Nahlia dashed through the streets of Northshire. The path was a blur of lanterns, wood, and stone. Her hands shook, and the damp night air filled her lungs.
Uncle Locke was dead. They'd shot him through an inch of solid wood.
Even now, her ears rang from the gunshot. Her eyes burned with the sights of blood, branded in her vision like a flash of lightning.
And where was her father? Why hadn't he helped? Was he...
No. Don't think that way.
She ran several more blocks before forcing herself to slow down. At this pace, she'd trip and fall on the cobblestones before she reached the town's borders. Besides, running would only draw more attention.
Right. As opposed to all the other young women who take leisurely strolls after midnight.
She shot the occasional glance over her shoulder as she walked. Still no Templars. After a few more blocks, she reached the wineries and vineyards on the town's eastern border. Crickets and frogs chirped in the distance, and her cloak fluttered in the wind. The next loudest sound was her thundering heart.
Where could she go from here? Into the wilderness on her own?
Northeast, she remembered. That's right. Toward Graywind Pass. She and her father had planned for this moment. He'd even forced her to make the journey several times on her own.
"If you're in shock," he'd told her, "your mind will shut down, and you'll stop thinking rationally. When this happens, your body needs to know the way."
Aegon, but he was right. She'd been heading northeast for the past ten minutes without realizing why.
Nahlia stepped into the Arda's ford, following the river north to hide her trail. The water was as cold as moonlight, and she felt every icy splash as she trudged through. The ford went on for several minutes until it curved east into the Mistwood.
She broke off beneath the cover of the trees, taking a darker, more treacherous route. No outsider could track her here, and the path was too thick for horses.
Rain fell all around her, pattering down among the leaves, sliding across the forest floor. Nahlia raised her hood as she pushed through the thick foliage. She walked for hours after that. She walked until her feet were sore and blistered. Until every step felt as though she might collapse in the undergrowth. She longed for the comfort of her bed, curling up with a book and a warm cup of tea with no one trying to kill her.
Funny how running for your life makes you appreciate the simple things.
A more logical part of her realized she was growing delirious. She didn't carry a pocket watch, but it must have been at least three o'clock in the morning. She wouldn't last much longer without sleep or shelter. The distant howling of wolves reinforced that thought.
After following the mountain's base for another half hour, she reached her destination. Graywind Pass was once a crucial supply route from when the Aeon Ascendency had fought the invading Venetoran nations. But that was centuries ago, and any sign of a road was long gone. Trees covered the pass now, and an abandoned watchtower loomed above them.
Wearily, Nahlia stumbled under the stone archway. A spiral staircase wrapped its way from the base of the tower to the top floor. The climb was excruciating—more than twice the height of the Moonstone Inn. Time had crumbled away many of the stone stairs while the vines had their way with others.
At least the roof is still in one piece, Nahlia thought when she finally reached the top. Her teeth were still chattering, but the walls kept out the wind. She curled up on the stone floor, knees against her chest, travelsack in her lap. Her auburn hair fell in tumbles around her face, wet and cold.
She closed her eyes, and visions of death took root in the darkness. Locke, the Templars, and Aegon only knew what happened to her father. She'd avoided that thought for far too long, more focused on her survival and destination.
But now that she was alone ... Aegon, what if he didn't come? Her eyes misted at the thought of him lying dead in the Moonstone Inn. Just like her uncle.
Both men had tried teaching her combat, but Nahlia had frozen every time. No matter how much they'd drilled her, she couldn't learn. She'd been weak and afraid. Now they were the ones to pay the price.
Instead of learning to fight, she'd wasted hours in the library, learning facts that didn't matter, dreaming of powers that might not exist. She should have known how quickly life could turn violent. This wasn't the first time it had happened.
Footsteps echoed from the bottom floor of the tower. Nahlia's eyes snapped open with a fresh burst of adrenaline.
Could it be him? She fought down the urge to check. Always expect the worse. That's what her father would have said if he were here. She may not have his martial prowess, but she could still be prudent.
Nahlia reached into her travelsack and pulled out a sheathed dagger.
The footsteps grew louder as they climbed the spiral staircase. Whoever it was, he made no effort to be quiet.
Nahlia drew the blade and made her slow way behind the top of the staircase. From this vantage, she would see the visitor before he saw her.
If it's a Templar, you can't hesitate. You'll die if you do.
Several excruciating seconds passed. Nahlia adjusted her grip on the dagger several times. Her hands shook, and her arm felt far too weak.
Please, Nahlia thought to Aegon. Don't let me freeze up. It had been years since she'd prayed for anything. Most of the time, she didn't believe he listened or cared.
Even so, she needed all the help she could get.
Finally, a male figure crested the staircase—broad-shouldered, with leather armor and a saber in his right hand. He shifted to the side, and Nahlia recognized his face in the moonlight.
"Father!" Her dagger clattered to the floor as she rushed toward him. He let out a wince as she hurled herself at him with a crushing hug.
"Uncle Locke," she murmured into his chest. "He..."
"I know," he whispered back, holding her close.
When she pulled away, she saw that his jerkin was soaked through with blood. It started with a deep patch near his collarbone, but several crimson rivers ran down toward his stomach.
"You're hurt." Nahlia rushed back toward her travelsack, loosening the strings. "Here, I have bandages."
He nodded as he sank down against the nearest wall, unlacing the jerkin and shrugging out of his shirt.
Beneath the fresh wounds, dozens of long silver lines ran across his arms and chest. He also had several old bullet wounds, and those were as wide as silver pennies. She knew he was a soldier, but it always seemed strange how many scars he had. She'd known other soldiers—Uncle Locke included—who had retired after a single injury.
"The other Templars?" Nahlia asked as she pulled out her needle and catgut.
"Saul Mason is still alive."
That was his way of saying he'd killed the other eight. Her father wasn't an Aeon with supernatural powers—he would have told her if that were the case. Still, he was something more. Something he didn't like to talk about.
Nahlia sterilized his wound with alcohol, then applied a numbing agent before she began the stitches. She'd practiced this before too, and thank Aegon for that. Even if she froze in combat, she was no stranger to blood.
They sat in silence for several minutes as she worked, poking the needle into his skin and pulling the gut through the other side. Her father drained half of her water canteen in that time. That didn't matter though. The Area was close, and she could refill it in the morning.
Eventually, Nahlia finished the stitches on his shoulder and moved on to a smaller cut on his forehead. He'd been holding a bandage there until now, but the blood hadn't stopped yet. Fortunately, this wound only needed a few stitches, and it went far quicker than his shoulder had
"So..." Nahlia sat back on her heels once she'd finished. "How do I look?" She forced a smile and spread out her hands, hoping to lighten the mood. Her own face bled from a dozen scrapes, but she knew they weren't as bad as his.
Her father forced out a smile as well. "I'm sure you'll be good as new by morning."
He was right about that. Nahlia was no Ethermancer, but her Aeon blood seemed to give her an advantage when it came to healing. At least, that's what she'd always assumed. Aside from her mother, Nahlia had never known another Aeon.
"You should still eat something," her father told her.
"It's okay." Nahlia shook her head. "I'm not hungry." If anything, she felt nauseated. Her stomach was full of butterflies, and not the good kind that followed cute travelers into the Moonstone.
"You always say that when you're stressed, but your body needs it." He reached into her travelsack and pulled out a compact bundle of crackers. "Besides, we might need to run again, then you won't get another chance."
Nahlia took three of the crackers and forced herself to eat. Oils and spices danced around her mouth as she chewed and swallowed. Her father was right—she did feel better now.
"Listen," he began slowly. "I know you don't like talking about that night..."
"What night?" Nahlia's reply came far too quickly. She tried to distract herself by spreading her cloak on the floor and using her travelsack as a pillow.
There was a long pause as he father got comfortable as well. "The night with your mother and the Templars."
Nahlia clenched her teeth, not meeting his eye. Her hand wandered toward her pendant, and she squeezed the crescent moon between her fingertips. "Why are we talking about this now?"
"Because. If something happens to me—if we're separated—you might have to fight. You can't do that if you're afraid of yourself. I need you to promise me you won't hold back."
Nahlia didn't answer. It had been a long night, and her exhaustion was finally catching with her. She'd made it this far, but without a goal to focus on, it became more difficult to stay awake. Her eyes grew heavy, and sleep took her within minutes.
"Nahlia!" Her father grabbed her shoulder and shook her awake. It seemed like only minutes had passed, but rays of sunlight fell through the narrow stone window.
"What?" Nahlia thrashed out of her tangled cloak and sat up to face him.
"We need to go," he said in an urgent whisper.
Nahlia immediately fastened her cloak and shouldered her travelsack. She moved toward the staircase while her father took a slow step toward the southern window.
She was about to open her mouth when a pair of hounds barked in the distance. Someone had tracked them here, but now?
"Damnit," her father said. "They're already here."
Nahlia's blood froze as she processed the words. The Templars had found them again. And this time, they were surrounded. They were on top of a tower with nowhere to run.
"How?" she managed to ask. They'd chosen this tower because it was safe—because no outsider could track them through the Mistwood.
"Hawkwood," Father replied. "He's leading them."
Aegon, that explained it. The old ranger knew this forest as well as she knew the Northshire library. How had the Templars made him cooperate? Did they threaten his family? Either way, it didn't matter now.
"What do we do?" she asked.
He gestured toward the eastern wall with his drawn saber. Most of the windows were better suited for archers, but the one on the left had endured more weathering. She might fit through it.
"If you jump, you can reach the trees and make your way over the Arda."
And leave you here? Nahlia wanted to ask the question aloud, but there was no other choice. She was useless to him inside the tower, and they both knew it.
The hounds continued barking, and the stairwell below echoed with the pounding of boots.
"Go." Her father shoved her toward the window. "And don't look back."
Nahlia turned around and climbed onto the stone ledge. It was a tight fit, and it made her thankful for her slender frame. The morning wind blew strands of hair across her face, and the sun was nearly blinding.
He'll be alright, Nahlia told herself in an effort to calm her racing heart. He'd survived the raid in the Moonstone. She forced herself to focus on that, rather than the bullet in Uncle Locke's chest.
A maple branch hung below her, perhaps nine feet away. Could she even jump that far?
The Templars reached the top of the staircase, and desperation pushed through her terror. Without a second thought, Nahlia kicked off. Her stomach lurched as she flew over the emptiness below. Red leaves smacked against her face. Her chest collided with the thick branch, and she clung to it like a desperate cat.
She hung there for several heartbeats, gasping for breath, grimacing as the bark scraped her fingers.
"There!" a voice shouted from below. "In the tree!"
When Nahlia finally looked down, she spotted a dozen Templars at the base of the structure, rifles raised to fire.
She swung her legs and pulled herself over the branch. From there, she scrambled toward the trunk. Her pace quickened as she wove through the branches, trying to make herself small behind their leaves. The Arda was near. If she could only get across...
"Open fire!" The voice bellowed again. A volley of bullets hurtled up around her, shredding through leaves and branches.
Nahlia kept her head down, jumping and climbing from tree to tree. Splinters of wood flew up all around her, and scores of birds took flight. The branches shook and bent beneath her weight. One wrong move could send her plummeting to her death.
At one point, her cloak caught in a tangle of leaves, and she unclasped the hook around her neck, leaving it behind. Another branch was still slick from last night's rainfall. Her boot slipped backward, and she fell straight on her stomach before scrambling forward again.
After several seconds that felt like hours, Nahlia reached a single branch that stretched over the river. It was too narrow to crawl across, so she wrapped herself along the bottom.
The riflemen cursed below as they followed, no doubt struggling to see her through the trees.
Just a little farther.
She forced herself to keep her eyes forward, focusing on the branch and not the roaring river below.
Another set of explosions followed. It sounded as if the universe itself were breaking in half. One bullet whooshed past her neck, lodging into the tree branch. The next one grazed her forearm, splitting her leather jerkin.
Nahlia gritted her teeth to keep from crying out. She tried to move her arm, but it was filled with too much hurt to obey. Blood seeped out, snaking down her skin like a red viper.
"Take her down!" The officer ordered.
More explosions. This time, she felt a quick, dull pain in her chest as if she'd been punched.
She looked down to see another hole in her jerkin, just below her heart. More blood pooled out of her, and the pain struck in sudden waves, sharp and hot as an iron branding.
Nahlia screwed her eyes shut as her grip loosened on the branch. Even the river below seemed to lash out at her, its rapids slapping hard against the rocks. At that moment, a part of her almost wanted to give in to its demands.
"No," she told herself. That drop could kill her even quicker than a gunshot. "You can do this. You can..."
When she reached out to grab the next branch, her eyes clouded with tears. The world became hazy and narrow as the darkness consumed her. She tried to fight it, but its pull was too insistent.
Her fingers loosened their grip, and she fell through several more branches. The Arda crashed up around her, hard and cold.