Ciena's braids thrashed in the wind as the dragon soared over Reverie. Dazen sat in front with the reins, followed by Alexel, then Rhia, and finally Ciena at the back. Her legs were strapped to the plush leather saddle, and she kept her arms wrapped tightly around Rhia's waist.
They'd gone easy on her the first night. Now, every muscle in her body complained after several straight days of flying. Ciena was seven when she first learned to ride, but even the mammoths in Whitecliff felt like play-things compared to this.
Occasionally, Kataro would veer off course and refuse to let Dazen pull him back. When this happened, Dazen hit him with a sudden burst of flame.
"Horses are herd animals," he explained one morning after they landed. "So they're used to rules and such. This breed is an apex predator—smart enough to understand what you want, but not keen on listening unless you prove you're the deadlier dragon."
Kataro seemed to require proof of this at least once a day. Dazen wasn't kidding about why they kept him around.
Over time, the green forests and grasslands of northern Reverie gave way to sandy beaches, palm trees, and blue oceans. Ciena couldn't say how far they'd traveled since their mileage varied by the day. If she had to guess, she'd put them somewhere between Vauldenport and Dragonshard. No point in asking for more specifics than that though. Trust was earned, not freely given.
They'd been flying over the Ember Sea for several hours now. Their destination must be close because the sun hung high above the horizon. In other words, it was past Kataro's bedtime.
Ciena couldn't see much from the back of the saddle, so she was surprised when the ocean below turned to jungle in the blink of an eye.
Kataro soared low against the treetops, passing small clearings of farmland and freshwater springs. Ciena tightened her grip as the dragon vaulted over a sloped rock face, then down into a wide expanse with steep cliffs on every side. It looked like a cross between a canyon and a volcanic crater.
A massive ziggurat dominated the center of the clearing, lit by torches on three different levels. The base was twice as wide as her parents' palace in Raidenwood, and the top level looked small enough to hold a single bedchamber.
Kataro circled around, and they passed dozens of smaller stone structures clustered around the larger one. Ethermancers and other martial artists filled the courtyards, moving through their routines in unison. Streams of water cascaded from the high cliffs above, forming shallow creeks around the enclave's edges.
They set down on a raised plateau along the southern wall. The four of them dismounted, and Dazen set to work removing the dragon's harness and saddle.
As always, it felt good to stand on her own two legs again, although she didn't fancy walking down a set of stairs any time soon. The sun shone hot against her cheeks, and the humid air carried the scents of flowers, fruit, and rain.
Rhia removed her brown leather helmet and shook her black hair free. Ciena did likewise, feeling her own hair matted down with hours of sweat. Little wonder Dazen kept his head shaved.
Alexel was already making his way down the mountain. Unlike the other three, he didn't bother with a helmet. Just a pair of flight goggles which he tossed to Dazen.
"Rhia," Alexel said over his shoulder, "see that our newest member is fed and given a place to sleep."
Rhia pressed her fists together in a salute and bowed. Then she turned to Ciena after he’d left. "Right then. Let's go, new girl."
They started with a light walk to get their blood flowing again, then Rhia broke into a jog for the last several hundred yards down the hill. The ancient ziggurat was even more impressive from the ground. Each layer of stone blocks was too steep to climb, but she glimpsed a long staircase at the front, leading to doorways on the various levels.
Some of the smaller structures looked like group living quarters, long and narrow with small windows along the walls. Other house-like buildings stuck out from the cliffside. Every wall and surface was meticulously clean despite being deep in the jungle.
Alexel had warned her that his enclave had few noncombatants aside from the children and the elderly. As such, even the top Ethermancers filled multiple roles. At first, this had led Ciena to believe the enclave would be strictly martial, but the streets here resembled any other village. They passed tailors, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and cooks, all going about their daily business.
Despite this, the Ethermancers didn't disappoint. Their route took them between two flat stone courtyards. To her left, a score of students moved orbs of fire through the air. Some worked with deliberate slowness, while others threw the flames too fast to see. To her right, another group dodged and deflected arrows with their bare hands.
Sanctifiers and Justicars ... training as casually as if they're learning the sword. Only one thing was missing.
"No Redeemers?" Ciena asked.
Rhia shook her head. "Master Trelidor is the only one."
In this enclave, at least. Which begged the question, if Redeemers were so bloody rare, why did Alexel go after Ciena and not Nahlia? Nahlia had escaped on the boats with the other non-combatants, so she should be alive. That girl had been obsessed with Ethermancy, so she would fit right in here.
Why were Redeemers so rare, anyway? If all three orders were outlawed in the last century, what made one different from the other two? Sure, Alexel had killed over fifty Templars on his own; that made him dangerous, but he'd also said Ciena could do the same with practice.
She was about to open her mouth again when Rhia stopped in front of a wide stone building.
"Women's bunks are inside." She gestured with her thumb at the sliding bamboo door. "You can claim whatever's free."
Then she turned the other way, pointing to a nearby pavilion that covered several long wooden tables. "Lunch should be ready there within the hour. You'll know once a crowd starts to form. Maybe I'll see you over there?"
"Sure," Ciena said. She glanced at the sliding door, then back to Rhia. "I'm guessing you stay somewhere else, then?"
Rhia nodded. "With my parents, just up that hill there."
Parents. The word hit her like a gust of icy wind—cruel, but without malice. Ciena knew plenty of orphans—that was just a fact of life in the years after the Purge. But she’d never realized what that meant until now. It was more than loneliness. It was having to watch the world go on as if nothing was wrong.
Rhia must have mistaken her expression for disappointment. "I mean—I suppose I could be persuaded to visit some night. If you're lonely, that is."
Ciena gaped and fumbled for a response.
Rhia broke into a sudden grin. "I'm joking with you, don’t worry."
The other girl jogged off with a wave, and Ciena slid open the door to the long chamber. No candles or lamps burned inside, but the open windows let in more than enough natural light. In a way, it reminded her of the general sleep halls in Whitecliff—two rows of beds, wooden chests for belongings, and little privacy.
She found a free bed with an empty chest and stuffed her cloak inside. Other than that, she had nothing but her mother’s headband, the clothes on her back and the Ethereum ring on her finger. Even those last two didn't technically belong to her.
A full-length mirror hung on a nearby wall, and Ciena barely recognized the reflection staring back at her. The dye had faded from her contrasting braids—once crimson and gold. Now, one was a faint pink while the other was too dull to be called gold. She'd also grown thinner during her weeks in captivity, losing much of her warrior's build.
Now that she'd finally arrived at the enclave, that was about to change. Now that she was here, she'd train harder than ever before.
Ciena stood within the dining pavilion an hour later. They served chicken, fresh bread, and some sort of cooked grain. There were also piles of mangos, starfruit and oranges, practically spilling out from their wooden bowls.
Most of the enclave's members dressed in the Dragonshard court fashion with bare arms and exposed chest and back tattoos. More skin than she ever saw in Whitecliff (the bathhouse notwithstanding).
Having filled her tray, Ciena wove her way through the crowded tables. Aegon, if there was one thing she couldn't abide, it was eating in groups. That, and being the new girl.
When she passed an empty bench, she briefly entertained the idea of sitting alone. But no ... she never had any friends in Whitecliff, but it hadn't mattered so much there. She had her brother back then, and she'd been a member of the top battleclan.
Things were different now, and this was a chance for a fresh start.
After a few circles around the pavilion, she found Rhia and Dazen sitting in the sun with another boy she didn't recognize.
"Hey, new girl," Rhia said with a wave. She'd changed out of her flight tunic into a sleeveless top that left her stomach bare.
Dazen had changed as well. Now, he wore a sleeveless tunic, left open to reveal the swirling flame tattoo on his chest.
"Ciena," he gestured to the man beside him. "Meet my cousin, Faidon."
Faidon waved with his fork. He was younger than the rest of them by several years. His blond hair was pulled back in a knot, and he wore a pair of spectacles. Ciena normally associated those with old scholar types like Marwyn. Odd to see them on someone with a warrior's build.
"You training to be a Justicar too?" Ciena asked, sliding onto the bench beside Rhia.
Faidon grinned this time. "Gold eyes gave it away, huh?"
The boy was flattering himself if he thought his eyes were half as gold as hers. They were more like a pale tan, but Ciena kept a diplomatic silence for once.
"But yes," Faidon said. "Ranked seventh in the enclave."
Ciena cocked her head. "You have a rank?"
"Everyone here has a rank." He dropped his fork and rounded on Dazen. "Have you told her nothing?"
"Calm down." Dazen shoved him away with his shoulder. "We filled her in on the important stuff."
Rhia fidgeted with one of her earrings. "You didn't have rankings at your old enclave? I thought you said you were the top fighter?"
"I was," Ciena said. "I mean, we did. We fought in battleclans—groups of ten—and they ranked us as a team."
"See? It's like that, only they rank us individually here. Master Trelidor’s been looking for a new apprentice, so this is the best way to get noticed. Aside from the Justicar Trials."
“But there’s more to it than that,” Faidon said. “Higher ranked Ethermancers have their choice of everything. Instructors, clothes, weapons, jobs around the enclave…"
Ciena nodded, glancing between Rhia and Dazen. "So what are you two ranked, then?"
"Ninth," Rhia said.
Faidon put a hand on Dazen's shoulder. "And my cousin here is number sixteen. He'll tell you it's because he doesn't care."
Dazen gave him another shove. "Why should I obsess over a number? In case you haven't noticed, I have a dragon."
Hard to argue with that. Still, a ranking was far more than a mere number. Ciena was born for competition, and she itched to prove herself to Alexel and the others. Someone had to be first, after all.
"When do I get a rank?" she asked them.
“As soon as you duel someone,” Faidon put in from across the table. “We also have a free-for-all twice a week. Every Paladal and Vauldal afternoon. You'll get assigned a number based on how many kills you score and how long you last."
He threw out the word “kill” with such nonchalance that it must've been figurative. Most likely, they fought with poisoned blades or something similar.
Dazen rubbed at his temple, looking like he could fall asleep. "Would you like an in-depth explanation of the ranking algorithm now? Because my cousin is about to give you one."
"Shut up," Faidon said. "I was not."
Ciena forced out a half smile. "Leave the calculating to the mathematicians. Leave the killing to us."
"Blessed Aegon," Dazen raised his hands to the sky. "I knew I liked this one."
"So where does this free-for-all happen?" Ciena sat up straighter and looked around. She'd seen a few small arenas for duels, but nothing big enough for a large group.
"You're adorable," Rhia said with a laugh. "We don't fight here. We fight in the Ethereal."
"The Ethereal?" Getting two people together in the Ethereal was hard enough, and it took months to form a bond between them. "How?"
Faidon held out his right hand, pointing to his ring. "Every Ethermancer in the enclave has one of these, and they're all cut from the same shard of Ethereum. Master Trelidor uses these to bring us there."
Ciena froze as the realization set in. She'd seen Ethereum used this way before. Nahlia Cole had used her necklace to communicate with Thane Solidor, and Solidor had turned it into a weapon against Headmaster Elveron.
Her eyes fell to the ring on her own finger, then her gaze wandered around the pavilion.
It was true. Everywhere she looked, people wore rings identical to hers. Not just Rhia, Dazen, and Faidon, but people at other tables as well. This gave Alexel Trelidor the power to summon them into the Ethereal whenever he wanted. Regardless of whether they were awake or sleeping. Regardless of where they were in the world.
What's more, Ethereum was almost priceless. With just one of these rings, you could buy the service of a thousand mercenaries. You could buy a small fleet of ships, or feed a city the size of Dresten for an entire year.
How many rings did Alexel give to his followers? Forty? Fifty? More wealth than most nations saw in a lifetime, much less a single man.
She'd known Alexel was powerful from their first meeting, but she hadn't understood the extent of that power until now.