Master Marwyn proved especially difficult to track down. Even after a week in the enclave, Nahlia barely caught a glimpse of him. She tried his office several times, but apparently he didn't use it. And unlike the other masters, he never spent any time in the main hall, the mess, or the cathedral.
After asking around, she learned that he had a private study in the back room of the infirmary. Nahlia made her way there one Treludal evening after a long day of classes and training.
The building was located in the outer portion of the academy where it mingled with the surrounding village. The inside resembled Whitecliff's other buildings with the same towering windows and high-vaulted ceilings. The only difference was the pungent smell of antiseptic that flooded her nostrils.
She passed between two rows of portable beds covered in white linens and divided by thin blue curtains. Student physicians attended a pair of wounded battleclan students; one had a bashed up leg, the other had an open gash on his forehead. Both wore the dark red uniforms of Howler Clan.
Must be Ciena Raider's way of saying hello.
No one noticed Nahlia as she passed through. Not until she started toward a closed wooden door at the end of the chamber. She had her fingers wrapped around the metal lanch when a voice stopped her.
"Excuse me." The short-haired blonde women practically jumped from her desk. "Can I help you?"
"Yes." Nahlia stood taller. "I'm looking for Marwyn."
She raised a thin eyebrow. "You're new here, aren't you?"
Nahlia nodded. She couldn't deny it, not with Whitecliff being as small as it was.
"Well then, you should know that Master Marwyn doesn't like to be disturbed Especially not at this hour."
Of course. I finally find him, and he's still impossible to talk to. Unfortunately, she didn't have the luxury of waiting around.
"That won't be a problem," Nahlia said with a reassuring smile. "He's expecting me."
"Really?" A line of irritation formed between her eyebrows. "He didn't mention any appointments."
"He said I wouldn't need one if I came in the evening. Like you said, he normally likes to be left alone."
"Whatever." The woman rolled her eyes and waved her on. "Don't say I didn't warn you though."
Nahlia opened the door and continued on. She passed empty classrooms with rays of orange sunlight spilling in through the windows, casting long shadows on the stone floor. A large, thick-timbered door loomed at the end of the corridor, and she gave it a soft knock.
No one replied. Muffled sounds came from the other side. Clanking glass bottles, boiling liquids, and some sort of machinery at work.
It took several more knocks before a voice snapped, "Alright, alright!"
A bolt drew back, and the door opened with a creek. Short and slender, Marwyn could have been anywhere between forty and sixty years old. His head was graying, but his face was clean-shaven and free of wrinkles.
"Ah, Nahlia Cole. Arrived in Whitecliff one week ago with Raiders. Now already in battleclan." He glanced down at her slate gray parka. "Wolfe Clan by the looks of it."
Nahlia stood speechless; she had almost forgotten how fast Marwyn spoke. "Um, yes sir. I was wondering if I might—"
Marwyn spun and hurried back to his desk.
"...borrow a moment of your time." She slumped her shoulders and followed.
The room smelled like oil, stone dust, and heated metal. Twisted glassware and chemistry tubes covered the tabletops, along with a hundred other strange tools. Despite the mess, there was a strange sense of calmness here, as if everything fit together like parts of a symphony.
"Pass me that vial of adegen," Marwyn said, indicating a nearby table. "No, no—the red one, next to the carbon compressor. Yes, that's it. Thank you."
He took the glass-stoppered bottle and adjusted his spectacles for what must've been a precise measuring process.
"What are you working on?" Nahlia asked to fill the sudden silence.
"Ethereum bonding. Based off thousand-year-old specimens. Very rare." Marwyn was in constant movement as he spoke. Stepping between desks, grabbing vials and tools from various surfaces and scribbling notes on paper.
"But of course—didn't come here to talk about my work. Obviously here for a reason. Injured during training? No. No visible signs of injury. Other medical concern? Unlikely. Would have made appointment instead of lying to student staff."
She opened her mouth to explain, but Marwyn spoke first. "Here for information. But not enrolled in any of my classes. Heard rumors about me from fellow students? Yes. Looking for private lessons."
"Um, yes." For someone who spent so much time secluded in this laboratory, Marwyn was remarkably well informed.
"To learn what?"
Ethermancy was the obvious answer, but Nahlia couldn't be the first to bring that up. Not with the rest of the council denying its existence outright. She only had one chance to make an impression.
Asking about Thane's ability to enter her dreams was safer territory as long as she phrased it well enough. "Are you familiar with the story of my ancestor, Lyra Trelian?"
"Yes, yes." Marwyn waved a dismissive hand. "Get to the point. Only so many hours in the day."
She took a deep breath. "Everyone I've talked to—every book I've read—claims it's impossible to find a stranger in the Ethereal. I'm wondering if people are misinformed."
"Does it matter?" Marwyn said. "Many legends surrounding the Ethereal. Many of them impossible to test or prove. Surely not part of your studies. "
"I'm studying this in my free time," she explained. "But you haven't answered my question."
"You didn't ask a question." Marwyn moved to another table, underlining something in a book. "And perhaps not a question worth answering, regardless."
"Maybe," Nahlia said. "But you don't really believe that, do you?"
"And why not? Scientists believe what they can observe. Prove or disprove. Hard to do either with something so long ago."
"But something happened to Lyra Trelian," she pressed. "And your grandfather was the Master of Dreams at the time of her death. He must've known something. He must've been involved in the investigation."
"Hm. And I must know something by extension?" Marwyn countered, sparing her a glance. "Your ancestor, Atreus Trelian, was Whitecliff's Headmaster at the time. By your own logic, you also know something."
Nahlia bit the inside of her cheek. it seemed like Marwyn had no intention of helping her. But then, why bother with this charade when he could just as easily send her on her way? Why only hint at ignorance instead of denying the knowledge altogether?
She took another quick look around the laboratory. "You're the Master Physician, yet none of your projects here relate to medicine or healing. That suggests you're passionate about something else. She gestured down to the table between them. "I think you would be the Master of Dreams right now if Elveron didn't disband the position."
"Been listening to rumors," Marwyn said. "Conjecture. Not the first to ask about the Ethereal. Others have come before you. Always looking for power. Always looking for an advantage over their enemies. Heard stories of Aeons wielding fire. Bringing back the dead. Controlling minds. Battles. Empires. No real understanding of Ethereal or its purpose."
"I'm not looking for power," Nahlia clarified quickly. "Only information. I just want to know if there's any truth to the stories they tell."
"Mere curiosity? No." Marwyn shook his head with an air of finality. "No. Wouldn't go through so much effort."
"Why wouldn't I?" Nahlia countered. "We're in an Aeon enclave, but no one here wants to talk about the one thing that defines us."
She paused and waited for Marwyn to reply. When nothing was forthcoming, she continued. "Please. I've spent my whole life wondering about this. You said the others didn't understand the Ethereal... well neither do I, but I want to understand. More than anything."
For the first time, Marwyn set down his tools to regard her. "Interesting. Tell me, what do you know about Ethereum?"
"I—" She grimaced at the sudden change of topic. "The mineral?"
"Yes." He set off toward another of his workstations. "Go on. Leave nothing out."
Nahlia took a deep breath as she followed. "It's the most potent and most valuable mineral in the world. Worth a hundred times its weight in gold. It can't be cut, bent, melted, or scratched, yet it's said to feel weightless. It pulls energy from the Ethereal, providing a near-infinite supply. Even if it's drained, it recharges the next day."
She paused to look at him, but Marwyn motioned for her to continue. "No one knows where it came from, but the largest veins were found in meteors. Some people say it fell from the sky when the Archaeon Palatine tried to open the gates of Eternity."
She closed her eyes, struggling to remember anything else. Any details she might've read over the years. "When Aeons die, there are small traces of the mineral found in our bodies. It's the only thing that separates us physically from humans, and possibly what allows us to dream."
Still, Marwyn seemed unappeased. "Some of the wealthiest Aeon clans own pieces of Ethereum jewelry. Usually rings. There are even rumors of the Archaeons using the metal to make swords. No one's been able to find or recreate those though."
"Hm. Good." Marwyn pulled a key from around his neck, unlocking a large wooden chest. Inside sat two glowing shards. Pure white, like freshly fallen snow. Their glow was so bright, her vision grew spotty at the mere sight of them."
"Ethereum has one other purpose." Marwyn removed the two pieces, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. "Discovered by my grandfather during his research. Might satisfy your curiosity."
He set the shards on the table. "These pieces are bonded to one another. The same way a bond can exist between two Aeon minds." Marwyn pressed two fingers to his forehead, then to Nahlia's. "They were once of one piece, split apart at the smallest level. Now, even apart, the fragments are one. Minds they connect, also one."
Nahlia nodded. While she didn't understand any of this, she didn't want Marwyn to stop talking. This was the kind of knowledge she needed, the kind she craved.
"Beacons of thought energy," he continued "Much like an Aeon mind. And yes, could allow two strangers to communicate. Perhaps even harm each other. Distance is irrelevant."
Nahlia exhaled. "And... did Lyra Trelian have one of these shards the night she died?"
"Can't say," Marwyn admitted. "This discovery—made decades after she died. Even if she had one, impossible to perform tests with a single shard."
"Tests?" Nahlia asked.
Marwyn met her eyes for a split second. "Easier to show you. Come." He led her to yet another section of the laboratory, gesturing toward a cushioned chair. "Sit."
Nahlia slumped back in her seat. It felt good to sit on something other than a wooden classroom bench for a change.
Marwyn took the seat opposite her, setting the shards on a round, wooden table between them.
She leaned forward, but he threw up a hand. "No. Sit back. Very important.
Nahlia did so, and the Master Physician closed his eyes and concentrated for several minutes. His breathing slowed, growing more deliberate.
She shifted in her seat, looking around. Was she supposed to close her eyes too? She tried, but her curiosity got the best of her.
Marwyn continued to meditate, and she felt him grow closer. Not his body, but his mind. He was reaching out to her, and she felt the strange sensation of being pulled ... almost stretched.
Then with a jolt, Nahlia fell back in her chair. Her thoughts lept from her body, and everything faded to black.