Thane stared into the flame—a single source of light in the dark forest clearing. His mouth watered as the scent of sausage and potatoes wafted up from the small cookpot.
Northshire was two days behind them now. Hopefully, the same could be said for those Raider agents they’d seen.
During Thane's trip north, Saul Mason had marched the Templar army up the Emperor's Road from Raidenwood to Northshire. That was the most direct path, but the Seekers would be right behind them if they took the same route south. Instead, he led them through the miles of uncharted northern forests.
Even when Thane was a boy, he'd always been good with maps and navigation. Of course, maps had a way of making the world feel smaller than it really was. Three hundred miles meant a lot more when you felt the ground change beneath your feet.
He stared harder into the campfire, willing some of it to jump into his hands, or to fill his muscles with strength. He tried to make it do something. Anything.
The fire cracked and swayed of its own accord as if flaunting its autonomy.
In the Ethereal, Thane still had all his powers at his disposal. He could light a candle using nothing but his own willpower. He could vault a two-story building, erect a barrier against enemy attacks, or annihilate them with his own blasts. He still practiced his Ethermancy there every night, battling figments of his subconscious.
Meanwhile, in the physical world, the flames didn't budge. Not since his confrontation with Chronicler Zidane.
I ask you again, Thane Solidor, what do you fight for?
The Valaysian man's words echoed in his mind ever since their fight in the tomb beneath Whitecliff. Five simple words, a blatant ploy to break his will.
The problem was, Thane didn't have an answer. His body longed to fight, but his conscience resisted.
Thane's uncle always said there was only one true way to defeat an Ethermancer.
"You can take away his Etherite," his uncle said, "but a skilled Ethermancer can make use of any source of energy. Not just fire, but the light from the sun, the movement of a horse, or even his own body heat. Barring all that, an Ethermancer can call upon the Etherite in his own body and his connection to the dream realm.
"But if you take away an Ethermancer's will to fight, he's truly lost. Your opponent becomes nothing more than an ordinary man or woman."
What do you fight for?
Thane had sworn to protect Nahlia during this journey, but he'd already failed to protect Kira, the girl he loved. Two hundred Templar had stood between them, and Thane turned them all to ash and dust. In the end, that power consumed him too, and he'd lost her. So what good was protecting someone you cared about if it only lead to more killing? More death and destruction? What good was fighting, even for a noble cause?
Footsteps crunched the snow behind him and he grabbed the hilt of his sword. Thankfully, it was just Nahlia returning with an armful of firewood.
She knelt down and sprinkled some sort of wild herb over the pot. Thane stirred the contents with a forked willow branch. By now, the sausage had blackened around the edges, and the potatoes were golden-brown.
A moment of silence passed between them before Nahlia met his eyes. "You're still having trouble, aren't you?"
Aegon, of course it was only a matter of time before they had this talk.
"With your Ethermancy," she added. "We've been traveling together for almost a fortnight now. Don't think I haven't noticed."
"I'm fine," Thane said. Though his answer came more out of habit than an actual desire to lie to her.
She took a seat on the bedroll beside him, eyes serious. "When I freed you from Evervault, you promised me that we'd be honest with each other. Remember? No more secrets."
"I know." Thane pushed out a breath. "I'm sorry."
Nahlia grabbed a piece of flatbread that had been warming on the rocks around the firepit. Then she grabbed some sausage and potatoes from the pot and wrapped them inside the bread, making a sandwich of sorts.
Thane followed her lead. Once they were sitting side-by-side again, he cleared his throat. "I haven't been able to use Ethermancy since the fight with Zidane."
She nodded as if this were the answer she'd expected. "Did he ... take away your power somehow?"
Thane shook his head. "It wasn't him. It was me. I told you what happened in Dresten, right?"
Nahlia took a small bite of her sandwich and swallowed. "Actually, no, you've hardly said more than a few words about it."
So Thane settled back into the story as they ate. He told her who Kira was, and how she'd taken his sister's place as a Templar hostage. He told her about the night they planned to escape together, and how Lieutenant Gallow separated them.
There was a pause in his story, and Nahlia filled the silence. "I think I know this part. The Raider soldiers on Evervault said that you burned down Kyroth's keep, and all the Templars inside."
A gust of icy air filled the clearing, and Thane flipped up his hood. "Not just the Templars. Everyone. Your father and I were the only ones who got out alive."
He couldn’t see her reaction through his hood, but her hand rested on his a moment later.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Thane grabbed one of the fresh logs and set it on the fire. Orange sparks shot up as it settled in among the others. "There's a story in Aeonica about my ancestor, the Archaeon Kalazhan. He founded the order the Ethermancers known as the Sanctifiers, and he was the first Aeon to use fire as a weapon."
Nahlia sat still and silent. The only sound between them was the crackling of the flames.
"One day," Thane continued, "a group of humans kidnapped his wife and brought her back to their fortress. Kalazhan retaliated, of course. He broke down the gate to their fortress, and he killed anyone who stood in his way. At first, he was careful. He was still a disciple of Aegon after all, and he knew his creator advocated peace over needless violence. But Kalazhan was outnumbered, and caution gave way to chaos. Soon, everything was burning around him."
Eventually, Thane stopped talking and shook his head. "Well ... I'm sure you already know what happened to his wife. The point is, some people would call it a coincidence that Kalazhan and I shared the same fate. But when our ancestors died, their thoughts returned to the Ethereal, just as surely as their bodies returned to the earth. When we use Ethermancy, we're tapping into those same thoughts ... those same emotions. Some philosophers say it's the reason some of us can use Ethermancy while others can't. They also say this is the reason we're doomed to repeat our ancestor's mistakes."
"I didn't know it worked that way," Nahlia admitted.
Thane shrugged. "Like I said, it's only a theory."
"And what about free will?" she offered. "The Testaments say Aegon doesn't force us to make the right choices. Wouldn't that freedom work both ways?"
"And what if the 'right choice' is not to use Ethermancy in the first place?" Thane said.
"But Aegon gave us these gifts for a reason," she retorted. "What if you just need him to show you your purpose? To give you a new reason to fight?"
"A new reason to kill, you mean."
"No." Nahlia shook her head with surprising conviction. "You can still fight to defend yourself and the people you care about. I fought the Templars in the caves beneath Whitecliff, and I did it without hurting them. Isn't that the point of Ethermancy? So that we can be better than the people who fight with weapons? So that we can prevent conflict instead of causing it?"
"You got one taste of victory in Whitecliff," Thane said with an open-palmed gesture. "And now here you are, praising Aegon and all his goodness and glory. War doesn't always work that way."
Her brow furrowed. "That victory didn’t come easy."
"I know," Thane said. "And Zidane would have killed us both if it hadn't been for you."
Thane looked down, clasping his hands together. How could he explain this? "When you're first starting out, it's easy to see Ethermancy as simple. But it's dangerous, and it can twist even the noblest of intentions. The Redeemers’ power was one of the most dangerous of all."
"I understand that," Nahlia said. "It was that fear that prevented me from learning it in the first place." She paused for a moment as if considering. "But ... the Redeemers didn't fight the way Kalazhan and the others did. They only healed and protected people. How can that be twisted?"
Thane was about to open his mouth when the light left her face. Their fire had vanished, but it wasn't the soft steady way a fire normally died. It was quick and swift as a strike of lightning. As if all the energy—down to the last ember—had been stolen away.
Nahlia released a breath in the darkness. "Please tell me that was you."
Something whistled through the air, followed by a soft thunk.
A moan of pain escaped her lips as she toppled over, her head landing on his thigh.
Thane brought his hand to her neck and found a metal dart protruding from her skin.
This couldn't be the work of Casella Raider's agents. Whitecliff trained its students in archery, not poisonous darts. And definitely not in Ethermancy.
No. These were the assassins he'd faced in his dreams for the past two weeks. The ones his father warned him about. These were the Sile'zhar.