Just what I wanted, Nahlia thought. More stairs. As if keeping up with Elias Mammoth-Legs wasn't enough for one day.
The messenger boy skipped on ahead, taking the steps two at a time. Nahlia trudged behind, wincing at how stiff she felt. 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 small benches on either side.
"Right through there." The boy 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 soft and orange 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 all their eyes upon her.
A clean-shaven man with close-cropped gray hair beckoned her forward.
Nahlia obeyed, her footsteps amplified by the vast, echoing ceiling.
"Welcome to Whitecliff, Nahlia Cole. I am Elveron, the headmaster of this 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 children of the enclave need to pass a series of tests before entry—both physical and mental. It's the same for recruits."
So Elias was right. She drew a sharp breath and asked the obvious question, "What happens if I fail these tests?"
"Not to worry," a violet-eyed woman spoke up. She had silver hair and a cluster of bright 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. From what she'd gathered from the Raiders, the students of the academy had special privileges. Access to the archives, the battlegrounds, and the training clans.
Now once again, she faced a possible end to her mission. Gathering information for Thane would be hard enough as it was. If she failed this test, she would've been better off staying in Dresten.
"We're willing to suspend the physical portion due to your injuries," the headmaster said. "But we intend to 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 herself tightly in her fur cloak, hoping the warmth of it would calm her nerves.
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?"
"Good. Are you ready?"
Of course not. But she had no choice but to nod.
Elveron leaned back, interlacing his 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, and my father sent me to the library in Northshire after that. I'd consider myself 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? Politics? 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 Master Academia."
The woman cleared her throat, glancing down at the open booklet on her lap. "The sum of three consecutive numbers is 51. What is the value of the middle number?"
Nahlia closed her eyes, attempting to visualize the problem. Aegon, they gave these questions to children? She could do it on paper with enough time to recall her lessons. But here, with everyone watching...
"Eighteen?" She didn't even try to sound confident. It was only a guess.
The woman glanced down at the booklet and shook her head. "Seventeen, I'm afraid."
Wonderful. She had evaded the Templars twice, survived a bullet wound in the chest, and convinced the Raiders to bring her here against all odds. Now everything was crashing down because she couldn't do mental arithmetic.
Master Academia spoke again, "Define the Every True Venetoran fallacy."
Nahlia set her jaw and her resolve became steel in its firmness. She may not be a fighter—not yet, but this was something she could do. Just focus.
She took several quick breaths, letting her mind drift back to Northshire and the hours she spent pouring over those tedious logic books. "It's when someone discounts evidence by changing the original definition."
Master Academia seemed satisfied this time. "How many priests can you place on a Cruscendo board such that no two can attack each other?"
Thankfully, Uncle Locke had taught her this game as a child. "Fourteen."
"Before the discovery of Ethereum, what was the hardest material in the world?"
Nahlia paused as she considered various metals and minerals, then she smiled when she realized it wasn't necessary. "Ethereum was always the hardest material in the world."
And so the questions continued around the circle. Zidane quizzed her on history, Aeon lineage, and mythology. Marwyn tested her knowledge of science and medicine, and Vash questioned her on weaponry, battle tactics, and combat.
Nahlia breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the end of the circle. It hadn't gone perfectly, but she felt far more confident than before.
Elveron cleared his throat then, and Nahlia pivoted back to the middle of the room. "You may have noticed the precautions we take to ensure this enclave remains hidden."
"Yes sir, I did."
"The Templars knew of our existence for years," he continued. "But they haven't narrowed down our specific location until recently. Now more than ever, secrecy is of the utmost importance. You will forgive us if we ask you a few questions regarding this?"
Nahlia nodded again.
"Have you heard of this enclave before?" Battlemaster Vash spoke in a thick Valaysian accent, 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 examination 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 said, cracking his knuckles absent-mindedly. "Either you recall someone mentioning this place, or you don't."
Lady Raider could've 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 of 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—someone has mentioned it to me before."
Elveron learned forward. "Go on."
She swallowed, her throat 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."
Nahlia swallowed again. "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 Master Vash's concerns regarding the safety of this enclave. We're responsible for the lives of hundreds of Aeons here—yourself among them—and 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, and why were you suspicious?"
"He wore a black cloak," Nahlia said. "And he looked like someone from the south. But he didn't tell me anything else about himself. I suspected him because of the Templar's arrival in Dresden. It seemed too much of a coincidence."
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," Vash's said. "This enclave has served as a sanctuary from the Templars ever since the Purge, but it predates the fall of the Revarian Empire by several hundred years. In all that time, it's been threatened by people far more dangerous than the Templars."
Elveron silenced Vash 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 be along shortly to show you to your room."
Nahlia gave a weary nod and plodded out of the room. If two solid days of traveling wasn't enough to exhaust her, this conversion was. It had been a long journey, but she'd passed, and this was only the beginning.
Now the true test began.