Ciena woke to footsteps in the undergrowth. She bolted upright in her nest of blankets, reaching for the leather hilt of her blade.
Stone walls surrounded her, with ornamented archways half-shrouded by vines. A waterfall trickled down from the mountain above, filling a deep pool in the floor.
Ciena had come here this morning after the ambush. It was the only place to clean up after the bathhouse was … out of order. Rhia had eventually tracked her down, brought her a change of clothes, and stitched up her wounds. Rhia had also assured her she could return to the enclave, but these ruins suited Ciena fine. What else was she supposed to do? Join the others in the pavilion for dinner? She could imagine that conversation:
Oh hey, aren’t you the one who killed Amelie and Trisdal?
That’s me. Not the way I saw my day going, but what can you do? Pass the salt, please.
Like Whitecliff, fighting was forbidden outside of sanctioned duels. Alexel wouldn’t have much of an army if they all killed each other over petty squabbles. Now, Ciena had done exactly that.
Even with a full canister of soap, she still couldn’t scrub the smell of blood off her skin. She should be used to the messy work of killing by now.
If anything, it only seemed to get harder.
Amelie Reverius had been cruel and vile—no denying that. But then, hadn’t Ciena been the same way, less than a year ago? She had once used the same tactics to make herself feel stronger, long before she tasted real strength.
The only difference was that Ciena got a second chance and Amelie didn’t.
The footsteps continued trampling through the undergrowth. Ciena drew in a breath of power from her ring, fueling her muscles. Despite the strength, her knees shook as she stood, almost as if her body were dreading another fight.
It couldn’t be Rhia this time. Rhia moved through the jungle like a cat. These steps were hard and deliberate.
Could it be Brezack coming to avenge his brother? No. By now, he’d know better than to attack her one-on-one. He had his chance to join Amelie in the bathhouse, and he’d wisely stayed down.
The footsteps echoed even louder as the figure stepped onto the hard stone floor of the ruins.
Alexel Trelidor passed under the archway a second later. He wore a sleeveless white tunic with a sword on his hip.
The tip of Ciena’s blade fell to the floor. She leaned forward to catch herself, bone weary.
The Grandmaster eyed her for a moment with his icy blue gaze. Aegon. She must have looked ridiculous. Her hair lay unbraided, with long strands of it falling over her face. She was almost annoyed at Alexel for barging in here. Then again, it was her own fault for falling asleep in the middle of the jungle.
“Walk with me,” Alexel said as he turned around.
Ciena picked up her belt and scabbard, sheathed her blade, and followed.
The Grandmaster led the way up the nearby mountain, and Ciena pulled more energy from her ring to keep up. She re-braided her hair as they walked. Thankfully, she had done this often enough that she didn’t need a brush or a mirror.
“How are your injuries?” Alexel called back.
“I wouldn’t say no to some more healing,” Ciena said. Pain was one thing, but Rhia had lectured her endlessly about infections. Apparently, they were far more common in warm climates than they were back in Whitecliff.
Alexel didn’t stop or slow his pace. Even so, Ciena felt a burst of cool relief flow through her left arm.
Neither of them spoke for a long while after that. Almost as if he enjoyed leaving her in suspense. Ciena didn’t know their destination, but she guessed it was the mountain’s peak.
Aegon, but she couldn’t wait that long. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“Happen?” Alexel echoed.
“I killed two other students today.” Her hands threatened to tremble as the words passed her lips. Her first kill had been five months ago in Whitecliff, but this was different. These were people she knew, and it all happened so quickly.
“The Blademasters investigated,” Alexel said. “Kalanus tried to shift the blame on you, claiming you had ambushed his sons rather than the reverse.”
Well, that was too ridiculous to even warrant a defense.
Alexel waved a dismissive hand. “That farce didn’t last long. I spoke with Brezack myself, and he confessed everything. He and his brother meant to cripple you and prevent you from becoming my apprentice.”
Ciena raised a hand to her neck where Trisdal had nearly drowned and strangled her. Clearly, they had more than crippling in mind. Then again, she did overpower them in the end.
“Only a partial lie,” Alexel said. “I suspect all three of them knew the fight would end in blood. Even if the brothers harbored doubt, that changes nothing.”
By his tone, you would think he was lecturing her on ancient history rather than the day’s events. Did he even care that two of his students were gone forever? Amelie Reverius had been a Justicar and a Sanctifier—perhaps the only Ethermancer alive who belonged to two of the three Orders. As much as Ciena had disliked the girl, she had expected her to accomplish great things.
Instead, she met a swift and sudden end. A slip, and a broken neck.
“You’re feeling guilty,” Alexel said as they neared the top.
Aegon curse him and his empathy. No sense in replying if he already knew everything.
“It’s only natural,” he said. “But this was self-defense. You did nothing wrong.”
“I still wish it could have gone differently,” Ciena muttered.
“Ah.” The Grandmaster gave a knowing nod. “Such is the aftermath of war. And you may be right. Perhaps if you had been stronger, you might have saved her—gained her loyalty. But I knew Reverius better than you. Better to end things today, I think.”
Alexel was probably right. It was self-defense, and she had been outnumbered three-to-one. One wrong move, and it would have been her on the funeral pyre.
“It’s preferable to make peace with our enemies,” Alexel continued. “But as I told you before, sometimes peace must be taken. Do you think Amelie Reverius would have ever accepted you as her leader?”
Ciena shook her head without thinking, feeling ice run through her veins. It was only then when she processed his exact words. Leader?
“Don’t tell me you expected this to be easy, Ciena Raider. The path to power gets steeper the further you go. But this is why I chose you. Because you have the strength to climb when others would fall.”
Finally, they reached the top of the mountain. The sun had already fallen below the treeline, and the only light came from a blaze of red in the distant clouds. The wind blew harder up here, whipping her braids against her cheeks.
Alexel tossed her his canteen, and she took a long drink. Ciena would have brought her own if she knew they were climbing a bloody mountain. Apparently, they had very different ideas of what constituted a walk.
She gazed out into the gathering darkness, then back to Alexel. Clearly, he meant to give her time to catch her breath, but she would rather get to the point of all this.
“Why are we here?” she asked.
“We’re here because you’ve proven yourself. First against Zidane, then again against your peers. Now, there can be no doubt who the strongest in the enclave is. You have become a true Justicar.”
The last rays of twilight haloed his silver-white hair, throwing his face into shadow. “Now,” he said, “I would ask you to be my apprentice. Fight by my side and learn the deeper secrets of Ethermancy.”
And there it was. The offer. The moment Alexel had been preparing for ever since Starglade.
Ciena hesitated, feeling numb and hollow. Accepting was the obvious answer. This was the prize they all trained and fought for—the purpose of the rankings and duels. This was what Amelie Reverius had died for.
Eight hours ago, Ciena had sworn she didn’t want this honor. That had been more than a false promise of peace. Finding her family was more important than gathering more power.
If only her head would stop spinning. Of course Alexel had to choose now. Now, when she was stricken and exhausted.
“You didn’t go through all this trouble to help me out,” Ciena finally said. “What do you want in exchange?”
Alexel shook his head. “Do not mistake me for some merchant haggling over goods. When you have a goal as ambitious as mine, you need powerful allies by your side.”
Ciena was about to ask him what that goal was, but he spoke again. “You’re concerned that by joining me, you won’t be able to search for your family.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“I leave for Dragonshard tomorrow morning,” he said. “All the realm’s leaders will gather there to discuss our future. If your parents are indeed alive, I suspect they will be there too. If not, perhaps someone else will have news.”
“And I can go with you?” For some reason, she had expected Alexel to disapprove of this quest to find her family, giving her a lecture on distractions and attachments.
“Of course. I have no family of my own—a natural consequence of living a long life. But I still understand the sentiment well enough. What is power compared to love?”
Hope flared in her chest for the second time that day. It all sounded so simple. So reasonable.
You are the architect of your own suffering.
Every instinct told her that her parents were dead and that Alexel’s offer was too good to be true. But what if Zidane was right about her? What if she had simply grown so used to hardship, she couldn’t comprehend real happiness? What if she had always rejected it until now, and she had no one to blame but herself?
“And as my apprentice,” Alexel went on, “you will have more freedom than before. Not less. Our relationship will be one of mutual advantage. Whatever your goals, I will help you achieve them. Whatever you want from me, it’s yours.”
Ciena paused for a moment, trying to think of the most lofty goal imaginable. “What if I want Raidenwood?”
“Done,” Alexel said.
“When we come into our power, I will give you the resources you need to take back your home. Raidenwood will be yours.”
“Come into our power?” Ciena couldn’t breathe. Even thinking straight was impossible. Was this Alexel’s empathy affecting her? Her lack of sleep? Everything she’d been through?
The Grandmaster inclined his head. “Don’t mistake this humble island for our lot in life. I can give you anything. There is no request too bold. Now, ask me again.”
Ciena glanced around, searching for something more immediate. Something she could test. Anyone could make an empty promise, after all. Alexel offering her Raidenwood was no different from her offering him the moons.
Her eyes fell on his scabbard, and the idea struck her like a gust of wind. “I’d like an Etherite sword.”
Alexel smiled as if in approval, then he grabbed the hilt of his blade.
A burst of red light filled the mountain peak, illuminating the stone pillars and the surrounding trees.
Ciena staggered back as Alexel drew a blade of glowing crystal, like blood set aflame.
He offered Ciena the sword’s hilt. Her hands drifted slowly forward, as if moving through icy water. She grasped the hilt in both arms.. It was about the size of a katana, but twice as light. The sight of it stunned her more than anything else imaginable. The person who wielded this weapon would be legendary, like an Archaeon of the modern age. She would wield more power than many kings or emperors.
Ciena tried to feel the energy inside, but it was like staring into the sun. Even tasting this power would rip her apart. But once she mastered it, the possibilities would be endless.
A full minute passed before she finally found her voice again. “This is how I always imagined Raiden’s sword.”
“That’s because it was Raiden’s sword,” Alexel said. “Called Ferzula in Ancient Reveran. Better known today as Steelbreaker.”
“How?” Ciena blurted out. “How could anyone make this?” Raiden’s blade was her clan sigil, but a part of her always thought it was a myth. Etherite was utterly indestructible, after all. Not even another piece of Etherite could cut it. Yet there was detailed work here—sigils and designs carved into the surface, no more than a hair thick.
“The art of Ethersmithing has been lost to us for centuries,” Alexel said. “I’ve walked in many of this world’s dark places, and even I can only imagine its secrets. But I will share what I do know. If you accept my offer.”
Only through a great effort of will did Ciena hesitate. Even if they both knew her answer now, she had to know Alexel’s endgame first. “You have a plan for the Clansmeet tomorrow, don’t you?”
Alexel nodded. “Many believe that Palavar is a threat to us, but that land is far weaker than it appears. This invasion fleet is an asset, and I’ve already taken the first steps to turn them to our advantage.”
“Against who?” she asked.
“Against the humans, of course. Together, we will bring order to this realm. A time of prosperity where Aeons can train and live in peace once again.”