Nahlia sat with Elias in the Templar hideout. They'd commandeered one of the larger supply closets, and forbidden books covered every surface of the cramped space.
Leafing through the old tomes, Nahlia could see why they'd been hidden from the public. Everything she read about the Codices reinforced her theory. The Archaeons weren't as special as they seemed. They'd simply left a part of themselves behind when they left the world, giving their descendants an advantage.
If this secret had gotten out, it would have threatened the very foundation of Aeon society. For the past thousand years, her race had claimed to be Aegon's chosen people. In reality, their power came from their ancestor's artifacts, and that power could be taken away.
Her assignment made sense now. If she 'rewrote' Palatine's Codex, they could take Trelidor's power. Not just his, but his children, his generals, and most of his soldiers. With no means to keep fighting, the Palavan army would have no choice but to retreat.
But that still didn't answer the question of who Nahlia had spoken to in her vision. The woman had never claimed to be Treluwyn, just Nahlia's ancestor.
"What if it was another Palatine?" Elias had suggested a few days ago. "Not the Archaeon, but one of his descendants."
"Maybe," Nahlia admitted. "But she looked like Treluwyn."
"So do you," he pointed out with a grin.
True. Besides, the Ethereal had a way of showing you what you expected to see. It didn't mean the woman was trying to deceive her.
"She also claimed to be an Archaeon," Nahlia said.
"But what is an Archaeon?" Elias countered. "If it means you created a Codex, then Lucan might fit the description too."
Another good point. However, she suspected there was more to being an Archaeon than just making a Codex, even if that was how they passed on their powers.
Whoever she'd spoken to had come from the afterlife on a mission to stop the Archaeon Rivian from returning. That seemed unrelated to the Codices, and it seemed to take a special sort of person to travel back and forth.
Elias's first guess still had some merit though. History was always so focused on the Archaeons. It was easy to forget that a thousand years of history stood between them. Hundreds of other famous Aeons had shaped history in the interim, and Nahlia could have spoken to any of those people. It could have been another Palatine who'd broken off from the main clan, just like her ancestors who'd founded Whitecliff.
In a way, it didn't matter where the vision came from, and she probably wouldn't get a direct answer before this war ended. But the vision itself had led them to Raiden's Codex and the skills she needed for her task.
Now, only one step remained: to see it through to the end.
They continued reading and studying, just as they'd done every evening since they'd arrived in Sunfall. These books held a wealth of knowledge, but there was nothing that directly explained how to disassemble or rewrite a Codex. Hardly a surprise in hindsight. Ethersmithing had been a lost art until they'd discovered Raiden's Codex. She didn't really expect to find the answers in a book.
Aegon, she hated rushing into this so unprepared. But as Ciena kept reminding them all, time favored the enemy here. If they confronted him now, they might stand a chance of winning. She only hoped she'd learned enough these past few months.
Elias leaned over to grab a book, and Nahlia took the opportunity to plant a kiss on his cheek. He grinned at her, then pressed his lips to her nose.
His smile faded a second later as he settled back on the floor and met her eyes. "There's one thing we haven't talked about," he said. "Lucan told Ciena there's only one way to make a Codex..."
You have to die, Nahlia remembered. The memory struck her soon after that first talk with her father. It had kept her awake for half the night, tossing and turning in her bed.
It was one thing to risk death in battle. At least then, she could imagine a future with Elias. Perhaps returning to Raidenwood with him and rebuilding the city together.
But if what Lucan said was true, that future might be impossible, whether they won this war or not. Then again, if they couldn't defeat Trelidor, there would be no future for any of them.
After some deliberation, Nahlia decided she would gladly sacrifice herself if it meant saving the others. After all, she'd already died once before, and these last two years had felt like borrowed time after that. She'd spent it with her family and friends, and that was enough.
But then ... how did you explain that to the man you loved? Not to mention her father.
"Maybe creating a Codex is different from rewriting one?" Nahlia suggested. "Lucan wanted to replace Raiden, but he implied he had other options. As a Palatine, maybe I can erase his Codex without dying?"
Elias's lips made a thin line as he considered that. "You really believe that? Can you look me in the eye and tell me you'll be safe?"
Nahlia resisted the urge to look away. Instead, she reached out and grabbed his hand. As always, it was warm despite the room's chill. "Can you promise me you'll be safe when you fight Trelidor?" She gave her head a small shake. "All this time, you've believed in this task. Even when I didn't. We have to have faith this is the best way."
Aaron Cole leaned back in his leather armchair, eying the white crystal on the table.
When Lucan first taught the Raider twins Ethersmithing, he'd claimed it held a secret even more dangerous than the creation of weapons or Codices. A secret he'd refused to share.
What was the most frightening thing imaginable to a class of ruling Aeons?
The same thing Trelidor would fear today. They feared the prospect of humans becoming Aeons.
If Cole did this, he could unlock the secret for all humanity and even the playing field forever. Even if they lost this war, they would change the world. Aeons couldn't rule the way they had for the past millennium. They couldn't say their power or bloodlines gave them the right to rule, or that it was some divine gift from Aegon.
Lyraina had been the first to plant this idea in his head. Despite her obsession with power, she'd despised the hidden systems that governed their world. She hated the idea of knowledge or freedom being suppressed.
Cole had also learned several truths about Etherite these past few years.
His researchers had discovered early on that Etherite became bioactive in the presence of humans as well as Aeons. The Etherite didn't care whether you were human or Aeon. The latter just had a head start with their physical souls.
A few of Cole's alchemists had tried to recreate souls with various experiments. These ranged from injections to simply swallowing tiny crystal fragments. One of the volunteers had died, and the three survivors didn't live in comfort.
After a while, Cole had decided modern-day science wasn't the answer. After all, the Archaeons had traveled this road more than a thousand years ago. The Cultivators in Eastern Valaysia also did this, and Solidor had described their technology as relatively simple.
But now, after reading Elias Raider's notes about Ethersmithing...
What if the answer was simpler than they'd ever imagined?
I told Vashet the truth, the Cultivator wrote in his journal, I told her that I built my soul.
The answer had been staring at him all along. These days, folk thought of Ethersmithing as some advanced and mystical technique. But what if they had it backwards? What if it was the first step?
Sure, the Raider twins had taken it further like they always did, turning it into an art form, and dominating other Ethermancers. But it started with a simple concept—breaking down Etherite and rebuilding it inside your body.
So Cole concentrated on the crystal in front of him, willing it to move. He imagined a cube of ice becoming vapor, entering his body, then crystalizing again.
As always, doubt swirled around him like a storm. He may have been the Knight Commander, but he still felt like an ordinary soldier most days—more comfortable on a battlefield than a laboratory.
Who was he to make a discovery like this?
But then ... Raiden had been a spearman. Palatine was a slave, Vashet was a prostitute, and Treluwyn was a child. They'd all become something more.
Why not him?
Cole brought his thoughts back to the present—back to the crystal. He must have tried this ten-thousand times since Nahlia arrived in the city and began teaching him the skill. Sometimes, he swore he could feel—
The crystal vanished from the table.
A pain spread through his chest as the Etherite found its place there. At first, it was sharp and sudden, but not quite painful. Over the next few heartbeats, it burned like a bouquet of hot knives. He'd been stabbed before, shot with a crossbow, and a bullet. This felt worse than all three of them combined. He couldn't breathe. Sweat coated his forehead, and he fell to the stone floor.
Someone must have heard the sound because footsteps rushed down the staircase.
Cole wanted to let go of the power. He wanted to abandon the project and never look back...
He'd spent years getting this far—to this single moment—if he turned back now, he might never get the chance again. The feeling could leave him like a forgotten dream.
"Father!" Nahlia knelt down beside him, knocking over a stack of books. She pressed a hand to his chest as if she might heal him.
"No." He grabbed her wrist to stop her. "This is it," he said through a staggered breath. "I have to keep going." Part of it felt wrong, but he saw a light at the end of the tunnel. He had to push harder. He needed more energy.
Nahlia was still leaning over him, and her pendant hung out from her tunic—a silver crescent moon like the one Lyraina used to wear.
Cole reached out a hand and seized the crystal, pulling it into his body with the other.
The pain reached a crescendo within him. He squeezed against the energy inside his chest, compacting more and more into the small space.
Finally, the world faded to blackness.
When he opened his eyes again, he was standing in a surreal world, beneath a twilight sky. The stars and moons shone brighter than he'd ever seen, and a layer of clouds stretched infinitely toward every horizon.
Footsteps echoed behind him, and Cole spun around on the stone platform to face an unfamiliar young woman.
She took a step forward and smiled. "Congratulations, Aaron Cole. You're an Aeon now."