"If we keep our current pace, we should reach Geofu by mid-afternoon," Simon informed Clay. The two of them were keeping watch while the soldiers let the horses drink at a nearby water pond, but while the Sentinel was standing vigilant with a hand ready to draw his thunderbow at the slightest sign of a threat, the young knight had quickly grown bored and was now sitting comfortably on a mossy rock.
"I see," Clay replied curtly, slowly yet methodically scanning their surroundings in search of potential threats.
Simon looked at the super soldier with curiosity. "You know, I've wanted to ask you this for a while: why do you always wear your helmet? Don't get me wrong, it's a really cool helmet, but maybe you can remove it when we're not fighting."
"Negative. An ambush can happen at any time." In the last few days, they had only met a few woodcutters and a family of farmers returning home after attending a wedding in a nearby village, but that wasn't a good reason to let your guard down.
Simon frowned. "I mean, sure, you're technically correct, but it seems like an excess of caution to me," he said, pulling out an apple. "You should really learn to relax a bit," he said casually, taking a loud bite from the apple.
"Or maybe you should learn from him, Simon," Helen pointed out, suddenly appearing behind him.
Simon widened his eyes in panic and jumped on his feet, snapping instinctively to attention. 'Wait, he didn't notice her?' Clay didn't know whether he should be impressed by Helen's furtivity or be disappointed by Simon's poor attention to his surroundings.
"Is this your way to keep guard, Simon? Just because Clay is with you, it doesn't mean you can neglect your duties," the pink haired woman said sternly to the young knight.
"I-I'm not slacking off, lady Mistral!"
Helen raised an eyebrow at his statement, glancing at the apple juice dripping from his chin before giving him an unimpressed look.
"Uh, I… I was…" He fumbled with his words a bit, unable to come up with a proper excuse, then lowered his gaze in shame. "Sorry."
The woman closed her eyes and sighed. "Simon." The young knight flinched. Her tone wasn't angry, just disappointed, which only made things worse. "Except for a few minor missteps, your conduct so far has been nearly impeccable. However, your evaluation will be over only once we reach Geofu. Do you really want to fail for a stupid mistake right when we are almost home?"
"Of course not!" He exclaimed in panic.
"Evaluation?" the Sentinel asked.
"Simon became a full-fledged knight a few weeks ago, but in order to be allowed to take the entrance test to join the Silver Lions, he needs to gain experience in the field and prove his worth in combat," Helen explained. "Due to the long friendship between their families, Lady Levantine offered him the opportunity to take part in this expedition in order to evaluate his conduct during the mission."
"I see. Who are the Silver Lions?"
"You don't know them? How-? Oh, right." Simon coughed awkwardly. "They're the best knights in Eostia!" He said proudly. "After the Dawn Templars, of course," he hurried to add.
"And their selection criteria are just as strict as ours. Which means you're expected to always do your best, Simon, no matter how menial the task you're performing may seem to you," Helen said sternly. "Lady Levantine has personally vouched for you and it would be highly disrespectful toward her if you betrayed her trust."
"I would never do that!" Simon exclaimed, looking seriously hurt by the accusation. "I've made a mistake, I get it. I got complacent. If we were in hostile territory, I could have endangered our entire group because I wasn't paying enough attention to our surroundings. It's just… banditry is almost non-existent so close to the city fortresses and no sane criminal would attack a group of knights. Furthermore, if we exclude the recent battle of Halem, the Frontier has been rather quiet in the last few months, so the chances of meeting stray demons are quite low."
"Hmm, you do have a point. Demon activity at the borders has been rather tame lately," Helen was forced to admit. It still didn't excuse his behavior, but at least there was some logic behind his laziness. 'Ah, what the hell. There's no point in scolding him further. I've said what I needed to say and now he'll spend the rest of the day reflecting on his mistake. Now, how should I drop the topic-'
"When will we attack?" Clay asked suddenly.
The question caught Helen and Simon completely off guard and a few nearby soldiers stared at him like he had just grown a second head.
"Uh, sorry, what?" Simon asked a moment, thinking he must have heard him wrong.
"When will the Alliance attack Garan?"
Simon scratched the back of his head. "Uh, well… you see…"
"There won't be any offensive against Garan," Claudia bluntly said as she approached them with Klaus. "Our war strategy is strictly defensive in nature; therefore, we see these moments of respite as a blessing rather than an opportunity."
Clay frowned. "Why?" Compared to the Edenians, Eostia's approach was awfully passive. If you never take the initiative, the enemy will always have an advantage over you.
"We simply lack the numbers and resources to mount a major offensive. And even if that was possible, the demons know Garan's terrain better than us and we have no idea how large the Dark Legion actually is. In the past our people have tried a few times to strike first, only to suffer massive losses. The demons would then take advantage of the fact that our territories were left unguarded to perform raids against out frontier settlements."
"The last one to try to attack Garan was King Eos Arcturus… Alicia's father. Six years ago, on the tenth anniversary of his wife's death, he organized an expedition to avenge her. Over twenty-five thousand between knights, mercenaries and regular soldiers from all over Eostia, including the five thousand men forming the Aurelian Volunteer Expeditionary Force," Klaus explained.
"Lady Celestine, General Grave and I did everything to try to dissuade him, but in vain. The day of the anniversary of Annabelle's death, he crossed the northern borders with his army and marched straight toward the Dark Citadel."
"What happened?" Clay asked.
"It was a complete disaster," Claudia answered bluntly. "We don't know what exactly happened because we stopped receiving reports a couple weeks after they crossed the border and the tales of the few survivors are confused and fragmentary, but what everyone knows for sure is that the army was annihilated and only a handful of men came back."
"What about King Eos?"
Klaus grimaced and shook his head. "His body was never found."
"What followed is considered by many the worst moment in Eostia's recent history," Claudia continued her tale. "Shortly after we received news of Eos' defeat, the Dark Legion descended from the north and penetrated deep into the heart of Eostia, meeting virtually no resistance as they destroyed, killed and violated everything on their path to their heart's content. In less than a month the demon army arrived at twenty from Ken. If it wasn't for the courage and quick-thinking of Klaus' father, who led our remaining forces during the battle of the Windy Plains, the Dark Legion would have besieged the capital."
"Even if the demon army was defeated, the consequences were still disastrous. Not only Eostia suffered thousands of casualties, but our relationship with the Aurelian Empire and our other allies worsened noticeably. They blamed us for the death of their people and drastically reduced their support, which couldn't have happened at a worse time. The Legion's rampage, combined with a poor harvest, caused a famine which sparked protests and rebellions among the peasants all over the country. If it wasn't for Lady Celestine's direct intervention, it would have ended in a bloodshed. She used her powers to grow in record times enough food to allow our people to survive the winter, but it strained her body so much that she almost died and remained in a state of extreme weakness for months."
Clay was shocked to hear that, but it also increased the respect he held for the goddess reborn. A leader that loved her people so much that she was willing to risk her life for them was worth his loyalty.
"Since then, we've been stuck fighting alone a gruesome war of attrition, one which we're slowly losing, but the alternative would be a quick defeat, dooming the rest of the world to our same fate," Claudia said grimly.
"Were things different back in your days?" Simon asked the Sentinel after a few moments of sober silence.
"We regularly performed raids and hunter-killer missions into enemy territory to kill as many demons as possible before they could attack our people. It still wasn't enough. No matter how many demons we killed, they were just too many… it was as if they simply spawned into reality out of thin air…"
"Well… your people still won in the end, right?" The young knight said. "I mean, if we're now here, that means that the Primordial is dead."
"… I think so."
"Uh? What do you mean?"
"I was put into stasis before the war ended," Clay snapped in irritation, surprising everyone. The Sentinel rarely showed any emotion and this was the first time they had ever seen him upset. 'Just why? For what reason?'
Claudia observed the super soldier with concern. 'Is he upset because he can't remember what happened, or because he feels like he didn't fulfill his duty?'
"I think the horses have rested enough," Helen said, breaking the tense silence following Clay's outburst.
Claudia nodded. "Let's get back on the road."
True to Simon's words, it was mid-afternoon when their group arrived in sight of Geofu. From their current position on top of a hill, Clay had a good view of the fortress city. Compared to Ken, the design of Geofu was more utilitarian, but still impressive nonetheless. The city was built near a huge river and was protected by mighty walls shaped like a fat seven-pointed star, allowing archers and artillery to overlap their fire on the enemies, while a moa that took water from the river offered further protection against siege warfare. Between his enhanced sight and his helmet, the Sentinel was easily able to see not only the ballistae and catapults placed on top of the towers, but also the loopholes from which archers and crossbowmen could shoot their projectiles at the enemy. Clay noticed also that Geofu followed a strategy of defense in depth, with several smaller castles and fortified manors spread across the countryside.
Located east of the city there was an impressive bridge built with pale gray stones. It was massive, over two miles long and wide enough for eight wagons to cross it simultaneously side-by-side, with both extremities of the bridge guarded by sturdy defense towers.
"That's the Moon Bridge. It's been standing for thousands of years and was built by the elves during the Second Age, but some people think it's even older," Klaus explained. "It's the main crossing point of the Unicorn River in this region and it's actually older than Geofu itself. The city was built over five centuries ago to guard the road that leads from Ken to the western plains."
Once everyone had arrived, Claudia turned her horse around and addressed the rest of the group. "Alright, this is where we part ways. Simon," she called the young knight. "Take the soldiers back to the barracks and give this to Captain Duvall," she said, giving him a folded letter containing her orders to reward the soldiers for their hard work with extra pay and a few days of license.
"It shall be done, lady Levantine," Simon said before addressing the soldiers. "Alright, everyone. Time to go home!" he exclaimed, spurring his horse into a trot with the soldiers riding after him.
"As for you, you're free for the rest of the day," Claudia said to the other Dawn Templars. "Return to the fortress if you want, but keep things quiet with the others for now. I will make an announcement to the rest of the order tomorrow morning."
"Actually, if it's alright, we would like to visit our families," Beth said timidly.
Claudia smiled at the young Templar. "Of course. After what we went through, I think it's the least you deserve. By the way, would you like to join us for dinner, Helen? We'd be happy to have you as our guest tonight," Claudia asked her friend.
"Thank you for the kind offer, Claudia, but… I have other plans," the usually serious woman said with an oddly evasive tone.
"Oh, I see," Claudia said with an understanding look before smiling. "Then I wish you a pleasant evening."
Helen blushed faintly before clearing her voice. "Yes, ma'am," she said before she and the other Templars rode away.
"Come on, Clay. Follow us," Claudia said to the Sentinel. He nodded and followed the paladin and her husband down a road that led south of the city. In the past few days, Claudia and Klaus had discussed the subject of where Clay should live, eventually reaching the conclusion that it would be better if he stayed with them at the Levantine manor. After all, they had plenty of space, and hopefully, living with people who were familiar to him would help him adapt to the modern era more easily.
"Ah! Home sweet home," Klaus said with a content smile when they finally reached their destination. The Levantine estate was located in the countryside south of Geofu and consisted in a fortified manor built on top of a hill overlooking a small lake, surrounded by a vast lawn and a ten feet tall stone wall with an iron gate as the main entry point.
As soon as they crossed the gate, they were welcomed by the loud barking of a big dog running toward them.
"Adwin!" Claudia exclaimed happily, jumping off her horse and spreading her arms. As soon as it reached her, the dog reared up on its hind legs and put its big pawn on her shoulders. "Aww, I've missed you so much!" Claudia laughed as the dog licked and nuzzled her face affectionately while wagging happily its tail. "Who's a good boy? Yes, yes, you are!"
"She really loves that dog," Klaus said as he watched the heartwarming scene with an amused smile. This was a side of his wife that few people knew existed. "He was my wedding gift to her."
"Best gift ever," Claudia chuckled. "Come on, Adwin. Say hello to Clay."
Adwin looked up at the Sentinel and titled his head, letting out a confused whine. Since when were humans so big?
Clay stared at the dog for a moment before slowly moving a hand toward him. Adwin was a bit suspicious at first, but after sniffing his hand, he quickly got comfortable enough to let the human pet him.
"He's very friendly," Clay commented, gently scratching one of the dog's ears.
"Don't let his size fool you, he's just a giant puppy," Claudia said as she got back on her horse. By the time they reached the manor, a small crowd of servants and guards had gathered in front of the main building to greet them. A man with a well-groomed short beard wearing a butler uniform was about to formally greet them, but he wasn't fast enough.
"Ah! Lady Claudia! Lord Klaus! Welcome back!" a halfling wearing a chef uniform exclaimed happily after rushing in front of the spouses.
She had short black hair and was a bit taller than Luu-Luu, but the most noticeable difference between the two of them was their physique. While the Shield of Rad had a childlike body, the body of this halfling was curvy, almost chubby, with a rather generous chest.
"Hello, Mimi. It's good to be back," Claudia said before offering a sympathetic look at the butler.
The bearded man shrugged imperceptibly in resignation, having long since grown accustomed to the chef's antics. "Welcome back, masters. I'll have the servants take care of your horses and have the bath ready."
"Thank you, Vincent."
"Wowie-zowie! You're huge!" Mimi exclaimed, looking up at Clay with her bright green eyes.
Claudia took the chance to introduce Clay to the servants and inform them that from now on he would live with them at the manor. When Vincent suggested appointing someone to take care of his needs, Mimi spoke up.
"I know the right person for the job!" she exclaimed. "Lily!"
A tall young woman in her late teens with short black hair and fair skin stepped forward from the crowd of servants. She wore a standard maid outfit, but what really caught Clay's attention were her were her foxlike tail and ears matching the color of her hair.
'A kitsune?' She was the first member of her species he had seen so far.
"Welcome home, masters," the woman said to the spouses with a graceful curtsy before settling her piercing green eyes on the Sentinel.
"Sir Clay, this is my beautiful daughter, Lily!" Mimi introduced the maid to the Sentinel. "She's smart, polite and hardworking! I'm sure you won't find a more qualified person for this task."
Clay stared blankly at them for a few moments, shifting his gaze between the maid and the chef a few times. Since when did halflings give birth to kitsune? "How…?"
"I'm adopted," the maid said with a polite smile, briefly showing her sharp canines.
"Oh," was all he could say, suddenly feeling like an idiot. "Sorry."
"No offense taken, my lord. You're not the first to be confused."
"Yeah! It's totally understandable. I mean, we look exactly the same!" Mimi said as she stood beside the kitsune with a proud smile, blissfully unaware of the amused looks from the people around her.
Vincent didn't even try to argue with the chef and just looked at Klaus with resignation. "Master Klaus?"
"Well… I don't see why not," Klaus said after sharing a brief look with his wife."
Claudia nodded. "Lily, show Clay his room. He'll stay in the western wing," she instructed the maid.
"Yes, Lady Levantine."
"Oh, and Clay? Don't forget your clothes," she said, handing him the leather bag with the clothes that mister Bougainville made for him. "I know you really like your armor, but I would appreciate it if you could wear these when you're off-duty."
"I'd rather not," he said, staring at the bag without making any attempt to grab it.
Claudia was surprised by his words. "Why? You already removed your armor in Feoh."
"The city was protected by Lady Lucross' spells. This place is not." He clenched his fists, a gesture that Claudia and Klaus didn't miss. "If the enemy attacks, I won't be able to operate at full efficiency."
Claudia widened her eyes, suddenly realizing the problem. 'How can you be so stupid, Claudia? He's probably spent most of his life living in a state of constant alert wearing that armor. You can't expect him to suddenly start acting like a normal person,' she mentally scolded herself. A part of her was tempted to just let him keep his armor, however, she also wanted to help him regain some semblance of normality in his life.
"Clay. It's alright," Claudia said gently. "This place is safe. We may be at war, but we're not in danger. Not here. I'm not going to pretend I know what you went through, but at least in this place, you don't need to constantly worry about the risk of an attack."
"… is that an order?"
"What? No!" She exclaimed before realizing she was shouting. "No," she said with a calmer tone. "It's simply a request. I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable, but…" She offered him the bag again. "I want you to trust me."
Clay stared at the bag for a few moments before slowly reaching out and grabbing it. "Alright."
"I hope you weren't offended by my mother's attitude, my lord," Lily said as she led Clay across the manor. "She tends to say whatever passes through her mind."
"There's nothing to apologize for. Halflings are just impulsive by nature."
"I'm glad you're so understanding, my lord. In the past, some of our guests have mistaken her enthusiasm for lack of respect."
"Cultural differences?" Clay guessed.
Lily nodded. "The Levantines are good masters. Lady Claudia is strict but fair, and her husband is probably one of the kindest men in the world. We're all proud to serve them," Lily said. "I've heard from the older servants that lord Klaus' father was a difficult master, but he rarely visits this place nowadays, preferring to live in the old family castle of Raven Nest. Anyway, this is your room, sir Clay," she said while opening the door. The room was definitely bigger than the one he had used during his brief visit to Feoh, and while the furniture was covered with white sheets, he could easily deduce that it consisted of a bed, a desk with a chair, a dresser, and what was probably a large chest.
"I apologize for the current state of the room, my lord, but we weren't informed of your arrival. I'll make sure everything is ready by the time you return from dinner," Lily promised while she started to remove the sheets from the furniture. "If you need anything, feel free to ask me or any of the servants," Lily said before her eyes lit up as a new thought occurred to her. "Oh! Would you like to take a bath?"
"That…" He wanted to say that it wasn't necessary, because his tech-silk undersuit was enchanted to keep his body clean, but he hesitated. When was the last time he had felt safe enough to remove his armor and enjoy the feeling of water against his bare skin?
'Soldiers are not machines.'
'Isn't it uncomfortable to wear that armor all the time?'
'You should really learn to relax a bit.'
'This place is safe.'
'I want you to trust me.'
"… that would be appreciated, miss Lily," he said politely.
The maid smiled. "Then follow me! The guest bathroom is just down the corridor. Although, it's probably better if you remove your armor first."
'Good point,' he thought before taking off his helmet. Ignoring Lily's surprised look, Clay proceeded to remove the rest of his armor, sequentially tapping specific points on each piece of it. Small glowing runes briefly came to life before fading away as the various seals and clasps that kept his armor together opened. Lacking a better option, the Sentinel placed the various armor components in orderly fashion on the floor along with his sword, except for the helmet and his energy weapon, which were now on the desk. With only his black undersuit covering his muscular body, he turned toward the kitsune, who now had a faint blush on her cheeks for some reason.
"Nobody can touch my armor or my weapons without my permission," he said sternly.
"I'll make sure to inform the other servants," Lily assured him.
Satisfied with the answer, the Sentinel followed the maid outside the room and after a short walk, they reached the guest bathroom. Lily opened the door, revealing a decent-sized room with a sink with a mirror, a toilet, and a circular wooden bathtub big enough to comfortably fit four people.
"We have hot water and indoor plumbing," the fox-woman said proudly.
He stared blankly at her, not sure what was so special about it. "… I see," he said a few moments later, hoping it was the right reply. Casually interacting with civilians was not easy.
'Hmm, our guests are usually more impressed,' Lily thought, feeling mildly disappointed by his lukewarm reaction.
Public bath houses were a common sight in all cities and even most towns, but only nobles and some of the richest merchants could afford private baths, and in most cases the tubs had to be filled manually by their servants. Thanks to their status and wealth, not only did the Levantine family have bathrooms for themselves and their guests, but there was even one specifically built for their servants! Lily couldn't thank the goddess enough for working for such amazing people.
The woman then proceeded to show Clay how to use the heating system. Before the faucet there was a small boxy device with some water and fire runes, most likely to regulate the water temperature. It was a simple system based on passive heating through environmental mana conversion into heat, basically a slightly more advanced version of the spells used to power mana torches.
After turning on the faucet and showing Clay how to regulate the water temperature, Lily then left the bathroom to give him some privacy.
Once he was alone, Clay quickly peeled off the black tech-silk undersuit and placed it neatly folded on the stool. While the water finished filling the tub, he took the chance to observe his reflection in the mirror, with his gaze lingering on the multiple scars covering his pale body. Most of those scars were the result of the invasive surgery every Sentinel had to go through, but there were still plenty that had been clearly caused by the enemies he had fought. He couldn't even remember the story behind most wounds, but then again, the same could be said about most of his life before Klaus woke him up from the eternity chamber.
'Oh, the bath is ready.'
He stepped into the tub and was unable to hold back a brief sigh of relief at the simple yet amazing feeling of warm, clean water touching his skin.
He closed his eyes and immersed himself in the water, doing something he hadn't probably done in ages: he allowed himself to relax. His powerful regular heartbeat slowed down and he emptied his mind. It was a strange yet not unwelcomed experience. It was just him and the water.
'For some reason… this feels… familiar…' He thought after being under the water for a couple of minutes, just as a memory suddenly popped up into his mind. He was taking a bath in a simple wooden vat, while someone was washing his hair. He could smell the faint smell of lavender while a woman was talking softly to him. Wait, a woman? He turned his head and-
His eyes snapped open and he pulled his head out of the water, looking around in disorientation for a few moments before remembering where he was. 'What was that?' He thought in confusion. He tried to recall the memory, hoping to make some sense of it, but much to his frustration, it was already fading away.
Deciding it was pointless to linger on the past, he grabbed a sponge and a soap bar and scrubbed vigorously his body. Once he finished cleaning himself, he got out the tub and dried himself using a towel. His gaze fell instinctively on his black undersuit before slowly moving towards the bag with the clothes.
The idea of walking around wearing just a thin layer of cloth instead of his armor still felt alien to him. When he was in Feoh he had agreed to remove it because the city was protected by the wards put on by Celestine and thousands of knights and soldiers. But here, the only forms of protection were a simple brick wall and a handful of guards.
Would it really be alright?
The energy dome came down with a deafening noise of shattered glass, revealing a blood red sky with a terrifying swirling vortex of pure darkness obscuring the sun.
People screamed as they ran blindly in panic, trampling on those who fell to the ground or were simply too slow, trying in vain to save their lives as grotesque creatures of all sizes and shapes descended on them, tearing apart men, women and children with sadistic glee as a violent fire was already starting to devour the city.
Pain flared through his chest as claws harder than steel cut through his reinforced ceramic breastplate and reached his vulnerable flesh-
'No.' He clenched shut his eyes and took a deep breath before slowly releasing it, banishing the dreadful memory. 'Things are different now.'
Claudia was his commanding officer, and even though he had known her for less than a month, he trusted her. The woman was sincere and so far she had never disappointed him, nor given any reason to question her decisions.
'Good soldiers follow orders,' he decided, opening the bag.
A few minutes later, Clay emerged from the bathroom wearing a pair of dark trousers with a white shirt and a simple grey jacket. After leaving his undersuit in his room, he asked Lily for directions and shortly after he arrived in the living room, just as Claudia had told him. They hadn't specified the dinner time, therefore, with nothing better to do, he stood to parade rest and waited in front of the door. He remained in that position for a while, ignoring the curious looks he received from a few passing servants, until the married couple finally arrived.
It was the first time he saw Claudia wearing what his mind classified as civilian clothes. She was wearing a simple yet elegant green dress with short sleeves that left exposed her well-toned arms and a modest amount of cleavage. She had undone her tight bun, opting to let her wavy brown hair fall freely down her shoulders. She walked with confidence and elegance, and even without her armor, the woman still radiated an aura of authority and discipline that he could only approve of.
Meanwhile, Klaus had opted to wear a more casual version of his usual clothes and leave his trusty hat behind.
As soon as she noticed the Sentinel standing in the middle of the room, Claudia frowned. "How long have you been waiting here like that?" She asked, looking at the obviously unused sofas and armchairs.
Clay glanced at a nearby clock. "Forty-seven minutes and twenty-nine seconds."
Claudia's left eye twitched. 'Of course. I told him to wait here. But normal people wouldn't do that literally.'
"Well, we're here now," Klaus said casually. "Shall we go to the dining room? I don't know about you two, but I'm a bit hungry."
"Yes… let's go," Claudia sighed, realizing once again that teaching Clay all those little things that people usually considered normal would not be easy.
"The tailor did a good job with your new clothes," Klaus hummed with a nod of approval. "How do they feel?"
"They fit," the Sentinel answered curtly.
"Uh, yes, I suppose that's the most important thing in the end," Klaus said after a few moments of awkward silence.
Claudia shook her head in faux exasperation. "Men," she muttered, making Klaus chuckle. As they walked, the married couple didn't miss the way Clay was observing his surroundings. Thanks to her experience, Claudia quickly realized that he was studying the inner layout of the mansion, identifying possible escape routes, entry points, covers and objects that could be used as weapons.
"Are you alright?" Claudia asked, noticing how tense the Sentinel was.
Klaus looked at him skeptically. "You don't seem fine."
The corner of his mouth twitched imperceptibly. "…I feel… exposed," he admitted.
Claudia suddenly felt a pang of guilt and feared she may have pushed him too hard too soon outside his comfort zone.
"… but I think I'll manage," he added after a brief moment of hesitation, surprising both of them.
"Alright," Claudia said cautiously with a nod. "If you desire, I can give you a dagger or a short sword to carry around when you're off-duty."
"Would that be alright?"
"I don't see why not. I mean, I always carry a hidden knife when I wear a dress. Even now," she said casually.
"It's true," Klaus confirmed with the tone of a man that was used to his wife's peculiar habits.
Clay looked at Claudia surprised, but the woman merely winked at him. "I like to be ready," she said with a conspiratorial smile.
"… I accept the offer," the Sentinel said.
Shortly after, they arrived at the dining room. It wasn't the main one where they invited numerous guests for special occasions, but a smaller private one where they consumed their meals alone or with a few close friends.
"Dinner's ready!" Mimi announced with a proud smile while a few servants finished putting the food on the table. In the short time following their arrival, the little chef had prepared a wide variety of dishes: roast beef with potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, stuffed peppers, grilled eggplant, and a colorful fruit salad for dessert. "Enjoy your meal," the halfling said before returning to the kitchen.
"Hmm-hmm, delicious as always!" Klaus hummed after taking the first bite.
Claudia smiled contently as she savored the familiar flavor of Mimi's food after being away from home for so long.
"So, you said you will formally introduce Clay to the other Dawn Templars tomorrow, right?" Klaus asked after a bit.
"Yes. The sooner they become familiar with him, the sooner we can start training together. We'll probably need to adapt our tactics in order to properly fight with a Sentinel. I just hope you don't mind continuing to teach him in the evening," Claudia said with an apologetic tone.
"Not at all!" Klaus assured her enthusiastically. "The things I've learned from him in the last few weeks are astounding and we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg! By the way, how are you planning to get him to Geofu unnoticed? People will definitely see him if he enters the city from one of the main gates," he pointed out.
"We'll take the tunnel from the old watchtower of Badger Hill."
"Hmm, clever," Klaus hummed. "It's one of the city's secret passages," he explained to Clay when he looked at them with curiosity. "It connects directly inside the keep of the Dawn Templars."
"Defenses?" The Sentinel asked automatically. Secret passages were vital to evacuate the city and perform sorties, but they were also a potential weakness. If the enemy discovered them, they could use the tunnels to sneak inside the city bypassing its defenses.
"There are a few spells in the tunnel designed to detect intruders and, if necessary, summon a barrier, but we mostly rely on secrecy to keep it secure. Only a handful of trusted people know of its existence and the entrance inside the keep is always guarded."
"What about the watchtower?"
"It's been abandoned for over a century and nobody goes there anymore. It's in the middle of the woods, but you can easily reach it from the manor."
The rest of the dinner went on quietly, with Claudia and Klaus making small chats, while the Sentinel mostly remained quiet. After the meal, the scholar brought Clay to the other side of the manor for their usual evening lesson.
"Welcome to my kingdom," Klaus said jokingly as he opened a set of double doors, revealing a huge room full of books. It may have sounded like an exaggeration, but the two-story library with a balcony that ran all around the room probably housed hundreds if not even thousands of books and scrolls, with more volumes piled up on the tables and even on the floor. There was also a telescope on a tripod next to a large window leading to a balcony, several display cases with collections of minerals and insects, a few mechanical devices in various stages of assembly, a wide blackboard covered with linguistic annotations and alchemical formulas, and even the skeleton of a ten feet long wyvern hanging from the ceiling.
"Sorry for the mess. I don't usually get many visitors except my colleagues from the academy, and my wife has gotten used to this chaos by now," the scholar chuckled.
"I see your interests cover a broad variety of subjects," Clay commented after reading the titles of a few books scattered around.
"Knowledge is like water in the desert: you can never have enough of it," Klaus said as he removed a pile of books from a chair and put it on the worn wooden floor. "And given that fate wasn't kind enough to give me a strong body, the least I can do is use my brain to learn about the world and help unveil its secrets."
The Sentinel couldn't help but smile at his enthusiasm. The scholar's curiosity and desire to expand his knowledge were a few of the reasons why he had quickly earned his respect and sympathy.
"So, what is tonight's program?"
"Actually, I was hoping you could be the one to teach me something tonight," Klaus said sheepishly before pulling out a leather-bound notebook from one of the shelves. Opening the notebook, he revealed yellowed pages full of what Clay identified as Edeninan runes. "As you know, I've always been fascinated by your people, but before meeting you most of my work was based on suppositions and hypotheses. I'd like to learn more about your language."
"Sure," Clay nodded, finding it a reasonable request.
"Excellent!" Klaus grabbed a piece of chalk and started drawing a few runes on the blackboard.
Fortress city of Geofu, the next morning
"Is everyone here?" Claudia asked Helen. From their spot at the top of the short staircase leading to the courtyard of the keep, they observed the two hundred twenty-seven female knights standing in orderly rows in front of them.
"Yes, Lady Levantine, except for the fifty currently in Ken to guard the Goddess, all our knights are gathered in the courtyard, as you ordered."
"Good." Claudia looked left and nodded. The sound of heavy footsteps soon resonated across the courtyard as Clay emerged from inside the keep before standing at parade rest next to Claudia, on the opposite side of Helen.
'Talk about making a dramatic entrance,' she thought with a hint of amusement as she observed the reactions of the other Templars when they saw Sentinel.
"My sisters and comrades, I have two important announcements to make," Claudia declared loudly and clearly to the women in front of her. "It is with deep sadness and sorrow that I must inform you that Deborah is no longer with us. She fell in battle almost two weeks ago, fighting against the aberrant creatures of the Dark Legion."
A few faint gasps of horror rose from the crowd and several women lowered their gazes in sorrow.
"She died with honor, serving the goddess reborn and the Seven Shield Alliance, and her name will join the ones of our fallen sisters on the Wall of Memory. Let us take a moment of silence to honor her memory and pray for her soul."
The women bowed their heads and Clay did the same as a form of respect. He had learned from Claudia that the Dawn Templars were considered the best knights of the Alliance, and for a very good reason. The women who wanted to join them had to go through a very difficult selection process, designed to test not just their power, strength and fighting abilities, but also their mental strength and faith. The few candidates who managed to pass the selection were then equipped with some of the best armors and weapons the world had to offer, and served a Celestine's personal bodyguards, the highest honor any knight could even dream to achieve. However, their elite status came at a price. Their knightly order was one of the smallest in Eostia, counting less than three hundred knights in total. And while it was true that a team of them was able to change the course of a battle, it was also true that in such a small unit, every single casualty was considered a tragedy, given the deep bond of camaraderie they shared with each other.
At the end of the minute of silence, Claudia raised her head and addressed her knights again. "As I've mentioned before, I have a second announcement to make," she said, gesturing to Clay to step forward. "The man standing beside him is Clay. He's a Sentinel, a warrior from the First Age that we found during our mission on the Dragon Spine," she explained, causing several Templars to look at the Sentinel with curiosity. "He swore to help the Alliance against the Dark Queen. From now on he will serve under my command and join us in battle as a comrade and a brother-in-arms."
A low murmur rose from the crowd of knights following her words.
"Quiet!" Helen ordered, instantly silencing them.
"Is something wrong?" Claudia asked with a faint scowl.
A woman with cerulean hair in the first row made a step forward. Her name was Agatha, the youngest daughter of a duke from Ken with a straightforward and ambitious personality. "With all due respect, lady Levantine, is that really a wise decision to integrate him into our unit?" Her gaze shifted toward Clay before looking back at Claudia. "I mean… he's a man."
Claudia noticed that several templars seemed to share Agatha's concerns. To be honest, she had expected this kind of reaction. It wasn't rare for the Dawn Templars to fight alongside men, however, while regular army units and mercenary bands tended to be more flexible in that regard, Eostia's knightly orders generally followed a principle of sexual segregation born out of tradition and sense of modesty. Moments of privacy were rare in military life and it was easy to see why many women would feel uncomfortable being around members of the opposite gender in certain situations.
"I understand your worries and I know that the idea of having a man around us all the time can make you feel uncomfortable, however, I assure you that you have nothing to fear. I can safely say that Clay will always keep a professional behavior and never act in ways that may be considered inappropriate. Furthermore, special arrangements will be made in order to avoid possible uncomfortable situations and a few areas of the fortress will be off-limits for him to ensure our privacy, except in case of an emergency situation," Claudia explained calmly.
'The last thing I want is for him to accidentally wander in the wrong room while we're bathing or changing our clothes… or the other way around.' It hadn't even been a day since he started living at the Levantine manor and she had already overheard a few maids gossiping about his physique.
Her words seemed to satisfy most of the Templars, however, Agatha was not among them.
"Thank you for addressing that issue, ma'am, but that's not my main concern. I'm talking about his combat abilities. How do we know he won't be a hindrance to us?" Agatha asked with a cocky smile, resting a hand on her hip. "I mean, I don't want to sound arrogant, but there's a reason if the best knights of the kingdom are women."
Claudia's scowl deepened. 'I see. So, we're going down that road, uh?'
There were many women who believed themselves superior to their male counterparts due to the state of the world: the seven fortress cities and the majority of the main settlements were ruled by women; women had a naturally higher affinity to magic compared to men and were thus more skilled in the magic arts; the majority of heroes and saints in Eostia's history had been women; and lastly, their religion worshiped a woman who was the living incarnation of a goddess.
Claudia understood where that kind of thinking came from… but she definitely didn't approve of it. 'You look at a person's skills and achievements, not at their gender.'
"The decision to incorporate the Sentinel in our unit was not made on a whim, knight Agatha," Helen said, glaring coldly at the other woman. "Are you questioning the decision of the knight-commander AND the goddess reborn?" She asked menacingly, ready to punish the woman for her insubordination.
Agatha widened her eyes as her expression instantly changed from bold to fearful. "What?! N-no, I mean-"
"Wait, Helen. Let her speak," Claudia ordered. She descended the staircase with deliberate slowness, the sound of her sabatons echoing across the courtyard before she stopped right in front of the shorter woman. "Is that what you really think, Agatha?"
The other woman gulped nervously, feeling visibly uncomfortable under Claudia's steely gaze, but managed to nod. "Y-yes, ma'am."
"I see." Claudia pursed her lips and looked at the other Dawn Templars. "Does anyone else share her same opinion?" She asked aloud.
Slowly, several women raised their hands. 'Let's see, four…nine…sixteen…twenty-one…thirty… forty… forty-four. That many, uh?' Definitely more than expected.
These women were the best knights in Eostia and they knew it. However, while being a Dawn Templar was undoubtedly a great honor, it seemed that their elite status had caused some of her comrades to become arrogant.
"We need to address this issue now, before it becomes a real problem," Claudia muttered loud enough to be heard by Helen, knowing the risks of underestimating your opponents and allies.
"If I may make a suggestion, ma'am, I believe that a little combat demonstration would be the best way to dissipate their doubts," Helen proposed innocently with an evil smile that didn't match the tone of her voice. "How about we have Agatha fight against our Sentinel?"
Claudia looked at her in disapproval. "Helen, that would be unfair."
Hearing her comment, Agatha seemed to recover part of her bravado. "W-well, few people are able to fight a Dawn Templar-"
"You're misunderstanding my words, Agatha," Claudia interrupted her brusquely. "It wouldn't be fair for you," she said, leaving the woman too stunned to reply.
As much as she was tempted to let Clay give Agatha a little lesson of humility, Claudia didn't want to humiliate her in front of the other knights. The woman was a good fighter, but she wasn't even among the best twenty swordswomen of their order.
"It is a good idea, though," Claudia said while looking for her best knights in the crowd. 'Alright, who should I choose? Let's see, Gwen's in Ken right now. Martha, maybe? No, she tends to focus too much on defense. Jane is too impulsive, while Shirin fights better on horseback. The best choice would probably be Helen, but it still wouldn't be a fair fight. Actually, wouldn't it be better to let him fight against multiple opponents at once? In that case-'
"I challenge Lady Levantine," Clay suddenly announced.
All the eyes were instantly directed at the super soldier and a low murmur of surprise rose from the crowd. Some of the Dawn Templars were curious, others were concerned, and some were outraged by Clay's audacity, mistaking it for arrogance.
Keeping a serene expression, Claudia lifted a hand, instantly silencing her comrades, then looked back at the Sentinel. She was surprised, but also intrigued.
"I accept your challenge," Claudia said calmly.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, lady Levantine?" one of the knights asked, looking nervously at the Sentinel.
"A leader must lead by example. And I'd be lying if I said that I'm not curious to see how I would fare against him in combat," she replied with confidence.
Claudia decided to use just her longsword, forgoing her shield. Carrying it would not only reduce the power of her attacks and consume her stamina, but also create a blind spot in her field of vision. She briefly considered using a zweihander in order to have more reach and be able to perform more powerful attacks, but that would also slow down her movements.
"Standard training rules," Claudia declared as they stepped on the training ring, a wide circular area about thirty feet in diameter made of beige dirt. "Lethal attacks are not allowed and the fight stops whenever one of the opponents ends up out of the sparring ring, admits defeat, or blood is drawn."
"Affirmative." Clay nodded and drew his sword, giving it a quick spin before holding it with both hands.
The knight-commander drew her own weapon and studied her opponent, bringing up everything she knew about Clay after seeing him in action. Odds were definitely against her.
Claudia was a big woman with a body that would make a Valkyrie envious, but the Sentinel much bigger, towering over a foot over her and easily weighed twice her weight. Not only that, but despite wearing several hundred pounds of armor, he was also frighteningly fast and agile.
'If this was a real fight, I would need the help of, let's see… four, maybe five other Templars… and at least two mages specialized in offensive magic to provide ranged support... but I suspect he would attack them first before focusing on the knights...'
The more she thought about it, the more she realized how scary it would be to fight Clay in a real combat scenario. The logical thing to do would be to avoid fighting him at all costs, but her pride as a knight and sense of duty didn't allow her to do that. 'Who knows? I might get lucky.'
"Ready? Begin!" Helen shouted.
Claudia instantly tensed up, expecting Clay to charge her, but just like during his fight with Luu-Luu, the Sentinel decided to let his opponent make the first move, most likely to gauge her strength. This didn't reassure Claudia in the slightest. His body language was almost non-existent, but she had no doubt he was following her every single move like a hawk.
The woman advanced cautiously toward the Sentinel with her sword held horizontally toward him, ready to react at his smallest movement, then, once she was close enough, she suddenly lunged forward, thrusting her sword at his right shoulder before suddenly redirecting her attack toward his helmet instead.
Clay instantly blocked her attack, making Claudia grimace: it felt like she had just slammed her sword against a metal pole. 'Why am I even surprised? He's literally able to punch ogres to death.'
The woman was not discouraged and proceeded to perform a series of increasingly faster and more aggressive attacks with the intent of finding a weakness in Clay's defense, in a dance of steel and muscles that was as beautiful as it was deadly.
Meanwhile, Clay couldn't help but be impressed. The paladin may not possess Luu-Luu's ridiculous strength, but her technique was noticeably superior, as expected from a woman who dedicated her life learning the way of the sword. Her movements were fast and precise, her blows powerful yet elegant, her footwork simply excellent. She represented what humanity could achieve without using bio-alchemical manipulation.
"Go, Lady Levantine! You can beat him!" one of the youngest Templars shouted encouragingly while the other women all around them cheered for their commander.
'Easier said than done,' Claudia thought with growing frustration as the Sentinel kept blocking all her attacks. Had Claudia not been aware of his fulminous reaction times, she would have suspected he was able to read her mind.
Claudia performed a fulminous thrust at his chest, but Clay twisted his body to avoid her sword before countering with a horizontal slash. The paladin ducked under his blade and tried to hit his legs, only for Clay to leap back while bringing down his sword. Claudia rolled sideways and promptly got back on her feet, slashing her sword at his face. Clay's reaction was just a second too late and the tip of her weapon left a scratch just below his left lens. It was a grazing blow, not enough to be considered lethal, but what was worse was that Claudia was now vulnerable to Clay's counter strike. The Sentinel swung his sword and Claudia instinctively brought up her blade to block it, only to realize too late her mistake. It was like being hit by a running horse. Knowing how strong the Sentinel was, the paladin had the wisdom to roll with the blow rather than oppose it, in order to minimize the damage.
Claudia landed hard on the ground, but kept rolling to dissipate the remaining kinetic energy, stopping a couple feet from the limit of the ring.
"Lady Levantine!" one of her knights gasped as the knight commander got back on her feet with a grunt.
"I'm alright," she quickly reassured everyone, grateful that her armor's barriers were active. "Let's continue," she said with determination.
Clay offered her a curt nod of approval and soon their sword clashed again, but it wasn't long before Claudia finally noticed that something was off.
Just like with Luu-Luu, his combat style was oddly passive compared to when she's seen him fight against the demons, preferring to let her come at him before forcing her to retreat in order to get out of reach. His attacks were fast and powerful, but she was still able to react to them, although with growing difficulty.
'He's holding back. If he really wanted to defeat me, this fight would already be over.'
Why was he doing that? Was he playing with her? The mere idea that he was so confident of his superiority that he didn't deem it necessary to put any effort in this fight, while she had to use all her power, skills and knowledge was simply insulting. How dare he-
'No.' Claudia instantly banished such vile thoughts.
Clay was not an arrogant man. Despite being perfectly aware that he was superior in many ways to normal people, he never showed contempt toward them. He was honest, often even blunt, and whenever he faced a problem, he used logic to find the most efficient solution. Everything he did was for a reason. So why was he prolonging this fight? He had already demonstrated what he-
'He's not the only one showing what he can do,' Claudia suddenly realized. 'He's testing me.'
They'll be fighting together in the future, so it was only natural that he wanted to know what her capabilities and limits were before entrusting her to watch his back in battle. But if that was the case, then Claudia needed to take things a step further and show him what she could really do, just like Luu-Luu did.
"It's clear that there's a wide gap between us in terms of both speed and strength," she said aloud as they both stood at the opposite sides of the ring. "Do you have any objection if I use my mana to power up my body?"
"Go ahead," Clay replied without hesitation.
"Alright then," Claudia said, briefly closing her eyes as she focused her breathing and reached out for her mana core. 'I never thought I'd use this power in a mock fight,' she thought as mana started flowing freely through her body. The effect was immediate. Her body felt full of energy and all traces of fatigue were gone.
Claudia slowly released her breath and reopened her eyes. "I'm ready," she announced with renewed determination. She held her sword in a high guard, with the blade parallel to the ground and the tip aimed at the super soldier.
The Sentinel nodded and adjusted his stance in a standard plow stance, once again waiting for her to make the first move.
Claudia narrowed her eyes, knowing how dangerous it could be to dismiss his attitude as mere overconfidence. If there was anything she had learned in the last few weeks, it was not to underestimate the Sentinel.
A single drop of sweat ran down her face as she moved her foot slightly forward to adjust her weight.
Clay shifted imperceptibly his head to follow the movement.
The next moment, Claudia moved.
One moment she was standing at the opposite end of the ring, the next she had covered the forty feet separating her from the Sentinel, leaving behind a small trail of dust.
"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" Claudia swung her sword with all her might in a downward strike, which Clay promptly blocked with his own weapon. Their swords clashed with a loud clang and an explosion of sparks and Claudia felt immense satisfaction when she noticed she had actually managed to push back his sword a bit. Clay cocked his head. "Impressive," he hummed before pushing back the woman.
That single word of praise brought a small smile on Claudia's lips, but the woman quickly suppressed it. 'Focus, Claudia. Don't let a simple compliment get over your head,' she mentally scolded herself.
She may be finally able to go toe to toe against the Sentinel in terms of both speed and power, but her reserves of mana were not infinite and she could safely use this power only for a few minutes before it took its toll on her body.
The other Templars watched in awe as Claudia unleashed a hurricane of powerful attacks on the Sentinel, but just as Claudia was starting to gain her confidence, Clay finally decided to get serious, increasing the speed and power of his attacks and going from simply blocking and parrying her attacks, to exchanging blows with her.
Claudia gritted her teeth as she used both hands to hold up her sword in order to block a blow that would have split an orc in half and that almost brought her to her knees. Even with the power boost provided by her mana, the Sentinel was simply too powerful. It shouldn't have surprised her too much, after all, Doctor Rosaspina had said that Sentinels were created to be the ultimate soldiers; however, it was still frustrating and the most prideful part of her mind simply couldn't accept it.
'Nobody is invincible. Everyone has a weakness and makes mistakes.' She had fought against many formidable foes and always managed to come out victorious, however, the Sentinel seemed to be an exception to this rule. His stance was perfect and her reaction times were simply too slow to exploit any opening she may find in his defense.
'If you can't find an opportunity, then you need to create it,' Grave had taught her back when she was still a knight-in-training. 'But how?' The Sentinel had observed her attentively and now had a good idea of her fighting style.
It was at that moment that, for some reason, she remembered one of the first battles she had fought together with Maia.
Claudia dropped her broken shield on the ground, shaking her arm to get rid of the stinging pain caused by the blow she'd just blocked. The only reason the limb wasn't a twisted mess of broken bones and mangled flesh was thanks to her enchanted armor.
"Are you alright, Maia?" She asked Maia without taking her eyes off their opponent, a huge ogre covered in crude yet thick iron armor, equipped with a big mace and a shield made from what appeared to be a door.
"Yeah, just give me a sec," the younger woman said as she got back on her feet. "Thanks, by the way. I owe you my life."
"Don't thank me yet. We still need to defeat him." Both women were exhausted after a long day spent fighting against the Legion, and unfortunately for them, their allies were too busy fighting to help them. "Things don't look good."
"No shit," Maia agreed. "This bastard is tough and his armor covers his entire body."
"Not the area around his neck," Claudia pointed out, staring at the small gap between the creature's thick breastplate and his helmet. "If only I could find an opening in his defense…"
"You need a distraction? Say no more! I have an idea!" Maia exclaimed suddenly. "Hey, dumbass! Look!" She yelled at the ogre before pulling open her shirt without warning, exposing her big breasts. "Tits!"
Claudia stared incredulously at her fellow Shield Princess, wondering what the hell was wrong with her. Ogres were not exactly the smartest creatures in the world, but there's no way one of them would fall for such obvious-
"Ooooooooh! Me like!" The ogre exclaimed gutturally, openly staring at Maia's naked breasts with a huge stupid grin.
"Quick, Claudia! Kill him while he's horny!"
"Uh?" The ogre dumbly said.
"Yaaaaaaaaaah!" Claudia lunged toward the ogre and swung her sword horizontally with all her might, cutting off the demon's head.
"Yes! We did it! Woooo-hoooooo!" Maia exclaimed, literally jumping for joy while pumping her fists in the air.
"Yes?" The buxom redhead asked, still smiling.
"... Please, cover your chest, dear."
The younger woman blinked a few times in confusion before looking down at her exposed breasts. "... Oh, right."
After the battle, Claudia had asked Maia how did she came up with such, uhm, unorthodox strategy, to which the redhead had replied: 'When being smart doesn't work, try being dumb!'
Not that Claudia had ever thought Maia was dumb. Maybe uneducated, but that was just because she never received a formal education due to her humble origins. However, the queen of mercenaries was definitely street smart, able to see things from a different angle and often coming up with unconventional plans that, while bordering between audacity and foolishness, still worked.
Most of the times.
'I need to do something that goes against his expectations,' Claudia thought just as she came up with a plan.
It was stupid.
It was crazy.
It was risky.
'It may just work,' she thought before channeling her remaining mana through her body and springing toward Clay with her sword held over her shoulder.
Once she was close enough, Clay swung his sword horizontally, clearly expecting Claudia to either block or dodge his attack. However, the woman had a completely different plan in mind. Thanks to the mana and adrenaline flowing through her body, time seemed to slow down as the woman arched her back backward and dropped on her knee guards, using her momentum to skid on the ground toward the Sentinel.
"What?" Clay grunted in surprise as the woman used her smaller body to literally slip between his legs.
As soon as she was behind him, the woman jumped back on her feet without wasting a single precious instant and performed a pirouette, swinging her sword at Clay's exposed back while letting out a powerful battle cry. "YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
In any other situation, her unconventional strategy would have probably worked… but unfortunately the paladin had forgotten to take into account the Sentinel's ridiculous reaction times. Faster than her eyes could register, Clay brought back his sword as if he wanted to hang it to his backplate, blocking Claudia's sword with a noise akin to the tolling of a bell that resonated across the entire courtyard. The impact was so violent that it reverberated not just through Claudia's arms but through her entire body, filling her eyes with stars and making her loosen her grip around the hilt of her sword.
That's all Clay needed. Before Claudia could fully recover, the Sentinel fully rotated on his feet and swatted her sword aside, leaving the paladin fully exposed.
"Dead," he announced calmly the next moment.
Claudia blinked once, then slowly lowered her gaze and finally noticed that the tip of his sword was now aimed just a few inches away from her vulnerable throat.
The courtyard was as silent as a graveyard, as the Dawn Templars stared in disbelief at the scene. Claudia Levantine, knight commander of Eostia, grandmaster of the Dawn Templars, holy warrior blessed by the goddess reborn Celestine Lucullus herself… had been defeated.
Under normal circumstances, this outcome would have been surprising, but not exactly shocking. After all, ever since she had become a paladin, the only persons able to match her in combat were her father-in-law and Vult, the legendary commander of the Kuroinu. However, never before had Claudia been so utterly outmatched in a fight against another human being.
"The winner is Clay!" Helen shouted, officially ending the match.
"Well… that was a good fight," the paladin said, letting out a soft chuckle as she graciously accepted her defeat. Clay nodded and lowered his sword, but remained silent. "So… What do you think?" Claudia asked, masking her anxiety as mere curiosity. She was nervous and rightly so. She had done her best and yet it still wasn't enough. And if she, the grand master of the Dawn Templars, couldn't meet up his expectation, what would it say about her knights?
Clay stabbed his sword into the ground and knelt in front of Claudia. "You are a worthy leader," he declared with conviction, looking her in the eyes.
His words filled Claudia with relief and satisfaction, vanishing the last traces of doubt she still harbored in her heart and the woman couldn't help but smile at the Sentinel, feeling that he had just reached a better level of mutual understanding.
Claudia didn't know who started clapping, but soon all the knights in the courtyard were doing it and cheering at them.
"Ah! Amazing! I haven't seen such a great display of swordsmanship in ages," a powerful male voice exclaimed.
The crowd of female knights parted away, revealing a tall old man wearing plate armor with pauldrons shaped like stylized lion heads and a long cape.
"Father!" Claudia exclaimed in surprise, smiling happily as she approached the man to properly greet him.
"Claudia, light of my eyes." Graves placed his hands on Claudia's shoulders and looked at her with what could only be described as fatherly pride.
"I didn't expect to see you here so soon. I thought you were still busy in Halem."
"My subordinate can handle a few stray goblins," he said dismissively while the knights around them started to disperse to return to their respective duties and give them some privacy. "Otherwise, they'd be unworthy of being knights of Eostia." His gaze shifted toward Clay. "So, this is the warrior you wanted to introduce me, huh?" he asked, studying attentively the Sentinel with his stern brown eyes. Many people were intimidated by the intense gaze of the hero of Geofu, however, the Sentinel didn't show any sign of discomfort and stared back at the old general, silently assessing him.
'His body is muscular and symmetrically developed, which means he's probably ambidextrous with the sword. His old age reduces his reflexes, strength and stamina, but he knows that, so he compensates with his experience and mana.' He briefly activated his helmet's mana scanners. 'His power level is roughly the same as Lady Levantine, maybe even superior. Threat level: potentially dangerous, engage with caution.'
Meanwhile, Grave was also assessing Clay. 'Big as an ogre, strong as a golem, and fast as an elf. The armor provides excellent protection without compromising his movements. The sword's design is simple yet practical and versatile. The lack of a shield suggests an extremely aggressive combat style. …He's definitely not a foe I want to fight alone and without a plan.'
Their intimidating staring contest lasted for a few tense moments until Grave finally nodded, apparently satisfied with what he was seeing.
"I am General Grave Levantine, Lord Protector of Geofu, Grandmaster of the Silver Lions, and Claudia's father-in-law," the old man formally introduced himself, offering his hand to Clay.
"Sentinel. Designation, Clay," the super soldier replied before carefully shaking Grave's hand.
The older man widened his eyes imperceptibly in surprise, feeling like his hand was trapped in a vise. "Hmm, a firm and strong handshake," he hummed approvingly. "I have to admit, when I first read Claudia's message, I was a bit skeptical about her claims regarding your abilities, but after watching your fight… well, you may actually make the difference in this war."
"Lady Celestine entrusted Clay under my command," Claudia said. "She believes I'll be able to use him to the best of his abilities."
"The goddess is a wise woman. I can only approve her decision," Grave said, looking at Claudia with pride. "I just hope you don't mind fighting with a bunch of ladies, son," he said with a hint of amusement.
"The Dawn Templars are good warriors, general," he replied seriously, completely missing Grave's joke. "I don't see why there should be any problems working with them."
Grave looked at Claudia, but she merely smiled at him. "You'll get used to him," she said before her expression became serious. "I was planning to teach Clay about our current military situation and I would appreciate it if you could help me."
Grave raised an eyebrow. "What do you want to teach him?"
"…everything. From our basic strategies to our key defenses."
Grave frowned. "We're talking about sensitive information, Claudia. Are you sure we can trust him yet with that kind of knowledge?" he asked while looking seriously at Claudia
"Yes, father," she replied without hesitation, staring back at him with her steely gaze. "I trust him and so does the goddess."
"Hmm, very well," the old general said. "But let's continue this conversation inside," he said, throwing a suspicious look around.
"Sure. We can use my office," she said before leading the two men inside the fortress.
The room was furnished in a sober and functional way, with a large desk facing the door while a window behind it provided plenty of natural light. On each side of the window was placed a reinforced wooden cabinet containing documents. The right wall was almost completely occupied by a large detailed map of Eostia and its neighboring countries, while on the left there was a suit of armor on display next to a fireplace on which hung a shield with two crossed swords.
"Let's start with a general overview of our defenses," Grave said, grabbing a pointing stick and proceeding to indicate various strategic locations on the map.
After showing Clay the position of their main fortifications, Claudia and Grave proceeded to explain in great detail things like combat formations, infantry and cavalry tactics, recruitment procedures, and even training methods employed by the various factions that formed the Seven Shield Alliance. Then, they proceeded to illustrate several important battles fought in the past against the Dark Legion, including not just the ones resulting in Alliance victories but also a few defeats.
The Sentinel listened attentively to everything they said, occasionally asking a few questions, but mostly remained silent as he absorbed the information.
A few hours later, Clay had a rather accurate picture of Eostia's military situation and if he had to be brutally honest, he wasn't particularly impressed. The core of the Alliance's army was composed of knights that acted both as elite units and officers depending on the situation, but their level of competence was not homogenous. Each fortress city had a certain number of professional soldiers, however, the majority of the troops deployed against the Legion were actually conscripts. In order to compensate for the lack of experienced soldiers, the Alliance was forced to rely more and more on mercenaries.
'It's a miracle that the Alliance managed to resist for so long. If the enemy had used more aggressive tactics, the demons would have already conquered this land.' But they didn't, which only raised more questions. Everyone described Olga Discordia not just as a powerful sorceress, but also an extremely intelligent woman, and yet, for some reason, the dark queen didn't seem to exploit the full potential of her demon army or Eostia's weaknesses and mistakes.
Was it arrogance? Lack of ambition or confidence in her army? Fear of a possible counterattack? Or was there another reason, something completely different?
The more he learned about this conflict, the more he felt like there were a lot of missing details.
He was so busy thinking about the oddities of this war that he almost didn't notice that Grave had finished answering his previous question about their watchtowers system.
"It's not perfect, but so far it has proven effective against large raiding parties and warbands."
"What about smaller groups and stray demons? How do you deal with them?" Give how vast and wild the border with Garan was, it was relatively easy for a few demons to slip through Eostia's defenses without being noticed.
"We regularly perform patrols, but the further you move away from the major settlements and communication routes, the more infrequent these patrols are, so we're often forced to rely on adventurers, local militias, or mercenaries to subjugate them."
"It sounds rather… ineffective," Clay pointed out.
"Indeed. But unfortunately, it's the best we can do," Claudia replied frustrated.
"It would be better to prevent the demons from crossing the frontier in the first place."
"And how exactly would you do that?" Grave asked with a mix of curiosity and skepticism, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
Clay remained quiet for a few moments as he considered several options, but much to his frustration, ended up discarding all of them.
'Deploying golem units in strategic locations?' Golems were rare, expensive and difficult to build in this era, and their spell matrixes were rather primitive, forcing them to operate under direct supervision of a mage in order to perform complex tasks. However, this also put the mage at risk of being attacked by the demons.
'Quick deployment of combat units via teleportation?' Teleportation platforms were still in the early development stage, but even if they were available, Eostia's warning system was awfully slow and inefficient.
'Reactive barriers?' Lady Celestine was powerful, but not enough to cast them all across the country. Furthermore, the wards would still depend on her magic to work, because the art of drawing mana from the environment was still being rediscovered after it was lost with the fall of the Edenian Empire.
Putting aside their cultural differences, a feudal society based on manual labor and subsistence agriculture was simply unsuited for employing most of the tactics used by the Edenian Empire. 'Unless…'
"How about building a wall?" Clay suggested. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it would make it more difficult for the demons to cross the frontier.
"Ah! Good luck trying to convince the Church and the nobles," Grave laughed sarcastically. "Grissom and his followers would never accept the idea of 'the righteous warriors of the goddess hiding behind a wall from the creatures of darkness' or some crap like that. As for the nobles… well, they all want to gain honor and glory on the battlefield, so that they can brag about their heroic deeds. Not that I can blame them, after all, nobody wants to be remembered as a glorified bricklayer."
"Our priority is saving lives, not gaining fame," the Sentinel replied with obvious disapproval.
"Do you think I don't know that?" the old general shot back, interpreting his words as a provocation. "My family has been protecting this country for twelve generations. A good part of Eostia's history was written with our blood."
"It still remains an unfeasible idea due to the sheer size of the project," Claudia intervened before the situation could degenerate. "Building a wall that runs all across the borders with Garan would require a ridiculous amount of money, raw materials, and workers, but we lack both the resources and the manpower. Even if it was possible, we still don't have enough soldiers to guard it, and if the demons managed to conquer a section of the wall, they would use it against us to launch attacks into our territory."
"I see." Clay was forced to agree with Claudia's analysis. "If the Frontier is so dangerous and difficult to protect, then why do people keep living there?"
"Because they simply don't have an alternative," Claudia said somberly. "All the farmlands in the southern regions have already been settled and a lot of people can't afford to pay the taxes required to live in the safest territories. So, they either move to the cities, where they often end up living in the slums, or migrate to the northern lands, hoping to start a better life. The Frontier is drenched with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of people, where entire villages regularly disappear from the maps overnight, but the land is remarkably fertile despite its proximity to Garan, so many people are willing to live there despite the risks."
"Is this the reason why taxes are lower the further you go north? Because the local lords can't ensure the safety of their people?"
"Precisely," Claudia nodded.
"I see you're well informed," Grave said, sounding mildly impressed.
Clay shrugged. "Klaus is a good teacher."
As soon as his son's name was mentioned, Grave's face darkened. "Yeah. He's always been good with books… and nothing more."
'Did I say something wrong?' Clay thought, confused by his sudden change of mood.
"Speaking of learning, Simon really exceeded my expectations during the mission," Claudia said, quickly changing the subject. "I think he's ready to take the test."
"Is that so?" Grave asked with interest, seemingly forgetting about Klaus.
"He has… potential," Clay agreed. The young knight was clumsy and a bit immature, but he was also a good fighter and surprisingly brave.
"I'll keep that in mind." He glanced at the pendulum clock in the room and frowned. "I'm afraid I need to return to my duties. Until we meet again, Sentinel," he said, nodding at Clay.
He nodded back at him. "General."
"Thank you for coming, father," Claudia said with a smile.
"Think nothing about it, Claudia. I'm always available for you," Grave said dismissively before leaving the room.
"So, what do you think?" Claudia asked once they were alone, gesturing toward the map.
"I now have a rather accurate picture of our current situation," Clay replied mechanically.
"And?" she asked expectantly.
"It is not my place to judge, ma'am."
Claudia sighed. "I thought I've already made plenty of clear that we do things differently here. I admire your discipline and loyalty, however, treating you like an inexperienced recruit without taking into account your own experience and knowledge would be an insult to you and your creators." She looked him in the eyes. "I want to hear your honest opinion, Clay."
"… when we first met, you told me that things were bad. I just didn't imagine they were that bad."
"Are you disappointed?" Claudia asked calmly.
"I'm not blaming you or the other Shields for Eostia's current situation."
'He's dodging the question,' she thought with a small frown. "But you think that we should have handled the war differently."
Clay shrugged. "Maybe. By the standards of my people, your methods are rather… inefficient."
Claudia raised an eyebrow. "Did you just call us primitives?" She asked drily.
"It wasn't meant as an insult. I'm merely stating facts," he replied plainly. "Didn't you just say that you wanted to hear my honest opinion?"
"Yes, I did. However, I suggest you try to be a bit more tactful when you're around other people. Nobles in particular tend to get insulted quite easily by what they perceive as rude comments and the last thing I want is to see you being challenged to a duel all the time."
"Do you think I can get hurt?"
"No, I think you'd end up accidentally killing most of our officers," she deadpanned as she sat behind her desk. 'Which might actually not be a bad thing, considering that many of them got their rank due to their status rather than merit…'
"Anyway, I have a lot of paperwork that piled up while I was away, so I'll be busy for a while," she said with a hint of resignation before picking one of the many reports lying on her desk and started reading it. "Ask Helen to show you around the keep to familiarize with its layout. Oh, and try to interact a bit with the other Templars. From now on, they'll be your comrades and sisters in arms, so it would be a good idea to know them better."
Clay tilted his head in confusion. "I've already introduced myself."
Claudia groaned softly and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Just do as I say."
"Affirmative," he replied before marching out of her office.
'I feel like the mother of a shy child telling him to go play outside with the other children,' Claudia thought with a weird mix of amusement and frustration. The problem was that the Sentinel was not shy, but rather antisocial. He never actively sought out company and only interacted with other people if that was necessary to perform a task.
'One step at a time,' she thought before letting out another quiet sigh at the sight of the tall pile of paperwork waiting for her on the desk. It was a vital task, but by the goddess, it was also boring.
"… I need a new squire."
This was a big chapter. I was tempted to break it in half, but I promised you guys some action after all the worldbuilding I've done in the previous chapters, so I hope you enjoyed the fight scene, even if it was just a friendly spar between Clay and Claudia to test each other's skills. I admit that I'm not completely satisfied with the way I described the sword fight, but I guess that means I just need to improve my writing.
By the way, before anyone starts sending me hate comments or death threats, I want to make clear that when I wrote this chapter, I wasn't trying to trigger anyone, be sexist, start a gender war, or any crap like that. I personally enjoy strong female characters… as long as they're well written (Ripley from Alien, Furiosa from Mad Max, and Clare from Claymore are a few of my favorite examples) and not just some kind of cringy Mary Sue (I'm looking at you, Rey….). Kuroinu is a dark power fantasy hentai, which means logic is just a fancy word and common sense has yet to be discovered, otherwise a bunch of sexy knight ladies wouldn't be running around half-naked while fighting against horny monsters only to be suddenly defeated by a bootlegged version of Guts and his merry band of degenerates. When I wrote this story, I wanted to take a more realistic approach, which means not only give the main characters some extra brain cells and some decent protection gear compared to their canon version, but also develop the world of Eostia and its society… which inevitably means going down a rabbit hole leading to a minefield: the role of women in the world of Kuroinu. It's safe to say that most men feel resentment against their female counterparts and only want to enslave them and watch them crawl at their feet without dignity (hell, Direc/Derek from Kuroinu 2 doesn't just enjoy raping his victims, he wants them to suffer), but I wanted to give them a reason that went a bit further than just "I'm horny as fuck and want to bang the big tiddy princesses".
Anyway, sorry for the ramble. My worries are probably unnecessary, but we live in a world where you can't say or write anything without ending up offending someone, so I wanted to get things clear now rather than having to respond to a bunch of angry reviews. If anyone was offended… well, get over it or stop reading a story set in a dark fantasy hentai. 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here', because things are only going to get darker in the future and I don't have any intention to hold back.
To everyone else, enjoy the ride, add this story to your library and let me know in the comments what you think about it.