Zidane strode through the open doorway with a pair of Templar bodyguards in tow. Two more stood like sentries at either edge of the door while the rest prodded Nahlia and Thane inside.
Nahlia considered taking this chance to run, but where could she go? She couldn't help Elias and Ciena if she was fleeing from Zidane and these false-Templars. Besides, a part of her needed answers. She'd had this necklace her whole life. Now, not only was it a priceless piece of Ethereum, it was also the key to a locked door beneath Whitecliff. Relyn Vash once told her that her ancestors were the founders of this enclave. Did they build this door? If so, why?
Whatever the reason, Zidane had sacrificed hundreds of lives to get this far. She needed to stop him. She could only hope Thane's goals aligned with hers. Even after all this time, she had no idea what his true intentions were.
Nahlia retrieved her necklace from the keyhole and followed Thane inside. The chamber beyond was even larger than she'd expected. Statues of hooded figures dominated every corner, towering above them toward the high-vaulted ceilings. Fresco paintings covered the walls, depicting a scene of meteors falling from the night sky.
In the center of the room sat a stone coffin as big as a wagon. A series of strange glyphs decorated its cover, too ancient and weathered for her to make sense of. Judging by the style and language, this tomb was far older than Whitecliff. Several thousand years at her best guess.
After a few minutes of taking in their surroundings, Zidane knelt at the foot of the coffin and brushed away a thick layer of dust. He pushed on what looked like a pressure plate, and the coffin doors pivoted open just as the door to the chamber had. Nahlia leaned closer, expecting to see a skeleton or a mummy inside. Maybe even treasures, or the belongings of whoever was buried here.
Instead, she saw a single artifact, about the size and shape of an apple. The facets were solid black, and the edges were as smooth as freshly cut obsidian. Stranger still, she heard the whispers of a strange, archaic language. The voices spoke inside her head, yet far away. Soft and tempting as falling snow, but hard and urgent as thunder in her chest.
It felt like Ethereum, but infinitely more powerful. The whispers drew her nearer, urging her to touch the artifact and claim its knowledge for her own. Nahlia took a single step forward, but Zidane's guards raised their weapons at her.
"Stay where you are," the unarmed Ethermancer said beneath his Templar helmet.
Nahlia recoiled, turning to Thane instead. "What is that?"
"It's a Codex," he whispered.
She furrowed her brow. "A what?"
Thane raked a hand through his onyx hair as if searching for an explanation."It's a repository of knowledge. Similar to Ethereum ... but instead of connecting two living minds, this connects a living mind to someone who's dead. To the echo of their thoughts left behind in the Ethereal." His gaze wandered around for a brief moment. "Judging by the age of this tomb, I'd say it's from the time of the seven Archaeons."
"Very good," Zidane said without looking up. "Clearly, you had better teachers that the ones in this enclave. They believe knowledge is a thing to be feared here. We know better, of course."
The Chronicler retrieved the Codex from its pedestal and turned around. "There are powerful Ethermancers alive today, yourselves included. But even the strongest of us are nothing but children with toys compared to the prowess of the Archaeons. The powers of the past were entirely beyond our comprehension." He raised the dark artifact in his palm. "Until now."
The whispers assaulted her mind, and the tomb's icy chill cut down to her bones. Nahlia's mind raced back to her first few days in the enclave, and the story Relyn Vash had told her. Someone from Clan Palatine had tried to attack this place over a century ago. He pulled Lyra Trelian into the Ethereal and tortured her for Whitecliff's location. He believed there was something buried here—a weapon he could use to extend his empire from the East.
When Nahlia first heard that story, she thought history was repeating itself with her and Thane. But no ... something else was happening here. Something bigger than them. Something bigger than this war between Templars and Aeons.
No foreigner had ever been strong enough to march on Reverie before. Not when the clans had been united under the Aeon Imperium. Now they were divided; Aeons against humans. After twenty years of infighting, Palatine didn't need an army to take what he wanted now. He just needed one man to scour the ashes.
"Great," Thane spoke up. "You have what you came for. Now, what do you want with us?"
"You'll accompany me to see my master," Zidane replied. "We'll have need of Ethermancers in the coming wars. Besides, we both know your father sent you here for this. I can't let you go free."
"Your master," Nahlia echoed. "You mean Palatine?"
Thane shot her a confused look.
Zidane gave them a knowing smile. "I understand your concern. The reigning clans of Palaver receive a bad reputation in this part of the world. As you've seen with Ethermancy ... people fear what they don't understand. But our leaders have the best interest of all Aeondom in mind. Can you honestly say that about this enclave's leadership?"
"You are this enclave's leadership" Nahlia shot back. "And more than half the combatants died because of you."
He let out a heavy sigh. "Their deaths were regrettable ... but necessary. Isolation has weakened them these past twenty years, but this conflict will awaken them. They will fight, and the strongest will survive, just as the two of you have survived this far."
The Chronicler stepped closer, speaking with slow precision. "Don't tell me you haven't felt it, Nahlia Trelian. You've grown stronger every day since the Templars came for you in Northshire. If they hadn't found you that night, you would still be that timid barmaid who froze in the face of conflict. You would have grown old and died in that village, never discovering your true potential."
Nahlia opened her mouth to reply again, then closed it. She still didn't agree with Zidane, but arguing would accomplish nothing now.
"Perhaps" she replied. "I'll consider what you've said."
"Good." Zidane said with a curt nod. "Then let us leave this place." His dark cloak whispered across the floor as he made for the exit. His guards circled Nahlia and Thane.
A thin film of sweat collected on her hairline as she turned to him. "We can't let Zidane escape with this," she whispered. "And we might never get another chance to stop him."
Thane's eyes scanned the room, and she knew what he must be thinking. Six guards, with another two outside. At least one was an Ethermancer.
"I'm not sure I can take them all," he said.
"We," Nahlia corrected.
Thane raised an eyebrow at her.
"Long story," she said. "Can you trust me?"
He nodded without hesitation as the Templars closed in.
"You two," one of the gunmen spoke up for the first time. "Enough talking."
Thane didn't take his eyes off Nahlia. "I'd take cover if I were you."
"Hey." The Templar stomped over. "Did you hear what I said?"
Everything happened at once after that. The Templar moved to strike Thane with the butt of his rifle. Thane caught the man's arm, and a blade emerged from within his dark sleeve. He buried it in the man's jugular, releasing a red fountain of blood.
The room went dark as half the crystals were drained of light. Nahlia raced for cover behind a pillar as fire flashed on all sides. All four gunmen toppled over when Thane hit them with his flares.
A stray blast caught Nahlia's shoulder, and she smothered the flames beneath her cloak. Her eyes burned as they bathed the chamber with flashes of red and orange. Even from several feet away, she felt the heat of a bonfire on her cheeks.
Thane exchanged blows with at least two other Ethermancers. They made perries, feints, and counter-attacks. Fire sailed around pillars, cackling and roaring in her ears.
Thane was holding his own against the false-Templars until Zidane re-reappeared in the doorway.
Thane ran for cover, and the Chronicler sent a ball of flame searing through his leg. Another took him in the chest as he toppled over on his side.
Nahlia knew what she had to do, and she only had seconds to do it. She heaved in a breath from her necklace and bound the energy to Thane's body. She imagined away his pain, sealed his wounds, and chased out the damage of the flames.