Nahlia sat beneath a stone archway in the ruins of an ancient chapel. They'd been lucky to find this place last night, stumbling through the dark Mistwood as they were.
After they'd burned and buried the evidence from the Sile'zhar attack, Thane led them several miles south, putting some distance between themselves and their old campsite. Relyn Vash had been the one to spot these ruins on top of a hill. The doors and windows were long gone, but the walls were sturdy enough to ward off the elements.
Nahlia struggled to keep her eyes open by the time they stumbled inside. Whitecliff had hardened her muscles to iron, but she still lacked the endurance to walk thirty miles in a single day.
What's worse, Thane and Elias each refused to sleep unless someone besides the other stood watch. On one hand, that was understandable considering they'd just been fighting to the death. On the other hand ... this was going to be a very long journey.
The scrape of steel rang out over the cloister, and Nahlia stood to see Elias Raider sitting on a short brick wall, running a whetstone over his katana. She wrapped her cloak tighter across her chest as she stepped outside, eager for the sun's warmth. It was just a misty haze over the tree line now, but even that was a welcome sight after countless days of dull gray clouds.
The chapel itself was made of crumbling gray stone with trees and vines growing between the gaps. A score of tombstones were scattered throughout the courtyard on either side of her. Most had their names and sigils deliberately scraped off as if their very presence had offended someone. Other stones stuck out from the dirt at lopsided angles, looking more natural than man made.
However, one of the larger headstones caught Nahlia's eye as she passed it. This one had a crescent moon carved in relief along the top—the sigil of Clan Trelian and the Redeemers.
Is that who these people were? Ethermancy was rare, but she'd also seen half a dozen people control fire in the past month. First Thane, then the Chronicler, and now these mysterious assassins.
That was all well and good, but what about her power? Where were the others who could heal wounds and stop bullets? Even Thane admitted he'd never seen anyone like her before.
Something had happened to the Redeemers long ago ... something that made them far rarer than the other two orders. Did it have something to do with Whitecliff and the fact that her ancestors had founded it? What if they needed a place to hide, even before the Purge?
Behind her, Elias stopped running the whetstone over his blade. "Relative of yours?"
"Hard to say." Nahlia pivoted around to face him. Elias sat reclined against an oak tree with his katana resting on his knees. The morning sun hit his face just right, and her heartbeat quickened.
"I wouldn't have expected to find tombstones outside a chapel," she said as she shuffled over to join him. "Don't Aeons burn their deceased?"
"They do," he replied. "But only for the last two centuries. There was some superstition back then about Ethermancers who could raise the dead. Not true of course, but we've kept up the tradition all the same."
Nahlia sat on the stone wall beside him, close enough to inhale the leather scent of his armor. Technically, raising someone from the dead was possible, as they both knew. But he was also right to call it superstition. That power came from Aegon, and he would never let anyone misuse it in the way those stories implied.
Elias tucked his blade back into its scabbard, and Nahlia feigned interest in the surrounding scenery. A dozen questions quivered on her lips. How did it feel to come back from the dead? Did this mean he trusted her again, or had she destroyed that trust by escaping with Thane? Did he still feel the same way about her as he did back in Whitecliff, or was that in the past now?
But Nahlia asked none of these things. She'd grown bolder in the recent months, but not so bold as that.
Instead, It was Elias who broke the silence. "So, what's this 'Codex' I've been hearing about?"
Her eyes flew wide as she turned to face him. "I beg your pardon?"
"The Sile'zhar told you to hand it over ... right before he attacked you."
Nahlia pursed her lips as realization thundered into her. "You were watching us the whole time?"
"Sorry." Elias shrugged a shoulder. "I thought that was obvious. It would've been a little convenient for us to find you right after they attacked, wouldn't it?"
True enough. She should have realized that on her own, but it seemed unimportant at the time with everything else going on.
"We would have intervened sooner," he continued, "but we had to gauge Solidor's strength. We expected him to be more like that fire-throwing assassin you fought. Apparently not?"
Nahlia brushed the question aside as it wasn't her secret to share. "Well, thanks for jumping in when you did. Who knows what they would've done to us if you hadn't been there."
Elias gave her his easy smile, settling back against the tree. "Can you at least tell me what that assassin wanted from you?"
She reached a hand to her travelsack, feeling the dark artifact within. It was about the size of an apple, but twice as heavy. She'd touched it with her bare hands once before—an experience she'd rather forget.
Elias must have sensed her discomfort because he continued, "When my parents arrived at the enclave, they sent salvage teams down into the lower caves. They found the doors to the tomb wide open, along with an empty pedestal. At first, we assumed Zidane took whatever was hidden there..."
Nahlia shook her head. "He tried to. It was the whole reason he brought us to Whitecliff. Me and Thane, that is."
He nodded. "Your necklace was the key to the door, wasn't it? You had one half of the key, and Solidor had the other."
Nahlia gave him a sideways glance.
"Remember," he said. "I lived in Whitecliff almost a full ten years before you showed up. I knew every square inch of that door. Anyway"—he gave her an open-palmed gesture—"Continue."
Nahlia bit her lip, trying to recall the definition. "Thane called the Codex a repository of knowledge. When we die, our thoughts return to the Ethereal, but they're wild and untamed. Mere remnants of what we were in life. This lets us actually talk to someone who's dead. In this case, whoever that tomb belonged to."
She waited to see if Elias had any guesses as to who was buried there. When nothing was forthcoming, she continued. "Honestly, neither of us know that much about it. Just that it's dangerous, and that we had to keep it from falling into the wrong hands."
Elias drew his fingers down his jawline. "Must be dangerous if it was worth all this trouble. You could have asked someone for help with it though. My parents—"
"I tried talking to your mother before I left," Nahlia reminded him.
"I know," he said with a weary sigh. "She'd been through a lot with the attack on the enclave. If you'd given her a few days..."
"You mean after they executed Thane?"
As if on cue, Thane emerged from the archway at the front of the chapel. He knelt down and assembled some logs, presumingly to build a breakfast fire.
Elias rubbed at his shoulder. "What is it about him, anyway?"
"You're asking why I helped him escape?"
"Why did you help me escape after my trial?" she countered.
"Because..." He ran a hand through his blond hair. "You didn't deserve to die for what happened. It was wrong to share information with the Templars, but you were also a victim. The council accused you of treason, but you owed us no loyalty. They accused you of murder, but there were other factors at play. They wanted to resolve the issue quick and easy, but it would've accomplished nothing."
Nahlia curled her lips into a faint smile. "Then you know why I helped Thane."
"But it's not the same thing." His brow furrowed. "Solidor really did kill Elveron, didn't he?"
'He did, but..." She was about to explain how it was self-defense, then thought better of it. Thane had already made that same argument last night, for all that good that did. Some truths took time to process.
"Everyone these days is so quick to punish each other for what they've done in the past," Nahlia said. "It's been twenty years since Aeons ruled, and there are still humans hunting us down. And I've seen just as many Aeons eager to shed Templar blood. What if forgiveness is the first step toward peace?"
Relyn Vash emerged from the chapel a second later, practically jogging across the cemetery to where they sat.
This can't be good.
"Word from my mother?" Elias asked.
Relyn gave a brisk nod as she came to a halt in front of them.
"Let me guess," he said, "she disagrees with my decision to travel south."
"We didn't get to that." Relyn waved a dismissive hand. "She got a lead on Ciena."
Elias jumped up from his seat. "What? Where is she?"
"Starglade, according to the new Knight Commander. His scouts spotted between thirty and fifty rebel Templars camped out in an abandoned mine. They had one prisoner who fits her description."
The Knight Commander. Nahlia brightened at the thought of her father making peace with the Raiders. But at the same time, she felt left out in the cold. Where was he now? Searching for her, or preoccupied with the dealings of war?
By now, their conversation had attracted Thane's attention. He strode over to join them, black cloak billowing in the morning wind.
"How did they know it was her?" Elias asked.
"Lady Raider spoke with Ciena last night," Relyn continued. "And she confirmed it ... sort of."
"So my mother was able to get through to her then? What else did she say?"
Relyn looked down, brushing several strands of black hair from around her face. "Ciena believes you're dead. You, and your parents. When they spoke last night ... she wasn't herself. She thought your mother was an illusion."
"Aegon." Elias's eyes widened and his mouth made several attempts at forming words. "I have to help her."
"You're right," Thane said with no particular inflection. "You should go."
Nahlia shot him a glare. "He can't go by himself."
"He wouldn't be." Thane met her eyes before turning back to Elias. "You said your mother has her 'best agents' looking for Ciena. I assume they're making their way toward Starglade as well?"
Relyn cleared her throat. "The group she sent to investigate hasn't returned. The rest of them are all two days away or more. She wants—"
"And how far is Starglade from here?" Nahlia asked.
Thane rubbed at his eyes. "Twenty miles southwest. Maybe more."
"So we could be there today if we had to," she replied.
"We?" Thane gestured to Relyn. "You heard what she said. Not only do they outnumber us ten to one, but the last group who went there hasn't returned."
"All the same," Elias said. "I know you have a sister too. What would you do if someone held her captive?
"I'd go and rescue her," Thane replied. "But I wouldn't expect everyone else to drop what they're doing and rally behind me."
"We saved you from those Sile'zhar," Elias pointed out.
"And what?" Thane's voice grew sharper. "Am I supposed to thank you for stabbing that assassin in the back and not me? For all I know, you flipped a coin."
Elias narrowed his eyes at that. "My parents wanted you dead. And my mother’s agents would have put an arrow in your chest when you least expected it. That was why I volunteered to go after you myself."
Nahlia moved to stand between them, turning to face Thane. "When we left Evervault, we talked about redeeming ourselves. This could be the first step. Ciena came for me when I needed help, and she was captured because she stayed behind defending Whitecliff. She deserves better than this."
"I understand what you're saying," Thane said. "But we're bound to run into more situations like this between here and Dragonshard. We can't save everyone."
Elias let out a huff of annoyance. "So you’d ignore everyone who needs help?"
"There's a difference between ignoring a fight, and traveling six hours out of your way to seek one out."
"But it's not really out of our way," Nahlia broke in. "We're traveling south regardless." An idea kindled inside her then. "How about a compromise? We go to Starglade and scout out the area, but we don't move against the Templars unless all four of us agree on a plan?"
Relyn cleared her throat for the second time. "If you had let me finish before, that was what Lady Raider asked of me."
"My mother wanted us to go there alone?" Elias asked.
She nodded, standing tall and formal. "Specifically, she wanted me to scout the area for her, and sabotage the Templars if possible."
He raised an eyebrow. "Just you?"
Thane rubbed at the stubble on his chin, regarding Relyn Vash as if for the first time. "I suspect our companion's been holding out on us. You have a skillset that Lady Raider’s other agents lack, don’t you? Some training with a particular assassin sect?"
That seemed like a leap of logic to Nahlia. Sure, Relyn had identified their attackers last night, but so had Thane. Then again, Relyn hadn't come to Revera until she was sixteen. Her thick Valaysian accent was enough to give that away.
"I spent time with the Sile’zhar," Relyn confirmed with a nod. "For several years before I came to Whitecliff."
"You never told me that," Elias said.
“My uncle told me not to share it with the other students,” she replied. "Certain skills are less effective when everyone expects them."
That much, Nahlia knew from personal experience. Whitecliff's Battlemaster had Relyn following her ever since her arrival in the enclave. She'd probably done similar assignments for him before that.
"Does this mean you know Ethermancy too?" Nahlia asked.
"No." Relyn gave the slightest grimace. "They tested me as a child, but only a small fraction of the sect are capable of that. I can still get into a Templar camp without being seen though."
"Well," Thane said. "As exceptional as we all are, it's still ten to one. We'll need a plan if we want to succeed."
"So you agree to go?" Nahlia asked him.
Thane threw up a finger. "I agree to have a look around. But if their defenses are too strong—"
"We'll back off and wait for reinforcements," Elias finished for him. "Sounds reasonable to me. Let’s go."