Ciena led the way through Raidenwood’s western caverns. The path was pitch black but for Steelbreaker’s red glow on the stone walls. By now, they’d seen their uncle’s secret Aeon enclave. More than five hundred Aeons lived north of the city.
The hour was late when they’d arrived, but the vast number of homes spoke for themselves. What’s more, she recognized some of the guards near the cavern mouth. One of them was a boy from Howler Clan, back in Whitecliff. The other was a girl from Fox Clan. Those two had corroborated her uncle’s entire story. Apparently, more than a fifth of this enclave’s inhabitants were from Whitecliff.
The enclave itself was deep enough in the mountains that no one could see the signs of civilization. Only a dragonrider could have spotted it, and Raidenwood had enough long-range weapons to scare most riders away. Even Alexel had given the city a wide berth during their flight from Starglade two years ago.
Airships were another matter. Thankfully, there was only one airship in the world, and that belonged to Thane and Relyn.
“Any ideas how to handle Cladius?” Elias asked as they walked. “Now that we know he was telling the truth.”
Ciena considered that for a moment. For eleven of his twelve years as ruler, their uncle had been rescuing Aeons and bringing them to that place he called Redcliff. Was that enough to erase his previous crimes? She couldn’t say.
“Ask me tomorrow after I’ve slept on it,” she replied with a shrug. “You obviously have an idea though. Might as well spit it out.”
“I think we should leave things as they are for now,” Elias replied at once. “Cladius already commands the army, and he has good relations with the enclave leaders.”
Ciena glanced over her shoulder to face him. “You’re telling me you don’t want to rule Raidenwood?”
“We have to survive this siege first,” he countered. “I’d like us to rule eventually. In the meantime, we need to be practical.”
Ciena furrowed her brow. She didn’t like letting their uncle roam free. A part of her would rather stick him in a cell and never look at him again. Her brother had a point though—there was work to be done, and Cladius might as well keep doing his share. Besides, if the city fell before Thane and Relyn returned, they could always jump ship and let their uncle die the captain’s death.
The tunnel went on for another half-mile until the rough edges gave way to man made brick walls. After hiking three miles to the enclave and back, she was relying on her Ironblood to keep herself upright. It had been a very long day, after all.
They rounded a corner and stepped into the familiar antechamber outside Raiden’s Tomb. Doors of twice-tough stone loomed before them. The doors looked like two slabs of ordinary concrete, and they had no ornamentation aside from the keyhole in their center.
Ethermancers and scientists had spent centuries trying to open those doors, but they were indestructible. Even Etherite couldn’t scratch that smooth surface.
Goosebumps ran down Ciena’s neck as she approached. The keyhole was an exact fit for Steelbreaker, just as they’d expected. She thrust the crystal blade into the narrow opening. The doors shook, and a gust of ancient air burst through the crack.
Nothing happened after that.
Ciena frowned as she yanked the blade from the keyhole. Hadn’t the doors outside Palatine’s tomb opened on their own? At least, that’s what Nahlia and Thane had said. Then again, this was Raiden they were talking about. Everything always had to be a test of strength.
Elias stepped forward and slid his fingers into the newly created opening. “It looks like these slide open in opposite directions.”
Ciena nodded and leaned Steelbreaker against the nearby wall. Then, by unspoken agreement, they each grabbed one of the doors and pulled.
Aegon. Even when this door was unlocked, moving it felt like moving a mountain. She drew a burst of energy from Steelbreaker and forced it into her legs, back, and arm.
Her brother’s side was the first to budge, and that gave her hope. Ciena gritted her teeth and pulled more power from her blade, straining her muscles past their limits. If Cladius’s guards had given them a proper fight, her Ethermancy would have been spent. As it was, she still had plenty to spare.
Ciena’s door moved several excruciating inches. By now, the gap between them was wide enough to fit the stump of her right hand. Until now, she’d only been able to pull with her left.
She was about to heave again when she realized how pointless it was. This didn’t need to be a competition.
“New plan.” Ciena wiped a layer of sweat from her forehead. “Let’s work on the same bloody door.”
Elias paused, and realization seemed to dawn on him. “That is a better plan, isn’t it?”
They set to it again. Ciena braced her feet against the opposite wall and pushed on the door while her brother pulled from his side. This time, it slid open in less than five seconds. They didn’t even bother with the other door after that—the first opening was wide enough for them to fit through.
Ciena retrieved Steelbreaker from the corner and used it to light their path.
Over the centuries, many artists had guessed what might lay beyond these stone doors. Most of the paintings included vast chambers adorned with gold and crimson. Even the more modest ones included stone pillars, flowing waterfalls, and racks of ancient weapons lining the walls.
In truth, the tomb was hardly bigger than the palace privies. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Their ancestors had already tried digging around the door, so they knew the room’s rough dimensions.
The walls were simple and unadorned. A stone coffin dominated the center of the room, and their prize sat in a circular recession on top.
Ciena breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped forward.
It was about the size of an apple—solid black, and perfectly spherical. Supposedly, these things were made of Etherite, though she could only guess now. Like so many other secrets, the art of reshaping Etherite had been lost to history.
The Codex spoke in hushed whispers as they approached. Those whispers were familiar somehow, as if she’d spent her whole life dancing, and could just now hear the music that moved her.
“Did Palatine’s Codex feel this way?” she asked her brother.
Elias shook his head. “There were whispers, but they weren’t as clear as this.”
Ciena stepped forward and put a palm to its smooth surface. Images of battle flashed in her mind’s eye—a promise that her training would soon pay off. She lifted the artifact from the stone recession while Elias held open a small burlap sack.
Half an hour later, they returned to their chambers in the Raidenwood palace. Which was to say, they claimed a suitable guest room on the upper level. Cladius had offered them the lord’s apartments, but they didn’t feel like dealing with the palace tonight.
They’d been awake for more than twenty-four hours now. The first glimpse of sunlight glinted over the eastern mountains, and she felt like sleeping until it set again.
Many things could wait until then, but Raiden’s Codex wasn’t one of them. Its contents were still an ancient mystery, and she’d waited long enough for answers. If it held the skills she needed to defeat Alexel, she wouldn’t waste a single day.
Elias sat cross-legged on the bed in front of her. “Remember,” he said, “when Thane and Relyn first entered Palatine’s Codex, it tried to kill them.”
“We’ve been over the risks,” Ciena said as she took a seat across from him “We’re going in armed and armored. There’s nothing else we can do.”
“You mean aside from getting a full night’s rest?”
“Aside from that,” she said with a dismissive wave. In truth, the idea of fighting in the Ethereal was much more appealing than fighting in the physical world. At least in her dreams, she still had both her hands. “You can sleep if you want. I’m still going in.”
Elias pushed out a breath and leaned forward. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
Getting in wasn’t difficult. Before Ciena was an Ethermancer, she might not have recognized the sensation of being mentally pulled. But after years of training, it felt effortless as ordinary dreaming
When she opened her eyes again, she found herself standing on a wide plateau in the middle of the Bloodrift. Water roared in the canyon below, forming a cool mist around them. The sky was a deep shade of violet as if the sun had just fallen below the horizon.
Elias stood beside her, but their surroundings were otherwise empty. Even so, she clutched Steelbreaker and wrapped herself in the Serenity Trance, prepared for anything.
Aegon, but it felt good to hold Steelbreaker in her right hand. Even with two years of practice, her left hand felt like paper that could be blown away in the wind. By contrast, her right hand felt as solid as Etherite.
Usually, when she and Elias trained, she resisted this temptation—even in the Ethereal. But this might be a life and death battle. Practice didn’t matter if the Codex killed them with its tests.
Ciena continued glancing around the empty plateau. Still no sign of the Archaeon. She met her brother’s eyes, and he shrugged. The only sounds were the howl of the wind and the raging river below.
Finally, the mist shifted, and its silver tendrils gathered around the plateau. Ciena adjusted her grip on Steelbreaker, expecting the worst. Her brother fell into Sunform beside her, raising his own weapon.
The fog coalesced a dozen paces in front of them, and a young man emerged as if stepping through a doorway. His blond hair was longer than her brother’s—long enough to tie in a knot behind his head. His eyes shone golden in the half-light, brighter than any of Raiden’s living descendants.
Still, this man was not Raiden. His build was lanky, more like a scholar than a legendary warrior. He was also clean-shaven, and only a decade older than her at the most. Meanwhile, Raiden was always portrayed as a muscular man in his sixties, with a full beard, and a head of gray hair.
“You’re not the Archaeon,” Ciena said.
“No,” the man agreed, “I am not. My name is Lucan. Raiden was my great-grandfather. This Codex once belonged to him, but his avatar is no longer here.”
“Avatar?” Elias asked.
The man nodded once, gesturing to himself. “An avatar is the consciousness you see before you—a cognitive shadow of an Aeon as he was in life. Raiden’s memories remain in this Codex, but I’ve replaced his presence.”
Wow, talk about a purse full of five silver words.
“Can we still talk to Raiden?” Elias asked. “Can you help us find these memories of his?”
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
“But you said—”
“The memories remain in an unstructured state,” Lucan interrupted. “I could have destroyed them. But if I had, it would have brought an end to the Justicars as we know them.”
Ciena’s shoulders sank at the implication. Nahlia had claimed they needed another Codex to defeat Alexel. Raiden’s had seemed like the obvious choice, considering Ciena had the key to his tomb. But now ... had this all been a waste of time?
Ciena glanced at her brother, then back to Lucan. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do this?”
Lucan inclined his head. “I understand that you may see Raiden as divine. I would tell you otherwise. Your ancestor was an ordinary man, and a deeply flawed man at that. As such, many of his teachers were flawed as well.”
He wasn’t wrong about that first part—there were many subsects of their religion that prayed directly to their ancestors as well as Aegon. Ciena’s family hadn’t belonged to such a sect. Even so, it seemed like blasphemy to call Raiden ‘ordinary.’
“After Raiden’s death,” Lucan continued, “his Codex trained many great fighters. Powerful men and women who took his lessons to heart. But with Raiden’s teachings came his failings. His pupils knew how to fight, but not how to live once the fighting was done.”
He stepped over to the edge of the plateau, looking down at the river. “Even Raiden knew there was more to life than war, but he failed to communicate that in his lesson. That omission led to generations of fighters who knew nothing but battle. And like Raiden himself, many of their lives ended in tragedy.”
Again, that wasn’t hard to imagine. Ciena remembered how close she’d come to throwing herself off the balcony on Dragonshard. If Elias hadn’t shown up, she probably would have died that night.
Still ... this man had erased Raiden’s Codex? That seemed too drastic, especially if only a few generations had passed since Raiden’s death. Who was he to make a decision like that?
Ciena shot her brother a sidelong glance. “Your history books didn’t mention this, did they?”
“I’ve heard bits and pieces,” Elias said, scratching his chin. “I know there were factions within our clan who disagreed with Raiden’s teachings...”
“We were rebels of a sort,” Lucan agreed. “Those who followed Raiden’s teachings were unhappy with their lives, though they would never admit it. People grow comfortable in their prisons—especially the prisons they build themselves.”
He stepped away from the cliff and faced them again. “But yes, we took it upon ourselves to change our clan for the better. We re-shaped Raiden’s Codex into what you see now.”
“So if you can’t teach us Raiden’s fighting techniques,” Ciena said, “what can you teach us?”
He nodded as if he’d been waiting for the question. “If I taught you Raiden’s higher techniques, you would have become more like him. And like him, your lives would likely have ended in tragedy. Instead, I offer you a counterpoint. I offer you the skills to build rather than destroy.”
He nodded to the blade in Ciena’s hand. “That weapon you carry. It once belonged to Raiden, did it not?”
“Steelbreaker,” Ciena said with a nod.
“Tell me, do you know how to forge blades like the one you hold?”
“Of course not,” Ciena said. “No one knows how to do that.”
For the first time, Lucan smiled. The expression looked strangely smug considering he wasn’t even a real person. He reached into his jacket and removed a cylindrical-shaped object that was about as long as his forearm. Wrapped in dark brown leather, it reminded her of a katana hilt without the blade.
Lucan extended the hilt. The mist glowed red around it, and a thousand small crystals formed a rough, blade-like shape in the air. “I can teach you how to reshape Etherite into tools and weapons like the one you carry.”
The small crystals formed together into a larger whole, making a weapon that almost resembled Steelbreaker.
Ciena’s jaw dropped, and chills crept up her arms. She’d always known that Etherite couldn’t be reshaped through normal, physical means. People had been trying for centuries and they’d always failed.
But this ... Lucan hadn’t lifted a finger to forge the blade. He was using his mind.
She blinked, and the crystals broke apart in a flash of light. Now, instead of a crystal blade, Lucan held a long red hatchet made of the same material. The weapon shifted again, becoming a spear, then a chain whip, then a shield.
Finally, the shifting crystal weapon transformed into a piece of raw Etheritie that floated in the palm of Lucan’s hand.
“I can teach you Ethersmithing, the greatest of all Raiden’s discoveries.”