After a whole night of hardcore sex, spending the day on horseback was the last thing Noah, Valia, and Elisandra wanted. Still, if they didn’t make it back to Sylphtoria before nightfall, the elves would assume the worst and send an army to find the queen, so they had to tough it out.
Before leaving, they took their time in the purification pool to cleanse their bodies, clothes, and the blanket. They didn’t want the sharp-nosed elves wondering why the trio smelled suspiciously like cum. Sitting in the pool, washing herself with a cloth, Elisandra was a bit depressed. She wanted to enjoy wearing Noah’s scent a bit longer, but it was time to return to her role as queen.
They arrived at Sylphtoria late in the afternoon, with every elf gathering to bid their beloved ruler welcome. Aithorn and Lour stood at the head of Elisandra’s guards, and they all got down on one knee as she approached.
“Welcome back, Your Majesty. We hope your communion with the spirits has been rewarding,” said Aithorn.
“Very rewarding, Leuca. We know where Valon is hiding, but that is not a conversation to be had now. My companions and I are famished and exhausted.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. Allow us to escort you back to the palace.”
Before departing, she turned to Noah and Valia. “Lord Noah, Lady Valia, your company on this trip made all the difference in the world. I sincerely thank you.”
Noah bowed and kissed her hand. “The pleasure was ours.”
She flashed them a smile with a hidden message only they could read. If not for their shared fatigue, she’d pull them both up to her room for another night of nonstop sensuality. They returned the smile and then separated. As the queen returned to the palace, Noah and Valia stretched, glad to be off their horses.
“Now that we’re back, I’m sure you remember that I have to punish you,” said Valia.
“Are you still going on about that? You had just as much fun as I did, and you know it.”
Valia ignored him and started walking. “I want you to cook me a big dinner, a very big dinner. And you know what? Enough fruits and vegetables. I’m in the mood for some meat.”
Noah sighed with a smile and followed her. “Yes, dear.”
“Kisara Island, the site of a great elven city, and an even greater tragedy for the elven race,” said Elisandra, pointing to a map of the coastal waters near the Anorvan Forest. Noah, Valia, Aithorn, and Lour were standing with her in the palace, gathered around a table covered with books and scrolls.
“What happened there?” Noah asked.
“We don’t know for sure,” said Elisandra, “as all the former inhabitants died, and what info we do have comes from scouts who went to investigate, with few making it back alive. What we do know is this: centuries ago, this was a thriving metropolis, an image of the splendor of the elves, until an earthquake struck and reshaped the undersea landscape and ocean currents.
Though the inhabitants survived and managed to rebuild, they were cut them off from the outside world. Jutting rocks and savage waters smashed all ships trying to get in or out. Only those with the greatest magic were able to traverse the churning sea and return to the mainland, just a fraction of those who tried desperately to escape.
After that, monsters took over the island. These were not the typical animals you are used to seeing, like wolves and bears, nor were they native to the island. Instead, these were great hulking behemoths, the kind that swallow adventurers whole without even needing to chew. The elves were wiped out, their lives taken either by the monsters or the sea.”
“So the monster-spawning circles changed. I know this can happen in response to shifts in the climate and ecosystem, but I’ve never heard of such a drastic occurrence before.”
In this world, plants and animals not born through traditional biological reproduction were produced through magic, as though rolling off an assembly line. Though the specimens created seemed mainly identical to each other, there appeared to be some hidden mechanism that continuously altered their DNA, just enough to ensure genetic diversity. This prevented species—and the profession of hunting them—from dying out. Noah had been studying the magic used for these circles and had yet to determine if they were manmade or a natural function of the world. He could mimic it with his magic, but didn’t fully understand how it worked.
“The sea currents later shifted again, allowing for travel to and from the island, but it was too late, the population had been wiped out,” said Aithorn. “Ever since then, Kisara Island has been regarded as a place of death. Adventurers, the bravest and most foolish, have tried landing there in search of elvish relics and treasures, but the island eats them alive.”
“Valon must truly have lost his mind to be holed up there,” Lour said.
“It does have its merits,” said Noah. “No one would dare look for him. He already has Uther on his tail, and he’s made enemies of Sylphtoria, and probably several other countries as well. For all we know, he’s acquired a relic that wards off monsters. In which case, Kisara Island is the perfect hideout for the most wanted man in the world.”
“Your Majesty, did the spirits confirm if he was even still alive?” Lour asked.
“They couldn’t have found him if he wasn’t. We’re just lucky he’s set up his base in elven territory.”
“We know he’s alive and we know where he is. We’ll take the time we need to prepare, but otherwise, all the other details are irrelevant,” said Valia, her voice hollowed by determination.
“I agree,” said Noah. “The only way we’re going to see Valon is to go to where he is. It’s not a matter of choice, simply a fact. Give me a day to get ready, and let’s form a team to go ashore and set off with as many weapons, tools, and supplies as we can carry.”
Lour pointed to a coastal town on the edge of the Anorvan Forest. “You can ride here, to Pulindar, and get a ship that will take you to Kisara Island.”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” said Aithorn, unable to meet her gaze, “I think it would be best if Lord Noah were the lead this team, rather than myself.”
Elisandra gave a soft sigh. “I understand, Leuca. Noah, do you have any objections?”
“None, Your Majesty.”
“Good, then let’s begin planning.”
A party was assembled, consisting of Noah, Valia, Aithorn, and a dozen elven soldiers, with the addition of two healers. Picking the right number of recruits was the first challenge. If Kisara Island were as dangerous as the stories claimed, there would be inevitable losses. A small group would lower their chances of success but lessen the blow to Sylphtoria, while a large group would give them more combat strength, but at greater risk to the elven race. But, as Noah and Valia made clear, there was no point in having second thoughts. All they could do was prepare themselves for the conflict ahead.
Noah spent yet another day hunched over a desk, runecrafting and performing alchemy to create everything they would need. At the same time, Valia gathered all the info she could on Kisara Island, scouring ancient legends and tomes. It was still early in the morning when the group assembled on the forest floor, prepping their horses for travel. Elisandra and Lour were there to see them off, the queen’s beauty lessened by the look of fear on her face.
“We will return the stolen relics, Your Majesty, I swear it,” said Aithorn, bowing before her.
Elisandra placed her hand on his shoulder. “Just come back alive, I’ll be happy with that.”
She then approached Noah and Valia. “You as well. Promise you’ll come back to me, both of you.”
“We will, Your Majesty,” Noah replied.
Then, to the shock of everyone, Elisandra wrapped her arms around Noah and gave him a deep, passionate kiss. All the elves stared with their mouths hanging open, unable to process the sight before them. Valia simply rolled her eyes, only to fall prey to the queen’s lips. “Like I said, both of you,” she whispered when she finally pulled away.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Valia stammered. While under the influence, going down on the queen had been second nature to her, but when sober, a simple kiss left her reeling. Of course, the fact that everyone was watching them didn’t help.
Noah felt a hand grip his shoulder like a vice. “What exactly happened between the three of you at the Lunar Temple?” Aithorn asked with a familiar icy tone.
Noah pried his hand off and stepped to the side. “We had a thorough heart-to-heart conversation and came to an understanding. However, the things we discussed are private.”
“That’s enough, Leuca. You wanted Noah to lead this mission, so you will give him the respect he deserves and follow his orders. As for the rest of you, this man saved my life and the lives of countless other elves. If not for him, Sylphtoria would be on the path to ruin. More than that, he is a man who has been recognized by the spirits of nature as one of their own, and earned their favor. To go against him is to turn your back on the spirits. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” they replied begrudgingly.
“Now, shall we get a move on? We’re wasting daylight,” said Noah. Everyone glared as Noah and Valia took their mounts. “Hopefully, we’ll live long enough to make it to the coast,” he muttered to her.
“Oh, they’ll only kill you. I bet they like me more than ever.”
They rode off from Sylphtoria, but as soon as they were beyond the outskirts, all the elves circled Noah. “I’ll ask you again: What happened between you and the queen?” Aithorn growled.
“The same thing that happened between me and the queen, Leuca,” Valia shot back. “Any problem you have with Noah, you have with me as well.”
“If a filthy bastard like you laid his hands on Her Majesty, I’ll—!” one of the elf warriors shouted.
“You’ll do what?” Noah challenged. “Tell me something, what is the queen to all of you?” Noah asked.
“She is the light!”
“The foundation of Sylphtoria!”
“A holy being!”
Their answers were as he expected. “Well to me, she is Elisandra, a woman with hopes, dreams, fears, and desires, a woman who can make her own decisions and seek her own happiness without your approval. She’s not a figurehead meant to look pretty on the throne. If you condemn Valia and I for fulfilling her needs, then you condemn her for having them. I did nothing to seduce to deceive her. It’s a simple fact that she feels affection towards me, and I am fond of her. If you don’t like that, then too bad. You have no say in the matter.”
“You all heard the queen. You owe Noah your lives and your loyalty. If any of you so much as look at the back of his neck a second longer than you need to, I’ll cut you down,” Valia warned.
“When we get back to Sylphtoria, if any of you want to take a swing at me, go right ahead. Until then, you’re just going to have to suck it up. Where we’re going, you aren’t in any position to be turning down help or killing allies. Let’s move out.”
Though Noah could understand the queen’s desire for one last kiss before he and Valia left, her act of affection had done more harm than good. Once more, the elves all looked at him with disdain. He didn’t mind the harsh stares or cold shoulder, but there were plenty of ways to kill him and make it look like an accident, especially once they reached the island.
After three days of riding, they arrived at the port town of Pulindar, on the southern coast of the Anorvan Forest. The sun began to set, casting its light upon towers of gleaming stone and houses of living trees. Noah gazed at the elven architecture with wide eyes and a genuine smile. Word had been sent ahead of them to prepare a vessel for departure, and a white ship sat in the harbor, waiting for them. Like their homes, the elves crafted their vessels by shaping trees with magic. Even the sails were made of a leafy material.
“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”
“What was that?” Valia asked, standing beside Noah.
“Nothing, just something from a famous story.”
They approached the dock and dismounted from their horses, going to meet the elves loading the last of the supplies. “Greetings, Lord Aithorn. I must say, your timing is almost unfair. The tides are just about to reach their peak, but the sun forbids you,” said one man, shaking Aithorn’s hand.
“Thank you, Samil. It’s good to see you. The hour of departure has passed, so we’ll wait until tomorrow.”
The man noticed Noah’s green mantle and rounded ears. “Greetings, My Lord,” he said with some confusion.
“A fine evening to you, sir,” replied Noah.
“This is Lord Noah. He saved the queen from an assassin and averted a plague in Sylphtoria,” said Aithorn.
“I was told that you were sailing towards Kisara Island. That hardly seems a place to send someone Sylphtoria is so indebted to.”
“Thank you for your concern, but the queen and I share the same goal, and that is where it resides. The danger is of no importance, not as long as success remains a possibility.”
Here on the coast, the elves’ worship of both the spirits of nature and the elemental gods was more balanced, and they were not as stringent on vegetarian cuisine. The local church gave Noah’s group shelter for the night, and after days on horseback, they got to sleep in real beds and enjoy hot bowls of delicious fish stew for dinner. It was a luxury they had to savor, as it was unlikely they would all come back alive from Kisara Island.
Noah and Valia were able to share a bed, and, thanks to his noise-canceling device, enjoyed their usual intense intimacy without alerting anyone. Loud sex in a church with their companions so close would cause an understandable amount of ire.
Even after depositing his vitality between Valia’s legs, Noah remained awake, staring at the magic circle for his curse, projected onto the ceiling. The spirits had left an enchantment on his palm that would let him see the circle whenever he wished, and he had spent countless hours scrutinizing it since the night at the Lunar Temple. Yet, after all that time, it remained a mystery. Though he recognized most of the runes, their order left it largely incomprehensible.
“Noah, come on, that’s enough for one night,” Valia mumbled, stretching her arm across his chest.
“Sorry, did the light wake you?”
“Yeah, now close your eyes and go to sleep.”
“I can’t help myself. Do you know how long I’ve wanted this? To finally see the reason for my continued existence? I’ve spent so many restless nights staring at the ceiling just like this, pondering what I am, trying to imagine the answers. I’ve explored every faith, used every form of science, taken every drug imaginable, all to finally have the answers before me, and now… I can’t even read them.”
“All the more reason for you to stop torturing yourself. If you can’t read it, then continuing to stare isn’t going to change anything.”
“If Valon can’t help me make sense of this, then who possibly can?”
“He can and he will, but if you don’t get enough rest, you’ll get yourself killed before we ever reach him. We’re going to spend two days on a boat with nothing to do. Use that time for study, and use this time to sleep.”
“Then I’ll just sleep on the boat.”
Valia cupped his cheek and forced his eyes to meet hers. “Noah, don’t do this to yourself. You have all the time in the world.”
Noah sighed and closed his hand, canceling the projection. “That’s what scares me,” he said as Valia snuggled up against him.
They set sail the next morning, heading southeast. Though the elves in Noah’s group lived within the heart of the forest, they were all old enough to have learned how to operate these vessels. The elven ship sliced through the water like a razorblade, gliding so smoothly that no wave could rock it. The sky was clear, and the smell of the ocean breeze was cleansing. Noah sat at the bow, enjoying the sun with his eyes towards the horizon.
“What is it?” Valia asked, amused by the smile on his face.
“I’m sailing across the wild sea with a dozen elves, about to fight my way through an army of monsters in the ruins of a lost civilization. You have no idea how many people would give their lives to be on this adventure with us.”
On the dawn of the third day, Kisara Island was in view, only for the ship to change course, turning towards the north. Before Noah could ask why, he saw them, sunken wrecks below the crystal waters, impaled on great stone teeth. It was an undersea graveyard with ships made by men and elves. Though the island was now accessible to the outside, their boat couldn’t simply approach from any angle.
“Aithorn, do you know a safe landing point?” Noah asked.
“According to legend, there is a peninsula on the northwestern side, free of rocks,” he replied, manning the rudder. “We have to circle around and aim there. However, it is not simply rocks we have to worry about. The waters surrounding the island are full of predators.”
Noah took out a spyglass Hoapfa made for him after the succubus incident. He peered through and scanned the island. It was mountainous and blanketed with dense jungle, but he could see some signs of the once-great elf city. Stone towers broke free of the vegetation, and there were temples and other buildings that had yet to give way to time. Moreover, he saw great walls rippling from the island's center, likely constructed to try and contain the monster surge, but most had crumbled away.
A jarring impact knocked Noah onto his back, caused by the boat being hammered from the side, with the shadow of some great behemoth visible in the waters. Though Noah fell, the elves retained their balance and stayed upright. Frankly, it would have disappointed him if they had fallen over as easily as he had.
A great pair of jaws broke from the ocean surface, ten feet long, with teeth like daggers, and it snapped ferociously at anyone within reach. The elves wasted no time, drawing their bows and riddling the ocean behemoth’s head with arrows. It retreated below the surface, leaving the ship painted with its blood.
They sailed toward the island's northern tip, only to be attacked once more. This time, massive tentacles reached out and latched onto the ship with spike-lined suction cups that shredded the wood. They were like undulating tree trunks of muscle and rubbery flesh, seizing one of the elves and lifting him into the air as though he was weightless. Despite its strength, it could not withstand a slash from Noah. He severed the appendage, dropping the elf back onto the deck while the others hacked away at the tentacles holding the ship. Like its predecessor, the invertebrate was sent scurrying back into the depths with a trail of blood left in its wake.
“Nice job,” said Valia. “If you hadn’t done that in one slash, I would never have endured the shame as your swordsmanship teacher.”
“Its flesh was so tough, I almost didn’t make it.”
Noah looked around at the other elves. They mainly ignored him throughout this trip, but after saving one of their own, their expressions softened. They continued sailing, soon spotting the peninsula, but that wasn’t all.
“Noah, do you see that over there?” Aithorn asked, pointing to the shore. Noah scanned the sandy beach, spotting a ship run aground.
“An adventurer ship?” Valia pondered.
“It doesn’t look like it’s been there long. Let’s check it out.”
They landed further down the beach, and Noah and the team went over to investigate. As suspected, it had landed recently, and its mooring line was wrapped around a boulder. It was a decent-sized craft, larger than what Noah and the elves had used.
“Ahoy! Is there anyone aboard?” Noah shouted. There was no response, so Noah called out again. The wind then shifted, sending the smell of blood wafting over. He and all the elves rested their hands on their swords and cautiously approached.
Once they reached the craft, one of the elves, Fourn, banged on the hull and then put his ear to the wood. “I don’t hear any movement inside, sir.”
“Saul,” Aithorn said, raising his chin to another elf with dark hair.
Saul nodded and jumped up onto the deck of the ship like a mantis. “I see blood and scratch marks. Someone tried to put up a fight and lost.”
Noah and the other elves came aboard and started looking around. The elves strained their ears to pick up the sound of anything below deck and only entered the darkness with the assurance they were alone. Noah led them, holding a ball of light to illuminate the ship's interior. It was a paladin spell, but like all magic, Noah could only mimic its visual effects.
There were signs of human habitation, but they lay buried under the wreckage caused by some unknown creature. Whatever it was, it had smashed open every crate and barrel that once held food. He could see the marks on the floor from its claws. There were other marks that interested him, something heavy enough to crack the wooden planks and leave scorch marks.
They searched the ship from top to bottom and then moved back up onto the deck. “This blood is at least a day old. I’d say a little under thirty men were on this boat when it arrived, but only four were killed on it,” said Noah.
“Likely a party left behind to guard the ship. That was a very poor mistake,” said Valia.
“The two of you are going to want to see this,” said Aithorn, standing by the steering wheel.
Noah and Valia walked over, with Noah spotting more cracks in the deck with heavy footprints burned into the wood. They reached the steering wheel, where Aithorn examined a handprint on the nearby railing. It wasn’t a print so much as a burn mark. The hand was huge, almost inhumanely so.
“Gradius,” Noah muttered.
“No, that’s impossible. How would he even know to come here?” Valia asked.
“Someone had to have told him Valon was here, maybe that we would be here as well.”
“Are you suspecting someone in the royal court?” asked Aithorn.
“A succubus was able to get all the way into the queen’s bedroom and attack her. There is no telling who else might have infiltrated Sylphtoria. We don’t even know if it was an elf who did it.”
“Hold on a second,” said Valia, “you’re assuming that whoever knows Valon is here learned it the same time we did, but if that were so, there is no way Gradius and his knights could have beaten us here.”
“She’s right. They would have needed a few days’ head start to arrive here, meaning whoever told Gradius about this place knew it before we did.”
“But then that begs the question,” said Noah, “who knows that Valon is here, and why would they send Gradius? Perhaps someone in Colbrand used magic to figure out his location?”
“Regardless, if Gradius gets to Valon before we do, it’ll be trouble,” said Valia.
“Joining forces with his team would boost our chances of survival, and we can prevent him from killing Valon.”
“Trust me, you don’t know Gradius the way we do,” said Aithorn. “He’s a madman, a demon. He’ll turn this entire island to ash to hunt you and Valon down, and he won’t take you alive. Without a royal pardon from the king, he will never stop.”
“I don’t suppose you two would be up to killing him? If not, our only option is to find Valon before he does.”
“Do you either of you have a means of finding him?”
“Valia,” Noah said.
She held out her hand, and a large needle appeared over her palm, conjured from her knight ring. It was etched with runes, with the opposing ends wrapped with strands of silver hair. “My hair is on one end of the needle, and Valon’s is on the other. If I pour my mana into this, the needle will point to us both, at least, according to Noah.”
“The needle tracks your magical and biological signature, which is barely distinguishable between the two of you.” Noah turned back to Aithorn. “I’m not sure of the range, so we’re going to try it here, at the top of that mountain, the ruins of the old palace, and everywhere in between.”
Valia laid the needle on her palm and channeled her mana into it. The end with her hair began to glow and stuck to her skin like she was magnetic, but no matter which direction she turned, the needle lay still on her palm, meaning it wasn’t detecting Valon.
“If it doesn’t work, I have other ideas,” Noah added.
They returned to their own ship and unloaded all of their gear. Most of it was arrows, soon to be needed, for as soon as they set out into the jungle, they were attacked. The carnivorous megafauna had a giant head with snapping jaws like an alligator, but a disproportionately small body reminiscent of a rhino. It charged towards the group, somehow able to lift its humungous skull and run with its stubby legs.
The elves scattered and unleashed a storm of arrows from all sides, but it endured the wounds and aimed for Noah. He jumped behind a fallen tree, thick enough, he hoped, to serve as a valid barricade. The beast grabbed the trunk with its colossal jaws, lifted it into the air, and crushed it like a parchment scroll. While its head was raised, Noah slit its throat with a well-aimed strike. The beast bled out and collapsed, and the elves retrieved their arrows.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to flavor country,” Noah muttered as he collected a piece of its hide.
“Let’s get out of here before the blood attracts something,” said Valia.
No sooner had the words been spoken than they heard a chorus if monstrous squeals. They saw their new opponents circling them, staying behind the trees. It was a pack of wild boars, each one the size of a horse, with tusks that could punch through steel armor. One broke away from the group, charging towards Noah and the elves. A stream of arrows was shot with deadly aim, but though they struck the boar between the eyes, they were all deflected by its tough skull.
Valia sprinted towards it and jumped into the air, narrowly dodging its swinging tusks. Flying overhead, she slashed the back of its neck, ending its life. As soon as she touched the ground, another boar was upon her. A spear, thrown by one of the elves, buried itself in the beast’s ribs and threw it off balance. Wounded, it was easy prey for Valia. The remaining boars closed in, squealing in fury and forcing Noah and the elves up into the trees. Perched safely among the branches, they rained arrows down on the boars, wiping them out. Only when all was quiet did they descend.
“Everyone, work fast and let’s get out of here.”
As with the last beast, the elves collected their arrows, as it was evident that they’d need every last bolt. Likewise, Noah went around collecting samples, adding the species to his summoning collection. He initially could only copy organisms summoned by magic, but he had altered the formula to clone whatever creature he wished, as long as his mana was sufficient. The problem was that this method didn’t copy clothing and items, so even if he could impersonate someone this way, it would only be convincing at the scene of an orgy.
As soon as they were ready, they set off into the jungle. Their trek was intense, exacerbated by the heat, humidity, and insects. They used plant-based repellents to ward off stings and bites, but could not fully drive off the creepy-crawlies. Flying scorpions would zip past their faces, centipedes larger than their belts would crawl over their feet, and mosquitos the size of hummingbirds would buzz in their ears.
Even worse were the incessant monster attacks. Outside this island, finding a summoning circle was a rare occurrence, but here, there was always one within view. Creatures, big and small, would materialize out of thin air at different speeds and jump into the food chain. It seemed like every ten minutes or so, something would lunge at them from the underbrush or the canopy, and the size of the group did little to sway their attackers. The jungle was overflowing with vicious predators, whether they had scales, hair, or feathers.
It was slow going, and the slightest mistake was fatal. This island made the dungeon crab from Clive look like a goblin den, but unlike before, Noah was leading a competent party. The elves could sense any monster coming their way, and the few foes that survived their deadly arrows were met with cold steel.
Despite the violence, Kisara Island was truly amazing. It was a tragic beauty, the once-mighty elvish civilization completely fallen to nature, but beautiful nonetheless. Vines hung over every wall, moss blanketed stone streets, and trees grew out of brick buildings and houses like potted plants.
There seemed to be no distinction between the raw jungle and the ruins. It was as if the whole stone island was carved into a city, then a blanket of vegetation laid atop it. Every boulder was a statue, every hill and mountain had a staircase, and even the tallest cliffs and deepest ravines were made of brick and carved stone. The jungle was quite healthy, a universe of vibrant green, and the animals were more than abundant.
They eventually entered a vast clearing, what had once been a massive forum for the people of Kisara Island. Great temples and pyramids rose from the earth, pasted with vegetation, and though shrubs and bushes had managed to colonize much of the ground, the area was free of trees, allowing the sun to shine down directly. Titanic herbivores roamed the open space, grazing with their young.
“I’ve never seen creatures like these,” Valia gasped.
“They’re called dinosaurs,” said Noah. “They were extinct in all of my previous lives, living millions of years before mankind, at least until we learned to make them ourselves. Diplodocus, ankylosaurs, and triceratops, oh my. Hey, see that? That one is a stegosaurus. I had a son a long time ago who was obsessed with dinosaurs, and the stegosaurus was his favorite. He became a paleontologist, someone who spends their life searching for fossils of extinct animals.”
The elves all glanced at Noah. They had all received “the talk” about what he was, but even for these immortals, it was hard to believe that someone who looked so young could be so old. They then watched him take out a strange black rectangle, hold it out in front of him, tap it a few times, and then put it away. Aithorn had seen the device when Noah first explained his origins to the queen. Since leaving Colbrand, he had been taking pictures on his journey with Valia to show Alexis, Sophia, and everyone at the Knight’s Sheath. Elisandra would surely enjoy seeing the island.
“Should we try to cross it?” one elf asked.
“Those animals will likely get violent if we come too close to their young,” another said.
“It’s a long way around,” added a third.
“If they turn aggressive, we only need to ward them off, not fight them off,” said Noah. “Let’s just move casually, give them a wide berth, and try not to make it seem like we’re sneaking around.”
They set off into the forum, keeping their heads on a swivel to observe the reactions of the lumbering behemoths. A triceratops might groan if they came too close, or a hadrosaurus would huff and stomp the ground, but nothing attacked them. They seemed to understand that Noah and the elves were just passing through and meant no harm, and it gave the group a chance to observe these gentle giants.
“You know, I’ve always had a fondness for places like this,” said Noah to Valia as they walked.
“Ruins. Look down; we’re walking on a cobblestone road. At some time in the past, a man knelt here and set this smooth rock in place, working and twisting it just right, and then did the same with this rock here, and a million others. Picture him hunched over on this very spot with sweat dripping off his nose, then arguing with someone about how straight the road looks.
These stones bore witness to festivals and holidays, sunny mornings and stormy afternoons, great blessings and tragedies, and untold life stories. Then the society collapsed, and this road, having been present throughout the history of Kisara Island, was reduced to a cluster of simple stones. It is only a road again because that is how we see it. Someday, this island might be reclaimed, and people might walk this road carefree again, letting these stones once more bear witness to history.
Or maybe we are the last people who will ever walk this way, and what was once a road will just be a place for dirt and water to gather, and these stones will continue to be bled of meaning as they are buried by time. And maybe, when this world is barren and lifeless, these ruins and stones will be all that remains to show that sentient life called this planet home.
When I see places and things abandoned, I imagine the effort someone put into making them and look at what the effort led to. The impression of meaning remains on this island, like a handprint, but the hand has turned to dust and the meaning is long gone, never to return. It’s a bittersweet nihilism.”
As they reached the center of the forum, something changed. All the animals were raising their heads and becoming agitated. “Keep your weapons away, they’ll read our intentions,” Aithorn whispered.
“I don’t think we’re what’s making them nervous,” said Valia, with her hand hovering over the hilt of her sword.
A chorus of roars echoed across the forum, causing the grazers to panic and start charging in random directions. They ran for the edges of the clearing, but that was where the predators were coming from. They had huge bipedal bodies, wrapped in feathers, and shook the ground with each step. Their long tails offset the weight of their colossal jaws. Though most similar to the Tyrannosaurus Rex, these beasts were almost twice the size of their Earth counterparts.
Almost a dozen of them came out of the woodwork from all sides, clamping down on whatever prey entered their reach. They didn’t bother devouring their kills, but simply left them behind to retrieve later. Right now, they focused on gathering a big enough bounty, and their eyes were fixed on the tasty-looking elves. Younglings filled the gaps between the adults, eager to prove their hunting skills.
“Noah, I’m starting to get really nervous here,” said Valia. For her to say that, given her strength, was a bad sign. The group was surrounded, unable to flee.
“We can’t fight them all,” said Aithorn, his bow drawn with an arrow wrapped in lightning.
“Agreed. We’ll create an opening and then make a run for it.”
The younglings took off in a sprint, charging ahead of their parents with ferocious speed and no sense of hesitancy. The elves released their arrows, but though they managed to draw the creatures’ blood, the wounds were not deep enough to stop them. Their feathers were rugged and sleek, like armored scales. Only Aithorn’s arrows were able to take them down in one shot. Supercharged with lightning, they exploded and ripped the carnivores’ bodies right open, but couldn’t stop the omnidirectional wave.
Noah, Valia, and half the elves drew their swords to engage while the rest continued firing their arrows. Their blades carved through flesh, muscle, and bone, drawing dying shrieks from the beasts. They formed a perimeter around the archers, with countless arrows flying over their shoulders. Any creatures wounded by the arrows were finished off with swords, and vice versa. They also used different kinds of magic, from various elements to druidism. Their skill and teamwork were fending the beasts off, but the attackers were taller than the defenders, and displayed frightening speed, agility, and razor-sharp instincts for their age.
It didn’t take long before one elf was brought down, screaming in agony with a powerful pair of jaws clamping down on his shoulder and several talons digging into his gut. A furious roar escaped Aithorn as he skewered the youngling with his spear, but it was too late to save the man’s life. Another elf had his arm bitten, and the beast refused to let go. Noah lopped its head off, but its jaws remained clamped like a vicious ant, and the man was pulled into the center of the group so the healers could tend to him.
Now, the adults were closing in. Valia faced one, trying to ignore the size of its teeth, and activated her Zodiac magic, boosting her strength, durability, and cutting power. It lowered its head as it charged, jaws opened wide to swallow her up. Valia ducked to the side, narrowly avoided death, and slashed the side of the monster’s neck. Her aim was true, severing a vital artery, but death was not instant.
Roaring in pain and anger, the giant lizard spun around and slammed her with its tail. Had she not activated her magic, the blow would have been fatal. Instead, she was knocked through the air like a golf ball, flying in a high arch before crashing into the side of a temple with enough force to open up a crater.
“Damn it,” Noah hissed. “Aithorn, try to hold them off! I’m going after Valia!”
He didn’t bother waiting for a response and took off in her direction. The younglings followed him, seeing him as the fool that strayed from the herd. While Noah ran, he activated both of his spells and separated from his clone. The younglings went after the illusion over and over again, unable to understand why their claws were cutting through air instead of flesh. They needn’t wonder long, as Noah’s invisible sword would sever head from neck with ease.
He reached the temple, a towering ziggurat, and began the climb up to Valia’s position. She had landed fairly high up and was unconscious, with blood running down her face, but her heartbeat was steady. Noah fed her a healing potion, and she woke up with a cough.
“So even a steel body can get bruised, huh?”
“In this place, everything does,” she groaned.
They looked back at the fight, just in time to see an adult T-rex snap up one of the elves. It crushed him with its jaws, then as it lifted its head to swallow, Aithorn shot the monster in the throat with a lightning arrow, shredding its flesh in a crackling explosion and ending its life. The elves abandoned their position and retreated toward the temple to rejoin Noah and Valia.
As he ran, Aithorn aimed at another adult, but at the exact moment he released, one of the younglings tackled him. The lightning arrow grazed the side of the adult’s face, carving a gory wound through its flesh, but bouncing off its skull and leaving it enraged. Aithorn was knocked to the ground, forcing his bow into the petulant youngling’s mouth to keep it from biting him, only for its life to be ended by a beheading from Noah. Noah helped Aithorn to his feet and he and the elves faced the approaching enemies.
“You guys are really going to hate me for this, but it seems like our only way out,” said Noah, conjuring two scrolls and unrolling them on the ground. “Lake Creation!” He channeled his mana into the first scroll, and a torrential wellspring surged out, covering the ground in illusory water. The elves and monsters looked down in confusion, wondering what this substance was that lapped at their feet without any physical sensation. “Everyone, hold your breath and be ready to run when I tell you! Molecular Construction!”
Noah activated the second scroll, causing the water to vaporize into illusory hydrogen and oxygen, invisible and untouchable. The illusory hydrogen then bonded with the real nitrogen in the air, creating a quasi-substance that was simultaneously tangible and phantasmal. The most horrific odor filled the air, causing everyone and everything to react in pain and disgust. Though the pseudo gas could not actually harm anyone who breathed it in, it could still deceive smell receptors, the same way that Noah’s flashbangs could attack enemies’ sense of hearing and sight.
The bloodthirsty younglings staggered back, screaming as though acid was being poured straight into their sinuses, while the elves tried to cover their noses, and tears streamed down their cheeks. “There is an opening!” Noah said, pointing to a gap in the reptilian ranks. “Now follow me!”
They set off in a desperate sprint, trying to escape the beasts and the stench. They ran through the monster pack and disappeared into the jungle, not stopping until they were far away from the forum. Back beneath the canopy, they arrived at a section of the city set at a slightly lower elevation, leading it to become absorbed by the neighboring swamp. They halted to catch their breath and make sure none of that horrific odor was clinging to them.
“What in the name of the spirits was that?!” Aithorn exclaimed while wiping away tears.
“Ammonia,” said Noah, “a colorless gas found abundantly in nature, and extremely caustic and hazardous in its pure form. I came up with the idea when you and the other knights of Uther were using dogs to try and hunt Valia and I down. Anyway, let’s keep moving. The smell may have scared those beasts off for now, but they could come after us.”
“I don’t understand,” said Aithorn. “I thought you couldn’t use alchemy. You told me you could barely use any spells at all.”
“I can use it under rare circumstances. Did you notice the water I created, how you couldn’t feel it? That was a very special kind of water from my world, and it took a lot of careful runecrafting to get it right.”
Listening to him, Valia sighed. She understood Noah’s reluctance to share the true nature of his magic with others, but she never liked watching him lie to people. “Going around this swamp will take too long,” she said. “How about we go over it?”
One elf, Orville, clapped his hands together and cast a druid spell, causing a bridge of roots to rise up from under the water, though it was more like a balance beam than an actual bridge. Regardless, they moved across, beginning their hike into the swamp. As they progressed deeper and deeper, the elves continued summoning bridges for the group, keeping them safely out of range of the water. At least, that’s what they thought.
It was when their guard was lowered that a cry of anguish was heard, everyone turning their eyes to an elf warrior with a small spear lodged in his eye socket. He fell off the bridge and into the water, where he was seized by grabbing hands and dragged away.
“No!” Aithorn shouted as he drew his bow and tried to kill their newest foe.
They were ponaturi, aquatic goblins that made their homes in both fresh and saltwater. They had similar features to their land-based cousins, each a meter tall with a bipedal, humanoid body, but this race had webbed digits, tadpole tails, bony fins, and gills on the sides of their necks. They also possessed intelligence above that of animals and were adept at using tools and weapons against physically-superior enemies.
“Everyone, move!” Noah shouted as a volley of spears was hurled at them.
They raced further along the bridge while using druidism to extend it, moving from tree to tree as fast as they could. The ponaturi were relentless with their spears, and there was little room to dodge or maneuver. Attempts to retaliate with arrows and magic accomplished little, as the ponaturi could rise to the surface, throw a spear, and disappear within the murky depths in just a fraction of a second. Noah and the team wore cloth armor made of elven silk, capable of stopping arrows and the like, but each landed blow still felt like getting stabbed, and the pain and force of impact could easily ruin one’s balance.
One of the elves cursed and jumped high into the air, landing among the branches of a tree. “Up here! We’ll move through the canopy!”
The other elves agreed and climbed up into the branches, but Noah, Valia, and Aithorn remained below, trying to fend off the ravenous ponaturi. Though the elves could move effortlessly among the tree branches without ever having to touch the ground, Noah lacked their mobility. Even if they helped him traverse the distance with druidism, he’d just slow them down, and something else would attack them while they were vulnerable. Valia used her steel body to shield Aithorn, while Noah avoided injury with his illusions.
“Lord Aithorn! Lady Valia! Just leave him! We’re not shedding more elven blood for a human!” one elf, Torbin, shouted.
“Aithorn, go,” Noah ordered.
“I’m not abandoning a comrade.”
“I’ll catch up, just get in the trees.”
“Don’t expect me to go with him,” said Valia.
“No, I need you to protect me for a minute.” After releasing his magic, Noah held out his hand and conjured a hooded grey cloak. As he put it on, Valia circled around him, deflecting spears with masterful strokes of her sword. “Torbin, you’re a paladin, right? Try doing something useful and hit me with your strongest spell!”
“I’m not a healer, you fool!”
“Just do it!”
Confused and cursing, Torbin aimed his hands at Noah and fired a beam of holy energy. Noah gritted his teeth as the mana fried him, burning like radiation, but he endured the pain while spears continued bouncing off Valia’s sword. Then, without warning, the bridge underneath them snapped as a great behemoth broke free of the water. It was a colossal fish, rising up with its long body and lunging for whatever prey it could catch. Noah and Valia avoided falling into the water, but they were helpless as the fish grabbed Aithorn with its jaws and splashed back down.
“Lord Aithorn!” the elves exclaimed as the fish swam off with its sharp dorsal fins cutting through the water.
“I saw how he went in its mouth. He may still be alive,” said Noah, wincing from the lingering pain.
“With enough magic, I can reach him.”
“We’ll both go.” As Valia activated the power of Zodiac, Noah looked to the fleeing fish and focused his mind. ‘Come on, you’ve done this before. Think back to your training and get it right!’
He and Valia then took off, shooting through the air as if flying. Speed, strength, balance; Valia had enhanced them all, landing and leaping off the smallest footholds she could find. Tree roots, stumps, and boulders were all stepping stones, and no matter what angle she landed or how small or slippery the surface, she never fell or even paused. She could dance on the head of a pin with perfect balance.
Even more impressive was Noah. Not only was he leaping like her, but he was also swinging from branches and vines, traveling even faster than if he were to run on regular ground. He fumbled a few times, but his recovery was so fast, it was almost impossible to tell that he’d even made a mistake.
The elves in the trees watched with wide eyes, unable to believe the acrobatics he was pulling off. He had clearly experienced some kind of strength boost, but that wasn’t enough to explain his coordination. Every flip, every twist, every landing and dismount—it was incredible. Even the natural grace of the elves paled against what they were seeing, and they realized they couldn’t catch up if they wanted to.
Noah and Valia were closing in on the fish, ready to slice it up into sashimi, only for a bolt of lightning to steal their thunder, courtesy of the man they were trying to save. The creature exploded in a visceral burst, leaving Aithorn submerged in the bloody muck. Wielding enhanced strength, Valia pulled him out of the mess with one hand.
“Thanks for… coming back… for me,” he panted as mud and fish guts oozed down his face.
“Just promise you won’t give us a hug in gratitude,” replied Valia as she set him on his feet.
“Hey Aithorn, over here.”
Aithorn turned, and Noah took his picture with his phone. “What is that?”
Noah showed him the screen. “Something that’ll make Elisandra laugh so hard she’ll fall off her throne. At least, I like to imagine it will. Can you move?”
“I think so.”
“Good, then let’s get out of here.”
It was getting late in the day, and everyone was hungry, exhausted, and drenched in sweat, gore, or mud. In Aithorn’s case, it was all three. They decided to set up camp in the ruins of a stone house and used druidism to fortify it against any late-night prowlers. A stream was nearby, letting them clean their clothes and bodies, and gathering food was a simple endeavor. As the sun set, the noise of the jungle rose without limit, surpassing the evening ambiance of the Anorvan Forest.
Noah and the elves sat around a campfire in the stone house, eating in silence. He was used to the quiet, as the elves still had not quite warmed up to him yet. The silence was also due to everyone’s exhaustion. This journey was both physically and mentally draining. They had to be on their guard without pause, and were already down three team members. Casualties in combat were inevitable, but these elves had known each other for centuries.
“How did you do that?”
The sudden question came from Torbin, the elf who wanted to leave Noah behind.
“Hmm?” Noah grunted, in the middle of pulling flesh off a rib.
“How were you able to save Lord Aithorn?”
“That cloak you saw is something I invented. It converts holy energy into a full-body monk enhancement. I used it to defeat Prince Seraph of Uther.”
“Even with such a garment, there is no way you should have been able to move through the swamp like that,” said Fourn. “Strength is one thing, but I’ve never seen agility like that before.”
“A lot of it is simply thousands of years of experience piloting a human body. It gives me great hand-eye coordination. It also helps that I’ve spent a lot of time in space.”
“Space? What’s that?” Olivia, one of the two healers, asked.
“It is the realm above the sky, where all worlds and stars reside. If you go high enough, higher than any creature can soar, you’ll reach an environment devoid of air and gravity. There is no ground, no sky, no up or down, nothing but the earth behind you, and a sea of stars in front of you. Of course, there is still sunlight, but it’s severe enough to cook you instantly, while being in the shade will freeze you just as fast, and unless there is something for the light to shine off of, you are in the dark. You’re just floating in a black vacuum, reaching infinitely in all directions.
But when you’re up there and look down upon the world, you realize how small and fragile it is, how it’s supposed to be protected, not fought over. You don’t see borders or nations, no groups or races, just a collection of tiny creatures living on a tiny blue marble, fighting over tiny imaginary constructs. Imagine being so high up that you look down on the Anorvan Forest, and it’s the size of your thumb. Imagine leaving this world, flying through hundreds of millions of miles of empty darkness, and landing on another planet. I’ve done it so many times that it’s boring.”
Everyone was listening intently, caught between fear of the deadly unknown, and intrigue as to what existed beyond the sky.
“But how do you reach space? How do you possibly survive it?”
“Well without magic, we have to use flying metal ships, propelled by fire. To survive outside your ship, you must put on a special airtight suit that encompasses your entire body in thick fabric, and you wear a helmet with a glass visor. On your back, you carry a big metal tank of compressed air to breathe from. If you’re out there and your tank runs empty, you die. If your helmet cracks or your suit gets a tear, you die. If you get separated from your ship with nothing to propel yourself or push off, you’re doomed to float into oblivion and die.
In order to realistically survive in space, mankind built massive colonies, cities wrapped in steel cocoons. Think of Sylphtoria, and imagine a dome big enough to encompass it completely, and seal it up airtight. That’s the kind of scale I’m talking about. Depending on the timeline I was born into, I could spend a lot of time in space.
Moving with super strength, like what you saw earlier, is just like traversing an environment with reduced gravity. You can’t just run; you have to move in all directions, pushing off one surface to launch yourself to the next, using your arms even more than you use your legs.
Of course, wherever there are people, there is violence, and space is no exception. I’ve fought in wars in zero gravity, on the moon, and on planets I wasn’t even born on. I joined them because, frankly, they were pretty interesting, and I was bored. That isn’t to say it was always fun. Sometimes fighting in space was a real pain.
A long time ago, I was in a lunar war, fighting over mining rights for the moon. The soil was saturated with this very powerful, valuable substance called helium-3. We used it to power everything, from our ships, to our machinery, to our weapons. Understand, these worlds didn’t have magic, so it wasn’t simply like casting a spell. We had to engineer every solution for every problem.
Anyway, this was the first real conflict in space at the time, so the technology and methodology for fighting were a bit rough around the edges. Warfare in open space is easy; you just fly around in your cozy ship, killing your enemies from a distance. In the lunar wars, there is some gravity and ground to walk on, so we all had to travel on foot a lot of the time, and keep in mind, we were always in clunky space suits. One tear, one crack, empty tank, remember?
Picture a crossbow that loads itself and can launch dozens of bolts in just a few seconds, with the strength to punch through steel. Those were our weapons. Little fighting was done face to face. The casualties were unbelievable, not just because of the fighting, but the constant betrayal. We killed our buddies in the field just to steal their air supply.”
This left the elves aghast. The fellowship among elves was one of the most important foundations of their society, not just because of how long relationships lasted, but because their low birthrate meant every death was a great tragedy. For one elf to take the life of another wasn’t simply murder, it was a crime against the entire race.
“In the reports, it was referred to as “friendly fire” and “accidental weapon discharge,” and it happened a lot, but nobody at the top wanted to acknowledge it. I remember this one guy on my squadron, a good guy, nice guy, who loved to talk about his kids. He had a speech impediment, which made it especially funny when he’d say his daughter’s name, Dorothy. He called her ‘Dowoty,’ and the rest of the squad loved to tease him about it, called him ‘Baby Talk.’
So, one day, we’re in battle, trying to take a base built into a mountain. We’re charging this place on foot, ducking behind boulders and in crevasses while explosions are going off everywhere. Picture the ground as just white sand and rock, utterly devoid of life, and though the sun is shining, the sky overhead is utter blackness. Everything is just white, black, and sterile.
Now, because we’re in space and there is no air, there is no sound. We had a way to communicate with each other with our helmets, but the entire ground could be blown sky high, and it would be dead silent. All you can hear are the voices of your guys right next to your ear and your own frantic breath. God, you have no idea how loud you breathe until you’re in a space suit. After a while, you even start hearing it in your sleep, and all your nightmares have the sound of your noisy breathing in the background.
At one point, I see Baby Talk zipping through the air—figuratively—like a housefly. His backup tank has been hit and is releasing all its compressed air, which, in reduced gravity, produces a great deal of propulsive force. So he’s flying around, arms and legs flailing, hitting the ground over and over, and we can all hear him screaming swears in our helmets with that fucking speech impediment.
When he finally stops, I go over to help him. He has a big crack in his helmet, and he’s losing air fast. We all had repair kits for stuff like this, so I helped him patch the leak, but as soon as his suit is stabilized, we both saw that red light in his helmet. It’s a warning that both his main and reserve tanks were almost depleted.
It’s bad enough if it happens when everything is fine and you can just refill your tank, but when you’re in a battle, and everything is chaotic, and you see that red light, then the claustrophobia sets in, and you realize that suit is now your coffin. We called it ‘red madness,’ because once it hits you, there is nothing you won’t do to save your life. It’s the kind of fear that erases love, loyalty, everything. The most primal drive.
Next thing I know, he’s on top of me, holding up a rock to smash my helmet so he can steal my air. Fortunately, we’re on the moon, so it’s not like he’s sitting on me with much weight, and I manage to push him off, but he’s not going to give up. He was originally the nicest guy in the squad, but that guy, Baby Talk, is gone. Now he’s just an animal fighting for survival. He’s lost his weapon, I still have mine, and I manage to break open his helmet. The blow missed his head, so he didn’t die instantly. At least... he doesn’t die from my attack.
Dying in space is quite the experience. Baby Talk swelled up like a croaking frog as the vacuum pulled at him from all directions, trying to rip him apart. The blood in his veins vaporized, the sweat on his face boiled, and I could see his skin burning from the cosmic radiation—you don’t need to know what that is. Apparently, Baby Talk tried to hold his breath, which led to his lungs bursting from all that air trying to escape. You’re supposed to exhale in this situation, because it gives you a few more moments in which maybe someone can save you, but I guess he wanted to die faster.
I remember him moving his mouth in his dying moments. Maybe it was his death rattle, his body spasming from the pain. I always assumed he was trying to say his kids’ names one last time. All that came out of his mouth was red sand. Anyway, I certainly couldn’t blame him. I’d done the same thing to a few friends when things went south. Death didn’t frighten me, but I wanted to see how the war would end. Dying before that would be like losing a good book before I could read the final chapter.
Not too long after that, I was in an aerial battle in open space. I got blown from my ship and was jettisoned in just my suit with no way to control my trajectory or speed. I couldn’t even turn around and look at the moon or Earth as I left them behind. I was shooting into the infinite blackness, facing forward.
It was the most alone I’d ever been, and there was absolutely NOTHING around me but the darkness and the stars in the distance. It was like I was the only thing that existed in the entire universe. There was only me, only me and my air tank, depleting with each passing second.
Your mind goes to weird places under those circumstances. I felt like my thoughts were stretching out beyond my mind. I’ve never been able to recreate the precise feeling of hurtling through space like that, even when I repeated it in another lifetime. It just didn’t have that same feeling as before. It was actually pretty pleasant, peaceful, until my actual death. That was rather painful. Sometimes, I’ll think back to the war and wonder how it ended.”
Noah then sighed, winded from talking so long. Everyone was staring at him with wide eyes, eyes filled with fear, confusion, sympathy, and countless other emotions.
“How did you all live with it?” Aithorn asked. “How did you live with killing your comrades, your friends?”
“Don’t get me wrong, there was a pretty high suicide rate. For me, it was easy. I’ve lived long enough to lose countless friends and family, and I’ve killed more people than I dare count. It doesn’t really affect me anymore.”
“So you really feel nothing with their blood on your hands?”
“I feel what I feel, and there is no point explaining or defending it, but it’s nice to finally get to tell these stories. Every time I try, people assume they’re either fictitious or delusional. You all want to hear another one?”
“I think it’s time for us to go to sleep now,” said Orville hurriedly, with all the elves agreeing.
“Very well, I’ll tell you more tomorrow,” said Noah, slightly dejected. “Sleep tight, everyone.”
Also loved the LOTR quote of aragorns journey if I remember, which I often don’t