Cole blinked at the strange woman who stood across from him. Somehow, she knew his name. Had he seen her before? No. He didn't think so, but parts of her looked familiar. Her pale face was heart-shaped, like Lyraina's. Her eyes were the same vibrant blue as his wife's, and even her hair seemed almost red as it blew in the evening wind.
And yet ... there was something off about her. Artificial, even—like a dream. Her features were more exaggerated than Lyraina's. Larger eyes, more prominent cheekbones, and a more delicate chin. She wore a blue dress, sleeveless and low-cut, revealing more unblemished skin.
It was like she'd sat down and crafted herself into what she thought was Cole's ideal woman. It worked on some primal level. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart raced in a way that had nothing to do with his sudden transformation.
A more rational part of him just thought this was creepy. Despite her youthful face, her eyes were ancient and knowing.
Could this be an illusion? Other Aeons had written of interactions that took place entirely in their own minds. Even Nahlia hadn't been sure her vision of Treluwyn was real.
Cole didn't know enough about the Ethereal to say what was real or not. Instead, he ventured a guess based on his studies. "You're one of the Archaeons." He even had an inkling of which one she was, but he kept that to himself for now.
Her lips broke into a sudden smile, showing her perfect white teeth. "So are you, I suppose. What you've done today, no Reveran has done for a thousand years."
An appeal to pride? What did she want from him?
"You've become an Aeon," the woman began as she stepped forward. Again, her voice seemed as youthful as her face. But, like her eyes, experience laced the undercurrents of her tone. "But you are no Ethermancer. Not yet. Some skills are open to you, but such things are useless when they require months of practice. You don't have months. This war will end tonight."
Tonight? They'd planned to wait at least a few more days before their assault on the palace.
"What do you know?" Cole demanded.
"Trelidor knows where you're hiding." She spoke so smoothly—so unhurried—you would think she was ordering a glass of wine. "He's sending soldiers to kill you within the hour. You'll survive the encounter, but you'll need my help if you want to win the war."
Cole stiffened. Was this the part where she offered him a deal?
"You have no Aeon ancestry," she said. "None of the Codices call to your soul. But I can give you my power."
"What's your name?" Cole asked.
"My name is not important."
Damnit. She knew. She knew about Nahlia's vision, and the warning she'd received about the imprisoned Archaeon.
Cole inclined his head again. "Then I suppose I'll just call you 'Rivian.'"
Her smile was as good as any confirmation. "I know what you fear, Knight Commander. You think Treluwyn came to Nahlia in a dream and warned her about me. You think I'm trying to escape from a prison between realms. That I've been biding my time for centuries, waiting for the perfect moment."
Well, if nothing else, she was certainly astute. But then, what else had he expected from the Archaeon of knowledge and wisdom?
"Here's the real truth," Rivian continued. "That wasn't Treluwyn who your daughter spoke with. It was another Palatine."
Two weeks ago, that revelation might have shocked Cole. Either that, or he would have dismissed it as a lie. Now, though, he knew the truth of things. He knew his wife and daughter were Palatine's descendants.
Nahlia had seemed shaken by this news, but it didn't bother Cole as much. Of all the secrets Lyraina had kept from them, he actually understood this one. She'd let their daughter believe in a different destiny for herself. Even if Lyraina didn't know everything about the Codices, she'd spoken of the invisible hands of fate before. She knew it moved Aeons like string puppets, and she'd wanted to prove they were free. Free to choose their own paths.
Regardless, it wasn't a stretch to imagine Nahlia seeing one of her ancestors that night. And it didn't mean this descendent of Palatine wasn't helping them.
"You may also think Palatine and I are allies," Rivian said. "We are not. He's the one who imprisoned me."
"Maybe he did that for a good reason," Cole said. He hadn't meant to speak the words out loud, but he'd never been good at holding his tongue.
"He did it for the same reason he did everything. Power. Now, the three of them fight—Nahlia, Lyraina, and Alexel—doing what their bloodline has always done. Tonight, one of them will try to rise to Eternity—to seize Aegon's throne."
"And where is Lyraina now?" Cole asked. Everyone else seemed to forget about her, but Cole knew better.
Rivian waved that away. "As of now, Trelidor stands the best chance of winning. But you—Aaron Cole—can turn the tide of this battle. Your enemy has already gathered the Codices together. And together, they have even more power than the comet two years ago. With this power, you and I will create a soulbond, and I will pass my power onto you. It's a power I share with Palatine—to awaken the strength in others.”
Her tone sent chills down his spine.
"Tonight, the Templars will become the fourth Order of Ethermancers. And you will do as you've always done. You will shatter walls and barriers. You will topple empires and overthrow tyrants."
It all sounded so glorious, didn't it? And if Cole were a younger man—filled with dreams and hope—he might have accepted it. But if Rivian wanted to give him power, she must benefit somehow. If that was the cost, then he'd rather reject it. After all, he hadn't become an 'Aeon' to win the coming battle. He'd done it for all of humanity—to prove there was no real difference between the races.
"Whatever you're offering," Cole said. "I refuse."
She smiled again, more amused this time. "Well, that's the funny thing about Ethermancy, isn't it? The other Aeons had no choice but to take their gifts. What makes you think I'm giving you a choice today?"
Relyn followed Ciena as they jogged through the city.
Trelidor knew about their hideout. At the very least, he knew they were in the northeastern side of the Outer Ring. They couldn't stop him from destroying it, but they could still evacuate and spread out their most important people.
They'd let Rhia go. Whether her sister intended to help them or betray them, it was too early to say. Her words had seemed earnest, but she'd already done so much. Maybe if she'd switched sides before stealing Raiden's Codex, things might have been different.
Night had fallen in earnest now, but Sunfall never slept. Crystal light shone from within a hundred windows and street lamps, too bright to see the stars above. Snowflakes glowed as they fell, striking Relyn's bare cheeks.
Their route took them through Midring's Market District, and the buildings got shorter as they reached the edge. The rivers flowed rougher than usual tonight, and they seemed to burst from their canals, leaving puddles on the surrounding stone.
In the shadows up ahead, a pair of men moved toward an alley, carrying a giant wooden crate between them. Odd. They'd dressed as ordinary workers, but their complexions looked more Palavan.
After a two year occupation, Palavans weren't that rare in this city. But she'd only seen soldiers or guards in the streets. All the civilians lived around the palace.
Besides, how many workers carried crates after sunset?
"Ciena!" she called out.
Ciena whipped around, reaching for Steelbreaker's hilt. Relyn held up a hand, then gestured down the alleyway with her head. Something was going on here, and she planned to find out what.
No sooner had she reached the alley's mouth than both men set down the crate, turning to face her. They each took a slow step forward, guarding it like a pair of mother hens.
"Move along, citizen," one of them said in his thick Palavan accent. "We're on important business from the emperor himself."
"Thought so," Relyn said as she nocked an arrow in her bow. "Let's see the crate."
"Alright." The second man took a few more steps forward, his voice softer than the first. "Just lower your bow, and—"
Fire filled the alleyway before he could finish his sentence. Ciena stepped forward. The flames vanished in midair, breaking against her skin like water on a rock.
Relyn released her crystal arrow, and it took the first Sanctifier between his eyes. Steelbreaker became a whip in Ciena's hand, lashing out like a snake and opening a gash across the second man's throat.
Two more Palavan guards raced into the alley's mouth. Ciena's whip lashed out behind her, opening crimson gashes across their faces.
Aegon. She was even scarier than usual these days. Relyn almost felt bad for Trelidor when they finally met again.
With the alleyway clear, she stepped forward to examine the strange wooden crate. Unfortunately, the top had been bolted shut with no lock in sight.
"I have a key," Ciena said as she sauntered forward. Relyn took a careful step back as Steelbreaker reshaped itself into a sword. Ciena fell into Lionform and swung the blade in a wide arc, severing the lid from the crate in one smooth strike.
"Bloody hell," Ciena snapped as she stared down into the crate.
Relyn's breath caught in her throat as she followed her gaze. After that burst of fire, she struggled to make out anything in the darkness.
Ciena reached a gloved hand into the crate and something dark and dusty fell between her fingers.
"Black powder," Relyn muttered. Well over a hundred pounds of it, judging by the size of the crate. Relyn was no alchemist, but she knew this wasn't the normal powder they used in firearms.
More likely, it was the kind they'd used in Raidenwood. The kind that blew through solid stone.
They followed the alleyway to where it emerged near a man-made canal. This one was as wide as a thoroughfare, and well over thirty feet deep. Their path took them over an old stone bridge to a parapet that overlooked the Outer Ring below. She even spotted the Templar's hideout more than a hundred feet below, nestled in among the other ramshackle structures.
Once again, the river flowed far faster than usual, and the level seemed to rise by the second. Almost as if someone had redirected all the city's water toward this spot.
"If they'd planted the bomb here," Relyn told Ciena, "they could have flooded the Outer Ring."
"One bomb wouldn't be enough," Ciena said. "They'd need to..." She trailed off, squinting at something farther down the wall. "Oh, bloody hell."
Relyn followed her gaze to where a second pair of Palavans carried another crate. A joint effort.
"Go." Relyn gestured toward the hideout below. "I'll slow them down."
Ciena sprang into motion, turning Steelbreaker into a claw and jumping off the stone wall.
Relyn nocked Neckbiter into her bow and ran to meet the two soldiers.
As soon as they saw her, they dropped the crate and bolted in the other direction.
Relyn drew closer, but it didn't matter. These men were Sanctifiers, just like the first two. One launched a burst of flame behind him as he ran. Not toward Relyn, but at the bomb.
The blast shot out in all directions—a deafening roar of fire and smoke. Relyn's skull shook as she dropped to her belly, taking cover from the flying debris.
The river burst through the newly created opening, gushing out into the district below.