The teardrops of a lizard fell over the soil she sat on. Her husband’s gravestone stood before her. In due time they stopped, as if she had run out of tears to shed. She stared on, stoic and expressionless, no thoughts crossing her mind, till her shadow began looming over the gravestone, giving away how late it was getting.
She lowered her head and sighed aloud, cleaning off the tears that remained. ‘Have I really been staring like this for hours?’. She still couldn’t believe it. A future without him did not exist in her thoughts, and as much as she tried imagining one, she could not; not even a simple tomorrow.
Maybe there was a way for her to be with him. There had to be a way. Nothing else crossed her mind. ‘Till death do us part’, she remembered. Seemed like an insult, now.
Without him, living had lost its charm, though that thought alone brought another; that they could be reunited in death. She chuckled, knowing her husband would scold her for the idea.
While trying to sleep sitting at the table, a lich heard someone knocking on the door. ‘They’ll go away soon’, she thought, deciding to keep silent. They knocked on the door again. ‘They’ll get tired and leave’.
The door swung open with a kick and struck the wall.
“Necromancer Cyrene, I hope.” The guest, a lizard equipped with sword and light armor, greeted.
“I am Cyrene…” The lich answered in an exceptionally slow tone. “And you are?”
“Aurelia. I need your aid.”
“You’ll understand that my services aren’t charity–“
A giant pouch of coins fell on the table.
“–…What do you need done?” Cyrene continued.
“I need someone resurrected.”
“That’s outside of my reach. Goes against my ethics.”
“…You have ethics?”
“Was the word ethics…? Rules, common sense, what was it… You know what I mean, Aurelia. If I start resurrecting people, not only will there be lots of undying ones going around, but there will be even more people desperately wanting to have an old relative or a friend resurrected. Suddenly news gets out, and everyone tries to hunt me down to revive their loved ones. You understand, I’m sure.”
“Is there no way to change your mind?”
“Not for all the gold in the world. Really, even a kingdom’s worth of gold won’t hire enough bodyguards to keep the hordes from hunting me down, will it?”
“I insist. Anything you want, I can get.”
“…You’re starting to sound like that kind of people, Aurelia.” Cyrene said as she leaned back on her chair, balancing herself on its two rear legs. “Shouldn’t you leave that person to rest? The time comes for everyone.”
“It was not his time.”
Cyrene raised an eyebrow. “Who is this person you want back?”
“Husband… You are fairly young, so he must be too. Couldn’t have been a natural death, I’m guessing.”
Cyrene brought her hand to her mouth, silent, thinking, soon her eyes falling on the giant pouch of coins.
“I guess I can make an exception. Most of my worries were because of people wanting to live forever or have someone else live far beyond their dying age. Still, what I said stands. The most I can do is bringing him back only for him to die of old age when his time comes. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Very well. Still, you know that I can’t just snap a finger and bring him back, right?”
“The entire… ‘pool’ of souls isn’t at my disposal. I can’t just scoop him out. He’s in the underworld, and it takes a great deal of effort for me to even find someone. Notice how I said ‘find’.”
“I can go there.”
“Courageous. I can send you there easily enough.”
“Is there a reason why you can’t go?”
“I’d rather not go there. It’s not exactly a touristic attraction. Now, sit down where you are.”
While Aurelia sat down, Cyrene stood up and began moving furniture about. In due time, the middle of the room had been left empty save for where Aurelia sat, where the lich began drawing runes on the ground in a circle. Afterwards, Cyrene extended two crystals, each hanging by a pendant, to her.
“Put one on. You won’t physically go into the underworld, but your spirit temporarily will. A cheap copy of dying, if you will. If that crystal is destroyed while you’re in the underworld and wearing it, you’ll return to this world. Put the crystal on whoever it is you that you want back, and have him destroy it. Once you get there, you’re on your own. His body is in the local cemetery, right? What’s his name?”
“Lucian. And yes, he’s there.”
“I’ll dig him up and have him ready for when you return.”
“How will I find him?”
“If I knew, I would have told you, don’t you think?”
Opening her eyes, she saw the shack she had been in again. The ruins of it, at least. The roof was gone, along with the upper half of the walls, taken by signs of abandonment. Clouds overhead tinted the world a darker hue, with the distinctive shade of blue from dusk present. Cyrene was gone. The underworld, no doubt. Quickly she checked herself, finding her armor and sword in place, along with the two crystals Cyrene gave her; the one she wore gleamed with green that revolved around inside, similar to stormy clouds trapped inside.
Standing up and staring outside, she found the scenery the same as before, though having the same aesthetic as the shack. If it was a mirror world, then it’d make things simpler, as she’d not get lost.
Where to begin, though?
Aimless, she crossed the nonexistent door of the shack and headed off to the first place that came to her mind.
Didn’t take long, as the roads still led where she expected them to. She arrived to the cemetery, though as soon as she set foot in she noticed the greatest difference: All the graves had been dug up. Walking past one after the other, a hole remained where a body had once been buried. Her husband’s resting place stood where she remembered it, but though the gravestone detailed his name, a hole remained where she had buried him.
Before she knew it, she was already tearing up again. She rubbed her eyes and forced herself to think what to do. He’d surely be within the town. Couldn’t have gone elsewhere in the short timespan between his arrival here and hers.
Something caught her eye. Turning to see, she saw a hellhound peeking at her in the great distance. Just as their eyes met, the hellhound ran away.
It came as a grim reminder that she wasn’t alone in the realm of the dead. Quickly, she stood up and left.
First place that came to her mind: her house. It bordered the outer limits of the city just like the cemetery, something she always felt was too gloomy. She remembered a joke he told her time ago when they picked the place, ‘you won’t have to walk so much when you visit me’. He wasn’t wrong.
The door fell down as soon as she touched it. At least it lasted longer than the shack’s, gone before she even arrived. Inside, nothing remained no matter what room she went to. Nothing useful, not even simple useless objects to spark some memories. Just the walls, the floor, and dust. As much as she had hoped otherwise, she could not find Lucian within, and so she turned and left.
The nearby tavern seemed like a good second place to check. Used to be owned by an old couple, small place without many visitors, though charming because of it. Along the way, she passed through a plaza where a market used to be in. The numerous stands were gone, leaving just the fountain at the center, now completely dry.
Footsteps echoed about. Such was the silence that she could heard them from so far away. Metallic, and numerous. Not taking chances, she ran off to one of the buildings and hid inside, peeking out from a window with a torn curtain.
Four heavily armored men came to sight on the street, one by one as they passed a building into her view. The heraldry in their surcoats was unmistakable.
The first one, wearing a helmet with a crest. The second, with shield and mace, along with a sword by his waist. The third, with a crossbow and a cloak, that, as she narrowed her eyes, realized held massive amounts of bolts, as if ready for a lengthy campaign. The fourth one, rather than carrying a proper weapon, carrier on his person an axe, a pickaxe, a hammer, all kinds of tools tied to his waist and slung on his back.
As the first one raised his hand, they stopped. The one holding his crossbow began loading it, and then aimed high. Curious, she followed the aim, till she saw a gargoyle looking at the knights from the roof of a tall building. The crossbowman shot, and the bolt pierced into the monster, turning it into smoke as soon as any contact was made.
Her initial shock over such attack died down as she realized, ‘the spirits of the dead won’t die twice’. The knights might be the only living entities here apart from her. Soon, they continued walking.
A fight with them would be suicide. Her puny sword would find it impossible to even find a weak point in their armor to exploit if it even had any, before getting outnumbered four to one and dying. Yet, she figured that following them would be the best course of action, if only to make sure they didn’t find Lucian before she did.
She must’ve been following them for an hour, at a distance so great she almost lost them multiple times. Peek now, peek later, both came at their own separate risks of losing them or being seen.
Yet, soon she heard noises. Didn’t come from the direction the knights headed to, nor behind her, but aside in another part of the town. As she peeked, she saw the knights didn’t react; maybe they didn’t hear, or maybe they just didn’t care. The fear that Lucian might be found by one of the monsters here instead of the knights overtook her, and knowing that no result was gained by following the knights, she quickly set off to where she heard the noise.
Building past building, street by street, she ran on and on, till she heard a few more noises that prompted her to halt and listen carefully. She followed them through the street, till she reached the window of the building she heard the noises within. From the window, she peeked inside.
Her eyes shot wide open, seeing within the building, past a ruined wall inside, her husband Lucian. Yet, what choked her throat from calling his name was the sight of another person with him. A woman, holding his cheek with one hand while the other rested on her chest, all in a loving manner while Lucian did nothing but stare. A valkyrie. Her heart began aching, feeling as if her chest could blow open at any second, while her shoulders sunk and eyebrows rose.
It felt as if the whisper came from nowhere, yet at the same time everywhere, echoing in her head and all around her. Certainly not from the valkyrie or Lucian. The fright made her snap and quickly look around for the source, yet the next thing she saw was something pouncing on her, throwing her against the ground with a grunt. Immediately she saw it was the hellhound from before slashing at her, something she blocked with her arm.
“Your presence has shaken our realm…” The hellhound said in the same tone as the ethereal whisper. No doubt, it was the source itself. “Join us… Make us whole again…!”
Quickly she brought her free hand to her sword, and swung it at her as she unsheathed it, turning the hellhound into smoke at first contact just like the knights with the gargoyle before. Confusion set itself in her head as she panted, unable to understand what the hellhound had said, but soon remembered Lucian and the valkyrie. When she sprung to her feet and checked through the window, they were running again, backs turned to her, as if Lucian had never even seen her.
A splitting headache awakened her. She held no memories of ever going to sleep for her to wake up in the first place. With her eyes still closed, lying as she was while unconscious, she tried to remember what she had done.
“Zog me… Dis fing is byootiful… I’z not gon’ stay in dis squig pen ‘nymore, hoho!”
Barely able to decipher what it was, she realized she was not alone. She opened her pained eyes, barely able to see around in a blur, till her view cleared enough to see she now lied inside a building. In front of her, however, stood someone else. Not the valkyrie, and not Lucian, but it stared at something in her hands.
It shined green.
Her eyes shot wide open, then she checked if she had her crystal pendant. It was gone. The monster in front of her had it, though as soon as she turned to see the monster again, she saw how the monster stared back, both sides with a blank, petrified expression. An orc.
“…Wot? You’z not s’pposed’ta wake up ye–“
An adrenaline rush overtook her, seeing the crystal as the only way to get Lucian out, and so jumped to her feet with a warcry to launch herself at the now screaming orc.
Both fell to the ground once Aurelia landed her tackle upon her, though instead of fighting she immediately reached for the pendant. The orc, realizing her intentions, too reached for the pendant, both pulling from the string till it tore and sent the crystal high above like a catapult. Both pushed each other aside trying to get within the predicted fall of the crystal, till Aurelia jumped high and grabbed it. The orc, however, grabbed her by the neck and pushed her down, reaching for Aurelia’s hand. Both fell over each other to the ground.
Both kept still, looking for the crystal. There it lay in front of the two, broken into a million pieces, with some of them in their own hands.
“Me krista’!” The orc desperately grunted, crawling up to the shattered crystal and remaining on her knees collecting the pieces. “Ya brok it! Ya zoggin’ grot brok it! Boss!” Immediately she stood up with the pieces and ran away, some falling down like a trail wherever she ran. “Boss! Da grot brok it!”
What few shards remained in Aurelia’s hands, she blankly stared at. Soon she began tearing up, with her expression unchanging, unblinking. She clenched her hands with the shards inside, narrowing her eyes and gritting her teeth. Then, she remembered; she had two crystals. Quickly she checked for where she hid the other, finding it in place. She put it on, and it began turning green with the stormy clouds inside.
‘What do I do when I find him?’, she thought. Only one crystal for the two of them.
No use dwelling in what ifs if she can’t even get to him in the first place.
The trail of shards led far into the town’s heart. They shone like stars on the empty, dead streets, sticking out from wherever she looked. At the same time, however, monster activity seemed to have increased. Every now and then she saw harpies and gargoyles flying about. Remembering the hellhound’s words only increased her paranoia.
Still following the shards, she started hearing a violent, repetitive noise. Turning the corner of the street, she found the source; the knights stood in front of the town hall’s doors, one repeatedly trying to smash it open with a pickaxe. The shards, too, led there. Perhaps the knights saw and followed them?
The knight tore the lock completely apart, leaving a gaping hole where it once was, and sliding the door open with a push. He stepped aside, letting the knight with mace and shield enter first, till the rest followed in.
She cursed in her own mind at how her only clue of Lucian’s whereabouts lead to the same place as the knights.
“Make us whole again…” The ethereal whispers echoed, frightening her into looking at all sides with sword drawn. Nothing was there.
With those monsters around, perhaps she’d be safer stuck in that building with the knights. At least she knew what to expect. Swallowing her fear, she rushed inside.
The trail ended as soon as she stepped in. Better that way, to have the knights looking everywhere instead of walking straight to her goal. She could hear their footsteps a distance away in one direction, and so walked to the other for her search.
Door after door, room after room, desperation sank in as she found absolutely nothing. Took too long. She already reached the second floor. No longer did she have the certainty of the knights’ whereabouts; they could be anywhere; they could pop up at any moment in front of her.
Metallic footsteps. Tempting fate never meant much to her till now. Already shaking and sweating, she threw herself against the door of the nearest room and rushed inside, closing it behind her. The first thing that caught her attention was a half-ruined bed, immediately throwing herself under it.
The footsteps passed by the door, yet it felt as if someone stood in place. As soon as she realized that, the door slowly opened with the creak of the door handle and the hinges. From under the bed, she could see just the footsteps of the knight that entered and walked inside.
Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like hours, seeing the knight walking around, till he walked directly to the bed. Her heart climbed to her throat, seeing those armored feet pointed at her at arm’s reach. They turned, and Aurelia felt the knight sitting on the bed on top of her. She wanted to give a sigh of relief, if it wasn’t for the absolute silence of the room.
The head of the pickaxe broke through the bed, driving down and embedding itself against the floor, a hair’s width away from her head. Her eyes shot wide open, her expression disfigured, ears rang by the sudden noise of impact so close, and quickly covered her mouth with both hands to prevent a scream from getting out. The shaking became uncontrollable.
Noises came from the bottom floor. Couldn’t decipher what it was, but immediately saw the knight jumping to his feet, taking out the pickaxe, and rushing outside.
As soon as the footsteps died down so far away, she got out, stood up, and peeked out the door. Now she was alone. Yet, as she kept quiet, she started hearing whispers. Her curiosity spiked as she noticed it came not from the ethereal voices, nor from the knights. She walked out, and followed the whispers.
They came from behind a door. Hearing closer, she realized that one of them was Lucian’s. Immediately she kicked the door open as hard as she could, and stormed inside with sword ready.
Inside she saw the orc, the valkyrie, and Lucian flinching by the sudden entrance.
“…Aurie?!” Lucian called.
“Boss, dat’s da grot!” The orc cursed.
“Who is she?!” Aurelia called, pointing her sword at the valkyrie, who stared back in shock. “I saw you two in that building like an hour ago, who is she?! What were you doing with her?!”
“Aurie, calm down, I’ll tell you! Her name’s Laura, she found me when I woke up in this place! That’s all!”
“Hey, Lucian… Who is her…?” Laura asked, hugging his arm while moving closer, staring at Aurelia with discomfort.
Aurelia’s eye began twitching, just as a frown cemented itself and her teeth showed in grit. Her sword shook just from how tight she gripped it.
“Woit… Oi, ye haz ‘nutha krista!” The orc exclaimed, trying to come closer, yet as soon as she was within arm’s reach, Aurelia punched her in the gut without warning, making her collapse on the floor in pain.
Lucian let go of Laura, and stepped up to Aurelia. “Aurie, what are you doing here? Tell me you didn’t die…”
“Die? No, I got a lich to bring me here. I’m here for you.”
Something struck against a window. Aurelia walked out the room to see the windows at the hallway, and saw a harpy that had tried breaking in, yet failed. She and the others stepped to the window, yet outside they saw how monsters had begun appearing outside in the roofs and on the streets. Just a dozen or two in total, yet all staring at the hall.
No way out, looked like. They’d pounce on anyone attempting to escape.
Now the reminder of the last crystal struck her, just as she grabbed it and stared at it.
“Hey, Lucian…” She called. “Can you do me a favor? Just a single one.”
“Put this on.” She said, taking off the pendant that turned black as soon as it left her neck, handing it to Lucian.
Confused, he grabbed it, stared for a second, and put it on, gleaming green once more.
Though Laura and the orc had been staring at the window, when they turned to see Lucian and the pendant, their eyes shot wide open. Gibberish came out of their mouths in desperation as they attempted to take hold of the pendant, yet Aurelia gripped it tighter to the point of breaking before they could do anything. Lucian then turned into smoke, along with the pendant.
“What did you do?!” The valkyrie shouted, grabbing her by her clothes and pushing her towards the wall, smashing her against it.
Aurelia returned the favor in kind by driving her knee to her stomach, followed by a punch to the cheek as the valkyrie bowed down in pain. Not a second later, Aurelia threw herself on her, sending them both to the ground.
When the valkyrie returned to her senses after the fall, she found the lizard with her sword unsheathed, resting on her neck. With no other options remaining, and with sweat starting to fall, she slowly brought her open palms high next to her head in surrender.
“I’ve known Lucian for years now.” Aurelia said, with scorn in her eyes, and strength in her grip. “He’s dense, to say the least. I want to hear it from you. What were you doing with him?”
“Let me answer that with a question. Do you believe a lady like me wouldn’t wish to be with someone as handsome as your boyfriend…?”
“See this?” She asked, showing Laura she ring in her finger, without lessening the strength on the sword that almost strangled her. “He already has someone. I am his. Not you. You’re everything but a lady for trying to get a man to cheat on his wife.”
“Till death do us part, the saying goes. Technically, your marriage is null, isn’t it?” She answered with a smirk.
“I am the judge of that.”
Aurelia stood up, allowing Laura to stand back up, holding her throat in pain. Laura then turned her head, eyeing the orc with indignation for not aiding her, yet she and Aurelia found her staring catatonic at the ground. Following her eyes, they saw how she stared at the crystal shards.
“Hey.” Laura called, waving her hand in front of the orc’s eyes.
Instantly, the orc snapped back to reality with a fright.
Laura sighed aloud, before turning her head to Aurelia.
“Outside, those things will tear us apart. Here, the knights will kill us as soon as they see us. We have better things to do than to kill each other, I hope.”
“What do you suggest?” Aurelia asked.
“Finding some way out this place that doesn’t lead us to either of those. Orkia and I have been in this realm for a good while already, so it’s not like we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“…Your name is Orkia?” Aurelia asked the orc.
“Aint no grot ‘orkia’ dan me.” The orc answered with a chuckle.
“There has to be some sort of back door.” Laura said, walking away. Orkia and Aurelia followed. “The dead probably know about it, but there’s still the chance that they don’t. The knights don’t know we’re here either, I think. You made an awful lot of noise here, Aurelia.”
“Says the ‘lady’ who wanted to have a man break a vow.” Aurelia retorted.
“That vow is null.”
“Your face is null.”
Orkia snorted, laughing. Laura remained silent.
“This should be it.” Laura said, staring at the door in front of them, reaching the end of the corridor.
“Is it? Looks awfully… dull.” Aurelia said.
“Well that’s how a back door would look like. It’s not like it’s going to be a second main entrance or something people would see normally. Orkia, open it.”
“Wot? Whyz me?”
“You’re the closest one to it.” She said, taking a step back.
Orkia raised an eyebrow, staring at her, but soon shrugged and opened the door just slightly enough to peek through.
Behind it she found a group of five hellhounds, all immediately locking eyes with her.
Orkia slowly closed the door, its creaking piercing through the abrupt silence.
“What did you see?” Laura asked, confused.
“…Foiv o’ dose gits-“
The door almost swung wide open with the hellhounds attempting to break in, yet Orkia quickly threw herself against the door and blocked it, gritting her teeth and eyes wide open in terror as the dead kept mauling the door.
“-they’z gon chop us up proppa! Where’z me choppa?! Boss, wot do!?”
“You stole a part of us…!” The voices whispered into their minds. “A thousand deaths will not be enough for this travesty…!”
“Leg it!” Laura shouted, turning and running away, leaving Aurelia and Orkia behind.
“Wot? Woit, boss where ye goin’? …Git yer ass bakk ‘ere!”
The thuds went on and on, smashing against her back. Orkia and Aurelia stared at each other in deep worry.
Orkia lept off and began running, at the same instant leaving the door to be smashed wide open for the hellhounds to enter. Aurelia, without hesitation, ran with Orkia, both yelling their lungs out as they followed Laura’s trail.
Run through the hallway, turn a corner, turn another. Suddenly they met Laura again, sword in hand and another object in the other, which she handed to Orkia.
“Me choppa!” Orkia cheered. What little Aurelia saw of it before the orc turned to the hellhounds screaming ‘Waaaaaaagh!’ in a mad charge, seemed to look like a thin chunk of metal sharpened into a sword, bottom of it bent enough to form a makeshift handle. Laura soon joined her in the charge, prompting Aurelia to unsheathe hers and join in.
First thing she saw was Orkia and a hellhound jumping to tackle each other, though with a loud whimper the hellhound lost, tackled into the others by sheer brute force of the orc. A loud brawl erupted, Aurelia and Laura fighting with stabs from afar while Orkia took on the spearhead of the formation, swinging her metal chunk around recklessly. The hellhounds that attempted to pile up on her, Laura and Aurelia cut down. In short time, just seconds, the five hellhounds turned into smoke, leaving the three non-dead panting.
“Uh, boss?” Orkia asked.
“What?” Laura asked.
“Fink the other ded gitz ‘eard uz? The doah’z open…”
“Like I’m going to wait and find out-” She said, taking a step back, yet as soon as the step was taken, a loud whistle passed with a crossbow bolt a hair away from her eyes, just where she was a second ago, making her gasp in fright.
“They found us!” Aurelia shouted.
“‘umiez!” Orkia shouted, at the same time.
No hestitation, the three ran away.
“All went to zog, boss!”
“Good to know! I’m sure you’ll also let us know if you’re shot, right?!”
“It was sarcasm, you fucking pork!”
“Oi boss, wotz sohkasm?!”
“Alright, listen to me you ham-assed piece of shi–“
From a door they ran past, a knight tore through against them. The shielded knight, who smashed his shield against Aurelia by chance, driving her against the wall, causing her a concussion once her head struck the architecture.
“Ham bush!” Orkia shouted.
Relentlessly, the knight swung his mace at Aurelia, striking her in the head before she could even recover. All suddenly clouded for her, vision blurring, noises muffled, only seeing how she fell to the ground and watching Orkia and Laura running away, for the knight with the pickaxe came from the same door. To stay would’ve been suicide for them, yet the knights gave no pursuit, seeing just their feet as they gathered around her. In pain, she could barely turn her head to see their helmets. Then, it all turned dark.
‘You stole one of ours, when you broke that damned crystal upon that man… The realm has one dead too few, and numerous living too many… And yet, with that shattered crystal you chose to stay, instead of keeping the balance; you were made to choose, and rather than leave with your life, you condemned your soul to us, while stealing that man from our realm…
A cold splash of water struck her face, waking her up in an instant, coughing what water she had accidentally breathed in. Before opening her eyes, she already felt the rope tying her to a chair she sat on, leaving her arms and legs immobile. Opening her eyes past the water that tried sneaking in, she saw three of the knights; the one with the pickaxe holding a bucket, the one with the shield, and the one with the crest. The tiny room she was in made her think that the crossbowman stood outside.
“Who are you?” The crested knight asked.
“What…” She could barely say, still regaining her consciousness. Yet, the knight with the shield walked closer, brandishing his mace in front of her eyes; the very same mace she now remembered had knocked her out. A suddenly fright woke her up almost instantly. “–Aurelia, I am Aurelia.”
“You are not one of the dead. How did you get here? Why are you here?”
“I asked a necromancer to send me here. I was looking for my husband. I’m stuck in this place, now.”
“How did that search go?”
“I… succeeded, somewhat.”
“The necromancer gave me two crystals to get out, but one broke, and the other I used on him. I have no way out.”
“What about the other two monsters with you?”
“I don’t know, I barely met them today! One of them even tried stealing my husband when I met her!”
The crested knight nodded to the one with the shield, who put back his mace and walked out the room.
“The valkyrie, correct?” He said.
A second of silence ensued, though soon the knight raised his sword to her neck, making her desperately attempt to move her neck away despite the inability to do so.
“You are aware that the three of you are putting our mission at risk, right? The Order doesn’t take kindly to monsters…”
“I won’t do anything! I wasn’t even supposed to be here now! I was supposed to leave with my husband! I didn’t even know you’d be here!”
“I can’t know that. For all I know, it could be a lie. More than enough monsters know how to lie. Even if true, it just shows that the other two are a danger, if only because I won’t be able to predict them. Not to mention, the three of you are monsters very well capable of fighting…”
Aurelia could not respond, breathing erratically and gritting her teeth in fear, feeling the edge of the blade pressing against her neck.
“Why are you afraid of dying, lizard? It’s no secret that none of us are getting out of this place alive, with the dead crawling outside.”
“Doesn’t mean I want to die!”
“Then we both have something to win.” He said, moving the sword away. “We want that valkyrie. Dead, alive, doesn’t matter, but alive if practically reasonable. Do that, and we’ll bother you no more. The orc can go, too.”
“Do not test my patience.”
“-A-Alright alright! I will! I will!”
The crested knight nodded to the other, who proceeded to untie her.
“From now on, you will refer to me as Paladin Leandros. You will find me on the ground floor of this hall. My men will have orders to leave you alone, for now.”
“You have until tomorrow.”
The two remaining knights headed for the door and left, leaving Aurelia sitting on the chair she had been tied to. The fright of being within the reach of the knights made thinking impossible, and so quickly left through the same door.
Second floor. Already felt like home, eerily enough. Just one peek outside the windows she walked past, and she saw more and more dead gathering outside. As much as Leandros told her she had till tomorrow, it didn’t look like there’d be a tomorrow at all for them. Was there even a sun outside? A moon? Anything, except the bluish shade of dusk perpetually present? He must’ve meant it figuratively, no doubt.
Still, doubts remained. Betray Laura, and the knights will leave her alone, yet she’ll be left alone with Orkia assuming she doesn’t go with Laura; only two at best to remain in this world trying to stay alive against the hordes of the dead. If she didn’t, the knights would act, something she could only assume meant killing them all. Couldn’t escape either, already too many dead outside to make a run for it, as if the three of them hadn’t tried already.
“Wot da zog… ‘Relia?!”
Immediately her eyes snapped to where she heard the voice, finding Orkia peeking through the slit of a barely-open door, soon opening wide.
“Boss, et’z ‘Relia! Oi, git ovah heer! ‘fore da ‘umies zee ya!”
Her slow walk turned into a dash as she ran into the room with the others, before Orkia closed it again. A small bedroom, it turned out, with Laura sitting on the bed.
“You’re alive? Thought you’d have been another.” Laura remarked.
“How did ya git outta the’e?”
“…I ran when they weren’t looking.” Aurelia answered.
Laura chuckled. “Doesn’t look like they’re a group of the good ones. If they had been the best of the Order, you’d have never gotten out of there. Their methods border on paranoia sometimes.”
“How do you know that?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I… guess I won’t ask. Why did you say ‘another’, though?”
“‘Thought you’d have been another’.”
“We’z stukk heer fer ovah a yeer. Often met a git or two who stukk wif uz fer a while. Ded got ’em.”
“You’d have been the sixth.”
“Damn…” Aurelia sighed.
“We had to do a few things that were… morally questionable. It’s why we didn’t stick around like retards to try fighting the knights to stop them from getting you. Or rescuing you afterwards. We need to survive. I hope you understand.”
A noise from outside caught their attention. Aurelia and Laura did not move, mostly upon seeing Orkia immediately cross the door to the hallway towards a window. Just a second of looking outside made her frown.
“Oi, boss, me seez sumfin…” Orkia called.
“What is it?” Laura answered.
“Rememba dat git toim ago? White hair an’ all dat?”
“The wight?” She asked, standing up and walking to the window with wonder. Aurelia, curious, followed.
Out the window, at the very front of all the dead gathering throughout the town, Aurelia immediately saw someone on the streets that differentiated from the others. Its posture and composure didn’t seem like one of the mindless dead, yet neither like one among the living. Her white hair fell down forward from the hood she had on, part of the cloak that obscured all but her nonexistent expression. The only thing whiter than her pale skin were her eyes, void of color, iris all white with a minuscule dot as the pupil, and the black ring at the edge of the iris.
Yet, eerily enough, the wight had been staring at them in the eyes, immediately knowing their location. Aurelia felt as if she was watching her in specific, not Orkia, nor Laura.
“We’re dead.” Laura nonchalantly said, bringing her hands to her waist with a sigh.
“Who is she?” Aurelia asked.
“Don’t know. All I know is that wherever she is, the more the dead gather. She has been chasing us lately, but we were never stuck in a place like this.”
“You sound pretty calm.”
“Want me to explode in a mental breakdown and make things worse for your sanity? I can do that if you want.”
“Thought so. Either way, looks like they’re gathering for an attack.”
“How long do you think we have left?”
“With the wight here already? An hour at most. Looks like they have enough monsters to just flood this place. What worries me the most is that the wight saw us, so it’s not like we can just sneak out while they’re busy with the knights.”
While Aurelia stared at the wight, out of the blue Laura pushed her with enough force to send her tripping to the ground aside, though soon her confusion turned into fright as a gargoyle broke through the window just where she stood a second ago. She stood up, unsheathing her sword, seeing the gargoyle attacking Orkia, though soon saw two harpies forcing themselves through the window. The dead cut her off from Orkia and Laura.
“They’re gonna keep swarming in! We’ll meet up downstairs!” Laura shouted, fighting off her attackers. “Go, don’t die!”
Aware that the gargoyle and the harpies focused on the other two rather than her, Aurelia used the opportunity and ran off. Where to, she did not know, but soon heard violent noises coming from below; no doubt the dead had broken through the door.
Avoid the second floor, avoid the knights, avoid the dead; those requirements led her to parts of the town hall she had never seen, not even in the real world. Just a hallway led her steps, walking with sword drawn through the eerie silence save for the muffled noises far away. She sure wished Orkia and Laura met up with her soon, as the isolation in such environment already put her on the edge.
Footsteps. Calm ones, as if they came from a slow gait. Came from straight ahead. Quietly and in high alert, Aurelia continued.
She saw someone walking past the hallway, in another this one connected to forming a T. Slow gait, slouched over, holding stomach. A monster. Not of the dead either, but a salamander, with as much armor as her. The salamander walked out of sight, but she quickly she rushed to the end of the hallway to find her again.
She was whispering, she realized. She moved closer still, and paid attention to her words, words she kept whispering without regard to Aurelia’s existence.
“They left me to die…” The salamander repeated over and over again. “They left me to die…”
Aurelia quickly stepped up to her and grabbed her shoulder, but immediately she turned into smoke, her hand phasing through. The fright made her jump back, as if the dead once in front of her had not been unnerving enough.
Her ears started ringing. Awfully loud noise. Painful. Immediately she brought her hands to her cover ears, slouching over in pain, yet the sound persisted. It felt as it came from nowhere and everywhere at the same time; no way to tell which direction if any. Turning around to watch all sides, thinking she might find something, resulted in her noticing someone sitting by the wall a little distance away. A dragon, with one of her wings broken and twisted in ways it should not. Curious, yet cautious, she gaited towards her while holding herself up with the wall, for the noise already became crippling.
The dragon did not do a thing, not even a glance at Aurelia.
“I can hear the dead breaking the door… Is this what you wanted for me? Traitor…” She sighed to herself. Soon, on her own, she turned to smoke.
Aurelia couldn’t believe her eyes. Had she gone insane?
The ringing in her ears intensified, making her fall to her knees holding her head, the noise changing to sound like distortion now. Yet, raising her head again, in front of her she saw someone else walking towards her.
Her heart climbed to her throat, immediately trying to run yet tripping in the attempt to stand up. Again she stood up, and made a run for it, though the wight seemed not to walk any faster than a slow gait.
Soon she lost her, the ringing in her ears calming itself to the level before the wight appeared, but she did not stop running.
In the hallway, one door remained open. Just out of morbid curiosity, she looked in while running past, yet saw another person staring out the window inside. Immediately she stopped where she was, thinking that she could go in and see, though the wight would surely catch up. Then, she remembered; didn’t the ringing become infinitely worse when it came close? It could serve as an early warning.
No use thinking, time was short, and so she rushed in.
Looked like an elf, with one hand over the glass. Aurelia slowly walked closer, sword in hand, and just like the other two the elf did not acknowledge her existence.
“Why are you running…?” The elf whispered to herself. “I’m still here… You didn’t forget about me, did you…?”
Aurelia couldn’t help but walk to the window and stare outside. She found nothing the elf could have been referring to. Before she could return her eyes to the elf, she turned to smoke.
The distorted ringing came back, throwing her to her knees in excruciating pain. She had completely misjudged just how crippling the noise would be, but it mattered not now. Desperately, barely able to stand, she made a run for the door. Succeeded, too, as she found out once she got out, seeing the wight at the end of the hallway. Thus, she ran in the other direction.
Turns and twists followed, still not knowing the architecture of these parts. Doubts soon filled her head. Where is Laura and Orkia? How long is that wight gonna chase her for? Are the knights distracting the rest of the dead? But, if the wight saw her, wouldn’t the dead chase her too?
Something grabbed her arm, and pulled her into a room with immense strength, causing her to scream her lungs out in fear. However, once inside, the very same something pressed its hand on her mouth to silence her, while another closed the door.
The knights. Paladin Leandros himself had closed the door, while the crossbowman kept her quiet. Aurelia raised her hands, if only to signal that she was aware, and so the crossbowman let go of her, though not before Leandros put a finger over his helmet’s mouth to keep her silent.
The ringing in her ears kept on increasing to the level of distortion she experienced around the wight, reaching a peak, and soon dying down. The wight had just passed by, the knights aware of her presence. Soon, the ringing completely died down, a relief for her ears.
“What’s going on?” Aurelia asked.
“The entire place is overrun. They broke through the door and flooded in. Came from the second floor, too. We wouldn’t have been able to barricade ourselves in if we wanted to; too many windows. Have you dealt with the valkyrie?”
“I barely had enough time to regroup with them before a gargoyle breaking through the window forced us to split.”
Leandros quietly stared at her through the eye slits of his helmet, saying nothing.
“What?” She asked.
“Do you know why we are after her?”
Leandros, instead of answering, sat on the floor against the wall and laid back with a sigh.
“You were looking for your husband. I remember. Tell me more. How did it go?”
“I don’t think it’s the time–“
“It’s never the time.”
“…Where do you want me to start?”
“The necromancer sent you here. What next?”
“I first checked the graveyard, and then the town as a whole. He died fairly recently, and this turned out to be a mirror world, so I figured he couldn’t have gone far. Seems I arrived at the same time your knights arrived here, since I saw you the moment your crossbowman shot a gargoyle on top of a building near the plaza.”
“You two lived here?”
“Was it at this time that you found the orc and the valkyrie?”
“Somewhat. I was following you, till I heard a noise and checked. I found the valkyrie flirting with my husband, but before I could even do anything, a hellhound pounced on me. Fought it off. Before I knew it, the orc knocked me out.”
“Clear this up for me. The valkyrie was with your husband, right? She found him first?”
“Apparently. Something the matter?”
“No. Go on.”
“The orc dragged me to a room, and was looking at one of the two crystals I brought; crystals I was supposed to use to get my husband and I out of this realm. I fought her to recover it, but it ended up breaking. She ran. I followed.”
“I saw the shards. Led here. Had the engineer break the door open to get inside.”
“Yes, here. I followed and got in, searching for them.”
“It was you?” One knight asked. She remembered him well; the knight that almost killed her.
“It was. Was on the second floor searching, ended up running into you, hid, almost got that pickaxe driven into my head below that bed.”
“You didn’t tell me you saw her.” Leandros told the engineer.
“I didn’t. It was just a hunch, and I saw no reason to not do that with the pickaxe given the free time I had.”
“You didn’t think of checking down the bed?”
“I did, but hearing noises down below made me rush to you without checking first.”
“You were lucky, there. He would have killed you.” Leandros said to Aurelia. “Painfully.”
“The only luck I had was that I lived long enough to do what I did. I’m as good as dead, now.”
“My engineer ran to us. What did you do then?”
“Got out to try and keep searching. Heard noises in a room nearby and checked. There I found them; the orc, the valkyrie, and my husband. Color me surprised, she was flirting with him again. Almost wanted to kill her there and then, if it wasn’t for me being outnumbered two to one. Still, I had one crystal left that was supposed to be mine. I had him wear it, then I broke it, getting him out of here.”
“…You did that?”
“You condemned yourself to remain here, even though he was dead. You were aware of that when you did that, right?”
Leandros brought his hand to the mouth of his helmet.
“Something wrong?” She asked.
“What then? What did the three of you do?”
“We went to the ground floor and looked for a back door to leave. Hellhounds were behind it and attacked us, so we left. Your men intercepted us.”
“And he knocked you unconscious. We talked, you went there, the dead overran us. What did you do between us letting you go and you ending up here?”
“I regrouped with them, we talked a bit, a gargoyle and a few harpies forced us to split. She told me they’d regroup with me on this floor, but you found me before they did.”
The three knights with Leandros, surprising Aurelia, began exchanging stares.
“What did you talk about?” Leandros asked, his voice growing stronger in temperament. “Anything regarding the valkyrie? Anything other than pure chit-chat?”
“…They told me they thought I had died. That I would’ve been ‘another’. That I’d have been the sixth.”
“The five were not an accident. The orc will die with her.”
The engineer shuffled about in one of his bags, soon taking out a rolled piece of paper and handing it to Leandros. He unrolled it, pointed it at Aurelia, and marked with his finger one place on it. A map.
“We had an informant give us a rough sketch of this building from the other world.” Leandros said. “It’s supposed to have some sort of basement. With the dead flooding in, and no choke points for us to hold, we’ll go there. Take it,” he said while the engineer handed her the map, “find the orc, find the valkyrie, and tell them to go there. Doesn’t matter if you agree with us or not; it’s the only chance of survival the three of you have once the dead start claiming more and more of this building, unless they want to get cut off and massacred.”
“Aurelia, I will ask you this one more time. Do you know why we are after her? Better asked, are you aware why we would be after some random valkyrie in this damned hellhole instead of chasing after other certainly more dangerous and threatening monsters in the real world? You don’t need to answer that. Now, go. We’ll surely end up making a lot of noise going to the basement, so the dead won’t chase you as much.”
No second was given to her to even say a word, for the knights immediately left the room in a rush. Aurelia figured they might have also meant ‘noise’ literally, for their armored plates and steps made a ruckus in the silence of the room.
‘Within the building’ already became too close of a distance regarding the wight, even though the ringing had ended. Without delay, she rushed outside in search of Laura and Orkia.
No idea where to go. Seeing as the wight had walked past, the safest route would’ve been where she had come from at first. The same hallways and turns followed, most doors on the sides leading to empty rooms if they even opened in the first place.
Ringing. ‘How?’ she asked herself. The wight had gone the other way. Did she somehow pick up speed and run like a madman to her? She’d have met the knights if she had turned around; maybe she took a detour? Hell, this place was her realm, why would she not have some sort of teleporting hocus pocus? Running became the only option.
Weakness struck her; not in the form of crippling pain, but her consciousness suddenly fading ever so slightly, as if she had stood up too quickly from a chair. Several times worse, however. Running, she almost lost her balance, keeping herself upright with the wall, yet pushing through nonetheless.
Before she knew it, the scenery had changed completely, taking her by surprise. It all suddenly turned into a chaotic mess, made worse by the fact that she could not even control her body, finding herself running through dust and rubble within a building. Soon she reached a half-rotten door, breaking through, and finding a man staring out the window, sword in hand.
‘They tore through the door!’ She said to him.
It wasn’t Aurelia, nor her voice. It was someone else. She didn’t even have her scaled hands of a lizard when she violently opened the door. Whoever it was, it wasn’t her, even though she experienced it from her perspective.
The scenery ended, though she soon found herself on the ground in the same hallway, head aching. A quick check revealed that she was herself again, no longer stuck in a hallucination.
The ringing had never ended, and kept on going with its eternally painful pitch. Quickly she stood back up and kept on running. Yet, once she reached the end of the hallway, again it struck.
‘You have to go! Take it!’ Aurelia, or whoever she was stuck as, said to the man from before, violently struggling with him.
‘Are you nuts?!’ The man retorted. ‘We can both leave! We’ll find a way!’
‘I won’t leave you with those things here!’
Past the struggling, Aurelia soon noticed what the fight involved. A crystal. Her heart skipped a beat, seeing the exact same crystal she once had, the woman she hallucinated herself as trying to forcefully put the necklace on the man, yet him rejecting it at every step.
Again in the hallway. Again on the ground. Again hearing the ringing, and again with a headache that only got worse. Was she falling head-first onto the ground? Were those hallucinations knocking her out? It all kept getting worse, but at least the ringing didn’t turn into distortion.
Too much happening at once. Couldn’t keep up with it. The dead, the ghosts, the hallucinations; her heart in her throat turned to be a now familiar sensation, as common as breathing. Wanted to run, couldn’t escape. Wanted to wake up, couldn’t wake up. Wight chasing her, couldn’t hide for long. Only now that she thought about it, she noticed how her brain had almost shut off all thoughts other than ‘run, stay alive’, as if staying alive in the realm of the dead wasn’t mentally taxing enough. Truly contrasted with her usual daily life with no worry other than how to get one’s daily bread. She felt her sanity slipping.
Noises close by. She could no longer tell if it was real or her mind deteriorating more than it already was. A desperate chuckle escaped her mouth. ‘How did things go so wrong that I’m glad I receive that as a distraction?’, she couldn’t help but wonder. Cautious and curious, she stood up and walked towards the noises with sword held high, till they lead her to an open door. Inside, she saw an amazoness walk from side to side, anxious, holding a sword close, almost as if hugging it. Her steps must’ve been the source of the noise, no doubt.
“How did things go so wrong…?” The amazoness asked herself. “We were doing just fine the first days… We were doing so well against the dead just now… How did things suddenly turn around? Why am I stuck here distracting them for the others to escape? I don’t get it… I don’t get it… I don’t get it…”
The last words of hers, she repeated over and over, only interrupted once she turned into a cloud of smoke.
“Leave me alone already!” Aurelia shouted to the ceiling with eyes closed, before a loud, rough sigh. The only reason she didn’t fall to her knees in resignation was due to the ever-present fear of the wight, making her quickly march out the room.
And yet, as soon as she stepped out, she started hearing sobbing around the corner.
That was it. She felt her limit reaching. Her eyes shot wide open in a frown, and grit her teeth in irrational anger. Her sword shook with just how much strength she gripped it with. Without anything else to do, she walked to the end of the hallway, turning the corner to see what she found. There it was, a harpy with a broken wing, sitting against the wall on the ground.
Must be another ghost. She didn’t care anymore. It felt insulting, how she asked to be left alone yet receiving another ghost in return. How many of them had she seen already? This must be the fifth or so; why so many? Why her, if they’re all completely irrelevant to any meaning she could find in them? At least they were ghosts, so surely they’d turn to smoke.
But it didn’t hurt to quicken the process, she imagined, raising her sword towards the harpy.
“Laura… You traitorous whore…” The harpy said.
Her expression had completely erased, save for her eyes that remained wide open, now in shock instead of anger.
‘You’d have been the sixth.’
‘The five were not an accident.’
“You knew this from the start, huh?” The harpy continued, talking to herself. Aurelia could do nothing but listen with all her focus, petrified so much her sword still remained pointed at her. “You were getting rid of me… And what did you do when I found out? You broke my fucking wing and left me here. You didn’t even have the common fucking decency of killing me, no, you had to leave me alive for the dead to swarm me, as distraction while you made a run for it…”
Her words became interrupted, if only by her erratic own breathing and half-sobs.
“…How many people did you deceive like this, Laura? How many died because of you?! ‘We’ll find a way out together’, beh…” She ranted, knocking her head against the wall, then closing her eyes and remaining silent. Soon her anger turned into sorrowful sobs, and sooner Aurelia saw a couple tears beginning to run down her cheek. “I don’t want to die…”
Then, smoke. Yet, even though the harpy disappeared, Aurelia’s expression stood unchanged; at least, until it turned into the same level of anger as before. Anger so great, she completely forgot about the ringing still piercing her ears.
‘The orc will die with her.’
Now it made sense. No time left to waste, and so rushed ahead as quick as she could.
Already at the turn of the next corner, however, she saw something walking in. She ran too fast, and couldn’t stop in time despite the surprise, accidentally running into it. She fell flat on the ground on her back, and so too did her victim, though as soon as she regained her senses, she saw who it was.
“Oi, ‘Relia?” Orkia asked, standing up in pain. “Ye zeen Laura?”
“Orkia!” Aurelia called, standing up and holding her by the shoulders. “Laura is going to kill you!”
“Why are you here?! Why are you not with Laura?! What did she do?!”
“Ded found uz, ‘ad to split.”
“She did that on purpose! She was trying to find any chance she could to split us, she wanted us to be distractions while she ran away!”
“Oi, oi, did yez hit yer ‘ead wiff sumfin? Why’z ye finkin’ dat?”
“Why would she split us like this?! We’re surrounded by the dead on all sides, for fuck’s sake! Divided we’re dead!”
Orkia suddenly grabbed Aurelia by the arm, a grip too strong and painful to be friendly in nature. She saw Orkia staring at her no longer with her calm and collected expression, but with a frown.
“We’z ‘ad sum grot trynna git uz beat up, ye knowz. Laura saved me loif more dan a few toims already. You’z trynna git me against her?”
“They talked to me, Orkia. The five that died. They followed me. All of them, they died because of Laura, because of what she did. Many even knew of her treason!”
“Me sez yer a lyin’ grot!”
“A salamander, a dragon, an elf, an amazoness, and a harpy. They are the five that died. I only arrived to this place earlier today, I would not know about them unless they presented themselves to me! Do you think I’m lying?!”
The orc’s grip soon weakened, till she released Aurelia’s arm. Her expression, wide open eyes and catatonic, remained as if cast in stone while she slowly shook her head in disbelief, taking a few steps back.
“They’z dead… They’z all dead…!” Orkia muttered, but soon turned and ran away.
“Orkia!” Aurelia called, to no avail.
She gave chase after her, but soon lost her. Her exhaustion, contrasting with Orkia’s orc strength and stamina, already showed too much. She’d not find her any time soon if she kept running, and she ignored any and all words directed at her. Aurelia cursed to herself, slouched over and panting. The dead would kill her, but she could do nothing about it.
Now she understood why the knights chased after Laura.
She had lied when she said they’d regroup, no doubt. Where could she be now? Probably the opposite side, if she sent her and Orkia as distractions for the dead. She said they’d regroup on the bottom floor, so most likely she still is on the second floor.
Hopefully the knights had made enough noise to leave a path clear from the dead. For any stragglers, she still had her sword. No way but forward, and so she went.
She set foot on the second floor, last step of the staircase. Gotta hand it to the knights, their distraction had led to her meeting no dead in the way here. Whatever it was they did, they must’ve been trained for with this world in mind.
Her rush changed to a slow walk, sword held tight with both hands, high and steady. She couldn’t trust Laura to not know already of her intentions; the harpy from before had found out, yet had her wing broken and was left to die.
Ahead, she heard the echoing of a quiet, nearly unnoticeable grunt past the ringing of her ears. Didn’t have time to wonder if it was permanent ear damage or the wight getting ever closer, thus she walked further ahead.
A hallway remained at the center of the floor, leading to the back of the town hall from the windows. She entered and moved on, finding nothing till she reached the end, where she peeked past the corner that connected to yet another hallway at the back, similar to the one in front in architecture; the three hallways formed, together, an H if one could see the design from above.
There she saw her. Laura, with the grunt caused by her effort in attempting to open a window almost at the end of the last hallway. Soon she took out her sword and grabbed the blade, aiming to smash it with the pommel, yet an accidental noise Aurelia made with her steps gave away her presence. Laura, instantly, took notice.
“Thank goodness you’re here.” She said, lowering the sword. “Seen Orkia? She’s supposed to be here with me. The dead keep crawling around.”
“I have not seen her. What are you trying to do?”
“Remember when I said we’d meet down below? Going the path I was going to take is suicide, so I figured I could climb down the outer part of the building and join you after breaking another window to get back inside. I’d probably get swarmed, but it’s not like it’s not gonna happen if I stay here.”
“I see… Orkia must be on the floor below. Want help?”
“Yes. I’d rather not break this window. The noise would attract every dead a kilometer around. On three?” She asked, preparing to force open the window, leaving space for Aurelia to grab onto.
“Yeah, on three…”
She walked closer and closer, intentions contrasting with those she showed, till she almost reached the window. She extended one hand towards it and, in an instant, quickly brought it to her sword and swung it at her with all her might.
Laura had parried it with her own.
It should have been impossible for her to react that fast had she not known. She knew, and so Aurelia quickly backed off with sword still high.
“You think I’m a fool, Aurelia…?”
“Yes, but that is irrelevant now.”
“I should have not asked… I’m sure you’re aware of everything, now. No use in having some useless speech detailing things I did wrong and how you’re going to exact justice on me, right?”
“You’re the one talking, not I.”
“I see. You wish to kill me, correct?”
“No. I’m sure the knights will do things far worse to you.”
Laura frowned. “You are cooperating with them?”
“I didn’t escape. They let me go. They are after you, and you alone.”
“Then… If they are who I think they are… You were with them. They must’ve told you a name for you to call them. Who is it? What’s his name?”
“Heh. What use is a name for you? You discarded five already. You wanted me to be the sixth, and Orkia the seventh.”
Aurelia stepped forward with a swing of her sword, which Laura parried off, but what Laura had not expected was for Aurelia to throw a punch at nearly the same time, planning for the parry beforehand. It landed on her cheek, twisting her head like a swivel followed by her body, both she and Aurelia backing off.
“I took you for a fool, too… An amateur that would swing her sword around recklessly.” Laura said, rubbing her cheek, though soon Aurelia noticed something.
Her color had begun changing. Drastically. Hair, skin, clothes, wings, all slowly losing its color and changing to a motif fit more for this world than the one Aurelia came from. Immediately she realized; Laura had been a dark valkyrie in disguise.
“…I guess I have no reasons to hold back on you.” Laura muttered. “You’ll just attract the dead here, so I don’t have to keep you alive either.”
Laura dashed forward swinging her sword, aided in speed by her wings. Aurelia blocked it, but soon received another with unbelievable speed, blocking it too by chance. Punch to the neck in the same way she threw one at Laura, dodged. Knee to the stomach at the same time, received it, backing off in pain. Swing downwards aimed at her neck, barely parried it with one hand while the other remained gripping her pained stomach. Almost as if taunting her, however, Laura remained in place while Aurelia backed off further and regained her breath, so far back she had passed the middle hallway.
Insane speed, insane strength, insane skill. No wonder, she had barely been sparring with her husband without even a single serious fight against a proper swordsman in her life! Laura, on the other hand, might’ve faced off dozens if not hundreds of opponents; all kinds of experiences that beat Aurelia’s one-sidedly!
“There was one monster I fought, Aurelia. A dragon. I broke her wing off and had to leave her there to escape while the dead were distracted. I could beat a dragon while holding myself back. Did you honestly believe you had a chance against me?”
“Why are you telling me all of this, when you’re going to kill me?”
“It gets lonely here in the void of the underworld. If talking to oneself becomes normal, why not talking to someone about to die? It’s not about you, it’s about me and my sanity. Well, my sanity might’ve been the first thing to die here before I met a single non-dead. I was like every other normal person, once.”
“How did you even end up here?”
“Chasing after something. Someone. Just like you. Consider this death a mercy, Aurelia, because you’d end up like me the more you live here. I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone.”
Aurelia stood immobile, paranoid of her next attack, yet Laura just sighed and looked aside out of the window.
“Looks like a horde out there. They’ll give chase once I make a run for it. You’re in luck, Aurelia. You’ll be able to stick around for a little while longer alive.”
“…What does that mean?!”
“It means exactly what you think it means.”
Laura sprung forward, and in desperation Aurelia thrusted her sword in her direction. Missed completely as the valkyrie used her wings to quickly move aside, yet kept on almost flying forward past Aurelia, locking her neck with her arm and throwing her onto the ground with a tackle, smashing her head with the surface. A concussion resulted, weakening her too much to struggle against the valkyrie’s wrestling, till the next thing she knew was Laura with one foot on her back, her hand pushing her head to the ground, and another gripping her right arm. As much as she moved, as much as she tried fighting back, it felt as if Laura knew every single movement of hers and how to counter it.
“You move too much.” Laura said.
Aurelia felt the hand over her head removed, yet the next thing she felt was Laura pulling her arm back in ways it should never bend. Immediate pain made her scream louder and louder with tears running down her cheeks, till she sensed the awful cracking of her shoulder once it bent enough to pass its breaking point. Dislocation or fractured bone, she did not know, only that she could no longer move it once Laura let go.
“That should do the trick.” She said, backing off from her. “You’ll still be able to run around and use your sword, but apart from that, you won’t be able to leave this pla–“
Laura let out a scream upon being tackled. Immediately Aurelia recognized the warcry and the pig-ears. Orkia. She had tackled Laura so hard that she ended up on the other side of her sight, forcing her to turn her head around to see.
“Ye’z killed ’em!” Orkia shouted as hard as her lungs allowed, pinning Laura down and throwing fist after fist to her face. So loud were her cries, that they rivalled the ringing in Aurelia’s ears in the pain it brought. “Ye left Sally ta die! Ye killed Draika and told me da ded got ‘er! Ye forced me ta abandon Elly! Ye told Amy to get zoggin’ killed fer uz! Zog knowz what ye did to Hanni!”
“Orkia…” Aurelia muttered, too weak to even speak, attempting to crawl towards her; yet, Orkia’s back had been turned to her ever since she landed on Laura.
“For ovah a yeer I trusted ye! I’ll zoggin’ kill ye!”
Soon, she reached her, barely able to move her hand far enough to poke her back. More than poking, it felt like using what little strength she had to throw her hand her way. Orkia then turned around, facing her with a trail of tears down both her eyes, gritting her teeth, and her furious eyes soon turning to shock.
“‘Relia!” Orkia said, in an instant leaving the now unconscious Laura and rushing to Aurelia, helping her up. “Wot did Laura do to ye?!”
“I’m… I’m fine… Orkia, we have to go…”
“Ye, ye, we’z leavin’. Just giv me a minutez or two…” She said, walking to Laura’s sword and picking it up. Then, she walked up to Laura’s body.
“Orkia, don’t. We need her alive.”
“Aloiv?! Wot for?!”
“The knights want her.”
“Oi, yez wiff da knoits?!”
“They were chasing after her. They can’t be that bad if they even let me go after they captured me, right?”
“As if! Laura gotz ta die!”
“Look,” she muttered, grabbing her by the neck of her clothes with the arm she still had working, “you want bad things to happen? Imagine what will happen to her when she wakes up surrounded by those four guys. Keep her alive. They’ll probably do to her what we won’t be able to come up with in years. I had a deal with them. Bring her to them, and we’ll all get along.”
“…Roit, as ye sez.”
Orkia threw the sword aside, and crouched down to pick Laura up.
Aurelia soon felt weakness. Not just any, but the same as before, just before the hallucinations struck.
“O…Orkia…” She called, desperately trying to find the map Leandros gave her.
“Wot?” She answered, turning to face her, and suddenly catching her when Aurelia almost fell onto her. “Oi, ye told me ye’z fine!”
“Here…” Aurelia said, taking out the map from her clothes and handing it to Orkia. “Take her here… Leave me if you have to…”
“Oi, dont be fallin’ asleep!”
Violent noises came from behind the door the man blocked with his body, flinching with every strike that would’ve swung it open were it not for him in the tiny room.
“Found a way out?” He asked.
“There is none…” The woman answered.
“There is always one! Come on, I can hold them off for hours!”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The woman, depressed, walked over to the window of the room and stared outside. Hordes and hordes of the dead came closer and closer. Not only did they overrun the building, but some already attempted to climb to the very same window she looked out of. Hands already showed themselves, the dead that had reached it.
Apart from the window and the door, no other venue of escape remained.
Her depressed expression did not change when she walked from the window back to the door, standing beside the man. Both soon found themselves staring into the eyes of each other, almost blissfully forgetting of all the danger that loomed around them.
“I love you, Nathalie.” The man said.
The woman, Nathalie, sniffed, trying to hold back the tears that had begun forming.
“…I love you. Never forget about me.”
With a swift movement, and no hesitation, she quickly took out the crystal necklace and put it on his neck, something he could not stop in time, for both his hands had been holding back the door.
“Wait! No, don’t!” He shouted, trying to remove it.
And yet, the crystal turned into shards within Nathalie’s hand. The man turned into smoke. The door, unobstructed, swung open and struck her, sending her tripping to the ground. At the same time, the glass shards of the window breaking showered her. No moment of respite was given before numerous hellhounds swarmed in, yet keeping their distance like predators cornering a prey while Nathalie desperately crawled back, crying and breathing erratically.
Then, one of them pounced.
Aurelia woke up, shaking, trembling. Regaining her consciousness little by little, she found herself on Orkia’s shoulder, held in place with her arm as she ran. A quick glance, and she found Laura’s unconscious body on her other shoulder.
The ringing had turned into painful distortion again.
“Aaaaaauuuugh…” Aurelia muttered in pain. “Orkia… Where…”
She could not finish before Orkia screamed gibberish not even another orc could understand, her voice showing desperation and fear.
“What…? Orkia… Why are you running…?”
“WIGHT! ZOGGING WIGHT!”
The word ‘wight’ woke her up completely in an instant. She had fallen unconscious without the distortion that now plagues her ears. Looking back, she saw nothing in the hallway, though it only made things worse as she did not know where the wight would come from.
“Knoits betta ‘av summin ta uze against ‘er! We’z almost the– Oi! The’e dey are!”
Aurelia turned her eyes to the front. There she saw, massive clouds of smoke, yet within them the unmistakable glint of their armor. As Orkia ran closer and closer, she saw how they were fighting nonstop the hordes of the dead that advanced. No wonder that none were chasing Aurelia, if all were led here! Only two of them, the knight with the shield who now held a sword, and the crossbowman, fought in the cloud, for as they came closer they saw the engineer and Leandros beside the entrance to the basement. The engineer hammered at it with his pickaxe, trying to break the lock.
“Took your time.” Leandros greeted Aurelia as Orkia gently let her down.
“You’re not even in the basement…?” Aurelia asked, exhaustion showing in her tone.
“Tough lock. Did something happen to your arm?”
“The valkyrie broke it.”
“Such is life.”
“Oi, tin-man, ye got sumfin’ for da wight?” Orkia asked.
“The wight? We need to get to the basement first. The dead are swarming us from multiple directions at once. It’s pure luck that they’re coming as a stream rather than all at once, or else those two guys wouldn’t have held the line this long. Not even the four of us combined.”
With a loud breaking noise, the engineer finally succeeded in striking the lock apart, quickly opening it for the rest.
“Alright everyone inside!” Leandros ordered aloud. “Lizard and orc first!”
Orkia with Laura on her descended first. Aurelia followed, then Leandros and the engineer. The engineer prepared at the end of the staircase with an axe as weapon. The crossbowman and shieldbearer rushed in. Yet, no dead followed inside.
“Huh, guess they know what insane choke point this thing is.” Leandros remarked, walking further into what seemed like an empty cellar. “…I don’t want to know what kind of town hall this is if something like this is built below it.”
Orkia laid Laura down on the ground, though not with much care. Leandros and Aurelia soon gathered around it.
“…Paladin Leandros.” Aurelia called.
“I had a strange… hallucination. It was about a man and a woman. Looked like the woman got killed by the dead afterwards, yet the man escaped with a crystal. I know it’s a stab in the dark to ask you, but do you know anything?”
“The woman was the wight.”
“My men and I have more than enough reasons to believe that the wight had some special story with her, due to abnormalities in her behavior. Your story on how you got here already coincided massively with hers, and the fact that you received those hallucinations only adds up.”
“Then why did I get those hallucinations? I had others, but they had meaning behind them. Why did I receive them and not Orkia, for instance?”
“Do you honestly think I’d know it all, Aurelia? I’m just telling you what I picked up myself. Theory, too, so I might be wrong.”
“…Sorry. I’m… stressed lately.”
“Everyone is. Think nothing of it.”
“What will you do with Laura?”
“Bring her back. Figure out what went wrong with her. This behavior is unheard of from valkyries, even dark valkyries. It’s the complete opposite, in fact.”
“…The Order acting as delivery therapists?”
“Who do you think The Order hunts, Aurelia?”
“Not necessarily all monsters.”
“The type of monster Laura has become. The type of monster that has nothing but hedonism to offer, all else negative in essence. The type of monster that behaves like the hellhounds you and I fought today. Don’t humans hunt their own kin that has gone astray? Law-breakers and whatnot? I won’t bother you with politics either way, and that’s the stance of the local branch of the Order rather than the entire organization as a whole. We differ.”
Aurelia, silent, shifted her stare to Laura.
“How do you know about her?” She asked. “If she’s been in the underworld, how did you hear about her if she started doing such things way later?”
“She followed me, time ago. A year or two. She must’ve told you about what brought her here, right?”
“Only that she chased after someone.”
“Well, due to a few things, she ended up in the underworld, still living. She wanted to find me back, to get out of the underworld, but poor thing was driven insane.”
“Dat ‘poor fing’ killed foiv of me’z frends.” Orkia interrupted.
“And for that she’ll be punished. If it makes you feel better, the moment she understands what she did she’ll probably be driven to suicide.”
“Oi… Das… Too direct, ye’z trynna make me feel bad for ‘er.”
“It’s too early to tell how it’s gonna end up.”
“Then if she was chasing after you,” Aurelia said, “why did she almost make my husband cheat on me?!” Aurelia asked.
“Insanity, as I said. Probably a resignation, and a desire to find something that could come close.”
“Tsk… What now? We die? This place is a nice choke point and all, but we’re stuck with no way out.”
“You’re not afraid of dying, are you?” Leandros chuckled.
“…You think this is funny?!” She asked aloud, storming up to him. “My ears are almost bleeding, my lungs are on fire, my fucking arm is broken, I saw the ghosts of the five people Laura had killed talking in their last moments, that wight’s hallucination, and there’s no fucking way out of this hellhole! Do you think this is a joke?!”
“It is for me.”
“Because I have already gone through the same thing.”
Without even an early warning, the knight with the shield turned to smoke. Aurelia and Orkia flinched, and would have raised their swords had they not lost time in the desperate retreat, stuck only to step back in fright. Soon after followed the crossbowman, then the engineer, till only Leandros remained.
“…What are you?” Aurelia muttered.
“Be nice to my wife, alright?” Leandros said, picking Laura up and placing her on his shoulder. “Those hallucinations were no coincidence. She has taken a liking to you. Don’t piss her off, though; she still wants this place to be only for the dead, and will kill you if you’re mean.”
Aurelia couldn’t say a single word before Leandros, with Laura, turned to smoke, just like all the dead before. She and Orkia exchanged glances in fear, knowing they had been left all alone on their own with even fewer chances of escape compared to the floors above.
Steps echoed within the cellar, snapping Aurelia’s and Orkia’s eyes to the staircase. Little by little they saw who descended, one covered in robes entirely, till her head came to sight unobstructed. The wight. Both of them quietly began taking steps back, shaking their heads ever so slightly.
“Aurelia…” The wight’s voice echoed aloud in their heads. Glancing at each other, they understood they could both hear it with clarity, instead of only one of them. “Who do you love so much, that you traded your life for his…?”
At that moment, Aurelia realized. The ringing, the distortion; no longer was it painful, but eerily soothing instead.
“N… Nathalie?” Aurelia asked. “Is that… you?”
“Who is the one that brought you to this realm?”
“I-It was… Cyrene…”
“Cyrene… So long ago since I have last met her. The crystal you used on Lucian was the very same I used on Leandros…”
“…The same?! She sent you here?! Then… the reason she didn’t want me to go here…”
“You impressed me with your courage, even after the resignation that you’d never leave alive. The orc, too, has shown her worth ever since she found the valkyrie up till now. You reminded me of the time I was alive, Aurelia. At least… my last moments.”
“You sent me those hallucinations, then. I… don’t know what to say.”
“You are free to say nothing. My priority is to bring balance back to the underworld, and those who are alive cannot be here for long, lest the underworld takes its toll like it did with Laura, and the spirits of the dead grow restless. I can return you and Orkia to the world of the living.”
“You can? I-I mean, please! Please do!”
“Zoggin yeerz been waiting for diz!” Orkia exclaimed, stepping forward.
Aurelia soon began chuckling, then laughing aloud, much to Orkia’s discomfort. “It’s over! It’s finally over!” She said. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s been fun with you, Orkia.”
“Huh? Fun… Ye, yer roit, tho me’z not gon’ call it ‘fun’. Me’z sure as zog gon’ stay far away from any liches from now on.”
“We should meet in the overworld, if that’s fine with you.”
“Eh, betta dan nuffin’. Me’z gon try find ye, me’z knowz where dis town iz. Aint got nothin’ ta live for in the reel world. Every git finks me’z ded afta yeerz of bein’ ded. Wait fer me, aight?”
Nathalie slowly walked forward, though Aurelia and Orkia, with fear still in their hearts, couldn’t help but step back till they forced themselves to stand still.
‘This is the only chance to get out.’ Aurelia told herself, fighting through the fear. ‘If it’s all a joke and I’m killed, it’s not like I had any better chances otherwise.’
Nathalie then raised her hand towards her, Aurelia’s breathing becoming increasingly erratic, her posture shaking in fright.
“Fear not.” She said, then placed her hand on Aurelia’s head. “You will return to your kin. You will return to Lucian. This time, death will not do you part. This time.”
Her mind flew about upon waking up, feeling the cold of the ground on her head. Sweat had formed a thick layer on her body, and tears on her eyes remained already in place. Slowly, she opened her eyes, all blurred as if she had just woken up. Looking forward, she saw Cyrene, but before she could even say anything, Cyrene nodded aside. Aurelia turned her head, and saw Lucian sitting just beside her, immediately locking eyes. Aurelia’s vision began blurring again, this time as tears started to come out full force, along with a painful chuckle and a sniff, seeing Lucian reacting the same way.
Without even a warning, Aurelia jumped and threw herself into Lucian’s arms, both falling on the ground hugging each other and laughing.
“I love happy endings.” Cyrene chuckled.
Aurelia’s expression of happiness died as shock set in.
“Cyrene!” She asked. Lucian remained confused, understandably. “The wight, the paladin! You knew?!”
“Let’s just say I did.” Cyrene answered. “You want to know who Leandros is, huh?”
“Ah, that guy. Impatient fellow, at least till I taught him necromancy.”
“He was a paladin of the Order that perished in combat against feral minotaurs who were a little too rough with their axes. His wife, in all her determination, somehow found me and desperately begged me to bring him back. I sent her. She did bring him back, but…”
“Yes. Same as you if Leandros and Nathalie had not been there. Leandros returned as a living dead, a mistake of mine. Lucian will die in due time as normal, but since Leandros was one of my first cases of proper dead rising… I accidentally made him undying. He wanted Nathalie back. He desperately wanted her back. It was impossible. It wasn’t a normal death, it was dying as a spirit in the underworld, something I cannot ‘cure’. In due time he understood, and still wished to be with her. Me being the kindest person not-alive around, I taught him necromancy, since I might as well return a favor for separating the two of them forevermore without death able to reunite them.”
“But he’s part of the Order. Wouldn’t they reject him for being… that?”
“Rejecting a necromancer paladin, who has a wife in the underworld that turned into a wight and now controls a sizable region of the underworld? The Order isn’t stupid. You cooperated with the Order down there, who are you to say his case would have been any different? He was merely a guy who ‘didn’t die’, either way.”
“…I guess you’re correct.” Aurelia said. Only now, too, did she notice how her arm was no longer broken, safe and sound with not a single issue. Still, questions remained. “What about the other knights with Leandros down there? Were they necromancers too?”
“What? No, they just died naturally and stuck around in the underworld.”
“Why the fight, then? Leandros and his men fought the dead as if they were enemies, yet Nathalie and Leandros were a couple. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Ah, so they’re still the same as back then. You might have heard from Leandros that the underworld makes people… stranger. The fellow likes scaring people like that, even though he speaks the truth.”
“Yes, he said something similar.”
“Nathalie has spent her entire not-life in the underworld. Leandros visits her frequently, but spends his not-life here in the overworld. Both have different mindsets. Whenever there’s someone alive in the underworld, Nathalie is quick to fix it by killing them. Leandros, not so much. Live around the dead long enough and death starts losing its meaning.”
“Then why fight? Wouldn’t they try to come to an agreement?”
“Why not fight? Death means nothing for Leandros and Nathalie, along with his men down there. They can each try to impose their methods with no consequence whatsoever. Whoever wins, wins.”
“Then, if Nathalie had won–“
“You’d have been killed. Thanks to Leandros delaying things, Nathalie took a liking to you and sent you back. It’s what I counted on.”
“I have to pay a visit to Nathalie some time. I think the last time I saw her was forty years ago.”
“Forty?! How long has she been dead for?!”
“I think… Uh… Two hundred years, probably.”
“But the valkyrie-“
“I made a pact with Leandros. He would tell absolutely nobody of his state of undying except those of the Order that are trusted enough to keep it from spreading. It’s not like you can hide it from them, that with living generation after generation… Still, some people outside will inevitably get confused. The valkyrie was a mistake when Leandros went to the underworld, which she misunderstood as dying. How she got to the underworld, I don’t know, but she’s been stuck there ever since. Seeing as you know of the valkyrie, I can guess he finally caught her.”
“You knew? But the last time you went there was forty years ago. You’d have never known about the valkyrie since she appeared far later.”
“Leandros comes around fairly frequently, giving me news and whatnot. It’s why I don’t end up like Nathalie in mindset even though this rotting shack is worse than the underworld. Still, home is home.”
“So the valkyrie I met…” Lucian asked.
“You don’t want to know.” Cyrene interrupted. “Leave it at that.”
“Hey.” Aurelia called him, forcibly turning his head towards her, with Lucian seeing her pouting. “That valkyrie told me our marriage was null because you died. She said ’till death do us part’.”
“I didn’t choose to die, did I?”
Aurelia erased her pout and chuckled. “I proved to her that ‘Till death do us part’ is a myth.” She said, just before bringing him closer for a kiss.