Across Eternity: Book 4 – Chapter 6

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Tem 22, 2023 // By:analsex // No Comment

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On the Horizon

“You look tired,” Valia said as she and Noah ate breakfast.

“Well you do tend to wring me out like a washcloth at night.”

“I’m serious, you look like you barely slept.”

“I’ve been racking my brain, trying to remember drugs and compounds from past lives. I’ve memorized plenty of useful recipes over the millennia, but it’s been a long time since I needed them like this.”

Aithorn appeared almost moments after they were finished eating. “Are you two ready?”

“Indeed, let’s go check up on our patient,” said Noah.

They made the trek to Balil’s house, finding Meralda giving him one of many different medicines. “Good morning. How are you feeling today?” Noah asked.

“The same as yesterday,” he groaned. Even with all the drugs and potions he took, his symptoms refused to vanish completely. Though not invulnerable, this disease’s tenacity was unrivaled.

“Well for now, let’s check on the bacterial cultures. Meralda, if you would please?”

She nodded and clapped her hands together, conjuring a green magic circle. The nearby wall, made of the tree itself, opened like the spreading of curtains, revealing the heating cabinet. Noah began looking through the glass containers and immediately stopped, something Valia and Aithorn noticed.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Valia asked.

Noah showed her two blood samples, one from Balil and another from his friend. The control sample was immaculate, with only a single speck of bacteria, likely due to cross-contamination. Balil’s, however, looked like a rainbow splatter of disease.

“This was around twelve hours ago, and there shouldn’t be this much variety in the bacteria.” He checked all the other samples, but everything from Balil was a bacterial smorgasbord. His blood, urine, stool, and spinal fluid were utterly riddled with nonidentical germs. “At most, there should be a few tiny dots of a single bacteria, but all these strains are multiplying faster than E. Coli and cholera. How can he be infected with all these different diseases at once?”

Aithorn looked them over, following Noah and careful not to open the containers. Though he did not fully understand the nature of disease or how to fight it correctly, the discrepancy between Balil’s samples and the others was impossible to ignore. Noah was providing proof of their enemy’s identity, of its severity. Though he did not trust Noah’s character, the fact remained that he knew what he was talking about, certainly better than anyone else.

“So what now?” Aithorn asked.

“I need ink, paper, some fertile soil, and a bucket of charcoal.”

Just like before, Noah busied himself writing alchemic formulas while the materials were gathered. Once finished, he mixed the water and charcoal in a large basin and had Aithorn cast the spell, producing a thick white mush that left Meralda perplexed. “What is this?”

Noah picked up a soupy glob with his finger and tasted it. “Ooh, that’s sweet. It’s sugar, the perfect growth medium. You folks can try some if you want.” The elves tasted the mash, and their eyes widened. “It’s good, isn’t it? I taught this to a friend of mine in Colbrand, and she uses it to make sweets. Now, for the next step. Meralda, I’ll need you.” Noah then took a handful of the gathered soil and sprinkled it across the watery sugar. “Use your powers to make the mold and fungi in this soil grow. Stop when the patches are about coin-sized.”

She held her hand over the basin, murmured a spell, and green mana flowed from her palm like fog. It settled over the basin, and bits of color began to appear in the field of white. Feeding on the mana and sugar, the colonies steadily grew over a matter of seconds, and then Meralda stopped when they reached the proper size.

Noah removed the fungi that didn’t look right and had her continue the spell. The mold resumed growing with the periodic purging of unwanted species. Soon, all the sugar had been consumed and turned into a bluish mold, secreting an opaque liquid. Noah gathered the liquid, filtered it, and poured it onto a bottle.

“What is that?” Meralda asked.

“This is called penicillin, a very powerful drug made from common mold. I come from a place without magic, where creating this takes several days and requires large fermentation tanks, operating under very precise temperatures and with specific ingredients. However, with druidism and alchemy, I can make this liquid miracle in minutes using nothing but dirt, charcoal, and water. Hopefully, this will be able to stop the bacteria from growing.”

He had Meralda create a room within the tree where he could work in isolation. Before, he had only worn gloves and a mask, when Balil’s affliction didn’t seem contagious, but seeing how fast the bacteria multiplied, he wasn’t taking any chances. He now wore clothes soaked in alcohol and dried, covering his entire body except his eyes. This sterile burqa was the closest he could get to a biohazard protection suit. One by one, he carefully opened each sample, prepared slides, and examined them closely under the microscope.

They were flourishing in the soy agate he had prepared, and he could see them producing an unknown substance. In all likelihood, they were toxins suppressing Balil’s immune system and damaging the surrounding tissue, hence the temporary effect of the poison cures he’d received. Though Noah didn’t say it, when he received Balil’s urine sample the day before, it was evident his kidneys were struggling.

Along with penicillin, Noah also had many potions and medicinal plants. He’d expose the bacteria to each potential cure and observe the reaction. Once again, elvish medicine proved quite potent, but penicillin was the most effective in stopping the bacteria. Despite that, some strains seemed to resist whatever he threw at them and only died when subjected to pure alcohol.

Eventually, he had to stop. Though properly dried, his clothes still produced alcohol fumes that stung his eyes and made him dizzy. Once he stepped out of the workroom, he released a deep sigh and removed his suit.

“So what did you learn? Is my husband going to be ok?” Meralda asked.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case like this before. Were you not taking care of him, Balil would never have survived this long. I can’t even imagine a human lasting more than a day with this. However, this is still an enemy that can be fought.” Noah handed her the bottle of penicillin. “Give a spoonful of this to him daily. It won’t cure him, but it’ll deal a heavy blow to this disease and buy him some time. I think that Balil…” He stopped and sneezed. “Ugh, I might need to whip up something for myself. Right now, I really need some fresh air.”

He stepped out of the house and crossed the walkway, leaning against a railing and looking across the city. “You know, you remind me a lot of Valon,” Valia said as she joined him. “He spent so much time hunched over a desk, scribbling runes or making magical contraptions. I helped him through so many crazy experiments… I didn’t realize how much I’d miss it and how happy I’d be to help you. I just wish there was more I could do, other than the heavy lifting.”

Noah nudged her shoulder with his head, like a cat rubbing against a table corner. “You do plenty, but right now, the less involved in this you are, the better.”

“Is it really that bad?”

“Honestly, you should be more afraid of the stuff growing in those dishes than of any monster.”

“I remember you called people who fight disease ‘doctors.’ Is this what it’s like?”

“Pretty similar, but the equipment was much better. I was a warrior, fighting enemies smaller than a grain of sand. But there were other times, when rather than fight it, I developed it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Biological weapons. You may have heard of it before, armies hurling dead bodies over castle walls, spreading sickness to their enemies. That’s how it started, but in the worlds I come from, the practice is far more advanced.

Governments would grow and enhance the deadliest diseases you can imagine, just waiting for the opportunity to lay waste to their enemies. I worked for them, spending countless days looking through a microscope, watching my plague progeny grow and mutate. One of my germs even managed to wipe out almost the entire human race on one planet.”

“Why in the world would you do something so horrible?”

“Because it was interesting. Why else? I wanted to see what I was capable of creating, what the deadliest possible disease would be.”

“Didn’t you think about the people?”

“There was no point. There are infinite versions of every reality and every person, so none of them have any real value. No matter what you do to someone in one universe, there are infinite versions of them that are completely unaffected. Look over there. See that woman?” Noah pointed to an elf walking on the forest floor. “Imagine if you were to accidentally kill her. Maybe something falls from your pocket right now and cracks the top of her head. You’d feel guilty, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course I would.”

“What if you then learned that she was just one of a hundred identical copies? Picture them, a hundred clones of her, each of them exactly the same, from their memories, thought processes, scars, everything. Logically, you should only feel 1% as guilty. Now imagine a thousand copies. Ten thousand. A hundred-thousand. A million. See what I’m getting at?”

“But her death would still hurt her loved ones.”

“Then you find out there are also a hundred copies of each of her loved ones, just like her, and their feelings now matter only 1% of what they did before. Out of an infinite number of different versions, how much does it really matter if one of them dies? You could kill her a trillion times in a trillion worlds, and that would still be like removing a single drop of water from an endless ocean.”

Valia shook her head, trying to keep her anger from infecting her tone. “I can’t accept that. I can’t accept you doing whatever you want to people just because there are copies of them elsewhere.”

“That’s because you haven’t seen the copies. I have. Imagine living your life with someone, laughing with them, crying with them, loving them, mourning them. Then imagine dying, being reborn, seeing them again, and realizing they have no memory of you, because they’ve never met you.

All those memories, everything that happened in your past only happened to YOU, only matters to YOU. You might as well have just dreamed the whole thing, a dream you inevitably forget. As an elf, you should understand this to some degree. You should know what it’s like to watch people die and be forgotten.”

She turned to him with an icy glare. “There you go again, assuming that because I’m immortal, I have the same bleak worldview as you. Don’t try to use me to justify your sins.”

“Why should only my sins follow me beyond death? If I’m cursed to leave all the good behind, then I’m allowed to leave the bad.”

Valia continued to stare at Noah, now seeing him in a light she wished she could extinguish.

The arrival of one of the queen’s private guards interrupted the moment. “Sir Noah, Her Royal Majesty wishes to speak with you. I’m sorry, Lady Valia, but this is a private invitation.”

“Go ahead and take him. I can’t look at him right now,” she hissed before turning around and storming off.

Noah sighed and followed the guard up to the queen’s palace. Inside, he found her standing by one of the many open windows, gazing out across the forest. She wore a beautiful sky-blue gown, one of many priceless elven garments belonging to an empress of such grace. She turned around as he arrived, and her heart fluttered when she laid her eyes on him. She had forced all thoughts of her dreams out of her mind, or, she thought she had.

Even for elves, dreams were quickly forgotten, like the morning fog vanishing under the sun’s rays. Yet, Elisandra could still remember the sensation of hands caressing her naked body so clearly. She felt like she could still taste Noah’s lips on her own, and her tongue remembered the feel of his against it. For a moment, she dared wonder if this was just another dream and if the Noah before her was a figment of her imagination, one that would touch her in ways she dared not speak and give her such sinful pleasure.

Elisandra turned away from him, worried that her reddening cheeks would give away her inner conflict. For that matter, she couldn’t let her guards see her like this. “Leave us,” she said.

“But Your Majesty,” Noah’s escort stammered. There were other guards in the palace, and they, too, seemed hesitant to obey.

“I’ll be fine. I wish to have this discussion in private, and I do not want Sir Noah to censor himself to avoid your reactions. Go, now.” The guards reluctantly departed, each one giving Noah a cold glare as they passed him by. Only once he and Elisandra were alone did she speak, still with her back to him. “I heard from Leuca that one of my citizens attacked you while you were treating Balil. I am truly ashamed for a guest to be shown such discourteous behavior under my watch.”

“You need not apologize, Your Majesty. I hold no ill will towards you or any other elf. If anything, it was amusing. I applaud his sense of timing. He got me right in the middle of a sneeze, when my focus was at its weakest. I hope it was intentional.”

“You hope he intentionally attacked you when your guard was lowered?”

“I hope I was struck in a moment of precise timing, rather than an emotional but lucky haymaker. Competency is something I cherish and respect, especially in those who oppose me.”

“Then I have no need to fear you seeking revenge on Clemens or myself?”

“I’ve lived for thousands of years. It would take far more than a punch to offend me. Contrary to my reputation, I strive to be a patient and forgiving person.”

“I don’t want you to think badly of us. Guests in Sylphtoria are rare, and I won’t tolerate them being mistreated.”

“It’s been fine. You needn’t worry. Being here is a true privilege, one I am deeply grateful for. Most people who come here would be enticed by your weapons, treasure, magic, and women, but just yesterday, I got to meet an elven glassmaker, and experienced the honor of watching such a master of the arts at work. I’ve tasted fruits and vegetables nourished by ancient magic. I’ve lain on silk sheets while the Nadoku sang me to sleep. This city is truly paradise, and I’m thankful for every moment I can spend here.”

“Your words honor me. Time has given you a well-honed sense of appreciation.”

“More a matter of perspective. I have lived long enough to see the best and worst worlds that reality can offer. I don’t believe in luck, but I do recognize when fortune has smiled upon me, giving me the chance to see and experience things that most only dream about.”

“I wish more people had such a mature mindset. Like you, I have lived long enough to see golden ages and dark times. I have witnessed so much bloodshed due to fear, anger, and desire, born from small minds that know nothing of the world upon which they walk. Generations grow with hopes, dreams, and solutions for the future, only to become the very evil they fight against. But you should know this better than I do, don’t you, Sir Noah.”

“It’s true. In all my years living among people, I have learned that they are not driven by desire, morality, or purpose, but Gölbaşı Escort fear. They covet because they fear not having enough, they love because they fear being alone, they hate because they fear being hurt, and they worship because they fear their own insignificance.”

“When you put it like that, we elves are no different. Myself especially. Even with all my power, fear clings to me like moss to a tree, fear for the future. All leaders worry about what is to come, living in anticipation of tragedy, but mortals only have to hold on until sickness and senescence frees them of responsibility. They can die peacefully, never living to see the worst of what is to come. Elves don’t get that privilege.

We are blessed to live forever, and cursed to die in a flash. Free from age and disease, the only fate left for us is violence. Inevitably, someone takes our lives from us. For all our power, for all our defenses, the fact remains that over a long enough span of time, conflict is unavoidable.

I myself will live long enough to see hundreds, even thousands of years of history and turmoil, and die in war or at the hands of an assassin, just as my predecessors did. It’s only a matter of time. Forgive me, I’ve strayed onto an unpleasant subject. You should not be burdened with such things.”

Elisandra silently scolded herself. What was she doing, talking about such things with a stranger? Not even Lour knew of her forebodings. Being a leader meant concealing her anxieties, not allowing anyone see any shred of weakness, be they ally or enemy. So why, why did her words, locked for centuries in iron, so easily slip free in front of Noah?

Noah walked over and stood beside her, looking out across the forest. “You need never apologize for speaking your heart. I’m glad that you feel comfortable enough to tell me these things. I’ve spent so much time around humans, listening to their problems, watching the most mature and educated turn into screaming toddlers fighting over a toy, devoid of patience and understanding.

It’s nice to finally talk to someone with a wider perspective. I finally feel like I’m talking to an actual adult instead of just petulant children with wrinkles and beards. I know what it’s like to have so much you want to say and never having the chance to say it, no matter how many eons pass.”

The queen glanced at him in the corner of her eye, hoping her cheeks had lost her redness. He truly was a fascinating soul. “Have you ever encountered elves in any previous lives?”

“Not elves exactly, but I have encountered other humanoid races. Many reached my world after traveling across oceans of stars. Others were the result of mutations, new species branching off from the human race, the same way the races of this world originated from the Enochians. There were even races made by humans themselves, using technology that blurred the line between sentience and soul.”

“Fascinating. From up here, everything seems so vast, but if what you say about multiple universes is true, then the world is quite tiny and insignificant instead. I have lived over a thousand years, yet I’ve seen and experienced so little compared to you.”

“Believe me, you should be grateful for the discrepancy in our lives. You don’t want my memories, to know the things I know. My goal is to break my curse and finally rest peacefully, but until that time arrives, I am blessed to be a guest in this elven kingdom, able to speak with the personification of grace and beauty. And should I fail, and resume my journey across the infinite, I hope you will remember me, just as I will remember you.”

She finally turned to him with a warm smile. “How could I ever forget you?”

Noah returned the smile and bowed. “Thank you. Now, what can I do for you, My Lady?”

“I want an update on Balil’s condition, and your search for a cure. Though Leuca is still wary of you, he told me that he trusts your judgment. I believe I should as well.”

“Unfortunately, Balil’s condition is dire. Elvish medicine is keeping him alive, but I don’t know for how much longer. His affliction is both disturbing and mysterious, as every symptom he shows is the result of a different disease. It’s like trying to cure the bites of a dozen different snakes at once.”

“Is there room for hope?”

“There is, and I’m not giving up.”

“Then allow me to offer you some. Leuca said you inquired about the beast Balil and his team investigated.”

“Yes, but they said they destroyed its remains.”

“A messenger bird just delivered a report of a similar creature moving about in the northeast. I want you, Valia, and Leuca to track it down and determine if it is related to Balil’s condition. Hopefully, you can learn something that may help you find a cure.”

“Though this is good news, I fear that Balil will succumb if I should leave. It will take days to find this creature, time that he simply doesn’t have.”

“I am grateful for your concern, but fret not. Even if we cannot cure him, it is still within our power to keep death at bay until you return. And should something happen while you are gone, I will take full responsibility.”

“If that is your wish, then I shall see it fulfilled. We will depart immediately. However, since this mission may be dangerous, I ask that my sword be returned to me.”

“I shall have Leuca return it once you leave the city. Now, go back to your home and prepare your things. Your guide will meet you there.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

Noah departed from the palace, passing by Lour on his way down. He gave a nod of respect, while the elf gave him only a passing glance and said nothing, soon arriving before the queen.

“Your Majesty, where are the guards?”

“I sent them off.”

“While you spoke to that criminal? Have you taken leave of your senses? You’re already being far too reckless, granting him sanctuary here.”

“He seeks no conflict with us. We might as well make use of him.”

“He seeks no conflict, but he brings it to our door. Uther wants his head, and it won’t be long until they make a move to seize him. There is already a small army of knights gathering outside our borders, just waiting for an excuse to come here and unleash chaos. Letting him stay will just lead to more bloodshed.”

“We do not answer to Uther, and we have the strength to repel them without shedding a single drop of elven blood. Besides, the knowledge he possesses is invaluable. Imagine the things he could teach us. To have lived and seen so many other worlds!”

“He’s a monster in the guise of a man, and the last person you should show your back to. You don’t need him and your country doesn’t need him. Whatever he has to offer, it’s not worth the risk. As long as he is here, we are all in danger.”

“And even with all his power, our country is not so weak as to be defeated by one man. I believe in him, and believe his desire for answers. He will prove his worth and be rewarded accordingly.”

“Your Majesty, please tell me your decision-making isn’t being affected by… personal feelings.”

“Such as?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t know what you mean. If you’re going to accuse me and question my judgment, then you’d better have the courage to say it to my face. So tell me, what personal feelings might be affection my decisions?”

“Nothing, Your Majesty. Nothing at all. Forgive my impudence and worrying. The bags under your eyes just concern me. Have you had trouble sleeping?”

“None at all. My sleep is as sound as my judgment.”

“Please listen to me. Clemens is just the latest in a rash of violent incidents plaguing Sylphtoria. This is the worst time to let a human into our midst. He’s just going to trigger more fighting, and it won’t be long until there are casualties. We have the means to deal with Balil ourselves. Banish this intruder before it’s too late!”

“That is enough. Not only is Noah our guest, he is our best hope of curing Balil and returning our artifacts. If you really fear him so much, then that just means we should make him an ally instead of an enemy.”

“But, Your Majesty…”

“That is all, Lour. Leave me.”

———-

Noah journeyed back to his house to find Valia sitting by the window, with her mood failing to improve since they last spoke. “The queen is sending us to pursue a monster that may be similar to the one Balil’s group investigated,” he said.

“You go, I’ll stay here. I’m going to research the relics that Valon stole. Maybe I can figure out what he’s up to.”

Her tone was calm, but she didn’t look at him while she spoke. She hadn’t moved past the things he said, though they both knew she would eventually have to. Noah decided not to prod and give her the time she needed.

“Good idea. With any luck, we’ll both find something useful.”

She watched him pack his things for travel, each silently waiting for the other to speak. Valia wasn’t sure what she wanted Noah to say, or even what to expect. Would he lie to her face and say he was sorry for his past crimes and she was right? Would he rehash the argument just to give another attempt at defending himself? Would he bitterly tell her to get over it and then storm out? Would he not engage her at all, as if to say he didn’t care how she felt?

Aithorn soon arrived. “The team is ready. Let’s proceed.”

Once his bag was packed, Noah turned to Valia, finally meeting her gaze. She still didn’t know what he would say, what she should say, what she should think. Finally, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Stay safe. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He then turned around to leave.

“Noah,” Valia said, making him stop. “It’s my turn to cook. When you return, I’ll make something nice for us.”

He looked back and smiled. “I’ll bring the wine.”

He then stepped outside, where Aithorn was waiting with two male elves and a female. “This is Arden, who knows the area we’re traveling to. Citrin, who was with Balil when they discovered the other monster. Lily, our healer.”

“Pleased to meet each of you,” said Noah with a bow of his head.

The elves appeared wary of him, but said nothing unpleasant. What Noah found strange was that Aithorn looked to be in a bad mood. Was he so worried about leaving Sylphtoria to hunt this monster? Was he planning to kill Noah when they were out in the wilderness? Or did he think Noah would kill him instead? Whatever it was, Noah decided to keep a close eye on him.

The group departed from Sylphtoria, heading west. As speed was more important than stealth, everyone was on horseback, galloping down the mossy roads. Without the arrowhead in Noah’s leg, the journey from the city was certainly more pleasant than the journey to it. They spent most of the day riding, and when the sun finally set, they stopped to set up camp.

The three elves remained on guard around Noah, but he knew how to change that. He gathered various ingredients from the forest, combined them with seasonings and some olive oil in Sylphtoria, and prepared a vegetable jambalaya featuring peppers, carrots, celery, and cauliflower rice. Baptized with spices and pan-cooked over the campfire, the smell made the elves’ mouths water. Even Aithorn was starting to get twitchy with hunger.

“All right, folks, eat up,” Noah said as he served everyone their meal in wooden bowls. Arden, Citrin, and Lily glanced at Aithorn, silently seeking confirmation that they could trust the food. Though they tried to be subtle about it, their worry was clear as day, but Noah ignored them and began eating. Spoons were slowly raised, and bites were hesitantly taken.

“This is delicious!” Citrin exclaimed.

“So good!” Lily added.

“It’s decent,” Arden reluctantly grunted.

“Well done,” Aithorn said.

Noah thanked them and resumed eating.

“Is this how you earned the trust of the queen? By cooking?” Arden asked.

“I haven’t earned her trust, not yet.”

“Then why is a human like you being tolerated in Sylphtoria?”

“Arden, your disrespect towards him dishonors the rest of us,” Aithorn warned.

“You abandoned Sylphtoria. Why should I care about what you have to say?” the belligerent elf accused.

“I did not—!” Aithorn’s anger threatened to burst free, but he regained control and lowered his voice. “I joined with Uther to ensure peace between the two kingdoms. As for Noah, he has extensive knowledge on health and disease, and the queen has recruited him to find a cure for Balil. This has already been explained to you.”

“I just don’t understand why this stranger is deemed qualified to save the life of our kin. Is Balil’s situation really so desperate that we have to turn to a human for help?”

“It is. Noah’s doing his job, so be silent and do yours.”

“I’m not here to step on anyone’s toes,” said Noah. “I’ll be gone before you know it and things will be back to normal in no time. Your patience in this matter would be greatly appreciated.”

“We elves have been nothing but patient with you barbarians. Sylphtoria’s history is stained with the blood of our ancestors at the hands of your kind, and the trees are nourished by the bones of all races who come here in the name of conquest. Every time we give mortals another chance, we relearn how chaotic and savage they are. They come for us out of greed, out of anger, out of curiosity—waves of violence lapping at our shores over millennia.

You mortals are like bees; you sting and then you die, while we live on to suffer the stings of the next generation. Every elf has been victimized by your kind repeatedly. Conflict is inevitable, and the chance of bloodshed rises the longer we are in contact with you. Whether human, beastman, or dwarf, it is always the same. Whatever your intention here is, it is driven by selfishness.”

“You’re completely right. I understand and agree with everything you say. You could accuse mortals of any crime, and no matter how atrocious or evil it is, I will wholeheartedly believe you. You don’t need to defend your isolationism, nor do I plan on defending or undermining the savage acts of history. I just need you to tolerate me until our job is done, then you never have to see me again. Now eat up, the effort I put into this dinner is worth at least a couple days of cooperation.”

“No, you don’t understand!”

“You hate humans. I understand that. They’ve given you plenty of reasons to hate them. I understand that. Now you want to say everything you’ve kept bottled up, to yell and swear and vent all your anger. I understand that. You want me to argue with you so you can condemn me and feel righteous. I understand that. I’m simply not interested in playing the antagonist in your little fantasy argument.

If you want to take out your anger on humanity and mortals, go burn down a village. Slaughter the men, rape the women, enslave the children. I honestly don’t care. Exact your pound of flesh however you see fit, just do it on your own time, so it doesn’t get in the way of our mission.” Noah then returned his attention to his bowl and resumed eating. Everyone did the same, with not another word to be said.

They rode west for another two days, soon reaching the area where the monster had been reported. The smell of blood guided them to a slain moose, eight feet tall at the shoulder and physically stronger than their whole group put together, now a half-eaten carcass. Compared to this behemoth, the horses Noah and the elves were Gölbaşı Escort Bayan riding might as well have been baby deer.

Noah moved in for a closer look, using his sword to poke around. Its intestines were gone, but what surprised him were the chunks of muscle ripped out of its neck and limbs. Moose were absurdly powerful animals, very hard to kill, and their meat was notoriously tough.

“It’s been here,” Noah said, “the monster we’re chasing.”

“What makes you so sure?” Aithorn asked.

“It would take a whole wolfpack to bring this creature down, but the bite marks don’t match. Besides, it wasn’t killed by a flesh wound caused by teeth or claws. Much of its skeleton seems to have been crushed.” Noah lifted its head with a grunt of exertion, finding the underside to be a bloody crater. “Its entire skull has been caved in. Maybe a bear could have done this, but it would have to be a gigantic, and these tracks indicate something else.” Noah moved over a nearby tree, old and robust but nearly uprooted, with a large blood splatter high up on the side. “See this? It’s like the moose was knocked through the air and struck this tree. The force needed to send a creature like this flying….”

“This is less than a day old,” Citrin said. “It’s close.”

Noah got back on his horse, and the group set off, following the monster’s trail. They came across more slain animals like the moose, each displaying signs of brutality beyond the simple need to eat. Before long, an ungodly howl echoed under the canopy.

“This way!” Aithorn called, urging everyone forward.

They chased after the source of the noise, coming upon a small elvish community being attacked. The culprit was a hulking beast, dwarfing even a sledgepaw bear and far more horrifying. It moved about the cluster of houses, eviscerating elves before they could escape. Its scream was hideous, chilling the blood of whoever heard it.

From the back, it looked like a gigantic lion, with its mane and fur caked in dried blood. Rather than a lion’s tail, it sported a scorpion’s tail encased in a hard shell. The tail wasn’t long enough to stab anyone in front of it like an actual scorpion, so the beast swung it like a morning star, crushing bones and ripping through flesh. The poison from the multiple stingers would then set in.

Its claws were beyond simple sharp points. They had razor edges that cut through prey like swords. The tips of the bones in its joints and spine were sticking out of its skin, as though its body could not contain its skeleton.

The beast noticed their presence and turned to them, and all four elves, and even Noah, were taken back by the sight. Its head was like a lion’s, but grossly asymmetrical and deformed, dripping pus from its exposed muscles and bones. A human face, looking like it had carved off some poor soul, was stretched across the front of its skull like a horrific mask.

“What is that?!” Lily exclaimed.

“A manticore,” Noah hissed.

They were mythological monsters with a lion’s body, a scorpion’s tail, and a human’s face, but there was no mention of them in any of the knight academy books. It was a monster that wasn’t supposed to exist in this world. The beast released another howl and charged. Aithorn, Arden, and Citrin all drew their bows and began firing arrows while Noah tried to stun it with flashbangs. Though the arrows embedded themselves in the creature’s flesh and the flashbangs attacked its senses, nothing could divert its fury, and it forced the group to scatter.

Noah hung back, watching as Aithorn planted a lightning-enhanced arrow in the beast’s side. The arrow exploded upon contact, blowing open a hole that released shredded muscles and innards. Seemingly unaffected, the manticore swung its tail and knocked Aithorn off his horse.

It lunged to finish him off, but a steel spike struck the ground underneath it, causing a rising wall of compacted earth to trip the manticore. Momentarily shaken, it could only watch Noah grab Aithorn and pull him to safety. The loss of its prey left it snarling in fury, and it smashed the wall and reached out with one of its massive paws toward them.

A lasso from Citrin wrapped around its ankle and stopped its attack, while a lasso from Arden seized its opposite hind leg. These ropes were made of living vines, controlled and enhanced with druidism. Still on horseback, they pulled as hard as they could in opposite directions, unbalancing the manticore and creating an opening. Noah got Aithorn to Lily and then shot the beast in the face with a flashbang to stun it.

He gave it no time to recover and charged in, slashing at its neck. Whether it was luck or instinct, the manticore pulled away, avoiding the worst of the attack, though Noah’s blade still carved through muscle and veins. Blood splashed on Noah’s arm, and he immediately realized he had made a mistake. Though his clothes weren’t damaged, his skin molted and blistered, caused by something in the blood triggering an allergic reaction. He hastily retreated and poured water and alcohol on his arm to neutralize the effect, then ripped off his bloodstained shirt. Still, the searing pain clung to him like a burn.

“Don’t let its blood touch you!” Noah warned.

As for the manticore, despite the wound on its neck, it refused to go down. Instead, with a deranged howl, it swung its tail and struck Arden’s lasso, pulling him to the ground, then yanked its other foreleg and severed Arden’s rope. While it was distracted, Noah moved to its back and severed the ligaments of its hindleg. Carving through flesh and drawing blood was too dangerous, but crippling it would limit the risk. Just like the slash to its neck, the manticore ignored the pain of its injury and remained standing. At the very least, its movement seemed hindered.

Noah continued bombarding the manticore with flashbangs while Arden and Citrin once more stuck it full of arrows. After being healed by Lily, Aithorn was back on his feet with his spear in hand, wrapped in a twisting mantle of lightning. “Dragon Impaler!” he cast, activating the same spell he’d tried to kill Noah with.

Nearby, Citrin cast a druid spell and slammed his hands on the ground. Mighty roots burst from the soil surrounding the manticore, wrapping around its limbs and trying to hold it in place, but like with Noah, exposure to its blood seemed to wound the trees. The monster thrashed and snarled with unimaginable fury, pulling against the roots and trying to free itself.

Aithorn charged forwards and leaped into the air, landing on the monster’s back. Then, with a roar of his own, he drove his spear down into its chest, disintegrating its misshapen heart. Despite its destroyed heart and spine, it tried to resist, twisting its head with a wrathful scream and biting in refusal of death, but soon enough, it gave its final breath and became still.

Noah moved over to Lily. “Can you please heal my arm? I need to work fast, before it stiffens up and the blood coagulates.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, still dazed by what had just transpired. After she mended his damaged skin, Noah thanked her and then approached the slain beast with tools and gloves. She immediately went to work tending to any of the monster’s victims still clinging to life.

“What in the world just happened?!” Arden shouted.

“Citrin, is this what the monster you and Balil found looked like?” Aithorn asked.

“Not exactly. It was smaller, even more deformed, but it gave me the same chill I feel now.”

“Did you see traits of other animals?” Noah asked as he took several blood samples. “Body of a lion, head of a man, tail of a scorpion; someone is experimenting with hybridization, and this poor bastard looks to be a product. What you encountered was probably another result of someone’s hard work into dark territory.”

“Wait, you think this was an actual person?” Arden asked.

“This human face wasn’t put on for decoration. Picture a snake shedding its skin, with one little patch refusing to fall off.”

“What do you know of this?” Aithorn asked as Noah joined him on the monster’s back and began collecting spinal fluid.

“I’ve seen it before, or something like this. The basilisk skeleton that Prince Lupin brought to Colbrand showed similar signs of tampering and deformation. Look at these protrusions here, they aren’t like horns and claws. The bones tore right through the flesh. This is a sign of rapid and unnatural transformation. Gangrene was even taking effect, same with the exposed muscles in its head. Also, come look at this. I noticed it when I tried to behead the creature.”

Noah and Aithorn climbed off the monster’s back and moved to its head, where Noah reached into its crusty mane and pulled something free. It looked like an old banana, blackened and shriveled.

“A friend of mine fought a beastman who had one of these similarly attached to his neck. It appears to be some kind of parasite, one that causes rapid mutations and an explosive surge in power. This might be what happens when it’s left on for too long.”

Aithorn bit his lip. “Thank you, for earlier.”

“Sure thing,” Noah replied, not looking at him as he continued taking samples.

Once he had taken everything he needed, he prepared Petri dishes with growth medium. As he constructed a second heating box, Aithorn and the other elves covered the slain monster in dry wood and set it ablaze, trying to erase as much of the abomination as possible. The elves living in the area sheltered them so they could sleep with a roof over their heads. The next day, Noah and Aithorn checked the samples.

“This can’t be,” Noah muttered.

“You said these would resemble the samples you took from Balil,” said Aithorn, looking at one of the dishes under the light. Noah examined all the other samples, but nothing he found matched the explosive growth or coloration he had seen in Balil’s samples. The blood was clean.

“I said this was our best chance. We’re assuming that the monster yesterday is just like the one Balil’s group found, but if so, then this means that it wasn’t the source of the disease. Something else made him sick.”

“So not only do we not know what caused his illness, but we also have these horrific beasts infiltrating our country?”

“These things definitely came from Handent, and God only knows what horrors are going on there. I spoke to the prince and warned him that the basilisk was a sign of something far worse on the horizon, and unfortunately, my prediction seems to be coming true. At least we put this beast down before it could kill more people. We should hurry back to Sylphtoria. We’ve been away for too long.”

They raced back to the city, but it took three days to make the return trip. As soon as they arrived, Lour met them with several guards. “We need to speak to the queen, immediately,” Aithorn said.

“The situation has changed. Anything you need to tell her goes through me first.”

“What happened?” Noah asked.

“First, you tell me what you found.”

“We tracked down the monster. It came from the same place as the one Balil found, but they weren’t the source of the illness.”

“Well then, that makes this blow even heavier. While you were off on your wild goose chase, Balil passed away, and another dozen people are sick.”

“Then my job isn’t finished. If you won’t let me speak to the queen, then take me to where the sick are so I can get back to work.”

Lour glared at him. “Choose your words carefully.”

Noah got off his horse and approached Lour. “Listen, if you want me to do my job, then take me to the sick, now. Lecturing me or anything else is just a waste of time that we don’t have.” Even the deadpan Lour could not stop his eye from twitching in annoyance.

Noah was brought up into the city and led to a large house where numerous people were laid out on beds, their breathing interrupted by throbbing pain. Healers were tending to them with potions and herbs, all wearing gloves and masks to ward off infection. Unfortunately, holy magic could do little to help them. It could restore the damage caused by the disease, but its healing and recuperative effects also worked on the bacteria, accelerating their growth.

Noah moved along the row of beds, looking at each sickly elf. They all showed the same symptoms, meaning they all had to same strains of bacteria. Were those strains all equally virulent? Was this disease contagious or environmental? Once again, he was at a loss.

“Damn it,” he hissed, arriving at the last bed and finding Valia drifting in and out of consciousness. Noah sat on the side of her bed and clutched her hand, feeling how clammy it was. “Valia, can you hear me?”

She slowly opened her eyes and spoke with a weak voice. “Noah? Is that really you, or am I dreaming again?”

“I’m here. How do you feel?”

“Like I should have come with you to track down that monster.” She tried to laugh but just ended up wincing. “If the gods are making me sick to punish you, I’ll never forgive you.”

“If the gods want to punish me, there are plenty of better sins to choose from.”

“What did you find?”

“The monsters weren’t the source. Whatever this is, they had nothing to do with it.”

“Well, that would be my luck.” She struggled to clear her throat, so Noah gave her some water. “I’ve been smoking that stuff you gave Balil, and it’s definitely taking the edge off, but I’m so thirsty now. While you’ve been gone, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Though I said I believed you, that I would help you break your curse, I realized I never really understood you. I haven’t tried to see things from your perspective, to imagine the things you’ve experienced. If I lived the way you do, can I really say I would never try my hand at a little wickedness? To test my limits, no matter what direction it led me?”

“I guess you’re gonna have to try harder from now on.”

“Only if you get off your lazy ass and fix me.”

“Relax. Did you forget? I’m a doctor, it’s what I do. Plus, while I’m busy, this will distract you from your symptoms, and it’ll go great with that medicine.”

Noah conjured his phone from within his ring and placed the earbuds in Valia’s ears. He suggested something smooth and easy, then, as the music began to play, he departed and met with Aithorn outside, keeping his distance from the quarantine site.

“I need the Talovix memory tea.”

The sudden demand left Aithorn stunned. “That isn’t something anyone can just ask for. Where did you even hear about that?”

“The academy library. I need to remember the molecular structure for every drug I can possibly use, and I can’t do it on my own. I need the tea to jog my memory.”

“You don’t understand. The memory tea it is a sacred rite for only—”

Noah clasped Aithorn’s shoulder with an iron grip and stared him down with frigid eyes. “I’m not asking.”

Aithorn sighed. “We need to speak to the queen.”

They made their way to the palace, but a row of guards blocked their way at the door. “Halt, Lord Aithorn. The human is forbidden from speaking to Her Majesty, by order of Chancellor Lour.”

“Oh really? And what does the queen have to say about this?” Aithorn challenged. The guards didn’t answer.

“She doesn’t know, huh?” Noah asked before taking a deep breath. “QUEEN ELISANDRA!” he shouted, making the guards shake in shock. “QUEEN ELISANDRA, I MUST SPEAK WITH YOU!”

The guards Escort Gölbaşı drew their swords. “Arrest him!” one of them barked.

Aithorn readied his spear to fend them off. “The queen needs to hear what he has to say!”

“The queen is already speaking to the chancellor.”

The doors opened, and Elisandra appeared. “What is going on out here?”

“Apologies, Your Majesty, but you and I need to have a conversation,” said Noah. “Your chancellor has forbidden me from speaking to you, but I believe the situation warrants an exception.”

Lour appeared from behind the queen. “This behavior is unacceptable! Guards, take him away!”

“Enough!” the queen shouted, halting everyone. “All of you, leave us.”

“You heard her, take the human away!”

“You are dismissed, Lour,” she hissed.

“Your Majesty!”

“I indulged your fears and suspicions, but your obstruction has no worth or merit. Begone from my sight until you reaffirm your priorities.”

“Yes… Your Majesty.”

All the elves departed, leaving only Noah and Elisandra. “Do come in, Sir Noah.”

“Thank you.”

He followed her through the palace and into the main chamber, where she took her seat on the throne. “Lour tells me that the monster you found gave no clues as to the origin of this pandemic. Is this true?”

“It is, ma’am, but there is more to it than that. The monsters Balil and I encountered showed signs of severe mutations, resulting from someone engaged in abominable practices to reshape life into something twisted. The beast I fought was extremely aggressive and deadly, and more like it are going to keep entering this forest from Handent. Uther, Sylphtoria, and even Vandheim may in danger. Unfortunately, the two issues are unrelated to each other.”

“At the very least, I am glad to see you return in one piece. I hope you kept my nephew safe.”

“The monster left a few bruises, Your Majesty, mainly to his pride.”

Elisandra gave a soft laugh and gazed at Noah. She hadn’t dreamed about him since he left, or, at least, had dreamed so vividly. Still, he often entered her thoughts like a sweet perfume, and his absence hadn’t changed that. He was an acquaintance, but something about him made her smile.

“You’ve also visited the sick, have you not? So I take it you’ve seen….”

“Valia, yes, I have. I must also apologize for failing to cure Balil.”

“I gave you the order to leave. The responsibility is mine. Now, tell me the real reason why you’re here.”

“I need to use the Talovix memory tea. The way to stop this may exist within my mind, but after thousands of years, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“The Talovix memory tea is a tremendously dangerous potion, reserved only for elf lords and elders, and for good reason. It allows the user to recall events from hundreds, even thousands of years in the past with the clearest detail, even remembering what it was like in the womb. It takes an exceptionally powerful mind to use the tea without losing your sanity, or even dying.”

“Then I’m overqualified.”

“You don’t understand, this potion affects both the body and soul. Though your soul is ancient, your vessel is still human.”

“My body can be fixed with magic. Besides, this tea can do more than help me find a cure for this disease. It may shed some light on why I am what I am. I have lived over a hundred lives, but those are the lives in which I was aware of my reincarnation. There were other lives I lived, where my mind couldn’t yet retain memories beyond death and I was continuously reborn with a blank slate. I have brief flashes from those lives, but nothing more. If I can push my mind beyond that boundary, if I remember all the way back to the very beginning of my existence, it may help me finally find my end.”

“Our agreement was that your personal quest would wait until you finished your task, that you would be restricted from accessing elvish knowledge and power.”

“Things change, Your Majesty, no matter how much the elves wish they didn’t.”

Elisandra sighed and rubbed her eyes, as though trying to ease a headache. “Very well. Return here at sunset and I will administer the tea. Use this time to make whatever preparations you must.”

Noah bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

He left the palace and returned to the house he and Valia shared, though now, it was empty. Arriving there, he found signs of her work researching the stolen relics. There were books and scrolls laid out across the dinner table, and she had taken notes.

Valon had stolen a sword that could split a raging river, an amulet that protected the wearer from holy spells, a tunic that strengthened wind magic, a gem-encrusted tiara gifted from Vandheim, a staff used by a legendary druid, and a handful of other relics, none of which seemed to have anything in common with each other.

Noah put those thoughts out of his mind, took a shower, and then went to work. If the memory tea was as dangerous as the queen said, he needed quality insurance. Noah busied himself with writing out powerful healing spells, focusing on the protection and restoration of neurons. The last thing he needed was for his soul to be trapped in a braindead husk, again.

Ever since he first learned runecrafting, he had been stocking up on high-quality inks and parchments made from all sorts of valuable materials. Finally, he was putting them to work. He also prepared several healing potions, just to be sure.

When the sun set, he made the climb back to the palace, where the guards once more blocked the door. “I am expected by the queen,” Noah said. They had expressions of disapproval, but they parted without protest, and the doors opened. However, standing before Noah was Lour.

“My Lord,” Noah said with a nod.

“The queen has informed me that you will be taking the Talovix memory tea.”

“It is a risk worth taking to end this epidemic.”

“How noble. She has requested privacy during the ceremony, so her guards and I will not be able to observe. However, we don’t need eyes in the room to know if you should attempt something rude or inappropriate. Should that happen, there is nowhere in the Anorvan Forest where you can hide.”

“I am aware of that, Chancellor, and I assure you, my intentions are purely professional. And look at it this way: either the tea will work and I’ll solve this epidemic, or I’ll die and you’ll be rid of me.”

Lour glared at him, but stood aside and let Noah pass. He entered the palace and found the queen inside, preparing the tea. She was sitting beside a fire pit set into the floor, with an ornate tea kettle steaming over the fire. Garbed in a white gown, she was busy mixing various leaves, stems, and powders in a mortar and pestle.

“Good evening, Sir Noah,” she said, working with her back to him.

“Good evening, Your Majesty.”

“Come, take a seat.”

Noah approached and sat down beside the queen, watching her prepare the tea. She picked up a small glass bottle and pour several silvery drops into the mixture. “Moon Tears,” he said.

“You know of these?”

“I once used them to try and determine if I had an affinity for shamanism. No such luck. I remember being told that they’ve been used since ancient times to find truth within oneself.”

“It is produced by a rare flower of the same name, one that blooms only on the night of a full moon. The silvery tears are its nectar, falling from the petals one at a time. To see them bloom, to see each drop catch the light, it is a true blessing.”

“Speaking of which, thank you again for letting me do this. I know the Talovix ritual is dangerous, but it’s also sacred to your people, and I apologize for making such a sudden demand. I meant no disrespect.”

“It is sacred, but so are the lives of my subjects, and if I’m not willing to do whatever it takes to save them, then I am not fit to be queen. If anything, I should be the one doing this, but what good would it do? I lack the knowledge to heal my anguished flock, and I must turn to you, a stranger, to succeed where I have failed.”

“You have not failed. You asked for my help because you are wise, and you put their lives ahead of your ego. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, especially when you haven’t done anything wrong.”

A small smile crossed her lips and she breathed deeply. “This epidemic has left me shaken, and you are my greatest hope. Long have I ruled Sylphtoria, through good times and bad, yet even after all these years, fear still clings to me like wet clothing, fear for my people, fear of failure. What I would give to have had your insight those times when fate seemed to conspire against us.”

He looked at her, the light of the fire dancing on her cheek. “I would have stood with you then, as I stand with you now, and I would say the same thing: well done. You fear failure because you love your people, and you doubt yourself because you know your limits. Sylphtoria is safe in your hands.”

“You are a good man, Sir Noah, and I don’t want to risk losing you. It’s not too late to rethink using the tea. There must be another way.”

“It was too late the moment I read about it.”

“What will Lady Valia say if this should harm or even kill you?”

“It won’t matter. If I can’t cure this disease, she’ll die soon after me.”

Elisandra sighed and added the completed mixture to the tea pot, beginning to simmer. “Tell me, what is it like to experience death? You’re probably the only person I can ask and receive an accurate answer.”

“Well when it’s sudden, such as from an injury, there comes a moment when you realize your body is beyond saving, when you feel yourself begin the descent. Your heartbeat feels like the receding tide, and the sands of time are trickling away like the blood in your veins. The pain of your wound dulls as you lose sensation, as if your flesh understands that the concept of damage doesn’t matter anymore.

You feel your strength fade and your thoughts slow. Your body turns cold and the darkness moves across your eyes, but it’s not unpleasant. It’s like the chill of the night, telling you that it’s time to sleep. You close your eyes and sink into the depths of your soul, feeling your existence whittle down as your body gives in.

Unfortunately for me, it’s always followed by a flash of blinding light in the center of my mind, and I’m pulled to the next world. I often wonder if there is something instead of that flash of light, if what I experience could really be called true death.”

“What do you think it’s like?”

Noah looked up through the open windows at the night sky and the stars twinkling overhead. “I like to think that it’s a deep, dreamless sleep. No thoughts, no feelings, no cares, no responsibilities, no memories, no awareness, no sense of self, just utter nothingness. Can you imagine it, such indescribable tranquility? Everything from your life just fades away like a wisp of smoke as time loses all meaning. You are left alone, free from everything, free to finally rest in peace. That’s what I hope it to be.”

Elisandra closed her eyes and sighed. “That does sound beautiful.” She then took the whistling tea kettle off the flame and poured its brew into a clay mug. “I fear, then, that this will be the exact opposite of that.”

“My entire existence is the exact opposite of that. I’m used to it.” He then unrolled a large scroll beside him and set out several bottles. “Forgive me for asking you this, My Lady, but while I’m under the tea’s influence, I’ll need you to keep me alive. This scroll will undo whatever damage I suffer, but only as long as the spell is active, and I don’t know how long this will take. You’re the only one I can trust with this. My life is in your hands.”

“I’ll take care of you, just make sure you come back. Valia would be quite disheartened if you were not to return, as would I.”

Noah received the mug and stared into its dark, reflective depths while waiting for it to cool. “Before I drink this, may I ask you a personal question?”

“Go ahead.”

“You’ve told me what scares you, but I want to know, what makes you smile? If the tea does kill me, let me depart from this world with something beautiful. A secret bidden to me by the queen of elves would be a wonderful memento to carry with me across the multiverse.”

Elisandra closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then smiled. “I love a good summer storm. I love when I can see the clouds approach, like a gray mountain floating over the land. The thunder crackles and roars in the distance, like I have my ear to a dragon’s chest and can hear every titanic breath. The wind is so warm and so sweet, like I can taste it. It envelopes me and flows through me like the blood in my veins, filling me with energy.

Then, the pour, a crashing deluge with every drop striking with ecstasy and passion, like the world is shedding tears of joy. Everything is cleansed in body and mind. Just as dirt and pollen are washed away, so too are stagnant feelings, festering anxieties, and aching emotions carried off, leaving the soul pure and pristine. These palace windows are magic, keeping the wind and the rain out, so I’ll often step outside and savor it.

I especially love the sound of the rain, it’s so simple, so humble, but so soothing and beautiful. All creatures that walk the land and fly in the skies know that sound, have heard it, for it is the sound of life itself. I close my eyes and listen to the rain, and it’s like being back in the womb.”

Noah sighed blissfully. “I know exactly how you feel. In every world I’ve visited, that passion is the same, that energy you feel in every drop. There just isn’t anything like it. The next time a storm hits Sylphtoria, perhaps you’d let me view it from up here?”

Elisandra blushed. “Any time.”

Noah then raised his cup. “A toast, to your good health.”

He downed the tea, trying to ignore the putrid taste and not spit it into the queen’s face. As soon as the mug was empty, he became dizzy, and all of his senses became distorted. He lost consciousness and fell forward, landing in Elisandra’s lap. She was stunned, unsure of what to do or how to react.

How long had it been since she’d had any intimate contact with a man? She’d had a lover in the past, but he left her to return to his kin across the sea. Ever since she took the crown, the elves treated her as a divine being, someone they were unworthy to touch. Unlike humans, who used arranged marriages to cultivate politics and commerce, elves put more focus into finding true love. After all, eternity was a long time to spend with the wrong person, but no suitors caught her eye, leaving her without an heir.

Then Noah arrived, this stranger from another world, and it was like she was caught under his spell. His reputation was one of perversity and malice, but they couldn’t define him properly, define the depth she felt when she looked at him, spoke to him, and now when she touched him. He was wise, he was kind, and something about him put her at ease, making her want to lean her head against his shoulder and sleep the way he did now.

No matter what Elisandra did to distract herself or how she tried to focus on matters at hand, these feelings within her refused to fade. How strange that she had spent more time with him in the dream world than the real world, yet she still felt so close to him. She rolled Noah onto his back, keeping his head on her lap, and brushed back his hair.

“Such a handsome face,” she murmured, wondering if he could hear her while the fire beside them crackled.

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