Book 2: The Justicar's Heir
Thane kicked up sand as he raced through the empty market streets. Two Ethermancers charged after him, their footsteps echoing off the rough cobbles.
Buildings blurred past him, and the evening sun hung low in the sky, turning his eyes to slits. Blasts of fire soared by as he ran. One grazed his cheek, close enough to singe his hair.
Heat closed in around him as his opponents razed his path. A fruit stand flipped over on his left, filling the air with scents of citrus. Another blast shattered a shop window, spinning the wooden sign on its hinges.
Thane ducked into a narrow alley just as a palm tree toppled over with a resounding crack. He slowed his pace in the half-light, almost stumbling over a pile of broken bricks.
A third Ethermancer appeared at the opposite end, a black silhouette against the evening glow.
These masked men had haunted his dreams ever since Whitecliff. Before, he'd always dreamed of fighting his old instructors, Templars, or enemy soldiers from Palavar. Now it was these faceless, black-clad assassins.
No matter. He needed the practice. Good rivals sharpen the mind like a grindstone sharpens steel, his uncle used to say.
The man in front of him raised his palms in an offensive stance. Flames erupted like torches in his gloved hands. The other two caught up with Thane at the other end of the alley, and the three attacked in unison. Darkness gave way to primal red light as the fire closed in around him.
Thane extended both arms, creating a barrier against their flames. Each blast came as relentless as the first, and sweat coated his forehead as he struggled to keep the heat at bay. One by one, flames exploded mere inches from his face. Chunks of stone struck his skin, and he held his breath against the rising smoke.
Should he risk a counter-attack? No ... it wasn't worth dropping his defenses. But he couldn't stay pinned down like this either. Not when it was three against one.
Thane caught their next flurry and redirected it toward the dirt beneath his boots. He jumped, and the explosion vaulted his body up and over the two-story building. Such a simple feat took years of practice. The timing had to be perfect, as did the amount of energy you sent into the floor. Too much, and you'd die in the detonation. Too little, and you'd land right back on the ground. Usually, in an undignified heap.
His opponents were already airborne by the time Thane landed on the smooth stone roof. He rained fire down upon them, knocking one of the masked men into the alley's opposite wall. The other two repelled his blasts and joined him on the roof.
They exchanged strikes for several heartbeats, bursts of flame soaring faster than thought. Gusts of wind blew over the cityscape, but they provided no relief from the heat.
Once the fight fell into a familiar rhythm, Thane whipped a knife from his belt and sent it whirling into the closest man's shoulder. The assassin stumbled back, nearly toppling over the edge. Ethermancy couldn't block weapons, and many practitioners relied on it too much, neglecting their traditional martial skills.
Well, most Ethermancy couldn't block weapons. Apparently, Nahlia could stop bullets, but that was another matter.
Thane lunged forward to finish him. The other man regained his balance, yanked the knife from his shoulder, and slashed back at Thane.
The second assassin drew a katana and closed in. Thane ducked as the sword sliced through the air. Another slash pushed him to the roof’s edge, forcing him to jump to the next house over.
Thane took off in a dash, crossing five or six alleys until he reached the edge of Hightown. From here, it was a twenty-story drop to the lower tier.
Twenty stories. Two-hundred feet. Five seconds to the bottom.
Aegon, but he hated heights. Still, all the more reason to practice this move. A move he usually failed.
His opponents landed behind him, weapons swinging.
Thane released a volley of orange projectiles, taking the knife-wielder in the stomach. The man toppled over without a sound, flames rising from his dark tunic.
The swordsman closed in, and Thane lunged forward, putting himself between the assassin and his blade.
The other man dropped his sword and forced him back to the precipice. The assassin out-weighed him by twenty pounds, but Thane didn't bother resisting. Instead, he grabbed hold of the man's arms. The assassin’s dark eyes widened behind his masked face as Thane took a step back, pulling them both over the edge.
His cloak billowed as he fell back. Wind lashed against his neck, and the roof receded at an alarming rate. Thane kept his hands locked firmly around his opponent's wrists. The other man couldn't move, but neither could he.
Unfortunately, Thane would be the first to hit the ground at this rate.
With another burst of Ethermancy, he kicked off the wall behind them, sending both himself and his opponent in a spin. The world blurred in a whirlwind of blue sky and white rooftops. An empty street rose up to meet them like a dragon devouring its prey.
Thane waited until the ground was under the assassin then he released the man's arms, sending a final burst of fire into his chest.
The impact propelled Thane’s own body upward. He spun through the air, barely landing feet-first on a nearby rooftop. Bones cracked behind him as his opponent hit the cobbles below.
Thane staggered forward, fighting down waves of dizziness and nausea. The surrounding city was quiet now. Quieter than any real city ever was.
He took several ragged breaths, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. From here, he had a clear view of the skyline in all its wonder.
Dragonshard. His destination. His kingdom. His home.
A wide thoroughfare cut through the center of Lowtown, starting at the city gates and ending at the lifts and staircases toward Hightown. Beyond that, the palace loomed above him like a shard of glass protruding from the earth. The stone monument stood over five hundred feet tall, twice the size of any man-made structure. According to legend, the palace was once a meteorite that fell from the sky during one of the first Etherstorms, and Thane’s ancestors had spent centuries hollowing it out.
It was hard to imagine the palace starting as something so crude, but it made sense. Most natural rock formations were wider at the bottom and narrow at the top. Dragonshard's palace was narrow all the way through. More like a giant sword than a mountain. In fact, most architects and geologists agreed that it shouldn't even be standing.
Of course, that didn't stop Clan Solidor from making their homes on the top floor. Kalazhan's descendants had lived in Dragonshard for fifty generations, enduring years of storms and war. No reason to think it should fall now.
Thane shook his head to clear it. Six months had passed since he laid eyes on this city, and it could be another six months before he saw it again. For now, the memories in the Ethereal were all he had.
"Are you finished?" A man's voice, low and sudden like a throb of thunder.
He spun around to see the king of Dragonshard standing on the tiled roof beside him. Like Thane, he had an angled face, bright green eyes, and a dark complexion. His onyx hair was slicked to the back of his neck, and his beard was close-cut, scattered with gray around his chin.
Thane's attempts at avoiding his father had been successful until now. Unlike the Etherite pendants he and Nahlia shared, his ring wasn't bound to any of his father’s jewelry. The only other way for two people to communicate in the Ethereal was if they'd cultivated a bond. The stronger the bond, the easier it was for one person to instigate a conversation without the other's consent.
Unfortunately for Thane, he and his father shared such a bond.
"It's been three days," the king said with more than a hint of reproach. "I expected your report by now."
"It's been a busy three days," Thane countered. "I was captured by the Raiders. I'd probably be dead right now if it hadn’t been for Nahlia."
"I see." The wind caught his father’s cloak as he stepped forward. "And the Codex? I trust you have retrieved it?"
Straight to the point as usual. Would it be too much to inquire about his son's well-being? Would it be too much to ask about the hundreds of Aeons who died fighting at Whitecliff? Apparently, this two-thousand-year-old artifact was all that mattered.
Your father chose to serve, Zidane's words echoed in his memory. In return, Clan Solidor will be rewarded. You will have more power than you ever did under the old emperor.
Aegon, what a mess. Even after having days to prepare for this moment ... what could he say? How could you accuse your king—your own father—of treason?
"I faced another Ethermancer in Whitecliff," Thane began. "He went by the name of—"
"Zidane," Father offered.
"You know him?"
"I don't." He ran his fingers through his dark beard, his rings catching the evening sun. "But rumors are circulating in the north. They say he's the one who betrayed Whitecliff Enclave to the Templars. I also heard you let him get away."
Well informed, as usual. What else does he know? "Zidane was after the Codex too. He claimed to serve the ruler of Palavar."
Thane watched the king's eyes for recognition or guilt. His expression betrayed nothing. Of course, a blank face meant little on a king.
"Curious," he said after a short pause. "But you still haven't answered my question. Does this Zidane have the artifact, or do you?"
Another bead of sweat slipped down Thane’s temple and he swiped it away. "Zidane told me that our goals align. He knew you sent me to Whitecliff to retrieve the Codex. He told me you serve Palatine too."
The king waved a dismissive hand. "I suspect this man was trying to manipulate you. More accurately, I'd say he succeeded. Just as he succeeded in manipulating the Templars, and the Aeons of Whitecliff."
"So you deny it, then?"
"Dragonshard bows to no one,” his father replied. “You know this."
"Now you aren't answering my questions. Have you or have you not allied our kingdom with Sovereign Palatine?"
His eyes darkened like a storm. "Don't presume to interrogate me, boy. I know things have been hard on you this past week, but don't take advantage of my good graces."
"Well," Thane said, "far be it from me to ask about our city's future."
"You may do so when the time is right. But I gave you this mission, and now I expect a report. Unless Dragonshard no longer has your loyalty?"
As usual, their conversation played out more like a game of Cruscendo. An exchange of strategic moves to see who would surrender the information first. The moves would continue until one of them either gave ground or set fire to the board.
Thane usually lost these games, but not today. Once his father knew Nahlia had the Codex, there would be no reason for him to remain here.
So Thane gave his father the bones of his report. He explained how he and Cole sailed north and found the enclave under siege. He told him about Cole's duel with Mason, and how he ventured into the depths below the academy. He described his fight with Zidane and his masked assassins. About how they used their pendants to open the Archaeon's tomb, and how Nahlia used those same pendants to defeat Zidane.
The line of irritation returned to his father's brow.
"I don't have the Codex," Thane finally said.
The king held his gaze, his hawk-like eyes unflinching. "But you know who does."
Thane said nothing, but he could feel his own expression betraying the answer.
He gave a satisfied nod. "I don't care if you're the one carrying it. So long as it arrives in Dragonshard."
"Palatine let thousands of innocents die to get this," Thane said. "If Dragonshard is allied with him, then I want no part of it."
His father turned to face the Ember Sea. "Palavar is sending a fleet to Revera. And yes ... they've offered us an alliance. But contrary to what Zidane told you, we haven't agreed to anything. In the meantime, it never hurts to have something your enemy wants."
Well, that sounded like his father, at least.
The king's gaze fell from the horizon to the corpse in the street. "The men you killed looked like Sile'zhar."
Thane hadn't considered that before. It was said that the famous assassin sect from Valaysia could infiltrate anywhere in the world if the price was right. They also recruited Ethermancers, which would explain the fire. Whitecliff's Chronicler could never have afforded them. His master, on the other hand...
"Be wary," Father continued. "If they came for the Codex in Whitecliff, they'll track you again. The journey home may be difficult."
And with that, the king vanished back to the physical world.
Thane pushed out a sharp breath, and the tension left him like honey sliding off a spoon.
His father called Palatine their enemy, but he considered everyone an enemy. The Sile’zhar had their price, and so did the king of Dragonshard. Now he and Nahlia were bringing his father exactly what he needed to betray the realm.
It was a four-month journey to Dragonshard on-foot. They had until then to come up with a plan. If not, then Revera would have a new emperor on its hands.