Chapter 34: Outpost Commander
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By the time Carmen got out of the forest, leaving Kagriss to remain hiding in the forest, it was almost midday, with the sun shining almost directly down from above. The outpost wasn’t too far away, and it was a small tiny fortress in its own right.

It had tall walls and a miniature moat, although the path across it was solid dirt and rock instead of a drawbridge. On the battlements above the gatehouse were two guards dressed in chainmail and metal helmets. They held spears in their hands.

Aside from Order templars and Church clerics, the outpost also housed a detachment of troops from the Kingdom of Argelier. Technically, the land which Amaranthine Point sat upon was inside of Argelier’s borders, so the local crown insisted.

Honestly, Carmen never understood why. The soldiers were practically useless against the undead. They were weaker than the undead, they didn’t have the stamina of the undead, and they didn’t have the holy firepower to kill an undead fast enough that the previous two points didn't come into play.

They were worse than cannon fodder—they were active hindrances. It was quite telling how Barsig left them out of the expedition into the necropolis.

As such, these normal soldiers were mostly used as menial labor. They cleaned, they hunted, they ran errands and delivered mail. They stood watch, like now.

As Carmen approached, the two kingdom soldiers looked her up and down, gauging the threat she produced. However small she was, she carried a huge sword on her back, so any guard they might have let down because of her appearance instantly came back up.

“Hold! What business have you here?” one of them shouted down at her the moment she stepped onto the dirt path that crossed the moat.

“What do you mean? I’m a guest, invited here by Barsig. He is expecting me,” Carmen said, not bothering to raise her voice. She used a bit of her blood mana, forming an illusion that she spoke. The sound of the illusion played in the two guards’ ears, so to them, her voice came from right beside them.

Watching them jump in fright, Carmen smiled to herself.

It took a while before the guards regained their composure. “Who are you?” the other guard demanded, scowling, obviously in a foul mood from being pranked. “Do you have any proof?”

“Proof? Surely I don’t need one. You only need to know the name Camilla.”

Receiving a name, the two guards looked at each other, puzzled. “That doesn’t ring any bells. If you wish to come in, you need a missive containing orders from His Majesty, the Cloud Order, or the Church, or you need to present a permit!”

Hearing the stock guard phrase repeated, Carmen frowned. Could it be that these guards have not heard of what happened in Amaranthine Point? Or perhaps it’s just her name that they did not recognize. Sighing, she decided to try again.

“Let me say this one more time. I am Camilla, the woman that saved a Church force that assaulted Amaranthine Point four nights ago. In return, Barsig has graciously invited me to this outpost. Is that explanation sufficient?”

At her words, the two guards’ eyes widened, staring at each other. So they have heard of what happened, but her name got lost in the gossip. At least with this— 

The guards leaned over the edge again. “Im sorry, but we can’t let you in on your words alone! We need someone who was there to verify your identity—please hold!”

While one of them stayed back to watch her, the other ran off.

Carmen sighed again. Why couldn’t clerics have been the one to be on guard duty? And why didn’t they recognize her? Did the gossip and rumors about that night not mention her appearance either?

Her appearance was so distinct that she was sure that everyone in the outpost would recognize her on sight, but it seems that she underestimated herself. Sighing to herself again, she kicked a rock that was on the edge of the dirt road into the moat.

However, with a kick from someone her strength, the rock didn’t just tumble over the edge and plop into the water. Instead, it disappeared like a missile, and as it hit the water, it created a great big column of water.

“Oh. Oops.” She looked up sheepishly at the guard who had watched the whole thing happen. His eyes bulged at her inadvertent display of power.

Thoughts that Carmen did not intend for him to think must be rushing through his brain right now, like “if you don’t hurry up, I’ll break down this door,” or “let me in or the next rock will be aimed at your head.”

She sighed again, hoping for other guard to hurry back and end this awkwardness.

Finally, with her keen ears, she heard the sound of a door opening and closing from above, and the pounding of boots and cloth shoes. The guard who left had returned with a priest or priestess in tow. The one that remained turned to look at them with a look of sheer joy, and then turned back to Carmen.

“Miss Camilla, I’m sorry for the wait! A person who can vouch for you is here!”

Carmen just nodded.

“What? Miss Camilla is here?!” A bearded face peered over the battlement. Carmen didn’t recognize him, but he recognized her. “Miss Carmilla is here! Oh what are you fools doing? Hurry and open the gates! Let her in!”

The two guards winced at the words and spittle flying out of the priest’s mouth, but they obediently went to man the gate mechanism. The priest stayed behind, bowing as he apologized profusely.

“Miss Camilla, I’m so sorry for how rude those two were. Ah, but it’s protocol, so please don’t take offense…”

“It’s fine. I understand,” Carmen said, waving away the apology. “As long as the same thing doesn’t happen a second time, it’s fine.”

“Good, good. You’re very magnanimous; thank you. I’ll notify the vice captain of your arrival at once!” The priest’s head disappeared and the sound of footsteps resumed, followed by the rushed slamming of a door.

The sound of gears came from within the gate house.

Slowly, one of the gates opened while the other remained closed. After opening just enough for a person to fit through with some room to spare, the gap between the doors stopped growing.

After she walked in, she felt like she crossed over some kind of boundary as a discomforting sensation fell over her, as if something was slowly suffocating her. “This is…a new consecration formation? It’s quite weak, but…very irritating. More mana efficient than the old one at least.”   

Maintaining her steps as if nothing was wrong, Carmen reappeared out in the open on the other side of the gatehouse. She felt eyes watching her, and she turned. It was one of the guards. 

As soon he spotted her, the guard disappeared. A moment later, the gates slammed shut.

“Sorry!” the guards shouted down at her before they scurried back to their positions at the gatehouse battlements.

They were so timid, especially the one that saw her kick the rock. How unlike the templars, who fought their hardest against the most impossible of odds if the order to retreat was not given.

The further in, the stronger the consecration formation was. While Carmen sensed that it would never grow powerful enough to hurt her or do anything more than annoy her, she still preferred being as comfortable as the situation allowed.

She backed up a few steps until she was standing in the tunnel under the gatehouse. The structure shielded her from the light of the sun, which made for a convenient excuse.

While she waited for Barsig, Carmen looked around, trying to see any differences. From where she stood, she could see some of the things going on in the castle. There were a few clerics practicing their magic, some sparring. Others were sweeping the courtyard. There was even a new vegetable garden in the back.

“Not much has changed. Who’s the new commander here, though. Did it even switch?”

Carmen got her answer shortly as the front door of the castle hold flew open. A tall man with dark brown, slicked back hair walked out, followed by Barsig. 

Neither of the men wore armor, and Carmen finally saw Barsig’s face again for the first time in years. By now, Barsig should be in his mid twenties, and he looked the part. The stress from being an officer trimmed the rest of the fat from his face since Carmen last saw him, and she even saw a few whites on his sandy hair too.

In comparison, the man that walked in front of Barsig didn’t change much at all. The man still had his eagle-like gaze and unapproachable atmosphere. However, beneath that harsh exterior was a big softy that really didn’t show through much.

When the duo came close enough, Carmen stepped out of the sun and traced the sigil of the Gods over her heart, the common templar’s greeting, finishing with her palm in place. 

Reinhart took it all in without blinking, likely having briefed by Barsig about her possible origin, and mirrored her. Barsig the same. 

Carmen dropped her salute and smiled. “Well met, Sir Reinhart.” 

It was only then did Reinhart stiffen. He looked at Barsig who shrugged. Carmen’s smile grew wider. “No need to be so surprised. As the commander of one of the outposts that guard Amaranthine Point, there are few that have not heard of you.”

Hearing her explanation, Reinhart relaxed a bit. “Your words flatter me, Miss Camilla. Once again, thank you for what you did to save my subordinates. Shall we talk inside?”

Carmen looked up at the sun and nodded. “Of course. Please.”

“Please follow me.”

They walked in silence toward the castle hold. By now, some of the clerics saw her. Many of them recognized her, and they stopped what they were doing to talk among themselves. 

Carmen guessed that by the end of the hour, the outpost will know that she’s here.

The moment they passed through the doors of the hold, entering the building, Carmen stiffened as she fell under the effects of a second consecration formation. This one was much more powerful compared to the one that covered the whole outpost.

It was powerful enough that its effects went beyond mere annoyance. Now she was glad that she didn’t bring Kagriss. Although the outer formation would have been painful enough, this one would surely have exposed Kagriss. Even with Carmen being a little less susceptible to the effects of the consecration formation thanks to her affinity with holy mana, her movements still slowed slightly.

Despite her efforts to hide her momentary discomfort, her hosts noticed.

“Is something wrong, Miss Camilla?” Reinhart asked.

“No. It’s just that I’m surprised by the power of this consecration formation,” she said, giving a half truth. “The one outside is needed for purifying the ambient undead mana that is leaking out of the site of desecration, but this…?”

It took Reinhart a moment to realize what she was talking about, before he laughed. “Oh! Sorry. A few of the priests are reviewing their formations. It’s time for the Fall Festival soon, but apparently the Church is short on people, so they’re pulling some of their clerics back to make up the numbers.”

“Oh? Did the Church issue a mission?” Carmen asked. Interesting that they’d be short on people at a time like this.

Reinhart’s eyes flashed before he shrugged. “If it is, I haven’t heard anything about it. They haven’t told us anything. Why do you want to know, Miss Camilla?”

Hearing the edge in Reinhart’s voice, Carmen realized that Reinhart thought she was a spy from another Order, trying to get information from him. Just what did Barsig tell him? “No reason but curiosity,” she answered, trying not to laugh.

While Reinhart still looked at her with suspicion, he didn’t push her any further. While they walked through the halls with Reinhart in the lead, Carmen noticed that poor Barsig trailed behind them with nothing to do.

Feeling a bit sorry for him, she dropped back to walk alongside him.

“Hello. We meet again,” she said.

Barsig looked down at her. The difference in their height became all too obvious now that they were side by side. With the same thing in mind, each of them took a step away from each other so the angle wasn’t as bad.

“So, what happened afterwards?”

Barsig’s looked down at the ground. “Ah…we had a funeral. After purifying their bodies of the undead energy they absorbed, we contacted the Church. The Church will come in a few days to take back the bodies of their priests. As for the war clerics, they’ll probably be returned to their families…”

“And Sandor?” she asked.

“How did you—no, never mind. He’ll be taken back to the Order for burial.” At the mention of the dead Cloud Knight, Barsig’s face darkened with frustration.

By now, Carmen realized that perhaps that wasn’t the best topic to start a conversation with. They fell silent as Carmen tried to find something better.

“Then…um…what do you usually do around this time?” she asked. That was probably a safe topic.

Thankfully, the question drew Barsig from his dark mood as he became thoughtful. “Hmmm…I suppose that normally I’ll be eating? It’s midday after all. And after the meal, I’ll usually be taking a nap,” he admitted.

Carmen nodded, trying to look interested. She struggled for a reply, and Reinhart saved her from needing to make one as he turned around and cut between the two of them. He slapped Barsig on the shoulder.

“Speaking of eating, the cafeteria is still open. Shall we talk over a meal?”

Despite herself, Carmen grimaced. However, she fixed her expression and nodded. “That is an acceptable proposal.”

While her disgust didn’t escape either of the two men’s attention, neither commented. 

What are you guys reading this novel for? Which aspects drew you in? What are you anticipating?

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