Ciena Raider emerged from the tunnels of lower Whitecliff onto her new clan plateau. It was smaller than Wolfe Clan's by several yards, and the buildings were all crammed together. While her old plateau overlooked the Gorge and the river, Howler Clan's faced a cliffside of jagged rock where an avalanche of ice mingled with mud and tree roots.
Her new comrades lounged around the campfire just as they had the night before. The dueling ring sat unused beneath an inch of snow while the nine of them laughed and drank and played cards.
Is this all they ever do? No wonder we've beaten these fools for three years straight.
They ignored her as she passed through to her bedchamber. While Ciena still trained with them in all official clan activities, they acted as if she didn't exist.
They're obviously jealous. Even if her days in Wolfe Clan were over, she was still one of the enclave's top duelists. Her family was also wealthy and powerful. Direct descendants of the Archaeon Raiden. Few others had blood as pure as hers. And nobody—not even her brother— trained as hard as she did.
"You know, you're still welcome to eat with us," Elias had said earlier that evening. "You were transferred, not banished."
She narrowed her eyes at their usual table near the hearth. Nahlia and Relyn sat there giggling like the shallow schoolgirls they were. Gossiping about her, no doubt.
"I'll pass." She leaned her chair against the brick wall. "I prefer a seat where no one can stab me in the back."
"You're still on about that?" Elias sighed as he fell into the chair across from her. "Vash had a good enough reason for separating us."
"Seriously?" Ciena gave him a flat look. "Don't tell me you're as naive as the others."
"Naive ... meaning, anyone who disagrees with your opinion?"
"Anyone who can't see a pile of horseshit for what it is. Relyn Vash may put on a show of acting cute and friendly, but she does everything for a reason. That includes befriending stray half-bloods and bringing them home." She pointed an accusing finger in Nahlia Cole's direction. "Bloody hell, just look at that girl. She doesn't belong in a battleclan."
Elias seemed to consider that for a moment. "We all had to start somewhere."
"Right," Ciena said, "and it's called a bloody classroom. Vash would never have put her in Wolfe Clan if his niece hadn't asked him to. Can we at least agree on that?"
"Then I think it's also fair to assume she played a role in me getting transferred."
"Sounds like false causality to me," Elias said with a shake of his head. "And you're crazy if you think she wanted you gone. Why sabotage her own clan right before this season's opening battleground?"
"What other possibility is there? What other reason..." She trailed off, eying the half-blood through the crowd of students. "Unless she's a Templar spy, and Vash is having her—"
"Oh, for Aegon's sake." Her brother ran a hand over his right temple. "First you call her incompetent, now you think she managed to fool both Mother and the White Council? You can't have it both ways, Ciena."
"Maybe not." She stabbed a piece of meat with her fork. "But something is off about that girl."
"The Templars forced her from her home," Elias said. "Now she's trying to make the best of it. I think we can both relate to that." He glanced back at Wolfe Clan's table, and his gaze lingered for several nauseating seconds.
"Well." Ciena leaned back and crossed her arms. "I can see you're making the best of things. Are tavern wenches your type now, or is she the only woman left in this enclave who you haven't—"
"Alright." Elias stood, picking up his tray of food. "Nice talking to you, dear sister."
Ciena smiled sweetly, waving her fingers as he left. "See you in the battlegrounds, brother."
She spent the next hour training in the Gorge by herself. It was a perfect night to clear her mind and quench the emotions that threatened to weigh her down.
A thin blanket of snow covered the valley floor while the sky above was cloudless and speckled with stars. The cluster of Raiden's Blade floated in the north, a beacon to focus her will. Legends claimed the Archaeon wielded a sword of pure red Etherite, sharp enough to slice through steel. Whether such a weapon existed, she could never say. Regardless, Raiden was the greatest warrior who ever lived, and she was his heir.
She didn't need Elias, or Relyn, or any of the others. Her ancestors valued strength above all else. That was why history remembered them.
Howler Clan would suit her needs just fine. All she had to do now was take control of it.
Back in her bedchamber, Ciena stripped out of her red parka and changed into her dueling fatigues. Unlike her clan battledress, these were custom-tailored—black leather with crimson trim. The arms were left bare, and there was a circular opening between her shoulder blades that showed off the tattoo of her clan sigil.
She tugged on a pair of combat boots, striding over to the hearth where her two weapons shone golden in the firelight. These were custom made as well, gifts from her parents on her sixteenth birthday.
The first was her training staff, solid steel with blunted blades. Crafted by the top smithies in Dresten, It was far lighter than the clumsy training blades provided by the academy.
The second was a true masterpiece—her father's old weapon from his days in the emperor's honor guard. It had a gold-dyed leather grip in the center, with a crimson-colored blade. The steel was over two hundred years old, forged in Sunfall, and strengthened by dragon fire.
Unfortunately, Ciena couldn't use the latter against Howler Clan's captain. In fact, she'd never fought anyone with this before. Sharpened steel was prohibited in student duels. Even so, she held the weapon every night before bed, imagining herself to be as strong and fierce as Raiden, longing for the day when the blade could finally taste the blood of her enemies. The Templars ... Uncle Cladius.
She grabbed her training staff and began applying the yuchani poison with a white linen rag. This was standard practice before all duels and battlegrounds. A direct hit with a poisoned blade caused temporary paralysis at the point of infection, leaving any limb struck all but useless. This let them incapacitate their opponents without the bother of broken bones
Ciena slid open the wooden door and stepped into the cool evening air. The rest of Howler Clan sat right where she'd left them, laughing and drinking around the fire without a care in the world. Snow crunched beneath her boots as she strode into the dueling circle. The laughter ceased when they saw her.
Ciena only stared at them, listening to the crackling flames and feeling the mountain wind in her red-gold hair.
Kalak Demeron broke the silence first. Howler Clan's captain was built like a tower, with close-cut brown hair and a neatly groomed beard. "Can I help you with something, Raider?"
She took a deep breath. "Yes, as a matter of fact—"
"Sorry," he said. "That was a rhetorical question. What I meant to say was piss off."
This earned him a laugh from his comrades. Their drunken eyes wandered back and forth between the two of them.
Ciena remained unfazed—she'd been expecting this. You couldn't transfer to a rival clan after four years without some friction.
She cleaned her throat. "As I was saying, I'd like to go up against Wolfe Clan for the opening match on Raidenday."
"You know," Demeron continued as if she hadn't spoken. "When I said I wanted a woman in my clan, I was hoping for someone a little less..." He pointed at her, searching for the word.
No one spoke, though they all shared a nod of agreement and a knowing laugh. Of course, Ciena knew this joke all too well. She'd never been the prettiest girl at the dance, and she never would be. Everyone said it behind her back, and her mirror offered no illusions. She was taller than half of the men here, and stronger than many of them too.
Except for her brother, of course. Aegon in all his cruelty had given him the superior strength and the looks. Not to mention respect and acceptance. When he'd wanted to learn combat, their parents had accepted it without question. Ciena, on the other hand, had to convince them. She had to fight for everything, even fighting itself.
The laughter continued, pulling her back to the present. Her heart beat faster inside her jerkin, but her face betrayed nothing. "You finished?"
Demeron's eyes narrowed. "Look Raider, whatever it is you want, you're not getting it. You may strut around this enclave like you own the place, but you're in my clan now. And in my clan, you follow my orders."
"Well then." Ciena stood taller and more formal. "We can settle this easily enough. Kalak Demeron, I declare you unfit to lead, and I challenge you for the position of Howler Clan captain."
"What?" His eyes widened. If his mouth had been full of wine, he might have even spit it out. "Now?"
"Why not?" she said with a shrug. "The rules clearly state that anyone can challenge the captain with a simple duel. If you refuse, you forfeit. The only exceptions being—"
"Yeah, yeah." He waved his hand. "I know the rules, Raider."
She crossed her arms. "Well?"
"I've been drinking." He gestured to the bottle of wine at his feet. "That counts as temporary incapacitation."
Ciena stifled a laugh. "I thought you said you knew the rules? See, I already spoke with Vash tonight. Want to guess what he said about your drinking?"
Of course, she and Vash had no such conversation, but she could imagine his answer clear as glass. This rule existed to keep the clans on their toes, to reinforce the lesson that battle can strike at any moment. And while students may technically be allowed to drink, it was far from encouraged.
Demeron leaned back in his seat, studying her the way one might study a snake. "So that's your plan, huh? Wait for me to get tipsy so you can even the odds?"
"On the contrary, I'd have to wait for you to be sober. That's a problem, considering I graduate this term."
"Fine." Demeron rose to his feet. "Have it your way, Raider. But even if you win, this clan will never respect you the way they do me."
"Oh, for Aegon's sake." Ciena snatched a bottle from a dark-haired boy and chugged the last few glasses worth. The purple liquid burned her throat as it went down. She didn't drink often, and this was far stronger than anything she'd tried before.
For all that, Ciena hid her disgust. She only smiled as she cast the empty bottle in the snow. "There. We even now, captain? If not, feel free to bring some backup. I'm done listening to your bloody excuses."
Demeron returned her smile as he made for his bedchamber in the cliffside. He returned a moment later carrying a two-handed longsword. It was a ridiculous, outdated weapon from the days when wars were fought with cavalry and armored knights.
Still, ridiculous or not, that thing could shatter her bones
The duo took their positions on opposite sides of the dueling ring. Ciena scraped her boot against the stone floor, checking for ice or debris. She felt the dagger at her belt, making sure it hadn't fallen off.
As always. the two bowed to one another before beginning. Demeron rose and shifted to cobraform—sword held close, and legs poised to strike. It was an aggressive stance used for dispatching a weaker opponent.
Ciena clenched her teeth at the insult. He may have been physically stronger than her, but so was Elias. That strength was meaningless so long as he didn't land a hit.
She fell into moonform's wide, defensive stance. Let him tire, she told herself. Play it smart and save your strength.
Several heartbeats passed, then Demereon leapt forward, opening the melee with a series of powerful attacks.
Ciena blocked and countered with a flurry of her own, spinning her quarterstaff, attacking with both blades at once.
Demeron didn't back down. He continued raining down hits in quick succession.
She just barely managed to parry the last few as she danced back to safety. The battle continued in the familiar rhythm of a silent song. Even as she spun her quarterstaff, it began to feel softer in her hands... more distant.
Bloody wine. Drinking that was a mistake. To make matters worse, her opponent was far more alert than he'd let on.
Their swords clashed into a lock, and she groaned with the effort of holding him back. Now if she could just...
The other Aeon threw his shoulder into the hold, sending her flying back into a pile of snow. Aegon, but he was strong. Stronger than her brother even.
Demeron charged her while she was down, and Ciena sprang to her feet as quick as a cat.
Steel rang against steel as she blocked another series of blows. Her body reacted to every nuance of the exchange, shifting to moonform when his swings became too aggressive, chaining together the powerful strikes of lionform with the precision of hawkform whenever he left an opening.
Demeron moved in for another wave of attacks. Now at a distance, she saw that this flurry was nearly identical to the first. Her opponent was falling into the same predictable patterns and sequences. Vash had criticized Ciena for the same mistake the day before.
In the heat of battle, you were only as good as your training. Everything passed in a blur, and you rarely had time to step back and see the big picture.
But now she narrowed her eyes and watched. Every sequence began with an uppercut, then an angled cut, followed by a wide sweep. While there were a hundred variations of this same pattern, he always left his left flank exposed between the second and third strikes.
I can finish him. Just a little longer.
The torches seemed to flicker and fade as she darted forward. She couldn't see, she couldn't think. Her body moved on its own as she met him stroke for stroke.
Her patience was rewarded a second later. Demeron began the same pattern again, and she swung her staff to the expected opening. In the blink of an eye, she struck his wrist and knocked the long sword from his hands, spinning around for the final blow.
Demeron threw a punch with his left hand before she could finish him. Ciena deflected with her forearm and kicked him hard in the stomach.
He fell on his back, sending up a cloud of snow. Ciena stepped forward, bringing the tip of her staff to his throat.
Even if you win, this clan will never respect you.
His words rang in her head from only moments ago. They shouldn't have mattered, but he was right. Even if she ended the fight now, Howler Clan would still call him the better duelist. They would say she won with luck or trickery. They would make excuses and refuse to accept her as their leader.
As always, she had to work twice as hard for everything her brother did.
Demeron raised his hands in submission, and she could see the word of surrender on his lips.
Ciena cast aside her staff and stepped back. "Get up, captain. You and I aren't finished yet."
He rose to his feet, grinning in disbelief. "You're a fool, Raider."
They circled each other in silence as Demeron shook the poison from his left hand and formed it into a fist. He maintained a strong facade, but his eyes betrayed his fear. Ciena wondered if he saw the same fear on her own face.
She fell into cobraform and charged forward.
Demeron's punches came even faster than his sword strikes. She dodged and parried just as she had before.
Ciena tried to keep her distance, but he got too close. Two massive hands grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her up as if to throw her on the rocky floor.
She used the momentum to spin herself behind his head, wrapping both legs around his neck.
Demeron fell backward in an attempt to crush her beneath his weight. Ciena uncoiled her legs and flipped backward.
Her opponent spun before he could hit the floor, catching himself on his wrists and staggering forward.
He's tiring. This was her chance. Ciena summoned every ounce of her strength as she charged again. The surrounding plateau grew dark as the fire faded. She threw a series of attacks, faster than thinking. A punch to the solar plexus, a kick to the shin.
Demeron collapsed like a tree and she leaned over him, pulling out her dagger and holding it to his windpipe.
Howler Clan's former captain exhaled sharply. "I ... I yield."
Ciena looked up to face the spectators. She had to wipe the sweat from her eyes to see them nodding their understanding
With as much grace as she could muster, she walked over to her quarterstaff and picked it up.
"Who's next?" Ciena shouted at them, spinning her staff in a kata. "If any of you can defeat me now, I'll step down and let Demeron keep his title."
No one moved as they met her eyes.
"How about all of you at once then?"
Again, no one moved, and Ciena inclined her chin.
"Fine then." Her battle rage faded, and she took a good long breath to keep herself from shaking. "Now that I'm your new captain, there are going to be some changes. First, we'll run the Gorge every night after dinner. We'll also practice our dueling in the evening. You want to drink and play cards? You'll need to earn it first."
She stepped forward. "Like Demeron said before—in this clan, we follow orders. If anyone has a problem with those rules, you can leave." She used her weapon to indicate the tunnel in the cliffside.
"But for those of you who choose to stay, you should know we're going up against Wolfe Clan one week from now. If we win, we'll be the top-ranked battleclan in this enclave. And make no mistake .... we're going to destroy them."