Nahlia's throat contracted at the sight of Saul Mason leading the ambush. At least a dozen other Templars followed, armed with rifles and swords. They moved in eerie unison, their leather armor gleaming in the moonlight.
"Can they see us?" she asked, stepping closer to Marwyn.
"Only if you let them," he said. "Don't worry. Here to observe. Not interact."
The Templars surrounded the house in near-silence. The sound of their footsteps was lost over the sounds of the forest. The wind ruffled the trees and the undergrowth, and the choir of crickets sang to the crescent moon as if already in mourning.
Saul Mason gave his commands through silent hand gestures. His men moved with a cold military precision as they barred the door, drenched the house with oil, and set it aflame.
Nahlia grimaced at their cowardice. "They outnumbered my parents ten to one... but they still refused to face them in a fight."
Marwyn nodded in agreement, watching the flames climb the house, dancing in the mountain wind.
"I remember waking up in my bed ... coughing up smoke." Her voice sounded calm, but her legs were trembling now. The memories returned to her far more vividly than she expected. "My mother pulled me out of bed, and my father broke the glass on my window..."
As if in corroboration with her words, a window shattered before them. Her father leaped out first, hatchet in hand.
A pair of Templars raised their firearms, but he was too quick for them. Aaron Cole swung his hatchet in short, violent arches, taking each man in the neck where his armor was weak. Molten-red blood sprayed from their gaping wounds, spattering his face and shirt.
"That was the first time I'd ever seen him fight," Nahlia continued." He told me he was a war veteran. It wasn't until recently that I found out he was once a Templar officer."
She glanced back at the massacre as the other soldiers moved around the house to block their retreat. Her father had exchanged his hatchet for one of the fallen swords now. He slashed and parried, fighting back several foes at once.
Before that day, Nahlia had imagined wars to be heroic and glorious like the ones in the stories. But no... the blood covered her father's face like a coat of red paint. And when his victims died, their squeals sounded more animal than man.
"My father told my mother to run, so she did..."
Lyraina grabbed her daughter, bolting down the hill, jumping over rocks and dodging trees. Nahlia remembered how the world blurred as the burning house shrank into the night, the bullets soaring through the mist all around them., her ears ringing from the explosions.
Lyraina barely made it fifty yards before a bullet took her in the leg. She collapsed on the side of the slope, sending her daughter rolling down the hill in front of her.
"....But she wasn't fast enough." Nahlia crossed her arms over her chest, feeling a sudden chill in the air. Her vision blurred with the first signs of tears and It took all her strength to keep from looking away or shutting her eyes.
The Knight Commander drew his steel, stepping up behind Lyraina. Her voice trembled as she crawled desperately through the grass. Her young daughter could only watch in stunned horror, overwhelmed by the fire and the fighting.
"RUN!" Lyraina shouted to be heard over chaos the gunfire. Her last words echoed through the mountainside just before Saul Mason plunged the blade into her back, its crimson tip jutting out from the left side of her chest.
He made for Nahlia next, but her father broke off from his fight to save her. He picked up his hatchet again, sending it spinning through the air.
It struck Mason in the shoulder, sending the Knight Commander to his knees.
This time, her father didn't turn to fight the others. He grabbed his daughter with his free hand and ran, bolting down the mountainside, vanishing into the dark forest below.
The remaining Templars pursued him, swords and rifles drawn. Even Saul Mason regained his footing. Their shouts grew dimmer, echoing in the distance for several moments.
And then there was nothing.
The sounds of battle faded, and even the wind died down. Before long, Nahlia heard nothing but the throbbing of her own heart.
"My father and I escaped," she finally said to Marwyn. "But my mother..."
Slowly, she turned around to see Lyraina's body, cold and lifeless in the bloodstained grass. The Templars never even came back for her... never giving her a proper burial or burning.
Tears fell from Nahlia's chin and the wind caught them. She knelt down in the grass beside her mother, closing her sky-blue eyes. "Is this—is this really how she looked?"
"You were gone by now," Marwyn said from behind her. "No way of knowing. Imagination fills in what memories can't."
Nahlia nodded, and they sat in silence for a long time after that. Whether it was minutes or hours, she couldn't say. Such was the nature of time in the Ethereal.
Finally, she took a deep breath, clearing her sinuses. "I don't feel like I achieved anything tonight. If anything... I feel worse than ever."
"On the contrary," Marwyn said. "You did well. Better than most."
She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and stood. "You said I would feel stronger."
"No. Said you would become stronger. World of difference."
Nahlia remained silent as the wind picked up once again.
Marwyn gestured to a stray sword in the grass. "Others use Ethereal as wish fulfillment. Imagine themselves changing their pasts. Create false feelings that don't last. Real strength takes hardship to build. Sometimes pain.
"Others run from their pasts," he said, gesturing out to nothing in particular. "Fear motivates both actions."
Nahlia nodded again. After everything she'd seen—both from the Templars and her fellow Aeons—this made sense. The Templars hunted her kind because they feared the legends of Ethermancy. The Aeons fought back because they feared being purged. As the violence continued, it only brought more aggression and more fear.
"Then what am I supposed to do?" she asked.
"Already taken the first step," he replied. "Stood here calm and resolute. Gave violence no power over you."
Nahlia frowned. "So I'm supposed to do nothing?"
"Not nothing," he said. "You have the gift of healing. Opportunity to help people. Bring hope instead of fear. Peace instead of aggression. Possibly change the course of this entire war."
Nahlia took one last look at her mother, a part of her wishing she had learned Ethermancy sooner in life. If she had, she might have saved her. And then everything would've been different. But no... that was in the past now. She had to move forward, worrying about her father, and the Aeons of Whitecliff.
She mouthed a silent goodbye and let her consciousness return to the physical world.