Helmsreach. Charred, abandoned, eroded. From the boulder she sat on, a block of a nearby collapsed building, she could imagine how the plaza had all its beauty turned to ashes, but after so long, nature had begun reclaiming the land. She saw the weeds and vines growing from every corner, from between the stones in the street, and even from within some of the houses which had already collapsed. Of the houses, only the stone remained; the wood had burnt away, leaving some buildings naked, and others collapsed on the ground without their support, and winds and rains these long months already showed the erosion on the scenery.
What life the city once had now barely amounted to a few visiting for old times’ sake, as nothing of value remained. A pair of said people walked past her, with their footsteps over the weed-covered streets making a noise unlike that which she was used to hearing from the center of her various cities. And yet, the couple paid her no mind, and nor did she pay them any mind.
Though nature had reclaimed the plaza, it still could not compare to how it was before. Beautiful flowers once lined the roads, with well trimmed grass covering the earth, and now most of it were uneven weeds and vines which creeped over the edges.
But, how would it be? It was just a fire that consumed Helmsreach. How would it be with catapults, with trebuchets, with street fighting, with all manners of violence added to the fire? A small Hell, for sure.
Night arrived. The army had returned to the camps in the villa, expanded to meet the greater size of recruits, and Victoria returned to her house. With the recruit numbers stabilized, a relatively soothing silence welcomed her, save for the minuscule rumbling of the dullahans eating at their leisure afar, with the small lights of the campfire illuminating their places.
She lit a candle upon the desk with a tiny flame from the snap of her fingers, and then sat down to see the map of Nostrum.
Never had she thought that she’d get past Makillae. Before her lied the option of a million choices: Where to, next? The capital of Nostrum lied at the center, and sooner or later she’d need to reach it. Steilan, a city which would surprise her if it wasn’t a hundred times as fortified as Makillae. But between Makillae and Steilan, she couldn’t tell what to do.
It wasn’t a matter of beelining straight to Steilan and taking it to force a surrender. Nostrum would never surrender. Every city in Nostrum, she’d have to march through or force its evacuation, and it’d be bloodier the deeper she pushed.
It wouldn’t end with Nostrum, either. Too many nations of The Order existed, and they’d aid Nostrum once their defeat is close, dragging more and more nations into the conflict. The inverse also applied, as Variland was merely one of the Demon Lord’s nations. The conflict between Nostrum and Variland, as much as it became her main focus, was but a little skirmish between the Demon Lord and The Order. Soon, both would throw more, and no doubt the Demon Lord believed that she could handle it for now; why else would she send no reinforcements just yet?
She sighed aloud and placed her palms on her face, closing her eyes and subsequently rubbing them before lowering her hands till they remained covering her mouth.
“My la- Victoria!” Called someone while knocking on the door. “Please answer!”
Marie’s voice. Victoria could recognize it anywhere. Its urgency surprised her, however, and so Victoria quickly stood up and rushed to the door. She opened it, and there Marie stood.
“The servants saw a paladin in the villa.” She said, visibly anxious. “Should I give word to the dullahans?”
“What?” Asked Victoria, tired enough to not show surprise. “Where is he? What is he doing?”
“If the servants saw right, he’s by the lake on a bench, but he wasn’t doing anything. One of the servants think he’s waiting for other pala–“
“Marie.” Said Victoria, silencing her. Victoria then glanced in the direction of the lake. Only one paladin in particular would just sit there out in the open, doing nothing, as if he wanted to be seen. “I’ll go.”
Victoria stepped out the door and closed it. Marie stepped aside, and watched on as Victoria took the road towards the lake.
Her slow steps echoed in the dead of the moonlit night, making an audible and distinct noise on the stone road. She then arrived to the bench facing the lake, and stopped beside it. On the bench sat Indrick staring at the lake, looking like a mere foot soldier contrary to her elegance. Though she stared at him, soon she turned her eyes and stared at the lake with him, seeing the full moon reflected upon its surface.
“Aren’t we supposed to be killing each other by the thousands, right now?” He asked.
“Yes.” She answered after a pause. “We are.”
He raised a tin cup and sipped, only to find it empty before lowering it down. With a canteen held with his other hand, he poured himself more drink, yet instead of drinking it himself, he extended it towards her, still with eyes forward. Victoria could not help but look for a few seconds at the cup.
“I hope it’s not poison.” She said.
“Any poison that could tickle a lilim would kill everything in a hundred kilometer radius.”
Skeptical at first, she soon took the cup and sat beside him. She stared at the cup, moving it in circles and seeing the liquid within swirl around and around, until she raised it to her mouth and sipped.
“Wine?” She asked.
With nothing to say, they stared off aimlessly ahead. It felt as if time had stopped, for not even crickets nor the wind served to drown out the great silence surrounding them.
“Why are we doing this again?” She asked.
“You should know.” He answered.
“Your kin, The Order, wishes to remain ‘human’. I know. Does it justify all that’s happening?”
“I should be asking you the same thing. If you think of the change from human to monster and incubus so insignificant, does it justify Lescatie and all before it?”
The silence allowed the loud exhalation through her nose to be heard.
“This argument will lead us nowhere.” She said.
“I’m not the type of man to push a point both of us are tired of hearing.”
“What happened to Dirk. He decided to–“
“I know what happened to him. I don’t feel like being reminded, the same way you don’t want to be reminded about Jeremiah–“
“Point taken. My question stands.”
Instead of answering, he moved his head back to stare at the sky above him.
“We fight for survival, to not be overrun by a species that does not give birth to males.” He answered. “We’ll go extinct, otherwise. I’m sure you understand what lack of alternative Dirk had.”
“You say that like my mother has not been trying to fix the issue.”
“And what if it fails? What if even in the best case scenario, it still turns out to not be enough for the Demon Lord to make it possible for monsters be able to have sons?”
“What alternative do we have, in your eyes? You fight to survive, as you believe mankind will go extinct if a future generation of males is not born. The same logic applies to us.”
“I know. Grim, isn’t it?”
And then, silence. The paladin moved his head to stare into the lake once more, joining her as they quietly looked at the lake’s minuscule ripples, which could only be seen through the reflection of the moon. She then took another sip, breathing deeply afterwards, unused to how it burned her throat.
“Grim.” She said. “This can’t end until one side succumbs, and yet, you said Nostrum didn’t have many hopes of winning.”
“You are correct. Now that you have raised an army, we can’t win this war.”
“You haven’t given up, though. Why do you still fight, if you believe you can’t win?”
“To win the war.”
She turned her eyes and stared silent, seeing him staring dead ahead aimlessly, unfocused. Then, she looked at the tin cup, swirled it lightly, and took another sip.
“What about your religion?” She asked. “What part does it play in this?”
“Not much other than just cementing the point.”
“You don’t know much about the Chief God, do you?”
“Most of what I know are just rumors.” She sipped, then handed back the empty tin cup back to him, who took it another poured himself more wine. “Consider it a chance to clear up a misunderstanding or two.”
Indrick kept quiet, thinking and collecting his thoughts.
“The religion of the Chief God tells one to be virtuous and caring for his kin, and to fight the monsters.” He said.
“Sounds awfully simplistic for a religion most of humanity follows.”
“Dirk used to think the same.” He said, leaning back on the bench. “He was sure there was more to it. He read all scriptures he found, visited every cathedral in the world, talked with all manners of people, and yet, he didn’t find much. He thought that millennia of conflict eroded the details away as the fight against monsters took up all focus. For thousands of years, we rallied behind the Chief God against the monsters, until all viewed the religion as primarily a force to fight monsters with. Then, we got here. But that’s just his theory. Only the Chief God knows the truth, and we’re a little too busy fighting monsters to care about details.”
“Has anything changed when my mother took over?”
“Not that I know of. I imagine that things might’ve worsened, since now instead of dying, a man would turn into an incubus and breed more monsters with whoever caught him, repeating the cycle.”
“Sounds like an improvement, honestly. Why are you against that?”
Indrick shot her a glance from the corner of his eyes, eyes irritated and annoyed.
“I’m not stupid enough to try convincing you.” She added. “Even if I manged to through some miracle, I’m also not stupid enough to believe you’ll be able to convince Nostrum or The Order. If anything, you’ll end up a martyr after being executed.”
He then sighed, leaning his head back and staring at the sky before bringing it forward again.
“One would be losing his humanity.” He said. “Sometimes by force. Even then, the burden of proof would lie on you to say why it’s not a bad thing.”
“It depends entirely on perspective. One can view it as an alteration of all that makes one human, as some sort of mind-breaking change that forces the affected to switch sides, but that’s only something The Order managed to ‘find out’ through observation alone; they sure as hell won’t trust an incubus or a monster to tell them it’s not a bad thing.”
“What’s your perspective, then?”
“That the effects of demonic energy affecting the body of a man can be comparable to that of simply working out, in concept. With the latter, one alters his body gaining muscular mass and strength, but nobody bats an eye and just thinks of it natural. One can not grow strong on bread alone, one needs a proper diet, and demonic energy might as well be another component.”
“The same demonic energy that can make a woman grow wings, limbs, or even turn half her body into that of an animal’s, somehow as natural as gaining muscle…?”
“If it wasn’t for my wings, tail, and horns, you’d think you’re talking to a human.”
“In which case you’d still not be one. If we were husband and wife, and had ten kids, none would be male.”
Eyes wide open, she turned her head at him in the blink of an eye, flustered. Indrick caught sight with his peripheral view and slowly turned to see, to find her staing at him in shock, before she looked aside in embarrassement. He could swear she was blushing.
“That’s… q-quite an example…” She said, barely focused enough to speak.
Indrick then looked at his tin cup, then at his canteen, and made the choice of drinking from the canteen itself, chugging down a sizeable amount before sighing as he lowered it.
“You never talked about Jeremiah.” He said.
Though surprised by the suddenness of the topic, she slowly regained her composure and focus.
“He was my butler, and mentor.” She answered. “Ever since I learned how to walk, he was with me, even before I came to Variland. He might as well have been an uncle to me.”
“I see. I could’ve sworn he had some feelings for you, with how close you two look in age-“
“He’s nearly twice my age.”
“That’s what demonic energy does to one. Extended youth.”
“Huh. So, he should be… around forty? Did he have a wife? Kids?”
“No kids. Used to have a wife.”
“He told me she passed away a year before he met me. He wouldn’t tell me anything about her, other than him having some regrets he wanted to keep to himself. I guess he took such secrets to wherever he might be. At least, I hope he’s with her now.”
“This war between us will never end until one sides loses entirely, will it?” She continued. “We both lost people we cared about already, and as much as we talk like we’re friends for some reason, I can’t really forgive you for killing Jeremiah.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. If anything, it makes it easier, since neither of us will go through infinite heartaches thinking that we might be able to coexist, when not even nature itself wants us getting along.”
Then, he took a sip of his wine, and both sat silent without words to speak for a minute.
“You have something I want back.” He said.
“The paladin’s pendant. I know.”
“You won’t fall for the same trick twice. So, any chances of you giving it back?”
“Not many. I want to know how it works, and I can’t give it back before then. I don’t think I’ll have a use for it, though.”
“Would you give it back if I told you?”
Silence. The question had taken her by surprise.
“It’s called Rosarius.” He explained. “It has two purposes. First, it syphons off the demonic energy in the air around the one who wears it. When it reacts with demonic energy, it glows, which lets the wearer know if there’s any nearby. It’s why we could step into your demon realm, and it’s why I’m still here without turning. And second, it detects monsters in the surroundings glinting in the same manner. Since they’re so rare and hard to make, they’re worth the lives of ten thousand men, so Nostrum will try to recover them like starved, rabid wolves eventually.”
After a pause, Victoria took the shining rosarius from her pocket and presented it to him on her open palm. Indrick took it, but Victoria couldn’t help but feel a warm sensation as his hand touched hers, even though Indrick had his dark, worn out gloves, and Victoria her pristine, white gloves.
Indrick then stared at the rosarius. No black light, just a warm, orange one nearing yellow by its intensity in the center of the demon realm.
“Your succubi are swarming Nostrum.” He said. “Your entire nation seems to be part of the war effort.”
“That, they are.”
“Have you sent a sorceress, too? One with a strange name, to the north-east of Nostrum.”
“…Huh?” She said, throwing a confused look his way. “I’ve only sent succubi.”
Indrick looked back without a word to add, till he drank what remained of his tin cup. Then, he stood up and put the tin cup over the canteen’s top.
“Nevermind.” He said, extending his arm in front, ready to leave. “I better go.”
In response, he turned his head enough to look at her from the corner of his eyes.
“Ever since the first time, you’ve been visiting this place often. We’ve talked as if we were just acquaintances, even though if it was a lilim like Druella, things would’ve gone differently. Sometimes you didn’t have a reason to come, and you did so anyways, like last time. Why?”
He didn’t answer immediately, instead he looked ahead once more to think.
“I don’t know.” He said. “Maybe you’re charming me without me knowing. Maybe I’m just being pragmatic and securing my humanity with a few kind or mean words. Maybe talking to you lets me pretend for a second that the worst thing we can do is disagree with each other, and that our world isn’t ending.”
Then, he moved his hand, and soon disappeared. Victoria stared on, seeing the smoke dissipate in front of her eyes in the darkness of the moonlit night, till a sigh escaped her lips, soon standing up and marching back to her house.
“Victoria.” Greeted Valerian from afar halfway through, walking up to and reaching her. “Heard about a paladin.”
“Huh… Anyways, do you want me to start the training regime with your army again, or do you plan on leaving in the coming days?”
“I’ll stay for a while. Train them.”
“Very well.” He answered, then he turned around and marched away.
“Wait.” She called. Valerian then stopped and turned, silent. “Can I talk with Catherine for a bit?”
Catherine detached from him, leaving him in plain clothes as she took one step closer to Victoria. Then, Valerian left for the camps.
“Did you need me for anything?” Asked Catherine.
“You’ve risked your life for Valerian, I remember. You love him very much.”
“I’d die for him, if worse came to worst, though I’d live for him for as long as I could.”
Victoria didn’t have words in her mind, leaving her in silence with a face showing what difficulty she had in putting thoughts into words, ultimately lowering her head for a moment.
“There’s a reason why you ask this, isn’t there?” Continued Catherine.
“You have someone you’d die for without hesitation, and I don’t even have someone I’d consider a possible lover. The last and only one I met wants to kill me. I got… morbidly curious.”
Catherine quietly turned her head back, in the rough direction Valerian took, before bringing it forward again.
“I don’t blame you for being curious. I was the same, before I met Valerian. The empty halls of a castle in ruins makes one yearn for company.”
“A castle in ruins?”
“I was… ‘born’ in an old castle at the far western parts of Variland. I was there for a couple of years until Valerian walked about, wandering. We both took a liking to each other, and here we are.”
“I see. Lucky you. Meeting Valerian, I mean. Not the whole isolation thing.”
“Yes. I’d still be there otherwise.”
“How much do you care for him?” Asked Victoria.
A question already answered, Catherine knew, or one demanding a different answer.
“He’s my whole world. I don’t care about anything but him. Wherever he goes, I’ll follow, and whatever he asks, I’ll do. I don’t consider myself a person, but an extension of him, of his will, because I don’t want to think of us as two people, but a union greater than the sum of its parts. Every mundane thing that demands his time, I’ll learn and do, leaving him free to pursue his own goals in life. I will protect him, I will care for him, I will ward off what can harm him, and I will pave the way for him to do great things. I consider myself successful in that regard, seeing him go from a mere wanderer in the ruins to the trainer of Variland’s great armies in its darkest hour, but my duty will never be done. And I’ll never want it done.”
“What about you?”
“What about it?”
“Do you have any goals in life you’d call yours? Any aspirations you seek yourself unrelated to Valerian?”
Confusion and worry formed in Victoria’s expression, raising an eyebrow, which Catherine saw with clarity. Quietly, Catherine raise her head to the sky.
“He grants me freedom. A freedom that might go against the freedom all are used to. Though many yearn for the possibility to choose any paths, any options, he frees me from the choices themselves.”
“Freedom… from choice…?” She asked, seeing Catherine lower her head at her again.
“I face no deep worries in life. All that I can worry about is just Valerian’s safety and well-being. Too many people face the horrors of a million choices in matters they themselves may not understand fully. Valerian goes through them. You go through them. You should know this better than anyone, Lady of Variland. Have you not gone through headache after headache, worrying about whether Variland would live to see another day or not? When your peaceful nation was thrown into a meatgrinder, of which it was either fight to your very last breath through pain and misery, or see your nation slowly succumb and die? I know I’ve seen Valerian go through sleep-less nights trying to come up with a new army model, too. The objectives are simple in such cases, yet none know how to achieve them at first; infinite choices to choose from to achieve them… and one doesn’t know if it’ll even work, if one can decide on one at all.”
Victoria’s heart began aching. Each word of hers, she understood almost too well.
“It’s painful.” Continued Catherine. “I don’t want to go through that. I hope the day when I have to never comes. That’s the freedom Valerian gave me, of not having to worry about anything other than him, of not having an uncertain future loom over my mind. Even if the world was ending, even if flames scorched the earth and all who stood upon it, the oceans evaporated, and the sun gasped its last breath, I’d only need to worry about Valerian, for he’s worrying about it all in my stead. We help each other. That’s what marriage is about.”
An erratic, painful, almost sobbing sigh escaped Victoria, closing her eyes and lowering her head in response. The hole she didn’t know she had in her heart widened, now undeniable in existense.
“You’ll find someone, soon enough.” Said Catherine, extending her hand and placing it over her shoulder, to which she raised her teary eyes and stared at her. “Consider this a test. One has to go through the worst in life and come out in one piece to fully know that he or she will be capable of going through the same thing a million times for the person one loves the most. You go through Hell, you keep walking, even if nobody stands beside you.”
As he and Sigismund next to him heard Indrick’s call, he found an object flying his way. Geoffrey extended his hands in an instant and caught it, and when he opened his hands, he found his rosarius.
“How did–” He asked, standing up from the bench in surprise, just as Indrick walked up to him from the streetway.
Sigismund stood up and took out his own rosarius, then extended it towards him. No glint whatsoever, no contamination, nothing.
“I suppose it’s pure dumb luck that the lilim is… humane.” Said Sigismund as he put back his rosarius on him and tucked it beneath his clothes. “Or naive. Either way, we got new orders from Vandire, so once Geoffrey gets it purified, we’re off to Acerrae again.”
“He didn’t even wait till I was back…?” Asked Indrick. At the same time, Geoffrey departed with his pendant in hand. “What are we supposed to do in Acerrae?”
“Succubi hunting. The usual.”
Their arrival in Acerrae days later already marked a bad omen, for as soon as they checked their rosarii upon entering, already did they see it glinting an abyssal black. The three paladins all remained skeptical of their surroundings, no doubt now taken over by unknown forces, but only Indrick knew and remembered what Victoria had said: ‘I’ve only sent succubi’. Torn in the options of trust or skepticism, of whether Victoria naively told the truth or outsmarted him by playing nice, he nonetheless marched in with the others; Vandire would send them to investigate Acerrae, in any case.
Acerrae itself felt different, as expected from the glint, yet without hints of monsters or the affliction, but rather an uneasy atmosphere which created anxiety and paranoia purely by virtue of the three having never before experienced such thing. The people they marched past showed a passive behavior unlike what once was considered normal; their silence, and by extension the silence of the city itself worked exceptionally well as a dead giveaway, with no voices heard anywhere other than the rare cough. Though the inhabitants walked from one way to the other, the quantity of them had lessened to the point the streets only held a few souls which could be counted with one hand at a time, seemingly desolated despite it supposedly being the hour of the most activity. None seemed to notice each other’s existence either, from what the three could pick up with glances, and none even looked at each other as they passed by, but all the inhabitants of Acerrae, from those walking on the street to those sitting outside their homes doing nothing, stared as the three paladins passed. Not short glances, but full stares with their heads turning and following them as they walked.
Not monster behavior at all. The opposite, in fact; aversion to contact with each other, disregard of one’s surroundings, skeptical stares at those who visited. Their rosarii still shined black, and with Victoria’s words in his mind, he couldn’t help but grant said words some truth, for now. The three paladins unanimously agreed in silence to the idea of heading to the town hall without any of them speaking. The mayor would either know what’s going on and help them, assuming he does not hold the affliction, or the mayor would get repeatedly stabbed in the everything, assuming he did.
But as the three arrived the the front door, they found on the wall beside the doorway a paper, one reminding all to come for prayer at ‘the arranged time’. Before they could even think of how unusual it’d be to pray in the town hall instead of the local chapel, they found that the prayers would not be directed to the Chief God, but instead to ‘the great Gods of the infinite depths’.
The three grew a grimace. Heresy, along with intent to spread it, grounds enough for a raid had it not also been for what whiff their rosarii caught. No time specified either, as if all knew already, a smart decision contrary to the stupidity of leaving the paper out in the open for them or any outsiders to see it. The paper then detached from the wall, flying away much to the three’s surprise; must’ve been old, and nowhere did it even imply it’d be today, or if the time had not even passed already. Indrick stepped forward to the door and gently pushed, and the door slowly creaked open on its own. Inside, however, they faced the sight of absolute desolation, with not a soul within the structure to be seen.
Indrick took a slow step inside, shivers following with the atmosphere of decay and abandonment mixed with the rosarius’ abyssal light. Upon noticing that only his steps echoed about, he halted; were Geoffrey and Sigismund not following? He turned around, but saw the door closed, without even a creaking to alert him of the fact. It would not budge, as much as he tried to open it again.
“Geoffrey! Sigismund!” He called, but no answer was given.
The window resisted any attempts to open it, too. No matter how much he tried, it was stuck, but in his attempts he found differences in the world outside. Not a single person remained, not even Geoffrey and Sigismund, and much less those who had once been outside shooting glances at them. The birds that had once chirped and the breeze once blowing ended without him knowing, leaving him in a lifeless, silent void. The attempt to break the window with the pommel of his rapier served to cement the point of unnatural happenings, for the window did not break, nor did it even get a scratch.
Though he saw himself alone, he couldn’t help but feel something awaiting within. A hunch, perhaps, or unholy influence drawing him in. All he knew was that the unknown black light still shined in the rosarius, confirming the notion of interrelation. Nonetheless, he marched to where it drew him, with rapier in hand upon having no other recourse. Slow and steady he walked through the hallways and the rooms, till he reached the library itself. Not just a single great room, but instead multiple door-less rooms conforming a greater one, all with bookcases lining the walls. Dirty and neglected; from the signs of it, the filth must’ve been piling up since weeks ago. A thin layer of dust adorned the cover of the books wherever he looked, and cobwebs filled the corners and edges of the room.
As much as he did not understand, he felt like he knew what to do despite not having previous knowledge of his surroundings; he walked to a dead end of bookcases, moved the books to reveal a handle by the side, held onto it, and pulled with all his might, opening the bookcase as if it were a heavy door. Behind it lied a room, a tiny one just big enough to house a staircase leading into the depths. The room itself hid what filth it had by how badly illuminated it was, yet the stench within of dust in the air indicated an even worse condition than the library. He stepped into the room, then descended the staircase, with the steps messily carved in stone just like the walls. More than a staircase, it gave off the feeling of a cavern, dusty to the point of nearly forcing coughs; not only did the air smell of stone, but the stairs, as roughly carved as they were, had not been cleaned from the dust and pebbles which had piled up, possibly ever since the carving itself.
After a long march, ahead of him at the foot of the staircase he saw a dimly lit room, yet once he reached it, he found that the room rivalled a giant dome in terms of size, all carved without much care for looks, and big enough to demand so many thick pillars scattered about.
But something lied within, past the dust clouds and the darkness. His rosarius shined brighter- or darker- as he marched in, almost as if it were to break. Past the pillars and the white tint of the air, he soon caught sight of something at the center of the dome. An altar? Looked too makeshift, purely an antenna-looking tower made out whatever material one could find and messily put togheter; planks, nails, poles, chairs, anything in hand seemed to have been piled, as if the main requirement had been height, with everything else secondary. At the foot of it, however, he saw life. A person, sat down against it reading a book. A woman of dark, elegant clothes, and a myriad pieces of jewelry and bright, shining, accessories, with a witch’s hat covering her face with its brim, until she raised her head to look at him.
His eyes narrowed upon immediately identifying her. The sorceress, the one with the unpronounceable name, the one he saw the last time he was in this very town.
“We meet once again, paladin.” She greeted, returning her eyes to her book.
But he said nothing.
“The current Chief God your people have seems… weaker than those before her. I remember the first one and her power, what, thousands of years ago? Tens of thousands? Hundreds? Who keeps track anymore…?”
“Who are you?” He asked, though fell into a pause. “What are you?”
“Forgotten my name, already?” She answered with a perpetual smile, shutting her book, standing up, and then staring at the tower. “Your kin are fascinating. Paladins and inquisitors alike.”
“It takes strength to fight a battle you believe lost for no gain whatsoever, just because of your notions of ‘duty’, but… does it also extend to what infinite complexities lie at the great beyond, mister paladin?”
“What are you talking about?”
Without a word, she extended the closed book with one hand towards him, staring from the corner of her eyes with that unnerving, ever-present smile. Strange book, it was, of metal clasps and bound in leather of various types. A force compelled him to grab it, even though his mind screamed not to, but almost as if his body moved on his own, he slowly reached forward.
Upon the slightest contact, violent imagery flashed before his eyes. Grotesque creatures in bloodthirsty brawls against Man, of screams and misery as steel indiscriminately dug into flesh no matter human or not, of deafening noise with clash of steel and the chorus of a million aberrations chanting together like a war cry. Indescriptible and quick, he could not pick up the details other than hordes upon hordes of creatures only found in the deepest nightmares Man could have that made the worst monsters this day and age pale in comparison. Rivers of blood flowed through the earth, swarms upon swarms of abominations blotted out the sun high above, and horrors that could reach the tallest cathedrals obscured all sight. A million such scenes crossed his mind second after second, each worse than the last, each more deafening than the last, till an abrupt silence overtook his psyche.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring at the clear, blue sky as he lied upon a flat surface. No longer did the stench of dust haunt him, but instead clean, pure air greeted him with a soft breeze. He sat up and glanced around, only to find himself on a tiny boat that didn’t even have a sail, nor rows by its side. Around him, an endless, infinite sea surrounded him on all sides, with nothing to be seen in the horizon at all. As much as he’d have believed it to be ocean waters, it all seemed pristine clean and clear, though there was nothing to gauge a sense of transparency with no ground below the water to look at. He slowly moved to the edge of the tiny boat, able to reach it without even getting up and taking steps, and looked down.
Darkness. Pitch-black, of the likes that would send shivers down a man’s spine, and so did it send one down his. He couldn’t assume that nothing was down there, for as much as he could not see, it certainly felt like there was something else as he stared at the abyss, as if something down there was staring back at him. But how deep down was the darkness? Did it start just a couple meters down, or was the darkness so far down that it was merely his eyes that were unable to look so far down? He reached for his pocket and took out a coin, expendable enough to be the testing factor, and looked at it for a moment before letting it drop into the water.
Aghast, he saw the coin falling. The water was too clear to be from anywhere he had ever visited or heard of. After the ripples of the coin hitting the surface calmed, it looked as if there was no water at all with what nonexistent distortion it caused. Five seconds, the coin still fell, and he saw it clearly. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Half a minute. No distortion nor discoloration hid it from sight. His heartbeat hastened. A full minute, and the only difficulties he found in looking at the coin were due to the small size and the distance, yet there it was, able to see it glinting as it slowly spun and reflected the light of the sun towards him. Two minutes. Three minutes. Now only the glints served as indication of where it was, and the abyss below stared on back at him.
He jumped back into the boat’s center, unwilling to look at the abyss any longer with his heart on his throat. Something was wrong. It wasn’t the water’s distortion causing the darkness, but instead an infinite depth of which his eyes could not see. Perhaps for the best, as the darkness covered the endless bottom of the ocean, if it was an ocean at all, and if it had a bottom at all. Irrational fear overtook him, one he couldn’t explain, one that made him unwilling to even touch the water, much less look at it, leaving him staring at the sky yet still heart-in-throat over knowing that only the boat separated him from what lurked below, a boat that might as well not exist for even a little wave could capsize it. A fear unlike any other, even the prospect of facing defeat upon those monsters who ruled before the current Demon Lord took over; the latter looked mundane and meaningless, in fact.
‘Like a goldfish thrown from the little glass sphere which housed it, into an infinite ocean with unreachable depths.’
Such words echoed in his mind eternally, upon remembering them.
He then came to his senses, back in the cavern with the sorceress. Immediately he gasped out loud and stepped back, letting go of the dreaded book and keeping his rapier held tighly to the point his hand ached. As he glanced at the sorceress, he found her unreacting, still with the book stretched out, and still with her smile.
“You look like you saw a ghost.” She said.
“What the hell is that book?”
“Interested? I wrote it. Want it?”
As much as he wished to say no, no words left his mouth. Hesitation. As the sorceress extended it further, Indrick gave in, and slowly extended one finger. Upon touching the cover, nothing occurred, no visions, no hallucinations, but he still jerked it back away. Then, he took the book with both hands.
“Fascinating.” She said. “Your mind seems resistant to such sudden yanks of the psyche, unlike the others. I’m certain that if I were to throw worse things at you, you’d writher on the ground and yet still persevere. Is it ignorance, or perhaps something else?”
“What did you do…?”
“Ah, so it’s not ignorance. Well, I suppose I should have expected this result; you paladins and inquisitors always have unknown horrors and hopeless defeat in your minds since your first day in office, it’s only natural that you’ve grown used to things that’d make you… question your sanity.”
“Well, don’t keep me waiting. Hei! Aa-shanta ’nygh! You are off! And beware; for I am Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!”
Once he blinked, he no longer saw the sorceress in the cavern, but instead he found himself back in the town hall with one step taken from the front door. At that instant, however, a splitting headache struck him that rivalled getting hit with a maul, immediately sending him to his knees as he grabbed his head, with a sharp grunt escaping his mouth.
“Indrick!” Called Sigismund, rushing to his side as did Geoffrey, crouching with him and staring, unable to do a thing. “What’s happening?! What’s going on?”
Little by little, his headache faded away enough to allow him to look forward once more, and soon stood back up with great effort, with a hand still on his helmet.
“What happened to you?” Asked Geoffrey.
But he gave no answer. Instead, he marched in, following a set path which Sigismund and Geoffrey followed him through, till he reached the library. He headed to one bookcase in particular, moved the books, and there he found it, the handle. He took it and pulled, and to the absolute surprise of Geoffrey and Sigismund, the bookcase opened like a heavy door, revealing the staircase Within.
“How did you know that?” Asked Sigismund in disbelief.
“I… didn’t.” Said Indrick.
Indrick moved in and descended the dust-covered staircase, with the two others behind him, descending further and further till they reached the gigantic dome. Although Geoffrey and Sigismund stared everywhere in amazement and shock, Indrick walked indifferent past the pillars, until he arrived to the great junk tower from his visions surrounded by the low clouds of dust. The sorceress and the book, however, were nowhere to be seen, nor any signs of life apart from them.
Chief God knows how they built it so high. The tip lied obscured by the darkness of the room, hidden like the ceiling, and their necks started aching over pointing their heads so high above to see. Crude imagery had been drawn onto the surfaces of the material used in its mediocre construction, though images they couldn’t decipher, of sigils, signs, sorcerous icons, all manner of indescriptible lines and curves conforming a myriad of ethereal imagery.
Only then did they notice themselves going light-headed.
“…Let’s go back and warn Vandire.” Said Indrick.
“Should we tear this thing down first?” Asked Geoffrey.
“Chief God knows what would happen if we did. I don’t want to piss off an entire town just yet, or whoever this was built for.”
Walking through the numerous roads within the camp gained the glances of the dullahans, surprised to see Victoria herself so close, most having never before seen her at all. In due time she arrived to a massive tent, ornate and decorated with the flag of Variland standing outside by the doorway; the headquarters, temporary as it was till the constructions at the center of the camp finished. She pulled the cloth of the tent’s doorway aside and stepped in, to be greeted by the sight of the interior where Valerian and the dullahan officers stood, all surrounding a great table with a map on top, along with a myriad of papers and books adorning the table, just like the various desks and bookcases around.
“Surprised to see you here, Victoria.” Greeted Valerian, while the rest of the dullahans saluted. “Do you need something?”
“Yes. Change of plans. I want the army ready to march out as soon as possible.”
Valerian raised an eyebrow. “It’ll be a mess to disrupt and reorganize the training.”
“I know. It’s urgent. From what I heard, the south-east of Variland is starting to get… delirious, for lack of a better word. The reports Marie gave me were too vague, the mayors don’t even know what’s going on other than some people suddenly going mad, but what I do know is that it never happened before, and I’m sure Nostrum is doing something over there.”
“Hm. Very well. Do you want all the dullahans here mobilized, or just the ones that followed you last time?”
“The latter. Keep the new ones training.”
“As you say, then.”