Her dreams were free of Thane Solidor that night. Thank Aegon for that; she needed to process what she'd learned before they spoke again.
A short time passed as she slipped in and out of sleep. The library was as quiet as a cave, and every breath seemed to fill the world. Every footstep from the upper stacks echoed down like distant thunder.
"Nahlia?" A man's voice pulled her back to reality,
She opened her eyes to a blur of gold and recognized her waker as Elias Raider. He was kneeling beside her with a crystal lantern in hand. She stretched and sat up, drinking in the scents of leather and campfire.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Mmhmm." She adjusted her hair, ignoring the stiffness in her neck. "Guess I got a little lost."
He nodded. "Yimo saw you head down this way an hour ago. I went looking for you when you didn't come back to the plateau."
"Oh." Nahlia winced. "Did I miss a curfew or something?"
"Don't worry." He offered his hand and pulled her to her feet. "No curfews for students over sixteen. We were still worried about you though; some of these caves go on for miles."
"Caves?" She glanced back and forth at their man-made surroundings.
"The ones we passed through when we got here. They're connected to the library's lower levels."
"Can you show me?" Nahlia pressed. If this was an opportunity to learn more of Whitecliff's secrets, she had to take it. Besides, Thane did tell her to spend more time with Elias Raider.
He seemed to consider for a moment, and Nahlia glanced up at him with wide eyes.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt to show you," he said, beckoning for her to follow.
They threaded their way back through the forest of shelves, and it felt far less ominous than before.
Elias stopped in front of a thick timber door, not unlike the ones in the upper stacks. He pulled a keyring from his jacket, and a dozen small instruments glimmered in the lamplight. Nahlia watched with interest as he found the proper key, slid it into the lock, and gave it a hard turn to the right.
The door opened with a hefty groan, and they passed under an archway and down a spiral staircase. The air grew even warmer as they descended. How was that possible? Wasn't it supposed to be colder underground?
"Watch your step," Elias said when they reached the bottom.
The brick floor turned to rocky terrain beneath her boots. and Nahlia nearly tripped despite his warning.
The path widened, and she heard the faint lapping of water, followed by a pleasant scent like fresh rain on hot stone.
A minute later and they emerged into a larger expanse of cavern that ran perpendicular to the first. Layered discs of rock covered the floor, forming natural staircases down to bubbling pools of water. Bright blue crystals protruded from the surrounding walls, some over ten feet long and wide as tree trunks. Steam rose from the water's surface, causing her face to prickle with sweat.
"Hot springs," Nahlia murmured. "So that's why it's so warm down here."
Elias nodded, gesturing to a set of copper pipes along the wall. "The heat from these keeps us alive in the winter. They also provide water for the kitchens and bathhouses."
Nahlia knelt at the pool's edge, running her cold fingers over the water's boiling surface. When she glanced up again, she noticed a door of solid stone across the cave, twice as tall as she was.
"No one knows what's behind there," Elias said in answer to her unspoken question. "Even the council has no way of opening it."
Thane had mentioned something secret buried away in this enclave. Could this be it?
There was a breath of silence until Elias spoke again. "Listen, about my sister... you should know that not everyone here agrees with her."
"It's fine," she replied, still absorbed in pool's gem-like ripples. "I get it ... my father was a Templar."
"No," he said. "Not that. I meant your argument in Zidane's class."
"What?" Nahlia rose to her feet, wiping her hands on her cloak.
With some reluctance, Elias met her eyes. "What you said yesterday about the masked Aeon—about how he assassinated Nathaniel Mason and burned Stormharbor, I think you're right."
"Oh, that." She shook her head. "That was nothing. Just a rumor I heard."
"So you don't believe in Ethermancy?"
"I..." Nahlia paused to consider. "Honestly? I don't know what I believe anymore."
"You seemed confident enough yesterday."
"And look how that turned out. I grew up assuming it was real because I knew nothing about Aeon culture. Now that I'm here, it's..."
"Underwhelming?" Elias offered.
Nahlia shrugged. "I guess that's life."
"Maybe," he said. "But I think there are exceptions. I think Ethermancy is much more than a rumor. "The masters try to hide it from us, but it's only been twenty years. People remember. They talk."
"If it's real, then why keep it a secret? We're struggling just to survive up here."
"Like you said yesterday; if it's real, we can't blame the war on the Templars. And I've sat through enough of Elveron's lectures to know he wants us to make peace with the humans... to live among them without ruling over them."
That was a noble goal. It was all she ever tried to do in Northshire. But still... something didn't fit. "If that's really what he wants, then why spend so much time teaching us how to fight?"
"We only fight to defend ourselves from the Templars."
"In that case, why can't we defend ourselves with Ethermancy instead of swords?"
"Ethermancy is... different. it's made our race do terrible things. You've read the stories in Aeonica."
"Yes," she said. "And according to Zidane, those are just stories. We need more than that. I thought I might find something here in the library, but— "
"You won't find anything here," Elias interjected. "You're not the first to come looking for books like this.. Half of the first-years have the same idea. Myself included."
"Well then." Nahlia crossed her arms with a weary sigh. "I guess I wasted my time. If it were real, wouldn't someone have documented it by now?"
"I'm not saying the books don't exist," he clarified. "I'm saying they were removed."
That sent a chill running through her. "How do you know that?"
Elias walked along the pool's edge, kicking in pebbles as he went. "When we were children—Ciena, Yimo, and I—we spent our free time exploring the lower levels of the library." He took a deep breath, and his voice grew softer still. "One day, we found a book buried so deep, we were sure it had been lost for centuries. It was about the Ethereal. Not as a tool for communication, but for training. For learning to do things no ordinary person could.
"This book didn't present Ethermancy as a story, but as science. Controlling energy with your mind, strengthening your body to become stronger ... faster. It was like every story we've ever heard about our race, but it was real."
Nahlia released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding "You're serious, aren't you?"
When Elias nodded, the last piece of the puzzle clicked in her mind. "The book disappeared, didn't it?"
He nodded again. "Not just that one, but the others we found over the years. Each one vanished within a week, despite our best efforts. We asked Zidane, but of course he denied their existence. Yimo even became a scribe, hoping they'd let him in on the secret..." Elias shook his head. "No such luck."
Nahlia brushed a dampened strand of hair from her face. "And the things you learned in the book?"
He shrugged a shoulder. "Ciena and I started practicing in the Ethereal, but we didn't get far. This was advanced material, and we couldn't have been older than thirteen at the time."
"And yet ... the three of you are the top-ranked duelists in the academy."
Elias grimaced, then the signs of belated enlightenment appeared in his eyes. "It could be a coincidence..."
"Or you could be doing Ethermancy without realizing it," Nahlia said, excitement rising in her chest, "Isn't that how it's supposed to work?"
He ran a hand through his golden hair. "Aegon. It's been years since I even thought about those books. That is until you showed up yesterday with that story ... and it all came back."
There was a short pause, then Nahlia stepped around the pool, closing the space between them. "Will you help me find those books again?"
Elias studied her for a moment. His eyes widened in surprise, then sank with regret. "I understand why you're eager to learn this, but too much digging will cause a stir. You've drawn a lot of attention as it is."
Nahlia bit her lip. Of course, he could never truly understand how much of a hurry she was in or why she was doing this. Still, she could share something with him. Not the whole truth, but a piece of it.
"The Templars caused this stir the day they came for me in Northshire," she finally said.
"I understand, but all of us have lost things. Homes ... family."
"And did your parents tell you about my father?" Nahlia asked." That the Templars have him in Dresten?"
He gave a slow, careful nod.
"No one wants to talk about it," she said. "Everyone wants me to work diligently in my classes—to smile and fit in here as if nothing is wrong. But tell me, what would you do if the Templars had your family hostage. Even if you were stuck in this enclave, facing impossible odds?"
"I would train as hard as I could, every day." He looked up to meet her eyes. "Same as you."
"And what if deep down, you knew that wouldn't be enough?"
"I would search for any advantage I could find."
Nahlia took another step closer. "So if you know something, I need you to share it with me. Where can I find my advantage?"
Another pause while Elias traced his chin in thought. "Marwyn."
Nahlia didn't have any classes with him, but she remembered him from her admission exams. "The Master Physician?"
"Right, that's his official title, anyway. But his father was the academy's last Master of Dreams. Before Elveron disbanded the position."
"But he's on the council," she said. "Aren't they the ones keeping the books from us in the first place?"
"That decision isn't unanimous," he explained. "I've spoken with Marwyn about this before. He agrees that Ethermancy is dangerous, but not that it should be forgotten entirely. Beyond that, he probably knows more about the Ethereal than anyone in this enclave. If anyone can teach you what you need to know, it's him."