Hello? Can ye hear me, lass?"
Nahlia cracked open her eyes, and a flash of sunlight blinded her. Everything hurt. She tried to cough, only to feel hot metal tearing apart her chest.
The bullet ... There's a bullet inside me.
Her heart throbbed so hard it felt like it might leap out from the hole. She moved her fingers and raked up a handful of cold, wet sand. Someone stroked her hair, but all she saw was a blurry green silhouette.
"She's alive!" The woman's voice broke with sudden relief.
"Where—where am I?" Nahlia muttered. It hurt to talk, and her teeth were chattering.
"Shhh," the woman said. "We pulled ye out from the river, lass. Just try and stay still, yeah?"
Nahlia nodded. She moved a shaking hand toward her chest, mere inches from her heart. She winced at the feeling of open flesh.
Someone seized her wrist and pulled it back. Right. Probably not smart to touch that with dirty hands.
"Merith," a male voice cut in. "She's a human."
"Or an Aeon," another voice offered.
"She's a child," the woman named Merith snapped at them both. "We can't leave her here to bleed out."
"Ye'd endanger us all then?"
"Aye," another man said. "That's a lead ball in her chest. Ye want the Templars coming after us now?"
"We're not leaving her here to die," Merith said with determination. "Cilvic—fetch my husband. Tell him to bring a stretcher. Now."
Nahlia heard a ripping sound like torn cloth, and something pressed down on her wound. She winced at the pain.
"It's alright," the woman told her. "Ye're safe now."
Nahlia's eyes fell shut again. She wanted to pass out, to escape the burning pain.
A few minutes later, several pairs of hands hoisted her onto something hard and wooden. She fell in and out of consciousness as they carried her through the forest. The sun's rays flashed and faded through the openings in the leaves.
"Stay with me now, lass," the woman's voice spoke again, fainter than before.
Nahlia tried to stay awake, but the world faded to blackness for the second time that morning.
Nahlia opened her eyes, dazzled by a sudden burst of color. She was standing in the middle of a lush green oasis, surrounded by strange trees and waterfalls. The plants glistened with dew in the evening sun, and the water cascaded from twisting rock formations. The white sand felt warm and dry beneath her bare feet.
Wait ... Sand? Waterfalls? What is this?
A minute ago, she'd been laying on a sleeping roll, mostly naked, with a bullet wound in her chest. Now...
Nahlia glanced down. Not only was she fully-clad and uninjured, but she was wearing her barmaid's uniform—a white blouse, and a matching gray linen vest and skirt. Weird.
The strange tropical landscape went on in every direction, but the horizon faded to a violet mist. The sky was violet too, and the stars shone several times brighter than she'd ever seen.
"Nahlia?" a man's voice asked from behind her.
She whirled around to face him.
"Sorry." He raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Didn't mean to scare you again."
The man stood in the clearing beneath a palm tree. Tall and lean, he had short black hair and a dark complexion. His stiff black coat fell nearly to his knees. Nahila blinked as she remembered his face. This was the man from the Moonstone Inn. The one who had warned them about the Templars.
He nodded as he stepped forward. Finally, Nahlia noticed his eyes. They'd been dark before, but now they were green, and bright as any full-blooded Aeon.
And with that realization, another puzzle piece clicked into place. Her surroundings were too strange—too surreal—for reality. "We're in the Ethereal, aren't we?"
Thane gave another nod. HIs black cloak billowed in the misty wind as he began pacing around the clearing. "I understand it can feel strange your first time..."
"This isn't my first time dreaming," she said. She'd been to the Ethereal hundreds of times. All Aeons came here when they dreamt, from what she understood.
"Your first time lucid dreaming," Thane clarified.
"Oh." Now that he mentioned it, this did feel more vivid. Usually, her dreams consisted of narratives or re-lived memories. Either that, or she explored seemingly random portions of the dream realm, guided only by her subconscious.
Apparently, this 'lucid dreaming' took some skill. Which begged the question...
"How am I doing this?"
"I brought you here," Thane said, "because we need to talk about you and your father."
"My father?" Nahlia exclaimed. She'd been so caught up in the strangeness of the moment that she'd nearly forgotten. "Is he alright?"
Thane paused, and his face softened from hard angles to sympathy. "The Templars captured him in Graywind Pass."
Nahlia breathed a sigh of relief, having already feared the worst. "But he wasn't harmed?"
"Not yet," Thane said. "The Knight Commander is bringing him north to Dresten. The rest of his men are still in the Mistwood, searching for you."
Her stomach churned at that. If she was dreaming now, that meant her body was back in that Crelan village. For all she knew, the Templars could be looming over her bed at this very moment. They could—
Breathe, Nahlia told herself. Just breathe.
Merith had already implied they wouldn't reach her without a fight. And this dream may have been different, but Nahlia was reasonably sure she wouldn't sleep through fighting or gunshots.
In the meantime, she still had a hundred questions for Thane. How did he know all this? And how was he able to enter her dreams? She'd read about Aeons who used the Ethereal for communication, but she never thought it would happen to her.
"Can you tell me where you are?" Thane asked. "In the physical world. I heard the Templars shot you, but you're obviously alive."
The answer rose inside of her, but her lips rejected it. This time, her father's lessons overruled her trusting nature.
"Twice now, you've made a show of helping me. Why?"
"The Templars aren't the only ones searching for you," Thane said. "There's a faction of Aeons here in the North."
"Clan Raider," Nahlia said. "The same ones you mentioned before?"
He nodded. "They know what happened in Northshire, and they sent a ship from Dresten to find you. If you give me your location, I can pass it on to them—make sure they reach you before the Templars."
"That sounds wonderful in theory," Nahlia began, "but how do I know you're telling the truth?"
"You're suspicious," he said. "I understand. "But I tried to help you back in the Moonstone."
Nahlia crossed her arms. "You know, you weren't really all that helpful."
"I told you to get out of there. It's not my fault you waited five hours to leave."
Ouch. Her father's reasoning had made sense at the time. But If they had fled out the back door with Thane, would Uncle Locke still be alive now? Would all three of them still be together? Nahlia shook her head to clear it. No sense in falling into a downward spiral now.
Still, Thane made a valid point. He'd already known her exact location back in Northshire. If he was helping the Templars, what did he gain by warning them? For that matter, what did he gain by helping her now? Thane was a southerner judging by his dark olive complexion. He must have come north from Dragonshard or Vauldenport. Maybe even as far as the Ember Isles. No one traveled that many miles out of the goodness of their heart.
"You still haven't answered my question," Nahlia said. "What's in this for you?"
Thane raked a hand through his onyx hair, making no effort to hide his impatience. "When Clan Raider finds you, they'll try to recruit you. I know, because they've done the same before."
Nahlia gave a slow nod. Her father had once mentioned a group of northern Aeons trying to recruit her when she was younger, but he'd turned down their offer. At least that part of the story checked out.
"I want you to go with them," Thane said. "I want you to infiltrate their enclave and feed information back to me. If you work with me on this, then I can free your father from the Templars."
"Wait, what?" That was a bit more truth than she'd expected. "There's an entire enclave of Aeons hidden here in the North?" She'd heard of some Aeons who had survived the Purge twenty years ago, but she'd imagined scattered families like her own.
"I don't know much about it," Thane said. "Only that it's somewhere in the uncharted lands north of Dresten. I've also heard there's an academy there where Aeons warriors are trained"
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "I take it you're not on friendly terms with the place?"
"I wouldn't call us enemies," Thane said. "But I can't just walk in there myself if that's what you're asking."
"And why is this place so important to you?"
Thane shook his head. "I'd be happy to fill you in on the details later. But for now, every minute counts. If you don't survive the next few hours, my long-term plans are irrelevant."
"I know." Nahlia closed her eyes, trying to organize her thoughts. "But you're not giving me much to go on here."
"You don't need to make a decision about the enclave now," Thane said. "I wouldn't have brought it up if you hadn't pressed me. I just need your location. If Clan Raider doesn't find you, the Templars will. They're already searching north along the Arda."
Nahlia suppressed a shiver at that. She didn't like decisions she couldn't take back—at least not before she 'd considered every angle. Unfortunately, time favored the Templars here. if Hawkwood was still helping them, his hounds would pick up her scent along the river and follow the trail from there.
"Alright." Nahlia dragged the word out into an exhale "I'm in a Crelan village, two leagues northeast of Graywind Pass."
Thane frowned. "Who measures things in leagues these days?"
Nahlia gave a helpless shrug. "Crelans do, apparently."
"We'll have to make it work then," Thane said. "I'll contact you again soon."
And with that, Thane vanished from the dream, fading into the wind like dust and dandelion seeds. In the same moment, Nahlia felt her own lucidity fading as if it were somehow bound to his.
When she returned to the physical world, the Templars had already found her.