Thane and the others continued southward until they reached Dragonshard’s northern border. There, a great stone wall stood between them and the Searingthorn Jungle beyond.
As far as obstacles went, the wall wasn’t hard to cross. A few grappling hooks were all you needed to get over it. Either that or a sturdy siege ladder. And unlike Raidenwood, there were a dozen ways to sneak around if you didn’t mind veering off the main roads.
In other words, the wall couldn’t repel determined groups or serious invaders. It was more for watching potential troublemakers like the Onyx Company.
“You there,” a guard called out from the base of the gates. “What’s your business in Dragonshard?”
Thane kept his mare still beside Fang and Ilsa. He still wore his goggles and scarf, even with the Black Steppes a full day behind them.
Ilsa rode ahead, introducing herself, Fang, and the Onyx Company. “We come on behalf of Knight Commander Cole.” She reached into her saddlebag and procured a set of papers with Cole’s signature.
“What’s this?” An older guard stepped forward and took the papers, furrowing his silver brow as he read. “The Knight Commander brings hired swords rather than his own men?”
Ilsa gave a gracious nod. “Perhaps he sought not to give offense to the great kingdom of Dragonshard. His own men are Templars, after all.”
The guard handed back the papers. “All the same, you lot are only good for one thing. If all goes well, there won’t be any fighting during this Clansmeet.”
A fair point. By entering Dragonshard, many of the realm’s leaders put themselves at risk. But that risk went both ways. King Solidor had unfriendly armies on his doorstep to balance the scales. No reason for his father to let in any more combatants than necessary.
As they talked, Thane’s eyes wandered to the ramparts above the gate. A pair of dragons perched on the wider sections. As an Ethermancer, Thane had never feared dragons the way other men did. But now, after that Sile’zhar attack...
“I understand your concern.” Ilsa produced a second document from her satchel. “We’ve spoken to the Crown Prince, Thane Solidor, about this issue. He was generous enough to vouch for us, and to provide us a writ for passage.”
The guards accepted the second document, no less skeptical. “Why would Prince Solidor give you this?”
“He has a working relationship with the new Knight Commander,” Ilsa explained.
“Thane Solidor hasn’t been seen for almost a year.” The guard waved the paper in the wind. “This here could be a load of horseshit for all we know.”
Funny how the second paper was Thane’s own handwriting while Nahlia had forged the first one.
Ilsa was silent for several heartbeats, and Thane grasped his mare’s reins. He may have been in charge of the Onyx Company now, but few knew of that arrangement. If these guards saw his face, word would reach his father before the day’s end. From there, it would be simple for the king to send his own men after the Codex.
Thane’s mare took a few steps forward when Ilsa spoke again.
“I understand your concern,” she repeated. “These are confusing times, after all. But the prince assured us that the border guard was trained in identifying forged documents. He said the writ would be enough.”
Her voice was more confident than before, and more resonant. Still, it wouldn’t be enough. The guards had already made their decision. Surely, Thane would have to—
“Very well.” The guard gestured to his companions on top of the wall. “You may pass.”
The sound of clanking chains echoed from above, and the iron portcullis raised from the sand.
The mercenaries filtered through the tunnel, their relief almost palpable as they left the desert behind them.
“That was mental Ethermancy, wasn’t it?” Thane asked Ilsa once they were out of earshot from the guards. He kept his voice low, but his tone came out more accusatory than intended.
“You’d rather we reveal your presence?” Ilsa paused for a moment, seeming to reconsider her own words. “No ... that’s not it. You’re worried I’ll use that trick on you someday.”
“You think it puts me at ease when you do that?”
“What?” Ilsa’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “It doesn’t take an Ethermancer to read between the lines.”
They continued riding through the jungle, and Thane removed his goggles and scarf.
“Such a thing wouldn’t work on you anyway,” Ilsa said, finally filling the silence between them. “Mental Ethermancy is easy to counter if you know what you’re looking for. And I haven’t seen you relax in all the time we’ve traveled together.”
Thane couldn’t argue with that—he’d just told Nahlia the same thing regarding heat transference. Still ... Ilsa had claimed she was harmless, and that was clearly false. She had taken control of an enemy’s body during the battle on the Black Steppes. A Sile’zhar no less. What could she do to an ordinary man? Make him shoot himself? Make him walk off a cliff?
“My guards have the same training I do,” Thane noted.
Ilsa hummed thoughtfully. “You might consider reviewing their training regimens, then.”
“Perhaps I’ll put you in charge,” Thane said. Aegon knew he would need to keep her busy and out of trouble.
Nahlia followed the army through the jungle, grateful to walk on her own two feet again. She’d slept for almost an entire day after the Sile’zhar attack. Even after she woke, it still hurt to do Ethermancy, and she could barely stand. They had to put her in a wagon while they marched, which was embarrassing, to say the least.
Thane claimed this sort of thing happened if you used too much Ethermancy too quickly. Some exhaustion was good—that meant you were becoming stronger. But pushing yourself too hard could result in weeks of recovery time, if not permanent damage.
In hindsight, she should have listened to Elias. She might have helped more people if she had only stopped and rested sooner.
At least the people they did heal were grateful. And no one treated her any differently after she killed that Sile’zhar. Short of Elias expressing his gratitude, no one even cared. This was business as usual for a group of mercenaries.
Fortunately, the trip went smoother once they put the desert behind them. The Searingthorn Jungle was neither searing nor thorny. Funny how some places lived up to their names while others just sounded dangerous. Their path meandered around ancient ruins, crossing stone bridges over rivers and ravines. Over time, the dense foliage turned to open farmland, and the road wound along the white beaches of the Ember Sea.
Villa Solizhan loomed on the horizon at the top of a tired coastal village. The city reminded her of Dresten, with everything crammed between the hilltop and the sea. But while Dresten was all rough gray stone, these buildings were sharp, white and smooth. Each structure flowed seamlessly into the next, as if the village was all carved from a single mold.
They reached the outer walls where the Onyx Company made camp. Thane led the rest of them up toward his grandfather’s villa, along with Ilsa, Fang, and a few of their guards.
The city streets were far too narrow for wagons or horses. In fact, many of them were merely staircases wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side.
“If I had grown up here,” Relyn said, “my sister and I would have jumped from rooftop-to-rooftop. I’d bet we could have crossed the whole city without ever touching the ground.”
“It isn’t hard.” Thane chuckled as he walked beside her. “Ashara and I played that game, too. Lots of children tried, but we were the only ones to get away with it. Always made the poor locals dread our visits.”
Nahlia turned to Elias. “Were children in Raidenwood that reckless?”
Elias shook his head. “Too many thousand-foot drops.” He made a gesture with his hand that looked like someone falling off a bridge. “Natural selection wiped out all the reckless ones.”
“And Reverians weren’t very coordinated to begin with,” Relyn offered helpfully.
Elias only narrowed his eyes at her.
They passed several coffee shops and teahouses, fruit stands, and bakeries. It was by far the cleanest town Nahlia had ever seen, not to mention the best-smelling. Light-eyed Aeons worked side-by-side with dark-eyed humans—a sight she hadn’t seen anywhere else in the realm.
The sights grew more extravagant as they reached the top of the hill. The villa stood three stories high, with cobalt domes as dark as the ocean.
Thane’s grandfather, Lord Solizhan, waited for them beneath a massive stone archway. Tall and broad-shouldered, the man had sun-darkened skin and silver hair that was almost white. “Welcome home, Thane Solidor.” His voice was deep and commanding, with the same accent as Thane’s.
Beside him stood a dark-haired, middle-aged woman who she assumed was Thane’s aunt Avelyn.
Thane stepped forward, clasping his grandfather’s wrist and embracing his aunt.
After some quick introductions, a servant arrived to take them to the bathhouse. Nahlia couldn’t complain about that. After all this time on the road, she felt decidedly out of place here.
An hour later, Thane walked through the gardens behind the villa, feeling sufficiently refreshed. His grandfather led them between a row of fountains and onto a raised stone platform. When Thane took the final step, something changed in the air. The sound of their footsteps echoed around them as if they were indoors. But when he looked up, he saw nothing but blue sky.
Aunt Avelyn stepped onto the platform behind them, watching and waiting with a knowing smile. Twenty years had passed since Thane’s mother had died. More often than not, he couldn’t even remember her face. But when he saw his aunt, old memories bubbled back to the surface. The same long raven hair, bright blue eyes that were too kind and soft for a Solidor.
Avelyn was still waiting for a reaction, so Thane pondered the invisible barrier for another moment. “A soundward?”
Her smile widened. “Your uncle and I just finished it.”
Her voice gave back a slight echo as if they were inside an empty room. The principle was basic enough. Sound waves were just another form of energy that could be redirected with Ethermancy. The problem was, not many Sanctifiers specialized in sound. Unlike heat or motion, it had very little combat application.
“The hard part was working the sigils to create a specific shape,” she said. “in this case, a dome made of two-dozen smaller triangles. It’s still in its early stages, and a skilled Ethermancer can oppose it...”
“It fits our purposes for today,” his grandfather’s sharp voice cut into the conversation like a knife. Then he turned to Thane, “Your father knows you have the Codex.”
Thane nodded. “Does he also know about the half-dozen Sile’zhar that Palatine sent after us?”
His grandfather gave an appreciative nod. “You took on that many Sile’zhar and walked away without a scratch?”
Aunt Avelyn looked back and forth between them. “He could be your equal now, Father.”
The old man stroked his white beard. “He might well be.”
“You flatter me,” Thane said, “but I owe my success to my companions.” After the attack on the Black Steppes, Thane was the only one in his group not to kill a Sile’zhar. Although he wasn’t eager to share the story of his lost Ethermancy. At least not until it became relevant.
“Humility is also a fine quality in a king,” his grandfather added. “More so than any martial prowess.”
The comment shouldn’t have been so out of place, but Thane knew a doorway when he saw one. “It may be too soon for such talk. If I know my father, he plans to rule for another forty years at least.”
“And during that time, his majesty would open our gates and bend the knee to foreign rulers.”
Thane stiffened. “What do you know?”
“The same as you, I suspect. Your father believes that siding with Palatine is the best thing for our kingdom.”
“I’ve heard the rumors,” Thane said. “But he refused to give me the details. What’s his motive in all this?”
“The humans outnumber us a hundred to one,” his grandfather said. “And their new Republic controls nine-tenths of the realm’s land. We almost lost the last war with the Templars. Chaos is this new faction’s answer. A world where the strong can dominate again, and the weak can perish.
The weak, meaning the humans. The ones who relied on their superior numbers and black powder weapons rather than raw skill or Ethermancy.
“This isn’t about securing Dragonshard’s future,” Thane said, “It’s about my father carving out a bigger piece of Revera for himself.”
“Your father predicts that Palatine will win this war,” Aunt Avelyn said.
“He’ll only win if he can forge alliances here,” Thane muttered. “Otherwise he doesn’t have the numbers. Assuming his victory is circular logic.”
“Exactly,” his grandfather snapped. “The other lords aren’t ready to take that risk. We’ve gained the freedom we wanted from under the Reverius dynasty. Now your father would trade one emperor for another.”
“But we have alternatives,” Avelyn said. “The Knight Commander has offered us an alliance as well. We can remain an independent nation if we fight these invaders rather than side with them.”
Thane remained silent for a moment, listening to the falling water from the fountains. “Such a thing would result in civil war for Dragonshard. In such a case, Palatine benefits.”
“If your father continues his reign,” his grandfather said.
As if on cue, Avelyn took a step toward Thane. “My husband and the other lords would prefer to keep Dragonshard independent. If this is what it takes, we’re willing to support you as our new king.”
Thane opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Forgive us,” his grandfather said. “We would have consulted you earlier, but you’ve been difficult to contact.”
Feeling suddenly light-headed, Thane lowered himself on one of the cushioned benches behind him.
Avelyn did the same before gesturing to a servant beyond the soundward. The young man hurried onto the platform with a bottle of wine and three glasses.
Thane’s grandfather waved his glass away, still standing. It would take a broken leg to make that man sit down. Maybe even two.
Thane took a long swallow of his before speaking again. “Would I truly make a better ruler?” He would’ve liked to believe as much, but many wrongful rulers believed themselves just, his father chief among them. Besides, Thane had failed time and time again.
“I spoke of humility before,” his grandfather said. “Humility is the gateway to wisdom. Sometimes, a ruler needs to stand firm in his decisions, the way your father does. Other times, he must submit to the will of his people. To accept that others know more. I knew Thanadin when he was your age. He never had these virtues.”
Thane recalled his last night in Dresten with Kira, and how they nearly put all this behind them. “A part of me has never wanted the throne,” he admitted. “More than once, I’ve thought about walking away.”
“Welcome to the burden of leadership,” Avelyn said. “My husband and I hold court in the great hall every Vauldel, Kalandal, and Vashendal. We sit and listen to hundreds of cases from the eighth hour of the morning until the fifth hour of the afternoon. Those choices are rarely easy. Do you think we’ve never thought as you did?”
“But here you stand,” his grandfather said, “on Dragonshard’s doorstep with allies at your side and an army at your back. That’s a man who knows where he belongs and what must be done.”
Thane raked a hand through his hair—much easier now that it was freshly washed. His grandfather was right. A part of him had been preparing for this day ever since Whitecliff. He and his father rarely saw eye to eye on issues of morality. So why did seizing the throne make his stomach twist?
“If we did this,” Thane began, “What happens to our current king?”
“We have ways of imprisoning powerful Ethermancers,” his grandfather said.
“He’s barely in his fifties.”
“And we might be holding him for another fifty years. But what’s our alternative? It’s either him or our nation.”
True enough. As long as King Solidor ruled Dragonshard, he gave the enemy a place of strength from which to strike. Palatine wouldn’t get a warm reception anywhere else on Revera’s southern shore. Still, Thane’s father couldn’t have made this decision alone.
“You say the other lords agree with you.” Thane gestured between Avelyn and his grandfather. “But my father must have supporters.”
His grandfather let out a grunt of acknowledgment. “Aside from the sycophants he keeps close? There’s another enclave of Aeons somewhere in the Ember Sea. They’re led by a powerful Ethermancer named Trelidor.”
Thane raised an eyebrow. A descendant of Treluwyn, like Nahlia? If this man was also an Ethermancer, did that make him like her? Another Redeemer?
“Does this Trelidor have a first name?” Thane asked.
“We don’t know,” Avelyn admitted. “He hasn’t revealed himself until recently.” She lowered her eyes, turning the wineglass around on her lap. “Dazen joined this enclave a year ago. Just before you left for the North.”
“What?” Thane had wondered where his cousin was, but he’d assumed he was off on a mission with his uncle. “Why?”
Avelyn shook her head, eyes suddenly weary and pained.
“It wasn’t just Dazen,” his grandfather said, “Kavar and Elvira left with him. After the Templars pushed us back, Trelidor convinced them they weren’t strong enough.”
Thane narrowed his eyes. “And this Trelidor can make them stronger?”
“So he says. Rumor has it he’s spent many years traveling the world and learning ancient techniques. Enough to impress our youth and gain their loyalty.”
Thane took a moment to process that. “And you said Trelidor is also allied with Palatine and the invaders?”
“He claims to be neutral—little love for either the Templars or the invaders. But that approach only goes so far when the enemy stands on your doorstep.”
“The same can be said for most factions in Revera,” Avelyn added. “Aaron Cole has attempted many alliances, but no one has accepted yet. It’s impossible to predict how things will turn out.”
Thane nodded. “Then perhaps there’s still hope for my father, too.” He set his wineglass on a nearby table and rose to his feet. “I suspect he doesn’t even know what the Codex truly is.”
His grandfather furrowed his white brows. “Have you told him what you told us?”
“I’ve avoided him these past few months. But if I go to Dragonshard before the Clansmeet, there’s still a chance he might be reasoned with.”
“You’re wasting your time,” his grandfather said. “The king has already made a deal with the invaders.”
“We have to try,” Thane said. “Because Palatine wins whether we side with him or fight each other. Our only hope is unity.”
“Well then you better hurry. The Clansmeet is less than a fortnight away, and the Etherfall is a month after that.”
Thane considered that for a moment, then a thought kindled inside him. “What does my sister think of all this?”
Just then, a dragon flew over the garden, causing the palm trees to thrash in the wind.
“You can ask her yourself.” Avelyn glanced up at the sky. “We’ve invited her to join us tonight.”