Even as he crossed the door, sheltered from the rain by the building’s interior, it barely felt any different. So much humidity had built up that, even if no raindrops fell on him, it still felt as humid as if it did regardless, with such heavy air making the mere act of breathing as uncomfortable as it could get. From there he made his way in, passing by those inside in Vandire’s makeshift headquarters, with the few scribes here and there writing and carrying a few papers around only making Jeremiah question how the papers themselves survived in such environment.
There he found him at one extreme, Vandire speaking with a few squires. Too noisy was the room for him to pick up any semblance of topic they discussed, and those talking with him soon saluted and left. Didn’t take a word for Vandire to notice as he arrived.
“My dullahans finished searching.” Said Jeremiah. “They couldn’t find anyone that might’ve barricaded themselves in.”
An eyebrow raised in Vandire’s expression, of a mixture of emotions Jeremiah could not tell, though confusion still reigned.
“Was it… desolated?” He asked.
“Yes.” Answered Jeremiah.
“They didn’t find anything?”
“No. Something the matter?”
Vandire stared silent with the same look, before raising what Jeremiah found to be a paper in his hand, looking at it for a second before returning his gaze to Jeremiah, letting out a quiet sigh. He then took a step forward and made his way to one table, pulling a chair and sitting down before sliding another back, inviting Jeremiah to sit.
“You remember what happened to Dirk, right?” Asked Vandire as Jeremiah sat down.
“You think the same situation happened here?”
“With those that got cut off.”
“Did you… order them to–“
“I’ve never ordered such thing, and I never will. Still, it’s a silent agreement that the time will eventually come. I don’t know what to think now that you didn’t even find a singly body, a single drop of blood; my men have searched everywhere, and it’s the same on our end. The affliction must’ve been just that strong.”
In the pause that ensued, Vandire brought his hand to his mouth, scratching in thought as he rested his elbows on the table.
“You look confident that they’d have gone through with it.” Mentioned Jeremiah, crossing his arms and resting them upon the table.
“I can’t tell everyone to off themselves, much less expect them to. Still, everyone knows what would happen otherwise, so I’d have imagined that at the very least one body would be found.”
“What would happen otherwise?”
“Same thing as if we were fighting monsters; instead of just being a casualty, the enemy would also grow in numbers. Everyone that we lost here today is bound to return as traitor.”
Traitor dullahans, from those loyalists captured. The thought had struck Jeremiah silent.
“Look at the bright side, though.” Said Vandire.
“What bright side?”
Vandire then turned his head to the side as he leaned back, looking past Jeremiah. Then, he pointed towards where he looked at, with Jeremiah turning to find a window aimed at the street, just at an angle where he could see the horizon through where the town hall once stood. Early, early dawn, distinguishing it with how the storm clouds had eased enough to see the light of day. He couldn’t understand what Vandire meant, turning to face him, but then finally understood once he saw what could only be described as the most punchable shit-eating grin he had the displeasure of seeing in his life, giving away what miserable joke Vandire had in mind.
The ‘bright side’ of the sky.
Jeremiah’s eye twitched, lips rising and nose wrinkling in a mixture of agony, annoyance, and disgust. Then, the side of his mouth began rising, as an uncontrollable urge taking all his strength in attempted suppression began taking over. Couldn’t help it. His face began twisting, deforming, and as he raised his hand to block what his mouth would give away, he found himself unable to suppress his own erratic wheezing. At this, Vandire began giggling, only making it worse for Jeremiah to contain himself, till both soon broke out laughing.
“You’re an awful human being.” Said Jeremiah through his reckless chuckling.
“Ah, you know what’s even funnier?” Wheezed Vandire, leaning forward again and resting his elbows on the table and hand on his forehead. “For every hell we’ve been pulling through here, it’s been because of an affliction that, get this, only makes people feel a bit lonely!”
Laughter continued, as self-deprecating as it was.
“Say,” sighed Vandire, regaining his composure as best as he could yet still with a smile in his face, “I’d be surprised if you weren’t wounded at least once.”
“I was, yes.”
“The affliction affects everyone differently, doesn’t it? What did you feel?”
“Well,” he raised his hand to scratch his chin, “made me remember my wife. Tempted me with returning to the underworld, to be with her, to give up what I’m doing here and leaving Victoria for dead.”
“Your wife is dead…?”
“Huh. Maybe she’ll meet mine.”
“Yours is, too?” He asked, turning his head to Vandire in curiosity.
“Regrettably. The wound made me think of her. You pulled through, though. How?”
“Told myself ever since I got here that I’ll never return until Victoria is safe.” He answered, turning his head forward again. “With how the visions appeared, it was easy to twist its meaning so that I put even more effort and didn’t give up.”
Vandire chuckled. “You used the affliction against it? That’s smart–” His words abruptly ended, eyes opening as a memory returned to him in such moment, leaving him with a blank expression Jeremiah took notice of. “…The dullahan.”
“The dullahan. The one who went berserk when her head was removed. What was her name?”
“Yes, Lucia. Has she recovered already?”
“If you only want her to talk, then I imagine she has.”
“Good.” He said, placing both hands on the table and propping himself up, immediately stepping off away. Jeremiah stood up and quickly caught pace with him, following through the building till they stepped outside, raising their hoods to cover themselves from the rain.
Not many stood outside; who would, even in the lightest rain other than those who needed to? Only patrols marched about through the streets they walked through, moving block past block till they reached a few buildings reclaimed from their abandonment; an inn, and several other buildings around it, now repurposed as a field hospital. Yet, upon crossing the door inside the mental image of a hospital would’ve flown out the window for anyone new. A psychiatric ward seemed more fitting; no injured men or dullahans, no bandages, no limp wounded, nothing of the sort to be seen, only normal men and dullahans, and those who looked like lifeless husks or automatons marching about, led by the former. Already a good sign for the latter, those who had recovered enough to regain some semblance of independency, instead of succumbing to a state where they sat where they were without a thought or word to leave them, even if they sat in a cavern on their own.
Salutes greeted them both all the way, marching through the building, up the staircase, down a hallway, and to a certain door Jeremiah knocked on. The handle turned, and as the door creaked open a face peeked from within.
“Ah– Lord General?” Greeted a dullahan in surprise, opening the door fully and saluting.
“Hello.” Said Jeremiah, looking from the door to see another dullahan under the blanket of the bed. “Is Lucia better?”
“She’s tired, but well enough otherwise. I’m just here keeping her company.” She answered, stepping aside for Jeremiah and Vandire to march in.
“Lord General.” Greeted the dullahan in the bed with a smile, saluting as best as she could in such state and position. Such smile gave away enough to the two already, of what the affliction didn’t steal. “Surprised to see you here. Do you need something?”
“Yes. Vandire and I have a few questions to ask.”
“I’ll answer as best as I can.”
Before they knew it, the dullahan returned with a pair of chairs for them. Both Jeremiah and Vandire remained surprised at how they didn’t even notice her leaving, let alone returning at all. After she left them beside the bed, the two sat down.
“How do you feel?” He asked.
“…I’ve seen better days.” She said, sinking in her pillow. I don’t think a year of training would’ve gotten me ready for this. Everything aches.”
“Dreadful. If it makes you feel better, we accomplished what we set out to do. Nothing was lost in vain.”
She chuckled, glad, though soon her smile faded as she stared aimlessly ahead, thoughts drifting.
“Do you remember what happened back then, when we all fought? When you were with Vandire making your last stand, and the dullahans broke through?”
“I remember, faintly.”
“You didn’t forget. That’s good.
“All of us were surprised to see a dullahan fighting with such… passion.” Said Vandire. “None I’ve talked to would’ve imagined dullahans behaving like that, much less when their head is detached. Is there anything you can tell me about what happened?”
Silent for a second, Lucia took a deep breath.
“It… felt like a dream, of sorts.” She said. “Like I was only half-awake, same as how in a dream one’s body and mind feels like it’s acting on its own. Yet, when I lost my head, I started feeling… angry, for lack of better words. I remember having to tell myself to not let my fear get the best of me when I was fighting, but when I fell, it’s like… something else took over. I began remembering what those cultists and traitors did. How they stole our Lady from us, how they stole my friends from me, entire cities depopulated, all without anything that we could do about it. We weren’t even attempting to defeat them here, just to delay them… and it angered me. I wanted to stop it. No, not even that, I wanted revenge. It’s not that I couldn’t control myself anymore at that point, it’s that, at least for that very moment, nothing else existed. Only the traitors, and what they had taken from me, from us. And I wanted them gone.”
A grim silence took over, in which Vandire’s only movement was to cover his mouth, both in thought, and in dread. Though Jeremiah showed no expression, his stillness gave away to Vandire equal thoughts. Both knew that a dullahan’s head detaching resulted in the dullahan’s true feelings taking over, the polar opposite of a disciplined soldier in return. The headless traitor Jeremiah and Indrick had seen could not prepare them enough.
“Ever seen anything like this?” Asked Vandire.
“Never in my days in the Demon Army. Not even rumors.”
A ruckus growing outside interrupted them, rendering Vandire unable to even mutter a lamentation of what mess they had been sucked into if dullahans had started reacting in such manner. Vandire stood up and marched to the window, staring outside to find two dullahans forcibly dragging a man by the arms.
“Get well soon.” He then said as he turned and marched, passing by Lucia’s bed towards the door not before nodding at Jeremiah to follow.
They marched out the inn just as the two dullahans passed, showing visible surprise at finding them there instead of the headquarters. Stopping immediately, the two dullahans turned to face the two generals, showing the man now on his knees. Already at first sight it silenced them both, recognizing that the outfit shared no similarities to those of the Nostrians; a stranger.
“We found him sneaking about in the eastern edge of town.” Said a dullahan. “Doesn’t want to talk.”
Vandire and Jeremiah stared on in perplexity, to find the stranger opening his eyes wide as his gaze shifted from Vandire to Jeremiah and back. Vandire, however, said nothing, and instead narrowed his eyes upon finding a peculiar detail on his outfit. It wasn’t a vagabond or looter, nor a mere traveller or an unlucky sod in the wrong place at the wrong time. The outfit, though not Nostrian, still shared traits of military design, and as Vandire took a step closer, he saw the heraldry on a small patch by his shoulder.
“Welsple…” Exhaled Vandire, baffled enough for Jeremiah to share the sentiment just by seeing him, until the knowledge of what the word meant struck him. “I need all monsters to keep a distance.” He said, prompting the dullahans to exchange a glance before letting go and stepping back. A glance targeting Jeremiah let him know that he, too, needed to step back, to which he complied.
Once only the stranger and Vandire remained for a few meters, Vandire brought his hand to his neck, rummaged within his clothes, and took out a rosarius of his own, that which shined only dimly by the monster presence within Acerrae. A display which had gained a raised eyebrow in surprise from the stranger, confused in his entirety.
“Desperate times called for desperate measures.” Said Vandire, tucking his rosarius back into his clothes. “Stand up and speak. Who are you?”
“I…” Answered the stranger, standing up with effort as if what had transpired before him had sapped all his strength. “I’m a scout of the Welsplian army sent to reinforce.”
Vandire blinked blankly, as did Jeremiah a little away.
“How far away are they?”
“An hour or so.”
“I desperately need to talk with your general. Too many things have happened too quickly. I hope that the fact that Nostrum found it necessary to cooperate with Variland shows how bad things really were.”
With a nod from Vandire, the scout turned and rushed away the way he came from. At the same time, Jeremiah and the two dullahans slowly returned to Vandire.
“Reinforcements?” Asked Jeremiah, tone showing what grim implications he could already imagine it had.
“Those I asked for would arrive with the mindset that we’re still at war,” he answered, still following the scout with his eyes, “that it’s a purely human-versus-monster business, and they sure as hell won’t enjoy the idea that we’re not at each other’s throats.”
A sigh escaped Jeremiah. “Do you think the war is gonna start again?”
“I have no authority to decide. If the Welsplians pursue it, nothing I can do will stop it. I don’t even know if they’ll massacre us all on the spot and label us Nostrians as traitors.”
“Would they really throw you under the carriage like that?”
“The only thing they’ll see is both our armies together in a town. Everything we’ve gone through is anecdotal evidence at best, other than the cities suddenly desolated on my side which can be explained as monsters taking all of them. Whatever’s to the north of the border would be considered too risky to check if true, and it’s not like they’ll immediately believe anything monsters or those who cooperated with them say. I had my army and paladins go on a suicide mission to rescue a lilim, there’s no easy way to explain that. We’re in a tought spot.”
From over the rooftop of a building, both Vandire and Jeremiah gained view of those who arrived. A great army in the far distance, a minuscule series of dots against the horizon, though a small detachment had set out marching their way. Close enough to be counted, they saw a man leading a group of ten, arranged in two lines of five. Bodyguards, without a doubt. For a general, however, the leading figure seemed to dress strangely. Welsplian fashion, perhaps.
Vandire then turned to descend, prompting Jeremiah to follow in turn. In due time they exited the building into the streets, marching to the street the Welsplian would arrive in specific, where many other Nostrians awaited; needless to say, no dullahans could be seen in the surroundings, other than those further away within the town. Already the two could see on the field the detachment coming closer, able to hear their steps through what could barely be called a light rain.
His eyes shot wide open. Jeremiah saw this, confusing him enough to distress him. It wasn’t a general. What Vandire saw of the strange uniform didn’t belong to a general; the ornamental cloak and hood of a peculiar nature gave it all now that he could see him clearly.
An inquisitor. A man of robes he had only heard a faint description of as uniform of a position created not long ago; a person in particular, rumored to be the one sent to Druella’s demon realm and return in one piece, other than the scar in the shape of an X showing on his cheek.
“Master-Commander Vandire Castellan, I presume.” Said he who arrived in a voice sending a shiver down Vandire’s spine, engulfing the town in silence as his and his bodyguards’ steps came to an end. “I am Lord Inquisitor Frigeridus. I’ve heard from one of my scouts that you have… cooperated with those you’ve been waging war against.”
Lord Inquisitor. Upon hearing the title, both Vandire and Jeremiah couldn’t help but stand petrified over never having imagined the one who answered only to the Grand Master of the order arriving. With a deep breath, Vandire fought to regain his calm and collected composure.
“What you have heard is true, Lord Inquisitor.”
Moving his head to look past Vandire, he found already signs of the dullahans further within, marching about while other Nostrians did their own thing, both sides behaving as if they were part of the same faction already despite being Monster and Order. Turning his head, he then laid eyes upon Jeremiah, seeing his silverish skin, dark circles under his eyes, and the stitched part of his neck left to light; undead, undeniable to anyone who’d see the signs. He then took out his very own rosarius out of the neck of his clothes, prompting Vandire to wave Jeremiah off to back off; Frigeridus held it close to Vandire, though his expression rested unchanged, even as he saw the dim light only Jeremiah caused.
“I heard rumors.” He said, tucking his pendant back in. “I want a rundown of what happened. You can skip the war and what led to it, I want the details of what went different than expectations.”
“Very well.” Said Vandire, taking a deep breath. “While we were in conflict with Variland, a woman appeared in this town, later calling herself Nyarlathotep. When one of my paladins found her while looking for succubi, she seemed to do strange things to people’s minds, and the light the rosarius emitted around her was pitch black. Rather than black, it seemed to syphon all light around it like a black hole. The populace of Acerrae behaved strangely. Later on, entire populations succumbed to whatever Nyarlathotep did to them, this ‘affliction’, and were hostile to both Order and Monster.”
“Hostile to both…? Is this Nyarlathotep something other than a monster?”
“God knows. These ‘cultists’ following Nyarlathotep began spreading this affliction, imbuing demon realm silver with it. Entire cities were depopulated. The lilim to the north and the army she mustered fell victim to this, too. Whatever this affliction did, it gave the victim seemingly no need for nourishment, rest, or sleep. The victims didn’t seem to be harmed by weapons either, disappearing as soon as a lethal blow would be made, only to reappear later on from God knows where; functionally unkillable, each and every single one of them. The north and us were forced to cooperate, and we came to the conclusion that if they managed to obtain the power of a lilim, it’d be detrimental to both sides far more than if she were to remain unafflicted. We found out that the lilim was in Acerrae, and both of us mustered our armies to get to her. I wish to believe we were successful, with our armies getting through to her and then mounting a distraction for my paladins to escape north with her.”
Silence. The Lord Inquisitor stared at Vandire dead in the eye, showing no discernible expression nor noise. Vandire felt his skin beginning to burn out of the stress endured in that very moment, drawing closer to a state of sweating. At that moment, however, Jeremiah drew closer till he stood where he was before he had backed off, earning the attention of the Lord Inquisitor as he turned his eyes in his direction, much to Vandire’s worry.
“Introduce yourself.” He said, striking Jeremiah’s surprise hard enough to make him space out for a second.
“…I am Lord General Jeremiah of the army aiding Vandire, formerly the butler of the Lady of Variland.”
“Do you have anything to say, Lord general?”
“My army is ready to depart. If the cultists and traitor dullahans have chased after those who escaped north, then it’s important that we don’t waste any time.”
Frigeridus’ eyes returned to Vandire, who stared back without having a mere word to say. Vandire’s eyebrows raised ever so slightly, dreading what the Lord Inquisitor’s choice would be with an army behind him, with each passing second of silence stabbing him like a knife in the belly. Then, Frigeridus’ eyes returned to Jeremiah.
“With so few numbers, your army will be destroyed.” Said Frigeridus. Vandire raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“I understand, but the alternative is leaving the paladins on their own.”
“Admirable, but in the best of cases you’ll still be unable to link up with those to the north. You’ll arrive to find the chasers in front of you. You’re left with little, but if you go north, you’ll be left with nothing.” With his answer, Jeremiah’s expression of determination slowly died down, gaze lowering as eagerness to move out perished. Then, he turned to Vandire. “Master-Commander, have you planned your next move?”
“While Jeremiah moved north, my forces would march back to Makillae. It’s the closest city to Variland without entering the demon realm, and the most fortified.”
“Then we’ll move to Makillae as one. From there, we’ll see what we can do. When we’re there, I expect a full detailed report of everything that has happened, including what led up to this war.” He then turned to Jeremiah. “I would like you to write one for me, too. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of things from the other side.”
“As you say, but I have to ask for something in return.”
“What will it be?”
“That the war between Nostrum and Variland doesn’t start again, or at least is delayed as much as possible.”
Vandire and Frigeridus stood silent, looking at Jeremiah. Vandire’s eyes then fell on Frigeridus, unable to predict what he’d say.
“There is a reason I’m here, Lord General.” He said. “If my fears are correct, and the rumors true, what you saw here may just be the beginning. There is a terrible darkness descending upon this world, and we may not see it ended in our lifetimes.”
Had there been others with them, it’d have looked not unlike a stampede. Their horse galloped forth onwards, seeing in the faint horizon the small hill where her villa rested. For each step taken, the horseshoes dug into the damp soil and tore it out like a shovel, mud and grass sent into the breeze. Seemed like a gift of respite with how the weather changed, enough for them to see so far away, rain almost gone with winds nonexistent and clouds barely forming a layer overhead. However, it had not ended; an omen of how things still had not ended, of their chasers still having not given up despite not following them up close.
The road took them westwards, just enough to then turn and climb up the minuscule hill directly from the west. Tents flanked the road on each side, given zero regards to those sleeping within in such early dawn as the horse kept on running; enough noise, in fact, for a few tents up ahead opening for a dullahan or two to peek out, only to stare wide-eyed in petrification, moving their head as the two passed.
Valerian’s tent now stood beside them, at which moment Indrick halted his horse. Both he and Victoria jumped down, and upon landing next to the tent entrance, he pulled the cloth and stepped in.
Within, he saw Valerian and two dullahans acting as his officers, though the three almost jumped from their seat upon seeing the man clan in steel from head to toe barging in. Their panic lasted a split second, for the man not only took his helmet off to reveal who he was under the hood, but so too did Victoria follow closely behind, making the three stare without idea of how to react.
“V… Victoria…” Spoke Valerian, as if his strength had faded. Slowly he stood up with the two others, making his way towards her till he remained right in front starting, baffled. There he could see her relatively expressionless face, just eyebrows raised ever so slightly in curiosity over her silent gaze, yet his focus lied on how he couldn’t see any signs of the affliction on her, not even dark circles under her eyes. His mouth widened as a smile grew, till a quiet joyous chuckle escaped him.
Then, shocking her enough to make a gasp escape her mouth, he stepped forward and hugged her almost too tightly, lifting her from her feet quite a height. Shock turned to agony in her expression, the strength of his embrace added to the cold hardness of Catherine’s armor upon him making it a somewhat uncomfortable event.
“Hahaha! You’re back! I can’t believe it, you’re back!”
“You’re killing me…!” She exclaimed, voice almost too muffled and choked to be understood; Valerian did not even hear it, despite lowering her at the same time and letting go.
“I thought I was the only one allowed to be pessimistic.” Said Indrick, gaining Valerian’s attention as he turned to him. Victoria massaged her arm after the ordeal, all the while the two dullahans stepped closer in disbelief, staring at their Lady having returned; without any of them knowing how to react, only stares could be exchanged. “I take it part of you imagined it’d end in failure.”
“I’ve been fighting those things ever since they appeared.” Said Valerian. “I know what to expect, and what not to. I don’t imagine they let you go with her after asking nicely.”
“No, they’re chasing after us. The rest of my paladins are running around luring them away, but the traitor dullahans are bound to wisen up and head here directly. I’d give it a day at best before they’re here.”
“Figured… Sooner or later they’d come here regardless of the outcome, I guess. Still, you said traitor dullahans. Are they not accompanied by cultists?”
“No. Don’t ask me why.”
A sigh escaped him, what smile and optimism from less than a minute ago already extinguished to the last. “A day, then. We might have enough time to evacuate the capital–“
“Don’t waste your time.” Interrupted Victoria, a voice stern enough to surprise Valerian as he turned to face her with a raised eyebrow.
“…What about the people inside?”
“Where would you want them to run to? Assuming they don’t catch up with them, anyways. The afflicted don’t need to eat, rest, or sleep, but we do.”
A pause engulfed the room in silence, time Valerian used to lower his head and think of her words, pursing his lips.
“It’d be a logistical nightmare to evacuate the people.” She continued, a voice softer than before. Not a lecture, but a lamentation. “If they don’t arrive before we depart, the dullahans we have would be left in disarray over spreading the word and organizing it all. I don’t know if there’s a safe haven to aim for; you know what Variland and Nostrum had, and you know what they lost. The affliction will only get stronger from here on.”
“What do you suggest?” He raised his head, looking at her.
“We stay. We fight. Not a great choice, but the best choice nonetheless. Maybe the only one we’re given. Fight, or perish like dogs. Arm everyone in the city until we don’t even have sticks to give them. Have them take shelter at the center. Have the dullahans barricade every possible entrance; turn this city into a fortress with what time we have left.”
“There may be those able to leave on their own.”
“Pains me to say this, but they can’t just leave. If they get caught, they’ll return against us like the first army.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll sooner perish here than leave Variland for dead.”
“Even if the affliction turned you? Even if it renders all the sacrifice in vain?”
Struck silent, she could only stare blankly.
“We’ll figure that out later.” Told Indrick to Valerian. “What matters is that we have a lilim willing to go that far among us. If she didn’t have that mindset, we’d probably be marching north right now to get trampled on in a few hours.”
“Huh.” Said Valerian, before turning his head to Indrick. “Do you agree with her?”
“I’d have come up with the same idea. Must’ve rubbed off on her or something.”
“Then, if a paladin and a lilim somehow managed to agree on it, I suppose there’s no remedy. Victoria, anything else you need done?”
“We have to take those in the villa and have them take shelter at the center, too.” She said. “With the open spaces around here and how much area it takes up, it’ll be a nightmare to defend. It should be quicker if you come with me.”
“Glad to see that the affliction didn’t take you from us.” He chuckled, before turning to the dullahans. “You two, have everyone either getting everyone in the capital at the center, or building defences. No time to even rest, everyone should be doing something. Indrick, you may want to go with them, they should get used to a paladin being around for when the others return.”
“Yes, sir!” The two answered, before turning and marching out to the tent’s entrance. Indrick exchanged a glance with Valerian, before putting on his helmet and following the two as they left, catching up by the exit.
Yet, as Indrick marched out, he found the two dullahans stopping outside. Once he himself stepped out to view it all in full detail, he found all around them a sea of dullahans, all having gathered near to stare intently at the tent for Lord knows how long already. Soon enough Valerian and Victoria stepped out, to be met with the same surprising scenery.
“Our Lady is back!” Shouted a voice afar, muffled past the murmurs within the endless crowd.
Little by little, cheering began to be heard, till a joyous cacophony with raised hands in celebration took over, almost deafening to heard. With the vibrations, Indrick could feel his own belly rumbling; yet, he could also feel a somewhat heartwarming sensation, such a welcoming cheer after having gone through so much. Despite it being monsters who cheered, despite none knowing what exactly had happened, he still felt like it was not only for Victoria, but for him too, for they must’ve known that he and the Nostrian Army had done their share.
Never felt it before. Never knew of its existence, if anything; trained for suicidal endeavours, expected to fall in the darkness alone, never to return for a celebratory welcome for victories The Order never expected to accomplished, and right in front of his eyes it had all turned true. Hardly believable for him, staring with wide open eyes and mouth slightly open, granted the luxury of not being seen with such dumb face by his helmet. For all that he denied himself in expectations, it seemed to have struck far harder once it came, even if from the wrong side. Heart melting, skin burning, dumb smile attempting to force his way through, it seemed like a scenery potent enough to almost bring a tear to his eyes, as much as the two dullahans and Valerian stared in half-confusion and half-annoyance, and Victoria looked with stupefaction on her face.
“Rally up!” Shouted one of Valerian’s officers, stepping forward to the crowd. “We have new orders! Our Lady’s chasers are bound to arrive!”
Within an instant, the crowd’s cacophony altered from a celebration to that of a million shouts for order and organization, mixed with the sudden stampede of so many steps running one way to the other.
Given respite by the ruckus in front, Indrick took off his helmet and rubbed his face, taking a deep breath at the same time. Needed to cool off, to get a grip, what he had witnessed seemed to affect him too much. Couldn’t let that moment of bliss take over him, make him yearn for more to the point it affected his thoughts and actions, as if it were so great of a drug. Then, he marched off westwards as he put on his helmet.
However, steps drew closer; a single set, unlike what he’d have imagined from the half mini-regiment remained.
“Paladin Indrick.” Called a voice, compelling him to stop. When he turned around, he saw one of the dullahan officers. Quite a surprise to see her interacting in person with him, in fact, with him having grown so used to seeing others as the faceless, voiceless, nameless. Didn’t help that it was the third almost-army the Varilandians had mustered, with all within feeling so depressingly expendable at this point, and the last dullahan officer he had known the name of had ‘perished’.
Red-haired, flowing down over her left shoulder and bangs swept aside in the same direction. What detail he never was mistaken to expect from dullahans was her neck, covered; a neck piece did the job, armor linked to a pair of pauldrons resting on top of chainmail; half-protection and half-ornamental, as steel would do no good against what weapons dominated the field. No stern look on her face, no disciplined frown hanging over her green eyes; he couldn’t tell whether she was a mere lottery-winner for the position of Valerian’s lieutenant with so critical of a manpower shortage, or if something else circled her mind.
“Yes?” He asked.
“I am Valerian’s lieutenant, Rose. I… wanted to thank you, for bringing our Lady back.” She said, face showing what difficulty she had in gathering her words despite all attempts to hide it. “We’ll never be able to repay you for this. I look forward to cooperating with you, if only as a sign of personal gratitude.”
“I don’t understand. You want to repay the paladin that tried to kill her?”
“And despite that, she’s safe and sound thanks to you and the others. I want to cling to whatever little common ground we have, even if temporary.”
Not the vindictive kind, thought Indrick. Forgiving, almost too much for comfort. How she said ‘temporary’ gave away for him how she knew they’d be at each other’s throats once more, and still she kept hopes up.
“Is it a trend among monsters to be naive?”
“…Eh?” She asked, surprised in her entirety, blinking blankly as her eyebrows shot up. “D-did I say something wrong?”
Silent, he slowly turned his head to the side. A trickle of dullahans already ran through the road, those who had readied up and rushed westward to form up. Maybe five or six ran out every few seconds or so, the very first few to finish packing up in remarkable speed. Yet, though he expected them to shoot glances his way as they passed filled with skepticism and suspicion over actions long past, he instead saw such cheerful smiles and encouraging gestures sent his way, with few remarks lacking the hostility he would’ve predicted, if he got one at all. He couldn’t help but look back on how monsters were, with the stories he heard and the vision he experienced in the woods where Variland had yet to exist. Seemed like worlds apart. Still reasons existed to fight, or so he believed, yet the old monsters were long gone. At least, for as long as the current Demon Lord remained in power, or enough of her daughters remained to take over otherwise.
“No.” He answered. “You didn’t say anything wrong.”