Thane emerged from his bedchamber to find Hankrim standing in the corridor.
"Highlord." The commander gave a crisp salute, but his voice was hoarse. "We found them."
A few minutes later, Thane followed Hankrim down the ramp with Relyn by his side. The airship had moved into the main courtyard outside the Vauldenport palace. Apparently, General Palatos had already fled the city, and Varion Trelidor was the last general in charge.
Understandable, considering Thane's group had killed every other high-ranking officer they'd run into.
On the bright side, this made it easy for the Onyx Guard to round up the remaining officers and force them to surrender the city. The gates were open now, and the Raidenwood army marched in from the north. The civilians had been cooperative the entire time. This was another benefit to a quick attack rather than a drawn-out siege. The people didn't associate Thane's army with bombardment or starvation.
Aegon knew he needed all the help he could get.
They continued walking through the stone courtyard until they reached the spot where Dejan and Jasna's shrouded bodies lay. Only this time, two more bodies lay beside them.
Hankrim nodded to the guards, and they moved the white sheets aside.
Seleon and Trin.
Thane's chest tightened as he stared down at their lifeless faces. He'd known this was coming, but another part of him had refused to accept the truth.
This was different from losing his two Sanctifiers. Dejan and Jasna were trained warriors. If they hadn't joined Thane in Vauldenport, they could have still died on a different battlefield. But Seleon and Trin had been safe for two years in Redcliff Enclave. Thane had trained them against the masters' wishes, and now they'd paid the price.
"Maybe Elveron was right," he said. "Maybe we never should have brought them here."
Relyn stepped closer and took his hand. "They knew the risks, true?"
The Onyx Guard stepped back to give them space. As usual, Northern Reverans weren't as comfortable with public affection the way Valaysians were. Especially when it came to their leaders.
"She's right," Elias said as he stepped up beside them. His voice sounded calm, but it was only an act. "Trin and Seleon were more competent than any of us at their age. We just got lucky back then."
Thane gave an absent nod. Despite his responsibility as their leader, a part of him knew he was being irrational. It was just like when his mother had died giving birth to a brother he'd never met. Thane had wished that she'd never gotten pregnant in the first place. If she hadn't, he told himself, then his mother would still be alive.
But you couldn't protect everyone. If you tried too hard, the world would cease to go on.
Elias pulled out a crimson kerchief and wiped at his nose. "Besides, Trin was already learning Ethermancy on her own. I doubt anyone could have held her back for long."
"She was like a little Ciena," Relyn agreed.
Seleon had been the same way. Among others, he and Trin were the first to step forward that day in Redcliff's mess hall. More than anything, they'd wanted to make a difference.
They were trained soldiers after all, and fighting was all they'd ever known.
"Did you know Trelidor had children?" Thane asked Lyraina once they were back in the airship's common area. Aegon help her if she'd kept this a secret.
"No," Lyraina said from her place on the nearby sofa. "He mentioned no children during our time together. But then, I can't say I'm surprised."
"Was he married?" Elias asked from the opposite sofa.
Lyraina shook her head. "Once again, he never mentioned a wife, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had several."
Thane raised an eyebrow. "Several?"
"That's Palavan culture for you," Relyn said.
"Indeed," Lyraina said. "When Reverans or Valaysians marry, we do it to seal alliances. Things are different in Palavar. Above all else, they seek to breed powerful Ethermancers."
"Hence the focus on quantity," Thane muttered.
"Correct. A ruler like Alexel could have dozens of children."
Thane ran a hand through his hair. "And you didn't think to mention this before?"
"Should I have mentioned every possibility?" she countered. "Prepared you a list, perhaps?" She shook her head again. "Alexel is paranoid. If he had a dozen children ruling Palavar, how likely is it they would follow his orders?" She gave Thane a sidelong glance. "As I recall, you didn't even listen to your father when you lived under the same roof."
Well, she had him there.
"Children need to be controlled," Lyraina said, "and each one is as much a liability as an asset. This 'Varion' could have more siblings, or he could be the only one. We won't know what's true until we interrogate him."
"Great," Thane said. "So even if we defeat Trelidor, more of his silver-haired spawn might strike back from the shadows."
"War is never as simple as the stories make it out to be. What were you hoping for? A perfect moment where all your enemies are dead and peace is restored? It will never happen."
Relyn cleared her throat from beside him. "You mentioned interrogation. Are you volunteering?"
Thane glanced back in Lyraina's direction. Normally, Ilsa and Relyn handled the interrogations. He'd almost forgotten that Lyraina was an empath as well.
She nodded once. "Even with the collar, he's too dangerous to risk the others."
"No argument there," Thane said. "As long as you take someone with you."
Her mouth quirked up at the edges. "You think I need protection?"
"You're not the one I'm worried about."
"I won't harm a hair on the prisoner's head," she said.
"And his mind?" Elias spoke up.
Exactly. Alexel hadn't harmed Ciena either. Quite the opposite—he'd healed her physical wounds after the Clansmeet, but her mind had been damaged enough that she’d been ready to jump off a balcony.
"That is of no consequence," she said. "If you're hoping to trade Varion for your sister, Alexel would never agree to it. Information is the only thing you will gain from him."
Thane had briefly considered a trade, but he'd already known it was unlikely. Alexel had betrayed them all during the Clansmeet, and Thane had broken his oath of fealty. There could be no trust on either side after that. "Even so, we're only as good as we treat our enemies. I'll kill their generals in battle. I'll even execute them if I have to, but I draw the line at torture. Take someone into the room with you—Nahlia, Ilsa, or Elias—I don't care who. If they say you've gone too far, then you stop."
The next few hours were a blur of troop meetings and planning as Thane's army continued settling into Vauldenport. The sun was rising by the time they were finished, and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with Relyn.
Eventually, he left his generals in charge and they set a course for Raidenwood. Normally, such a journey would have taken too long in the middle of a campaign. He still remembered his time in the Onyx Company, and how they'd spent several weeks meandering around rivers and wetlands.
Fortunately, the Raptor's Claw could have them back home the following evening.
The next morning, Nahlia joined her mother in the cargo hold to observe the interrogation. Varion was being held in a secure chamber with four Onyx Guard members standing watch at all times.
Overall, the exchange was surprisingly quiet. Considering how talkative Varion was before, Nahlia had expected a long, drawn out conversation. Why would he pass up another chance to mess with their heads?
Instead, he didn't say a word today, much less anything useful regarding his father or their faction. He didn't even bother lying to them. Maybe he knew Lyraina would see through it and deduce something important?
When talking failed, her mother attempted to probe his mind the same way Nahlia had accidentally probed Zidane's during the Battle of Whitecliff. Using this method, it was possible to see glimpses of the other person's past.
She confirmed that Varion was in fact Alexel's son, and that he had several younger siblings back in Palavar. Unfortunately, Varion knew how to defend against this tactic. After an hour, her mother admitted she couldn't force her way deeper without risking permanent damage.
"Empathy is a powerful tool," she explained as they left the room, "but you can't make a person act against his will."
Just like Relyn's invisibility. Once someone recognized it, it was easy to oppose, even for an untrained human.
"So Varion's useless to us then?" Nahlia asked. Not that she wanted to see him tortured or anything—she agreed with Thane on that. Still, she'd hoped they would learn something more.
"Far from useless," Lyraina replied. "If Alexel refuses to trade or ransom back his son, this will affect morale on his side. Tell me, how do you think his generals will react?"
Nahlia gave a slow nod. "If he's willing to sacrifice his own heir, he probably wouldn't care about them either."
"Indeed. When he refuses Thane's offer, it will make him look cold and heartless. As I said before, he's paranoid of betrayal. But at the same time, he takes loyalty for granted."
They took a few more steps toward the staircase when Nahlia stopped walking. "We need to talk about you two." Nahlia was usually less assertive around her mother, but battle had a way of making her brave. Might as well use it before it faded.
Her mother didn't turn around. "Have we not been talking?"
Nahlia took a deep breath. "You trained him, despite not knowing Ethermancy yourself. What happened to you when you died? Did you ... see an Archaeon like I did?"
Lyraina turned around, but her expression betrayed nothing. "It wasn't anything so grand as that. Even if I did see an Archaeon, I suspect that what 'Treluwyn' told you was true. There are limits to how much they can help us."
Her mother said the name 'Treluwyn' with obvious skepticism. That was understandable. But then ... she also seemed to believe the encounter was real, so that didn't quite add up.
"Then tell me," Nahlia said. "And no riddles this time. Varion almost killed us last night. If you're holding back something that could have helped us..." She shook her head to clear it. "He was stronger than all of us. Just like his father and just like you, apparently. What are we missing?"
Of course, Varion's staff had played a role in that fight, and that was currently hidden in Elias's cabin. His rings also bore sigils that seemed to amplify his Moonfire, letting him heal even faster than usual. In hindsight, Alexel must have worn similar rings during the Battle of Dragonshard.
Nahlia intended to examine those pieces more later on. Ideally, she would also consult a sigilcrafter like Thane's aunt Avelyn. Until then, they left them alone. To call the staff unpredictable would have been an understatement, and they couldn't have it exploding midflight. Besides, people would talk if she and Elias were alone in his cabin for that long.
"We discussed Revelations before," Lyraina said. "I suspect you’ve also read about them in my journal?"
"You mentioned them in passing," Nahlia said. "But I'd hardly call it a discussion."
In fact, most of what she knew came from the reports of Raiden's Codex. Lucan had mentioned three personal Revelations for every Ethermancer, with each one granting more power. But even that was ambiguous at best.
"To have a Revelation," her mother began, "is to recognize a truth about yourself and your place in the world. The first one is the simplest—it's the acknowledgment that Ethermancy is real. Not just as a legend, but as a tool you can use. The second and third are more personal. You had your second during the Battle of Whitecliff. Thane and Ciena had theirs in Dragonshard."
Nahlia nodded. "What about you?"
"I didn't see an Archaeon when I died, but I saw many truths for myself. I'd always failed to perform Ethermancy before. But it was only after I died that I realized I'd been holding myself back all along."
Nahlia bit her lip and considered. "And Trelidor?"
"When I found him, he was nothing but raw, untamed power. I taught him about Revelations, and I shared the Redeemer techniques I learned in Whitecliff. The same techniques you learned from my journal. Slowly, over the course of many years, I shaped him into the Ethermancer he is today. He had his last two Revelations, and those let him dominate the wills of others."
She walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. "By that point, I'd accepted that I would never be an Ethermancer myself. I didn't learn about the Etherfall's healing potential until much later. Still, I was determined to prove my former classmates wrong. Vaulden, the Elveron brothers ... they never approved of my research. They thought Ethermancy should be restricted.”
"But Elveron was an Ethermancer," Nahlia noted. "Thane fought him in the Ethereal."
"Ah yes," her mother said. “And that is hypocrisy at its finest. The Elverons joined the Emperor's Honor Guard after Whitecliff. There, they trained to become Sanctifiers. They agreed Ethermancy should be restricted. Not for themselves, but for the population at large. Especially Redeemers like you and me. Even before I married your father, they cast me out of Whitecliff, believing I’ become like the former rulers of Clan Palatine."
Nahlia had read of similar fears in her own research. After the horrors Clan Palatine had unleashed on the world, people refused to trust any Redeemer. Even Treluwyn's descendants, who were innocent in all of that.
"I already admitted I was wrong about Alexel." Her mother met her eyes. "But this isn't over. There's still a chance to prove them wrong about Redeemers."
So, Alexel had already been strong when Lyraina met him, but she'd helped him unlock secrets with the knowledge she'd gained in Whitecliff. They'd both reached the third Revelation, and that let them overpower the will of others.
It sounded so simple, but the truth usually was.
Even so, Nahlia felt like she was missing something important about her mother and Alexel. Something her mother didn't want her to know.