Valia stood like a statue, staring at Valon with her mouth hanging open and not a single word falling out. Her mind was blank, not even feeling the wind and the rain. She had spent so long planning everything she would say when she found her brother, but now, looking at him, nothing seemed right. No letter seemed worthy.
“Take Aithorn and Gradius and get out of here. I came all the way out here to work in solitude, and still you people insist on interrupting me,” Valon said, devoid of emotion. His cold words hit her like a slap to the face.
“Why?” she asked, unable to hold back her tears. “Why did you vanish like that? Why did you leave me behind?”
“Because you would just get in the way.”
“Get in the way? You can’t just walk out on me because you thought I’d get in the way!”
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“How can it not?! Valon, you’ve been with me since the day I was born! If it doesn’t concern me, then why does it hurt so much? Why have I had to suffer alone while you were galivanting around, making the world your enemy?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“That is not your choice to make! I deserve an answer! You owe me an explanation! Just tell me what it is that you want! What could be worth abandoning me and your home?”
Valon floated down to the ground, but did not step off his floating platform. “What I want is meaning. I used to wonder if there was purpose in our lives, if we were born part of some plan. I no longer wonder, and I can’t go back to how I was after learning the truth. I can’t continue to live so pointlessly. Everyone wants to know their place in the world, but there is no truth more horrific. We are all so small, less then dust. This thing we call existence is a bad joke.”
“Then what is it that you are trying to do? What have you been working on here?”
“I have been working on a way to become the most powerful being in existence, even greater than the spirits, even greater than the gods, even greater than the titans. This puny flesh-and-blood existence, weakness and mortality, it is utter torture. I curse every moment I spend in this fragile body. I will break free of it all and reach divinity, true divinity, inarguable and absolute.
When I looked across the universe, I found the gods and experienced their power, and it was so… underwhelming. They are infinitely stronger than we are, but even the gods are merely whales in an endless ocean, and the titans are the ocean itself. To surpass them, gods and titans alike, to become the heavens above the sea, is the one and only truly meaningful act in existence, and that meaning belongs to me.”
“And that was worth nearly destroying Colbrand?” Aithorn accused, his words accentuated by a crack of thunder overhead. “That was worth stealing Sylphtorian relics?”
“Nothing matters in the face of divine purpose, nothing. You think your nations matter? You think your world matters? Colbrand and Sylphtoria, they might as well be mold on a pebble. The power those relics hold is insignificant, but combined, they can become the key that will open the door to divinity and allow me to transcend all limits.”
“Valon, please, let me help you! You aren’t thinking clearly!”
“Wrong, my mind has never been clearer. I see now the true worth of everything, and I know what I must do for my existence to be meaningful. It is to surpass all other existences.”
“Then I’ll help you fulfill your goal! Just please, please don’t leave me again!”
“How can you help me if you don’t understand? If you don’t believe me? You haven’t seen it, you don’t know the gravity of what I know.”
Valia was unable to respond. She had heard these words before, from someone else. She had heard that nihilistic creed, felt the inhumanity in the voice that spoke it, and shivered now just as she did then. The three elves then turned to the sound of splashes in the mud, and at last, Noah came into view and stopped. He stared at Valon, the same way Valia had, but while she had been waiting for this meeting for over a year, Noah had been waiting thousands.
“You saw the truth, didn’t you?” he asked, having to shout over the pouring rain. “You understand it, right? How insignificant it all is. You know what that hollowness feels like. You know that absolutely nothing matters. You know just how small you really are on the cosmic scale. Reality is just a cruel joke.”
Valon’s eyes widened in shock. “Who are you?”
“Someone like you, someone who has seen and realized the truth of existence. It’s agony, isn’t it? These people, you’re just wasting your breath trying to explain it to them. They’ll never know the vastness of existence until they experience it for themselves, until they feel it like we have. They’ll never know how much it hurts, to feel that truth smoldering in their soul. For so long, I’ve wanted to find someone who knows what it’s like, who understands how it feels to scream as loud as you can and never hear an echo.”
Valia and Aithorn listened to the unfolding conversation, but it was like Noah and Valon were talking in another language.
“How do you know?” Valon asked.
“Do not let this flesh prison fool you. I have existed for thousands of years, wandering the multiverse, experiencing death and rebirth over and over. When you performed that ritual to find the gods, I think you might have pulled me here, and I think you may be able to help me.
I promised Valia that we would go to the ends of the earth to find you, and here we are. Listen to me, as someone who understands. Come with us back to Sylphtoria. Whatever it is you’re after, you don’t have to do this alone. I need your help and you need mine.”
“You think the queen would just welcome me back after what I’ve done? Stealing the Torrent Sword, the Whirlwind Tunic, the Hunter’s Moon Amulet, the—”
“Wait, you stole the Hunter’s Moon Amulet?” Aithorn asked. “But then how did that succubus get it?”
“Because I traded with her and her kin, of course. I got their relics in exchange for the amulet and knowledge of how to sneak into Sylphtoria.”
The trio all felt their stomachs drop, and Aithorn, gripping his spear, released a furious roar and charged towards Valon. Rage supplied him with the mana to activate his Dragon Impaler spell, but when he reached out to kill Valon, Valon waved his arm. “Zodiac: Rakshon.” One of the silver spheres hovering around him flattened into a large barrier, effortlessly blocking Aithorn’s spear.
“It’s because of you that the queen was attacked by that monster! Do you have any idea of the pain you’ve inflicted on our people?”
“Do you really think I care? Zodiac: Avagath.” Valon cast.
Another silver sphere flattened and expanded, becoming a magic circle that stretched across the ground. It was the same as Valia’s awareness enhancement, but instead of sensing the physical world, it allowed Valon to feel the flow of mana and its sources, and now the circle reached over a mile in diameter.
“I can sense all the elves and knights you brought with you. You pretend you’re asking me to come back, but you won’t allow me to refuse. Unfortunately for you, I have no intention of returning, with or without shackles. Baol.”
Another sphere flew down and struck the back of the magic barrier, ramming it into Aithorn with enough force to knock him through the air and rip the breath from his lungs.
“Valon, please!” Valia begged. “You’re not well, but I swear, I’m going to make you better! Let me heal the wound you’re carrying and return you to the man you once were, the brother I depended on. What you’ve done can be atoned for. Come back with us!”
Valon aimed his hand at her. “You’re getting in my way, just as I knew you would. From the day we were born, our lives have been entwined, but I won’t allow you to prevent me from reaching my goal. I can’t be fixed because I’m not broken. I’m going to give you one last chance to leave me alone. The alternative is death.”
“You’re not going to hurt me, Valon, I know you. We’ve sparred and fought more times than I can count, but I know you can never truly harm me. The brother I know is still in there.”
Valon then suddenly perked up, sensing something was wrong. He directed his gaze to Noah and then aimed his other hand at a patch of open space. “Badtha.” A chain of stars shot from one of the spheres and wrapped around the empty space. The illusion shattered, revealing Noah while his clone disappeared. The chain was ethereal, and though it did not bind his movements, it had forcefully stopped both of his spells. The illusions weren’t burned away like with holy magic; it was more like a switch had been flipped, and his magic was completely blocked.
“Magic-jamming,” Noah hissed.
Valia had explained Valon’s powers earlier in anticipation of such a scenario, but this was beyond his expectations. According to her, Valon could only bind someone with the ethereal chain upon making contact with the target, not attack with it from a distance. It was the same with his spiritual awareness. When Valia activated her Avagath enchantment, she could sense when Noah entered her kill zone while invisible, but not from which direction. Valon, on the other hand, could sense his precise location and with incredible range, rendering his invisibility useless, and not just his invisibility. If all of Valon’s abilities were enhanced to such and extreme level, then most of Noah’s plans for this fight were obsolete.
“Strange, I’ve never encountered magic like yours. Even the Harajin can’t hide themselves like you do. You are unique, I’ll give you that. I take it you were going to use that to capture me?” Valon asked, referring to the chloroform-soaked rag in Noah’s hand.
“I don’t care about your crimes. I’ve done things you wouldn’t believe to try and break my curse. I’m here because you may be the only one who can do it, and I am not going to let this opportunity slip by! Come quietly and Valia and I will protect you.”
“Whatever you are, your problems don’t interest me, and I don’t trust you to be of any real use. Begone from my sight.”
“You don’t seem to understand, I need your help and I’m not leaving without it. You’re Valia’s brother, so I would prefer not to hurt you, but you’re coming with us whether you like it or not.”
Noah then closed the distance in the blink of an eye and swung his blade, not at Valon, but at the sphere producing the magic-blocking chain. According to Valia, striking the chain itself was useless, as solid matter just passed right through, but attacking the sphere would break the spell. However, before his sword could get close, it was blocked by another sphere turning into a barrier, just like Valon had blocked Aithorn.
Noah darted around, opened a monster-repellent bottle, then swung it and sent the splatters at Valon. A barrier stopped the droplets from landing on him, but he could not block the smell, and his elven nose was his undoing. He gagged from the horrific stench, but flew backward on his platform before Noah could get close. Luckily, Valia intercepted and grabbed him from behind in a bear hug.
“I’m not going to let you go on like this! I’ll free you from this madness if it’s the last thing I do!”
“Get out of my life! Zodiac: Teez!”
Several of the spheres then transformed, flattening and stretching into wide ribbons that slashed Valia with razor-sharp edges. They peeled her off Valon and knocked her through the air with blood spurting from multiple deep cuts. As she hit the ground, she was overwhelmed with pain, betrayal, and confusion. Normally, each sphere could only be used for one spell. He could only attack with one blade, defend with one shield, etc. However, it seemed he could now use multiple spheres to enhance the power of his spells. How much stronger had he become?
While Valon batted Valia away, Noah got close with a pair of shackles, enchanted to seal the wearer’s magic. Valon swung his arm, and three spheres shot toward Noah like cannonballs. He deflected the first with his sword, dodged the second, and the third one grazed his side and fractured his ribs in the process. Still, he blocked out the pain and reached out to seize Valon’s arms, only for him to swerve back out of Noah’s reach, using his flying platform.
According to Valia, the platform complimented her balancing ability, allowing him to run without his feet touching the ground, ensuring that he always had stable footing, regardless of the terrain. Now able to fly in every direction without even moving, his maneuverability left Noah struggling to close the distance. Attacks using gas or restraints were no longer feasible against an opponent of his caliber.
As he moved back, an arrow from Aithorn struck the chain sphere, freeing Noah’s magic. He wasted no time and bombarded Valon with flashbangs. Like before, his defenses could defend against physical attacks, but sensory attacks still left him momentarily stunned. Aithorn, back on his feet after drinking more potions, charged after Valon and tried to spear him through, only to once more be blocked by a mana shield.
At the same time, Noah took out his wand and used it to summon multiple clones of himself, then directed them to attack Valon from all directions. Valon looked around, unable to tell what was going on. Though his sensory spell rendered Noah’s invisibility useless, he could detect no difference between Noah and his clones. Each one felt like a genuine flesh-and-blood copy.
“Pesky flies! Zodiac: Pravek!”
The silver spheres around him glowed with a foreboding light and began firing off energy bolts. They passed right through the clones, and though Noah managed to dodge several blasts, he got shot in the chest and knocked back by the resulting explosion. There was no heat like a regular flame explosion, but it was less ethereal than a holy attack. The mana burst disintegrated his shirt and singed his face, but his armor prevented it from inflicting severe damage.
Valon turned his attention back to Aithorn and once more used his magic to knock him through the air. This time, Aithorn was ready and managed to stick the landing. He zoomed around Valon, dodging energy blasts while countering with his arrows. The lightning-wrapped bolts exploded against Valon’s barriers, failing to break through, but drawing his attention long enough for Noah to get back on his feet.
Seeing Noah stand up, Valon swung his arm, and three spheres transformed into silver ribbons, hard as steel and razor-sharp. Stretching and twisting in the air, they were swung at Noah at leg, chest, and head-height, leaving him no way to dodge. Noah drew a steel spike from his pocket and threw it at the ground between his feet. The spell within activated, and a wall of packed earth rose up under him, lifting him out of danger. He was right not to try and hide behind it, as the blades slashed through the hard clay like it was nothing.
Noah sent off clones running in all directions, each taking fire from Valon. Controlling the movement of so many clones was far from easy, but he wouldn’t let something as silly as his limits get in the way of his goal. He charged towards Valon, firing flashbangs and evading the elf’s counterattacks as best as he could, but Valon was a quick learner, and was able to dodge them with ease while on his floating platform. He was even bracing himself against the thunderclap, so as not to be distracted by the sound.
A silver blade slashed Noah’s arm, a mana beam scorched his hip, and a projectile sphere broke one of his fingers, but he didn’t give up. As he approached, Noah took out a thin chain and tied it around the hilt of his sword. An aura of mana enveloped the blade, enchanting the steel to cut through magical defenses. He got in close enough to slash Valon’s barrier, only for the attack to be easily repelled. Despite the failure, he continued slashing and stabbing with all his strength. Against the old Valon, his sword should have cut through the barrier like a thin sheet of plywood, but now, he might as well have been trying to bisect an anvil.
“You get in my way, and you think I’ll help you?! I don’t care that you brought my sister here! I don’t care what you want! Right now, you’re just an obstacle that I must eliminate!”
“You’re the one making this difficult! The more you resist, the harder I’m going to fight to bring you back! I’m going to get what I want if I have to rip the knowledge out of you with a pair of pliers!”
“Just die! Baol!”
Multiple spheres fused into one giant orb, then split into a hundred smaller ones and shot toward Noah at point-blank range. He shielded his vital areas, but each sphere hit like a bullet, and though his silk clothes prevented them from piercing his body, they riddled his skeleton with cracks and knocked him through the air. He hit the ground, covered with large black bruises and coughing up blood.
“Pathetic,” Valon hissed as he waved his arm.
Before Valon could finish Noah off, four electrified arrows from Aithorn landed around him. In the next instant, a blinding, continuous explosion of lightning went off, enveloping Valon and shocking him inside and out. Though he howled in agony, he could not be contained for long. He swung his arm, sending the rest of his silver buckshot at Aithorn.
They rained down on his position, forcing him to flee with the ground being ripped apart with each impact. Upon hitting the earth, the smaller spheres transformed and fused together, becoming a long chain that wrapped around Aithorn and sealed away his magic. Aithorn was then bombarded with magic blasts, ripping apart his armor and burning his flesh. Once he was out of commission, Valon, charred and disoriented, caught his breath.
“Zodiac: Zhanga.” One of his spheres then transformed and enveloped him, becoming a translucent silver membrane that began healing his injuries. “If the two of you fought me before the accident, you could have won. However, after seeing the expanse of the universe, the power I can draw from constellations is far greater than ever before. Right now, you don’t stand a chance.”
He launched his spheres to finish them off, but in the blink of an eye, they were all intercepted. Moving at super speed, Valia appeared in front of Noah and Aithorn, having recovered from her injuries. “They aren’t alone. I acknowledge your determination in reaching divinity, but don’t underestimate my determination to bring you back to what you once were! You may be stronger than before, but that’s not going to stop me from knocking some proper sense into you!”
She rocketed towards Valon, swinging at him with enhanced speed and strength. Valon recast his magic and blocked with a barrier, but the instant it met her sword, she circled to attack from another angle. In anticipation, Valon tried to slice her up as he had before, but she had already activated her steel body and boosted her speed and agility, nullifying his attack.
She began slashing from all directions, moving faster than the human eye could catch. Not only was she enhancing her body, but her sword was radiating mana as she maximized her attack. Again and again, she struck the barriers he put up, with each slash sharper and stronger than the one before it. After all the times they had sparred together, they knew each other’s patterns by heart, and the true contest was between Valon’s new strength and Valia’s desperation.
While she distracted Valon, Noah and Aithorn restored their health and energy with potions, and once they were in fighting condition, they jumped back into the mess. The three ganged up on Valon, dodging and blocking his attacks while hurling their own from all directions.
He’d try to slash them to pieces with his stretching blades, bombard them with energy blasts, and crush them with kinetic blows, leaving them with no room for error. Their blades hammered his defenses and scrambled his focus, but his defenses proved impenetrable from all angles.
As they fought, Noah tried to come up with a plan, finding that all his countermeasures for Valon’s abilities were useless. Any sensory attacks or chemical agents were more likely to take out Valia and Aithorn in such close proximity, and physical attacks that might incapacitate him could easily be blocked or dodged. The only solution was to wear him out and make him use up all of his mana. Whether or not it was possible to outlast him was something he dared not ponder.
Eventually, Valon pulled away and rose up into the air out of their reach. “I have no interest in continuing this fight. Since you insist on bothering me, I’m just going to take my work and leave. I’ll find a much quieter place.”
“You’re not leaving so easily,” said Noah.
“You honestly think you can stop me?”
“The best way to stop you from leaving is to make you not want to.”
Noah held out his arms, and from his ring appeared the stolen relics, in a manner of speaking. Valon had been using alchemy to alter their physical shapes and fuse them into an amorphous craft. The inks used to create the relics had all been extracted the same way, recycled for creating new runic formulas.
“I knew there was a good chance you wouldn’t listen to reason, so I decided to swipe this while I was looking around your workshop. You now have three options: either come with us, fight us for this, or leave without it.”
A torrent of silver mana began to surge from Valon, causing the ground to shake and clearing the sky. “You invade my seclusion, interrupt my work, and now you steal from me?! The three of you will never leave this island alive!”
The orbs around him were expanding and transforming, becoming a protective cage made of ribbon blades, with a colossal crown floating over his head. Several spheres spun underneath him in a circle, each continuously changing shape between various geometric prisms. Arrows began flying at Valon from all directions, courtesy of the elves perched atop the walls, but they bounced harmlessly off the defensive array.
In retaliation, beams of energy shot down from the orbiting spheres, blossoming into roaring vortexes of mana that ripped apart the ground. They were raining like heavy artillery, shaking the entire island and forcing Noah, Valia, and Aithorn to duck for cover under a boulder, while their archers were mowed down and disintegrated.
“How are we supposed to stop him now?” Aithorn muttered.
“God, this is all my fault. I could have prevented this!” Valia cursed.
“No, it’s not your fault. This is just something we have to deal with,” Noah replied.
“Noah, please tell me you have a plan!” Aithorn shouted over the roaring explosions.
“All my plans went up in flames a while ago. All I can do now is improvise. Valon’s project isn’t the only thing I swiped.” Noah returned the amalgam to within his ring, exchanging it for a different relic. It was a huge rectangular emerald, the size of a 500-page hardcover novel, and set in an ornate golden frame like a brooch. “My magic may not be able to hurt him, but I bet this can.”
“The Wildheart,” Valia gasped.
“Come on, follow my lead.”
Acting only on theory and hope, Noah began running while sending his illusion magic into the Wildheart and imagining the creature he wanted. A horse appeared ahead of him, but unlike his other summons, it was real flesh and blood. He jumped onto its back, and it took off, galloping and dodging the explosions according to his instructions. The Wildheart had turned illusions into reality, but whatever he summoned, he could still control the same way he could as if they were phantasmal.
He shot off across the battlefield, firing flashbangs at Valon to draw his attention. Screaming in fury, Valon directed his fire toward Noah, but before the explosions could reach him, he cast summoning magic once more. A wyvern materialized out of thin air over his head and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him away from danger while the explosions slew the horse.
As Valon muttered another curse, enchanted arrows began exploding against his defenses, courtesy of Aithorn. Valon tried to obliterate him, but Valia grabbed Aithorn and took off at super speed like the horse that saved Noah. Shrieks reached Valon’s ears, and he turned to see a flock of wyverns hurtling toward him. He fired a barrage of energy blasts, and though he managed to shoot off their scales and char their flesh, their agility in the sky allowed them to escape the worst.
They attacked Valon from all angles, clawing, biting, and striking his protective cage with their tails. All their actions were controlled by Noah, like extensions of his own body. Growling with frustration, Valon swung his arms, and the blades around him lashed out, slicing the wyverns to pieces and sending them falling back down to the ground. At that moment, several bottles of chloroform and other knock-out agents smashed against his barriers, filling the air around him with gas. He wobbled in the air, momentarily losing his balance, and while his defenses were open, another arrow from Aithorn exploded right next to Valon, electrocuting him and leaving his body smoking.
Before he could heal himself, he was suddenly attacked from above and forced out of the sky. Looking up, he found his whole array held within the teeth of a colossal T-rex, summoned and dropped from high above. Not only was it trying to crush him with its jaws, but its weight was also forcing him down to the ground. Enraged, Valon raised his hand and fired his most powerful attack yet, a beam of energy that annihilated the beast and lit up the sky as it pierced the heavens.
Now close to the ground, he was struck from the side by Valia, hitting him with every ounce of strength she had. Her sword failed to break through the protective cage, but it still sent him crashing like an asteroid, ripping open the landscape. Valon managed to regain control just as a stampede of triceratops charged toward him, with Noah riding on the back of the first.
Valon held out his arm and summoned a huge shield, but the horned beasts hurled themselves at it relentlessly under Noah's command. Even if he couldn’t break through the barrier, the harder his minions pushed against it, the more effort Valon had to expend. That changed when the barrier, rather than pushed back, rushed forward and slammed into the triceratops herd with destructive force. The creatures flew through the air with shattered skeletons, and though Noah managed to avoid injury, he was slow to get to his feet.
As soon as he stood up, he lurched forward and vomited blood onto the ground. He was bleeding internally, and it wasn’t from the landing just then. He was pushing himself too hard, just like when he warded off the basilisk. True, the Wildheart supplied the power to summon these flesh-and-blood puppets, but they hung much heavier on the strings than the illusory versions. Noah was exerting more effort than his body could produce, but he didn’t have the luxury of quitting.
Valon was flying overhead, carpet-bombing the area with energy blasts. Noah had no choice but to summon another horse to escape the barrage. As it carried him off, he downed a healing and mana potion to try and keep death at bay. He rode towards Valia, who was watching her brother and working on a plan.
“I’ll get you in the air. Try to knock him back to the ground!” She noticed Noah’s spilt blood and haggard condition, but before she could say anything, he summoned a wyvern to carry her. “Go!” he shouted.
She nodded and grabbed onto the wyvern’s leg. It took off from the ground and carried Valia up to Valon. She enhanced herself with as much magic as possible, but like Noah, too much at once extracted a heavy toll.
“Come back to me, Valon!” she cried out as she let go of the wyvern and unleashed another almighty slash upon her brother’s defenses. Once again, she failed to break through, and this time, Valon retained his position in the sky.
“You’re in my way!” he shot back before hitting her with the same barrier slam he had used against the triceratops herd. Even with her steel body, she was blown through the air with blood trailing from her mouth. Noah’s wyvern caught her and carried her away.
There was no rest for Valon, as he immediately felt a sharp pain in his neck, courtesy of an insect stinger. He slapped the vermin away, but it was just one of many. A swarm of mosquitos, wasps, and everything else that could fly and fight was coming toward him. He tried to blow them away with energy blasts, but unlike the more enormous beasts, they could dodge his attacks and circumvent his defenses. Even if he wiped out 90%, the remaining 10% were able to latch their fangs and stingers into his skin.
“Zodiac: Zhanga!” A silver aura shrouded him, healing his wounds faster than the insects could make them. “You think this is enough to stop me?!”
He held his arms to his sides and released an omnidirectional wave of silver mana, disintegrating each insect. As soon as the explosion ended, Valon was attacked from behind. Aithorn, hanging from a wyvern’s tail, was stabbing him in the back with his Dragon Impaler, but not even his spear could break through.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to our nations? To our people?! You think you can just shrug off your crimes because you’ve developed a god complex?! I’m going to make you suffer for every tear my queen shed because you set that succubus loose in Sylphtoria!”
“Suffering, you have no idea what suffering is! When you have seen what I’ve seen, felt what I’ve felt, and then wake up back in your fragile body and realize the true emptiness of your puny existence, then you’ll understand suffering! But instead, you get to experience the bliss of ignorance!”
Valon lashed out with his blades, carving up Aithorn’s wyvern and slashing him across the chest and limbs. He fell out of the sky, but landed on Noah’s wyvern. Though only Aithorn had been wounded, both were losing blood. The elf quickly noticed the streams of red coming from Noah’s eyes and nose and the pain of his raspy breathing.
“Noah, you have to stop! You’ll kill yourself at this rate!”
“Not yet, I can keep fighting.”
“It’s not worth it!”
“Like Valon said, you don’t know what suffering is, not the way we do! I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal! To break my curse! This is nothing compared to the things I’ve been through!”
An explosion blossomed ahead of them, courtesy of an energy blast shot by the pursuing Valon. “Give me back my work!”
“Noah, make this thing fly faster!” Aithorn shouted, but Noah was beginning to lose consciousness and control of the wyvern. Its flying was becoming unbalanced and distorted as its own will collided with Noah’s. Aithorn quickly drank some potions to restore himself and forced more down Noah’s throat, but his condition was barely improving.
Valon was almost upon them, only for him to be intercepted by, of all things, a jet of flame. Gradius, who should have been dead, was back on his feet. “Four filthy traitors in front of me! Four filthy traitors to kill! I’ll reduce your bodies to ash and bring your heads back to the king!”
He unleashed even more energy in a focused beam, forcing Valon out of the sky. Though his defenses stopped the flames from hitting him directly, the radiating heat was leaking through.
“Now the rabid dog has woken up,” he cursed. “Zodiac: Bombit!”
One of the spheres floating under him changed, not becoming a barrier, but a wormhole through space. It expanded large enough for Gradius’s blast to pass through, then returned it full-force, like light bouncing off a mirror. The blast hit Gradius with enough power to push him back and leave two trenches in the ground from his feet, but as for an actual injury, it was completely ineffective.
Forced to fly low, Valon received another attack from Valia, this time a piercing thrust at maximum strength. Finally, the protective cage of blades cracked, and Valia’s sword left a deep cut across Valon’s shoulder. He was forced down to the ground, bleeding and cursing, with Valia refusing to let go. “I’m not going to kill you, I’d rather die myself than do that, but I’m going to bring you back, kicking and screaming!”
“Leave me alone!” he roared before knocking her back with a volley of energy blasts.
Before he could recover, he was hit with another blast from Gradius, a continuous beam of fiery death trying to burn through his barriers. At the same time, thunder shook the sky and stirred the clouds, and once more, Aithorn’s Winged Snake descended from the heavens. Guiding it with his hand, he directed its flight and had it attack Valon from behind, leaving him crushed between fire and lightning.
Valon was howling in pain and exertion, putting all his strength into maintaining his defensive array, unable to move or counter. Then, adding to the barrage, a giant ape, like the one that had guarded the temple, was conjured by Noah. Screaming and snarling, it began smashing down on Valon with its mighty fists, hammering his defenses. Next to the beast, Noah was on his knees, his face pale and pouring blood. His body was begging him to stop, that it couldn’t last, but he didn’t care.
Hammered from above and crushed from the sides, Valon was out of options, and his defensive array was cracking all over. It was taking everything he had to fend off annihilation. He then looked over, seeing Valia limping towards him. Her eyes were desperate, the same as everyone’s, but only hers were full of love. She reached out to him with tears streaming down her face.
“Valon, please! Take my hand! Come home!”
For a moment, Valon looked like he was about to surrender, but then a furious scowl appeared on his face. “I don’t need you! I don’t need anybody! I’ll become the most powerful being in the universe and break free of this curse of meaninglessness! Just watch!”
He then screamed at the top of his lungs, gathering all of his mana for one last burst. Everyone did the same, trying to break through, and then, a flash. A silver explosion erupted from Valon, upheaving the landscape, ripping apart trees, and flattening buildings. The four fighters were scattered as the ground beneath their feet was sent skyward. When the light finally faded, all was silent. The land had been swept clean by the explosion, leaving only dust. Overhead, a mushroom cloud blocked out the sun, several times larger than the one Aithorn conjured in his fight against Gradius.
In the crater's center was Valon, covered in blood and gasping for air. In the distance behind him, Aithorn was half-dead, narrowly surviving the explosion at the last second by leaping into a pit. He coughed and groaned in pain, fumbling blindly for a potion. In front of Valon, one wall surrounding the temple still stood, and Gradius was flattened against it like a swatted fly. Valia was nowhere to be seen, thrown back by the shockwave.
Valon turned right and began walking, eventually coming across Noah in the middle of a colossal ape skeleton. Like Aithorn, his quick thinking had saved his life, using the ape to shield himself from the blast. Unfortunately, the explosion was so intense that it peeled the flesh off the creature’s bones. At the moment, he regretted not using a basilisk to shield him instead. Lying on his back, he couldn't move and struggled to breathe. His entire body was wracked with pain, nothing obeying his commands. Similarly exhausted, Valon limped over and retrieved his relic amalgam from Noah’s ring.
“Please, don’t go,” Noah begged, using what little strength he had to speak.
“If you know what’s good for you, don’t look for me,” Valon warned.
He then activated his magic, and the silver spheres reappeared. They joined together into a single mass that enveloped him, taking a winged shape. Nestled in this ethereal craft, Valon shot up into the sky and flew away in a direction Noah didn’t see. The battlefield was silent, broken only by the continuation of the earlier rain, mixing the blood of man, elf, and beast into the muddy soil.
Noah lay on the wet ground, unmoving, other than the trembles rippling through his chest with each shuddering breath. Then out of the haze came Valia, covered in wounds and barely standing. Her eyes were hollowed by despair. She kneeled beside Noah, lacking the strength to get back up. Her ears then picked up a sound she never thought she’d hear. It wasn’t just rain washing the blood off Noah’s face; it was tears.
“I was so close,” he wept.
She wrapped her arms around Noah and held him tight, the two crying together.
Nearby, Aithorn, in close to the same state as Valia, crossed the barren battlefield to the only other living knight on the island. “Gradius,” he muttered, watching the behemoth try to pull himself across the ground. He didn’t respond, likely due to all the blood streaming from his crushed helmet. His armor had been wholly pulverized, with several pieces missing. Though the rain pelted him, there was no steam. “What kind of horrific will could keep a monster like you alive?”
Gradius finally raised his head and released an angry growl. “Pointy-eared bastard…”
“I never liked you. I always thought you were a savage beast that needed to be put down. Now it looks like destiny may agree with me.” Gradius glared at him, his face and eyes hidden behind the bent metal. Aithorn sighed and tossed a healing potion onto the ground before him. “But after all the lives lost today, I don’t want your added death on my conscience. Our teams are dead, and I want to leave this island knowing that I saved at least one life, even if it’s yours. Just know that I, Sir Noah, and Lady Zodiac are your only hope of getting off this island. If you try to kill us, you WILL die here.” He then turned around and walked away.
Noah was jerked awake, his body aching from head to toe. It was something he was getting sick of experiencing. He couldn’t see or move, as though held in a straightjacket with a blindfold, but the scent he was breathing in and the softness against his face could never be forgotten.
“Valia?” he mumbled.
The force holding him loosened, and the blanket over his head was pulled away. He was lying naked with Valia on a bed of ferns, the elf holding him with all four limbs wrapped tightly around his body, as though she was afraid of him wandering off.
“Noah,” she whispered, her voice weighted with both joy and desperation. Then, just as she had begun to let him go, she squeezed him even tighter. “Why would you do this to me again?! I told you never to scare me like that, but you keep throwing yourself into danger! I can’t live like this!” she tearfully exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, Valia. I’m so sorry,” he replied, speaking with his face smooshed between her breasts. After a few moments, she released him. He looked around at the stone walls and floor, illuminated by a small fire crackling nearby. “Are we back at the castle?”
“Close, it’s Rays Temple, what’s left of it at least. That last explosion kicked it over like an anthill, but we were able to find a chamber inside that got us some cover. Your condition was even worse than last time, so I didn’t want to risk travel. You’ve been unconscious for two days. Do you think I enjoy seeing you wake up like this? Do you think I enjoy carrying your half-dead body around, getting covered in your blood?”
“No, and I don’t enjoy it either. I’m sorry.” The bleakness of his words and his dead eyes extinguished her anger.
“I was so close,” he mumbled, the exact words he had spoken earlier. “I was so fucking close!” he then roared, punching the nearby wall and splitting his knuckles.
“I know. We failed, all of us. I thought that if I found Valon, he’d just snap back to his old self. He’d greet me as though nothing had changed between us. Deep down, I’d hoped that this time apart had given him time to heal, but I fear he may be too far-gone. The man we saw, the man we fought, that wasn’t my brother.”
“Well whoever he is, I’m not done looking for him. You’ll get your brother back and I’ll get my answers, that’s the only way this ends. There is no quitting, no giving up. I’ll hack off his limbs and chain him up in your basement if that’s what it takes. I’ve waited too long to….”
He was cut off as Valia embraced him, crying onto his shoulder. He put his arm around her and held her close, stroking her hair as her tears ran down his chest. Once she’d calmed down, they got dressed and walked the dark corridors until they finally got outside, where Aithorn and Gradius had set up camp in front of the ruined temple.
“So, you’ve arranged a truce with Gradius?”
“That’s right,” said Valia. “He can’t leave this island without our help.”
Noticing them, Gradius turned. “You’re the boy I’ve been hunting.”
“I am indeed Sir Noah, the Wandering Spirit. You’re Sven Gradius. Believe it or not, we’ve actually met before. I was the faux Harajin you encountered last year.”
“You’re the one who started that mess?”
“I told you I was only an observer, out to watch the fighting. Had you just walked away, I wouldn’t have needed to lie. Besides, after what I did during the last Red Revelry, you should be a huge fan of mine.”
“Do you have any idea how bad I smelled because of that stink you put on my armor?!”
“Keep in mind, that was after you almost burned my arm off.”
“Hey, both of you behave,” Valia snapped.
“Anyway, where’s Aithorn? Warding off monsters?”
“There haven’t been any. Maybe it’s because you deactivated the Wildheart, maybe it’s because of Valon’s explosion, or maybe it’s because they’re still afraid of the guardian ape, but they’ve all been avoiding this area.”
“Anyway, Aithorn has been searching the rubble of the temple, looking for any remnants of Valon’s work; notes hinting to where he might be heading, or relics that weren’t ruined. He’s been working almost nonstop, trying to find something that would make this trip worth it.”
“And everyone else?”
Valia paused. “No one else survived the battle. It’s just the four of us. Aithorn took the time to find and bury every single body.”
Noah sighed. “Yeah, that would be our luck.”
When Noah was well enough to travel, the four began the return journey back to the coast. The monsters were far less aggressive than before. Now that the Wildheart was no longer active, the natural summoning circles had reverted to their original activity level, and every species was in the process of being shaved down to accommodate their environment. Eventually, the island's inhabitants would reach a more stable equilibrium of natural reproduction and death.
The elven ship was in the same condition as when they left it, minus a few critters making it their home. It was strong enough to withstand Gradius’s weight, but everyone kept a close eye to ensure he didn’t start accidental fires. Leaving the island was a bittersweet feeling. They had all experienced enough monster attacks to give them nightmares, but so many lives had been lost, and what was there to show for it? They were leaving with the mark of failure burned onto their hearts.
When they finally arrived in Pulindar, Aithorn’s friends immediately noticed the absence of all the elves serving under him and Valia, but they said nothing. For those who’d dare adventure into Kisara Island, it was a miracle that even four people survived.
Noah stepped onto the dock, but noticed Aithorn remaining on the boat.
“You and Valia will ride back to Sylphtoria from here.”
“What about you?” Noah asked.
“Gradius and I will sail to Colbrand. I don’t want him entering the Anorvan Forest, let alone getting anywhere near Sylphtoria. Suffice to say, the situation has become more complicated, and the king will need an update as to what’s going on. I owe him a face-to-face explanation for abandoning the mission he tasked me with.”
“Valia and I will be sure to tell Elisandra you’re alive and well.”
“And Valon? She deserves to know the role he played in her attack.”
“Telling her won’t accomplish anything. Right now, she believes that the one and only person who is responsible for her attack is dead. If she were to find out about Valon’s involvement, all it would do is torture her, knowing that he’s still out there while she waits for him to face justice. Once Valia and I manage to capture him and I get what I need, then we can discuss how he’ll repent for his crimes.”
“So you’re still going after him?”
“Valon remains my best hope of breaking my curse. I’ll either find him, or I’ll get killed and end up somewhere else. It’s as simple as that. Besides, I promised Valia I’d follow her to the ends of the earth. There is no place I’d rather go, and no one I’d rather go with.”
“You know, you’re not the man I thought you to be when I first left Colbrand.”
“I’ve never been the man anyone thinks me to be. Friends, colleagues, family members, enemies, lovers, none of them knew the real me, knew what kind of person I was. After thousands of years of facades and disguises, this world is finally letting me be my true self.” Noah turned and looked out across the sea. “Sometimes I wonder who or what I was in the very beginning. Was I a spirit conjured into existence? Or was I once a simple man who ended up falling into something bigger than himself? I only care about my beginning because I believe it’ll lead to my end, but I’m still sentimental enough to hope both are happy.
Don’t let yourself get weighed down by the past, Aithorn. It’s behind you for a reason. If you keep looking back, you’ll never move forward, and the world will pass you by. Even an immortal can waste his life if he isn’t careful.”
Aithorn extended his hand. “I’ll take your words to heart. May we meet again, my friend.”
Noah shook his hand. “And under better circumstances.” Then, as the boat began to pull away from the dock, Noah realized that Aithorn had handed him his gold knight emblem.
“That’s your prize for beating me, remember? Hopefully it’ll serve you well in your journey.”
“I’ll give it back after I’ve earned one myself. Good luck, Sir Aithorn. And Gradius, if you come after me again, know that I’ll be much stronger than the first time we met.”
“I’ll take your head, just you wait.”
Noah and Valia waved them off and then left the dock. After retrieving their horses, they made the ride back to Sylphtoria. It was a quiet journey, much less crowded, for better and for worse. The queen hugged them both when they arrived in the city and entered the palace.
“I worried about the two of you nonstop while you were gone,” she said. “Where’s Leuca?”
“Don’t worry, he’s just making a delivery to Colbrand,” said Valia.
She and Noah then told Elisandra of their time on Kisara Island, while leaving out the detail about Valon.
“I’m sorry you weren’t able to get your brother back.”
“We haven’t given up yet,” said Valia.
“Still, it’s a shame. I know how much he means to you. So many deaths with nothing to show for it. You weren’t able to recover any of the stolen relics?”
“I did manage to recover one relic,” Noah said. He held out his hand and conjured the Wildheart from his ring. “This is what caused the monster takeover of Kisara Island. It has incredible powers, able to materialize life forms instantly. The elves had it set up on an altar that boosted its strength, but it should be safe to possess in its current form. And while Kisara Island remains infested, the monster population will soon whittle down to something much more manageable. It may even be possible for the island to be reclaimed.”
Elisandra received it hesitantly. “My God, it’s incredible,” she gasped. “You would hand it over so easily? After what you described in your fight, I would think you’d—”
“It is indeed mighty, and that’s why I don’t want it with me. All my instincts are telling me it’s too dangerous to carry around. I don’t know if it makes up for all the stolen relics, but at least with this, we can leave knowing we paid back some of Valon’s debt. Here, it can at least be properly guarded, though I suggest you improve your security.”
Elisandra sighed. “I suppose I can’t convince you both to stay in Sylphtoria, can I?”
“Sorry,” said Noah. “Once we’ve figured out a plan, we’re going after him again.”
“I understand. But like I said before, there will always be a home and friends for you here, and my bed will always be warm for you. When you succeed in breaking your curse, I hope you’ll return here to spend your remaining years. Besides, until you do leave, I know how the three of us can spend the time.”
To celebrate their return from Kisara Island, Noah, Valia, and Elisandra indulged in each other through all the daylight hours and into the night. Noah’s used his sound-blocking tool to keep the elves below from hearing their queen’s lewd moans.
It was late at night when Valia awoke in the queen’s bed. Elisandra lay beside her, sleeping soundly with the moon shining on her beautiful body. However, Noah was gone. Valia got up and wandered around, finding him out on a balcony looking over the forest. For some reason, he was staring at his hand.
“Noah? What are you doing?” she asked. She joined him on the balcony, the two naked and laced with each other’s sexual scent.
“My powers have been growing, look.” He showed her his hand, and she watched in amazement as it changed before her eyes, shifting in size, age, and skin tone. “If I focus, I can change how my clone looks, letting it take on the appearance of my former bodies from past lives. I think I unlocked this ability after I took the memory tea, but my mana wasn’t potent enough to use it until I was pushed towards the brink of death at Kisara Island.”
“I suppose so. To be honest, I envy you for your magic, same with Valon, Aithorn, and Gradius. I mean, sure, invisibility and illusions are useful, but deep down, I would love to be able to slice boulders in half, create huge explosions, and obliterate my enemies. The power to remake the physical world around you, to destroy the obstacles in your way and shape your destiny with a strength that lies beyond simple muscle and brains, it’s something that every man dreams of, even me. But all my magic can do is distract and deceive.”
“And yet you’re one of the greatest warriors I’ve ever met, one of the most brilliant minds, and easily the best lover.”
Noah chuckled. “Well, I suppose that counts for something. But still, the only reason I was able to push Valon so hard was because I had the Wildheart. Without it, I’d just be beating on his defenses with my sword and shooting flashbangs. We can’t help him if we can’t overpower him, so we need to get stronger, especially me. I need more than parlor tricks and stink bombs.”
“I feel the same way. Valon and I have been inseparable since the day we were born, but we’ve always competed with each other. I know his techniques and styles better than he does, and he could say the same about me. But now, in a little over a year, he’s shot so far ahead of me, and I have to wonder if I’ll ever catch up. For 700 years, no matter how powerful he got, I always saw it as my duty to protect him. How can I do that when he so easily knocks me aside?”
“Well whatever the answer is, we’ll find it together.”
Valia smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “Come back to bed.”
“Hold on; there’s something else I want to show you. My illusions have evolved beyond simply changing my appearance. I can also replicate objects from my memory, at least those I am intimately familiar with.” He held out his hand, and an illusory copy of his phone appeared in his hand, then it transformed into a handgun, a chef’s knife, and a wrench. “It’s still just an illusion, so I can’t actually do anything with them, but they are amusing. Especially this.”
The wrench turned into a saxophone, immaculate and gleaming as though freshly polished. Noah put it to his lips, and though it was immaterial, he could still feel it through some transcendental muscle memory. He began to blow, and though his fingering of the keys was clumsy at first, he quickly got back into the groove and produced a familiar tune. Valia smiled as she heard it, remembering Noah humming this song not so long ago. She remained with him on the balcony, enjoying the smooth jazz blending in with the Nadoku’s prayers.
Thanks for reading! What did you like most? What were your favorite scenes? Book 5 will be available here next January, or if you follow me on patreon, you can read it as soon as it's finished. Look me up, my pen name is Hannibal North. See you all next year!