Castor blew his whistle, and the Snow Lions formed up into their layered shield wall in seconds. With another series of whistles, the unit was given the signal to begin marching forward, which they did in near-perfect unison. More blasts on the whistle brought them to a halt.
Turning right, left, back up, tighten the formation, spread out a little, all commands given by Castor via his whistle were carried out quickly and precisely. The three watching Instructors were suitably impressed. The Snow Lions had been in Heavy Infantry Training for four months and were moving with the same confidence and skill as career soldiers.
“Turtle formation!” shouted the Senior Instructor. Castor responded with a quick series of blasts on his whistle, and the trainees in the interior raised their shields above their heads while the formation tightened up to take cover beneath them. The trainees on the exterior of the formation kept their shields facing out, making the training unit a nearly impenetrable box of shields.
“Archers!” shouted the Senior Instructor. Castor blew the whistle a number of times to lower the ‘turtle shell’ that had been raised, then again to give the backmost rank their command. Under the watchful eyes of Alphonsus, the twenty men in the last row put their shields on the ground and pulled their bows off their shoulders, nocking an arrow and standing at the ready.
They held that position for about ten seconds—long enough for the Instructors to get a good look at them—before Castor signaled them to sling their bows over their shoulders, pick up their shields, and rejoin the formation.
“Alternate ranks!” shouted the Senior Instructor. With well-practiced movements and a signal from Castor, the Snow Lions in the front rank moved to the back. A few seconds later, Castor signaled again, and the ranks shifted again. This was repeated until the entire unit had cycled through the front lines.
“Splendid!” said the Senior Instructor. “Go ahead and relax! You third-tier boys come with me!”
The Snow Lions relaxed, letting the formation disperse as the trainees assembled into their usual friend groups. Alphonsus, Castor, and Leon, meanwhile, followed the Senior Instructor about a hundred feet away from the unit.
The Senior Instructor began with some rare praise, “That was a good showing, the time you all have spent training has clearly not been wasted.
“However, there’s always room for improvement. Heavy Infantry Training ends today, but don’t neglect it going forward.”
“We won’t, Sir. We know the importance of this training,” Castor said.
“Good. Moving on, next week begins your study of the common monsters you’ll face as knights. We can’t exactly go out and grab a vampire or werewolf for practical training, so these classes will be almost entirely theoretical. It won’t be as exciting as the more active classes, but the Academy still expects the same effort you’ve been giving in your previous classes, got it?”
Their monster hunting classes began the following Monday. Rather than reporting to the training field in the morning, the entire training battalion made their way to the same huge hall that most of the first-tier trainees had been using for Magical Theory. First thing on their schedule was the most dangerous and insidious of enemies that knights of the Royal Legions would be expected to face: vampires.
For a week, the trainees learned all about how to identify signs of vampiric behavior, how to identify vampires themselves, and the general tips to fighting them. Fighting a vampire was remarkably similar to fighting a mage, only a vampire uses power gained from a demonic contract and augmented that borrowed power with blood. Of course, this blood magic would invariably involve consumption of blood—or more specifically, mana—and the point a blood mage became a vampire was when their bodies adapted to this foreign power and became dependent on blood.
Or at least, that was how a nest of vampires often got their start. The original blood-mage-turned-vampire would usually—but not always—seek out other like-minded mages to gain safety in numbers. These other mages would make contracts with the vampire, providing it with blood in exchange for some of the vampire’s demonic power. Unfortunately for that mage, their bodies would be corrupted by their connection to the vampire, and they would slowly turn into vampires themselves.
Most of what Leon learned during these classes he had already picked up from Xaphan who, being a demon, already had a robust knowledge of the demonic pacts that granted vampires most of their powers. Xaphan had never actually forged a contract with a blood mage but he had been close to a great many other demons that had before he was summoned by the Thunderbird Clan and imprisoned.
The second week was devoted to werewolves. They were a little easier to learn about, being only humans who had contracted a communicable curse, but they were also far more common than vampires. Additionally, they could potentially pass on their curse to any knight who might try to hunt them down, making them more dangerous than vampires to a certain extent.
The stone giants in the east were the subject of the third week. There wasn’t much to say about them, except their physical dimensions and characteristics. They were about three to four times the size of an average man and made entirely of stone. They had incredible resistance to most kinds of magical attacks and had a great affinity for using earth magic.
Unlike the previous two weeks, the Instructors actually had some practical training for the Academy trainees. Unfortunately, it essentially boiled down to trying to break enormous boulders to simulate fighting a slow-moving giant.
Most of the Instructors had to fight the urge to cringe when directing their trainees to literally smash boulders and call it training. The Snow Lions’ Senior Instructor in particular had to say his orders through teeth that had been tightly clenched from the absurdity of it. But, some brilliant genius in the Bull Kingdom’s administration had thought that it was a good idea to get the trainees used to the toughness of stone giants, so the orders had been passed down to the Legate and made their way to the trainees.
“Man, what in all the fucks are we doing?” Charles asked as he swung a war hammer into a boulder.
Leon sighed before giving a terse response, “… Just think of it as physical conditioning. I’m sure you’re getting close to ascending to the second-tier, so any extra exercise is good for you.”
“I guess,” Charles muttered, still unenthused at how repetitive and dull their task was. Leon was hardly any happier, as he didn’t specifically need the exercise, being a third-tier mage.
“Out of curiosity, Leon, how close are you to breaking through to the fourth-tier? I mean, you’ve been third-tier for as long as I’ve known you, so it has to be soon, right?” Charles asked. As he did, Henry and Alain who were ‘training’ close by stopped their own conversation to listen in.
“Soon. I think,” Leon answered.
“You ‘think’? Shouldn’t you feel it? I’m feeling close to the second-tier and I felt it when I got close to the first-tier as well. Isn’t the fourth-tier the same?”
“Kind of,” Leon said. He took a brief moment to think before continuing, as ‘feeling’ close to a magical threshold wasn’t easy to put into words. “You knew you were coming close to those tiers because they have such drastic changes. Your muscles grow stronger and you can handle magic. These are easy to notice. Ascending to the fourth-tier involves changes in the brain and organs that are hard to notice, as they basically just make them work better. About the only thing a person can notice is an increase in the control they have over their magic power.
“And to that end, I have noticed that I have better control over my mana and magic power. I’m still not quite there yet, but I’m close. I’d estimate six months, give or take a few weeks.”
“If the change from third to fourth-tier is so hard to notice, how do you know that you only need six months?” Henry asked as he and Alain were as interested in this topic as Charles.
“I… think it has to do with the changes in the brain. I guess it’s kind of like how I can’t do the math that would tell me how to hit a target with an arrow five hundred feet away, but I can eyeball it and guess with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I can’t explain this in words, but I can estimate…” Leon trailed off, but he made his point.
“Well, whether it happens tomorrow or a year from now, you’ll still be a fourth-tier mage before you hit nineteen! You can consider me very impressed,” Alain said, clapping Leon on the shoulder in early congratulations.
“Hey…” muttered the Senior Instructor as he walked over to the chatting Snow Lions. “You’re supposed to be breaking rocks. Get back to brea- I mean, get back to your important and necessary training.” As soon as he said this, he turned around and walked away, not even bothering to make sure they followed his halfhearted order. He honestly didn’t care if they went back to hitting rocks or not, but as their Senior Instructor, he had to say something.
The fourth and final week of their monster classes shifted the focus to other creatures a knight would have a reasonable chance of encountering, like chimeras, hydras, griffins, and more, all packed into five days of study. There were enough creatures that were brought up in that week that none of the Instructors truly expected any of the trainees to internalize much of the information, but they were confident that the trainees would learn quickly after getting some practical experience during their squireships.
The weekend after their monster classes finished, Leon decided to make his way back to the capital. He’d visited Elise several times since she had given him the last ingredient, but he still hadn’t been able to muster up the courage to bring up their relationship again. In fact, he’d been so embarrassed about running off after receiving the feather that he’d barely been able to speak to her at all.
Elise was, if not happy with the arrangement, then at least content. She didn’t pressure Leon to bring up what he’d wanted to speak with her about, but the anxiety of not knowing what he’d wanted to say had started to cause quite her a bit of stress. However, she was just as embarrassed to bring it up with Leon as he was to bring it up with her.
This trend of neither bringing up what they really wanted to say continued when Leon made his way to the Heaven’s Eye Tower after the monster classes were done. He’d finally made the decision to commission some custom armor, and he could think of no better smith than one that worked with Heaven’s Eye to forge a set for him.
The reasoning behind this was that he was quite unhappy with the quality of the armor the Academy had given him. He knew that it was defective and only meant to be used in the simulated battles in the Academy, but it also represented the armor he would receive after leaving the Academy, and he was not impressed. In fact, the only thing had stopped him from commissioning armor before was hesitation brought on by the cost; he knew he would have to pay an enormous amount of silver for even a passably decent set of armor.
But, with the end of the classes dealing with monsters and dangerous creatures, he was down to only three months left in the capital—after which he would leave for his squireship. He knew that forging armor was a time-consuming process and that he’d be gone for two months during the Academy’s ‘final test’, the FTX. In other words, he was rapidly running out of time to find a smith and arrange for the armor to be made.
So, he made his way to the Heaven’s Eye Tower. Elise was there as usual, and she introduced him to who she thought to be the best smith for Leon’s purpose and price. Leon and the smith made their arrangements, and Leon returned to the Academy.
During his entire time at the Heaven’s Eye Tower, he and Elise didn’t speak about anything consequential. And as with his armor situation, he knew that he was quickly running out time to have the serious conversation that he knew they needed. But, he just couldn’t spit it out, even with Xaphan’s teasing and encouragement.
So... remember when I said I would get this arc finished by chapter 125? Well, the bad news is that I missed that target. The good news is that I only missed by 2 chapters; this arc will be essentially finished by chapter 127. Additionally, the FTX, the 'final test' of the Knight Academy, starts next week Friday!
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
I Dewa Bagus