"So," Elias said the next day on the road, "what's our plan for getting through the most well-fortified city in the realm?"
Thane kept his eyes forward as he led them up the snow-covered hill. Raider loved to act like he was in charge ... until it was time to make a tough decision, then he graciously deferred to someone else. True, he had some natural leadership ability, but he was also a long way from his little academy.
"It's your home,” Thane said. “Figured you had a plan."
"If it were up to me," Elias said, "I'd avoid Raidenwood altogether."
"You know a better path across the Divide?" Thane asked. A part of him hoped he did. The canyon was almost two-thousand feet across, but if their ancestors could build an entire city on stone supports, surely someone could make a small bridge.
"We could sail around it," Elias suggested. "Take a ship from Aegon's Watch, and—"
"You've never sailed the Sunrise Sea before, have you?"
Elias didn't reply. The only sounds behind him were the crunch of footsteps on snow.
"The ships in Aegon's Watch only sail northeast to Valaysia," Thane explained. "Going south means dealing with Venetoran pirates and sea-dragons. Even If you get past them, you have Palavar's navy to contend with."
Elias let out a huff of annoyance. "So do you have a plan, or just geography lessons for us?"
"We have a plan," Nahlia broke in. "One of Thane's friends is meeting us outside the city walls. He'll bring enough Voidcap to get us through."
"Friend?" Elias asked. Thane still didn't turn around, but he could practically see him raising a skeptical eyebrow.
"More of an associate," Thane said. "An old informant from Dragonshard's criminal underworld."
"Criminal underworld," Elias echoed. "That's comforting."
"I trust him with my life," Thane replied. "He's never failed me before."
Despite Cole being the Knight Commander now, Raidenwood would be the most dangerous part of their journey. You could change laws overnight, but it took months for those reforms to reach the world's ears. Even longer to make them care.
Still, Thane’s informant was no stranger to high stakes. Joron had brought Thane supplies in Dresten when he needed them. He'd even scrounged up a ship and sailed them to Whitecliff in the middle of a storm. If anyone could get them through Raidenwood safely, it was him.
Avoiding any major roads, Thane led them through dense forests, around lakes, and over rivers. Thankfully, their path grew easier as they moved further south. Snowcapped mountains gave way to foothills and foothills gave way to open farmland.
They'd been traveling for four days when Nahlia suggested telling stories.
"That's what people do when they're traveling together," she said one night around the campfire. "Not that I don't find the constant bickering entertaining, but a little variety is always nice."
"What kind of stories?" Relyn asked.
Nahlia shrugged. "Anything really. Ones you've heard around other fires. Things that have happened to you or people you know.” A short pause. “You’ve really never done this before?”
“Don’t forget,” Relyn said. “We didn’t grow up all nice and normal like you.”
Over time, their party settled into a familiar rhythm. Elias and Nahlia practiced their martial arts in the morning while Relyn taught Thane how to track and hunt. Once the sun rose, they walked up to twenty miles until it set again. Finally, they gathered around the fire every evening for stories.
Elias told the story of how he and Ciena had discovered lost Ethermancy books in Whitecliff's library. He explained how the books always vanished despite their best efforts to hide them. And–many years later—how he and Nahlia had found them locked away in the Chronicler's office.
For some strange reason, Nahlia's cheeks turned red at the end of this last story.
Relyn told the tale of how she and her uncle fled their home in Valaysia two years ago. Palatine had arrived in her land, seducing her family and the Sile’zhar with promises of power and a better Aeondom.
Only her uncle had seen through Palatine’s deceit that day, and he’d been forced to leave after a heated debate with Relyn’s parents. Relyn wanted nothing to do with Palatine, and she took her uncle's clan name, leaving her old name and her old life behind her.
Thane respected the fact that she stuck to her principles instead of blindly following her parents. Many didn't have such courage.
Nahlia told them about her days in Northshire. About how she and her father had saved enough coin to open the Moonstone Inn, and how she'd worked as a librarian's apprentice, searching for ancient pieces of Aeon lore. Here, she’d learned about the Redeemers and took her first steps toward learning Ethermancy.
After five or six days of this, the others decided it was Thane's turn to provide the evening's entertainment.
"Come on," Nahlia said from across the campfire. "The rest of us have all told at least one story by now."
"Several," Relyn amended.
Thane shrugged, taking a long drink from the wineskin they'd bought in Darkdale. "My memories are my own."
"Just because we told true stories doesn't mean it's a rule," Nahlia said. "How about telling us one you've heard before?"
"Good idea," Relyn said. "That way, you can keep us entertained while still being mysterious and brooding."
Thane glared at Relyn, and she snapped her mouth shut.
Oops. Sometimes that Solidor glare slipped out unintentionally. His father always ruled that way, and most of his advisors were too afraid to speak against him. Thane always swore he'd be a different sort of ruler, but sometimes destiny overruled desire.
That was one reason he had loved Kira. She had brought out a different side of him—a side of him that enjoyed life instead of fighting and asserting dominance. The exact opposite of his father, and the entire Solidor clan. If she were here now, she would have told him to stop brooding too.
"Alright," Thane conceded with a light shake of his head. "I'm not sure I know many stories, though."
"Seriously?" Nahlia didn't bother to hide her disbelief. "You know more about Ethermancy and Aeon lore than any of us. Isn't Dragonshard's library one of the biggest in the world?"
"Just because I had a giant library," Thane said, "doesn't mean I spent any time in it."
Nahlia’s jaw dropped at this, and Elias looked equally surprised. If only Thane's instructors had forbidden Ethermancy books instead of shoving them down his throat. Then he might have read more too.
"How about something from Aeonica?" Nahlia said. "You've at least read that, right?"
"So have you," Thane pointed out. "And between the two of us, I'm sure you're the better storyteller."
"Northshire only had the first volume," she replied. "Aren't there like ... six in total?"
"Nine," Thane corrected. It was only after the words left his mouth that he saw the trap.
"See?" Nahlia’s lips curled into a satisfied smile as she gesture across the fire. "Look how much I have to learn."
"Fine, fine." Thane glanced down at his knees, scratching his head. "What does everyone want to hear, then?"
Elias cleared his throat. "How about Palatine?"
"Well," Thane said. "I can't say much about the modern-day Palatines, but I could tell you about their ancestor and namesake, the Archaeon." He nodded and took another drink."Now there's a story they wouldn't tell you in Whitecliff. Or most of the world, for that matter."
"Exactly," Elias replied. "The three of you all seem to know a lot about him, but I'm left out in the cold. Everyone says Clan Palatine is the enemy and that we should fear them, but no one ever says why."
“Actually,” Nahlia said, “I’m in the same boat as you. Everything I learned about Palatine, I learned in Whitecliff.”
"I know one story from Aeonica," Thane said. "But don't expect sugar and peaches like the way Nahlia tells them. No fancy rhymes or meter."
He drew in a long breath, letting his voice roll out deep and smooth, the way his grandfather used to speak. If he had to tell this story, he was going to do a good job of it. "Most likely, this story contradicts everything you've heard in the Testaments and history books. Many Aeons would call it heresy. Many humans would call it myth. All I ask is that you sit and listen, and decide the truth for yourself.
"Sit and listen, for I tell you the tale of Rivian, Archaeon of wisdom, and Palatine who loved her until death did them part..."
In those days, the three continents of Aeondom were all of one great land. A land whose name is long lost to time. On this single land, there were many empires who were always at war with one another. Today, we call this the Pre-Ascension War. In the centuries since, there have been many, many wars. But more people died in this war than in all the other wars combined.
In those days, there were no Aeons. There were only humans, and the humans kept building new weapons of destruction.
They built airships that could soar the skies like dragons. They built cities so tall, their buildings scraped the clouds and cloaked their streets in shadow. Worst of all, they built explosives so bright and so terrible, they turned those cities to ash and dust.
To put an end to this dark age, Aegon tore open the sky and sent the world a small sliver of his power. Shards of glowing white stone fell from Eternity, and Aegon chose six people to receive these gifts—three men and three women. They were Raiden and Vashet, Vaulden and Kalazhan, Treluwyn and Palatine.
The six who ascended called themselves Aeons because they were immortal, undaunted by time. Because they were followers of Aegon, closer to divinity than any other living thing. Because their ascension marked the beginning of a new era.
The six Aeons worked hard to end the war, but their efforts were never enough.
The Aeon Palatine described the war as a great avalanche that only grew stronger with time. He pleaded with Aegon, "Send down more of your power from above. Let it cleanse this world and end the war once and for all. Let history learn from their mistakes and let us start anew."
Aegon refused to give up hope, and so he began searching for a seventh being to bestow with his power. A seventh Aeon to lead the others toward the peace he desired.
As I said, there were many great empires in those days, but greatest of all was the land in the west, ruled by the city of Tor Rivia. Aegon sought out the empress of this city, and he saw that she was good and just and loved by her people. One of the few beings in this world who might bring an end to the centuries of fighting.
And so the empress became Rivian, greatest of all Aeons. She was no Redeemer, Justicar, or Sanctifier. Instead, she belonged to her own order called the Heralds of Aegon. Aegon gave her the gift of sight, and with this gift, Rivian saw the world as Aegon did. She saw everything at once, beyond space and time. Rivian saw everything that was, and everything that would come to pass.
With this gift, Rivian sowed the seeds of peace all throughout the land. For years she worked with the other Aeons. And while many of them saw no light beyond the storm, Rivian saw hope and a chance for peace.
In order to secure an alliance between the east and the west, Rivian wed Palatine. Today, you know Palatine as the Archaeon of ambition. In those days, he was the emperor of the east. Their marriage succeeded in uniting the two nations, and with this unity, they brought an end to the fighting at last.
For fifty years, Rivian and Palatine worked side by side. And for fifty years, the nations lived in harmony. Despite this, Aegon demanded perfection of the Aeons who followed him. Aegon had created this world, but he expected them to tend to it.
"Who are you," Rivian said, "to sit on your throne in Eternity while we labor?”
"Who are you," Palatine said, "to make us bow so low?"
Of course, many claimed Aegon was their creator, and this gave him a divine right to rule. Even more so than the right Aeons had to rule over humans. Many Aeons were more than glad to serve him.
But Rivian and Palatine knew the secret truths of the world. Unlike the others, they had spoken to their creator. They knew Aegon was neither infallible nor all-powerful. Just as Aeons had once been humans, so too had Aegon once been like them—a powerful being who had ascended to Eternity from another world of mortals.
Rivian and Palatine were the strongest beings in the world, but they wanted more. And so Rivian told Palatine, "If one being can ascend, then so can another. Just as our world collides with the Ethereal, so too can it collide with Eternity above."
So together, they plotted to enter Aegon's realm and overthrow him. Together, they crafted a ritual that would open the Gates of Eternity.
But despite the weakness Rivian thought she sensed, Aegon was still all-knowing, and he saw their plots forming in the shadows.
"Stop," Aegon ordered Rivian, "Or else you will surely bring about your own destruction. For the wrath of Eternity is too much for your world to bear."
And so Aegon sent the other Aeon clans against them: Raiden, Kalazhan, Treluwyn, Vaulden, and Vashet. They attacked with all their children and grandchildren. Every other Aeon in the known world surrounded the city of Tor Rivia and ordered her to stop.
Still, Rivian refused.
Lastly, Aegon appealed to Palatine. While Rivian’s gift of sight made her the greatest of all Aeons, Palatine’s raw power gave him a strength she lacked. Aegon warned Palatine of the dangers of this ritual. He told him their world was in danger, and he ordered him to stop Rivian by any means.
So Palatine stood there in the tallest tower of Tor Rivia, watching his enemies close in around them. He loved Rivian with a passion like fury, but he loved power most of all. He knew that even if he and Rivian ascended together, she would always be the one in control. Better to rule this world alone with Aegon's favor than to be her second in Eternity.
And so without a word, Palatine pulled out his sword of white Etherite. With the blade glowing in the pre-dawn light, he struck down the one he most adored. With tears in his eyes, he plunged the blade into her heart.
With Rivian dead, Palatine became the strongest being in all Aeondom. Even the others' combined might was no match for him. But that did nothing to ease his pain. Aegon had created them to end all wars, and now he’d ordered them to fight and kill each other? Where was the sense in all of it?
Now, at the end with nothing to lose, Palatine chose to ascend alone.
Frenzied by grief, he cursed the skies. "Bring your fire ," he told Aegon. "Let this world burn, and let Eternity be mine."
But Aegon retaliated. True to his word, the silver flames of Eternity were too much for this world to bear. The sky was torn asunder, and argent fire and brimstone fell from the veil. It leveled cities and villages, destroyed forests and mountains. It split apart the continents, forming rifts and seas between them.
But Palatine survived, even as so many others perished. In the west, a new civilization grew from the ashes, and Palatine returned to his empire in the east—now far across the sea.
Some say he passed on the knowledge of this ritual to his descendants. They say that even now, Clan Palatine plots to finish what their Archaeon started.”
Thane reached for the wineskin when the story was done. He hadn't spoken this much in weeks, and the effort left his throat dry.
"Wow," Elias said after a short silence. "You weren't kidding about that heresy bit, were you?"
“I don’t get it,” Relyn said. “Which part is heresy?”
Elias reached for the wineskin. “The Testaments say that Aegon has always been all-powerful, and always will be. You can’t just … just try to overthrow him. That’s like trying to destroy the sun because you’re too warm. Even that’s an insufficient analogy.”
“But they failed,” Nahlia said. “That just shows how ridiculous they were to try.”
Thane shrugged. "Now you know what we're up against. Even if this story—or most of it—is a myth. The leader of Clan Palatine has been trying to conquer Revera for over a century. He killed Nahlia’s ancestor in the Ethereal, started the Purge, destroyed Whitecliff, and sent those Sile'zhar after us.
"The Palatine today isn't the same man from the story, but he is his descendant, and few things have changed. He's still the most powerful Aeon alive, and he still believes this world is his to rule."