Searching for a way to reach the capital, Noah takes a job doing protection work for a barge and finds trouble on the way.
The forest gave way to fields of tree stumps, then farmland, and Noah encountered more and more people on the roads, from peasants and commoners to adventurers and armor-plated soldiers. Beyond the farms, guarded by walls and fences, about a hundred or so wood and brick buildings were gathered next to the Paleon Channel. Villagers and adventurers, both human and dwarf, filled the open streets without fear of the monsters in the woods.
It was just like the town of Clive, having the same Medieval charm that enticed Noah’s inner nerd. Of the four inns in the village, only one had a room left available, and he snatched it up before anyone else could claim it. His horse was fed and tended to in the stable out back, and Noah entered the familiar scene of a crowded tavern. All the tables were occupied, so Noah took a seat at the counter. Behind the bartender were three large barrels full of booze, along with shelves of bottles and jugs. Nearby was the entrance to the kitchen, with two servant girls tending to the customers.
“I’ll take the house special and a mug of whatever is in that left barrel.” He was given a pint of ale in a mug that wasn’t very clean and a plate of burned wolf meat with some wheat porridge slopped on the side. Perhaps he should have asked Mary to make him some lunch for the road. He shoveled it down and left some copper coins on the counter. “Do you know who I can talk to about hitching a ride down to the coast?”
The bartender grunted and pointed his chin to the corner, where a potato-headed bargeman was sitting across from a long line of adventurers, each signing a ledger for guard work. Noah watched from a distance and listened to all the questions asked and answered. From what he could tell, guards were paid for the head of every bandit and monster that attacked the ships, but they had to bring their own food and shouldn’t expect a roof over their heads. When things went wrong, any guards who didn’t fight would be thrown overboard, or worse. ‘Henry,’ that was the name he signed with after he got in line.
“There is a shipment of slaves heading out the day after tomorrow. Be at the docks at dawn,” said the bargeman.
Noah now had a room and a way down the channel, so the next step was to get a layout of the town. He first went up to his room to leave his luggage, as well as to perform his usual sweep. Every inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling was checked for anything suspicious, the straw mattress was searched for anything hidden inside, living or nonliving, and he tested the reliability of the door. Everything appeared safe, but Noah still hid his possessions under the bed.
Now lightened, he set out into the muddy streets, surrounded by villagers at work and play and livestock either pulling carts or being carried in them. He passed through the market and examined the wares of each merchant, under tents that kept the summer sun at bay. Furs and fabrics, fresh meat and preserved vegetables, weapons and tools for survival, all were for sale and examined and bought by members of all professions. Took’s location on the channel made it a prime trading hub, allowing for goods to be shipped directly to and from the capital from deeper within the mainland. Children, either homeless or freed from chores, hid in shadows and blind spots, searching for loose pockets and dropped coins. They repeatedly bumped against Noah, pretending it was an accident, and he’d swat at their thieving hands.
Wherever he traveled, there were certain things he’d keep an eye out for. He’d study the ground, looking for areas with bad footing. He’d step into stores, seeing which of them had back exits. He checked the alleys in search of places where he could ambush others or where others might ambush him. He took note of every way in and out of the village, putting together a mental map of the best routes. If there was anything in this town he could use or had to be wary of, he wanted to know. This was not a habit he had picked up since arriving to this world, rather it was a lesson burned into his mind from chaotic and violent lifetimes.
He made his way to the docks to see the channel. According to the map, it split a small eastern subcontinent off from the mainland, almost perfectly straight. He arrived at a cliff made of hewn logs, where ships were either waiting silently, being worked on, or had their cargo exchanged. What intrigued Noah was how close the other side of the channel was, maybe just five hundred feet of open water, and if the map was to be believed, it seemed to retain that width.
He followed the banks, looking for a place low enough to reach the water. Hopefully out of reach of the contaminates of the town, he climbed down to the water and tasted it. It was brackish, the result of freshwater from the land and rivers forming a layer over seawater deeper in the channel. For such a thing to occur, the very bedrock would have had to be split open, a tectonic crack that was filled in by the ocean. How deep did it go? Whether or not this information could help him, he wasn’t sure. It was merely a little factoid to brighten his day. This world was interesting, and interest was the closest he could get to happiness.
It was the middle of the afternoon, so Noah returned to the inn. There was still work for him to do. He locked himself in his room and began pulling out all of his gear and possessions. It was time for the part of adventuring that stories were never told out: maintaining equipment. His blades had to be sharpened and oiled, clothing and anything else made of leather or fabric had to be cleaned and mended, and he had bags of harvested plants waiting to be turned into useful concoctions. He worked while invisible, not wanting a chance to train escape him. The first task he tended to was checking the burn on his back. The area was sore, but the ointments were doing their job and he just needed to change the bandages.
The setting sun and his rumbling stomach eventually pulled him from his room, and he made his way downstairs for dinner. The tavern was packed with townsfolk and adventurers, all eating, talking, laughing, and arguing. Servant girls maneuvered around the crowded tables with trays of food and drinks. There was an open seat at the counter, adjacent to a cloaked figure. He sat beside them and ordered himself a plate. This wasn’t like a modern restaurant with a menu—everyone ate whatever the cooks happened to have on hand. Dinner was bread, sausages, and a baked potato.
While eating, he listened in on as many conversations as he could to pick up scraps of information. ‘Ogre’, that word was being muttered. Apparently, one had been found prowling around the streets before dawn, a scout checking the town’s strengths and weaknesses. It had been slain immediately, in hopes that it would ward off the rest of the tribe. As always, Noah went to bed that night with a knife under his pillow.
The crying of a rooster, such an ugly sound, but every sound is atrocious when it pulls one from a pleasant slumber. Noah sat up in bed and yawned, finally enjoying a full night’s sleep since leaving the last town, or at least, something close to it. Despite being a teenager so many times, no amount of experience could alleviate his adolescent circadian rhythms. He had to exhaust himself every day so he could have any hope of falling asleep before midnight. Living without screens helped.
He got out of bed and splashed water in his face from a nearby wash basin to pry sleep’s tight fingers off his mind. He pulled on his clothes and gear and left his room. The employees of the inn had just woken up like him and had yet to even light the kitchen flames. Breakfast was not on his mind right now. He left the inn and stepped out into the street, yet to receive the direct light of the sun and devoid of all but the earliest risers. Noah stretched and then cast both of his spells. He set off in a jog, using his depleting mana as a timer.
For an adventurer, running was usually done to chase down prey or escape a predator, so Noah did his workout with all of his weapons and anything else he might carry in the field. He ran through the town, putting into practice everything he had learned the previous day and testing out every escape route he had concocted. With both of his spells going at once, his fatigue accumulated several times faster, but he pushed through. He had reached a wall in his magic training, one he was sure he hoped to break through it with enough practice.
Out in the village outskirts, his strength finally left him, and his wound was throbbing. He sat down beneath a tree growing at the side of the road and closed his eyes. Meditation, it seemed to be the best method of restoring his mana without falling asleep or the use of potions, and Noah was closing in on the breathing pattern that would rejuvenate him the most. The sun had fully risen and the birds were making their presence known, each one screaming in their desperation to have sex. It reminded Noah of high school.
His stamina was slowly replenishing, like a glass under a dripping faucet, and his altered breathing no longer required his focus, allowing his mind to wander. His thoughts drifted to that dinner at the farm, and the words of the bandit he had interrogated, how they spoke of gods. In every reality he lived in, Noah had searched for a hint of the divine, whatever power my help him understand his reincarnation ability. Over a hundred lifetimes of searching, all of it fruitless, yet this world offered him some small hope. To claim that magic came from the gods was no different from any other faith declaring the influence of their deities. On the other hand, since no other realities had magic, then perhaps his search had not yet lost its meaning.
Once rested, he returned to the inn and grabbed a quick breakfast, then went back up to his room and pulled off his gear. For the rest of the day, he performed an exercise routine that he had cultivated over several lifetimes, incorporating yoga, calisthenics, and various other techniques. It developed specific muscle tissue, oxygenated the blood, and purged his body of lactic acid and any toxins. Being an adventurer, muscle mass accumulated naturally, though not always in the way he needed it to. Adding this workout would push his body in the right direction.
Like during his run, he performed the routine with both spells activated, wringing every drop of mana out of his body. The floor became damp from his pouring sweat, and its evaporation fogged the nearby window. When he ran out strength, he’d meditate like before. This was how he spent his time from dawn to dusk, stopping only to eat and run errands. Sleep came easily that night, and the sunrise, all too soon. He left the inn with breakfast stowed in his pocket and headed down to the docks. He had already sold his horse and all of his riding gear, as well as anything that he couldn’t carry on his back or in his ring.
The morning was foggy, and the clouds overhead meant it wouldn’t clear up any time soon. At the docks stood four adventurers, consisting of an adult man, two young men, and a young woman. Farther off, he saw the cloaked figure from the inn, carrying a rucksack over one shoulder and a cloth-wrapped bow over the other. Beside the dock, a ship was being loaded with supplies. It was about a hundred feet long with triangular sails, a barge with what Noah guessed to be two levels below deck.
“You guarding this ship too?” The question came from one of the adventurers, a teenage boy with a short sword from his belt and a shield on his back. The words and his expression were friendly.
“That’s right, I’m Henry. I’m guessing the four of you are a party?”
“Fought through thick and thin for over a year now!” said the young woman beside him. Judging by her robes, she appeared to be a mage. “I’m Jen, and this is Pinot, Steven, and Jock.” Steven was taller than Noah and a few years older. He was armed with a crossbow and a confident grin. Jock, the final member, had a thick beard and a mace, but looked friendly.
“You folks ever do guard work like this?”
“I’ve guarded ships on the open sea. These three have never guarded anything bigger than a train of wagons,” said Jock.
“I’ll have you know that that train of wagons attracted every monster in the area and we fought tooth and nail to keep it safe,” Steven replied.
“I know, you brag about it in every bar we go to.”
“That’s because it works. Women love adventurers’ scars.”
“The women you meet just love adventurers’ money,” Jen said.
Noah detached himself from the conversation, which was quickly devolving into an argument that had probably already happened several times in their group. It was ended by a crowd approaching the ship, though most of its members were bound in chains. Slaves, they were the cargo being transported to the capital. Slavery was common in these lands, though the four adventurers still went silent at their approach, or perhaps because of who was leading them. A gruff man with a scarred face and missing fingers, as well as numerous kills under his belt, judging by the look in his one good eye. Accompanied by soldiers to keep the slaves in line, he approached Noah and the adventurers.
“I’m going to say this quick. I’m the captain of this vessel, and you don’t need to know my name, but you do need to know my rules. First rule: none of you go below deck for any reason. I don’t care what falls from the sky, be it rain, hail, snow, or arrows, you stay up top where I can see you. Second rule: unless I say so or we come under attack, you will remain at the stern for the duration of this voyage. I don’t want you getting in my men’s way. Third rule: if we do come under attack and I catch one of you trying to hide or avoid the battle, you’re going overboard, either on your own or with your pockets filled with stones. Fourth rule: you won’t get any food from us, so for your sake, I hope you packed well. Fifth and final rule: your job is to guard my ship, my men, and my cargo, and should any of them receive so much as a scratch, I will hold all of you personally responsible. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Captain,” said Jock, the only one to reply.
Men, women, and children, they were brought below deck, and Noah noticed something as they passed by. Many of them weren’t entirely human. Animalistic features, such as tails, scales, feathers, and canine or feline ears decorated many of their bodies. Beastmen, Noah had heard of them before, but this was his first time seeing them in the flesh. They were the result of humans dabbling in shamanism—magic that channeled the spirits of nature through the body, allowing the caster to take on animal characteristics. This faith opposed the worship of the elemental deities, adding another level of complication to Uther’s war of expansionism.
Noah, Pinot’s group, and the cloaked figure were the last to get on board, and as the ship left the docks, they took their place in the very back of the deck, out of everyone’s way. There was no current to carry them south, only a persistent wind was coming in from the west that filled the sails. Unless something happened, there was nothing for Noah and the other adventurers to do but try to make themselves comfortable for the voyage.
Noah glanced at the stranger from the corner of his vision, keeping their distance from everyone else and not making any movements, allowing them to blend in perfectly and slip from people’s memory. He had been watching them since he arrived at the docks, noting their movements. The large hood did well in hiding their face, and what it couldn’t conceal, they compensated for by subtly turning their head or looking away from everyone else, controlling what angles they were seen from. Even Noah had barely caught a glimpse of their complexion, and the gloves on their hands offered no clue.
Whoever they were, they were good at avoiding detection, which, ironically, is what interested Noah. Stealth measures allowed one to hide from those weaker than themselves, but it drew the attention of those with equal or greater skill.
“So, Henry, what brings you down to the capital?” Jen asked, pulling his focus from the stranger.
“I’m just traveling, you?”
“The three of us are enlisting in the Utheric Knight Academy.”
‘Now we’re talking,’ Noah thought. Information on the academy had been spotty during his travels and to meet these youngsters was a stroke of luck.
“This will actually be our second attempt,” said Pinot.
“What, did you get kicked out, or something?”
“You could say that. None of us managed to pass the screening program last year. That’s how we met. We decided we would train together and give it another shot.”
“What’s the screening program?”
“Well the only way to get in is to receive a letter of recommendation from a noble,” said Steven, “but there isn’t a limit on how many letters they can give out, so plenty of lower-ranked nobles will back a large number of applicants in the hope of increasing their influence and power. The academy needs to weed out the weaker ones or else they’ll be overwhelmed.”
“What did they have you do?”
“Tests of strength and mana, that kind of stuff. Ugh, I still remember the laughs of those rich kids when I was given the boot,” Jen groaned.
“Most nobles send their own kids if they can, but the upper-ranked don’t have any kind of screening. It’s more like they just buy their way in.”
“Not true,” said Jock. “The situation is actually improving from how it used to be. The academy was originally founded for noble houses to earn prestige and titles, or at least something to brag about. Those who graduated just returned home with their ceremonial swords and no real experience. However, when Uther started growing its borders and its list of enemies grew, the regular army could no longer deal with all of the internal and external threats, so something had to change.
Around twenty years ago, Adwith Tarnas warned the king that our military strength was severely lacking and that the academy had to be reformed. No one knows why the king listened to him, this man who came from nowhere, but authority over the academy was taken from the nobles, and all graduating knights fell under the direct order of the royal family. Likewise, the training methods were drastically harshened to create a new, stronger league of knights.
Fighting on the front lines for king and country turned the knighthood into a more respectable profession, one based on their merits and abilities for earning prestige. If not for that, the nobles would have pulled all support from the program or outright rebelled into a civil war. Rather, it galvanized them into making their children as skilled and powerful as possible before even reaching the academy, to give them a greater head start for when they became knights and made names for themselves.
No one, not even future dukes and duchesses can get in and graduate without adequate abilities. Still, the great families fight tooth and nail to hold onto their influence in the academy to get their children preferential treatment. Just opening it to the public with the condition of being backed by a noble nearly started a bloody coup.”
“Is this common knowledge or should I applaud that explanation?” Noah asked, prompting Jock to chuckle.
“I was too old to enter the academy when it was reorganized, so I tried to join the knighthood by first serving in the military, but the life of a lowly soldier wasn’t for me.”
“And this year, things are really getting exciting,” said Pinot. “I heard one of the Zodiac twins is going to be teaching, so anybody who’s anybody is going to try to get in and train under them.”
Noah thought back to when he arrived at Took, how crowded it had been. Most of those adventurers were probably like him, riding the channel down to the capital to enter the academy. He looked over to the hooded figure, sitting away from all of the others and keeping so still that it was easy to forget they were there. Perhaps they were also planning on entering the academy as well.
Wait, they were up to something. It was done with little movement, pulling a small bottle out of their robes and letting the dark liquid inside spill onto the deck. Noah cast both of his spells and got up with his clone saving his space, giving everyone the impression he was still there. The figure didn’t sense Noah’s approach or see the liquid on his fingers as he examined it. It was blood, but from what? Should he rock the boat on the chance that this is something dangerous, or see what comes next and enjoy the ride? In reality, he had made his choice before he even came over.
He returned to his spot and cancelled his spells, leaving no one to suspect his movements. He kept the stranger in the corner of his view, curious as to what would happen next, his attention was eventually drawn elsewhere. Several hours after leaving Took, a wordless snarl echoed from up above, drawing all gazes to an ogre standing at the top of a nearby cliff. It glared at everyone onboard with its single hate-filled eye, then put a horn to its mouth and released a thunderous bellow that swept across the landscape.
“Steven!” Pinot yelled.
“I know!” he replied, raising his crossbow and taking aim. Before he could fire, an arrow was planted in the ogre’s chest, and Noah turned to the stranger, armed with a bow like none he had ever seen before. It was made of a material he couldn’t identify, forming web-like struts that gave it the shape of a compound bow. The ends were had been outfitted with two large monster talons, like Karambit knives.
“More will be coming,” the stranger said. It was the voice of a woman.
“Captain,” said Noah, “if you have any tricks to make this ship move faster, now’s the time to use them.”
Still gripping the steering wheel with his knobby hands, the captain shouted to his men. “Extend the oars! Put the slaves to work!”
Below deck, the slaves were lined up on benches with their hands bound to long oars extending out of the sides of the ship. They began rowing with all of their strength, out of fear of getting beaten. Already, Noah could hear shouts and roars coming from either side of the channel. Their enemies had the high ground. Noah turned to the young woman as he conjured his bow from within his ring. “You take port, I’ll take starboard. Steven, if any of them try to swim towards the ship, you deal with them. Can any among you use magic?”
“I can use water magic at medium range,” said Jen.
“Then you, Pinot, and Jock will fight any that manage to get on board. Here they come.”
Alongside the channel, the ogres appeared, chasing after the ship with weapons taken from their victims, including bows, and arrows soon began to rain down. “Water Shield!” Jen cast. A blue magic circle appeared on the ground around her, and water from the channel floated through the air and created a protective dome over her head for she and her friends to hide under. Any arrows that struck either bounced off or were simply swallowed.
Noah and the woman moved across the deck of the ship with agile steps to keep from being focused on. Even with arrows falling, Noah’s curiosity made him glance at the woman whenever he could. Her movements were light, trained, and she started doing it spontaneously, no communication between them and neither imitating the other. Interesting. They countered with arrows of their own, the two of them only taking a moment to focus each shot. Her speed and accuracy proved her to be the superior archer. She was pulling arrows out of her rucksack and firing them with speed he had never seen before.
Up above, the ogres were taking hits and retreating from the banks. Anything short of an instant kill failed to stop them, and they had no trouble keeping up with the ship. The captain kept the ship sailing down the direct middle of the channel, his one eye swerving back and forth between the narrowing sides. They were passing through the roots of a mountain, where the bedrock was exposed. When the land cracked open, the areas with more soil widened with time because of erosion, but here, the cliffs were closing in.
Now in range, the ogres began throwing spears and stones, each impact damaging the ship. The captain ordered his men to go below deck, though Noah and the others were still tasked with fending off these predators. It became all the more difficult when some ogre’s lucky arrow struck Noah in the back of the leg.
“Goddamn arrows! Every fucking time!”
“Jock!” Pinot yelled, following a groan of pain from the man.
Noah looked over, seeing him lying in a pool of blood with a stone next to him. No time to waste, Noah ripped the arrow out of his leg, loaded it into his bow, and fired it back at the ogres. He pulled out a healing potion, emptied half of it onto his leg, and then tossed the bottle to Pinot. “Get him below deck and give him this!”
“Hey, I said—” The woman silenced the captain by sending an arrow flying past his head and leaving a small cut on his ear.
Up ahead, impatient ogres were starting to jump off the cliffs to try and swim over to the ship, and they’d soon be able to land directly on the deck. Noah looked over to Steven, downed by a thrown spear. Noah tossed him a healing potion, and in exchange, stole his arrows. As he moved back along the deck, the woman turned to him.
“I’ll go high,” she said, “you go low.”
He stepped up onto the bow of the ship and began firing at the ogres in the water, either rendering them still or causing them to thrash in pain and panic. These things were fast swimmers despite their bulk and more were leaping off the cliffs. Behind him, the woman took aim and her bow was shrouded in mana with runes appearing in the air.
One arrow was loaded and five were launched, the other four made of condensed mana. As per the name, they spread like buckshot as they flew and managed to take out two ogres as they were falling like they were clay pigeons. She repeated the action with lightning reflexes, swiveling her focus to the left and right sides.
One ogre finally managed to land on the deck, causing the floorboards to buckle under its weight. It went to Pinot, the smallest defender, and swung at him with a wooden club. His shield managed to save his life, even if he was tossed through the air by the swing. It prepared a second attack, but took an arrow to the back of the head from the woman. Before she could turn around, an ogre landed behind her and lunged. It managed to seize her cloak and rip it off, as well as separating her from her bag.
Late teens, close to twenty years old, with porcelain skin, piercing eyes, and golden hair tied in a bun. She was wearing a blue battle dress, a garment made of a strong fabric for wearing underneath armor. She spun around, her dress billowing with each movement, and slashed the throat of the ogre with one of the talons at the ends of her bow. Another ogre attacked her, this one swinging down a sword, and she blocked with her bow. Her weapon should have snapped like a twig, but the material was resistant and coated with thick scales. Holding the spine of the bow with both hands, she swung at the ogre and slashed its wrist with the string. It was sharp and serrated like a wire saw, cutting deep enough into the ogre’s flesh to sever the vital arteries.
A third, charging towards her with a dagger in hand, was stopped when Noah attacked it from behind and pierced it through the heart with his sword. He grabbed the ogre’s dagger, turned, and threw it at one of its kin that had climbed onboard. He and the woman looked at each other and exchanged a nod. Neither knew anything about the other, but if there was one thing they could trust, it was each other’s skill. This kind of natural professionalism and competence, Noah couldn’t remember the last time he encountered someone like this. He was starting to get excited.
The oars were slowing as the slaves ran out of strength, and the sails were starting to go slack. The slowing vessel allowed more ogres to climbing onboard. They closed in on Noah and the woman, now standing back to back. No fear or hesitation, they both lashed out in a storm of slashes and stabs. Noah wielded his longsword, hacking off limbs and carving open flesh. Two ogres came at him from opposite directions like charging bulls. He swung at one but it blocked with its shield. At the same time, Noah drew his short sword and stabbed the second in the chest. Thrust, key turn, remove, and back in the sheath. The first tried to grab him and he caught its wrist. Twisting its arm exposed its guard, jabbing it in the eye with the hilt of his sword stunned it, and a slash to the throat finished it off.
Another two were coming at him. Noah activated both of his spells for a brief moment, leaving his clone where he stood and then lunging forward. He slashed one across the stomach, spilling its guts, then beheaded the other from behind. He released the spells as another ogre charged and dispatched it with a brutal slash from shoulder to hip.
In the corner of his eye, he saw the woman spinning back and forth, slashing and hacking at any foe that approached her. Both the talons and the string carved through flesh with ease, and by flipping the bow over in her hands, she could block attacks. One such opponent came at her with a club and she parried the downward swing. She then pounced like a lioness, hitting the ogre in the chest with her knees and riding it down to the ground. As soon as its back hit the floor, she slit its throat, then immediately dodged the executioner’s swing of a sword-wielding ogre. She rolled across the deck and grabbed an arrow embedded in the floorboards, then loaded it and fired.
“Cluster Shot!” Like her other spell, four arrows of mana were launched along with a real arrow and all found their mark in the ogre’s chest.
She ducked down, avoiding a horizontal swing of another sword, then spun around and kicked her opponent in the temple. The blow disoriented it long enough for her to grab another arrow and plant it in the center of its eye.
Looking over, Noah saw Pinot’s team trying to guard the captain. All of them were bloody and struggling to hold their enemies at bay. Despite the battle, he didn’t miss the sound of wood smashing or the vibrations under his feet. He looked over the railing and saw a hole had been made in the starboard side of the hull, with both ogres and water streaming in. He turned to the woman and handed her his quiver.
“I need to go below deck and try to buy us time before we sink.”
“I’ll handle things up here.”
“Steven, Jen, come with me!”
He pulled them from the captain’s side and they followed him down below deck where the slaves were supposed to be rowing. Three ogres had gotten in and were fighting with the crew. The water was at everyone’s ankles and getting higher.
“I’ll deal with the ogres. Steven, cut the slaves loose and get them to the stern, portside. We need to shift the weight of the ship. Jen, can you use your shield spell to try and block the hole?” The two of them stammered, barely holding it together with all that was going on. “Whatever, do it.”
He didn’t wait for a reply and attacked the three ogres. Minus some small portholes to let in sunlight, only swinging lanterns pierced the darkness. With the commotion and unreliable light, Noah felt no need to conceal his magic. He activated both spells, letting his foes focus on the oncoming illusion while he attacked their unguarded sides. Blood sprayed with every slash and strike of his sword, mixing with the water pouring into the cabin.
While Noah dealt with the ogres, Steven freed the slaves from the oars and coaxed them towards the back of the ship. Jen, struggling to maintain her mana output, used the water pouring in to create a shield and plug the hole. It was only a temporary measure, but it would have to suffice. As more weight was moved towards the opposite side of the ship, the hole soon rose above the surface of the water.
Noah approached Steven and handed him an oar. “You guard Jen. Knock back any ogres that try to come through that shield.” He didn’t bother waiting for their replies, and they had already accepted that he was the one to listen to, so he left them there and went back above deck.
Outside, he found Pinot trying to steer the ship, with Jock guarding him and the woman continuing to shoot arrows. The captain was on the floor, either dead or knocked out.
“How are we looking?” he hollered.
Before he could receive a reply, explosions blossomed across the ship’s bow, much of the front half now burning without limit. One of the ogres was launching fire spells, the last thing they needed.
“Any ideas?!” Pinot frantically shouted.
Noah looked around, focusing on every detail around him and coming up with a plan. “Keep the ship going and run it aground as soon as you see a place we can dismount. Jock, mash up these bodies and use them to put out the flames. I’ll do what I can to keep the masts from catching.”
“You can’t be serious!” Jock yelled.
“When life gives you grapes, stomp them to make wine.”
Noah got to work on the rigging, and while he didn’t have experience with this particular type of ship, he had spent enough years sailing to figure out the specifics. He had to pull the sails out of the reach of the flame, because if they caught fire, they’d be dead in the water. He had to unfasten and redo knots, both down on the deck and up on the masts, something that was not a one-man job. As he worked, the archer continued shooting at the ogres. They had learned to fear her, and now those with magic abilities were stepping up to try and destroy the ship. Beneath her flying arrows, Jock was using his mace to smash corpses into a bloody pulp and then toss them onto the flames. Minus the gristly sound and nauseating smell of burning innards, it was working perfectly, though the ship had about reached its limit.
“There’s open land ahead!” Pinot shouted.
The rocky cliffs were giving way to earthen banks and forest, where the ogres were waiting. The archer stepped onto the bow and cleared a spot, with the ship finally running aground. Noah and the archer dismounted, grateful to be on solid ground. The ogres came out of the woodwork, carrying shields to block the storm of arrows from the woman. Noah cast his first spell, seemingly disappearing in thin air as he closed in on his foes. The archer was still focused on her targets, but he saw her glances as she tried to find him, soon cursing in the belief that he had abandoned them. If not for her, he probably would have.
Noah went to work hacking and slashing at his foes, and their screams and spraying blood confused both the tribe and Pinot’s team, coming to join the fight. Noah could only stem the flow, he couldn’t deal with them all, nor was he himself safe. Perhaps it was blind luck, perhaps the ogre had figured it out. All that mattered was the hand grabbing Noah’s right arm and the raised hatchet. No time to draw his backup sword, Noah punched the savage in the eye. It screamed in agony and Noah too winced. His finger was broken, due to his ring. He tried to avoid punching with his left hand for this very reason.
He could still hold his sword, but he couldn’t wear the ring on his broken finger, and he opened up some distance and pulled it off. As soon as it was removed, the ogre blindly tackled him, knocking it from his hand as he was pinned to the ground. Its meaty hands tried to close around his invisible throat and he pulled out his knife and stabbed it in the temple. Looking back, the ring, no longer concealed by his mana, was in the hand of a female ogre. He assumed it was female, due to one of her tits hanging out like she was a Neanderthal. She ran off, sending Noah’s heart sinking into his stomach. Most of his equipment, money, and potions were in that ring, not to mention his letter of recommendation and his bow.
Nearby, he heard shouts and screams, and looking over to the ship, he saw the slaves trying to make a run for it, only for several to be grabbed by the ogres and carried off. “Jen, Steven!” Pinot shouted as his friends were beaten into submission and then hauled away like luggage. The ogres were fleeing, perhaps cutting their losses with how many of their ranks they had lost. Either way, the battle seemed to be over, though it couldn’t be called a victory.
Pinot, about to chase after them, was stopped by the woman. “They’ll kill you easily if you chase after them. Leave it to me.”
“I’m coming with you,” said Noah upon releasing his spell.
“I can handle this.”
“One of them took my ring and I’m not leaving without it.”
“Very well, we leave in two minutes.”
“I’m not letting you kids go off on your own,” Jock said as the woman began gathering arrows and stuffing them in her bag.
“The slaves have made their escape. The crew is still onboard and they’re injured,” she replied. “You need to look after them in case the ogres come back. We’ll track them down to wherever they set up camp and exterminate them.” She turned to Noah, having mended his finger with a few drops of his last potion. “You ready?”
He shouldered his backpack, now lightened for easier travel. “Let’s go.”
They departed, diving into the forest with the heavy footprints of the ogres guiding their path. Their steps were fast and light, and they maintained a pace that would let them conserve their strength. No words were shared between them while they ran and Noah liked it that way. This woman intrigued him the way few others ever had, and he wanted to savor the mystery. They worked well together, and the less they talked to each other, the more it impressed him.
After battling on the ship for so long, their stamina was running low, and they finally had to stop. It was the sound of a creek and the dryness of their throats that finally convinced them to stop, and neither of them could keep from leaning on their knees and gasping for air.
They moved down to the creek, taking turns filling their canteens while the other stood watch. They sat side by side on a flood-swept log and ate lunch silently. Travelers’ rations were rarely appetizing, but hunger and fatigue were the best seasonings.
“That magic you used to disappear and reappear, what was it?” She spoke without looking at him.
“I’m not sure, really. I’m hoping I’ll be able to find out in the capital. Right now, what I’m more curious about is why the daughter of a noble would do something like bait a pack of ogres to attack a ship on a channel.”
“You’re wrong on both counts.”
“True, your dress and bow, despite their quality, don’t guarantee your lineage and you’re clearly no stranger to the field, but everything else about you screams high society. From your skin and hair, I know that you grew up with hot baths, soaps, and perfumes, rather than just a rough cloth and a rain barrel. And the way you move and your posture show not just combat experience. You were taught noble etiquette and formal dancing.
As for the ogres, I saw the blood you poured on the deck of the ship. What was it, their favorite prey?” She looked at him with stoic eyes. “I’m not judging, just curious.”
She leaned forward on her knees, looking out across the creek. “I’ve been following that tribe for the past eight days after they destroyed two villages in my family’s territory. The blood was from a pregnant female. The males, despite being ravenous beasts, furiously defend their mates and their young. They wouldn’t have tried their luck against a town as large as Took, so I decided to lure them to the channel with that blood.”
“And the fact that it was a slave ship had nothing to do with it?”
“I figured I could help them escape in the commotion.”
“Isn’t slavery the norm in these lands?”
“That is something I plan on changing. I fight for their freedom, and my own.” She got to her feet. “You can call me Audrey. Are you ready?”
“You can call me Henry. You lead, I’ll follow.”
They set off once more, now at a quicker pace with their breathing in sync. The ogre tracks were tantalizingly fresh, but they never saw the creatures themselves. To keep running like this after chasing the ship so far, they were a formidable race. Eventually, the sun’s proximity to the horizon was beyond ignoring.
“Ogres only take prisoners to pit them against their young as training, then cook and eat them. When the sun sets and the fires are lit, we’ll have lost them,” Audrey said as she ran.
“Don’t worry, I think we’re getting close.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“All of the largest trees around here were logged a while ago. There might be an abandoned settlement nearby where they’re bedding down.”
“These lands have been fought over for thousands of years, there are ruins and ghost towns everywhere!” She spoke with excitement in her voice, and while it wasn’t a smile, her expression had brightened.
True to Noah’s words, the forest gave way, exposing a derelict town built on the bank of a river that would join the channel. The wood had paled under the sun and rotted, with many of the buildings even caving in as time went on. There was no telling when its original inhabitants disappeared, not that it mattered, as it had now become the temporary home of the ogre tribe. Noah could hear chanting and roaring in the center, as well as metal on metal. The ogres had gathered by the light of a bonfire and formed a ring of their ranks. In the center, a slave was fighting for her life against an ogre whelp with a rusty sword.
“There isn’t enough time for recon, we have to get in there now.”
“Sounds like fun, let’s go.”
No hesitation, they charged into the town, seeing the ogres up ahead with their backs turned. “Scatter Shot!” Audrey cast. She fired an arrow with several mana counterparts, each of them burying themselves in a fleshy target and drawing howls of pain. Their alarm broke up the fight and all of the ogres turned to face the intruders. This time, it was more females than males, but they were just as bloodthirsty and charged with weapons overhead.
Audrey was firing at her full speed and the ogres were spreading out to flank her and Noah from all sides. Noah cast his spells, and any ogres that came close met his sword. Like on the ship, they fought back to back, Audrey keeping them at bay and Noah dealing with any that managed to avoid her arrows. Their rhythm was then broken, and quite painfully, by a shockwave in the form of a wind spell. It slammed into the two of them like a runaway car, knocking them through the air like ragdolls. Noah had no idea which ogre sent it, and with how his head was spinning, he didn’t expect that to change. The force had been dispersed across their entire bodies, so minus one or two broken ribs, he wasn’t badly harmed, and Audrey was slowly getting back on her feet. The problem was they had both dropped their weapons when they were struck and the ogres weren’t going to let this opportunity slip by.
Noah staggered to his feet, struggling to maintain his balance while his mind and body did a hard reboot. One ogre wouldn’t give him a chance to rest and charged towards him. By the skin of his teeth Noah managed to draw his short sword and drive it into the beast’s heart, though its momentum ending up pulling the sword from his hand. Nearby, he saw Audrey grab one of her arrows and stab a charging ogre in the eye. Noah looked around, seeing a nearby corpse with a bow on its back.
“Audrey!” he yelled as he tossed the bow to her.
“Henry!” she replied as she simultaneously tossed a sword to him.
Both weapons were caught and the battle resumed at full fury with arrows and blood flying. The ogre that had launched the wind spell revealed itself, hurling a ball of air from its hand that glowed like a neon sign. It was aimed for Noah’s clone and simply passed through it, ending up striking a rundown cottage and causing it to collapse. Noah closed in on the mage and beheaded it with a swing, while Audrey dealt with two ogres trying to launch fireballs. The last of the light came with the last of the ogres, the younglings eager to prove themselves, and they were dispatched with little trouble.
Finally, the battle was over. Both Noah and Audrey stood, surrounded by corpses, their hands, faces, and clothes stained with blood, and their breathing ragged. Their ears were strained, trying to pick up any sounds of an ambush or survivors fleeing. Nothing.
“Thank you,” Audrey said.
“You don’t have to thank me.”
“I do, because you’re one of the few men I’ve ever met that I can say it to wholeheartedly.”
“You did it!” they heard. They looked over to see Steven and Jen running towards them, the two of them beaten and bloody but alive.
“You saved us!” Jen exclaimed.
“How are the slaves?” Audrey asked.
“Two of them were killed before you arrived, but the rest will live.”
“Are they still here?”
“Come and see.”
Audrey and Noah were led to the center of town, where the slaves were huddled around the fire. As the four adventurers approached, they got to their feet, either fearful or defensive.
“We’re not going back,” one man warned, sporting a pair of broken antlers.
“Yes you are,” said Audrey, “back to your homelands, or wherever it is you wish your feet to carry you. I did not take this job to deliver you to the capital, but to deliver you from bondage. What you do now and what happens to you is your choice. You are free.”
Their reactions were mixed, some skeptical and most were relieved, most hugging each other with tears of joy pouring down their gaunt cheeks.
“So what now?” Jen asked.
“We spend the night here, and tomorrow, we’ll make our way back to the channel to regroup with the others,” said Audrey.
“First we should do something about all these bodies before something even meaner than an ogre comes prowling,” said Noah. “We can just toss them into the river and let the current carry them away. However, a female ogre stole my ring, and I absolutely can’t afford to leave it behind or lose it, so for now, we’ll just move the males. Can I trust you all?”
A human woman stepped forward. “You helped save us and free us. We are in your debt and will do whatever we can to aid you.”
While everyone carried the male ogres to the river, Noah scoured the village for the females. He had only the moon and a torch he was carrying for light, but his vision went beyond that. When his invisibility was active, he became aware of the mana around him, as though his own mana formed a lens over his eye. It was rarely helpful. His original hope of being able to gauge others’ strength was crushed long ago, and he couldn’t differentiate sources, so everyone looked the same to him. Luckily, he could tell when something carried mana, such as a monster recently summoned from a magic circle, or in this case, a magic ring.
He moved through the battlefield, the soil reeking of blood and voided bowels, searching for a twinkling light in the darkness. Some ogres weren’t yet dead, simply too wounded to move, and their mana gave them away. He’d finish them off and the aura that shrouded them would vanish, like the heat leaving their corpses. He was started to grow fearful before he finally found it, on the ground next to a female with an arrow in her back.
The village was eventually cleared, leaving everyone too exhausted to eat, not that there was much to eat anyway. They gathered around the fire in the center of town, simply falling asleep on the bare earth, though Noah and Audrey remained awake, staring into the flames.
“Tomorrow I’ll lead Steven and Jen back to the ship and make sure that the rest of the slaves are freed, then I must return home to declare the ogre tribe has been vanquished,” said Audrey.
“I’ll keep heading south to the capital.”
They didn’t speak after that, but the silence wasn’t awkward. Rather, it was comforting. Nothing needed to be said, the quiet didn’t need to be broken. It was when he laid back, ready to fall asleep, that he turned to her and spoke. “My real name is Noah, by the way.”
It was the first time he had seen her smile, and then, a small laugh. “I’m Alexis.”