Book 1: The Lost Redeemer
Nahlia crawled through a forest of leather and parchment, searching for forbidden knowledge. An oil lamp glowed in one corner of the room, and the last rays of sunlight speared through the library's tall glass windows.
One by one, she sorted through the stacks. There were hymn books and pocket maps no bigger than her hands, and thick manuscripts as wide as dragon feet. They came in every color imaginable, from simple brown leather to shades of blue, red, and green.
Nahlia picked up her most recent findings, rose to her feet, and placed them on the table with the others. These were mostly logic, rhetoric, and mathematics books. Safe subjects that didn't end up in bonfires.
The other table, she reserved for the restricted books. For now, she'd placed all the recent historical accounts there. Those were probably fine, but the librarian would want to look through them herself—make sure they lined up with whatever stories the Republic told.
Any book with "Aeon" or "Ethermancy" in the title should end up there as well. Now, if only she could find one. Like forbidden fruit, the words in those titles sounded sweeter than any other. The sense of longing ached in her heart like the call of home.
If not an Ethermancy manual, she'd at least hoped to find a book of Aeon myths or stories. This collection was all that remained of the town's chapel after the Templars turned it to a pile of rubble and ash. That was half a decade ago, but the mayor had taken his sweet time before donating it to the library.
Had someone else already sorted through these books before now? Did the mayor not trust the librarians? For Aegon's sake, forbidden books were half the reason she became a librarian's apprentice in the first place.
So much for that plan. Six hours of searching and...
Nahlia froze when a glint of gold caught her eye. She tilted her head to the side and read the bright embossed characters against a dark spine.
Aeonica: Volume Five.
The tome was old and worn with a web of cracks scattered across its leather cover. Her heart thundered as she opened it from the middle.
Aegon. She hadn't been this excited since her first kiss.
Several pages had been torn out over the years, leaving rough stumps in their places. Those that remained felt as dry and brittle as autumn leaves between her fingers.
Even so, this was it. This was a real tome of Aeon lore, just like the ones her mother used to read her as a child.
Nahlia flipped through to the end, revealing a spread of full-color illustrations. The first was a painting of Treluwyn, founder of the Redeemers. The famous Aeon woman knelt over the body of a fallen warrior amid some ancient 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 healed his fatal wound.
Like Nahlia, the woman had pale skin and shoulder-length red 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.
Footsteps echoed from the hallway outside. Nahlia slammed the tome shut and spun around.
"Nahla?" Miss Cadwell appeared in the doorway a moment later. Northshire's librarian was a thin, bespectacled woman on the kinder side of fifty. She gave Nahlia an odd look. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," Nahlia snapped. Just then, she realized that she'd hidden the copy of Aeonica behind her back.
Well done. You couldn't be more suspicious if you tried.
The librarian stifled a laugh. "Reading a romance novel this evening? Perhaps something on the steamier side?"
Nahlia let out a breath, and the tension poured out of her like water down a drain. She forced out a smile. "Guilty as charged."
"Well then," she replied, "when you're late for work, you can tell your father it's not my fault for once."
"Late?" Nahlia glanced at the clocktower outside. Quarter past six. Had she really been that distracted? Losing track of time was one thing, but not hearing the bell?
"I'd run if I were you," Cadwell said as she vanished back down the hall.
Once the older woman had left, Nahlia buried her discovery beneath another stack of books. Cadwell took her job seriously, and she'd waste no time before handing that book off to the constables.
With that done, Nahlia rushed through the main stacks and out the double doors. The evening air was cold and dark. She 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, historic buildings, and autumn-bronzed trees. The main bridges were crowded this time of night, so she jogged along the train track instead.
Vegetation covered her path, and she could barely make out the iron rails beneath the layers of green. Northshire's older residents told stories of the days these tracks were built, but they'd never seen an actual train. The Aeons were the only ones who knew how to build or power machines like that.
Little chance of that happening now.
Nahlia stepped back onto the cobblestones after she's crossed the bridge. From there, she took a sharp turn into an alleyway, only to collide face-first with a tall man in a gray military coat.
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 six 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 at a slower pace. If she wasn't careful, she'd run over an old lady next. Or a crowd of schoolchildren.
Still, there was something off about this stranger. The sabre at his belt suggested he was a mercenary, but his clothes were too light for any Northerner. What's more, his voice felt familiar.
Could he be...
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 hearth's warmth greeted her as she opened the door, along with the smells of baking bread and steaming hot soup. The usual rabble filled the common room—merchants, craftsmen, and a handful of new travelers she didn't recognize.
"There you are," her father called out from behind the bar. "I was beginning to worry."
"Sorry." Nahlia leaned on the counter to catch her breath. "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 seemed worried for me. As if this were the day you finally got sick of my tardiness."
"Naturally," he said, pouring several shots of whiskey. "When she was your age, employers had standards. 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."
"Hilarious." 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.
"Hey, Aaron! How 'bout a refill down here?"
Father 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 one 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 murmured a quick greeting and began filling her serving tray with bread and soup. The hours passed by uneventful after that as the patrons came and went. Before long, the bustling dinner crowd dwindled down to a handful of tables.
She was walking past one of these groups when a boy clattered through the inn's front door. He shot past her and flung himself into one of the long oaken stools. 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.
"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. It's called a mercenary company."
"I saw their camp," Will protested. "Out near Foxfield, by the river. The ones out there were in dark leather armor."
Still listening, Nahlia pulled out a white linen rag and began scrubbing at a wine stain on a nearby table.
"Leather armor," Hawkwood deadpanned. "I stand corrected, then. What mercenary wears armor?"
"Next they'll be carrying weapons," another man added with a laugh.
"And I saw their sigil," Will protested. "Two rifles in a—"
"You got close enough to look?" The woman's voice interrupted.
"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."
"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 Sunfall 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 leather-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. "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," her 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 quiet until we find out what they want."
"I understand." Nahlia nodded. "What about you?"
Before he could answer, the front door swung open with a groan, and several pairs of heavy boots stepped inside.