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All's Fair In Love And War - Ch.2

Losenis Oct 2nd, 2016 (edited) 1,140 Never
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  1. Victoria walked down the hallway of a castle, in the realm where the sun never rises. Or, at least, the realm gave the impression of such thing. She couldn't shake off the creepiness of staring out the various windows and seeing it as night, even though it should be day.
  2.  
  3. Such was life in Caedisia. Despite being immediately north of Variland, the demon realm's main trait left it in perpetual night.
  4.  
  5. In due time she walked into a great room, finding a blond-haired girl of the same stature and age as her talking with a succubus far away. The succubus was the first to notice Victoria's presence, as she stood already facing at her, with just a glance revealing the fact. The blond girl took notice of the succubus staring elsewhere, so she followed the sight and found Victoria. The girl and the succubus exchanged a few words before both parted ways, with the girl walking towards Victoria.
  6.  
  7. There she was. Caroline, the Lordess of all Caedisia.
  8.  
  9. A vampire.
  10.  
  11. "I keep forgetting you can get past the guards." Said Caroline. "Need something?"
  12.  
  13. "Not even a greeting...?" Said Victoria.
  14.  
  15. "Hello, Victoria. Need something?"
  16.  
  17. Victoria forced a smile, annoyed. The same old Caroline, who never changed.
  18.  
  19. "I want a thousand swords." Said Victoria.
  20.  
  21. But Caroline did not answer, instead frowned in utter confusion, tilting her head to the side.
  22.  
  23. "A... thousand?"
  24.  
  25. "Yes, a thousand."
  26.  
  27. "Uhh... Well, I do have a thousand to sell you, but... a thousand seem too many, don't you think?"
  28.  
  29. "I am aware."
  30.  
  31. "What do you even need a thousand swords for?"
  32.  
  33. A chill ran down Victoria's spine, nervousness kicking in.
  34.  
  35. "I... thought that I could get you to charge me less if I bought them in bulk. You know, because you're selling so many to me in one go?"
  36.  
  37. Caroline crossed her arms, still sporting her confused stare.
  38.  
  39. "But to buy a thousand out of the blue, when Variland has barely forged a couple in well over a decade...?"
  40.  
  41. 'Why are you asking me so many questions?! Just give me the damn swords!' Shouted Victoria inside her head, as she silently kept up a smile on the outside.
  42.  
  43. "Point being?" Asked Victoria. "Even if many are left to gather dust, they'll eventually find a use. I'm thinking long-term here."
  44.  
  45. "It doesn't look like you have a pressing need for them, though. Were I you, I'd just make do and produce locally. Cheaper, and helps the economy more than importing. I thought you knew better."
  46.  
  47. Victoria's eye began twitching, for even though it annoyed her to no end that Caroline behaved like a brat that knew better, she had been cornered. She couldn't blame Caroline, however; her concern was only natural, and her questions and suggestions were only logical, had there not been an underlying reason she wasn't supposed to know of. Otherwise, she'd have been correct.
  48.  
  49. And it only annoyed her further.
  50.  
  51. But then, an idea popped into her mind. What else but tell the truth? A twisted version of the truth!
  52.  
  53. At that moment, she sighed aloud, dropping her shoulders and moving her head back in feigned defeat. "You got me." She said, before bringing her eyes back to Caroline who stared in wonder. "Truth is, I figured I should maybe think a bit about the bordering Order country and prepare accordingly, but Variland has been defenseless for so long that I want to get ready as soon as I can. Call me paranoid, but I don't want to risk them coming out of the woodwork while I'm not even done forging the first sword. I have the gold, and you have the swords, and I see it acceptable to spend gold rather than time on that first batch of swords."
  54.  
  55. Though Caroline stared on, soon she began chuckling with an honest smile.
  56.  
  57. "Glad to see you giving Variland a proper military after all these years, even if it turns out to be a militia."
  58.  
  59. Victoria, in response, smiled in relief.
  60.  
  61. "If time isn't on your side to wait for me to gather them," continued Caroline, "I can tell you where to find those swords and give you a letter for each place for them to give them to you without question. I'll deal with the rest. Pay me later if you must, alright?"
  62.  
  63. "Alright, deal."
  64.  
  65. ---
  66.  
  67. Victoria crossed the doorway of her house, finding Jeremiah and Valerian within. The two sat at the small table by the fireplace, a tea table that barely reached to their knees, with an empty chair beside it just for her. But before she walked further, she rubbed her eyes, and when she did walk in, she did so slowly with a slightly uneven gait.
  68.  
  69. "...You alright?" Asked Valerian.
  70.  
  71. "Yes, yes." Answered Victoria, making her way to the chair. "Got used to the dark in Caedisia. The teleporting disoriented me." Upon reaching the chair, she sat down. "I haven't been teleporting around so much since... forever." She said, soon finding upon the table a map of Variland. Then, she turned to Valerian. "You wanted to show me something, right?"
  72.  
  73. "Yes." Answered Valerian. "I've been thinking about where they'll go next, but it's all hellishly complicated now that they burned Helmsreach and Indrick found you in Larifolk."
  74.  
  75. "How so?"
  76.  
  77. "Well, first thing is that I have no idea what their immediate goal is anymore. Had they kept burning the fields, I'd assume that's what they'll do next and think accordingly, but it also throws burning entire cities into the equation too. Nor do I know if Helmsreach was planned or if it was improvised to see if they could get away with it to escalate. I don't know if they'll burn fields, burn cities, or something even worse next."
  78.  
  79. Victoria sank in her chair. "So you don't know where they'll go?"
  80.  
  81. "I never said I didn't know, just that it was complicated. Considering that Indrick ended up finding you, there's no telling if they'll change their plans now that a lilim is trying to stop them personally, somehow guessing where they'd be. That aside, with all I know, I could narrow it down to three places, assuming they don't do anything new."
  82.  
  83. He then leaned forward on his chair and moved his hand till his finger landed on the map. Victoria and Jeremiah leaned forward to see, to find out that Valerian had put his finger on the city of Larifolk.
  84.  
  85. "If they want to 'fix' their mistake," explained Valerian, "they'll go to Larifolk. I don't know if they'll burn the city or the fields, but it does not matter since we'll have to protect it in any case. I don't think they'll gain much of it other than telling us that no city will be spared in their advance. Who knows, maybe they'll be banking on making every city next to the ones who had been raided scared out of their minds."
  86.  
  87. He then dragged his finger to a city nearby. Fellsreach.
  88.  
  89. "If they keep going as they are, I can only assume they'll go for Fellsreach. Nothing special about it, but it should fit within the pattern Nostrum is going for."
  90.  
  91. Once more, he dragged his finger north, till he stopped on the capital itself.
  92.  
  93. "...This could be another target of theirs." He said.
  94.  
  95. "Assaulting a capital with twenty paladins sounds reckless, even for them." Said Victoria.
  96.  
  97. "How so? They burned down an entire city with that number. They know we're defenseless, and that Variland has grown so complacent that not even defenses against natural disasters exist. One match thrown out of malice in the capital, and it goes up in flames."
  98.  
  99. "No fourth potential target?" Asked Jeremiah.
  100.  
  101. "No." Said Valerian as he took his finger off the map and leaned back on his chair. "It's enough for the three of us to lead one third of the dullahans each. Leaving them without proper leadership will end in disaster. Even if Catherine is able to lead a fourth group, three hundred is already on the extreme low end of what's needed to defend a city of Larifolk's size, to say nothing of the capital."
  102.  
  103. The room fell silent, for none had anything to add. The three stared on at the map, and soon Victoria raised her hand to her mouth, lightly tapping her cheek repeatedly in thought.
  104.  
  105. "Who goes where?" Asked Jeremiah.
  106.  
  107. "Got any experience in fighting?" Asked Valerian.
  108.  
  109. "No, that's why I was among those retired."
  110.  
  111. Valerian let out a hum before he put his hand in his pocket, rummaging till he took out a coin.
  112.  
  113. "Fellsreach. Heads or tails?" He asked.
  114.  
  115. "Heads."
  116.  
  117. And so, he threw it in the air, spinning wildly before it landed on the table.
  118.  
  119. Tails.
  120.  
  121. "You're going to Larifolk." He said, taking the coin and putting it back in his pocket.
  122.  
  123. "No complaints."
  124.  
  125. "You two already decided that I'm staying here?" Asked Victoria.
  126.  
  127. "You have more duties here than any of us." Answered Valerian. "Out of the three of us, you're the only one with actual reasons to stay in one of these three cities."
  128.  
  129. "Fine..."
  130.  
  131. ---
  132.  
  133. A week had passed since the burning of Helmsreach. A week earlier than that, Ridshire's fields had been burned, and so now Indrick found himself in Fellsreach, sitting on a bench in an unremarkable part of the city hunched forward. With a glance towards the sun, he saw that it was almost dusk.
  134.  
  135. He leaned back on the bench, to see the monsters and incubi passing by on the street. Among them, however, he noticed a group of five armed dullahans and followed them with his eyes as they passed, until he lost sight of them.
  136.  
  137. Someone then arrived and sat next to him.
  138.  
  139. "Boy." Said the man now beside him.
  140.  
  141. "Found anything?" Asked Indrick.
  142.  
  143. "Should be similar to Larifolk. I don't like this place, though. Too many dullahans all of a sudden."
  144.  
  145. "Been seeing them since I got here. There must be hundreds. Any ideas?"
  146.  
  147. "Can't risk it. We should go back. Your call."
  148.  
  149. "Right." Answered Indrick, standing up with a sigh. "Tell the others. We're leaving."
  150.  
  151. ---
  152.  
  153. Night had fallen when Indrick and the paladins arrived to Makillae's northern gate. Just as they reached them, the great metallic gate rose, letting through a great number of guards that marched out and surrounded them. Of the guards, their captain walked forward holding a rosarius, and held it close to Indrick. Seeing that the rosarius did not shine, he walked off and did the same with another paladin. One by one, the captain inspected them all, till he finished with the last paladin.
  154.  
  155. "They're clean. Let them in."
  156.  
  157. The guards marched back inside, and the paladins followed behind through the gate into a wide open area used as staging grounds for their raids. However, Indrick and the paladin from before left the other paladins to their own devices, and instead walked off to a tower standing ever watchful nearby.
  158.  
  159. They crossed the door into the structure, walked past guards and scribes to a flight of stairs they walked up till the top, and arrived to a small room with a desk at its center and a man standing behind it, looking outside towards the staging grounds through a window. The man took notice of their arrival and turned to face them, revealing the front of his ornate uniform.
  160.  
  161. The Lord of all Nostrum, Vandire Castellan.
  162.  
  163. "Master-Commander." Greeted Indrick and the man next to him, saluting.
  164.  
  165. "You're early." Said Vandire. "What happened?"
  166.  
  167. "It's Fellsreach, sire." Answered Indrick. "They've managed to set up a militia of sorts."
  168.  
  169. Vandire frowned before stepping closer to Indrick.
  170.  
  171. "Explain in full detail what you saw."
  172.  
  173. "The men and I have been seeing all around Fellsreach groups of armed dullahans moving about. They vary in number, but they're always in groups of at least four. That they were armed gave us the certainty that they were patrolling. We were planning for Fellsreach to be undefended, so we could not take the risk and left instead."
  174.  
  175. Vandire soon clenched his fist and walked back to his desk. "If they arm all the dullahans..." He muttered to himself, placing his hands on the desk and staring at the map of Variland, which had multiple figurines on top. "Chaplain Goridian," he called, raising his eyes to the man next to Indrick, "how long will it take to purify the rosarii?"
  176.  
  177. "I can only assume a day or two, sire," he answered, "judging by how little time we spent in Variland."
  178.  
  179. "Alright. I want you to report to me in person when it's done. Is there anything else I need to know?"
  180.  
  181. "No, sire." Said Indrick.
  182.  
  183. "Good. You may leave."
  184.  
  185. The two saluted before turning and leaving the same way they arrived. Down the flight of stairs, past the main room with guards and scribes, and then out the door.
  186.  
  187. "Hey, Dirk." Said Indrick. "Do you have time?"
  188.  
  189. The man next to him, Dirk as his name was, stared silent before glancing over in the direction the others paladin should be in.
  190.  
  191. "Yeah. What do you need?"
  192.  
  193. "Penance."
  194.  
  195. Dirk spent a second in silence, before taking a deep breath and walking off with Indrick following. "Has Variland gotten to our heads?"
  196.  
  197. "I wish you were joking."
  198.  
  199. "So do I."
  200.  
  201. Their silent march led them to a small chapel with its doors already open, which they crossed to step on the lengthy carpet leading in. The carpet divided the beginning of the room in two, with a dozen long, empty benches resting on each side of it aimed forward. They marched on, passing through the ornate altar dedicated to the Chief God, and walked to a corner of the chapel, where a confession booth stood. Indrick and Dirk entered their respective places and sat inside facing the same direction they came from, now with a wooden wall with a lattice window separating them.
  202.  
  203. "Let your heart speak." Said Dirk. "What troubles you?"
  204.  
  205. "I have faced the lilim twice already," answered Indrick in a lower, slower tone, "and in those two encounters, I have left with my humanity intact. Still, in both, I have wavered. Twice did I have the opportunity to kill her... and I did not. I could not bring myself to do so, somehow."
  206.  
  207. Dirk remained silent.
  208.  
  209. "I've failed twice." Continued Indrick. "I had the chance to remove the lilim from this conflict, but I did not. That lilim will now fight against us, and if a lilim could turn Lescatie into what it is now... I feel I've condemned Nostrum to oblivion."
  210.  
  211. He hunched over with a rough, painful sigh, resting his head on his hand.
  212.  
  213. "I don't think I will have a third chance." He went on. "Even if I did, I'll waver again. The second time I saw her, she was staring into the fire in Larifolk, not even paying attention to her surroundings. I could have stabbed her there and then... but, like an idiot, I just stood there till she saw me, because I couldn't bring myself to do that. Over and over, the same thing happened, till she almost got my rosarius."
  214.  
  215. "Perhaps you are looking at this from the wrong angle."
  216.  
  217. "What angle?"
  218.  
  219. "You said it yourself. You faced the lilim twice, and left with your humanity intact. Years ago, none could even dream of stepping into a demon realm, let alone face a lilim like you have."
  220.  
  221. "What use is that if it's still not enough...?"
  222.  
  223. "Always with your pessimism."
  224.  
  225. "I'm being realistic on the matter."
  226.  
  227. "But will it make you stop fighting?"
  228.  
  229. "No."
  230.  
  231. "Then what are you asking penance for?"
  232.  
  233. Indrick fell silent.
  234.  
  235. "The moment all of us give up is the moment we lose. You have wavered, but recovered. If you still wish to seek penance, then it will be your continued service to Nostrum."
  236.  
  237. "I understand."
  238.  
  239. "Don't overthink it. It'll just do you harm. The fact that we all returned in one piece should be something to be happy about. Find me in a few hours, and we'll have a drink over it."
  240.  
  241. Indrick, still holding his head as he rested his elbows on his knees, heard Dirk standing up and leaving. A glim of light snuck in through the lattice when he opened the door, but left as he slowly closed it again, leaving him in silent darkness with his own thoughts.
  242.  
  243. ---
  244.  
  245. Two days later, Indrick marched over to the staging grounds, for the paladins had been called. Another raid, he thought to himself, but upon reaching the staging grounds he frowned in confusion and surprise, seeing a few squires aiding Dirk in putting on a set of full plate armor.
  246.  
  247. "Dirk!" Called Indrick, quickly walking up to him, to which Dirk turned his head to see him. "What are you doing? It'll turn into living armor in the blink of an eye up there."
  248.  
  249. With a grin, Dirk bashed his chest with his fist. Indrick looked, to find a few narrow yet lengthy parchments hanging from a few places of the armor, stuck in place with wax seals.
  250.  
  251. "Purity seals." Said Dirk. "This thing will remain inanimate for a good while. Pretty, isn't it?"
  252.  
  253. "Why the armor, then?" He asked, frown never erased.
  254.  
  255. "Our next destination is the capital. Master-Commander Castellan himself is supposed to come soon to give us the specifics, but the gist of it is that infiltration goes out the window."
  256.  
  257. ---
  258.  
  259. Valerian, now with Catherine on him, walked around Victoria's study room in the late hours of the night. In the meantime, Jeremiah and Victoria sat at the small tea table, with the three of them remaining in silence, thinking.
  260.  
  261. "Maybe they-" Said Valerian, stopping in place. "...No. Nevermind." He said, soon resuming his walk with hand on his mouth and the other by his elbow. "Are you sure they have not attacked somewhere else?"
  262.  
  263. "The reports from Kleinsborough arrived within a day, so we should've gotten word of any attack by now." Answered Victoria.
  264.  
  265. Valerian took a deep breath, before remaining silent for a minute.
  266.  
  267. "I'm starting to get paranoid." He said. "Maybe they know. Maybe they're planning something else. Maybe they're attacking Fellsreach or Larifolk as we speak-"
  268.  
  269. "Funny seeing you say that," said Victoria, "when I should be the paranoid one here."
  270.  
  271. And so the uneventful silence returned, with only Valerian's steps keeping some semblance of noise within the room. Yet, soon enough other steps could be heard from outside coming closer, before someone knocked on the door.
  272.  
  273. "Come in." Said Victoria.
  274.  
  275. A dullahan opened the door and stepped in.
  276.  
  277. "Lady Victoria." She greeted. "There's been an attempt to start a fire in the capital that's been taken care of. It might be the paladins, but we can't seem to find them."
  278.  
  279. "Speak of the devil..." Remarked Valerian.
  280.  
  281. "I'll go see what's happening." Said Jeremiah as he stood up. Neither Valerian nor Victoria had any complaints to stop him with, instead stared as he left the room with the dullahan before closing the door.
  282.  
  283. The two then exchanged a glance, before Victoria stood up and walked to the door, with Valerian soon following. The two left the room and, after closing the door, made their way to the entrance road of the villa. There in the distance they saw Jeremiah and the dullahan galloping off on their horses, crossing the strip of grassland between the capital and the villa that had not yet been readied for the construction of the military project. Victoria's gaze shifted to the capital, and there she saw it, the thin line of smoke that could only be seen by how much it blocked the stars where it rose.
  284.  
  285. "First time I've seen a fire here." Said Victoria. "It has to be the paladins."
  286.  
  287. Valerian put an arm on his waist, and the other over his head, thinking to himself.
  288.  
  289. "If they wanted to attack here, they could've done so two days ago. Time isn't exactly on their side, so why...?"
  290.  
  291. "Are you going to spend a week trying to figure that out, too?"
  292.  
  293. The comment caught him by surprise. It almost seemed like an insult. Curious, he turned his head to her, only to see her sporting a smile that showed she knew fully well what she was doing. Still, it made him chuckle.
  294.  
  295. "I would." He then answered, both now looking back at the capital, though soon he moved the hand over his head to his jaw. "Have you seen Indrick with something else in Larifolk?"
  296.  
  297. "What do you mean?"
  298.  
  299. "Well... Has he been using something you haven't seen the first time? Weapons, armor?"
  300.  
  301. "No. He was alone, as he was when I met him, just with his face covered. Why do you ask?"
  302.  
  303. "I'm skeptical about him being there to burn down the fields, now. It took twenty to do that in Ridshire, to say nothing of Helmsreach, and maybe it was the same number in Kleinsborough. One single man can't be realistically trusted to do the same thing."
  304.  
  305. Victoria looked on without an answer.
  306.  
  307. "Maybe he was luring you out." Continued Valerian.
  308.  
  309. "Are you sure?" She asked. "There'd have been no way to guess that I'd be there."
  310.  
  311. "I know, but maybe they were relying on pure dumb luck. The worst that could've happened to Indrick was wasting his time, so it'd have been worth a shot, I suppose."
  312.  
  313. Victoria lowered her head, sighing aloud. "I just want to know why they are doing this."
  314.  
  315. "Never trust The Order." Said Valerian, making Victoria turn her head at him. "There's no guarantee that they'll even tell you the truth if you get some words out of their mouth."
  316.  
  317. She couldn't say much. She could only let those words sink in, soon moving her head back to the capital, with Jeremiah no longer in sight. Whether the darkness hid him or if he had already entered the city, she no longer knew.
  318.  
  319. "I'm gonna go for a drink." Said Valerian, turning and walking away, leaving Victoria on her own.
  320.  
  321. But, soon enough, Victoria turned and left for her house.
  322.  
  323. As she walked back through the road flanked by plants on both sides, she couldn't help but look at them. The tall plants and flowers reached high, but as she remembered the fire in Larifolk that she saw with her own eyes consuming the crops, she couldn't bear the thought of her gardens set alight in the same heartless manner. Past each plant she walked, now she found herself cherishing them more than before, if only because the thought of losing them weighed heavily on her.
  324.  
  325. Her eyes shot wide open and she halted in place, for between the plants she saw someone else. It was unmistakable, the kettle hat, the rapier in its sheath, the clothes, that of Indrick past the plants in the distance looking at her. Both stared at each other immobile, without a word, as if time itself had stopped.
  326.  
  327. "...Indrick?" She asked.
  328.  
  329. But he ran away.
  330.  
  331. "Indrick! Wait!" She called, attempting to give chase through the road, but after the first few steps she stopped, for she had lost sight of him altogether.
  332.  
  333. The paranoia of whether he was alone or not sank in. She ran into her house almost bashing the door open, went to the corner, and picked up the rapier which now had a sheath of its own. In haste, she began tying it to her belt. She knew very well that she did not know to use it, but even then it was better than remaining empty-handed.
  334.  
  335. Finished, she ran back out of the house with one thought in mind: Find Valerian. As she ran through the road, she attempted to think of where he'd be, remembering that he'd go for a drink. Where to, however, was beyond her.
  336.  
  337. Down the road she saw movement, prompting her to stop and stare, only to find Indrick once more coming into view with slow steps, with his rapier now unsheathed and in hand. He then stopped on the road, in the path she would've taken.
  338.  
  339. "Indrick..." She said to herself, before he slowly raised his rapier and pointed it at her, though he did not move, nor did he come closer.
  340.  
  341. Only now that she remained in silence, without her steps or her heavy breathing drowning out the silence, did she notice the noises in the surroundings. A quiet cacophony which she could not pinpoint the specific sounds, but could very well guess that Indrick had not arrived alone. Wherever Valerian was, wherever the dullahans were, they must know already; the noise would alert anyone, assuming it wasn't the sound of the dullahans fighting them off already in the first place.
  342.  
  343. She unsheathed the rapier that used to be Indrick's, and then pointed it at him, taking a stance similar to his back in Larifolk. At that moment, however, she realized that the rapier was as heavy as a longsword, despite one having to hold it with one hand instead of two. Only then did she further wonder how strong Indrick must be; how else would someone be able to use such weapon one-handed for extended periods of time without getting tired, to say nothing of the finesse required to use it at all?
  344.  
  345. "I'm not getting any answers out of you, am I?" She asked.
  346.  
  347. Indrick silently shook his head, before taking full proper stance, with both rapiers pointing at each other.
  348.  
  349. He took a long step forward in the blink of an eye and thrust at the same time, but Victoria managed to hit Indrick's rapier out of the way while stepping back, avoiding a stab aimed at her chest. She couldn't understand how she managed to successfully parry it; maybe dumb luck that wouldn't repeat itself enough. Indrick, instead of lunging once more, stood in stance.
  350.  
  351. The adrenaline began to overtake her in the fight, the first one she fought with sword in hand in her whole life. Panting, breathing erratically, eyes open and focused on him, body almost shaking. All she had in her mind was the task of beating him there, with the idea of getting something out of him if he's immobilized, and though such victory seemed unlikely, she needed to try.
  352.  
  353. She thrust forward just like Indrick, but the discrepancy in skill showed as Indrick effortlessly parried it with a single movement, soon followed by a slash. Victoria, panicking, moved her rapier to meet it and blocked it while taking a few steps back, but Indrick followed close with a few steps, forcing her to back off further in fright before the two remained in place.
  354.  
  355. 'Focus,' she told herself, 'focus...'
  356.  
  357. Smoke engulfed her whole, and at the same time, smoke appeared behind Indrick, with Victoria coming out slashing. However, Indrick turned at lightning speed and immediately deflected the blow. Then, as Victoria's blade moved away, he slashed at her leg while reaching with his free hand for the hilt of her rapier.
  358.  
  359. Victoria let out a sharp cry when the blow struck, falling to her knee but still holding onto her rapier which Indrick now pulled, trying to steal it, but before she could do anything, Indrick slapped her wrist with his blade. The same shout followed as she lost grip and attempted to step back, only to fall. Unarmed and bested, Victoria quickly crawled back to a safe distance, but Indrick did not follow. Instead, he stood in place, holding his old rapier and staring at the blade as he turned it. Then, he lowered it to stare at Victoria, before throwing it in front of her.
  360.  
  361. It left her dumbfounded to see the rapier returned to her, but before she could even say a word, she saw Indrick turning his head aside, before looking back at her, his eyes being the only exposed part of his face under his helmet and cloth.
  362.  
  363. "Consider using trousers." He said, before turning back and running away.
  364.  
  365. She spent a second wondering what he meant, till she realized that the position she was in did not mix well with skirts. About to blush, she desperately pulled her skirt down to cover her panties, not only in embarrassment, but in frustration over the absolute humiliation she suffered after her defeat. It was as if he was toying with her.
  366.  
  367. Her attempt to stand up was met with a leg slightly asleep, with the tickling sensation making it difficult to move properly. For now, she had to remain on the ground.
  368.  
  369. Three dullahans then arrived from the same direction Indrick had looked at a few seconds ago, but as they saw Victoria, they stopped chasing and rushed to her instead. Slowly, they helped her stand up.
  370.  
  371. "Where is Valerian?" She asked. "Where are the others?"
  372.  
  373. "We don't know." Answered a dullahan.
  374.  
  375. Victoria rose to her feet, and the dullahans slowly took a step back after being certain that she could stand on her own.
  376.  
  377. "Find the others and stick together. I'll go find him." Said Victoria.
  378.  
  379. "Are you sure?" Asked the same dullahan. "You don't look alright."
  380.  
  381. "I'll be fine, my leg's just asleep! Go!"
  382.  
  383. Though they hesitated at first, the dullahans soon ran off.
  384.  
  385. She stepped to her rapier, then took it from the ground and moved on, first with an uneven gait till her leg recovered, then with a proper run. Valerian had said that he went for a drink, she remembered, but if the dullahans had not found him yet, then he must've walked off elsewhere. The theater, maybe? Even when empty, Victoria found it a calming place nonetheless; perhaps it extended to him, too.
  386.  
  387. In due time she reached the edge of the villa, the slope of the small hill the villa had been built upon, and where the theater would be in. She could already see it even in the darkness, the open-air theater with the stone seats following the slope of the hill, but instead of finding only one person, she found two in combat. Valerian, and a paladin in full plate armor, both locking swords, but at that moment the paladin kicked him off the top of the rows of seats down below, rolling down while the paladin calmly stepped down as if they were steps. Valerian had fallen onto the set where performances would take place, an empty and flat area, with his sword falling elsewhere while the paladin still stepped down the seats towards him.
  388.  
  389. Victoria's body did not react, staring blankly at what took place before her eyes. Valerian losing so miserably was something that she'd have not believed if told.
  390.  
  391. Valerian then stood up and faced the paladin, but at that instant, Catherine herself detached and charged forward while Valerian, now in plain clothes, ran aside to recover his longsword. However, with painful ease, the paladin fought Catherine off, forcing the weaponless living armor to back off to Valerian and unite with him again, for she gave him enough time to recover the longsword now in his hands. And yet, the paladin moved forward towards Valerian step after step, as if nothing had happened.
  392.  
  393. 'What are you even doing here?!' Victoria shouted to herself. 'Go! Help him! Somehow!'
  394.  
  395. She saw Valerian backing off from the man in plate armor little by little, till she realized that none knew of her presence. The paladin had his back exposed, and her rapier of demon realm silver would surely phase through armor like nothing. Holding her rapier tight, she focused, and disappeared with a cloud of smoke.
  396.  
  397. Appearing right behind the paladin, she slashed, but the blade bounced off. She was stupefied at the fact, but before she could do anything, the paladin's elbow flew right into her face, impacting and leaving her stumbling back in great pain as she held her face. Valerian used the chance and attacked, but the paladin, with one hand on his longsword's blade and the other on the grip, blocked the blow, twisted his blade to entangle and disable Valerian's, and then, after quickly grabbing the blade with both hands instead of just one, rammed the crossguard into Valerian's neck and used the grip to pull him aside while tripping his legs, sending him to the ground.
  398.  
  399. When Victoria recovered her senses, she found the paladin glaring at her, but unlike Indrick, she saw nothing beneath his helmet. No eyes, no face, nothing, just darkness between the small crevices. This, added to his grim silence, and the contrast between Indrick and him in terms of weaponry and armor, made her heart beat at its highest extent, fearing for her life as if it were a nightmare.
  400.  
  401. "Dirk!" Shouted a voice Victoria instantly recognized. She looked aside, and there he was, Indrick, standing a fair distance away. So too did the paladin and Valerian look in his direction. "Time's up!"
  402.  
  403. The paladin and Victoria exchanged one last glance, before he ran off.
  404.  
  405. Caring not where they went, Victoria rushed to Valerian and Catherine, helping them up despite dealing with the weight of two people at the same time.
  406.  
  407. "How the hell did he even find me here?!" Complained Valerian, soon trying to stand on his own, and succeeding. "It's as if the damn guy was looking for me! Catherine, how are you?"
  408.  
  409. "His longsword... It was made out of demon realm silver, too..." She answered in an exhausted tone. "Not feeling too well... but I can go on."
  410.  
  411. "Attagirl."
  412.  
  413. "If we stay here, we could get caught by more paladins." Said Victoria, rushing to the seats and then stopping for him to catch up, who did so after a second of catching his breath while she sheathed the rapier. Once he arrived to her, the two began climbing up the seats towards the villa. "What happened here?"
  414.  
  415. "I don't know." Answered Valerian. "I was minding my own business, when all of a sudden this asshole appears and starts mopping the floor with me! I hope you don't mind losing a cup, because I threw it at him yet missed miserably."
  416.  
  417. "Mopped the floor...? Didn't you fight off multi--"
  418.  
  419. "Yes, by running away. My swordsmanship and Catherine's is entirely self-taught out of hobby. That paladin, though... I'm sure he was trained his whole life, day after day."
  420.  
  421. They reached the top of the rows of seats, allowing them to now take the stone road leading into the villa. However, as they got further in, they realized that they heard no more of the noises from before. At that moment, they saw a dullahan who had been running, but the dullahan quickly changed directions to reach them, intercepting them.
  422.  
  423. "Lady Victoria!" Said the dullahan. "I've been trying to find you. The paladins ran off, for some reason."
  424.  
  425. "They... ran off?" Asked Victoria, perplexed. "How many were they?"
  426.  
  427. "Around ten, if I can trust what the others said. They ran off to the city, though."
  428.  
  429. Victoria fell silent. The city, where the other paladins most likely are.
  430.  
  431. "You should go check on Jeremiah." Said Valerian. "I'll stay and defend."
  432.  
  433. "...Good luck." She said, before disappearing in smoke.
  434.  
  435. He looked on till the smoke cloud dissipated on its own. Then, he turned to the dullahan.
  436.  
  437. "Do you have any ideas on what they tried to do?"
  438.  
  439. "We found a few torches with them. Unlit." Answered the dullahan. "They might've wanted to burn something down. They left them as they retreated."
  440.  
  441. "Managed to catch any paladins?"
  442.  
  443. "No. They never left us an opening."
  444.  
  445. He exhaled from his nose, annoyed and disappointed, before humming in acknowledgement.
  446.  
  447. "I want eyes everywhere. Assume they'll return from another angle."
  448.  
  449. ---
  450.  
  451. Victoria appeared within the city, in a random spot as she decided, but upon glancing and finding no dullahans nor Jeremiah, she disappeared.
  452.  
  453. Once more she appeared in another random spot, doing the same, and disappearing upon finding nothing.
  454.  
  455. She appeared back in yet another spot and glanced around, but soon held her head in disorientation. She soon realized she was tilting without noticing, and attempted to recover from the imminent fall, only to stumble and still fall to the ground. She glanced around again while on the ground, narrowing her eyes. The disorientation felt like an awful version of spinning around for a long while, but with rocking back and forth instead. Her mind thought she was moving, even though she lied on the cold stone street.
  456.  
  457. "That's what I get for never teleporting as much..." She grunted to herself as she stood back up.
  458.  
  459. Then, she disappeared to appear elsewhere once more, but this time the disorientation was enough to make her immediately fall on her butt. Again she scanned her surroundings, but again there were no dullahans nor Jeremiah.
  460.  
  461. She had to wait. She had to recover. She rubbed her eyes as she sat on the street, and looked high. The starry sky revealed more lines of smoke like the first one she had seen. More failed attempts to start fires? Whatever the paladins wanted to do in the villa must've failed, leaving them to try in the city.
  462.  
  463. Not getting up, she moved herself off the street till she remained sitting against a building. She closed her eyes, and found the disorientation intensifying, if only because now she could not see that she wasn't moving, and so she opened them again. The idea of trying again to see if she could find a single dullahan crossed her mind, but so too did the idea that she could reappear in such state in front of a paladin by accident.
  464.  
  465. Jeremiah should be fine without her, either way, she thought. It's not like she'd be able to turn the tide of a battle if things went badly. Indrick just toyed with her, and the paladin hammering Valerian left her out of the fight with one single blow. She could rest. And so, she closed her eyes again, focusing on the sensation with morbid curiosity.
  466.  
  467. But soon she found herself dozing off as she heard steps, opening her eyes again, unknowing how much time had passed. Did she manage to keep herself awake, or did she actually fall asleep? She had nothing to figure out how much time had passed, as unlike in the day with the sun's movement, the night had no such thing. Curious, she looked at where the steps came from, to find a few dullahans arriving to her.
  468.  
  469. "...Lady Victoria?" One of them asked. "What are you doing here?"
  470.  
  471. Rubbing her eyes, Victoria stood up with the sensation that made her fall now partly gone.
  472.  
  473. "I've been trying to find Jeremiah, but ended up disoriented. I'm fine."
  474.  
  475. "You wish to see mister Jeremiah? We have orders to regroup with him. It looks like he cornered one of the paladins."
  476.  
  477. At that instant, her eyes shot wide open.
  478.  
  479. "Take me to him!"
  480.  
  481. "This way." Said the dullahan, before rushing off. Victoria followed behind.
  482.  
  483. They ran block past block, turning corner past corner, till soon enough Victoria began seeing various groups of dullahans standing in place, no doubt guarding their assigned areas. The more they ran, the more numerous the dullahans became, till far in the distance they saw a large concentration of them in front of a building.
  484.  
  485. And then, when they got closer, she saw Jeremiah among them, staring at the building before noticing them arriving.
  486.  
  487. "Jeremiah!" She called, before reaching him. "The villa, it was-"
  488.  
  489. "Attacked?" He asked, showing zero surprise.
  490.  
  491. "...Yes, how did you know?"
  492.  
  493. "The dullahans told me of another group of paladins coming from the villa. That group and the one here formed up and tried to escape, but we managed to catch up with one of them. He looked to be the only one armored, so maybe his armor slowed him down to the point he barricaded himself here when we almost caught him."
  494.  
  495. Armored. The vivid flashbacks of the armored paladin's helmet staring at her came to mind.
  496.  
  497. She looked at the building. Furniture blocked the broken windows, and who knows what lied behind the door for it to bear so much damage and still stay closed.
  498.  
  499. "Is there anything you can do to help us here?" Asked Jeremiah.
  500.  
  501. "...I can try."
  502.  
  503. All stepped aside as Victoria walked to the door, before placing one palm upon it and focusing. The dullahans stood ready with their swords, surrounding the door. Victoria breathed in, breathed out, on and on in a controlled manner for a minute; a lifetime of complacency had left her powers rusty, to the point of reverting to a beginner in terms of execution.
  504.  
  505. Then, she took one last deep breath.
  506.  
  507. The door shot wide open, blowing apart the makeshift barricade behind it, and so she stepped back as all stared intently inside.
  508.  
  509. Nothing could be seen, only the darkness that obscured everything not even half a meter in. But, as all remained silent in expectation, they soon found that no noise came from within.
  510.  
  511. Jeremiah was the first to move, stepping forward with his sword in his hand, soon pointing at various dullahans and then inside before stepping in. The dullahans he pointed at followed behind, visibly anxious, yet determined nonetheless. The darkness swallowed them whole, and Victoria could only hear the steps growing quieter each second, till she heard no more.
  512.  
  513. The wait felt like an eternity. Nothing happened. Attempts at prediction flooded her mind, with the paladin's escape being the primary thought in her head. In due time, however, she heard steps coming closer, till Jeremiah alone stepped out expressionless, walking off elsewhere.
  514.  
  515. "So..." Asked Victoria, walking up to him and remaining by his side, and though Jeremiah stopped, for some reason he did not face her. "Did he surrender?"
  516.  
  517. "He..." He said, only to remain silent for a second, before taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. "...He took his own life."
  518.  
  519. Silent, he brought his hand to his face and ran it down, walking away, leaving Victoria staring blankly, catatonic, like a still image.
  520.  
  521. Dullahans soon marched out the building, silent, all sharing a single trait without exception: A pale, expressionless face.
  522.  
  523. "...What?" Asked Victoria, with nobody hearing.
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