Book 3: The Crowned Sanctifier
Nahlia shuffled down the crowded aisle as the train rocked on its iron rails. The metal floor was slick with melted snow, and she had to grasp the railing to steady herself. Her legs ached from miles of walking, and her fingers were nearly frozen.
Aegon. All she wanted was a place to sit and huddle inside her cloak. Was that too much to ask?
Unfortunately, three-hundred other refugees had the same idea, and the train was already bursting at the seams when she’d boarded. Two silver moons might have bought her passage to Tongshan, but only just.
The crowd’s heat had formed a layer of fog on the glass. Beyond that were layers of frost and flurries of blinding snow. It was early autumn, but this part of Valaysia was almost as far north as the Mistwood. It didn’t help that the train tracks cut high through the mountains.
By the time Nahlia reached the back, she still hadn’t found an empty seat. How many of these coaches had she been through now? Ten? Fifteen? She curled her fingers around the door handle, bracing herself for the rush of icy air outside.
She paused when she noticed a cluster of children huddled on the floor in the coach’s back corner. Like most of the passengers, they had the pale skin and rounded eyes of northern Reverans. Two girls and one boy—all thin, and probably younger than twelve. They’d spread out as if to fill the space. Even so, squeezing in with them was better than standing in the aisle for two more hours.
What’s the worst they can do? Cut my purse? There was little in there worth stealing. Her last few silvermoons were tucked safely in her left boot, far from any sticky fingers. She didn’t even carry her pendant anymore.
Nahlia took a step closer to the group and cleared her throat, “May I join you?” She rarely spoke since she’d gone into exile, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears.
No one looked up, but the two girls shifted away from the corner as if to make room.
Nahlia gathered her skirt and cloak, lowering herself to the ground. She felt something cold and wet beneath where she sat.
Wonderful. Hopefully, that was only water.
The children were all dark-eyed—either humans or half-bloods like her. There was another boy sleeping in the opposite corner, curled up beneath a cloak. His short blond hair reflected the orange lamplight from the ceiling, and he seemed far more muscular than the others.
The girl to Nahlia’s left had bare feet sticking out beneath the hem of her skirt. Her hair was red like Nahlia’s, though it was several shades lighter. Freckles covered her face, from her forehead down to her neck.
No one spoke for several long minutes after that. The only sounds were the howling wind, a few crying babies, and the whispers between families. At least no one was threatening to stab each other in here. That fact alone made this coach an improvement over the others.
Occasionally, they rounded a rough corner, shifting the angle of the floor. Nahlia gritted her teeth every time, imagining the worst. She’d never even seen a train before today, much less ridden one. Sure, they had trains back in Revera. There was even a track that ran through Northshire, but they’d been out of service since before the Purge. Trains ran on Etherite, which meant you needed Ethermancers to handle the flow of energy.
Valaysia had little Etherite of their own—especially compared to Revera. But she’d read about an Order of Ethermancers on this continent called Cultivators. They didn’t need Etherite the way Reverans did. Instead, they spent their lives expanding the space inside their souls. After years of training, they could draw upon the earth’s natural energy and store enough to move a train several hundred miles in one day.
The train rounded another corner and the barefooted girl let out a small scream as she slid into Nahlia.
“Relax,” the dark-haired boy said. “That happens all the time.” He was no older than the other two, but he spoke as if he were some grizzled old war veteran.
“And what do you know about trains?” The second girl shot back. Her skin was olive-colored, and her accent sounded like a rougher version of Thane’s.
Before the train expert could reply, the blond muscular boy sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. “The hell are you two bickering about?”
Nahlia blinked. That wasn’t a boy’s voice at all—more like a young man’s. But when he sat up, he was shorter than all three children.
The Crelan’s face was hidden beneath his hood and scarf, but his bright blue eyes darted in Nahlia’s direction. “Who’s this now?” He glanced down at his lap, then to his empty hands. “And where the hell is my gift? Damnit Corbin, you had one job.”
“Um...” The dark-haired boy cleared his throat and glanced in Nahlia’s direction. “Sorry, I forgot. Anyone who sits with us has to bring a gift.”
“That’s alright.” Nahlia remembered the redheaded girl’s bare feet and reached into her travelsack. “I do have an extra pair of socks here. Never even worn.”
“This gift is accepted.” The Crelan snatched the socks from her hand and tossed them on the younger girl’s lap. “Here you go, Red. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
Nahlia couldn’t make out more than the Crelan’s eyes behind the scarf, but they were undoubtedly bright. Part Aeon? What’s more, she recognized that voice.
“You know,” the Crelan said. “In most civilized cultures, it’s considered rude to stare.”
“Sorry,” Nahlia blurted out, “but I know you.”
“There’s more than one Crelan on this planet,” he said. “Just because you’ve met one of us—”
“You’re Yimo,” Nahlia whispered. “From Wolfe Clan.”
His blue eyes widened, and he lowered his scarf. “You’re...”
Nahlia raised her hood to reveal her face. “Natalie,” she replied before he could say her real name.
“Natalie.” Yimo scowled as he tasted the name. “That won’t do. We already have one of those.” He gestured to the dark-skinned girl beside him.
“My name’s Nell!” the girl protested.
“Nell is short for Natalie,” Yimo said with a dismissive wave.
Her frown deepened. “No it’s not. My full name is Nelida.”
“Well then.” Yimo scratched at the blond stubble on his chin then turned back to Nahlia. “It’s still too confusing. You’ll need a different name.”
Nahlia narrowed her eyes. Did he think this was a joke? Then again, Yimo hadn’t seen her since Whitecliff, and that was over two years ago. He didn’t know what she’d been through, or how badly Alexel Trelidor wanted her dead.
“You know,” Yimo said, “I wanted to go after you.”
“When you left Evervault with Tha—” He trailed off, then seemed to remember himself. “The escaped prisoner. I wanted to go with Elias and Relyn to find you, but the boss needed me elsewhere.”
He must have been referring to Elias’s mother, Casella Raider. She’d taken charge of Whitecliff’s older students shortly after the academy’s destruction.
Yimo continued, “I went looking for Ciena instead, but you beat us there too, didn’t you? Seems like I missed out on a lot.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Nahlia said. “We both ended up in the same place, anyway.”
Yimo’s expression grew more serious. “The rest of Wolfe Clan ... They survive Dragonshard?”
Mere mention of that city was enough to tighten her chest, and a hundred memories attacked her all at once. Alexel Trelidor shredding through her father’s army with his blades of white Moonshard. Hundreds of voices crying out in pain. The tyrant’s blade opening her chest and taking her life along with her Ethermancy.
She forced the memories back, but no amount of time or distance was enough. Even now, two years later, they remained like twisting daggers in her soul.
“Elias and Ciena made it out,” Nahlia said. “But not their parents.”
Yimo gave a slow nod. “Figured as much. What about Relyn Vash?”
“She’s Relyn Solidor now. The new queen of Dragonshard.”
Yimo whistled in appreciation. “Heard a rumor about that too, but I didn’t believe it. At least Valaysia’s doing well for herself. That makes one of us, huh?”
Nahlia nodded along, then glanced back at the other three who had been absorbing their conversation in wide-eyed silence. “Speaking of which, are you ... traveling with a group of kids?”
“Why yes.” Yimo sat up straighter. “As a matter of fact, I happen to be their leader.”
“What?” The girl named Nell practically sprang to her feet. “First you muck up my name, now I’m a kid?”
“My mistake,” Yimo deadpanned. “I forgot that humans reach adulthood at twelve.”
“Twelve and a half,” she corrected.
“And I rest my case.”
The girl’s face twisted in confusion, oblivious to the sarcasm.
Nahlia seized the opportunity to speak again, “Why?”
“This isn’t Whitecliff,” he explained. “Crelans draw attention. And when you’re a clueless foreigner, no attention is good attention.”
“Sure,” Nahlia agreed. “So why the entourage then?”
“No one bats an eyelash at orphans,” he said. “But passing for one isn’t easy. Not when Aegon blesses you with such a manly voice.”
Yimo ignored her. “That’s why I keep my head down and let them do the talking.”
“Oh,” Nahlia said. “That actually makes sense.” In exchange, Yimo no doubt provided them with his protection. Crelans might be three feet tall, but she’d seen him take down grown men in Whitecliff’s battlegrounds.
Yimo leaned back against the wall. “The whole North went to hell after we lost the Raiders. Now it’s nothing but a bunch of human factions fighting over Dresten. Not to mention the siege down in Raidenwood.” He gave a theatrical shrug with both palms extended. “So I left. No place for Crelans in that mess.”
“No place for anyone,” Nahlia muttered. Hence the crowded train full of refugees. She hadn’t seen the North herself, but she’d heard what happened after the comet. Apparently, it had destroyed many of the towns, including Northshire, the place she and her father had called home for the better part of a decade. Many stayed to rebuild while others sought to move on, looking for work here across the Sunrise Sea.
Yimo leaned forward. “But what about you? If the rest of Wolfe Clan is still alive, then what are you doing here by yourself?”
Nahlia shrugged, staring down at her knees.
“And don’t you have family back home, too?” Yimo asked.
“It’s complicated,” she muttered.
Yimo opened his mouth just as the coach’s door slid open behind him. A group of middle-aged Valaysian women stepped inside and began handing out fist-sized bundles of rice to the other refugees.
“These are free?” Corbin asked with narrowed eyes.
The woman nodded as she handed him a bundle. “Courtesy of Clan Taoma.”
That seemed safe enough. Nahlia had heard of street vendors here who would scam foreigners with what looked like free samples, only demanding payment afterwards. But then she’d also heard of factions in the Tongshan court who were eager to help the Reveran refugees, despite the city’s neutral stance in the war.
By the time Nahlia opened her own bundle, the three kids had devoured more than half of theirs.
Yimo left his own food untouched, and he bore down on Nahila with his eyes. “I know it’s been a few years,” he said, “but I remember you. I remember what you can do. I left Revera because I had no choice, but if I had half of what you have—”
“Used to have,” Nahlia corrected him. “I’m not an Ethermancer anymore.”
The other three had been quiet until now, but the word “Ethermancer” was enough to make them all stop chewing their food.
“What happened?” Yimo asked.
“Longer than two hours? Because that’s how far we have until the next stop.”
Nahlia shook her head with a sigh, pulling apart the sticky white rice with her fingers.
“So you’re running away,” Yimo ventured.
“Only as much as anyone else.” Nahlia put the rice in her mouth, surprised at the sweet taste. If this was normal for Relyn, then it was little wonder she liked sweet food.
When she glanced back at Yimo, he’d already given his bundle away. Nahlia extended her hand to offer him the rest of hers.
Yimo shook his head and patted his travelsack. “I brought my own.”
Eventually, the others drifted off to sleep. Corbin leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, and the two girls lay on the ground huddled beneath their cloaks.
Nahlia had been exhausted when she sat down, but she never imagined she’d sleep on a moving train. But now, the idea didn’t feel so strange. In fact, if she didn’t lay down now, she might tip over.
A moment ago, she hadn’t been tired at all. Exhausted, maybe, but not ready for bed. The others hadn’t seemed that tired either when she sat down. Why now? Nahlia didn’t have a pocket watch, but it couldn’t have been that late.
Something’s not right.
She tried to speak, but her mouth was dry as a desert. Her vision blurred, and her heart threw itself against her ribcage.
“Yimo,” she murmured.
“Yeah?” he asked. “Feel like talking to me now?”
Nahlia heaved in a deep breath, managing only one word, “Poison.”
Yimo sat up straighter, his gaze darting between the kids and the other passengers. They were all asleep now—not just the kids, but the entire coach.
“Shit,” he said. “I think you’re right.”
Nahlia’s eyelids grew heavy, and her body slumped over.
She’d been poisoned before, and she’d always walked away unharmed. Only this time, she had no Ethermancy to stop it.