Fortress city of Feoh
"Urgh. My head," Maia moaned miserably, wincing in pain when the morning sunlight coming from a nearby window reached her face. Her hair was even more disheveled than usual, dark circles surrounded her bloodshot eyes, and her clothes were wrinkled as if she had been sleeping in them. "I swear, this is the last time I have a drinking contest with you," she said to Luu-Luu, who, on the contrary, looked fresh and well-rested even after their tour of the local taverns last night.
"Pfft, lightweight," the halfling scoffed playfully. The fact that she could probably outdrink a group of sailors with her liver tied behind her back was entirely lost to her.
"Are you alright?" Clay asked as he followed the two women to the castle's dining room, once again clad in his armor.
"Yeah, I just drank too much ale last night," Maia explained.
"Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause dehydration, headache, nausea-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," she groaned in annoyance.
"Then why did you do that?"
"Because it's fun!" Luu-Luu exclaimed happily, making Maia wince at the volume of her voice.
"Fun?" Clay tilted his head in confusion. 'Drinking something that impairs your cognitive functions and motor coordination is considered a recreational activity?'
"Yeah. Never got drunk?" Luu-Luu asked curiously.
"No," he replied without hesitation. To be honest, he wasn't even sure if it was possible for him to get drunk. His body was built to process most toxins, so he should be able to metabolize alcohol faster and more efficiently than a normal human being.
"Sheesh. What did you guys even do in your spare time?" The halfling asked rhetorically.
"Eat. Sleep. Train. Maintain our equipment," he answered, completely missing the irony in her tone. "We had to be always ready for the next mission."
Maia and Luu-Luu looked at him with sympathy.
"Man, that sucks," Maia said quietly. "Hey, how about this? Next time we have a chance, I'll take you to a tavern and get you completely wasted."
"That's a great idea!" Luu-Luu exclaimed.
"Inside voice, please," Maia hissed.
Clay wasn't sure how to reply. On one hand, he didn't see what was so great about voluntarily intoxicating your own body; on the other, the women were being friendly and trying to socialize with him.
"I knew you two would be a bad influence on him, but I didn't expect you'd start to corrupt him so soon," Alicia exclaimed suddenly as she approached the three of them, followed by Prim.
"Hey! Who are you calling a bad influence?" Luu-Luu exclaimed with indignation. "We're just trying to teach him how to have a good time."
"You mean drinking cheap ale in a run-down tavern full of shady individuals eager to start a fight?" Alicia deadpanned.
"Exactly!" Maia said before smirking teasingly at Alicia. "Not that I expect you to know what fun means, Miss Stick-In-The-Mud."
Alicia stared blankly at Maia for a moment, then pulled out a small wooden whistle from her pocket and blew it with all her breath.
"Aaaaaaargh! You crazy, sadistic bitch!" Maia exclaimed in pain, covering her ears and closing her eyes as she felt like her head was about to explode.
"Alicia! That was really mean," Prim said disapprovingly.
"She'll live," Alicia replied casually, walking past Maia and stopping in front of the Sentinel. "Clay," he greeted him formally.
"Princess Arcturus," he returned the salute with a respectful nod before shifting his gaze toward Prim. "Princess Fiorire."
"Good morning, Clay," Prim chirped happily, before looking expectantly at her cousin. "Alicia wants to tell you something."
The Sentinel shifted his gaze back to the blonde woman.
"I…" The previously confident princess knight hesitated. "I want to… apologize… to you."
"Gee, can you say that without sounding like you're about to stab your knee with a rusty spoon?" Luu-Luu deadpanned.
Alicia threw an annoyed glare at the halfling before looking back at the Sentinel. "Look, I'm a prideful and stubborn woman with a difficult temper-"
"We know," Maia grumbled under her breath.
"However!" Alicia exclaimed, glaring in irritation at Maia before closing her eyes and taking a deep calming breath.
Meanwhile, Prim pouted angrily at Maia and Luu-Luu, making them stop teasing her cousin for now.
"However," Alicia continued in a calmer tone, "I'm not too proud to admit I was wrong. Ever since we met, all I've done was treat you with undeserved hostility and suspicion." Her gaze shifted briefly toward Prim. "I'm very protective toward the people I care about and when I saw you with my cousin… I acted irrationally and let my fears and prejudices blind my judgment," she admitted, ashamed of herself. "I'm sorry, both as a knight of Eostia and as a member of Feoh's royal family. I know it's an unreasonable and selfish request, but I hope you can forgive me."
"Alright," Clay replied a heartbeat later.
Alicia blinked in surprise. "Wait, what?"
"I forgive you."
"… just like that?" Alicia asked, staring at him in disbelief.
The Sentinel shrugged. "No harm was done." She wasn't the first person to show diffidence toward him just because he was a Sentinel and she won't be the last one. To be honest, as long as her actions didn't jeopardize his mission, he didn't really care what she thought about him; however, being on good terms with one of the leaders of the Alliance was definitely a better option.
Meanwhile, Alicia wasn't sure how to react. On one hand, she was thankful that he had forgiven her so quickly. On the other hand, his lack of a real reaction confused her.
'Am I the one overreacting, or is he the one not taking this incident seriously enough? Why isn't he upset?' Lots of people she knew would have been deeply offended if she had treated them the way she did with Clay, but then she remembered that she wasn't dealing with a noble. Clay wasn't a knight, but at the same time he wasn't exactly a common soldier.
Eventually, Alicia decided to simply accept it as a chance to start over after her mistake.
"Thank you," she muttered, still feeling a bit awkward. "I'll be honest. I still don't trust you… yet. But I'm willing to give you a chance. If… if you're willing to do the same with me," she said, offering a handshake.
Her body tensed up when Clay wrapped his much larger hand around hers, completely engulfing it in his grip, but visibly relaxed when she noticed how careful he was to not hurt her when he shook her hand.
"Wow. Alicia Arcturus being humble? I must be dreaming," Maia gasped dramatically.
"Do you want me to wake you up with my whistle?" Alicia offered casually with a smile too sweet to be genuine.
"Please, don't," Maia whimpered in horror, hiding behind Prim despite being taller than her.
"See, Alicia? I told you that Clay would forgive you. You were worried for nothing," Prim said innocently.
"Ah-ah! I-I don't know what you're talking about, Prim!" Alicia laughed nervously before throwing a warning look at Maia. "Not a single word or I'll lock you in a room full of musicians and screaming children."
Maia scowled back at her. "Be glad my head is killing me, or I'd be teasing the hell out of you."
"Yeah, yeah, Alicia learned an important lesson about friendship, forgiveness and all that crap," Luu-Luu said dismissively. "Can we go to eat now? I'm starving!" She whined.
"Nobody's stopping you," Clay observed.
Luu-Luu blinked. "You're right," she said as if she just had a great revelation. "Last one to arrive to the breakfast table gets only a slice of bread with butter!" Luu-Luu exclaimed before sprinting down the corridor.
"Hey! Not fair!" Prim protested as she ran after the halfling, lifting her gown to run faster.
"Prim, don't run or you may trip!" Alicia exclaimed, only to shake her head and let out a soft chuckle. Sweet Prim never failed to make her smile.
It was only now that she realized she had been left alone with Maia… and the Sentinel.
"I, uh, guess we should go, before Luu-Luu eats everything," she awkwardly said. The Sentinel nodded, while Maia let out an inarticulate grunt that could vaguely pass for a 'yes' before they both followed her.
'This is so awkward,' she thought after walking in silence for a few minutes.
She hated to admit it, but now she missed Maia's constant chatter. The redhead could be annoying and irritating at times, however, she was also good natured and entertaining, able to strike a conversation with everyone.
Unless she was suffering from a hangover.
"Do you always carry around a whistle?" Clay asked suddenly.
The question took Alicia momentarily off-guard. "Oh, this? Well, it's a useful item. I use it to give orders in battle, sound the alarm in case of emergency, recall my hunting dogs… and annoy people that like their spirits a bit too much."
"You're enjoying this, don't you?" Maia said with a scowl.
"Oh, you have no idea." The blonde woman smirked.
When they finally arrived at the dining room, they found Celestine already sitting at the table with a bowl of oatmeal with honey and a cup of tea in front of her. Prim was taking a dainty bite from a slice of strawberry tart while Luu-Luu had already filled a tray with food and was now in the process of consuming it with the appetite of a ravenous wolf. Alicia narrowed her eyes in annoyance at the scene, muttering something about manners under her breath before taking her usual spot next to her cousin.
Rather than removing his armor, Clay decided to simply do what he did the previous day in the garden and kneel in front of the table, removing his helmet and setting it on the floor before grabbing his own food.
The last ones to arrive at the dining room were Claudia and Klaus. When he saw the married couple, Clay noticed that something was off. Claudia had a content smile adorning her face, while for some reason her husband seemed oddly tired, as if he hadn't slept enough.
'Hmm, weird.' From what he had seen so far, Klaus wasn't exactly the outdoors type, so he expected him to enjoy a night in a real bed after sleeping in a tent for weeks. The other Shields ignored the contrast between Claudia and Klaus with various degrees of success, except for Luu-Luu, who looked at the married couple with a knowing smile and let out a short snicker before turning her attention back to her food.
For some reason, Clay felt like he was missing something, but decided it probably wasn't important, so he took a hard-boiled egg and popped it in his mouth, promptly earning a few weird looks from the rest of the table.
"Uh, you know you're supposed to peel off the shell, right?" Luu-Luu asked.
The Sentinel shrugged and took another egg. Sure, it was a bit crunchy, but eggshells are rich of calcium, which is good for your bones.
"Let's just say that Sentinels are not picky eaters," Klaus explained, remembering the time they saw him eating the bones of a roasted deer during their journey back to Feoh, easily crushing them with his jaws. 'An efficient yet disturbing way to take nourishment.'
"I will return to Ur in a few days," Prim announced after a while, breaking the awkward silence. "Would you like to come with me, Maia? You said that your comrades are in a village not too far from my city."
Maia smiled apologetically at the pinkette. "Sorry, sweetheart, but I need to make sure that those old geezers of the council didn't screw up my city too much while I was away," she said before guzzling down her curative herbal tea, instantly feeling better despite its bitter taste. "So, first I'll go to Ken with Celestine, then I'll ride back to Ansur after getting paid."
"You're seriously charging Celestine for your services?" Alicia asked with outrage.
"Uh, yeah?" The redhead replied as if she was answering a dumb question. "I still need to eat and not all of us were born with a treasury."
Alicia bristled at the remark, but Celestine intervened before their friendly conversation could turn into a heated argument.
"Calm down, Alicia," Celestine said with a conciliatory tone. "I'm the one that offered the job to Maia and she only accepted half of the money I originally wanted to give her."
"Professionals have standards," Maia said, looking smugly at Alicia.
"Waking up with a hangover before your assignment is complete doesn't seem very professional to me," Claudia pointed out politely, making Alicia chuckle.
Maia cleared her voice, clearly embarrassed. "Well, I never said to be perfect," she grumbled with a good-natured pout.
Celestine and Claudia exchanged a silent look of complicity. They knew how to handle the youngest members of their group.
The rest of the meal went on quietly and a short while later they all moved to the travel chamber. The Dawn Templars and the soldiers from Geofu were already on the teleportation platform, along with five young priestesses wearing long white tunics and sandals. They were some of Celestine's handmaidens and they had followed the goddess reborn from the capital to take care of her during her visit to Feoh. They would return with their mistress to Ken, while the rest of her entourage, composed of knights, soldiers and servants would have to wait until the next day before they could use the travel chamber.
"We're still tuning the flux of mana. I don't wanna risk overcharging the spell matrix because we tried to teleport too many people at once," Luu-Luu had explained when Maia asked why there weren't more people in the room. "Who knows? Maybe we'll find a way to improve the travel chambers once we have a better grasp of Edenian technology."
"I'm a bit envious," Klaus admitted while the mages finished their preparations. "A part of me wishes to be part of the expedition."
"Don't worry, Klaus. I'll keep you regularly updated about my findings," Luu-Luu promised, smiling excitedly. "Oh, I can't wait to start exploring those ruins!"
"Just promise you'll be careful," the scholar said.
"Pfft, I can deal with a few stray demons," she replied confidently.
"It's not just that," Claudia said seriously. "We have no idea what you might find there. Some of the things left behind by the Edenians might be dangerous."
"Relax, I'm not gonna recklessly touch everything I see and trigger some kind of deadly defense mechanism," Luu-Luu said, rolling her eyes exaggeratedly. They both worried too much, especially Claudia. However, while it could be a bit annoying at times, it wasn't exactly a bad thing. 'They would be great parents,' she thought before looking at Clay, who was giving his farewell to Prim and Alicia. Or rather, Prim was doing the farewells part. Alicia was mostly standing by her side, while the Sentinel was just nodding.
"Clay!" The halfling called him, instantly gaining his attention. "Take care and stay badass! Next time we meet, we're gonna have another fight and it will be legendary!" She declared, pumping her tiny fists in the air.
"Yay!" Luu-Luu shouted enthusiastically, making Claudia smile. The Sentinel may have not realized it yet, but the halfling already considered him a friend. "Alright, is everybody here?"
"Yes, lady Luu-Luu," Helen said.
"Then let's get this show on the move! Victor, activate the teleporter!" Luu-Luu ordered with a bossy tone to the young mage standing in front of the control panel.
"Yes, lady Luu-Luu," the mage replied, pressing a few control runes. The crystal pillars around the platform started glowing and humming softly with power while an intricate glyph of golden light appeared under their feet. "Mana flux stable. Teleportation matrix fully charged. We're ready to proceed."
"Bon-voyage!" Luu-Luu waved happily at the group right before they disappeared in a bright flash of golden light.
Fortress city of Ken, capital of Eostia
The origin of the name Ken comes from ancient elvish and it's the abbreviation of "Ken'sharn dorln", which could be roughly translated as "Light of hope" in the modern common language. Built during the Second Age by the high elves before they withdrew to their forests, the city stood in the middle of the central plains of Eostia like a monument of white marble, earning titles like the Holy Beacon of Serenus or the Marble Capital.
Even centuries after its construction, elven architecture still dominated the city, with abundant use of white marble that made the city shine like a bright beacon in the middle of the central plains of Serenus. Its tall towers and mighty walls could be seen from miles of distance, while splendid buildings and statues were alternated with beautiful parks and gardens full of floral species from all over the continent.
A famous historian once said jokingly that after building Ken the elves ran out of creativity, because none of the cities built after it could even hope to match its beauty and majesty.
The streets of the capital were lively and full of people of all classes, and while most of them were humans, there were also plenty of elves, halflings and beastkin. There were farmers bringing food from the countryside, merchants selling all kinds of products, pilgrims from all over the world fulfilling a lifelong dream, errand knights hoping to find a worthy master to serve, servants running their chores, and many other different kinds of people.
On one of the main roads, the crowd parted away to allow the passage of an elegant carriage pulled by four white horses that was heading toward the center of the city. The coachman drove the carriage across a long street lined with tall plane trees, before finally stopping in front of the White Citadel, the political and spiritual heart of not just Ken, but all of Eostia. The massive building, part cathedral and part fortress, was visible from any part of the city, easily dwarfing any other building like a white mountain. Its architecture was peculiar, with ramparts and defensive towers alternated with spires and statues of saints, a symbol of both hope and resistance for the people of Eostia.
The carriage door facing the White Citadel opened and a tall young man wearing a dark overcoat and a tricorn hat stepped outside. The upper half of his face was hidden behind a plain white mask, however, a good portion of his jaw and neck were covered by pale scar tissue.
The man observed quickly yet carefully his surroundings with his deep green eyes, keeping a gloved hand on the hilt of his sheathed saber, then he offered his other hand to the woman inside the carriage to help her out.
"Thank you, Gregor," Eleonora Bern said kindly. The Archbishop from the Aurelian Empire was a curvy woman in her forties wearing long white and blue robes. A blue kamilavkion hat with a white veil covered her wavy brown hair, except for a couple of locks that gently framed a solemn yet motherly face.
"I'll stay here and make sure that there are no unpleasant surprises when you return," he said with his hoarse voice, watching as two of Dawn Templars previously guarding the entrance were now approaching their carriage.
Eleonora couldn't help but frown bitterly at his words. Shortly after arriving from the Aurelian Empire, she had quickly learned that Eostia was not a safe place for her. Many people were openly hostile to her due to her opinions regarding the current state of the Church and the need for reforms, and some of her enemies were even willing to resort to violence. The worst episode so far took place barely a month ago, during her visit to the city of Thorn, when someone attached a paper talisman with an explosive rune to the axis of one of the wheels of her carriage. If it wasn't for Gregor, who noticed the talisman after accidentally dropping his coin purse on the ground, the carriage would have crashed on their return trip to Ken.
The other bishops had quickly seized the opportunity to accuse Lady Kaguya of being the instigator, however, Eleonora had good reasons to suspect it was just an elaborate ploy to frame the shrine maiden and her followers, even if she had no tangible way to prove it.
If her enemies hoped to intimidate her, not only they failed, but they also obtained the opposite result, motivating Eleonora to continue her battle against the corruption of the Church with renewed determination.
"It may take a while," Eleonora said, feeling a bit sorry for him.
"I will wait for you until the end of time if necessary, dear aunt," Gregor reassured her. "On the other hand, you'd better not make the goddess wait. Lady Celestine must have a good reason to summon you here with so little warning."
The message she received from Celestine a couple hours ago was urgent yet vague. 'I wonder what she wants to discuss with me,' she thought just as the Dawn Templars reached them. 'They seem surprised to see me here,' she noticed. 'Either there was no time to alert them of my arrival, or Celestine wants to keep this meeting as discreet as possible.'
After returning their greetings, Eleonora showed the letter she received from the goddess to the armored women, who promptly offered to escort her to the Sanctuary.
Eleonora accepted their offer with gratitude, more as a matter of image than for an actual need of protection, then she walked with them to the main entrance of the cathedral. There were other entrances to the citadel, however, as a woman of faith and an art enthusiast, Eleonora preferred to use what she loved to call the scenic route.
'I'll never get tired of this sight,' she thought with a faint smile as she took a moment to marvel at the interiors of the cathedral.
The walls and ceiling were adorned with splendid frescoes depicting Laurentia's life, while life-sized marble statues of paladins and saints were lined at regular intervals in front of the columns of the main nave, silently observing the dozens of faithful seated on the benches and praying softly to the statue of the goddess located behind the altar.
The sight of a few nuns leading a group of children toward a choir stand made her smile. Judging by their simple yet clean green tunics bearing the mark of Celestine on the chest, they were probably some of the orphans adopted by the high elf.
'I'd love to hear them sing, but that's not the reason I'm here today.'
Eleonora resumed walking, barely noticing a pair of Zenith Wardens observing her from a distance with veiled hostility. The three women entered the sacristy and from there they took a door leading into the actual White Citadel. The architecture around Eleonora gradually became more sober and functional, while guards and knights became more and more common. After walking through several corridors, staircases and halls, they finally reached the Sanctuary of the Goddess, a place that only a few selected people could access.
One of Celestine's handmaidens, a young girl with blue hair kept in a simple braid, was waiting for her.
"Welcome, Archbishop Bern. The goddess is waiting for you," the young priestess informed Eleonora, gesturing toward a large pair of doors decorated with floral motifs.
Eleonora thanked the priestess and the Dawn Templars that had accompanied her, then she walked through the doors alone. She found herself in a wide circular room with a splendid fountain with a beautiful marble statue of the goddess Laurentia located right in the middle, illuminated by the sunlight coming not just from multiple windows but from the sky itself. There was no ceiling, but an ancient spell developed by the elves allowed an unobstructed view of the sky without being exposed to the weather. The room had three passageways. The one behind the statue led to the wide balcony from which Celestine addressed the people of Ken in the courtyard behind the citadel, while the ones on the right and the left led respectively to Celestine's private rooms and her private garden full of magical plants.
Usually there would be several of Celestine's handmaidens carrying out their duties, however, none of them could be seen today.
Standing near the statue of the goddess was none other than Celestine Lucross herself. The high elf woman wore a long white tunic that hugged her feminine curvy body and a pair of leather sandals, while two crowns adorned her head: one was a golden circled that symbolized her status as high queen of Eostia, while the other was made out of living laurel leaves and symbolized her divine nature as Avatar of the elven Goddess of Life.
The moment Celestine's bright emerald eyes fell on Eleonora, her angelic face lit up with genuine happiness and waved her hand at the archbishop. Eleonora couldn't help but return the smile as she strode toward Celestine, only to finally realize that the high elf was not alone.
Standing dutifully beside the goddess reborn was Lady Claudia Levantine, clad in her beautifully crafted plate armor, its metal shining in the sunlight coming from the windows.
However, it was the massive figure behind the two women that caught Eleonora's attention, a giant of a man completely encased in a set of heavy armor that looked at the same time ancient yet incredibly advanced. The glowing blue lenses of his helmet stared intensely at Eleonora, following her like a hawk as she slowly approached the goddess.
Celestine noticed her hesitation and smiled reassuringly. "Have no fear, Eleonora. Clay may look intimidating, but I assure you that he's not a threat."
The huge man corroborated Celestine's claim by bowing his head in a respectful manner. That simple gesture and Celestine's words were sufficient to quickly reassure Eleonora.
"Your holiness," she said, sharing a brief warm hug with Celestine.
"Thanks for coming, Eleonora," Celestine said.
"It is a pleasure to meet you again, Archbishop Bern," Claudia said, offering a handshake to the other woman.
Eleonora shook her hand. "Likewise, lady Levantine," she said with sincerity before shifting her gaze toward the armored titan.
"Clay, this is Archbishop Eleonora Bern, a woman who I'm honored to call a friend and an ally," Celestine introduced her to the warrior. "Eleonora, this is Clay, a warrior who has recently sworn to help us and to serve under Claudia's command."
'No titles? Does it mean he's not a knight?' Eleonora was surprised. While men-at-arms and mercenaries could become wealthy enough to buy full sets of armors, only a noble would be able to afford and maintain one that was as impressive as his own. Speaking of the armor, for some reason its design looked familiar, but she couldn't remember where she had already seen it.
"Forgive my curiosity, but from which country do you come from?"
"We found him inside a magical stasis device in the ruins of Silent Vigilance, a lost outpost from the First Age," Claudia answered.
Eleonora widened her eyes. "You mean…?"
Celestine nodded. "Yes, my friend. He is a Sentinel."
"A Defender of the Mantle," Eleonora whispered in awe before slowly bringing a hand to the breastplate of the Sentinel, right above his heart. Clay observed her with curiosity, but otherwise didn't react. Eleonora closed her eyes, remaining quiet for a few moments before releasing a soft gasp and taking a step back. "So, it's true," she whispered with a conflicted look. "Your soul bears the mark of a god… one that is not Laurentia."
"Are you alright, Eleonora?" Celestine asked concerned.
"Yes, your holiness. I- I just need a moment." Eleonora knelt in front of the statue of Laurentia, bowed her head, and uttered a prayer in silence.
A few minutes later, when she finished, she stood with newfound determination. "Forgive me, I was a bit shaken by this revelation."
"It's alright, my friend," Celestine reassured her while feeling impressed by the strength of her faith. She had no doubt that a lot of people in her place would have a crisis.
"I'm surprised you know about the Sentinels, archbishop," Claudia said. "My husband told me that few people know about them and their role in the War of Broken Heaven."
"Well, it's mostly a fortuitous coincidence," Eleonora admitted. "When I was still a novice, I had the honor to serve as an apprentice healer at the monastery founded by Saint Jerome the Traveler," she said with a nostalgic smile. "The monastery is famous for having one of the largest book collections in the world and I spent countless hours visiting its library whenever I was free from my duties. One day, I learned from one of the copyist monks that inside the restricted section of the library there were several ancient books older than Eostia. Only the abbot and a few other people were authorized to read them, but…" Eleonora looked away and blushed a little with embarrassment. "I… I was really curious, so one night I snuck inside the restricted section of the library."
Lady Levantine was visibly surprised by Eleonora's admission, while Celestine smiled in amusement, as she was already familiar with Eleonora's more audacious side. On the other hand, the Sentinel merely tilted his head.
"Among the many books kept inside that room, there were a few unique manuscripts dating back to the First Age. They were written in ancient elvish and despite my best attempts, I could only understand a few words, however, they were also decorated with detailed drawings of the events that took place during the war. One of those pictures showed a Sentinel fighting against a horde of demons to protect a group of people."
"Where's this monastery?" Claudia asked eagerly, visibly interested by her tale. "My husband would definitely love to have a look at those books. Maybe they can give us a clue about what happened at the end of the war."
Eleonora scowled as she recalled a rather unpleasant memory. "I'm afraid it's impossible, lady Levantine," she informed Claudia. "A few days after my secret visit, the newly appointed archbishop of the Aurelian Empire – my predecessor - ordered his men to destroy those books." So many priceless manuscripts that had survived for centuries… turned into ash by the will of a closed-minded fool. Just thinking about it still made Eleonora's blood boil with anger.
"I remember when it happened," Celestine said sorrowfully. "When I learned about Archbishop Renato's intentions, it was already too late to intervene."
"Why did they do that?" Claudia exclaimed scandalized.
"Because the content of those books was considered too controversial and dangerous by the Church."
"How come?" Clay asked suddenly. Eleonora was taken off guard by the artificial tone of his voice, but quickly recovered her composure.
"Well, the Church is rather…" she hesitated, "… sensitive when it comes to people worshiping other gods other than Laurentia. Their general attitude toward other religions goes from mere indifference to open hostility."
"Why? Laurentia is not the only goddess."
Eleonora hesitated. "In order to properly understand the Church of Laurentia, it is necessary to look at its origin," she said, looking at Celestine for permission.
The high elf nodded. "Go ahead, Eleonora. We have time and this is something that Clay would need to learn eventually."
"Very well." Eleonora felt like she was back to the time when she was a young nun teaching to the children of her hometown. "Several centuries ago, the people of Serenus worshiped a pantheon of deities whose origin dates back to the First Age. However, by the time demons started systematically raiding the land that is now known as Eostia, most people had already stopped worshiping those gods, or they did it without much conviction, to the point that some historians even call it the Age of Doubt. Faith was seen by many as something ritualistic, an insincere tradition without a deeper spiritual meaning, and according to the chronicles of that time, miracles had become so uncommon that they were considered a myth, or a mysterious form of magic at best."
Clay nodded. Magic and miracles may seem similar, but in reality, they are two completely different phenomena. While spells can be performed by anyone with enough mana and knowledge of the magic arts, miracles are manifestations of the will and power of a god.
Gods acquire the spiritual energy generated by the prayers of their followers, and in return they bestow a fraction of their power to individuals who possess a particularly strong faith, like priests and paladins, in the form of what are commonly known as miracles. The stronger is your faith, the stronger is the miracle you're able to cast. However, while a god can still exist even without followers, it is impossible to perform a miracle if your god no longer exists.
"Many gods were killed by the Primordial during the war," he said bluntly, not realizing how terrifying his words were to Claudia and Eleonora.
'People believed their gods abandoned them, but in reality, there was simply no one left to listen them scream,' Claudia thought, feeling sick at what it implied.
"Things only got worse when the queen of Garan unified the demons under the banner of the Dark Legion," Eleonora continued her narration. "Hundreds of settlements were destroyed and thousands of people died in just a few months. No matter how hard humanity and its allies fought, they simply couldn't stop the demons without divine assistance."
The Sentinel nodded, realizing how dire the situation must have been. The creatures of darkness are weak against the power of light, but without a guardian deity, there can be no paladins and blessed weapons, or clerics that could perform healing miracles, or priests that could summon holy barriers to protect the settlements.
"And then, when all hope seemed lost, a miracle happened."
Clay shifted his gaze toward Celestine. "I see." Now things made much more sense.
"I couldn't sit idly while countless innocents suffered," Celestine whispered sorrowfully. "My greatest regret is that I couldn't do more. If only I had acted sooner…"
"If it wasn't for you, none of us would be here now," Claudia said softly, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Shortly after lady Celestine revealed herself and unified the surviving human kingdoms into what would become the Holy Shield Alliance, the Church of Laurentia went from being just one cult among many, to becoming the de facto state religion of Eostia." Eleonora paused, studying Clay for a while before looking at Celestine and Claudia. "You're concerned about how the rest of the Church will react to him." It wasn't a question, but rather a statement.
"Yes," Celestine nodded gravely. "The Council of Seven will undoubtedly object against my decision to incorporate him in our army."
"I do not understand," Clay said, looking at the women in confusion.
"The Church of Laurentia is an incredibly powerful organization whose influence extends all across the continent. It has millions of followers in all the known world and in the centuries following its foundation, its members have amassed enormous wealth." Eleonora sighed. "Due to Lady Celestine's role in the war, the Church has been adamant that Laurentia is the only true goddess, going as far as labeling any other cult as nothing more than pagan superstitions," she said with evident distaste. "But now, we have a real, living Sentinel walking among us. A warrior that served the ancient gods and bears the mark of one of them on his soul. Your very existence completely disproves one of our main dogmas and there are many powerful people within the Church that will consider you a threat not just to our faith, but also to their power."
"These people will do everything they can to prevent that… even if it means going against my will," Celestine said with a grimace.
"What?" Eleonora was not a gambler, but she was willing to bet everything she owned that, behind his inexpressive helmet, the Sentinel was staring at Celestine in disbelief. "But… you are the goddess reborn," he said with a tone of utter confusion.
"The line between the high queen of Eostia and the goddess reborn is rather blurry," Celestine said. "Just because I'm the avatar of Laurentia, it doesn't mean I have absolute authority over her followers."
"This is heresy," Clay growled. "Those who dare to oppose you should be purged," he declared coldly.
"Absolutely not!" Celestine exclaimed outraged, shaking her head. "I'm not a tyrant that rules through fear and violence!"
"They question your authority as a leader, domina."
"I never wanted to become a leader, Clay! I was forced to become one!" A heavy silence hung in the air after her declaration. "I never desired power. I just… I just wanted to help and do what I felt was the right thing, to give all of them a chance to live their lives to their fullest," she said with a melancholic expression. "Humanity may not be perfect, but neither am I," she whispered.
"Celestine," Claudia called her with concern.
"It's true, Claudia. I am the goddess reborn, the avatar of Laurentia. However, I am not Laurentia. I only carry a fragment of her soul inside me, but I lack her memories, personality and the full extent of her powers and wisdom. I am not infallible or impartial. Sometimes I can hear the goddess whispering to me and telling me what I should do, but my decisions are influenced by my own emotions, experiences and personal beliefs. That's why I need people to help me lead this country," she said, looking briefly at Claudia and Eleonora. "Even if it means they will question my decisions. If something bad were to happen because I ignored their opinions, I would never forgive myself."
"… we can't save everyone, domina," Clay whispered with the tone of someone who was painfully aware how, no matter what you did or how hard you fought, it still wasn't enough.
The high elf looked up at him with her eyes full of empathy. "I know, Clay. But that doesn't mean I will stop trying," Celestine said softly with a mirthless smile. "I am a benevolent woman. Some people would say that I am too kind for my own good, but this is who I am." She took a deep breath and looked at the three of them resolutely. "However, this doesn't mean I'll simply let people sway my judgment out of fear or to protect their own interests. I don't know if we found Clay and the ruins of Silent Vigilance by chance or if Laurentia and the ancient gods had a plan, but we can't let this opportunity go to waste. This is why I called you here today, Eleonora," Celestine said. "Will you help us?"
"You don't even have to ask, your holiness. I only live to serve you," the archbishop said without hesitation.
Celestine smiled gratefully. "Thank you, my friend."
"How should we proceed?"
"The other Shields and I can handle the political backlash, and I'm confident that with the help of my father-in-law I can convince the other military commanders to accept Clay," Claudia explained. "However, the religious leaders are still our main source of concern. As much as it hurts me to admit it, we need their support to continue this war."
Centuries of conflict had drained most of Eostia's resources. Without the money of the Church, it would be impossible to hire mercenaries to help the Seven Shield Alliance to protect Eostia from the demons.
"It won't be easy," Eleonora admitted. "I know for sure that the other bishops will definitely oppose the idea of him joining our ranks. The same can be said about most of the high-ranking priests in the cities, given that they reached their current positions thanks to Grissom and the other members of the Council of Seven. The spiritual leaders of the rural communities though…" She rubbed her chin with a pensive expression, then nodded slowly. "I'll contact discreetly my most trusty followers and advisors so that we may prepare. How much time do we have?"
"We don't know for sure," Claudia admitted. "Ideally, we would wait until he has learned everything he needs to know about our culture, language and military tactics and strategies. However, if the demons force us to deploy him in combat before that time..."
"I see." Eleonora nodded. Having a Sentinel on the battlefield would save countless lives.
After a moment of sober silence, she spoke again. "Alright. I think that the first person we should contact is…"
While the three women discussed the finer details of their plan, Clay stood aside in silence, as still as a statue. Unbeknown to them, behind the inexpressive faceplate of his helmet, his mind was in turmoil.
This entire situation was surreal to him.
Not only the Church of Laurentia was fractured and obviously plagued by corruption, but its members openly questioned Lady Celestine's authority. For a Sentinel, that was simply inconceivable. The only reason the Edenian Empire had lasted so long was because its leaders belonged to a wise and powerful race of immortals. Under their firm yet fair rule the people had thrived for millennia, never knowing hunger, disease, or poverty, all in exchange of the spiritual energy generated by their prayers.
'Until the Primordial destroyed everything,' he thought bitterly, a feeling that was only made worse by the revelation that the leaders of the Church would go as far as destroying the memory of the past in order to keep their power and wealth. It was disgusting and disrespectful to the millions, nay billions of people that died in order to save the world.
'Demons are not the only enemies I have to worry about,' he thought, suppressing his anger.
However, his main source of distress right now was Celestine Lucross herself, or rather, her relationship with power.
Clay understood that her position was delicate, but even if her body was mortal, she still carried a fragment of the soul of Laurentia. What was the line between the goddess reborn and the high queen of Eostia? What was the line between politics and faith?
Celestine was a kind and compassionate woman, but while this made her a ruler loved by her people, it was also a source of weakness that her enemies had no hesitation to exploit.
'Weakness, uh? What an alien concept. Gods are supposed to be strong.' Clay frowned, realizing his hypocrisy. 'Am I really questioning the will of the goddess?'
The more he thought about it, the more he came to the conclusion that his doubts were not driven by contempt, but rather concern for her wellbeing.
Celestine loved her people and wanted to give them a better future, however, her love was so powerful that he doubted she had the strength to make the sacrifices needed to achieve victory.
'Too much empathy is a curse.' It was almost as if she was the embodiment of Laurentia's purest traits. 'Laurentia… The elven goddess of life. One of the Apostles of the Life Warden.'
Why did it take Laurentia so long to manifest herself? And why through an avatar? Did she die in the war of Broken Heaven like so many other gods before her? Or was she simply unable to manifest herself in this world? And if so, why?
'That doesn't matter now.'
He had sworn to Claudia that he would help Eostia win the war and that's what he was determined to do. Even if it meant going against the Church and its corrupted leaders. He may have just met Archbishop Bern, but he felt he could trust her. Her intentions were genuine and she would definitely be a useful ally in the future.
In the meanwhile, all he could for now was observe, learn, and wait for the opportunity to give his contribution to the war.
'There is much to do,' Eleonora though, barely containing her excitement as she left the sanctuary almost an hour later. There were messages to send, people to meet, orders to give to her subordinates, and many other things to her already long list of duties; however, the archbishop didn't complain, on the contrary, she felt honored of the new task given to her by Celestine.
Eleonora and her escort had already back in the cathedral and were in sight of the exit when she heard the sound of an arrogant, harsh voice calling her.
"Are you here to plot against me, Eleonora?"
Eleonora halted and silently said prayer. 'Oh, Goddess Laurentia, thank you for testing my faith and my soul with these trials, but please give me strength and patience.' The woman slowly turned around and saw the last person in the world she wished to see.
Archbishop Elijah Grissom was an old man with a frail-looking body and a stern gaunt face, wearing elegant purple robes decorated with religious symbols made out of golden filigree, and a tall mitral hat that hid his thin white hair. He carried a crosier ending with the stylized figure of Laurentia with her arms spread made out of pure gold that he used both as a medium for casting spells and to help himself walk.
Nobody knew his exact age, but Eleonora had heard rumors he was over a century old. Despite his advanced age, his eyes were still sharp and intelligent, burning with religious zeal and always looking at the world around him with disapproval.
'There are few things as dangerous as a fanatic,' her first theology teacher had once told her. 'Faith is a double-edged sword. It can give a man the strength he needs to persevere even when there seem to be no hope… but it can also make him blind to the truth. And when you mix fanaticism with power, then you get a dangerous combination.'
The aged archbishop was flanked by two Zenith Wardens armed with ceremonial halberds, the same knights that Eleonora saw when she entered the cathedral and probably the same that informed him of her arrival.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Elijah," Eleonora replied calmly, purposefully omitting the use of honorifics, like he just did with her. At first glance it could have passed as a sign of closeness between the two of them, but in reality, their tense body language and Eleonora's guarded emotions told a completely different story.
Out of all the people Eleonora knew, Elijah Grissom was probably the closest thing to an arch-enemy she had. The two archbishops were as different as ice and fire and their public debates were often a source of inspiration and conflict among both nobles and commoners.
Eleonora was a reformist, a woman who wanted to change the church, bringing it closer to its followers and more open to the dialogue with the other faiths, while at the same time denouncing its decadence and its widespread corruption. Grissom, on the other hand, was a man of tradition, someone who represented everything that she despised about the church in its current state: an institution led by power-hungry individuals that cared more about money rather than preaching the teachings of the goddess.
The only reason Celestine had not personally intervened and taken sides was because the risk of a religious schism was too great. With the demons from Garan constantly attacking the Frontier, and Eostia on the verge of collapse after centuries of war, poverty, famine and social injustices, a civil war was the last thing the people needed.
"Don't lie to me!" Grissom boomed, pointing an accusatory finger at Eleonora. "I have just been informed that the Goddess has returned from her… unplanned visit to Feoh-"
"The Goddess is free to move as she wishes," Eleonora pointed out.
Grissom didn't appreciate her interruption. "She still should have informed me! There are… procedures and- and rituals to follow!" He argued vehemently.
'None of which were established by Lady Celestine, you old fool,' Eleonora thought, barely refraining from saying it aloud. Celestine loved to interact with people and walk outside freely, and yet Grissom and the other bishops did everything they could to keep her confined behind the walls of her palace. It was disgusting.
"And now I also discovered that you had a private audience with her without my knowledge! I want to know why," he demanded imperiously, making a face that reminded Eleonora of a cranky old dog protecting his favorite bone.
"I'm sorry, Elijah, but I'm afraid that is a confidential topic," she replied with an apologetic tone. "If you want to know the nature of my conversation with the goddess, you'll have to ask her in person."
The old man's face turned crimson with anger. "Impudent woman! How dare you disobey me?!" He shouted almost hysterically, slamming the butt of his crosier on the marble floor. "I am Elijah Grissom, archbishop of Ken! And I demand you to address me with the appropriate respect!" The echo of his voice rang briefly across the naves of the vast cathedral and Eleonora was suddenly aware of the deafening silence that now reigned inside the cathedral as dozens of people watched with concern as they argued in public.
Eleonora felt anger growing slowly in her chest. 'How dare you?' Not only had he completely disrespected her by completely disregarding the fact that they were of equal rank, but he was also making a scene in one of the holiest places in the world.
"You may be the archbishop of Ken and Eostia's pontiff, Grissom, but I am the archbishop of the Aurelian Empire," Eleonora replied firmly, glaring coldly at the old man while taking a step forward. "I only serve the Goddess Reborn Celestine Lucross, the only true leader of this Church," she said sternly, looking down at Grissom. Eleonora was a tall woman, but she looked even taller when standing next to Grissom due to his stooped posture. "Her holiness asked me to keep the content of our conversation a secret until she thinks the time is ready and I intend to follow her orders." Eleonora narrowed her eyes slightly, looking pointedly at the archbishop of Ken. "Just like any true believer should do."
"Are you questioning my loyalty to the goddess?!" Grissom hissed, outraged by her insinuation. Meanwhile, the Zenith Wardens flanking him tensed up and glared at the woman for insulting their master, but as much as they would have loved to beat her to punish her impudence, they didn't dare to move, well aware that the Dawn Templars would not hesitate to draw their swords to protect Eleonora.
"Of course not. Why would I ever make such horrible accusations?" Eleonora asked innocently before looking at him with faux concern. "Unless there's something that you wish to confess, Elijah. If so, would you like to follow me to the nearest confessional? I am always willing to listen to people's doubts and comfort them."
Grissom's eyes grew to the size of saucers as he stared at her in disbelief. He opened his mouth to say something, but the only sound that came out was an inarticulate babble.
Eleonora decided to take advantage of his shock to leave. "Now, as much as I'd love to keep talking with you, I'm afraid we both have work to do. I wish you a pleasant day, your eminence," she said respectfully before walking away with her escort, leaving the dumbfounded archbishop behind.
'Filthy manipulative Aurelian whore! Who the fuck does she think she is to speak to me that way?!' He clenched his bony fingers so hard around the staff of his crosier that his knuckles turned white, shaking with impotent rage while glaring at Eleonora as she left the cathedral.
He would have gladly ordered his guards to beat that arrogant woman for insulting him, but unfortunately Lady Celestine had made it quite clear that she would not tolerate any kind of violence between her followers.
Still fuming with anger, he stormed back to his private office as fast as his legs could carry him. The priests and guards he met on his path took notice of his foul mood and gave him a wide berth, but he barely noticed them.
'How dare she question my faith?! I'm the only one that knows what's best for the goddess!' Slamming the doors behind him, the old man sat behind his opulent oak desk, leaning his crosier against it. 'Her holiness is too kind and pure for her own good! The world is dangerous, full of deceitful individuals and Eleonora Bern is the proof of that! That woman keeps filling Lady Celestine's ears with those disgusting lies and blasphemous ideas, taking advantage of her kindness and trust to influence her judgment and make her stray from the rightful path set by Laurentia!'
Grissom removed his elaborate headdress and massaged his temples in frustration. 'That woman is a subversive! A heretic! She should be excommunicated! Stripped of her titles and rank! … Stripped…'
His thin lips twisted into a lecherous smile as his anger evaporated and was replaced by lust. Despite her flaws, Eleonora Bern was undeniably an attractive woman. Not only did she have a beautiful curvy body, but she also possessed a mature charm that none of the young, impressionable acolytes he usually called to his room at night could even hope to match.
'Maybe I could make her my concubine,' he thought while several rather impure fantasies started forming in his mind.
However, he was soon brought back to reality by a familiar tremor of his hands combined with a strong craving for... something. Something that was neither alcohol, nor tobacco, nor any of those exotic drugs that were so popular nowadays among the young members of the aristocracy.
Something infinitely better.
Without hesitation, Grissom grabbed the small silver bell on the table and rang it a few times to call Leandro, his trusty secretary. He was a young priest with short black hair and heterochronic eyes, one brown and one blue, wearing a long dark tunic. "Did you call me, your eminence?"
"Bring me the Goddess' blessing," the old archbishop ordered with impatience, throwing a key on the table.
The young priest grabbed the key, then walked toward a still life painting and removed it from the wall, revealing a hidden safe. He quickly opened the safe and pulled out a rectangular wooden box engraved with laurel leaves and large enough to contain two wine bottles lying flat.
Leandro put the box on the desk, right in front of Grissom, and took a step back. The archbishop pulled out a second key and opened the lock of the box with trepidation. The inside of the box was padded with blue velvet and divided into ten compartments, eight of which were currently empty, while the last two contained a glass vial full of milk each.
"Only two left," Grissom muttered, grabbing one of the vials and licking his thin lips in anticipation.
It wasn't just any milk, but came directly from Celestine's breasts.
As the reborn goddess, the high elf possessed great magic powers and was able to perform miracles that would be impossible to any mortal. She was able to instantly heal dozens of people at once, she could easily break the curse of undead, and could see the future.
However, she also had another ability.
Even if she was still a virgin, Celestine regularly lactated, producing a miraculous milk that could cure all known diseases, heal wounds that any doctor would consider lethal, and even bring back to live somebody who had just died.
Her followers referred to it as 'the Goddess' blessing' and Celestine's handmaids were tasked with collecting it and using it to help those who desperately needed it, like the sick and the mortally wounded.
Right now, all of this was irrelevant to Grissom.
Without wasting further time, the old man grabbed one of the two remaining vials, removing its cork, and greedily drank the milk inside it. It was like drinking liquid sunlight mixed with the love of a caring mother. The rich and sweet flavor of the milk, so complex yet delicate, gently caressed his palate, spreading a wonderful warmth all across his body. The effect was immediate. Any pain and sense of fatigue he felt instantly disappeared. He felt great, invigorated, as if he had suddenly turned several decades younger.
And then, like a beautiful dream, it suddenly ended. Grissom opened his eyes and looked sadly at the now empty vial in his hand, before shifting his gaze toward the last vial of holy milk in the box. The old man gulped, tempted to feel once again the most delicious thing in the world. 'It should be fine to drink this one too, right? I mean, Celestine is back, so there's no reason to hold back anymore…'
His bony hand moved slowly toward the vial, but when his fingers brushed against its cool glass surface, he stopped. He stared greedily at the vial for several long moments then, gritting his teeth in frustration, he slammed the chest shut.
'No.' Even if Celestine was back, he couldn't risk running out of milk before he was able to replenish his emergency stash.
"Take it away," he ordered to Leandro, the words coming out of his mouth like a growl.
'It's unfair,' he thought frustrated. 'I need, no, I deserve the goddess's blessing more than those filthy sinners!' Many thought that the secret behind his longevity was his faith, but the truth was that without Celestine's miraculous milk, he would have died of old age a long time ago. 'I still have so much to do for in the name of her glory!'
And yet, more and more often Celestine seemed to ignore his efforts and wisdom, preferring to rely on those Shield princesses and even keeping secrets from him. Him! Celestine's most loyal and trusted servant!
'Laurentia is testing my faith. There is no other explanation,' he decided with absolute conviction. 'Everything I've done is to ensure the future of her church!'
"Time to get back to work. Leandro! Bring me the report of this month's donations. I need to see how much money we have left after paying Vult. That bastard and his gang of cutthroats and convicts are getting too expensive."
"You should have punched him."
Eleonora looked at her nephew in disbelief. They were both back inside their carriage and were riding back to their residence in Ken. "What?"
"I mean, it's not like it would leave permanent damage. You can always heal his nose after breaking it…"
"Gregor! I will not go down in history as the one that punched Eostia's pontiff in the face!" Eleonora exclaimed outraged. "… even if it's a rather tempting idea," she admitted quietly a few moments later. The man snorted loudly in amusement at her admission and Eleonora couldn't help but smile. "Despite our completely different opinions regarding the future of the Church, Grissom still serves the goddess reborn. Or at least, that's what he believes." Eleonora sighed. "Sometimes I feel pity for him."
"I'm sure it's a one-sided feeling," Gregor grunted, looking outside the carriage.
For a while, the only sounds were the noise of the carriage traveling on the cobblestone road and the voices of the people outside.
"So, are you going to tell me why the goddess summoned you?" Gregor asked eventually, smiling faintly under his mask. "Unless it's something you can reveal only to the people you trust-"
"I trust you with my life, Gregor," Eleonora said seriously and without hesitation, looking the young man in the eyes. Any trace of mirth was gone from his face, replaced by what she could only call gratitude. "And I'll need your help to carry out the task given to me by Lady Celestine."
Eleonora closed her eyes and crossed her hands over her heart to pray. Her body briefly emitted a golden glow and the next moment every sound coming from outside the carriage suddenly disappeared.
Gregor was surprised. The Miracle of Silence was usually used to provide privacy during a confession. His aunt would never use it without a very good reason.
"The Seven Shield Alliance has a new ally," Eleonora announced before starting narrating the events taking place during her meeting with Celestine.
"Wow," Gregor muttered when Eleonora finished her tale. "That's definitely something I didn't expect. If what Lady Levantine says is true, this could be a major turning point in the war against Garan."
"What about Princess Iris?" Gregor asked cautiously after a while. "This sounds like something she would want to know."
"Princess Iris is a good friend and she asked me to inform her of what happens in Eostia; however, my loyalties to the goddess reborn come before anything else," Eleonora replied seriously. She may be an envoy of the Holy Aurelian Empire, but she didn't really take orders from them. "I will inform her once we're sure there's no risk to jeopardize the plans of the Alliance."
The masked man nodded. "I will always follow your decisions without hesitation, dear aunt."
Aaaaand done! I want to give a big thank you to EostianScribe and Dr Dirtbag for helping me with this chapter. Once again there's a lot of world-building, but I really wanted to introduce Eleonora Bern and show the state of the Church of Laurentia. Writing Celestine's relationship with the Church wasn't easy. On one hand I didn't want to portray her as a naive kind-hearted idiot that is completely unaware of what is going on, but on the other I didn't want to stray too much from canon, where Celestine is basically a puppet of the Church without any real authority. Kindness is her weakness and while she knows that humans are not perfect creatures, she also believes that deep down everyone can be a good person, without considering that some people simply choose to become evil.
Anyway, in the next chapter we will see more action, like, a lot more, so stay tuned for some super soldier badassery.
As always, please leave a comment and add this story to your library, if you haven't already.