Over the next few days, the countryside became infested with knights and soldiers, all recruited from local lords to assist in Noah and Valia’s capture. They could never hope to arrest them on their own, but their horns and drums thundered across the landscape, so drawing the attention of one drew the attention of all. However, there was a need to stop at the next village. On the sixth day since their fight with the knights, they set up camp beyond its outskirts.
Hiding in a spit of forest, Valia was tending to the horses. All the sneaking around, back-tracking, and chases had stressed them out, so she was pampering them with treats and a good brushing. She turned around as Noah appeared, seemingly materializing out of thin air with a bag over his shoulder.
“Did you get me something good?”
“Elven silk, just as you asked,” he replied, handing her the bags.
She reached inside and joyfully revealed a white shirt of the highest quality of fabric.
“Perfect, thank you. I hope you got something for yourself. Considering the state you were left in from that battle, a wardrobe change isn’t even debatable.”
“On the contrary, I couldn’t resist when I saw the ***********ion. But I thought Sylphtoria didn’t engage in trade with Uther?”
“Not with the country itself, but they've made deals with some of the humans who live outside the Anorvan Forest. Though the elves of Sylphtoria are very isolationist, they keep a few avenues open as a show of good faith. However, unless you have permission to enter their domain, you’ll be lucky not to be shot on sight.”
She removed her cloak, standing nude before him.
“I must say, I’m going to miss watching you perform the Dance of the Ivunara each morning,” he said as they both got dressed. The pants he got her were tight but flexible, just like her old pair, and she was poured right into them. Her new shirt was more revealing than her old one, showcasing her endowment.
“I’ll admit, the summer air has felt quite pleasant these past few days, but do you have any idea how the elves would react if I arrived wearing nothing but a cloak? By the way, you didn’t just outright steal these, did you?”
“I figured you’d ask me that. Don’t worry; I left suitable compensation when I took them. Your clothes are paid for.”
“See? Your conscience isn’t as withered as you think.”
“Well, I didn’t pay for them; the knights did. I did some looting while they were out cold, Aithorn included.”
“Ugh,” Valia grunted in disapproval. “Anyway, how did the village look?”
“They have soldiers everywhere, and everyone is forbidden from wearing hats or hoods that might hide their faces. I couldn’t drop my invisibility for even a second.”
“It won’t be long until we reach Sylphtoria. They will do everything in their power to ensure we don’t cross that border.”
Valia’s prediction came true; the traveling was a nightmare for the next several days, and the fighting was incessant. She and Noah constantly had to flee or knock out soldiers and knights, with every road blocked off and the countryside swarming with spies. Finally, weeks after leaving Colbrand, they were in the home stretch. The towering trees of the elven nation were in sight, just across a vast open space of plains and hills, but they were not alone.
Once more, they were forced to push their horses to their limits and outrace their pursuers, as behind them, more than a hundred knights and soldiers were riding with reckless fury. Aithorn was in the lead on his horse, with Tarnas trailing in his chariot. Despite the results of their last encounter, the knights refused to let Noah and Valia escape, and this was their last chance to catch them.
Arrows rained down from the sky, blasts of fire and lightning shot over their shoulders, and the ground buckled from earth magic throwing up barriers. Valia and Noah rode in random paths to dodge enemy attacks, with their horses leaping over opening crevasses and rising boulders.
Valia had her Teez enchantment active, making her body as tough as steel, and the arrows that didn’t bounce off her back were deflected with her sword to protect her horse. Noah was taking a more direct approach and firing flashbangs at his pursuers. The men would lose their hearing and sight, and every loud spark terrified the horses and made them panic.
Noah was dripping sweat and his heart was racing, but his composure didn’t break until Aithorn stuck a bolt in his thigh. “Goddamn motherfucking arrows!” he hissed.
Minus that lucky shot, he and Valia reached the forest unharmed and dove into its wooded gullet. All the knights and soldiers came to a fearful stop at the forest's edge, bound by law and terror. They knew what would happen if they rode into the forest unwelcome. While lacking the barbarism and savagery of the beastman tribes across Handent, the elves were not known for their hospitality.
“What are you cowards doing? Get in there!” Gradius barked.
“Gradius, hold your tongue!” Aithorn barked. “Just by stepping into those woods, you could trigger a war. Someone like you would be put down like a rabid animal or, worse, a demon. That forest will devour your body and spit out your armor like an empty snail shell.”
“If you expect me to quit and let them go, you have another thing coming. Taking their heads is the only way my exile ends. I’m not turning away here.”
“Why do you think the king chose me for this mission? I’m the only one who can go in there. The rest of you will remain here and wait for me to send word. No matter how long it takes, under no circumstances are any of you to enter these woods without my say-so, or I’ll kill you myself.”
He nudged his horse forward and entered the forest, disappearing as though stepping behind a curtain. During that brief pause, Noah and Valia had expanded the distance between them and their pursuers, riding swiftly among the trees, with every inch bringing them deeper into elven territory. The outer edges of the Anorvan Forest were indistinguishable from any other forest on the continent, but the more they traveled, the more Noah could sense the landscape changing.
Mana thickened the air, just like the summer humidity, and when Noah activated his magic, he could even see it like a mist. The trees, ancient beyond measure, dispersed energy like radio waves. Every time he touched the wooden giants, he wondered if he had finally found life forms older than himself.
Their bark was tinted with blues and deep violets, the same with their leaves, acting like stained glass and changing the hue of the sunlight. The forest floor was a thick carpet of moss, unbroken and untouched by dead leaves. The wild grasses were like white ribbons, swaying in the still air as though they were light as spider silk.
“I need to stop and tend to my leg. I’m leaving a blood trail.”
“Over there, we can hide behind the obelisk.”
They rode to a stone pillar jutting out of the forest floor. It was another ruin, offering some cover. Carved by elven hands, the edges of its flat sides were unweathered by time. They hid in its shadow, and Noah examined his leg. The arrow, stopped by his femur, was lodged deep in his thigh. Blood trickled from the wound, hastened by pain-induced muscle spasms.
“How is it?” Valia asked.
“It’s bad. My best choice is to rip it out now and use potions to mend the damage.”
Noah conjured a small sack filled with several acorn-sized plastic orbs from his ring. He also summoned a titanium syringe shaped like a golf tee and used the tip to puncture the surface of one of the orbs. He pressed the opening to the other end of the syringe to create a seal, then embedded the tip into his thigh, right next to the arrow.
He then pushed down on the orb and injected its payload: morphine. It was just one of many substances he could produce with alchemy, the same with the plastic shell and the syringe. Encapsulating one material with another was his only way to determine the shape of his creations. He'd magically warped the plastic to encase the morphine and formed the syringe by sealing a grass stem in titanium.
The morphine significantly eased the pain, at least enough for what was to come. Noah took a deep breath and grasped the arrow. He began to pull, feeling it slowly dislodge from the inside of his leg. He could control his breathing thanks to his pain tolerance, but his face turned red from the exertion. Pulling it out of the back of his thigh was hard enough, but he had to make sure the barbs came out in the same way they went in. Sweat dripped from his nose as the arrow moved back, millimeter by centimeter, further fraying the severed tissue.
Then, suddenly, it popped right out of his leg. Noah released his held breath and gasped for air, but then he looked at the arrow and loudly swore. The head had broken off and was still in his leg. This was no longer something he could take care of while sitting on a horse. He took out a healing potion and poured some on the wound, causing the hole in his leg to close and stop any more bleeding. He swallowed two morphine pills sealed in crystalized sugar, hoping they’d soon kick in.
“We need to find the elves, quick.”
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Valia said as she pointed up.
Ten elves were standing on the branches, all with bows and arrows trained on her and Noah. Their clothes, made of fine silk, were colored green to help them blend in with the foliage, and their bows were higher quality than even many knights’ bows. Male and female, they all surpassed humans in appearance, and even from a distance, Noah could see the tips of their ears.
“These forests are forbidden. Who are you?” their leader demanded.
“I am Valia Zodiac of the House of Tsyrfil. This is my companion, Sir Noah. We come in peace and wish to speak to the queen.”
There was a slight tremor among the elves. There was no way they didn’t know of such a legendary warrior.
“You wear Utheric knight rings. Are you messengers of the king? Or spies trying to sneak into our border?”
“We are not here under anyone’s orders. My brother, Valon, has gone missing. Noah and I are searching for him, and hope that he, or at least the means of finding him, lie within Sylphtoria,” she replied. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about his whereabouts, do you?”
Without lowering his bow, the elf pulled his eye away from the arrow. “Valia Zodiac, you and I have met before. I am Izan, of House Felolk. I remember you passing through Sylphtoria a long time ago. I remember your brother. How many years has it been since you left us?”
“Maybe a century, if I recall right.”
“A century shouldn’t be long enough to forget that humans are barred from our woods. What makes you think you can bring him here?”
Valia and Noah exchanged glances. Noah usually kept his identity hidden, concealing his past lives and knowledge, but at the moment, a little honesty might be a wise choice.
“Do not be misguided by the form he takes. He’s more like us than them, and a true neutral in the world’s affairs. You'd be wrong to think of him as a normal human. He holds no ill will towards our people.”
“I carry only questions and seek only answers,” said Noah. “I’m already wounded and have lost my fighting capability. Conflict is the last thing that I want. Please, let the queen hear what we have to say.”
“Show us your face,” Izan demanded, prompting Noah to remove his hat. “An audience with the queen is not so easily granted to a stranger such as yourself. Why is your search for Valon Zodiac worth her time?”
“He is suffering from madness and might become a threat to Sylphtoria, as well as himself. He has already stolen several ancient relics from Uther, causing a great deal of collateral damage in the process. If he has not robbed Sylphtoria yet, he may in the future. We must find Valon and stop him before he goes through with it.”
“Very well. We will take you to see the queen. However, you may not set one foot deeper into these woods while armed. Surrender all your weapons.”
“Of course,” said Noah.
“Understand that this is purely out of respect to Valia Zodiac. Had you arrived here alone, we’d have killed you.”
Noah and Valia relinquished their weapons and followed Izan and the other elves deeper into the forest. Though the travelers remained on horseback, their guides moved on foot above their heads, jumping from branch to branch. When night fell, the elves stopped near a stream.
“We go no further today. You may set up camp here. Know that we will be watching you throughout the night. Try to escape us, and you will be killed without hesitation,” Izan warned.
Noah struggled to get off his horse, and before his foot even touched the ground, Valia caught him, ensuring he didn’t put any weight on his wounded leg. “I got you,” she murmured.
“Thank you,” he replied, having little strength to muster.
She laid out his bedroll and helped him ease down onto it. Upon feeling the ground beneath him, he released a sigh of relief, realizing how tired he really was. “You just rest; I’ll take care of everything,” Valia said.
Noah was in no place to argue and not prideful enough to kick up a fuss. She led the horses away to the nearby stream so they could drink, leaving Noah with the other elves, all staring down at him with distrust. Their glares did not bother him, and he waited quietly while considering what to do with his leg. Treatment depended on how soon they would reach the elven capital, or at least some settlement where he could take more precautions.
“Izan, may I ask how long it’ll take to reach the capital?”
“It is a four-day journey, and should you get “lost” along the way, know that it will not go well for you,” the elf replied.
“Don’t worry; I have no intention of going anywhere but the capital. By the way, you said you’re acquainted with Valia’s brother. You wouldn’t by chance know if he’s in Sylphtoria, would you?”
“Not to my knowledge. But what is it to you?”
“I seek his expertise in breaking my curse. He’s the best chance I have.”
“If elven knowledge is what you seek, we may be able to come to an understanding. I just hope you won’t do anything rash to get what you want.”
“I am a reasonable, patient man. I don’t want to fight anyone.”
“Countless strangers have come into these woods, saying the same thing. All of their pretty words inevitably turn to blood. The race of men has proven itself incapable of holding promises.”
“I won’t argue that. I did not come here expecting trust, only hoping for the chance to earn it.”
After tending to the horses, Valia returned with firewood and an assortment of other edible plants. Dinner was a stew cooked over their campfire, while in the trees, the elves preferred their fruits and vegetables raw. After Noah ate, Valia moved over to him and touched his face. “How are you feeling? Any signs of a fever?”
“I took a potion to prevent infections and some pills to reduce the pain, so I’m all right for now.”
“It really is true that you have bad luck with arrows. I thought you were just exaggerating.”
“What can I say? They chase me like wasps.”
“Can you travel?”
“Only on horseback.”
“If you prefer, I can heave you over my shoulder like a rolled-up carpet,” she teased.
Noah chuckled. “Feel free to grab my ass.”
“Lady Valia, you really trust this man as a traveling companion?” one of the elves asked.
“Not always,” she said, gazing into Noah’s eyes with a tender smile on her lips. “Sometimes he can be a bit of a scoundrel, but he gives me hope, and that is worth something.”
“A scoundrel? That makes me sound so uncivilized.”
“Hmmm, you’re right.” Valia sat beside him and offered her lap as a pillow. “Would the term ‘rogue’ make you more comfortable?”
Noah rested his head on her thighs, and their warmth seeped into him. “Yeah, that makes me very comfortable.”
The elves said nothing, but wore looks of disapproval at the sight of them together.
For the next four days, Noah and Valia followed Izan’s group through the forest. The trees grew ever more prominent, with the canopy sometimes so thick that they could ride through a torrential rainstorm without ever getting wet. Signs of the elves’ handiwork became more pronounced with each mile. Paths, paved with moss, wound through the wilderness, sided with plants offering fruits, nuts, and berries to feed whatever traveler passed by. Trees, nurtured to grow in the shape of bridges, stretched over rivers and gorges.
The animals were much more passive here in the forest, with herbivores showing no fear in approaching Noah and Valia, and carnivores keeping a respectful distance. Overhead, birds would sing and follow the group, hopping from branch to branch like the elves.
A group of deer once crossed their path. The males had leaves and flowers blooming from their antlers, while the females' coats shimmered and seemed to change color, like a film of oil on water. A young doe approached Noah and insisted on receiving a satisfying scratch under her chin and behind her ears.
At night, glowing flowers lined the paths, and the mossy ground would light up with every step, producing trails of illuminated footprints. Bioluminescent butterflies and other insects swarmed under the moon, creating mesmerizing patterns to fool predators while leaving trails of radiant dust in the air. Between the light show and the screams of birds and bugs, sound sleep didn’t come easy.
Finally, they arrived at the domicile of the elves. Their homes were built on and into the trunks of the most giant and ancient trees, shaping the wood into whatever forms suited them. The trees, reaching almost a thousand feet into the sky, were honeycombed with passages and rooms, not carved as though by termites, but sculpted harmlessly with magic. The branches, similarly directed, formed bridges and catwalks that connected different parts of the city with guardrails of woven vines.
“Beautiful,” Noah whispered. At times like this, he was glad to have ended up in this world.
“Welcome to Sylphtoria,” said Valia, “where even in the coldest winters, the leaves do not fall.”
Countless elves were moving among the trees, doing their daily business on and above the forest floor. Though the elves seemed to abstain from eating meat, they kept some livestock around for things like milk, cheese, and wool. Upon seeing Noah, their reactions turned cold. They realized he was a human immediately and kept their distance. Noah decided it would be best to keep his hat on. They would probably still be able to tell he was human, but keeping his round ears hidden would hopefully ease the tension.
Izan and his group led Noah and Valia through the forum, walking on brick roads to a stone fountain, releasing continuous water from a natural spring. “The two of you wait here,” he said. “I shall go to the queen and relay your request for an audience. This is the closest humans may get without royal permission. Don’t leave this spot, or you will be marked as intruders.”
“Thank you for everything you have done for us,” said Noah as he and Valia bowed their heads.
“You are welcome,” Izan replied.
Though they disapproved of Noah’s species and his relationship with Valia, his manners and behavior over the last four days gave them no reason to dislike him. True, four days was not long enough to earn their trust, but they were willing to reciprocate words of goodwill.
“When might we receive our belongings?” Valia asked.
“Your weapons shall be held in the castle for safekeeping until you depart,” said Izan.
He and the other elves raised their right hands and invoked green magic circles around their wrists. Answering the summons, vines reached down from the trees over the elves’ heads. They grabbed ahold and were whisked up into the canopy at high speed, leaving Noah and Valia behind.
“So that’s druidism, the magic for controlling plants,” said Noah.
“Almost all elves in Sylphtoria wield it to some degree,” said Valia. “Like beastmen, they worship the spirits of nature. It lets them control and manipulate plants for offense, defense, and everything else. When the elves combine their power, they can turn the forest into one giant weapon. No army of any race has been able to conquer this elven kingdom, because no army has ever made it through the wilderness. They also share the mages’ faith in the gods, and elven history is rife with legends about great warlocks and paladins.”
Noah and Valia waited there for some time. Though they possessed patience, their horses did not and began to get annoyed.
“This could take a while. Let’s dismount,” said Valia.
Noah’s leg hadn’t gotten worse while traveling, but it hadn’t gotten better, and while he could at least get off a saddle, the buried arrowhead turned walking into a painful challenge. As beautiful as the city was, it made him grimace in dread. Still, Valia was there to help him with every step, always offering him her shoulder. Finally, they sat down at the fountain's edge and took the chance to relax.
“I’m sorry you’re getting such a cold shoulder here,” she said.
“Ah, this is nothing. A long time ago, I was born into the Brusnian people, an ethnic group that unfortunately found itself under the oppression of the Zangadese people. We were forced to live in ghettos and suffered from daily violence. Just about every woman I knew had been raped on multiple occasions, and men came home bloody almost every day. Even I lost some fingers and an eye before my tenth birthday, and you know how good I am in a fight.”
“That sounds awful.”
“Well, what really bothered me was how lazy the slurs were. I mean, come on, put some comedic effort into it. So one way I managed to avoid trouble when I was cornered was to come up with offensive jokes about Brusnians, because no one will beat you up if you can make them laugh, and I was sick of the Zangs slacking off.”
“You have a very strange view of oppression.”
“Not taking things personally is easy when you’re just a tourist.”
“Don’t worry; the elves aren’t that hateful, just stubborn. Since we live forever, we prize peace and stability over everything. The elves of our island were the same as here. They liked things to be boring and uneventful. They enjoyed living in ruts, where centuries could pass, and nothing of interest happens. Valon and I are rather unusual in that case, because after we lost our home, we decided to travel and see the world. We could have stayed here or some other elf settlement, but we wanted to see what excitement and adventure awaited us.”
“I can understand their desire. I never had that luxury. Human life is too quick and chaotic to find such long-lasting tranquility. Things always change.”
“Well, elves have very low birthrates, and since we age so slowly and die so rarely—from natural causes, at least—new ideas and beliefs have a hard time taking root. That’s one thing I like about humans. Their culture changes so quickly; it’s always interesting.”
“True, but it also means that humanity keeps forgetting important lessons and has to learn them over and over again. It’s no wonder the elves dislike humans when it seems like there is always a new generation that has to be taught to leave this forest alone and…” Noah trailed off and then stifled three sneezes. Typically, he didn’t suffer from allergies, but the Anorvan Forest’s pollen disagreed with him. Its abundance made the elves’ clean clothes all the more impressive.
They continued to wait while ignoring the strange looks they were receiving. Eventually, night fell, and they set up camp and tended to their horses. The night was warm, and they had plenty of food to fuel their patience. Overhead, the elven city transformed as countless lights appeared in the darkness. Bioluminescent flowers lit up the bridges and walkways, glowing like blue candles.
“Damn. Now that is a view,” Noah said, gazing up at the twilight city with a content smile.
“Wait, do you hear them?” Valia asked.
It was gentle initially, but Noah picked up several overlapping voices, singing an unknown melody. Though he couldn’t understand the words, they sent a shiver up his spine. There, he could see them, elves scattered across the city, walking in white cloaks and continuing the mesmerizing chant.
“What is that?” asked Noah.
“They are the Nadoku, the night singers. It’s a prayer for strength and protection, an aria for our ancestors, and a magical ward against evil. It occurs every evening, a ritual going back over a thousand years.”
It wasn’t just an ordinary prayer; Noah could sense a great deal of holy energy infused with the air, ancient and powerful. Reminded of Daniel’s music, Noah activated his illusion spells, but struggled to maintain them as he listened to the elvish choir.
“I think I just heard your ancestor’s name. Tsyrfil, was it?”
“That’s right. The humans know Valon and me as the Zodiac twins due to our magic, but our real last name is Tsyrfil. The dark elf clan is descended from a legendary Enochian warrior, and slayer of dragons who was scorched from head to toe in one of his greatest battles. Dragon fire has unique properties, burning with mystic strength and setting stone, metal, and even water ablaze like a summer forest. Even after he healed, his flesh remained blackened by the flames, something we, his descendants inherited.
Some believe the tone of our skin is a testament to the lingering power of the dragon’s flames, while others say it’s a visual indicator of our ancestor’s powerful vitality. The dark elf clan is greatly respected for this legacy, though after the loss of our island, there are few of us still alive.”
Finally, someone came for them. He was a young man, in appearance at least. Elves didn't age at the same rate and were known to remain in different life stages for disproportionally long periods. He looked younger than Valia, but could have been twice her age. His robes, made of finer cloth than any noble’s from Colbrand, were immaculately clean, as if the forest didn’t exist. It was concerning that he was flanked by four elves in polished armor, with their hands resting on the hilts of their sheathed swords.
“Lady Valia, Sir Noah, I am Lour, chancellor and advisor to Queen Elisandra.”
Noah removed his hat, and he and Valia bowed their heads while extending their hands as though inviting him to dance. “Si nar lunta soltra ect uun vibiro lam,” they both said. It was an elvish greeting Valia coached Noah on. Translated, it meant ‘may the sun and moon shine ever bright on your House, High Elf.’
Their words failed to warm his frosty demeanor, but his breathing showed some relief. “Her Royal Majesty has granted your request for an audience. However, the hour is late, and you are in no condition to see her after days of travel. Lodging has been prepared, so you may rest for tonight and make yourselves presentable to see her tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Lord Lour,” Noah and Valia said with grateful bows of their heads.
Lour returned the bow. “Your horses will be looked after. Now please follow me.”
Noah got to his feet, and Valia helped him walk. They followed the elves up a spiraling walkway winding around one of the trees, beginning their climb into the city. They passed by numerous night singers, continuing their chant without a second glance.
“Lady Valia, according to Izan, you two are not here on orders of Uther’s king, correct?” Lour asked without turning his head.
“That’s right. We are searching for my twin brother, Valon. Though my oaths bind me to Uther, I cannot stand by while my only kin needs me.”
“And you, Sir Noah?”
“She seeks to help him, and I hope he can help me, so I shall help her. We come here as free agents, acting under no will but our own.” Noah then grimaced from the pain in his leg. Each step was getting more intense, and he struggled to block it out. Valia noticed his discomfort.
“How much farther is it? My companion is hurt.”
“We’re almost there. I was told you have an arrowhead stuck in your leg?”
Noah’s first instinct was to lie about the wound, but that option was gone. “Yes, that’s right.”
“My, how unfortunate,” he said dryly, still without looking at them.
They arrived at a dwelling shaped into the tree itself.
“I’ll be here to collect you both tomorrow morning. Remain here until then.”
“Thank you,” Noah and Valia replied.
“You surrendered your weapons before coming here, correct? I’m afraid I must also take your ring, Lady Valia. I know of the enchantment it carries, and I cannot allow you to wear it until we are sure you and your companion are trustworthy.”
Valia handed the ring over, and Lour and the elven soldiers promptly left. Noah and Valia released their held breath and stepped inside. It resembled a studio apartment, with a simple cooking area, some sparse furniture, and a pair of beds for them to sleep. There seemed to be another room further in the back. Luminescent flowers grew out of the walls, and the bedroom had a beautiful view of the city. Usually, Noah would immediately check for traps or peepholes, but he decided to give the elves the benefit of the doubt.
“Do you think they gave us the room with the double beds on purpose?” Noah pondered.
“It wouldn’t surprise me. They will be watching this place all night to ensure we don’t sneak off. Anyway, you take a seat and rest. I’m going to freshen up.”
She sat Noah down on one of the beds, and he released a sigh of relief while rubbing his leg. His thigh was swollen from the arrowhead damaging and irritating the surrounding tissue. Luckily, he still had his ring, and a healing potion eased the inflammation and dulled the pain. Looking around, he found clean clothes folded on the other bed for him and Valia.
Valia had disappeared into the back room, but she eventually returned, soaking wet and wrapped in a towel. “Ah, much better.”
“What were you just doing?”
“I told you, freshening up. That’s right, you don’t know about elven showers. Come here; I’ll show you.”
She brought him to a chamber in the back, which served as a bathroom. There was an alcove in the far wall, which Noah realized was a shower stall. The stall floor had spongey moss, while stringier moss hung from the ceiling like thick grass, each strand dripping water.
“The water pours down onto you from above, coming directly from the tree itself. The moss on the floor collects it and returns the water to the tree. So go on, enjoy.”
The water was lukewarm, but Noah still took his time to enjoy it and scrub off the varnish of travel. He eventually hobbled out and sat down on his bed, dripping wet.
“So what should we do about your leg?” Valia asked.
“I’m not. I want you to slice off my leg.” Noah pointed to a spot on his thigh. “Cut right here. If you do it just right, the arrowhead will be exposed, and we can remove it. Then we simply reattach my leg with either magic or a healing potion.”
“You’re awfully calm with this.”
“I have experience in this kind of thing.”
“Of course, you would have experience.”
“A long time ago, I was mountain climbing up the slopes of a place called Everest. It was the tallest mountain in the world, and countless people had died trying to reach the summit just for the thrill of it. Unfortunately, it had also been climbed so many times that it was little more than a tourist trap. There might as well have been toll booths. Still, I figured I might as well cross it off my list of things to do.
Things went well until I got about halfway up, where I got caught in an avalanche and suffered a little mishap. A boulder crushed my leg, and I was pinned. I weighed my options, trying to determine the chances of someone discovering me in time, and thought up ways to try and dislodge the boulder.
Anyway, night was falling, and I had to cut off my foot. No one was coming for me, and I’d freeze to death if I stayed exposed on the ground like that. I first considered killing myself, just tying off that life and jumping to the next one, but I was curious to see if I could do it and survive.”
“You’re telling me you cut your foot off out of curiosity?”
“Well, luckily, it was just my foot. If it were above the knee, I wouldn’t have bothered and just slit my throat. Anyway, I bound my leg with a tourniquet, nice and tight, bit down on my collar, and went to work with my knife. The thing is, once you start cutting, you can’t allow yourself to stop, because it’s so much harder to start again. You have to do it with one big breath.
Getting through the bones in my shin was the worst part. They hadn’t broken at the same places, so I had to even them out with a rock. And did I mention how cold it was? My blood was freezing before it even hit the ground. The drops just bounced like red hailstones. Once my foot was severed, and the wound was bandaged, I made camp and managed to survive the night. As for getting back down the mountain? That’s a whole other story.”
“I’m sure you have some blades in your ring that can get the job done, but since Lour knows about your wound, he will get suspicious if you’re better by tomorrow.”
“I don’t suppose I could just fake a limp, could I? I’ve done it before.”
“I think it would be best to wait. I’m not too keen on dismembering you.”
“I can’t promise that won’t change.”
The two of them laughed, and Valia flashed Noah a dreamy smile, her face lit dimly by the flowers, while outside, the music of the night singers echoed.
“I can safely say, Noah, that I have never met anyone like you, and traveling with you has been the best time I’ve had since Valon left. To have someone by my side is a true comfort.”
“I just hope you weren’t doing the same things with him that you do with me.”
Valia gave a terse giggle. “Oh please, we aren’t like those Purin elves of the Sorkam Mountains. My brother and I are close, not THAT close.”
“When we find him, what will you do? Is there any chance of returning to Colbrand?”
“After everything he’s done, I don’t think he’ll ever be welcome there. I just hope it’s possible to fix him, to heal his mind and give him back his sanity.”
“I’ll do what I can to help. I don’t know if the damage can ever be undone, but I’ll try to bring back whatever of the old Valon remains.”
“I know you will. I have faith in you. And I’ll do what I can to help you.”
Noah gazed at her. “Help me find the answer to my curse, right?”
“Of course, but I also want to help you remember the splendors of life.”
“I know the splendors of life better than you do.”
“But then why do they scare you so?”
“Because I have lived them all. I have lived for everything and have nothing left to live for. Family, homeland, faith, friends, everything that drives humanity forward, I have lived for their sake, persevered in their name.”
Valia sat next to him and caressed his cheek. “But you haven’t given up. You told me once that you are trying to do better, to be better. I see you trying to rekindle the flames of your soul because you still wish for that warmth and light. I have faith in you, because I know you still have faith in yourself.”
She leaned forward, and they shared a tender kiss, and Valia slowly pushed Noah onto his back.
“With my leg like this, there isn’t much I can do.”
“Leave everything to me. You can rest, Noah.”
They made love slowly and gently. There were no loud moans or lewd profanities, just soft shivering breaths and whimpers of euphoria. After finishing simultaneously, they lay back on Noah’s bed, holding each other. The bed was small, but they didn’t mind being close, and with the night singers’ hymn serving as a lullaby, they drifted off into a pleasant slumber.
Morning eventually came, chilling the air with predawn fog. The gray curtain swirled around the trees like mountain clouds while the forest waited for the lazy sun to claw its way out from behind the horizon. The birds were chirping in an echoing chorus, slowly drawing the elves from the world of dreams. A handful of early risers moved across the bridges and walkways, performing morning chores and rituals.
As the sunlight poured into their room, Noah stirred, finding himself held in Valia’s embrace, with his face pressed to her chest. Immersed in softness and warmth, Noah closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep. They remained like that for a while, Valia refusing to let Noah go. Try as he might to move, her slender arms contained frightening strength. The heat of the summer morning was causing them both to sweat, and Valia, at last, woke up. She giggled when she realized how tight she was holding him.
“Good morning,” she said, relaxing her arms.
“Good morning,” he replied as he kissed her silky-smooth skin.
She sat up and stretched, and Noah savored the sight of the morning sun shining on her naked body. “There is no telling when Lour will come here, so we should make ourselves ready.”
They got dressed in their new clothes, now looking like regular citizens of Sylphtoria, and made breakfast. The kitchen area had a small stove for heating and cooking, and rather than firewood, the fuel was lumps of compacted plant matter, dried and crushed to mimic coal. They made a pot of tea and ate the fruits and vegetables the elves had given them. They even had bread and cheese.
They were clearly under some surveillance, because as soon as they finished eating, Lour appeared outside with several soldiers. “Lady Valia, Sir Noah, the queen will see you now,” he said without even poking his head inside. Valia and Noah stepped outside, and each bid Lour a good morning in the form of an elvish greeting. Like the night before, he hid his feelings behind an expressionless mask. “Come with me.”
Noah donned his hat, and he and Valia followed Lour and the soldiers higher up into the trees, through long-winding passages and across grand arches stretching over breathtaking abysses. Like before, Valia was helping Noah walk, but a few morphine pills taken during breakfast also provided some much-needed aid.
They climbed higher up into the foliage, at last arriving at a mansion protruding from the sea of leaves. Ancient trees interwove into a pyramidal structure, but with perforated sides, like a bird cage, exposing the structure's inner workings to the elements. There were no rooms or walls, only platforms resembling leaves on a stem, with various furniture sets and stairways between them.
Elven soldiers stood guard at the entrance, and Lour brought Noah and Valia inside. Upon entering, Noah removed his hat and felt a shift in the air. It was unnaturally still, unaffected by the winds blowing over the trees. This palace was a microclimate, using windows made of mana instead of glass to control the temperature. They were led up a central flight of stairs and finally brought face-to-face with the queen, sitting upon her throne and wearing an elegant crown.
She was a beauty that made even Noah’s eyes widen. Porcelain skin, hair like gold threads, eyes green as the forest canopy, and an endowed figure all came together to produce perfection. The morning sun seemed to illuminate her with favoritism, giving her a divine aura. But, more than that, her mana was vast and potent. Noah, still in the process of training his spirit senses, could feel her immense power, so far above ordinary people’s.
She was flanked by her royal guard, garbed in the finest-quality armor Noah had ever seen. Their eyes were glued to him, looking for any reason to cut him down.
“Your Majesty, I present to you Lady Valia and Sir Noah of Uther. Knights, you stand before Queen Elisandra of Sylphtoria. Thank whatever gods you worship for this blessing,” said Lour.
“Virso delacura ulinpui lent nei.” Noah and Valia recited another greeting in Old Elvish, kneeling with their arms crossed over their chests. Through no small effort, Noah performed it without a grimace.
“Welcome back, Lady Valia, to Sylphtoria. It is good to see you with us once more,” the queen said with an angelic voice.
“You’re too kind, Your Majesty. It is a pleasure to be here, to stand beneath the trees with fellow elves. This country is still as beautiful as I remember.”
“Unfortunately, you do not come with good tidings. You’ve come back to us, hoping your brother has done the same, correct?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. He has lost his mind and fled Uther, taking most of the royal family’s Enochian relics with him. We don’t know what he wants them for, but he may do the same to Sylphtoria. Even if he doesn’t, hopefully, the key to finding him is here. My companion and I want to track him down and restore his sanity.”
“I’m afraid you are too late. Several relics have already gone missing from the various families and even my own collection. Only someone familiar with our ways could pull off such a daring robbery. If your brother is indeed behind this, then he truly has lost his mind to think he can get away with it. What was it that drove him to madness?”
“A little over a year ago, I was assisting him in a magic experiment, one that would let him see the vast expanse of the universe.” Valia paused for a moment. “Something went horribly wrong, or perhaps horribly right, as Valon ended up crossing a line he was not meant to. His mind was stretched until it snapped.
If you looked into his eyes, you would see the damage that has been done. Now I don’t know where he is, what he’s planning, or what he is capable of. Please, my brother is sick and needs help. Whatever he has done wrong, I will do all in my power to make right.” The more she spoke, the more fear and anxiety could be felt in her voice.
“I recall him wielding great intellect and power. For someone like him to go rogue, this is indeed troubling. If he is as mad and powerful as you say, have you considered that he might be beyond saving? My heart aches for your suffering and his, but perhaps all that can be done now is to put him down like a rabid dog before he can harm anyone else.”
Valia took a deep breath, staring at the queen with unflinching resolve. “He is my twin brother and has been by my side for hundreds of years. Do you expect me to give up on him so easily? Noah and I promised each other that we would find him, even if we had to go to the ends of the earth, and if I should lose hope…” She glanced at Noah. “I trust him to get me back on track.”
The queen turned her emerald eyes to Noah, and he felt the power of her mana weighing down on him like a lead apron. More than that, he felt her scrutinizing him with inhuman awareness, her gaze piercing his body as though he was made of glass.
“Yours is a noble endeavor, but there is a problem: the human at your side. His aura makes my hair stand on end.”
As he spoke, the queen’s guard encircled Noah and Valia with their swords drawn, moving with inhuman speed and grace. Valia muttered a swear in Old Elvish and instinctively reached for a sword that wasn’t there. Noah couldn't walk, and they were unarmed and surrounded by the best warriors in the country. Their choices were few and unpleasant. Though not her forte, she had experience in unarmed combat, and Noah could always turn invisible, but as she ran the simulations through her mind, the chances of success continued to drop. Still, she protected Noah.
“Touch him and die,” she hissed.
Noah, on the other hand, remained perfectly calm, and prostrated before the queen.
“Your Majesty, I do not come here expecting trust, indulgences, or even kindness. I have only the meager hope that you will hear me out, and to receive such an honor, I humbly offer my life, for you to end or spare however you wish.”
“And what is your interest in this predicament, young knight? Are you doing this for her sake, his sake, or your own?”
“All three, Your Majesty. I wish to help Valia regain her lost family, Valon his lost sanity, and to find answers that I have long sought. I have a curse I must break, and magic of a nature I cannot identify. I’ve come to Sylphtoria to seek the wisdom of the elves, whether it be Valon or you. I beg you for guidance.”
“You think yourself deserving of a wish granted by a queen?”
“If I am not, I will do whatever I must to earn it.”
“You aren’t even worthy to stand in Her Majesty’s presence.” Noah and Valia turned around, finding Aithorn behind them. “After the things you’ve done in Uther, even Sylphtoria’s dungeons are too good for you.”
“Sir Aithorn, good morning,” Noah said calmly. “Do you mind? I’m speaking with the queen.”
“You never should have come here,” the elf said coldly. “I’ve already informed the queen of your crimes. You’ll find no aid or sanctuary, just punishment.”
“I respectfully disagree.” Noah turned back to the queen. “Now, Your Majesty, as you were saying…”
Enraged, Aithorn spun Noah around and put his spear to his throat. “The only reason I’m not killing you now is that I wouldn’t want to offend her sight.”
“But that brings into question why you didn’t just kill me earlier. Unless you reached the city an hour ago, you probably could have sprung this ambush at any moment after we arrived. The best time would have been when I was by the fountain or sound asleep.
Instead, you allowed me to come here, into the very heart of your nation. Why in the world would you let someone like me in this room? Unless, of course, the decision was not yours to make.”
Noah once more turned to the queen. “If you knew my crimes, you would not have me walk all the way up here just to arrest or execute me. You invited us because you wanted to talk, just as we do. Sir Aithorn spoke to you of more than simply my actions if Uther. He told you something that piqued your interest. Please, Your Majesty, I’d like to hear what’s on your mind.”
“I’m weighing your life, that’s on my mind. My nephew’s warnings have not fallen on deaf ears, Sir Noah. The things he has spoken of do not paint you as someone who can be trusted.”
“Then why am I still alive? If you have something you wish to say or ask, please, just speak the words.”
The queen gave a flick of her wrist and the floor beneath Noah began to shift. Saplings shot up from the ground around him like pikes, nearly impaling him as they grew with impossible speed. Noah was left with no room, surrounded on all sides by a grove of trees, holding him in place like he had been chained to a rack.
Valia instinctively stepped forward to intervene, only to be reminded of her sword’s absence, but Noah showed no sense of alarm. If anything, being restrained in such a way amused him. This was certainly more interesting than just having some handcuffs slapped on.
“You assume too much, boy. Do not think you are the first smooth-talking human to come in here, seeking to exploit the power and knowledge of the elves.”
“The power you speak of is truly fascinating and fearsome. If you wanted me dead, you could have done it at any time. Now, instead of silencing me, you’ve simply sealed my movement, no different than when my weapons were confiscated before I could be allowed to travel through the forest.
In my current state, do you feel comfortable enough now to grant me an audience? Regardless of what you have been told, I come to you unarmed, wounded, and now restrained. You’ve established that I’m not a threat, so may we talk now? If this truly is a nation of elves, then what good is immortality if you don’t have the time to hear my side of the story?”
“Very well. Explain to me why I shouldn’t hand you over to Uther, or kill you where you stand.”
Noah took a deep breath. Keeping his true self hidden in all his past lives had been second nature, but if there was ever a place where he could cast off the disguise of humanity, then why not here? What world would be better than this?
“I am Noah, the Wandering Spirit.”
Thus, Noah regaled everyone with stories of his travel across the multiverse. He spoke of the nature of his curse and described the lives and worlds he had experienced. He kept his magic hidden, but told the queen of his arrival in Uther, his conquering of the dungeon crab, enrollment in the knight academy, and the details of his feud with Seraph and Galvin.
He ensured all those listening knew what the princes and their friends had done to earn his wrath, what kind of people they were, and how they had wounded him. Finally, he recounted the details of their punishments, so the elves understood precisely how the foolish mortals suffered for their arrogance in the face of an ancient being.
When he finished speaking, everyone was quiet, caught between awe, horror, and skepticism. Noah’s story was difficult to both believe and refute, as every statement he made could have been false, but if he intended to deceive everyone around him, wouldn’t he have used an easier lie?
As elves, they knew that one’s apparent age and real age could be as far apart as the earth and the sun. Was he an example of such a being? Did his round ears really hide the eons he had lived? Even in Sylphtoria, someone of his age was unthinkable.
“Now, Queen Elisandra, hearing all that, what say you?” Noah asked.
Elisandra stood up from the throne. “I’ll admit, when Leuca mentioned your nickname, I was curious, but I could not imagine the truth would be so complex. If I am to trust you, I need to know for sure that you are who say you are.”
She approached Noah with silent steps, an image of elven splendor and beauty. Everyone held their breath as she slowly reached out between the bars of his wooden cage and brushed her fingers against his cheek.
“The power of druidism is to feel the vigor of life around you, to experience its flow like water rushing against your hand or the wind kissing your face. I can sense the life of the trees which bind you, flowing like blood, just as I can sense your....”
She suddenly seemed taken back, and all the elves became tense from that small tremor. She stared at Noah with piercing eyes, and he returned the gaze without fear.
“Incredible, your life force is so developed, like a tree with rings beyond count. It has been shaped across eons, not as mortal hands shape clay into simple pottery, but as waves carve stone cliffs and the wind sculpts the mountains. This is not the soul of a simple man, it is as deep as the ocean and vast as the sky. You truly are the Wandering Spirit.”
Noah gratefully lowered his head, and she noticed him trembling. “To finally meet someone who can see what I am, rather than taking it on a matter of faith… Throughout my endless history, most have doubted my story, some have half-heartedly believed, but you are the only one to vindicate me. Thank you, Your Majesty. Thank you. Thank you.”
The queen snapped her fingers and the wooden restraints holding Noah receded back into the floor. “Everyone, lower your weapons. We stand in the presence of an ancient being, and he is not our enemy. Sir Noah, while not shared, our goals align, and we must work together to achieve them. I wish to see our relics returned to us, and you and Lady Valia are our best hope. To my knowledge, Valon is not within Sylphtoria, but if he is, then there may be a way to find him. It is a ritual that can only be performed under a full moon, with the next due in a fortnight. You will stay as our guests until then.”
“I am eternally grateful, My Lady. Then, with your permission, I would like to spend that time studying elven literature and speaking with your great sages so that I may find my answers.”
“Elven knowledge is not so easily given, Sir Noah. Though you may not be an enemy of our kingdom, you have yet to prove yourself an ally. You must earn our faith before you can receive our privileges. I’m sure you can understand why I remain wary.”
“I understand. If we find Valon and return your stolen relics, will that be enough?”
“Despite the tragedy that has befallen Valon, he has committed a grave crime against us and remains a dire threat. If you return the relics, that will simply right Valon’s wrongs and earn his pardoning as an act of equivalent exchange. If you wish to study our secrets, that requires another act on your part.”
“Name the mountain, and I shall move it.”
“I can see you struggling to stand. You are in no condition to move anything, much less a mountain. First, we must tend to your wound and give you time to rest.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I am capable of fixing my leg. I simply require some simple tools.”
“Are you ready?” Valia asked again, standing over Noah in the kitchen of their temporary home.
“Valia, if we wait any longer, these tourniquets will send a blood clot to my brain,” said Noah, lying on the table without pants.
“Here I go. Zodiac: Avagath.”
A silver magic circle encompassed the two of them, and she placed her hand on Noah’s leg, already bound tight to lessen the imminent bleeding. Her physical senses were raised to their maximum, letting her feel the arrowhead lodged in his thigh even clearer than he could. She memorized its location, shape, direction, and angle.
In Valia’s hand, she held a large bush knife, elven-made. Pristine, gleaming, and honed to a razor’s edge, it glowed with an aura of mana as she further enhanced its cutting power. After sterilizing the blade, table, and everything else involved in the procedure, there was nothing left to do but take the plunge.
With a deep breath and a steady hand, she brought down the knife and severed Noah’s leg. Valia’s slice was perfect, a surgeon’s dream. The blade separated muscle and bone like a laser, but without the benefit of cauterization. Though the tourniquets applied above and below the arrowhead’s position helped lessen the mess, blood spurted from the wound and pooled on the wooden table under Noah.
He had taken morphine and other potions to dull the pain, but insisted on being awake and aware during the process. Valia was no stranger to blood, seeing it pour from friend and foe alike on the battlefield, but still, doing this to him left her trembling frightfully.
“Valia, focus. We can’t both go into shock,” he said.
“Right, right. Ok, I’ll remove the arrowhead.”
She turned to his severed leg, leaking blood like a fat leech. She had cut as close to the arrowhead as possible and could see the layer of inflamed tissue surrounding it. She removed the tissue with a smaller knife, exposing the metal blade, then pried it out. Upon hearing it bounce on the table, Noah grasped his leg and held the two bleeding ends together. He rotated it like the dial of a safe, adjusting its position to line up the bone, veins, and muscles perfectly.
“I got it. Now apply the first potion and then remove the tourniquets.”
He couldn’t afford to take his hands off his leg, so Valia worked around him to pour a healing potion on the cut, mending the skin and the muscles close to the surface. She then severed the bindings around his leg, letting his blood flow freely, but though it didn’t leave his body, his skin darkened from it pooling beneath the skin.
He then drank another potion, one of the most powerful in his arsenal, the kind he hoped he’d never have to use. By undoing the tourniquets, its healing properties could flow unhindered and repair the damage. The tissue in his leg knitted itself back together, and the arteries, veins, muscles, and his femur reconnected.
“Ok,” he said, releasing his held breath and dripping with sweat. “It’s good. It’s done.”
“Don’t you ever, EVER, ask me to do anything like that again,” Valia warned, in a similar state.
“Trust me; I’m in no rush to repeat that experience.” He then took her hand, wet with his blood, and kissed it. “And I am truly grateful for your help.”
“Well, I’m just glad you’re alive. Now, you are to spend the rest of the day in bed. I don’t want you walking around on that leg until we’re sure the potion has done everything it can.”
“After weeks on horseback, I’m not going to complain about a chance to be lazy. The day has just started, and I’m already worn out.” They cleaned themselves and the table, and Valia helped Noah to his bed.
“You stay put. I’m going to go out into the city.”
“Gonna catch up with some old friends?”
“Well, it’s not every day I blow through Sylphtoria. Besides, the queen doesn’t know about Valon’s whereabouts, but maybe someone here does. Unless you would rather I stay with you?”
“I’ll be fine. There are already enough elves surveilling this place without you perched over me, watching me sleep.”
“But you look so cute when you sleep,” she teased. She then leaned down and kissed him. “Get some rest. I’ll be back soon.”
Leaving Noah to rest, she set out into the city, walking across familiar bridges and walkways. After living in Uther for so long, being among fellow elves was a wonderful feeling. As a dark elf, she still stood out, but the pointed ears all around her were comforting. Little had changed since she passed through Sylphtoria, and familiar faces bore no wrinkles.
Like in the forest below, various edible plants had been grown throughout the city. Through druidism, branches bore multiple different fruits, nuts, and berries. Down on the forest floor, vegetables grew wild and free. Numerous species could typically only survive in specific climates, but they flourished side by side, ready for harvest year-round. Wherever Valia strolled, food was always within reach.
The abundance of nourishment freed the elves to pursue their passions and master the various trades. Valia passed by homes and gardens, with the inhabitants reading the great works of ages past or creating pieces of breathtaking art. Everything from metal to glass was crafted into sculptures and decorations and displayed among the branches.
On the forest floor, Valia stopped by the few blacksmithing workshops in the city to see what the elven craftsmen were working on. The forges wheezed with the pumping of bellows, and crude iron was warped into elegant steel, using anvils and hammers that were older than most countries. These workshops were all communal, free for anyone to use at any time. Here, blacksmithing was a hobby instead of a job. If not made for personal use, crafts were free to whoever was in need for the benefit of the city.
She found a few old friends and acquaintances, though none of them knew Valon’s whereabouts. She eventually came to a rest at one of many balconies, leaning against the vine railing and gazing across the city while enjoying the sweetness of the air. Elves had a natural affinity for plant magic, and even Valia, resigned only to her Zodiac abilities, felt at home beneath the ancient trees. But despite this Eden, she could not ease the dread and sorrow in her heart.
She kept glancing over to the space next to her, wishing to see her brother leaning against the railing with a smile. After all, that was where he had spent the last 700 years, right next to her, since they were born. They’d had each other’s backs through thick and thin. In the bloodiest battles, the worst disasters, and most heart-wrenching moments of her life, she could always turn and see him right there.
She felt him the same way she’d still feel an amputated limb, and the empty air felt so cold that she even shivered. Maybe it was hope that kept those sensations alive, hope that stand beside her again one day, and she wouldn’t have to face the endless ages alone. She wanted it to be hope. She hoped it was hope.
Valia clung to that hope as tightly as she could. She tried to remember Valon as he was before the accident and to forget the hollowness of his eyes the last time she saw him. She sealed away her memories of his gaunt despair and madness, refused to ponder if he had already perished, and directed all her strength to imagine him returning to his old self. Someday, they would be reunited. For now, all she could do was find solace in the one merit of her solitude and cry without anyone seeing her.
“It’s dangerous letting that man stay here,” said Aithorn, kneeling in the palace before Elisandra.
“If what they say about Valon is true, then Sir Noah and Lady Valia are our best chance of recovering the stolen relics. We cannot accept this loss simply because the solution is a bit risky.”
“For all we know, those three could be working together for some scam. They might try to steal even more relics, or worse.”
“I trust Lady Valia’s desperation to find her brother. She seems genuinely worried about him and ignorant about his goals and location. As for Sir Noah, I’d rather have him as an ally than an enemy. It’s clear to me that the princes of Uther are the ones who started the conflict, and though I disagree with his abhorrent methods of revenge, the fact remains that more good will come from welcoming him than alienating him. Moreover, I already know of a way to make his knowledge and skills work for us.”
“Very well, Your Majesty. But should he do anything I disagree with, should he become a threat to Sylphtoria, I will end him.”
Elisandra sighed. “Your words are colder now than when you left. Leuca, you’re miserable living among the humans, I can tell. Why not return home and let someone else handle the duty of aiding Uther?”
“Thank you, Your Majesty, but… I’m not ready. It still hurts to be here, even if it’s just a visitation. I’d rather be miserable in Uther than miserable in Sylphtoria. I can live with annoyance, but not guilt.”
“Leuca, you can’t simply cancel out one pain with another.”
“Regardless, someone needs to fill the role, so why shouldn’t it be me? I’m the only one who should suffer.”
“No, you shouldn’t. You don’t deserve to suffer. No matter how much pain you inflict on yourself, it won’t change the past.”
“Maybe not, but at least suffering keeps me from thinking about it.”
Noah awoke as Valia entered the house, carrying a basket of food.
“Hey, good afternoon,” he said tiredly.
“Hi,” she said softly.
Noah noticed the look on her face and the puffiness of her eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Instead of replying, she casually dropped the basket to the floor and stripped off her clothes. “Move over.” She climbed into bed with him, snuggling up close.
“Did something happen out there?”
“I just want to take a nap, too.”
Noah decided not to push the issue and put his arm around her. “Well, you got here just in time. I am quite enjoying the feel of that sunbeam.”
They spent the afternoon hours snoozing away, enjoying the chance to drop their guard and finally relax without having to sleep with one eye open. They could exhale and let their muscles ease. It was a warm summer day, so they slept without a blanket while the afternoon breeze rolled through their open window and licked their skin.
Held tightly against him, the sweet scent of Valia’s hair and its softness against Noah’s face was heavenly. He eventually woke up, pulled from his dreams by hunger. Valia was still asleep, and his leg was feeling better, so he carefully climbed over her to get out of bed. But as he took a step forward, she grasped his hand.
“Please, don’t go,” she murmured, speaking with a soft desperation he had never heard from her before.
“I’m not going anywhere. You went through all the trouble collecting this food, and I want to enjoy it. Besides, I’m sure you must be hungry as well.”
He retrieved the basket and returned to bed, and they fed on the forest's bounty. While Noah ate a papaya, Valia munched on a peach the size of a grapefruit. As a drop of juice rolled down her chin, he leaned over and licked it like a dog.
“What was that for?” she asked with a laugh.
“I knew it would make you smile.”
Valia paused. “Thank you. You were right to do it.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m… I’m ok. It’s just… it’s hard being here. I’m in a city full of elves, but the only one I want to see is somewhere on the other side of the horizon. When I was in Colbrand, I’d keep telling myself that Valon would soon come back. I’d fall asleep every night, expecting he’d be back in the morning. I’d wake up every morning and eat breakfast, expecting him to be back in time for lunch. I’d eat lunch thinking he was just late and would make it for dinner. The only way I could live was in a state of constant hope and denial. If I kept telling myself that he was on his way home, then that meant he was at least close by. I could believe he wanted to return.
Now that I’m traveling and have to work and fight to find him, it feels like he’s farther away than ever. Where did he go? Why did he leave? What could be so terrible or vital that he wouldn’t let me come with him? Every time I’m alone, part of me wonders if that’s how it’ll be from now on, if I’ll ever find Valon. It feels like wherever I go, there is this cold, drafty space next to me, and I know it’s where Valon is supposed to be standing. I’ve fought in countless battles and numerous wars, but no matter how bleak and bloody it got, I knew I had Valon with me.”
“I understand. You’re used to being one in a pair, half of a whole. He’s been by your side since you both were in the womb. It’s natural to feel lost without him, to feel fear, pain, confusion, and desperation. You don’t have to hide them from me. But even if he’s gone, I’m with you, and I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth to bring him back.”
“But are you doing that for me, or for yourself?”
“Why do you think it has to be one or the other? I’m doing it for all three of us.”
“Because whatever we do, no matter how many reasons we have, there is always one in particular that supersedes the others.”
“Let’s not meander around this. What’s really bothering you?”
“I want to specify our agreement.”
“In what way?”
“If you want to search for other ways to break your curse while we travel, that’s fine, but you’re not allowed to die without my permission, and not until we’ve fixed Valon.”
“Promise me!” she exclaimed. “Even if you break your curse, promise me that you’ll stay by my side! Promise me that you won’t leave me behind and disappear when I need you most! Promise me that you’ll—” She couldn’t finish the sentence, pausing to steady her breathing while tears hung from her lashes. “I’m sorry.”
To Noah, Valia was always a calm, mature person, and though she once confessed that teaching bored her, she had an innate talent and deep care for those under her wing. In Uther, she had worn that façade in front of everyone, pretending to function without her brother beside her, while living purely on hope and denial. Now, her true feelings were pouring freely. Despite her strength in battle and centuries of life experience, there was still a vulnerable side to her that no sword or shield could protect.
“I promise,” Noah replied. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, letting her cry into his chest. “I promise I won’t leave you.”
They stayed like that for a spell, Noah comforting Valia as all her fears and anxieties rolled down her cheeks. Then, when she had finally calmed down, Noah made a pot of tea, and they sat quietly in bed, enjoying the steaming brew and gazing out the window.
“How is your leg?” Valia asked once her mug was empty.
“It’s good as new. I’m not even sore.”
“Perfect.” She straddled his lap, gazing into his eyes with her own filled with desperate need. “Make love to me, Noah. Give me everything, all the strength and passion in your body. Make me moan your name until I can’t even remember my own.”
“I still haven’t repaired my sound-blocking device.”
“I don’t care. Let everyone out there hear how happy you make me. I want them to look at you the same way I do.”
Noah obliged and kissed her deeply, their joined lips and tongues swirling as if trying to fuse together. He laid her down, his strong hands caressing her soft flesh with each movement of his fingertips making her gasp. Noah kissed and nibbled on every erogenous nerve the way he did her ears, with Valia euphorically bearing the marks of his love bites.
He massaged her breasts with masterful skill, teasing her nipples to push her over the edge where sanity melted away and carnality took over. Noah’s expert technique, and the continuous switching between gentle and forceful, made her climax as though she was on a hair trigger.
When Noah went down on her and his tongue swirled around within her depths, Valia moaned without hindrance, as though her back arching allowed her to project her sexual bliss better. He sampled her aroused nectar as though it poured from the Fountain of Youth. He’d lift her hips off the bed and eat her out ravenously, and she’d push him onto his back and sit on his face, the two doing everything that would let him dominate her pussy with his tongue.
She was ready for him, and Noah took her without mercy. The speed and ferocity of his driving manhood erased everything from her mind but the moment before her. When Noah was on top, Valia would hold him tightly, afraid to let him out of her loving embrace, while digging her nails into his back with every climax. When she was on top, she’d drop down on Noah as hard and fast as she could, trying to help him achieve a deep penetration she wasn’t sure even existed. When he ravaged her from behind, she’d throw herself against his cock with such force that she threatened to push Noah off the bed.
Noah fucked her against every wall, atop every piece of furniture, and in every position that would bring her joy. The summer heat and his exertion made him sweat, and Valia licked every drop that rolled down his neck and chest as though she was dying of thirst. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such sexual compatibility with someone. The force she hungered for was almost more than he could provide. Neither of them knew how many times they brought each other to climax, but Valia’s moans of ecstasy were rare to break.
Her voice echoed outside their home and through the city, reaching the pointed ears of countless elves and making their white cheeks turn red. Word of a human’s presence had spread, so it was clear what the source of all the noise was. Noah’s reputation was born in Clive, cultivated in Colbrand, and followed him to Sylphtoria. It went on like that until the sun went down, and suffice it to say, the Nadoku’s evening prayers felt rather underwhelming after what everyone had heard.