Thane broke the water's surface with his oar as their boat glided through a forest of stone spires. He'd seen plenty of canyons throughout his travels, but Kiburi Canyon was large enough to swallow them all tenfold. Even the Bloodrift couldn't compare.
But unlike the raging rapids beneath Raidenwood, the water here was calm and steady. Its glass-like surface reflected the blue-tinged mist and the twilight sky above.
From the sky, the canyon had gone on for dozens of miles in every direction. By the time they'd flown their airship to the center it was impossible to tell the long end from the short. The stone pillars filled the gaps between the outer walls, making smaller passages within the larger one. The shortest of these spires was as tall as a five-story building. The tallest of them rivaled Dragonshard before the Etherfall.
"I'm surprised this place isn't famous," Thane said, still unable to take his eyes from the sights on either side. Were those ... trees? Growing from solid stone?
Relyn laughed from the back of the boat. "You do realize how far we are off the map?"
She was right about that. The journey would have taken the better part of a year without their airship. Now, they'd made the trip from Dragonshard in less than a month.
"Still..." Thane cut the water with his oar and steered them around a smaller pillar. "The Cultivators have lived here for centuries, and we've never seen so much as a painting of this place."
"Makes you wonder what else is out there," Relyn agreed.
They continued paddling until they reached the central spire they'd seen from the sky. This was wider at the base than the others, with smaller plateaus around the edges as it tapered into a narrow point at the top. Pagodas stuck out from the cliff face with paper lanterns hanging from their eaves. Wooden walkways ran between the various levels, and he even spotted several rope bridges connecting this pillar to the surrounding ones
Aegon ... how many Aeons lived here? Hundreds? Thousands? And all of them are Ethermancers?
The docks were bustling with activity as they approached. No surprise there. With little room for livestock or crops, this enclave must import most of its food by the river. The larger vessels cut through the water, and the waves sent Thane and Relyn rocking back and forth.
Fang could have brought The Raptor's Claw closer and dropped their boat directly into the harbor, but they'd decided against that. The ship's propellers would have blown over anything that wasn't nailed to the ground. Not the best way to make a first impression. The crew had learned that lesson the hard way.
He steered the boat toward a smaller set of docks. There, a young woman seemed to be hailing them.
Thane glanced around for a moment before turning to Relyn. "Is she ... waving at us?"
Relyn nodded. "It's an ancient Valaysian greeting ritual. It means she wants you to come closer."
"Funny," Thane said as he paddled toward the woman. Like all the Cultivators around the harbor, she wore a simple brown tunic, cut like a martial artist's robe. Her skin was about as dark as his, and her black hair was tied back in a simple tail.
"Highlord and Highlady Solidor?" the woman asked as their boat touched the dock. She spoke Reveran in a thick eastern accent, just like the man back in the village. Three days ago, Thane would have been surprised. Now he knew better.
"That's us." Relyn pulled her oar from the water, sending an absurdly large splash against the back of Thane's neck. Thane resisted the urge to grimace. She knew he wouldn't splash her back in front of a stranger.
The woman gave a polite bow. "We've been expecting you."
They stepped off their vessel, and a pair of dockhands moved to secure it to the posts. The Cultivator spoke again before Thane could ask any questions. "If you would please follow me, the elders are waiting."
Convenient, that. They'd been prepared to wait days for an appointment if they had to. But apparently people took notice when you flew an airship across their land.
What about Trelidor, then? This woman knew their identities, and she wasn't nearly old enough to be a high-ranking member of the sect. If their enemy had spies in this enclave, then the charade was over. Trelidor would execute his sister, and the war would return to Dragonshard.
Thane shook his head to clear it. They'd weighed the risks of this journey. Ashara had agreed to it, and so had Thane's other advisors. All he could do now was focus on the task at hand.
Their guide led them out of the harbor and up a twisting stone walkway along the outside of the spire. They had to weave their way past dozens of younger sect members carrying bags of rice and wooden crates from the boats.
Like Dragonshard, parts of the spire had been carved out to create tunnels and chambers through the middle. They also passed several wide, circular plateaus where men and women sat in quiet meditation.
Finally, after what seemed like twenty flights worth of stairs, their guide stopped at the end of a tunnel and gestured them toward the exit.
Thane nodded his thanks and stepped out into the evening air. The sun was below the horizon now, and the mist was cool against his face. The elder's ‘chamber’ was just another flat indentation in the cliff.
“What do they do when it rains?” Thane wondered aloud as he approached.
“They probably don’t even notice,” Relyn replied in a whisper. “Being one with nature and all that.”
They stepped up several more stairs where eight seats sat arrayed in a semicircle around the stone platform. The sect's elders sat cross-legged on cushioned mats, but the outer part of the platform was raised so that Thane had to glance up to meet their eyes.
"Thane and Relyn Solidor," a man spoke in perfect Reveran. "Welcome to Kiburi Canyon."
What followed was an elaborate greeting ritual where the elders spoke their names, titles, and exchanged formal bows with Thane and his wife. Relyn had warned him about this part of Valaysian culture. While Reverans had their hand clasping, such things were often omitted in larger gatherings to save time. Not the case here.
A desperate part of him believed they wouldn't go through all this trouble if they meant to reject his plea, but there was no real logic to that thinking.
"Do you know why we're here?" Thane asked once the introductions were over. His mouth was dry, and his heart threw itself against his ribcage as if in preparation for battle.
If only it were that simple. Combat, he understood. Politics, not so much.
"We have heard news of your journey," Elder Kunchen spoke up. He wasn't the oldest person on this council. In fact, he couldn't be much older than Thane's own father had been. Even so, he seemed to be the spokesperson. His bald head shone in the orange lantern light, and his beard came to a point below his chin. "But rumors aren't always true. We would hear the reasons from your own mouth."
"We've come to ask for your help in the fight against Palatine." Thane began slowly. "Also known as Alexel Trelidor." He went on to recount Revera’s recent history, from the Templar Revolution, to the Clansmeet, and the Battle of Dragonshard. He explained how Trelidor murdered his father, and how he'd made Ciena Raider do his bidding.
Finally, Thane told them about the comet and how Trelidor used its power to kill thousands more, sowing further seeds of chaos and paving the way for his new empire.
Relyn spoke up then, "If we don't stop him, his empire will spread to Valaysia. He's already convinced my family, Clan Vassaj, to join him. It's only a matter of time before he moves across the Sunrise Sea, then over the Cloudwal mountains."
"But if we unite now," Thane continued, "we can still stop him. We can fight Palatine together, and we can end his conquest before it's too late."
His words seemed to echo in the vast canyon as he finished. He should have said more—prepared more, or spoken more eloquently. Another piece of him worried it was hopeless no matter what he said. The Cultivator from the village had already said the elders would refuse his request. Thane hadn’t truly believed it until now, standing here before their impassive faces.
"You call Palatine a conqueror," Elder Esahi began in a gravelly voice. She was older than Kunchen—silver-haired and wrinkled as if she'd spent whole decades of her life under the sun. "This word 'conquest' implies victory through military might, am I correct?"
"More or less," Thane conceded.
"But was it not your own father, the king of Dragonshard, who invited Palatine and his armies to your land?"
Thane hesitated, and the woman turned to Relyn. "Did Palatine threaten your family with violence, or did they join him willingly?"
"It's not that simple," Thane broke in. "Yes, some clans joined him, but he still murdered thousands the night of the Etherfall. Including the leaders at the Clansmeet who refused his offer. Since then, he's conquered Sunfall and Vauldenport with his army, and Raidenwood is under siege as we speak."
She raised a hand, half-hidden beneath her loose brown robe. "I mean not to argue semantics, only to show that Palatine has used your land’s violent ways against you. He wants you to keep fighting because he thrives in the chaos. This is why you surrendered your city in the first place, is it not?"
"If you go to war," Elder Kunchen said, "you would only face your own countrymen on the field of battle. Soldiers from the very cities he has conquered.”
Thane’s chest tightened further as he remembered killing his own cousin at the gates of his palace.
“And as you gain allies,” Kunchen continued, “Palatine will only enlist more of your countrymen against you."
Thane drew in a deep breath, "Or maybe Palatine's people will turn on him if someone gives them the chance.” After all, Ciena Raider had done just that. So had Thane’s cousin, Dazen.
“Perhaps,” the elder said. “But every war has consequences, and those consequences multiply as more factions are involved.
“War is inevitable now,” Thane said.
“War is never inevitable.”
Sweat pricked Thane’s palms, and he had to stop himself from clenching them into fists. “If we stand aside, Palatine will take everything he can. He'll keep conquering more land until he owns the entire world. I’ll regret every death in this war—on both sides— but it’s our best chance to save more lives in the long term.”
"And is that your ultimate goal?" Kunchen asked. "To save as many lives as you can?"
"Of course," Thane said. It may not have been completely accurate, but duty led his tongue.
"And is that why you tried to forge an alliance with the Venetorans?"
Aegon. Of course they knew about that.
"You approached one of the most brutal cultures in the known world and you offered them airship technology in exchange for their fleets and armies. Have we been misinformed about this?"
"No," Thane admitted. Venetore was an island nation that controlled the sea between Revera and Valaysia. They were also the first faction he'd approached with an offer. Of course—like all the others—they weren't keen to join the losing side.
"We wouldn't be asking for help if we had other options," Thane told the Elders. "But we tried fighting Palatine once. A hundred Ethermancers and Templars met him at the top of Dragonshard, and less than a score of us walked away. We failed then, and he's only grown more powerful since."
“And if Venetore had accepted your offer," Kunchen said, "the conflict would spread, and more innocents would suffer." He leaned forward on his mat. "Even if you defeat Trelidor with larger armies, what then? Will you lead Revera yourself? Successful conquerors seldom make noble rulers."
"I don't claim to have every answer for the future," Thane said. "That's why I came here—to ask for your help."
"You came here for an army of Ethermancers," Kunchen said. His tone wasn't accusatory, just matter-of-fact. "And we understand your reasons. To you, this must look like a war to end all wars. But Revera and Palavar have been fighting for centuries. Your war is no different from that of your ancestors."
"What would you have us do?" Thane asked.
"Choose to stop fighting."
"Surrender to a dictatorship, you mean?"
"Remove him from power, if you must, but this needs not be a battle of armies."
Going to war without an army is a good way to fail, Thane thought. When he met Relyn’s eyes, she seemed to agree. This wasn’t an enemy they could assassinate or imprison. The Battle of Dragonshard had already proved that.
Elder Esahi spoke up again, "Why do you think your deity, Aegon, forbids the use of firearms, Thane Solidor?"
"They lead to even greater wars," Thane replied at once. Any Aeon child could answer that.
She nodded. "Wars with greater armies, more powerful technology, and more opportunities for destruction. This thinking should also apply to wars of Ethermancers, dragons, and airships. A fact that your family would rather ignore."
Ah, and there it was. The inevitable jab at his Clan Solidor's violent history. In his father's last moments, he'd refused to stand for cold-blooded murder. Even so, these Cultivators probably saw him as Trelidor's equal.
For all Thane knew, they saw him that way too.
He let out a lengthy breath. “So Palatine is conquering everything, and your reaction is to sit here and wait for him to show up on your doorstep."
"If I believed your war would bring peace," Kunchen said, "I would join you. I would personally fight by your side against Palatine. But your land has known nothing but war since the beginning of history. We will not widen the scope of this one."
Thane felt his shoulders sag with the burden of responsibility. He never wanted to be king, and now he was failing his nation and his continent.
As a last resort, he considered telling the elders about Nahlia and her talk with the Archaeon Treluwyn. Treluwyn had told Nahlia that Palatine meant to summon another Etherfall with even greater consequences.
This was far more than just another war.
But no … the Cultivators would never believe that. This was an entirely different culture. They didn’t even believe in Aegon here, and they certainly didn’t commune with their ancestors.
He and Relyn had flown all this way, only to confirm what they should have known all along.
They were alone in this fight.