Nahlia felt the heat on her face as the flames engulfed her. A storm of orange and red filled the city street, swirling around her protective sphere. Every second was a constant struggle. One lapse in concentration would be enough to see her scorched.
Time for something new.
She re-shaped her barrier from an omnidirectional sphere into a wall of white energy. In the same motion, she hurled the wall toward her attacker, forcing him against the opposite building. The construct spread like wings of moonlight until it touched both sides of the street, leaving him nowhere to run.
Then her opponent launched himself over the wall. Fire rained from above and a black-clad form flew down in its wake.
Nahlia dropped the larger barrier and conjured a smaller one to her opponent’s left. The force of it threw him into the nearest structure.
He shot a burst of flame into the brick wall, shattering half-a-dozen windows. Then—with a few more careful blasts—he slowed his fall and hit the ground running.
Sweat ran down Nahlia’s forehead as more fire closed in. Her hands shook from the effort of holding the shield, and her mind ached.
The barrier shattered a second later, and her opponent’s flames froze in mid-air. The wall of heat parted as Thane stepped forward, a satisfied smirk on his face.
“What?” Nahlia exclaimed. Nothing had ever broken her barriers before, not even bullets. They should have lasted indefinitely in the Ethereal. At least, that’s what she had assumed.
“How?” She used her tunic sleeve to wipe the sweat from her face. “How did you break it?”
“All Ethermancy can be opposed,” Thane said, still grinning. And to think, it took this many weeks of coaxing just to get him to spar with her in the first place.
Nahlia furrowed her brow and crossed her arms “You can do that whenever you want?”
He made a leveling gesture with his hand. “Depends on which one of us is more focused. It’s also easier when your opponent is on the defensive or falls into a pattern. You can counter any move with your mind, but you have to know what you’re countering first.”
“So if I wanted to,” Nahlia began, “I could oppose your fire?”
Thane gave a stiff nod, and his eyes went dark and distant.
Nahlia winced. Right ... Zidane had already done that. What’s worse, the effects lingered months later.
They walked down the empty city street, sidestepping shards of broken glass and wood.
“In your case,” Thane said, “it’s more practical to block the fire with a barrier. Quick thinking though—attacking me in midair like that. All that martial arts training must be paying off.”
A small smile touched her lips. “For some reason, protective shields feel natural, but using them offensively takes a lot more work. I don’t know—maybe I’m imagining it?”
“You’re not,” Thane said. “Treluwyn made those abilities with defense in mind, and you’re her descendent. It’s the same for Sanctifiers. Kalazhan preferred fire and heat, but we can learn to control any form of energy we want. Electricity, kinesis, sound waves...”
She hadn’t considered that before, but it made sense. “So it’s like how we learn our first language intuitively, but others take more work?”
“A good enough analogy,” Thane said. “If I were you, I’d keep experimenting until you find your limits. How many barriers can you make at once? How large can they be? How small?”
Nahlia nodded in agreement. Once she reunited with her parents, she was definitely retiring somewhere peaceful. Somewhere she could practice all day without interruptions. Was eighteen too young to dream about retirement? It didn’t seem like it. Not after all they’d been through.
“You want as many surprises in your bag as possible,” Thane continued. “Zidane was stronger than both of us, but you caught him off guard with the pendant. The same could be said for that Sile’zhar in the Mistwood.”
“Speaking of Sile’zhar,” Nahlia said. “Do you remember that woman who found me in Raidenwood?”
Thane turned to meet her eyes. “The one who threatened you.”
“She did more than threaten me. Her Ethermancy was like yours, but she...” Nahlia brought a hand to her chest, remembering the burning sensation inside her. Her chest tightened just thinking about it.
Thane narrowed his eyes. “You didn’t think to mention this before?”
Nahlia shook her head. Maybe she didn’t want to sound like a victim. Maybe she wasn’t ready. However, the answer she gave him was no less true. “You never wanted to talk about Ethermancy with me before.”
Thane sighed, raking a hand through his hair.
“Not that I’m judging you,” she added quickly. “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I lost mine. Especially after having it for so long. But still...”
Thane had always been distant. More so during her time in Whitecliff. Just another reason she would always be more comfortable around Elias. He was honest to a fault, with few dark secrets to speak of. In a world of so much plotting and backstabbing, they needed more people like that.
“It’s fine.” Thane waved away the issue. “You’re talking about energy transference.” He stopped walking and turned to face a nearby blacksmith where several weapons sat on a table. After a moment, the blades shone a bright orange.
“Most materials can conduct or transfer energy,” Thane said. “Including people.”
“Is that another...” Nahlia stirred the air with her hand, searching for the right word. “Advanced ability?”
He gave a quick nod. “Fortunately, it’s difficult to do and easy to counter.”
“That’s what you call easy?”
“The Sile’zhar took you by surprise,” Thane said. “That’s all. She correctly identified you as strong, but inexperienced.”
“Alright.” Nahlia let out a breath. “So what’s the plan if we meet her again?”
Over the next half-hour, Thane conjured fires around the town while Nahlia tried to oppose them. If she could do this, he said, it would be even easier to oppose fire in her own body.
So far, Thane seemed to be right. If a dagger was sitting on the table, it was her will against his. If Nahlia held the dagger in her hand, things were dramatically easier. Something about how their subconscious minds interpreted possession.
Even so, Thane was able to create an uncomfortable heat in mere seconds. Those seconds might mean life or death with a flame burning inside her chest.
“Can you do it?” Nahlia finally asked. “Can you transfer heat inside another person?”
There was a short pause as Thane seemed to consider. “I’ve done it on animals before. People have stronger wills, which makes it much more difficult.”
“But you might—”
“I’m not trying it on you if that’s where this is going.”
“And if we run into that Sile’zhar again?” Nahlia said. “That extra practice could save lives.”
“No.” Thane held up a hand. “That argument works for sparring, but now you’re talking about torture.”
“You can’t do any permanent damage to me here.”
Thane shook his head, and his eyes were hard. “People always say that about the Ethereal. ‘There are no consequences, so you might as well do what you want.’ It’s a foolish mistake. If I torture you here—even with good intentions—I’ll become more comfortable with torture. A part of me will see it as a viable option against our enemies in the future.”
“I’m sorry,” Nahlia said. She meant it too. As a Redeemer, it was her job to prevent violence. Now here she was advocating for it.
“I guess you have to draw a line somewhere,” she added after a short silence.
“I should have drawn that line a long time ago,” Thane said. Then his face went dark again, the same way it always did when he remembered Dresten.
The weeks flew by as the Onyx Company made their journey southward toward Vauldenport. The coastal city was larger than Raidenwood and Dresten combined. Too large to walk from one end to the other in a single day. And that was assuming you could find a straight path through the maze of roads and alleyways.
Fortunately, the local Templars gave them no trouble during their stay. At least someone was obeying her father’s orders for once. Either that, or the Onyx Company was too large for them to mess with. Sure, many locals shot suspicious looks at the light-eyed Aeons, but things never escalated to violence. Ironically enough, Nahlia and her companions had done far less fighting since they became mercenaries.
The weather improved as well. Pines gave way to palm trees, and snowy hills gave way to flat grasslands and sandy beaches. Before long, the mercenaries were selling their winter cloaks in favor of cooler attire.
While Thane and Relyn darkened in the southern sun, Nahlia and Elias only burned. Or rather, they would have burned if she hadn’t used her Ethermancy to heal the damage everyday. It almost felt like cheating—using this divine gift to heal sunburns. Nahlia thought of it as practice.
They camped on the outskirts for several days. Fang spent that time arranging their passage across the Ember Sea. Apparently, folk used to sail directly from Vauldenport to Dragonshard, avoiding the deserts and jungles in-between. But that was before Palavar’s fleet arrived. No captain wanted to risk an encounter with a foreign invasion force.
Instead, they spent a fortnight following the coast, finally landing on a smaller port city in the Black Steppes. The desert was a vast expense of black sand and jagged obsidian shards. Various breeds of dragons hunted here, and the glass storms were so dangerous that the company had to wear protective gear from head-to-heel. Scarves covered their mouths and noses while goggles protected their eyes.
Needless to say, all the shrouded faces made Nahlia uneasy. Even an amateur assassin could sneak up on them in this state. It would be child’s play for a Sile’zhar.
Dusk fell over the black desert, and Thane and Elias stood watch against the invading raptor packs.
Standing on two legs, the miniature dragons were as tall as a man and as long as a warhorse. In fact, Dragonshard had domesticated the jungle breeds and rode them into battle the way other nations rode horses. Bred in captivity, a trained raptor could be as loyal as a wolfhound. And unlike horses, they didn’t shy away from battle. They welcomed it.
Unfortunately, those raptors were wild, born in the harshest conditions on the continent. Beneath their black feathers, their hides were tough enough to deflect an arrow or stop a blade’s glancing blow. Centuries of glass storms forced quick evolution, it seemed.
What’s worse, they hunted in coordinated packs of ten to twelve. Usually, this meant picking off the camp’s outliers one-by-one. But as security grew tighter, the packs grew bolder.
“There.” Elias pointed to the top of the dark ridge. It was a full moon, and the obsidian sand glittered in the pale light.
“What?” Thane squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
“Movement,” Elias said in a harsh whisper. “At least two of them swishing their tails around.”
Thane fingered a holstered pistol. Unlike regular arrows, these had no trouble breaking through a raptor’s hide. Elias still called him a heretic for using it, but Thane didn’t care. There were too many dogmatic corpses these days and not enough living heretics.
“It could be a diversion,” Ilsa Nirvada said as she approached the two men. Even Fang’s right hand had donned protective gear once they reached the desert—complete with goggles and scarf. Of course, the long braid spilling out from her helmet still gave her away.
“What?” Elias’s face was hidden too, but Thane heard the skepticism in his voice. “Even if that’s true, won’t they still attack with the others?”
“I’m not talking about these raptors,” Ilsa said. “I’m talking about the whole pack.”
Elias still seemed confused, but Thane understood. Ilsa wasn’t an expert on dragons or battle tactics. There was only one reason she would come to them with this theory.
“You think someone’s controlling them?” Thane asked.
Ilsa gave a slow nod. “I’ve been trying to do the same—to calm their aggression and encourage a retreat. Someone is countering my efforts. It’s much stronger tonight than it was before.”
“Another Ethermancer,” Thane muttered.
“It’s worse than that,” she said. “I think we’ve been infiltrated.”
Thane kept his face blank despite the covering. Fang and Ilsa still didn’t know about their run-ins with the Sile’zhar. He wasn’t about to spill the story now.
“How do you know?” Elias asked.
“I can feel someone here,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t belong.”
Thane pivoted his head and took a long look around camp. Three dozen leather tents were crammed inside the ribcage of a massive seadragon skeleton. It used to be a Crelan village, but they had all retreated during the Templar campaign two years ago.
Once again, Thane didn’t reply to Ilsa’s observations. He had known skilled empaths before, and they could also see through dishonesty like a glass window pane. One wrong word, and—
“You know who it is,” Ilsa said.
Aegon. Even his silence was a giveaway.
Thane was still forming a reply when Elias spoke up, “It’s the Sile’zhar.” Then he rounded on Thane. “We can’t keep this to ourselves. Not if lives are in danger here.”
As if lives hadn’t been in danger from the start.
Ilsa stiffened. “What do they want with you?”
A dragon’s roar echoed over the desert like a battle-cry. Thane glanced back to the ridge where a dozen raptors stood.
Thane drew his pistols and turned back to Elias. “Who has the Codex?”
“Nahlia.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than he turned and ran toward her tent.
Thane’s heartbeat quickened as he turned back to the pack of raptors. “Sound the alarm,” he told Ilsa. “Wake everyone.”
The larger dragon gave another shriek as it took flight. Black wings filled the dark sky, blocking out the moon. Then the raptors joined the battlecry and charged down the hill.