Thane raised a steaming glass mug to his lips, sipping a mixture of sweet and bitter tastes. Aegon, but he’d missed southern coffee, more than anything else this past year.
His family and traveling companions gathered in the war room at the top of the villa. The morning wind blew through the open windows, ruffling the papers on the table. At least there was no risk of eavesdroppers here—not with Aunt Avelyn’s soundward surrounding the room. Listening from outside those windows would be like listening through a stone wall.
The door swung open, and Thane’s grandfather stepped inside. His white hair was combed back, and he wore a formal tunic of dark cobalt. He was the last one to arrive, but a quick glance at the clock revealed that he was exactly on time.
Lord Solizhan walked around the lacquered wood table and took his place at the far end. Aunt Avelyn, Ashara, and several other astrologists stood on Thane’s side. Across from them stood Nahlia, Elias, Relyn, and several members of Clan Kalador.
“First order of business,” his grandfather began. “Etherfalls. Ashara, what do you have for us?”
“If the predictions are correct,” his sister began, “the comet will be closest on the fifteenth of Elomon. Thirteen days from now. It will pass Revera along this line.” She gestured to the map which filled most of the table. Several figurines formed a diagonal line across the continent. The line traveled from southwest to northeast, directly from Dragonshard to Whitecliff.
“We know this,” she continued, “because of the craters left by previous Etherfalls. They’ve followed this pattern for the past two millennia, more or less.”
She stepped away from the map, facing an easel in the corner. A horizon line ran across the center of her paper with a curved line above to represent the comet’s path.
“The comet should reach Dragonshard by midnight,” Ashara said, “and it will be visible to the naked eye.” She flipped over the first drawing to reveal a more detailed pencil rendering of the night sky. A streak of white light soared through the center of the page, as wide as a full-moon.
Apparently, ‘visible’ was an understatement.
“The comet itself won’t hit us, but fragments of it will split off from the main body. Some will be large enough to destroy cities, though the odds of that happening are less than one in a thousand.”
Ashara flipped to another drawing. This one was a meteorite with shards of glowing white crystal embedded in the rock. His sister wasn’t an artist so she must have commissioned these pieces.
She gave a dramatic pause before continuing. “Most important of all, the meteorites contain a small amount of Etherite. Hence the name, Etherfall. When legends speak of Aegon granting us power, they’re referring to the comet’s first recorded passing.”
Ashara and her assistants spent the next few minutes going over the finer details of the event. How many meteorites fell from each comet, and how much Etherite each one contained. For many of them, this would be common knowledge. Still, his sister was right to provide an overview. Any Aeon child could describe an Etherfall, but seven centuries had passed since the last one. This was ancient history now, and few bothered to study the details or the science. As a result, educated men and women were too embarrassed to ask the simple questions.
Thane had once promised himself he would study the phenomena before the next comet arrived. But now, here he was, thirteen days away, and he hardly knew more than he did as a boy.
Elias raised his hand from the other end of the table. “Is it always the same comet that passes us, or different ones?”
“We don’t know for sure,” Ashara said. “The last three were consistent, but things are a mystery before that. There are hundreds of other craters around Aeondom, far from this comet’s usual path. They’ve even dug up Etherite as far as eastern Valaysia and southern Palavar.”
One of Ashara’s assistants—a short-haired man in his mid-thirties—stepped forward. “It’s also worth noting that a single comet can only spend so much time in a solar system. Eventually, the combined pull of the planets and stars will cause it to break apart entirely.”
Astrologists like him always sounded confident, but who really knew? A hundred years ago, people still thought stars orbited planets. No one had even seen a comet in seven-hundred years.
Ashara bobbed her head in agreement. “So even if the last three comets were the same, there were probably others before it.”
From the head of the table, Thane’s grandfather cleared his throat. “Good. Now if our guests are all caught up, you mentioned a connection between the Etherfall and the Codex?”
“Yes.” Ashara opened a leather-bound book which looked like a journal. “In the sixth volume of Aeonica, they mention streaks of white light in the sky, and falling rocks that leveled cities.”
She took a quick drink. “Palatine and Rivian were trying to enter Eternity and overthrow Aegon, or so the story goes. People blamed them for the destruction that followed, calling it ‘Aegon’s wrath’. But some historians call this false causality. What if this destruction was just another Etherfall? What if a comet was coming anyway, regardless of anything Palatine and Rivian tried to do?”
“I’ve heard that theory before,” Thane said. “It’s a nice way to explain the mythology with science, but what difference does it make? If the Etherfall is coming regardless, what’s the purpose of the Codex?”
“I was hoping you’d shed some light on that,” his sister said. “You’re the one who spoke with it.”
Several eyes turned to Thane and he drew in a deep breath. “The Codex said, ‘The time has come for the stars to throw down their spears, and cleanse this world with their tears.’”
“Certainly sounds like an Etherfall,” Aunt Avelyn murmured.
“It’s a quote from Aeonica,” his sister said. “Almost verbatim.”
“We asked for some clarification,” Thane said. “According to the ... presence we spoke with, the Codex contains an Ethermancy ritual to achieve this. Instructions and a means to practice it.” He shook his head. “That’s all. Once Relyn and I realized what it was, we left. And since it nearly killed us the first time, we didn’t go back for second helpings.”
Relyn cleared her throat. “Actually ... that last part isn’t true.”
Thane rounded on her. “What?”
“I entered the Codex several more times on my own.”
Nahlia and Elias also turned to face her. Judging by their wide-eyed expressions, they were just as surprised as Thane.
“When?” Nahlia asked.
Relyn shrugged a shoulder. “Whenever it was my turn to carry it at night. I meditated inside to learn more about what we were facing.”
Thane raked a hand through his hair. “Didn’t we agree it was too dangerous to try again?”
“You might have agreed,” she said. “But I think you gave up too easily. Learning Palatine’s plan was worth the risk. Didn’t you give Nahlia that same argument when we first entered the Codex?”
“That was before it tried to kill us,” Thane said. Still, they had known the risks from the beginning, and now wasn’t the time to debate past decisions. “When did you plan on sharing these excursions with us?”
“As soon as it became relevant,” she replied.
Thane leaned forward, resting both hands on the table. Considering Relyn’s interest in Ethermancy, it was obvious what she really wanted. Why else would she keep it a secret? Some people might risk their lives for the greater good, but personal gain was a far more common goal.
To be honest, Thane would have done the same if it meant getting his own powers back.
“What’s done is done,” Aunt Avelyn said, then she turned to Relyn. “What else did you learn?”
“Ashara’s theory might be correct,” Relyn said. “The ritual doesn’t cause an Etherfall. It…” She trailed off as if searching for the right word.
“Amplifies it?” Ashara suggested.
Relyn nodded. “I didn’t understand this part until now, but I think a descendant of Palatine can break the comet apart ... make even more of it fall on us. Maybe the Gates of Eternity aren’t real gates, but...”
“Metaphors,” Thane finished for her. “Shatter the comet and seize Aegon’s power. Such a thing would multiply its destructive ability—throw the realm further into chaos.”
“That’s been the enemy’s plan all along,” Thane’s grandfather said. “It started twenty years ago when the Templars overthrew the Imperium. He’s been weakening this realm ever since, and this is the final blow.”
“And if he succeeds,” Avelyn said, “he will control more than half of Aeondom. With the Etherfall as his deadline, it’s no wonder he sent so many Sile’zhar after you.”
Suddenly, the guards around the vault seemed insignificant. Then again, they might all be overreacting here.
“How could one Ethermancer affect a comet?” Thane asked. “Wouldn’t this be like standing in Dragonshard and performing Ethermancy in eastern Valaysia?”
“Actually,” Ashara said, “the comet will be much farther than that. Farther than the moons, even.”
“Fine,” Thane said. “I don’t claim to know much astrology, but I know Ethermancy. That can’t be done, can it?”
“It can’t,” Avelyn agreed. “But ask yourself this: why can’t it be done?”
Thane gazed up at the arched ceiling, visualizing the absurd image of launching fire at a moon—no, farther than a moon. Lack of skill was an obvious factor, but supposedly the Codex solved that problem. Still, there were laws of physics that couldn’t be broken, and one problem remained...
“There’s not enough energy.”
“Exactly,” his aunt said. “But such a thing could be done in the Ethereal? Hypothetically?”
“Maybe,” Thane said slowly. If the Ethereal followed the other laws of physics, which it didn’t.
“We have a theory,” she continued. “When the comet reaches perigee, it might serve as a near unlimited energy source. Standing under it might be like standing in the Ethereal.”
Thane blinked. “That’s ... quite a theory.”
“But it could explain much. Aeonica speaks of Ethermancers more powerful than any who live today—Aeons who could control storms, break through walls, and move mountains. What if these events all took place during the Etherfalls?”
“Possible,” Thane said, “but we’ve seen how history gets embellished. I wouldn’t hang our plans on maybes and what-ifs.”
“Of course not. There’s little evidence for the theory. But if we thought of it, others will too. We should consider the possibility that Ethermancers might be far stronger than before. At least for the night when the comet passes by.”
Now there was a shuddering thought for a non-Ethermancer. As if the power gap wasn’t already wide enough.
“As fascinating as this is,” Thane’s grandfather interrupted, “It only helps us so much. Palatine wants the Codex, and he has a deadline of thirteen days. That’s what matters for us.”
Thane nodded, then turned to Nahlia. “Perhaps now isn’t the time to split up. If we sit tight and wait out the Etherfall—”
“No,” Avelyn and his grandfather spoke at the same time.
“Five days from now,” his aunt said, “the Aeons of the Clansmeet could declare for Palatine. Then it will be too late.”
“And Villa Solizhan is no fortress,” his grandfather rumbled in agreement. “If Dragonshard allies with the invaders, nothing’s stopping them from knocking down our door. But if we take control of Dragonshard and put you on the throne...”
“The throne?” Relyn blurted out.
Thane turned to his three companions on the opposite end of the table. Elias looked surprised too. Nahlia, not so much.
“I planned on telling you.” Thane met Relyn’s eyes. “Just as soon as it became relevant.”
She narrowed her eyes in a surprising mixture of anger and regret.
“You will go to Dragonshard with the Onyx Company,” his grandfather continued. “Speak with your father, if you can.”
His sister leaned over the table to meet his eyes. “Do you honestly think Father can be reasoned with? Have we ever changed his mind before? Even once?”
“We haven’t,” Thane admitted. He would have remembered something that significant. The king had been evasive when they last spoke, but he also seemed reluctant to hand off the Codex without getting something in return. And if his father knew as little about it as Thane suspected, that might be a way to reason with him.
“I still think it’s worth trying,” Thane said. “Once we make a move for the throne, we can’t take that back. Besides, all this”—he made a broad gesture at the map and the drawings—”it’s all speculation with too many unknowns.”
“You won’t find any more answers in Dragonshard,” his grandfather said. “Just your father’s efforts to sway you to his side.”
The meeting went on as his grandfather and the other lords discussed the logistics of capturing the king and transferring power to Thane. That was when Thane remembered another relevant detail he’d neglected to share.
He leaned over the table and met several eyes in turn. Eventually, their conversations died as they turned to face him.
“I haven’t been able to do Ethermancy since Whitecliff,” Thane said.
Thirty seconds before, Thane could barely think straight over all the commotion. Now, the room grew silent enough to hear the birds chirping outside.
He didn’t feel like explaining the specifics. How did you tell a room full of people that you’d lost faith in yourself and your abilities? Especially if they planned to make you their king. How did you admit that you had no sense of purpose?
Aunt Avelyn spoke first. “Whatever the reason, this won’t affect our plans. No one expected you to fight your own father.”
She sounded confident in her claim, and Thane almost believed her. Too bad it wasn’t true. Before Whitecliff, Thane had been among the strongest Sanctifiers in the realm. At least in terms of raw battle power. He and Ashara had been on more equal footing when they were younger, but she had devoted far more time to sigil work and dragon-riding over the years. Not to mention her interest in Astrology.
His grandfather stood there for several seconds longer, white brow furrowed in irritation. Eventually, he nodded his agreement. “Your uncle and I trained half the Ethermancers in the palace. Many are loyal to us before your father. We will make sure they’re guarding the king when the time is right.”
That’s it? He’d dropped a boulder on the table, and no one even bothered to ask him why? Thane would have liked to consider that a sign of respect. He was their prince, after all.
Then again, even a king could be challenged in a private war room. Thane’s aunt and grandfather certainly had no qualms about ordering him off to Dragonshard. And Ashara was technically his equal until he took the throne.
The rest of his family were all Ethermancers, though. No Ethermancer liked to talk about loss of power. It wasn’t that people were in denial about it. Everyone knew it could happen to them just as easily—all it took was a loss of faith, purpose or willpower. Still, no one liked to talk about it. Almost like it was a disease you could catch simply by opening your mouth.
Thane’s grandfather addressed the others, “Prince Solidor and Lady Cole will travel to the palace with the Onyx Company. Princess Solidor, Lord Raider, and Lady Vash will stay behind and help us protect the Codex.”
“I’m staying behind?” Ashara said. “And when was this decided?”
“It makes sense to keeps us separate,” Thane said. “If anything happens to me, we’ll have another leader to put on the throne.”
Thane’s grandfather nodded. “In the meantime, we’ll start rumors that we’re moving the artifact to a more secure location.”
“There’s also a chance the Sile’zhar will come for Nahlia again,” Thane said. “They came for her in Raidenwood, even though I was the one carrying the Codex.”
“Already taken care of,” his grandfather said. “We can spare two more Ethermancers as bodyguards for you and Lady Cole. They will disguise themselves as ordinary mercenaries and join you in the palace.”
Until now, his grandfather had been addressing the room in general. Finally, he turned back to Thane. “You can try to reason with your father, but if not...”
“I know,” Thane said. “We’ll do what needs to be done.”
Three hours later, Nahlia and the others stood on the villa’s outskirts. The final stretch of their journey should be the easiest, in theory. Just a simple road that followed the coastline between the villa and the city. Two day’s walk at the most.
The Solizhans had provided them with plenty of food, water, and fresh horses for the journey. They had even compensated Fang for all his losses on the Black Steppes, further securing the mercenary’s loyalty.
After spending half an hour loading wagons, Nahlia finally found a free moment to sneak away with Elias.
He took her by the hand, and she followed him back inside the villa’s gates, between a white stone wall and a small restaurant. Scents of freshly brewed coffee and tea wafted out into the alley.
“I can’t believe we waited this long,” Nahlia said once they were alone.
“Well,” Elias said, “those wagons weren’t going to load themselves.”
Nahlia laughed and shook her head. “You know what I mean.” She hadn’t even known she could feel this happy. And to think, she could have felt this way months ago if they had only talked sooner.
“As I recall…” Elias stepped closer and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. “I made my feelings clear early on.”
“Right,” Nahlia said. “But then there was the whole incident where I betrayed Whitecliff.”
“Which you redeemed yourself for by resurrecting me.”
“Is that all it took?” In hindsight, it was obvious that he’d forgiven her mistakes. But as they say, hindsight’s clear as glass. A part of her had still expected Elias to make a move again. Especially after all those boys in Northshire who couldn’t take no for an answer. How was she supposed to know he would be so patient for so long?
Nahlia pressed her head to his chest, and he brought his lips to her hairline. When he wrapped his arms around her back, she never wanted to let go.
After all this time, they were finally at a place where they could be together. Now things were about to get far more dangerous.