Nahlia huddled in her cloak as she trudged through the mountains north of Raidenwood. Winter hadn’t come in earnest yet, but that didn’t stop the snow from blanketing their path. Not to mention that cursed wind.
Elias grinned when he saw her chattering teeth. “Sorry,” he said. “I’d give you my cloak if I had one.”
Justicars could use their Ironblood to keep warm, so he only wore his leather armor today. Thane could do something similar, which meant Redeemers were the only Order that couldn’t warm themselves. Moonfire was her only means of forcing energy into her body, and that was even colder than the mountain wind.
Talk about unfair.
“How sweet of you,” Yimo said from farther behind.
“Exactly,” Elias said. “I’ve been saying this for years, but no one ever believes me.”
They walked for another ten minutes before they passed through Redcliff’s outer wall. It was just past noon, and the streets bustled with activity.
Nahlia stopped walking and glanced down at the bundle in Elias’s arms. She’d hoped they could study Varion’s broken staff on their own, but the sigils had stopped glowing by the time they reached Raidenwood. Now, no matter what Nahlia did, she couldn’t activate the weapon again.
“Are you sure there’s a sigilcrafter here?” she asked.
“Sure,” Yimo said with a nod.
She raised an eyebrow. “Even though they’re all in denial about Ethermancy?”
“It’s not that surprising,” Elias said. “Whiteclif had sigilcrafters too. How do you think they pumped the water all the way into the bathhouses? It was a secret among the Scholars. Sort of like how dreamwalking and bondforging were only taught to Battleclan students in their final year.”
“If it was such a big secret,” Nahlia began, “then how—”
“He was sleeping with one of the Scholars,” Yimo said helpfully.
“I was not!” Elias whirled on Yimo and pointed a finger in his direction. “That was nothing but a rumor.”
Nahlia grinned as they walked between the buildings. Elias didn’t normally take offense at things like that, so she believed him.
“I put it together after we left,” he explained quickly. “Once I saw the sigils in Villa Solizhan, I realized I’d seen the same ones in Whitecliff. If I had to guess, I’d say Vaulden was a sigilcrafter, and she trained the others.”
Nahlia turned to Yimo. “So is Vaulden the one you’re talking to?”
“Hell no,” Yimo said. “This is advanced stuff. A lot trickier than pumping some water through pipes.”
Well, she couldn’t argue with that. If these staves were so easy to make, then every Redeemer would have one.
“You two go see Marwyn,” Yimo said as he reached for the bundled staff. “I’ll handle this.”
Elias didn’t let go. “You sure you don’t need some help?”
He shook his head. “No offense, Raider, but you kind of stand out.”
Nahlia gave Yimo a sidelong glance. “You make this sound like a shady exchange in a dark alley.”
“Might as well be,” he said with a shrug. “Not everyone here is from Whitecliff. The real sigilcrafters know how to lie low.”
“Fine.” Elias handled Yimo the bundle. “Just don’t get robbed, alright?”
Yimo accepted the staff and jogged off. Nahlia and Elias continued in the other direction.
The infirmary was a small building in the enclave’s center that also functioned as Marwyn’s home. Nahlia was about to knock on the wooden door when she heard voices on the other side. She leaned over and peeked through the foggy window. There was a blur of motion as Marwyn worked.
“Guess he’s busy,” Elias said.
“He might still talk to us,” Nahlia said as she reached for the door handle. “Especially if we lighten his workload.”
They opened the door to see a dark-haired boy laying on a bed near the southern window. His right bicep was bleeding with what looked like a sword wound.
“More antiseptic,” Marwyn hollered, and his white-clad assistant bustled over to the nearby cabinet.
“Wait by the door,” another woman called out to Nahlia and Elias.
Nahlia paused on the entry mat just long enough to remove her cloak and stomp the snow from her boots. After that, she rolled up her sleeves and began washing her hands in the nearby basin. This was more of a formality than anything else. She didn’t need physical contact to push Moonfire into someone’s body, especially now that she’d been practicing again.
The difference would matter to Marwyn though.
She scrubbed her hands clean, and Elias loomed over the other two students who were standing at the door. “What happened?”
“Master Raider,” they said in unison as they straightened.
It was only then that Nahlia recognized them as his other apprentices.
The boy scratched sheepishly at his head. Well, Nahlia used the term “boy,” but they might have been the same age for all she knew.
“We had an accident while training,” he explained.
“Seriously?” Elias said. “You thought it was smart to train with sharpened steel, and no armor?”
“Hindsight’s clear as glass,” the girl muttered beside him. Nahlia thought her name was Klarin, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Well,” Elias said, “Until your foresight’s that clear, you shouldn’t be training with any weapons. Even if the accident wasn’t related to Ethermancy, that’s what people will think. We need to be safer than the others.”
Nahlia reached the side of the bed, and Marwyn glanced up as if seeing her for the first time. He had a needle and gut ready to perform stitches, but he lowered them when he realized what she was doing..
“This is going to hurt,” she told the boy as she hovered a hand over her arm. “But it will heal you.”
Honesty was the best method here. If people didn’t expect the pain from Moonfire, they would panic, thinking something was wrong. The boy winced at first, then his eyes widened as the muscles and skin began reknitting. Nahlia worked as quickly as possible, seeing no reason to conserve her energy.
Even Marwyn blinked in surprise. He’d seen the results of her healing back in Whitecliff, but he’d never seen her in action until today.
She looked up and met his eyes. “Do you have time to talk now?”
Marwyn’s mouth made a thin line as he examined the healed arm. “How does it feel?” he asked the dark-haired boy.
“Great,” he practically shouted the words as he leapt up.
Marwyn finally met Nahlia’s eyes. “What’s this about?”
She hesitated. “We need to talk about ... Treluwyn.”
“What about her?”
Aegon. He was never one for subtlety.
Elias cleared his throat from the doorway. “Would you all give us some privacy, please?”
For all their faults, Elias’s three students moved for the door with military efficiency. Marwyn’s assistants were slower to act, but he nodded to them after a short pause, then they followed the others outside.
“Treluwyn’s Codex,” Nahlia said as the door closed.
Marwyn perked up. “Who told you about that?”
“We captured Palatine’s son in Vauldenport,” Elias explained. “He said her Codex was here.”
“So they know about the enclave.” Marwyn sat back on his stool, looking more tired than she’d ever seen him. Nahlia couldn’t blame him. This wasn’t the first time his home was threatened. Or the second.
“Should have known,” he continued. “Only a matter of time.”
Don’t worry,” Elias said, “they’d have to get through Raidenwood first. We won’t let that happen.”
This was why she’d wanted Elias along. He was much better than her at being persuasive and putting people at ease.
“And this prisoner of yours,” Marwyn said, “he claims I have the Codex?”
“Actually no,” Nahlia spoke up, “he said Elveron has it. But we were hoping you could help us. We—”
“Why?” Marwyn broke in. “So you can become stronger? Fuel your war? Conquer more cities?” He jabbed a finger in Nahla’s direction. “You healed one person today. True. But how many wounds will you cause tomorrow?”
Nahlia flinched back. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t use her powers for violence, but it would have been a lie. They’d killed and injured hundreds of enemy soldiers these past two months, and she’d been a part of it.
She wanted to explain how they were liberating cities rather than conquering them, but those words would come out hollow. After all, who didn’t justify their actions?
Aegon. It was so much easier to argue with her mother. At least then, she could sit comfortably on the moral high ground.
“None of us want this war,” she finally said. “Least of all me. I need to see Treluwyn’s Codex so I can end it.”
“End it?” Marwyn asked. “How?”
She drew in a deep breath. “I died during the Battle of Dragonshard. Palatine stabbed me in the chest and threw me off the palace roof. I was dead, but ... another Redeemer brought me back.”
No reason to bring up her mother just yet. If Marwyn and the others had truly rejected Lyraina as she claimed, then Nahlia’s association wouldn’t earn her any favors.
Besides, Lyraina was dead as far as they knew.
Marwyn narrowed his eyes, glancing from Nahlia to Elias.
“It’s true,” Elias said. “It was the same thing that happened to me in Whitecliff.”
Nahlia held her breath, waiting for Marwyn’s reaction. It never came. He continued to eye them with a furrowed brow. Oh well, at least he hadn’t dismissed the story outright. That was an improvement over most people’s reactions.
“When I was dead,” Nahlia began again, “I woke up in a place between realms. Treluwyn came to me in this place. She said we could defeat Palatine and end this war before things got worse. But first, we have to destroy his Codex.”
“Destroy it?” Marwyn said. “Irrelevant now. Damage has been done. Codex is nothing but knowledge. Destroying it won’t help anyone in our lifetime.”
Thane and Ciena had already made these exact arguments, and Nahlia didn’t have a good answer for them either. Treluwyn had given her this task, but she hadn’t told her why it mattered. Their conversation had been so brief, and she’d clung to it like a slippery raft for the past two years. It was her only hope for a real purpose beyond more fighting and war.
“It doesn’t make sense to me either,” she admitted. “None of it does. And to make matters worse, we can’t even figure out how to destroy a Codex in the first place. This is why I need to see Treluwyn again.” She held out her palms in a helpless gesture. “I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
“The right thing,” Marwyn echoed. “That includes fighting for Thane Solidor? He helped the Templars find Whitecliff—killed the Headmaster himself. Now he’s brought the war to Raidenwood too.”
“Thane didn’t bring the fight to Raidenwood,” Elias snapped back. “It was already here. The Palavan army was surrounding the city on both sides. If it wasn’t for Thane, you would have been overrun two months ago. Unless you’d rather surrender?”
“Sometimes,” Marwyn said, “surrendering saves more lives than fighting.”
“Sometimes,” he agreed. “Other times, it’s like jumping into a dragon’s mouth when you should go for his eyes instead.”
“The Palavans spared the other cities,” Marwyn said. “Dragonshard, Sunfall, Kaladell—the people are still alive. Better than sending children to die on the front lines.”
Elias’s face darkened. “Palatine murdered my parents when they refused his alliance. This didn’t happen on a battlefield. It happened during peace talks. And those people from the other cities? They’re serving as soldiers in Palatine’s army while he holds their families hostage.”
“To fight you,” Marwyn said. “But if we stop fighting, there’s no war. No hostages.”
Aegon. She’d once respected Marwyn so much. He’d spoken of a noble sort of pacifism, and her younger self had idealized that. It had been so easy then to see peace as a choice—to imagine reasoning with her enemies instead of killing each other. Sometimes that peace was even within reach.
But now she knew war, and she knew the people that waged it. Her mother was right. People clung to their moral codes until they were slaves to them. Marwyn’s stubbornness proved that. For every pacifist, there was another who would seize that opportunity, destroying the world against all logic and reason.
No ... there would be no convincing Marwyn. They could argue this point for years, and he would never change his mind. Just like they would never make peace with Trelidor.
Nahlia closed her eyes, forcing down her further retorts. “All I’m asking is a few minutes with Treluwyn in her Codex. She’s my ancestor, and I’m trying my best to be like her. I promise I’m not looking for more power.”
“You’ve promised that before,” Marwyn said. His voice wasn’t accusatory this time, just disappointed.
“If you really think I’m lying,” she said, “then come with me into the Codex.”
“We’re not perfect,” Elias spoke up,” but our goal is to end this war with as few casualties as possible. We may not agree on the best method, but we can still work together in this.”
“Fine,” Marwyn finally said. “I’ll talk to the others, but I promise nothing.”
Several hours passed while she waited to hear from Marwyn. Instead of walking back to Raidenwood, Nahlia stayed in the enclave and helped Elias train his students.
The five of them sparred for several hours in one of the larger, open-roofed dojos on the enclave’s western side. Eventually, Elias had to return to the palace for a war meeting with Thane. She hadn’t heard from Yimo, but she could only guess he’d returned as well.
Nahlia continued sparring hand-to-hand with Klarin, keeping her own muscles strong and her skills fresh. Moonform had saved her life against Varion and it proved how important martial training was. Even for a Redeemer.
Training with Klarin wasn’t quite as ... exhilarating as sparring with Elias had been, but this had its own advantages. For one, she could let go of her distractions and feel the fight itself—the wind in her hair, and the stone floor beneath her feet.
Still, she couldn’t stay in Redcliff all night. If the Masters wouldn’t let her see the Codex before dark, she might have to come back another day.
Another hour passed, and Marwyn appeared in the dojo’s eastern entrance. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone.
Vaulden stepped in beside him. Her bright violet eyes were a stark contrast against her bronze skin, and a dozen black braids fell past her shoulders. Elveron towered over them both with his muscular frame, angled face, and silver beard.
“Leave us,” Elveron said to the three students she’d been sparring with.
They sprang into motion at his command, grabbing their equipment and scrambling for the door. Klarin didn’t even bother putting her boots on first.
Nahlia felt suddenly self-conscious in her sleeveless undershirt with sweat coating her forehead. She’d expected Marwyn to send a runner and call her back to his house, not for the entire council to show up. What were they doing here?
They obviously don’t trust you. But that was fine. While the prospect of secret knowledge intrigued her, she’d been honest before. Her main priority was fulfilling her assignment. She wasn’t about to overpower Marwyn and steal the Codex.
Marwyn stepped closer with a black orb in his hand. Like the other two Codices she’d seen, it was about the size of an apple. Meanwhile, Elveron and Vaulden waited like sentries by the door.
“Do you know how this works?” Marwyn asked as he sat cross-legged on the stone floor.
Nahlia scuttled to grab her tunic and throw it over her head. Now that she’d stopped sparring, the cold mountain air sent a wave of goosebumps down her arms.
“Theoretically,” she said as she took a seat across from him. Palatine’s Codex had whispered to her during her journey to Dragonshard. Sometimes, the sensation felt like being pulled into a pit.
Marwyn sat the dark orb on the floor between them, and Nahlia heard its whispers. As usual, it was like a song driving her to move, and Ethermancy was the dance.
There’s more to these things than just knowledge, she realized. Now, finally, she had a chance to learn what those things were.
Unfortunately, Nahlia couldn’t make any sense of the rhythms in her mind. If anything, these whispers were far quieter than Palatine’s had been. She’d expected the opposite, considering Treluwyn was her ancestor.
Then again, maybe the strength had to do with the differences between the two Archaeons. Maybe Palatine was bolder and more direct, while Treluwyn was more subtle?
She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to sense the Codex in her mind’s eye the way she might sense Etherite. It took several long moments of meditation—calming her thoughts, and sensing the invisible doors. A part of her had expected this to be effortless. Then again, Palatine’s Codex had always called to her after long days on the road when her body was wary and her mind was wondering.
It was much harder to relax here, sitting on a stone floor, feeling the weight of the Masters’ eyes upon her. She didn’t think Marwyn bore her any ill will, but Vaulden and Elveron? Who could say?
Aegon, she wished Elias was still here.
Focus, she told herself, none of this will matter if you can’t get inside.
She cleared her thoughts again, pushing away all distractions and doubt. Finally, her mind passed through the doors, and it felt like falling into the Ethereal.
Nahlia stood beneath a violet sky. White buildings of polished stone surrounded her, connected by massive arches in the shape of crescent moons. The air was cool, but not nearly as cold as the mountain air back in Redcliff.
A vast cityscape covered the hills below with more structures crammed between the palace and an endless blue sea.
Was this Tregarde? It must be. She’d seen this city in paintings before, but it lay in ruins now. People hadn’t lived here since the last war with Palatine when the remaining Redeemers were hunted down. Treluwyn’s descendants had been peaceful, but people confused them for descendants of Palatine. In their eyes, all Redeemers were the same, even when the two bloodlines were polar opposites.
Marwyn stood beside her in the dreamscape, looking less weary than he’d looked in life. Instead of his simple gray tunic, he wore the white medical coat he’d worn back in Whitecliff.
A short silence followed, broken only by the wind, and the sound of a distant waterfall.
Footsteps echoed from nearby as a woman emerged from the palace. Treluwyn looked exactly as she had in their first meeting, with dark auburn hair, pale youthful skin, and a blue cloak that reached the stone floor. She carried a wooden staff with a glowing moon at its tip—the same size and shape as Nahlia’s pendant.
Nahlia relaxed at the familiar sight. Until now, she’d feigned confidence for her friends, but a part of her had worried that she’d imagined her first encounter with Treluwyn. Even as she’d clung to that hope, she’d worried it was all a lie.
But this woman looked exactly the same as the woman from her vision. Her imagination couldn’t be that accurate.
“Marwyn.” Treluwyn gave him a familiar nod as she joined them in the courtyard. Even her voice sounded the same as it had before.
Marwyn nodded back as if they were old friends.
“Treluwyn.” Nahlia gave a deep bow at the waist. “I—”
The Archaeon snapped her head to the side, piercing Nahlia with her bright blue eyes. The movement was so quick, it was almost unnatural.
“I don’t know you.”
“No.” Nahlia swallowed with a quick shake of her head. She’d already known the Archaeon in the Codex wouldn’t recognize her. This one was only a simulacrum, after all.”My name is Nahlia Cole.”
Treluwyn scanned her for a long moment, the way a barmaid might scan a patron, determining whether he can handle another drink.
Nahlia waited, shifting from one foot to another, wondering if she should speak again.
After several uncomfortable seconds, the Archaeon narrowed her eyes. When she finally spoke again, her voice was like a sword to the chest, “You are no descendent of mine.”