Noah and the team face the strongest monsters of Kisara Island.
‘Ferocious’ was the only word that could describe them. Each had a body fifty feet long from head to tail, with a wingspan even greater. Their wings doubled as prehensile arms that the creatures could use to move on all fours, with each digit equipped with talons that gouged out the rock beneath them.
Their scaly bodies were packed with muscle, and their heads, reptilian, were lined with horns and spikes. They stared with forward-pointing eyes that would never lose track of their prey. They were wyverns, the champions of the sky, and now a vicious pack of them surrounded Noah’s group.
They had left camp early in the morning, wanting to reach the mountain summit before the heat reached its peak, and now, in the labyrinth of houses and temples carved into the cliffs, their new enemy surrounded them, roaring in fury. Wyverns were believed to be a sub-race of the mighty dragons, like elves to Enochians, and though the chasm between them was vast, these beasts ranked high on the food chain.
“I think it’s safe to say these creatures have some nests up here,” Valia said.
“Even if we try to run away, they’ll chase us all the way to the sea,” Aithorn added.
“Aithorn, time to whip out that Dragon Impaler spell. Let’s hope the name isn’t simply a boast,” said Noah.
He began spinning his spear, with the three blades wrapped in an aura of lightning. “Don’t worry, it isn’t.”
He then charged toward the nearest wyvern, aiming for its face. It ducked its head to the side and swung at him with its tail, but he similarly dodged. Aithorn pressed the attack, trying to pierce the wyvern with his spear, but the beast had sharp reflexes and great speed, allowing it duck and weave to avoid the enchanted blade. It even defended itself by intercepting the shaft and avoiding the blade all together. Aithorn was no pushover, and for him to be challenged like this was a bad omen. The other elves launched arrows, trying to keep the rest of the wyverns at bay, but they simply bounced off their armored hides, irritating them.
In the center of the group, Valia activated her magic, boosting her strength, endurance, and cutting power, and then jumped into battle. Like with Aithorn, the wyverns could sense the danger her magic posed, and were cautious. They dodged her swings to the best of their ability, but every time she managed to land a cut, the wound went deep. When injured, their counterattacks were ferocious. Valia’s enchanted body and armor were put to the test against monstrous teeth and claws, and it took all of her enhanced strength to block the tail strikes, hitting like a tree-sized baseball bat.
“If we can just incapacitate them, they won’t follow us! Aim for their wings!” she shouted.
The elves changed their tactics, wounding and enraging the wyverns. Valia sliced through the membranes of one opponent, drawing a howl of agony and spray of blood, but before it could counter, she had already attacked the beast closest to it, shredding its wings with two expert slashes. The third met the same fate, grounded from her attacks, but her luck ended with the fourth.
With lightning-fast reflexes, it intercepted her attack and grabbed her sword arm between its jaws. She released her sword and grabbed it with her other hand, and as soon as she stretched back to slash, a second wyvern grabbed her other arm, making her cry out in pain. They each bit down full-force and pulled in opposite directions like dogs fighting over a toy, leaving her unable to retaliate. Even with her super strength, she could not overpower two adult wyverns, and their fangs had wounded her steel skin. It was taking all her magic just to keep from being ripped in half.
Noah activated both of his spells, and with his clone acting as a decoy, he attacked one of the wyverns holding Valia. He brought down his sword upon its neck with all the strength he could muster, using the form and skill Valia had taught him. The strike landed perfectly, but though he managed to cut through its hide, it was merely a flesh wound, barely even damaging the muscle. Wyvern hide was notoriously tough. If anything, the fact that Noah inflicted even that much damage without warrior or monk magic was an accomplishment in its own right.
Though the wyvern couldn’t sense who attacked it, it still reacted on instinct and swung its wing, knocking Noah away. He hit the ground rolling and got back to his feet, looking around while rejoining his clone. The rest of the elves were forced to break formation to avoid the wyverns’ attacks. They darted around with their swords, trying to inflict any damage they could.
The wyverns quickly realized their wings were being targeted and used their scales to defend themselves. Two elves had already been slain, one having his head bitten off and the other dismembered in the same way as Valia was close to being. Nearby, Aithorn was struggling to stand after a wyvern struck him with its tail. From how he was leaning, a few of his ribs appeared broken.
‘Wait, ribs!’ Noah realized. “Everyone, aim for their ribs! Don’t try to cut or stab them, just hit them with pure force! Sword pommels! Kicks! Use a rock if you have to!”
He attacked one of the wyverns holding Valia, striking it in the side of the ribcage with a solid kick and feeling bone crack from the blow. To the wyvern, this was a pain it had never experienced before, and it inadvertently released Valia’s arm. Noah similarly dispatched the second wyvern, prompting it to let go of Valia. It was too distracted by the multiple broken ribs piercing its lungs.
Seeing how the two beasts reacted, everyone understood what Noah meant and once more went on the attack. No small amount of blood was lost getting close, but the elves bypassed the wyverns’ defenses and hammered away at their ribs with all of their strength, first breaking bones and then crushing organs. Aithorn, swallowing his pain, took advantage of the wounded beasts and ended their lives with his spear. Though sword slashes had failed against them, his lightning-wrapped stabs drilled through scale and muscle easily.
While the tide of battle was changing, the wyverns refused to give up. They clustered together, shoring up their defenses, making them easy targets for Noah’s flashbangs. Stunned by the light and sound, they were defenseless, and Valia swooped in and dispatched them with a combination of punches, kicks, and blows with the handle of her sword. Aithorn finished them off, and the fight was won. The elves, tired and wounded, dropped down to their knees while the two healers went to work.
“How did you know to do that? To go for their ribs? Everyone knows you go for the wings instead,” asked Valia.
“Bird bones are full of open spaces to cut down weight, making it easier for them to fly, but it leaves them more brittle. I assumed wyverns would have the same weakness, especially with how heavy their muscles and hide must be. Anyway, let’s take a break. You should all take care of your wounds, and I can’t just ignore this bounty of materials.” Noah looked around at the corpses while rubbing his hands together and smiling. “There is a lot of good stuff here.”
The elves took their time to recover and bury their fallen comrades while Noah busied himself with dismantling the kills. Most parts of the wyvern were very useful for runecrafting and potion making, and Noah took everything he could carry within his ring. He used alchemy to remove all the moisture, lightening the weight, and convinced Valia and Aithorn to store some materials in their rings. Aithorn had realized a while ago that Noah possessed a silver-ranked knight’s ring and didn’t bother saying anything.
The group then resumed climbing the mountain, reaching the summit by noon. From up here, they had a view of the entire island. It was an ocean of greenery punctuated by towering ruins, with the faint blue of the sea visible on the edges of the horizon.
“Hey, look down there,” said Noah, surveying the jungle with his spyglass. There was a winding scar of destruction carved across the landscape.
“All those burned trees, it must be Gradius,” Valia replied. “It looks like he’s been hacking and slashing his way through the wilderness. Imagine the poor creatures that crossed his path.”
“I don’t see any fires currently burning though. If we’re lucky, he sank into some mud and drowned.”
“I once watched that man evaporate an entire lake after falling off a boat. Nothing short of the ocean can drown him. Anyway, let’s check for Valon.”
Valia took out the needle Noah made and began channeling her mana into it. She had tried using it several times since arriving on the island with no luck, but that changed. Valia laid it on her palm, and as she channeled her mana into it, the end with Valon’s hair began to rise, suspended in the air as though repelled from her. Though it wobbled unsteadily, it remained pointed at the island, even when she turned it towards the sea.
“He’s here,” Valia gasped. “He’s really here!”
“What? He’s here?” the other elves asked, circling around. Valia tested the needle over and over from all different angles, and though it failed to give a solid direction, it confirmed that Valon was somewhere on the island. “I can’t believe it, we’re so close!” she said, shedding tears of joy.
Noah was excited as well. “Let’s try it at the palace next.”
Focused on their next destination, Noah and elves descended back down into the jungle. As they moved through the greenery, numerous roars reached them. Since arriving, such occurrences were almost constant, but they didn’t recognize the source. There was movement all around them, great hulking shapes darting back and forth under the cover of the underbrush. One of their opponents finally revealed itself, pouncing on the group with a bloodthirsty howl.
It was a hobgoblin, six feet in height, and wielding a tree branch as a club. It was aiming for Valia, and though she managed to draw her sword and block its swing, she didn’t have enough time to activate her magic, and its strength and momentum knocked her back. One of the elves stabbed it in the back with his sword, and it countered by striking him across the face, crushing his skull and snapping his neck in the process. A swing of Aithorn’s spear managed to remove its head, but it wasn’t their only enemy.
More hobgoblins were coming out of the woodwork, armed with spears and clubs like the first, but, as Noah studied them, he realized these were different from the hobgoblin he faced in Clive. Though these creatures had the signature green skin, pointed nose and ears, and sharp tusks of the goblin species, their bodies were more like apes.
Their weapons were also more primitive, showing no signs of whittling or sharpening, and they did not wear pelts or other garb. On the evolutionary timeline, they were halfway between gorilla and Neanderthal. Their species had just learned how to walk upright and was starting to understand tools, and in time, their descendants would discover fire.
The elves countered with their bows, launching barrages of arrows that mowed the bravest goblins down and drove the rest back into hiding, but they weren’t giving up.
“Let’s move!” Noah ordered.
They ran off down the mountain, but the goblins wouldn’t let them go so easily. They seemed able to move on two feet and all fours with equal dexterity, pursuing the group on the ground and through the trees. Their physical strength was well beyond human, allowing them to hurl great and swing tree trunks with little difficulty. They had no sense of fighting technique, but they understood the advantage weapons gave them, and could defend against the elven swords for at least a few moments.
Ambushes came from all sides, as lone attackers, aware that they couldn’t handle Noah’s group by themselves, tried to slow them down so that the rest of the goblins could catch up. The group found a path through the jungle, free of trees, however, every step made Noah uneasy. The ground didn’t feel right. It was soft and springy, as if….
“It’s hollow!” he cursed.
As soon as the words were spoken, the ground came apart from under their feet. It was a blanket of interwoven roots covered with a thin layer of dirt, and the group plummeted into the darkness below. They had entered a deep crevasse, carved when the earthquake struck the island, and were freefalling to their death. The elves cast druid magic, taking control of vines and roots to reach down and grab them, but Noah and Valia were too far down to be saved.
“Zodiac: Baol! Udan! Rakshon!” Valia cast.
Powered by magic, Valia kicked off the ravine's wall and rocketed herself toward Noah. She grabbed him with one hand and then jammed her sword into the opposing cliff face, slowing their descent as the enchanted steel carved through rock and clay. They touched down on the ground and each breathed a sigh of relief.
“Damn, you’re a real life-saver,” said Noah.
“It’s what I do,” she said proudly.
“Are you two all right?” Aithorn asked as the elves lowered themselves down.
“We’ll live,” Noah replied as he produced a sphere of light. Up above, he could hear the howling of the goblins, pacing around the opening to the crevasse. “This doesn’t seem to be a trap, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to let us climb out of here.”
“From the echo, this ravine seems to go for quite a distance,” said Valia. “With any luck, we’ll find a path to the castle.”
They set off through the crevasse using torches and magic to light their path. More than simply an opening in the earth, it was a vast system of winding passages, branching off from the original fractures into ancient cave systems. In these dark passages, chitinous creatures thrived.
Worms, insects, and predatory crustaceans of monstrous size crawled through tunnels made by burrowing animals, searching for food. Fortunately, they feared the light and were driven away without violence. The rain carried spores and nutrients down from the jungle, producing a rich ecosystem. Fungus caked the stone walls, and colossal mushrooms bloomed from gathered water.
“Beautiful,” Noah murmured as he walked. He could still appreciate the sights even down in the dark, surrounded by monsters and danger. “I’ve met countless naturalists, biologists, botanists, and zoologists that would fall to their knees in awe if they could see this island.”
“You have the heart of an elf,” said one of the healers. It was the first time she had spoken to him.
As they continued to travel, the scenery changed. More sunlight was poking through the cover overhead, and the passages were widening. The ground was littered with animal skeletons and packed down from heavy footfalls. They eventually discovered a vast alcove, where something had made a nest for itself using a mix of gathered brush and animal remains. A cluster of eggs sat in the center, each one the size of a wine barrel.
“Come on, let’s get out of here, fast,” said Noah as he examined a shed scale.
They took off in a hurry, but they weren’t quick enough, and a shriek echoed through the passages. It was a shrill, piercing screech, like saw blades grinding against each other, and it made everyone cover their ears and fall to their knees, even Noah. He had heard sounds like this before in past lifetimes, harnessed as a weapon to subdue riots and incapacitate enemy units. It wasn’t just the volume that caused pain; it was the oscillating sharpness, easily capable of stunning most prey. Evolution had smiled upon this new enemy.
Noah pulled out his noise canceller and activated it, but it only dulled the sound enough so the keen-eared elves didn’t vomit in agony. Then they saw it, charging their way from the passage they had already traveled. It had six powerful legs, a colossal muscular body covered in scales, and a head filled with sword-like teeth dripping with venom. It was the island’s apex predator, a beast that all others feared, a basilisk.
“Run!” Noah shouted.
They took off, he and the elves sprinting as fast as they could with the enraged basilisk in pursuit. Having come so close to its nest, simply driving them away wasn’t good enough. It wouldn’t stop until it had ended all their lives.
It continued to shriek, attacking their eardrums to try and slow them down. The elves had to run with their hands over their ears, otherwise the sound would bring them down. Noah’s noise-canceller helped alleviate some the of the effects, but wasn’t meant to be used when moving. At the moment, it was providing as much protection as a splash of water before charging into a burning building, but without it, they wouldn’t even be able to stand.
As it ran, the basilisk swung its head, hurling venom in all directions that melted whatever it touched. A glob of the black sludge hit one of the healers, bringing her to her knees, screaming in agony. Aithorn picked her up and ran with her on his shoulder, but there was no point. The venom had touched her skin, and that was enough to enter her body and begin destroying everything. With each passing second, her flesh was disintegrating, and the muscle underneath was turning black and melting away. She was dead in less than a minute, with Aithorn now carrying a skeleton oozing liquified tissue.
There was no time to use druidism to get themselves out of the ravine, and though they tried to summon wooden barricades to slow the basilisk down, it smashed through every obstacle with terrifying strength, and its venom killed whatever it touched. Any arrows they launched bounced off its hide without leaving a scratch. Even Aithorn’s lightning-enhanced arrows could do nothing to wound it. In all likelihood, nothing short of an atomic bomb would kill it, and Noah suspected it could survive even that.
Their best hope was to find a passage to duck into, one too small for the beast to follow, or at least get back up to the surface. However, this ravine was a straight shot and far too deep for them to climb out of.
“Valia, any chance you can kill this thing?” Noah asked.
“Basilisk venom can melt through steel! Even if I do somehow manage to wound it, it’ll kill me in a second! Best case scenario, we all die and I happen to go first!”
“If we can get to the surface, I might be able to drive it away!” Aithorn shouted. “We just need to….” He trailed off, and everyone realized why. Up ahead was a dead end, with cliff sides too steep to climb, even for the elves. They were cornered, and the basilisk was closing in.
“Anyone have a plan?!” one of the elves yelled.
“I might have one,” Noah said, though he was rather reluctant. He approached the charging basilisk with his grimoire in one hand and a wand in the other. He activated his cloning magic, channeled his mana to a specific page, and then pointed his wand at the basilisk. “What you see next, you all take to your graves!”
A storm of color surged from the end of the wand, changing shape as it expanded. Bones wrapped in flesh, a massive body covered in scales, and a mouth filled with teeth and venom all took shape before Noah as if growing in a womb. Valia and the rest of the elves watched in shock, as before them, what was originally one basilisk became two. It was a clone of the basilisk Prince Lupin’s army had killed, conjured using a stolen scale.
The problem was that the mana required was far more than Noah could produce. In preparation for this journey, he had made this wand in Sylphtoria, and it was enchanted to boost his magical abilities and allow him to clone larger animals, but nothing on this scale. Still, he forced the spell to work, and to accomplish such a task, a price had to be paid. He was paying in blood, pouring from his nose, eyes, and mouth, as his skin disintegrated.
The two stared at each other, the real basilisk confused about what was happening. It had just been chasing prey but now faced one of its own kind, seemingly materializing out of thin air. It looked and smelled completely real, but something was horribly wrong. Basilisks were a highly aggressive species, and the only reason it wasn’t mauling the newcomer was its condition. Its body was deformed, its eyes were on the verge of bursting out of their sockets, and when it tried to roar, what came out was a sickly groan of anguish.
This basilisk resulted from twisted magic and abominable science. In a state of nature, it never would have even broken free of its shell, let alone reached adulthood. The real basilisk tried to make sense of what was standing before it, pushing Noah closer to the brink of death every second. His wounds were transferring to the illusion, leaving the deformed beast hemorrhaging from all over and roaring in agony the way Noah wished to.
To the basilisk, this creature before it would be the most effortless victory, but though it wasn’t at all intimidating, it did invoke fear. Its instincts were telling it to stay back, the primordial sense to avoid sick prey. This enemy was suffering from some kind of poison or disease, something that the basilisk might catch. Out of fear of sharing the fate of this newcomer, the beast retreated. No weapon or beast could frighten it, but it dared not risk getting sick.
The elves standing behind Noah watched with their mouths hanging open, unable to believe what they saw. Not only had Noah somehow conjured one of the mightiest beasts in the world, but he had succeeded in driving the other one off. But while Aithorn and the others tried to guess what kind of magic they were seeing or watching the other basilisk flee, Valia was staring at Noah with worry, seeing his clothes get soaked with blood. Only when it was finally gone did he release the spell, shredded by the side effects of using more power than his body could produce.
He collapsed like a fallen tree, losing consciousness to the sound of Valia tearfully screaming his name. Noah didn’t know when he finally woke up, but it was with a spasm of pain. He was lying atop a mattress of animal pelts in a stone room he didn’t recognize. A window was nearby, with sunlight streaming in and nourishing the moss that grew on the floor and walls.
“So you’re finally awake?”
His whole body aching, Noah looked over to see Aithorn sitting in the corner, looking exhausted.
“Yes, but at the moment, I’m going to have to add an ‘unfortunately’ to my answer. Water, please.” Aithorn sat him up and gave him a cup of water, which Noah used to wash down some morphine pills. “How long have I been out?”
“A whole day. Your body was almost ground into pulp.”
“That sounds about right. Where are we?”
“The palace. We treated you with healing and mana potions, but you still wouldn’t wake up, so we carried you here. Well, really it was Valia who carried you. She got quite defensive when you were unconscious, practically hissing at anyone who offered to carry you in her stead.”
“I don’t suppose Valon is here, is he?”
“No, but we have found Gradius’s men. Monsters, illness, heat stroke, and a dozen other dangers culled their ranks, but Gradius wasn’t going to let that stop him, so they deserted him to his mad hunt. Half his men died from his poor leadership, but half survived because his power. When they tried to make it back to the ship without him, they were instead driven here, where they’ve been holding up as best as they can.”
“That means Gradius is all alone in the jungle. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed about drowning in mud.”
“Fortunately, the needle you gave Valia seems to be pointing in a consistent direction, so once you’re ready, we can head out.”
“Good, but first I’m going to need some pants.”
Aithorn handed him his clothes and armor. “All your clothes were soaked in blood, so Valia took care of undressing you and getting them cleaned. Our one remaining healer feared that if she undressed you, she’d be struck with some kind of curse that bends women to your will.”
“I don’t need magic to do that,” Noah said as he got dressed. He then tried to stand up, but collapsed back onto the bed.
“Take it easy. You realize you almost died, don’t you?”
“I didn’t see the rest of you offering up solutions. I did what I had to.”
“What in the world was that magic you used? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“I don’t like explaining it, because then potential enemies can find a way around it. What I said before, about taking what you saw to your graves, I expect you all to abide by it and tell no one, not even Elisandra of my abilities.”
“You really think of us as enemies?”
“Remember that overtly threatening conversation we had after leaving Sylphtoria? Remember when Torbin wanted to leave me behind because of the ponaturi? Valia is the only person on this island I trust not to stab me in the back and leave me for dead, but if it was for her brother’s sake, I’m sure she’d sacrifice me to get him back. Even if they don’t mean to do it, even if they don’t plan to do it, I live my life waiting for everyone to betray me.”
“Well it might to surprise you then to know that… I trust you. After what I saw yesterday, I even respect you. You succeeded where I failed: you kept the team alive.”
“If I didn’t do something, we all would have died. My actions weren’t that altruistic.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re a better leader than I am.”
“For you to say that, it means there is a similar event in your past to compare yesterday to. Is this about our fight earlier, or something else?”
Aithorn hesitated, chewing on his words. “Years ago, there were reports of an ogre tribe entering the Anorvan Forest. They had already raided a village, so they had to be wiped out. I volunteered to lead a team to do just that.”
“Do you remember Alexis Veres, the girl who fought under you during the Red Revelries? She’s a friend of mine. We worked together to exterminate an ogre tribe before enrolling in the academy. It’s how we met. You would have been proud of her. Something tells me your fight didn’t go so well?”
Aithorn gave a bitter laugh, the only laugh Noah had ever heard from him. “I underestimated them. I thought it would be easy, like stepping on cockroaches. I had defended Sylphtoria for centuries, defeated countless enemies, and thought my men and I were unbeatable. We had no idea that there would be so many, that they’d be so well armed. They had enchanted weapons, high-grade armor, and numerous mages. It was like the gods were laughing at us, wanting to see if we would break down in tears.
Before we could even do reconnaissance, they came at us like a tidal wave, and there was nothing we could do. My men were butchered in front of me, and I had three arrows planted in my chest. One of my men, wounded like I was, managed to escape with me in tow. We rode to the nearest village, and though I made it, he didn’t.
I led a dozen elves to their graves, and instead of being the first to go like a true warrior, instead of giving my life so they could get away, I was shamefully wounded and came back alive, leaving those who trusted me to be feasted upon by those wicked beasts. My friends and family tried to console me, but nothing they said could change what happened. I even tried to end my own life, to punish myself for my failures, but the queen caught me in the act and convinced me to live.
The only thing that’s kept me going is that I still wanted to serve my nation, to make up for my weakness and the men I failed. I’m a warrior, and I wanted to fight for my people, but it was just too painful to remain in Sylphtoria. I had no right to come home when my decisions meant my men couldn’t.”
“So when Prince Lupin offered a truce with Sylphtoria in exchange for an elven warrior serving Uther….”
“I jumped at the chance. I could protect my nation as a warrior, while still punishing myself for my failures. I deserved to suffer, and I wanted to.”
“When we set out to hunt that monster, you seemed angry and I thought it was because of me. Really, it was because of the three elves with us, right?”
“I told the queen you and I could get the job done ourselves, but she insisted. I could never lead elves into battle again, to have my hands stained with even more blood from my kin. It’s why I wanted you to be in charge of this mission. But every time we lost somebody…” Aithorn paused, and Noah realized he was trying to hold back tears, trying and failing. “Every time we lost somebody, it hurt just like it did before! I still have their blood on my hands because I wasn’t strong enough to protect them!”
He stopped trying to conceal it and began to openly weep. Noah sat silently, not wanting to interrupt him, and after a couple minutes, he finally spoke. “That sounds perfectly reasonable to me.”
“I’ve led men into combat countless times, and I’ve lost so many because of my decisions, so I know when someone makes a mistake, and you didn’t. You said you were attacked before you could perform reconnaissance, meaning you didn’t rush blindly into battle. You might have been a little cavalier about the whole thing, but you didn’t lead your men to their deaths. You simply got screwed. Take it from me; it happens to the best of us. Maybe you made some mistakes in the process, but condemning you now wouldn’t change anything. I also can’t criticize your decisions after because, frankly, you’re doing everything right.
You say you tried to take your own life, and the queen stopped you, but you never tried again because you decided to live for something, and that’s important. That’s a big step that not everyone is strong enough to make. You say you went to Uther to punish yourself, but what I hear is that you broadened your horizons, met new people, and looked for alternative ways you could serve your country. That’s not punishment; that’s healing. You’re on the right path.”
“I don’t deserve to heal. These wounds will stay with me until the day I die, as they should.”
“Healing isn’t the same as forgetting what happened. To heal means to come back from what you’ve endured, to be made better by what failed to kill you. The fact that it still hurts when comrades die is a good thing. It means you care about those you’ve lost and those around you. You care about doing things right. You care about learning from your mistakes and improving yourself. Be glad you feel that pain, but don’t wallow in it.
You didn’t end your own life, you didn’t numb yourself to loss or dismiss what happened to your men, you didn’t escape your grief by crawling into a bottle or turning to some other means of intoxication. Instead, you found purpose. Your only mistake is looking at it as a way to suffer instead of a way to grow. If you’re not ready to forgive yourself, that’s fine, take all the time you need, but self-flagellation won’t accomplish anything. Only growing stronger and succeeding where you failed will do that.
We can never make up for the deaths we cause, be they from our decisions or straight-up murder. All we can do is work harder to save more lives than we take to tip the scales in our souls so that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and not want to break the glass.”
Noah got up with a wince and limped over to the window, looking out at the jungle in all its beauty. “Valia once told me that guilt from battle is a good thing, that it keeps us grounded, keeps us from forgetting the importance of life, and she made a good point. Guilt isn’t supposed to weigh you down; it’s supposed to drive you forward. You’ve decided to have a positive influence on this world, and that’s a good thing.
You’re an elf, meaning that time holds no sway over you. You can spend the rest of eternity helping and protecting others if that’s what makes you happy, and I don’t just mean other elves. Let your men be the reason why you change the world. If the death of one person drives you to save a thousand, that doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you a hero. You can’t change your past, but you can choose what kind of man it’ll make you for the future. The question is if you’ll face the future with despair or hope.”
“I’m glad my lessons stuck.” Both Noah and Aithorn turned around to see Valia standing in the doorway. “Hearing you say those words is the only reason I’m not going to slap you for doing something so reckless as what you pulled earlier.” She then walked over and hugged Noah tightly, painfully so. “Don’t ever do anything like that again. I already had to see Valon in that near-death state, and now I had to see you.”
“I’m sorry for worrying you. Thanks for taking such good care of me.”
Valia then turned to Aithorn. “I always wondered why you chose to become a knight, and why you’ve always been so cold and miserable. But if it makes you feel better, I know how much it hurts to lose people under your command, to lose people because you weren’t strong enough to save them. I know what it’s like to return to Sylphtoria and feel only heartache.”
“Anyway, I’m guessing that Leuca has gotten you up to speed?”
“Yeah, just give me a healing potion and then let me talk to Gradius’s men.”
The morphine pills were easing his pain, and with a healing potion to restore his stamina, Noah followed Valia and Aithorn out of the room. Nature had colonized the palace, with moss and ivy claiming every spot that received even a glimmer of sunlight.
He was brought to what had once been the grand hall, a massive chamber exemplifying the beauty of elven architecture. Vines wrapped the towering pillars, and the vaulted ceiling had gaping holes that let the sun and the rain in. Beautiful murals adorned the walls, depicting the island's history, and while covered with dirt and lichen, the colors remained clear and pristine.
Birds made their nests in upper corners and any high ledges, and now squawked in annoyance that their peace was being disturbed. Here, Gradius’s men and the elves had set up camp. Less than half of the original two-dozen silver-ranked knights that followed Gradius into the jungle remained, and most of them were badly wounded. The one remaining healer of Noah’s group, Sinta, was doing her best to mend their injuries, but even with magic, there was a lot of damage that simply couldn’t be fixed.
Fangs and claws had carved up their bodies, and their skin blistered from infected bug bites and exposure to toxic plants. A few of them even showed severe burn marks. From the looks of it, they ran out of potions quite a while ago, and any healers they brought with them were long-dead. Even healed, the knights’ faces were gaunt with pain and despair.
“Lord Noah,” said the elf, Orville, bowing before him and leading the others to do the same. Having saved them from the basilisk, it seemed he had finally won their respect and admiration.
“You did well in getting here. Nobody died while I was unconscious, I hope.”
“No casualties, sir. We ran from as many fights as we could to get here.”
“Good work.” Noah then turned to the tired Utheric knights. “Gentlemen, how are you enjoying your jungle safari?”
The knight in charge of the group looked like he wanted to spit a curse, but after hearing how the elf addressed Noah and all the rumors of his combat skill, he decided not to challenge the new pecking order. “Sir Noah.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ryan Alto, sir.” His hair and face were a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He had the eyes of a man who had seen his friends get dismembered, disemboweled, and everything in between.
“Sir Alto, you and your men should be proud of yourselves; you’ve lasted longer than most. It’s no small feat to reach this place. You are indeed Knights of Uther. Now, my comrades and I are willing to help you get off this island, but only under two conditions: you help us fulfill the goal we came here for, and my orders supersede all other authority. If Gradius or the king himself were to stand here beside me, you listen to me and only me. If I’m not around, you take orders from Valia and Aithorn, understood?”
“Good. Now I was told you all left Gradius to his own devices. Do you know where he is?”
“All we know is that he’s continuing to search for Sir Zodiac. He was relentless, burning and butchering every monster that crossed his path, but we are not as powerful, nor as fortunate. We came here completely unprepared and lost knights one by one. We begged him to see reason, but he was on a warpath. He couldn’t care less whether we lived or died.”
“Well we need to find Valon before he does. We’re going to bring him back to Sylphtoria alive and preferably unharmed, as well as the relics he stole. I trust you have no objections.”
“Do you know how to find him?”
Valia stepped forward and showed him the needle. “We have the means to track his location.” As she channeled her mana into the needle, the point with Valon’s hair raised itself off her palm, pointing east.
“That direction….” Sir Alto muttered, looking at the needle and then up at the sky, tracking the sun. “He must be hiding in the temple.”
“What temple?” Aithorn asked.
“Come with me, there is something you should see.”
They followed Alto through the palace, up to the royal bedchamber. All the furniture had long since rotted away to nothing, with various pieces of jewelry gathering dust, but what drew Noah’s attention was an in***********ion on the wall. It wasn’t carved into the stone or elegantly painted on, but scrawled with blood. It was several lines of text in Old Elvish, as well as a rudimentary map of the island with two locations marked; the palace and a temple in the east.
“We found this while exploring the palace. It seems we weren’t the first people to try and hold up in here. I think this is a warning someone left behind. One of my men knows a couple words in elvish and was able to determine this place was a temple, clearly one of significance.”
“Valia, can you read it?”
“Roughly. I’m not used to this dialect. Leuca?”
“Yeah, I can read it. It’s not a warning, it’s a retelling of Kisara Island’s downfall.”
“The problems started when their crops were struck with blight, delivered from the mainland. It left the soil inhospitable and led to famine, even killing all the trees. The elves tried to combat the blight with druidism, but it had magical resistance, and continued to grow and develop like a living curse.
Soon after, an earthquake reshaped the ocean floor around the island, making it impossible for ships to land or depart. Countless fishing boats were smashed on the rocks, endless sailors swallowed by the sea. Minus those who died in the earthquake, the island was home to tens of thousands of elves, all facing starvation. They believed themselves cursed, abandoned by the gods and spirits.
Desperate elves turned to diving, trying to find food at the bottom of the sea while using magic to protect themselves. There, they found the cause of the earthquake, a dungeon crab. Inside, they uncovered something, some kind of powerful treasure. They called it the Wildheart, and… Oh my God… It had the ability to perform summoning magic. Animals, insects, and plants; it could create life out of thin air with no mana required by the user.
The king believed that the Wildheart was the island’s salvation, that it could conjure enough food to sustain the population. They housed it in what became the Rays Temple, on an altar that boosted its powers, and used it to summon livestock and crops that could survive in the toxic soil. Then something went wrong, horribly wrong. The Wildheart went out of control, releasing all of its power without restriction.
Trees began materializing in a rapid wave, destroying homes and streets, and powerful monsters were spawned faster than they could be killed. Attempts were made to retrieve the Wildheart and stop the chaos, but no one lived long enough to even climb the temple steps. It speaks of some colossal monster that guards the place.
The elves tried to contain the spread by erecting walls around the temple, but it didn’t take long for the armies of ravenous beasts to spill over the top. Unable to leave the island, they had no choice but to keep building walls and watch them get demolished.
Finally, the island was completely overrun. All the elves were killed and eaten by the endless beasts, while the rapidly-spreading trees turned stone streets into dense jungle. Look down here, the last lines of text. ‘They have taken the bridge and the Second Hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes... roars, roars in the deep. We cannot get out. The beasts move in the dark. We cannot get out. They are coming.’ And that’s how it ends.”
“Was it signed?” Noah asked.
“Only with a bloody handprint. Whoever wrote this did so on borrowed time.”
“The Rays Temple, huh? Good, then we have a destination.”
Despite his words, they did not set out until the following morning. During that time, Noah and the knights continued to receive treatment for their injuries while the elves were busy making arrows to replenish their depleted stocks. Gripped by anticipation, Noah and Valia found no sleep that night.
They set out at dawn, the elves leading the humans, hoping to reach the temple by noon. They passed by the remnants of old walls, some even a hundred feet tall and constructed with and without magic. Many had been knocked over, looking like fallen dominoes, while plants caked the rest.
Dark clouds grumbled like the bellies of the relentless carnivores, but now, the group had the combined lethality of elven archers and Utheric knights, and Noah got them through the jungle without a single casualty. Finally, the top of the temple could be seen in the distance, a lone ziggurat. It sat in the middle of a vast field of debris, from the ruins of houses smashed beneath the feet of monsters. What was concerning was the noise, the furious snarl of an unknown beast.
“Valia, how’s the needle?” Noah asked.
“It’s still pointing at the temple.”
“Ok, we’re close enough. Everyone, move into position.”
The knights and elves scattered, following the plan established the night before. They set out to surround the temple, following the perimeter established by the first set of walls. The elves would perch themselves on top, while the knights would lay in wait on the ground at any openings. Though Noah and Valia wanted to settle this with conversation, the fact remained that Valon could not be allowed to escape. They were bringing him back to Sylphtoria, whether he liked it or not.
Now, all that remained was Noah, Valia, and Aithorn, about to enter the temple grounds. Bringing too many people to see Valon might spook him, and if the guardian beast was as powerful as its roars suggested, getting more people involved would lead to casualties. They entered the grounds and saw it, standing between them and the temple steps, a 50-foot-tall ape. Its body boasted incredible strength, wrapped in a coat of thick black fur. It was a biological titan.
Then, with a groan, it collapsed to the ground and released its dying breath, its life ended by the horrific burns crisscrossing its body. They looked like they had been inflicted with a great flaming whip, charring even its organs. Now, standing over its corpse was Gradius, alive and thriving. His armor had some scratches and black streaks from charred monster blood, but it was clear the island had failed to vanquish this living tank.
“This isn’t good,” Noah muttered.
“I’ll try and talk to him,” said Aithorn.
“Look at the flames leaking from his armor,” Valia warned. “He’s burning way too hot for you to be able to talk sense to him.”
“Maybe so, but I can keep him distracted long enough for you two to get into the temple and find Valon. Besides, if you’re with me, there is no chance he’ll listen.”
“He’s right,” said Noah.
“If you think you can handle him, go ahead, and good luck,” Valia added.
Aithorn nodded to them both and set off across the plains towards the slain gorilla. “Sir Gradius!” he shouted.
Gradius turned to him, with flames swirling from the slits in his faceplate. “It’s about time you got here, you fucking elf bastard! I spent days outside the forest, waiting for you to do your job! First you send me a message saying that Noah is being sheltered by the elves, then you tell me to come out here and kill Valon!”
Aithorn felt a cold stone drop into his stomach with a splash. “Gradius, I wasn’t the one who called you out here!”
“Yes, you are. I get a message signed by you personally. And after you sent me to this spit of land, my men abandoned me! Don’t even think of pulling the same shit!”
“Gradius, you have to listen to me, you’re being manipulated, used as a pawn to kill Valon! Someone sent you that message, but it wasn’t me. I’m here working with Sir Noah and Lady Zodiac to bring him back to Sylphtoria alive.”
Gradius raised his axe and pointed it at Aithorn. “You are not shielding another traitor! I’m going to kill Noah and those goddamn twins and present their heads to the king! If you don’t want your head to join them, you will tell me where they are!”
“You stand on elven soil. Your authority is not recognized here.”
With a howl of fury, Gradius charged and swung his axe. “The only true authority is power!”
Aithorn dodged the barrage of swings, moving nimbly around the blade. “Don’t do this, Gradius! Your actions may trigger a war!”
“I’ll fight that war by myself if I have to! I’ll reduce all of Sylphtoria to ash and behead every single elf as long as I can collect my prey!”
Aithorn’s demeanor turned cold as ice. “Anyone who threatens my homeland will be erased, even a fellow knight.”
As Aithorn and Gradius began their battle, Valia and Noah circled around and raced up the temple steps. “Wait, stop!” Valia suddenly exclaimed. She held out the needle, showing it pointing away from the temple peak. “He’s not in there. He’s moving. Could it be he’s running away because of Gradius?”
“If he is, then the only way to catch him will be to go after him yourself. Besides, it would be better if you talk to him alone first.”
“What will you do?”
“I’m going to try and deactivate the Wildheart. Maybe that’ll cause the monsters to disappear and we’ll be able to leave the island safely.”
Valia grabbed him by the collar and kissed him. “Good luck,” she said.
“Zodiac: Boal! Udan! Sandulam!” She activated her magic, boosting her strength, speed, and balance, and took off, shooting across the landscape like a skipping stone.
Noah activated his invisibility and continued up the steps, reaching the entrance to the temple. As he had expected, a protective ward was written on the ground, fending off monsters, and as he entered the temple, it was clear that someone had made their home there. Torches and magic-based lights had been put up, fruit peels and cores were littered everywhere, as well as the bones of cooked animals, and the dirt on the ground showed recent footprints.
He came across what appeared to be both a bedroom and a workshop. There was a simple cot where Valon slept and a table covered with tools, parchment, and bottles of ink. The walls were plastered with pages of diagrams and runic formulas, showing a clear spectrum between genius and insanity with the two often overlapping. Some pages looked like they could have been in textbooks, displaying remarkably complex formulas, alchemic calculations, and celestial measurements. Other pages seemed like they came from a madman’s dream journal, as they bore terrified thoughts, nonsensical questions, and other deranged scrawls.
The Zodiac twins could draw power from runic constellations, yet the stars had become the subject of nightmares for Valon. His writings showed his terror, how those simple twinkles of light haunted him whether awake or asleep. He had experienced true cosmic horror, and it broke him.
Looking through his work was almost painful for Noah, as he had seen this kind of thing before. This manic obsession, this desperate insanity, resulting from a wounded mind trying to heal itself. He had seen it in himself, having spent numerous lifetimes searching for a way to break his curse.
How many attempts had he made trying to build a functioning time machine? How many nights did he spend in front of a computer, going over the blueprints to his Hadron collider? How much radiation did he expose himself to while working on his failed faster-than-light propulsion drive for spacecrafts? He immersed himself in science to try and find his answers, and now Valon was relying on magic while going down a similar path.
“What the fuck are you working on here?” Noah muttered.
Aithorn dashed around the temple grounds, keeping his distance while bombarding Gradius with arrows. He had learned early on to stay away from the walking furnace, lest he be burned simply by the ambient heat. However, being out of range of Gradius’s axe didn’t mean he was safe. Gradius was shooting his focused fire blast relentlessly, carving through whatever he looked at with the roaring laser. He pursued the fast-footed elf with his attack, incinerating the ground Aithorn stepped on, and every time it got too close, a few arrows would throw off his aim.
Aithorn’s arrows were wrapped in lightning, and each time they struck Gradius, they’d explode with a thunderclap and knock him off balance, leaving him momentarily disoriented. The problem was that Gradius’s defense was just as extreme as his offense. As Valia had learned, his armor grew stronger the hotter it got, and Gradius was putting off enough heat to withstand just about anything.
He was the perfect unmoving target, allowing Aithorn to attack from every angle, but he could find no weak point. Even the opening Valia created during their fight had been repaired. The thermal energy radiating from the fight stirred the storm clouds overhead, causing them to growl ferociously with lightning bolts crackling among the gray folds.
A tropical rain began to fall, turning into billowing steam as it reached Gradius. Aithorn used the steam as cover and attacked from behind, stabbing Gradius in the back with his Dragon Impaler spell. His spear managed to gouge a pit into the thick slab of steel, but he could not drive all the way through it. The power of his lightening was strengthening Gradius’s armor, while the heat he gave off forced Aithorn to retreat. Gradius roared in frustration and tried to swing at him, but Aithorn was already well out of range. The two warriors stopped, realizing they were at an impasse.
“Gradius, for once in your life, calm down and do the rational thing! Noah and the twins are not your enemy! There are other ways to amend your exile, but if you continue this fight, I swear to you, you will die on this island!”
“I was not put on this earth for mercy or compromise! I was born to be an executioner! You, who stands before me, are simply the next person that fate has decided I must kill! After that, I’ll kill everyone beneath you, be they those traitorous knights or more goddamn elves!”
Aithorn took a deep breath and put away his bow, instead readying his spear with both he and his weapon glowing with an electric aura. “That’s not going to happen. I’m not losing anyone else, especially to someone like you. This island will be your grave, and as the sky proves, Relampargoza has decided that I, not you, will be the one to win this fight.”
He then pulled back his arm and threw his spear, not at Gradius, but the sky. The spear flew as though unbound by gravity while leaving a continuous streak of lightning in its wake leading back to Aithorn. It pierced the cloud cover and then began to turn and twist in the air. Up and down, side to side, it flew freely through the storm, all the while the lightning trail wove its way across the sky like a needle and thread sewing the heavens together.
Aithorn controlled its path with his hand as though the lightning was a kite string, and the longer the spear flew, the more energy it accumulated, both from Aithorn and the sky itself. The streak became more intense, glowing blindingly bright and crackling with immeasurable power. As lightning surged from the spear, the two horizontal blades produced wide-reaching flanges of electricity. Even Gradius was awestruck as he witnessed the titanic serpent of light slithering across the sky.
“Servant of Relampargoza: Divine Winged Snake!” Aithorn called.
He swung his arm, and the spear plummeted out of the sky like a meteor towards Gradius. In a desperate act, Gradius unleashed a powerful jet of fire, trying to destroy the spear before it could reach him. Despite the intensity of the blast, the spear drilled through it, piercing fire with lightning.
The spear struck its target like a missile and a catastrophic explosion of lightning was released, pausing the rain as the resulting mushroom cloud twisted the storm overhead. Aithorn was tossed through the air by the resulting shockwaves, and the elves perched atop the walls nearly fell to the ground.
It took a few moments for things to settle, with Aithorn lying on the ground, barely able to move. The Winged Snake was his strongest spell and came at great cost. Not only had every drop of mana within him been used, but he was rendered blind and deaf from his proximity to the explosion. At least he was still alive and conscious to feel the returning rain. What little strength he had left was being focused on keeping his heart and lungs working.
He lay there for a few minutes, gathering enough strength to drink two potions, restoring his senses and some of his stamina. He slowly got up and limped over to Gradius, now lying on the ground, unmoving. His armor, which had withstood all his flames, was now blackened from the explosive surge. Lodged in his helmet was Aithorn’s spear, smoking and steaming just like Gradius.
“May Tarnas forgive me,” he muttered as he pulled the spear free.
“So you two were the ones causing all that racket and making such a mess.”
Hearing the familiar voice, Aithorn turned to face the new arrival. He was an elf with dark skin and silver hair and eyes, wearing black cloth armor. He was standing not on the ground, but floating on a circular platform of silver mana. Floating around him were nine melon-sized silver energy spheres, and within each one was a constellation of stars, similar to runes.
He looked down at Aithorn with a hollow gaze as if he were an insect, and seemed utterly indifferent to the rain. The sclera of his right eye had turned red from a burst capillary, and above it was an enlarged vein pushing against the skin of his forehead.
“Leuca Aithorn, the White Serpent.”
“Valon Zodiac, the Silver Sage,” Aithorn replied.
“You and Gradius are making too much noise and leaving a mess. Leave now or die with him.”
“Valon!” He turned, seeing Valia standing nearby, her face wet with tears and rain. At last, the brother and sister faced each other.