Though he felt a chill running down his spine, expecting the worst, he found that nothing seemed to happen. Even as he glanced around, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Some of the crowd had even begun leaving one by one as the one with the unpronounceable name stared at him with that same expressionless face.
However, soon he realized that all of the crowd were leaving without a word, even though he’d have imagined some sort of finale, or at least questions on whether it was over or not. No, all the people were just as expressionless, silent, marching their own ways, till he followed with his eyes and saw them all drifting into a seemingly involuntary formation which headed the same way through the same wide street.
Staring on, Indrick saw them thereafter splitting into three narrow columns as they marched. One disappeared in a narrow alley to their left, leaving only the echo of a shocking moan. Glancing to the two other columns, he saw that one filed down a weed-choked road at the edge of the city entrance, howling with a laughter that was mad.
The third, last one, marched on toward the open country.
A loud gasp escaped him as his eyes shot wide open. Immediately he brought his hand to his chest, finding no longer his armor but rather his old clothes; reaching to his head, he found his old kettle helmet in place. Heart hollowed as it beat to its greatest extend, finding the sensation itself as shocking as the scenery: His body no longer ached, fully replenished in stamina and integrity, without the grievous wounds in his last days in the capital of Variland. Though his last memory had been that of Victoria’s teary eyes looking at him, her face wounded and bleeding, now he had found himself back in Acerrae.
Acerrae, before all hell had broken loose.
Turning around in absolute panic, he saw her. Nyarlathotep, staring expressionless before growing a wide familiar smile.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She said.
But no words escaped him. Still in absolute disbelief, he kept shifting glances around and inspecting his body to no avail.
“What…” He began asking. “Another dream world you’ve gotten me in?”
But Nyarlathotep only shook her head. Indrick raised his head high, to find the skies not the graying sunless ones he had grown used to seeing already.
“What do you believe was the dream world, Indrick?” Asked Nyarlathotep, for Indrick to stare with his now almost permanent aghast expression. “Certainly some signs might’ve given it away.”
“What are you talking about…?” He asked, tone giving away that it was not a lack of knowledge on his part, but almost knowing too well what she implied.
“Well,” she jumped off the crates, to land in front of him as he took a step back, “let’s put it this way. Have you gone through any event that’s been almost… ‘too good to be true’?”
“It was all a mess, nothing good came out of it. We lost thousands to you, our nations were condemned to fall, people turned traitor and fought their own kin. Why would it be a dream?”
“Are you certain of it?”
“Get to the point.”
“Dirk and Jeremiah finding peace with each other down there in the underworld. Would you consider it a good thing, or a bad thing?” She asked.
But Indrick said nothing. Rather, his petrification stopped him from acting.
“Nostrum and Variland finding an excuse to not kill each other.” She continued. “Man and Monster shedding their blood with each other. You and Victoria spending so long together almost as if you were lovers, finding something that made the two of you unique without anyone in the world coming close in each other’s eyes. Even Victoria finding some argument that made her not want to corrupt you nor Nostrum by force anymore; I know you’ve listened to her words when fighting Melanie. ‘That is the Indrick I knew’. All of this seems a bit… contrived, no?”
“…No.” He answered; not an answer to her question, but a denial to what he had heard. “You’re bullshitting me. That wasn’t a dream.”
“Never said it had to be a dream, Indrick. Maybe it was a dream, or maybe you’re back in time. Maybe those events all happened without anything to revert them like time travel, with your consciousness merely hopping timelines into this one where we currently are. Those events happened after all: After you fell unconscious Victoria swore to protect you, to find that the dullahans that arrived were the reinforcements from the Demon Army arriving right in the nick of time to save the capital from the attack, saving you and her. Now that I think of it, isn’t that also a bit too good to be true…?”
“…Send me back.”
“I can not do that, Indrick.”
“Send me back!” He shouted, stepping forward to grab her by the shoulders, only to find that immovable-object trait of hers he had found back in Acerrae’s depths. She did not flinch, blink, or change in breathing at all, as if nothing happened that could affect her. Silent and slow, Indrick let go and took a step back. “Why…?”
“Have you not learned it folly to ask me whys?” She asked, picking up her bag and swinging it over her shoulder before turning and beginning to walk away. “Well, you shouldn’t waste any time. You know what’s going to happen… assuming you allow all to play out the same way.”
Following her with his eyes, he could do nothing as his mind fell blank. Rapid breathing, shivering, almost sweating, eyes still wide open. Gaze soon fell downwards as flurry after flurry of thoughts flooded in without mercy, finding it difficult to impossible to comprehend and accept it. Even a glance around revealed still a few people marching about, so different from what the word Acerrae had grown to mean to him, associating it with a world of difference from the otherwise forgettable place that barely had a reason to exist, let alone to be remembered.
It’d happen. It’d all happen. The horrors, the fighting, the treason, the fall. It only was a matter of time, yet all felt so useless, so taxing, to have gone through it all only for it to not matter at all other than a mere prediction of future events, now.
But as much as he wanted to let go and sit down, to wait for the inevitable, he swallowed his stress and ran off as quick as his legs allowed. Surely he could change something, prevent a few things from happening at least, or delay for a day what would sooner or later arrive.
A month would’ve needed to pass. A month in the future would he visit, yet here he found himself in, sitting in the same bench as the one in his memory, staring at the same lake, in the same villa. In a month, he’d have arrived for Geoffrey’s pendant before a lengthy chat ensued, yet Geoffrey had still not lost his rosarius, nor did Victoria even set out for Makillae just yet. Zero reason existed for him to be there, or at least for the Indrick of this timeline.
Boots upon the stone road, echoing in the dead of the moonlit night with each and every step. They came closer and closer at such leisure pace, taking her time till soon enough she arrived beside the bench, both paladin and lilim staring on at the lake. Yet, her silence gave away her wonder.
“Does the name ‘Nyarlathotep’ mean anything to you?” Asked Indrick, gaze still forward.
“No.” She answered, eyes ahead the same.
Unsure what he had expected, maybe the most minuscule possibility of the Victoria he had last seen finding herself back in time with him, he kept quiet. To explain it would be no easy task, and he had found himself with zero clue as to where to even start.
“Why are you here, now?” She asked.
“I wish I knew.”
Once more silence engulfed them, leaving way for the quiet sound of the wind, entertaining the sight with the ripples upon the lake.
“Would you believe me if I said I had a vision of the future?” He asked.
In her pause, she turned her eyes towards him for a second, before bringing them forward again. “You have my curiosity.”
With a deep breath, Indrick began.
“Not long from now, a sorceress called Nyarlathotep will appear, converting those she comes across into her cultists using a manner of demon realm silver imbued with what shows people their worst fears and regrets, to present the cult as their savior. It will start from Acerrae and tear through Nostrum before reaching Variland, and when you march south to investigate your subjects going insane, you’ll fall to them as will your army. Even Jeremiah will return as undead to figure out what’s happening, and the cultists will force Nostrum and Variland to pause their war as both nations lose more and more land to the affliction. Valerian and Vandire will decide that the power of a lilim can not fall to the affliction, and thus they’ll decide to assault where all believe you were taken to.”
A pause, one he used to recollect his thoughts. It certainly felt strange, to reminisce of future acts like Acerrae when it had yet to even happen.
“The Nostrian Army under Vandire and the remnants of the Varilandian Army under Jeremiah will fight against all who Nyarlathotep had turned, even against your old army, against Melanie. The two will fight bravely throughout the night, showing heroism and virtue to one another despite being Man and Monster, and the paladins will find you and escape the surrounded city, but both armies will perish in their last stand. Vandire and Jeremiah, so too will fall. Melanie will lead part of her forces north to chase after you, and in the capital of Variland will all make their final stand. There, I will fall.”
Despite all he had said, Victoria stared on at the lake in thought, returning not a word even as Indrick turned his head to see her. Seeing her not even returning a gaze with her eyes, he turned forward once more.
“The two of us talked a fair bit, from the escape till the last stand.” He continued. “Jeremiah must’ve been a great cook. You said he could turn awful things into feasts.”
The words caused a reaction, as little as it was. He had seen Victoria slowly lowering her head.
“It also surprised me to hear you’re not that connected with your sisters.” He added. “You were so focused on your kingdom, that once you got all you could from them, visits grinded to a halt. Who did you mention…? Druella, one in some sort of wonderland, a trigger-happy corruptor, and some manner of rival in kingdom-building who seemed into bondage.”
“What else did you hear?” She asked in a soft, calm tone.
The vivid flashback struck him by surprise. He could faintly hear it once more like last time, when he fought between wakefulness and unconsciousness; Victoria shouting out loud, ‘I love him more than my own life!’
But he could not tell her that. It didn’t matter. Too long into what he couldn’t tell was either true or fake, the timeline from back then.
Still, the first wound of the affliction had shared words with him, words he still remembered.
“I was wounded by the cultists a few times.” He said. “One time, the voices said something. They said you thought I was the man from a fairy tale, when we first met.”
“Have they said what fairy tale it was?”
“No. Only that it was from one.”
“I see…” She said, turning her head forward again. Yet, as both kept their own words to themselves, all fell to the monotony of the wind’s breeze.
Seemed too taxing for Indrick’s heart and mind, to be left in suspense for so long of whether it’d work or not. Was she thinking it through? Did she believe it? Did she not? He couldn’t blame her for taking long in thinking it through, but still it stung for each and every second that passed. Perhaps she needed time; with how much stress she must’ve been going through in these early days, no doubt she’d require days.
“I won’t pressure you.” He said as he stood up, to extend his finger outwards to ready the only incantation he was ever able to achieve. “I’ll come back in a few days. I’ll try to keep Nostrum from–“
Ice shard. It pierced his hand without warning. Immediately his heartbeat skyrocketed, adrenaline kicking in full force, eyes opening wide as he jerked his hand back in reflex to himself, a shout he caught in his throat and prevented from escaping, leaving him in absolute silence. The wound began tingling, the same effects as that of demon realm silver. In shock and disbelief, his gaze turned to Victoria, to find her with her palm outstretched to where the shard had flown towards, and slowly unsheathing her rapier with the other.
“If what you said is true, I need to end this war with Nostrum as soon as possible.” She said in an eerie tone with icy calm. “In order to find out if what you said is the undeniable truth, I’d need to turn you into an incubus unconditionally loyal to me and ask you again, but I made a promise that Nostrum will fall first.”
Gritting his teeth and breathing ever heavier, he stepped back and gripped the shard as Victoria slowly stepped towards him. In numb pain as if a dagger of demonic metal had injured him, he pulled it out and threw it away before unsheathing his own rapier instead. Too lost in focus, to teleport away now remained an impossibility; at least it had been his left hand the one to be injured.
“We barely stood a chance with Nostrum and Variland standing side by side, and you think pushing this war will solve it?” He asked, still backing off.
“I’ll aim to stop it as mercilessly as I can. I can’t let it continue for both of us to take further losses.”
Stretching her palm once more, Indrick panicked at the imminent shard to fly out. As it shot out, he moved his body aside almost throwing himself to the ground, with the shard scraping against his chest to leave a trail of numbness; almost losing balance, he stumbled back, but without respite Victoria lunged forward with a thrust of her rapier. This time, he lacked the luxury of mere steps to take back, to instead throw himself back to avoid the stab, finding himself landing on the ground with a grunt of pain. Immediately he crawled back to gain distance, only for Victoria to swiftly move her hand towards her as if pulling onto something, for the wind to pull Indrick towards her. She thrusted down towards him, only for him to roll aside and desperately stand back up while backing off, for the two to raise their rapiers at each other once more, none taking another step forward.
“I’ve gone through too much to be turned into an incubus this early.” He muttered between his panting.
“I said I wouldn’t break my promise.”
“Then what are you fighting me for?”
“Curiosity killed the cat, Indrick.”
Immediate heartbeat, the likes he feared would puncture through his chest. He nearly lost control upon hearing those words, rapier hand flinching as it gripped the handle stronger in reflex.
“You…” He muttered, tone as low as it got in disbelief, anger, agony, and despair. “You have no idea what you’ve just said, do you?”
In response, she merely tilted her head, expression as unchanging and void of emotion as before. With a sigh, however, she soon closed her eyes momentarily.
“I need you and the paladins out of this war as soon as possible.” She said, slowly sheathing back her rapier. “I can not let you go.”
“There’s too much you need to know. Merely saying that and asking me to stay would’ve done wonders.”
“Not for what I plan for you.”
Without even leaving him time for the obvious question, she disappeared in smoke. A split second later, a monstrous strength he had never felt before grabbed him by the neck, and threw him against the floor with force enough to stun him entirely in blunt trauma and concussion. Before he knew it, he already had Victoria on top pinning him down with her body, with her rapier too close for comfort to his neck; With one hand on the handle and the other on the blade, she pressed it against his neck hard enough for it to push into the flesh, yet just enough to not let it pierce through and injure. Nothing he could do, for in the fall he had lost grip of the rapier, and he could not move his head in an attempt to even figure out where it remained.
“Turning you into an incubus will only invite martyrdom.” She said in a soft, ghastly tone, face to face with him in uncomfortable proximity enough for him to gaze deep into her demonic red eyes. “Instead… I’ll turn you into a carrier. You’ll be alright, you’ll remain a full human from here on, but the demonic energy I’ll imprint on you will permanently follow you around, never to disappear. If you return to Nostrum, or any Order territory for that matter, you’ll slowly but steadily corrupt it into a demon realm through your presence.”
His eye twitched, feeling for the first time in his life such absolute dread for the lilim. A dread far greater than the worst he ever imagined the first times he heard of her, the times he had been told he needed to kill her before setting foot in Variland for the very first time.
“You’ll not return to Nostrum after what I told you, that’s a given.” She continued. “You’ll stay away from them out of fear of corrupting them, but you will not turn, even if you stay in a demon realm yourself. Soon rumors of your disappearance will spread, but none will see you beside me to confirm your fall. Soon your paladins will see you wandering about, and they’ll seek to rescue you of whatever happened to you, but you’ll want to avoid them to save them from the inevitable fate. More rumors will spread, and more rescue attempts will be organized, all to either fall corrupted, or for you to run away from them. Perhaps you’ll even leave these lands entirely, exiling yourself to the world’s end where there’s only ice, removing yourself from this war… but ever since this war started, I’ve marked you in order to prevent any monster from having their way with you should they capture you, and I’ll be able to find you.”
Fear. Panic. Terror. All manners of similar emotions, striking in at once as his fight-or-flight reflex kicked in at the prospect of, for him, a fate worse than death. Immediately he attempted to fight her off, bringing his hand to the rapier to push it off along with her regardless of any injury, already subconsciously deeming it better than one to his neck, but Victoria willingly let it be pushed off. At the same time, she moved her hand from the blade to his neck and violently rummaged into his clothing, to grip something and pull it out in one go: his rosarius, breaking its chain and firmly gripping its insignia in her palm, sitting upright after the act. In that instant, he let out a breathless gasp, barely any air escaping his lungs.
Curious over having stolen his rosarius with far less resistance than she imagined, and him stopping the struggle just then, she looked down at him.
His dagger, puncturing the side of his belly by his own hand.
For those few fateful seconds when time felt like it stopped, both stared at each other’s eyes, before little by little his vision blurred.
His consciousness slowly returned to him, blissfully unaware for those few moments till his mind recovered enough to realize: Was he supposed to ever again wake up, in the first place? With a grunt he raised his palm to his head, feeling as if he had just woken up from an awful sleep, though as soon as he moved his leg he felt a certain metal rattling, along with a weight.
Opening his eyes, he found on his leg a shackle with a chain bolted to the wall. Below his leg, he found the floor itself to be made of a type of stone unlike the road by the lake, along with the lighting giving away that it was indoors. Fully recovering his senses, he glanced around to find himself in a dark stone prison-like room without a window to exist, with the only light source sneaking in being that of the daylight outside entering through the old, ruined doorway.
Panic befell him as he let out a loud gasp, eyes shooting wide open. Immediately he pulled his clothes by his belly, revealing the skin beneath to find the wound he had given to himself; or rather, to find it gone without a trace other than a simple healed scar.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?”
The voice. It petrified him whole.
Her footsteps echoed on and on throughout the room, just as she appeared from the doorway. Step by step, she approached him till she stood right in front, cross-armed and staring at him from under the brim of her cap.
“I figured you’d try to end your life like Dirk.” She added.
“What did you do to the wound?” He asked, voice low in an accidental whisper.
“I healed it. Up to you to figure out if I got rid of the demonic energy I infused you with for that purpose, or not. I’m sure you won’t mind, with how your lack of rosarius makes it redundant in the long run.”
In reflex, he brought his palm to his chest. Where he’d have felt the rosarius under his clothes, nothing remained. Though anxious and stressed, soon enough he regained his composure.
“I didn’t imagine you having a dungeon under your house.” He said.
“My house?” She chuckled. “We’re far from home, paladin. We are in the ruins of a castle from Old Variland, the one Valerian and Catherine met in. Nobody knows where we are, and not even Valerian knows where I dragged you to. I’ll be your only visitor for the foreseeable future.”
“Are you going to let me rot in here…?”
“Only because of my promise. Still… I can’t be too sure what would happen if you asked me to go through with it.”
“Turning you into my lover.” She answered in such blunt manner while growing a smirk, making his heart skip a beat. “I’m not the villain you see me as, Indrick. Well… I wasn’t, till you did what you did back then. I don’t want to torture you, I don’t want to leave you alone, I don’t want to see you suffer. In fact, I want to see you turned into an incubus, into my lover, into my husband. Perhaps if we work together like that, we’d be able to end this war as quickly as possible. Perhaps if I find out that you said the truth, we can prepare ourselves better for this ‘Nyarlathotep’, no? Ultimately, it’s your choice; keeping promises wasn’t my forte anyways.”
Indrick said nothing. Victoria stared on, to find no response from him, finding instead a stern, unyielding expression. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and lowered her head to shake it.
“I have things to arrange.” She said, turning and marching to the doorway. “Do me a favor and try to teleport yourself out. You’ll find something… interesting.”
He then lost sight of her, crossing the doorway and turning aside, though still he heard her footsteps. Little by little they quieted down, till he could hear them no longer.
Paranoia befell him, wondering whether she did something to him while unconscious that’d make the attempt backfire in awful ways. Perhaps it was a bluff to get him not to try. If she wished to toy with him, however, she’d have rendered any traps and backfirings harmless. No way to tell. Taking a deep breath, he decided to try and raised his hand forward. Focusing, he drew a line downwards, then another crossing it horizontally.
He found that it wasn’t that it didn’t work per se, but that instead he couldn’t focus to his fullest extent. No matter how much he tried, thoughts in his mind all soon found themselves shuffled about, unable to focus on one thing for long. The longest he could, still was not enough for the spell.
His mind did not allow him to, nor did he understand why. Demonic energy perhaps, yet fact still remained: He was stuck.
Rubbing his temple, he sat against the wall with no thoughts in mind other than the obvious questions. Still he could not focus, unable to escape. How many days had passed, he couldn’t tell; a little too busy with other matters to properly count them, if he could write down the sunfalls in the first place.
But as he thought things on and on, or at least attempted to do so, he picked up a noise.
Footsteps. Hers, if none other truly knew where he was. They approached on and on, making him lock his eyes to the doorway till he saw the shadow she casted against the opposite wall. Then, she arrived through the doorway, but he immediately noticed something she carried in her hands.
A dish full of food. There he noticed her growing a smirk, knowing very well his eyes had fallen on what she brought.
“I imagine you’re tired of the servants’ leftovers.” She greeted, halting just a few steps in front of him. Little by little, the irresistible aroma engulfed the room, food as warm as just made.
“Marie heard of your capture. If your words are true, then surely you must know her. The poor thing was afraid that I’d harm you a little too much for being a paladin despite our chats and I’d get a little too carried away, and made me promise to treat you well; not like I wasn’t already anyways. In fact… in her eternal worry, she cooked this specifically for you. Isn’t she such a dear?”
She took one more step forward and left the dish on the ground before him, even with fork and knife. Then, she straightened back up and crossed her arms, staring at him without moving.
It looked worlds apart from anything he had eaten in his life. What it was, he couldn’t tell, other than looking like some manner of fish slices with a side of potatoes, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not imagine a description to do it any justice. Spices and herbs, mixtures, fragrance that invited the appetite within a second. Cuisine fit for perhaps not even the king of Nostrum, but for the Grand Master of all The Order. He’d have immediately begun salivating, had he not imagined it drenched in demonic energy. Not like it mattered, with how all other things he ate in his stay must’ve had the same if not more poison.
“Will you not eat?” She asked, gaining his attention as she lowered herself to the ground till she knelt, spotting a smile on her face. She grabbed the fork and knife, cut a slice of fish and accompanied it with the side of potatoes, and then raised the fork towards him with her hand underneath to prevent anything from falling to the ground. “Say ahhh~”
The sight. Victoria feeding him with that smile from ear to ear, unable to tell whether she enjoyed the mere act or if she reveled in any number of sadistic thoughts beyond him. Feeling as if losing grasp of his mind, his heart beating faster and faster, his body heat increasing to levels it burned, he panicked under the fear of succumbing to his desires, a panic made infinitely worse over being so close to a lilim without his rosarius. Terrified, he threw himself back and remained against the ground, grabbing the dish and pulling it towards himself as if attempting to reassure her of how unnecessary her actions were.
Keeping still with smile never disappearing, she gently left the fork on the dish as she stoop up.
“Enjoy.” She said, bringing her fingers to her mouth as if enduring a blush before marching away. Indrick followed with his eyes wide open by the fright, seeing her step further and further out, till all sight of her had been lost past the doorway.
The screams. The fear. Broken bodies and broken spirits, all the way from Makillae to the capital of Variland. Violent imagery and violent cacophonies haunting him without mercy nor respite. He could see it all so clearly once more, the dark circles under the cultists’ eyes, the endless onslaught, the eternal sense of impending doom, the apocalyptic wastes of Acerrae. The wounds, the injuries, the eternal war in his mind between him and the affliction. The last moments of Vandire and Jeremiah, and of all who stood their ground to perish of their own accord, to repeat itself in the capital. All, flashing past his mind in the blink of an eye, a complete recollection.
Her cheerful smile in the first day, to be replaced by the husk underneath Acerrae. Horrors of the capital had renewed themselves, till she turned from the hollow shell of her former self into the battered lady of his last memory; bleeding, exhausted, charred in soot and burning wounds, now equal in bodily harm as she had been in mental injury. Those crystalline red eyes, once so beautiful to look at, filled with anguish, sorrow, melancholy, and tears.
He screamed in reflex, waking up from the horrid nightmare at that very instant. Shaking his head, he found himself back in that old desolate room within the ruined castle once more. The silence greeted him anew, and though one part of him cherished the lack of screams and combat, another part of him dreaded the deafening calm. The deafening calm that just gave away his current situation as real, not the nightmare he had wished it was.
“What an unpleasant way to wake up.”
Her voice snapped him awake, gluing his eyes to the doorway.
“How long have you been there for?” He asked.
“A few minutes. I’ve grown adept at gauging the time you wake up at, apparently.” She answered, for her footsteps to sound out as she appeared from the doorway. “Some things happened in the outside world. Your paladins are going berserk trying to find you. They almost torched another city like Helmsreach, though I want to believe my defenses stopped them, rather than mere luck. Still, as to what happened in Nostrian soil…”
She reached for her pocket and slowly took out something hanging by a little chain. A pendant, he noticed, and as soon as the jewel came out of her pocket he noticed it glinting a warm light. She raised it till it hanged just in front of her eyes for her to inspect it once more, and there he found out what it was.
“Makillae has fallen.” She continued. “I didn’t capture it the old-fashioned way. Had to lure the army away and infiltrate it to infuse the wells with demonic energy, but the next day I found Vandire abandoning it. You could say I just walked in and took over.”
Hollow heart, along with painful beating. The exact same thing as before, happening once more. If he gauged it well, the rosarius belonged to Geoffrey, though with how he had affected that fight and the result with his presence, he could not be certain.
“The paladins fought bravely, in Makillae.” She added. “Unfortunately, as I tried to turn the one I got this pendant from, he… Well, I don’t think I need to tell you.”
Lowering the pendant, both soon locked eyes. Though calm and collected, she found Indrick with such expression of aghast shock, breathing heavily, silent and almost catatonic.
“Do you really want to stop this war?” She asked.
Though he stared on, soon he lowered his head as he grit his teeth. Her question rang in his head on and on and on, knowing well the implications of answering with a yes or a no; rather, the only answer he could give would be a ‘no’, with the alternative being mere silence.
He knew too well what would happen. In Makillae, he had found another victim of the affliction, though he had known not at that time. A dead giveaway that it had been spreading, reaching all the way there. After Makillae, Victoria would return north. After returning north, the afflicted would start marching into Variland. After the afflicted marched into Variland, she’d march south to investigate. There, she’d fall.
Makillae had fallen. Victoria had returned north. For all he knew, the afflicted were converting her cities at this very moment, with news to arrive sooner or later. He remembered it so well, the cultist sigils and markings in that house, in that city that would soon turn afflicted whole.
And it’d all repeat itself.
Perhaps turning into an incubus was ultimately justified, if only to save these two nations from that which is bound to–
He shook his head and lowered it upon his hands. His mind, could he even trust it? Was he trying to justify incubization to himself? To betray everything he stood for, just for a mere chance of success? Perhaps Melanie felt the same way, perhaps she fell in the same way, made worse with how she once said they are to the Demon Lord what the Demon Lord is to The Order. If he were to succumb to temptation and turn into an incubus, would it not be the exact same thing as Melanie having succumbed to the affliction for a chance to save this world?
Too many questions. None had a proper answer. With his mind in war against itself, he couldn’t focus enough to think it through. He couldn’t trust it. Was the temptation of incubization caused by the demonic energy, or was it the thought of his uncorrupted mind seeing the logic in it?
“I understand.” She said, breaking the silence and tucking the pendant back into her pocket. “These days are getting busier for me, so it may be a long while before I return. I don’t want to leave you alone for so long, but as long as the war continues…”
Ever so slowly, she turned around and began marching away. Her gradual steps left it to wonder if she took her time purely to prod a reaction out of him with the fear of abandonment, but it did its trick. Though he steeled himself to remain as he was, silent and immobile following her with his eyes, a shout threatened to escape his throat. He didn’t know if it’d be the last he saw of her, before falling to the affliction. He didn’t know if he had even already heard of the news, to immediately depart to her doom as soon as she left these old ruins. Indecision befell him, perhaps a blessing or perhaps a curse, watching on and on how further away she walked.
Until, she left the doorway. Though his heart caved in with absolute regret, wishing her to stay, he swallowed his stress to prepare himself for an endless return to the wait in the room.
How many days had passed? How many restless nights, how many agonizing sunfalls? He couldn’t take it anymore. Brave and proud he remembered himself to be in his first days, yet now he knew himself to be a wreck, lying on the ground with his hands on his head as if a splitting headache took over; a splitting headache he wished it was, rather than what tormented him on and on. His perception of time had deteriorated too much. Had days passed, or months? Perhaps even a year. He couldn’t tell. What infernal cacophony of thoughts pounding against his mind turned seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days.
His mind vehemently refused to focus at all. Any thoughts dissipated near-instantaneously, rendering him unable to carry about the most basic of maths, let alone gauge the number of days; all would inevitable grind to a halt before another flurry of thoughts shoehorned themselves in, just to repeat it over and over again. The demonic energy had seeped through too much, that little he knew well. Despite not knowing how long he had been in there, he knew it to be too long already for someone unprotected.
But only one thought could linger on and on. Her. Heartache, desperation, desires of not wanting her to leave and march to her doom turning into desires for her to stay with him. She had seen too much already, gone through too much, and though she knew not, he couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering through it all once more. As if what happened to her so too happened to him, an injury to her feeling like an injury to him, he couldn’t cope with the idea of such agony he’d be unable to prevent. For all he knew, Victoria was already gone. She had to be, if she had not visited in so long. The affliction got her. She’s probably down there in Acerrae, while he’s rotting here, trapped by the shackle.
As if it was an oasis in the middle of a scorching desert, his thoughts cleared up as he snapped his eyes to the doorway. Though his mind had found peace through those echoing steps, so too his still virtuous side found itself afraid of the lilim returning once more. He sat up, torn between joy and horror at her arrival, and without ungluing his eyes from the doorway, she saw her shadow arrive before her true presence, halting by the doorway.
Most striking, however, he saw her carrying a collection of objects hanging by her hand, rattling with each movement, emanating such familiar glints from each of them. Rosarii, all of them, over half a dozen in number. Unwilling to believe it, he couldn’t help but stare on and on, as if believing his eyes deceived him.
“Nostrum is gone.”
The words petrified him whole, eyes as wide open as they were, following the fall of the rosarii as she let go.
Her step forward snapped him back to reality, gasping and crawling aside towards the corner of the room. Another step, another crawl back, on and on till he struck the wall with nowhere to run. At that moment, Victoria lowered herself towards him, remaining on her hands and knees as she closed in face-to-face, Indrick seeing her eyes coming ever closer. With her last words, a memory returned to him as if it had been taunting malevolence for his mind to remember:
‘when Nostrum is mine, I will see what to do you with you’.
Her crystalline red eyes, finding himself lost in them for those few moments. No anguish rested within them, no sorrow, no pain, nothing the affliction had brought. Perfect, pure, untouched, almost as they were since the very first day they met. His heartbeat skyrocketed, breathing turned erratic, body began burning in its warmth, seeing her approaching on till their bodies almost embraced each other, and there he saw her lips opening ever so slightly as they neared.
His throat, it ached. Dry, with every breath turning it into further into a desert. Her lips, however, looked oh so divine, smooth with a faint glow of the dim light’s reflection upon the soft, pink skin. No lipstick did she need to make them so pleasing to his eyes, hypnotizing, inviting, appetizing, seeing them from so close for the first time.
Her breathing, he could feel it from so close. Soft exhalations, with their warmth hitting upon his lips and sneaking into his mouth. The sensation felt so strong, so hard to cope with, leaving his jaw shaking ever so slightly with his mouth open in equal manner as hers.
The temptation, the desire. His hands began shaking, itching for that swift movement to envelop her in his arms and kiss her as passionately as he could, mind no longer acknowledging anything in the world but her. To feel her body pressed against him, to have the two writhe on the floor like animals in heat as they loved each other in such silent privacy, that’s all his heart and mind wished for, screamed for, ordered for. Each and every second not doing so felt like a thousand needles pressing against him, tearing off his skin as if Victoria was that which he was missing, that part of him he’d feel whole with. To remove her clothes and his, to feel her skin pressed against his, to feel her heartbeat as she felt his, the one and only thing he so dearly yearned for.
Before he knew it, a little stream of drool had begun escaping from the side of his mouth. As much as he fought it for reasons now lost to him, his body had reached its limit: With his greatest strength, he could not do anything else but remain still. If Victoria leaned forward just a hair’s width more, they’d kiss, leaving his mind to be lost to incubization. As much as he could physically push her away or just lean to the side, his heart forbid him, tugging towards her instead.
Then, her lips closed to form a smile.
“You lost your chance.” She whispered, before moving back. As she stood up, she saw Indrick staring with such eyes of heartbreak, intently focused entirely on hers. “We may not be seeing each other for a long, long while. There are still a few Nostrian cities and villages I have to mop up, and reinforcements from other nations are bound to arrive for them. I may be looking at multiple other nations joining against me, and that would leave me… a little too busy for visits. Farewell, Indrick.”
As she turned around, he followed with his eyes. Each of her subsequent steps towards the door tugged at his heart in horrendous ways, as if a hook had latched onto his chest to pull and pull with such atrocious pain, threatening to tear him apart, instinct telling him to pull back to avoid such fate. Gritting his teeth at a flurry of emotions flooding into his mind without mercy, he wished to shout for her. ‘Don’t go’, he wanted to say, but it did not leave his throat; rather, only tears had begun leaving him. Halfway to the door, and the sensation turned so much worse, fearing for her safety, for her mind, for what suffering she might find herself in. Attempting to shout again did nothing, no matter what he tried; ‘Don’t go’, ‘Stay with me’, ‘I love you’, no matter what he wanted to say, nothing came out, and the dreadful thought of her marching too far away for him to even hear haunted him on and on.
When she reached the doorway, she halted and turned her head just enough to look at him from the corner of her eyes. Her eyes lied under the shadow the brim of her cap casted, looking at him with such concerned expression of pity. There, it flashed before him, how Victoria had once looked at him dead inside in Acerrae, and how she had looked at him so wounded in the capital. But as much as he wanted to say anything, he could not. Silent, Victoria raised her hands to rearrange her cap, turning forward with her back towards him, and marched away.
The footsteps, loud as they once were, slowly and steadily decreased in noise. Little by little, they marched further away. His throat had begun choking him as he fought back a sob, indecision after indecision preventing him from acting, caught hypnotized by the echoing steps dying down as time passed as a tear struck the ground. Regret, remorse, all leaving him hollower each passing moment.
Too much. Unable to cope, he sniffed behind a sob.
“Victoria!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, only to receive in return nothing but his own echoes. “Victoria!” He screamed once more, without response.
He gripped his head with his hands, strength uncontrolled, and dragged them higher till they partly combed his hair back. His body felt like it was killing him, heart betraying him and bringing pain he had never been able to steel himself against. No matter training in body and mind, no matter years of conditioning and injury after injury of exercise, not even the strongest body and mind could face off against that which tore his heart apart. Sobbing on and on, tears falling on the floor, he felt himself a lifeless husk, torn away from the very thing which would have allowed him to feel alive; the holy grail of a man’s search, the love of the woman he sought. Now, because of his inaction, he’d be alone for time immemorial with only those four walls to keep him company, condemned to fear for her safety against the incoming affliction, or those she’d soon fight against.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was supposed to save this timeline from the affliction, not throw it into what could start a global conflict, even if the cult didn’t appear.
Lifeless. As he’d be asleep, he remained awake, lying on the ground staring high at the ceiling without a movement to be bothered out of him. Though once he wished his perception of time had not been taken from him, now he cared not. A day, a month, a year, it was all the same. To call himself alive, though, seemed too optimistic; not dead, but not alive either. Perhaps a more passive version of the affliction, if he remembered the wounds well. Dying, but not dead.
Then, a familiar face popped into his peripheral vision. He couldn’t even be surprised at the sudden visit; was he truly that broken in mind? Still, in an instant she recognized her leaning to stare at him on the ground. Nyarlathotep. He said nothing, though turning his eyes and staring at her gave away the obvious question pertaining to her visit.
“Fascinating.” She said. “You come to this realm, and the first person you look for is Victoria?”
He couldn’t be bothered to respond even with an annoyed remark. Still, her words couldn’t help but make him wonder.
“You’re almost an incubus, too. Certainly strong of you to resist it… or perhaps she’s merely keeping you a human till you say so.”
Her gaze then fell elsewhere.
“Want to leave?” She asked, to which Indrick immediately shot his eyes wide open and sat upright to see her gazing at the shackle. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”
With a snap of her fingers, the shackle broke in two. Not believing his eyes, he gripped his leg where it once had been chained, and then grabbed a piece of the shackle. It certainly wasn’t a trick of the eye. Slowly standing up, he took a few steps away to find the shackle still remaining on the ground; no tricks from her, as surprising as it sounded.
“You might want to hurry.” She said. “If she were to catch you like this…”
And then, obscured by a mere blink, he lost sight of her. At the same time, however, his ears could pick up a faint noise afar.
His heart began racing, fear and panic striking in full force. He ran out the doorway and took the turn opposite to the source of the noises, to find himself in a lengthy hallway. A blessing, needing only to run forward rather than face a labyrinth of rooms, though so too was it a curse, if Victoria spotted him before he made his turn.
There at the end, he nearly slipped as he made a hard turn to the next hallway. Heart in his throat, he halted to make as little noise as possible and pressed his back against the wall. Still he heard the footsteps with clarity, until they came to a halt at a distance he figured equal to his old cell.
“Who let you out, Indrick…?” She asked, her voice reaching through the hallway with eerie clarity. Almost enough to make him gasp in fright, had he not swallowed his fear.
Had to run. Had to leave. Quiet yet quick, he legged it further down the hallway, though where to became a true concern as he arrived to his feared labyrinthine architecture. Knowledge escaped him of the designs of castles in Old Nostrum, let alone Old Variland, making it all an awful game of trial and error with one chance available. Whatever choice he made, he had to commit fully. At least the ruined roof served to provide lighting, but at the same time, it prevented him from otherwise gauging the exit by where light shone greater.
“Indrick…” She called in a soft, eerie voice.
Rather than evoking fear, he felt his heart putting its foot down. A heartwarming call in a cold void, one he felt the need to answer, to turn back and walk to her. But he had to escape. Picking a random door, he committed and ran through, no matter how much his heart ached at the act.
More rooms, leaving no hint as to how much longer it’d be till the outside world, nor if he was even going in the right direction. Didn’t matter. Still running forward, he reached the next room, and then the next, on and on room through hallway through room. With some walls collapsed, some felt less like rooms and more like courtyards.
Luck. The great doorway lied within sight afar past a long entry hallway, ruined after so many centuries without its doors remaining anymore, leaving sight to the outside and its light. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, which he now chased after with all his strength.
But, where to next? Nostrum was gone. Victoria had turned him into a carrier, with the demonic energy surrounding him yet not fully turning him. To run back to Order lands would mean their downfall, and nothing of value would he find in places he’d cause no havoc with his presence. Worse yet, Victoria had marked him, potentially condemning him to run around the world to escape her hunt eternally, to say nothing of what he’d need to combat the affliction, assuming he ever gained any ideas on the matter.
Shaking his head, he figured it better to think of it later. He’d be able to think it through if he got out, but not if he was caught. So close to the outside world, his next task would fall to escape Victoria through the forest outside, as she’d no doubt give chase. With how she had not noticed him gone in the cell, he figured it possible that the mark only gave her an extremely vague sense of location to him.
Smoke. Neck impact. Back violently hitting the ground. Weight upon him, pinning him down. In the blink of an eye, he found Victoria now sitting on him with her hands firmly gripping his wrists against the floor. Though she held nothing but a stern expression, Indrick soon noticed a sign of atrocious implications.
Her eyes. They had those dreadful dark circles under them. Petrified in panic without the ability to even scream, he soon found her growing a smile, noticing her blushing.
“Indrick…” She said in a sweet, soft tone, almost reminiscent of a moan. “Forgive me, for taking so long…”
Without delay, she drew her lips closer for a kiss; as much as he now attempted to fight it back, he could not prevent the inevitable.
One side of him, however, had so deeply yearned for it.