Ciena woke to shouts and thundering footsteps. She opened her eyes and took in the bedchamber—dark stone floors and sand-colored walls. A wardrobe loomed in one corner, and a massive window dominated the wall to her right.
The door burst open, and her mother rushed inside. She was dressed in leather armor with her golden hair in disarray.
Ciena bolted up in her bed. “What’s—”
“We’re under attack.” Her mother dropped the lantern and flung open the doors of Ciena’s wardrobe. After a second of rummaging, she tossed a bundle of combat fatigues on the bed behind her.
Ciena needed no direction—her family had practiced this. She stepped into the trousers and threw the tunic on over her nightgown. The boots, jerkin, and belt came next. The whole process took less than ten seconds.
Ciena picked up the lantern and shone its light on the mechanical clock. Second hour of the morning.
“Who?” Ciena struggled to keep her voice steady. “Who’s attacking us?”
Her mother turned and met her gaze for the first time. The sight of her made Ciena’s eyes burn. Chills raced down her arms, and the room seemed to spin. Her ten-year-old self couldn’t make sense of the emotions.
Because this is the Ethereal. A dream of the past. A memory of the night her uncle Cladius brought the Templars to Raidenwood. She was here for a purpose ... what was it again?
Ciena jumped as something erupted outside her window. The floor shook beneath her feet, and glass shot out from the window frame.
“Hurry.” Her mother seized her wrist and the two of them raced out the door.
Elias and her father waited in the solar, and guard captain Tyron stood with them. Fire filled the sky outside the eastern window. The Aeon guardhouse, shrouded in smoke and flames. Her family’s most loyal soldiers, all killed in their sleep.
Someone shoved on the door at the far end of the hallway. An instant later, it turned to a chorus of banging and shouts.
“Move!” Captain Tyron herded them down the opposite corridor.
Pillars and oil lamps blurred by as they ran. Her legs shook like blades of grass, and it was a miracle she kept her balance.
Her father led them into an unassuming storage room. Ciena remembered what came next. There was a hatch on the floor that led to a tunnel beneath the palace. From there, they’d taken another path along the sewer system that led outside the city.
Few knew of this escape route, and Uncle Cladius wasn’t one of them. If he had known, they never would have survived this night.
Her parents ushered her and Elias into the storage room. Footsteps echoed down the hall, then gunfire. Each shot shook her to her core, the fiercest storms paling in comparison.
Tyron was last inside the room. He was shutting the heavy oaken door when a bullet struck the side of his face. Blood splattered the walls and ceiling as he fell.
Time slowed to a standstill, and Ciena recalled the next part before it happened. Her father had pushed the door shut, losing his right hand as a Templar blade sliced through the gap.
Blood ... so much blood. At that age, she hadn’t imagined it could spread so quickly.
These memories were clear as glass, even before the dream dug its claws in. This night was the most afraid she’d even been, and that was why Alexel had sent her here.
Never accept defeat when the world is yours to change.
Tyron collapsed on the floor, and the crimson rivers flooded the flagstones.
Ciena’s heart thundered, and her ribcage felt too weak to contain it. Sweat coated her shaking hands. Her mother tried to hold her close—tried to turn her head and force her to look away.
Alexel didn’t send her here to indulge in comfort or weakness. He sent her here to train.
Ciena stepped forward and seized control of the dream. She wasn’t a helpless child anymore, and she wouldn’t run. If her family had been Ethermancers back then, they might never have lost Raidenwood. They might still be alive right now.
And now you’re being sentimental again. Ciena gritted her teeth and sank back into the moment. Focus.
Her father moved to shut the door, just as he had in her memories. Before he could, Ciena snatched up Tyron’s katana and twisted through the gap.
She drew in a long breath, letting the Ethereal’s energy fill her from head to heel.
A pair of guards stood on the other side, no doubt surprised at the sight of a young girl with a blade.
Rage swirled through her like a storm, and Ciena made no attempt to slow her charge. She bolted past the first man, dragging steel through his stomach, slicing leather and skin with Justicar strength.
Before the second man could react, she whirled around and opened his throat.
The bodies were still collapsing when a squad of riflemen lined up at the opposite end of the hall. Anger flared in her chest at the injustice of it all. Her clan had ruled this city justly for centuries. They had treated every human fairly, including her uncle. They didn’t deserve this betrayal.
Strength and Fortitude.
The Templars fired their weapons, but Ciena didn’t hesitate. She charged forward to meet them head-on, blood hammering as the energy pulsed through her. The bullets shot through the air, and she struck them down with the flat of her blade.
Several heartbeats passed as she closed the gap. The Templars held their ground, extending swords and bayonets. She took another breath of power, refining herself into an instrument of death.
Mere inches from the line, Ciena kicked off the ground, flying over the sea of upraised steel. She landed amidst her foes, spinning and sweeping her katana in a series of quick arcs.
Swords descended from every angle, and Ciena twisted away with heightened speed. She dove through that forest of legs, slicing through tendon and muscle.
The messy work of killing went on for several minutes as she continued through the palace halls. Rifles were deadly weapons, but her enemies couldn’t reload as fast as she could run. Their only hope was to surround her and shoot from every side.
Eventually, they did just that. A smaller squad of Templars led her into the main atrium where three dozen riflemen waited in ambush. Another round of gunfire, and something hot pierced her between the shoulder blades. Ciena dropped her sword and collapsed face-first on the stone floor.
Aegon, but she hated dying.
Regardless, she trained this way every night, always learning from her mistakes, killing more foes with each attempt. Alexel was right about one thing—the Ethereal was an invaluable resource. She never held off all the enemies, nor did she find her uncle Cladius. The traitorous guards outnumbered her ten to one, and the Templars had prepared for Ethermancers like her.
During this time, her skills increased faster than she could have imagined. Over and over, she re-lived Raidenwood and she changed the past. Not the real past—that was impossible. Even so, steel sharpened steel and her worst memories honed her resolve.
Ciena also competed in the Ethereal battlegrounds. By now, she’d grown accustomed to the surreal and shifting dreamscapes. She still hadn’t beat Reverius, or any of the top five. That gap would close soon enough though.
In addition to everything else, she continued to investigate the outside world and her parents’ fate. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go on, isolated on this island as they were. Rhia was right about Nahlia’s father though—Aaron Cole was in fact the new Templar Commander. Apparently, he was working to forge peace between the Aeons and humans.
Talk about messy work.
No other news aside from that. She even asked Alexel again, and not a single one of his spies had heard anything from Clan Raider. Ciena knew his spies were credible—one of them had identified her as one of three potential Ethermancers in Whitecliff, along with her brother, and Nahlia Cole.
Who was this spy, anyway? Whitecliff wasn’t a large place so they must have known each other back then. Ciena would meet him soon, or so Alexel claimed.
It was late on Paladal evening when she and Rhia were leaving the infirmary. The sun sat low on the horizon, and the sounds of frogs and other wildlife echoed beyond the crater.
Five weeks had passed since her duel with Reverius. Five weeks with her right arm in that Aegon-cursed sling. The physician had finally let her take it off tonight, and now she was practically skipping down the walkway.
“I’ve never seen you this happy,” Rhia said as they passed between two buildings.
Ciena twisted and stretched her fingers. “You try going that long without your swordhand. Trust me, getting it back is cause for celebration.”
“Now let me guess,” Rhia said, “you have plans with Reverius tomorrow morning to break it all over again.”
“Hilarious.” It would be awhile before she dueled anyone, much less the imperial spawn. “Patience is the plan for now. At least I can finally train again.”
“What?” Rhia’s voice was almost comically incredulous. “When did Ciena of Clan Raider learn about patience?”
“Believe it or not, I’ve been injured before.”
“I believe that part,” she said, “just not the part where you learned a lesson from it.”
“Are you finished?” Ciena flexed her fingers again. “If not, I can think of a better way to test this arm.”
“Case in point,” Rhia said with a grin. “As if you could take me.”
Ciena swung a punch in Rhia’s direction, but the other girl side-stepped it. Aegon, but she was quick sometimes. Not that Ciena had really been trying. The two of them had practiced battle serenity together many times now, but they’d only sparred left-handed. Her broken arm had seen to that restriction.
“We’ll have a proper duel soon enough,” Ciena said. “But first...” She trailed off as a dragon and its riders flew over the enclave. Palm trees thrashed in the wind, and the creature’s dark wings blocked out the last rays of sun.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Ciena said, then she broke into a jog toward the dragon’s cave at the top of the hill. She’d made a habit these past few weeks of talking to anyone who left the enclave. Not that she didn’t trust Alexel, but it never hurt to have a second source of outside information.
After her mother’s statement about Aaron Cole turned out to be true, Ciena took a more rational approach in her investigation.
Although, she hadn’t dreamt of her parents since Starglade. That fact alone seemed sufficient evidence that they were truly dead and that her subconscious had moved on. The alternative was that someone was blocking their communication. Could such a thing even be done with Ethermancy?
If any Aeon could do that, it was Alexel Trelidor. More and more, the Grandmaster’s training felt like a massive hand directing her down a narrow path. Not necessarily what was best for her, but the path that fit his larger schemes.
Alright, so maybe she didn’t trust him after all. Did that make her paranoid? He’d saved her life in Starglade, and he’d helped her become a better Ethermancer in the months that followed. Even so, Alexel had every reason to make her believe she was alone in this world. Whatever his plans, they involved her being as strong as possible.
Besides, if she found out her parents were alive, she would…
Do what? Leave this enclave? Stop her training? This place gave her opportunities she wouldn’t find anywhere else in the realm. Ever since that night ten years ago in Raidenwood, power had been her only goal. The power to bring justice to her enemies. Reliving those memories had hardened that desire to steel. Then again ... she had tasted victory many times back in Whitecliff. It never made her any happier.
Ciena stopped short when she reached the top of the foothill. The dragonriders dismounted several yards away, and a stranger stood among them. The first visitor she’d seen on this island.
The man was Valaysian, tall and lean with sun-darkened skin. His long black hair was in disarray from the flight, and his beard looked like he hadn’t trimmed it in months.
Ciena swallowed against the dryness in her throat, stepping forward to see his face in the darkness.
The stranger stepped forward as well, and his tan eyes shone in the light of the nearby torches.
Those eyes ... that face. Ciena knew this man. She’d known him for ten years.
This was her old teacher. The Chronicler Zidane. The traitor who sold out Whitecliff to the Templars.