Nahlia opened her eyes to an empty train coach. No Yimo, no orphaned children, and no unconscious crowd.
Heat prickled her face despite the cold, and her tongue felt as dry as cotton. The rest of her body was distant and unresponsive.
“I've changed my mind,” Alexel Trelidor's voice echoed in her skull.
Hot pain tore through her chest as the memory assaulted her. A blade of white crystal. Blood spilling from her wound. Long fingers around her neck. Her bones breaking against the stone.
She struggled for a breath, but her lungs refused to comply. Her focus scattered like snowflakes in a blizzard.
"Nahlia," a woman's voice spoke her name—quiet as a whisper, but urgent as a battle call.
Nahlia clenched her hand into a fist, digging her nails into her palm in an effort to center herself. She curled the rest of her body into a ball, touching her forehead to her knees, willing away the sights and sounds.
"Nahlia," the voice repeated. It sounded faint and distant, but also strangely resonant. As if it came from inside her own head. The woman had a refined western accent, similar to Elias's mother.
No, not Elias's mother.
Her own mother.
"Is that really you?" Nahlia whispered. She opened her eyes, but the train was as empty as before.
"Listen to me," Lyraina said. "You've been poisoned. Not a lethal dose, but enough to knock you unconscious. If you stay that way, they'll kill you."
"Those members of Clan Taoma..." Nahlia muttered while struggling to keep her eyes open. They had poisoned the rice. That's why it tasted so sweet. Nightshade? But no ... if their goal was to put the train to sleep, then Nightshade alone lacked precision. Especially if they distributed the food at random. They would have mixed it with something else.
Nahlia clenched her fist a second time. Her thoughts were scattered again, and the how didn't matter.
"Why?" she finally asked. "They aren't loyal to Palatine."
"No," Lyraina agreed. "On the contrary, Clan Taoma leads a faction in Tongshan that opposes him. But your eyes deceived you. What you saw tonight were Vassaj soldiers, clad in the cloaks of their rivals."
Clan Vassaj. Relyn's family.
Her vision swam when she opened her eyes again, and a sharp pain twisted behind her eyes.
"They poisoned a whole train ... to get to me?”
"How many Ethermancers did you defeat during the battle of Dragonshard?" her mother replied. "How many powerful foes have you bested in battle?"
Chills crept down her neck to the base of her spine. More memories of death assaulted her. Nahlia tried to push them away, but they persisted like a fever dream.
A fever dream. Is that what this is?
She pressed her palms to the icy metal floor and forced herself into a sitting position. The train was still moving, but smoother than before. The clouds outside stretched toward a twilight horizon, and the sky shone with twice-bright stars.
Not a fever dream, then. A real dream in the Ethereal. But how? She hadn't set foot into this world since the night of her death. Not for lack of effort, either.
"How do you know all this?" Nahlia tried to gaze in her mother's direction, but there was no one there.
"Why do I even bother?" she muttered. "You can't be real." She and Lyraina didn't have a soulbond to commune within the Ethereal. Nahlia didn't even have her pendant anymore. Carrying Etherite just made her an easy target for other Aeons.
"We will discuss existentialism later," Lyraina said. "I promise. For now, focus on yourself. You need to burn away the poison before they find you."
"I can't. I'm not an Ethermancer anymore."
"You're wrong. The comet still loomed above Dragonshard that night. It prevented your soul from breaking completely, just as it healed mine. Now, the poison!"
Nahlia reached out to her physical body, but it was still unresponsive. Whatever this poison was, it had shut down her nervous system completely.
"This won't work," she said. "Even if I were still an Ethermancer, I don't have my pendant."
"You're on a moving train," Lyraina replied. "There is energy. Light, heat, and motion. Let it flow from the machine into your body."
Nahlia reached out to the train, but doubt clouded her efforts. She'd already tried to heal herself a thousand times since her coma, always to no avail. It had taken her weeks just to walk again. She'd also gotten sick multiple times in the last year—simple things like colds and fevers which she hadn't even gotten as a child.
Her friends hadn't looked at her with pity, just expectation. They knew about her talk with Treluwyn, and they all expected her to pull through. Not only that, but they expected her to unearth some hidden power and defeat Palatine.
"Focus," Lyraina's voice snapped her back to the present.
Nahlia let out a breath and forced the thoughts away. Her mother was right. If these were to be her last moments, she would spend them fighting back, not wallowing in self-doubt.
She breathed in through her nostrils and out through her mouth, using the meditation skills she'd learned back in Whitecliff. Each time, her mind grew a little clearer. Slowly, the haze lifted, and she felt the train back in the physical world.
Motion as it cut through the mountain air like a falling meteor.
Heat as the wheels spun against the iron rails.
Light from the amber-colored crystal lamps that hung from the ceiling above.
"I ... feel something. But it's not like it was before."
Two years ago, drawing energy into her soul had been as easy as taking a drink of water. This felt more distant. Like watching someone else take a drink, and merely imagining the taste.
"It may be different," Lyraina said, "but don't turn away from it." Her voice softened to a whisper. "Listen. Take its power. Feed it to your body."
Nahlia tried to force the energy into her body, but it didn't turn to Moonfire. Instead, it broke like a river against a rock, fading into the surrounding air.
Aegon. It never used to be so hard.
"You've had your Revelations long ago," Lyraina said. "Do you remember?"
"Revelations?" She remembered something about that in her mother's journal, but it had been so long. Now, the words were nothing but a blur.
"The first time you did Ethermancy—truly did Ethermancy. Something tried to hold you back, but you persisted. It’s the same for all Aeons."
"Fear," Nahlia said. "Fear of myself ... of hurting people with my power." That fear had only grown during her journey to Dragonshard. With her first kill on the Black Steppes, then again in the palace when she'd killed two of Thane's cousins.
But fear wasn't stopping her now. She hadn't lost her Ethermancy in the way Thane had after Whitecliff. After all, Thane had still been an Aeon. He could still dream and commune. Nahlia had none of that. Her soul was broken, and she'd been blinded and deafened to the world.
Even if her mother was right, and the comet had healed the effects of her death, something else had broken her.
Something far worse than death.
"What else?" Lyraina prompted. "There are more emotions required to create Moonfire. Compassion. Faith."
Faith was a stretch right now, but finding compassion wasn't beyond her. Perhaps not for herself, but for the people she would leave behind if she failed.
Father and Elias. They'd both sat by her side for those six months she was unconscious in Villa Solizhan.
Thane and Relyn. Even her mother, though Aegon only knew where she really was tonight.
Nahlia thought of the pain they would feel if she died here on this train. It wasn't hard to imagine—like anyone, she'd lost her share of friends and family in this war.
She reached out to the train again, pulling what energy she could, weaving the emotion with her will. This time, it turned to Moonfire, and the rush of power burned away the poison. Not all of it, but enough to restore feeling to her body.
"Good," Lyraina said. "You've taken the first step. Now, daughter, rise and fight."
She opened her eyes to the physical world. This time, she wasn't alone. The bodies of the three children lay beside her, breathing steadily as they slept. Two more figures loomed above—inky silhouettes against the lantern light. One of them was clutching something in his right hand. It was about as wide as a finger, shimmering like glass. A vial?
Nahlia shut her eyes again, weighing her options. She'd healed herself, but the effort had left her soul drained. More Ethermancy was out of the question.
Her heart pounded against her ribcage, and she fought to keep her breathing steady.
A man's voice snapped a command in Valaysian. She couldn't make out the words, but it sounded like a warning. Something clattered to the floor with an explosion of glass. Nahlia cracked open her eyes to see another man draw a curved dagger from his belt.
They knew she was awake.
Rise and fight, her mother had said.
No time for subtlety. Nahlia braced herself and kicked the assassin below the knee with all her might.
His leg buckled beneath the impact of her boot. The space was too narrow for the other man to attack. Nahlia sprang to her feet and lashed out again, throwing a punch at his windpipe.
The assassin recovered just as quickly. He deflected the jab and threw her to the side. While she remembered her training with Elias, her body wasn't as fast or strong as it had been. The man yanked a handful of her hair, then slammed her face-first into the train's back wall.
Stars clouded her vision as she collapsed again, rolling over on her back. The man was on top of her a second later. He forced a knee into her stomach, and it felt like he’d dropped a boulder on her. Nahlia coughed and gasped, struggling to replace the air he'd hammered from her lungs.
Even as she struggled, he brought a blade toward her throat. Nahlia threw up both hands and seized his wrist. Still, he pressed down with his knee and his blade. She couldn't breathe, and her arms shook from the effort of holding him back.
The man shifted his weight to the side, and his blade struck below her left collarbone. Steel sank into flesh. Nahlia gritted her teeth as waves of pain shot through her. Strength abandoned her arms, and her fingers loosened around her attacker’s wrist.
The man pulled the dagger free and moved to stab her throat.
Two explosions sounded in rapid succession. The assassin’s body went limp, and his fingers loosened around the knife.
Nahlia rolled to the side as the blade struck the floor. She pushed away her attacker, coughing and heaving in breaths of air. The other man lay dead behind him. Nahlia blinked back tears and raised her head.
Yimo stood above her with a smoking pistol.
"You're awake," he said.
Nahlia gave a brisk nod, too breathless to thank him. She raised a gloved hand to her collarbone, and it came back dark with blood.
The body beside Yimo twitched several times, and a hand grabbed him by the ankle.
Nahlia froze, and images of a burning throne room flashed in her mind's eye. Pale corpses twitching on the marble floor, turning their lifeless eyes toward her.
Yimo kicked the hand away, picked up the assassin’s dagger, and plunged it into the assassin’s eye. The twitching subsided, but Yimo didn't stop. He stabbed him again and again. Blood splattered his face each time he pulled the blade free.
For a moment, Nahlia could only stare at him in confusion. Then the realization hit like a second wave of poison.
A long silence passed between them as they caught their breaths. The wind howled outside the windows, and the train continued rocking on its iron rails.
"Nell and Corbin are fine." Yimo used his sleeve to wipe the blood from his face. "But Red—she ate her share of the rice ... along with mine."
Nahlia's eyes darted to the side where the red-headed girl lay. Unlike Nell and Corbin, she wasn't breathing.
"I'm sorry, I—"
"Can you heal her?" Yimo interjected.
Nahlia shook her head, fresh tears forming in the corners of her eyes. This wouldn't be ordinary healing. This was resurrection—something she'd only achieved once, deep in the caves beneath Whitecliff.
She tried to explain, but her voice hitched. Even here, thousands of miles from the war, people were still dying because of her.
"But you healed yourself," Yimo said. "And I saw you eat the rice." His eyes were still hard, but at least they weren't accusatory.
Nahlia swallowed several times, trying to banish the dryness in her throat. Yimo had just saved her life. She owed him an explanation.
"My soul was broken in the Battle of Dragonshard," she told him. "I'm not an Ethermancer anymore. But I'm still ... something."
"And those soldiers—they were after you, weren't they?"
"Clan Vassaj," Nahlia said with a nod. "They serve Palatine—the one I'm running from."
“Right.” Yimo pulled a powderhorn from his travelsack and fed it into the top of his pistol. He spared one last glance at the red-headed girl's lifeless body, then drew himself to his full three-foot height. "I'm gonna track down the rest of these bastards. Are you with me, or not?"
Nahlia hesitated. Her collarbone continued burning, sending waves of pain down her left arm.
"We don't know how many there are," she said.
"A lot less by the time I'm done with them."
Nahlia grabbed the iron railing and rose on unsteady feet. From there, she took in the sea of unconscious bodies throughout the coach. "If we fight here, more innocents could die."
"They're coming for you either way," Yimo said. "Better to catch them with their trousers down. Unless you've got a better idea, I—"
The door at the end of the coach slid open, and another soldier stepped inside.
Yimo raised his pistol, eyes hardening with resolve.
The soldier opened his palm, and an orange flame sprouted to life.
"Run!" Nahlia snapped.
Fire erupted from the Sanctifier's palm, soaring down the center aisle. Nahlia threw herself to the ground, taking Yimo with her. The pillar of flame passed above her head, singeing her hair and stinging her right ear.
Their attacker raised his hand again, but the train turned a rough corner and he lost his balance. Yimo raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. Sparks and smoke erupted from his hand. The man fell back as the bullet took him in the chest..
Still, more Vassaj soldiers filtered in through the door.
Nahlia reached up and grabbed the iron door handle. In the same motion, she yanked open the door and hauled herself up. Yimo was on her heels, practically shoving her out onto the walkway between coaches. The air's icy fingers found every gap in her clothing, whipping her hair against her face.
Nahlia staggered onto the metal platform. She’d expected to see another passenger coach behind them. Instead, she saw nothing but train tracks receding into the night. They’d been at the back of the train this entire time.
Behind her, Yimo slid the door shut and pulled out his powderhorn.
“No time for that,” Nahlia shouted. “We have to jump.”
“Off a moving train?” he snapped back. “Are you crazy?”
Maybe she was, but she’d also seen at least three more soldiers behind them. Any number of those could be Ethermancers.
Nahlia climbed over the side of the railing without another word. Her boots found the ledge from the other side. She stretched out her arms behind her, grasping the rail with both hands. Yimo followed her lead a heartbeat later.
The door slid open behind them as their attackers followed. Nahlia snatched Yimo’s wrist as the train slowed for another turn. Then, together, they kicked off from the platform, plunging into the icy darkness.