Rhia returned from the other room and dropped the massive tome on the table between them. Bound in night-blue leather, it was wide as a dragon's foot and thicker than Ciena's forearm. Just looking at it was enough to give her a headache.
This was the sort of book Master Zidane made them read back in Whitecliff. The sort of book that trapped students in the library until well past midnight. Ciena had always tried not to skim, but it made no difference. No matter how hard she bore down on those words, they jumped around the page like frogs in a pond.
Even back then, Zidane was her least-favorite teacher. And that was before he betrayed Whitecliff to the Templars. The things she would do to him now...
That's why you're studying, she reminded herself. So you can win that fight when the time comes.
Ciena brought a small bowl to her lips and sipped her tea. Hints of lemon and herbs danced in her mouth, and the warming sensation came close to calming her down. Almost.
Rhia's home was fairly modest. Bamboo walls surrounded a small kitchen and general seating area. Blue curtains hung from the doorways, sectioning off two separate bedchambers. Ciena had expected something grander when she heard that Rhia's clansmen were Valaysian royalty. Then again, Alexel's own chambers were just as simple, and he was richer than Aegon.
"Where did your parents go, anyway?" Ciena asked. "Somewhere with Alexel?"
"Yeah." Rhia sat down on the opposite mat across the low table. "They went to meet the Templar Commander."
"Wait, what?" Mere mention of the Templars was enough to set her blood boiling.
"Relax." Rhia waved a dismissive hand. "They're not about to become best friends or anything. The Templars have ties with the other Aeon leaders. They're the ones who Trelidor wants an alliance with."
Well, that made sense. Alexel's enclave and Whitecliff had their differences, especially when it came to Ethermancy. Still, they should have become allies decades ago. You can't be picky about your friends when you're on the losing end of a genocide.
"How'd the Templars get those ties?" Ciena asked.
Rhia shrugged, taking a sip from her own tea. "I didn't ask. All I know is their new leader is a deserter. He left the Templars twenty-some years back because he refused to kill Aeons. Now he's trying to unite the realm for this fight against Palavar."
Ciena recalled one of her fever dreams from back in Starglade. Hadn't the illusion of her mother claimed that Nahlia's father took over the Templars? Back then, Ciena had dismissed the claim as some concoction of her own imagination. In fact, the idea sounded so absurd that she considered it proof of the illusion's falsehood.
But what if her words were true?
"This new leader of theirs," Ciena began. "Is his name Cole?"
"I don't remember." The other girl blew on her own steaming cup. "Human names all sound the same to me. Cole, Cage, Cabbage ... not a whole lot of imagination there."
"That's because they spend all their time inventing new weapons," Ciena muttered absently.
Whitecliff's aftermath ran through her mind as she grasped for patterns she might have missed before. Her captors in Starglade had claimed her parents were dead, but they had every reason to lie to her. Ciena was a feverish, emotional wreck back then, accepting their words with little rational thought.
Even once she was free from captivity, she had been too exhausted and sleep-deprived to think straight. Alexel told her to trust her instincts, and her instincts were usually right. Then again, even the cleverest wolfhounds barked at shadows from time to time.
Rhia leaned forward to catch her eye. "You alright over there?"
Ciena shook her head to clear it. "Sorry. Just thinking."
No need to jump to conclusions yet. If she fell back into that trap of uncertainty, she would start seeing visions of her mother again. The Ethereal would become a prison where she would lose all sense of what was real. Ciena wasn't normally one to back down from a fight, but every good warrior knew her limits.
Besides, there was still plenty of evidence that her parents were gone. If they survived the attack in Dresten, then why was Whitecliff taken by surprise? How come no one else came for her in Starglade? Why was her mother so certain that Elias was alive when Ciena had seen him die with her own two eyes?
But even if Ciena had seen an illusion in the Ethereal, that didn't prove her real mother was dead. It was equally possible to hallucinate about living people.
Aegon. She hadn't even opened the bloody book yet, and a headache already throbbed in her skull. Either way, she couldn't solve the problem now. Better to stay focused.
"Anyway...." Ciena leaned forward and opened the book with her left hand. Her right arm still lay broken in its sling. "Battle Serenity..."
The paper was smooth between her fingers, not dry or brittle like she'd imagined. Probably a recent copy then. Unfortunately, the words on the page didn't look Reverian.
Rhia chuckled. "How's your Valaysian?"
"Not great," Ciena admitted. She could speak the language at a conversational level but reading it was another matter. Reverian characters were much simpler, with each one representing a different sound. Valaysians used a different character for every word. As a result, there were thousands upon thousands of them to memorize.
"That's what I figured.." Rhia spun the book around, flipping a handful of pages to the middle. "Guess I'll be translating, then. But you owe me for this."
So Ciena sipped her tea and listened. Like most ancient texts, the writing was dense and needlessly poetic. Still, listening came far easier than reading.
The methods of the Serenity trance were fairly straightforward too. First, you let yourself feel the emotions. No problem there. Ciena had already spent the past month learning to embrace her anger.
The emotions always churned like a storm in her mind—a tempest of primal rage. In mere seconds, that storm grew from a pinprick to something massive and uncontrollable. Ciena usually dove into that storm head-on, and the power twisted and filled the sinews of her heart.
But Vashet's methods differed from Raiden's. The other Archaeon stepped into that storm, but she was never a part of it. She held the power, but she never lost herself to it.
It sounded so simple in theory, but anger didn't just pass by without seizing you by the wrist. When Ciena pictured her enemies, her muscles grew warmer, and her heart rate doubled. Her body prepared her to act. To fight, and to win.
You couldn't just meditate that away.
"So, what's next?" Ciena asked when they took a break. "Am I supposed to forgive my enemies, too? Let them get away with everything they've done?"
"I never said it would be easy." Rhia drained the last of her tea. "It will take time, but you're no stranger to practice."
"Practice can't solve everything," Ciena countered. "Only a fool tries to fight nature."
"So were you born knowing how to fight?"
"Of course not," she said. "But I was born with plenty of advantages. Other girls in the Battlegrounds were never as strong as me, the same way I was never the prettiest girl at the dance. Better to accept who you are rather than try to change yourself."
Rhia shot a knowing look at Ciena's broken arm.
Ciena narrowed her eyes. "Don't bring up Reverius again."
"Well?" the other girl prodded. "What would your response be if I did?"
"Fine." Ciena ground her teeth. "Maybe the strength argument falls short when you bring in Ethermancy. Seems like there are a lot of techniques to bridge those gaps."
"So becoming faster and stronger doesn't go against nature," Rhia deadpanned, "but controlling your own emotions does?"
Fair point, that. Ciena pointed an accusing finger at the book. "You can't expect me to give up on vengeance though."
Rhia shook her head, her black hair swinging back and forth. "If you were paying attention, that's not what the book said at all. You can dish out justice without getting worked up over it. If you hate your enemies, they have power over you. That's why Reverius won today. Not only did she control her own emotions, she controlled yours."
Ciena winced. It was strange to see the other girl waxing philosophical like this, but she was right again. Knowledge and control were such fundamental aspects of warfare—lessons that Vash had taught her years ago. She always thought her rage gave her an edge over her brother. It forced her to train twice as hard as he did, and her ferocity in battle made up for his superior strength ... or so she thought.
For all her training and dedication, Elias was always one step ahead of her. And what if that had nothing to do with physical strength, after all? What if his clear-headed control gave him an edge she never had?
"Besides," Rhia said. "What about after the fighting is over?"
Ciena shrugged. "That's the thing about fighting, isn't it? It's never really over. People like us don't die of old age in our beds. We die on battlefields."
"Right." Rhia's lips made a thin line. "What I meant is—have you ever thought about settling down with someone?"
"Guess I never thought about it," Ciena said. "Besides, I'll always put my training first."
"And what if you were with someone who understood that?"
Ciena turned to look at Rhia who was idly playing with a strand of her black hair. The other girl usually acted so carefree. Now she seemed almost shy.
Was Rhia interested in her as more than just a friend? Ciena had to admit, she found Rhia attractive. She'd known that from the moment they met. But no ... that couldn't be it. Ciena had admired other girls before, but it never went anywhere. Besides, Rhia was clearly the sort who cared about her appearance. Why would she bother with someone who clearly didn't?
Ciena must have waited too long to reply because Rhia shrugged and went back to reading.
The book went on to explain how different emotions granted different results in combat. Anger, fear, and rage produced unparalleled power and speed, but always at the expense of control. This was why so many of Vashet's peers had suffered tragic ends. Kalazhan had killed his own wife, and Raiden chose to fall on his own sword rather than lose control and hurt anyone else.
Meanwhile, 'positive' emotions like faith and compassion gave the Ethermancer a greater sense of precision and control.
Ciena suppressed a groan at this last part. Aegon help her, if this book was telling her to think happy thoughts...
Rhia must have picked up on her agitation because she continued quickly. The Archaeon Treluwyn had followed this peaceful path, suppressing her negative emotions in favor of the positive. Over time, she cultivated a form of Ethermancy that revolved around healing and protection.
Of course, even the best defense shattered with time, and the negative emotions weren't all terrible. Anger brought the power to fight and change the world through conflict, and fear helped one survive in ways a shield never could. Without these, Treluwyn had perished along with the rest.
The Archaeon Vashet supposedly found a balance between these approaches, blending the negative and the positive together, for one could never reign while the other stood in balance.
Once they finished the chapter, Rhia started over so they could follow along with the exercise portions.
Ciena sat cross-legged on the mat and closed her eyes, starting with a simple meditation, focusing on her reasons for being an Ethermancer. As usual, the anger threatened to overwhelm her, but it grew more manageable as she focused on other emotions—memories and thoughts she didn't normally dwell on.
Ciena thought of her family as they were in life. Even when she was difficult and stubborn, they had always loved her. Even when other friends turned their backs on her, her brother had always been there.
She thought of those last moments in Whitecliff when she and Elias had turned around and held off the Templars while the ships escaped. The noncombatants had looked at her with awe and admiration that night, and Ciena knew in her heart that her cause was just. Such stone certainty brought a calmness that her quest for vengeance always lacked.
Each emotion joined a new storm within her soul. Together they swirled and spun with the anger until they rose to a crescendo within her. Ciena opened her eyes again, and strength pooled into her body, steady and calm like the weight of a frozen river.
She rose to her feet and took a single step forward. If this had been ordinary Ethermancy, she would have to suppress her power lest she break down a wall. With Battle Serenity, the power waited for her command.
She picked up a nearby sword and drew it from its scabbard. Even in her left hand, the movement felt as natural as breathing.
A gust of wind blew in from the open window, heightening her senses further. Every movement she made was flawless, as if her mind and body worked in perfect unison for the very first time.
I know nothing about Ethermancy. The realization hit her like a burst of light. She had one sip of power from the water's bright surface, oblivious to the deep dark beneath. Finally, her loss today seemed like less of a mystery and more of an inevitability.
"Wow," Rhia's voice broke her from the trance. "You're really doing it, aren't you? It took me months before I got that far."
Ciena's lips curled up in a small grin, though she tried not to look too smug. Growing up with Elias Raider for a brother, she knew that feeling all too well. If he were here now, he would have picked up this skill twice as fast. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if her brother had used this very trance before. Now...
The serenity faded as her body went limp and hollow. Still, she had done it. And if she could do it once, she could master it with practice.
"I hear we have a battleground match tomorrow," Ciena said. Ethereal death matches were a weekly occurrence here in Alexel's enclave. She had missed the first two because the physicians thought she needed time to recover after her 'traumatic' experiences. Alexel had been away for the match after that, and he was the only person strong enough to bring everyone into the Ethereal at once.
Rhia rolled her eyes. "Didn't take long for you to go there, did it?"
"It's called Battle Serenity for a reason," Ciena noted.
"Still, you're an idiot if you think you're ready to fight Reverius again."
Ciena ignored the insult. "I know it will take awhile before I can do this in actual combat, but you have to start somewhere." She returned to the table and sat down. "Don't you and Dazen have a team or something?"
Rhia made a leveling gesture with her hand. "More of a loose alliance. Remember, these aren't the cooperative games you had at Whitecliff. It's a free-for-all, and there's only one winner."
Ciena nodded. "Who's in your alliance, then?"
"Aside from me, it's Dazen, Faidon, and a few more of Dazen's cousins."
"Do you have room for one more?" Ciena asked. She couldn't fight any real duels with her broken arm, but the Ethereal had a way of resolving injuries.
Rhia smiled. "The others have already been asking about you. I'm sure we can work something out."