Nahlia sat propped up in a sterile, white-sheeted bed. The pervasive tang of antiseptic filled the air, and the crystal lanterns glowed too-brightly above, irritating her already-throbbing head.
A thin, blue curtain was all that separated her from the rest of the infirmary. It was quiet but for the distant echo of footsteps and murmured conversations throughout the main chamber. Most of it came from the healing students, but she heard Marwyn's voice as well, lecturing and complaining in his usual snappy tone.
Elias and Relyn had been there when she awoke the previous night. It helped to see friendly faces, what with the images of the battleground still so fresh in her mind. Even as she drifted back from of her blissful unawareness, memories of motion and pain had assailed her in a relentless flood. The clash of steel, the pain of the poison, and the look of pure malice on Ciena's face as she hurled her into the stone wall.
Now, the mere sight of her wounds was enough to fill her mouth with the taste of blood. She couldn't close her eyes without seeing shredded skin and muscle. Even her sleep was disrupted by memories of war. Not just from the battlegrounds, but older memories that seemed to grow in strength. The sounds of firearms in a dark forest, her father swinging his hatchet, and her home burning in the night.
With so little company, Nahlia kept herself busy with her mother's old journal. Apparently, Ethermancy had still been outlawed twenty-five years ago when she wrote this, but not to the point where the masters denied its existence outright. Her mother had referenced dozens of old books during her study, referencing meditation and the three orders of Ethermancers. Clearly, this type of information was far more abundant back then.
She was halfway through the journal when Elias's voice called out to her from outside the room.
"Hey, Nahlia, are you decent in there?"
Nahlia sat up straighter and tightened the drawstrings of her robe. "Yes," she hollered back. "Come in."
Elias pushed the curtain aside and sauntered into the room. He wore his black dueling fatigues, and his blonde hair hung disheveled over his forehead.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Better." She rolled her shoulders. "Marwyn wants to run a few more tests today, but I'll be good to go after that."
"What? That long?" Elias grinned, taking a seat beside the bed. " Here I was expecting to see you in the Gorge this morning."
Nahlia started to laugh, then she winced, raising a hand to her split lip. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear. I may be a quick healer, but I can't fix things as fast as your sister can break them."
She meant for the comment to sound lighthearted, but Elias's face sagged. "I talked with Ciena this morning during combat training. It sounds like you won't need to worry about her anymore."
"You mean they suspended her from the battlegrounds?"
"I think 'banned' was the word she used. More importantly, she feels terrible about what she did to you."
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "She said that?"
"Well, no." He scratched his head. "She'd never admit it, but it's true all the same."
"Regardless..." Nahlia chewed on the unbroken part of her lip, staring at the flowing patterns of the curtains. " I don't think I'm fighting in the battlegrounds again."
His lips twitched downward. "Wait—what?"
She turned to look at him, eyes serious.
Elias drew in a deep breath. "Look... you got a bad first impression yesterday. And I take full responsibility for what happened to you. I should never have encouraged you to keep fighting once you were down. it was dangerous, and—"
"No." Nahlia shook her head. "It's alright. This isn't about you. Or your sister."
"Then what is it about? Because it's normal to be shaken up after your first match. It happens to everyone."
"It just felt wrong," she explained. "Fighting... hurting people... all of it."
"I don't understand. Isn't this is what you wanted?"
That much was certainly true, or at least it had been. When she first came to Whitecliff, she had been angry and afraid. Afraid of the Templars, of Ciena, even the White Council. She assumed learning how to fight would make her feel safe again. Instead, itmade her feel worse than ever.
"I made a mistake," Nahlia finally said. "I can learn to swing a sword like the rest of you, but I'd be going against my nature if I did."
"Are you sure that's it? Because this decision seems very sudden to me."
The look in those golden eyes was a little too sympathetic for her liking. Elias thought he understood her, but he couldn't. Not when he had studied combat his whole life.
"I'm not quitting because I'm scared," she said flatly.
"I didn't say that." He waved his arms back and forth in denial.
"You didn't have to. It's written all over your face."
Elias shook his head. "Look—even if you are, I'm not judging you. I just want to make sure you're doing this for the right reasons. You have potential."
Nahlia grimaced. "To hurt people, you mean."
"To protect people from the Templars. That's the whole reason we're training here."
"I do want to protect people," Nahlia said. "But I'd rather do it without having to kill someone else."
He twisted his lips, holding back his retort.
"Just say it." Nahlia crossed her arms. "You think I'm wrong. You think violence is the only way we'll ever be free from the Templars."
"Well," he began, "It's not like we're the ones instigating these skirmishes. You of all people should know that. The Templars came to your home and tried to murder you. Twice. And if I recall, my mother used violence to save you."
"And I was grateful for that," Nahlia said. "But she killed half a dozen others to do it. There must have been a better way."
"Maybe." Elias shrugged. "But if she spared those Templars, what's to stop them from going on to kill even more Aeons?"
"And isn't that why the Templars hunt us in the first place?" Nahlia retorted. "Because of what we 'might' do to them someday?"
Elias seemed to consider that for a moment, but he was spared the need to reply when the bells rang in the tower outside.
"I should get to class," he said, rising from his chair. "But I still hope you reconsider about the battlegrounds. The clan would miss having you here, and so would I."
Nahlia remained bedridden for the rest of the day. Despite everything, she didn't give up on herself. While she may have lost her will to fight, she still had her mysterious healing ability—an ability she still knew next to nothing about. She needed Marwyn's help if she wanted to learn more. For that, she needed to impress him.
So Nahlia took advantage of her free schedule and began practicing meditation, using her mother's journal as a guide. It was difficult at first, with every thought and emotion running wild in her head. Guilt. Regret. Insecurity. Even when she quieted those thoughts, the sounds of the infirmary grew louder by comparison. Worst of all, her wounds seemed to scream at her far louder than before. Her broken ribs made it difficult to achieve a steady breath, and the scabs on face constantly demanded to be itched.
'Don't try to ignore the interruptions,' the journal had said. 'Doing so will only ground your mind further in the physical world. Instead, try acknowledging the sensations one by one, then letting them fade.'
She continued this practice over the next few days. By now, Marwyn had released her from the infirmary but still excused her from all physical activities. This gave her an abundance of free time in the early mornings while the other battleclan members ran the Gorge.
'Meditation is different for every Aeon, and each person must find his or her own path into the Ethereal. Some prefer meditating to music, others prefer nature and open air. For me, It's the flow of water. I've always found the Undersprings to be the most peaceful place in the entire enclave.'
Not much had changed since her mother's day. The hot springs below the Archives were quiet and warm. The one place in Whitecliff where she could concentrate free of distractions.
Every day, Nahlia sat cross-legged on the stone floor of the cave, closing her eyes and letting the soft rhythm of the water put her at ease. Eventually, she was able to synchronize her thoughts, her breathing, and her heartbeat into one perfect symphony. They moved in a complex, chaotic dance throughout the ether of her mind, flowing this way and that, never falling into one predictable pattern. The experience was almost hypnotic, drowning out the pain of her physical body. Sometimes hours passed and felt like mere minutes. It was like being asleep while also being more awake than ever.
Over time, Nahlia began to sense a greater underlying pattern to the way her thoughts moved. They only seemed chaotic because their movements were infinitely complex. But beneath it all was a flowing current.
After three days of constant practice, she achieved a state of true clarity and calm. Every thought, sensation, and emotion passed by like snowflakes in the wind. Nahlia herself was a torch, burning bright in the center of that blizzard. Aware of even the subtlest changes—bending to the force of the wind, but never extinguishing or following it completely.
'Once you can see your thoughts objectively, find a familiar place to focus your attention. Visualize the memories as detailed as you can. They will serve as the beacon that guides you into the Ethereal.'
Nahlia continued to follow the journal's advice, lacing her thoughts with easy memories. Walking through the streets of Northshire, perusing the library, serving tables at the Moonstone. The memories grew more vivid with each breath, illuminated by some unseen force, like stepping out under a summer sun.
She followed the current of thought deeper into the epicenter of her mind, surrendering herself to its pull. The deeper she fell, the more intangible her body became, merely a vessel to be left behind. Her body tried to resist, but the journal had prepared her for this too:
'Fear resides in every Aeon's heart. Not a fear of failure, but a fear that we are powerful beyond measure. More afraid of light than of darkness, we hide and make ourselves small in the shadows. But being small does not serve the world. We are the sons and daughters of Aegon himself. He gave us a small piece of his power, and it's up to us to make manifest of it. Humility is a virtue, but there's also a time to shine.'
The physical world faded with each deep breath she took. A part of her was terrified at the prospect of leaving, but the fear was just one more emotion caught up in the vast current. She acknowledged it, then let it fade.
Nahlia took one last breath, passing through the gate where the current ended.
Finally, she opened her eyes to find herself standing in the Ethereal.