Nahlia staggered through the rows of wounded mercenaries, healing whomever she could.
Three hours had passed since the battle. After she healed Elias’s wounds, the two of them had raced toward the bulk of the army just in time to stop the dragon’s fire. From there, the riflemen were able to finish it off, along with its rider.
Facing a dragon should have felt heroic. At least, that’s what the stories had led her to believe. It was hard to feel anything but disgust after what she’d done tonight. Whenever she closed her eyes, she saw that dying Sile’zhar laying in the sand, clutching her neck, eyes wide in panic.
In the heat of battle, Nahlia had seen only an enemy. In the aftermath, she saw the lifeless body of someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, or someone’s mother.
Finally, after all these months, she understood why Thane had lost his power. Killing an enemy was horrible enough. To be responsible for a loved one’s death? That could break anyone’s resolve.
Nahlia knelt on a sleeping mat to treat a man with facial burns. Eric Dresborn—one of Fang’s higher ranking officers. His pale skin was blistered from his left cheek toward the top of his scalp. The fire had burned away half of his silver hair.
She pressed a hand to his wound. Unlike the younger men, Dresborn didn’t wince or make a sound. Her pendant had run dry several hours ago, so she pulled heat from the bonfire at the center of camp.
The old veteran breathed a sigh of relief as new skin formed over the wounds. He gave Nahlia a nod of thanks as she pushed herself to her feet.
The world spun around her as she stood. She might have collapsed if Elias hadn’t caught her.
“You need to rest,” he said for the tenth time that night.
Nahlia shook her head, abandoning the safety of his arms. “People will die if I rest.”
“They won’t,” he shouted after her. “You’ve already healed the worst of their wounds.”
“You can still die of an infection,” she said without turning around. The camp had five physicians before, but they’d lost three in the fires. Even if the last two worked all night, they would only help a fraction of the injured.
Nahlia stopped at another tent where a mercenary lay with a bandaged shoulder. Colven Wood, a rifleman. She lay her hands on his chest and reversed the damage. Something familiar. Something good. She was a healer, not a killer.
She moved to the next man who lay just a few feet away. Warden Culver, a swordsman. His left leg had been crushed by the dragon’s tail.
By now, Nahlia’s limbs felt like wine skins. She didn’t trust herself to stand any longer, so she crawled from one wounded mercenary to the next.
Elassan Rinavid, one of the two Aeon boys Fang had purchased in Raidenwood. Burned his hand and lost two fingers to dragon fire.
Logan Doyle, a blacksmith and swordsman. Had a gash across his chest and was missing his right ear.
Ewan Greyson, a rifleman. More burns from the dragon fire.
Joanna Ward, a riflewoman. More burns.
As Nahlia worked, her vision grew darker around the edges. Wearily, she turned her head to the left where a score of people waited. How many had she healed now? Forty? Fifty? More Ethermancy than she’d ever used before.
Kendall Rasir, a camp follower from Vauldenport. Crushed her leg beneath a collapsing wagon.
Alexis Khan, leatherworker. Burns across her face and chest.
Xander West. A hunter who took a hook through his shoulder.
Galvan Rothiel. Lost several fingers on his right hand. Not to a weapon, but a raptor. Nahlia began unraveling his bandages and her vision blurred further. The torches stretched into shooting stars, and her heart echoed in her ears. When she pulled more heat from the fire, it felt sharp inside her as if her body were rejecting it.
Nahlia didn’t remember passing out, but she woke up sometime later in Elias’s arms. She cracked open her eyes to see a glimpse of his face against the night sky. Sometime after that, she saw the roof of a tent and felt a pillow beneath her head. Elias slowly removed her helmet and goggles, setting them aside.
“Don’t try to get up again,” he told her. “I don’t know much about Ethermancy, but I can tell you’re hurting yourself. You’ve given them all you have.”
Nahlia gave a slow nod. In truth, she couldn’t move again if she tried. Every inch of her felt like a wrung out rag.
Elias shifted as if to leave, and Nahlia reached for his hand.
“Stay,” she whispered.
There was a short pause, then he relaxed onto the sleeping mat beside her. “About that Sile’zhar...” He turned around to meet her eyes. “It was her or me. You know that, right?”
“I could have stopped,” Nahlia said. “I didn’t have to—”
“No,” his voice came out sharp and certain. “She’d have broken free if you hesitated. She would have killed us both.”
Nahlia blinked up at the tent’s dark brown ceiling, her vision still blurry. Everything had made sense after Whitecliff. She was sure that Aegon had answered her prayers and gave her strength in her time of need. She had been lost before that day, only to open her eyes in that moment when she healed Elias.
Or so she thought.
Now, Ilsa and Thane both spoke of Ethermancy as if the Archaeons created it themselves. If that were true, then where did Aegon fit in? How was she supposed to know what was right?
Once more, Nahlia heard the Sile’zhar’s screams and cracking bones. Once more, she felt the life leave her victim.
If Aegon created Ethermancy, what was the purpose of this?
Another tear rolled down her cheek. Tonight wasn’t even the first time she’d killed. It had happened back in Raidenwood too. The leader of the Brassblood’s had said so, but Nahlia assumed he was lying. Tonight was no accident though.
She turned back to Elias. “How did it feel? The first time you...” she trailed off, either too tired or too unwilling to say the word.
“It happened two years ago,” he said after a short pause. “I went south with one of my mother’s agents. I was only supposed to guard the boat, but we were attacked. A squad of Templars demanded to search the boat, but the crew resisted…”
Elias remained silent for several moments as if gathering his thoughts. “The feeling is different for everyone. In my case, I felt relief. Maybe some satisfaction, too. During battle, there’s a thrill to taking a life before they can take yours.” He gave an almost apologetic shrug. “But like I said—everyone is different. I was trained to fight my whole life.”
Nahlia squeezed his hand without meaning to. It had been the same for her. In that moment—between the woman’s life and death—she took pleasure in her victory. She relished the fact that she’d overpowered her opponent.
“The guilt comes afterward,” Elias said. “Once the thrill leaves you and you’re left with your thoughts ... you realize that you’ll never be the same person you were before.”
Perhaps it really was the same for everyone, then, regardless of their reasons or excuses. But if that were true...
“How do people feel this way and keep on fighting?” she asked.
“We don’t fight because we love war,” Elias said. “It’s more like the opposite. We fight because we know how terrible it can be. We do it so that others don’t have to. Maybe there’s a better way, like you said before. If there is, no one’s figured it out.”
Thane lay in his tent, pinned in place by the pain of his burns. He had accepted some of Nahlia’s healing, but not all of it. Her power wasn’t limitless, and there were many more wounded to heal. Besides, Thane was no stranger to burns. The pain paled compared to his failure.
If not now, then when? When could he regain his Ethermancy if not to protect his friends? Fang was right about one thing—Thane should have been the one to stop that dragon. He had fought dragons before and won, while Nahlia had never even seen one before tonight.
Relyn sat beside him in the tent, blessedly silent. Back when they were strangers, she would have tried to cheer him up. Now she knew him better.
What do you fight for?
Zidane’s cursed words still echoed in his mind. The answer was clearer now than it had been before. Thane had fought to protect his friends tonight—nothing more or less than that. It should have been enough. Aegon. Why wasn’t it enough?
Sometimes, in moments of desperation, Thane would plead with Aegon. If Aegon restored his power, he’d said, he would only use it for defense. He wouldn’t be like his father or the rest of Clan Solidor.
But such moments only lasted for so long. Ethermancy was about faith, not pleading. Besides, that wasn’t a Sanctifier’s purpose. To sanctify meant to cleanse and purify.
To cleanse what? What the hell needs cleansing?
That was the question, wasn’t it? Scholars had been speculating for centuries—why that word, specifically? Redeemers used their healing to make a better world. Justicar’s used their strength to enforce order. What did Sanctifiers bring but death and destruction? More and more, it seemed like a fancy word to frame mass-murder as some divine act.
To make matters worse, many of the mercenaries blamed them for the attack. Or rather, they blamed Thane. With Nahlia healing people, and Elias and Relyn unharmed, he must have stuck out as an easy target.
As a result, the aftermath was almost as bad as the battle itself. Only four Sile’zhar had attacked, not including the dragon and the raptors. Despite this, they’d killed over two-dozen mercenaries and injured another forty or fifty.
Thane suspected many of his ‘guests’ were friends or family of those victims. Most resorted to accusations and threats, but some tried to get physical.
In the latter cases, Relyn responded with a few calm reminders. Not only had she trained with the Sile’zhar, but she had killed two of them tonight. Also, the physicians were busy enough as it was, and the last thing they needed was more broken bones.
Thane was finally starting to relax when Vaccam—one of Fang’s bodyguards— opened the tent flap.
The Valaysian man glanced around, his eyes widening for a split-second when he saw Relyn sitting there. “Fang wants to see you.”
“He can barely walk,” Relyn shot back.
Vaccam gave a careless shrug. “Carry him, then.” With that, he vanished back outside.
Thane closed his eyes and let out a breath. As if things couldn’t get any worse tonight.
Relyn helped him stand, and the pair set out toward Fang’s tent. By now, the camp had regained some semblance of order. Funeral pyres were built, the dragons were harvested for their skins and meat, and the damaged tents were replaced. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the eastern horizon was a bright shade of violet.
When he stepped inside Fang’s tent, Ilsa was sitting on a cushion in front of a low wooden table where a cluster of candles burned. A guard stood at either side of the entrance.
Fang paced back and forth, casting long shadows against the tent’s inner walls. “Sile’zhar,” he muttered the word like a curse. “You didn’t think to mention this before?”
“We joined this company for protection,” Thane noted. “And you’re in the business of recruiting fugitives. Surely this isn’t the first time—”
“Protection from the Templars!” Fang snapped. “Not these Ethermancer assassins.”
Thane bit back a retort. On one hand, he understood Fang’s frustration. On the other hand, what could they have done differently? Nahlia had made this deal in an act of extreme desperation. It was unlikely Fang would have let them walk away once they’d signed their contracts. Besides, who could have predicted that four Sile’zhar would attack the entire army? Even if they did, the guards were already on high alert.
“You mean to be rid of us?” Thane finally asked.
“Not you,” Ilsa pointed to the Codex which now hung in a twine sack on Relyn’s belt. “They want the artifact you carry.”
Fang gave a curt nod. “Whatever that thing is, I want it out of my camp.”
“Perhaps we can make a deal,” Thane said. “I’m assuming you know who I am by now?” He turned to meet Ilsa’s eyes. Now that he knew her better, he wouldn’t be surprised if she’d figured it out during their first meeting. Most likely, she and Fang were just biding their time.
“It took us several weeks,” Ilsa admitted. “But once we heard rumors that Thane Solidor, prince of Dragonshard was in the north...”
“Then you know my family will compensate you for your losses,” Thane said. “And for my safe passage to Dragonshard.” He gestured to Relyn who stood behind him. “That includes my companions, and the artifact we carry.”
Neither Fang nor Ilsa showed any surprise at this offer. Further proof they’d intended to steer the conversation this way all along.
Ilsa cleared her throat. “And what is that artifact, exactly? It feels like Etherite, but not quite.”
Thane glanced back and forth between them. “Are you familiar with Codices?”
Fang narrowed his eyes, and Ilsa gave a small nod.
“Long story short,” Thane said, “they’re a modified form of Etherite. They produce no energy, but they contain information from the distant past.”
“Information worth sending four Sile’zhar after?” Ilsa asked
Thane nodded. “This particular one belonged to the Archaeon Palatine. It contains a … destructive ritual.”
“A destructive ritual,” Fang deadpanned.
Thane didn’t elaborate. Most humans looked upon Aeon lore with extreme skepticism. Fang was no stranger to Ethermancy, but that didn’t mean he believed in Aegon, much less that someone could attempt to enter Eternity and overthrow him. Or that such an attempt could bathe the world in flame.
And for that matter, how much did Thane believe? Ethermancy had its limits, after all. If someone wanted to cover the world with fire, they would need an absurdly powerful energy source. Besides, he and Relyn had only entered the Codex once. One time was enough to know the Codex benefited the invaders and not them. That was all that mattered right now.
Instead, Thane explained that the ritual was a more powerful form of Ethermancy that could destroy entire armies and cities. That much was probably true, regardless of any embellishments.
“This is why Palatine is attacking with a smaller army,” Thane explained. “It’s also why he’s sending these Sile’zhar after us. He knows he can win the war if he gets his hands on the Codex.”
“This affects you too,” Relyn said to Fang. “You already agreed to fight the invaders. By keeping the Codex safe, you might save more of your people in the long term.”
“Maybe it affects us.” Fang lowered himself on the cushion beside Ilsa. “Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it sounds like the prince of Dragonshard needs my help.”
“I told you,” Thane said. “Whatever your price—”
“One of your rings,” Fang broke in.
Thane snapped his mouth shut. “What?”
“Your rings contain Etherite, true?”
“They do,” Thane said slowly. “But for that price, I could hire an army ten times this size.”
“Where?” Fang made a show of looking around. “We’re hundreds of miles from the nearest city. You told me to name my price. An Etherite ring is what I want.”
“Trust me,” Thane said. “That’s not what you want.”
“How would you know what I want, Prince Solidor?”
“Ilsa’s an Ethermancer,” Thane said with a nod in her direction. “You knew how much Etherite we carried from the moment you met us. Two pendants, and two rings. You could have taken these at any time.”
“I am a mercenary,” Fang said, “Not a petty thief. We do believe in honor. If I stole from my own, how long do you think I would be in power?”
“Admirable,” Thane replied. “But Etherite is worth enough to justify those risks. I think you’re a prudent man. I think you’ve considered the consequences of stealing from us.”
Fang furrowed his brow. “But now I’m asking. One piece of Etherite in exchange for my protection to Dragonshard. That’s my price.”
“Unfortunately,” Thane said, “These rings aren’t mine to give away. They belong to the kingdom of Dragonshard. And the pendants belong to Clan Trelian.”
“Then give one to me now.” Fang extended a hand “And suffer the consequences later. Better than dying in this desert.”
Thane stepped forward and lowered himself on the cushion in front of Fang and Ilsa. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “My sister Ashara was once shipwrecked and trapped on Kalamir. Palavar controlled the city, and their fleet blockaded the island. She had nothing of value but the Etherite ring on her finger.”
Thane twisted his own ring as he spoke. “No one helped her except for a slave girl named Kira. Kira did it for free, without expecting anything in return. She kept Ashara safe for two days while my father sent smugglers through the blockade.”
Fang’s brow furrowed in irritation, but Thane ignored him. “Of course, once the ships arrived, Ashara was expected to leave Kira behind. Instead, she went to the gang leader who owned her. She traded her Etherite ring for all the slaves in the palace, and they left the island together.”
“A heart-warming tale,” Fang stirred the air with his finger. “Does it have a point?”
“It is heart-warming,” Thane agreed. “If you end the story there.” He held up his right hand. “This is the same ring Ashara traded. You see, while you’ve been careful these past few months, that gang leader made a foolish trade without thinking. My sister meant to honor her deal, but my father didn’t. King Solidor sent assassins to Kalamir the second the news reached his ears. He killed the gang leader. He killed his friends, and he killed anyone who saw the exchange.
“Those assassins my father hired—they had the ring next. They could have run. They could have sailed across the world with their fortune, sold the ring to a foreign ruler, and lived as kings themselves. Do you think they took the risk?”
Fang remained perfectly still, not even blinking.
“No,” Thane said. “Because you only get one life to gamble with. They knew that sometimes it’s better to accept your payment of gold rather than reaching for the stars.”
The silence stretched between them for several long moments before Ilsa spoke, “He’s telling the truth. Even if you make this trade, King Solidor will never let us get away. In such a case, we may as well keep the Codex.”
“But if you take my gold,” Thane said, “my father will honor that deal.”
Fang scratched at his short black beard. “Your father won’t be around forever. Not with this war looming.”
True enough. If history was any indication, kings were a hundred times less likely to survive wars than commoners.
“You’ll be king after him,” Fang said. “Then you can honor your own deals.”
Thane nodded, considering. “But what do you really want? You’re neither an Aeon nor a scientist, so I know you have no use for Etherite.”
“As you said.” Fang made a vague gesture between himself and Ilsa. “To retire, and live like kings ourselves.”
“Then that’s what I’ll offer you,” Thane replied. Relyn was right before—regardless of how the coming months turned out, he would need allies.
“You will be a vassal of Dragonshard,” he continued. “You will have land and a palace on the sea. In exchange, you’ll swear your loyalty to me. Not just until we reach Dragonshard, but until I take the throne.”