"Down," Yimo snapped.
Nahlia followed his lead and ducked her head beneath the snowbank. She burrowed her way through the fluffy white powder and peeked out the other side.
The clouds blocked out the moonlight, and a flurry of snowflakes assailed her vision. Five or six soldiers trudged down the road ahead. Unlike the assassins on the train, these men wore the Vassaj colors of yellow and jade.
Valaysian frostwolves sniffed the snow and ran ahead of their masters, but they weren't barking or howling. She and Yimo were downwind, so they should be safe.
To the left of the road, Nahlia spotted a cluster of buildings. They looked like houses, but no light shone from behind the windows, and no smoke rose from the chimneys.
Probably an abandoned mining town like Starglade. She'd read about prospectors on this part of the continent who'd discovered meteorites in the valleys around Tongshan. They'd immediately set up mines hoping to find Etherite within. Either those mines had run dry, or they were solid stone in the first place
For one terrifying moment, a frostwolf glanced in their direction, perking up its white ears. The soldiers noticed, and shifted their bodies toward the snowbank. Nahlia and Yimo were over a hundred yards from the squad. Even so, she held her breath and tried to make herself small in the shadows.
Another wolf howled from somewhere in the village. The other two sprang into motion down the hill, and the soldiers followed.
Nahlia released her breath. The flesh around her collarbone still stung as she pressed a linen cloth to the wound. This was her third bandage for the night. The others, Yimo had thrown into caves and ravines to make false trails.
"We can hide in that village once they're gone," Yimo said from beside her in the snowbank.
Nahlia watched the soldiers search the abandoned houses. Even if another squad came through, they should see this squad's tracks and conclude that the area was clear.
Then again, what did she know about Tongshan’s military tactics?
"Besides," Yimo went on. "We'll need to check that wound of yours."
Nahlia bit her lip and nodded. "It probably needs stitches." She hadn't gotten a good look at the cut, but the blood spoke for itself. With each passing moment, she regretted leaving her pendant behind. Her enemies had still found her regardless. And even if she couldn’t heal the entire wound, she might have at least slowed the bleeding.
"Hope you brought some supplies then," Yimo replied. "Nell carried the needles in our group. Her parents used to be tailors, so she knew how to handle one."
Nahlia lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“That we left the others behind."
"It's fine," he said. "They’re a hell of a lot safer on that train than they are with us.”
Unless the soldiers interrogate them. Then again, the kids didn't know that much about her, and it wouldn't take long for the soldiers to realize that.
“Besides,” he continued, “I only knew them for a couple weeks. Not gonna be heartbroken about it."
His tone said otherwise, but Nahlia didn’t press the matter. The wind howled, and the silence stretched between them. Every inch of her felt frozen from her fingers to her toes. The soldiers continued searching the village, but they didn't stay long. It was only small homes after all. Not even a proper inn or chapel.
After waiting another few minutes for good measure, Nahlia and Yimo crept down the hill and into the nearest house. The walls had once been made of sturdy Valaysian maple, but the decades hadn't been kind. Entire sections were missing, and the glass windows had all been shattered to dust.
"After you," Yimo said with a broad gesture toward the basement staircase.
Nahlia eyed the staircase which looked like it might crumble apart at any moment. "Waiting to see if I make it?"
"Well, you are the heavier one. It's not like I can test it for you."
As if he was that much lighter. While Crelans might be several feet shorter than the other races, Yimo was also sturdy and muscular. Nahlia had already been thin before her coma, and six months of a liquid diet hadn't helped in that regard.
Still, Nahlia was too tired to argue, and she trudged down the stairs with one hand firmly on the wooden railing. The beams creaked beneath her weight, but they didn't break. The basement wasn't much warmer than the main level, but the roof kept out the snow and the wind.
"Only one way out," Nahlia noted as she glanced at the staircase behind them. "Easy place for those soldiers to surround."
"Even easier to die of an infection," Yimo countered. "Unless you’re all healed up and shiny new?"
Nahlia shook her head and lowered herself against the wall.
Yimo lit a pair of small candles and set them down on the cobblestone floor between them. Nahlia pulled off her travelsack and used the light to shift through its contents.
"If you can't find a needle," Yimo said, "we might try making a tourniquet."
"I thought tourniquets were only for limbs?" she muttered without looking up.
"Fine, then." He lifted his powderhorn as if making a toast. "We'll just have to cauterize the wound with black powder."
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "Did Marwyn teach you that?" She'd heard of fire being used to seal wounds, but black powder seemed as likely to send her flying into the wall.
"Who said anything about Marwyn? I learned that trick from a street play in Dresten."
"Wonderful." Nahlia pulled out her needle and catgut. "You do at least know how to sew, right?"
"Give me some credit." Yimo pulled out a flask and traded her for the needle. "I spent ten years in a military academy. You sit back and relax."
Nahlia accepted the flask, popped off the cap, and took a whiff. Hints of wood and smoke stung her nostrils. "Whiskey?"
"Best way to dull the pain. Unless you've got a stash of poppy milk or fadeflower."
Nahlia took a sip. The liquid burned her throat as it went down, but her body seemed to warm as it settled in her stomach.
"Take half," he said. “I need the rest to help me concentrate.”
“Joking,” he interjected with a grin. "It’s to sterilize the wound."
“Oh.” She took a full drink this time. The flask was low to begin with, so half barely amounted to more than a full glass.
Yimo held the needle over the candle's flame until its tip glowed orange. "Alright," he finally said. "Let's see the damage."
Nahlia shrugged off her cloak and jacket as quickly as her injury allowed. Her tunic had a high collar, so that had to come off as well. Thankfully, she wore a dark shameez underneath and it was easy enough to move aside the left strap.
Yimo remained silent as he poured the whiskey over the wound. Nahlia braced herself for the burn, and she didn't flinch as it rolled down her skin.
"Where'd you get black powder, anyway?" she asked through gritted teeth.
Yimo patted the wound dry with a clean linen cloth. "Looted it off a Templar back in Whitecliff."
"Weren't you nursing a bullet wound back then?"
"Not the battle. I went back with a few others to scavenge for supplies."
"Oh." Nahlia eyed the pair of pistols next to his travelsack. "And the Council let you keep those?"
Yimo leaned in closer and threaded the needle through her skin. It hurt, but not as much as she'd expected. Amazing what alcohol could do when her Moonfire wasn't burning it away.
"Who says I asked their permission?" he replied. "Besides, the others were all missing by the time I got back."
"Marwyn and Vaulden are missing?"
"Not just the White Council. I mean everyone—all the survivors from Whitecliff. I got separated from my group, then everyone was gone when I got back to Evervault." Yimo glanced up to meet her eyes. "Sorry, I thought you already knew."
Nahlia suppressed a shudder. "How could a hundred people just ... disappear?"
"Who knows? Not like I could get in touch."
"You weren't soulbound to any of Lady Raider's agents?"
He shook his head. "I wasn't training to be a Seeker like the rest of Wolfe Clan. I mean, look at me. A Crelan can't just stick some Voidcap in his eyes and pass for a human."
Nahlia gave a slow nod. "I hope the others are alright, wherever they are."
"I'm sure they’re fine. You said it yourself—people don't just vanish. Anyway, that's my story. What about you?"
"Mine’s a bit longer," she said.
"So tell me something interesting. You owe me in more ways than one right now."
Nahlia winced as the needle poked her skin again. This time, it wasn't for the pain, but for the innocent red-haired girl who’d made the mistake of boarding the wrong train.
"I died," she said after a short pause. "My mother brought me back, and I spent six months in a coma afterward."
"And that's how you lost your power?"
"I ... don't actually know how that happened." Her mother made a good point in the dream—if Lyraina and Elias could do Ethermancy again, then why couldn't she? Even if Nahlia had imagined that conversation, Lyraina had told her something similar when she first woke from the coma.
The next obvious answer was that Nahlia had lost faith, but that seemed too simple. Thane had gone through something similar after Whitecliff, and he'd retained most of his skills in the aftermath. He could still dream, commune, and train within the Ethereal even if he had none of his Sanctifier abilities. Meanwhile, Nahlia could still heal herself now, but it felt a hundred times more difficult than before.
"Did you see anything when you died?" Yimo asked.
She raised an eyebrow in his direction, though he was too focused on his work to see it. "Why would you say that?"
"I've read things," Yimo said. "Same as you, I'd guess."
She hadn't, actually. Then again, history was full of stories just as strange as the present, if not stranger. And like her, Yimo had also been a librarian’s apprentice at one point.
"I saw my ancestor, Treluwyn."
"Yeah? You two have a good talk?"
Nahlia closed her eyes. "She told me that Aegon exists, and that his idea of fun is to give an eighteen-year-old girl Ethermancy. Along with unreasonable assignments."
Yimo hummed in consideration. "Such as..."
"Like taking back Palatine's Codex before he can cause more damage."
“Really?” Yimo paused the stitching to clean her wound again. "I thought a Codex was nothing but knowledge. If he already 'talked' to it once, what good does stealing it from him do?"
That was a good question. It was also one of the first things Thane had asked her when she relayed the story to him and the others. Palatine had already seized control of one Etherfall, and he had two more years to study the Codex since then.
Even if they could steal the Codex back—or even destroy it—what would they accomplish?
They continued to talk as Yimo worked, and she filled him in on the rest of her story, from finding the Codex beneath Whitecliff, to their adventure south. As difficult as that journey had been, those were far fonder memories than the Battle of Dragonshard.
Eventually, Yimo leaned back and examined his work "There, good as new."
Nahlia glanced down at the wound, then realized it was pointless. She couldn’t see above her own collarbone.
"Okay," Yimo admitted. "So it's a little uneven, but I've only done this once or twice before."
"Thanks," Nahlia said with a weary nod. She wanted to stand up, but her body disagreed. By now, she must have been awake for...
"What time is it?" she asked Yimo.
He pulled out his bronze pocket watch. "Third hour of the morning. We have about four more hours until the sun shows its face. I'd get some sleep if I were you."
"What about you?" At least one of them would need to stand watch.
Yimo waved that away. "Don't worry about me. Crelans don't need as much sleep as you giantfolk."
She couldn't tell if that was a joke or not. Either way, she redressed and huddled inside her cloak. Her eyelids grew heavy as she rested her head against the wall, and sleep took her even faster than the poison had before.
When Nahlia opened her eyes again, she found herself face-to-face with her mother.