Was Mason right all along?
Thane slipped out of his own cloak, letting it fall to the dirt. While armor offered protection in most physical fights, it was nothing but a liability here.
He conjured an inner-fire to warm himself, drawing on the Ethereal's endless energy. It filled his muscles with newfound strength, allowing him to stand with far more confidence than he felt.
He had fought in hundreds of duels with his father and his instructors, but this was different. Elveron's hold was strong ... strong enough to separate his mind from his body forever.
If Thane lost this fight, he would never wake up.
Elveron raised his hands ceremoniously, and his palms blossomed with waving flames, a pair of torches against the night. "You made a mistake sending the girl here. You made a mistake not throwing away your necklace when you had the chance. Now It ends tonight."
His wrists snapped forward, and the flames shot out like a flurry of orange bullets.
Thane reacted on instinct, parting the flames with a quick wave of his arm, scattering them into the trees. The branches caught fire, so bright that the forest became an ocean of darkness.
Elveron continued his assault with another succession of quick blasts. His arms flared as he summoned each flame from thin air, circling Thane in the clearing, attacking him from a hundred angles at once.
Thane had no choice but to remain on the defensive. He parried and deflected each blast, but they were too quick to catch or push back. Ash drifted from the trees above, and he kept his breathing shallow to avoid the smoke.
Fire in the Ethereal wasn't like the physical world. Its heat wasn't limited by time or fuel. The flames covered the forest in a matter of seconds, turning the night mists to an orange haze.
Elveron used these fires to fuel his attacks. By now their, each blast's heat was like a miniature sun. It was all Thane could do to form a protective barrier around himself. Sweat ran down his forehead, soaking through his clothing.
His concentration waned, and fear dug its claws in. He ran from the next blast, just barely ducking into a shallow trench for cover. The tree behind him exploded with an unnatural crack, shattering into a thousand splinters of wood.
Thane took off in a mad dash, ducking and dodging Elveron's shots as they smacked into the surrounding trees. Explosions of bark and wood erupted in every direction. Smaller trees snapped like twigs under the pressure.
He finally stopped to catch his breath behind a stone pillar.
You'll never win if you're on the defensive. His teacher's words came back to him. Make him react to your moves.
In the distance, Elveron continued his bombardment. He almost seemed desperate to finish Thane quickly.
Excessive violence is the act of a desperate man. His father's words this time. Passion is important, but too much can be an Ethermancer's undoing.
But a calm mind... that was truly dangerous. Tranquillity and focus woven with a touch of emotion. Those were the marks of a true Ethermancer.
Thane stood up among the burning forest, clothing billowing with the falling ash and dust. With a wave of his hands, he parted the flames in the undergrowth, revealing himself to the other Aeon once again.
This time, neither man hesitated. They went strike for strike against each other, the flames moving as quick as thought.
Still, a part of him held back. Elveron's only trying to keep his enclave safe. Not so different from you.
A moment's lapse in concentration, and the passion was gone. The next blast took Thane square in the chest. His shirt went up in flames, and the heat was like a branding on his skin.
He'd been burned in the Ethereal before, but anything this painful was usually enough to jolt him awake. Elveron's hold was too strong for that now. He snuffed out the fire to find his chest red and raw.
He slumped back against a tree, feeling his eyelids grow heavy.
But no... if he lost consciousness now, it was over. He had to press on. The damage wouldn't be permanent so long as he survived.
Return to the physical world, and the pain will fade. Win this fight, and the pain will fade.
The Headmaster's face remained carefully controlled as Thane rose again.
Thane didn't run, nor did he strike back. He only closed his eyes and concentrated, commanding every fire in the forest to bend to his will. The flames that climbed the thick tree trunks. The lines that ran through the undergrowth. Even Elveron's attacks. They were all his to command.
Even as Elveron continued his bombardment, Thane forced the storm to swirl around him, forming a protective sphere of light. He could barely stand through the pain, so he focused solely on the energy, leaving his body behind in one last gambit.
The fear of death faded away. Even the intensity of the flames seemed distant and unthreatening. Thane only heard his breathing and his heartbeat—everything else was an extension of that.
He continued to concentrate, and the very air of the forest became alive with sparks of light. The night air grew brighter than daylight as the fire grew—a thousand soldiers in one army, all under his command.
Finally, Thane opened his eyes, letting the sphere of flame strike out toward his opponent. Fast and deadly until all that remained was ash and blood.