COS Prologue

Prologue

Spring. It had always been a season that brought euphoria to the many races, transcending mere continents and planes of existence.

Of course, there were exceptions even to that. The world had myriad planes, large masses of continents, and legions of races with billions upon billions of living creatures. Small they may each be, but in total they far exceeded what most presumed.

The world was exceedingly complicated, so much so that even the gods couldn’t understand all of it. Life and death were ever-intertwined, the energy of the stars caught up in an incessant cycle of creation and destruction. The heavens too were intricate, a curtain of glittering stars hung upon the boundless night sky oblivious to the gazes of those beneath them. To some they represented hope, and to others annihilation. A few saw in them the transcendent stillness of ancient times, while others the natural movement of the laws of the world.

To most people. The stars were emblems of the gods. To some sages, they represented planes, continents, and boundless assorted worlds. They were infinite, their destruction only foreseen by few. They would fall eventually, unseen by most of the beings that fell with them, oblivious to their own mortality until death came knocking upon their doors.

Spring was also common, present in any random plane of existence. However, this specific plane had only two seasons: in spring all things grew vibrant as nature came back to life, and in autumn deathly silence enveloped the world as they went into hibernation. The prime material plane’s laws dictated the seasons, having them cycle every twelve years.

Three suns hung high up in the sky, with huge white stars lining the horizon. The radiance of the suns and stars intermingled, strengthening each other so much that the stars could be seen clearly even in the day, just like the ring of colourful lights beyond that was the source of countless beautiful legends across the world.

There was more than one continent in this plane made mostly of ocean, the carrier of life. A sixth of the world was land, and from a bird’s eye view the planet radiated a deep violet glow that was magnificent and enigmatic. Six moons circled it, at least three visible each clear night. They all glowed in different colours, being the foundation of magic in civilisation.

Mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests littered continent, making for vibrant colours of their own. However, violet was still key, the largest and most important of them all. The majestic mountain ranges spanned 10,000 kilometers at minimum, with peaks higher than 10,000 metres common themselves. Cities of various sizes dotted the continent like stars.

The most magnificent of them towered atop the tallest of peaks at 20,000 metres high and sharp as a blade. It was littered with spiraling skyscrapers, glowing with a metallic sheen. The thick violet of the world loomed around it, growing bright and dull as if it was breathing with life.

At the centre of this large city was a 3000 metre tall spire, emitting violet light from its violet tip that formed a splendid band around it. Atop this spire stood a majestic being, a well-built man above the waist with reversed joints at the legs leading to huge hooves. His blue skin did not tarnish his dignity, tens of tentacles waving along his cheek and chin with a life of their own. He was dressed in bizarre armour with a metallic sheen, certain parts of it like the shoulder pads actually integrated into his body.

The man was old, time having left deep marks on his skin. Numerous runes floated around the room he was in, seemingly moving irregularly at first but following the orbit of the stars if one looked close. The ten metre tall wall in front of him was completely transparent, giving him a panoramic view of the outside world and the miraculous city atop the miles-tall mountain peak. From his position he could see the obvious arc of the horizon, and if one squinted hard enough they would feel like they were looking at the entire world.

The aptly named Overlooking Hall was a place all the beings of the plane dreamt of standing in, its sky-piercing spire a holy land for the entirety of the continent: the Twilight Church. A light flashed in the hall to reveal a well-built young man, trudging forward with big steps as his hooves caused sparks with the metal floor. The hall vibrated with every heavy step he took, his enormous strength not contained even by his muscles, spilling out with every step he took as raging dark storms failed to stain his flawless armour.

The youth rushed to the old man, kneeling down on a knee to say, “Shaman! My men won’t be able to hold on long, please leave as soon as possible!”

The old man didn’t reply, not taking any action as even the tentacles on his face seemed to droop down. He was still looking at the outside world through the wall, like nothing could distract him from the view. It was currently twilight, the most beautiful time in the world where the noise and clamour of the day gave way to the faint violet sunset as two setting suns and three rising moons shared the sky; the horizon was a spectrum of colour past what life could ever lay eyes on, bringing numerous legends to life. It was what gave the Twilight Church its name.

And yet the twilight this time seemed to represent doomsday. Balls of light flickered throughout the mountain range, as pillars of fires spewed forth a thick, heavy smog that covered the skies, which extended as far as the naked eye could see. Numerous black dots in the sky flew across the mountains, chasing, knocking into each other. At times, some of these figures would fall to the ground while being set ablaze. The Overlooking Hall was trembling, the magic barrier was able to block the noises but not the vibration.

A red sun suddenly occupied half the sky, the numerous large shadows meandering across the sky with ease under its light as if walking on flat ground. Far away they looked like nothing much, but up close one would notice that these creatures were as big as cities, with large fins that looked like sails connected to even bigger bodies. They were like the gargantuan ancient oceanic beasts people had heard of in folklore, and their size was purely inconceivable.

These beasts swayed their bodies to let loose sheets of fire that covered entire cities. This was neither magic flame nor divine fire, radiating almost no heat but still able to burn anything. They were almost impossible to put out, wiping out city after city to the tune of grim, miserable screams. This fire could turn inanimate objects to ash, yet living creatures would be set alight for a long time, giving a painful slow death filled with anguish.

Another cluster of red clouds appeared in the sky, only signifying the arrival of another ancient beast. Shadows rose from the mountain and charged towards it, but both the youth and the old man knew that the brave fighters of their clan were just giving their lives up in this fight against the never-before-seen enemy. Their strikes were valiant and fierce, but ultimately ineffective; many already burned by the fires before they even got close and fell from the skies.

Flames, followed by spikes of ice and bolts of lightning were shot forth from the ground. People who could attack at such great distances were well-known beings on the continent, and even if the spells looked small they had the strength to flatten an entire mountain range. The spells looked simple from a distance, but with names like Azure Roar, Void Smite, Blazing Binds, Dragon Breath, and Sundering Slash, each one of them was breathtakingly awesome.

However, even such power was useless against these beasts, merely rippling out as a few mushroom clouds upon their bodies without doing any harm.

The young lad was still kneeling on the ground, but he too lifted his head to look at the silent apocalypse outside. He’d felt the power of this enemy himself, having been amongst the brave warriors charging up into the sky but a few moments ago. He only survived due to his extraordinary strength, coming here to the Overlooking Hall instead of continuing. He did not lack the courage to fight to the death, but he had a greater responsibility he had to see through.

When he spoke once more, his tone carried a faint trace of despair, “Shaman, only our strongest fighters can do any damage to these creatures, even the spells of our legendary mages and divine officials are useless. Even the strength of the gods doesn’t help, our attacks are like ant bites. The gods have abandoned us!”

“Don’t worry, we still have the divine beast,” The shaman said slowly.

“But,” The young lad stop mid-sentence, turning to look at the armageddon once more. The earth quivered as a silver dragon rose out of a distant mountain range, a graceful beast who illuminated the surrounding mountains with its radiance. This beautiful creature was a divine beast in her peak form, the guardian of this plane; it was the Frost Dragon, Sera.

The growl of the dragon who had defeated numerous other invasions in history broke through even to the isolated Overlooking Hall as she flew towards an enemy’s back, attacking with her claws, her horns, and her Dragon Breath. Even she looked minute next to the giants in the sky, but still this was the first time an enemy was injured from the start of the battle. The first enemy casualty of the apocalypse fell to the ground amidst an ocean of cheers from all across the continent.

“But we only have one Sera,” the young lad said, so confident it could be considered blasphemy. The shaman just sighed; this youth was the most talented one in the past decade, his strength already at a legendary peak. He was the only one who’d been able to even survive a fight with these apocalyptic enemies, so his judgement wouldn’t be wrong.

The wrinkles on the shaman’s body deepened, as if he’d aged decades in an instant. He shook his head and sighed heavily, causing a few tentacles to fall and turn to ash before hitting the ground.

A pillar of pale grey light emerged in the horizon, connecting the earth to the sky where Sera had eliminated her opponent. The frost dragon was trapped within the pole of light, struggling to get out of its grip, but she howled in pain as her wings were destroyed quickly, her body disintegrating into ashes. All that was left of this magnificent being was silver sand.

“Let’s go, Shaman, we still have time. I can open a passage to another plane with my strength; as long as you’re still alive the legend of the Twilight Church will live on!” Even now the youth had resolution in his voice. He didn’t mention that opening a portal to another plane would require his life, his very soul. He knew that this was the last hope of this world.

A bronze tome suddenly surfaced in the hand of the shaman, looking heavy and ancient. It filled the hall with an archaic aura, holding the history of the plane for the past billions of years.

“The Book of Eternity!” The lad’s eyes lit up with hope. He had almost forgotten that the shaman still had a divine weapon on hand.

The shaman maintained his composure as he flipped the book open. An image appeared on the first page, the scene of Sera struggling within that grey pillar of light. Even on pale yellow parchment the image caused the hearts of those seeing it to quiver, as if depicting an indescribable despair.

The young lad knew of the properties of the Book of Eternity. He only glanced at the image before focusing his attention on the shaman’s hand, hoping he would turn to the the next page soon. And so the shaman did. The page flipped silently, revealing what was behind it.

But there were no new chapters after the fall of the guardian.

The young lad looked at the book in a daze, and his mind went blank.

The harbingers of apocalypse outside the hall went up in flames, causing more pillars of light to appear that set the whole plane ablaze.

That was how the Sixth Era had come to a close.

That was the end.

Spring. It had always been a season that brought euphoria to the many races, transcending mere continents and planes of existence, and this was even more true for the Norland continent, a beautiful, amazingly fertile, and incredibly vast land filled with mystery.

The Evernight Forest was a beautiful gem in the jewel-studded fabric that was Norland. It wasn’t the biggest or the most beautiful on the continent, but it was still bigger than it seemed and there were rumours circulating that it hid multiple planes and the kingdom of the silvermoon elves. Rumours were rumours, however, and the elves themselves were the only race to have entered the plane to public knowledge. Any humans or others that had been inside were extremely discreet about it.

A caravan with tens of carriages and more than twenty guards was crawling across the lands not far from Evernight Forest. The unhurried pace was something rare for merchants, who lived by the adage of time is money.

Spring was the most beautiful season in the continent, a season that lifted spirits and brought joy. The warm breeze was interlaced with the scents of various seasonal flowers as it blew over the earth softly, carrying away the worries and fatigue of the travellers.

The caravan wasn’t very big, nor were their goods particularly heavy. The guard seemed too extravagant for it, made up completely of young men at the prime of their training, dressed in refined armours with neat weapons and superior saddles for their horses. It was evidence that they weren’t to be trifled with, those with good equipment being good fighters as well in general.

The owner of the guards didn’t seem thrifty, outfitting such young men with such good equipment. This meant something, as money and power were intertwined on Norland. Those with experience could see that this caravan had goods from Evernight Forest— the flesh and fur of demonic beasts, various materials, and rare wood.

The symbol of a branch upon the carriage was a mark of aristocracy, and scholars who studied the sigils of various houses would recognise the three quails at the centre. The family running this caravan had at least 400 years of history, ancient enough, and had received merit in past wars. It wasn’t extremely influential, but it wasn’t declining either.

The gear itself could make up for incompetency on the guards’ part, so it caused the bandits eyeing them to rethink themselves. The profit from this battle wouldn’t outweigh the blood shed, and logic dictated that the glistening armour would affect their decision more than the actual ability of the guards. The caravan hadn’t met any bandits yet in its travels.

A teenage girl amongst the group yawned loudly as she looked around with lively eyes, saying with boredom, “It’s so quiet… Why aren’t there any bandits? Have they gotten smarter?” She was fitted up in an extravagant yet light suit of armour, her beautiful hazel hair pulled up into a ponytail. She had a look of childlike innocence to her, one that was marred by the two swords hanging at the side of her horse.

An older-looking girl in plain robes smiled knowingly when she heard this, “Those who aren’t smart have already been wiped out. Haven’t they?”

The younger girl was rather indignant, “Aren’t there any courageous bandits?”

“The courageous ones die faster.”

This reply left her speechless. She pouted for a while, following up with, “I can never win you, Elena.”

The girl named Elena was dressed in plain robes, the attire of acolytes and weaker mages. Her dark hair swayed freely behind her, a few strands tracing the sharp curve of her face as they landed on her chest. She didn’t look outstanding, but her pure charisma was enough to attract attention. Elena evidently had a soft spot for the younger girl as she comforted her, bringing her spirits up again.

The footsteps of a horse suddenly sounded from behind the caravan, immediately alerting the guards. Even if the carriage didn’t stop they prepared their weapons to strike. This may have been the territory of Viscount Axecar who put in extra effort to eliminate bandits, but they were trained well enough to take nothing lightly.

Thunderous thuds resounded from a horse’s hooves as a rider emerged from the thick smoke. He looked rather brusque, with a head of messy hair kept at bay by a red cloth. There wasn’t any shirt beneath his armour, only a bare muscular chest that was overgrown with thick hair.

It was unknown whether the man was purely showing off or he really was that offhand, but the black horse he rode was also much larger than regular horses, quite obviously from the lineage of a demonic beast. He may have been one man on horseback, but he radiated an aura of a thousand soldiers.

The colour drained from the guards’ faces as the rival closed in on them. They tightened their grips on their swords, some even half-drawing them. These weapons shone brightly with magic enchantments, every single one more expensive than an entire carriage of normal demonic beast skin.

*Clang!* The ponytail girl’s swords rang as they flew automatically to her hands, her eyes shining as she pinned them on the approaching rider, “Bandit?!”

“Nonsense!” Elena stopped the excited girl, signalling her guards to give way. Several of them showed faces of dismay, but they all remained silent and followed orders.

The rider sped past them as fast as lightning, a human and horse like tiger and dragon that blew Elena’s long, luscious hair into the wind. He dashed ahead of them for several tens of metres, but then suddenly stopped and circled in place, yelling towards the approaching caravan, “Hey, beautiful! I’m Gaton!”

He was gone as soon as he shouted the words, making it far away. The caravan was left in confusion.

“Elena, was he trying to hit on you?” the younger girl said after being in a daze for a while.

“He was talking about you, Tzu.”

“No, he was looking at you—” The girl wanted to continue, but a small whirlwind from the tip of Elena’s fingers smacked her horse, sending her far ahead. All she could do was cry out reluctantly.

Nothing much happened after this episode until the caravan reached the inn they’d booked at Ludwig Town, preparing to spend the night there.

Ludwig town was not huge in any sense. It had a road that linked the whole town together, and was only populated by a few hundred people, but due to its advantageous location in between the territories of Viscount Anzikar and the Evernight Forest, it prospered in trade. There were countless inns and hotels in the town, as well as shops that sold weapons, magical tools, and the skin of magical beasts.

The most popular of all, however, was the local liquor. The town came alive in the evenings, the breeze carrying the scent of food and alcohol. Dinner was a time when everyone could get some rest after a long day of work, and all the members of the caravan made their way to the lounge of the inn for that very reason. The restaurant of this inn was quite large, so their group didn’t occupy much space amongst the other mercenaries and caravans.

Three wandering bards were giving a performance near the bar, two of them playing the guitar while the older one in the centre playing the djembe as he sang a poem about the heroic Black Rider, Alexander. His hoarse voice combined with the strong rhythm of the drum to add sentiment to the music, creating a unique charm to the passionate story he was telling. It probably explained why the audience was still captivated, despite having heard it more than enough times. The alcohol was downed jar by jar, mixing into the bloodstream and rushing to the head. It seemed to make the rhythm of the drum even more alluring, even affecting Elena herself.

Suddenly, the booming footsteps of a horse sounded outside the door, stopping right at the entrance to the inn. A well-built man entered the place, so big he had to duck to enter the door. He scanned the area, and his eyes lit up as he took big steps towards Elena and Tzu, oblivious to the daggers shot at him from the eyes of the guards as he sat right beside the girls. He stared at Elena with a wide smile, as if the two of them were the only ones in the world, “Hey beautiful, we meet again! My name is Gaton!”

With a more clear view of him, the man seemed rather brusque; a show-off with iron forged muscles. Despite the thick needle-like mustache on his face, he was noticeably young. His eyes were two emerald orbs, seeming more alive the longer one stared at them. The tanned man had a faint red scar that extended from the corner of his eye to the left side of his cheek, fairly new yet not ruining his looks at all. The scar instead added a pinch of manliness to him. The armour he wore was nothing high-level, and already had some wear and tear.

Tzu’s eyes lit up as she glared at Gaton, “Bandit?”

“Adventurer.”

“Lame,” Tzu was evidently disappointed at Gaton’s answer, but she continued to ask, “So why are you stalking us?”

Gaton smirked and pointed to Elena. “Because I like her!”

“Ah, a lecher I see,” Tzu did not bother hiding the disappointment in her face.

Elena sat quietly, but the clattering armour of the man alerted many of her guards; most of them had pulled their swords out. The aura of the guards changed the moment the swords were out of their sheaths, as they gave off a biting and murderous vibe. The temperature in the restaurant lowered instantaneously, and the mercenaries who were previously making noise also quieted down as they looked over at the commotion. They had been adventuring long enough to understand what was going on and, though these guards were not experts, they had taken lives before. Their skills far exceeded their young looks.

Elena furrowed her brows and looked at Gaton with her light blue eyes, not avoiding his fiery stare. The guards retrieved their swords the moment she signalled them, sitting back down but still glaring at Gaton. A single funny movement and they wouldn’t hesitate to put their swords in his body.

Elena simply said, “I don’t like meaningless clinging, you won’t get anything out of this.”

Gaton laughed, “I like you, and you will fall in love with me. This was prophesied.”

“So you’re saying that you like me because of a prophecy?” Elena remained indifferent, not even asking where the prophecy came from.

“The latter half was prophesied, not the former. I liked you when I saw you, it’s that simple.”

“And whose prophecy was it?”

“Mine.”

Elena sighed in despair, she was still curious about him moments ago, but now she could almost confirm that he was just another persistent rascal. But the innocence in his eyes surprised her, the reason why she didn’t let her guards make a move just now. Nonetheless, she’s had enough of his nonsense.

Tzu became excited again and interrupted, “Right, if you like Elena, you’ve gotta prove it! Why not buy us a drink?”

Gaton took his pouch out before Elena could reject, and poured all his coins on the table. He pointed to everyone in the caravan and shouted, “Hey, boss! I’m treating, give every man here a glass of grape— ah no, ale!”

He’d poured out a lot of coin, but most of them were coppers. There were few silvers, even, forget about gold. This was not enough to buy even a glass of ale, much less the expensive grape liquor. Gaton scratched his head in embarrassment, “Uh, my adventurer life just started. I haven’t earned any…”

This resulted in roars of laughters in the restaurant. The lives of the other adventurers were dull and dangerous, and it was rare for them to get entertainment like this.

The guards, on the other hand, got even more displeased. Tzu seemed to grow even more interested about Gaton. “I’m prettier than Elena, and I have a better body too. Why don’t you like me?” She was full of energy, and half a head taller than Elena. Her combat training gave her a body that was graceful and tempting, generally deemed more attractive to men.

Gaton scratched his head and answered, “Well, I don’t have a reason for liking her. I saw her and I liked her.”

Tzu was not going to let this go, “Then talk about yourself, what do you have to deem yourself worthy for Elena?”

“Look, I’m royalty!” Gaton fumbled through his pocket for an emblem. Even though the ingrained patterns on it had already faded, it was still recognisable as an ancient object. Social status remained important as long as humans existed in Norland, because many rights were granted solely to aristocrats.

“Then where is your castle? How many live there?” These were factors that signified the power of an aristocrat.

Gaton blushed a deep red and he said, “The inherited castle…It was sold a few generations ago. As for myself, I haven’t yet been granted the rights to inherit it.” His words were tactful, but they admitted that his family had long lost power and maybe even territory. He was someone without an inheritance from a family of aristocrats that likely lost their lands.

“What about other things?”

“I’m just a level 3 warrior who hasn’t found his path in life yet.” Gaton flexed his muscular arms and his rock-like chest. Sadly, that proved nothing about his ability; the skills of a high level warrior were not measured by mere muscles.

Tzu pouted petulantly, “Level 3 warriors, aren’t they everywhere?”

“I’m different from other level 3 warriors! I’m a genius, and my body can be inscribed with runes! Look here!” Gaton stretched out his arms and removed his arm guards, revealing a vivid tattoo of a bull on his forearm. This wasn’t a simple tattoo, instead a rune with magic power. It was a small spell formation inscribed into his body that strengthened his abilities.

Runes greatly affected the power of an individual, and were extremely precious commodities for their power and rarity. Every other person could bear a rune on their bodies, but it was difficult to find one amongst hundreds who actually had one inscribed into them.

“It’s just Bull’s Strength, nothing to be envious of. This much is being ingenious?” The knowledgeable Tzu saw through the ability of Gaton's rune instantaneously. Bull’s Strength could enhance a warrior’s physical prowess, but as useful as it was it was a common rune. Still, Elena’s gaze stayed on the tattoo on Gaton’s arm, her brows knitted as she fell deep in thought.

Unfazed, Gaton put on his arm guards and said, “I do not have the money to obtain a better rune. But wait till I discover treasures that someone left behind or kill a high level monster, and I’ll have the money. Look at my body, it can withstand the power of four different runes.”

“That’s more like it!” Tzu was barely satisfied. A person’s gifts were measured by both his class and the number of runes they could bear. Most could bear only one, so someone like Gaton who could take four was considered pretty good. It gave him better stats and abilities than ordinary people of his level.

Since there were no further conflicts on this side, everyone stopped paying attention to their conversation. The voice of the wandering bard echoed through the bar once again as the steady rhythm of the drum and the strong alcohol complemented each other. Tzu soon became familiar with Gaton, and they exchanged their experiences from their adventures non-stop as they downed their liquor. In fact, this was the first time she has been so far from home, but Gaton’s captivating stories kept Tzu fascinated.

As time passed, the atmosphere in the dining room remained great. There was hustle and bustle, but incidents of people fighting or creating trouble never occurred. By the time everyone scattered at late night, it was obvious from the bartender’s content smile that they have already drank much of the owner’s expensive liquor. Even Tzu was staggering as she walked, and Elena had to drag her back.

The next morning, the travellers resumed their journey as per normal. While they were leaving the hotel, they were surprised to see that Gaton had long been awake, wearing robes, and was in the stable bathing the horses. This was a job only servants took on.

“Gaton, what are you doing?” Tzu called out loudly.

“I didn’t have enough money to pay the bill or the rent. It can’t be helped, looks like I can only work to pay off my debts!” Gaton’s voice was bright and clear, filled with joy. Even with his status of an aristocrat, he did not feel embarrassed at all to take on a servant’s job. His actions were skilled and serious, and the fur of the horses was soon sparkling clean under his hands.

Tzu could only vaguely remember now that she had pushed all the liquor bills to Gaton the previous night. She burst out into laughter when she remembered, leaving Gaton to enjoy his work as she left on her horse. The caravan headed out smoothly, but when she turned she saw a tall and mighty figure waving them goodbye from the stable.

The caravan went north-east, leaving Viscount Anzikar’s territory and passing through Earl Vernon’s lands before entering Earl Tudor’s domain. Half a month passed without disturbance, and they hadn’t once run into the bandit groups Tzu was anticipating.

It was instead Gaton that they’d met, twice. He followed the caravan on their journey, regaling Tzu and Elena with stories of his adventures as he treated everyone to liquor. He’d end up forced into labour for 3 to 5 days every time to pay off the debts. The areas the caravan was passing through were rather safe and serene, so there was no chance for adventurers to earn money here. Tzu pretended not to know the size of Gaton’s wallet, drinking till she dropped and having him handle all her bills.

“This is his punishment for always clinging onto you!” Tzu laughingly said to Elena, leaving the mage with no option but to shake her head in silence.

The caravan continued on their journey, stopping at every rest stop to replenish their food and water supplies. Even so, the supplies on their carriage never increased or decreased, still the same old goods from the Evernight Forest. Every few days, Gaton would surely appear. Each time the thunder-like clatter of his horse’s steps rang out, and the bright peal of laughter resounded, the guards would know he was done paying off the last time’s debts. At this point, they even felt like something was missing whenever Gaton appeared a night late.

Two months had passed, and Gaton treated the caravan to six rounds of liquor in total. Everyone knew that Gaton was working hard every day except— no, perhaps even including those six days. Even the guards who used to dislike him grew a soft heart for him, while Tzu still carelessly and joyously left the considerable amount of liquor bills to him.

These whole 2 months, Elena and Gaton spoke no more than 20 sentences, but the enthusiasm in his eyes was slowly becoming unbearable for her. The journey was tranquil, yet not so.

That’s how they made it to the lands of Earl Kyle of the Sacred Alliance. The Sacred Alliance was a tremendous force in the entirety of Norland, a coalition of big and small aristocrats alike, and unlike the traditional empires their royalty was just the most powerful family in the coalition. This land was just around 3000 kilometres from the legendary city of the continent, the Sacred Alliance capital Faust. The caravan steadily entered the small streets of Noivudor, part of the territory that belonged to Earl Kyle. This was to be where they stopped for the night.

But when they were about to enter Noivudor proper, the caravan was greeted by the sight of ten riders surrounding a mage who was dashing out of a small alley. The people who entered and exited through the alley were mostly travelling merchants, and the merchants who commonly use the alley quickly gave way for the mage and riders. The riders were quite skilled, swivelling their warhorses away from the people who couldn’t avoid them while still managing to keep up the pace.

The horseback mage let out an expression of surprise as he passed the caravan, his gaze locking onto Tzu and Elena. The slim middle-aged man exuded a greenish-black glow, likely because poison from various experiments in the laboratory had sunk into his very skin. Although his pupils were turbid, his sinister gaze did not fail to make others shudder uncontrollably. His robes were unusually extravagant and intricate, an accessory that could harness magic runes. This was something only mages who were level 9 or above.

The riders soon grew distant on the main road, but the gloomy eyes of the mage left a deep impression on those of the caravan, causing the atmosphere to grow dreary. When they arrived at the scheduled inn, Elena stopped the guards as they dismounted and prepared to enter, “Let’s leave immediately!”

“Ah… But Gaton will be catching up with us today.”

“Let’s. Leave. Immediately,” Elena repeated herself, and this time Tzu didn’t rebut as she silently got on her horse. Elena was someone of few words, and one repeat was all she would get.

It was nearing dusk, and the closest road was ten kilometres away. If they left Noivudor now, they would only be able to pitch their tents in the wilderness. Tzu didn’t oppose Elena’s decision, however, not probing further either as she signalled to the guards to get going. Everyone got back on their horses again, and the caravan resumed their journey. Once they stepped out of Noivudor they began to accelerate, even abandoning a few of their slower horse carriages on the streets as they went on. Even so, having travelled not even 20 kilometres, they were alarmed by the booming sound of horse steps behind them.

Elena pointed to a low mound on the side road and said in a hushed voice, “Change direction, protect and defend!” The guards promptly abandoned their carriages and charged up the hill on their horses. They got off immediately, drawing their weapons. Even though each of the guards had a longsword, more than half drew their bows as their main weapon. This was definitely not normal in a common mercenary troop.

The thunder of multiple horses closed in on them from the end of the main road, warhorses clad in armour rushing out from the smoke. The riders were heavily armed as well, each with a two-metre-long iron sword in hand. There were about 50 riders from Earl Kyle himself here, more than half his elite troops!

Flanking with the armed riders were hundreds of lightly armed troops, and at the centre of it all was that mage the caravan met at dusk. He was still dressed in those extravagant robes, but now he had a three-metre-long staff in hand as well, the tip embedded with a huge crystal. The light from the crystal converged with the patterns on the robes, making them shine mysteriously in the twilight.

The guards’ expressions stiffened with the appearance of the armed riders. The people of the caravan knew some martial arts, and even the coachmen were level 2 warriors, but they were all lightly armed and didn’t add up to more than 50 people. Normal bows posed a limited threat to the armed riders, and on top of that their opponents even had a mage with them! With the mage no longer concealing his aura, the caravan could notice that he was a great mage who was at least level 12! Even high-ranking aristocrats like Earl Kyle had to treat such powerhouses with courtesy, so he was most likely working for someone higher up the ladder.

Everyone on the mound quietened down and prepared for battle. Their only hope now was that they were not the targets of the riders and troops, but that hope seemed bleak…

Sounds of horse steps rung in the streets of Noivudor once again. Mounted on a black warhorse, Gaton rushed through the streets to stop at the front door of the largest inn in town. However, he didn’t see the familiar horse carriages of the caravan nearby, and the stable was also practically empty. None of the horses he’d come to know over two months of working the stables were inside.

Gaton’s thick brows furrowed once again. The black warhorse spun around in place for a bit, its hooves sounding against the ground once more as Gaton rushed out of the streets on his horse like the wind. The horse and rider disappeared into the vast night…

The mound had already become a place of bloodshed, the slope soaked in red as the corpses of horses and humans alike were stacked on one another. Even so, the sound of horseshoes clinking against the ground never ceased, the armed riders fighting fiercely at the foot of the mound as they prepared to strike once more.

The caravan’s defences hadn’t wavered, and nine of them had already been lost. There were still 41 of them left, however, and their battle might remained rather frightening. Their first blow directly blasted through the defences of the mound, ending the lives of tens of people from the caravan. However, the bows of the guards were extraordinary as well, even one arrow able to pierce through their armours and cause great damage. More than twenty of the lightly armed troops who were meant to control the opponents had been shot down, the light armour practically useless in front of the sharp arrows.

Tzu was panting hard, both hands on her sword as she aimed it forward. Her body was slightly bent, trying to maintain a posture that was ready to strike at all times. Her eyes were firmly fixated on the mage who was a few hundred metres away.

Her two-handed sword emanated a beam of light, revealing it to be a powerful magic sword. Although she wasn’t very high level, the girl had excellent swordsmanship and burst damage capabilities. Even an armed rider would be split in twain if they tried to take her attack head on, and she was in fact the one who’d done half the damage to those riders.

Fire, lightning storms, and explosions littered the battlefield. Elena was in the midst of an intense battle with the mage, possessing the sheer control to block his attacks despite only being level 6. Still, such a great difference in power could not be bridged. Elena’s face had turned pale, and her forehead trickled with sweat.

This caravan was truly bizarre. They weren’t high-level on average, inferior to Earl Kyle’s troops, but their gear and skills were so much superior to their opponents that they could resist the attacks of the stronger enemies for so long.

Tzu was trying to save her energy, her eyes revealing her intention to launch an attack. The target wasn’t just anyone, instead the great mage. Theoretically she shouldn’t have been a threat to him, with the 40 armed riders in her way and the hundreds of metres of distance, but the mage still shuddered abruptly as he sensed some kind of unknown threat.

He shifted his gaze immediately, spotting in between dozens of melees that the girl had drawn a well-crafted and exquisite short bow. It was tiny, like a child’s toy, but just the sight of it made the biggest threat to his life.

The mage smiled at Tzu, his eerie smile caused her to shiver. Still her hands remained steady, her actions skilled and precise. An intricate small arrow was nocked, and like a bolt of lightning it shot towards the mage’s forehead. The path of that arrow completely defied the principles of nature, traceless as if it leaped through space before arriving at its destination. The protective shields on the mage’s body slowly disappeared.

This was one of the most powerful archer skills, Magic Break!

As the arrow left the bow, Tzu involuntarily let out a breath of air. But the scene before her caused her to widen her eyes, causing her body to stiffen up.

The mage continued to smile strangely. The fumes from the explosion of spells seemed to gather behind him, silently drawing a large sword and having it sit in front of the mage. The arrow struck the blade and bounced off like it really was just a toy, and the smoke disappeared to reveal a heavily armoured knight.

Irresistible light was glowing from the joints of the knight’s armour, and the warhorse he was sat on was half a fold bigger than the rest. There was no armour or harness on the horse, but complex runes were inscribed on its fur.

“Rune knight!” Tzu cried out, and this was the first time she’d ever revealed such terror.

Rune knights were the epitome of human strength. Powerful warriors with custom enchanted armour to start off with, the true source of power lay in the runes inscribed into them and their horses. One could only be called a rune knight if they could handle at least five runes!

On the battlefield, a single rune knight could massacre a whole army easily. They had such control over the flow of a battle that the first batch of rune knights centuries ago became the nightmare of the other races of Norland. Runemasters, those who could inscribe these runes, became the most wanted people on the entire continent, but the number of them available could be counted with one hand. It took great talent to become a runemaster.

Tzu was baffled by the appearance of the rune knight, but before she could react a flurry of dark green leaves wrapped up her body. The leaves throbbed with magic energy as they covered her, and no matter how hard she tried to resist the magic she couldn’t.

“Elena!” she screamed, but her body slowly turned transparent and vanished. The leaves were a powerful magic tool, usable only once. Their purpose was to send the target to a designation location in dangerous situations, and their power was something Tzu couldn’t resist. She could only watch on as a surge of mana seeped out of Elena’s body, draining her until she fell to the ground.

Elena was hurting so bad her vision blurred. She couldn’t even see the few remaining guards. The earlier burst of magic had affected them as well, and the opponents’ armoured knights were readying another charge. While they could deal with light armour, this assault would wipe them all out.

As for herself? She wouldn’t bother thinking of the consequences of falling into her opponents’ hands, for she knew that would not happen. A jade dagger appeared in her grasp, positioned towards her heart. The blade glistened with a silver sheen, the runes inscribed within capable of taking both her life and soul. Very quickly this dagger would turn her into a pile of ash.

There was one last barrier remaining around her, and a spell stored in an ornament she was wearing. Once everything was broken, she would take her life. She would never leave anything behind for these humans.

The armed riders let loose a thunderous charge that blocked out all noise. But this time, Elena picked up something familiar amidst that flurry of movement…

Gaton had been on the side of the battlefield, and the sturdy imposing demeanour of the rune knights had caused his pupils to shrink. Subconsciously he’d wanted to leave, but the moment he caught sight of Elena’s barrier breaking his face turned pale. The whites of his irises filled with threads of blood as he roared like a maniac, charging towards the rune knight.

‘It’s too late for anything now.’ Elena’s consciousness grew weak, and she gripped the dagger and stabbed it into her heart—

*Thud!* Her wrist suddenly suffered a heavy blow, causing the dagger to fly away from her body. The dagger had already scratched clothes, almost piercing skin. Once blood was drawn its effects would have been set in stone.

A powerful arm coiled around Elena’s body, carrying her up. She felt herself heave with the ups and downs, like she was floating amidst the clouds. A familiar scent calmed her nerves, relaxeing her senses. Her vision darkened, and she finally fainted. The last thing she felt was a sensation on her back. That man’s body burned, but it was sturdy as steel.

Elena didn’t know how much time passed before she opened her eyes, but the first thing she saw was a naked back with tanned skin and tight muscles, littered with scars. The man didn’t have to turn for her to know it was Gaton.

Her head was still fuzzy, and her body had no strength. She wondered how a level 3 warrior managed to bring her out of the battlefield as she looked up; she wasn’t in a castle dungeon, but in a cave.

She struggled to sit up and felt a sudden coldness hit her chest that made her realise that her robes were completely ripped apart. Even the resistant innerwear had been torn, and as she sat up her clothes fell apart to reveal her chest in its entirety. Gaton heard the movements behind him in that same instant, turning around see Elena in all her glory.

“You!” Elena shouted angrily. She lifted her hands, preparing to unleash a burst of magic, but with her mana long since exhausted the act caused her vision to black. She almost fainted again to the immense pain in her hands, her body weakening as she fell to the ground.

Gaton was startled. He rushed to catch her, hugging her in support. Elena struggled violently, but then Gaton protested, “I’ve already seen it all, so stop struggling will you?!”

His voice carried a mysterious power, and Elena slowly came to consciousness as she saw his blood-covered face, reeking of blood yet carrying a tender expression. The left of Gaton’s chest was wounded right over his heart, and her struggles had caused the wounds to split open once again. Blood spurted out of it like an arrow.

Seeing the colour draining from Elena’s face, Gaton laughed rather lightly, “The rune knight stabbed me, but I’ll be fine. I needed to take a blow to escape from him. Darkmoon is too young to be that fast.”

Elena stopped moving, not bothering to wipe the blood on her face. Her chest was still exposed but she didn’t think about that anymore, focusing on the wound at Gaton’s chest. Even with all the luck in the world, a level 3 warrior would have to face consequences if he tried to escape from a rune knight. The man’s heart was likely penetrated, judging by the depth of the wound.

“You—” Gaton seemed to understand before she continued, taking her hand and putting it on his chest. Elena felt a strong, steady heartbeat under his staunch muscles.

“I have two hearts, and can recover faster than beasts. It doesn’t mean anything to lose one.” His laughter was still bright, giving Elena a sudden peace that made her feel safe. When Gaton leaned down to kiss her, she did not resist…

As night fell, the bonfire in the cave chased away all the coldness. Gaton and Elena sat beside the fire. A wild rabbit was being barbequed, but Elena had little appetite as she hugged her knees and rested her head in them, blanking out. Right at the climax of their intimate session, she’d just shoved Gaton off. Any other guy would probably be furious, but he acted like nothing happened and instead turned happily to make dinner for the both of them. His eyes were filled with an innocent bliss and love, and she could see no signs of hatred or resent in them.

“Do you like me?”

“Of course!”

“Why?”

“No reason.”

Elena sorted her thoughts before speaking again, “We barely know each other. You don’t understand me and don’t know my past. Did you even think about why we got attacked by Earl Kyle? You should know I have secrets.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m an Archeron, and if we like someone we like them. There’s no rhyme nor reason to it,” Gaton said casually.

“At any price?”

“Of course.”

“What if I wanted you to die?”

“If there was a need, then sure.” Gaton smiled.

Elena did not say much, growing silent. She didn’t really believe the man’s words. They had no great understanding of each other, in fact they hadn’t even spoken much. Even Tzu was more familiar with him than her, but he was willing to die for his love?

Humans. They give mindless promises, but are never prepared to uphold them. And yet she saw the bright red gush of blood still flowing out of Gaton’s wound, and Elena wavered.

Silence reigned. It took what seemed like an eternity for Elena to speak, “Is everyone from your family so—”

“Stupid?” Gaton asked with a laugh, continuing, “Perhaps it’s true. We’re all silly when we’re young. But it’s okay to be stupid, the scariest thing is never being able to find someone to grow stupid for.”

“Your statement is invalid. But this surname, Archeron, is a little weird. Could you tell me your name?”

“Gaton Isaiah Satanistoria Archeron.” Surprised, Elena lift her head to gaze at Gaton. His eyes were still like the purest and most perfect of gems, but her heart was no longer at peace. The name was ridiculously long and difficult to pronounce, but she could recognise that this was a naming tradition of demons. If this man really had demon blood in him, the name alone would be able to bind him greatly. The power wasn’t the same as with a demon’s truename, but it was still comparable.

She kept quite for a while, finally saying, “Didn’t your family tell you not to give your name out like that?”

“You mean my truename?” Gaton chucked. “My mother told me the moment I matured not to tell anyone. But if I had to, it could only be one person.”

So, he knows everything. Suddenly, Elena could not find the words to speak. She only felt that this man, like everything related to him, was very absurd, yet so very real. Somehow, such a thing that touched one’s heart existed between the realms of illusion and reality. Just like Gaton had said, his words were a sincere pact of his willingness to die for her. Telling her his truename was as good as putting his life in her hands… Truly, how could there be such a silly man?

“What do you want to be, then? You’ll remain an adventurer?”

“Of course not! I’ll create my own army and fight the other races, pave out lands, and establish my own kingdom!” Gaton said with dignity, as if he was a general who had led thousands of troops before.

Elena kept quiet and only looked at the jumping fire. Her face looked dull and dark in contrast to the bright fire, bringing out the faint distress in her expression. Wind floated by from the other side of the sky, quietly cloaking the three moons as the night darkened.

She stood up, “I’m leaving.”

Gaton was surprised. “Leaving? Where to?”

“Where I’m supposed to be,” She did not at all slow down, heading straight outside the cave.

“Next time, we—”

“There shall be no ‘next time’!” Elena shouted as she disappeared into the night, but her voice echoed within the cave. Gaton stayed there, stunned, and did not chase after her. He’d just lost a heart, so he didn’t have the strength to chase after a level 6 mage. Moreover, the girl had mysterious powers that normal mages didn’t.

Gaton sat down defeated, pulling at his hair. He was silent for awhile before laughing hysterically, “It’s alright. Archerons go crazy anyway. ‘Give in to the insanity or die in the silence…’ Which bastard was it that said that?”

His laughter echoed far and wide in the silent night. The bonfire remained lit, the rabbit having long since burned to ash.

……

Time never stopped ticking, and five years had swiftly slipped through their fingers. The Evernight Forest lost its peace in the sixth spring, as the humans brought armies that made it into the depths of the forest layer by layer. The beauty and serenity of the forest was destroyed by brute force and magic. Flames engulfed the place, and trees were burnt to the ground. Magical beasts were forced out of their habitats, because even the strongest of them were no match for the humans.

The Evernight Forest was traditional territory of the silvermoon elves. Generations of elven royalty had protected this forest they called home, and they would do anything they could for their lands. The elves’ biggest enemies were the humans, attacking them again and again in their greed for any materials they could get.

But the invasion this time round was different from that of the past, the commander of the armies an unprecedented genius at war. He led a troop of 50 rune knights that decimated the advantages of even the most experienced archers. Conflict erupted between the tribes, putting the troops in disarray as the strongest of the lot fell one after the other. More than half of the twelve elven kings had died in battle, and even the sacrifice of a majority of the soldiers couldn’t keep the invasion at bay. Weapons clashed as fires burned, violence spreading throughout the Evernight Forest as the humans charged to Silvermoon Palace at its depths.

With no way out, the many tribes of silvermoon elves joined forces and launched an all-out war, but alas the elves were wiped out. After 1300 years of reign, the elves of the Evernight Forest had fallen…

A small group of elves was running away within the Evernight Forest. They seemed to be one with the woods, leaving only shadows behind as they moved swiftly between the galloping horses and murderous war cries. Fires devoured the ancient trees to clear a path for their frontlines, and their appalled faces spoke volumes of how this battlefield was no longer the forest they were familiar with. Groups of knights leapt forth to intercept them from time to time, but they continued to move on.

The world tree burned in a raging inferno in the distance, the tongues of fire dying half the sky red. The elves surrounded a young shaman protectively, only leaving formation when an enemy tried to intercept. They put their lives on the line to protect the young lady, powerful elven warriors falling one by one as the onslaught of rune knights continued unabated.

The female shaman hugged a thick golden book close to her. This was the Codex of Alucia, the most sacred item of the silvermoon elves. She wasn’t slower than the soldiers she ran with, and one wouldn’t be able to tell she was actually a mage on first sight. Having passed through trial after trial, she was left with only two warriors by her side.

The path in front of them opened up abruptly, and a calm lake came into sight. This was the pearl of the Evernight Forest, the Crescent Lake. There was a knight sitting quietly next to the lake, blocking their way.

A tense aura filled the air, disturbing the peace and serenity of the forest. If one looked in the water, they would find all the organisms had put a halt to their activities, dropping to the bottom to hide.

Even though there was only one knight blocking them, his tall and lofty stature made him appear like a mighty mountain. Even the black warhorse he rode was bigger than normal, and his vestments were so thick he could probably scare off commoners. He seemed unfazed by anything, only huffing out bursts of fiery air from his nostrils every once in a while. The sword in his hands was three metres long, still covered in fresh blood— silvermoon elf blood.

The female Shaman stopped in her tracks as the warriors by her side charged forth, attacking the horseback knight. This was a battle that could only end in death— all they wanted to do was drive their swords into the chest of the knight. They ignored the response coming their way as they charged, but a vile laughter resonated from within his helmet as a sword swept forth like lightning.

The knight dismounted from his horse, visibly stained with bestial blood. He walked towards the shaman and laughed, “The beautiful and elegant Shaman of the Moon. You’re so important amongst the elven royalty, did you really think I’d let you and the sacred book get away so easily? My reward would be halved if I did that! This is my first time commanding such a large and powerful army, I surely can’t let that happen!”

As soon as he was done speaking, two lifeless elves fell onto the ground. Even the best elite guards of the silvermoon royals hadn’t been able to dodge the knight’s blade. However, the shaman only shuddered slightly, asking in exasperation, “Gaton?!”

The knight’s body stiffened like a stone statue as he took off his helmet and revealed his chiselled face. Indeed this was Gaton, the past five years having left no trace on him but maturity and resolution. The adventurer had become a general that led thousands of troops, achieving things no human had ever performed in this plane. Only, that pair of eyes was just as pure and clear as it was five years ago.

Gaton stared at the female shaman, and his expression turned to one of great joy. He exclaimed loudly, “Elena!”

Standing in front of Gaton was a beautiful shaman of the Moon Goddess, not the plain-looking human mage from years ago. Still, Gaton managed to recognise those eyes. The once-level 3 warrior now understood the silvermoon elves’ secret transformation spell.

Gaton’s joy slowly faded as he grew bitter, and he said slowly, “So you were a silvermoon elf, and the Shaman of the Moon on top. You were actually royalty, no wonder you were so strong with magic all those years ago.”

His gaze remained fixed on Elena for a while, before he smiled with cheer, “Hey, beautiful! You’re more beautiful than the most perfect woman in my imagination, but I still liked you better as a human mage.”

That familiar chuckle… It made Elena feel like she was five years in the past again, but the thick and cold codex in her hands awoke her from her thoughts. The Shaman of Alucia had to be pure and flawless.

Elena held up the Codex of Alucia, saying coldly, “Gaton, your hands are stained with too much of the silvermoon elves’ blood. Only one of us can leave here alive today.”

Gaton rubbed his nose gently and smiled bitterly. “You… are no match for me—” He could not finish his words, because Elena had already started charging towards him at the speed of an elven warrior. The codex glowed as the cover page flipped open.

Gaton twirled the two greatswords in his hands as he looked at the charging elf, his incredibly fast attack able to kill even man-eating demons, much less the delicate elves. He already possessed inconceivable skill.

Death was already knocking at her doorstep, but Elena did not sense it. Even as she charged towards him, the only thing going through her mind was scenes of her encounters with Gaton.

“What if I wanted you to die?” she’d asked in front of that flickering bonfire.

“If there was a need, then sure.”

Five years had passed, his looks did not change a bit. He really had become a general leading a few thousand soldiers, but why did his troops have to be pointed at the Evernight Forest…

The corners of Elena’s lips suddenly lifted. The sword tips were zooming closer and closer in her eyes, but she did not dodge. A short sword emerged from the codex as she sped up, aiming it brutally at Gaton’s chest. She still remembered that night when she’d felt his heartbeat with her own hands, and she knew the position of his second heart.

Elena knew that Gaton would not be able to dodge this strike. This was the most powerful skill of the Silvermoon Palace, the Secret Moonlight Slash. As the Shaman of the Moon, her swordsmanship was actually stronger than her magic and holy spells. No armour would be able to stop this sword once blessed by Alucia herself, and not even the rune knights that were the epitome of human prowess would survive. The short and sharp blade left no mercy.

Images of the deep wounds on Gaton’s chest appeared in Elena’s eyes. Five years ago, he’d lost his first heart to save her life. Now, the short sword in her hand was about to pierce through his second.

She did not intend to dodge Gaton’s sword at all, and she could not dodge it either. She could only hope that her sword pierced Gaton’s heart before his sword slashed her waist. She had to avenge the lives of the silvermoon elves lost to the raging fire.

Let us… Let us stay together, together in this forest… was what she thought.

The Moonlight Sword ruthlessly slashed through Gaton’s armour, piercing through his chest and penetrating deep into his throbbing heart. The raging power within the sword completely destroyed his atria and ventricles.

The greatswords stopped all of a sudden. They had made contact with her skin, but the tips went no further. The hands that gripped them remained as steady as mountains.

Gaton looked at Elena like he wanted to say something, but he could no longer make any sound. However, he was smiling as he fell to the ground alongside his weapons, into Elena’s embrace. His blood soaked half her body, just like five years ago.

“You—” Elena was speechless. The world before her was a blur, and hot blood rushed through her body.

”It’s okay to be stupid, the scariest thing is never being able to find someone to grow stupid for. The words this man had once said filled Elena’s head. It was right after that he’d told her his truename without hesitation.

The codex dropped to the ground. Elena wrapped her arms around Gaton, and his body slowly lost its temperature in her arms.

“No!” she hugged him closely, whispering, “You won’t die!”

Gaton spent the next seven days between dream and reality. When he opened his eyes after, he found himself lying in a cave.

He could feel no heartbeat, but he was nonetheless alive. He turned around to find some scattered shaman robes with dry bloodstains on them. The blood reeked, but not enough to overpower the fragrance of the woman he so loved. A faint, sweet fragrance that enveloped him too.

The scent lingered, but he could no longer see Elena’s beautiful silhouette. The past few days of tenderness, spring and intimacy were all but an illusion, leaving no traces anywhere.

This time, there really was no ‘next time’.

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