“Prince Solidor!” A messenger ran through the chapel’s open doors, skidding to a halt when she reached the table.
Aegon. Since when did recruits look so young? During the last war, Thane felt like one of the youngest on the battlefield. He was only twenty-five now, but this girl looked younger than him by at least a decade.
“Prince Solidor,” she repeated with a quick bow. Apparently, she hadn’t heard the bad news yet. Oh well, time was short and Thane wouldn’t waste it by correcting her.
“It’s King Solidor now,” a young sergeant corrected her.
The girl’s face went suddenly pale, and she gave an even deeper bow. “Apologies your—”
“Enough.” General Ozel’s voice echoed through the chapel’s high ceiling. “Battlefield rules. Both of you.”
Among other things, “battlefield rules” meant no bowing or honorifics. You saluted members of the royal family and called them “sir” just like any other officers. Thank Aegon for that. As petty as Clan Solidor could be, they understood efficiency.
The messenger looked like she wanted to apologize to the general next, so Thane spared her the trouble. “Report.”
“Message from Lord Solizhan,” she stammered, then recited, “Enemy Ethermancers have stolen the Codex. They’ve escaped by dragon, heading southwest. The princess is in pursuit.”
Thane leaned over the table, raking a hand through his hair. As if things couldn’t get any worse. After all that effort they’d gone through to keep the Codex safe—three layers of vault doors, and more than a dozen decoys, both inside and outside the villa...
At least Ashara and his grandfather were both alive.
An hour had passed since Palatine killed his father. Since then, Thane had regained his Ethermancy, and a part of him felt like he could take on the entire world by himself. Unfortunately, the late king had been several tiers above Thane in terms of power and skill.
What could he do against Palatine?
“They’re already here,” an older scout said as she stepped inside the nave. “Two hostile dragons spotted on top of the palace. Ashara’s landed on Kingsview less than five minutes ago.”
Thane nodded to the older scout. “Anything else?”
“No sir, we’re still trying to establish contact with your sister.”
Thane turned to the younger recruit. “And is that all my grandfather sent? No word on Relyn Vash or Elias Raider?”
She shook her head. “No, sir.”
He’d expected as much. Things would be chaotic in the aftermath of an attack, and his grandfather would have wanted to send a message as quickly as possible.
“You’re both dismissed,” Thane said.
They saluted and turned to leave. Before they could, Thane called out to the older messenger, “Wait—Lieutenant?”
The woman spun around on her heel. “Sir?”
“Have someone find my dragon and send him over here.” If what Nahlia said was true, then Palatine’s people had sabotaged the central lifts. Flying might be the only way to reach the rooftop now.
The scout saluted again and jogged out the chapel’s front door.
Thane turned back to the table to address the others. Ozel stood to his right. Tall and broad-shouldered, the general was one of Dragonshard’s most powerful Sanctifiers. He’d also been a part of the Solizhan plot to seize the throne, which was why he’d already mounted this resistance here in Khalor’s Chapel.
Aaron Cole stood to Thane’s left. His Knight Commander’s uniform had been drenched with blood during the Clansmeet so he’d swapped it for a set of leather armor. Fang and Ilsa were there too, along with Aunt Avelyn, the Republic’s Spymaster, and several more of Dragonshard’s officers.
“So”—Cole put both hands on the table and leaned forward—”What’s this about a Codex?”
Nahlia scrubbed her skin until it turned pink—anything to rid herself of the smell of death. Blood didn’t normally bother her—especially not when she was healing the wounded. At least then, she was doing the work Aegon had created her to do.
Or so she thought.
Now, she couldn’t get the images of the undead from her mind. The way they chased her, tackled her, dug their teeth into her flesh. It was all too much.
Palatine was right to call her arrogant. She thought she understood Ethermancy and the Redeemers. What’s more, she thought she knew Aegon. She knew nothing. And despite becoming stronger these past few months, she felt as lost as she did before Whitecliff. She’d started this journey with a purpose—to find her mother and continue mastering her Ethermacy.
What did she have now?
Everything she knew about Aegon and the Redeemers came from her mother. Either from her journal or from conversations they’d had before she died. Her mother once told her that nothing good can come from violence. She said that even by fighting for a just cause, we can do more harm to the world at large.
How could the woman who said those words justify letting thousands die? And if a Redeemer’s powers came from Aegon, then how could Palatine do what he did?
Nahlia dunked the cloth into the washbasin again, wrung out the excess water, and continued scrubbing her cheeks and forehead.
Someone knocked on the door, causing her to jump.
“One second,” Nahila called out.
Water had dribbled down her neck and chest, so she patted herself dry with a fresh towel. After that, she wrapped her chest with a long strip of cloth, threw on a clean linen tunic, and opened the door.
Her father stood in the chapel’s dimly-lit corridor. His face seemed rougher despite being clean-shaven, and silver pricked his normally brown hair. He’d even lost his northern accent—Nahlia hadn’t heard him say the words “aye” or “lad” once in the past hour. Then again, he’d been a Templar officer long before he was an innkeeper. Maybe the northern accent was always the act, and this was his old self.
“Are you alright?” he asked after a short silence.
“Better now,” Nahlia said as she opened the door wider. At least with the rest of the world falling apart, they were finally back together.
“We’re having a meeting downstairs in ten minutes,” he said. “Villa Solizhan was attacked, and Palatine has the Codex on top of the palace.”
Her heart sank. “And ... Elias Raider?”
“Solidor asked the messenger, but she didn’t know. The report only mentioned the princess. She pursued them here to the palace.”
Nahlia bit her lip and tried not to imagine the worst. If Palatine had the Codex, that meant the fighting wasn’t over. She couldn’t afford to despair now, not with so much at stake. She may have lost some of her faith in Aegon, but she still had her Ethermancy. As long as she had that, people depended on her.
“I’m sure he’s alright,” her father said as he stepped into the chamber. It was a small space with only a sleeping mat, an oil lamp, and a washbasin. An intricate window dominated one wall, revealing a glimpse of the comet above.
Her father lowered himself on the sleeping mat, looking as if he hadn’t sat all day. Or maybe he’s just getting old. Nahlia would have made a joke about that it weren’t for the evening’s grim mood.
“If Ashara chased them here,” he said, “that means they were running. Sounds to me like a small-scale attack rather than an outright assault on the villa.”
Nahlia gave a slow nod as she sat on the mat beside him. When she did, her father tilted his head to the side as if examining something.
“What?” She darted her eyes left and right. “Aegon. There’s still blood on my face, isn’t there?”
He gave a light chuckle as he pulled the wet cloth from the washbasin.
She closed her eyes as he scrubbed around them. “Guess I should have picked a room with a mirror, huh?.”
“They’re clerics,” he said. “None of the rooms have mirrors. They think it makes them prideful.”
“Hm. What about the head cleric?”
“If he’s a good head cleric, he has the smallest chamber of all. More likely though, his mirror is even nicer than the king’s.”
Nahlia forced out a small smile. Her father continued scrubbing dried blood from the other places she’d missed. Along her hairline, jawline, and around her ears.
“I saw Mother today,” she said, breaking the short silence. The two of them had talked during their walk to the chapel, but they’d focused mostly on Nahlia and her Ethermancy. This was the first time they were truly alone.
Her father grunted as he continued scrubbing her hairline. “It was really her?”
“It was her. I even asked for proof to make sure.”
“Not a happy reunion, I take it?”
“I wanted to see her,” Nahlia said. “I came all this way, but ... she wasn’t what I expected.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” He tossed the cloth in the basin where it landed with a splash.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
“The Chancellor told me right after Whitecliff—after I became Knight Commander. If I’d have known before...” He trailed off, then looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“I never told you I was a Templar.”
Nahlia met his eye. She wanted to say it didn’t matter, but that would be a lie. Finding out from the Raiders had been difficult. Back in Dresten, she’d had a hundred other things on her mind, and that revelation had nearly pushed her over the edge.
“I should have told you ten years ago,” he said. “The older you got, the harder it was to bring up.”
“I understand,” Nahlia said. “I’ve made mistakes too. At least you’re trying to do the right thing now. But Mother ... she’s not the person I remember. She thinks Palatine can use the Codex to heal her soul and make her an Ethermancer.”
Her father furrowed his brow and reached for the flask on his belt. After taking a long swallow, he passed it to her.
Nahlia accepted the flask. “It isn’t whiskey, is it?”
He shook his head. “No, but it should be.”
She took a drink and tasted faint hints of fruit. Watered down wine?
“Solidor explained the Codex,” her father muttered. “But he didn’t mention that last bit.”
Nahlia shrugged her shoulders and passed back the flask. “Who knows if it’s even true.”
“I can’t say I understand that logic, but it sounds like her.”
“She always cared about power more than us, didn’t she?” Somehow, Nahlia kept her voice steady as she spoke. She’d done all her crying while she washed, and now she didn’t have any tears left to give. “That’s why she never seemed happy before. That’s why she never came looking for us.”
“Your mother always loved you,” he said. “From the moment you were born.”
“But we weren’t enough for her?”
He sighed, taking another pull from the flask. “She’s always been complicated, too.”
“Complicated?” Nahlia narrowed her eyes. “She’s willing to let thousands die so she can become more powerful. That sounds like simple self-centeredness to me.”
“Everyone’s self-centered,” her father said. “Our minds can’t comprehend thousands of people. It’s just numbers—especially if we’re not the one doing the killing. It’s the same reason you infiltrated Whitecliff to help me.”
Nahlia winced. So he knew about that.
“But that’s different,” she said. “When the time came, I refused to sacrifice anyone. Mother’s actually going through with this.”
He leaned back against the glass window pane. “That shows you stuck to your principles when it mattered most. I taught you that all lives are valuable because I know from experience what killing can do. But people are raised with different values.”
“Knight Commander!” Someone called from outside the door. “Three minutes.”
Nahlia stood up from the bed, grabbed the leather guardswoman jerkin from the floor and threw it on over her tunic.
Her father continued, “Lyraina was raised to see Aeon lives as more valuable. She has principles too—she wouldn’t be a part of the Clansmeet killings. She even sent me a letter warning me to stay away.”
Nahlia began fastening the buckles on her jerkin. “She told me to stay away too. Pleaded, even. But she didn’t care enough to stop them in the first place.”
“Lyraina wouldn’t have used the Codex herself either,” her father said. “In her mind, letting something happen isn’t the same as allowing someone else to do it. And I’m sure she’s convinced herself this is all for some greater good.”
Nahlia frowned. Her father sounded so calm about all of this. Then again, he never was one to get emotional. Could be his own way of dealing with betrayal.
“Reason can justify any evil,” Nahlia retorted. “You taught me that.”
“Like I said—she’s complicated. Doesn’t mean she isn’t full of horseshit too.”
Nahila smiled despite everything. “I missed you.”
“Me too,” her father said, then his own face broke into a smile. “Sounds like you haven’t been too lonely though. What was that boy’s name again—Elias Raider?”
Nahlia felt her ears go hot, and her father nodded sagely. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you avoiding the subject.”
“Aegon.” She hid half of her face in her palm, “it’s not like you let me near any of the boys in Northshire.”
“Blame me all you want, we both know they weren’t up to your standards.” After a pause, he asked, “would I approve of this one?”
Nahlia gazed up at the wooden rafters, considering. “I’ve never seen you approve of anyone before, so I can only guess. I know you couldn’t scare him off as easily ... although, he might pretend to be scared—just to get on your good side.”
“Good enough.” Her father rose to his feet. “I’m just glad it’s not Solidor.”
“Careful,” Nahlia said. “You might give me ideas for when I’m feeling rebellious.”
They laughed together. This time, it came out more genuine than the smile she’d forced out before. It was almost as if they hadn’t been apart for the past eight months.
Things had changed, of course. Her father looked at her with a different sort of respect that he hadn’t before. It probably had something to do with her sudden martial prowess. She used to freeze in the face of combat, making her nothing but a liability that day when the Templars attacked their home.
Today, they both knew she would be on the front lines in the fight against Palatine.
Her father opened the door to her chamber, and arguing voices echoed from elsewhere in the chapel. “I suppose we have a meeting to get to.”
“Right.” Nahlia lowered her chin, feeling her smile fade. “It feels wrong to laugh with everything else going wrong.”
“Aye,” her father said, slipping back into his northern accent. “Welcome to war.”
Thane stood in silence as the other officers gestured to the city map. Bad news seemed to be the theme of the evening, with Palavar troops blocking off entire city streets. The Templars were engaging the enemy even as they spoke, along with General Ozel’s Ethermancers.
Thane had briefed them all on the situation, giving them a two-minute explanation of Palatine’s Codex and what it might accomplish. If the officers were skeptical, none showed it.
Even Cole was remarkably well informed. Then again, the Templars had control of Sunfall’s library. While they’d spent the last two decades burning Aeon lore, they also sat on the largest collection of it.
“What about my dragon?” Thane asked. “Tell me someone brought him by now?”
“We can’t get to the dragon caves” a nervous-looking sergeant spoke up. “Palavar troops have our messengers pinned to this side of the city.”
Of course they do. Only a fool would conquer a city named Dragonshard and let the enemy keep their dragons.
“Even if they weren’t pinned down,” Cole spoke up. “Attacking the palace by air would only make you look guilty.”
Thane grimaced. “Guilty?”
“He’s right,” Ozel said. “Palatine wants to conquer this continent using the path of least resistance. That’s why he tried to make an alliance with your father first. With enough time, he could blame the king’s death on you—make you look like a fugitive, and put one of your cousins on the throne.”
Aegon, that sounded far too probable. Palatine had already manipulated Revera’s people into fighting each other. Why stop now? He also had Dazen, Kavar, and Elvira under his command. If he could paint the rest of Thane’s family as traitors, then his cousins were next in line for the throne.
“We need you in the palace,” Cole said. “Let the guards see your face and know who they’re fighting for. Let them know the Templars are here to help—that it’s us against Palavar.”
“Alright.” Thane leaned over the map, circling a small area with his charcoal pencil. “There’s a secret entrance here. That will take us into the western courtyard. The door is twice-tough stone, but any Solidor ring can open it.”
“How many can we fit through the passage?” Cole asked.
“That’s not our problem,” Ozel said. “The central lift won’t hold more than forty per trip. That’s if we get it working.”
“I have a plan for the lifts,” Thane said. Although, “plan” might be too strong a word. He’d have to talk with Nahlia first. And another Sanctifier who was better at math and physics.
“And once we get to the roof...” the general turned to Thane. “You’re the only one who’s seen Palatine fight. Can we take him?”
Actually, Thane had barely even watched the fight. He’d been hiding behind a stone column as Palatine killed his father. But of course, he wasn’t about to announce that to his war council.
“I won’t lie to you,” Thane said to the room in general. “It’s unlikely we can defeat Palatine tonight. And if we fight him on top of the palace, it’s unlikely any of us will leave alive. But if we can distract him long enough to stop this ritual, then every sacrifice could save a thousand more lives.”
Several of the younger officers exchanged nervous glances.
Cole was the one who spoke, “So it’s a suicide mission.”
Thane nodded. “If he takes Dragonshard, he’ll take Sunfall next. That city is a fortress with ten times our defenses. This is our home, and we might never get this close to him again.”
“Well then.” General Ozel crossed his arms. “I say we bring volunteers only. Solidor, myself ... and who else?”
“I’ll go,” Nahila said, though Thane already knew she would.
“So will I,” Cole said.
Aunt Avelyn cleared her throat. “I’ll go as well.”
Thane turned to his aunt. She was one of the few to walk away from the Clansmeet unscathed, and she still wore her cobalt dress tunic with her black hair falling freely down her bare shoulders.
“You’re a noncombatant,” he told her. “You were lucky to escape the Clansmeet alive.”
“I’m also an Ethermancer,” she retorted. “Which we’re short on at the moment. Besides, I’m not sitting this one out. Not if my son is up there.”
Several more officers volunteered from both armies. Aside from the Ethermancers, Ozel and Cole rejected most, claiming they would be more useful on the ground. Securing the palace and cutting off enemy reinforcements would be important if the fight dragged out.
Neither Fang nor Ilsa offered to go. Thane couldn’t blame them for that—not after what they’d seen tonight. While they were both competent in different ways, this wasn’t their fight. And they’d both saved his life tonight more than once.
Once they had their ten volunteers from the meeting, Cole sent his second-in-command, Foster, to find the best of his Templars. Most of Palatine’s troops would have little experience fighting against firearms. That gave Thane’s side another small advantage.
As powerful as Ethermancers were, most of them still fell with a well-placed bullet.
Cole led the others out of the chapel into the square. It was a large clearing in Hightown, just a few blocks from the palace. Over five-hundred Templars stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the open space. Others watched from the nearby streets, giving the impression of an endless sea.
If this were any other night, darkness would have shrouded the crowd’s faces. Now, the comet filled the night sky, and it felt half as bright as the sun.
Cole stood in the chapel’s stone archway, preparing to address his men. It would have to be a short speech as every second mattered.
His daughter stood only a few paces back. It still felt wrong to see her here on a battlefield, and all his instincts screamed at him to send her away. Cole had originally gone upstairs to try to talk her out of fighting, but the words didn’t come. During the meeting, he’d wanted to voice an objection when she’d volunteered. Still, the words didn’t come.
The fact was, they needed her. She’d become a powerful Ethermancer this past year—everything Lyraina had wanted to be. Once he saw her fight in the palace, he knew that every rumor about her was true. She could keep the soldiers safe, and heal the wounded when they fell.
Precious little comfort that was. As Knight Commander, he might still have the power to keep her away from the palace. If not, then Thane surely would.
But then ... what if they all died up there on that tower? Cole, Lyraina, Thane, Elias ... all the friends and family she had left. What if she had to spend the rest of her life in guilt, wondering if she could have saved everyone?
As a father, Cole would rather have her live, regardless. As a soldier, he knew how terrible that guilt could be.
And so Cole didn’t stop her. He’d be the one to live with the guilt if anything happened.
He took a deep breath and approached the top of the staircase. “Templars!” he shouted to the assembled crowd. “You’ve taken oaths to protect this realm. Many of us haven’t fought the fights we’ve trained for. Tonight, that changes.”
He drew his katana and gestured to the palace that loomed over them. “There’s a tyrant on top of this tower. His name is Palatine. He’s an Ethermancer more powerful than any we’ve seen or fought before.”
Gunshots echoed from around the city as other Templars engaged Palavar’s army.
Cole continued, “He means to use that comet to destroy our realm. He means to destroy your cities, your homes, your families.” Cole let that sink in, then added. “You’re here because you’re humanity’s best. Tonight, we show Palatine what that means.”
The Templars shouted their assent, throwing up swords, spears, and firearms. Cole’s officers made order of the chaos, forming the group into ranks.
Cole turned around to meet his daughter’s eyes. The two of them joined the Ethermancers and led the way toward the palace.