"Wait." Nahlia held a hand to her ear as the voices echoed up the narrow tunnel. It sounded like ... Master Marwyn? She stood and pushed her way past Ciena. "Those aren't the Templars."
The tunnel sloped downward as she followed it toward the source of the sound. The rocky floor was slippery here, and she wished she had something to hang on to.
Nahlia stepped into a larger clearing where Marwyn worked with several of his assistants. Over two dozen soldiers and students lay scattered on the floor in various states of injury. Antiseptics masked the smell of blood as the surgeons cleaned, stitched, and bandaged their wounds.
In the far corner of the cleaning, three more students lay on wheeled stretchers. Relyn Vash sat among them, propped up and shivering beneath her blankets. She hung her head low, and her ebony hair fell on disarray around her face.
Nahlia didn't meet Relyn's eye as she surveyed the scene. What could she say to someone who might never walk again? Especially when she was the one to blame?
The Master Physician was a blur of motion as he traveled between patients, speaking quicker than Nahlia had ever heard before.
"Elevate that knee," he said to one of his students. "No, no. Higher."
"Master Marwyn," a female student called out. "We're running low on fadeflower."
"Mix two parts siren resin with one part kainmoss," he replied. "Same properties. Sufficient for stab wound."
Ciena Raider stepped out from the tunnel behind Nahlia, sheathing her sword. Her brother and Demeron followed close behind, supporting Yimo between them.
"Master Physician!" Elias called out. "Yimo's been shot."
Marwyn spared a quick glance at the injured crelan, squinting through his spectacles. "Shoulder wound. Minimal bleeding. Sterilize with honey, keep pressure with boiled linen."
With that, he returned his attention to a boy with an open gash across his stomach. The boy's injury was far worse than Yimo's. The same could be said for most of the others too.
"No standing around," Marwyn said without looking up. "North flanks undefended. Too few fighters left. Go."
Ciena turned to leave in the blink of an eye. Elias and Demeron set Yimo down on an empty mat, then they followed her up the ridge.
That left Nahlia to tend to Yimo. She left the bullet inside his shoulder for now, knowing she'd probably do more harm than good. Thankfully, her father had taught her how to clean a wound and apply pressure, so that was no trouble.
A few minutes later, one of Marwyn's assistants came over to help.
"Please tell me you brought whiskey," Yimo murmured to the blonde-haired woman. "Or even wine. Just as long as it's not Valaysian."
"This is better," she said as she brought the resin mixture to his lips. The woman raised her blue eyes to Nahlia then. "You should help carry the wounded to the ships. We need all the hands we can get right now."
Nahlia followed her gaze to the edge of the clearing where the path ran deeper underground. A few of the able-bodied men had already begun carrying the injured away. Relyn Vash still lay there on her wheeled stretcher, looking helpless and miserable.
Nahlia stood and took a few steps toward her. Slow and cautious, as if approaching a dangerous predator.
"You got out of your cell?" Relyn asked without looking up. Her voice held no particular inflection. No anger, no resentment. Not even curiosity.
Nahlia gave a slow nod, forcing herself not to stare down at her boots. "I'm sorry about what happened to you. I know I'm probably the last person you want to see right now."
She shrugged. "It's not like I wanted to see you executed either. I know you couldn't have killed Elveron."
The forgiveness in her voice made Nahlia wince. She had expected Relyn to be furious with her. In fact, she almost wished that were the case ... it would have made things so much simpler.
She wanted to reply, but a night of hunger and sleep deprivation left her at an utter loss of words. Instead, she grabbed the back of the stretcher and steered it toward the downward tunnel.
"My uncle," Relyn began again. "Is he..."
"I don't know," Nahlia admitted. "The last time I saw him, he was fighting a squad of Templars on the upper levels."
That much was true. Of course, he'd also been surrounded with no way out. Master Vash might've been the best swordsmen in the enclave, but swords could only do so much against black powder and firearms. Even Ethermancy was no match for that.
The path ahead was dark but for the bright blue crystals protruding from the walls. Eventually, the path opened into another clearing, even larger than the first. A body of water filled the cavern floor, too large to be a pond, but too small to be a lake. Stalagmites and stalactites rose and fell around them, some over ten feet tall and as wide as tree trunks.
Aside from Relyn's directions, neither girl spoke as they wove their way through the miles of cavern. Nahlia's arms ached from the effort of pushing the stretcher, and the heat of the springs sent sweat rolling down her back.
They passed crumbling stone pillars and the facades of buildings; more remnants of the enclave's original inhabitants. She even spotted a smooth stone door across the lake, similar to the one Elias showed her before.
"Watch out!" Relyn shouted
Nahlia pulled the stretcher to a halt, but she was too late. The wheels skidded on the slick rock, sending Relyn tumbling over the side. She landed with a splash in one the smaller hot springs.
"Relyn!" Nahlia grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her out. The other girl was coughing up water, and a thin trail of blood ran down her forehead.
"Are you alright?"
"No." Relyn shook her head, pushing the curtain of black hair from her cheeks.
"I'm so sorry," Nahlia stammered. "I didn't see—"
"Just leave me." Relyn gave her a rough shove. "Go back for someone else."
"What are you talking about? I'm not leaving you alone."
"Really?" She wiped her nose on her shirt sleeve. "Are you going to carry me the last mile then?"
Nahlia glanced back at the stretcher. The front wheels had snapped off when it fell off the causeway, and the axel was bent beyond repair.
"Come on." Nahlia reached an arm around her back as if to carry her. "I can't just leave you."
"Might as well," she murmured. Marwyn told me I might never feel my legs again. Tell me, what good is a soldier who can't walk?"
"You're still my friend, and I know we can make it. I just need you to help me."
Nahlia tried to lift her, but it was no use. They were the same size, but while Nahlia was slender and slightly curved, the other girl was all muscle, hardened from years of combat training.
"Aegon," she whispered. "Please just help us get to the boat. Just to the boats.." She took several deep breaths and imagined herself stronger. She tried to lift Relyn a third time.
"Come on!" Nahlia struggled to keep her voice on this side of a shout.
"What do you want me to do?" Relyn asked.
"Act like you care."
"I told you to leave me."
"I won't do that," Nahlia said. "For all we know, the Templars could be right behind us. Do you want them to kill us?"
After a short pause, Relyn shook her head, eyes brimming with tears. " I still can't make it all the way to the boats. Everything hurts."
This time, Nahlia said a silent prayer for her friend. She asked Aegon to give her strength, just enough to hold on.
Without another thought, she took the other girl's arm and moved to stand. This time, Relyn used her upper-body to support herself on Nahlia's shoulders.
The nearby crystals flickered and dimmed as if someone were sucking away their energy. Part of her wondered if it was Ethermancy, but it didn't feel like it did before. If anything, she only felt more drained.
Despite this small miracle, the rest of the walk was still long and excruciating. It felt worse than a trek across Northshire in a blizzard. Longer than a twelve-hour shift in the Moonstone.
Nahlia breathed a sigh of relief when they finally saw the ship's masts over a rocky ridge.
The guards raised the portcullis as they stumbled up, and a pair of white-robed panacea students helped Relyn onto the closest ship. All three were still docked and anchored, with no signs of moving.
Aegon ... don't they realize how close the Templars are? Even if they were holding out for the others, there must be enough people here to fill the first ship. Maybe even the second. What were they waiting for?
Nahlia tried to stay out of the way as she stumbled through the crowd. Captains bellowed orders, and workers scrambled up and down the ramps carrying tools and ... lumber?
Realization clutched her stomach like a fist of ice. She looked around the harbor again and she saw the fear reflected in her fellow Aeons' eyes. Shipwrights worked with desperate determination, knowing their tasks may be hopeless. Parents quieted terrified children, not believing the promises that passed their own lips.
if Master Zidane had truly betrayed them —if he went through all that trouble of giving the Templars the map—why would he stop there?
The Chronicler was still nowhere in sight, despite being neither a fighter nor a physician. He should have been among the first to evacuate, but he wasn't here at all.
Zidane wasn't here because he knew this was a dead end. He'd sabotaged the ships and trapped them here with no escape.