A month later...
Five hundred riders stampeded through the south-eastern plains of Variland, with Valerian at the head of the dullahan formation. Seas of grass surrounded them, and a cacophony like that of a million drums dug into their ears with the strength of their horses' steps. At full speed, they chased after their own kin, dullahans like them yet with a dark uniform instead, having seemingly ditched the heraldry of Variland, numbering a similar quantity. Traitors, for motives unknown.
Their chase led to a forest in which the dark-wearing dullahans ran into without delay. However, Valerian instead gave the order to halt as he arrived to the forest edge. Having lost sight of them as soon as the turncoats entered, the silence of Valerian's group allowed them to hear the galloping within the forest growing quieter with each second that passed. Soon afterwards, however, countless footsteps could be heard behind them; the rest of Valerian's diminute army, of a thousand infantry and half of archers.
Cavalry. Pikemen. Archers. None would do well in a forest; his fears long ago of growing overconfident in the design of the army had caught up with him. Nonetheless, he waited till the rest of the army caught up, and formed up in front of the forest. When he saw them all standing in place, with none left to march here, he turned to his officers.
"I want everyone to know that they should be ready to drop their pikes and fight with their rapiers; the woods are absolute hell for formation." He said. "Cavalry at the flanks to scout, and should either fight off their cavalry if they find them or flank whatever infantry we meet, in that order of priority. Archers are now infantry, so they better remembering their training. I also want the infantry formations to spread out, just enough that they won't surround us all with one maneuver, but not so far apart that they can pick us off little by little. Understood?"
"Yes, sir." Answered the dullahans before marching off to relay the instructions to the rest of the army, though Indrick couldn't help but notice the anxiety in their voices. It came to be expected for him, as they had been picked in a hurry with just a few tests to be officers; for all he knew, some would've been better off remaining in the lower ranks.
Little by little, the army arranged itself as he demanded. Four groups of cavalry, two on each side, flanked the main body of infantry. The infantry had formed in their companies of two hundred each, keeping sufficient space between each company, while the archers did the same in two companies of two hundred and fifty each instead. The officers soon returned, and with a gesture of his arm, he gave the order to march.
The two forward-most groups of cavalry advanced first, followed by Valerian and the infantry, and finally the last two groups of cavalry. As they stepped in, they found it just dark enough for their eyes to need a second to adapt; staring high, barely any light got through the treetops down towards them. As expected, the trees made formations erratic if not chopping them as they advanced, though the space between the formations allowed them to just maneuver past and regroup each and every time. At least the terrain itself remained flat, rather than uneven hills and unpassable landmarks that'd throw the cohesion of the army itself in disarray. Their footsteps drowned out all noise and the trees blocked all vision past a short distance, rendering them effectively blind, though they still marched for what must've felt an hour.
Horns rang out from front left. Valerian raised his palm and turned his head towards the sound, with his army soon starting to stop, but before long more horns rang out from front right, back right, and then back left. An ambush, though his mind ran circles trying to comprehend how they coordinated it so well if his army had been spread over so much land; he didn't hear any signals from them either, as if they had been using telepathy.
"Form circle!" He shouted. "Form circle!" He said again, with the dullahans soon running one way to the other as he made his way to the center of the army.
Compared to the slow march, the rushed movement of over a thousand dullahans attempting to march into new formation under the stress of an imminent attack deafened all, almost completely drowning out the sound of the horns. The dullahans in their hurried steps blocked his path for seconds as dozens at a time ran in front of him, though soon he reached the center and, upon looking around, they formed a thick line many ranks deep in the shape of a circle around him.
Then, he saw them. The dullahans in dark attire, coming from the woods towards them. Past the trees he first saw a few, but as they got past more came to sight behind them, flooding in, with the rumbling earthquake following them. To the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west, dullahans in numbers arrived towards them. As soon as they got within a few steps from the line, shouts rang out in the air en masse, never to stop from then on as Valerian saw both lines meet all around him, with pikes lowered as those struck fell, others throwing them aside as they resorted to the rapiers, and the sound of combat joined the cacophony. Upon noticing that not a single one of those dullahans used pikes, all instead with their rapiers, Valerian knew that his opponents understood well the strengths and weaknesses this forest forced upon both sides.
As much as he desired to join them, he knew he could not. He must've known how to fight better than anyone on both sides, and yet, he forced himself to stay in the center. His position of leadership demanded it; no longer was he a mere amateur fighter, and now he had to keep a keen eye on all that was happening. What was happening, however, he could only describe it as 'combat' without much variety, since all around him lines fought against each other in a brawl; no room for flanking, no room for tactics, no room for anything but fighting whoever one had in front. Torn by the temptation of unsheathing his longsword, he stared on for what felt like an hour, seeing the line slowly encroaching upon them, shrinking at a steady pace without signs of stopping, with dullahans on both sides falling to the ground with each stab from pike or rapier, and with the ever-present cacophony getting closer.
But at that moment, he saw the enemy line moving. The dullahans at the front, and those at the back, ceased fighting and began moving aside in the same direction while shouts still echoed throughout their lines. Only when Valerian saw his cavalry returning from the direction they ran from, did he realize it was a rout, with all the dark-dressed dullahans running north, leaving his dullahans staring baffled and in relief, panting, exhausted. Little by little, the mini-earthquake moved further and further, both of the routing forces and the cavalry chasing after them, until it died down to a mere rumble afar. A glance around revealed to him his forces looking at each other, only three quarters in number, too tired and shocked to even cheer despite some having smiles on their faces, slow and quietly moving aside to give breathing room to the others after being squished together in such a brutal melee.
"Pick the others up and get ready to leave. Take as many prisoners as you can to interrogate." He remarked off-handedly to those beside him, before marching on his horse past the line and dismounting. Around him, piles of those unconscious, both light-dressed and dark-dressed, lied on the floor, all monsters of the same kind.
But before he could inspect one of the traitor dullahans, he saw her turning into a strange smoke. Seemed electric in aesthetic, red and black rather than the usual burning smoke he had seen, disappearing in a split second with an erractic sound of soft static lingering on the wind. More and more noises followed, and as he looked around in fright, he saw the rest of the bodies of the traitors disappearing in the same fashion, also seeing his forces staring with the same silent shock. Soon, no bodies of the opposing force remained on the ground.
For every step Indrick took, a squishing noise followed; the seemingly eternal rain had left the dirt road as a long path of mud, with each and every step presenting a risk of sending him face-first down below. The suffocating humidity in the air snuck into his throat with every breath, making it an honest dilemma to either breathe or hold one's breath; the heavy rain hit on his cloak like hammers, and he could swear he felt some of the drops sneaking onto his skin; the dark, moon-less night blinded him past the few meters his lantern shone; the slums left much to be desired, as the deep hours of the night left no lights within the houses to guide him, and only his lantern stopped him from hitting anything in his path. So many things he could complain about, and yet the dark glint of his rosarius had forced him to march out in the god-awful weather, at a time everyone save for him slept. Too dark, too cold, too damp. Had it been any other thing demanding his attention, he knows he'd have tried his hardest to have someone else sent.
He came to a halt, partly over not wishing to take any more risky steps over the mud, and reached for his rosarius. The black glint shined darker, and as he then glanced at the buildings, he couldn't help but come to the conclusion that the sources of the glint lied everywhere around. Same glint as Acerrae, at least back when he and the others first entered. No way in hell he'd look further all on his own, and so turned around and left towards the inner city. Perhaps the governor would grant him some reinforcements, even if they merely act as meatshields and distractions should things go bad.
With the first step he took over the stone streets, the noise and sensation felt like a chorus of angels greeting him, no longer condemned to march over treacherous mud. A couple strong steps shot the leftover mud from his boots, no longer feeling the squishing of it anymore, instead feeling the hard steps and sharp noise over the street. The further he walked in, the more lights he saw, just enough to guide him with his lantern merely illuminating his immediate path.
Stopping on his tracks, he turned and found a man gaiting towards him, almost stumbling with every step. He took out his rosarius and checked, yet the black glint had lowered to a mere hint, ruling out the idea that he could be one of the afflicted. A drunkard, perhaps, and soon he confirmed it by the stench of alcohol in the air and the bottle in his hand.
"Ye feelin' nice n' all? Comfy 'ere?" Asked the drunkard, soon stopping in front of him.
"What do you want?" Asked Indrick, turning to face him. The dunkard seemed to be awfully friendly, enough to ring an alarm in his head; smiling, yet not honestly, the type of smile that had the cheeks not rising to narrow the eyes.
"Oh, ye knows, just curious is all... Serviss to Nosturumum n' whatnot... Gotta 'elp the country, ain't I?"
Indrick couldn't help but narrow his eyes, skeptic while the drunkard took another lengthy chug down his bottle. Upon emptying it, however, the drunkard threw the bottle at Indrick, who managed to dodge it; the sound of glass breaking echoed aloud in the rainy night.
"The lot of ye ruined me life, soulja boyz!" Screamed the drunkard, stepping closer to him as he backed off. "Ye just fookn had to tax us dry for dis bloody war! I lost errythin! Me farm, me house, me wife is starvin' and ain't got no gold for a doc to see me kid!"
Indrick then stopped and quickly put his lantern down on the ground. The drunkard, having reached him, threw his fist towards him, but Indrick parried it, grabbed his arm and neck, and threw him against the ground. The drunkard didn't get up, nor did he make a whimper, as if his drunkenness had gotten the best of him after the push. He picked up his lantern and gazed around, to see how a couple of people that could be counted with one hand looked from a few alleys and sidewalks. A paladin beating up a drunkard won't do much good to their image, much less if that drunkard was known. Fighting back the urge to sigh, he walked off further into the city.
After a while, he arrived to the governor's manor, with a fenced frontal garden separating the sidewalk from the manor's door. Luxurious, with the garden spanning a good fifty meters in length, to say nothing of width, adorned with flowers, fountains, and statues, like the snob the governor was. At least, that's what he heard the governor was like; unwilling to risk it, he didn't even meet him when he arrived to this city, and only now did he see for the first time his building. He found no servants in sight, however; was he supposed to shout out loud to have someone unlock the gate for him? At that moment, he noticed how the gate had already been slightly open. A gentle push, and the gate opened with a sharp creak before he walked in. No servants, gate open, already did he consider them bad omens. He took his rosarius and looked, only to find it shining black once more. No doubt about it now, but a strange silence emanated from within the manor.
The front door also remained open in the same manner. Instead of opening it, he peeked through the minuscule space it had. He could only see one of the walls inside with what angle it allowed him to look at, but his eyes caught sight of paint smeared on the wall, with unspeakable shapes drawn. It didn't look like anyone was inside, however, and the silence pointed to abandonment. With his hand on his rapier's hilt, and other on the lantern, he quietly pushed the door open with his shoulder. The view inside revealed how all the walls shared the same dark paint, a mess of sorcerous iconography and eldritch sigils, with a gigantic circle on the floor infested with otherworldly runes. Looked like a scene straight from the wildest propaganda The Order could muster.
Footsteps. Just one person, however. He followed with his eyes where he heard them, hearint it slowly coming closer, till through an open door opposite to the entrance a woman walked in with a smile, looking at Indrick with no surprise at all. One of Victoria's dullahans, Indrick realized, though her attire had thrown him off: The bright white-and-blue coat of Variland she once had over her chainmail now looked black and violet. The crest of Variland, the blue lotus flower, was no more, instead replaced by a strange icon. The outline of a yellow circle, with three lines of the same color coming from the center outwards; a three-lobed eye. A gray scarf covered her neck, almost reaching up to her mouth, and her long chestnut hair flowed down without curves to her chest. A peculiar detail Indrick noticed was the darkness under her eyes. Similar to the ones one achieved through horrible sleep if any at all, but for some obscure reason Indrick felt like unholy influences had caused them, influences unholy even to the Demon Lord herself.
"You look familiar." He said.
"Do I?" Asked the dullahan, stopping and then staring at him with an undying grin. "Who might I be?"
"Since when is it my job to introduce you? Do it yourself, you lazy bum."
A slow chuckle escaped her as she lowered her head. Afterwards, she bowed in an overly-elegant manner, with hand by her chest and the other extended aside.
"My name is Melanie, and I'm the general of the dullahans you must've seen after Makillae's fall." She said, before straightening back up.
"The ones with that strange color on their coats?"
"The very same."
"I've personally seen none. Vandire must have. Has Victoria been appointing new generals, now that her army has grown in size?"
Melanie brought her hand to cover her mouth, supressing a laugh as her smile grew from ear to ear.
"Oh, little paladin. Don't you know that we serve a higher cause? She's not even with us, as if that dork wasn't afraid of her own shadow."
Confusion set itself in within Indrick, frowning silent though with hand still over his rapier's hilt.
"So you're telling me this isn't Victoria's doing." He said.
"Do you honestly believe she'd be able to do anything with any degree of competency? It took her... what, months to bring down Makillae? You could ask Vandire what we've done in this month alone. I've crossed swords with him more than once in the numerous cities we took from him."
Curious, and with a thought in his mind, he let go of the rapier and instead took his rosarius. Expecting a warm glint, he looked and instead found it shining black. The action only gave him an endless stream of questions, seeing a monster giving a glint similar to Nyarlathotep's and Acerrae as a whole, even though it had shined differently when Victoria and her dullahans had snuck into Makillae.
"This is another city you're starting to take over, isn't it?" He asked.
"It is." She answered, stepping aside towards one of the walls and gazing at the iconography. "Now that the governor's been taken care of, and the cults in the outskirts are starting to spread, it'll be only a day or two before the entire city is ours. Vandire will then arrive to see if he can salvage anything, only for us to cross swords again, if we don't decide to immediately leave and do the same with another city. It's not like all fifteen thousand of us are always together anyways, more things are going on elsewhere as we speak."
"Who do you serve, then? Have you disregarded Victoria to serve the Demon Lord directly, or some other subordinate?"
"Demon Lord?" Asked Melanie, turning her head towards him still with her grin. "Only idiots would serve such a false god. Which reminds me..." She said, turning to face him and unsheathing her sword. "Victoria ordered us all to not even lay a finger on you. I suppose I no longer have to follow that order."
He raised a finger towards her, confusing her, though leaving her curious enough to stand still and see what he did. He slowly moved it through the air, and to her absolute surprise, Indrick turned to smoke. Eyes wide open in shock, she tightened the grip of her sword and stared around, to find him nowhere.
When Indrick snuck into the house in the dead of the night, he found it glaringly empty. The study room greeted him with its darkness, without a single lit candle and a pristine clean fireplace. In fact, all seemed almost too clean, too orderly, with signs of clear maintenance yet of nothing that would require it. Marching inside towards the bedroom, he found it closed, and peeking through the hole only revealed a blinding, pitch-black darkness; placing his ear against the door, he heard nothing within either. A quick glance aside, and he also found the desk of the study room clear, contrary to his expectations of a mess of books and papers.
Footsteps by the door. Startled, Indrick dashed into the kitchen. He waited in the darkness, hearing how the footsteps came closer till someone turned the knob and opened the door, creaking loudly just by how silent the house was. The footsteps walked in and stopped, the door creaked closed, and the steps resumed further in till a halt once more. Then, the person within let out a sigh, with Indrick noticing it coming from a woman. Careful, he peeked past the corner of the doorway just enough to see into the study room, to find that it was a kikimora holding a candle, staring low and aimless, spacing out with a face of blank sorrow partly illuminated by the small, warm light. Soon, she resumed her march, slowly walking towards Victoria's closed bedroom, and then opened the door to walk inside.
With silent steps, he moved towards the bedroom, following the light. He reached the doorway and saw the kikimora within now staring at the bed, though with her back turned to him. He took a few more steps and, once close enough, he rushed towards her without any regard for noise and wrapped his arms around her, suppressing a scream with his hand over her mouth. The fright and violent grapple made the candle fall to the floor, which Indrick then stomped and extinguished. More screams tried to escape, with equally strong struggling trying to fight him off, but his strength was too much for her to beat.
"Shh-shh-shh-shh!" He whispered, with the kikimora still desperately attempting to break free. "I won't do anything to you! I'm only looking for Victoria!"
She then stopped struggling, but still shook immensely in fear.
"I'm going to move my hand away, but in exchange I don't want you screaming, alright?"
Her silence seemed like a proper enough response, and so Indrick slowly removed his hand, but it still did not calm her shivering.
"I need you calm before anything. Say, what's your name?"
"M-Marie..." She answered in her quivering voice.
"Mine is Indrick. I'm a paladin, but you don't have anything to fear, I'm not here looking for a fight. Has Victoria been around here lately?"
"It... it wasn't you?"
"Victoria disappeared, and we all thought Nostrum did something to her. It wasn't Nostrum?"
"Believe me, if we had something that could have been effective against her, we wouldn't have saved it till now. How did she disappear? Where did she go to last?"
"To the south-east, with an army. Neither she nor her army returned, and Valerian has been fighting dullahans lately--"
"Who is Valerian?"
"Someone who has been helping us, a man with a living armor wife. He's the only one with full proper armor around here because of that, and now that Victoria isn't here he leads what little army we have left."
"Ah, yes. I can recognize him now. What about him fighting dullahans? What happened exactly?"
"Nobody knows. All we know is that they suddenly showed up after Victoria and her army disappeared. Most think it might be them."
"I see... You said she headed south-east, right? Know why?"
"To check on a few cities. The mayors were saying that they saw some people turning deli--"
"Yes. How did you know?"
Slowly, he let go of her, though rather than break for it to escaped, she merely took one slow step forward and then turned to him. However, he said nothing as thought after thought rushed through his mind, before he turned and left.
It took him most available daylight to arrive to a city where his rosarius shined black like the night around him, giving away a recent takeover by forces unknown. That it shined within Variland and confirmed what Marie had said created more questions than answers, for the dark forces the dullahans now served showed allegiance to neither Order nor Demon Lord, a third faction none seemed to know of.
Just like Acerrae, silence engulfed the city, leaving the noises of steps on the road to stand out without a whisper or hum to be heard. Said noises, repetitive as they were, started to bring him annoyance, though his attention shifted elsewhere upon noticing that those people he walked past behaved like those in Acerrae, though without the stares. The monsters he passed, succubi in great majority, didn't bat an eye to his presence; curious, he walked in the same path of a succubus, but it only resulted in bashing shoulders and a resumed march. Indrick looked back, but the succubus did not say a thing, nor even turn with a scorning expression, as if nothing had happened. Checking his rosarius, he found it diminishing in strength ever so slightly the further she walked away, but never with the warm light he had been used to, instead with its abyssal color.
He immediately reached for his rapier's hilt and snapped his head to the voice. Too familiar to be a stranger, and too unknown to pin-point who. Didn't help that it came from a man, ruling out any monsters that might've known him. Then, there he found him coming from an alley, a cloaked man with a scarf, with worn out clothes underneath, walking just enough to come out of the corner and look aside, as if checking for anyone who saw before returning his eyes to him.
"Long time no see." He said as he moved back his hood and took off his scarf, revealing awfully silver skin, with pitch-black circles under his eyes, along with messy, uncombed hair. His face, along with a few stitches in peculiar places shown as he took off his scarf, made Indrick let out a rough sigh in annoyance, for he recognized the man as none other than Jeremiah.
"You people aren't known for staying dead, are you?" Asked Indrick.
"You don't sound surprised."
"Nothing surprises me anymore. So, are you back for round two or something?"
"No, and I'm sure you aren't either." He answered, putting his scarf and hood back. "You're looking for Victoria, correct?"
"Not to kill her, before you ask."
"I am aware of what's been going on lately on the eastern part of the border. I think we both have something to win if we try not to kill each other again for the time being."
"Let's assume I trust you." He said, letting go of the rapier. "What do you suggest?"
"I take it you've just arrived here? I've been checking this city for a while since the first rumors. Found a couple places that have... things drawn in them. I don't think it's just for looks, but there were no signs of whoever drew them. We could go check them again."
"You want me to follow you around into strange places despite me killing you and trying to kill Victoria? Right..."
"Almost word by word what Dirk told me you'd say."
A frown popped in his expression. "...Dirk? What?"
"We had a talk, down there in the underworld. After he found out what was happening, he told me to find you if I could, that you might be of aid. He said you wouldn't trust me no matter what I said, so..." He reached within his cloak and rummaged, before taking out an envelope and extending it to him. "He told me to give you this. It should be proof enough that it wasn't the affliction altering his mind."
Silent and immobile, he stared at the extended envelope with infinite skepticism. Slowly, he extended his hand towards the envelope, taking a few steps closer, until, just within reach, he snatched it off his hand and backed off. Jeremiah, on the other hand, didn't react nor flinch, holding his now empty hand in the exact same posture for a second before lowering it. Indrick then noticed the envelope weighing more than it would with a mere letter inside, finding a bump on it of a circular shape and the width of the envelope itself. He opened it and took it out, to then open his eyes wider as he saw a purity seal inside, none other than one of those Dirk himself had on his armor; a pair of lengthy parchments hanging together by a wax seal, with the emblem of Nostrum imprinted upon it. That it remained mostly intact gave him all the proof he needed. Dirk himself had put it in the envelope, for the mere touch of any person afflicted by demonic energy would destroy it. Within the envelope also rested a letter, lengthy and thick in paragraphs, but as much as he wished to read it, he felt that spending more time than necessary in such place would only do him harm.
"You've got a lot to explain when we're done." He said, putting the seal back in the envelpe and closing it before putting it in one of his pockets.
"And I will, provided we don't return to our old ways."
"Just one thing."
He took out his rosarius, walked up to Jeremiah, and moved it close. The rosarius shined that old, golden light, free from the dark corruption.
"Something the matter?" Asked Jeremiah.
"No, nothing." He said as he tucked it under the neck of his clothes. "Lead the way."
"...That place?" Asked Indrick, staring at numerous monsters entering a tavern a block away. The only life they saw in the surroundings, barely a couple monsters around them, seemed to converge into the building.
"Yes." Answered Jeremiah. "Know what they might be doing?"
"You expect me to know?"
"They've been fairly active on your side of the border, I've been told. I'm sure you must've seen what I described at least once."
"I saw it, once, though I think I arrived when everyone had left already. Don't know what they're doing either."
"Only one way to find out, then." Said Jeremiah as he took one step forward, though Indrick immediately grabbed him by the back of his clothes and stopped him in place. "What?"
"They're gonna catch us if we go there."
"When I went to a city under their influence, everyone stared at me and two other guys with me the moment we arrived. They might know who is under their affliction or not."
"Are you certain it's that, and not that they saw you as an outsider when you arrived?"
Indrick fell silent without a response. He let go of Jeremiah's back, and slowly stepped forward with Jeremiah following a short distance behind. Still with doubt in his mind, Indrick walked closer tavern's door, though as much as he imagined his presence would cause a response, none of the few monsters marching inside even glanced at him.
"Told you." Said Jeremiah, passing by inside, with Indrick soon picking up the pace and following him in.
No more than a dozen and a half monsters stood within the remodelled tavern, with all furniture thrown aside to the edges of the room, though similar to the governor's manor, Indrick found it all smeared with eldritch imagery wherever his eyes fell. The two made their way through the tiny crowd, till they gained sight of the center all watched at, to find three dullahans standing at the edge of a circle painted on the ground, along with a man at the center, immobilized by rope and with a cloth on his mouth, desperately struggling. Curiously enough, Indrick noticed the dullahans with the same circles under their eyes like Melanie, though Jeremiah took a step forward and put himself in front of Indrick.
"What are you doing?" Whispered Indrick.
"They'll recognize you. Take your helmet off, I don't think they ever saw you without it."
"What about you?" He asked, taking off his helmet. "Think they won't recognize their old general?"
"That's why I look like a damn dead hobo with the hood and scarf."
The noise of footsteps brought their attention forward again, to see this time a fourth dullahan arriving from the back door with a sword, mundane and unremarkable in design.
"Oh Gods from the deep beyond and its infinite reach!" She preached almost in boast, walking closer till she stood at the edge of the circle, on a spot seemingly reserved for her; the point furthest away from the crowd, while a dullahan stood at the left and right each, and the fourth stood with her back to the crowd closest to them. "We thank you, abyss deep down under, for allowing us to spread word of your greatness to more of our overground kin! Let the last of those in this city who have so behemently opposed your holiness be shown the unending expanse of your realm!"
The dullahan slowly stepped forward into the circle, with the hostage helplessly trying to worm away, until he lied paralyzed in fear upon seeing the sword pointed at his chest.
"Let those still far from your reach know that mercy may not be kind, but kindness still has its place, for the blindness of the false gods will be cast away by the gifts you have given us!"
With both hands, the dullahan raised her sword holding it in reverse, and soon after lowered it against the one on the ground, stabbing him through the chest. Indrick and Jeremiah twitched their eyes; however, they saw no blood coming out, and heard a muffled gasp escaping the man's mouth. Even as the sword slid out, the man did not say nor do a thing, instead stared with eyes wide open towards the ceiling high above, with a tear soon making its way down his cheek.
The dullahan closest to the crowd stepped up to him and crouched, brought her hands to his mouth, and carefully untied him before going through with the rest of the ropes, but no matter what freedom he was given, the man did not move. Only his deep, erratic breathing could be heard past the noises of rope untied and thrown away. Much to the surprise of Indrick and Jeremiah, the man then shot upright, embracing the dullahan as if unending fear had overtaken him with a primal desire for company and safety, with the dullahan returning the hug.
"We're here, little one." Said the dullahan, patting him in the back. "Don't fear."
Indrick and Jeremiah then saw the sword-wielding dullahan turn and leave through the same door. Before Jeremiah could say a thing, Indrick lightly hit his side, with Jeremiah turning his head to find him leaving. He followed, leaving through the front door, but Indrick didn't stop, instead walked to the side of the tavern and into the alley next to it, with Jeramiah following close.
"Didn't look like a wound from demonic metal." Said Indrick.
"Guy should've been paralyzed, but he sat up just fine. His reaction might've been more mental than physical, no clue as to why. I want to get that sword, beat her up a little, ask a few questions if I can, and fuck off before anyone else comes. You in?"
Soon, they reached the back door of the tavern, to find it open and with only one path remaining down the alley. The two followed, twists and turns leading the way wherever they went, till Indrick extended his arm blocking Jeremiah's path upon catching glimpse of the dullahan ahead. Indrick then unsheathed his rapier and took quick, silent steps towards the dullahan, prompting Jeremiah to take out a sword of his own out and follow. The two stalked the dullahan, and when Indrick came within reach, he lunged forward, though in a split second the dullahan turned and violently deflected the blow, forcing Indrick and Jeremiah back by fright alone.
"Believed me that stupid, paladin?!" She boasted, taking stance.
"What happened to you lot...?" Asked Jeremiah.
The dullahan's smile had erased, replaced with confusion and surprise upon hearing his voice.
"Are you... Jeremiah?" She asked, lowering her sword. "You're alive?"
"No." He answered, showing his stitches with a pull of his scarf. "What the hell were you doing? Stabbing a helpless Varilandian for Demon Lord knows what."
"Demon Lord... You follow a false God, Jeremiah. A dork like her daughter. She's nothing compared to that which we have witnessed. You'd understand if you saw what we saw..." She grew a grin once more. "And I'll help you see!"
Fist square to the face. Jeremiah's blow, strong beyond Indrick's belief, sent her head flying back a considerable distance as her body stood still for a second before falling down to its knees. Indrick blinked blankly, staring as Jeremiah held his left shoulder with a grimace of discomfort, knowing that not even the strongest men of The Order would have the head travel half of its distance; he considered himself one of the strongest by virtue of training his entire life, and it still felt like fiction in front of his eyes.
"Fucking traitors..." Ranted Jeremiah, stepping forward towards the head.
Indrick went ahead and picked up the sword, then followed him close. When the two arrived to the head, however, they found it with tears running down her bruised cheek, staring high above with wide open eyes, catatonic like the man she had stabbed before. An unexpected sight for Indrick and Jeremiah, who knew what happens when a dullahan lost her head.
"The darkness... It will engulf all..." She whispered to herself. Indrick and Jeremiah remained silent, curious about her words. "We are not even ants to it... What are the Gods of this world but mere playthings to their power...? Demon Lord, Chief God, even all combined are nothing... Nyarlathotep... A messenger of millions lurking below..."
"Nyar-who?" Asked Jeremiah.
"Some crazy witch running around for Chief God knows what." Said Indrick, gaining Jeremiah's attention as he turned his head to him, though soon turned back at the dullahan.
"Can you tell us more about this... person?" He asked.
But the dullahan didn't respond, just breathed erratically with hints of sobbing, ignoring all around her. Not even her body moved, still kneeling slightly hunched over. Jeremiah then slowly put the sword back on its sheath, and raised his right hand to hold his head, staring without a clue.
"What happened to this dullahan...?" He asked himself. "Has it been like this on your side of the border?"
"Yes. Judging by your reaction, dullahans aren't supposed to be like that, are they?"
"No. They'd turn aggressive, as if they returned to a primal state."
"Well, that means that there's yet another abhuman menace for The Order to have zero chances of victory against, if it could do this. I have the sword, so unless you plan on doing anything else, we should go."
"You sound calm," he said as he turned to face him, "even though this 'something' can also affect monsters to this degree despite the Demon Lord's influence."
"How would you want me to react?"
Jeremiah stared blankly for a moment, before sighing as he lowered and shook his head, then faced him once more. "Right. You're a paladin, so surely you've already had stacked odds in your head since forever."
"Yes, we are used to this type of thing by now. After concluding that the underworld must be infested with monsters, and that not even death will give us respite, you learn to cope with defeatism."
"Is this really how The Order viewed the Demon Lord and her forces? The way I'm viewing this new affliction, I mean."
"Incomprehensibly strong, shattering all manner of logic never in ways that benefit us, without knowing what we can do against it let alone if it'll work?"
"Somewhat. Either way, we're sticking around here for too long."
"Right, right..." He said, giving one last glance at the crying dullahan, before marching away with Indrick.
"Had a few friends in the right places." Said Jeremiah, marching next to Indrick on horses neither wished to say were shamelessly stolen, both heading north through the empty road at the extreme early hours of dawn. "A necromancer by the name of Cyrene owed me a few favors since before Victoria was even born. After you greeted me with a dagger, she was friendly enough to let me know of how things went in the overworld. At one point she started noticing this strange affliction at the border, and let me know, but as soon as I heard the rumors about Victoria disappearing, I asked for the favors back and she allowed me to come back for a while. Until Victoria is safe, you'll see me running around."
"Your loyalty is admirable."
"I'd say the same about your friend. That he didn't want to return with me made me wonder, but seeing as the only way to return would've been to be a necromancer's undead guinea pig, I'd say he held true to The Order by staying there. Not like he didn't trust you enough to deal with things in his absence, either way."
"Is that why he sent you to find me?"
"Yes. When Cyrene told us of the affliction, we were quick to point fingers at each other. Eventually we had to cope with the fact that neither Variland nor Nostrum was behind it, and it seemed hostile to both, so stabbing it before stabbing each other seemed like a good idea."
"So, what happened after my death? As much as I'd have assumed the army with me was massacred, I showed up alone down there in the underworld."
"They were let go. You were the only one who died."
"Really?" He asked in surprise, momentarily turning his head to him. "How come? I didn't take you guys for the merciful kind, not least when being that careful about deaths must've taken immense effort."
"Want the nice reason or the harsh reason?"
"The nice reason, we took pity of them. Poor things were barely equipped, let alone trained, and were sent against a professional army ten times their size. We don't like to kick puppies, and that situation felt awfully similar. The harsh reason, we wanted the dullahans to return to their homes and speak of the humiliating defeat where we toyed with them so much we could decide to kill one single person and do it, hoping that they'd be too afraid to come back for round two. Of course, Victoria got pissed off and sent another army fifteen times its size which she led herself, properly trained, properly equipped, and before we knew it Makillae ended up like Helmsreach."
Jeremiah couldn't help but let out a chuckle. "She led them herself?" He asked with a smile. "You aren't joking, are you?"
"I wish I was. She got a uniform for herself and everything."
"Can't say I'm not proud, now. I honestly didn't expect her to improve in something so alien to her interests in such a short time span. To think that I imagined Makillae not falling in a year, and she got through so quickly..."
"You're talking to the guy who was on the receiving end of it, so don't get too pompous about it."
Jeremiah didn't add a word. Curious, Indrick glanced at him for a second, to find him holding the reins of the horse with one hand, while his left harm still hanged.
"Is your arm alright?"
Jeremiah looked at his arm, and though he tried, he could not move it.
"Tore my muscles punching the dullahan, looks like. Cyrene warned me about the dangers of this type of undeath, of not feeling pain nor having some limit on muscular use. No matter, I don't plan on staying here for long."
"What, the damage is gonna be permanent?"
"I'd be surprised if it isn't."
Their march continued on, till at the distance they finally saw their destination: The villa upon its hill, next to the capital.
"This better be worth it." Said Indrick. "I'm not keen on walking through a camp infested with dullahans."
"You'll be fine. They'll never imagine a paladin would do that."
They reached the camp at last, desolated at the outer parts with not even half its capacity used, and marched through the main road splitting it in two. The cold, early hours with the sun still not rising had them arrive while mostly everyone slept their last hours of slumber, though as they walked the now paved road, the steps of their horses echoed a clear noise that caused a few dullahans to pop their heads out of their tents to look, fewer still rubbing the sleep off their eyes. All, however, soon opened their eyes and rushed back into the tent, surely to alert the others.
The slow march of the two allowed the sudden noises from the dullahans moving about to spread faster than their walk, resulting in an ever increasing number of those who grew curious and looked out, finding the two before they had even crossed their tents. A vicious cycle began, aided in part by the first ones to notice getting out of the tent and following along and so on, till a little cacophony overtook the silent dawn.
Then, as they reached the center of the camp, they came across a man in armor and a few well-dressed dullahan officers walking towards them. The man, however, first reacted in surprise upon seeing Indrick, immediately moving his hand to his sword, but upon seeing the man next to him, he froze in place, along with the dullahans beside him who stared petrified. Jeremiah halted a short distance in front, prompting Indrick to do the same, and dismounted, though Indrick kept in place.
"Long time no see, Valerian." He said with a smile, pulling back his hood and taking off his scarf. "Didn't think you'd be awake at this hour."
"What... You- We thought you were dead!"
"I still am, if it makes you feel better."
Catatonic beneath his helmet, he let go of his sword and slowly stepped forward, and as if that which stood in front of him was a hallucination, he extended his hand and touched his shoulder. Cloth, flesh, and bone alright, concrete evidence that he was, in fact, not dreaming.
"How?! How did you come back?! And... and why is that paladin with you?"
"Long story. This paladin might help us, so let's not waste his time--"
Interrupting himself, he tilted his head to see past Valerian. The others present followed his gaze, and there behind Valerian in the small distance they saw a kikimora staring blankly. Jeremiah gave a warm smile and waved innocently with his only working arm, only to be answered with a sniff by the kikimora as tears began running down her face. At that moment, the kikimora broke running towards him, and then threw herself against him almost hard enough to topple him, embracing him as tightly as she could, sniffing between sobs.
"I missed you..." She said. "We all missed you."
"I missed you all, too." He answered, returning the hug. Then, he turned his head to Valerian once more. "I heard that Victoria disappeared."
"You're correct. A month ago, to be precise."
"I see... A necromancer already let me know of everything important, so we don't have to waste times on details. I brought Indrick here since he might be of help, so we should start figuring out what to do about this situation."
"It... wasn't Nostrum that got Victoria?"
"No." Answered Indrick as he dismounted, then walked towards him. "Whoever the guys that got Victoria are, they're also hostile to Nostrum. In a month they did to Nostrum what Variland couldn't in several."
"Then seeing as this is something that harms us both, would you be willing to cooperate, even if it just means telling us what happened from their end?"
"Let's assume I do."
"Then we've got work to do." Answered Valerian, turning around and walking back with the dullahans soon following.
Jeremiah patted Marie's back once more, who let go and stepped back, rubbing her teary eyes with a smile before following Valerian. Indrick and Jeremiah walked behind them for a short distance, before reaching the great tent at the center of the camp. They entered, to see a mess of papers and desks within, and marched to the central table where a giant map rested with figurines scattered about. All then surrounded it; Valerian, Jeremiah, Marie, Indrick, and the dullahan officers.
"Indrick," said Valerian, placing his hands on the table, "I understand if there's anything you can't tell me, but I'll ask questions as if you're able to answer all truthfully anyways."
"After Victoria's departure, dullahans have begun attacking us, and we think it's Victoria's army. They've divided in small groups and have been going around spreading this affliction wherever it can't spread on its own. These dullahans don't have Variland's color, though. Have you seen anything similar from your end?"
"Yes. Black and purple, yellow three-lobed eye, that sort of thing. The few I met don't seem to follow Victoria anymore."
"They might not even be loyal to the Demon Lord anymore." Said Jeremiah. "They did say a name, though. Nyar...something-"
"Nyarlathotep." Interjected Indrick. "I met her, or someone who claimed to be her. A sorceress, a witch, looked similar at least. It was before this whole mess began, though the first time I saw her she was at the center of what territory is now controlled by this affliction. Thought it was Victoria's subordinate. Whatever it is, though," he said, revealing his rosarius shining gold, "it's not a normal monster. This thing here shines of this color whenever monsters are around or demonic energy lingers in the air, but around her and those afflicted, it shines black. I won't pretend to know what it means, but now we know what it's not."
As Indrick tucked it back in, Valerian sighed and shook his head.
"The Demon Lord gave word that she's sending her armies our way, but it'll take time. What about Nostrum, Indrick?"
"Vandire called for reinforcements, and all have answered. They won't be here for a while, though. It'll be a mess when both sides get here and clash, but at this pace they might not get here before we're all driving our daggers into our bellies."
"Slim chances of lasting till they arrive?"
"Best case scenario, we're back at war with each other with reinforcements. Other than that, though, I wouldn't count on them getting here fast enough to save us."
Valerian straightened back up and brought one hand to the mouth of his helmet, tapping it in thought repeatedly.
"Have you heard anything about Victoria other than her disappearance? Any rumors of her showing up somewhere, like the dullahans?"
"No. Everyone's been wondering why she's not with the dullahans down there in Nostrum, so that should tell you something."
"Then we need to find her. The dullahans having turned against us is bad enough, but I'm sure the only reason we're still talking normally is because the full power of a lilim hasn't been yet used against us both."
"I suspected that she wasn't using her full power the moment matango spores and dark matters didn't rain on Nostrum after I failed to kill her the first day, though I won't pretend to know why she didn't do that. Nor will I pretend that Nostrum will agree with anything you say just because I may consider it in my head."
"It's still better than nothing." He said, then pointed at the south-eastern side of the map of Variland. "This is the territory the affliction has pushed through on our side. If you tell us how it is on your side of the border, both of us might be able to coordinate our forces better against them." Then, he rummaged for a map of Nostrum, and presented it to him with quill and ink.
"You want me to draw on it?" Asked Indrick, taking the quill.
"We have several spare maps. Go ahead."
Indrick moved the map closer to him, spun it to get a proper angle, and began drawing the line as he remembered. Once done, he put the quill back in its little ink bottle, and pushed the map towards Valerian. Valerian then took it and arranged it with the map of Variland, one over the other to form the general gist of both territories. All stared in silence, seeing how the affliction had spread its border enough to be half the size of either nation, expanding upon both Variland and Nostrum, though with a greater share of Nostrum taken.
"Damn." Said Jeremiah.
"This thing took that much territory in such little time?" Asked Valerian.
"Huh, slow." Said Indrick. "Pretty damn incompetent for someone who made a lilim go poof and turn her army into cultists."
"What, didn't Druella turn the entirety of Lescatie into what it now is in record time?"
"You'd be surprised to learn how a paladin thinks, Valerian." Chuckled Jeremiah. "That reminds me, the last dullahan we saw got her head removed, and instead of turning aggressive she just lied on the ground crying silent. Whoever the ones behind this are have enough power to make a headless dullahan react that way. Had any luck trying to figure anything out so far?"
"Luck?" Answered Valerian. "We can't even get prisoners for some damn reason. They just disappear the moment we knock them unconscious. That throws interrogation out the window." Then, he turned to Indrick. "Can we count on you to let Vandire know of this?"
"I'll tell him, but no promises on whether it'll work."
"Good. No one in Variland will be hostile to you as long as you're the only one to come here, and in exchange we won't send anyone to Nostrum. You'd do well to come once a week at least to keep communications, since sending a monster to Nostrum wouldn't be the smartest choice."
"Then I'll let you know what happened the next time I'm here. Anything else?"
"Nothing for the time being. You should go, time isn't on our side."
"Right..." He answered, turning around and leaving the tent.
A second of silence ensued, before Valerian turned to Jeremiah. "How did you manage to get him to help us?"
"Found the paladin who died in the capital after a while, down there. Guess I owe you a little story."
In the dim light of his massive tent, and with the noises of the army camp muffled past the cloth, Vandire silently rubbed the side of his head as he rested his elbows upon the table, hunched over looking at the maps Indrick brought. So too did Dirk's letter and the purity seal lie over the maps.
"Are they seriously asking us for help...?" He asked to himself. "Remind me how we got to this point."
"Some asshole showed up out of nowhere and started messing around."
"Right." He said, followed by a loud sigh before he brought his palms to his face and ran them down, with the skin under his eyes stretching before he let go. "Those guys will be on the capital's door before reinforcements arrive, and God knows if they'll turn those reinforcements against us like they did with Victoria's army... Bah, who am I fucking kidding? We were dead meat before we even poked the hive that was Variland, so might as well go all the way to see what happens. Next time you see them, tell them I'll lend them my aid. Within reason."
"As you say. That aside..." He said before he moved the maps, the letter, and the seal to the side, before taking what hung on his back and leaving it on the table; a certain long item covered in a roll of cloth. Little by little he unraveled the cloth, till it revealed a sword within that now lied over the textile. Curious, Vandire leaned forward and stared. "I saw one of the dullahans performing some sort of ritual with this sword. Stabbed a guy, but didn't do what demonic metal or plain metal would do. Left him catatonic and crying, but could move just fine. Could be how they spread their numbers."
"You... brought a sword holding the affliction here?" Said Vandire as he turned his head upwards to face him with confusion and indignation. "I'm sure you understand the risks."
"It hasn't done anything to me despite carrying it from night till midday here, so it doesn't work by proximity. That's as far as I know when it comes to its inner workings."
Vandire then raised an eyebrow, and looked back at the sword. Then, he leaned back on the chair. "That's a start, I suppose. We'll see if we can figure out what it does and how. Do you have anything else to tell me?"
"No, nothing. I wish to ask for a favor, however."
"What is it?"
"A bed, and have nobody bother me for the rest of the day. I haven't slept for Chief God knows how long."
Vandire, though silent for a second, chuckled to himself. "This army won't be moving for another day or two, so you'll be able to rest here while I check the maps. Go, drop on whatever bed you find and I'll deal with the inconveniences. You've earned it."
"Thanks, sire." Saluted Indrick, before walking out the tent."