Thane manned the helm, steering their small ship over the treacherous waves of the Frozen Sea. No moon guided their path that night. No light broke through the clouds but for the occasional lightning strike on the horizon.
"Hard to port!" Joron's voice called from up ahead.
Thane turned the wheel several notches, just missing a chunk of ice as thick as their haul. Growing up in a coastal city taught him much about sailing and navigation. Unfortunately, Dragonshard's tropical climate did little to prepare him for this.
If it weren't for Cole's insistence, he would have found a quiet cove to wait out the storm. But perhaps it was better to move forward, especially when he couldn't bear to look back.
The storm subsided over the next few minutes, and he was still gazing at the open sea when Aaron Cole climbed up to the bridge.
"Need a break?" he asked, reaching for the wheel.
Thane shook his head. "I'm fine." It was only then that he realized how much his back and shoulders ached from standing there.
Aegon... How long had it been? Five hours? Ten?
"Move over anyway," Cole said. "We'll both need our strength when we reach Whitecliff."
Thane stumbled away from the wheel and lowered himself on one of the nearby benches. The wood was drenched in freezing rainwater. But then again, so was he.
A few moments of silence passed, and all he heard was the surge of waves and the smacking of rain against the sails. Even Joron's makeshift crew had quieted down.
Thane crossed his arms and looked up to the other man who was now staring blankly ahead. "We've been traveling together for a day now, and you've barely said a word."
"Figured you'd rather grieve alone than pour your heart out to a stranger," Cole said. "Was I wrong?"
"No," Thane murmured. Of course, silence did no more to relieve his pain. Everywhere he looked, flashes from Kyroth's keep assaulted his vision. Not even a full day had passed, and the experience already felt like an ancient story from Aeonica.
Already, it felt like it happened to someone else. As if he were someone else when he did it. As if that man—that murderer—had merely been an image reflected in his dying lover's eyes.
"It's my fault," Thane said. Somehow, the truth of those words grounded him in reality.
'It was an accident," Cole replied. "Gallow's men would have killed her if we hadn't shown up."
"But you recognized the black powder," he countered "If I had listened to you—If I hadn't been so quick to kill Gallow, Kira might still be alive right now."
"Maybe, maybe not. You can spend all night sitting there, pondering what-ifs. It won't change what happened."
"No," Thane agreed. "But I promised her I'd keep her safe. Tell me, how am I supposed to live with myself after that?"
There was a short pause, then Cole turned to face him. "Do you know how I recognized the black powder?"
Thane raised his eyes to the sky as if searching for the answer. "Because it's a Templar weapon, and you're a Templar."
"More or less," he said. "My battalion was stationed in The Vale of Elveron during the Revolution, only a few days after Stormharbor was burned. We marched south when we heard the news, conquering every town we passed. We killed the Aeon landlords and put our own men in their places.
"When we reached Kalanrun, there were ... several Aeon families who'd locked themselves in the town chapel. It was a sturdy structure. Solid marble with crystal windows. Essentially indestructible."
Thane nodded at the familiar description. Many of the chapels he'd seen throughout the Imperium had been built in a similar fashion.
"I was the only one there trained to use black powder," Cole went on." My commanding officer knew this, and he ordered me to destroy the chapel with them inside."
"And you did it," Thane mused. "I heard that story as a boy. The Templars claimed to have conquered magic with science that day."
"I did it," Cole said with obvious reluctance "I didn't think, I didn't argue. I just lit the barrels and watched them burn."
"Well." Thane voice's shuddered against the cold. "I guess that makes us both murderers then, doesn't it?"
Cole dipped his head in agreement, fingers tightening around the wheel. "I became a Templar because I wanted to free my race from oppression. From rulers like the Reverians and the Palatines. But that day ... I became everything I hated."
"You hadn't killed Aeons before?"
"I did, but only in battle. I started as an officer, so I was spared the worst of it. I could at least pretend we weren't killing innocents"
Thane leaned forward, adjusting his hood against the rain. "So that's when you left the Order?"
"That night," Cole said. "I rode all the way to Tregarde to find Lyraina, and we ran off together. I never regretted my decision, but when the Templars sacked Sunfall—when thousands of Aeons were slain in the streets—a part of me wondered if I could have prevented it all by staying."
"What?" Thane didn't bother to hide his shock. "I know you were an officer, but you don't honestly think you could have stopped the entire Purge?"
"I joined the Order as Nathaniel Mason's squire," Cole explained. "He chose me to take his place as Knight Commander if anything happened to him."
"I didn't know that," Thane admitted. In truth, he knew next to nothing about how the Templars chose their leaders.
"No reason you should have." Cole waved a dismissive hand. "It's not something Mason would've made public after I ran. He became Knight Commander in my place, and Lyraina and I disappeared outside the New Republic's borders. Nahlia was born a year later, and I found a new reason to live."
Thane's breath made a puff of white mist before him. "So you're trying to tell that things will get better again. Why—so I can help you save your daughter?"
"This isn't about that," Cole said. "You gave me your word. That's enough for me. I'm talking about your life after this. As the heir to Dragonshard, you'll still have a part to play in the wars to come. You'll have a chance to do some good in this world."
Thane considered that. Did he even want to be king anymore? Growing up, he always swore he'd be a better ruler than his father and grandfather. Now he knew in his heart that wasn't true. He was no better than them, or anyone else in his bloodline.
His choices had all been his own. But at the same time, he'd been powerless to stop himself.
No. He would see the mission through, and do what he could to help Nahlia and the Aeons of Whitecliff, but he would never be king. Kira had been his future, and now she was gone. This would be his last stand as well. The world was better off with one less Solidor.
Cole inclined his head toward the horizon. "We're here."
Thane rose from his seat to see orange fire reflected from the storm clouds above. Whitecliff Enclave might have been hidden once, but no longer. Now the signs of war shone like a beacon for all to see.