Zidane strolled into the arena, flourishing his katana. He felt naked without Etherite, but he didn’t need it. The sun shone down upon them, and Zidane drank in its heat. He drank it until he felt the spin of the world within his heart.
More than enough to beat Ciena Raider.
Across the arena, his opponent swaggered forward with a slow, cat-like grace. A show of bravado to mask a slew of insecurities. This farce might have fooled some, but Zidane had taught this girl for years.
The same braids hung on either side of her face. The same golden eyes stared at him as she walked. Eyes that shone with rage and ferocity, but little control. Of all Whitecliff’s potential Ethermancers, she was always the weakest. Sure, the girl had talent. She also learned quickly in matters martial and physical, but she lacked self-discipline.
“Ciena,” he said once they were only a few yards apart.
She didn’t break her stride, and the distance between them grew smaller still. She held her own blade in Cobraform—an aggressive stance with brutal strikes meant to finish a weaker foe. As usual, she thought she could solve all her problems that way. Like a raptor bred for war that knew nothing else.
Zidane drew in another deep breath. “Do you—”
Ciena darted forward in a flash of silver steel. She was quick, but there was no Justicar swiftness in the strike. Like Zidane, she had come to this fight with no ring. And unlike him, she didn’t have the skill to draw on ambient energy.
Zidane stood as still as a stone pillar. He waited until the last moment, then he pulled a burst of heat from her muscles.
Ciena stumbled forward, and Zidane sidestepped her blow.
He brought his own blade around to her flank. The girl barely managed to parry as she staggered back.
Zidane relaxed further, a slow smile spreading across his face. Clearly, Ciena Raider had changed little these past few months. She’d been a skilled fighter before, but that was in Whitecliff. There, fights were merely contests of the body. You memorized stances and sequences and then kept your mind as blank as paper.
A battle between Ethermancers was more like a game of Cruscendo. Every moment had thousands of possibilities on different planes—physical, mental, and spiritual. No one could graze the surface of that depth in a matter of months.
Zidane opened his mouth as if to speak again, but Ciena struck first. By doing so, she’d revealed another weakness.
“You’re afraid of me,” he said. “Afraid I’ll break you with words instead of steel.”
Ciena didn’t reply. She merely fixed him the same cold stare as before.
They circled each other for a few more seconds, then she lashed out in a series of quick attacks. High, low, left, right.
Zidane lured her thrusts into his parries, taking her body heat at opportune moments and throwing her off balance. He could have ended her in this moment, but that wouldn’t do. He’d never liked the girl, but neither would her death serve the cause.
Alexel had plans for her, and this was merely another stepping stone in her training. Zidane would injure her, spare her life, and then move on.
Their blades rang like the bells in Whitecliff’s chapel. The sound echoed over the arena as he led her in circles.
Unimpressive as ever. Oh, she was lively enough, but her strikes were almost random. Vash had pointed this out countless times, but the girl had never listened. She’d always basked in her own bloodline and talents, ignoring tactics and strategy.
Zidane spoke over the clash of steel, “What do you fight for, Ciena Raider?”
“Easy,” she hissed. “I’m going to bleed you dry.”
“And after that?”
Her gaze hardened.
“You have no one left,” Zidane said. “Your family is dead.”
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“Because of Whitecliff? That wasn’t personal, you know. We took down five times as many Templars that day, including several of their leaders. It was a victory for our race. You and I are fighting on the same side.”
“Don’t even try,” Ciena snapped back. “You helped them from the beginning. The Templars would’ve butchered them in their sleep if it wasn’t for me.”
“Things will make sense in due time,” Zidane said. “Until then, must we fight over mere philosophical differences?”
She struck harder, barely staying in control.
Once again, he called out over the clamor of blades. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry about your brother. He deserved better than a bullet from the darkness.”
She feinted at his face, then swept low toward his legs.
“You’re all defense,” Ciena snarled. “Thought you’d be better.
Zidane’s smile broadened toward a soft chuckle. “I could kill you any time I wanted, girl.”
“Empty words.” But even as she spoke, she slowed her own attacks. Almost as if she didn’t trust herself.
Those eyes though ... her eyes were as lucid as ever. Could the fear have been a ruse? A ploy to lure him into some false sense of security? Whatever it was, Zidane wouldn’t—
Ciena swung left, then threw a punch into his chest.
Zidane deflected the blow with his forearm. But even as he redirected her, white lines of pain shot through his muscles. It felt like grazing steel rather than flesh.
Ciena swung her blade again, faster than before.
The pain only grew more intense after the impact. Zidane whirled desperately to one side and leapt away.
What is this?
Ciena closed the distance and struck again, pressing her advantage.
Zidane shot a blast into the ground and propelled himself several yards away. His arm grew numb as he landed back on the arena’s stone floor. A second later, and it hung at his side like a dead animal.
Yuchani flower? The poison Whitecliff’s students used to simulate wounds. She’d applied it ... to her glove?
Ciena inclined her head at him as she approached. Her voice deepened into finality, “Zidane. In the name of Aegon and the Justicar’s, I Ciena, last surviving member of Clan Raider, sentence you to die.”
“My my,” Zidane said, “you have some skill after all.” Not that he was concerned. He didn’t need both hands for this. Besides, he hadn’t even tapped into his Ethermancy reserves yet.
Still, the farce was over. Time to end this.
Ciena sprang forward.
Zidane gathered the heat into the palm of his good hand and released a blast of flame in her direction.
Ciena didn’t slow. Instead, she kicked off the floor and dove into that orange tempest.
The fire vanished mere inches from her face. She hit the ground and struck again. This time, she attacked with true Justicar speed, becoming a swirling vortex of silver.
Zidane parried her blow, but his arm shook from the effort. It was like hitting a cavern wall. The next strike bent his wrist. He blocked another attack aimed for his face, and she nearly forced the edge of his blade into his eye.
He gave ground as she struck from a hundred angles at once. Zidane tried to oppose her, but there was too much power there. Where in Aegon’s name had this come from?
Zidane hit her with more blasts of flame, but Ciena absorbed them all without looking. She continued to hound him, every step a vicious strike, and every strike a perfect step. The blade kept slashing until the world became a silver haze.
How? How? This girl had never even fought a Sanctifier before.
Ciena Raider had changed. In only five months, she was halfway to becoming a true Justicar. Zidane tired with every second. He wasn’t a young man anymore, and every parry aged him another year. Meanwhile, Ciena was only warming up.
Time to change his own tactics.
Zidane gave more ground, gathering energy in several deep breaths, drawing power from every corner of the arena. The warmth of the sun, the heat of the crowd, the momentum of his foe.
He released this power in a blast of flame, hot and blinding. He didn’t care if he killed or crippled the girl now. Better to live another day than to take his chances. Even his master would see the logic behind that choice. Whatever potential the girl had, she was still more replaceable than he was.
Ciena tried to absorb this blast, but it was too much for her. The girl had been practicing— that much was clear now—but her sparring partners weren’t Zidane’s equals.
Ciena realized this too, a second too late. She retreated with her last reserve of speed, putting a score of yards between them. Her leather armor was smoking and burning in several places. She undid the buckles and threw her jerkin to the ground, revealing a thin white tunic beneath. Her face was red and blistered, with streams of blood running down her hairline and her left ear. Sweat shone on her neck and collarbone.
Zidane took his time as he closed the distance, gathering even more power for a final attack.
In the meantime, the right words could burn hotter than any fire.
His first approach had been all wrong. Ciena Raider wasn’t afraid of pain or suffering—she embraced it. In her mind, she was strong enough to face anything. She saw the world as a constant battle. Mountains to climb, foes to slay, and fiery paths to tread.
No. Happiness was what she rejected and feared. She saw herself as unworthy of such things. And uncertainty was one foe she couldn’t face head on.
“I lied before,” Zidane said. “Your family is alive.” He took another step forward. “But you already know that, don’t you?”
Ciena fell back into Cobraform, eyes narrowing into a promise of hell.
“No? Perhaps not. What was that dramatic outburst before? The last of your line? How quaint. You were never my brightest student, but even you should recognize weak evidence for what it is. You must have known. They must have come to you in the Ethereal.” Zidane let his lips curl into a smile. “Your mother, perhaps? What did you say to her?”
Ciena’s limbs shook like thin branches in the wind. Her lips quivered as she tried to form words. Even her eyes widened from hard lines to circles of uncertainty.
“You tried to fight them, didn’t you? That’s all you know, daughter of Raiden.”
Zidane continued gathering power from their surroundings. He never could have held this much if not for his decades of training.
“Your brother is alive too. He tried to come for you in Starglade, you know. You missed him by less than an hour.”
Her eyes hardened again, flashing with suspicion.
“Yes,” Zidane said, “you saw him die, but Nahlia Cole brought him back. You were too quick to accept the simple answer. You tell yourself that you fight to avenge them. In reality, you fight for nothing. You are the architect of your own suffering. You, and no one else.”
Now the heat was more than he could contain. Zidane stepped closer, cornering her against the arena’s edge.
Finally, he stretched out his hand and released the torrent of flame.
The girl remained as still as a startled deer, making no move to run or defend herself.
The flames clouded his vision as they launched toward her, and the world became a blur of light and heat.
Something sharp struck him in the chest. Pain hit him in sudden waves. Hot like a furnace, then cold as a thousand small icicles. He looked down to see a hilt protruding from his leather jerkin
No. This wasn’t right. The poisoned glove had already been too much. But poisoned throwing knives? Alexel had assured him they fought with only katanas. Nothing else.
The flames cleared away, and he saw Ciena throw a second knife. It landed in his shoulder, but he barely felt it through the numbness of the first. The third knife took him in the stomach, and Zidane collapsed back on hard stone.
Ciena approached, and no one stopped her. The crowd remained as silent and still as before. With the last of his strength, Zidane glanced toward Alexel who stood in the stone box above the entrance. His lips were curled in a smile, and his eyes shone with pride.
No. It couldn’t end this way. After all he’d accomplished—had the last few decades of work meant nothing?
Zidane turned his eyes to Ciena who loomed over him now—a dark silhouette against the morning sun. Speaking was a struggle, but he managed two words: “No honor.”
The girl didn’t reply. Perhaps she couldn’t form words any better than he could. More likely, she had nothing to say.
Ciena held the sword over him, and Zidane didn’t look away.
The blade broke his windpipe, and its bite was hot and red.