Nahlia opened her eyes to a blur of blue and violet. The comet cut a thick white line through the sea of stars, and a layer of clouds stretched infinitely below her, blocking out the landscape.
She raised a hand to her chest, expecting the worst. But no ... nothing but unbroken skin and solid bone. Even her tunic was undamaged. Stabs of pain still echoed through her body, the same way a nightmare lingered in the seconds after waking. But when she stepped forward, her frame held together with no sign of broken bones.
Regardless of where she was, that fact alone was worthy of celebration. She closed her eyes and took several good long breaths. Fresh air filled her lungs. They might’ve been the best breaths she had ever taken.
Still ... it might be too soon for relief.
Nahlia glanced down at her more immediate surroundings. A mountain peak? Patches of grass covered the ground around her boots, along with small trees and open rock faces.
This couldn't be a real mountain though. How many real mountains pierced the clouds? Even if they did, would they really sport grass and trees so high in the air? All the dragonriders she'd talked to had described the sky as a cold and barren place. This was quite the opposite in every way.
Where am I then? The Ethereal?
That didn't seem right either. If anything, this world felt more substantial than the physical world. Her surroundings were more vibrant, and the color was more intense. It was as if she were seeing real clouds for the first time, and everything else was merely in imitation.
But if it wasn't the physical world or the dream world, that left only one alternative...
"Don't worry," a female voice said. "This isn't the afterlife."
Nahlia whirled to see a red-haired figure standing beneath a tall wooden paifang. She blinked several times at the woman, half expecting to see her mother there. Instead, the figure bore an uncanny resemblance to the Archaeon, Treluwyn. She had the same pale skin and the same blue eyes. She even wore Treluwyn's robes—deep blue, adorned with faint outlines of silver crescent moons.
Nahlia paused for a moment before asking, "The Ethereal, then?"
"In a manner of speaking," the woman said. "This is the place where the Ethereal meets the other two realms."
Oh right, the vague, ambiguous place where realms meet. Why didn't I think of that?
Nahlia wanted to reply, but her lips refused to make the words. Her earlier sense of calm faded, and realization left her dizzy and hollow.
Treluwyn continued, "Sometimes a large concentration of energy—like Palatine's Comet—can warp the fabric of space and time. This warping brings the realms closer, allowing you and I to communicate."
Nahlia understood all those words, but her brain struggled to process the information. And as fascinating as that all was, it was far from the first thing on her mind.
She drew in a deep breath and tried to speak again. "Am I..."
Aegon. She still couldn't say the word. It wasn't fair—you shouldn't have to ask someone if you're alive or dead. Some things should be self-explanatory.
"Your body is dead," Treluwyn replied. "But your soul hasn't given up. It will cling to the physical world for as long as there's hope."
"Hope," she said. "Like the day you saved Elias Raider."
So, her soul hadn't gone on to Eternity because there was still a chance her body might be healed. Elias hadn't mentioned anything like this when he died. Then again, the comet changed things. Like the Archaeon said, it brought the realms closer together.
"I don't suppose I could resurrect myself?" Nahlia asked the Archaeon. "Or that you'd help me?"
Treluwyn shook her head. "Neither of us can perform Ethermancy in the physical world right now. Fortunately, you aren't the only Redeemer."
Cole glanced up at the arched doorway that connected the landing platform to the palace. There stood his wife with her dress tunic blowing in the night wind.
It was really her, after all this time.
Cole had spent the better part of his journey in denial that she was even alive. That denial mingled with hope after he'd received her letter. But even then, he still didn't know how to feel.
Now, finally, he understood his daughter's anger.
Lyraina was here in the palace this whole time. She could have prevented the Clansmeet massacre by warning the others. She could have stopped Alexel Trelidor from using the Codex.
She could have, but she didn’t.
Worst of all...
Cole dropped his head to Nahlia's lifeless body. He ran a hand through her red hair as he cradled her on his lap. Lyraina could have prevented this.
Slowly, his wife stepped out into the middle of the platform. "Aaron."
Cole wiped his eyes dry and drew his pistol. "Lyraina."
She moved closer, slowly, as if stepping on a frozen lake. "Nahlia. Is she..."
Cole didn't reply. Death shouldn't need explaining. It had a certain feel—a certain weight you saw in the griever's eyes. His wife was no soldier, but she’d seen enough to understand that.
"I can help her," Lyraina said as she knelt down in front of him.
Cole squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "She's gone."
"So was I. It's not too late."
"She's gone!" he snapped back. "There's nothing you can do."
"I can heal her."
"You're going to bring her back from the dead?" Images of walking corpses filled his mind. Mindless creatures of pale skin and unfocused eyes, with blood flowing from their wounds.
Palatine had made them move again, but they weren’t alive.
“No.” Cole gritted his teeth. "I've seen enough Ethermancy for one night. And this..." He looked down at Nahlia's body. "This is what your quest for power got you." He gestured out to the horizon where more streaks of white fell from the comet. "Nahlia was trying to stop him, you know. She tried to stop him while you hid inside your bedchamber."
"Have you never made a mistake before?" Lyraina asked. "Are your own hands not stained with the blood of hundreds?"
Her voice was so calm. No loving mother would sound so calm at a time like this.
"I'm no better than you," Cole bit off each word as he spoke. "But I didn't ask for more power. I never wanted this."
Lyraina reached out a hand, ignoring the pistol he still had trained on her. Her fingers touched his forehead, and a cooling sensation spread through him. The stinging of a dozen wounds faded across his body.
"The Etherfall brings healing," Lyraina said. "I always had the potential. But it wasn't until after I died that I realized it." She spread out her hands. "Look at me. I'm alive, and you saw me die. I can save Nahlia too, but we have to hurry."
Thane had been quiet until now, but he took a slow step forward. "Cole..."
"You don't get a vote in this, Solidor."
"I understand," Thane replied after a short pause. "But what she's saying is true. Nahlia has done it before."
Cole lowered his pistol. He knew he wasn't thinking rationally now, and no amount of contemplation would change that. A vision haunted his mind of Nahlia's body rising like those creatures down below. Such a fate would be worse than death for his daughter. Far worse.
"Please Aaron." Lyraina's voice came out more pleading this time. "Look at me."
He raised his head and met those bright blue eyes. Eyes he'd once known so well.
"I know I've made mistakes," she said, "but do you truly believe I don't want to save our daughter?"
Cole still didn't trust her, but arguing would accomplish nothing. Lyraina wasn't the person he remembered, but only fools dismissed things out of ignorance or fear.
Only one question remained: was it worth the risk?
He lowered Nahlia's head to the stone floor, then looked to Thane. "If this fails, I want you to burn her."
Thane held his gaze and nodded.
Lyraina put her hands around Nahlia's wound, then she closed her eyes in concentration.
"Your mother is working to bring you back," the Archaeon told Nahlia. "We don't have much time."
Nahlia gave a shaky nod, trying to ignore the impossibility of her mother learning Ethermancy in mere hours. It had taken Nahlia months to seize control of her own powers. Years even, if you counted all the time she'd spent subconsciously healing herself.
Then again, her mother had been studying the Redeemers for decades. She'd have to take the Archaeon's word for it.
With that problem solving itself, Nahlia examined the strange woman more closely. "Are you my ancestor?"
"I am," Treluwyn said. "Your real ancestor. Not the shadow left behind in my Codex." She gestured to the wooden archway between them as if it were some great divide. “I’m speaking to you from Eternity.”
That made sense. Codices were just a copy of who the person had been in life. They held no knowledge of death or the afterlife.
"And how do I know I'm not imagining this?" Nahlia asked. "I've never heard of someone speaking to an Archaeon in the Ethereal."
"We can't speak to the living," Treluwyn said. "Or interfere with your world. It's part of the code we live by. If we broke that rule, then your own choices and struggles would become meaningless."
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "But I'm not technically alive right now, am I?"
The Archaeon smiled. "Exactly. That's why we're taking advantage of this chance."
Nahlia gave a slow nod as she glanced around the mountain peak. "Other Aeons have died tonight. Did they see their ancestors too?"
"Their souls lingered for some time," Treluwyn said. "But most passed onto the next world. We're talking right now because I have a task for you."
Put to work mere moments after dying. That would make a great joke for her autobiography someday if she ever wrote one. Still … any secret knowledge from an Archaeon was enough to get her attention.
"Alexel Trelidor will rule Revera after tonight," Treluwyn went on. "That cannot be helped. Ciena Raider is holding her own against him, but she isn't his equal. Most likely, he will kill her too."
Well, that took the wind from her sails. Nahlia dropped her chin. "There's nothing we can do?"
"Not tonight," Treluwyn said, "but tonight isn't the end. You can attack Alexel again from a place of strength. He might well be the most powerful Aeon alive, but he wasn't born that way. He trained for years, and he sought knowledge from every corner of the world. You and your companions can do the same."
Treluwyn gestured up at the comet which still loomed above them. "He will cause destruction with this Etherfall, but Revera will recover, and life will go on. It’s what comes next that should concern us.”
She met Nahlia’s eyes again. “I need you to retrieve Palatine's Codex—prevent him from ever using it again. If he keeps it, he will use it to summon even more comets to your world."
"He can do that?" Nahlia asked. Ashara had made it sound like a comet only came once every seven-hundred years. Besides … wasn’t the Codex just knowledge? What good would retrieving it do now? Aegon. There was still so much she didn’t understand.
Treluwyn nodded one. "Etherfalls can only inflict limited damage on the world, but his actions may bring greater consequences still. Most of my kind—the Archaeons—are dead, but one of us still lives. My descendants imprisoned her in a space like this." Treluwyn spread her hands out to either side. "A space between realms."
A living Archaeon. And it’s a she? Aside from Treluwyn, that left three options: Vashet, Vaulden, or Rivian.
"And another comet will damage that prison," Nahlia guessed.
"Correct," Treluwyn said. "It was built to withstand comets in a predictable pattern, but no more. The energy from multiple comets would cause her prison to collide with the physical realm. Such a thing is inevitable if Alexel Trelidor continues his reign."
"How do I stop him then?" Nahlia asked.
"I can't give you the knowledge," Treluwyn said. "Thankfully, you already know the first steps you need to take."
Nahlia furrowed her brow. "You can't give me the knowledge? Is this another of your rules?"
"It is, unfortunately. But think about how the Codex was originally made."
"Ethersmithing," Nahlia said. It was only a guess, but Thane had claimed the Codex was made of some form of modified Etherite.
With nothing forthcoming, Nahlia continued, "But that skill was lost, wasn’t it?"
"Lost," Treluwyn agreed, "but not beyond reach. There are other Codices besides Palatine's. Your friends already know the location of one."
Nahlia sighed. "You aren't going to tell me anything useful, are you?" If this woman was truly an Archaeon, then perhaps she should have been more respectful. Many of the world's religions revered and prayed to their ancestors as if they were Aegon's equal.
Nahlia wasn't so convinced. Sure, this figure had a commanding presence and a strong voice, but she also seemed to have very little practical power. Far from being divine.
"I wish I could tell you more," Treluwyn said. "Truly, I do. But if I reveal too much, we'll risk you forgetting this entire conversation."
Nahlia chewed on that for a moment but pressed on. If she was the only person in centuries to speak with an Archaeon, she couldn't waste a second of it. Treluwyn wasn't the information trove she’d hoped for, but she must know something helpful.
"Aegon," Nahlia began, "is he real? Does he care about us?" A part of her hated herself for even asking that question. It proved that her faith had always been a lie, even to herself. Thane had been right about that much, at least. Nahlia hadn't believed in Aegon before Whitecliff. Afterward, she had simply played a role, acting the way she thought a Redeemer should act.
Perhaps she'd been a true believer for that brief moment when she saved Elias. Since then, the world had conspired to prove her wrong.
"I could tell you yes," Treluwyn said, "I could tell you I've seen proof with my own eyes, and I would be telling you the truth. But would it matter? Aeonica and the Testaments make the same claims. Why is my word any better?”
Nahlia grasped at her pendant. “Unlike the writers of those books, you’ve actually seen him with your own eyes..”
Treluwyn nodded. “And as you so astutely pointed out, you could be imagining this entire conversation. People have seen evidence before throughout history. As long as you're free to choose what’s real, nothing will ever be enough for you."
"You don't know that," Nahlia said.
"I've known people for longer than you have," she replied. "If a thousand people see evidence of Aegon, the world will label it as a natural occurrence, and call it science. If only one person sees the evidence, the world will call that legend or myth."
"I'd still like a sign. You told me to keep fighting, but I've already been fighting this whole time. I need to know that what I'm doing is right."
"We're in the Ethereal," Treluwyn said. "Anything I do here, you can rationalize away later. That's the nature of signs. I'm not trying to be difficult, just realistic."
"Fine. Then tell me why Aegon allows this to happen. I've seen terrible things tonight." Nahlia lowered her hand from her pendant to her breastbone. Even now, she still felt the pain of it being ripped open. "I was murdered for trying to save people. I do everything in my power to prevent violence. That's what a Redeemer is supposed to do. But Aegon is the most powerful of all, and he does nothing. Why?"
Treluwyn considered that for a moment. "I don't know if this will help, but I can give you the same metaphor I was given in my mortal days. Have you ever had to teach someone a skill before?"
Nahlia frowned, but Treluwyn held up a hand as if to forestall her complaining. "Humor me."
"Back in Northshire," Nahlia began, "I worked as the librarian's apprentice. There was a school in town, but only for children older than twelve. Sometimes, the wealthier families would pay me to tutor their younger children. Mostly reading or writing."
The Archaeon smiled. "I imagine those children didn't write very well."
"Of course not. They were children."
She gave a slow nod. "No regard for proper spelling or grammar, much less the higher form of rhetoric. I'd be surprised if their essays made any logical sense. But still, you taught them, hoping they would grow someday."
Already sensing the analogy's direction, Nahlia didn't respond.
"You could have corrected them," she continued. "You could have written every word and made their sentences beautiful works of art. But if you had, those words would belong to the master rather than the student. With you guiding their pens, they would never grow. Without that growth, they would write like children forever. You gave them guidance, but they had to choose whether they followed you. Without that choice—without that freedom—they would never truly learn."
"I get it," Nahila said. "We're all children compared to Aegon. But Palatine is more than a bad student. He's destroying everything."
"And that's the cost of sharing power," Treluwyn said. "It might feel different from where you're standing. But do not doubt that the right words can overthrow an empire. When you teach a child to write, he may go on to do good. But the greater the potential for good, the greater the potential for destruction. It's the same with Ethermancy."
Nahlia balled her hands into fists. "It's still not the same thing. There has to be a line where a student can go too far—where the teacher has to intervene."
"You're right," Treluwyn said. "Such lines exist. Why do you think we're having this conversation now? Aegon's sending you to intervene."
"Why me?" Nahlia demanded. "There must be others.”
"There are others," she agreed. "But you're the one who's standing here. You and your companions chose to fight Alexel Trelidor. Aegon works in mysterious ways, but sometimes it's simple. Sometimes, he chooses those who show up to fight. That's all the first Aeons were. As much as the old texts call us Aegon's chosen people, we were simply the first humans who dared to go farther. It could have been anyone, but it was us."
The sky above grew darker, and the twilight faded to solid black.
"We're nearly out of time," Treluwyn said.
Nahlia shook her head, growing more desperate. “I can’t stop him. You have to find someone else.”
"Remember what I told you,” Treluwyn said. “You can defeat your enemy with time and training. Keep fighting and don't give up hope."