Thane gazed out the apartment window, watching the smoke rise toward the afternoon sky. This time, the smoke came from funeral pyres rather than burning buildings. Snow danced in the wind and gathered on the rooftops, making the skyline an eerie mix of black and white.
Raidenwood had once been nine bridges. Only three remained now. As for the people, they still didn't have a complete death count. Too many had died in the bombs or fell with the collapsed bridges. Now their bodies lay submerged in the canyon, out of reach forever.
Still, Cladius estimated that at least three quarters of their population had survived. Rhia's warning had also given Villa Solizhan enough time to evacuate into the nearby caves.
Unfortunately, five more airships roamed over the southern peninsula, unchecked and unchallenged. Dragonshard could be the next target for all Thane knew, and he had no means to stop it. Lyraina was right about one thing—he'd always been a terrible king. All this time, he'd been focused on winning the war at any cost.
Now, he'd probably failed at that too.
Relyn stepped up beside him and gave a slight shiver. A brown tarp covered half the window where Rhia had crashed through the glass last night. Drafts of cool winter air blew in through the cracks, and a few stray snowflakes gathered on the flagstone floor.
Thane turned from the window to face his other companions.
Elias and Ciena reclined on one of the leather sofas, and Yimo sat opposite them. Fang and Ilsa stood near the dining room table while the rest of the airmen remained on the ship, ready to take off at a moment's notice. The Raptor's Claw was their best defense against a second bombing, and they couldn't risk anymore long supply runs.
Thane continued to survey the room, relieved to see everyone together and unharmed. They'd lost so much last night, and he had to remind himself how fortunate he was. Most of the people he cared about were still under one roof.
Except for Ashara. Aegon only knew what they'd done to her.
And was it even worth it? Two months ago, the Cultivators had warned him that going to war would have consequences. Not just for him, but for all of Revera. Now, those consequences stared at him wherever he looked. He'd saved Raidenwood from the siege, but that 'victory' might have caused more deaths in the long run.
Was it worth it? Thane couldn't answer that, but he could imagine what Raidenwood's people might say.
Footsteps echoed from down the hall as Nahlia joined them in the main living area. Her steps were short and heavy, and she'd wrapped at least two cloaks around her shoulders. Apparently, she'd a hard time of things in Redcliff. Elias had filled them in last night. From what Thane could gather, the Council's ambush had nothing to do with Raidenwood's destruction. Just an unfortunate coincidence.
"Still no word from my mother?" Nahlia asked as she fell into the sofa next to Yimo.
"No word," Thane said with a shake of his head. Jasna's dragon was missing, and several of the enclave's residents had seen her fly west. Beyond that, no one knew where she'd gone. Thane had hoped she would contact Nahlia through their soulbond, but apparently not.
Nahlia pulled her cloak tighter and stared down at her knees. Elias poured a cup of tea and passed it to her across the short table. She clutched it in her hands, but she didn't drink.
"I'm a Palatine," she said to no one in particular. The word hung there for several long moments until it was clear she had nothing else to say.
"That doesn't matter," Ciena's words cut the silence like a knife. "Bloodlines are just words on paper."
"You don't really believe that," Nahlia murmured.
"You're half human," she said, "and that's never slowed you down. Who cares about some Aeon from a thousand years ago?"
"Our ancestors are the source of our power," Nahlia retorted. "History repeats itself, and we can look at them to determine our futures."
"I agree with my sister," Elias said. "Clan Palatine has done terrible things, but so have all our ancestors. Especially Raiden and Kalazhan. You're one of us, no matter what some Codex says."
"I have Palatine's blood in me too," Relyn pointed out.
"That's different," Nahlia said without lifting her eyes from her teacup. "You have more of Vashet in you. You didn't inherit his abilities like I did."
The others continued offering words of reassurance. However, Thane thought he understood her plight. It was a question he'd wrestled with his entire life—was he doomed to share Kalazhan's mistakes? Could his own choices ever be stronger than fate itself?
The others could pretend it was all ancient history, but Nahlia's argument had merit too. Bloodlines mattered. Somehow—even after centuries of breeding between Aeons and humans—they still mattered.
Besides, they were ignoring another important question—If Nahlia was a Palatine all along, then what about her vision of Treluwyn? Thane had been skeptical before, but now ... what if that had been Nahlia's own subconscious trying to keep her alive? What if she'd expected to see Treluwyn, so she did?
The others had all put their faith in that vision—those few moments when she’d walked the line between life and death. It had guided their actions these past two years like a beacon in a storm. That vision was the reason they'd taken Raidenwood, found Raiden's Codex, and learned Ethersmithing. It had been their only hope of victory.
Still, whether Thane liked it or not, he was the closest thing this group had to a leader. No one wanted to hear their leader doubting himself—not at a time like this.
"The others are right," he said to Nahlia. "You're one of us. And if what Lyraina said last night is true, then Whitecliff was founded by Palatines who turned their back on the clan. They made a choice back then. You can make that same choice today."
Nahlia gave a small, unconvinced shrug. Words couldn't fix the problem right now anyway, but they had to stand united.
Thane drew in another breath and met the others' eyes. "Now we have another choice to make. If we keep fighting Trelidor as we have been, then we're going to lose."
"Then we go to Sunfall," Ciena said. "Today."
Everyone turned to face her, but no one objected outright. They all knew what was at stake now, and how Trelidor had shifted the scales in his favor. Even time was on his side now.
Elias scratched at his chin from the sofa beside her. "Without an army, it'd be a suicide mission."
"We're dead if we stay here anyway," Ciena said. "Once Trelidor masters Ethersmithing, it's all over. At least this way, we might have a chance."
"I hate to be the storm cloud here," Yimo said. "But even if you kill Trelidor, will it matter? Aren't there a dozen more 'Varions' who might take his place?"
"What a surprise," Ciena said. "You want to run and hide."
"Maybe," Yimo said. "We have an airship, don't we? We could fly across the Cloudwals and retire in Eastern Valaysia. Sorry if I'm not as suicidal as you lot, but—"
"It's not suicidal," Elias broke in. "A captain goes down with his ship. Aeondom is that ship, and we're all it has."
Thane turned to Relyn who bit her lip. They'd discussed this together last night. A part of her wanted to keep fighting—to double down on their resolve and go to Sunfall. But she hadn't been opposed to retreating either, and Thane understood both perspectives. What use were they to anyone if they fought a battle they couldn't win? Sometimes, when a war was lost, retreating was the only rational choice that remained.
The Raiders were born soldiers. Ciena lived for war, and she would rather die than surrender. Elias lived for more than battle, but he also had a sense of responsibility to his city.
But that didn't make it the right decision for all of them.
"Some of us have already tried running." Nahlia turned and met Yimo's eyes. "It didn't work. Besides, Trelidor has airships too. Wherever we run, he'll find us. "
Thane nodded in agreement. In many ways, they were right where they'd started two months ago. They had each other, but no real armies, and no chance of forming an alliance. They only had the experience and training they'd gained in the last few months. But was that enough?
Thane had barely felt ready when they attacked Vauldenport, and they would have lost that battle if not for Lyraina. Now, even she'd left them. And for what? To oppose Trelidor on her own? To join him?
His chest tightened as he considered all the variables. No. They weren't ready to attack Sunfall. It was a suicide mission, and their chance of victory seemed even lower than it had been in Dragonshard two years ago.
And yet ... what choice did they have? Nahlia had already tried running, and Thane had already tried leading a larger-scale war. Neither of those options had worked.
If they ran now, then no one in their lifetime would ever get another chance to defeat Trelidor. His empire would expand until he'd covered all of the known world.
Again, Thane forced himself to stand taller as he echoed Elias’s words, “We're all this realm has." He looked around the room and met each of their eyes in turn. "Fortunately, we're some of the strongest Ethermancers of this age. And yes, I believe we have a chance to defeat Trelidor. Especially if the fight happens before he learns Ethersmithing. Now, I'm going to Sunfall, and I'd be honored to fight beside every one of you."
Relyn was the first to step forward, followed by the Raider twins, then Nahlia.
Thane's gaze shifted to the table where Fang and Ilsa stood. The two of them shared an enigmatic look, then Fang saluted with a clasped fist. "We are with you until the end, Warlord."
"Alright," Yimo said. "I guess I'm in too. But does anyone have a real plan? Because Trelidor's all locked up in a palace made of Moonshard."
"This is true," Relyn said. "We can't just drop from the sky like we did in Vauldenport."
Thane nodded in agreement. It would be the same problem as before, but on a smaller scale. Wherever they fought in Sunfall, Trelidor would outlast them, just as he'd outlasted them in the greater war.
"My father is in Sunfall," Nahlia said. "And so are most of the Templars. He's been undercover in the palace for months."
"That's a start," Elias agreed. "And the Templars have access to restricted books from the palace library, right? Maybe one of those could help us understand the Codices."
"What about the Codices?" Thane asked.
Elias glanced up, surprise flashing across his face. "To destroy Palatine's Codex. Treluwyn told Nahlia that was our best chance of victory. That's true now more than ever."
Thane suppressed a frown. So, the others weren't ignoring that problem with Nahlia and Treluwyn. They'd chosen to put their faith in this plan, regardless.
Or perhaps they just pretended to have faith like Thane. Did the difference really matter in the end?
The group split up once they'd made their decision. The Raider twins did what they could to help their uncle around the city. Meanwhile, Thane, Relyn and Nahlia spent the day packing and filling the Raptor's Claw with their remaining weapons and Etherite. They had two Moonshard staves now, which left one for Nahlia and one for Yimo.
They'd also taken twenty-five of those Moonfire rings from Varion. He'd worn a full set on his fingers and toes the first time they'd captured them, but no one had dared to put one on. Not until Ciena's near-death experience in the dungeon.
Now that they were reasonably sure the rings were safe, they planned to divide up between their group—roughly four rings per person. This meant any of them could heal from wounds, regardless of whether Nahlia was around. That would give them an edge over other Ethermancers, and it might even the playing field between them and Trelidor.
Finally, the Raptor's Claw lifted off at sunset, leaving Raidenwood behind. By morning, they'd be deep in enemy territory, ready to make their final stand.