A hundred spades created a chorus of steps within the forest in their march. The young lilim led the great group, followed closely behind by the Two of Spades and the paladin with the afternoon clouds to loom over them, high above past the treetops. For a great while the trip had been silent, following the quiet guide onward with the spades looking in all directions each, scattered partly as a group.
“Hey, is she with you?” Asked Susan, approaching Maverick.
“I take it she’s not from around here, then. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Tsk… I don’t like how suddenly people are arriving here because of what’s going on.”
“You know what she’s here for?”
“No, but I can imagine.”
The lilim stopped in place, and thus the Two of Spades raised her hand in order to halt. Little by little the group came to a standstill, all members slowly looking about to figure out what the noises were, but the source as well.
Unrecognizable at first, the distinct sound of a tree falling after flooded their ears amidst the violent cacophonies. All of it, coming from up ahead.
“That oughta be her.” Said Derrota.
Without delay, the Two of Spades gestured forward to all others with her hand, marching forward post-haste with all eagerly following in almost a run. Susan and Maverick followed, yet as Maverick advanced, he met Derrota’s hand extended and halting him upon hitting his belly.
“Don’t stray to far.” She said. “I’ll need you after we’re done here.”
Upon her words finished, she calmly advanced at her pace, prompting Maverick to catch up and follow beside. The noises continued on, growing closer and closer as they walked forward, till up ahead they saw all spades converging, stopping, looking ahead. They arrived to a clearing created entirely of torn trees, stumps of every size to violently created, yet none bothered to pay any mind to said details rather than those who created them, making his eyes widen: By the center of the clearing, all saw two entities fighting so mercilessly against each other.
One, a mutated mess of what once was a monster, an afflicted monstrosity of altered traits to fit the motif of what chaotic mess had made its way into wonderland, of bright, yellow eyes scattered over violet skin and scales covered by a slime-like filament. Wings, claws, horns, all now turned into an aberration of their former selves, Maverick seeing up close what he had once seen far away. The jabberwock, or what used to be.
The other, a trumpart of an ornate and almost militaristic fashion, armor pieces scattered here and there in her outfit with a particular one gaining one’s attention upon sight, namely her great pauldron on her right shoulder shaped like a spade. With great effort she swung her halberd against the jabberwock in combat, forfeiting any manner of finnesse or control with clear indications of exhaustion visible to all, using all her strength in massive swings the jabberwock dodged or deflected.
At least, till one connected, hitting her head with the hammer end. Its head recoiled aside, body following upon the crippling blow which left her to stumble and then fall to the ground, but without a moment of luxury in respite, the Ace used all momentum and strength remaining to lift her halberd. The jabberwock spotted the attempt, yet too disoriented she was by the concussion, condemned only to hopelessly attempt to raise her arm to block the finishing blow. And with a great cry, the Ace swung it down with all her might.
At the moment of impact, the jabberwock burst into not a cloud of smoke as Maverick would’ve imagined from an afflicted, but instead into numerous miniaturized, cartoonish versions of itself, running amok in all directions to escape as they squirmed in alien languages.
The ace didn’t chase. She didn’t even turn her gaze, but instead allowed herself to fall to her knees to then stare into nothingness. From that moment onward, the forest fell silent. Danger gone, all spades slowly moved onward, surrounding the downed Ace as did Maverick and Derrota.
He saw it. He saw the signs in her eyes, the aimless stare, the unreactiveness even as her kin surrounded her, even as the Two of Spades arrived in front of her. He remembered the stare well, those he witnessed in Makillae, in Ariminum, in Aquileia, in Acerrae, all against the affliction, all right after wounds from afflicted weaponry. A war in the mind which left the victim almost unable to process its surroundings. However, he saw no dark circles forming under her eyes.
“Ace?” Asked the Two, yet received no response nor reaction. Pursing her lips, she gestured a few others to approach. “Come on, Ace. We’re going back home.” She said, before helping her up with the others. No resistance, nor any eagerness, like a puppet silently doing what it’s nudged to do, getting up before walking with the spades towards where they came from.
“Seen anything familiar?” He heard Derrota ask, making him furrow his brow and turn his head at her.
But though he did not answer, she added nothing else. Instead, she calmly watched as the spades all left.
“Who are you?”
“You ask for things you won’t find any use in.”
“Like I care.”
“Curiosity killed the c–” She said, only to interrupt herself as she narrowed her eyes. “…Thus saving us rats.” She then whispered to herself, inaudible.
Their peripheral view caught something, something seemingly there all along yet only now having recognized it. Over a tree branch they saw the familiar black and white motif and twirling tail, the cheshire from before, smiling at the two without saying a word.
“She has really taken a liking to you.” Said Derrota.
“I really wish she didn’t.” He answered. “Just when I think she left me alone, she shows up.”
“I didn’t imagine you being that type of husband.”
“She’s not my wife, I already have one back home.”
“Are you sure about that?” She asked, momentarily giving him a devious smug grin before turning aside and walking off. “What I can tell you is that I’m here for the same reason as you.” She added, leaving him to wonder as he caught up and marched beside her. “It hasn’t been half a year since Nyarlathotep left Nostrum and Variland, no?”
Nyarlathotep. Hearing her name sent a shiver down his spine, not least due to her apparent knowledge.
“How did you–“
“All at its time. There are more pressing matters now, like the afflictor up north.”
“Eh?” He said, raising an eyebrow at her. “I’ve heard of ‘afflicted’, but never ‘afflictor’.”
“It’s what’s causing the rumors of nobody ever returning, and what’s making those ‘waves’.”
“Wait… You are the one who went to the center of Wonderland?” He asked, paying close attention to find no hints of darkness under her eyes.
“Not to the very center, but yes. Anti-climatic way of finding out, no?”
“How did you return in one piece?”
“Thanks to the same reason I’ll ask of you to accompany me as I go back there. The afflictor is an array of four towers much like the one you saw in Makillae, but Nyarlathotep did something that allows the tower to create those waves and afflict anything it catches. It also toys with the minds of those who cross it, so even if you avoid the wave and make a mad run for it, the center is still impassable.”
“You even know of Makillae…” He grunted, knowing no answer to his queries would be found even if he asked. “And you expect me to blindly follow you while you’re keeping me from knowing what’s even going on?”
“You want to get to the center too.” She answered, returning a raised eyebrow in half-annoyance. “Don’t you, paladin?”
A pause ensued, after which he sighed out loud in agony and pain, defeat and resignation.
“We’ll meet a few friends along the way that’ll join us for the task.” She added. “I’m sure you know them already.”
“I was sent to Wondeland alone. Nobody I know should be here.”
“You’d think that.”
Step after step, the grass shuffled underneath their marching boots in darkness of dusk, drowned out every now and then by gusts of wind shaking all the green around them. The clouds overhead granted no luxury of a mere sunset sight, thick enough to block any semblance of moon as well, leaving it as if it were night already. Barely anything he could distinguish afar from the path they took, seeing it as plains yet only barely so, all blurred and darkened to the point only Derrota served as guide.
Before he knew it, Derrota had disappeared from his side. Halting in placed he looked back, only to find her standing still, looking at him while raising an eyebrow.
“Here?” He asked, returning to her.
When he glanced about, he found nothing. The gusts of wind moved the grass every now and then, making it appear like ripples upon an infinite ocean, at least of what little he could see in the low light. It certainly didn’t help that said breeze created a soft noise upon hitting his ears, leaving him both blind and deaf to gauge anything outside the small area he and Derrota stood on. Despite narrowing his eyes and focusing his ears, he found nothing.
“Are you su–“
Nothing. At least, till he heard a noise, or at least could swear he did; too low, too muffled, too drowned out by the breeze, so low he had seemed to pick up the vibration itself better, as if it had been a step. He turned his head to where he felt it came from, yet despite narrowing his eyes and staring with utmost focus, he couldn’t pick anything up. Trickery of his mind, of the paranoia fueling, he came to imagine, yet there in the shadows he caught movement, indiscernible whether it was actual movement or his eyes strained enough to imagine it.
It was there. Movement. It came closer. A shadow, a silhouette, a blur, each step making the distinct sound he now confirmed he had actually heard instead of imagined.
Peripheral view. Something. He turned his eyes, just to find another silhouette accompanied by the same noises.
Another silhouette. Another. Another. Turning his head, he found them coming from all directions, humanoids, too blurred to catch any semblance of detail, yet all silent and unchanging in their cold, distant demeanor. Menacing, as if. Paranoid thoughts taking over, Maverick slowly drew his sword and stood in stance towards those that surrounded him, taking a step closer to Derrota while keeping his head glancing everywhere to find the same sight, but there he caught Derrota not even flinching.
Then, the first one he spotted halted. Soon followed the others one by one, all gathering close and stopping in the shape of a circle around the paladin and the lilim. Without a word, without a gesture, without even light enough to give away some manner of expression from them, all remained facing the two.
Maverick found Derrota snapping her fingers, just before giving a nonchalant ‘tsk’, to then snap once more and create a white flame from her palm. With the sudden illumination, Maverick couldn’t help but immediately look once more at those that gathered, only for his heart to skip a beat and his grip on his sword to tighten upon finding them all with a peculiar trait. All, without exception, sported the darkness of the affliction under their eyes; as if it had not been enough, so too they held no expression at all, staring without smile nor frown, without movement from their faces nor bodies.
And yet, they did nothing.
Men. Women. He saw the details, revealing the women as dullahans, though strangest of all he saw no signs of the yellow three-lobed eyed he had seen upon the afflicted dullahans he had once fought. Rather, upon the dullahans he still saw the emblem of Variland, and upon the men he saw the emblem of Nostrum, both emblems he imagined would’ve been the first to be cast away.
“Glad to have you all with us.” Said Derrota, Maverick finding her with a grin.
“They’re the friends you mentioned?” He asked, absolute stupefaction taking over him.
“They are. Talkative bunch. Ready?”
He had no answer to give, stuck staring in morbid curiosity and slight horror at those directly in front of him. Without answer to receive, Derrota gestured with her palm forward before extinguishing her flame. As Derrota took her first few step forward, Maverick remained in place as the others one by one took their own steps towards where the two had headed, soon enough leaving him on his own.
Confusion. Stupefaction. Horrified amazement. Shaking it off, he sheathed his sword and forced himself to catch up and march beside Derrota, yet his wonder did not subside, shifting glanced between those now marching with him northward.
“They don’t behave like the afflicted you know, no?” He heard Derrota ask, surprising him as if she had read his mind.
“What happened to them?”
“You don’t want to know, and you don’t even need to know. They’ll help us take down the afflictor, and I’m expecting resista–“
Interrupting herself, Maverick saw her bringing her hand to her head. Just then he discovered what had caught her attention, for he felt something fall on his head, something he found damp upon the touch of his hand. Raindrops. Mundane enough to outright ignore, had he not had the sight burned into his eyes of the torrential downpours of Acerrae.
“They know we’re here.” She said, raising her cloak’s hood as did Maverick, along with the rest of those with them. “Go, don’t let them dig in.”
Without delay nor word to say, their companions all broke into a run ahead. Still, Maverick found it strange that Derrota still calmly marched at her leisure.
“Shouldn’t we go with them?”
As she commanded, he focused forward. Though he saw nothing, little glimpses of light from lightning hidden amongs the cloud revealed little details in the horizon. Silhouettes, pitch black visible for a split second as the clouds around them flashed in infrequent, irregular intervals. Some, however, looked too tall to be buildings. Too slim. Seemingly hollow, of only their skeletal structure to show.
“They may not be the afflicted you’ve fought, but they still won’t get tired.” She continued. “Now, do you really want to run non-stop that far before getting stuck in an awful fight…?”
In due time, all the violent steps grew distant enough to cease being heard, as did the silhouettes in the night which not even the lightning afar allowed a glimpse of. Though all had advanced in utmost haste without regard to any concept of stamina conservation, the lilim and the paladin continued on at their own speed.
Heavy breathing turned muffled as he put on his helmet on the run, to then raise his hood once more against the ever more violent rain falling upon him and the lilim. Flashes of light from above allowed the luxury of proper sight, as intermittent as it was. No lightning bolts seemed to fall, however, as the flashes and thunder lay secluded high above beyond what the clouds hid for reasons beyond him, reasons he bothered not to think of. Greater things occupied his mind, knowing himself to be in enemy territory as he passed the first buildings of the city which contained the ‘afflictor’. Much as it was enemy territory, however, the streets lay bare, devoid of any soul be it allied or not. Those companions he had marched with were nowhere to be seen, nor any signs of those Derrota had found them to aid in fighting against. Fortifications of all kinds lay scattered, yet none to man them; barricades of all materials, choke points, boarded walls and blocked doors upon the buildings, streets covered from rubbish and furniture to dedicated emplacements, all defensive left without defenders.
Upon raising his visor, he found the closest tower up ahead. It stood tall and defiant three blocks down, foundation obstructed by the buildings between him and his goal, yet rising towards the sky over the structures to shine as each flash of light illuminated its silhouette, glinting under the rain. The solemn desolation followed the two onward, uninterrupted in their path towards the tower as they drew nearer, first with three blocks remainin, then two, then one, and finally the base of the tower came to be seen in all its architectural mess. Though the two halted in front, Derrota took slow steps in approaching it, creating a white illumating flame from her palm and revealing in clarity what jury-rigged manner of architecture the tower consisted of, of ropes, planks, logs, anything and everything thrown together and tied in so awful a fashion that it seemed eldritch that it had not yet crumbled, let alone with the ever more violent winds picking up.
“Grab that.” She said, pointing to one support in particular. While she approached further, he complied and took hold, seeing her then grab onto a rope and see the same type of light now emanate from within that fist. In short notice, the rope segment had burnt off, whipping out under all the stress of stretched so greatly. “Pull with all your strength.”
As she said, he pulled, slipping at first to then make sure of proper footing before pulling again, all as she stepped back. One pull, two pulls, three pulls, and soon it started giving in. Creaking rang, both high pitched and low, both from the base and high above, a chorus of twisting metal and cracking architecture, till the support gave in entirely, Maverick tearing it out and stumbling back to almost fall. The result was immediate, undeniable to all, with the tower now screaming out its cracking and dancing with the too-unstable structure it had been left as, enough for Maverick to take further steps back in fright of it collapsing on top of him.
But as it twisted and turned, falling down, a deafening noise flooded his ears. Though in immediate reflex he attempted to cover his ears, his helmet rendered impossible, condemning him to hear it in all its surreal intensity. Loud, yet at the same time, quiet. Noisy, yet at the same time, silent. Volume hitting not against his ears, but as if it struck his being’s very core. His soul, as if. Rather than a coherent, or even incoherent manner of sound, it was the crushing vibration and pressure that turned deafening, like a man hearing a lightning bolt afar to hear not its impact, but to hear the vibrations of the earth shaking in its wake. It wasn’t till it died down that he spotted the similarity.
“Derrota, was that–“
“Yes, an emission!”
“Emission, blowout, wave, eldritch storm, whatever you want to call it!” She answered, to then begin running forward.
“Are we–” He attempted to ask, only to be interrupted by a lightning bolt hitting right where the tower once stood, to then start a small fire in its wake. Seeing Derrota run further and further away, he picked up the pace and caught up with her. “Are we seriously going to do this in the middle of an emission?!”
“These are the towers causing the emissions, it’s only natural that they’ll lash out! The sooner we’re done with the other three, the sooner it’ll end! Don’t get caught by lightning!”
Another lightning bolt fell up ahead, illuminating the scenery as if it was daylight for the blink of an eye. Even as all turned dark, still sparks flew at the point of impact as violently as the sound rang out, echoing further away with a ringing in his ears to take over momentarily. In those seconds of illumination, the streets revealed themselves damp, water running inbetween the cobblestones comprising it, shining as each raindrop hitting it broke into a million glinting pieces.
“What happens if one hits us?!” He asked.
“Affliction! If you thought getting stabbed by a pisspoor knife in Makillae was bad enough, wait till one of those hits you!”
“You know a whole lot! You’ve got a lot to explain!”
“This is neither the time nor the place, paladin!”
No direct way lay towards the tower, seeing it obscured mostly by the buildings on their path. They turned a corner, then another, running past the blocks in zig-zag towards the second tower, flashes of light growing ever more violent aiding them in sight. A glimpse to what Acerrae had turned into for Maverick, granting him a morbid curiosity to stare up high and compare the clouds of his memory to those here. It seemed the same, furiously altering between pitch black and almost daylight with each flash, clouds already arranged into a spiral and moving at a greatly noticeable speed over the little city. Still distortions existed, distortions like the last wave he had witnessed with the spade, making it differ from Acerrae enough as to lead to the thought that perhaps it could get even worse.
Turning corner past corner, they soon found their way to the tower itself. Once more the base showed, standing tall in defiance against them yet so desolated by its would-be defenders. Still no souls existed save for the two in any place they could see, leaving Derrota to calmly march to the tower with white flame already in palm.
“Didn’t you said there’d be resistance?” He asked, witnessing Derrota burn yet another rope.
“Yes, I have.” She answered, to then point to a support in particular, a support he marched towards and then grabbed.
“Where are they?”
Clicking his tongue, he disregarded his doubts and began to pull. Once more like before, a few pulls afterwards the support began to gave in, creaking as he pulled it out, cracking as what it rested against either gave in or broke apart, till finally he took it out. Again rang out the loud-yet-silent deafening noise, once more demanding him to attempt to cover his ears in vain, though greater thunder in greater quantities rang out unlike before. Just barely in his sound-caused pain could he open his eyes to stare at the sky, to find it flashing as if it were daylight for far too long to be considered predictable, let alone normal. It had been as if so much lightning had been created, that all coincided in order, next one flashing before the last one ceased to illuminate, leaving it as a continuous sun past the clouds for a few seconds. So too the wind had picked up its pace, turning furious on and on, trying to rip away his cloak with the intensity of the hurricane forming. Only the greatest thunder drove into his ears, that which could withstand what cacophony the soul-wrenching shrieking of the wind caused, drowning out all else, at least other than the structure itself collapsing.
“Enjoying the trip?!” Shouted Derrota out loud with a grin from ear to ear, arm over her head and one eye closed by the wind. “Hope you’re not bored, this is where it starts getting fun!”
“What the fuck do you mean by ‘fun’?!” He lashed out. “This is already worse than Acerrae!”
Before he could add a word, she ran off further north. A grimace grew on his face, annoyance and irritation over the situation already building up to stressful levels; ‘little shit’, he said in his mind. The winds had grown intense enough for him to now keep his eyes narrowed in perpetual frown. Feeling it harmless to try, he lowered his visor; though it did not act as a true windshield for his eyes, still it blocked enough of not only the wind but also the rain that now appeared to fall sideways, making it more comfortable than to do without. Quickly he picked up the pace and followed the lilim where she ran, all as lightning fell around like a bombardment of trebuchets.
Though he saw the tower far away, most surprisingly he saw Derrota entering a building instead. As he crossed the door, the winds turned muffled and no longer did the rain mercilessly bludgeon against his cloak. He pulled back his hood and took off his helmet, finding Derrota already with her hood down marching to a staircase.
“I’m assuming it’s not yet time to get to the next tower.” He said.
“Oh, it is, but it’d be better to get a better view of where we are going first.”
Soon she left sight, prompting him to follow up the staircase. First floor, second floor, third floor, leaving to a small attic with the muffled chorus of raindrops hitting against the ceiling to greet them as they arrived. Though clean in the darkness, the flashes of light revealed it to be as dusty as it’d get, as if the dust mixed with the humidity in the air didn’t choke him enough to lead to the same conclusion. Their steps creaked over the wooden floor, his own following Derrota’s till she arrived to the other end of the attic where a small circular window awaited, showered by the rain without pause. Though Derrota looked outside, Maverick couldn’t pick up what she gazed at, the rainwater distorting the sight too much for him to discern anything at all. At that moment Derrota raised her finger and touched the very top of the window, to then drag it downward to the side diagonally. The effect seemed immediate, water displaced and running to the side as if something blocked it right where she had dragged her finger, and upon her dragging it in equal manner from the top to the other side, clarity formed in the shape of a triangle as if no longer water even came into contact with the window there.
From there, he saw it all in all its detail. Where the companions had gone, and most of all, who Derrota had aimed to use their aid against. The window had aimed northward, leaving absolute sight of the tower far ahead with all its detail to be shown, even its base without any manner of building or object to obstruct the eye. It had been installed in the greatest expanse of open space he had seen in the city so far, a plaza of tree-sized mushrooms, of cobblestone roads covering it like the web of a spider, of miniature lakes and gardens of all colors desaturated by the weather’s lighting. A would-be beautiful scenery turned into an inferno, vegetation shaking in all directions by the gusts of wind chaotically altering directions, ponds overflowing by the rain and spilling away with the waves the hurricanes created, waters splashing and glinting by the lightning’s illumination, along with the glinting of the lightning itself upon hitting the scenery in its punishing bombardment. Small fires lay scattered about, most concentrated entirely on the unfortunate mushrooms the lightning had struck yet kept at bay by the rain and wind itself, just barely acting like a campfire for illumination’s sake, a continuous light source contrasting with the intermittent bolts from above.
And scattered all over the field, reaching to the buildings on the far side of the plaza which connected to the rest of the city, he saw those he had earlier marched with. Though once believing them to be few and far between, real numbers invisible by the darkness of the night, only now could he see their numbers so clearly. Over a hundred in the plaza alone, Lord knowing how many others there were where he could not see, all pushing onwards through the cover of the mushrooms and terrain with bows and crossbows, yet their line had solidified only by the tower itself. Another line had greeted them in kind, carrying out the same tactics as them, like a mirror image. Though only as blurs at first, unknowing where to even look, narrower eyes aided him in spotting the opponents. They were not cards, not diamonds nor hearts, but a familiar sight from his time.
The afflicted dullahans. The ones who had followed them to Variland after getting the lilim out, to then disappear. The ‘Black Hearts’.
No time to waste. Decided, he turned back towards the staircase.
“Where are you going, Maverick?” Calmly asked Derrota. When he turned to her, he saw her still staring ahead.
“To help them.”
“It is not your task to fight.”
“The tower is right there. My task is to bring them down, is it not?”
“The moment they see someone fiddling with the tower is the moment they focus all their arrows at him. Now, tell me, do you believe there’ll be any blind spot around that tower where arrows can’t reach you?”
“Then what’s your plan?” He asked, crossing his arms.
“We stay until our side advances further. Once they carve a path, you go in and tear it down.”
“How come they’re not the ones to tear it down, if they’re going to be reaching it first?”
“Unpredictable changes. I don’t imagine it’ll be any easier to push towards the fourth tower if destroying the third one suddenly gets rid of gravity before we’re even out of the plaza. Best be later than sooner.”
Motionless, he stood silent till he pursed his lips, forcing himself to let the words sink in. Begrudgingly he stepped up to the window, then let himself go to remain sitting against the wall, helmet still in hand.
“Why exactly am I not down there?” He asked.
“You’re not expendable.”
“I’m supposed to be expendable.”
“Many things are supposed to be what they’re not.”
“Then how? Anyone can tear down that tower. It’s not like I’m exceptionally skilled at it.”
In silence, she slowly turned her head to look at him from the corner of her eyes. Upon her lack of words, Mavericked turned his head partly to then find Derrota’s eyes.
“What?” He asked.
“Many would be delighted to be away from danger for a while, given the justification.”
“You want to be down there. There’s no reason for you to be down there, yet you still want to spill your own blood with the others. I can tell it’s not bloodlust.”
He found nothing to say, leaving him to look at her momentarily. He then turned his head forward again, letting the back rest against the wall as he stared aimlessly into the void.
“Everyone’s pulling their weight, and I’m sitting here doing nothing.” He said.
“Do you believe you should be at the front of it all, at any given time?”
“Should I not? I’m a Nostrian paladin. I’m a sword that’s not swinging when a battle is raging on. Wasted. I should be holding the line, and yet I’m doing nothing while others do it for me.”
No reply. With only the muffled thunder and raindrops to create an ambient noise, Maverick let a sigh escape him before running his gauntlet-clad fingers through his hair, all messy and wet. After letting go, his hair remained combed back.
“Tell me.” Said Derrota, gaining his attention. “Before you were made paladin, you were part of the rank and file, no?”
“I was, yes.”
“Infantry, I presume.”
“Like you wouldn’t already know that…”
“So you still hold onto your purpose as infantry.”
“A little thing you just made me think about. Your views line up exceptionally well with the core principle of infantry. So well, in fact, that they clash with your new purpose as paladin.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What did you think your task was when you ended up in the infantry?”
“To hold the line.”
“And now that you’re a paladin?”
“To hold the line.”
No response, but rather a turn of her head to reveal a smug, condescending smile. In return, an annoyed frown grew in his expression.
“Get to the point.” He said.
“Can’t speak for all paladins of all nations out there, but doesn’t the task of a Nostrian paladin line up more with that of cavalry? You’re not supposed to hold the line, the infantry is supposed to. The paladins are not supposed to hold the line, the rest of the fighting forces of Nostrum are supposed to. You certainly didn’t hold it in Acerrae, the army did.”
Eye twitch. Too many details she kept saying, with him knowing not how she even knew, nor whether she’d ever reveal how she knew it at all.
“Now that I think about it, isn’t it the same as Acerrae, here in Wonderland? Apocalypse up high in the skies, Nostrians and Varilandians fighting against the afflicted… and a paladin not holding the line, but instead attempting to achieve a singular task while all others support him in his endeavour. The only thing that differs is the task. In Acerrae, you and the others sought to rescue Victoria. Here…”
“…I seek to destroy the towers.”
“Yes. Similarities start again. The others aim to carve a path and secure the area of your target. But, we’re speaking the obvious here. What brought this topic up, after all, was you. It’s very recent that you turned into a paladin. Not even a year, maybe? The most recent of all in Nostrum, and you even skipped the usual selection process. Perhaps you haven’t acquainted yourself with your new role.”
Hearing her words, he couldn’t help but remain silent, mind rained upon by thought after thought. Infantry. Paladin. Footman. Cavalry. Expendable. Unexpendable. Unknowing what to even think, he held onto his helmet with both hands, slowly turning it till the shut visor looked him in the eyes. A marvelously crafted helmet, almost without flaw, with the clear notion that a nation’s resources and effort had gone into it, as every other piece of his armor.
“It’d terribly cost-inefficient to give it to the rank and file. To expendables.” She said. “It’d be effective to give it to the ones who’ll put it to good use, those few that don’t hold the line, but those the line is being held for. The knights in armor, rather the hundred thousand spearmen. The paladin here with me… rather than the rank and file down there holding the line.”
For a moment he remained blank-minded, before letting his arms drop to leave the helmet hanging on one hand. Exhaling lightly through his nose, he lowered his head just to shake it ever so slightly. “Fucking towers…” He muttered to himself.
Still the storm raged on outside, drowning out all semblance of activity despite the equally violent battle taking place. Had it not been for him witnessing the battle itself, within the room he’d believe it to be desolated outside. Within the walls, however, it seemed as if nothing else existed. With him sitting by the wall and Derrota staring quietly out the window, and not even a few steps to creak the wooden boards of the floor, an eerily comfortable atmosphere took hold. Only the crackling noises of a lit fireplaced lacked to turn it into a homely chorus to their ears, despite the events outside contrasting against it to invert the comfortability into stress.
“Rejoice! They’re finally pushing through!” She exclaimed, immediately rushing off the window before he could even glance at her in surprise. With a surge of energy he stood up, rushing to follow her as she ran downstairs floor past floor, till they reached the shut door of the building. Opening it invited the merciless winds and rain within, making the two almost close their eyes and bring their arm to their heads to cover themselves. “You’ll have to go to the tower on your own.” She said, pulling her hood over her head. “The Black Hearts are close enough that we can’t just stroll about, so I’ll aid the line in covering you.”
“Very well.” He answered, putting on his helmet before pulling the hood up.
“Now go. I’ll catch up.”
He stared at her momentarily, though soon turned and ran out into the hurricane awaiting him. Derrota, however, took a step aside within the building to shelter herself from the winds. Unslinging her weapon, she brought it to herself and rummaged through one of her pouches, to then take a little paper cartridge. Holding it with one hand, she brought the weapon to a level position; first she pulled back that which held a piece of flint till a ‘click’ rang out, then opened a flat surface connecting to a hole into the tube. Gently she bit the paper cartridge and poured part of its content onto the pan, a dark granular mixture like powder before closing it as it was. Afterwards she turned the weapon vertical, to pour all the remaining content into the muzzle, including a metallic ball, an alloy of demon realm silver. From the end of the weapon, right below the tube she took out a rod, to then place it into the muzzle and push down all she had put within, turning tedious over the rifling conflicting with the ball; once all rested at the base inside, she took it out and placed the ram where it once was. Finally, she pulled the hammer further back to hear its second ‘click’, now ready to fall should the trigger be pulled. With all done, and now holding her weapon like the crossbows Maverick knew, she set off outside to catch up.
Maverick was nowhere to be seen, though she knew he could’ve not run far; despite the line having advanced, still he’d find it too risky to run directly to the tower. Her sense of hearing would aid her in no possible way; the winds, the thunder, the rain, the water splashing under her steps over the cobblestone road, and even her own running breath all added up. Her eyes already faced difficulty in discerning much, half the time obscured by the darkness which only the lightning unveiled, for the few fires here and then barely served as reliable lightsource.
The rain stopped its merciless bombardment upon her as she arrived under a giant mushroom’s cap. Now with the luxury of stillness, she gave the field ahead a proper good look. As chaotic as it was from above, from the window of the great building, so it was from down below, yet even moreso. Without the idea of where the lines were, all obscured by the weather and both sides looking fairly similar, she needed her time to gauge whether what she saw was really what was happening. Most of those she spotted were her allies, those of dark circles under their eyes still advancing onwards without any of the Black Hearts to be seen from her position; the line still advanced, and far she was from the front. With Maverick nowhere to be seen, an additional advance seemed obvious.
Greeting the rain again she moved onward, passing mushroom after mushroom, one even lit on fire already, advancing further ahead. The tower stood far ahead visible for all to witness, though with it not being her objective, rather than to run directly towards it, she veered off ever so slightly to the side. In due time he caught sight of Maverick, he who took cover behind a mushroom with an arrow embedded against it, an arrow just now turning to smoke. With a peek past his own cover, he sallied forth once more towards the tower.
The next mushroom in her path, she arrived to and took cover behind. A slight respite from the elements pounding against her, thanks to the cap’s minuscule shelter above. Like Maverick before, she peeked out past the mushroom to look onward ahead, seeing the Black Hearts further away moving one way to the other, some rushing to cover after a relocation due to the arrows raining upon them, and others returning the greeting in kind. All, visibly for split seconds under the lightning’s intermittent illumination. Though she had the many opportunities of a shot, she knew it to be the task of her allies to take the brunt of combat and return it. For now, only a keen eye would do.
Maverick advanced. This time, a mad run towards the tower itself, no cover remaining to exploit on the way there. A sure way of gaining unwanted attention. As she scanned the scenery she found all others of the Black Heart that she could see preoccupied by her allies, most not even noticing his act. At least, until she saw one afflicted dullahan glance his way, to then nock an arrow. Bringing her weapon to aim, she looked down the sights towards the dullahan who now drew her bow towards Maverick, confirming her doubts. Steady she held the firearm, closing one eye to aim as the raindrops slid off the barrel and fell, till her finger on the trigger squeezed.
Like thunder in so close proximity, the deafening cacophony of the gunshot rang out to pierce the hurricane’s drowning noise; like lightning impacting close by, the fire of combustion illuminated part of herself for the blink of an eye. The combustion expelled the metallic ball, spinning so violently by action of the rifling as it escaped the barrel, recoil then kicking in to hit her and let the gun rise. The bullet travelled through the rain and wind, stabilized by the spinning to slice into the air without deviating from a near horizontal path towards the afflicted, and finally struck her torso. Bow already drawn, the afflicted let go for the arrow to fly off elsewhere, before she turned to smoke by the injury.
Back against the mushroom’s trunk, she turned her weapon level and took out another cartridge from her pouch. Before anything, she pulled back the flint piece and opened the pan, to then placed her palm over the hole leading into the barrel; with a silent incantation, a gust of wind escaped out the muzzle, removing all residue remaining. Reloading in such winds would proe to be quite a feat for anyone as if the rain wouldn’t spoil the powder, making her purse her lips in annoyance; with focus in her mind and a wave of her palm over the pan she created a bubble of air, a bubble she too created over the muzzle. The raindrops then began hitting against it as if it were glass, not a single drop passing through, with the winds pushing them around the bubble towards the other end, yet never through. Granted the luxury, she did the same as before without delay: Powder over the pan, close it shut. Turn gun vertical. Powder down the muzzle, then another ball. Ramrod out, into the barrel, push down several times, out and into its place again. Pull hammer fully back. A lengthy undertaking.
When she threw a glance at Maverick’s progress, she found him already falling back upon pulling one of the supports. It wasn’t enough, however, as though the tower shook, it did not fall. As it shook, a great noise reverberated through the sky, loud enough to even fight with the lightning bolts as to who could drown each other out. An eerie noises flooding the scenery, of a source and direction she could not pick up, yet knowing it occurred due to the weakening of the tower. A creaking sound echoing to infinity, like those of a great ship’s hull bending to a dangerous extent.
Certainly it felt like she and the others were in said ship. The sensation of dread, of impending doom, of a haunting void encoraching around them all, all because of the noise which came from the far beyond.
Maverick stood back up once more, taking up his longsword from the floor to then try cutting yet another rope. The scenery around altered, however; not the terrain nor the skies, but the activity of the Black Hearts. Though thankful that Maverick had made the tower his single-minded goal to the point of tunnel-visioning, she still couldn’t help but feel pity that he had not noticed the alterations, that of the Black Hearts growing restless, all now attempting to push to one direction alone: Him, who remained none the wiser. Though once the Black Heart line had spread throughout the plaza, a keen eye revealed both extremes converging, getting closer, disregarding the flanks entirely as if readying themselves to make one suicidal push with no regards to any semblance of forward-thinking.
Their numbers grew each passing second. Though expected, still she suffered cold sweat, seeing so many numbers approach, numbers she herself could do nothing about with the insane reload time of her gun. All of the Black Hearts were the same, no greater monsters to target first, all to be overkill should she target anyone she saw. A marksman stuck in the position of mere infantry. Still, glancing around revealed her allies converging in kind, noticing the same enemy movements and preparing for the now all too obvious.
Leadership. She saw it. As a group of five afflicted approached, she saw the leading figure gesturing about. The one who calle the shots among the five, undoubtedly. As they approached to seek a proper position, she took careful aim to compensate for her movement. Closing her eyes, she then squeezed the trigger to let out another furious thunder out of her gun. The bullet covered the distance in the blink of an eye, to by pure luck hit her in the head, punching it back before the dullahan turned to smoke. The other four had been startled, scattering about upon knowing someone had their eyes on them, leaving Derrota to once more stand behind the mushroom and reload.
Gun turned level. Incantation, air bubbles. Pull hammer, open pan, take out cartridge. Peek out towards Maverick, to see him already pulling another support. Powder on the pan, close. Turn gun vertical, powder into the muzzle, then ball. Peek out, enemy forces still converging, yet holding their line. Ramrout out, into the muzzle, ram a few times, take out then put it back in its place. Pull hammer fully. Done.
For what purpose the Black Hearts still remained in line, she knew not. Seemed counter-productive to wait that much, to give away through their movements what plans they had, and to allow their opponents to relocate in order to prepare in full. Launching a full assault immediately would’ve been more efficient in her eyes, allowing those others from the rest of the line to act as reinforcements as they arrived. It wasn’t like they were kilometers away from each other, after all.
More creaking of the sky. There she saw Maverick already almost getting out another support, one that’d surely tear the tower down. A quick thought passed through her mind, a doubt, a concern: ‘Should I have told him?’
With a final pull, he tore the support out. The creaking in the sky turned deafening, increasing thousandfold like the hull of the ship had burst open into a hundred million pieces. As the tower twisted upon itself, tilting and weakening in structure with no foundation to stand upon, the sky distorted, shattering as if, blinking from the brightest blinding day to a darknes obscuring even the lightning still falling; from clarity to blur, from definition to distortion, reflecting itself by the wind so madly changing directions to those even considered illogical, including an upward wind from their feet to a downward gust threatening to pummel them all against the ground.
A light shone from the tower, crackling madly like surges of visible electricity escaping. Not a second later, that which had been focused at the falling top of the tower rang out, striking its surroundings like lightning bolts originating from so close. Hundreds of rays shot out of the tower, each hitting the ground or the buildings so far away, others slicing into the sky without end in sight, a cacophony like a machinegun fired right next to one’s ear. All, in such a short time span. Barely could she bring herself to look, eyes narrowed enough to almost be shut in the face of such blinding light, but there she saw Maverick attempting to step away, only to be struck. Upon impact, he remained upright, petrified partly as smoke emanated from him just as the lightning from the tower ended. The tower itself then collapsed in its entirety, leaving Maverick to stand motionless for a few seconds before taking a step back, then another, all seemingly in reflex over tilting back, before finally falling down to the ground.
It’s gonna sting him for a while, she thought, but through the newfound apocalypse brought by the tower’s destruction, she saw the Black Hearts move en masse. Not towards them, but instead away. It was only then that she finally understood their plan: A retreat under the worsening weather’s cover. No wonder, if the winds now affected the flight of arrows enough to suddenly chop their effective range far shorter than her allies were to the Black Hearts. So much wind, in fact, that with her small stature and weight it already granted her the fear that she’d go flying about at any second.
With her gun now slung behind her, her first step out the cover of the mushroom turned into an arduous one, wind fighting against her movements one second to then push her the next, threatening to destabilize her gait at any given time. Slow steps followed, lowering herself as she covered her head with her arm, cloak fluttering in all directions. Another step, then another, and then another, methodically covering the distance as the sky threatened to fall upon them, eventually reaching Maverick on the ground. Courching down, she opened his helmet and gently tapped his cheek, to see now reaction; it’d require far more, as the weather already continuously did the equivalent of throwing him a bucket of cold water. “Hey.” She called again, tapping with greater force to no avail. With a click of her tongue, she stood back up and marched towards his head, to then give him a firm kick. “Wake up!”
A groan escaped him, before clear annoyance brought him to raise his arm and cover his face from the rain. “What…” He asked, attempting to sit up only for the wind to tilt him aside, forcing him to hold himself up by his hands. “Derrota?” He asked.
“Feeling better?” She asked, sporting a smug smile.
“What the hell was that?”
“The tower lashing out with a bolt. You’re still with us, so we better get going.”
“A bolt, but… what happened? It just knocked me unconscious, I thought it’d force the affliction on me.”
“It’s dumb to think the affliction will do again what clearly didn’t get results back in Makillae. Now, the Black Hearts decided to retreat instead of wasting their numbers on us, so it won’t be any easier to get to the fourth tower.”
“We’re not even over yet?!”
“What, didn’t you want to fight, paladin?!” She taunted with a grin. “Wimp! If this is the best Nostrum and Variland had to offer, then they really lack any future!”
She then turned about and marched further north, leaving him sitting where he was.
“You little…” He muttered between his teeth, to then slowly stand up, mind still running about as if the destabilizing winds had not been enough. Once up on his feet, he marched north as well, a slow walk still as quickly as he could to catch up with the one who abandoned him.
Though he followed as quickly as he could, she always remained several steps ahead. Around him marched in equal manner those last of his companions, most having already entered pursuit northward, as much a ‘pursuit’ as it was. Not even a march, knowing it to be at a far slower pace than the usual training days back in infantry. Perhaps as slow as pushing a battering ram, attempting to advance with mother nature herself resisting his ideas. Little could he do other than raise his arm to cover his head and press on, the winds still trying to punch his eyes out despite his visor fully closed.
Long it took, yet finally he stepped out of the plaza into the building-flanked streets. He found some semblance of shelter within, with the buildings by his side blocking the wind partly just enough to walk at a somewhat sensible pace, yet still not run. Derrota still marched ahead, yet those afflicted-or-not with him moved at a greater pace; curiosity sparked in him, wondering if they had grown so adept at maneuvering in such weather that it showed so visibly. Past Derrota and the others, however, he saw the structure of the final tower piercing into the sky ahead, an illogical architectural wonder for not collapsing despite only rope and hope holding it up, and hope seemed lacking with Chaos involved. Its base, however, lied obscured by one building in particular in the far distance: A structure equal to the town hall he had seen south where the spades were.
“Are you gonna wait a bit for me or what?!” He screamed out to Derrota, who upon hearing halted in place before glancing at him with a taunting grin.
“Eager, are we?!” She replied.
“Are you getting excited over the sky falling on us?!”
“One day you’ll learn to cherish the little distractions life can give you!”
“How the fuck is this just a little distraction?!”
“Ohhh… If only you knew how bad things really are, paladin!”
Upon reaching her, Derrota continued on forward once more. Without him having to stop, the two then marched onward next to each other, seeing themselves as the nearly last ones of the entire group of companions. Further ahead as far as they could see, what didn’t turn into mere silhouettes by the mist generated through winds and rain, their allies carried on towards the same destination.
Though he had expected heavy fighting such as those in Makillae, Ariminum, Aquileia, and even Acerrae, forced to clear out each and every building in a gruelling and tedious manner to take most of the day, instead he saw it all strangely peaceful. As peaceful as it could get in such situation, at least, as he still found himself walking forward without the fear of an arrow possibly hitting him in the head. For every respite, however, lay a paranoid thought: That the Black Hearts didn’t entrench themselves into the buildings meant they had all withdrawn further north, meaning all their numbers would be far, far more concentrated in a single spot. That spot, inevitably, would be none other than the tower.
Uneventful. Despite the flickering skies and shaking of the earth by the lightning bolts periodically falling, he saw no opposition all the way to the town hall. So close he got, in fact, that he could confirm a fear he didn’t even know he had: The tower rested at the top of the town hall, rather than behind it in an open space, condemning them all to a bloody push. Still, he saw his eerie allies already taking position at the front, a great many against the walls beside the closed great doors, and several others at various points of the streets and buildings holding their bows drawn at the windows. Much as he stared, he didn’t see them even shaking despite keeping their bows drawn for so long, remaining like statues as he passed; he knew they faced the luxury of never tiring, yet still he found newer ways it showed that struck both awe and fear in him. With Derrota he arrived at the front, to take position with those by the great doors.
Though he wished to ask, to confirm they’d hopefully not attempt an assault into an obviously well-defended position even an incompetent tactician would know not to test, the lack of allies at the front served as enough hint. They had to be elsewhere, and certainly weren’t lagging behind as he and Derrota had been nearly the last ones to arrive.
Hints turned to answers as he came to hear noises of violence within, afar. Of metal clashing against each other, of shouting in order and warcry, of sudden ruckus brought from earlier silence. Combat from within, yet those with Maverick and Derrota at the very front did not move. The noises got closer and closer, Maverick wondering what course of action they’d take once reaching them, yet all patiently waited. Nervousness slowly built up as he gazed about, an anxiety building up further upon seeing the others with zero expression on their faces; no stress, no anxiety, no exhaustion; nothing, not even boredom. Only focus.
“They’re coming from the right!” He barely heard a voice within shouting. “They got through!”
“Fall back to the stairs!” Another answered, to which the ruckus grew as so many within began to move.
All springing to action at the same time startled him to no end. Those around him all rushed to the door at the same time, first one to arrive bashing it open with his own body, to then stor in those behind, all with sword in hand and no respite in their timing.
“Our goal is the roof!” Shouted Derrota as she rushed in, prompting him to stop spacing out and run in behind her. Inside he already saw the chaos ensuing, allies breaking into enemy lines as the latter lay in disarray for their attempted withdrawal. Still some of Derrota’s troops pressed on, ignoring those the others fought against to run ahead as did Derrota herself.
Reaching the staircase first, an afflicted had shown up from where sight could not reach, but immediately she raised her gun and fired it against her torso at point blank, immediately turning her to smoke. Maverick’s ears rang at the furious thunder of the weapon in such a closed space, but none kept still, not even Derrota as she slung her gun back and took out what felt a mixture between sword and dagger in size. In the time it took her to draw her weapon, Maverick overtook her and turned in the U-shaped staircase leading above, only to face equal sudden opposition. Yet another afflicted appeared to then swing at him, an act he barely managed to block with his sword, but before he could even do so much as move a finger, one of the allied dullahans rammed her sword into her belly from behind Maverick, freeing the way once more.
Such was the greeting he received upon reaching the second floor. An ever greater number of afflicted awaited, running in from the hallway; Maverick halted in fright, mind racing to think of what to do, yet in those few seconds those behind him ran past him in collision course with those who charged back. With a proper distraction set, he kept on running to the next set of steps.
Third floor. Nothing. Had he and the others behind him punched through their lines so exceptionally well that there weren’t even any afflicted to have caught up yet? He remembered from outside, how the building only had this number of floors, making the next the roof itself. The next staircase would be the last, and upon taking the first steps upward a surge of confidence took hold, feeling himself so close to the very last tower. Upon the turn of the staircase, he saw the door open to the roof itself, along with the tower’s structure visible from where he was.
Seemed fitting to be the first one to go through; not for any notions of glory or bravado, but for all his armor making him the one most able to withstand whatever punishment would’ve lied past. To ask someone like Derrota who followed behind to take point would’ve been nuts, regardless of her state as lilim. The others of his allies had been bogged down mostly, setting distraction after distraction.
The apocalyptic winds greeted him upon taking the first step out, rain hammering against him in such loud cacophony against his cloak and armor, banshee-like whistling of the hurricane complementing the skies which every passing second looked more eldritch and alien.
Derrota’s words were the last thing he heard before a great force pushed him from behind, like a gust of wind sweeping him off his feet and sending him forward to the almost flooded ground. Immediately afterwards a titanic rumbling began behind him, to find as he turned his head rubbish and furniture falling upon the entrance and blocking it entirely, not even allowing Derrota to cross the door out.
“Long time no see, paladin.” Greeted a familiar voice. Past the lightning illuminating the silhouette, Maverick saw over the small structure housing the staircase and door a certain afflicted, undeniably the one who had sprung the trap. A dullahan looking at her palm before dusting it off with a few flicks on her chest. Without delay, he grabbed his fallen sword and stood up to face her, only to find that she did not step down towards him. “When was it…? Vandire and Jeremiah really managed to trick us back in Acerrae, and in the capital I was too busy waiting for Victoria to greet the lot of you. Wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t even remember my name after this long.”
“I don’t. I don’t remember any of the afflicted’s names, not just yours.”
“Tragic, but understandable. It’s not like any of us will be remembered after a while, anyways. I am Melanie of the Black Hearts, the ultimate authority of these dullahans other than Nyarlathotep herself.”
With a swift movement, she jumped down to land a little distance in front of him. The action left Maverick to step back and ready his sword in stance, an action met only with a smile.
“I’m not here to fight.”
“…You’re not? Even if I’m this close to the last tower?”
“Tear it down if you must. Doesn’t matter at this point.”
Lacking a response, he instead slowly let his sword lower, no longer applying so much strength over what confusion the answer brought him. In return, Melanie chuckled lightly.
“The laws of this world are strange, aren’t they?” She continued. “I can tell you with full certainty how things would go. I would try to stop you, and we would fight. A climatic encounter here in this weather, yet ultimately, even if it required a one-in-a-million chance or a miracle, you’d succeed in tearing down the tower regardless of defeating me through equally low chances or not. Not like it matters, as the purpose these towers had has already been fulfilled.”
“Their purpose wasn’t to block all path to the center?”
“No. It was to test certain somethings. In fact, you’re doing us a favor by tearing it down yourself here before we decide to do so. Making the center of Wonderland off-limits won’t do Nyarlathotep any good.”
“And allowing everyone else to attempt push into the center does her good?”
“You misunderstand, Maverick… Had we wanted to get rid of you lot, we’d have just pressed on the attack after Acerrae with all the cultists and Black Hearts. You think it pure coincidence that we decided to leave just as we were about to deal the finishing blow? Truth is… Well, it’d be better for you not to know. Morale is an important factor in all endeavours, and it’d certainly do yours no good to know that everything you’ve been doing has been accounted for. After all… Nyarlathotep is to the Demon Lord what the Demon Lord is to you.”
As he stood still where he was, she slowly stepped off to the side, Maverick following with his eyes. Eventually she reached the edge of the town hall facing the back to stare down below, having him raise an eyebrow over what she had in mind, seeing her not even speak a word to him anymore. However, his eyes shot wide open upon seeing her take a weighless step forward and let herself fall. Immediately he rushed to the building’s edge and looked down, yet she was nowhere to be seen.
From behind he heard a violent explosion, immediately turning around to find the barricade blown away to be scattered all over the roof. From the door marched Derrota, grimace of annoyance on her along with her open palm smoking momentarily before the violent winds blew it all away.
“I take it I missed something.” She said, whipping her hand up and down before lowering it.
“A dullahan. Only talked, though.”
“…I’ll ask how you know that, and you’ll completely ignore it, no?”
“Yes. I’m not the only one who missed something, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“That tower–” She attempted to say, for a lightning bolt hitting the roof to cut her words short as both raised their arms to cover their heads. “–is still standing.”
A loud sigh in exasperation escaped him as the two made their way to the tower, yet not loud enough to be heard past the cacophony around them. Without a word needed, Derrota stepped forward and held onto a rope, igniting her palm and burning it to cinder within a few seconds for the rope to whip back.
“Is it gonna throw lightning at me again?” He asked, taking hold of one of the supports.
“The more time you spend asking, the more likely a bolt will hit you instead.”
Gritting his teeth behind his visor, he turned his head to look at the door leading to the interior. A short enough distance to attempt his idea, he figured, to find Derrota most likely thinking the same upon catching glimpse of where he looked. There and then, he pulled as hard as he can, once more the tower creaking and cracking at its seam, giving in ever so slowly until the support itself detached, breaking from what it held enough to send him stumbling back. Little did he care to hear or see the results, immediately letting the support drop as he turned and made a mad rush to the interior, with Derrota following closely behind. Vibrations and earthquakes followed him as the roof shook, already getting an idea of why, yet soon enough the rain and wind ceased to pound him as he found himself among walls and under a ceiling.
Whatever hell happened outside, he knew himself to be as safe as he would ever be, allowing himself the luxury of a sigh in relief as he pulled back his hood and took off his helmet, combing back his hair through all the water and sweat built up. Yet, as he descended further from third floor to second, then to first, he saw within the peace of the town hall the aftermath of the fight. Though once knowing the afflicted to disappear upon grievous injury, he saw those who fought for him remain. Some still remained on the floor, others sitting against the walls, a great many with arrows sticking out of their bodies and an unlucky few with a sword instead. Not dead, yet barely looking like living. The same dead expression he had grown used to seeing from them, yet now even the tenacity and focus so too gone, leaving them immobile as he knew those who had been injured by the affliction were.
But a loud succession of noises caught his attention, afar. He barely had time to turn about to the source, finding it desperate steps of a running dullahan who almost ran into him, reacting just in time to step aside from her path. Most strikingly, however, were not only the two arrows stiking out of her shoulder and belly, but also how she had a completely different expression. Not the focus of before, but of eyes wide open in dread and terror, in desperation and anguish, running at fast as she could despite no enemies to be fought. She arrived to one door and halted, nearly slipping, holding herself from falling by the doorframe, to then look inside and keep on going to the next, on and on. He couldn’t contain his curiosity, and so he calmly followed her path; Derrota so too followed behind him, with him unsure of her thoughts.
The last room of the hallway, he saw the dullahan enter in full. Upon reaching the door she entered, Maverick saw the dullahan collapse to her knees right next to another, to find it a Nostrian instead. One with a sword embedded into his belly, one hand holding it by the handle as if he had attempted to get it out to no avail. There and then, the dullahan gently placed away his hand before grabbing the sword and, as gently as she could, sliding it out. As the sword dematerialized through the old smoke Maverick knew, the same as the arrows the afflicted shot, the Nostrian instead gazed at the dullahan as if uncaring over his own injuries. His eyes fell on the arrows, for him to then raise his hand and hold onto one before pulling it out before doing the same with the other. The dullahan seemed to ignore those in equal manner, eyes fixated on the Nostrian as were the Nostrian’s on the dullahan.
“Heartwarming, isn’t it?” Said Derrota.
“…Why is it that they don’t care about their own wounds?”
“Affliction, mostly. I’m sure you’ve gone through that mentality when you got injured yourself. When you stop caring about what happens to you… and you start caring about what happens to the ones you care about.”
“But they’ve been almost permanently in that state, no? They have the dark circles under their eyes, and yet they’re not on the same side as the others.”
“They are like you.” She answered, to then step away into the hallway. Left dumbfounded, Maverick followed. “They are the ones who resisted the affliction. Sort of. Technically.”
“And the difference from the paladins that resisted it too is…”
“Back in Makillae, when you got injured… You had the luxury of your side winning the battle, no? Tell me, what would have happened if your side lost and got captured? If they attempted to engrave the affliction on you, yet it didn’t work the first attempt?”
“They’d repeat it.”
“And the period of time in which you were fighting the affliction in your mind was… What, a couple minutes?”
“What if the Black Hearts and the cultists attempted to do so continuously for hours on end? Perhaps for days, weeks, or even months before you have the chance to escape? What threshold would need to be crossed before mental recovery becomes an impossibility?”
Maverick halted in place, prompting Derrota to stop and look at him from the corner of her eyes. “You’re telling me they were tortured like that?”
“There are a great many candidates for paladin within Nostrum, Maverick. The true issue rests on identifying them and putting them to the test without losing them. That there were only twenty in your time, despite Chaos rampaging through your homeland… You’d know the casualty rate more than anyone.”
She then turned forward once more and walked off, leaving him to lower his head and stare aimlessly for a few precious seconds. After pursing his lips, he followed once more to find himself back in the main room of the town hall, now with a great many of his allies arriving to tend those who had fallen, once more each of all ignoring their own wounds to tend the other’s. Seeing Derrota again, he found her heading to a wall to then rest against it, and so he walked up to her side.
“With the afflictor array down,” she said, “it’ll only be a matter of time before word spreads out and the spades see that the emissions have ended. Then, they’ll shyly march north. That aside… I’m sure you’ve seen something familiar already.”
Pausing his thoughts, he gave the surroundings a greater look with all present. Nostrians and Varilandians, refreshing his memories of the very start up till their last stand in the capital of Variland, in Lightsreach as it had been renamed after the war. Nostrians and Varilandians, those who at first tried to kill each other, and ended up so desperately fighting beside each other.
“I know them.”
“And who might they be?” She asked, tone reflecting an answer he knew she probably already knew.
“Seventh company. I served with them before Vandire made me a paladin. In Acerrae, they got cut off, surrounded, and we never heard of them ever again, along with so many others.”