Thane pulled a black hood over his eyes as he trudged through the crowded encampment. Shielding his eyes was an old habit, and a pointless one now that everyone knew he was an Aeon. He’d have to remedy that before he returned to civilization.
In many ways, Fang’s camp was exactly what you might expect from a group of traveling mercenaries. Tents were scattered around crude paths of mud and horseshit, scents of ale and tobacco filled the air, and the men’s shouts could be heard from half a mile away.
If nothing else, Thane had gotten better at meditating under cacophonous circumstances. Whether it was in his tent, the edge of camp, or the back of a moving wagon, he spent upwards of nine hours per day entering the Ethereal with the Aeons under his command.
Apparently, Fang aspired to build his own little network of spies and informants. But without Etherite, each Aeon in that web had to resort to traditional bonds. Bonds took weeks to form so it would have been impractical for every person to bond with every other. There simply weren’t enough hours in a day.
Instead, most networks used a series of conduits—Aeons positioned toward the middle of the web with ten to twenty contacts on the outside. Those conduits met with the outer informants in the Ethereal and reported back to the center.
That was where Thane came in.
Some days, it felt like a waste, especially since he wouldn’t be in the Onyx Company long enough for those bonds to bear fruit. Fang didn’t know he was dealing with the prince of Dragonshard, after all. Thane had used a false clan name when he signed his contract, and his first name was common enough among southerners that it wouldn’t raise suspicion. Beyond that, he kept his tattoo out of sight and made a fortress of his mind whenever Ilsa Nirvada was nearby.
Thane took a seat on a dry boulder between two oaks. Relyn joined him a few minutes later, leaning her bow and quiver against a nearby tree trunk. Instead of the Onyx Company blacks, she wore green-dyed hunting leathers. Her black hair was pulled back in a tight knot, and remnants of green-brown paint smeared her cheeks.
The two of them had spent plenty of time together since crossing Raidenwood. As a potential spy in Fang’s web, Relyn was one of the Aeons he was assigned to. However, they spoke little of the Codex in that time, nor did they try to enter it again. Even though Relyn had convinced it to share its secrets, it wasn’t worth rolling more dice. Not after it tried to kill them twice.
Besides, Thane already had a strong inkling for what this Codex held—it was a recipe for natural disaster. More accurately, it was Palatine’s ritual for opening the Gates of Eternity.
They had shared this finding with Nahlia and Elias, and the pair doubled down on their resolve to keep it far from Palatine and the Sile’zhar. They even started carrying it in shifts between the four of them, alternating every half-day.
Beyond that? Their guess was as good as Thane’s. As of now, they still planned on bringing the artifact to Dragonshard despite his father’s plans for when they arrived. Either King Solidor intended to use the Codex himself, or use it as leverage to make a deal with Palatine.
Sharing the Codex with his father wasn’t an option, but neither was wandering around in the wilderness with it. More than once, Thane wished they could just hide or destroy the cursed thing. But of course it had to be made of Etherite. Not only did that make it indestructible, but other Ethermancers could sense it.
Besides, Palatine already knew who had the Codex. Even if they managed to hide it, bury it, or drop it in the sea, that wouldn’t spare them from further threats or torture. It might not even slow their enemies down.
They still hadn’t discussed a plan for leaving the Onyx Company either. Joining had been a good plan on Nahlia’s part, especially given her predicament at the time. And in hindsight, it was their only means of crossing Raidenwood. Still ... just one more problem they had to solve.
Aegon, what a mess.
Relyn leaned forward to meet his eyes. “You ... want to get started?”
Thane turned to see her already sitting cross-legged on the rock beside him.
“Sorry.” He shook away the mountain of distractions. “Let’s do it.”
They’d tried to enter the Ethereal together several times now, but each attempt was met with failure. The Codex didn’t count, since that was more like using Etherite. Sure, both people would end up dreaming together, but they weren’t any closer to forming a bond.
“Let’s try something different today,” Thane said. “Just describe your home to me, and we’ll meditate there together.
“My home?” Relyn frowned. “Why?”
“It doesn’t need to be your home,” Thane clarified. “But somewhere with emotional significance would be ideal. If we want to form a bond, my subconscious needs to understand yours.”
She considered for a moment. “What about Whitecliff then?”
Thane shook his head. “I’ve been to Whitecliff, which means I’ll see what I expect to see. If this is going to work, I’ll have to experience it through you.”
“Seems like a lot of vague rules,” Relyn mumbled. “Why don’t we try your home instead?”
“Because,” Thane said. “I have more experience. Unless you think you can meditate to Dragonshard based on my descriptions alone? You said it yourself, they don’t teach lucid dreaming or bondforging until the final year of Whitecliff.”
She furrowed her brow. “Another stupid rule I never understood.”
“Really?” Thane asked. “I thought that one was obvious.”
Relyn gave him a flat look and he continued quickly, “For this to work, you need to tap into your subconscious mind, suspending disbelief about what’s possible. If children were taught these tricks, they might start thinking for themselves, wondering what else they can do.”
“Like Ethermancy,” Relyn mused. “So this is the first step?”
“In a manner of speaking. “For most, it’s the only step. And then there are exceptions—Aeons who have a talent for physical Ethermancy, but no skill in meditation or dreams. But with those fragile foundations, they never get far in their training.”
Relyn nodded along, wide-eyed and curious.
“But those are tangents,” Thane said with a wave of his hand. “You were about to tell me about your home”
With a sigh, Relyn settled back into her lotus position and closed her eyes. “My home was in the mountains, west of Tongshan in Northern Valaysia...” She trailed off, cracking open her eyes. “But your language is terrible for describing things.”
“So?” Thane said. “Use your own then.”
“You speak Valaysian?”
“No soqiun agia, kan’naja hojen agio.” Not well, but good enough to listen.
Relyn’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Did you just compliment my...”
“Nice try,” Thane said flatly. One word in Valaysian could mean a hundred things in Reverian depending on the tone, pitch or inflection. Native speakers loved to take advantage of this, but it didn’t take long for those jokes to grow old.
She shrugged. “Your accent really is terrible though. You sound like you just stumbled out of bed.”
“And your accent is lovely, Lady Vash. Wish I could say the same for your diligence. Now come on. We don’t have all day.”
Relyn closed her eyes again, steadied her breath, and began to speak. Valaysian had a rhythm to it he always admired. Sometimes, even the most mundane sentences could rival Reverian poetry.
Admittedly, Thane didn’t understand as much as he’d hoped. A part of him had expected her to use simpler phrases. But why would she? She just said that Reverian was inferior for descriptions. Of course she would pick words he didn’t know.
Still, he forced away his doubt and listened. Trying to understand each word would accomplish nothing, so Thane quieted his own thoughts, opening his subconscious to the deeper meanings. The current of his thoughts swirled like a vortex, in and out of the Ethereal.
He felt Relyn’s thoughts there, caught up in the tempest. Thane quickened his own breathing to match hers. Soon enough, they aligned in both pattern and rhythm. By now, he could no longer tell if she was still speaking. Once you were deep enough in meditation, language ceased to matter.
The cool winter air grew warmer against his face, and he heard the rush of waterfalls behind him. Thane cracked open his eyes, and he saw lanterns hanging from a curved roof, and a bright violet sky.
He stood on a covered bridge between two wide pagodas. Thick foliage covered the surrounding mountains—greener than anything he’d ever seen in the jungles of Dragonshard.
Relyn stood beside him on the bridge. Once again, her feminine appearance here was a stark contrast to her face paint and hunting garb in the physical world.
She gazed around wide-eyed at their new surroundings. “I can’t believe that worked.”
Neither could Thane, to be honest. They’d be lucky if they could recreate their success tomorrow. Sometimes, remembering a perfect meditation was like remembering a non-lucid dream. This was why no book could explain the techniques, and every student complained until he experienced it for himself.
Relyn set off toward the largest of the two structures, and Thane followed. The wind caught their cloaks as they walked, and the air was thick with the waterfall’s mist.
The bridge connected to a balcony, and they continued under the eaves of the upward-curved roofs. Once they were inside, Relyn paused as if she might remove her boots, then she continued without comment.
“You told me you’ve meditated into the Ethereal before,” Thane said.
“Of course.” Relyn kept walking, leaving a trail of water droplets on the polished stone floor. “I formed a bond with another of Whitecliff’s Seekers. He’s my conduit to Lady Raider.”
“And in all that time, you’ve never visited your own home?”
“Why would I?” she retorted.
They passed under another archway, stepping into a smaller atrium with a mosaic tiled floor. Two black-clad figures—a man and a younger woman—were sparring in the center of the courtyard. The man wore the black mask of a Sile’zhar, shrouding his face but for a narrow slit that revealed his eyes.
The woman left her face exposed and framed by her short black hair. From a distance, she almost looked like Relyn. After all, they were about the same age, height, and build. He even saw some resemblance in their faces, except Relyn’s face was rounder, and her eyes were much softer. A sister or cousin, maybe?
An older couple loomed on the balcony above the duelists. Both were richly dressed in robes of jade green with pale yellow trim.
“Your family?” Thane asked
Relyn gave a stiff nod. The figures still hadn’t noticed them, which meant they were probably figments of her subconscious. Still, their presence obviously made her uncomfortable.
“You haven’t seen them since you left?” Thane asked. “ Not even in the Ethereal?”
She shook her head, still gazing at the figments of her family. “I told you before, my family was part of the Sile’zhar. When the sect sided with Palatine, they went along with the decision, despite my uncle’s protests. My uncle fled to Revera after that, and I went with him.”
Thane admired her for that. He had tried to leave his own family behind once—that night he and Kira climbed out the window of Kyroth’s estate. If he had succeeded, the choice would have haunted him forever.
“How did you manage to get away?” Thane asked. “The Sile’zhar have already found us twice, and we were at their mercy both times.”
“It’s not like we snuck out in the night,” Relyn explained. “Choosing your battlefield is part of the SIle’zhar creed. Once they joined Palatine, we pretended to go along with it too. And when they needed someone to infiltrate Whitecliff, we volunteered. “
Thane rounded on Relyn, and she gave a knowing nod. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I think they wanted me to find the Codex.”
So ... Palatine had sent Zidane, Relyn, and Thane’s father after the Codex? But of course he had. Each agent served as a backup in case the others failed. Must have been a surprise when they started fighting amongst themselves.
“I never did find out for sure.” Relyn turned and walked down another corridor. “I severed my bonds with my parents soon after we arrived, so they couldn’t contact me again.”
“I didn’t know that was possible,” Thane said. He vaguely recalled his lessons on the topic, and how a bond could weaken over time with disuse. But ... severing?
“It’s no common thing,” she said. “It’s usually reserved for traitors. In my case, it was about removing temptation. If they couldn’t contact me, they couldn’t make me betray Whitecliff.”
Thane considered pressing her for more, but it clearly pained her to discuss her family. That, at least, he could understand.
They walked in silence for several minutes, passing various gardens and canals in the courtyards. The western side overlooked a small village within the fortress walls, and Thane picked out various shops, homes, and teahouses below.
The estate itself was taller than it was wide, but that was due to the mountain’s constraints. Every level crept back deeper into the cliff, making the entire structure feel like one giant staircase.
He had to admit, Valaysians knew their business when it came to building. Dragonshard may have been a technical wonder, but it also felt utilitarian at times. One Etherite-powered lift ran through the middle of the tower, and every level was much the same as the first. Efficient, sure, but it wasn’t the sort of place you could lose yourself in.
Exploring Relyn’s home felt like exploring a new city. Only instead of cramped streets and bustling crowds, everything felt peaceful and serene.
“So,” Relyn said once they reached the top of the last tower. “What are we supposed to do here? In the Ethereal, that is.”
“Nothing in particular,” Thane said. “The bond will form as long as we put in the time.” After a short pause, he asked, “How about the last time you forged a bond? What did you do?”
She shrugged, leaning against the polished wooden railing. “He was my instructor, so we mostly trained. I know that time passes slower than in the physical world. It’s ... dialed? Is that the right word?”
“Dilated,” Thane corrected. “And training is always a good use of time. I do the same whenever I’m here.”
Relyn turned to face him then, pushing a strand of black hair away from her eye. She opened her mouth, and several more seconds passed until she found the right words. “Would you train me?”
Thane chuckled, shaking his head. “You don’t need my help. I’ve seen you fight.”
“I’m not talking about combat. I’m talking about Ethermancy.”
Thane hesitated. “I thought...”
“The Sile’zhar said I had no potential,” she finished for him. “But they tested me as a Justicar. There are other paths.”
“You are a descendent of Vashet,” he began slowly. “Even if you have Palatine’s blood, we tend to manifest the power from our strongest line.”
“I know. I’m not saying I want to be a Redeemer or Sanctifier either. What if I made my own path instead?”
“People have tried that before,” Thane said. “Ethermancy is hard enough when you have your ancestors’ memories as a framework. Harder still to set off on your own.”
“That’s what everyone told Nahlia,” she retorted. “They told her Ethermancy wasn’t real, but she learned it anyway. Now she might be stronger than either of us.”
Relyn’s last words struck him like a knife in the chest. But did she have a point? Despite losing his Ethermancy Thane still considered himself the most powerful one in their group—possibly even the most skilled fighter in all Fang’s company.
Elias and Relyn were well trained, but they lacked the experience of real war. Some veterans in Fang’s company had experience to burn, but they were stone set in their ways.
Nahlia still lacked training and experience. Even so, she was the one who saved them in that first Sile’zhar ambush, despite taking a poisonous dart in the neck. She was the one who got them through Raidenwood, despite all Thane’s resources and family connections. Beyond that, her healing abilities made her more valuable than any single fighter.
“War is changing,” Relyn said. “I didn’t fight at Whitecliff, but I heard what the Templars did with their firearms. Swords and bows aren’t enough anymore. I need to learn more, and you can teach me.”
“I understand your reasoning” Thane said. “But I can’t spend my free time helping you with this. I’m not Elias Raider.”
“I’m not asking you to. Just the time we spend forging our bond. You even said—”
“It’s not just that,” Thane replied. “There’s a reason Ethermancy is a guarded secret. People with power aren’t keen to share it with those who might use it against them.”
Her lips made a thin line. “I see. The way your father keeps his power from you?”
“I might resent him for that, but that doesn’t make him wrong.”
“And after everything we’ve been through,” she continued, “You think I’ll betray you? I’ve saved your life twice.”
“I don’t think it’s likely,” Thane said. “But it’s an unnecessary risk. Especially if I’m not getting anything in return.”
Relyn drew herself up to her full height, which still wasn’t much higher than Thane’s chest. “I can offer you my loyalty in exchange.”
Thane raised an eyebrow. Whatever he’d expected to hear, it wasn’t that. “A month ago, you were ready to put an arrow through my head.”
“We were enemies. What did you expect?”’
“In some ways, we still are. The Raiders want me dead. Last I checked, you still owe your allegiance to them.”
“I was loyal to my uncle,” she replied. “He died fighting the Templars, and I’ve sworn no oaths to Clan Raider or Whitecliff. They’ve already taught me everything they can.”
“You still spent two years in Whitecliff,” Thane said. “They gave you training, food, and a place to live. You expect me to believe that means nothing?”
Relyn looked out at the mountains, apparently unwilling to meet his eyes. What wasn’t she telling him?
Finally, the answer dawned on Thane. When they started traveling together, Relyn had been in contact with the Raiders on a consistent basis. But now...
“Lady Raider doesn’t want you back, does she?”
Relyn narrowed her eyes to daggers, but her frustration wasn’t directed at Thane.
It made sense now. Relyn had been the most reluctant to join the Onyx Company—the rest of them all saw it as a quick stepping stone between Raidenwood and Dragonshard. Thane’s father could easily pay to break Thane’s contract, and Nahlia’s father could do the same for her. But while the Raiders might pay the price for their own son’s freedom, they weren’t about to spend their gold on an apprentice Seeker, especially not one whose loyalties were already in question.
“You need me,” Relyn said after a long silence. “I know that your father wants the Codex, and that he plans to give it to Palatine.”
“That’s quite an assumption,” Thane said. “Either that, or you know something I don’t.”
“Fine,” she said. “I don’t have proof, but the Raiders believe your father is allying with the invaders. How do you think the others will react if they think you’ve been manipulating them again?”
“I’m not manipulating anyone,” Thane’s voice carried an edge this time. “And I have no intention of giving the Codex to my father.”
Skepticism flashed across her face, but she hid it quickly. “My point is that you need allies, regardless of who you confront. I can stand by your side through that.”
“Until a better deal comes along for you,” Thane said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He leaned over the railing, running a hand through his hair. “Look, I respect that you left your clan on principle, but I don’t believe for one second you would side with me over Elias. What was it you said to him when you first joined us? That you would have his back? If you didn’t mean those words then, why should I want your loyalty now?”
Relyn flinched back and some of the resolve left her eyes.
Damnit. He might have gone too far that time.
Her face darkened again. “You know, for the heir to Dragonshard, you don’t exactly inspire loyalty either. Why should anyone follow you once you become king? Why should anyone trust you when you don’t trust them? Before, all you had was your Ethermancy and now you don’t even have that.”
Then she pushed off from the railing and walked away. Before Thane could go after her, she vanished back to the physical world.