The city was under attack.
What just a few hours ago had been a happy crowd celebrating the annual Harmony Festival was now a panicked mob trying to flee from the creatures of darkness coming from the hijacked portals. Burning grav-barges and airships were falling from the sky, crushing indiscriminately everything under their wrecks, while a thick smoke carrying the smell of burned flesh started invading the packed streets, furtherly spreading panic among the people.
He wasn't new to these kinds of scenes; however, this time wasn't fighting side by side with his fellow Sentinels and other imperial troops against the demons. He wasn't even wearing his armor or carrying his weapons.
His body was small and frail, like that of a child.
He WAS a child.
And he was running.
He was running for his life, holding the hand of a woman who still managed to comfort him despite their desperate situation. Everywhere he looked he saw terrified faces, and fire, and destruction, and deaths, so many deaths, and-
"Keep running!" The woman shouted to be heard over the noise of the panicked crowd, holding his hand so tightly that it hurt. "We're almost there! Just one last effort!" They had no way to know if the slip-gate portal in the city hall was still operational, but it was their only chance to get out of this nightmare alive.
Suddenly, he felt somebody bump violently against him, causing him to lose his grip and fall to the ground. The woman screamed something, maybe his name, but by the time he realized what had happened, she had already been carried away by the crowd.
Quickly crawling behind an overturned stand to avoid being trampled by hundreds of people running for their lives, he frantically looked around for a familiar braid of silver hair, only to fall into utter despair when he realized she was gone.
Clay woke with a start and sat up on his bed, looking around for a few moments in search for threats before finally remembering where he was. Closing his eyes, the Sentinel took a few deep breaths to calm down his fast-beating heart. 'The dreams are becoming more and more frequent.'
A few days after Celestine tried to use her magic on his mind, he started having some very vivid dreams about his past. He wasn't sure if it was just his mind reacting to her healing powers or if the goddess Laurentia was trying to show him something, but now, all the memories suppressed by years of training, mental conditioning and constant fighting were now starting to resurface from the depth of his mind, much to his frustration.
What was the point of remembering? All his memories were about the war, all the people he once knew had been dead for millennia, and his life before joining the Sentinels was gone forever.
'What a wonderful way to start the day,' he thought sarcastically before shifting his gaze toward the window. It was still dark outside, but judging by the position of the stars, the sun would be up in a few hours. Sentinels didn't require much rest to begin with and after that dream he had no intention of going back to sleep, so without further ado, he put on some clothes and left his room.
The sun was rising above the horizon when Clay emerged from the waters of the lake near the manor after swimming for a couple of hours. Reaching the shore with a few powerful strokes, he climbed up the pier and grabbed the folded towel he had previously placed next to his clothes on the bench. While he quickly dried his body, he took a moment to observe his surroundings, noticing the dark clouds coming from the south. 'It will probably rain in the evening,' he thought as he put on a pair of shorts. It had been a month since he started living in Geofu and while he still felt a little uncomfortable when he wasn't wearing his armor, he was starting to appreciate a few things of his new life, like being able to swim every morning without fear of being attacked.
Despite its problems and shortcomings, Eostia was definitely a safer place compared to his era.
He had just finished drying his hair when he heard a loud friendly bark coming from behind some thick bushes. A few moments later he saw Adwin emerge from the forest and run toward him. His serious gaze softened a bit and he took a moment to give the big dog a scratch behind his ear. Adwin whined in appreciation and wagged its tail before going to lie down on a nearby patch of grass.
Adwin's presence usually meant that Claudia wasn't too far and sure enough the woman arrived shortly after, slightly out of breath from her morning run. She wore her usual training outfit consisting in a warm shirt with matching leggings, and a pair of comfortable leather shoes, while a leather sheath with a dagger was strapped to her right thigh. Clay approved of her habit of always carrying a weapon, even if the only time she actually used her dagger was a couple years ago, when she killed a lone goblin that had wandered into the forest after its nest was destroyed by a group of adventurers. 'Better safe than sorry,' he thought while glancing at his shortsword. It was a simple weapon made of steel, but still of good quality and sufficient for self-defense when he wasn't carrying his usual equipment.
"Adwin! There you are. Bad dog! You left me all alone in the scary forest, uh?" she playfully scolded the dog while affectionately petting him.
Clay observed the scene with mild amusement. "Good morning, Lady Levantine."
"Oh, good morning, Clay," the woman returned the salute with a smile, only to blush a bit and quickly avert her gaze when she noticed his partially undressed state. Claudia loved dearly her husband, but even a devoted woman like her would admit that it was hard not to stare at his muscular scarred body, especially when he was only wearing a pair of shorts. "How's the water?" she asked casually, hoping he hadn't noticed her staring at him.
"It's fine, I suppose," he replied as he finished getting dressed. "Maybe a bit chilly."
"I'm glad you're getting used to your morning routine," she nodded with a smile.
The Sentinel shrugged. "Klaus says I can't spend all my free time in the library," he said, making Claudia chuckle. It was almost surreal that her bibliophile husband was the one that said that. "I like swimming. It's… peaceful. And it helps me keep my mind clear when I'm not busy."
"I know what you mean," Claudia said while the three of them walked to the manor, a habit they had started a few weeks ago. As always, Adwin preceded them, occasionally leaving the trail whenever he sniffed a particularly interesting smell or just to pee on a nearby tree.
"It makes me feel better knowing that Helen can count on your help while I'm away," she admitted, referring to her decision to get back to Ken in a few weeks. Although she greatly enjoyed the time spent with her husband, she was starting to feel restless and her sense of duty compelled her to return to Celestine's side as soon as possible. "She's a capable officer and loyal friend, but she tends to push herself too hard."
The Sentinel nodded. "I'll do my best to assist Lady Mistral to the best of my abilities, ma'am."
Claudia almost rolled her eyes at his overly formal tone. While she was the first to appreciate his professionalism, she wished he would learn to be a little more relaxed when they were off-duty. "Just promise you won't burn down the keep while I'm away," she said with a humorous smile.
Clay looked at the knight-commander in confusion. "That would compromise the city defenses. Why would I do that?"
"Uh, that was a joke," Claudia said awkwardly, feeling a bead of sweat run down her face.
The Sentinel frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm, I see," he hummed seriously.
Claudia sighed. While Clay was slowly getting more talkative - not much, but Claudia still considered it a big improvement compared to when they first met - and was now able to fluidly speak common, things like jokes and euphemisms still eluded him most of the time. 'We still have a loooot of work to do.'
After arriving at the manor, Claudia went back to her room to freshen up and put on some clean clothes. Today she and Klaus would meet the city council to discuss several important topics, so she decided to wear one of her uniforms rather than her armor for the sake of practicality and comfort. It consisted in a double-breasted blue jacket with golden buttons and epaulets, dark trousers, and thigh-high boots.
She then went to the dining room to have breakfast, only to smile at the sight of Klaus and Clay sitting next to each other at the table, looking over some notes. Thanks to the Sentinel, her husband's knowledge of the Edenian language had greatly improved and now the unlikely duo was working on creating a rudimentary dictionary to help Luu-Luu for her upcoming expedition to Silent Vigilance.
"Good morning, Klaus," she said as she sat in front of him. Within moments Riri had already placed in front of her a generous serving of oatmeal with honey, a bowl of fruit salad, and a cup of tea. Claudia had barely the time to thank the halfling before the small hyper-active chef disappeared into the kitchen again.
"Good morning, my dear," Klaus replied affectionately. "How was your morning run?"
"Uneventful. The most exciting part was when Adwin was almost attacked by a woodpecker."
Klaus chuckled in amusement, only to suddenly grimace in discomfort.
"Are you alright?"
"Oh, yes," he quickly assured her while he rubbed his neck. "Last night I fell asleep in my armchair while reading a few documents for today's meeting and now my neck is a bit sore."
Claudia frowned. "You know it's bad for your posture," she said disapprovingly.
"I know, but I've been exercising lately, though."
"Morning stretching hardly counts as physical exercise," Claudia sighed. While she was mildly annoyed by his reluctance to perform any kind of physical training, she also knew it wasn't just simple laziness. Her husband didn't talk much about the time before she joined the Levantine family, but knowing Grave and having experienced first-hand his methods, she could only imagine what kind of hellish training regimen Klaus had to endure before his father deemed him unfit to become a knight.
"I can help you train, if you want," Clay offered.
Claudia smiled amused at Klaus' comically horrified face. "Uh, thank you for the offer, Clay, but I'm afraid I would not survive your training routine," he said with a nervous smile.
"Don't worry, I'll think of something suited for you," the Sentinel promised.
"Well, actually…" Klaus started to argue, only to sigh in resignation when he saw his wife's hopeful look. "Alright. If anything, I'll be able to carry around my books more easily."
Clay nodded. "And in case of emergency, you can use them to beat the enemy to death."
"…" The spouses stared at him with eyes wide in shock.
"That was a joke," Clay said, looking particularly proud of himself.
Much to Klaus' confusion, Claudia started laughing.
Fortress of the Dawn Templars, a few hours later
In any other situation, the sight of five high-ranking Dawn Templars fighting against a single man would be considered incredibly unfair, however, despite their numerical advantage, Helen couldn't help but think that they were the ones being bullied. The women wore their enchanted plate armor, with one of them, a veteran combat cleric named Violet, also carrying a large tower shield, and yet they still struggled against the Sentinel's attacks.
"Violet, Abigail, with me! Jane, Samantha, flank him!" Helen ordered as if they were fighting a real battle rather than having a friendly spar against their newest ally. A few Dawn Templars were watching the fight to study his combat style and cheer at their comrades, but the knight barely acknowledged them, as all their attention was focused on Clay.
Abigail used her mana reserve to increase her speed and lunge at Clay, aiming at his shoulder. The super soldier, however, saw the attack coming and performed a half-rotation on his feet, dodging the attack. The woman swore loudly when she realized that the Sentinel was now behind her, but before she could react, she felt the flat side of his sword tap against her exposed neck. "Dead," he declared before deftly parrying Jane's sword.
The woman quickly took a few steps back to avoid his fulminous counterattack, grinning confidently behind her helmet. "Now, Samantha!"
Clay's enhanced hearing easily picked up the sound of armored footsteps rushing toward him, alerting him of the attack coming from behind. With a movement almost too quick to detect, the Sentinel stepped to the side and swatted the flat side of his blade against one of Samantha's legs, tripping the woman running toward him and making her stumble toward the other Templar.
"Oh, come on!" Jane exclaimed in a mix of frustration and disbelief right before Samantha crashed against her, sending both women outside the ring, where they landed on the ground in a rather undignified way piled on top of each other.
"I told you it wasn't a good idea," the woman on top groaned.
"Stop whining and get your butt off my face, Samantha!" the woman at the bottom exclaimed annoyed.
Ignoring the two bickering women, Clay shifted his attention back to his remaining opponents, just in time to dodge a blow from Violet's flail aimed at his head. The Sentinel quickly counteracted by throwing an open palm strike with his left hand, forcing the woman to raise her big shield to block his attack. The force of the blow actually left a hand-shaped indentation on the shield and made the woman stagger backward.
"Violet, look out!"
Helen's warning came too late. While the Templar was still recovering her balance, the Sentinel closed the distance between them and tapped the pommel of his sword against the side of her great helm. "Dead."
The combat cleric's shoulders sagged a bit and she sighed loudly in acceptance before walking out of the sparring ring, leaving Helen to face Clay alone.
'This is definitely an unfavorable situation.' The pink haired woman narrowed her icy eyes as she quickly considered her options, however, the Sentinel took the initiative and ran toward her before she could formulate a proper plan. Once he was within striking distance, he swung his sword downward, prompting Helen to instinctively bring up her sword to block his attack, only to realize too late her mistake. As soon as their swords made contact, Helen felt her arms and legs give up under the force of the blow and the next moment she found herself lying on her back on the ground, looking up at the sky.
"Dead," Clay declared, tapping his sword on her breastplate right above her heart.
"Bloody hell," the vice-commander cursed under her breath before grabbing his hand when he offered it to her.
"You're improving," Clay commented as he effortlessly pulled Helen back on her feet.
"Really? How can you tell?"
"You lasted twenty seconds longer than last time."
The five women stared blankly at him. "You really need to work on your communication skills. If anyone else had told me that, I'd be pretty peeved right now," Helen deadpanned while her comrades gave him mildly annoyed looks.
"It was not my intention to offend you. I was just making an observation."
"We know, but try to be a bit more careful in the future." The Sentinel didn't have a single ounce of malice in his body, but sometimes his bluntness could easily lead to misunderstandings. "People react differently depending on the words you use."
"Hmm, I'll keep that in mind," he promised.
"Good. Now, you'd better get ready for the next part of our schedule," Helen ordered.
"Yes, Lady Mistral," Clay nodded before marching inside the keep.
"That was a great fight, even if the result was predictable," a woman commented in Elvish. Clay shifted his helmet and saw Alina leaning against the wall. The high elf's hood was lowered, exposing her jovial freckled face and a pair of pointy ears poking out from her curly red hair. Her outfit consisted in a mix of cloth and leather that provided a decent amount of protection without hindering her movements, covered by a cloak that allowed her to blend almost perfectly with the colors of the forest. "The fact that they don't give up easily in the face of adversity is truly admirable."
"They may not be Sentinels, but their combat skills are still impressive," Clay replied in the same language. Shortly after meeting her for the first time a few weeks ago, the woman had offered to teach him her native language and while it was definitely more complex than Common, he was now able to hold a basic conversation in elvish without having to rely on his translation matrix.
"You respect them," the high elf commented while walking beside him.
"Of course." In the last few weeks, he had fought against each Dawn Templar at least once, and while none of them came close to Claudia's level in terms of power and skills, they were still formidable warriors. With the proper equipment and a few changes in their tactics, they could have probably been an elite unit in the imperial army, however, he couldn't help but wonder how they would actually fare against the more aggressive and dangerous breeds of monsters, like beholders, makhais, or blemmyes.
'Let's not talk about wraiths…'
However, after talking with Claudia and her knights, he had quickly discovered that many demons that the Edenians had fought on a regular basis were extremely rare or even considered legends. 'Strange. Not that I'm complaining, though.'
"And yet you seem reluctant to get closer to them."
The Sentinel frowned. "I regularly take part to training activities to improve our coordination in combat and-"
"That's not what I mean," she interrupted him. Shortly after his introduction, it had quickly become obvious to everyone that the Sentinel had serious socialization issues; however, thanks to Klaus and Claudia's patient efforts, he was slowly starting to show signs of improvement. "I'm talking about socializing. You know, having a casual conversation, eating meals together, performing activities that don't necessarily involve warfare? That kind of stuff. These women are your comrades, but nothing forbids you from being their friend."
"Then what's holding you back?"
"…it may sound cynical, but I can't help but wonder how long they will survive," he said as they passed in front of the Wall of Memory. "Sentinels are not immortal, but we are harder to kill than most people."
"Oh. I see," Alina muttered somberly, looking at the hundreds of names carved in the stone. "You know, I think I understand how you feel. The Goddess blessed us elves with extremely long lives, but sometimes it feels more like a curse than a gift. Ever since I left my forest to explore the rest of the world, I've met so many wonderful people among the mortal races, many of whom I am proud to call friends and some even became my lovers... But I always had to watch powerlessly as they inevitably died a short while later, either in battle or of old age just a few decades later."
"… does it hurt?" He asked quietly.
"Yes. Each time I lose someone dear to me it feels like a piece of my own soul is being torn away," Alina said softly with a bittersweet smile. "However, I don't regret meeting them. A wise man once told me: 'Don't cry because it's over, but smile because it happened'. It wasn't easy, but I've learned to treasure their memory and be grateful for the wonderful moments spent together." Alina smiled. "That's why I love humans so much. Your lives are so short, and yet you use your time on this world to its fullest."
The Sentinel hummed quietly, reflecting on her words.
"Come on, let's go grab your stuff," she said, switching back to Common. "I've prepared everything you need, including your costume."
Clay stopped on his tracks and looked at the elf in confusion.
"Alright, listen up, young ladies! Just because you are now Dawn Templars, it doesn't mean you're invincible," Helen said to the eight initiates standing in front of her. The small group was a mixed batch of girls ranging from sixteen to twenty-one with various backgrounds, coming from all over Serenus. Some had already been knighted before joining the Dawn Templars, while others had started their career as pages or squires for a member of the holy chivalry order.
The girls were all equipped with standard training gear consisting of gambesons, thick protective leather helmets, and wooden swords.
"You've all trained to fight against human-sized opponents, however, many of you never had the chance to fight against an aberrant. And I'm not talking about small fries like imps or goblins, but the big dangerous bastards. So, today's exercise is called 'fight the ogre'," Helen announced. "For obvious reasons, we don't have a real ogre, HOWEVER!" - she exclaimed, raising a finger - "We luckily have someone who comes close to an ogre in terms of size and strength. Clay? Come here, please."
The initiates held their breath when they heard the sound of heavy steps coming from inside the keep, but as soon as Clay came out, their nervousness turned to confusion.
On top of his armor, the Sentinel was now wearing an oversized poncho made from an old sack and stuffed with wool to simulate the fat belly of an orc or ogre. His helmet was covered with a smaller sack with two eyeholes, on which a certain elf had crudely drawn a wavy line representing a frowning mouth and a pair of eyebrows scrunched downward in anger. Lastly, he was carrying in his hand a wooden pole wrapped with a thick layer of rags to simulate a club.
Helen's left eye twitched at the sight of the ridiculous costume. 'I knew Alina was plotting something when she said she wanted to help. I'm going to have a few words with her later.'
The young knights snickered in amusement at Clay's dress-up and a few even started laughing, only to instantly stop when they saw that Helen was glaring at them in disapproval.
"Sorry," she quietly apologized to the Sentinel, who merely shrugged. "This is not a laughing matter," she said seriously to the initiates. "Even with our armors and abilities, demons are still dangerous foes that should never be underestimated. The purpose of this exercise is to see how you fare against a bigger and stronger opponent and to teach you the best ways to defeat a demon while minimizing the risks for you."
While aberrants were a threat to all humans, they were particularly dangerous for women because their bodies secreted a special pheromone that increased a woman's sex drive while suppressing her instinct to fight back. Helen had seen it happen too many times: inexperienced or overconfident warriors fighting with ferocity one moment, only to be raped without even trying to resist moments later. What's worse is that prolonged exposure to the pheromone can have permanent effects on the minds of the victims, reducing them to mind-broken husks obsessed with sex if they weren't rescued in time.
"Now, Clay is stronger and faster than an ogre, so in order to make things a bit fairer and more realistic, he's going to hold back a bit. However, just because this is a training exercise, don't expect him to treat you with kid gloves. Our enemies are violent, ruthless, and without mercy. In their eyes all women, no matter if they're commoners or nobles, knights or mages, are just preys, livestock good only for breeding more of their foul spawn. It doesn't matter how skilled or powerful you are, if you underestimate the demons and have the misfortune of being captured, what awaits you is a miserable existence of constant sexual abuse until you finally die."
Her harsh words filled their gazes with horror and fear, but also indignation and anger. 'Good. The sooner they know what we're against, the better.'
"Do you have any questions?"
One of the young knights raised timidly her hand. "Uh, yes, Lady Mistral. What's the purpose of all that hay?" Emily asked, referring to the bales of hay placed all around the training area.
"It's to soften your landing," Helen deadpanned while nodding subtly at the Sentinel.
"What do you- WOAH! HEY, WHAT ARE-?! WAIT, DON'T- AAAAAAH!" the woman exclaimed when the Sentinel suddenly grabbed her without warning before throwing her across the air and out of the training area, where she landed head-first into a big pile of hay. "I'm okay," came her muffled voice while she helplessly kicked her legs, the only part of her body sticking out.
"Any more questions?" Helen asked casually to the other initiates, who now wore comically shocked expressions behind their helmets. "No? Good." The woman walked toward a small table on which stood an hourglass. "Now, let's see how long you can survive," she said, turning the hourglass she had previously put on a stool.
The Sentinel slammed his mace on the ground. "Destroy," he growled menacingly before charging at the initiates.
Bathhouse of the Dawn Keep, a few hours later
Located right under the barracks of their keep, the bathhouse was a place regularly visited by the Dawn Templars. It included magically-heated pools, a sauna, and massage tables, but it wasn't just a place to get rid of the sweat and grime collected during a long day of physical training, but also a place where the women could relax and socialize, completely at ease being naked around each other. Their athletic bodies were a perfect blend of muscles and curves, often marked by scars left from their harsh training and past battles, however, instead of being ashamed of them, the women carried them with pride, as proof of their accomplishments and strength.
"Ouch, everything hurts!" One of the initiates lying on the massage tables groaned miserably while a servant from the city of Thorn expertly rubbed her bruised body using scented oils with healing properties.
"Lady Mistral wasn't joking when she said that Clay wouldn't hold back," Emily whined, wincing when her own masseur touched a particularly sore spot of her back, only to visibly relax the next moment. Say what you want about Easterlings and their mysterious culture, but their masseurs were second to none.
"You should be grateful for his help in your training. The first time I fought against the Dark Legion, I was almost overwhelmed by a group of orcs due to my overconfidence," Violet said before removing her towel and laying down on the massage table next to Emily's. Despite being old enough to be their mother, she still had a youthful appearance thanks to constant physical training and the mana flowing through her body.
"It's not that I don't appreciate his help. I just think that he takes these training sessions a bit too seriously for my tastes," Emily replied. Her comrades groaned in agreement, much to the amusement of the older Templars. After a first depressingly one-sided round against the Sentinel to evaluate their current abilities, Helen had spent the next few hours teaching them various tactics to fight against the larger types of demons, putting particular emphasis on the importance of avoiding direct physical contact as much as possible. By the time Helen was satisfied with their progress, the girls were exhausted, drenched in sweat, and with both their bodies and egos bruised.
"You'd better get used to that," Shirin said while washing her long black hair. She was the daughter of a merchant from Eldonia, easily recognizable for her bronze skin and deep green eyes, and was one of the most talented horse riders of their order. "We're elite knights, not soft court ladies or ceremonial guards. Scars are our medals, pain is our friend, and death in battle is our final reward."
"Aye!" Several Dawn Templars shouted proudly in agreement.
"I guess being tossed around like a wet rag by a super soldier is better than being a political tool of my family and being forced to marry a stranger," Emily chuckled softly, earning a look of sympathy from her friends.
"Speaking of Clay, what do you girls think about him?" Samantha asked the younger women, instantly attracting the attention of the other veterans. In the last few weeks, the Sentinel had been a hot topic of conversation among the Dawn Templars, so they were naturally curious to hear the opinions of their new sisters-in-arms.
The initiates shared a quick look before Emily spoke again. "Well, the first time I saw him, I was a bit intimidated."
"Just a bit?" Samantha asked with an amused smirk.
"Alright, a lot. I mean, he's a walking mountain of armor and muscles, and his, uh, peculiar personality doesn't really help put you at ease. However, once you know him a bit better, he's actually not as bad as I thought. He's always polite and he acts professionally with everyone."
"Indeed. Despite being able to snap an orc's back over his knee, he's surprisingly nice," another initiate said in agreement.
"He's also not bad looking," a third one admitted with a faint blush. "And the way he's so honestly clueless about many things we take for granted is oddly charming," she added with a dreamy look before she and several other Templars let out a collective sigh of longing. Even with their beauty and prestige, it still wasn't easy to find a fiancé. For some mysterious reason, a lot of men are actually intimidated by the idea of dating a woman strong enough to swing a zweihänder.
"Unfortunately, the feeling is not reciprocated."
"Yeah, isn't it strange? I mean, he's a man surrounded by a bunch of beautiful, badass women, and yet he doesn't show the slightest interest."
"How can you be so sure? After all, he only takes off his helmet to eat, so we have no idea if he stares at us," Jane argued with a skeptical tone.
"Men are not exactly the subtlest creatures in that regard, my dear," Abigail said as a matter of fact while washing off the sweat she had previously accumulated in the sauna. "We'd know if he was staring."
"You sound almost disappointed."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he's not a horndog constantly ogling at our bodies, but his complete lack of interest makes me feel a bit self-conscious."
"Hmm, maybe he doesn't like women?" One of the initiates suggested timidly.
"Oh, goddess, I really hope not," one of the veterans that had previously shown interest in the Sentinel groaned loudly. "Why are all decent men either already engaged or homosexual?"
"Nah, I don't think he swings that way," Beth said with confidence.
"What makes you think so?" Jane asked.
"Because when we were traveling back to Feoh, he never looked at Simon's butt."
"… what does that have to do with Clay's tastes?" She asked, visibly confused by Beth's statement. However, several other Templars had a different opinion.
"No, no. She's got a point."
"Yeah, that's actually a very solid argument."
"Ara-ara, that boy sure has a cute butt."
Meanwhile, in the armory of the Silver Lions' fortress
Simon was casually humming a marching tune while polishing his armor, when suddenly he sneezed violently, dropping his helmet. "Aww, shit," the young blonde knight cursed softly, quickly grabbing the helmet to check for any signs of damage.
"Is everything alright, rookie?" A veteran Silver Lion asked him.
"Yes, James. I just had a strange feeling, as if a bunch of beautiful women were talking about my butt."
The older man stared impassively at him for a moment before turning to the knight sitting next to him
"…fuck, he's completely delusional."
"That blow to the head during combat practice must have been stronger than we thought."
"He must have a concussion, let's bring him to the surgeon."
"Wait, what?" Simon blinked in confusion right before the two men grabbed him unceremoniously and literally dragged him to the infirmary. "OH, COME ON!"
Back to the Dawn Templars…
"Back to the topic, considering his behavior and poor social skills, it's very likely that his sex drive was repressed when they made him a Sentinel," Violet theorized.
"Well, in that case, I volunteer to educate him in the fine arts of courting," a Dawn Templar with long green hair said seductively.
"Careful, Tabitha," Helen warned her, finally joining the conversation. It was an unspoken rule that discipline was a bit laxer in this place, to allow the knights to relax and unwind their tension, so she had been perfectly content to simply listen to her comrades while bathing in one of the heated pools; however, she felt it was time to intervene. "You know how protective Lady Levantine is of her giant lost duckling."
Several Templars smiled at that oddly accurate analogy, having noticed that, whenever the Sentinel was confused or unsure, he always looked to Claudia for guidance.
"Alright, I've had enough of this! What's gotten into all you? Are you even listening to what you're saying?" Agatha exclaimed suddenly, staring in disbelief at her fellow knights. "You sound like a bunch of lovestruck maidens!"
The initiates flinched at the harshness of her tone, however, the rest of the Dawn Templars merely looked at her in annoyance for her outburst.
"Ignore that grumpy harpy, girls. She's just upset because she made a fool of herself when Lady Levantine introduced Clay to us," Samantha casually reassured the younger knights.
"Excuse me?! At least I had the courage and decency of saying out loud what many of you were also thinking!" Agatha exclaimed, pointing an accusatory finger at the other woman.
"You're right. Many of us, including myself, were against the idea of a man joining our unit, but in the last few weeks Clay has demonstrated to be worthy of this honor, not just for his combat skills but also for his impeccable conduct. However, while we're willing to admit that we were wrong about him, the only reason you've not yet changed idea is because you're too stubborn and prideful."
"Oh, shut up!" Agatha exclaimed while throwing a wet sponge at Samantha, narrowly missing her face. "Just because he can fight better than us, it doesn't change the fact that he's a freak- KYAAAAAAAAAA!" Agatha let out a shriek when Beth suddenly dumped a bucket of cold water over her head. "W-w-what w-was t-that for?" she demanded, shivering with cold.
"That 'freak' is the only reason I'm not a demon plaything right now," Beth said angrily while the other Dawn Templars that were with her at Silent Vigilance also glared at Agatha. "Just for that, the least he deserves is a bit of respect and gratitude."
Agatha was about to protest, but noticing the way most of the other knights were looking disapprovingly at her, she stood up, wrapped a towel around her naked body and hastily left the bathhouse.
"Agatha, wait!" One of her friends called her in a vain attempt to stop her.
"Forget it. If she wants to keep being irrational, so be it, but she has no right to take out her frustrations on us."
"You have to admit that this is a rather unconventional situation," the other woman pointed out.
"More than that time when Lord Graves took command of our order after our previous grandmaster fell in battle?" Helen asked rhetorically. Nobody knew the exact fate of lady Adelle, but because her body was never found, many feared she was captured alive by the Legion, a fate worse than death for any woman. "We shouldn't blindly follow traditions, but rather accept that change is part of life and be grateful that Fate, or maybe even the Goddess herself, gave us a new comrade that will fight by our side."
"Well, I personally feel a lot safer knowing that a super soldier will be watching my back in the future battles against the Legion," Beth said.
Nobody argued with her.
Shortly after Claudia and Klaus returned to their manor, it started to rain, moderately at first, but it soon became a real thunderstorm. The spouses were both mentally exhausted after a long day spent discussing with the city council about several important topics, so after dinner, they decided to spend the rest of the evening relaxing in the living room. They also decided to invite Clay to join them, knowing that otherwise the Sentinel would study late into the night in the library, as he often did.
Klaus was reading a novel he had picked up a few days ago, or at least that had been his original plan before realizing that the scene taking place in front of him was way more entertaining.
His wife sat next to him on the edge of the sofa, staring intently at the black and white pieces on the chessboard as if she were planning a battle on which the future of the kingdom depended. On the opposite side of the chessboard, Clay sat perfectly still with a similarly serious expression. The only sounds in the room were the quiet ticking of the pendulum clock and the raindrops falling on the roof as two formidable warriors fought each other in a battle of wits.
'This is probably the most intense chess game I've ever seen in my life,' Klaus thought amused.
"Checkmate," Clay declared suddenly, knocking over Claudia's last tower with his bishop.
Claudia stared at the chessboard in disbelief for a moment, then sighed softly and tipped over her king. "Another draw."
"Best four out of seven?"
"You're on!" Claudia exclaimed without hesitation. "It's been a while since I've had this much fun at this game."
Klaus chuckled at her enthusiasm. "It's hard to believe he's just learned how to play this game."
"Don't you two play chess together?"
"Hmm, on occasions, but it's not my favorite pastime. I'm more a fan of riddles and puzzles," Klaus admitted. "I've heard from Mimi that you're planning to go on a night hunt tomorrow."
"There were boar tracks near her vegetable garden and she's concerned for her pumpkins, so I promised to take care of them," the Sentinel explained. Normally, venturing alone into the forest at night to hunt animals as dangerous as wild boars would be considered a reckless idea, but the Sentinel was not a normal human and nighttime was also the only time when he could leave the manor without risk of being seen by the local population. The guards and servants had all sworn an oath of secrecy, but they still needed to be careful. "I'm afraid we'll have to cancel our lesson tomorrow."
"Oh, it's not a problem at all. Actually, I wanted to ask you the same thing because I want to take Claudia out tomorrow night."
"What do you have in mind?" Claudia asked intrigued.
"Well, do you remember Rufus?"
"That friend of yours from university?"
"Correct. He wanted to thank me for including his name in the list of the people that will go with Luu-Luu to Silent Vigilance, so he gave me two tickets to the premiere of a new play. It's called: The Faery and the Dragon."
"No way!" Claudia gasped surprised. "I wanted to go, but tickets have been sold out for months!"
"Surprise!" he chuckled. He personally preferred prose, but Claudia's smile was well worth spending a night at the opera. "And after the performance, we can then have dinner in our favorite restaurant and, uh, maybe watch the stars together?" he proposed with a soft blush that was quickly matched by his wife.
"That would be lovely," she replied softly.
"What's opera?" Clay asked suddenly, reminding them that they were not alone.
While her husband began to explain to him the difference between the various theatrical genres, Claudia smiled softly. 'I wish life was always so peaceful.'
Frontier town of High Rock
Located right between the unstable lands of the Frontier and the prosperous central regions of Eostia, the fortified town of High Rock guarded the entrance of a long valley with steep slopes covered by dense forests and lush green pastures. For centuries the people of the region had made the most of its mountainous terrain by developing a complex system of terraces to grow their crops, while using the rocks dug from the fields to build their houses.
On a rocky outcrop located right above the town stood a castle with tall towers and thick walls, which not only served as a residence for the local noble family, but also offered shelter to the local population in case of emergency.
Throughout its four hundred years of history, this marvel of fortification engineering had survived more than forty sieges without being ever conquered, so, when news of a demon army coming from the north reached the town, the people of High Rock had immediately sought refuge behind the castle walls.
Once safe, their plan was to wait for reinforcements from the south, while carrying out occasional sorties against the Dark Legion. It was a simple yet effective strategy that had remained unchanged over the centuries, but the local lord and his military advisors were confident that it would work once again. However, when the demons launched a frontal assault that very same night, the defenders were horrified when they saw the gates being opened… from the inside.
What followed couldn't even be called a battle. Like a grotesque tidal wave, the demons poured into the castle, quickly overwhelming the local garrison with their superior numbers, crushing everything and everyone that stood in their path without mercy.
The courtyard was now littered with the bodies of dozens of men of all ages, which the demons were busy stripping of anything valuable, while the few that were still alive were stabbed or clubbed to death. Meanwhile, any woman unlucky enough to be captured alive was being raped on spot by one or more aberrant, filling the air with a mix of cries of distress and animalistic grunts of pleasure.
Amid this chaos stood a single dark elf woman wearing leather armor with metal shoulder and knee-pads. Short black hair kept in place by a leather headband framed a sharp face with green eyes that burned with hatred as she glared coldly at the young human lying in front of her.
"Please, please, don't kill me! I don't wanna-argh!" The young stable boy's frantic pleas were brutally silenced when the woman drove her sword through his heart without hesitation. Harriet's face betrayed no emotion whatsoever while she killed the teen in cold blood.
A hobgoblin wearing a rusty helmet and armed with a sword stained with the blood of its former owner approached her. "Victory is ours, lady Harriet," he announced proudly.
The dark elf pulled out her sword from the chest of the stable boy. "Burn down the town and kill anyone who resists. You have until dawn to enjoy yourselves," Harriet said curtly.
"Yes, mistress," the hobgoblin replied with evil glee before eagerly walking away to join his kin for a night of violence and depravity.
Harriet made a disgusted sound as she watched him leave, before sheathing her sword and walking inside the castle. The opulent inlaid wooden doors had been smashed down and wherever she looked there were clear signs of looting and vandalism, but she paid it no attention as she navigated with confidence through the building. Even after all these years she still remembered perfectly the layout of the castle, thanks to the nightmares that kept haunting her dreams to this very day.
'No more,' she thought resolutely while she casually stepped over the desecrated corpse of a knight. A few goblins were playing kickball using his severed head, only to laugh loudly when one of them kicked the head out of a nearby window, breaking the glass. Their red pointy hats and bloody sickles identified them as redcaps, a vicious goblin sub-variant proficient with espionage and assassination. They were the same ones she had led through the same passage she had used to escape almost two decades ago.
"Where's the castle lord?" She demanded with impatience.
"In the banquet hall with a few women, Lady Harriet," one of the goblins answered with an unpleasantly shrill voice.
Without even thanking the demon, Harriet followed his indications and quickly reached her destination.
Inside the banquet hall, earl Archibald Gneiss stood protectively in front of a few maids and a woman that was probably his wife, while a young female knight wearing plate armor was standing right beside him. They were both armed with swords, but while the girl seemed determined to fight, probably believing they could win, the portly man had the grim expression of someone who knew that their situation was hopeless.
The humans were surrounded by a decent-sized mob of demons, who kept their distance and merely leered at the women without actually trying to reach for them. 'Good.' Demons were chaotic creatures driven by their desires, but they were able to follow orders without complaining too much if you used the right amount of persuasion and fear.
"I would like to say that your people put up a good fight, but that would be a lie," Harriet said arrogantly as she stepped forward. "Your species act like you're the masters of the world, when in reality you're just a bunch of pests that breed too quickly." She paused, taking a moment to savor their fear. "And now, here you are, right where you belong: cornered like roaches waiting to be crushed under my boot."
"Stand back, you fiend!" the female knight declared loudly in a foolish attempt to intimidate Harriet and her demons. "By the oath I took in the name of the Goddess Laurentia, you shall not harm these people!"
The ogres laughed mockingly at the knight, while Harriet completely ignored her pathetic display of bravery, focusing instead on the lord of the castle.
"Hello, Archibald," Harriet saluted the portly man with a smile devoid of any warmth. "It's been a long time."
"Harriet," he said with dread, looking at the dark elf as if he had just seen a ghost.
"I'm glad you still remember me after two decades. It's the least you can do, after what you did to me," she spat sarcastically, only to frown when the female knight butted in their conversation.
"Who is she, father? How do you know her?" The young knight asked.
"Father?" Harriet studied more closely the young knight's visage and noticed her resemblance to the viscount. "I see. And here I thought you needed a woman in chains to get hard. Evidently, I was wrong," she said, briefly shifting her gaze between Archibald and his wife.
"What are you talking about?"
The viscount shot an anxious glance at his daughter. "Agnes…you see…"
"Aww, you didn't tell her, didn't you? I guess that would have been too embarrassing for a person of strong moral values such as yourself," Harriet said mockingly.
"Tell me about what?!" The girl, now identified as Agnes, exclaimed with impatience.
"About our countless nights of wild passionate sex."
The girl grimaced as she briefly imagined her father having sex, only to frown in confusion. "But… twenty years ago, my parents were already married. Did you seduce my father?"
"No, you stupid idiot! I didn't seduce your father," Harriet snarled, visibly disgusted by the idea. "He ordered his men to arrest me under false accusations while I visiting the market of this fucking town, then turned me into his sex slave and raped me for months until I managed to escape."
"Lies!" Agnes exclaimed outraged. "My father would never do something so horrible! Only the worst kind of scum would perform such vile- Father?" She halted mid-sentence when he flinched at her words.
Looking more closely at the man, she realized that instead of being offended by Harriet's accusation, he looked incredibly uncomfortable. Why did he look… guilty? It was almost as if he… "No. No!" Agnes shouted, shaking her head in denial. "Mother, tell her that father would never do that!"
The countess ignored her daughter's distress and instead glared at her husband. "You told me she was dead. Why didn't you kill her?!" She exclaimed before realizing what she had just said.
"... mother?" the knight looked at her parents in disbelief.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure all this must be really dramatic for you, but I honestly don't care," Harriet declared while taking a threatening step toward the viscount. "I've been waiting for twenty fucking years, but now I can finally take revenge for everything you've done to me," Harriet growled.
Lord Archibald threw away his sword and dropped on his knees. "Please, Harriet, forgive me! Take whatever you want, but please have mercy!"
"Mercy?" Harriet repeated incredulously, feeling that single simple word taste like bile on her tongue. "No." The dark elf drew her sword with lightning speed and slashed his throat. Lord Archibald widened his eyes and let out a startled gargle, instinctively bringing his hands to the wound in a vain attempt to stop the violent hemorrhage before collapsing on the floor. The women screamed in horror at the sight of his body briefly convulsing in a puddle of his own blood before he suddenly stopped moving.
"Father!" Agnes screamed horrified before glaring with hatred at Harriet. The dark elf casually cleaned her sword with a flick of her wrist, splashing the viscount's blood on the large family portrait hanging on a nearby wall. "I'll kill you!" The young knight charged at the dark elf with murderous intent, but as soon as she was within strike's range, Harriet used her superior speed and reflexes to disarm the girl with disconcerting ease, before knocking her to the ground with a punch to the face.
"Just like the rest of your species: weak and clumsy," Harriet sneered before kicking the young woman in the stomach viciously. Agnes gasped in pain despite the armor. "Did you really think you could kill me with that half-assed attack just because you're angry? If that was true, I would have killed your father years ago," Harriet said mockingly, looking at the young knight as if she was trash. "You're not even worth killing," she declared before looking at the demons. "They're all yours. Do whatever you want with them," she ordered before leaving the room.
The aberrants let out a collective jubilant roar before pouncing at the women.
"N-no," one of the maids sobbed horrified when she finally realized what was going to happen. "Oh, goddess no!"
Agnes tried to frantically backpedal, but one of the ogres grabbed her and pinned her to the ground.
"No! Let me go!" The ogres ignored her cries of distress and used its brute strength to tear apart the clasps of her breastplate before ripping apart the layer of cloth covering her torso, exposing her breasts and womanhood.
The other women in the room were suffering the same fate, with the demons laughing as they started harassing their bodies.
"Good smell," the ogre chuckled darkly before dropping his ragged loincloth, revealing his huge erect penis.
The girl panicked at the sight of the huge cock and tried to kick him to break free. The ogre ignored her desperate struggles and grabbed her legs to spread them apart, aiming his thick cock at her pussy.
"No, please, no! Not like this! Noooo!"
With an animalistic grunt, the beast forced its massive dick inside her with a single brutal thrust, breaking her hymen before hitting her cervix.
"Aaaaaaaaah! It hurts!" Agnes screamed in agony as she burst into tears. Without even giving her time to recover, the ogre started thrusting his hips, slamming repeatedly his cock against the entrance of her womb. "Pull it out! Pull it-" The young knight was brutally silenced mid-scream when a second ogre grabbed her face and shoved its cock into her mouth. She gagged loudly as the creature proceeded to fuck her throat without restrain, flailing frantically her arms and legs in panic while her face turned red for the lack of air.
"Agnes!" her mother screamed in anguish before a pack of imps started gangbanging her. Meanwhile, the maids were also being violated by one or more demons, filling the room with their cries of distress.
The two ogres kept spitroasting the young knight, unaware or simply not caring that her spasms were getting weaker and weaker. Just as she felt he was about to pass out from lack of oxygen, they came almost simultaneously, shooting their massive loads of cum into her womb and down her throat. Once they were done, they pulled out their dicks and dropped Agnes unceremoniously on the ground.
"Is she dead?" one of them asked, sounding almost bored.
The other ogre gave her a small kick in the butt, making her twitch. "Nah, she can go for a few more rounds."
"P-please, stop…" the girl whimpered weakly, only to be ignored.
Ignoring the desperate cries of the women being raped by the demons, Harriet reached a balcony overlooking the town and stepped outside to admire her handywork. Several buildings were already on fire, while the demons were pillaging the town and the surrounding farms, filling the night with their sound of their cruel laughs the screams of their victims as they killed and raped with savage euphoria.
Looking toward the horizon, the dark elf saw a light in the distance coming from a signal tower. In less than a day the rest of the Alliance would learn what happened here, but that didn't worry her in the slightest. On the contrary, she was eager to meet them in battle and kill as many humans as she could before unleashing her demon army against their defenseless settlements.
A few moments later, her long ears twitched imperceptibly at the faint sound of footsteps, too light and graceful to belong to a human or a demon. "Are you here to enjoy the show, Ophelia?" she asked in Gahalneraln to the dark elf who had just joined her on the balcony.
"What have you done?!" the other woman demanded angrily.
"The demons fight better when they're motivated. I'm just letting them follow their nature," Harriet casually replied as she turned around to look at her interlocutor, a dark elf with a long braid of blue hair wearing a canvas cloak over a set of leather armor.
"The plan was to raid their granaries, not to slaughter everything that breathes!"
Harriet snorted derisively. "Your hypocrisy is truly disconcerting. Without food these humans would die anyway of starvation, but that doesn't stop you from stealing their winter provisions." Ophelia bristled at those words, but Harriet did give her a chance to argue. "Don't let your compassion poison your mind. Do you have any idea what they've done to me and countless other dark elves?" She asked rhetorically, shaking her head. "These… people," she spat, gesturing toward the town, "they do not deserve our pity or mercy."
Ophelia gritted her teeth. "We are not like the humans. We are better than them."
"Indeed. We're better than this scum. That's why we need to kill them," Harriet replied with a smile completely devoid of empathy.
"That's not what I mean! Stop twisting my words to justify this needless violence!" Ophelia exclaimed, reaching for her sword. "Your actions bring shame to our entire race!"
"Shame?" Harriet snarled, taking a threatening step toward the other dark elf. "I'm doing the entire world a favor by getting rid of the plague known as mankind!"
The two women glared at each other but just when it seemed they were going to draw their respective weapons, Harriet made a disgusted sound and turned away from her. "I suggest you get back to whatever you're supposed to do, thief. Demons are unpredictable creatures and even if they they've sworn to follow our orders, accidents can still happen."
Ophelia narrowed her eyes at the obvious threat before finally noticing the demons that had started to gather nearby. Even if they could not understand what they were saying, they still observed their argument with too much interest for her tastes. While they were technically allied with the Queen, in reality, if they had the chance, they would not hesitate to assault and rape a dark elf.
"If you continue to follow this path, you'll never find closure. Only death," Ophelia said before leaving the balcony, being careful to keep the demons in her line of sight.
Harriet ignored her and stared impassively at the flames rising from one of the burning buildings. The destruction of High Rock and the death of her tormentor did little to quench her thirst for revenge.
This was just the first step.
"They must pay. They must all pay."
Fortress city of Geofu, the following morning
That word had become a recurring one whenever Claudia trained with the Sentinel. Their spar a month ago had been the first of many, and while she had never won against Clay so far, the paladin honestly enjoyed fighting against him. Due to her combat skills, few people were able to give her a decent challenge these days.
However, despite having been defeated once again, a bright smile adorned her beautiful face. "That still counts as a hit, though" she said, looking proudly at the spot where the tip of her sword had chipped his breastplate.
Clay followed her gaze. The damage wasn't serious and in less than a minute the armor's maintenance spell would repair it without leaving any trace, but to Claudia it still felt like a great achievement.
"… indeed," Clay said with a hint of what Claudia swore was amusement. Even if this wasn't a real fight, the fact that she had actually managed to hit him was still an impressive feat. "You fight well."
Claudia smiled at his praise. "Thank you. Graves taught me everything I know," she said proudly.
"How did you become his student?" Clay asked curiously. While he had yet to see the general in action, he had heard many great things about him, including the fact that for a time he led the Dawn Templars after Claudia's predecessor had fallen in battle.
"When my family died, Grave took me under his wing. I'm still not sure why he did it, but I like to believe it's because he saw something in me. As soon as I was old enough to hold a sword, he trained my body and soul. He was harsh but fair, teaching me with hard love and discipline... like a father would," she said as she recalled fondly those now distant days.
"Is this how you met Klaus?" he asked next, surprising Claudia a bit. Most of their conversations were strictly professional in nature, so she was glad he was starting to get curious about more mundane topics.
"Yes. He was so shy that it took him a few days to gather enough courage to actually talk to me after I started living with them," she said with a nostalgic gaze. "Despite our obvious differences, we quickly became good friends. He was kind and gentle, and I liked listening to him when he read me his books, whether it was a tale about heroes and knights of old or a geology essay. His love for knowledge and enthusiasm were so genuine that the words seemed to come to life. Over the years our friendship grew into something deeper, until one day we finally admitted our feelings for each other," Claudia said with a warm smile, remembering one of the happiest moments of her life, before it slowly morphed in a grimace of sorrow. "If only things were different between him and his father," she muttered sadly.
Clay frowned. Despite his poor social skills, even he could tell that Klaus and his father didn't have what could be called a healthy relationship. Grave seemed to resent his son for some reason, while the scholar's mood turned sour whenever the name of his father was mentioned.
'I wonder why?'
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of a bell that caused everyone to instantly stop what they were doing to look toward the source of the noise.
'What's happening? Are we under attack?' he thought, instinctively drawing his sword while activating his scanners to detect any eventual demonic life forms.
"Lady Levantine!" an initiate called Claudia urgently as she ran towards them in such a hurry that she nearly tripped down the stairs.
"What's going on, Linda?" Claudia demanded.
"We've just received a message from the Frontier!" the younger woman exclaimed, holding a small scroll which, according to Clay's scanners, still carried residual traces of teleportation magic.
'If the message was teleported by a mage instead of being delivered by a courier or a carrier pigeon, then its message must be extremely important,' the Sentinel thought.
"The Legion conquered the town of High Rock has fallen and it's now marching straight toward the Bread Hills!"
"What?!" Claudia felt her blood freeze with dread. High Rock had never been conquered since its founding four hundred years ago, not even after the invasion that followed King Eos' ill-fated punitive expedition, but that wasn't even the worst part. The Bread Hills were one of the most important farming regions of Eostia and if the demons attacked its farmlands, thousands of people would starve during the winter!
"I want everyone to gather in the courtyard. Now!"
Dawn Templars in full combat gear rushed out of the armory to the stables to mount on their horses, while servants and squires hastened to load weapons, provisions and equipment on transport wagons and pack horses assembled in the courtyard of the fortress. Meanwhile, similar scenes were taking place all across Geofu, as hundreds of soldiers and knights made the necessary preparations for their imminent departure.
Claudia was in the middle of this organized chaos, shouting orders to the knights and support personnel while discussing some last-minute details with her officers.
"-coordinate with Captain Duvall. We need to travel fast and light, so I want everyone ready to-"
The knight commander stopped mid-sentence and turned around to see her husband running toward her. The man was visibly out of breath, his face was red and sweaty, his clothes were ruffled and his hat was backward.
"You- leaving- I- here- goodbye," Klaus gasped as soon as he was in front of her.
Claudia put a hand on his shoulder. "Klaus, breath," she ordered gently yet firmly, looking at her husband with concern. Meanwhile, Helen and her fellow officers walked away discreetly to give them some privacy. "Did you run all the way from the academy?"
The scholar made a so-so gesture while taking deep breaths of air. "I heard the bell and saw the troops in the streets. I tried to use a carriage, but the entire city was in a frenzy and I had to ditch it before the market," he said as soon as he was no longer on the verge of collapsing. "What is going on?"
"A large demon army managed to get through our defenses and it's now marching south toward the heart of Eostia. We must stop them before they get too close to Ken," Claudia said with a grave tone, before looking regretfully at Klaus. "I'm sorry I have to leave you so suddenly, my love."
"Don't worry, my dear. We can always go to the theater another time," he joked, even if his smile didn't reach his eyes. His words still managed to dispel some of the tension, though, as Claudia let out a soft chuckle of amusement and hugged him tightly. "I couldn't let you go without saying goodbye," Klaus said softly, returning her hug without hesitation.
"I love you, Klaus," Claudia replied before kissing his lips.
"I love you too, my dear."
They held each other for a while before slowly breaking their embrace with a bit of reluctance.
"I'll be back," Claudia promised.
"I know," Klaus said without hesitation, showing just how much he trusted her. "You always do," he said softly while he watched her rejoin Helen and the other officers. However, as he followed her with his gaze, he felt a growing sense of anxiety build in his chest. 'You don't send Dawn Templars into battle without a very good reason, and if she decided to deploy so many knights on such short notice…'
For as long as he could remember, fear had always been a constant element in Klaus' life. It came from being born with a weak constitution and being raised by a stern father that never showed any kind of affection toward him. But while he had come to accept the fact that his father would never be proud of him, no matter what he did, the idea of letting Claudia down or worse, losing her forever, was something that still terrorized him.
A dull thud and the snort of a horse caught his attention. He shifted his worried gaze and spotted Clay among the support personnel. The Sentinel was hard to miss due to his size, especially considering that he had just finished to single-handedly load a cart with several heavy crates of supplies.
'If only I had even a fraction of his strength…' he thought before biting his lips. "Uh, Clay? May I talk with you for a moment?" He asked nervously.
The Sentinel quickly glanced over his shoulder toward the Templars still getting on their horses before approaching the scholar. "Sure. What is it, Klaus?"
"I… I have a favor to ask you," he said quietly. "It's about Claudia." Klaus hesitated. "Could you… Could you look after her? I- I know that she can take care of herself in battle, but… I still worry about her safety."
Clay frowned. Even if he had not received any explicit order, protecting Lady Levantine was already one of his top priorities, not just because the woman was his commander, but also because she was one of the leaders of the Seven Shields Alliance. However, looking at Klaus and remembering Helen's words, he realized that the scholar needed a different kind of reassurance. While the man was not exactly a coward, he was not what you would call a strong man either, and would definitely be devastated if anything happened to Claudia. "I'll do everything I can to ensure no harm happens to her."
"Thank you, my friend," Klaus said with sincere gratitude. "Oh, and take care of yourself," he added a bit awkwardly. "I mean, you're probably the last person that needs to hear that, but… well, be careful."
"Thank you for the concern, Klaus." The scholar couldn't see Clay's face due to his helmet, however, the Sentinel was actually smiling. Having someone concerned for your well-being was… nice. 'Friends… I guess that's what we are.' After all, they respected each other, shared a common interest in learning more about the world, even if for different reasons, and spent a lot of time together.
"Well… good hunting and may the Goddess lighten your path."
Clay nodded at him before walking to the head of the column to join Claudia and Helen.
"Is everything alright?" The paladin asked.
"Your husband wanted to say goodbye," he said as he took position beside her horse.
"I see," Claudia hummed. "Are you ready?" She asked, referring not just to leaving the fortress, but also to what was effectively the next step in his life.
The Sentinel nodded firmly. "Affirmative."
"Good." The paladin looked at the soldiers operating the gate mechanism. "Open the gates! We're going to war!"
What's this!? Actual plot development instead of more world building?! *Confused screaming* XD
I apologize if the time skip feels sudden, but I wanted to move forward the plot of the story without spending too much time on character development. I'll make sure to flash out the elf ranger Alina, the Dawn Templars and the other characters in the future chapters.
I originally planned to give Harriet a different backstory, one where she was Agnes' nanny and was forced to hide the fact that she was sexually abused by the viscount from the rest of his family, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea, so I decided to keep things simple.
Now, about THAT scene… If you think it was brutal, then it means two things: you're able to feel empathy and I managed to capture the harsh reality of living in the dark fantasy world of Kuroinu. Life's not fair and not every story has a happy ending. Am I going to write more scenes like that? Absolutely. Do I like doing it? Hell, no, but while writing this chapter made me feel uncomfortable, I'm not going to tune down the violence, not because I'm a fan of rape, but because stuff like this happens for real in our world and contrarily to what a lot of people believe we can't just pretend it doesn't happen and get angry when this topic is even just mentioned. I'm not saying we should get desensitized to violence, but at the same time we can't pretend to live in a bubble where everything is perfect and nothing can hurt our sensibility.
I like Goblin Slayer because it doesn't sugar-coat the brutality of the world where the story takes place, but while I agree that some scene can be unsettling for a more sensible audience, getting angry on Twitter because a 2D character was violated by fictional monsters is not going to change the world and it also means you're missing the whole point of the series. It's not glorification of sexual violence, it's about a broken man who becomes an unsung hero that kills goblins because they're awful creatures that do awful things and thus deserve to die. Even the goblin babies. Especially the goblin babies. Remember guys, the only good goblin is the one that never leaves its stinking cave!
Just like in Goblin Slayer, the rape scenes in this are simply there to show what kind of enemy our heroines have been fighting for years… and a prelude of what will come.