Nahlia woke the next morning in the Raidenwood palace. Sunlight streamed in through the crimson curtains, and a quick glance at the clock revealed it was almost seven. She pushed the blankets aside and found herself wearing nothing but a plush, white bathrobe.
That’s right. She’d been covered in smoke and blood last night, but she did manage to take a bath before collapsing in here. The bed had looked too nice to contaminate.
The rest of the night was a blur of activity, but it all crashed back into her skull as she sat up.
Elias and Ciena had been sleeping in a smaller, two-bedroom chamber on the top floor. Their uncle had offered them the lord’s apartment at one point but they hadn’t wanted to deal with it.
“Too many memories there,” Elias had told her as they passed through the palace gates. “Besides, we were more focused on the Codex this week. Not to mention the siege.”
Thane had already put a stop to that by the time they were upstairs. Within minutes of his arrival, he’d relocated Cladius to a different room. Then he’d moved himself, Relyn, the Raiders, and Nahlia, into the lord’s apartment.
“We need a base of operations,” he’d told them. “So it makes sense for us all to be together. We can also save on guards this way—place a half-dozen of them outside rather than pushing furniture against our doors.”
As for the guards, he sent Fang down to Nightbridge to retrieve a dozen of his most-trusted and well-trained mercenaries. Many of these men had already proven themselves by helping the Raiders take the palace. Now, Thane was promoting them all, doubling their pay, and creating a new group called the Onyx Guard.
Ilsa and Relyn had also interviewed the current palace staff, and Thane gave them the authority to remove anyone suspicious.
All of this had happened in the few short hours Nahlia was gone, and it seemed a bit overwhelming. Who arrives in a palace and rearranges all of everything?
A king, of course.
It was still hard to think of Thane that way. Not to mention Queen Relyn, and the Raider twins who now commanded this city. In fact, Nahlia seemed to be the only one of her friends who didn’t rule a city or a nation. Unless she counted Yimo, which she probably should have.
Nahlia crawled out of bed, and the flagstone floor stung her bare feet like a frozen lake. She ran a brush through her tangled hair and dressed in another of Relyn’s borrowed outfits. She’d have to buy some clothes of her own now that they were back in civilization. It was awkward enough to impose in someone’s home, much less her trousers.
Still, it was nice to have some space to herself for once. As luxurious as the airship was, you were never truly alone there. Meanwhile, the lord’s apartment had five bedchambers, and each one was several times larger than the airship’s cabins.
Nahlia crept down the hallway toward the apartment’s main living area. The floors were dark flagstone, and the sand-colored walls rose into intricate arches above her head. Dozens of chandeliers hung from the ceilings, though none of the oil lamps were lit.
She stepped up to the ten-foot window and used her sleeve to wipe away the condensation. The sun shone into the Bloodrift, and clouds of golden mist stretched to either side.
Nahlia was still gawking at the view as someone cleared her throat.
She spun around to see Ciena sitting on a long crimson sofa. As usual, her brown hair was tied in two braids that fell past her shoulders, and she wore a sleeveless vest. Steelbreaker sat in its scabbard on the wooden table, and another piece of Etherite sat beside it.
“Sorry,” Nahlia said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She glanced around the room again. If she’d known it was just Ciena out here, she might have stayed in her own bedchamber until the others woke up. As it was, she couldn’t exactly make a graceful retreat.
“It’s fine,” Ciena said. “The others were supposed to be out here by now.”
Nahlia bit her lip and continued glancing around the room.
“You might as well sit down.” Ciena gestured to the seat across from her. “You look like a lost puppy over there.”
Nahlia nodded and shuffled over toward the hearth. The fire was warm on her face, and it brought back memories of sitting in the Moonstone Inn. She lowered herself into the plush sofa. Her feet would probably leave the ground if she sat back, so she leaned forward instead.
“I guess we haven’t seen each other since Whitecliff....” Nahlia trailed off, trying to find words to chase away the awkwardness.
“Yeah,” Ciena said. “We were all a bunch of stupid kids back then.”
Nahlia closed her mouth. Maybe there was nothing more to say.
Ciena extended her left hand. “I’m sure we’ll fight together soon. I’ve got your back if you’ve got mine.”
“Of course.” Nahlia took the other woman’s wrist, and it was like a rod of iron. Aegon. She really needed to start exercising again. Ciena’s own grip was surprisingly gentle though, as if she knew one wrong move would snap Nahlia’s arm like a twig.
“And maybe you haven’t seen me since Whitecliff,” Ciena said. “But I’ve seen you.”
Nahlia cocked her head to the side.
Ciena glanced back down at the chip of Etherite in front of her. “You just weren’t conscious.”
“Oh.” Nahlia flushed. “Right ... the whole coma thing.”
“My brother spent a lot of time with you,” Ciena said without looking up. “Made him easy to find.”
Nahlia felt her cheeks grow even redder. How many people had gathered around her bed while she slept? First her father and Elias, and now Ciena too?
“Relax,” Ciena said. “You looked fine. And it’s not like we stuck around while the nurses were changing and bathing you.”
“Thanks,” Nahlia muttered. “If that were the case, I think I would have rather stayed asleep forever.” She cradled her cheek and glanced back outside. “Must have been an exciting six months. What did you do? Play board games on my stomach?”
Ciena shrugged. “Mostly, my brother read to you. Aeon myths, Ethermancy manuals—things like that. I listened in sometimes. No sense in letting the effort go to waste.”
Guilt chased away her embarrassment. “He read to me?” No one had mentioned that before, but once again, Nahlia felt terrible for leaving. Elias clearly loved her enough to sit by her bedside for half-a-year, doing all he could to help her recover. He’d forgiven all her mistakes, and he trusted her more than she trusted herself.
And what had Nahlia done in return? She’d pushed him away whenever things got hard. If this were a romantic play, Elias would be the noble love interest who stuck by her side no matter what. Meanwhile, she would be the indecisive heroine who made the audience roll their eyes.
Unfortunately, realizing that didn’t make it any better.
Ciena must have seen her inner-conflict. “Hey, I said I’ve got your back on the battlefield. Don’t look at me for romance advice.”
Aegon, but of course Ciena knew about them. They were technically still a couple during that time Nahlia was unconscious, and Elias had no reason to keep that a secret.
A few moments of silence passed, then something rattled on the wooden table between them. At first, Nahlia assumed it was Ciena’s sword, but when she glanced down she saw the smaller crystal nudging closer to the other woman. She wasn’t touching it, but her eyes were narrowed in concentration.
Nahlia’s eyes widened, and she forced herself to hold her tongue until the crystal stopped moving. “Was that some kind of Ethermancy?”
Ciena nodded without looking up. “My brother and I will explain it later.”
The door opened in the foyer as someone entered the apartment. Ciena’s hand wandered toward Steelbreaker’s hilt until Elias stepped through the doorway. Several servants with covered silver trays followed him. The scents immediately made Nahlia’s mouth water, and her stomach growled as if she’d been hungry for hours.
“What took you so long?” Ciena said. “Did you cook it yourself?”
“And I killed the pig,” he replied. “Hey, it never hurts to know the people who work for you.”
Thane emerged from his own bedchamber a second later. Summoned by the smell of coffee, no doubt.
“Relyn will be up in another three hours,” he told the room.
“Very funny,” came Relyn’s voice from behind him. Despite her attempts to sound alert, she squinted at the sunlight, and her black braid was halfway unraveled.
Ciena cleared off the table, and the servants set down the silver platters. There was enough food there to feed a crowd three times their size. The first two trays held eggs, bacon, and sausage, while the other held some sort of sweet bread.
Yimo was the last one up, and he raised an appreciative eyebrow at the setup. “Well then—let’s all appreciate the irony of feasting in a starving city.”
Nahlia nodded as she bit into a piece of bacon. It really was the best food she’d eaten in months. Maybe even years.
“Fang can make another supply run today.” Thane took a sip of his coffee. “Then we’ll see about chasing away that army in the east. Once they’re gone, I assume food won’t be a problem?”
Elias shook his head. “The Palavans have conquered everything west of here, but the east is untouched. They barely had enough troops on that side to box us in.”
The conversation continued as they ate. All in all, it felt good to have everyone together again. It reminded Nahlia of her days in Wolfe Clan, or her time traveling with the Onyx Company. She only wished her father were here too instead of leading his rebellion in Sunfall.
Still, she forced herself to remember this moment and the warmth of being surrounded by her friends again. The next time she felt like running or pushing people away, she would look back at this time and remind herself how much better it felt.
Once their plates were clean, Thane stood at the end of the table and turned his attention to the Raider twins. “Before you fill us in”—he shot a glance at Yimo—”how much do you trust him?”
“What?” Yimo blurted out. “You’ve been suspicious of me this whole time?” He pointed his fork at Relyn. “Why didn’t you ask your wife to vouch for me?”
“I did,” Thane replied.
Yimo put a hand to his heart as he turned to face Relyn.
“You showed up the same time those assassins tried to kill Nahlia,” she said with a shrug. “That’s a bit suspicious.”
“Hey—I killed several of those assassins. And I stitched up Nahlia’s wounds. You just don’t like me, do you? Is this because I teased you when we were kids?”
Relyn gave him a flat look. “Trust me—If I didn’t like you, you never would have left the Ashmount.”
He considered that for a moment. “You know, that might be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“For what it’s worth,” Ciena spoke up, “I’ve never liked you.”
“You don’t like anyone,” Yimo said with a dismissive wave.
Thane cleared his throat. “If you’re all finished, we have a war to plan here.” He turned back to the Raider twins.
Elias finally nodded. “I’ve known Yimo for over ten years. We can trust him. Besides, it’s going to take more than the five of us to run this war.” There was a short pause, then he held up a finger. “However, the secrets we’re about to share relate to Ethermancy, and Yimo’s not an Ethermancer.”
Yimo deflated at that. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“That settles it then.” Thane met Yimo’s eye. “Give us some time to talk through this. We’ll fill you in on the relevant details afterward.”
Nahlia shot Yimo a sympathetic look as he dragged his feet toward the foyer. But this also piqued her curiosity even more. What sort of secrets had the Raiders found in that Codex?
Thane returned to his seat next to Relyn, and Elias rose from his own. He started by reiterating a conversation they’d all had the previous night.
In short, Cladius Raider was on their side, and he’d spent the past ten years smuggling Aeons from inside the palace to a secret enclave. In hindsight, this made a great deal of sense. For example, it explained why Cladius had paid bounties for living Aeons. If he was going to execute them anyway, what was the point of that?
This meant that Nahlia might have ended up in Redcliff Enclave if she hadn’t joined the Onyx Company. Ciena might have ended up there as well if no one had freed her in Starglade.
“And that brings us to Raiden’s Codex,” Elias said. From there, he launched into the story of how he and Ciena had used Steelbreaker to open the tomb. Raiden’s great-grandson—a man named Lucan—had replaced the Archaeon’s avatar inside the Codex. In doing so, he’d erased Raiden’s combat techniques, replacing them with knowledge of Ethersmithing.
That explained the secrecy. Nahlia hadn’t seen Ciena fight with Steelbreaker, but she’d seen the shattered swords in the aftermath. Who knew what their side could accomplish with more Etherite weapons.
Elias pulled out a charcoal board and made several quick drawings—mostly stick figures and arrows. Not only could you re-forge Etherite into weapons, tools, and jewelry, you could do it in a matter of seconds. Even in the middle of combat.
What’s more, an Ethersmith could move the crystals through physical space without touching them. However, both the twins admitted they knew very little about this last skill. They’d only seen Lucan demonstrate it.
“We hoped we’d have a live demonstration by now,” Elias said, “but this skill is more difficult than anything we’ve learned before. Ciena only just managed to make a crystal vanish last night.”
Elias continued writing on the board as he spoke. It was almost funny how bad his drawing and penmanship were. Sometimes, Nahlia had to remind herself that the Raider twins had only learned specific skills in Whitecliff. It didn’t mean they were good at everything.
Finally, Elias placed another charcoal board on the wooden easel. This one included a multi-column list of how they might use Ethersmithing in battle. Nahlia had imagined some of this during the conversation, but the Raider twins had put far more thought into it.
“These skills aren’t limited to Justicars,” Elias said. “Lucan confirmed that any Aeon can become an Ethersmith. It’s a universal skill, like dreamwalking, bondforging, or empathy.”
Relyn perked up as if she were finally awake.
“So I think we should all start learning this,” he went on. “Not just my sister and me, but all five of us. The Codex will reject anyone without Raiden’s blood, but we can pass on what we learn. If we all spend a few hours each day practicing, that might give us the edge we need against the Palavan Ethermancers. Maybe even Trelidor himself.”
Thane nodded in agreement. “And if we keep this knowledge between us, there’s little chance our enemy can steal it.”
Elias turned to Nahlia next. “There’s one more thing. You remember the reason we went looking for this Codex in the first place?”
“Of course,” Nahlia said. Treluwyn had claimed there were other Codices besides Palatine’s, and that Nahlia’s friends already knew the location of one. At the time, Nahlia’s first guess had been Kalazhan’s Codex. As the king of Dragonshard, Thane already had that one in his possession. Unfortunately, Trelidor had taken it before Thane surrendered the palace. Now, it sat in Sunfall out of reach.
After Elias had shared his theory about Steelbreaker being the key to Raiden’s vault, they all agreed that was their best option.
“Well,” Elias began, “we might have made progress on that front. Lucan said Codices are made with Ethersmithing. And if you can make a Codex, you can unmake one.”
Nahlia gave a slow nod. Treluwyn had actually mentioned Ethersmithing by name, so this wasn’t exactly a surprise. “Too bad we didn’t know this two years ago ... back when we were trying to keep the Codex from Palatine.”
“That part always confused me too,” Thane said. “Trelidor already used the Codex to control the Etherfall. The damage was done, and he already has the knowledge. What good will destroying it do?”
“It might stop posterity from repeating our mistakes,” Ciena said half-heartedly. “But little comfort that will be once we’re all dead.”
“Treluwyn said we need to stop Trelidor from using the Codex again,” Elias said. “That’s our goal, even if we don’t understand it yet.”
Assuming I didn’t imagine the whole thing, Nahlia thought. But more skepticism wouldn’t help them right now. Not with all the uncertainty that plagued them already. The truth was, she admired Elias’s faith and resolve. And Raiden’s Codex really did hold the information Treluwyn had promised. That was one point in her favor, at least.
“And I’m sure things will make more sense the more we learn,” Elias continued. “If Lucan’s right, it will take us several months just to do basic Ethersmithing. Making a Codex is even more advanced.”
“Fortunately,” Ciena said, “it’s easier to break something than it is to make it.”
Elias frowned as he turned to face her. “Lucan said that?”
She shrugged. “Just basic physics.”
“Her favorite law,” Relyn chimed in.
The meeting continued as Elias shared the basics of Ethersmithing, along with exercises they could practice on their own. The rules were surprisingly simple. Instead of pulling a crystal’s power into your soul, you pulled the crystal itself, breaking the matter down into even more energy.
Nahlia couldn’t help but wonder—if it was that simple, how come no one had done this since the Age of Archaeons? True, the rarity of Etherite probably played a role. Relyn, Elias, and Ciena had all come from wealthy families, and even they hadn’t had any until recently. Thane had two rings, but his family was among the richest in the known world. Meanwhile, Nahlia’s pendant had been a family heirloom for centuries.
Still, something didn’t add up here. What were the odds that the Aeons who discovered Ethermancy were also the ones to discover this advanced technique?
After the meeting was over, they re-grouped with Yimo and made their way toward Redcliff Enclave.
The journey started when Elias opened a trap door near the great hall. From there, they stepped down a stone staircase and followed a tunnel that was half the length of Highbridge. The tunnel took them past Raiden’s now-open tomb, and into the northern mountains.
The sun broke through the clouds above, but its warmth did little to chase away the wind’s chill. Nahlia wrapped her cloak tighter across her chest, trying to prevent her bones from becoming icicles.
Raiden had apparently built his city over the Bloodrift to strengthen his people. Nahlia had her doubts as to whether it did anything but make them miserable.
Relyn and Yimo walked with their heads bowed against the wind, but Thane and Elias stood tall. They were probably using Ethermancy to keep warm, the cheaters. Moonfire couldn’t do anything like that. If anything, it made her even colder.
“How often do you visit this place?” Relyn asked through chattering teeth.
“Not much,” Elias admitted. “We came here the first night to make sure our uncle wasn’t lying, then once more to meet everyone. Aside from that, we’ve been busy with the siege and the Codex.”
Ciena must have still been busy with the Codex, because she hadn’t joined them on the walk to Redcliff. That shouldn’t have been a surprise since Ciena had always lived for combat. Now, she had legendary techniques to learn, and her future battles might well decide the fate of the realm.
The wind died down after a while, and Yimo jogged to catch up with her. “So ... have you ever thought about taking on an apprentice?”
Nahlia gave him a sidelong glance. “An apprentice?”
“Yeah, it’s a loyal and hard-working student who—”
“I know what it is.” Nahlia glared down at him. “But ... you’re talking about Ethermancy?”
“Is this because we kicked you out this morning?”
Yimo gave her a flat look. “Did you need a specific reason two years ago? We’re fighting a war here, and I’d rather not be dead weight.”
“Besides,” he continued, “you and your mother are the only Redeemers around, and Lyraina doesn’t count. I could break my leg, and instead of healing me, she would give me a lecture on how I deserve it. Then she’d break my other leg for good measure.”
“That does sound like her,” Nahlia said with a small laugh. For a moment, she almost missed Yimo’s point. A Redeemer?
“That’s right,” she said. “You’re a descendent of Treluwyn.”
“On my mother’s side,” he confirmed. “Guess that makes us cousins, huh?”
“Alright.” Nahlia drew in a deep breath as the trail grew steeper “I can see why you’d want to learn, but I’m not sure I’m ready to be a teacher.”
Yimo cleared his throat. “Through learning a woman teaches, and through teaching a woman learns.”
“Senicar Raider,” Nahlia said with an appreciative nod. “Book Two.” The original quote used the word ‘man’, but he’d gotten the rest verbatim.
“Letter Fourteen,” Yimo finished, “Section Five.”
She turned to face him again. “I see you’ve spent time in the Raiders’ library.”
“Who says I didn’t memorize that?”
Nahlia shook her head. “If your memory was that good, you wouldn’t have waited this long to show off.”
Yimo hummed as if conceding the point. “This is why you’re the master, and I’m the apprentice.”
She held up a hand. “I never said I agreed to anything. Besides, having the right bloodline is no guarantee. If it were, Relyn would be a Justicar.”
“That would make this hike so much easier,” Relyn said from behind them.
“I’ll never know if I don’t try,” Yimo countered. “Besides, I could always focus on something else if it doesn’t work out.”
Another fair point. And even if he studied something else, Redeemer training was still the most logical place to start. For whatever reason, it came more intuitively than other skills.
“So what do you say?” Yimo prodded. “I can already meditate into the Ethereal.”
“I’ll think about it,” Nahlia said.
The trail meandered on for what felt like three miles. Then again, rough terrain had a way of stretching distances. It might have been no more than a single mile for all she knew.
“Who’s there?” a deep voice called out.
“Elias Raider.” He waved as he crested the short hill. Nahlia reached the top a second later and saw a massive wooden gate stretching to either side of the path. A man and a woman stood at its base, each wearing the crimson-dyed uniforms of Raidenwood guards.
Clever, Nahlia thought. Even if someone stumbled on this path by accident, Cladius could still play it off as a secret military base rather than an Aeon enclave.
“Open the gates!” the male guard shouted to someone on the other side.
The wooden gates opened with a groan, and they all followed Elias into the enclave.
The air felt warmer inside the enclave’s walls. The structures were mostly simple log cabins with a few sturdy tents mixed in. The chapel was the tallest building there, rising above the others with its iconic stone spires. There was a windowless structure that looked like a food storage warehouse and several long buildings that could have barracks or mess halls. Aside from those major landmarks, dozens of smaller homes filled the valley.
Cookfires burned, dogs barked, and chickens and goats roamed free across the paths.
Nahlia was surprised to see so many familiar faces in the crowd. Not just members of the Whitecliff Battleclans, but families who had fled during the Templar attack. They were all here, and they all stared openly.
The last time these people had seen Nahila, she’d been on trial for Headmaster Elveron’s murder. She’d been cleared of that crime, but she had still acted as a spy for Thane. And, by extension, the Templars.
Nahlia shot a sidelong glance in Thane’s direction. Unlike her, he actually had killed Elveron. His only advantage was that none of these people would recognize his face. Then again, how long would that anonymity last? She knew how small towns worked. Northshire had several thousand people, and rumors still spread like ash in the wind.
Most likely, everyone here would know Thane’s name before the afternoon’s end, along with his role before the Battle of Whitecliff.
They spent the next hour walking around the enclave as Elias gave them a tour. All the enclave’s inhabitants worked together in a close community. Some worked the farmland, while others tended the animals and others prepared the food. And, like Whitecliff, there were training yards and makeshift dojos where students practiced martial arts.
Yimo and Elias seemed to know half the people they passed, and they kept stopping to socialize. Meanwhile, Relyn hung back with Nahlia and Thane.
“What do you think?” Relyn asked them.
“I’m glad to see everyone’s alright,” Nahlia said. After what Yimo told her before, she’d feared the worst.
Thane glanced thoughtfully at the crowd of training students. Nahila could almost see his thoughts written on his face. How many of these Aeons might become Ethermancers? Yimo had volunteered himself for training, but maybe that was just the beginning.
Thane drew in a deep breath as he turned to face them. “I think we might have our army after all.”