Kara and the others rode in the carriage for several hours and the driver stopped at the first place that had problems. The farm was plagued by two foot tall goblins that were eating the livestock. Kara told the others to stay back after Josh said that this was training for Steven. Steven was happy to hear that, since he was tired of sitting in a carriage and doing nothing but waiting. He was out of the carriage and around the farm in barely a moment. The sound of metal chopping flesh could easily be heard and Steven was back a couple of minutes later.
“That was fast.” Josh said. “It's almost like you were eager to do it or something.”
Steven chuckled. “Is there anything else?” He asked. “Would goblins have like a nest or something nearby?”
“Let me check.” Jessica said and closed her eyes. She said a quick chant and a one foot wide green bubble appeared in front of them. It showed everything within a mile and a black dot appeared a quarter of a mile away near a creek.
“That looks like a tunnel.” Josh said. “I think the four of us need to go this time.”
Aimee was relieved to hear that and Evangeline had a worried face.
“Help us prepare.” Josh said to them and he held out one of the sheets the head acolyte gave them and the three of them started to chant.
“I'll cast Holy Light on our clothes.” Jessica said. “That way, we won't need torches.”
“Nice.” Steven said. “I'll have two hands free for fighting that way.”
“How did it feel?” Kara asked him while the others worked.
“I hate to admit this; but, it was like I've done it a hundred times before.” Steven said with a smile. “The blade feels like a part of my hand and I cast a defensive spell automatically.”
“I did the same thing at the training grounds.” Kara said as Jessica touched each of them on the shoulder and their clothing glowed white. “I wonder why you couldn't go there, too.”
Josh finished chanting and the four of them were covered in a green glow that faded. “Training with wooden dummies can't activate the Paladin of Light's abilities.” He said. “Steven needs to actually fight evil in benefit for someone, or he's just swinging a sword for nothing.”
“That figures.” Steven chuckled. “What was that thing you just did?”
“It was a damage reduction buff. Besides what we normally get from the Goddess, this reduces both physical and magical attack damage done to us by half.”
“Can you cast it again?” Steven asked.
“No, once per encounter.” Josh said. “It'll last until it's over, though.”
“That's good enough for me.” Steven said with a smile. “Let's go, everyone.”
The four of them walked over to the partially hidden tunnel and entered without hesitation. It was like daytime inside, thanks to Jessica's Holy Light spell on their clothing. Jessica and Josh stayed in the back while Kara and Steven took point. With Josh guiding them, they quickly found all the goblins, hidden side tunnels, and the slaughtered animal carcasses. When they reached the end of the tunnel, they found a large warren. Inside was something they hadn't expected.
The goblins had a prisoner.
It was a young boy of about five years old and he was naked. He said that he tended the fires like he was supposed to and that he would like to be fed now. Both Josh and Jessica quickly cast their heal and mental stability spells on him. He didn't change at all. They exchanged looks and Kara slipped her cloak off and put it around the boy. They took him out of the tunnel and Jessica cast Collapse on the entrance to close it.
“That's not going to hold.” Josh said. “I'll need to borrow Aimee for a few minutes.”
“She'll like that.” Jessica said. “Go ahead.”
They brought the boy back to the carriage and Josh told Evangeline and Aimee what he wanted to do. The three of them left and went back to the tunnel and chanted to have the tunnel removed from the land. They felt the dirt move and expand and after ten minutes, it was as if the tunnel had never existed. They went back to the carriage to see the farmer and his wife holding the little boy.
“We thought the Jensen boy had been killed a month ago.” The wife said with an arm over the boy's shoulder. “They are going to be so happy that he's alive!”
“He's going to need some... special care.” Jessica said. “He's been working for the goblins all that time and... well...”
“Don't worry, youngin'.” The farmer said. “We've got experience with dealin' with the aftermath of things like this.”
“I'm sorry to hear that.” Josh said. “I hope we can give you some peace of mind, now that you know the emissaries of the Goddess Chaiya are here.”
“We'll add a prayer to our supper tonight, just for her.” The wife said. “Thank you. Thank you all.”
“It's nice to finally see some heroes that know what they are doin'.” The farmer said with a smile.
Kara and the others climbed back into the carriage and drove away.
“Is anyone else worried about how casual these people are with having to deal with monsters?” Jessica asked. “That's not supposed to be normal, is it?”
“You just handled it as if it was normal.” Kara said.
Jessica blinked her eyes for a moment, then chuckled. “Okay, I'm not that worried now.”
“I didn't say to not worry, only that you did the same thing.” Kara said. “These people have been plagued for long enough that hearing about and seeing monsters is common. That's not really a normal response for the average person to have.”
“So, what do we do?” Josh asked.
“Exactly what we just did.” Kara said. “We efficiently clear them out and reassure the locals that the Goddess Chaiya is helping them and they don't need to worry as much anymore.”
“We can't be everywhere at once.” Josh said.
“We don't have to be. We only have to be visible and set an example.” Kara said. “Others will step forward eventually and will want to follow in our footsteps.”
“You make it sound like we're going to be here for a long time.” Steven said.
“Long enough to complete the mission for the Goddess.” Kara said.
“What will happen to us after that?” Jessica asked.
“It would be pointless to worry about that so soon.” Josh said. “We literally just started and we'll be arriving at the next trouble spot soon.” He said and looked at Kara. “Any guesses about what it'll be?”
“I can only assume as we get farther away from the capital, the monsters are going to get bigger and more powerful.” Kara said. “At least, that's what I feel it's going to be like. I don't have any evidence to support that yet.”
“I think she's right.” Jessica said. “I get the same kind of feeling, like we're only just scratching the surface of what's really wrong here.”
“Then we'll keep going and we'll see what we find.” Steven said. “With us working together, there shouldn't be anything that we can't handle.”
“Don't be overconfident.” Kara said, wisely. “Even the strongest fighter will sometimes meet an opponent that can't be fought.”
“That's what the magic users are for.” Steven said and pat Josh's shoulder and nodded to Jessica. “They can give us the advantage whatever we fight.”
“Thanks to the Goddess.” Josh said. “If it wasn't for her...”
“Oh, I know.” Steven said. “Remind me later to thank her, will you?”
“Only if you mean it.” Josh said, and Steven chuckled as he nodded.
Over the next two days, they fought several battles. The first was a group of magically corrupted wolves that had killed several adventurers and it netted them a bounty that had been set by a nearby town because the mayor's son had been one of them. Next was a nest of poisonous giant spiders that had laid siege to a silver mine and rescued a dozen trapped miners, for which they received a chunk of unrefined silver ore each for their efforts. The next, and hardest so far, was that several large orcs had moved into a grain mill and killed everyone in the town.
By eating them.
Steven had been both disgusted and relieved to slaughter the things, and was very grateful to Josh and Jessica for their cleansing spells to clean the blood off of everything. With no one to actually report the feat to, they could only send word back to the castle about clearing it out. Jessica had discovered a spell to let her communicate by creating a small green glowing creature that was ethereal. It would disappear after hearing the message and reappear at the target to deliver the message.
Once Jessica had mastered the spell, Josh and Evangeline used it to communicate with the head acolyte constantly. They received new verses and chants and reported on their progress. When the carriage stopped for the night at the end of the second day, it lost the speed boost granted by the Goddess. Luckily, they had reached the next town and the horses had a proper stable to rest at and the group got to stay at an inn. Like Kara had guessed, it was ridiculously cheap for them all to stay in their own rooms for the night. The supper that night and breakfast the next morning was free with the room.
They set out that morning in the carriage and drove into the countryside at the same time that Hunter had left the protective barrier around the elves lands.
The queen, her daughters, and the court mages appeared back inside the castle's throne room as if they had never left. The queen instructed her daughters to send word for their younger sister to be brought back to the castle. Without another word, the queen left the throne room and went to her personal chambers. She walked over to her wardrobe and opened the door to look at all of the fancy things she had. She dug under them and pulled out a simple white nightgown.
She quickly changed and climbed into bed and tucked herself under the covers. She wasn't sure why she wanted to do an odd thing like going to bed so early in the day; but, she knew she needed alone time and going to bed was usually the only way she did that. No one disturbed her at night unless it was an emergency, so she turned onto her side and closed her eyes. Her mind raced as she thought about the man she had met only minutes ago. Their conversation was intelligent, he was well spoken, and he conveyed his feelings with as few words as possible and had the most impact.
The queen had repressed her shiver when he had told her that he had been held captive for twelve years and then was going to be killed. She let her body shiver now because of that, and then it shivered again because of her people's policy to kill all non-elf males that had somehow made it through the barrier.
I never would have met him. The queen thought as she hugged herself. That reminded her of his strong and gentle embrace as he hugged her and whispered in her ear. What he said to me didn't make sense, if it was me he was actually saying it to. She thought, then reached up and touched her cheek where he had kissed her. He actually kissed me! Men aren't supposed to... She stopped herself before she completed that thought. He's not an elf. He's also not useless or a drain on our resources.
The queen tried to keep her thoughts focused on the practical side of things, because if she let them drift to the amount of mana she had felt from him during that brief kiss, she would start thinking about what that untapped mana could do to help her and her people. She rolled over and buried her face into her hard pillow and tried to forget the tenderness in his touch. It was then that she realized something and she sat up in bed.
“I didn't ask him what his name was!” The queen said out loud, disappointment clear in her voice. She then thought of something else that was odd about him. “What was that metal thing on his face?”
I watched the queen and her entourage disappear in another bright ball of light, the same way that they had arrived and looked at the guard, Sela, Ari and Nita as they stared at where the queen had been.
I guess they expected that to go a lot differently. I thought with a smile and looked at the unconscious guards and horses. Should I wake them up?
I felt a tap on the top of my head and looked up to see the green arrow and it pointed again.
“What? I'm not there yet?” I asked, and it jinked from side to side.
“Who are you talking to?” Maylia asked.
“My direction arrow.” I responded.
“Your what?” Maylia asked, confused.
“When I was directed to the First Sothen Kingdom, I used my abilities to orient myself in the right direction, and this green arrow appeared to show me the way.”
Maylia caught her breath. “The forest granted you a guide!” She exclaimed.
I heard gasps from the other side of the barrier and saw that they were all looking at me. “What is it?”
“Only friends of the forest are granted guides when in need.” Maylia said. “For you to have one after what happened...”
“I got it before I healed the tree, though.” I said.
“It doesn't matter.” Maylia said and squeezed my hand again. “I knew you were a good man.”
I opened my mouth to respond and the arrow poked the top of my head again, so I looked up at it. “If I keep asking you to point things out, will you stay around?”
The arrow pointed at me and didn't move for a second, then it pointed in the right direction.
“That's a maybe.” I said with a smile.
“They usually only stay for the main task they were granted for.” Maylia said. “The guide probably doesn't understand what you're asking.”
“Well, what if I asked to go to the capital of the First Sothen Kingdom and not just to the kingdom itself?” I pondered. “Just going to the land is a big help; but, I have no clue where to go from here.”
“I don't know, either.” Maylia said. “I've never been outside the barrier.”
“I haven't, either.” I said and put up the hood of my cloak, then I started to walk where the arrow pointed. “Maybe we can find our way together.”
Maylia looked at my hand that she still held and then at my face. “I... um... I should tell you something that... well, I...”
“It'll be easier to just say it.” I said with a smile.
“I'm going to be a hundred years old in a few years.” Maylia said and she blushed.
“Really?” I asked and looked at her. She had blonde hair down to the middle of her back and it was tied into a ponytail. She had long ears like the other elves, except her eyes and face seemed kinder. She also didn't look a day over twenty five. “Elves have long lives, too?”
Maylia stared at me. “Wh-what do you mean 'too'?”
“The woman I love is a member of a long-lived race. She was a few years over a hundred before we slept together and declared our devotion to each other.”
Maylia's blush faded and her grip on my hand loosened. “Oh. I didn't know you belonged to someone.”
“I don't.” I said, and her eyes widened. “We only had a brief time together, then we had to separate because she works for the people that held me captive and she had to go back to them.”
“Yeah.” I said. “It wasn't long after that when I finally found my mother's necklace and an agent of that organization found me.”
“We fought and I lost.” I said. “I actually thought I died, then I woke up in the cell inside the protection tree while Ari and Nita tried to remove my blast shield.” I said and tapped it.
“What happened with that?” Maylia asked, curious. “How did it get embedded into your face?”
“I put it there as a disguise.” I said, and she gasped.
“You did it to yourself?” Maylia asked, surprised.
“Yeah, and it's helped me quite a few times since I started wearing it.” I said. “Like when fighting the princess and she used that blinding light.” I chuckled. “I didn't even blink from it.”
“What kind of magic lets you see through metal and also stops you from being blinded by bright light?”
“I'll try to explain if you want me to; but, I doubt it'll make much sense to you.” I said.
“Like the barrier?” Maylia asked.
“Oh, right.” I said. “If wind and rain can pass through it, I could just cover myself in water and just walk through.”
“That wouldn't... would that actually work?” Maylia asked.
“I'd try it and find out if I didn't think the queen would reappear and revoke my safe passage.”
Maylia stared at me. “She didn't revoke it!”
“No, she didn't.” I smiled. “I wonder why?”
“What did you whisper to her?” Maylia asked.
“She looks a lot like my mother who was killed when I was a child.” I said. “I never got a chance to say goodbye.”
Maylia's hand gripped mine tightly and I held on just as tightly. The green arrow in front of me stopped and pointed straight down.
“I guess that's my destination.” I said. “Thank you for the help, forest guide.”
It didn't move, so I took one more step and touched the ground where it pointed. It pointed back at me for a second, then the arrow faded to reveal the green ball of light.
“I really could use help getting to the capital.” I said. “Oh, and finding food. Warnings about monsters nearby and pointing them out. Water sources. Lots of things.”
The little green ball floated around a little, then drifted back over to the barrier.
“I'll wait here to see that you get back in okay.” I said, and it did a little jink and flew faster. It came to the barrier and touched it, then nothing happened. It didn't fade or go through. “Need a hand?”
The green ball of light flew over to me and I took out a water skin. The water had both mana and Presence in it, so I easily manipulated it to cover the ball of green light in a thin layer of water.
“It won't last long, so hurry.” I said.
The green ball of light flew over to the barrier in a flash and hit it, then went right through without stopping. When it was on the other side, I let the water slide off and it dropped to the grass. The green ball floated around the barrier as if it wasn't sure it wanted to stay.
“You were right. You need to stay in your own forest.” I said to it. “Thanks again.”
It bobbed up and down briefly and flew towards the trees, then disappeared from sight.