Nahlia stepped onto the dark battlefield. The scents of smoke and black powder filled her nostrils, and a northern wind blew down from the mountains, causing the ash to swirl and dance. She drew her cloak tight across her chest as she followed her friends.
Fang had landed the airship directly in front of Raidenwood’s western wall. The vessel’s bow pointed toward the horizon as if daring anyone to prey on the weakened city.
Thane and Relyn led the way as they stepped toward the open gate. Thane’s eyes were weary, but he kept his posture straight and firm. He’d changed his clothes after the battle, and his hair was freshly combed.
Soldiers backed away as they crossed the threshold. They didn’t point their rifles in Thane’s direction, but they didn’t lower them either. It was as if the courtyard sat balanced on the edge of a knife, and one wrong move could draw blood. Even the officers looked to one another, trading uncertain glances in the flickering torchlight.
Nahlia understood their reluctance. Thane may have saved these people, but he was still a dangerous Ethermancer.
He stepped forward with both hands raised in a placating gesture. “My name is Thane Solidor,” he told the ranks of gathered soldiers. “And I’m here to end this siege.”
Silence followed, and he gestured back to the airship. “My crew and I are friends of Clan Raider. We’ve brought food and supplies for your people, and we can help you repel these foreign invaders.”
Again, the crowd didn’t react. Of course, it hadn’t been the sort of speech that would warrant cheers or celebration. Thane had a good mind for battlefield tactics, but diplomacy wasn’t his strong suit.
Come to think of it ... he hadn’t even mentioned his royal titles. Perhaps he thought they didn’t matter.
“It’s alright,” a voice called from the ramparts above. “He’s with us.”
Nahlia’s heart froze between beats. She glanced up to see Elias jogging down a stone staircase. He’d grown broader in the chest and shoulders, and even his beard was longer. He’d always had stubble on his cheeks, but this looked more intentional—like it belonged there.
Ciena took the stairs two at a time behind her brother. Nahlia hadn’t seen the other woman since Whitecliff. In those days, Ciena had glared at the world as if she had something to prove. The years hadn’t softened that glare, but her face held a confidence she’d lacked before. Now she looked less like a poised cobra and more like an apex predator.
Neither of the twins noticed Nahlia beneath her hooded cloak. A part of her would rather stay hidden, cowardly as that was.
Elias and Ciena crossed the short distance, stopping when they were only a few paces away.
“Highlord and Highlady Solidor,” Elias said with a bow. “Raidenwood is yours.”
Thane stepped forward and clasped each of their wrists in turn. “I meant what I said about the food. If you can find some workers you trust, we’ll get this handed out.”
Elias hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, “I’m honestly not sure who we trust. It’s only been a week. Things are complicated.”
“There’s an understatement,” Ciena muttered. “Better ask our dear uncle.”
“Cladius?” Nahlia couldn’t see Thane’s face, but his voice betrayed his shock.
“Long story,” Elias said. “But we’re allies now.”
Allies with the most notorious war criminal in Revera? Clearly, Ciena had changed more than Nahlia thought. Three years ago, she’d talked about killing Cladius the way other girls talked about dresses and jewelry.
“Come on,” Elias gestured toward the main thoroughfare. “We’ll talk more in the palace.”
Before they could leave, Nahlia lowered her hood and met Elias’s eye. He paused, apparently catching a glimmer of her face in the darkness. They stared at each other for several heartbeats. Rain misted around them, and flakes of ash blew in the wind.
Nahlia tried to speak first, but found her mouth suddenly dry. They hadn’t spoken since that day she left for Valaysia. She’d been partially honest then, explaining how she needed space. Did that mean they weren’t a couple anymore? Probably, but what did she know?
Still, there was something between them. She felt it in the way her stomach fluttered, and the way her palms grew slick despite the night chill.
Elias stepped forward. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Me too,” Nahlia replied. “Glad you’re alright, that is.”
Aegon. Three years had passed since their first meeting, but she felt like that same awkward librarian’s apprentice. She’d learned a lot about war and Ethermancy since then, but not this sort of thing.
He shot a glance at the others who had already begun following Ciena down the street. “Thane didn’t say you were coming.”
“Yeah.” Nahlia clasped her hands in front of her. “We figured it’d be safer that way. Considering how Palatine wants me dead.”
Elias nodded. “Guess it doesn’t matter now, does it? After tonight, he won’t hold back.” There was a short pause. “Did you find what you were looking for in Valaysia?”
His voice held no hint of accusation. He honestly believed she’d left for a reason, and he never doubted she would return.
I really don’t deserve him, Nahlia thought, and not for the first time.
She opened her mouth to reply when a pair of soldiers stepped into the light of the nearby streetlamp. They carried an unconscious woman on the stretcher between them.
They need healing, Nahlia realized. Suddenly, she felt ridiculous for standing around in the aftermath of a battle. Even if she lacked confidence in her abilities, the least she could do was try.
Elias followed her gaze, and he seemed to understand. “I’ll go with you,” he said. “Ciena can lead the others back to the palace.”
Five minutes later, Nahlia and her mother stood in the middle of a tenement building which had been converted to a field hospital. The room was dimly lit, with creaking wooden floors and tan plaster walls. Distant screams echoed from down the halls, and the scent of blood permeated the air.
Elias explained her role to the soldiers, but they still seemed suspicious. Understandable, considering the horrors they’d seen tonight. And while the Raider twins might be in charge here, the people of Raidenwood clearly didn’t trust them yet.
So Nahlia started in the room with the unconscious patients. Their wounds weren’t the most urgent, but the others all looked like they’d rather endure their pain than taste Ethermancy.
Nahlia already had enough doubts of her own without a skeptical audience.
A young soldier lay on the bed in front of her—the same woman she’d seen laying on the stretcher outside. An angry red cut ran from her left eyebrow and into her hairline. The overworked physicians hadn’t bandaged her wound yet, and red rivers ran all the way down her cheeks
Nahlia closed her eyes and focused on the bag of Etherite attached to her belt. It was a wealth of energy, more powerful than a bonfire. Still, it resisted her mental touch. Two years ago, she would have drank in this power with ease. Now, it was like trying to grab a handful of smoke.
She put a hand to the unconscious woman’s forehead, careful to avoid the wound itself. Her own hands weren’t exactly sterile, and the last thing she wanted was to do more harm than good.
Silence followed. Rain clattered against the windows, and thunder roared in the distance.
“Patience,” her mother said from behind her. “Your soul is broken. It won’t be as easy as it once was.”
Nahlia’s eyes snapped open, and she gritted her teeth. “Don’t bother helping. I’ll just pretend I’m the only Redeemer in the room.”
“This is your own struggle,” she replied. “By helping you, I would slow your growth as an Ethermancer.”
Nahlia frowned. “And what about the injured?”
“They have their struggles as well.”
“So you don’t care?”
“I’m nothing but a mirror,” Lyraina replied. Her tone was cryptic and condescending as ever.
“No,” Nahlia bit off the word as she turned around. “We’re not the same.”
Either way, there was no point in arguing about it. Nahlia opened herself to the soulbond, letting the energy flow between them. It came easier this time, but she struggled to form Moonfire.
“Ethermancy is more than energy,” Lyraina continued. “It’s emotion.”
Nahlia didn’t reply.
“Before, you’ve always healed yourself or your friends. You may find that it’s more difficult to have compassion for a stranger.”
“I’ve healed strangers before,” Nahlia countered. “I already told you about that day on the Black Steppes.”
“I remember.” Her mother’s voice was softer this time. “That was the first time you killed someone, correct?”
Visions flooded her mind. A masked woman thrashing in the glass sand, gasping for air, eyes wide in a silent scream. Nahlia had killed several times since that night. It never got easier, but those first memories followed her like a stormcloud.
“It was your desperation that fueled you that night. You held yourself to a standard of what a Redeemer should be—some impossible ideal of purity, based on the stories I read you as a child. But your soul isn’t what it was before. It never will be. Pretending to have faith and compassion won’t be enough.”
“I wasn’t pretending before,” Nahlia started to say, but doubt followed her own words as they left her mouth. What if her mother was right? What if she’d never had faith at all? Lyraina had hinted at this before, but Nahlia had ignored her. Ever since that night in Dragonshard, she’d pushed her doubts to the side.
Still, they’d always been there like a reflection she refused to face. As if facing it would make it real.
“Even if you’re right,” Nahlia said. “I can still care.”
“Care if you must,” Lyraina said. “But also be honest with yourself. When was the last time you did something truly selfless?”
Nahlia gritted her teeth, trying to focus. Her mother might have been right about the past, but she didn’t know everything.
Desperation rose inside her, and that emotion gave her power. No doubt that was her mother’s plan—to prove that was the only way—but Nahlia resisted the thought. Perhaps she’d originally become an Ethermancer for selfish reasons, but that wouldn’t be enough anymore. Her friends all fought for causes greater than themselves.
Somehow, that had never come as easy for Nahlia. Still, she wanted to be better. She wanted to have compassion and faith, even if she’d only pretended before.
Nahlia breathed in through her nose and cast away her anger and desperation like snowflakes in a blizzard. She closed her eyes and felt out to the unconscious soldiers on their beds. Like her, they lived and loved. They fought to protect their families and their city. True, they might have been Templars. They might have killed Aeons once, but so had she. Nahlia knew the fear that moved them.
She felt out to the unconscious woman in front of her. Perhaps she had a husband, children, or parents—people who would sit by her bed and worry if she would ever wake.
Nahlia seized that emotion and let it fill her. She continued to pull power from the Etherite on her belt and poured it into her patient. The power ran through Nahlia and into her, like icy water rushing down a drain.
Soon, the power grew too great for one body to endure, and it burst out in every direction. All around the room, muscles and skin reknit themselves. Broken bones mended, and the unconscious soldiers sprang up in their beds.
Finally, Nahlia rose on unsteady feet and met her mother’s eyes. “The night that I died,” she said.
Lyraina cocked her head to the side.
“You asked me the last time I did something selfless. It was the night I died. When Palatine killed me, and I lost everything trying to stop those meteors.”
Surprise flashed across her mother’s eyes, followed by a look of intense understanding. It was as if she’d looked past the explanation and seen some deeper meaning that eluded even Nahlia.
“Very well,” Lyraina said with a nod. “I believe you.”