Thane raced through the tunnels beneath Whitecliff, slaying every Templar in his path. One by one they toppled to the rocky floor, their faces erased by flame.
The caves were an endless labyrinth of stones, crystals, and flowing water. The narrow spaces forced the Templars into tight groups, shoulder to shoulder.
One spark of flame, and they all burned.
He thought he'd never touch Ethermancy again after what happened to Kira. But on the contrary, this skill was all he had left. He clung to it, finding comfort in the familiar thrill of battle, drowning out the rest of the world.
Eventually, he emerged from the tunnel into one of the larger caverns. The crystal formations grew even denser here, with some rising as tall as two-story buildings. Smaller gems sparkled in the ceiling like stars in the night sky.
Thane spotted a young woman down the causeway, cloaked beneath a gray parka and a dark fur cloak. Red hair flowed out from her hood, framing her pale face.
Several weeks had passed since he saw her in-person, and it was clear that she was no longer the same innocent barmaid from the Moonstone Inn. Before, she'd shuffled when she walked, holding her head down and her arms close. Either that, or she'd been overly bold and desperate to prove herself.
Now, she planted each firmly on the ground in front of her, solid and heavy. Her posture was straight, and her feet took on a martial stance. This was a woman who had seen war and death in all its entirety. Someone who knew her own strengths and limitations.
"Where's my father?" Nahlia asked once they were close enough to speak.
Thane opened his mouth to reply when another squad of gunmen clattered out from a nearby tunnel. Nahlia ducked for cover behind a cluster of crystals, and Thane followed.
Bullets flew across the cave, sending fragments of dust and rock all around them. Thane drained the light from the nearest crystal and hurled an arc of fire over the pool.
"Where is he?" Nahlia shouted over the clamor.
"He's in the Templar camp," Thane replied. "Dueling Saul Mason for the title of Knight Commander."
"What?" She seemed more shocked by this than the flames he conjured with his bare hands.
"Long story." Thane waited for the next volley of bullets, then sent a counter strike across the spring. In truth, he didn't understand this ritual either. How could the Templars decide something as important as leadership with a simple duel? Humans.
"So if he wins"—Nahlia made a vague gesture toward their attackers— "will they retreat?"
Thane shook his head, thinking back to the siege of Dragonshard. "It could take hours for an order to reach them in this mess. Even if he kills Mason, not everyone will support him. They'll split into separate factions."
Nahlia gave a small nod of understanding.
Thane launched a final attack, and two more men went up in flames. The bullets stopped as the survivors retreated back through the tunnel.
Thane leaned against the smooth face of a nearby crystal, catching his breath. "What are you doing out here alone?" He finally asked. "Why aren't you at the boats?"
"I came back for the others," she explained. "The Raider twins, and the other battle clans. They're holding off the Templars."
What do you plan to do when you find them? Thane almost said. Then he remembered what her father said about her healing abilities. Had she developed her Ethermancy this past month along with everything else? He could only hope. Aegon knew he'd need all the help who could get.
When they emerged from their cover again, Thane saw another squad of Templars meandering down the path between hot springs. These men were unarmed as far as he saw, but they still moved toward him, giving no sign of surrender.
Thane drained another crystal and launched a flurry of red projectiles.
The lead Templar waved his hand, deflecting the flame.
He tried again, but they repelled each of his blasts with ease. These men wore the dark leather armor of Templars, but were something more. Aeons in disguise?
Thane hesitated for a split second. Should he keep fighting, or try to negotiate with them?
He was spared the need to decide when a deep, familiar voice spoke his name. "Thane Solidor."
He froze mid-motion, and the fake-Templars parted to reveal a robed Valaysian man. Tall and thin, he had a close-cut black beard and orange eyes.
"Master Zidane?" Nahlia left her cover and moved to stand beside Thane.
"You..." Thane narrowed his eyes. The Valaysian man was flanked by Templars now, just as he had been that day he came to Dresten. "You're the one who gave the Templars the map."
"I only did what the two of you could not." Zidane's voice was as calm as if he were giving a lecture. "But as I told you in Dresten, there's no reason for us to be enemies. The three of us have been working on the same side from the beginning."
Thane looked over his shoulder to see more fake-Templars appear behind him. Unlike the first group, these men carried blades and firearms. "In that case, why don't you call off your minions?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "Cooperate with me, and neither of you will be harmed. You have my word."
"I hope you didn't give anyone else your word today," Nahlia countered. "You sabotaged the boats, didn't you? People are dying because of you."
"I gave that order," he admitted. "But I did it to save lives. The Templars rigged the harbor entrance with explosives."
Nahlia rounded on Thane, shooting him a confused look.
"It's true," Thane said after a short pause. "That's the reason your father is fighting Mason. But..." He turned back to the Valaysian man "The Templars never would have known about that if you hadn't given them the map in the first place."
"I have my own reasons for helping them," Zidane said. "Just as you did."
The Templars continued to close in around them—at least a dozen now. Most had their weapons drawn despite Zidane's promise.
Zidane let them down the causeway toward the facade of an ancient stone structure. Thane and Nahlia had no choice but to follow.
"This enclave represents the last of the old world." He expanded his arms in a wide gesture. "For too long, the Aeons of this continent have hidden the secrets of our race. Aegon's church buries the knowledge of Ethermancy, suppressing our potential for true power. The Templars were merely a tool to bring it down. But a new order will rise from the ashes. A new ascendancy of power, and of knowledge.".
He turned to face the two of them. "This is what you've always wanted. Both of you. Nahlia Cole, you spent your whole life suppressed. Having to scavenge through rubble for the smallest piece of Aeon lore. Living in frustration, feeling weak and helpless as you watched your family die. You've always known there was a power within you, but you've never had the means or the courage to command it."
His orange eyes locked on Thane. "And you, Thane Solidor. You were once part of the greatest kingdom in the world. Now, you're forced to watch loved ones die. Forced to endure the insolence of your inferiors. Forced to fight back, cowed in a corner. I offer you power. The power to be a better king, and rise above all your ancestors."
He continued walking to where the path reached a dead-end. They passed under a stone archway and stopped at a solid rock wall.
No, not a wall. More like a door. Ceremonial-like pillars stood tall on either side, and two crescent-shaped holes sat its center, no bigger than his thumbs
Two moons. The sigils of Clan Trelian.
Thane assumed he'd been given this pendant for the purpose of communicating with Nahlia. But this ... could her mother have known all along?
A strong energy radiated from within. Stronger than the crystal lamps that hung throughout the cavern. Stronger than Etherite, even. And at that moment, Thane realized what this man was after. It was the same thing his father sent him here to retrieve.
Zidane ran his long fingers over the keyholes as if they represented a life-long obsession. "I trust you still have your pendants?"
Again, Nahlia turned to Thane before replying. A hundred possible lies ran through his head, but each one seemed just as unlikely as the first. Any Ethermancer worth his salt could sense the necklaces from this close. Besides, putting up a fight now would only put their captors on guard. Better to let Zidane think they were interested in an alliance.
Nahlia must have arrived at the same conclusion as she revealed a glowing piece of white Etherite from inside her cloak. Then, as if it were her own idea, she inserted the necklace into the first keyhole.
The stone panel gave a pulse of recognition, and they all looked at Thane in anticipation.
He held his own pendant to the keyhole, and it was a perfect fit. The door pulsed once more, then the two sections began pivoting inward. Stone scraped against stone, and a rush of cold, ancient air sighed through the gap.