All’s Fair In Love And War – Ch.4

Images had been burned into her eyes.

An army, encircled. Enemy infantry to the north, and enemy cavalry to the south-west and south-east. Condemned without hope, outnumbered ten to one, left to watch as the three groups converged upon it.

Knights on horseback tearing through the lines, sending dullahans flying with screams of terror and pain. Chaos and misery, broken formations, and an ensuing melee.

A massacre, quick as it was.

A knight standing up, from the fallen body of a man; rapier in hand, and bloodied dagger in the other. He turned to see her as she lied on the ground, heart in her throat, shaking and in tears. The knight picked up the fallen’s sword, walked to her, and extended.

‘Tell Victoria that Indrick sends his regards.’

“Melanie!”

Valerian calling for her snapped her back to reality, finding herself once more sitting at a table with Valerian on the opposite end. She then saw him silent for a second, before he took a deep breath, put the quill in his hand back into the ink bottle, and grabbed the papers he had been writing onto.

“From the moment Jeremiah’s army left the villa,” he said as he read the paper, “nothing happened other than just marching and resting as needed until the army reached the target. Is this in any way incorrect?”

“No.” Answered Melanie

“The army had begun raiding, but the cavalry spotted a Nostrian army coming from the north.” He continued, before glancing at Melanie upon finishing. “Correct?”

“Correct.”

He returned his eyes to the paper. “Jeremiah marched west with the intention of avoiding the Nostrian army, but it followed them, always blocking the path to the north.”

“Yes.”

“Two more Nostrian groups appeared to the south-west and south-east, all of cavalry, surrounding you.”

“Yes.”

A pause.

“The three groups advanced on Jeremiah’s army and charged in. A melee ensued, in which you found that all your armor was useless, since the Nostrian army turned out to be using demonic silver weapons. It was in this melee that I assume Jeremiah lost his life.”

“Yes.” She said, lowering her head. “You are correct.”

Leaving the papers on the table, he ran his fingers over one of his eyebrows, still staring at the paper.

“How did you return?” He asked.

“They let us go. They told us to pick the others up, and leave.”

“Did they say anything else?”

“No.”

Though he showed confusion in his expression with one eyebrow raised, he nonetheless grabbed the quill once more and wrote it down.

“Can you tell me how Jeremiah fell?”

She raised her head and met his eyes, but soon looked aside stiffening her shoulders, visibly uncomfortable, narrowing her eyes and giving away her dread at the memories she’d have to recall.

“I don’t want specific details, don’t worry.” Reassured Valerian. “I just want to know how things went.”

With a deep breath, Melanie mustered what courage she had.

“There was a knight fighting Jeremiah.” She said. “I couldn’t help him. Nobody could help him. The other knights intercepted us each time, but the knights didn’t join in either. They wanted to keep it as a one-on-one, I don’t know why. The knight had a demonic silver weapon, too; a long, thin sword. I remember seeing how he stabbed through Jeremiah’s armor, as if it didn’t exist. At one point, Jeremiah could no longer fight after so many wounds. The knight then–“

Memories flashed back to her, vivid images of a drop of blood falling from a bloodied dagger. Melanie raised her hand, and rubbed her eyes in silence.

“I understand.” Said Valerian, leaving her to sigh in relief, for she’d not have to remember anymore. “Forgive me for pressing the issue, but what killed him? Demon realm silver can’t kill.”

“The knight had a dagger. Normal metal.”

“I see…” He sighed, writing it down.

Then, she remembered.

“The knight said, ‘Tell Victoria that Indrick sends his regards.'”

Though he was in the middle of writing, he abruptly stopped and snapped his wide open eyes at her. Melanie, met with his reaction, simply stared confused. Valerian then lowered his head in thought, before raising it towards her again.

“Did the knight have one of those brimmed helmets?” He asked, gesturing with his hand an imaginary brim on his head.

“All the soldiers on foot had those helmets.”

Silence followed, but soon Valerian sighed with a hint of defeat. “Alright. I got all I needed. You can return.”

Victoria marched down the hallways of Caroline’s castle, yet as much as she walked, she could not find her where she should have been. The throne room stood desolated, the throne had none sitting on it, and not even the few servants Caroline had remained to be seen.

“Caroline!”

“I’m going, I’m going!” A muffled voice answered past the walls. “Don’t you fret!”

Victoria waited, and soon the voice’s footsteps began echoing throughout the empty room, coming closer and closer ever so slowly.

“Who the hell comes here at three in the morning-” complained the muffled voice, certainly unaware that it could be heard, “wait, what hour is it again…? Bah!”

Victoria twitched an eye, for it was midday, as much as the perpetual night of the realm did not show it.

The steps came closer, up till a door behind the throne opened, releaving Caroline behind it.

“Huh?” Asked Caroline, noticing Victoria and walking up to her. “You again? Something the matter?”

“Yes, something the matter.” Answered Victoria. “Variland is at war with Nostrum.”

Though Caroline stood still for a moment, soon she grew a smug grin, and crossed her arms as she puffed her chest.

“Weeell! Turns out I was right after all these years!” She boasted, much to Victoria’s discontent. “And now you’re here asking for help, I’m sure. So, what’s Nostrum doing? Shooting mean faces at you from the edges of the demon realm?”

“I don’t have time for this, Caroline.” She firmly stated, taking a step forward till they were almost face to face. “Many of my cities have been raided. Helmsreach is ashes in its entirety. Jeremiah is dead.”

Caroline’s smug smile died in an instant, replaced instead by absolute horror, an aghast expression of eyes open in their entirety and jaw left hanging.

“I was stupid.” Continued Victoria. “We were at war since before I even bought those swords from you, and I hid the fact afraid that everyone would see me as incompetent. I tried to control the situation and it only ended up with Jeremiah getting killed because of me.”

“They… got into a demon realm…?” Caroline could barely muster the focus to say.

“They have an army in a bordering city. Ten thousand men, if my dullahans saw right. I honestly don’t know how long I have left before they figure out a way for it to march in.”

Silent, thinking, Caroline lowered her arms. Soon her face contorted as she found no ideas to cling to, lowering her head with eyes shifting directions.

“Caedisia doesn’t have the armies to fight a war…” She muttered. “Nobody does. The demon realms have defended the Demon Lord’s territories from invasions well enough already.”

“Calling for the Demon Army was already in my mind. Problem is, I don’t know if it’d escalate things to the point it’d suck in more nations of The Order against us with the obvious build-up of forces on their border.”

“Is Nostrum the only one at war with you?” She asked, raising her head. “What about the other Order nations?”

“I haven’t heard anything of them.”

“Tsk… Certainly sounds like The Order to use that build-up as excuse to bring more of their kin into this war.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll send word either way. The Demon Lord will know what to do, but I can’t rely on her to fix every mistake of mine.”

Caroline looked silently for a moment, then sighed as she shook her head. “What a mess this is.” She said, then extended her hand towards her. “Caedisia stands with you. Equipment, gold, anything you need that we can provide, you’ll get.”

Victoria answered with a smile, and shook her hand.

Later in the day, Victoria arrived to her study room. A lack of something to do left her standing still after closing the door, wondering, as training with Valerian would begin only in an hour, but no idea did she have on what to spend that hour on.

Tea and reading, maybe. A break of sorts, as much as her possible reading options still consisted of those old journals she had to study either way.

But before she could even move, someone knocked on the door. In slight surprise, she turned and opened the door, to find Marie on the other side.

“Huh? Marie? Need something?”

“Yes, my lady.” Answered the kikimora. “There is something I have to tell you.”

Victoria opened the door fully and let her in, before closing it. Curiously enough, the kikimora then stood in place rather than walking to where the little tea table and the seats were; urgent, perhaps?

Only then did Victoria notice that Marie had been carrying a few papers on her, keeping them close to her chest, and soon extended them to her. When Victoria grabbed them and glanced at each, she saw how all were the designs for the buildings that’d belong to the military academy she wanted to build, along with one paper denoting where they’d go on the strip of grassland.

“Jeremiah’s designs?” Asked Victoria. “He… made new ones right before leaving?”

“No, my lady. They’re all mine.”

“Yours?” She asked with a raised eyebrow, shooting a glance of curiosity at Marie before returning to the papers. “All of them? But… some are old, done by Jeremiah. You made the new ones?”

“I was the one who did all the designs since the start. Mister Jeremiah had looked at them at the start and saw them good enough.”

Flicking through again, she couldn’t help but be surprised. “I had always assumed these were his. He never said who made them, now that I remember… So these were yours? Why was I not told?”

“I… feared being the center of everyone’s focus in the construction, and I did it to aid my lady, not out of personal desires. I requested Jeremiah to not say that I did the designs, unless you asked specifically. But… Now that Jeremiah has passed, and that you had assumed he was the one behind it, I feared more that you’d think nobody would be able to continue it unless you looked for someone else. I’m here to let my lady know that I am more than willing to take up the responsibilities of finishing the constructions from Jeremiah, regardless of my initial childish fears.”

Though silent momentarily, looking at Marie, in due time Victoria let out a few chuckles.

“You saved me the misery of having to figure out what to do next.” She said. Marie’s eyes grew bright, as did her smile at her words. “I didn’t take you for an architect, though.”

“Ah- Heh, well… I, uhm…” she stuttered, lowering her head and looking aside in embarrassement, “I suppose my interest started when the house my family lived in was still being built in some places, so I grew up in that environment. The interest never subsided since then. Here I am now.”

Victoria then handed the papers back. “I don’t need to tell you how good your work is. Jeremiah saw it good, and I approved it, so keep it up, alright? I’ll surely be more interested in what can be built around now that I know I have an architect with me.”

“Yes!” Answered Marie, nearly jumping in place. “I’ll do my duty! You’ll not be disappointed!”

An hour later…

“Can’t promise that it won’t hurt without Catherine on you.” Taunted Victoria, standing in stance with her rapier in front of Valerian, who stood in plain clothes and with longsword in hard, both in the performance set of the theater.

But Valerian did not respond, instead stood quiet. Yet, after a moment, he lower his sword and frowned in confusion, tilting his head and staring past Victoria.

Curiosity befell her, and so she turned to see where Valerian looked at, behind her. She saw nothing, and turned back to Valerian, though only to be met with him shouting in effort, already bringing down his longsword upon her. It struck before she could react, chopping through her shoulder till it reached her chest before he slid it out.

“Ch…cheater…!” She gasped out as the blow sapped her of all her strength, standing petrified for a second before falling to her knees, and then to the ground.

Valerian then sheathed his longsword, chuckling, and soon walked up to her who lied on the ground.

“You’ll have to forgive me for that.” He said. “I needed to test something. For now, let’s see how long it takes for you to get back up.”

“You could’ve… told me beforehand…”

“I’m not going to believe you’d have willingly taken a blow of that magnitude.”

A rough sigh escaped her, giving away what fury she had.

“You can talk, though.” He remarked as he sat down next to her. “How are you feeling? Is it numbness and lost control, or just exhaustion like normal wounds from the same demonic metal?”

“Exhausted…” She sighed.

A hum in acknowledgment followed, but nothing else, leaving a silence to take over as the two kept quiet. As he had nothing to do, Valerian kept glancing at his surroundings, then inspecting his nails, and other meager actions with no clear purpose in mind.

Then, he spotted how one of Victoria’s hands twitched, trying to clench into a fist, slowly regaining her strength.

“What’s it been?” He asked himself. “Five minutes? Huh, I should have honestly brought something to write this down.”

A soft noise followed as she dragged her arms on the ground till they rested right in front, as if she was getting ready to stand up, but Valerian saw her not even trying to do so. Saving strength for later, he imagined, watching till he came to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to do anything for another while.

An uneventful silence set itself again, till he saw movement once more. Victoria attempted to prop herself up by her elbows, little by little gaining height with interrupted grunts, but soon fell to the ground again.

“Ten minutes.” Said Valerian. “Maybe.”

Victoria let out a loud sigh, as annoyed as the first.

And so the wait resumed.

Valerian saw her rapier on the ground within reach, just now noticing it fully, only for him to grow curious and reach for it. He grabbed it and held it in front.

“This used to be Indrick’s, right?” He asked.

“Right.”

His gaze fell on Victoria, knowing now that she could talk properly without her words lengthening out of exhaustion, but still showed hints of tiredness. Then, he looked back at the rapier.

“Why did he leave it?” He asked.

“I don’t know. Probably by mistake.”

“Huh… Beautifully crafted, though. It must’ve hurt him to lose it.”

“One time, he could’ve taken it from me. He even held it. He instead returned it.”

His eyes turned at her, and so did her eyes turn to him, showing how Victoria was as surprised as him.

“I don’t know why.” She continued. “It probably wasn’t him being a prince charming giving me a gift to remember him with.”

As much as he looked at the rapier afterwards, he found no discernible reason as to why either. Turning it, twisting it, looking at the blade and the hilt, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and even a little emblem of Nostrum rested on the elegant guard. As much as it was the emblem of those trying to kill them, he didn’t have the heart to think of removing such fine craft.

Time passed on and on, till Victoria attempted one more time. With her elbows, this time she managed to prop herself up partly, soon pushing herself up with her knees, then placing the sole of her feet on the ground and little by little standing up, keeping balance as well as she could with her arms extended. Still, even at her greatest height, she still stood hunched over, for the tiredness had not fully weared out.

“Took you around fiteen minutes to recover enough.” Said Valerian, standing up and then extending the rapier. “Learn something new every day.”

Victoria took the rapier, and then quickly slashed at him. As much as he tried stepping back, he still received a wound on his chest, making him wince and let out a sharp, small shout as he held onto the wound.

“You have ten seconds to tell me why you did that before I do the same to you tenfold.” She said, pointing her rapier at him.

“Alright, alright.” He answered, raising his palms with an uneasy smile. “You read what I wrote the dullahan saying, right?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Well, since the armor the dullahans had tuned out to be useless, it means we better come up with better ideas, doesn’t it? I had a few, but I needed to figure out how wounds from demonic metal worked in comparison to common metal.”

“And what did you find out?”

“Hey, ten seconds passed. I’m safe now, right?”

“…I’m extending it to a minute. Hurry up.”

“Fine…” He sighed as he lowered his hands. “I might’ve found out why Indrick uses a rapier. From hat I can understand, wounds from demonic metal give diminishing results the greater the wound, although tiny wounds are immensely potent in comparison. The wound you gave me would’ve not done much to me with simple steel, but it already syphoned off part of my energy. The wound I gave you, on the other hand, would’ve outright killed you with normal steel, yet instead it just left you on the ground for a couple minutes.”

“Uh-huh…”

“It should be more efficient to land relatively weak yet quick blows than going all out with demonic metal, which is where the rapier shines here; an axe to the face might incapacitate, but if a longer-reaching rapier lands the first hit against you, even if it pokes you a bit, you’d already be far weaker and less able to swing the aforementioned axe at someone’s face. Do remember that these things phase through armor, too.”

She raised the rapier, inspecting the long, thin blade. “Huh… So that’s why the strange design…”

“That’s partly what I wanted to figure out. You should come see me in a couple hours, I’m having Catherine do a few things you should see yourself.”

“So that’s why she was not with you?”

He shrugged.

But then, she tilted her head, and stared at him with disappointment and irritation. “You had in your mind hitting me while I was distracted since the start…?”

“Hey, whatever works. You should probably rest, now.”

A pause followed where the two stared at each other, before Victoria slashed at him again, this time with Valerian managing to dodge it with his heart skipping a beat. Victoria then sheathed it, and walked off.

The afternoon orange glow set itself in the sky, and tinted the scenery with the same hue at the hours when Victoria marched to Valerian’s house. Once there, she knocked a few times, with the door soon opening; Valerian, behind it, greeted with a smile.

“You wanted to show me something, right?” She asked.

“Right.” Said Valerian, stepping aside and leaving way for her to walk in, before closing the door with her inside.

Within, Victoria found Catherine sitting at a table, drawing on and on with quill and ink, with multiple ink-filled papers scattered about and a stack of blank papers neatly organized next to her.

“It’s about the dullahans.” Said Valerian, walking to the table before shuffling through the drawings. “You know how their armor turned out to be useless?”

“Yes.”

“Sending the dullahans as they are, armed with just swords and dead weight, will only invite the same result.”

Upon finding one particular piece, he handed it over to Victoria, who took it and looked.

There in the paper, she could see with clarity a dullahan drawn, armed with a long pike in her hands and a sword by her waist, and armored only with a helmet and a chainmail underneath her surcoat. An impressive quality in artistry, she thought, for she could make out what the drawing was with a mere glance; even the finer details that the ink could allow were there, down the wrinkles of her clothes, the rings of the chainmail that the surcoat did not obstruct from view, and the shadows on her.

“Did you draw this, Catherine?”

“Yes.” Answered Catherine, not stopping drawing for a second.

“I never imagined you’d be the type to draw, let alone be this good.”

“It’s… my hobby.”

“So, what do you think of the idea?” Asked Valerian.

Victoria returned her eyes at the drawing, and stared momentarily.

“…Unsure what I’m supposed to be looking at.”

“I’m applying the reasoning behind the rapier to the army as a whole.” He answered, shuffling for another drawing. “They’d have rapiers too, though I’m sure there are bigger things to worry about seeing as they already have their swords. Now, where is… Ah.” He found what he looked after, taking a paper and then handing it to her, who took it and placed it over the other drawing in her hands to look.

The drawing showed a dullahan armored as the last one, but now had a bow and arrow in her hands, along with a quiver next to the sword by her waist.

“Ideally the pikes are tipped with demonic metal,” continued Valerian, “same as the arrows. Archers would shoot before lines meet, and the pikes’ reach would hit whoever gets close while phasing through the armor; the reach of the pikes would allow even those three or four ranks behind to reach the front with their pikes, so you’d have a wall of them at the front.”

It seemed hypnotizing, his words, making her feel dumb partly out of what unknown subject he was talking about for her, but still felt like epiphany after epiphany.

“What about the armor?” She asked. “If it’s useless, is there any reason why they’re still given some?”

“In case Nostrum suddenly decides to switch for mundane steel for one reason or another.”

He turned to the table to rummage for one more drawing, but at the same time, Victoria couldn’t help but feel an itch at the back of her mind, trying to remember something she surely thought relevant to the situation.

“…The paladin’s armor blocked my rapier, that one night.” She said upon remembering. “Wouldn’t that mean-“

“The paladin’s armor was made out of an alloy of mundane steel mixed with the usual Demon Realm Silver,” he interrupted, “producing a piece of armor which could be made in the same way a normal one is made, while having the capabilities of demonic metal. Same process we use for our weapons, since who would be a madman enough to make stuff out of pure silver…? Same process they use for theirs, I’m sure, since the rapier Indrick left looked no different to our weapons in material. They must’ve realized that demonic metal can phase through everything except flesh and itself, and so made armor out of it. It worked, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t, since the same logic carries over to us deflecting each other’s weapons while training.”

“Huh…”

“Well, I certainly don’t mean flesh in the literal sense. It can hit Catherine, even though she’s not what I’d call ‘flesh’. You get the point. Ah, found it!”

He took a paper, and handed it to her. Upon looking at it expecting the same type of lightly-armored dullahan, Victoria’s eyes widened in surprise, for it was the absolute opposite.

On the paper was drawn a dullahan on horse, yet armored beyond all belief, even past the level of the tales of knights she had heard; almost the full entirety of her body lied obscured beneath plate upon plate to a degree that made the last two dullahans she saw in the drawings look hopelessly defenseless, naked as if. Even the horse had armor upon it, covered greatly on plates and with greaves on its front legs. Not only did the armor give the dullahan an aura of invincibility, but so too did she hold a great lance pointed high, and through it all, one single detail remained a hint that it was actually a dullahan beneath the armor: Namely, the fact that she held her head under her arm.

“…What?” She could only ask.

“It’s supposed to be demonic metal. All of it. If nothing can pierce that armor, might as well go nuts and have them break through enemy lines the same way Nostrum did to Jeremiah’s army. Nostrum already has them, so we need ours now.”

He then gestured to the table, over which Victoria saw still a few drawn papers. With morbid curiosity of seeing more like the last, she slowly walked over and, one by one, picked them up and looked.

The drawings turned out to be not of individuals, but of the same three types in greater numbers instead. Formations. Archers on the march, archers shooting in formation behind wooden stakes like a barricade; pikemen presenting a wall of spears, pikemen marching with all their long weapons pointed upwards like a bed of nails.

“Finished.” Said Catherine, turning her paper around and sliding it towards Victoria, who took hold of it and glanced.

Cavalry. The same armored cavalry as before, drawn as they crashed into a formation infantry with near impunity, eerily close to Melanie’s description, who had been on the receiving end of such brutal situation.

“So your idea consists of pikemen, archers, and cavalry?” She asked.

“In essence.” Answered Valerian.

All the papers in her hand, she left on the table. “I’ll see what I can do. It might be too costly to arm the cavalry with demonic metal armor in any timely manner, though.”

“Up to you to work out the details. I’m not well-versed on the logistics aspect.”

A day later…

“You arrive uninvited, lilim.” Said the High Lordess of the elves, cross-armed and narrow-eyed with her chest puffing in arrogant pride, both she and Victoria stared at each other in the elf’s throne room. Her voice echoed throughout the wooden room which stood pompously decorated to such an extent that matched her dress, leaving Victoria’s dress to appear like that of a beggar.

Queen of the elves, as much as their kin used a different title; really suited their pride, Victoria thought, to use a title with ‘Lord’ in the name without the Demon Lord’s approval.

“I wouldn’t set myself up for rejection, would I?” Said Victoria, returning the same tone she received.

“You certainly should. I don’t expect you to turn around and leave, so… speak.”

“I want your elves to train my dullahans in archery.”

The elf, silent, raised her eyebrows together, visibly disappointed.

“I’d laugh,” she said, “but it’s more depressing that you’re not even applying the bare minimum effort in convincing me for me to shoot down your request.”

“You expect me to waste my effort for something that’ll end with the same result?”

Sighing, the elf lowered her arms. “Let’s skip this drivel. You’re not new around these parts, you came fully aware of what to expect. Go on, elaborate.”

“I’m at war with Nostrum. They’ve started finding a way into the demon realms. I need archers, and none of my dullahans know how to shoot. I need someone to train them.”

“And your argument that’d supposedly convince me is…?”

“If Variland falls, you’re next.”

“Hah!” She laughed, puffing out her chest and bringing her hands to her waist. “I dare them to try! My elves will shoot them down before they even cross the border!”

“Have you ever fought them?”

“I sure hope I won’t have to, since that’d mean your beloved Variland fell to a bunch of round-ears.”

Expressionless, Victoria took one step closer to her. “I sent an army against them, once.” She said in a stoic tone. “A thousand dullahans. A retired Lord General led them, no amateur at all. Do you know how that ended up, Elly?”

The elf frowned. “My name is Elizab–“

“The Lord General is dead. Nostrum killed him, beat the army entirely, and let the others go. Nostrum’s power was of such magnitude that they could tell themselves that they’d kill one single person out of an an entire army, and do so successfully. They’re not stupid, and they’re not weak. They won’t march in broad daylight into your lands asking to get shot, they’ll sneak in at night and burn every single one of your dear forests with your people inside, cooked like pigs on a campfire. They did that with Helmsreach, and now it’s all ashes, and that was just with twenty paladins. What do you think will happen when half a thousand times that number that number decide to pay you a visit?”

“Enough! I get the point!”

“Well,” continued Victoria, taking one step back, “that’s one of the bad things that could happen, but we’re not here to talk about bad things, are we? I’m here for your archers, and surely the fact that your elves were the first ones in mind should give away how highly I think of them. Imagine it, a war between Nostrum and Variland, and Mael-Iydan’s skill in archery could be that which turns the tide of the war.”

Though Elizabeth stared, her expression calmed gradually, from a frown, to mere interest.

“Wonders will be spoken throughout the Demon Lord’s lands of the elves and their aid,” continued Victoria, “and no doubt will my mother know who aided me. Who knows, maybe Mael-Iydan will find itself immortalized in history should this war be something spoken of centuries down the line.”

And then, silence. Both Victoria and Elizabeth looked at each other with no emotion on their faces, but soon Elizabeth ever so slowly grew a smirk, with Victoria following suit at her pace upon seeing the reaction.

“We’ve got work to do.” Said the elf. “Now, what do you need from me?”

“I have the manpower; dullahans ready to go through the worst. I need them trained, and equipped.”

“Then I’ll send my best archers to train them, and bows and arrows to equip them. This better be worth it, Victoria.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be sure to speak highly of your elves. If we win.”

“Nostrum has started a war with Variland.” Said Victoria.

The room blew up in chatter; centaurs at both sides of the room on multiple long seats looked at each other with an unintelligible discussion flooding the room, yet the one centaur in front of her, sitting on her throne, kept silent.

“A war…” Muttered the centaur on her throne, dressed elegantly yet half-utilitarian in nature compared to Elizabeth or even Victoria herself. At her voice, all the centaurs in the room grew silent once more. “What has happened, Lady of Variland?”

“Nostrum found a way for a human to get into a demon realm without turning into an incubus.” Explained Victoria, standing in the middle of the gigantic room, facing the queen of the centaurs, ‘Knight-Errant’ as they called the title. “They have raided my cities, killed a Lord General and defeated his army when he marched into their lands, and keep an army of ten thousand at the border. I don’t know how long it will take before they find a way to march that army in.”

The chatter grew anew, all visibly uncomfortable just like the centaur on her throne, who scratched her jaw with an anxious look.

“And you seek our help in this conflict.” Said the centaur.

“Yes.”

She kept silent with the same conflicted expression, until a sigh followed. “I don’t think we’re ready for a war, as a people.”

“Does your culture not honor the heroes of the past, Abigail?” Asked Victoria. “Those who took part in combat? In war?”

“Yes, but lifetimes of peace and prosperity have left us… complacent, so to speak. We don’t even have an army to send.”

“I’m not asking you to fight.”

Abigail raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“I have thousands of dullahans who’d answer the call the moment they receive it,” continued Victoria, “all eager to lend their service to a higher cause. I have no need of manpower, but that alone is worth nothing if they have no skills to use. I envisoned an army where cavalry had its place, but for that I need great riders, and I can think of no one else to train my dullahans than your centaurs.”

Abigail fell silent again, thinking with her hand over her mouth, though Victoria grew impatient with a lack of a proper, final response. Victoria could see the doubt engulfing the centaur’s mind.

“It is very much possible for us to do that for you,” said Abigail, “but what if Nostrum finds out that we’re aiding you? As much as I’d want to help you, the risk that Nostrum will go for us instead exists. We’re basically defenseless.”

“If that were to happen, I’ll personally lead the army that will arrive to defend you.”

The hand that covered her mouth moved to now scratch the top of her head. Silence once more, a situation Victoria grew more annoyed with each time, not only because of the time it took but by the prospect that the centaur’s hesitation would lead her to deny her request. The anxiety in the air thickened with each passing second, and even those centaurs at either side of the room kept quiet, as if none knew what to do either.

The risk of failure turned unbearable, and before long, she clenched her fist with a frown.

“For the first time in our lives, we’re facin a proper war!” She shouted to all those present, making all snap their eyes at her. “Would it not be the honorable thing to aid an ally in the moment she needs it the most?”

None dared say a word, all taken by surprise and petrified.

“My armies are weak and inexperienced, yet with your aid they could grow to become a force feared in the coming campaigns, perhaps heard of throughout all of The Order!”

All listened intently, with not even a gasp to let out. As Victoria took a glance at both sides of the room, she found not a single centaur not staring at her.

“We’ve all grown complacent in the safety of the demon realms.” She continued. “All of us. This war caught us unprepared, and now fate tests us with our very survival at stake, and nothing less than the best and the worst of us is required to see us through a time like those of old when heroes proved themselves on the field, facing dangers unimaginable in lands far away millennia ago. You’re all correct in being afraid, but is courage not the act of going through despite fear? And if this situation did not evoke fear in the hearts of even the strongest of us, would it not mean that we’re not facing what could potentially become the greatest war since centuries ago?”

With a deep breath, Victoria then took a few steps closer to Abigail.

“I’ve heard centaurs had a saying.” She continued, now in a lower, calm tone. “‘Do not sully the name of the heroes of the past’. Those of the past would surely ask of us to go through this mess with fire in our hearts and sword in our hands, because they did the same. Who is to say this isn’t the time of heroes spoken of for the next thousand years? So, what do you say, Knight-Errant?”

Though Abigail’s mouth did not move, her eyes did, first staring at Victoria, and then glancing around. “What do you all think?” She asked aloud.

Nobody said a word. At least, until one lone centaur stood up. “Let’s do it!” She shouted with eagerness.

“I’m with her!” Said another, standing up too.

Then, two more stood up, cheering like those before. So followed three, then five, more and more in quick succession till the entire room blew up in cheering as all without exception got up with their fists in the air, their voices echoed throughout the room like a cacophony of a million voices.

“So be it!” Firmly said Abigail, the last one to stand up. “Lady of Variland, the nation of Charadonia will stand with you to the bitter end! We may not be able to provide you with manpower, but we’ll more than make up for it with our skills and all the equipment you need for your cavalry!”

As the cheering continued, a hearty smile in relief grew on Victoria from ear to ear.

Days on end had passed.

Valerian sat in his house with Catherine on him, turning page after page of one of the numerous swordfighting manuals piled over the table, with the light from the sun sneaking into his house through the window, landing on the book; or, at least, he had sat in such place.

“Do you hear something?” Asked Catherine.

Valerian stopped and focused, silent.

“No.” He answered. “What do you hear?”

“I don’t know. Rumbling?”

“Huh. If it’s anything important, I’m sure someone will come and tell us.” He said, returning to his book and turning the page.

But after a while, his ears caught something. A near undetectable noise, with vibrations following; the rumbling Catherine had spoken of, perhaps?

“There it is again.” Said Catherine.

“…It’s gotten louder, too. I can hear it now.”

Leaving his book on the table, he stood up and headed outside. The rumbling grew stronger, for it had been muffled by the walls of his house before, and now that he stepped out into the villa, he could gauge where it came from. It seemed to originate from the entrance, which became his first destination, marching that way.

Before he even got there, however, he already saw the source in the distance, just as he gained sight of the strip of grassland. Eyes wide open, and petrified in place, he saw how thousands and thousands of dullahans gathered, marching, spreading over the field in great groups, all with tools on hand, be it shovels, hammers, cloths, great bags on their backs, it didn’t matter what, as no dullahan remained empty-handed.

His first thought was ‘Too many’. The number passed what he thought was the limit they could house and train properly by ten at the very least. How many were they? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? They didn’t seem to be the only ones that’d be there, since more convoys arrived from within the capital, the northern road, and the southern road which also merged with the eastern one going around the villa to the western entrance. As he looked around trying to find Victoria wherever she may be, and finding her among the dullahans with an open book in hand, he found yet another baffling sight; were those centaurs with her?

Standing in place would net him no answers, thus he marched down towards her, who had her back turned at him. As he walked, he saw a dullahan arriving to Victoria with a few elves behind, and a convoy following them. The dullahan saluted and said a few words, but Valerian was too far away to hear properly. The dullahan then left, the elves marched forward, and they spoke with Victoria. The closer Valerian got, the more he could decipher the voices through the audible mess.

“This isn’t the training grounds we heard of, I hope.” Said the elf leading the group.

“It is.” Answered Victoria, with a hint of smugness in her tone and expression. “Lovely, isn’t it?”

“This was your plan?! You want us to be in an open-air stable?!”

“Oh cheer up, elf!” Said the centaur leading her kin. “It’ll be fun!”

“You didn’t expect to get luxuries in the middle of a war, did you?” Said Victoria.

The elf let out a sigh in defeat, but soon noticed Valerian arriving; the others followed her gaze, and one by one turned to Valerian, Victoria included, who then extended a palm towards him.

“I’d like you all to meet Valerian.” Victoria presented him. “He’s been the one to predict the movements of Nostrum so far, and is in charge of the training.”

The elves stared in silence, yet the centaurs smiled and waved eagerly.

“We need to talk for a bit.” Said Valerian, nodding aside.

Victoria, after a pause, turned to the others. “You’ll have to excuse me for a second.” She said, before walking to Valerian.

“Aren’t you going to introduce your husband to us?” One of the elves asked.

Valerian and Victoria ignored the remark, both walking away, but Catherine detached and walked towards the elves instead, startling them enough for them to take a step back and let out a loud gasp. Then, she extended her hand for a handshake.

“I haven’t presented myself. I am Catherine, this man’s wife.”

As Valerian walked off, he couldn’t help but smile at what he heard, but soon Victoria stopped enough distance away for none to hear them.

“What did you want to talk about?” She asked.

“How many dullahans do you have over there?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?!”

“I ran recruitment in all of Variland. Those are the ones that came first. I haven’t counted them yet.”

He brought one hand to his head, silent in both awe and stupefaction, looking at the multitude that gathered.

“I don’t even know how many times they break our capacity.” He said. “How do you plan on housing them? The capital barely had enough inns to house the first ones we brought.”

“Here.” She said, extending the book.

Valerian took it and glanced inside, to find images and schematics. Camps. Intrigued, he flicked page after page, to find more and more camps of varying sizes, purposes, shapes, and so on, varying wildly in ‘population’; from tiny ones designed for a couple dozen men, to gargatuan mini-cities.

“What… What’s this book? Where did you find it?” He asked, unable to unglue his eyes from it.

“An old general wrote it, in the times before my mother took over. Guess my kleptomania with books paid itself over.”

As he turned more pages, he came across a part detailing towers, ditches, palisades, all manner of defences, and frighteningly enough, eerily detailed images of nightmarish creatures. No doubt those were monsters before the Demon Lord took over, as grotesque as they looked; surely this book belonged to a general from The Order so long ago.

“So you’re building camps?” He said, returning the book.

“I made sure to get everything needed to do so beforehand. The dullahans will have to built it. Better get them used to the hardships of the near future.”

He shifted his gaze at the multitude working. “They come here and the first thing they get in construction work, huh?”

“It’ll filter out those who feel like this is too much.” She said, staring in the same direction. “Fortunately, none seemed to complain.”

When she finally arrived to her home, night had fallen. The sound of the door creaking open felt blissful, back home at last for a well-needed rest, and so did the creak as it closed give the same sense of respite. However, once closed, she could still feel the rumbling outside of the dullahans still working non-stop. A sigh escaped her mouth as she closed her eyes, accepting her fate of not sleeping well tonight.

But then her eyes opened halfly in disappointment and annoyance, ‘Oh right, I haven’t slept well for weeks’.

Thud, thud.

It wasn’t part of the rumbling. In fact, it came from awfully close, possibly from within her house. Silent, she focused, until she heard a third thud she had been attentive for. It came from above, and in curiosity looked at the ceiling. Whatever it was, it was on the floor above.

Eyes still glued to the ceiling, she slowly unsheathed her rapier and took quiet steps towards the staircase. She then walked up step by step as quietly as she could, reaching the top and the tiny room housing the staircase’s high end, then walked to the doorway which connected this room with the one where the uninvited guest remained in, standing by its side unable to look inside, but unable to be looked at by the one within. Then, with a quiet, deep breath, she mustered her courage and stepped in.

Indrick. Victoria saw him leaning against a bookcase at the side wall of the room, holding an open book; next to him on the bookcase remained the empty space between books where he had taken it from. Both immediately locked eyes, with Indrick staring from under the brim of his helmet with his head still facing the book, and Victoria narrowing her eyes.

“You again.” She said. “For how long have you been in my house?”

“I didn’t bother counting the hours.”

Silent, he turned his eyes back at the book and turned the page.

“What are you even doing?” She asked.

“Do you have any history books that speak of Variland lying around, or something? From before you were born, I mean.”

“No.”

Shortly after he answer, he closed the book and stared at the cover.

“I’m not in the mood for nonsense, Indrick.”

“I am aware. It’s certainly tragic, what happened to Jeremiah.”

A frown grew in her expression.

“The event changed you.” He continued. “The Victoria I’ve seen the first time is dead, it seems.”

“You throw the word ‘dead’ around too lightly.”

“It should be the other way around.”

She raised her rapier and, without him flinching at the act, pointed it at his neck, almost pressing down enough for a wound. “Are you still going to play dumb and throw these riddles at me?”

After a pause in which he stared at her, he raised his hand, took the blade of the rapier with finger and thumb, and moved it away.

“You say I’m playing dumb, when you don’t even know the history of the damned nation your kin stole for you to lead in the first place.”

“Variland was in ruins when I arrived, and it had been that way for a hundred years. As much as I tried, I’ve found nothing that’d point to it ever being part of The Order, if whatever you believe isn’t propaganda in the first place.”

“Propaganda…? Tell me, have you ever stopped to think why Variland has so many dullahans? Even if you combine all possible ways you can get dullahans with, they’d still not amount to a tenth of the numbers you have out there right now, let alone all of those in Variland.”

“Point being?”

He took a few steps to the empty space in the bookcase, and silently slid the book in, much to Victoria’s impatience. Then, he left his hand still on the spine of the book as it sat in place, soon tapping with his fingers as if collecting his thoughts. Afterwards, he lowered his arm and faced her.

“Variland once belonged to The Order, as much as you might believe it propaganda.” He said. “All of what is now a demon realm, all the way from Makillae to the northern border with Caedisia, from the western border with Mael-Iydan to the eastern border with Charadonia, all founded in blood and toil by the old King Varilanius. It wouldn’t be called Variland for no reason, after all.”

Her mouth kept closed, allowing him to speak such words that led to a flurry of thoughts running wildly in her head. Was he lying? Was he telling the truth?

“At the time of Varilanius the Fourth,” he continued, “it all collapsed; demonic energy seeped through, monsters raided the countryside day after day, and soon enough the demonic energy became so intense that a great many monsterized spontaneously without cure, and little by little the affliction moved south.”

“I fail to see the issue.”

“Why would a monster see issue in this?” He said, immediately making her eye twitch with such insulting tone. “The inquisition was formed to at least slow down the plague. They drove off those humans that had already monsterized, but the process of turning into a monster was not a quick or noticeable one till the last phases. Some were in the beginning and middle phases of it, just showing symptoms while looking no different than a human, but everyone knew that it was ultimately irreversible. Do you know what the inquisition did…?”

“What?” She asked, hiding her anxiety over knowing he was going to say something ugly.

“Purges.” He answered. Her fears now correct, she narrowed her eyes. “Entire cities depopulated. Decapitation became the inquisition’s favorite method; quick, and effective.”

“…Sickening.”

“Though it solved the issue of monsterization, if you could consider it a solution at all, it did not solve the problem of the demonic energy flooding into Variland. In due time, the entire kingdom turned into a mini-demon realm, and those still loyal to The Order had to escape south, to the last areas of Variland uncorrupted, and to Nostrum. Makillae once was part of Variland, and after its collapse, the last resort of the remnants of that old kingdom was to merge with the kingdom to the south.”

“…You humans would resort to killing your own so quickly?”

“Imagine them trying to understand why those to the north would toy with them and put them through so much misery. Variland died, back then. It was left in ruins, the ruins you saw them as for a hundred years before you arrived; a tiny collection of depopulated villages, with people coming and going with its history forgotten, until you arrived. Curiously, dullahans have begun appearing ever since Variland’s fall, as if the mass decapitations had affected the demon realm in its infant stages. I’m sure that you can see some similarities between a dullahan tripping and her head rolling, to victims of demonic energy being decapitated as a million scream echo around, heads rolling throughout the kingdom.”

Shock. Disgust. Contempt. A myriad of emotions, and none of hers showed anything pretty.

“And you of Nostrum will start killing each other with the same eagerness should history repeat itself, I fear.” She said.

“Is that not what we wanted to avoid by starting this war? Variland was in ruins, then comes a lilim and starts turning it into the greatest threat Nostrum has faced. Either we waited and let Variland repeat itself, or we threw all we had to attempt removing the threat in a war most of us knew would end in miserable failure.”

She remembered vividly now, how back then she had met him in Larifolk. His words echoed within her now, ‘You’re a threat’. But now, all she could feel was indignation and hatred.

“If I do nothing,” she said, “you’ll bring death to my lands. If I do something, you’ll bring death to your own. You feel like you don’t have options, and yet you’re not giving me any either, other than following my mother’s goals and turning the entire world into a demon realm to end this madness once and for all.”

“You’re growing up, Victoria. You finally realize that none of us have any options, born into miserable situations outside of our control where we’re mere pawns at best. As much as it’s tragic that Jeremiah died, it was the catalyst for you to learn a thing or two.”

She grit her teeth. “It was my birthday when I received news of his murder–“

“And it was mine when Dirk died.” He interrupted. “We are even.”

Though silent at his words, soon her indignation returned.

“Dirk was not murdered by those of my side.” She said. “He took his own life. Jeremiah was killed by one of you.”

“‘One of you’? Victoria, did the dullahan not tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“I killed Jeremiah.”

Nothing.

Dead silence, with only the rumbling from outside creating some manner of ambient noise that warded off the void within the house. Her mind had gone blank, as so did her expression as she stared at Indrick for those moments in which time itself had stopped.

Slow steps followed as she walked up to him, until they both stood face to face, and in a calm, low tone, she finally spoke.

“I could break you. I could turn you into an incubus, make you my slave in both body and mind, and have you aid me as I march into your homeland with an army behind me… but I won’t let you turn so easily. I will tear your nation apart, corrupt all I see in my path, and force you to watch. Then, when Nostrum is mine, I will see what to do you with you.”

Both kept on staring without any more words to say, and soon afterwards Indrick took a few steps back, moved his hand in front of him in the shape of a cross, and disappeared.

Valerian stood with his hands together behind him, Victoria cross-armed, and Marie with her hands together in front holding a few papers. The three of them stood in Victoria’s study room, along with a pair of succubi opposite to them standing next to something as tall as them, covered in a cloth. Then, one of the succubi took off the cloth, revealing an ornate white-and-blue uniform beneath on a mannequin.

The centerpiece; a double-breasted jacket as white as snow, buttoned up in a way that left a triangular shape of exposed skin from her neck to her cleavage. A pair of pockets lined with the chest, just partly covered at the top by the jacket’s blue lapels. The ends of the arms folded over shared the same blue color, as did the belt on the jacket, a belt which had a metallic emblem of Variland over the buckle; below it, a skirt followed with the exact same style as the jacket as if it was a continuation, with the double-breasted design still present, and blue lining at the bottom. Whether it was separate as a skirt that looked identical, or part of the jacket, the design itself left first-time witnesses to wonder.

Below it were a pair of white boots, boots with legs high enough to reach the thighs, folded at the top with a blue lining, and leaving a small strip of exposed skin between the boots and the skirt.

Over the shoulders of the jacket rested a cloak not unlike those of The Order in design, white like a blank canvas, with the images of blue leaves lining its edge at the sides and bottom, with golden threads tying it together at the right side of the chest with a metallic lotus flower affixed on top.

And at the top, over the jacket and the cloak, lied a cap. A peaked cap simplistic in design, with just the small leather visor, the band going around its circumference tinted blue, and the white flat top. On the band remained the blue lotus flower always found in the nation’s flag. With the emblem found on the hat, the belt, and the unison of the cloak on her chest, she’d remain as the walking symbol of her country, the queen, the Lady.

“The finest materials in Variland were gathered for this piece.” Said the succubus with a proud smile on her face, puffing out her chest. “All according to your specifications. I’m confident that you’ll not be disappointed.”

Lowering her arms, Victoria stepped forward towards the mannequin while Marie and Valerian kept in place. Valerian, in the meantime, couldn’t help but whistle to himself in awe. When she got to the mannequin, eyes looking at each and every inch of it in amazement, she stood inspecting it before raising her hand and placing it over one of its arms. She felt it, the wool, knowing that it had been taken from the many weresheeps of Variland.

The thought lurked in her head, that she would lead an army into Nostrum wearing it. She could imagine it already, over her horse as the same cacophony she heard from the new recruits days ago followed her instead wherever she marched, with her army properly trained and equipped.

Yet, another thought snuck in, remembering that the last one to try that had been killed.

“…I need to talk with Valerian for a minute,” she said, lowering her hand, “in private.”

“This way, please.” Said Marie as she led the two succubi outside, their footsteps echoing till the door creaked shut.

“Need something?” Asked Valerian.

“I’ve read what Melanie said again, yesterday night.” She said, without turning her head. “Doesn’t look like she could recognize who it was that killed Jeremiah. Do you have any ideas?”

But as much as she waited for a response, she received none.

“I met Indrick a couple nights ago.” She continued. “Tell me, did the dullahan know something I was not told of in the report?”

“The dullahan was told, ‘Tell Victoria that Indrick sends his regards’.”

Victoria turned her head and stared at him from the corner of her eyes momentarily, before turning her body to face him and walk up to him.

“Why was I not told about this?” She asked.

“In due time, you’d have been told. It was safer to wait until you were calm and collected.”

“For how long?”

“Long enough.”

Though she wished to say a thousand things at him, she kept it to herself, staring at him in silence before walking back to the uniform and spending a few seconds collecting her thoughts.

“Am I that weak?”

“What do you mean?” Asked Valerian.

“Were you not walking on eggshells, choosing not to tell me something that happened because you were afraid that I’d not be able to take it?”

But she received no reply.

“Indrick said that I was growing up.” She continued. “That Jeremiah’s death might’ve taught me a thing or two. What’s your take on that?”

“I’d have to begrudgingly agree with him.”

“Reasons?”

“Complacency. You grew up in an environment without many difficulties. Everyone did, me included. None of us were expecting such hardships, let alone be prepared for them. I’m not saying that Jeremiah’s death was a good thing, but I don’t believe anything else would’ve made you understand the gravity of the situation as much as his passing. We all have to make sure it was not in vain. May he be in a better place now, but may we not end up like him.”

A loud exhalation from her nose followed, and soon afterwards she aised her head to stare at the ceiling.

“Promise you won’t hide anything from me from now on.”

“Seeing how you took this, I won’t have to.” He answered.

After a pause, she raised her hands and slowly took the peaked cap, then carefully put it on her head. True to the succubi’s proud boast, it was a perfect fit, even with her horns.

He kept marching forward, holding his pendant in hand and following it wherever it shined stronger within the small town. Wherever Indrick marched, a relative desolation greeted him, for it was still too early for the town to come alive from its slumber.

The glint of his pendant led him a closed tavern. Quick glances revealed no way in, with windows closed and door locked, and marching to either side merely weakened the glint. Something was inside the tavern.

He walked to the door and unsheathed the rapier, and after taking a deep breath, kicked the door open. As it swung and revealed the interior, Indrick saw movement from the counter, of someone raising her head and peeking at him before immediately disappearing in smoke. He walked in with rapier in hand and pendant in the other, and soon saw the intruder within: a succubus standing on a balcony of the interior.

“Well!” She playfully said with a smile on her face and hands on her waist. “If it isn’t the little paladin! Got bored of coming to Variland already?”

Indrick kept silent, but soon the succubus narrowed her eyes.

“Ah, you’re the one…” She remarked. “Our Lady has marked you, paladin. Seems that she wants you all for herself.”

“…Marked? What?”

“Whelp! Can’t have fun with you, so why stay? See you!”

Poof.

Gone.

As much as he stared around, she was nowhere to be seen. The glint seemed to have died off partly, cementing that she had left for good. Yet, nobody else was here, leaving him confused as to why a succubus would break into a house without possible victims. That there still was a small glint on the pendant seemed enough of a hint, and so he followed it.

Left, right, front, back, the glint weakened and strengthened with each step, till it led him to the counter itself where a great many bottles were stored. He moved the pendant over them one by one, till the pendant shined the strongest next to one in particular. It was the type of drink everyone in Nostrum liked and bought. Frowning, he took it and placed it over the counter, ran his pendant past the other bottles, and upon finding no other with the same effect, he took the bottle and walked out of the empty tavern.

“Who-” One of three spear-armed guards said with their weapons ready, intercepting him as he left, yet the three stood surprised upon seeing him. “Oh. We thought it was someone up to no good, sir.”

In return, Indrick extended the bottle.

“Call the inquisition. A succubus was inside. A bottle was poisoned with demonic energy. God knows what else it did.”

With a look of abhorrance towards the bottle, one of the guards took it. “Right…”

Indrick and the guards then parted ways. With no destination in mind, he just aimlessly walked through his patrol route, almost missing the times he got to annoy Victoria a bit which surely beat patrolling for the succubi that had been appearing over Nostrum.

Muffled noises. Sparks? Static? Something. The buildings and the distance reduced it to a murmur in intensity. Never having heard it before in any manner that’d imply normalcy, he now had a destination in mind, following through the streets.

He turned the corner and reached the plaza, sure that the noise originated from where the chatter of crowds had also been heard. Then, as he looked at the plaza’s corner, he saw there the small crowd he had heard, cheering as the figure they surrounded, one standing upon a few crates, moved her arms about with great currents of electricity dancing wildly with her movements. The crowd all stared intently, letting out gasps and cheers of wonder and amazement.

A sorceress.

Despite having never liked their kind, he couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Why is one showing off here, instead of shutting herself in a shack in the swamps?’

Indrick marched closer, soon joining the crowd, and sooner still gaining a clearer view of the sorceress. Swarthy, slender, with each and every move flowing in the wind as all watched the dancing sparks. A runaway rat from the desert, he figured from her complexity.

“So many things I have to show…” She spoke in a soft, soothing voice that dug into his ears, voice unimpended by the sparks that had ended, leaving everything silent. “I need a volunteer from the audience, now.”

Indrick saw how everyone around him raised their hands, no exceptions as far as he could see, chanting ‘Me! Me!’ at any given moment.

The sorceress slowly took a look at the crowd, but as her eyes fell on Indrick, she grew a sinister grin.

“You,” she pointed, “the one with the helmet.”

“Piss off.” Indrick said back.

The crowd fell silent, save for the low ‘boo’s that had begun, all looking at him, at least until the sorceress calmed them into a silence with a gesture of her hand. Crossing her arms, and with grin still in place, she spoke to Indrick once more.

“Come closer, paladin. I am intrigued by your reply.”

“Why is a sorceress here showing off?” He asked, not moving a single step.

“Sorceress? Oh, I am no sorceress. I am but a mere woman without power…” She said as she moved her palm over the crowd, now creating snakes of electricity and static over the crowd’s heads, writhing over them and inviting loud shouts of initial fright which soon turned to awe, moving from one side of the crowd to the other little by little. However, Indrick stood unflinching. “This is no magic, paladin. All you see is what lies in the infinite expanse of the cosmos, of techniques and knowledge, of all the sciences a mere mortal like I can achieve with a mere hint of curiosity towards that which is not yet known.”

With a snap of her fingers, the snakes disappeared, and so the crowd applauded her with a whistle here and there.

“Sounds like propaganda.” Said Indrick.

The would-be sorceressthen put her hands on her waist, grin never dying. “The human psyche is a thing to behold, isn’t it? Its defence mechanisms prevent it from collapsing into a vortex of insanity by creating immediate assumptions and conclusions it can understand to all that it sees. Sure you suspect I might be a fake, but is it not because what I hold would otherwise leave you with questions unanswerable, like a goldfish thrown from the little glass sphere which housed it, into an infinite ocean with unreachable depths?”

Her words did not serve to calm his skepticism, but instead to just skyrocket it. He reached for his pendant, and upon looking at what glint he would’ve guessed it had, his eyes opened fully upon finding… something.

It glinted, yes, but strangely so, in a manner he didn’t even believe possible not only for the pendant, but for the laws of nature. It shined an intense pitch black light, as if it sucked the light of what it’d otherwise illuminate. A light which darkened all, as if he stared into an endless abyss of which not even light itself could escape. What it was, he knew not; what the woman in front was, much less. Human? Monster? The only certainty he had was that he had no certainty at all, with his most accurate description of what the woman could be being ‘a thing’.

Frowning in confusion and suspicion, he looked at the sorceress once more, if that was even what it was. “Who are you?”

“Curious, are we?” She said. “That’s a good attitude to hold, but you might veer into things you would not be capable of understanding. Curiosity killed the cat, after all.” Elegantly, she bowed, with one hand on her chest, and the other extended aside. “My name is Nyarlathotep, and I seek to unveil all the secrets of this world for all to see.”

As she straightened back up, Indrick stared silent. Both stared at each other, yet upon seeing Indrick’s unchanging unamused face, her grin dropped to an expressionless, disappointed gaze.

“Unsatisfied…?” She asked, then snapped her fingers.

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.

He heard the noise of the woman with the unpronounceable name jumping down from the crates, making him snap his head towards her with a quick turn of his body. The woman, monster, thing, whatever Indrick couldn’t imagine it was, grabbed her bag which lied on the ground, threw it over her shoulder, and then looked at him. She winked with a smile, and walked off.

Speechless, he just watched without moving a muscle as she left through another street. When some semblance of sense returned to him, he looked at the pendant, to see the abyssal ‘glint’ easing off the further the woman walked away.

LackingFairGoodExcellentPerfect (5 votes, average: 4.20 out of 5)
Loading...

3 thoughts on “All’s Fair In Love And War – Ch.4”

  1. Is Victoria learning how to teleport? The last time we saw her do so she was all out-of-sorts after a couple jumps, and it seems like a useful skill to have considering (it seems like) she will be getting into more combat.

    Indrick’s “we have no other options” line sounds like bullshit – even assuming that this offensive is based on the fear that what happened to Variland would happen elsewhere, if they know that lilims are the daughters of the monster lord and can basically do whatever the fuck they want including creating pocket universes, wouldn’t it make sense to befriend this ridiculously OP individual and ask them to keep the demonic energy to themselves? I don’t know if khepris are available, but I bet a lilim could talk to a pharoah and borrow a couple to corral the excess spirit energy.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m invested.

  2. It bodes ill for a land where the Crawling Chaos walks.
    I love the way you’ve taken the logic of Demon-Realm Silver and extended it. Naturally, the Order will seek any advantage in their quest to defeat the Great Maou.

    Now, Indrick, I’m not sure if he is really operating of his own free will right now.

Leave a Reply