“This is your last stand! No doubt, no fear!”
To the west. To the east. To the south. Wherever one looked, carnage greeted the eye; to the north, though too far away to see in such storm, so too were lines clashing each other in a violent melee, withdrawing as the opponent pushed forward with never-ending impetus. Fine crafts in the shape of crossbows and longswords, training of the likes the rest of nations within The Order could only dream of, and discipline which led them to willingly jump into the pyre, all could only do so much against the never-ending tide.
“If the day has finally come when we have to go, then we’ll make sure to slam the door so hard that the universe shakes and both Man and Monster stand back in stupefaction.” Continued shouting Vandire as he marched along the line which formed around the now-gone town hall; to the west and to the east, all saw the remnants of the infantry falling back, unable to hold their ground anymore, rushing towards Vandire’s final line. To the south they saw the great many dullahans who had taken part in the inevitable failure that was the distracting assault doing the very same. “Scorch the earth and all who stand upon it. Let the earth tremble at our might. Let them fear us, brothers!”
Wooden frames past wooden frames lined the front of Vandire’s line, forming wall past wall throughout the salient to each of the three directions; through the numerous gaps left between the connections, Nostrian and Varilandian ran through, those who had last retreated from the carnage ahead, leaving wide open the choke points the street had presented and allowing cultist upon cultist to rush through. Upon the opportunity of a clear line of sight, the crossbowmen shot at will against the hordes, creating a distance between the last of the retreating forces and the cultists chasing after them who fell one by one, till the gaps between the spiked frames closed with yet more of the same.
Too quick of an advance left the crossbowmen to let loose just a single bolt each. “Swords!” Shouted Vandire, to which all of his men complied, putting their crossbows away and sliding their longswords out. Without bolts to slow them down a mere second, the tide advanced like an apocalyptic force complementing the hellish weather, letting out a cacophony of beats and vibrations through their restless steps. Disregarding their own lives, all jumped through the wooden frames, many hitting the spikes and immediately turning into smoke, yet some still sneaking through to be greeted with cold blades. No momentum sacrificed through all the losses, more and more snuck through with each passing second despite the greetings in the shape of sharp ends and merciless slashes, without end to the advance for the defenders to hope of exhausting them. At an excruciatingly slow pace, they gained centimeter by centimeter, until the cultists gained a proper foothold through sheer force of numbers alone, pushing the Nostrians back ever so slightly. Then, once the barricade had been lost and the cultists who captured them pushed them aside, once more enemy forces flooded in.
“Fall back! Maintain the line!” Ordered Vandire, stepping back as so did his men. All he had to gauge the gravity of the situation were his mere eyes and ears; the darkness and altering lighting worsened his senses, as did the thunder and the water hitting his cloak like hammers to drown out the noises he would’ve otherwise picked up. Glints of swords and the proximity of shouting served more than anything else to tell him where lines stood. He then turned and stepped away towards the center, looking both westward and eastward to see the same situation developing, an advance from all angles. At the very center, right where the old town hall used to stand, now stood a few tents where Vandire’s main headquarters had positioned itself, every other place having deemed to risking in such hell hole. Numerous of his officers stood out in the rain, receiving report after report of squires and soldiers arriving from all angles, and past them he marched towards the ones dealing with the northern approach.
“Sire.” Saluted one, noticing his arrival.
“Any news from the cavalry?”
A quiet glance down low gave away his thoughts, that hope for them to return in one piece had all died. Far too long had passed between the crossbowmen’s reports that they had broken through to the north with the paladins and reentered the city, only for them to disappear amidst the afflicted swarm.
“Tell the north to fall back here. We’re spreading ourselves too thin with what little we have left.”
‘With what little we have left’. Such words echoed in his mind over and over as he turned round to see the south once more, then east and west, seeing that the remnants of two proud armies could fit within such a small space; be spread too thin, even. A glance around to the last line all around him left doubts in his mind over the true number of those who remained here. Less than a tenth of the total, surely. Three thousand? Two? Not like it mattered. That the number would eventually reach zero was a certainty before the very first casualty in Acerrae.
The southern line. Even with all the dullahans left from the assault, it still fell back quicker than the others. Dead giveaway of what befell them. A dead giveaway enough for not only him to notice, as little by little the few remaining soldiers not fighting marched up to him on their own volition, all showing signs of exhaustion and injury from such weapons already. One by one, all gathering close, staring with eyes which knew what was to come, what was unavoidable in such situation, eyes Vandire couldn’t help but return in the same way to those who locked eyes with him momentarily. Must’ve been a couple hundred at best, those who reached to him, even dullahans after a while, at least those not stuck at the front fending off the traitors.
Visible alteration. The line faced the brunt of impact from where Vandire could see, immediately making them back off by force, some tripping on their feet and falling back, yet most trying their hardest to persevere against the sudden onslaught. Much as they tried to block them, still a few traitor dullahans broke through, all ignoring the line as they ran forward with smiles on their faces, all aiming towards Vandire. Those beside him quickly stepped forward with swords held at the ready, charging back against the attackers, humans and loyalist dullahans alike, till both forces connected. While Vandire stood tall and still, without even drawing his longsword just yet, he saw with clarity the traitor dullahans swing and thrust against the loyalists, exploiting the great difference in stamina left for both sides: Mere basic swings for both human and loyalist remained, while agile and elaborate maneuvers reigned among the tireless traitors; Nostrians blocked them for a few seconds individually, holding fast against a few attacks yet still succumbing to the absolute brute force of the inhuman opponent, while loyalists Varilandians faced condemning exhaustion, lowering their speed and agility to be mercilessly exploited. Swing, slash, thrust; in just a few moments, the traitors had covered all the ground and forces separating them from Vandire.
With one traitor dashing towards him, he calmly unsheathed his longsword and held it in stance. Step, step, step, so much focus made it all appear as if it happened in slow motion for him, until so close did the dullahan step that she swung her longsword against him regardless of any semblance of agility, aiming to break through his defences by brute force alone.
Step back, and parry. Metal slid against each other with such distinct sound through the downpour. With her blade having safely passed any threatening distance, he threw the pommel of his sword against her, impacting against her head. Only a mere stumble back ensued with a loud grunt, just as she let go with one hand and threw it towards him in an attempt to grab his head as she fell. He jerked his head back, and as the hand passed, he let go and raised his own to grab her by the wrist, just as he entangled his leg with hers to make her fall finish in painful manner against the ground. With no respite, he let go of her wrist and thrusted his longsword down against her, an act he could not stop in time, resulting in his blade digging against the flesh through her clavicle; a sharp noise followed as swordtip struck the stone road, for the dullahan had turned to smoke.
Another dullahan arrived, thrusting her sword not only by the handle, but also by the blade. He stepped aside, dodging it by mere chance of the dullahan expecting him not to see, and upon twisting his longsword to grab it by the blade end, he threw and landed a hook around her knee. A pull followed, making her knee move forward with her body soon following in fright lest she lose complete balance, only for him to throw his fist forward at the same time, impacting against her cheek. Twisting it again, he raised his longsword and brought it down upon the dullahan.
“Leave him!” Shouted a voice; just before impact, the traitor he had been fighting fell back enough to avoid it entirely. The chance of her throwing herself back or something alike never crossed Vandire’s mind, the possibility just too illogical to exist: She had been pulled back. There she saw an arm holding her by the back of her clothes and pulling her up from the ground upon which she fell, to see another dullahan calmly standing with sword in her other hand.
“That would’ve been two, had I not intervened.” Said the same voice, the dullahan in front of him, nodding for the one she saved to leave before turning to Vandire; an order acknowledged in an instant. Much as Vandire threw glares around, all seemed to ignore him from then on, acknowledging his existence yet refusing to engage him personally. “I would’ve expected a king to be too busy dealing with his nation to train swordsmanship.”
“I’ve taken care that my days as paladin have not fallen to rust after so many years.” He answered.
“You were a paladin too, Vandire?”
“I’ve only stopped being one in name when I was given the role of Master-Commander from my predecessor. Like the paladins you must’ve no doubt fought already, I lived by the sword ever since I had the strength to raise one, and it wouldn’t do it justice to fall in any other way than by the sword.”
“I’ve heard about you. Melanie, is it?”
A chuckle ensued. “There are many Melanies in this army. Will you indulge me in what achievements and titles I have behind me?”
“An incompetent twat who got her general killed over not planning for her soldiers to be too undisciplined to do anything quickly, no?”
An eye twitch.
“You’ve decided to make even your tongue a weapon.” She said. Then, she smirked, just as she raised her sword in stance. “I was saving my blade for another, but how can I resist giving it to you instead?”
Step forward and a slash, to which Vandire greeted in kind with a parry and a counter, one Melanie stepped back almost as if she had planned to since the very first swing. Another swing, another parry, another counter, another dodge, to repeat over and over as metal slid against metal, not only of their swords, but of those all around them who fought in their vicinity. Yet, for every blow traded, though Melanie pressed on to lock him in a deadlock of force alone, Vandire deflected each attempt to corner him, always sidestepping or backing off rather than leave himself in a position he’d find no way out of.
“You’re not even breaking a sweat, Vandire!” Taunted Melanie, taking a step back and pausing their duel. “True to the training of paladins, it’d take me well over half an hour to exhaust you.”
“I would not blame you for thinking that a king would be weaker in combat than a paladin. In fact, you’d very well indeed be correct. Problem is, I am a paladin turned king.”
“A king would do well among us.”
“Among whom? Those who couldn’t even keep us from getting the lilim out?”
An upward slash, of which Vandire could barely dodge in time. The tip of the blade cut through the air, passing almost close enough to brush his eyelashes. Keeping the momentum by twisting it in place, Melanie brought it down once more, making Vandire raise his to deflect it and step back. However, just as blades connected, Vandire found an immobilizing pressure on his foot: Melanie’s foot upon him, who took another step forward with the other while letting go of her sword with one hand and throwing it towards his chest. Unable to dodge nor bring his sword to meet it, Melanie grabbed his by neck of his armor and pulled, throwing him forward with such inhuman strength just as she brought her head forward to meet him. Impact, both his and her head hitting against each other. A deep concussion set within him as he recoiled back, a concussion Melanie faced not even in its slightest form. Not letting go, she aligned her sword and, with merciless speed and agility, thrust it upon him while pulling him once more. A loud gasp escaped him as the sword dug deep into the flesh, coming out from his back through his cloak, just as a devious grin from ear to ear formed in Melanie’s expression.
“So long for being a paladin. A trained rat is still a rat nonetheless. What did you expect to accomplish against a cat?” She taunted. “A disappointment that this was the best Nostrum had to offer… A man who trained his whole life for this day, and fell just like the rest, to be forgotten in just a few weeks!”
A firm grip on her hand erased her smile, followed by a pull. Vandire stepped closer, having the sword dig further until its hilt rested against his own chest, before raising his head towards her to see those eyes wide open in stupefaction and a mouth slightly open in equal expression.
“After the last scream in this city turns into a cold, abrupt silence…” He muttered, refusing to let his fleeting strength fade away, aiming a piercing stare from below his brows dead at her eyes. “You’ll know till the end of time that you faced Nostrians.”
A loud war cry caught Melanie’s attention, turning her eyes to the side to find the source. In an instant, she pushed Vandire away while sliding the sword out, meeting a dullahan charging against her with a violent melee. Vandire, with his strength now depleted, fell to the ground with his sword escaping his grip. He struck the ground, head hitting against the stone floor for another concussion leaving him light-headed, only for him to see between blurry blinks how Melanie overpowered the loyalist dullahan and punched her in the cheek, dislodging the head and sending it aside; the body, now headless, stood in place immobile.
“Rude.” Muttered Melanie, before throwing Vandire a glance and growing a smile. “This is gonna be it for us, Master-Commander. I’ve got places to be in and people to chase after. See you on the other side.”
She took a few steps in reverse, ungluing her eyes from him, before turning around and marching away. From his peripheral view, he caught more traitors arriving around him, a dead giveaway of the situation at hand if his forces no longer were around to even distract them. Though he slowly reached for his longsword, one traitor kicked in away, while another placed her foot on his chest, all sporting their white teeth in grin seen despite his blurred sight.
“Still kicking despite the wound?” Chuckled a dullahan. “It’s nice to see a change of pace from the rank and file.”
“Maybe we should drag him somewhere else and let him recover a bit.” Said another. “It’s not every day that one gets the chance to fight a king…”
“Oh, you think so?” Said the one with her foot on his chest, raising her sword and pointing it towards his neck. “We all know you just want him for yourself. Let him decide, once he breaks.”
The dullahan raised her sword, gripping it with both hands, with the tip glinting as Vandire saw.
“…Cyrene…” He whispered to himself, a whisper so low not even he could hear it past the lightning and rain.
A heart-rending howl pierced the night. A thousand souls shouting in unison, each one screaming louder than the last, engulfing the streets in its violent cacophony, erasing the traitor dullahans’ smiles and replacing it with horror the likes of which could only be imagined through the deepest phantasms of the night. Immediately they found the source, one moving towards them with violence in its movements and its heart; recklessly charging against them, a headless dullahan crashed into the traitor with her foot over Vandire, tackling her onto the ground with ferocious impetus. Free to move, Vandire turned, only to find the traitor already turned to smoke with the others readying their swords against the headless dullahan who charged against them anew. A loyalist, with something else replacing the space her head should be in; an ethereal flame of an icy blue opposite to the hellfire of her spirit and fury, shaped in the form of a flaming, thousand-year rotting version of the dullahan’s former head, howling a cacophony of otherworldly noise. His eyes remained wide open upon the sight, an event beyond all his expectations even past the horrors he had seen till now, watching the dullahan mercilessly turn traitors to smoke, be it through sword or through fist, by any means necessary. No matter injury, no matter scrape on arms or outright impalement through belly, the headless dullahan persevered without rest, giving no respite to those she locked swords against.
“Master-Commander!” Shouted a voice; that it was from a man limited enough who could say it to be a welcoming sound. Immediately thereafter, two soldiers arrived to his side and helped him up, while others arrived to fight off the opposition around him. Yet, none dared to step close to the rampaging loyalist who held the line on her own through infinite determination and bottomless energy; afraid of such sight, the soldiers had begun pulling him away, believing it too threatening to his life in the mindless state the dullahan had found herself in.
“Don’t fear it, you cowards!” Ranted Vandire, shaking them off, witnessing with his eyes how number upon number of traitors threatened to surround her. He dashed forward, picked up his sword as he passed, and thrusted upon a dullahan too distracted with a swing against the loyalist, turning her into smoke in an instant. No order did he need to shout for all the others to quickly jump into the fray, joining him and the loyalist in fighting off the threat of encirclement. His next attack fell upon a cultist, weak individually yet strong in numbers, signalling the push from the horde through where they had pierced, though a push that found its match against those who greeted them. “Shameful, that a monster has set an example for us Nostrians to follow!” He shouted. “TO me, Nostrians, to me! Return the favor in kind!”
An example to follow, as the headless loyalist would ever be: like the standard of an army, all gathered around her, fighting around her, an unstoppable force and immovable object holding the line of traitors and cultists alike no matter what blows she received, returning maddening howls with each swing of her sword. Like a chorus of over a thousand voices, screams of animalistic abandon and primal blood lust sang through the night, breaking through the cacophony of thunder and wind.
Adrenaline flowed like rivers within each of them, intoxicating the mind into a trace where all that existed for those moments were the enemy and themselves. Taunts had begun flying from the Nostrians and Varilandians, each indulging in the lust of their very last battle against those who did not say a word in return, a glaring contrast between the strength of a dying star against the tireless march of a zombie-like horde.
“Come! Show me what passes for fury amongst your misbegotten kind!”
The line had grown static, both Nostrians and Loyalists finding themselves an equal match in the chaotic storm against those who had once broken through them with impunity. Slash, thrust, half-swording smash, any and all manners of maneuvers at disposal had been thrown from both sides, with panting and anger reigning through the damp streets; Vandire’s freshness quickly turned into exhaustion both physical and mental, focus in not only exploiting any weakness by his opponents but also in preventing his from being exploited in turn, locking his mind into a continuous onslaught forward without luxury of thought regarding victory or defeat, numbers on either side, or even the idea of a mere break. No thought needed to be spent to know that those beside him, monster or man, shared the same tenacious focus in their act; though he saw many falling beside him, not a second to mourn had been given, immediately finding another taking up his or her place, yet for each opponent they struck down, ten more cultists took their place. The only luxurious thought Vandire could afford was noticing that the dullahan presence seemed to diminish, replaced instead by the hordes upon hordes of the average cultist, a fact he came to notice just as the first step forward was taken through pushing them back. In due time, they had reached the once-pierced line.
A certain lack of losses on their side after a while gave way to a great detail. Though all had been too busy to notice when in specific, soon they found themselves fighting only cultists, with no traitor dullahans to be found as far as they could see. How long it took from the last he had seen of Melanie, Vandire could guess not.
How long had it truly been? The repetitive task left him unable to determine time. Half an hour? A full hour? Two, three? Unable to tell. Unable to find the opportunity to think it through, with blades raining upon him at any given time. Couldn’t even tell if his body had been drenched by the rainwater or by so much of his own sweat. The headless loyalist’s howling, though bone-chilling beyond any semblance of familiarity one could build for it, had become something to be expected in such long fight. That they had been stuck in the same place for so long didn’t help it; the cultists, through the strength of their bodies thrown like wave upon wave, refused to budge a mere meter of line, as if the exhaustion of his men had not been enough. Thoughts of the mindless loyalist straying too far to follow turned into non-issues, one less thing to worry about.
And yet they still fought. Throat aching, muscles risking an inevitable failure, unlucky wounds piling up despite what strength he still had to shrug them off, to say nothing of those beside him, and ever they fought on. The number of cultists felled, none dared to give a number. The number of cultists and dullahans the loyalist struck down, neither. How many had passed out of exhaustion instead of being struck down by the afflicted blades, only God knew.
And still, they fought on.
Until, at least, he spotted a sight not unlike an oasis in a desert, one that seemed unlike reality, like his mind taunting him on the spot. Beyond the ranks of the cultists, he saw nothing.
Nothing. No cultists. No dullahans. Empty, as if their numbers had run out. A possible end, or as his usual luck would suggest, possibly the forces redirected elsewhere. None could bring themselves to bring notice to the fact, as much as all saw it with their own eyes. Nobody to say, ‘perhaps there is an end’. Nobody to suggest hope, leaving it at risk of being torn apart.
Five ranks left of the cultist horde, and nothing seemed to happen. Four ranks after the first had been eradicated, and no events had occurred. Three, two, and the line of Nostrians and Varilandians began a last, final push through the cultists who had lost their greatest advantage. A rapid melee against the last two, tearing them asunder with merciless speed, and then, it arrived.
The last cultist had fallen. No more screams of hatred, horror, agony, or any emotion could be heard, leaving only the thunder, wind, and rain to fill the void which had ensued. Not even steps could be heard, with none taking a single one, instead all remaining in place and breathing in and out, staring around in equal disbelief. A cynical disbelief, as if expecting it to be a grim taunt before the attack resumed to their last breath, yet nothing arrived still. All looked the same in his eyes, in this fateful night; he looked at a dullahan and locked eyes with her in silence, seeing those distinct eyes of absent-mindedness, unfocused and unaimed, and when he turned to look at one of his men in the same manner, he found them just the same. No matter who is was he looked at, he would not be able to tell if they had even been injured or not, whether they attempted to let all that happened sink in or tried to push through what the injuries would have caused, all on their own.
When Vandire turned to see the headless dullahan, he found her calmly walking aimlessly with an uneven gait, flame flickering and faltering, until it extinguished; at that moment, the body fell to the ground, all muscles ceasing to move. Vandire slowly stepped towards her until he arrived at her side, as did a few Varilandians and Nostrians to stare in absent-minded perplexity, but all arrived and stopped in place, he still heard a single set of footsteps coming closer. Upon turning his head, he found Jeremiah calmly marching up to him, rapier drawn and breaths escaping from his mouth. Upon arriving, the two exchanged a silent stare, before turning their heads to the one on the ground.
“What happened?” Asked Vandire. A question demanding no answer, receiving Jeremiah’s silence. That he was here at all gave away that it wasn’t just his line that caught a break from the madness, but all of the city.
“That howling…” Said Jeremiah. “Was it really her?”
“She had her head struck away. Next thing I see… she’s fighting everyone on her own, ignoring all wounds, knowing no fear.”
Silent acknowledgement came from Jeremiah, who couldn’t help but purse his lips.
“You know more about dullahans than I do.” Continued Vandire. “What happened for her to react with suck reckless violence?”
“Like I would know.” He answered, before turning around and scanning the scenery. There he found something in the distance, hidden by the weather blocking most sight. He quietly stepped off towards it while Vandire watched, and soon enough returned with an object in his hands. The dullahan’s head, as Vandire noticed, with Jeremiah arriving to the dullahan herself and gently putting the head back in place. With the two parts connected, the dullahan began breathing in her unconscious state, chest puffing slightly in sync with the mouth’s inhalations.
“Lucia.” Said Jeremiah.
“What?” Asked Vandire.
“That’s Lucia. I remember her. Her group was… encircled back in Aquileia, if I remember right. They ones that found her saw her having barricaded herself in a cellar as cultists tried to break through, with the others of her group having been cut down. Perhaps that has something to do with her reaction just now.”
From looking at the dullahan, Jeremiah raised his eyes above to see the dark clouds overhead, lit up by lightning to reveal their spiralling shape, along with the glint of the raindrops.
“What do you think happened?” He asked. “Why did they just leave us?”
“Perhaps they went for the lilim.” Answered Vandire, raising his eyes in the same manner. “I suppose that’s how insignificant we are, in comparison.”
“Should we go north?”
“My army can’t step into a demon realm, and everyone must be too exhausted to do anything. If you’re caught marching with a disorganized, exhausted, and sleep-deprived army, you’ll be done for, so we Nostrians can’t go back to Makillae and you can’t go back to Variland. For the time being, we’re stuck in Acerrae.” He then lowered his head and turned to march off, with Jeremiah following with his eyes.
The earth-shaking storm and tree-snapping winds had subsided in part. Though not a comfortable march, a soothing relative silence led the way through the lone road to the north. Though intermittent lightning still persevered at an intensity enough to use it as primary light source, they had noticeable lowered in frequency; the following thunder eased down, no longer deafening and rumbling, but now seemingly far away. Though at its most violent it had rained like boulders from trebuchets, no longer did they feel the raindrops impacting against their clocks with such ferocity, and no longer did they hear as such. It had been enough for Indrick and Victoria to hear past the weather the slow steps of the horse, all on their own, with the other paladins having split already time ago. No clash of steel, no screams, no panting nor hurried steps, just the rain and themselves to lead the way.
His eyes felt like they remained closed more often than not. For each time he closed it for too long, he felt his head losing weight, only to find himself nodding forward before recovering his senses and forcing his eyes open, only for them to close on their own by their own weight to repeat it over and over. Wishes to just open his visor and rub his eyes met the idea of bringing his drenched gauntlet to his face, with nothing to dry himself off afterwards. Little else could he do other than bring his palm to the face of his visor and rest his head upon it for a few moments, ever-present with the risk of just passing out.
“How do you feel?” Asked Victoria.
He could not answer, if only for those few moments afterwards. Having gotten used to her not saying a single word since the cavern, her voice breaking the silence had surprised him too much.
“You don’t look fine.” She said.
“…I can’t feel my muscles. I feel filthy over sweating so much. I’m hungry and thirsty. Exhausted, too. I’ll pass out before reaching your villa.”
No words reached him. Figuring she’d remain silent, he looked at his surroundings. Other than the road, monotonous fields lay on both sides, devoid of any thing but what looked like grass with the intermittent lightning. The more he looked, the more it seemed unlike grass, until he found it to be that of a recently cut and harvested field. Farmlands, no doubt, with the road hopefully leading to where the farmers lived, or used to at least.
“How about you?” He asked.
“I don’t know.”
A blunt answer he couldn’t make anything out of. As much as he wondered what she meant by it, he couldn’t shake off the thought that it might’ve had something to do with the affliction.
Didn’t take long before he caught a glimpse of the building in the far distance, shown with each lightning as its figure contrasted against the bright skies in the blink of an eye. Longer still, and he eventually arrived in full, to find that the house had no lights shining within. Asleep or abandoned, he could see nothing of the simple house. At the front lied a lengthy roofed section, finding a welcome respite as soon as his horse stepped under it with no more rain to fall upon them. Seemed to run along the width of the house’s front, a place for horses no doubt, though God knew where they were, for all seemed desolated.
“Stay here.” He said, taking his poleaxe and jumping down his horse. A friendly face was the least of his expectations, with how this house lied in the territory the affliction had taken over. He reached for the door and found it unlocked, letting out a creaking noise as he pushed it open, and then marched in, leaving Victoria outside to wait.
A minute later, he marched out.
“It’s empty.” He said, marching up to the horse and helping Victoria down before taking bag after bag from the horse’s luggage and throwing them over his shoulder, to then march inside once more. Victoria followed, and saw that the very first room past the front door was a relatively small kitchen, with a round table by the middle, and a sink and counters by the wall on the opposite end of the room. Though she had stopped past the door to glance around, Indrick marched on ahead, arriving to the table and letting it all drop on top before pulling a chair, sitting down, and taking off his helmet to leave it on the table. His hair, greasy as it was, stuck against his face, face shining over sweat and humidity he had accrued over the time. While he rummaged through the bags, she quietly stepped forward, pulled a chair, and sat down at the table, staring aimlessly ahead with nothing in her mind.
After a few seconds, Indrick took out a lengthy loaf of bread. He stopped himself from any movements upon noticing something, then inspected the loaf as he pressed on various different spots. He raised it high, and then brought it down against the side of the table, only for him and Victoria to see the bread snap in two like a brick, with its end bouncing on the table and falling off its opposite end to the floor. Crumbs littered the table as he stared, eyes and face relaxed despite what immense annoyance flowed within him, though he soon moved again to take his pendant out and move it to the loaf. A painful sigh followed as he slammed the loaf on the table as he leaned back on his chair, to then bring his hands to rub his face, now left uncaring.
“What happened?” Asked Victoria in her now usual monotonous voice.
“It’s tainted.” He answered, voice muffled past the gauntlets he did not lower. “It caught demonic energy after we crossed from Nostrum to Variland. My damn pendant was too far away from the luggage to syphon it. Everything is tainted.”
After rubbing his eyes and lowering his hands, he found Victoria extending her hand and taking the half-loaf. Unsure of her intentions, he watched as she looked closely, to then raise her other hand and pass it over what she held. She then stared at the loaf for a few more seconds, before extending it to Indrick, who took it without hiding his confusion.
“What did you do?” He asked.
“I… cleansed it.”
Baffled at first, only to figure it mundane for the extent of her power, he took his pendant and examined it. True to her words, no longer did it shine strong upon proximity.
“If you can control demonic energy like this, does it mean you can control it in a massive scale?”
“What happened to Old Variland, when the demonic energy seeped through. Would you be able to repeat that, if you put your mind on it?”
“I don’t know. I never heard of anyone even trying.”
A light exhalation through his nose followed.
“Can you do the same for these bags?” He asked.
WIthout reply, she glanced at the backs, to then slowly stand up and place her hand hovering upon them. A few seconds of stillness followed, before she waved away in the same manner as if dust had collected over them. A quick check with his pendant after standing up revealed it to be a success in cleansing it all.
A light hum escaped her in acknowledgment, before she turned and took a few steps away. “I’ll check the rest of the house.” She said, leaving as Indrick followed her with his eyes, a clear sign as any of wanting to fight off crippling boredom and whatever thoughts could grow out of it.
Not many places to stray off too; the house itself followed a simple room-leads-to-another layout. The entry room lead to two others, yet other than that, only one single way to follow existed for each ‘arm’. A small house, following through till she found herself in a room leading into two others; one lead to a bedroom, yet as she crossed the other she found herself in what looked like an elegant storage room. No windows existed for the lightning outside to illuminate, leaving her to raised her hand and create a small flame, as if it were a torch. Not many places to go to inside, with how it seemed barely a meter square in size, yet as she glanced around, she found her own distorted reflection and that of the flame. Bottles, elegant ones giving away that it contained not water nor mead, but wine.
She couldn’t help her own curiosity. With her free hand, she took it and stared at both its name and the description on the other side. Her eyes unglued, seeing the liquid within move with each movement of her hand, thoughts wandered. She had heard of people drinking alcohol to find happiness, be it in celebrations or lonely nights, though she knew not what truth those words had.
Seemed like a great opportunity to test it.
“Victoria.” She heard Indrick calling, voice muffled by the walls.
Turning her head to the door, she pondered it over before leaving the bottle where she found it and walking back to the first room. There she found him, bags no longer on the table, replaced now with two dishes of… things. That he was eating from his dish gave her the idea that it was probably food, that which could be eaten with hands alone rather than with fork and knife, but from appearance alone, it seemed anything but. Still, as if it were a paradox, her stomach grumbled at that moment despite what appetite the sight would’ve killed.
“At least it means you’re not corrupted.” He continued after a munch. “Eat. You haven’t had anything since the cavern.”
She stepped to the table and sat on the same chair as before. What lied before her didn’t give off any smell to judge any taste from, appearing like a brick with a side of equally hard bread, something giving off all alerts of non-edibility despite Indrick eating off it so energetically, munch after munch echoing through the house. That he grabbed it with his hands in plain fashion gave her a hint of how to it eat, at first awkwardly extending her hands to grab it and then bringing it to her mouth. She took a bite off Demon-Lord-knows-what, to find that rather than tasting good or bad, it didn’t taste like anything at all. More specifically, it seemed like comparing plain bread to a feast; what little taste was there, it remained dull, masked by what handful of spices had been added on top.
Much contrast showed, clear to her. Though she had to force herself, Indrick seemed like a starved child, barely a few bites away from stuffing his mouth with too much to chew. By the time his throat threatened to choke itself on it, he pulled out a bottle and a tin can to pour himself water and help it all down. Soon enough, she found herself just watching him, foodstuff in her hands with just a single bite compared to him helping himself to a second ration. As much as she tried to remind herself of him having gone through the same as her, it seemed just too unbelievable.
“…How can you eat this like that?” She asked.
“I’m used to it.” He answered, voice muffled by what lied in his mouth before swallowing. “You eventually develop a taste.”
At the answer, she couldn’t help but stare at that in her hands. Developing a taste sounded far worse than he would’ve intended it to.
“Do you know how to cook?” She asked. “I’m sure this can be made more edible. It’s all… bland. Barely any spice.”
Silent for a second, Indrick glanced up at her.
“I don’t know how to cook.” He answered, cleaning his mouth with a rag. “Do you?”
“How come you were certain this could be made more edible?”
“I remember Jeremiah turning worse things into a feast.”
Silence followed as both stared at their own dishes, with just the rain and thunder to create some manner of ambient noise. Though his mouth opened to say a few words, hesitation struck him, unwilling to reassure her with the idea of her servants making a feast for her arrival after all that had happened; that she was the only one to return from such hell would be no secret, and the idea of a feast without Jeremiah would do nothing to help the situation. As much as he attempted to think of words, he couldn’t escape the condemnation of the silence.
“What keeps you going?” She asked, much to his surprise, leaving him with a lack of words not any different than seconds ago. “Not what reason you have to go on, but… what keeps your from reducing yourself to an automaton, a barely human husk silently following your duty?”
“An automaton…” He repeated. “Hope, I suppose. Hope that I’m wrong. Hope that rather than fighting to delay things, my actions did some actual good in the big picture, even if I may never know it myself.”
“I didn’t imagine you having hope, after what you told me.”
“I have to be careful to not be too inspired by those hopes. If they crash down, it’ll hit one twice as hard, though maybe that’s why my hopes are so unrealistic. There isn’t a proper way to shatter them, like how a drowning man hopes that a saving hand will rescue him, and dies before he accepts that nobody is coming, never having ceased to struggle. It’s… preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best, I suppose.”
A few moments later, he ate the last of that which remained on his dish before standing up, taking his tin cup with him to the front door. Victoria turned to follow him with her eyes, seeing him step out and return a few seconds later, inspecting his tin can with his pendant.
“What did you do?” She asked.
“Checked the rainwater.” He answered, walking to the sink and then dumping it all before putting his cup back on the table. “It’s tainted too, as I imagined.” Then, he walked off to a room aside, for her to then hear him rummaging and causing a loud ruckus. A moment later, he crossed the door back into the room, holding a great metallic tub. “I’m going to gather rainwater. I’ll need you to cleanse it when I get back.”
“I need a bath, I can’t stand the filth. I suggest you do the same afterwards.”
A solid popping noise echoed through the storage room once the cork left the bottle, filling the air with its intense aroma. Unused to the smell, Victoria fought off a desire to cough, jerking her head back away from the bottle’s open top. A tempting smell, if only by its strangeness, bringing her to slowly move it closer to smell once more. Though she never tasted nor smelled alcohol, if only by pure disinterest, she could accurately notice it as if she had always known. The question on whether to drink it or not ran circles in her head on and on, unchanging as she made her way to the kitchen. Upon sitting down, she looked at its contents again, swirling with each movement of her hand, wondering over and over what its taste would be like and what effect it would have, if what she heard of such things was true.
Taking a deep breath as if it were a sigh, she brought the top to her lips and took a great sip, only to cough it out violently upon feeling the deep, burning sensation in her throat. More and more coughs followed, droplets of wine falling upon the table, before recovering her composure and staring with a frown at the bottle. ‘Who would like this?’ she thought to herself.
Yet, a strange desire to drink came to her, despite the burning sensation. Because of the sensation, in part. At least, the taste itself wouldn’t be the thing she was after, for she never had heard that the taste was what brought happiness, but instead something else. Decided, she brought the bottle to her lips once more, yet at that very instant a brute force violently ripped the bottle from her hands; startled, she turned her head, only to see Indrick beside her, even though she had imagined him too busy bathing.
Opening her eyes greater still, she found signs of a recently finished bath on him. Damp hair, pristine clean skin, and a lack of clothes other than his trousers. Her gaze fell on all that it could catch, seeing his tone body over which his pendant hanged free, of musculature which left it undeniably his title as paladin, yet of a lean proportion not excluding his athleticism. All the traits of an ideal figure, right before her eyes, not even a meter away from her, and with his torso on level with her eyes. At the same time, Indrick turned the bottle and looked at the label, before returning his expressionless eyes at her.
“I don’t want you drinking, at least for now.” He said. “Your turn to bath. You’ll need to get your own water, though.”
Her feet stepped over the floor of the bathroom, skin contacting with the ceramics with each step, until she arrived to the very center of the room. Though nude in all her extent, the demon realm had left the weather of Variland since her arrival so many years ago with no cold nor hot temperatures, a mildness leaving her able to remain comfortable despite her lack of clothes. Even what the apocalypse the affliction had brought only extended to rains, lightning, and winds, bringing no semblance of freezing winters nor scorching summers.
Beside her, she found the tub Indrick had brought with him, now empty. Though he had asked of her to bring her own water, she had other ideas. She took a glance around and found the window, shining with each droplet sliding down against its glass as lightning illuminated through. She stepped closer and extended her hand, opening it and letting a few raindrops sneak through and hit her before she stepped back. She then looked at her palms, then at the window, and raising her hands, she turned and twisted them as if it were an elegant dance. The rain outside began streaming in, funneled through the window in a narrow snake-like stream, following the path she made for it with her control until it ended just above her head in height, as if it were a shower. Where the funnel ended, it rained down against the ground in front of her, and after a second of staring, she stepped forward under the water.
Her hair dampened, drenched under the water. It flowed down straight, sticking to her body which she slowly scrubbed in silence, without a thought to cross her mind other than what she had to do. Yet, after a while, she stopped as she brought her hands to the back of her neck, separating skin from hair, staring aimlessly forward without a movement to follow. Indrick’s image entered her mind, that of his toned body as she had seen it before. Her imagination ran wild, picturing scenario after scenario, only to then wonder how it would have been so long ago. When she had first seen him in the villa, with such body hiding beneath his clothes, to imagine how things would be if it all had gone differently. Where she’d be, if Indrick had not been the paladin he had been, if he had stayed with her for them both to live a happy life.
Nyarlathotep would’ve still arrived, she figured, sighing and lowering her head. Things would’ve gone no different. Probably worse, in fact. For all the suffering the war with Nostrum brought, at least it gave Variland the strength to not be wiped off the map by neither Order nor Chaos.
Indrick’s smile. She remembered it so well now, the very first time he appeared. A prince charming, as if. A strange sensation filled her, coming to know that it had been the only time she saw him smile. Mental images of his body had flown away, replaced just by his expression back then, one which had been faked. Questions of how it’d be if he smiled in truth an honesty came to her, to end with the question of whether he had ever smiled at all.
Finished, the let the stream of water all fall to the ground before stepping to the window and closing it once more. She took the towel at one end of the room and dried herself off, before wrapping herself with it and stepping out the bathroom into the minuscule room connecting to it.
Indrick’s steps. Her eyes widened as panic sank in, dashing to the wall and pressing herself against it, hearing his steps come closer. There she heard him pass through to the other room, peeking through the doorway to see him walking away, for a sense of relief to fill her over him not having seen her in such situation. Her face grew expressionless again, coming to question what had just happened, of why she had suddenly been afraid. Was she afraid of him seeing her naked? But, why? She knew herself that she was a lilim, wouldn’t logic dictate that pride would be the result rather than fear? And fear, of what?
Lowering her gaze, she placed her hand over the skin of her chest, to then slowly run it down, meeting the fabric of the towel and pressing it to match her figure. Within her mind, she spoke to herself. By virtue of being a lilim, her body had no flaw other than that dependant on the beholder’s eyes. Fetishes, at most, of which she’d find it no difficult task to adapt like any other monster. Unadapted to any man’s taste, her lean figure still presented itself as a canvas for any manner of tastes. Her own belly had grown leaner still, showing hints of abs with what training she undertook after the war had started. Then, what? What drove her to hide herself in fear and shame for a simple paladin? Why was the daughter of the Demon Lord suddenly insecure of her image?
Closing her eyes and sighing to herself, she leaned her head back to rest against the wall. Was she afraid of him judging her? Now, of all times. Why did she care so much all of a sudden? Opening her eyes, she came to realize what she had asked. Why, indeed, did she suddenly care so much all of a sudden about this dumb thing, when she had stopped caring about it all after Nyarlathotep found her? She turned her head, seeing her clothes neatly arranged upon a crate pile, clothes she had cleaned beforehand with her own magic. Removing her towel, she slowly put them on.
Fully clothed now, she stepped out and followed the same path Indrick took, ending up at the kitchen he sat in.
“Done, then?” He asked while she pulled a chair and sat at the table. “I’ve been looking around. There’s a bedroom at each extreme of the house. You’ll sleep in the one past the bathroom. After that, we’ll keep going north.”
An eternal river lied before her, of mist and fog leaving her blind to see its boundaries. Though she stood upon the water, she did not sink, able to stand beside the innumerable lotus flowers of so many fruitful colors floating as far as the eye could see. Yet, though she stared down, the river revealed no reflection of her. Upon the first step taken forward, no noise emanated from the water as it would have, but instead solid steps as if stone were stepped. The second and third followed, aimless as she was, creating the very same noise echoing throughout the mist.
After a while of nothingness, she halted to stare up high, finding nothing but the very same mist above. Where she was headed, she knew not, nor did she know from where she had departed, leaving her with a sense of curiosity which compelled her to turn and look back.
Keetle helmet. Cloth upon his face. Rapier. Indrick, face to face with her, with the brim of his helmet covering his eyes, making her gasp in fright as she took a few steps back, only to find him immobile despite her actions.
“You’re a threat.” He said before turning into smoke, that of a bright, white color. Blinking blankly, she stared on and on, before glancing around to find the same nothingness as before. Not sight nor noise gave her hint of anything greater, leaving her alone with her thoughts before deciding to march onwards once more.
The silhouette of a person came to be seen as she marched forward, that of an armored man sitting down with his back to her. Indrick, she imagined, not removing her eyes from him as she stepped closer and closer, until in due time her steps ended not a meter away. The armor seemed to match, though he did not turn despite what noise would’ve given her presence away. At least, until he turned his head just enough to look at her from the slit of his helmet.
A step back in fright followed the realization that it was not Indrick. It was Dirk, standing up and unsheathing his longsword and turning to her, leaving her without words to say. He took a step forward, leaving her to take one step back, repeating twice and thrice, without her able to do anything in return, for she found herself without her rapier.
Hurried steps interrupted them, for Valerian armored in Catherine to arrive from behind, swinging sword at Dirk how blocked it. Victoria stepped back, watching them trade blow after blow with no results of their powerful armor, until without warning, both turned to smoke; Dirk, white, and Valerian, dark.
Nothing remained of them, not even the disturbance upon the water they once stood upon. The silence, brought abruptly after the clash of steel, seemed deafening; she could hear her own breath, even at its calmest extend, with almost too much clarity. Then, coming from far ahead, she could hear the echoing of two marching set of steps, too far to see through the mist. She marched on ahead, curiosity leading her thoughts, until through the mist she could see the outline of two people walking towards her. Stopping in place, she waited for them to come out of the fog, to then see them for who they really were: Jeremiah, with Melanie following closely from behind. Their slow walk continued, exchanging expressionless, almost sorrowful, eyes with her, but even as they arrived to her, they did not stop. They marched past her, who turned to follow them with her eyes, until Jeremiah turned to smoke. Yet, Melanie did not, stopping in place with her back turned to Victoria, to then slowly lower her gaze. After a few seconds, so too did she turn to smoke, yet instead of the bright or dark colors of before, instead electric-looking red and black fog engulfed her, to soon dissipate.
Rumbling, like that of an earthquake. Great distortions struck the water as it shook, coming from the direction she had walked from. Though she could not see the source, she felt it creeping closer and closer, until far away through the mist she could see the waters darkening. Where it darkened, the lotus flowers began to dry and lose their color, to ultimately die. Staring blankly, she took a few steps back, only to find in her peripheral view signs of her reflection on the water which had not existed till now. She looked down, only to find that it was not her reflection, but Melanie herself acting as such directly below her, now with those dark circles under her eyes characteristic of the affliction, along with a grin from ear to ear. Then, she lowered herself to rest on one knee, arm over the other, staring at her dead in the eyes.
“We will strip this world of its flesh, and leave exposed all that lies underneath…”
In the blink of an eye, Melanie threw her hand and pierced through the boundary between her and Victoria, grabbing her by the leg and pulling. The filament of the water broke, leading her to sink into the river with a scream, swallowed whole and silenced upon her head sinking into the depths.
Fully submerged, rather than move wildly to resurface, her body refused to move. No drowning sensation followed, just sinking deeper ever so slowly, seeing the shining light above of the water’s surface growing further and further away, so far away from her hand which reached upwards, yet remained at impossible distances.
A strangely comfortable sensation took over, as if all worries had left, a potential ending if nothing else. Nothing to see or sense, other than the water that’d take her to the depths where no pain nor suffering existed, to be joined by others whose voices she began to hear. Unintelligible, so many speaking at once, whispering such soothing and welcoming sounds like music to one’s ears. The chorus fell upon her just like how a mother would sing its child to sleep, rendering her eyes heavier the louder it got, and the deeper she sank. A desire to sleep, to let go, to be welcomed by those who shared the very desires as her had begun to take over, as if no reason existed to not welcome the embracing chorus.
As if no reason existed.
No reason, to go on.
No ‘why’, as to why go on.
Her eyes, already half-closed, slowly began to open to their fullest extend as she lied immobile among the depths. Great bubbles of air escaped her, beginning to drown after so long with a firm grip on her throat out of disbelief, to then flail wildly as she made all effort to swim upwards. Her panicked movements drowned out all noises from the chorus, swimming with all her might towards the light, coming closer and closer as what little air she had left in her lungs ran short, with half a thought on the hope that she’d escape in time and the other that she’d drown before finding salvation, yet she still struggled on nonetheless. Closer and closer still, she swam, until the final stretch arrived to break to the surface.
Torrential downpours mixed with a hurricane and near-pitch black darkness, illuminated by furious lightning greeted her as she broke out, coughing her lungs out to a painful extent as she grabbed onto a patch of water solid in consistency. But, as she opened her eyes and stared forward, she saw a pair of boots in front of her eyes; when she raised her eyes to see the person in full, she found Indrick with rapier in hand, inspecting another in uncanny similarity to the first time they truly fought. After an examination of the blade, he lowered it to stare at Victoria, before throwing it in front of her.
“Hold fast… or expire.”
Then, white smoke, though the rapier on the surface of the water had not disappeared. She threw a quick glance at the advancing darkness, coming ever closer still, making her grit her teeth as she climbed up once more, grabbing the rapier upon getting her legs out of the water, and making a run for the other direction.
The rumbling kept following. A glance back, and it seemed to gain pace, everything it touched drying and dying, with all engulfed in darkness.
“We don’t want to hurt you.” She heard as she looked back, to turn her head forward and see Melanie once more, standing in place by the side of the fog’s boundary, following her with her eyes. “We never did.” She continued, with Victoria never stopping, for Melanie to soon turn into that characteristic red smoke.
Yet, as she ran and ran, soon she came to see more dullahans appearing from red smoke beside her path. One by one they appeared, staring at her run past, and disappearing with the darkness, to return once more in the same fashion. Dullahans she remembers, ones she had personally commanded, only to have succumbed to the affliction. At first, only one dullahan stood present at any given time, to then grow in number to two, then three, over and over with greater numbers watching her go, with the rumbling behind her growing in intensity in equal manner.
A dullahan stepped forward from the sides, slashing her sword at her in the blink of an eye, though Victoria quickly parried it away in panic to keep on running. Though she looked back, the dullahan did not pursue, but instead stood where she had ended up after her attack staring at Victoria, before banishing. Turning forward again, another stepped forward and slashed, deflected with suspicious ease, yet as she ran on, Victoria also saw the numerous other dullahans ahead stepping closer, narrowing her available path. Another slashed, then another, and another, a flurry of blades falling upon her yet still a great minority in comparison to those who stood watching. Unable to fight back in force lest the darkness swallow her whole, she could only deflect and run, with no destination in mind, nor hopes that a destination truly existed at all.
Then, one slash in particular came her way. One which occurred at the same time as another, able to deflect the first, yet condemned to receive the second in all its force, only able to watch with wide eyes at that which she had been left unable to defend against. However, still it was deflected, not by her but by an man in full armor, ramming his entire weight against the attacker after the blunt block. Momentum still lied within him, bashing through and never stopping, running forward with Victoria and doing justice to all his protection, absorbing blow after blow with no ill effect. Plate, mail, poleaxe, cloak, and proportions she had seen before; Sigismund.
“Paladins!” A dullahan’s voice cried out. “Stop them!”
As if his presence alone had caused the proverbial hive to be kicked, all dullahans broke out in charge, not against Victoria but against Sigismund himself, leaving her to wonder what they had prepared for her. Though sorrowful over what could be hundreds bumrushing a single soldier, she then saw the great number of dullahans be blown aside, receiving a counter-charge by three other armored men who arrived to Sigismund’s aid, catching them by surprise and shattering their ranks, leaving them as easy pickings. Yet, though she’d have imagined them joining her in running, they had turned to white smoke, leaving her on her own.
Two dullahans appeared in front, running towards her with no regard to their previous plans regarding her. The two attacked at the same time, only for Victoria to dodge the two swords which had been aimed at the same place, and stab one of them with the full force of her body, bashing her with her shoulder thereafter enough to trip her back, turning her to smoke. The other dullahan then turned to pursue, yet could not match Victoria’s speed, halting in place and disappearing in smoke.
More figures came to be seen through the fog, that of hundreds upon hundreds, leading her to lower her speed in disbelief at the blockade in front of her. From the silhouettes alone she knew them to be dullahans, standing in formation like a battalion, but much as she had nearly stopped, a cold, steel-clad hand greeted her shoulder before she saw yet another armored man run past, looking at her from the slit of his helmet and nodding aside to the formation up front.
“Wedge, now!” He shouted, with Victoria immediately finding it to be Indrick’s voice.
More paladins ran past her. Two, four, eight, over and over, till all twenty paladins gathered in front of her in such formation. A wedge, a triangle with her as the base, and Indrick at the speartip. Though he said nothing, she seemed to understand all too well what his plan was; not to fight to the last, but to break through. For what, or for whom, as much as it seemed obvious, a sudden sense of humility prevented her from even thinking it all was for her sake. Sigismund and Indrick, she could identify well enough. Geoffrey, though she could not, she knew was among them. So many others stood among them, seventeen of those she knew not, yet knew they shared the same strength and tenacity as Indrick. Only in the escape from Acerrae had she seen them all in one place, yet not fighting, just escorting, leaving her with a sense of awe at what she believed would be a once-in-a-lifetime sight.
Close. A hundred meters. Sixty meters.
Poleaxes lowered, presenting a wall of spears. Then, a cry in unison from the twenty in sync, a war cry as all took sprint against those setting themselves up as roadblock, rushing forward with impetus which left Victoria behind for a few seconds before catching up.
And then, impact. Violent noises of metal and flesh, of blunt trauma and slicing force, smoke escaping upward where fighting grew fiercest. No elegance nor grace, but instead a brutal, merciless exchange of blows, space too constricted to move, all boiling down to bashing each other with all one had in hand if not with their hands alone. Screams, taunts, shouts, she needed not see the very front ranks to decipher what hell developed, seeing the smoke rise upwards through the sky, with the lightning illuminating it all in frequent intervals.
The paladin directly in front of her glanced back, soon to turn forward again, and once more back in quicker manner, stepping off his position and running back past Victoria; when she turned to see where he went, he saw him blocking a blow from a dullahan who had maneuvered to surrounded them, throwing his weight against her and bashing her with his helmet. More and more dullahans arrived, encircling the paladins, but before she could do a thing, another paladin grabbed her army and pulled. She followed, to find that a great advance had been done already, to which the paladin let go and tapped her on the back for her to go on her own. The wedge had turned into a circle, which then turned into a narrow oval, pushing further and further through the traitor lines; she moved forward safely, protected from any blows by those who put the term ‘heavy infantry’ to shame, till she arrived at the very front, only a single rank of paladins away from the bloodshed. There she arrived to Indrick, seeing him and Sigismund pierce further and further, aided by the others beside them who in turn were aided by those further down the line. Yet, such was the cramped space that she could do nothing to help, unable to raise her rapier to stab any traitor in the rapidly shifting and disorienting lines.
“Almost! Get ready!” Said Indrick, to keep on fighting with equal ferocity as before. Then, almost at break-neck speed, he threw his hand back and grabbed hers pulling her forward almost hard enough to make her trip. “Opening!” He shouted, sending her forward past him, to end up past the dullahan lines. “Go! Run!”
“Stop her!” Cried a dullahan, striking panic in her heart over once more being the primary target. She ran, though only as if her body did so of its own accord; to abandon Indrick and the others to their luck would’ve made her mind hesitate as it already was, deep down wishing to remain and fight side to side with them, though knowing that all she’d get would be orders to leave.
“You’re not going anywhere!” Melanie’s voice rang out, as did hurried steps closing in towards her. When Victoria turned her head, she saw Melanie running towards her and catching up distance at an alarming rate, barely a few meters away from her, only for a poleaxe to fly in like a javelin, flying past her eyes and prompting her to stop. Melanie turned to the source of the throw, to see Indrick unsheathing his longsword and running towards her. Other than that, Victoria saw not, for she turned her head forward once more and ran without looking back anymore.
Her breathing became rougher, growing exhausted the greater the distance she travelled, a distance she had completely lost track of. How far she ran, or for how long, she could no longer tell. A burning sensation set itself in her throat, that of so much panting and of physical exertion past her limit, intoxicated with adrenaline till a point where, even with such aid, she came to slow to an uneven gait ever so slightly, to then fall to her knees. Turning her head to look back, she found nothing, no pursuers nor paladins, no darkness engulfing the world, unknowing whether it had all disappeared or if the mist merely blocked sight. Rain, lightning, and wind did not help, still as violent as ever.
Yet, as she turned her head forward in hopes of seeing anything resembling a destination, she found something differing in the terrain. A patch of land over the water, like a small island, with someone sitting on top. The person didn’t seem to do anything, just staying there immobile, with Victoria unable to tell whether it knew of her presence or not. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and slowly walked towards it, to find past the mist as things grew clearer that it was Indrick once more, poleaxe by his side, turning his head to glance at her as she stopped a few steps away. After a few seconds of them both locking eyes, Indrick moved his head forward once more. A slight sense of relief came to her, if only by the calmness she found after the brutality of combat moments ago, compelling her to sigh, march forward to him, and sit down beside him facing the same way, a good rest for her now aching body.
Another paladin came from the mist, slowly marching towards them with poleaxe over his shoulder. Another paladin came to be seen, then another, and so on, as if all returned from their fight with the dullahans. One by one as they arrived, they marched up to the patch of land and sat by its edge, all taking their own place and sitting to face outwards like a circle around Victoria and Indrick. In due time, all nineteen had sat.
Only then did she notice the lotus flowers at the edge of the mist slowly drying. The darkness had appeared once more, as if she had outrun it only temporarily; looking behind her, so too did the darkness approached from that direction, as it did from either side. Completely surrounded, yet she saw the twenty paladins sitting calm.
“What now?” She asked.
But Indrick did not answer, nor did anyone else. Rather than a lack of answer, the silence seemed all too good of an answer in itself. Seeing the darkness advance on and on, never stopping, without seemingly anything to do to even delay it, Victoria stared expressionless before her gaze fell downwards. Her peripheral view then caught something, Indrick moving, to then turn her head towards him and see him extending his cloak with his arm towards her. Confusion befell her, before realizing she didn’t have her own cloak, unwittingly drenching herself in rain falling upon her. Blinking blankly for a moment, she then broke from his disbelief and slowly leaned against his shoulder, for him to wrap his arm around her and protect her from the rain with the cloak, almost as if it were a hug. Then, resting her head over his shoulder, she couldn’t help but feel her eyes grow heavy little by little.
Then, Indrick took a deep breath.
“Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed; death called us all, yet we all knew no fear.” He said, following a tune as if it were not a poem, but a quiet song where no instrument had to be played other than one’s voice. “Blood, toil, sweat, and tears; death called us all, still fighting we live.”
Four verses they were, before he repeated them once more, only for a few others to repeat them with him. First, a handful of paladins, then, most of them, until finally, all sang along with him. For what purpose, not only did she not know, she also didn’t care enough to know. Whether a mere time-killer, an act of defiance against the darkness, or a reminder of what they had gone through in Acerrae, still she seemed to enjoy hearing them all sing in unison such few verses.
After a while, her eyes closed, drifting off to a mild sleep.
Indrick woke up, though her spent the following moments still with eyes closed and lying on his bed. Too tempting to just stay in bed and cherish what few more minutes he could steal to relax, for it had been a great sleep.
Too great, in fact.
Alarms rang off in his head. Never before had he achieved such great sleep, and the situation in which he slept, after the collapse of two entire armies and innumerable hordes now most likely chasing after them, along with the paranoia of the one Nostrum had deemed the greatest threat before Nyarlathotep appeared, demanded he’d have gotten worse sleep than back in times of peace. Still, he didn’t enter a state of panic, if only because the relaxation seemed just so welcoming.
He slowly opened his eyes, to find nothing of note upon first view. Just the ceiling above him, indicating he woke up exactly where he fell asleep. Aiming to check further, he attempted to move, to find out that he could not; he was immobilized. Only now did he fully notice what, and who, pressed against him: the lilim, clinging on him asleep, under the blankets of the same bed. Full panic struck, compelling him to, almost in reflex, take the dagger from his belt he had slept with and point it at his own belly, preparing for the worst. For all his troubles, however, Victoria merely sighed as she made herself comfortable, snuggling closer to him.
As much as his fears had grown even greater than the times he stood face to face with Nyarlathotep, knowing the risk of incubization even by accident,he couldn’t help but wonder. The proximity should’ve already turned him into an incubus, yet if such thing had happened, he wouldn’t have near-instinctively readied himself to chop his own insides, for all negative ideas of incubization would’ve long gone away. With his other hand, he checked on his pendant, to find it shining strangely weak, and having yet not exploded. For all the signs he had found, nothing seemed to have happened, as much as paranoid skepticism still reigned in full force.
Her soft breathing tickled his neck each time. Her tail remained wrapped around his leg like a snake, and so too were her legs locked with his, along with her arms around his torso. For all intents and purposes, she was using him like a body pillow. Her warmth mixed with his, along with that they had built up through body heat alone under the covers, giving away that her arrival to his bed had not been too recent.
He raised his hand and tapped her arm running over his chest. “Hey.” He whispered, to then notice that he was, for some reason, caring too much to not wake her up too abruptly. Still, he tapped twice more. “Victoria.”
Soft grunting and eye narrowing followed from her, before she took one hand and rubbed her eyes. She lowered it, opened her eyes, and found Indrick beside her, to then stare at him expressionless.
“…What are you doing in my bed?” She calmly asked, breaking Indrick’s expectations of violent embarrassment.
“This is my bed.”
Silent, she stared on for a few moments. Sitting up, holding the blanket by her chest, she began looking around in mild confusion, though unreflected in her lack of expression.
“Are you a sleepwalker?” He asked.
“I don’t know.”
Though she still attempted to collect her thoughts as to what had happened, Indrick moved aside and sat up before getting off the bed, gaining her attention.
“I’ll go get your clothes.” He said, marching off. “We’re leaving as soon as we’re done packing up.”
Though she followed him with her eyes as he left, leaving sight through the doorway, soon her gaze fell down to her body. Panties and a loose shirt, all she had on, yet not a hint of blushing had occurred in all of the exchange. She couldn’t understand, how her reaction had differed compared to yesterday. The risk of being seen naked had left her in panic, and yet now being in such physical touch with him for the first time had not sparked anything out of her.
“Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed…” She whispered to herself in a monotonous voice. “Death called us all, yet we all knew no fear…”
Closing her eyes, she let herself fall, head against pillow. The dream had been too blunt, now that she recalled it all. Too blunt, in one regard.
He was gone. Lost. Dead again, going by how he’d no longer be Jeremiah once the cultists got him, if they very well didn’t already. With how much time it had passed, Acerrae must’ve swallowed all of those left standing, those who didn’t run, and Jeremiah with them. So long had she hoped that his death had been a lie, and when he returned, what did she do? How did she greet him? With what joy did she hugged him?
With nothing but a blank stare, her mind having been too weary to do anything, and now it was too late. His heartbroken face, she remembered it so painfully well, when he had tried so hard to get to her, and yet time had forced them to go once more. What must’ve been his last thoughts, after her departure? Fears of her never recovering, perhaps? Anxiety?
All because she did nothing. Because of what crippled her mind left her body to petrify. Seemed like an epiphany, to remember Indrick’s words on how nobody cared what she went through. Jeremiah certainly cared, but had she persevered through, things would’ve gone differently. It wasn’t a case of ability or inability, but of willpower, of fortitude, of perseverance past unwillingness, of doing what the mind said not to, if the mind was able to decide at all. Rather than seeing Jeremiah’s broken expression, he may have been able to see him smiling in joy, cherishing the reunion despite the hellish situation, or perhaps cherish it because of returning despite it. Was it Indrick’s intended meaning? Was it another, separate from his? Regardless of it, it rang true in her mind, coming to accept it as she grit her teeth and fought back tears of regret.
“Blood, toil, sweat, and tears… Death called us all, still fighting we live…”
As Indrick stepped out, he found the rain and wind easing further. A glance up above from below the roofed section, and he found the skies clearer ever so slightly, yet still blotting out the sun. That he could even look up in the first place gave away how it no longer rained sideways, with lightning turning into an infrequent occurrence. For the first time, he could not longer fully trust the lightning rays to work as suitable light source, though not many other options remained.
A glance to the side, to the segment protected from such violent rain of yesterday, he found his horse sleeping peacefully, as if it had found the minuscule improvement in weather a blessing from the all-maker. He stepped closer and then stepped in place multiple times, making just enough noise for the horse to shake his ears and slowly wake up on its own.
As it stood up, he glanced aimlessly, if only to pass time with whatever distraction the scenery could present him with, but short distance away under the roofed section he found something peculiar. He walked closer, arriving to the damp dirt with the certainty that neither him nor Victoria had ever been in this specific place, to see footsteps. Even if the two of them had been here, the marks would’ve deteriorated far more, for the only time they had ever been outside was when they just arrived. Too many to be them, too, and the soles of his boots didn’t match those in front of him. Seeing where they led to, he walked on under the roofed section, to end up by the window of the bedroom he and Victoria had slept in. All converged, footsteps of a group perhaps rounding five, right by the window pointing at the same. He pulled his pendant out and crouched to bring it closer, to see it shining blacker in proximity. Uniform boots, affliction, small numbers. Traitor dullahans, without a doubt.
Standing back up again, he checked the window, to find no attempt to break in, nor any other attempts to circumvent it through other potential entries into the house. He couldn’t help but grow a frown as he imagined them staring at him and Victoria sleeping, disgusted by its basic idea of voyeurism, though also in irritation over being unable to tell what their purpose was. They saw them sleeping, they watched them sleeping, they knew they were vulnerable, and yet they did nothing. In fact, they left, rather than wait for bigger numbers or just prevent them from even leaving through the front door. Makeshift caltrops of that damned material hidden in the dirt would’ve been exceptionally easy and effective traps to prepare, yet he saw nothing. Whatever the cause, he now knew with certainty that their pursuers knew where they were, had they not known already.
“Nothing left inside.” Said Victoria, walking out with one of the horse’s bags. Indrick returned the front door, and there she gave the bag to Indrick. As he arranged it on the horse, she returned inside to then walk out with another bag, to repeat over and over. “Can’t you just teleport the two of us to Variland?” She asked, as Indrick affixed the last one. At the question, Indrick paused momentarily, before finishing the task.
“My teleportation only works for me and a select few of my belongings, and it’s only a one-way trip to a single place. That’s the capital of Nostrum, and you don’t want to be there.”
“Why one place?”
“It’s extremely difficult to learn. It took me well over a decade to learn it, and even then I still made mistakes, like how I teleported out of the villa the first time without actually teleporting the rapier with me. Changing the destination, the objects, or the number of people involved, might as well mean spending another decade to be a mere amateur at it.”
“…Is it really that hard for you?”
“You’re a demigod. I’m a kid with issues, and not a blessing to compensate. What you consider bread and butter, we Nostrians may see it as something worth sacrificing one’s sanity for. It’s difficult enough that I needed to add the hand waving and whispering to myself to the incantation; it’s not needed, but with how much it helps my focus, it might as well be.”
Lowering her gaze, she formulated how to speak her mind, of how no longer did she just not understand the difference in power after Nyarlathotep so brutally put her in the same position, in relation to higher beings she did not even yet understand, and probably never will. At that moment, a thought sparked in her mind, like an epiphany upon remembering, along with cursing to herself for having forgotten about it altogether.
“How come you never asked if I could teleport us out of Acerrae?” She asked.
The dirt under his boots grinded as he turned to face her, one hand still over the bags of the horses. “Do you believe you’d have been able to, with your mental state back then? You looked tortured.”
Her gaze fell once more, giving away her answer through what silence remained.
“Truth to be told, I don’t feel like being teleported around by a lilim.” He continued, grabbing the horse’s reins and leading it further outside before jumping up. “Consider it paranoia, if you must. We can walk just fine, and maybe we’ll be confusing the dullahans if they see us marching rather than using your magic.”
Then, he extended his hand. Victoria stared momentarily, before taking it and jumping up with him, remaining behind him as she was before. Towards the north, they then departed once more.