"Tell me more about Codices," Ciena said to Lucan as they sparred. As always, they stood on a stone plateau in the Bloodrift, and a misty wind blew in from the north.
"What about them?" He slashed his blade toward her face, and she deflected it with her right forearm. Steelbreaker had taken the form of a crystal bracer with three jagged spikes along the back. Perfect for catching blades.
"I need to know how to make them," Ciena said as she dodged another strike.
Lucan chuckled and took a sip of his tea. "You're not ready for that. Not even close."
Ciena narrowed her eyes as she released the rest of Steelbreaker from her soul. The spikes on her bracer vanished, and a crystal chain whip erupted in their place. She swung her arm toward her opponent, and the whip moved in a wide arc.
Lucan deflected the blow with ease, but Ciena stepped forward, closing the distance between them. An ordinary whip would have wrapped around his blade, impeding both of their weapons.
Instead, Ciena guided the weapon with her mind, using the Serenity Trance to feel each link in the chain, shifting them one at a time. The whip changed directions in midair, sliding along the outside of Lucan's blade, striking his left arm like a cobra. His teacup shattered in the blink of an eye and brown liquid spilled over his gloved hand.
Her victory was short-lived, however, as Lucan brought his own blade to her windpipe.
He grinned. "You're also quite dead."
"I'm getting better," Ciena said. Sure, her focus had been too narrow at the end, and that was a novice mistake. But Lucan hadn't expected her whip to move that way, or that quickly. She'd seen the shock in his golden eyes. Not so long ago, he'd claimed it would take her years to achieve that level of control.
"You gave up the duel to destroy a teacup." As if to spite her, a fresh cup materialized out of thin air. Lucan curled his index finger around the handle and brought it to his lips. This trick had nothing to do with Ethersmithing—it was just some weird Ethereal horseshit.
Lucan swallowed his tea and cleared his throat. "I've spoken with your brother on this topic already. You don't want to make a Codex. To make one, you need to die. That's the only way to leave a strong impression behind."
"Fine," Ciena said. It was true—she didn't care about making a Codex. This was Nahlia's task, and she was only helping because the others thought it was important. "Can you at least tell me how to destroy them?"
Lucan's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Really now, I know you're not a graceful loser, but erasing my very existence? Seems like an overreaction."
She gave him a flat look.
"A Codex can't be destroyed," Lucan said. "It's made of Etherite."
"Etherite's not indestructible," she replied with as much confidence as she could manage. After months of trial and error, she and her brother realized this was the best way to handle Lucan. If they asked him direct questions, he might refuse to answer. But if they acted like they knew the answers already, he would either elaborate or correct them in detail.
In this case, Ciena didn't even need to feign confidence. Etherite could be reshaped, and reshaping a Codex seemed as good as destroying it. But other things didn't add up. During this last Etherfall, they'd increased their supply more than a hundredfold. Sure, this Etherfall was bigger than most, courtesy of Trelidor's antics. But even if the previous comets dropped only a fraction of this ... where was the rest?
If Etherite were truly indestructible, they should be drowning in the stuff after all these years. There had to be a way to destroy it.
"You're right," Lucan said. "It's technically possible to destroy one with Soulfire. But a single Codex holds more energy than you can imagine. Enough energy to take out a sizable chunk of the planet. Killing yourself would be the least of your worries."
"Soulfire's not that strong," Ciena said. Again, she was lying through her teeth. She'd never even heard that term 'Soulfire' before today,
"You're bluffing," he said. "Pretending you're familiar with that term when you're not."
"No." Ciena scratched at her chin. "I wouldn't call myself an expert, but—"
"I know for a fact you haven't heard the term," he interjected, "considering I just invented it today."
Bloody hell. It was only a matter of time before he figured out that tactic. Plus, Ciena and her brother were never good liars to begin with.
"That's right." He jabbed a finger in her direction, then tapped the side of his head. "I'm on to you."
Her shoulders sagged. "Look, I couldn't care less about Codices, but my friend got this assignment from the Archaeon Treluwyn."
Lucan held up a hand. "Your brother told me already."
"Then you know she wanted us to talk to you."
"I believe your friend thinks she spoke with Treluwyn. But I actually lived during the Age of Archaeons. It's not possible for the dead to communicate with the living."
"These were special circumstances."
"Which your brother explained, yes. But even if I believed that conversation happened, I can't help you."
"Can't, or won't?"
He let out a long breath. "There's no secret to disassembling a Codex. Any skilled Ethermancer can do it. Just as any blacksmith can break a sword, or any carpenter can destroy a table. This is the process I used when I re-wrote Raiden's."
Ciena nodded. "But?"
"But there's no safe way to destroy a Codex. Not permanently. It's not impossible, but to help you do it would go against my nature."
Days passed, and Ciena shifted her attention toward her other project, starting with Marwyn's advice. She took a piece of paper and cut a rectangular hole in the middle, just big enough to read two or three words at a time. Surprisingly, it worked. There was nothing wrong with her eyes, or her reading ability. Her brain just got confused when it saw too many words at once.
Unfortunately, while the window method helped her avoid confusion and headaches, it also took a bloody long time. People like Nahlia could scan a page in seconds and inhale the words like mist. Meanwhile, Ciena could run a mile in less time than it took her to read a page.
Not that she was surprised. Reading was like combat—you couldn't just ignore your training for ten years and expect proficiency. Still, she needed to be faster.
By now, the airship had returned, and they'd captured a man named Varion who claimed to be Alexel's son.
"I wish you'd been there," Thane had said the day they returned. That wasn't really an option of course as it would have left Raiden's Codex undefended. Even so, they'd lost four Ethermancers in Vauldenport, and Ciena felt the burden of that. Thane still regarded her as their most skilled Justicar. But now that Elias had Bloodsong, the gap was closing quickly. If her brother couldn't beat Varion with two good hands, Ciena doubted she could have beaten him with one.
The final confrontation was coming soon, and she didn't have years to prepare. She might not even have months. They'd captured Alexel's son and taken one of the most important cities across the southern coast. If he'd been holding back before, now was the time to—
Ciena blinked down at the open book on her lap. Bloody hell. How long had she been daydreaming? This never happened during combat practice.
Frustrated, she slammed the cover of the leather tome.
"Problem?" Elias asked from the other side of the common room. Bloodsong sat on the table in front of him, along with several more shards of Etherite. As usual, he was trying to increase the capacity of his soul, and therefore the maximum size of his blade.
"Yeah." She tossed the book on the wooden table. "I've been at this for two days, and I haven't even finished the first bloody chapter."
"Hmm." He leaned over to examine the cover. "To be fair, Shozen is famous for his long chapters and dry writing. Doesn't help that his work is translated from Valaysian."
"Be honest," Ciena said, "is this whole idea a waste of time?"
"Learning is never a waste."
"Unless it gets in the way of more practical skills," she countered. "All those book smarts are useless to a corpse."
"Fair point." He considered for a moment. "Honestly, I can't say. Lucan's the expert, and even he didn't know for sure."
Ethermancy is a game, Alexel had once told her, and your life is all you have to gamble.
Despicable as he might be, her enemy's words were true. Still, she doubted herself. There was no worse feeling than showing up to a duel and realizing you'd brought the wrong weapon.
"And if you were in my position?" Ciena asked her brother. "Would you practice something you were terrible at, all for a project that might fail?"
"No," he said at once. "If it were me, I'd double down on my strengths. That's what I've always done."
Well, that settled it then.
"But you and I are different," Elias added.
"You think I fancy wasting my time?"
He shook his head. "Our parents encouraged me to learn combat, and it always came easy for me. Sure, I still had to practice, but we both know I was the best of our peers. Even the ones who practiced harder."
Meanwhile, she'd gone against their parents' wishes. And if she wanted to win a duel, she had to work twice as hard as her brother. They'd been roughly equal in their last year of Whitecliff, but that took years of practice on her part.
"I had advantages too," Ciena noted. "Access to weapons, and teachers. Not to mention Raiden's blood."
"The difference is," he said, "I never cared about being the best." He sat up straighter and pivoted his head around the common room, making sure they were alone. "If I married Nahlia someday and ruled this city, that would be enough for me. I'd be happy."
She frowned. That sort of thinking didn't change the world.
He continued as if he could read her thoughts. "I'd rather be happy than become a legend like Raiden. I know I can't have it both ways."
And Ciena was the exact opposite. She and her brother were alike in many ways, but this was the fundamental difference between them. To beat Trelidor, she would have to be the world's greatest living warrior. That meant risking everything and doing things no one had ever done before.
She let out a deep breath. "Alright. I'm not giving up. But this needs to go faster."
"Well ... what if you had someone read to you?"
He chuckled. "No, but you have an entire city at your command. I'm sure someone out there needs a job. Besides, this way, you can do something else while you listen."
Ten minutes later, Ciena stepped through the palace corridors, looking for a familiar face.
"Kalia," she called out.
The blonde girl turned around to face her. Kalia was the only palace maid Ciena knew personally. Her family had once served Ciena's parents in Dresten, and Elias had recruited her from Redcliff Enclave several months ago.
"Lady Raider," she said with a bow.
Ciena nodded back. "You can read, right?"
The girl looked offended, but she covered it quickly. "Of course, Lady Raider."
"I'm not talking about notes or ledgers," she clarified quickly. "I'm talking about giant, door-stopping, textbooks."
She nodded again.
"Good, because I need someone to read to me while I train. If you're willing?"
"I'd love to." She glanced back at her retreating peers. "but I have other duties."
"Lawson," Ciena called out to the silver-haired steward down the hall. Two months ago, this man had been a beggar on Marketbridge who had encouraged Ciena and Elias to take back the palace. He wore a pair of spectacles now, which did wonders for his vision. That, combined with a healthy diet, and he looked ten years younger.
"I'm excusing Kalia from her other duties today."
Lawson bowed. "Very good, Lady Raider."
"Three phalanx bones comprise each of the first four fingers," Kalia read. "There are the proximal, middle, and distal. The thumb consists of only a proximal and distal phalanx."
While Kalia read the anatomy textbook, Ciena sat cross-legged on her bed, attempting to pull Steelbreaker into her soul. The blade itself sat under her bed, so Kalia couldn't see what she was doing.
Ciena tried to focus on the book, but she struggled to visualize the bones in her head. A part of her had expected this. She had to familiarize herself with these concepts before she could build anything. It was like how soldiers had to learn stances before they learned to swing a sword.
She let Kalia read for the rest of the hour, abandoning her Ethersmithing practice and doing her best to focus on the words. She had to admit, this was better than reading through a paper window. Kalia was able to get through the first three chapters, speaking quickly and clearly the whole time.
Unfortunately, Ciena had the same problem focusing as she did before. It was like the words went in one ear and out the other. She was too tense—being stuck in her bedchamber like this made her feel like a caged lion. And the more she focused on that tension, the worse it got.
"Thanks for your help," Ciena finally said when they reached the next section. "You can take the rest of the day off."
Kalia nodded and stood up from the desk, stretching her legs. "Were you practicing Ethersmithing before?" she asked.
Ciena narrowed her eyes. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Kalia stammered and turned to leave. "It's not my place to ask."
"Wait." Ciena softened her face and beckoned the girl closer. "Where'd you hear that term?"
She shrugged one shoulder. "There are rumors around the enclave."
"What kind of rumors?"
"People say you found Raiden's Codex here in the city, and you learned how to reshape Etherite from there. That's why you and your brother have those glowing red weapons."
Well, those rumors were news to Ciena, but it made sense. Her mother always said that without a good spy network, the people in charge were always the last to hear things. It had been the same in Whitecliff—she and her fellow students had known far more secrets than they'd let on.
"If you're so interested in Ethermancy," Ciena said, "why didn't you volunteer that day in the Redcliff mess hall? My brother could have trained you to be a Justicar."
"I did volunteer," she said, "but they wanted people with combat experience. I never got accepted into Whitecliff."
"Experience helps," Ciena agreed.
"So is it true?" Kalia pressed. "That you're learning Ethersmithing?"
"If it were," Ciena said, "I couldn't tell you."
She bit her lip and nodded. "I understand. If there's nothing else, Lady Raider?"
"Nope. Have a good night."
Once Ciena was alone again, she stepped over to the desk and stared down at the pile of leather-bound books. One glance at the open pages, and she knew she wouldn't be able to focus.
Time to do something else.
She made her way out of the palace and broke into a jog when she reached the inner gates. It was just past fifth bell, but the sky was already dark. The trees had shed their leaves, and snowflakes blew in the wind. A few more weeks and workers would be shoveling the stuff off the palace roofs, wheeling barrels of it through the streets, and dropping it off Highbridge. The river would rise by a good ten feet, and the winds would blow fiercer than ever.
Ciena dodged through crowds of people as she ran, weaving through wagons, shops, and stalls. She breathed in and out, separating herself from her emotions, letting the Serenity Trance guide her steps.
Eventually, she broke off from the main thoroughfare onto a side street. Her path took her to the outer ledge of the bridge, and she hoisted herself up onto the stone parapet. If she fell here, the drop was several hundred feet. The river raged like a roaring carnivore, but she didn't worry about falling. The Serenity Trance heightened her reflexes, and every step was true.
Even after two years, Ciena didn't fully understand this trance. Whenever there was a crack or loose stone, some part of her subconscious mind predicted it and adjusted her steps accordingly. It was like her final fight with Alexel on top of Dragonshard. For several perfect moments, she'd been able to predict every one of his abilities. Not just his sword strikes, but his Moonshard attacks, and the movement of the tower itself. Her movements had been flawless in a way she couldn't describe. Remembering them now was like remembering a distant dream.
After she'd run the length of Highbridge, Ciena made her way back onto the main roads, then past the outer wall. From there, she ran all the way to the Iron Fords where the Palavans had made their camp during the siege. The grass out here was still scorched from where Thane had burned the undead army.
Snow continued to fall from the sky. By the time she made it back to the palace, a thin white blanket covered the grass. The sight was strangely comforting. It snowed for most of the year in Whitecliff, and those were simpler times. Back then, Templars were the most dangerous enemies she could imagine.
Sweat covered her skin despite the chill night air. Instead of going directly inside, Ciena walked the length of the garden to cool off. Another figure strode in the distance near the statue of Raiden. While Ciena wore nothing but a simple tunic and trousers, this man was bundled up in a long jacket, complete with a scarf and hat.
The man turned to face her, and she finally recognized her uncle's face. "Beautiful night, isn't it?" His breath misted in the air as he spoke, causing his spectacles to fog over.
Ciena nodded as she stepped closer, eying the massive statue of Raiden. "I've been meaning to ask you—why didn't you have this statue torn down? Before you switched sides, I mean."
"Why would I destroy a priceless work of art?"
"The Templars tore down the others," she noted, "near the eastern gates."
"Angry mobs tore those down," Cladius said with another puff of white breath. "Destruction benefits no one, but no one thinks rationally in a crowd."
"Still," Ciena said, "Isn't this statue a symbol of Aeon power? Same reason the Templars tore down all the chapels. And don't tell me angry mobs did that."
Cladius gave a slow nod. "The Templars who destroyed the chapels did so out of fear. It was the same reason they hunted you down. As long as we tried to destroy the past, it meant we were afraid of it. My race wanted to see history through a new lens. They believed every Aeon city was built on the backs of human laborers. Every war was fought with spilled human blood on both sides. They wanted to believe the Aeons were nothing without us. In some ways, they were right. The Aeons did oppress us, and that was wrong."
He adjusted his scarf and turned to meet her gaze. "Meanwhile, your kind believed the oppression was justified. You believed Aegon gave you a divine right to rule, and that all humans worshiped science, lacking the mental capacity to believe in anything greater."
Ciena opened her mouth to object ... but yes, that aligned exactly with what they'd taught her in Whitecliff. Even then—twenty years after the Purge—they refused to take any responsibility for what happened.
"I can believe in Aegon," her uncle said, "but I refuse to believe he gifted the first Aeons with their power. Nothing about that story makes sense. Aegon hasn't intervened in the last thousand years, so why that day? If his goal was to prevent war, why is Ethermancy so destructive?"
"Not a bad question," she said, "but I'm no philosopher. Does it even matter where Ethermancy came from?"
"It might," her uncle replied. "Even if we win this war against Trelidor, we'll need to decide who rules this continent. If we don't learn from the past, history will repeat itself." He paused for a moment as if considering something. "Did you know that only mothers can pass Aeon abilities to children?"
Ciena blinked. "Seriously?" She hadn't heard that before, but it made sense. Nahlia, Yimo, and Ilsa were all half-bloods with Aeon mothers, and they'd become Ethermancers. Cladius's mother was a human, and he couldn't even enter the Ethereal.
He nodded. "It's not a popular topic. Both sides—Aeons and humans—liked to believe we were two distinct races. It was the only way to justify our actions."
She frowned. "But how come it only works for mothers?"
"Aeons have Etherite in their bodies," he said. "This Etherite doesn't pass from the father to a mother. It does, however, pass from mother to child."
"Physical souls," Ciena muttered. This much she knew from Lucan.
"My point is," Cladius said, "the difference between us is smaller than anyone believes." He glanced back up at the marble statue of Raiden. "And that's why I kept this. Because Raiden is just as much my ancestor as he is yours. Because the Archaeons were once humans. Something happened to them, and they became the thing we call Aeons."
And if that were true, then all Aeons were just humans with a few special abilities. Could that secret have been intentionally lost? Buried away like Ethersmithing?
Ciena took a few steps closer and examined the statue. "Do you know the story behind this?" she asked her uncle.
"I know it was crafted by our ancestor, Silana."
Ciena clicked her tongue as she paced around the thick stone base. Even now, the statue was more than twice her height. "My brother told me the story on the way into the city. Apparently, Silana had some sort of mental breakdown after she made this. She thought this statue was perfect, and she worried she'd never make anything else like it."
"Curious," her uncle said. "I've never heard an artist describe her own work as 'perfect.'"
Neither had she. For most artists, the flaws in their work were as conspicuous as missing teeth. Perfection was something that couldn't be understood. If Silana was skilled enough to craft this statue, then she should have been skilled enough to judge its flaws.
Perfection was a word students used when they watched their masters fight. It wasn't a word masters used to describe themselves. Unless...
"The Serenity Trance," Ciena muttered.
Cladius gave her a curious glance.
When she'd fought Trelidor, her body had moved in ways her mind hadn't understood. Her moves had seemed flawless for several moments. Not because she'd achieved perfection, but because her conscious mind couldn't understand it.
An idea came to her then. Raidenwood was more than a city of warriors. They'd created paintings and sculptures. They'd performed feats of engineering that no one else in the world had ever attempted. Even as the Bloodrift eroded away over time, Raidenwood endured with its beams of twice-tough stone that shot deep into the canyon walls.
How did the Justicars create so much art? Sure, they moved faster, and they had greater physical strength, but what use was that outside of combat or labor?
And yet ... Justicars had something more. The Serenity Trance allowed them to focus. To close out the rest of the world. Not just in combat, but in every aspect of their lives.
"I have to go," Ciena told her uncle, then spun around and jogged toward her bedchamber. As she ran, she felt the Serenity Trance again. She emptied her mind, letting her emotions swirl around her. Doubt. Insecurity. Anger. Fear. Even her ambition and impatience. They all flowed around her like a whirlpool, but none of them controlled her.
Ciena threw open her chamber door, lowered herself into her wooden desk chair and began reading where she'd left off.
She focused on chunks of four to five words as Marwyn had told her. In her focused state, her mind didn't look at the rest of the page. The movement still happened, but it was like other soldiers clashing on a battlefield. She was aware of them, but she kept her eyes on her opponent.
One by one, she conquered the lines of words, and her mind processed them with incredible speed. This time, she understood them more than she had with Kalia, and her mind made connections it hadn't made before. Even when she didn't understand a phrase, Ciena trusted her future self to make use of it.
She read until the oil had burned from the lamps. She read until the sun rose, and its golden rays speared through her window. For once, her body didn't feel impatient.
No, this felt more like sparring a skilled opponent. Time ceased to matter as she pushed her mind and body to their limits.