Thane sat cross-legged on his bedroll, unfastening the burlap sack in front of him, revealing a glimpse of the mysterious artifact within. He'd seen a Codex before, but never so close as this. The black surface was as smooth as a frozen river and dark as a moonless night.
As if sensing his presence, the artifact began to whisper in its archaic tongue. At first, the sound seemed far away like a distant wind, then it grew closer and more urgent like thunder crashing against his skull.
Elias and Relyn must have heard it too because they both turned to face him.
"What the hell is that?" Elias asked.
"You know what this is," Thane said without looking up. His index finger grazed the cool surface and unspeakable scenes flashed in his mind's eye. Fire. Murder. Destruction. One after the other in rapid succession.
Thane yanked his hand back and wiped a layer of sweat from his brow.
Aegon, no wonder Nahlia was afraid of this thing.
She'd only touched it once—the day she took it from Zidane in the tomb. Thane hadn't seen her reaction then, just her reluctance to speak of it in the weeks that followed, which seemed strange considering her general interest in Ethermancy and other forbidden knowledge.
Of course, Nahlia also had a blatant distrust for him when it came to this. They both knew Thane's father was after the Codex, but neither of them said so aloud. It had been the mammoth between them ever since they left Whitecliff. Thane wanted to assure her that he'd never give this to his father, but what if that was a lie? They couldn't hold on to it forever. Not with Palatine, Zidane, and those Sile'zhar hunting them.
The last thing Dragonshard needed was more power. Even worse if his father planned to make a deal with the very people who pursued them. But if not his own nation, then who? It wasn't like there were any peaceful factions lining up to use the knowledge for good. Whitecliff had been the closest thing.
And what a fine job they did holding onto this.
Thane shook the thoughts away; he was getting ahead of himself. He had to find out what secrets this Codex held before he made any decisions.
The whispers grew fainter, and he released a breath.
Elias continued pacing back and forth in front of the sunset, casting a long, obnoxious shadow over the camp. He looked like he might charge into Raidenwood on his own.
"You might as well sit down," Thane told him. "Nahlia's contacting me tonight. There's nothing we can do before then."
"I'll relax once she's back," Elias said without breaking stride. "I can't believe we sent her there alone, to the most dangerous part of the city."
"She can take care of herself," Thane said. "Knowing Nahlia, she'll probably hurt someone first and then apologize for it afterward."
"I know she's powerful," Elias said. "I saw her hold her own against that Sile'zhar. But still... how many powerful Aeons were overwhelmed during the Purge?"
"Wow." Thane turned to meet Relyn's eyes. "And you say I'm the grim one around here."
Elias saw Nahlia the same way she saw herself. Neither of them truly understood Ethermancy and its disregard for good intentions. Performing supernatural feats was an achievement, but opening your mind to power was but the first page of a lengthy tome. Discipline and control were another matter—those took a lifetime to catch a glimpse of mastery.
Speaking of discipline, he was getting distracted again.
Thane turned his attention back to the Codex. He was about to close his eyes and start meditating when Relyn took a seat on the ground beside him. They were close enough to rub elbows, and he had to remind himself that Valaysians had different rules when it came to personal space.
"You said this belonged to one of the Archaeons?" she asked.
"Zidane seemed to think so," Thane said. "And every other Codex I know of belonged to an Archaeon. My family has one from Kalazhan, for example. And supposedly, the Imperial family had one that belonged to Rivian."
Relyn nodded, gazing down at the dark artifact with interest. "Any guesses who made this?"
"Hard to say. We might've examined the tomb further if your old teacher wasn't trying to kill us."
"Well," she began, "those were Trelian sigils on the door, right? What if it belonged to Treluwyn?"
"Maybe," Thane said. "But that door wasn't nearly as old as the tomb itself. My guess is that the Trelians built it in the last few centuries, not long after they went into hiding."
Elias stopped pacing to join their conversation, "Besides, why would they lock away their own Archaeon's knowledge? Seems to me like they sealed that tomb for a different reason."
Thane drew in a breath, ignoring the judgmental tone. "No one's denying this is dangerous. The question is, how dangerous, and in what way? We won't know unless we look inside."
"So you know how to open it?" Relyn asked.
"I have an inkling," Thane said. "But I've only seen glimpses of my family's Codex. I wasn't allowed to use it."
Her face twisted in confusion, and Thane explained, "Prince is a far cry from king, and few leaders share more power than they have to."
Thane turned back to the dark sphere. "I think the material is a modified form of Etherite. You see these sigils?" He pointed to the flowing indentations across the surface. "They're like Ethermancy in written form. They modify the properties of the original material, sometimes transforming the energy from one form to another. We have similar scripts in Dragonshard to heat the water, and to power the central lift."
Relyn reached out a hand, but Thane caught her finger. "You can touch it if you really want to, but it's not a pleasant experience."
She met his eyes for a second, then drew her hand back.
"It's not meant to be used in the physical world." Thane spoke with certainty, though it was only an educated guess. "I think I need to meditate inside. The Archaeon's thoughts are in the Ethereal, so that's where I need to go."
Elias took another step forward. "Am I the only one bothered by this idea of speaking with the dead? The Testaments warn us against this exact thing."
"We're not speaking with the actual person," Thane said. "The Archaeons created these before they died. What's left behind is more of an imprint of their personality—a cognitive shadow."
"Semantics," Elias said with a wave of his hand. "You can justify a lot of wrongs with the right five-silver words. It doesn't change the facts."
"And you know the facts?"
Elias remained still, crossing his arms. "Only what you and Nahlia have told me."
Thane paused, recalling the same analogy his instructors had drilled into him, "When you die, someone will burn your body. If you're lucky, it will be your children and grandchildren. When that day comes, will they have burned you?"
Elias considered for a moment, then replied, "No. When we die, our souls go on to be with Aegon in Eternity. The bodies we leave behind are just empty shells."
Thane turned to Relyn who nodded her agreement.
"Your body returns to the physical realm as a form of matter," Thane said. "And we all agree that's separate from your soul. Likewise, your thoughts return to the Ethereal as a form of energy. Those thoughts are unchanging, and they can't differ from the person you were in life. Communicating with those thoughts is no different from reading a book. No one cries heresy when someone reads a dead scribe’s words."
Elias gave a slow nod of understanding, though he kept his brows furrowed in concern.
"Good." Thane shifted away from Relyn so he could concentrate. "Now that we've settled that, I'm going inside. You two mind keeping watch?"
Relyn glanced at Elias, then back to Thane. "Maybe you shouldn't go in there alone."
"I'll be fine," Thane told her. "It's just the Ethereal."
"You said it's dangerous," she pointed out. "And that you know next to nothing about it."
Thane hesitated. "I did."
"She's right," Elias practically jumped on the idea. "There's safety in numbers, and it only takes one of us to stand watch."
Unless it becomes more dangerous with two. Several other retorts rose up inside him, but he kept silent for now. They obviously didn't trust him, and secrecy would only justify those suspicions.
Aegon. He should have done this while he was alone. Of course, one only had so much privacy on the road.
Thane sighed and turned back to Relyn. "Do you know how to meditate?"
"Of course." She made a face. "Who do you think has been contacting Lady Raider this whole time?"
Thane made a placating gesture. "How about with Etherite?"
She opened her mouth again, then closed it.
“It's alright," he said. "Most are wary of that technique, and with good reason." He fingered the crescent-necklace beneath his black tunic. "You never know who else might be on the other side."
"My clan wasn't opposed to the idea," Relyn said. "We just didn't have much Etherite to practice with."
"It's not so different from ordinary meditation. Normally, when you meditate into the Ethereal, you focus on an entry point within yourself. Most people visualize some sort of portal or gateway for their thoughts to pass through. With Etherite, you focus on an external portal outside your body."
She leaned forward. "So it's like Ethermancy?"
"All meditation is a foundational aspect of Ethermancy—one that all Aeons are capable of." Thane saw Elias still sitting there in the corner of his eye, and corrected himself, "Most Aeons."
"Alright." Relyn squared her shoulders and closed her eyes. "I'm ready."
She grew silent as the moments passed, and Thane fell into the rhythm of his own breath. At times like this, he missed the sounds of home. The waves on the beach, and the palm trees in the wind. Northern Revera had none of that.
Most of all, he missed Kira. The sound of her voice, and her fingers on the harp strings. The way she...
Thane caught his mind wandering and snapped his awareness back to his breath. Back to the artifact before him.
"I feel something there," Relyn murmured. "It's like the edge of a chasm."
"Follow that," Thane told her. "Follow it deeper to its source."
A few more moments of silence, and Thane attained the clarity to see the edge of the Codex. A chasm had been a good way to describe it. It simultaneously pulled him closer, but kept him at bay—raw curiosity and fear fighting inside him.
The fear only grew as he reached the precipice in his mind. Finally, he left his physical body behind and surrendered himself to its pull.
When Thane opened his eyes again, he and Relyn were standing side by side in an ancient world.