Aaron Cole awoke two days later in a strange bed. No one told him the town's name, but a quick glance out the window revealed dark gray skies over gray waters. He was at least two floors off the ground, and a few smaller buildings were scattered between him and the shore.
A medic appeared and redressed his wounds. After that, he barely had time to wash, eat, and dress before a messenger came and summoned him to the top floor.
Judging by the view outside, the Templars had retreated to one of the small coastal towns south of Dresten. The hallways they passed through were too extravagant to be an inn. From the flagstone floors, to the imported rugs, to the intricate windows.
But then, everything had an abandoned air about it as well. The rugs were threadbare, the oil lamps were cracked and scratched, and a thin layer of dirt caked the windows. Most likely, this was the home of the town's former Aeon landlord, and the Templars put a human of lesser means in power after the Purge.
Where were the Templars, anyway? When Cole reached the top of the staircase, the men guarding the door didn't wear the dark gray uniforms he'd expected. Come to think of it, neither did the medic or the messenger.
No, that wasn't it either. Each man was clean-shaven and stood with perfect posture. Aside from that, their boots and cloaks were too light for true northerners.
Something else is going on here.
The guard knocked thrice on the wooden door, and it swung open on creaking hinges. Warm hearth light spilled out into the stairwell, and Cole stepped inside.
Another pair of guards stood on the inner sides of the door. A third man, tall and simply dressed, stood looking out the window with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Knight Commander." The man turned around to face him. A neatly-groomed beard framed his square face, and his thinning gray hair was combed back.
Cole took a few steps closer. "You have me at a disadvantage."
"I'm Chancellor Brighton," he replied in a smooth voice. "Head of State for the New Republic."
Chancellor? Cole studied him for a few heartbeats longer. As Knight Commander, he probably should have saluted. Unfortunately, the deserter's life left him rusty.
"You're full of horseshit," he said.
The other man raised his eyebrows, amusement touching the corners of his lips. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me," Cole said. "A man that important would never be this far from home."
"That might've been true during the Aeon Imperium." He strode over to a small table and poured two glasses of brown liquid from a crystal decanter. He offered one to Cole, then took a seat in a brown leather armchair near the hearth. "But we have a democracy now, not an empire. And this conversation is too important for me to send someone else."
"Fine," Cole waved an impatient hand. "If you're in charge here, then maybe you can answer my questions. "I've been awake for an hour, and no one will even tell me if my daughter's alive."
"Nahlia is alive and well," a female voice said from behind him. Cole spun around to see a woman with chin-length blonde hair emerge from the shadows. He couldn't quite place her accent. It was crisp, but harsh. Feminine, but deep and throaty.
Brighton gestured up from his chair. "Knight Commander Cole, meet Marabella Lawguard. my Mistress of Whispers."
She continued forward and sat on the Chancellor's right. "Your daughter missed the evacuation boats, but the Raider army found her in the caves, along with Elias Raider and Thane Solidor. Only a few hours after the Templar's retreat. She's with the other survivors now."
Cole let out a sigh of relief as he sank back into the chair opposite them. The news was as welcome as a warm meal at the end of a long road. Still, it was far from hard evidence.
"Forgive me"—he set his drink down and clasped his hands together—"but how can you know all this? How do I know you aren't just telling me what I want to hear?"
Marabella leaned forward and widened her eyes in the firelight. It was only then that Cole saw the flecks of gold in the sea of dark brown. An Aeon.
"I'm in contact with some of Casella Raider's agents. We swap information for the good of both sides. Beyond what I've told you, I've only heard rumors about your daughter."
Her eyes met the chancellor's, and he gave a quick nod. "They say Nahlia Cole may be the first person in centuries to use healing Ethermancy. They say she walked away from multiple bullet wounds without so much as a scar. That she's immune to all poisons and illnesses. They say she made a crippled girl walk again, and that she brought Elias Raider back from the dead."
Cole took a shuddering breath and reached for his drink. Marabella's words were almost too much to comprehend at once. His daughter ... shot multiple times? An Ethermancer? It all seemed impossible. At the same time, he knew in his heart the rumors were true. Nahlia always had this potential for Ethermancy. He'd tried his hardest to keep her from having to use it.
"So..." Cole met their eyes again. "What are the two of you doing so far from Sunfall?"
Brighton nodded as if expecting the question."We're here because Saul Mason made a mistake attacking Whitecliff."
"Mason made a mistake?" Cole echoed. "Doesn't the Knight Commander answer to you?"
The Chancellor raised his glass to his lips. "I take full responsibility for what happened, but your predecessor acted on his own accord. It was Lord Solidor of Dragonshard who directed the Templars toward Whitecliff. We didn't understand why at the time, but the reports have revealed some disturbing news."
Cole remained silent, taking another drink from his own glass.
"According to the other officers, Mason received information from inside Whitecliff Enclave, including a map and attack strategy. There's only one reason another Aeon would give him that."
"Well, you'll have to enlighten me then, because I haven't been able to make heads or tails of this.
"This man wasn't only a traitor to Whitecliff," Marabella spoke up, "but a traitor to all of Revera.
Cole rubbed his chin; his beard had grown uncomfortably long in the proceeding weeks. "A foreigner?
"From Palavar," Brighton said. "We believe it's the same man who started this war. The Masked Aeon who assassinated Nathanial Mason. That day, he turned the peaceful Templar Order into an army of revolutionaries. Twenty years ago, the Imperium had one united army of humans and Aeons, over fifty-thousand strong. That's more than ten times the size Palavar's army. It's the reason they've never conquered us."
Cole nodded along. "So the Sovereign Palatine is planning an invasion now?"
"Not planning." Marabella pulled out a piece of paper and slid it on the table between them. "His ships set sail this morning."
The Chancellor took another drink. "And Palatine doesn't wage war, he makes it. He uses it as a tool. When he lands in Revera, he'll sway the surviving Aeons over to his side. The Raiders ... the Solidors. He'll make them promises, and they'll be the ones to destroy us on his behalf."
"How familiar are you with Palavar's social structure?" Marabella asked.
Cole shrugged. "I know that humans are no better than slaves."
She nodded. "The same will happen here in Revera if they take control"
"Well," Cole leaned back in his chair. "Maybe that's what we deserve. An eye for an eye, and all that."
Brighton cleared his throat. "What if we told you there was another way?"
"And what's that? Make peace with the Aeons before Palatine does?"
The pair remained silent, each meeting his gaze.
"You're joking," Cole said. "After everything that's happened, you think either side would go for this?"
"The humans elected me as Chancellor to do what's best for humanity. Right now, the best thing is a unified realm. Everyone—humans and Aeons—need to stand together against this invasion. And Marabella has already made contact with the Aeon enclaves."
"Enclaves? Cole asked, stressing the 's'.
"There are several," she replied. "Whitecliff was the most famous, but hardly the most powerful. The others have stayed hidden, and with good reason."
That made sense. Whitecliff was a known place of study centuries before the Purge. But what if the others were created afterword, as a result of it? How many other Aeons could have survived?
If anything though, that made the previous month's events worse than before.
Cole picked up his glass, examined it for a moment, then chucked it into the hearth. There was a sharp explosion of glass as the flames smoldered, then rose again. "There's your peace, Chancellor. If you expected anything less, you shouldn't have let you your mad dog loose on Whitecliff."
"You're right," he said with a sigh. "You saw that before when no one else did. That's why I'm willing to pardon you and let you hold your title."
I don't want the damned title. Truth be told, he only cared about finding Nahlia right now. But it was too late for that. He'd already deserted once; he wouldn't get a second chance.
"What are you proposing?"
"We give the Aeons back their lands. Raidenwood, Vauldenport, Tregarde, and the Vale of Elveron. With the realm unified, we can stand strong against Palatine's invasion."
"You think it will be that easy?" Cole retorted. "What happened twenty years ago wasn't some border dispute. It was genocide. It's not as simple as asking for forgiveness."
"Saul Mason is dead," The chancellor offered. "That's the first step toward giving the Aeons their justice. And when Palatine arrives, they'll have to choose a side."
"And I'm the one to tell them they have options?" Cole asked. "Why me? You didn't set up this meeting because I won a duel."
"I need a negotiator. Someone to represent humanity, and to lead the Templars against Palatine if it comes to that. You killed Gallow and Mason, two of their most notorious leaders. The Aeons will respect that."
Cole waved a dismissive hand. "The Aeons won't care that one Templar killed another. "Besides, all that proves is that I'm good at killing. There must be a hundred more qualified negotiators in Sunfall."
"You saved the evacuation ships from the cave-in," Marabella said. "You helped Thane Solidor escape Dresten, and your daughter is the heir to Clan Trelian. I'd say your work is half-done."
The Chancellor continued before Cole could reply, "There's something else you should know."
Of course there is. Although he'd been braced to hear it, something about Brighton's tone sent a chill down his spine.
He slid a second piece of paper on the table. "One of Palatine's strongest supporters is already here in Revera. Someone you know very well."