Ciena stumbled through a dark fever dream. Her skin prickled with sweat in the humid air, and the trees grew unnaturally close together, forcing her through a tunnel of trunks and branches.
"Ciena?" Her mother's voice again.
No ... not her mother. An illusion. She had to remember that.
Thick roots impeded her path as she progressed through the labyrinth. It reminded her of wading through corpses.
"Ciena, please." The voice grew closer. "Just let me talk to you."
Ciena quickened her pace, climbing on one of the taller roots and jumping from one to another. The path continued downward in an endless spiral.
"You're not real!" Ciena shouted back at the illusion. "You died in Dresten!"
"That's not true." Her mother hurried to keep up. "The Templars attacked our home, but your father and I escaped. We took the army north to Whitecliff. We arrived right after the Templars captured you."
Ciena froze, leaning against one of the thicker trunks for support. What if she had this all backwards? What if the Templars had lied to her, and this was her real mother?
Her body shivered despite the heat, and her thoughts were as jumbled as the forest itself. The footsteps grew closer, and Ciena turned around. "What about Elias?"
"Your brother is fine," she said.
Ciena's jaw tightened. Even if the Templars lied about killing her parents, she had seen Elias die. She saw the bullet in his heart. She watched the life leave his eyes, and she held his hand as his soul drifted up to Eternity.
Her brother was gone, and this thing—this illusion—was trying to make her lose her way. Trying to trap her in the Ethereal.
Every Aeon child knew this danger. Dreaming of loved ones you've lost was part of the mind's natural grieving process. At first, your mind denies the death, and it tricks itself into believing the ones you've lost are still alive.
This weakness had affected a hundred Aeons before her. It even affected her ancestor, Raiden. He was the greatest warrior who ever lived, but the grief of war caused him to lose himself in the Ethereal. Clinging to the illusions of family who'd perished, Raiden was torn between worlds: the physical world where his family was dead and the Ethereal where their echoes lived on.
In the end, Raiden's sense of reality became so twisted that he struck down his remaining family in the physical world, believing he was avenging them in the Ethereal.
Ciena was walking dangerously close to that line now. The Ethereal promised relief from all her pain. Not just the physical pain inflicted by her captors, but her grief as well. The worse her reality was, the more likely she was to cling to the illusions in this false-world.
Even now, a part of her wanted nothing more than to rush into her mother's arms. The temptation was as strong as a drink after miles of running. Like a warm bed after hours of being lost in the cold. A lesser person would have given up then and there. But no ... if she were to die at the Templar's hands, she would die a warrior.
Ciena didn't reply to the illusion. She simply turned around and kept walking.
"Elias is fine," her mother repeated. "He was wounded in the battle, but he's recovered now. He's gone on a mission to retrieve a pair of fugitives."
"Really?" Ciena hollered back, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Then why hasn't he come to torment me too?
"His injury ... changed him," she replied. "He hasn't been able to enter the Ethereal ever since."
What a pathetic excuse. Of course, this was her own subconscious talking to her. No one to blame but herself.
"I am your real mother!" she shouted after her, sounding more desperate. "I gave birth to you and Elias in Raidenwood. Twenty years ago, on the 22nd of Galamon."
"You're telling me things I already know." Ciena stopped walking when the path ended in an expanse of canyon—so deep, that the bottom was nothing but a blur of darkness.
If she jumped, she could return to the physical world. She'd rather endure her Templar captors than this. Aegon ... anything was better than this.
"The Templar's new leader sent us a message." Her mother's voice from behind her. "He said the group who captured you are rebels. There's around fifty of them, and they're hiding out in Starglade—an abandoned mining town halfway between Dresten and Raidenwood."
Ciena glanced over her shoulder before turning around.
Her mother approached cautiously, stopping when they were only a few feet apart. "Does that sound right?"
"That sounds right," Ciena said with a weary nod.
"And do you have any other information that can help us find you?"
"They have me chained up in a cave. Or it could be an abandoned mine." She trailed off as the forest grew warmer. None of this made any sense. Why would an illusion in the Ethereal be pressing her for information now?
“Who is this new Templar leader?” Ciena asked. “What’s his name?” If this were truly an illusion, the name would be one she’d heard before.
“Aaron Cole,” she replied. “According to my sources, he escaped Dresten, killed Saul Mason, and took his place. Now he wants an alliance with our clan. That’s why he passed along your location.”
Well, that sounded far too ridiculous to be true.
Ciena clenched her jaw again. Her subconscious would do whatever it could to fill her with false hope. Anything to break her resolve and trap her here. These tricks might work on some lesser Aeons, but not her. Her resolve was a blade of Etherite—utterly unbreakable.
"I'm sorry this happened to you." Her mother's voice was thick as if with unshed tears. "But I love you. And I promise we're coming to get you."
Ciena recoiled as if she'd been slapped. Those three words felt like an invasion—an intruder in her mind.
Her mother took another step forward, reaching out a tentative hand.
"Stay away from me." Ciena drew her sword, feeling a flare in her chest. "My real mother hasn't said that to me in years. She was always too busy. Too distracted. More concerned with the rest of the world than with us. It makes no difference to me that she's dead, so you can stop trying to torment me here. Nothing you say matters."
Ciena turned away then, scowling at the petulance in her own voice. She couldn't say whether the words she spoke were true or not. The Ethereal had a way of laying your emotions bare, free of any logic or inhibitions.
She continued to shiver, fighting back tears. How was she supposed to deal with this? Attack the illusion with her sword? Continue to endure the torment? Jump off the edge and be done with this?
Which choice was the sign of true strength? Which choice was the counter to Raiden's single weakness?
There was a long pause before her mother spoke again. When she did, her voice trembled, "You've always been a fighter, Ciena. But you don't have to fight this. We're all alive. Me, your father, and your brother. All you have to do is believe me. Just have faith, and hold on while we come and rescue you."