The morning dawned in a pale mist over Whitecliff's western valley. Bursts of arctic air stung Nahlia's face as she raced through the white canyon, struggling to keep pace with her peers.
Aegon, but they were fast.
Her heart roared in her chest, and the walls streamed by in a blur of ice and stone. The stampede kicked up snow as they changed, adding another layer of chaos to the course. The group vaulted over fallen trees and ran through narrow chasms. They scaled ropes and ladders, and crawled on their stomachs through snow-filled trenches.
Nahlia started strong, but her muscles grew weaker with every obstacle. Her eyes watered in the mountain air, and her breaths grew ragged, blowing puffs of white smoke through her scarf.
"Pick it up, Cole!" Battlemaster Vash shouted from above.
She surged forward, keeping the back of the group in sight—sixty other students, all of them faster and stronger than she was. The canyon snaked its way between the mountains with no end.
She ducked under a series of fallen trees, and Vash scolded her again, "Over the logs, Cole!"
Two days had passed since Nahlia chose her calling, and already she came close to regretting it.
It was Revedal morning when Elveron summoned had her to the chapel of Aegon. The building wasn't half as large as the chapel in Dresten, but its domed roof and twin spires were still an impressive sight. The sanctuary had high vaulted ceilings, polished marble floors, and stained glass windows depicting famous scenes of the seven Archaeons.
Nahlia climbed the stairs to the top of the dais where she met the headmaster. He cut a dramatic figure in his gray robes against the sea of burning candles.
"Each member of this academy must choose a calling," Elveron explained, gesturing to the three tomes on the oaken table. "This will determine your place not only in this enclave but in all of Aeon society."
Nahlia nodded in understanding, and Elveron gestured to the first tome, "Warrior's train with fist, sword, and bow. They become Seekers, bodyguards, and soldiers, defending those who can't defend themselves."
His hand moved to the second tome. "Members of the Panacea's Calling also protect the helpless, but they mend without doing harm, and count themselves among the best surgeons and physicians in the world.
"Finally, scholars train their minds in the Archives. They study many things, and go on to become historians, politicians, researchers, scribes, priests, and advisors."
Nahlia frowned at the choices. They all sounded so mundane, not so different from what humans might study in their own schools.
"What about Ethermancy?" she asked.
Elveron returned her expression. "I understand you've lived among humans your whole life, child... but no. They speak of such abilities because they fear us, and they tell stories to justify that fear."
"But it's not just the humans who tell stories," Nahlia pressed. "What about Aeonica, and the Testaments?"
The headmaster shook his head. "Perhaps Aegon gave our ancestors such powers, but that was a different age. Aeons today aren't so different from humans. If more people knew this, the Templar Order might not be what it is today."
"I see." Nahlia let some of the bitterness creep into her voice. She'd spent her childhood daydreaming about Ethermancy and the mysteries of her race. She'd imagined conjuring flames from her fingers, healing fatal wounds, and moving with unnatural speed and grace. Now that she was finally here among other Aeons, they were telling her it wasn't even real?
"You've impressed the Council with your knowledge and reasoning skills," the headmaster told her. "Aegon has given you a gift for learning, and you could excel by taking up the Scholar's Calling"
Elveron was probably right, but Nahlia knew she wouldn't be in this enclave for long. Once Thane freed her father, she would go back into the real world and all of its dangers. The Templars wouldn't show her mercy just because she had chosen the path of a scholar.
She looked up to regard him. "But the choice is still mine?"
He nodded. "Aegon will often push us in one direction, but it's up to us whether we answer his call."
The headmaster went on to explain how she could reach greater understanding through prayer, or by reading the Testaments. Nahlia had no interest in that, however. Her so-called 'gift for academic learning' didn't come from Aegon. It came from endless hours pouring over books, taking notes and challenging herself in new ways. It would be the same with learning to fight.
"Your mother chose the Panacea's Calling," Elveron continued. "I knew Lyraina as a girl, and she was one of the academy's finest."
Nahlia's face grew a wistful smile at that. Her mother had always encouraged her to be peaceful and to find alternatives to fighting. She'd believed that violence only brought more pain and destruction.
But then... Lyraina Trelian had died helplessly while so many others had lived. She had been a devout follower of Aegon, and he had abandoned her.
Suddenly, the answer was clear. She met Elveron's eyes and said, "I choose the Warrior's Calling."
And so, Nahlia joined the battleclans in their morning ritual of running the Gorge, the rigorous obstacle course designed to harden Aeon warriors.
Only through a pure effort of will did she make it through the final exercise—a narrow trench filled with over five feet of snow. Every line of her body felt frozen and weary by the time she crawled out, and sweat trickled down her back beneath layers of wool and leather.
For all that, she pressed on, driven only by the prospect of becoming strong enough to someday face the Templars—to never feel weak or helpless again. She fought back the pain—every straining muscle, every arching bone, and every burst of cold air. She forced it away, focusing only on her goal.
The end of the canyon came into view on the horizon, and her relief was almost palpable.
Twenty yards away...
She gritted her teeth as her legs became almost too numb to feel.
She closed her eyes, feeling her body surge forward on its own.
She reached the end and collapsed to her knees, gasping for breath in her too-dry throat. By now, the other students were already making their way up the stone staircase, many of them talking and laughing as if they hadn't even broken a sweat.
Pulling a canteen from her belt, Nahlia wiped the snow from her face and shook the remaining contents into her mouth. When only a few drops poured out, she cast it aside in frustration.
"Here, take mine," came a faint voice from the edge of her vision. She looked up to see a girl a few years older than her. Short black hair framed her tan face, and her eyes glittered like the pale jade of Valaysia.
"Thank you." Nahlia gave a weak smile and accepted the flask. The cool water brought life back to her barren throat.
"You're new here, aren't you?" The girl had a bit of an accent, though it wasn't as strong as Vash's or Zidane's.
Nahlia managed a small nod. "I got here three days ago. Guess it must be pretty obvious, huh?."
"No," she replied with a quick shake of her head. "It's not that. You did well for your first time. Most people only make it halfway through at best."
"What? You mean they don't even finish?
"Not even close." The other girl chucked softly. "You must be either very strong or very crazy. Or both."
She returned the smile. "I'll go with crazy then because I definitely don't feel strong right now." Remembering her manners, she reached out her hand for the other girl to shake. "I'm Nahlia, by the way."
"Relyn Vash," she replied. Her grip was surprisingly strong considering her slender build and soft voice. "And before you ask—I am related to Battlemaster Vash. He's my uncle."
"Really? I wouldn't have guessed. Master Vash seems more... I don't know..."
"Cold?" Relyn offered. "Paranoid? It's alright. Most people think so. My uncle takes his job very seriously. He spent fifteen years as a Seeker, so he has experience in dealing with the Templars."
"Oh." Nahlia felt some of the tension pour out of her. "That's good. I thought it was just me he didn't like."
Relyn gestured across the clearing to where the Battlemaster was scolding another pair of students, loud enough for all to hear. "Need I say more? He's only hard on us because he wants us all to succeed. Trust me, just do what he says and take your training seriously. You'll get along just fine then."
Snow crunched underfoot as they climbed the stone stairs toward the mess hall. It was refreshing to talk to someone her own age for once; someone who wasn't a Seeker, a magister, or... whatever Thane was.
Their route took them past snow-covered hills and evergreen trees, over curved stone bridges and past the foundations of buildings. Other structures stuck out from the snow-clad cliffside. How did people even get up there without stairs or ladders?
She stopped when they passed a tunnel at the base of Whitecliff's chapel. A tall statue—carved in the likeness of a young Aeon woman—guarded the cave. Snow dusted her face and robes, but Nahlia spotted a moon-shaped necklace hanging from the woman's neck, almost an exact representation of her own.
"Who was she?" Nahlia asked.
"Lyra Trelian," Relyn said. "She was the daughter of Whitecliff's first headmaster."
Trelian. Her mother's clan name. That explained the necklace, at least.
"She looks so young," Nahlia noted. "Whatever happened to her?"
"No one knows for sure, but some people say she was..." Relyn paused. "What is the Reverian word for etareta?"
Nahlia shrugged. "What does it mean?"
"It's when someone murders someone in a dream." She made a sour face. "It sounds wrong in your language though."
Nahlia drew her lips to a line, certain she had misheard. "You mean someone killed her in her sleep?"
"No." the other girl shook her head, her black hair swinging back and forth. "in her dream. In the Ethereal."
"How's that possible?"
Another pause, as if she were putting the pieces together. "One evening here at the academy, Lyra Trelian suddenly dropped unconscious and wouldn't wake up. All of the enclave's healers examined her, but no one could explain what happened. A day passed, and then Headmaster Atreus Trelian went into the Ethereal to look for her. He found his daughter trapped within in a cold, dark dream of storms and chaos. There, a strange Aeon held a crystal sword to her throat."
Nahlia drew in a shaky breath. "A 'strange Aeon'?"
Relyn nodded, and the wind blew strands of dark hair across her face. "Sovereign Palatine. This was when his empire stretched from Palavar all the way to my home in Valaysia. Palatine was holding her at swordpoint, and he told the headmaster he wanted the location of this enclave, in exchange for his daughter's life."
"I don't understand," Nahlia said. "How could he hold her hostage in her own dream? Wouldn't she just wake up if he tried to hurt her?"
"That was what the headmaster thought," Relyn said, leaning against the stone parapet. "He thought it was some kind of trick, and that Palatine couldn't truly harm her."
"But he did..." Nahlia looked up at the statue that loomed beside them.
The other girl nodded again."Palatine killed her in the Ethereal, and when the headmaster woke from the dream, his daughter was still laying there in her bed. Only, when he felt for a pulse, she was no longer breathing."
Nahlia shuddered at that. She might have shrugged Relyn's story off as superstition, except that Lyra Trelian's killer sounded far too similar to another Aeon she knew. Not only was Thane able to bend the rules of the Ethereal and find people, he was also interested in this enclave, and had saught a member of Clan Trelian in order to find it. It couldn't be a coincidence.
"During my exam," Nahlia began slowly, "your uncle mentioned other Aeons searching for this place. Is this what he meant by that?"
"It could be," Relyn said. "But this is only a story. Many people say that Lyra Trelian died of sickness or disease, and that her father was crazy for saying she was murdered."
When Nahlia didn't reply, Relyn turned to face her. "You okay? Sorry, it's just an old story, one that people tell the new students to scare them. It was a long time ago, and nothing to worry about now."
Nahlia nodded and forced out a smile.
Thane's eyes had held no untruth that morning in Dresten, and she had no reason to believe he was dishonest about his intentions. But then... Nahlia had been honest with the White Council during her admission, and she was still betraying them. What if Thane was playing a similar game with the Templars? Where did his true loyalties lie?
For that matter, where did her own loyalties lie?