Nahlia toppled over, falling into confusion with no sense of up or down. Her neck burned with hot lines of pain as if someone had just run a steel blade across her throat. After a second of shock, the pain gave way to numbness as all feeling left her body. From the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet. Even her mind threatened to go dark.
She'd spent weeks training with this substance in Whitecliff. Hours upon hours of being hit with coated-blades in the Battlegrounds. What's more, she was the only person who could counter its effects.
Nahlia closed her eyes and concentrated, pulling a burst of radiance from her Etherite pendant and purifying her blood. She imagined a current of cool white light filling her veins, chasing out the poison as a fire chases out the darkness. Her hands clenched into fists as her fingers found their strength. The entire process took no more than a few heartbeats.
Thane's hand touched her neck, and his fingers gripped the dart. He yanked it free, and a warm ribbon of blood spilled out from the hole.
"Get down!" She sprang to her feet as more darts shot from the darkness.
This time, Nahlia was ready for them.
She threw out her hands and formed a protective barrier around herself and Thane. A deafening crack reverberated through the clearing as the darts shattered in a burst of white light. For a split second, the forest was as bright as day—a flash of lightning in a dark storm.
Silence followed as soft raindrops pattered against the snow, then a black-clad man emerged from the trees. Flames burned in his open palms, each one as large as their campfire had been. A black mask shrouded his face, with only a narrow slit for his eyes.
"Hand over the Codex," the stranger told Nahlia. His voice was low and even, with a thick Valaysian accent.
Nahlia stiffened, feeling the weight of the ancient artifact in her bag. It hadn't left her side since Whitecliff.
Another dark form appeared behind her at the opposite end of the clearing. This one had a katana in hand.
Thane put his back to Nahlia's, and she heard the slow rasp of steel as he drew his own blade.
"Who are you?" Nahlia demanded of the Ethermancer in front of her.
He raised his hands as if preparing to throw the fire. "You have three seconds."
Nahlia's heartbeat quickened, and she struggled to keep her expression calm. Could she block fire? She'd asked Thane to practice with her a dozen times over the last week, but he'd always made excuses.
Now she knew why.
"You could have chosen any poison," she shouted back. "But you chose a non-lethal one. What else do you want from us?"
"Two," the stranger replied.
Well, so much for a peaceful resolution.
"You can take him," Thane whispered behind her. "Just like the Templars in the cave."
Nahlia drew in a shaky breath and fell into Moonform, the defensive stance she'd learned in Whitecliff. Feet apart, one in front of the other. Elbows out, palms raised toward your opponent.
Without warning, Thane rushed the sword-wielder, and the night rang with the clash of steel.
The Ethermancer attacked Nahlia with a blast of fire. She pressed her eyes shut as the flame closed in. Her barrier held back the heat, but the force of it sent her stumbling back.
Nahlia tightened her jaw in concentration, cycling more energy from her necklace into the barrier. The assassin continued bombarding her with blasts of orange flame. His strikes came as fast as arrows, each one fiercer than the last.
Snow crunched beneath her boots as she staggered back into the woods, putting a tree between herself and her opponent. He hit her with a dozen more attacks. Some curved around the narrow trunk; others broke through it.
Splinters and bark shattered against her shield. Her palms prickled with sweat as the assassin moved closer. With each passing second, it took more effort to draw power from the pendant. What happens when I run out?
Nahlia smothered that thought. Ethermancy required absolute faith and focus. If the panic swooped to the forefront of her mind, she may lose this ability entirely.
The clamor of steel rang out as Thane exchanged blows with the other assassin. He couldn't help her now. She had to figure something out on her own.
The Ethermancer ceased his attacks but kept moving forward. A pair of long knives appeared like stingers in each of his hands.
Nahlia switched to the offensive, heaving her barrier forward with a push of her arms. The motion felt clumsier than she'd imagined, but it served its purpose. Another burst of light erupted as her shield caught the assassin mid-swing, knocking him back into a tree.
He rebounded at once, hurling another blast of fire her way. Nahlia jumped to the side, but her boot caught on a nearby log. A second attack seared through her leg as she fell. A third took her in the shoulder, hot as an iron branding.
Tears blurred her vision as she lay in the undergrowth. Her instincts told her to heal herself, but the barrier was more important.
Get up, she scolded herself. Get up.
The Ethermancer loomed over her, flames crackling between his fingers.
Nahlia raised her hand again, but every fiber of her ached with the effort of it. Not just her body, but her resolve as well.
Something sharp whistled through the air. The assassin's head jerked forward, and the flames extinguished in his hands.
Her opponent’s body arched and fell forward, revealing the arrow lodged in the back of his skull.
Confused, Nahlia sat up on her good knee. Behind the dead assassin stood Relyn Vash with her Valaysian shortbow. Her raven hair thrashed back and forth in its long braid.
The clash of steel rang out again, and the other woman whirled around and ran toward the source.
Nahlia struggled to her feet and limped after her. She breathed a small amount of energy into a leg, but not too much. Her pendent was running low, and someone else might need it more than her.
When she reached the clearing, Thane was sparring with another man. But this wasn't the black-clad assassin he'd been fighting before. This man wore crimson-leather armor and fought with a pair of katanas. He was tall and muscular, with short blond hair.
Thane was relentless in his attacks—a whirlwind of shadow and steel. Elias gave ground, dodging and parrying every blow.
"Stop!" Nahlia tried to run, but she could do no more than limp with her wounded leg. When she reached the clearing, three archers had their bows trained on the duel. One was Relyn Vash, and the other two were men Nahlia didn't recognize.
Thane pounded his sword against Elias's until he landed a blow on the other man’s shoulder. His blade broke through the leather armor and came back red with blood.
Elias retaliated, slashing his off-hand weapon against Thane's cheek.
"Stop it!" Nahlia staggered forward and put herself between them. She threw up a shield on either side, throwing back the duelists.
For a moment, they lay in the snow, staring up at her in the dim light. Elias held a hand to his wounded shoulder, and Thane's cheek was spattered with red.
Nahlia shut her eyes and drained the last bit of energy from her necklace, healing their wounds.
Elias got to his feet first and broke the silence. His voice came out hoarse and breathless. "Nahlia, this is the man who killed Headmaster Elveron. He forced you to give him—"
"Your Headmaster was a liar and a hypocrite!" Thane shot back. "He told you Ethermancy was a lie, and then he tried to kill me with it."
For Aegon’s sake. Nahlia clenched her teeth, resisting the urge to shout at them. Those wounds could've been lethal out here in the wilderness, and they still wanted to keep on fighting.
She made a placating gesture toward Thane, then turned to face Elias. "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think I'm doing here? Everyone else is busy looking for Ciena, so I offered to lead a squad and find you."
"So, what?" Nahlia asked. "You're here to bring us back for judgment?"
His golden eyes darted from her to her companion.
"No..." Nahlia glanced back at Relyn and the other two archers. They still had their arrows trained on Thane. "She wanted me alive. But your parents were going to execute Thane anyway, weren't they?"
Elias thrust out an accusing finger. "Solidor was imprisoned for his crimes against Whitecliff. You had no right to break him out of there."
"You also broke me out," she reminded him. "For the exact same reasons."
"That was different. Solidor was manipulating you. He probably still is."
Nahlia shook her head. Her left leg trembled with the simple effort of supporting herself, but she was all that stood between them. She tried to pull more energy from her pendant, but it was like drinking from an empty glass. "I can see how it might look that way, but I know what I'm doing."
She raked in a breath as she considered her words. Thane would object to her telling them anything, but secrets had never helped her before. "I'm going to Dragonshard to see my mother. This is my choice, and I'm not turning back."
Relyn shifted her aim toward her. "Are you going to fight us too, then?"
Nahlia kept her eyes firmly on Elias's. "You owe me your life. You're not going to fight me."
Surprise flashed across his face, then his expression softened. She had already told him what happened after the battle of Whitecliff, but they hadn't had a chance to discuss it properly. Most people—including his own family—didn’t believe she’d brought him back from the dead. But Elias knew; he remembered dying, and he remembered the relief of coming back.
He lowered his eyes, then he sheathed his right blade. "No. Of course I won't fight you."
Relyn kept her arrow nocked, and her jade-green eyes narrowed. "You're going to let them go? Your mother—"
"They're leaving the north," Elias said as he sheathed his off-hand weapon. "They're no longer a threat to Clan Raider or the other survivors."
Nahlia felt some of the tension leave her as she waited to hear the catch. Obviously, he hadn't come all this way just to turn around empty-handed.
There was a pause as Elias rubbed at his temple. "I thought your mother died ten years ago. What do you mean ‘you're going to see her in Dragonshard’?"
"I—" Nahlia bit her lip. "I believe she's alive."
"Did Solidor tell you that?"
She gave a small nod. "I know what you're thinking. I don't have any concrete evidence. But all the same, I know it's true."
"Look," he said, "it's obvious you trust Solidor. But how far does that trust go? Given all that's happened, can you say with certainty that he doesn't have an ulterior motive here?"
Nahlia hesitated. She felt the foundation of trust beginning to take shape between them, but it was far from whole. Thane's vow to bring her to Dragonshard had been earnest, but what happened once they got there? There was a reason she’d refused to let him carry the Codex. This artifact was one of many reasons he came to Whitecliff, that much he'd admitted already. What if he still had plans for it?
Her silence was all the answer they needed.
"I'll make you a deal,” Elias said. “I'll send the others back if you let me accompany you."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Thane stepped to her side, sword still raised. "He'll report back to his mother the first chance he gets, then she'll send a dozen more agents our way."
"Don't flatter yourself," Elias said. "Relyn and I killed those assassins. You'd be dead if we hadn't intervened."
"Why?" Nahlia asked before Thane could muster up another retort. "Why do you want to come with us?"
"First of all," he said. "I don't trust Solidor. And if we can't bring you back peacefully, this is a compromise my parents will have to accept.”
Nahlia grimaced. “By helping us reach our goal? Somehow, I doubt they’ll see that as a compromise.”
“Maybe not,” he replied. “But they aren’t here right now. I am, and I believe this is the right thing to do. I can order the others back, and I can make sure we don't encounter any more of my mother's agents along the way."
Nahlia nodded, considering. Elias Raider had respected her before, more than anyone else ever had. He came for her in the cells even when she didn't deserve it. He was one of the few people in this world who didn't have some ulterior motive. One of the few people she could fully trust.
Nahlia turned to Thane. Her wounds still screamed at her, and she wanted to resolve this quickly. "We should accept his offer."
"This is a mistake," Thane whispered with a shake of his head.
"We expected Raider agents and Templars on the road." Nahlia gestured down to the body of the black-clad assassin. "But we didn't prepare for this. If they attack us again, three is better than two."
"Four." Relyn Vash stepped forward, shouldering her bow and facing Elias. "Someone has to watch your back as well."
Elias opened his mouth as if he might object, then he closed it. "Four, then."
Thane finally lowered his own weapon, but his eyes were still hard as they met Nahlia's. "There's no guarantee they won't turn on us. He could get new orders from his parents, and everything could change."
"I owe Nahlia my life," Elias said, nodding toward Relyn. "We both do."
The Valaysian woman crossed her arms. "She pushed me out the window before she healed me. That makes us even, at best."
"Wonderful," Thane said. "So we've all betrayed or tried to kill each other at least once."
“Nonetheless,” Elias said. “I give you my word, I’ll accompany you to Dragonshard as an ally. Nothing my parents say will change that.”
Nahlia turned to Thane. "So you agree to this?"
Reluctantly, Thane gave a terse nod. If he still had his Ethermancy, things might have been different. Now, he knew as well as her that they had little choice in the matter.
"Good." Elias turned around to face the other two archers. Nahlia finally recognized them as members of Howler Clan.
"Go back to Dresten," he told them. "When my mother asks what happened, tell her the truth."
The archers regarded him for a moment, then they turned around, loping back into the forest without looking back.
Once they were gone, Elias glanced down at the assassin's body. The black-clad man had a sword wound in his back, staining the snow a deep crimson. "We should search them for clues. Find out who they are, and why they were after you."
"Don't bother with that," Relyn said. "Those men were Sile'zhar."
Thane rubbed his chin. "I thought so."
“The assassin sect?” Elias snapped his head up. “What do they want with you?”
“They’re not just assassins,” Relyn said. “If they were trying to kill you, we wouldn’t be talking now. They wanted something from you."
“Long story," Thane said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "But we can still take their weapons. Poisons, antidotes, and any other valuables they're carrying."
With the others distracted, Nahlia finally let herself collapse on a nearby log. Thane must've realized her wounds weren't healing because he took a step closer and pressed his own pendant into her palm. The burst of Etherite filled her with newfound strength, and she set to work healing herself.
Too exhausted to speak, she glanced up in gratitude. His own face was still sharp and concerned as he looked from her to their new companions.
Regardless of how long this fragile alliance lasted, their journey just became much more complicated.