Ciena circled her opponent in the dueling pit. Rain pattered against her leather vest, mixing with the hot sand beneath her boots. Her braids fell heavy on her bare neck while warm droplets trickled down her forehead.
A dark-skinned Ember Islander stood opposite her, katana in hand. He was five or six years older than she was, not to mention taller and stronger. At twenty, Ciena had been among the oldest students in Whitecliff, but things were different here.
Here, they were learning one of the rarest skills in the world.
The man’s foot shifted back into Cobraform—shoulders tensed, poised to strike.
A dozen possibilities flashed in her mind. Would he lunge, or would he feint? Was he showing his cards, or baiting her?
No. Don’t think.
Ciena tightened the grip on her own blade, keeping the rest of her body loose and ready for anything.
Her opponent darted forward, closing the gap in half-a-breath. Ciena jumped right and slashed his flank. He brought his own blade around and steel rang against steel.
They continued the exchange with a dozen cuts, thrusts, and parries. Ciena let her body move on its own, trusting her instincts and the fighting forms she had mastered long ago.
A duel between Ethermancers had two parts. The physical battle of bodies, and the unseen conflict of will. More often than not, the latter decided the outcome.
One Ethermancer can always oppose the will of another. Alexel’s words echoed back from her first lesson, high in the hills above Raidenwood. Just as Dazen forced Rhia to drop the boulder, Ciena could slow her opponent—make him weak and even the odds.
Between the surge and swell of their blades, Ciena prodded his mental defense, poking holes where weakness waited. Her opponent grew more sluggish by the second. She felt it as clear as the rain on her head. Every parry came a bit slower than the first. Every strike a hair less precise.
She pressed her advantage, striking from a dozen angles at once. Shoulders, stomach, legs—each attack flowing seamlessly into the next.
When a Justicar moved, her mind couldn’t keep up with her body. Trying to make sense of the chaos was a sure way to get cut to ribbons. Instead, it all came down to instinct and practice.
A little talent never hurt either.
The world blurred around her in shades of gray. Faces in the crowd. Palm trees thrashing in the wind. Her opponent’s blade—always moving, slicing through the rain.
Her opponent overextended his thrust, leaving his left side open. This time, he couldn’t retreat or block. Ciena lashed out with her blade and scored a hit against his forearm.
One hit. Blunt steel against leather armor. Not enough to cause any serious damage, but it shattered his will like a glass orb.
He leapt back, and Ciena pursued, batting his blade away and landing another hit against his side.
Even in his weakened state, the man was built like a castle wall. He threw himself forward in desperation, knocking his shoulder into her jaw.
Ciena felt the vibrations through her mask as her face went numb. A month ago, the force of that hit would have sent her flying back.
Now, with Ethermancy infusing her body, she planted both feet firmly in Sunform. In the same motion, she swung the flat of her blade into her opponent’s stomach.
He toppled in the sand and threw up his arm, coughing out his words, “I yield!”
The Blademaster rang the gong, and Ciena froze with her sword in mid-swing.
The only thing harder than controlling a bonfire was trying to stop it. A storm raged inside of her, pressing her forward to finish her opponent. Despite taking part in a real war and losing everything, a part of her still craved bloodshed.
But this wasn’t the time. He wasn’t the real enemy.
Breathing hard and soaked from head to heel, Ciena turned around and climbed out of the ring. She passed her sword to the Blademaster, removed her face mask, and loosened the buckles of her armor.
Nearby, a scribe huddled under an umbrella, recording the duel on a bamboo ledger. This was standard practice at the end of blade class. Students gathered around the pit and issued challenges to one another, and every result affected their ranking in the enclave.
Ciena got more than her fair share of challenges, mostly from opportunists looking to bleed the new girl dry.
At first, she refused them all. As much as she itched to prove herself, she knew better than to get into a fight she couldn’t win. But, to be fair, it was Rhia and Dazen who cautioned that patience. And sometimes, that caution involved physically restraining her. Just because she valued patience didn’t mean it came easy. Elias had always been the patient one. Just another reason why he should’ve been the one to live.
Ciena had spent the last fortnight watching and waiting while the other apprentice Justicars fought in the ring. She’d been overwhelmed the first time she watched a duel here—the way the combatants moved in blurs of motion. But over time, their weaknesses shone through. Many of Alexel’s followers relied too much on their Ethermancy, neglecting their sword work. Speed was nothing without precision.
After those first two weeks of watching, Ciena started issuing challenges of her own. And despite some close calls, she still remained undefeated.
The Blademaster stood in the sandpit addressing the rest of their class, complimenting the way Ciena had adapted her forms to fit the situation.
Ciena only listened with half an ear as he spoke. Words held so little meaning after combat, and the blade instructors on this island weren’t even Ethermancers. She’d hoped to study under Alexel himself, but he was always too busy running the enclave. Either that, or he was traveling, which was the case today.
Things may not have been ideal yet, but at least no one stuck a lid on her skills here or forbade her from practicing Ethermancy. On the contrary, Alexel had encouraged her to study it independently.
“It’s different for everyone,” he’d said the evening before his departure. “Ethermancy requires a superconscious state of mind, and the path to reach that state will be as unique as you are.”
The Grandmaster used a lot of five-silver words, but unlike her old teachers, he had the power to back them up. This was the first and only time he’d summoned her to the top floor of the ziggurat, and Ciena drank in all the knowledge she could.
Alexel stepped out of his chambers onto a wide stone balcony that overlooked the enclave. The rest of the structures lay sprawled out in the valley around them. Some rooftops were visible, while others lay hidden beneath the cover of twilight’s gloom.
“If the path is unique,” Ciena began, “then how do I know where to start? I mean—I know I’ve done it a few times now, but it only happens when I get angry or desperate.”
“Control will come in time.” Alexel leaned over the parapet between two torches. “It’s true that emotion is an essential part of Ethermancy, but that doesn’t make it unreliable. As I said, there are certain currents in your mind where passion flows easier.”
“So ... the emotions are different for everyone?”
A short pause. “Not the emotions, but the reasons behind them. All Ethermancers become stronger when they’re angry, afraid, or desperate. Ask yourself this: what do you fear? What do you want? Those answers will be the keys to your revelation.”
Wonderful. Emotional epiphanies had never been her strong suit. Then again, it was hard to argue with Alexel’s results.
“One final word of advice.” Alexel turned around to face her. “Ethermancy will change you and transform you in ways that nothing else can. When this change comes, don’t run from it. Embrace it. Surrender yourself fully. These moments will decide whether you walk the path of true power, or merely a path of moderation.”
The Grandmaster’s tone carried blatant disdain as he spoke the last word. Almost as if he had several specific students in mind.
“Fine by me,” Ciena said. “I didn’t come this far to be second best.”
She spent the next few days meditating on her unique purpose. Like Ethermancy, meditation was different for every Aeon. Some followed the currents of their thoughts into the Ethereal, looking deep inside themselves. Others channeled their thoughts upward to Aegon as a form of prayer, seeking wisdom from Eternity. The rest found a balance between the two, here in the physical world.
Most sat cross-legged with closed eyes and a straight back. But this part was optional too, and thank Aegon for that. Ciena hated sitting still, and she’d done more than enough of it during her weeks in captivity.
Many chapels included maze-like patterns on the floor where Aeons would walk through their meditation, letting their physical bodies move through space the same way their thoughts swirled through their subconscious minds.
Or that was the idea, at least. She’d witnessed this first hand in Whitecliff and the end result looked more like a bunch of old men getting high on fadeflower and wandering around in circles.
Ciena took a different approach. If walking was allowed, then why not running?
She got up early one morning and followed the eastern tunnel at the valley’s edge, stepping out into the open farmland that surrounded the enclave. From here, she took off in a sprint through the jungle.
It had been raining that day, too. Aegon ... it always rained here. At first, she’d imagined life on a tropical island to be all sunshine, coconuts, and rainbows. But after living for ten years in the North, most days here felt too hot to function. Not to mention the Aegon-cursed mosquitos and sandflies.
But still, she ran. She forced all distractions from her mind and narrowed in on her purpose.
What do you fear?
Ciena had once feared being alone. Ever since her uncle betrayed them and expelled them from Raidenwood, she’d known all things in life were temporary. Even family. Just as she’d lost her uncle and her home, she knew she might lose her parents and brother at any time.
But now she’d faced that fear and conquered it. Her parents were gone, and so was her brother. Looking over her shoulder without seeing Elias was like glancing down and missing a hand. When he died, something deep inside of her had shattered beyond repair. Even so, life went on.
Raindrops struck her cheeks as she continued her race through the jungle, ducking under branches and vaulting over logs.
What do you want?
That answer came easier: she wanted to become powerful enough that no one could ever hurt her again. She’d known this from the second she saw Alexel Trelidor in Starglade. He’d stood unarmed in the face of a dozen enemies, yet they were the ones who fled.
That motive was true, but too vague. She needed something rock-hard to channel her focus. Something to fuel her passion in every battle from this day onward.
It came to her somewhere on the second mile, pure and clear.
Who was a Justicar if not someone who brought justice to her enemies?
The Templars who killed her family were dead and burned, but others still lived. Her uncle Cladius who forced them from their home. The Chronicler Zidane who led the Templars to Whitecliff. These two men had betrayed Clan Raider and caused their destruction.
If not for them, her family might still be together now. How many more lives could she save by ending theirs?
Ciena closed her eyes as she ran, letting the power guide her body as she dodged the twisting trees and rocks.
She felt something inside of her then—a spark, a flicker of light. Her mind lunged out and grasped the flame, and energy flowed from her ring and flooded her body. She pushed it into her legs, back and core, running faster than ever before.
When she opened her eyes again, she was standing on the white-sand beach, seven miles from the enclave. The rain had finally ceased, and the sun broke through the clouds in a blaze of red over the ocean.
After her most recent victory in blade class, Ciena made her way over to the dining pavilion for lunch. She filled her tray with enough food for two people, then sank into the bench at her usual table.
Dazen was already there, hunched over a pile of rice.
Rhia slid into the bench beside her a minute later, and the faintest whiff of perfume tickled her nose, making her heart beat faster. Ciena never bothered with such things herself, but it worked for her.
"Saw you won another duel today," the other girl said. "What is that now—six?"
A small grin escaped Ciena's lips. "Seven."
Dazen set down his fork and stuck one of those thin spitfire leaves into his mouth. Supposedly, they helped with Ethermancy. "Must be moving up the rankings then, eh?"
“I still haven’t caught up to either of you yet,” Ciena noted.
Rhia’s mouth made a thin line. “Just don’t work yourself too hard, alright? I’ve been stuck in this spot for almost a year. Advancing takes time.”
Ciena picked at her food. “Well, when Trelidor recruited me, he made it sound like I’d be training with him. Instead, he sticks me with these mediocre Blademasters. If he only has time for the ‘top’ students, then why bother flying all the way north to get me?”
“It’s not that simple,” Dazen said. “This isn’t about how much Trelidor likes you. He’s made a lot of other promises.” He gestured across the table to Rhia. “For example, her family is practically royalty back in Valaysia. They followed him here because he promised to teach them Ethermancy too.”
“But then he told dozens of other families the same thing,” Rhia added. “They all want one-on-one time with him.”
“Hence the ranking system,” Dazen said. “Equal chances for everyone and all that.”
Ciena gave a slow nod. She couldn’t complain about the system itself, just the fact that she had to start at the bottom. How could anyone expect her to take it easy from this position? She’d found her personal revelation, but it might be weeks before she met with Alexel again. Every day attending these ordinary blade classes was another day wasted.
She leaned over her tray to take another bite when a dark shadow fell over the table. Ciena looked up, expecting to see another of Dazen’s cousins. Instead, it was a strange girl she didn’t recognize.
Ciena set down her fork and met her bright violet eyes. “Let me guess—you’re here to challenge me too.”
The girl’s laugh was as high and pleasant as a dying rabbit. “No,” she said. “I don’t challenge anyone beneath me. But I see you’ve been getting around. I look forward to the day when you’re brave enough to face me.”
Ciena narrowed her eyes and reevaluated the strange girl. She was at least two heads shorter than Ciena, and slender as a chopstick. Her bright brown hair fell freely down to her bare shoulders, and her red floral dress seemed like nothing more than a thin piece of fabric that barely reached her knees.
Was this a joke? Ciena made a shooing motion with her fork. “Back off, princess. You look like you’ve never held a sword in your life.”
The girl gave a smile that was uncomfortably sympathetic. “Poor thing. Looks like you’ve spent your whole life holding one from the wrong end.”
Ciena’s cheeks flushed and her heart rate doubled. So what if she had scars? She’d earned every one of them in battle. Taking taunts from a fellow warrior was one thing, but this girl? Who in Aegon’s name did she think she was?
“And you have a lovely outfit,” Ciena bit out each word. “Reminds me of what the whores in Dresten used to wear. Except they didn’t show quite so much skin as you.”
From the corner of her eye, Dazen shook his head back and forth, crossing a hand over his throat. Rhia remained completely still and silent.
The girl made a tsking sound with her tongue. “Jealousy is a terrible color on you, new girl. Though truth be told, I can’t imagine you looking good in anything. Maybe ... a twine sack over your face?”
“Original,” Ciena said flatly. “Next you’ll tell me I have a boy’s body.” She sat up straighter. “All the better to snap you like a twig.”
The girl’s smile widened as if she’d expected the threat. “And that headband—is that gold?”
Somehow, she managed to say ‘gold’ as if it were ‘twigs and flower stems’. Sweat prickled Ciena’s palms as she raised a self-conscious hand to her mother’s old headband—the only thing she’d taken from Brickjaw’s corpse as they left Starglade.
“You’ve worn that thing every day since you got here,” the girl noted. “Let me guess, your mother gave it to you on her deathbed and now you never take it off.”
Ciena sprang to her feet, knocking over her glass and sending food flying from her tray.
Her companions jumped up as well.
“Stop,” Dazen told her. “She’s trying to bait you. If you’re going to fight her, at least do it on your own terms.”
Rhia put a firm hand on Ciena’s arm. “Put down the knife. It’s not worth it.”
Ciena glanced down, surprised to see her fingers curled around the short blade. She didn’t let go. “I swear to Aegon, if this girl’s not gone in two seconds, I’ll bleed her like a—.”
Dazen held up a hand and turned to face the other girl. “Just go, Reverius. Before I feed you to my dragon.”
The girl shot Dazen a sweet smile. “Give me three minutes alone with him, and he’ll be my dragon.” Then she turned back to Ciena, violet eyes dancing in amusement. “You may fight with kitchen knives back home, but that’s not how we do things here. Put it down before you get hurt.”
Ciena pulled a burst of energy from her ring and brought her right foot back into Cobraform. The girl was less than four feet away. In the blink of an eye, she could vault over the table and bury the blade in her windpipe. She could—
Rhia’s fingers touched Ciena’s, then she reached for the knife hilt. “You’ve done a lot of fighting today,” she whispered. “But this isn’t you.”
Ciena released a breath, and the energy poured out of her like water down a drain. Rhia was right—Ethermancy amplified emotions just as it fed on them. This wasn’t a real war, and this girl wasn’t a real enemy.
Ciena released her grip on the blade, letting Rhia take it from her.
The girl across the table looked almost disappointed. “Well then. When you’re ready to fight a proper duel, you know where to find me.” And with that, she spun on her heel and walked away, long hair and red dress fluttering in the wind.
Ciena slumped back on the bench, breathing hard.
’You alright?” Rhia sat down beside her again
“Fine.” Ciena picked up her wooden cup, but all the water had spilled out. Dazen slid his cup to her from across the table, and she took a long drink. “Who the hell does that girl think she is—going around and insulting people like that?”
“Amelie Reverius,” Rhia said.
“And for the record,” Dazen put in, “you struck the first blow.”
Ciena glared up at him, thrusting out her forefingers like a pistol. “She’s the one who strutted over here and...” she trailed off, then began again, “Wait—Reverius? As in, the imperial family?”
“That’s the one,” Rhia said.
Dazen shrugged, making a leveling gesture with his hand. “She might be a descendant of Rivian. But if you ask me, the ‘Reverius’ part is horseshit. Even if she has some royal blood, she probably belonged to a lesser clan. Some bastard of the imperial family way back when.”
Well, that made sense, at least. Claiming to have the Emperor’s blood wouldn’t have flown twenty years ago, but who would enforce that rule now? The Templars killed the rest of Clan Reverius during the Purge when they sacked Sunfall. Names still mattered today, but anyone could claim lineage to any clan as long as their eye color matched up.
“Right.” Rhia nodded in agreement. “She probably tacked on the name and had someone tattoo a golden sun on her back. Still, her power speaks for itself.”
“What power?” Ciena narrowed her eyes at the girl’s retreating form. “Don’t tell me that little flower can actually fight.”
“She’s training to be a Justicar,” Dazen said. “And—”
“So am I,” Ciena broke in. “And I might be new at this, but I could still break her like a tree branch.”
“—and a Sanctifier,” Dazen finished.
Ciena opened her mouth, then closed it again. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s true,” Rhia said. “She’s learning two Orders of Ethermancy.”
“She’s also one of the highest ranked duelists in the enclave,” Dazen added.
Ciena shook her head. “Please. Is this a joke you play on new people? I’d bet she couldn’t even lift a sword. And two Orders? I don’t know much about Ethermancy, but I know that’s—.”
“Unprecedented,” Rhia finished for her, “but not impossible.”
Ciena wanted to protest again, but what could she say? Four months ago, she’d been arguing that Ethermancy was a myth. And in a way, it would’ve been far too simple for everyone to fit into three perfect categories. Even Aeonica and the Testaments couldn’t agree on Rivian’s abilities.
“Leave the ‘how’ up to the scholars,” Dazen said. “For now, just worry about not picking a fight with her.”
Ciena set her jaw. “I’m not backing down from any more fights.”
Rhia let out a long sigh, running a hand through her raven hair. “You’re only giving her what she wants, then. Don’t you think she came over here for a reason?”
“Exactly,” Ciena said. “She’s taunting me because I’m a threat to her. But I know what it’s like to be on top. When a new fish joins the pond, there’s no middle ground between friend and foe.”
Rhia didn’t reply, so Ciena turned back to Dazen. “And so what if she’s half-Sanctifier? She can’t use fire in a duel, right?”
Dazen hesitated, then shook his head. “No. That’d be like using sharpened steel. This makes her more dangerous in the Ethereal than in blade class.
Ciena nodded. She didn’t look forward to facing a Sanctifier, but at least she had another week until her first Ethereal Battleground.
“But look,” Dazen said, “even if you beat Reverius and all the other top duelists, the top five isn’t where you want to be. The tallest flower in the garden is always the first to get plucked.”
Typical Dazen right there. He’d already made it clear he had no ambition in life beyond chewing spitfire leaves and flying his dragon.
Rhia was slightly better, but even she seemed to spend all her free time swimming in the lake or lounging in the sun.
This was the same problem with all Aeons: not just Dazen and Rhia, but everyone back in Whitecliff. Everyone she’d ever known. They were all so concerned with protecting what little they had, and they were too afraid to reach for more.
“Thanks for the advice”—Ciena grabbed her tray and stood—”but I have a duel to prepare for.”
Her new friends meant well, but they still underestimated her. Maybe this Reverius princess really was as good as they said. Even so, she was nothing but a stepping stone for Ciena.
Strength and fortitude. The path to power was clear, and the time to fight was now.