Thane led the others down the airship's ramp and into the clearing. Darkness shrouded the forest, and snowflakes danced in the wind around his head
Even if the storm covered their landing tonight, this visit wouldn't surprise Trelidor or his allies. You couldn't fly an airship halfway across the continent without someone seeing it. All they had to do was glance up.
Snow crunched beneath his boots as he walked, and his breath puffed out in a cloud of white smoke. Unlike his companions, Thane had never gotten comfortable with ice or snow. He'd been the only one here not to train at Whitecliff Academy with its frozen obstacle courses.
But of course, Relyn still complained the most out of any of them. She also accused him of 'cheating' by warming himself with Ethermancy.
Which, admittedly, was true.
Nahlia had her arm wrapped around Elias's as they descended the ramp. Apparently, they were a couple again. They couldn't exactly hide that, considering the close nature of airship travel. Then again, things were always complicated between those two. In hindsight, Thane had nothing but gratitude for his arranged marriage to Relyn. It had saved them both months of drama.
He'd barely taken a dozen steps forward before a female voice called his name, "King Solidor?"
Torchlight appeared in the mist ahead, and a woman with chin-length blonde hair stepped forward, flanked by a pair of Templars on either side. She gave Thane a polite bow. "My name is—"
"Marabella Lawguard," Thane finished with a nod. "I remember you from the Clansmeet. Chancellor Brighton's Spymaster, right?"
"Aaron Cole's Spymaster," she corrected in her thick western accent. "The Knight Commander is the closest thing to a leader we have now."
"How is he?" Nahlia asked as she moved to the front of the group.
"Still alive and in one piece. Our war has been a more subtle one than yours." She surveyed Thane's group of well-armed Ethermancers. "But something tells me that's about to change."
They must have been quite the sight. Thane had gotten the Raider twins sets of black dragonbone armor that matched his own, and their Etherite blades hung from their belts. Relyn had her crystal arrows, Nahlia and Yimo each carried one of Varion's staves, and they all wore Varion's old Moonfire rings.
As hopeless as this war seemed, he was proud of how far they'd come.
"And my sister?" Thane asked the Spymaster. "Any news on her?"
"Cole spent several months undercover in the palace," she explained. "He met Princess Solidor there, and they even had plans to take down the shield. But ... she disappeared after you began your so-called rebellion."
Thane felt his breath hitch, and chains closed around his chest. He'd been prepared for this, but it was a blow nonetheless.
"After she disappeared," the Spymaster continued, "Cole left his job in the palace."
She let the rest go unspoken, but Thane read between the lines. If the enemy tortured or turned Ashara, Cole's life would be in danger too.
Relyn stepped up beside him and squeezed his arm.
Marabella glanced up at the airship. "I must admit, when I heard you were coming, I didn't expect you to land this close to the city."
"We aren't here to sail around storms," Thane said, "we're here to kill Alexel Trelidor. We know it, and he knows it too. No sense in pretending otherwise."
She nodded. "At least our goals align nicely."
"So you can get us through the city walls?" Thane asked.
"We can go in through the sewers," she said. "The Templars control a nearby drain, and we've been using it to smuggle in troops and supplies for the last year."
"Speaking of supplies..." Thane gestured back to the Raptor's Claw. "Tell me your priorities, and I'll have my crew deliver them."
She didn't hesitate. "We need weapons—specifically firearms, grenades, and blackpowder. Trelidor's people have been destroying everything in the city armories. Now, we barely have one rifle per dozen soldiers."
Ciena scoffed from somewhere behind him. "They destroy firearms, but they don’t think twice about dropping bombs on our heads?"
"Most of Sunfall doesn't know what happened in Raidenwood," she pointed out. "And if Trelidor started arming his guards with rifles..."
"Your people would steal them," Thane said with a nod. The same couldn't be said for Ethermancy.
Not yet, anyway. But Nahlia and Elias had some ideas for Cole's other project as well.
"How many rifles do you need?" he asked.
"Ideally? Two or three thousand would go a long way."
Thane glanced back at Ilsa who stood closer to the ship's ramp. She nodded as she wrote a note on her ledger. If his memory served him right, they had that many firearms in Vauldenport alone. Sure, they'd be disarming their own troops, but if they lost the battle here in Sunfall, the others would have no choice but to surrender.
If Trelidor even gives them that option. He certainly hadn't given it to Raidenwood.
"Shouldn't be a problem," Thane finally said.
Marabella's lips curled upward, and she exhaled a puff of white mist through her nose. "It's been a while since I've heard that."
"Like I said, we came to win."
After taking some rowboats across the lake, they walked a good mile underground. Fortunately, their path was dry, and there were worse times than winter for a sewer excursion.
The city itself was far more impressive. Trains raced over their heads on steel tracks, and a thousand lights shone from within the massive stone structures. The tallest buildings vanished into the fog above—at least twice as high as the ones in Raidenwood's western district.
While the rest of the world fought and died, Trelidor acted as if he'd ushered in some new golden age.
"Even the humans believe his lies," Marabella said as they walked. "That's the problem with humans. Most of them think the war is over. Unlike you, they can't just communicate telepathically with their cousins across the world. This makes them easy to control. Trelidor's people tell them one story, and no one contradicts it. Anyone who tries is silenced."
Well, Trelidor could pretend all he wanted. Soon enough, this city would become a battleground.
Nahlia followed the others through the city streets. Despite the darkness and snow, it was just past fifth bell, and crowds bustled between the tall buildings.
Her group stuck mainly to the side roads. Even then, they had to remove their weapons and armor, which the Templars now carried in long wooden crates. Apparently, Trelidor had outlawed all weapons within the city walls, and even a sword was enough to draw the guards’ attention
In a way, this actually felt like good news. The more you forced a city into order, the more likely you were to get chaos. Her father had spent the past few months recruiting, and these strict laws would only make his job easier.
How much longer? Nahlia wondered as they walked a dozen more city blocks.
Half of her was eager to see her father again after two years apart. The other half wondered if this safehouse would have a place where she and Elias could be alone.
Aegon. They were finally together—really together—and now they had to go to war all over again. It wasn't fair. Well, technically it was her own fault for waiting this long, but still.
Was it wrong of her to think of herself at a time like this? Probably, but she tried not to judge herself too harshly. Until now, so many of her problems had stemmed from holding herself to impossible standards. Elias was helping her get better though. He was helping her accept herself as she was, while still trying to grow stronger. It seemed like a subtle difference, but that acceptance made her feel lighter than she'd felt in years.
She still wouldn't say she had faith in herself, much less in her vision, or Aegon. Certainly not the way Elias did.
Still, this was a start.
Their group stopped walking when they reached a simple, one-story shop in the city's outer ring. Rough wooden planks covered the exterior, and layers of ice made the sign unreadable. It reminded Nahlia of the Onyx Company's hideout in Nightbridge—the sort of place you could pass a hundred times and never notice.
Despite the building's narrow facade, it was at least four times deeper than it looked, extending all the way to the city's outer wall. Marabella led them through a side alley, and a younger Templar opened the door for them.
The shop's interior seemed far better maintained. Wooden surfaces gleamed in the lamplight, and the hearth's heat warmed her half-frozen cheeks.
"This is your hideout?" Elias asked as he stomped the snow from his boots.
"We have more than a hundred of these scattered throughout Sunfall," Mara said. “None of the hideouts know about each other. This way, if one of them is compromised, the rebellion lives on."
He gave an approving nod at that.
Nahlia ventured ahead of the others, scanning the various rooms. She'd hoped her father would already be here, waiting for her.
"He's downstairs," Mara said as if reading her thoughts. "Follow me."
The older woman pulled a brass key from her pocket and opened the door to a dry storage room. Once inside, she pulled a lever on the fall wall. A shelf slid along the wooden floor, revealing a spiral staircase that curved toward some unseen basement.
"He'll be surprised to see you," she said with a faint smile. "He knew you were coming, but none of us knew it would be tonight."
Nahlia nodded her thanks as she jogged down the winding stone staircase.
The basement looked like it might have been a wine cellar at some point. Stone archways ran along the edges, and books covered every shelf. A wide table dominated the room's center, covered with various tubes and vials.
It reminded her of Marwyn's old laboratory in Whitecliff, and the memory carried a tinge of pain. Nahlia didn't resent her mother for what she did to the Council. She just wished Lyraina had contacted her—given her an explanation.
Nahlia stepped around the table and found her father sitting amongst a pile of old books.
He glanced up immediately—ever the soldier on guard. "Nahlia?"
"It's me." She smiled as she stepped into the light.
Her father's hair was equal parts gray and brown now, and he'd grown out his beard once again. Age hadn't been as kind to him as it had to Lyraina, but Nahlia preferred him this way. His was a face she knew and trusted.
Her father's chair hit the stone floor as he sprang to his feet. Nahlia ran forward and hurled herself into his arms.
"I'm sorry for leaving," she whispered into his chest. "Thane said you didn't take it well."
"It's okay," he said as he squeezed her tighter. "I was angry at first, but I was glad you got away from the fighting. But in hindsight..."
"Nowhere is safe now," she finished for him.
They spent the next few hours catching up. Nahlia told him about her journey to Valaysia, and the time she spent with her mother. She told him about Raidenwood, Cladius, and their campaign to seize territory throughout central Revera. Aegon. So much had happened in the last few months alone. She hadn't realized the extent of it until she stepped back and looked at the entire picture.
At one point, her father removed a decanter from a cabinet and poured them each a glass of whiskey. Nahlia raised the glass to her nostrils, inhaling wood and smoke. For a moment, she dared to hope it was his old recipe from Northshire. But the dark liquid tasted unfamiliar as it burned her tongue.
Of course. As the Knight Commander, he wouldn't have time for his old hobbies.
She continued sharing her story, and everything else that had happened. Well, almost everything. She may have left out a few certain intimate moments. Her father actually liked Elias right now, so why ruin a good thing? Maybe they could get married if they survived the coming battle. He would approve of that, at least.
Funny how she'd dreamed of Ethermancy for most of her life, and how much simpler her dreams had become in recent weeks.
The conversation dwindled down, and her father began sorting through the papers on his desk. "I've also been researching your vision. I brought a copy of the transcription here with me."
Nahlia cradled her chin as she leaned forward. "I thought you were researching the origins of Aeons?"
"The two might be related," he said absently as he leafed through a book. "Chancellor Brighton smuggled hundreds of banned books from the Sunfall library. Many dealt with the Codices, and the way Aeons inherit their powers."
Nahlia tilted her head to read the book's cover, but it was nothing but solid brown leather.
"It's a Cultivator's personal journal," he explained as he laid a spread of pages open on the table between them. "He came to Revera sometime in the last century, and the emperor had his journal translated after he died."
Nahlia nodded. She didn't know much about the Cultivators. Sure, she'd seen a few in Valaysia, but they mostly kept to themselves, preferring to stay out of western affairs. Thane and Relyn had learned that the hard way after they asked the Elders for help.
"The Cultivators have the same abilities as us," her father said. "They have techniques like Moonshard and Ironblood. Only, while Reverans can learn these techniques in a matter of months, it takes them decades to master."
It felt strange to hear her father talking like a scholar. Much less to hear him discussing Ethermancy techniques. But then, he'd always been a man of many talents, hadn't he?
Nahlia frowned at his last comment though. "Is there a reason it takes them so long?"
He gestured to the page, and Nahlia began to read.
Tonight, I spoke with Vashet in her Codex. She doesn't know what to make of me. She recognizes that I'm not her descendent, nor am I descended from her peers. And yet, I follow a martial Cultivation path, and this gives me the abilities of a Justicar, along with the healing of a Redeemer.
Vashet asked me how I learned these techniques without her blood, and I told her the truth. First, I built a physical soul. Then I spent decades cultivating energy into that soul and learning to shape it in my body. Vashet claims that no one else has done this since the creation of the Codices. Beyond that, she refused to elaborate.
Here in the West, they believe the path to power is only open to those who have descended from the first Ethermancers. They call these people 'Aeons', and these 'Aeons' differentiate themselves from humans as if they were two separate species.
They're wrong, of course. Anyone can learn Ethermancy. And yet ... there is something different about these Aeons. Instead of cultivating energy and mastering their techniques, they simply inherit their power. Justicars are born warriors, and Redeemers are born knowing how to heal. Yes, they train, but this training is nothing compared to what my people go through.
We've always known things were different in the West. Their ancestors gave them powers they haven't earned, and I believe this power is the source of all their wars.
Nahlia blinked down at the page. What was she supposed to make of that? It seemed unfair to say that 'Westerners' were born with their abilities. After all, she'd spent the better part of a year mastering her Moonshard, and integrating it with her martial arts. And while she may have healed a few minor wounds as a child, she hadn't truly understood her Moonfire until Whitecliff.
But then ... what about the first time she healed herself? Or that first time she'd conjured Moonshard in the Gorge against Ciena? She couldn't deny that those techniques had come intuitively to her. Her biggest challenge had been overcoming her own mental blocks—not the techniques themselves.
Unlike Ethersmithing, the knowledge had been buried somewhere in her mind. Or rather, the knowledge was in the Ethereal in the scattered form of her ancestor's memories. All she had to do was strengthen her ties to it like a soulbond.
Finally, Nahlia glanced up at her father. "So there are other ways to learn Ethermancy? Without being born to an Aeon bloodline?" As interesting as that was, it seemed far more relevant to her father's project than it did to her vision of Treluwyn.
Her father gave a quick nod as he turned several pages.
Nahlia began reading again.
Traditional beliefs state that an Aeon's thoughts return to the Ethereal when he dies. The Reverans regard this as common sense, but I see no evidence to back up this claim. Yes, they inherit their ancestor's abilities, but why would they assume this process is automatic or passive? Such things don't happen in Eastern Valaysia, yet they regard it as some universal law of the world.
I brought this question to my hosts, and they claimed their Archaeons were divine—gifted with a small fragment of Aegon's power. This so-called divinity let them leave their mark on the Ethereal, bestowing their power to all their descendants.
I find it hard to share this belief. True, these Archaeons may have been the first Ethermancers. But does that make them divine? No. No more than any other inventor or explorer.
Nahlia had to agree with the Cultivator here. After all, Lucan had known Raiden personally, and he'd confirmed the Archaeon was nothing but an ordinary man.
Also, the writing continued, no other time in human history has knowledge been inherited from parent to child. And yet ... these Aeons inherit not just their ancestor's abilities, but their personality traits as well. How can this be? What makes the Archaeons so influential throughout the ages?
After speaking to Vashet, I believe the answer is obvious.
Nahlia froze, and the answer came to her before she read the next line.
It wasn't who they were that mattered. It was what they'd constructed.
Everyone saw the ancient artifacts as something you accessed directly. But they were also connected to the Ethereal—this much, she'd known ever since Whitecliff.
What if Aeons created soulbonds with their ancestors, and those bonds were the sources of their power? Aegon. The answer had been there from the beginning, but she hadn't seen it.
She met her father's eyes again. At that moment, she understood.
When you destroyed an Aeon's soul, she lost her power.
When you destroyed a soulbond, you lost that connection.
When you destroy a Codex...
No. A Codex couldn't be safely destroyed. Lucan had told Ciena as much. However, an Ethersmith could rewrite one, just as Lucan had taken Raiden's place.
"I could have destroyed all the memories," Lucan had told Elias on their first meeting. "But if I had, it would have brought an end to the Justicars as we know them."
And if what Lucan said was true ... then a descendent of Palatine could rewrite the Codex.
In doing so, she could fulfill the task from her vision. She could remove the source of Trelidor's power, and finally end this war.