Cole and Thane crept up the mountainside toward the Templar's camp. Ash and rain blew through the morning air as a faint sliver of sunlight broke through the wall of clouds.
Soldiers and siege equipment littered the path up to the enclave, now distinguished by a massive hole in the rockface. That made Cole uneasy, but something worse caught his gaze. A quarter-mile from the main encampment sat a large supply of barrels on the cliff's edge. Enough black powder to destroy a small fortress.
Mason ... What are you planning now?
He pulled out the map they'd stolen from the Knight Commander's office, using his gloved hand to shield it from the elements.
"What is it?" Thane asked, leaning forward.
"Those barrels..." He gestured from the cliff to the map in his hand. "They're positioned here, directly above the cavern entrance."
Thane narrowed his eyes. "Strange place for an explosion."
"Not if the Aeons plan to escape by sea." He tapped the map again. "See this cave here? It's big enough to hold two or three ships, and the southern side is too straight, almost like it's man-made."
"Like a door," Thane offered.
He nodded. "If we figured that out, I'm sure the Templars did too. I think they're going to cause a cave-in when the ships escape."
"Damnit," Thane whispered. "They have them outnumbered ten to one, and they still resort to this."
Cole nodded again. It was a sound plan, albeit a barbaric one. Chase the Aeons through the tunnels until they're trapped, then bury them alive in the blink of an eye.
"There must be hundreds out there," Thane said. "We can't take them all. And if I use Ethermancy around the powder—"
"I know." Cole made a placating gesture. They couldn't force their way past the army. And even if he infiltrated the camp, the Templars still had enough ships in the bay to prevent the Aeons' retreat.
No ... there was only one way out of this now.
"Go find my daughter," he told Thane. "Leave the Templars to me."
Thane hesitated, his bright green eyes darting between him and the cliff's edge. "Look—whatever you're planning, you should know that Nahlia sacrificed a lot to help you. I don't want to be the one to tell her—"
"You won't have to," he interjected. "So long as this works."
"All right," Thane replied, looking too weary to argue further. "What are you going to do?"
Cole donned his helmet and stood. "What I should have done eighteen years ago."
After Thane vanished into the shadows, he set off into the Templar's camp to find Saul Mason. Soldiers and guards saluted as he passed on account of his officer's armor. Others simply ignored him, too busy with their own tasks.
The Knight Commander wasn't hard to track down. He and his officers sat at a table beneath a makeshift pavilion in the center of the camp. The scents of bacon and potatoes wafted through the air, and the torchlight reflected off his pristine leather armor.
Not a scratch on it, Cole thought. I can use that.
He stood in the clearing for several heartbeats, listening to the rainfall on the tents, pushing away any fear or doubt. It was too late to undo the horrors of the Purge, but he could still save what few Aeons remained. He could avenge his wife and brother, and everyone else who died by this man's hand.
Finally, he cast aside his helmet and shouted over the falling rain. "Mason!"
The Knight Commander blinked, glancing up from his breakfast. His face hardened when their eyes met. "How the hell—"
"Lieutenant Gallow is dead," Cole said, loud enough for the bystanders to hear. "Along with all his friends."
A few dozen men stopped to listen, and Cole paused to let the words sink in. He didn't know Gallow well, but he knew his type; when men like him got a taste of power, they milked it for all it was worth. As a result, they were rarely popular with the soldiers under their command. Gallow's death wouldn't earn him favor with the crowd, but it would pique their interest.
Mason only laughed as he sauntered out from the tent. "You should've run when you had the chance." Then, as if it were an afterthought, he nodded to his bodyguards. "Kill him."
The two men reached into their cloaks and drew their firearms.
Cole raised his shield and charged forward, kicking up snow as he ran.
They pulled their triggers, and he nearly lost his balance as the sounds drowned out the world. He felt the impact of the bullets against the iron shield. He cast the metal disc aside and drew his sword, closing the distance between them
The closest guard dropped his pistol and reached for his own blade.
Cole was quicker. He raised his weapon and opened the man's throat.
He sidestepped the corpse just as the second guard struck from the corner of his eye. Cole dodged the strike and countered with a blow of his own. A feint to the chest, then a twist to his forearm.
The man's sword fell to the snow, and Cole ran him through the chest, piercing leather, bone, and flesh.
In the space of one breath, he yanked the sword free and waved it in a wide arc toward the crowd. "Anyone else?"
When no one took him up on the offer, Cole straightened and faced the Knight Commander once again.
"Saul Mason, I hereby declare you unfit to lead, and I challenge for you for leadership of the Templar Order."
Mason's eyes narrowed beneath his silver mask "You can't challenge me. You're no Templar."
Cole looked around at the crowd which had now grown to include several hundred men. He hoped they'd heard the stories about their current commander; how'd slid into leadership after his father's death without any true show of strength. How Nathaniel Mason had always meant for Cole to lead.
His breath came out ragged from the fight, but he forced himself to keep it calm and steady. "You know the words of our order. One never stops being a Templar. We serve until death. You want to execute me for being a deserter?" He raised his sword to the other man. "Come and try."
Mason laughed again, shaking his head. "I'm not going to fight you, Cole."
"No," he agreed. "You wouldn't lift a finger until all your men had died for you."
"My men follow orders," he said. "Something a deserter would never understand."
The bystanders murmured in agreement this time, and Mason pressed his advantage. "And we won't be provoked by an Aeon sympathizer. You think anyone would follow you after you killed your own kind to defend them?"
Cole held his breath. This wasn't going well, though the odds had been stacked against him from the beginning. If the crowd turned against him in earnest, he'd be dead in a matter of seconds.
Fortunately, he had one last move. Cole drew the map from the front of his armor, holding it above his head. "I'm sure you've all seen this? It's the map your commander used to find this enclave. It came from someone on the inside."
"Aye," Mason said. "I have a spy here. Everyone knows this."
"A spy?" Cole asked with mock interest. "Or a master? It was an Aeon who led you here against the wishes of the Chancellor. A foreigner—someone who could benefit from a war."
"Enough of this," Mason interjected.
"The robed Valaysian man," Cole continued, louder than before. "He came to you in Dresten. He gave you this map. He told you when, where, and how to attack. You work for him. You're nothing but a pawn in the Aeons' game."
He spun on his heel, meeting the hundreds of faces in the crowd. "Your commander is weak, too afraid to fight Revera's true enemies, and too afraid to fight me now. His father was a good man, yes. but Saul Mason is an empty shadow—a mad dog, desperately clinging to a title he never earned."
"Enough," Mason said. "Bring me the traitor's head."
No one stepped forward. Many of the soldiers drew their weapons, but each looked to his neighbor before stepping forward. The officers exchanged glances in the tent behind their leader, weighing their options.
Cole drew in a sharp breath. As long as he had their attention, he might as well keep talking. "I know what it's like being ordered to kill innocent women and children. To burn homes and chapels in the night. I know what it's like to feel trapped by your oaths.
"This isn't why we became Templars. Now I'm offering you all a way out." He thrust an open palm in Mason's direction. "I ask you now, honorable members of the Templar Order, will you blindly follow this coward, or shall we fight?"
There was no uproar from the crowd. No cheering or cries for blood. But the men closest to him stepped away as if to make room for the inevitable duel.
Mason hid his anger behind a show a bravado, but Cole saw it in the man's eyes, smoldering at the fringes. He couldn't back down now, not after the army ignored his first order. His only way out was a show of strength.
Cole returned the Knight Commander's gaze with a smile and raised his sword again.
This time, Mason drew his own weapon and stepped forward into the clearing.