“Please tell me we have some good news,” Thane said as he joined the others in the common area. The sun had already set, but the room was well lit beneath a dozen chandeliers.
“The western gate has been repaired,” Elias said. “And our scouts say the enemy is licking their wounds back in Thornhaven. Guess they realized they were no match for the airship.”
“They’re also running short on siege weapons,” Ciena said.
“My informants have found few objections to your rulership,” Cladius Raider said from the other sofa. “Even among the Templar’s former supporters. Between yesterday’s victory, and today’s food shipments, public opinion is higher than ever.”
While Thane and the others had come to this meeting empty-handed, Cladius had brought a full stack of ledgers and maps. Just looking at them was enough to make Thane realize how much work it took to run a city.
“The situation will improve further as we reestablish trade routes,” Cladius continued. “Once the people are fed, they’ll need other commodities. Lumber, minerals, leather, and fabrics—things we can only get from the countryside.”
“And booze.” Yimo raised his glass as if to prove a point. “It flows like a river through every happy city.”
“I’ve made that a priority since the beginning,” the older man said with a straight face. “We’ve smuggled in more than two-dozen barrels every month. Not to mention our trade agreement with Redcliff’s winemakers.”
Yimo nodded sagely, then he turned to the Raider twins. “I can see why you left him in charge.”
Thane could see it too. Cladius had a mind for numbers and organization that made even Ilsa look like an amateur. He also kept a network of two-dozen spies, from Highbridge to Nightbridge. Thane knew exactly how impressive that was. He’d been trying and failing to build his own network ever since he became king two years ago. Unfortunately, it took far longer to put the right people in the right positions. By the time the war had broken out, he was already too late.
But things were finally looking up on other fronts. That was good, especially after this morning’s failure in Redcliff Enclave. Even now, he wondered if he could have done more to convince the Masters.
The five of them continued strategizing until Ciena returned to her Ethermancy training. She hadn’t even wanted to attend this meeting in the first place.
“If Nahlia and Relyn are out on a bloody shopping trip” she’d reasoned earlier, “then I shouldn’t have to be here either.”
Cladius excused himself soon after that, though he intended to keep working in his own office. The Raiders had originally described their uncle as overworked and weary, but now the man practically had a spring in his step. Hardly a surprise. Not long ago, Cladius had been carrying the entire city on his shoulders. Now, not only was the siege over, but he was left with a fraction of his original workload.
Yimo retired as well, claiming his ‘master’ had assigned him hours worth of reading. Knowing Nahlia, it was probably true.
That left only Thane and Elias to pour over the maps together.
“So,” Thane began, “you knew Toron Elveron?”
“Sure,” Elias said “He was the Headmaster of Whitecliff around the time Ciena and I started. He moved down to Dresten a few years later. That’s when his younger brother took over.”
Well, that explained why Relyn hadn’t recognized the man. The Raider twins had arrived in Whitecliff almost a full six years before her.
“I can say one thing for sure,” Elias continued, “he won’t budge on his decision. The man’s as stubborn as my sister.”
“Seems like an insult to Ciena. She did spare Cladius, after all.”
Elias chuckled under his breath. “Good point.”
“What about Marwyn? You said he’d be on our side.”
“Marwyn is a pacifist,” Elias said. “He wouldn’t support sending the enclave to war, but he also never thought hiding Ethermancy was a viable solution.”
“Would have been nice if he actually spoke up,” Thane said. “At the very least, he could have offered a middle ground.”
Elias shrugged. “He prefers to focus on his own work and stay out of politics.”
Thane could certainly understand that. Not long ago, this had been a simple war between Aeons and Templars. Now the Templars were their allies, and they seemed to fight with Aeons on multiple fronts.
Successful conquerors seldom make noble rulers. The Aeons of Redcliff should have been Thane’s allies too. Instead, they let personal grudges and philosophical differences get in the way.
Footsteps echoed in the foyer. Thane glanced up to see the Onyx Guard’s new captain, Hankrim, standing in the archway. “Lady Trelian is here to see you, Highlord.”
“Good,” Thane said. “Send her in.”
Elias raised an eyebrow. “Nahlia’s mother?”
Thane shrugged. “I’m not saying I like her...”
“You’re in good company,” he muttered under his breath. “I’m not sure even her daughter and husband like her.”
“...but this is bigger than us,” Thane continued. “And Lyraina might be the single most knowledgeable person we know. Until yesterday, I’ve only fought Palavans once. In the hangar, the night Relyn and I stole the airship. I need to know how they think. Their strengths, and their weaknesses.”
Elias nodded. “It might help to understand the Redeemers’ weaknesses in general. I counted at least twenty domes of Moonshard while you bombarded them.”
Good eye. Thane pulled out his notepad and wrote that down as a possible question.
Lyraina Trelian stepped into the room a second later.
Elias pulled out his pocket watch and nodded to himself as if he had another pressing appointment. “I’ll just leave you to it then.” He stood from the sofa, gave Lyraina a quarter bow, and strode down the hall.
He gestured for Lyraina to take the seat across the table. “Wine or tea?”
“Neither,” she replied, “Thank you.”
Thane reached for the wine pitcher and refilled his own glass.
“I could use your council,” he said as he gestured to the table between them. There sat a detailed map of Raidenwood and its surrounding cities. Wooden figurines in the shape of orange meteors represented the Palavan army in Thornhaven. Thane’s own army was a collection of red blades and black dragons within Raidenwood’s walls. “We plan to strike back soon, but no one knows what to expect. You’ve actually been to Palavar, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Palavar is less developed than either Revera or Valaysia,” she said. “While its cities near the southern coast may prosper, most of the land is barren. Warmer than Dragonshard, but without your mines and volcanic soil.”
“So they lack natural resources,” Thane noted. He’d learned this much from his tutors. The Archaeon Palatine had never chosen the southern continent. The others had forced him there after he and Rivian had tried to open the Gates of Eternity. Still, it was good to confirm this. Few living Reverans had set foot within Palavan borders. Any information he had could have been outdated.
“Except for dragonbone.” Lyraina leaned further down the table to where a larger map of Revera sat. The northern portion of Palavar peaked up in the bottom right corner. “There’s a larger breed native to this desert, here.”
Thane raised an eyebrow. His tutors hadn’t mentioned that—probably because they hadn’t known. Either way, it was clear where the conversation was going. Trelidor already controlled most of the continent’s Etherite, as well as the airship’s original designs. This meant he could build airships of his own, taking away Thane’s only real advantage.
Aegon, that wasn’t good, but he should have seen it coming. Even if the original airship had taken decades to build, that was during peace times. War had a way of lighting a fire under people.
“Now you understand why time is on the enemy’s side,” she said. “And how much you’ve wasted this past year.”
Of course. Lyraina Trelian would never miss a chance to point out how she was right.
She gestured back to the map of Raidenwood. “Your enemy hides in Thornhaven now, using the people as hostages. They know you won’t bombard your own countrymen from the sky.”
Thane raked a hand through his hair. “And even if I march an army there, they still have no incentive to come out and fight me. Despite the city having no walls.”
“No,” she agreed. “The Palavans are accustomed to fighting larger armies. We’ve seen as much in Southern Valaysia and the Ember Isles. They will remain within Thornhaven’s borders, forcing you into smaller skirmishes within the streets.”
Not to mention ambushes, Thane thought. “Then what would you advise?”
Lyraina picked up the black dragon figurine and placed it in the center of Thornhaven. “Enter the city and kill their leaders.”
She hadn’t used the term ‘assassination’, and that could only be intentional. Normally, when you assassinated an army’s leader, another would rise to take his place. But Lyraina had used the plural here. She meant to eliminate all of them.
Relyn was the closest thing they had to a real assassin. While she’d proven herself in the Ashmount, she wasn’t ready to face down other Ethermancers yet. More likely, they would need a full team to deal with the Palavan leaders. Himself, Nahlia, and the Raider twins at the very least.
“Reveran troops make up a significant portion of Trelidor’s army,” Lyraina continued. “Some might call this clever. Whether he wins or loses battles, his enemies only kill each other. Such tactics are necessary with Palavar’s sparse population. On the other hand...”
Thane nodded along as she spoke. “If we kill the leaders, we can take back the army.” ‘
It would be more complicated than a simple exchange of troops. No doubt Trelidor held their families hostage in other cities between here and Sunfall. Still, even if Thane couldn’t turn them all against Trelidor, they had no reason to be hostile toward him.
“Exactly,” she replied. “This strategy applies to Trelidor as well. If you can defeat him, his empire will fall.”
Easier said than done. Thane might feel more optimistic if they hadn’t already tried and failed during the Battle of Dragonshard. Even so, this was a remarkably good start.
“You seem surprised,” Lyraina noted with a hint of amusement.
Thane hesitated. “I didn’t expect you to give me so much information.”
“And why is that? Do you consider us enemies? Regardless of what you might believe, I’d prefer to see you succeed. You, and my daughter.”
“Let’s say I believe you,” Thane replied. “Your allegiance has changed before. It was only after Trelidor killed Nahlia that you switched sides. I’d feel better if I understood your real goals.”
“I want the same thing you want,” Lyraina said.
“To defeat Trelidor?” Thane raised an eyebrow. “I find that unlikely, considering you trained him in the first place. Which, I might add, is a story you still haven’t shared.”
“That’s not why we’re fighting.” Lyraina waved a dismissive hand. “Yes, I’ll admit, it would be satisfying to see him fall. But that’s nothing but the folly of pride.”
“Why did you train him?” Thane asked. “Nahlia says you planned for him to rule Revera. But how did that further your goals?”
Lyraina tilted her head like a bird. “I heard you met with the former White Council today.”
You certainly know a lot for someone who never leaves her bedchamber. In this case, Nahlia must have told her.
“When I was a girl,” she said, “I scoured Whitecliff’s library for knowledge of Ethermancy. As you might imagine, I was more successful than this new generation. But I suffered the same indignities you did today. From the exact same people, no less. People fear what they don’t understand. Certain powers and bloodlines more than others.”
“Like Palatine,” Thane said.
“And all Redeemers,” she agreed. “And that was what I sought to prove. That a Redeemer—even a Palatine—could be a good and noble ruler, defying fate and destiny. The White Council cast me out in arrogance, and I sought to prove that I was right all along.”
Thane took a drink of his wine. “Sounds like you failed.”
Lyraina’s face remained neutral. “Perhaps. Or perhaps Alexel’s choices were always his own. Perhaps he was a good man once, and power corrupted him, as it has for countless others. Regardless, this isn’t over.”
Thane narrowed his eyes. “You mean to do the same with Nahlia. I think you’ll find she has no interest in ruling a nation.”
“No,” Lyraina said. “She’s no more a leader than I am. But there are higher heights than thrones for which we strive.”
Thane recognized the quote from Aeonica, and it nearly made him shiver. Palatine and Rivian had uttered the same words before they set out to overthrow Aegon.
She met his eyes again. “And you, Thane Solidor? What do you really want?”
Thane had to consider that for a moment. He thought of Dragonshard, and the battle they’d fought for Revera’s fate. Trelidor’s list of war crimes was endless. From the leaders he murdered, and the families he divided, to the cities he burned. Their enemy sought to create a world where people had no choice but to follow him.
Thane could say he wanted vengeance, or justice, or a better future. Any of those would have been enough. But that wasn’t what kept him moving forward. That wasn’t the image he held in his mind as he struggled.
“Clan Solidor,” Thane began. “The world sees us as merciless, power-hungry and warmongering. It goes back to Kalazhan in Aeonica. From there, the pattern continues with me and all my ancestors. I want the world to see us as something more.”
“You can’t change what the world sees,” Lyraina said. Her words held the weight of time, as if she had considered the matter closely herself, always striving for the same, impossible goal. “Many are set in their ways, and they will never change. Especially the likes of Toron Elveron and Nona Vaulden.”
Thane took a long swallow of his wine and sat back. “Not the world, then, but...” He trailed off as he pieced together the memories of his past. Like history itself, the memories made a pattern. A web of destruction, as if some unseen force were driving him to repeat the mistakes of his ancestors.
“The Testaments of Aegon teach that we have free will,” he said. “I don’t believe everything they say, but I’ve always believed that much. Sometimes I feel like there are forces trying to take that freedom away—trying to make us relive the same mistakes. I don’t know if it’s fate, or destiny like you said. For all I know, maybe Aegon just changed his mind.”
Thane had felt this force at work that night he lost Kira in Dresten. Even now, it grated him how uncanny his own story had been compared to Kalazhan’s. As if something external had made him lose control. Pulling his strings, and then punishing him for it.
And Thane wasn’t the only one. In Aeonica, Raiden always lost to Palatine, just as Ciena had lost to Trelidor on her duel above Dragonshard. Raiden had even committed suicide in the end, just as Ciena nearly had.
Except ... Ciena had walked away from that balcony and survived. That proved it was possible to defy fate.
“Whatever this force is,” Thane said. “I want to prove it wrong. I want the freedom to fight without worrying about what I might do to Relyn. And this isn’t just for me, but for my whole bloodline. Every descendant of Kalazhan, living and unborn. I want to win this war without mass-murder or sacrifice, so that future generations will have a better ideal of what a Sanctifier can be.”
“Ah yes,” Lyraina spoke into the sudden silence.
After a pause, Thane glanced over to meet her eyes. He half-expected her to laugh or accuse him of delusions of grandeur. In fact, now that he’d spoken the words aloud, he might even agree with her. Best to blame the wine. Once he got going, the words just fell out like an avalanche.
Lyraina’s lips cracked into a smile. “And so you see—you and I aren’t so different after all.”
Thane blinked. Before he could ask for clarification, she continued, “I approve of your plan to train Redcliff Enclave. This war will be decided by Ethermancers, not armies or machines. You will need those allies to stand against my former apprentice.”
“Great,” Thane said. “Maybe you should tell that to Elveron.”
She gave a humorless chuckle. “Believe me, I’ve tried to reason with him long ago. But consider this—does the decision belong to you, or to him?”
Thane drew in a deep breath and drained the last of his glass. “When I spoke with the Cultivators in Valaysia, they made me consider some things. What happens after this war is over? What if we win? I barely even wanted to rule Dragonshard. And now that I’m king, I’ve ignored my own people in favor of this war. And if I wanted to stay in power afterward, I’d have to become like him.”
Lyraina hummed in consideration. “It’s true. You aren’t a good king, I doubt you ever will be.”
Thane glared at her from across the table. He’d made war veterans flinch with softer gazes.
“You mistake my words for an insult,” she said.
“Of course not,” Thane said. “I’m sure that was your way of giving a compliment.”
She continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “It’s true, you are the rightful heir to Dragonshard. Some would say your blood makes you a good ruler, but they’re merely dancing to the tunes of destiny. You seek to avoid these restrictions, then you nail your own feet to the floor. You claim you’ve never wanted this crown, but you insist on clinging to it—following the script that’s been written for you.”
Thane grimaced. “I’m not following.”
“This realm doesn’t need a king right now. It needs someone to win this war. Being born with a title doesn’t make you a good ruler, nor does it give you a responsibility to that nation.”
She stood up and turned to leave. “It’s time you stop pretending to be a king, and become the warlord you were born to be.”
The next morning, Thane returned to Redcliff Enclave. This time, instead of two crimson-clad guards at the gate, there were ten.
“King Solidor.” The officer stood tall as Thane approached. To the man’s credit, he didn’t look afraid. He didn’t even comfort himself by raising his spear.
“That’s me,” Thane said.
“Master Elveron ordered us to deny you entry.”
Thane nodded around the small circle, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “Good work, guardsmen. We’ll let the record show that you followed orders.”
And with that, Thane pulled a burst of energy from his rings. He jumped, forcing the power into the dirt beneath his feet. The blast sent him over the twelve-foot gate, and he landed on the other side.
A few more guards rushed to bar his path, spears raised.
“Stand down,” Thane snapped at them. “I’m only here to talk.”
They flinched away beneath his glare, but only just. He gave them a moment to process what was happening. Even if they hadn’t heard his reputation, they’d already seen one supernatural feat today.
Thane stepped forward, brushing their spears aside with the backs of his hands. He wore his dragonscale vest beneath his cloak, so a surprise attack was unlikely to harm him.
Even If it did, Nahlia was nearby.
On the ramparts above, one soldier struggled to ring the massive bronze bell. The sound came out muffled, as if someone had wrapped the clapper in sheep’s wool. This morning, Relyn had predicted they might have some trouble with that. Her predictions were usually right.
It was almost noon, and most of the enclave had gathered together in the mess hall. All except for Elveron and Vaulden. They were having some trouble leaving their homes. Again, he didn’t know why, but Relyn was truly a queen among men.
Thane pushed open the hall’s double doors and strode through the crowd, weaving his way past rows of oaken benches. Nahlia, Yimo, and the Raider twins rose from their own seats and flanked him toward the end of the room. A wooden dais sat there, perfect for making announcements. He climbed a short wooden staircase, and the others followed.
By now, they had about half the crowd’s attention. The others continued talking amongst themselves.
Elias cupped his hands and stepped forward. “Listen up!”
A hush fell over the room. Thane gave Elias a grateful nod as he stepped forward. His hands shook as he faced down more than two-hundred faces. Thane had plenty of experience with crowds, but it was different back in Dragonshard. There, the court had no choice but to listen. These people could still ignore him if they chose to.
One wrong word, and he could lose his chance.
“I’m sure you all know who I am, so we won’t bother with introductions.” Slowly, Thane spread out his hands to either side, palms extended toward the hall’s high ceiling. Instead of pulling power from his rings, he drained heat from the room’s chandeliers. While hardly practical, it made for much better showmanship.
Darkness fell over the hall. The sky was overcast, so even the windows offered little light. Finally, a pair of flames blossomed to life in each of Thane’s hands. They stood half as tall as him, glowing in shades of smokeless orange and red.
To his left, Ciena drew Steelbreaker and flourished the crystal blade with several spins of her wrist. To his right, Nahlia raised her arm, and a dome of glowing Moonshard appeared around her and Yimo. The Crelan raised his own hand as if he were somehow contributing.
The crowd’s eyes went wide at the sight, just as he’d hoped. By now, more than a dozen guards had poured into the hall, but none moved to step forward.
“Ehtermancy is real.” Thane projected his voice over their sudden gasps. “It’s not a trick, or some myth from legend. It’s a power that any Aeon can learn. We’re using it to fight back the invading Palavans, but we can’t do it alone.”
During their planning session, Thane had considered bringing Ilsa and using her skills to ease the crowd. But Trelidor had already tried that technique during the Clansmeet. Not only had it failed, but memories of that night left a foul taste in Thane’s mouth.
No ... he would either convince them on his own, or he would accept his failure.
Thane dropped his flames, and Nahlia did the same with her dome of Moonshard. Ciena kept Steelbreaker raised, and that provided more than enough light.
“My companions and I intend to train anyone who will accept us. Descendants of Kalazhan and Vaulden have the potential to become Sanctifiers like me.” Thane conjured another burst of flame to punctuate his point.
He gestured to his left where the Raider twins stood. “Descendants of Raiden and Vashet can become Justicars, like Elias and Ciena.”
He gestured to his right. “Finally, Treluwyn’s descendants can become Redeemers like Nahlia. Yimo here has already committed to learning from her.”
Of course, Palatine’s descendants could also become Redeemers, but Thane omitted that fact. It wasn’t as if Palatine’s blood ran strong in Revera anyway. Better to distance himself from the invaders as much as possible.
Thane had their attention. He could see it in their wide eyes. The Masters had denied Ethermancy’s existence, but the younger generation yearned to fight. Thane’s companions had all said so. No soldier wanted to be trapped, hidden away while others died on distant battlefields. Very often, the calm before the battle was the worst part, and these people lived their entire lives that way.
The guards near the front door cleared a path as if to let someone inside the room.
Here we go again.
Toron Elveron strode inside the mess hall, making his way down the isle of crowded students. Relyn’s job had been to slow the Masters down, but it wasn’t as if she’d knocked them unconscious. Thane just needed enough time for his short demonstration. He knew he’d need to face Elveron again soon. No sense in delaying that any longer than he had to.
Thane gestured a finger in Elveron’s direction as he strode forward. “I’ve already listened to the concerns of Master Elveron in private. We’ve disagreed on many things, but he will not bar our path, or prevent us from doing what must be done.”
Elveron crossed his muscular arms. “So, I deny you entry to the enclave, you force your way through.”
Thane inclined his head. “I listened to your concerns, and considered them. But you don’t have the authority to deny me entrance here. If you disagree with Ethermancy, then don’t practice it. As far as I’m concerned, everyone over sixteen is old enough to decide for themselves.”
Elveron’s face darkened. “If they go with you, they leave this enclave forever.”
“No,” Thane said, and the room held its breath. “There isn’t space for me to train an army within Raidenwood’s walls. I will train them here. If you don’t like it, then you’re free to leave.”
“You come to my land and order me out?”
“This is not your land,” Thane said. “This land belongs to Raidenwood. The steward, Cladius Raider, lent you this place as a home for your people. Cladius Raider owes his allegiance to me, along with the lord and lady of Raidenwood. The way I see it, I’m standing on my land, and I’m offering you a choice. Stand with me, or step aside”.
Thane looked away from Elveron and addressed the crowd one last time. “I won’t force anyone to fight, but Trelidor’s army is returning, and we intend to stop them. I intend to take my airship and free the surrounding cities. We will do the same for Vauldenport, Tregarde, and even Sunfall.”
Thane took a step forward, projecting his voice even louder. “We will defeat Alexel Trelidor, and free this land.”