The following day found Wolfe Clan alone in the Gorge. It was strange, Nahlia thought, to be down here in broad daylight without the shroud of darkness hanging over the valley. A tangible silence filled the space now, and the canyon's icy walls shone like massive diamonds in the afternoon sun.
She crossed her arms against the wind as they plodded down the myriad of stone staircases. Her fingers rattled like icicles inside her fur-lined gloves, anxious to start moving on the obstacles below.
They reached the bottom, and Elias came jogging down a moment later, ledger in hand.
"Listen up, everyone." He spoke in a low baritone, breaking up several conversations between the other nine members. "I just got word that Paladal's match will be against Howler Clan."
"What's the event?" Marcus from the back of the crowd.
"Capture the flag," he replied. "I hate to say it, but It's one of my sister's better games."
"Not to mention she knows all our strategies." Yimo's voice came out groggy despite the fact that it was well past noon.
"Nothing to worry about." Elias waved a dismissive hand. "We've had people get transferred before. Besides, Ciena's more of a tactician. She'll see familiar patterns, and those will distract her from the bigger picture. But more on that later." He turned to Nahlia. "First, we need to make sure our newest member knows the rules."
"Already taken care of," Relyn said.
"Good." Elias smiled down at her, folding his arms expectantly. "Let's hear them then."
Nahlia glanced around and cleared her throat. "Each clan has a home base on either side of the Gorge." She gestured to the wooden flagpole which sat atop a man-made stone surface. "Our goal is to steal the enemy's flag while protecting our own. To score, we need to capture their flag with our own still at the base."
"So far so good. "What about the scoring system?"
She paused, but only for a second. "Picking up the enemy flag is worth ten points, capturing it is worth a hundred points. Taking down their flag carrier is worth twenty-five, returning our flag is ten, and eliminating someone in our base is also ten."
He nodded. "And what about taking down an enemy in the middle of the field, away from any flags?"
"Is it... one point?"
Another sharp nod. "Alright, I'm impressed. But knowing the rules is one thing; let's see how you do with a practice game." With a wave of his hand, two boys of ten or eleven stepped forward, each carrying a large bundle of sheathed swords. Nahlia had seen them around the plateau before. They were Wolfe Clan's seconds, apprenticing under Elias in hopes to someday join the clan once they were of age.
"Right then." Elias scanned the crowd, scratching the blond stubble on his chin. "The teams will be..."
"Wait," Relyn broke in. "Aren't you forgetting something, captain?"
Elias gave her a look, and she nudged Nahlia with her elbow. "She hasn't handled a poisoned blade yet."
"Ah." He ran a hand through his hair. "That's right."
"Poison?" Nahlia looked back and forth between them.
Elias knelt down, rummaging through the blades. "Remember the Yuchani flowers my parents were growing in Dresten? They harvest a poison from them that simulates the effects of an actual battle wound."
His sword caught sunlight as he yanked it from its scabbard. "We coat that poison over our blades for training. If someone hits your arm, your arm goes numb for the next five to ten minutes. Same goes for anywhere else on your body. The effect is immediate, cutting through all but the strongest armor."
He gave her an apologetic look. "The Academy also has a rule: no one handles a poisoned blade until they've felt the effects."
Nahlia's stomach clenched as realization dawned on her. She'd heard stories of this poison during her time at the academy. It was said to be as painful as an actual wound—even worse for the inexperienced.
"We use wooden swords in the dojos," she pointed out. "Why don't we do the same thing here?
"Believe or it not, this way is safer. A wooden blade needs force to hurt someone. That can result in cuts or broken bones, especially when someone's trying to stop a flag runner. The Yuchani poison might be more painful, but there's no risk of long-term damage."
Temporary pain in exchange for long-term safety. Hard to argue with that logic. Nahlia swallowed and stepped forward. "Alright, let's get this over with."
Elias raised the sword again. "Don't be embarrassed if you scream. Everyone does their first time."
"Great." She glanced at her all-too-eager audience. "Any other advice?:
"Just... try to remind yourself that the wound isn't real. More often than not, people panic, making the pain worse than it actually is. As long as you relax and accept it, your body will move on faster."
"And since it's your first time," he continued, "it might take the poison longer to wear off—sometimes up to half an hour. In any case, I'd recommend you choose your non-dominant arm."
Nahlia held out her right arm and clenched her jaw. At least it couldn't be worse than a bullet to the chest.
His swing was slow and gentle, but the impact felt like her arm was ripped clean off below the elbow. Her knees buckled beneath her and she let out a small shriek. The pain came in waves. First, it was hot like boiling blood, then cold like a thousand tiny icicles. The numbness spread until her arm hung like a dead animal at her side, so heavy it threatened to weigh her down.
Elias reached out a hand to steady her, but she soon regained her own footing.
"It's alright." Nahlia used her good hand wipe her eyes dry. "I'm fine."
She nodded and took a few deep breaths, pushing out the pain from her body. She imagined the numbness fading as well, gradually bringing life and feeling back into her arm.
She wiggled the fingers on her right hand. They felt distant and unresponsive, but eventually she summoned the strength to close and open a fist. Finally—with great effort—she lifted her arm out in front of her.
Elias raised his eyebrows when he saw this.
"I think you missed," Yimo said.
"I didn't miss," Elias snapped back. "I felt the impact."
"It's true," Nahlia said, regaining her composure. "My arm wasn't working at first, then I imagined the numbness away like you told me."
"Aegon." Elias scratched his chin. "That was only a few seconds." He looked to the others, then back to her. "Are you sure your arm went numb?"
"Completely," Nahlia rolled her shoulder in a small circle. "It's only just now getting back to normal."
"So—what?" Yimo said. "She has some sort of resilience to the poison?"
Elias crossed his arms and gave her a long, speculative look. "I'm resilient to the poison, and that hit would've put me out for at least a couple minutes. No ... this is something different."
"It's not just Yuchani poison," Relyn chimed in. "The Templars shot her in the ribcage, and she was on her feet the next day."
"Barely," Nahlia murmured.
Yimo looked up at her and tilted his head."Didn't you also have a giant gash on your forehead when we first met?"
"Well, yes." Nahlia raised a self-conscious hand to her face and shuffled her feet in the snow. "But that was days ago."
"Didn't your bullet wound heal in just a few days too?" Relyn asked.
"I've always been a quick healer," she said. "I assumed all Aeons were." But of course, that excuse was getting old now. Lady Raider's house physician had remarked on her quick recovery, as did the students in the infirmary.
"Can you imagine her as a flag runner?" Yimo with a rare show of excitement. "If someone hits her, she can keep running!"
"I was just thinking the same thing." Elias grinned. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One time could be a fluke."
"We should test it out," Relyn said. "Give her the flag and see if she can hold on to it."
Yimo skipped over to where the swords lay and snatched up one of the shorter ones. "Someone else should do it this time. Incase Raider missed."
Nahlia's eyes flicked back and forth between them as they talked. The Yuchani poison wasn't as bad as she imagined, but that didn't mean she wanted to go back for a second helping.
"How about a spinal cord hit?" Yimo spun the sword around in his hands. "If she can handle that, she can handle anything."
Nahlia cleared her throat. "I suppose no one's going to ask me if I actually want to get hit again?" She nearly cringed at the bold statement as everyone rounded to face her.
"Come on," Relyn said. "Please! You can't just show us this mysterious thing and not expect us to be excited."
"She has a point," Elias added. "If this works, you could be Wolfe Clan's new secret weapon."
A faint smile fluttered to her lips. With the rest of her combat training going so poorly, it would be nice to contribute something meaningful.
"Alright," she said. "Let's give it a try."
Without hesitation, Yimo stepped behind her and struck the small of her back.
Nahlia clenched her teeth as hot pain assailed her. Numbness filled her like a bucket of ice water, and she fell face-forward into Elias's open arms.
She looked down at her limp body, feeling as if she were watching someone else get lowered to the ground. The world spun as he laid her in the snow, leaving her to gaze up at the cloudless blue sky. Time skipped a beat, and her eyes threatened to close.
No... Nahlia clenched her teeth. Stay awake.
She took several deep breaths, taking hold of the numbness and attempting to force it out. It was like pushing against a stone wall.
"Well," Yimo said after a short silence. "So much for that."
"Give her a chance!" Relyn's voice snapped back.
"I still think Raider was too soft on her the first time. Either that or his sword was coated too thin."
"How about I try it on you next?" Elias offered.
Nahlia closed her eyes and let her breath travel through her body, liberating one piece of it at a time. Slowly, the sensations came back to her. The pain in her spine returned. Cold snow stung the back of her neck. Her stomach churned
She moved her fingers and her toes. Finally, she gathered her strength and rose, feeling about as graceful as a newborn fawn.
"Aegon above," Relyn whispered.
The others only stared at her in stunned silence, mouths agape as if she'd just risen from the dead.
Nahlia smiled again, more confident than she'd felt in days. "So.... should we tell someone about this?"
"I don't see why," Elias said. "I'm supposed to inform Marwyn if students have any harmful or allergic reactions to the poison. But that's not the case for you. Quite the opposite, in fact."
Relyn nodded in agreement. "And people will find out anyway during our match with Howler Clan. Might as well keep it a secret until then."
They spent the rest of the evening going over various strategies, practice games, and doing additional experiments with the Yuchani poison. Nahlia only got better at repelling it as the day went on. Sometimes, if she concentrated hard enough, she could even stop the numbness before it happened.
Back in the privacy of her bedchamber, she cast aside her Wolfe Clan battledress and underclothing. She hadn't looked at her bullet wound since that day in the infirmary when she had her stitches removed, but all this talk of her abilities got her wondering; what did it look like now?
Nahlia had seen the damage left by bullets before. Her father had two scars; one on his right arm and one on his shoulder. Each one had raised silver skin, as wide as a silver penny. She expected to find something similar, but when she looked in the mirror to examine the spot below her left breast, there was nothing.
What? She grabbed a nearby candle and brought it closer. Again, nothing.
Not believing her eyes, she felt around for raised skin. Less than a week ago, this had been a life-threatening wound—the worst she had ever seen. Now the skin was as smooth as a river stone, without so much as the faintest scar.