Nahlia watched from a distance as Marwyn's party filtered in the gate between two massive stalagmites. Most were strangers whom she didn't recognize; members of the battleclans, limping, shuffling, and nursing their wounds. She spotted the Raider twins at the back of the column carrying a stretcher between them. Kalak Demeron followed with an unconscious boy thrown over his shoulders.
When they reached the docks, Mistress Academia swept down the ship's ramp to meet them. Her gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wrapped her fox fur cloak tightly across her chest.
She and Marwyn exchanged several quick words regarding their current predicament. As Nahlia suspected, someone had sabotaged all three ships the day before.
"How long for the repairs?" Marwyn asked.
"Half an hour," Vaulden replied. Her voice was strained and weary, and Nahlia could hear one of her seventy-five years. "And the Templars?"
Elias stepped forward. "Our scouts reported sightings in the caves to the southwest, less than a mile from here. At the rate they're gaining ... it's a matter of minutes."
At this, several worried conversations sprang up around the dock. Nahlia abandoned her place in the shadows and scooted closer to hear.
"There she is!" A hoarse voice bellowed. "She sabotaged the boats!"
Nahlia looked up to see a leather-clad man pointing a finger straight at her.
Great. Should have seen this coming.
She was about to defend herself when Ciena spoke first. "You idiot. Vaulden just said this happened yesterday. How did the half-blood poke holes in the ships when she was chained up in a cell?"
"Well, clearly she's not in there now," he shot back with a wave of his arm.
"Enough." Marwyn threw up his hands in annoyance. "Argue later. Templars coming now. Need a plan."
Vaulden nodded in agreement, her violet eyes scanning the crowd. "Where are the others? Battlemaster Vash and the Seekers?"
This time, it was Kalak Demeron who answered. "We lost more than half our numbers in the courtyard, and the Battlemaster stayed behind as we retreated. We're all that's left now."
No one spoke for a long moment after that, and the cave crew quiet enough to hear the lapping of waves against the seawall.
"We have to go back." Ciena murmured, more to herself than to the others. She and her brother exchanged an enigmatic look. then she stood taller to address the battleclans "We have to hold them off. To give the workers more time."
Demeron rubbed his temple. "Hold them off? Raider—you're talking about us against two-thousand Templars?"
She paused as if weighing her words."You heard what Vash said. We've been preparing our whole lives for this fight."
"There's fighting," he said, "and there's suicide. After what they did to us in the courtyard..."
"The same thing will happen here if we don't go," Elias retorted. "We don't have to win. We just need to buy the ships more time."
Ciena nodded. "Might as well do it on our own terms. We can make our stand in the narrow sections. Create confusion, and divide their ranks. Their numbers won't help them then."
The crowd parted for her and her brother as they made their way back toward the gate. Ciena turned around between the two stalagmites. "Now, who's coming with us?"
For a moment, Kalak Demeron looked like he might object again. Instead, he stepped forward. "Lead the way, captain."
The rest of Howler Clan followed him through the gate, along with the surviving members of Bear, Fox and Raven Clan. They gave no shouts or battlecries as they departed, just silent certainty and conviction.
"Wait!" Nahlia pushed her way through the crowd, jogging to catch up. She couldn't sit here and do nothing while they fought and sacrificed themselves. She had to do something.
"Elias!" She called out to the front of the column.
He turned to face her, eyes wide with surprise. Ciena continued to lead the others forward.
"I want to come with you," she panted.
"You can't," he replied with a firm shake of his head.
She drew her lips to a thin line. "Why not?"
"You said it yourself: you're no fighter."
"This is different."
"You're right, this time it's real. You don't belong in a battle."
"I can still help you," she replied "What about my Ethermancy? You've seen what I can do."
Even as he scanned her face and examined her closed wounds, Nahlia knew that wouldn't be enough. She'd only ever healed herself before. and that ability was still wild and unpredictable.
"We need people we can trust out there," Elias said after a short pause. "I know you aren't guilty of everything the council said, and I know none of this is your fault ... but you still betrayed us."
He spoke without spite or malice, which made his words sting all the more. Elias had rescued her, but trust couldn't be mended in a day. He didn't want her fighting by his side. None of them did.
In the face of that realization, she could do nothing but stand behind in stunned silence as he turned and left.
Nahlia stayed close to Marwyn in the half hour that followed. Mostly because he was one of the few people here who didn't want her dead. The minutes dragged on as she shadowed the Master Physician around the docked ships, assisting with patients and carrying supplies.
Though a moment's peace had finally come, a new struggle consumed her body as all the day's pain and weariness surged through her. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep deprivation. It all came crashing down like an avalanche.
Every few minutes, she would glance back at the closed gate at the far end of the grotto, hoping to see the doors swing open, and the return of the battleclans.
But of course, neither Aeon nor Templar tried to come through.
Eventually, Marwyn's rounds brought them over to the same ship as Yimo and Relyn Vash. The two were laying on the wooden deck, crammed between two-dozen other injured students and soldiers.
Nahlia practically collapsed as she knelt between them. "How are you two feeling?"
"Wonderful." Yimo patted his back. "It barely hurts at all anymore."
Nahlia frowned. Was he being serious or sarcastic? Sometimes it was impossible to tell.
Marwyn looked equally confused as he knelt down to examine the crelan. "This was a bullet wound? Who treated you?"
"An absolutely stunning blonde," Yimo answered at once. "I have to say, there aren't women like her in the battleclans." Then as an afterthought, he glanced over at Nahlia and Relyn. "No offense."
"We will assume that's the fadeflower talking," Relyn said.
Nahlia shifted around on the floor and met the other girl's eyes.
For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then Relyn said, "Thank you ... for not leaving me behind."
Nahlia drew in a breath, searching for a reply. She rested a hand on the other girl's knee, then her jade eyes grew suddenly wide.
Nahlia recoiled. "What's wrong?"
"I..." Her gaze darted to her legs, and back to Nahlia. "I felt that."
"What's this?" Marwyn looked up from Yimo's wound and made his way over.
Relyn held her breath as if she were afraid to speak the words. "I think ... think I can feel my legs again."
Marwyn gestured for Nahlia to remove the blanket, and she pulled it to the side. He drew a sharp, needle-like utensil from his satchel and poked her right foot. "Can you feel this?"
"Yes." She gave a brisk nod, her lips curling into a grin.
He poked her left foot next. "And this?"
Relyn nodded again, and her eyes welled with tears. "Yes."
She turned to Nahlia then. "You healed me in the caves. I remember—when my stretcher broke and you carried me—the crystals flickered, and I felt stronger than before. It was Ethermancy."
"What?" Nahlia looked back and forth between them. "No. No, It must be a coincidence. I couldn't have done that."
"No coincidence," Marwyn broke in. "She's right. Even for this to heal naturally, should have taken months. Maybe years. No medicine could do this. Only Ethermancy."
Before she could object again, Marwyn pointed to where Yimo lay behind her. "And you treated his wound before my assistant did. Should have taken days to heal. Now, less than an hour."
Nahlia barely even heard the words. Their meaning was too large for her to gather at once. She was still processing everything when the captain bellowed an order for all to board. They'd finished the repairs.
Everything happened in a blur after that. Marwyn stood and disappeared somewhere into the crowd. The captains continued to bark out orders. Sails were raised, and anchors were reeled in.
Nahlia shot a quick glance toward the gate and saw that it was still closed.
"Wait." she looked frantically between Yimo and Relyn. "We're not leaving without them, are we?"
Relyn reached to take Nahlia's hand. "We leave as soon as the ships are ready. That's the protocol."
"But—Elias ... Ciena..."
"They knew what they were doing when they stayed behind," she said. "So did my uncle. There's nothing we can do for them now ... except pray that Aegon will keep them safe."
"No." Nahlia shook her head. "Aegon doesn't work that way. He sent the Aeons to do his work. He sent us."
Then she grabbed the railing and hauled herself to her feet just as the massive wooden doors wedged open at the end of the tunnel. A sliver of morning light shone through the gap. Clear skies, calm waters, and a promise of freedom.
Freedom... Yesterday, that was all she wanted. If she stayed on this ship, she could see her father again. She could go back to the way things were.
But no... she couldn't leave Elias and Ciena to die. Not after they'd risked their lives for her. Not while she had strength left to give.
She'd been conflicted so many times before this moment, wondering whether it was better to flee or fight. Whether it was better to work with Thane, or the Aeons of Whitecliff. Now, finally, the choice was clear.
Elias was right, she was no fighter, but she was a healer; that much was certain now.
She belonged on the front lines.