The water flowed in violent streams down the narrow tunnel, redder than the glow of the crystals on the wall. Nahlia fought down a shiver as the icy stream drenched her cloak and filled her fur-lined boots.
She'd drained the last of her pendant to heal Thane's wounds, but even that wasn't enough to bring him back to consciousness. Her arms still ached from the effort of dragging him out of the tomb.
Now, with the Chronicler contained and Thane safe, she could finally do what she came for.
Silence filled the cavern with no sounds of life or battle. Nahlia trudged up the sloped passageway, stepping around dozens of armored, mutilated corpses. She held her breath as the scents of death filled her nostrils.
It was a grim sight to be sure, but it also gave her a strange sense of hope. Hope that the Raider twins were still down here fighting for their lives against all odds.
The path widened into a larger space. Water cascaded down the stone walls like falling gems in the lamplight, pouring into a lake of rubies, pearls, and emeralds. More Templar corpses lay sprawled across the pathway...
And then she saw him.
Elias Raider lay on his back, a gaping hole on the left side of his chest. Dirt caked his hair, and his face was almost unrecognizable beneath the bruises and scrapes.
No sign of Ciena, but a quarterstaff lay beside Elias, and a trail of blood ran from there toward the surface. Almost as if someone dragged her away.
I was too late.
Nahlia collapsed on her knees before the body of Wolfe Clan's captain. She'd known Elias for less than a month, but he had been a true Aeon warrior. The sort of legendary Aeon from a story or song. The sort of person who readily sacrificed himself to protect innocents. More noble than she could ever hope to be.
Her sobs echoed in that empty place, but there was no one left to hear. The Aeons of Whitecliff had all retreated, and the Templars were nowhere to be seen. Despite all she had achieved with her abilities, an icy despair filled her chest, threatening to overwhelm her. Could Aegon have truly abandoned them? He'd given her the power to heal wounds, but what good was that in the face of death?
She couldn't afford to think that way. Not now; not when she had come so far and learned so much. The Ethermancers of old could heal any wound. Even death wasn't final for Treluwyn and her Redeemers.
But I'm not a Redeemer. Aegon had told her that much in the chapel.
Even so, Nahlia crept closer to Elias's body, clasping her hands over his still-bleeding chest. No pulse, but he was still warm to the touch.
"Please," she whispered to Aegon, hoping against hope that he was listening. "Let me bring him back."
She waited, but nothing happened. No sound, no sign, no breath of life. Nothing but the same hollow emptiness as before, so large and despairing that it threatened to consume her too.
"I have faith," Nahlia repeated, shaking, tears brimming in her eyes. "Please, let me heal him. Just this once, and I'll never doubt you again."
Several pairs of steel-bottomed boots echoed from across the clearing. An all too familiar sound.
"Where the hell are you going?" A faint voice demanded.
"Hang on," another replied, "I heard something down here."
A Templar soldier emerged from one of the smaller tunnels. A dozen riflemen followed. Then a dozen more after that.
"I won't run anymore," Nahlia said to the domed ceiling. "And I won't fight them. Give me the power, and I'll only use it to help. I swear to you, I won't use it for war."
Her courage shattered as a pair of riflemen stepped forward and trained their weapons on her.
She wasn't ready for this.
Fighting Zidane was different; that had been a battle of the mind, not of the body. These men had firearms. The weapons that haunted her ever since the night her mother died. The weapons that nearly killed her in the Mistwood.
Aegon. Could she ever be ready for this?
The officer pointed across the river and spoke the order. "Fire."
Explosions sounded, and a pair of bullets soared through the air.
Nahlia threw out a hand to stop them. This had worked back in Elveron's office when she deflected Relyn's staff. Maybe...
The first bullet cut through her palm, shredding skin and bone. The second took her in the stomach and she fell back.
The shallow water did nothing to break her fall. Pain screamed through her body as her head hit the rough stone floor. Nahlia couldn't even find her voice to scream.
She tried desperately to heal her own wounds, but she had no source of power to draw from. Her necklace had gone completely dark after healing Thane.
"Make sure she's dead." The officer's voice from across the river. A series of clattering footsteps followed.
The water ran past her cheeks, splashing into her nostrils and mouth. Nahlia could do nothing now but close her eyes and wait. She wasn't afraid of dying, she only wished she could have done more for Elias and Ciena.
A thousand thoughts and emotions flashed before her as Eternity approached. She'd made mistakes, but she was thankful for the time she did have. For the chance to make friends here at Whitecliff, and to learn Ethermancy. For the ten years of peace with her father and uncle in Northshire. For the seven years she had with her mother before that.
Nahlia didn't fear death or pain. So what was it then? Why did she fail when it mattered most?
Her mother's voice answered, quoting her journal again: 'Fear resides in every Aeon's heart. Not a fear of failure, but a fear that we are powerful beyond measure. More afraid of light than of darkness, we make ourselves small in the shadows. But being small does not serve the world.'
The footsteps grew closer, and Nahlia cracked open her eyes. Pinpricks of light blurred in her vision. Crystals in the cavern ceiling shining like distant stars in the night sky.
'Aegon gave us a small piece of his power, and it's up to us to make manifest of it."
Nahlia had read those words before, but she hadn't truly understood them. Maybe she was afraid of her own abilities ... afraid of what she might become.
How could she trust herself to know what was right when had failed so many times before? Countless other Aeons abused their power. How could she expect to be any different?
Maybe that was the real reason why the wisest Aeons turned to Aegon. What if he really did offer guidance to those who listened? If Nahlia had a second chance at life, she intended to find out.
She pulled a cold, trembling hand from the river and raised it toward the ceiling. The crystals were as far away as tree-tops, but she still felt them.
She would become a Redeemer now, or die trying.
The cavern grew darker as she claimed the light. A rush of relief swept over her as her body mended itself.
Nahlia rose on unsteady feet. Darkness shrouded the cave, but her pendant glowed once again.
Across the river, two-dozen Templars trained their rifles at her.
"Fire!" The officer bellowed the order this time.
The rifles exploded in a bone-shaking roar, erupting in a storm of orange sparks and gray smoke.
Once again, Nahlia raised a hand to defend herself. There was a flicker of bright light, and the bullets shattered before her, turning to dust in a deafening bang.
She barely had time to meet her assailant's eyes before another man jumped out of the shadows.
Nahlia raised her hand to catch his sword. Another flash of light knocked him back into the river.
She turned back to the gunmen then, and spoke slowly and deliberately, "Leave. "I'm only going to tell you once."
To her surprise, they did so. One after another, they retreated back into the tunnel.
Suddenly, she felt ridiculous for doubting herself. Ethermancy wasn't about pleading, negotiating or desperation. It was about faith, and using the gifts Aegon had already given her.
Nahlia closed her eyes and followed the current of her thoughts into the familiar serenity of the Ethereal. She felt the energy there, how it flowed into the physical world. Through the crystals, down the facets of the rocks and over the water's surface. She felt it as clear as the ground beneath her knees, fueled by her faith and purpose. The power to preserve and protect.
She pressed a hand to Elias Raider's wound and took a single breath. The river below them crystallized with ice. It was as if the universe itself were bending to her will, allocating its energy for this single purpose. His wounds resisted the healing, but Nahlia pushed the current harder, past the point of discomfort or pain. So hard, she felt as if her body and mind might shatter at the sheer weight of it. The sensation was like drowning. Like rapidly dying of thirst. Like trying to control a tornado with nothing but her bare hands.
Even now, feelings of doubt threatened to manifest. What if this was too much for her? What if she had to trade her life for his?
Nahlia smothered the doubts as quickly as they rose. This was her purpose. Her calling. As long as she knew that, she had nothing to fear.
The surrounding river turned to solid ice, and the air felt as drained as her own body. Finally, when all light and warmth had left the cave, Elias's heart began to beat once again.
Nahlia pulled her hand back as the muscles and skin reknit themselves, forming over, fast and smooth as flowing quicksilver.
When Elias Raider opened his eyes, Nahlia let her head fall to his chest, and she wept tears of joy.