Nahlia gaped at the man who claimed to be Alexel Trelidor’s son. She hadn’t seen the resemblance at first, but she saw it now. Varion had the same sky-blue eyes. The same sharp features, and the same eerie blend of youthful skin and silver hair.
Their voices were the biggest difference. When Alexel spoke, it was with resonance and calm authority. This man just sounded eager for bloodshed.
“Nice try,” Thane said, “but Trelidor has no family.”
“No?” Varion cocked his head to the side. “You think he shared everything with his master?”
Actually, that had come from Ciena. Nahlia’s mother hadn’t even spoken on the subject. But in hindsight, he’d lied to Ciena countless times. No reason to think he’d been truthful about his family. What’s more, Trelidor had spent years living here in Revera, letting others rule Palavar in his absence. Who better for that job than his own flesh and blood?
Varion’s boots echoed against the tile floor as he approached. Nahlia’s group fanned out so they surrounded him on three sides. The Sanctifiers moved to the left while Elias moved right. Nahlia remained in the middle where she could heal or defend the others at a moment’s notice.
The room held its breath for several heartbeats. Varion remained silent, idly spinning his metal staff in his right hand. What was that thing, anyway? The glowing sigils made her think of the wards Thane’s aunt made.
Varion surveyed their group again, then he turned to Thane. “What do you want, Solidor? Why do you insist on fighting us?”
Thane inclined his head. “You really have to ask?”
“We were enemies once. But still—knowing everything we’ve done—you swore an oath of fealty to my father. Have we not treated you fairly as an ally?”
Nahlia’s gaze wandered toward Thane. They’d spoken of this before—how a better ruler might have stayed in Dragonshard and helped rebuild. Instead, Thane and Relyn had been the ones to escalate this conflict. Even now, they couldn’t say if it was the right decision. They only had Nahlia’s word about Treluwyn’s task.
“Speaking of allies”—Thane gestured toward Nahlia—”you sent assassins to kill one of mine.”
“More assassins than I can count on two hands,” Nahlia added.
“An internal family matter,” Varion said with a dismissive wave. “It’s no concern of Clan Solidor.”
A family matter? For Aegon’s sake, they’d seen Alexel use Palatine’s Codex. What was the point of pretending to be Treluwyn’s descendent after that?
He turned back to Thane. “Is it vengeance you fight for?”
“We fight for justice,” Thane retorted. “And to rid this realm of tyrants.”
Varion laughed. “Justice ... tyrants. Empty words coming from an oath-breaker, wouldn’t you say? Sunfall is a place of prosperity now. We’ve restored the city to its former glory, and Aeons and humans live in peace.” He pointed his staff toward Thane. “But maybe you should rule instead? Maybe if enough innocents die in your conquest, you can build a better empire from the ashes?”
Thane remained silent, and Nahlia hoped he wasn’t thinking too hard. These questions wouldn’t matter if Trelidor pushed them back. Their enemy’s propaganda might work on the masses, but she and her friends had all been there during the Battle of Dragonshard. They knew the lengths he would go to.
“You fight because it’s in your nature,” Varion said to Thane. “And because Lyraina Trelian moves you like a pawn on her board. Let me ask you this—one general to another—what will it take to end the fighting? Say the word, and we can have peace tomorrow.”
This time, Thane answered at once. “Release my sister, pack up your armies, and leave Revera.”
Varion made a tsking sound. “Be realistic. We took four cities through right of conquest. You’re the king of Dragonshard. At most, we can say you rule Raidenwood too. You have no claim over the others.”
“Is that an offer to cease your attacks on Dragonshard and Raidenwood?”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “you have a history of breaking deals. If we let you keep it all, you’ll just wind up like a coiled snake and strike again.”
As if the noble Alexel Trelidor wouldn’t do the exact same thing. Varion had asked Thane what he wanted, but he clearly had his own ideas in mind.
Varion twirled his staff again and plunged it into the tile floor. The bottom must have been Etherite if it broke through the mortar so easily. “You will give us Raiden’s Codex, along with Treluwyn’s. These artifacts will pay for your rebellion. In return, we’ll end the attacks, and let you keep both city-states.”
“We don’t even have Treluwyn’s Codex,” Thane said.
“No, but Toron Elveron has it, and he’s living in your backyard.”
Thane shot Nahlia a questioning glance, but this was news to her too. She’d spoken with Marwyn several times this month, and he hadn’t mentioned a Codex. Then again, she hadn’t brought up her talk with Treluwyn either.
“Even if that were true,” Thane said, “the price is too high. You expect us to hand over our greatest asset?”
“We honor our deals,” Varion said. “We’ve left Dragonshard alone until now, and there’s no reason that has to change.” He glanced down at Trin and Seleon’s rings. “Resist if you must. Live with the blood of thousands on your hands, or save them all right now.”
Nahlia narrowed her eyes as the pieces clicked into place. It had been Varion’s last words that did it. Now she finally felt his touch on her emotions, filling her with doubt and despair.
“You make it sound so reasonable,” she spoke up. “But history is filled with Aeon conquerors just like your father. How many of them stopped and said, ‘half the world is enough’?”
“Not a single one,” Elias finished for her.
Nahlia nodded and turned to Thane. “This was never about peace. He’s trying to break our resolve.” She left the rest unspoken. By now, everyone knew that Zidane had used this same tactic on Thane and succeeded. She wouldn’t let it happen again.
“I know,” Thane stretched out three fingers in a pre-arranged signal. “But he’s wasting his time. My cook is a better empath.”
Fire burst to life in Thane’s other hand, and they all attacked at once.
Moonshard erupted in a dome around Varion like a glowing crystal orb. It hadn’t even come from Varion’s hand. It came from his staff.
Fire and lightning broke against the shield’s surface as her companions attacked. Nahlia joined the others, pressing her will against it.
The shield didn’t break, not even with all five of them opposing it.
Varion yanked the staff from the tile floor, placing his fingers on several particular sigils. The dome of light split apart, forming two separate walls on either side of him. One wall blocked off Thane, Dejan, and Jasna, trapping them on one side of the room. The other blocked out Elias. Both barriers stretched from wall-to-wall, all the way up into the domed ceiling.
And of course, that left Varion and Nahlia together in the center. Aegon. He was going to fight them one at a time, starting with her.
Three discs of Moonshard shot out from Varion’s fingertips. She’d seen Trelidor use these before. The edges of those shards were sharp enough to sever limbs.
Nahlia dodged the first two shards, then relied on her willpower to oppose the last one before it reached her. Unlike the barriers from his staff, she could stop these.
Varion shot two more attacks, and Nahlia remained on the defensive. She didn’t need to beat Varion on her own. She just had to survive long enough for her friends to break through.
The glass window shattered behind Varion as Thane jumped inside. He must have broken out the window, then launched himself back in. Varion adjusted quickly, angling the shield to block Thane once again.
A second later, Elias burst through the wooden doors behind her. Varion erected a third shield between them. By now, his shields were twice as wide as before.
Well, bigger shields meant he would drain his energy reserves quicker. That was progress, right?
Nahlia seized the distraction and launched several Moonshard blades of her own. They all vanished in midair before they reached Varion. He grinned, charging forward. Still holding the staff in his offhand, he forged another crystal shard, and it hovered around his right fist like a sword.
Nahlia narrowed her eyes in concentration, working to banish his blade as he’d done to her.
She succeeded just before he reached her, and the blade vanished.
Then it reappeared faster than she could blink.
Varion struck, and Nahlia dodged to the side. After all those months sparring with Elias, she knew something about fighting fast opponents. She tried opposing more of Varion’s forged blades, but he recreated them just as quickly.
He struck again as if to punch her, forging the blade a second before impact. The Moonshard tore open a hole in Nahlia’s shoulder, shredding through skin and muscle. She fell back against the hard tile floor. Tears flooded her eyes as the pain numbed her left arm. She fought back memories of Alexel’s sword tearing open her chest. She could practically feel his fingers around her neck as he dropped her off the tower.
Don’t think about that. Keep fighting.
She tried to blink back the tears—her opponent was a blur as he struck again.
Aegon, but she was outclassed here. She’d been prepared to fight him as part of a larger team. Not like this.
Varion’s fist closed on her windpipe, and he forged another Moonshard blade. Nahlia swept her right arm up to defend herself, forming a protective barrier around it. Light flashed as their bodies met, and the sound was like an exploding boulder.
Varion stumbled to the left. Nahlia rolled to the right and sprang to her feet. She gritted her teeth, flooding her left shoulder with Moonfire. The icy sensation cleansed away her wounds until nothing but the phantom pains remained.
Still, healing this quickly came with a cost. Her energy reserves were only a fraction of what she’d started with.
Surprise flashed in Varion’s eyes. He’d expected to land a killing blow. Truth be told, Nahlia had expected it too.
He charged her again—a single dark shape amid the tunnel of crystal light. He threw another punch to her left. Nahlia half dodged, half blocked with another barrier shrouding her arm. Like him, she waited until the impact to form it. He couldn’t block her that way.
They continued the fight with several quick exchanges. Each time, Nahlia moved on instinct, relying on her martial training to stay alive. One thing surprised her though: Varion didn’t even use his staff as a melee weapon ... almost as if he wanted to keep it out of her reach.
I can use that.
He threw another punch with his right hand. Nahlia formed a barrier on her left, then moved right to grab the staff. Her opponent twisted his body away, but the staff was even taller than she was. He couldn’t stop her from getting a hold of it.
Nahlia didn’t know much about sigils or sigilcrafting, only that the characters mirrored the thoughts of an Aeon’s mind, with each one representing a different ability. Anyone could carve them, but only an Ethermancer of the same Order could infuse them.
Thane’s aunt had also described it as a delicate process. “The slightest mistake might have explosive consequences,” she’d said.
Nahlia was counting on that.
She wrapped both her hands around the staff, forcing power into the sigils—Moonfire, Moonshard, whatever she could manage. The blast sent her flying backward against a marble pillar. Varion dropped the staff and flew in the other direction.
More importantly, the barriers had fallen, and her allies were closing in.