Moons and stars glittered past the clouds, casting faint silver light over the city. Ciena Raider stood on a wide balcony overlooking a skyline of wooden buildings and tiled rooftops. The river raged hundreds of feet below her, a lion's roar against the silence of the night.
Raidenwood once guarded the Imperium's eastern border, separating the civilized west from the wild north. A great ravine—called The Bloodrift—cut the continent in two, and Ciena's ancestor built this city over that ravine. Raiden ensured that all the Imperium’s enemies had to get past him on their conquests. He called himself the Imperium's sword and shield, claiming his place was here between his allies and his adversaries.
Ciena's parents had followed Raiden's example in Dresten. For ten years they stood guard as Whitecliff's first defense against an invasion.
Now they were gone.
She and her brother had followed Raiden’s example in Whitecliff. They stayed behind and fought the Templars while the other survivors fled the enclave in their boats.
Now, Elias was gone too. He was gone, and she had survived. Not from her own strength, but because the bullet happened to take him instead. Her brother died a warrior while she was dragged away from his body, chained up like a commoner.
Ciena stumbled under the oaken archway into the bedchamber—Elias's old room. In a weary daze, she glanced around at his old belongings. His first sword leaned against a pile of crimson training armor in the doorway. Leather-bound books covered the shelves and desks, along with candles and wooden figurines.
She broke into a cold sweat, her eyes burned, and the bedchamber spun around her.
Coming here was a mistake. A part of her wanted to break down and give up, but she pushed the weakness away.
Strength and Fortitude. Those were the words and virtues of her clan. The words of Raiden and his Justicars. She had to move on ... to keep fighting. Her family was gone forever, and sentimentality wouldn't bring them back.
Footsteps echoed outside in the corridor. Of course. No peace for the weary. Even here, she would find no rest. Just as well, she could use a good fight. Ciena grabbed the sword from the corner and yanked it free from its scabbard.
The footsteps drew closer, and a familiar voice called her name. "Ciena?"
Her mother's voice, soft and cautious as if approaching a timid deer. Ciena stepped under the arched doorway into the high-vaulted corridor. Crimson carpets covered the flagstone floor, and oil lamps hung from the pillars, painting the hall in shades of orange.
At the end of the hallway, her mother emerged from the darkness, wearing the light leather armor of a Seeker. She had golden hair pulled back in a matching headband. Her eyes were golden too, like all Raiden's descendants.
Of course, her real mother was dead. This was just a memory—a figment of her subconscious come to torment her.
"Ciena," she repeated. "Please, listen to—"
A cascade of water burst forth, cutting off her mother's words and flooding the corridor. It raced through like a stampede of horses, breaking through doors and snapping the furniture to splinters.
The column hit her mother first, sweeping her away in a rush
The water hit Ciena next with more force than she could have imagined. For a split second— caught between dreaming and reality—it felt like falling off a cliff. Like slamming face-first into a wall of solid ice.
When Ciena opened her eyes again, she was back in the physical world. She sputtered and coughed as someone hurled another bucket of water at her face. She opened her eyes to a blur of darkness.
"Damnit, Roderick," one of her captors said. "I told you not to let her sleep."
These fools thought that if they knocked her out with Fadeflower, she wouldn't dream. That sort of thinking only applied to human dreaming, but Ciena wasn't about to tell them that.
The other man laughed, tossing the bucket aside. Short hair framed his square face, and his jaw was stiff and hard like a brick. "Does it matter now? There's no one left for her to dreamwalk to."
"Huh, true enough." The first man seemed to outrank Brickjaw, though he looked several years younger. Not even a hint of stubble on his pale face.
Ciena strained against her chains, testing their strength. As always, her Templar captors took no chances. Steel manacles bound her wrists and ankles to hooks in the stone wall. Everything ached, and she was stuck in a sitting position, unable to stand or lie down. Aegon only knew how many days had passed since Whitecliff. It felt like weeks, but pain had a way of stretching time in the most uncomfortable ways.
She blinked away the remaining water and took in more of her surroundings. Rough stone walls formed a makeshift room with wooden timbers around the edges. Probably an abandoned mine of some sort.
Babyface leaned against the doorway, spinning a dagger in his gloved hand. Brickjaw swaggered back to a cluster of wooden crates, plopping down on the nearest one. He pulled out a white rag and began polishing the heirlooms he'd stolen from her home in Dresten. Her mother's golden headband sat in a pile at his feet. The same one she'd been wearing in the dream.
Her mother loved that headband, and Ciena recognized it the second she saw it. Back then, she still held a faint sliver of hope that her parents were still alive.
"Where did you get that?" Ciena had demanded of him—it must have been three or four days ago now. She was chained to a tree at the time while Brickjaw sat with the other Templars around the campfire.
"This?" He looked down as if just noticing it. "Got it off a golden-eyed Aeon bitch in Dresten. She looked a little like you actually. Except much better."
"You're lying," Ciena shot back. "If the Templars conquered Dresten, you wouldn't need me as a hostage."
"A hostage?" The nearby officer chuckled. "Is that what you think you are? We're taking you to Raidenwood, girl. Cladius Raider pays a bounty for live Aeons, and something tells me he'll pay a special price for his favorite niece."
So, they knew who she was after all. One thing was certain: she would never escape Raidenwood if they took her there. Her uncle already tried to have her killed once, and she was no more than ten years old at the time. No reason to expect mercy from him now that she was a trained killer.
More water dripped off her forehead, bringing her back to her present state in the cave.
I could take them if it wasn't for these bloody chains.
Brickjaw was built like a blacksmith, and days of restraint had left her body weak and sore. Even so, an oil lamp hung from a hook on the ceiling. If she turned its heat to Ethermancy, he wouldn't stand a chance.
First, she had to make them angry..
The two Templars had their backs to her now, engaged in a conversation about a recent skirmish. Apparently, a group of Aeons had attacked Brickjaw's squad while they patrolled the nearby village. More survivors from Whitecliff?
"Pearce and Turner were down," Brickjaw said, his wild gestures casting shadows across the stone floor. "It was me against three of them. One had a bow, the other two had swords. I was—"
"Please," Ciena said with a snort. "You against three Aeons?"
He pivoted his head over his massive shoulder. "You best shut your mouth. I'm not gonna tell you again."
"Or what?" she snapped back. "You’ll shut it for me? You'll showcase your bravery by hitting a restrained woman?"
Even as Brickjaw rose to his feet, Ciena continued, "I'd love to hear you boast about that one tomorrow. How many Aeons will you claim you fought? Three? Four?"
Footsteps echoed through the cave as he moved closer.
"If you're so tough," she said, "then why don't you fight me one-on-one?"
Babyface waved a finger "None of that now, little lady. We need you alive."
Now it was Ciena's turn to laugh. "I said one-on-one. Not me against the whole bloody army."
He grinned at her, still twirling his dagger. "We didn’t need the whole army when we captured you."
It was true. Her body went into shock after the bullet took Elias. Master Vash always warned them that no amount of training would truly prepare them for war. She didn't understand him then. Not until that moment when all hope and purpose left her.
Now, after a week’s worth of torture, that lesson had finally sunk in. Such weakness would never consume her again.
"Besides," Babyface continued, "have you looked in a mirror lately? I’ll bet ten silver moons you can’t even walk."
"I may be in no shape to fight," Ciena conceded. "But I can still take the two of you without breaking a sweat."
Brickjaw's mouth made a narrow line. Good, she'd insulted his pride. She'd taken—
A fist smashed into the side of her chin.
Ciena's vision blurred as waves of pain blossomed in her head. Her ear rang like a struck gong, and she had to test her jaw to make sure it still worked.
It didn't matter. If escape wasn’t an option, let them give her a warrior's death like her parents and brother. At this point, she'd settle for falling unconscious. Anything was better than being chained up and helpless.
Brickjaw loomed over her as if daring her to speak again.
Ciena obliged, even though the effort burned her jaw. "I meant while I was unchained. Aegon, are all Templars this thick?"
His boot took her in the stomach next. Ciena coughed and gasped for air, but she didn't give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream.
Another kick. She tried to curl up and protect herself, but the chains kept her arms wedged apart.
"Anything else to say?" Brickjaw was still looming over her when she opened her eyes again.
"Enough, Roderick," Babyface said from the corner of the room. "We won't get the bounty if her uncle can't recognize her."
Brickjaw returned to his makeshift stool. Silence reigned for a long moment before Ciena found her voice again, "Roderick."
He continued polishing his plunder as if he hadn't heard her.
"I know you're afraid of me." Ciena forced her lips into a smile. "And you should be. I killed hundreds of your friends, after all. And one way or another, I'm getting out of here. When I do, nothing in this world will keep you safe."
The Templar raised a hand to his chin, smiling as if he'd remembered some hilarious joke.
Ciena didn't break his gaze.
"How's your mum?" Brickjaw asked. Then his grin widened to show his teeth as he picked up the golden headband from the floor. "Oh. That's right. Not so good, huh?"
Ciena's own smile faded, but she still didn't break his gaze. She concentrated on the fire above, willing it to fill her body with the strength she craved. She narrowed her eyes into a promise of blood.
"No?" Brickjaw frowned, shrugging his massive shoulders. "How about your brother then? What was his name?" He turned to Babyface. "You know, the name she always says in her sleep."
"Elias?" Babyface offered.
"That's the one"—Brickjaw snapped his fingers—"Elias."
It was just a word, but those three syllables stung her eyes like nothing else ever could. The sound of his name splintered something deep inside her—something that could never be mended.
From the moment Ciena was born, her brother had been at her side, and he'd never left her for the twenty years that followed. He'd been there when the Templars forced them out of Raidenwood. They'd arrived at Whitecliff together, and they'd fought side-by-side in the years that followed. From their first Battleground match to that last battle against the Templars.
Now, Elias was gone forever. Whatever the future held, she would go through it alone.
Ciena's eyes prickled with moisture despite her best efforts. Her hands shook, and a chill ran through her as she squeezed her lids shut. A second later, she dragged them open again, and Raiden's words reverberated inside her: Strength and Fortitude.
No. They would not see her cry.