Rain dripped from their leather armor as they stepped through the doorway. If these had been ordinary visitors, Nahlia would have greeted them at the door, taking their cloaks and hanging them over the hearth to dry. Instead, she watched from the shadows as they fanned out across the common room.
Each Templar carried a saber on his belt, and their uniforms matched the older man in the alleyway.
Aegon. She should have told her father about him the second she reached the inn. Instead, she'd refused to admit the danger. They'd lived peacefully these past few years, and she'd wanted to believe things would stay the same. Now, their lives felt as fragile as a village waiting to be sacked.
Six of the Templars settled into a long oaken table near the front, and an officer approached the bar, wooden floors creaking ominously beneath his boots.
Nahlia ducked behind a potted plant, just close enough to see her father running a white linen rag over the bar's surface. He glanced up as the man approached.
"Good evening." Her father flashed his best innkeeper's smile. "Can I get you and your boys a drink?"
The Templar nodded. "A round of your best whiskey."
"Excellent choice." He lined up a row of shot glasses. "It's what we Northerners do best. Anything to eat?"
"Nothing to eat," he replied. "But I will take an Aeon fugitive with that."
Nahlia's breath caught in her throat, and a shudder of pure panic passed up and down her spine. This was it. They'd found her.
"Aeon fugitive, eh?" Her father chuckled as he pulled out the decanter of dark-amber liquid. "I'll help any way I can. Seen all manner of strange folk coming through here."
"So what's he look like?"
"It's a she, actually. And we don't know. Been years since anyone's seen her."
"Fair enough." He topped off the glasses one by one. "How about a name, then?"
The other man gave an irritated sigh. "We don't know that either."
"Ah." Her father's laugh was more sympathetic this time. "I'm starting to see the problem."
Nahlia released the breath she'd been holding. At least Thane had been telling the truth about that part. Even if the Templars had come to Northshire for her, their visit to the Moonstone might still be a coincidence.
"So..." the officer pulled out a coinpurse."What's a fancy place like this charge?"
"Don't worry about that," her father said with a dismissive wave. "First round's on the house."
"Generous of you."
He shrugged. "You're keeping us safe from Aeons all the way out here. Figure it's the least I can do."
"True enough," he said. "True enough."
A moment later, one of Nahlia's customers hollered her name from across the room. None of the Templars showed any recognition. Not so much as an exchanged glance between them. She took a deep breath, grabbed her serving tray, and emerged from her hiding place. As long as her life was in no immediate danger, there was still work to be done.
The officer looked up to regard her as she passed. Nahlia returned his gaze with more confidence than she felt, taking solace behind her dark, half-human eyes.
Time passed in a hush throughout the inn, broken only by the clattering rain and the crackling fire. All mouths were silent around the regulars' tables as they eyed the strangers with interest.
Nahlia caught her father's gaze from behind the bar, and he gave her a reassuring nod. We'll get through this, the look seemed to say.
"You there." Another Templar officer waved her over. His head was bald, and paler than a winter storm. He had an unkempt brown beard and nervous eyes.
"Yes?" Nahlia forced a smile as she approached the table. "What can I do for you?"
"We'll take two bottles of Ember Isle Red. To go."
"Of course." Her voice wavered slightly as she spoke. "That will be two and six."
"Two and six?" A dark-haired Templar scoffed from across the table. "Damnit Gallow. You know how many local bottles you could get for that?"
The man named Gallow gave a careless shrug. "What can I say? I have expensive taste."
He tossed aside his gray cloak, reaching for his coinpurse. His pistol must have been in the way because he pulled it from its holster.
Nahlia couldn't help but stare at the weapon with its curved wooden handle and steel barrel. Sabers and crossbows were commonplace in the North. Even a few of Northshire's constables carried them. But firearms were unnatural things invented by the Templars as a means to rebel against their Aeon rulers. She hadn't been this close to one since she was seven years old. Back when ... but no, she couldn't think about that now. It would only make things worse.
Gallow twirled the weapon idly in his left hand while he rummaged through his coinpurse. Still frozen in place, Nahlia jumped back when he dropped the three silver pennies into her open palm. She cringed as they clattered to the wooden floor.
He snorted as if suppressing a chuckle. "You alright there, girl?"
"You're twirling around a loaded weapon," another Templar said. "What do you expect?"
Nahlia knelt down to collect the coins from the rain-soaked floor, a motion made more awkward by her shaking knees. She considered making an excuse, but she didn't trust herself to lie. She might've looked like a human, but she felt like an open book.
"It's alright," the dark-haired Templar said as she rose to her feet. "No one's gonna hurt you, girl."
Nahlia forced another smile and gave a brisk nod. If the men suspected anything, they didn't show it. In fact, no one even spared her a second glance.
She balled her hand into a fist as she fled toward the kitchen. What was wrong with her? Her ancestors were Ethermancers who fought back hundreds of enemies. Meanwhile, she couldn't even look her enemies in the eye without freezing.
Father was so calm. Why couldn't I be like that?
Another half-hour passed as the common room emptied. Nahlia and her father exchanged several more looks as they went about their business polishing the glasses and sweeping the floors.
Will and Hawkwood were the last to leave. When they did, Uncle Locke emerged from the kitchen and poured himself a drink.
"So..." He fell onto the nearest stool. "You think they suspected us?"
"I don't think so," Father said with a quick shake of his head. "There were seven of them. No reason to wait around if they did."
Still shaken, Nahlia shuffled behind the bar and poured herself a drink. Just enough to calm her nerves. "I saw another man near the library tonight."
"So?" Uncle Locke spun on his stool to face her, and he must have seen something in her eyes. "Wait—please tell me you didn't leave any of your Aeon books laying around."
"Not laying around," she murmured into her glass. "But there's a copy of Aeonica in my locker."
Her uncle slammed his own glass on the bar. "Damnit, Nahila."
"Those books aren't technically illegal," she said.
"They don't have to be," he retorted. "The Templars operate above the law. Even here. Books like those raise questions. Questions lead to bribes and threats. Imagine a few Templars ransacking your collection. They find an Aeon book. They blame Cadwell, and threaten her sons. Then she has you. Not just a perfect scapegoat, but—"
"Alright." Nahlia closed her eyes. "Alright, I get it. It was stupid to hide it in my locker."
Locke exhaled sharply as he leaned over the bar, running both hands through his hair. "Either way, you should get the hell out of here."
"We can't just leave," her father said.
"You've gotta be kidding me." Locke pointed a finger toward the front door. "You heard them clear as I did. They're here for Nahlia."
"Think about it." Her father paced in front of the fireplace. "They announced their purpose in what—thirty seconds? Loud enough for everyone to hear. And this wasn't some drunken, babbling soldier. He was a lieutenant."
"You think they were trying to scare us?" Nahlia asked.
He nodded. "For all we know, they've done the same thing at the other inns tonight."
"Shake the tree and see what falls out." Locke scratched his beard. "Might explain why they left so bloody quick."
"My thoughts exactly. Who travels that many miles and doesn't order food?"
Her uncle sighed. "So if we stay, they find us. And if we leave, they still find us. Wonderful odds there, brother."
"What if we can leave town without being noticed?" Nahlia offered. The two men turned to regard her, and she continued, "The first shift of field workers heads out long before sunrise, right? If we go with them, we can get as far as the Mistwood without drawing attention."
Father seemed to consider that for a moment, and he glanced at the ticking clock on the back wall. "That's less than six hours from now ... it could work"
"Good of a plan as any," Locke said before throwing back his glass. "I say we do it."
The two men headed off to their respective rooms to pack, and Nahlia climbed the creaking wooden staircase toward her own room on the second floor. It was a small space, with only a single bed, a desk, and a tall wardrobe looming in the corner. Candles and books covered every surface, and the massive window offered a view of the town square below.
She closed the door and changed into something more practical—dark trousers, a simple blue tunic, and soft leather boots. After that, she fumbled through the wardrobe for her warmest traveler's cloak. Forgetting a cloak in town was one thing. Forgetting one in the wild might mean the difference between life and death.
Nahlia stuffed her travelsack with three changes of clothing, a medical kit, and a handful of other personal items. Finally, she opened her jewelry box and removed her most valuable possession: a silver, crescent moon which hung on a matching silver chain. The only heirloom she had left of her mother. Nahlia secured it around her neck, tucking it safely behind her undershirt.
Back in the common room, the two men were already packed, and they wore leather armor beneath their cloaks. Locke sat by the hearth sharpening his hatchets on a whetstone. Meanwhile, her father packed the food—an assortment of flatbread, sausages, and hard cheeses.
Nahlia had packed her own things in a daze, but somehow, the sight of all this made it real. After seven years, they were leaving Northshire. Three of those years, she'd spent working at the Moonstone Inn. Five of them she'd spent apprenticing under Miss Cadwell at the library. Now it was all gone.
She should have been used to it by now, but running never got any easier.
"I'm sorry," Nahlia said as her father worked.
"This isn't your fault," he replied. "You've been careful."
"But they found us anyway."
"Still doesn't make it your fault," he told her. "You heard what what's-his-name said earlier."
"Thane," she offered.
"Thane," he echoed. "He mentioned Aeon spies, and he's right. Clan Raider knew about us when we showed up. All it takes is one traitor to leak that information to the Templars."
Nahlia gave a weak nod. But even after all these years, she never fully understood why they hunted her.
Her father claimed the humans were afraid. Twenty years ago, they'd overthrown the Aeon Ascendancy and put a Republic in its place. Even now, they believed any living Aeon was a threat to that.
Perhaps that was true for some Aeons ... but her?
"Alright," Father said once the last bag was full. "Now all we need to do is—"
The front door swung open in a wide arc. They all turned to see a masked man in a gray military coat. The same man she'd seen in the alleyway.
"Aaron Cole," the Templar addressed her father.
Nahlia turned to face him, hoping against hope he could talk them out of this.
Several more Templars filtered in behind their commander. He removed his metallic mask, revealing a face covered in burn and scars.
That face. I know that face.
Knight Commander Saul Mason.
It all returned to her then—memories she thought she'd banished to the dark corners of her mind. Her father carrying her through the woods as their home burned in the night. The bullets careening around them as they fled. The scent of blood and smoke filling her nostrils.
Saul Mason's smile brought her back to the present. "And you must be the daughter. Nahlia, is it?."
Father moved to stand them. "Run," he whispered
Mason shook his head at that. "I'm afraid she won't get far."
As if on command, three more of his men emerged from the kitchen, sabers drawn.
"I didn't come here to kill anyone," Mason said. "So let's not make this any harder. Stand down, and you won't be harmed."
Nahlia's gaze darted back and forth between them. Her father's arm tensed as he reached for the knife at his belt. Uncle Locke raised his hatchets. A silence ensued as if the room were holding its breath.
"Fine," Mason said. "Take her."
Several soldiers bolted forward. Her father pulled the dagger from his belt and buried it up to the hilt in a man's windpipe. The man barely had time to fall back before her father seized his saber and opened a second Templar's throat.
A gloved hand grabbed Nahlia's shoulder from behind, but she twisted away, ducking through the chaos as blades flashed around her. She was halfway up the staircase when another man caught up with her.
Locke swung his hatchet in a low arc, catching the man's legs and knocking him back down the stairs. Another Templar moved to his friend's rescue, but Locke closed the distance in half a heartbeat. He dug his second hatchet into the man's face. Blood splattered the wall as he yanked it free.
Nahlia bolted up the stairs and down the hall. Broken bodies remained burned in her vision, and the smell of death clung to her nostrils.
Blood. So much blood. She'd known her father and uncle were soldiers. She'd even watched them spar before. But... Aegon... to kill so many, so quickly.
Her fingers shook as they unbolted her bedroom window. She threw open the glass panels and a gust of night air greeted her, filled with the watery scents of the storm.
"Hey!" one of the Templars shouted from down the hall.
Damnit. She should have locked her bedroom door. Too late for that now. The man sprinted toward her, his heavy boots pounding hard enough to shake the inn.
Heart racing, Nahlia crawled out onto the blue-shingled roof. She was halfway out when a hand closed around her ankle. She gritted her teeth and grabbed the edge of the roof. She tried to kick him with her free leg, but she couldn't get the right angle.
The Templar groaned as he tried to pull her in. Nahlia held the roof with all her might, knowing her life depended on it. He tried to grab her other ankle, and she kicked again. This time, she was rewarded with the crack of a broken nose.
Her attacker loosened his grip, and she fell forward, rolling down the shingled roof. Everything spun in a whirlwind of rain and city lights as the cobblestones rose up to strike her.
Nahlia opened her eyes a second later and tried to move. Everything hurt, and she'd be lucky not to have any broken bones. Her face was numb, and she tasted blood and dirt on her tongue. Slowly, she moved her fingers, then her toes. She rolled over on the cobblestones, and the rain stung her cheeks like falling icicles.
Lightning struck. Nahlia shut her eyes against the blinding light, but not before she saw the silhouette looming over her.
The Templar raised his saber. Water droplets from the blade sprayed across her face.
Thunder crashed as Uncle Locke ran out the inn's front door, burying a hatchet spike in the back of the Templar's head.
Nahlia closed her eyes and let out a shuddering sigh of relief. Locke grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her to her feet.
"Keep running!" He gave her a hard shove that sent her staggering into the town square. "Go!"
A shadow emerged behind Locke. He whirled around and slammed the door, forcing his back against it.
Someone groaned on the other side. A gray-clad arm was trapped between the door and the frame. Locke still held a hatchet in his left hand, but he couldn't strike from that position.
Nahlia's gaze fell to the cobblestone street and the dead Templar's saber.
I can help him, she thought. She could pick up that blade, and—
A deafening bang sounded, louder and more terrible than any storm. Locke gritted his teeth as he kept his weight against the door. For a moment, Nahlia dared to hope he'd live. Then a pool of blood formed around his heart, and the rain washed a red trail down his leather armor.
"Run," he roared through clenched teeth.
This time, she obeyed.