Aaron Cole walked through the long corridors of the Sunfall palace. Marble pillars loomed on either side of him, as tall as ancient trees.
He passed under a stone archway onto a garden balcony. Here, a young woman sat amongst the plants. Her skin was bronze in the lantern light, and waves of black hair flowed freely down her back.
Cole took a seat on the cushioned bench behind her. He opened a leather-bound notebook and pretended to read.
Several seconds passed, then he glanced halfway over his shoulder, "Princess Solidor."
Ashara's head made a slow pivot as if stretching. Her voice came out just above a whisper, "You know he'll kill you if he finds you here."
"That's true for all of us, no matter where we are."
Her dress ruffled as she glanced left and right.
"No one's listening," Cole said. "Besides, I'm just a humble cook."
He may have used a false name, but it was still a real job. He'd interviewed for it and everything. His father had been the emperor's personal chef during the days of the Reverius dynasty. By the time Cole was thirteen, he could make half the dishes himself. In those days, he'd thought culinary arts were his future.
Of course, everything changed when he left for the Templar Academy. Then again when he became Knight Commander.
"You can never be too careful," Ashara said. "Didn't he see your face at the Clansmeet?"
Actually, the Clansmeet was the second time he'd seen Trelidor in-person. Cole and Marabella had also met him on the beaches south of Tregarde. Cole had grown out his hair and beard since then, and he wore a pair of spectacles he didn't need. It wasn't much of a disguise, but the new emperor rarely interacted with the palace staff. In fact, Cole only saw him when he made public appearances.
"I don't know what you're up to," Ashara went on, "but you should have sent someone else. You're too valuable."
Typical Aeon thinking. It made sense when you considered their powers and ancient bloodlines. But humans didn't think that way. Their lives were worth what they accomplished. True, Cole was better trained and more educated than the average Templar. But that training meant nothing without action.
He'd spent a decade of his life in this palace. That made him the best person for the job. Other Templars led secret rebellions across the city while their Aeon allies fought in Raidenwood. Still, none of that would matter if they didn't eventually bring the fight here
He glanced up at the crystal sky. Flickers of light glimmered in every direction, obscuring the view of Sunfall's skyline. When Trelidor first reactivated the shield, it had been a novelty—a great dome of glowing Moonshard, visible from every rooftop in the city. These days, people ignored it. The once-mystical sight had grown old—more of a nuisance than anything else.
And what a nuisance it was. The shield surrounded the palace on every side—at least seven stories high, and wider than three city blocks. Some rumors claimed it extended underground as well, making it a sphere rather than a dome. No one could enter or leave without the guards disabling the segment near the gate. That process took anywhere between five minutes to an hour, depending on the day.
"If we can disable this," Cole began, "we can get you out of here."
Ashara snorted behind him. "Well, aren't you the storybook hero?"
"Assuming you want to leave?"
"Of course I want to leave. But some things are impossible."
Cole flipped to a random page in his book. "There must be an energy source somewhere."
"There is," Ashara replied slowly. "The sigils connect to an Etherite vault on the third floor."
Cole raised an eyebrow. "You're well informed for a hostage."
"I'm a Sanctifier," she explained. "That vault is so packed, I can sense it from two-hundred paces."
He nodded. "I assume it's well guarded."
"Trust me," she said, "the guards are the least of your worries. There's a redundant power source north of here, several blocks from the palace. Even if you disconnect one source from the sigils, the other will take its place."
"That doesn't make sense," Cole said. "The guards disable part of it every day. They couldn't possibly coordinate..." He trailed off as the realization dawned on him. "Damnit. Aeons can communicate telepathically."
"Exactly," Ashara said. "In other words, it's almost impossible to lower it from the inside. Why do you think Trelidor lets me roam free? There's nowhere to run."
"How about opposing it with willpower?" Cole asked.
"You would need an army of Ethermancers for that," Ashara said. "That's the thing about sigils. You can infuse your will more than one time. And I know Trelidor spent months on this."
He'd been afraid of that. Clan Reverius had commissioned this shield during an age when Ethermancy was commonplace. There was no point in building a shield this large if someone could walk up and break it.
A figure appeared in the arched doorway. He had the brown skin and white hair of a Palavan—probably one of Trelidor's personal guards.
Cole only spared the man a glance before returning to his book.
"Princess Solidor," the man called out in his accented voice. "High Emperor Trelidor commands your presence."
"Of course." Ashara rose from her bench. "Lead the way."
Cole left the palace twenty minutes later. When he was a boy, his family had actually lived here in the staff apartments. He wasn't important enough for that now. In fact, no one seemed to be. The palace had over three-hundred sleeping chambers, and most of them were empty from what he could tell. Apparently, all the emperor's trusted subjects were off fighting his wars.
Just as well, there was work to be done. The sort of work best done away from watchful eyes.
He and the other staff members lined up in the courtyard while the guards opened a small segment of the shield. With the palace behind him, he stepped down the city's main thoroughfare. Despite the late hour, crowds went about their business between the massive sandstone buildings. Thousands of crystal lamps shone within the windows, staining the mists with bursts of orange and yellow.
In a way, the city looked more impressive than it ever had before. Their enemy had gone to great lengths to ensure that.
The worst part was, it worked. The humans—who had fought so hard to be free of Aeon tyrants—now spoke as if they lived in a new golden age. After the Clansmeet, Cole had assumed their enemy lacked subtlety. Nothing could be more wrong.
Trelidor had killed thousands that night, but no one could prove it. He claimed they were close to peace until the Templars intervened, led by their hatred of Aeons.
Even now, he conquered the remaining cities in the name of peace and unity.
The train rolled by on its steel track above the road, pulling into the nearby station. Like the emperor's shield, Trelidor's sigilcrafters had reinstated the trains shortly after conquering the city.
Some nights, Cole rode the train back home. The palace sat on the city's western edge overlooking the ocean, while the slums were located on the outer ring to the east. Depending on the day, that walk could take up to an hour.
Still, Cole passed the train station and broke into a jog. It was the last thing he wanted after spending all day on his feet, but he would need that strength for the battles to come.
Unlike the rest of Sunfall, he knew this so-called peace was a lie.
The damp night air filled his lungs as he ran, and his thoughts wandered to Raidenwood, half a world away. Supposedly, the Raiden twins had re-taken their city, though no one knew how. The Solidors had also returned with their airship and begun pushing back the Palavan army.
Cole's Spymaster, Marabella Lawguard, was also convinced that Nahlia had come back from Valaysia with Thane. That probably meant Lyraina was with them too.
A part of him wished he were there with the others. Invading armies were far more manageable than unbreakable shields and immortal emperors. Besides, it seemed unlikely that any of them would last more than another year. If these were to be Cole's last days, he would rather spend them with Nahlia.
But he also meant what he said before. Someone had to infiltrate the palace and hit Trelidor where he was most vulnerable. It may have been a long shot—especially after their defeat in Dragonshard—but it was the best chance they had.
He'd become a Templar to free his kind from oppressive tyrants. Now, he would either finish what he'd started or die trying.
The streets grew darker as he jogged farther from the palace. Eventually, he reached the slums on the city's outer ring. A small shop served as the Templar's base of operations here. Like most structures on this street, the exterior was patched together with planks of rough wood. The shop appeared to be one story tall, and the sign was barely readable.
He walked down the side alley and knocked a quick rhythm on the back door. A young recruit opened it a second later, and Cole stepped inside.
Foster and the other Templar Officers had all gathered in the backroom for drinks. Mara wasn't with them, which probably meant she was communicating with her contacts in the Ethereal. Hopefully, she'd bring better news than he did.
Cole murmured a quick greeting to the officers as he walked through the dining area toward the back storage rooms. The shelves here were clean and organized—a stark contrast to the building's rickety exterior. He shut the door behind him, pulled a hidden lever on the wall, and slid aside a shelf to reveal a secret stairway.
The basement was twice as wide as the main floor, and far better maintained. Chancellor Brighton had created this place two years ago in anticipation of Trelidor's conquest. He'd known the Templars would eventually lose control of the palace, so he'd moved his most important resources here.
A massive oaken table filled the room. Various tubes, vials, and alchemical equipment covered the service, and a few shards of Etherite sat at the center. It wasn't much, but it was more wealth than any human had seen in recorded history.
Bookshelves lined every wall, filled with hundreds of books the Chancellor had moved from the palace library. Here, armed with all the knowledge and resources they could imagine, Cole and the Templars were about to do the impossible.
They were going to become Aeons.