Two dreams in one night?
Nahlia stood in the same village where she'd fallen asleep. A blanket of snow still covered the ground, but the scene wasn't nearly as dark as the physical world had been. Mist blocked out the horizon, and the sky shone with shades of violet.
"Nahlia," her mother spoke her name from several yards away. Despite being well into her forties, Lyraina Trelian's skin was pale and flawless. Her auburn hair emerged in two thick braids from the sides of her blue hooded cloak.
Nahlia reached out with her mental senses and felt the other woman’s presence there. It felt like her real mother—the one who'd tucked her into bed for the first seven years of her life. The one who'd read her stories and taught her to believe in Aegon.
The one who'd helped Palatine seize control of the Etherfall and kill thousands.
"Your enemies are closing in as we speak," Lyraina said. “But steel and black powder won't be enough this time."
Nahlia stiffened. "You seem to know a lot about ... everything. But you and I don't have a soulbond. How do you know all this? Unless you’re nearby?"
Lyraina's cloak trailed through the snow as she stepped forward, graceful as a dancer. The wind swirled around them, but it wasn't as cold as the physical world had been. Even the pain from her shoulder felt fainter than before.
"We forged something like a soulbond when I brought you back," Lyraina said.
Nahlia furrowed her brow. "Is that how every resurrection works?" By her mother's logic, Nahlia should have a bond with Elias too.
"Not every one," she said with a slight shake of her head. "An Aeon's soul is crystallized energy, like Etherite. Like all crystals, it grows in a pattern. As you forge bonds with others, the patterns change within both souls. The more similar those patterns are to begin with, the easier a bond forms."
"I've never heard that before," Nahlia admitted. Still, it made sense that a mother and daughter could connect faster than friends. Thane once said you needed time to forge a bond. Specifically, time together within the Ethereal. Then again, he’d also said there were exceptions to every rule. If Lyraina had an advantage to begin with, maybe she’d brute-forced her way past the remaining barriers?
Her mother continued closer until they stood only a few feet apart. "There is much about Ethermancy the world doesn't know. And those who are bonded can do much more than communicate. With training, you can see what the other sees—feel what she feels."
Well, that's not discomforting at all.
Nahlia swallowed and rubbed at her wounded shoulder. Palatine had already proven how a soulbond could be abused. He and Ciena Raider had shared a pair of bonded rings, and he'd forced her to see illusions during the Clansmeet. Worst of all, he'd made her obey his commands and prevented her from breaking free.
"I'm not sure I like the idea of you in my head," Nahlia said. No sense in sailing around the storm here. Her mother might have helped her, but a few good deeds couldn't erase what she'd done before.
Lyraina's face softened. "I'm not here against your will, Nahlia. If you wish to force me out, it’s well within your power."
"And why now?” Nahlia said. “Where were you a year ago?”
"I've been searching for you for some time," she said. "I took another route to Tongshan, hoping to find you here."
So, she was in Valaysia after all.
"As for why you're able to dream again, I suspect the poison awakened some desperation within you. Your Ethermancy was never truly gone, but you had no use for it in this life of exile. Isolation weakens us, but conflict gives us strength."
That made sense, as much as she hated to admit it. Before the Templars attacked the Moonstone three years ago, she'd only been able to heal small wounds. It wasn’t until after this all started that her powers truly came to fruition.
"But something happened to me when I died," Nahlia countered. "It shouldn't have taken me six months to wake up."
"I meant to help you," Lyraina said, "and to train you. But you left so quickly after you woke."
"I didn't trust you. Not after everything that's happened."
Lyraina lowered her eyes again. "I made a mistake putting my faith in Alexel. All I want now is to help you."
Her mother had tried playing the guilt card before. It wasn't going to work. She could save that speech for the thousands who died from the comet—all the children who'd lost their parents, just like she had once.
"Alexel..." It almost hurt to say the name, as if the mere sound of it carried the pain of a hundred broken bones. Nahlia took several deep breaths before the memories overwhelmed her. "Is he the one who taught you Ethermancy?"
Lyraina shook her head. "I wasn't Alexel's apprentice. He was mine."
"What?" She didn't know much about Alexel, but people claimed he'd been studying Ethermancy for decades—maybe even centuries. Meanwhile, her mother had been powerless before the Etherfall. "How is that even possible?"
"A story for another time," Lyraina said, and she took another step forward. "You're still in danger now. We need to focus on your plan for survival."
Nahlia flinched away. If what her mother said were true, that only made things worse. It was one thing to be deceived or to place your trust in the wrong person, but this? How much of this war was her mother's doing?
Lyraina paused as if considering her words with care. "If I had known this would happen—what he would do to you—I never would have taught him anything. The more his power grew, the less he listened to reason. Such is the way with many rulers. I've already admitted I was wrong about him. I know you don't agree with everything I've done, but I am your mother. Do you believe I would ever bring you to harm?"
"That's not what I'm worried about," Nahlia replied. "I'm worried that I'll become like you."
"You're better than me," Lyraina said. "You always have been."
Nahlia shook her head and pressed on. "If you trained Palatine, then who trained you?"
"I promise," Lyraina dragged the last word out into an exhale. "I'll explain everything once you're safe. First, you need to survive the mountains, then meet me in Tongshan."
"Fine," Nahlia conceded. As much as she wanted answers, her mother made a valid point. Those answers would hold precious little comfort while Valaysian frostwolves rippled her to pieces.
Lyraina continued, "Those soldiers from Clan Vassaj are still after you. And they're a part of the Sile'zhar sect, which means you've yet to face their most dangerous trackers. They'll find you before morning."
"What do I do?" Nahlia asked.
Lyraina opened her mouth as if to reply. Before she could, Nahlia heard another voice calling her name.
"Wake up!" Yimo shouted.
Her mother seemed to hear the voice too. "Go," she said, "But keep your mind open to me this time. I'll be there with you."
Nahlia snapped open her eyes, adjusting to the darkness of the basement. Yimo had snuffed out the candles, and shadows covered her surroundings. The floorboards creaked and groaned above.
She drew Yimo's dagger from its sheath as a tall figure appeared at the top of the stairs.
'Get behind the staircase,' Lyraina's voice ordered from inside her head. 'Go.'
Nahlia scrambled to obey, despite the shock of hearing voices in her head. The stairs were nothing but wooden beams, and she saw the back of the man's legs as he descended. An orange flame kindled in his open palm, chasing away the shadows of the basement.
'A Sanctifier,' her mother said. 'You need to act now.'
'Take your dagger. Stick it in the back of his right calf, just above his boot.'
Aegon. As if her mother couldn’t get anymore terrifying. Nahlia sprang to her feet, adjusted her grip on the blade, and plunged into the man's leg. Yimo's dagger was far sharper than hers, and the cut was smooth until she hit bone.
The Sanctifier's legs buckled beneath him, and he collapsed onto the rotting wood. Nahlia staggered back. He fell straight through the last few stairs, hitting his head on the cobblestones.
"Nahlia!" Yimo's voice again. "Get the hell out of there."
More footsteps sounded from above. Nahlia scrambled forward and pulled the crimson-coated blade from the unconscious man's leg.
'Get back!' Her mother ordered.
Nahlia complied as a second figure charged down the stairs, leaping over the gap at the bottom. He spun around and raised his katana in her direction.
'His movements are sloppy,' Lyraina said. 'He doesn't have his night vision yet.'
Nahlia took that as her cue to attack. But as she climbed to her feet, the man slashed his blade in a vertical arc. She darted forward on the opposite side, remembering her training with Elias from two years before. He'd made her perform the same movements a thousand times until she could do them in her sleep.
Now—even with her body wounded and shaking—Nahlia knew what to do. She put herself between the man and his weapon. His sword arm closed in for the kill, but she caught his wrist with her dagger's blade.
Her opponent flinched back and threw a kick toward her stomach. Nahlia spun to the side. The boot hit nothing but empty air. She shifted behind the man, wrapped her arm around his neck, and pricked his throat with her dagger.
"Drop the sword," she said into the man's ear.
'Finish him,' Lyraina said. 'He won't surrender.'
Despite her mother's warning, Nahlia waited for the man to comply. For a moment, he relaxed his body and lowered his blade.
A third soldier raced down the stairs, armed with a crossbow.
Her captive threw up a hand between his neck and her arm. At the same time, he thrashed his body back and slammed her into the stone wall. Nahlia felt the air leave her lungs, and her dagger clattered to the floor. Still, she adjusted her grip around the man's neck and squeezed.
Place your hands like this, and your opponent won't last longer than thirty seconds. This time, it was a memory of Elias's voice she heard. Unfortunately, she wasn't as strong as him, and she didn't have thirty seconds to spare.
Nahlia wrapped both her legs around the man's stomach, and he fell sideways to the stone floor.
Her opponent shouted something in Valaysian.
The soldier by the staircase raised his crossbow in Nahlia's direction. From that vantage, he had a clear shot at her.
'Twist to the left,' Lyraina said. 'Use his body as a shield.'
Nahlia didn't hesitate this time. With all her might, she rolled to the left, lifting her opponent's body as the other man pulled the trigger. The bolt tore through her opponent's neck, and his body thrashed again from the impact.
'Now, get up!'
She unwound her limbs from the dead man, and it felt like uncurling a frozen fist. The crossbowman was already scrambling to reload. His eyes widened when he saw Nahlia stand, and he retreated up the staircase.
'Check the Sanctifier by the stairs. He should be carrying something—a ring, or a pendant.'
Nahlia staggered across the basement, ignoring the shouts from outside. Her shoulder felt wet and cold. The stitches must have come loose in the fight.
"Is Yimo still alive?" Nahlia asked aloud as she searched the Sanctifier. The man didn't have a pulse. The fall must have broken his neck.
'I don't know,' Lyraina admitted.
That's right. She can only see what I see.
Nahlia yanked off the Sanctifier's leather gloves. Sure enough, he was wearing a ring on his right hand. It took some effort, but she eventually twisted the metal band free. The outside casing was bronze, but her mental senses felt the Etherite beneath.
'Heal your shoulder if you can.’
Nahlia tried to pull the ring's energy, but it still wasn't like she remembered. Two years ago, her pendent had felt like the warmth of the sun. But this was like feeling that same warmth through a crack in the door. Perhaps she could have healed the wound with time, but not now. Not here.
"Nahlia Cole," a voice spoke from outside. It was a man, middle-aged, with a thick Valaysian accent. "We have your Crelan friend. I will give you fifteen seconds to show your face. If not, he dies."
"He's full of horseshit," Yimo's voice snapped. "Get away while you—" He grunted and coughed as if someone had just kicked the air from his lungs.
"Ten seconds left," the man’s voice was slow and deliberate. "This one means nothing to Trelidor. We will not hesitate."
Nahlia was already climbing the broken staircase, ignoring whatever objections her mother raised inside her head. A second later, she emerged from the doorway. A burst of icy air struck her cheeks, and a dozen more soldiers surrounded the house.
Straight ahead, a black-clad Sile'zhar held a blade to Yimo's windpipe. Yimo didn't open his mouth this time, but his eyes were hard and defiant.
"Surrender," the Sile'zhar said, "and your friend will go free. As I said, he means nothing to Trelidor."
Nahlia had been in a position like this before. Back in the Mistwood when her journey began, she'd surrendered to the Templars to save the villagers who'd helped her. She'd gotten lucky that day—Casella Raider’s agents were hiding in the trees, waiting to strike.
This time, she was on her own, surrounded by enemies, and armed with nothing but a single shard of Etherite.
'He's lying,' Lyraina's voice said. 'If you surrender—if you hesitate again—he will kill you both.'
Nahlia raised her hands in a submissive gesture, stepping out into the circle of soldiers. Most of them had their crossbows trained on her.
'These are assassins,' Lyraina said. 'And they won't stop with you and Yimo.'
"What choice do I have?" Nahlia whispered.
'You have power. Think of that innocent girl who died on the train. It wasn't your fault. It was theirs. If you fight back, think of all the innocents you might save.'
Nahlia continued forward with her arms raised to either side. The night wind blew strands of her hair across her face, making it difficult to see. Still, she felt the ring's power in her pocket. She could fight back, perhaps even save them.
But where would that path take her? She’d killed before, and two years hadn’t been long enough to erase the trauma.
She thought of Saul Mason, the Templar Commander who had killed her mother and hundreds of others out of vengeance for what happened to his hometown.
She thought of the Chronicler Zidane who had let thousands die to pave the way for Palatine's new empire.
Finally, she thought of Alexel Trelidor himself. He was a Redeemer, like her. And like Saul Mason and the Chronicler Zidane, he'd believed his actions would lead to a better world.
'If I continue down that path,' Nahlia thought, 'then what makes me different from them?'
'They had choices,' Lyraina said. 'But your enemies took yours away. You tried to run, but they chased you here.'
"She has a ring," The Sile'zhar said to the soldiers. "Take it, then bind her hands."
'They only want to take me prisoner,' Nahlia thought.
'You're wrong,' Lyraina snapped back. 'They take caution, but only because you make it so easy for them. When they finally kill you, you will be bound and powerless. Just as the sacrificial lamb never sees the knife, you will go gentle to your own end.’
The truth of those words hit her like a train. Besides, what use would Trelidor have for her alive? He'd already killed her once.
The soldiers closed in slowly, their eyes darting from her and back to each other, as if each were waiting for the others to move first. Nahlia focused on the Sile'zhar straight ahead, and the hand he held at Yimo's throat.
She pulled the energy from the ring and tried to force Moonfire into the man's hand. Again, the effort was far greater than she remembered, and her mind felt like brittle ice that might shatter with one wrong move.
Still, she felt the bones in his hand, and the anger within her own heart. She pulled, and the bones broke beneath her mental might. The man let out a cry of pain and he dropped the weapon into the snow.
Yimo took advantage of this and hurled his body into his captor.
"Kill her!" the Sile'zhar bellowed.
The closest soldiers slashed their blades, and the crossbowmen fired their iron bolts.
Nahlia raised a barrier of Moonshard around herself. Pain shot through her body and mind as she released the store of energy. White light filled her vision, knocking her enemies back.
"Stand your ground," the Sile'zhar ordered the soldiers. "She can’t hold that for long."
The foot soldiers sprang to their feet, and the crossbowmen were already reloading. Yimo must have gotten away because he was nowhere in sight.
'They know you're afraid,' Lyraina spoke even as Nahlia struggled to maintain her barrier. "You’re afraid to kill. Now they're using that weakness against you.'
"It’s not a weakness!" Nahlia shot back "You even admitted you were wrong about Palatine."
‘Alexel has been careless, abandoning everything he has learned for more power.'
"As if you're any better," Nahlia said.
'You can neglect a moral code,' Lyriana continued, 'but you can also cling to it mindlessly, and without reason. Both extremes can be your undoing.'
A headache twisted its way through her skull, and her body felt distant and hollow. If the ring wasn't empty in the next few seconds, she might pass out on her own.
All the while, the soldiers stood with raised weapons outside her barrier.
'You never truly believed in Aegon,' her mother said.
"That's not true."
"You've clung to the idea of faith because it's what I taught you as a child. Believing it has let you maintain control. But none of that matters now. You've lost everything, but you're still here. You're still fighting.'
Nahlia sank to her knees, but she didn't drop the barrier.
'Finish this,' her mother said. 'Killing them won't make you a murderer. It's all you can do to survive. Aegon let you die once. He will do so again. Survival is a choice you have to make.'
Nahlia's resolve broke like a twisted chain. She gritted her teeth, and the dome of Moonshard broke into smaller fragments. Each piece warped and sharpened into a blade. She released the remaining energy in every direction. Her eyes snapped shut as the blades found their marks, but she couldn't block out their dying screams.
She kept her head down for several long moments, but there was no sound from the soldiers. The metallic scent of blood filled her nostrils, and her stomach churned.
Finally, Nahlia opened bleary eyes and surveyed the surrounding carnage. Each soldier had a hole in his armor from where the blades of Moonshard had pierced him. The scene looked just like the top of Dragonshard during the battle two years ago. The snow—once perfectly white—was now stained with shades of dark crimson.
Her head fell forward, and the curtain of her hair blocked out the sights. Her body racked with silent sobs, and her chest burned with the memory of Palatine’s blade.
She raised a hand to her breastbone, half-expecting to find it ripped in two. Everything was intact, but the reality was far worse. Once again, she’d become the killer.
And to think, all she wanted was to be left alone.