"What do we do now?" Elias asked.
"I'm thinking," Thane snapped back.
Now that staying at the inn was out of the question, Thane led them deeper into the forest, using Nahlia's pendant for light. A minute of silence passed, then five, then ten.
"What if the three of you covered your eyes," Nahlia began, "while I talk to the guards at the gate?" That had worked for them so far, but it was probably a stupid idea here. She bit her lip and waited for Thane to remind her that Raidenwood wasn't like other cities.
"Raidenwood isn't like other cities," Thane said.
Aegon, we've been spending far too much time together.
"The guards check everyone," he explained. "And covering your eyes is a guaranteed way to draw attention. Any sort of helmet, hood, goggles, or spectacles ... the Templars have seen it all. They even check your belongings and examine wagons for secret compartments."
Purchasing a wagon had been her next idea. So much for that.
"Can't your family contact someone else within the city?" Elias asked Thane.
"I was about to ask you that same question," Thane said.
Elias shook his head. "My mother's still furious that we joined you instead of turning around. She's not about to help us go farther south."
"What about secret passages?" Thane asked. "You said your family escaped through the sewer when your uncle took over?"
"I wouldn't count on that," Elias said. "Cladius has ruled this city for ten years. That's more than enough time to patch up the holes." After a short pause, he said, "Your family has dragons, right?"
"We do," Thane replied, "but they won't fly in this weather. Whoever took your sister must have a different breed."
After that, Elias turned to Relyn who was still lagging behind, murmuring curses in Valaysian.
"Could you sneak into the city?" he asked her. "The way you snuck into Starglade?"
Relyn made a weary gesture that was half shrug, half head-shake. "That was different. Those deserters weren't expecting me, and they were about as organized as a band of thieves. I could maybe get myself through, but not the rest of you."
They debated the issue for the rest of the night. Nahlia listened to it all, and the more they talked, the more the answer became clear. Without Voidcap, the four of them could never cross through Raidenwood.
How did her father feel about his own subordinates still capturing and killing Aeons as if nothing had changed? The rational part of her knew he was doing everything he could to help her indirectly—the same way she'd tried to help him from Whitecliff. A more childish part of her felt like he had simply moved on, just like her mother had.
But no ... that was her exhaustion talking. Her father was still out there somewhere, and they would see each other soon. Her mother still loved her, and these years of separation had been out of her control.
A year ago, the idea of having her entire family together again was too good to be true. Now, it was a goal within reach. She would do whatever it took to make it happen.
They took shelter in a small cave that night, and Nahlia fell asleep as soon as her head hit the sleeping mat.
The next morning, she knew what she needed to do.
They ate breakfast in silence around the cookfire—stale bread and a bitter white cheese. They would probably send her back to the Fawn on a supply run that day.
"I think I should enter Raidenwood alone," Nahlia said to the group in general.
"Absolutely not," Thane replied.
"Why not? I have dark eyes, so I have nothing to hide."
"Joron's eyes were darker than yours, and they still caught him."
She'd been ready to retort, but the hurt in Thane's tone stunned her into silence.
"I'm with Solidor on this one," Elias broke in. "It's too dangerous."
Well, that's a first.
Thane swallowed his bread and nodded. "If something happens to you in there, we'll have no way of knowing, much less a means to come after you. We'll find another way around the city."
Nahlia let out a weary sigh. "You just spent the last two weeks telling us there was no other way."
"She has a point there," Relyn murmured.
"What?" Elias rounded on her. "You want her to go into Raidenwood by herself?"
Relyn narrowed her eyes to daggers. "You were quick enough to suggest that I go by myself."
"It was only a suggestion." He looked away, unable to meet her gaze. "And we agreed it wouldn't work."
"Her point stands," Relyn said. "We're out of options, and the sand's running out too. If we stay here too long, the Templars will find us. If we turn around, the Sile'zhar will find us. Besides, it's her own neck on the line."
Thane raked his hands through his hair before looking up to face Nahlia again. "Fine. Let's say you make it past the gates and get inside the city. What then?"
"We still have the gold from the Moonstone," Nahlia said. "That should be more than enough to buy more Voidcap."
"You can't just walk in and buy this stuff at an apothecary," Thane said. “Possession is punishable by death, which means the sellers will be dangerous. And if you get caught—"
"I know," Nahlia interjected. She already saw what happened to Joron last night, so she didn't need to imagine. "If you give me the name of a seller who's willing to meet us outside the city, we could have the exchange here. All I'd have to do is deliver the message."
Thane's brow furrowed in consideration.
"Believe me," Nahlia said. "I don't want to go in there alone either, but it's the only way."
A few hours later, Thane returned from the Ethereal with a list of possible sellers in the city and where she could find them.
Nahlia still didn’t understand the Solidors’ intricate network of informants, but apparently they employed Aeons whose sole purpose was to wait in the Ethereal for communications from Thane and other clan members. Once contacted, they could retrieve information or pass on a message. Thane had used this network to contact Joron in the first place, and to re-check the maps throughout their journey
They'd all agreed that Nahlia's heterochromia was most visible in direct sunlight, so she should wait for sunset to pass through the gates. Not that humans couldn't have one partially blue eye too, but it was a far more common trait among half-Aeons.
Until sunset, they had nothing but time to kill.
"What's your name?" Relyn asked her.
"Natalie Overhill," she answered at once.
"And what brings you to Raidenwood?"
"My family and I are passing through from Northshire," Nahlia explained. "My parents came down with a bad cold, so they sent me here on a medicine run."
Relyn frowned. "Why the family story?"
Nahlia shrugged. "I was trying to seem as harmless as possible."
"That's the problem," she said, gesturing to her clothing. "You don't look as harmless as possible."
Nahlia followed her gaze down to her leather jerkin and the dagger on her belt. Relyn had a point there. Nahlia had gotten so used to wearing skirts for most of her life, she almost forgot how different she looked now. And the fact that most young women didn't wear armor, or carry exposed weapons.
"So—what? Should I say I'm a mercenary?"
Relyn shook head, her black hair swinging back and forth. "That's no good either. You want to tell as much truth as possible. They catch you in one lie, they'll haul you in for questioning."
Thane nodded from a nearby log. "She's right. You can't pretend to be something you're not."
Nahlia swallowed. For how bad of a liar she was, it was a wonder she'd ever infiltrated Whitecliff. But of course, she hadn't really succeeded in that either. Relyn knew what she was up to all along. So did Lady Raider and the other White Council members.
"Okay," Nahlia said. "How about this—I'm traveling with a group of mercenaries, and I'm training to be their field medic. I've been in fights, but I've never actually killed anyone."
"Not bad." Relyn crossed her slender arms as if impersonating a burly guard. "What was your last mission?"
Nahlia hesitated, but only for a second. Then an entire story took shape in her mind. "Starglade. A local mayor sent us to investigate some people hiding out in the mines. Everyone was dead when we showed up though, so we—"
"No." Relyn threw up a hand. "Too many details make you look desperate. Let the guards ask the questions. You want to get on with your day, not share your life story."
Nahlia winced. "Sorry."
"For that matter," Thane broke in, "many young mercenaries don't bother keeping track of which towns they visit or who's paying them. Don't be afraid to shrug and act unsure."
Relyn nodded in agreement and turned back to Nahlia. "Let's try again. What was your last assignment?"
"Guarding a caravan north of here."
"Who sent you?"
Nahlia shrugged. "Some rich merchants from Dresten? I don't remember their names."
Relyn jabbed a finger at Nahlia's jerkin—the hole where the Sile'zhar had burned her. "What happened here?"
"Huh?" Nahlia looked down, then smiled as if just noticing the hole. "Oh, that. It was like that when I got it."
"Better," Relyn said. "And remember, don't stare or gawk at anything around the gates. Most folk can't help but look around in a new city, but you want to act like you've seen it all before. If you look like a local, the guards might let you through without any questions."
That made sense. A city like Raidenwood must have hundreds of hunters, traders, and merchants coming and going every day. The guards wouldn't have time to question them all.
Again, Thane nodded his agreement. "But if someone asks if you've been here before—"
"Tell the truth," Nahlia answered for him. "I passed through here with my parents when I was two or three. I barely remember it though."
Relyn continued coaching for the better part of an hour. When they'd finished, Thane rose to his feet and walked over.
"There's another matter we should discuss before you go." He removed the moon-shaped pendant from around his neck. Unlike hers, it still had the silver encasing. "If you do get searched, it's better they find silver than Etherite."
"Oh." Nahlia removed her own pendant and handed it over. "Of course."
Thane accepted it, but he drew his lips in a thin line as if he wanted to say more.
Nahlia glanced down at the small burlap sack on her belt. "The Codex..."
"It's too dangerous to take it with you," Thane said. "And if you can't trust me to hold onto it, then we might as well go our separate ways now."
Nahlia unclipped the sack from her belt but hesitated. She'd considered leaving this with Elias before, but Thane would see that as an even bigger slight than if she simply took it with her.
While Nahlia wanted to trust him, Zidane's warning echoed in her memory. Thane's father was after this artifact, and it might even be the reason he sent him north. Nahlia couldn't even imagine all the implications there, and she'd held onto this as a way of staying in control.
But Thane made a fair point; she had to choose whether she trusted him or not, and time wouldn't make that choice any easier.
Nahlia extended her arm, and Thane accepted the Codex, clipping it on his own belt beneath his cloak.
She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. "You're going to examine it, aren't you?" He'd suggested opening it several times before, but she'd always refused.
"I am," Thane said, "unless you know something I don't. We should have examined this weeks ago. Zidane and those Sile'zhar tried to kill us for this, but we still have no idea why."
As the sun sank closer to the horizon, their group made their way back toward the city. They stopped when they reached the edge of the forest near the Fawn. From there, Nahlia would go the last mile on her own.
She hesitated before setting off. They’d gotten to know each other well these last few weeks, but not so well that she would be leaving with tearful hugs and long goodbyes. Even so...
Elias took a step closer. “Be careful. And if anyone gives you trouble in there, remember your training. Sometimes, you can save lives by ending a fight quickly.”
Nahlia gave a quick nod and pulled him into a hug. Whether he wanted it or not, she needed it.
"I'll see you again soon," she whispered.
Elias was almost a foot taller than her, and she rested her cheek against his soft leather jerkin. He returned her embrace and held her tight for several heartbeats. That alone gave her the strength she needed to go on.
Nahlia turned to Relyn and Thane next, putting an arm around each of them.
"Don't get yourself killed in there," Relyn said.
Thane remained silent, but he put his arm around her and that was enough.
The next mile flew by, and the dirt road gave way to solid stone. As she reached the edge of the forest, the bases of statues lined either side of the road though nothing remained of the stone figures. They must have been statues of the Archaeon Raiden and his descendants—the sort of things the Templars wouldn't want around.
More bodies hung from the city’s high walls, serving as a warning for people like her.
Aegon. At least in Starglade, the others were there by her side. Relyn had been able to scout the area, and they'd formed a strategy to minimize their risks.
Now, she was alone. Alone in the most dangerous city for Aeons, with nothing but the faint wisp of a plan.