“The Nostrians mounted a desperate defense around the Titanoworm hole. The plan was to encircle the Freiksgaardians and wipe them out, but they were too strong, and broke through regardless.”
So spoke Derrota, walking down the road south with Maverick beside her.
“The Nostrians were in no shape to do anything anymore, so it fell to Victoria’s army to give chase through the tunnel. She could not catch them, and knowing that she was ill-equipped to head straight into Freiksgaard, she returned. Freiksgaard itself wasn’t about to move anywhere anytime soon though, so she wasn’t too inconvenienced.”
“She was going to invade it?” Asked Maverick.
“Much to Nostrum’s protests. All had a reason to be against it. Many, because it’d be the Varilandians that go instead of them, simple as that. Others like Indrick, because they believed Victoria would march to her death – or equivalent, at least; these wars aren’t like those before the Demon Lord took over, really. But, she didn’t care. There was no convincing Victoria, and Nostrum knew that, so they granted her army the equipment and tactics that they found effective against Freiksgaard to at least improve her odds, even those weapons they had manufactured. Once her army was ready to march to the end of the world… she went to war.”
“And…” He dreaded to ask. “How did it go?”
“She arrived, and destroyed everything in her path. Everything that had been done to Variland and Nostrum, she repaid in kind tenfold. Because she was in their homeland, she had the advantage of not needing to split up. She could destroy their homes one by one, and when the Freiksgaardians were forced to fight on her terms, on great open plains of snow as army against army… she showed them no mercy. There was no stopping her. She made sure to become the physical manifestation of Freiksgaard’s worst nightmares, and succeeded; her grudge against them was greater than even that which Nostrum had for Old Variland.”
“She beat them? Against those things, she won?”
“Won? Yes, she won. If it was worth it is up to anyone’s guess. That grudge of hers and her army drove them to push themselves past their limit more and more. Starving, freezing, it did not matter, they wanted the Freiksgaardians finished for good. At some points, they even ceased to care for themselves, caring not to put themselves in a situation where they’d not be able to return as long as Freiksgaard was put down. Indrick had predicted this, but Freiksgaard was uninhospitable for normal humans, so he and a select few others went on their own to the end of the world. They found the last remnants of Yanhildr’s and Victoria’s armies in an old massive cavern of an extinct Titanoworm. He managed to beat some sense into her head to accept Freiksgaard’s surrender instead of hunting them down to the last, and both returned home, but not before Victoria chopped Yanhildr’s head off and hanged it from her waist.”
“She decapitated Yanhildr?!”
“…Ah, detail I didn’t mention. Freiksgaardians are unkillable, so even if you chopped their limbs off they’d just regrow them. That didn’t kill Yanhildr; she just ended up a disembodied head giving Victoria snarky remarks every now and then. In essence, that was Yanhildr’s punishment for daring to attack Nostrum and Variland.”
“It’s as if mom and dad were made for each other. They’d sooner march to their deaths if the other wasn’t there to stop them. In any case, after the surrender, Freiksgaard turned into a vassal of Variland. Couple years later, I was born, though I ended up surprising mom and dad when they found me looking at Nyarlathotep’s book just fine as if it was some fancy picture book for kids.”
“So not even they were meant to read that thing?”
“No. Nyarlathotep had given this to them and told them, ‘It’s for the lilim’. What she had done to them carried over to me, as if through inheritance. It was pretty uncomfortable for them, but since I was born already with it, it looks like I face no trouble with the book or the mindset. I won’t pretend to understand it terribly well. I’m no Chaos God, just a kid with issues.”
Left with little to say or even remark, Maverick stared low onward, letting out a quiet breath out of his nose as he processed it all.
“Mom had always seemed to be on the verge of snapping and going murderous.” Added Derrota. “She tore Nostrum apart as well as the neighboring nations in the timeline where Nyarlathotep did not arrive to interrupt the war, and in the one she did, she tore Freiksgaard apart. Only Nyarlathotep knows in how many timelines mom had been the catalyst to great conflict. I can’t give grandma enough credit for honing her so well to stand against Chaos and all who oppose her. Or try at least, considering where I’m from.”
“I can imagine. You said the Black Hearts returned, did you not?”
“Yeah. On my sixth birthday, the first clear signs appeared. Nostrum and Variland were far more prepared than when Nyarlathotep first arrived, but Freiksgaard’s wounds still crippled them. All fought bravely; whereas they wouldn’t have lasted a year back then, they lasted no less than four, fighting to the bitter end and not letting a single square meter of soil be taken without great sacrifice… But it was still a war of attrition. Everyone knew it was lost after nothing decisive had been achieved in the first year. By the end of it, mom and dad couldn’t pretend otherwise any longer, so they readied me up, gave me this gun, and sent me off so that the afflicted would not catch me.”
She paused in her words, leaving the two in a silence he felt it prohibitive to interrupt. Her gaze had fallen low, Maverick spotting those eyes of melancholy he remembered from the exchanges he had with Indrick and Victoria. No wonder, now.
“…Mom and dad must be like those that helped us tear down the afflictor, by now.” She added. “That, or they’re with each other like the Maverick and Rebecca in that tunnel. I can’t really blame them in that case, they’ve gone through enough in their lives to deserve rest.”
“And this could all be stopped if I escaped Wonderland?”
“Hopefully, but one can’t leave Wonderland until Wonderland lets you go.”
Felt like ages ago when he had last seen it, but here he was again, the little town the spades had hunkered down in. With Derrota, he walked down the main street, the various spades about only glancing at them once or twice as they passed; no longer so much of a foreigner now, thought Maverick.
The few guarding the entrance to the great hall looked in equal manner, till after Maverick and Derrota approached enough, they opened the door for them. Crossing in, they found the curious gaze of those within who wondered who had entered, to find the Ace of Clubs and Two of Spades by the main desk ending their discussion with a few other trumparts.
“Been a while, you lot.” Greeted Two.
“Two-Spades, I need to talk with you.” Said Derrota, her and Maverick arriving to the desk. “You as well, Ace.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“The afflictor is destroyed. It’d be wise to go north as fast as we can.”
But the Two of Spades frowned perplexed, keeping silent in utter confusion, surprised by the words she had not expected to hear.
While Derrota and Two of Spades began their discussion, Maverick turned aside, catching glimpse of a curious sight. A trumpart he recalled, the Ace of Spades sitting silent and alone on a row of chairs staring low and aimless. The last he remembered of her was defeating the afflicted jabberwock, but not without injuries. Leaving Derrota and the trumparts to their own devices, he calmly walked Ace’s way, to then sit down beside her.
That gaze. An all too known sight. She still lacked the dark circles under her eyes, however, giving away that she had resisted the affliction. For now, at least.
“You’ve heard the voices too, have you not?” She asked almost in whisper, inaudible to all but him, still with her gaze fixated ahead.
“I have.” He answered. “What did they tell you?”
“They told me awful things. They told me it was already too late. That the sorceress already got to the Queen, and that the Queen is now in on it as well. I saw wonderland in snow, each beautiful forest reduced to dead trees, dark clouds covering what once was a beautiful sun…”
“I saw it as well, though the voices taunted me about my wife instead.”
The Ace of Spades turned her gaze towards him, looking from the corner of her eyes.
“What happened?” She asked.
“I just recently found out she got turned into a monster. It’s… something I’ve been trying to prevent, for a long while.”
“I see… Some humans don’t want to be involved with monsters, right? If the voices said such things, I can only imagine it must’ve hurt you to see it.”
Without a word to respond with, Mav let out a quiet sigh through his nose in acknowledgment.
“Are we meant to go North, now?” She asked.
“For what purpose?”
“I don’t know. Go to the center and… improvise, I guess.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“I don’t know if there is one.”
“The sorceress has most likely gotten to the Queen already.” She said. “Why go there other than to just confirm it?”
“For the same reason I keep going despite my wife turning into a monster.”
“What’s the reason?”
Maverick merely shrugged. With so blunt and honest a response, the Ace returned her eyes forward, unfocused and fixated on nothing.
“I don’t understand…”
“You either get it or you don’t.” He said. “To someone who doesn’t get it, it’s impossible to explain. To someone who does, there’s no need to. Give it time… or don’t.”
They caught hints of the discussion between Derrota and the trumparts over, signified by them turning and approaching. In time, Derrota, Two of Spades, and Ace of Clubs arrived to them.
“Now they know.” Told Derrota to Maverick. “Hope your legs aren’t aching. We’re going north, and it’s not gonna be pretty.”
“Now.” Answered the Two of Spades. “I’m not comfortable giving whoever’s past the afflictor more time before we’re there.”
He turned his eyes to the Ace beside him, waiting for a response. In return, the Ace only looked at him with tired eyes hiding a fraction of frustration within them. Inactive momentarily, the Ace pursed her lips, thinking on and on before letting out a rough sigh and standing up, leading to Maverick cracking a smile before standing up as well.
“This is giving me the chills.” Ranted the Two of Spades, approaching Derrota, Maverick, and the two Aces. “I don’t like being so far away from shelter. They better not have another afflictor up there, Derrota.”
Their march had led them to the entrance of a valley, a location unanimously agreed to make for a good camping spot. The sky certainly aided in the decision, growing darker as midday turned to afternoon, its light dimming enough for the campfire the group surrounded to be a greater source of light. All around them as well rose little trails of smoke, campfires not unlike theirs where the spades and clubs prepared for the night.
“I never said they didn’t.” Said Derrota, poking life into the fire with a stick.
“So they do?” Asked the Two of Spades, sitting down one of the three logs they sat on.
“I never said they did either.”
“Then you don’t know?”
“Not really, no.”
Visibly stressed, the Two of Spades ran her hand down her face.
“What are the chances we get struck by a wave out here in the open, then?”
“But you just said–“
“It’d be terribly anti-climatic. A boring end.”
“Nyarlathotep’s the type of person to leave a war out of boredom,” said Maverick, gazing into the fire, “even if she’s about to win it.”
The Two of Spades grew silent, staring with disturbance in her eyes before her gaze shifted to the fire. Of the rest, only the Ace of Clubs shared her expression, with the Ace of Spades holding one similar to Derrota and Maverick: None.
Through their silence and the crackling of the flame, they came to hear a set of rushing steps. A club trumpart, as they noticed her arrival.
“The diamonds followed us.” She said, breathing at quite the pace.
“What are they doing?” Asked the Two of Spades.
“A few of them came across a group of our spades, but were too few to start a fight. They taunted something about us ‘wanting to stop the fun’ or something.”
“They’re gonna know we’re all here, if they don’t already.” Said the Ace of Clubs, turning to the Two of Spades.
“Took their merry time, I was already getting bored.” Said Derrota, gaining the confused look of the Ace and the Two.
Still, the Two of Spades pursed her lips past her puzzlement and uneasiness. “We’ll have to deal with them for good if we want to go north. Getting sandwiched between them and the Hearts in that valley will be our end.”
“I might have an idea,” continued Derrota, “but I’ll need your full cooperation. That goes for you too, Maverick.”
Maverick furrowed his brow. “Why do you feel it necessary to tell me that?”
A second of silence paused, nobody daring to say a mere ‘no’. The Two of Spades sighed out loud.
“Fine.” She answered. In return, Derrota grew a devious grin from ear to ear.
At the break of dawn, a certain confident diamond marched across the woods. Multiple steps echoed through, those of the other diamonds trampling the leaves and grass over the forest floor, a sizable group with spears ready for a little mean skirmish. Expectation and hype coursed through the diamond’s body, eager to meet the spades and clubs just for the slight chance of meeting once more with the armored man, along with the one who had shot her in the face. Fond memories she wished to expand upon with her own input, rather than let be.
Strange noises up ahead erased her smile. With a gesture of her arm, the group rushed on ahead, arriving to the end of the forest where a good hour or two of marching would lead them to the camp of the spades and clubs, but already they could see by the creek a fair distance away what caused such noises. Spades in combat, a group hardly any bigger than a bog-standard patrol, even the lilim herself among them, but what they faced against struck the diamonds the most:
Humans in light armor, sporting those dark circles under their eyes. So too the one in heavy armor took part, though on the side of the latter much to their wonder.
“Don’t get bogged down! Run!” Shouted the lilim as she urged the others back. It could hardly be called combat anymore, instead just a messy desperate retreat.
The diamonds remained where they were, watching, staring in confusion at the development.
Little by little, most broke off to run away. One in particular, however, fell as she blocked a heavy blow with her spear, falling on her back by the creek as the dozen humans approached. The one who had given the strike raised his sword high to deal the finishing blow, a few trumparts shouted her name, others turned back to rush to her aid, and as the spade on the ground screamed in fear, a gunshot tore through the air. The afflicted had been struck, stumbling back before falling.
“I said run, dammit!” Shouted the lilim to the others, just as she ran back for the trumpart. In haste she pulled her to her feet, for both to run away.
But it had taken too long. Though the spade escaped, her cloak had been caught, pulled to send her to the ground on her back.
“Derrota!” Shouted the one she had just rescued, turning back.
“Go!” She shouted back. The trumpart froze solid in place, fear and terror in her eyes, before gritting her teeth and once more turning, running away with all the others.
It had been the armored one. The one who had caught her. Struggling began between the two as the Diamonds watched, but no matter how much she tried, more and more of those with dark circles under their eyes approached, pinning her down. The strength of a monster could only do so much. Held by her arms, legs, and head, she had been rendered immobile.
Then, the knight raised his sword.
From where the diamond was, staring wide-eyed in disbelief, she could only shake her head unwilling to imagine what would come next. Her fears, however, only predicted the inevitable: The lilim gave out a loud scream in terror, one which abruptly ended in dead silence as the sword struck against her.
Her body ceased to move. Where the sword struck had turned obvious in its grim conclusion:
Derrota’s head rolled aside, detached from its body.
Then, the knight snapped his head to the woods, as did all those around him in unison, staring at the diamonds dead in the eyes.
Panic. Hyperventilation. Terror. Fear. All manner of emotions, striking in full within an instant. The diamond, though wishing to order a retreat, could hardly form a coherent word anymore; she stumbled back and fell, to then let out a desperate scream as she got up and, with the other diamonds, ran away into the woods, caring not to have left her spear behind.