Evening settled over the Northshire library, and Nahlia sat curled up in her favorite chair by the window. Her eyes danced over the familiar words of Aeonica and the stories she knew by heart.
This single book had fed her a thousand legends about the Aeon race: the powers they wielded, the wars they started, and the empires they ruled. The copy was old and worn, with a web of cracks and tears scattered across its leather cover. Pages had been torn out over the years, and those that remained felt as dry and brittle as autumn leaves between her fingers.
Nahlia flipped through to the end, revealing a spread of full-color illustrations. She cradled her chin as she admired a painting of Treluwyn, The First Redeemer. The famous Aeon woman knelt over the body of a fallen warrior in the midst of some great battle. Smoke and dust choked the air above, and the ground beneath her was solid ice. With a palm pressed to the warrior's open heart, Treluwyn had healed his fatal wound.
Like Nahlia, the woman had pale skin and long, auburn hair. Only her eyes were different. While Nahlia's eyes were a dark, forest green, Treluwyn had the eyes of a full-blooded Aeon. Bright, blue, and clear as sapphires.
Nahlia had spent hours admiring these illustrations, just as she had spent hours reading the stories. If they were history or myth, she couldn't say. Still, with blessed little else to do in a town like Northshire, she often daydreamed about wielding the powers of these ancient Aeons. Sometimes, she got so caught up in her reading and daydreaming that she would—
"Nahlia?" a female voice called her name, followed by a tap on her shoulder.
She jumped and turned to see the librarian, Miss Cadwell, standing behind her. Concerned gray eyes glanced down at her behind from a pair of half-moon spectacles. "It's past sixth bell, dear. Shouldn't you be off to work by now?"
"What?" Nahlia's gaze darted toward the clock tower outside. Quarter past six. Had she really been that distracted? Losing track of time was one thing, but not hearing the bell? That was too strange, even for her.
Nahlia sprang to her feet. She closed the book and began organizing the cluster of yellowed parchments and tomes that littered her desk.
"Don't worry about those," Miss Cadwell told her. "They'll be here tomorrow when you return."
Nahlia paused midcleanup. "Are you sure? I'd hate to leave a mess behind."
"Quite," the librarian assured her as she gestured toward the copy of Aeonica. "We don't get many visitors, and you're the only one who takes an interest in these anyway." She made a shooing motion with her hands. "Run along now. Hurry, you're already late as it is."
"Thank you so much," Nahlia said. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
Outside, the evening air was cold and dark. Nahlia suppressed a shiver and crossed her arms, silently scolding herself for forgetting her cloak. Her barmaid's uniform consisted of a simple white blouse, a gray linen skirt, and a matching vest. Hardly enough to keep her warm this time of year.
The last rays of twilight filled the town square, punctuated by lamplight spilling from tavern doorways. The cobblestone streets shone with fresh rainwater, reflecting the lights of the town and the violet sky above.
Her route took her past various shops and houses, historic buildings and autumn-bronzed trees. Nahlia broke into a jog when she reached an open stretch of road. She took a sharp turn into an alleyway, only to collide face-first with a tall man in a gray plated military coat.
"Oh." The man reached out a hand to stabilize her. "Pardon me, miss."
"No, I'm sorry," Nahlia replied. She stepped back and brushed away several loose strands of her auburn hair. "It was my fault."
She estimated the man to be five or ten years older than her father. A thick gray beard framed a face otherwise hidden beneath a metallic mask. He gave her a courteous smile and stepped aside, making a grand show of gesturing her forward.
Nahlia returned his smile and carried on. There was something ... off about this stranger. The sword and dagger at his belt suggested he was a mercenary, but his clothes were too light and too fine for any Northerner. What's more... something about his voice felt familiar. Could he be...
No. Nahlia shook her head, pushing away her paranoia before it could take root. The stranger was a mercenary. Nothing more, and certainly no cause for concern.
She reached the Moonstone Inn a few minutes later. It was a large building by Northshire standards. Standing three stories high, it had a bright wooden facade and a blue-shingled rooftop. Elegant and simple. The perfect place to call home.
The warmth of the fireplace greeted her as she entered, along with the familiar smells of baking bread, steaming hot soup and cold ale. The usual rabble filled the common room; farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and a handful of new travelers whom Nahlia didn't recognize.
"There you are," her father called out from behind the bar. His hulking frame towered over the clientele, and he waved a heavily muscled arm at her. "I was beginning to worry."
"Sorry," Nahlia said, leaning on the bar to catch her breath. "I got distracted again."
"I see." Her father chuckled, running a hand through his light brown hair. "Retribution for all those times I made you read as a child?"
"Something like that." Nahlia rolled up her sleeves and fastened her apron. "Miss Cadwell practically forced me out the door. I think she was concerned that my own father might fire me for tardiness."
"Naturally," he said, pouring several shots of whiskey. "That's how things worked when she was your age. Speaking of which, you're seventeen now—Isn't it about time I traded you off to some eligible young bachelor for a pair of oxes?"
"Oxen," Nahlia corrected.
"I take it back," he said at once. "Make that a single ox."
"Very funny." She narrowed her eyes, suppressing a grin. "I'm relieved to know old age hasn't spoiled your sense of humor, Father."
Nahlia considered telling him about the suspicious man in the alleyway, but she missed the chance as one of the regulars knocked his empty mug on the mahogany bar.
"Hoy, Cole! How 'bout a refill down here, yeah?"
He turned to address his customers, and Nahlia headed for the back of the inn.
The kitchen was wide, warm and well-lit. A set of stoves ran along the back wall, and in the corner loomed a massive hearth, big enough to roast a boar. Uncle Locke stood at a wooden table in the room's center, slicing away at several slabs of red meat. The older man handled his butcher's cleaver with such ferocity, it was like a glimpse into his former life. But of course, he never spoke of the war. Neither did Father, for that matter.
Nahlia greeted her uncle and began filling her serving tray with bread and soup. As her body performed its routine tasks, her mind returned to faraway lands, to dreams and adventure as a powerful Aeon. The hours passed by uneventful as the patrons came and went. Before long, the bustling dinner crowd dwindled down to only a handful of tables.
Nahlia was walking past one of these groups when a boy came clattering through the doors of the inn. He shot past her and flung himself into one of the long oak stools amongst the other field workers. What was his name again? Will? Wilhelm? It was so hard to remember. The other farmers just called him 'boy,' despite the fact that he was well over sixteen with the first signs of a blonde beard sprouting on his face.
"What's with you?" One man said through a mouthful of bread.
"I saw them again," Will announced to the inn in general.
"More of those military folk."
"Aye," another voice murmured. "Seen 'em all around town, those ones. Went in the library less than an hour ago."
Nahlia strolled past the group and set down an order of coffee for a man at a nearby table. The mug was scalding hot between her palms, and it smelled like Eternity.
"Who do you suppose they are?" A woman's voice joined the conversation behind her.
"This might sound crazy," Will continued in a conspiratorial whisper, "but I think they're Templars."
The word made Nahlia freeze where she stood, and she struggled to hear anything else over the uproar of objections.
"You're right," a deeper voice replied over the ruckus. It was Hawkwood, one of Northshire's best rangers. "You're crazy, boy."
"I saw their camp," Will protested. "Out near Foxfield, by the river. The ones out there were in full armor—bright and silver—with the Templar sigils on their shields and everything."
Still listening, Nahlia pulled out a white linen rag and began scrubbing at a wine stain on a nearby table.
"You got close enough to look?" The woman's voice again.
"Northshire's too far from the Republic," Hawkwood rumbled through a dark forest of a beard. "Nothin' for them here."
"What if they're hunting an Aeon?" Will suggested. "Sure seems like it, the way they've been searching."
"Northshire's no place for Aeons either. You probably just saw some fancy nobleman's bodyguards.."
"No place for Aeons, you say?" A silence fell over the larger table, and they all turned to see a dark-clad stranger in the corner. Short black hair framed his face, and his skin was sun-darkened olive in the dim firelight.
The stranger took a casual sip of his coffee before continuing. "So tell me then... have you ever seen an Aeon before?"
"'Course I haven't seen an Aeon." Hawkwood took a proud swig from his mug. "And fine by me if I never do. They're probably all dead by now anyway."
"Fair enough," The stranger said, sipping his own drink. "Although it begs the question: if you've never seen an Aeon, how would you know if you did?"
Hawkwood was silent for several heartbeats, and Will jumped at the opportunity. "They have bright eyes."
"Aye." Another man nodded sagely. "Eyes that glow."
"And glowing tattoos," Will continued. "The stories say they're more beautiful than any human—that the Templars can spot them in a crowd."
"Heh. Beautiful..." The old ranger gave a rare smile as he gestured lazily around the table. "And that's more than I can say for this lot."
"Perhaps that can be said for some," the stranger conceded. "But I was in there in Sunguard at the end of the war. I witnessed all manner of Aeons being slaughtered by the Templars. Not just the nobility and the warriors, but the innocent children as well."
His resonate voice continued to quiet the rest of the common room, drawing them in as he spoke. Even Nahlia stopped scrubbing her table to listen more intently.
"I can tell you one thing for certain. Aeons come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some may have obvious signs, but others have their methods of blending in. And those that do appear no different from humans. And in the end, they scream and they bleed... just like humans."
A short silence followed just as the rain began to fall again, clattering on the Moonstone's glass windows
Will looked around the room as if seeing everyone for the first time. "So the Templars could be hunting any one of us."
"Precisely," the stranger said. "It could be you. It could be the innkeeper... even that barmaid over there." He caught Nahlia staring at him and flashed her a smirk. She darted her eyes back down to the table, now spotless of stains.
The conversation devolved as Will and the others argued over the appearance of Aeons, and whether those were actually Templars camped outside of town.
Having heard enough, Nahlia picked up her tray and headed for a new table. She hardly made it three steps before Will's voice erupted again.
"There!" he exclaimed, pointing out the window. "Now tell me they aren't Templars."
A tremble ran through her hands and down to her knees, and Nahlia had to set down her tray before she dropped it.
She made her way over to the window where a small crowd had already gathered. At first she saw nothing. Just blackness, and the glow of the oil lamps reflecting back at her from the hazy glass window.
Nahlia used the sleeve of her blouse to wipe away a layer of fog. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw them. The silver-clad figures were tall and menacing in the night, like ancient statues brought to life. Slowly but surely, they were approaching the Moonstone Inn.
"Nahlia!" her father's voice snapped from across the common room.
Nahlia turned to see him beckoning her behind the bar. She tried to appear nonchalant as she followed him.
"What's going on?" she asked once they were in the privacy of the kitchen.
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "It could be nothing..."
"I don't understand... what are they doing here?" As soon as the words left her mouth, Nahlia realized how naive they sounded. Ever since the Revolution ended, the Templar Order had existed for one purpose; to hunt down and kill the remaining Aeon survivors.
Templars in Northshire could only mean one thing: they were here for her.
She turned to see Uncle Locke pulling his two hatchets out from inside a cabinet. "You should get Nahlia out of here," he told his brother.
"No," he said. "Not yet."
"What do you mean 'not yet?' They're right outside!"
"We don't know why they're here," he retorted. "They could be passing through, hunting someone else."
"You really want to take that chance?"
"I know how they work," Father said. "Trust me. It's better to hide in plain sight."
"Then what do I do?" Nahlia finally asked.
"Stay right here," he told her. "Keep out of sight until we find out what they want ... what they know."
"I understand." Nahlia nodded. "What about you?"
Before he could answer, the door of the Moonstone Inn swung open with a groan, and several pairs of heavy boots clomped inside.