Paladins on one side, and dullahans on the other. Such was the situation they found themselves in, with Sigismund and Victoria staring at each other at opposite sides of the street, with their respective groups of paladins and dullahans behind each. A stressful atmosphere had set itself in, paladins not used to such minority status amongst a city's worth of monsters, nor the monsters to seeing so many paladins at the same time together in their city. Sigismund and Victoria, however, stood with steel gazes and iron hearts, looking at each other after he and his men had arrived from the south not a minute ago.
"Where is Indrick?" Asked Sigismund, forfeiting even a mere greeting.
"I deemed him too exhausted to keep pushing himself." Answered Victoria, voice unwavering. "I recommended him to rest until the time is right."
"He's not the type of person to rest in a situation like this."
"It took a few harsh words to convince him."
An oppressive silence took over, with only the clanking of armor and equipment moving ever so slightly keeping any semblance of background noise, other than the hasty constructions afar. In those few moments, neither the paladin nor the lilim turned their eyes from each other's.
And then, a deep breath escaped from him.
"We helped defend against the assault to the south, though it grew into a stalemate." He said in his raspy, sandpaper-like voice. "Dullahan reinforcements allowed us paladins to leave. The salient that formed will be there for good, can't see ourselves nor the dullahans reclaiming it."
"Unfortunate. If I can provide you with anything other than my thanks for this, don't hesitate to say so."
"Water and food will do, if you can remove the demonic energy."
"Not a problem. I also need to talk to you in specific, Sigismund."
Cloak flowing with her movements, she turned and march northwards; Sigismund soon followed, leaving the paladins and dullahans to stare at each other in silence.
"What's in your mind?" He asked, having caught up.
"You said Indrick is not the type of person to rest, correct?" She said.
"Is it a trait among all paladins, or only him?"
"I take it you've seen him more beaten than the rest of us."
"I feared he'd work himself to death. It doesn't help that he outright said he'd rest when he's dead."
"It's tragic to hear it at a time when it's very well possible. To answer your question, it's... both I'd say. It's not just mentally that we're supposed to persevere after all, but I've noticed some issues with him."
"He has a tendency to ask of himself more than what he's able to achieve, even if he knows it. The type of person that thinks that even if something failed due to external factors outside of his control, it's still partly his fault for not planning around said factors. If I had to pinpoint a cause, I'd say it's because Vandire saw potential in him since his birth. Most of us paladins had a somewhat healthy childhood before the task of a paladin fell upon us, but the poor boy was born into it."
At that moment, her steps ended as she turned to Sigismund, prompting him to do the same.
"So he'd really work himself to death...?" She asked. "Even if he's at death's door?"
"Do you really want to know?"
Blinking with a spaced-out mind, soon her expression fell into discomfort as she looked aside, recalling vividly her and Indrick's time in Acerrae. Sigismund had to be none the wiser about it all, she imagined.
"Something must be plaguing your mind about him, if that detail survived in your mind despite so many other things happening right now."
"Yes." She answered, still averting her gaze. "Not about him. About me."
"I may not consider myself a spiritual healer on par with Chaplain Goridian, but I know that bottling it up will do no good. Speak and I will listen, if only to not have it hinder you at the worst time."
A rough sigh escaped her as she began her march north anew, thus followed by the paladin beside her once more.
"I keep realizing how much he has done, and how much he is willing to do," she said, "and it only makes it worse to know that I did nothing for him in return. It's... a sin, what I've committed in Acerrae and what caused it all. While he kept on fighting after first facing the affliction, I just gave up, and stayed in Acerrae. It's why two armies sacrificed themselves for, to get me out of there, purely because I didn't have the strength to persevere. I haven't been able to redeem myself of that sin ever since. While he's been throwing his soul by the gauntlet, it just feels... as if I've been watching from the sidelines."
An exhalation escaped from his nose, as he lowered his gaze on his march. Actions enough to acknowledge her words, as much as he wished not to interfere with his own.
"I've sinned further still," she continued, "by berating him when I was in that weakened state after leaving Acerrae. I didn't understand why he didn't give up, and instead of encouraging him, I just assumed him dumb, but still he pulled through. I've got much to repay, but I fear I may not have the time to do so. How do you see this?"
"It's a noble goal to have," he answered, raising his sight once more forward, "to repay in kind what has been done for one. You should follow that goal, but make sure it doesn't overtake you. Sometimes, the best thing to do in a given situation may directly conflict with it, if not end up as its complete opposite."
"I understand. I suppose you can add this little chat to the things I'm indebted to a Nostrian for."
"Don't feel indebted for that for too long. I need a small favor, a personal one."
"What do you need?"
"The dullahans mentioned that a kikimora is one of those now leading the barricade construction, right? Its shape, architecture as if. Marie."
"She indeed is."
"I want to talk with her for a while, if it's not much to ask."
"I can do you that favor with painful ease. Just out of curiosity, though, what would you need to talk with her?"
"I come from a family of architects, both civilian and military. It was my family that designed the fortifications in Makillae, and I feel I may have the opportunity to aid a bit in the defense when I'm not at the front."
"I'm sure your skills will be appreciated."
Silent words led the way, marching block past block through the streets. A strip of relative desolation marked the division from the outskirts where only combatants frequented, and the areas where civilian volunteers dominated in numbers, though still far from the center where those unable to aid resided. Twists and turns through the streets followed, till Victoria arrived to an old house, adorned highly as if it were high-class; a knock on the door and a twist on the handle, and she stepped in.
"Marie." She called, just as Sigismund stepped in to see within; there he saw the kikimora taking out a few scrolls almost a third her height, embracing them under the risk of them falling to the ground.
"Ah, Victoria." Greeted Marie with a smile, carrying the papers onto a table where others lied with several ink bottles by the corner. "How can I help?"
"Someone wants to see you. He says he may be able to help you." She answered.
"A... paladin?" She asked, smile fading into a look of wonder and surprise.
"I am Paladin Sigismund." He said, stepping towards her and extending his gauntlet-clad hand. "I heard you're one of those in charge of the barricade's construction. I may be of aid in the design."
Just blinking without any other movement, Marie soon lowered her eyes to stare at his hand.
"...If Victoria trusts you, then so do I." Finally answered Marie, extending her hand and shaking with him.
"What you asked for will be provided to the other paladins. Find them when you wish." Said Victoria, stepping outside. "Is there anything else you need?"
"No. We'll handle things from now if nothing shows up." Answered Sigismund.
"Right." She said, closing the door.
Both Sigismund and Marie stared at the closed door, hearing the steps marching farther and farther away each time. Then, Sigismund raised his hand and, much to Marie's surprise-turned-giggling, ruffled her hair before pulling himself a chair and sitting down.
"I didn't imagine you'd find a way." She said, sitting down with him. "How did you do it?"
"I said I heard from a dullahan about what you did and wanted to help."
"Ah, smart." She complimented him, placing her elbows on the table and palms on her cheeks. "Think telling her the truth would've gone worse?"
"Do you really want me to tell her, 'I was looking for the rapier Indrick lost and found your maid'?"
But a smile suppressing a laughter gave away the answer all too well.
Despite closing his eyes, despite them weighing heavily upon him each passing second, he found no sleep. Physically, all had been provided for him to rest: a comfortable bed, a faraway room without noises to arrive, curtains to offset what shining light would've flooded the room otherwise, and yet he found it impossible still. Lord knew how many hours had passed with only the monotonous noises of his twists and turns in his bed to keep him company, losing sense of time to be rendered unable to gauge if hours had passed, or mere minutes.
He couldn't take it anymore. As he sat up, he came to the conclusion that perhaps it'd be harsher on his psyche to try any further. Though he rubbed his eyes, it felt more like he did so in annoyance rather than any itch his eyes felt. To pinpoint what cause prevented him from sleeping seemed folly enough; Was he just not tired? Or was he, but with a barrage of thoughts keeping him awake?
There was something, however, that he could do even in the prison-like room. His gaze shifted towards his night stand, seeing beside it all his armor arranged by a chair and coat-rack. One object hanged which gained his undivided attention:
Bringing his feet to the ground, he leaned forward and grabbed it by its hook. Hand on its cover, he contemplated it; its harness seemed of design allowing it to be opened as it was, merely clinging on its spine with a little buttoned strap to force it closed at its end. How it still seemed dry despite an apparent lack of protection, he knew not, but figured it not bound by the laws of logic he knew. 'CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT', greeted the cover with its familiar phrase still etched in golden letters of such exceptional calligraphy.
There had to be a reason for her to give it to him in particular, certainly more than as a mere carrier for whoever she had referred to. To read it, perhaps? Not like a book had much purpose beside reading it, but that it was in this 'real world' that he could look into its contents rather than one Nyarlathotep had sent him to served enough to tempt him.
Far too many times had he peered into it; what would it do that it did not already? Dragging his palm over the cover to its edge, he gently grasped and opened it. Perhaps he'd find something to aid him in such hopeless situation... or perhaps something would find him instead.
Imagery had been burned into his retina: Sigils, texts, languages scarring his eyes by their mere alien calligraphy, sending his senses into a berserk state against his own mind; vision faded with the imagery imprinted upon them as if he had been staring into the sun, ears had begun ringing, nonexistent fire burned his fingers which touched the book, the taste of iron and ashes flooded his now drying throat, so many sensations of which most he didn't even have the proper nerves to process, let alone understand. Reflexively in so much agonizing pain striking the soul, he closed the book and threw it aside, landing onto the bed with its taunting phrase left showing. Closing his eyes and rubbing them furiously, he still saw the eldritch imagery floating about, merging and shattering endlessly in loop, slowly fading until he reclaimed full control of his mind and senses.
If Victoria found out, she'd certainly be upset at him.
Someone knocked on the door. Whether it was the first time, or if they had been knocking for a while already without him knowing, certainly was beyond him.
"Come in." He said, lowering the hand rubbing his eyes.
The door opened, with a dullahan coming in.
"Paladin Indrick." She greeted. "Lady Victoria hopes you had all the rest you could get. She requests your presence in full battle gear. You'll find her to the south."
"I'll get there." He said in a sigh, accidentally showing what tiredness he'd have wanted to keep to himself.
The dullahan's brows tightened ever so slightly in concern, before she stepped out and closed the door behind her. Upon the click of the door locking in place, he let himself fall against the bed with an arm left over his head. With a deep breath, his gaze fell upon the window in wonder, to find that sunset approached. At least, it gave him enough of an answer as to how long had passed; so too did it give him an answer of how much rest he could've gotten, yet didn't.
Unintentionally, a rough grunt escaped him as he sat back up, the aching of his body returning. It seemed less than before his rest for sure, yet facing it after the comparable bliss of merely lying on a bed made it all so much worse. Temptation befell him to lie down once more, as if it were the days of a child pleading for five more minutes before church duties forced him up, but all knew too well how the inevitable would sooner or later happen.
Resting one arm over his leg, he used the other to pull his rosarius out from under his shirt. A glance already revealed the unsurprising: an ever decreasing warm light, slowly taken over by the extinguishing shine of the affliction. And yet, there it lay in his hand in front of him; though he stood in Varilandian soil soon to turn into the land of affliction, on his pendant remained defiant the emblem of Nostrum. As if a melancholic hollowness took over, he couldn't help but close his hand around the pendant before bringing it to his forehead as he closed his eyes.
Quickly enough did he arrive south; the silent strip almost devoid of combatants and civilians had certainly made a great resting spot. There he found Victoria without her cloak, leaning against a building, staring at a paper held in one hand while the other supported her elbow, curiously present closer to the silent strip than anyone else he could see. Far a head in the distance he saw the ever greater dullahan presence, along with the few paladins that came to sight.
"Is it time?" He asked.
"I fear as much." She answered, extending the paper to him.
He took it and gave it a quick glimpse, to find it as a hastily drawn map of the capital with all its battle lines, along with the salient south. The salient, however, seemed to be the converging point of arrows coming from all around the capital's exterior: enemy territory.
"Traitors gathered in enough numbers to surround us after you went to rest. From what the others see now, they're all relocating to the salient. Lord knows how many of them there actually are."
"Are they going to try brute forcing through us?" He asked, returning the paper. "They look like they have the numbers."
"I almost hope so." She answered, rolling the paper and putting it by her belt. "That way we'll be free to strike down as many as we can."
"Indrick!" Called a joyous voice. Indrick and Victoria turned, and saw Geoffrey arriving with a canteen in hand. Upon arriving, he extended it to Indrick. "Some guy I won't snitch on got something off Acerrae."
Removing his helmet and taking the canteen, he gave it a quick smell.
"Wine?" He asked, to which Geoffrey nodded.
"You earned it, I'm sure."
"You're a saint, you know that?" He sighed, before bringing it to his mouth and chugging down without interruption. Once the last drop came out, he let out such wild sigh of relief before cleaning his mouth with his gauntlet, to then extend the canteen back to Geoffrey. "Wouldn't trade it even for a blessing at this point."
"The guy nagging us to not get drunk on duty, saying that?" He chuckled.
"It's barely had a few sips, you think that's going to do anything?" Answered Indrick with a snicker.
Noises. Beats, voices, too many to find any coherence in them yet all in rhythm and sync growing ever louder, petrifying them in confusion. All of them, coming from the far south, unable to see any semblance of source from where they were. As he put on his helmet, the three stepped off and quickly marched south, hearing the turmoil grow ever greater as did their confusion, seeing it reflected in the faces of those dullahans who knew no better, all watching south. Not too long after they arrived to the street where the barricade would stand had they not decided against it; difficult and slow would've been to cover the double-width main street of the south.
And yet, the noises still emanated from further ahead. By pure virtue of no loyalists existing any further, it turned undeniable that the noises came from traitors, yet none could see any of them despite the proximity. It didn't matter who or where; dullahans on the street, dullahans on the fortified buildings, the paladins gathering with them, all shared the same lack of understanding and the direction of the gaze.
"That's new." Said Maverick.
"They're trying to intimidate us." Said Geoffrey.
After Geoffrey's words, Victoria gave a glance at those dullahans around her. Stern expressions and determined postures seemed lacking among all; fearful, in fact. A feeling of impending doom, shared by all.
"It's doing the trick." She said. "I don't want to know how it must be affecting the civilians."
"Then their attack is bound to start soon." Said Indrick.
"One can't tell the dullahans to plug their ears." Said Sigismund. "Perhaps drowning out the noise itself would be a better alternative."
Most glanced at Sigismund in those few moments for that idea, simple in concept yet so complex at the same time. Sigismund himself then turned to Victoria.
"Is there a song out there that the dullahans know?" He asked.
"Not to my knowledge." She answered. "The chances of everyone without exception knowing one are low enough, not even counting if it'd be fitting for the situation."
"You're the singer here," he then said, turning to Indrick, "work out a miracle."
"I'm not going to sing that song." Answered Indrick. "Even if everyone magically learned it."
"Make something up."
"You think me a songwriter just because I learned one?"
"Even without that you're still better than most here. Come on. Something short, repetitive, something everyone can learn by listening once or twice. Perhaps something all can identify with, too."
Without words, Indrick silently stared through the slit of his helmet with a slight invisible frown. With a sigh, he turned his head forward south where the desolated streets greeted his eyes. Focusing, he closed his eyes, before a few melodic hums left him for those around him to hear.
"...Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;"
Victoria's heart skipped a beat, and had she not actively fought back the reflex, so too would her eyes have shot wide open with a gasp. The melodic words emanating from him, she heard them all too well, once.
"death called us all, yet we all knew no fear."
Her heart raced, unable to unglue her eyes from he who sang such words. She remembered them. It happened before. Not in reality, but in the land of her dreams.
"Blood, toil, sweat, and tears;"
Exact words, exact phrases, exact melody, and exact rhythm as back then. He shouldn't even know them. It was her dream. How?
"death called us all, still fighting we live."
Or was it not her dream? The relation to the affliction already threw all semblance of logical thought out the window: It could've been anything. Maybe it wasn't even her dream, but Indrick's, one she merely took part in. Or perhaps it truly was her dream, but also Indrick's, shared by the two. The thoughts seemed too much, unable to understand, feeling herself almost sweating, lowering her head and gaze as if she could not cope.
"Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;" he repeated, "death called us all," joined him Sigismund, Maverick, and Geoffrey, "yet we all knew no fear."
"Blood, toil, sweat, and tears;" joined the other paladins, though as Victoria's wavering gaze noticed, a dullahan had begun moving her mouth to whisper the exact words to herself, "death called us all, still fighting we live."
"...Sing!" She shouted for all to hear.
"Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;" joined ever more and more, one by one, no matter dullahan or paladin into a great chorus of voices.
"Come on! Sing!"
"Death called us all, yet we all knew no fear."
The idea did its part. With all singing without exception, everyone she looked at joining in unison to cry out against the madness ahead, Victoria could just barely hear any semblance of the voices and the beats. The vibrations of all voices in sync had drowned out the spine-chilling cries afar, and undeniable had turned the change from fear to defiance in everyone's expression.
Interrupting the chorus of only those forced to move, Victoria and those around her rushed off the street to the buildings for cover. One by one as they all arrived, they resumed their chorus anew from behind the buildings; the arrows falling and impacting against the cold stone road served only to intensify that which allowed so much passion to be given in their phrases, to sing under a hail of arrows such verses that seemed more fitting still.
"Steel yourselves," spoke Indrick to the paladins, "melee starts soon."
"If they get through us," said Victoria to those in proximity, all inspecting poleaxes and longswords, "they'll end up tearing through to the civilians. They'll rampage through and flank the other parts of the line, if not outright encircle them, shattering it all. This is the last line of defense; if there's anywhere we must fall, it must be here."
In their pause, Indrick and Victoria couldn't help but find each other's gaze as both leaned against the same wall next to each other, to which Victoria soon smiled.
"Maybe it's a luxury," she said, "that we can fight till our hearts give in. No need to think of tomorrow, or reminisce about yesterdays."
Rather than an immediate answer, Indrick lowered his gaze forward in thought. "You're right. Nobody even cares anymore who each of us is teaming up with."
"Say, here's a way to make it more interesting." She said in a lower tone, most others unable to listen. "Whoever falls first, gets a day to do anything with the other on the other side, some day."
Silence. Behind his helmet, Victoria knew him to have no expression, as if what she had said had been oh so out of place, but her smile grew wider knowing well what reaction to expect.
"What," she continued, "not even a thanks for giving you more reasons to last as much as you can?"
It took him time, but eventually a chuckle came out of him. "Deal."
"Won't they just flood through the city the moment they get through the first block?" Asked Sigismund, gaining her attention.
"The side streets are not barricaded, they'll just use them to get to the rest of the line."
"I know. Don't worry, I have a plan, and all of you play a part."
At that moment, their attention had diverted to the street, where they noticed the hail of arrows quickly easing down to a halt.
"The traitors advance!" Shouted a dullahan from the rooftops.
"Forward!" She shouted, to then turn to Indrick. "I'll need your aid for this."
"Paladins, with me." He said, to then see her rushing into the street. He followed, to have the footsteps of nineteen others follow suit; so too from all the other side streets and buildings appeared the dullahans once taking cover, eager for combat.
As all sought positions, Victoria arrived to the very first side-street. Turning south, she saw the traitors finally coming to sight advancing cover through cover, arrows of the loyalists flying to greet them in kind. She stood tall, taking a deep breath and slapping her palms together, for a gust of wind to emanate from her forward, though much to the confusion of the paladins, it seemed to do nothing.
"What-" Sigismund wished to ask, only to be interrupted by a traitor's arrow shattering in the air in two as ripples like that of an ocean formed on impact, making all paladins flinch in surprise.
"Shield." Answered Victoria, before turning to the side-street itself and extending her arms in focus. "Make sure they don't get close."
"Crossbows!" Ordered Indrick, putting his poleaxe back and taking his crossbow out, as did the others.
Yet, just barely after obtaining a bolt from his quiver, an earthquake-like rumbling snapped his eyes open in worry; turning his head to the source, he found great rocks slowly protruding out of the street. Victoria's magic, aiming to form a barricade with such terraforming, blocking said street. For all the power she had, however, she still required time to work. Disregarding the amazement within him, he continued to load his crossbow, and upon aiming it down the street, he found the traitors having advanced a fair share already; too much for comfort. The first bolt had been let loose, impacting against one and turning her into smoke, yet another quickly advanced past where she had fallen under the hail of loyalist arrows.
Too many. They seemed to have disregarded shooting back almost entirely, with only a few traitors taking a potshot here and there; the reason felt obvious, that they'd have to pick between advancing or shooting, choosing the former. With how the affliction rendered any and all casualties of theirs null, it truly felt like the option without any drawbacks. With another shot of his crossbow, he managed to strike one traitor and so too another a fair distance behind; rather than an accomplishment, it came to be an expected result against such recklessness.
"First one done!" Said Victoria, taking speed towards the opposite side-street.
With a glimpse, Indrick saw the result of her work: a stone wall reaching from building to building, impassable in any quick manner. The group followed Victoria to her next position, to which she set up the shield once more, before extending her arms to begin her work anew.
"How many to go?!" Asked Indrick, readying another bolt.
"Ten of these in total, before we get to the barricade before the civilians!"
An uncomfortable expression of uncertainty fell upon him; no matter how he looked at it, it required too much time to be accomplished with what little they had. They'd be overrun before the fifth. Yet, another arrow breaking against the invisible shield served to interrupt his thoughts spacing him out, returning him to combat. Then, another arrow struck, giving away how more had sights on them.
Bolt after bolt after bolt. Only ever so slightly did it slow down the tide, what little twenty shooters could hope to change compared to the nearly hundred loyalist bowwomen in this one street alone. Powerful for sure, still the crossbows showed their far lower rate of fire.
"Second one done!" She said, to immediately turn and run north. In relief of having to stand there no more, the paladins followed.
"Couldn't you have done this earlier?!" Asked Sigismund, just as all arrived to the next side-street a block north.
"And risk them spreading out trying to find other ways through?" She answered, setting up the shield. "If anything, they'd see me trying to do something about it and try to stop me, rather than going around!"
"That just means they'll all focus on us!"
"Through such a tiny chokepoint, as they are right now! Beautiful, isn't it?!"
But as Victoria began creating the third stone barricade, it was Reynauld who noticed something afar, in the buildings once populated by the defenders of the first line. The traitors had broken in, entering in force.
"Hey, hey!" He asked in panic upon the realization. "Won't they just get through the building and bypass your--"
An infernal rumbling greater than her work interrupted him; then, the shake of the building gained the paladins' entire undivided focus, seeing it slowly collapse and release a massive cloud of dust and debris, with those familiar dark clouds of red and black escaping in few places. Understandably, Reynauld gave no further words.
First building, taken over and thus collapsed. The traitors had entered their lines, too quick to do much; worse still, with the loyalists falling back and defensive positions overrun, no longer were they able to shoot and slow down the tide, enabling the traitors to break in with greater force to start a vicious cycle, a snowball. For all the effort it took the opposition to set foot in the first loyalist-controlled block, they now rushed in with half the difficulty and twice the strength. With how the paladins remained at the end of the first block, it turned from fear into certainty that they'd not have the time to let loose any additional shots before the inevitable happened.
First traitor to reach them, shot by Maverick at point blank. Dropping his crossbow and readying his poleaxe, he prepared himself for the second dullahan running towards him, only to see her shot by an arrow before reaching him; turning aside, he found the loyalist in question, putting her bow back and taking out her sword. So too did the same situation repeat itself, all in the street letting loose their last munition before switching to their butchery elements.
And then, the very first noises of steel clashing and grinding against each other rang out in the near-night, sword-to-sword and poleaxe-to-sword. A line had formed, like that of old in Makillae and Acerrae, discarding all equipment and doctrine of modern ranged combat for the brutal affairs known to man and monster since the very dawn of time.
"What got them so impatient all of a sudden?!" Shouted Geoffrey, soon to be interrupted by a traitor locking blades with him.
"Who knows?!" Responded Victoria. "Maybe twenty paladins and a lilim are too good of a target to pass! Alright, third one's done! Almost halfway there!"
Though she moved to the opposite side-street, the paladins found no need to relocate. Rather, the line had grown to cover the whole street like two great armies clashing against each other, even though the great Varilandian 'army' present resulted orders of magnitude smaller than wished for. Didn't help that they had been locked in melee to be able to maneuver, either, yet soon enough more loyalists arrived: those who had collapsed their own buildings to run around Victoria's barricade and return from the rear. Granted the respite of their positions replaced, the paladins withdrew and relocated towards Victoria.
Arriving to her, however, Indrick found her in a far more dangerous situation than anticipated. The line kept getting pushed back, and barely two meters away from her the traitors threatened to break through. Without the need for orders, the twenty rushed to the wavering line and resumed combat once more, though without hopes of lasting too long.
"It's taking too long!" Shouted Indrick. "They're almost on you!"
"I know! Keep them away for just a little longer!" She said, barricade just half raised.
"They're focusing on this side! Victoria is like a magnet to th-- shit!" Shouted Geoffrey, only to face the brunt of three traitors suddenly focusing on him, reducing him to nothing but blocking attempts and a desperate step back, only to trip and fall with his back against the ground. The paladins next to him attempted to plug the hole he had left, while three dullahans quickly dragged him back to help him up, yet little could they do as the traitors exploited the breakthrough, forcing themselves in.
Before long, a sword threatened to fall upon Victoria, seemingly none the wiser with her eyes closed and arms outstretched to the stones.
"Victoria!" Shouted Indrick as he attempted to rush to her side, only to find his own thoughts interrupted as he saw Victoria suddenly turn enough to throw an arm to the threat, shooting violent arcs of blinding electricity out of her palm against the traitor, turning her into smoke in an instant along with several behind her which the volts struck through; the traitor's sword fell to the ground, before disappearing the same. The breach, though still uncontrolled, seemed to ease down enough for the paladins and dullahans to hold back against.
"I can't do two things at once! Either I fight or I block their path!" She said, returning to her work.
"It's too much for you to do, we have to go!"
No answer he could give. The grim reality of a last stand showed its abhorrent image, that none played out as one would wish, cutthroat and unforgiving as they were to the doomed side. Loud grunts and painful hits echoed through the other end of the line, in enough force to be so noticeable; turning his eyes to the source, he found already another breach in the line.
"Anyone not fighting, with me!" He ordered, lightly tapping Geoffrey's arm as he passed. Him and the dullahans quickly joined in, knowing well what the task at hand was just by seeing where he ran to, and readied themselves for yet more of the same of what had been thrown at them earlier.
None of those dreadful stake-shaped poleaxes of theirs, he saw. An opportunity for recklessness, to throw as much strength as he received. All of them, with just swords. Taking the chance, he charged into those who breached through, erasing the smile of she who he targeted in his stampede, before crashing into her with the full might of his weight with a solid hit of his shoulder. Building up momentum with a turn in place, he gripped his poleaxe and swung it around before bringing its hammerhead down as hard as he could, making the traitor scream at the sight before ending up cut short as she turned to smoke, hammer striking against the road. Disrupting them enough with such breakthrough, Geoffrey and the rest of the dullahans swooped in after him to pick off those left in disarray.
A near-invulnerable pile of armor had a purpose of its own, both Indrick and Geoffrey figured at the same time; while the dullahans still fought to hold the line and caring not to leave themselves exposed, the two paladins rushed into the center of the flood, where the breach had formed, regardless of how surrounded they'd be, throwing aside traitor after traitor with poleaxe and fist. Disruption became their trade, causing as much havoc as they could, allowing the better-organized loyalists to pick off those around one by one, slowly and steadily closing in upon the breach, till the line turned into a curve rather than a broken mess.
Impunity. Only the sheer weight of bodies thrown against them had stopped them, yet now in disarray they could let go as much as they wished. Thrust, stab, smash, using the poleaxe to the absolute limit of its capability and versatility, turning into smoke traitors one by one through blade or blunt, as a tool of destruction or as a means to enable a fatal punch or stomp.
Yet, for all the progress it made, it seemed to take a greater toll on Indrick. Sweat had built up, absorbed by the clothes underneath his armor, building up temperature through movement and effort. Asphyxiating, as if. Breathing turned quicker and erratic, contracting or loosening with each effort applied to poleaxe in combat or body to turn and meet what opposition lay in front, to the sides, or snuck behind. Sometimes, it even felt much like choking, wishing to breathe yet prevented from doing so. The sweat building up on his brow, running down his nose and cheeks, the wish to clean them off existed, yet drowned out from his senses by the sheer adrenaline and focus overtaking him.
Though most he received were blocks and messy attempts of scraping his armor, finally one did different: A traitor took grip of his poleaxe after a swing. Easy enough to counter, by pulling and following it with any manner of violent actions if she did not let go. He pulled with all his might to throw her off her feet, but a pain like that of a mundane steel stake driving into his flesh made him let out a short, sharp scream and lose grip with his left hand in reflex; with just his right hand fighting against the grip of a dullahan, he reluctantly surrendered the poleaxe and stepped back. About to draw his longsword, he saw instead a loyalist taking his place, allowing him the luxury of holding onto his shoulder, the place the pain struck. A torn ligament? Must've been something exceptionally similar, the pain felt like no other. Consequences of overwork? Perhaps. Slowly, he maneuvered his arm in various directions to test its new limit, to find it acceptable, as much as it hurt. Longsword will do, he thought as he drew it out.
Only outside in combat for a mere moment did he notice his breathing, his throat, his chest. They didn't hurt. In fact, he began losing feeling of them. Once so painfully dry, his throat felt like it no longer existed. His chest, once beating like it'd tear itself open at any second, no longer felt the difficulty in breathing, or the breathing at all.
"Done! Fall back!" He heard Victoria shouting, to see the line on her part immediately withdrawing.
A deep sense of respite flooded his senses. The line in front, however, still faced itself locked in melee.
"Don't get overrun!" He shouted, gripping his longsword and throwing himself against the line once more.
Against the one facing off against Geoffrey, he landed a lucky strike against her neck, turning her into smoke and freeing Geoffrey from attention, who quickly turned back and ran. Sword rose once more to land against another traitor, caught in a grinding of blade against a loyalist. A blade thrust his way, deflecting it before returning the blow in kind, at which point he saw most others able to withdraw safely, blocking blows as they stepped back. Free at last, he turned and ran back as quickly as he could, aiming to regroup with the others of his kin and the lilim.
First step, something happened. Unknowing the cause, he fell to his knee. Trying to get up proved impossible, body refusing to answer, instead falling further as he put the blade's end and his palm on the ground. Looking forward, it all felt like it played in slow motion. All running back, to the north, confident in their chances and aware of their goals, till by mere chance Geoffrey looked back. Geoffrey's movements gave away his emotions, of so furiously running north only to slide to a halt on the road, to turn and run towards him.
"Indrick!!" His desperate cry echoed throughout the muffled dusk, as if Indrick's ears had ceased to function almost in their entirety, a ringing replacing them. Didn't take long for the others to hear him and turn to see, for their movements to face the same sudden change. So too did Victoria alter, eyes opening wide and abandoning her goal of moving to the next side-street.
His breathing, he could not feel it. Not numbness, but an absolute lack of it. Slowly bringing his hand to his chest, he found himself breathing too slowly, too slowly to be considered anything but asphyxiation, without even his own reflexes to warn him of such event. Couldn't hasten it. His lungs refused to obey. So too did his whole body lose feeling, losing its aching, losing its tiredness, and so too the sensation of all the sweat and heat engulfing it.
A hand fell over his shoulder, pulling him back. From the direction alone he figured it traitor, but he could not react; his body betrayed him, and so too did his mind by feeling no semblance of fear or danger, as if he had reverted to a blank state. It propped him up by the shoulder, though soon a loyalist's arrow interrupted the ordeal, striking the traitor and turning the hand into smoke, and let him fall back to the floor face-up this time.
Vision faded. Mere blurs now, that of the afflicted running past him to engage his would-be saviors. He could barely pick up the noises of steel clashing and throats shouting, soon to fall to an absolute deaf silence. So too did his vision weaken, growing darker and darker, till all turned pitch-black.
From the eyes of she who rushed to his aid, all had been as violent as it ever was. Shouting, grunting, impacts against armor and flesh, pushes and shoves in a primitive brawl, seeing it all as she ran and ran. The paladins struck first against the traitors bent on slowing them down, and slow them down they did despite immediate loses, till Victoria pushed herself into the line and threw a lightning bolt tearing a clean line forward. The infinite numbers of the opposition, however, soon threatened to plug the gap, leaving them a minuscule chance; with near-suicidal fervor, all stormed forward with blade, poleaxe, and rapier drawn, yet as they almost arrived to the fallen paladin, more traitors cut the distance to meet them. Readying herself for another spell, however, a dullahan in particular jumped from within the enemy lines against her, thrusting her sword into her chest with such brutal speed as to make it impossible to react against.
Time froze, for her. Those beside her disappeared, as did those beside the attacker. The world, now turned into its graying hue, paralyzed as the two were: Victoria, losing her balance and grip of her rapier, and falling back by the blow, and Melanie, mid-jump with her sword embedded upon her, both locking eyes.
"He's gone, Victoria." Said Melanie.
"He's not gone. I will rescue him."
"See what your childish beliefs got you into. You could've been with him long ago already. Now, he's dying. This will be the last time you see him. With what he put himself through because of you... I fear that staying with you will only result in his death."
"Prove me wrong. Prove the paladin killing himself for your sake wrong. Prove Jeremiah wrong, he who died under your service only to return again to yet more suffering. Prove it to Dirk, who ended his life in your lands. You're lucky that it hasn't gotten any worse before we decided to put a stop to it."
As much as she opened her lips to retort, no words could escape her.
"This may be your last chance. Not just yours, in fact, but also of the paladins around you. You know very well that they will follow Dirk's example at the end of their duty. Their blood will be on your hands for not stopping it, but even encouraging it. Is this the world you want? Where the last memory everyone has is of combat and suffering, of impending doom and hopelessness while dead-tired and afraid?"
Still, she found no words to return.
"Indrick will be with us. With just a word, you can be with him. With just a word, you can end this madness for good. In fact... I know that you were thankful."
"Thankful for what?"
"For the affliction to appear. You were ecstatic. It was like a gift from God, for you."
"Were it not for that, Nostrum and Variland would be killing each other. The only interactions you'd have with Indrick would be limited to mere chats and thrusts at each other's necks. Now, you two have learned so much of each other, have connected so well, and with what Nyarlathotep showed only the two of you, you see the other as unique in the whole world, as if you were forged for each other."
"...Lies! Lies, all of it!"
"You even slept in the same bed as him!" She shouted back, voice deafening through the absolute silence. "Don't deny that it was what you've dreamed for since the first time you saw him! Thanks to us, Nostrum and Variland put aside their differences! Thanks to us, they are now on the same side! Thanks to us, people who swore to end each other almost act like lovers! Look at you, willing to go so far for his sake, and him for yours! Dullahans and paladins eager to spill their own blood beside each other, and yet you still fight against it like a child! We've given you all we can provide without expecting even a mere thanks in return, and you believe it a great cause to return to the senseless death and misery of that war! You saw how it was us that found two armies bent on killing each other, and made them fight together like inseparable millennia-old allies! Why?! Why do you deny us?!"
Victoria's throat ached. Breathing turned erratic, unable to formulate words in her mind to go against it. Eyes began burning, turning watery till soon enough one tear began running down her cheek, all as she remained there staring without anything to say.
"You two could be so happy together." She sighed, returning to a soft tone. "Rather than dying, who knows, maybe you two could've been taking a stroll in the garden you so much wanted to build. With Nostrum and Variland no longer hating each other, what other reason would there be to keep building such academies? All that time and effort could've gone to chasing your dreams. In fact... you could've been going around with him, showing him each and every corner of the world as the two of you picked the most beautiful life to add to the ever-growing collection."
"Indrick..." She whispered, eyes falling aimless.
"You want him to smile, don't you? You know as well as I that these times aren't ones to smile in... Or perhaps they are. You have the chance, no? To change things for good, to make him smile as he holds hands with you, to remove all worries and difficulties that plague you. Only living for each other, and for the people you'd nurture into a great nation. We ask for nothing in return. No tricks, no deception, nothing you'd not want. Join us, and let's turn this misery into happiness for all, none left behind."
Her words, they seemed to hit all the weak spots. Her imagination ran wild, almost against Victoria's own wishes. The garden, the holding of hands, the smiling, things she precisely yearned for without exception ever since she first saw him, even if part if not all of her believed some of it impossible. Perhaps it truly was for the best. His death, the death of his friends, was she really prepared to take responsibility for them?
'We'd be losing our humanity.'
Like a lightning bolt in a cold, silent night, the vivid memory sparked into her mind. His words, hearing them all too well, despite having forgotten them for being such a vague remark in their chat by the lake. A chat, before the affliction had even appeared.
If he turned, it'd no longer be the Indrick she knew smiling, the Indrick she loved, the Indrick she so hopelessly sought after.
It'd be someone else.
"I finally... understand..."
"Am I finally getting through?" Melanie couldn't help but ask, heartwarming smile growing in her.
"The Order feared the monsters. They feared the changes the demonic energy would do to them, saying it'd end in the loss of their humanity. I could never understand it... but now that I'm as zealous about the affliction as The Order itself, it gave me an epiphany."
Melanie's smile soon dissipated.
"The Order...?" She asked. "The ones who wanted you dead? The ones who merely set aside their differences with you because of a greater threat, and will try to kill you the moment things ease down? Those paladins may be helping you, but they're ready to stab you in the back as soon as they find the chance."
"Yes, that's The Order I knew. The paladins I knew. The Indrick I knew. None other."
"You'd rather die by their hand than seek the peace and love your mother sought after so much?"
"Ah, Melanie... It looks like the affliction never took away your courage. You'd certainly need it... to speak of the one you betrayed and now fight against!"
"So be it."
Time resumed, resulting in a painful fall against the stone road on her back. Gasps and grasps for breath followed from Victoria as Melanie pulled out the sword, standing back up as Victoria held the wound with her hand. The world had found itself populated once more by combatants on both sides, no more graying skies, and a deafening cacophony hitting against her ears used to the silence.
"I'll keep Indrick somewhere familiar to the south, but only for a short while." Said Melanie, standing with her sword pointed towards her. "You know what to do."
Without a second to waste, she turned back and rushed south. "Fall back! We have what we wanted!" Echoed her orders, followed by the traitors ending their push and rushing south with her.
"Indrick..." She gasped, out of breath, trying to get up and move forward. "Indrick...!"
"Volleys! Incoming!" Screamed a loyalist.
"Get up, get up!" Pressured Sigismund as he with Maverick arrived to her, to pull her up to her feet.
"We have to pursue them!" She said, attempting to run south, only for the two paladins to drag her along to the safety of a building's cover.
Once there, her eagerness to give chase had died; defeated and with the two letting go, she marched up to the wall and let herself fall against it. The arrows soon fell like rain, making any step outside comparable to suicide.
"Why did we not go forward...?" She asked, turning her eyes to Sigismund.
"With what?" He answered. "We were barely holding as it is."
"Are we going to just abandon him?"
"You don't know how last stands go, lilim? It's not a fairy tale of glorious combat with everyone falling at the same time. No. We're strong, and because of that we'll get picked off one by one in the most miserable of ways without anything we can do about it. Indrick was the first. We will all soon follow."
After keeping her eyes on him for a moment, her glance fell downwards as a hopeless exhalation from her nose escaped her, with only the rain of arrows to stave off the grim silence.
"Melanie said they'd be keeping Indrick south for a while." She mumbled, gaining the glances of those around her. "She wouldn't taunt me like that if there was no way for us to even get there."
"You also know very well it's a trap." Added Sigismund. "It took this much of an assault into a fortified position to get one single paladin. If we're out in the open surrounded on all sides, without even a position to defend... we're dead meat, as Melanie would want."
No words could she give. No argument, no reason, nothing; all Sigismund said, she could not counter, leaving her looking at the ground. He had been right in his entirety, leaving her to swallow the agonizing thought of abandoning the paladin. The arrows had begun dwindling in quantity, till the volleys came to a halt; a sign that the traitors had left in their entirety, past the range of bows. Now, only silence remained.
"Does he mean so much to you?" Asked Sigismund.
Though she didn't raise her eyes, it had struck her enough for her heart to skip a beat. Already tears threatened to escape, but she fought them back; instead, she grit her teeth, clenched her fist, and struck it against the wall in anger before stepping out to the street.
"Rally up!" She ordered as loud as her voice allowed. "We're setting out for the paladin!"
"What?!" Asked Sigismund in disbelief, following her as did the others.
"You know very well how that'll end." Said Maverick.
"The same way it'll end if we do nothing." She answered.
"The same way, but quicker." Added Sigismund.
Stopping in place, Victoria slowly turned around to stare at Sigismund, before stepping up to him. Once filled with anguish and sorrow, her eyes now reflected a cold, disciplined gaze, unwavering despite all.
"The alternative we have is staying here for them to keep picking us off one by one. Would you rather have that?" She said. "The moment the first paladin fell already marked the inevitable. Our doom will arrive faster than anyone imagines as more and more fall. We're all dead-tired and with less manpower each second, like a snowball on top of a hill growing greater and greater with each blink of an eye, moving towards us. The only thing that will matter once this is over is whether we have decided to abandon the first to fall, or cry out against fate and throw all we have for his sake."
"What about the civilians? What about those who want to have a few more seconds to make peace with the inevitable?"
"We all have something to make peace with, paladin. I am no exception."
A pause came to be, leaving the footsteps of the dullahans gathering in ever greater numbers to echo in the torn streets.
"I am no stranger to acts of suicidal heroism." She continued. "It is thanks to one that I am still here. Those who have fallen to make sure of that will haunt me to my last breath, but it is not my place to only mourn for them. Ultimately... it was I who put those events into motion, by choosing to succumb rather than to persevere. To march south will be my penance, to put my soul through the gauntlet as much as he who did the same for me, if not more. The monstrosity that once was my second in command waits there, but I am confident by this much: Whether I am victorious or slain, my sins will know retribution. And if that's the last thing I do... then so shall this be the final testimony of the Lady of Variland, twenty-second daughter of the Demon Lord."
More and more dullahans gathered, all who had partaken in the defense. All, listening intently, till silence took over once more, surrounding the lilim and the paladin looking at each other. Then, Sigismund's gaze fell elsewhere.
"Bolts left?" He asked, turning to the paladins.
"Barely a couple." Answered Maverick.
"Completely dry." Answered Reynauld.
"Do you know how to use bows?" Asked Victoria.
"Enough to use in an emergency." Said Sigismund. "This might as well be one."
With a mere nod, a few dullahans understood it all too well. Quickly they left, and quickly they arrived with nineteen bows and quivers; without delay, the paladins dropped their crossbows and adopted the new elven weaponry. Couldn't be denied the fascination in some of them, turning and inspecting every nook and cranny of the weapons once used against them, the quality rumored of to be one of the best by pure virtue of their manufacturers.
Growing a devious smile, she turned to a dullahan. "Send word to Valerian, Rose, and Lily."
"Yes, my Lady." She answered, rushing off.
"Wouldn't we be leaving this entire area exposed?" Asked Reynauld.
"If they wanted to get through, they'd have just continued the attack. I'd dare say that they care more about us than the civilians inside. Ready?"
"On your mark." Said Sigismund.
"Then we march to find the one we lost!" She announced for all to hear, to receive in turn a cheer in unison from the dullahans, all raising a fist in the air. "Form up! Forward!"
The cheer turned into hastened mutters of orders, incomprehensible by the quantity and muffled by the footsteps rampaging through the small area. The vanguard had formed, allowing Victoria and the cadre of tired Nostrians to march forward, soon followed by the rear guard. All those once stuck on the defensive, now on the offense for their own little Acerrae.
"Is it going to be a searching mission?" Asked Sigismund as he marched beside her, crossing the segment of missing barricade, marking their intrusion into no man's land. "Do we know what exactly we're after?"
"Melanie said it'd be somewhere familiar, assuming the words of a traitor can be trusted. She's not native to the capital, but from Helmsreach, so she couldn't have meant familiar based on herself."
"Just because she's from there?"
"Those who came from Helmsreach after it was torched to the ground were... almost too focused on getting better to avenge it. They liked sparring better than even going out for a stroll to learn the place. Even in their last days they still kept getting lost in the capital. That dedication caught Valerian's attention, and that's how Melanie ended up as second in command."
"Then perhaps she meant you?"
"Doubtful. I did frequent the capital fairly often, but nothing in specific that'd grow familiarity in me enough for Melanie to know. If she meant familiar to Indrick, then we may have a lead. The school he almost got caught in. That's where we'll be going.
"Traitors by the rooftops." Mentioned a dullahan walking beside them, looking up high. "May only be scouts."
As Victoria raised her eyes, she spotted those the dullahan mentioned, immediately escaping sight. Certain it was that they were being watched, without even leaving them with the opportunity to shoot them to spite them even if it was worth the ammunition.
"Looks like I was right after all." Said Victoria, zero excitement in her voice. "They want us further in."
"What's the plan once we get to Indrick?" Asked Sigismund.
One part of Sigismund dreaded to hear the word. Another, however, had been dying to hear it. Such a hopeless acceptance of a lack of plan, yet at the same time a defiant jump into the pyre, the actions defining the ideal life of a paladin. Felt like a complete different person from the naive lilim who had not a single militia, let alone soldier, ready despite the bordering Order nation so long ago.
'So long ago', when barely a year had passed. Was it past a year, or just under? He couldn't tell, only that not that long ago he would've popped a vessel at the thought of sharing a suicide mission with the monsters he now almost felt respect for, as if a mission with them were better than one without. How time passed, and how the mighty have fallen to the affliction in the meanwhile. With arrow already nocked on his elven bow, to reminisce of older days only reminded him of what nonsensically stupid future he had found himself in. In a way, it felt more like a stupid excuse God came up with to have them team up; certainly he wished it was, as anything else would just open a can of infinite questions leading to answers sparking the same quantity of doubts, a neverending loop ending with one's mind collapsing upon itself.
"Contact, front!" Exclaimed a paladin. Sigismund soon noticed what had been seen, the vanguard scattering as combat began anew in range, with a chorus of orders and exclamations echoing through to them.
"It's time." Smiled Victoria, unsheathing her rapier. "Storm them! Give them no chance to rain arrows upon you!"
Not a second afterwards, Sigismund saw her disappearing in smoke. God knew where she went, for he could not spot her at the front; too chaotic to see. So too did his vision become obstructed by those dullahans around him and the others letting out a furious cry as they all advanced: those who did not partake in murderous deeds, seeking it as quick as their legs allowed.
"Keep up with them!" He ordered.
"Last one there gets a beating!" Shouted Reynauld, sprinting forward with reckless abandon, followed by a few other paladins shouting a cheer in approval, soon to be followed by even more. Not wanting to be the one receiving the beatings, regardless of the threat existing or not, Sigismund and the remaining ones ran forward with them, to be followed by the rearguard of dullahans.
Just a block forward, and Sigismund could very well see a melee developing out on the street. Not that of two lines clashing against each other, but rather, as if Victoria's forces had bum-rushed forward and caught the first wave of their opponents and crushed them too fast for the second to bolster them. Too chaotic and messy to even stop and aim; on the street the risk of friendly fire turned near-certain, and on the buildings the few windows left too little of an opportunity to shoot good enough to sacrifice their advance. A complete turn-around of the earlier defense, as if.
"Too many have fallen to grant us the luxury of standing tall this day!" He heard Victoria's words, yet her location escaped him. No matter how much closer he got to the front line ever moving forward, he found no sight of her. "We have no right to do anything less!"
And then, a lightning bolt tore out from the crowds which had formed, striking a building's window where no doubt a traitor had been. There she was, he saw, fighting with her own kin at the vanguard, impatient as she was.
"Keep moving forward!" She ordered. "We're not here to take and hold, don't get bogged down with the buildings!"
But as much as the inspiring words fell upon his ears, he felt instead the rush of competition. Her dullahans needed her words, but his paladins needed others. An unspoken contest of who could rally their own to fight the hardest, almost, even if she was not aware of his thoughts.
"Remember Vandire's words!" He shouted to the others. "Who are we?!"
"Nostrum!" Answered the paladins in unison.
"Who are we!?"
"Make them never forget those they fought against!"
A rallying shout escaped from all, rushing forward for a taste of combat their allies hogged up. At the same time, Sigismund felt it better if he gauged the cult's presence here as they were, further away from the main concentration of monsters; leaving his bow and arrow to be held by his left hand, he took his right and pulled the pendant out. What he saw, however, opened his eyes and slowed his sprint ever so slightly, more and more till he came to a complete halt in disbelief.
The cult's siphoning darkness remained as it ever was, obscuring all the light that remained for the rosarius to detect, yet instead of the warm orange light like that of a candle, now a bright white remained. The shining burn of a dying star, fighting off the darkness threatening to engulf it. A glance to Victoria who still moved forward, and to the dullahans running past him, left him with no answers to the infinity of questions cascading into his mind.
"Tired already, paladin?!" A dullahan asked as she ran past, bashing his back in an attempt to get him moving forward; a playful taunt, devoid of any sense of fear or anxiety one would expect plentiful in the last moments of their group.
Rearguard. Already did he fall to last place in the race for the school. Tucking his pendant back in and figuring the questions were what he'd never find answers for, he picked up pace once more ahead.
"We've not been given leave to doubt!" She kept on mustering her own, an inexhaustible supply of willpower as he saw; that the white light had something to do with the monsters around seemed undeniable, yet the how of it escaped him forevermore.
"For Variland!" Shouted a dullahan, voice almost cracking with passion and vigour, surprising him as she ran past him with neverending fervor in her movements. With her quiver empty, he could only imagine that a desperate need to stave off idleness had overtaken her. A behavior which he saw in all those around, in fact; no loyalist seemed to understand the mere concept of fear anymore, charging on with no doubt nor hesitation in their actions. Fearless, into the line.
The intersection. Inevitable it was that they'd face an endless horde from both sides upon crossing it. As soon as the side streets fell into loyalist territory, the forces had divided into those who still pushed south, and those who remained to cover the eastern and western approaches. That the dullahans immediately started shooting gave away what enemy presence awaited.
"Paladins! Cover their advance!" He ordered, figuring it for naught to attempt keeping up. With a shout of acknowledgment in unison, the group divided east and west as space allowed, throwing themselves into the cover of the buildings.
His hands itched in that moment, at the prospect of testing what new weapon he had received. Down the street traitors advanced towards them a block away, still ways away from melee range. Arrow nocked, Sigismund focused on remembering his lessons in archery, and with a deep breath, strung the bow aimed down the street. The magical sensation already made his heart beat over what unbelievable feeling it gave, that of feather-light weight and finesse, yet paradoxically enough a feeling of tremendous draw weight behind it. Finding a target to test the sensations true or false, he let loose, to hear the sharp whistling of the arrow tearing through the wind, flying with potency the likes of which he never experienced from a Nostrian bow straight towards the dullahan, with accuracy he'd have deemed impossible from someone of his comparatively mediocre skill. It struck the traitor running across the street into cover, pulverizing her into smoke, and with the arrow passing through with barely any speed lost, to fly on Lord knows where.
Fear struck him of spoiling himself rotten with such almost-magical weaponry; it felt like running for years with a boulder chained to him, to have it unchained at last. His crossbow, once believing it to be the pinnacle of Nostrian techniques and simplicity, now seemed like an overengineered club. Almost addictive, he found himself already nocking another arrow for the next target, finding no lack of runners. Shot, hit, nock, shot, hit; seemed like a blessing in disguise that so many traitors remained for him to shoot non-stop.
"Rearguard's through!" Shouted a dullahan. "Keep up!"
A turn to the side, and he found that they themselves had become the rearguard, those at the very end of the formation. With the others he abandoned his post, rushing forward to keep up with such reckless advance.
Next sidestreet, he found other dullahans doing what they had done last time. Their turn had arrived to advance under the cover of the others, almost as if leapfrogging. His men crossed the street past the cacophony of orders reaching the dullahans, the exact same warning of the last ones advancing to allow them to get up and leave. Yet, as Sigismund looked forward, he found that the advance had slowed down; nearly three blocks of difference had existed between the vanguard's front and the rearguard's end in the first engagements, yet now only one stood to accommodate them.
"Paladins, to the front!" He ordered, fearing a potential stalemate.
As he approached, he could already see the lightning bolts destroying what they struck, be it a building's window or those traitors in front. Rather, he could not see it directly, but rather gauge it by its blinding light and the aftermath of its deafening roar.
"Draw strength from me," he could already hear her, a bottomless supply of energy, "who will never retreat!"
In melee he found her, locked against ever increasing hordes standing in their path. Agility ever shocking, with just rapier in hand she maneuvered and deflected the traitor in front, landing a hit on her neck and turning her into smoke; before he could arrive to her side, yet another traitor lunged her way, only for Victoria to blink aside in her smoke-releasing teleportation, stepping forward as she grabbed the dullahan's face and, with all her might, slamming it against the ground with shocks of furious currents escaping, turning yet another to smoke. To the third dullahan swinging Victoria's way, however, he made his own arrival clear as he released the arrow he had prepared, piercing through and gaining Victoria's attention.
"What happened?!" He asked, putting his bow back and readying his poleaxe.
"They're bogging us down with their bodies." She answered past a grunt, soon for more traitors to interrupt their minuscule chat in melee. Around them, with ever more opponents arriving to bolster the ones already engaged, it looked like a clear repetition of the first assault. Loyalists and paladins soon joined them, pushing beside each other to create the dreaded line of bodies clashing against each other, but no matter how many traitors they defeated, three more took the fallen's place.
Lightning bolt, frightening him and blinding him from so close enough to make him reflexively step back and cover his head. Tore through the enemy lines in front, cutting through like a white-hot knife, leaving the street to exude that thick, red-black smoke as if a firestorm had taken place.
"Be like those who served Lord General Jeremiah!" She shouted out loud, fury unrivalled by any. "Free of doubt, free of fear, free of--"
An abrupt silence, and eyes shooting wide open. An arrow, striking her after whistling in. The angle, however, struck ever greater surprise in Sigismund.
It came from above.
"...Volley!" He shouted, disregarding the traitors in front and rushing to the side, almost tackling Victoria to drag her aside to safety as all loyalists scattered.
A volley, unexpected as it was with how close they were to the enemy. Inevitably, the sudden retreat left the traitors able to push through with ever greater fervor, reducing the engagement from a stalemate to a desperate withdrawal, doom approaching from all sides. The lilim had been injured, leaving him doubtful on her mental health with how she had been one of those to fall first when the affliction first appeared. He arrived to a building's door with what cover the loyalists and paladins provided, safe under its small roof extending outwards to the sidewalk, but as he looked at Victoria fearing a blank mind at best, he found her gritting her teeth as she gripped the arrow's shaft. With a firm pull, he saw her pulling it out, soon turning to that old red-black smoke.
"...Free of restraint!" She finished, still with rapier in hand. He couldn't help but stare as she slowly marched to the front massaging her wound, but as he glanced around to assess the situation he found it grim. She did not care. Misjudging her direction, he found her walking not to the front for another fight, but instead towards a fallen dullahan with an arrow in her belly, fallen, silent and catatonic, but upon arriving to her, Victoria gripped the arrow and pulled it out. "Your wounds mean nothing! Stand!" She shouted, grabbing her by the neck of her clothes and pulling her up. Catatonic for a moment, the dullahan soon lowered her gaze and, as if forcing herself, picked up her bow lying on the ground and rushed off.
But as much as it was a sight to behold, other things prevented Sigismund from staring in awe.
"Victoria!" He called.
"What?!" She asked back, fury once directed at those traitors before her unintentionally redirected at him, with her eyes giving away what mistake she could admit. In those few moments, she brought herself to breathe normally, as if her adrenaline rush had stabilized after such display. Still arrows rained, still traitors pushed threatening a breakthrough that'd lead to their massacre, and yet, it seemed so peaceful a scenery in their silence.
"Look around you." He said, voice lowering to a calm, almost hopeless state. As he suggested, she did, to find that their heroic push had ended. Rather, they were the ones getting pushed. Cementing it she saw the dullahans breaking into the buildings for attempts at obtaining cover, despite the buildings themselves once threatening to bog them down. None gave up, none fell to despair, yet no progress seemed possible anymore. A last stand, as grim as it was, unable to reach their objective. "We have reached our limit. Any more, and we'll shatter."
"We have no choice but to press on, Sigismund." She answered in equal dying tone. "He did not abandon me, and I shall not abandon him."
"I would never suggest retreat... but the traitors beset our forces from all sides. To hold their position is all they can do!"
Her brows furrowed as her gaze fell, unwilling to accept it with doubt and hopelessness threatening to fill what void in her heart had been created, but soon she raised her gaze to him again.
"Then it falls to you and I, paladin." She said, stern and determined. "We go south, to Indrick."
Worse ideas had fared greater success; he had been desensitized to the worst of cases, almost. He was in one, after all. Victoria marched into the building, and as if dumping all his remaining faith in something greater than a miserable end, he followed, regardless of not knowing how she'd do it, nor of its chances of success, let alone what they'd do after reaching him. Room past room they reached a bedroom, finding one detail in particular they sought after: a window, leading to the running parallel to the one they had been in.
"Once we're out, we need to be quick." She explained. "It'll not be long before they notice we're missing, and hunt us down."
In acknowledgment, he took a deep breath, needing not words to say but just the act of placing his poleaxe on his back.
She opened the window and jumped outside, followed by the paladin. Muffled already were the noises from the other street, of chaos infinite and cacophonies deafening even from this far. They'd have to fare on their own, as much as neither wished to even mention the idea of how they were abandoning them; all set out for a purpose, and that purpose they'd accomplish. Upon his other foot reaching the ground outside and after readying his bow, the two set off.
First block down, they only had the noises afar to keep them company. Second block towards the school, and still the noises diminished.
"How many to go?" He asked.
"Not far. Maybe four more at worst."
Turn of the corner, and their relative blessing of unobstructed path had ended. Seven dullahans stood in their path, surprised despite running towards them since the start, no doubt those who sought to bolster the attack against the loyalists.
"Warn the others!" One shouted, to be cut short by Victoria's bolt. The next beside her, turned to smoke by an arrow, with the third struck down by yet another bolt.
"Either shoot or chop!" Sigismund said, seeing the three remaining get close enough for him to step back, for the fourth had escaped back.
"Keep your bow and I'll keep them from you!" She answered, stepping forward with rapier readied. Taking the opportunity, Sigismund let out yet another shot taking a fourth traitor down, and once close, Victoria teleported forward and stabbed the first to come. The last dullahan to remain jumped back in fright, only to leave herself exposed to yet another of Sigismund's arrows.
"We might last for another few minutes." He complimented as he took speed past her, but as she picked up the pace, Sigismund saw her with an expression of pain and her hand on her head. "Something wrong?"
"Exhaustion's taking its toll..." She grunted. "I might be waving goodbye to all but my rapier sooner or later..."
"Let's hope it happens later rather than sooner."
Their chase after the building resumed, though soon enough after yet another turn they found a greater concentration of traitors, along the one to alert those. A dozen, if not a little more.
"There's no shortage of them, is there?!" He ranted.
"Be there dozens or hundreds, we can not falter."
Arrow nocked, drawn, and released.
Bolt fired, though with an accompanying shout in pain from Victoria as she recoiled back, pulling her shaking arm to herself.
"What happened?!" Asked Sigismund.
"Too overworked, it's already starting to backfire!"
"Get back, get back!"
Holding her arm, she had no more options than to obey. As Sigismund released another arrow eliminating a second traitor, their steps kept on leading them further back into another street. Another, another, and another shot, till the dullahans had gotten too close to risk another shot.
"To Indrick!" He shouted, dropping his bow and unsheathing his longsword, a quicker endeavour than his poleaxe would've demanded; so close had the dullahans gotten, that right after unsheathing he had found himself slashing, using the momentum itself in his favor. As the dullahan blocked, Victoria quickly exploited the chance and stabbed her in the belly, eliminating her.
Had to be quick and ruthless; any additional second he spent on a dullahan meant another second the others would use to close in upon them. Still little over half a dozen remained, and though he forced another to block for Victoria to finish off, little else could they do. The third he attempted it against had grown wiser, dodging back rather than blocking it, to end with the other five opponents as reinforcements. Left with no recourse other than to stand back to back, Sigismund and Victoria found themselves surrounded, with any and all actions they'd take inevitably finding themselves exploited.
And then, a lightning bolt tore through two, though still with a shout emanating from her.
"You're pushing yourself too hard!" He exclaimed.
"I can still fight without one hand!"
"No you can not!"
Couldn't waste any additional second. Reckless, he threw all his might into a downward swing against the one in front. She blocked as he expected, and to defeat her he aimed not, but to distract her as he used what leftover momentum he still had to swing against the one beside him. So too did she block, but he threw himself forward against her not only to break through, but as to not leave himself as a still target for the others; stampeding against her with another blow, he threw her against the ground and finished her off with a stab through the chest. Turning back to fend off against his would-be attacker, he instead found her ignoring him altogether, focusing on Victoria who already faced difficulties against another.
He thrust from where he was, throwing himself forward with only a step forward to prevent him from falling, puncturing into the distracted traitor's side. There she was, Victoria against the last traitor with her arm almost limp, facing the clear prospect of defeat.
The prospect of a lilim, falling to the traitors. A risk worth the certain doom of two armies, no, of two whole nations who gave away the last thing that'd protect them. That none would get out of this mess in one piece was certain, and so too did it extend to the lilim. To have her fall into their hands would prove not only disastrous, but also be considered spitting on the proverbial graves of those who fell. A risk that could very well happen before the day ended.
He found his hand hovering over his dagger. Mundane steel, the deadliest implement in the paladins' arsenal. There she was in front of him, the one he could not allow to fall into enemy hands, with her back turned towards him, with her exposed neck a mere scratch away from a bleeding artery.
He could not allow the worst to happen.
The grip on the knife tightened, sliding it out in the blink of an eye and throwing towards her with all his strength.
A few strands of hair flowed down as the blade tore through. The blade itself, sharp and cold, dug into her pristine porcelain-like skin, opening a wound as it passed, revealing the deep red blood soon to emanate; immediate recoil from her, dropping her rapier and holding her wound, staining her glove red where it touched. Then, red-black smoke, the product of the knife striking the traitor in the neck. Backing off, Victoria held her superficially-wounded cheek in shock and confusion, soon to turn her eyes to Sigismund, who untied his empty quiver and let it drop to the ground.
"She's there." He said, staring forlorn up ahead. Victoria followed where his helmet pointed, to see the school up ahead and Melanie herself standing within past the door, staring back with her icy glare from the darkness.
Yet, as Victoria returned her eyes to Sigismund, she couldn't help but see him standing so still, not taking a mere step forward. She let go of her cheek and looked at the blood staining her glove, but soon lowered her hand.
"What about you?" She asked.
He turned and looked back, and as Victoria so too did, they found far away in the distance a great amount of movement. Wasn't the loyalists. The group, if they even survived, would've reached them from another direction entirely had it been them. No, more traitors.
"If I don't stand in their path, they will swarm you." He said. A grim silence took over in his pause, before he turned his head towards her. "A lilim is enough to stand up against Melanie, but a man's last breaths will do nothing but hinder you. I can give you the luxury of delaying them as much as I can, of having their bows pointed elsewhere rather than at you."
She couldn't answer one way or another. As if she had forgotten how to speak altogether, she could only spend such second in silence, turning her head to the school once more, seeing Melanie so patiently waiting.
"It's selfish." He continued. "No one will know after today. No tales will be told. It'll only be spoken that I fell, but never how, if there's anyone left to hear of me as an individual rather than another casualty. But... grant me this wish, lilim. Let me end like the brave tales of my childhood. That is my only request, and hopefully my last."
Facing that which had no easy answer, she stood still, unreactive, almost catatonic, though soon she took a deep breath before turning to him.
"Then we part ways here, Sigismund. Hold back the tide as much as you can."
"These many battles have been an honor, Victoria. In these last few millennia, there have been few if any opportunities for Man and Monster to fight together like this. Commend my service to Indrick... He may now be all that remains of Nostrum that I can answer to."
"I will." She said, taking her rapier from the ground. "I go now, to redeem my sins."
With a nod, Sigismund saw her off, following with his eyes as she approached the otherwise desolated school not a block down the line.
Up to her, now. Curious, he took out his rosarius to find his suspicions true; the white light emanated from her, finding itself dimmer the more distance grew between them. Tucking it back, he marched up to where his dagger fell, to then calmly pick it up and put it back on its sheath as he turned to look at the incoming hordes. If he could give her at least a few seconds, then he'd be free to go with a clear conscience. With the massive amount of arrows bound to fly his way, it certainly felt like seconds would be the best he'd be able to pull.
Bows at the ready and eyes locked on him, it wouldn't take long. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, raised his head, and extended his arms aside to wait for the inevitable.
But as much as he waited, the rain of arrows did not come. Rather, he only heard the footsteps growing louder and wilder. Opening one eye and lowering his head just enough to look at the dullahans through his visor, he found them putting their bows away and taking out their swords and poleaxes. In disbelief still, he opened his other eye and ran one arm over his chest, to find no arrows sticking out of him. His arms dropped, figuring it to be a blessing; one blessing too many, as if things would inevitably get worse to make up for it, something he steeled himself for all too well as he took out his poleaxe.
"Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;" he whispered to himself, letting his poleaxe hang by his left hand as he brought his right to the front of his head, soon to move it to his belly. "death called us all, yet we all knew no fear." He then moved it to his left shoulder. "Blood, toil, sweat, and tears;" he whispered on, moving his hand to his other shoulder, "death called us all, still fighting we live."
His makeshift prayer over, he gripped his poleaxe with both hands, waiting patiently for the final assault.
But though he expected a massive charge to trample over him, instead he saw the dullahans slowly coming to a halt near him, staring at him dead in the eyes as they kept just a few feet of distance, gathering on and on in a semicircle in front. Much as he expected even just one of them to attack, none advanced.
"I see Melanie was correct. You paladins are persistent..." A voice spoke from within the crowd, before one dullahan marched out from among them. "Did you ever imagine yourself falling like this? No, better asked, did you ever imagine persevering into a situation like this?"
Dark circles under her eyes denoted the obvious, though still her graying black hair falling in front to reveal one single eye along with a scarf covering up to her nose had left it dubious to the inexperienced.
"Cat got your tongue, paladin?" She asked. "Don't worry, we'll have all the time in the world to find it after today... assuming you don't take the easy way out of this mess. I am Derosa of the Black Hearts, second of Melanie, and perhaps I can release you from the pains of solitude."
"Black Hearts? You have a name other than 'bunch of traitors'?"
"Recently, too. Imagined us to be nothing but mindless, roving warbands?"
A lengthy chuckle escaped her. "Perhaps it's time to give you a tour of our side."
A dullahan stepped forward, sporting that dreadful poleaxe ending in a stake-shaped hammerhead. In stance, the dullahan advanced towards him, till just close enough she swung her weapon at him. With a step back he dodged it, to thrust his own like a spear at her. She blocked it, only for him to bring it around swinging the rear end of his poleaxe towards her, hitting her in the head without much to do; disoriented, he brought it back and thrusted once more with the spike, puncturing through her failed attempt at deflecting, and turning her into smoke. A giveaway of their lack in experience in poleaxe combat, mayhaps; wasn't that long since the first ones turned, and much less since they switched weaponry specifically to counter paladin armor. A finishing tool, rather than a weapon on its own.
"Very impressive." Clapped Derosa. "You have more steel than the rest of your mewling kin. How is it that you were not in command, when you lasted more than the one who could order you to meet your end?"
The second dullahan stepped forward, though paradoxically enough she did so sheathing her sword. Unarmed, she took stance merely with her palms as weaponry, God knowing what she intended.
Unwilling to risk it, he immediately thrusted like a spear, only for her to sidestep away from the spike's end; at the same time, however, she moved her hand forward and caught the shaft just below the head before he could take it back. Not even with both hands could he break free from her single-handed grasp, soon to turn two-handed. To engage in a contest of raw strength against a dullahan would spell certain doom, and so he let go as he stepped back, unsheathing his longsword in turn to immediately slash. In panic the dullahan stepped back to defend herself, giving away her absolute inexperience with poleaxes like the last one; he stepped forward and slashed on one side and she brought the poleaxe to block, only for him to take another step and do so once more from the other side with the greater agility his sword provided, making her block again; then, he bashed her with his shoulder from such great proximity, and as she fell, he swung his sword downwards at her, hitting where the shoulder and neck connected, turning her into smoke.
"Marvelous!" Boasted Derosa. "Since I was a little girl I believed paladins were not all a lost cause. Who'd think I'd live to see this day...? Rejoice, paladin! Your slavery to the false Gods ends this day!"
"The only thing ending this day is your worthless life."
"Yes, and to hell with courtesy and niceties..."
Another dullahan lunged towards him, one with a longsword of her own. Deflecting it and attempting to counter, he found his slash blocked with a counter of her own coming his way. But it was a longsword anyways; reckless, he charged forward, bracing against the impact against his armor and thrusting his own against her belly. Both strikes hit at the same time, though the nerves of his left arm screamed as the blow struck his shoulder, enough inhuman force behind it to work like a hammer despite not cutting through the armor. His own blow, however, struck into her belly, and as the dullahan recoiled back with the full body bash of his, he slid out the sword, gripped it by its blade, and swung the pommel against her head, hitting with a solid noise signalling her turning into smoke just as her head detached.
A mere second of respite, all that he needed. Quickly he switched his longsword to his left hand and reached for his poleaxe on the ground. Gripping it by its center of balance he threw it with all his might against Derosa. Aerodynamics be damned, it'd have struck with the spike had she not stepped aside, leaving another to receive the blow and turn to smoke. Not a split second later, he charged against her, who in turn drew her sword and blocked his slash, ending with both staring past the other's blade in deadlock.
"The fires of Helmsreach burn within you!" She boasted in an ecstatic taunt. "But still it's wasted for naught! What is there left for you? You knew it too well how you'd face your last days alone on your own, with no one to fall with, with no one to fight with, and here you are now fighting to your last breath! What drives you, what fuels you? What wills your body to chase a dead dream?!"
"God wills it!" He shouted back, all emotion and agony bottled up released in fiery defiance, breaking the deadlock as he stepped back only to return with yet another slash.
Another block. Another counter. Another attack, another defense, ever on and on with the holy sound of clashing steel ringing true throughout the night between them, with none interrupting their dance. Already his movements reflected his mindset, no longer disciplined and efficient, but thrown with wild abandon; too exhausted to keep firm control of his muscles, or too unwilling to hold back in his last moments, he cared not to find the reason.
"How long will you keep this up, paladin?!" She taunted forevermore. "See around you, the darkness engulfing the world! The Black Heart releasing everyone from the suffering brought by the false Gods! There's no light at the end of the path you travel, only the darkest of nights!"
"Then I'll carry God's will as my torch!" He retorted.
Injuries threatened to appear; the exhaustion turned from burning to painful, of torn ligaments almost rearing their ugly face. His left arm already felt like it worked at a tenth of its potential, and so too did his attacks show it, throwing his sword like a gigantic slab of concrete in brutal simplicity rather than the elegance of his best fights.
"For Nostrum! For Variland!" He exclaimed, panting and voice cracking, swinging and swinging, giving and receiving blows. "For those who have fallen! For those who cannot be redeemed!"
Calm and tired steps led the way to the building. Desolated in its entirety, the school shared a strange atmosphere of peace and tranquility, even as she crossed the door to hear the grinding noise of shattered glass beneath her boots. The last light of the day gleamed through the broken windows, shining against the shards lying on the floor around her. Past the little carpet, past the two halves of the room filled with chairs and desks, she saw Melanie cross-armed resting against the wall opposite to the entrance. Other than the noises outside afar, solemn silence greeted the two as Victoria's steps ended.
"Will it only end when you two have killed yourselves...?" Asked Melanie. "Look at your arm."
After a pause, Victoria raised her left arm. Where a clean glove and her sleeve should've been, nothing remained. Just dirty, charred skin of an overtaxed attempt at controlling electricity, sleeve ending by her upper arm and burnt to a crisp. With each movement, her fingers tingled like that of a burning wound.
"I want to say this is your last chance, but... how many last chances have I given you already?" She continued. "I'm sure this won't be the last, either. At least, part of me wants to believe it won't, if what happened to your arm doesn't happen to the rest of your body."
"I'm ready to do what's necessary."
"'Necessary'..." She sighed. "This whole mess is the opposite of necessary."
"Fighting back against invaders is unnecessary to you?"
"We're as much of invaders as you believed yourself to be when the Nostrians started the war. We are to the Demon Lord what the Demon Lord is to The Order. The Nostrians fought you for the exact same idiotic reason you're fighting us, so why is it that you berate us for it, while shedding your blood with them?"
"Because one implies betrayal, while the other does not."
"So you'd be alright with dying by the hand of the ones siding with you purely out of convenience? Tell me, once you get Indrick out of here, what will you do? Assume that we all leave, what will happen then? A happy ending for Nostrum and Variland? You and I both know the only way to achieve that is through Nyarlathotep; cultists from both Nostrum and Variland have been siding together as one exceptionally well already."
"...That is no excuse."
Frowning, Melanie stared at her from under her brows. "...What?"
"There exists no excuse in this world to abandon one's duty. You were weak. The moment things got difficult, you abandoned Variland and the Demon Lord to jump into the arms of whoever promised you better things."
Eye twitching in anger, Melanie let her arms slowly fall. "You... You'd see it all come apart, even if there's no reason in the world to go through such senseless suffering?"
"Especially if there's no reason in the world to do so." She retorted. "What do you think duty means? To follow one's heart only when it's convenient? No, you stand your post and see yourself through, no matter what. You were brave to be part of my army at its birth, and you were brave to continue service after Jeremiah's death, but once we went south... you showed your weakness. You were tempted. You abandoned your duty to Variland and the Demon Lord. Duty is what you must follow through even in difficult times, even if reasons to do so start diminishing, even if there's no reason in the world to hold onto it and all the reasons to abandon it appear. You see yourself through, even till death, without hope, without rescue, without end, alone on your own. The honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man, and you discarded it for a chance of feeling happy."
"You heard that from the paladin, did you not?!" Shouted Melanie, smashing her fist against the wall as she stepped forward.
"I have, and they know more about that than you ever will."
"And you listened?! Those wretched parasites of The Order have always claimed that monsters would corrupt them, and yet look at what they've done to you! They're all rotten to the core, bringing only misery and suffering wherever they go!"
"And for what?!" Answered Victoria in kind. "Where you failed, they've succeeded! I'm sure you were in Acerrae when they were getting me out of there, seen first-hand what sacrifice they've gone through to see themselves through! But you'll never understand, because you're a damned traitor who abandoned her own kin! What's there to expect from someone who'd so eagerly turn her sword against those she swore to protect?!"
"You speak to me about not protecting my own, when you're protecting those who want you dead over those who want to see you alive! That paladin's words alone have done more to harm you than the entirety of Nyarlathotep's followers ever had the chance to combined, if there ever even was a desire!"
Then, silence, both gritting their teeth to soon return to their old composed expressions, still hiding the anger underneath.
"Do you love him?" Asked Melanie, but received not response. "Do you love him?!"
"I love him!" Shouted back Victoria.
"How much do you love him?!"
"I love him from the bottom of my heart!" She exclaimed as loud as her lungs allowed, taking one step forward and bashing her chest in pride, tears already running down her cheeks. "I'd face off against the Daemons of Chaos alone for him if I must!"
"Do you love him enough to let him kill you?!"
"I love him more than my own life! If that's what he desires, then so be it! That is the Indrick I know, and nobody will take him from me! Not you, not Nyarlathotep, not any army, not any God!"
"Then prove it," she ordered, unsheathing her sword, "once and for all!"
At the first step forward of Melanie's mad run, Victoria returned the act in kind, both letting out a pent-up, primal warcry to their lungs' capacity, running towards each other with blades unsheathed and no fear in their eyes and hearts.
Victoria lunged forward, only for her rapier to be deflected by the sword; Melanie's subsequent attempt at thrusting, so too deflected in turn, leading to the handles of their weaponry connecting and locking each other out of the fight momentarily. Stepping forward she attempted to bash her with her shoulder, only for Melanie to return the same maneuver, both now locked against each other in a contest of monstrous strength.
Letting go with one hand her sword, Melanie swung her elbow around, striking against Victoria's back and sending her forward with the force of the blow, releasing both swords from each other, though as Melanie swung her freed longsword in equal manner, Victoria dodged it by stepping back. Another of her swings followed, but Victoria returned one of her own. A swing with a rapier against a longsword as reckless as it sounded, though as soon as the two blades connected, she brought her hand to where the two struck and gripped it tight. Looking at Melanie dead in the eyes, she focused for another overtaxed incantation, hand glowing till a great explosion sent the two combatants to opposite sides of the old chapel.
Back hitting against the wall on her side of the building till she remained sitting, Victoria shook her head to notice the left part of her torso covered in soot, along with her arm. Her rapier had snapped in two where she had gripped it, and looking forward at Melanie, she found her sword so too broken in the same place. Disoriented, Melanie attempted to get up while gripping her head in pain, but as soon as Victoria came to her senses in full, she jumped forward and ran towards the traitor, for the traitor to do the same.
Both threw their fist against the other once more in the middle of the chapel, fists missing each other by mere fractions of a centimeter, to land square on each other's cheek. Without the luxury of recoiling for either combatant, they threw yet another blow; none gave it a thought to block, focusing on the attack full-time without regard to their own well-being. Another blow, and another, connecting to belly, chest, cheek, wherever one found an opening, grappling as either saw fit yet ultimately indulging in the primal lust for combat that only a brutally simplistic clenched fist thrown could provide.
No elegant maneuvers. No magic. No techniques, nor higher thinking. Only what had been known to Man and Monster since the first drop of blood had been spilled since time immemorial, first in quick and efficient trades, yet soon to submit to mere sloppy throwing of limbs; Victoria, by exhaustion and concussions, and Melanie, through what concussions the blessings of Nyarlathotep could not protect against.
Further and further bludgeoning, with each noise of meat tenderized under the pressure of knuckles; and yet, both refused to fall. Victoria refused to let the pain and exhaustion take hold, and so to Melanie refused to let herself be turned into smoke. Soon enough, both had found themselves hitting each other with just a tenth of their long-lost passion and vigour, throwing a blow only to be condemned to stand still as their bodies recovered for another, leaving themselves open for a hit they cared not to attempt dodging.
Then, one final blow forced Victoria back, holding her mouth as blood dripped out, drops of blood in such sacred place and those to fall perhaps for the first time throughout the war against the affliction. Melanie gave no chase; instead, she stood where she had remained.
"None of us even know how to fight with just fists, huh?" Remarked Melanie, spitting aside as she stood hunched over like Victoria. "We're just two brats catfighting..."
"I should've figured fist-fighting was important." Answered Victoria with a calm tone, almost as if talking to an old friend. "For all the times I've thought of fighting till the bitter end, I must've forgotten that fighting without a weapon would happen sooner or later."
"True... and tragic. At least with weapons, I wouldn't have been able to ruin the beauty of the one I had always looked up to. With fists, against you... I fear it just hurts me more than it hurts you."
"I don't need your pity, the same way you don't need mine."
"You need something else. Release. One more time, Victoria... Don't make it any more difficult than it has to be. You know better than anyone that there's no way out, now."
"I know." She sighed, lowering her eyes down to the floor.
Then, she raised her left charred palm just enough to see it, before a single spark of static came out. Then, two, and then three.
"You're not..." Mumbled Melanie, only to shoot her eyes wide open as more and more static formed. "...No!" She shouted, desperately taking speed and running to Victoria.
But as she was almost about to reach her, an explosion interrupted them.
Couldn't comprehend, couldn't see, couldn't feel. Barely moving her head, Victoria opened her eyes, only to see a mess of a blur. Senses returning, she felt herself sitting against the wall; she remembered it well, her last action, to bring forth as much power as she could in a spell, knowing it'd overload and backfire, taking everything within the room including her. Suicide? It had not crossed her mind; single-minded as she was, she only wished Melanie stopped. Too low powered of a spell, or too weak she had been to do much, if it had not even caused much other than pain and a second of disorientation.
Standing up with great effort and pain, she took a glance around. The chairs had been all blown to the sides of the chapel, leaving not even the shattered glass or specks of dust to rest at the center; blown away from the source of impact, it lay completely clean. And at the opposite end of the room, she found Melanie lying on the ground.
Little step by little step, she made her way to her, finding her conscious yet unmoving. Almost as if letting herself go, she placed herself on top of Melanie, unwilling to even allow her the opportunity to escape if she could. Both, then, found themselves staring at each other.
"I will find you," said Melanie as if those were her last breaths, "and I will free you... Even if it's the last thing I do..."
"...If that were to happen, I'll make sure it's the last." Answered Victoria in her panting, exhausted voice, before raising her fist and throwing it with the very last strength she had at Melanie.
Then, smoke. she fell sitting onto the ground as Melanie disappeared, greeted by the solemn silence of the school's desolation, hearing her own echoes of her panting and subsequent coughing. What a mess she had turned into; uniform torn, sweating, charred and covered in soot, hair sticking to her face through the sweat, panting on and on. A mess in body, a mess in mind, a mess in spirit. And yet, her task still was not over. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself for more effort her body so dearly wished to avoid, she stood up and glanced about. No signs of Indrick anywhere. With how Melanie had been here, he also had to be here, and more rooms awaited.
The shattered glass had all been blown away, leaving her boots to create that distinct, sharp noise against the ceramic floor of the room, continuing into the hallway. The door to the side lied open, but with nothing but useless objects within. The rear room, it shared the destroyed windows, yet still she saw Indrick nowhere nearby. Only a ladder remained as clue, the only place she could keep looking in.
Grab, step, grab, step. Ever so slowly, she made her way up to reach the tower up high. Too much did it cost her in energy to climb up: she couldn't even glance around as she reached the upper floor, focused solely on climbing up till her knees finally found solid footing. Boxes upon boxes and a plethora of storage-room objects lied in each corner of the small tower, save for one: cleared in its entirety, the corner only had a single entity resting against the wall.
"Indrick..." She whispered, smile growing from ear to ear as more tears threatened to escape. On her feet, she marched forward to him with each step presenting the threat of her legs giving in, yet only upon arriving to his side did she allow herself the luxury of falling, ending next to him. "Indrick..."
Carefully, she took off his helmet, to find him with eyes open yet dead-tired, both physically and spiritually. He was very well alive and conscious, if only a little, soon turning his eyes to find hers.
"V..." He attempted speaking, air barely leaving his lungs. "Viccy..."
"Viccy...?" She asked herself, smile never dimming. She remembered well, how each and every time he had referred to her by her full name, yet now a nickname. Gently, she ran her hand over the top of his, cleaning off what filth and dried sweat had built up. "I'm here, Indrick... You didn't abandon me, so I didn't abandon you..."
Embracing him with all her strength, hand resting over his head as he lay strengthless and near-lifeless, she closed her eyes and focused, hoping to have what little bit of energy she required to teleport them out of there. But, it did nothing. Trying again, it refused to work; far greater of a toll than she could take, she had taken. The acceptance came quick, that they'd be stuck there till someone found them, and no ally would be the ones to reach them. Hopeless it was, though hopeless it had been since the start; no need to accept that which had already been accepted since the beginning. At least, she had found him, and for that, she was happy.
"Viccy..." He said, gasping at what breath he could find.
"Yes?" She asked as she caressed his hair, tears already flooding out, voice wavering as her throat ached in such flurry of emotions. Little by little he raised his hand, soon to reach her cheek and ever so softly clean the blood dripping down with a pass of her finger.
"I... I l..."
But as much as she waited, she found them to be his last words. The strength in his arm found itself depleted, lowering itself till it rested upon him without a movement to follow. A glance to his eyes, and she found them closed, falling asleep in such peaceful manner. Unable to contain a sob, she pressed her unbloodied cheek against his head as she embraced him ever so tightly with both arms, pressing him against her body.
"This smell of soot, she must still be here!"
The voice from below hollowed her heart. Not even a few minutes with him as a final luxury, and they had already been found. Worse yet, what fairy tale of a last stand she'd so dearly wish for would never occur, for her body felt itself on the brink of giving in. To stand up would be a titanic effort on its own, let alone to fight till her last breath. Not even her rapier had endured without breaking. Still, Indrick's sword remained in its sheath as it was, in one piece. Giving him a final kiss goodbye on the cheek, she reached for the sword and unsheathed it.
"Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;" she whispered to herself as she brought the sword pointing towards the hatch, hearing the sound of grinding glass under multiple boots down below, "death called us all, yet we all knew no fear." To the grinding glass, now had been added the first step onto the ladder, such distinct and heart-rending noise for her. "Blood, sweat, toil, and tears;" she continued, voice already wavering as did the hand she held the sword with, shaking on and on, teardrop falling to land on Indrick's shoulder, "death called us all, still fighting... we live..."
A hand appeared, grabbing onto the hatch's edge. A dullahan. Her head reared up and scanned the surroundings, finding Victoria with Indrick's sword pointed at her; too weak Victoria's body had been to even lean forward, condemning the lilim to merely stay there with sword in hand and the fallen paladin cradled in the other, yet so too the dullahan remained still. Then, Victoria noticed. Her eyes. They did not have the dark circles under them. Then, she noticed another peculiar detail on the dullahan's shoulder.
Her mother's heraldry.
At the sight, the strength in her arm had depleted, letting the sword fall to the ground.
"...I found her! She's injured!" Exclaimed the dullahan to the others below, before rushing up. Hurried footsteps echoed throughout the school-chapel as more rushed to the top, till four dullahans gathered around the lilim and the paladin.
"W-What..." She stuttered in disbelief, as the four inspected her and the paladin.
Deeming their injuries superficial, two dullahans helped Victoria up to her feet while the two others prepared to carry the paladin. To the hatch, carefully down the ladder, and then through the back door leading outside, they led the lilim outside. There, she saw hundreds upon hundreds of similar dullahans gathered, and yet more numbers unseen that must've been throughout the city. In front of her as she left the building, however, she saw two figures, each on horse, each in full regalia of generals. An incubus, and a demon beside him, seeing past them the rays of sunset sneaking through the clouds that remained in the horizon.
"Lady Victoria." Said the incubus, dismounting and marching up to her. "I am Lord General Marius, of the Demon Army. I suspect the situation has developed further than... what you've originally called reinforcements for."
"We need a medic over here! Now!" Shouted a dullahan afar, blocked in sight by the building; as Victoria turned her head to the source, she saw how past the building four dullahans ran in holding a stretcher, with an armored figure lying upon it. Soon more dullahans rushed their way, and there Victoria saw the details as they gently placed him on the ground: Shattered armor, punctured through Lord knows how many places with those dreadful stake-ending poleaxes the traitors had found themselves with.
The demon moved their way, rushing on her horse to the scene before dismounting.
"What happened here? Who is he?" She asked, marching to the group.
"General Charlotte!" Saluted a dullahan. "We found those dark-eyed dullahans trying to drag this one away a block away from the school. We barely managed to fight them off and recover him, but we don't know how long he's been unconscious for."
"Sigismund...?" Asked Victoria to herself, gaining Marius' attention.
"You know his name--"
Furious galloping arrived, that of a dullahan stopping by him.
"Our girls have engaged a large number of dark-eyed dullahans, Lord General." She said in a rush. "They have a number of Varilandians and Nostrian Paladins completely encircled!"
"Paladins fighting alongside dullahans, what mess is this..." Sighed Marius, to then turn to his horse, but the demon with him arrived to interrupt him from his path.
"I'll go." She said, for Marius to return a smile. "Fifth company, with me!" She shouted out loud. "The Demon Army does not abandon their own, nor do they leave any favor left unreturned!"
Though as many things that occurred around her, she still stared catatonic, without a word to say and without a thought to think. A dreamland, as if, unable to process it as reality anymore.
Then, her legs gave in, leaving her to drop to her knees.