Thane approached the cliff's edge, taking in the vast landscape within the Codex.
Well, he thought of himself as being in the Codex, but that wasn't technically true. More accurately, the Codex had transported him to a specific place inside the Ethereal.
The land beneath his boots was cracked and barren, and a forest of twisting trees filled the valley below. Orange hues tinted the smoke-darkened sky as distant volcanos spat out the earth.
The clay ground cracked as footsteps approached. There was a split-second of confusion before Thane recognized Relyn Vash standing there beside him. They'd been traveling together for several weeks now, and she normally dressed in such a no-nonsense manner—simple tunics and trousers with her hair pulled back in a knot.
Here, her raven hair fell down to her shoulders. She wore a long, dark tunic that fit tight across her torso and flared out like a skirt at the bottom. She even had kohl lining her eyes.
People appeared in dreams not as they were, but as they perceived themselves. In Relyn’s case, she obviously saw herself as far more feminine than what she projected in the physical world.
Thane didn’t have a mirror, but he probably looked more polished too. Unless he was training, he typically appeared in his court attire. His own hair was also cut short here as opposed to the long, unruly mess it had become on the road.
Relyn turned to face him and he realized he was staring.
"Where are we?" she asked. "I mean—is this based on somewhere in Revera?"
Thane continued to take in the landscape. Mountains surrounded them on every horizon, and the valley below dipped down into a canyon on its eastern side. It looked familiar somehow, as if he'd been here before. But that was a common enough sensation while dreaming. The Ethereal had a way of amplifying certain emotions, especially nostalgia.
"Nowhere I recognize," Thane finally admitted.
Another volcano shot up in the distance, and scores of dragons fled from the eruption. Packs of two-legged raptors and four-legged drakes scurried along the rocky terrain while black-feathered wyverns tore through the sky.
Thane's family kept domesticated versions of these breeds, but he also spotted long-extinct species down there. Some of the herbivores had necks as long as trees, while others bore armor-like scales.
"There are plenty of dragons," Relyn noted. "But where's this Archaeon you kept talking about?"
Thane was about to reply when something squeezed the edges of his mind. At first, he had assumed it was his imagination, but now the sensation grew stronger by the second. It felt like being suffocated, despite being able to breath.
Relyn must have felt it too because her eyes went suddenly round. "What is that?"
Thane whirled around, trying to find the source of their assailant. "The Codex ... it's trapping us here."
"What?" She drew in a few long breaths, acting as if each one were a struggle. "Why?"
"I don't know. It might be testing us somehow."
Relyn opened and closed her eyes several times in rapid succession. They'd fought side-by-side in Starglade, and she hadn't looked half as afraid then as she did now. But Thane understood— knowing you were trapped was often worse than the prospect of death in battle.
"The feeling will pass," Thane told her. "Your physical body is paralyzed, but you can still move here. Just try to—"
"I changed my mind." Relyn took a few steps toward the cliff's edge. "You can play with this thing by yourself."
"Wait!" Thane seized her arm and hauled her away from the precipice. "It won't let you leave."
She rounded on him, jade eyes blazing. "If we die here, then we have to wake up."
Thane shook his head. "The Codex is trapping your consciousness. If you die, your thoughts won't return to your body. They'll scatter in the Ethereal."
"How could you possibly know that?"
"Because," he said. "I've felt this before."
"The day I fought your Headmaster."
Relyn muttered several Valaysian curses under her breath. She yanked her arm free, but kept a safe distance from the cliff's edge. Smoke blocked out the sky as the volcanos grew more violent.
"Did you know this would happen?" she demanded
"No," Thane said. "But I did warn you it might be dangerous.
Above, three dragons emerged from the smoke, circling in the air like vultures.
Understanding dawned on Relyn's face, and she nocked an arrow in her bow.
Thane didn't bring a weapon, but he'd had enough of those in the physical world. Blades and firearms had their place, but this was the Ethereal. Here, he had all his abilities at his disposal.
Besides, the best way to fight dragons was to turn their own fire against them.
The creatures' feathers stuck up as they circled lower around the plateau—black silhouettes against the red sky.
"Stay close," Thane said to Relyn. "They're about to—"
The dragons breathed in unison, and pillars of fire fell from every direction.
Thane threw up his hands and seized the flames, spinning them around their bodies like a whirlpool. His throat went dry in seconds, and sweat soaked through his tunic. He tried to keep a safe distance between them and the inferno, but the dragons were relentless in their assault.
Thane pushed harder against the churning tempest as sweat clouded his vision. He moved the fire faster like a spinning ring. Then he released his grip, hurling it back at his opponents.
One dragon let out a screech of pain. The other two had been clever enough to dodge. Now, they both dove toward them, baring fangs and claws.
Relyn loosed an arrow, hitting one of the creatures between the eyes. It didn’t seem to care.
One landed in front of Thane, lashing out with its razor-sharp claw. Thane jumped back, feeling a gust of wind as it passed his forehead, a hair's breadth from tasting blood.
The dragon lunged forward with a roar. Thane ducked down and cut sliced upward with a whip of dense flame, cutting through feathers, tendons and muscle.
The heat sealed the wound as quickly as it opened it. Otherwise, the blood would have struck him like a shower of acid rain. Thane dove to the side before he was crushed under the creature's weight.
He turned to see Relyn wrapped around the other dragon's head, burying a dagger into its skull. If she had a sword, she might've done more damage. As it was, her opponent just looked angry.
Relyn held on even as it whipped its head back and forth. Then, without warning, the dragon flapped its wings and soared for the clouds.
That’s not good.
Thane was still watching their ascent when the first dragon—the one he'd hit in the air—landed on the plateau in front of him. He met its yellow, reptilian eyes as they each readied their attacks.
Flames gathered between Thane's fingers as he drew upon the Ethereal's infinite energy. The dragon spread its wings as it stirred the gases in its stomach.
Thane struck first, landing a hard blow across the creature's snout. The dragon countered with a wider burst of flame which Thane redirected to either side. They continued for several heartbeats, exchanging blows from opposite ends of the plateau.
If Thane wanted to, he could close in and finish this fight as quickly as the first. Dragons were stronger than Aeons, but they lacked the willpower to create a mental defense.
But more corpses wouldn't help Relyn. To do that, he needed this one alive. Dragons showed dominance through raw power, not tricks or brutality. And right now, a submissive dragon was more useful to him than a dead one.
Up above, the other dragon thrashed through the sky while Relyn hung on. To her credit, she didn't scream.
Thane's opponent found a break in his defense and landed a hit. Flames seared through his tunic, burning the flesh beneath. Thane snuffed out the fire and ignored the pain.
Aegon, what he would give to have Nahlia here right now.
Thane increased his rate of attack, blasting his opponent again and again. After a few seconds of this, the dragon opened its wings to retreat.
Thane launched a fiery arc through the air, pinning it to the ground before it could move.
"Surrender," Thane told the dragon. "I'll let you live if you help me."
The dragon responded with a defiant roar.
"Stop," Thane spoke in a low inflection as if speaking to a stubborn child. "It's pointless to keep fighting. You will surrender to me."
Dragons couldn't speak, but they caught glimpses of language, the same way Aeons received glimpses of Aegon's power. This dragon wasn't real, but it was bound by the same rules. Even if its creator—the Archaeon—had meant for it to be a mindless killer. In many ways, the Ethereal was like watching a play. Actors and designers worked hard to create a scene, but it required a willing audience. If the viewers chose to see something else, they would.
Like so many things in life, this was a matter of belief. That’s not to say that it was easy. On the contrary, it was one of the hardest things in the world.
The dragon attacked again, weaker than before. Thane closed his eyes and froze the fire in midair. He didn't throw it back this time; he'd made his point.
"You feel as if to surrender is to admit defeat," he said. "But your life is already mine. One ride, and I'll give it back. That choice is yours."
Thane put on a facade of patience, but Relyn had been in the air for over thirty seconds. Sile'zhar training or not, a non-Ethermancer wouldn't last more than a minute up there.
The dragon thrashed its head back and forth, but it made no move to attack. Thane dropped his defense and shut his eyes, reaching and sensing the currents of the creature's thoughts. He imagined the current slowing down, more like a soft river than a whirlpool. Controlling another's thoughts would be impossible outside the Ethereal, but all minds were connected here.
Pressed for time, Thane opened his eyes and approached the dragon with a show of confidence as if it were no longer resisting him. This was a trick he’d learned from the dragon tamers back home.
Act as if they’re no longer a threat, and they’ll believe it too.
Finally, the dragon stretched out its dark wings and bowed its head.
Thane stepped around the creature and climbed on its back. He'd ridden plenty of dragons back home, although he was used to having reins and a saddle. The best he could do now was grab onto its stiff feathers.
As if already sensing Thane's will, the dragon took off toward Relyn. The air was thick with ash, and the heat stung his eyes.
They soared over the valley until he saw Relyn through the smoke. She still clung to the dragon's neck despite its best efforts to be rid of her. Maybe if he—
Relyn's dragon spun through the air, and she flew free. This time, she did scream.
Thane steered his own dragon in her direction, but she plummeted past him toward the valley below. His dragon dove after her, but that wouldn't be enough. Dragons couldn't fly faster than a person fell. Even if they could, the valley was only a few thousand feet below them.
At best, that was fifteen seconds before she hit the ground.
Once Thane’s dragon was diving straight for the earth, he let go of its feathers and kicked off after Relyn.
He shot fire behind himself so he fell faster. Far more fire than what was safe or sensible.
Relyn reached out her hand, and Thane seized her wrist. Even as they spun through the air, she pulled herself up and clung to him.
The valley approached even faster than before. Thane shot out a burst of flame below them. The thrust slowed their fall, but it wasn’t enough.
Thane let out another blast. More fire than he could ever conjure in the physical world. Enough fire to scorch the earth.
The blast threw them up and away from the valley floor. He hit the ground and rolled several times. Pain shot through his arm and ribs as he landed, and the sand scraped his burns raw.
Thane pushed himself to his feet, brushing away ash and blood from his face. They'd landed in the valley at the foot of a mountain. He spotted a man-made stone tunnel to his right that seemed to go underground.
To his left, Relyn rubbed her head, still cursing like a Valyasian pirate. "I always wondered why dragon riders bothered with helmets."
"Let me see." Thane moved aside several strands of ebony hair to reveal a red gash on the side of her scalp. If this were the physical world, she would need stitches. Or in their case, she would need Nahlia.
"It's coming back!" Relyn pointed a shaky finger toward the sky where a dark form descended through the smoke.
"This way." He hauled her to her feet and darted toward the mountainside tunnel.
The dragon landed behind them with a storm of wind. They staggered down a flight of stone stairs as the fire filled the tunnel behind them. The heat singed Thane's back, and he dove forward, collapsing in a heap beside Relyn.
Up above, the dragon continued its assault, breathing flames and clawing the edges of the tunnel. Thankfully, it was too big to fit inside, and its fire was out of range.
As if to reinforce their safety, the Codex released its hold over their minds. Thane let out a long sigh of relief. It felt like he'd spent the last few minutes underwater and could finally breathe again.
Eventually, the dragon lost interest and flew away. The two of them lay on the stone landing for several minutes, breathing hard.
Relyn was the first to speak, "Aegon ... You really are an Ethermancer."
Thane tried to reply, but his throat was as barren as the landscape above. He patted around his belt, hoping his subconscious had the foresight to bring a water canteen. No such luck.
Relyn passed him hers, and he took a long, grateful drink.
"You used your power to save me," she went on, "and you didn't have to kill anyone."
Thane's eyes narrowed. She was referring to what happened with Kira, and how he believed his power was only good for war and destruction. But how could Relyn know about that unless ...
"Nahlia told you."
Relyn shook her head. "I was listening to you two that night before the Sile'zhar attacked."
"So you were eavesdropping," he said flatly.
"We were enemies then. And spying is what I do."
"Then you already knew I was an Ethermancer." Thane handed her the canteen and struggled to his feet once more, trying to ignore his burnt skin and broken ribs. "And you already know that a pep-talk won't fix things."
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “I was trying to say thank you. For coming after me up there.”
Thane gave a curt nod as he limped along the landing and down another flight of stairs. He briefly considered returning to the physical world while he had the chance. Of course, that probably meant fighting those dragons again if he wanted to return here.
Red crystal lanterns hung from the walls on either side, and the stairs were as smooth as freshly-sanded marble.
Footsteps echoed behind him as Relyn followed.
"The Codex might attack us again," Thane told her. "This is your chance to turn back."
She jogged to catch up until they were walking side by side. "We're in this together."
"You panicked before," he noted.
Relyn hesitated. "I was scared ... and taken by surprise. It won't happen again."
They reached the bottom after several flights, and their path expanded into a domed-chamber, as wide as Dragonshard's central thoroughfare.
The atrium fanned out into a dozen smaller passageways, and Relyn continued on ahead. "I think … I think I know where we are."
Thane raised an eyebrow. Did this mean they were somewhere in Valaysia?
"I saw the canyon from above," Relyn said. "We called that the Gorge." She pointed to the tunnel straight ahead. "I used to live down that way, on the battleclan plateaus."
Understanding hit Thane like a bolt of lightning. "Whitecliff?"
Relyn turned to face him. "The climate threw me off at first. Whitecliff was never so warm. Even in the summer."
"But this is the Age of Archaeons," Thane said. "If you look at the old conceptual maps, all the continents were part of one landmass called Paragia. Northern Revera was far closer to the equator back then."
Relyn nodded. "We call the continent Gaiah in Valaysian. I thought you had no name for it in your language?"
"We don't remember this land's original name," he clarified. "That didn't stop modern scholars from giving it a new one."
Relyn continued pacing around the chamber, stopping when she reached a closed stone door. "So was your story true?" she asked "Was Palatine the reason the continents were split apart?
"That's the thing about mythology," he said. "No one knows whether it's true or not."
Thane approached the stone door and saw the sigil of a falling meteor carved in relief on its surface.
"I think we're about to find out," Relyn said.
Then the door pivoted inward of its own accord. It was just like the doors to the tomb beneath Whitecliff—probably some sort of Etherite conduit with sigil scripts.
Thane stepped inside first, with Relyn following close behind. The chamber beyond was long and narrow, with tall stone pillars on either side.
The Archaeon sat on a throne of black and gold at the far end. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had dark-tan skin and long white hair. Glowing tattoos of white Etherite formed intricate designs all over his body from the top of his forehead, down to his bare chest and stomach.
Thane's breath caught in his throat, and he found himself unable to meet those pale silver eyes. In that moment, he believed his own story. Those were the eyes of a man who had tried to kill and overthrow his own creator, nearly destroying the world in the process.
Maybe Nahlia had been right all along. Maybe they should have left well enough alone.
"You are no descendant of mine," Palatine said. His voice had a deep resonance that filled every corner of the room. "I sense Kalazhan in you.”
The Archaeon squeezed his mind, and Thane felt the same throttling sensation as before—a dagger thrust into the currents of his thoughts. His legs buckled beneath him and he fell to his knees.
Palatine continued, "This knowledge is not meant for you."
Thane tried to speak, but his tongue couldn't form the words. He tried to fight back, but his body wouldn't budge. The Archaeon bore down on him with his mind, and the life seemed to pour out of him like water running down a drain.
"Wait!" Relyn stepped in front of Thane, raising her hands. Thane could breathe again now, but the throttling persisted.
“He's not your descendent,” she said, “ but I am."
Thane nearly choked on his surprise. The Codex had traced his bloodline to Kalazhan with seemingly no effort. Did Relyn think she could trick him?
Unless, of course, she was telling the truth.
"You..." The Archaeon paused, considering. "You are of Vashet. And yet ... I see a fragment of myself in you as well."
Relyn knelt down in front of Thane. "My grandfather—on my mother's side—was a descendent of Clan Palatine."
"That's not pure enough," the Aechaeon's voice cut like a blade. "This knowledge is for my true heirs, and no others."
"I understand," Relyn said. "But times have changed. It's twenty-six hundred years after the Ascension. I am your only living heir now."
Quick thinking. The truth was that Palatine's line was stronger than any in Aeondom, and his name was the only one to live on through the centuries.
Of course, the Codex didn't know that. Nor did it need to. Even if it could detect deceptions, Relyn had been trained for this sort of thing. If she believed her own words, maybe the Codex would too.
"And who rules Aeondom now?" Palatine asked.
"Rivian's descendants ruled for centuries," she replied, "then the humans conquered them."
Again, that was only half-true. The humans ruled Revera, but Palatine's true heir controlled Palavar and most of Valaysia. Even so, Thane saw the first glimpse of Relyn's plan.
"Humans?" The question rumbled out of the Archaeon like a storm.
"Yes," she explained. "They built weapons of war. Black powder firearms and cannons. They betrayed the Aeons and overwhelmed us with their numbers."
"Hmm..." Palatine leaned back on his throne. "Then perhaps the time has come."
"Forgiveness," Relyn said, "but the time for what?"
“The time to redeem our race and restore it to its former glory. The time to re-open Eternity’s gates and bring justice to our enemies. The time for the stars to throw down their spears, and cleanse this realm with their tears.”