Ciena fell into the Serenity Trance as the swarm of blades and needles closed in. Her sword vanished in a burst of red mist. Instead of a blade, it returned as a pair of wide, paper-thin shields—one in her left hand, the other strapped to her right forearm.
Each attack came too fast to see, but her body knew what to do. She spun, ducked, and dodged, moving like a leaf through the wind. Her shields caught the bulk of the attacks. The others missed her by a hair's breadth.
After the first barrage, the Sile'zhar leapt from the dark corners of their cells, striking with daggers, swords, and flame.
Ciena flared her Ironblood and slammed her main shield forward, caving in the nearest man's face. In the same movement, she dropped her smaller shield and forged a simple breastplate and helmet. Just large enough to catch the next few attacks.
Still, her enemies closed in like creatures from a nightmare. Clad in black with shrouded faces, only their eyes reflected Steelbreaker's crimson glow.
Steel rang against crystal as they swung from behind. A blade flashed at her right side. No, both sides. Ciena dismissed her main shield in another cloud of red mist. She stretched out her arms and split the crystal into two more pieces. In her left hand, she formed a dagger to parry her first opponent. A spiked bracer grew from her right forearm, catching her enemy's blade.
Ciena twisted her forearm, causing him to drop his weapon. She lunged, and the curved spikes speared through his eye and nose.
The assassin from her left struck again. Ciena sidestepped the woman and slashed the dagger across her throat.
This left an opening in the nearest cell. She leapt inside, putting her enemies in front of her.
More footsteps echoed down the staircase as the Sile'zhar from the courtyard joined the fight.
Bloody hell. If she didn't end this quickly, she'd be fighting Varion too. Relyn was right to send her here. Her only mistake was waiting this long.
Ciena wanted to pause and catch her breath—wipe the sweat and blood from her brow—but her enemies didn't wait. Each one was an Ethermancer like her, and they struck with everything they had. She felt pressure on her mind and soul as they tried to shatter her Ironblood and Serenity.
Three black-clad assassins charged her together. Two swung high while the other swung low. Ciena plunged Steelbreaker into the space between them. The blade softened until it became a whip of crystal chain. The whip moved like a tornado, hitting the three assassins faster than a strike of lightning.
They stumbled to the floor, clutching their stomachs and sides in pain. Steelbreaker struck in another whirlwind as they fell, snapping their spinal cords like twigs.
Ciena kicked off against the brick floor and charged back into the fray. Steelbreaker whistled and cut as it moved. The red glow filled her vision until she saw nothing but black and red.
That was nothing new. A fight between Justicars moved too fast to see, and only her training could guide her. One second, Steelbreaker was a helmet, protecting her from a fatal blow. The next, it became a spike on her boot as she kicked an enemy in the stomach. Then a whip, a shield, and a sword again.
Lucan had forced her to hone her instincts these past few months, putting her in every situation imaginable. By now, reshaping her weapon came as naturally as breathing. When she swung the weapon as a whip, it felt like an extension of her arm.
The minutes went by, each one as long as a sleepless night. Her body slowed. Scrapes covered her cheeks and hands as some of the smaller blades broke through her defenses.
If she knew the Sile'zhar, then those blades would be poisoned. She wouldn't walk out of here alive—not without healing.
Her muscles grew colder as the Sanctifiers tried to steal her body heat. Others filled the corridors with flames. Smoke choked the air as corpses burned on the floor.
But still, they came, merciless as a storm.
Ciena swung her crystal whip, grabbing a Justicar around the arm. Another man slashed at her from behind. She yanked on the chain and ducked, throwing the first man's body into the second.
She spun around. The whip stiffened into a sword, and she cut them down before they hit the ground.
The last strike made her stumble forward, and she fell to one knee, surveying the surrounding carnage.
Had those been the last ones? Was it finally over?
She blinked open her eyes and wiped them dry for the first time. Dozens of body parts littered the floor—heads, arms, and legs. More foes than she'd ever fought in a single battle. Sweat covered every inch of her skin, and the scents of burning hair and flesh stung her nostrils.
A part of her wanted to break down, cry or vomit. The other part felt relieved. It was hard not to feel that way when you came within half an inch of death.
Her heart pounded in her chest, and the rest of her body burned as if she had a fever. By now, the poison from her wounds had finally set in.
Finally, a slow clap broke the silence and a man's voice spoke, "Very impressive."
It sounded like Alexel—the same accent, but younger, and without the same resonance. And while she knew it wasn't him, the sound nearly paralyzed her.
Blue light erupted from down the hallway as a dozen sigils glowed on a steel staff. There, Varion Trelidor stood, freed from his prison cell. Smoke and flames danced around him as he strode forward.
"You must be Ciena," he said. "My father's pet Justicar. I see you're still using his sword."
"You must be his second-favorite," she sneered back. "The shameful secret he didn't bring to Dragonshard."
"My father wants you back." Varion ignored her retort and rested his boot on a dead Sile'zar's head. His pale hair was shorter than Alexel's, his face less sharp. Instead of calm confidence, his eyes held a promise of pain.
"He has work for you to do." When Varion looked at her, it was like he didn't even see her. As if nothing she'd accomplished mattered. She'd mastered Ethersmithing in only a few months—something that Lucan had deemed impossible.
Still, that was all she was. A tool. A weapon that anyone could pick up and use.
Ciena tried to stand, but the poison had left her weaker than before.
"It won't kill you," Varion said as if reading her thoughts. "Eventually though, you'll fall unconscious. Then all your pain and worries will end."
As he spoke, the poison seemed to quicken through her veins.
No, not poison. That was Moonfire. Ciena gritted her teeth and resisted.
"But I don't have to bring you back to my father," Varion said. "You could work for me, and we could take him together. You aren't the only one he's manipulated, after all."
As if she would ever consider that offer. Then again, it was hardly a real offer when he planned to knock her out and stick a slave-ring on her finger.
Her breath hitched at the thought of losing control again, and she stared down at Steelbreaker in her hand. She'd killed her parents with his blade. If Alexel got another of his rings on her, he could make her kill the others too. Elias, Thane, Nahlia, and Relyn. After what she'd done today, she doubted any of them could take her in a straight fight.
For the first time in two years, Ciena thought about ending her own life. It was better than the alternative. Raiden had once been Palatine's tool in Aeonica, and she was his heir, destined to share his fate.
Even if she beat Varion, the poison would still kill her. Only a Redeemer could save her now, and Nahlia was all the way in Redcliff.
If she was going to die anyway, then what was the point?
No. Varion's afraid of you. That's why he's making you doubt yourself.
Ciena pushed the fear back into the whirlwind of emotions that surrounded her. If everyone thought that way, then no one would ever defeat Alexel. Besides, if Elias were here right now, he would tell her to keep fighting no matter what. He would rather die than see her give up.
Strength and Fortitude.
She summoned the last of her strength and charged.
Varion reacted with Justicar swiftness as he spun his staff toward her. A shower of crystal shards flew out from the tip, filling the corridor.
Steelbreaker shifted to a wide, paper-thin shield, covering her body from head to heel. She closed the distance in two heartbeats, absorbing his strikes as she ran. Steelbreaker became a whip when she finally reached him, striking like a snake toward his throat.
At first, Ciena expected him to dodge or block her attack. Instead, the crystal tip cut a line of red across Varion's windpipe. His neck snapped back as he hit the wall.
Ciena stumbled forward, barely catching herself on the corridor's stone floor.
She spun around again, but Varion wasn't dead. Instead, the skin around his neck was already regrowing. His neck snapped forward again. He met her eyes, and a wide smile split his red lips.
How? How could you defeat someone like this?
Ciena barely had time to react before Varion lunged forward again. This time, a wider burst of Moonshard knocked her back. Bricks fell around her as the attack impacted with the stone ceiling.
She rolled to the side, lashing out with her whip again. Still, her attacks came weaker than before. The poison left her dizzy, and her vision blurred. Varion hadn't broken her resolve—not completely. But the weight of impossibility threatened to crush her.
He knocked her whip aside with a wall of Moonshard, then struck down with his staff. Steelbreaker became a blade in her hand as she raised it to parry. Moonshard coated Varion's staff, and their weapons met in a burst of light.
Ciena sprang to her feet and released a desperate flurry. Her opponent deflected her strikes with glowing blades of his own, each one appearing and fading in bursts of blue light.
Varion backed her into a cell, releasing a burst of Moonshard from the tip of his staff. The crystal light collided with the ceiling, and more bricks rained from above. One hit Ciena on the back of the head, and she fell forward. More bricks struck her back. The weight piled on, and the air left her lungs.
Ciena gasped out in pain, feeling her spine break. The weight crushed her deeper into the floor until she couldn't feel her legs.
"It's over," Varion said as he loomed above her.
Ciena gritted her teeth. Steelbreaker became a sword in her hand and she tried to reach him. It was a pathetic attempt, and she barely lifted the sword an inch from the ground.
"Stop struggling," he said, "and I can heal you. This damage doesn't need to be permanent."
Go to hell, Ciena tried to say. The words barely formed in her dry throat, and she coughed blood instead.
Her hand fell, and Steelbreaker clattered to the ground.
Varion eyed the blade for a moment, then he knelt down and picked it up. "Ethersmithing," he whispered. "All these years, and it existed in Raiden's Codex..."
Steelbreaker had gone almost completely dark after all the fighting. Now, only a faint glow painted Varion's face.
"Even without you," he said. "I could have defeated my father with this knowledge." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring. "Fortunately, I can have both."
The ring sent a shudder of pure panic down her spine, but she couldn't fight back. Ciena could barely even move her fingers as Varion knelt down and grabbed them.
She could still move Steelbreaker, but what good would that do? She'd already opened his throat, and he'd recovered. If that didn't work, nothing would. If she couldn't even beat Trelidor's son, then what chance did any of them have?
No. Strength and Fortitude.
Raiden had given up, but she wasn't him. She was The Justicar's Heir, and she would surpass every one of her ancestors if she had to. She would end this cycle of war and defy fate itself.
Steelbreaker became a whip in Varion's left hand. The room grew still as she used the last of its energy.
Just one chance.
Ciena couldn't move her body. Everything was paralyzed below her shoulders. Instead, Steelbreaker became her body. She felt the room through her bond with the crystal. She felt the smoke in the air, and the heat of her enemy's hand.
The whip moved on its own, each link bending like joints in a finger as she aimed it toward Varion's throat. This time, instead of striking, the weapon leapt forward and coiled around his neck.
Once. Twice. Three times. Every edge of the chain sharpened into a blade, tasting her enemy's skin, muscle, and bone.
Finally, she squeezed, severing Varion's head from his shoulders.