The courtyard bustled with activity that evening as students poured out from the various lecture halls. Some jogged through the snow while others shuffled along with their hoods drawn against the wind.
Nahlia crossed a bridge over the central canal. Workers rowed their covered supply boats from one end to the other, making small waves on the water's gleaming surface. It was a peaceful contrast to the harsh winds and flurries of snowflakes that blew down from the mountain slopes.
Relyn Vash stepped out from the training dojo a few minutes later. Her black hair was tied in a tight bun behind her head, and she carried a wooden quarterstaff at her side.
"How'd it go with your uncle?" Nahlia asked, crossing her arms against the cold.
Relyn smiled. "All taken care of."
"Really?" Considering the way Vash had treated her before, she half-expected him to refuse her outright.
"What? You doubted me?"
Nahlia laughed and shook her head. "More like underestimated."
"Well, I'd love to take all of the credit, but you did impress him this morning in the Gorge."
"He said that?"
"Well ... no," she admitted. "But he didn't say anything bad about you. For my uncle, that's gushing. I'm supposed to take you to Wolfe Clan's plateau now if you're still interested." She gave a shy smile. "You are still interested, right?"
"Of course," Nahlia said at once. "Lead the way."
They crossed the courtyard and Relyn led her through a wide tunnel in the mountainside. Nahlia had seen groups of students pass this way before, and she was always curious where it went.
They threw back their hoods as the staircase took them deeper underground. At first, Nahlia had imagined a dark and dusty corridor, filled with bats and damp stalactites. Nothing could be further from the truth. Polished stone lined the tunnel walls, and crystal lanterns hung from every pillar, emitting a warm violet light.
They reached the bottom after several flights, and their path expanded into an underground atrium, as wide as the Arda. Three hooded statues dominated the scene. They stood with their hands held aloft, grasping boulder-sized crystals, illuminating the domed ceiling above.
Students of various ages gathered around, reading books and socializing by the lamplight. Two boys played a game of Cushendo at a wooden table while a green-robed scholar practiced her lute. It was the first time Nahlia heard music in days, and the sound was like hot chocolate on a winter night.
The atrium fanned out into a dozen smaller passageways, and Relyn continued on ahead. Their path took them down another staircase, and they turned at an intersection.
"I'm guessing a lot of new students get lost down here?" she asked.
"Not often," Relyn said. "It's actually very simple: battleclan plateaus are to the northeast, crypts are southeast. Food storage is to the west, and sewers are to the south."
The other girl pointed in seemingly random directions as she spoke. How could you even tell which way was north without seeing the sun or the stars? Every tunnel looked the same, with hardly any notable features or landmarks.
"Oh, and the library is through here." Relyn gestured past a series of stone archways, and Nahlia breathed in faint hints of parchment and leather.
The architecture changed to a more ancient style as their path took them deeper. The pillars and archways grew more ornamental, resembling the movements of the old Palavan dynasties.
"I thought Whitecliff was less than a hundred years old?" Nahlia said, indicating one of the older, more intricate pillars.
"No, I said the first headmaster lived a hundred years ago," Relyn corrected. "This part is much older. They say it's part of an old Aeon monastery."
Nahlia nodded. "So, whatever happened to the people who lived here before?"
"We don't know much about them. Only that they loved to read." She gestured back down the corridor. "They left over fifty-thousand books and tomes behind. Some haven't even been read or translated yet."
Fifty-thousand books containing long-forgotten knowledge. The idea made Nahlia flare with excitement. Northshire's library barely held three-hundred books, and most of those were salvaged from the Aeon landlord's home during the Purge. Nahlia had read them all by the time she was sixteen; she could only imagine how many lifetimes it would take to read everything here.
A draft ruffled her hair as they rounded another intersection. Stone archways lined the left side of this hallway, each ornamented with an animal head carved in relief over the door. A fox, a bear, an ape, a falcon, and finally a wolf.
"This way," Relyn said, turning into the last tunnel.
They stepped out onto a snow-covered plateau which overlooked the Gorge. Several house-like buildings stuck out from the cliffside, surrounding a firepit and a dueling circle. Six or seven students sat around the ring on log benches, watching the Raider twins spar just as they had in Dresten.
Nahlia turned and gave Relyn a pointed look. "You didn't tell me she was in this clan."
Nahlia narrowed her eyes and nodded.
"I take it you've met her then."
"Don't worry," Relyn said. "She isn't so bad. A bit hard to get along with, maybe, but she and Elias are the best duelists in the academy. Just be thankful she's on our side."
The Raider twins circled each-other like wary lions, bathed by the bleeding light of the setting sun. Ciena lunged forward, and Elias parried and countered. Their swords became a blur as they fell into the familiar dance, the surrounding torches flickering in unison.
She spun her quarterstaff, attacking her twin from both directions. Elias deflected with his katanas, sending her back with a flurry of blows. His eyes were hard and focused, a stark contrast to his usual carefree manner. He watched his sister intently, taking in her every movement.
They continued to exchange testing blows, then Ciena charged forward again, all fury and adrenaline. Her brother sidestepped her and landed a series of hits, too quick to see.
"Dead." The Battlemaster's voice rang flat and final as joined them in the dueling ring. When did he get here?
Both Raiders stood at attention as they faced Master Vash. Sweat glistened on their foreheads now, despite the chill night air.
"Elias, you're still too slow in your transitions." The Battlemaster mimicked one of his movements as he spoke. "You left an opening here when you switched from moonform to flameform. You'd have lost the fight then if your sister had bothered to check your flank."
Elias gave a respectful nod, and Vash turned to the other twin, his dark leather armor shining in the torchlight.
"Ciena, your moves lack intricacy. Your overuse of lionform puts you in predictable patterns. This is how your brother beat you. You had him on the defensive for some time, but a more seasoned opponent would've identified this weakness at once."
The exchange had an easy, methodical feel as if it had happened a thousand times before. Where Nahlia had seen nothing but spinning swords, Vash saw a thousand small movements, all strung together to create larger patterns. It was like forming sentences from words, or a drawing from individual lines.
Aegon, this really is going to take years to learn.
The Battlemaster finished his critique and he turned his attention back to the entryway. "Since you're here, I assume you've accepted my niece's offer?"
It took Nahlia a moment to realize Vash was addressing her this time. "Oh—yes I did."
Ciena stepped forward, her gold eyes flashing with suspicion. "What offer?"
Vash disregarded her as he continued. "Everyone, meet your new clan member, Nahlia Cole. No previous combat training, but she promises to learn quickly. Aside from that, she's received top marks in all her other entrance examinations, and she has real experience evading the Templars."
Nahlia glanced uneasily at the ring of faces and felt her own face growing hot.
Ciena cleared her throat and turned to Vash. "A word, Battlemaster?"
"Yes Raider, I've been meaning to speak with you too. In private." He gestured with his chin toward one of the many house-like structures in the cliffside.
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?" She crossed her arms. "We haven't had a new member in three years, now you dump some first-year on us without warning?"
Vash opened his mouth, but Ciena prattled on, heedless. "We've been ranked number one for the past six months. We don't need an eleventh member. if anything, she'd only get in our way."
The Battlemaster let out a sigh and crossed his thick arms. "Alright Raider, since you're so keen on having this talk now: Wolfe Clan won't have eleven members. I'm transferring you to Howler Clan."
"Howler Clan?" she echoed with dark incredulity.
"I'm glad to see your ears are still working."
"Why the—" she cut herself off, took a breath, then began again. "My brother and I have been together for ten years. How could you separate us now?"
"We talked about this last term."
"No," she exhaled forcefully. "You said we needed to challenge ourselves more. I don't recall you threatening to transfer me."
"It wasn't a threat, Raider. And this isn't a punishment. You two are the academy's top duelists. I don't want you two becoming complacent so close to graduation."
"Complacent? We win every match!"
"Not helping your case," Vash said.
"And we can beat most of the instructors! What more do you want?"
"I want you to stop relying on each other. A few months from now, you two will be out there fighting Templars. What if you're separated? What if one of you gets injured or killed? It's better to learn that lesson now."
Ciena looked at her brother for help, but Elias only shrugged. Finally, she said, "Then why am I the one being transferred and not him?"
"Elias is the captain."
"Only as a formality," she shot back. "I'm just as good as he is."
"I'll be the judge of that," Vash said with an edge to his voice. "Unless you're claiming to know my job better than I do?"
As if at a loss for words, Ciena ran a hand through her red-gold braids.
The Battlemaster arched his eyebrows. "Answer me, Raider."
"No sir," she muttered.
"Good." He gave a curt nod and turned to leave. "I'll tell Howler Clan to expect you tomorrow morning. That will give you the rest of the night to pack your things."
Ciena stormed off to one of the stone houses, slamming the wooden door behind her.
The plateau fell quiet, and Nahlia turned back to Relyn. "You didn't know about this, did you?"
"Of course not!" She shook her head. "I had no idea."
"Don't worry about my sister," Elias said. "The rest of us are happy to have you here."
"Thanks." Nahlia returned his smile. "And I didn't mean to cause any trouble."
He waved a dismissive hand. "Not your fault. Vash is right—it's not fair to have Ciena and me together. Come on, we'll show you around."
Nahlia nodded, taking one last look at the closed door.
So much for having her on our side.