Nahlia cracked open her eyes and then wished she hadn’t. A sharp pain twisted its way through her skull from front to back. She was curled up in a ball with her cheek pressed against an icy metal floor. Thick ropes bound her wrists and legs together, and the river echoed against the walls like galloping horses. The only other sound was the soft murmuring of voices.
“Maybe we should untie her,” the younger voice suggested.
“Let’s just wait until she wakes up,” the older one replied.
They spoke in rich, western accents that reminded her of the Raiders.
Nahlia tried to move the rest of her body, but it felt like uncurling a frozen fist. The wind found every gap in her clothing and her stomach ached. Whether it was from hunger or nausea, she couldn’t say.
With a groan, she forced herself into a sitting position, leaning against the cold iron bars. The chamber beyond her cage was lit by a few flickering oil lamps. A narrow walkway ran along one wall, and another cage hung from the ceiling by a thick chain.
Her gaze traveled downward to a black, shapeless abyss below the suspended cages—the river, judging by the sound of the rapids. Did that mean she was under Nightbridge?
“Hey,” a female voice whispered behind her. “You alright?”
Nahlia turned to see two girls huddled on the opposite side of the cage. One was about her age, and the other couldn’t have been more than nine or ten.
Nahlia managed a weak nod. “Where are we?”
“Raidenwood,” the older girl said. “In the Brass Blood’s hideout.”
A dozen memories flooded her mind. Nine men surrounding her in the street. Darkness shrouding her vision, and a poison that managed to smell both foul and sweet.
Nahlia realized she’d been zoning out, then remembered her manners. “I’m Nahlia. I’d offer to shake your hands, but...” she glanced down at the rope that bound her wrists.
“Sorry.” The older girl scooted a few feet across the cage. “I’ll take care of that. I’m Emre, by the way. This is my sister, Kalia.”
Kalia waved. “You don’t look dangerous.”
Nahlia forced out a small smile. “That’s because I’m not.”
“They said you were.”
“The men who brought you here,” Emre explained as she worked the knots. “They said you killed two of their friends.”
“What?” A few of her assailants had hit the wall when she used her barriers, but those weren’t lethal blows. In fact, they’d all been on their feet when they captured her. “That’s ridiculous,” Nahlia said after a short pause. “I’ve never killed anyone. Especially not tonight. They outnumbered me ten to one.”
Emre kept pulling at the knots in silence. Whatever her captors had said, it must’ve been convincing. Still, it couldn’t be true. More likely, she’d wounded their pride in the skirmish and they had to embellish their story ... make her seem more dangerous than she actually was.
The knots around her wrists came loose, and Emre scooted back to her sister’s side.
Nahlia muttered her thanks, then set to work undoing the rope around her ankles. Her captors had taken her boots, along with her belt, her dagger, and most of her leather armor.
Thank Aegon they left her cloak and...
Nahlia froze, and a shudder of pure panic raced down her spine. She brought a hand to her collar bone, and ... nothing.
Her pendant was gone.
“They took your things when they brought you in,” Emre said.
“Where?” Nahlia let out a breath. “Where did they put them?”
The other girl pointed to the far end of the chamber where a guard sat behind a desk. Nahlia couldn’t make out many details in the darkness, but she spotted several shapes that might have been crates or chests.
So, not only had they kidnapped her and locked her in a cage, but they took away her Ethermancy.
“Something important?” Emre asked.
“A necklace,” Nahlia muttered with a small nod. Not wanting to explain further, she changed the topic, “How did you two end up here?”
“They took us in Dresten,” Kalia offered.
“The Templars,” Emre explained. “They wanted to bring us here themselves, but they panicked when the Raiders re-took Dresten and started looking for Ciena. That’s when they sold us to the Brass Bloods instead.”
As she spoke, Emre dipped a linen rag in a bowl of water. “Here. Our hosts left this for you.”
Confused, Nahlia reached out a hand to accept it.
“For your face.”
“Oh.” She brought the cloth to her cheek and scrubbed. It came back red with blood. “How generous of them.”
“They just want you to look pretty for tomorrow,” Kalia said. “That’s when the buyers are coming.”
“Buyers?” But even as the question left her lips, Fang’s warning came back to her. The Brass Bloods were slavers who caught and sold Aeons. And now, after her display of Ethermancy, they knew exactly what she was.
Emre gave a serious nod. “They stop by every couple days and have a look. Most are mercenaries looking for recruits. They usually buy the boys and men, but you might get lucky if you know how to fight.”
“Lucky?” Nahlia dunked the cloth in the bowl, wrung it out, and reapplied it to her face. Several of her wounds were still open and raw. She’d gotten so used to her healing these past few months that every scrape felt as unnatural as a missing tooth.
“Lucky,” Emre echoed. “Because if no one else buys you, the Brass Bloods turn you over to the Templars instead.”
Despair filled the other girl’s words, but Nahlia understood. Considering how much the two sisters knew about this place, they must’ve already been here for weeks.
More surprising was the fact that the Templars knew about the Aeon slave trade in the first place. Perhaps Raidenwood had always been a rogue faction, even before her father took control of the Order.
Still, the Templars in Dresten had sold these girls to slavers only to … buy them back a few months later? It didn’t make any sense.
But that was a tangent. Nahlia snapped her attention back to the present moment, gazing around the dark chamber. “Has anyone tried escaping?”
Emre pointed to a nearby cage with three boys inside. “There were four of them in there before. One picked the lock and tried to climb free...”
“Then the guard shot him.” Kalia finished for her sister. “And he fell in the river.”
Still, Nahlia filed away the possibility for future reference. But even if she picked the lock, where would she go? The cages hung at least ten feet from the walkway, which meant they must be controlled by some sort of crank or pulley system. And even if she scaled the chain, the ceiling offered little in the way of handholds.
Of course, none of that mattered if she didn’t have her Ethermancy.
Three oil lamps hung on the wall behind the walkway. In theory, she could draw energy from those the same way she drew it from her pendant, albeit in much lower quantities. Nahlia hadn’t practiced using external energy sources until now, but that was worth a try.
She talked with the two girls for the better part of an hour. Apparently, Emre had been a maid in the Raiders’ service back when Nahlia arrived in Dresten. She even remembered the night when Nahlia had arrived, and the day she left for Whitecliff.
The girls’ parents worked as agents for Lady Raider, currently stationed only a few towns away. Whether they were east or west of Raidenwood, Emre couldn’t say. While the girls communicated with their parents in the Ethereal every night, they only told them what they needed to know.
“Have your parents made any attempts to rescue you?” Nahlia asked.
“They’re trying,” Emre said. “But the Raiders lost their Voidcap when the Templars forced them out of Dresten. There’s no other way into the city.”
“I’ve noticed,” Nahlia muttered. She shared her own story in turn, but only the barest bones of it. Eventually, the three of them curled up under their cloaks and tried to sleep again.
Footsteps clattered on metal some time later. Nahlia sprang to her feet, nearly hitting her head against the cage’s roof.
A woman stood on the nearby walkway, shrouded in black but for the narrow slit that revealed her eyes.
Nahlia glanced toward the guard station. A man lay slumped against the wall, either unconscious or dead. The chests and crates were open, their contents scattered over the floor.
“Where’s the Codex?” the Sile’zhar demanded. Like the others, she spoke in a low inflection with a thick Valaysian accent.
Nahlia swallowed. She instinctively tried to pull energy from her pendant only to find a hollow emptiness there. “I don’t have it.”
“That’s plain enough. Who does?”
So, they’d tracked her to Raidenwood, but they didn’t know about Thane and the others?
The woman held out a gloved hand, and a bright flame erupted in her palm.
Nahlia glanced over her shoulder to see Emre and Kalia scrambling to their feet behind her.
“Where is the Codex?” The woman repeated.
Nahlia set her jaw, remembering what Relyn had said after their first encounter with the Sile’zhar. “You have orders not to kill me.”
The woman didn’t reply. The bars of the cage glowed a bright orange, and Nahlia staggered back. Emre and Kalia rushed forward, and the three of them clustered together in the middle.
The heat spread to the cage’s metal floor, stinging her bare feet. Nahlia wanted to throw up a barrier, but she—
But of course, heat was energy too.
She closed her eyes and pulled the energy from the surrounding metal, siphoning the heat and channeling it into her palms. A protective barrier erupted around herself and the others.
Nahlia met the Sile’zhar’s eyes again. “You won’t hurt them either.”
The woman remained still and expressionless beneath her dark mask. The flame faded from her palm, and the lanterns went dark as well. “You think this is a game, child?”
Nahlia recoiled as a heat kindled in her stomach. At first, it was small and subtle, as if she’d just eaten something spicy. Then it spread up her throat, to her heart, and in her lungs. It made a furnace of her body, and her worst fevers paled in comparison.
Emre and Kalia toppled over behind her. The younger girl let out a scream of pain as she fell.
Nahlia tried to form another barrier, but it was no use against this.
“Stop it!” she shouted to the darkness.
The fire spread to her brain, and the world spun around her. She tried to fight back, but her own willpower was burning away too. What’s more, Emre and Kalia’s screams grew louder by the second.
“Alright!” Nahlia screamed. “I’ll tell you!”
The fire left her body, and the lanterns returned to their former glow. She paused for a few heartbeats, panting and wiping tears from her eyes.
“Where is it?” the Sile’zhar demanded.
“I—” In her feverish state, the truth nearly slipped out. It took all her will and concentration to create a convincing lie. Something to keep the woman busy while they escaped.
“I rented a room at The Misty Rose,” Nahlia told the woman. “It’s a tavern on Midbridge.”
“Number five on the second floor. I cut open a floorboard at the foot of the bed. The Codex is hidden there.”
The Sile’zhar gave a curt nod. “If you’re lying, I will return. This was a taste of pain. Your friends won’t get the same mercy next time.”