The Harbinger only sailed for two days, but it felt more like two weeks. Nahlia thought she'd grown used to the cold after ten years in Northshire, but even that didn't compare to the Frozen Sea. The nights fell below freezing here, and the winds cut through her cloak like a storm of shattered glass.
For all that, she couldn't even enjoy the scenery. Courtesy of that Aegon-cursed blindfold.
"It's standard for all new recruits," Elias Raider had told her when they set sail on Vashedal morning. As if that made shuffling around the ship any easier, bumping into walls and crew members with every step. Nahlia swore she got more bruises here than she did running from the Templars.
The Raiders gave her a simple, windowless cabin below deck, and that was the only place she could uncover her eyes. If she broke that rule—even for a second—she'd be confined there for the rest of the trip. Nahlia might have called them paranoid if people like her weren't the reason for such rules.
Traitor. Liar. Spy.
The thoughts made her stomach clench, but what choice did she have now? She already tried asking the Raiders for help, and they'd denied her. With no money or connections in Dresten, she couldn't save her father on her own. It was either this or inaction.
Nahlia almost jumped when someone knocked on the cabin door.
"Come in," she hollered from her seat on the bed.
The oaken door creaked open, and Elias Raider swaggered inside. He was so tall, he practically had to duck to fit through the doorframe. His leather jerkin was spattered with rain, and his blond hair lay in wild disarray. Somehow that suited him though. If anything, he looked even better this way.
"Good news," he said, leaning casually on the doorpost. "We'll be at the enclave soon."
Nahlia closed her book and hopped to her feet. She glanced down at the silken blindfold on her nightstand.
"Yeah,' Elias said. "You still need it. But don't worry; it's just for the first few weeks of classes." He looked up at her with an easy smile.
Nahlia narrowed her eyes at him, suppressing a grin. "You tell that to all the new recruits, don't you?"
"Of course not." He chuckled. "I save it for the most clever ones."
Her cheeks grew warmer at that, but she quickly turned around and let him fasten the strap behind her.
With the world now shrouded in darkness, Nahlia grabbed her travelsack and followed Elias up the narrow wooden staircase, clutching his arm as the ship rocked against the waves. She braced herself for wind on deck, but a frosty draft greeted her instead. No light shone through the blindfold, and the sounds of water echoed all around.
A cave? Was the enclave underground?
She sat down on a wooden barrel at the base of the helm, struggling to make sense of the surrounding cacophony—the captain's graveled voice letting forth a torrent of orders, the sliding of ropes, the snapping of sails, and the waves lapping against the hull.
Above it all, Ciena's unfeminine voice echoed somewhere nearby. It wasn't deep by any means, or even unrefined. Just harsh and sharp like a pain in your side. The other Raider twin hadn't spoken to her once since their meeting in the garden. At least now, Nahlia had an inkling why. Still, it wasn't her fault that her father used to be a Templar twenty years ago. Besides, the other Raiders didn't hold it against her, so why did—
Her muscles tensed as a hand tapped her shoulder.
"Sorry." Elias's voice. "It's just me."
She took his arm again, and he led her down the ramp into ... the underground harbor? She could only imagine. Footsteps echoed all around, metal gears turned, and wood creaked.
Aegon, but it was frustrating trying to make sense of all this.
"Stairs coming up," Elias said as they walked.
Nahlia slowed her pace. "How many?"
"One hundred and forty-four."
"I wish," he said. "but the lifts are all filled with cargo right now. Besides, that way involves riding mammoths on the side of a cliff. Not the safest thing when you're blindfolded."
Even after they reached the top of the staircase, the walk through the cave was several miles at her best guess. She felt the occasional gust of cool air, and Elias told her they were crossing bridges through ravines.
Other sections of the cave were warm and misty, causing her face to prickle with sweat. She heard water everywhere—falling and flowing—and she imagined the path taking them past underground rivers.
"Slippery up here," a crew member hollered from somewhere up the line.
Nahlia took a step and almost lost her balance on the thick ice. Elias tightened his grip on her shoulders before she could fall.
Metal ground against metal up ahead, like a massive portcullis being raised. They stepped outside again, and this time she felt snow crunch beneath her boots. Light shone through the fabric of the blindfold, and she felt the sun's warmth on her face.
Elias let go of her arm and finally undid the straps behind her head. Her eyes turned to slivers in the blinding light as she tried to take in the new surroundings
The sun was low on the jagged white horizon, casting its golden rays over the blue-tinged landscape. The enclave itself was built into a large recession on the mountainside; a cluster of brick and wooden buildings all crammed together, separated by walkways and rivers and waterfalls. A cobblestone path snaked out in front of them, weaving through the rough terrain. Buildings stood tall on either side; tiered pagodas with curved terraces, tapering as they grew.
Elias set out with his usual long strides, and Nahlia had to jog to keep up. They crossed an arching bridge of wood and stone, and she had a clear view of the valley below. Fields of wheat and grazing livestock covered every clearing, separated by violet trees and simple wooden homes.
This was far more than some secret enclave. it was bigger than most towns, with more Aeons than she could have ever imagined. Not just warriors, but craftsmen, farmers, and families. They passed one group around her age who looked like students, all dressed in matching slate-gray uniforms and carrying some sort of Valaysian swords. Katanas, maybe?
"This is the mess hall." Elias gestured to a wide, flat building. It had red pillars in the front, and lanterns hanging on each corner of the upturned roof. "We missed the evening meal, but we'll get something sent to your room later."
Nahlia nodded along as Elias continued pointing out important buildings. The bathhouse, the infirmary, the chapel, the lecture halls, and the master's tower. She let the confusion of information wash over her, knowing she'd be lucky to remember half of it by tomorrow.
"And this is the general dormitory," Elias pointed to a long, three-story structure on the cliff's edge. "I'll talk to someone and get you set up in—"
"Nahlia Cole?" a voice hollered from the other side of the courtyard. She turned to see a small boy, no older than eleven or twelve. He wore a leather satchel at his side and a blue knitted cap that covered his ears.
Nahlia shot Elias a glance before answering, "Yes?"
"The White Council requests an audience with you," he said. "They sent me to show you the way."
"Hold on," Elias threw up a hand. "What's this about, Meroc?"
The boy shrugged a shoulder. "Don't ask me. All I know is they're in session right now, and they wanna see her soon as she arrives."
"Damn it," Elias cursed under his breath.
"What?" Nahlia looked back and forth between them.
"Can't say for sure, but it might be your entry examinations."
He nodded. "It's how they determine who gets in the academy."
Nahlia's lips went dry as a cold sweat crept over her. She assumed she'd already been admitted. Elias didn't seem too concerned. But then, he also had no idea what was at stake for her.
"I'm sorry," he said after a short pause. "I should have told you sooner, but I figured they'd give you time to get ready. Most recruits get weeks to study in Dresten, but in your case..."
Oops. Maybe it was her own fault for rushing things. Even so, to test her on her first day here, when she was exhausted, overwhelmed, and sleep-deprived? It was like they wanted her to fail.
The messenger boy stood there in the snow, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other.
"Fine," Elias said. "Go with him. I'll catch up with you later."
I don't have much of a choice, do I? She gave a weary nod and followed the boy toward the tallest tower on the opposite side of the valley.