Tenth bell had come and gone by the time Nahlia made it back to the women's sleep hall. Unlike the battleclan plateaus, the rooms here were wide open floors with little privacy to speak of. A dozen bunks lined either side with narrow windows filling the gaps between them.
Some students like Nahlia were here by choice. Others like Ciena Raider landed here because they'd broken rules. Nahlia had heard the upper-students call them "clanless," though they never used that term in front of the masters. Her new bunkmates were still official members of the academy, but with far fewer privileges than the clans. As such, most seemed trapped in a downward spiral of underachievement, rarely taking the time to train or study.
The wooden floors creaked beneath her boots as she shuffled down the crowded aisle. A few girls were lounging or sleeping in their bunks, but most were still up and chatting in various groups
Nahlia knelt down at the foot of her bed and opened the cedar chest that held her belongings. She rummaged through stacks of clothing until she caught a glimmer in the lamplight. Her mother's necklace, pure silver and carved in the shape of a crescent moon.
Or at least ... it looked silver. But what if it were something more? Could Etherite take the guise of a different metal? The idea seemed ridiculous, but how else could Thane have communed with her? The necklace was her only possession to survive the trip from Northshire. Marwyn had removed it four days ago in the infirmary, and she hadn't heard from Thane since.
The fact that it was a family heirloom only solidified her theory. Her ancestor, Lyra Trelian, had also been summoned by a stranger in the Ethereal. For all Nahlia knew, she was wearing this exact necklace the night she was murdered.
Of course, this was all speculation. She wouldn't know for sure until she tried to summon Thane.
The floor shook as someone came stomping up the stairwell. Ciena. Only Ciena ever clomped around like that.
A chorus of snickering erupted from the other students. Nahlia shoved the necklace in her parka and stood, heading over to see what the commotion was about.
Ciena Raider stood in the center aisle between bunks, staring down at... something. Nahlia had to weave her way back through the crowd to see.
The linens on her bed were shredded into ribbons. Even the pillows were torn and emptied of down.
Aegon, Nahlia thought. She'd heard the others whispering about Ciena, plotting to get back at her for the way she'd treated them before. She never thought they'd go this far.
Ciena stood frozen in place. A great predator, cowed between a wild pack of wolves and a wall of ice. Nahlia could practically see the predicament in those golden eyes. Sit down on the stripped bed, and look weak? Or threaten the room in general, and still look weak?
The others must've seen the same thing because they all huddled around expectantly. Ciena could probably hold her own against them, but at what cost? The masters already banned her from the battlegrounds. They'd probably expel her from the academy if she hurt anyone else.
Act in violence, incite violence in others. Promote peace and compassion, and others will follow.
Marwyn's lessons from earlier echoed in her mind as she stood there watching with the others. Apart of her wanted to see Ciena get expelled. And why not? Didn't she deserve it after attacking an unarmed opponent? Not to mention the way she treated her leading up to their match.
Nahlia smoldered the thought before it could take root. She had to be better than that if she ever wanted to make a difference. She'd seen enough violence and vengeance and wanted no part of it. She turned around and grabbed the blankets and pillow from her own bunk and pushed through the crowd.
"Here." Nahlia approached the taller girl. "Take mine."
Ciena glanced down at the offering, her brow furrowing in suspicion. "I don't want your things, Half-blood."
Nahlia shrugged. "I probably won't get much sleep tonight anyway. Please, just take them."
Ciena remained as still as a tombstone, lips pulled back in a grimace. Nahlia stood her ground as well.
"Fine." Ciena took the bundle and made a swatting motion. "Now leave me alone."
"Ciena." Nahlia hesitated, glancing down at her boots. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"About what happened in the battlegrounds."
"You're apologizing to me?" She pushed aside a wet strand of crimson hair from her eyes. "For Aegon's sake, have you even looked in a mirror lately?"
"I provoked you." Nahlia lowered her voice, hoping it would discourage the onlookers. "You beat me fairly the first few times, but I had an unfair advantage. So I'm sorry you ended up here. If I could take it all back, I never would have fought in the battlegrounds"
Ciena's eyes softened for a split-second, then she looked back at her bunk with a shrug. "Thanks for the blanket."
Down in the warmth and calm of the Undersprings, Nahlia sat cross-legged on the smooth stone floor of the cavern. She took a deep breath, clearing her mind, focusing on her goal. When she exhaled, she felt a presence there—another Aeon's consciousness floating just beyond her mental horizon.
It's Thane. It has to be.
The sensation was subtle, and she might have missed it if she hadn't experienced it before with Marwyn. Nahlia latched into him as her mind made its slow way from the physical world into the Ethereal.
She found herself in the Moonstone Inn, taking in the feelings of home. The warmth of the fireplace on her cheeks, the scents of steaming hot soup and baking bread. The mahogany bar and colored glass bottles gleaming in the lamplight
Nahlia took a seat on one of the stools and waited.
Several heartbeats passed, then Thane materialized in front of her out of thin air. His back was to her—dark hair and a stiff black cloak.
"Meditating into the Ethereal," he said as he turned around. "You've gotten good."
"I've been practicing." Nahlia inclined her head slightly.
He nodded. "I'm just glad you're alright. When I couldn't contact you, I feared the worst."
"I know," she replied. "But you should have told me about the necklace."
She wanted to ask him a hundred other questions. Where had a match for her heirloom? How did he know it would work? What was the point of keeping it all a secret? But no ... the more she let him talk, the more opportunities he'd have to change her mind.
Nahlia gave a sharp exhale and continued, "I just came here to tell you I can't do this anymore."
There was a short pause as Thane took a seat beside her at the bar. "Can't do what?"
"All of this." She spread out her palms on the mahogany surface. "Lying to the Aeons of Whiteclif, spying on them, feeding you information."
Thane sighed, raking a hand through his onyx hair. "Alright, whatever's going on, we can work through it. I made a deal with the Templar commander. If we just—"
"No," Nahlia shook her head. "No more deals. Especially not with the Templars."
"And what about our deal?" Thane retorted. "What about your father?"
"I should never have agreed to that in the first place," she said. "I was scared... and on the run. I thought I was doing the right thing. but... I can't. I won't trade his freedom for the lives of everyone in Whitecliff."
"Then what are you going to do? Keep attending your lessons, pretending everything's fine?"
"No," Nahlia said. "I'll go to Headmaster Elveron and tell him everything. That's what I should have done the second I arrived here."
She expected Thane to protest further. To negotiate with her, threaten her, or tell her she was making a mistake. She expected to see concern in his eyes, but his expression looked ... relieved?
Nahlia bit her lip, glancing from side to side, waiting for him to say something.
"That's it?" she finally asked. "You aren't going to stop me?"
"How? Seems to me you've already made up your mind."
"I have," Nahlia said, still eyeing him warily. How could he be so calm? This enclave was all he could talk about for the past three weeks, and now it was like he didn't even care.
Did he intend to trap her here, the way Palatine had trapped Lyra Trelian? Nahlia felt a surge of horror at the thought of someone finding her unconscious body in the Undersprings.
She immediately stood and took several steps back, for all the good that would do.
Thane raised an eyebrow. "I'm not going to hurt you, Nahlia. You're free to go."
Just like that? Nahlia stretched out her mind to feel her physical body again. Yes ... she could return right now if she had to. Maybe some things were just superstition, after all.
"I'm sorry for going back on our deal," she said. "But I'm trying to do the right thing. I hope you do the same. My father could still use your help."
Thane remained silent, with no indication of his intentions. Nahlia let herself fade and wake from the dream.