Side Story – The Castle Above The Lake
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We're now switching to past tense for the next arc, during my next editing pass I will change the previous chaps as well.

A mature woman with braided blonde hair walked up to a water-logged dock where an alabaster-colored rowboat contained a small group of people. The air smelled damp filled with the refreshing scent of a freshwater lake. The golden, early-morning sun covered the dock in a certain warmth, a warmth the shadows were devoid of. The people in the boat could be divided into two categories: Younger people who carried a white suit of armor adorned with imagery of stars, and older people who wore regular clothes.

A man with a goatee stood at the back of the boat, dressed in pristine clerical robes. He looked to the mature woman. "Name?"

"Celestia Andros, though now my surname is Cano." The woman held out a ring.

The priest turned around and held an engraved cube to his mouth. He spoke Celestia's name into it before giving Celestia a nod. "Get in."

Celestia hopped into the boat, where she sat and gazed into the water for a short time. The boat would wait for a few more people to arrive. The priest untied the boat from the dock, and they floated quietly into the lake.

To think I'd come back here. Celestia stared off into the skies above the lake. What she saw was a colossal castle hung in the sky as if it were the moon. The castle was comparable to the largest cities--golden trim lined the edges, and large banners with shiny gold graphics of stars adorned the walls. It was designed to be luxurious; after all, no one could attack a floating fortress.

Yes. This was the holy capital of the starlit church, the organization that united the five kingdoms under their banner. A grand theocracy hailed as the driving force that brought down the Demon Lord. The home of every celestial knight's dream and the home of every demon's nightmare.

Soon the boat arrived in the shadow of the floating castle. The priest brought the boat to a stop, where it wobbled back and forth in the cool breeze. The priest took out an intricate vial from his pocket; he poured the contents into a funnel built into the boat. A light illuminated the edge of the boat and revealed hundreds of inscriptions lining the hull. The water outside the boat began to swirl around and was drawn to the boat in a whirlpool. Soon the horizon seemed to dip, and it became clear to the passengers that a pillar of water had risen from the water's surface and launched the boat into the air.

The floating castle grew bigger and bigger until, eventually, they were within a stone's throw. The pillar of water rose and rose until, eventually, the boat became level with a levee on the edge of the castle. The levee's gate opened now that the water levels now equal, and the priest pushed the boat into a canal. Once a threshold was crossed, the gate closed, and the water pillar rained back down to the lake it emerged from.

Forward the boat went and came to a stone dock, unlike the dock from before, this one was well kept. Once the boat moored, the priest gestured for everyone to disembark. "Former knights, you are to head to the World Chamber at once."

Feet pitter-pattered across the stone dock. The ground was solid despite the building floating in the air. The group left the dock behind, and the younger knights separated from, the older knights. The castle consisted of many passageways, and the path the group traveled was tight enough they went through one by one. The walls of the tunnel were clean, but they weren't adorned like the exterior.

A spiral staircase awaited them at the end of the tunnel. The older knights continued up the tight staircase until they entered a vast room. It was different from the staircase; everything was decorated with marble and gold trim. They walked through the hall and came to a straight staircase, wide enough that more than ten people could walk up side-by-side.

Up the staircase and across several floors, they came to a rounded room. This room had a round railing that overlooked a stage in the center painted like a map. A large crowd of knights was gathered around it. The group that had just arrived split up, and Celestia searched for a place to stand.

She approached the railing and noticed a mature but well-defined man that seemed a bit familiar. She walked up and did a sort of non-committal stare.

"Celes, is that you?" The man calls out.

The two acquaintances go in for a hug. "Zeke! It's been a long time. I see you finally retired?"

"Well, after I met Martha, it was hard to keep my head in the game." Zeke gave a half-smile, "And it wears on you after a while."

"Tell me about it," Celestia mumbles, "Domak won't even talk about you or any of the knights. Even I'm sick of it after losing Gabriel."

"It's not an easy job, but someone has to do it."

"I like how you can still say that with such confidence . . . I'm not so sure anymore."

"Well, what can be done?"

After they had talked for a while, the whole room was full of dozens of former knights. The windows that dotted the room closed, and they plunged into darkness. Everyone gazed down below the railing. Light sparked everywhere; a magic circle had appeared and covered the stage. A cloud of particles rained down from the ceiling, and soon glowing figures of four people appeared as if they were right in front of everyone. The four people wore red robes and blank white masks.

"Former knights." One of the figures held out his arms wide. "We thank you for coming all the way here. Now let's begin."

The other three figures held out their palms, and a floating orb appeared in the center of the stage. At first, the globe was blurry, but soon lines appeared on it in the shape of continents--the world. After that, more lines appeared and hovered above the globe; they sprawled across it as if they were blood vessels.

"For those of you who aren't inclined to magic, this is a model of the Dragon Vein. Simply speaking, they are currents of incredible amounts of mana that circle the globe. They normally remain stable, but every now and then, a powerful enough magical event will knock them off balance."

Yes, yes, yes, I get it already. Just tell me why I'm here. I'm a mage, for stars' sake.

"The past year has been an especially rough one. More demons have been invading the continent than we've seen in decades. Crossing the sea and arriving in the Welteria Empire in spades. That alone wouldn't be cause for concern. We have plenty of talented knights. However, we have now learned of the existence of one calling themselves the Demon Lord."

The room went dead silent at the invocation of that title. Everyone stared down towards the priests with burning glares. Celestia stood with wide eyes after the announcement. A Demon Lord can only mean one thing. War. That means this summons is . . . Conscription.

"Normally, we wouldn't take these claims seriously because the ascension of a new Demon Lord would throw of the Dragon Vein--It happened a month ago, for a single day, the dragon vein shifted. At first, we believed it was an unrelated event, but one detail sent Grand Lord William into a fit. The shift had occurred within the Fallen State of Mikhail."

Celestia clenches her fist and slams the railing, biting her lip in the process. That's too close to Rissel. Amara is in danger; I need to leave. If there is a Demon Lord out, it won't take long for it to wipe several cities off the map, let alone a tiny town like Rissel.

The room was filled with shouting, all kinds of protests from soon-to-be conscripted soldiers. The volume and the motion in the room grew until--

"As of this moment, you are all knights once again," The masked leader shouted, "We have conscripted you under the authority of the Covenant of Humankind. Failure to comply will be treated under the maximum penalty of High Treason. You will be given room &; board for the night at the caravansary. A temporary armory will be set set up to provide you with new equipment. The staff will call you up in order by your name. After you have received your equipment, please report to your regional court, where you will be assigned to a squad."

I don't have time for this, I need to go home. Celestia scoffed.

The priest cleared his throat and raised his head. "Do remember, failure to comply will constitute High Treason. You'll leave this castle as a knight or as a corpse."

The magic circle died out, and the masked priests disappeared. After a short break, the windows opened up, and light rushed back into the room. Celestia let out a sigh and walked over to the window. She stared out over the castle and into the distant horizon. Amara . . . I'll be home as soon as I can.

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