Ciena paced back and forth in front of the arena’s stone archway, too anxious to sit still. Alexel should’ve been back from his morning training by now.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, but most people were already up and moving. Carts trundled by as scores of field workers made their way along the dirt path toward the crater’s edge. Others moved in the opposite direction, carrying sacks of fruit and water for the day’s meals.
Ciena’s own shift didn’t start for another two hours. Most mornings, she wouldn’t even be awake yet. But of course she hadn’t slept at all last night. How could she with Zidane traipsing around the island? Was he allied with this enclave, or was he a prisoner? No one told her a bloody thing.
She’d tried to confront Zidane the second he arrived, but the guards had blocked her path and hauled him off to Alexel’s chambers. Ciena exercised patience in the meantime, which was why none of those guards had broken bones.
Aegon only knew where Zidane was now. Probably inside the ziggurat somewhere. Either way, she was about to get some answers.
Alexel’s students strode past her and into the area. All of them were Justicar trainees ranked within the top ten. Aside from Faidon, not one of them spared Ciena a glance as they passed.
She’d watched Alexel’s lessons from the stands before. Might as well, since no one ever stopped her. The Grandmaster usually focused on specific Ethermantic abilities rather than physical techniques. As a Redeemer, Alexel couldn’t increase his speed or reflexes the way a Justicar could. Even so, he opposed their wills and slowed them down. Once those odds were even, he showed astounding sword mastery.
Why did that surprise her so much? It shouldn’t, considering he carried a sword with him everywhere he went. Maybe it was because she’d seen him take on a full squad of Templars without lifting a finger. Besides, most people didn’t have time to master so many skills. Of course, Alexel Trelidor had lived much longer than most. Over a hundred years, if the rumors were true. Whatever healing powers he possessed must’ve countered aging as well as injuries.
Several more minutes passed, and the Grandmaster appeared at the edge of the path, towering over the crowd like an emperor. He wore a loose-fitting tunic with his silver-white hair pulled back.
Ciena cleared her throat as he approached the archway. “A word, Master Trelidor?”
Alexel eyed her but didn’t break his stride.
She followed him through the stone tunnel.
“Zidane,” the name left her mouth like a curse. “He was your spy in Whitecliff?”
“Yes.” The Grandmaster’s face was unreadable in the darkness.
They emerged from the tunnel into the blue-tinged light of morning. Alexel’s students waited at the arena’s center.
Ciena stepped in front of the Grandmaster and asked the question that had kept her awake all night. “Are you responsible for the Templar attack?”
Surprise flashed across Alexel’s face. Before he could reply, Amelie Reverius followed them into the arena.
“Good morning, Master Trelidor.” She pressed her fists together and gave a slight bow.
“Reverius.” Alexel inclined his head toward her. “Tell the others to begin their meditations without me. I’ll be there shortly.”
The girl shot Ciena an annoyed look, but she kept her mouth blessedly shut as she left. At least she respected Alexel enough to keep her juvenile antics to herself. Still, this would come back to bite Ciena later.
Once they were alone again, she crossed her arms and waited for the Grandmaster’s explanation.
“Zidane aided the Templars in their assault,” he said.” But not under my orders.”
“Then where’d he get the idea?” she asked.
“Who’s to say he wasn’t acting on his own?”
“No motive,” Ciena said. “He was already a respected teacher of the enclave. And with Elveron gone, he might’ve been the new Headmaster. Why mess up such a nice and cozy life? The way I see it, he was working for someone else. Someone who profited from the whole mess.”
“Someone,” Alexel echoed, “meaning me?” His tone was calm, close to condescending. Almost as if this were all some elaborate lesson for her benefit. “You believe I helped the Templars—my enemies? Despite my efforts to ally with your enclave’s other survivors?”
“Why not?” Ciena asked. “It’s working, isn’t it? You might never have recruited me otherwise. Not to mention, this makes it easier to ‘help’ the others.”
“Such a plan would be overly convoluted,” he countered.
“So you say now, but hindsight’s clear as glass.”
The Grandmaster gave a knowing smile. “Your instincts are ... partially correct. Zidane’s motives had nothing to do with you, or anyone in Whitecliff. He was working to retrieve an ancient artifact. Something locked away in the caverns below the enclave.”
Ciena knew the place he spoke of. She and Elias had discovered the locked door within weeks of arriving at the Academy. A door of solid smooth stone with no handles or keyholes—nothing but two crescent-shaped recessions on its surface.
“Before your enclave came to be,” he continued, “it was a tomb for the Archaeon Palatine. The artifact Zidane sought was a Codex created by the Archaeon himself to pass along his teaching. Needless to say, the current patriarch of Clan Palatine desires this.”
Ciena raised an eyebrow. “So that’s who Zidane’s working for? The foreign invaders who are knocking on our door?”
Alexel nodded once.
“Or ... maybe he’s working directly for you, and this evil army makes a nice scapegoat?”
His lips curled in amusement. “Distrusting as ever, I see.”
“Sorry,” she said. “But I’ve been betrayed more times than I can count. I’d have to be pretty stupid to let it happen again.
“I confess,” Alexel said, “The Codex interests me. I have a fondness for ancient and forbidden knowledge. A sentiment you share, I’m sure.”
“Not if it means letting innocents die.”
“Agreed,” he said. “Whitecliff did nothing to earn my enmity, and I’ve gained nothing from its destruction.” He made an open-palmed gesture toward her. “I could still have recruited you after you graduated. In fact, if your brother hadn’t died, I might have had two skilled Justicars instead of one.”
Hard to argue with that logic. Alexel had also told her about his spy long before Zidane showed up here. But that still didn’t explain why he defended Zidane now. Especially if Zidane had betrayed him too.
The Grandmaster continued to regard her with cool, calculating eyes. He clearly wasn’t in any great hurry, despite the crowd of students who kept shooting them glances.
He wanted something from her, but what?
“Did Zidane ever find that thing he was looking for?” Ciena asked after a short pause.
“He did. Until another student, Nahlia Cole, defeated him. She knocked him unconscious and took the artifact.”
“Well, good for her. Too bad she didn’t kill him when she had the chance.”
“A common flaw among Redeemers,” Alexel said. “It’s also the reason I had no interest in her. She believes that restraining from violence makes her superior to others. In reality, mercy weakens the giver as well as the receiver. By clinging to this arbitrary code, she blinds herself to the ways of the world.”
Something about that rubbed Ciena the wrong way, but she was in no mood for philosophy. Instead, she backtracked to her second reason for coming here. “Well, it’s easy enough to sort this out.”
“Have Zidane executed,” she said. “Better yet, let me swing the sword.”
Alexel paused to consider “Why you?”
“I deserve vengeance. After what he did to my home, and my family.”
“Vengeance,” he echoed. “And you believe executing him will make you stronger?”
Ciena narrowed her eyes. “I told you before that vengeance was my goal. Zidane, and my uncle. You encouraged it then, and now—”
“Vengeance through victory,” he interjected. “By besting those who have bested you before. Would you have me haul Zidane out in chains? Hand you an axe to do the deed? Congratulate you on your bravery?”
Alexel shook his head. “Such is the human way. To seek victory from outside rather than within. To build weapons of black powder rather than facing your foes directly, through body and mind. Any other victory is hollow. Like a handful of mist. This is why their Republic will fall before the year’s end.”
“Fine.” Ciena’s blood boiled at the comparison. Still, he made a valid point. She would gain nothing by beheading a restrained prisoner. “I’ll fight him then.”
“Better,” Alexel said.
Damnit. She’d just walked into a trap, hadn’t she?
His next statement confirmed this. “You will duel Zidane on Raidendal.”
Today was Treledal, so that was five days away.
“It will be a fight to the death,” Alexel continued, “If you win, you will have the vengeance you seek.”
Ciena swallowed against sudden dryness. Five months ago, she’d looked at Zidane and saw a wiry, middle-aged scholar. Now she knew how deceiving appearances can be. “He’s an Ethermancer, isn’t he?”
“A master Sanctifier,” Alexel said. “Stronger than anyone you’ve faced before.”
“Aegon.” She wanted to punch something. All those lectures about how Ethermancy was a myth spread by the humans ... now he was a bloody Sanctifier this whole time?
“You’ve seen us both fight,” she began slowly. “Can I win?”
Ciena started to mutter a curse, then thought better of it.
“Not yet, at least. You’ve progressed well these past few months. Faster than any student I’ve ever had. But it won’t be enough. I told you before: I have plenty of adequate students.” He gestured over to the waiting crowd. “I need another Raiden.”
Ciena drew in a sharp breath. “Fighting Reverius was a mistake. How is this any different?”
“We’ve been over this,” he said. “You lost because you were afraid.”
“But I wasn’t afraid,” Ciena retorted. “If anything, I was overconfident.”
“For you, they’re one in the same. But you’re stronger now. You’ve taken the first steps forward facing your fear and purifying your rage.”
She was about to ask for more specific advice when the Grandmaster turned away.
“If I were you,” he said, “I would make the most of those five days.” And with that, Alexel set off toward his waiting students.
Ciena jumped to the side as another fireball singed her braid. They were small, no bigger than pebbles. Dazen wasn’t even throwing them that fast. The problem was, she was blindfolded.
“Is this really necessary?” she called out to him.
“Yes,” was all Dazen said. His next attack took her in the thigh.
She jumped back when she felt the sting.
Dazen and his cousin only laughed.
“Feel free to tell me the point of this,” Ciena said. “Aegon knows I hate mysteries.”
“You’re supposed to sense the fire coming,” Dazen said. “Right now you’re just guessing where it is.”
“And hopping around like a rabbit,” came Faidon’s voice.
Ciena made a rude gesture in their general direction. Something stung her finger a second later.
She removed the blindfold and glared at Dazen. They stood on a rocky plateau in the Ethereal. Not that his attacks were that strong, but she’d rather not walk into her duel covered in blisters.
“Alright,” Dazen nodded as if in agreement. “Enough playing around.” Then he held up his Etherite ring. “When you pull power from this, you don’t have to look and see if it’s still there. You just know. Your mind can feel the energy.”
“Sure.” Ciena rolled a shoulder. “It’s like another sense.”
“The same goes for a fireball soaring at you. You should know where it is without seeing it. That sense should be as strong as sight or smell.”
“Alright,” she began slowly. “But I’ll be watching Zidane during the duel. Is the blindfold really the best use of time?”
“Your eyes are too slow,” Dazen said. By the time you see the fire, you’re already dead. You’ll have to trust me on this—sensing it is much faster.”
“Besides”, Faidon put in, “dodging or blocking his attacks won’t be enough. You want to pull the energy from the air. Use it to power your own abilities.”
True enough. The last time she spoke with Alexel, he said they would only fight with swords. No other weapons or Etherite rings. This made energy more valuable than usual, and she needed all she could get. She’d also seen her fellow Justicars—Faidon and Rhia—charging into fire unharmed, which proved it was possible.
“I’m guessing neither of you have seen Zidane fight?” Ciena asked. As far as she knew, Zidane was a teacher at Whitecliff long before they came to this island.
Both of them shook their heads.
“But it’s safe to assume he’s stronger than any student here,” Faidon said. “Including Reverius. You’ll need a bag of tricks if you don’t want to die a miserable death.”
Dazen stuck a piece of spitfire leaf in his mouth. “He’s saying you need to cheat.”
Faidon gave a serious nod. “First rule of fighting stronger opponents: play by their rules, and you’ll lose every time. Fact is, you’d need years of practice to beat Zidane in a fair fight.”
“Ah, right.” Ciena already had some ideas after her talk with Alexel. The Blademasters had strict consequences for cheating, but this wasn’t an ordinary fight, and they weren’t the ones judging it. Alexel was. Her only advantage was being able to move freely around the enclave and gather resources. She intended to make use of that.
Ciena glanced down at the blindfold again, frowning. “You sure this is the fastest way to learn? I was hoping for some actual fighting.”
Dazen shrugged. “Fighting would be better. Just like running is the best way to train for a race. But if you can’t even walk yet, you need to start somewhere.”
“So I’m learning how to walk,” she muttered. “Nice thing to hear when I only have five more days.”
Another fireball kindled in his palm. “Then you better learn fast.”
Thankfully, it didn’t take Ciena more than a day to master this skill. Ethermancy wasn’t like ordinary combat skills that required hundreds of hours to master. Instead, it was something your subconscious mind inherited from your ancestors. The foundation was already there. You just had to make it your own.
Ciena practiced until sensing the fire was as natural as swinging a sword. Once Dazen left, she enlisted his other cousins—Kavar and Elvira—to practice with her. When they got tired, she drafted imaginary foes in the Ethereal.
The days flew by, and her practice sessions progressed to actual sparring matches. As things stood, Ciena won about half her fights against Dazen, Kavar, or Elvira. These bouts were usually determined in the first few seconds. If one of the Sanctifiers landed a clean hit, she was dead. If Ciena got close enough though, few Sanctifiers could match a Justicar at sword range.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case for her duel. Alexel claimed that Zidane was also a master swordsman. But of course he bloody was.
And so Ciena trained day and night. In the physical world, and the Ethereal. Her friends grew tired long before she did. One would think that exhaustion wouldn’t be a problem in the Ethereal. On the contrary, an Ethermancer’s mind tired far faster than her body. The others hadn’t trained every night the way Ciena had, and they lacked her mental fortitude.
That was why she raised the stakes the day before her duel.
“All of us at once?” Dazen raised an eyebrow. “Aegon. You are cocky aren’t you?”
“This isn’t about that,” Ciena said. “If I’m fighting a real dragon tomorrow, then training with raptors won’t cut it. At least give me the whole pack.”
The three exchanged glances, then Dazen gave a careless shrug. A grin spread across his face, and flames erupted around him. “Suit yourself, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
Ciena knew she wouldn’t win the first fight, or the second, or even the tenth. Eventually, though, she would have what she needed. That was her greatest strength—to persevere long past the point when others would quit. Past exhaustion, boredom, and pain.
The day of her duel came far too quickly, and Ciena waited in the antechamber outside the arena. Even after all these months in the enclave, she’d never seen this arena used for actual fighting. Even the student duels took place in smaller fighting pits.
Then again, it wasn’t every day that someone fought to the death.
The Blademaster struck the gong, and the wooden gate rose before her. It reminded her of the gates in the Gorge before a Battleground. But unlike the Gorge, there was no cheering to greet her as she emerged. Just the same silence as before.
Ciena stepped into the area, footsteps echoing on the stone floor. She didn’t focus on the hundreds of faces in the crowd.
She only had eyes for her opponent.
Whitecliff’s former Chronicler wore a set of dark leather armor. His eyes lay in shadow from the arena’s high walls, but his blade caught a glimmer of the morning sun.
Ciena drew in a breath and stepped forward, clutching her own blade, hoping to Aegon this went better than her last duel. After all, there was far more at stake than just her pride.
For all that, Ciena didn’t feel half as nervous as she’d felt against Reverius. That had been an untamed rage, swirling through her like wildfire, unchecked and unchallenged.
This was a cold, quiet determination, like a crack in winter ice waiting to spread. Like a dark stormcloud building with the threat of lightning. The focus of a warrior who knew her cause was just.