Ciena jumped in the hot spring, eager to escape the sharp mountain wind. She unraveled her braids and dunked her face below the bubbling water, feeling her hair fan out over the surface. It felt like Eternity after all those weeks in Starglade, not to mention the countless hours on dragonback.
Who would've thought the sky could be so bloody cold? Even now, Ciena could feel the bursts of icy wind against her numb cheeks. She should've been used to that sensation after ten years in Whitecliff, but Aegon ... no wonder dragons lived down south.
Still, she couldn't deny the creature's speed. They'd flown for most of the night, stopping when they reached the edge of the Graycliffs near Darkdale. That same journey would've taken a fortnight on foot. Probably longer now, in the dead of winter.
Her head emerged from the pool again, and the air stung even sharper than before. Rising steam clouded her vision, forming a blur of orange in the morning sun.
Ciena swam back to the pool's edge where the soap and brush awaited her. Dried blood covered her from head to heel, and she expected to find irritated wounds beneath. But as she scrubbed, she found nothing but smooth, pink skin.
Alexel Trelidor had healed her wounds. Every last cut, scrape, and broken bone.
When she first met this man, his abilities had seemed so strange and foreign. Something beyond even the legends in Aeonica. But Ciena had seen this before. She'd seen it when she fought Nahlia Cole in Whitecliff's Battlegrounds. It was the power to preserve and protect. The power of the Redeemers.
She'd always imagined Treluwyn and her Redeemers to be foolishly passive when compared to Raiden and his Justicars. Making peace was all well and good, but you needed a willing opponent. Sometimes, war was inevitable. And when your enemy attacked, hope and prayers were no match for black powder and steel.
Despite his order and bloodline, Alexel Trelidor understood that. He understood more than anyone what it meant to be an Aeon.
"How's the water?" asked a female voice from behind her.
Ciena whirled around to see one of Alexel's companions on the rocky shore—a Valaysian woman around Ciena's age, perhaps a year or two older. Her eyes were bright green, and a yellow falcon tattoo covered one half of her face. Her black hair was cut short, with the back touching her shoulders and the front hitting her chin.
Ciena opened her mouth to reply, but the other woman continued, "I brought you some new clothes. Might be a little small on you though." She dropped the folded pile at the pool's edge, then proceeded to remove her own.
"Thanks," was all Ciena could manage. "Um, what's your name again?"
"Rhia Vassaj." She tossed her tunic aside and hurried into the pool. Her body was lean and corded with muscle. Ciena tried not to stare, but she couldn't help but notice the thin silver scars that covered the woman's arms, stomach, and back.
"I heard you were the best fighter in Whitecliff," Rhia said as she swam over. "We should spar sometime."
"Sure." Ciena relaxed at the familiar territory. She could manage small talk if she had to, but combat would always be her first language. "I take it you're an Ethermancer too?"
"What makes you say that?"
She shrugged. "Trelidor didn't bring you along for your company. Either you're an Ethermancer, or something just as good."
Rhia gave a small grin. "I'm training to be a Justicar, like you. As for what else I can do, let's make that a surprise for our first duel."
"Fair enough." Ciena followed her toward the center of the pool. The rocky bottom sloped further downward as she walked, forcing her to tread water. "You say you're training to be a Justicar. Who decides when you've made it?"
Rhia spun around with a splash. "That's the real question, isn't it? Used to be a master decided when an apprentice was ready."
"And ... I'm guessing there aren't many master Justicars left?"
"None," Rhia said. "Alexel set up some trials for us instead. Whoever passes them becomes the first one."
Wonderful. A part of her had assumed that escaping those chains made her a Justicar, but that was foolish. One of Whitecliff's first-years could pick up a sword and call herself a warrior, but she'd be in for a rude awakening. Probably a few laughs, too.
Ethermancy would be the same, and she’d have to earn the title after months of hard pain and practice. Still, whatever this trial was, it gave her a goal to complete. A sense of purpose, clear as glass.
"What do you do in this trial?" Ciena asked.
Rhia yawned, waving a dismissive hand. "You'll see when you get to the enclave. We'll be in the water all day if I explain it. I don't know about you, but I'd rather get dinner."
"Dinner?" Ciena peered up at the morning sky. "Don't you mean..."
"Breakfast?" Rhia finished for her. "Yeah, tell that to Kataro. Dragons are nocturnal. You travel with one, you follow their sleep schedule."
A few minutes later, they were back on shore, drying off, and redressing. As Rhia warned her, the trousers were far too short, but nothing her new boots wouldn't cover. They’d also given her a brown tunic, leather jerkin, and fur cloak. Still not ideal for riding a dragon through the north, but far warmer than what she had before. No doubt, Alexel's enclave was located down south, and this lot had no clue how to dress for winter.
They followed the rocky path from the hot springs into a clearing between several pines. There, Alexel was cleaning the loins of a stag while another man set up a series of tents . What was his name again? Dazen Soli-Something?
Kataro loomed above them all on a rocky ledge, feasting on the rest of the stag. Ciena had always imagined dragons to have scales, the way lizards and other reptiles did. Not this one. Black feathers covered his body from the crown of his head to the ends of his wings and tail. Only his face resembled a lizard, with black scales, teeth as long as her hands, and piercing orange eyes.
Beyond the dragon's perch, the mountain sloped downward revealing an expanse of foothills, forests, and farmland. Ciena glimpsed another mountain range on the western horizon that must've been the Bloodpeaks. From this vantage, they looked only a day's walk from here. Of course, mountains had a way of fooling your eyes.
Somewhere out there, the Bloodpeaks opened into a pass. Through that pass was a bridge crossing over the Divide. On that bridge was the city of Raidenwood. She hadn't been this close to her old home in over a decade, and her stomach hollowed at the thought of it.
People always said Raidenwood was built for sieges. If her uncle Cladius hadn't betrayed them to the Templars, her family might still be together now. Her father, mother, and brother, keeping the north free of Templars.
A part of her was relieved they were flying over the city instead of going through. Another part of her yearned to face Cladius now.
No. Patience. Whatever this trial was, she would conquer it as she did everything else. She would return to Raidenwood as a fully trained Ethermancer. She would bring justice to her uncle, avenge her family, and take back the home they'd lost.
Rhia took a seat by the fire, still ruffling a towel through her dark hair. Ciena's own hair still fell freely around her shoulders, and she began working it back into braids. Until then, it would be nothing but a liability in a fight.
"You're back." Dazen gave a nod in Ciena's direction. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a short beard. A helmet covered most of his head, and a long leaf stuck out from his mouth. "Hardly recognized you without all the blood."
Ciena forced out a smile, too tired for a witty retort. Then she glanced up at the dragon. "Can he breathe fire?"
Dazen took the leaf out of his mouth and turned around. "Kataro, kedro!"
The dragon stood up on his hind legs, towering over many of the surrounding trees. His dark wings spread out as wide as a ship's sail, and his flapping sent her hair blowing back. Then in the blink of an eye, Kataro released a blast of flame in their direction.
Ciena staggered back, feeling the heat of it on her face. Dazen threw up a hand, and the flames parted before him, vanishing into the air on either side.
Having answered the command, the dragon settled back on his rock, shutting his eyes as if nothing had happened.
"Aegon." Ciena let out a breath. "Little warning next time?"
"Where's the fun in that?" Dazen chuckled. "This is why they keep me around."
"Your sense of humor?"
"Not that." He gestured back to Kataro. "Dragons show dominance with fire, and they only respect folk who can throw it back. Without me here, he'd burn you all to a crisp."
Alexel stuck his skinning knife into a nearby stump, then prepared the loins on a spit over the fire. It was good to see the older Aeon doing something as ordinary as preparing dinner for once. To call their first meeting intense would be an understatement. Of course, Ciena's weeks in captivity had made her a feverish, emotional wreck at the time.
The scents of the fire filled her nostrils, making her mouth water. Ciena fidgeted with the ring on her finger as she waited. Iron formed the outer shell, but she felt the Etherite band within, prepared to give her a burst of strength whenever she needed it.
Alexel met her eyes across the fire. "I trust you've been training with that."
"Oh." Ciena glanced down at the ring, then back at him "I—"
His lip curled upward, and she realized he was joking. "You've never held Etherite before now, have you?"
"The Raiders never had any jewelry," Ciena replied. "Some legends claim our clan had an Etherite sword like Raiden's. But I'm sure that's—"
"It's more than a legend" Alexel replied. "Etherite blades can slice through steel like a sword cuts paper. Some are as long as broadswords but weigh no more than a dagger. And—in the hands of an Ethermancer—they provide the wielder with an oasis of power."
First dragons, now Etherite weapons? She'd truly entered a different world.
Ciena eyed the sheathed sword on Alexel's hip. He hadn't drawn it once during the fight in Starglade. Could it be...?
No. She would have sensed that much Etherite. Then again ... she hadn't sensed his rings until the moment he dropped one at her feet. Even now, Alexel wore at least six other rings, and Rhia and Dazen each wore at least two. She saw glimpses of that power in her mind’s eye, but it was like spotting a campfire from miles away.
"I'll be honest," Ciena said. "I don't have a clue how this works. How come I can feel this ring, but not yours?"
"An excellent question," Alexel said, then he turned to Rhia.
Rhia was reclined on a sleeping mat with her eyes half-closed. A flicker of annoyance crossed her face, but she sat up. "For Ethermancy to work, you have to believe the energy is yours to control. That ring is already on your finger, so that's one less mental barrier."
Ciena finished her left braid and moved onto the right one. "So, what—it's about faith?"
"You can call it that if you if you want." Rhia tilted her head from one side to the other. "I call it strength of will."
Ciena nodded, then she turned back to the fire between them. "What about this? What if all four of us try to seize this fire at the same time?"
Alexel tented his fingers. "As with many things in life, the strongest will emerge victorious, which brings up an important point: one Ethermancer can oppose the will of another.” He made an open-palmed gesture to his left. "Rhia is a descendent of the Archaeon Vashet. Like descendants of Raiden, she follows the Justicar's path and she can use Ethermancy to strengthen her own body."
Alexel met the other woman's eyes and gestured to a nearby boulder. "Rhia, a demonstration, if you would."
Rhia let out a huff of annoyance but obeyed. She sauntered over to the boulder which must've weighed three times as much as her. She spread out her legs in a wide stance, pressed a hand on either side and lifted.
If not for those shattered chains in Starglade, Ciena would've sworn her eyes deceived her.
Alexel made another gesture to his right. "Dazen is a descendent of Kalazhan, and he follows the Sanctifier's path. Instead of strengthening his body, he controls the energy itself."
Dazen had already given her an example with the dragon. Nonetheless, he waved a hand toward the fire, and the flames doubled in height.
"Both are useful skills," Alexel said. "But what happens if Dazen is forced to put his strength against Rhia's up-close? What happens if Rhia faces Dazen, and he’s armed with fire across a great distance?"
Ciena gave a slow nod. "They can each oppose the other's will, stifling their power."
Dazen didn't stand, but he directed his attention toward Rhia who was still supporting the boulder in front of her.
Rhia’s face grew harder as she narrowed her eyes in concentration. Dazen increased his own efforts, and Ciena guessed this was a familiar contest.
A few seconds passed, and Rhia’s determination turned to a painful struggle. Finally, the boulder hit the ground.
"So,” Ciena began, “if he can counteract her power, that means he's the stronger—" she cut herself off, then backtracked. "No. Even if they were equally matched, Dazen would still win. Rhia's trying to defy the laws of physics, and he's trying to put them back in order. One less mental barrier."
"Correct," Alexel said with a sharp nod. "In other words, it's easier to oppose Ethermancy than to perform it. This lesson can save your life against unfavorable odds."
The conversation died down as dinner came and went. And despite the rising sun, the group slowly retired toward their tents. At least getting to sleep should be easy enough after their long night in the sky. Ciena’s eyes were half-lidded already.
Even so ... sleep meant dreams, and dreams meant that cursed illusion of her mother.
Aegon, she could see it now. The illusion pleading with her not to go with Alexel, telling her it was a mistake, and that she should return north where she belonged. That was her own fear talking. Her own fear holding her back as she clung to the past.
Time for some real answers.
Ciena approached Alexel who was still sitting cross-legged in front of the fire.
"You should rest," he told her. "We have a long journey ahead."
"I will," Ciena said as she took a seat in the ground opposite him. "Do you have time for one more question?"
"You want to know if your parents are still alive."
What the hell? Ciena stiffened, narrowing her eyes. "You read minds now, too?"
Alexel gave an amused smile, and he removed a pot of boiling water from the fire. "I have informants in the north, this is true. But the north is in chaos right now. Many of my sources are unreliable."
"Rumors then,' Ciena said. "What have you heard?"
Alexel poured a measure of water into a wooden tea bowl. "The Templars conquered your home in Dresten to cover the army's march north. They came in the night. Not just Templars, but Sile'zhar assassins."
Ciena swallowed against the dryness in her throat. That report lined up perfectly with Brickjaw's story. They knew her parents would warn the enclave of an attack, so silencing them would have been a priority.
Alexel took a sip from the bowl. "Whether they succeeded, I cannot say. Your parents have escaped assassination before, as I recall."
So, he knows about Raidenwood too.
He set the bowl down in the dirt beside him. "Regardless, you don't need my help finding an answer."
Ciena frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I trust you know how to commune within the Ethereal?"
"Already tried that," she said. "Couldn't tell if I was talking to my real mother, or some figment of my imagination."
Alexel took another drink. "Don't overthink it; trust your instincts. Have you ever doubted it was her before?"
Ciena shook her head as the realization set in. She thought she'd accepted her parents' deaths before, but she wasn't herself back in Starglade. Now...
"I'll understand if you'd rather turn around," Alexel told her.
Her head shot up. "You'd let me go look for them?"
He spread his hands in a wide gesture. "You aren't my prisoner, Ciena Raider. You chose to come with me, and you can choose to leave. If that's what you want, then we'll drop you off in Darkdale tomorrow morning. I'll provide you with enough silver for the journey. Regardless of your family's fate, I'm sure the survivors of Whitecliff will welcome you back."
The implication was clear; if she turned around now, she would never have a place in his enclave. While the north might still hold a future for her, she would never learn the secrets of Ethermancy or the Justicars. She would never avenge her family or re-take Raidenwood.
Strength and Fortitude. Turning around was the easier path, but that wasn't her clan's way.
Ciena glanced up again, letting Alexel see the resolve in her eyes. "The weakest of Whitecliff survived. The strong stayed behind and fought. I'm all that's left of them now."
"A fair point," Alexel said. "Most Aeons of this age have grown complacent. They fight to protect what little they have, instead of reaching for what they want out of life. Now, more than ever, that will be true for Whitecliff's survivors."
A drop of rain hissed as it fell into the flame between them.
"And you?" Ciena asked. "What does your enclave want?"
"Freedom and peace. A world where we can practice our gifts without fearing the fearful."
Ciena considered that for a moment. "That's the same thing all Aeons want.”
"Another fair point. Most Aeons want the same thing, but we want it more. Peace is like power." Alexel extended a hand over the fire, then curled his fingers into a fist. "No one will offer it to you freely. You have to take it."