Nahlia led her troops through the Sunfall palace. Their route took them down marble-lined hallways, and their footsteps echoed through the vast ceilings above. The rhythm formed a counterpoint with the gunshots outside, and flashes of fire lit their path through the tall glass windows.
"Lady Cole!" a scout jogged around the corner. "You should see this."
They followed the man to where a smaller corridor broke off from the larger one. There, dozens of bodies covered the ground. She clutched her staff, and several soldiers stepped forward with lit torches.
Many of the bodies wore Sile'zhar nightsilk, and others wore the robes of Palavan Redeemers.
Aegon. That explained the lack of resistance they'd met so far. But who could have done this?
No sooner had the question taken shape than she saw the truth of things. These people hadn't died by ordinary blades or bullets. Many of the bodies sported the wide, shallow cuts of Moonshard. Others lay with broken bones and shriveled skin, hinting at the darker side of Moonfire.
Nahlia's soulbonds had weakened when the Masters had attacked her— almost as if the bonds had formed a shell, protecting the fragile structure within. As a result, she hadn't heard from her mother since that last night in Raidenwood.
But she felt her now—with every step, those threads grew stronger.
Of course she'd be here tonight.
Still pointing her staff forward, Nahlia followed the trail of bodies into the heart of the palace. There, they encountered several sturdy doors that sat wide open.
"Wait here," Nahlia told her soldiers when they reached the final antechamber.
"Are you sure?" An officer asked. Unfortunately, Nahlia didn't even know the man's name. She'd known all the higher-ranking Templars in her squad, but they'd all died in that courtyard near the palace. Everything happened in a blur after that.
And Thane ... why hadn't he caught up by now? Her thoughts drifted to Elias next. Then her father, Ciena, Relyn, Yimo, and the crew of the Raptor's Claw. They were all fighting out there, and she knew in her heart they wouldn't all survive this battle.
Focus, Nahlia told herself. Focus on the parts you can fix.
That was a lesson she still hadn't learned. Unlike her friends, she'd grown up in libraries and inns, with her memories serving as the greatest window. Three years of battle had hardened her, but she still wasn't a soldier.
"Lady Cole?" the officer asked again. "Any idea what's in there?"
No. For all she knew, it could be Trelidor himself. And no, she wasn't sure about going in alone. But whatever lay beyond this chamber, her soldiers couldn't help her. The others had done their part—they'd taken down the shield against all odds.
Now it's my turn.
Nahlia gave her soldiers a reassuring nod and stepped through alone.
Beyond the half-open door, she found a circular chamber with intricate tiled patterns along the floor, walls, and ceiling. She'd expected to find Palatine's Codex inside—its whispers had grazed her thoughts from several rooms away, and the weight had tugged against her mind, body, and soul.
She'd expected to find one Codex. Maybe two or three at the most.
Instead, she found six.
Each artifact sat balanced on a simple stone pedestal, no more than a few inches in diameter. Their smooth black surfaces reflected the amber glow of the crystal lamps above.
Palatine and Treluwyn. Kalazhan and Vaulden. Raiden and Vashet. Six Archaeons, three Orders. Only Rivian lacked a Codex. But if Nahlia's vision was true, then Rivian was still alive, working from the shadows to turn this conflict to her advantage.
The six orbs sat equidistant on their pedestals, forming a perfect circle around the room. In the center of that circle stood a figure in a hooded sapphire robe.
"Nahlia." Her mother turned to face her, lowering her hood to reveal her braid of red hair. "I'm glad you're alright."
"I barely survived," Nahlia said. The words sounded childish, but for Aegon's sake, she had a right to be angry. Her mother might have saved her from the Masters, but she'd still left her unconscious in the enclave streets. Trelidor's airships had dropped a bomb on that very spot. If it hadn't been for Yimo, she and Elias would both be dead.
"I'm sorry I left you," Lyraina said, and her voice sounded more earnest than Nahlia had ever heard from her. "I thought you were safe. If I'd known Alexel would attack that night..." She shook her head. "I'd already landed in Sunfall by the time I heard the news."
"But why leave at all? You were defending me that night. The others would have understood."
"Perhaps," she replied. "Perhaps not. Regardless, our paths converged here at the end."
Nahlia narrowed her eyes as she stepped farther into the room. "Still so secretive, even now. But you've been lying to me my whole life, haven't you? Why stop today?"
This time, Lyraina held her gaze without a hint of regret. "You saw how my former classmates reacted when they finally found the truths they sought. They turned on you, and others would have done the same. I didn't want you to bear that burden."
Lyraina thrust her hands out to either side. "You know the truth now, don't you? These artifacts control our actions. They force us to follow predestined paths, dooming us to relive the mistakes of our ancestors. Most Aeons don't understand the specifics, but they see the results. They know Palatines are ruled by ambition. They know we crave power above all else."
She met Nahlia's eyes again. "But with you, I sought to defy their expectations. I raised you to be different, and it worked. You aren't like me, or Trelidor. You're better than both of us."
Nahlia slumped her shoulders. Whether or not that was true, it didn't matter now. If she succeeded here tonight, then her life would end. And if she could end this war, she'd consider it a life well spent.
A few more steps, and she joined Lyraina inside the circle of dark orbs. "Do you know why I'm here, Mother?"
"I can only speculate."
Nahlia drew in a deep breath. "I'm here to rewrite Palatine's Codex. This is the source of Trelidor's power. Not just him, but his children, and most of his generals."
Her mother nodded as if she'd expected that answer. "Even if you have the skill to do that ... you're aware of the cost?"
Nahlia nodded. "It's a price I'm willing to pay."
"As noble as that might seem to you, it won't be enough."
"What?" Nahlia tried to stand firm, but those four words sent ice through her veins. She'd made it this far. She couldn't let her mother break her resolve now.
Lyraina gave a sad smile. "You think you'll fix this world by taking the power from Palatine's descendants?"
"Not everything," Nahlia said, "but it's a good start."
"All you will accomplish is another power shift. Who rules Sunfall after Trelidor is dead? Thane and Relyn? Will they hunt down Trelidor's children just as the Templars hunted the Aeons? Just as Trelidor hunted down you and your friends? The cycle will continue as it always has."
Her eyes flicked to the dark artifacts around them. "It will continue because these things control us all. Not just descendants of Palatine. They control Thane and Relyn. Elias and Ciena. Everyone you know and love. Everyone with Aeon blood—we're all dancing to these tunes of fate."
Lyraina's hands curled into fists, and the artifacts seemed to respond. "Fate is a greater enemy than any you face on the battlefield. It threatens our free will and robs the meaning from our actions. That's the enemy I seek to overthrow. We can't do it from this world, but we can use these. We can ascend to Eternity and take Aegon's place. We can succeed where he's failed."
Nahlia's breath caught in her throat, and chills ran up her arms. No. She can't be serious. Palatine and Rivian had tried this, and it hadn't worked. Her mother knew that story as well as she did.
"These artifacts haven't been united since the Age of Archeons," Lyraina continued. "For all his flaws, Alexel was right to do this. And when they're open, they will release an enormous amount of energy. It will be like another Etherfall."
Another Etherfall. Nahlia's ancestor had used that exact phrase in her vision two years ago. Enough concentrated energy could make a portal between realms. This was the threat she'd warned her of.
"Do you even hear yourself right now?" Nahlia's voice rose, echoing around the chamber. "You talk about defying fate, but this is exactly what Palatine tried to do in Aeonica."
"So it is," Lyraina's voice was soft and patient by contrast. "But have you considered that perhaps those stories only exist to impede us? Is it so wrong to reach for more? For all we know, Aegon himself took this path long ago."
"Rivian manipulated Palatine," Nahlia continued, biting off each word as she spoke. "She's doing the same thing today. To you. "
"Ah, yes." Lyraina inclined her head. "You say I'm being manipulated—that my choices aren't my own. I could say the same of you. You only oppose me because a story told you to. Those ancient stories can influence a person's actions as surely as any Codex."
Nahlia clenched her hands into fists. "If we're the same, then how do you know your way is right?"
"Because, I've seen the alternatives, and they've all failed. For a thousand years, we've tried to play by the rules. Where has that gotten us? Countless wars and tragedies."
"Your plan has failed before too," Nahlia noted.
"Do you remember Whitecliff?" Her mother continued, heedless. "Do you remember how they lied about Ethermancy, despite how the Templars nearly drove them to extinction? They feared what the descendants of Palatine might become, and they let that fear drive their actions. What if Aegon acts in a similar manner? What if he lets us destroy one another because it keeps us weak? Because it keeps us from rebelling against him? It's a common strategy employed by many kings and emperors."
"And you honestly think you can do better?"
"No," Lyraina said, "but you could. Come with me, and we can rule together."
The Codices rose from their pedestals then, spiraling toward the center of the room. Nahlia felt the currents of their power rushing around her—overwhelming, but familiar. Standing in this circle was like fighting in the caves beneath Whitecliff, tasting her first glimpse of real power as she fought Zidane. It was like standing at the peak of Dragonshard during the Etherfall, watching the world change forever.
In that moment, she saw glimpses of something greater, just as she often did when those currents of power seized her. She saw the Archaeons, and how they'd forged these artifacts with the best intentions, hoping to pass on their skills to future generations.
Nahlia felt scores of generations between now and then—the armies whose blood stained the ground beneath this city, and all those who had labored to build it. She felt strands in a massive web, not just her own soulbonds, but of a greater web of power that spanned all of existence.
Finally, she felt the presence of the coming generation, waiting to be born in the new world they would make. This night—this moment—would determine the shape of that world.
Nahlia and her mother stood less than a pace apart now, and the Codices swirled just as close.
In that moment, she wanted to believe her mother was right. She wanted to believe they could fix all of this and make a better world.
But it wouldn't work. Lyraina was right about one thing—they couldn't trust their own motives.
Nahlia thrust out her arms, and a dome of Moonshard surrounded them, blocking the Codices from closing in.
Lyraina opened her mouth, but Nahlia spoke first. "Do you remember what you told me on the way back from Tongshan?"
Her mother didn't answer, but she didn't interrupt either.
"You told me that true power is to see your own ideas reflected in the world around you. Not because you force them to, but because they know you're right." She swallowed, finding her throat dry. "We can't force the world to change. The Archaeons tried that, and look where we are now."
"So you would throw away your life for nothing?" Lyraina snapped.
"This was my task," Nahlia said. "The rest of my vision came true."
"Your vision was a lie," her mother said. "You know this, but you still follow it blindly?"
Nahlia shook her head. "I choose to believe someone's guiding me—someone even stronger than the Codices."
Her face darkened like the artifacts themselves. "Then you've learned nothing."
"I've learned a lot from you, but this is my choice." Nahlia forced her shield outward, hurling the artifacts against the far walls.
Lyraina raised her hand as if to attack, but Nahlia was quicker. She struck with the top half of her staff and unleashed a storm of crystal blades.
Her mother countered with a shield of her own, blocking the attack, then throwing Nahlia back toward the entrance.
Nahlia's boots slid across the stone floor, but she kept her balance. She unscrewed the two halves of her staff. With the top, she kept up her bombardment. Then she used her Ethersmithing to move the crystals in the second half, letting it float around her mother's defenses.
She reached out mentally to the sigil, activating the shield function and hurling her mother sideways into the wall.
Lyraina crashed into the curved stone, and Nahlia ran closer, using her staff to hold the shield in place.
Fortunately, Lyraina couldn't oppose the sigils inside the staff. She and her friends had tried that the first time she'd fought Varion. Even together, they hadn't been strong enough.
"What now?" Lyraina snapped from the other side of the crystal wall. "We'll do this your way because you overpowered me? Tell me that's not Palatine's way."
Nahlia hesitated, and Lyraina shut her eyes in concentration.
Then the shield between them shattered like a pane of glass.
Aegon. She should have seen that coming.
Lyraina must have seen the surprise on her face because she explained, "Who do you think opened the palace shield?"
Before Nahlia could react again, her mother hit her with another shield of Moonshard. The blow wasn't that hard, but it still knocked her off her feet.
Nahlia scrambled forward to grab her staff, but she felt Moonfire in her veins. Her mother didn't break any of her bones, but the effort was enough to freeze her in place.
"Are you truly going to fight me over a mere philosophical difference?"Lyraina said as she stepped closer.
Nahlia tried to resist, but her mother's Moonfire dug its way deeper. Nahlia gritted her teeth, gathering her strength for another attack.
Then the weakness in her body left her, dying out like a drowned fire. Lyraina's eyes widened, and she pulled away as if she'd been slapped.
Nahlia reached out her hands and summoned both halves of her staff. They slid across the floor to land in her open hands.
Meanwhile, her mother stood perfectly still, as if she'd lost her will to fight.
Finally, after several seconds, she said, "You're pregnant."
"What?" That was the last thing Nahlia had expected to hear. "How do you..."
"We're Redeemers," Lyraina said. "We can sense life better than most. It took me a moment but..." She closed her eyes. "I sense two people in front of me. Not one."
"That's impossible," Nahlia started to say. But no ... that wasn't true. Any other time in her life, it would have been impossible, but not now.
"Was it Elias?" her mother asked.
Nahlia didn't answer. It might not be impossible, but that didn't make it true. "You're lying. You're trying to make me back down."
"You don't have to believe me," Lyraina said. "You can feel for yourself."
Nahlia lowered her eyes, pressing a hand to her own stomach beneath her layers of leather and nightsilk. She reached out with her mental senses, searching for a person to heal.
And she felt someone there.
Someone impossibly small—even smaller than a grain of rice. Warm tears fell from her eyes, and a hundred emotions warred inside of her. She couldn't go through with her plan now. Not at the cost of an innocent life.
Before either of them could say another word, footsteps echoed from outside the door.
Thane Solidor stepped inside the room, leaning on his sister for support. A dozen wounds covered them both. Ash and smoke stained their faces, and their clothes were burned beyond recognition.
Nahlia shot one last look at her mother, then she ran over to the pair, flooding them both with Moonfire.
Thane gave her a grateful smile as the open wounds faded from his face. He let go of his sister's shoulder and stood on his own two feet.
Ashara's smile was weaker, and Nahlia noticed the leather collar around her neck which glowed white from within the seams. Aegon only knew what she'd been through these past two years.
"You don't have to go through with your plan," Thane told her. "I think there's another way."
Nahlia blinked. "What?"
"What did Treluwyn tell you to do with Palatine’s Codex? What were her exact words?"
Nahlia considered that for a moment. She'd been so focused on her plan, she'd almost forgotten. "She told me to destroy it."
"Then let's destroy it." Thane looked past her to the six dark artifacts which lay scattered around the chamber. "Let's destroy them all."