Just what I wanted, she thought. More stairs. As if keeping up with Elias Mammoth-Legs wasn't enough for one day.
Her guide skipped on ahead, taking the steps two at a time. Nahlia trudged behind, wincing at the stiffness in her legs and back. After several long minutes, they reached an antechamber at the top of the seven-story tower. A pair of wooden doors stood before them with cushioned benches on either side.
"Right through there." Seleon gestured. "They're waiting for you."
Nahlia nodded, still catching her breath. She tugged open one of the heavy doors and felt a burst of warm air brush past her face. Inside was a wide, circular chamber surrounded by stone pillars and floor-to-ceiling windows. Snowflakes clung to the glass like white dust, and everything glowed as the sun fell behind the mountain peaks outside.
Four men and one woman sat in a loose ring around the polished timber floor. Nahlia stood awkwardly in the arched doorway, feeling the weight of their eyes upon her.
A bearded man with close-cropped gray hair beckoned her forward. Nahlia obeyed, her footsteps echoing in the high ceiling.
"Welcome to Whitecliff, Nahlia Cole. I am Elveron—acting leader of this enclave, and the headmaster of the academy. I trust you had a safe journey?"
She nodded, finding her mouth too dry to speak
"We spoke with Seeker Raider about offering you a position here," the headmaster continued. "She has vouched for you, but the academy has certain standards for its students. The enclave's children need to pass a series of tests before entry—both physical and mental. It's the same for new recruits."
So Elias was right. Nahlia was no stranger to exams. Miss Cadwell had given her plenty of those during her education in Northshire, and she'd always done reasonably well. But that was with months of time to study and prepare. She'd known the subjects, and she'd even known which books to study.
But this? She'd take a physical blindfold over a metaphorical one any day.
Nahlia drew in a sharp breath and asked the obvious question, "What happens if I fail these tests?"
"Not to worry," the woman to Elveron's left spoke up. She was a dark-skinned Ember Islander with more than a dozen braids that fell past her shoulders. She had bright violet eyes and a cluster of blue tattoos on her forehead. "You may stay here in the enclave regardless. We'll simply find another way for you to contribute. You would have the rest of this term to study, then you could re-apply to the academy next year."
Nahlia shivered, and this time, it had nothing to do with the northern chill. During the journey north, she'd badgered Elias with endless questions about the enclave itself. The academy's students had special privileges—access to the archives, the battlegrounds, and the training clans. They learned the secret skills that made Aeons unique. Maybe even true Ethermancy.
Regardless of whether or not she worked with Thane, she would need these tools in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the enclave's other residents handled the day-to-day affairs. They tended the crops and animals. They shoveled snow, carried supplies, and cleaned the buildings. In Nahlia's case, they would probably have her preparing food in the mess hall. She certainly had experience with that after all those years in the Moonstone.
Now, once again, she faced an end to her mission. If she failed this test, she might as well have stayed in Dresten.
"We're willing to suspend the physical portion due to your injuries," Headmaster Elveron said. "But we will do the scholarship portion tonight. You'll be tested on a variety of subjects to determine your knowledge and your ability to think critically. You will answer orally, and we will judge you based on your answers and the speed of your responses."
Nahlia nodded. She wrapped her cloak tightly around her shoulders, hoping its warmth would calm her nerves. It didn't. If anything, it just drew her attention to the cold layer of sweat forming on her back.
Elveron continued, "Your human tutors might have tested your knowledge on paper, but that is not the way of our race. We believe the Aeon mind should be quick and adaptable, capable of handling large amounts of information. It is a foundation of meditation, and what makes us who we are. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." She swallowed again, wishing she'd brought a bottle of water. "May I ask what counts as a passing score?"
"Each of the other Masters—Vaulden, Vash, Marwyn, and Zidane—will ask you six questions, for a total of twenty-four. To pass, you must answer at least half of these questions correctly."
Fifty percent, Nahlia thought. That requirement was lower than most tests she'd taken. However, they'd also said time would be a factor. Even if she answered half of the questions right, they could still turn her away for being too slow.
"Are you ready?" Elveron asked.
Aegon. Of course she wasn't ready for this. But with no other questions of her own, she had no choice but to nod.
Elveron leaned back in his cushioned chair, interlacing his pale fingers. "Then we'll start with an easy question. What has been the extent of your education thus far?"
She took a good long breath. "My parents taught me at home when I was a child. After that, I worked as the librarian's apprentice in Northshire. If she were here, she would tell you I'm well versed in history, literature, philosophy, logic, and rhetoric."
The violet-eyed woman nodded along as if she'd expected all of this. "And what of the other primary fields of study? Economics? Science? Mathematics?"
Nahlia winced. "I suppose those would be my weaknesses."
"Very well." The headmaster gestured to the woman on his left. "Then we'll begin the testing with Vaulden, Master of Academia."
The woman cleared her throat, glancing down at the open booklet on her lap. "The sum of two positive numbers is four, and the sum of their squares is twenty-eight. What are the two numbers?"
Math. Nahlia resisted the urge to scowl. Academia covered a wide range of subjects. What were the odds that Vaulden's first question just happened to be math, one of her admitted weaknesses?"
Focus, she told herself. Suspicion wouldn't save her now. She only had two options here. Three cubed was twenty-seven, and one was always one, no matter how many times you multiplied it. Together, those numbers made twenty-eight.
"Three and one," Nahlia said.
Vaulden shook her head. "Incorrect, I'm afraid.
She gaped. "Then ... what's the answer?"
"There is no correct answer," Vaulden said. "It's impossible to square the addends of four and arrive at twenty-eight."
Nahlia wilted. It was her own fault for not listening properly, but ... Aegon, they gave these questions to children? She probably would have caught her error if she had time to study the question on actual paper, but she couldn't do that here.
Vaulden cleared her throat and continued with the next question. "You have seven consecutive odd integers. The sum of the first and last is fifty-eight. What are the seven integers?"
And now she just wanted to cry. Nahlia recognized the question as an algebra word problem. She had some vague idea of how she might construct an equation with variables on one side and the last number on the other. But the truth was, she hadn't opened a math textbook since she was thirteen. Her father had encouraged her to learn more, but even he'd admitted that Northshire wasn't known for its scientists or engineers.
Nahlia drew in a deep breath and rattled off a series of odd numbers, starting at twenty-five and counting by twos until she reached thirty-seven. She didn't even bother feigning confidence. It was only a guess. And as the words left her mouth, she realized they didn't add up.
"Wait," she began again. "I meant—"
"Incorrect," Vaulden interrupted before she could finish. "How many priests can you place on a Crowns board such that no two can attack each other?"
Nahlia took several more breaths and unclenched her fists. At this point, it seemed impossible not to take this personally. Regardless, a correct answer was her only weapon.
Think. Uncle Locke had taught her Crowns as a child, and they'd continued to play it together over the years. Sixty-four squares. Each priest can move diagonally. She visualized the board in her mind's eye, mentally rearranging the pieces along the edges. This time, she also re-examined the question for tricks.
"Fourteen," she finally said.
Vaulden nodded and continued with her questions. One involved some advanced trigonometry formula she'd never learned. The other involved economics, and the way inflation affected different types of currency.
Battlemaster Vash was next, and his questions were even more arcane. He described hypothetical war scenarios with dozens of variables ranging from supply lines to weather patterns, to obscure tactics. Nahlia swore she could have memorized every warfare book in Northshire's library, and she still would have come up short.
The Master Physician quizzed her on anatomy, medicine, herbalism, and chemistry. Nahlia wouldn't call herself an expert on any of these subjects. But to her surprise, Marwyn's questions were actually somewhat reasonable. In other words, an entry-level student might, conceivably, have a chance.
By the time she reached Zidane, Nahlia had only answered seven out of eighteen questions correctly. Her only hope of passing this exam was to get a perfect score on his portion.
Come on Nahlia, you can do this.
As the academy's Chronicler, Zidane was in charge of history and mythology. These were her own strengths as well.
The older man reclined in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, stroking his neatly trimmed beard. Zidane was Valaysian like Vash, with pitch-black hair and orange, heavy-lidded eyes. He'd already spoken several times during her exam, and his accent was the thickest she'd ever heard.
"Who is the current leader of the Human Republic?"
Nahlia blinked. This had to be a trick of some sort. Anyone in Revera—human or Aeon—could have answered this question. She'd probably heard his name at least a hundred times in the last month.
Master Vaulden groaned audibly from the other side of the chamber.
"Yes?" Zidane turned his harsh eyes in her direction. "Something to say, Nona? Because it seems that Marwyn and I were left out of your little conspiracy. Come now, I've seen you ask those same math questions with half as many numbers." He turned to face the Battlemaster. "And Vash—I'd like to see your brightest student answer even one of those questions."
"Enough," Elveron's powerful voice washed over them.
"Very well," Zidane said. "But my questions are still my own. But if these two place their elbows on the scale, don't blame me for balancing it back."
So, I was right before. Vaulden and Vash were intentionally sabotaging her efforts, but Zidane and Marwyn weren't apart of it. Strangely enough, that made her feel better. She'd felt like an idiot for getting so many questions wrong before, but anyone could rig a test.
"Now..." Zidane turned back to Nahlia. "The current leader of the Human Republic?"
"Chancellor Leonard Brighton," Nahlia replied.
"Excellent." Then he took his time examining the book on his lap. It almost seemed like a deliberate mockery of Vaulden's speed. "Before the discovery of Etherite, what was the hardest material in the universe?"
Nahlia paused as she considered various metals and minerals, then she smiled when she realized it wasn't necessary. "Etherite was always the hardest material."
"Very good. And how far apart do the Etherfalls occur?"
"Every seven-hundred years," Nahlia replied. Once again, any child could have answered that.
Zidane glanced up at the ceiling as if he'd run out of questions and hoped to see the next one written there. "Who was the Archaeon of Justice and Honor?"
Zidane glanced across the room to where the Battlemaster sat. "And which Archaeon does Master Vash descend from?"
She glanced over at the muscular Battlemaster, then back to Zidane. "Um ... Vashet?"
"Excellent," Zidane said with a wry smile. "Now, final question. Would you give me the definition of 'situational irony', please?"
At this point, Nahlia didn't know whether to laugh or blush. Either way, she forced herself not to look at Vash or Vaulden. "Situational irony is when you expect one thing, but get the opposite."
Marwyn actually cracked a smile at this, then Elveron cleared his throat.
Slowly, Nahlia pivoted back to the middle of the room.
"You may have noticed," he said, "the precautions we take to ensure this enclave remains hidden."
She took a deep breath and recomposed herself. "Yes sir, I did."
"The Templars knew of our existence for years," he continued. "But they haven't narrowed down our location until recently. Now, more than ever, secrecy is our greatest strength. You will forgive us if we ask you a few more questions regarding this?"
Nahlia nodded again.
"Have you heard of this enclave before?" Battlemaster Vash spoke with a harshness like jagged steel. His black hair was pulled tightly in a knot behind his head, and his eyes were narrow chips of onyx. "Before you met the Raiders, that is."
Nahlia stiffened. This wasn't another mere test of intellect. Her exam was shifting to something else entirely. She didn't dare lie, not with so many eyes fixed on her. But could she tell them the truth? How would they react if they learned of Thane?
"I'm not sure," was all she could manage.
"It's a simple question." Vash cracked his knuckles one at a time. "Either you recall someone mentioning Whitecliff, or you don't."
Lady Raider could have spoken with the council about this, Nahlia realized. Her spies could have seen her talking with Thane in Dresten, or even in the Moonstone Inn. What if the Council had all these answers, and this was all a test of her honesty?
Only a fool would lie now. If they truly suspected her of treason, they wouldn't just deny her access to the academy. They could lock her in a cell for all she knew.
"I do," Nahlia said. "I mean—I've heard the name before."
Elveron learned forward. "Go on."
She swallowed, and her throat was even dryer than before. "An Aeon spoke to me. He was there in Northshire the night the Templars came, and then again in Dresten."
No one seemed surprised at this.
"And what did this Aeon want?" Vash asked.
Nahlia met his eyes. "He wanted to know about this enclave. I suspected him of working with the Templars, so I didn't tell him anything."
Vash furrowed his dark eyebrows. "And you didn't think to mention this to the Raiders?"
She hesitated again for a long moment, watching the last sliver of sunlight crawl behind the rocky horizon. The landscape darkened, and the only light came from the chamber's red oil lamps. A chill crept over her as she fumbled for a response.
The headmaster must've seen this. "You're afraid."
"No, sir. It's just—after everything that happened to me, I wasn't sure who to trust."
He gave a slow nod. "As someone so familiar with the Templars, I'm sure you'll understand the Battlemaster's concerns. We're responsible for the lives of hundreds of Aeons here—yourself among them. It only takes one traitor to bring the downfall of us all."
"Back to this Aeon," Vash broke in. "What do you know of him?"
"He wore a black cloak," Nahlia said. "And he looked like a Southerner. But he didn't tell me anything else about himself."
"And why were you suspicious?"
She shrugged. "It seemed like too much of a coincidence for him to arrive the same time as the Templars."
Vash nodded. "Did he say what he wanted with us?"
She shook her head. "No, sir. I was trying to figure that out myself. Why would he need me to tell him about this place? I thought all Aeons were welcome here?"
"Not all of them," Zidane said from the right corner. "This enclave predates the fall of the Ascendancy by several hundred years. In all that time, it's been threatened by people far more dangerous than the Templars."
Elveron silenced him with a look, and the room became quiet enough to hear the frost forming on the windows.
"We will discuss this matter in private," the headmaster said to no one in particular. "Nahlia, we thank you for your cooperation, and you can rest assured, we will find a place for you here in the academy. In the meantime, make yourself comfortable downstairs. Someone will show you to your rooms shortly."
Nahlia bowed and plodded out of the room. If two days of traveling weren't enough to drain her, this conversion was.
It had been a long journey, but she'd passed.
Now the true test began.