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Without looking back at her injured attacker, Nahlia grabbed her drink from the table and climbed the stairs of the dais.

Fang was reclining on a leather sofa as she approached. Nahlia had expected a mercenary crime-lord to be more grizzled. On the contrary, his beard was trimmed short and neat, and his black hair was pulled back without a single strand out of place. He looked only a few years older than her father, but Valaysians tended to age better than Reverians. For all she knew, he could be well into his sixties.

She reached the top of the stairs and one of Fang's henchmen blocked her path, holding out a hand.

Nahlia gave him the dagger she'd taken in her skirmish. She also pulled out the one from inside her jerkin before he could search her.

"Have a seat," Fang said, gesturing to one of the chairs opposite him.

Nahlia lowered herself on the hardwood surface. She tried to maintain her composure, though she was still sweating and breathing hard. What she would give for a glass of water right now instead of whiskey...

"So," Fang began, "Moonform? Haven't seen that on this side of the Sunrise Sea."

"Glad you liked it." Nahlia took a drink and forced out a small smile. "I've been practicing."

The woman on Fang's lap whispered something in his ear. He laughed and blew out a puff of smoke. "You're new in town, aren't you?"

She nodded.

"Where you from?"

"Northshire."

"Hm ... never heard of it." Another inhale from the hose; another puff of smoke from his mouth. "And your name?"

"Natalie Overhill."

"Natalie," Fang tasted the name, and each syllable came out distinct in his thick Valaysian accent. "Too human. You look more like a Nahlia to me."

She fought to keep her face blank. Either it was a lucky guess, or he was remarkably well informed. Either way, she'd burnt away her nerves in the hours leading up to this meeting. Nothing remained but wisps of smoke.

"Nahlia..." she tasted the name on her own tongue as if it were a foreign delicacy. "I'll admit, I like that better."

Fang's female companion slid onto the sofa beside him. He leaned forward and set a bandaged hand on the table. "So, what brings you to my humble bridge, Nahlia-of-Northshire?"

Nahlia drew in a breath, glancing between Fang and his stone-faced henchmen. "I need to smuggle three others across the city. The sort of people who—"

"You need Voidcap," Fang interjected with a chuckle. "It's alright. You can say the word."

"Forgive me," Nahlia said, "but I just saw a man get hanged for possessing some."

Fang gave a casual shrug. "No Templar ears down here. "

"Fair enough," she replied. "I was told I could buy some from you."

Fang took another long hit from his hose. "Who told you this?"

Nahlia considered dodging the question, but the hard look in his eye told her that would be a mistake. "An informant in Dragonshard's spy network. I was given your name and this location. That's all."

"Well," Fang said. "Sorry to say, but your information is outdated. I can't get you Voidcap."

"What?" She felt her stomach drop. "You don't have any?"

He raised a finger from his non-bandaged hand. "I do, but none to spare."

Nahlia leaned forward, resting her hands on the low table between them. "All I need is three doses, and I can offer you ten golden suns in exchange."

He raised an eyebrow. "You have the coin with you?"

"Of course not."

His surprise turned to amusement. "Good. Still not worth it though."

"What?" Nahlia grimaced. "I could buy this tavern with that."

"No." Fang chuckled. "You couldn't. Can you guess how I know that, Nahlia-of-Northshire?"

“Because ... you own this tavern?"

"Very good." His grin widened. "Ten suns might buy you a tavern, but I need a place to do business when I'm in town. I need that more than I need gold. You know how much rarer Voidcap is than taverns?"

Nahlia slumped her shoulders, not bothering to hide her hopelessness.

Fang gave the same casual shrug as before. "A few months ago ... might've been a good deal. Now I find my supplies low, and no means of replacing them after the Templar's marched north."

"Was it Joron who bought the last of it?" Nahlia asked.

Fang shook his head. "My clients value discretion. Even the dead ones."

The fact that he knew Joron was the aforementioned hanged man was all the answer she needed. Not that it mattered now, anyway.

"By the way," Fang said before she could scoot her chair away. "That boy whose arm you broke—he's a member of the Brass Bloods."

"What's that?" Nahlia asked. "Some sort of gang?"

"Worse," he replied. "Slavers."

"Oh." Thane and Elias had told her much about Raidenwood, but they both failed to mention a slave trade. The Aeon Imperium had once enslaved foreign humans, but that practice was outlawed centuries ago. She never would've guessed that humans would be the ones to reinstate it.

"The richest humans here take Aeon slaves to show their dominance," Fang answered her unspoken thought. "Cladius Raider has a whole harem of your kind in the palace."

My kind? "I never said I was an Aeon."

"No," he said. "But I say so. Your eyes might say human, but eyes aren't the only doors to the soul."

Fang could’ve been referring to her use of Moonform, but martial arts weren’t exclusive to Aeons anymore than firearms were exclusive to humans.

Nahlia recalled a lecture in Whitecliff about how some of the best Templars had a sixth sense for recognizing Aeons. Ironically, Master Vash had claimed these Templars were probably of Aeon blood themselves and were sensing the Etherite in their target's bodies.

Was Fang...?

No. Dark eyes or not, no Aeon would chose to do business in this city. More likely, he had an informant nearby. Nahlia glanced to the two henchmen who sat on either side. They hadn't even looked at him for this entire exchange. The girl beside him, however ... she had whispered in his ear immediately after Nahlia sat down. That was when he assigned her an Aeon name instead of the human one she'd offered.

Fang waved a dismissive hand. "But that's a tangent. The boy—he'll be back with friends. I wouldn't stick around much longer if I were you."

Nahlia rose to her feet, needing no encouragement to be on her way. "Thank you for your time."

Fang took both daggers from the man on his left and pushed them across the table. "Take these, Nahlia-of-Northshire. You’ll need them. Of course, you should have slit the boy's throat when you had the chance."

Nahlia reclaimed her own dagger but left the other one behind. More blades wouldn’t make a difference.

After she left Fang’s platform, she approached a pair of respectable-looking men by the door. Well, respectable might've been an overstatement, but they didn't look like the type to mug her or murder her in a dark alley.

"Excuse me." Nahlia showed them her most charming smile as she stepped up to their table. "I find myself in need of an escort to Midbridge. Could I hire one of you?"

"Ha." One man spun around on his stool to face her. "You're the one who broke little Landolf's arm."

"That's me," Nahlia said.

"It was a good show." he admitted, "but we can't help you. Sorry."

Nahlia frowned. "Are you afraid to get your hands dirty?"

"Against ten Brass Bloods? I'd be a bloody fool if I wasn't."

So much for that idea. Little Landolf had been right about one thing—her real mistake was coming to this place alone.

A few minutes later, Nahlia was shuffling down the dark, empty street outside. Footsteps echoed from the surrounding alleys, and she knew the Brass Bloods were close.

Using her Ethermancy was an option, but only as a last resort. Revealing that could alert every Templar in the city to her presence, not to mention the Sile'zhar.

The river raged below the bridge. The echoing footsteps grew louder and her heart hammered in her chest. With every passing second, the sounds blended together like the beats of a drum.

Three men emerged from the alley in front of her. One of them was her attacker from the bar, a bandage around his throat and his arm in a sling.

"Alright." Nahlia threw up her hands in submission. "I surrender. What do you want?"

A pair of hands grabbed her from behind, seizing her shoulders and slamming her hard against the nearest wall. Someone drove his knee into her stomach. So hard, she couldn't breathe or cry out.

Nahlia bent over at the waist, and they forced her face-first into the cobblestones. Blood gushed out from her forehead, nose, and chin. Someone brought a foul-smelling rag to her face, and the world started to go dark.

Poison.

Nahlia forced away the effects while feigning unconsciousness.

When her assailants felt her body go limp, they pulled back the rag.

"About time," one of them said. "I thought she'd never—"

Nahlia rolled over on her back, launching her barriers out like a protective dome. Dark human forms flew back in every direction. Some hit the wall while others hit the street.

She struggled to her feet, healing her wounds as quickly as she could. Despite her best efforts, her vision swam and she felt like retching.

Three men rose to their feet in front of her. Nahlia whirled around and saw at least six more behind her. She fell into Moonform, but they all charged at once.

She hit several with a barrier, but one man got a hold of her wrists and bound them behind her back. Someone else threw a bag over her head which had the same chemical smell as the cloth.

Nahlia lost her footing again, and they held her down. She fought against the poison in the bag, but that would only delay its effects until her pendant ran dry.

Panic dug its claws in, and she reached out to her attackers' bodies as if she would heal them.

Normally, Nahlia pushed energy into peoples' bodies to heal their wounds. She had done it with Thane, Elias, and Relyn several times during their journey and it had become second nature by now.

This time, she pulled the life from her targets in a final act of desperation.

Screams of pain followed, and her attackers eased off. Once again, Nahlia tried to struggle free, but a moment's lapse in concentration let the poison work its way through her body, drowning her with darkness.

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David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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