At one moment, she was at the western border; then, disappeared in smoke. At the other moment, on the eastern border, before disappearing once more. Northern border, villa, eastern border again, western, Larifolk, Ridshire, northern border, along a road scaring two unaware people out of their minds, and then back at the villa, all through quick teleportation without a second of respite inbetween. Yet, when she appeared back in the villa, she lost her balance and stumbled around with gasps of fright about falling, and soon Marie came to the rescue by grabbed her and letting herself be used as support.
“Forty-five, my lady.” Cheered Marie. “You’re getting better.”
Victoria then raised a finger and lowered her head, as if asking for a time-out. Then, the hand that has been raised fell to her knee, supporting herself.
“I… I feel like I’m going to puke…” She said.
“Would you like me to ask a servant for a bucket?”
“N-no, just give me a minute…”
And a minute she was given, hunched over with her arm over Marie’s shoulders and the other on her knee, till she stood straight up on herself with a deep breath.
“Alright, better.” She said.
Upon the realization, she waved her arms attempting to regain balance, only for Marie to grab her again.
“Alright, alright, not better.”
“I fear you might be pushing yourself too far, my lady.”
“Just… Just call me Victoria, alright?”
Though silent for a second, soon Marie grew a smile. “As you say, Victoria.”
A flag at two hundred meters, on the field. Another at a hundred. Another at fifty, and another at a hundred fifty.
“First volley, two hundred meters!” Shouted the elf instructor beside a line of dullahans. “Nock!”
All the dullahans took an arrow from their quivers, and the sound of wood impacting upon wood, of arrow shaft impacting against the bow, echoed out aloud in quick succession for all.
Strings were pulled back, and bows raised at the same time, all with their arrows pointed to the sky.
Over a hundred arrows, all shot in the span of a second or two as the dullahans heard the order, all soaring through the wind up high. For quite a while, they remained up there flying forwards, till they formed the first half of the arc, soon coming down.
The elf’s face contorted into a grimace as she saw where the arrows started landing. Barely a few got to the furthest flag, with the bulk landing between the flag at one hundred meters and the other at one hundred and fifty. Some landed at the one at fifty meters, and depressingly enough, some even further behind.
“…Hundred meters! Nock!”
Once more they took an arrow and nocked it, rear on the string and shaft over the bow, resting in place.
Again the pulled, and raised their bows up high.
But the order to let loose did not arrive. The elf, instead, stared as the dullahans kept their bows drawn.
“Hold fast!” She shouted, growing a grin.
Though some still held onto their strength, others had begun shaking, gritting their teeth, others closing their eyes and desperately praying for the order to be given.
And then, one dullahan let loose, having reached her limit.
Arrows into the sky.
Upon landing, the elf saw the accuracy having worsened, the worst she had seen, though predictably so.
“It’s tiring, isn’t it?” Said the elf out loud to the dullahans, of which most massaged their arms. “One can not learn how to use a bow in an afternoon! It takes a lifetime to do so, and we elves have lives our lives by the bow! You all will have to put in the effort of a lifetime to get anywhere, and Lord almighty I’ll make sure it’s the most miserable experience you’ll ever go through! I’ll not consider this training done till all of you are bleeding from your hands! Anyone want to give up yet?!”
Silence. A frown grew in the elf’s expression.
“…Two hundred meters again! Nock! Come on, hurry up!”
Without exception, all the dullahans took an arrow from their quivers, and put them on their bows.
A centaur stood beside a line of mounted dullahans, all with spears, with a mannequin standing a fair distance away from them. Cross-armed, she oversaw as one by one the mounted dullahans rode forward, picking up speed as they approached the dummy and thrusting at it, before riding on slowing down, and then marching back to the back of the line as another did the same, on and on.
But as one thrusted, a bad stab left the spear embedded even as she rode forward still holding the spear, making the rear of the spear whip against her back, to which she let out a shout before losing balance and falling to the ground. A painful sight, of greater pain to the dullahan herself who remained on the ground writhing.
The exercise halted on its own, though the centaur instructor kept to herself, watching silent, as did the others. And, though the dullahan that had fallen kept still for a second, she then got up with visible effort till she remained standing up hunched over with her hands on her knees. After a pause, she straightened back up, ran to her spear, grabbed it, and then ran to her horse and mounted; then, she marched the way back.
The instructor then glanced at the dullahan who would’ve gone next, and so did the dullahan glanced back.
“Go.” Firmly stated the centaur.
The exercise then continued.
Pikes, pikes, and more pikes; hundreds of dullahans standing in formation with their pikes pointed up, like a bed of long nails. At the front, Valerian marched, inspecting their formation. In due time, he stepped off to the side.
“Spear wall, now.” He commanded.
The dullahans obeyed. The first rank crouched, and put the base of their pikes against the ground and their feet. The second rank brought their pikes to bear, holding them low at waist-height. The third rank lowered their pikes, though still higher than the second rank, at the height of their heads pointed forward. The ranks beyond kept their pikes pointed up.
Upon seeing them finished, Valerian marched along their front, examining the dullahans and the way the held their pikes. For a few, he grabbed onto the pike and pushed, pulled, or moved aside, testing, though his silence revealed to the dullahans that nothing was so miserably wrong as to demand a scorning.
“Marching formation, pikes low.” He ordered, stepping to the side of the formation.
The font rank stood up and held their pikes like the second rank.
Though slow at first, individual dullahans unwilling to advance ahead of the formation that had not begun marching itself, all soon picked up pace as one single entity, pikes forward, marching on at less than walking pace; though it looked simple in theory, the faces of the dullahans showed their newfound difficulty in keeping such a tightly-packed line moving as one without twisting or turning, without one side marching too far ahead from the other.
“Not half bad, but still needs work! Keep at it!” Reassured Valerian, walking at their pace. “Look at the tip of the pikes and you’ll get an idea of the formation! Keep the line straight!”
A month passed by.
From up the hill of the villa, Victoria and Valerian watched the camps which had expanded in size, becoming a mini-city on its own right teeming with life. The strip of grassland had ceased to exist, becoming now a line of camps from which lines of smokes came out, from the various campfires over which the dullahans cooked their daily meals.
The training grounds to the north and south, always pushed further away as the camps increased in size, stood desolated. However, their size and set-ups, with the grass visibly stamped on even from such distance, gave away how it never ceased to be as gruelling as the first day. The opposite, perhaps.
“I think it’s enough.” Said Victoria, making Valerian raise an eyebrow.
“And you’re saying this just now…?”
“Yes. I suppose it’s time to round them up and head to Nostrum to leave space for the others who’ll arrive.”
No words escaped him, instead he just stared at her with an uneasy, yet tired look.
“The same thing might happen.” He said, returning his eyes to the front, towards the camps.
“I can imagine that the paladins who had infiltrated Variland must’ve alerted them of the army’s movements and allowed Nostrum to prepare accordingly. I’m fully expecting an unavoidable confrontation the moment I step out of this demon realm. With no fire attempts happening ever since Jeremiah had departed, I’m sure that those paladins are watching us like vultures at carrion.”
“…I trust your judgment.” He said, as if having to reassure himself out loud.
“Lord almighty, they’re everywhere…” Complained Vandire Castellan, reading reports of monster infiltrators and moving figurines on the respective places over a map by his desk. Indrick stood with him too, in the room of the tower within Makillae, standing by the wall with his hands together behind him. “That should be the bulk of the reports. Now, what did you see?”
“Ten succubi in Acerrae, and a sorceress trying to hypnotize people I think.”
“‘Think’?” Asked Vandire, moving another figurine to the north-eastern city in the map.
“I lost track of her. Don’t know what it was trying to do; showing off, maybe, but the rosarius caught whiff of something and glinted black.”
Vandire, silent, glanced at Indrick.
“That’s what I saw.” Shrugged Indrick. “I won’t pretend to know what it was.”
Quick, hasteful steps grew closer and closer, alerting the two in the room, till from the staircase appeared a paladin who rushed up to the desk.
“Sire,” saluted the paladin, “we saw an army marching out of Variland’s capital. It seems to be around fifteen times bigger than the last one, and it’s taking the same path to the south-west. The lilim herself is leading it.”
“Shit.” He said, standing up with his hands on the desk. “Are you certain the lilim is with them?”
“Yes, sire. White hair, horns, wings, and tail. She was on horse at the head of the formation the last time we saw her. She should have marched half the way by now.”
“Indrick,” he turned, “I’ll ready the army here and intercept her. You’ve met that lilim more than anyone else, so you’re going with me just in case.”
“Using me as a meat shield…?” Said Indrick.
“Want me to?”
“Shame.” Answered Vandire, setting off to the staircase, with Indrick soon following behind.
Vandire himself in his armor led the army north-west, with Indrick beside him, and his general staff behind, followed by ten thousand men on the northern plains between Nostrum and Variland.
That which he took onto the field differed from his usual relatively casual outfit; long-sleeved chainmail shirt reaching down to his thighs, and over it a coat of plates underneath a dyed-black leather layer, with belts running on to keep it in place along with a sheathed longsword, dagger, horn, and all manner of elements he believed necessary. Greaves adorned his legs over his thick, dark olive trousers, of gray metal lined with bright silver, and so too did the gauntlets over his heavy gloves, segmented pauldrons of his shoulders, and neck piece share the same silver liing. From underneath his pauldrons, a black cape flowed out. On his head, however, he wore no helmet, instead a crown that amounted to just a silver band with the icons of both Nostrum and The Order resting along the top. As he had no helmet, his golden hair showed, combed back and just at a length at which little curls began to show; his face showed too, clean-shaven and of thick, angular characteristics, giving him a perpetual frown that’d send children running.
Spearmen, crossbowmen, swordsmen, and heavy cavalry comprised his fighting force, with numerous flags showing the heraldry of each regiment, along with the icon and colors of Nostrum itself: A black cross imposed on a white background, with the cross of Nostrum and its seraphic wingst at the intersection of the black cross.
Further north lied the demon realm, an unpassable barrier of which no human had ever returned from intact, at least until the rosarius had been created. For the army, however, the rosarius might as well not exist. Aiming to intercept Victoria’s army in the same manner as Jeremiah’s, Vandire marched westward to cut off their retreat path.
He then saw one his groups of scouts returning in the horizon, a sight unexpected. The closer they got, however, the clearer a detail got: Some led rider-less horses, with the few missing riders resting unconscious right behind those awake.
“Sire,” one of them said, “we got in a skirmish with a few mounted dullahans. The army before this one didn’t have horses, let alone use them as scouts.”
Vandire glanced at those unconscious.
“Victorious?” He asked.
“No, sire. Stalemate. Both our groups silently agreed to let the other get their wounded back.”
“Would you have wanted us to do something else?”
“No, you did well. Leave the unconscious and the wounded on the supply train and set off again. Avoid skirmishes for now, just keep your eyes open.”
“Yes, sire.” Saluted the scout, before gesturing with his arm to the others who soon followed him to the back of the formation.
Their march continued on through the plains, as uneventful as it was to the west, with still ways to go to reach Victoria’s army, at least until Vandire saw in the distance another one of his scout groups. Their frantic arrival felt like a bad omen already.
“Sire!” One scout shouted from afar as soon as he got close enough, riding up to him and then marching along. “The army changed directions, it’s marching right towards us! Cavalry, pikemen, archers, they’re completely different than before!”
“Halt!” Shouted Vandire, raising his palm. His officers immediately echoed his orders, though contrary to their barking, Vandire kept in eerie silence.
“She seems confident in her strength.” Remarked Indrick.
“Pikemen on plains…” Muttered Vandire. “We’ll get a victory that ends with just a tenth of this army getting out in one piece at best. Indrick, do you believe the lilim is knowledgeful in warfare?”
“I wouldn’t risk it, that’s all I can say.”
A rough, painful sigh escaped Vandire.
“We’re marching south. She’ll follow, hopefully.” He said to his officers.
At his command, his officers relayed the order, and at his pace, the army began turning and marching.
When the last man of his army crossed the bridge, the others ready at the other side began tearing it down, destroying it as Vandire watched. The wooden fragments fell, washed away by the currents, until the main part of the bridge itself could not hold itself up any longer, collapsing.
And then, Vandire’s army formed up and waited at the other side, a couple hundred meters away.
The first sign of Victoria’s army that came to sight were her scouts, advancing and coming across the now broken bridge, before retreating back to the horizon.
Soon after, however, the silhouette of the main army came to be seen in the same horizon, first as a mere dot, then as a line as it came closer, and finally as the main formation seen with clarity. They marched on towards the river, but halted in front; Vandire stood vigilant, knowing that the lilim should’ve gotten early warning of the broken bridge, yet had decided to come nonetheless.
Though both armies stood staring at each other, in due time Vandire and Indrick saw the lilim dismounting, with an archer coming to her side. The two marched forward to the river, and upon arriving to its edge, the archer drew her bow, aimed high, and shot an arrow high above. It flew in an arc and landed in front of Vandire’s army, with what he believed was a paper tied on it. Victoria’s archer marched back, though Victoria herself stood by the river, watching.
At the gesture of Vandire’s arm, one of his cavalrymen marched forward towards the arrow, picked it up, and marched back to hand it to him. Vandire untied the paper, and then read it.
“…It’s for you.” He muttered in an uneasy tone, extending it to Indrick, who grabbed it and read.
‘I SEE YOU, INDRICK.’
Vandire and Indrick then noticed the lilim moving, stepping forward and crouching to touch the water. For a few seconds, nothing occurred, bringing confusion to Vandire’s mind, until he saw the river slowly turning into ice from her palm outwards, freezing.
Unwilling to stay and watch it unfold, Vandire gestured with his arm, signalling the withdrawal.
Vandire saw Makillae once more in the distance as his army marched. Victoria’s army stalked him at every step, and too many inconclusive skirmishes between scouts had cemented the stalemates that gave nobody the advantage, nor any reason to pursue said skirmishes more often. In fact, Vandire believed it only made Victoria’s army stronger, for his scouts already had the experience, and the dullahans kept learning engagement after engagement.
“I want the archers on the walls and infantry on full alert.” Said Vandire as he crossed the gate. “Cavalry to the south, so that if the lilim decides to siege they’ll harass her.”
His officers split and relayed the orders to the army, splitting further as each regiment did what it was told, while in the meantime Vandire and Indrick marched further to the tower and dismounted before walking in.
“The moment they arrive, they’ll surely try infiltrating as they did with the other cities.” Said Vandire, walking up the staircase with Indrick. “I trust you and the few paladins here will be able to deal with it.”
As they reached the top, Vandire walked to the window to stare outside. The horizon showed no signs of the lilim’s army, though he knew it’d be just time till then. Indrick walked to a wall, crossed his arms, and waited with him.
And just like the time with the broken bridge, now aided by the tower’s height, Vandire saw the speck in the distance of Victoria’s army marching closer, following wherever he went. Little by little it came closer and closer.
“What if they assault the city?” Asked Indrick. “Monsters are stronger than men. In a brawl–“
“Using pikemen in a city?” Interrupted Vandire, not even glancing at him.
Hurried steps resounded from the staircase, till a squire walked in.
“Sire.” He saluted.
“Yes?” Said Vandire, turning around.
“The paladins say that there’s been a sudden spike in succubus activity from the moment you left.”
“Have they managed to keep it under control?”
With a frown, he raised his hand and rubbed his eyes. “Right. If you don’t have anything else, you may leave.”
The squire saluted, and departed.
Silent, Vandire turned back at the window, staring on and on as the army marched closer, and soon Indrick joined him, walking and standing next to him looking out the window.
It didn’t take long. The fifteen thousand dullahans arrived, and arranged in formation in front of the northern gate just outside of the range of the crossbowmen, always with an escape path to Variland. However, they soon stood immobile, staring; Vandire saw how they had no siege engines, no trebuchets, no rams, no catapults, nothing that could be prepared for an assault.
But soon they formed up again, and marched westward. Off to do their own thing, he figured.
“They’re gonna raze the countryside if I’m not playing tag with them.” Said Vandire. “You’ll stay here and deal with the succubi. I fear she’ll send in even more the moment I step out.”
Vandire then stepped to the staircase, while Indrick stood by the window, watching Victoria leaving to the west.
Days later, a strange noise woke Indrick from his slumber. Deep in the night, it seemed as if his paranoia randomly woke him up; unlike last time, however, there was no nightmare to fright him awake. Still skeptical nonetheless, he reached for the rosarius he never took off, not even to sleep, and looked.
He jumped off the bed and reached for his rapier, but as he stared around, he found nobody within his room. Nobody under the bed, behind the curtains, or in the hallway outside his room; the glint must’ve caught whiff of something outside, but what could be so powerful for the rosarius to pick up from so far away with such a strong glow?
He put on his gear and all he had missing, sheathed his rapier and tied the sheath on his belt, and ran out to the hallway, then downstairs, through the front room, and then out the inn.
Makillae. A goldmine in potential, thought Victoria as she held a woman high by the neck of her clothes, who had panicked beyond the thought of fighting back, now just staring back at Victoria with tears in her eyes and feet dangling in the air. All around them, the dullahans, a small detachment of a thousand, stormed the undefended parts of the city, wreaking havoc, looting, destroying, with screams and chaos echoing in the night. A devious smile had cemented itself in Victoria’s expression, for the woman she held seemed like a great candidate for monsterization into a high-ranking monster, and not just any, but a dragon.
Proud, disciplined, dutiful; the traits attributed to Nostrum seemed to be incredibly compatible with those of dragons, and no matter who she came across, more often than not they held the same rare potential. An effect of living so close to a demon realm for a hundred years? Dormant genes from those who escaped Old Variland with demonic energy within them, but not enough to affect them, passing it generation after generation? The reasons escaped her, but a sense of greed invaded Victoria, like a tanuki who saw valuable coins scattered over the floor, but with potential candidates and monsterization instead.
If all of Nostrum was the same as Makillae, then perhaps she could even turn it into a dragon realm. It’d take centuries, if not millennia with her relatively weak power and prowess, and numerous failed attempts too, but she’d have all the time in the world.
Whatever the cause, Nostrum had to be hers. She had heard the tales of Druella turning Lescatie into a demon realm, but still it was a normal one; if she were to turn Nostrum into a dragon realm, she’d be the fear of The Order and the pride of the Demon Lord for eternity. All would know her name, and all would speak it with either pride or dread.
She turned her head to see who had called her name, to find Indrick a few meters away with rapier unsheathed. The dullahans slowly surrounded him, but he did not flinch, just stared dead ahead at the lilim.
“Indrick.” She greeted back with surprise, leaving the woman on the ground who broke out running as soon as she could. She then turned to Indrick and took a few steps towards him, standing in front with a grin and a hand over her waist. “I thought I’d actually have to force you to watch, rather than have you come here of your own volition. I didn’t even imagine you’d be here instead of following the Nostrian army like time ago.”
“I can’t tell if you managed to outsmart Lord Castellan, or if he purposely left me here with Makillae undefended for us to meet without telling me.”
“Let’s go with the former, then.” She winked, with a finger over her mouth in sign of silence. “Well, I could have the dullahans hold you down and have you witness the corruption process for most of this city… but since you’ve been a good boy you can just leave. Go, get out of he-“
Woosh went a crossbow bolt whistling past, one she barely dodged by jerking back with an aghast expression. The bolt struck against the wall of a building nearby, embedding itself with little cracks on the wall and tiny fragments of the building material falling off. She glanced the direction it came from, to find someone standing on the roof of a small building, dressed like Indrick as if it were a uniform, with the same helmet on his head and rapier by his waist, though holding a crossbow now empty. His main difference with Indrick, however, was his facial hair, a full beard neatly trimmed, of a dark chesnut color.
“Two on one, huh?” Muttered Victoria.
“I’m sure a lilim won’t have an issue with simple humans.” Said Indrick in a subtle taunting tone, one Victoria would’ve picked up even if it wasn’t there at all.
Though silent for a second, staring with an irritated frown, she soon unsheathed her rapier and spoke to the dullahans around. “I don’t want anyone interfering.”
In an instant, she disappeared, appearing behind the paladin on the roof, only for him to swing around and throw the crossbow at her. Victoria in fright dodged it, only to then see the paladin jumping down. She stepped to the edge and looked down, seeing the paladin using the building’s architecture to climb down, till he rested his feet on the ground and took out a rapier of his own. He then walked up to Indrick, and the two stared at the lilim.
“I’ve forgotten how annoying you paladins can be.” She sighed.
In a poof of smoke, she disappeared. Reappearing beside Indrick, she thrusted her rapier, only to be deflected by him. Immediately the second paladin ran to her side and attacked, though Victoria responded by letting out a titanic burst of air from her palm pointed at him, the same kind she used in the capital back then. The paladin fell back a considerable distance, and while Indrick backed off, she did the same burst but in reverse, pulling air towards her from under Indrick’s feet, sending him to the ground onto his back.
Victoria calmly stepped up to the fallen Indrick, both him and her pointing their rapiers at each other.
“You’re pretty good.” Said Indrick. “Trained?”
“Making up for all those years of doing nothing.” She grinned.
After a second, her grin disappeared, and quickly backed off; the second paladin had come back thrusting, which she deflected aside before thrusting her own, to be deflected in turn, both wildly stepping forward and back parrying each other’s blows as Indrick stood up.
But a third paladin tackled Victoria from behind, sending her to the ground with a shout. In panick, she disappeared and reappeared a safe distance away, quickly standing up once more and turning her head to the paladins, to find the third standing with them.
Built like a brick house, just half a head smaller than the other two, though without a helmet and showing his bald face. His musculature, along with a body type of greater width than the norm, left the other two looking like sticks despite them showing comparable strength, and even his head showed such trait, almost round and sunken into his chest. Same outfit type, however, and rapier which he now unsheathed.
No wonder her back still ached, if the human equivalent of a boulder shot by a catapult had struck her.
“Three on one?” She muttered. “I trust there won’t be any more uninvited guests?”
“No promises.” Answered Indrick.
“Well…” She said, soon standing tall with her arms extended aside, almost in taunt. “I’ve taken the initiative most times in this fight, have I not? How about I let you come to me instead?”
Her smile died, and her arms were left to hang down.
“Make a move.” She said.
“No, you make a move.” Replied Indrick.
“Let’s go, I’m just here standing.”
“No, you walk up to us.”
“You do that.”
“What a dork…” Said the bearded paladin.
Victoria heard, and so she immediately grit her teeth in fury, gripping her rapier tighter and narrowing her eyes. ‘Dork’, such a minuscule, yet at the same time piercing insult. And then, she disappeared.
The three paladins quickly took stance and formed into a triangle, back to back, looking in all directions. All they saw were the dullahans at the various streets, staring.
In front of Indrick, she appeared, thrusting, yet Indrick deflected it and the two paladins beside him aimed to surround her, but Victoria immediately disappeared once more. In front of the bald one, she appeared, thrusting and catching him by surprise, but still he parried her blow before she disappeared. Beside the bearded one, she appeared and slashed, blocked effortlessly by the paladin, but as she disappeared, the paladin quickly grabbed her in any way he could, much to her surprise as she grabbed back in reflex.
Both Victoria and the paladin disappeared, much to Indrick and the other’s confusion.
The two reappeared a little distance away, shot out from the cloud of smoke towards opposite directions, both hitting the buildings on each side of the street with their backs, remaining sat down against the building upon falling to the ground.
“What…” She asked herself, disoriented not only by the blow but by the unexpected turn of events.
She remembered getting grabbed, and grabbing back in panic as she disappeared, but how that resulted in getting shot out, she did not understand. She raised her hand to her head, but as she touched her head, she noticed how some foreign object ended up in her hand. A quick glance, and she found that it was the paladin’s pendant, glinting intensely, and so too did she feel the strange void sensation that it emanated for her.
Another quick glance, and she saw the other paladin at the other side of the street, seeing him stand up yet pressing his hand on various parts of the neck of his clothes, messy, till he found his lost pendant in Victoria’s hand.
Finally coming to her senses, she stood up.
“We’re leaving!” She shouted to the dullahans with a smile in her face. “Rally up and march out!”
The bald paladin broke out running towards Victoria, though before he could reach her, she disappeared in smoke, reappearing on the roof of the building she just sat against.
“I’ve gotten way more than what I bargained for.” She said as she looked at the pendant, just as the dullahans marched away. “I could stay here and exploit the fact that the Nostrian army is away, but… I suppose he must already be on his way, after realizing I’m nowhere to be seen. See you later, Indrick.”
And so, smoke engulfed her, and little by little the dullahans’ steps echoed further and further away.
The bald paladin took his own rosarius out and walked to the bearded one, then he held it close to him. The rosarius glinted with the same strength as before, weakening as the dullahans marched away, a glow too weak to show anything on him.
“You’re clean.” He said, a voice deep and rough, coarse like sandpaper upon someone’s ears.
“Fought a lilim, and the only thing I lost was the rosarius.” Said the bearded paladin in relief, rubbing his aching neck. Then, he moved his helmet back, with the little string running down the sides clinging to his neck and letting his helmet hang on his back. His hair fell down, split by the middle and lengthy enough to partly cover his ears. “I’d have imagined she’d instantly turn us. Had my heart in my throat the whole time. Indrick, do you know if she was holding back?”
“Either she wasn’t and she’ll only get better with time, or she was and next time we’ll end up like Dirk.” Said Indrick as he walked up to them. “Sigismund, were you doing anything when the dullahans got in?”
“Hunting succubi.” Answered the bald paladin, facing Indrick. “The eastern part of the city is crawling with them. I almost caught one, too, but the dullahans got in, and I figured this took priority.”
“And you, Geoffrey?”
“I was on the western side.” Answered the bearded paladin. “Didn’t see succubi there, though.”
“Stay with Sigismund from now on, assuming Vandire even lets you run around without a rosarius when he gets back.”
“You two coming?” Asked Sigismund, already a small distance away to the east. “Those succubi had free reign for a long while already. Who knows what they did.”
Without delay, Indrick and Geoffrey followed Sigismund to the west.
Indrick pulled and pulled, soon getting the bucket out of the well by the rope, filled to the brim with any and all movements making it spill. The light of early, early dawn couldn’t illuminate them enough, only the torch carried by one of the group that surrounded the well did so efficiently. One of the men took the bucket and laid it on the border of the well. Indrick let go of the rope, took his pendant, and put it close to the water.
The pendant glinted.
“It’s poisoned…” He muttered. Those around him began sighing and muttering among each other, despair in the air. Then, Indrick turned and glanced around. “Where’s Geoffrey? He should be here by now.”
But he was nowhere to be seen.
He walked out of the group and marched towards the center of the city, but not even a block later, he saw him walking in his direction. Arriving to each other, Indrick moved his pendant closer to Geoffrey, to find it not shining.
“I’m already expecting you to get ambushed at any moment and never hear from you again.” Said Indrick, putting his rosarius back on. “You’re naked without it.”
“You keep tempting fate like that. It’s as if you want me dead or worse.”
“So, what about the granaries?”
“Nothing good about them. The paladin there says they’re all tainted, and some have already shown mutations. It’ll all have to–“
Geoffrey sniffed, smelling something. Then, he turned back, only for him and Indrick to see a trail of smoke over the buildings.
“Burn it all.” Geoffrey and Indrick said at the same time, staring.
Steps and panting caught their attention. They turned to the source, and found Sigismund running up to them, arriving and hunching over with his hands on his knees to recover his breath. Then, he straightened back up.
“East side is a mess.” He said. “People got snatched up, some monsterized in front of people’s faces. Those who monsterized are not there anymore, but Chief God knows how many must be afflicted. Some are already showing symptoms. All I know is that there’s no way in hell I’m going back there all on my own.” Then, he turned to Geoffrey. “You better find a replacement for your rosarius to help us soon. You know they’ll be dying to brag about snatching up a paladin.”
“Why don’t you tell this guy to go and kindly ask the lilim to return it? It worked with Dirk’s.” He laughed, and soon began marching north.
“Where are you going?” Asked Indrick.
“Northern gate. I heard a few going there for some reason, so might as well check it out. You guy coming?”
“East side’s fucked either way, so.. Yeah, sure.” Answered Sigismund, picking up the pace, with Indrick soon following.
As they arrived to the northern gate, the three found what Geoffrey had heard; Vandire’s army had arrived and stayed outside, and Vandire crossed the gate with his personal guard. The paladins and the master-commander immediately saw each other, and Vandire then galloped up to them.
“What happened here?” Asked Vandire.
“Victoria snuck in with a thousand or so dullahans.” Said Indrick. “Either succubi or the afflicted must’ve let her in. She left, though the well’s been poisoned, and the granaries had to be burned.”
“West side’s infested, too.” Added Sigismund. “We’re gonna be seeing Old Variland there with all the afflicted.”
“Figured as much when I saw the lilim was missing…” Muttered Vandire, lowering his head and keeping silent, thinking. After a moment, he raised his head again. “Raze it all.”
“What?” Asked Indrick.
“Their army is coming back here after us. Evacuate this city and burn whatever can’t be taken. Those who are afflicted are to be left behind, we can’t do anything for them. The evacuation won’t finish before the lilim’s army returns, so I’ll have my army hold them back when the time comes. Got it?”
“Understood.” Said the three in unison.
An hour and a half passed. Indrick, Geoffrey, and Sigismund found themselves on the western part, now desolated almost in its entirety. The three walked in a line with their rapiers in hand, Indrick first with rosarius in his other hand, Geoffrey second without his own, and Sigismund third holding the pendant like Indrick. Though the place had been evacuated, lingering fears of monsterization of those afflicted drove them to such parts.
As they marched, they passed by the rare person or two sitting outside, their rosarius glinting as they came closer, but as much as the afflicted and the paladins exchanged glances, the three moved on. The glint had been too weak, showing only the early stages of affliction rather than a stage in which monsterization was a given.
But then, Indrick and Sigismund stopped in their tracks upon seeing their rosarius shining strangely; Geoffrey almost hit Indrick before stopping, however, as he had no rosarius that’d lead him to stop at the same time.
“…Whatever you saw in Acerrae must be further ahead.” Said Sigismund, for the rosarii shined darker.
They resumed their march and followed the black light, turning corner after corner until they found themselves arriving to a house. Indrick slowly walked up to the door and gently pushed to test if it was open, only for it to slowly creak open and reveal it’s dark interior. Indrick marched in, Geoffrey followed, and Sigismund entered last.
“Geoffrey, watch the door.” Said Indrick. “Sigismund, stay where you can see both of us, just in case.”
“Right.” Said Sigismund, as he and Geoffrey moved into position, with the latter staying vigilant by the front door for any outside interference.
Though Indrick thought that following a dark light in the darkness would be difficult at best, when he looked at he rosarius he found it easy to differentiate it from the darkness around. To describe it as a lack of light wouldn’t do it justice; more than that, it seemed to be an absolute void where nothingness showed. If anything, the vibes he got from it felt similar to those spots of random colors one got after rubbing his own eyes with enough strength. A difference between merely being in a pitch black room, to closing one’s eyes, or absolute blindness; the inability to see, rather than seeing blackness, but all of it attributed to the black light.
Trying to describe it only gave him a headache. To say it was something out of this world wouldn’t be innaccurate, and vague enough to prevent said headache from overtaking him.
He marched into one room, but after stepping in, he found nothing. A quick search revealed nothing either, and so he stepped out. The second room showed the same lack of results, and so he stepped out again. The third room, however, revealed something as soon as he opened the door, the noise of someone whimpering. With care and quietness, he stepped in and stared at the source of the noise trying to find it; a bedroom, and the noise seemed to come from the side of the bed he didn’t have vision of. He took slow steps and walked around the bed, and there he found it, a woman curled up on the floor, whimpering. Walking closer and moving his rosarius to her made it glint with the same intensity as back then, when he met the woman with the unpronounceable name.
It wasn’t the same woman, but it still gave off the same type of glint. Another type of affliction Victoria created and spread, perhaps? Surely, the woman from Acerrae was but a mere carrier, spreading it like a succubus.
She grabbed his arm in an instant, the arm he had held close with the rosarius. His heart jumped, both Indrick and the woman staring at each other dead in the eyes, but to his fright, the woman’s eyes were wide open in absolute horror and desperation. He tried pulling his arm away, but the woman did not let go.
“Don’t… leave me…” She said.
Indrick tried again, this time with more strength, but she did not let go; in fact, she tugged on enough for him to end up unintentionally pulling her towards him. In that instant, the woman came to life in wild and erratic movements, pulling herself towards him, as much as Indrick struggled otherwise.
“Don’t leave me! I don’t want to be alone!” She screamed at the top of her lungs. “No! No!”
Indrick, after failing to break free, stabbed her in the stomach with the rapier enough to weaken her, then kicked her back into a corner. The woman then remained in the corner, curling up again and whimpering like before.
“What the hell…?” Asked Sigismund from the door.
“I don’t want to know.” He replied, quickly walking out the door with Sigismund stepping aside for him.
From the line of infantry, Victoria had clear view of the situation. Her army and Vandire’s finally met in the open field, with the walls of Makillae looming over them; her line of archers quickly rushed forward spread out on the grass fields, and so too did Vandire’s line of crossbowmen sally forth to meet them. In range, both lines halted and the dullahans did what they learned in training. Nock, drawn, aim, and with the order then given, let loose high above.
They shot a second volley in the same manner, and then, the first volley from the crossbowmen arrived. Sudden and lethal, hitting a few and making all cower with their arms over their heads, with whistle upon whistle as the bolts flew past hitting the ground or a few others. And yet, the shouting of their captains made them recover their composure and nock another arrow.
It hurt Victoria greatly to see them fall. One second a dullahan could be readying to shoot, and the next a bolt would send her to the ground in the blink of an eye. With each volley received, she fought back the urge to close her eyes or look away, and with greater difficulty she fought back the urge to withdraw the line, for the enemy line suffered the same. Depressingly, the archers seemed expendable in the big picture, since removing the crossbowmen from combat would allow her pikemen to march unopposed against infantry and cavalry alike, and as such took greater priority than keeping the archers in the fight.
But then, a thought snuck into her mind. If she knew, wouldn’t that mean that Vandire also knew? Surely he was an experienced general, so why would he waste his men? This only delayed the inevitable.
A succubus then appeared next to her in a cloud of smoke, gaining her attention.
“My lady,” she said, certainly confused, “the Nostrians are doing… strange things in Makillae. They’re burning their own things, and most are being made to leave through the southern gate. Some are made to stay, though.”
She raised an eyebrow. Then, once she looked ahead once more, though of it, and soon came to realize that the difference in the army’s behavior seemed to reflect a different plan. Last time they sought solace within the walls, after all, and now they fought, yet stuck on the defensive.
“Melanie,” she turned, “get part of the cavalry and pretend you want to go around the city to the southern entrance. Just see if you can get a reaction from them.”
“Immediately.” Answered Melanie, gallopping off.
At the same time, Victoria rushed ahead towards her archers.
“Fall back!” She shouted. “Fall back to the infantry line!”
Little by little, the archers heard, and shouted the order amongst themselves. Soon the entire line relayed the orders to itself, running back as bolts fell upon them, until all were out of range, marching and arriving to the line of pikemen further back. Looking back, hundreds of dullahan littered the field, a sorrowful sight to behold, though the same thing could be seen at the other side, with the crossbowmen leaving their fallen behind as they withdrew partly.
At the same time, part of her cavalry gallopped off to the side, but near-instantly part of Vandire’s cavalry responded in kind, not to intercept but to deter, keeping up with the movements and letting themselves be seen reacting, never advancing into the range of her bows. Melanie halted and returned, and so did Vandire’s cavalry return.
But nothing else happened. The archers and the crossbowmen, now out of range, kept staring at each other with none pushing forward. The infantry remained immobile, and the cavalry stood ready yet unmoving for both armies.
She then noticed some of Vandire’s men moving. Not numerous enough to be a company, and not even in formation, instead a few crossbowmen here and there with their crossbows now on their backs marching forward, soon arriving to their fallen and picking them up to carry them back. Apart from that, Vandire’s army did nothing.
And at the sight ahead, some of Victoria’s archers glanced back at her, as if silently asking for the opportunity to do the same.
“…Go, bring them back here.” She answered to the silent pleas.
Those who had glanced at her put their bows on their backs and rushed forward to the fallen dullahans, doing the same as Vandire’s army with their own kin, and though Vandire saw, he did nothing about it.
Soon enough, all the fallen had been recovered, sent to the back of the armies to be treated; not a single death occurred, if only because both sides had tipped their ammunition with demon realm silver, still bypassing all armor in turn.
The day progressed with both sides not doing much other than standing off in silence. The dim light of early dawn changed into the bright light from the sun high above, with hours on end passing, and, much to Victoria’s wonder, with more and more smoke lines appearing over Makillae.
But then, half of Vandire’s infantry turned to the side and began marching. Victoria stared, curious as to what Vandire aimed to do, and then saw the archers forming up and marching with the infantry to the west, with the remaining half of the infantry following them. The cavalry, the last ones to go, split in two groups, with one heading west, and the other east, leaving Makillae’s northern gate absolutely undefended. After a while, Victoria came to the realization that it wasn’t an elaborate plan, but that they were going around the city in its entirety to head south, withdrawing.
In due time, Victoria no longer had vision of them, for she had not pursued.
“…Melanie.” She called.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Send scouts to either side of the city. I’ll go into the city, so if they come back, alert me.”
“Infantry!” She then shouted. “First to fifth companies, with me!”
On her horse, she advanced. Two thousand dullahans advanced with her, and the rest of the army staying in place.
When she crossed the open gate with her tiny army behind her, a sobering sight greeted her. Makillae lied abandoned. The buildings had their doors open, and what little they saw of the interiors seemed empty save for that which a family could not carry on them. A choking smell of smoke lingered in the air, and soon they came across the burnt-down granaries, still emanating smoke.
Then, they came across actual living beings in the dead city, people who sat on the street or aimlessly walked about, staring at Victoria yet not even bothering to be scared or run, resigned. The abandoned people the succubus had told her about, no doubt, for reasons painfully obvious.
And yet, it was a tame sight. She knew beforehand that she’d see destruction, knowing that she fought against those who turned Old Variland into a nightmare, and yet here it was, just a mere scorched earth tactic used without visible casualties, making her stomach turn. If anything, her stomach turned not only at the sight, but at the thought that she’d see far worse things down the line all throughout Nostrum as she advanced.
Or throughout Variland, should she fail.
“Halt.” She said, stoic, raising her palm for those behind her to see. The two thousand dullahans behind her obeyed, and all came to a stop. Though silent for a moment, she soon took a deep breath. “Find those still in the city. We’ll take them back with us to Variland.”
At least they weren’t decapitated, she figured.