Sunlight shone off the river below, filling the chamber with the soft glow of morning. Nahlia sat cross-legged in her cage, eyes closed in concentration. With nothing else to fill her time, she practiced her Ethermancy with the lamps on the far wall.
Pulling energy from these tiny flames was like trying to quench her thirst from drops of dew. Even after burning through half the oil, she had barely closed the cuts on her face, much less her internal burns.
What’s more, she had no means of storing the energy once she’d pulled it from the lamps. It had to be spent, either by healing someone or by creating a barrier. Was this a limitation of her abilities, or simply a lack of skill?
Either way, it ruled out the possibility of conserving the energy for later.
Aegon. She’d come so far these past few months ... but against that Sile’zhar, she’d been as helpless as when Saul Mason attacked the Moonstone.
But no ... she’d felt helpless last night, but she’d fought back instead of freezing. This time, she had Aegon on her side, and she no longer denied her own power.
Thane called her faith fickle, claiming it would shatter at the first tempest she faced. But Nahlia believed Aegon was guiding her to a greater purpose. He had to be. If not, she was truly alone in this struggle.
She had friends, sure, but nothing lasts forever. If her own mother couldn’t be bothered to come back…
Nahlia bit her lip and snapped her attention back to the present. She was supposedly a natural at meditation, but there was nothing like a lonely cage to bring out your most depressing thoughts.
Emre and Kalia tossed and turned on the metal floor behind her, unable to sleep after what happened. Nahlia had offered to heal their burns, but neither of them wanted anything to do with her now. They didn’t even ask her any questions about the Codex or her Ethermancy.
Nahlia had given the Sile’zhar a false trail (The Misty Rose) but the name was close enough to several real inns on Midbridge. Best-case scenario, the woman would spend hours searching for the fake inn, assume Nahlia misspoke, then move onto the real ones.
Or she could come straight back here and torture us again.
Nahlia tried to stay focused, but that thought came unbidden at every echoing footstep throughout the compound. The woman could return at any moment. When she did, she would keep her promise and kill at least one of the girls.
There’s still time. Sile’zhar or not, a foreign Aeon couldn’t just march through the streets of Raidenwood in broad daylight. The Brass Bloods had also tripled their security since the break-in, or so they claimed.
The first buyer arrived shortly after ninth bell. Xiao Fang looked every bit the mercenary today. Dark leather armor covered his body from shoulder to heel, and a katana hung on his right hip. He had a score of people in his retinue, two of whom she recognized from the tavern—the brown-haired woman who sat beside him and the Valaysian henchman who had taken her weapons.
“Fang!” An older man from the Brass Bloods stepped forward. Clean-shaven and balding, he had the dark skin of an Ember-Islander. “Got some real fighters for you today.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Fang muttered in his Valaysian accent. “Usually when you’re about to disappoint me.”
Fang leaned over the iron railing and made a beckoning motion toward the cage on Nahlia’s left. Someone in the guard station shifted a lever while another man pulled a rope. The cage moved along the track, bringing the boys closer to the walkway.
“Found these two fighting in the pits,” the seller said. “They were up against the—”
“They look a little thin to me,” Fang interjected. “What have you been feeding them?” Before the slaver could explain, Fang continued, “And the eyes of this one... is that gold? Or...” He turned to his female companion, muttering a question in Valaysian.
“Amber,” she replied in a husky voice.
“Amber,” Fang said. “His eyes look amber to me.”
“They’re brown,” the slaver protested. “It’s just the light.”
“What light?” Fang spread out his arms and looked around. “It’s like a cave in here.”
“Even so,” the other man said, “lots of humans have amber eyes.”
“Lots of dead ones, maybe.”
“You are traveling west tomorrow, no? The new Knight Commander is no longer hunting Aeons that way.”
“Well,” Fang said. “Guess that means the realm is finally at peace.” He gave a humorless chuckle. “I know all about peace, slaver. I know I wouldn’t be in business if it existed.”
They continued haggling for several more minutes, eventually settling on five golden suns for the pair of them.
To think, people’s lives down here are worth less coin than a few drops of plant oil.
With the price settled, Fang turned back to the boys and offered them a place in the Onyx Company. Nahlia strained her ears to listen as they discussed the finer details. The boys would spend five years working as mercenaries for Fang’s division. He would compensate them on a per-mission basis, and they’d have the chance to go free once their contracts were up. Assuming they survived that long.
There was more to their conversation, but the other half got lost over the commotion. Still, despite all the haggling he’d done with the slaver, Fang still gave them a choice.
“Deserters are executed,” he told them. “So if you plan on running, I’d rather you tell me now. Let the Templars do the dirty work.”
It may not have been true freedom, but the boys eagerly accepted.
After that, several more Brass Bloods opened the cage and put iron shackles around the boys’ wrists. Only temporary, Fang assured them. Once they signed their contracts, they’d be allowed to move freely with the rest of the Onyx Company.
The mercenaries were heading for the door when Nahlia cleared her throat. “Fang?”
Fang pivoted around to face her. “Nahlia-of-Northshire? Good to see you still alive.”
Nahlia was about to reply when Fang shifted his gaze to the slaver. “Why didn’t you tell me about her?”
“I—” the other man stammered. “You never look at the girls when you’re here.”
“I don’t deal in bed slaves,” Fang said. “But this one’s a fighter.” He gestured to the guard station with his bandaged hand. “Bring her closer.”
With a jolt, the suspended cage ran along the track. Nahlia had to clasp the iron bars before she lost her balance.
“Careful with that one,” the slaver told Fang. “She killed two of my men last night.”
“Excuse me.” Nahlia rounded on the Brass Bloods’ supposed leader. “But that’s a lie.”
The slaver’s brows knit together, and he reached for the whip at his belt. “You need a lesson, girl?”
“Apparently, you’re the one who needs a lesson,” she shot back. “Because I’ve never killed anyone in my life.”
“She’s a freak,” the slaver said to the room in general. “I saw my men’s bodies. Had the life sucked right out of them, they did.”
Fang only chuckled at the entire exchange. “You have spirit, Nahlia-of-Northshire. That’s clear as glass.” He turned back to the slaver. “I’ll give you two and a half for her.”
“Deal,” the slaver snapped as though he feared the moment would pass.
Fang inclined his head. “What say you, Nahlia-of-Northshire? Ready to leave this place and join the Onyx Company?”
Nahlia drew in a breath. If she only had her own life to worry about, she would jump at this opportunity. But she still had to get the others through the city. Not to mention Emre and Kalia. By lying to the Sile’zhar, she’d endangered their lives.
Nahlia ignored her pounding heart and raked in a deep breath. “Who says I want to leave?”
Fang gave a casual shrug. “Even if you didn’t kill anyone, arm-breaking is a bad habit in bed slaves. If you don’t want to come with me, they’ll give you to the Templars.”
Fair point. She needed real leverage before they could negotiate. For that, she needed the pendant back. If she asked for Fang’s help, he would surely keep it for himself once he realized what it was. Unfortunately, she was short on options.
“Your offer interests me,” Nahlia said. “But before we do business, the Brass Bloods took something important of mine. I need your help retrieving it.”
“I help my own people,” Fang said. “But you must become one of them first.”
“Consider it an investment,” she replied. “There’s a reason you’re recruiting Aeons. You’re looking for something special, aren’t you? Something that can turn the tide in battle? You think you know what it is, but I’m about to show you something more.”
Fang raised a curious eyebrow. “What did they take?”
“A pendant.” Nahlia indicated the size with her fingers. “Made of silver, shaped like a crescent moon.”
Fang turned to the Brass Bloods’ leader who in turn shot a glance at the guard station.
“She had a pendant,” one guard said. “But we lost it in last night’s break in.”
Nahlia’s heart sank. She should have known. Of course the Sile’zhar would—
“He’s lying,” Fang’s female companion said. Her tone was more matter-of-fact than accusatory.
“Is he now?” Fang turned to the young Valaysian man on his left. “Kill him and search his body.”
In the blink of an eye, a pistol appeared in the young henchman’s hand. Around the room, half a dozen Brass Bloods reached for their own weapons but their leader gave no orders.
“Wait!” The guard threw up his hands in surrender. “Wait, I have it right here.” He reached into his jerkin and pulled out the crescent moon hanging from its silver chain.
The tension evaporated throughout the room as Fang’s henchman sauntered over to retrieve it.
Fang handed it to Nahlia a moment later. “Alright, little Aeon. Let’s see what you can do.”
Nahlia took the pendant and felt a rush of energy in her veins, chasing away the last of her pain and fatigue. It was like she’d been underwater all night and was finally resurfacing.
Fang had taken a few steps back and stood with his arms crossed. His right hand was still covered in white linen bandages.
“What happened there?” Nahlia asked him.
Fang’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“Your hand.” She gave a downward nod at the bandages. “I’m assuming those aren’t a fashion statement.”
Fang’s mouth made a thin line as he unwrapped the white linens. “It happened a month ago on the road. An assassin threw a cloud of redharrow spores in my tent.” He tossed the bandage aside, revealing a hand that was red, blistered, and deformed. “I escaped quickly. If I hadn’t, the poison would have taken much more.”
Nahlia reached out through the bars. Fang took a step closer, and their hands met in the gap over the river. She closed her eyes in concentration, ignoring two-dozen stares from around the chamber.
Nahlia didn’t know much about burns, but most physicians would probably call this damage permanent. Three months ago, she would have agreed with them.
Fortunately, she had healed far worse than this.
Still clasping Fang’s hand in her own, Nahlia pulled the energy from her pendant and imagined a burst of light running through the man’s veins. His hand grew cool to the touch. She raised her eyelids to see smooth skin reforming.
When she met Fang’s gaze again, his eyes were wide and glistening. “Ethermancy,” he whispered.
Nahlia nodded and released her grip. “I’ll join the Onyx Company. I’ll follow you into battle and I’ll heal you and your men when you need it. But first, I have two conditions.”
Fang remained silent, and Nahlia gestured back to Emre and Kalia on the other side of the cage. “I want you to free these two from the Brass Bloods and deliver them safely to their parents.”
Fang inclined his head, regaining some of his composure. “Where are their parents?”
“We’ll find out before the end of the day,” she replied. “But they’ve been trying to rescue them for weeks, so it can’t be far.”
“Fine. What else?”
“I have three more Aeons interested in joining the Onyx Company.”
“The ones outside the city,” Fang said. “The ones who sent you shopping for Voidcap?”
Nahlia nodded. “We’re a packaged deal, you see. I won’t cross Raidenwood without them.”
Fang’s lip curled upward as he flexed his newly healed fingers. “These others—they are like you?”
“Not exactly like me,” Nahlia said, “but three of them are better fighters. One is my martial arts instructor, and the best duelist you’ve ever seen. The second is an Ethermancer, and the third is a skilled archer who spent several years training as a Sile’zhar.”
“Packaged deal it is, then.” Fang held out his freshly healed hand for her to shake. “Welcome to the Onyx Company, Nahlia-of-Northshire.”