Despite the cacophony of panic and terror in the streets, still the maddening screech of the monstrosities up above drowned all as it rang out. An uncomfortably piercing howl to both Derrota and Maverick, deafening them momentarily and leaving their ears in slight pain afterwards. Titanic monsters of size comparable to the myths of monsters long before the current Demon Lord, shaking all in its wake as it flew over the buildings.
“What the hell are those things…?” Asked Maverick, hiding with Derrota beneath a roof-like protrusion of a building.
“Scouts.” Answered Derrota.
“Who would use those things as scouts?!”
Derrota, however, did not answer. Her demeanor contrasted, showing absolute calm to Maverick’s both amazement and horror. After just a few seconds, however, Derrota raised an eyebrow upon seeing Maverick step off on his own onward.
“Where are you going?” She asked.
“To the wall to see what’s coming.”
“I’d highly advise not to.” She said, making him halt.
“They put an exceptional amount of effort in capturing paladins whenever they see them. You’ll see who’s coming sooner or later, don’t be impatient.”
“Didn’t Variland also want to capture paladins back in the war?”
“These ones have different plans.”
Much as curiosity ate him inside out, aided not by the dread flooding the streets, he felt it eerie how greatly Derrota’s demeanor contrasted with what surrounded her. Almost no demeanor, in fact, instead calmly remaining in place as if waiting, eyes naturally narrowed as if boredom threatened to soon overtake her.
“Hey, hey!” A voice called from afar, gaining Maverick’s attention. Upon turning to the source, he saw a red haired woman arriving to him after quite a run, panting lightly upon stepping in front. “What’s a paladin doing he– Ah, forget it! Why are you not in the hideouts?!”
Clicking her tongue, she narrowed her eyes in frown before running past him, yet not before tugging his arm for a moment. “With me! Now, before that thing sees you!”
As she ran, Maverick turned his eyes to Derrota. He found her stepping forward still with her calm composure, stepping towards the path the red-haired woman had taken. “Keep up.” She said, turning her walk to a run. Without delay, yet without answers to his questions, he followed the two.
Their path led them to an unsurprisingly mundane house, a large one compared to the rest yet still unremarkable in most if not all aspects. Still, as Maverick crossed the door last, within he met dozens of individuals scattered about, each with a crossbow and bolts. Not military-looking, without uniform nor armor, in plain clothes like a militia, with the red haired woman sharing the motif despite not yet having her crossbow in hand.
And all, without exception, stared in wonder at the unannounced entry of the paladin and the lilim.
“You and the others were meant to be with the Master-Commander to the south.” Asked the woman, stepping off to then grab her crossbow from a stand. “How did you end up here? And who is she?”
“I’m sure there are more pressing matters.” Said Derrota nonchalantly, to gain a skeptic stare from the woman momentarily. Unable to think of how to even respond, Maverick condemned himself to mere silence.
“Said pressing matters could use the power of yet another lilim. It’s bad enough that they have one against us.”
“Believe me, you and I have our hands full already, as does our friend Maverick here.”
The name left the woman as she was, almost in stasis upon hearing the words. Frowning as if unable to process it, she shifted her eyes to Maverick, who stared back unknowing how to react. The woman’s eyes narrowed, inspecting him whole as she stepped closer, to then widen as she locked eyes with him. At that moment, so too did Maverick’s widen, recognizing the one he had only few times seen, though times which had been burned into his mind.
“…Rose?” He asked, voice faint like it had just barely found the strength to get out.
He remembered her well, now. One of the two officers in service to Victoria, after the first dullahans had turned afflicted, as did Melanie. Her, and Lily, answered only to the Lady of Variland. Despite having not interacted with her more than perhaps twice in his lifetime, it served enough to become unforgettable. To fight beside dullahans, beside monsters, beside a lilim, against the Daemons of Chaos no less, turned into something fairly hard to simply forget.
“You…” Said the red-headed woman, the dullahan. “You were with us when the afflicted assaulted Lightsreach. You’re one of the original twenty… and you look exactly as you did back then, even in age. How…?”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Rose.” Said Derrota. “He’s been… out of touch ever since the incident.”
A distinct vibration coupled with a violent noise caught their attention, silencing them all in petrification. Deep, piercing, something so far away yet loud enough to be felt from here. A second later followed a howl like a warcry, infernal and aberrant like no animal Maverick had ever heard of, let alone of any that’d be as loud; a shiver ran down his spine, unknowing what beast could create such noise differing from that of those which flew high above. Another one the hostiles had arrived with, yet he knew not what it was, and deep down perhaps neither did he want to know.
“They’ve gotten through, huh.” Remarked one of those within, her tone betraying what composure she so desperately sought to hold onto.
“Hold fast your faith.” Said Rose. “You know we’re not on our own.”
Then, a horn rang out. Another, and another, one by one joining in chorus throughout the city, gaining the undivided focus of all who waited within.
“That’s the signal, go! Go!” Ordered Rose, running to the door and swinging it open as a ruckus formed within, all without exception jumping to their feet and rushing out with an earthquake following their wake. The violent shaking slowly subsided as more and more of those within escaped into the streets, room turning from overcrowded to desolate within just a few second, till only Rose, Derrota, and Maverick remained. From the door, Rose glanced at the two. “I’d ask more questions, but there is no time. Can I expect you two to aid us here?”
“We’re here for our own reasons.” Answered Derrota.
With an exhalation from her nose, Rose nodded with a subtle hint of disappointment. “Don’t get in the way.” She said, to depart through the door with as much haste as the others.
Though Maverick turned his eyes to Derrota, he found her nodding aside to the door just as she entered a slight jog outwards. Outside, more chaos ensued, though rather than greater terror to flood the streets, instead was added the run of the militia from building after building coming into the streets with them. All, running to the front with crossbows in hand.
Up above, however, he saw a differing sight. Rather than the low-flying wyvern of before, now he say a few silhouettes flying close to one another. Eight of them divided in two equal groups, forming what seemed an arrow each, a ‘finger four’. Narrowing his eyes, he identified the silhouettes, those of monsters flying high above; not of harpies, but of dragons, no less. Still, their human characteristic showed, compared to the bestial elements of those who Derrota had described as scouts; so too did they show a peculiar manner of discipline and grace in their flight and formation, contrary to the barbarism he had witnessed.
“Now dragons…?” He asked, keeping up with Derrota.
At that moment, he saw them scattering, dividing in groups of two in their descent. Once amazement, now only irritation and disappointment grew within him upon yet another threat appearing so quickly, but his amazement returned in full upon seeing the dragons not aiding the wyverns, but instead convering upon them with hostile intent.
“They are Victoria’s.” She said, growing a smirk. “Although, you might not like the way she got them.”
As they continued on, Maverick saw past the buildings the dragons finally entering combat with one of the wyverns; a disadvantageous fight in which they remained defensive, backing off whenever the wyvern faced them, though still with their greater numbers attempting to encircle it in all directions and slowly hit it whenever they could. Like an aerial version of paladins of old facing off against a feral giant. Still, much of it he could not see, barely catching glimpse past the buildings as he ran block past block, though soon enough his attention shifted to that of the vibrations growing more and more violent. Not due to those of the militia running about, but of whatever had let out such horrifying howl.
“Where are we even going?”
“To the front!” She answered, eagerness reflected in her voice.
“Didn’t you tell me to avoid it a bit ago?!”
“With everyone out here, the wyverns won’t single us out as easily!”
“So you brought me here just for a fight?! That’s it?!”
“You’re free to go back, assuming you find a way without me!”
Another infernal howl, piercing into his ears far more violently than before, greater proximity given away by its intensity. Such was the roar, that in reflex he had raised his hand to cover one of his ears.
“What the hell is that thing?!” He shouted, yet received no response.
Finally the two saw some semblance of static formation, rather than the militia running about without stop. A group up ahead gathering by the corner, with all eyes aimed down the street, as were their crossbows.
“Ah, the front!” Exclaimed Derrota, eagerness simply doing nothing but creep Maverick out.
In due time they arrived, gaining curious glances from those who still gathered, though the stress of what may appear quickly returned their eyes to the front. And yet, not only from the sides and the rear did the militia arrive from, but so too from the front; a recent withdrawal in process.
“Movement!” Shouted the leader-figure. “Hold fast!”
“You better ready yourself, paladin.” Said Derrota, Maverick spotting her now beginning to load her gun. “You’re not fighting cultists anymore.”
Focused on the front, past those militia still running back, he saw what had been called just then. Past the corner down the street appeared the figures, one after the other showing up in numbers; though he recognized the shapes as humanoid, as that of men, it still felt as if they were anything but: Mastodons of men covered in thick clothing only worsening their bulky appearance, sporting hair and beards fitting of a violent arctic people, with great axes and hammers on their hands yet all moving with finnesse as if all barely weighed a fraction. Their uncanny agility only gave way to fearful thoughts of what strength they must have, inhuman, Lord knowing what they were and where they came from.
“Hold!” Shouted the militia-woman. But at that moment, one bolt had been let loose, that of a militia too fearful and undisciplined to control the understandable terror upon such sight. “Fuck it! Shoot, shoot!”
Like a chorus of instruments, the strings let loose and the whistling of the bolts filled the air, to abruptly end as the volley finished. However, with so early a volley worsened by the ‘warning shot’, those hostiles in front had scattered back, running to the street corners and buildings for cover, reaching them so easily. Upon all bolts hitting structures or passing by harmlessly, the mastodons charged forward anew with an deep, rough warcry.
And for all the fear the militia had in their hearts, it was still only half a dozen opponents.
“Shit! Fall back, fall back!”
A mad rout occurred, though Derrota calmly took a step forward with her gun loaded and ready. So too Maverick remained in place lowering his visor and unsheathing his sword, along with a minuscule few others who, almost as if having a mere semblance of discipline, seemed to understand what horrors there would be if the opponents were allowed to advance to quickly, tearing through their lines. Desperation flooded the air, all either running or reloading as quickly as they could, stress worsening the situation to make some trip or mess up their reloading, and yet the ones in front had covered half the distance already.
“Paladin!” Shouted one of them, startling Maverick over having been singled out so quickly; in fact, he had been singled out even before the lilim next to him, surely a greater threat than him. “I’m on him!”
As it got closer, Maverick could see to its full extent what monstrosity of a man he was. A head and a half taller than him at the very least, with a two-handed axe that’d make his old poleaxe look like a butter knife, carrying it like it weighed a feather.
Monsters. Upon entry to infantry, upon entry to the paladins, he knew well he’d fight monsters, and even after Acerrae, the sight still flooded his heart with dread. Dullahans, afflicted, and now titans from Lord knows where, yet still he readied his sword, thankful that his helmet covered what face he didn’t even want to think he was making. And then, the axe was swung.
Gunshot. With the deafening thunder and the stench of gunpowder, Maverick saw the man in front struck in the upper chest. Taking the opportunity, he stepped onward swinging his sword, only for shock and disbelief to strike him as he saw the man quickly regain balance and deflect his blow with the poleaxe’s shaft. As the man still stumbled back, weakened yet not defeated, Maverick swung once more just for his attack to be parried in equal manner.
In that instant, the man threw his foot forward, connecting a kick into Maverick’s stomach. Despite the padding, despite the armor, that strength felt like a horse had struck him, sending him back with all feeling around the area completely gone and numb, retching and bordering on puking through the pain. His legs did not hold, leaving him to trip and fall to the ground. Immediately thereafter his opponent raised his axe high, to then drop it towards him with a massive grunt; eyes shooting wide open upon the sight, Maverick mustered all his strength to fight through the pain and desperately roll aside, dodging by a hair’s width the blade which, if the sound was anything to go by, cracked the stone where it struck. Without delay, longsword still in hand, he swung it one-handedly towards the man’s legs, chopping into the back of one of his lower legs and condemning him to kneel down.
But the man quickly grabbed the sword with his hand, immobilizing it. As much as Maverick pull, he could not remove it from the grip, just for the man’s other hand to find his neck. The strength choked him, Maverick dropping his longsword to desperate attempt to escape the grip to no avail, feeling like it’d decapitate him. Despite the injury, the man stood back up and lifted him up, feet hovering over the ground worsening the force his neck endured, weight of his body and armor pulling him down.
Though he saw a human face on the one overpowering him, it still felt like inhumanity lied beneath. Rough and coarse skin like that of a veteran of a thousand battles, of highly angular features obscured by the lengthy hair a beard, along with a frown and eyes as if they wished for nothing but a slow, painful death.
Another gunshot, this time hitting him in the head by the side. A spectral gust of smoke came out the other end, head jerking in the same direction by the blow. His grip lost its strength, leaving Maverick to fall to the ground coughing his lungs out. However, his horror did not subside, as instead of seeing the man knocked out for good, he merely tripped and fell before attempting to stand up again.
“They’re bringing in more!” Said a rough, coarse voice now characteristic of those who invaded. “Don’t get bogged down, let’s go!”
As bolts began to fly in from those who arrived, Maverick’s opponent grabbed his axe lying on the ground and quickly made a run for it, returning the way he came from with an uneven, weakened gait threatening to fall at any moment. So too the other five began a withdrawal, with a few removing what bolts they had been struck by as they ran.
He didn’t stand up. Though Derrota approached and looked at him from the corner of her eyes, he did not stand up, nor return a gaze.
It felt an insult. A grim remindal. So much for being a paladin, Nostrum believing him to be an exceptional individual, and still he nearly fell with as much ease as the rank and file. Weak. The underdog. The best training and equipment Nostrum could afford, and he still could not even deal with a single one of his opponents without aid; not a scientific breakthrough to realize even from the start that humans would need not only numbers but ingenuity to even stand a chance, but still the remindal left him hollow. Alone, he was useless. Barely a meat shield for Derrota to shoot his opponent twice.
But as the militia advanced, soon he came to notice them backing off once more. The rumbling had turned frequent enough for him to not notice anymore in the heat of combat, but now it had grown louder and violent. Too close for comfort.
“Tyrannomammoth closing in! Clear the area!” Shouted one of the militia, desperately running back as so did those who heard her.
Though Maverick and Derrota stood in place, all broke out in retreat, even if no movement could be seen up ahead. The sign of proximity alone had turned into enough of a threat, it seemed.
“Derrota.” He said.
“Who is Nostrum and Variland fighting?”
The muffled rubmling turned into a clear earthquake in intervals, that of heavy steps of a titanic beast just now entering sight over the buildings. Of size incalculable, having both him and Derrota raise their necks to see it in all its horror as it let out a howl which pierced not only ears but so too souls. A mammoth, covered in fur from head to toe with an aberrant pair of tusks splitting into three each and bloodthirsty appearance becoming a dead giveaway of what hellish landscapes it must’ve hailed from. Tribal markings and equipment lay upon him, a beast tamed for nothing but war, trampling over all that lay before it including the buildings it cared not to avoid. Even the road itself cracked upon its weight as its feet came to sight down the street, marching along with nothing to stop it.
And among its feet so too came to sight more of those titanic men Maverick had fought, riding upon strange mounts of both wolves and bears the likes he had never before seen. Not just men, but demons among them too, rushing past a few blocks down.
Maverick felt nothing. As if his mind had shut down, as if his fear had found a tipping point where it had reverted into nothingness, he found no words to speak. Admiration, dread, disbelief, all manner of emotions, with none to allow him to respond in any way.
His peripheral view caught a shadow looming approaching, to then loom over him. Curiosity befell him, sight before him having shocked him enough into stupefaction and numb-mindedness to be curious at all. Certainly Derrota had noticed it too, as calm as she was turning with Maverick to see who had arrived behind them.
Three individuals, all mounted on their bestial wolves as big as horses. The two behind, Maverick recognized as demons, yet the one in front differed; white hair, pale skin, cyan tribal markings running all over what skin could be seen, and red piercing eyes upon black sclera staring right into his with an eerie smile. Though a gasp wished to escape, it choked on his own throat, leaving him to silently and exhaustedly attempt to crawl back, only to fall to his elbow.
A lilim. One he had never seen before, yet so clearly showing the same signs of holding allegiance to those who invaded.
His heart felt like it’d burst out of his chest. Beating harder than ever, harder than even in Acerrae, he felt as if his life was a hair’s width away from a horrible fate. Something about the lilim drove pure dread into him, those eyes, the smile, the proximity, like a rabid, starving wolf staring down a wounded boy. All the fears he had back in the first days of the war, when he heard his nation would go up against a lilim, when all the worst possible outcomes flooded his mind, surfaced within that moment; a demigod before him, able to do anything she pleased with nothing he could do about it, and she merely stared. Her gaze then fell on Derrota, smile unchanging in her silent stare; Maverick turned his eyes, and found Derrota staring back not with any manner of fear but with stern eyes narrowed as if hiding abhorrance within.
Upon returning her eyes to Maverick, however, her smile grew enough to show teeth before turning around, departing in a slow walk at her leisure.
“The Nostrians would trade a thousand rank-and-file for a paladin.” Said a demon, sporting a look of confusion.
“Leave him.” Answered the lilim, an authoritative tone which only worsened Maverick’s fear. “This time.”
Maverick watched silently as the three walked away, soon leaving sight and leaving the street empty save for those militia who had been knocked out earlier. Left feeling so weak, so helpless, hopeless, he couldn’t help but look at his own palms. It seemed impossible for human tenacity to ever hope to make up for what ridiculous difference in power existed, not only between men and monsters, but so too between them and the Daemons of Chaos. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Yes. He was only human, after all.
Dropping his hands, he turned to where he saw what the militia had called the ‘Tyrannomammoth’. It had passed, silhouette just barely visible over the buildings for a second before becoming fully obscured, and the invaders running with it, the ‘Freiksgaardians’ as Derrota had called them, had passed with it. Seconds must’ve turned to minutes in his exchange with the lilim.
“Who was she?”
“Yanhildr.” Answered Derrota, slinging her gun back and approaching Maverick with an extended hand. After a second of a blank-minded gaze, Maverick took it, aided up to his feet. “She is to Freiksgaard what Victoria is to Variland. Somewhat.”
Upon new movement caught in their peripheral view, the two turned to find a few groups running the same way the Freiksgaardians had gone. The difference to the militia turned obvious, armored and equipped to a professional level, even with longbows which he remembered the militia lacking; sure it seemed the crossbows were Nostrian, with just a second of thing to figure it lent over the insane amount Nostrum had stockpiled over the decades back then. Dullahans, if he remembered the Varilandian army’s composition well enough, yet they still wore far more sophisticated an armor and weapon than he remembered. So too their formation and discipline showed, each group running in a line of individuals equally spaced, a contrasting sight to the rabble-like militia of minutes ago.
“Perhaps it’s time to meet old acquaintances.” Smirked Derrota before setting off down the street. Maverick, lacking alternative and no longer motivated enough to even ask any more questions, followed beside her.
Block after block, they soon reached the street the mammoth had rampaged through. Cracks and loose fragments littered the way with each step it had taken, stamping a trail of footsteps without a care of turning it so trivial to track; or rather, it seemed as if it was inviting to follow. Turning the corner, still more dullahans ran through the street, some taking the direct path, others scattering to the side streets, signalling a true professional army having arrived in force, an army no doubt having been stuck in combat as the Freiksgaardians outside as they forced themselves into the city. Other than curious stares, they still followed their task, sparing not a word to the paladin and the lilim calmly walking in the opposite direction. Soon enough, the number of dullahans diminished, the pursuing force with the cavalry surely sent to the flanks.
Mounted ones came to sight, the traditional horses rather than what he had seen used as mounts not so long ago. Some, on horse, yet others still on food, slowly advancing. The closer Derrota and Maverick got, the more detail he caught, of the mounted ones adorned in ornate and elegant uniforms denoting so clearly their status as officers, along with the bow-wielding rank and file which followed. However, one individual in particular caught his attention, equipped in an elegant hybrid of armor and uniform, face obscured by a helmet. From the gestures, he figured her the commanding one, perhaps a dullahan, though still it made him wonder why she was so differently dressed.
At least, till he noticed the peculiar traits. Horns. Tail. Wings, talons placed onto her elbows to appear like a cape. An ornate cloak, cloaks the Varilandians and Nostrians still had after the monsoon had required it of them, embracing it as a uniform rather than mere environmental necessity. The signs were there, there was only one person he knew from back then that had them, and yet, the appearance seemed to differ too much for him to accept it. Perhaps it was someone else, someone new much like Derrota or Yanhildr. Or perhaps it really was her.
With enough distance covered, the mounted ones took notice of his presence. One by one all grew silent, first as one noticed, then for a few others to follow said one’s eyes, on and on till the entire group’s eyes converged upon him. Their talk had ended abruptly, now silence taking over, at least till the armored one marched her horse forward with most others following suit.
“Paladin.” She called, arriving to him.
Stern, distant, a voice breeding a sense of familiarity within him too close for him to brush it off as an unknown person, yet not familiar enough to pinpoit to whom it belonged to. It only made the attempt to figure who she was more difficult. Still, as she looked at him beneath her helmet, Maverick saw damage. Not just a dent, but a slight split. It held a strange design too, not a helmet he had seen in his time, appearing like a mixture of a cap and helmet with visor attached.
“You are supposed to be with the Master-Commander to the south.” She continued, irritation showing in her voice. “Why are you–“
She had suddenly fallen silent, interrupting herself.
“That armor.” She continued, irritation disappearing entirely to be replaced with confusion, commanding voice now turned into an almost whisper. At the same time, she dismounted, approaching to remain face to face with him. “They stopped making that model decades ago. Even that sword… Take your helmet off. Now.”
Her tone left him to almost in reflex obey, raising his hands and removing his helmet before her. However, much to his curiosity’s sorrow, she still remained with hers, though for a few seconds she stood silent; at least, until she herself took it off, revealing an all too familiar face.
“Maverick…?” She asked, eyes open in amazement and disbelief, a mixture of both wonder and sorrow.
“Victoria…?” Asked Maverick in return.
Helmet in hand, Victoria’s eyes fell upon Derrota, who as Maverick found stared back with a strange expression. Almost as if pained. Yet, Victoria found glimpse of Derrota’s book hanging by her waist, to then return her eyes to her.
“Could you really be…?”
“Lady Victoria.” Called a voice, for Maverick to see an individual arrive on her horse. It didn’t look a dullahan, but rather another kind of monster entirely still equipped as a Varilandian officer. However, he found visual differences in the shape of what contraptions she carried like a backpack, connecting into dozens of wires going into several pouches by her waist, chest, and into a contraption she held against her ear.
“Yes?” Answered Victoria, turning her head at her.
“Transmission from the dragons above. The Freiksgaardians are up to something.”
“Put it on speakers.”
Lowering what she held on her ear, she reached for one of her pouches and tinkered with what rang out a metallic sound of switches and levers. A noise of static then emanated from what she held on her back, easing down after a second.
“This is the captain of the dragons.” Spoke a voice, muffled and distorted by the static. “The Freiksgaardians have broken through the southern gate and are retreating. They’re not dispersing into groups, though. They’re staying in a coherent single formation. They’ll be heading for central Nostrum if they keep going like this.”
Upon her words finished, so too the static ended. Victoria remained in place, stern expression returning in silence as he pondered over what to do; for a second, a glance fell on Maverick, then on Derrota, until Victoria shook her head and put on her helmet once more.
“Send word to the Master-Commander. The lure has worked and we’re in pursuit.” She exclaimed, returning to her horse and mounting it once more. However, as the gremlin departed back, Victoria then she raised her voice in almost a boast. “Hope you haven’t missed your Nostrian brethren too much! We’re going back south!”
A chorus formed, cheering in unison with fists raised from all who stood close enough to hear.