Nahlia woke to a soft mattress, warm blankets, and the smell of soap. After more than a week of sleeping outdoors, the feeling was almost too good to be true.
Her shock faded a second later as the memories of last night came tumbling back. They'd left Starglade under unanimous agreement and stumbled upon this roadside inn. How many miles they walked, she couldn't say. Everything had passed in a blur after the battle.
The inn itself was barely a third the size of the Moonstone, which was still bigger than she'd expected considering where they were. Two stories tall, it had four private rooms and even a bathhouse. Once again, Nahlia did the negotiating for their food, beds, and baths. Not just because of her dark eyes, but also because the other three were covered in blood.
Groggily, she sat up, trying not to wake Relyn who was sleeping beside her. Elias slept in the next bed over, and Thane sat in the windowsill, leaning his head against the glass.
Sunlight streamed in through the window, painting the small space in shades of gold. Relyn's bow and quiver leaned against the hearth while blades and pistols littered the floor.
Nahlia pulled on her leather boots and wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. She murmured a quick greeting to Thane before making her way downstairs toward the privy.
The commonroom was empty but for the innkeeper and his assistant. A part of her had hoped to overhear some gossip about the dragon, but the snow was deep and most sensible folk would still be indoors at this hour.
She returned upstairs a few minutes later with a tray of eggs and bacon. By now, the other two were already awake. Elias paced back and forth on the creaking floorboards while Relyn sat half under the blankets, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"Any news?" Nahlia asked. The room didn't have a proper table, so she set the tray down on the nearest bed.
Relyn shook her head, scooting closer. "Lady Raider heard rumors of a dragon flying southwest over Darkdale. No guesses as to who was on it."
"I still think it was the Sile'zhar," Elias said.
Relyn's mouth made a thin line. "I told you before, the Sile'zhar have Ethermancers, but not ones like that."
"How do you know? Just because you trained with them doesn't mean they spilled all their darkest secrets."
"I just do." She ignored the forks and pulled a pair of dark wooden chopsticks from her travelsack. "What we saw last night was no natural thing. Word would spread if the Sile'zhar killed that way."
"Word would spread if anyone killed that way," Elias countered.
Nahlia leaned forward. "Why would the Sile’zhar go after Ciena?"
Elias shrugged, reaching for a piece of bacon. "Maybe they wanted to recruit her? Maybe they wanted to use her as bait to get to us? I don't know."
"Bait?" Nahlia looked back and forth between them. "If they knew we were searching for Ciena, then why fly off instead of waiting for us? With all the noise we made in town, they must’ve known we were there."
"See?" Relyn pointed her chopsticks in Nahlia's direction. "It's too conflated."
"Convoluted," Thane corrected from his place on the windowsill.
Relyn rolled her eyes, murmuring something in Valaysian. "My point is, the Sile'zhar work straight and true. Someone gives them a job, and they do it. If they find us again, they'll attack directly like they did before. No sense in killing forty Templars just to set a trap."
"Fair point,” Elais conceded. Then he turned back to Nahlia, "you said the Sile'zhar were with Zidane in Whitecliff. But he couldn't afford to hire them, could he? Does that mean they're all working for someone else?"
"Palatine," Nahlia said. "Zidane admitted to serving him."
Relyn looked thoughtful as she bit into a piece of bacon. "That makes sense. The Sile'zhar sided with him several years ago as well. It's the reason my uncle and I left the sect."
"What about your parents?" Elias asked. "They're still back in Valaysia, right?"
"They sided with him too, but my uncle and I knew better than to get involved with Palatine. We'd heard the stories; he claims to want a better Aeondom, but he's relentless in that goal, no matter the cost.”
Elias gave a slow nod. "I still don't understand what Palatine wants with Revera. I mean—I get sending a few assassins to retrieve the Codex, but why send a whole fleet here?"
Nahlia had wondered the same thing ever since she heard the news. Zidane's memories gave her glimpses of Palatine's plan so far, but what would happen once he arrived here? Would he destroy every faction that opposed him? What was the point of it all?
"Palatine has always wanted to rule Revera," Relyn explained. "Your land was once the strongest in Aeondom. A symbol of status and power."
"That's one reason," Thane said as he moved to join their conversation. "But there's a more practical one too." He pointed to the silver, crescent-shaped pendant that hung from his neck.
"Etherite?" Nahlia guessed.
Thane nodded. "Every Etherfall has happened on this continent, and the next one is less than five months away. It's no coincidence that Palatine chose now to invade."
"Less than five months?" Nahlia had read of these celestial events before. Apparently, Etherite wasn't natural to this world, but it was something that fell from the sky every few hundred years. She knew the next one was supposed to happen during her lifetime, but not so soon.
Thane nodded. "The fifteenth of Elomon, to be exact. Dragonshard's astrologists predicted it right before Palatine's fleet set sail..."
Thane trailed off as he spoke, and Nahlia could practically see his thoughts spinning. Perhaps he’d arrived at the same conclusion she did; as big as Palatine’s army was, it wasn’t enough to conquer a whole continent. For that, he would need allies, and Dragonshard was the obvious choice.
Elias plopped down on the other bed. "Unfortunately, none of this will help us find Ciena."
"You're right." Thane's voice carried an edge to it this time. "The truth is, we have no idea who took your sister, or where they are now. Regardless, we can't focus any more energy on finding her."
Elias looked like he might object, but Thane raised a hand. "When you joined us, you said you would help us get to Dragonshard. We agreed to go to Starglade because it was on the way. We did all we could to help Ciena, and we failed. Now, it's time to focus on our destination. You can either come with us, or you can follow your mother's orders and turn around."
"Orders?" Nahlia turned to Elias. "What orders?"
"Ah." Elias hung his head low, running a hand through his blond hair. "We were talking about that right before you walked in"—he gestured to Relyn—"my mother wants us to return home. With or without you."
"Oh." Nahlia's heart twisted at the words. "Well, what are you going to tell her?"
"I can't help anyone by going north." Elias met her eyes again. "But whoever took Ciena is headed south. That's where I need to be too. I said I'd see you safely to Dragonshard, so that's what I'll do."
They turned to Relyn next, and she gave a small nod of agreement. "I've waited three years to fight Palatine. If he's after this Codex of yours, we'll make sure he doesn't get it."
"Good." Thane strapped his scabbard to his belt. "Let's get moving then. We've lost enough daylight already."
They were out the door within thirty minutes, leaving behind the warm comfort of the inn for the winter cold. The sun was high in the sky, and bits of ice clung to the trees like gemstones.
Between this journey and her time in Whitecliff, Nahlia had experienced enough snow to last her a lifetime. Her only consolation was the fact that it would be warmer in the south. According to Thane, Dragonshard had a tropical climate, and he hadn't even seen snow until this past year.
They must have walked at least six miles by the time they finally stopped for a break. With no time to make a fire, they had flatbread and a bitter white cheese for lunch.
Nahlia found a dry log to sit on, and Elias joined her soon after.
"During the fight," he began," I couldn't help but notice your stance. It could use some work."
Nahlia laughed. "You're still my instructor, I see."
He shrugged. "I don't know much about Ethermancy, but I know combat. With some more practice, you could've beat that Sile'zhar in the Mistwood."
Nahlia shuddered as she remembered the flames searing through her leg and shoulder. She shot a quick glance in Thane's direction. It was infuriating traveling with an Ethermancer who refused to teach her anything. Thane said to practice, but how? With so much to learn, where was she supposed to start?
She turned back to Elias. "I take it there's more to fighting than how I'm standing?"
"We could work on your techniques together," Elias replied. "I am a martial arts instructor, after all."
"I don't know," Nahlia said. "Everything I've read about the Redeemers said they were pacifists. That they prevented bloodshed instead of causing it."
"And I can respect that," he said. "But you've already had to defend yourself once now. If you get ambushed again, we might not be there to help you."
"I won't kill anyone," Nahlia said with sudden resolve. "Not even in self-defense. I already tried learning combat in Whitecliff, and it was a mistake. It made me feel further from my calling than ever."
"I'm not talking about weapons," he replied. "Do you remember Moonform?"
"Of course. It's a defensive stance for fighting multiple opponents. Or someone stronger than you."
"Yes and no." He made a leveling gesture with his hand. "That's a good textbook definition, but one of my instructors said it better—he described a Moonform practitioner as an unlocked door."
Nahlia cocked her head. "A door?"
Elias nodded. "You can charge an unlocked door with all your might, but you'll always fall straight through it. The faster you charge, the harder you fall. In the end, you'll probably get hurt. But even if you do, was that the door's fault?"
Nahlia grinned at that. "So you take your opponent's force and use it against him."
"Exactly. Instead of opposing the force, you blend with it and redirect it. That's why it works so well against multiple opponents. They're as likely to hurt each other as they are you."
Possibilities raced through her mind as she envisioned the endless benefits. Nahlia had already seen Moonform in action plenty of times in the academy dojos. She'd even used the basic footwork in her fight with the Sile'zhar assassin. But what if she combined the more advanced moves with her Ethermancy? What could she accomplish then?
"Besides," Elias continued. "I've been thinking about the name. The moon is your clan's sigil, right? For all we know, your ancestors were the one to invent this form in the first place. And the Redeemers—"
"You don't need to sell me on it anymore," Nahlia told him. "I’m in."
“Good.” Elias stood and offered her his hand. "We start today."