Cole was sitting in his office when someone knocked on the door. Probably Yimo, judging by the sound of his staff tapping against the wood.
"Come in," he hollered across the vast chamber.
Sure enough, his bodyguard sauntered inside and gave a ridiculous bow. "Your High Imperial Majesty."
"I told you not to call me that." Cole looked around for something to throw, but he only had papers on his desk. Just as well, Yimo had a finger resting on his staff's sigil, ready to defend himself with a wall of Moonshard. Little bastard.
That weapon made him the second most powerful soldier in the city. Despite the collapse of Ethermancy, many skills remained. Not just Ethersmithing, but sigils and empathy as well. Crafting new sigils was off the table for now though—that seemed tied to Ethermancy's original form. That made Nahlia and Yimo's staves even more valuable.
The lad straightened from his bow. "Technically, you said not to call you 'Aaron.'"
"Knight Commander will do fine." They might have put him in charge of Sunfall, but he only held the one title. Politics being what they were, no one could agree on anything else.
Yimo just shrugged. "Your two o'clock appointment is here. We told her she was early, but now she's pacing like a caged lion."
Cole nodded as he pushed his papers aside. "Send her in."
His bodyguard stepped back toward the open door, ushering her in with a sweeping gesture. "Lady Raider."
A second later, Ciena Raider stepped inside the ornate office, and Yimo closed the double doors to leave them alone. As always, she wore her hair in two braids that fell halfway down her back. Dark leather armor covered the rest of her body, including a pair of gloves over her crystal hands. Those didn't need protection, but Cole understood. It was hard to keep a low profile when your fingers glowed like the setting sun.
For now, she only carried a steel katana on her hip, but it wouldn't be long until she crafted a new Etherite blade.
"Have a seat," Cole said when she reached the walnut table.
She paused before lowering herself into one of the three padded chairs. In many ways, Ciena was the exact opposite of Nahlia. She could stand on a battlefield as if she were born there, but she looked uncomfortable and awkward if you asked her to sit down.
She may have killed the world's most powerful Aeon, but she was still younger than Lyraina when they'd first married.
And there his thoughts went again, always drifting back to her. Losing Lyraina should have been easier. He'd already lost her once. And even when they'd reunited in Dragonshard, they'd spent the following years apart, each focused on their own goals. Still, in those final hours when they'd formed their soulbond ... well, he could see why Aeons were so much more emotional than humans.
And to think, someone thought it was smart to give them all supernatural powers.
Cole cleared his throat and produced the relevant papers from his drawer. He didn't bother with small talk—she wasn't the sort to appreciate it.
"Two options for your next assignment." He slid the papers to her across the table, tapping the one on his left. "We need someone to train Justicars and Ethersmiths. This would also be a research position—working to regain the skills we lost with the Codices."
Ciena narrowed her eyes."After all that work to get rid of Ethermancy, you want to train up a fresh batch?"
"Ethermancy is still here, whether we like it or not." He gestured to the center of his chest where he'd built his crystal soul. "The night I discovered this, I sent riders to the nearby outposts. I made sure the secret got out, even if we lost the war. It won't be long until the other nations get wind of the news."
He'd been through similar arguments with others, including Nahlia and Elias. They wouldn't make the same mistakes as the Archaeons—handing out powers to people who hadn't earned them or proven themselves.
But others had tried taking the opposite approach, and that hadn't worked either.
"The Council restricted this knowledge in Whitecliff." Cole let the rest of his points go unsaid. They'd both fought in that battle, after all. The White Council had feared another Palatine rising to power, but their restrictions had only weakened the law-abiding folk among their ranks.
As for Trelidor, he'd practically found raw clay on a silver platter when he'd gotten his hands on Ciena. Not to mention how Zidane had infiltrated their ranks.
"Do what you have to," Ciena said with a shrug. "Just leave me out of it. I'd rather be on the front lines. Those Palavans in Kalandell won't take care of themselves."
"That's option two." Cole tapped the second paper with his index finger. "But you won't like that one any better."
She glanced down, scanning the first few lines. "Bloody hell."
"The knowledge in your head is worth too much to have you on the front lines," Cole said. "Only your reputation compares."
"I'm no general," Ciena said. "And I'm sure as hell no negotiator. Why not ask my brother?"
"Elias has a city to run," Cole said. "If you'd rather do that, then there's always Vauldenport. Maybe we can find you a suitable match while we're at it?"
She gave him a flat look. "You know—I could just ignore your whole bloody list and head back to Raidenwood. That city's half mine, last I checked."
"You could," Cole said. "But it makes more sense to keep you and your brother separate right now. Raidenwood is in capable hands. The rest of the continent is still in chaos, and we're short on leaders."
Ciena pulled off her glove and rubbed a crystal finger over her temple. Could she actually feel her skin through those? He'd never asked.
"Still think I'll pass," she finally said. "Fighting's what I know best."
"You think I asked for this job?" Cole spread out his hands, gesturing to the ornate office. "I'd rather be running my inn in Northshire, tweaking my whisky recipe."
His advisors had suggested executing every Palavan prisoner. Clearly, they'd learned nothing from the last revolution. Cole hadn't asked to be in charge, but he shuddered to imagine what would happen if someone else were.
A flicker of movement caught his eye from outside the room's eastern window. He turned to see the Raptor's Claw pass over Sunfall's skyline. The view here wasn't as good as the imperial palace, but the palace was a crater now. In fact, 'lake' might be a better term, considering how fast the snow was melting.
"But it's not enough to win a war," he continued. "The Templars won the last war, but they kept on fighting in the name of peace. If we want real peace, we need to start with our enemies."
She lowered her crystal fingers and began tapping on his desk. "What about Rivian?"
"Haven't heard from her," Cole said. "Not since the battle two months ago."
"And your powers?"
He shook his head. "If I had to guess, I'd say the Codices were her connection to this realm. And with those gone, she's trapped again."
No doubt she'd concoct another plan to escape, but her last plan had taken centuries. Hopefully, so would this.
"Anyway, there's no need for a decision right now." Cole nodded out the window, toward the approaching airship. "Our ride is here, and we've got a wedding to get to."
Nahlia and Elias walked side by side through the streets of Redcliff Enclave. Like Raidenwood, this city had suffered its share of damage. Trelidor's airships had leveled the dojos, and those explosions had torn through half a dozen nearby homes.
Fortunately, there were no more casualties after the masters. They had her father's new bodyguard to thank for that.
"You know," Elias began, "it's definitely cold up here."
She grinned. "Especially with no Ironblood to warm your muscles. Now you know how the rest of us feel."
He paused, then tried another tactic. "Raidenwood's cold too, of course, but..."
"Just two more weeks," Nahlia said, "then we'll see each other every day." He'd been dropping hints about her moving down sooner though. As much as she loved Elias, subtlety had never been his strong suit.
"It's not like it'd be a scandal if you moved down sooner," Elias said. "You could have your own place."
Nahlia raised her eyebrows. "I had my own room on the airship, and look how that turned out."
"Can't say I regret it."He leaned over and put a hand on her stomach. She was almost three months along now, and just showing the first signs.
Nahlia tilted her head up and kissed his cheek. It was far easier to reach when he wasn't standing up straight like a city lord.
One of Elias's guards cleared his throat. Another whistled in a way that could, conceivably, pass for a bird.
A laugh escaped her lips, and she buried her face in Elias's chest to hide it. It was like he'd gone to the soldier store and ordered an exact copy of Thane's airship crew.
Elias wobbled to the side, unable to support both of them.
"Sorry!" Nahlia took a guilty step back. "I forgot."
"I'm alright." Elias gave her a flat look as he regained his balance. "I'm not made of glass." He glanced down at his feet. "Quite the opposite, really."
He wore a pair of brown leather boots that rose to his knees, but she could imagine the crystal leg beneath. Unlike Ciena's new hands, this didn't have any movable joints. Not yet, at least.
"When can I see it?" Nahlia asked.
"The wedding night," Elias said without missing a beat.
Another cough from his guards, far louder than the first.
His smile widened. "We need some surprises, right?"
"Aegon." Nahlia narrowed her eyes at their escorts, feeling her cheeks grow suddenly hot. "Don't encourage them."
"Speaking of the wedding," Elias began, "The Raptor's Claw landed in Sunfall last night. They should have left by this morning."
Nahlia perked up at that. The airship was bringing her father and Ciena to Raidenwood. Probably Yimo too, unless they'd left him in charge.
Her father had complained about his new job, but he was the perfect bridge between humans and Aeons. The humans respected him because he'd trained as a Templar, and the Aeons respected him because he'd been the first Reveran to join their ranks in a thousand years.
He was the leader they needed right now.
They continued talking as they walked. Elias told her about his efforts to rebuild Raidenwood, and the issues he faced. Fortunately, Uncle Cladius had survived the battle, and he had a mind for these sorts of things.
In turn, Nahlia shared her efforts to rebuild Redcliff, and how she'd joined Marwyn's apprentices as a healer. Healing was a lot harder without her Moonfire, but she'd been working on that too. The Cultivators had Moonfire, so she knew it was possible without the Codices. Who better to re-learn it than a former Redeemer? Unless Yimo beat her to it—now that would just be embarrassing.
Some tension remained between her and the enclave's other residents, but it was nothing they couldn't hash out with time. Especially when this land belonged to Raidenwood, and Elveron's supporters were free to leave whenever they wanted.
"I've been thinking," Nahlia began as they walked, "about what I'll do after the wedding, and once the baby's older."
Elias nodded, still looking around the enclave. "Thinking of starting your own Ethermancy academy?"
"The other nations will be re-learning it too," Nahlia said. "Valaysia already has the Cultivators. And Palavar is still a mystery. We have to keep up, or risk falling behind."
"We'd need to find the right balance," Elias said, "which won't be easy."
"But Thane and Relyn died to give us a chance." After a short pause, she added, "My mother, too."
Even after two months, their absence left an empty space in her soul. Thane and Relyn should have been here by their side, helping pick up the pieces and rebuild this world.
Lyraina hadn't been the best mother, but they'd loved each other in their own way, and Nahlia wished she could be at the wedding too.
"I'll start simple," she told Elias. "Just Moonfire." Of all the skills, that one was definitely too valuable to lose. Moonfire still had the potential for death and destruction. But unlike Nahlia, these new students wouldn't have Palatine's voice whispering in the back of their minds.
Eventually, the sun sank below the mountains, and Elias made his way back down toward the city proper. Nahlia returned to her own home in the center of Redcliff. This had been Marwyn's house before, and now she shared it with two of his apprentice healers.
Books covered every space of the main living area and even many of the bedrooms. Nahlia stepped through that forest of leather and parchment, marveling at all the knowledge at her fingertips.
And now, finally, she had time to read it all.
Her writing desk sat in front of the room's single window. An oil lamp glowed in one corner, and the last rays of twilight speared over the western mountains.
Here, she'd also gathered the complete Aeonica collection, volumes one through nine. These told the stories of the seven Archaeons—their rise to power, and then eventual downfalls. Until now, Nahlia had only read bits and pieces of the greater story, but she'd known them all by heart.
These were timeless but incomplete. The Age of Archaeons had lasted for centuries, but those were still the first chapters of a much longer story. And like all stories, it needed a proper ending.
Nahlia sat down in her wicker chair and shuffled the pages of her own project.
Aeonica, Volume Ten.
Perhaps it was presumptuous to write this herself, but she had a promise to keep.
She dipped her pen in the inkwell and continued where she'd left off the previous evening.
Nahlia told her own story. Not the story of an ideal and virtuous heroine, but the true story, including her countless failures.
She told the story of her parents, the ones who'd taken the first steps to unite the humans and Aeons.
She told the story of Elias and Ciena Raider, two of the greatest Justicars who'd ever lived.
She told the story of Relyn and Rhia Vassaj. They'd been among the first families divided by Trelidor, but they'd come together in the end when it mattered most.
Finally, she told the story of Thane Solidor, The Sanctifier who cleansed fate itself.