When Nahlia opened her eyes again, she was still sitting cross-legged in her icy cell.
Had her meditation failed? But no ... the cuts on her wrists had vanished, and she didn't feel nearly as cold or weary as she had before. This was the Ethereal. She had simply recreated her surroundings without thinking.
She got to her feet and pushed open the heavy iron door. The tunnel was silent but for the roaring wind at its mouth. She followed the sound back to the entrance in the mountainside, and the darkness gave way to blinding light as the sun crept over the horizon—an orange sphere against the morning mists.
Nahlia shivered at the sight of it. This may have been a dream, but time was running out nonetheless.
The rest of the enclave sat a quarter-mile down the hill. So peaceful, more of a village than a fortification. The academy's tiered pagodas overlooked the smaller shops and buildings on either side of the gully. Two dozen other homes and farms were scattered on the plateaus between there and the Gorge below.
Secrecy was their biggest defense here. If they lost that, a few wooden doors were all that stood between them and their enemies. They had soldiers, true, but most of the Aeons were innocents who had come here to escape the war. They wouldn't last one night if the Templars took them by surprise.
Nahlia continued her survey of the landscape, but Thane was nowhere in sight. She'd felt his presence when she picked up the necklace, but he'd obviously resisted her pull.
Where are you?
"They're all dead," Thane told his father. "The Templars, Magister Kyroth ... most of his household, too."
Thanidal Solidor gave a curt nod from his high throne, dark against the windows and the Ember Sea beyond. He had an angled face, framed by a close-cut beard. His black hair was longer than Thane's and scattered with gray.
Pillars of obsidian rose around them, fading into the hall's natural stone ceiling. If this had been reality, the floor and galleries would be packed with guards and milling courtiers. Music and conversation would have filled every corner, chasing out the silence. But of course, this was the Ethereal, and only the echo of their voices filled the room.
"And what of the other Templars in Dresten?" his father asked.
"A second group stayed behind," he replied. "They're moving against the Raiders now. Aaron Cole thinks we should intervene. If—"
"No." He raised a hand. "You will make your way north to Whitecliff. That's all that matters now."
Thane set his jaw. "Clan Raider has done nothing to us."
"No?" His fingers curled around his armrest. "You think they'd welcome your help with open arms then?"
"They have an army," Thane countered. "Whitecliff will need that support if they're to survive the Templar invasion."
"That does nothing to further our cause. Let them fight their war. Retrieving the Codex is your priority now."
Gusts of warm wind air through the high windows, filtering out the front of the palace. Thane took a breath, and inhaled Kira's scent. He felt phantom memories of her lips on his, and the feeling of her in his arms.
She'd woken beside him that morning, lovelier than she'd ever looked before. So perfect, so full of life. She'd been as certain as he was that she'd go back to sleep in that same bed. Now her body lay in the funeral pyre in Kyroth's courtyard. He'd never see her again.
Thane clenched his fists as his eyes fell to the polished stone floor. He wanted to be angry ... to pursue revenge. But Gallow and the others were already dead. He was the only living person responsible for what happened.
"Thane?" His father's voice was stern. "Do I have your full attention?"
No. Thane didn't say the word, but any half-wit could see it in his eyes. He didn't care about some Aegon-forsaken artifact buried in a tomb. Nothing could be worth all of this, no matter what secrets it held.
The king leaned back in his throne. "I'm sorry about Kira. Truly, I am."
A lie, of course. He'd wanted her gone ever since Ashara rescued her from the Ember Isles.
".... But she died for her city. For Dragonshard. There's no greater honor than that. Now I expect the same loyalty from you. The Codex has the power to shift the tides of entire realms. To solidify our dynasty for centuries."
Power... Thane had already tasted power beyond any living man, and it brought him nothing but more pain. Why should it be different for Dragonshard? What would power bring them but more war?
He was about to tell his father as much when someone tugged at him through the necklace, an invisible hand pulling on his thoughts. Insistent, yet far gentler than Elveron had been.
If it was her, he had to warn her about the invasion. Even if he didn't help the Raiders, this was something he could do. A chance, however small, for redemption.
His father would probably object to that too, which was why Thane didn't tell him. He simply waited another moment for him to finish talking, then he sketched a bow at the waist.
"It will be done."
Nahlia waited another moment before Thane materialized in front of her. His dark skin and cloak were a stark contrast to the mountain snow. His eyes held a weariness that wasn't there before. Pain. So much pain. He hid it well in his expression, but she felt it in the rhythms of their bond.
"Nahlia..." Thane began, turning to face her.
Nahlia shifted uneasily beneath his gaze, ice cracking beneath her boots.
"Listen," he said. " I need to tell you—"
"Did you kill Elveron?" she interjected.
There was a short pause, then he lowered his eyes. "Yes."
Her knees were shaking now, and she couldn't even meet his eyes. "What happened?"
"He used the necklace to pull me into the Ethereal."
"I realize that now. But it wasn't self-defense, was it? You wanted to fight him. I saw the look on your face the last time we spoke."
Thane shook his head, as if in defeat. "It was self-defense. But you're right ... I'm also a murderer."
Memories radiated from his mind to hers. Headmaster Elveron standing amid a burning forest. A castle courtyard bathed in smoke and flame. Templars dying by Thane's hand as rage consumed him. And finally, the only girl he'd ever loved, dying in his arms.
Nahlia took a step back as if to escape the visions. How is this even possible? Was it part of the Ethereal, or the shards that bound them? There was still so much she didn't know about this place.
"Aegon will judge me how he sees fit," Thane continued as if nothing had happened. "For now, we have a bigger problem."
Nahlia crossed her arms, regaining her composure. "The Templars?"
He gave a weary nod, "The first group sailed north two days ago, and Saul Mason left tonight. Lindilus and Casella Raider are fighting them back in Dresten."
Anger flared in her chest. So, not only had Thane let her take the blame for Elveron's death, he failed to stop the Templar invasion.
"How?" she demanded. "I never gave you the enclave's location."
"No, but someone did. There's a traitor inside Whitecliff. He met with Mason five days ago in Dresten." Thane rubbed his forehead as if remembering. "A Valaysian man, tall with black hair."
Well, that hardly narrowed it down. There were dozens of Valaysian men in the enclave, from soldiers to teachers to fieldworkers. Even Zidane and Vash fit the description.
"I thought I could stop the Templars," Thane continued. But I was wrong. I was prepared to deal with them, but the other informant ... he gave them everything. Mason executed the Raider spies in his ranks. We even found copies of a map in his office that leads to the enclave. You need to tell everyone to evacuate. Tonight."
Nahlia's breath quickened. Her first instinct was to convey this information to Ciena, but she had to be smarter than that. Thane had already manipulated her once before. What if the Battlemaster's suspicion was right? What if this was another plan to draw them out of hiding?"
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"I've seen the maps," Thane said. "The enclave is on a peninsula, eighty miles north of Dresten. It sits in a recession between three mountains"
He turned to regard the landscape as if seeing it all for the first time. "This is it, isn't it? The canyon down there is called the Gorge, and the walled-off section on the northern border—that houses the chapel and the academy."
The wind caught his cloak as he took as he made his slow way down the hill. "That door there leads to a system of caverns inside the mountain. One way leads to an underground harbor, about two miles to the southwest. The other way leads to a walled-off entrance at the mountain's base."
Nahlia's eyes widened at that. This had all been on the map she'd stolen from Zidane's office. Worse than that, the Master Chronicler had been in Dresten five days ago when she'd taken it, aligning perfectly with Thane's timeline.
"I may have misled you before," he said, "But I never lied to you. I made mistakes, but I never wanted to kill Elveron, or the Templars in Dresden. I never wanted to kill anyone."
His words came out slow and sincere. For once, he didn't want anything from her.
"Despite all that," Thane continued. "I keep my promises. I'm coming north, and I'm bringing your father."
She brightened at that. "My father? He's all right then?"
"He's all right. We helped each other escape Dresten, and we're leaving for Whitecliff as soon as we can."
Nahlia took a breath, then let it out in a rush. It was the first good news she'd heard in days—maybe even weeks. For a second, she even started to have hope again.
But of course, that hope was crushed when she remembered that her execution was only hours away. Even if she told Ciena all of this, would that be enough to save them? Would it even buy her enough time to escape?
"I already tried warning them about the Templars," Nahlia said. "They think they're safe here ... that an evacuation will only give away their position."
"They're wrong," Thane said. "We found barrels of black powder inside Kyroth's keep. Your father thinks they're planning on using it to destroy the enclave."
"Black powder?" She'd heard the phrase before, but she'd never researched it in earnest.
Thane nodded, proceeding slowly as if the words pained him. "It's the same chemical compound that powers their firearms. In larger amounts, it can blow through stone. Whatever defenses Whitecliff has, they won't be enough."
A great spider of lightning crept across the sky as Ciena Raider jogged through Whitecliff's courtyard.
The half-blood had told her everything in the span of a few minutes. The Templars had two thousand men sailing north, and enough black powder to blow them all to Eternity. Worst of all, Zidane had potentially betrayed them and could be sabotaging their defenses from within.
Ciena managed not to panic until she read the ledgers in the main barracks. Someone had modified tonight's orders so that all of the scouts were assigned to the enclave's north and eastern borders, without a single person guarding the coast.
The time for talking was over. Now it was time to get the hell out of here.
She climbed all three flights of stairs to the top of the bell tower. The two guards were sitting on the floor playing cards.
"Sound the alarm," Ciena told him. "We're under attack."
"W-what?" The younger boy sprang to feet and looked around.
"Just do it," she snapped. "Now."
Still looking bewildered, the boy yanked the rope, and the sound of ringing bells filled the courtyard, echoing through the Gorge and the mountains beyond. It sent goosebumps down Ciena's neck.
"Is this a drill?" The older guard's eyes were narrow. More skeptical than surprised.
"No," she said flatly. "It's the Templars. They're on their way here right now."
Before either of them could pester her further, Ciena turned and headed back down the stairs.
She still remembered her first drill in the enclave. She'd been a first-year then, an apprentice in Wolfe Clan. The older clan members woke her in the night and gave her only a minute to dress. After that, they herded her all the way down into the lower caves with the other noncombatants. Ciena had been so small back then, she feared the older students would trample her in the chaos.
But not anymore. It was different for the battleclans and soldiers. They armed themselves and made for the enclave's surface, keeping the threat at bay while the others retreated. That was her place now.
The others had formed ranks by the time she reached the central courtyard. Over a hundred soldiers stood armed with swords and bows. The noncombatants rushed past them into the safety of the caves.
Master Vash emerged from the academy's gate a second later, clad in full armor. He ignored the line of assembled fighters and turned to Ciena, as if he'd already decided she was to blame.
Great. Here we go.
"What is the meaning of this, Raider?"
"Exactly what it looks like," she said. "The Templars are attacking."
"So I've heard." He crossed his massive arms. "Do you have any proof of this?"
"Someone tampered with tonight's patrol orders," she shot back. "The entire coast is unguarded."
"And this is your way of bringing it to my attention?"
"There wasn't time for that," she said.
Vash looked around at the empty courtyard. "Well, clearly we—"
A deafening bang cut off his words. Ciena felt the sound more than heard it. It hit her whole body from her face to her toes, compressing it all like a giant boulder.
The ground shook, knocking them back like snowflakes in the wind. Fire filled the sky, and chunks of ice and stone rained down around them.
When she opened her eyes again, the world was a blur of snow and ash and dust. Ciena thought she heard shouting, but it was distant, drowned out by the sound of her own heartbeat.
She turned back to the source of the explosion to discover the southern wall had been completely obliterated. Her head throbbed, making it difficult to open her eyes. She squinted as best she could, and then she finally saw them—ranks of men in dark armor forming on the other side of the courtyard. Hundreds of them.
They didn't wait for the dust to clear. They didn't wait for the Aeons to regain their bearings. The riflemen took their positions and fired.