People always described Raidenwood as "the city on a bridge."
To Nahlia, bridges were small, wooden walkways that hovered a few feet above the ground. Northshire had a score of them on the Emperor's Road, crossing the narrow creeks between the vineyards.
Dresten's bridges had been far more impressive, arching over the canals where the mountain rivers emptied into The Frozen Sea. These were built of bricks or solid stone, with ornamented railings and archways big enough to sail a boat under.
But to construct an entire city on a bridge? A city with tens of thousands of people? Elias said the Divide was half-a-mile across, but still ... that sounded crowded at best. Far from the grandeur one might expect from a famous Aeon city.
But then, what did Raiden—Archaeon of strength—care for grandeur? He’d built his city here so his people would spend everyday fighting. Not just the Imperium’s enemies, but the elements themselves.
"How much farther?" Relyn hollered from the back of the column.
"Not far," Thane said. "We should see it once we're over this hill."
Thane and his friend Joron had plans to meet at an inn outside the city, and he'd set a grueling pace the last few days. Nahlia might've been the first to complain if not for her Ethermancy which gave her an extra boost of stamina.
"It will be worth it," Thane had told them the day before. "Joron's bringing us enough Voidcap to last a fortnight. Just think, we can travel the Emperor's Road without worrying about patrols. We can stay at as many inns as we want, and we can eat at the table like civilized people."
Gusts of wind assailed them when they reached the hilltop, disheveling their hair and cloaks. Nahlia squinted her eyes as they adjusted from the dark forest to the light of the setting sun. Finally, she took in the vast sight of the Divide.
The canyon stretched all the way from one horizon to the other. The sides were rough gray stone, scattered with patches of green vegetation. Mist rose from the river that raged hundreds of feet below.
Elias put a hand on her shoulder and pointed southward to what she assumed was his home. "That's it," he said. "Right over there."
Nahlia squinted again. From here, Raidenwood was nothing but a blur of colors in the distant fog.
Thane led them along the canyon's edge. As the city came into focus, so did the answers to her questions. Calling Raidenwood a bridge was like calling a forest a tree. The city wasn't built on one bridge, but more like fifty. Some ran parallel to one another while others were stacked like shelves on a bookcase.
The larger ones were as wide as city blocks with massive stone supports that ran down to the bottom of the river. Buildings sat on top of these, ranging from five to ten stories tall. Hundreds of windows dotted the bridge’s stone sides, and she realized there were dwellings inside the bridges as well as on top of them.
Smaller walkways of stone and wood ran between the larger ones. Bridges within bridges, each one a pathway of a larger maze.
Elias gestured toward the city again. "You see that building there? In the middle?"
She followed his gaze to where a natural stone plateau stood in the center of the canyon. The walls shone golden in the evening sun, and the crimson domes towered over the rest of the city.
"That's where you used to live?" Nahlia guessed.
He nodded. "You can't see them from here, but there were wide gardens on either side of the palace—the only grass in the entire city. That's where Ciena and I first learned to fight."
After a short silence, she asked, "How does it feel to be back home?"
"Strange," Elias said with a shrug.
Well, there's an understatement. Returning to Northshire felt strange, and she'd only been gone a few months. Elias might've said more if they were alone, but everything had to be a silent competition between him and Thane whenever they were together. Thane's aloofness was rubbing off on him, and he probably didn’t even realize it. That was too bad because she preferred Elias the way he was.
Eventually, their path took them close enough to see past the city to where a massive stone wall kept the river at bay. Waterfalls shot out from a dozen stone cylinders, emptying into canals between buildings on the lower bridges. Even from this distance, Nahlia spotted scores of mills spinning with the river's pressure.
From there, Thane led them away from the canyon and back into the forest. At least that meant leaving the canyon wind behind them. The sun was well below the horizon now, and while there was little snow this far south, the air was still cold enough to see their breath.
The Frolicking Fawn sat on a crossroads between the Emperor's Road and the road into Raidenwood. It was the biggest inn Nahlia had ever seen—four stories tall, and more than twice as wide as the Moonstone. Lamplight spilled out from the doors and windows, shining like a beacon in that dark forest.
Thane stopped the party at the treeline, shrugging off his travel sack.
"Joron should be waiting for me inside," he told them all.
Elias eyed the inn skeptically. "You planning on going in there alone?"
Thane shook his head and gestured to Nahlia. "We'll go in together. You and Relyn can wait for us here."
"Alright," Elias lowered himself against a maple trunk. "But if you're not back in half an hour—"
"Then feel free to come after us." Thane raised his hood and set off toward the inn.
With a weary sigh, Nahlia followed. After ten hours of walking, she'd hoped to get a moment's rest. But Thane was right; the sooner they got the Voidcap, the sooner they could rest in earnest.
The murmur of a crowd echoed from the nearby street. Odd, considering how cold it was out here. As they grew closer, the explanation became clear; a dozen or so people had gathered around a gallows outside the inn. Most had mugs in their hands as if they'd all been sitting in the taproom just a few minutes before.
Thane skidded to a halt when they saw a small group of soldiers in the firelight.
Nahlia continued to weave her way through the crowd to investigate. Up above, a dark-skinned man still swung back and forth on the noose. Thane never told her what Joron looked like, so she had to be sure.
"Excuse me." Nahlia turned to a pair of gray-haired bystanders, a man, and a woman. "You know what happened here?"
"Aye," the woman said. "Templars caught him trying to smuggle some Aeons through the city. He had some sorta plant oil—makes their eyes go all dark like ours."
"Voidcap," the man murmured into his mug.
"Aye, Voidcap. That's the one. They caught him with four vials of it."
Nahlia's stomach went hollow as she turned to leave. Aegon .... they were on the doorstep of the most dangerous city in Revera, their only ally was dead, and now they didn't even have a plan or a way inside.