All’s Fair In Love And War – Ch.14

The wind still howled its distinct noise, shaking the sparse trees on the damp, tall grass fields by each side of the road; trees one could now barely see as anything other than a mere outline against the sky. Clouds overhead still darkened the view, though now with the vegetation all remained as varying shades of dark green, blurs of the dark-leaved trees against the grass underneath it, and seemingly-moving hills as the grass upon it fluttered about as wildly as the wind blew.

The road had led to a small collection of buildings, a hamlet for their eyes to see. As lifeless as the old farm was, so it was, without a soul to be seen outside and with the tall grass sneaking into what civilization it once had. The horse’s gait lowered as they approached, for it to completely halt before it crossed the very first building before them. After a lengthy pause, Indrick dismounted and slowly stepped forward, eyes fixated on the ground he stepped on.

Tripwire, crossing the road. Begging to be seen, had it not been for the weather and grassy spot not rendered it invisible to all save for those lacking enough paranoia. Paladins, or dullahans. Following the wire with his eyes, it ran along the grass till he couldn’t keep up, knowing only that it ran further into the hamlet pointing at a certain barn. A quick glance around, and he found another tripwire in conjunction with the first, with its wire leading elsewhere: to the back of the building he stood beside, to which he stepped around careful of additional traps. There he found it hanging by the building’s wall, just barely hidden from sight of those who’d arrive from the south, a spiky ball of all manners of metallic objects held together by rope; if he could guess by the mechanism, tripping the wire would have resulted in a face-full of it as it swung towards them.

“Victoria.” He called. “Come here. Watch out for traps.”

After a pause, Victoria descended from the horse. Careful steps followed as she slowly made her way towards him, till she arrived and followed his gaze to find the spiky trap.

“Can you sense if it’s imbued?”

“Not with the affliction.” She answered.

His eyes fell upon the barn. Its great doors just barely lied open, as if it were an invitation. After a second of staring upon it, he took the first step forward towards it. Victoria followed him with her eyes, till soon after she followed suit behind.

Trap after trap followed. Numerous designs, numerous locations, some of which he dared not guess; sometimes, only a minuscule hint of a patch of grass growing at an angle ever so slightly different from the others gave away moved earth, and a pit of spikes underneath to give anyone’s foot a rough welcome. In due time, he arrived to the great door, and upon a glance to the opening, he found no trap therein, nothing that’d lead him to believe he’d receive a rough welcome in the shape of yet another harmful mechanism. He stepped past the opening, and rather than violence, the soothing calm of the interior where the rain fell not and the noises outside had been muffled greeted him instead.

An ordinary, bog-standard barn, of spacious emptiness below, and a second floor above, its floor starting a few steps ahead of him with a ladder leading up. After a quick inspection, he heard Victoria’s steps as she entered, though once hers ended, he came to hear the creaking of a few steps upon the wooden floor above. Up there he came to see someone’s head coming to view as it marched forward, his full body soon revealed as he walked and stood by the edge, staring down upon the paladin and the lilim.

“Bravo, Indrick.” Greeted Sigismund, who then walked to the ladder and climbed down. “Avoided all my traps.” He added, to then march to the back of the barn and return with his own horse, leading it by the reins. “Needed to find you and tell you of a few things I found. No reason for us to stay here with those dullahans chasing, so I’ll explain on the way.”

Sigismund walked past them to leave through the barn door with his horse, and when Indrick and Victoria walked out, the weather as welcoming as one would imagine, they saw him jumping up onto the saddle. Indrick then led the way back to his own horse, avoiding the traps the same way he once did without Sigismund needing to say a word, and upon arriving back to his horse, he jumped up and helped Victoria up. Upon the sight, Sigismund nodded aside to the north and marched off, for Indrick to follow beside.

“How long have you been here for?” Asked Indrick.

“Could’ve been half a day or so. Can’t tell with this weather.”

“I caught tracks of what could’ve been a few dullahans a couple hours ago. Seen anything?”

“On my way to the hamlet, no. Seemed like I was the first one there after it got abandoned.”

“Not even a trap or two left for us?”

“I’m as surprised as you are. With them not needing to sleep, eat, rest, or whatever else, they must’ve had all the time in the world compared to us. Have you seen one in person after we left Acerrae?”


“Then I suppose you didn’t find out the hard way. I was running scouting and distraction with Reynauld. Took a more eastern path than the direct one for the villa, the one you’re taking. We expected resistance in the shape of cultists, you know, those that decided to stay in the towns and villages that got hit by the affliction, but everything we saw was deserted. Villages, cities, pisspoor buildings in the middle of nowhere, all abandoned, whoever lived there gone, poof.”

“Animals? Pets?”

“Gone with them. The cultists don’t eat, so at least that’s one fear ruled out. Don’t know if the affliction can affect animals, or if it monsterizes them in order to actually affect them. Reynauld and I didn’t have much time to think about it anyway, since a few dullahans caught whiff of us, a small group of them. We lured them to a hamlet not unlike the one we just were in, fought them off easily, till one brandished some manner of polearm. Struck Reynauld square in the chest, sent him to the ground. That polearm had a hammer head, sharpened like a stake; pierced right through his armor. He was already getting visions of whatever wanted to visit him, but other than the affliction, he still looked funny. Turns out that what the hammer bent off his armor dug into his flesh with the hammer’s blow, so he was fighting both the affliction and the common demonic metal. I tore up that dullahan’s face a little, patched Reynauld up, then linked up with Maverick and Geoffrey. Left Reynauld with them.”

“I imagine they saw the same thing.”

“Correct. Asked them, they said they didn’t see a soul out there, just the same desolation everywhere. From there, it was seeing if I could get to that hamlet we passed before you did.”

“How soon do you imagine the dullahans getting those weapons in numbers?”

“Too soon for comfort. That strength of theirs would make even a sharpened slab tied on a club work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have one for each of them next time we see them, though it should be painfully easy for them to pierce our armor with their bows. Elven bows and dullahan strength already doesn’t sound pretty, without even mentioning the affliction not letting them get tired. Pure luck that we weren’t in much of a situation for them to shoot us up.”

Already the hamlet lied far, far beyond their backs when the first pause came to their conversation, a pause Indrick used to lower his head and process thought after thought.

“They must already know where Victoria is.” Said Indrick. “Rather than ambushing us in the hamlet, the dullahans must’ve gone to alert the others. They’ll start ignoring the other groups and converging on her.”

“I’d do the same, were I presented the choice of going up against a lilim with just a few paladins or gathering everyone first.”

“If that’s the case, we won’t reach the villa without getting swarmed. Is Fellsreach as desolated as I imagine it to be?”

“Don’t know. It should be. I could run some scouting on it.”

“I don’t think there’s enough time for that. We’ll have to leave it to luck. Use the time you’d have used on scouting to inform the others that we’re regrouping in Fellsreach. The others should spread the word as they are able.”

“Got it. See you in Fellsreach.”

A loud shout escaped Sigismund as he whipped the reins, before he galloped off ahead past them. With no more conversation to accompany their trip, the monotony of the wind and rain, along with the frequent thunder, claimed the world around them.

That no dullahans were met during the trip rang alarm bells, like a calm before a storm; not like any occurrence would’ve calmed his fears, for the dullahans would either be ambushing him, or gathering numbers for such task. All the way from the hamlet to Fellsreach, however, he saw nothing, not even a mere squirrel running about. At least, he imagined he didn’t see any; it had gotten brighter, bright enough to see a fair bit, the brightest it had ever been since Acerrae despite still looking like late dusk. Midday, mayhaps; the clouds still hid all semblance of time passage.

Same as the farmhouse, same as the hamlet, yet this time with the stone road to echo the horses’ steps through the nothingness which the weather drowned out. Building past building, abandonment led the way, some of which even had their doors left wide open, signalling what little regard for property or absolute hasty abandonment must’ve occurred; perhaps they inhabitants didn’t even imagine returning, as futile guessing cultist thought process was. Then, as if breaking through the monotony before his eyes, Indrick saw a paladin on horse a few blocks down raising his arm and waving to be seen, before turning and marching further into the city. He needed not figure out if the city had any manner of presence, with how it made itself apparent already. In relief over a friendly face, he kept on marching on his horse further ahead.

City center. The street ended in another, one which surrounded the plaza before them. There as he crossed the last building and stepped into said street, he saw around the others gathering. Seven paladins without counting himself, among which Indrick spotted Maverick, Geoffrey, and Reynauld, with Sigismund still missing. Must still be out and about, he imagined, just like the remaining eleven.

“Only us?” Asked Indrick as all gathered close. “No one at the city edges standing watch?”

“Only us.” Answered one. “Nobody has any certainty that the last one will arrive before the dullahans do, though.”

“Very well. Listen up, because I want everyone sharing this with those who arrive later. I’m confident we’ll all be here before the night passes, so the plan is to have all twenty of us here in one single group and break out in the dead of the night to disorient the dullahans chasing after us. They no doubt know where Victoria is and what path she’s taking, so if we stay divided, they’ll just ignore everyone else and go for her.”

Though Indrick spoke, those present couldn’t help but exchange glances with the lilim sitting behind Indrick; expressionless, Victoria could only return quick stares, unsure of how to react other than keeping silent.

“Ideally it’ll be the same as in Acerrae,” he continued, “and they won’t know what group she’s in for them to directly chase after before we reach the villa. Seeing as every group of dullahans will be converging here, even those who are not aware of Victoria’s whereabouts, I want everyone fully expecting this place to be crawling with them before the day ends.”

“Sounds too suicidal, even for us.” Asked the same paladin. “How is this better than just beelining for the villa?”

“They’ll catch up to us before we reach it.” Answered Indrick, turning his head to the paladin. “No need for rest, nourishment, sleep; only God knows how far they can march in one day, if they can’t just run nonstop twenty-four-seven. Best bet is to have them chasing fake targets.”

“What if they surround us so badly that we’re rendered unable to escape from this city? They must have over ten thousand dullahans alone, not counting cultists. I’m sure they can throw them here before the day is over.”

“I’d have to ask you the same regarding any and all places we think we can run to.”

“Point… taken. Question stands, though. What do we do?”

“Diomedes here asked a good question.” Said Indrick, now turning his head to speak to all present. “In case you end up overwhelmed, do not risk it. Leave Fellsreach, don’t worry about those still in the city. The only thing we’d risk so much for is the lilim, and we can’t let the dullahans be certain that she’s still here if they see her here at all. At best, they’ll imagine this as a distraction while she’s somewhere else, alone. We still have a fair bit of time left before the first dullahan arrives. Here are your orders: dig in, set up watch, spare no effort in preparing to survive till night. Understood?”

“Understood.” All answered in unison, to soon divide in small groups on their own and march off in their own directions.

Soon enough, Indrick was left alone with Victoria.

“Gonna need you to work with me here.” He said, just at a low enough tone for her to listen. “I want you to help me find a good hiding place, if the dullahans end up swarming the streets and we can’t get out.”

After a second of silence, Victoria hummed in acknowledgment.

Eleven marched along under the rain, formed in line with their feet squishing the mud of the road with each step. Bows on their backs, swords by their waist, and polearm over their shoulder, all marched along to Fellsreach without a moment of rest, slowly but steadily coming closer and closer. Their hair snuck out the hood of their cloaks to flow out upon their chest, soaked by the rain to stick upon the armor and clothes, at least that which wasn’t continuously blown away by the wind; eleven dullahans, marching silently in line.

“Derosa, to me.” Said the first dullahan in line.

At the order, the seventh dullahan down the line stepped aside and advanced with the four behind her following suit, till now two lines advanced towards Fellsreach. Two groups of five existed within the eleven dullahans, each with a leader, and the one at the very front leading them all; a familiar face for those within and without Nyarlathotep’s influence, that of Melanie herself.

“We’re almost there. I want your group to go forward and scout for ambushes in the southern extreme of the city. You’ll wait for us to join you, and only then will we go further into the city.”

“Should we detour for a stealthier approach?” Asked the dullahan.

Rather than returning an answer, Melanie stared forward, narrowing her eyes to the city of which buildings she could already see. Though attempting to see it all in full detail would require getting closer, she could already imagine a paladin or two watching them from one of so many windows and rooftops.

“No. I’m sure they’ll see us no matter what we try, if they aren’t looking at us already. Take the direct approach, we need to be quick.”

The answer Melanie received came in the shape of an action, that of the dullahan picking up speed and running forward with her group following behind.

The great doors they crossed had given hint to the interior of the building, enormous in size with its ceiling reaching high above. Few rooms they crossed before reaching this one, all now rendered puny in elegance and glamour, for even a carpet greeted them past the door, a lengthy carpet descending by a staircase, dividing it all in two before ending on a theater set. Rows upon rows of seats adorned the two fields the carpet divided it all in, all arranged in a semi-circle around the set descending in elevation with each row forward, with great balconies high above holding more seats still. An indoor version of that which existed in Victoria’s villa, he found, yet crippled by what dust and cobwebs had gathered through abandonment. Rather than a pristine clear atmosphere to lead them in, the stench of dust and heavy air filled his lungs, along with the humidity which had snuck in over the days. Regrettable to see it all in such state, leaving the mind to wander about as to how it would have been in its maintained state.

“This should be it.” Said Victoria, monotonous in voice.

Indrick stepped forward as Victoria remained by the door, marching on the carpet and staring in all directions, to the left and to the right, high above and down low, scanning the scenery till he came to a stop.

“It looks like the first place the dullahans would search in.” He noted.

“I imagine that’s why they won’t.”

“They’ll think we’d never go to such obvious place?”


“Hm. Or maybe they know we’ll think that way, and search here anyways.”

“Or maybe they know you’d think that, and skip it. We can do this all day.”

“Point taken. I suppose it’s up to luck. This is place is big enough to even hide the horse, though, so that’s a plus.”

“So, are we staying here?”

“Better than staying outside thinking things through.” He answered, turning and marching towards the door once more towards the outside.

Then, as he walked past Victoria, she spoke in a lower voice, prompting him to stop.

“For how long are we going to stay here?” She asked.

“Till night, at the very least.”

Silence followed, before Victoria turned her head to look at the interior in all its long-gone beauty. After a second, she stepped further in herself, leaving Indrick to stare for a second before marching outside once more. However, as he crossed room after room to the final one before the rainy streets, he heard hurried footsteps before seeing a paladin rush into the building and arrive to him. Reynauld, with Indrick now seeing the messy hole in his armor, and a messier attempt to fix up the clothing underneath.

“The dullahans are here.” Said Reynauld. “Around ten or so, but they’re split in two groups. Geoffrey gathered the others to keep a close eye on them. We’ve yet to see the other paladins arrive. “

“Only… ten?”

“Couldn’t get an accurate number, but yes, they’re awfully few.”

“Alright. Deal with them, but your main priority should be keeping yourselves in one piece. We’ll be hiding in this theater from now on. Should things get too overwhelming, all paladins should leave the city.”

“And leave you here?”

“Idea is that the dullahans believe we’re with you, with how it’d be nineteen guys in that group. That should be all.”

“Got it. I’ll spread the word.”

As quickly as he arrived, Reynauld rushed off. Indrick then stepped outside, with the cold rain hitting against his cloak once more, and marched towards his horse. It certainly would see the theater as a blessing, imagining it as a spacious stable where he’d be safe from the elements. Almost as if proving that thought true, the horse almost seemed to eagerly walk without a mere nudge required when he grabbed the reins and led it inside.

An hour later…

Sparse trees littered the great plaza’s grass fields by the cobblestone pathways in irregular intervals and placements, thick trees which Geoffrey’s group of five took cover behind. A moment of laxity and exposure would invite arrows from the east, those of the five dullahans which did the same a fair distance away. The spacing of the trees left room for movement, though risky still; just as one paladin rushed out of cover and dashed to the next tree, an arrow flew his way to impact against the trunk’s edge, tearing out a chunk of bark to leave the nakedness below exposed, though missing him by mere centimeters. At the same time, two other paladins who remained with crossbows ready let loose against the one who took the potshot, only for one bolt to strike the tree in the same fashion, and the other to embed itself in the trunk after striking it at a perpendicular angle. Such was the power of their elven bows and arrows, all designed with war in mind, unlike those of the cultists who had come from hunters and hobbyists at best, which arrows would’ve shattered had they gone through such stress. Though the latter had been too weak to pierce their armor, none dared test the strength of the former when added to a dullahan’s force.

Though the initial encounter had been a frenetic dash of both sides to the closest piece of cover, all turned static save for potshots and dashes from tree to tree for better line of sight. For every movement a paladin made, a dullahan lied at the ready for a shot, though so too did the reverse apply; for every movement a combatant made, so too were the others ready to retaliate with shots against he or she who let loose.

Peeking from behind his tree, Geoffrey then spotted a curious detail in the terrain. Towards the flank, the spaces between the trees seemed smaller by chance; a safer path to the flank of the dullahans, to achieve a line of sight where their opponents would no longer find any safe cover. Not just that, but the path led elsewhere far from the dullahans, meaning that the advantage the paladins had did not extend to the dullahans in turn; too much space existed for the dullahans to take it, leaving them exposed if they were to dash there.

“Merrick.” Called Geoffrey. “With me. Everyone else, cover.”

A glance to the side, and he found the paladin in question staring intently, silently acknowledging his call. A nod to the side from Geoffrey along with his finger drawing a semi-circle in the air, and Merrick behind his own tree noded in acknowledgement, made aware of the idea with a mere gesture.

Moments of inactivity passed; peeking from his tree, Geoffrey found the dullahans static, unmoving, remaining in their places just as the paladins did. Too long to prepare for movement; they must’ve decided on remaining still to attack any who moved out, if only because of the threat of crossbows all strung and ready to shoot immobilized them. Much as the elven bows proved their superiority in raw strength, the mere split seconds shaven off on how long it took to shoot gave the crossbows an unexpected advantage: all remained strung, without effort on part of their arms required to keep them as such, shot with a mere press of the trigger, whereas the dullahans all still needed to draw their bows fully before a shot.

“Go!” He said, rushing out of cover towards another tree, with Merrick following closely behind. Three arrows flew in quick succession, two missing and one tearing the bark of the tree Geoffrey arrived to, soon for Merrick to arrive to his own. At that moment, the three other paladins returned the greeting in kind. With a peek, he saw the dullahans now having the very edges of their bodies exposed, yet still too small of an area to shoot for. “At your pace, boy!” He said, rushing out of cover once more to keep on travelling the tree path; Merrick remained behind for a few seconds, before continuing as he saw fit.

He arrived to another tree, but as much as Geoffrey expected to see more of the dullahans, instead he found them moving out in the opposite direction, away not only from him but from those three paladins he had left. Merrick arrived to a tree nearby, to stare with just as much attention at what transpired, seeing the dullahans not even stopping despite the two of them having stopped.

“Hold fast!” He shouted. The three paladins, though still they had targets out in the open, ceased to shoot. The more they kept on watching, the further the dullahans ran, until they soon escaped sight, fully retreating towards the streets and into the buildings. The five exchanged glances, none saying a word, yet all understanding that they had figured out what Geoffrey was trying to do.

“Visual, behind us!” Shouted Maverick, one of the three left behind. All looked back, ready to rush to the other sides of the trees, though what movement Maverick had seen came to be five horsemen, armor glinting with the rain drenching it. A sense of relief engulfed them, with the five stepping out and regrouping, before marching towards the other five.

That sunken head, that disproportionately wide body, Geoffrey could recognize it even in the storms of Acerrae. The four others with them, none were of the remaining three they had entered Fellsreach with; reinforcements, as dearly needed as they were.

“Did I miss something?” Asked Sigismund, both ground arriving to each other.

“Dullahans.” Answered Geoffrey.

“Taken care of them?”

“No, they retreated. These afflicted dullahans are more disciplined than I expected.”

“Melanie has them on a leash. More groups are heading this way, though strangely enough the largest one any of us has seen just barely amounts to twenty. I’d have imagined they’d send their entire army our way, but God knows where they are or what they’re doing.”

Ideas on what to expect escaped him, though as much as he had no clue as to what he’d find, he neither had a clue as to whether he’d find anything at all. Exploration born out of boredom, the greatest, and a the same time the worst, time-killer at his disposal. Not much of interest could exist in a theater of all places, finding room after room nothing he’d shoot a glance for more than a second before moving on, with the monotony of his steps echoing throughout the structure following him like a too-determined stalker.

A creaking noise took over after the steps ended, that of him opening the door to a room, yet now his eyes met with what looked like a storage room. Though dark, he could still dimly see how instruments littered the room, taking up almost all space available other than a narrow line at the middle, just enough for him to fit through as he stepped in and stared around. Their quality, he found it lacking, though still slight surprise fell on him to see them so clean; must’ve been a well-designed room, if not even cobwebs or dust rested in sight. Couldn’t be dedicated instruments, however; perhaps those of the theater itself should the need present itself, as surely whoever played here brought their own.

One instrument in particular caught his eye, stopping right in front of it. A mere guitar, hidden past such mess of objects, some of which he didn’t even know what they were called. He reached for it with his hand and took it by the neck, then pulled it out. The other instruments around shook and creaked, a risk ever-present of making a mess by tipping them all over forcing him to take his time, until soon enough he finally had it in his hands. As much as he wished to hear how it played, one important detail prevented him from trying: He still had his gauntlets on, and it was no easy task to take them off. Decided, he walked out with the guitar, slowly marching hallway past hallway with his steps echoing behind him, until he finally arrived back to the stage. The noise of his feet changed from sharp, cold hits against solid ground, to the creaking of wood as he stepped on the set, walking his way to the frontal edge and sitting down before leaving his guitar aside; the height of the set from the floor was such that his feet just barely reached the ground.

First gauntlet off. Then, the second, left aside before he picked the guitar up again. Instrument on his lap, he plucked a few times just to find it so horribly out of tune. The hand which rested on the guitar’s neck moved to the very top, and after a few seconds of random noises, he finally found it fit for playing. But, he remained still, staring blankly into the void, attempting to remember how to play that old song in his mind, one of the few he knew.

Arms embraced him from behind, striking panic within him to the point he instinctively reached for his dagger as his heart nearly tore out of his chest. “Heeey~” He heard a familiar voice greeting; Victoria, no doubt, but though his panic subsided, clear confusion replaced it with just as much intensity, hearing her with a tone he’d have never imagined her having these days, along with the action she took just now. Then, he smelled it, a peculiar smell. A smelly smell smelling smelly, having made its way to him just as Victoria spoke.

The stench of alcohol.

Glancing down, there he found it in one of her hands, a suspicious bottle. Letting go of the guitar, he abruptly took it with enough for to remove it from her hand with an audible complaint from her, and when he turned it to see the front, he saw it. The exact same type of wine he had seen back in the old farmhouse.

“Did you not hear what I said about drinking?” He ranted, lowering the bottle. “Did you seriously sneak that wine into my bags?”

“Eehhh…?” She asked, heartbroken over her bottle taken away.

“Tsk… This is neither the time nor the place to get drunk.”

“But why…?”

“Now I have no idea no idea how your fighting got affected if we get found out, and God knows what the hangover will do to you.”

“I can fight just fine!” She boasted. “And– I, uh… What’s a hangover?”

“You don’t know?” He asked, baffled. “Have you ever heard of drunk people feeling awful after they recover?”

“I heard about that. It doesn’t happen with what demon realms make.”

“It… doesn’t? What? How?”

“Do you want to try?”


“Why?” She asked, to receive no answer. In turn, she slowly grew a smug smile. “It’s because of the demonic energy, isn’t it?” She added, to soon start giggling; first, slowly and in intervals, to grow near perpetual and uncontrollable, with her hand rising to be placed on her cheek as she smiled.

“What’s so funny?” He asked.

“I could drink some,” she said, tone reflecting glee, “remove the demonic energy in my mouth, and then… with a kiss…”

The implications lied clear to him. Though she still giggled and blushed, he stared onwards into the void, holding an expression close to the complete opposite of hers. Infinite dread, impending doom, that of a sheep surrounded by starving, rabid wolves. Her giggling only worsened his fear, as if the arm which still enveloped him had not been enough.

But, after a few seconds of silence on his part, he spoke again.

“I don’t want to see you turning into a drunkard.”

Her giggling abruptly ended, smile erased to be replaced with a blank expression, as if the words had left her in a state of surprise. She blinked a few times allowing the words to sink in, and as if they had brought her back to a basic state of awareness, she saw the guitar he held while returning her arm to envelop him.

“You knew how to play the guitar?” She asked.

“Somewhat. A song or two.”

“How come you never told me?”

“I had to learn in case I needed more to get on your good side, back when we first met.”

A pause.

“Can I hear it?” She asked.

“You won’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s grim. The idea was scrapped when Vandire and the others realized such a grim song was the best we had, at least among those that didn’t involve fighting monsters.”

“I don’t mind. I still want to hear it.”

A deep, tired sigh escaped him as he left the bottle beside him and affixed his hands on the guitar, mentally preparing himself and attempting to remember every last detail of that old song. Then, the strings rang out as he plucked them, a slow melody, still with a few minuscule mistakes in tempo and which notes to play, grown rusty over his hands finding greater practice at hacking people instead.

“Now that I can see, I’ll admit my mistake;” he sang, Victoria intently listening without making the most minuscule amount of noise, “we’ll show with great honor, how surely we break. We struggle within, yeah, we fight for the cause; but soon they’ll be upon us, and soon we’ll be lost… And so we fall, again; and so we fall, ag–“

Interrupted by an awful, sharp noise. That of the string breaking, startling him enough to move his hand away; to be hit by such whipping motion would’ve been an uncomfortable enough sensation, on top of the abrupt end of his attempt to sing. Defeated, he left his arms fall on the guitar without strength in them, just to stare aimlessly once more.

“That was… grim.” She could only say.

“That’s Nostrum for you.”

“Was that really what they were preparing for me, back then?”

“Yes. None of us would say we’re experts in love songs.”

“And if that’s the best you could find… Is there really nothing happier?”

“I wouldn’t know.” He answered, deciding to put the guitar weighing on his lap aside. “I’ve been too busy for most of my life to go around listening to bards.”

As he rested his arms on his legs, hunched over, each found the other not saying a word, with a deafening silence soon engulfing the theater itself; the expanse in all directions, the spacious room along with the high ceiling, seemed to give a sensation of echoing silence that just made it worse.

“I’ve been thinking, for a while.” She said. “I’ve got a question for you.”


“Have you ever smiled?”

No answer, for a few seconds.

“What makes you say that?” He asked, turning his head to the side in her direction.

“I just… haven’t seen you smiling at all, whenever we saw each other. Always grim, always… grumpy. Feels like you’re bottling in more than I can imagine, or that you just never been happy at all to the point you find normalcy in it. At least, from what I saw.”

He turned his head forward once more, pondering on and on.

“Was that smile of yours real, back then when we first met?” She added. “Or was it an act?”

“…An act.”

He heard her letting out a sigh, just as she removed her arms from him to move about. Next thing he knew, she had laid on the set’s wooden floor beside him, head pointing towards where his body pointed, staring at the ceiling high above with her hands under her head.

“So I was right, I never saw you smile.” She said.

“I do smile, every now and then.”

“When was the last time?”

“It was…” He attempted to say, just to not remember at all momentarily. “Back two cities before arriving to Acerrae when we set out for you, the bunch of us were setting camp for the night. We were eating stew. Reynauld was taunting Geoffrey for ending up with the bay leaf, which decides who cleans everything, only for me to pull one out of his stew and kill his laughter.”

A snicker escaped her, much as she fought it back. A snicker from her in such situation, Indrick thought, giving him a small sense of relief that at least she wasn’t a lifeless husk like she was back in Acerrae’s cavern.

“Smiling at someone’s expense. Ah, what have I become?” She said, faint traces of laughter reflected in her speech. “But, how long ago was that?”


“Days… I imagine things took a nosedive when this whole mess started, when you first set foot out of Nostrum. You said it yourself, you had the certainty that you’d lose. Must’ve been awful to hold in your heart.”

“It was. Just because we can persevere through it, doesn’t mean we’ve grown immune to it. All the contrary, needing to persevere implies it’s a difficult thing.”

“And that’s before Nyarlathotep popped out of nowhere. Sure makes one wish we could return to those good old days, when such horrors only existed in the mind.”

“The good old days…” He sighed, letting himself go back and laying down in the same manner as her, heads pointing in opposite directions as both stared high above. “Might’ve been those for you. Our good old days were back before your mother ascended. With Nyarlathotep showing me how those times were, I suppose I can say that with confidence.”

“How come?”

“At least we could kill monsters with ease, without remorse, without guilt. Ugly creatures interested in chaos and destruction, at least the bulk of those my kin fought. Now? We can’t bring ourselves to. Before, we had sadistic goat-men of vomit-inducing appearance, addicted to our screams in pain and agony, and now we have such things like a kobold running so happily across a wheat field, wagging her tail so innocently. The former is easy to fight, but who would dare harm such thing as the latter?”

“You never cease to surprise me with how grim your outlook on life is.”

“If life wasn’t so grim, there’d be no need for paladins.”

“And you’ve been living with this outlook your entire life?”

“I suppose.”

“Dreadful… It’s as if your chances in finding happiness had been stolen from you.”

“Better that way. I don’t think I’d have survived Nyarlathotep’s… whatever it was, were it not for that.”

“Can it not be both?”


“Remember what you said? Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best?”

“What are you getting at?”

At that moment, she sat up and looked at him with a smile, an expression Indrick returned with a blank one in slight wonder.

“Gotta be happy every once in a while. Not going to tell you just to cheer up with what we’ve gone through, but can’t have you giving up on it, can I?”

“I don’t get it. You want me to be happy, but there aren’t many things to be happy about.”

“I know. I’m not asking you to be happy, but to seek it. Mark it as your goal, for that fateful day where you come home, or to a safe haven should home no longer be there, to find something you can smile at, something which brings a tear to your eye, something… that makes it all worth it, just for that one single moment of joy. An unrealistic goal, knowing what both of us are chasing after and what awaits us in its path, but you said it to me back then. Unrealistic ideals can’t be shattered. The hopeless hope you talked to me about. Your infinite determination in seeing things through is admirable, but morale can still make or break even the strongest of armies. Give it up, and we’re just one step closer to falling off the deep end.”

Blinking blankly for a few moments, Indrick then turned his gaze high above, silent with thought after thought entering her mind. Soon after, Victoria stared far ahead unfocused.

“We had to disregard what our minds told us, to get here.” She added. “It told us to give up, we didn’t listen. But, rather than fighting against one’s mind, why not seek to make it aid us? The mind decides how to perceive things, and if it can find happiness in the little things…”

He then heard her chugging down on something. Turning his eyes to her, she found her drinking from the bottle again, making his eyes open wide and shoot for the place where he had left the bottle. Empty, gone, removed from its place. Much as he wished for her not to drink, he kept himself from acting upon it, staring till she lowered the bottle with a relieved gasp and a wide smile.

“Why am I getting life lessons from a drunkard…?”

“Why are you getting life lessons from a drunkard, Indrick?” She asked back, sporting a smile even smugger than before, much to his great annoyance.

“Who knows. The last life lesson I got from a drunkard was that even they would go get beaten up by a paladin.”

“Are you going to beat up this defenseless drunkard before you, Indrick?” She asked, still with such smile.

“Even if I wanted to, I’d not be able to, but you’re really trying to make me want to.”

“You’re a meanie, you know that?”

“I am not nice.”

“Then I’m gonna add that to my list of unrealistic goals. To see you being nice.”

“I implore you, don’t.” He said with zero energy in his voice, as if it were sarcasm for such imploration.

“Why?” She asked, moving herself to lie belly-down next to him with heads point in the same direction, still holding one bottle with her hand, yet placing elbow on floor and hand under her jaw. “I thought it was unrealistic enough. Are you telling me that… you plan on being nice to me, perhaps?”

No answered returned, to which she responded with a giggle. Still, her smile eased down as she pondered a thought, unfocusing her gaze.

“I’m probably not going to remember anything we’re talking about here, after I recover.” She said. “I’ve been thinking, for a while. You know how I said that I never saw you smiling?”


“I ended up making that one of my goals, without realizing. Proper-me would probably not tell you, and I trust you won’t tell her, but I realized that more than anything, I wanted to see you smile. Maybe it was because the first time it hit too hard, but… imagining you smiling at me, it just… makes me feel strange. It’s a minuscule thing, but despite that, or maybe because of that, it would make my heart race.”

“Just… me smiling?”

“Yes. One that isn’t forced, one that is natural, which is why it’s unrealistic considering what we’re going through. Took me a bottle of wine to get out of that corpse-like demeanor, after all. Demon Lord knows Jeremiah would probably be scolding me to hell and back, right now… But, I guess we’re not in the times when the most we had to worry about was a sudden rain ruining a walk in the park.”


“…You know what, give me a second.”

Before he could even ask for what, she disappeared in smoke. That dark smoke of hers, same as the time he had first seen her teleport, relieving him of fears of the affliction. Still, the question on her ability to do so while drunk popped up, leading him to imagine how she ended up arriving to wherever she went, although how drunk she truly was came to his mind. Did she drink enough wine to actually get drunk? Despite calling her a drunkard, she rather seemed to end up in that soft spot right before her physical and verbal finesse would take a nosedive. Was the wine in that bottle even similar enough to that of his nation to treat it the same? For all he knew, the most blackout drunkenness still left them fully able to do most things, a purely mental state not affecting the physical.

Her bottle lied on the wooden floor, he noticed, already almost empty, but as he took it and stared with greater attention to what it said, he found no clues on the matter. Dumb of him to try, he realized, as if it’d have been a medical bottle detailing primary and secondary effects.

Where she had disappeared, she reappeared again, standing tall. Raising his eyes, he saw her holding another guitar, extending it to him with a smile. He needed no words to figure out her intentions, to which he could only sit back up, leave the bottle aside, and receive it.

“I want to hear the rest of it.” She said, sitting down next to him and, much to his surprise at her daring, she leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder, while embracing him with her arms, only to remember her current state of mind.

“Even with how grim it was?”

“You sang nicely. Even if grim, I want to hear you sing it from where you left off.”

His gaze fell downwards to the instrument, tapping the wood a few times to get in rhythm within his mind. Then, with his hands on the strings, he played once small the slow melody as if the string of the first once had never broken.

“We’ll choose to be true, to life we’ve portrayed; assuming we’re given, a choice to be made. One of great envy, oh, this path that we chose; the moment we weaken, is the moment we lose.”

The running steps of four paladins tore through the dead of the night, squishing the water built up over the stone roads. Reynauld ran as the third in line, carrying the fifth in the group; Maverick, half-conscious over his shoulders. Panting on and on, all kept running forward as fast as their legs allowed, rain falling upon them relentlessly still.

They then turned into an alley, running in through the small corridor-like path and soon arriving to a door; the first in line opened it, all save for Reynauld stepped aside and placed themselves around the door in vigilance as Reynauld stepped in first. The remaining three then entered, with the last one closing the door behind them.

Water dripped off their drenched bodies into the already damp floor, dampened by fourteen other paladins within the room. Reynauld lowered Maverick to the floor, leaving him face up for him to weakly breathe without a word. There all saw between the shoulder and the chest, a small puncture through the cloth and armor, an arrow wound with the arrow long gone.

“There are too many.” Muttered Reynauld, letting himself drop to the floor in exhaustion, massaging his shoulder. “There must be hundreds infesting this city. I don’t think we’ll even be able to hide for long before someone looks here.” Running out of breath, he fell silent for a second, taking a deep breath to replenish his lungs. “We couldn’t get to Indrick and the lilim. There’s just no way through, too many searching parties. Couldn’t even spend a second trying to figure out how to sneak through them before we got found out.”

Silence reigned in the room. Among the paladins, Sigismund stepped forward to glance at Maverick, then aimlessly stare into the void in thought.

“He did tell us what to do should this happen.” Said Geoffrey.

“Right.” He sighed. “Everyone, pack up. Get ready to make noise.” He ordered, to which those around him obliged.

Reynauld then saw Sigismund returning his stare to Maverick, knowing without words needed what he wished. He lightly tapped Maverick’s cheek, annoying him enough to groan as if he had just woken up. Reynauld then stood up and extended his hand, left hanging for a second as Maverick rubbed his face with, unable to tell till it was too late, his drenched leather gloves. He shook his head, looked at Reynauld’s extended hand, and then extended his own, to then be aided up to his feet.

Pitch black. That was all he could see out the window, staring through as it lied high above. No more lightning fell for him to see past the darkness, leaving it all in permanent, blinding shadow outside; a calming scenery if nothing else, to finally see a night were his eyes would not burn with such abrupt alterations in light, and where all noise that existed had been merely reduced to the likes of a simple light summer rain.

He turned his head to look back, seeing Victoria’s dimly illuminated figure sitting by the edge of the set, quiet and still as if she were a statue, staring below with heavy eyes. Only a candle by the floor served as any source of light; any greater brightness, and his paranoia would infest his own thoughts, of whether the dullahans would see it or not. Through the darkness, he could see no noticeable movement, her cheery demeanor in her drunken state having faded away, her mind having fully recovered. Whether it was true recovery for her mind, however, Indrick could only wonder; the stark contrast from what little happiness she achieved, now reduced to a lifeless husk reminiscent of her time in the cavern.

Quiet steps followed as he made his way to her, soon standing by the candle which now illuminated them both. Not even a turn of her eyes greeted him, a lack of acknowledgement of his existence he had already grown to consider normal.

“The difference between the time you were drunk and now is… jarring.” He said.

As if he had not said anything at all, all remained quiet and silent. After a few seconds, he stepped forward and sat down next to her.

“What will we do once we reach the villa?” She asked.


A quiet sigh escaped through her nose. “It feels like I’m waiting for the ship to sink.” She said. At the same time, the candle flickered over having almost run out, all the molten wax building up at the base.

“One wonders what the captain of the ship must be going through…”

“Nothing pretty, I imagine. He’s probably the one who knows best that they’re not getting out.”

“Any captain would know it.” He said, to then slowly turn his eyes to Victoria. “But how does he behave, knowing what will happen?”

“What do you mean?” She asked, locking eyes with him.

“In any tail of a sinking ship, the captain always remains stern and disciplined, does he not?”

She could not answer, stuck with though after thought crossing her mind, unsure what to make of it.

“He certainly doesn’t break down, even though deep down he’s as frightened as the crew. Maybe… the crew even sees that as an example, and push themselves to face the end with dignity. It’s the only thing they have left, after all. The last few dullahans in the villa will certainly need their Lady in the same manner.”

Though she looked at him in thought, soon her sight lowered. Her head then turned away, looking once more to the candle.

“I envy them.” She said. “Having someone to look up to… I have nothing.”

“Tragic, is it not?” He said, turning to see the same little flame. “The ones who bring hope in the darkest hour have nobody to receive hope from. They are alone, in the dark.”

‘In the dark’. The words resonated within her, seeing how the darkness encroached around the weakening flame of the candle.

“We’re like that candle, are we not?” He said. “There’s only darkness around us, and sooner or later… it will engulf all.”

The pause in his words led her to stare on and on with her tired eyes, as if hypnotized by the flickering fire in front of her.

“My father once told me that we paladins are like that candle in the dark. I never truly understood it until I saw both Nostrians and Varilandians throwing their lives away to get the few of us out. We saw no hope around us, only sacrifice after sacrifice for little to no gain, but they stood tall and defiant till the end, since we were their hope. There is no beacon of hope to guide us, no light to illuminate our path, no cavalry to save us, nor heroes to arrive in the darkest of days… because we are meant to be all of those. The light that illuminates sees nothing but darkness around it, but those who find themselves in the dark will gather by its side. That is what it means to be a Paladin of Nostrum: Not to have the physical strength to fight, but to have the unbreakable will to stand tall in the darkness for the sake of those who can not. You must never give up, no matter how much you may want to.”

Silence befell the room. Though she remained expressionless, soon she narrowed her eyes. A frown grew on her, to then grit her teeth as she closed her eyes. When a sob escaped her, she brought her hands to cover her face. At that very moment, Indrick brought his arm around her and pulled her close. More sobbing came out, till she wrapped her arms around him in turn, for him to then embrace her fully.

“I’m sorry…” She sniffed. “I’m sorry… It must’ve been hell on earth for you to put up with me on top of what happ–“

“I don’t care. If you found yourself again, I don’t care.”

With one arm around her and the one over her head, Indrick kept quiet and still, never breaking the hug. Once more silence reigned, her sobbing having ended yet the hug still remained.

After a few seconds, however, Victoria leaned away, gently separating from him and ending the embrace. Indrick then saw her trying to rub the tears away, and rather than wait, he rummaged through one of his pouches and extended to her a dry cloth. As if surprised, she stared at him before looking at the cloth, to then accept it.

“How humiliating…” She muttered, drying her cheeks to then return the cloth.

“Humiliating…?” He asked. Before a reply, he saw her reach for her peaked cap beside her on the floor, to then put it on and arrange it in place. No longer did her eyes sport that tiredness and hopelessness, but instead he saw her almost frowning. A fire in her eyes, telling well the anger and indignation of her newfound mindset seeking to make up for all the time since the cavern.

“To have you see me in that state.” She added, to then stand up. That she had done it on her own with no pressure on her part, and that it was her the first one to do so from the two, made a smirk appear on him. “You gave me the choice, and I’ll answer it here and now. I will not expire… I will hold fast.”

“Then so be it.” He answered in almost a boast, standing up in turn. “It’s dark enough outside. The others must’ve already left. Our next stop will be the villa.”

Jumping down from the set, he extended his hand to her, who took it before jumping down herself. The two then departed, leaving the candle still burning where it stood; thought it had flickered on and on with near no life left, still it shined brightly after the two had left the room.

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