[An undefined amount of time after Don't Doubt Druella / http://pastebin.com/m521Nfwa]
[Contains returning characters very late in the story, but otherwise unnecessary to read beforehand]
Her slow steps echoed in the dead of the moonlit night, making an audible and distinct noise on the stone road. She herself was dressed like a general, with a suit tailored in a military fashion, yet keeping a distinctive royal grace complemented by the tight cloak hanging by her shoulders, similar to those of The Order in shape. All of it shared the snow white color of her long, flowing hair under the peaked cap covering her head. So too did a pair of horns curve forwards in the shape of a crown of laurels around her cap.
She then arrived to a bench facing a lake, stopping beside it. On the bench sat a paladin staring at the lake, looking like a mere foot soldier contrary to her elegance. Though she stared at him, soon she turned her eyes and stared at the lake with him, seeing the full moon reflected upon its surface.
"Aren't we supposed to be killing each other by the thousands, right now?" He asked.
"Yes." She answered after a pause. "We are."
He raised a tin cup and sipped, only to find it empty before lowering it down. With a canteen held with his other hand, he poured himself more drink, yet instead of drinking it himself, he extended it towards her, still with eyes forward. The woman could not help but look for a few seconds at the cup.
"I hope it's not poison." She said.
"Any poison that could tickle a lilim would kill everything in a hundred kilometer radius."
Skeptical at first, she soon took the cup and sat beside him. She stared at the cup, moving it in circles and seeing the liquid within swirl around and around, until she raised it to her mouth and sipped.
"Wine?" She asked.
With nothing to say, they stared off aimlessly ahead. It felt as if time had stopped, for not even crickets nor the wind served to drown out the great silence surrounding them.
"Why are we doing this again?" She asked.
"You should know." He answered.
"Your kin, The Order, wishes to remain 'human'. I know. Does it justify all that's happening?"
"I should be asking you the same thing. If you think of the change from human to monster and incubus so insignificant, does it justify Lescatie and all before it?"
The silence allowed the loud exhalation through her nose to be heard.
"This argument will lead us nowhere." She said.
"I'm not the type of man to push a point both of us are tired of hearing."
"What happened to Dirk. He decided to--"
"I know what happened to him. I don't feel like being reminded, the same way you don't want to be reminded about Jeremiah--"
"Point taken. My question stands."
Instead of answering, he moved his head back to stare at the sky above him.
"We fight for survival, to not be overrun by a species that does not give birth to males." He answered. "We'll go extinct, otherwise. I'm sure you understand what lack of alternative Dirk had."
"You say that like my mother has not been trying to fix the issue."
"And what if it fails? What if even in the best case scenario, it still turns out to not be enough for the Demon Lord to make it possible for monsters be able to have sons?"
"What alternative do we have, in your eyes? You fight to survive, as you believe mankind will go extinct if a future generation of males is not born. The same logic applies to us."
"I know. Grim, isn't it?"
And then, silence. The paladin moved his head to stare into the lake once more, joining her as they quietly looked at the lake's minuscule ripples, which could only be seen through the reflection of the moon.
'Do your best, and your love will come true. Make your lands the best in this world, and no doubt will a great man arrive to marry you.'
That's what the Demon Lord, her mother, had told her. Even till now, the words spun in her head. From the first time she was told that many years ago as a child slowly taking the reins of the nation of Variland, to this day, as she walked around in one of her villa's various gardens, waiting in excitement. The fabled man would soon arrive, for she had heard the recent rumors that someone had been looking for her, and finally arranged a precise date to visit. Still, despite the day being specified, the hour had been not, leaving her to wait impatiently ever since she woke up, with seconds turning into minutes, and minutes into hours.
"Lady Victoria," said a butler as he arrived, gaining her attention, "the man wishing to see you has arrived."
Time seemed to stop, as did all of her movement. Past her petrification, she turned to the butler.
"He's here?" She asked in a quick fashion, rhetorical in disbelief. "What do I do-- H-how do I look?"
"Lovely as ever."
A pause ensued, allowing her time to swallow her nervousness. "Lead him here."
"Right away." He said, turning and walking away.
Once she knew that nobody looked, she brought her palms to her cheeks, eyes wide open and shifting stares erratically in random directions. She could not help but let her mind run wild, wondering, with her heartbeat accelerating. How will he be? Smaller than her? Taller? Same size? The rumors had placed him at an age similar to hers, leaving one detail to not wonder about. Is she dressed properly? It was painful to find a balance between humble and pompous, leaving her to dress with an elegant yet simple combination of a short skirt and a blouse. Still, in a flurry of questions that flooded her mind, one stuck.
Will he like her?
Footsteps alerted her of the butler's return, along with someone accompanying him. She lowered her hands, placed them together in front of her, and regained her composure, giving one last breath before finally turning to see them as they walked towards her.
Her jaw almost dropped as she looked at him, as he seemed straight out of a prince charming fairy tale. Blond, short hair neatly cut, and crystalline blue eyes, along with a well-shaven jawline. Not taller, nor smaller, but instead of a size equal to hers, allowing them to stare at each other's eyes on the same level. Even his physique revealed a great posture with hints of muscle here and there beneath his clothes, for he stood tall with his chest puffed out, neatly dressed for such occasion.
A rapier hung by his waist in its sheath, and in one hand he held his small helmet, an old design some called a kettle hat. Apart from that, however, he carried no more armor or weapons. Still, those details did not matter to her, as her eyes had been glued entirely to his face and that confident smile he sported.
"Ah, Lady Victoria." The man greeted, arriving with the butler. "Rumors had it that the ruler of these lands had a captivating beauty, and I'm glad to see that those rumors were not unfounded."
Her smile tried to grow from ear to ear, but she retained her composure as she raised one palm and held a few fingers over her mouth, limiting her smile to a smirk with a quiet giggle.
"Charmed." She said. "Who might you be?"
The man placed his hand under his chest, and extended aside the other in which he held his helmet, bowing down gently.
"Indrick, at your service." He said, before straightening back up. "A little bird told me that you might be looking for someone to share life's wonders with."
Her smile grew wider, just as she blushed without being able to contain it. 'He's the one', she thought to herself.
"Then allow me to welcome you to my villa, mister Indrick." She said. "You'll take a liking to it, I'm sure. Say, how about we go inside? You seem like the kind of traveller who has an unending number of tales to tell."
"Lead the way, lest I get lost in such a big place."
With a quiet laugh, she put her hands behind her and walked away through the stone road, with Indrick soon following beside her. The butler followed behind them, a little distance away. Indrick, however, could not help but look around to see that, no matter where he'd stand, beautiful sceneries would follow, as if the one to design the villa kept in mind where one could walk through and what his eyes could see. Gardens, statues, monuments, or the buildings that made up the diminute city remained in sight, and he could not see far out of the villa for those mundane sights of open grass fields in the horizon. It felt like its own little world.
"How big is your villa, if you don't mind me asking?" He said. "It feels like I've walked half a city to get from the entrance road to you."
"Around a kilometer square, I think...?" She said in a humble boast.
Indrick whistled to himself in awe.
"Where do you come from, Indrick?" She asked.
"I wouldn't know what to answer." He said with a chuckle. "I've been to so many places, that I might come from any direction. I was born and raised in the west, and yet I've arrived to Variland from the east."
"And you'll tell me about what you've gone through, no?"
"Ah, it'd take me days if not weeks to tell a fraction of what I've seen."
"And we'll have more than enough time." She said, growing a smile, to which Indrick returned his own.
The road they walked on soon led to only one destination, a great structure like a mansion. As they reached the door, the butler caught up and opened it for them. Inside stood a great room adorned with bookcases on the walls, a great fireplace at the farthest wall from the door, and a set of chairs with a small table facing the fireplace. Victoria and Indrick stepped in on the carpet, and soon the butler entered to close the door behind him.
"This is where we'll spend most of our time, if either of us don't fancy going elsewhere."
"A library..." Indrick remarked, staring at the bookcases around, all filled and reaching the ceiling.
"A library? It's just my study room. Welcome to my house. Jeremiah, could you prepare us some tea?"
"Right away." Said the butler, walking to one of the various doors between the bookcases and leaving.
"Come, join me." She said, walking to a chair in front of the fireplace. Surely, Indrick's stories would take hours of her day, and she wished to waste no time. More than his stories, she wished to see if he truly was the one from the fairy tales, the one her mother had spoken of. She heard Indrick's steps in the carpet quickening behind her, catching up, and she imagined him just as eager. She couldn't wait to confirm it, and if he was, her bedroom was just a room away.
But her smile abruptly died, just as she stood in place, immobile.
It felt strange. A void sensation, unexplainable, something she had never felt before. And it came from her belly. She looked down, and saw it.
Indrick's rapier. Its blade. It was coming out of her stomach. The hilt, she could feel it pressing against her back.
She couldn't understand what was happening.
She couldn't understand why it was happening.
No blood, and no pain, but instead a tingling sensation, as if every part of her body started falling asleep from the wound outwards. Demon Realm Silver? It was leeching off her strength, and before she knew it, she grew too weak to stand, falling to her knees. She couldn't even keep herself kneeling, instead falling to the side unable to lessen the fall, painfully hitting against the ground.
On the ground, she could barely muster the strength to turn just enough to see Indrick with his rapier unsheathed and helmet on his head, staring at her, taking out a dagger from his waist with the other hand. She saw his expression contorting, however, turning into a frown, but she could not tell why; it looked like anger, but more than anything, it seemed in pain. He opened his mouth slightly, as if he wished to talk, but words could not come out, with only a rough sigh escaping.
"W-why...?" She spoke with what strength the silver did not leech out, reducing her voice to a near-whisper.
His frown got greater as he narrowed his eyes, just as he grit his teeth, but showing pain with greater detail.
The door creaked open. "Is everything alri-" the butler, Jeremiah, asked, only to see the situation.
Both Indrick and Jeremiah locked eyes, now expressionless, immobile, as if time had stopped for those few seconds. In that instant, Indrick desperately put away his dagger and recited an incantation to himself as he waved his hand in front of him, while Jeremiah ran forward towards him. Just before Jeremiah could tackle him, Indrick turned into smoke, but somehow the rapier remained, falling to the floor. Though he stood perplexed at Indrick's disappearance, Jeremiah soon snapped out and rushed to Victoria's side, inspecting her, though finding no signs of injury.
"Are you wounded, Lady Victoria?" He asked. "Are you alright?"
But she did not answer. Instead, she stared aimlessly ahead, overwhelmed with a stream of thoughts.
He was supposed to be the one.
He was supposed to be her future husband, no doubt.
She did her best.
For all these years, she did her best.
She saw her lands go from nothing to becoming something talked about in all of her mother's territory.
'Do your best, and your love will come true. Make your lands the best in this world, and no doubt will a great man arrive to marry you.'
Was this it? Was this her reward? Doing her best for everyone, making life better for her subjects, only to be rewarded with someone wanting her dead?
Did she do something wrong? Surely she did, but what?
Where did she go wrong?
The following day, Victoria sat on her chair in front of the fireplace, hunched over forward as she stared at the rapier she held. Expressionless, she lazily examined its blade as she turned it on and on. Demon Realm Silver, it had to be that, though strangely enough she could not feel any demonic energy imbued within. Even if it had not been infused at all, it still felt awfully strong back then. Dropping her to the ground with one single stab? Of course, having been embedded within her for so long instead of a single slash leeched off more that it'd have otherwise been able to, but her suspicion still remained.
The door creaked open.
"Lady Victoria," said Jeremiah, closing the door behind him and walking up to her, who did not paid mind to his presence, "I received word from Kleinsborough. They say they've been raided."
"...Eh?" She asked, turning her head to see him, still expressionless.
Surely, it was a sick joke. It's been decades since the pettiest thievery.
"They were as surprised as you are." He shrugged.
But still, she stared. What came through one ear, left out the other. At least, until the vivid memories of yesterday came to her mind once more. A raid after an assassination attempt, now it seemed more believable, but also nightmarish now that part of it sunk in. She lowered her head and stared aimlessly, confused, but soon she left the rapier beside her chair, stood up, focused, and disappeared in smoke.
When she reappeared, she found herself in Kleinsborough, at the entrance to the town hall. From there, however, she noticed that the streets seemed emptier. Though she did not visit this town often enough to gauge a proper number she'd consider normal, it still seemed rather empty for a town of its size.
She walked in, receiving a greeting by those of the staff inside as she walked past, walked up a staircase, and then moved down a hallway. Her aim was the governor's room, though as she got closer she found it partly open, and heard voices coming from within. The closer she got, the clearer they got.
"They won't stick around in one place." She heard as she reached the door, though kept quiet to hear momentarily. "How can you even hope to find them, let alone do anything to them?"
"Does it look like you have anyone else willing to do anything about it?" Another voice asked.
"You're asking the wrong person."
She then opened the door, with the creaking alerting those inside as she stepped in. There he was, the old governor, talking with a knight in full armor, who both turned to see her.
"Lady Victoria, great timing." Said the governor.
"I heard something happened." She said.
"Yes, bad things." He said, walking up to her. "We all woke up to see the fields set ablaze. I thought it was some sort of rare wildfire or other disaster, but the farmers looked into it and say that it was done on purpose. I'm not a farmer, I won't pretend to understand how they figured that out, but if they say it, I won't contest it. The damage is already done, though. Whoever it was, was thorough enough to burn most if not all of our crops, so now we have people going to the other cities to hoard food in preparation for a famine here this harvesting cycle."
Though now fully understanding the situation, she still could not react. Not a word escaped her lips.
"I'm suspecting it's something worse than bandits." He continued. "They were too thorough and didn't seem to win anything out of it if they were here just for loot."
The knight glanced at the governor, figuring that he had said what he needed to say, and then stepped up to Victoria.
"Lady Victoria, my name is Valerian." He said, gaining her attention. "I wish to lend my strength in aiding in any way possible. I'm confident that I'm more capable in dealing with these raiders than the common fold, if given the chance."
"Mister Valerian here..." Said the governor. "He wanted to help solve this situation and came to me, but I have no idea what to do with him. This whole situation left me blank-minded. Perhaps you'll be able to put him to use better than I."
"Are you the only one who volunteered?" She asked Valerian.
"I, too, offer my aid." The voice of a woman echoed.
Victoria stared blankly, blinking, stupefied. Though she heard a woman, she could not see her. Having heard her from the same direction Valerian stood, she stepped aside and looked behind him, only to find nothing.
"...I am the armor Valerian is wearing, my lady." Said the voice. "His wife, Catherine."
"Living Armor." Coughed the governor, looking aside pretending he said nothing.
"Oh!" She realized. Yet, her silence returned, now in thought. "...I can't guide you on what to do. This is all new to everyone. You seem determined, though. That will help. I want you to help the governor in looking for clues as to what happened and why. It may seem like a menial task, but that's the only thing anyone can do for the time being."
"Very well." Said Valerian. "Anything we find, we'll send it your way."
A week had passed.
In the late hours of the day, Victoria sat in front of her lit fireplace which illuminated the room with its flickering flames. She moved a porcelain cup in circles, seeing the tea within follow through with the movements, till the door creaking open gave away that someone arrived. Only one person seemed to ever make that specific noise of a certain type of shoe stepping on the carpet.
"What is it, Jeremiah?" She asked.
"A knight wishes to see you." He said from the door. "His name is Valerian."
"Him... I met him in Kleinsborough. Let him in."
The door creaked open once more, and little afterwards another pair of steps came in, coming closer till they arrived to her.
"Lady Victoria, I bring bad news." Said Valerian.
A sigh escaped her mouth, just as she frowned and closed her eyes.
"You've found nothing, correct?" She said.
"Far worse. Ridshire has been raided."
Her eyes shot wide open, and she turned her head to see him, with her tea almost spilling.
"Forgive my skepticism," said Jeremiah, suspicious, walking up to him, "but how exactly have you managed to bring those news here before anyone else?"
"Because I was there when it happened." Answered Valerian as he turned his head to Jeremiah, before turning to Victoria once more. "In Kleinsborough, I found what the farmers had already found, that it was most likely done on purpose. I had no reasons to believe it'd be the only attack, so I went ahead and thought of what would be the second target, which brought me to Ridshire. A day after I arrived, it was raided in the same manner. Again, same thing, nothing but burnt fields, done on purpose."
Victoria turned her head forward, placing her hand over her head in disbelief. One assassination attempt, and two raids, all out of the blue after decades of relative peace.
"I'm seriously running out of reasons to believe The Order isn't involved, here." Said Valerian.
"Bad things happen, and The Order is immediately in your list of suspects?" She said. "I was told enough tales of boogeymen, and I don't want to think of The Order as one."
"The time between those two attacks coincides with how much time it'd be needed for them to return to Nostrum and go for Ridshire after Kleinsborough." He insisted. "I don't believe it's pure coincidence that the two cities closest to Nostrum to the south were attacked, either."
"That'd mean they somehow entered a Demon realm. The last time they walked into one was when they tried to retake Lescatie. Tried."
"Stranger things have happened in this world. I wouldn't cast the possibility aside so easily."
She ran her hand over her face, then sighed before turning to see him once more.
"You managed to guess that Ridshire would be attacked. See if you can guess where the next attack will be. It'll be of great aid to know beforehand."
"Very well, my lady." He said, before turning and leaving.
A week came to pass, and Victoria found herself playing cards with the mayor of Larifolk in the late hours of the night. Here and there in the tall building, the mayor's servants looked outside, vigilant. The mayor herself was an ancient elf that looked more like rags cast on a skeleton, of short stature, and an ever so happy smile.
'Helmsreach and Larifolk', pondered Victoria as she sat on a chair, holding a few cards on her hands. Valerian waited in Helmsreach, for he said that either city was at risk of an attack, and here she was now.
But then, the realization struck her in full force. The realization that she had lost the game once more. With a sigh, she left the cards on the table.
"It's the third time in a row, miss." Said the old lady, taking the cards and shuffling them in the deck once more. "I take it you're too busy to spend much time on these games lately."
She hummed in acknowledgment, returning to her thoughts as she sunk on her chair.
"I... think I see something." Said one of the servants, immediately gaining Victoria's attention.
She stood up and walked over to the window the servant stared out of, and looked ahead. Though the night obscured most if not all of the outside world, it only served to make a glint stand out. A flickering glint in the far, far distance. Soon enough the old elf walked over to stare out, but Victoria's heart skipped a beat as she noticed what it was.
Fire. The raiders were here.
Though she knew that if they arrived here instead of Helmsreach she'd have to face them herself, only now did the implications hit her completely. People she knew not of, whose intentions were beyond her, and all manners of details about them escaped her. She didn't even know what they looked like. Anxiety befell her as her inexperience in such situations showed. She didn't know what to do; could she wait it out? Perhaps the bandits would go away on their own.
Then, she took a deep breath.
'You're a lilim. The twenty-second daughter of the Demon Lord.' She told herself in her mind. 'A bunch of raiders should be a cakewalk, right?'
"If you go," said the old woman, "please be careful."
Victoria glanced at her, and with a silent stare she acknowledged the old elf's worries. Then, she disappeared in smoke.
Upon appearing, she stood in the dead of the night a little away from the fire, on the edge of the plots that had grown just enough to reach to her head. The fire illuminated the surroundings just enough to see where one could step, as its small size and recent start did not let it spread out into an all-devouring flame just yet.
But there was nobody around.
She slowly walked towards the fire, till she stood as close as the heat allowed. There was no discernible natural source for the fire, as if it had magically started on its own, or better said, someone had started it. However, to start it and leave it as it was instead of starting other fires around seemed strange, risky in case anything snuffed out the flame. Perhaps the reason why nobody was around was because the culprit went elsewhere to start another?
Maybe it was that. There should be other glints like the one she saw if another fire started. She looked aside, curious, but right in front of her, just a meter or so, stood someone facing her. The fright made her gasp out loud and step back, but the figure did not move.
Kettle hat in place, head slightly tilted down just enough that the brim of his helmet covered his eyes, cloth covering his face. No armor, however, but as for weapon, he had a rapier hanging by his waist in its sheath. The light of the fire which illuminated one side of his body served to give him an ominous look.
"...Indrick?" She asked.
But he said nothing.
"Were... were you the one in Kleinsborough and Ridshire too?"
But instead of answering, Indrick reached for the hilt of his seemingly new rapier and unsheathed. Victoria took one step back, but Indrick took one forward in turn.
She couldn't hide her fright. In all her years, she had never seen anyone behave like this, and much less had she gone through such situation.
"Why are you doing this?" She asked. "Did I do something wrong?"
This time, he was the first to take a step, moving forward and prompting Victoria to take another step back.
"We can work it out, I'm sure!" She insisted.
Indrick lunged forward, surprising her with the suddenness, making her jump back to avoid the stab to the point she almost tripped and fell. As she regained her balance, he lunged once more, and once more did she desperately dodge the attack aside before quickly backing off away, though Indrick stood still where he was.
"What did I do that turned you from that lovely man back in my villa into the one burning my lands and trying to kill me?!"
"You're a threat." Said Indrick in a monotonous voice.
The questions she asked distracted her just enough for Indrick to surprise her again with another stab. Victoria tried stepping back, but it was not enough, and the tip of the rapier dug into her chest just below where her clavicles would meet. A loud cry escaped her lips as she backed off once more, holding her wound with both hands as the tingling sensation appeared, whimpering. Demon Realm Silver again.
But Indrick soon grunted, stepping back and rubbing his eyes in pain. For what reason he was in pain, she did not know, but it gave her the perfect chance.
Victoria disappeared in smoke and reappeared just behind him, then threw herself against him and wrapped her arms around him in a tight lock. Indrick immediately started struggling to escape while she struggled to keep him in place, but as he was making progress in breaking free, and as she tried grabbing onto any part of him to keep him immobilized despite her weakening grip, her fingers, without her knowing, became entangled on a chain by his neck.
Indrick finally broke free, sending Victoria stumbling back, but her fingers yanked on the chain till a pendant came off out of his clothes. The yank tore the chain, making the pendant dance in the air as it broke free. She saw it. Indrick saw it. An emblem. A cross with three pairs of wings, with a gem glowing with a warm light at the center of the cross.
"No!" Shouted Indrick, throwing his hand and grabbing the emblem before it had a chance to be lost. Immediately thereafter he swung his rapier, forcing Victoria to back off, before he himself stepped back a considerable distance with his rapier pointed at her. He then slowly moved the hand he held the chain-less pendant with, with a finger extended, and made the same gesture he did back in Victoria's villa. First, he drew in the air one line vertically, and then another horizontally, passing the first above the middle of the former.
And so, he turned into smoke.
She simply stood there, speechless, without moving a muscle, with just the crackling of the flames here and there warding off the silence of the night.
'You're a threat', she remembered him saying.
Unable to make sense out of it, she just lowered her head, staring at the ground aimlessly. Resigned to not understand, she then turned her head to the flames, and walked up to them like before.
'Mother changed all monsters... I'm sure I can snuff out a simple flame...'
She raised her hand and passed her palm pointed at the fire. The flames soon began dancing wildly one side to the other, till they abruptly ended, leaving her in pitch black darkness.
That emblem. She knew it from somewhere, but from where?
The next day in the morning, Victoria sat at a desk in her study room, with two great piles of book sitting upon it on each side. In the middle of the desk lied another book, which she flicked through page after page, book after book, ever since she woke up.
Then, she noticed a cup of tea being placed next to her book.
"You didn't tell me you went to Larifolk last night." Said Jeremiah.
"You'd have objected."
"Isn't it my job to be your caretaker? You're here in one piece, at least."
The vivid memories of Indrick stabbing her came to her mind.
"All I ask for is to be let known of what you'll do." He continued. "I won't be able to stop you either way."
But before she could say anything, Jeremiah walked off. With a sigh, she returned to her book, flipping a page one more time.
She saw it, in the page. The emblem, causing her eyes to narrow. It was similar to Indrick's pendant. The symbol of the Chief God, a cross. Still, it differed from that of Indrick's pendant a fair share, despite holding a core similarity. As she turned the page, more symbols followed, for she had reached the parts of the book talking about the nations within The Order. On and on it listed a similar symbol for each nation, all with their own differences, till she came across the one exactly as she saw it last night.
And it belonged to the nation of Nostrum, to the south.
In the silence, she heard steps running to the door, before someone knocked on the door. Too hasty to be normal. Jeremiah walked over and opened the door, only to find one of their servants in slight panic, a kikimora.
"Lady Victoria!" She called from the door. "Mister Valerian and Miss Catherine have collapsed at the entrance!"
In disbelief, she turned and stared with eyes wide open, before getting up and rushing out with her. The kikimora led the way as she followed, not even bothering to close the door behind them as Victoria crossed it, going past road, past garden, past statue, till Victoria saw near the entrance a number of her servants gathered in a group. Victoria walked over and moved through the group to see what they were looking at, only to see them putting Valerian and Catherine in a stretcher.
No words came out of her mouth, just a blank stare as the servants lifted him and began moving him into the villa. She followed, catching up till she walked beside the stretcher, and as she saw Catherine, she noticed how she was covered in scratches of all manners.
At that moment, Valerian gasped awake, immediately moving erratically as if trying to stand up, forcing the group to stop. "The paladins!" He shouted. "Where- Where is Victoria?!"
"I'm here!" She answered, getting closer for him to see her. "I'm here! What do you need me for?"
His movements slowed, until he lied back on the stretcher fully calmed down. The group of servants then resumed their march, and Victoria followed beside Valerian.
"Helmsreach is ashes..." Muttered Valerian, with painful exhaustion in his voice. "All of it, the whole city is ashes...! Like twenty paladins from Makillae... That city, armed to the teeth, an entire army there, no doubt ready to pounce on us...! They found me... Catherine- wounded... Exhausted..."
She stopped here she was, staring blankly and aimlessly ahead, as she group moved on without her. Then, after a second of silence, she brought her hands together and pinched her palm.
This was no nightmare.
"No..." She muttered to herself, before she broke out running back to her house. "Nonono!"
Upon arriving and running into the study room, she stopped in place, for she found Jeremiah still inside, now sitting where she had been sitting minutes earlier. He looked at the book, at the very same page, reading.
"I've seen you looking for something in this book," he said, not moving his eyes off it, "and then stopping at this page."
Victoria slowly walked up to him, till she stood by his side.
"Nostrum..." He remarked. "I take it you've seen this somewhere before."
"I saw Indrick in Larifolk." She answered. "He tried burning the fields. He had a pendant with that very same emblem."
"What about Valerian? Have you found out why he collapsed?"
"Helmsreach is ashes."
"Like Ridshire and Kleinsborough?"
"No. All of it. At least that's what he said. Twenty paladins from Makillae, and Makillae itself seems to have an army ready."
He lowered his head with a loud sigh, before standing up and walking off. "Please stay here."
As she stared at him go, she looked once more to the book, with Nostrum's emblem on it and of several other nations. 'This can't be a war, can it...?' She thought to herself. So many other nations of The Order. What if they also joined in?
A sliding noise caught her attention, and so she turned to Jeremiah to find him taking out a folder with enough papers inside to resemble a book. He turned paper after paper, till he then walked to Victoria and handed her the open folder. She took it and looked, to find that the open folder held the most recent census. More specifically, it was the page of the census that detailed the population makeup, arranged from most numerous monster type to least. It wasn't a surprise that incubi stood at the top of the list, and it was only natural that holstaurs would come second in an agrarian nation. Down the list followed weresheep, succubi, and dwarves, and so on.
"I don't get it." She said. "What do you want me to see here?"
He lifted a finger and placed it on the paper further down. She followed with her eyes, and saw it over the seventh most common type of monster in her lands.
"Dullahans..." She remarked.
"The Demon Army holds them to the greatest esteem, don't they?" He said, taking his finger back.
"You want me to raise an army?"
"Do you have a choice?"
"I don't know how to do that!" She exclaimed, helpless, eyebrows high in desperation. "What do I do? How do I recruit them? Where do I take them, and how do I even train and equip them? Like hell I'll be sending them against Nostrum! Look at what happened to Valerian!"
"What do you suggest then, Lady Victoria?"
'Demon Army, Demon Army...' She thought to herself over and over.
"We could ask for hel-" She attempted to say, only to be cut short by her own thoughts. Wouldn't that be admitting her inferiority? That other lands were better prepared than hers?
Coming with the grim choice, she narrowed her eyes and grit her teeth while lowering her head. She could not have everything she worked for be denied in such a humiliating way.
"I can handle the recruitment for you, at the start." He said, taking the folder, then the books on the desk. She raised her head and stared at him, perplexed. "I have a few years behind me. You'll have to learn, however."
"You never asked what I used to be before the Demon Lord sent me to be your caretaker."
He turned and marched to the bookcase he took the folder from, and Victoria quickly caught up and followed.
"How do you know?" She asked. "I mean... what did you use to be?"
"Lord General. Thirty-third Army. They had me retire because we and a few other armies were doing nothing but idling around, since there wasn't any need for so many armies at the time."
"And you're telling me this now?!"
He stopped in place.
"I saw no need before." He answered, before walking again, soon reaching the bookcase and, one by one, putting the books back. However, Victoria had remained standing where he had stopped. "This country doesn't have a military history," he continued, "so it'll be hard to get the people to join an army all of a sudden without forcing them, but I'm sure there'll be enough to ward off that number of paladins for the time being. What we'll need, though, will be a place to train and organize them in. It'll be easier if we can get the recruits to live in said place so that no time is wasted going from their homes to said training grounds and vice versa over and over."
A loud, rough sigh escaped her mouth. "I'll see what I can do..."
At least, that's what she had read on the paper she held, as she leaned back on her chair and then stared at the ceiling in the late hours of the same day.
And yet, Helmsreach no longer existed.
A fire consumed it, and yet, it wasn't built to withstand one.
What accidents would happen in a Demon Realm, after all? Nothing went wrong around these parts, and even the weather never got too cold nor too hot.
Only a fire done on purpose would do that, and there it was now, in ashes. The lack of accidents had led to no preparations being taken in case of such calamity. Had they grown complacent? Perhaps. Did that complacency extend to her and her nation, having not even a single soldier or guard due to decades of peace and prosperity? If she gave it any more thought, it'd keep her awake all night long.
Helmsreach's survivors didn't seem too opposed to the idea of settling in the neighboring cities, but was it really them being alright with the idea, or was it because even they understood that it'd take years if not decades to rebuild it?
She ran her hand over her face, and then rubbed her eyes with a quiet sigh. She leaned forward to the desk once more and grabbed the cup to take a sip, only to find that it was empty already, so she left it where it was.
Jeremiah is gone, and even though she could prepare herself some more tea, she found no desire to do so. Then, in the silence of the room, she began wondering; Valerian might've rested enough by now, for he had fallen asleep ever since the last time she saw him. Decided, she stood up and walked out of her house, stepping outside in the moonlit night.
The servants had taken him and Catherine into one of the guest houses, and so she walked there. From a distance she could already see a light inside, giving away that someone was awake. When she reached the door, she knocked, and soon steps inside led to the door before the one inside opened it. There he stood, Valerian, though in plain clothes instead of having Catherine on him, the first time Victoria saw him like that. She noticed his green eyes, and the hair on top of his head.
Or absolute lack thereof, for all his hair rested on the lower end of his face instead, with a thick chestnut beard running down his chin.
Only now that the two stood so close did she also notice the disparity in height, as he stood a full head taller than her.
"Lady Victoria." He greeted, stepping aside and inviting her in.
"Feeling better?" She asked, walking in before Valerian closed the door. Inside, Victoria noticed Catherine lying on the bed. She looked like a normal suit of armor, for she did not move an inch in her state; Victoria could not get used to it, as Catherine did not breathe due to her nature as Living Armor, forcing Victoria to remind herself that it was not just a plain suit of armor, but in fact a monster like her. Uncanny, if nothing else.
"I passed out of exhaustion." He said. "A little rest was what I needed. It was her that got the worst of it all."
"What happened, exactly?"
Valerian walked further in and extended his hand to a chair by the bed, inviting her to sit. She sat, and Valerian went off to bring himself a chair before the two remained sitting around Catherine.
"It was sudden." He explained. "Before I knew it, the fire started within the city. Too big at the start to be a mere accident. The mayor couldn't do much about it, so he evacuated the city, but I saw a few men who seemed to stick out, if only because I was already looking for them. They immediately ran out of the city, so Catherine and I followed them as they headed south. They headed to Makillae, and even from a distance I could see that city fortified with walls and towers. Unfortunately, those paladins caught sight of us and we had to fight them off and escape. They know how to fight. I don't know how we managed to outrun them. Logic says we should've died. From there, we walked the entire night to warn you. Catherine's wounds and the grueling trip took their toll on her, though."
"Jeremiah has told me about Indrick. I hope you don't mind me knowing."
"It's alright. As much as I don't want people worrying about me, you deserved to know."
"It surprised me to hear that you didn't just try turning him into an incubus. Should've been easy enough. Assuming he isn't one already, but you might've been able to charm him nonetheless."
"It... It didn't cross my mind. Still, I don't think that'll give me an answer as to why this is all happening. Forcibly changing his mind doesn't grant me the certainty it won't change his logic, and that's what I want to know, his logic."
A loud exhalation escaped his nose.
"They used Demon Realm Silver, just like Indrick." He said.
Though silent, Victoria turned her head at him, with just her expression giving away the confusion.
"I don't know why." He continued. "It certainly hurt Catherine more than steel. It does make me think Indrick is a paladin, too."
"He is, probably." She said, remembering that night in Larifolk, returning her eyes to Catherine. "He had a pendant with the emblem of Nostrum."
"What did we get ourselves into...?" He said, hunching forward and resting his head over one of his hands. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but we won't be able to help you, at least not until Catherine recovers. It might take a week, but I don't think much will happen in the meantime if they keep their frequency of attacks the same."
The crickets filled the silence for those few seconds that Victoria took to think, till once more she turned her head to Valerian.
"If I gave you a few dullahans, will you be able to protect my cities?"
Surprise befell him, but soon thereafter he put his hand on his jaw.
"It'd be a start, I suppose." He answered. "What do you have in mind?"
"My realm has a lot of dullahans. Jeremiah and I may be able to recruit a good number of them. Only today did I end up finding out he used to be a Lord General. Still, apart from him, you're the only other person I know of that knows how to fight. You and Catherine survived those paladins, after all."
His hand rose from his jaw till it covered his mouth, pondering.
"Those paladins have attacked three times with impunity..." He said. "We might be able to ambush them if I can guess where they'll be next, and assuming those dullahans are ready for the next attack." He lowered his hand, then looked at her in the eyes. "Alright, you can count us in. I'm sure Catherine won't object when she wakes up."
Victoria smiled, then couldn't help but chuckle. "What would I do without you people...?"
Contagious. Valerian too grew a smile and laughed with her.
Two days passed.
Someone knocking on the door of her bedroom woke her up from her slumber.
"Lady Victoria, are you awake?" Asked a girl's voice, muffled by the door.
Victoria frowned with eyes still closed, soon mustering the willpower to sit up. Her blanket fell down to her legs, revealing a mere sleeping shirt with just one button out of half a dozen buttoned up, the one by her breasts. She brought her hand to her face and moved aside the messy hair that fell in front of her, then rubbed her eyes in an attempt to wake up fully.
"Lady Victoria." Called the girl as she knocked again.
"Come in..." Said Victoria, fighting off a yawn.
The door opened, and a kikimora walked in; the same that had alerted her of Valerian's messy arrival.
"Mister Jeremiah has asked me to have you ready," she said, "since he needs you outside as soon as possible."
"Huh...?" She asked, just now able to open her eyes a slight bit. She rubbed them again, but before she knew it the kikimora was by her side with her clothes ready.
Victoria took off her shirt, leaving her only in her underwear, and now the kikimora aided her in dressing up.
"What hour is it...?" Asked Victoria.
"An hour before you normally wake up. Jeremiah has asked me to wake you up if necessary."
In due time, Victoria had dressed up fully, and so sat at the side of the bed. The kikimora then began combing Victoria's hair, for it was an absolute mess.
"Outside, huh...?" Asked Victoria.
"Yes, my lady."
"No breakfast first?"
"I'm afraid not. It will not take long however."
When the kikimora finished, she stood up and walked to the door, waiting for Victoria as she got up and followed. The two then walked out into her study room, and then outside to the stone road leading to her house.
Victoria covered her mouth as she yawned, following the kikimora through the road flanked with ever so pretty plants and scenery that she had gotten used to already. She noticed that the kikimora led her towards the entrance, but as she looked down the road, she soon caught sight of a great multitude of people, snapping her out of her sleepiness. What were they, a thousand?
As she came closer, she saw a great number of her servants also present around, along with Jeremiah and Valerian, but their numbers still paled in comparison to the guests, for they were fifty at best. The multitude had arranged themselves neatly in two columns, one at each side of the road, facing each other with the road in the middle, all with their heads turned towards where Victoria was. Victoria and the kikimora then arrived to Jeremiah and Valerian, who stood beside each other.
"What's going on?!" Immediately asked Victoria, rushing to Jeremiah. "Why are there so many people here?!"
"Remember when I said I'd go find whoever could be recruited?" He asked, scratching his head with confusion. "Well... We might have a problem here."
"No matter how you look at it," said Valerian, still with plain clothes, "there's no way to train so many in so little time. Not even going to talk about equipment."
Victoria then looked at the columns, narrowing her eyes in wonder, seeing them all staring at her.
All of them, women. Victoria noticed that they all had their necks covered. Scarves, tutle neck sweaters, popped collar jackets; through any means necessary, none seemed to leave that part of their bodies exposed.
"Dullahans...?" She said.
"A fifth from the capital." Said Jeremiah. "The rest, from Helmsreach."
"This many just from those two cities?"
"I only spread word in the capital, as much as I could in a day. Some from Helmsreach didn't even hear of the recruiting, they came here of their own accord to offer their aid, while another group found me in the capital and asked if they could aid in any way, so I invited them here."
"Eight hundred dullahans with nowhere to stay in." Remarked Valerian.
"What do we do with them, Lady Victoria?"
"...E-eh?" She asked, snapping back to reality after spacing out.
"We have to raise an army to defend your cities, don't we? Here you have a thousand dullahans eager to help. What's next?"
"Ehhh..." She said, blank minded, staring at the dullahans as they stared back at her. Having all eyes fixed on her in her moment of indecision only served to worsen her state.
"You... don't know?" Asked Valerian.
She did not answer, instead used those few precious seconds to think, until an idea crossed her mind, and turned to Jeremiah.
"If they have nowhere to stay in, they can stay in the various inns of the capital, right?"
"I don't think they have anything to pay with." Answered Jeremiah.
"Doesn't matter. I'll pay for them wherever they're housed."
"Well," he shrugged, "that solves one issue temporarily. You'll have to do something about this whole housing issue if you want to have more recruits, though."
She then turned to Valerian.
"You managed to guess where the paladins would attack, and even fought against a few of them. You can train the dullahans with Jeremiah, right?"
"The 'fight' consisted in Catherine and I running for our lives." Answered Valerian. "I don't think I'll be able to train them that much."
"It's still more than what any of us can offer apart from Jeremiah, and even then he'll need help."
"She's right, you know..." Jeremiah coughed.
"You and Catherine must know a lot of swordfighting, too." She continued.
"Fine." Said Valerian. "I'll see what I can do. I still have to figure out where the paladins will go next, so don't expect me to monitor the dullahans twenty-four-seven."
A smile of relief grew in her expression, for her ideas showed promise, but as she turned to the dullahans, one last detail remained. The equipment. It was no secret that Variland had not the time to forge swords and armor for them. Even if every forge in her nation was tasked with sharpening a slab of demon realm silver, there still were not enough forges available, to say nothing about the time required to get the silver, deliver it to the forges, and then deliver the finished swords back here.
She could buy them from the neighboring countries, however. They'll never know of her humiliating need. It'd be just a little purchase in the eyes of those outside of Variland.
Still, armor was an issue. None in the Demon Realms seemed to like the full plate armor The Order was known for, giving reasons such as weight or encumbrance, or the usual desire to be able to take one's armor off to rape some poor soul a monster caught, assuming the armor wasn't also designed for said purpose. The low popularity of protective gear seemed to give way to an exceptionally low number of makers, and she knew none. Having it forged locally was out of the question, for now.
"You said something about equipment, right?" She asked Valerian.
"Hm? Yes." He answered. "Got anything in mind?"
"I can buy them from some other nation, I have the gold. Only swords, though."
"Still better than nothing. Jeremiah and I will make do, somehow."
"We'll take it from here, then." Said Jeremiah. "In the meantime, I'd suggest improving our new military in numbers and quality. Even if we defend against the next attack, I fear it'll only be the start."
"We'll see." She said.
Jeremiah then nodded at Valerian, and the two walked off to the dullahans waiting.
"Marie." She called, gaining the attention of the kikimora. "Follow me."
"Yes, my lady." She answered, seeing Victoria walk off, and so she followed.
They walked through the same road they came from, till they reached her house and stepped into the study room. Victoria then walked off to a corner and grabbed the rapier Indrick had left, then extended it to Marie.
"Send this to a blacksmith, and ask for a sheath made for it. Alright?"
"Of course, my lady."
A dark yet warm shade of red covered the afternoon sky. She could see from the window of the second floor of her house how Jeremiah and Valerian still were with the dullahans in the distance over the green fields, thinking that they must be close to finishing for this day. The only time they had left the field had been when they ate in the dining rooms, taking turns, for the villa had not the space to feed a thousand at the same time. Soon they'd leave to the capital, she thought; to their homes, or to the inns she had already sent word to in advance, and in the next day, they'd return to train and organize once more.
That great field of grass, that strip between the capital and the villa where the dullahans stood on, it seemed like a reminder whenever she looked at it. A reminder from so many years ago when she was a kid, when the capital was further away in the horizon, and now that it developed, it grew in size towards her villa. And yet, that strip remained, as none would build closer. Maybe it was out of respect, or mere kindness, to keep the villa as its own separate thing, to keep the capital and the villa as two entities as it was since the latter's construction.
She wouldn't have minded. The capital was free to do as they pleased. Still, its accelerated growth kept going and going, till just in the horizon she could see the buildings, now forming the strip.
Things had changed a lot. Upon her arrival to Variland, and to its capital of the same name, nothing seemed to be efficient. Barely a few key buildings stood, as if they were the bare minimum to keep the place running, and so she built the villa a little further away in the best spot she could find, for the same amount of effort would've been needed to build a place to govern within the city. After all, she hoped that centuries down the line the capital would grow in size so much that it would surround her villa, claiming it, soon embracing it as the new center of the growing city.
She couldn't help but sigh at the thought. 'Centuries down the line'. She was just a fifth of a century old, and was already potentially facing the first ever recorded incursion of The Order into a Demon Realm that has not resulted in failure on their part.
As easily as her thoughts arrived, they left, leaving her blank-minded as she stared at the dullahans. Now, they grouped up, soon starting to leave after they and Jeremiah bid each other a farewell. Must've been a farewell in unison, for she could swear she heard something all the way from here. And so the dullahans left as one to the capital, through the road dividing that giant strip of grass in two.
But as they walked, she couldn't help but remember the plans she had for that strip.
A plaza that would one day surround all of her villa at the pace the capital grew, forming a ring around it. Beautiful roads of stone, each carved by hand, would've led the way to each part of the ring-shaped plaza that would've been filled with trees and plants from every corner of her mother's realm, and even those of The Order if they didn't mind trading a few for a generous amount of gold. From the cherry blossoms of the far east, to the sequoias of the far west; from the plantlife turned and twisted by the demonic energy in the deepest coners of her mother's realm, to the purest and brightest flowers of The Order's southernmost parts if she could manage.
She walked off from the window, towards a staircase she then began descending as she kept daydreaming.
What beauty it would have brought to her villa, to her capital, to the nation itself if the others heard of it! An extreme undertaking not only in effort but also in expenses, something she had been planning for since well over half a decade ago, saving up little by little, and attempting to handpick any specimen she took a fancy to.
It would've been the envy of the Demon Realms, and what oh so calming walks she could've had.
Then, she stopped at the last step of the staircase.
To think that she had once been daydreaming of walking with Indrick there in the future, before finding out the cold, hard truth about him.
She stepped off the staircase into a tiny room which connected to the study room she then walked into, and marched to her desk. There lied a paper which she took, and read one last time.
A problem remained for her plans regarding the plaza, however. Though the strip between the villa and the capital were the perfect place for it, so too was it the perfect place for something else, and the funds she had been saving up suited another ugly, mundane purpose.
Training grounds. A makeshift military academy. Grounds to train on, barracks to house the recruits, infrastructure to equip and feed them, and so on, and it would grow bigger and bigger in time, for defending against The Order's attacks would not end what had started. It certainly seemed almost too perfect, as if fate itself was insulting her; close to the capital and to her villa, with an open field available for it all to be built upon. Even the bare grass field as it was seemed prettier, for the grass stepped on by thousands of recruits would reduce it to nothing.
And before she knew it, a tear started falling off her cheek without her noticing. The paper she held was none other than the order to divert the funds to the construction of the training grounds, and at the bottom, she only needed to sign it for it all to start. She left it on the desk and sat down, then took a quill from a tiny bottle with ink. She stared, hesitating, quill hovering over where she had to sign long enough for a tiny drop of ink to fall.
"What a stupid dream..." She muttered, signing it.
He woke up with a loud gasp, shooting upright on his bed and panting with eyes wide open in the dead of the night, almost throwing his blanket aside. Something woke Indrick up as he slept in a room in Makillae, but it was no dream nor nightmare. 'Something' might've been the only word in human vocabulary to best describe it, in fact. A strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night.
Desperate, he reached for his rosarius, the pendant with Nostrum's emblem on it, but saw it with no light on its encrusted gem. No demonic energy floated in the surroundings for it to syphon off and give off a warm light. The city was well-guarded enough to eliminate any other possibility of an intruder.
But he still did not know what it was.