Another silence followed as they continued to stare, seemingly in disbelief. She must have been quite the sight with her bruised face, torn clothing, and exposed bandages. Strands of auburn hair blew in front of her face, and her ribs protested with every step.
The Templar's expression softened as he met her eyes. His gaze didn't have the same malice as he did with Lyrin, and he almost seemed reluctant as he turned his pistol on her.
A breeze sighed through the clearing, causing the nearby lanterns to sway. Nahlia's strength finally left her when she reached the bottom stair. Her legs buckled, and her knees hit the dirt.
"I'm sorry you got caught up in this," the officer said to Nahlia. Then he turned to his men. "Take her."
The Templars stepped forward, and no one moved to stop them.
Nahlia closed her eyes, thinking of her father. Thane had spoken of a plan to save him, but now she would never get the chance.
Something whistled through the air, ending with a thunk.
The Templar let out a sharp shriek of pain. Nahlia looked up to see an arrow blooming from his throat. Blood sprayed from the wound in jets of red he fell back into the dirt. Dead.
She spun around to face Lyrin, but he and the other Crelans stood frozen in place.
More arrows hurtled out from the forest. More screams followed as they found their marks.
"Take cover!" Lyrin ordered his people, finally showing more sense than bravado.
"Form up!" one of the Templars shouted to his companions. By now, half-a-dozen more had arrived with Hawkwood and his hounds. They raised their shields in a protective barrier.
Nahlia caught faint glimpses of the archers as they wove through the trees and rooftops above. More cloaked figures leaped down into the clearing and charged the shield wall.
She struggled to her feet again, trying to make sense of it all. Lyrin and Merith rushed to her side, pulling her back from the fray.
"More humans?" Merith asked.
Templar rifleman aimed their weapons between the shield gaps. An officer bellowed an order, and a series of shots followed.
The cloaked figures spun their swords with unnatural speed, deflecting the volley of bullets.
"No..." Nahlia shook her head. "They can't be."
Blades swirled through the darkness, catching flashes of fire and moonlight. The strangers fought with more grace and precision than Nahlia had ever seen. The fight became a blur of metal as flesh as the Templars fell.
These were the Aeons Thane had spoken of. Aegon. He wasn't exaggerating when he said every minute mattered.
One woman threw back her hood, revealing a braid of honey-blonde hair. She appeared to be in her late thirties, with high cheekbones and and bright golden eyes.
A Templar dropped his rifle and scrambled for his side sword. The golden-eyed woman raised her own blade and took him down with a slash that was too quick to see.
Hawkwood scrambled back beside the fallen Templar, raising his hands to show he was unarmed. His hounds already sprouted arrows from their sides.
"Wait," the ranger said. "I wasn't with them. They—"
The woman's blade leapt for his throat, opening a red line from ear-to-ear. Nahlia put a hand to her mouth as he fell back into the dirt.
"He surrendered," Nahlia whispered through her cold fingers. But no one heard her words over the clamor. No one spared the dead ranger a second glance.
Several heartbeats as the fight continued. The Aeons' strikes were quick and efficient as if they'd done this a thousand times. It reminded her of the way her father prepared drinks.
Nahlia blinked, and it was over as quickly as it had begun. The archers shouldered their bows as they stepped out from the shadows. The others knelt to clean their blades on the Templar's cloaks.
The golden-eyed woman sheathed her own blade and took a few steps toward Nahlia.
Lyrin moved to stand between them, and his men followed, spears in hand. "And just who the hell do ye think ye are?"
"My name is Casella Raider," the woman spoke in a rich, western accent. She didn't even look at Lyrin or the other Crelans. "Am I correct in assuming you're Nahlia Cole?"
Nahlia gave a slow nod. These people had clearly been hiding in the trees when she'd revealed herself, so there was no reason to deny it.
"My agents told me what happened last night In Northshire," she said. "I've come to take you to safety."
Nahlia remained still. Mere moments ago, she'd been ready for the Templars to drag her off. Now, those same men lay on the ground, sprouting arrows from their chests and faces. The sight left her numb and disoriented.
Merith stepped forward instead. "How do we know ye mean her well?"
"I'm a Seeker," the woman said. "While the Templars hunt Aeons, I counter their efforts." She turned to Nahlia again. "Your father is Aaron Cole, and your mother was Lyraina Trelian. You've lived in Northshire for six years, seven months, and thirty-two days."
The message was clear. If this woman had meant Nahlia harm, she could have struck whenever she wanted. She only acted now because of Thane's warning.
Nahlia finally found her voice. "My father and I—we were separated in Graywind Pass. Do you know where he is now?"
"The Templars have him in custody," she replied. "It's a larger group than this one. There's nothing we can do for him right now."
Nahlia gave a stiff nod. It was just as Thane had said.
"Now," Lady Raider began, "I would take you to Dresten if you'd allow it."
"Dresten?" Merith spoke up. "She was just shot! She's in no condition to travel that far."
"We're not walking there," Lady Raider said. "We have a ship on the Arda, and the Templars aren't equipped to follow us by river. We'll be safe there—far safer than the Mistwood."
"What's in Dresten?" Nahlia asked. "Are there other Aeons there?"
"I'm afraid I can't answer that—not here. But if you come with me, I'll explain everything."
Understandable. If they truly had a secret enclave as Thane believed, they couldn't just walk around announcing that to the world.
"Alright." Nahlia took a deep breath and stepped around Lyrin. While the Crelans were clearly suspicious, Nahlia had all the information she needed. She still didn't trust Thane or his mysterious plans, but she couldn't help anyone by staying here. "I'm going with her."
"Good," Lady Raider turned to another of the hooded Aeons. "Get this mess cleaned up."
The others went to work dragging off the Templar corpses and scavenging their equipment. Again, their movements were methodical as if they'd done this a hundred times before.
Nahlia turned around and gave Merith and Lyrin a broad smile. "Thank you both. For everything."
Merith returned her smile and took her hand. "Be safe, Nahlia."
Lyrin strolled over to where the Templars lay, resting his boot on a man's steel cap. "The others would've heard the explosions. If they show up here—"
"Tell them the truth," Lady Raider interjected. "Their friends were killed by Aeons, and those Aeons headed north. Cooperate with them this time, and they won't risk a needless conflict."
"How far to the river?" Nahila asked.
"Less than a quarter-mile from here," Lady Raider replied. "Can you walk that far?"
Nahlia nodded, grasping her pendant for strength. Already, her wounds felt better than they had in the hut, and the promise of safety urged her forward.
The lanterns faded after a few minutes of walking, and the only light came from the torches her group carried. Lady Raider walked ahead of the column, engaged in quiet conversation with one of her agents.
Nahlia lagged near the back next to another of the cloaked Aeons. He was a full head taller than her, and his hand rested on his weapon as they walked. It looked like a Valaysian katana, judging by the long, wrapped hilt.
"Watch your step here," the man said, offering his hand.
Nahlia accepted his aid as the path grew steeper, and they stepped down a natural staircase of tree roots.
"Thanks." She smiled at him when they reached the bottom. Their eyes touched, and her breath caught in her throat. The man's eyes were golden, just like the Seeker's. He also had the same blond hair and high cheekbones. His face wasn't nearly as harsh as hers though. In fact, he was probably no older than twenty.
He returned her smile, and Nahlia looked away, resisting the urge to tidy up her hair. No one had given her a mirror since she woke, and it must have been an unruly mess. Meanwhile, this man was like a statue of an Archaeon.
He slowed down to keep pace with her. "You're Nahlia, right? I'm Elias Raider."
"I'm Nahlia," she replied. Then she winced, realizing he'd already said her name. She pressed on quickly, "Raider ... as in, the clan that used to rule Raidenwood?"
"That's the one," he said. "We left about ten years ago when my uncle betrayed us to the Templars. Now we've lived in the North ever since. You've already met my mother." He nodded toward the head of the column where Lady Raider walked. "And you'll meet my father and sister when we get to Dresten."
"Are there other Aeon families in Dresten?" Nahlia asked.
Elias hesitated as if choosing his words with care. "Not in Dresten, specifically. But there are more of us alive than the Templars would ever admit."
Like a secret enclave, Nahlia thought. Once again, everything lined up with what Thane had told her in the Ethereal.
Leaves and branches cracked beneath her boots as they walked in silence. The air grew colder as they reached the Arda's eastern shore. The current flowed gently here compared to Graywind Pass, and its smooth surface reflected the twin moons above.
Lady Raider's vessel waited for them on the sandy shore. It was a single-masted pole boat with a shallow hull. Half-a-dozen oars stuck out from either side, and the sails were gold and crimson.
Brave of them to flaunt their clan colors so openly. There was a sense of culture here, as if these Aeons weren't just fugitives hiding from the Republic, but a force to be reckoned with.
The wooden ramp creaked as they boarded the ship, and a bearded man gave a crisp salute. "Lady Raider."
"Captain," she acknowledged him with a quick nod. "Set sail immediately. We need to reach Dresten by Paladal evening."
The captain barked out orders to the rest of his crew. A dozen men in crimson uniforms moved to their stations with military efficiency. The Seeker's agents joined them on deck, and so did Elias.
Nahlia—who knew nothing about sailing—helped by staying far out of the way. The decked rocked beneath her feet as the oarsmen pushed against the shore.
The wind caught the sails, and the shore vanished behind them. Nahlia took a steadying breath as she glanced northward toward the dark horizon.