After their initial tour of the enclave, Thane and the others moved to a small dojo on the valley’s eastern side. High wooden walls surrounded a stone dueling ring, and scores of weapon racks lined the parameter. It was almost noon, and the sun shone through the room’s open ceiling.
“I appreciate what Cladius did here,” Thane said. “but we can’t hide forever. Every Cruscendo player knows you don’t win wars behind walls.”
Technically, Thane was quoting his father, but he kept that part to himself. “Fang had the right idea two years ago. He saw Aeons as a valuable resource, which they are. Even if we’re not Ethermancers, we can act as spies or informants.”
Elias nodded from across the ring. “You think we should start recruiting from this enclave?”
“We can do better than that,” Thane said. “We can train them to use Ethermancy.” He gestured a finger around their circle. “All of you came from Wolfe Clan, and four of you are Ethermancers now. How many other Battleclans have the same potential?”
Ciena paced back and forth, twirling a practice blade in her hand. “A quarter of Alexel’s enclave were Ethermancers, and those were just the ones I knew about.”
“One in four sounds about right,” Thane said. Dragonshard had a similar percentage among their Aeon population. Of course, there was less interbreeding with humans on the Southern Peninsula. But even if the North had lower numbers, this was still an untapped resource. Besides, certain skills like empathy and sigilcrafting were open to all Aeons.
Not to mention Ethersmithing, but it was best to keep that hidden for now. All it took was one spy to leak the knowledge, and Thane had no illusions this place was safe.
He turned to Elias and Yimo. “You two seem well connected here. You think you can gather the Battleclans for a meeting?”
“We will want to be discrete,” Relyn said before either of them could reply.
“She’s right,” Ciena said as she gave her sword another spin. “The White Council had us half-convinced Ethermancy was a myth. They fed us lies like cakes in Midwinter.”
“And they went to great lengths to reinforce those lies,” Elias added. “Even if we found evidence buried in the library, the books always vanished. It wasn’t until Nahlia showed up that we found them hidden in Zidane’s office.”
“My uncle never supported that plan,” Relyn continued. “He was outvoted by Elveron and the others.”
“But that was two years ago,” Nahlia broke in. “Maybe things have changed since then? Besides, Zidane is dead. He was conspiring against the enclave from the beginning. Everyone should know that by now.”
“This movement was bigger than Whitecliff,” Elias said. “The suppression of Ethermancy goes back deeper. Before the Purge, even.”
Thane rubbed at his temple. He’d spent his life surrounded by Ethermancers, and it was easy to forget how most of the realm denied their existence. Like Elias said, It really began when the Templars first became a powerful faction in the Sunfall court. The Aeon leaders had sought to appease them with a show of peace, treating the humans as equals rather than abusing their power.
It was a nice enough idea in theory. Before long though, anyone who used Ethermancy—or even spoke of it—was subjected to ridicule by humans and Aeons alike. Only Dragonshard had refused to play along. It was no coincidence that they’d survived the Purge while others perished.
Once again, Thane found himself respecting his father more in death than he ever had in life. For all the late king’s faults, he had kept them alive.
“Before I left,” Nahlia said, “Marwyn and Vaulden were running things. I can’t speak for Vaulden, but I know Marwyn would support us.”
“Those two might have been in charge,” Yimo put in, “but neither of them wanted the job. If I had to guess, I’d say they tossed it on someone else’s lap.”
The others continued to voice their concerns over the next few minutes. Finally, Relyn turned to Thane. “It’s still a good idea. We just need to be discrete like I said. If the Masters don’t like it, we’ll close the door on them. You said it yourself—we’re in charge now, right?”
Thane let out a long breath. There were no doubt complications here, but this was war. He’d also struck a major blow against the Palavans yesterday. Their enemy would retaliate hard, and the clock was ticking.
“Alright,” he said. “Then let’s gather the Battleclans and make them an offer.”
An hour later, no potential students had arrived. Instead, their only guests were the Masters themselves.
Vaulden was the first to enter the dojo. Whitecliff’s Master Academia was a dark-skinned Ember Islander with more than a dozen braids that fell past her shoulders.
The Master Physician hobbled in after her. Marwyn stood half-a-head shorter than Vaulden. Pale, slender, and balding, he had a pair of round spectacles on his nose. Nahlia and Elias had both described the man as a potential ally, though his presence here couldn’t be a good sign.
Finally, a second gray-haired Reveran stepped inside. Broad-shouldered and muscular, he towered over his two companions. A short beard framed his angled face, and those tan eyes seemed familiar somehow.
The stranger studied Thane for several heartbeats, then he turned to the others. “This is him?”
“Yes,” Marwyn said with a quick nod. “Saw him after the battle—wounded and unconscious. Still recognize his face.”
“I remember his face as well,” Vaulden confirmed in her thick accent.
Thane shot a questioning glance at Relyn who stood beside him. He didn’t entirely meet her eyes, but there was no need. The half-glance was enough to kindle their soulbond.
’Who is this?’ he asked.
’I have no idea,’ she replied. ‘Whoever he is, he didn’t come from Whitecliff.’
The stranger took two steps forward, oblivious to their silent conversation. “Thane Solidor.” He spoke the name like an accusation.
Thane forced himself to stand tall and meet the man’s gaze. “You have me at a disadvantage.”
“My name is Toron of Clan Elveron. And you murdered my brother.”
Ah ... that.
“One of many crimes,” Vaulden said. You also conspired with the Templars and helped them find our previous enclave. Your actions that day lead to dozens of deaths. If that wasn’t enough, you opened a door that was sealed for two centuries, and you delivered Palatine’s Codex to him in Dragonshard.”
Thane hesitated. He felt as if he should defend himself. After all, he had killed Whitecliff’s Headmaster in self-defense. True, the man was only protecting his enclave in that fight, but it was hardly cold-blooded murder on Thane’s part. But while Zidane had been the one to force open the tomb and aid the Templars, Thane couldn’t deny the role he’d played.
Elveron’s eyes narrowed in disdain. Finally, Thane saw the resemblance in the brothers’ faces. They even had the same voice—deep and powerful like a general on a battlefield.
“If I could,” Elveron said, “I would force you to stand trial right now. Aegon knows you’ve escaped justice enough times. Perhaps if we fought, I could defeat you where my brother failed.” He released a long breath, still eying Thane as if he were a caged dragon. “But my people have suffered enough without losing another leader. And even justice won’t bring back the dead.”
Thane closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry about your brother. It was a fight that should never have happened, and I regret it to this day.”
“I don’t care about your regrets,” Elveron snapped.
“Then what do you want from me?” Thane asked. “You said it yourself, justice—or vengeance—won’t make this better.”
“I want you to leave this enclave.”
Thane narrowed his eyes. “Do you even know why I’m here?”
Elveron waved a hand. “If you’re here to fight Trelidor’s army, then do so. Just leave my enclave out of it.”
“Your people lose more if this continues,” Relyn said. “If Raidenwood falls, this enclave will follow. And I don’t see you doing anything to stop Trelidor.”
“You would fight flame with flame,” Vaulden said, “and expect anything but destruction.”
Thane inclined his head. “And you would sit in a burning house and expect to survive.”
“We’ve already spoken to the Battleclans and told them who you are,” Elveron continued as if Thane hadn’t spoken. “No one will be attending your secret meeting. You have nothing to gain here now.”
Was that their decision, or yours? If this entire enclave had rejected him, Thane would accept defeat and move on. But this man had a personal grudge against him. It was like the Cultivators all over again. How was he supposed to fight Trelidor if no one would look past his mistakes?
“You’re an Ethermancer,” Thane said to Elveron. “Aren’t you?” It was hardly even a question. The man had just entertained the idea of fighting Thane and emerging victorious. No ordinary person could say that with a straight face.
Elveron didn’t reply.
“I came here to train your soldiers in Ethermancy. If you’re a Sanctifier like your brother, then why haven’t you trained them yourself?”
He furrowed his brow. “Tell me, Solidor, has Ethermancy done more harm or good in this world?”
Thane knew his answer without thinking. He’d used his own abilities to save many lives now. So had Nahlia and the Raider twins. But as a whole? If it weren’t for Trelidor, none of their actions would have been necessary. Their enemy had killed thousands in the Etherfall, and even more through his manipulations. He had broken people and used them like pieces on a Cruscendo board.
No matter what Thane did—no matter how noble his cause—he could never make up for the horrors Trelidor had wrought. More likely, Thane would only make things worse in his resistance. That was why the Cultivators had refused to fight. That was why Emperor Reverius had outlawed Ethermancy all those years ago. That was also why the Masters of Whitecliff had continued the practice.
Thane could understand that even if he didn’t agree. They were striving for a peaceful future—trying to make the best of things in their own way.
“More harm,” he finally admitted. “But pretending Ethermancy doesn’t exist is like imagining away hurricanes or storms. It won’t accomplish anything. In fact, it will likely make things worse. When we pretend, we leave ourselves unprepared. That’s what happened with Ciena Raider in Dragsonshard.”
He met the other Masters’ eyes. “I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to her. She was an Ethermancer without training—a blank canvas for Alexel Trelidor to paint whatever he wanted. Her power was there all along, but no one taught her to control it.”
Elveron crossed a pair of muscular arms in front of his dark tunic. “You prove my point for me, Solidor. Ciena Raider became an Ethermancer, and it only made her more violent. More wild and unpredictable.”
“Did you even know Ciena Raider before?” Relyn asked. “She was always an Ethermancer, even back in Whitecliff. And she’s more in control now than she’s ever been before. So is my husband.” She took a step toward Thane. “Your lies didn’t save us from the Templars, and they won’t save you from Trelidor.”
Thane spread out his hands in an open-palmed gesture. “We didn’t come here to argue with you. We’re only here to help.”
“You want to help my people?” Elveron’s voice cut like a dagger. “You want soldiers for your army. Trelidor commands hundreds of Ethermancers, and you mean to do the same. One tyrant against another. It doesn’t matter which one of you sits on the throne in Sunfall. You’re both killers.”
“We want no part in this war.” Vaulden’s voice was softer than Elveron’s, but still firm in its resolve. “If we use Ethermancy, we risk drawing attention to ourselves. These people only want to live in peace.”
“No one asked for this war,” Thane replied.
“Except for your father, who invited Trelidor here.”
Thane pressed on, “Our enemy has already conquered scores of cities between here and Sunfall. And Trelidor has already killed thousands of people just like—”
“And how many people have you killed, Thane Solidor?”
Thane closed his mouth.
“It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely curious. Dozens? Hundreds?”
Thane remembered the courtyards of Kyroth’s estate in Dresten, and the fiery halls where innocents had burned. He remembered the Black Steppes, when the Templars had first invaded his land. He remembered the Battle of Whitecliff, Dragonshard, and all the fights in between.
Thane had probably killed more than all of his allies combined. More than many of his enemies, even.
“Thousands,” he finally said. No words or explanations would soften the blow after that. Words would only ring hollow after that cold hard truth.
“I can’t change the past,” he said. “But the fact remains, I’m leading the resistance against Trelidor. There’s no reason for you and I to be enemies. We can find a way to work together.”
“Is that not the same offer Alexel Trelidor gave you at the Clansmeet?” Vaulden asked. “Didn’t he propose that your nations unite with him against the Templars?”
Elveron nodded. “In the west, a tyrant rules, commanding armies and destroying all who stand against him. Now, another tyrant seeks to fight him—a king born to a long line of conquerors. No matter which of you wins, the realm will lose. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Thane gritted his teeth. It was the same argument the Cultivators had given him back in Eastern Valaysia. Once again, Thane didn’t have an answer. Sanctifiers were made to destroy. He’d learned much these past few years, but that wasn’t enough to win this war.
“Now,” Elveron began, “are you going to force my people into service? Do you wish to use your power to control us? If so, you can start with me.” He stretched out his arms like a man on a pyre, waiting to burn.
The man held Thane’s gaze for several long seconds. Thane searched desperately for an answer—some reason or justification, but nothing came.
He clenched his shaking fist, wishing he could pull fire from his rings and give this fool what he expected. The Cultivators had been partially justified in their refusal. After all, they were a world away from the conflict, and they might never see Trelidor in their lifetime.
But these three were content to sit back and let others fight for them. Quick to judge, but slow to act. To make matters worse, they stole Thane’s chance to address the soldiers himself.
Slowly, Thane uncurled his fingers and released a breath. He wouldn’t give this man the satisfaction of being right, and he certainly wouldn’t put Relyn in danger.
Elveron lowered his arms. “As I said, there is nothing for you in this place.” He turned around and took a few steps toward the exit. “Outside, a squad of guards waits to escort you toward the gate. Please, try not to harm them. They’re only following orders.”