“Master-Commander,” spoke a squire, arriving to Vandire’s building and saluting upon entry, “the Varilandian army is nearby. The general has arrived and wishes to meet you.”
Within the building, Vandire, Indrick, and all his officers stood silent momentarily. Vandire then nodded at Indrick, and the two set off outside, joined on their way out of the building by Vandire’s bodyguards.
Upon arriving to the north-western edge of Ariminum where a great many soldiers kept watch, Vandire saw a vaguely familiar face, a face Indrick immediately recognized. On his horse with a small group of dullahans marching by his side, Jeremiah marched up towards them, soon halting in front and dismounting.
“Lord General Jeremiah, I presume.” Greeted Vandire, though soon his eyes fell on the dullahans with him. A difference seemed to be present, of a stricter atmosphere compared to the dullahans he had last seen, those who then turned traitor. Better trained and of greater disciplined, he figured with a mere glance at their posture and lack of unnecessary movements, as if putting on a display.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve last seen, Master-Commander.” Said Jeremiah. “Can’t say I’m not glad that we’re in less hostile terms than last time.”
“I share the sentiment. I had thought Valerian would come instead, however.”
“Valerian figured I was better suited for the task. He decided to stay in Variland to train and organize a defence with what little troops he has should the cultists start pushing north again.”
“I see. Time isn’t on our side, so I’ll have to ask you to join me and my officers post-haste to see what we’ll do with Aquileia.”
Before even giving Jeremiah the luxury of an answer, Vandire turned and marched back. His bodyguards and Indrick followed, and soon enough Jeremiah and his on caught up, marching through the soldier-filled streets till they reached the center of Ariminum, where a town hall adorned with the flags of Vandire’s army waited. All crossed the great doors, to find within the officers and squires who, without exception, turned and fixated their eyes upon the dullahans for a noticeable extent, unable to hide their surprise on their faces. Vandire, Indrick, and Jeremiah marched to the table at the center, and their respective guards gathered around a few steps back, eyeing each other with skepticism and wonder.
“I’ll get to the point.” Said Vandire. “Since spending any more time than necessary is prohibitive, I’ve gone ahead and made a plan involving your army.”
He then pointed at the map on the table, where lined had been drawn over the city of Aquileia. Two arrows, however, came to view first and foremost coming from the west, with one pointing to the city itself, and another moving up north before driving into the city like one arm of a pincer.
“The gist of the plan is that my army will carry out the assault into the city first.” He continued. “Ideally, this will cause the cultists to react and defend the side we’re attacking through by bringing their forces to bear, taking them from the rest of the city. A set amount of time after the assault begins, your army will attack from the north and pierce into their lightly-defended areas, push through, and encircle them. In one fell swoop, we should be able to capture Aquileia without too much time wasted. Knowing our luck, however, things will go wrong and we’ll be stuck fighting yet another war of attrition here, but even in such case we’ll be attacking Aquileia with two full armies instead of one. Anything you want to add?”
“One thing.” Said Jeremiah. “My dullahans have been marching nearly non-stop, and I’m assuming we’ll set off as soon as we finish speaking here. We can get into position, but then we’ll need a day to rest, otherwise we’ll not even have the momentum needed to push through them, let alone encircle them.”
“As long as you don’t get caught for the cultists to prepare, I can afford a day. In fact… you should rest the day we begin the attack and flank them the second. You’ll rest, and no time will be wasted.”
“Then I have no further issues.”
“Good.” Said Vandire, rolling up the map and handing it to Jeremiah, who first reacted with surprise before taking it. “Think the plan through while we’re on our way. The moment we begin the assault, there’s no turning back. If those clouds up there are anything to go by, we should’ve been reaching Acerrae by now.”
Over their horses, they saw the Nostrian soldiers run forward towards Aquileia. Over a thousand men, all running forward with those heavy wooden frames, as if it were a repeat of Ariminum, though now with cultist defenders entrenched and shooting their arrows as they advanced. Vandire, Indrick, and the general staff all oversaw the advance, seeing with awful clarity those unlucky enough to receive injury through arrow, falling down yet without the main formation slowing down a slightest bit before they arrived to the buildings. From there, the observers could no longer tell what happened other than the soldiers escaping sight, blocked by the buildings and by the rest of the men, though knowing that a brawl had begun, the very first stage of the attack having been completed. In due time, the soldiers advanced deeper into the city, till more soldiers than not no longer were within sight.
“Second wave, go.” Ordered Vandire, to which a few officers acknowledged and rushed off to each and every part of the army standing behind them, shouting what Vandire had said. A small earthquake took over, caused by the steps of the second line of men now advancing into the city at full haste, no longer threatened by the massed volleys from the cultists the first wave had eliminated.
The cover of the night hid them as they advanced, reaching the buildings to the north undetected. Quick yet cautious, the small group of dullahans kept on marching, going around the first building for the way in and finding the doors open. Throwing away all manners of stealth, they rushed in with blades drawn, gaining the attention of the cultists within, all kneeling on the ground for a purpose beyond the dullahans, yet a quick affair followed as the dullahans cut them down in an instant, not even letting them give out a shout. For each that their longswords struck, they turned into that characteristic red-and-black smoke, disappearing into the ether. The building soon lied uninhabited of cultists, with all those outside wherever they may be none the wiser.
One of the dullahans stepped over to the window pointing north, then for all to see waved her arm. Those who saw were not cultists, but instead the rest of the dullahans hidden in the grass, rushing forward in ever greater numbers with no one to detect them.
“Lucia.” Called the dullahan leading the group, promting the one by the window to rush to the others, regrouping with those who numbered eight in total. “The others up ahead found something. They want backup. We’re going there.” Added the dullahan to the group, before setting off for all to follow.
One block down. Two blocks down. Though the paranoia of cultists appearing in the dead of the night lingered among them, so too did the knowledge that the dullahans before them had cleared up these parts from their presence. Upon the third block, they arrived to several other groups of the same number, all surrounding one building in particular: A chapel.
From outside, it became clear what the ‘something’ was. Even through the walls, they could hear the faint humming within. Had it been from one single person, they’d not even notice it, yet such was the intensity that they could pick it up with clarity, hinting on the numbers inside, as if the need for backup had not been a dead giveaway enough.
Lucia’s group rested behind the main group beside the shut door, positioning itself by the other side, while all the others readied themselves for the obvious course of action. They all waited for the signal from the sergeant of the main group and, in short notice, a gesture of her arm sent one of her group in front of the door before kicking it open with all her strength, swinging the small pair of doors wide open.
All rushed inside, to meet the sight of the cultists gathered in a massive circle by the altar of the chapel, once a pious icon of The Order now corrupted into that which the cultists worshipped; ink had been smeared on the walls even in places one would not even think reachable, with maddening sigils and iconography leading the mind into confusion over the wall-sized jigsaws of surrealism found within. Even on the altar signs of corruption showed, with the cross of The Order and Nostrum replaced with that characteristic three-lobbed eye of the crawling chaos.
With the doors open in such violent and noisy manner, the cultists all sprung to their feet, startled yet with their weapons on their person, with some readying their bows, and others whatever melee equipment they held. Eighteen dullahans, Lucia among them, led the way into the chapel as quickly as their feet allowed, while the rest divided into those who dived left and right into the cover brought by the numerous long benches with bows in hand, and those who joined in with their longswords into the brawl that would erupt.
Against the first cultists that stood against them, a mere slash cut them to size, with a bash to throw them aside in manners a human would deem inhuman in strength. More cultists lied in front, joining the brawl as they recklessly charged in like those before them, outnumbering the eighteen at the front an awful lot. However, as the cultists attempted to apply their strength in numbers and body weight, a different result came from the different foe they faced; much like the others next to her, as a cultist jumped towards her to slam her with his own weight, she impaled him with her longsword, crouching forward and then propping herself up, sending the cultist crashing behind her as she slid the longsword out and swung it against the next. Slash, stab, smash, no weight stopped the dullahans who exherted their own inhuman strength against the opposition, more than making up for their low numbers with the fierce monstrocity inherited to them as a race by those before the current Demon Lord.
An arrow flew in. Not one from the dullahans far back, but one a cultist had shot. It barely missed her, flying past her cheek with a sharp breeze following along with the soft pull of her hair struck. As the cultists in front of her fell, she turned and saw the culprit shot by an arrow, the last of his kind in the building, turning into smoke. Lucia turned, and saw behind her the dullahan who had fallen, as did all who stared with no expression, just wide-eyed. Those of her group quickly arrived and surrounded her, with one carefully removing the arrow which phased through out, soon turning into smoke in the dullahan’s hand.
The injured, however, held no expression. Blank-faced and wide-eyed as those who looked at her, she stared far ahead into nothingness. Her breathing then began changing, becoming errating and violent ever so slowly, soon almost turning into gasps of panic and hyper-ventilation, with a tear sneaking out of her eyes. Then, surprising the one next to her, a loud cry escaped her mouth at the same time she flailed her arms and legs about, as if desperately trying to stand up and run from a horror she knew she could not escape.
Sudden calls for her to calm down came from her group as they tried holding her down, for God knows where she’d run to, yet the panic did not subside; on the contrary, it escalated on and on, turning more violent, louder, of horrors unimaginable reflected in her expression, soon reflected by the others who couldn’t stand unreacting against the piercing cry of a woman, growing grimaces of terror and pain.
And then, a sword into her belly silenced her. By the sergeant of their group, a longsword had been thrusted in, interrupting her cry and replacing it with absolute silence, with her face turning neutral as seconds passed, growing weaker until exhaustion set in, closing her eyes just as her body ceased to move. Then, she fell unconscious.
“Take her to the real.” Said the fallen dullahan’s sergeant. Two acknowledged, carefully lifting her up and then carrying her away.
At the same time, Lucia’s sergeant nodded at them towards the exit of the chapel. In silent acknowledgment, the seven marched out with her, all aiming to continue the push south.
In a building reclaimed from the cultists, now under Nostrian control, Vandire checked on the map updated ever so frequently by his officers as report upon report arrived. What once had been a few figurines into the metaphorical beach-head they’ve gained in Aquileia, now extended into a proper line throughout the western side of the city. Though progress had been made, it had all been through striking like a hammer against the cultists, with the momentum to eventually be lost and the line to slow down to a crawl, requiring days on end to take the city with their forces. Midday already of the second day of the attack, he felt it an understatement to say that days would be required, with a week at the very least coming a closer approximation.
At the same time, however, he pondered over Jeremiah’s army. Uncertainty over his skill as a general and his men– or dullahans– as organized combatants left him to wonder over the result of his attack, with no idea as to what to expect; it could end in a flawless victory, or a flawless defeat. Still, only time would tell, and time had been what Jeremiah needed to rest, as Vandire had it floating in his mind that his army should be beginning the assault at this very moment.
“Sire, you should see this.” Spoke an officer, gaining Vandire’s attention. The officer handed back the paper to the squire he had gotten it from, and the squire marched to Vandire before handing it to him for him to read.
There it was. A report from Jeremiah, narrowing his eyes over what had happened for him to say something so early in his assault, till he found with utmost surprise what the contents read. Contrary to Vandire’s expectations, Jeremiah had used the day to rest and struck at night, giving him far, far more time to progress in his attack.
“Alter the map.” He ordered, handing the report to another of his officers.
The surprise couldn’t be hidden from the officer’s face, spending a few seconds staring blankly after reading before grabbing figurine upon figurine. On the map they were placed, denoting the positions of Jeremiah’s forces for all to see, and for all to share the same shock. Over Aquileia, the new figurines spread from the northern edge where his assault had begun, to the far southern edge forming a crescent moon; a near complete encirclement in what amounted to half a day of work. That it had been accomplished due to the Nostrian effort of diverting the cultist forces couldn’t be denied, yet the most favorable of expectations would’ve assumed a day at the very least would’ve been required to do the same.
Among those who witnessed the map, silence reigned.
Deep down, Vandire’s thoughts echoed to himself, of the wish to believe he had underestimated them, yet having expected such brutal strength had he been on the receiving end of a trained dullahan army.
With bow in hand, Lucia’s group slowly marched through the recently reclaimed parts of the city at the eastern edge. A mere patrol, tasked to them so as to make sure no cultist got through their lines to cause havoc, though an hour of monotonous gait left them lazily moving about almost aimlessly had it not been for the path they had chosen; the fear of cultists behind their lines had been just that, a mere fear.
As they kept on moving, Lucia’s gaze fell on the field eastward through the space between the buildings, with only one building line separating them from the sea of grass. Something caught her attention, however, making her narrow her eyes and stare on, yet soon enough a building blocked her sight. After crossing the building, she stared ahead, finding once more that which she looked at yet not deciphering what it was, only what it was not: Natural.
“Sergeant, there’s something to the east.” She called. Immediately the group halted, staring in unison at the east for long enough to give away that none viewed it as a useless detail of the terrain.
It moved. Unnoticeable at first, as if it rested kilometres away.
“Lucia, go in that building and get some eyes on it.” Said the sergeant, pointing to a two-story tall building a block down.
Lucia acknowledged and ran forward, putting her bow away, just as the group marched behind to the same building. With her hand on the hilt of her sword, she entered the building to find no cultists within, allowing her to freely march up the staircases and get to the rooftop, with a clear view towards the east.
The sight was unmistakable, now. A massive blob in the distance up ahead, an army of numbers so great that with a mere glance it could be noticed, yet so far that not a single individual could be picked out. Her jaw had been left hanging and her eyes remained open at their fullest extent, without a single sound to escape her lips, seeing what numbers the monstrosity of an army had, clearly far, far more than that of Vandire’s army. As much as she tried, an approximation seemed impossible, though the fact that they came from the east gave away their cultist allegiance, and with that, the idea that their numbers had no obligation to abide to any semblance of limit. An entire city in number, as if.
“It’s an entire army of cultists!” She shouted, running to the edge of the building and placing her hands upon it, seeing the seven below reacting with as much surprise. “I don’t know how many they are, I can’t count that high!”
“Get down here, then!” Shouted back the sergeant. “We’re alerting the Lord General!”
“Report from Jeremiah, sire.” Said a squire as he arrived to Vandire, extending a rolled paper. “It’s urgent.”
The squire’s last words left him in wonder, soon grabbing the paper and unrolling it as the squire departed. Within, he found the source of the urgency, for the very first words to be written were those giving away the presence of an army marching towards them from the east, too big to do anything, with the biggest approximations falling around the forty thousand cultists in number. From Jeremiah’s prediction, they’d arrive in an hour, and with their numbers too big for Jeremiah to mount any proper defense, he had instead redirected his dullahans to all make a mad push into the encirclement now finished, as letting them reinforce those they had encircled would condemn them to weeks of combat. Their only hope of survival now lied on regrouping with the Nostrian soldiers through the cultist lines.
Though Vandire greeted his teeth at the news, he came to fully agree with Jeremiah’s course of action. Upon finishing, he rolled the paper back with enough for to make it crumble, generating that distinct cracking noise of paper folding upon itself.
“Indrick.” He called.
“Sire.” Answered Indrick, arriving to him.
“Jeremiah’s army is about to get sandwiched with another cultist army arriving. I want you to take the reserves and your paladins, and punch through the encirclement to get to the other side. The line will clean up the remaining two pockets, your task is to reinforce Jeremiah’s dullahans.”
“…All of the reserves?”
“Yes, all of them. Their officers should be there ready to advance, so you’ll only have to tell them what I told you.”
“Understood.” Saluted Indrick, before turning and leaving the building with utmost haste.
Street to street, building to building, Lucia’s group advanced west, if it could be called an advance rather than a fighting retreat. With only a good sleep during the day before the assault to fuel her and combat growing desperate and violent as seconds passed, exhaustion creeped into those with her. Tired, aching, panting without room for respite to them, for every second of idleness invited cultist reinforcements to reach them.
Their push led them into a manor, kicking the door open and storming in with longswords drawn, tasked with clearing it out as the rest of the formation pushed on ahead. As the door swung open, the sight of over a dozen worshippers within greeted them, all kneeling with their hands on their thighs, though jumping to their feet after the startling entry, just like in the chapel time ago, and the buildings after it, over and over with the same sight. The dullahans charged in, thrusting their swords as soon as they came within range, engaging in a melee with the cultists who threw themselves against them with the predictable result against monsters of inhuman strength. After the first swings of swords and improvised objects, the cultists immediately backed off as one, all running back further into the mannor through a hallway, which the dullahans pursued through.
They entered a room; a kitchen, they found out, but at that moment of entry the cultists turned and charged against them again, only to be repelled with the same ease. With only two doors in the kitchen, the one they came from and another at the opposite side, the room itself turned into a choke point against the cultists. However, as cultist numbers lowered, they couldn’t help but sense a faint rumbling all around them, drawing close.
“Behind us!” Said a dullahan, looking through the hallway they had come from with another of her kin. The two then readied themselves by the hallway’s end, for a horde to crash against them not a second later.
“Where did they come from?!” Shouted the sergeant. “Cover that other door and get rid of the ones inside! Hurry!”
Lucia and another acknowledged, running towards the other door as the remaining five and the sergeant pushed harder against those few cultists remaining within, though as soon as they arrived, they saw yet more cultists coming from the hallway up front. Gripping their swords on hilt and blade, the two took a deep breath, hearts beating faster as those with dark circles under their eyes ran towards them with devious smiles on their faces. Then, contact, stabbing the ones at the front yet barely holding as a battering ram of living bodies struck against them, making their feet slide back a slight bit.
And then, a spear snuck through from a cultist far behind, embedding itself on the ribs of the one beside Lucia. The dullahan gasped with eyes wide open, breath depleted and mind fading, stumbling back by the spear’s force and letting go of her sword before finally falling on her back.
“Lain’s down!” Shouted Lucia, stepping back as she helplessly saw the cultists advancing into the kitchen, now unimpended, though three more dullahans arrived to her side, charging into those that pierced through the choke point. Too late to stop them, however, as they could not reclaim the lost ground, instead pushed back even more as the opposition used the breach to funnel in more and more of their numbers. The kitchen’s width barely allowed the four dullahans to form a line, though too thin to stand their ground. What little respite the relentless attacks gave Lucia to turn her head and look at the rear, she found the ones at the other door faring no better: they had broken through too, with two casualties instead of one, pushed back even further.
“Find a way out! Now!” Shouted the sergeant, growing desperate.
But all knew no way out existed. No windows they could realistically jump through and escape, condemned to fight to the bitter end.
“Hatch! On the floor, opposite to the sink!” Said one of the dullahans.
“Fall back to the hatch! Cover each other, we’re going down!” Replied the sergeant.
“Does it even go outside?!” Asked Lucia.
“Want to find out or do you want to stay here?!”
Her answer, evident as ever, needed no words to be known, instead shown by the steps she took back with those next to her, blocking and parrying the cultist’s strikes and the dreaded speartip which took one of theirs down already, with no room for even a single attack. Slowly, the two groups of dullahans moved closer and closer, yet at that moment, the speartip stabbed another of theirs.
“Nia!” Shouted the one next to the fallen, extending her hand to grab her, intending to drag her back lest the cultists snatch her away.
“Rena, no!” Cried Lucia.
But a cultist extended his own hand, catching the dullahan’s arm and pulling into the crowd. A scream followed as she tried to step back, only to be stabbed with everything the cultists had, for she could not block with one arm alone. In the blink of an eye, the horde pulled and swallowed her whole, not to be seen amonst them, and with an abrupt end to her shout.
“Hatch! Now!” Screamed the sergeant. “Linda, you first!”
The last dullahan in Lucia’s line shoved those in front of her, quickly turning to run into the hatch which the survivors now surrounded with their backs, but then, Lucia spotted it. The speartip again, aiming at her, and thrusting. Unwilling to let a third be taken from her, she swung her sword towards it, aiming to push it aside and succeeding in the act, but not enough for it to not connect. Rather than striking square into her spine, the speartip struck her thigh, sending her kneeling down with a loud gasp of pain and horror. With uncanny coordination, another cultist hand came from the horde, grabbing the leg which he kneeled on, and pulled.
“No!” Cried Lucia, dropping her sword and extending her arms to catch hers, but before she could do anything at all, the sergeant grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled back, and threw her into the hatch face-first with no regard for her well-being or safety, for time did not allow such luxury.
“In you go!”
A scream escaped her as she fell, until the abrupt landing against the dark, dusty floor silenced her, replacing shout with grunt. But, as she looked up to the bright hatch above her, no more dullahans followed down. Eerily enough, no more noises of violence could be heard, instead quiet, calm steps.
And then, three cultists peeked.
In panic, already teary-eyed, she jumped to her feet and ran further into the room, with no idea where to go. As she caught glimpse of her surroundings, she found nowhere to go, ending up at a narrow cellar filled with bottles and a dead end. Nowhere to escape, with not even a light to help her see, caught in the dark with hordes upon hordes behind her. She turned her head to look at the hatch, only to find a cultist jumping down, and then another, and another.
Blank-minded, she ran to the side of the cellar and grabbed onto the ceiling-high storage for bottles, like bookcases yet with diamond-shaped holes for bottles instead, and pulled with all her strength. It tipped, and then fell, cracking and breaking under its own weight with a deafening noise of bottles shattering echoing throughout the tiny cellar. To the next, she pulled, tipping it and making it fall, though aiming it against the previous fallen, and so she did with the two others at the other side of the hallway-width room. With the four wooden structures collapsed, a makeshift barricade formed, tested a second later by the cultists attempting to break through, yet could not. Through the many crevices of the wood, Lucia saw the cultists’ faces, all grinning and sneaking their arms through, as if trying to grab her, none with even the faintest wish of giving up. Panting, crying, with not even her sword on her person, Lucia took one step back, then another, and another, until her back struck against the dead end. Her strength depleted, she let herself slide down till she remained sitting, unable to not hear the mumbling and humming of those in front of her, those who had taken the seven other dullahans from her.
Slowly, with sob after sob now escaping her lips, she raised her knees, hugged them with one arm, placed her head upon them, and rested her other arm on her head.
A dream. A nightmare. That’s what she wished it was, wanting to return to the days when the greatest worry had been on whether her new dress would impress that boy a block down the street or not. When learning how to cook seemed like the greatest challenge she ever faced, and now here she was drenched in sweat and asphyxiating under the stench of alcohol.
Soon enough, her mind devolved to a mere five words, repated over and over like a prayer. Before she knew it, she started whispering them to herself between each painful sob.
“I want to go home…”
Again, and again, and again she repeated it. No matter how much time passed, never did she stop. The same five words, never losing their meaning after so much repetition, and the same posture, never changing, always with her head on her knees, as if blocking herself from the ugly sight ahead to pretend she was in better times.
She didn’t have to look ahead to picture them in their full grotesque behavior. Zombies of old, as if, trying to get to her through the barricade. The wood creaked, the liquid on the ground splattered, the air grew warmed with their breath. Even without sight, her other senses could very well tell what was happening.
Then, violent noises. More of them, she imagined, ones who had not grown tired, stronger to break through the barricade to get to her. They drew nearer and nearer, till the zombie-like worshippers ahead turned just as violent in the noises they produced, with grunts and quick, sharp hacks, as if they fought against the barricade itself. Then, silence, until she heard the wooden barricade being teared down, making her hug herself tighter and tighter, repeating the same five words with greater speed as tears fell down. Steps drew nearer, near enough to give away the barricade’s deconstruction and the advance of those coming after her, till she heard for the last time a piece thrown aside before quiet, calm steps marched up to her, yet halting after a while.
Curious yet frightened, she slowly raised her head and opened her eyes, peeking between her arm and her eyebrows, to see that which looked absolutely unlike a cultist. A man with a keetle helmet kneeling in front of her, holding a pendant towards her, a pendant glowing a warm light.
“She’s safe.” Said the man to the numerous crossbowmen behind him, tucking the pendant back into his clothes.
The pendant. She heard rumors about them, of the men who held them. A paladin, she thought, not believing her eyes, raising her head and lowering her arms a slight bit in disbelief. At that moment, the man narrowed his eyes, then slowly extended his fingers and gently ran them down her cheek. When he returned his fingers and looked at them, even she herself noticed the little trail of blood upon them. A wound the fall had caused, most likely.
“She’s injured.” He said, standing up. “Where’s the medic?”
Though she saw the man walking away, soon noticing the rapier on his waist beside his longsword, she still kept silent. A man with a crossbow on his back arrived in a rush, kneeling and soon cleaning her wound. Yet, as she blinked, she felt herself becoming light-headed, until soon enough she tilted to the side and passed out.
Over the rooftops, Reynauld and Maverick gained clear view of the cultist army advancing upon them, too close for comfort. Neither could gauge an estimate any greater than five minutes for them to clash against the crossbowmen, who formed a defensive line all throughout the eastern edge of the city. As Maverick glanced into the line, he saw how none were idle. All around them crossbowmen still rushed into position between the buildings, on the rooftops, in the houses by the windows; others brought crates full of bolts leaving them open behind the line, with others starved for bolts swarming them like ants upon a carcass; spiked wooden frames still were brought forward wherever they could be placed.
“Do you think they’ll get through?” Asked Maverick.
In return, Reynauld stared wordless, cross-armed.
“Like in Makillae?”
Maverick in turn affirmed with a hum. Reynauld then glanced around, silent, as if trying to get an answer from that which he saw.
“Honestly can’t tell.” Answered Reynauld. “It’s different now. Too different.”
Within range, the crossbowmen began shooting en masse towards the endless horde. Reynauld turned and left through the roof’s hatch, prompting Maverick to follow suit behind him, marching all the way back into the city, soon reaching the other paladins by a building, with the staff of the first line of defence to be found within.
“Nothing new under the sun.” Said Reynauld as he approached, though upon arriving he turned his head high and stared above. “Stupid of me to say that when there’s barely any sun, huh…”
The others turned their heads up, following suit in staring at the clouded sky. Just as Reynauld had said, barely any sun could be seen at all. The only hints of its existence was a patch of clouds brighter than the rest, for the sky now lied covered entirely in a spiralling pattern. Thick and numerous, the clouds made it darker than it would’ve been otherwise, with a hue of gray and dark blue taking over the scenery no matter where they looked. Already it seemed like night would arrive at any moment, even though still a few hours of daylight remained. Were it any other situation, all would assume them to be an awful omen of a storm of the likes seen once a century, for it had grown worse than the worst they had seen at Makillae. None could deny a hint of morbid curiosity as to how bad it could eventually get if they didn’t stop it, or failed to do so, of which the latter seemed most likely.
Steps broke the silence, bringing their heads down to see who was it behind them, to find Jeremiah arriving with a smile.
“Indrick.” He greeted.
“I’d have imagined you’d be too busy to pay us a visit.” Said Indrick.
“Vandire let me withdraw the dullahans to rest for the time being. There’s nothing for me to do.”
Upon finishing his words, he stared high to the clouds.
“Say,” he continued, “you’ve seen this in Makillae, right?”
“Did you find what caused this?”
“A… tower?” He asked, bringing his head to him again, this time with an eyebrow raised.
“A tower. Crude one, thrown together.”
“We tore it down, the clouds dissipated.” Added Sigismund.
“Any clue as to what they were trying to do?”
“None.” Said Indrick and Sigismund in sync, much to his surprise.
With a pause, he let out a quiet breath.
“So, figured anything out from that sword you took back then from the dullahan? How it works?”
“Nothing.” Answered Indrick. “It just works.”
“…Nothing?” He asked, dumbfounded. “I thought you’d have found something by now.”
“Well… Uhh… Your men use weapons made of the same material, so maybe you had some experience in what it can or can’t do–“
A wheezing laugh interrupted him, finding it originating from one of the paladins who bowed and rested his hands on his knees, soon slapping them a few times.
“We don’t even know how our own stuff works and you expected us to figure out how those things work?” Asked the paladin, recovering. “Ah, I’m sorry, it’s just… Pffft…” As his words ended, he continued suppressing his laughter.
“What?” Asked Jeremiah, turning to Indrick again. Much as he had glanced about, he saw the other paladins reflecting slight amusement.
Indrick replied with a sigh rather than words, rolling his eyes and lazily unsheathing his longsword to grip it with one hand.
“Alright, quick question for you.” Said Indrick. “Demon Realm Silver and whatever alloy of it can phase through everything except itself, right?”
“If I dropped this thing onto the ground, would it phase through it and fall?”
“Why? The ground sure isn’t made out of the same material.”
Silence took over. After a moment of idleness, Indrick let go of the sword. It fell for all to see, especially Jeremiah who stared intently, till it struck the ground by its side, bouncing with that distinct metallic noise as tip and hilt struck the stone road till it rested over the surface immobile.
“Why did it not fall through?” Asked Indrick.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what every single person tasked with looking into it said. The material has a tendency to… decide on its own when to do its thing. It needs to be extracted from the ground, refined, turned into an alloy, hammered into shape, tempered, and be in contact with the other materials making up a sword, and it all involves things that aren’t the same material. Iron, leather, wood, you call it.”
“Then it doesn’t phase through everything.”
“That’s where it gets complicated.” He said, bowing and picking up his sword before sliding it back into its sheath. “Chop a man in two with it, and it ignores whatever he had on his person save for his flesh. Leather, iron, steel, anything. At the same time,” he shook the sword by the hilt, shaking the sheath in turn, “it can’t go through the exact same type of material in a different situation, or you’d be seeing the sword phasing through this sheath. Same goes for bolts, which have a tendency to get stuck on walls, be it of stone, wood, and so on. In fact, if it did phase through everything, the ore deposits deep beneath the earth would just fall down to God knows where. So, can you come up with a general rule of when it does its thing and when it doesn’t?”
As much as he expected an answer, Jeremiah’s silence served as one.
“Neither could any man of Nostrum. Nor could any man of The Order apparently, if we didn’t hear anything about it this last millenium.”
“Assuming coincidential dark matters didn’t bombard whoever figured it out every single time.” Added Sigismund.
“Theory going around is that every single piece of Demon Realm Silver in this world is a fragment of an elemental, or that a fifth elemental has power over it, far more than the standard four with their own elements. A sleeping elemental, since there doesn’t seem to be any actual ones going around, yet sentient enough to decide when it wants to be immaterial and not, thus has no rules to follow and decides on a whim, having a giggle at situations it can worsen or improve. It also explains how it can be imbued with demonic energy or this new affliction, same as how some elementals gain the shape of a woman or even are corrupted into hedonists.”
Raising an eyebrow, Jeremiah kept quiet, spending those few moments letting the word sink in, attempting to understand it fully.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he crossed his arms, “but it sounds… like just saying ‘magic did it’.”
“Yeah well, what do you think goes through our minds when we’re up against someone who can alter reality on a whim?” Asked Sigismund. “Think what the guys back then went through. One moment you’re fighting demons out for your blood and then, poof, the demon suddenly grew breasts, looks like a woman, and is out for your kids. Even if you don’t have more important things to worry about, ‘magic did it’ might as well be the most accurate explanation so far.”
Hurried galloping interrupted their conversation, that of a squire arriving and jumping off his horse barely as it stopped, rushing into the building in haste that surprised those who saw him. Indrick nodded at Jeremiah towards the building, and both followed in, curious as to whether what would be said concerned the paladins and the dullahans. As the two stepped in, they saw the squire panting, standing straight by the table, his message already delivered to the officer reading it in visible shock.
“Send this to the Master-Commander.” Said the officer, shock in his face never erased, returning the rolled paper back to the squire. As the squire ran off where he came from, the officer only now noticed the arrival of the two, but rather than direct his next words at them, he instead raised his voice to all who heard. “Segment four hundred meters south has been pierced. Traitor dullahans had hidden themselves among the cultists. We’re falling back to the second line as planned. Pack up.”
Indrick and Jeremiah stared silent, contrasting with the abrupt start of a ruckus as all inside, twenty at the very least, made haste in gathering all that they had brought into the building. The two then exchanged a glance, before they turned back and left the building.
“The traitor dullahans are here.” Announced Indrick to the nineteen other paladins, silencing them from what little chatter they had, all clearly surprised by the news. “They didn’t say how many. For all we know it might be an entire army of them. We’re going back to the second line, there’s nothing for us to do here unless you want to end up like Dirk. Understood?”
“Understood.” Answered the nineteen.
Then, he turned his head to Jeremiah. “How prepared are your dullahans to fight them?”
More than words would answer, his expression gave away what grudge he must’ve felt, as if breaking his arm back then had not been a dead giveaway enough for Indrick to know. Narrowed eyes, stoic, in thought, yet soon gave a deep breath and turned his head to Indrick.
“More than ready.” He answered.
Far from the chaos at the front, Vandire looked at the figurines over the map be rearranged, as so did Indrick and Jeremiah. Those which had been at the eastern edge of the city, the first line of defence, had been moved far back to the rear at the western half of the city. Those figurines denoting the second line, the ones moved at the moment, were slid back over the map, stopping halfway from their original position to the third line, the one Vandire and the rest stood behind in a building as their headquarters. Though the cultists with the traitor dullahans had broken through at an alarming speed, reports of the second line becoming static gave away how the opposition had lost their momentum. As far as all knew, the line kept still, not moving a single block, be it forward or back.
“I’ll say this here and now so that nobody gets surprised at what I’m about to say.” Said Vandire. “We don’t have the time to play it safe, and God knows if more reinforcements will arrive, so no matter the odds, we have to advance. Do you understand the implications of this, Jeremiah?”
“I understand.” Answered Jeremiah.
“Good. Indrick, you know better than anyone that you can’t go running around the entire front to react against whatever push the dullahans commit to, assuming they’re few in number enough for twenty of you to do much. You’re better off used proactively, so I want you to take part in an assault at the center of the line.” He pointed at the map, placing his finger over a relatively wide, open area among the buildings; a plaza, now turned into no man’s land. “There’s no denying that an attack of this size will attract everyone around, especially the dullahans, and them hearing that all twenty paladins are in one single place in specific might spark a reaction, so your task will be to lure in as many as you can.”
“You know very well how I’d respond to that idea.” Answered Indrick.
“I don’t expect you to suicidally go out alone with your group. The line of crossbowmen and Jeremiah’s dullahans will aid you. If the plan goes right, the number of dullahans should be far, far lower at the flanks, allowed ours to push through and encicle them. Otherwise, the center will break through and part of the reserves will exploit the opportunity.”
“Chief God forgive us for making common cause with fiends such as these…” Muttered Maverick between his teeth, a voice too low for anyone to hear, other than the paladins immediately beside him.
The plaza could be viewed in all its extent, of beauty within the green fields and stone roads, yet contrasting with the grotesque effects of battle showing as scars, of small trees and bushes trampled, of grass mashed to an unsightly mess over thousands of steps having repeatedly marched over. Still, a strange sense of relief existed among those who could see it, for death and destruction would’ve been greater and greater if bodies had not been moved or disappeared, if weaponry had been lethal, and if siege engines like the dreaded catapults and trebuchets had been used extensively. A strange sight to behold, if only due to the missing scenery the old tales of battles everyone would’ve predicted. The most important detail of all, however, was the absolute lack of cultists within sight; a relative peace, with the silence creating an anxious atmosphere over the prospect of another assault coming at any second.
Such was the sight Indrick had within the building a street past the plaza, at the western side. A long, narrow strip of nature from where he could see, of length numerous times its width. A killzone for either side, with no buildings to obstruct any arrows and bolts flying one way to the other.
“We’re waiting for the next wave.” Said the officer of the line staring out the same window, just like the hundreds upon hundreds of crossbowmen within the various buildings forming the front line, all with crossbows ready and eyes fixated ahead. “We hold our ground. We defend. The plaza will be flooded with cultists again, and we’ll whittle down their numbers. When they lose their momentum, you go in with the others.”
“Keep in mind that the further you go, the less are the crossbowmen will have to work with. The fighting will get fiercest when you get to the other side of the plaza, since the buildings will cover them from our bolts. Still, it’ll work in your favor if what you want is to spread the word around that you’re here. So, any questions?”
“One.” Said Sigismund, walking up to the two. “What do we do if we get swarmed?”
“Hope that the flanks have it easier.” Shrugged the officer.
Rumbling. All fell silent, as if questioning to themselves if they had really felt such thing instead of a mere trick of their minds, yet the sight of everyone in their room shifting their gazes to the others in equal wonder only served to confirm it.
“Incoming!” Shouted a voice from the floor above. At the same time, the rumbling grew louder, till far ahead they saw movement. The cultists, advancing. Before long, the crossbowmen took aim and, once within range, all let loose at the same time. The sound of string let loose pushing each and every bolt could be very well heard throughout the building with the volley, yet soon after all began shooting as they finished reloading rather than waiting for a second unified volley. Against an opponent without fear of volleys, only the number of bolts shot in the air mattered. And yet, the horde advanced, not slowed for a mere second by the bodies that’d have remained had it not been for their disappearance in smoke.
“You better back off.” Said the officer, stepping off from the window with Indrick following, with numerous crossbowmen soon taking their place. “Can’t have you tiring yourself out this early. The moment you hear a whistling is the moment the push begins. As for me, I’ll return to the rear and see how things are faring elsewhere.”
Indrick momentarily halted, and followed with his eyes as the officer stepped off the building through the back, a crudely carved hole in the wall multiple walls ahead shaped as a doorway. Then, he picked up pace again, with his paladins soon following wall past wall, where crate upon crate of bolts had been stockpiled, along with soldiers dragging a few to the front in haste. More and more rooms followed, an entire block of buildings connected through holes, all until they finally reached the street at the opposite end where forty dullahans waited.
An awkward silence ensued, both dullahans and paladins segregated in their own groups, giving skeptical stares at each other without a word to be heard, not even whispers among them. Standing, leaning against the building, sitting, no matter how all waited for the signal, not even mere chit-chat came through.
They must be experienced, Indrick imagined. For them to be sent to fulfill such task, they had to be, perhaps the most out of Jeremiah’s army save for his personal guard. All dullahans must’ve been more experienced than them, he came to think, even those considered the least experienced if they had fought the traitors in Variland while Nostrum faced the endless cultist hordes.
A sharp spike in violent noises. Indrick slowly stepped towards the hole in the wall and peeked in, to find at the other side past the few soldiers running about that his thoughts were confirmed: The cultists had reached the line, engaging in melee within the building.
“Ready up.” He said, walking to the side of the hole and leaning against it, waiting for that signal which could come without warning.
As violent noises continued ever so strongly, the rest of the paladins and the dullahans spent the silence with their own thoughts. Hand on the hilt of the sheathed sword, each and every combatant readied himself not physically, but mentally, keeping the idea that they would need to rush into the hole in the wall into cultist lines each following second.
Soon enough, however, a frown grew in his expression as a mere thought crossed his mind. The traitor dullahans had arrived to Aquileia, and no doubt they knew that the loyalist dullahans had done the same. For what purpose, then, did they not exploit the opportunity to attack Variland with near-impunity and jumped into a meat grinder instead?
And then, the whistle. A mad shout coming front the front broke through the monotony, one coming not from one, not from a hundred, but from the thousands upon thousands of men who had held the line, running a chill down everyone’s spine as all caught notice.
“Into the building, go!” He shouted, taking the first step and sprinting in, with a massive rumbling of steps upon steps following in his wake.
Past the crude doorways, he and half a hundred combatants behind him rushed past those soldiers leaving them way, seeing far ahead a clearly different view than before. Even as they reached the front of the building, he lost no speed, still running ahead through the now empty front, crossing the doorway into the street as those behind him split to get out of the building even faster as they jumped through the various ruined windows.
Bolts flew through the sky overhead, hundreds flying at any given time against the dark clouds gathering in number above. The line had advanced, now ahead of them charging with just as much ferocity, all with swords drawn running ahead, and in relatively short notice, Indrick and the rest caught up as they unsheathed their own swords. A mess without formation, having prioritized speed over organization; through the gaps left by the mob-like line, Indrick ran through, getting closer and closer to the true front until the first cultist came to sight, one he greeted with a longsword swing and a shout, marking the very first ‘kill’. He didn’t stop, still moving forward past the cloud of smoke the cultist had left, thrusting his sword into another cultist, then swinging it an another, foes so reckless in their behavior that none even bothered to attempt blocking in their attempt to swarm and push. As they advanced, more and more cultists arrived like a storm, soon reaching a point where they could not be felled faster than they arrived, building up their numbers, yet so too did the rest of the paladins arrive.
A brawl. A mindless brawl, where all that one could and had to focus on was on where the next blow should land, always swinging and thrusting, always taking a step forward. For every step taken, the cultists were forced a step back, yet for every step forced back, the cultists gained more numbers, as less area for the bolts to whittle them down existed. A third into the plaza already, and their advance slowed down to a grind, but nothing else could be done other than keep fighting, with no miracle tactics or strategies to help.
“So this is where you were, mister paladin!” Shouted a voice ahead, yet Indrick saw nothing, only the sea of cultists he couldn’t look past, as if he had the luxury of looking around to search for the source in the first place. Barely something to be head past the shouts and grunts of the battle, a sentence no doubt nobody else but him heard.
The next cultist in front fell, turning into smoke, yet just as his body dissipated, a long-haired figured with her white teeth showing in grin lunged forward through the smoke with blade in hand. In reflex he deflected it, a true proper longsword aimed towards his chest, but so too did another sword move towards him, from above this time. The hilt of a sword gripped by the blade by another long-haired figure no less, hitting him on the shoulder while he deflected the first yet too lightly to form a hallucination-inducing wound. It pulled, locking onto the back of his neck like a hook, and sent him forward; he’d have tripped ahead had it not been for the paladin behind him gripping him by the back of his neck and pulling. The paladin beside him, on the other hand, attempted to thrust his own into the first figure, only to be deflected, as if the oppositor had already expected such thing. Another sword hilt fell on him on the other shoulder hooking onto his back, and pulled.
Another sword swung in, from his side instead. Behind him, one of a hilt design he knew was neither the soldiers’ nor the paladins’, connecting with the blade of the ones ahead, locking itself in place against the blade and his shoulder, and pulled back, preventing him from falling forward. At the same time, yet another sword fell, though this time hooking onto the neck of the figure ahead, pulling and bringing her into the paladin line, swallowed whole by the multitude before he saw one of the dullahans themselves charging ahead through the hole in the line the figure had fallen through, swinging. In that instant, Indrick felt another hand grabbing his back and pulling, one of inhuman strength that sent him back falling, taking the swords hooked on him with him, along with those holding them which he found to be the traitor dullahans themselves. Taking his place, two loyalist dullahans charged in to aid the first one, while a third propped him to his feet with strength that made him believe he had been pulled up entirely instead.
The line advanced. Where the traitor dullahans had gone to, he knew not, with the front filled with cultists once more and the dullahans pushing through as if the cultists weighed like feathers. While those ahead took the brunt of combat, he took the opportunity to catch his breath once more; the absolute contrast between cultist and traitor dullahan skill had shaken him, having gotten used to the foe that a even militia would fare well against before facing that which paladins were only expected to have a mere chance against. Looking aside, he found the swords gone, along with those traitor dullahans who had been thrown into the line, not doubt stabbed by over a dozen blades repeatedly.
“Indrick!” Shouted a familiar voice, a lengthy call of tone closer to a taunt. With the luxury granted by the relative tranquility of the ranks behind the very front, he stared in all directions to the front, where cultists flooded the scene and a traitor dullahan or two made their appearance before sinking into the ocean of worshippers. It came from ahead, he knew, and yet, his eyes caught a hand waving up high, the only one to do so in such horde.
There he found her, a familiar dullahan with a grin on her face, lowering her arm now that she saw him gazing in her direction.
“A little bird saw you in that building before this all started and told me!” She said, still with her previous tone. Melanie, he remembered, recalling his last interaction with her. “Are you going to poof out of existence like last time?”
He said nothing. Instead, he stared on, watching her step off elsewhere, but soon lost sight of her past all the cultists blocking view.
The movements he had grown used to in the line changed enough for him to notice. Wherever he looked, more long-haired figures popped through the smoke of the fallen cultists, more and more, yet never retreated. Wherever they popped, the loyalist or Nostrian faced immediate difficulty, condemned into the defensive as he or she stepped back. Soon enough the entire opposite line had been comprised of traitor dullahans, ilttle by little pushing back with their grins ever presentin their expression, till soon enough the line marched back to him, who became the first rank without giving a single step in any direction. Cautious, he thrusted, aiming to back off as soon as those beside him did, but the dullahan in front merely blocked and did no more. No counter-attack, nor any attempt by those around her to do the same as before. Morbidly curious, he kept to himself, ready to block any possible attacks, yet none came. He backed off a few steps as those beside him did, but no hostilities did he receive. Shifting his eyes, he found the traitors taking glimpses at him every now and then, aware of him and his inactivity, leaving him certain that it had to be on purpose.
Sword swung at him. In an eyeblink, he deflected it, heart jumping yet at the same time relieved of relative normalcy returning in the meat grinder. When he looked at the culprit, however, he found Melanie once more, half-swording a thrust immediately thereafter, to which he deflected it with his blade in his other hand, swinging his pommel at the same time, to which she dodged by stepping back.
“Don’t be afraid of going all out, Indrick.” She said, still in equal tone. “Nobody’s going to bother us.”
He feigned a swing, making Melanie counter the supposed attack by swinging hers in a manner that’d have not only blocked his swing, but so too strike him with the end of the blade, an act Indrick quickly deflected to do the same to her. She caught the blade with her hilt, however, stopping the blade fairly close to her body. The paladin next to him took the chance, thrusting his sword against Melanie, only to be deflected by the traitor dullahan next to her, who charged against the paladin to keep him out of the fight.
“Feels familiar, doesn’t it?” Taunted Melanie. “Careful not to end like Jeremiah. You’re in his shoes, right now.”
As much as he would’ve given the words great thought, the line withdrawing even further forced him to step back over and over, with Melanie following step by step nonchalantly out of range of his sword, not even in stance anymore.
“This whole fight around us is annoying, isn’t it?” She asked. “Say, how about we do it like this: We have a little duel, the two of us, alone, with no one else fighting around. If you win, I’ll have the dullahans withdraw from Aquileia. You don’t want to suffer needless losses against someone you can avoid, do you? Plus… It’s not like the two of us aren’t fighting already. Deal?”
Still staring forward in stance, ever skeptical of a next attack, he stood without returning a word, thinking. Melanie did nothing, just waited, taking a step forward each and every time the line took a step back, not raising her sword for a mere second.
“Deal.” He said, making a grin grow greater in Melanie’s face.
“Then you’ll find me at the center of the plaza.”
Following her words, she turned back and disappeared into the horde of traitors and cultists. In quick succession, the traitors turned back and ran the way the came from, and surprising all within the line, so too did the cultist stopped in their tracks and withdrew in sprint. Such was the surprise, that none dared take a step forward to pursue, and instead all stared in absolute silence without a word to be heard. Soon enough, nobody remained within sight.
“…Paladins.” Said Indrick. “Dullahans. Advance.”
“Lad.” Said Sigismund, arriving to his side just as both groups began walking forward, though at a relatively slow pace. His voice had given away the suspicion that all shared, along with the line of soldiers that soon followed behind, all staring in all directions without idea of what to expect. “It’s gonna be an ambush, isn’t it?”
“They could be showering us with arrows right now. I don’t know. Spread the word of what’s going on, lest the others start shooting when they shouldn’t.”
Sigismund then stepped off, repeating his message to those around him, who began repeating it to the others in turn.
Indrick’s ears felt uncomfortable. The abrupt change from deafening combat, from the clash of demonic metal and furious shouting, to the calm silence which only their steps over the ruined grass and dirts broke. No matter how far they marched, he saw no signs of hostility; no arrows, no flanking forces from the buildings to the side of the plaza, and, at least for the time being, no shouted reports that the ones who ran did so to attack another part of the line.
Little by little, figures could be distinguished ahead, immobile, waiting. As he got closer, he properly identified the one waiting at the front, Melanie herself, along with over a hundred dullahans scattered over the plaza past her. Yet, once he got to a certain distance, he noticed the cultists behind the dullahans, a number so great that all stood next to each other without a gap to be seen anywhere at all. Thousands upon thousands, with no way to decipher where the horde ended.
“Anxious?” Greeted Melanie, standing tall with her sword in front of her, with both hands over the pommel and the blade on the soft ground. In place, she waited and waited, till Indrick arrived and stood a few meters in front. Two lines had formed, one of crossbowmen, paladins, and dullahans, and another of traitor dullahans with the cultists behind them, and in the desolate middle, Melanie and Indrick stood.
“How do I know you won’t suddenly break the deal and have everyone stab me?” He asked.
Silence. Then, Melanie snickered.
“Now is not your time.” She continued. “You’ll be fine. The question is if you want to get to Acerrae in a couple days, or in a couple months.”
“Not… my time?”
“Not spoiling the surprise. You’ll have to be patient.”
Taking the sword in her hands and readying stance signalled her willingness to start, waiting for him to do so and take the first step. Seeing this, Indrick slowly raised his longsword and sheathed instead, to then bring his hand to his rapier’s hilt and draw it out before taking stance with her, with a silence engulfing the two, for not even a word came out from the thousands upon thousands at either side.
As fast as he could, he thrusted aiming for center mass, only for it to be deflected by a quick swing as Melanie took a few steps back, yet Indrick did not take equal steps forward. Just in the first exchange, he saw in full clarity what the change from claustrophobic formations to a great empty space brought, though so too did he see what inhuman strength and reflexes the dullahan had.
Melanie stepped forward, grinning, thrusting her longsword to its fullest extent just for him to step back as he deflected it, out of reach. Immediately thereafter, she took another step and swung, and Indrick deflected it once more, countering with a swing to her legs that she blocked and overpowered altogether, swinging through the rapier’s blade and carrying it with its force towards him, forcing him to jump back lest the longsword struck him. A sad display of what lesser strength one had over the tip of one’s blade, compared to the base by the hilt.
“Beat her up!” A man’s voice said. A no one, a mere soldier not even at the front, breaking the silence.
“Show her!” Another shouted, invited by the first’s initiative. Then, a third shouted a cheer over a fourth, followed by a fifth, a sixth.
The traitor dullahans responded in kind, shouting in Melanie’s favor. First it was one, then two, and over and over more voices joined their respective side in boasting and shouting, till a incomprehensible cacophony engulfed the field, of voices imposed upon each other to the point none could understand a word other than the emotion and intention beneath it.
Another thrust by his rapier. Deflected, countered by a swing, for the swing to be deflected and replied to with yet another swing. Thrust, swing, slash, clashing with each other’s blades and creating that distinct noise of grinding metal, with their footsteps hitting and dragging along the grassy field, circling each other and matching what the other did in opposites. When one advanced, the other fell back, and when the one who fell back advanced, so too did the other withdraw; when one stepped to the side, the other responded in kind to the other, always looking at each other dead in the eye when the other’s blade didn’t take up their focus.
The cries on each side grew stronger and stronger, as if each attempted to out-shoot the opposition, all throwing their fists in the air with their mouths showing their teeth with each cry. The words themselves, once incomprehensible over so many thrown at the same time, turned clearer and clearer as seconds passed, all converging on a single word for each side. For The Order and the dullahans with them, the word ‘Indrick’ could be faintly understood at first, until it took over entirely, with the entire line shouting ‘Indrick! Indrick! Indrick!’ over and over without respite. At the same time, so did the opposite line shout the same for Melanie’s name.
As Indrick thrusted once more, Melanie grabbed her longsword by the blade and hilt, and upon deflecting his attack she recklessly ran forward, sliding his blade away before raising hers and swinging the pommel to his head. He dodged it, though as he tried to bring his blade to bear on her, she brought the pommel back and locked its hilt onto his neck and pulled. Without proper footing, he fell to the side, and as she thrusted her sword against him on the ground, he rolled aside and stood up. Again she ran forward towards him, and upon seeing him slashing from the side, she blocked it with her blade in the same manner, but one thing she could not predict. Indrick had thrown his fist towards her, against the side completely exposed, for her longsword remained at the other end blocking the rapier; unable to do anything about it but stare wide-eyed in that fraction of a second, she received the punch against her cheek. It couldn’t alter her trajectory enough, and so she struck against him with her entire weight yet without focus nor balance, sending both of them against the ground rolling in different enough directions, silencing the crowds in that mere instant.
Panting and with an adrenaline rush overtaking him, Indrick propped himself up with hand on the floor and foot on the ground to see where Melanie had gone. There he found her, standing up and holding her mouth while whimpering softly to herself, though with her back turned to him for him to see the result of his actions. He stood up straight, rapier in hand expecting another attack, yet only saw Melanie slowly turning his way while removing her hand from her mouth, revealing a few small red drops smeared over her palm, along with a tiny trail escaping her mouth down to her chin. Though she stared expressionless at the blood in her palm, with her eyes soon turning to Indrick, she grinned before snickering.
“You got first blood, Indrick. You win.” She said, lowering her hand. Then, she muttered to herself. “Heh… First blood…”
“I… What?” He asked, unwilling to lower his guard.
“Congratulations.” She shrugged, smile never erased. “You’ll be in Acerrae soon, I suppose.” She turned and marched away, while raising her hand and waving. “Let’s see how you’ll fare there, paladin.”
Much like the others behind him, he stared in immense confusion and surprise. As Melanie passed the traitor dullahans, they all shot smiling glances at Indrick before turning and following her, all then cossing the line of cultists and disappearing from sight one by one, until the last one left.
Then, the cultists moved, picking up speed and running forward towards them with a mini-earthquake followingin their wake. Indrick’s eyes popped wide open with his heart jumping to his throat, and in absolute panic at an entire army’s worth of people charging towards him, he legged it in the opposite direction. Desperately running, he soon reached the line of crossbowmen forming up in equal panic, and once he crossed it through the gap left open for him, more crossbowmen plugged it. A second later, the awful noise of both lines clashing against each other rang out throughout the plaza.
“None of my dullahans saw any more of the traitors so far.” Said Jeremiah in the hours near dark, sitting with Vandire by a table with Aquileia’s map on top. “Looks like the deal Indrick had with Melanie wasn’t a bluff.”
“Seems so.” Said Vandire, with the creaking of his chair holding back the silence of the room as he leaned back and crossed his arms, relaxed. “With your dullahans pushing with the line of crossbowmen, Aquileia should be under our full control before sunrise.” Then, a pause. “To withdraw all the dullahans on a whim… This ‘Melanie’ certainly has a lot of authority.”
“I would be surprised if she wasn’t the one in charge of all the traitors. I made her my second in command, back then. It’s only natural that she’d become the general.”
“What did you see in her, if I may ask?”
“Most everything. Fought well, had enough initiative to not freeze when telling others what to do, could think on her feet… My army had good leadership back before I died, it just didn’t have the discipline needed to exploit it.”
“I do know she then served under the lilim later on. This lilim, she had been reading every book she could find about anything even slightly related to warfare, correct?”
Vandire then scratched his chin. “Melanie must’ve gone through not only your time as second in command, but also Victoria’s. No wonder she’d be in charge, if she had more than enough experience in being in charge in the first place. You said you fought well. How well?”
“The question is too vague. Even if I said she was the best for a while, it’d still be in relation to a bunch of girls given a sword and told to cross the border.”
“I want to know if Indrick really won that match, or if she was fighting with handicap on top of handicap.”
“If I were to go with the Melanie I knew in my time, Indrick would’ve beaten her in a heartbeat. Now, with all the experience she must’ve accrued, and not removing the possibility that the affliction could’ve given her a bit more help… I don’t know. If I were to imagine the affliction not changing her, she might’ve been a proper match, but it’s just as likely that she was just toying with him.”
“I see…” Sighed Vandire. “Well, one way or another it won’t change what we need to do, so no use dwelling on it. You better have the dullahans rest as much as they can, we’ll set off for Acerrae as soon as we can, lest they throw another cultist army our way.” He then glanced towards the window, seeing it dark already outside. The question crossed his mind, that of whether it was truly dark outside, or if it was the clouds blotting out the sun making it seem as such. Then, he saw something on the window which caught his attention, having him narrow his eyes and soon stand up to march towards it, much to Jeremiah’s wonder. When he reached the window, he saw it in full clarity, a raindrop sliding down the glass from where it struck, followed by another. “It’s starting to rain.”