Whitecliff's library went on forever. Thousands of old books, tablets. and scrolls, all scattered throughout a city of leather and parchment. Bookcases of lacquered wood stood as high as the houses in Northshire's town square. Spiral staircases twisted around marble pillars like winding mountain paths. High-vaulted ceilings stretched out above, their archways as wide as tree canopies. Everything glimmered and glowed beneath the violet light of a hundred crystal lanterns.
Nahlia came here alone while the rest of Wolfe Clan returned to their plateau. She enjoyed the company of her new clan but they were also carefree with their time, more concerned with class exams and battlegrounds.
She might have shared such sentiments if she'd come here in another life, born to an ordinary Aeon family. Instead, a thousand other matters fought for dominance in her mind. Her weakness in the training dojo ... the White Council and their growing suspicions. Worst of all, her father remained a Templar prisoner, and her only hope was a man she couldn't trust.
Hunched over a reading table, Nahlia turned page after page of historical accounts on Clan Solidor. She read of countless skirmishes across the Ember Sea where Thane's grandfather, Thangus, had repelled invaders from Palavar and Venetore. His parents had also fought down several domestic rebellions over the years, Aeon and human alike. They conquered islands and sank fleets. Burned fortresses and slaughtered thousands.
In short, Thane's family had a reputation for brutally crushing their enemies. Even so, these accounts were so impersonal, as if they were written by some old scholar in a tower. They spoke of Clan Solidor's famous deeds but said nothing of Thane's own character or his goals.
Nahlia shut the tome in a cloud of dust and slumped back in her chair. There was information here, yes, but it wasn't the goldmine she'd hoped for. Certainly not enough to make a decision.
She glanced at the clock on the north wall, a copper-plated monstrosity as big as a barn door. It was half-past ten, and the surrounding tables were clear of students and scribes.
Her chair groaned against the polished stone floor as she pushed away from the desk. The sound of it echoed all throughout the high ceilings.
I should get to bed, the rational part of her thought. Her body ached from the day's training but her mind continued to race. She was standing in what must've been the largest library on this part of the continent with thousands of books just begging to be read ... a prospect she'd only dreamed of as a little girl.
What could one more hour hurt? Even if she couldn't learn about Thane himself, she could still research Ethermancy and his strange ability to enter her dreams.
She was returning to the maze of shelves when someone called out to her, "You're up late, Nahlia Cole."
Nahlia spun around to see Yimo sitting on a stool behind the scribe's desk. His green-brown hair was a tossed mess, and he wore a plain shirt and vest instead of his usual Wolfe Clan parka.
She forced out a smile, looking down at him. "I could say the same for you."
Yimo shrugged his small shoulders. "We crelans don't need as much sleep as the rest of you giants."
"Wow." Nahlia yawned enough to make her eyes water. "Lucky you." She blinked and regarded him again. "So if you're a crelan..."
"...then what the hell am I doing here?" he offered.
A faint warmth rose on her cheeks. "I wouldn't have put it that way."
"I'm half-Aeon." He grinned, pointing to his bright blue eyes. "At least I think I am. Never got around to asking my parents about that before they..." He made another vague gesture. "Well, you know how the Templars are. Always getting in the way of family time."
Nahlia nodded, then fumbled for something else to say. "Are you the only half-crelan here? In the enclave, I mean."
"Far as I know." He leaned back with a satisfied smile. "Although, there was this nice old lady who ran an apothecary down by the dojos. For a while, I had half the enclave convinced she was my grandmother. I even got out of classes the week she died."
Her mouth fell open, unsure whether to laugh. "And the council fell for that?"
"Aegon, no! But one of the instructors did. Then the council suspended me for lying about it. Either way, I was excused from classes that week."
He shook his head with an air of nostalgia. "The point is, people these days put way too much weight into what 'race' we are. Aeon, human, crelan... we're all the same species. We just changed differently over the centuries."
"Apparently enough to start killing each other over the matter," Nahlia muttered in agreement. "She rested her elbows on the smooth wooden desk. "So you don't agree with Ciena Raider then? You don't think some races are better than others?"
"I wouldn't go that far." Yimo grinned again. "I think it goes without saying that crelans are the best."
"Naturally," she said. "Hard to deny how well you fit into small spaces."
"That's the spirit!" He slapped an enthusiastic hand on the desk. "I can fit into small spaces, just like you can fit in among humans with those dark eyes of yours."
Nahlia averted her eyes before realizing how ridiculous that was. She was more self-conscious about those than Yimo was about his height.
"Of course, there's much more to it than that." He held up his fingers as if to mark off a list. "Aeons are more emotional and creative than the other races, making them good artists and strategists. Humans tend to be more logical and scientific, which makes them good inventors. And crelans—we're known for our wisdom and wit. Our courage and battle prowess. Our rugged good looks and lovemaking. Our—"
"Humility?" Nahlia suggested helpfully.
"Compared to who?" He chuckled. "Ever heard Ciena Raider tell you about her ancient bloodline?"
"She might've mentioned that," Nahlia said with a small chuckle. "I guess it all depends on the context then."
He nodded. "But enough of my wisdom for one evening. What brings you to the library at this Aegon-forsaken hour?" He peered over to the tower of books on her reading table.. "I see you have Zidane this term."
"I do," she said. "But those aren't for his class. I'm just ... being proactive, I suppose."
"Anything I can help you find? This place can be a headache if you don't know where to look."
"Hmm...." She glanced at the clock again. No sense in wasting time if she could help it. "I'm looking for books on the Ethereal, If it's not too much trouble."
"Sure. What's the context? Historical, mythological, metaphysical?"
"Everything," she said at once. It all sounded equally promising.
"Everything?" Yimo arched his thin eyebrows.
Nahlia bit her lip. Of course ... most students here didn't share her love of reading. What was it Zidane said? They'd rather beat each-other with sticks?
"I've spent my whole life among humans," she explained. "I have some catching up to do."
"Mm. Fair enough. Follow me then." Yimo hopped down from his stool and led her back into the maze of shelves. Nahlia practically had to jog to keep up with him, despite the fact he was half her size.
He stopped at the base of a stack and pointed his small finger upward. "There, five shelves up. The bright blue one."
This continued for several minutes. Yimo grabbed the books off the lower shelves and pointed out the higher ones for her to reach. Some were so high that Nahlia had to grab one of the rolling ladders. Thankfully, she wasn't afraid of heights provided there were no riflemen on the ground.
Back at her reading table, she flared with excitement as she cracked open Communication in the Ethereal. Its spine was stiff, suggesting it hadn't been opened for several years.
Finally, something promising.
Her spirits dampened after the first few chapters, however. The text aligned perfectly with what Lady Raider had told before: communication always required two willing participants to focus their minds on a specific location in the Ethereal. Even then, dreamers had their own "versions" of each dreamscape based on their unique thought languages. This was why communication was so difficult, and why dreamers had to spend weeks developing a bond.
Wonderful. Nahlia skimmed the rest of the book but found no exceptions to this rule.
She opened Vauldazhan's Compendium of Ethereal Phenomenon next. Unfortunately, the writing was even denser than the title. Master Vauldazhan attempted to assign meaning to hundreds of personal accounts, drawing conclusions on the subconscious Aeon mind. Useful for a mental physician perhaps, but it offered little guidance for a beginner.
After skimming the other nine books, Nahlia stood for the first time in hours, peering over the balcony railing. The stacks continued deeper underground for at least five more levels. Beyond that was the bottom floor, shrouded in darkness and with an air of uncharted territory about it.
The upper stacks may have been picked clean, but that didn't mean the entire library was.
Time to find out just how deep this place goes.
Somewhere on the bottom tier of the main stacks, she found a closed wooden door. Simple and unassuming, it was the sort of door that led to secret places.
Nahlia glanced back and forth to ensure she was alone, then pulled the door open and followed the staircase to the bottom level. There were far fewer lamps down here, and they were of lower quality, glowing a deep royal blue.
The books down here weren't organized like those above. Some lay in piles on the shelves, while others were scattered across the floor. A layer of dust covered every table and chair.
If the upper stacks were a well-planned city, this was a forest in the night. Everything looked the same—towering bookshelves and narrow corridors shrouded in blackness. Even the lanterns from the stacks above were as faint as distant stars.
Nahlia looked up and down the aisles but saw no landmarks. She tried following the walls to the exit, but that only seemed to take her deeper into the maze.
"Let's go exploring in the middle of the night," she muttered to herself. "Brilliant idea, Nahlia."
Exhausted, and with no hope of finding the way she came, Nahlia plunked down in a soft leather chair. Better to think things through rather than panic and wander aimlessly for another hour.
She nestled into the soft brown cushion, wrapping her cloak tightly across her chest. The chair's leather arm was cool against her neck, but her body heat warmed it soon enough. She let her eyes fall shut, and sleep took her by surprise just as it had every night since she left home.