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Introduction:

Noah and Valia race to escape Uther.
Fugitives

The waning moon cast its light, draping the shadows of the passing clouds upon the town. The white radiance streamed through the glass windows of a room at the inn, leaving two figures, Noah and Valia, standing in the thin darkness and relying on their sense of taste and touch. They savored each other’s sweet flavor as their lips formed a seal of passion and their tongues danced.

Their embrace was tender, and though their hands wandered of their own volition, it was more than attraction that bound them together. Outside that room was a world of enemies, forcing them to stand back-to-back and fight for their lives, but in this tiny bastion of comfort and privacy, they could finally face each other.

Valia pushed Noah’s jacket off his shoulders and removed his shirt, and he went to work unfastening her leather corset. More than simple armor to protect her stomach, it made her already-ample breasts appear even more prominent. As it fell away, he felt her relax in his embrace, as her true self continued to emerge.

Next, he began unbuttoning her shirt, but excitement pulled his mouth from hers, and he began kissing her neck. Her ebony skin felt so smooth to his lips, and he could detect every tremble of excitement that moved through her.

She hummed in bliss and removed her shirt, letting her breasts reacquaint with his massaging hands. His fingers sank into her flesh, unable to fully hold her endowment. This was not their first time being intimate, but their weight and softness still left him spellbound, while his every gentle caress and powerful fondle invoked a quaking breath of euphoria from her. She soon stepped back and fell back onto the bed behind her. Her long silver hair scattered as she fell, like a bird of living glass stretching its wing.

He undid the laces of her boots and pulled them off, then kicked off his own while she unfastened her belt and removed her leather pants. They hugged her perfect ass as though painted on, but now, she lay bare before him, gazing lovingly with eyes that gleamed in the dark like stars. Though revered on the battlefield as one of the greatest sword masters in the world, it was not the passion of combat that filled her.

Noah crouched down and ran his lips and tongue across her thighs, his every touch making her gasp. She spread her legs and invited him to continue tasting her. Her arousal was undeniable, a wellspring of sensual nectar, and Noah went down on her like he was dying of thirst. She had a sweetness that his past human lovers lacked, the taste of an elf.

“Oh God! Oh yes!” Valia moaned in ecstasy as she ran her fingers through his hair.

She’d arch her back when he played with her clit, massage her breasts when he stimulated on her gate, and moan to the heavens when he explored her depths with his tongue. It was all a testament to the intensity of Noah’s oral skills, leading to orgasm after orgasm that swept through her like a tsunami of pleasure. The warmth of her legs on the sides of his face made him feel like a cat in a sunbeam, but with each climax, she squeezed his head ever tighter, eventually forcing him to move on.

He held himself over her, savoring the expression on her face. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met and perhaps the most interesting he’d ever had by his side. Even after living for thousands of years, seeing that glimmer in her eyes and the look on her face as she gazed at him made his heart flutter the way few women could. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a tender embrace, gentle but unbreakable.

Her body welcomed his penetration, and a joyful coo passed her lips. It took him only a few moments to reach his preferred rhythm, a steady chain of thrusts that let him enjoy her tongue swirling around his mouth. She held him tight, even wrapping her legs around his waist as though fighting to hold onto every passing second, but her embrace loosened when he picked up speed. Her feet rose with his intensity, soon up in the air with her toes curling while soft murmurs became a moan.

She was like an elegant Stradivarius, crafted by divine hands, and Noah used his bow to produce a melody that would awe any who heard it. His vigorous thrusts did not ease with time, and every gyration of his hips would bring her ecstasy. When he wasn’t kissing her lips or neck, he’d hold himself over her, relishing the sight of her breasts tumultuously shaking with each thrust and the look on her face as she moaned to the gods. The pool of moonlight moved from the floor and onto the bed as he finally climaxed, and only now did he stop to catch his breath. Valia, too, was out of breath, overwhelmed by bliss.

She reached out and cupped his cheeks. “Where have you been all my life?” she murmured, inspiring him to lean down and kiss her.

“I’ve been around.”

Valia rolled him onto his back, now straddling his lap. He had gone flaccid after his orgasm, but she wouldn’t let such a thing get in the way. She grasped his deflated member and dotingly stroked it, and once he had regained his erection, she rode him like a wild stallion. She rose and fell, bouncing on his cock with erotic delight. He noticed the light in her eyes, the same light he saw when he fought her for the first time. It was the light only those she truly respected, those she considered an equal, got to see.

As a warrior, her physical strength was immense, and her womanhood gripped him like she was trying to siphon his very life force, and the warmth, the softness, made him not want to pull out. The moonlight shined off her chestnut skin, illuminating her like an angel, while her movements and moans were deliciously sinful. The way she ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her breasts, the lewd pitch of her voice, and the infatuation in her eyes left Noah mesmerized.

She’d lean back and undulate her body like a belly dancer, letting Noah enjoy the sight, then lean forward and gasp as he massaged and sucked on her tits. Lust and excitement left her nipples pert, making them all the easier for him to wrap his lips around and tease her. Her strength failed after climaxing, and she’d drape herself across him, letting Noah buck his hips and drive into her with powerful thrusts.

After his second shot, Valia dismounted and took his deflating member in her mouth. In the brief time since they initiated their relationship, her bedroom skills had grown by leaps and bounds, and she dedicated herself to returning the pleasure he heaped upon her. She was a fast learner, but with someone like Noah as her partner, that was natural.

Her movements were committed, from running her tongue up the shaft to sucking on the glans. She took her time with it, pampering Noah with the softness of her mouth and salacious efforts. He stroked her hair and caressed her cheek as she worked to convey his appreciation. Once he regained his rigidity, she turned away from him and shook her ass, inviting him to hit all the walls once more with the moonlight shining off her back.

He returned his sword to her sheath, taking her from behind with unbridled vitality. He had a solid hold on her hips, and his eyes were glued to her ass, toned, round, and beautiful. It clapped loudly against his lap over and over, sending ripples through both their bodies while his cock thoroughly ravished her depths.

Her lewd voice demanded freedom, and she’d cry out to him and the gods in the same breath. It was a perfect addition to the creaking and thumping of the bed and the lascivious echo of flesh striking flesh. He was fast and powerful, but she took it all with a moan and a smile.

“I’m cumming! I’m cumming!” she exclaimed as her body went completely limp.

Noah moved atop her, continuing to drive deep into her pussy while running kisses across her shoulders and neck. His weight comforted her like a blanket, and her warmth drew him like a moth to a flame. He wrapped his arms around her, and they lay on their sides, with Noah’s dynamic thrusts wrecking her composure and making the bed rumble across the floor. Her raised leg granted him better access while their tongues swirled in an adoring kiss once more.

Further heightening her pleasure, Noah went to work massaging her breasts. They overflowed from his grip, demanding his kneading fingers. His thrusts didn’t slow, even as he played with her nipples. It was impossible to resist them, but Noah managed to free one hand and stroke her clit. Valia’s euphoric voice could almost shatter glass, but there was still further to go. Noah broke their kiss and wrapped his lips around the tip of one of her long elf ears. It was more than Valia could bear.

“No! Please! It’s too much! I’m going to go crazy!”

A cruel man, Noah ignored her and continued his four-pronged assault, resulting in Valia climaxing harder than ever in her life. The sky outside was clear, but a sensual summer storm raged within that room. They continued like that for a while, pushing the limits of their bodies. Like Noah, Valia’s physical stamina was almost beyond measure. At times, she’d beg him to let her rest, but as soon as he’d stop, she’d be on top of him, as if possessed by demons of lust. Drenched in their sexual fluids, their bed served as the stage upon which they danced the night away.

After several spirited hours, Noah and Valia finally collapsed, laying side by side and gasping for air. When on the road, they couldn’t go at it so long and vigorously, so they wanted to enjoy this room to its fullest. Once she had caught her breath, Valia got up and walked away from the bed on wobbly legs. It took all of her strength just to remain upright, when a normal person would be numb from the waist-down. She reached into her bag and pulled out, of all things, a gonlief cigarette, one of the last from Colbrand. A smoke after sex had become a habit of theirs since they were intimate for the first time.

After lighting it with a match, Valia took a drag and exhaled slowly, then leaned against the window frame and stared at the night sky. Noah watched her, burning the sight into his memory. Every inch of her was perfect; her long legs, sultry hips, toned belly, bounteous tits, and symmetrical face. It was as if some amatory sentience had sculpted her.

The moonlight shined off her body, polished from the moisture of their passion, and every strand of her hair gleamed like ice, accentuated by the thin wisp of smoke rising from the end of her cigarette. After their hardcore romp just minutes ago, all Noah wanted was to brush his fingers across her cheek and kiss her like it was their first time all over again.

As he gazed upon her, Noah began to hum a soft tune, the smoothest jazz. Valia’s pointed ears twitched, and she flashed him a smile. “What is that? It’s beautiful.”

“Just a song you remind me of. Looking at you now, it’s like I can hear it echoing through the room.”

“Is it one of the songs on that phone thing?”

“Regretfully, no. But if I had the right instrument, I’d play it right now.”

Valia giggled and returned to the bed, sitting on Noah’s lap and sharing her cigarette. “Lie to me,” she said as he released a cloud of smoke.

“What?”

She leaned down and whispered the words once more in his ear. “Lie to me. I want to see how good you are.” She sat back up, running her hands across his chest as she awaited his response.

Noah smiled and took another drag. “I am so sick of you.”

“My, my, you aren’t nearly as convincing as you think you are.”

He held her hand and interlaced their fingers. “Well? I’d like to see you better.”

Valia once more leaned down and kissed him. “I’ve had better.”

“Sorry I’m so inept,” he said between gasps from their ongoing kiss. “By the way, the room silencer burned out a while ago.”

“Very funny.”

“No, I’m serious. See?”

Valia looked to a nearby table, where one of Noah’s magic tools sat. It consisted of two round pieces sliding together, completing a magic formula that would block all sound from leaving the room. The problem with magic tools is that they deteriorated rapidly with use. The carefully-inked in***********ions in the wood now looked like they had been scrawled with a hot iron.

“Oh God…” Valia muttered.

“I think it was when you had your tongue in my ear that it started to smoke, and I think it finally gave in when I was gripping the headboard. I’m surprised you didn’t notice first, but I guess you were preoccupied.”

Valia rolled off him, covering her face with her hands and groaning in embarrassment. “That was hours ago! You mean everyone in the inn heard us?”

“The way you were moaning, they probably heard you all the way in Vandheim.”

She slapped his chest. “Oh, shut it.”

“When I was in the town of Clive, I gained quite a lot of infamy for that. Sorry, but if you’re going to travel with me, you should get used to everyone hearing you orgasm.”

“That is not something I want people to know about me!” Then, despite her anger, she started to laugh. “Though I suppose I would sound rather ungrateful if I complained about you making me cum too loudly.”

“Well, maybe a little bit.”

“I guess it’s back to having quickies in the woods.”

“We’ll manage somehow.”

Valia kissed him once more. “Can you hum that song again?” Noah recited the melody while she snuggled up against him, stretching her arm across his chest. “Just like that. Sing for me, please,” she murmured as she closed her eyes. Noah pulled the blanket over them and continued humming while Valia drifted to sleep.

----------

The sun had risen when Valia awoke, her slumber interrupted by movement outside. “They’re here,” she said.

Noah was standing by the window, looking outside while he fastened his belt. “It looks to be two bronze knights and a handful of soldiers.”

She yawned and stretched. “That’s it? Well, in that case, I can just go back to sleep.”

“As much as I would love to join you, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse, and we can’t exactly sit down for breakfast right now. So come on, up an at em’.”

She sighed and stood up. “Fine, but I don’t normally get out of bed for anything less than a silver-rank.”

“But you’ll get in bed with a bronze?” Noah teased.

Valia walked over and kissed him on the cheek. “Only because you asked me so sweetly.”

She turned to get her clothes, and Noah playfully slapped her on the rear. He looked back out the window as she got dressed. “They’re talking to the innkeeper. He must have heard you moaning my name last night and connected the dots.”

“Oh sure, blame this on me.”

“Do you want to get the horses, or shall I?”

“You do it. I have a better chance of talking these guys down.”

After they got dressed and gathered their things, they left their room and split up. Noah activated his magic, and his mana formed a protective shroud, rendering him invisible to even the sharpest eyes. More than simply bending light or optical camouflage, it was the power of illusions, concealing almost every facet of his existence, both his presence and influence.

His complaints of hunger were apt, and were it not for the noise-canceling effect of his mana shroud, his growling stomach would have been audible to all those he passed. He headed for the stables out back, and while preparing the horses, Valia went downstairs into the bar, where the innkeeper spoke to the two knights. They were both in their twenties, but might as well have been children in terms of a threat. Upon her arrival, they turned and grabbed the hilts of their swords.

“So, you’re here for me after all,” she said.

“L-L-Lady Valia Zodiac, u-under royal decree, we are here to place you under a-arrest,” one of them stammered.

“Calm yourself. You’re brave enough to follow orders and face me. I give you honest praise for that. However, I’m sure you’re also smart enough to know what will happen if you draw your swords against someone of my rank.” The two men were struggling to keep their nerve. “You seem like good men, and I am still loyal to Uther, so I would take no pleasure in harming fellow knights, nor am I a danger to the citizens.

Let me leave this town peacefully, and then you can tell your superiors we were gone before you got here. It’ll be easier and safer for all of us if you walk away and let me be someone else’s problem.”

The knights relaxed and let go of their swords. “You’re free to go,” the other said, unable to look her in the eye. He then spoke outside to the soldiers. “Stand down; we’re letting them leave.”

“Thank you, noble sirs,” Valia said with a grateful nod. She then reached into her pocket and laid out some coins on the counter. “Innkeeper, a round for these sons of Uther and the underappreciated soldiers standing outside.”

She strode past them and stepped into the street. The soldiers waiting were dressed in cheap armor and armed with second-rate swords, but they were smart enough not to go against the orders of the knights or ignore the warning of the elf. They parted and let her walk by as though she was a leper. Valia headed to the stables behind the inn, where Noah was prepping the horses to depart.

“They’ve agreed to let us leave, but let’s not push our luck,” she said.

“Your intimidation level is downright intimidating. Those knights didn’t even really challenge you, did they?”

“Even a disavowed gold-rank knight still has some authority.”

“This is why I’ve always found young bodies annoying. I’m too young to be charismatic, too old to be manipulative.”

They worked fast, climbed into their saddles, and then rode away from the inn. They left the small village and started on the road to resume their journey. They had spent the last ten days riding westward through goldenrod pastures and under the branches of towering trees. They crossed streams and navigated the rocky contours of the planet’s surface with the summer sun overhead. Uther’s countryside, a beautiful cascade of unspoiled nature, stretched to all corners of the horizon.

Their destination was the nation of the elves, Sylphtoria, hidden deep within the Anorvan Forest. Hopefully, Valia’s brother, Valon, was hidden there as well. He lost his sanity in a magic experiment gone wrong, and in his madness, nearly destroyed the kingdom of Uther and fled after raiding the royal vault. Noah and Valia were tracking him down, but it wasn’t easy.

All three were now the kingdom’s most-wanted criminals and pursued by the Utheric Knight Order. There was also the private bounty on Noah’s head, a veritable fortune drawing every manhunter in the country. He and Valia had initially planned on nipping that in the bud after leaving Colbrand, but with the added heat on Noah, lingering in Uther was too dangerous.

They passed by travelers, adventurers, and merchants on the road and took precautions to hide their identities. Noah wore a wide-brimmed hat, pulled low, and smeared some mud on his cheeks that would look like facial hair at a passing glance. Valia concealed herself with a cloak, as elves, especially dark elves, were rare to see outside their homeland. Fortunately, their horses were bred and trained with the utmost quality, outracing the wind and resistant to fatigue. Miles melted under their galloping hooves.

When they felt they had reached a safe distance from the village, Noah and Valia stopped to eat breakfast atop a crag overlooking a green valley. The sky was clear, and a gentle breeze carried the scent of the forest. It was a summer morning of indescribable beauty and blissfully serene. Noah and Valia feasted on bread, cheese, and fruit, and washed it down with pine needle tea. It was a traveler’s breakfast, but on a day like this, any meal enjoyed outside was a picnic.

“I could spend all day here, savoring this view,” said Valia.

“I know what you mean.”

“A long time ago, before we came to Uther, Valon and I traveled with a nomadic tribe for a while. The children had never seen elves before, so they were wary of us at first. One day, the caravan set up camp in a valley like this, and a gang of mountain bandits attacked us. Valon and I fended them off and saved the caravan, and after that, the children looked at us like gods. They made up songs and would imitate us in their pretend fights.

I remember one girl, this adorable little blonde cherub, only about waist-high. She’d follow Valon wherever he went, tugging on his clothes like he was leading her through darkness. I taught her how to make flower crowns, and after that, she’d make several each day and insist we’d wear each one. You should have seen how she’d smile. That was a few hundred years ago, but sometimes, when I see wildflowers, I think of her.”

“I had a daughter like that once. She loved nature and was obsessed with flowers. The floor of her room was always littered with dry petals, and she learned gardening from a young age. She grew up to become a famous artist and environmental activist. She’d arrange flowers to create these amazing images that could only be seen from the sky, like gargantuan mosaics. She also worked to plant trees in areas destroyed by logging and fire and fight desertification. I think her name was… Mary.”

“It’s strange hearing you say that with such a young face. How many children have you raised?”

“Raised? Over a hundred. Sired? God only knows. I’ve also buried my fair share.”

“Do you ever miss them?”

“Some more than others, but so much time has passed that all my children are long-dead by now. In a way, that makes it easy because I never wonder about what I might be missing out on. I may not know the endings, but whether they were good or bad, I know all their stories are closed. They lived, they loved, and they died, while their children carried those stories with them, and so on and so forth, until the names faded off the covers.”

“Perhaps that’s why you have your gift of reincarnation, so that you can remember them. As long as you live, so too shall they live in your memories. You are the only record of their existence that can never be destroyed.”

Noah looked up at the sky. “All records inevitably crumble away.”

After eating, they get back on their horses and descended into the valley. A road lay between the mountains that would carry them west, but they did not get far before an annoyance presented itself. A stone barrier stood in a narrow chokepoint between two cliffs, capable of halting a cattle stampede. The roadblock was manned by more than a dozen soldiers and knights, inspecting everyone trying to pass through the valley. Noah and Valia hung back around a bend in the road, out of sight of the men standing guard.

“I was expecting the usual roadblock and toll with maybe a few extra troops, but they look ready for war,” said Valia.

“So, shall we try to sneak through, fight through, or bypass all together?” Noah asked.

“Even at night, I doubt we can slip our horses through that gate, so stealth is out, and we may be fugitives, but I don’t want to harm knights and soldiers either. Besides, doing so would bring even more attention and fury from the kingdom.”

“We’d have to backtrack to the village to find another road, and they’re surely blocked as well. Over the mountain, then?”

“It seems we’ll have to. But, hopefully, our presence will remain unnoticed.”

They chose the mountain that seemed most accessible for the horses and abandoned the road. They moved under cover of the trees, and when the ground sloped or became too arduous, Noah and Valia would dismount and lead their horses on the best route they could find. Birds chirped in the branches overhead, and insects clicked beneath their feet, but it was the larger animals they were wary of. Monsters ruled the wilderness and tended to attack anything they outnumbered or outweighed.

Danger soon found them as they were crossing a shallow brook, leading their horses by the reins across the slick rocks. Noah stopped when Valia, her pointed ears twitching, suddenly raised her hand.

“What is it?”

“Goblins, lying in wait. See those thick trees over there?”

“I’ll take care of them.”

Noah left his horse to Valia and activated his magic. As he walked through the creek, his mana spread across the water, hiding his steps and scent. Even when he stepped in the mud, his footprints didn’t appear. He hiked up the opposite bank and meandered his way to the trees Valia pointed out.

He found the goblins watching Valia and waiting for her to enter the range of her bows. These savages had the size and strength of children, but were armed with weapons and could take down large prey with their superior numbers.

He approached the first, holding a wooden club and waiting for the order to charge. It had no idea of Noah’s presence, not hearing his footfalls or the unsheathing of his sword. Nor did the other goblins hear his decapitation, only the slumping of his body onto the ground. Realizing one of their own was dead, they closed ranks, scanning for their hidden enemy. Noah dispatched them with several swings, his sword effortlessly slicing through flesh and bone. They didn’t even have a chance to block before dying.

As their butchered carcasses bled out onto the forest floor, Noah did a quick search of their possessions. Goblins were scavengers and loved anything shiny. Noah managed to collect a handful of coins, but found nothing special. After cleaning the goblin blood off his sword, he returned to Valia.

“All set?” she asked.

“Yep, let’s go.”

Noah and Valia resumed riding through the wilderness, eventually managing to exit the valley. Continuing west, they moved on and off the road whenever needed. Monsters occasionally attacked, but the two had enough strength and skill to handle any threat.

Finally, with the sun setting, they turned their attention to finding a place to make camp. They came across the remains of an ancient settlement, just one of countless others scattered across the land. The wooden beams and floorboards had turned to dust long ago, and the few stone remnants had become thrones for the trees.

“Built by the elves?” Noah asked, brushing some moss off a protruding stone wall to examine the masonry.

“So close to Sylphtoria, there’s no question. Normally, elven architecture and stonework can stand the test of time, but this area has likely seen countless battles. If I remember correctly, these lands were once ruled by Thurin Eltoseer, an elf lord from the first age after the fall of the Enochians.”

“He was famous for taming a wyvern, I believe.”

“You know your history.”

“I practically lived in the academy library.”

They settled in the ruins of a stone building with one remaining corner still standing. While Valia set up camp, Noah went out to find their dinner, and as the sun began to dip, he returned with a rabbit and a sack full of scavenged ingredients. Valia built them a cozy shelter, one that would keep them warm and safe, as well as conceal their fire.

While the horses nibbled on grass, Noah skinned and butchered the rabbit. Next, he glazed it with a sauce made of edible berries, added some seasoning, and set it on a spit over the fire. He then took several wild mushrooms and sautéed them in a skillet, using a mixture of animal fat, lemon, and wild onions.

“This is ridiculously delicious. You remind me of David Covington III,” said Valia between bites, holding a cooked rabbit leg in one hand and a cup of wine in the other.

In preparation for this journey, all kinds of fruits and vegetables were dried using alchemy and rendered into powder for drinks and seasoning. The wine was similarly concentrated and could be added to water to create a potent drink.

“I figure I can afford the effort to step up my cooking in the wild,” replied Noah as he chewed on a mushroom.

“I imagine you have a great deal of cooking experience.”

“There were a few lifetimes where I was completely devoted to studying food, cultivating my knowledge of recipes and techniques until I was revered as a cooking god.”

“You’ve never come off as someone who cares about being the best in anything.”

“I’ve lived long enough to master just about every hobby, discipline, and field of study. I embraced the challenge of getting to the top to fight off boredom, like playing a game until I had won in every possible way.”

“I can understand that. I didn’t necessarily become a sword master out of boredom, but from a might-as-well mentality. Valon and I were already a hundred years old when the power of Zodiac manifested within us. From then on, you could say our path was laid out for us by the stars. We had to know where these powers would take us, what heights we could reach with them, what we would become once we mastered them, and why they were given to us."

“You assumed they were given to you?”

“Well, I can’t pretend I never wondered if there was a reason for us to have the power of Zodiac, if it had been given to us for some noble purpose. Do you ever wonder why you have your illusion magic?”

“Not why, just how.”

“So you’ve never considered the possibility that your abilities were given to you?”

“It’s flawed reasoning to think that something you don’t understand is the result of a higher intelligence.”

“Do you believe in anything? Any kind of divinity or providence?”

“Let me put it this way: if you ask whether or not there is meaning in the universe, then the answer is either yes or no. It’s a 50/50 chance that meaning or divine will is in effect. If such meaning exists, then you have to elaborate on that meaning. You must consider the doctrine of every faith and every conceivable belief regarding the purpose of existence.

The mages, for instance, believe that the world operates as per the will of the elemental deities. But when you consider every other possible meaning, the certainty of that belief just gets smaller and smaller. Every time you add another possible meaning, the likelihood of each different meaning decreases, but the possibility of the absence of meaning doesn’t change. There’s still a 50% chance that the universe has no meaning, while every other option is less than 1%. Therefore, the safest bet is that there is no meaning.”

“You say it’s the safest bet. Does that mean you acknowledge you could be wrong?”

“Of course. If presented with new information, I’ll change my beliefs, but only if it’s something irrefutable, not something that is up to interpretation. Even a potential miracle will be chalked up to happenstance if whatever higher power caused it doesn’t present itself and clearly state their intentions. What about you? What do you believe in?”

“I believe we are all here for a purpose. We all exist to make some kind of change in the world, no matter how small that change may be. It can be to create, destroy, or simply assist others in fulfilling their purpose.”

“But who assigns the purpose?”

“Gods, spirits, what have you. It doesn’t matter what the source of purpose is, only that purpose exists. I believe that something out there wills the flow of time. Some inarguable sentience affects our destinies. Even if we can never understand its ultimate goal or intentions, why question the bestowal of meaning from such a high authority? It may be vague, but by your logic, there is also a 50% chance I’m right.”

“What if someone is destined to do something terrible? Would you try to stop them? Would you punish them after?”

“If such a thing as necessary evil exists in our world, hopefully the end result is worth the cost, even if we can’t imagine how. And if not, then that means evil must be cut down. I trust in my judgment and instincts at the moment. If my conscience tells me to act, I can only believe it is my destiny to do so.”

“Destiny, huh?”

“That’s right, I believe in destiny.”

“I don’t believe in destiny or providence, but I do believe in the power of coincidence. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, everything lines up just right for something amazing to occur. Every world is full of boring people who lead boring lives and leave behind boring stories, but there are special stories out there, and I like to be around to witness those special stories reach their climax.”

“Don’t all stories have writers?”

“Semantics. Tell me, if you believe the source of destiny is really so indifferent and beyond your comprehension, then how is that different from not believing in destiny at all?”

“Semantics. Truthfully, I have no idea where our purpose comes from, but I believe it’s there somewhere. At least I am not claiming with absolute certainty that it comes from one apparent source. The height of wisdom is to accept that you are ignorant, and the height of ignorance is to deny it.”

“Did Valon feel the same way as you?”

“I remember he used to say that destiny is the opposite of freedom, that unless the purpose you have been given makes you happy, you are merely a slave. He wasn’t angry when he said it. It was more of an observation, a passing thought. Valon wanted to use his magic to find the gods, determine their hold over us, and understand the vastness of the chasm between divinity and mortality. I guess he found out. Whatever he believed, I wonder if he was proven right or wrong.”

Her words were mournful, but her mood eased when Noah gave a small chuckle. “This might sound weird, but I’ve always loved being proven wrong. I love finding evidence contrary to my beliefs.”

“You’re right; that is weird.”

“It means there is more to learn. It means there are still things that can surprise me. It leaves room for hope. Whenever I devoted myself to a skill or passion, the better I got, the more I enjoyed failure, because it meant that I hadn’t yet exhausted my potential, that I could still improve and get even better. I could continue to enjoy the journey, rather than suffer the ennui of aimlessness.”

Out in the distance, a wolf’s howl rang out. “Looks like they’re starting to hunt,” said Valia.

“They probably caught a whiff of our dinner by now and might come to pay us a visit. I’ll take the first watch.”

“No, I’ll do it. You need your rest more than I do.”

“Is a 700-year-old elf trying to explain to a 7000-year-old spirit how to take care of his human body?”

“Between the two of us, who do you think better understands the difference between humans and elves?”

“Ah, good point. Well then, I will take you up on your offer. Let me know when you get tired.” Having finished eating, Noah stretched out on his bedroll with his sword ready beside him. “Goodnight,” he said before closing his eyes.

“Goodnight,” she replied.

Valia watched him and listened to his breathing. Finally, when she was sure he was asleep, she moved over and placed her hand on his cheek. She looked at him with a tender smile on her face, this strange being who was willing to bet everything on her.

“Sweet dreams,” she whispered.

Noah and Valia set out early the following day and were making good time, but as the sun passed the highest point and they rode through open pastures, Noah became uneasy.

“Valia, we’re being followed.”

“I don’t sense anyone around us.”

“Overhead. Recognize someone?”

Valia looked over her shoulder. “Shit, Ingram.”

She directed her curse to the owl flying behind them, which, despite its avian form, was a mercenary employed by the kingdom, one of its few airborne assets. Uther was currently fighting over territory with the beastman tribes and city-states of Handent, so most beastmen would refuse to work for the kingdom, but Ingram was one of the rare cases.

Though not a member of the knighthood or military, he was acknowledged as a creditable component of their forces, often used for scouting and surveillance. He had been assigned initially to tail Valia when she was teaching at the knight academy, but it seemed the venue change had failed to cancel his mission.

“He’s keeping his distance, but he definitely sees us.”

“But is he following us on a hunch or a certainty? He'll either move on to another area or turn around and fly back to whoever he’s with.”

Noah took out a map and looked it over. “There is a road ahead that gives me an idea. We just have to pass through those woods in the distance.”

They continued riding straight ahead, giving no indication that they were aware of their pursuer. They left the open pastures and returned to the cover of the forest, and Ingram circled overhead to find them. Time passed, and after failing to see through the foliage, he moved on to check if they were further ahead.

He soared high over the landscape, spotting the road on the other side of the forest. There was some light traffic; an adventuring party walking on foot, a rider and his dog, and a merchant in a cart. He doubled back to give the forest another sweep, unable to hear the sigh of relief from Valia and Noah below.

They had changed their appearance using some unique means. Valia put away her cloak and changed her outfit while keeping her silver hair concealed with a scarf. With her on the saddle was Noah, in his invisible state. He repurposed his steed to serve as their packhorse and darkened its white coat with mud. It snorted and flicked its ears in annoyance, but it would have to bear with it. Trotting alongside them was an illusory wolf that Noah controlled.

“That was a stroke of genius,” said Valia.

“Thanks,” replied Noah with his arms wrapped around her.

“I just hope this wasn’t an excuse to grope my breasts while we ride.”

“Please, what kind of selfish pervert do you take me for? I know it’s much more pleasurable for you when I do this…” He gently nibbled on the tip of one of her ears, sending a bolt of electricity up her spine that straightened her posture and nearly made her yelp.

“That’s not fair…” she whimpered.

“Are you telling me to stop?” Noah asked as he reached up and rubbed the tip of her other ear between his fingers. Valia’s breathing became a rapid pant, and her composure was melting. Though her dark complexion concealed it, her cheeks were flushed.

“You’re a bastard,” she gasped.

“I’m still waiting for you to answer.” Noah slid his other hand into her pants, finding her moistening womanhood and erect clit. “All you have to do is tell me to stop, and I will.”

Valia didn’t respond, and Noah continued teasing her while they traveled. He kept his spells going as long as he could, but eventually, his mana ran out. Ingram was nowhere to be seen, so they forsook the road and returned to the wilderness, stopping at a rocky creek after midday passed.

“I need to bathe,” said Valia as she dismounted from her horse. “My skin and clothes are already soaked in sweat from the heat, and your company isn’t making things better.”

“I’m still wearing your sinful scent from the other night like perfume, but you don’t hear me complaining, nor were you complaining about my magic fingers,” Noah playfully jabbed.

Valia stripped down, exposing her gorgeous body, then shoved her clothes into his hands. “You and your magic fingers are in charge of the laundry.”

She retrieved some soap Noah made from one of her bags and went to work scrubbing herself down in the creek. Not even a seasoned hedonist like Noah could resist the sight of the suds running down her ebony breasts and thighs. A true warrior, she kept her sword in reach at all times, occasionally having to kill some slimes moving among the rocks. Even though her heightened senses and raised guard were superior to his, Noah kept watch.

After Valia, Noah took his turn to wash off the veneer of human and elf sweat that clung to him. He then worked on their clothes, cleaning them and setting them out to dry. In the summer sun, that wouldn’t take long. While he waited, he gave his horse a bath to wash off the dried mud and return it to its original pearly luster. Once finished, they resumed their journey. Not an hour later did Noah utter a curse. The owl was once again following them.

“Fucking Ingram.”

“How many times do we have to lose him?” Valia muttered. “Should we use the same trick as before?”

“I doubt he’ll fall for it a second time. We might be able to outrace him. If not, I’ll stun his ass and knock him out of the sky.”

A kick sent their horses into a full gallop, rocketing through the wilderness toward the ever-unreachable horizon. Noah kept looking over his shoulder, and sure enough, Ingram was in hot pursuit, flying as fast as his wings could carry him with his predatory eyes locked on. But, then, he suddenly turned around and retreated.

“He’s gone,” Noah said.

“We lost him?”

Noah didn’t respond, and instead coaxed his horse to go even faster. Valia did the same, pushing her mount to its limits. Noah’s fears proved correct, as minutes later, an arrow struck him in the middle of the back.

“Noah!” Valia exclaimed as he went limp.

“I’m all right,” he muttered, sitting back up and pulling out the arrow. “My armor stopped it, but just barely.”

Under his shirt, he was wearing chainmail, courtesy of the kingdom of Uther. He got it with his entrance into the knighthood, same with his sword. He had further enhanced it with durable plastic and rubber scales, capable of stopping bullets. Still, the impact had nearly cracked one of his vertebrae, and the tip drove deep enough to draw blood, indicative of a warrior spell.

“Shit, there he is,” Valia said. Noah looked back, spotting something far in the distance that didn’t belong. A stone pillar was jutting almost a hundred feet from the ground, and an archer was perched atop, but even a .50 caliber sniper rifle wouldn’t guarantee a hit at this range. “Leuca Aithorn, he’s the only man I know who can make such a shot, and there is no way he’s following us on his own.”

From high up on his vantage point, Aithorn clicked his tongue. “Too gentle.” As he loaded another arrow, lightning began to crackle around it and the bow, growing increasingly intense with each passing moment. “Thunder Javelin.”

He released the arrow across the sky, wrapped in lightning and glowing brighter than a flare. It was zeroing in on Valia, but she sensed its approach and steered her horse away at the last moment. The enchanted arrow struck a tree and ripped it apart with an earth-shaking explosion, sending charred timber and splinters in all directions.

Aithorn loaded another arrow, charged it with mana, and released it. Though it should have killed Noah, he managed to dodge, and it hit the ground, causing the soil to fly to the sound of thunder. He continued launching lightning arrows, each impacting with the power of an RPG. Noah and Valia rode their horses in random patterns, keeping Aithorn from getting a lock on them, and his missed arrows ripped apart the landscape like an airstrike.

“Let’s see him shoot through this.” Noah pulled a card out of his sleeve and pointed it behind him. “Blinding Fog.”

A silvery vapor made of illusory mana swallowed Noah and Valia and filled the area. Not even Aithorn’s elf eyes could see through the dense mist, nor could he predict his prey’s location. Noah and Valia opened up space between them, making it harder for them to be picked off. The problem was that this spell required a large amount of mana, and he had used up most of his reserves while hiding from Ingram earlier. He wouldn’t be able to maintain it for long.

As they rode off, Aithorn sighed in annoyance and stepped off the top of the pillar, dropping through the air and landing on the ground like a cat jumping off a coffee table. Over a dozen silver-ranked knights were with him, each of them mounted on warhorses. One of the knights, Joyce Opal, held the reins of Aithorn’s mount in one hand while pressing the other to the pillar. She removed her hand when he landed beside her, and the pillar began to sink back into the ground. She then handed the reins back to Aithorn as he climbed into the saddle.

“Is it them, sir?”

“No question. He’s using the same technique as during the Red Revelry. Do not let them get away.”

“Let’s take their heads and be done with it,” said Gradius, riding in a chariot pulled by a team of horses.

They snapped their reins, and the horses cried out before taking off in a gallop. Charging across the open plains of the Utheric countryside, they closed in on Noah and Valia. While Noah could disguise their locations in the mist cloud, he could not hide the hoofprints of their mounts, and once Aithorn had their trail, there was no losing him.

The gap began to steadily close, and soon, arrows and spells were raining down upon their heads, with the two fugitives riding between blossoming explosions. There was nowhere to go, no available cover, and no rough terrain where they could lose their pursuers.

“Valia, I don’t think we’re going to be able to shake them off. One of us will take a hit, or our horses will keel over from exhaustion.”

“As much as I wish you were wrong, I can’t think of any other ways out of this. Unfortunately, we’ll have to face them, but promise me you won’t kill anyone.”

“You’re really leaving me in a bind here, but I’ll try. Just don’t blame me for doing what it takes to put them down.”

As a rule, Noah always restricted his magic when witnesses were around, and only relied on invisibility when he planned on killing his opponent. He wanted to prevent knowledge about his illusions from leaking to his enemies and being used to develop countermeasures. Before leaving Colbrand, he had to bribe Sir Elyot with avenium just to keep the nature of his magic secret from the knighthood.

Since he had to spare these knights, he couldn’t simply turn invisible and cut them down the way he had killed the goblins earlier. Instead, he had to leave them alive with as little information to take back as possible. But while he promised to spare their lives and hold back, that didn’t mean he would go easy on them.

“You and I are still knights of Uther.”

“I’d say that’s up for debate right now.”

They galloped across a flatland that had once been a peat bog and came to a stop by a dead tree. Noah and Valia tied their horses to the tree and then sprinted to the side, not wanting their means of transportation caught in the fighting. Noah released his spell, and the illusory fog vanished. He didn’t have much mana left, but if he used it right, he had enough for the coming battle. If things turned dire, he could drink a potion, but he didn’t want it to come to that.

“Do me a favor and take care of Gradius. He and I aren’t exactly a good match, combat-wise,” said Noah.

“Deal. Just watch out for Aithorn. He’s much colder than I am.”

The knights arrived and circled them, keeping a safe distance, and just the way they were looking at Noah, he knew that they were as fearful of him as of the gold-ranked elf at his side. Aithorn glared down from atop his horse, his frosty eyes showing that he was wary of Noah as well. Between his kill-count during the Red Revelry and his overwhelming victory over Seraph, only a fool would act without caution.

“Lady Valia Zodiac, the Sword Goddess, and Sir Noah, the Wandering Spirit. In the name of His Majesty, King Leonard Nanda Havex Albion, I am placing you both under arrest. Surrender peacefully, or you will die where you stand.”

All the knights had their weapons drawn, including Aithorn, armed with his cross-blade spear. Gradius had dismounted from his chariot and stood outside the ring of knights. He was clutching his execution axe tightly, ready for any opportunity to cut them down. He was the one Noah was the most concerned about, having tangled with Gradius before and fleeing with injuries on the precipice between severe and fatal. Fighting against Gradius was like fighting against a tank.

“Leuca, we are trying to track down my brother. If the kingdom wants to see its relics returned, then you have to let us go. I want to undo the damage he has done and make things right.”

“Do not attempt to dress up your treason,” Aithorn replied, pointing his spear at Valia. “No matter your intentions, you abandoned your post and teamed up with Uther’s most-wanted criminal.”

“She and I are your country’s best hope of getting those relics back. Does the king even have anyone searching for Valon? If you arrest us, they’ll be gone forever.”

Aithorn pointed his spear at Noah. “After that fight with the prince and all your other sins, consider yourself lucky that we’re offering you a chance to surrender. I am rather tempted to kill you right here and now.”

“We aren’t enemies. If anything, we should be working together. If you and your team help me and Valia track down Valon, then all three of us will surrender peacefully and let you take us back to Uther without a fight.”

“You expect me to make a deal with someone like you?”

“I want you to know that this deal is on the table, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. You can either fail to arrest the two of us now, or succeed in getting all three of us later. Are you patient enough to make the right decision? A human would act impulsively and go for the chance of immediate reward, but as an immortal, you should be able to see the bigger picture and more accurately weigh the benefits of your actions.

I am not an enemy of Uther. I am simply guilty of retaliating against those who wronged me first. Why should their titles exempt them from justice?”

Aithorn hesitated. Noah’s words made an annoying amount of sense, and he spoke with a distinct level of deference. He wasn’t acting overly casual or rude, but he wasn’t using flattery to try and brown-nose his way out of trouble. There was no disrespect, but no fear either. He was simply laying out facts, trusting Aithorn to process them correctly. For him to speak in such a way despite being surrounded made Aithorn momentarily question himself.

“Enough of this nonsense,” said Gradius. “The king said to bring them back dead or alive. I choose to bring them back dead!”

He forced his way into the circle and swung his colossal axe, aiming for Noah. “Zodiac: Baol!” Valia cast as she got between them. She raised her sword and blocked Gradius’s axe, granted the power to resist his inhuman strength.

“Aithorn, do not let his actions lead to bloodshed!” Noah warned.

Aithorn leaped off his horse’s saddle and pounced on Noah with his spear shooting forward. “Silence! You had your chance!”

Noah drew two spell cards from his sleeve, aiming one at Aithorn and the other at a pair of the silver knights. “Mist Bomb. Flashbang.”

The magic circles inscribed on the card began to glow, launching two mana spheres. The first hit Aithorn and surrounded him in a dense fog like what Noah used earlier, throwing off his aim. The second flew between the two knights and burst, creating a blinding flash and deafening crack.

It was another of Noah’s illusions, attacking an enemy’s senses without causing physical harm. He even fine-tuned the spell to focus the light and sound in the direction the sphere was launched, acting more like a stun claymore than a stun grenade, and protecting Noah’s eyes and ears at close-range.

The two knights tried to defend themselves with enchanted shields, a fast and competent defense against ordinary magic, but they did not protect them from the disorienting crackle. They cried in shock as their senses were painfully robbed, and their horses, caught in the flash, likewise panicked. They reared back on their hind legs and threw their riders off, though they remained caught in their stirrups. Noah ran between the two hysterical beasts and slapped them on the rear, further frightening them and sending them galloping off, dragging their knights behind them.

Noah slipped out of the circle with that brief window and charged toward the one knight not taking part, hanging back, still on her horse. She was a paladin, the group’s healer. Noah fired another flashbang, spooking her horse like the others and knocking her to the ground. A slap to the rear sent it running off, taking her with it.

“Bastard!” Aithorn cursed as he broke through the fog.

“Taking out the medic first is basic strategy, wouldn’t you agree? Still, I’m rather surprised. The ‘Wandering Spirit?’ I really blurted out more than I should have in the heat of the moment. To think those are the words the kingdom would heed. You’ve made the mistake of ignoring my warning to Tarnas, but perhaps I should appreciate that your kingdom fears me enough to give me a nickname.”

“Zodiac: Teez! Rakshon! Baol!”

Not too far off, Valia was facing Gradius with augmented strength and durability. Her sword was wrapped in mana, increasing its cutting power. She darted around the steel monstrosity, not needing magic to outrace him, and slashed him across the back with monstrous force. Noah had observed her abilities during his year at the academy, once watching her slice a boulder cleanly in half using the two spells, but right now, all she could accomplish was a scratch on his armor.

Gradius spun around with surprising speed and swung at her with his axe. She jumped out of his reach, but not out of danger. A jet of focused flames surged from his helmet, not like the simple flamethrower attack he’d usually use, but like a deadly laser aimed directly at her with terrifying intensity and range. She moved back and forth across the field in a serpentine pattern, dodging the incendiary ray as it tore up the ground and turned the soil into glass. The presence of the knights restricted his power, but though he acted with a modicum of restraint, he showed no mercy.

Valia circled behind and closed in, trying to strike at him between the plates, where the armor was thin, but still, her sword could barely scratch it. She leaped back to avoid his counterattack in the form of a back-handed swing and moved to a safe distance. She was sweating in the heat, but the sun wasn’t to blame. Even while wrapped in armor, Gradius was like a raging bonfire. Without her protective magic, getting in close enough to attack would have been impossible. Were they to fight at night, he'd be glowing like a bed of embers.

‘His armor wasn’t this tough before. It’s like it just gets stronger and stronger the hotter he gets. An enchantment? I’d heard his axe worked the same way, but to wrap him in a suit of armor like that and get him fired up… he might very well be indestructible. I think I’ll put it to the test.’ “Zodiac: Bombit!”

A silver magic circle appeared around her, with ten large runes like the numbers of a clock. Each rune corresponded to a constellation of stars, allowing Valia to draw power from the cosmos and imbue her body and attacks with each rune. Gradius charged towards her head-on, and when he swung his axe from above, she blocked and let him push her sword back behind her head, with the blade suddenly wrapped in a roaring torrent of mana.

Bombit was strictly a counterattack move that lasted for only a single second. When her opponent attacked her, she’d use their strength to push her sword back to retaliate with a slash, and her blade would absorb all that kinetic force and store it. It was like she was holding a rifle to Gradius’s chest, and his attack had just chambered a round for her. When she pulled the trigger, he was hit with the combined force of her attack and his, sending him skidding several feet with his chest plate crumpled.

Though momentarily stunned, he wasn’t defeated, and his damaged armor still protected him. Valia opened some distance and widened her stance. “Zodiac: Pravek! Udan!”

Mana gathered at the tip of her sword, making the metal glow like the filament of a light bulb. Its piercing ability was raised to its maximum, so if this next attack couldn’t get through, nothing could. When her spell was ready, she crouched down and shot through the air like a bullet toward Gradius. Gradius tried to intercept her with another blast fired from his helmet, but she dodged and got in close, striking him in the stomach with the tip of her sword.

The unstoppable force met the unmovable object, creating a visible explosion that shook the area and echoed for miles. Valia’s sword punched a fist-sized hole in Gradius’s chest plate and the armor underneath, but a second explosion went off before she could process the achievement. Finally given a release point, Gradius’s flames, having been trapped within the armor, now erupted like a volcano.

Valia was hit point-blank with a wave of fire, knocking her through the air while wreathed in flames. She barely managed to stick the landing, and she was not unharmed. Even while protected by magic, the fire singed her body and hair and incinerated most of her clothes.

‘It would be best not to do that again. If I can’t cut through his armor, I’ll just have to go around it.’

She adjusted her magic and charged towards Gradius, who released a roar of fury and swung his axe in a wide arc. Valia nimbly ducked down to avoid his attack and struck his head as hard as she could with the back of her blade. Gradius’s helmet echoed like a church bell, and he staggered. She continued attacking him with concussive blows, aiming for places where the armor couldn’t easily absorb and distribute the force.

Despite her speed, the fight wasn’t completely one-sided. She was continuously blocking and dodging swings of his axe. Her hits would make him pause for a moment, but they couldn’t stop his endless chain of attacks. Even with his limbs weighed down with such heavy armor, he could swing the mighty blade like a toy, and Valia didn’t want to test her defensive enhancement with a direct hit.

“You called Valia the Sword Goddess before,” said Noah, watching her fight, “and I’ve heard Tarnas referred to as Light’s Emissary. You are regarded as the White Serpent, correct?”

“What good would it do you if I answered?” Aithorn coldly replied.

“More good than you answering my question with a question. Just tell me, is my nickname resulting from being humored or acknowledged? Do you look at me and see an arrogant young man, or do you see your senior? Because if it’s the latter, then I implore you to think this through. Arresting me isn’t worth all of your comrades’ blood. Please, let us pass.”

“It doesn’t matter what you are or what you call yourself. My job is to arrest you and make you pay for your crimes. If you grow wings, I will shoot you out of the sky. If you grow fins, I will spear you through the water. If you shed your mortal coil and reveal yourself to be God, then I will cut down God.”

With nothing else to say, Aithorn crouched down and zoomed toward Noah with his spear extended. Noah drew his sword and parried the attack, but before he could close the distance, Aithorn did it for him. Instead of continuing to thrust, Aithorn swung his spear like a staff, attacking Noah with both ends and hammering his defenses with powerful strikes. When Noah tried to attack him, Aithorn spun the spear around his neck, and the swinging blade forced Noah to block.

Aithorn stepped back to create some space, straightened his spear, and closed back in with a killing thrust. Reforming his posture, Noah countered with an upward strike, knocking the spear out of the way, then brought down his sword with a mighty slash across Aithorn’s chest.

He was wearing plate mail, meant to repel sword strikes, but Noah’s blade carved open Aithorn’s armor like a soda can. Noah lacked warrior magic, but having trained under Valia, his swordsmanship and cutting ability were nigh unparalleled. He failed to leave a wound, but Aithorn felt a chill crawl down his spine, one he had not experienced in a long time.

Professional as always, Aithorn suppressed his feelings of unease and once more zoomed forward to stab Noah. Noah acted to counter the incoming thrust, but just before their weapons could clash, Aithorn spun around his spear to prevent their collision and delivered a sharp blow to the gut from the other end of his spear. Noah’s armor had stopped any real damage from being inflicted, but it still knocked much of the air from his lungs.

With focused drive, Noah grabbed Aithorn’s spear to hold him still while he went in with a slash. Instead of letting go of his spear to dodge, Aithorn flipped over it like he was jumping a fence. Noah reversed his hold on his sword and slashed once more, this time cutting Aithorn’s hair and leaving a faint scratch on the side of his face. Aithorn wrenched his spear free and pounced on Noah. Noah dodged the incoming thrust and blocked the kick that came right after.

Aithorn wasted no time and engaged Noah once more. He switched seamlessly between stabs, slashes, and impacts, leaping and spinning to keep Noah from figuring out his pattern. His speed and agility were beyond human, and his techniques were at an expert’s level. Though Noah’s chainmail protected his chest, blood soon coated his arms and legs. Still, he could not be so easily defeated, and pressed Aithorn with his own barrage of attacks that chipped away at his defenses.

The other knights kept him fenced in, granting them the perfect view of Noah’s techniques. His skill and speed wowed them, and the swings of his sword were like a deadly blur. They had no idea a human being could move like this without magic. They had heard Noah fought Valia to a draw on multiple occasions, but always dismissed it as a rumor or an exaggeration. A human matching the Sword Goddess? Preposterous. Now they were witnessing the legend up close, struggling to understand how it was possible.

Irked by a cut on his arm, Aithorn decided to increase the difficulty and aimed his spear at Noah. “Volley Strike!”

His spear shot toward Noah with deadly speed, almost beyond his ability to defend. As soon as it struck Noah’s sword, it was retracted and launched one more, repeating several times each second. Aithorn wasn’t moving his arms; the spear was sliding back and forth in his grip like a sewing machine needle. Noah was left on the defensive, unable to get close.

The sideways blades on the spear made it difficult to circumvent, and even when Noah succeeded in closing the distance, Aithorn could retract his spear in a fraction of a second and launch a new attack at close range to force Noah back. He received multiple cuts trying to get past the spear and was making no progress. Though he could block the attacks, he couldn't direct the force away from his body, meaning he couldn’t throw Aithorn off balance and break his rhythm.

Noah used his spell card to hit Aithorn with a flashbang, turning the elf’s heightened senses against him. His eyes seared and his hearing demolished, Aithorn staggered back, utterly helpless. Noah again grabbed Aithorn’s spear and smacked him upside the head with the flat side of his blade, then knocked him out of commission with a kick to the balls.

Before he could deliver his next attack, Noah reluctantly let him go and dodged an arrow launched from the side, coming from one of the silver knights. With Aithorn temporarily unable to fight, the rest of the knights swallowed their fear and awe and closed in on Noah all at once.

The first knight entered his range, swinging his sword in a perfect arc toward Noah’s head. Most warriors, lacking the strength to block or speed to dodge such a fine attack, would have their skulls split in half like a melon, but Noah stepped out of the way and slashed the man across the face, taking one of his eyes in the process. The nearby archer tried to kill Noah with another arrow, but he used the first knight as a human shield and then fired a flashbang, incapacitating the archer and leaving him unable to prevent a throwing knife from lodging itself in his trachea.

Three knights attacked Noah from behind, wielding a sword, an axe, and a mace, all three weapons glowing with warrior magic. Noah swung his blade towards the first knight, severing his hands and drawing a howl of agony. He then dodged the incoming axe and delivered a mighty slash across the owner’s chest, carving through metal and flesh alike. He’d survive the wound, but his eyes rolled back into his head as though his soul had already left his body. He dodged two swings of the third knight’s mace, then drove the tip of his blade into the man’s femur. Before he could scream, Noah twisted his sword and split the bone like a piece of firewood.

With five knights down, Noah spared a moment to wave his sword and splatter off some of the blood. A barrage of fireballs was launched towards him, coming from a robed knight armed with a staff. Noah charged the attacking mage, and what blasts he couldn’t dodge, he deflected with his sword. The blade was enchanted to repel elemental magic, receiving no damage as the fireballs bounced off its surface.

As Noah got in close, he shot the mage with a flashbang. Having seen it before, he knew to cover his eyes and braced himself for the loud crack. In that instant, Noah circled behind and slashed him across the back. The man’s blood splashing against the ground produced a gruesomely satisfying sound.

An arrow struck Noah in the side, and though it did not pierce his armor, the force nearly knocked him off his feet. He looked over to Aithorn, seeing him standing once more with his bow in hand. Beside him, Lady Opal cast a spell and touched the ground. The soil around Noah erupted as hands made of living earth reached up and grabbed his ankles.

Aithorn began to charge a lightning-enchanted arrow, and Noah conjured a magic tool from within his ring and threw it at the ground. It was a steel spike, and the spell within activated upon embedding itself in the soil. A wall of clay, like the hands gripping him, burst up from the ground between him and Aithorn. Though he could create illusory versions of spells written on parchment, he had to use magic tools for anything real. They were much more expensive and difficult to craft since they weren’t powered by the user’s power. This tool could only be used a few times before breaking, but it served its purpose and caught the launched arrow.

The lightning enhancement created a thunderous explosion that destroyed the wall, but Noah was spared, hidden within a smokescreen. Aithorn pulled out another arrow, but his string suddenly snapped, cut by an invisible throwing knife. Noah then burst out of the dust cloud, charging towards him. Opal continued summoning clay hands to grab Noah, forcing him to change his path and leading him straight toward another silver knight. The man, armed with two large tower shields, blocked Noah’s instinctive slash, then grabbed him in a bear hug.

“I’ll hold him still! Launch your magic!” he yelled.

“Dune, that’s insane! We’re not going to attack our own comrade!” another knight countered.

“Just do it!”

Aithorn, grabbing another knight’s bow, loaded four arrows and aimed at the sky. “Sir Dune, do not shame yourself by dying from something like this! Shock Baptism!”

He shot the arrows into the air, each wrapped in electricity and flying in a controlled pattern. They dropped out of the sky and formed a square around Noah and Dune with lightning arching between them, resembling the ropes of a boxing ring. The next moment, an explosion of white enveloped them both. Electricity surged through Noah’s body, painful beyond words and scrambling his thoughts.

Dune howled in agony, perfectly articulating what Noah felt, but unlike Noah, his strength failed him. While burning inside and out, Noah opened a little space, just enough to turn around. He grabbed Dune and pulled him over his hip in a Judo throw, slamming him down onto the ground. He then rolled out of the square, at last escaping the electrocution.

Noah got to his feet, robbed of his senses by pain and trying to remain balanced. Aithorn had lowered the spell's power to protect his subordinate, but an average person would still have lost consciousness. However, Noah remained coherent and took off in an ungraceful run. He couldn’t sense where the knights were, but he memorized their positions before the shock and moved in the opposite direction. It only bought him a few seconds, but that was long enough to conjure a healing potion from his ring and drink it.

The last bitter drop hit Noah’s tongue when he was knocked through the air by a blast of water, hitting him in the back like a charging bull and sending him rolling across the ground. As soon as he stopped, Aithorn pounced, holding his spear overhead like he was planting a flag. Noah shifted his head to the side, having regained his sight in the nick of time.

He suffered a scratch on the cheek, but Aithorn’s spear pierced only the ground. The elf gave him no time to rest, stabbing repeatedly and trying to skewer him, with Noah rolling to dodge. Before Noah could stand up, earth hands, summoned by Opal, once more grabbed him. His arms were pinned down crucifixion-style, and Aithorn raised his spear for a killing strike.

Noah conjured a glass sphere from his ring and flicked it with his thumb like a coin. It shattered against Aithorn’s shredded chest plate, releasing its payload of acid. Though the steel was immune to corrosion, everything else was smoking and dissolving. He instinctively jumped back, realizing the danger was still on him. With Aithorn distracted, Noah managed to wrench himself free from his binds and got to his feet.

After Aithorn pulled off his armor, Noah kicked him in the middle of the chest and knocked him back. He then grabbed a sizeable stone from the upturned soil and threw it at Opal, striking her in the forehead and knocking her out. Noah turned around just in time to block an electrified spear thrust from Aithorn. Fortunately, Noah’s enchanted sword kept the current from passing to him.

“Thunder Mantle!” Aithorn cast.

Bolts of electricity began firing off from his body, arcing with everything around him, including Noah. Each spark felt like the bite of a stun gun, decimating his strength and pushing him back. Noah pulled away from Aithorn to escape electrocution, but the elf didn’t pursue him. Instead, he channeled even more mana into his spear, even cannibalizing the mana from his defense spell, causing the lightning around the blade to radiate sparks with a blinding light. He spun the spear in his grip, sculpting the fearsome charge into a conical shape.

“Dragon Impaler!” he called, causing the spell to solidify into a drill made of light.

Nothing in Noah’s arsenal could block such an attack, leaving him with only one option. He held out his sword and began channeling mana into the blade. Under normal circumstances, his mana was invisible, but one of his sword’s enchantments was to produce a visual effect that resembled warrior magic. The two knights faced each other, with all the silver knights either too wounded to continue fighting or caught up with Valia’s fight with Gradius.

“Last chance, Aithorn. Let us go and tend to your subordinates. You don’t want what’s about to happen.”

“As a warrior of Sylphtoria and a knight of Uther, I will never let a foe escape me. Relish the warmth of the sun, for it will be the last thing you feel before you close your eyes.”

Noah gave a bitter chuckle. “If only. Now come at me!”

Aithorn roared with determination and charged toward Noah. Noah calmly raised his sword and then brought it down, and at that exact moment, pain erased every thought in Aithorn’s mind, and his spraying blood reddened his vision like tinted glass. He didn’t understand how it was possible, but he had just been slashed across the chest. He dropped to his knees, unable to move while blood drenched his clothes.

There is no way his sword could have hit me. Did he use some kind of warrior spell to attack me without getting close? I never even saw it coming….

Noah used the same trick to kill Klein during the Red Revelry. He left his clone standing at a distance and closed in while invisible. Then, with his clone mimicking his movements, he slashed his enemy without them even realizing he was there. To the victim and any onlookers, it appeared as though Noah could cut enemies from a distance. Noah took a deep breath and sheathed his sword. Aithorn and the silver knights were tough, and he struggled to remain on his feet. There were a few moments where he thought he was done for.

“You’d think I’d be used to people not listening to my warnings, but still, after all this time, it’s very aggravating,” he said.

“Hold your tongue and finish me off,” Aithorn hissed, still on his knees and using all of his strength to keep himself upright.

“You aren’t really in any position to be making demands.” Noah then pushed him onto his back with his foot and conjured a healing potion from his ring.

“What are you doing?”

“Just keeping my promise to Valia,” he replied as he poured some of the potion on Aithorn’s wound. The cut was deep, running down his right side from shoulder to hip, but with the aid of the potion, he at least wouldn’t die from it. Noah gave him just enough to stop any fatal bleeding. “Your medic is hanging back, waiting for us to leave. She’ll hopefully be able to save you all from dying.”

“I would not have shown you such mercy.”

“At any other time, I wouldn’t have either. In fact, since I am sparing you and your troops, I feel I am entitled to some kind of compensation.”

He revealed a knife and started fiddling with Aithorn’s pauldron, the piece of armor covering his shoulder, and his target was the knighthood medal attached. Unlike their rings, which were all gold, the emblems knights wore revealed their rank. They could be affixed to their armor or hung around their neck, making it easy to determine who had the highest authority. Noah had a bronze emblem but didn’t bother displaying it. This gold emblem, on the other hand, could prove helpful.

“Bastard, give that back!”

“Considering the fact that I just defeated you and your subordinates, who here would you say is worthier to carry it? However, if this has sentimental value, I’ll gladly trade it back to you for another one. Once you can move, ride back to Colbrand and tell the king that Valia and I are dead. Maybe you chased us into a river and we drowned. Maybe we were incinerated by Gradius, whatever. I don’t want to have to cut down any more knights. Oh, and the next time I see that owl, I’m shooting him out of the sky.”

Along with his emblem, Noah also stole Aithorn’s health potions and used them on the most wounded knights, postponing death until the healer could get to them. Then, after taking care of a few other things, he walked away and met up with Valia, who was wearing nothing but a cloak and boots. Nearby, Gradius had fallen into a blast crater and was stuck on his back like a tortoise. He was roaring in fury and spraying fire into the sky, but nothing he did could get him up.

“Are you all right?” Valia asked with concern, seeing how Noah had been cut and burned by Aithorn’s attacks.

“I’ll live,” he said as he drank another healing potion.

“What about them?”

“The same, for now. It’s in the medic’s hands. What happened to you?”

“All of my clothes ended up getting incinerated. Were it not for my defensive enchantment, I would be dead. Instead, I’m enjoying a refreshing summer breeze between my legs.”

“And after all the work I did on the laundry. So, shall we move on?”

“I say we shall.”

They returned to their horses and rode off, leaving the knights to lick their wounds.

Please comment! Tell me your thoughts!
3 comments

afdogReport 

2023-01-17 01:48:24
Yep, the comments are working! Been a while since I've seen any of your posts. Book 3 is missing, but I did read it before it disappeared! Happy to see book 4, can't wait for more chapters!

oldFReport 

2023-01-13 13:55:31
The are, not many commenting though. Really nice development, an other tag along to help / train would be nice to explain stuff i seem to be missing like how can he now drink potions where as in the beginning of story 2 it was unhealthy to use.

Sage_of_the_Forlorn_PathReport 

2023-01-11 19:22:27
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