Ciena struggled to stay awake, despite the fact she was already dreaming.
Once again, she and her brother sat on a plateau in the Bloodrift, and the water raged around them. Lucan was lecturing them about the chemical composition of an Aeon soul. Apparently, her soul was a real thing that lived in her chest. But unlike her other organs, it wasn't something you could poke or prod. Rather, it existed in a 'semi-solid' state.
No doubt modern scientists would kill for this knowledge. People had been trying to study souls for years, but the progress was slow going. Aeons’ souls left their body when they died. Presumably to pass on to Eternity. As a result, you couldn’t just cut open a corpse and take a peek at one.
Still, Ciena wasn't here for a science lesson. She was here to learn Ethersmithing. Even now, visions of a shifting red blade flashed in her mind's eye. Lucan's first demonstration had been slow and controlled, but that was all showmanship. She'd also seen him transform the weapon faster than she could blink.
Her heart raced as she imagined the possibilities. Instead of deflecting bullets with her blade, she could turn the weapon into a shield mid-fight. If a duel moved to close-quarters, she could turn her sword into a dagger. If an enemy disarmed her, she could vanish the blade and have it reappear in her hand, quick as taking a breath.
In theory, at least.
They'd been at this for a week, and she had little to show for it.
"You already know how to pull energy into your soul," Lucan had explained during their first lesson. To demonstrate his point, he'd pulled out a glowing Etherite chip from his pocket, no bigger than a silver penny. He concentrated for a brief moment, then the crystal's glow faded from a bright white to a dull gray. "Pulling energy is the foundation of all Ethermancy, regardless of your Order."
Ciena nodded along as he spoke. She'd been doing this consciously since that day in Starglade when she’d broken her chains.
"But this is only a fraction of the crystal’s power," Lucan continued. “The Etherite’s structure is the same as the energy it emits. It's merely crystallized into solid patterns, the same way water becomes ice when it’s frozen. An Ethersmith can break these forms down into raw energy, and that energy fits inside your soul."
Ciena frowned. No weapon or tool could even scratch Etherite, but she was supposed to think it away?
"No force in this world is greater than an Aeon's will," Lucan had said. "Your mind can make or break anything. You're the one who places limitations on it, and only you can remove those limitations. You've already felt the energy the crystal emits. Now go past that. Close your eyes. Feel the crystal itself."
Easier said than done. Ever since that first lesson, Ciena had spent dozens of hours in silent practice. It sounded so simple to feel a crystal with her mind. After all, she'd been pulling power from Etherite for well over two years now.
But sensing fully-charged Etherite was like finding the sun on a summer afternoon. You simply turned your attention to the biggest, brightest thing in the sky.
This was like finding one specific star in the middle of a storm. Once she'd drained the Etherite of its surface energy, the remaining crystal was as quiet as a rock. Meanwhile, a thousand other things competed for her attention. The river as it raged dozens of feet below their plateau. The wind as it howled down the canyon. The sun's heat as it broke through the clouds.
And the physical world wasn't much better. By now, Ciena was skilled enough to quiet her own thoughts and judgements. But when she reached out in this way, every sound and vibration seemed like throbs of thunder.
Maybe this steep learning curve was inevitable though. If Ethersmithing were intuitive, then someone else would have re-discovered it centuries ago. With that thought, she remembered something Battlemaster Vash had once said. Be thankful your training is hard. If it were easy, your enemies would do it too. Then you would never gain an advantage.
Aegon knew she needed an advantage right now.
"I can sense my crystal..." Her brother's voice brought her back to the present. He sat cross-legged on a rock a few paces away from her. A piece of glowing Etherite sat on the ground in front of him, identical to her own.
Despite their teacher’s demonstration, they’d both discovered that keeping the energy inside the crystal made it easier to sense. Almost as if the light were a beacon to show them the way. Lucan hadn’t objected to this approach. According to him, there were many ways to learn this skill.
"I can sense it,” Elias repeated, “but it doesn't feel like energy."
"It is," Lucan said. "Better to accept that fact than to try to make sense of it. Ice doesn't feel like water either, especially when it turns dry and brittle. The cold makes it crystalize. It's the same with Etherite."
"But what turns the Etherite to crystal?" Elias asked. Her brother had always been like this. Even when they were children, he'd bombarded their tutors with a thousand questions. He refused to move on until he understood every detail.
Ciena didn't care how Etheirite shifted forms. For that matter, she didn't need to know the specifics of how water turned to ice. Water froze when it was cold. That was enough for her.
Lucan continued to lecture, but Ciena had missed the answer.
"And what process breaks the crystal down?" Elias asked. "Heat melts ice..."
"Aegon," Ciena muttered under her breath. "Don't encourage him."
"I heard that," Lucan turned to Ciena, and his eyes shone with amusement. The man seemed surprisingly ... real. After what she'd heard of Palatine's Codex, Ciena had expected these lessons to be more intense. As if the Codex's avatar might try to kill them at any second. But Lucan didn't just seem relaxed, he actually had a sense of humor at times. It made her wonder how self-aware this ‘presence’ actually was.
"You're in good company though," Lucan said. "Most of my students were just as impatient as you. But Ethersmithing is about creative thinking. You need to know your tools and restrictions before you can make any real progress."
Ciena didn't know much about creativity; she'd spent most of her life training to fight, and anything else had been a distraction. Still, you had to learn stances before fighting moves. That much she understood.
Lucan turned back to Elias, "To answer your question—heat is energy, and so are your thoughts. Your thoughts will break the crystal, turning it from solid form to mist. Once the crystal is broken, you can hold the power within your soul."
Her brother opened his mouth, but Ciena was quicker, "How about a new exercise to practice? I can feel my crystal too, but you never told us how to break them."
Lucan nodded. "First, close your eyes. Visualize the crystal breaking. Your brain normally serves as a record of the past. But when you think of the future, it becomes a map to achieve your goals. Visualize it happening, and it will."
Ciena closed her eyes and did as Lucan said. Fortunately, she was no stranger to visualization. Once, she'd mentally rehearsed duels in Whitecliff, imagining her success, preparing for every possibility.
She felt out to her crystal, watching it break in her mind, as satisfying as an opponent’s broken bone beneath her boot.
Too morbid. Oh well, at least the metaphor stayed in her head where no one could chastise her for it.
Focus, Ciena scolded herself again.
She'd be dead if her mind wandered this much in battle. This was no life and death struggle, but her life might depend on it someday. Alexel was still out there, and Ethersmithing was the best advantage she would ever gain. This was her battleground today, and attention was her greatest weapon.
She took several deep breaths—in through her nostrils and out through her mouth. All the while, she continued to visualize the crystal—a wall of ice turning to vapor. Quick as breathing. Effortless as breaking wet paper.
"And don't worry," Lucan said. "Most students fail more than a thousand times before they succeed. Practice this for an hour each day, and you should be—"
Ciena's crystal vanished in front of her. She pulled the energy into her soul, and it filled her like a dozen breaths of air.
Elias and Lucan both stared at her, mouths agape.
She tried to hold onto the energy, but it fought against her. While most power demanded to be used, this wanted to escape. A few seconds passed, then Ciena gave in.
A part of her hoped she'd be able to reshape the crystal as its power left her. Instead, it left her soul in a gust of glowing wind. The crystal itself slammed back on the ground before her, vibrating like a pebble during a stampede.
"You've done this before," Lucan said. As if that were the only possibility.
"No," Ciena said. "I just did what you told me."
He considered that for a moment, studying her face as if he didn’t quite believe her. Finally, he nodded. "You have more natural talent than many of my students. Then again, you're both Justicars. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised."
Ciena had to hold back a smug grin. Normally, people said this sort of thing to her brother. In fact, this might be the first time she'd ever learned something quicker than he did.
Elias gave her a nod of encouragement, then turned back to Lucan. "How long has it been since your last student?"
Lucan paused. "I have no sense of time here. I only exist when someone like you enters the Codex."
"So you just stop existing when we leave?" Ciena furrowed her brow at the thought. "And you're alright with that?" She knew Lucan wasn't a real person. At most, he was a copy of one. He had the real Lucan's memories, but he insisted that man was long gone.
"The Codex is incomplete until a living descendant of Raiden opens it." Lucan stretched out his arms, gesturing to the surrounding canyon. "Without you here, this world has no purpose. I knew this when I remade it."
"This Codex was locked in Raiden's tomb for centuries," Elias said. "We don't know how long exactly. Some sources say it could have been a thousand years. You claimed the knowledge here is good—less destructive than the other Justicar skills. If that's the case, why would someone lock it away?"
Lucan hesitated. "Like you, your ancestors had enemies. I suspect they didn't want this knowledge ending up in the wrong hands."
"Maybe," Elias said. "But Palatine had Steelbreaker for years before Ciena took it. They must have known the Codex was here.”
True enough. If she and Elias had figured this out, then so could he. Sneaking into Raidenwood was no small feat, but how many events had Alexel orchestrated to retrieve Palatine’s Codex from Whitecliff?
"I fail to see your point," Lucan said.
"Is there something about Ethersmithing you're not telling us?" Elias asked.
"There are many things I haven't told you," he countered.
Elias leaned forward. "Are there some things you won’t teach us? Like how to create and re-make Codices?"
Ah, so that’s where he’s going with this. What if Alexel already knew about Ethersmithing, but he didn't want someone remaking Palatine's Codex? If that had happened, he never could have taken control of the Etherfall.
Lucan shook his head. "Codex creation is a branch of Ethersmithing, but it's not a skill I'm forbidden from sharing. The answers will come to you in time."
“Forbidden?" Ciena raised an eyebrow. "Who's forbidding you?”
"The original Lucan," he said. "I can't make any decisions he would have disagreed with in life."
Elias glanced at Ciena, then back to Lucan. "So you know a secret. It's more dangerous than remaking a Codex, but you won't tell us what it is?"
Ciena narrowed her eyes. Whitecliff had sought to prevent a veritable shipwreck by pretending ships didn't exist. Where had that gotten them? She understood wanting to stop people like Alexel from rising to power. But that game only worked if everyone else played along. Alexel hadn't joined in. Neither had Dragonshard or Valaysia.
If the White Council had trained Ciena to be a Justicar since childhood, she might have been strong enough to defeat Alexel on top of Dragonshard. What's more, she might have resisted his manipulations in the first place.
"Is this secret something our enemies could use against us?" Elias asked, already one step ahead.
"Theoretically," Lucan said after a short pause. "But knowledge of this technique won't help you defend yourselves against it."
Ciena doubted that was true. Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time Lucan had refused to answer their questions. Sometimes their best option was to pretend they knew more than they did. That way, he could talk freely without breaking any rules.
Elias closed his mouth, which meant they would strategize later in private.
Lucan turned his gaze to Ciena, nodding toward the crystal in front of her. "You've taken your first step toward Ethersmithing. Unfortunately, the same feat will be more difficult in the physical world. Your soul won't expand without constant practice. And—talent or no—it will be several months before you reshape anything."
"To reshape a weapon," Lucan continued, "you must first bond it to yourself. You must understand its patterns at a primal level. Just as a blacksmith knows steel, or a sculptor knows marble."
Ciena nodded as the possibilities flashed in her mind. For the first time in two years, she could imagine herself as a force to be reckoned with. Not just against human guards, but against her fellow Ethermancers.
Elias opened his mouth, then he paused and shifted his gaze to Ciena. "Did you hear that?"
Ciena strained her ears to listen. Yes. There was something there. A voice, and the rapping of a fist on wood.
"We need to go," she said. With that, she returned to the physical world.
The knocking grew louder as she snapped open her eyes. She and her brother had been sitting cross-legged on a bed, and the Codex sat between them. The windows were all barred, and they'd moved several pieces of furniture in front of the door.
Were they paranoid? Maybe. But if someone wanted to assassinate them, now would have been the perfect time.
Ciena sprang to her feet, and Elias followed a second later. "Who's there?" she called out.
"Captain Keevan, my lady."
Keevan. He was one of her uncle's most trusted officers. Apparently, he was a half-blood like Cladius, and he knew about the enclave north of the city.
She and Elias each grabbed one end of the bureau and moved it aside. The bookshelves came next, then the storage chest. Finally, they opened the door to see the gray-haired captain standing in the corridor.
"It's the Palavans," he said. "They’re attacking."