Just trust me.

Rinias words echoed in my mind as Taci and I collided with the portal. It bulged out and away from us like the surface of a bubble, fighting back against the asura, refusing to allow him entry.

Anger burned through the fear I shouldve felt facing an asura. The only thing keeping it in check was the presence of my friends and family. Even within the cloud of raging emotions, I knew Rinia was right. It would be impossible to defeat Taci while keeping everyone around me safe.

The portals surface warped to wrap around us, rippling dangerously. I could sense the aether struggling to maintain its form as we pressed against it, simultaneously attempting to accept me and reject Taci.

Its going to break. I hesitated, my mind racing for another solution. Regis, we—

The world fractured.

Purple shards of portal-stuff sprayed across an empty-nothing limitless expanse of aetheric twilight, refracting the everywhere-from-nowhere light like shattered mirrors.

A hungry omnipresent something devoured each shining shard, disintegrating them back into pure aether, then into nothing at all.

There was a sharp pang of something missing, like Id lost a limb, though I couldn make sense of it.

I was drifting, afloat or maybe falling, but where and in what, I wasn sure.

What had I been doing just now?

I knew I was angry. Or that I had been angry. Now I was just…out of place.

No, not hungry, I considered, my derailed train of thought leaping back to the something in which I was drifting. Just there, but what…

I squinted, peering through the hazy amethyst light at a ghostly shadow below me. Drifting in the twilight purple sea was a rolling landscape of dunes, their shape discernible. Familiar.

Instinctively, my head tilted forward as I tried to fly toward the dunes, but there was no sense of movement, and the familiar-but-not landscape didn come any closer.

”W-where are we? ” a strained voice said from somewhere above and behind me.

Turning without thinking, my body started to spin, bringing the figure of a bald young man into my vision.

My memories collided with my current dazed state of mind like two icebergs crashing together in an open sea.

The elation I had felt at finally finding a portal that was already linked to Dicathen, waiting at the bottom of a ravine under a dune-filled zone, washed over me, as did the fury and terror of activating the portal only to watch a spear plunge through my little sister…

Zone after zone had come and gone as I searched, focusing on Dicathen each time I used the Compass, finding nothing but dead portals that were no longer connected anywhere waiting at the end of each one.

But I knew there had to be at least one Relictombs portal in Dicathen somewhere. I just didn understand how to even look without a memory map like the ones Sylvia had left for me.

My head splintered in pain as the memories came together in a muddled, half-senseless mess.

Alaric had helped with the preparations. Acquired the portal rune key. Bought or stole a collection of items I wanted in case I couldn return to Alacrya.

When I learned of the Victoriad, I knew attending could mean exposing my real identity, which would mean going into hiding. There was only one place to go: back to Dicathen. Home. To my family. Finally.

And I had made it. I had made it only seconds too late…

I had fought Taci, heard Rinias voice in my head…

Just trust me, her voice sounded again, bringing my spiraling thoughts full circle.

I searched the pink-stained shadow of the dunes, my attention sticking on it, confusion entangling me like a giant spiders web. This was the last zone Id gone through before arriving in Dicathen. A huge canyon split the ground. The remnants of the zones guardian, a hydra made of living glass and liquid fire, still lay shattered next to it.

The Relictombs were somehow programmed to prevent asuras from entering, but this aether realm was separate—more, maybe—than the Relictombs themselves, which seemed only contained within the greater expanse.

We must have bounced off the Relictombs and ended up in this between-space.

As I stared down on the dim landscape, a gust of wind kicked up the sand, whipping across the dunes with impossible speed and wiping them away. When the windstorm faded, the zone seemed to…reset. Back exactly to the way Id found it. I could see the hydras form writhing just below the canyons edge, lying in wait for the next ascender to challenge it.

What is—

The cutting pain, the sense of something missing, came back, drawing my attention to a void within myself.

Regis! I shouted mentally, searching for my companions mind. He was nowhere to be felt.

Our connection had been severed.

I followed this thread back to those moments—a few seconds—Id stayed in Dicathen. Regis was still there, I had sent him into Ellie to…I didn know what. Help. Somehow. I saw again her thin frame lying on cold stone, bleeding out, my mother—her hands had been so red—struggling to heal her.

Id needed to hold back my anger. Losing control risked killing everyone there, including Ellie and Mom. All the rage Id felt in that moment rushed back into me as the shock wore off.

I wouldn have to hold back here.

Before I had even fully formed the thought, aether coalesced into a sword in my right hand.

Gnashing my teeth, my entire body going tense, I leaned toward Taci. But I didn move.

The bewildered frown on Tacis face had slowly morphed into a furious grimace that mirrored my own. ”Where are we, Leywin? What did you do! ”

Then he was on me, his crimson spear—stained yet redder with the blood of my friends and family—knocking aside my weapon and driving through my shoulder. I grabbed the spears shaft with my free hand and used it as leverage to kick Taci in the chest, sending him spinning away.

His spear ripped free of the wound, leaving a bloody gash just below my collarbone. Blood drifted out in little globules, and despite the danger Taci posed, I couldn help but watch them float through the aetheric nothing-space.

The red was quickly infused with purple as particles of aether clung to them. The sharp pain in my shoulder lessened, and I realized aether was flowing into the wound from the atmosphere, not out from my core. The wound was healed in an instant.

Drawing on the atmosphere for the first time since appearing here, aether rushed into my core. The atmosphere wasn just thick with aether—it was aether. All of it. Everything. That devouring presence I had sensed was an endless ocean of aether eager to reabsorb the tiny fraction of it that had been shaped into the Relictombs portal.

Taci was watching me warily, his eyes focused on my shoulder where the wound had vanished. ”What have you become, Arthur Leywin? ”

Letting out a scoff, I called on the relic armor. Waves of obsidian scales coalesced around my body, practically quivering against my skin as it reacted to the ocean of pure aether.

My left hand thrust forward, palm outward, and a cone of blazing violet energy scorched the space between us. Taci flew backwards, hacking at the aether with his spear, but the blast followed him, writhing like a snake as it grew and grew, a living torrent of aether eager to devour him whole.

With no ground to shove off of, he could fly but couldn use the Mirage Walk technique to reposition. Still, his mobility far outstripped my own, which seemed limited to spinning in place as I very slowly drifted away from where wed appeared. If I had any hope against him, I needed to figure out how to move.

Dismissing the aether blade—but still concentrating on the coiling stream of aether flooding from my hand—I mentally felt around me. Flying would be optimal, but even if I just had something to stand on…

My feet came to rest against something solid. Caught off guard, I lost focus on the aetheric torrent as I looked down at a small platform of purple-gray, slightly luminous energy. It was perfectly smooth and radiated a gentle warmth.

This is aether…

My head snapped up at a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. The amethyst sword hummed to life in my grip just in time to deflect a sweeping cut aimed at my neck. Taci used his momentum to slam into me, hurtling me off the platform toward the dunes below. I spun out of control, flying wildly through empty space, but was quickly jarred to a stop as my back struck a solid, vibrating surface.

Taci was on top of me, his spear leaping and thrusting so fast it was nothing but a red blur. Each strike was a near-instant burst of movement, as Mirage Walk sped not only his movement, but his attacks as well.

Getting my feet under me, I matched the asura move for move. We fell into the patterns taught to us long ago by Kordri, but it quickly became clear that Tacis training had gone far beyond my own, his every strike countering mine with brutal efficiency. If not for my asuran physique, he would have outpaced me in moments.

Taci vanished. I let my senses unfocus, searching for the aetheric pathways with the God Step rune, but…there were no paths here.

Something hit me like a battering ram between my shoulder blades, the relic armor only just withstanding the blow, and I was knocked forward. Taci appeared in front of me, and the long, winged blade of his spear plunged through my armor just above my stomach, the black scales bending and shearing apart.

I felt it as the spear impacted off the twice-hardened shell of my aether core. A sickening ripple went through me, every atom of my being recoiling in horror. I jolted painfully when the spears point wracked against the armor over my back, lacking the force to puncture completely through.

Panic rising like bile in my throat, I turned my senses inward, focusing on my core.

It was intact.

Despite the pain of my wound, the fear drained from me, replaced with a cold fury as I slashed at his throat with the blade of my hand.

The spear disintegrated as Taci moved to catch my arm. I twisted, breaking his hold, then snapped a jab into his chin, letting off an aetheric blast directly into his face. His arm coiled around mine as he reeled back, using the momentum to pull me up off the ground, spin, and send me flying.

Through the pain haze, I realized where we were; wed been fighting on the side of some kind of barrier encasing the dune zone. It was a rough, transparent shell that separated the zone from the aetheric expanse. In the half-second I had to consider this, my mind rebelled against the idea. The dunes had seemed endless from within the zone, with no walls or ceiling, and yet…

Taci landed on my back, smashing me into the shell. I felt the aether pushed aside as he raised his spear, heard the creak of his teeth and jaw as he snarled down at me, poised to drive the weapon through my skull.

Aether was rushing into me. My core was brimming with it, the wound in my chest already healed.

I shoved away from the ”ground ” as hard as I could while conjuring the aether blade in a reverse grip, sweeping it behind me.

The spear glanced off the armor around my neck, and Taci howled in agony.

I spun, the aether blade automatically shifting to a forward grip as I brought it up defensively, but Taci was fifty feet away, one hand pressed against a bloody wound in his side, half his face scorched a dark, sooty gray. His chest was rising and falling rapidly, his breath hissing between gritted teeth, eyes bulging.

I stretched my neck as aether healed the bruise Tacis blow had momentarily caused. ”First time youve had to bleed for Lord Indraths ambitions? ”

With an angry shout, Taci reared back and hurled his spear at me. It streaked like red lightning out of the purple sky. I took one shallow step, letting it cut through the air less than an inch from my face.

It struck the zones shell like a hammer striking a gong, sinking into it. A series of cracks raced out from the impact, and purple motes began to leak out and vanish into the atmosphere.

Instinctively, I took the spear in my hands and jerked it free of the shell. The shaft bowed in my grip as I flexed, intending to break it in two, but it was heavily reinforced with mana. The next second, I was holding nothing. The spear had dematerialized and reappeared in Tacis hand.

A thick stream of aether particles was now leaking out of the hole it had left in the shell at my feet.

Spear in hand, Taci flew farther away, only coming to a stop when there was a hundred feet or more between us. ”Whatever half-breed mongrel beast youve made of yourself, Arthur Leywin, know that it is my honor to unmake you, ” he shouted through the void.

Then he began to transform.

Broad, black horns burst through the skin above his ears, growing out and forward until they crossed over one another in front of his eyes, then melding together into a flat plate that masked the upper half of his face. Two additional pairs of arms pushed out of his sides, ripping off his shirt and stretching inhumanly. His tanned skin hardened and feathered outward into golden scales that shone dully in the defused purple light. The wound just above his hip closed, the skin melting back together as scales grew over it.

Finally, four eyes, two on each side of his head, opened, their brilliantly white irises seeming to stare outward in every direction. ”See what a pantheon—what I—am truly capable of, lesser. ”

Held in four hands, the red spear swept from the side as air hissed like pistons from between the scales that lined his arms. I felt the distortion in the aether as the attack was projected, and dark aetheric sparks flew from the zones shell.

Activating Burst Step, I dodged just under the force attack. Behind me, there was a series of sharp, sudden cracks, and the gash in the shell began to cave inward, the barrier itself shattering like an eggshell.

A small aether platform appeared beneath my foot, and I charged my body with aether before pushing off it with Burst Step again, aiming for Taci. But he moved just as fast. Deflecting the strike at his heart with one hand, the asura grabbed my wrist with another and caught the full force of my momentum with his knee into my stomach.

My armor flexed, and the ribs beneath it cracked. I started flying backwards, but Taci still had my wrist. He jerked me to a halt, rearing back with his spear.

Using him as an anchor, I spun around and planted my feet against his chest, then pushed outward, again activating Burst Step.

His grip broke, but my leg screamed in pain at the thigh as his spear punched through my armor and cracked my femur. At the end of Burst Step, I was left floating in the void, spinning around and shedding a thick trail of blood from my shredded leg.

It hurt like hell, but aether was already flooding to the wound, pulling the flesh back together, the armor sealing over it just as quickly. As I spun, I caught sight of Taci struggling to regain control of his flight, as hed been catapulted away from me by the force of Burst Step.

Then my rotation brought the dune zone back into my eyeline.

Aether was spilling out of a thousand cracks across the surface of its shell, a significant part of which had collapsed. The dunes within were dissolving, solid matter breaking apart into aether particles before being blasted out into the void.

My skin was suddenly damp with a cold sweat as I watched the violet plumes be reabsorbed into the atmosphere. I sucked in a surprised, delighted breath, my heart beating like a drum at the realization.

Sylvies stone…

I nearly reached for it before the reality of my situation came crashing down on me—an instant before Taci himself did the same.

Our limbs intertwined as we hurtled like a meteor toward the collapsing zone below, four hands struggling to grapple me while the other two slammed the spear into my ribs. The wide-tipped blade slid over black scales with a metallic shriek.

I summoned the aether blade

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