Thane explained his plan to Nahlia and the others. He told them about Soulfire—the Sanctifiers' own version of Ethersmithing. At least, that's how Thane saw it. Truth be told, he understood little about this new technique. Could all Sanctifiers do it, or had Thane stumbled on something more unique? As the only Sanctifier in their group, they had no way to test it.
One thing was certain though—Etherite wasn't indestructible, and that included the Codices.
"Just basic physics," Ciena had said back in Raidenwood when they'd first discovered Ethersmithing. She'd been right all along.
In turn, Nahlia caught him up on the last few minutes, and the reasons she hadn't gone through her old plan of rewriting Palatine's Codex. Hints of tension still lingered between her and Lyraina, but he could only guess why. It didn't matter now, and there wasn't time to ask. Trelidor wasn't in the palace, which meant he must be fighting Cole and the Raider twins on the front lines. Every minute they waited was another minute this war went on. That meant more lives lost on both sides. Not just strangers, but their own friends and family.
"Soulfire," Lyraina spoke for the first time in several moments. Thane had expected her to object far sooner. "I've heard of this technique, though it goes by many names."
"And?" he pressed. "Any reason it wouldn't work?"
"It's been discussed," she replied, "but only in theory. If you destroy a Codex, the destruction would spread throughout the entire city. Multiple Codices would likely destroy a sizable piece of the continent. That would certainly end the war in more ways than one."
"Could the energy be redirected back into the Ethereal?” Thane asked.
"Most of it would return to the Ethereal, yes. But little comfort that would be to the people of Sunfall."
Thane understood her meaning. "So no matter what we do, the resulting explosion would kill us all."
She nodded once. "Others have likely considered this route, but there's a reason they haven't succeeded."
Thane's mind raced, grasping for other possibilities, but none came. Similar to Aeon souls, each physical Codex was like an iceberg, only hinting at the deep well of power waiting beyond the physical realm.
"We can't avoid the explosion," Thane said. "But what if we can contain it? Moonshard can block Soulfire."
"It's true," Ashara said. "Trelidor's Redeemers held off his attacks in the courtyard."
"Indeed?" Lyraina hummed in consideration. Perhaps that is to be expected. After all, both techniques are simply Etherite in different forms.
For all the flaws of the three Orders, they'd always existed in a sort of balance with one another. The other Archaeons had built the Codices, but only Thane's Order had the power to destroy them.
"But wait," Ashara cut in, "if the Soulfire can't get through Moonshard, then how would you destroy these things?" She gestured to the artifacts which still lay scattered around the chamber. "Even if Nahlia makes a shield around them..." She trailed off, meeting Thane's eye, the unspoken question lingering on her lips.
Thane didn't reply, and the room seemed to grow several degrees colder.
"No." Ashara's blue eyes widened. "No. You can't mean it."
"This is the only way," Thane said. "Nahlia was ready to sacrifice herself to stop one Codex. This is a chance to destroy all six of them."
"You're the king of Dragonshard." Ashara's voice rose as hints of desperation broke through the cracks. "They'll need you to rebuild when the war is over.”
"Some people are born rulers," Thane said, "but bloodlines don't make kings. I inherited this title, but I never wanted it."
"It doesn't matter what you want," she snapped back. "You have a duty to Dragonshard. This is how our world works. Do you think I wanted to spend two years here as a hostage?"
"I have a duty to all of Aeondom," Thane countered.
This felt right. He didn't need to justify this war anymore. He didn't have to worry about whether he'd be a better ruler than his father or all the others between him and Kalazhan. Finally, after all this time, he'd found a way to leave this world better than when he'd entered it. He'd found a way for Clan Solidor to be more than a line of conquerors.
"Dragonshard has you," Thane told his sister. "They don't need another warlord to rule them."
"Maybe I don't want it either," Ashara said.
"Then that's your choice. Rule, or give it to someone else who wants it. But we're done letting things like fate and destiny control our actions. You've made your sacrifice already. Now it's my turn."
"There will still be wars," she said. "This won't fix everything."
"But it's a start," Lyraina said. "More importantly, it will give future generations the choices we've been denied."
Ashara looked toward Nahlia and her mother. "Is this even possible? A simple dome of Moonshard won't stop this explosion. If they're as strong as you say, they'll just burn through the ground.
"The palace shield." Nahlia also looked toward her mother. "Is it true what they say? That it extends all the way underground?"
"It's true," Lyraina said. Her expression was strangely somber, as if she were the one sacrificing something. "It looks like a dome, but it's actually a sphere."
Thane nodded as the pieces fell into place. "The shield is also powered by sigils. We wouldn't need to put our lives in one Redeemer's hands."
"I can get it working," Nahlia said. "But I can't do it alone."
Her mother nodded with visible reluctance. "Together, then."
Thane turned back toward his sister, reaching out his hand to clasp her wrist. She took his hand, then pulled him into an embrace.
"Go," he told her. "Be the leader Dragonshard deserves."
Then, after several seconds, he turned to Nahlia. "Tell Relyn..."
"I will," Nahlia nodded, and her voice seemed on the verge of breaking too. "I'll make sure people remember this. I'll write the story myself if I have to."
They left him alone after that, and he reached out with his mental senses, feeling the dark artifacts. Somehow, a piece of his mind understood how to disassemble them. Perhaps this was a failsafe the Archaeons had intended. Or perhaps this was Aegon's intervention at last, coming to aid them in their final hour.
He shot another glance down the hallway, watching the others retreat. A part of him had hoped to see Relyn one last time. He knew what it felt like to lose the person you loved most, and he hated the idea of leaving her alone in this world.
Another part of him was glad he didn't see her there. She might have convinced him to change his mind, and then all of Aeondom would suffer for it.
At least we'll see each other in Eternity.
Nahlia's boots slipped through the snow as they crossed the bridge, putting the palace behind them. Sweat covered her forehead despite the winter chill, and her breath came in ragged gasps. They'd been fighting all night, and the sun had finally shown its face in the east—a faint glow of orange behind the city skyline.
I'm not going to die, she realized. Not if we succeed.
With that realization, everything around her seemed more beautiful than it had before. She'd thought she'd never see another sunrise. She'd come to this place in a blur of determination and resolve, never processing what it all meant.
But it's not over yet.
The bridge ended at the palace's main gate. Ashara and the Templars continued further down the thoroughfare, leaving Nahlia alone with her mother. Her eyes scanned the other exits where soldiers and staff escaped over the river. Nahlia's own soldiers had told them to get as far from the palace as they could. But if she failed, then nowhere would be safe. Nowhere on this side of Revera, at least.
She knelt in the snow, still gasping for breath. Her mother handed her a canteen, and she took a good long swallow.
"I've contacted your father," Lyraina said. "He's reconnecting the other power source as we speak."
Nahlia almost coughed on her water. "You ... what?" Aegon. She'd been the first one in her family to learn Ethermancy, and now both her parents were outdoing her.
Her mother nodded, but her thoughts seemed elsewhere. "We formed a soulbond rather quickly tonight."
Nahlia wiped her mouth dry and climbed to her feet, still surveying the scene. A river surrounded the palace in a perfect circle. A ring of metal and stone bordered that river, and this ring held the sigils that controlled the shield.
Lyraina strode forward and pressed her palm to the ring. "We have the energy," she said, "now we must use it."
Nahlia drew in a breath, trying to focus on anything but the enormity of the task. Back in the palace, she'd forced herself to sound confident for Thane's sake. But could they really do this? Trelidor had taken weeks to activate the shield, and he was the most powerful Aeon alive. Even Lyraina hadn't denied that.
We can, she told herself. We have to.
And once the shield was up, Thane would give them the best possible future for all of Aeondom. One last act of Ethermancy to save them from themselves.
Nahlia followed her mother's lead and placed her own hands on the massive construct. Her previous experience with sigils had extended to Varion's staff—just a single weapon. Meanwhile, this seemed big enough to cover all of Northshire.
"Do you feel it?" Her mother asked, still pressing her hands to the construct. "All the sigils are one. The power flows from one to the next. All it needs is your will."
Nahlia poured every ounce of her willpower into the current. She focused on her desire to preserve and protect. Not just her family and friends, but all the people of Sunfall. All the soldiers who fought on both sides of the war. Many of them had made mistakes—Templars and Palavans alike. But she didn't choose sides now.
Tonight, as the Age of Redeemers ended, she remembered her Order's original ideals. Not to take part in wars, but to fight war itself.
Blades of Moonshard erupted from the sigils, arcing toward Eternity. Nahlia kept her eyes shut, but she saw the shape take form in her mind's eye. She felt the same thing happen underground as the crystal encased the palace in a complete sphere.
She pushed harder—feeling the construct as a single piece rather than a thousand smaller sigils. Even then, she didn't focus on the physical pieces themselves. She focused on their greater purpose, and all the people she wanted to save. Her thoughts swirled through the current, moving with her mother's like two parts of a symphony. Together, they redirected the energy, filling in the gaps to achieve perfect balance.
When Nahlia opened her eyes again, a massive dome of crystal light towered over them. Staring at it was like staring down a mountain from its base. The sight sent her head spinning, so she focused on the ring instead.
There, a single doorway sat open in the otherwise seamless crystal dome. It was even narrower than the stone bridge—ten feet across at the most.
"It can only be closed from the inside," Lyraina said.
"What?" Nahlia glanced at her mother, then back toward the opening. "Why?"
"This shield was made to keep attackers out. The emperors couldn't risk being trapped inside their own palace."
The older woman stepped forward, and Nahlia saw her intention. Before she could object, Lyraina spoke again. "Listen to me—there's a chance the shield may not contain the explosion. When Thane destroys the Codices, you need to keep the construct together. Give it everything you have."
Two more steps, and Lyraina crossed the threshold inside the crystal dome. She turned around and met Nahlia's eyes again. "You were right about my plan. It never would have worked."
Nahlia swallowed, feeling her throat suddenly dry. "You made the right choice in the end. That's all that matters."
Lyraina lowered her eyes as she fed her will into the final sigil. "I love you, and I'm proud of you."
Thane gathered the power of the Codices into his soul. Before, the six artifacts had been perfect spheres of black Etherite. Now they slid apart like pieces of some intricate puzzle, and the movement revealed the glowing light within.
Soulfire swirled around the room, destroying everything it touched. Stone pillars broke apart, turning to dust like sandcastles in a storm. The walls and ceiling crumbled next, and his surroundings blurred as the three realms collided.
In that moment, Thane saw a hundred places in one. The world shifted to reveal lush forests and barren deserts. He saw the snowy peaks of Whitecliff, the beaches of Dragonshard, and the gray canyons of Raidenwood.
The artifacts opened further, and he saw the Archaeon's faces in the fire.
Palatine and Treluwyn. Kalazhan and Vaulden. Raiden and Vashet. Six figures stood equidistant around the space where the room had once been.
Even as the Soulfire swirled around him, time slowed to a crawl, and a cluster of flames gathered to form a seventh figure in the dreamscape.
But no ... this figure was a young woman. The fire became flesh, muscle, and bone as she took shape in front of him. Jet black hair fell in long waves past her shoulders. Her skin was as dark as Kira's had been, and her eyes were the same shade of ocean blue. Other features reminded him more of Relyn, though he couldn't say how.
Thane looked away. The sight was too much—a reminder of what he'd lost, and what he still had to lose.
"Expecting someone else?" the stranger spoke in a voice that didn't fit her appearance. And Thane knew who stood before him. Despite her carefully crafted features, those eyes were ancient and knowing. The last living Archaeon.
Cole had warned them about this. She'd been biding her time in the shadows, waiting for a chance to escape her prison between realms. Now, the Codices had come together, releasing enough power to open that prison.
"What did you think would happen?" Rivian took a step forward, even as the rest of the chamber remained frozen in place. "Did you think you would step into the afterlife and meet your creator? There is nothing beyond this world for those who die. You must ascend, and I can help you."
Another step. "Many fought for this honor tonight. But only you succeeded, Thane Solidor. You were the best of them. You command more power than any living Aeon, and I can give you even more."
Space and time twisted around him as the realms came further together. The air itself felt like a bowstring—as if the slightest touch could send everything falling apart. With each passing second, Rivian's body became more lifelike.
"Go to hell," Thane said through gritted teeth. Rivian needed the Codices to escape her prison. That was the reason she'd stopped his destruction. Even if that wasn't true, he'd seen the cost of power. He'd seen it all his life, from his own family to Alexel Trelidor himself.
The only real victory was to stop playing the game.
Rivian only smiled. "What makes you think you have a choice?"
Thane tried to redirect the flames toward his enemy, but they remained frozen in place. How powerful must someone be to warp the space between realms? To slow time itself? How had the other Archaeons imprisoned someone like this?
Thane could still move his own body, but he carried no weapons. Even the Soulfire returned to the Codices, erasing everything he'd already done.
Rivian reached out, and her finger nearly grazed his. All she had to do was touch him, and Thane knew she would win.
A burst of wind tore past his right cheek, followed by a flash of jade green light. A crystal arrow took Rivian between the eyes. Thane felt another burst of wind from his left, and the second arrow curved around him and plunged into the Archaeon's chest.
Her body broke apart in clouds of smoke and dust, like someone passing from the Ethereal back to the physical realm.
Thane spun around, but there was no one there in the broken doorway. A heartbeat later, Relyn dropped her shroud of invisibility.
Tears flooded Thane's eyes at the sight of her—here of all places. His body shook with a wave of chills, flooding him with equal parts relief and regret.
Relyn lowered her bow as she ran toward Thane, crushing him with a hug.
"Do it," she shouted with enough conviction for both of them. "Before she comes back."
Thane reached out to the fire, and the flames obeyed him once again. Soulfire surrounded them like a tornado, shattering each Codex into oblivion, engulfing their surroundings in pure white.
He pulled back just far enough to meet Relyn's eyes. No words passed between them in that final moment—she only held his gaze to reassure him she understood.
Thane stood there with his wife, holding her tight as history repeated itself one last time.