Ciena soared through the air, and Lucan's weapon followed. Her opponent had transformed his blade into a red, Etherite spear, and he loved to make it chase her.
Apparently, he'd named his sword 'Ciena's Bane'.
Yes, he definitely had a sense of humor, terrible as it was. He even referred to it this way when he was dueling Elias.
She twisted her body in midair as the weapon tore past her face, missing it by a hair's breadth. Not that she would feel if it did cut her. She'd been struck by Etherite several times now, and it was always too sharp to feel.
A second later, and Lucan's spear impaled itself into the canyon wall.
Ciena cast out Steelbreaker as she fell forward, plunging the blade into two feet of solid rock. She hung from her weapon's hilt above the raging river, lifting her legs so her boots were pressed against the wall.
Then she flared her Ironblood and kicked off from the canyon. Steelbreaker tore free from the stone, and she flew back toward the plateau.
There, the bloody show-off sat cross-legged on the ground with a wooden tea bowl in his hand.
No sooner had Ciena landed than Lucan's spear tore free from the wall behind her, spun around, and shot toward her again.
Yeah, he could do that too.
Ethersmithing was more than just reshaping Etherite. You could also move the crystals through physical space. Throughout their duel, Lucan had mentally guided the spearhead away from himself, then toward himself again. Thankfully, it didn't get much fancier than that. Unless he was holding the weapon, then he could make it do practically anything.
Ciena hit the plateau with a running start, preparing to swing her blade.
Lucan rose to his feet and stepped to the side. No doubt he meant to put Ciena between himself and the approaching spear.
She didn't concern herself with that. Instead, she kept her eyes forward and let the Serenity Trance warn her of any danger.
The gamble paid off a second later. Lucan dismissed the spear behind her, forming a blade in his right hand. He parried Ciena's strike, moving aside to let her momentum carry her past.
She tried to follow through on her swing, but Lucan's blade changed again. This time, the end curved itself into a hook, wrapping around Steelbreaker.
Bloody hell. She hated it when he did that.
They'd been through his lesson before though. She couldn't beat Lucan in a contest of raw power. Even if she flared her Ironblood for strength, he was a Justicar too. Not only he was physically stronger, but he had decades more practice. Not to mention his Ethersmithing, which leant even more strength to each movement.
Instead, Ciena let the blade fall free. She pulled Steelbreaker's crystal into her soul before it struck the stone. It burned like a bouquet of hot knives inside her chest, and she gritted her teeth against the pain. Lucan said it would get easier with time, but she didn't mind. After two months of hard training, the pain felt like a reward.
Ciena could have pulled a second hilt from her belt, but Lucan would have expected that. Instead, she stretched out her hand and formed a red spear, aimed directly at his heart. It was a crude thing, more of a sharpened stick than a true weapon. Still, it served its purpose. Lucan hadn't been prepared, and he staggered back, spilling several drops of tea over his glove.
Unfortunately, Ciena had committed to the spear thrust, and the use of Ethersmithing left her dizzy. The weapon was also too long to support with her left hand alone. Her right hand itched to help, but that would have been cheating. She didn't have that hand in the physical world, so she couldn't use it here.
Lucan regained his balance first, sidestepped the spear, and brought his own blade to her windpipe.
Despite her loss, Ciena grinned. "I made you spill your tea. I'll call that a win for today."
Lucan returned her smile and dismissed his own weapon. "I've noticed a pattern with your last few losses." He didn't elaborate after that, which meant he wanted Ciena to guess.
"I need more practice?" she asked with a shrug. Even her two months were nothing compared to his two decades. Ciena had spent most of her life training with ordinary weapons—good honest swords that didn't change their shape midfight. They also didn't move in ways beyond what an Aeon's body could handle.
Two years ago, Ethermancy had changed the rules with all these new abilities. Now Lucan had changed the rules again. Every fight had a hundred different possibilities, and her mind struggled to keep track of it all. A sword was never just a sword anymore, and the laws of physics were more like guidelines.
Still, there was a silver lining to all this. Soon enough, Ciena would be the one frustrating her opponents, and they wouldn't even see it coming.
"You lost," Lucan said, "because you held back."
Ciena almost laughed. "Trust me, I have my share of flaws, but fighting soft isn't one of them. Especially not with you."
"Is that so?" A crimson mist gathered around Lucan's hand, forming into a seven-foot-long, crystal spear. He made a show of striking her and losing his balance. Like her, he couldn't support the weapon with only one arm.
Ciena grimaced, forming her fingers into fists. "You know I can't use my right hand."
"And your reasoning is sound," Lucan said. "Practicing with that hand would do you no favors in the physical world."
"So what's the problem?"
"You're playing pretend," Lucan said. "rather than accepting yourself as you are. The hand is useless, but you could still have used your forearm to support the spear."
"Alright," she said, "point taken. I'll do that next time."
"And in our duel before that?"
In that duel, he'd sidestepped her and struck from the right where she was defenseless. He did that a lot, now that she thought about it. Her weight had been on her left foot, which meant she couldn't dodge, and the blow was too low to duck. If Ciena had both her hands, there were a thousand ways she could have parried. As it was...
"I have no idea," she admitted.
Lucan dismissed his crystal spear and threw out his right hand. A round buckler took shape there. It wasn't the type of shield you held in your hand. Rather, there were two thin crystal straps that secured it to his forearm.
She raised an eyebrow. "Sure, that might have worked, but I've never even seen a shield like that before." Making a spear was one thing—you just had to imagine something long and sharp. But most Ethersmithing required you to have an intimate understanding of your creations. Ciena hadn't gotten that far yet.
"Then you should study." Lucan held up a hand to forestall her protests. "I know you train hard. Even with my skewed sense of time, I can tell you spend more hours practicing than any student I've ever known."
Pride surged through her at that. It was one thing to train harder than your friends, quite another to be compared to the greatest Aeons in history.
"But you're making a common beginner mistake," he continued. "You're ignoring your weaknesses, hoping to overcompensate with your strengths."
Ciena furrowed her brow. "If you think I'm in denial about my missing hand, I'm not. I know I'll never get it back. I accepted that a long time ago."
"And yet, your subconscious tells a different story."
Ciena gritted her teeth and looked away. The truth was, it felt good to have her right hand again. Even if she didn't use it in the Ethereal ... just looking down and seeing it there made her feel stronger.
Lucan gave a knowing nod as if he could read her like an open book. "I've known my share of Aeons who lost arms and legs to war. Most coped the same way you are now. They spent time in the Ethereal, back where they felt whole. It never made them any happier. If anything, the contrast only made it worse."
Marwyn had once explained the dangers of imagining lost loved ones in the Ethereal, and how so many Aeons had wasted away in the worlds they'd crafted. Ciena had always understood that lesson at a rational level. She'd even resisted those dreams of her mother after the Battle of Whitecliff, believing her to be an illusion.
But now … Aegon. It shouldn't have been this hard.
Ciena remembered the first time she'd beaten Whitecliff's Battlemaster in a duel, with all the Battleclans watching. She remembered the icy wind on her face and the way his parry had come a split second too slow. She'd felt so alive at that moment. Almost invincible.
Having her hand back felt better.
She remembered her first kiss with Marlene—one of her parents' maids in Dresten. Their bodies pressed together in the closet, the other girl's soft lips against her own. It felt like combat. Softer exchanges, but the same euphoria that filled her from head to heel.
Still, that didn't compare to this. The mere act of clenching her right fingers into a fist felt better than any sensation she'd felt before, and any she could imagine.
"Look," Ciena said. "Even if I wanted to stop dreaming like this, I'm not sure I can. This is the real me. There's no fooling my subconscious."
"On the contrary," Lucan replied, "you're fooling yourself right now. Your physical form is your new whole, and this is the flawed version." He took a long swallow from his bowl. "Yes, your new form is more restricted, but restrictions are the basis for all creativity. Why do you think Raiden built his city over the Bloodrift? When I was a boy, I remember a much more stable spot along the Iron Ford."
"There is a city there today," Ciena said. "It's called Thornhaven."
"Raiden had to fight the elements. The wind, the rain, and the river. He fought erosion from the canyon walls, and gravity as it threatened to pull his people downward. In his struggle, he made the most impressive city the world had ever seen. In turn, this city spawned the greatest warriors in all of Revera."
Ciena gave a slow nod. Sunfall was bigger and fancier, and so was Dragonshard. But there was something about Raidenwood that made it different. Perhaps it was how they'd endured the test of time, despite all odds.
Lucan stepped forward and grabbed her right wrist. "But unlike your ancestors, you've chosen the grassy meadow by the river. If you ignore this weakness in battle, it will never become a strength."
"Fine," Ciena said as she pulled her hand free. "Point made. But what am I going to do with a stump? Make more of those tiny shields?"
Lucan shook his head, but a faint smile crossed his face. "I think you can do better. But first, you must kindle a burning desire inside yourself. Like the first time you discovered Ironblood, or the first time you found the Serenity Trance. I suspect this will be your third Revelation. The one that makes you a master Justicar."
Ciena crossed her arms. "And what if you're wrong?"
"Lucky for you, I'm not telling you to cut off your hand. You have nothing to lose."
"Just my time," Ciena noted. "And maybe my life in the long run. Then ... the future of the realm."
"No pressure." Lucan drained his bowl and threw it casually over his shoulder.
Ciena watched it fall into the misty canyon below. "What's with the tea, anyway? Do you even get thirsty?"
"No," Lucan said, "but my master always drank tea as we sparred. At least until I turned twelve and started beating him."
Ciena wondered how their duels might go if she used both hands instead of one. Even Lucan held the bowl in his offhand, which still put her at the disadvantage.
The thought was short-lived, however, when she realized she would have to stop dreaming this way entirely. As much as she liked the feeling of being whole, her teacher's arguments made too much sense. Very often, victory in combat meant stomping out your errors until none remained.
"Alright." Ciena shrugged and raised Steelbreaker for another round. "I'll do my best to show up one-handed next time."
"Excellent." Lucan rubbed his hands together.. "As soon as you do, we can spar again."
"What?" Ciena's shoulders slumped, and her blade hit the stone basin. "You can do that?"
His lips curled upward, but his eyes were serious. "The original Lucan gave me the right to refuse any students. So long as I believe it's in their best interest. In your case, this will go faster if you have the proper motivation. In fact..."
Lucan traced his chin with his thumb and forefinger. The gesture made him look strangely like Elias. "Let's make this even more interesting..."
For the love of Aegon. This can't be good.
"The next time we spar," he said, "you won't use your left hand at all. Just your right forearm, and whatever weapon you manage to create."
Ciena let out a breath, raising her right arm. "Even if I manage to hold a sword with this, I won't be able to beat you."
"Beating me isn't the point. I know you don't need a lecture on how practice works."
She didn't. Once again, his reasoning was sound. Her goal was to beat Trelidor, and her right arm was her biggest weakness by far. Stomping out that weakness would yield the quickest results.
For a moment, Ciena put aside the impossibility of that task and remembered what he’d said earlier. "So ... if Trelidor steals this Codex, you could refuse to train him?" Ever since she and Elias had opened Raiden's Tomb, that had been their biggest fear. Ethersmithing and the airship were their only advantages. If they lost those, they had no chance of winning this war.
"I only train Raiden's descendants. You know this."
"Well sure, but I have distant cousins fighting for Trelidor. And if you train them, they'll run back to their master like gossiping schoolgirls".
Lucan made an open palmed gesture. "I retain my memories, but I have no sense of time. One day, you and I will stop training together. It may happen suddenly, or you might warn me beforehand. Either way, I won't know if my next students are within your lifetime."
"Why not just ask?" Ciena said. "The worst they can do is lie."
"Also consider this." He raised a gloved finger. "While I may seem like a real person, I'm only a simulacrum. I was made for one purpose—to train Justicars. I don't feel hunger, thirst, or any other demands of mortal flesh. Nothing but the urge to teach drives me. Refusing to train your enemies would go against my nature."
Lucan was oversimplifying things, of course. He clearly enjoyed conversation and banter as well. Not to mention showing off and annoying her. Still, she understood. It would be like asking Ciena to give up combat, settle down, and become a housewife. That was all well and good for some, but It was too much to ask of her.
"Alright. I'll be back soon." Ciena drove Steelbreaker into the stone basin and pressed her fists together in a salute.
If Lucan had his way, it would be the last proper salute she ever gave him.
Ciena returned to the physical world where she sat cross-legged on her bed. As always, Raiden's Codex was locked in a vault beneath her bureau. She and Elias didn't need to see the Codex to use it. They didn't even need to be in the same room. As soon as they’d realized that, there was no reason to keep it out in the open.
Slowly, she unwound her legs and stretched. When she did, she saw the stump on her right arm. The sight of it always surprised her after a long session in the Ethereal. She even felt the occasional phantom pain or itch, but these weren't nearly as strong as they’d been in the six months after Dragonshard.
Ciena reached for Steelbreaker and clutched the hilt, letting the surge of strength chase away the hollow emptiness. She may be a cripple, but she was a Justicar first. Not to mention one of the few living Ethersmiths.
A sense of dizziness swept over her as she rose to her feet. Her lips were dry and cracked, and her stomach growled like a lion. She'd begun her training in the early morning, and it looked to be late afternoon now, judging by the sun.
Lucan was probably right about everything, Aegon curse him. She spent too much time in the Ethereal, especially since she hadn't joined the others in their assault on Vauldenport.
Now ... what to do about her right hand? How could she turn that weakness into a strength? Ciena's father had lost his own hand, and he'd replaced it with a metal one designed by Marwyn. But that was more decoration than anything else.
However ... she'd also heard of Venetoran pirates who had replaced missing their hands with hooks. That sounded much more useful.
An idea came to her then. An idea more audacious than any she'd had before. She didn't even know if it was possible. While Lucan knew a great deal about Ethersmithing, the art remained mostly unexplored. He'd lived in the Age of Archaeons, back when these skills were as new as black powder.
Did she dare try it? Did she dare waste her effort on something that might fail? It was a risk, but so was all Ethermancy. And if she was right, she might finally regain what she'd lost.