After a quick bite of dinner, Nahlia shuffled through a snow-covered courtyard toward the chapel. Elveron's lectures were twice a week, though they weren't classes in the usual sense. There were no exams or essays, nor did the Headmaster engage them in any active discussion. They simply sat and listened as he read the Testaments of Aegon, instructing them to live their lives according to his plan.
The chapel itself lay at the heart of Whitecliff, its twin spires towering over the other rooftops. Nahlia stomped the snow from her boots in the antechamber before heading down the polished marble aisle. Candlelight painted the nave in flickering shades of orange, a stunning contrast against the cool stained-glass windows.
Elias Raider lounged in the back row away from the general murmur of conversation. He wore a formal jacket of dark leather trimmed with cloth of gold.
Nahlia slid in beside him on the oaken pew. "I saw Marwyn today." She kept her voice just above a whisper.
His jacket creaked as he sat up straighter. "And?"
"He refused to train me unless I can meditate into the Ethereal ... back to the night my mother died." Nahlia gave him a sideways glance. "But you knew this would happen, didn't you?"
When Elias didn't answer, she continued. "He mentioned others before me. I know you were one of them."
"It was years ago. After..." He made an inarticulate gesture, probably hinting at the library's missing books. "He told me the same thing he told you. Except I had to recreate the night my uncle drove us from Raidenwood."
"Let me guess," Nahlia said, "he wanted you to forgive him."
"Seems to be a common theme."
I tried for weeks," he said, "but I couldn't even get into the Ethereal, much less conjure the memory. After a while, it all felt like a waste of time; like Marwyn gave me an impossible task so I'd leave him alone."
Nahlia shrugged a vague agreement. "You could've warned me, you know."
"I didn't want to discourage you. I thought you might succeed where I failed."
She looked away, studying the intricate windows and their depictions of the Archaeons. Raiden with his sword of red Etherite. Treluwyn healing the fatal wound of a fallen soldier.
"Well, you were right the first time," she murmured. "He gave us an impossible task."
"Maybe. I still figured it was worth a try. You're different from the other students here."
Before he could reply, Relyn Vash slid into the pew on his left.
"Well," Elias said with a look of smug satisfaction. "Look who's late today
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I barely had time to change after training. It's not my fault they make the women wear dresses in chapel."
Elias chuckled. "Elveron loves his traditions. He looked back to Nahlia in her sapphire dress "I know I'm not complaining."
They continued talking, and Nahlia retreated to her own thoughts. She sank deeper in her seat, opening another history book she'd borrowed from the library. Even if Marwyn was a dead end. she couldn't lose sight of her goals here.
Only a few seconds passed before Relyn whispered, "I wouldn't let Elveron catch you reading in here."
Nahlia groaned, gently closing the book just as the Headmaster passed through the center aisle. "You mean he won't let us do anything productive while we're here."
Both Elias and Relyn leaned forward, looking at her as if she were a heathen.
"Sorry." She bit the inside of her cheek. "I probably shouldn't say that in here either."
"Maybe not so loud." Elias shot a glance to the front of the chapel where Elveron was situating himself behind the podium. "But don't worry; it's been centuries since anyone's been imprisoned for heresy. You're allowed to disagree."
"How generous of them." She slid the book back in her satchel. "It's just that I already know these stories. My mother read them to me when I was six. They were well enough as children's stories, but I wouldn't dedicate three hours a week to studying them."
"So you don't believe in Aegon then?" Relyn asked.
"I do," Nahlia said. "I also believe in hurricanes and blizzards. Should I trust one of those just because a book says so? Should I pray to one just because an old man in a robe says I should?"
"Seems a little harsh," Elias said. "But I suppose you were raised among humans."
He shrugged. "They tend to prefer hard logic and science over faith.
"I could say the same for you then," Nahlia retorted. "Being raised among Aeons might prevent you from thinking for yourselves."
"Hmm. "Elias gave a thoughtful nod. "Fair enough, I suppose.."
"And it wasn't just my father who raised me," Nahlia continued. "My mother was a devout follower of Aegon. She taught to me to pray twice a day, and I did. Right up until the night the Templars raided our home and murdered her. After my father and I escaped, I stayed awake all night praying to Aegon, begging him to bring her back."
She paused and gave them each a meaningful look "Want to guess how that story ended?"
Relyn lowered her eyes. "I don't think it works that way."
"Then how does it work?" Nahlia kept her voice quiet and controlled, but her breath grew short and he palms began to sweat. "Aeons are supposed to be the world's chosen leaders, yet he sits back in Eternity while the humans hunt and butcher us."
Elias hesitated, and she could almost see him picking out his words before he spoke. "I know this isn't what you want to hear, but many scholars believe he uses hardship to make us stronger. The same way a blacksmith tempers steel."
"That's stupid," Nahlia said. "You're stronger than me, and both of your parents are still alive."
She knew he wasn't really referring to physical strength. Perhaps she was stronger of resolve than he was. Even so, that was a terrible excuse for such cruelty, and a price she'd have never willingly pay.
Elias and Relyn were spared the need to reply as the Headmaster spoke up. "Good evening everyone." His voice carried easily over the crowd, echoing throughout the chapel's high ceilings "Tonight, we will continue where we left off on Truludal, in the Testament of Virtue, 7:9. I'm sure most of you know this story, but for those who don't, it's the story of our ancestors, the first people to enter the Ethereal. Better known today as the seven Archaeons."
A ritualistic silence fell over the room, quiet enough to hear Elveron turn the pages of his time.
Finally, he began to read. "And so great Aegon sat upon his throne, high in Eternity he watched the world that he had shaped and formed so long ago. He saw the humans in their struggles and their plights. Unable to prosper, unable to thrive. They clung to the desires of the land. Willful pride and worldly delights.
"But Aegon, ever wise and merciful, chose not to blame them for their follies. Instead, he sent them seven guides to carry them forward and awaken their minds. Great Aegon called forth seven humans from the seven realms. Four from the west and three from the east. He lead them deep into the realm of dreams, and here they were reborn in his image and power. He called them Aeons, meaning his children and his followers. His heralds and his messengers."
Elveron continued talking for the better part of an hour, reading the stories of the seven Archaeons and their associated virtues. Some Nahlia knew from history such as Rivian and Palatine who went on to become great emperors. Others, she knew from mythology: Treluwyn, Raiden, and Kalazhan who went on to found the three orders of Ethermancers."
The Headmaster closed the book, indicating the shift from the Testaments to his own words.
He straightened his posture, taking a few slow steps away from the podium. "Everyone in this room can trace their lineage back to at least one of the seven. We may not have their names, but we have their blood. And It is said that if one wishes to live his life in the way Aegon intended, he should live by the virtues assigned to his ancestors.
"Alas, we also have the blood of men in our veins. And where there is virtue, there is also weakness. To make matters more complicated, Aegon gave us free will. The right to choose whether we place our faith in him, or in ourselves. This makes our everyday choices essential. It is through our choices that we make this world better or worse. Aegon may have created the world, but he entrusted it to us. Now it's no more or no less than what we make of it."