Nahlia followed Elias down the dark corridor of the master's tower. It was past tenth bell, and their footsteps filled the silence, broken up by the distant roar of thunder and rain on the high roof.
"This is it." He stopped in front of the door, pulling out the key he'd procured earlier that day. After a bit fumbling, the latch opened with a satisfying click.
Zidane's office was as cluttered as it had been on her last visit. Stacks of books covered every surface, forming jagged silhouettes in the darkness. Moonlight slipped in through the curtain's gaps, dust motes dancing in the pale beams.
Elias stepped behind the wooden desk, picking up what looked like a sulfur match.
"I wouldn't do that." Nahlia made a sharp gesture to the window. "Someone might see the light."
"Ah." Elias lowered the match, amusement touching the corners of his lips. "Forgive me. It's my first time skulking about like this." He sounded so calm, far calmer than she felt.
"Well, Nahlia said, "I'm definitely no expert either." She drew the curtains back just enough to let in the light of the courtyard. Rain clattered against the windows, blurring the horizon in a gray haze.
Elias began picking up books at random. "I assume what we're looking for isn't just hiding in plain sight..."
Nahlia made for one of the cabinets that loomed against the back wall. Carved of polish oak, it was big enough to hide a horse. The steel handles sat stubbornly in place, resisting her pull.
She turned to Elias who was now perusing the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. "I don't suppose you have a key for this too?"
He shook his head as he stepped over to join her. "I doubt anyone but Zidane has the key to that."
"Well then... " Nahlia pulled a pair of hairpins from her braid, letting it fall freely around her neck. "I guess we'll just have to make do."
Elias took the pins uncertainly, like a child holding silverware for the first time.
"They're for picking the lock," she explained. "My father and I used to do this when we lost the extra room keys."
"Are you sure you're not an expert at this?" He grinned, still holding the pins out.. "Why don't you do it?"
"I never said I was any good." Nahlia wrung her hands, looking every bit the helpless damsel. "You, on the other hand, seem to succeed at everything."
Apparently satisfied with the compliment, he knelt down and set to work.
Nahlia shuffled back to the monstrous desk that dominated the other side of the room. It might've been faster to pick the lock herself, but she needed Elias distracted while she found the map.
The yellowed parchment sat buried beneath a stack of other charts on the stone floor. It had everything Thane had asked for. Not just the enclave's location, but a list of possible paths through the mountain range, and the system of caverns beneath.
This was it. Everything she needed to save her father and finally be done with this.
She reached out to fold up the map, but ice filled her from head to heel. If she took this, she would truly be a traitor to her race. Thane had promised to stop the Templars, but what if he failed? How many more deaths would be on her hands?
Nahlia thought beyond the masters and the battleclans to all the innocents who lived in this enclave. Children, families, farmers, craftsmen, scholars, and healers. Many of them had lived here peacefully their entire lives, with no hope of surviving in this new world the humans had created. Even if Thane stopped the Templars now, it was only a matter of time until they came back.
A creek sounded as Elias opened the wooden cabinet. Started by the noise, Nahlia shoved the map in her satchel without a second thought.
As expected, more books and scrolls lined the inner shelves. They perused the titles in silence, eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. Most volumes looked historical in nature. Too controversial for the library, perhaps?
"That's it." Elias retrieved a thick tome from one of the higher shelves. The cover was crimson-dyed leather with a golden blade embossed on its cover.
Nahlia stood on her tiptoes and read the title over his shoulder. The Justicar's Heir. "This is what they took from the library?
He nodded, thumbing through the brittle pages. They contained detailed illustrations and diagrams. Not just theories on Ethermancy, but actual instructions on how to perform it.
"I can't believe it," he whispered. "Zidane had it locked up here this whole time."
Despite everything, Nahlia felt a grin rise to her face.
He sat the book on a nearby table and pulled down several more tomes from the same shelf. Some related to the Ethereal, Others related to the three orders of Ethermancers.
Amidst the pile, Nahlia found a book with a plain leather cover, about the size of a small sketchbook. She leafed through the pages, finding the words written in pencil instead of ink. And that handwriting... she had seen it before.
Tall, curving strokes, as delicate as flowers in the wind. She had seen this in the letters from an Aeon noblewoman to her Templar lover so many years ago. She had seen it in the notes and recipes scattered amongst her cottage on Raidenwood's eastern borders.
Elias looked up from the pile. "What is it?"
Nahlia hurried over to the window, confirming her suspicions in the faint light. That wasn't some Ethermancy textbook taken from the library. It was a journal, and it belonged to her mother.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor outside.
Nahlia froze and found Elias's gaze. Neither spoke or moved.
Their visitor drew closer, and the pair broke into motion, Nahlia closing the curtains and Elias gathering up the books.
The footsteps halted outside, and the door handle began to turn.
"Damnit." Elias beckoned her over. "Get in, quick."
Nahlia leaped for the cabinet and slipped in beside him. They closed the door just as the outer one swung open.
A figure entered the room, too dark to make out through the door's tiny holes. The curtains drew back in a ruffle of fabric, light pouring back into the room once again.
Nahlia felt Elias turn his head behind her. She raised her eyes to meet his, echoes of unspoken questions trembling on her lips. Who else has a key to this room? A cleaner? An assistant of Zidane's? Another of the masters?
A short pause, then the footsteps grew closer still, stepping toward the row of cabinets.
Oh, Aegon. Her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. Elias put a steadying hand around her waist, urging her to be still.
To their left, another cabinet shook as the visitor tried the door.
Nahlia held her breath and screwed her eyes shut. If they were caught, everything could end in a heartbeat. She had the map in her satchel, giving the Council everything they needed to imprison or execute her.
Just turn around ... just turn around.
A second cabinet shook, and she knew theirs would be next.
There was only one way out of this now—one thing that might serve as a distraction for whoever caught them.
Nahlia turned back to Elias and raised her lips halfway to his, hoping against hope that he would take the hint. Her heart threw itself against her ribs, and her knees shook hard enough to collapse beneath her.
Elias reacted faster than she could've imagined. His hands tightened around her waist and he pulled her closer, pressing his lips down to hers.