Though his mind faded from wakefulness to deep sleep and back, the voice woke him up fully. Indrick brought one hand to his eyes and rubbed, before he used his other arm to prop himself sitting up. Lowering his hand, he opened his eyes, and at the little tent’s entrance he found a swordsman with a bucket in one hand, his figured obscured by the light of morning behind him hitting Indrick’s weak eyes.
“Camp’s getting ready to leave.” Said the swordsman as he left the bucket on the floor, with a little of the water within spilling onto the floor. “Wash your face. Report to Master-Commander Castellan. He’ll give you the details.”
The soldier then turned and left. As his footsteps grew quieter with distance, Indrick could now hear the rumbling outside and a few other soldiers passing by his tent every now and then. He ran his hand down his face, and mustering what little strength he had in such hours, got out of his bedroll. He marched to the entrance, grabbed the bucket by its handle, brought it back to his bedroll, and sat down, soon submerging his hands and drenching his face, rubbing and rubbing to get rid of what sleepyness remained.
As his hands passed below his eyes, he paused, wondering. He shook his head, dried his face with a towel nearby, and stood up to put his proper outfit on with helmet and rapier. Once done, he marched outside and towards the center of the camp, already seeing the soldiers disassembling the tents around.
Two spearmen guarded the entrance, one for each side, with their spears long enough to interlock in the shape of an X despite how far they stood apart. As Indrick approached, they raised their spears and allowed him through. When he pulled the cloth and passed, he saw how within waited Vandire and his officers walking about, with the tent mostly desolated as all not deemed vital had already been packed up.
“Indrick.” Greeted Vandire from the central table, before standing up and resting his hands over the table.
“Am I needed for anything?” Asked Indrick, soon reaching the table.
“Yes. My scouts found something resembling an army of theirs marching westward. It wasn’t the dullahans, just cultists, but still great in numbers. I want you to remember every encounter you had with these… things. Do you remember seeing or hearing anything that’d hint as to what an army of cultists would do?”
Indrick became quiet, lowering his head a slight bit as he attempted to recall.
“…Not that I remember.” He raised his head once more. “Variland has been facing the same things we have, if they told the truth.”
“Tsk… Anything Variland has to the west of the taken over territory?”
“Only thing I can think of is Kleinsborough.”
“They’re not beelining for Kleinsborough, though. Their path would take them to Makillae, but there’s nothing there. I don’t get it.”
“I take it the army is getting ready to pursue?”
“Yes. It’s too big of a group to let be. If they march to Variland, it’s their problem; we can’t help them even if we wanted to. You and the other paladins are coming with us just in case, so you won’t have to risk your hide in more of those cities for the time being.”
“The cultists have entered Makillae, sire.” Said a scout.
Vandire brought his hand to his mouth, pondering as he marched on his horse through Nostrum’s northern field, with his army behind him and Indrick beside him. Uncertainty clouded his thoughts, without a hint as to the cultists’ purpose, let alone hints as to what to do against it.
“All of them? Have they left any forces outside?” Asked Vandire.
“No, sire. Everyone without exception entered through the eastern gate.”
He tapped his cheek with his fingers, and then lowered his hand to turn his head to his officers.
“I want the cavalry to advance and secure the gates. Don’t let a single cultist out if practically reasonable. Once the rest of the men catch up, we’ll siege them. Any questions?”
“Should we seek to barricade the gates with any materials we find as soon as we get there?” One of his officers asked.
“As long as it’s safe. Don’t enter the city just yet, and be wary of ambushes if you wander too far away.”
A second of silence ensued, with the officers having no questions to ask. With a salute, those pertaining to the cavalry gallopped off to the flank the cavalry itself guarded. In a few moments, Vandire and Indrick glanced to see the cavalry picking up the pace from their slow march to a gallop forward, towards the dead city.
Indrick stood with his hands together behind him, and Vandire cross-armed, on the field a fair distance away from Makillae’s wall, staring up high where the clouds had gathered in a subtle spiral shape. Though the true cause lied outside of their knowledge, both could imagine the relation with the cultists within the besieged city. Though not a single cultist had left through the ring of fortifications surrounding Makillae, consisting of just two ditches and a palisade, suspicion grew that they didn’t even seek to escape at all. It certainly seemed suspicious for Vandire to have not heard of any attempts to break through the fortifications in the two weeks it took to build them from the moment they arrived.
Since hours ago, ladders adorned the walls. Vandire’s men had climbed them without resistance to reach the desolated top, with a few infantry regiments on the ground between the walls and the fortifications. No defender would miss such thing, leaving every man to know that the cultists either didn’t care or planned something else.
“Sire.” A cavalryman galloped to him, extending a rolled paper. “Report from the men at the wall.”
Vandire took it, to which the cavalryman saluted and withdrew. He unrolled it and began reading, gaining Indrick’s curiosity who turned his head partly to glance. After a second of silence, Indrick stared ahead once more.
“They don’t even care.” Muttered Vandire, rolling the paper once more. “Have you ever seen one eat or drink? Or even be hungry or thirsty?”
“I don’t believe I’ve seen them in a situation that’d tell us if they eat or not, but no.” Said Indrick. “Have we not burned everything useful in Makillae to the ground already?”
“Supposedly. The cultists didn’t have a supply train, so it’s not like they brought enough supplies to compensate for the siege. So, what do you think? Plausible?”
“I wouldn’t discard the chance.”
In silence, Vandire raised his head to the sky once more, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the eye of the coming storm.
“Arm yourselves with longswords. Knowing our luck, it’ll probably get to the point the paladins and I fight beside the infantry in there.”
After Vandire finished his words, he turned and marched away to his camp. Indrick first turned his head to followed with his eyes he marched away; breathing deeply, he couldn’t help but feel slight disappointment over having predicted that it’d take an assault. Why would it be as simple as a siege against these people?
Crossbowmen lined the top of the walls, and all infantry columns stood ready on the field in front of the eastern gate, all while the dismounted cavalry who had been guarding the barricade tore it down. All stared with hints of anxiety in their faces, even those most veteran against the new menace, seeing how little by little the barricade left the gate visible, with a hole becoming bigger and bigger as the cavalrymen removed the debris. Vandire himself shared the anxiety brought by the simple plan, to march into what his instincts screamed was an ambush, staring intently with his officers, Indrick, and the paladins beside him, all dismounted in the middle of the gathered army.
The last piece of the barricade fell to the ground, thrown aside by the last cavalryman to step off from the gate, leaving an open path inside for all to see. As the men had predicted through the crossbowmen’s silence and inactivity, behind the gates lied nothing but the road, without a soul to be seen.
“Front, forward.” Said Vandire. An officers marched to the front of the formation, and with the orders relayed, the vibrations of hundreds of steps began as those at the very front, spearmen, marched towards the gate in just enough width to fit through.
The first group entered and marched ahead down the road past the gate. The second followed a distance behind, entering and turning left at the first corner, and so followed the third, turning right instead. At that moment, Vandire nodded at Indrick towards them.
All of them, nineteen paladins, a dozen officers, and the Lord of Nostrum, marched forward, following the steps of the three groups into the gate. The officer who had relayed the order joined them again, and more groups followed behind them before they entered, and soon the arc of the gate lied above them as they crossed it. And yet, relative silence greeted them, a silence that signified abandonment had they not known the cultists still remained within, somewhere.
Past a few blocks, the group ahead of Vandire halted and set up in formation by the intersection. Directly behind them in close proximity stood Vandire and his men. Behind them more groups still marched in, some turning left, others turning right, spreading their numbers throughout the city and leaving no street left open for any possibilities of a flank, keeping a proper frontline as best as coordination allowed. Still, though the ruckus of thousands of steps echoed on and on far behind Vandire, the ominous silence up ahead took up all his focus, wondering what the cultists were up to. That the crossbowmen on the wall said nothing, glances to the buildings beside him showed no ambush neither here nor anywhere else, and no signs of alert came from the cavalry at the western, northern, and southern gates, left him to assume that the cultists still remained at the very center of Makillae.
Quiet rumbling ahead. Contrary to his suspicion of a mere incorrect assumption, he found the soldiers staring around and among themselves, and as he glanced to the paladins and the officers, so too did he see them focusing intently.
“Lower spears!” Shouted Vandire.
The formation at the front echoed the order out loud among themselves as they lowered their lengthy spears pointed forward. Moments of inactivity followed as all silently stared to the front, morbidly curious as to what the abandonment ahead hid. Though the disadvantages of being on foot rather than with a horse showed to Vandire, unable to see at greater height, the prospect of fighting in cramped spaces on horseback seemed to outweigh this little disadvantage. The rumbling became louder and greater in violence, producing a diminute earthquake not unlike that of an army on the run.
Then, they saw it. Vandire himself narrowed his eyes as he caught glimpse past the formation of spearmen. All the way down the street coinciding with the rumbling, a great mass getting closer as the vibrations grew greater; hundreds upon hundreds of cultists on that street alone, running at them in an abhorrent lack of discipline, like a massive mob that made Vandire grit his teeth in disgust and contempt.
“Have the rest of the crossbowmen entered the city?” He asked, turning his head to one of his officers.
“The last infantry formation should have entered by now.” He answered. “It’ll take time before the crossbowmen are in position.”
A sigh escaped his teeth, turning his head back forward to see the cultists advancing as fast as they could.
“Only Chief God knows what they’re doing in Makillae,” shouted Vandire to all those who could hear, “so you must fight as if all of Nostrum depended on this battle alone! If the sky above us is any sign, it may as well! Your only order is to hold the line!”
Five blocks to go before the cultists would arrive. All locked eyes to the front, unable to determine how many they were; for all intents and purposes, they might as well be endless, and without doubt the entirety of the cultist army must be charging all throughout the other streets against the rest of the front line. Four blocks to go, and some waited impatiently, some spearmen gripping their spears tighter and others tapped the shaft with their fingers one last time. Three blocks to go, and all of Vandire’s men behind the wall of spears kept a firm grip on their sheathed weaponry.
Two blocks to go, and the noise of their violent footsteps turned deafening. A keen eye on part of Vandire revealed the men restless, some shaking ever so slightly, a view to be expected even from veterans against such confusing foe.
One block. In full clear view, all saw them in detail: Though they still kept relatively normal clothes, all without exception held the icon of the three-lobed eye somewhere, either painted on their clothes, their cheeks, or crudely made out of metal and stitched on their clothes, hanging by tiny chains, worn as pendants, or even embedded on their weapons as best as they could. Their faces, however, showed the clear affliction which took hold, with dark circles under their eyes and a somewhat pale skin showing in the light of day, with eerie smiles on all who took part in the mob. Hatchets, crude spears, knives, their weapons all consisted of what could be expected from pissed off peasantry, though it all led Vandire to assume that they were conventional steel rather than whatever the sword Indrick had captured was made out of; things would get bloody on Nostrum’s end, and their end alone, for his men still had the demon realm silver weapons and ammunition they once hoped to use against Variland.
And once in range, the cultists fearlessly threw themselves against the spears without a single regard for their lives, swinging what manner of weaponry they had. The spearmen greeted their charge with thrust upon thrust, but the reckless advance left some to be impaled upon the spears and render them useless, bringing them down by the weight of their bodies as they fell down. Those who still had their spears high covered those at the front who desperately dislodged their from the unconscious bodies, but the mob pressed on as one, using the weight of their bodies like a tide, as a weapon of greater effect than their knives. As the very first contact passed and turned into a melee, Vandire could very well notice the feet of the spearmen, taking only steps back little by little. A glance up once more, however, revealed what made him open his eyes wide in stupefaction: the cultists, still as mindlessly berserk as they were, rose up in height as they stepped over their own.
“…Move back!” Shouted Vandire, gesturing with his arm. “Move back, slow!”
All in the street quickly took a few steps back, causing the cultists which had climbed over their own to fall to the ground as they pressed on, leaving them to be repeatedly stabbed before the spearmen fell back a couple more steps. The horde, however, ignored their losses and rushed forward once more as if nothing had happened, yet still slowed down by those of their own on the ground.
Vandire then saw strange smoke emaneting ever so slightly from the mob at the point of contact with the spearmen, and before he could even ask out loud what it was, one of the spearmen, ordered by the captain of the formation itself, broke formation and ran with spear high towards Vandire.
“Sire!” Said the spearman. “Those unconscious are disappearing, turning into smoke!”
“They’re chopping us up!” A voice shouted from the formation, almost muffled by more shouts from the same source, gaining the attention of all present. Vandire glanced, only to see the mob pushing with greater strength; if the bodies of the unconscious disappeared, then no doubt it worked purely against his men, for it’d no longer slow the hordes down.
“Fall back! Like before!” Ordered Vandire, an order the spearmen much obliged obeyed. Then, he turned to the officer from before. “You, tell the second line to get ready, and see if the crossbowmen have garrisoned the street behind them already!”
“Understood!” Answered the officer, breaking off and running back.
“And you,” he turned back to the spearman, “what about that smoke? Anything similar to what we might’ve seen already?”
“I’ve never seen it in my life.” Answered the spearman, clearly shaken, as all marched back towards the intersection behind them, closer to the second line of spearmen. “Black and red, shaped like lightning, couldn’t see much before they stampeded through towards us.”
“Indrick, seen it before?”
“No, not even from monsters.” Answered Indrick.
“Sire,” returned the officer, “the crossbowmen are ready.”
“Alright, you, and you,” Vandire pointed to another officer, “go tell the groups next to us that we’re falling back a block. They should fall back too unless they want their flanks exposed.”
“Yes, sire!” Answered the two officers, rushing off to the streets to their left and right each.
With the officers gone, Vandire turned back at the spearmen who still fought. “Hold them off! Fall back to the intersection if you must, but don’t let them get off this block!”
As the spearmen stepped back little by little, Vandire stood close, following their movements till they reached the end of the street before the intersection behind them. The second line of spearmen waited eagerly behind, not even twenty meters away. The first line, however, halted at their end of the intersection, holding off the cultists which threatened to break through. Before long, once more did the hordes start climbing upon each other, as if the bodies did not turn into smoke fast enough or those who fell had not become unconscious as fast, though soon met a similar fate to those they trampled on by the spearmen at the rear of the frontal formation stabbing them as they reached high. First, two rose over the ranks, then three, and soon four, ever increasing in number.
“Fall back! Now!” He ordered as loud as he could, gesturing with his arm to the back and walking back with the paladins, before turning into a run. The spearmen slowly stepped back, leaving the cultists to fall as they once trampled on each other, and with the little window of opportunity given, all broke running still in an organized manner.
He ran through the narrow gaps left open at each side of the street by the formation, followed by his officers and the paladins, and as soon as he crossed he saw the numarous crossbowmen running into the various buildings around, some already inside and taking position by the windows rootops high above. Once the last man crossed the gap, the line extended to cover them, presenting a wall of spears against the cultist horde which now clashed in the exact same manner as before. Yet, not only did spears greet them, but so too did bolts upon bolts strike at them at a slow but steady rate.
“Sire?” Asked a spearman, advancing to Vandire as the rest of the formation marched further back. As Vandire turned to see, he found the spearman in company of a few others.
“What is it?”
“Some of our men have been wounded. They… they don’t show signs of normal of demonic wounds, though.”
Narrowing his eyes, he looked at those who stood with the man, inspecting them to find that even though some behaved normally, others stood staring blank and aimless, and the last one of such men arrived, gently pulled into place by two other spearmen.
“Symptoms?” Asked Vandire.
“Blank stare. They don’t talk. They can move just fine, though they might be in shock to do so on their own.”
Indrick couldn’t help but narrow his eyes.
“The moment he got stabbed,” said another spearman, nudging the one next to him who did nothing, not even acknowledge the nudge, “he just stood there doing nothing even though we were falling back. I had to pull him, otherwise the cultists would get him.”
Vandire then stepped to one of the seemingly wounded spearmen. There it was, without wound of pure metal, without scratches on his clothes, helmet, or chainmail, standing without issue, yet staring without focus or aim. Vandire then raised his palm and waved it in front of his eyes, to which the spearman suddenly began blinking in quick fashion before bringing his hand to his head.
“Speak, son. Can you hear me?” Asked Vandire.
“S…sire.” Answered the spearman in a monotonous, exhausted voice. “I can… I can hear you, sire.”
Though tempted to throw question after question, Vandire glanced aside, to see the spearmen already close to them with all the steps they had taken back.
“No time. Get the wounded to the rear.” He ordered, to which the spearmen acknowledged and walked off with the others.
As he saw the spearmen marching back, he couldn’t help but notice Indrick calmly walking closer to him.
“They must be throwing everything at us.” Said Indrick. “Is the plan just to hold?”
Raising an eyebrow, Vandire glanced to the front. As much as he’d have expected their numbers to be dented already, none withdrew, and no clue did he have on how many more were coming. He glanced to the buildings nearby, till he found a crossbowman just popping out the window to aim.
“Crossbowman! You, the one who’s taking aim!” Called Vandire out loud. The crossbowman glanced over, clearly confused as to whether it was him or not the one called, though as he locked eyes with Vandire he lowered his crossbow. “How many cultists do you see down that street?”
The crossbowman turned his eyes far ahead, staring for a second before returning sight to Vandire.
“Two blocks at most! One and a half!”
“They’re coming to us instead of us going at them, at least.” He said, turning to Indrick. “If they’re just as reckless and don’t retreat, we might erradicate them here.”
“Heads up!” A crossbow shouted from the rooftops at the corner of the intersection behind them. However, as Vandire and Indrick turned their heads, they caught sight of the third line, this time of swordsmen instead of spearmen, turning and covering the western street. “Cultists! West! They broke through!”
A second later, Vandire saw the same kind of mob clashing against the third line.
“Fall back! Now! Get out of those buildings!” Shouted Vandire to those around as he stepped back. “Cover the crossbowmen and step back!”
Before anything, however, his eyes opened wide and his feet halted in place, seeing how the culstists through brute force and the weight of their bodies pushed through the swordsmen, breaking through and flooding in.
“No retreat!” He shouted, unsheathing his longsword as did his officers. “Make your stand, men of Nostrum!”
“Paladins, into the breach!” Ordered Indrick at the top of his lungs past the new cacophony of combat, unsheathing his longsword and rushing towards the swordsmen. The rest of the paladins followed suit, unsheathing their blades and running at those who had broken through, all with a shout as they closed in with the spearmen who joined them.
To the cultist closest to him, among those who had broken through to rush towards the encircled men, Indrick swung his longsword and connected right with the union of the neck and shoulder, erasing the crazed smile he had; he sliced down towards himself, sending the cultist falling forward. Other cultists rushed in like a tide, with one in particular already swinging his axe towards Indrick, yet another paladin intercepted him with a longsword through the neck at the front, removing the threat. With his longsword already in place for a thrust, and another taking the fallen’s place, Indrick thrusted forward into the chest of another, only for said cultist to fall on him as three more pushed behind eager to drive their blades into him. Indrick backed off a step with loose footing, but another cultist rushed in thrusting his dagger, for him to grab his own sword by the blade, parry the dagger by cutting into the cultist’s wrist with the end of the blade, and at the same time driving his pommel with all his strength into his face. Before the cultist could even fall, another threw his hand forward past what little space was given, an act Indrick deflected with the hilt of his longsword but unable to send his own strike just yet.
No use. The cultists had already blocked the street, leaving them no venue of escape, and though he could hear the fourth line far away charging into to their rescue, he couldn’t help but come to terms with a defeat in the split second the cultists allowed him to think in. More and more blades were thrown his way, and though he blocked them with his sword as if it were a staff, held by blade and hilt while also backing off, each step he took back resulted in the cultists taking two, now unable to even counter attack as he spent all his focus on just not getting stabbed, relying entirely on the spearmen behind him to drive their spears into those in front of him, as if he were a mere distraction, a meat shield. No wonder the swordsmen had been unable to hold the line, if they had also taken the absolute brunt of a charge.
Couldn’t back off. Before he knew it, as if it had all been a subconscious act, they had backed off enough to see the other line of spearmen behind them already close, no more than ten meters away, both lines close to being sandwiched between the hordes. Chief God knows if the cultists were in the middle of storming into the buildings for the trapped crossbowmen or if they had barricaded themselves in.
The cultists still pushed on. Lacking any other alternative than holding his sword in front of him blocking each and every blow without opportunity to attack, he responded in kind to the push by pushing instead. However, those behind the cultist which now tripped back still wished to go on, with one jumping as he held the shoulder of the one Indrick just pushed, jumping up over the cultist towards Indrick who saw in all its horror what he knew the spearmen had seen earlier. But no saving spear thrust came. No sword swing to aid him. Desperate, he moved his sword to hold off the cultist which jumped on him, though deep down knowing it’d not work; the cultist’s weight proved to be too much to hold, pushing back the blade towards him before the full weight struck him, sending him to the ground, and as soon as his body struck the eroded stone of the road, the cold, sharp knife dug into his chest.
The clear, cloud-less sky hanged above him, with a bright sun shining by his peripheral view. A refreshing breeze cooled off his sweat, and pure, clear air filled his lungs rather than the asphyxiatingly hot wind of hundreds of combatants stuck in a tiny street fighting on and on. At the edges of his vision rested the top of the sides of a boat, wooden and still like the waters it floated on.
As he lied on the wooden surface, he felt his skin turning colder and colder. The cold, however, felt unlike any other, worse than the harshest mountain tops an ice queen could call home, yet at the same time as harmless as a simple autumn breeze heralding a winter to come. It pierced his body whole, reaching into his heart with such intensity that it shut off all of his thoughts other than the primal desire for warmth, but not the warmth given by a fire. A special warmth he had deprived himself of, its need surfacing now harder than ever, coupled with the crippling feeling of isolation and detachment sneaking into his mind. Out here, alone, on his own.
His heart began aching as thoughts passed by, and so did his throat choke him. He could almost imagine it, that which every man wished for, no matter what side of a conflict one was stuck in; a great table where a woman sat at, a woman holding the ideals of what he most desired in life and love, of company and care in both health and illness, with a great many children sitting beside her surrounding the table. A scene he imagined corny in the past, yet struck fully now that he knew such ideal was far gone, possibly never to arrive. A lonely death, though sufficiently depressing on its own right to send a man into the pits of despair, seemed like mercy to the idea of living decades upon decades alone on his own, seeing himself grow older with each passing day, wondering and wondering how life with a loving family would be. Would it not be a sign of weakness at best to not have these desires, after all? Were each and every ancestor of his not members of a family, with a loving wife to spend their lives beside, having children of their own that led to his existence? His body seemed to agree, as much as it ached, yearning for contact with the ideal of a wife, desperately wishing for an embrace he knew all too well would never arrive, like crippling withdrawal from a drug he had never tasted yet to desperately needed. Such was the need that almost, just almost, he’d embrace the first girl to show feelings for him, like a fairy tale of lovers that had been predestined to meet and live happily ever after.
And he knew all too well that all he could think of was, at its core, pure fantasizing; of how it would be to have what he’d never have, of what happiness he might achieve in scenarios far-fetched and impossible. After all, had he not begrudgingly casted away such things when he took up the sword as paladin? In the fight against monsters, who would more often than not seem like proper people in which a loving wife could be found, was it not his task to look past such things despite what truth they hold to prevent the extinction of mankind? Men like them, supposed to fight on even if no reasons were found to fight on, and yet here he was, finding that no man no matter how strong in mind could resist nature itself.
The touch of a woman, and his touch upon her, of running his fingers over her skin and her doing the same, such wild imagination brought by the yearning that nearly hypnotized him. Of lazy days, of morning both could just stay in bed embracing each other doing nothing but feeling each other’s breath and heartbeat, of both wondering whether to get up or not yet deciding not to deep down just to spend more time in each other’s arms, never to grow bored or tired.
All of it, contrasting with the knowledge that it was merely his imagination, a dream not unlike those one died with as he lied motionless on a boat going nowhere at all, isolated from the slightest contact with anyone. Even if he were to jump up and embrace the first woman he saw, who would it be? Nobody stood around here, after all. The cold would never subside, condemning him to wonder forevermore.
Was it really worth it? To fight on, despite knowing very well nothing would succeed? It seemed paladin doctrine already to first understand that their efforts would be futile, in vain, never to have a chance to change a single thing; one needed to understand that first if one wished to fight on past hopelessness. Such thoughts certainly had been present even before the raids in Variland, knowing very well that Nostrum’s last dying breath would end by the hand of the monsters, yet choosing to attack almost out of spite, an act unanimously agreed upon to end in failure sooner or later; and then, the cultists appeared, as if adding insult to injury, turning from bad to worse yet keeping their chances of victory the same: zero.
Perhaps it only caused suffering, to persevere. It’s no secret that abandoning the chances of finding a loving family to fight on and on would negate said potential lover and her eventual children the possibility of happiness, not to mention denying it to yourself. Be a happy husband, or be a suffering paladin piling sacrifice upon sacrifice to stave off the end of the world for a single second. A selfish ideal, to cause suffering to those around you to feel better about yourself.
The cultists, as much as they seemed crazy and a mob of lunatics, certainly seemed happy in a twisted sense. They’ve gone through the same, as you remember that man the dullahans had tied and stabbed. You remember it clearly, don’t you? How that man had stared blankly with teary eyes, shooting upright and embracing the dullahan who welcomed him in her arms? The man seemed happy. The dullahan seemed happy. Two people made happy, both with the knowledge that no longer would they face fears such as loneliness forevermore. A great conclusion to the tragedies before it, rather than the suffering brought forth by persevering… Wouldn’t you agree, Indrick? Surely, they’d welcome you with open arms, too. All of them, all of my followers, like a great family wishing to spend their moments seeking that one person to live their lives with to their fullest, and to lend their hand to others to find their beloved partners…
And yet, some still fight back against them. The same way you persevere and suffer for it, so does Nostrum and The Order.
Do you remember, back then? So long ago, when you first set foot in Variland? When you set foot in the lilim’s villa. She had been so excited, so happy that one man in particular would visit her, a man described in a fairy tale told to her. A knight in shining armor, almost. You remember when you two met, when you two locked eyes. Perhaps I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that she had been the happiest she ever was, her eyes gleaming with awe upon seeing you; surely that expression alone gave away her thoughts about you. The one man in the fairy tales, the one she thought would be the one she married and lived happily ever after, perhaps in the future to have the great table surrounded by children that you so much yearn for. An ideal everyone would strive for with tooth and nail…
…And you persevered in your task, stabbing her. The paladins persevered in their task, raiding her cities. Nostrum persevered in their task, bringing war upon her. Vandire persevered in his task, defeating Jeremiah’s army, and you persevered in your task, killing him.
You can imagine how she took all the news. The poor thing couldn’t believe her eyes the day you stabbed her, believing herself to be at fault, and cried herself to sleep upon receiving news of Jeremiah’s death.
It could’ve ended the first day. You could’ve protected her smile. After all, you knew it’d all be for naught; was it really worth it to start a war and bring nightmares to those around you, if you knew it wouldn’t change a single thing?
Is this really the world you fight for, Indrick?
The world around him reverted in the blink of an eye, seeing once more the spiralling clouds and the cultist which had stabbed him. Almost in reflex, he threw his right fist towards him, connecting right in the cheek and sending the cultist aside, freeing him from the weight. With his other hand, he grabbed the handle of the knife and pulled it out, throwing it aside before quickly gaining firm grip on his longsword. His attempt to stand up, as expected as ever, resulted in yet another cultist trying to throw himself over him, but Indrick with knee on the ground thrusted his longsword at him, striking through the chest, and using throw few precious seconds to fully stand up before his opponent fell back, soon turning to smoke.
Knife thrown his way. He deflected it, chopping against the neck of the opponent a second later, yet a makeshift spear snuck in, hitting him between the ribs. Almost as if ignoring it, he grabbed it, took it out, then pulled, causing the one holding it to trip forward against those directly in front of Indrick, for a flurry of Nostrian spears and swords to fall upon them.
But the wound of the spear, as much as his physical body ignored it, his mind did not. He couldn’t ignore it. Already since returning to reality after the wound, his willingness to carry on had faded. Too much to cope with, too many weaknesses struck. Though his body fought, his heart and mind shouted otherwise, screaming to him to halt, to stop, to give in; why fight? It wasn’t the wound clouding his mind, either; he knew very well that reasons to fight only grew smaller in quantity each passing day. Was it worth it, to bring suffering to all of those around him for no gain?
The cultists in front of him, they could grant him respite, relief, a well-needed rest for his soul. With each one he felled, his heart ached in pain, fighting against those who wanted the same thing he wanted deep down, and achieving it, a few of them. With each new wound they gave him, more and more did his mind grow weary, tempted to throw away his longsword, to walk with them for the warmth they promised, a warmth very well achievable; he himself was the greatest obstacle in his own path towards it, after all.
But his body persevered. Past all the wounds, he kept fighting. Despite no reasons to do so, he kept fighting. Despite wishing to give up, despite suffering with each passing second as his heart cried out, he kept fighting. Despite his mind wishing for his hand to throw it, it still gripped the sword. So close to finding what he had been yearning for his whole life, what no man can shield himself from, and yet he threw it all away. It weighed so heavily on him, that he couldn’t even bring himself to suffer for it externally; his face rested expressionless, save for a frown in focus, showing no hints of emotion despite already being well past the point of breaking. Reverted to a machine, as if, without a drop in effectiveness with his longsword, but instead using it to its fullest potential, in ways that would make his old rapier shatter.
One fell. Two fell. Three fell.
One wound. Two wounds. Three wounds.
Over and over, for swings on end, his body and mind conflicted, body winning despite what tiredness sank in after so many blows of blade and pommel. The line had remained static, holding off against the hordes, until one fateful moment presented itself, the moment Indrick took the first step forward, pushing the cultists back with the rest of the line of paladins and soldiers.
Thrust. Swing. Thrust. At a steady pace, they took yet more steps, freeing themselves from the encirclement by the cultists and joining with those soldiers who had just arrived, forming one great line that now pushed against the street the cultists had arrived from.
Before he knew it, only a handful of cultists remained, with no wall of bodies behind them to prevent them from getting pushed around mercilessly, stabbed by both sword and spear from wherever it may reach. With lightning speed and a thirst of vengeance from the soldiers, they broke into their lines, sending them in disarray despite their recklessness and willingness to retreat, until Indrick faced the very last one of them, lowering his sword into his neck with impunity and ease, for no longer were the cultists unified as an ocean wave, but instead as mere singular drops.
There Indrick stood, seeing the cultist fall to the ground. He waited and waited, and soon enough, the very last cultist turned to smoke, with none remaining in the streets of Makillae, whether conscious or not. Such was the silence within the fallen city that he could gauge with certainty their victory; too shocking for anyone to cheer rather than to stare blankly at what had happened, with the infrequent steps of the soldiers walking about to get a proper view. No matter how much he looked at where the cultist was, nothing remained, no signs of him ever being there along with the others.
And yet, his mind chastised him, wondering why he had done that, why he had thrown away such chances, condeming him and the others to another few moments of misery if the next chance came soon, or forevermore if it did not. Like he lived, he’d die, a cog in a machine bleeding to death, able to escape yet choosing not to for no discernible reason.
“Indrick.” He heard a voice like sandpaper calling, to see Sigismund as he turned his head. “I saw you getting jumped on and stabbed. Was going to drag you out, but you jumped back up like nothing happened. You alright?”
He couldn’t answer at the time. He merely lowered his head, soon to stare at his open palm, clenching it into a fist and opening it again. His skin still felt awfully cold, just like in the boat, yearning for the warmth achieved only by the embrace of one’s love. Though the greatest effects of the wound had waned partly, it still lingered, haunting him.
“Master-Commander,” overheard Indrick, turning his head to see a soldier arriving to Vandire, “the city’s deserted. None of them remain so far, but there’s a structure at the center of the city. Looks like a makeshift tower.”
Makeshift tower. Images immediately flashed in his mind of that deep within Acerrae, and as he glanced at Sigismund, he found him glancing back at the same time, no doubt remembering said structure with clarity. While Vandire scratched his head with one hand, holding his longsword in the other, the two paladins walked up to him, with Vandire soon taking notice.
“How many infantry companies do we have here? Four?” Asked Vandire to his officers.
“Have those not injured march to the center to check on that structure.” He ordered. The officers marched away to the respective companies, and then Vandire turned to Indrick, sheathing his sword. “We’ll go there. Gather the paladins.”
While Vandire marched off to the front where the line of spearmen waited, Indrick took a deep breath.
“Paladins!” He shouted, gaining the attention of those around him. “With me!”
Footsteps followed moving closer, and soon enough the remaining paladins regrouped on the spot. With a nod towards Vandire at the paladins, Indrick marched off, followed by those of his unit as they now followed Vandire and his men further into the now calm city. And yet, no matter how many steps they took, no matter how many intersections they looked through, no matter how far they reached, no more cultists came to sight, and much less any signs of life apart from the Nostrian army.
Soon enough, past an uneventful paranoid march, they reached the center of the city, a castle which never found its use in the doomed defense the city at all, encircled by a wide open road, with a plaza in front. In front of the castle, however, all saw with clarity a structure standing tall, a tower of debris tied together reaching as high as the castle. Little by little, all advanced and surrounded it, staring up high as their necks allowed, seeing how the tower lined up with the center of the spiralling clouds above in the skies, a tower of the likes Indrick and Sigismund remembered, as did Geoffrey as he joined the two in staring.
Strange to hear a woman’s voice here, so cheerful, so playful. When he turned to see, he found the sorceress from before. Nyarlathotep. Without a hint of surprise on him, almost as if expecting her, he couldn’t help but wonder to himself: Was he getting used to her already? Not only just that, but a quick glance revealed desolation all around him, without a soldier to be seen, and without a sound from the rest of the army.
“You of The Order are a peculiar case. Seems like the more dedicated you are, the greater the difference in behavior, isn’t it? I’ve got to wonder how the Grand Master of The Order himself would react to such wounds, if a mere paladin such as yourself has taken dozens of them when just one left a lilim teary-eyed in sorrow.”
The mental exhaustion didn’t leave him strength to be surprised, to even open his eyes, and past all that had happened, he couldn’t even be surprised anymore. A bored reaction, like a scribe talking of monthly taxes for the millionth time. So too did desensitization, of fears of untold horrors plaguing the earth by the hand of monsters and the reality-bending powers of the monster lord before the invasion of Variland, now merely applied to someone else. Stronger than the Demon Lord? Who knew? Who cared? The Order’s future was cast in stone either way.
“Have you turned the lilim like you did with these people?”
“Not really.” Answered Nyarlathotep, never to erase her smile. “She’s still down there in Acerrae, staring blankly forevermore, waiting on nothing for the rest of time.”
“Yes. Surprised that I told you so off-handedly?”
“Why did you tell me?”
“Who knows? Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe I want you to go there just to see what happens.”
“To see what happens… You didn’t even try to hide these cultists marching to Makillae. Were you drawing us here?”
“Ah, you found out. Smart boy. I wanted to see how an army of cultists fared against a Nostrian army, along with how you and your fellows reacted to the wounds. Consider it morbid curiosity. I can’t say that humans have a natural resilience to such things, seeing as the citizenry of Nostrum and Variland fell with the same ease, but you of The Order, from the rank and file and up? You’re an interesting case.”
“And the spiralling clouds? This tower? Was it just bait? Or were you planning something else with them?”
“All at its time, little Castellan.” She winked with a finger by her mouth in sign of silence. “Curiosity killed the cat. If you take in so many answers at once… maybe you’ll break like Victoria.”
Though he stood silent, staring without a word, the next time he blinked he found Nyarlathotep gone. Still frowning in annoyance and exhaustion, he kept on staring blankly at where she once was, till he decided to bring his hand to his face and rub his eyes.
“Tear it down, I don’t care how.” He heard Vandire saying. When he lowered his hand and opened his eyes, once more he saw the soldiers encircling the structure, wondering how to most efficiently bring it down without it falling upon them.
“My men couldn’t hold the line for long. It was impossible. It was like stopping a battering ram with your own head, there’s just no way to do it for mere humans.”
So said the spearman standing by the table, in armor and uniform highly decorated beyond that of the normal rank and file; the captain of his own company of spearmen, one of dozens in Vandire’s army.
“At the start we could hold,” he continued, “but eventually our spears would just get in the way when a cultist rushes up to our face. Can’t maneuver, can’t do anything, have to pray that the man behind you covers you. These cultists have no fear, there’s just nothing keeping them from flooding us with their bodies.”
“What about you?” Asked Vandire, resting his hands upon the table he stood by, turning his head to a man of same elegance, the captain of a swordsman company. “How did your men fare?”
“I can’t say better or worse.” Answered the swordsman captain. “They shattered our line in an instant back then, something the spearmen fared better at, but on the other hand when it came to disorganized brawls, we could hold our ground for a while. Still, it was pure luck that their numbers had been depleted, otherwise we’d probably be wishing we were two meters under.”
“You and your men did well enough. You were a couple hundred at most fighting thousands at least.” Then, he turned to the crossbowman captain. “What about you? Have your crossbowmen found it efficient to fight the way they did?”
“The greatest issue we had was lack of ammunition.” He answered. “We had a great position, the infantry were covering us, and the infantry had a great position to do so too. Problem is, even if for every bolt we loosed we downed a cultist, we’d run out of ammo before doing much. We did manage to alleviate the problem by having the crossbowmen at the rear send their bolts to those at the front, but the army as a whole would run out eventually.”
“What if the issue of ammunition was solved? A theoretical situation where you don’t have to worry about it?”
“Then all the remaining problems we’d have would be whatever issue could keep the infantry from properly covering us.”
Now silent without words, Vandire lowered his head, thinking.
Crossbows and bolts. Were they not stockpiling them since Old Variland fell, waiting for the day they’d need to arm massive levies with them to defend their cities? Ammunition certainly wasn’t a problem, they had enough bolts to last them a hundred campaigns, but to bring it all to bear was the issue.
Soon enough an idea popped into his head, one demanding a massive alteration of the composition, structure, and doctrine of the army. However, at that moment so too did he remember that Variland might not know of what they learned this day. A great dilemma befell him, on whether to tell them or not, for everything Variland learns might be used against Nostrum in the future. Paranoia? Perhaps, yet paranoia was what let The Order survive this long.
“Find me a scribe. I need this written down.” He said, to which one of his officers within the tent marched out in his search.
“Vandire has called for you to gather here because of one thing alone. You’ve all been wounded.”
In front of Indrick, gathered in a semi-circle, a hundred men listened. Those at the front sat, while those behind them kneeled, and those at the back stood. Crossbowmen, swordsmen, spearmen, all at a green field surrounded by the tents of the camp recently put up, with the rest of the army visible in the distance minding their own camp duties.
“You’ll be asked a few questions, and I want you to be truthful.” Continued Indrick. “I’m expecting some answers to be questionable, but fear not, you’ll not be judged nor persecuted for it. Some answers may even involve losing one’s faith in the Chief God and be tempted to switch sides, but you’re all here today, which means you’ve persevered despite it all. Any questions?”
Only silent stares followed.
“Good. First, for the time being what we know of the weapons the cultists use is that they don’t cause bleeding wounds, nor do they sap strength like demonic metal, and much less monsterize like said metal infused with demonic energy. If the wounds you’ve taken have given you any of these effects, raise your hand.”
None raised them.
“If the wounds you’ve been inflicted with gave you a sense of isolation and yearning for company involving a love interest, raise your hand.”
Contrary to last time, each and every single man present raised them, without exception.
“Those of you who had this ‘loved one’ be an identifiable person?”
Some lowered their hands, yet the great majority left them up. After a second of thought, Indrick raised his hand and randomly pointed it at one of those raising theirs, a crossbowman standing at the back. “You. Who did you see?” He asked, at which point all lowered their hands to listen.
“My wife and children back home, sir.”
“Can you tell us what the wound caused you to think regarding her?”
“Uh… It gave me thoughts of what it’d be if they were gone, if I had to live the rest of my life without them. That’s about it, but felt awfully worse than just a mere thought. Almost as if it was real, for a second.”
“I see.” Answered Indrick, soon glancing at those in front of him. “Anyone here who is not married, but is in a relationship with someone?”
A few raised their hands, though not as many as those married men, rendered a minority in comparison.
“If you’ve been given similar thoughts, lower your hand. Otherwise, keep it high.”
All lowered them, though someone not among them raised his hand elsewhere, gaining Indrick’s curiosity. A swordsman, sitting at the front.
“What is it?”
“I’ve, uh… I’m not married, nor in a relationship with anyone, but still had someone I knew in those thoughts. It was a mixture of both her being gone, and never being with her.”
Indrick couldn’t help but raise his eyebrow.
“Has anyone gone through anything similar to what he describes?” He asked.
But only one single person apart from the swordsman raised his hand.
“Describe it.” He said, turning his head back towards the swordsman.
“I used to have feelings for someone. Still do, actually. I had a chance with said someone, but mistakes were made, and now chances are zero. The wounds made me remember her, made me think about how it would be if I actually got together with her, built a family with her, but at the same time made me think of how it would be to grow old regretting the mistakes, dying alone.”
Indrick brought his hand to his chin, rubbing it in wonder for a moment.
“Alright,” he said, lowering his hand, “those of you who have no relationships, met nobody you’d consider a love interest, and who had the wound make you think of how life would be with the company of the ideal of a love interest, along with having a family with her despite not knowing who it might be?”
A few others raised their hands.
“Anyone else who never raised his hand, who has gone through anything nobody described yet?”
Only one person raised his hand. Sigismund, sitting at an edge of the group.
“Might’ve started developing feelings for someone.” He said in his raspy voice as he lowered his hand. “Couldn’t tell for certain at the time, but the wound seemed to be focused entirely on her after a while.”
“Anything else you may deem important?”
“Not really, no. That’s basically the gist of it.”
“Very well.” Indrick turned to the group. “Does anyone have anything else to add here? Anything which has not yet been covered?”
“Then we’ll end it here. I’ll give word to Vandire in due time. You may all leave.”
A week came to pass, before Indrick arrived to Victoria’s villa with a bag over his shoulder. Though no longer received with hostility, still he attracted glares from the dullahans in the camp he marched through, many halting in place to look at the bizarre sight of a paladin among them. Soon he arrived to the main tent, where two dullahans stood by the entrance, one on each side. After a quick glance, one of the dullahans walked in, and in due time walked back out.
“Valerian wants to see you.” She said.
Indrick marched to the tent, pulled the cloth aside, and marched in, to find the interior fairly desolated in comparison to the last time he saw it, with just Valerian, Jeremiah, and two more dullahans within.
“Indrick.” Greeted Valerian.
“Valerian.” Indrick greeted back, walking forward around the table and extending the bag. “Vandire sends his regards.”
Skeptical, Valerian stared momentarily before grabbing the bag, opening it and looking inside. A curious glare followed, soon to take the object within out. A crude journal.
“What’s this?” Asked Valerian.
“Vandire’s findings. We fought a massive army of cultists in Makillae and learned a few things.” He said, just as Valerian opened the journal and flicked throguh the pages. “He’ll reform his army and figured you might find his ideas useful.” Then, he turned to Jeremiah. “I bring a gift for you, too.”
“For me?” Asked Jeremiah, dumbfounded.
“We might’ve found Victoria’s whereabouts–“
“You did?!” He asked aloud in absolute surprise, eyes wide open, stepping up to Indrick with such suddenness that Indrick couldn’t help but take a step back. “Where?!”
“Acerrae. Might be a trap, but it’s our only clue. Vandire has his cavalry scouting that place and the surrounding cities. If the army of cultists in Makillae was any indication, the place will be infested with them.”
“Indrick.” Called Valerian, closing the journal. Both Indrick and Jeremiah turned their heads towards him. “Let’s say we get to Acerrae and find Victoria there. Is there any way to be sure that we won’t suddenly return to our old rivalry, and that you won’t attempt to kill her in whatever state she is? You did try to kill her, and you killed Jeremiah, too. It’s no secret that the only reason we’re not at each other’s throats is because this new enemy forces us to cooperate.”
“Do you believe there’s anything a man of The Order could say in this situation to calm your fears?”
Silent at first, with a grimace of difficult thoughts, Valerian soon sighed to himself.
“…Point taken. Tell Vandire we’ll be waiting on what his scouts find.”