Ciena lay back on a stiff bed. This time, it wasn’t Rhia who tended her wounds but Alexel himself. The Grandmaster sat with his eyes closed and a hand pressed to her core. Bursts of cool energy raced through her veins, restoring the damage from the fight.
She had seen burn victims back in Dresten—people who had been pulled from burning buildings and survived. Their scars made her blade wounds look like beauty lines. When Zidane broke through her defense, she knew she’d end up disfigured forever.
Ciena might not be as vain as some women, but that thought had still terrified her.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Alexel had healed every last one of her burns. When she raised a hand to her face, she felt nothing but smooth, supple skin.
Even so, that relief couldn’t quell the memories of blood. Her hands still threatened to shake, just as they always did after a real fight. Ciena clenched her fists to hide her weakness.
“Drink,” Alexel gestured to the full canteen beside her bed. “Ethermancy can do many things, but it can’t restore lost blood.”
Ciena grabbed the canteen and drained half of it in one swallow.
“You did well today,” he said. “You used strategy instead of raw power, and it served you well indeed. Others might have clung to honor, or some arbitrary code written by another. Others would have perished for such blind adherence.”
Ciena knew she’d get away with the poison and throwing knives. After all, this wasn’t the first time Alexel had shown a blatant disregard for rules. She almost asked how this differed from the Templars and their firearms, but she could already guess the answer. For Alexel, black powder was never an issue of morality. It was about relying on something besides your own strength.
After a short pause, she glanced down at the smooth skin on her forearms. “What happened to not showing me special treatment?”
“Some pain has a purpose—It can emphasize a lesson and force you to grow. Other pain is useless. It will do nothing but slow you down.” The Grandmaster removed his hand and sat back. “You may not thank me for this later. Being first in this enclave is like being an emperor. There’s always a sword above your throne. That sword hangs by a thread, and you must never let down your guard.”
Ciena gave a slow nod, gathering her courage for the more important questions. Many of Zidane’s final words echoed in her skull. They had made her hesitate, nearly dampening her power and costing her life.
Still, one thing stood out above all else.
Ciena took another drink and cleared her throat. “Before I killed Zidane, he said my family was still alive.”
Alexel hummed in consideration. “I heard him from where I stood.”
“Is it true?”
“Zidane didn’t speak of this matter to me,” he said. “Though I didn’t think to ask him, and corpses are notoriously difficult to interrogate.”
“But was he telling the truth?” she prodded.
Alexel arched a silver eyebrow. “You expect me to have an answer for you?”
“I do,” Ciena said, “because I think you’re an empath.” She had come across the term while studying with Rhia one evening. Empaths weren’t a true order of Ethermancers like the Justicars or the Redeemers. Instead, it was a separate skill set that many Aeons cultivated. The skills ranged from altering people’s emotions, detecting liars, and crafting illusions. Several of these traits fit Alexel like a glove.
“Do you now?” he asked.
“My father was a politician,” Ciena said. “I remember how hard he worked just to get one person to agree with him. But you have all these Aeons following you. Hundreds of them, without question.”
Against their instincts and against their better judgement.
“I don’t care who you are,” she continued. “No one’s that bloody charming.”
“Aegon gives us many talents,” he said. “Not everything stems from Ethermancy.”
She shrugged. “You also haven’t denied it yet.” Of course, knowing the Grandmaster, he wouldn’t deny it either way.
“Do others here suspect me of this?” he asked.
“They do,” Ciena admitted. “But apparently they’re all too scared to say it to your face.” Either that, or they preferred having a quiet advantage, which she honestly hadn’t thought of until after she spoke.
His lips curled up at that. “I will confirm part of your theory. I can tell when someone’s lying. Unfortunately, the liar has to believe he’s lying. If he believes his own words, they will appear no different from an ordinary truth. To make matters worse, Zidane was also a skilled empath.”
Well, that made sense. If nothing else, the bastard knew how to get under her skin.
“He knew everything I’m telling you now,” Alexel continued. “He knew enough to put on a false persona, deceiving so many in Whitecliff for so long. In his mind, he never was a traitor. And when he told you Ethermancy was a myth, he likely believed those words. Despite being an Ethermancer himself.”
Aegon, that gave her a headache just thinking about it. Ciena released a breath as she sat up straighter. “So you can’t confirm anything?”
“Nothing we didn’t know before. Aside from Zidane’s word and your dreams, we’ve seen no evidence to support whether your parents are alive or dead.”
Ciena chewed on that for a moment, then remembered something else Zidane had said. “Is it possible for a Redeemer to ... resurrect someone?”
“Ah.” Alexel leaned back in his chair. “Such things are possible, yes. They do, however, require special circumstances. For one, the victim in question cannot be fully dead.”
“Fully dead? You’re dead once your heart stops beating. Once you stop having a pulse.” She may not be a trained physician, but every warrior knew that much.
“For most practical purposes, you’re correct. But it can take several hours for the energy in our souls to pass on to Eternity. Until that happens, a Redeemer can restore the victim’s body and bring him back to life.”
“I’ve never heard of this before,” Ciena admitted.
“Nor would I expect you to. Many people fear this ability for its potential to go wrong.”
That wasn’t hard to imagine. Marwyn had once lectured her class on brain injuries. Even if the patients walked away alive, they often lost memories or parts of their personality. Maybe certain healed injuries weren’t much different.
“But if nothing goes wrong?” she asked.
“There are still consequences,” Alexel said. “In Aeons, the soul manifests itself inside our bodies, creating an opening in physical space. This opening allows us to enter the Ethereal when we dream, and enter Eternity when we die. The energy required for resurrection can shatter this manifestation of the soul. After that, the victims will be effectively human.”
In other words, they couldn’t dream or do Ethermancy.
Aegon... that might explain why it was always her mother in the Ethereal and not Elias. Her mother had even claimed that Elias’s injury had changed him.
“Have you done this before?” Ciena asked.
A short pause. “I have.”
“And could Nahlia Cole have done this for my brother?”
“Possible,” he said, “but not probable. Resurrection requires the right emotional state, and more energy than all our rings combined. But yes, such a thing can come to a weaker Ethermancer in a moment of desperation. The same holds true for any form of Ethermancy.”
Hope flared in Ciena’s chest. Again, she remembered her dreams in Starglade. Her mother had been so certain that Elias was alive, merely referring to him as ‘injured’. In a way, that made sense. If Nahlia had found her brother’s body first, why would anyone else believe he had died in the first place?
Her parents likely knew more about Ethermancy than they let on, but even they would have trouble swallowing that one.
Then again, Zidane had every reason to lie to her. He’d grown desperate in his final moments. He might have said anything to hurt or confuse her. Anything to dampen her resolve.
You are the architect of your own suffering.
Maybe Zidane was right about that too.
But Ciena had learned something else during her duel. Something she hadn’t shared with Alexel. In that final moment, when the flames closed in and she stared death in the eye, she only thought of her family. She hadn’t thought of power, even if power would have meant the difference between life and death.
And now, after the thrill of battle faded, peace eluded her as it always had. She’d gotten the vengeance she wanted, but all she felt was the blood on her hands.
Ciena slid open the bamboo door and staggered inside the women’s bathhouse. This was the only place in Alexel’s entire enclave that felt like Whitecliff ... like home.
The baths were deep recesses in the flagstone floor, wider than most bedrooms and half as deep as she was tall. The shutters were closed, but the crystal lamps on the ceiling gave the room a pale yellow glow.
The room was empty when Ciena stepped inside. Thank Aegon for that small mercy. This place was normally packed in the mornings and evenings.
She plopped down on the stone bench and removed her boots and socks. She’d just begun removing her tunic when the door slid open behind her.
Great. So much for some peace and quiet.
For some reason, the other women loved to bathe in gaggles of three or four, talking, laughing and splashing all the while. Even worse were the elderly women who liked to make small talk, and—
Footsteps pounded against the flagstone floor. Ciena glanced over her shoulder to see Trisdal and Brezack—Blademaster Kalanus’s sons.
She re-tightened her tunic and sprang to her feet. These two were among the highest-ranked students in the enclave, along with Amelie Reverius. But unlike Reverius, neither of the brothers had ever spoken to Ciena.
“You boys lost?” Ciena asked. She noticed a wide puddle in front of her, and she surreptitiously kicked over a soap canister as she stepped forward.
“No,” Trisdal said as he sauntered inside. At least, she thought that one was Trisdal. Aside from the age difference, the Kalanus brothers could have been twins. They shared their father’s dark complexion and shaved head.
“I invited them,” came a sickly sweet voice from behind their hulking frames. The two men moved aside, and Amelie Reverius approached.
“Oh Aegon,” Ciena said. “Good for you if that’s what you’re into. Just leave me out of it.”
No one replied.
Like the Kalanus brothers, Amelie wore her leather dueling armor. All three carried sheathed katanas at their sides.
Ciena had left her own blade back at the arena—a stupid, stupid mistake. Alexel had warned her about this less than an hour ago. He even used a bloody sword in his analogy.
Now, she had nothing but her Etherite ring and her belt dagger.
Ciena cleared her throat several times, not trusting her own voice. “Let me guess, you’re not here to fight me fairly?”
Amelie shook her head, laughing like an old crone. “Fairly? Like that farce this morning? Nothing about you is fair. And yes, I do mean that in all its clever implications.”
Ciena forced out a breath. A week ago, she might have relished fighting her rival again, free of rules or restrictions. After all her training, she knew how to conquer her fears and fight a Sanctifier.
But that was before. Now, the idea seemed so pointless. Killing Zidane had brought her nothing, and neither would killing Reverius. Just more blood on her hands.
Instead, Ciena remembered one of her last nights in Whitecliff, and how Nahlia Cole had made peace with her. Ciena had beaten the girl to a pulp in the Gorge, and she had spent two days in the infirmary recovering. Even so, when they met again, Nahlia had been the one to apologize.
Alexel called Nahlia weak, but that simple act of kindness took a different sort of strength. Nahlia Cole hadn’t cringed away from conflict, she had worked to prevent it. And that small act had helped them save hundreds of lives in Whitecliff.
Amelie stepped forward, drawing her blade.
“You’re right,” Ciena stammered.
“What?” the girl sounded more annoyed than surprised.
“I showed up out of nowhere,” Ciena said. “I thought I deserved more than the rest of you, but I was wrong. I should have been patient. You were clearly the better duelist, and it was stupid of me to challenge you.”
Amelie furrowed her brow in confusion. “Is this you begging for mercy? Should’ve known you’d go from odious to pathetic in the space of a breath.”
Ciena ignored that. “It’s pointless for us to fight. I have no interest in training with Alexel anymore. Or staying at this enclave.”
The words rose to her lips without thought, but Ciena realized they were true. All her life, she had craved real combat—a chance to feel empowered and avenge her race. But all this fighting hadn’t made her happy. It just made her feel worse than before.
It seemed like a stupid lesson to learn, but it took a long road of killing to make it clear.
Ciena didn’t regret learning Ethermancy—she would need these skills in the future. At the same time, she had no interest in being Alexel’s pawn. If there was a chance her family was alive, she needed to stop debating and start taking real action.
“I give you my word,” Ciena told them. “I’ll leave this island tonight if I can. You’ll never see me again.”
“She’s lying,” Amelie snapped. “She’ll say whatever she can to survive. If we let her go, she’ll run crying to Trelidor.”
“I could take you right now if I had to.” Ciena tried to keep her voice free of malice, but false-modesty wouldn’t help either. The fact was, she’d grown so powerful these past few months, she scared even herself.
“But I don’t want us to be enemies anymore.” Slowly, she drew her dagger and lay it on the flagstone floor. “We’re all caught up in these games, but none of this matters.”
The three of them stood there at the corner of the pool. Ciena spotted a flash of doubt in the brothers’ eyes. They had come here looking for a fight, but neither of them fancied attacking an unarmed foe. More likely, Reverius had coaxed the brothers into this.
The sad part was she probably thought this was clever. As if ganging up on her would impress Alexel or force his hand.
Ciena took several deep breaths, reaching for the clarity of the Serenity trance. If nothing else, maybe it would help her find the words to convince them.
Then Amelie Reverius charged her.
Ciena reacted on instinct. She rolled forward to grab the dagger and pulled a burst of energy from her ring.
Amelie brought her sword down in an overhand swing.
Ciena sprawled, slipping instead of jumping aside. A blade glittered in the crystal lamplight, slashing mere inches from her nose.
The blade hit stone, but her opponent didn’t fall or stumble. Before Ciena could regain her footing, Amelie swung again with Justicar swiftness.
Ciena saw the swing’s pattern in her mind’s eye, clearer than words on a page. A Lionform flurry, perfect for a narrow space like this. Ciena lunged forward to meet the opening on her left, putting herself between Amelie and her blade.
Amelie altered her attack midswing before they collided. Instead, she switched to Moonform, sweeping wide and low.
Ciena staggered back just as the Kalanus brothers joined the fight.
Now, all three of her opponents raced forward. Their blades flashed and flowed with liquid speed, looking more like nine swords than three.
Ciena found her back against a stone wall. Nowhere to run. Instead, she rushed forward to meet them head-on. Her instincts guided her as the blades closed in. She dodged and weaved to find the narrow gaps between them.
Trisdal moved between her and the pool. Ciena kicked off the ground and into his torso, reinforcing her legs with Justicar strength.
The boy fell backward, landing with a splash.
Amelie’s blade flashed in the edge of her eye. Ciena tried to dodge, but the steel cut a long slash along her tricep.
Ciena swiped with her dagger. The other girl dodged with ease.
Brezack’s blade swung to her left. Ciena ducked, rolled forward, and slashed above his knee. The blow would have shattered a normal person’s bones, but Brezack was a Justicar too. Any damage she dealt, he could absorb.
Ciena caught Brezack’s arm as he slashed downward.
The wind whistled as Amelie’s sword cut through the air behind her.
Ciena moved faster than sanity. She side-stepped Brezack, putting him between her and Amelie. He grunted in pain as Amelie’s blade caught his shoulder.
What? Reverius never would have been so careless before. Maybe she wasn’t in the Serenity trance this time? Then again, maybe Ciena wasn’t her only target.
Doesn’t matter now. Focus.
Trisdal was already climbing out of the pool to her left. Ciena greeted him with a foot to the face, and he fell back with another splash.
Ciena grabbed his fallen katana just in time to parry Brezack’s next strike.
Steel echoed in the small space as they exchanged blows. Amelie tried to get behind her, and Ciena struggled to keep them both in front.
They had her outnumbered on every field. Not just the physical battle of bodies, but the mental battle of wills. If this kept up, she’d be dead in seconds.
Ciena dodged and parried until they cornered her against the pool’s edge. Brezack swept his blade neck-high while Amelie swept low at her legs.
No other choice—Ciena leapt back into the pool.
Trisdal was on her a second later, dragging her under the surface. Her vision blurred as cold water enveloped her. Ciena tried to push him away, but a second pair of hands seized her wrists. Brezack must have jumped in behind her.
Ciena struggled for breath, growing desperate. The water grew dark as their wounds bled crimson clouds. The world grew red, then black. She couldn’t even see their faces.
Ciena drained her ring, pulling energy faster than she’d ever pulled it before. Strength filled every muscle of her body as she pushed and fought against them.
Easier said than done. Trisdal and Brezack were both Justicars, and it wasn’t as simple as overpowering them. Any strength she conjured, they could beat.
Still, she’d seen the guilt in their eyes as they entered the bathhouse. Ambushing an unarmed woman was nothing compared to fighting for your life. Neither brother could convince himself otherwise.
Her rage reached a crescendo within her, and she bore down on their doubt. Eventually, their wills shattered like glass orbs against her rod of iron.
Ciena broke from Bresack’s grasp, seizing Trisdal by the buckles of his armor. He fought back, but her desperation gave her speed. She slammed him hard against the pool’s wall, then she kicked off against his torso and resurfaced.
Ciena rose from the water, coughing, gasping for air, willing away the taste of blood. She barely drew a clean breath before Amelie released a torrent of flame over the pool.
A week ago, Ciena’s first instinct would have been to duck underwater. Instead, she drank in the fire, filling her muscles with newfound strength. Then she pushed off the pool’s floor, flinging herself toward her last opponent.
Amelie was ready for her. She fell into Moonform, swinging her blade in a defensive swipe.
Ciena landed on the slick flagstones, immediately rolling to the side.
From the corner of her eye, one of the brothers was pulling the other’s limp body from the pool. Ciena didn’t look to see which one. She couldn’t spare the lapse in concentration.
She kept her eyes on her last standing opponent.
A part of her knew that she could still reach for Serenity and save the girl’s life. With enough clarity, she could disarm her. Injure her rather than kill her—give her a second chance.
Ciena considered it, but there wasn’t time. No sooner had she planted her feet on the stone than Amelie lashed out in a storm of fire and steel.
Ciena absorbed every flame and countered every thrust. Slowly, she led her opponent into the trap. Amelie broke into another flurry. Ciena staggered back as if in retreat, jumping over the soap-filled puddle where she started.
The other girl pressed her advantage until her boot hit the puddle. She slipped forward, violet eyes widening in horror.
A split-second was enough for Ciena to land a kick in the girl’s stomach.
Amelie fell back. Her head hit the stone bench behind her.
The crack that followed was so loud and sharp, it filled the world.