As he sat on his chair within the main tent, Valerian focused intently on Vandire’s written words upon the journal, reading on and on page after page. For so long had he been in the same tent these days, that it felt like reading a mere novel within the solance of his own home, as if the tent had become his permanent residence save for sleeping and eating.
“We’re gonna need more bows.” He remarked, to which Jeremiah heard, the only other person in the tent at the time sitting at one side of the table, arm still hanging.
“More?” He asked.
“If Vandire’s theory holds true, it should be possible to funnel the cultists into choke points and shower them with bolts or arrows, while the infantry holds. They’re just too many for the infantry to hold on their own. Casualties of trained soldiers are hard to replace compared to the cultists who just throw numbers.”
Jeremiah’s silence served as an acknowledgement.
“Someone’s gonna have to tell Elizabeth to send more.” Added Valerian.
“Still can’t believe Victoria managed to convince her.” Sighed Jeremiah, lowering his head for a moment. “Does she know of what happened to her?”
“We’re trying to keep those news contained here, along with that of these new cultists appearing. Ideally, only the dullahans, the servants, us, and whoever Vandire deems necessary know. Having someone else ask Elizabeth for more bows, though… I don’t know. Might be difficult.”
“Thought about telling her?”
“I don’t know what would happen. You have to remember, it was one of the Demon Lord’s daughters that ended up disappearing. For all we know, everyone could suddenly think that there’s no victory against them.”
“Just like when I died?”
Valerian, without words to say, turned his head to Jeremiah as he closed the journal.
“I had a chat with Indrick, before the two of us arrived here.” Continued Jeremiah. “They killed me and left everyone else alive to frighten Variland. Didn’t work. I see some similarities here, at least regarding what Nostrum wanted and what you fear. Well, difference is that I was dead, and Victoria isn’t. You got that going for you.”
“What are you getting at?”
Jeremiah laid back on his chair and stared up high to the ceiling, thinking for a second.
“The news are gonna get out eventually.” Said Jeremiah. “It’s gonna be hard to hide these cultists going around, and sooner or later people will get suspicious as to where Victoria is. Someone other than Victoria asking Elizabeth would be a dead giveaway of something being up. Best bet right now is to try getting those news out in a way that benefits us, rather than wait until it gets out in the worst possible way at the worst possible time.”
“Benefit us, such as?”
“Well, people were… a little upset that I died. Upset enough to muster an army over ten times its previous size, remodel it, and ask Caedisia, Charadonia, and even Mael-Iydan of all kingdoms to equip said army. Now, these new guys appear, and Victoria disappears, along with her army who turned traitor. Stil, you fight on. Nobody gives up. Now we all seek to find her, even Nostrum. Surely this can be turned into a rallying cry rather than a miserable defeat, no?”
Lowering his head, Valerian gave it some thought.
“If what I heard of elven pride is true,” said Valerian, “then telling it to them like that might work better than pretending everything’s fine while sending someone else. Well, they must know of something being wrong already. We can’t really hide fifteen thousand dullahans suddenly never returning for more training.”
“So must Charadonia and Caedisia. Rumors will spread, and the moment people hear rumors about these cultists, it’ll be a disaster. Time isn’t on your side, honestly.”
With a sigh, Valerian left the journal on the table, and then ran his hands over his face.
“Fine.” He said. “Who do I send to Mael-Iydan, then? I can’t leave Variland with those cultists next door.”
“I’ll go. They must know of me dying already, and seeing as I was Victoria’s butler, I might have the greatest leverage with them right now.” He stood up from his chair, turned and walked away towards the tent entrance. “Not like I have anything to do right now, either.”
“Be my guest, then. You have to do something first, though.” Said Valerian, making Jeremiah stop and turn his head. “Take a bath. You’re rotting an awful lot.”
Silent, blank-faced, Jeremiah stared at Valerian for a moment, before he grew a smirk, turning once more and walking to the entrance. “I missed you too, faggot.”
When he pulled the cloth of the tent, however, he saw Indrick right in front of him, arm slightly extended to pull the cloth for himself. Surprised, Jeremiah raised an eyebrow and stepped back and to the side, leaving him room to enter. Indrick then stepped in, and walked to the table Valerian sat at.
“Usual visit.” He said, dropping a folder upon a table. “Cultist movements, or lack thereof. Couldn’t figure anything out yet. What about you?”
“We have something.” Said Valerian as he stood up, soon to walk to a nearby bookcase, run his finger through a few piles of papers, and then take out one pile within a folder. Afterwards, he walked up to Indrick and presented it to him. “In here is everything we saw of the cultists so far on our end of the front.” He said as Indrick took it. “They’re not advancing. Doesn’t look normal. There’s no telling if they’re preparing for something. If Vandire figures anything out of it, send word as soon as you can.”
“Right. We’ll see what happens.”
As Valerian watched Indrick turning and walking away, he noticed how Jeremiah had already left.
A day later, Indrick arrived to Vandire’s camp, pulling the cloth of his tent and entering to see a mess of noises, with Vandire and his officers discussing while squires marched about in their duties. A busy day, no doubt. Maneuvering past those squires walking by him, he walked around the table absolutely surrounded by officers which blinded him from see Vandire and vice-versa, till he reached Vandire himself, though the latter had not noticed him yet, staring into the map over the table.
“Sire.” Said Indrick. Vandire glanced out of the group, to immediately find him and raise his eyebrows. Indrick saluted, and then extended a folder. “Valerian sends what he saw on his end of the front.”
“Finally!” Exclaimed Vandire, eagerly taken the folder and flicking through. Afterwards, he brought it upon the table, all open, and through a careful inspection of its contents aligned the figurines on the table, all in the front within Variland. “Move aside, leave him space.” He said to his officers, who quickly stepped aside to leave Indrick a spot by the table. “This might concern the paladins too, so you better take a look.”
As Indrick took a step forward, he saw with full clarity the map and all manner of figurines, be it miniature soldiers, flags, towers, and whatnot, all neatly arranged. However, a quick glance to the faces of the group revealed to him that not only were Vandire’s officers there, but also inquisitors and the sector governor in his full regalia; the man who governed the north of Nostrum, who the mayors answered to, and who answered to Vandire alone.
“Now that the paladin is with us, let’s go over this one more time.” Said Vandire. “Inquisitor, repeat what you said.”
“Very well, sire.” Said one of the inquisitors. “Whether the cultists have adopted a stealthier approach is beyond us, but from what we see they seem to have stopped infiltrating cities anymore. We can’t find anything. There’s no activity outside their front; they decided to stop for some reason, and we can’t figure out what it is, other than them perhaps focusing their efforts elsewhere.”
“And now with Valerian’s reports, we now know that it’s been the same in Variland. The idea that the cultists were focusing their manpower against the north no longer holds up. What did he scouts find, again?”
“They’re building up their numbers, sire.” Answered an officer. “What activity my men saw seemed entirely focused on mustering their forces and stationing them in their cities, even in Acerrae despite it being partly abandoned before. None have yet seen any force marching out towards a city they didn’t control. This extends to all of the cities they’ve scouted, without exception; even the smallest village is being prepared.”
“Putting everything together, with Nyarlathotep telling Indrick that Victoria might be in Acerrae,” as Vandire spoke, Indrick couldn’t help but glance at the inquisitors, to find them at that very moment staring at him, first with skepticism, but soon a smile, as if finding the absurdity of the situation amusing; one of them at the same time held up and checked his own rosarius, but upon finding nothing, rolled his eyed with an annoyed look, “and with the cultists staying in place, leads to the idea that they know we’re aiming to recover that lilim. Either that, or perhaps they plan to do something similar to what they’ve tried in Makillae and seek to delay us as much as possible. For all we know that lilim might as well be forever lost and they’re just using her as bait. This is, of course, assuming they’ll do something we can predict and understand, rather than something new none of us will be prepared for in forty thousand years.”
Once his words ended, the tent fell silent apart from the squires in their duties, all staring at the map. That they didn’t know what to do wasn’t a factor, they all knew exactly what needed to be done, to assault Acerrae, yet it all seemed impossible, for they’d need to fight off the absolute entirety of the force that had defeated Victoria’s army in some manner, when Nostrum had found it difficult enough to do so with their full might.
Around Acerrae now lied a ring of fortifications, one made up by the various cities, towns, and villages which surrounded it, and though there was no actual ring of fortifications that rendered passange impossible, to bypass the various cities under cultist control and strike at Acerrae directly only invited encirclement and a fate which the likes of Dirk would’ve imagined worse than death. Not just that; a supply line needed to be maintained with Vandire’s idea of the new army structure. Inevitably, some cities would need to be assaulted, taken, and held.
As Vandire kept thinking, he came to the conclusion that Makillae seemed like the best staging grounds so far: Away from citizens, both out of pity for them and the threat new converts would pose, close enough to Variland if their aid was needed in the worst of cases, easily defended with such walls and without the aforementioned citizenry which invited infiltration, and more importantly, right at the border of cultist territory.
On the map, the closest city to Makillae looked to be Ariminum. A relatively big town, though too small to be considered a proper city, right in the path between Makillae and Acerrae. Unwalled; only had Makillae stood defended in the frontier with Variland, as none wished to leave several fortresses to monsters in their eventual demise, and now it seemed to have been a correct assessment, with cultists instead.
“Scouts.” Called Indrick.
“Sire.” One officer replied.
Vandire brought his hand to the map, and put his finger over Ariminum.
“I want this city looked at thoroughly. As soon as we can, we’ll attempt to take it.”
“Governor, I trust preparations are underway for the supply train?”
“No issues have been found for the preparation of the required infrastructure.” Said the sector governor. “All the cities in this sector are good candidates for points in the supply line. Has a destination been decided?”
“Yes. We’ll send everything to Makillae.”
“Are you sure they were not sent to garrison some place?” Asked Elizabeth, marching next to an elf through the many corridors of the wooden structure.
“I’ve never heard anything like that. One day they leave with the lilim, and poof, gone. The place is desolated, they had a camp no doubt built to accomodate everyone, and suddenly the army’s absense leaves it like an abandoned mess. Can’t be to make space for new recruits, there’s just too much empty space. Till my replacement arrived and I left, I’ve not seen the lilim either, and the one with the living armor that was supposed to be there full-time suddenly has to take everyone from camp and march them south like a new general. I talked with the centaurs, and the smelly bastards have the same doubts. I’m telling you, something’s up.”
Left dumbfounded, Elizabeth couldn’t do much else than lift her hand to her mouth, lowering her head a slight bit as she pondered over what she had heard. Eventually, she stopped in place, prompting the elf to follow suit.
“Think Nostrum got them?” She asked.
“An army led by a lilim?”
“Can’t put it past them anymore, if they killed a Lord General with painful ease-“
“Speak of the devil…” A voice called from behind them.
Upon hearing it, finding it to be a man’s, Elizabeth and the elf turned their heads down the hallway, only to find a man of silverish skin, dark circles under eyes, ragged clothing, and stitches on his neck, standing in the middle of the passage staring at them. Though the elf beside her stared on with petrifying shock, Elizabeth recognized him well enough with just a mere glance.
“…And he shall appear.” Continued Jeremiah, unable to hide a small smile.
“How did you get in?”
“I come back from the dead, and the first thing you get upset about is me not knocking first?” He asked, smiling. “Your elves preferred to only look from a distance. I just walked in.”
“Bah.” She muttered, before turning to the elf. “You can go.”
Without a word, the elf stepped forward and walked past Jeremiah, though not without fixating her conused glare upon him till well past him, soon leaving sight.
“I have questions. You being here at all raises more. You have answers.”
“Answers, and a request.”
“Then let’s get to the answers first. I won’t step further into something I barely know about anymore.”
“Where do you want me to start?”
“I want to know what happened to the army that left and never returned, and if it’s related to you showing up rather than Victoria herself.”
A quiet sigh escaped him as he lowered his head.
“I told Valerian that people would start worrying about that exact thing.” He said, before raising his head once more.
“Was it Nostrum?”
“Nostrum? Would you believe me if I said that we’re working with them, now?”
Absolute stupefaction befell them, narrowing one eye and raising an eyebrow over what nonsensical words she had received.
“Not without context.” She answered.
“Have you heard any rumors floating about, of anything happening in the border between Variland and Nostrum?”
“No, but I have heard of one of my instructors hearing about the dullahans mentioning some sort of opponent that wasn’t Nostrum, or Order at all. I take it this relates to what you’ll tell me.”
“It does, and further rumors will undoubtedly arrive to you soon enough. Before the army set off, a Nostrian city ended up falling by an affliction that, truth to be told, nobody yet knows much about, one Nostrum thought was Variland’s doing. After that, the affliction spread and got through the border to Variland, and Victoria heard of it, and set out with that army to check. Victoria never returned, and the dullahans with her turned traitor and fought with the afflicted against us. We don’t know what they think, why they do what they do, but they want to spread whatever it is that took over their minds city by city. They were so much of a threat, and Variland and Nostrum decided to stop being at each other’s throats for the time being. Go figure.”
Silent, unchanging in expression, petrified as if, Elizabeth stared on, with only the calm breeze outside acting as a deterrant to the grim silence that would have taken over in such place.
“What… what did they do to her army? What did they do to her?”
“Nobody knows. That’s the frightening part. We don’t even know if they fought at all. For all we know, they could’ve fallen without a fight, without even knowing what hit them. Monster and Order alike are falling to the affliction. It doesn’t pick favorites.”
Her gaze eventually shifted to the side, eyes wide open in disbelief and shock, soon bringing her hand to hold her head with as her eyes switched to the other side, as if her mind had begun short-circuiting.
“Tell me you’re winning.” She said. “Tell me Order and Monster working together is more than a match for them.”
“I would not be here if it was.”
Her eyes narrowed, almost in pain. Her hand lowered to her mouth, covering as she kept thinking, putting all pieces together that kept scrambling in her head.
“Variland is still fighting.” He said, leading her to lock eyes with him once more. “Nostrum is still fighting. Victoria is gone, but we might have a clue as to where she is. None of us are even giving the idea of giving up a single thought.”
“…You are courageous.”
“Was our Lady not, when I died? When she decided to return with Variland’s forces tenfold, rather than to admit defeat and wait for the same kind of death that took me? We have no right to do anything less for her now, much less when she can be found alive.”
After a second of silence spent, she sighed, forcefully attempting to regain her composure and standing tall and proud as her usual self once more.
“What’s your request, then?” She asked.
“More bows and arrows. As many as we can get.”
“When you say that, do you mean it? Is there no limit to the amount of bows we should seek to give you?”
“There is no limit. Ranged weaponry turned out to be a very good option against this new foe, to the point that even Nostrum gave us heed that they changed their army structure into mostly crossbowmen. I wouldn’t doubt its effectiveness, if they managed to reclaim the very first city in all this conflict. So, even if you gave us more than we’d ever need, we’d recruit more dullahans to keep pace.”
“We’ll never have enough.”
“Fine. I can give you what you ask for, but we’d need more gold in return. The amount of bows we had available to sell is already running short, so if this is as much of an emergency as I imagine it to be, I’d need that gold to compensate my elves for the bows we’d have to take from them.”
“Not a problem.”
“Consider it done, then.”
Jeremiah gave a light chuckle. “I didn’t expect you to be so cooperative, truth to be told. I thought I’d need more to convince you.”
“I don’t need any more reasons past protecting my elves, Jeremiah.” She said, slowly stepping up to him closer and closer, till both remained face to face. “What renown Mael-Iydan might get out of this is merely a bonus compared to our assured existence as a nation. I might not be best friends with Victoria, or have an exceptionally favorable look on my neighbors, but I won’t leave her and her people to die or worse either.”
“As it should be. I take it I should send more instructors to keep up with this new demand?”
“So be it.”
‘Don’t get too confident. Expect anything from them.’
Such were Vandire’s warning to the army, warning that floated within Indrick’s mind as he ran forward to Ariminum with the rest. Almost arriving to the western side of the town, Indrick led the left file of the two which flanked a group of soldiers carrying a lengthy wooden frame like a log, with wooden spikes embedded all throughout it in the shape of an X. Ten paladins on the left, then paladins on the right, a few soldiers inbetween, and the rest of the force following them tasked with piercing into the now cultist city, all with crossbow on hand and longsword on waist. They themselves formed the very head of the force, the spear-tip of the entire army which advanced just like them to the left and to the right; this little detail gave Indrick a tiny sense of annoyance, the certainty that he and his paladins would always be tasked with such things or worse, since where else would paladins such as them be?
They reached the road, passing by the very first building of the seemingly desolate town. Following the plan, Indrick moved his crossbow to his back left hanging, unsheathed the longsword, rushed to the first building by his left, and kicked the door to have it swing open, for its lock had already been torn out; a sign of what struggle the inhabitants faced at the late stages of cultist takeover, perhaps? The four next paladins in his file followed in with him, while the remaining five rushed further ahead through the road with the spiked frame, though so did five paladins from the opposite file break into the building on their side.
Within, as much as Indrick expected to find a cultist waiting in ambush, he found nothing within the first room, though from there three more rooms awaited. He rushed to one room while the others divided and moved to their own picks, yet within the room that turned out to be the bedroom he found no living soul.
“Clear!” Said a paladin within, from another room. After a few seconds, another paladin repeated the same word.
“House’s clear! Outside!” Shouted Indrick, picking up pace and running outside, soon joined by the other four.
First sight on the road showed the rest of the soldiers having arrived fully: near half a hundred men within the confined, small road segment, with more yet to come, all armed in the same fashion. At the end of the road, just before the intersection, the spiked frame had been set up, blocking it almost entirely.
“Staircase to the roof!” Shouted a paladin, coming out of the building ahead. Numerous crossbowmen then acknowledged, and marched into the building.
But all halted as rumbling began to be felt and heard.
As the crossbowmen ran in post-haste, Indrick rushed to the makeshift barricade, along with the remaining paladins and those men who remained outside. Sheathing his longsword and taking his crossbow, he walked the remaining distance till he arrived to the spiked frame, to stare forward ahead expecting a myriad of cultists charging against them, but they saw no such thing. In the extreme distance they could pick up the silhouette of masses upon masses, just like in Makillae, and a slight bit better were they prepared against them, but rather than a mindless charge, Indrick could barely see them running one way and the other; not as an unified mass going in one direction, but spreading about left and right, never to advance properly, or advance at all.
Eventually, the rumbling died down, till a silence uninterrupted even by the Nostrian army’s few steps took over. Even as they waited and waited, no cultist came out to greet them, as if the city had returned to its old desolate state.
“Indrick,” said the captain of the formation, arriving up to him, “go forward with your men and see if there are any cultists in the vicinity. On your mark, we move the frame forward.”
“Right.” He replied. “Paladins, with me!”
Carefully, he advanced past the narrow space between the wooden spikes and jumped over the frame, with his men following suit till they all reached the other side of the barricade, soon to advance further ahead. A quick glance to the streets at the side revealed nothing but desolation, and as they spread partly, moving closer to the buildings, they heard nothing within. Indrick then gestured with his arm to the captain.
At the captain’s command, those at the front lifted the barricade and pushed it forward, and out of the sides as soon as enough space was given two more of such wooden frames carried by a group of men each marched through, aiming to block the side streets. Same plan as the first street; as soon as the barricade had begun moving, Indrick set out with nine paladins to the left side, leading them to a building of which he kicked the door wide open, while five of the nine rushed ahead for the next.
A whistle. Abrupt end, followed by noise of impact, and a painful gasp. Indrick snapped his head to the source, to find that one of the paladins which passed him had been struck by an arrow and fell on his back, one originating from afar. At that moment, more had begun landing around them.
“Into the building! Now!” Shouted Indrick, rushing in, as so did the paladins with him, the last two dragging the one in.
More and more arrows fell, making that distinct noise of metal tips hitting the stone road, too many to even fathom stepping outside, soon drowned out by the shouts and stomps of those soldiers outside. Though, as the rest of the paladins rushed further into the house to clear it, leaving him, the wounded paladin, and the two who had dragged him in, Indrick couldn’t help but be slightly impressed at how he took the arrow out and stood up by himself, before the two could even aid him. Something to be expected from paladins, for sure, yet still impressive from the one who had been recruited just after Makillae to fill the vacant Dirk had left.
Rumbling. Too close for comfort, no doubt the cultists who had waited for the volley. Indrick took one quick look around, and saw that quite a few pieces of furniture lined the walls, just enough to cover the two windows and the door, though not in enough quantities to form a strong barricade.
“Clear.” Said a paladin who arrived with another from a room. Soon enough arrive another, repeating the same, and another, and so on.
“There’s access to the roof.” Said the last one, arriving in the same fashion.
“Block the windows and the door.” Ordered Indrick. In an instant, those around him rushed to the cabinets, the tables, the chairs, anything not bolted to the ground, and moved them without regard to what awful noise they made to the windows and the door. Some things fell off, even a few quite finely crafted porcelain cups among them, of which were the most damning evidence regarding what lack of looting showed not just here, but in any cultist territory Indrick had visited. It certainly hurt him to a slight degree to see them break so needlessly, to say nothing of the temptation of the common man to take them for themselves, and yet here they had been, left untouched.
Smash on the cabinet block the front door, enough to make it budge and startle the two paladins standing by it. A dead giveaway of the rain of arrows having halted, immediately followed by broken glass of the windows and the bludgeoning of the furniture covering it.
“To the roof, go.” Said Indrick.
“This way.” Said the paladin from before, the one to discover it, running into a hallway to be followed by the others.
The hallway led to a staircase to the second floor, ending in a room which connected to another, and in there they arrived to another staircase leading up high where the light of the day could be seen shining on the ceiling. “Archers may have eyes on eyes on us. There’s cover up there, though.”
Step after step, they ran up the staircase, until they reached the roof; the ceiling Indrick had seen turned out to be a great lattice covered by vines, extending to the sides of the roof in size. To the sides, a few wooden pillars supported the wooden ceiling, covered by the vines which climbed them up high, with a little stone parapet lining the edge of the floor. From the sight alone he saw how no other building surpassed its height for blocks on end.
The last two paladins to arrive closed the two-door hatch which housed the staircase, and a third arrived with two broken table legs, placing them through the handles and rendering them impossible to open from within, for the table legs would need to be broken first. At the same time, the rest ran to the eastern side, against the various pillars or lying on the ground with the parapet’s cover; a quick glance already revealed the numerous cultists far ahead, not only those on the ground running up against the Nostrian army, but so too the ones in the buildings with bow and arrow, as if copying what they had done in Makillae. Though some certainly caught up with the paladins’ presence in the roof, the great majority had not, shooting elsewhere.
“Draw their attention to us.”
With his longsword sheathed and crossbow out, he crouched and placed it against the ground. He then took hold of the hook by his belt, hooked the crossbow’s string, and placed his foot on the stirrup at the front end of the crossbow. With the strength provided by standing up, he strung it fully and removed the hook. A few arrows hitting the surroundings of the building, be it the lattice ceiling, the wooden pillars, or even just whistling past elserwhere caught his attention momentarily, before he took a bolt from the quiver beside his longsword and rapier, and nocked the bolt. He peeked past the pillar, and there he spotted the first cultists to come to sight, on the roof of a building further west, shooting at another group of soldiers. He raised his crossbow, took careful aim, and let loose; seconds afterwards, the bolt struck a cultist and sent him tripping to the ground by mere force of the blow, to which those around him nearly jumped in fright. The remaining cultists then looked in his general direction, until they found him, and so did their attention shift to him and the other paladins near exclusively.
Then, the others let loose their own bolts, loaded at roughly the same time, all picking their own targets. Indrick loaded another bolt, noticing a hail of arrows reaching them harder than before, a good indication as any that the plan seemed to work, and upon finishing, let loose on any other group he found. For the third bolt, he did the same, and yet for the fourth bolt, he found no unsuspecting cultist to surprise; all as far as the eye could see had been alerted.
The hatch started showing impacts, opening ever so slightly yet still kept shut by the table legs. And yet, the strongest blows Indrick could see barely amounted to a little shaking; the affliction certainly didn’t gift the common man with additional strength, if the previous fights were anything to go by.
Fifth bolt. Sixth bolt. Seventh bolt. For every cultist that fell, two more took its place, no matter how many turned to smoke. Arrows had begun raining on them non-stop, almost to the point it halved their firerate with how the arrows forced them to stick in cover.
“Knock knock!” A sandpaper-like voice called, heard coming from within the hatch. As all turned their eyes, they found that no longer did the hatch face smash after smash. “You people are going to stay there?”
A look above let Indrick know of the lattice holding the arrows back; proper archery would certainly pierce through, leaving to mind that, just like their melee prowess, the cultist had not a single proper archer in their ranks, or equipment designed for war first and foremost. He stood up and rushed to the hatch, confident of the lattice’s strength still withstanding the hail of arrows, and removed the table legs blocking it, to which the one on the other side opened it. There he was, bald-headed with his helmet hanging on his back by the string on his neck, Sigismund greeting with a smile. Before even a word could be said, crossbowmen reached the building top, passing by Sigismund’s side on the narrow staircase.
“The cultists are withdrawing.” Said Sigismund as both him and Indrick stepped away from the staircase, leaving the crossbowmen to walk in uninterrupted. “They were trying to get to you. The moment we broke through them, they turned and ran.”
“What about your side of the street? Did you go through the same?”
“No, we made a mad dash to the barricade instead. Two of our guys got hit, but nothing they’re not used to already.”
A quiet sigh escaped him, lowering his head ever so slightly.
“At least we got a block for the crossbowmen.” He said. “I take it the infantry is preparing to advance?”
“They’re reluctant. Could be an ambush or God knows what. They’re waiting for the crossbowmen to set up and for us to advance with them.”
“Fine,” he turned to the paladins with him, “let’s go.”
As he took the first step down the staircase, marching down, the others soon followed in line.
The sky darkened as hours passed in the city, with Indrick and the rest of his group finding themselves just a few blocks down from the city’s edge. A stalemate, for a few blocks down the road the soldiers set up a defense, and further down ahead the cultists waited, now unwilling to advance into an unwinnable assault. What sluggish advance Vandire had managed to achieve remained testament of the cultists’ new behavior.
As he sat around a fire with a great metal pot hanging from a tripod, absent-mindedly stirring his bowl of stew with his spoon, he couldn’t help but feel a sensation of impending doom brought forth by the fact that, at the current pace of the advance, they’d be left with no more options than to sleep in the cultist-infested city to fight on the next day. With an opponent never running short on numbers or morale, only a grim and painfully slow advance came to mind, dragging them out of every house they waited in ambush one by one.
“Geoffrey’s gonna clean the dishes, looks like!”
He raised his head, to find the others soon laughing at the paladin’s remark, all looking at Geoffrey. He turned his head, and found Geoffrey holding his bowl with an annoyed grimace, soon picking out the bay leaf on the surface. All shared a chuckle, though when Indrick turned his eyes to the caller’s bowl, he found something inside that left him silent.
“Reynauld.” He said in a firm voice, gaining his attention and silencing those around. He extended one hand, slowly moving it towards Reynauld’s bowl, all staring curious and confused following his hand with their eyes, until Indrick carefully pinched the strange object and ever so slowly pulled it out from the stew, all with a growing grin.
Another bay leaf, to which all resumed their laugher with greater force, much to Reynauld’s newfound annoyance. He let go, leaving it on his stew once more, then returned to his own bowl. At that moment, however, one paladin turned silent and stared on ahead of him, at the same time when footsteps caught the group’s attention. Their laugher subsided, and all turned to where the paladin stared, to see Vandire arriving to them.
“So,” said Vandire, “how has the newest addition to your unit performed?”
All slowly turned their heads towards the newest paladin among them, looking at he who found no way to react to such sudden attention.
“He got shot up first.” Answered Indrick. “Stood up just fine. Was expecting him to take a couple more seconds to recover, honestly.”
“I’d be surprised if he didn’t. He got repeatedly stabbed back then in Makillae. Showed promise in how he kept going, so I figured he’d be good enough to fill up the vacancy.”
Much as it caused an eyebrow to rise, Indrick stared at the paladin in silent surprise for a second. Now with a proper glance, Indrick came to see how the paladin looked like a copy of him, yet opposite in how his eyes were brown, and his hair dark chestnut instead.
“You never told us.” He said.
“You didn’t, Maverick?” Asked Vandire.
The paladin shrugged. “They never asked.”
At the answer, Vandire chuckled.
“He was a swordsman in the seventh company, the one who fought off the cultists encircling us in Makillae. Got stabbed numerous times. Still fought. Saw it with my own eyes, so he got the rosarius and a place among you.”
“Bastard!” Exclaimed Reynauld with a smile, surprising Maverick. “The seventh? I was in the seventh too, till… uhh… Ah, I forgot. Sig, you’re the last person I remember mentioning this to. Can you recall?”
“You joined us three years before I did, so…” Said Sigismund, raising his finger to scratch his chin. “Five, six years ago?”
“Six.” Added Geoffrey. “You asked him, instead of the person who joined the same year?”
“You expect me to remember who joined when, when I can’t even remember mine?” Said Reynauld.
“Sire,” said Indrick, turning to Vandire once more, “may I ask something, if only out of morbid curiosity?”
“Go ahead.” Answered Vandire.
“How’s the battle progressing elsewhere?”
Rendered silent for a second, raising his eyebrows in slight worry as he stared ahead down the road where cultist land lied, Vandire collected his thoughts.
“I’d be lying if I said it was going good, but I can’t say it’s going bad either. At least, everything’s under control for the time being. I have the cavalry encircling the city, so no reinforcements will catch us by surprise if they ever come, and no cultist will run away. Can’t say anything about starving them out with how the idea fared in Makillae, so we’ll have to take our time advancing into their part of the city. Slow, awful, but still, it’s something to be expected. Better than running around not knowing what’s going on.”
“What about the cultists taking the initiative? Soon it will be night.”
“I’ve already prepared things for the chance they attack us at night while most sleep. Believe me, I’m almost hoping that they try doing that; they’re not stupid, so if they don’t, then something’s up. There are other things I’m fearing, but I’m tempting fate hard enough already, so I’ll refrain from saying them. I’m sure you already know, though.”
None said a word, and as silence took over, Vandire soon turned and marched away. Indrick had a hunch of what Vandire’s last words referred to, and a quick glance to the others revealed in their expression the same type of thought. Despite the difficulty in taking Ariminum, all knew that it was mere cultists holding them back, without a dullahan to be seen wherever they may be. And yet, at that moment Indrick thought to himself: Was he already tempting fate by just thinking about it?
“Any word from the cavalry yet?” Asked Vandire the next day, both arms over his table and one hand over his forehead, tapping himself with a finger in confusion and anxiety within a building of the city. And yet, as much as his officers looked at each other, none had a single report to give. Nothing, all empty-handed. A loud sigh from him followed, lowering his hand to rub his eyes.
It didn’t add up. What happened, or what didn’t happen in truth, just showed no potential purpose to him, all from the very first light of the day. To not being woken up by reports of attacks throughout the line already signalled either inactivity or an absolute wipe of those who’d have given the report, and yet, even after men were sent to check every part of the line, all returned with news of a well night sleep, with not a single intruder, nor with any equipment stolen or broken, supplies taken, or anything pointing to infiltration. Nothing. Fate had been thoroughly tempted, and though he had imagined the possibility, even with the benefit of time since yesterday he still could not come to a hypothesis as to the ‘why’ of it.
“Alright.” He said in a firm voice, letting his hand fall to the table, regaining his composure. “We’ll continue the advance like yesterday. Keep your eyes open for anything stranger than the usual, otherwise we’ll just have to keep doing what we’re already doing. Any questions?”
“Then we begin anew. Every second the cultists stay in this city is a second reinforcements can arrive and ruin everything.”
Salutes and acknowledgements followed, all his officers soon turning, leaving through the door, and marching their own way further into the city.
The door swung open, hitting its greatest extent with an impact as loud as the lock breaking with a kick. Within walked Indrick, holding his sword by its hilt and its blade, staring in all directions as he advanced with slow steps, with Maverick soon following behind, then Sigismund, and so on with the others, slightly spreading out in the spacious room they had just entered. Though cultist presence had been predicted, they found none so far, despite such gruelling combat they had taken part in since hours ago, clearing each house one by one on the third day of the assault.
A great room, certainly belonging to someone of wealth or power, or both. The group quietly divided in usual groups, of four each with five in total, and while two stood still, the three headed towards an equal number of doors: One at each extreme of the farthest furniture-covered wall, and a last one at the right side. Indrick led the group to the rightmost door, with Sigismund, Geoffrey, and Maverick following, reaching a small distance away from it and halting momentarily for the others groups to reach their doors, and then, once all were in place, he advanced to the door and kicked it open just like he did with the entrance.
Before his foot even reached the floor after the kick, a hand with a dagger swung towards him. A cultist behind it waiting in ambush, to which Indrick in reflex blocked with his sword’s blade against the arm, immediately pushing it away in a manner that allowed him to then thrust the end of his sword against his neck. “Contact!” Shouted the paladin behind him to the others, yet two more daggers swung in, and fearing to be overwhelmed, Indrick stepped back as quickly as he could, barely dodging the stabs. As the two other groups repeated the same word, now stuck in combat against more cultists attempting to push into the room en masse, the two cultists in front of Indrick stormed through the door, with two more appearing behind them, yet multiple swords from the paladins around Indrick greeted them in the tiny choke point the doorway presented, halting them, for the cultists that attempted to push through now blocked them with their weakening bodies near their inevitable loss of consciousness.
But as suddenly as they struck, they turned and retreated, running back where they came from. Indrick glanced at the others who shifted stares between each others and found it in their eyes a silent agreement as to why they did not pursue: Uncertainty over what could happen if they did. However, as the footsteps eased down, they noticed how many of them came from the floor above them, of a number that led to the thought of it being infested in its entirety.
Quiet steps followed as Indrick moved forward to peek through the doorway before a hallway which immediately turned to the left, but as soon as he saw that it led to a staircase down the lengthy hallway leading to the second floor, the cultist he spotted by the top of the staircase let loose his bow. Desperate, he jerked back, avoiding the arrow which then embedded itself on the doorframe.
“…Staircase.” He said, followed by a second of silence. “Clear this floor, then regroup here. We’ll hold.”
Silent acknowledgement followed as the two other groups kicked their own doors down, and marched in. The other two in reserve walked further into the room, standing here the first ones used to be, keeping in place since then. Curiously enough, none of those remaining in the room could hear any noises implying violence from them, just a few steps that soon died down, muffled by the walls. Then, complete silence.
“Reynauld.” He called.
“Go outside and tell the crossbowmen to shoot whatever they see upstairs. We won’t–“
In front of his eyes, the stuck arrow turned into the same kind of electric-looking smoke he had grown used to, startling him by pure virtue of an inanimate object emanating it before disappearing, all not even a meter away from him. Then, nothing, just glances between the paladins, all recognizing how each other shared the same look of surprise, and the knowledge that wherever the cultists had gone, their ammunition followed.
“…We won’t be going up there any time soon.” He continued.
“Got it.” Replied Reynauld, turning and running through the still open entrance door, leaving sight.
Silence still ensued, with no signs of the other two groups, till soon enough the noise of glass shattering could be heard above, along with violent impacts followed by hurried steps and muffled voices.
“Clear.” Said a paladin, arriving from the left-most door with his group. A second later, from the other door arrived the other group, with the one leading it repeating the exact same word. So too did Reynauld arrive with his men, with the noises above them as testament enough of his completed task.
“They’ll shoot whatever they see for a while.” He said, walking up to Indrick. “When the noise subsides, we’re on our own.”
Indrick’s silence served as an acknowledgment, and soon afterwards he took off his helmet. He placed it on the pommel of his longsword, hanging by its side, and slowly moved it past the doorway. An arrow immediately whistled past, going through the helmet and embedding itself against the doorframe, a little below the other arrows’ mark, true to its property of phasing through the helmet, for the former was made out of a strange variation of demon realm silver, whereas the latter was not. However, as he pulled back his pommel with his still intact helmet, he couldn’t help but stare in deep confusion at the stuck arrow. Certainly the doorframe had not been made out of the same material as the arrow tip, leaving to wonder as to why it phased through his helmet, and yet not through the wood of the door and the brick past it. Not just that, the wooden shaft of the arrow had also phased through the helmet, along with the fletches at the end, a detail he had overlooked all the times an arrow or bolt pierced through anything till the luxury of staring calm and collected was given to him just now. And then, just like before, the arrow soon turned into smoke.
A violent noise took them by surprise, coming down from the top of the staircase. The idea of violent steps left them to ready up as Indrick put his helmet back on in panic, though once the strange noise arrived, they all saw the very same cultist who had fallen down the stairs, thus creating such ruckus, spotting a bolt sticking out of his back. A second later, he turned into smoke, leaving the bolt to fall down to the ground. So too did they notice that the hail of bolts had ended.
“Up the stairs, go. Reynauld, with us.”
The eight paladins quickly rushed upstairs, running up past the crossbow and arrow the cultist once had which turned into smoke as they passed, till Indrick at the very front of the line arrived first to the room upstairs. There he saw the cultists, some turning into smoke, and the rest lying on the ground hiding from the eyes of the crossbowmen, all scattered and vulnerable. While they all desperately stood up with blades in their hands ready, Indrick ran against them without second thought, with each and every paladin coming out of the doorway following suit.
Closest cultist, stabbed in the gut just as he knelt up. The paladins by his side all rushed with their own targets, covering the room in just a second. Second closest to Indrick, just a few steps away, chopped with a swing by the union of the shoulder and neck. He then glanced around and, just like that, he found that the cultist presence had been erradicated from the room. A quick look, and he found no further doors, confirming that the building had been cleared, letting him give a sigh of respite as he took off his helmet and wiped the sweat off his brow. It had not been too gruelling a task, yet repeating the same thing over and over dozens of times, mostly without break, had taken their toll as thirst and aching settled in.
By the window, Indrick saw Reynauld waving to the crossbowmen further away, on the rooftops. Reynauld then pointed up high, to which one of the crossbowmen waved in negation; then, Reynauld gave a thumbs up before stepping off the window.
“Did they say something?” Asked Indrick.
“No. Was asking if they saw anything on the roof of this building.”
“I take it they said no.”
“Fine. We’re off.”
Back the same way they came from, they walked down the stairs to come out into the room below. The three groups who had been downstairs saw them and followed them out the house, the one at the very outskirts of Ariminum, and the last one to be under cultist control. Expecting a long march to the closest place of proper rest, all kept silent as they gathered up outside and turned to walk to the center of the city, yet one sight in particular greeted them instead: Vandire and a few of his officers, who marched in the opposite direction, towards them, soon for both groups to halt and look at each other.
“Finished?” Asked Vandire with a smile. “Brought something for you.” With his words done, a soldier marched out from Vandire’s group with a little cart behind him, carrying all manner of bottles within. The paladins all fixated their eyes upon it, without even a word to escape their lips, till the soldier left it among them and walked off.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Said one of the paladins, taking off his sweat-drenched helmet and grabbing a bottle, opening it without care before the rest joined in. At the same time, Vandire marched forward and arrived to Indrick.
“I have something to ask of you, specifically.” Said Vandire, to which Indrick replied not with words, but with a tired gaze, listening. “I need you to tell Valerian that we should coordinate and take the next city sooner than later. Aquileia is the target. From there, it’s a direct path to Acerrae. I’ll have a paper ready with the details for you to give him when you set off.”
“Right.” He said, raising his head to the sky. Though his intention had been to see whether it was better to set off after a bath and rest or wait till the next day, his eyes narrowed upon noticing something, unsure whether that something was his mind tricking him or if it was actually happening. SOon enough, Vandire took notice of his lengthy, silent stare with eyes narrowed, and glanced to the sky with him.
“Something the matter?” Asked Vandire.
“The clouds. Aren’t they… taking some sort of spiralling shape again?”
Though Vandire couldn’t give an immediate answer, the paladins around had heard, and all quietly halted what they were doing to raise their eyes to the sky. Though none spoke to confirm it, none spoke to deny it, all holding the same doubt as Indrick. The clouds, though at first seemingly normal, showed a subtle spiralling pattern only seen if one specifically looked for it, as if a force had begun dragging them around at an excruciatingly slow pace.
“…Valerian better have his army at the ready.” Muttered Vandire, before turning and marching away, though with anxiety showing in his heavy march back to the center of Ariminum.