Nahlia moved like a leaf in the wind, dodging every punch, grapple, and kick. Elias fought like the wind itself, sidestepping her with ease, striking from every angle.
Even after joining the Onyx Company, the two of them found private time to spar whenever they could. Unfortunately, that wasn’t often between all the other training, marching, and camp duties.
Sweat coated her forehead as she moved, providing an unwelcome distraction from the fight. Elias had gone shirtless for this session, and his torso glistened in the morning sun—also distracting, but hardly unwelcome.
Despite his quick attacks, Elias was in complete control and never came close to hurting her. But at the same time, he warned her never to pull her own punches.
“As a beginner,” he explained one day, “you’re still ingraining the moves in your body. If you hold back now, you’ll hold back when it matters.”
That made sense, as most habits seemed easier to forge than to break. Not long ago, she had frozen at the mere sound of gunpowder or the threat of sharpened steel. It took months of hard training at Whitecliff to reverse that.
“Fear never fades completely,” Elias had said, “even for battle-hardened veterans. That’s why we spend so much time on basic stances and cadences. Our bodies know how to react even when our minds go blank as paper.”
Nahlia’s hands cut through the cool air, trusting Elias and her training. She’d worried about hurting him at first, but Elias had been fighting since he could walk. Hitting him was like hitting a tree trunk.
He threw another quick series of punches, too close to dodge. The last one closed on Nahlia’s shoulder, and she swiped her forearm to redirect it.
In theory, Moonform allowed a weaker fighter to use her opponent’s power against him. In practice, however, physical strength still mattered a great deal. What’s more, the tricks that worked in tavern brawls didn’t work on someone at this level.
So rather than relying on her own strength, Nahlia formed a small shield between her arm and his. To her, the barrier felt weightless as she redirected the blow. Elias once described the sensation as something like magnetic repulsion. Only instead of metal, her barriers repelled everything they hit
The impact sent Elias staggering sideways, and he nearly lost his balance.
“Quick thinking,” he panted.
Nahlia grinned, countering with a strike of her own.
Elias recovered quickly, catching her wrist and twisting her into a submissive hold.
“But never assume you have an advantage,” he said. “Makes it easy to set a trap.”
Nahlia gritted her teeth. This was almost the same move she’d used in the Nightbridge tavern several days before. That boy hadn’t been skilled enough to break free. A week ago, neither was she.
She pushed off against the ground, forming a shield beneath her feet to increase the height of her jump. From there, she rolled over Elias’s arm, breaking from his grasp and gaining leverage behind.
Elias snapped free with a quick roll of his wrist. Aegon, but his strength made things unfair sometimes.
Nahlia locked an arm around his neck, but he threw her forward over his shoulder.
She tried to roll away, but he leapt on top of her before she hit the ground. His legs pressed against hers, and he grabbed both of her arms, securing them above her head.
Nahlia only struggled for a second. Breaking this hold with a barrier might be possible, but would likely injure them both. She looked up and met his golden eyes. “I yield.”
Elias released her arms. The two of them were still panting hard, and as the adrenaline faded, she became more aware of her surroundings. The cool grass against her neck, the wind on her cheek, and the weight of his body pressed against hers.
A heat kindled inside her as she remembered another feeling two months ago in Chronicle Zidane’s office. His lips on hers, and his arms wrapped around her waist. Elias had kissed the same way he fought—firm but gentle, and completely in control.
The heat rose to her face, followed by a smile. “If anyone finds us like this, they’ll definitely get the wrong idea.”
Elias made a show of looking around, then he shrugged. “It’s alright. I think everyone here knows I’m your instructor.” He pushed off the ground and offered her a hand, “Strictly professional, of course.”
His smile never faded, but his voice came out lower and more serious than before. But of course he was serious. If they ever had a chance of being more than friends, she had ruined that when she betrayed Whitecliff.
That betrayal felt like half a lifetime ago. Looking back, it all seemed like the selfish choices of a foolish child. Still, actions had consequences and Elias had a right to feel the way he did.
Nahlia brushed the grass from her undershirt and picked up her leather jerkin from the foot of a nearby maple. Most of their sparring sessions ended this way, with grappling on the ground. Moonform was a defensive stance, focused on restraining your opponents rather than harming them. That was fine by her—she’d seen more than enough bloody noses and missing teeth back in the Whitecliff dojos.
Could Ethermancy even restore missing teeth? She’d have to test that sometime. Shouldn’t be too hard to find a volunteer considering their present company. When Fang’s men weren’t marching, they were either brawling or training.
Speaking of Ethermancy, she’d gotten much better with her barriers ever since she started learning martial arts. Sometimes, Elias even took extra time to help her learn more about her abilities. One day, he spent an entire morning hurling pebbles at her while she erected barriers to deflect them.
When Nahlia first learned to create these shields, she had assumed the energy cost related to the damage they took, the way a shield broke under stress.
Elias had a different theory. He thought her barriers needed constant power to sustain themselves, the way a fire always needs fuel to burn.
A few experiments seemed to reinforce this idea. Nahlia could hold a full dome around her body for thirty to forty seconds until her pendant ran dry. That result remained constant regardless of the damage it took. But if she waited until Elias threw the stone—focusing on a smaller area between them—she could maintain her reserves for the better part of an hour.
In other words, every second was precious when it came to Ethermancy, and she’d been far too wasteful before.
Thane was able to confirm this when he overheard their conversations. Not only that, but he seemed to consider it common sense.
Typical Thane. He knew they didn’t grow up with Ethermancy textbooks, but he still acted as if they did.
As she and Elias worked, they filled a notebook with all their experiments and measurements. Thane provided some more insight throughout this process, but mostly he just voiced his disagreements.
“Trust me,” he said one day when they shared some numbers with him, “My instructors drilled a hundred of these formulas into me as a boy. They never did any good. True skill comes from understanding this on a subconscious level, and that only comes with practice. Anything else just gets in the way and makes you overthink things.”
On one hand, he might’ve had a point. Whenever she and Elias tried to measure the energy she consumed, they always got a different result. Probably because there were so many variables involved. Not just physical, but mental and emotional.
Regardless, Nahlia was more inclined to agree with Thane’s instructors. She needed actual information in front of her, not vague ideas. Sure, math and science weren’t her strongest subjects, but it would be foolish to ignore them. Even more foolish to run into battle with no measure of her own limitations.
Besides, wasn’t Thane being a bit hypocritical? One day, he would call the technical aspects of Ethermancy a pointless distraction. The next day, he would quote the exact temperature required for melting iron, or the amount of thrust he needed to push himself off the ground. It was easy to disregard the numbers when you already knew them all.
After her training session with Elias, Nahlia dipped her hands in the nearby creek and splashed her face with icy water. Their time together had become a rare occurrence over the past few days. Ever since they joined the Onyx Company, Fang had taken her teacher away and assigned him to an entire class of younger recruits.
Nahlia had her own duties around camp as well. She would’ve liked to say they involved Ethermancy, but there were only so many injuries that needed healing. At least for now.
Instead, Fang assigned her to food preparation. The camp was short on decent cooks, and her experience in the Moonstone automatically made her the most qualified person here.
Cooking for the mercenaries was mostly monotonous work—cutting vegetables, kneading bread, washing dishes, and stirring stew. Her father and uncle had taught her plenty of recipes growing up, but they took more pride in their creations, laboring for hours to perfect their various dishes. Here, the goal was more pragmatic: feed the mercenaries as quickly as possible. One after the other. Every Aegon-cursed day.
Later that evening, after hours of long marching, Relyn and her hunting party returned with a doe for dinner. Thank Aegon ... that meant fewer chickens to pluck tonight.
Ilsa Nirvada joined them a few minutes later. She wore a simple green dress, but she wore it as if it were a queen’s gown. And despite her brown apron and braided hair, she looked decidedly out of place here among the cooks.
What was her role in this camp, anyway? Nahlia had come to think of her as Fang’s right hand, but she couldn’t be sure. Ilsa had been there in the Nightbridge tavern the first time Nahlia spoke with Fang. She was also by his side in the Brassblood’s hideout, the day Nahlia joined them.
A few of the other cooks stiffened as Ilsa walked by. Others quieted their conversations, stealing glimpses from the corners of their eyes.
Ilsa ignored their unease. Her skirt fanned out around her as she knelt down at the wooden cutting surface across from Nahlia. She grabbed an onion from the pile and began tearing off the skin.
Nahlia continued cutting the potatoes in front of her, stealing the occasional glance upward. The nearby fire illuminated Ilsa’s brown hair, revealing glints of gray. Her eyes were a dark shade of brown, but that meant little.
Could she have some form of Ethermancy? Not only had Ilsa identified Nahlia as an Aeon during their first meeting, she had pulled her real name out of thin air.
Of course, that didn’t prove anything. It could have been a lucky guess, or the result of spies and informants. But what about that guard in the Brass Blood’s hideout? Ilsa knew the man was lying when he claimed the Sile’zhar stole her necklace. When she told Fang as much, it hadn’t even been an accusation, but a simple statement. It was almost as if...
“The answer is no,” Ilsa said
Nahlia glanced up from the potatoes. “Beg your pardon?”
“You were wondering if I can read minds,” Ilsa said. “ I can’t.”
Nahlia hesitated. “But you are...” she glanced around at the nearby cooks who were pointedly looking elsewhere. “...you’re like me, aren’t you?”
“An Ethermancer?” Ilsa looked up with a reassuring smile. “It’s alright. It’s not a forbidden word here.”
“Oh. I just didn’t know if it was a secret or not.”
“If it were,” Ilsa replied. “Do you think I would have shown off in front of you?”
Excitement flared in her chest and she perked up. With the exception of Thane, Nahlia hadn’t ever spoken to another Ethermancer before. At least not one who didn’t eventually try to kill her.
“What order would you belong to?” she asked. “The Redeemers? The Sanctifiers?”
“Neither.” Ilsa’s laugh was as smooth as honey—she could have been a bard or a minstrel in another life. “Not everyone fits into those molds.”
Nahlia frowned. “Molds?”
“Redeemers ... Sanctifiers ... Justicars.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Every Aeon sees herself as one of those three because that’s how our ancestors arranged themselves. But what rules were they following? Did Aegon create the three orders?”
Nahlia diced several more potatoes as she considered. The Testaments claimed Aegon gave his followers their power, but it also said the Archaeons had founded the three orders on their own. That left a lot to interpretation.
“Aegon created forests,” Ilsa said, “but we make gardens and orchards. Aegon created rocks, but we make buildings and sculptures. I like to think it was the same with Ethermancy—Aegon gave us Etherite, but we took it from there. The Archaeons forged their paths, and we’ve always followed in their footsteps instead of branching out. The Aeons who fit neatly on the path are called gifted, and the rest of us are judged like fish learning to fly.”
Relyn must have taken an interest in their conversation too because she was still taking her time hanging the doe.
Nahlia nodded, wishing she had her notebook here instead of this pile of vegetables. “So are you saying you created your own path?”
Ilsa tilted her head from one side to the other. “I wouldn’t go that far. But I have learned some ... less traditional skills.”
“Ethermancy started as a mental ability,” she said. “The Ethereal is proof that all minds are connected. Aeons have the strongest connections, but everyone is a part of it.”
“But you just said you can’t read minds,” Nahlia noted. “I’m guessing this is different?”
“Reading minds is impossible,” she said. “At least in my experience. But with enough empathy, it’s possible to pinpoint certain emotions in another person. You can tell if someone is lying, if someone is attracted to you, nervous, or afraid. Eventually, this power can extend to altering people’s emotions. You can make a nervous person calm. Make someone attracted to you when he’s not. Make a dishonest person more willing to tell you the truth.”
“That doesn’t sound ethical to me,” Nahlia said.
“No?” She raised a thin brown eyebrow. “Is it any less ethical than breaking someone’s arm?”
Nahlia looked back down at the cutting board. “That was—I mean, I broke that boy’s arm to protect him. If I hadn’t, I might’ve done something worse.”
“I agree,” she said. “Few would fault you for defending yourself in that situation.”
“Altering people’s emotions feels more manipulative though,” Nahlia said. “It’s like you’re taking away their free will.”
“I’m sure that boy in Nightbridge had other plans before you stopped him,” Ilsa said. “Now imagine the same result with less violence. A simple twist on his emotions to calm his aggression and make him realize that deep down, he didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Point taken,” Nahlia said after a short pause. “I guess it’s the context that matters. “
“It can be abused,” Ilsa agreed. “But I could say the same for your skills. In truth, I could say the same for any weapon or tool.”
“Where did you learn to do this?”
“Mostly practice,” she said with a shrug. “But I’ve gotten lucky with the occasional teacher or forbidden book over the years.”
“It’s been the same for me,” Nahlia mused. “But I wouldn’t mind finding another forbidden book or two. And I definitely wouldn’t mind another teacher.”
“Hm.” Ilsa rocked the knife through her onions with expert precision. “I imagine it’s a difficult undertaking. I’ve met Ethermancers before, but none quite like you.”
“What did you do before?” Nahlia asked. “Before you joined Fang and the Onyx Company, I mean.”
“I was a courtesan in Sunfall”
“Oh,” Nahlia stammered as heat rose to her cheeks. “ I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s alright,” Ilsa said with another easy laugh. “That was a long time ago, and I was barely older than you are now.”
Nahlia forced out a smile, scrambling for something else to say, “I suppose that ... encouraging attraction would be a useful skill in that profession.”
“It was. But encouraging pillow talk was even more useful.”
Right. Many Imperial courtesans were also experts at gathering information.
“I’m sure men loved to boast afterward,” Nahlia agreed. Not that she had any real experience in that regard. Most of what she knew came from romance novels.
“And the women loved to complain," Ilsa said. "Especially if they felt safe enough."
And of course, Nahlia knew even less in that regard. But this begged the question…
“Are you encouraging me to talk right now?” Nahlia asked.
Ilsa didn’t stop slicing, but she glanced up to meet her eyes. “What do you think?”
“I...” Nahlia replayed the last few minutes in her head. She was always curious when it came to Ethermancy, so it wasn’t unlike her to ask this many questions. Then again, she had warmed up to Ilsa almost unnaturally quickly. This was their first real conversation since Raidenwood, and here she was bombarding her with personal questions.
“You’re encouraging me to relax, aren’t you? Lowering my inhibitions?”
Ilsa gave an approving nod.
“Can I learn to do this?” Nahlia asked. Another bold question, but a part of her liked this relaxed state of mind, especially when she was the one asking the questions.
She would have to be careful about what she revealed though. Fang already knew most of their secrets, but he didn’t know her family name, and he definitely didn’t know Thane’s. Then there was the matter of Palatine’s Codex, and the Sile’zhar who were still hunting them.
As much as she wanted to talk to this woman, she would have to be more wary from now on.
Ilsa gathered the chopped vegetables into a bowl and headed to a nearby cookpot. Nahlia gathered her bowl of potatoes and followed.
“Like any form of Ethermancy,” Ilsa said, “you’ll want to start with the basics. I’m sure you had some medical training before you learned to heal?”
Nahlia hadn’t considered that until now, but it was true. Her father had taught her a great deal of medicine when she was younger. But then, hadn’t she also healed herself as a child, long before that?
“Healing yourself under stress is different,” Ilsa said as if in response to her doubt. “Strong emotions can bring out skills years ahead of your time, but such a state never lasts. Besides, more power usually sacrifices precision.”
Again, she’d seen plenty of evidence attesting to that fact. One of her first barriers had knocked Relyn clear out of a window. Even the ones she conjured against the slavers on Nightbridge had been far more violent and wild than anything she made while sparring with Elias.
“So what are the basics, then?” Nahlia asked.
Ilsa remained silent for a moment as she scraped the contents of her bowl into the large iron cookpot. The thing was monstrous, and they could never have carried it without the wagons.
“Start by putting yourself in someone else’s head,” Ilsa began. “Ask yourself, what do they want? What are they feeling right now? For example, your friend Relyn Vash was just listening to our conversation. What did she hope to gain?”
Nahlia glanced over her shoulder to see that Relyn had slipped away at some point. “I suppose it was an interesting conversation. Besides, the Sile’zhar trained her as a spy.”
“Yes,” Ilsa said. “But go deeper. There’s value in gathering information, but there are many interesting conversations around camp. Why ours in particular? What emotions did she feel?”
To be honest, Nahlia hadn’t been paying that much attention. Still, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine the other girl’s face and body language at the time. It reminded her of the looks her fellow barmaids gave her whenever she received special treatment at the Moonstone … or the attention of a particular boy. Relyn was far more subtle, of course, but the hints remained.
“Envy?” Nahlia asked.
At Ilsa’s encouraging nod, she continued, “Relyn isn’t an Ethermancer, but she’s one of the few Aeons from her enclave who knew the power existed. The Sile’zhar tested her as a Justicar, but they claimed she had no potential. I can see how she might be interested in alternate paths like the one you just described.”
“You’re a natural,” Ilsa said as she stirred the cookpot. “What about me? By now, I’m sure you’ve realized I’m only preparing food by choice.”
“Well,” Nahlia began slowly, “Even though I’m the one asking questions, you’re learning just as much about me, if not more. And if I knew someone who could heal any injury, I would want to establish a rapport with her early on.”
Ilsa gave another encouraging nod. “Broader now—why am I here in the Onyx Company?”
Nahlia plunged forward, growing more confident by the second. “It must be hard for someone of your skill set to gain respect. Especially in times of war. But Fang respects you and listens to your council. You put on a show of being his... “ she trailed off, searching for the most polite phrase.
“Companion?” Ilsa suggested.
“Right. But you aren’t really a couple. You’re free to be with whomever you want now, and you put on a show with Fang to distract people and make them underestimate you. People who do business with Fang see you as decoration rather than a threat.”
Ilsa made a leveling gesture with her hand. “You’re right about some things, but wrong about others. The problem is, you’re making assumptions. Empathy may be more art than science, but you still need to approach things rationally. Bold statements like that can make you sound clever, but only if you’re right.”
“This is a common beginner’s mistake,” Ilsa went on. “The problem is, you are quite clever, Nahlia. Growing up in Northshire, you were probably among the most clever people in town. Am I correct?”
Nahlia opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. Fewer words were probably better at this point.
“Cleverness is good, but also dangerous. Clever people make assumptions, then they move forward as if those assumptions were facts. Irrational, of course. But the more often you’re right, the more justified it feels.
“You say Fang and I aren’t a couple, and that our performance in the bar was only a show. But for all you know, our business relationship is the act. I am free to choose my partners now, as you said. But perhaps I choose to be with Fang?”
Ilsa gestured to the food preparation area around them. “You say I’m only here to further an agenda with you. The truth is, I enjoy simple work. It gives one a sense of purpose, and it leaves the mind free to daydream. I also enjoy conversation for conversation’s sake.
Nahlia gave a thoughtful nod. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have still an agenda.
“So let this be my first lesson to you—empathy is watching and listening. You can’t do either one properly if there’s a voice in your head making judgments.”
“Alright,” Nahlia finally said. “I have a lot to learn. But for the sake of my enlightenment, how about an example?”
Ilsa continued as if she’d expected the question, “You seem twice as nervous talking to me as you did with Fang, despite the fact that he’s a crime lord and I’m harmless. You feel the need to impress me, even though you needed Fang’s help far more than you need mine. In fact, you seem more comfortable around men in general. How’s your relationship with your mother?”
Nahlia looked away and began stirring the pot to occupy herself. Maybe she didn’t want to play this game after all.
“Complicated?” Ilsa ventured, softer than before.
“Complicated would be an understatement,” Nahlia murmured. Wasn’t the other woman also making assumptions now? No ... technically, all she did was ask questions, therefore learning even more.
Ilsa’s smile was more sympathetic this time. “A happier note then—do you know Elias is in love with you?”
Well, that was an assumption, at least.
“No,” she replied. “He couldn’t be.”
“And you’re in denial,” Ilsa added. “You’re attracted to him too, but something is holding you back. To be honest, I’m surprised he hasn’t made a move yet.”
“He has,” Nahlia said. “But I already rejected him once, and he found out some terrible things about me after that. I don’t think he’s interested anymore.”
Ilsa snorted, making her sound less refined than she appeared. “Are you paying him for all those private lessons, then?”
Nahlia rolled her eyes. “He’s helping me train so I can stay alive the next time I’m in a real fight. You said it yourself—not everyone has a secret agenda.”
“And you were skeptical of that statement,” Ilsa countered. “Besides, I didn’t say it was a plot to sleep with you. I’m saying he genuinely cares about you. Trust me, there’s a world of difference.”
Nahlia didn’t have an answer for that, so she took a moment to consider. She and Elias had been traveling together for weeks now, but they rarely got a private moment away from Thane and Relyn. Those moments were even rarer now that they joined the Onyx Company. Even so, the idea made her want to smile.
“Besides,” Ilsa continued, “A boy like that would find other ways to occupy his time if he wasn’t interested. He has two more young ladies in his class who are quite stunning.”
“What?” Nahlia whipped around to face the older woman. She had watched Elias’s training sessions several times now, and she knew for a fact that all his students were men. When did ... oh.
Ilsa crossed her arms, a satisfied grin on her face.
Walked right into that one, didn’t I?
Ilsa gave a casual shrug, then stretched out her arms like a cat. “Consider telling him how you feel. You’re young, and you’re a mercenary now. The last thing you want is to die filled with regret.”
With that, she vanished back into the camp, and the rest of the night passed in a blur. Nahlia would have liked more time alone with Elias, but privacy was hard to come by in a camp of two-hundred mercenaries.
Besides, she still had other things to worry about. Raidenwood was finally behind them, but it was still a long journey to Dragonshard.
The sheer size of Fang’s army kept them safe from most dangers on the road, but the Sile’zhar were still out there. Sometimes, Nahlia could feel them watching from the shadows. She and the others had remained hidden until Raidenwood, but now their enemy knew exactly where they were, and it was only a matter of time until they struck.