“Whew.” Caera dipped her head before walking in through the entrance of the straw hut. “This storm is getting stronger by the day.”

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Even as she spoke, the noise of the wind rushing through the craggy mountains protecting the Shadow Claw village drowned out almost all other sounds, including her voice. However, even with the doors open and the hut exposed to the cold air, the wind itself was barely a breeze by the time it reached the secluded village.

“It seems like you’re enjoying yourself out there,” I said, almost jealous.

Caera had grabbed a woven towel from a table near the entrance and began wiping away the sweat that ran down her neck and arms. “We’re stuck here. If I ever hope to catch up to you, I have to do my best to train as well.”

I raised a brow. “Is that what that was? All I saw was you chasing after the little kittens.”

The Alacryan noble frowned. “Says the one that’s had his behind firmly pasted to the ground these past three days.”

“I’m not just sitting around,” I corrected. “I’m learning how to filter—ouch!”

Rubbing my head, I picked up the wooden spoon that had been thrown at me from the other side of the woven home.

Three Steps, who had been quietly stirring a stone pot, let out a sharp mewl before pointing to her feline eyes with her paw.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I was just replenishing my aether a bit,” I grumbled, knowing that she couldn’t understand me. Caera let out a chuckle.


I let my gaze unfocus and put both Caera and Three Steps out of my mind before igniting God Step once again. The rune on my lower back grew warm as aether surged out from my core. I couldn’t help but grow annoyed, and slightly worried, by the shadowy presence clinging tightly around my aether core.

Regis. It’s been three days now. Either answer me or stop hogging all of my aether.

After waiting for a response for several more minutes, I gave up. Something had happened to Regis after arriving in the Shadow Claws’ village. He had been taking a nap—meditating—when all of a sudden his eyes bolted open and he shot into my body, refusing to come out.

Since then, he’d been absorbing an unusual amount of aether, and I could feel his presence shifting back and forth from my core to my godrunes.

At least with Regis eating up so much of my aether reserves, it’s allowing me more breaks in between training sessions with Three Steps, I thought somewhat grumpily.

The past few days had been exhausting in a way that I never thought was possible with my asuran physique. After Three Steps had agreed to mentor me in the aether arts of her own kind, she started off by sharing her memories of her own tutoring by a younger Sleeps-in-Snow. They had often discussed the Shadow Claws’ aetheric abilities at length and in great detail, providing a very solid base for my own learning process.

Through it, I had learned that Shadow Claws are born with the ability to see the aetheric passages that allowed one to travel across space instantly. However, for newborns, this ability was actually a curse. With so much information bombarding their undeveloped brains, some of the weaker-willed infants actually died.

It was up to the parents and mentors to properly guide their newborns, to help them learn to first shut off their “mind’s eye” until they were old enough to start learning how to shadow step, which was their term for the aetheric teleportation technique they used.

Most of the memories I’d been shown guided me through how the Shadow Claws honed their shadow step ability. Three Steps didn’t understand my godrune any more than I could fathom how she manipulated aether without runes, spellforms, or an aether core, but by learning the way they learned, I hoped to grow stronger—and quicker—in my use of God Step.

Apparently, I wasn’t even at the level of a two-year-old Shadow Claw cub, because that was the age that they started learning how to filter out the countless paths of aetheric streams.

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Seeing it firsthand through the eyes of Three Steps as she filtered out the paths was both fascinating and humbling. There were only a dozen or so around her, which she always kept track of in order to be ready to shadow step at a moment’s notice,

With over two lifetimes of experiences in different worlds, I considered myself fairly intelligent and sharp. However, compared to how the Shadow Claws constantly focused and kept track of the aetheric paths, even predicting how those paths would move based on their own movements was mind-boggling.

My gaze remained focused on the boulder in the center of the pond just outside of Three Steps’ home. Hundreds of branching paths of violet intersected in the space around me, and while I had found the aetheric path leading to the boulder a long time ago, I had no intention of using God Step.

I continued to take in my surroundings through my unfocused eyes, trying to filter out more and more of the aetheric paths that drowned my vision. It was like trying to flex a specific set of muscles somewhere between my eyes and brain in a subtle, yet precise, order.

During these last few days of Three Steps showing me countless memories in hopes of expediting my training, I had learned how to contract my vision in order to filter out the aetheric routes that went past my chosen destination. Three Steps had been particularly excited about this breakthrough even though I wasn’t quite as satisfied.

I trained God Step constantly, even while Three Steps and Caera slept, stopping only when I needed to replenish my aether reserves. I knew that my time here was limited, so it was crucial that I make the most of it.

It was only when Caera appeared again in the corner of my eye that I realized I had gone through another night training my focus on the aetheric pathways.

“How is your progress, Grey?” Caera asked, taking a seat on the ground beside me. She was dressed in a tight sleeveless shirt, giving her a much more casual appearance than I had grown used to. If it wasn’t for the gleaming pair of horns circling her head like a dark crown…

I performed the mental equivalent of biting my tongue, not allowing myself to finish the thought before answering the Alacryan noble. “It’s going well. The fact that I barely need sleep certainly helps.”

Caera hugged her legs and shivered from the cold. “You know, I used to really envy that particular ability. Perhaps even more so than your ridiculous regeneration ability.”


I raised a brow. “Oh?”

“I kept thinking to myself how much stronger I would be if I only needed a few hours of sleep a week in order to stay completely healthy, how much I could get done, and how useful it’d be both in and out of the Relictombs.” Caera rested her chin on her knees, her gaze far away. “But after being with you for this long, I’ve realized that it’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing.”

“Why do you say that?”

The Alacryan noble turned her head to me with a solemn smile. “You always look lonely or in pain during the night. It’s why you’re always training, right?”

I stared at Caera, not knowing how to respond. My mind flitted to all of the times when memories of my family and friends in Dicathen ate at me, even when I was awake. But it was worse at night.

“It’s not like that,” I lied. “There are things I have to do, and if I want to even hope to succeed, then I need to utilize every advantage I have.”

“With how strong you are already, it sounds like you’re preparing yourself to fight the gods themselves,” Caera said with a thin laugh.

Before I could answer, a stern mewl drew our attention behind us. Three Steps, who must have slept and awoken again while I was lost in training, was motioning for me to follow her before walking out the door.

“Will you be okay by yourself?” I asked Caera, who was still sitting by the entrance.

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“You’re not the only one that has training to do,” she said with a grin.


I smiled back this time, admiring her mental fortitude. She had been stuck with me in zones far more difficult and deadly than she had ventured through before. Yet, despite almost starving to death, nearly dying several times, and almost freezing to death on multiple occasions, she was still able to stay positive.

Following after Three Steps, we made our way toward the rear end of the village, away from the curious gazes of the Shadow Claw villagers.

Much of the storm had subsided overnight, allowing some of the Shadow Claws to go back out of the village. While it was still hard for me to tell the Shadow Claws apart from one another, one of them did stick out to me. It was Left Tooth.

Three Steps let out a hiss beside me before taking a seat on the snow, drawing my attention back to her. My mentor’s sharp feline eyes looked at me seriously while she began speaking in her language. I watched her face carefully. Her eyes were darting from my face to my chest, and her feline mouth was turned down in a slight frown as she spoke, her whiskers twitching.

I couldn’t understand a single word she had said, but I didn’t need to. Three Steps held out her paws, and, as we had done so many times now, I completed the connection.

As I expected, the memory she shared with me was the exact scene of her talking to me just moments ago, except it was from her point of view and I could understand what she was saying to me, even as I looked at my own self through her eyes, staring back in obvious confusion.

“I have shown you enough of our ways to be comfortable asking for something in return. I would like to know more about your unique abilities, passed down from the Creators, even if it is not something I can learn myself,” she said before my vision shifted to a memory she had shared with me previously in which she and Sleeps-in-Snow conversed about their purpose.

The vision faded as my host pulled her hands back from mine. She waited, her eyes unblinking, until I nodded and held out my hands to her.


Three Steps looked at me once more, but her expression had changed. No longer did she look at me as if I were a child trying to learn the very basics of shadow step. She regarded me with respect, perhaps even a hint of wonder, remaining dazed even after several minutes had passed since our hands disconnected.


Reliving the memories hadn’t been easy for me, either. This was the first time I had shared the memory of my arrival in the Relictombs after losing the battle against Nico and Cadell. Three Steps had just witnessed my entire journey through my eyes, from the giant chimeras and aetheric millipede, all the way to the titan. She had felt my darkness and pain and sense of loss as I struggled to keep fighting, and she had witnessed the evolution of my aetheric abilities with nothing short of awe.

I held back a deep, weary sigh, not wanting to give Three Steps the wrong impression.

I had found the Shadow Claws’ method of communication to be long and tiresome, but it was now that I realized how much more effectively you could express your meaning through the sharing of memories.

Three Steps knew more about me, about my journey, than Alaric or even Caera, who had been by my side throughout this ascent. Being so open was honestly somewhat scary, but at the same time, seeing Three Steps’ expression of empathy and sadness…it was as if a large weight had been taken from my shoulders.

As if sensing my emotions, Three Steps patted me on the shoulder before motioning for me to follow her once more. This time, with most of the storm having passed, the Shadow Claw led me out of the protective confines of the village and to the base of a jagged mountain nearby.

Once again, my host held out her paw while shooting me a playful grin. Curious, I touched her hand with mine and felt my mind slipping into hers.

In it, a young Three Steps—though she wasn’t yet called that—and two other Shadow Claws, Tumble Down and Spear Rider, were training in the same jagged mountain just above their village. It was a sort of competition, where they each teleported as far as they could across the deep folds of the mountain, and whoever made it the farthest from the starting point won the round.

It was Spear Rider’s turn to go first. As I watched the strong-jawed, dark-spotted Shadow Claw chart the course of his shadow steps, I found myself considering his bravery, and the awkward thought that he would make a fine mate to raise a kitten with some day passed through my mind.

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Though I knew this was part of the memory, it was still an extremely strange thing to find myself thinking.

Outside of the memory, Three Steps pressed harder against my hand, perhaps sensing my distraction. I refocused as Spear Rider, having chosen his course, made two quick shadow steps, bringing him to a shallow ledge of rock about halfway up the next ridge over from our starting point.


It was a fair effort, but there was another path using a boulder just past the column of stone he had used as his own middle step that would take me farther.

Tumble Down must have had the same thought, because he chose the boulder to step to. Unfortunately for him, it was loose. The stone shifted under his feet, forcing him to shadow step to safety. He howled in frustration from a shallow bowl in the mountainside nearly fifty feet below Spear Rider.

Glad that Tumble Down went first and showed me the loose stone, I scouted the mountainside again, looking for a safer path that would take me farther than Spear Rider, but couldn’t find one.

“What are you waiting for, Soft Heart?” Tumble Down yelled. “The mountains to move closer together before you take your steps?”

Spear Rider laughed at our friend’s teasing. “Perhaps she will wait until the next storm and let the wind carry her to the mountain’s peak!”

“If you don’t hurry, Soft Heart, your name will become Slow-as-Stone!”

“And yours will be Dumb-as-Rock, Tumble Down!” I threw back, eliciting another howl of laughter from Spear Rider.

Making up my mind, I set my feet and prepared to catch myself on the loose boulder. If I waited for it to settle, and it did not break loose entirely, I could make it to a shelf of stone twenty feet beyond where Tumble Down stood.

Taking my eyes away from the stone and snow of the mountainside, I focused on the shadow paths, the purple lightning-fork cracks that would lead me to the boulder, and then the high shelf.

Though the memory flowed at the speed of perception where I could experience Three Steps’ thoughts as she was formulating them, the actual act of her looking into the aether and teleporting was nearly instant.

Even after days of nonstop training, my own view of the branching aetheric paths was still immensely more complex and burdensome than her own. It was yet another reminder of how far I had to go if I wanted to utilize the full potential of my aether art.


In the memory, my surroundings flashed as I took a shadow step from the high ridge to the small boulder. My body tensed, expecting the boulder to shift, which it did. My plan was to let it settle, then step to the shelf.

Beneath the wide pads of my feet, the boulder turned—and kept turning. In a second, it was sliding away from the mountainside, and suddenly I was riding the unsupported boulder as it plummeted down into the ravine.

Rising panic had made me too slow to make my second shadow step, and when I finally did, I was already falling. Looking up, the first thing I saw was the column of standing stone that Spear Rider had used to step to. Following the purple pathways to the peak, I took my second step.

I misjudged it badly, appearing on the side, not the top, of the column. My aetheric claws scratched at the smooth stone, scoring deep lines into it, but failing to catch hold of anything as I slid downwards, at risk of falling nearly a hundred feet to the bottom of the ravine and my death.

A stray, dislodged thought floated through the back of my panicked mind: Why had the Creators given the Shadow Claws the power to see the aetheric paths and step through them, but only allowed us to do it twice in a row?

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It was with some bitterness that I—or Three Steps, it grew difficult to tell our thoughts apart during longer memories—thought that if only they’d given us the ability to shadow step three times in a row that I wouldn’t be about to die.

The sudden shift in gravity jerked the thought away, and I watched with horror as the branching paths, still there but unreachable, jumped and twitched, showing me a path to safety I couldn’t take.

As Arthur watching the memory, I was fascinated by the way Three Steps was able to keep near-automatically adjusting the path that would take her to safety. More than that however, it was the first time I realized that, while the Shadow Claws were able to visualize the aetheric paths, they weren’t necessarily seeing it through strictly their eyes.


Through Three Steps’ memories I could sense the aetheric paths all around me even as I was falling. I’d thought of them often as vibrations, but it took the combination of Three Steps’ senses and my own to realize that there were other ways to see them than with my eyes.

There was a music to them, a beckoning, quivering eagerness, almost as if the aether wanted to help, to show me the way out. Almost without thinking, I reached out my paw and followed.

The pain was so intense at first that I wasn’t sure if I had shadow stepped or if I had crashed into the ground and was taking my last breaths before my inevitable death. A purple fog obscured my vision, but something cold and hard was pressed against my body, flattening my fur.

There was shouting in the distance…then the shouting was right next to me, and strong paws turned me over.

The purple fog faded. Spear Rider and Tumble Down were both standing over me, their eyes wide, their whiskers quivering as they waited to see if I was alive or dead.

My heart was thumping so hard I thought it might burst. Meanwhile, there was a terrible ache gripping at every inch of my body, and a severe case of backlash was overtaking me.

Still, I was alive.

As Arthur, I felt myself grinning as my mind slipped back into my own body. Three Steps was giving me a toothy smirk as well, obviously proud of the memory she had just shared with me.

“So this was your secret,” I said, my body twitching in excitement.

As if understanding my words, Three Steps held a furry finger over her mouth.

I nodded in agreement as I thought through parts of the memory Three Steps had just shown me. It was obvious that she had been holding onto this memory until she felt I was truly keeping my end of the bargain, because through it I learned something crucial—more than that, I was able to experience it firsthand.

As I ignited God Step, I let my gaze unfocus, but this time, I went a step beyond. Instead of concentrating so hard on limiting the aetheric paths through my eyes, I expanded my focus toward my other senses. While I couldn’t smell, hear, or taste the aether in any capacity, I was able to expand my intent toward the aether paths around me.

Every aetheric stream, while intertwined with or branching from one another, had a beginning and an end. And these streams acted as highways that I could travel through. However, with my intent fully connected to the aetheric paths, I didn’t try to read these intricate and complicated routes.

Instead, I let the aether feed the information I needed to me.

Going a step beyond Three Steps, whose feline body was already adept at sensing the aether paths, I shrouded myself in a thin layer of aether and let my body be an anchor for the aetheric paths to send information to.

This was where Three Steps’ training to focus on only the most immediate routes and limit the distance at which I perceived them was crucial. With so much information being fed to me from the aetheric pathways, I was only able to properly make out those that would teleport me just two feet away. If I tried to expand my focus out beyond that radius, it felt like hot rods were being shoved into my brain.

Taking a deep breath, I withdrew God Step and, in my excitement, I couldn’t help but give my mentor a hug.

It was only a small step forward, but I knew now how to improve. For the first time, I could see myself not only catching up to Three Steps, but, with my aether core, surpassing her.

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