An ancient stone arena loomed on the northern edge of Alexel’s enclave. Here and there the walls were cracked and crumbling from where the jungle had tried to reclaim its land. The circular floor was wider than Dresten’s main thoroughfare, and the tiered seats had room enough to hold hundreds.
When Ciena first arrived on this island, she had expected them to use this arena for actual combat, the way they fought in the Gorge back home. Now she knew better. Instead of swords and armor, the students carried sleeping mats which they unrolled on the smooth stone floor.
Thank Aegon they’d be fighting in the Ethereal for once. Even without her broken arm to contend with, the morning air was stuffier than a hot spring. For all her complaints about the northern climate, she could do with a little snow right now.
Ciena wove her way through the crowd until she met up with Rhia, Dazen, and the other members of their battlegroup.
“There she is,” Dazen said with a wave. As usual, he was chewing on a long firespit leaf. His dark flight goggles were down, shielding his eyes from the morning sun.
“Ciena Raider,” he said, “meet my other two cousins—Kavar and Elvira Solizhan. They’re both Sanctifiers like me.”
The pair could easily have been brother and sister. They shared Dazen’s dark complexion, but their brown hair fell down around their faces—about as long as Rhia’s, though not as neat. Ciena clasped each of their wrists then stepped back to the outside of the circle.
Nearby, Dazen’s other cousin, Faidon, was polishing his spectacles against his tunic. “So ... you’ve read the rulebook, right?”
Ciena frowned. “Rulebook?”
Dazen gave a serious nod. “Don’t say Rhia forgot to give it to you.”
“That happened with our last new member,” Faidon went on. “Bloody disaster, that was.”
“Ignore them.” Rhia rolled her eyes “There is no rulebook here.”
She took Ciena by the shoulder and steered her around to face the arena’s northern entrance. A stone spectator box sat over the tunnel with dragons carved in relief around the edges.
“When Master Trelidor gets here, he’ll probably say a few words before he pulls us in the Ethereal. This won’t be like the duels you’ve fought before. There are no Blademasters to break up the skirmishes. No limits on about how hard you can hit. The fight breaks out the second we’re in, so be ready.”
Ciena nodded. “Anything else I should know?”
“Kill or be killed,” Dazen said. “Pretty simple.
“But there are some unspoken rules,” Faidon put in. “For example, you don’t want to draft any Templar weapons like cannons, bombs, or firearms. You won’t get disqualified or anything, but people might call you a heretic. Even if you don’t care what Aegon thinks, it won’t earn you any points with Trelidor or the other masters.”
“But any ordinary weapon is fine?” she asked.
“Sure,” Rhia said. “Most go with a katana for its versatility, but we’ve seen it all. Bows, nunchucks, hooks, axes...”
Dazen broke into a smile. “Don’t forget that phase where you fought with a whip.”
Rhia hadn’t mentioned daggers on her list, but she stared them at Dazen anyway. “For Aegon’s sake—that was one time.”
“More like three or four times” Faidon said with a chuckle. “Just because you’d rather forget them doesn’t mean we did.”
Dazen turned to Ciena, still smirking. “The whip didn’t go so well, in case you were wondering.”
“Another piece of advice,” Rhia deadpanned. “Don’t experiment with anything original, or you’ll hear about it until the day you die.”
“There’s experimenting,” Faidon said, “then there’s copying what you read in storybooks. The latter is far more amusing.”
“Anyway,” Rhia stretched out the word, pointedly not looking at either of them. “Drafting—you know what you’re doing, right?”
“Sure.” Ciena gave another quick nod. “Imagine the items you want , and you’ll end up with them in the Ethereal.” Most of Whitecliff’s students didn’t learn meditation until their final year, much less drafting. Fortunately, Ciena’s mother didn’t agree with the White Council in this regard, and she taught Ciena both skills when she was fourteen.
“As a Seeker,” she had explained, “it’s important to project a powerful image to your agents in the Ethereal. Clothing matters, and if you don’t choose carefully, your subconscious will choose for you. You can always spot an amateur when she shows up in her nightdress.”
Ciena would spend hours in the library looking over drawings of weapons and armor. Her mother said it was the closest she ever came to clothes shopping. Fitting, she supposed, since these sessions were the closest her mother came to spending time with her.
Ciena released a breath and let the memories pass by. She would need that balance when the time came for serenity.
“Just be quick about it,” Faidon said. “This isn’t like ordinary meditation. Trelidor can bring all fifty of us in the Ethereal like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“And don’t forget to draft a shield,” Dazen added. “You can always throw it away if you don’t need it, but you never know.”
The others continued offering last-minute advice and explaining the various environments they might find themselves in. The arena grew louder as more students trickled in, and her group migrated to the edge. Before long, Alexel himself appeared in the viewing box.
Ciena swallowed against the dryness in her throat. This was her chance to make a good impression after her loss in the dueling ring. The Grandmaster hadn’t watched her then, but he would be now. The others said so. They wouldn’t see him in the Ethereal, but he would be there somewhere, scrutinizing their every move.
A pair of Blademasters stepped into the box on either side of Alexel.
Ciena and the others sat on their sleeping mats while Master Kalanus addressed the crowd.
“Welcome back,” his deep voice echoed throughout the arena. His speech had a ritualistic air about it, the same way Vash used to address them before a match. As the Blademaster spoke, Alexel settled himself back in his own chair, closing his eyes.
Eventually, a gong echoed from somewhere in the distance, causing the hairs on Ciena’s neck to stand up. The other students lay back on their mats so she did the same.
She closed her eyes and started drafting immediately. For her weapon, she chose her father’s old sword from his days in the Honor Guard. The one she’d left behind in Whitecliff and never got the chance to use. It had a crimson leather grip, and the steel was forged in Sunfall, strengthened by dragonfire. Aside from that, she chose a pair of simple daggers and a round, linden shield.
Ciena had half a mind to draft an Etherite sword like the ones they’d discussed before. Alexel claimed the blades could slice through steel as if it were paper, which sounded like a useful thing to have around. Unfortunately, she doubted her subconscious could even comprehend that without seeing one first. If it were that easy, everyone would do it. Still, she filed the idea away for later use.
For her armor, Ciena chose crimson-dyed leather, lined with golden trim. Nothing too fancy for now.
She felt the leather in her mind, hard on the surface but soft against her skin. She imagined the weight and feel of her weapons. The hilts solid in her hands, the blades sharp enough to draw blood at the lightest touch.
Faidon was right about one thing—after the Blademaster’s speech, she had less than a minute to draft before the countdown began.
“Three...” the Battlemaster shouted.
Ciena shifted to get comfortable on her mat. She hadn’t been this nervous for a game since her first Battleground at Whitecliff.
She went over her drafting, double-checking that every aspect was clear. Armor, daggers, katana, shield.
Ciena fell deeper into her sleeping mat. Then with a jolt, she stumbled forward in the Ethereal. The hot tropical air turned to a winter gale. The bright sun faded to darkness. Wind howled around her and rain struck her face.
“Shields to the right!” Faidon called out.
Ciena crouched down and brought up her shield. Everywhere she looked, the sky was a dark mass of storm clouds with no horizon in sight.
Faidon shouted again, “Enemies to the—”
Lightning flashed, and the ground shook. The force of it knocked her into the dirt. She opened her eyes just in time to see Elvira tumbling toward the cliff’s edge.
Ciena lunged forward to grab her. Too slow. The other woman’s body plummeted over, trailing smoke from where she was hit.
When Ciena looked over the edge, she saw no land below. Nothing but more clouds in every direction. A surge of vertigo and nausea rolled over as she tried to make sense of it all.
She picked up her shield again and crouched down beside Faidon, wishing they could hang on to something. They weren’t on a cliff as she’d first thought. Instead, It was a moving island of stone, no more than a dozen feet in diameter. Ciena wasn’t afraid of heights, but tripping off the edge would have been a pathetic way to die.
Other stone islands floated in the air around them, several hundred yards away.
Aegon. The Ethereal could be strange sometimes, but it usually bore some resemblance to reality. This was just plain ridiculous.
Another lightning bolt soared past them, bathing her companions in bright light. The platform shook as shards of rock ricocheted against her helmet.
Ciena was still gawking at the crater it left when Dazen and Kavar mounted a counterattack. The pair stretched out their arms, and two more bolts of lightning shot out from their fingers. The air cracked as if it were being split apart.
“Got him,” Dazen announced.
“Get ready to jump,” came Rhia’s voice from her left.
Ciena turned to see the other girl clad in solid black from head to heel with nothing but a narrow slit for her eyes.
Sile’zhar armor? Ciena should have thought of that. The Valaysian assassins wore something called nightsilk—flexible as cotton, but stronger than steel. Some claimed the sturdier weaves could even stop bullets.
A shadow fell over their small platform as they passed around a larger stone island. Or maybe ‘continent’ was a better word. The smaller islands almost seemed to orbit around it like moons around a planet.
Without warning, Dazen and Kavar launched themselves into the sky, leaving explosions in their wake. The pair flew several dozen feet until they landed in a smaller tunnel on the side of the larger continent.
Well, that just wasn’t fair.
“Ready?” Rhia asked her.
Ciena sucked air through her teeth, trying to ignore the impossibility of the task. If she could snap an iron chain, she could make the jump. Even if it meant crossing an endless, dark abyss.
The platform continued moving up the rocky wall. By now, the gap was wider than it was tall. Like jumping over an alley rather than scaling a building.
Faidon and Rhia made the jump together with a running start. As soon as they were airborne, a shower of fire rained down on them like meteors.
Rhia landed in the tunnel with a roll. Faidon erupted in flames. His body smacked into the cliff’s edge before plummeting into the void below.
Ciena didn’t even look for their assailant. Her instincts kicked in and she broke into a running start. The rain found the gaps in her helmet, stinging her eyes. She focused on her purpose, and the energy flooded her veins, reinforcing her legs, core and back.
Time slowed down as she dove through the air, twisting her body to avoid a second curtain of flame. Her landing wasn’t as graceful as Rhia’s, but at least she fared better than Faidon.
“Justicars,” Dazen called from a dozen feet ahead. “You ladies want to take the lead?”
Ciena forced herself to her feet, wiping the rain from her brow.
Rhia drew a pair of wakizashi blades from their scabbards. They were even shorter than her brother’s old off-hand weapon—probably no more than a foot long.
Ciena drew her katana and moved to the other girl’s side. The tunnel was just wide enough for two to stand abreast. Still, things would get crammed if a fight broke out in here. Rough stone made up the walls and ceiling with the occasional hanging vine or root dangling in their way.
The path grew pitch-black as they moved farther from the entryway. At this point, Dazen and Kavar conjured two floating balls of fire a few feet ahead.
Ciena grinned at that. It was like having a torch without giving up a hand to carry it.
They continued on for several long moments, running into a handful of solo contestants along the way. Most fled at the sight of their group, and Dazen and Kavar picked them off with a quick lightning bolt.
One boy was bolder than the others and tried to ambush them from behind a stalagmite. He hurled himself at Ciena, sword swinging. She barely had time to raise her shield, and the blow sent her stumbling back.
Rhia greeted the boy with a knife to the face. He deflected it with his arm, but the second blade opened his belly.
The boy faded into dark wisps of smoke before the blood could flow in earnest. Ciena had seen her share of gut wounds during the Battle of Whitecliff. The smoke was a mercy to them all.
Clashing steel echoed from farther down the tunnel. The battlegroup surged forward like a coiled spring, and their path widened into a larger clearing.
“Move!” Rhia ordered as she dove to the right.
Ciena dove left as her vision filled with flame. She slammed into the stone floor, missing the attack by mere inches.
Dazen and Kavar threw out their hands and caught the pillar of flame. The men exchanged blows with the other Sanctifier, painting the clearing in primal red light.
Another man emerged from the shadows, darting toward Ciena. She sprang to her feet and picked up her katana.
Anger flared inside her chest as she ran to meet him. She let it pass, reaching deeper for the calm clarity of serenity. Their blades met several times, but he was stronger and quicker. Ciena might have won with ordinary Ethermancy, but this wasn’t enough.
After a quick exchange of thrusts and parries, her opponent’s sword locked with hers. Ciena clenched her teeth as she pushed back, but he forced her into a stone pillar.
Ciena kicked him in the shin, but he didn’t relent. Instead, he drove his elbow into her bicep, and her hand went numb.
Her katana clattered to the ground, and his blade leapt up to her face.
Rhia emerged from the side like an assassin in the night. She dove toward Ciena’s opponent and slashed her own blade across his throat. Once again, the man erupted into smoke before the blood could flow.
Ciena muttered a quick thanks to her friend, avoiding the other girl’s eyes as she retrieved her fallen weapon. That wouldn’t happen again.
The battle continued for the better part of an hour with many smaller skirmishes along the way. Ciena would have liked to say the match ended with a dramatic showdown between her and Amelie Reverius. That she had learned from her past mistakes, mastered the serenity trance, and defeated her foe.
No such luck. Her group ran into Reverius, but the encounter lasted mere seconds.
The girl had toyed with Ciena back in the dueling ring. This time, she didn’t bother. The fire that erupted from her hands filled every inch of the narrow space.
Dazen and his cousin tried to block it, but they turned to ash in the blink of an eye.
Ciena tried to resist—to remind herself that all Ethermancy could be opposed—but Reverius’s will pressed against her mind like the fist of Aegon.
The heat enveloped her, stronger than anything she’d felt before. It felt like touching a hot stove, but with her entire body. She felt it in her eyes, her mouth, and in her chest. The flames burned through her armor and melted her skin.
That split second lasted an eternity, and the dream couldn’t fade quickly enough.
Ciena bolted up from her sleeping mat, eyes burning, body covered in sweat. She brought her hands to her face, and the feeling of undamaged skin felt too good to be true.
When Rhia put a hand on her shoulder, she flinched away.
“It’s alright,” Rhia told her. “It wasn’t real. You’re safe.”
Ciena tried to talk but found her throat dry. She pulled the canteen from her belt and drained its contents.
“You didn’t warn me about that,” she finally managed to say.
“What? That dying hurts like hell?” The other girl shrugged. “It wouldn’t have made a difference if we did.”
Ciena let out a long sigh, feeling more helpless than ever. How in Aegon’s name were you supposed to fight someone like that?
Later that evening, a messenger boy came to retrieve her during dinner. Apparently, Alexel wanted to see her in his chambers right away.
Ciena hadn’t finished eating yet, but the thought of talking to the Grandmaster was enough to ruin her appetite. She’d been eager for his attention before, but she had better circumstances in mind.
Like scoring more than zero points, for one thing.
Unlike Whitecliff’s Battlegrounds, everyone was scored individually, sharing no points with their teams and earning nothing for larger scale objectives. There weren’t even rewards for staying alive longer.
“If that were the case,” Rhia had explained, “people would just find a quiet place to hide until the match was over.”
Hard to argue with that logic, but still...
She got up from the dinner table and climbed the long stone staircase on the ziggurat’s facade. Alexel’s chambers were inside the top level, and a sliding bamboo door was all that stood between her and the entrance. She stood there for a moment wondering which part to knock on.
“Enter, Ciena Raider,” called a voice like ice from the other side.
How did he always know who it was? She would have to ask him one of these days.
Ciena slid open the door and stepped inside, projecting as much confidence as she could muster. The room was dark but for the hard lines of sunlight filtering in through the western blinds. Not that there was much to see here anyway—just a bed, a writing desk, and several piles of books. The Grandmaster may have been wealthy, but he spent everything on the enclave, leaving little for himself. She had to respect that.
Alexel sat cross-legged on the stone floor, his silver-white hair falling down to his shoulders. The evening light made his face look even sharper than usual.
Neither spoke for a long moment, and the only sounds were those of the jungle beyond the crater. Ciena was tempted to break the silence several times, but she set her jaw and held his gaze.
“You’re regressing,” Alexel finally said.
“I—” Ciena hesitated. “What?”
“I watched you fight before I left. What happened to that strength and passion? I saw none of it today.”
Ciena had been braced for a blow, but she countered nonetheless. “I’m fighting more skilled opponents now. And today was my first time fighting in the Ethereal.”
“I’m not referring to the day’s outcomes,” he said. “Only your approach. Did this happen after your loss to Amelie Reverius?”
Ciena recognized the complex question and backtracked. “I didn’t ‘lose’ my strength or passion. But yes, I experimented with a new strategy today. No sense in making the same mistakes twice.”
Another short silence. “Explain.”
“It’s called battle serenity.” Ciena coughed to clear her throat. She remembered the technique well enough, but it didn’t sound half as impressive as it had before. “It’s about finding a balance between your emotions during combat.”
Alexel inclined his head but otherwise remained still as a statue. “I’m familiar with this. Invented by the Archaeon Vashet, no? Accept yourself and the world as they are? A useful approach ... in times of peace.”
He unfolded himself from his sitting position and made a long, slow stretch. “In Whitecliff, they forbade you from practicing Ethermancy. No—they denied its existence, even when doing so endangered those with potential. Even when it could have saved them from the Templars. Should you have accepted that?”
“Of course not,” Ciena said. “Finding a balance isn’t the same as suppressing anger entirely.”
Alexel gave a curt nod as he slid open the door to his balcony. “Had you taken such an approach, you never would have survived the battle. It’s no coincidence that you lived while so many others perished.”
A bit too generous, there. Ciena had only lived because she’d broken in the moment her brother fell. The Templars would have killed her too if she hadn’t dropped her sword. Even so, his point remained. There were several times in that battle where rage had saved her life.
“You survived,” Alexel said, “because you didn’t blindly accept their dogma. Such obedience is for soldiers, not Ethermancers. You wanted more, and you took it.”
Ciena followed him onto the balcony, taking in the sight of the enclave below—rounded stone rooftops and empty training yards. “Nothing has changed since then.”
She took a deep breath of the cool evening air. “My fighting style is wild and unpredictable. I lost my duel because I couldn’t control myself. I’m going to beat Reverius the next time we fight. To do that, I need to learn her weaknesses.”
“Know thy enemy,” Alexel said in vague agreement, “but don’t sacrifice what you are to become her. If I thought she was the pinnacle of Ethermancy, do you think I would have sought you out?”
Ciena stood taller at that.
“But every action you take will define you.” He turned to face her, putting his back to the parapet. “Ethermancy is a game, and your life is all you have to gamble. Many of my pupils have talent, but they play the game with one foot in the door. Amelie Reverius is one such student. Rhia Vassaj is another. Those who play half-way seek to hold back their opponents as well as their friends.”
The same could be said for everyone else in Ciena’s battlegroup, yet he singled out Rhia. Did he know they were training together?
And ... is that what Rhia was doing? Holding her back? Ciena had been so focused on beating Reverius that she hadn’t even considered that possibility. By directing her toward one technique, Rhia controlled her progression as an Ethermancer. A useful advantage if they ever became enemies.
Then again, wasn’t Alexel doing the same? He implied the serenity trance was a waste of time, but the Grandmaster had equal cause to manipulate her. Besides, his claims lacked evidence. Battle serenity didn’t come from some charlatan who strolled into town selling cheap lessons. It came from an Archaeon’s personal journal. That had to count for something.
“Others,” Alexel continued. “Put in everything. Every ounce of our being is devoted to our power, and we go farther than anyone else. Beyond our friends. Beyond our enemies. Beyond this world. Many have walked this path throughout history. The Archaeons who invented Ethermancy, the founder of the Sile’zhar, and all the great rulers of Revera and Palavar.
“I need more from you,” Alexel said. “This world is changing, and the Etherfall will only stir the waters further. This world needs another Raiden. Who better than his heir?”
“So that’s what this is about?” Ciena said. “I’m here for my bloodline? Maybe I’m no more Raiden than you are Treluwyn.”
“A fair point. Our ancestors form the clay that makes us, but they don’t define us. But I looked out across the vastness of the Ethereal, and I saw someone who learned Ethermancy despite living in a world where people told her it was impossible. Someone who survived on raw passion because that was all she had.”
The Grandmaster wouldn’t appeal to her pride like this unless he needed her for something specific. She could use that to her advantage.
“With respect,” Ciena began, “I see no reason to give up battle serenity just because you disagree with it. I’ve seen you fight, and I can’t argue with the results. Still, you haven’t given me a lot of alternatives.”
Alexel’s mouth curled up in a grin. “Very well. You believe you lost your duel because you couldn’t control yourself?” He shook his head. “True conflict is never that of the body. An Ethermancer’s battle is always in the mind.”
Like her parents, Alexel had the gift of using a lot of words to say very little. Maybe he was secretly a politician, too.
“You lost,” he continued, “because you were afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Ciena retorted. “I have nothing left to lose.”
“You think you can lie to me? I saw the fear in your eyes back in Starglade. Don’t think I’m judging you. No—Inside every warrior is a dragon to be faced. The parts of yourself you see as unworthy.”
Ciena nodded, keeping her face blank and withholding judgement for now. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
“I once asked you what you cared about. You said it was avenging your family and the loss of your home. These moments in your past—your worst memories— these are the events that shaped you. Your old masters told you to accept this, to accept your lot in life. I believe the past is yours to change. Return tomorrow at this time, and I’ll show you how.”
Recognizing the dismissal, Ciena turned to leave. But first, she glanced down at her arm which still hung uselessly in its sling. “You know, I could train a lot faster if this wasn’t broken.”
“I’m sure you could,” he replied. “I’ve healed student injuries before ... but no, it’s better this way. To heal your arm would be to show you special treatment, which you haven’t earned yet. But you will return here tomorrow night, and I will give you the training you seek. We will enter the Ethereal and face your fears together.”