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.
She'd have to close the curtains soon before the glare gave her a headache. For now, she was too busy sorting through the piles of old books. There were journals and pocket maps no bigger than her hands, and thick manuscripts as wide as a dragon's foot. They came in every color imaginable, from simple brown leather to shades of red, blue, and green.
This collection was all that remained of the town's chapel after the Templars turned it to a pile of rubble. That was half a decade ago, but the mayor had taken his sweet time before donating it to the library.
Her knees ached from crawling around the flagstone floor, and her skirt must have been a dusty mess. Nahlia gathered her recent findings, rose to her feet, and placed them on the table with the others. These were mostly logic and rhetoric books—safe subjects that didn't end up in bonfires.
As for the other table, she'd reserved that for the restricted books. For now, there wasn't much there. Just a few recent historical accounts. Those were probably fine, but the librarian would want to look through them herself—make sure they lined up with whatever stories the Republic spun.
In theory, any books about Aeons or Ethermancy should end up there too. Now, if only she could find one. It was probably too much to hope for an Ethermancy manual. Even her mother never had books that rare. Still, she'd settle for a harmless collection of Aeon myths. Was that so much to ask?
Had someone else already sorted through these? Did the mayor not trust the librarians to do it? For Aegon's sake, forbidden books were half the reason she became a librarian's apprentice in the first place. More than half the reason, if she was being honest.
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.
She knelt on the floor and pulled it out from the pile. 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 brittle as autumn leaves between her fingers.
Still, this was it. This was a real tome of Aeon lore, just like the ones her mother used to read her. Her heart continued racing, and her breath caught in her throat. The mere act of holding this was enough to send her back to simpler times.
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 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 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. She slammed the tome shut and spun around.
"Nahlia?" Miss Cadwell poked her head in the doorway a second later. Northshire's librarian was a thin, bespectacled woman on the kinder side of fifty. She gave Nahlia an odd look as she stepped inside the room. "You alright there?"
"I'm fine." Nahlia's answer came out as if she'd rehearsed it a thousand times. Belatedly, she realized that she'd hidden the copy of Aeonica behind her back.
Well done. As if you could be any more suspicious.
The librarian stifled a laugh. "Reading a romance novel this evening, are we? Perhaps something on the steamier side?"
Nahlia let out a breath, and the tension poured out of her like water down a drain. "Guilty as charged."
"Well then, when you're late for work this evening, you can tell your father it's not my fault for once."
"Late?" She glanced at 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?
"I'd run if I were you," Cadwell said as she vanished back down the hall.
Once the older woman had left, Nahlia took her discovery, wrapped it inside her cloak, and buried it in her locker. Cadwell took her job seriously, and she wouldn't hesitate to hand this forbidden book over to the constables. Nahlia would come back tomorrow with her satchel, then she could sneak it out without suspicion.
With the book hidden, Nahlia rushed through the main stacks and out the double oaken doors. She suppressed a shiver and crossed her arms, already missing her cloak. Her barmaid's uniform consisted of only a simple white blouse, a gray linen skirt, and a matching vest. Hardly enough to keep 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 the path, and she could barely make out the iron rails beneath the layers of green. Northshire's older residents remembered the day these tracks were built, but they'd never seen an actual train. Only the Aeons knew how to build or power machines like that.
Little chance of that happening now.
The bridge ended, and she stepped back onto the cobblestones. From there, she took a sharp turn into an alleyway, only to collide face-first with a tall man in a gray military coat.
"Oh." The man reached out a hand to stabilize her. "Pardon me, miss."
"No, I'm sorry." Nahlia stepped back and brushed away several loose strands of her auburn hair. "It was my fault."
The man looked to be five or six years older than her father. A graying beard framed the bottom half of his face, and a metallic mask covered the top.
"Well," he said with a polite smile, "don't let me keep you." He stepped aside, making a grand show of gesturing her forward. The movement revealed a saber on his belt, along with something curved and wooden near his chest. A pistol?
Nahlia returned his smile and carried on at a slower pace. If she wasn't careful, she might plow over an old lady next. Or a crowd of schoolchildren.
Still ... there was something off about that stranger. Many mercenaries carried sabers, but only the wealthiest could afford firearms. She'd seen a handful of pistols in the North, and those all belonged to noblemen traveling from Dresten. This man's clothing wasn't quite fine enough for a nobleman.
There was another possibility that might explain things...
No. Father's paranoia is rubbing off on you. They'd been safe in this city for almost seven years, and they'd been careful that whole time. No reason to jump at shadows now. The stranger was a well-off 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. 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. Craftsmen and winemakers filled the common room, along with a handful of travelers she didn't recognize.
"There she is," her father called out from behind the bar. "I was starting to worry."
"Sorry." Nahlia leaned on the counter to catch her breath. "Got distracted again."
"Ah." He chuckled, running a hand through his light brown hair. "Retribution for all those times I made you read as a child?"
"Something like that." She rolled up her sleeves and fastened her apron. "Cadwell seemed worried on my behalf."
"Naturally." He poured several shots of whiskey. "Employers had standards 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."
"Hilarious." She narrowed her eyes, suppressing a grin. "I'm relieved to know old age hasn't spoiled your sense of humor, Father."
She considered telling him about the suspicious man in the alleyway. He knew more people in this town than she did. He might—
"Hey, Aaron!" One of the regulars knocked his empty mug on the bar. "How 'bout a refill down here?"
Father turned to address his customers, and Nahlia missed her chance. Instead, she 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. He handled his butcher's cleaver with such ferocity, it was like a glimpse into his former life. But 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 uneventfully as the patrons came and went. Before long, the bustling crowd dwindled down to a handful of tables.
She was walking past one of these groups when a boy clattered through the Moonstone's front door. He shot past her and flung himself onto one of the oaken stools. What was his name again? Will? Wilhelm? She could never remember. The other winemakers just called him 'boy,' despite the fact he was well over sixteen.
"What's with you?" One man asked through a mouthful of bread.
"I saw them again," Will announced to the world in general.
"More of those Templars."
The last word made Nahlia freeze where she stood, and she struggled to hear the rest over the uproar of objections.
"You're crazy, boy," a deeper voice replied over the ruckus. It was Hawkwood, one of Northshire's best rangers. "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.
"Dark leather armor," Hawkwood deadpanned. "Well then, I stand corrected. What mercenary wears dark leather armor?"
"The Onyx Company does," a stuffy merchant offered. "So does Blackdawn, I believe."
"Rhetorical question," Hawkwood muttered.
"Forget the armor," Will said. "I saw their sigils too. Two rifles in a—"
"You got that close?" A woman's voice broke in.
"It wasn't Templars," Hawkwood rumbled through his dark beard. "Northshire's too far from the Republic. Nothing for them out here."
"What if they're hunting an Aeon?" Will suggested.
"Northshire's no place for Aeons either."
The conversation devolved further as Will and the others argued over what an Aeon looked like. It turned out none of them had ever seen one—at least not knowingly. They proved this by venturing several outrageous guesses.
According to Will, all Aeons had bright glowing eyes, colored hair, and facial tattoos. Meanwhile, Hawkwood claimed they were indistinguishable from humans. Any differences were subtle. Not to mention optional.
"For all we know," he said, "this very inn could be full of them."
Nahlia preferred Will's answer. Mostly because his ignorance was reassuring. If the boy couldn't tell an Aeon from a human, then he probably couldn't tell a Templar from a mercenary. The man she saw in the alley could have belonged to half-a-dozen different mercenary groups.
Having heard enough, Nahlia picked up her tray and headed for a new table. She barely made it three steps before another voice caught her attention.
She turned around to face a dark-clad stranger in the corner. He was six or seven years older than her. Short black hair framed his face, and his skin was sun-darkened olive in the firelight. How did he know her name? He'd probably overheard the regulars talking. Still, that didn't make it any less creepy.
"Yes?" Nahlia asked. "Did you need a refill or something?"
The stranger set aside a steaming beverage that smelled like coffee, then he leaned forward in his seat. "No. I was hoping we could talk."
Nahlia raised an eyebrow.
This time, she actually laughed. Some girls liked the dark and sinister type, but she'd had enough danger in her life. Besides, of all the overeager travelers this month, he was by far the least creative. "I'm sorry, but no."
The stranger frowned.
"Look, even if I were interested, do you see that menacing war veteran behind the bar? That's my overprotective father."
"Ah." Understanding flashed in the stranger's eyes. "I didn't mean for it to come out that way."
"I'm sure you didn't." She gave him a small wave as she turned to leave.
The man rose from his stool and placed a hand on her shoulder.
Nahlia narrowed her eyes as she spun back around. "Did you think I was exaggerating about my—"
"The boy's right," he interrupted. "The Templars will be in Northshire tomorrow morning. You and your father need to leave before then."
"Excuse me?" Nahlia tried to keep her face relaxed, but a shudder ran up her spine. She could feel her eyes widening with guilt, and her cheeks flushing.
"You are Nahlia Cole, aren't you?"
Her blood froze at the sound of her name. Her real name.
Everyone in town knew her as Nahlia, but her family had given a false surname when they moved here seven years ago. She hadn't heard the name Cole in almost a decade. Not even in whispers.
She glanced left and right. "You know, I think we should go someone private after all."
The stranger nodded once. "Of course. Lead the way"
She walked along the bar toward the kitchen. The wooden floors creaked behind her as the stranger followed.
Her father took notice of them at once. When their eyes touched, Nahlia brought two fingers to her collarbone, making the sign for danger.
Once they'd passed into the privacy of the kitchen, Father grabbed the stranger by the arms and restrained him from behind. In the same moment, Uncle Locke stepped forward and brought the tip of his cleaver to the man's throat.
"Who the hell are you?" Father whispered in the stranger's ear. His eyes were hard, with no trace of the friendly innkeeper remaining.
"Easy," he said. "My name's Thane. I came here to warn you."
"Warn us?" Uncle Locke twisted his blade. "Or threaten us?"
Thane took a deep breath, and his voice came out calmer than she'd expected. "There are four squads of Templars camped outside the city. Southwest, on the other side of the Arda. They'll be here tomorrow."
"So?" Father asked. "What's that to us?"
"He knows our real name," Nahlia broke in.
Her father tightened his grip on the man's arm. "Explain."
"I'm an Aeon," Thane said.
"You're full of horseshit," Locke shot back. "Your eyes are darker than mine."
"That's because I'm wearing voidcap."
"You darken your eyes with voidcap," Father deadpanned. "Then you try to convince us you're an Aeon?"
Locke gave a humorless chuckle. "There's a bloody expensive mistake if I ever heard one."
"Check my coinpurse," Thane said. "You'll find a vial inside."
With his free hand, Locke reached into the stranger's dark cloak and removed the purse. He tossed to Nahlia, and she dumped out the contents on the nearest table. A dozen coins glimmered in the lamplight. Some of them were silver, but most were gold.
Aegon. The Moonstone Inn barely made this much in a year. Here this man was, carrying it around as pocket change.
Among the coins, she spotted a glass vial with some dark brown oil inside. Nahlia hadn't heard the term 'voidcap' until tonight. However, she vaguely recalled her mother putting a similar oil in her eyes when they'd crossed through Raidenwood. Of course, Nahlia couldn't have been older than five or six at the time, so the details were fuzzy.
Slowly, she unstoppered the vial and brought it to her nose. "Smells like ... saffron?"
Apparently this was the right answer because Father released his grip on the stranger's arms.
Thane adjusted his cloak and turned to face Nahlia. "I'm sorry for the scare. I didn't realize your names were a secret."
Right. As if they'd just been living on hopes and wishes these past ten years.
Locke lowered his cleaver, but he didn't put it away. "Are the Templars here for you?"
"No." Thane shook his head. "They're here for Nahlia."
Locke shot a casual glance in her direction. "What? Is she wearing voidcap too?"
"You already know the answer to that."
Her father took a step closer to the stranger. The other man wasn't short, but her father still towered over him by several inches. "And the Templars?"
"They know there's a half-Aeon girl living in town," he replied. That's all. They're moving north toward Dresten, so—"
"So they don't know her name?" he interjected. "Or mine?"
Thane shook his head again. "I learned that much from Aeon spies."
Uncle Locke scratched at his dark brown beard. "And what's your interest in all this?"
"Good question." Father crossed his thick arms.
Before Thane could answer, Will's voice erupted from the common room.
"There!" he exclaimed. "Outside. Now tell me those aren't Templars."
A tremble ran through Nahlia's hands and down to her knees. Slowly, she crept over to the kitchen's front window. At first, she saw nothing outside. Just blackness, and the glow of the oil lamp reflecting from the hazy glass.
She used her blouse sleeve to wipe away a layer of fog. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw them. Half-a-dozen leather-clad figures approaching the Moonstone Inn.
Father was behind her a second later. "Damnit." He turned back to Thane. "Tomorrow morning, huh?"
For the first time since they met, Thane's eyes widened in uncertainty.
Nahlia turned to see Uncle Locke removing a pair of 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!"
Father narrowed his eyes, considering. "They don't know her name, or even what she looks like."
"What?" Locke gestured a hatchet in Thane's direction. "You're gonna take Coinpurse's word for that?"
"Of course not," he said. "But It's better to hide in plain sight. No Templar would recognize our faces, short of the Knight Commander himself."
"Whatever you say." Locke offered her father a dagger but he shook his head, gesturing to the one on his belt.
He offered it to Nahlia next, but she gestured down to her skirt. "What am I supposed to do with that? Strap it to my thigh like a Sunfall courtesan?"
"I've heard worse ideas tonight," Locke muttered.
"Seriously"—she turned to her father—"what should I do when they come in?"
"Stay right here," he told her. "Keep quiet until we find out what they want." He turned to Thane next. "As for you, we have a back door over there."
Thane needed no encouragement. He brushed the coins and vial back into his purse and slipped out into the night.
"Okay." Nahlia let out a long breath as she turned back to her father. "And what about you?"
Before he could answer, the front door swung open with a groan, and several pairs of boots stepped inside.