The dark clouds high above in the gray sky greeted him as soon as he opened his eyes. He found himself lying on the ground, with the first question to pop into his mind being just how long he had been in such position. What little he remembered had been the minotaur, blacking out as soon as combat started. Did he win? Did he lose? It certainly seemed like the latter; as if inherently holding the knowledge, he knew he was in the underworld. What had happened?
Did it even matter?
He brought himself up till he sat, and glanced at his surroundings. A mere town, abandoned in its entirety without a soul to be seen no matter where he looked, without even a faint breeze to push the dust. Everything before him immobile, in stasis. He then leaned forward and propped himself up to his feet, grabbing his poleaxe and giving one final look at what lied around him. Still, nothing, and so he marched aimlessly forward, with the noise his boots made turning almost deafening purely due to the silence that he had grown used to.
Step after step, no matter where he looked, the same desolation followed. Signs of abandonment lied aplenty; walls losing their color, dust piling up in each and every corner, hinges and whatnot rusting to dust, all that came from nonexistent maintenance.
Noises. He halted in place and looked back, poleaxe in hand with skeptical eyes gazing the way he had come from. Without moving a muscle, he focused his ears, yet heard nothing so far. Then, something scraped the silence, a faint noise which source seemed to move behind the buildings at too fast a pace for comfort. Quick, light taps against the concrete floor, that of a solid material not unlike nails, accompanied by a fainter breathing. Multiple, in fact.
He turned forward again and scanned what lied ahead of him. There it was, a building he imagined was easy enough to barricade, not to mention the tallest he would be able to reach within a reasonable time span. He turned back again, and saw no signs of whoever or whatever else stalked him out of sight. Staying in place would invite the worst, and so he tuned forward again and broke into a sprint. Almost to be expected, a few steps forward and past the noise of his own steps, he heard that which followed him breaking into just as noisy of a run. Then, a wolf’s howl pierced through his ears, sending a shiver down his spine over the surprise.
Glancing back, he finally caught sight of his pursuers. Three of them, along with few more coming from the sides of the last intersection; hellish beasts in the shape of rabid wolves, of fur as black as night, with glowing red eyes and elongated teeth as sharp as spears. Hellhounds. Not hellhounds in the manner he would have expected from the ones he had heard, but actual animals, as if they were ancient bloodthirsty demons trapped in the shape of animals.
He reached the building and crossed the door, closing it behind him and throwing his own weight against it just in time to counter the hellhounds throwing themselves in equal manner. At arm’s reach, he held onto a bookcase full of what he cared not to identify other was useful weight, and tipped it over to himself. As it fell, he stepped forward, leaving the bookcase to fall and make a makeshift barricade against the door. Another hellhound broke through the window, shattering the glass though stopped by the thick wooden mullions it started gnawing at. Nothing he could cover the window at, though the mullions would hold for a few precious seconds, and so he ran for the staircase. Upon reaching the room above and finding far more furniture than in the previous floor, he dragged and piled all that was not bolted to the floor towards the staircase’s exit, forming a thick barricade again. At that moment, he heard the hellhounds breaking into the room below; the window had at least held enough. He ran for the next staircase, reached the room above, and did the same before running for the next and climbing up.
Nowhere else to go. Not much else to do. Not many buildings around to even ponder on the possibility of running over the rooftops. In silence, he took a deep breath and calmly stepped forward to the edge of the building before sitting down. Though his heart had been beating harder and harder, calmness soon found its place, even despite the gnawing noises of the hellhounds and the eventual howl filling the silence of the world. Now, it was only waiting for the inevitable.
There didn’t seem to be many other noises around, other life apart from the hellhounds, if he could call it life in the first place. The high spot he found himself in allowed him to gaze around him, gaining sight of far outside the town, but still he no noticeable movement. Nothing. Only up in the gray sky, against what he could only describe as the sun past the thick clouds emanating a white light rather than warm yellow did he see the only other sign of perhaps-life: something flying past, a something he couldn’t properly identify other than it not being a proper bird. A gargoyle, maybe. One that either didn’t notice him, or didn’t care.
“It’ll be a fight to the death when those things get to you, and you can’t die twice.”
It certainly wasn’t him that said it. The voice was unmistakable, that of Nyarlathotep. It came from behind him, yet when he turned his head to glance from the corner of his eye, through the slit helmet, instead of finding her he found a mere closed door by the opposite edge of the building, seemingly leading nowhere. White and pristine clear, contrasting with the decay he had already gotten used to. He stared and stared, but soon enough he stood up and marched to it. Skeptical, he slowly extended his hand and turned the handle, but as he pushed, he found that the very first thing he saw was a pitch black void, where not even the floor could be seen. It didn’t seem like darkness, for even the very first centimetre starting from the door shared the color. A bottomless pit, perhaps? But as he opened it fully, a fair distance ahead he saw a desk with Nyarlathotep sitting behind it, writing on her book, all in the middle of the void with the lantern he had thought lost by the desk, and the creature she had summoned standing a few feet behind and to the side with her backpack on her back.
Curious, he extended a foot and poked for any floor; God knew if she floated. There it was, solid footing seemingly invisible, or visible yet denying all lighting. The hellhounds still gnawing at the barricade didn’t give him many other options, and so he crossed the door and closed it behind him. The same silence ensued upon closing the door, save only for the quill dragging itself along on her book.
“Had fun?” She asked. Indrick remained silent, and walked closer to the desk where a chair lied waiting for him on the opposite end. “Those were interesting times, back before the current Demon Lord.”
But Indrick kept quiet, standing in place, staring.
“No reaction?” She continued. “Seems like you had an accurate idea of how it was in those times. Poor Victoria was… not warm to the idea.”
“You put her through the same?” He asked.
“She saw it from a distance, instead of fighting and dying in it.” She said, putting the quill back on its ink bottle. “I guess she saw more than you did, though. By virtue of not fighting the minotaur, her memories didn’t black out before the paladin died.”
“She… saw me dying?”
“Hm? No. That situation actually happened, around… Eighteen hundred years ago? I merely put you in the perspective of the paladin. That it was Nostrum probably threw you off, didn’t it?” She closed the book. “A paladin and a hundred men were patrolling the woods north of Nostrum for warbands that pillaged and massacred isolated farms and villages. Needless to say, they found a small one, or were found by one. Things progressed as you saw, until the paladin caught attention of the Chief God of that time, who sent an angel to get him out, and even blessed the paladin. Unfortunately… the paladin and the angel were killed. Though the minotaur was killed, slowly and painfully hacked to pieces by virtue of its strength and size, the paladin received too many wounds and bled out. The angel’s mission had been to get the paladin out at all costs to train him as a hero to defeat the Demon Lord eventually, yet failed, costing her life by the hands of the remaining monsters. The Demon Lord continued to reign for four hundred more years, before another of his kin stabbed him in the back and took over. Fun times, weren’t they?”
His head lowered ever so slowly. Now, without her writing, a deafening silence had taken over.
“It wasn’t all Victoria saw, though.” She added. “She saw… more, for lack of terms you’d understand. Want to see for yourself?”
“Very well.” She said, clasping her hands in front of her, and thereby saying nothing.
A certain silence ensued, almost awkward, where the smiling woman and the armored paladin stared at each other, with seconds turning into minutes, and minutes into hours.
“If I go through with it, will you get me to Victoria?”
“Yes.” She said, her smile growing wider.
“Any way I can trust you on that?”
After a pause, Indrick fought back a sigh and pulled the chair in front of him, before sitting down. Nyarlathotep then turned her book and slid it to his end of his desk, for him to see on the cover the words ‘CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT’, as if it were the title. He slowly reached with his hand, yet almost upon touching it, he stopped in skepticism and, unwilling to admit it, fear. For a few seconds, he couldn’t bring himself to move his hand, until he mustered his strength and touched the cover.
Absolutely nothing happened. The last few times he had done so gave a different result, surprising him with the relative nothingness thrown his way. He gently slid his gauntlet from the top of the cover to the side and held onto it, ready to open it, yet same as before, hesitation stopped him.
The very thing that made Victoria disappear, resting in front of his eyes. God knew what happened to her and what it was within the book that made a demi-God fade into obscurity, and what it’d do to a mere kid like him.
“Who else saw what’s in this book?” He asked.
“Only Victoria. You will be the second person in this whole world.”
His fear had been confirmed true, that the cultists and traitor dullahans had turned into what they were purely through the usual means, if Nyarlathotep was to be trusted. The only other person to have gone through it was nowhere to be seen, and no possible way existed for him to gauge the results, other than Victoria’s disappearance and her apparent willingness in not only abandoning Variland, but also abandoning her traitorous army. It wasn’t a question of what side she picked, but of whether she had been left unwilling to even pick one at all. And yet, it felt like the words taunted him in the dead silence of the infinite room: ‘CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT’.
To think that a mere book would make him feel like he was jumping into a pyre. The world had gone mad, or it more likely hid its madness exceptionally well. Can’t say that he was surprised, with how legends spoke of Druella cursing various books into monsterizing the person who opened them, yet the knowledge of what would happen in such case served to quell most fears. The fears of the unknown, fears surfacing through the book in front of him, fears only his sheer discipline and iron will kept him from succumbing to.
With a deep breath, he took the proverbial jump into the pyre and opened the lid, disregarding all instincts that screamed at him not to. The first page lied bare for his eyes, filled with ink in the form of sigils and words, so many of varying shapes and sizes, making it look like the paged had been smeared on ink not unlike the sigils he had seen on the various cultist-infested territories he had found; exactly alike, in fact. Yet, upon the first look at the page, he felt pulled towards it, as if an ethereal force latched onto his head and pulled with unholy strength. It felt like it teared his mind and soul apart from his own body and separated them, with an abrupt beat in his head so strong that he felt like it should’ve knocked him unconscious, yet with some indescribable horror forcing him to stay conscious, covering his mouth and stopping a scream from coming out.
Thoughts rushed into his mind, not those of his own but those of foreign entities, forced in like a nail against wood, tearing through his own and imposing their own presence. An invasion of a place most sacred, where no proper defense existed other than willpower and discipline, yet only against one’s mind, not against the attack from the outside overriding his own. He could see it all, yet not through his own eyes; as if someone forcibly held his eyes open to see ahead, yet instead violently gripping his mind, one he could not fight back against.
No exception existed for what had been forced into his mind. Images and the knowledge of all, of things hidden from the naked eye like the tiniest atoms, and even the knowledge of the mere word ‘atom’ itself. Of such things merged together in violent action, clad upon each other, forming molecules and making up the fibres of all things material. From that which made the fabric of reality, the very strings of the universe, elements which made the minuscule atoms look like gargantuan monstrosities of size incalculable, to that which one saw in a starry night: hundreds of billions of stars of different types, of proportions reaching over a hundred thousand times that of the earth, all within the dark confines of the nothingness comprising the void of space. All illusions and magic in that which he could see and could not, dispelled, never to wonder the hows and whys, never to chase for answers to things unanswerable by the collective knowledge of mankind, things Man had viewed as paradoxical that now seemed childish at best, or mere trick questions in concept at worst.
All of it, a creation of the Chief God. A universe made to run itself, the greatest machine to exist in itself.
All of it.
Even the monsters plaguing the earth, once said to have appeared from the darkness, shown to be but mere artificial creations by the same creator as Man, of which purpose had been the reduction of mankind’s numbers. It had been the Chief God’s fully willing action that had brought them to life.
The Original Chief God’s intention, at least. So many existed as replacement after the original’s traceless disappearance. Like the Demon Lords, Chief Gods had come and gone, a grim and fitting comparison for what had been two sides of the same coin.
Sacred lie upon sacred lie, with the creator of all gone, creator without apparent reason to bring such widespread death and suffering. Even in its stead, the various Chief Gods had not even achieved unanimity in their actions, fighting amongst each other for the right to rule, all powerless in comparison. Even the current one, the ruler over Man, seemed like an inexperienced child in mentality, as if the throne had been achieved purely through the distraction of others as they worried about more competent threats, or the ruler had been put forth as a ploy. A war in heaven, it could be called, not unlike the barbaric tales of old Demon Lords always competing to bring each other down.
And yet, where did Humanity fall? A toy of Gods with a fetish for power. Chemicals and flesh suffering on a rock drifting through nothingness.
He could see it himself, the rock. The earth he had believed sacred, slowly floating away, each second smaller in distance. The moon slowly orbited it, a lifeless companion for quite a while, both so far away, yet at the same time, so close as things kept moving away. When the earth had turned into a mere small ball, he saw the other planets, and the sun itself, all moving around the latter for longer than Man had collective memory of. All so tiny, all so far apart, with the stars and constellations seen far beyond in the distance. A certain colorful belt came to be seen in the blackness beyond the stars, of varying shapes and colors along its length, with clouds and stars most concentrated among it than anywhere else and great contrasts between brightness and darkness within it; a surreal thing to behold, like a majestic painting upon a canvas. In due time, the earth had become too small to see, and even the sun had turned into a mere bright dot before disappearing, yet all became brighter and brighter, with a numberless amount of such suns flooding in as his view moved further back. The galaxy itself, revealing the belt to have been the width and length of it looked from the inside, with countless others in the far beyond conforming a background like white paint sprayed upon a black surface.
And all still floated away, with so many other endless lights joining in for so long, until ever so slowly, an edge formed. A soft, blurring edge of stars that ceased to come, leaving it all in the loose shape of a circle. An unmarked boundary with no stars, a pitch black void with only a few stars occupying it, until at a certain point, nothing remained outside of it.
But as he saw it shrink further and further, so far away, he could pick up a faint noise. A noise from within and without, an otherworldly continuous sound of no language or message, of no discernible source or similarity to anything, growing louder and louder each moment. A hungering, bestial howl from beyond the cosmos, not in any direction he knew of, as if it came from everywhere and at the same time nowhere at all. From the underworld of existence, if such concept existed. It grew louder and louder, never to subside, turning deafening after a while and still intensifying without end. The less he saw, the more he heard, to the point he felt his ears would burst, that they’d be bleeding if they weren’t already, having no way to make the noise go away, as if he had no hands to cover his ears with. He knew it all. The knowledge mercilessly rammed into his consciousness had told him of all, of the inner workings of the universe and all that he had seen, along with that he saw not, but that noise was beyond him, beyond the universe itself, beyond all understanding and comprehension that had been granted to him. He knew all, and yet, he knew not.
His lungs finally acted, letting out a shrieking screaming as he came to himself in the void in front of Nyarlathotep’s desk. At the same time, he jumped back, tripping over the chair and landing on his back against the nonexistent floor. Holding his head, he screamed in pain as he lied on the ground, squirming, writhing, whimpering, grunting, mind tearing itself apart at the seams with no end in sight, a pain pertaining to the mind rather than the body.
“Your mind will get used to it.” Said Nyarlathotep with a smile, sure that Indrick heard not what she said, for his screams drowned out all within the infinite expanse of her room. “Understand that it takes great effort and mental pain for a grown man to learn intermediate math in a day, and… Well, to say that you ‘learned’ would be misleading. Better said, your mind was entirely rewritten in the span of less than a second.”
Panting on and on, Sigismund ran through the rain and broke through a building’s door, reaching their temporary headquarters. He rushed past the numerous officers who couldn’t even be surprised at the violent entry in such apocalyptic situation, till he arrived to Vandire, standing by the wall where a gigantic map of Acerrae lied hanging.
“Indrick just straight up disappeared!” Said Sigismund, making Vandire shoot his eyes wide open. “We were descending into the cavern and he just went poof in front of our eyes!”
“He’s gone?!” Asked Vandire, marching up to Sigismund. “What happened?! What did he do?!”
“Nobody has a clue. We were just walking and out of nowhere he’s gone! The damn cavern is flooded, too! There’s no way we’re going to find anything in there.”
Silent, Vandire let the thoughts sink it, till soon enough he grit his teeth.
“Nothing we can do but hold our ground.” He said. “Let’s hope that he reappears with the lilim, or just give up hope and take as many cultists as we can with us. Doesn’t matter what for, we’ll have to hold our ground. Sigismund, I want the paladins staying around the ruins in case Indrick reappears. If you want to fight, then be patient. Sooner or later the cultists will reach us.”
“Yes, sire.” Answered Sigismund, turning and running back through the winds, rain, and lightning in the night.
Heavy panting. Erratic breathing, with calm exhalations yet erratic inhalations, as if periodic asphyxia. Heart beating to its greatest extend. A mess of his former self, lying on the ground with his hands still on his head, curled up while Nyarlathotep still watched. God knows how long it had been; the darkness and stress left it as an impossibility to judge time. With his arms shaking heavily upon any intentional movement, as if great pain resulted from a titanic effort, he slowly moved his hands until his palms lied upon the invisible floor. He then propped himself up to his knees and elbows, an excruciatingly slow process of carefully thought out movements, without the luxury to waste energy in unnecessary actions.
“Already showing difference, compared to her.” She said, smile ever present, soon closing the book, sliding it to her end of the side, and opening it by the near end while wetting her quill with ink. And yet, Indrick had said nothing. “Indrick?” She called, ready to write yet pausing for any response, of which she received none. She then began writing, with the scratching of the quill on the paper serving to hold back the deafening silence of the room. “Just like in Makillae, you revert to a state where not even speech is considered, and yet you still move forward… Interesting. For a simple human, you’re handling it better than the lilim.”
Strength to stand up could not be mustered, leaving him in such state. Slowly, he extended a limb and left it a slight bit forward than the last time, shifting the weight of his body on and on, moving each limb with exceptionally long pauses inbetween. Arm, leg, arm, leg, over and over, until he raised his gauntlet-clad hand high above, and with a thud of metal against wood, he grabbed onto the edge of the desk.
While Indrick took the exhausting steps to bring himself up, Nyarlathotep paused her writing and leaned forward to see in utmost interest.
“Tell me,” she said, “do you know what that howling at the end was…?”
No answer, as expected. After the silence, she leaned back against her chair.
“Sit down.” She invited in such a friendly, welcoming tone. “You’re getting closer to finding Victoria, are you not?”
He did not say a word, nor did he move in those few seconds. Though his helmet hid his expression, there was not much else other than a frown in mental pain and fatigue. In defiance or in shock, he only stared at Nyarlathotep for those few seconds, his mind void and empty of any thoughts as if all had been banished away. Still, he soon broke the silence by standing up and rearranging the chair, to then let himself fall sitting upon it. Nyarlathotep, on the other hand, kept scribbling on her book at her leisure.
“In fact, you’re so close that… you could reach out with your arm and touch her.”
Too tired to take it as a taunt. Too exhausted to take it as a joke. His mental faculties had already suffered enough, and in his weakened state he glanced around him. Next to him was Nyarlathotep, surprising him to the core enough to snap back to the desk, and still find Nyarlathotep there. Returning his eyes to the one next to him, he found her with an amused grin.
“Well, I tend to forget you’re a flatlander. You can’t even process the existence of the direction you’re supposed to reach towards. At least, without aid.”
“I gave Victoria a little push, allowed her to peek into what she’s missing. For someone capable of creating pocket dimensions, she wasn’t too receptive of a new true dimension. Although… I don’t recall her ever using that ability either. What I said is still true, however. She’s within arms reach. Literally. But… where?”
Still with his mind threatening to split, he gave another glance around. Now, another Nyarlathotep stood by his other side, though no matter where he looked, Victoria was nowhere to be found. His head ached more and more, any attempt to understand stabbing nails into his brain, forcing him to rest his head on his hands to attempt easing the pain. The sound of the book closed caught his attentiong, and when he raised his eyes to Nyarlathotep sliding it aside, he found the two by his side having disappeared. Now it was only him, and the Nyarlathotep in front once again, she who clasped her hands with her eternal smile.
“Dimensions…” She said. “Front, back. Left, right. Up, down… Where could Victoria be? Maybe… some other direction exists.”
“I… I don’t understand…”
“Hardly a surprise. I showed you every secret in the universe, but your mind refused to process that which it could not understand. One can’t make a flatlander see the sky.”
“Front, back. Left, right. Length, and width… A flat plane where up and down do not exist, for the one inhabiting it at least. Do you believe they will ever understand what lies above and below, Indrick? A two-dimensional being will split its head open trying to think of a third dimension: Height. Up, and down. A three-dimensional being will split its head trying to think of… well, I’m sure telling you how many dimensions there truly are out there will be useless. Now, what if a flatlander seeking the damsel in distress was told that his objective was next to him, just not in a direction he can process…?”
Words entered through one ear, and escaped through the other. Narrowing his eyes in visible pain, Indrick could only tilt his head. All her words felt like alien languages.
A pair of hands fell onto his shoulders, making his heart skip a beat. Looking up, it was Nyarlathotep once more now behind him, but when he returned his eyes to the front, he found the desk empty.
“I can give you a little push, if you so please.” She said. “I can show you Flatland… from above.”
Fear. Panic. Another wild ride imminent, turning his breath as erratic as it’d get past his attempt at keeping calm. Pursing his lips, he knew he’d not be able to skip on it.
“…Will it get me to Victoria?”
“The possibility is likely.”
Pursing his lips and taking a deep breath, he mustered all the courage and strength he could find. Whether it truly was courage and strength, or suicidal stupidity, he no longer had the ability to even care for; rather, he wished it was the latter, as it’d mean he’d never run out of it. Gritting his teeth, he found no luxury of a alm and collected answer; he had to let it all out, an all-or-nothing maddening shout.
“As you wish!”
With the grip on his shoulders tightening, he felt himself thrown Lord-knew-where with a scream, the ‘up’ to a flatlander. His body felt forces pushing and pulling in directions once thought non-existent, twisting and turning in ways that went past vomit-inducing territory into that which shut down most of his mind, like a fight-or-flight instinct taking over with ten times the force. His eyes widened to their greatest painful extend as his field of view expanded to an infinite extent, contorting and changing to images impossible to understand, and much less in such split-seconds as his head rapidly turned, as if searching for a familiar view to avoid the incomprehensible landscapes making it a Hell for his mind.
He could see it, everything gaining and losing shape, everything at once, every face of every object no matter if it should be blocked by itself, even each nook and cranny of their interior. Every angle, every corner, even the back of his own head, with every minuscule bit of flesh and bone in whatever part of his body he looked at. His hands, not just the armor of his gauntlet and the leather of his gloves, but skin of his hand, the flesh, the blood, the tendons and muscles, bone and bone marrow. It didn’t matter what, be it arms, legs, belly, on and on and on.
What used to be the pitch black room had turned into a spectacle of disorienting colors and shapes, moving at so quick of a pace as to make it incomprehensible by how little he saw of each. Allusions to a dream-state had shattered with the images laid bare in front of him, those comparable not to one surreal painting, but to hundreds of millions of them imposed over each other, with a field-of-view increase not unlike peeking through a mere keyhole to abruptly having the door open with a blinding light piercing into his eyes.
And then, he landed from wherever he fell, breaking the chair in the process and abruptly ending his screaming. Though he initially contorted his body in pain, he soon remained as he was, immobile and silent save for his breathing, lying on the floor. Nyarlathotep’s steps echoed throughout the void, slowly walking back to her chair, sitting down, opening her book, and writing once more.
“Victoria never got up from that, the poor thing.” She remarked, back in her usual appearance. “It must’ve hit her several times harder, for the daughter of the Demon Lord to be shown how… small she was.”
Writing, writing, and yet more writing. Every now and then, a glance towards the paladin. Taking notes, as if, soon reaching the end of the page and turning it for the next.
Wind. Rain. Lightning. All the same, just getting worse with each second. Seemed like day more often than not from where Sigismund saw, leaning cross-armed against a ruined wall. Though his body kept still, his constantly shifting gaze from direction to direction gave away his anxiety. As if his body itched too much for movement, he grabbed his poleaxe leaning against the wall and stepped off, marching aimlessly ahead. Those paladins around him fared no better in hiding their stress, both of Indrick mysteriously disappearing, and of being forced to stand around waiting for someone who may not come when a battle raged on around them, a battle their help would be absolutely required. Here they were, doing nothing so far.
When he reached the staircase leading to the cavern, he could already see the water pooling towards the surface. Flooded in its entirety, no way existed to descend for humans, and even if the monsters had brought a specimen able to breathe underwater, the pitch black darkness would’ve rendered it useless.
“Where the hell did you go, bud…?”
Certain noses halted Nyarlathotep’s writing, that of wooden pieces shuffled about. At the same time she raised her eyes, she saw Indrick’s gauntlet grabbing onto the edge of the desk, just like last time. She widened her eyes in joyful surprise and popped a teeth-bearing grin from ear to ear in glee, like a merchant before a mountain of gold, or a miner striking diamond. At the sight, she closed her book and leaned forward, full of expectation.
“Victoria…” He could only mutter, voice fading towards unintelligible grunting. Far too much energy had been spent trying to raise himself up to his feet, a failed endeavour just leaving his hand shaking.
“And what will you do when you find her, mister paladin?” She asked.
“Even if it won’t do a thing in the grand scheme of things? A nation of The Order, sacrificing its best men to save a lilim… Is it worth it?”
His hand kept shaking, but soon enough his other rose up, managing to hook itself onto the desk by the elbow.
“What next, then?” She asked. “After you rescue her, what will you do? Nostrum and Variland would’ve lost their armies. That they fall is inevitable. Will you be on the run, seeing how nation after nation falls? Nostrum adapted to the best of its ability, forming doctrine and structure never before seen on this earth, and Variland has trained armies of dullahans rivalling that of the Demon Army, if only because they’ve gained more experience in less than a year than the Demon Army has obtained in the last hundred. They fought bravely… and still they lost. You should know this better than anyone.”
Yet Indrick said nothing, nor did he let go of the table, instead propping himself further up till his head peeked over the edge. Nyarlathotep leaned back on her chair, returning to her normal, composed smile, crossed her legs, and clasped her hands together.
“I can give you two options, Indrick. Behind you, you’ll see a pair of doors.” She said, prompting him to turn his head. There he saw as she said, two doors replacing the single one he had come from. “Walk out through the left door, and I’ll take care of you. You will not face exhaustion, you will not face starvation, nor will you face thirst. Under my care, you will be free from this world’s misery. You will no longer have to worry about grim, dark futures, nor will you need to wonder which day you’ll succumb to your own fears. You will never face sleepless nights where the idea of dying alone, or living alone, haunt you. I know you’ve taken a liking to Victoria, Indrick. It wasn’t the demonic energy affecting you, charming you, as much as you want to deceive yourself. You can stay with her. I’d even encourage it. It was her who fell in love with you first, and deep don all she wants is for those feelings to be returned. You may even start a family, too, reaching that noble ideal of a table surrounded by children. You’ll also help me in spreading this to the others, and ending the strife that has plagued this world since its very start. End the cycle of Gods and Demon Lords who have kept each other in eternal war, and live in happiness forevermore.”
“…Walk through the right door,” she continued, “and you’ll be at the cavern below Acerrae where Victoria is. Whatever you do afterwards out there in the cold is up to you.”
With her words over, Indrick kept on staring at the doors, before mustering the remnant of his strength and pulling himself up to his feet, using the desk as support. Almost stumbling with every step, he made his way to the doors and halted in place in front. Nyarlathotep’s silent left him to dedicate his mind to the choice before him: Left, or right.
Left, left, left, that’s all his mind screamed at him. A desperate call for respite, an end to what misery he had never been able to get used to. Like a man in a desert crying out for an oasis, or a child lost in the woods calling for his mother, primal desires for safety and shelter rushed through him without end. What reason existed to go through the right door, other than subjective and contradictory definitions of duty? Unlike the times of old, before the current Demon Lord, the temptations before him held no negativity to them. No hunger, no tiredness, no death, no suffering, and a choice to break away from the Gods that toyed with their lives and deaths. Who knew, maybe Nyarlathotep had better chances of fixing the issue of monsters never birthing males; funny how he had nearly forgotten about it, after realizing that the Gods themselves were against humanity. Such a minuscule issue, now.
Couldn’t help it. The answer laid bare before him. It wasn’t so much choosing as it was reinforcing what had been chosen for him already, with a sensible answer on one hand and a ridiculous one none would dare pick on the other. Steps rang out again in the silent room as he marched forward. He took hold of the handle, turned it with the noise echoing throughout the nothingness, opened it with the creaking ringing out, and marched across before closing it behind him.
All while Nyarlathotep watched.
The map of Acerrae lied nailed to the wall of the room, a map as tall as a man and of equal width. Jeremiah and Vandire stared as the officers around worked through a cacophony of reports from the front, a front messily drawn on the map, ever-changing. Smeared on the map were the lines that had once denoted the frontline, drawn over and over, always pushed back, with no bother spent on even replacing the map again; they knew it’d be irrelevant, as none imagined they’d push back into territory they had covered in ink. To the north, east, and south, the two armies had pushed after taking control of the city two hours ago, yet like a hammer upon an anvil, the cultists never ceased to crash against them, finally pushing them back.
“Sire.” Called a voice. When Vandire and Jeremiah turned, they found a cavalryman who had just jumped off his horse, marching up to Vandire and saluting.
“Speak.” Said Vandire.
“Multiple armies have been sighted coming from the west. The cavalry will delay them as much as we can, but we will not hold against such forces.”
A painful sigh escaped from Vandire’s mouth. “Noted. Delay them, but don’t push your luck. If things get rough, retreat back to the city. You’ll be needed later.”
“Understood.” He saluted, before rushing off.
After following the cavalryman with his eyes, Vandire stepped off and took ink and brush, then marched back to the map and painted a vertical line to the west of Acerrae, with multiple arrows moving towards them. He couldn’t help but stare at the ominous signs, seeing how no way to escape existed anymore; whether they liked it or not, whether successful or not, this was their last day.
He left the ink and brush on a small table and stepped off the building, one immediately overlooking the now gone town hall. There he could see them, a few of the paladins walking about.
Within a second, the paladin glanced over and ran his way towards Vandire, arriving and saluting.
“I take it Indrick has not yet appeared.”
Though silent, he stretched his hand open and closed it again, fighting off the temptation to curse out loud.
“Have you seen anything you’d deem strange? Magic or some other thing that could be a clue?”
“None have seen anything. I have everyone on high alert, but that’s all we can do.”
Hurried footsteps caught their attention, first Sigismund who turned his head to the side, then Vandire himself who followed suit. The two caught sight of a dullahan running towards them, stopping by the door and panting with her hands on her knees momentarily.
“Word for Jeremiah, but you’ll need to hear it too.” She said, saluting. “Traitor dullahans are pushing from the south and the east. They caught us by surprise and pushed us back. We held off a second immediate push, but we’ve lost a fair amount of ground.”
“Shit…” He cursed, having let the urge overtake him. “Go inside and tell Jeremiah. Tell him that he should send half his reserves, my men are busy enough as it is.”
“Yes, sir.” Answered the dullahan, running into the building.
Empty. Peaceful. Foggy with the tower still in the middle and his lantern on the ground. As if he had been spacing out, he found himself standing quiet by an end of the cavern.
Too tired. Couldn’t think straight. He took a few steps back till he hit the wall, and then let himself slide down till he sat on the ground. Leaving his poleaxe on the ground, he took his helmet off and let out a sighm gently leaving it next to him.
Headache. It felt like his heart had climbed to his head, every beat pounding against the walls of his skull. A long, low grunt of pain and tiredness followed as he raised his hands once more to hold his head, closing his eyes as he tried to mitigate the migraine kicking in.
The price to pay for walking out a certain door.
Dropping his hands, his eyes fell on the tower ahead, base obscured by the mist. Seemed nostalgic already, reminiscing of the times back when he had first seen one of such towers. Back when the greatest threat still was Victoria and her army. How times had changed. At least he figured out what the tower was for: To summon a Daemon of Chaos.
Simply an eldritch equivalent to a kikimora, anti-climatically enough. Certainly nice of Nyarlathotep to include that detail in whatever she shoehorned into his head.
Although, it was Nyarlathotep’s decision to summon a shoggoth. It was by her whim that she didn’t summon something worse, something Melanie would’ve wanted. His, and Nostrum’s, hands were already full before Nyarlathotep even arrived. To imagine a fight against Daemons of Chaos on top of the cultists and traitor dullahans only filled him with dread. Dread of the unknown, of not even knowing if they could be fought conventionally, or whatever fate they could put those they defeat through.
He glanced over at his poleaxe, then picked it up and brought the axehead close. An alloy of steel and demon realm silver. Knowing how it fared against Nyarlathotep, it’d most likely do nothing against the daemons. As he thought it over, her’s words rang in his head:
‘When you fight fire with fire, you’re bound to get burned.’
Fire with fire, after he had stabbed her with such material. That demon realm silver had properties unique to all materials seemed like a dead enough giveaway of otherworldly implications. An element which caused wounds not through physical means, phasing through all but flesh and itself seemingly at random by default, and able to be purified, imbued with demonic energy, or imbued with the dark affliction. Were Man and Monster using weapons from the same place the daemons had come from?
All was nonsensical enough that he could not find a way to disprove it. Perhaps the material did indeed appear from elsewhere, like a canvas left on the ground soon gathering a little dust, with the flatlanders within the canvas being none the wiser about the dust’s origin. Was this sacred earth the canvas, and the ore deposits this ‘dust’ upon it? Was it using rules from dimensions beyond them to phase through materials or not? It’d certainly explain more than a few things if their perception of the laws of physics was only that, a mere flatlander perception.
The questions would drive him mad. Perhaps she had given him the answers already, ones he couldn’t recall or comprehend; even if a flatlander was told of the third dimension in all its detail, he’d not understand. He drove the bottom of the poleaxe against the ground to use it as support as he propped himself up to his feet. If Nyarlathotep was to be trusted, he should be around Victoria, yet despite a good glance around, he saw no signs of life. The cavern’s size and the mist didn’t allow him to see it all in its entirety, and so with his helmet hanging by his hand, he began his walk onwards.
It took him a fair while, but by the cavern’s edge, opposite to where he had arrived at, he caught glimpse of something out of place. With how devoid the cavern was of anything that wasn’t stone, dust, and fog, it seemed like a dead giveaway of something he’d need to look at, whether it was Victoria, or another of Nyarlathotep’s games.
With every step closer, he saw it in greater clarity. The white and blue clothing. The horns, wing, and tail. The cloak. It all was unmistakable. There she sat against the wall, Victoria, hugging her legs with her face sunken in her knees. Much as he stepped closer and closer, thinking she’d at least hear his steps, she showed no reaction at all. Even as he arrived in front of her, she kept quiet. Though he waited and waited, she did nothing, ignoring his existence despite him knowing she had known of his arrival. He stood in silence, turning to look at the tower one more time before returning his eyes to her.
“Victoria.” He called, with his voice echoing throughout the desolate cavern.
Only after a few moments did she move, slowly bringing her head up to peek over her knees; her visor did not allow Indrick to see her eyes, as Victoria only gazed to his feet.
“Get up. We’re leaving.” He continued.
“What place can we go to, where we won’t go through the same?” She said, a voice defeated and tired.
Rather than an answer, he kept to himself, deep down wondering if he even had an answer for such question. His steps rang out in absolute clarity as he walked to Victoria’s side. He leaned against the wall to stare aimlessly ahead with the tower looming over them; Victoria soon raised her head enough to rest it against the wall, joining him in gaze.
“What did you put yourself through to get here?” She asked.
“Probably the same as you.”
‘To keep the cultists from having the power of a lilim’, he wanted to say. ‘To save you’.
Like it even made a difference. His answer thus turned into mere silence.
“I could have walked out of this cavern since the first day, if that’s what you’re imagining.” She said. “I just… had nowhere else to go.”
“The cultists seemed to keep you company. Too much of it. Were they here just for the summoning ritual, then?”
No words to add, reducing their conversation to a silence neither could be bothered to break. Indrick soon stepped forward and marched towards the tower as Victoria followed with her eyes, and upon reaching it, inspected the base as he walked around and around. After a while, he stopped at one specific side. He readied his poleaxe, gripping it with both hands, brought it far back with the hammer side pointed to strike, and with all his might and the force of his body swung at one of the tower’s legs. It struck, shattering the loose connections holding it in one piece, and as he calmly stepped back a considerable distance, the tower began collapsing upon itself with an ear-splitting cacophony. Dust and fog scattered throughout the cavern, concentrated greatest at the pile of debris that now resulted, and when all turned silent once more, Indrick returned to Victoria’s side.
“What do you plan on achieving?”
“Nothing worthwhile.” He answered.
“Aren’t you wasting your time, then?”
“Will saying yes get you to stand up?”
“What point is there? The end will be the same. You know this better than anyone.”
“Why should we even go on?”
“There is no ‘why’.”
She turned her head ever so slightly, glancing at him for a moment. After a few silent seconds, she sunk her face in her knees once more.
“There’s nothing we can do anymore. There never was. We are… nothing. Just lumps of flesh made by a bored God wanting us to kill each other, followed by other Gods wanting the same. We can’t even call our thoughts our own anymore, if we’re just created down to our very soul to react in certain ways. Even Nyarlathotep was toying with us to see how we reacted. Our purpose is to suffer for the entertainment of others. We’re just stray dogs– no, worse than dogs. Rats. Even my mother, a mere rat compared to what’s out there…”
“So it would seem.”
The dust had begun to settle, after so great a collapse from the tower up ahead. The resulting ruins came to be seen, fog and mist subsiding partly as it was before, now only partly obstructing the base of what once was a structure.
“We need to return to the surface.” He said, grim and monotonous.
However, he received no response.
“You had a hunch that it was all like this from the start, did you not?” She asked, raising her head just to enough to see him from the corner of her tired eyes. “It’s like it did nothing to you. You’re still the same.”
“I had the luxury of time to prepare for it. You, unfortunately, not so much.”
Still looking ahead, he took a slow, deep breath.
“There’s always a risk in everyone’s life.” He said. “The risk that this fabled ‘rock bottom’ situation shows up. We might as well be there, you and I. Every situation can get worse somehow, but we’re so far down that we won’t even care anymore. We can’t bring ourselves to care anymore, we have given up. This forsaken earth has more than enough ways to send you down that pit. It can take everything from you, save for one final luxury in the shape of a binary choice.”
“What is that choice?”
“Hold fast… or expire.”
Her eyes turned forward, staring aimlessly at nothing, hearing his words over and over in her mind.
“Even if we’re going through absolute Hell?” She asked.
“In the grand scheme of things, nobody cares what we go through.”
Her lack of expression soon turned into a frown, of indignation and disbelief turning to anger. She soon lowered her head again onto her knees. In the subsequent calm, Indrick collected his thoughts.
“There is a tale floating about in Nostrum.” He said. Though Victoria did not react, he had the certainty that he had her attention. “Back a couple thousand years ago, there was a city on a small island with a volcano. As is the luck of Man wherever it inhabits, the worst happened, and the volcano erupted. Many perished under the hellish heat, and many escaped. The city was soon forgotten and found once more, buried under the volcanic wastes. There they found a skeleton, that of a soldier with his sword by his side, right in front of a door. Do you know what happened?”
“What happened?” She could only ask in morbid curiosity.
“In panic, those that could have relieved him had forgotten to do so. He stood his ground, and died at his post.”
“Why… would he do that?”
“There is no ‘why’.”
He paused. As he imagined, Victoria did not reply.
“He had no reasons to stay, and all the reasons in the world to run. He could have saved himself, but he didn’t.”
“I don’t get it…” She lamented.
“Victoria…” He called, turning to see her. Victoria in return raised her eyes to him, revealing the few tears already running down her cheeks. She did not find a stern emotionless expression, nor one of contempt or disappointment; sympathy, almost, surprising her by pure virtue of never expecting it from him towards her. “Search within you. I know you would have chosen the same in a heartbeat.”
“How?” She asked, to then see him turn his head to the tower’s ruins.
“He held on to the lost position.” He said. Rather than a monotonous and hopeless voice, it rose ever so slightly almost as if stating it in pride. “Without hope, without rescue, without reason. Granted the choice to stay true to his duty or flee, he chose the former. Of all the things this dreadful existence may take from us, the honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man. Even today, most of us face the choice of ending like him against similar odds, or giving in to our inner fears. Without hope, without rescue, without end, a collective jump into the pyre, not because we want to, but because we believe it necessary to do so. The greatest luxury we’re given is the ability to make such choice. To need reasons to take it only means that, if such reasons were lost, you would decide not to persevere.”
With a few seconds of silence signalling the end of his words, he turned his head to Victoria again.
“When Nostrum started the war, did it not make you feel like that soldier?” He asked, voice calm and collected once more.
He saw her staring blankly, unable to tell what went through her head. In due time she turned away, looking aimlessly into the nothingness in front, yet not sinking her head into her knees as before. In thought, he imagined.
“When you said why we should go on, I replied that there is no ‘why’.” He said, to then hold his helmet in his hands, looking at the visor. “If I needed that reason, it only means that the moment I lose it, I would give up. My goal was to find you, and if all reasons and motivation to do so were lost, I would still look for you no matter what stands in my way, be it the apocalypse, daemons from beyond this plane of existence, or us being Paladin and Lilim.”
Her eyes had widened in disbelief as she slowly turned her head to him. Not of horror, but in emotions she had no words to describe. Yet, as much as she stared at him and his blue eyes, soon she saw him putting his helmet back on. He took his halberd and stepped away from the wall, arriving right in front of her to then take something out of his belt and drop it on the ground for her to see.
A mere knife.
“Vandire had a word with me, before we set out for Acerrae.” He said. “My task is to remove the possibility that Nyarlathotep uses the power of a lilim, or that the lilim enters a state of corruption that makes her use her power to aid the cultists of her own accord. Rescuing the lilim was the agreed upon first resort, but if deemed impossible…” He paused. “The dagger I gave you is one every paladin has, made out of simple steel. Dirk had one, and died to it. The one before you is the one Jeremiah died to, and it’s the one I will eventually die to as well. Even if I dragged you out to Variland, you might still enter that state of corruption; what’s worse, I would’ve ended up saving you the effort and leading you up to the others for you to turn into cultists. I need to be sure you’re able to persevere despite all that happened, so let me be the one who gives you the binary choice. Bring it to me outside, or make sure I never see you again.”
With the sound of dust grinding beneath his boots, he turned and walked away.
“Is it really true that nobody will care what we go through?.” She asked, making him halt in his tracks.
Indrick stood still, silent, immobile. Then, he turned his head partly.
“We’ll care.” He said, to then depart for good.
With the first step upon the surface, Indrick found that no longer did it rain, nor did a hurricane wreak havoc, or lightning blind all. Just graying clouds overhead in their old spiralling pattern, tinting the desolate scenery with a hue of equal color. Though his head still faced vestigial traces of pain, hints of relief surged at the thought that all he’d need to do is wait, able to take the time to rest. He then marched towards a ruined wall, left his poleaxe resting against it, and leaned against the wall cross-armed. Closing his eyes, he allowed himself a so dearly needed break.
The peace surrounding him felt out of place, though welcome still; without the apocalypse once raging on and on, absolute silence reigned. No shouting and screaming, no winds deafening one’s ears, no lightning to blind one’s eyes with such erratic changed between light and dark. The eye of the storm, as if, a place unlike the hell which had surrounded it.
Footsteps caught his attention. Not like he’d miss them in the silence. He raised his head and looked at the staircase, though soon found that the noises came not from the hole in the ground. Turning his eyes to the street beside him, he saw the source calmly marching towards him.
“It’s been a while since the last time you saw Victoria, Indrick.”
Had it not been for her usual appearance, her voice alone would’ve done a job as good to have him recognize Melanie. He lowered his arms and brought one to his poleaxe, though he still remained leaning against the wall, following her with her eyes till she halted in place a short distance away. As much as he would have expected her to have her sword in hand, she instead had it tucked in its sheath by her waist, without even a hand resting on the hilt. More surprisingly, her expression seemed neutral, showing no strong emotion despite her last smiling image.
“Poor thing has been in the cavern for God knows how long… It’s as if she was waiting for something, or someone, whether she knew it or not. That she got a proper visitor after this long is quite a relief.”
“You’re the last person I’d have imagined caring for her.”
“How come?” She chuckled. “All I’ve wanted ever since the first day is her happiness.”
“Which is why you betrayed her?”
“I betrayed no one, Indrick. It was a necessary act.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, assuming you still sleep at all.”
“If Vandire asked you to raze all of Nostrum to the ground, where your loyalties lie? with Vandire, or with Nostrum?”
“You may say it’s different,” she continued, “but is it really? If we followed Victoria’s wishes, what would happen? Armies of both Order and Demon Lord would converge and fight on and on, starting a massive war involving the entire world, and both Nostrum and Variland would face the most carnage. At worst, both nations may even cease to exist. What ould happen to Victoria, in such case? How much would she suffer, and for what? Would she even get out alive? The very first act that sparked this war was your rapier driving into her back, after all.”
Both stared at each other, before Melanie slowly raised her head and stared at the gloomy sky.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I wanted you for myself, either.” She added. “Thinking back on it… I never even said what I wanted to do with you. Misunderstandings were bound to happen.”
“And what did you want?”
“To have you stay with Victoria.” She answered, lowering her gaze to him once more. “She loved you. Even now, she still does, as much as she hides it. Can’t blame her, when you’ve tried to kill her so many times… Deep down, she wants it all to end, for all suffering to pass, for all reasons to fight this stupid war to fade away. Would I not be a traitor if I didn’t comply? Would we all dullahans not be traitors?”
A lack of answer gave away his thoughts, or lack thereof regarding anything that could go against such words. At least, not in things logical. Yet, despite believing they’d stand around in silence waiting without a fight, he saw her unsheathing her longsword.
“I don’t need to remind you what will happen if you and Victoria get out.” She said. “Though, seeing as Nyarlathotep herself had a chat with you, and still you’re here… I guess asking kindly won’t do a thing.”
“It was difficult enough for you when I had no armor and only a rapier.” He replied, stepping forward and firmly holding onto the poleaxe with both hands. “Don’t waste your time, you will not win here.”
She chuckled. “Coming from the guy who’d fight on regardless of defeat.”
“I already miss the times when only we paladins had that mentality to such extreme…”
Half-swording her weapon, Melanie let out a shout as she swung the pommel towards his head, an act he replied to by deflecting it with his poleaxe’s shaft and ramming his head forward in collision course with hers. Yet, as soon as it should’ve connected, Melanie disappeared in smoke, only to reappear a few steps back.
“I don’t want to be the one to remind you, but we’re not in the real world anymore.” She said.
“What else will change, then? Will you magically pierce my armor?”
“No, but only one of us will soon tire out.”
“Seventh and Twentieth companies have been encircled.” Spoke an officer next to Vandire, as a vast number of them swarmed the map. “Eighth, Twelfth, and a dullahan company have lost over half their strength in a failed attempt to break through to them. Counter-attack is forcing them to fall back. Rescue is impossible.”
A loud, painful sigh followed as he drenched his brush and drew lines over a small salient by the front line; in such short notice, it had gone from two companies holding on to their ground, to as good as wiped out.
Taking a step back, he took one good look at the map in its entirety. Though once they controlled the whole city, now they had been pushed back to a mere third of their previous territory. That their forces lied more concentrated didn’t help too much, if the dullahans could pick where to break through like pincers and pick them off pocket by pocket. Only guesswork could help them.
“We barely have a few hours left, at this pace…” He lamented to Jeremiah beside him.
Step, step, step. Not Victoria’s slow march, for she stared at the dagger on and on as she hugged her legs. Clicking and clicking like clockwork, the steps drew nearer, until Victoria saw the pair of feet arriving to the dagger.
“He isn’t the best orator in the world, is he?” Said Nyarlathotep.
Unreacting and expressionless, Victoria kept to herself, with she who stood in front soon turning her head towards the entrance of the cavern. A keen ear could pick up the near-nonexistent noises coming from above, muffled by the rock only the staircase connected through.
“Your knight in shining armor is up there, fighting Melanie.” She continued. “He won’t last long.” Yet, Victoria said nothing, nor did she do anything. “Well, not like it matters. I have to go now, and we probably won’t be seeing each other for a long, long while. Goodbye, Lady of Variland.”
The steps resumed as Nyarlathotep turned and marched the same way Indrick had gone time ago, with the noise of her walk fading farther and farther, until silence reigned throughout the emptiness.
The two stood in stance against each other, slowly circling the other, though of the two only Indrick could be heard starting to breathe heavily. His composure had altered, slouched over and moving in rhythm with his breathing, with early signs of exhaustion making themselves apparent.
Melanie then swung towards his head from above, though as he raised his poleaxe to meet it, she twisted the sword and swing for his waist instead; a feint. Indrick stepped back and intercepted it with the poleaxe’s head, the closest part to the sword’s path, letting out a loud clank as steel met steel. He swung the bottom end of the poleaxe towards her head, which she dodged by crouching and subsequently stepping aside to Indrick’s side, though Indrick followed by pushing with the shaft with both hands as if it were a battering ram. It struck, sending her stumbling back off-balance, an opportunity he used to swing, hook her by the shoulder, pull and make her fall forward, and bring down the hammer head with all his might. Before it struck, Melanie turned into smoke, leaving the hammer to hit against the stone surface of the road. He immediately noticed that she had reappeared behind her, and so he pulled on his poleaxe and thrusted the bottom of it against her, an act she dodged by jumping aside and soon stepping back. She then took a few steps back, an act he wished not to pursue.
“You still persevere, you still fight, knowing it all will go to waste…” She said, standing tall without a hint of tiredness as Indrick audibly recovered his breath, not even bothering to remain in stance. No smile existed in her expression, however, but instead a sorrowful look. “Sometimes, I wonder if the one going through the most pain is you, or those watching you go.”
“I don’t need the pity of a traitor.” He retorted between breaths.
“Don’t worry. If you had my pity, I’d have put you out of your misery back in Aquileia when the others and I had the chance.”
Once more, she took charge. Indrick thrusted the spike of his poleaxe, yet missed when she stepped aside; his tiredness had dulled his senses past what the adrenaline rush would compensate, and with the momentum of the charge, Melanie swung the pommel of her sword his way. Unable to dodge it, he received it full-force against his head, leaving him stumbling back, yet Melanie did not stop, for she hooked his leg with the guard of her sword and pulled, all while gripping the poleaxe’s shaft tight, leaving him to fall and lose grasp of his own weapon. Upon hitting the ground, he crawled back a fair distance and stood up as he drew his longsword, yet as much as he would have imagined Melanie now using his weapon against him, she merely threw it aside. A frightening though, for him to end up against a dullahan with a poleaxe and unholy blessings of an aberrant realm.
“Don’t misunderstand.” She said, as if reading his thoughts. “I may not know how to use it, but I will soon enough. Before I break through your armor, I first need to make sure you’re too tired to fight ba–“
A gasp interrupted her, followed by a desperate raise of her sword. Just at that instant, smoke materialized beside Melanie with a blade swinging out, a smoke unlike that of the cultists; a loud clash of steel rang out into the sky, with Melanie taking several steps back after parrying it with such fright. Out of the smoke, a lilim stepped out lunging towards Melanie with her rapier, to which Melanie parried once more, only for the lilim to press her palm against the dullahan’s belly and strike her with winds as violent as a hurricane, just like the door she had so long ago broken with the same spell. A shockwave blew the dust of the ground, one which forced Indrick to cover the slit of his helmet with an arm; when he lowered it to look forward once more, he found Melanie impacting against the wall of a building.
“V…Victoria…?” He could only mutter in his weary state.
Victoria then raised her hand pointed towards Melanie, and out of her palm materialized ice in the shape of a spike and chain, furiously shot out towards the dullahan. Melanie had come to her senses and threw herself aside, dodging the spike embedding itself into the building’s wall, throwing shards of concrete and brick away with a web-like cracking taking form; she then jumped through the window of the same building, seeking shelter.
The ice chain shattered into a hundred million glinting pieces, slowly flying about like stars upon the cosmos, and soon disappeared, all while she calmly stepped forward towards the building. Once in front, she raised her hand and looked at her fingers as she snapped once, twice, thrice, seeing a little flame come out of her thumb. She snuffed it out, pointed her hand at the building, and out of her palm burst flames unlike any other, incinerating all in its path. She aimed it through the window, setting aflame the first floor of the building, with the second soon showing a warm light within its windows. Her flames then subsided, leaving her to lower her hand and stare at the burning building consumed by her own act, and so did Indrick stare without words.
In an abrupt act, she stomped on the ground, tearing out a boulder from beneath the surface. As it rose high, she turned and slapped it with all her force, shattering it in a cloud of dust, with one small bullet-sized piece flying off in the direction she stuck towards. Indrick covered his head while turning face down, paranoid thoughts believing it was aimed towards him, yet it flew past with a deafening, ear-piercing whistle by sheer speed. He removed his hands from his head and turned to see, to witness how it struck against the wall of a building Melanie had been sneaking by, much to his surprise. The impact immediately imprinted a web of cracks upon great part of its surface, all surrounding a small hole, until the weakened structure began giving in while Melanie escaped. Noisy as it was, the building crumbled upon itself, letting out a massive cloud of dust expanding in all directions. By then, Indrick had lost sight of the dullahan.
When he turned his head back to Victoria, he saw her slowly moving her head, as if following something. Nothing else existed in this realm other than Melanie, at least that’d gain so much attention from her, and thus his conclusion became that she still had eyes on the dullahan, contrary to him. Ungluing her eyes, she sheathed her rapier, until she lowered her head and stared forward, bringing her hands in front and slapping the palms to keep them together. Clear currents and static slowly made their presence noticed around her palms, growing from mere sparks at first, to screeching discharges, skyrocketing in intensity the moment she calmly separated her palms a slight bit. Between them, an orb of electric flowing with rays of electricity connecting to her palms grew and grew, intensifying in violence and brightness, piercing into his ears with such high-pitched shrieking and almost blinding him with such light. The small orb increased in size and instability with her palms always facing it a small distance away, with the winds emanating from it soon making her clothing and hair flutter on and on. Once it reached the size of one’s head, Indrick’s eyes couldn’t bear the light burning into his eyes and closed them in pain. Then, a furious roar of equal electric nature rang throughout Acerrae, making every inch of his body vibrate, along with a massive light he could notice even with closed eyes. Fearing for his life, he brought his hands to cover his head and lied as close to the floor as he could, just as brutal cracking and pounding followed from the other direction, and as he turned his head and peeked through the slit of his helmet, he saw a ray of lightning as bright as the sun wreaking havoc and destruction through the buildings. What little he saw through his eyes as narrowed as he could, he witnessed the ray tearing through the buildings with impunity, destroying all in its path, cutting the walls in two wherever it passed through and crumbling all it touched.
And as abruptly as it started, it ended, leaving only the crumbling buildings to fill the silence afterwards. Disbelief struck him as he shifted his gaze from Victoria to the chaos she stared at and back; the burning building behind her as she stood expressionless didn’t help the image he received from her after such display of power, as if her eyes turning from where she aimed the lightning to meet Indrick’s eyes had not been enough to send a chill down his spine. Before she had arrived, there were ruins, and now, there were wastes. The power of a lilim, a life-changing event to behold, and only the true creator almighty knew if that was even a tenth of her power, undoubtedly inexperienced.
When the chaos of the collapsing buildings and the settling dust left them without noise to hear, Indrick slowly stood up as he grabbed his longsword, and once up on his feet, took a good look around. Melanie was nowhere to be seen. Wouldn’t blame her if she ran. Yet, while sheathing his longsword he returned his eyes to Victoria, who still did nothing, without expression not even saying a mere word. He marched over to his poleaxe, took it and swung it over his shoulder, and finally marched up to her. He didn’t say a thing before seeing Victoria finally reacting, reaching for her waist and rummaging till she took out an object and extended it to him. His steel dagger, as clean as it ever was, held by her now dusty gloves.
At the very moment his gloves made contact with the dagger, a splitting beat within his head took him by surprise; not just that, but furious thunder, a wind that punched against him, and each and every drop of rain pummeling him down. He raised the hand he held his dagger with and brought it to his helmet, grunting in pain as he slouched over, stumbling back without clue as to what happened without warning. However, upon opening his eyes, he saw that the surroundings had partly changed: The rain, the wind, the noise, the brightness and darkness perpetually altering with each extreme. He had been brought back to Acerrae with the lilim who remained unreactive and unfazed, at the very same spot he was a mere second ago. He couldn’t believe his eyes, deep down having expected to be stuck for millennia in such place at the mercy of the more-than-sorceress to let him out, leaving him to stare around as he sheathed his knife. The apocalypse surrounding him, as funny as it seemed to him, left him with a deep sense of infinite relief and a homely welcome.
They locked eyes. Indrick, and a paladin his eyes found, both pointing their helmets at each other without a word nor movement to come out of them, as if neither knew what to do within those few seconds that followed.
“…Indrick?” Called Geoffrey’s voice, with the paladin picking up speed and rushing up to him. “Where the hell–” He asked, only to silence himself as he glanced at the lilim before returning his head to Indrick. “Doesn’t matter. No time. Vandire had everything prepared assuming you’d return in one piece.”
“Plan goes as normal?” Asked Indrick.
“As normal as it can be, around here.” He said, before turning around and raising his voice. “Indrick’s here! Regroup at the northern intersection! We’re leaving!” Then, he returned his gaze to Indrick before nodding aside, soon rushing away north.
Indrick took a quick look at Victoria, only to see her unfazed as if nothing happened around her, without the hood of her elegant white cloak raised against the rain, drenching her hair and sticking it to her face. Didn’t look like she’d move without pressure, either. He left his poleaxe by the wall, removed her peaked cap, and raised her hood with both hands to cover her head. He then extended the cap, which she stared at for a moment before taking with one hand, and thereafter Indrick gently grabbed her hand and led her north as quick as their feet allowed.
Wasn’t that far. Not even a hundred meters away, though the dispersed paladins soon arrived in full, as dispersed as they were. Geoffrey entered the building housing the headquarters, leaving the nineteen other paladins outside to wait. It wasn’t long before the paladin who had entered was nearly thrown aside from the door, struck like a battering ram by none other than Jeremiah who ran outside, followed far behind by Vandire.
“Victoria!” He cried, desperately running towards her and stopping on front, staring in disbelief and absolute joy. Indrick let go of her hand and took a step back, leaving the two on their own. “Victoria…” He repeated, showing a smile which couldn’t contain itself and beady eyes ready to let out a few tears. “It’s me. Jeremiah. I came back for you…”
Yet Victoria said nothing. As quiet and still as she was, she remained, staring expressionless at Jeremiah without a movement other than mere blinking, with unfocused eyes hinting at how she might have not even stared at him, but through him, endlessly ahead.
“Victoria?” He asked once more, smile slowly disappearing as no response was given. It had gone from smile, to blank, to teeth gritting in unconcealable agony and heartbreak; whether it was only the rain running down his cheek, none present could tell.
Vandire’s hand gently fell on Jeremiah’s shoulder; Jeremiah turned to gaze at Vandire who stared with sympathetic eyes, and then took a step back, leaving Vandire to take yet another towards Indrick and the paladins.
“Jeremiah’s dullahans launched an all-out assault to the south, making the traitor dullahans and cultists move their forces and leave the northern line weakest.” He firmly stated out loud. “The remnants of the cavalry and what little remains of the reserves will make one last push north to pierce through said line. You will go with them, and once you’re all out, you’ll escape north towards Variland with the lilim. You’ll need to split into as many groups as you can to make it as hard as possible for any pursuers to track the lilim down. The priority rests on Indrick and the lilim escaping safely, so everyone else should make as much noise as possible. Understood?”
“Understood.” Responded the twenty in unison.
“The cavalry is gathering two blocks up north. By the time you get there, they should be ready and waiting for you to begin.”
Silence befell him, still staring forward before lowering his eyes, and returning them in front. Though once his voice had strength and a commanding tone, it fell into calmness and familiarity.
“This will be the last time we see each other. I want all of you to know that, though I’ve been expecting certain results ever since the start of the campaign, you’ve done more than I’d ever dare to ask from just twenty men. As much as I want to congratulate you all, I feel anything I say will fall short, no matter what. You’ve done Nostrum a service worth several lifetimes. Be proud of it.”
No salute in unison returned, but instead a quiet chuckle in childish joy from just one of them. Then, two, three, and so on, till the nineteen of them began laughing heartily in celebration, cheering each other on and patting their own on the back, all while Vandire looked on with a hearty smile. No rigors of discipline, but instead an honest to God reaction to all before them. Then, Vandire took a few steps till he arrived to Indrick.
“You must’ve gone through hardships unimaginable.” He said. “Must’ve felt like you betrayed your own principles by aiding the monsters, even saving a lilim, and still you persevered in your task. One has to wonder if in a thousand years from now, you’ll still be spoken of, if this all doesn’t fail.”
Vandire extended his hand. Almost taken by surprise, Indrick lowered his head and stared, before raising it once more, switching the poleaxe from right to left hand, and extending. The two firmly grasped each other, and shook. A moment passed in silence, before Vandire shocked him to the bone as he stepped forward and hugged him, placing his hand on Indrick’s back tight. Soon, Indrick returned the embrace, placing his arm on Vandire’s back despite holding the poleaxe with his hand.
“You’ve done us all proud. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Furious galloping drew nearer, till all saw twenty rider-less horses guided towards them. Vandire and Indrick separated, and for each paladin, a horse was led to him for him to mount. Indrick jumped onto his own, and with Vandire’s and Jeremiah’s aid, they helped Victoria up who sat behind.
“Indrick.” Called Jeremiah, gaining the paladin’s attention. “If you get Victoria out safely, I’ll be eternally indebted to you, regardless of anything that happened before.”
“We’ll make the attempt. No promises.” He answered.
“Good enough for me.”
Though as the other nineteen gathered in preparation to depart, Indrick remained in place, staring forward in thought.
“Has your arm healed?” He asked Jeremiah, making him raise an eyebrow.
“It’s as useless as before.”
Leaving the poleaxe resting in front, he untied his sheathed rapier and threw it his way, who caught it in hand in absolute confusion.
“You’ll need it more than I will.” Said Indrick, grabbing the poleaxe again before raising it high. “Paladins, north!”
Gallop began anew, with each strike against the stone road sounding out loud, undrowned by the thunder and wind. Twenty paladins and a lilim rushed away, while Vandire and Jeremiah stared silent, standing immobile and following them with their eyes. Soon enough, they had all turned into mere blurs afar.
“Say,” said Vandire, breaking their silence, “think your necromancer friend will come to save us after getting pissed off that you didn’t return?”
“No. She’ll just wait till my time comes again.”
“Shit…” He cursed to himself, soon turning his head to stare in the opposite direction.
Jeremiah caught notice of how he kept staring on and on, and turned in the same direction. The south. There he found what he was looking at, out there in the distance the blur of the frontline coming closer and closer the more it was pushed. Must be three or four blocks down, barely hearing the noises of combat past the weather.
“I thought they’d last another another hour.” Remarked Jeremiah. “Though, if all the traitors are there, I guess it’s a miracle that they lasted this long. Did the fake push south really attract so many?”
“At least the cavalry won’t be facing them up north. That’s a relief.”
The two kept on looking in silence, before they glanced at each other, both of their faces drenched by the rain; human, and undead incubus.
“Is it over?” Asked Jeremiah.
“It is so.” Answered Vandire. “We’ve done all we could. Now, it’s all up to Indrick and the others.”
Jeremiah let out a sigh, lowering his head. “Never thought my last days would be spent fighting with The Order. I suppose it’s a blessing that we’re no longer at each other’s throats, at least for a little while.”
“I feel the same way. Shame that life doesn’t want us sharing a drink sometime. Your army fought well, I give you that. Had it not been for them, I don’t think we’d have even gotten past Aquileia.”
“Heh. You too. My dullahans were frightened by your guys, yet… instead of fearing them, they wanted to prove themselves worthy enough to fight alongside them. Maybe they just wanted to show off; competition, and whatnot. Still served to make them fight to the bitter end, even now… We must’ve felled the cultists here at least five time over. I wonder, is this what The Order saw their situation as? Hopeless like this?”
“I’d be lying is I said no.”
“It takes strength to fight against such odds.”
Cracking a hearty smile, Vandire glanced once more towards the line, pushed back ever so slightly at each passing moment.
“To each of us falls a task, and all that is required of us soldiers is that we stand the line, and die fighting. It is what we do best. We die standing.”
Stampede. A cacophony drowning out the storm around them, of hundreds upon hundreds of riders rushing through the streets north, furiously galloping to the limit of their horses’ ability. In the middle of the cavalry remnants of both armies, the twenty paladins and the lilim rode, with the captain of the formation itself riding next to them.
“Cultists ahead!” Shouted a voice, followed by a horn echoing though the dreadful night.
Though Indrick had no sight, nor those around him, he could imagine the line drawing closer and closer. At that moment, the dead giveaway of proximity to opposing forces revealed itself: arrows, beginning to rain from the sky upon them. To miss who it struck would be unheard of, striking rider and horse alike, forcing them to trip with such sudden mental torture and throwing them to the ground, for those behind them to either trip upon them or avoid, either jumping or riding aside. Silent prayers to no entity filled Indrick’s helmet, that no arrow found its way towards him, for despite him wearing armor that would render the attack useless, neither the horse nor Victoria shared the same luxury.
The arrows then halted, just as he guessed the moment the front impacted against the cultist lines; a slight slowdown of the cavalry formation, with a quick recovery and the sight of cultists by the rooftops and sidewalks, those the front had not struck yet still cut down by the riders around, turning into smoke in quick succession.
“Five blocks to go!” Said the captain.
“Sir!” A voice called, galloping closer and closer till he arrived to the captain. “The cultists plugged the hole with their numbers! We’re cut off now!”
Yet the captain did not respond, as if a response was even needed.
“Three blocks!” He said.
A nightmarish sound greeted them, like half a million howls singing out in unison, drawing closer and closer. Without even a moment to question what it was, from the intersection up ahead all saw an innumerable horde of cultists crashing against the cavalry, intercepting their path from both sides.
“Get the paladins through!” Shouted the captain. “At all costs!”
Rather than avoid the newfound chokepoint, those riders around them charged head-first into the cultists, crashing against them and fighting like starved, rabid wolves, throwing all regards to safety and personal well-being to the hell they aimed to raise. One after the other, those given the choice to sneak through safely threw themselves into the sea of cultists, barely containing them with each defiantly-shouting sacrifice, all for the paladins to be given the minuscule opportunity to ride through. The first paladin rode through, and soon enough the last, just before the line shattered and both cultists groups merged with each other, chopping the whole cavalry formation in two; of those left behind, none could bring themselves to look back at. Though once they were the center of the formation, now Indrick, the captain, and the others were the very last.
“Almost!” Shouted the captain, a voice breaking as if it were a desperate plea for success. “Keep going forward!”
Two blocks remained.
And so they reached it, the field where no more buildings remained, stepping over the damp grass.
“It’s all up to you now, paladin!” Told the captain to Indrick, just as the cavalry circled back towards the city with him soon following. “Turn this place into a living hell!” He ordered to the others, with his voice lowering as distance increased between him and the twenty.
Now, no longer did a bestial stampede follow them, but instead just the sound of twenty horses running away with twenty out of the tens of thousands which had marched into Acerrae, with the one they had set out to retrieve. All, now on their own.