Read a sample from THE LIGHT OF ALL THAT FALLS by James Islington

The Light of All That Falls is an epic fantasy blockbuster from James Islington, concluding the story that began in his international bestseller The Shadow of What Was Lost.

Prologue

The blizzard howled around Caeden, shading the world a merciless, freezing white.

He scraped icy flakes from his vision and bowed his head, trudging onward and downward against the ferocious gale that raged up the mountainside, each lungful sharp and every step sodden. He had been walking for what felt like hours; it couldn’t be far now. Impossible as it was to make a portal directly into Alkathronen—and though the Builders’ last city was hidden even to kan—he felt confident that he had opened his Gate close by.

Fairly confident, anyway.

He focused, filtering out the knifing cold and briefly extending a shield of Essence around himself, creating a bubble that sluiced through the snow ahead in a brief, hissing cloud of steam. Using even that much of his power was a risk. He needed as much time in Alkathronen as possible before anyone knew he was here, and the Venerate had taken a fresh Trace from him during his torture in Ilshan Gathdel Teth a year ago.

Caeden shook the grim memory from his mind, shrugging the heavy coil of rope more securely onto his shoulder and leaning hard into the cutting wind as he let his Essence shield drop again. A few more steps and a hazy glow began to reveal itself in the white; a minute later he was stumbling into the abrupt calm of the canyon, the sound of distantly crashing water finally reaching his ears as the flakes in the air became distinct, their movement easing from diagonal slash to gentle downward drift.

Two enormous, parallel waterfalls resolved themselves, one on either side of the path ahead, bolts of blue energy streaking along their perfectly sheer, shimmering facades. The road itself was mercifully dry, snow dissipating in tiny puffs of steam wherever it touched the stone surface. Caeden felt his body relax slightly as the reprieve of warmth began to press against his frozen cheeks.

He reached up and pushed back his tightly drawn hood, allowing the gentle heat in the air access to the rest of his face as he looked around warily. This was the central hub for the Builders’ works, the point from which they had built portals to each of their wonders. Alaris had needed to remind him of that, the last time he was here, but it was clear in his mind now as he studied the symbols inscribed on the edges of the road. Recognized them. Understood their purpose.

Knowledge like that didn’t surprise him anymore. He had recovered much during this past year of isolated observation and planning—almost all his memories, he thought—even if his mind still shied away from reliving the specifics of his history as clearly as it once had.

The latter, he had to admit, pleased him almost as much as the former.

He pressed forward, quick now that the deep drifts no longer hampered his progress, sensation returning to his limbs with a sharp prickling as he walked. The glow of Alkathronen up ahead formed a shielding dome against the blizzard, even as it exposed the city’s utter emptiness.

Caeden slowed as he passed the symbol marking the portal to Ilin Illan, pushing down another shudder of doubt over his decision to come here. It was a risk to expose himself like this, rash, even, and yet . . . it was time. Davian had been a prisoner for a year now. That meant he was about to be sent to Zvaelar.

Which, by all estimates, gave Caeden less than a month to prepare.

He pressed on. The remaining Venerate had not been idle since his escape: Davian had warned him of Gassandrid’s idle boast, so as soon as he’d remembered, Caeden had chanced sneaking into the Andarran capital to see if it was true. Sure enough, a disturbing number of the people he had observed there were showing the subtle mental markers. Hundreds had been Read, now. Maybe thousands.

Gassandrid, Alaris, and Diara were leaving no stone unturned in their scouring the country for him—or, more to the point, for Ashalia’s whereabouts.

He’d anticipated that, of course, and had done what he could to make sure that there were no clues to find, removing even the memories of his presence whenever he did have to venture away from the Wells. Unfortunately, it had also meant not risking any contact with his friends in Andarra. The Venerate almost certainly knew of them now, would be watching them closely.

He cast another longing glance back at the Builders’ symbol for Ilin Illan. That enforced isolation, in the face of what he knew was coming, had been hard . . . but it also meant that Karaliene, Wirr, and the others were relatively safe. The Venerate might have come within a breath of breaching the ilshara, but they were nothing if not patient—and would be even more so now that Caeden’s brief capture a year ago had handed them Licanius. They would not attack their own bait.

Not so long as it was bait that they believed served a purpose, anyway.

The uneasiness of that thought clung to him as he came to a halt in front of the massive white archway that marked access to Alkathronen itself. He closed his eyes and focused on it. Sure enough, the subtle, crisscrossing lines of kan were there, blocking the only path inside.

He stood for a moment longer, hesitating.

Then he stepped beneath the towering stone, disrupting the near-invisible strands, the air shivering around him in response. Alaris would know that he was here, now.

The only real question was whether he would tell the others.

He stared in absent worry at the burbling fountains that adorned Alkathronen’s entrance, then shook his head and started toward the east-facing cliff.

Either way, he had little time remaining and much still to do.

* * *

Caeden fed more Essence into the heatstone, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.

He held his hands out toward the waist-high cylindrical Vessel and seated himself atop a low white wall, finally allowing himself to rest. Several of these heatstones dotted the city, perfectly integrated into the aesthetics and yet somehow always easy to spot. Stoked with a little Essence, they emitted warmth well beyond that which Alkathronen already provided—an especially welcome function right now, given Caeden’s groaning muscles, rope-burned hands, and snow-sodden clothes.

He could have fixed all of that quite easily, of course, but he also knew that he would need every bit of Essence in his Reserve soon enough.

He stared absently over at the eastward edge of the city, where the soft glow of Essence held back the thrashing white that raged just beyond. The storm had worsened since he’d arrived. That hadn’t made his work over the past five hours any easier, but it would be to his advantage if it kept up now.

He shifted to warm the other side of his body, switching his gaze to the arrow-straight road leading into Alkathronen’s center. He could see where the snow failed to melt, the flickering and waning Essence in the distance revealing a steadily deepening white.

He shivered as he watched that unsteady illumination, not wanting to think about the last time he’d been here. It was rarely far from his mind, though—still impossible to ignore both what he had learned then, and what he had done since.

Isiliar had been his friend, and he had knowingly left her to be driven insane.

And then—after she had finally been set free—he had killed her.

“You look unhappy, Tal’kamar.”

Caeden started at the voice. Then he steeled himself and stood, turning and nodding a greeting to the tall, chiseled man who was standing across the street from him.

“You’re not wrong,” he conceded to Alaris, the quiet words carrying easily in the dead hush. He didn’t smile, but he made certain not to appear hostile, either. “I am glad you came, though.”

Alaris’s blue eyes were locked on him. The other man at first glance looked relaxed, but there was discomfort to his stance. Wariness.

“A promise to a friend is a promise that cannot be broken,” said Alaris. He studied Caeden. “And I want very much to believe that we are still friends, Tal. Despite.”

“As do I.” Caeden meant the words. Still, he couldn’t help but let his gaze flick to the silent streets behind Alaris, processing just how quickly the other man had come. “I wasn’t expecting you for a while yet.”

Gassandrid was the only one of the remaining Venerate who could make a Gate, and there was a strict code of accountability for all trips outside the ilshara. For Alaris to have kept his word to Caeden and not told the others about this meeting, he would have needed an excuse to leave—a very convenient one, to have employed it at such short notice. Caeden had planned for having mere hours before Alaris’s arrival, but in truth had expected days.

“I am alone,” Alaris assured him, noting the glance. “Gass was already expecting to send me out for . . . something else. The timing simply matched up.”

Caeden frowned at that—what business did Alaris have that would bring him so close to an Alkathronen portal?— but he knew the other man well enough to believe him. He slowly, carefully unbuckled the blade at his side, then tossed it onto the ground between them. “Good. Because I am here to talk.”

Alaris nodded as he eyed the steel thoughtfully, but did not discard his own weapon.

Caeden gestured to the bench on the opposite side of the heatstone; when Alaris was seated, the two watched each other mutely before Caeden finally blew out his cheeks, trying to find the right way to start this conversation.

“The last time we were here,” he began, “you said to come back when the Lyth had been dealt with. You said that if I wanted to understand both sides of this fight, you would be willing to have that discussion.” Alaris leaned forward with something like hope in his eyes, but Caeden quickly shook his head. “I wish to be up front, my friend. I have remembered enough now to make that discussion unnecessary. I am not on your master’s side of this, and I never will be again.”

Alaris’s expression twisted. “I am . . . saddened to hear that. Unsurprised, but . . . still.” His shoulders slumped, a bitter note entering his tone. “If you are no longer interested in my perspective, Tal, then what is this about?”

The disappointment in his friend’s voice hurt, but Caeden pressed on. “An offer. An exchange.”

Alaris snorted. “If you are talking about Licanius—”

“Of course I’m not.” Caeden spoke the words softly. He already knew exactly where Licanius was, anyway. “I want you to free Davian. In exchange, I will tell you where Cyr’s Tributary is, and I will not stop you retrieving him from it.”

Silence greeted the statement, Alaris’s brow furrowing as he considered what Caeden had said.

“Why?” He shook his head bemusedly. “I know you need both Cyr and Davian dead to close the rift, and Cyr is by far the harder of the two to kill. Even more so if you set him free.”

Caeden kept his expression smooth. Cyr had gone to his Tributary willingly—had been convinced of the truth about Shammaeloth and had volunteered—but the other Venerate didn’t know that. They assumed that he was a prisoner, as Meldier and Isiliar had been.

“Because I made a promise to Davian,” Caeden replied firmly. “And I cannot rescue him—not from Ilshan Gathdel Teth, not with you standing against me. I am not as strong as you. I never was.” He said the words simply, without self-pity or false modesty.

Alaris gazed at him. “A smart man might take this to mean that Davian is more important than Cyr, in some way that we are not currently aware.”

“A smart man would realize that I would never have proposed such a trade if that were the case. This is about me trying to keep my word, Alaris—that is all. I’m trying to be the man I aspire to be, rather than the man you knew.” Caeden leaned forward. “We both know that I kill Davian—that is not something that can be undone, regardless of how long you hold him.” The thought still turned his stomach, even a year after his learning the fact, but he made sure not to show it. “On the other hand, neither of us knows Cyr’s fate. So it is a good offer, Alaris. One that I will not make again.”

Alaris stared at the heatstone for a while, obviously considering.

“Can you hear yourself, Tal?” he asked suddenly. He looked up, and there was a haunted aspect to his gaze as he stared at Caeden. “You say you did not come here to talk about this, but . . . the man you aspire to be? You want to exchange one friend—whom you imprisoned for two thousand years—with another, and your argument for my accepting the trade is that I already know you will kill one of them anyway.” He gave a tired, bitter laugh. “Yet you are so certain that you are the one on the right path, and that the rest of us have been misled.”

Caeden scowled. “I suppose you think that you and the others are less stained, somehow?”

“Yes.” Alaris said the word matter‑of‑factly. “We act knowing that all that is done will be undone, Tal—that our actions against others do not matter, unless you succeed. We are not the ones bent on protecting a broken, imprisoned world and killing the people we love.”

Caeden opened his mouth to retort, then stopped himself with a weary shake of his head.

“No,” he said quietly. “No more, Alaris. No more trying to sow doubt. No more dredging up arguments that we have already had, or distracting me with questions to which I gave you my answers centuries ago. Shame on you for that. Shame on you for trying to take advantage of my ignorance.” He stared at the other man steadily, letting him see how heartfelt was his own disappointment. “The fact is, I know what I believe now. I remember why all of this is necessary. I remember that you refuse to consider that the creature we know as El has been deceiving us. I remember. So let us just . . . skip this part, this time.”

Alaris’s expression twitched, and Caeden saw that his rebuke had struck home. Good.

There was silence.

“It really is you this time, isn’t it, Tal,” Alaris said ruefully. He rubbed his face tiredly. “Davian for Cyr, then. Let me . . . think a few moments on it.”

Silence fell again; Caeden studied Alaris, loath to ask but too concerned not to. “How is he?”

Alaris hesitated.

“Well enough,” he said. “He has created some . . . unique politics, though, as I am sure you can imagine. Gassandrid wishes to educate, while Diara . . . Diara wishes to punish. Knowing who he is and what will happen to him—what he will do—has made some of their arguments quite compelling.” He held Caeden’s gaze. “But he is still under my jurisdiction. And for now, as far as I am concerned, he is simply one more person who needs protecting from you.”

Caeden felt his jaw tighten at that, but said nothing.

Alaris watched him thoughtfully. “While we are being civil . . .” “If you have things to say, then I am happy to listen.”

Alaris just nodded to himself, evidently having expected no less. He reached into a pocket and drew out something small and thickly wrapped; the cloth was white but as Alaris began to remove the covering, Caeden saw the inner layers were sodden with some kind of green, viscous liquid. Soon the last piece fell to the ground with a damp slap, but it still took Caeden a few moments to realize what Alaris was holding.

“Where did you get this?” Alaris tossed the ruined remains of the Portal Box to him. “Clearly none of us made it.”

Caeden’s heart skipped a beat as he caught the Vessel, and he barely avoided displaying his relief as he examined it; getting to confirm its destruction was a gift, though Alaris couldn’t have known that. The cube’s once-bronze surface was now a slick black, the inscriptions worn off, a piece of the metal oozing away even as he held it.

Caeden had remembered early on that Talan Gol would corrupt the Vessel, as it did almost all such devices trapped for any length of time within the ilshara. But the Portal Box had been especially powerful. Unique. He hadn’t been certain that it would decay in the same way.

“The Lyth,” said Caeden, seeing no advantage to lying. “I stole it from them.” He shrugged at Alaris’s raised eyebrows.

Alaris gave a chuckle at that, shaking his head. “That is a story I would very much like to hear one day.”

“One day,” agreed Caeden. He let his gaze return to the rotting Vessel in his hand, regret heavy in his chest. Another reminder of just how badly he had used his friend. As Malshash, Caeden had linked Davian to the Portal Box, manipulating him into delivering it after Caeden’s memories were erased—all because Davian was the only one Caeden had been certain would live to do so.

He’d drawn Davian into all of this, knowing that he would ultimately die at Caeden’s hand. Because he would die at Caeden’s hand, and therefore not any sooner.

He pushed both the thought and the decayed box to one side, carefully wiping his hands, tempted to again try to convince Alaris of why it had been corrupted in the first place. The other Venerate believed that the degradation of Vessels in Talan Gol, and in fact the very barrenness of the land itself, was an effect of the Boundary: something built into its machinery to make it a more effective means of imprisonment.

It wasn’t. Caeden himself had allied with Andrael to devise the ilshara, and its purpose had only ever been to delay El’s march to Deilannis, to force the other Venerate to stop and join him in questioning whether their faith had become blind. And yet, even when they’d believed that Caeden was still on their side—that he’d been an unwilling participant in Andrael’s machinations—Alaris and the others had been quick with their excuses. They’d claimed that Andrael must have added to the ilshara’s anchoring Vessels before handing them over to the Darecians, or that possibly the Darecians themselves had modified them.

The Venerate were intelligent men and women, and yet somehow unable to even entertain the possibility that the ongoing, contained presence of their god was the true problem.

Such was Shammaeloth’s nature, though. Those who were most steeped in his corruption somehow had the hardest time seeing it—something for which Caeden could barely blame them. He knew that myopic haze all too well.

Alaris abruptly shook his head.

“My answer is no, Tal.”

Caeden stared blankly, then breathed out heavily as he understood. Alaris had chosen to reject the deal for Davian’s release.

“Why?”

Alaris gestured helplessly. “Because you only came here after you realized that you couldn’t beat me in Ilshan Gathdel Teth. Because I cannot see the upside of this for you, which means that you must be concealing it.” He paused, sounding desolate now. “But most of all? Because after Is . . . I know that you are not the man you once were. You may have the memory of our friendship, Tal’kamar, but I am no longer convinced that you are my friend.”

Caeden felt his heart wrench, and he struggled to find the words to respond.

“You cannot know how sorry I am to hear that,” he said finally, not bothering to conceal the pain in his voice. “But you are making a mistake, Alaris.”

Alaris’s expression didn’t change. “I will exchange Davian for the location of Ashalia’s Tributary. Nothing less.”

“No.”

“Then we have nothing further to discuss.” Alaris stood stiffly. “I gave you my word that I would let you leave Alkathronen, Tal, and I meant it. But the moment you are gone from this city, we are enemies. There will be no other parleys like this.”

Caeden stood, too, then walked over to his blade and stooped, picking it up off the stone with a slight metallic scraping.

Then he slowly, deliberately leveled it at Alaris.

“I know,” he said softly.

Alaris stared at him in indignant disbelief, and Caeden hated the guilt that look stirred in him. The two men remained motionless; then Alaris was shifting smoothly, giving himself room as he reluctantly drew his own sword.

“I suppose I should be grateful that you didn’t wait until my back was turned,” said Alaris, holding his blade at the ready. “At least that much of you remains.” He sounded more tired than anything else, though his eyes were hard. “Whatever advantages you think you have here over Ilshan Gathdel Teth, Tal, you’ve miscalculated. I have no doubt that you have been busy laying the groundwork against me, setting your traps, but you said it yourself—you expected to have longer. Mere hours was never going to be enough.”

Caeden didn’t acknowledge the statement, keeping his blade up and cautiously beginning to circle. Alaris matched the motion.

“One last chance, Tal. Walk away. You do not have one of Andrael’s Blades, so even if you have some other Vessel I don’t know about, you cannot hope to win. And I will not let you escape this time.” When Caeden still didn’t respond, Alaris sighed, looking stuck between melancholy and frustration. “Then answer me one last question, before we end this and you are locked away forever.”

Caeden kept pacing. “Ask.”

Alaris’s gaze never left Caeden’s as they continued their slow, cautious dance. “I know that shape-shifting is simple enough for you, after all that practice a century ago—and I know that most of your memories must have come back by now, too. So why return to this body? Why not your own?”

Caeden almost hesitated at that. He’d asked himself something similar, in the days after Davian had decapitated him to free him from Ilshan Gathdel Teth. Wondered why he had felt so driven to change back, despite the accompanying pain. Despite his other options.

He had eventually found the answer, though.

“Because it’s who I am now,” he replied.

His blade flashed down toward Alaris’s right arm; there was a blur and then the clash of steel as Alaris slid aside and parried, the sound echoing through the silence of Alkathronen. Caeden swayed smoothly back as the counter came, swift and clinical, slicing the air where his shoulder had been a moment earlier.

Caeden pressed the attack with a flurry of quick, light strikes, nerves taut as he kept his breathing steady, quickly assessing his best course of action. Alaris’s Disruption shield was already in place, just as Caeden’s was, preventing kan attacks almost entirely. Each man had stepped outside of time, too; the snow that had been drifting gently downward was now frozen in place, suspended between them, glittering ethereally as each flake refracted the Essence-light of the city.

He broke off, exhaling hard, his frozen breath drifting outward and then gathering in place as it left his time bubble. This was an even match where kan and Essence were concerned, bringing it once again down to a physical contest.

A contest in which Alaris was invincible.

Alaris didn’t give him long to think; the muscular man was suddenly pressing forward, the wicked edge of his blade flashing in a mesmerizing, fluid dance of motion as it blurred at Caeden again and again and again, each strike whispering past skin or barely turned aside by desperate, flicking parries. Alaris wasn’t as talented as Isiliar, not as creative or unpredictable in his attacks. But he was still very, very good.

Caeden flooded his legs with Essence and propelled himself forcefully backward, skidding hard to a stop along the perfectly smooth white stone street almost fifty feet away. Alaris was already in motion, stalking toward him and closing the distance rapidly; Caeden extended his time bubble wide, tapped his Reserve and sent a torrent of Essence at the nearest building, wrenching a large portion of stone from the facade and hurling it into Alaris’s path. Alaris leaped high, clearing the enormous piece of masonry easily as it embedded itself in the road where he had been about to tread, continuing his approach as if nothing had happened.

“This is pointless, Tal,” he shouted over the crumbling roar of the collapsing building to his left.

Some of Alkathronen’s Essence lines had broken open; Caeden used kan to snatch energy from the air and then twisted it tight, hurling a brilliant ball at the oncoming man before launching himself forward after it, low and hard. The Essence dissipated as soon as it struck Alaris’s Disruption shield, but it had served its purpose; Alaris slashed blindly at the air, anticipating the follow‑up attack but not where it would strike. Caeden skidded swiftly past the other man, shielding his body against the ground with Essence and slashing hard across Alaris’s knee as the other man’s steel carved through the space just above his head.

Alaris snarled as Caeden’s blade ricocheted off the Venerate’s impenetrable skin, sending a shiver down Caeden’s arm even with his Essence-enhanced strength. A small blow, almost petty, which was why Alaris hadn’t anticipated it—but it was the sort of thing that would irritate him, frustrate and cause hesitation. Slow him down just a fraction and keep him distracted.

Alaris barely faltered at the strike, spinning and unleashing a furious burst of flashing, whisper-thin Essence attacks. Caeden scrambled to his feet and flung up a solid layer of kan just in time, absorbing the strikes; though Caeden’s Disruption shield was tight, it was always shifting, and some of those near-invisible golden needles would likely have slipped through.

The ground beneath Caeden’s feet trembled and he threw himself backward just in time; the road where he’d been standing ripped away in a shower of rubble and fine white dust. He rolled, the shattering sound of stone against stone painfully loud in his ears as Alaris used the chunk of street like a hammer, leaving a crater five feet wide in the spot where Caeden had just been.

Caeden scrambled to his feet, gasping, and launched himself forward once again.

Everything was a miasma of running and dodging and thundering destruction after that.

Twice Caeden completely lost track of where they were, the buildings around him disintegrating in massive, terrifying, roaring clouds as one or the other of them ripped shreds from the structures, then used the freed Essence that had been flowing through Alkathronen to tear away even more. Each time he managed to reorient himself, though, diving in for an exchange in steel and then flinging himself away so that the battle gradually, painfully drew closer to where he needed it to be. He fought as defensively as he could without being obvious, but still his body began to accumulate deeper and deeper cuts, ones that required more and more Essence to heal. With every agonizing blow he absorbed, he could feel his Reserve steadily dwindling, and it simply wasn’t enough to snatch more from the city around him.

Alaris was winning.

An Essence-enhanced leap over a shattered fountain finally brought him within sight of the low wall that marked the eastern edge of the city. Normally the view would be breathtaking, but beyond the wall the blizzard still raged, nothing but driven white snow against black night past the near-invisible protective dome that lay across Alkathronen.

Caeden forced Essence into his legs again and ran parallel to the barrier, lungs burning and breath coming in short, sharp gasps, skidding and angling down an alleyway as stone screeched and roared and shattered in his wake. If he were stronger, if he had had more time to prepare, he might have been able to make this trap less obvious.

But that wasn’t an option, now. He was dangerously close to spent.

When he finally reached the long public square that ended at the eastern wall—probably a marketplace once, undamaged as yet and perfectly lit—he slid to a stop, turning and raising an Essence shield against another barrage of stone. The shield flickered; pieces of rubble cut through it, striking Caeden in the chest and leg, breaking bone and piercing deep into muscle. He snarled in pain, stumbling back until he was leaning against the waist-high wall that marked the edge of Alkathronen’s dome, then dropping his shield and snatching Essence from a nearby illuminating line. He forced the energy into his wounds, flinching as more streaking stone pierced the cloud of grit that blanketed the open space, flying perilously close to his head.

The veil of dust eventually cleared to show Alaris at the opposite edge of the square, obviously favoring one leg and looking tired, but otherwise no less determined than when they had started. The air was acrid with the smell of shattered masonry; Caeden gave a racking cough and wiped sweat mingled with grime from his brow, his hands slick and smeared with gray. The two men’s gazes met.

There was a pause, a silent acknowledgment. Caeden let his shoulders slump, even as his pulse quickened.

“It was always going to end this way, Tal,” called Alaris, limping forward into the square. “You need to—”

Caeden activated the endpoint of his Vessel.

The outline of a wolf’s head—something he’d been compelled to add despite the extra time it took, thanks to the binding all of the Venerate had agreed to millennia earlier—sprang to life beneath Alaris’s feet across the breadth of the square, instantly draining every other Essence line and plunging the surrounding area into pitch blackness.

There was a deep cracking sound, and Caeden had only a moment to see Alaris’s face illuminated by the wolf’s head on the ground, the other man’s eyes wide, before the ground caved beneath him and the buildings that rose on all three sides smashed inward.

Even expecting it as he was, Caeden sagged back against the wall as the square exploded with a painful and disorienting roar; Alaris vanished as chunks of stone thundered at terrifying, dizzying speeds toward where he had been standing, as if drawn by some unthinkably powerful vortex. Within moments a pile of debris two stories high and just as wide had formed a tightly packed mound, barely visible within the eerily lit roiling clouds that now surrounded it.

An uneasy peace descended. The wolf’s head—what was still visible of it—faded as quickly as it had appeared, shrouding the scene in darkness for a few seconds before the illuminating lines of Essence sprang back to life, regaining their access to Alkathronen’s deep Cyrarium.

Caeden painfully hauled himself up to sit atop the low wall, letting his back rest against the net of Essence that prevented anyone from falling over the edge. He knew that if the blizzard were not obscuring the view behind him, he would be able to see the dizzying, sheer drop, though not where it ended more than three thousand feet below. Like the walls of Fedris Idri, this cliff—and the others surrounding the peak upon which Alkathronen was built—was perfectly smooth, glass-like, impenetrable by steel and impossible to scale.

He caught his breath as he gazed at the wreckage in front of him. The kan machinery had worked exactly as he’d hoped.

But he knew it had been rushed. Crude.

Obvious.

Some of the smaller stones atop the mound began to trickle down the sides, shattering the silence with their skittering.

Caeden watched wearily, not moving as one of the larger boulders began to tremble and then fall away, crashing aside as those beneath it steadily, impossibly lifted upward. Flashes of golden Essence shone through the cracks, brighter and brighter until the steadily expanding dome of energy pushed aside the final massive chunks of stone, the man in the center of it climbing out of the sinkhole Caeden’s Vessel had created and then limping toward him.

“Here is what I do not understand,” said Alaris calmly when he was within hearing range, letting his Essence shield drop as the last pieces of rubble slid off it and to the ground with a dull, clinking rattle. “Even if the kan lines hadn’t been thick enough for me to spot them. Even if this had worked and I was buried beneath all that stone. Forced to sleep for, what—a week? Two, maybe, before I healed? What were you hoping to do? Mount an assault on Ilshan Gathdel Teth straight away while I lay there?” He shook his head, moving stiffly but advancing inexorably toward Caeden. “It stinks of desperation, Tal. Sloppiness. You are reaching the end of your ideas, and I think you know it.”

Caeden said nothing to that, the ache of the fight still deep in his bones. From his position atop the wall, he could see the slowly dissipating clouds of dust highlighted by wildly flickering Essence, like lightning in the clouds of a fierce storm. Through it all was just . . . destruction. A full quarter of the Builders’ last city, gone.

Sadness settled heavy in his chest at the loss.

Alaris saw Caeden’s expression as he limped to a stop, perhaps twenty feet from where Caeden was sitting. His voice softened, though it still held accusation. “A pointless demise,” he agreed quietly. “The oldest, most perfect city in the world, and we have erased it. All of its beauty, its history. I never understood why the Builders did not lay better protections against such destruction. El knows they could have.”

“Asar once told me that they did it because nothing is truly beautiful unless it can be lost,” said Caeden idly as he gazed out over the rubble. “We forget that sometimes, Alaris.”

Alaris suddenly frowned, eyeing Caeden as if only just realizing where he was sitting.

“Don’t be a fool, Tal. We both know that your head needs to be cut off,” he said, tone suddenly cautious, stretching out a hand as if to pull him back from the edge by will alone.

“From this height, without using Essence to protect myself? Same thing,” Caeden assured him. He smiled wearily at his friend. “So I guess this one is a draw.”

Icy wind and driving snow whipped the nape of his neck as he used kan to dissipate a small section of Alkathronen’s dome; the expected thread of Essence stretched outward to save him but he cut that off with kan, too, feeling more than hearing Alaris’s cry of frustration as he did so.

He rolled backward.

Chill hands immediately ripped at his skin, the protection of Alkathronen vanished. The wind roared in his ears, and everything was white.

As his stomach lurched he closed his eyes, forcing himself to push through kan despite the dizzying sensation of plummeting. The thin net of kan he cast back up toward Alkathronen revealed nothing for what seemed like an eternity.

And finally a figure leaping over the wall and arrowing after him, wreathed in Essence.

For an odd moment, Caeden felt a sense of melancholy at the sight. His friend, trying to save him one last time.

Then he twisted, looking for the kan mechanism he’d spent several hours hanging on the cliff side to build.

Activated the endpoint.

The Gate glowed to life directly above Caeden’s plummeting body, between him and Alaris. A heartbeat later it flashed as Alaris’s suddenly flailing form was flying through it; Caeden gritted his teeth and reached out again, severing a section of the mechanism. Within the space of two seconds, the Gate had opened and had been destroyed.

The whistling air around him was suddenly strangely peaceful as he fell, his sense of relief overwhelming. Alaris couldn’t create a Gate himself, and there was no other way to escape from the Wells. No way for Alaris to communicate with the others in Ilshan Gathdel Teth from there, either.

He would need to be dealt with eventually—there was no doubt about that—but for now, there was one fewer of the Venerate to worry about.

Caeden forced himself to focus amid the gale and poured every ounce of Essence he had left into his body, strengthening each limb. Alaris had been right; Caeden had no idea if this fall would kill him, or merely result in catastrophic injury. If there had been time, he might have made a second Gate somewhere lower. But there hadn’t.

Closing his eyes against the biting wind, he braced himself for the impact.

This was going to hurt.