As he aimlessly walked through the villa's roads, Valerian found Jeremiah walking out of Victoria's house. Curiosity befell him, knowing not what Victoria's mental state was nor knowing her enough to predict the response to yesterday night. Seeing Jeremiah's blank expression didn't help much on the matter, either. Without delay, he marched his way.
"Jeremiah." He greeted as he reached him, gaining his attention. "How is Victoria doing?"
Instead of answering, Jeremiah turned his head to Victoria's house, prompting Valerian to do the same. Valerian then found that the angle in which they looked at the house allowed them to see Victoria within through the window, sitting by the unlit fireplace and next to the small table, motionless. Both Jeremiah and Valerian could already conclude that she was staring aimlessly, even though she had her back turned to them.
"She's been like that since she woke up." Said Jeremiah. "Her tea's gone cold already, and she hasn't taken a sip."
"Dreadful." Said Valerian.
"Yes. It kills me to see her like this."
"What about you?" Asked Valerian, turning his head to him, and so did Jeremiah turn his head to face him. "How are you holding up?"
"I've seen better days. A war was the least of my expectations, and much less was I expecting it to get this bad."
"Hm. I see the paladin's death has affected everyone. Even a Lord General."
"I've had more than enough death for a lifetime before retiring. I'm sure you understand that I wasn't counting on more."
"Yes, I understand."
"Enough about me or her. You look the same. It hasn't affected you as much, I hope."
"I've grown used to the idea that sooner or later something would happen. If anything, I'm surprised that it was only one instead of hundreds."
Dumbfounded, Jeremiah narrowed his eyes. "...What do you mean?"
"What do I mean with what?"
"You're telling me that you'd have been ready to see hundreds of deaths?"
"...You're not going to go all 'How heartless can you be?' on me, right? I mean, I still don't know you that well."
"No. Just curious."
Valerian fell silent for a second, collecting his thoughts and thinking of a way to say it, then lowered his head with a deep breath before raising it again to face Jeremiah.
"Catherine and I have lived in Kleinsborough for most of our lives. You know, that one little town on the border with Nostrum? Well, when you're that close to The Order, you start wondering. You start getting curious as to who they are, and what they could do. I've heard the tales one too many times, Jeremiah, and most of their attempts were laughable, but only because they failed. Lescatie was humiliating to them, but if its reclamation had succeeded, we'd all be behaving differently today. Living so close to The Order, and having heard the tales, and knowing that your town will be the very first to fall should they advance... It does things to people. You eventually learn that you're only paranoid when you're wrong."
A pause ensued, where Jeremiah allowed the words to sink in fully.
"I know I am talking with the benefit of hindsight here," said Jeremiah, "but Variland could've used your ideas time ago."
"Doubtful." Said Valerian. "That a human can enter a demon realm is unheard of, and would've gotten me labeled a madman. You remember Victoria saying that I was using The Order as boogeymen when I returned from Ridshire, I'm sure. We all know how those depressing stories of one guy knowing what will happen, only to not be believed by anyone go. My best bet was training and learning every corner of Variland to be able to predict how things would go. Then, it was just waiting till the opportunity appeared, praying it never did. I would consider myself successful in that regard."
Jeremiah had no words. Nor did Valerian have anything do add, if the following silence was anything to go by. Valerian then turned his head to look at Victoria one more time.
"She needs to recover soon."
"She's your opposite in this, Valerian. You might have been pleasantly surprised that only one person died in this entire conflict, but to her, it was a nightmare. She needs time."
"It doesn't matter. Nostrum will not wait till she recovers. In fact, the longer she takes to recover, the more things will happen, and when she does recover, it'll all hit her at the same time."
Valerian then turned around and left, leaving Jeremiah to wonder as he looked at Victoria.
A day had passed. Valerian stood on the theater's performance set, but apart from Catherine on him, the theater remained desolated without a soul to be seen around. Where he stood allowed him to see the slope further down which led to a lake at the foot of the hill, spreading south and west with a line of the ever so characteristic lakeside vegetation growing along its shore, with a small pier built upon its surface.
Upon him he had a new longsword, sheathed next to his old one by his waist.
"Ready?" He asked.
"Ready." Said Catherine.
Valerian slowly unsheathed his sword, and held it in proper stance. Then, he waited.
Catherine quickly detached from him and stepped forward, unsheathing her own sword and remaining in place a few steps ahead of him, standing in stance just like him, both armed with their own swords. Afterwards, she lowered her sword and turned to see him.
"Nice." He said, giving a thumbs up, to which Catherine returned her own.
But at that moment, Valerian noticed Catherine looking at something behind him, so he turned in curiosity to find Victoria walking down the seats.
"Victoria!" Greeted Valerian, standing where he was and waiting for her to arrive to them. "Surprised to see you here."
Victoria returned a stoic gaze, before taking a deep breath.
"I want to train with you and Catherine, from now on." She said. "If it's not too much to ask."
Valerian stared silent, as did Catherine. A few thoughts crossed his mind, mostly wonder on whether Victoria had recovered from the ordeal, or if she was merely trying to push through it. He couldn't help but ask himself, perhaps she wished to train as a distraction?
Whatever the cause, he did not want to test it to find out. Might as well take her seriously.
"I'm sure you understand that just sparring alone won't get you to the level of those paladins." He said.
"I know. My library will soon receive whatever manuals I can get my hands on."
"Manuals, huh...?" He said, bringing one hand to his chin, and resting the other under his elbow. "I take it I'll be able to look into those which involve longswords, right?"
"Yes, you're right."
After a few seconds of thinking, Valerian turned his head to Catherine, who merely shrugged. Then, he returned his eyes to Victoria. "Right. You'll train with us from now on. Maybe the dullahans will find it inspiring."
A week came to pass. Valerian and Jeremiah had left for Fellsreach and Larifolk respectively time ago, but now Jeremiah returned with irritating news. Most surprisingly to him, however, Jeremiah found Valerian as walking through the entrance road of the villa. Both shared the expression of surprise upon locking eyes.
"Jeremiah!" Greeted Valerian as the two walked up to each other. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd still be in Larifolk."
"I should ask you the same thing." Said Jeremiah.
But a grim silence engulfed them.
"...Your place got attacked?" They asked at the exact same time, and so the two frowned in concern.
"Fire attempt." Said Jeremiah. "You?"
"Same. I got here to tell Victoria. Same thing as you, I can imagine."
"Unfortunately." He said, soon marching with Valerian towards Victoria's house. "Managed to see how many they were?"
"No. They tried burning the fields, and by the time we saw the fire they had already left. The damage was negligible, though. Might've been only one."
"Exact same thing happened in Larifolk. Think they tried the same thing they did with Helmsreach?"
"I doubt it, if they torched neither Larifolk nor Fellsreach. At least, I hope they didn't divide in three groups to torch another city."
As they reached the house's door, Jeremiah raised his fist to knock, but kept still at the last moment in hesitation, for he'd be the bearer of bad news to someone who had not taken the last one too well.
"You can't protect her from everything, Jeremiah." Whispered Valerian.
After a pause, he knocked.
"Come in." Her voice answered from within.
Jeremiah opened the door and stepped in, Valerian entered second, and as the door closed they saw Victoria inside, sitting on her chair facing the unlit, ash-filled fireplace, while she held her head with one hand.
"Larifolk and Fellsreach had a fire attempt." She bluntly interrupted Jeremiah, almost nonchalantly. "Correct?"
Jeremiah and Valerian exchanged a glance, both of them stupefied.
"...Yes." Answered Jeremiah. "Has someone arrived before us to tell you?"
"No. I just guessed"
Seeing her react so stoic to the news she herself had guessed only served to confuse Jeremiah and Valerian further.
"May I ask, how?" Asked Jeremiah.
Both of them snapped their eyes to the small table beside her, to see a small stack of papers next to her tea cup. Jeremiah was the first one to move, marching up to the table with Valerian soon following behind, till he took them and began reading one by one, all while Victoria sat motionless, just blinking and breathing. Jeremiah had read the first one thoroughly, a small report in the style of a short letter, but to the second one he just gave a quick look. So did he read quickly through the third, fourth, and so on, with just seconds in-between, with a look of shock growing on his face.
Valerian took those Jeremiah held with his other hand, those he had already read, and looked. One after the other, he found them to be reports from various mayors who had faced a fire attempt like those in Larifolk and Fellsreach, some having caused considerable damage before contained.
"Are they all...?" Valerian asked.
"They are." Said Victoria.
Valerian then took all the remaining letters and counted them.
And with the two of them reporting in person, it'd make nine in total.
"Jeremiah." She called.
"You can teach the dullahans how you defended the capital, right?"
"I want you to train them to lead their own groups. You will aid him, Valerian."
"You're not forgetting that Jeremiah and I will not be there to lead them against the paladins, I hope." Said Valerian.
"The paladins attacked nine different places at the same time. We are only three. I don't consider myself anything like a general or fighter, so make that only two."
"Jeremiah, is there anything you need to tell me?"
"No, my lady." He said.
With all said, Valerian left the papers on the table before the two left. At the sound of the door closing, Victoria rubbed her eyes, feeling a migraine coming. She then placed her hand over her mouth as she narrowed her tired, aching eyes, inhaling deeply to remain calm.
What to do with the dullahans kept Jeremiah awake in the long hours of the night. With most others asleep, the villa seemed almost desolated, just with the few servants of the night shift walking about. All the surroundings shared that dark blue hue of the moonlit night, a moon bright enough to illuminate it all enough to see without aid.
But as he looked around, he noticed how Victoria's house still had a light shining inside, even though three hours had passed since her usual bedtime. He couldn't help but stand still, staring for a minute as thought after thought entered his head, all of them questions, till he decided to head there himself.
He slowly opened the door, aiming to make as little noise as he could, and once he peeked inside he saw Victoria asleep at the desk where she sat.
'Why are you not in your bed...?' He asked himself as he stepped in and closed the door in the same quiet fashion. Then, he walked up to her.
On the desk, he saw an open book, thick like a brick with walls upon walls of text. Curious, he took it and glanced at the cover, then turned the pages to see the index. He then recognized it as the journal of an old king from a land nobody remembered anymore, back from the days before the current Demon Lord took over, days when monsters lusted for blood and carnage instead. It was of ancient age just by the look of the paper it was written on, but by no means was it the original; it must've been popular back in the day for it to get a proper cover and index done, and whoever preserved it did a fine job before it found itself in Victoria's many bookcases. Perhaps it was now viewed as an unorthodox work of fiction for all intents and purposes, or legends from millennia ago, no doubt only read by those with a taste for grim, dark tales.
As he flicked through the pages, he found it almost designed with such flicking in mind, easily gaining an extremely basic idea of what it contained by the titles of the chapters and the starting sentences of each, as if it were to serve the purpose of a guide. Those few details gave away the content: A king that was faced with seemingly endless raids by monsters, all in small groups, giving Jeremiah a minuscule epiphany of the similarity between what it described and what the paladins were carrying out in smaller numbers; whereas the paladins were nineteen now, it seemed as if the king had faced raids ranging from just a few dozen monsters to the greatest one at over ten thousand.
He glanced at Victoria, coming to the conclusion that she must've tried to learn something out of it. A small smile grew on his face, seeing her carrying through, not giving up just yet. That alone gave him the certainty that he had not committed the mistake of overly sheltering her all these years, making her give up at the first difficulty.
But despite that, he saw that she was still dressed as lightly as she was during the day. Staying like this for longer, without the blankets of her bed, or even heavier clothing to last the colder nights, would do her no good. He flicked the pages till he reached the one she had been reading, then left the book on the desk where it once was. Afterwards, afraid that doing anything else would wake her up, he took off his coat and placed it on her shoulders, if only to last her till she wakes up and heads to her bed of her own accord. Hopefully, at least.
"Indrick..." She mumbled to herself as she slept, startling Jeremiah who thought she had woken up, but asleep she remained.
Then, he took a few steps back towards the door, and stared on in silence for a few seconds.
"Don't overwork yourself." He whispered in a near-silent tone. "I can't lose you too."
He turned for the door, and as quietly as he arrived, he left, leaving Victoria asleep at her desk.
Two days passed. Victoria sat on a bench by the lake at the foot of the hill, resting her arms on her knees. The blue of dusk and hints of a sunset's red flooded the sky to all extent, imposing the dark shades on the surroundings and on the surface of the lake which reflected it.
There in the lake she could see the cup Valerian had thrown that one night, floating about in the distance just at the edge of where her eyes could pick up its silhouette. Her blank mind focused on the single ripples it caused with the weak breeze, having lost track of time and awareness of her surroundings, as if for just those few moments only her immediate vicinity existed in all reality.
Each blink gave way to a temptation to keep her eyes closed, tired and weak as if they weighed more than what she could handle; each and every second turned into a struggle to keep them open, eyes which already had hints of dark circles under them, contrasting with her pale skin. Inevitably, she gave in, and kept them shut while raising her hand for her head to rest over. Then, she moved it to her mouth to cover a yawn, unable to help it as she imagined the comfort of her bed, a better sleeping place than the desk days ago.
That desk. The mere thought snapped her back to full wakefulness despite her closed eyes. Deep down she knew she'd never get used to it, to sitting behind it for so long that the risk of falling asleep upon it became a proper concern. The change felt like a whiplash even now, how she had gone from spending an hour per day at most of her time with that desk before the paladins arrived, and now spending an hour at most away from it each day, at least before she added training to her list.
Finally reopening her eyes, she remained as she was, staring at the ground with her head still on her hand. A quick nap had never felt so tempting.
Must be Jeremiah worrying about her, she thought. Self-awareness struck her in full force; for how long had she been sitting out here doing nothing? Surely if someone had been looking they'd start wondering, since she certainly didn't space out like this before. Curious as to who it was, she slowly turned her head.
It was Indrick, standing next to the bench with his hands on his back, staring at the lake.
Her eyes shot wide open, her tiredness dead in an instant, her heartbeat skyrocketed, and a loud gasp escaped her mouth as she reached for the rapier by her waist while sliding away on the bench.
But Indrick did nothing.
Dumbfounded at his reaction, or lack thereof, she remained still with her hand on her rapier's hilt, staring immobile. Only then did Indrick move, but only his eyes, just to glance at her while his head still pointed forward. Slow and steady, Victoria began calming down, letting go of the rapier and sitting properly once more. Indrick then looked forward again.
"Why are you here?" She asked.
"I'm wondering the same thing."
She took a look around, skeptical, just to find nobody else in the surroundings. No people. No noises. Unlike the chaos of last time, now it all stayed calm.
"I can assure you, we wouldn't try again what failed so miserably already." He said. "Not yet, at least."
'What failed so miserably' echoed within her head. That they lost a paladin was a given, but she began wondering if they believed he had turned into an incubus. That's what she aimed to do, after all.
"--is dead." He interrupted. "I know."
Those blunt words said so quickly and without warning pierced her heart.
"He took his life to avoid becoming an incubus." He continued. "All of us would have done the same thing."
Silence ensued, for Victoria had nothing to say. The two remained in relative silence, neither doing much else other than keeping the other company, both looking ahead as if forgetting for those few moments that they were on opposite sides of a conflict. Just the calm breeze served as ambient noise, the same breeze that created ripples in the lake around the cup still floating ahead.
"You have something that was his." He said.
After a pause, Victoria rummaged in her pocket and took out a pendant and held it hanging by her hand in front of her, identical to the one she saw Indrick with.
"This?" She asked.
"Will you give it back?"
Victoria stared at the pendant, noticing the encrusted gem at the intersection of the cross shining brighter than ever before. Just being around it created a void and empty sensation she could not describe. Those details alone had sparked a morbid curiosity the first time she held it days ago, a curiosity she aimed to pursue.
"You'll understand why I'll say no." She said.
"And you'll understand that, had it been your butler the one to die, you'd still insist on wanting whatever he left back."
The words struck her harshly, leaving her in thought as she stared at the pendant, but soon she felt a cold touch on the side of her neck. It was unmistakable, the cold touch of the blade of his rapier. What a fool she was to let her guard down, she thought to herself.
"I am not giving you an option." He added.
Slowly, she raised her hand with the pendant, allowing Indrick to take it before he safely lowered the rapier.
"Do we really have to keep this war going?" She asked in a hopeless tone, turning her head to see him.
But Indrick kept silent, staring.
"We can live in peace." She continued. "You can stay on your side, while I stay in mine."
"Were it so simple."
"Is what you're trying to achieve so important to you, that you're willing to die for it?"
"You lead a nation built on top of the dead. Death should be common currency to you."
Indrick narrowed his eyes. "Do not toy with me, lilim." He said in a deeper, rougher tone.
But Victoria just stared in confusion.
"You don't know...?"
"Know what?" She asked.
Instead of an answer, she received the same stare, before Indrick faced forward and waved his hand, soon disappearing. Victoria could only look on, stupefied.
"I'm telling you, we can't go on like this!" Said Valerian. "By the time we are able to defend ourselves, we'll have nothing to defend!"
Victoria watched as Valerian and Jeremiah argued in her study room, the three of them sitting by the small table where stacks upon stacks of papers lied, all of them reports that have been piling up since a month ago.
Fire attempt, fire attempt, fire attempt. Each week was the same thing, and nothing seemed to have worked in stopping it, nor did they get lucky even once to catch a paladin, though the three knew deep down that if the dullahans had the chance, they'd let the paladins go. Nobody wanted to see another dead paladin, and everyone knew that leaving them without a retreat path would just repeat what happened in the capital last time.
Victoria couldn't blame the dullahans, but what else was there to do in defending Variland? Nothing. The forges worked twenty-four-seven making swords, and the only luck was that so many dwarves existed to hasten the mining and smithing effort since a month ago, but it still wasn't enough, and it'd take too long to get it all up to speed.
"What else can we do?" Said Jeremiah. "They won't settle for peace, they'll keep trying and trying and we're already doing all we can to stop them!"
"And did it work?"
Jeremiah let out a loud, rough sigh, before sinking in his chair. "What do you suggest, then?"
"What do I suggest... Victoria, where is the map of Variland?"
She blinked, having spaced out and returned to reality.
"It's... on the desk." She answered.
Valerian stood up and marched to the desk as Jeremiah and Victoria looked. He then grabbed the map, returned, and laid it on the table, and then pointed at one place in particular, a place not even within the border of Variland, but instead out of it to the south. It lied within the territory of Nostrum, a city to the west of Makillae, just on the edge of the map.
Jeremiah and Victoria leaned forward to see.
"...What?" Asked Jeremiah, dumbfounded.
"They can attack us with impunity, because we're doing nothing to them at all." Answered Valerian. "I propose we gather our forces and raid their lands instead."
"You want to attack Nostrum?! You said yourself that they have an army in Makillae!"
"Why do you think I picked another city instead?!"
"What next? Nineteen paladins won't stop an army, so why would they recall them to defend their territory instead of still sending them as they did since the beginning?"
"They're still the only ones they're sending into our territory. As long as we're in this demon realm, they're the only ones who can reach us, and we can force them to do something about the army instead of running around the country in unpredictable patterns. We have a thousand dullahans, and you yourself have trained a few to not be half bad at leading their own small groups, right? There you have them, the officers of the new army, as inexperienced as they may be. Or, we can stay here and try to defend, getting used to those raids that succeeded and watching how little by little we lose our food to the point we'll have to buy it from outside."
As his words ended, he straightened back up and stared at Jeremiah, who remained silent to think. He then glanced at Victoria, seeing her with her hands clasped together in front of her mouth, frowning at the map. What expression she had, he could not describe; a headache? Deep thought? Annoyance? All he knew was that none seemed positive.
But within her head, his words echoed over and over. 'Buy it from outside', he said last, as if he was giving her even more reasons to do something. She saw the logic in everything he had said, with the only deterrent in carrying out his ideas being the absolute risk present, and she'd be torn on the matter trying to find an alternative, safer solution, but more and more reasons piled up to follow through. Letting Variland starve was out of the question, nor could she let her neighbors know of her absolute incompetence, and the time to do something had been before the war even started, leaving her to just desperately keep things from collapsing.
And she saw Jeremiah in doubt, too. She knew him well enough to read his expression. He didn't like the risk, and his lack of ideas on what else to do only cemented the point.
"You want to lead an army into Nostrum." Said Victoria.
"Not I." Answered Valerian. "The Lord General should."
Jeremiah shot a glance at Valerian in surprise, but also the resignation that he'd have been the only choice in any case for being the only one in the room holding the slightest sliver of capability in leading an army.
"We'd be leaving our cities exposed." Said Jeremiah.
"I know." Answered Valerian in a lower tone.
Closing his eyes, he sighed. "Fine. I'll do it."
"You're not a Lord General, though." Said Victoria, standing up. "You're retired, are you not?"
Jeremiah and Valerian silently watched as she took a few steps away, before turning back to them.
"I don't think this can wait till I return to service officially."
"It can." She said, unsheathing her rapier. "Kneel in front of me."
Jeremiah and Valerian, both in wonder and surprise, exchanged a glance before Jeremiah stood up, walked up to her, and kneeled. As much as he wondered, he did not say a word.
"My mother gave me the authority ever since I've taken the reins of Variland," she said, raising the blade in front of her, "but I didn't say a word, because I thought I'd never need it. I didn't care enough." Then, she lowered her rapier on one of his shoulders, and then slowly lifted it to lower it on the other. "Jeremiah. By the power granted to me by my mother, the Demon Lord and rightful ruler of all monsters and the lands they inhabit, I thereby return to you the title of Lord General and all its authority. You shall be Variland's first Lord General, and will lead its first army against those who wage war upon us."
She returned the sword high, before sheathing it as Jeremiah stood up. Afterwards, both stared at each other.
"That's how it's supposed to go, right?" She asked with an innocent smile. "I've... never done this before with any title."
"All I know is that I'm no longer retired." He answered with a similar smile.
A week came to pass, and the dullahans spread all over Variland had finally arrived, forming up on the strip of grassland between the villa and the capital. As the northern part of the strip was taken up with construction, the southern side remained as a rallying point, where they slowly marched into formation. From the villa, Jeremiah, Valerian, and Victoria could watch with great clarity, granted the luxury of an uphill view.
Their weapons and armor varied wildly in aesthetic and quality, ranging from those lucky enough to get proper chainmail, helmet, and shield, to those whose shield amounted to a few planks nailed together in haste. Some of the dullahans mounted horses, too, forming a cavalry that numbered a fifth of the total army. Still, the similarity found within the army was that which was painted on their banners, one for every two hundred dullahans, and what was painted on their shields: The emblem of Variland; the blue lines of a lotus flower seen from above, in front of a white background.
The sight alone filled her with a strange sense of pride, one she had not felt ever before. A sense of belonging, if nothing else, finding herself as part of the nation she led rather than just a figurehead telling people what to do.
"How are you feeling?" She asked Jeremiah.
"Anxious." He answered, sporting his new armor.
"We'd probably not be seeing each other for weeks, for starters. This old man has grown used to staying by your side day after day, and now I'm tasked with doing something other than that."
Though she felt the same way, she couldn't bring herself to say it. The times he had gone away these days had been bad enough, but she couldn't have him worry now.
"I have something to ask of you." She said.
"The paladin you... found. He had a pendant. If you find more of them, bring them to me."
"I don't think those pendants will be anywhere but on the necks of those paladins."
She fell silent, in thought. Does she tell him to forget about it, or does she tell him to go through with it, knowing that the risk of the paladin ending his life existed?
"I'll see if it's practically reasonable." He said, breaking the silence.
"Not like you'll face paladins either way." Mentioned Valerian.
"I'm counting on not facing anyone at all."
They then noticed a dullahan moving up to them on her horse while leading another without a rider, arriving in due time and dismounting before giving a salute.
"Lord General," said the dullahan, "everyone's ready to depart."
"That's your call." Said Valerian, stepping up to him and extending his hand, which Jermeiah shook.
As they let go, however, Jeremiah found Victoria extending her arms towards him.
"Hug." She said.
"In front of the army...?" He innocently asked.
"I don't care. Hug."
With a chuckle, Jeremiah walked up to her, embracing her as she embraced him.
"Good luck." She said, then let go.
Smiling, Jeremiah walked up to the horse the dullahan arrived with and mounted while the dullahan did the same with hers. Victoria and Valerian waved him farewell, to which Jeremiah waved back before he and the dullahan walked off towards the army which had finished forming, with all the cavalry on one side, and columns of the infantry on the other.
They headed to the front, where a small group waited separated from the army on their own horses, a group that had become his general staff, greeting him with a salute once he arrived.
"We're marching south, then south-east before crossing the border." He informed them, then turning to one of them which had a horn hanging in front. "Sound it. We march."
The dullahan grabbed the horn, almost slipping from her hand as her inexperience showed so painfully, before blowing on it and alerting the entirety of the army with its deep noise.
"Keep up." He said, before turning his horse south and marching. His second in command and the rest of the staff followed, and then the cacophony of a thousand steps slowly began as the army followed behind.
All, marching to Nostrum.
They had marched past the border. Past the demon realm, their safe haven from the full armies of Nostrum. To the west now lied Makillae, with its army inside and Demon Lord knows what else if The Order had learned from Lescatie. Jeremiah was certain that it'd be difficult at best to assault or siege it with a full proper army, and he didn't even have that.
Anxiety became a common feeling the moment they stepped out of the relative safety found within the demon realm. A deep sense of danger and paranoia engulfed him and the others, unknowing what lied beyond the horizon, made worse by how this was his very first campaign; his years as Lord General had been spent idling, after all, and no doubt in twenty years of retirement his skills had gotten rusty, if he could call what he was taught 'skill'. No doubt the dullahans with him felt infinitely worse, living life peacefully before the war started, only to be thrown against Nostrum with barely any training and no experience.
The dullahans who had seen the dead paladin barely fared any better. Even his second in command next to him, the one who had walked up to him in the villa before departing, showed no expression at all. She had been the one to first find Dirk's body in that building time ago, and no doubt the images kept flashing through her head as a grim reminder of what Nostrum was not only capable of, but probably what awaited the army if they failed. The memory never left his head, either way; why would it be any different for the others?
The only certainty he had out here was that whatever his second showed reflected the state of the rest of the dullahans.
But the thoughts would eat him inside out before he even reached his target. He knew he had to change what he was thinking about, but for a second, couldn't figure out what to imagine.
Then, he remembered. He'd be away from Variland for quite a good while, and Victoria's birthday comes in little over a week. Has the war taken everyone's attention that nobody remembered it? It certainly seemed like she was not even aware, for he'd have known if she had pretended to hide it in their last exchange.
And he's going to miss it.
At least he got through the hesitation at the start, on whether it was more important to be there for her birthday and leave later, or leave early for the sake of Variland. Now, however, he had to think on whether it was better for him to raid just enough to be able to return in time, or do as much damage as he could against Nostrum to force a response.
He looked at the map in his hand one more time, as if hoping for it to distract him, only to notice something. He looked around at his surroundings and the horizon, and soon raised his palm.
"Halt." He said, coming to a stop. His general staff followed his command, and little by little his army behind followed suit.
It should be the place, he thought. He focused on the horizon ahead, and soon he spotted it properly, the tiny dot of a small town kilometers away.
"Gather round." He said to the others as he held his map open for them to see as they formed a circle with him. "See this little town?" He said, pointing at the map. "It should be the one in front. I want the cavalry heading there first. If they find no resistance, they should start burning the farms around it. If they do see resistance, they should come back to us and alert us. The infantry will advance at their own pace and loot the place. Remember, this place is supposed to be undefended, so don't push it if there are defenders. Understood?"
"Understood!" Said the officers in unison, before a few rushed off barking his orders, with the cavalry soon galloping off forward like a stampede.
And so, the rest of the army marched forward again.
He had time, he concluded. Still over a week remained, and this town was already within reach. Perhaps he could return just to see her, and depart again the next day.
Little by little, the ink on the quill gathered at the tip by mere force of gravity, growing into a droplet before finally falling into the ink bottle. Such was her boredom that she stared at it happening over and over, wetting the tip in more ink when more drops fell. Her head lazily rested on her hand, soon aching by how long she had been in such posture, imagining that now she'd have a gigantic red spot on her cheek.
In her birthday, without Jeremiah to arrange things as he had always done without exception, the villa had fallen as silent as any other day.
Despite having nothing to do in her short break, the prospect of watching ink dry for any longer horrified her enough to stand up and head for the door. Outside, she walked through the road leading to her house, with the same plants waiting by each side, along with more roads splitting off to the various buildings of the villa, and with a few servants walking about with their own duties.
Her slow steps reflected how she had no destination in mind, just walking for the sake of killing time, asking herself what to do within her head over and over. She then thought that perhaps she could check on the cup in the lake, to see if it had finally hit the shore.
"Lady Victoria!" Called someone, and as Victoria turned, she saw Marie arriving to her with a smile on her face. "Happy birthday, my lady."
Though silent for a second, a hearty smile grew on Victoria.
"Thank you, Marie." She answered. "Say, have you seen Valerian around?"
"I've last seen him walking to the theater a little while ago. I'm sure he's still there."
"Alright, thanks." She said, turning for the theater and walking off.
But after a few seconds of walking, before she reached the start of the slope, in the horizon she saw something. She squinted her eyes and, as she stared on, she couldn't help but ask herself: 'Is that really the army?'
She walked forward to the start of the slope still in wonder, and with a glance to the theater she saw Valerian and Catherine on the seats. They must be seeing the same thing, she imagined, and so rushed down the slope till she reached the theater and sat next to them.
"Seen it?" Asked Valerian before she could even say a word.
"Is that really what I think it is?" She asked.
Valerian affirmed with a hum. "He's back. Just in time, too. Happy birthday."
She couldn't hide a gleeful smile that grew from ear to ear as much as she tried, forcing her to partly cover her mouth with one hand out of slight shame. The three present stared silent ahead, ever watchful to see them coming closer and closer, with the silhouette of the army becoming clearer each minute. Their numbers seemed the same as when they had left, as if they had met no serious opposition at all.
The army kept marching north, till they came close enough to the entrance road for both Valerian and Victoria to stand up and head off to meet them. Even as they walked through the villa with no vision of the army due to the buildings, they could still feel the vibrations brought by their steps. They soon arrived to the very same strip of grassland they had departed from, showing exhaustion as some immediately sat down or outright dropped flat to the ground. As the army stood in place, Jeremiah's second in command marched towards them on her horse, arriving and dismounting in front of them.
But Jeremiah was nowhere in sight.
"Lady Victoria..." Said the dullahan in a rough, tired tone as she took off her helmet, only for it to drop to the ground, as if she had no strength to hold it.
"...Where is Jeremiah?" Asked Victoria.
"He..." She said, lowering her head as she paused. "He fell to Nostrum."
Victoria stared blankly. So did Valerian. So did the servants that had gathered close enough to hear.
"...Eh?" She asked.
"An army of Nostrum ambushed us when we got to the first town, cutting our retreat path..." Explained the dullahan, still with her head low. "They must've outnumbered us over ten to one, and no matter what we all did, it all... It all failed. They overran us, surrounded us on all sides, and... and then..." She sniffed, catching her breath that turned erratic after moments. "...the Lord General lost his life."
Victoria's mouth opened slightly, trying to say something but no words escaped at first.
"You're joking..." She whispered in an inaudible voice, seeing the dullahan sob to herself. At that very moment, she grit her teeth and violently grabbed the dullahan by the front of her clothes. "You're joking!" She shouted, frightening the dullahan who helplessly locked eyes as she grabbed onto Victoria's arms in reflex, with streams already running down her eyes, showing in her expression her heart-rending anguish. "This is just a sick joke! Say it! It's a joke!"
But the dullahan could not do anything but stare, seeing how tears began forming and falling Victoria's eyes, surely without she herself noticing.
"Jeremiah is with the others in the army over there, right?!" Continued Victoria. "He's just hiding! He just told you to tell me this, just so that he could jump out and say, 'Happy birthday! I raided Nostrum and returned for your birthday! I wouldn't miss it for anything in this world!"
No response, just a grim silence that served as much as an answer. Still, something caught Victoria's attention and erased her expression, something the dullahan had been holding in her hands. A sheathed sword which she had given no notice to before, thinking it was hers, before finding that she already had a sword by her waist.
A familiar design.
"What..." She asked, slowly letting go of the dullahan. "What is that...?"
As the dullahan extended the sheathed sword, images flashed through Victoria's mind, the most lively of which was the time when she had broken the door in the capital before Jeremiah had found the paladin's body; the time when Jeremiah stood with his sword drawn before entering the house.
It was the exact same design.
She slowly grabbed it with both hands, staring with tearful eyes wide open, soon finding that her tears started falling upon it.
Blank mind. Numbness. It was as if time itself had stopped, and all around her ceased to exist save for that which she held. The strength in her hands weakened till the sword escaped and fell to the ground, only for her to stand petrified as she was, unaware of what was even happening.
Still expressionless, after a moment of stillness she finally moved, only to turn back towards her house and give one step before a pause. Then, she took a second step, on and on with small pauses, walking with an intermittent gait away from the entrance as all watched silent, all the way back to her house.
When she reached it, she didn't bother closing the door after walking in, and instead just mindlessly marched to her bedroom. She walked up to her bed, and let herself go, falling on the blankets with her head's side now on the pillow, to remain immobile as her shattered thoughts tried to reform. Her tears began to dampen the pillow, until she sniffed and began sobbing, narrowing her eyes, unable to escape the news she had been given. Soon she squinted her eyes and grit her teeth, grabbing the pillow and digging her face into it as hard as she could, before letting out a furious, muffled shout at the top of her lungs. Then, heavy breathing.
"Why?!" She shouted this time, still muffling her voice with the pillow, before turning to her side and curling up on the bed, sobbing to herself. Her expressioned then contorted in anguish and fury. "Nostrum..." She said to herself. "I'll not rest until all of Nostrum turns into a demon realm...!"