So, here we are with the second chapter of Kuroinu: Rise of the Guardian.
I want to give a big thank you to System-Turn-A for his big help with the lore of Kuroinu and for sharing his opinions about the story. Go check his story The Cur's Bite, it's awesome.
Now, without further ado, enjoy the chapter and leave a comment if you like it.
The sun was already starting to set behind the Dragon Spine when the survivors of the expedition finally reached the base of the mountain.
Claudia pulled the reins of her horse and raised a clenched fist, halting the column. It would be unwise to keep traveling in the dark. The men and women needed to rest and there was always the risk of being ambushed. The coniferous forest in front of them would provide a decent shelter from the cold wind and provide a minimum of cover compared to open terrain.
"We'll make camp here for the night," she announced aloud. "Take care of the wounded and start a fire," she ordered before turning to vice commander Mistral. "Helen, take three knights and check the surrounding area."
"Yes, ma'am," the woman promptly replied before quickly calling the names of three Dawn Templars and leading them in the woods.
The deceptively light sound of footsteps and a nervous snort from her horse were the only things that betrayed the otherwise silent approach of the Sentinel to her steed. Claudia turned her head and sure enough she saw the super soldier quietly standing beside her horse, patiently waiting for orders while scanning the area with his gaze. Despite wearing more armor than anyone else and being the only one on foot, he seemed completely unfazed by the long trek, as if he had just returned from a walk in the park.
"I would like you to go with them," Claudia asked, rather than ordered, to him. The Sentinel waited a moment for his helmet to translate her words before nodding curtly once, then he pulled out his energy weapon and wordlessly followed Helen's team.
The woman dismounted and gently guided her horse toward a group of young trees, throwing a pensive look at the mountains behind them.
"Something's troubling you," Klaus observed.
"How can you tell?" Claudia asked as she tied her horse to the trunk of a pine.
"I'm your husband," the man said with a kind smile.
Claudia felt her chest grow warmer and it took all her willpower to not blush. "I don't like the idea of abandoning Silent Vigilance right after its discovery," she admitted.
"I feel the same, but I have the suspect you're not talking from an academic point of view." When Claudia had announced her decision to head back to Feoh, the closest city fortress, he had been a bit disappointed. However, while a part of him wished to remain to study the ruins and explore their secrets, he knew hers was the only reasonable decision. The wounded needed proper medical care and they didn't have enough supplies to last more than a week.
"What worries me is that by now it could be swarming with demons."
"You think there are more of them in the area?"
"I don't know," Claudia admitted frustrated. "Given that we didn't see any dark elf, their presence could have been a fluke, a random warband stumbling upon us while they were exploring a tunnel. But what if I'm wrong and their queen is also looking for those ruins?"
Klaus frowned and briefly considered her words. "That would be bad." The idea of some long-forgotten spell or some other forms of knowledge falling in the hands of Olga Discordia was unsettling to say the least.
The scholar fumbled with his own saddle, trying to take it off, but without much success. Seeing him struggle, Claudia wordlessly stepped beside him and effortlessly removed it. Klaus was definitely not an outdoor person. "Thank you," he sheepishly said before continuing. "However, you had to admit that it would also be an awful coincidence if she managed to find Silent Vigilance at the same time that we did it."
Claudia put his saddle next to hers and let out a mirthless chuckle. "True, but if there's something that I've learned from watching Maia gamble, is that there's no limit to bad luck."
Leaving their horses in the cares of one of the soldiers, they made their way toward the middle of the camp. Several tents were being set up and a campfire was already burning in the middle of the clearing.
"True," he conceded with a pensive look. "Have you considered that they may have not been there for the ruins?" Demons were crafty, but he doubted they were smart enough to understand the value of ancient knowledge. That's why they would need the guidance of a dark elf.
Claudia threw him a perplexed look. "What other reason could have brought them there?"
"Well…" Klaus hesitated. "What if they were there for you? I mean… to…"
"To kill me?" Claudia finished his sentence with such calm that made Klaus flinch. They both knew that there was a chance that she may one day never return from battle, however, while Claudia had long since accepted such risk as part of her life as a knight, Klaus had never been comfortable with the topic.
"Yes," he said uneasily.
Claudia hummed quietly as she thought about it. An assassination attempt would make sense, given her role in the Alliance, however she quickly dismissed the theory.
"As much as it flatters me the idea that the dark queen sent an entire war band just to kill me," Claudia grunted ironically as she stretched her back, sighing in relief when she heard a few bones pop, "that would still require her to know our destination in order to set up an ambush." She sighed and brushed a lock of hair from her face. "Whatever the truth is, the sooner we reach Feoh, the sooner the Alliance can send troops to secure those ruins. Speaking of which… Sergeant Ross!" Claudia called.
"Yes, Lady Levantine?" a gruff-looking man with large shoulders and salt pepper beard quickly answered her call.
"Fetch me a carrier pigeon. I need to send a message to Lady Arcturus in Feoh."
"Yes, my lady," the man promptly replied.
'I knew it was a good idea to bring them,' Claudia thought as the sergeant pulled out one of the birds from the wicker cage secured on the back of one of the pack horses. "May I borrow your pencil and a piece of paper?" she asked Klaus.
"Yes, of course," he said, handing the required items. "What are you going to tell Alicia?"
"That the mission was a success and we found what we were looking for, but we also suffered casualties," she said while quickly writing the message in her neat and elegant calligraphy. "I'll explain more in detail once we'll meet in person." Taking a moment to visualize a map of the land around Feoh in her mind, she quickly located a suitable meeting point. 'Meet me where the old sailing vessel overlooks the golden sea,' she scribbled at the end of the note, quoting the words of one of Prim's favorite poets. Alicia may have not been the greatest fan of Rudolph Edelweiss, but Claudia was confident she would understand.
"A bit vague and mysterious," Klaus commented, glancing at the message.
"I agree, but with Theodor dead, we no longer have a safe way to inform Celestine of our progress. The last thing we need is one of Olga's scouts intercepting the message." Gifted with exceptional eyesight even among their kind, dark elf archers were able to hit their targets at incredible distance, as evinced by the many Alliance officers and nobles killed by their arrows despite being distant from the frontline. A pigeon carrying a message would be target practice for them.
She read the message one more time then, nodding satisfied, she rolled up the small scroll and handed it to the sergeant. "Make sure it reaches its destination."
"I feel like a squire again," Simon Schneeflocke grumbled while stirring the soup with a wooden ladle. "Remind me again, why am I the one cooking for the entire camp?" he asked aloud to no one in particular.
"It's part of your final training, Simon," one of the Dawn Templars assures him with what could pass for a tone full of wisdom.
"Indeed. A proper knight must learn the value of performing humble tasks," another Templar added, trying – and failing – to sound serious. "It's to, uh, keep your heart pure and… stuff."
The other Dawn Templars nodded in agreement and mumbled similar sentences.
The young blonde man stared skeptically at the women in silver armor. "Riiiiiight," he deadpanned, not sounding particularly convinced. "And here I thought it's because I'm the youngest one here," he added sarcastically.
"Less whining and more cooking," Helen Mistral ordered curtly, throwing him a look that seemed to say, 'stop wasting time and feed me, mortal'.
"Yes, ma'am!" Simon promptly answered, afraid of incurring in the vice-commander's wrath.
Claudia smirked discreetly at the scene. When Helen was hungry, she became particularly grumpy.
"Alright, dinner's ready!" Simon announced shortly after. Men and women, knights and soldiers alike, promptly lined up with their bowls ready, eager to taste a warm meal after a long eventful day.
"About damn time."
"I'm so hungry I could eat an orc…"
One of the older soldiers looked with mock suspicion at the bubbling pot. "What did you exactly put inside this soup?" he asked Simon.
"Nothing you wouldn't eat, Wilkins," the young knight shot back in annoyance, filling the swordsman's bowl. "Next!"
Several people chuckled and a few more smiled at their friendly banter, something Claudia was grateful for. They had lost several good comrades today and the death of Deborah had been a particularly hard blow to everyone, not just her fellow Templars.
'Another name on the long list of fallen…' Claudia thought bitterly. Before leaving Silent Vigilance, they had collected her body, cleaned it, and enveloped it in a sheet, leaving it inside a room of the fortress along with their other fallen. As they used a slab of rock to seal the room, Claudia had promised to return and give them all a proper burial in Geofu.
The line moved steadily and soon it was Claudia's turn.
"Here you go, lady Levantine," Simon said politely, handing her a steaming bowl.
"Thank you, Simon." Smiling gratefully at the younger knights, Claudia took a look at the food. It was a simple soup of beans with some meat from a hare that one of the archers had managed to catch earlier, but it smelled divinely.
"Make sure to leave some for our special guest," Klaus added once his own bowl was filled.
Simon blinked. "Special guest…? Oh, right! By the way, has anyone seen him?"
As if on cue, the Sentinel appeared, returning from what they assumed was a patrol of the forest.
An awkward silence fell on the entire camp as the armored titan approached the fire. While not hostile, he was still an incognita to all of them, and no one was sure how to approach him. Surprisingly, the first to take the initiative was Simon. "Oh! Uh, hi there! You came right in time," the young knight exclaimed with an honest, if nervous, smile. "We, uh, we're having dinner and we'd be glad if you were to join us. If you want. No pressure." The Sentinel stared silently at him. "… I'll take it as a yes. Uh, want some?" he offered, gesturing to the soup. "I mean… you do eat, right?"
The Sentinel nodded.
"Oh, good," Simon grabbed a spare bowl, filled it with soup, then added a bit more after throwing a quick calculative glance at the Sentinel. "Alright, here you are. I hope you like it."
Claudia smiled approvingly at the scene. The boy could be awkward, clumsy, and a bit childish at times, but he was also brave, friendly, and with a good heart. He was a decent fighter, as evidenced by the fact he had survived the earlier battle with only a few scratches and bruises, and if he kept working hard, she had no doubt he would become a great knight.
The Sentinel nodded once and took the bowl with one hand, then he reached out with the other toward his helmet to remove it. The gesture instantly caught the attention of everyone and soon the entire camp was staring at him, curious to see what he would look like under his helmet. With a small twist to the left and a peculiar faint hiss of air, the Sentinel removed his helmet, revealing his face.
'He's younger than I expected,' was the first thing that Claudia thought. If she had to guess, she would have said he was in mid-twenties, however, if her experience with elves had taught her anything, it was to never jump to conclusions.
He had a square face with well-defined features, a strong jaw, and short silver hair cut similar to a butch cut. His skin was incredibly pale, not in a sickly, unhealthy way, but it was painfully obvious that he spent most of his time inside his armor. His eyes were grey, attentive, somewhat cold yet not in a malevolent way, and full of intelligence.
All in all, he looked rather handsome, and judging by the blushes on the faces of the other women, soldiers and knights alike, they seemed to share her same opinion.
'All except for Helen, of course,' Claudia thought, glancing at the impassive gaze of her strict vice-commander. 'But that's expected, given her tastes…'
Ignoring their curious stares and whispers, the Sentinel brought the bowl to his lips and quickly drank the soup in a few long gulps. Once he was done, he handed back the bowl to Simon with a curt nod, put back on his helmet and left the campfire area to resume his watch duty.
"I guess he's not a man of many words," Simon commented awkwardly, breaking the silence that had fallen upon the camp.
"It's hard to have a decent conversation when you don't understand the language," Helen pointed out as she slowly enjoyed her soup. "Hmm. Not bad. Congratulations, Simon. You've just been promoted field chef for the rest of the mission."
"… yes, ma'am," the boy groaned with resignation, much to the amusement of the rest of the group.
After dinner, Claudia announced her intention to take the first watch. Helen and pretty much everyone else had objected, but the paladin had been adamant with her decision, ordering them to go to sleep in preparation for the return trip. They all obeyed, although with a bit of reluctance, leaving Claudia alone with Klaus.
"You're not obligated to stay awake," she said as she used a stick to poke the fire.
"I disagree," Klaus said as he sat beside her in front of the fire. "It is my duty to keep you company."
Claudia chuckled softly and kissed his lips. "Thank you," she whispered gratefully.
They talked for a while about various things, from the plans to renovate the western wing of the Levantine manor to what should be the next birthday present for Prim, until they fell into a comfortable silence, simply enjoying each other's company.
Feeling she was starting to doze off watching the flickering flames, Claudia shifted her gaze up to the starry sky, just in time to catch a shooting star with her gaze. She smiled. Back when she was a little girl, she was fascinated by astronomy, spending several nights on the roof of her house to watch to watch lunar eclipses and meteor showers while dreaming about exploring distant new worlds. Childish fantasies, but she remembered fondly those simpler, happier times.
The sound of something scratching on the ground caught her attention. Klaus had grabbed a stick and was using its tip to trace something in the dirt.
"Edenian runes," he quietly answered her unspoken question. "High Writing, to be exact. We've been studying them for centuries, but the vast majority of them are still a mystery. All we've managed to decipher so far is what is commonly known as Low Writing, which is the ancestor of the Lingua Arcana used in magic sigils and grimoires."
Claudia glanced past him and smiled a bit. "Maybe he can help you."
Klaus looked up and let out a quiet gasp of surprise when he saw the Sentinel staring down at them from a few feet away. 'How can someone so big be so quiet?' The scholar wondered. "Uh, hello," Klaus saluted him. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
The Sentinel pointed at the runes scribbled on the ground.
"Oh, this? It's… just something I was doing to pass the time…" Klaus trailed off sheepishly. 'I hope I didn't just write something blasphemous or offensive…'
"Uh?" Klaus looked at the Sentinel in confusion. "What did you just say?"
The Sentinel squatted down and pointed at one of the runes, a downward-pointing double chevron overlapped by a reversed S. "Taonàs," he repeated slower, before pointing at the campfire.
Klaus shifted his gaze between the flickering flames and the rune a few times before his face suddenly lit up in understanding. "Taonàs," he slowly repeated, before looking back at the Sentinel. "Fire."
"Fire," the Sentinel parroted him. "Eorud," he said, tracing a small swirl in the ground before pretending to grab something in the air.
'Nothing? No, wait…' Klaus suddenly realized. "Eorud. Air." He then took his wineskin, removed the cork, and poured a bit of water on the ground. "Water."
"Water. Hudor," the Sentinel said, tracing two parallel waves inside a circle. He then grabbed a bit of soil and showed it to the scholar.
"Earth," Klaus said.
"Earth. Georas," the Sentinel replied, tracing a triangle topped by a small circle.
"Georas," Klaus repeated as a genuine smile formed on his lips. "Taonàs, eorud, hudor and georas. The four elements," Klaus muttered fascinated, pulling out his leather-bound notebook to write down what he had just learned.
"Seems like you just made a friend," Claudia commented amused.
Klaus looked at her with eyes full of enthusiasm. "Of course. Academics stick together," he joked.
"Hmm, he definitely looks like a scholar," she played along.
"I know, right?" Klaus snorted in amusement before clearing his voice and looking back at the Sentinel. "If you want, I'd be glad to teach you our language and everything else you want about the world… and in exchange I hope you won't mind if I take the opportunity to ask you a few questions," he added sheepishly, looking hopefully at the super soldier.
The Sentinel stood back to his full height and nodded.
"Wonderful!" The scholar exclaimed happily right before a thought crossed his mind. "Oh, there are so many things I want to know! Like-"
"His name," Claudia said suddenly as she had just realized something important.
Klaus blinked in confusion.
"We never asked him his name," Claudia continued, looking ashamed.
The scholar widened his eyes a bit as he realized she was right and mirrored her reaction.
"Forgive us for such rudeness," Claudia apologized with her head bowed. "I know it's not an excuse, but with everything that happened we never finished our introduction."
The Sentinel waited a moment for the rune to translate her words, then he merely shrugged.
His humble reaction surprised her. A lot of people that she knew would have been furious if put in a similar situation. "… thank you," the woman said, grateful for his understanding.
"So… What should we call you?" Klaus asked.
The Sentinel tilted his head in slight confusion. "Sentinel," he answered plainly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Claudia frowned and gently shook her head. "That's your title, not your name. It simply defines what you are, but not who you are." The woman gestured first at herself, then at her husband as she continued. "Just as I am Claudia, and he is Klaus," she said, gesturing to herself and her husband, "I'm sure you also have a name to refer to yourself."
The Sentinel stared silently at them for a while before shrugging again.
"You don't remember?" Claudia said with dismay before a darker thought occurred to her. "… or you don't know?"
The Sentinel tilted his head. "Important?" he asked with honest curiosity.
Claudia widened her eyes in horror. "Of course!" she exclaimed, appalled not just by the question, but also by the sincerity in his tone. "Names are part of our identity, what distinguish each individual and make them unique! It's one of the most basic and important things and yet, it seems like you don't care about it. Why?"
"Discipline. Loyalty. Obedience. Fighting. All… important," he explained as best as he could in his broken Common, each pause corresponding with a pulse of the rune on his helmet. "Everything else… Not… relevant."
"Like hell!" Claudia shouted fiercely, looking incredulously at the Sentinel. Before even realizing it, she had bolted up from her seat, looming over him despite being at least a foot shorter. Klaus silently observed the scene with growing concern. He had seen his wife get angry in the past, but this was something different. "How can you say something like that? It's almost as if you're not even human!"
The Sentinel shifted imperceptibly on his feet. It was a subtle gesture that most people would have missed, but after a lifetime spent dealing with people wearing armor, Claudia recognized it as a form of discomfort.
"You… should know," he said slowly, sounding slightly confused.
"We are… same." Claudia blinked in confusion. "Warriors. Guardians. Ah… Soldiers," he elaborated.
The female paladin nodded slowly. "Yes," she said cautiously, not sure where this conversation was going.
"Our duty… as soldiers…is… to protect humanity… Whatever the cost." The rune on his helmet pulsed erratically as the spell matrix struggled to translate his words into modern speech.
"You say that as if soldiers and humanity are two different things," Claudia said as a myriad of emotions flashed across her face. Anger, surprise, pity, compassion, sadness... "Soldiers are not machines. We're people too. We feel, we suffer, we laugh, we love, we live…"
She had dedicated her entire life trying to become the perfect knight, growing under the tutelage of a man that through tough love had taught her the values of discipline, duty, sacrifice, and honor. The Sentinel was probably the closest thing to a physical embodiment to those very values she held so dear and yet, instead of being inspired, the woman was actually afraid.
Is that what you obtain when you remove what makes an individual a human being? A husk in the shape of a man, completely dedicated to his mission, who exists purely to fight until he's either dead or there are no more enemies? Was this a side effect of the eternity chamber? The result of a war so horrible that she couldn't even comprehend? Or was it something entirely different? What if… what if he believed such things because he had been taught so?
"We are not machines," she repeated, this time barely louder than a whisper.
The Sentinel remained silent, either too stunned by her words to reply, or simply processing what she had just said.
Just as Claudia was about to turn around and leave to go to her tent, he finally spoke.
Claudia looked up at the Sentinel in surprise. "What?" she asked softly.
It took her a couple heartbeats to grasp what he meant. "You want me to choose a name for you?" The Sentinel nodded, only increasing her confusion. "Why? Why me?"
The Sentinel didn't answer immediately. Instead, for the second time since he had awoken, he removed his helmet, looking at her with his piercing grey eyes. His gaze was serious, sincere, but surprisingly also a bit… Was that hesitation? No. Insecurity. As if he was looking for guidance.
"You. Knight Commander. Claudia Levantine. Give. Orders," the super soldier elaborated as best as he could through his broken speech. "I. Sentinel. Follow. Orders."
Claudia was speechless. 'What kind of reasoning is that? He's giving me such responsibility just because he sees me as a figure of authority?' She was very tempted to refuse, saying that she wasn't the right person, only to realize something.
If not her… then who?
Everything and everyone he knew was gone. He had no comrades. No leaders. No purpose.
He may have saved her and everyone else back in the ruins, but at the same time, she was the one that saved him from an uncertain future by asking for his help.
"You really wish so?" Claudia asked, still a bit unsure. The Sentinel nodded firmly. "So be it," she sighed softly, before studying him attentively, trying to find a feature, a distinctive trait, something that may inspire her, until her gaze fell on his sword. "May I see your sword?"
Without any hesitation, he deftly drew his blade and handed it to the woman.
Claudia carefully took the sword by the hilt and the first thing she noticed was that, despite its size, the sword was lighter than expected. Next was the balance: it was perfect. Finally came the design: simple, clean, almost utilitarian in its practicality, yet at same time elegant and advanced. 'Simple yet complex, just like its owner.'
"It resembles a claymore," she noted, voicing her thoughts. "Hmm. Claymore… Clay-more… Clay," Claudia whispered thoughtfully as her eyes suddenly lit up. "How about Clay?" she asked tentatively.
The Sentinel frowned imperceptibly, briefly considering the idea, then gave her a curt nod of approval. "Yes."
Claudia felt slightly annoyed by his lukewarm reaction, but at the same time it also amused her. "You really are a man of few words, uh?" she mused with the barest hint of a smile, only to receive yet another small shrug.
The Sentinel - 'Clay,' Claudia corrected herself – simply shrugged and put back on his helmet.
"Where are you going?" she asked as he turned away.
"Keep. Watch. Secure. Area," he answered, deftly putting away his sword.
"Are you sure?" Claudia asked, instantly feeling silly for asking. "Right. I suppose you know your limits better than anyone else. But try to get some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day," Claudia warned him before heading toward her tent. "Come, Klaus."
Klaus threw his stick in the fire and stood up. "I wish you a good night," the scholar said with a smile before following his wife.
Left alone with the dying embers of the campfire, the Sentinel began his solitary vigil. He didn't mind the solitude and these people needed to rest more than he did. He also had a lot to think about, even if his head hurt due to his intensive use of the translation matrix. 'The sooner I learn what they called Common tongue, the better,' he decided before moving to more pressing topics.
The Edenian empire had fallen. A shocking revelation, but not a completely unexpected one, especially considering the type of enemy they were fighting. Nothing is eternal, not even a nation ruled by the gods.
'The world is still alive and the great enemy was no more. That is all that matters.' He could not change the past and even if he was the last of his kind, he still had the duty to protect the inhabitants of this world, even if they weren't his people.
'Speaking of which…'
He turned his head, shifting his gaze toward the tent that the knight paladin shared with her husband. They were both good people. Lord Klaus was a very curious and intelligent individual, and he looked forward at their future conversations, knowing they both learn a lot.
As for his wife…
From what he had seen so far, Lady Claudia was definitely a good leader, one worthy of his trust and respect. She was brave, determined, and she cared for her troops, all traits of a good commander.
And yet, she also confused him, particularly her reaction when she had learned he didn't have a name.
He wondered why. Was it really that important? He was a Sentinel after all. A Guardian of the Mantle, one of the many that was uplifted by the Life Warden with the specific purpose of protecting the world from the armies of darkness. It was a great sacrifice, but also a great honor. He couldn't imagine a different life, and yet, her words had made him feel for the first time like he was missing something.
Maybe that's why he had asked her to give him a new name.
"Clay," he quietly tested the word. In the past he had received several designations, far many to remember, as they changed each time he was assigned to a new squad. But this was different, although he could not tell exactly why.
'This is going to be an interesting journey,' he decided as he quietly started to inspect the area around the camp.
Kingdom of Feoh, several days later
Under the warm morning sun, a small group of seven people rode across the lush wheat fields surrounding the mighty fortress city of Feoh. Four of the riders wore light metal armor with a blue-violet tunic and the coat of arms of the Holy Chivalry Order of Iris embroidered in yellow. Reading at the head of the group was none other than their commander, Alicia Arcturus herself, the Shield Princess of Feoh.
The young blonde woman was dressed with a partial set of elven armor that covered her legs, arms, and shoulders. The rest of her outfit consisted of a blue jacket and a pair of pants reinforced with enchanted mithril thread that made her clothes as effective as light armor without hindering her movements.
The group stopped as the dirt road in front of them split in two directions: one path led southward to the fortress city of Ur, cutting through the Elster Forest; the other continued south-east through the Central Grasslands, all the way to Geofu and Ken.
Alicia's sharp violet eyes followed the latter path until her gaze fell on a lonely windmill built on the edge of a small forest. Painted in faded blue pain and with its large white sails moving lazily in the warm morning breeze, it vaguely resembled a sailing ship overlooking the vast fields of wheat stretching to the horizon like a golden sea. 'Clever.'
"According to her message, Lady Levantine's camp should be there," she said to the hooded woman riding beside her, keeping her gaze on the windmill.
"Is something wrong, Alicia?" the other woman asked softly. Her long grey coat hid most of her tall curvaceous body, leaving only exposed her sandal-clad feet and the delicate hands holding the reins of her pure-white mare. At first glance she could have easily passed for a human, were it not for her faint melodious accent, typical of the high elves. "You look upset."
"Forgive me, lady Celestine, but I find this entire situation highly suspicious," Alicia admitted. "Why would Lady Levantine ask us to meet her in such a secluded location, rather than inside the city?"
The disguised goddess reborn remained quiet for a few moments as she considered Alicia's words. "You're worried this may be an elaborate trap?"
"Yes, my lady."
"I see." Celestine could understand the reasons behind Alicia's worries, at least to a certain extent. After all, it was rather uncommon for Celestine to venture outside her fortress city, but after reading Claudia's message, she had deemed it necessary to meet her directly in Feoh, rather than wait in Ken for her return.
This had been a constant source of distress for Alicia, who was particularly concerned about Celestine's safety. Dark elves assassins had become increasingly rare in the last few centuries, but they were still a real threat, and while no attempt to kill Celestine had ever been made since the war started, many believed it was more due to a lack of suitable opportunities rather than Olga Discordia's benevolence. 'If only they knew the truth…' Celestine thought sadly, knowing that none of her fellow Shields – except Prim, probably – would hesitate to kill the dark queen if they had the chance.
"Fear not, my young friend. I have already ascertained the authenticity of the message. The reason why it was delivered through a carrier pigeon is probably simply because something must have happened to their mage."
"Then why all this secrecy?" Alicia asked, visibly frustrated. Her teacher's message had been short and vague, leaving out many details. Alicia hated not knowing. It reduced her efficiency, and when you're in charge of an entire kingdom, sloppiness can only lead to horrible consequences. 'I will not disappoint you, father.'
"She's probably just being cautious." Alicia and the elf in disguise turned to look at the third woman riding with them in front of the group. She was a few years older than Alicia, with short wavy red hair framing a pair of mischievous tangerine eyes. "Whatever she found on the Dragon Spine must be so important that the last thing she wants are Olga's spies reporting about her finding to their queen."
With Claudia Levantine away, the role of Celestine's bodyguard had temporarily fallen upon Maia, the Shield Princess of Ansur. In complete contrast to Alicia, the former mercenary wore no armor except for a pair of leather vambraces that also served as sheaths for a couple of knives she kept 'for special occasions', as she had once joked. The rest of her outfit consisted of black knee-height boots, a pair of blue tight-fitting pants that hugged her shapely legs held by a leather belt from which hung her two swords, a red leather jacket with fur collar that left exposed a fair amount of cleavage, and a pair of fingerless leather gloves with reinforced knuckles. All in all, it was a practical outfit that favored agility and speed over protection, which suited perfectly her aggressive combat style.
"Spies? In Feoh? Impossible," Alicia scoffed dismissively.
"How can you be so sure?" Maia asked, trying her best to ignore the younger woman's tone. Alicia was an excellent swordswoman and tactician, however, her short temper and prideful personality prevented her from becoming a great leader like her father.
Alicia smiled proudly. "Because the nobles in charge of the City Watch have been honorably serving my family for years," she replied with confidence.
Maia stared blankly at her and raised a brow, unimpressed. "… that doesn't really answer my question."
"Excuse me?" Alicia asked with mild irritation.
"You heard me. A fancy title is not synonymous with competence. And I've seen scarecrows more capable than those fat clowns."
"You dare to doubt the men personally chosen by my father while you're not even taking your job seriously?" Alicia demanded, taking Maia's comment as a personal critique.
In any other situation, Maia would have probably dropped the subject, knowing how much Alicia admired and loved her father. However, the younger woman had just questioned her competence, and if there was something the former mercenary was particularly proud of, it was her sense of duty. 'Heavens, give me patience. Because if you give me strength, I'm gonna smack her,' Maia silently prayed, trying to remember some of Kaguya's calming techniques. She had tried that wacky meditation thing a few of times, but she always ended up falling asleep, much to the disapproval of the high priestess of Thorn. Apparently, snoring in the temple is a big no-no. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about your irresponsible decision to bring such a flimsy escort to keep Lady Celestine safe! What if something happens? If we had followed my plan-"
"Then everyone within ten miles of distance would know that we're escorting someone important," Maia shot back, staring right into her eyes. "Instead, as I'm sure I have already told you, people will think that I just joined you on a patrol because I was bored out of my ass, while Celestine is currently teaching magic to Prim in her room."
"Your entire plan to protect Lady Celestine safe is based on lies and deception," Alicia pointed out with obvious disdain.
"So what? My job is to keep her safe, not to parade her around like a trophy," Maia replied as a matter of fact.
"It's a cowardly tactic," Alicia objected.
"The world is full of cowards, miss perfection," Maia countered with a tone that suggested she was getting annoyed by the other woman's attitude. Gone was her mischievous gaze, replaced by a serious one. "They're not bound to any of your fancy codes of chivalry, and will do everything they can to win, regardless of what you think about their methods."
"I guess you'd know that from personal experience."
Maia narrowed her eyes, but before she could reply to Alicia's insult, Celestine intervened.
"Enough," the high elf said sternly, stopping their argument before it could furtherly degenerate. "I will not tolerate fights among us. Maia, stop provoking Alicia. She's just expressing her concerns. And Alicia, you may not approve her methods, but you know as well as me that Maia takes her job very seriously." Moving her horse in front of them, she looked sternly at the two women, in a way that resembled a disappointed mother. "You're both Shields of Eostia. I expect you to behave with dignity and respect, not to quarrel like spoiled children."
"Yes, your holiness/Lady Celestine," Alicia and Maia apologized in unison, pointedly looking forward in order to not cross each other's gaze.
Celestine sighed in slight frustration. Among her fellow Shields, they were the ones that argued the most, which wasn't a surprise, given their very different origins.
As the only heir of king Eos, Alicia had been raised in a strict and severe way in order to prepare her for the day when she'd take her father's place as ruler of Feoh and lead her people against the demon armies of Garan. She was a proud woman with a fierce temper, but she also had a deep love for her people and a great sense of justice. Celestine personally suspected that her iron lady attitude was a sort of war mask she wore to appear strong and give herself courage.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Maia was a war orphan born in a small backwater town that ended up joining the Kuroinu in order to escape a life of misery, in the hope of a better future. She was easy-going, boisterous and at times childish, but while she may have not received a formal education due to her lowly origins, she was undoubtedly smart, way smarter than people gave her credit for, as demonstrated by her multiple successes since she had become the Shield of Ansur.
'So young and yet they already carry so many responsibilities…' Celestine had hoped that the two of them would become friends with time and learn from each other, but unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
"Let's get back on the move. We've already made Claudia wait long enough," Celestine said, spurring her horse to a trot.
Once they reached the outskirts of the forest, they found lady Helen Mistral, Claudia's second in command, waiting for them under a large oak in company of a young knight with honey blonde hair.
It took Alicia a few moments to recognize him: Simon Schneeflocke, the only grandson of one of Geofu's most influential nobles. His family and the Levantines had been friends for generations and they were close neighbours. He was a bit too talkative and naïve in her opinion, but at least he wasn't rude and obnoxious like most nobles nowadays.
The two knights quickly saluted them, with the younger one almost falling off his saddle for the surprise when he recognized the Goddess Reborn.
"Greetings, my ladies. The knight-commander is waiting for you. We're here to lead you to our camp" Helen said, turning her horse around and leading them into the woods until they reached a small clearing.
The three shields and their escort dismounted and entered the camp on foot, leaving their mounts in the care of a couple of soldiers. All around them, knights and soldiers alike were finishing disassembling the camp and gathering their things in preparation for their imminent departure.
"I see you've suffered casualties," Celestine commented sorrowfully, noticing the wounded and the horses without riders.
"We all knew the risks, your holiness," Helen said stoically. "All we can do is honor the sacrifice of those no longer with us."
"I will personally officiate their funeral," Celestine promised solemnly.
"As for the rest of you, our healers are ready to take care of your wounded, and you will all find warm food, clean beds, and hot water waiting for you in our barracks," Alicia informed them.
"Thank you, princesses. Much appreciated," Helen said with gratitude.
They found lady and lord Levantine a bit far ahead, discussing with each other about something. Claudia's enchanted armor was covered with dents and scratches, and Klaus seemed worn out from the long journey, but aside from that they both looked fine.
As soon as she saw her friend, Celestine lowered her hood, revealing a soft angelic face framed by long silky blonde hair that reached her calves. The beauty of the goddess reborn was legendary, but while her body had been a source of inspiration for countless artists over the centuries, her most striking feature was her bright green eyes. They were kind and gentle, like those of a caring mother, yet also full of wisdom and power that went far beyond those of a normal high elf, as one would expect from the woman that carried the soul of a goddess.
The men and women all around started whispering words of surprise and awe at the sight of their beloved queen and goddess, bowing their heads in respect. Celestine smiled warmly at them and returned the gesture, before looking back at the paladin.
"I'm so glad to see you again, Claudia," the high elf said as she eagerly hugged the tall woman.
Claudia gently returned the hug and closed her eyes, resting her forehead on Celestine's. "Me too," Claudia said softly to her friend, feeling the tension of the last few days disappear under the warm benevolent aura radiated by the high elf. "Your presence is a surprise, but a welcome one," she continued, slowly breaking the hug.
"The message you sent to Alicia piqued my curiosity," Celestine explained. "The way you wrote it suggested that you found something really important."
"I apologize for the secrecy, my lady."
"I trust your judgement, Claudia," the goddess said without hesitation, before looking around like a curious child. "So, what is this great discovery?"
Claudia barely managed to hold back an amused smile at the sight of the high elf's twitching ears. She had always found secretly amusing how expressive elves could with their body language, despite usually carrying themselves as noble and dignified creatures.
"I think it's better if we show you," Claudia said before turning toward a particularly thick group of bushes. "You can come out now," she said out loud.
As soon as she spoke, the Sentinel silently emerged from his hiding spot, moving with a grace and fluidity more akin to an ambush predator than a man.
Celestine widened her eyes and gasped softly in surprise. Maia let out a quiet swear as she stared at him in awe. As for Alicia and her knights, they cried out in alarm and instinctively took position in front of Celestine, drawing their swords. "Protect the Goddess!" the young princess of Feoh yelled.
"Stop! Put down your weapons!" Claudia promptly ordered, stepping between the knights of Iris and the Sentinel. Meanwhile, her Dawn Templars and soldiers had rushed to the scene, drawn by the sudden commotion.
The knights of Iris hesitated, shifting their nervous gazes between the Sentinel and the knight commander.
Claudia narrowed her eyes. "I will not repeat myself. Stand. Down," she commanded sternly.
The women flinched and hurriedly sheathed their swords.
All, except for Alicia. The girl was so focused on the perceived threat in front of her that she didn't hear Claudia's voice. Her posture was tense, with her hands holding too hard her sword, her pupils were dilated and she was starting to hyperventilate.
'Is this how I looked when he first approached us?' Claudia wondered, remembering those tense early moments when they were still unsure about the Sentinel's intentions. "Alicia?" Claudia softly called her, putting a hand on her shoulder. The girl inhaled sharply as she finally snapped out of her fear-induced trance. "It's alright," she continued to talk gently, like to a scared child. "He won't hurt you or anyone else."
"Are you sure, Claudia?" the younger woman asked nervously, keeping her eyes fixed on the armored juggernaut.
"He's the only reason we're still alive," the paladin said solemnly.
"… alright." Trusting her mentor, Alicia finally dropped her stance and put away her sword.
Everyone let out a quiet sigh of relief, glad that the situation had not escalated into violence due to a simple misunderstanding. All, except for Clay. The Sentinel had observed the scene without reacting, either realizing that any sudden movement may have scared Alicia and her knights… or simply because he didn't consider them a threat.
"A Sentinel," Celestine muttered in awe as she stepped past her escort to have a closer look at the super soldier. "Just like in her memories…"
The moment their gazes met, he promptly knelt, firmly planting a fist on the ground while bowing his head in sign of submission. "Domina," he said aloud with utter reverence, not daring to cross her gaze.
Celestine's expression quickly morphed in a mortified grimace. While she understood why people acted like this around her, the very reason Laurentia had reincarnated as a mortal was to walk among the people and interact with them, sharing their joys and miseries, not to be worshipped from a distance by fearful masses as it happened far too often, much to her frustration.
"Oh, no, no, no. Please. That's not necessary," Celestine hurriedly assured him. Reaching out with her hands, she cupped the base of his helmet with her delicate fingers. "Look at me," she ordered with a firm yet soft voice.
The super soldier hesitated for a heartbeat, before doing as commanded, slowly titling his head upward until he could see her face. She was smiling warmly at him and her eyes showed nothing but kindness. "Rise, warrior," she gently said.
The Sentinel stared at the goddess reborn for a moment before doing as she said, standing at attention with his back as straight as an arrow and looking forward.
Celestine sighed softly. 'It's still a progress, I guess.'
Maia whistled impressed, looking the Sentinel up and down. "Damn. They sure grow them big where you come from," she joked before looking at Claudia. "I feel like there's an interesting story behind this guy."
"You could say so," Claudia admitted before proceeding to narrate the events that took place since their departure from Feoh a few weeks ago. With the help of Klaus, she told them about the search for the gate on the Dragon Spine, the discovery of Silent Vigilance, the unexpected attack of the demons and Klaus' desperate plan to save everyone from a horrible fate.
Celestine listened to Claudia's report with interest, occasionally asking a few questions; Alicia's expression kept shifting from disbelief to concern; as for Maia, she looked like an excited kid listening to an epic tale.
"He's really gonna help us?" Maia asked once Claudia finished. "Holy. Fuck. Olga's troops are gonna shit their pants when they'll see him!" She exclaimed with a grin that threatened to split her face in half.
Alicia didn't seem to share her fellow Shield's enthusiasm. "He sure is intimidating," she commented quietly. If anything, her wariness toward the Sentinel had only increased after hearing how he had almost single handedly wiped out an entire warband of demons.
"You have our sincerest gratitude for saving our friends and for joining our cause," Celestine said solemnly to the Sentinel. "Allow me to officially welcome you to our land. I am Celestine Lucross, Goddess Reborn, High Queen of Eostia, Shield of Ken, and leader of the Holy Alliance of the Seven Shields. These women are my trusty companions and friends, Princess Alicia Arcturus, Shield of Feoh, and Lady Maia, Shield of Ansur."
"Greetings," Alicia saluted him stiffly.
"Sup!" Maia said with a friendly wave.
The Sentinel bowed respectfully his head and put his fist across his chest like he did with Claudia, but remained quiet. After a few moments of awkward silence, Celestine spoke again. "Uhm, may I ask you what is your name, noble Sentinel?"
The juggernaut shifted almost imperceptibly on his feet, feeling a bit uncomfortable at being directly addressed by Celestine. "Eto noman-" He paused once realizing he had accidentally slipped in his mother tongue. "My name is Clay," he said with a light yet distinctive Geofu accent, a result of constant exposition to their speech.
"Just Clay?" Celestine asked curiously.
"…yes, domina," the Sentinel said after a brief moment of hesitation.
"That's what we call him," Claudia explained, stepping into the conversation. "We don't know his actual name, for he doesn't seem to remember it."
Alicia frowned. "How can someone forget their own name?" she asked incredulously, eyeing the Sentinel with evident suspicion. "It almost sounds like an excuse."
Claudia looked sternly at the younger woman. "Alicia," Claudia called her with a warning tone, making her flinch.
"We think the reason behind his partial memory loss may be a consequence of his prolonged permanence inside the eternity chamber," Klaus explained diplomatically, changing topic before Alicia could furtherly embarrass herself. "We don't know if the artifact caused other side effects, so we'd like to have someone give him a full medical examination."
Celestine nodded in agreement. "That's a fair and reasonable request, Klaus. Doctor Rosaspina is currently in Feoh for a debate at the royal academy. I'm sure he would be glad to help us."
"I couldn't ask for a more capable individual, your highness," the scholar agreed.
"There's still a problem. How exactly are we going to get him into the castle without being seen?" Maia asked. "The whole point of this secret meeting was to keep him away from prying eyes."
"Yes. It would be problematic if Olga Discordia discovered about his existence too soon," Claudia agreed.
"We can count on the discretion of the knights and palace staff… however, I don't think the rest of the city would be able to keep the secret," Alicia admitted.
"Are you kidding? If anyone sees him in the streets, you can bet that within a week all of Eostia will be talking about him," Maia scoffed, assuming a thoughtful expression. "Hmm, maybe we can wait until it gets dark and hide him inside a wagon full of hay or something like that."
"Right. Four shield princesses escorting a wagon full of hay in the middle of the night is definitely the definition of discretion," Alicia commented sarcastically.
"Do you have a better idea?"
"Why, yes, of course," Alicia replied smugly. "We can use the secret passage leading to the Silver Creek."
"Wow. Great plan," Maia deadpanned. "And pray tell, how is he gonna squeeze through that tunnel? I don't know if you've noticed, but he's slightly bigger than average."
Alicia's confidence faltered. "Well… maybe if he removes his armor…" she trailed off, glancing at the seven feet tall juggernaut.
Clay crossed his arms and shook his head. Even with his face hidden by his helmet, they could easily tell he was very likely frowning at her suggestion.
'Guess he really likes his armor,' Maia thought. 'Not that I could blame him. It looks awesome.'
"There's no need to worry," Celestine assured them with a conciliatory tone. "It's a bit unorthodox, but I can safely teleport everyone directly inside the travel chamber in the fortress of Iris."
"Is it already complete?" Claudia asked, visibly surprised.
Celestine nodded. "Thanks to the halfling workers that Luu-Luu brought with her from Rad, we managed to finish its construction yesterday. She's currently overseeing the last details to make sure everything is in order," she explained. "Lady Mistral, what is the situation of your troops?"
"We're ready to move on demand, your holiness," Helen announced without skipping a beat.
"Excellent. Everyone, please get around me," Celestine ordered as she stood right in the center of the clearing. Once everyone had gathered around her, Celestine looked up to the sky, spread her arms wide, and started chanting. Her eyes shone brightly with raw magic power and a large bright magic circle appeared on the ground around them. The circle started spinning faster and faster, glowing increasingly brighter as the goddess reborn fed it with her mana. Once the spell was complete, Celestine clapped her hands and, with a loud thunderous noise, the group disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
Not even a heartbeat later, the group reappeared in a similar fashion a few miles away from their original location. The horses whinnied and snorted in fear, only to quickly calm down when Celestine uttered a few gentle words in elvish. A few soldiers groaned in mild discomfort, clearly not used to being teleported, but otherwise everyone else was fine. Claudia blinked a few times to adjust her eyes and was welcomed by the sight of a wide circular room with a tall domed ceiling. They were standing on top of a low platform made out of black stone with a complex sigil of silver runes and arcane symbols engraved in it, surrounded by four purple crystal pillars roughly twice as tall as a man, arranged following the cardinal directions of a compass.
"Now that's what I call a flashy entrance!" Maia declared with a cheeky smile.
Alicia groaned softly at the pun. "Really?"
Ignoring the blond woman's reaction, Maia looked around and noticed with disappointment that it was empty. "It's a pity no one was here to see us, though." After all, what's the point of doing something awesome if there's nobody to impress?
"To think that it was still a project just a few weeks ago," Claudia commented impressed. You can say what you want about halflings, but nobody could deny that they are hardworking people.
"We still need to perform a few tests with its twin in Ken to make sure long-range journeys are safe, but if everything goes as planned, we'll build a travel room like this in each of the remaining city fortresses," Celestine explained. "Luu-Luu is also thinking about building larger and simpler versions to teleport our armies all across Eostia, but we still need to figure out how to power them without overloading their spell matrices."
While not an expert, Claudia knew enough about magic to understand how complex and delicate such detail was. Too much power and the circuit would break, or worse.
"Lady Luu-Luu really outdid herself this time," Klaus commented in awe as he admired the details of the control panel. It consisted of a low marble pillar with six hexagonal crystals on top of it, each one marked with a glyph indicating the other fortress cities. At the moment they were all red, except for the one leading to Ken, which instead was blue.
"Speaking of Luu-Luu, where is she?" Alicia wondered aloud. "She was supposed to-"
"Ah! Boom baby!" an energetic voice shouted loudly as the door was suddenly kicked open, revealing a halfling woman with poofy red hair, wearing a green cloak over a set of light leather armor, along with a wide hat that hid her fluffy ears. The newcomer stood proudly in all her intimidating four feet of height, holding with ease a battle axe that was easily twice her size and probably weighted as much as her entire body. "Alright, motherfuckers! I dunno how you got here, but I'm gonna kick you right in the-! Oh, it's just you guys," Luu-Luu stopped mid-threat, visibly deflating as soon as she realized that the ones inside the room weren't demons or dark elves, but her fellow shields and their troops. "Bummer," she grumbled with an adorable pout, like a disappointed child.
"Expecting troubles, Luu-Luu?" Maia asked, visibly amused by the halfling's antics.
"Hoping for trouble!" The halfling corrected her, putting away her axe with a loud huff. "I'm freaking boooooooored! My job here is done, Prim is too busy with her fancy tutors to play with me, and people in this city think it's too early to get drunk!"
Alicia frowned at the last part. "It's not even midday," she pointed out.
Luu-Luu crossed her arms over her highly aerodynamic chest and arched a brow. "Your point?"
"Never mind," the blonde woman sighed, knowing all too well that any argument with the halfling would most likely end with a massive headache.
"So, Celestine, why did you hijack my latest masterpiece instead of-" The halfling stopped mid-sentence and let out a cute little gasp of surprise when she finally noticed the Sentinel. Any trace of boredom instantly disappeared from her face as her eyes grew to the size of saucers and lit up with amazement and curiosity. In a blink Luu-Luu was in front of him, covering the distance with ridiculous speed with her tiny feet. "Holyfuckthisdudeishugeandhisarmorisawesomecanwekeephim?!" she asked in a single breath wagging furiously her short fluffy tail like an excited puppy.
Clay stared down at the hyperactive halfling for a moment, then looked at the other Shield princesses for help.
"Oh, don't worry. You'll get used to her," Maia added with an amused smirk.
"I see," was his only comment.
I'll be honest, I'm not completely satisfied how the chapter turned out, BUT I'm glad I was finally able to finish it.
To any of you that are Halo fans, you'll probably recognize the Halo 4 reference in the dialogue between Clay and Claudia. As I've already mentioned, Sentinels are basically this universe's version of Spartans, so I thought it was a good way to start his path to reacquire his humanity.