Nahlia sat in a covered wagon behind iron bars. Steel manacles bound her wrists and ankles, and the bamboo roof blocked out the afternoon sun. The mountains were long behind them now, and nothing but brown farmland surrounded the city of Tongshan. Even so, the wind struck mercilessly through her cloak. Her legs felt like frozen tree roots, and she could barely feel her fingers.
A second group of soldiers had ambushed her and Yimo last night, despite their best efforts to flee. This time, they had no choice but to surrender. The previous fight had left her powers drained, and they both sported several wounds.
The guards shouted in Valaysian up ahead, pointing their spears at the crowd. Scores of refugees cleared a path as a white-haired yak pulled their wagon toward the city gate. At least, Nahlia assumed it was a yak that pulled them. She’d never seen one of the creatures in person before, but they were supposedly native to this part of Valaysia.
“You doing alright?” Yimo asked from across the wagon.
Nahlia shrugged. “My shoulder’s better if that’s what you mean.” Her captors might have taken her ring, but she’d still managed several brief bursts of healing throughout the day. Gathering energy was a slow process, like drinking water droplets as they fell from a single leaf. Still, she had little else to occupy her time, and a part of her was thankful just to have a piece of her Ethermancy again. Even now, she didn’t understand how she’d regained it. Or how she’d lost it in the first place.
“Not what I meant,” Yimo said with a shake of his head. “Last night—it was them or us. You know that, right?”
People always said that. Elias had said it on the Black Steppes when she’d killed that Sile’zhar, and Thane had said it in Dragonshard when she’d killed his cousins. As usual, the comment didn’t make her feel any better. Yimo seemed to understand that though. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have waited this long to say it.
Nahlia shrugged again, not meeting his gaze. Her mother once taught her that killing was wrong. That when you harmed one person, you harmed the world at large. It wasn’t about whether someone deserved to die. Redeemers didn’t fight individuals, they fought war itself. They used their powers to preserve and protect. Never to destroy.
Now, Lyraina had cast aside that idealism like an old dress she’d outgrown. And what if she was right? What if the laws of the Redeemers were mere constructs without any concrete meaning?
Everything had made sense after the Battle of Whitecliff. Nahlia had declared her faith in Aegon, and she’d become more powerful than ever. She’d done what no one else could do.
Or so she thought.
Ethermancy had seemed so strange and mysterious back then. It had been like magic, and that was all the evidence she needed that Aegon cared.
But what about Trelidor? He wielded the same powers as her, and he used those power to murder thousands. It seemed that Ethermancy was far more common than she’d thought. Now it was nothing but a tool—a natural part of life that could be used for whatever purposes the wielder chose.
She’d heard the excuses, but they weren’t good enough. Nothing made sense anymore. She felt more lost than ever.
Yimo squinted toward the city gate where the guards were examining the other wagons. “They’re all wearing Vassaj colors up there,” he said. “Where are the other nine clans?”
Nahlia tried to follow his gaze, but she couldn’t see past the crowd.
Tongshan translated to ‘Ten Clans’ in Valaysian, and they all ruled the city together. In theory, at least. According to Relyn, her family had spent the last few generations abusing and increasing what power they had.
“Each family runs a different part of the city,” Nahlia told him. “Sort of like the guilds back in Dresten. I don’t remember the specifics, but I know Clan Vassaj enforces the laws. Other families might handle hospitals, food, or transportation.”
Yimo scratched the blond stubble on his chin. “So no one’s actually in charge? Sounds like a mess waiting to happen.”
“Revera had an emperor,” she retorted, “and look how that turned out.”
He hummed in consideration. “Still, why’d you have to piss off the assassin clan? Why couldn’t it be the flower planters, or the sewer cleaners?”
She was about to open her mouth again, but she jumped when a guard hit the iron bars with his spear.
“No talking,” he said. Nahlia didn’t know much Valaysian, but she’d heard this phrase more than a dozen times today.
Yimo retorted with claims about the guard’s canine ancestry, followed by his preference for Crelan genitals. These phrases, Nahlia knew from Relyn.
The guard jabbed his spear through the bars. Yimo jerked to the side and caught the tip between his manacles, twisting the chain and pulling back. It was a good move. Too bad it didn’t matter. Even if he took the guard’s weapon, what then? It wasn’t like he could reach the half-dozen crossbowmen that surrounded them.
Nahlia had told him as much last night, but he hadn’t listened.
“You can roll over and die if you want,” Yimo said. “As for me, I’d rather go down fighting.”
“I’m not giving up,” she replied, “but my mother said to be patient.”
“Thought you didn’t trust her.”
“I don’t,” she said, “but we don’t have much of a choice right now.”
To make matters worse, she hadn’t heard from Lyraina all day. Apparently, using a soulbond in the physical world required a great deal more mental strain than it did in the Ethereal. That made sense, she supposed; combat Ethermancy followed the same rules.
Yimo was still struggling with the first guard when a second man thrust the butt of his weapon through the bars. The blow connected with Yimo’s head, slamming him hard against the wagon’s back wall.
The first guard said something she couldn’t understand, then the wagon started moving again. Yimo rubbed the side of his head, and his hand came back red with blood.
“Please stop,” Nahlia said with a wince. “You can’t take them all.”
“No,” he rasped. “But I could if you helped me.”
“That’s what you said before.”
She thought about explaining energy sources to him, but it wasn’t worth aggravating the guards again.
Eventually, their wagon passed through the city’s outer gates. The buildings in Tongshan were built in the same tiered-pagoda style like the ones in Whitecliff. Only these were dozens of stories high, and the roofs vanished into the gray fog above.
Instead of cobblestones, these streets were all mud and dirt mixed with scattered debris. The fronts of the buildings were boarded up with wooden planks, and the paint on their signs had faded. The city also smelled worse than any city she remembered—like a latrine or the aftermath of a battle. Nahlia covered her nostrils with her sleeve as they rolled by more clusters of refugees.
It wasn’t that Tongshan was a poor city—quite the opposite. But as with many cities, the wealthier folk hid behind their high walls, oblivious or apathetic to what happened beneath them.
Coming here had always been a mistake—even if Clan Vassaj hadn’t found her. When she met Yimo’s eyes across the wagon, she knew he’d reached the same conclusion. They’d run away when they should have stayed and fought. She thought nothing could be more painful than staying in Revera and watching the death and destruction around her.
She was wrong. It was far worse to be here, helpless and alone.
The wagon stopped in the shadow of a dark stone building that overlooked the river. Unlike the other structures they’d passed, this one was surrounded by a two-story brick wall. The windows looked too narrow to crawl through, and iron bars filled their gaps.
The next hour passed in a dark and painful blur. Once they were inside, the guards had separated her from Yimo and brought them into private chambers. There, they’d stripped her naked, burned her old clothes, and drenched her with buckets of soap and icy water.
Now she shuffled along a dark corridor on the upper levels. She wore a gray threadbare uniform, and her hair hung around her face in disarray. Four guards marched ahead while four more followed with loaded crossbows. They passed countless empty cells along the way, stopping when they reached one that was already occupied. A cloaked figure sat on the bed with a hood covering her eyes.
The senior guard pulled out a keychain and unlocked the iron-barred door. Nahlia stepped inside, and a younger guard snatched her wrist as if to remove her manacles.
“No,” the older man said.
She didn’t understand the words he said next, but the message was clear. They meant to execute her anyway. No reason to take chances until then, much less treat her humanely.
The question was, what were they waiting for? They’d already tried to kill her twice, and Trelidor had no use for her alive. What was the point of this charade?
Footsteps faded down the corridor as the guards left her alone. A part of her wanted to break down right then and there. But of course, she wasn’t truly alone, and she wasn’t about to show weakness in front of this stranger.
Nahlia took several deep breaths to compose herself, then she turned around to face the other inmate.
The woman rose from the bed and stepped into the light of the cell’s narrow window. She threw back her blue hood, and Nahlia took in the sight of auburn hair and sapphire eyes.
Lyraina stepped closer and put a hand to the keyhole of her manacles. There was a flash of pale-silver light. Nahlia jumped back as the cuffs came loose and clattered to the stone floor.
Did she just pick the lock ... with Moonshard?
Before Nahlia could say anything else, her mother wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close. Nahlia wanted to resist at first, but her mother was soft and warm. And despite their years apart, she was something safe to cling to in this bleak place.
Nahlia hugged her back and buried her head into her shoulder. They stood like that for a long moment, saying nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Lyraina whispered. “For what happened on the train. And in the village.”
Nahlia pulled away, wiping her eyes dry. “No ... you were right. They would have killed me if I hadn’t fought back.” She looked around the dark cell. The space was bare but for two beds and a single chamberpot. “So, this is what you had in mind when you said to ‘meet you in Tongshan?’”
Lyraina knelt down to open the set of manacles that bound Nahlia’s feet. “Admittedly, the circumstances are less than ideal...”
Sure, we could already be in line for the headsman. This is much better.
There was another flash of light as the cuffs broke around her ankles. “What did you expect when you came to Tongshan? Clan Vassaj is a powerful influence in this city, and they owe their allegiance to Trelidor.”
Nahlia bit her lip. She had considered that, but she’d also imagined she could disappear in a crowd. Thousands of refugees had come this way, after all. What was one more dark-eyed woman in the crowd?
Unfortunately, whoever was commanding these assassins was well-informed. They knew she was on that train. They knew what she looked like, and they’d taken precautions against her abilities.
“How are you here?” Nahlia turned back to her mother. Instead of a gray prison uniform, Lyraina wore an expensive-looking blue robe with a matching tunic beneath. And while Nahlia’s hair was dripping wet and plastered to her forehead, Lyraina’s hair was pulled back in several neat braids.
“Unlike you,” her mother said. “I came to this continent prepared.”
“So you bribed your way into a prison?”
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to get inside a prison. Getting out, however, is another matter.”
Nahlia cleared her throat and turned to the iron gate behind her. “Speaking of which...”
“Ah yes,” Lyraina said. “Of that, you needn’t worry. Help is on the way.”
Thane had always loved glass ceilings, especially the domed, decorative sort. Those were just asking to be broken, and they made the most satisfying sounds when they were.
He hit the floor with a burst of kinetic energy. A thousand shards of glass rained down around him.
Mosaic tiles covered the floor, and the surrounding pillars were adorned with jade and live vines. Aegon. You’d think this was a palace rather than a municipal office building. A building that managed prisons, no less.
Thane had barely regained his balance when the guards fired their crossbows. One bolt glanced off his dragonscale breastplate. Another ricocheted off his helmet.
He lurched to the side with another burst of kinetic energy, knocking over a potted plant as more iron bolts soared around him. From there, he drew a pair of daggers and blasted himself toward the nearest group.
Those two wisely dropped their weapons and joined the office workers in their retreat. The momentum of Thane’s blast propelled him ahead. One dagger cut through the left guard’s thigh, then he spun around and slashed the other man in his flank.
He’d learned a lot about poisons from Relyn these past two years. Yuchani flower coated his blades now—a favorite among Whitecliff’s students. This poison imitated the effects of a serious wound, immediately freezing any body part it struck. He’d layered this with a diluted dose of Eclipse. This would knock any victim unconscious within a minute of contact.
By now, the second pair of guards had reloaded their crossbows and taken cover behind a desk. He also noticed the office workers making their way toward the exit.
That wouldn’t do.
Thane drew in a breath of energy from his rings and conjured walls of flame around the room. The workers staggered back with undignified shrieks. The remaining guards kept their crossbows trained on Thane, but they didn’t shoot.
“Surrender,” Thane told them. “And you won’t end up like your friends.”
As if to emphasize his point, the first two guards hit the floor like demolished buildings as the Eclipse took effect.
“Believe it or not,” he continued, “I’m only here to read some paperwork.”
The guards exchanged quick glances, but it was all a show. No reasonable person would choose to fight an Ethermancer.
A second later, they threw their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands.
“Excellent,” Thane said, then he pointed to the opposite side of the room. “Make yourself comfortable over there.”
They complied, and Thane glanced back up through the broken domed ceiling. The Raptor’s Claw still hovered above, and its propellers sent down bursts of wind that ruffled his cloak.
He waved up at the ship, and a pair of rope ladders unraveled from the back ramp. One carried the Maric brothers—Dario and Karlo. The other carried Ilsa.
In this case, Ilsa was the one he needed. He’d missed her during his meeting with the Cultivators. The Elders there knew how to detect mental Ethermancy, and he couldn’t risk offending them. But in this case, Thane had already broken the roof. No point in feigning subtlety after that.
“Did you know you’ve got a broken window?” Dario said to no one in particular.
“Not a good day to go barefoot,” Karlo said as he dismounted the ladder. “Might wanna get a broom.”
Once the three of them were inside, Thane glanced back at the office workers who were still gathered amongst the cluster of wooden desks.
“Alright,” he said, “which one of you is in charge?”
Predictably, no one answered.
“He is.” Ilsa pointed to a hefty, silver-haired man in a violet robe.
He’d have to ask her how she knew once they were back on the ship. In the meantime, it was better to be as mysterious as possible.
The large man straightened as he stepped forward. “We have no valuables here,” he said in perfect Reveran.
“What?” Dario or Karlo said from behind Thane. “I thought this was the Jade Bank.”
Thane gave the man a flat look. “I’m looking for a prisoner who arrived in the last few days. Her name is Nahlia Cole.”
The man hesitated. “There’s no—”
“He’s lying,” Ilsa interrupted.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “We don’t keep records of prisoners that recent. It will be days before—”.
“He’s lying again,” Ilsa said with a stifled yawn. “And he’s stalling until more guards show up.”
“You’re wasting your breath,” Thane said to the man. “The mechanical lifts are all out of order, and the staircase had an unfortunate cave-in on the fifth floor. It’ll be a few hours before you see reinforcements.”
Relyn had seen to that.
The man’s face hardened with new resolve. “I work in prisons for a living, pirate. Do you know how many times I’m threatened every day?”
Thane grimaced. Even if the man was lying again, he’d likely noticed that the guards on the floor were still breathing.
“Alright,” he said after a short pause. “I already know you keep the records for all Tongshan’s prisoners on this floor. They’re in a locked room called the Library which is down that hallway—last door on the left. And I know the key is on your belt. The only reason I’m asking nicely is because I don’t like searching through papers. The real question is, would I prefer that to your company?”
The man still didn’t reply, and Thane gestured over his shoulder. “I’ll give you ten seconds to start looking. If not, my friends will keep you company while I look myself. Their favorite pastime is chopping off toes.”
“That’s not true,” Karlo said. “Fingers are much more fun.”
“And volunteers are so hard to come by,” Dario agreed.
Three minutes later, Thane and Ilsa were following the silver-haired man through the Library. True to its name, there were countless shelves of boxed files. Relyn claimed they went back hundreds of years, and Thane believed her.
Their host stopped at the end of a long shelf and pulled out an envelope with Nahlia’s name on it.
Thane opened it and read through the first note. Everything was written in Valaysian, but he could read the language far better than he could speak it. According to her file, Nahlia was being held in the Ashmount—the continent’s most secure prison. Relyn had already predicted this, but they had to be sure. After all, her captors might not have known her abilities.
Clearly they did. The file went on to say how Nahlia had poisoned an entire train of people, then killed more than a dozen guards as they tried to arrest her. It wasn’t hard to read between those lines and see the truth of things.
“Well,” Thane said, “looks like Relyn was right.”
“There’s more,” Ilsa said as she handed him another piece of paper. “But you aren’t going to like it.”
Thane accepted the paper and read. Apparently, the order for Nahlia’s arrest had come from none other than Relyn’s own sister, Rhia Vassaj.
Trelidor’s apprentice, and the heir to Clan Vassaj.
Thane’s frown deepened as he continued reading. Nahila’s execution was scheduled for an unspecified time this evening. Rhia hadn’t arrived yet, but when she did, she planned to swing the sword herself.