Nahlia breathed in the scents of a summer evening; fresh green grass, ripe berries, and stone warmed from a day in the sun. A garden of flowering trees surrounded her while a pair of enormous fountains shot up into the twilight sky.
Beyond the garden walls stood the skyline of a vast metropolis, even grander than Dragonshard. Domes and spires shone golden against the shell-pink haze, their windows glowing from the crystal light within.
Even from this low vantage, she recognized the scene from paintings and books. The city of a thousand stars, capital of the old Aeon Imperium.
"Correct." Marwyn's voice.
She turned to find the Master Physician standing there beside her.
"Sunfall," he said. "As it was before the Purge. Or rather—my memories of it."
Nahlia turned her head this way and that, trying to take in every sensation at once. The buildings were so tall, she saw more stone than sky. Water cascaded from the high walls, mingling with the rivers and lakes below.
"You brought us into the Ethereal," she said, finding her voice again.
"Right again." Marwyn threw out his arms in an expansive gesture. "But how? Are we dreaming?"
Nahlia considered it for a long moment, recalling her meetings with Thane. "No, not exactly. You were meditating before we came here. That makes it more deliberate than a dream."
"Hm. And you?"
"If the shards connect our minds..." she hesitated, unable to find the right words.
"Shards replicate strongest possible bond between two Aeon minds," Marwyn said. "Synchronizes our thought languages into one. Works regardless of distance. "
Nahlia gave a slow nod, absorbing as much as she could. This wasn't a full explanation of Thane's skill, but it was another piece of the puzzle. It proved that Casella Raider was mistaken, along with all those books in the library.
If they were wrong about this, what else were they wrong about?
In one corner of the garden, a young woman strolled beneath an intricate marble archway. Two children walked on the path beside her. They had their mother's eyes, but their faces were thin and pointy like Marwyn's.
"Your family?" Nahlia asked.
Marwyn took her by the elbow and steered her away. "Not real. Only representations. Had a family once before the Purge. Gone now."
"I'm sorry." Her eyes fell to her boots as she shuffled along beside him. "I lost someone to the Templars too."
"Your mother," he said with a nod. "Lyraina Trelian. Brilliant student. Always assumed she would become Whitecliff's next Headmaster. Terrible what happened to her. Terrible you had to witness it so young."
She glanced back toward Marwyn's family, only to find an empty archway. "Will I ever see her here? In the Ethereal, I mean."
"Perhaps. But important to separate dreams from reality. Other Aeons go mad with grief here. Lose loved ones in physical word. Cling to representations in Ethereal. Terrible waste of time and life."
They strode side by side for several minutes, out of the garden and over a stone bridge. The river flowed several stories beneath them. meandering through the city like a snake through grass. She spotted apartments built along the shore, human homes carved at the feet of their Aeon rulers.
Marwyn was quieter here than he had been in his laboratory. Quieter, but no less preoccupied. Eager to get him talking again, Nahlia shifted the conversation to something more scientific. "How did your grandfather discover this?"
"Hm?" He looked at her from the corner of his eye, as if surprised to still see here there.
She swallowed. "The idea of using two pieces of Etherite together."
"Oh. Yes." He took a deep breath. "Academy held records of instructors using Ethereal for teaching. Used shards to bring students here. Ideal place for it. Free energy everywhere. No risk of injury. Time passes slower than in physical world. Practical. Efficient."
"And what did they study here? Combat?"
Marwyn shook his head, the edges of his mouth pulling back in a grimace. "Aeons get terrible reputation for violence. History only remembers wars between empires. Abuse of power. Research suggests only one in ten Aeons were violent. Most used Ethereal for greater understanding."
Nahlia frowned. "If that's true, then why did the Headmaster disband this teaching?" Not to mention remove those books from the library.
"Simple," he replied. "The more we learned, the more dangerous it became. Ethermancy has potential for peace and understanding, but also for death and destruction."
"Ethermancy?" She seized on that one word. Hearing it from Marwyn's own lips was like finding a single perfect fruit on a barren tree.
"Yes, yes. No need to be coy. We both know it's why you came here tonight."
This time, she forced herself not to cringe. "I'm just... surprised. Don't the other masters claim it's a myth?"
They passed a shallow fire pit carved into the courtyard's stone floor. Cushioned chairs formed a loose ring around the circle.
Marwyn approached the pit, and a flame sparked to life within the kindling. He raised his hand in a slow, deliberate manner, and the fire erupted, consuming the surrounding sticks and logs. In the span of ten heartbeats, the flame grew as tall as a tree, twisting and dancing against the night like a whirlpool.
"It exists," Marwyn said over the roar of the flames. "Others lie. Say otherwise. But it exists. Part of our history. Aeons who could destroy armies. Conquer cities. Such power destroys them too. Destroys everything."
He threw out his arms, and a dozen bright projectiles flew from the pillar. Signs and lampposts shattered in their path. Tree branches broke into splinters of wood. Windows exploded into shards of glass.
Even from this distance, Nahlia felt the heat of the flames on her face and the force of it in her hair like a summer storm. She gazed up in wonder at the sight; a tiny eye-blink into a forbidden oasis. Powerful and terrible all at once. This was the power she'd read about, the old Aeon lore her mother believed in. With this, she would never feel helpless again.
"Ethermancy requires powerful emotion," Marwyn continued, "but it makes those feelings stronger still. Aeons lose themselves to it. Consumed by lust and rage."
Marwyn dropped his arms, and the storm sank back into the fire pit.
Nahlia released a breath, composing herself once again. "The Testaments say that Aegon gave us this power as a gift."
"All good things can be twisted and perverted," Marwyn said. "Strength. Intellect. Courage. Ambition. Even with good intentions. Ethermancy is worst of all in the wrong hands."
She looked back to where the fire had been, nothing more than a pillar of smoke now. "Did my mother study this here at the academy?"
"Yes," Marwyn said. "Succeeded in Ethereal. Failed in physical world. Like me."
"But she still believed in it," Nahlia said. "Even if she failed, I think she would at least want—."
"I won't teach you." Marwyn's reply came as quick as a flash of lightning. "Too dangerous. Goes against the council's decision."
"I know you don't agree with them." Nahlia let some of her desperation show for the first time. "How will things ever change if you don't teach us?"
He waved a dismissive hand. "Hardly know you."
"Then let me prove myself," she said. "It doesn't even have to be Ethermancy—only how to understand the Ethereal. Only what you consider safe enough for me to learn."
Marwyn gave her a calculating look, though he didn't meet her eyes.
"Please," she said. "Just tell me what I need to do."
There was a long silence, then Marwyn looked her straight in the eye. "Fair warning. Will be difficult. More difficult than anything you've ever done."
"Of course. I understand."
Marwyn held up a finger. "First, you must enter the Ethereal. Without dreaming."
"You mean enter through meditation. Like what you did today?"
"Correct. Not only that, but create your own portion of the dream world. A strong memory of your past. Reflect on it as you meditate. Remember every detail until it comes to life."
"No." His tone was almost apologetic, and he refused to meet her gaze. "Your worst memory. The night your mother died."
A brick fell into her stomach. The idea of meditating into the Ethereal was overwhelming enough, but this? It sounded more like a cruel joke than a fair test. Occasionally, fragments of that night came bumbling to the surface. These were terrible enough; glimpses of pain like an old wound being torn open again. To consciously focus on that memory—to relive it in a place so vivid as this—Marwyn might as well have asked for one of the moons.
"Once you've practiced," he continued, "use the shards to bring me there with you."
Nahlia clenched her jaw. "And why does it need to be that memory? You just told me we weren't supposed to dwell on the past."
"No," Marwyn agreed. "But equally unhealthy to suppress it. Need to accept the past and move on. Need to experience what happened without trying to change it. Most importantly, must forgive those who wronged you."
"You mean Saul Mason? You want me to forgive the Templar who murdered my mother and uncle, who's holding my father hostage?"
"Yes. Claim to only want knowledge and not power. Prove it. Prove you're different from the others."
"I am different. I've never hurt anyone in my life."
"Irrelevant," Marwyn waved a dismissive hand. "Always weaker than your enemies before. Doesn't mean you wouldn't hurt them given the chance."
Nahlia opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. She had dreamt of power before, but only when she was provoked. That was a natural reaction. It didn't make her a violent person.
"Sorry," Marwyn added almost as an afterthought. "Warned you it would be difficult."
"That's not difficult," she said, biting out the words. "That's impossible."
"Hmm." Marwyn remained calm and composed. "Then you know why Elveron disbanded these teachings. Too many Aeons have lost things. Parents, children, friends, homes. Crave vengeance above all else. Only safe to train you if you can make peace with your enemies. Forgive them. Move on."
Even the mere thought of that night left Nahlia feeling weak and hollow. She never wanted to feel that way again. She had sought out Ethermancy to become stronger. To become less of a pacifist.
"I can't do that," she said.
"Of course," Marwyn replied. "No shame in admitting that."
The city faded to black, and she felt the cushioned chair beneath her once again. The sensation was abrupt, like being jolted awake from a deep sleep.
When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see the last of the evening sun shining through the room's small windows. They couldn't have been gone for more than a few minutes.
Marwyn was already on his feet. "Should get back to work. Much to do."
Nahlia nodded wearily as she turned to leave. "Thank you for your time, Master."