‘I fucking hate the pig slop they serve here… always have, always will.’
William Highwind stared down into the murky broth of his stew, unsure of its ingredients and even more unsure if he wanted to unravel that riddle. Dipping his spoon into the bowl, he brought up a chunk of mystery meat, held back his tongue, and stomached the lukewarm gruel without any more procrastination.
After repeating the process until he downed the entire bowl, Will looked up and around. He was seated in the mess hall, watching his fellow paladin-trainees mill about and quaff down their daily feed just as he was.
Some were former monks, friars, temple guard and other members of the church that showed impressive combat prowess. Others were former infantry legionaries such as he, learning the ways of holy magic to supplement their skills with sharpened iron.
‘I’d be out of here and in paladin armor by now… if it wasn’t for that fuckin’ bitch…’
William flinched as he held a hand up to his ribs. His body had been healed thanks to the church’s holy magic, but his pride had suffered a permanent scar at Remington.
He could still feel his former friend’s sword strikes rain down and slice into his flesh. He could still hear the bone-chilling snarl of the hellhound that had claimed Aaron as her mate, and his entire body still ached with a dull pain when he pictured her face.
And if suffering defeat at the bitch’s hands wasn’t enough, Aaron had offered him mercy. William didn’t understand why, and that drove him up the wall even further.
‘Does he thinks he’s better than me? Does he pity me…? Does he think I’m no threat?!’
Ever since that day, it seemed the looks of mockery and disappoint on his comrade’s faces were ever present. He knew he was being irrational, but that didn’t help the bitter sting of humiliation that refused to heal. Deep down, a part of him wished he had met his end at the hellhound’s claws.
William couldn’t help but stew on his black thoughts until he felt something give way. He looked down, realizing he had inadvertently bent his spoon out of place in his quiet rage. Groaning in annoyance, he tossed it back into his ceramic bowl and sat up, weaving between the rows of his chatting compatriots and over to the dishwasher’s window.
“Oy, Will! How’s it hangin’?”
Will looked up from his feet, meeting the dishwasher eye-to-eye. She was a fiery little brunette, with a pretty face covered with freckles. She had a nice enough body, and William had thought of bedding her once or twice, but it’d figured it’d be best not to.
While he was sure she would be just as fiery in bed as she was in life, he had a sneaking suspicion she would attempt to chain him down like a wily mutt and claim him as her own.
“I’m fine, Sheila.” the lancer grumbled out, handing her the bowl, “Sorry about the spoon.”
As the woman lifted the bent utensil, her brow furrowed and a sour tone rang in her thick accent.
“Oh, don’t you feed me a bleedin’ lie, Highwind. It ain’t fine! What’s on yer mind? Is it that Aaron fella that’s still buggin’ ya?”
Will’s right eye twitched in annoyance. She always did have a talent for seeing right through bullshit. Although he supposed he wasn’t exactly keeping his bitterness under wraps, and his battle against Aaron was common knowledge around the headquarters at that juncture.
“Yeah…” Will grumbled out quickly and quietly, “What about it? His bitch kicked my ass. They nearly killed me, and know I’ll never make him pay for what he’s done.”
“Ah… so… ya haven’t heard?” she whispered back.
Sheila’s eyes darted to both sides to check for eavesdroppers. When she found the coast clear, she leaned out of her window and whispered into Will’s ear, “A Praetorian Guard is here, probably with the new boss man right now. Ta hunt down Aaron and the bastard who burned down Fort Eonoir, I hear…”
When Sheila retreated back into her window, she was nearly floored as William was darted away without so much as a thank you.
“H-hey! Yeesh, the nerve on that fella…”
Conrad the Quasar, the blue juggernaut of the Legion’s Praetorian Guard, sat grumbling atop a stone stool. Covered with a thin layer of mildew, it was actually brought in from the outside of the building he found himself in, as all the other chairs crumbled under the sheer weight of his armor.
And he absolutely refused to remove even a piece of it.
The impatient tapping of his foot sounded like a falling cannonball for the chubby man seated across from him. The whole office shook with each impact, making paintings tilt and chairs rattle. At the final tap of Conrad’s massive boot, an ink bottle spilled over and ruined at least three hours worth of paperwork.
As daunted as the plump fellow was by that, he managed to stutter out to the knight.
“L-Lord Conrad, are you sure there’s nothing-”
“NO! This is the last time I’ll tell you, fatass. I just want enough food and drink to last me a month or so, and two fresh draft horses!” the armored warrior roared, “I’m not some spineless blueblood prick that needs an army backing him for two dipshits and a handful of monsters! If you ask me to bring any men again, and I’ll rip that rancid tongue right out of your throat!”
In the few stops Conrad had made since he arrived in Graeme, he found that the country was a near uproar over what had transpired at Fort Eonoir. The fact their High Inquisitorial Officer went awol and the governor of their capital city was beheaded in the streets only further stoked the flames of chaos burning across the small nation.
“B-but sir! If y-you don’t take any men, the church might hold me accountable for placing you in danger!”
And when he stopped at Graeme’s Inquisition Headquarters to refill his supplies, he was swiftly escorted to the yellowbelly currently cowering before him. The timid man was the new High Inquisitorial Officer, filling in for the missing Brennan.
“Mulligan, I swear to the gods…” the frustrated Conard’s snarl echoed from under his helmet.
While he was a balding fellow with the chubby cheeks and a beer gut of some common layabout, Conrad supposed Mulligan handled his job well enough. He was both fair enough to avoid any spite from his subordinates and strict enough to dish out the law and punishment when called for. Despite that, from just his puffy eyes and sunken expression, anyone could tell Mulligan’s duties of fixing his predecessor’s mess were running him ragged.
Not to mention, as he was so thoroughly proving to Conrad’s irritation, a bit of a worrywart.
“Please, sir! I beg you to reconsider!”
“I’ll send ‘em a fucking letter to excuse you! Good grief, I knew I should’ve just stopped in town. What a waste of my time!” Conrad snapped. As he stood, he slammed his fist down on Mulligan’s desk with such force it sent all the ink-drenched paperwork flying into the air and left a series of splintering cracks in the wooden framework.
Mulligan’s face was twisted up, too aghast to even formulate a reply.
Conrad chortled at the officer’s inferior constitution, “I’m going down to the mess for a hot meal. You’d best have my carriage ready by the time I’m through.”
Just as the armored man pushed away his stone seat, the double doors leading into the office swung open. Then, with sweat dripping from his chin, William Highwind dashed in and skid into a bow.
“Forgive my rudeness, my lord.” the youth breathed, “B-but please, I implore you… take me with you!”
Whatever Conrad’s reaction was, it was unseen under his helm. On the other hand, Mulligan, despite being a cowering pile of mush just a moment before, grew furious at Will’s request.
“That’s enough, William. You had your opportunity for revenge, and you’re lucky you escaped with your life. I’ll not have you bother a Praetorian Guard out of some petty personal grudge! We’re here to uphold the law of the world’s greatest empire and enforce the will of the gods, not-”
“Shut your trap, fatty.” Conrad barked, making Mulligan shrink away like a withering vine. After he made sure the High Inquisitor was back to cowering at his desk, the azure juggernaut turned to the young lancer, “So, you want payback on one of the bastards I’m after, eh…?”
William forced down the lump clogging his windpipe. The lancer had no doubt in his mind that Conrad could easily get away with snapping his neck if he gave an unsatisfactory response.
But thinking it was best to not to keep Conrad waiting, Will gave the Praetorian Guard a simple, quick nod.
A toothy smile flashed under the shadows of Conrad’s faceplate. Turning his back to William, the knight motioned towards the doors, “Alright then. Let’s take this outside and see just what kind of metal you’re made of.”
Will couldn’t remember the last time his legs quaked as they did at that moment. And yet he stood with his chestplate puffed out, his fingers pressing his new weapon’s shaft against his clammy palm.
He had picked a glaive, a much heavier weapon than the usual winged spear he brought into battle. It was a bold move to suddenly switch to such a hefty weapon, but William figured it was the only chance he had to do any damage to Conrad’s impressive plate-mail.
‘Besides… Aaron was swinging around that claymore even faster than his broadsword. If he can do it, I can too!’
Adrenaline shooting throughout his body, William twirled the glaive above his head before settling into his usual stance, the heavy tip trained on Conrad’s chest.
They were situated in the usual sparring grounds of the headquarters, standing on a large stretch of compacted sand and dirt encompassed by a stone fence.
“Alright, fella.” Conrad began, lazily pacing into place and dragging his ball-and-chain behind him, “If you can knock me on my back, I’ll let you come with me. Deal?”
William ran his tongue over his dry lips. He tried mustering up bravado, but that facade quickly crumbled away with his shaky words, “And… and what if I beat you?”
Conrad stood motionless for a few moments. Then, the chain of his weapon began shaking. Not a moment later the knight erupted with ceaseless laughter.
“Hahaha! And he’s a comedian, too. Hell, tell me another one. I might just pass out from the lack of air.” Conrad taunted between heavy chuckles, “Let’s not stall this any longer. Come at me!”
William tightened his grip on the spear, his knuckles going white underneath his gauntlets. Beads of sweat dripped into his eyes, but he dared not wipe them away.
The Praetorian Guard weren’t the living legends of the battlefield that they would’ve been in another empire. They were perhaps the most secretive and selective group on the planet, so much so that many chalked up their name as nothing more than propaganda.
Will knew that if he let his guard down for even a split second, it would spell the end for him.
The lancer slunk forward, not once taking his eyes off of Conrad’s chest-piece. With each slow, careful shuffle, Will inched ever closer. And yet, Conrad seemed about as concerned and animated as a hunk of stone.
‘I know he’s on a whole different level than me, but… is he really just going to stand there with his guard dropped?’
Wil tightened his focus, attempting to study his enemy for a final time. Unable to pierce whatever mystery lay behind that sturdy mountain of blue metal, the lancer reared his glaive back.
‘Whatever. He’ll regret underestimating me!’
Pouncing forward, Will struck down with his glaive, landing a clean stab right in Conrad’s core. A reverberating clang sang out like a church bell, and the orange dirt around them seemed to kick up upon the impact.
But Conrad didn’t so much as flinch.
As the blade bounced off the massive warrior’s armor, the shockwaves from the impact traveled down the glave’s shaft and sent painful vibrations up William’s arms. Stumbling back, the young warrior caught his bearings and dug both feet firmly into the dirt.
“W-what the hell was that?” Will demanded, his arms still numb and barely able to retain a grip on his weapon.
“That was my auto-defense. You likey?”
Not satisfied by the Praetorian Guard’s vague and nonchalant answer, William swung his glaive over his head. Throwing all his strength and weight into the chop, Will brought the blade down on Conrad’s neck.
The results were the same as the last attack. Only this time, William had no time to recover from the blow. Conrad’s fist shot out, gripping down on the paladin trainee’s helm. William’s breath hitched, and he worthless stabbed at Conrad’s chest in an attempt to free himself.
“Oh, that tickles! Ya still trying to make me keel over with laughter?” snorted Conrad, tightening his grip on William’s helm, “If you’ want to beat me, you’d best get serious!”
Snarling out the last word, Conrad lifted William off his feet and chucked him forward. William was sent tumbling through the air, crashing down and rolling back until he skid to a halt.
“Wha… what the in the seven hells…? He threw me like I was a ragdoll…” the dirtied William groaned. Sitting up on his knees, he reached out for his glaive but found he had dropped it near Conrad’s feet. As the stars cleared from his vision, he felt the sun against his brow and realized his helm was still in the Praetorian Guard’s hands.
“I think ya lost this, rookie…” Conrad chortled, casually spinning the helm around on his fingertip like it was a rubber ball.
“G-give it back!”
“C’mon, fella. That’s just rude.”
A snort sounded from under Conrad’s helm. Clutching the helmet in his palm, he sunk his fingers into the scalp and crushed the reinforced iron with the same effort a normal man would use on a thin layer of tin.
“You didn’t say please.”
William felt the pit of nervousness in his stomach fester into a gaping void as Conrad tossed the crushed helm back. Letting it bounce off his chest, Will dropped to his hands and ground his fingers into the dirt. His quivering body rattled his armor, his nerves preventing him from standing. A crippling fear had seized him by the throat, weighing him down into the earth. Sweat fell from his face, leaving him staring at small drips of mud.
“This… he can’t be…” he sputtered, each of his words tripping over his dry tongue, “He’s too strong… way too strong…”
More deep chuckles escaped from under Conard’s visor. Spreading out both arms wide, he puffed out his broad chest and sauntered forward.
“Well, what is it? Are you really giving up so soon? Just cuz I smooshed your lil’ helmet? Just sit there and cry in the dirt like some stupid kid? You’re seriously letting me down here. I expected much more.”
Conrad continued forward, his ball-and-chain leaving a deep trail behind him. He stopped and towered over William, masking the lancer’s hunched body in shadow.
The paladin trainee lifted his head, his face scrunched up in frustration and fury. Pounding a single fist into the dirt, he hissed up at the blue juggernaut, “You… you crushed reinforced iron like it was nothing! When I strike you dead in the chest, it hurts me more than you! How in the world could I ever beat you!?”
The Praetorian Guard grabbed William by the collar, yanking him back onto his feet.
“You want revenge, don’t you? To make your friend pay for betraying his country and empire? Betraying your gods and their laws? Betraying your ideals and trust? Betraying you?” Conrad hissed, his booming tone going eerily calm and venomous, “Then you’ll need to dig deeper than that. Muster it up. All the fury, all the hate… bring it up and unleash it!”
A light jab to his gut was enough to force Will’s lunch back up his throat and send rolling waves of pain throughout his core. The second punch sent him spiraling through the air and crashing into the dirt, his entire world flashing white.
Will’s shaky arms and jittering legs just couldn’t bring him back to his feet.
“Why couldn’t you beat Axenus the first time? Were you stronger, weaker, or something else…?”
“The… hellhound…” William managed to gasp out as an explanation.
“Ah yes. A monster and her mate make quite the fierce duo. But you’re a paladin-trainee, aren’t you? You should be able to surmount that obstacle no problem.”
Collapsing back on the ground, the scents of blood, gunpowder, sand, and saltwater filled Will’s nostrils. Cannon fire and cries of anguish and rage assaulted his ears. Visions of swaying palm trees, blood-soaked jungles and burning villages took hold of his vision.
Before he knew it, he was back on those war-torn islands.
William stood proudly under the blistering sun, clad in the simple yet effective armor of a legionary infantryman. He sucked in ragged breaths and swayed ever so slightly with each one of them, but managed to stay on his feet by leaning on his winged spear. He was situated on a hilltop, with a view of miles of tropical rainforest to his east.
Several yards away, a redheaded crossbowman nervously ducked to the side, barely avoiding a massive fist that punctured the earth below. Rolling to the side, the crossbowman fired a bolt at his attacker, only for it to shatter against her bronze skin.
She was a monster, a scantily clad golem with arms and legs encased in dark-brown brick. The golem charged forward with an earth-shaking roar, ramming into the crossbowman and sending him flying back.
“Fuck! Can’t anything hurt this bitch?!”
The purple-haired lancer peered to his side, seeing a man garbed similarly to him and the crossbowman step forward. He bore no helm, leaving his wild gray hair to whip around at the whim of the sea breeze.
“Sorry, Aaron. Nothing we can do has done any damage…” the lancer mumbled, making room for the redhead as he retreated back to them.
“S-shit… we’re in real trouble now, guys.” the crossbowman grunted as he fired another bolt at the monster, an evidently vain attempt to slow her down. The bolt broke against her stone forearm, accomplishing absolutely nothing.
“Don’t sweat it, Miles.” Aaron assured the redhead, “T-this isn’t even in the top ten of jams we’ve gotten out of! Right?”
The golem was on a full-fledged rampage, the blood of her husband still fresh on Will’s spearhead. Even then, the islander’s slumped corpse was curled beneath a nearby palm tree.
The monster’s scarlet eyes were focused into pinpoints, and she shook the jungle around them with every titanic stomp towards the legionaries.
“This… this is no good!” Miles stuttered, fumbling to load another bolt into his crossbow, “We need to fall back to camp and regroup! I’m sure if we brought out our cannon or one of our casters, we could-”
“No!” Aaron quickly interjected, “We’ve still got injured back there! Do you want to bring this rampaging bitch with us?”
“Y-you’re right. I’m sorry.”
A roar that frightened the birds from their nests from miles came booming at them, warning the trio to split for the second time.
“I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU!”
As the golem came rampaging in, she slammed both fists down. She pounced at Will afterward, but he managed to hop away at the last second. Her stone fist came crashing into a palm tree, sending it tipping over and crashing down.
Aaron was the next to strike, rushing forward and slicing at her with his broadsword. The blade chipped as it bounced off the golem’s natural armor, and the dumbstruck Aaron had just enough time to lift up his buckler before her fist crashed into his chest. The blow carried enough force to dent the shield and send Aaron sliding back into Will’s arms.
“Agh! Sunnuva bitch!” the iron-haired swordsman hollered as he tossed his broken shield to the side, his entire arm alight with pain.
“Aaron! M-maybe we should just…”
“Will, c’mon! Don’t tell me you want to risk bringing her back to camp with us?”
“No. I’d never put our allies in danger like that… especially when they’re busy taking care of the wounded. But… well, you knew the risks when you signed up, didn’t you?”
Aaron didn’t reply. He simply broke away from Will’s grasp, then spun around and delivered a fierce backhand to his cheek. The lancer stumbled back, planting the end of his spear into the ground before he tripped.
“Ow! What the fuck, man?!”
“C’mon, Will! Are ya really gonna give up this easily?”
The golem came charging in once more, and the two men were forced to split as she came crashing into the earth between them. Breaking away from her, they dashed behind the hulking monster and sprinted at each other’s side.
“Aaron… I really don’t see how we can beat her! Even her skin is as hard as a rock!”
The two rendezvoused with Miles, who fled in the opposite direction from the last attack. Now, with their backs facing the hillside, they were left with little choice but to face the charging golem head-on.
Yanking her stone-clad fist from the ground, the golem spun on her heel and bellowed towards the three men, “YOU BASTARDS ARE ALL DEAD, YOU HEAR ME?! DEAD!”
“Don’t worry. We’ve just got to remember what Captain Donovan said!” Aaron said as he attempted to put on a smile. Turning to Miles, he outstretched his palm, “Remember?”
The crossbowman nervously glanced at the golem, who shook the hillside with each stomp towards them. She knew she had cornered them, and was saving her strength for the final charge. That cold, unbridled fury emanating from her sent a chill down Miles’ spine.
But despite the precarious situation, he had managed to stutter out an answer.
“W-when your back’s against the wall… sometimes, you’ve gotta put all your chips on the t-table.”
Aaron smiled down at his nervous friend, “Right. Now, lemme see your gladius.”
Miles threw another passing glance at the golem, who began to pick up speed as she was only a few yards away. Not bothering to ask why, the crossbowman quickly dropped his weapon, reaching to his side and yanking out the shortsword.
Handing it over to Aaron, the swordsman clenched his teeth and ground the blades of his broadsword and Miles’ gladius together.
“A-alright! Follow my lead, okay guys?”
Will’s eyes darted from his friends over to the golem. From the nerve-wracked redhead struggling to load another bolt into his crossbow over to the living pile of stone starting to charge towards them. From the gray-haired swordsman shaking under a heavy guise of false bravado over to livid monster, now only five yards away and closing in fast.
But somehow, he knew they’d prevail.
“Alright… let’s do it!” the lancer cried, fighting through the fatigue and pain weighing down his body and aiming his spear at the monster.
Aaron was the first to charge. Releasing a warcry more akin to a beast than a man, the iron-haired warrior launched forward, both the gladius and broadsword reared behind his back.
Beating back his fear and apprehension, William bellowed out himself. He followed right behind his friend, the tall grass swaying around his feet flying behind him with each charging step.
Miles wasn’t far behind, his dilated pupils retracting into pinpoints. Locking his bolt into place, the crossbowman darted to the monster’s left, taking aim.
For the three legionaries, time seemed to drag to a crawl in the next moment. Miles was the first to strike, firing a bolt right between the golem’s eyes as she was but a half a yard away from charging into Aaron.
The stone woman’s quick reaction ensured her left arm to snap into place and block the bolt. Aaron, running on pure instinct, lashed out with his gladius, sticking the blade forward and lunging at the woman’s stomach.
Despite her constitution of organic mortar, the golem was as quick as a rabbit. Even while her left arm was coming down from the block, she lashed out with the right and brought it down at Aaron.
But the swordsman was a step ahead. Slicing skywards with his broadsword in mid-lunge, his blade collided with her fist. While it easily shattered the weapon, it provided enough force to deflect the golem’s fist and send it passing over Aaron’s shoulder.
Falling forward with all his weight and power, Aaron jammed the gladius into the golem’s navel.
Time’s crawl seemed to cease when the golem released a shrill scream of pain. Even with a good half of the gladius stuck through her thick skin and into her flesh, she mustered enough power to lash out and smash one of her giant fists into Aaron’s side.
The swordsman was sent flying from the powerful punch, bouncing off the ground with his shattered arm dangling worthlessly behind him. But even as he passed out from the shock and fell to the grass below, his friend rushed from behind him to finish the job.
William jabbed his spear right at the golem’s face, who slammed both her fists together to smash it before it made contact. But the lancer had already released his grip on the weapon, ducking under her stone arms and slamming his knee into the hilt of the gladius still lodged into her stomach.
Her mouth twisted open in a silent scream. Will, still aware of the danger, forced his aching bones and tired muscles to act a final time.
He ducked out of the way as the golem swung out her stone fist at his head, and it went whizzing through the empty air. With that final weak and sloppy punch thrown, the golem stumbled forward and fell into the black soil and overgrown grass of the jungle.
Will collapsed onto his behind in return, struggling to take in a breath. Both his body and mind had been pushed to the limit, but the lancer still felt joy bubbling up from his previously queasy stomach.
“We… we won.”
Will looked over at his friends. Miles was helping Aaron back to his feet. The iron-haired soldier’s left arm dangled worthlessly at his side, looking to be snapped in several places.
“Ah! Fuck, fuck…!” Aaron hollered, his broken limb flopping against his side.
“O-oh no… don’t worry, Aaron. I’ll make a splint for you until we get back to camp.” Miles consoled him, gently laying him in the shade of a tree before digging through his pack for medical supplies.
Sucking in a few heavy puffs of air, Aaron calmed down and looked up to Will. Lifting up his good arm, the swordsman mustered a grin and shot William a thumbs-up.
With the rush of victory still flowing in his veins, William returned the gesture with a bright smile of his own.
“For someone who hated gambling… who laid everything on the line every time you went into battle…”
Coming back to, Will grit his teeth and pounded a fist into dusty earth.
“Even when my resolve couldn’t pull me through… you kept on fighting. You were just in it for the money, but I never had half the heart you did. Even when I had you beat, you kept going… is that… is that why that dog adores you?”
The lancer struggled to move, feeling like his insides had been mashed into a paste by Conrad’s mountain-shattering blows. Yet still, he wriggled around, sand and dirt spilling off of his iron armor as he rose.
“I… I… grew complacent.”
William pried his beaten body back to a standing position, spitting out a glob of blood. As it splattered against the orange sand, a distant, foggy memory returned to him.
He was but a child, sitting in the lap of an older man with the same violet hair as he. Holding him close, the man leaned forward in his chair and motioned towards a polished suit of red plate mail proudly displayed as the centerpiece of the room. The silver speartip of the armor’s weapon glinted before the boy’s admiring eyes.
“Hehehe. You think that armor’s cool, son?” the man had asked him.
The child William eagerly bobbed to his father’s question.
“Good. It belonged to your ol’ grandad… he died during a raid on the Sabbath. One of those little goat bitches stabbed him in the back.”
The boy flexed his thin arms, his soft face twisting into a pale imitation of righteous fury,
“Those stupid monsters! I’m gonna be just like grandpa when I grow up and avenge him!”
The father’s deep laughter bounced around the room. He draped one of his relatively huge hands over his son’s shoulder, giving it an encouraging pat.
“Oh? You wanna be a paladin like grandpa?”
“I’m going to be the biggest, strongest paladin there ever was! I’m going to make all those rotten monsters pay for what they’ve done!”
A long, hitched breath was sucked down William’s windpipe as he snapped back to reality. Letting his gaze fall upon the azure juggernaut before him, William straightened his back and stuck out his armor-clad chest.
“Oh? You’re not going to give up?” Conrad awed, seeming rather giddy at the chance to knock down the lancer once again.
William veered his head to both sides, popping his sore neck. As he shifted to the side and came to a rest, he lashed out and trained his finger at Conrad’s faceplate.
“Of course I won’t give up… I’m going to be the greatest paladin there ever was.”
Conrad’s eyes nearly bulged between the bars of his faceplate. Even after taking two of his punches, William rushed forward at full speed.
“Oho? Still got some fire, huh?”
William thrust his hand forward, the cyan storm exploding forward and exploding against Conrad’s body. When the dust had finally settled, Will had already picked his glaive back up and was stomping forward like a bull on the charge.
Conrad turned to meet the lancer head-on, pounding a fist against his armored chest, “You really don’t learn, do you?! Well, c’mon! Break yourself against me until you get it through your thick skull!”
A furious roar burst out from William. Closing in on Conrad, the lancer sprung towards the blue juggernaut, his glaive reared back and ready to fly forward. However, Conrad didn’t even bother to guard himself as William closed in.
But the tip of the glaive never came down.
Will dropped to his knees, shoving the blade between the dirt and bottom of Conrad’s boot.
“What the hell?” Conrad snapped, swinging his arm at William in an attempt to club him away.
Ducking under the strike, the lancer lifted both hands into the air. An undulating orb of cyan light flickered between his palms, and it was soon surrounded by a cascade of mystic winds of the same color.
A massive gust of wind exploded from William’s hands as he threw them down, pushing down on the sturdy shaft of his glaive. The shaft bent like a bowstring the same instant the dirt and sand below gave way, kicking up a massive plume of dust that reached high into the afternoon sky.
The glaive snapped in half, acting as a seesaw and tipping Conrad over.
The knight’s back hit the ground with a loud thud, his armor’s massive weight only further adding to the dust cloud kicked up all around the two men.
Conrad, with his back against the earth, was so stunned he could only stare into the endless blue of the sky for a few long moments. Then, propping himself up, his joyous laughter reverberated through his impenetrable mail.
“Not bad, man. You got me. It’s been a long time since-”
Conrad held his tongue. William was on the ground, gasping for breath. With a ragged cough, the lancer rolled over and faded into unconsciousness, stirring in uneasy slumber.
“Argh! William, you reckless fool!”
Still sitting in the dirt, Conrad looked over to the iron gate leading into sparring ground. It swung open, and Mulligan hurriedly waddled in and bounced to Will’s side.
“Phew. Was he not ready for that last spell?”
“No. He wasn’t…” Mulligan grumbled, throwing off the paladin-trainee’s gauntlet to check his pulse, “You can cast magic from your body like it was any other catalyst, but you have to treat it as such. Flow more mana than it can handle so suddenly, and it’ll give out.”
A thoughtful hum is what Conrad replied with. Leaning back, he let one hand rest on his weapon and the other tap against the sand.
“Mulligan. You said that fella’s a paladin-trainee, right?”
“E-er yes, sir. He missed his official initiation test because he was still recovering from his injuries from his encounter with Axenus, but made a full recovery thanks to our blessed healing magic.”
“In that case, fuck the initiation. From this day forward, he’s a paladin. I want him in that pretty red armor before he wakes up.”
Mulligan was quick to object, hopping up and landing on both his knees. Clasping both hands together, he bowed his head to Conrad in a desperate plead.
“B-but sir, the paladins are picked by a council! Please reconsider! Y-you may be a Praetorian Guard, but you can’t just-”
“And pack him a new glaive while you’re at it, Mulligan. Somethin’ fancy.”
Despite his hulking armor, Conrad was able to flip to his feet as nimbly as a spry minstrel. Wrapping the chain of his weapon around his wrist, he hefted the iron ball onto his shoulder and casually walked off.
“I gotta take a piss. Later.”
Mulligan felt like a toad was lodged in his throat. Lowering his shaky hands, the High Inquisitorial Officer let his arms fall to his sides and resigned to Conrad’s will.
“Bah, yes sir…”