It was the middle of the night, and the Knight’s Sheath had settled. The bar was closed, and courtesans lay in their beds beside blacked-out and satisfied customers. All was at peace. But then, that peace was interrupted. There was no warning, only the flash and roar as a barrage of fireballs was unleashed. They splashed against the exterior of the building, lighting up the windows and spraying flames in all directions, shaking everyone awake.
Those who had been present at the original fire of Galvin’s retaliation, those who had survived the flames, released screams of terror as horrific nightmares came rushing back. It was happening all over again. They would be destitute once more, that is, if the fire didn’t devour them. However, while this would have been a tragedy months ago, the culprits in the street outside found their efforts wasted.
“It’s not burning!” one of the robed men cursed, watching as the flames simply withered away, as if they were hitting a stone cliff.
Nothing burned, courtesy of the countless wards of protection Cyrilo and Sophia had laid out across the entire building. Magic circles and runic lines had been written across walls, floors, ceilings, window frames, support beams, and the roof and painted over. It was a fortune in high-grade ink, but the spells were rendered useless.
“Hit it with everything!” another ordered.
The attackers, numbering almost a dozen, raised their hands and unleashed their magic. Bolts of lightning, jets of flame, boulders, water bombs, air blasts, and holy rays bombarded the building like raining artillery, but despite the attackers’ best efforts, the Knight’s Sheath stood resolute. They could see it with each failed impact, a protective barrier of mana made visible in the darkness, shielding the building from all outside force. This defense kept Uther’s armies from breaching the walls of Welindar for so many years.
“This isn’t working, we need to go! Hurry and—” An arrow was planted in the man’s chest, cutting him off. A second arrow then hit the man beside him in the gut.
“Up there!” a third pointed, directing his cohorts’ eyes to a window where Alexis stood, wearing nothing but a nightgown and quiver of arrows, and holding a bow.
“Sorry, we’re closed for the night!”
She rained arrows down on the attackers, nailing the men with rapid speed and pinpoint aim, and drawing agonized cries. None of the shots were fatal, not that they needed to be. Each arrow was enchanted with a lightning spell, electrocuting the targets while the paralyzing agent that coated the arrowheads entered their bloodstreams. Her victims were robbed of movement, no longer able to end their lives.
“Scatter!” one of the men barked.
The remaining attackers tried to flee, but Alexis wasn’t going to let them go. She dropped a rope from the window, rappelled down, and then took off barefoot through the street. She chased after men, planting arrows in their backs and taking them down like big game. It was over quickly, and Alexis dragged her stunned prey back to the Knight’s Sheath, where they were bound and gagged out front.
Windows in all the surrounding buildings were lighting up as citizens, awoken by the sounds of violence, stepped outside to see what was happening. As usual, the knights and soldiers were late to the scene, but this time, they wouldn’t simply be hauling away corpses.
“Enchanted arrows with poisoned tips? That is nasty in the best way,” said Frigga as the assailants were loaded into a prisoner wagon.
“Dead men tell no tales, so we had to work around it,” said Cyrilo, speaking in her cat form with Sophia holding her.
“Are you sure you can get them to talk?” asked Alexis, now dressed.
“Gradius may be gone, but the inquisitors under him are ready and waiting, and Sir Berholm can be pretty intimidating in his own right. You’ve done well in capturing these guys.”
“Will you let us know what they say?”
“Definitely. I’m quite curious myself.”
Once the knights left and everything settled, Cyrilo, Sophia, and Alexis went back into the Knight’s Sheath, but they didn’t return to their beds. Instead, they went down into the basement.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Sophia asked as Alexis unlocked the door to a back room. “What happens if the kingdom finds out?”
“The whole reason I’m doing this is because of the kingdom. I trust knights like Frigga to do the right thing, but the church still holds too much influence for me to expect answers. This is the only way to get some honesty.”
She opened the door, revealing a dingy room lit by some candles. In the center sat one of the attackers, still bloody from his healed arrow wound and tied to a chair with a gag in his mouth. A magic circle had been inscribed on the ground around him, preventing him from using any spells. Lucius and Daniel were there, keeping an eye on him.
“How’s he doing?” Cyrilo asked.
“He’s been struggling against the binds a bit, so I think that toxin might be wearing off,” said Lucius.
“Good, let’s see what he has to say.”
Lucius pulled the gag out of the man’s mouth, and he immediately began to swear. “Goddamn beast heathen! My soul will be welcomed into the gods’ embrace, but you all will be cast into mud for your sins! Do your worst, you fucking—”
A punch from Lucius interrupted the rant and splattered blood onto the floor. Sophia winced and looked away.
“Sophia, go wait upstairs,” Cyrilo said as she hopped from her arms. Sophia didn’t even reply; she just fled the room. Cyrilo walked over to Daniel, and he picked her up so she could speak at the man’s eye level. “I hope that punch managed to knock some sense into you. You aren’t going to be rescued. No one is coming to save you. If you don’t want your bloated corpse to be fished out of the harbor, you’d better start talking. Who sent you? Who is in charge?”
“You think death scares me? I came here ready to die for my beliefs, eager to drag you fucking heretics to the grave with me, so do me a favor: eat shit and choke on it.” His words earned him another punch from Lucius.
“Die at your own hand, maybe,” said Cyrilo. “At least then, it’s nice and quick and in your control. Even dying in battle would be your choice. But look at your current position. Do you really feel in control? We have all the time in the world to pull out your secrets.”
“Everything you do just proves me right. You’re nothing but a bunch of soulless beasts, here in your temple of sin.”
This time, Alexis punched him. “You bastards think you’re so righteous?! You kill people and burn down buildings with no respect for life! When did the gods ever give you the right to act like monsters and still look down on us?!” She punched him again. “Talk, damn it!”
The man spat out a mouthful of blood. “I don’t talk to filthy animals or whores.”
“I think I got an idea to make him spill the beans,” said Daniel. “I just need a rope with a knot on the end, and I know for a fact that we have a chair without a seat somewhere in this house.”
“Just leave this to me,” said Lucius. “I know how to make people talk.”
“Daniel, take me upstairs,” said Cyrilo. “I find myself craving some tea while we wait.”
She and Daniel left, but Alexis remained behind with Lucius, standing back and watching him crack his knuckles and crick his neck.
“You know, as a soldier, we were tasked with killing monsters and bandits, not that there is much difference between the two. You hunt them, you trap them, and you spill their blood onto the ground.” He kneed the man in the jaw, busting his teeth and drawing a groan of agony. “In order to keep the trail from going cold, whenever we raided a bandit camp, we’d always allow one of them to slip free. Do you know why? It’s because they would lead us to the next camp, and we’d start the process all over.” He punched the man in the gut, hard enough to make him spit blood.
“There were other times, when the only way to find the next camp was this right here. You had to rip the information out of them by force, and we didn’t have any fancy torture devices like the inquisitors in the dungeon. We were out in the wilderness and had to rely on our fists and whatever we had on hand to get the job done, so we had to figure out how to punch someone in the head without knocking them out, how much damage you can give them before they’d die. It was a long, messy process of trial and error, but we got pretty good at it.”
Lucius punched the man square in the nose, pulverizing the cartilage. “But you wanna know the real secret? You gotta keep telling yourself that who you’re beating up isn’t a person. They’re just a nuisance, a problem on two feet. They’re the thorn in your side, the shit on your boot, the mosquito sucking your blood. Their life isn’t worth anything, so you can do whatever you want to them as long as it leads to answers. You hear what I’m saying? It wasn’t enough not to mind hurting them, you had to learn to like it, like it a real lot.”
Lucius stomped on the man’s balls, making him vomit in pain. “Sometimes it wasn’t just bandits we questioned, but the people sheltering them, the citizens who knew and kept their mouths shut. And do you know what the rules were for them? Exactly the same as they were for the bandits. It didn’t matter why they did it, whether they were bribed, blackmailed, or threatened. They were just another obstacle in the way. You don’t want to know the kinds of thing I did to the people I was supposed to protect, but you will, because I’m going to do them all to you. Believe me when I say it’s in your best interest to start talking.”
“I’d rather die,” the man groaned.
“Oh trust me, that’ll happen soon enough, but not the way you want it to.”
Lucius continued the beating, using his fists as tools of torture. There was no hesitation in his actions, and he paused only to give the man the opportunity to speak or pick him up after accidentally knocking him over. Blood splatters covered the room as the interrogation went on.
Alexis, who had initially felt herself burning with such fury, now felt her stomach turn into a bubbling cauldron of anxiety. It was getting harder to watch Lucius pummel the man, and the sounds of his fist striking and blood splashing made her wince. She felt sick and didn’t know why. After all the lives she had taken, all the fights she had been in, why was this disturbing her so?
She then realized she had seen this before. It all came flashing back, Noah’s fight with Seraph. She remembered Noah’s brutality, the punches raining down on an opponent too weak to resist. The realization made her sicker, and she silently wished the man would give in and talk, if only so that she wouldn’t have to witness any more savagery. She dared not look, and it took everything she had not to cover her ears to block out the violence.
Eventually, Lucius stepped back, dripping sweat and out of breath. The man, still bound to the chair, was wheezing with blood trickling from his face, which now looked like ground beef. “Call me impressed. You’re resilient, I’ll give you that. Tell me who put you up to this, and the pain will stop.”
“N-n-never,” the man whispered, struggling to speak with a swollen mouth missing its teeth.
“Fine, have it your way. No more going easy.” Lucius walked over to a corner table and returned with a rusty knife.
Alexis stepped forward and stopped him. “No more, we can’t do this,” she murmured.
“What are you talking about? These bastards just tried to burn down the Knight’s Sheath and kill everyone inside.”
“This man is despicable, and he deserves to be punished for what he did, but you’re beating on an opponent who can’t fight back.”
“Well this isn’t a fight, it’s an interrogation. There is no honor or rules. You want answers? This is how we get them”
“Not like this. There has to be another way to get what we need.”
“Do you think the inquisitors are treating his friends better? They’re doing the exact same thing we are for the exact same reason.”
“I know that! But… this is not the person I want to be, and not the person I want you to be either.”
Lucius gave a weary sigh. “I already am this person. I became this person before you were born. Look, I’m not going to argue with you about this. This is what’s happening. You either have the stomach for it, or you need to leave. Those are your only two options, so what’ll it be?”
Alexis looked down, her shoulders trembling, then turned and left the room. She moved up the stairs with unsteady feet and stumbled into the parlor, where everyone was waiting.
“Alexis?” Sophia asked, worriedly.
Alexis said nothing to her and wandered outside as though she was drunk. She stood still for a moment, looking up at the stars and breathing the night air, then leaned over and retched into the street. Sophia rushed outside to comfort her, realizing that she was crying.
“I thought I was ready,” Alexis said through tearful gasps. “After all my training, all my hard work, all my fights, I thought I was strong enough to do this, but I’m not. If this is what it takes to change the world, then now I know why it never changes.”
Sophia hugged her while sniffling. “You are strong enough. You’re as strong as you need to be, and as strong as I want you to be. Please, don’t ever change.”
They stood like that outside while the screams of pain began under the Knight’s Sheath.
“The priest’s name is Marduel, and according to the assassin, he was the middleman for handing down orders,” said Lucius, speaking in Cyrilo’s study with Alexis and Sophia the following day.
“Hmmm, Marduel, I believe he follows Lumendori in the local cathedral. Hopefully he’ll have some answers for us.”
“Should we go to the knights with this?” Sophia asked.
“And tell them what?” Cyrilo countered. “Tell them about the name we got from the man we tortured in our basement? He is useless to us as evidence. We can only use him to provide a clue for our next step. Lucius, what’s his condition?”
“Dead. He made himself drown in his own blood.”
Alexis and Sophia both winced at the de***********ion.
“Well at least that simplifies things. Keep him down in the basement. I’ll figure out the means of disposal. Now, let’s go talk to this Priest Marduel. Lucius, you stay here and hold down the fort. Ladies, come with me.”
As they all left Cyrilo’s study, Alexis stopped Lucius. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about last night. I was too weak to do what needed to be done. It won’t happen again.”
Lucius rested his hand on her shoulder and gave a sad smile and sigh. “When I was your age, I had the chance to draw a line like you did, and I didn’t. I chose instead to tell myself it wasn’t my fault, that everything I did was for the greater good, because I was just following orders. I thought I could just bury everything and wash the blood off my hands, but I was wrong. I’ve regretted it every day of my life. Don’t expect the world to abide by that line, there will always be a price to pay for maintaining it, but it’s better to suffer for that line than not to have one at all.”
“Thank you,” Alexis replied.
She, Cyrilo, and Sophia left the Knight’s Sheath and boarded a carriage to the nearby cathedral. It had been a long night for all three of them, but at the moment, they couldn’t sleep if they wanted to, not until they pulled on this thread and found out where it ended. Given the tense situation, Alexis carried both a short sword and a bow, ready for any enemy that might appear. They disembarked in front of the church and hesitantly entered. This early in the morning, Cyrilo was in her feline form, and Sophia carried her.
The church was mostly empty, minus the dozen congregants taking their morning prayers. They passed by pews bathed in the colored light of the windows overhead. Half depicted the six elements, and the rest showed saints and great warriors from the church’s past. At the end of the cathedral hung a line of flags depicting a rune of one of the elemental gods. A middle-aged man in a white robe, marked with the sigil of Lumendori, was reading silently at the podium but stopped when the three approached.
“Priest Marduel, I believe you know why we’re here,” said Cyrilo.
The fear on his face was evident, but still, he tried to weasel his way out. “I’m sorry, but I have—”
“Don’t, just don’t,” Alexis warned.
“Your name was given to us last night by a certain individual. I’m sure your congregants would love to know the context.”
He gave in. “Come with me, we’ll talk in my study.”
They followed him out of the main hallway and into the building beyond, with Alexis keeping her hand on her short sword. He brought them to his private office, with shelves lined with books and religious antiques. As Marduel moved behind his desk, Cyrilo spoke up. “Keep your hands where we can see them.”
He obliged and sat down, sighing in exhaustion as though the day was ending instead of starting. Alexis and Sophia took the chairs on the other side of the desk while Cyrilo hopped onto the desk, staring straight into the priest’s eyes.
“So, let’s get the obvious out of the way: you sent those men to burn down my establishment and kill everyone inside. Are you going to deny it again, or show some dignity?”
“I… I didn’t know what they would be doing. The men came here last night, having already received half of their orders from someone else. My job was to tell them where those orders would be carried out. I myself was ordered to direct them to the Knight’s Sheath.”
“I don’t know. There are times when orders are delivered via letter, unsigned, but bearing the official church seal. I’m simply a degree of separation between those up top and those below.”
“What a virtuous endeavor for a man of faith, to keep your bosses from getting their hands dirty,” Alexis hissed.
“We all have our role to play in the gods’ plan,” he replied, unable to make eye contact.
“I refuse to believe that’s where your involvement ends,” said Cyrilo. “Tell me everything you know, or tell it to the inquisitors. Why is the church so desperate to get rid of us? They would have never had the balls to do something like this a year ago.”
“You know why. What happened since last year?”
“Noah,” Sophia gasped.
“His feud with Prince Galvin and his mother was exactly what the church wanted. His infamy let us paint him as a villain that could unite the masses through shared disgust and outrage. He became a point of reference we could use to direct our flock away from, an example to warn against and prove our fears for the nation. However, the damage he inflicted was more than we could ever expect. It wasn’t just his actions against the Herald family that made him famous, it was the bloodshed of the Red Revelry.”
“The night of a hundred heads,” said Alexis, thinking back to Daniel’s song.
“The official story is that he suggested the area solely for tactical use against the revelers and bounty hunters, but the fact that the night ended with a pile of severed heads in front of the church sent chills down the spine of everyone in the clergy. We hoped to use it to paint him as an enemy of the gods. After that, there was the matter of Prince Seraph.”
“What does Seraph have to do with this?” Alexis asked.
“Everything. Despite his father’s best efforts to keep him away from us, the church has been grooming him to rule. When Adwith Tarnas first arrived, we’d never heard of ‘Light’s Emissary,’ but his power was nothing short of divine. We tried to welcome him into the church, hoping to make him a mighty cardinal that would galvanize our followers, but he refused, and Seraph was going to be our next big chance. We planned to paint him as the hero our country needed, while Noah seemed a perfect nemesis, representing everything the church opposed, and would serve as Seraph’s stepping stone.
Once we got him onto the throne, the church’s power would be absolute, every conflict a holy war. We could have spread our gospel across the entire continent, the entire world, and the more followers we’d acquire, the stronger we’d become.”
“But Prince Lupin is supposed to take the throne. That’s always been the kingdom’s plan,” said Cyrilo.
“Well if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that plans can easily be foiled. Our savior was broken and humiliated in front of the knighthood, he’s lost his powers, and Tarnas took him out of our reach. The church gambled everything him, and we lost.”
“And now you’re desperate for a win, is that right?” Alexis asked.
“We came along at the worst possible moment, and you need to crush us to prove that the church is still powerful and your doctrine is unquestionable,” Sophia said bitterly.
“We’re taking you to see the king,” said Cyrilo. “You’re going to tell him everything you told us, including that the cardinals are giving out orders to kill.”
“I’ve confessed my sins to you and answered your questions. My cooperation ends here. I may not approve of the cardinals’ recent decisions, but I am still loyal to the church. I’ll do nothing more to help you, and if you try to bring me in by force, you’ll simply be seen as three heretics attacking a priest. You’ll be locked up without ever getting the chance to speak.”
“No, they’ll just see one heretic,” said Alexis as she stood up and grabbed her sword.
“Alexis, hold,” said Cyrilo, raising her paw. “Very well, Priest Marduel, we’ll quit while we’re ahead. But keep this in mind: the next time someone attacks me, disturbs my sleep, or even gives me a funny look, I will come back here, and whether or not you cooperate will no longer be a choice for you to make. Now that I know for sure the cardinals are behind this, the same warning goes to them as well.”
The three left peacefully and released their held breath once they left the cathedral, but upon returning to the Knight’s Sheath, they found Lucius waiting with a worried look on his face. “There are some things you need to know.” He didn’t speak until they all gathered in Cyrilo’s study. “Last night, while I was working on our little arsonist downstairs, I thought I saw something on his hand, but ignored it. I decided to go back for another look and found a white mark around his finger, where a ring had been worn.”
“You’re saying he was a knight,” Alexis gasped.
“In all likelihood, yes.”
“When I was fighting with that assassin, pulling his knife to his throat, I saw a similar mark on his finger. I bet he was a knight too.”
“Then the knighthood has been infiltrated,” said Cyrilo.
“We don’t know that for sure,” said Sophia. “Knights aren’t the only people who wear rings. Maybe the attacker’s ring had a coat of arms or family seal, something else that could give away his identity.”
“There’s something else. Frigga stopped by while you were gone with some troubling news. All the other attackers are dead. They took their own lives before they could be interrogated. In all likelihood, they probably had help.”
“These people are insane!” Alexis hissed.
“Knights, soldiers, how many of these murderous zealots does the church have hiding in plain sight?” Cyrilo muttered.
Time passed, and the Knight’s Sheath was spared from further attacks. With the return of peace, Sophia buried herself in work with Cyrilo to expand their book production into other subjects. Any courtesans and cleaning girls with sufficient handwriting were recruited help with the project. They combined existing tomes and scrolls with Noah’s notes to create new books about biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and multiple other topics, and their alchemic printing press churned out copies.
Information about chemistry, however, was withheld. Noah had warned Cyrilo and Sophia that mankind wasn’t ready to wield the power of alchemy and trusted only them to use it at their discretion. Filling the void, they produced copies of every book they could get their hands on. Affording them was easy, as Cyrilo bought them with diamonds she made herself.
Along the wall in the parlor were shelves with all the books on display, and customers could buy them or simply read while they drank. True, most men didn’t go to brothels to read, but Daniel’s music had already expanded the repertoire of customers, and thanks to Noah’s toys, even women had started frequenting the Knight’s Sheath. Over time, more and more people sat with books in their hands. Even the courtesans educated themselves in their downtime.
Cyrilo also published religious texts as per her agreement with the church. It seemed their enemies had realized that they couldn’t win this fight through traditional cloak and dagger means. Whether they were biding their time or had given up completely, it allowed a period of rest, and Alexis and Sophia decided to enjoy it.
It was a sunny summer day, and the two women tossed and turned in bed with their lips locked in sapphic passion. Interrupting their tender kiss, Sophia moaned in pleasure, and Alexis grunted and panted from exertion. The reason for this discrepancy was the toy between them, a dildo Alexis wore with a leather harness, just one of the countless pleasure tools available to them.
As the rubber phallus plunged deep into Sophia’s recesses over and over, the base, vibrating like a hummingbird, pressed against Alexis’s clitoris. The stronger her thrusts, the greater her ecstasy.
Wielding the strap-on felt quite unnatural to her, and it took time for her to get used to the motions and pacing. However, she eventually got the hang of it and now found herself with a strange new appreciation for the effort men had to put in. She had seen glimpses of courtesans and clients engaged in coitus and understood the mechanics involved, but she never realized how much strength and stamina was required.
At the moment, she was on top, thrusting deep into Sophia with fast, powerful strokes. Sophia’s legs were spread wide, ready to catch everything Alexis threw at her. The summer heat and their exertion left them both painted with sweat. It cut down the friction as their breasts rubbed against each other, with their nipples dueling like their tongues.
“Oh God, this feels so good!” Sophia moaned.
“I know. I know! I KNOW!” Alexis replied as she climaxed. She held herself over Sophia, gasping for air with her body shaking.
“You look so cute right now,” Sophia teased.
“Well don’t count me out just yet.”
Remaining upright, Alexis resumed thrusting into Sophia with their bodies perpendicular. She picked up speed, leaving Sophia grabbing onto the sheets for security while a persistent whine escaped her lips. Alexis kept a steady but rapid pace, fighting off fatigue with the pleasure of the vibrator and her love of Sophia’s salaciously disheveled expression.
“You look so cute right now,” she said, teasing Sophia back.
“The view from down here is pretty spectacular,” Sophia replied as she watched Alexis’s tits bounce with every thrust.
Alexis was similarly watching Sophia’s tits, mesmerized by how they moved every time the dildo plowed into her. She began alternating her thrusts, trying to see if she could control how the lovely mountains reacted. Her gyrating hips and fluctuating speed broke Sophia’s hold over every thought, disrupting her focus with waves of pleasure that she could not predict.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Sophia cried out as she orgasmed. The two stopped to catch their breath, each sucking in air with the room's humidity making their window fog up. “You look pretty tired. Don’t tell me you’re done already,” said Sophia with a smile.
Alexis laughed. “Oh, I’m going to make you pay for that.”
She lowered her head and went to town on Sophia, drinking up the nectar flowing so freely. After quenching her thirst, she grabbed Sophia and rolled her over onto her front, then paused to run her tongue and lips across Sophia’s back and rear.
“How’s the view?” Sophia asked, shaking her round ass at Alexis.
“It’s pretty great.”
Alexis inserted the head of the dildo into Sophia’s slit, amused by how easily it entered her. She then grabbed Sophia’s hips and resumed her thrusts, attacking her from behind with a ferocity she generally reserved for battle. Sophia struggled to remain upright, close to losing all the strength in her arms every time the rubber toy explored her depths. She rolled her head back and forth, ceaselessly moaning while her long crimson hair poured down her shoulders and her bounteous breasts shook like chandeliers in an earthquake.
Behind her, Alexis was giving it everything she had. Seeing Sophia in this position, on all fours and receiving her strength, was a new experience, and it tickled her in the same way as fighting. She felt a sense of dominance that thrilled her.
Try as she might to focus on the moment, Alexis’s mind kept drifting back to Noah’s evening with Sophia and the hours of lewd grunts and moans from his room at the academy. Before, such thoughts left her feeling sick with jealousy, but at that moment, Alexis felt a sense of playful competition. She wanted to make Sophia moan the same way, to invoke even greater pleasure in her than Noah had, and now she had an accurate means of comparison. But how in the world had he managed to maintain this pace for a whole night? She suddenly wished she had stayed and watched the entirety of his lecture.
It wasn’t long before a simultaneous climax hit them both, bleaching their minds with pleasure and taking the last of their strength. They finally collapsed onto the bed, their naked bodies glistening with sweat.
“I would love to take a nap right now,” Sophia sighed happily.
“I’m too hot and hungry to sleep. How about we get some lunch instead?”
“I could go for that.”
After another few minutes to rest, they filled up the wash basin in their room and gave themselves a birdbath to clean off their sweat. Once dressed, they left their room and headed down to the parlor. The midday slump allowed Alexis and Sophia to enjoy their sexual sabbatical, but it didn’t mean there were no customers. Along with a handful of regulars, two tables were fully occupied; one was full of knights, and the other was full of scholars.
These knights were stationed for protection and deterrence. They weren’t allowed to drink or fool around with the courtesans while there, but they were free to peruse the book ***********ion and enjoy the tea and music. The scholars had their noses in books, but it wasn’t for leisure. The king had sent them to ensure none of the books contained traps, spells, or secret information about Uther. Though they had yet to find anything dangerous or illegal, the knowledge Sophia and Cyrilo had personally received from Noah caused no shortage of arguments.
“What are they going on about now?” Alexis asked Lucius as she approached the bar.
“Well for a while it was whether or not bird and reptilian beastmen laid eggs, then it was whether or not stars die, and now it’s something about what the center of the earth is made of. That guy says it’s hollow, that guy says it contains a smaller world, and that guy is siding with Noah’s “molten core” theory.”
They watched as Daniel walked over to the table. “Hey, since all of you geniuses are here, maybe you can settle an argument for us.”
“Daniel, don’t even think about it,” Alexis warned.
“What I want to know is: could ten thousand ducks beat a dragon in a fight?”
The oldest scholar among them, dressed in an ornate robe, curled his long white beard around his finger while he pondered. “Do the ducks have a plan?”
“They have a plan!” Daniel answered with a grin.
Alexis groaned as though already suffering a headache. “Dear God, I don’t want to spend yet another hour hearing about the tactical advantage of webbed feet. Let’s get out of here.”
She and Sophia left the brothel as the shouting started, searching for nourishment. Fortunately, the streets were friendly today. After weeks at the Knight’s Sheath, Alexis and Sophia had developed a rapport with their neighbors and the local businesses, aided by their inclusion in Cyrilo’s literature project. Alexis’s midnight archery against the zealots had earned her great respect. They ate in the street while watching people go about their business.
“So what’s the plan once those eggheads are gone?” Alexis asked while chewing on an apple. Sophia, halfway through her fish, stopped.
“Cyrilo and I have some big plans for expansion. The first step is to hire every willing scribe and scrivener in Colbrand and task them with remaking books that are either incorrect, messily written, or in poor physical condition. She has enough diamonds to keep them busy for a while, and hopefully, a few of the scholars might be interested in joining our cause.
The only real hassle will be procuring the ingredients. Duplication can only work if every chemical component in the source is present to become the copy, from hydrogen to mercury. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the limit of parchment, ink, and other materials we can buy in large enough quantities, so we’re looking for alternative resources. We’re hoping raw wood with added ingredients can be rearranged alchemically to create paper, and we’re practicing turning monster leather into covers the same way.”
“Is there even enough room at the Knight’s Sheath for all of this?”
“We’re thinking of setting up a shop within walking distance of the Knight’s Sheath, keeping the two businesses entwined, but safely distanced. You know Melissa?”
“She does that feather dance on the stage, right?”
“Yeah, Cyrilo says she owned a shop in the past, and knows how to run a business. She’ll get them flying off the shelves. Right now, books are still considered a luxury item, something that nobles collect as a status symbol. Once we start selling them cheap outside of the Knight’s Sheath, everyone who can read is going to want to snap them up.
After that, we’re going to look beyond Colbrand. We’ll have wagons full of books sent out across Uther. They’ll be gifts, allowing each town to have its own library. Then, we’ll start sending books to other countries. We’ll just keep sending out books until the whole world is sick of us.”
Alexis sighed in happiness. “I got chills right there.”
“I almost wish one of those songs from Noah’s phone had been playing when I said it. I know the perfect one.” Alexis gave a small hum, and Sophia turned to her. “Come on, you miss him, don’t you?”
“I’m still mad at him.”
“I never said you weren’t mad. I said you miss him. I loved that afternoon we spent in your room, smoking that stuff and listening to music.”
“That really messed our minds up.”
“In the best way. Remember how he braided your hair, and told us that story about the sister he had a long time ago? He said she loved doing crazy things with her hair, braiding it, dying it, putting things in it, and he used to help get it into shapes and patterns. Lying on your bed, listening to that story, the music, your laughter, that was the most relaxed I’d ever been in my life. Someday he’ll come back, and I want the three of us to do that again.”
“I’ll admit, that was nice.”
“I’ve noticed that you never undid the braid.”
While Sophia let her crimson hair flow freely, Alexis preferred to keep her blonde hair in an upswept arrangement with two locks framing her face, and she used the braid Noah put in to tie it together.
“You’re really not going to let this go, are you?”
“When have I ever let anything go?”
Alexis sighed and smiled. “Ok, I miss him. Aside from you, he’s my best friend. Of course I miss him.”
“I knew it.” Sophia then wrapped her arms around Alexis. “What is it about honesty that makes me want to cuddle you so much?” She was rubbing her cheek against Alexis’s and pushing her over.
“Easy, we’re in public!” Alexis laughed before they ended up falling onto the ground.
After eating, they returned to the Knight’s Sheath, where a tense situation was unfolding in the parlor between Madam Cyrilo and Marcus Berholm, who was leading a handful of soldiers.
“What’s going on?” Alexis asked.
“I’m so glad you could join us, Miss Veres. You saved me the trouble of looking for you,” said the steely-eyed dwarf.
“A man you know was murdered yesterday, found with an arrow in his chest, and a witness claimed a young woman with blonde hair was spotted fleeing the scene. I’m placing you under arrest.”
“Madam Cyrilo, I didn’t—”
“Of course you didn’t, dear. Sir Berholm, you’re stubborn and suspicious, but you’re no fool. Since when do you take such flimsy circumstances seriously? Countless men walk through my doors, countless women have blonde hair, and countless warriors use bows. This is hardly an alignment of the planets.”
“The victim is someone you were reported accosting recently. A priest. The man who reported it said that Miss Veres was with you at the time, carrying a bow.”
Everyone felt their stomach twist into knots. This wasn’t simply a case of mistaken identity, Alexis was being specifically framed for murder.
“Don’t fall for this bait, Sir Berholm. It’s true, we spoke to Marduel, searching for the mastermind behind the attempts on my life. He painted the entire echelon of the clergy as part of a conspiracy to destroy us. He’s clearly being silenced for talking to us. Besides, Alexis was here all day and the knights can corroborate her attendance.”
Berholm turned to the knights providing security. “Well? Was she here all day yesterday?”
“No, sir,” one knight said. “Thinking back, she was gone most of the day. We often see her leaving to run errands, and just assumed its was nothing special.”
And just like that, it was as if the summer sun had been extinguished like a candle, and a deathly chill enveloped everyone.
“They’re wrong, she was here!” Sophia shouted.
“You filthy, lying rats! You’re all working for the church!” Cyrilo hissed, glaring at the knights who returned her fury with smug stoicism.
“Madam Cyrilo, I work only for the king, as do the knights under me, and I trust them, not to mention the witnesses that put this girl at the scene of the murder.”
“Marcus, we’ve known each other for years, I’m telling you she didn’t do it!”
“It’s true, we have a rapport, but I need to make sure that isn’t clouding my judgment. To an outsider, you have every reason to lie for this girl. The fact remains that everyone in this establishment is a friend of the most wanted man in the country. He humiliated the entire aristocracy, crippled the royal family, and now one could argue you’re assisting him by trying to take down the final pillar of this nation.”
“Sir Berholm, I swear I’m innocent! Ask anyone else who was here!”
“Believe me, I will fully investigate this incident, but until I can find evidence leading to another culprit, you will be waiting in the dungeon.” He held up a pair of shackles. “Come quietly. Don’t make the same mistake Noah did.”
Whether outright killed or used as a hostage, Alexis knew that getting arrested would mean her death. Even if Berholm was telling the truth about his loyalty to the crown, putting her in the dungeon, when the knighthood was infested with zealots, would be no different than putting her head on the chopping block.
He stepped towards Alexis, but Sophia got in the way with tears in her eyes. “I’m not going to let you take her for something she didn’t do!”
“If you impede my duties, then you force me to take you with her.”
“That’s enough!” Lucius barked. “I did it. I murdered the priest. I brought Alexis with me to speak with him, but things went south and I ended up killing Marduel by accident. I told her to run and keep quiet about it, but her hands are clean in this.”
“How can I be sure you aren’t simply covering for her?”
“I swear on my life, Alexis had nothing to do with the priest’s death. I’ll confess to the king if I have to.”
“Very well then. Until the investigation is complete, you are under arrest for the murder of Priest Marduel.”
“Lucius, don’t do this!” Alexis argued as the shackles were put on him.
“Don’t get in the way, this is how it has to be.”
“There has to be something we can do,” said Sophia, turning to Cyrilo, but she, too, was blindsided by everything going on.
“Lucius,” she finally said, “this isn’t over, and don’t think for one second that it is.” She then glared at the knights, shooting daggers from her eyes. “And this goes for the rest of you as well.”
Berholm and the knights left, taking Lucius with them, and never had the rattling of chains rang so loud. The bar was left in stunned silence. Cyrilo turned and briskly walked back to her study, and Alexis and Sophia chased after her, finding her pacing back and forth.
“I was so worried one of those scholars would plant something in my books. To think all those knights were working for the church.”
“There has to be something we can do, some way to prove his innocence!” Sophia said.
“We would have to find the priest’s real killer, not that that’s likely to happen,” Cyrilo replied. “Not only did our enemy eliminate our only lead, but they also pinned it on us. I’d be admiring their cleverness if I wasn’t so furious. Where are you going?” she asked as Alexis approached the door.
“No more talking, no more waiting, it’s time to cut the head off the snake. I’ll hunt down the cardinals and every priest in the city, and if they don’t give me what I want, I’ll beat them until they do. And if the kingdom gets in my way, I’ll tear it down, brick by brick.”
“Alexis, stop. You know you can’t win by fighting that way. What’ll you do when a gold-rank knight stands in front of you?”
“I’ll kill them, that’s what! I’ll take them down, just like Noah would! You told me I had to be patient to make real change, that I had to swallow my ideals if I ever wanted to see them fulfilled, and Lady Zodiac told me that I have to pick my battles. But when we were in the academy, Noah told me that an outcast willing to dirty their hands can get more done than a hero who worries about opinions. If the only way to change this country is to make it fear me, then so be it! I’ll kill whoever gets in my way and put Noah’s crimes to shame!”
“Alexis, don’t go!”
“Wait a second, the academy!” said Cyrilo, drawing Sophia and Alexis’s attention.
“What about the academy?” Alexis asked.
“The knighthood has been infiltrated, but the church could only get its zealots in with two ways. The first would be to indoctrinate those who have already joined the knighthood, and the second would be to enroll them into the academy.”
“That’s right,” said Sophia. “When I was in the academy, there was so much pressure on us healers to swear allegiance to the church. We were supposed to be a group that would operate between the clergy and the kingdom. Even outside of lessons, we were coached on doctrine and servitude, but after my evening with Noah, I was basically excluded from all those conversations. They said I was tainted.”
“I don’t just mean the healers. Everyone who has come after us, they were all ready to kill and die for their masters. The church cultivated these lunatics, planted them in the knighthood, and watched them grow, and I bet the academy was in on it.”
Cyrilo pulled a lockbox out of her desk, opened it, and revealed a silver-ranked knight’s ring. She put it on and conjured a satchel full of papers. “Noah blackmailed Commandant Ford in order to stay at the academy, and he asked me to hold onto the evidence. Apparently, he was having affairs with some of his cadets, but there might be other incriminating evidence in here. If we can prove that the church infiltrated the knighthood, then we can discredit those rats who lied about you.”
They began looking through the bag, skimming the various documents, and soon found gold. “I got it!” Sophia exclaimed, holding up a list of names. “Only members of the clergy use this kind of paper. These must be cadets who the church planted in the academy.”
“So we’re going after the commandant,” said Alexis.
“Actually, he’s just a captain now, but I bet he knows plenty of dirty little secrets regarding the church. We’ll put him in front of the king, and this time, we don’t take no for an answer.”
As the sun began to set, Captain Ford stood up from the chair in his office and sighed wearily. He was lucky to have it still, considering his demotion from Commandant. His experience running the knight academy and spotless record before the arrival of Noah were the only reasons he hadn’t lost his job.
Originally a member of the regular military, his position at the academy had always been precarious, and it wasn’t getting easier. The ripples of Noah’s actions the previous year had yet to settle. If anything, they were continuing to stir up the new cadets.
Ford put those thoughts out of his mind and left his office, ready to go home. He and his wife lived in a house not far beyond the academy grounds, and he had a personal carriage that took him back and forth. He left home early and returned late each day.
He reached the stables, where his driver was prepping the carriage for departure alongside the academy horses. Ford exchanged a few quick words with the young man at a level of communication just below small talk. After he climbed inside the carriage and sat down, he gave yet another sigh of exhaustion.
As the carriage set off, Ford closed his eyes, waiting for that specific bump telling him he had passed the academy gates. Had his eyes been open, perhaps he would have seen Alexis. Garbed in her blue battle dress and fully armed, she chased after the carriage, running like the wind. Finally, she caught up with it and jumped aboard, opening the door to the captain's shock.
“What’s going—” Before he could finish speaking, she put her sword to his neck and sat across from him. “Alexis Veres, to think I would see one my best students so soon.”
“Tell your driver to take you to the castle, right now.”
“And why would I do that?”
Alexis pricked his throat with her sword, letting a drop of blood fall freely. “That’s why.”
Ford growled in annoyance and opened the window beside him. “Tad, take me to the palace.”
“You heard me, go straight there.” He then closed the window and glared at Alexis. “Hijacking my carriage and threatening me, have you completely lost your mind, girl?”
“Shut up. You’re going to tell the king about all of the church’s spies you’ve been letting into the knighthood.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, despite the blood draining from his face.
“I already know the knighthood has been infiltrated, and it just so happens that a list of names was found in your office, a list coming from the cardinals. They were names of cadets you weren’t allowed to kick out. I know because one of the names was a cadet who got caught peeking into the women’s bath. He and his friends got whipped, when they normally would have been whipped and expelled. How much did the church pay you to let that slide?”
“Fine, so you figured it out, so what? You think I’m scared of you because you have a sword on me? I will tell the king nothing, and you will be arrested and executed for what you’ve done here.”
“Right now, my friend is sitting in the dungeon, framed for a murder he didn’t commit by knights loyal to the church. Do you know who he’s accused of murdering? A priest that we spoke to, who gave us some answers but refused to stand against his superiors. They killed him to keep him silent. Do you think they won’t do the same to you?
Since we know about the church buying you off, you’ve become a loose end. Your exposure makes you a liability to church, someone to get rid of so you can’t be used against them. Sure, they’ll blame your death on me or someone else, but the fact remains that a target is now on your back. You were doomed the moment I got in this carriage, and the only way to save your life is to come clean to the king and help bring down the cardinals.”
“If I tell the king the truth, I’ll end up in the dungeon for the rest of my life.”
“Not if you blow the whistle on the church. And if you are arrested, it’s still better than being murdered.”
Ford was silent, mulling over his options, not that he really had any. Everything Alexis said was true, and right now, his life was on the line. Then, before he could respond, the carriage overturned as though it had been tackled by a charging bull, falling on its side and scraping across the ground.
Alexis and Ford were thrown around the interior. Alexis hit the frame of the window, now broken, so hard that she tasted blood. It seemed like forever before the carriage finally stopped moving, but it had only taken a few moments for everything to be upended.
Coughing and groaning in pain, Alexis slowly got to her feet and pushed open the side door, now directly above her head. She climbed outside to find the street was empty, and around her, she could hear the cries of whistles.
“A monster alarm,” she cursed.
There were many reasons why Colbrand was built in the location that it was, one of them being the animals that spawned via magic circles. Typically, they didn’t produce anything worse than a wild dog, but every once in a while, something truly dangerous would appear. If it wasn’t the result of a summoning circle, it was either a beast that had wandered in from the country or escaped imprisonment in the city. When the whistles started going off, it meant that a monster had been spotted, and everyone had to flee the area until it was slain.
The setting sun was already clearing the streets, and with the whistles going off, no one was around to see what happened or what was about to happen next. At the moment, the only monsters walking around were on two feet, such as the one approaching the wrecked carriage.
“Sir Reyns, is that you?” Alexis asked, speaking to the long-haired man approaching in full armor.
He was the mace trainer at the academy and, according to rumors, part elf. However, it didn’t look like he was there to help, and as Alexis dared a glance to the horses and the carriage driver, she realized he wasn’t alone. All three had their heads cleanly removed, and their blood spilled into the street. Considering that Reyns was armed with a pair of quarterstaffs, it was clear he didn’t kill them.
Alexis climbed out of the carriage, trading her sword for her bow and aiming an arrow at Reyns. “Hold it, Sir Reyns. Tell me why you’re here.”
“You know why I’m here,” the man said coldly. “You shouldn’t have interfered, Veres. You should have just kept your head down and let everyone forget you.”
“So, the church has you keeping tabs on Ford, do they? You saw me board his carriage? You swore an oath, just as I did, to serve king and country! Instead, you’re just a pawn for the clergy!”
“Shut your mouth!”
Behind Alexis, Ford climbed out of the carriage and dusted himself off. “Ah, excellent timing, Reyns. You made a mistake by coming after me, Veres. I have friends on—”
Alexis tackled Ford, knocking him to the ground and saving his life. A ring of light, thin as paper, whipped through the air, missing Ford and slicing through the overturned carriage. A moment later, and the captain would have been bisected. Alexis looked over, seeing another figure approaching from an adjacent street. He was glowing with an aura of mana and garbed in robes like previous assassins, hiding his face.
“Wake up! They’re here to kill us both, you fool!” Alexis said as she got off Ford and trained her arrow on the newcomer.
“Reyns, you’d better have a good explanation for this!” Ford barked.
“It’s just as she says. If she knows about you, then Cyrilo knows about you, meaning you all need to die.”
“You heard him, Captain,” said Alexis. “So which is it going to be? Kneel and die for the church, or follow me to the castle and bring it down?”
Ford aimed his hand at the slain horses, and a blue magic circle appeared around his wrist. “Ocean Armament.” Water began to surge from the horses, siphoned from their blood and flesh. The water gathered in his hand and formed a solid shape, becoming a trident. “I’m going to make you pay for getting me involved in this, but at the moment, I have no choice but to work with you.”
Alexis and Ford stood back to back, armed and staring their approaching enemies down.
Elsewhere in the city, near the palace, Sophia and Daniel were hiding in an alley.
“Any idea how long it’ll take for them to get here?” Daniel asked.
“I’m not sure, but I feel like they should have arrived by now,” said Sophia, holding the bag of evidence.
This was a two-pronged move, in which Alexis was in charge of getting Ford to the palace while Sophia and Daniel lay in wait with the evidence of the church’s subterfuge. Each by themselves could be dismissed; Ford’s accusation with nothing to back it up, and potential evidence that needed to be corroborated by Ford, but once combined, not even the cardinals would be able to talk their way out of it.
“Man, I am not built for this kind of stress,” Daniel said as he lit a gonlief cigarette. “I’m just a guitar-player, man. No one told me I’d be doing any of this spy shit.”
“Well Lucius is in the dungeon, and Cyrilo needs to stay behind to defend the Knight’s Sheath, so you’re all I’ve got. I really need you to show some backbone.”
“I’m known for many things, and backbone isn’t one of them.” They waited a few more minutes, and still no sight of Ford’s carriage. “Fuck! This is killing me, man!”
“Listen to me, I’m worried too, but you really aren’t helping.”
They kept waiting.
“Hey, do you hear that?” Daniel then asked.
“I think there is a monster alarm going off.”
Dread gripped Sophia. “From which direction?”
“Over there, in the distance.”
“That’s where Alexis should be coming from!” Sophia then shoved the bag of evidence into Daniel’s arms. “Guard this with your life!” She took off running, ignoring his shouts.
Ford spun around with his long coat billowing, fending off the strikes of Reyns’s attacks with his trident. Despite his bureaucratic position, the captain’s strength and skills remained sharp. He was nimble on his feet, avoiding the fellow knight’s attacks and blocking the rest while lunging out with his own.
His trident, though made of liquid water, remained perfectly rigid and absorbed every impact without losing its shape. He could control it with magical dexterity, spinning it around his finger so fast that it became an impenetrable barrier, holding Reyns back. Then, he could stop it just as quickly and lunge forward for a thrust, altering the shape of the trident’s shaft to extend its reach.
Despite the captain’s skill, Reyns went after him with an unrelenting chain of blows, and the continuous colliding of their weapons sounded like chattering teeth in the deathly cold. Reyns’s stick fighting technique was well-honed and deadly, capable of delivering half-a-dozen strikes in a single second. His defense was equally proficient, able to ward off stabs and strikes from Ford and unleash his attack simultaneously. The two dueling knights were living blurs of rapid footwork and swinging weapons.
Nearby, however, the fight wasn’t so evenly balanced. Alexis and her opponent darted back and forth, each launching attacks at the other. While Alexis was armed with a bow, her enemy used wind magic. Rings of glowing air would appear around his wrists, each the size of a dinner plate, and he’d hurl them at her like a razor-sharp discus. They were fast, precise, and deadly, and it didn’t seem like her opponent was restricted by his mana reserves.
Alexis did her best to dodge, but the blood flowing from her numerous cuts showed how well that was going. Worse, her foe would turn his attention on Ford if she strayed too far. As she tried to devise a plan, she saw him swing his arm, and a barrage of rings was hurled at the captain.
“Shit! Scatter Shot!”
Alexis aimed her bow and shot an arrow at the flying rings, launching not one attack, but a whole volley. The bolts, made of compressed mana, destroyed the rings in midair. Alexis then rolled to the side, dodging a ring that carved up the ground where she had been kneeling. She ran around her foe and loaded another arrow.
This time, all the mana bolts stayed together, zeroing in with perfect aim, but her enemy dodged with nimble movements. She had to get closer. She loaded another arrow and charged forward, avoiding the rings of enchanted wind hurled at her. The mage retreated, continuing to bombard her with attacks. The glowing circles flew through the air, carving through buildings, carts, stands, and everything else in their way. As long as the buildings were still standing, he didn’t seem to care how much damage he did.
Alexis got in close and aimed her arrow straight at her enemy’s chest. “Cluster Shot!”
She released the arrow at point-blank range, but the mage was ready. He conjured two rings around his wrists, larger and more powerful than the ones he had been throwing before, and used them to deflect the incoming barrage. Alexis didn’t let disappointment slow her down. She rolled past him, dodging his counterattack, and loaded another mana-infused arrow.
“Burst Shot!” This time, rather than aiming for him, she aimed at the ground at his feet. The arrow struck the soil and exploded, sending the mage staggering back, disoriented from the shockwave and the resulting dust cloud. Alexis loaded three arrows. “Scatter Shot!”
She released all three at once, each enhanced with a volley of mana bolts. They flew towards her unguarded enemy, an unavoidable wall of death coming right at him. However, he was faster than Alexis expected, conjuring rings around his wrists and ankles and creating a defensive whirlwind that threw the incoming bolts off their trajectory. He defended against the three arrows and the accompanying mana bolts, but failed to block the fourth, perfectly timed to strike when his guard opened.
Finally, Alexis landed a genuine blow, planting the arrow in his gut and bombarding him with the bolts. Not only did he sustain an injury, but his robe was also shredded, leaving Alexis in shock. It was a woman, her tight-wrapped tunic and trousers giving away her feminine figure. Her shaved head jogged Alexis’s memory.
“You were there at the knighting ceremony. Bojena Landon, gold-ranked knight of Uther,” she gasped.
“That’s right, Alexis Veres, expelled bronze-ranked knight,” she replied as she yanked out the arrow in her gut.
“Do you even know what you’re doing? You’ve betrayed your oaths and loyalty to the king!”
“My loyalty has always been absolute, but where it truly lies is with the church. The church took me in, raised me, educated me, trained me, just as it has so many others. Kings come and go, nations rise and fall, but the gods are eternal, and I serve them, body and soul.”
“You’re defending a crooked organization that wants total control over the nation!”
“I’m defending mankind’s one true path to salvation. You think you’re helping people with those books? All you’re doing is distracting them, leading them astray, corrupting their minds with arrogance. Knowledge benefits our lives, but too much poisons our souls.”
“Who are you to decide when it’s too much? Who are the cardinals to decide that for people? No good can come from willing ignorance! You aren’t helping anyone by keeping them in the dark!”
“Humans must be kept in the dark, because only then can they see the light of the divine. Tell me, do you know what the true meaning of prayer is? It is to ask for help and guidance, to admit that you don’t have the answers. It is the ultimate act of humility. Those with knowledge, those with power, they see prayer as something beneath them, something unnecessary, because they believe themselves gods in their own right. They believe themselves the masters of their domain and their destiny, and that belief blinds them. Knowledge is power, and power corrupts.”
“And when the church takes control, you think the cardinals will retain any kind of piety? You think with absolute power, they’ll walk with pure hearts on a noble path? No, they’ll just become fat and arrogant, and see the world and its people as possessions to be owned! They’ll keep twisting doctrine to suit their own agendas, and you’ll be left with a ruling class who use the threat of the gods to keep the people in line.”
“If that should happen, then I will cut them down, and new cardinals, who wholeheartedly follow the gods, will be instated. If the forest becomes overgrown, then I shall serve as the wildfire that clears the way for new shoots to spring forth, but I cannot allow you to continue your mission.”
“I’m trying to help people!”
“You’re making the same mistake as the Enochians. Their great magic and intellect were wasted, used to indulge their own hubris instead of properly venerating those above them. They destroyed themselves, dooming their descendants to a shallow existence. You think you’re aiding mankind, but all you’re doing is giving them the tools to their own destruction. Your books will serve as the foundation upon which mankind will build a monument to its own supremacy, but that monument will inevitably crumble and kill us all.”
“I’m not going to give up everything that Sophia worked so hard for simply because you have no faith in people. We have the right to understand the world around us, to understand ourselves. It is our destiny to improve and grow, and if that destiny leads to our destruction, then so be it! That destiny still belongs to us and no one can take it away, not you, not the church, not even the gods!”
Mana began to surge from Bojena, kicking up a powerful whirlwind. “If you refuse the gods, then I will kill you in their name. Cyclone Mantle.”
Rings of enchanted air appeared around her arms, legs, and torso. These weren’t the rings she’d throw, they were the kind she used to ward off Alexis’s earlier attack, and she had a feeling as to what would happen if Bojena managed to touch her with them. Her only hope was to buy time until something changed, some variable in the situation. But though she felt fear, it was within her control.
“I didn’t spend my life training just so I could be killed by you.”
“And yet you will.”
“Go ahead and try.”
Bojena then rocketed forward, propelled by an explosion of air from under her feet, and hurled a punch towards Alexis. Alexis dodged, but only by a hair’s breadth, left stunned by Bojena’s sudden speed. Even worse, though she had dodged the punch and the rings of spinning wind, she did not come out unscathed. As Bojena’s hand shot past her face, the enchanted air shaved the skin off Alexis’s cheek like sandpaper.
Alexis tried to create some distance, but Bojena was upon her immediately, swinging her arms and legs like they were deadly swords. It took all of Alexis’s agility just to get far enough away that she could load an arrow into her bow.
“Cluster Shot!” She released the arrow and a barrage of mana bolts, but Bojena simply waved her arm and conjured a barrier of air, absorbing the attack. Alexis loaded another arrow and fired it at the ground. “Burst Shot!”
This time, Bojena was ready for the resulting explosion and lunged for Alexis, delivering a kick straight to her stomach. Alexis was tossed through the air, with her blood splattering on the ground. Not only had the kick been strong enough to wound her internally, but the resulting wind attack left the skin on her stomach shredded. She would have died if not for her battle dress.
Bojena didn’t pursue her; she simply aimed her hand at Alexis and launched a barrage of rings. Alexis didn’t have the time or strength to put up a defense. The best she could do was attempt to dodge the flying saw blades, but that weakness earned her a slash across her shoulder and thigh. She struggled to stand, with her blue dress darkening from her trickling blood.
“Because you abandoned the gods, the gods have abandoned you,” said Bojena as she approached. She was still wounded from Alexis’s earlier attack, but showed no signs of slowing down.
Alexis dared a look over to Ford. He wasn’t beaten and bloody like Alexis was, but the battle had turned against him. Reyns had activated his magic, a combination of warrior and fire enhancement that turned his staffs into torches. The magic increased the physical impact of each strike and imbued them with a burst of flame, destroying everything he touched with an explosion.
Though able to dodge Reyns’s attacks, Ford couldn’t block them. Every time he tried, his Ocean Armament would break from the resulting explosion, losing its shape and producing a cloud of steam. Moreover, each impact released an audible shockwave, reinforcing the nonexistent margin for error. Ford reshaped the water into different weapons, from the trident, to a hammer, to twin swords, to even a sickle and chain, but against Reyns’s destructive blows, he might as well have been fighting with a chain of sausages.
The situation was bad, but Alexis wasn’t out of the fight yet. Madam Cyrilo had insisted she take a potion with her, and she was glad she hadn’t argued against it. She pulled out the small bottle and drank the bitterness, with her wounds beginning to close. Able to move once more, she took off in a run around Bojena. She only had a couple arrows left, and her mana reserves weren’t fairing much better, so she had to make this count.
She loaded an arrow and began charging it with mana, causing the tip to glow brightly. Bojena chased her, not wanting to give Alexis the chance to reach a safe distance. She hurled a barrage of punches and kicks at Alexis that, even when dodged, produced a whirlwind of invisible blades.
Alexis remembered sparring with Valia Zodiac, and overlapped the memory with the foe in front of her. Though their techniques differed, both were gold-ranked knights, far superior to Alexis in every way. Valia had taught Alexis how to survive against a superior opponent.
She focused on evasion while she studied Bojena’s moves, looking for patterns and memorizing distances. There was a flow to her fighting style, and instead of trying to oppose it, Alexis had to let it carry her. Her resistance was utterly passive, letting Bojena decide her moves for her. All the while, she continued sending mana into her arrow, sculpting it into a perfect weapon. Finally, Bojena lunged forward for a killing strike, and Alexis fell back, letting her enemy move over her. She aimed with her bow, not that she needed to with her enemy mere inches away.
She released the arrow, along with every drop of mana she had left, and struck Bojena, center mass. The resulting explosion engulfed them both, with Bojena tossed high into the air like a stone from a sling and landing on the thatched roof of a nearby building. Alexis lay on the ground, her body racked with pain from the shockwave and drained of strength. Her eyes and ears weren’t working, and it took several moments for her to regain clarity.
Unfortunately, when she finally could see, the sight that greeted her was Bojena slowly getting to her feet, far less damaged than she should have been. “It’s a shame,” she said while panting and spitting blood, “you would have made an exemplary knight. Had I not been protected by my Cyclone Mantle, that probably would have killed me, but these rings were able to redirect the force away from my body.”
“Fuck,” Alexis muttered, the only word she could think of.
Bojena aimed her hand at Alexis. “I wish you could’ve seen the truth path to salvation. Though misguided, you are doing what you think is best for the world, and I admire the effort. Alexis Veres, I will remember you.” She then launched a barrage of rings, all closing in on the exhausted warrior.
“Blessing of Advanced Thought! Blessing of Agility! Blessing of Stamina!”
A surge of holy mana rushed through Alexis, sending her thoughts racing and filling her with strength. She could see the incoming rings, but it was like they were moving in slow motion, and her body now felt weightless. She moved out of the way without effort and looked over to the side, seeing Sophia with a smile on her face. Thanks to her magic, Alexis’s neurons were firing faster than before, and her nerves were surging with power, letting her body keep up with her heightened mind.
She then pointed her hand at Ford. “Blessing of Strength! Blessing of Resilience!”
Like Alexis, Ford was overcome with power. Reyns tried to strike him with both staffs, and this time, the Ocean Armament withstood the attack. Though the ground beneath Ford’s feet buckled from the force, his posture and stance remained firm.
“You! The traitor to the church!” Bojena hissed.
She pulled back her arm, ready to launch an attack and take Sophia out, but was interrupted when Alexis appeared in front of her, moving so fast it was like she was teleporting.
“I’m not done with you yet!”
Alexis attacked, not with her bow, but with her short sword. Bojena blocked the incoming swing, and the rings of wind deflected the blade, but in the blink of an eye, Alexis had already reset herself and launched a flurry of attacks, swinging and stabbing at Bojena with superhuman speed.
Bojena was forced to retreat, using wind shockwaves to propel her, but Alexis wasn’t going to let her go. She chased after the faux knight and continued her unrelenting bombardment. She was going over every lesson from Valia Zodiac, with her memories of the elf’s fighting style shooting through her brain. Slash, stab, slash, block, slash, dodge, slash—she could picture how Valia would move in response to Bojena, and her limbs moved to match it.
Every time Alexis’s sword met the rings, the enchanted wind chipped the steel, turning the pristine edge into a saw with each collision, and its teeth were now cutting into Bojena’s skin. Bojena was forced on the defensive, unable even to turn and run. She was blocking and deflecting Alexis’s attacks with everything she had, but it wasn’t enough. The wounds were accumulating, and every gap between the rings was being exploited. Alexis was just getting faster and faster without ever stopping to catch her breath.
In a desperate measure, Bojena created an explosion and rocketed into the air, out of Alexis’s reach. Above the buildings, Bojena spotted Sophia, continuing to send her magic into both Ford and Alexis. If she was taken out, Alexis would be good as dead. Bojena swung her arm with a roar and hurled a volley of wind rings at Sophia, all closing in on her with deadly precision. But, before they could reach her, she was saved.
Daniel appeared on the sidelines with his guitar hanging from his shoulder. He raised his arm, howled like Bojena, and struck the loudest chord he could. A directed explosion of mana was set off from his guitar, blasting aside the incoming rings like they were kites in a hurricane. Fortunately, Sophia was far enough out of the way to be unharmed by the explosion.
Bojena landed in the street with Alexis appearing right behind her. “I won’t you let get in the gods’ way!” she cursed, unleashing a storm of wind blades at Alexis.
Alexis charged headfirst into the storm, getting slashed from all angles with her blood filling the air, but she emerged from the other end, her will unbroken. With a mighty bellow, she raised her sword above her head, the blade now glowing with mana, and slashed Bojena from shoulder to hip. It didn’t wound her, and Alexis’s sword was destroyed in the process, but so too were the protective rings around Bojena’s torso. Not even pausing, Alexis drew her bow and her last arrow, aiming it at Bojena’s heart.
“Where’s your God now?! Burst Shot!”
Imbued with the power of desperation, the arrow struck Bojena and exploded, knocking her through the air, beaten and bloody. She hit the ground and didn’t get up, and for one brief, beautiful moment, everything was silent and serene, with Alexis basking in the warmth of victory. Then she collapsed.
“And… how many of these spies did you let into the knighthood?” King Leonard asked as he gazed through the windows of the throne room.
“I do not know the exact number, but over the years, it must have been a few hundred, at least,” said Ford, kneeling with Alexis, Sophia, and Daniel.
Sophia had healed Alexis and Ford, but their torn clothes and bloody appearances stood out among the advisors and soldiers with the king. All four were in shackles for their fight in the street.
“These were individuals who were trained from birth to be subservient to the church, ready to use the authority of the knighthood to fulfill any mission asked of them by the clergy, and to end their own lives without a moment’s hesitation to keep their secrets from being revealed.”
King Leonard looked at the list of names given to him from the pouch of evidence. “This is unwelcome news, Ford, very unwelcome. And yet I am glad, because now I have everything I need to restore balance to this country. Uther is a garden, I am the gardener, and thanks to this proof you’ve given me, I’m ready to do some thorough weeding.
For the church to have planted their own army of assassins, using the authority of the knighthood to kill whoever opposed them, the audacity sickens me. Sir Berholm, rally the troops. I want the cardinals and every priest in the city in chains before dawn tomorrow. Then, we begin purging the knighthood of these zealots.”
“With pleasure, Your Majesty.”
“Your Majesty, if I may ask, does this mean our friend, Lucius, will be released?” Alexis asked. “He lies in the dungeon for a crime I myself was framed for, on the word of knights who serve the church.”
“For the murder of Father Marduel, correct? He will be released, of course. Either you and your friend are guilty of murdering a traitorous rat who subverted my authority, or you’re both innocent. Whichever it is, he doesn’t belong in a cell.” The king then pointed to a nearby guard. “You, go to the dungeon and release the man named Lucius. Berholm, undo their shackles.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the guard said before hurrying off as Berholm released Alexis, Sophia, Daniel, and Ford. Alexis and Sophia were all smiles, feeling like they had entered a wonderful dream.
“Rupert Ford, for your crimes of collusion and subterfuge, you are hereby stripped of your title and your position of headmaster at the knight academy. You will not receive further punishment, so long as you cooperate with the investigation.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Lady Veres, Lady Rosege, for your exemplary service in revealing this plot, I and this country owe you a great debt. Despite being expelled from the knighthood, you’ve proven to be more than ideal. I henceforth return your positions in the Order, with an immediate promotion to silver rank. The nation will need individuals of your caliber if it is to overcome this blight.”
“My king, what does this mean for the Knight’s Sheath?” Sophia asked.
“As for the Knight’s Sheath, it’s clear you’ve found people worth defending and battles worth fighting. I see no reason to remove you from the place where you’re doing the most good. To you, knights of Uther, I, as king, give this order: you are to protect Madam Cyrilo and ensure her literature project comes to fruition.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty!” they both happily exclaimed.
Daniel then stood up, raised his arms, and released a celebratory whoop. It led to an awkward silence, in which everyone stared at him. “Sorry, this has been an emotional day.”
The king sighed and glared at him in annoyance, and Alexis hurriedly forced Daniel to the floor in a kneeling position.
“My apologies, Your Majesty.”
The king once more sighed, but this time, with a small smile. “Gods be with you.”
With the king’s blessing, and the return of Alexis and Sophia’s official knight equipment, the three left the palace and began the long walk back home.