Argeus the Paladin
With an injured arm and a broken Borelias, finally Zaelro Fastoff and his comrades made it away safely. They were in particular luck – when they arrived at the regroup point, the lakeside was completely empty. After all, no one would have the reason to brave the vicinity of the lake, pitch black at night and without any sound security, when there was an infinitely safer strolling area for the elders and distinctively more romantic dating spot for the teenaged just a mile away – the central park.
The English commander got off the horse with even more difficulty than getting on with the slight dizziness worsening a little. Shielded as he was, the Faceless' attack still tore through his defense and caused a remarkable wound. Though the long, horizontal gash across his left arm was by no means fatal – otherwise he would have been dead by now - the loss of blood until that time still gave Zaelro a nasty feeling of sluggishness, not to mention a shredding pain and a cold chill running down his spine, now that he had time to rethink. Had the shield not been there he would have possibly had to kiss the limb good-bye, or even worse – not a beautiful sight at all.
And what was even more uncomfortable, his armor was getting in the way, trapping all the sweat in the vicinity of his arm within, soaking his wound, adding itchiness and stinging pricks to the cutting pain. Removing it was an impossibility – he had tried twice on horseback and once more as they stopped, to now avail. The arm plates were stuck to his appendage as if glued and scotch-taped for extra security, and forcefully removing it would mean anything from skinning himself to tearing out his own injured limb, as the increased serrated pains with each of his unsuccessful attempts warned him not to attempt any further.
“Why wouldn't you,” Zaelro grimaced in sheer frustration as he shook his head at the offending arm guard hopelessly, “just get off?”
Had the novelties and dramas of the past few days not revved him up and attuned him gradually with the flow of a supernatural lifestyle he would have possibly jerked once more at the sight of what happened next – the solid arm guard's locks and hatches slowly clicked, one by one, and in a couple of seconds, fell to the ground into a disorderly pile of golden, individually ornate plates. A light eyebrow lift of surprise refreshed his mind, leaving ground for explanation – the Aurora Set was controlled by voice recognition, as demonstrated earlier.
His hair almost stood on end as he gazed at the result of the attack, now clearly visible. The wound was even longer than he had felt earlier, resulting in a good outflow of blood that had totally drenched his sweater, also similarly sliced by the attack. Fortunately it was the kind of injury often coined “flesh wounds”. Zaelro stared at the battle wound with a visible awe of fright - had Vjaya struck a couple of millimeter deeper, it would have ruptured his major blood vessels, which would, at least, leave him comatose, and at most, kill him squarely.
In any case, he had more concerns than just his own safety or the artfulness of his equipment in this special occasion. The battle just now, the first full-scale battle he commanded in real life, was nowhere near a victory as he wished. In fact, had it not been for Florine and Takashi, they could have actually failed miserably. In a sense, judging from the casualties his armies had suffered alone, that fight could have been actually flagged as a downright defeat. The Greek were clearly the hardest hit in the storm, and by the time it was all over, the primary detachment – Oredin's sworn brethren - had been almost totally battered. With a look filled with condolence, he glanced at his trusted Hoplite.
“Mr. Kaledon,” he finally asked, a genuine apologetic look sparked in his eyes, “It appears that our Hoplites have suffered from major... casualties in this one battle.”
“To be precise, sire, out of the one hundred brothers having taken part in this battle,” bowed Oredin as he reported, his voice dragged low down in a similar manner, “we have lost twenty-three, while another sixty-one were wounded to varying degrees. The wounded had been teleported back to base, and our medics are doing their best to save the worst wounded and to bring back the less severely injured to good health as soon as possible.”
“Damn... who could have thought that monster had so much power?” cursed the commander, as his voice became deeply concerned following the next sentence “What about the dead? Is there any way to recover their bodies? You know, in case that beast comes back and... not to mention the cops as well.”
“Sire, we Greek consider it a vast dishonor to leave our martyrs lying strewn around the battlefield so that our enemies could strip their armors and humiliate their remains,” Oredin explained. “Fortunately the Valhallan units are issued with a system to allow for the recovery of our late brethren's bodies. Sire, there remains are now, I can assure you, safe with us.”
Zaelro said nothing, although his glance showed a certain degree of approval. Fathomably he was still stunned by the vastly overwhelming power of the attacker even now that he was within safety's reach. If his memory served him well, even Alexander the Great's famous Cataphracts were by themselves unable to charge a full detachment of Greece's most elite soldiers and win, not to mention the Valhallan Regiment's Hoplites had been extremely beefed up compared to their historical brothers. How a monster could rush that world-famous wall of spears and send dozens of them to the afterlife and dozens more confined to the hospital bed was, if anything, a gross display of unbelievable superpower. Stun-struck awe gave way quickly for regret – undeniably it was his defensive strategy that placed them in the frontline to face the scourging edge of the dark sword Vjaya.
“Mr. Kaledon, please speak your mind,” Zaelro finally said, almost turning away from his general as if guiltily avoiding his eyes, as sharp as the bronze spear he wielded. “Could those deaths be avoided had I not... chosen the tactic I employed?”
“Sire, I understand that we are facing an enemy unlike any other we have come across in the entire of our previous life, and if we hadn't come to the field today we would all have no idea of what we are going to face. And while our enemy possesses such power, I myself believe, sire, that no other strategy could have reaped a better result,” Oredin replied calmly and analytically. “At least, you can rest assure that the death of those unfortunate brothers of ours haven't been in vain. They have saved lives with their deaths, and that is all we can hope for as warriors – to die a meaningful death.”
Zaelro nodded, having run short of better things to say in that situation. His injuries, on the other hand, would not allow for a better conclusion of the exchange – the sharp shredding pain across his calf was now escalating by the minutes. And yet his injury and ailment was by no means worst within the group. Takashi was as white as a sheet as he got down from horseback after lingering there for some time, apparently to regain his breath. Apparently his physique was cut out for neither his attack in the battle nor the mounted high-speed getaway just now. With one hand on his chest and the other left dangling downright, his neck and back bent gasping for air, he basically had to struggle to control his trembling hands to produce his life-saving talisman from his pocket, in the form of a finger-sized medicine tube which he then placed in his mouth and inhaled deeply. His color got back on soon, but throughout all that ordeal his eyes appeared rather sunken in fatigue as he stood back upright, breathing heavily to signify the difficult accomplishment of the self-resuscitation.
All the while, Florine was sitting on horseback without moving the least bit, silent as a statue. She finally got off in the most awe-inspiring way available - by essentially falling off the saddle with eyes firmly closed to her carrier's horror. Had Takashi not been there and react quickly, throwing his arms in range to break her fall, General Peshkov's disoriented gasp alone would not save her from a worse injury upon dismounting. The innocent Japanese student's face blushed slightly as her slender, feminine figure collapsed on him, his arms strapped around her waist, her bosom brushed against his in a seemingly compromising position. His reddened face quickly turned into dismay as he looked down. His left hand supporting her weight was wet and somehow reddened - she was bleeding at waist-level, effectively drenching the teen's fingers in the bright crimson liquid. She was as white as, or even paler than Takashi just a minute now, and her figure slumping over him was anything but optimistic.
“What is happening here?” Zaelro exclaimed as he heard the sound of her falling over on top of his friend.
“She need,” Takashi shouted at the top of his voice as he held the girl tightly in his grip, in spite of the series of coughs that held it back. “urgent medical attention,” there went another series of coughing, “immediately!”
“Is this... blood?” Zaelro shuffled towards the duo with due urgency, “Damn... when did she get hit?” as he spoke a mild, but visible grimace appeared across his face, “If only Steedy were here... Ouch!”
His last exclamation of pain was understandable. His own wound was nowhere near healed, and his every running step inflicted more pain along its edge, as well as threatening to tear it apart. It became clear that Florine was not the only in need of healing. Needless to say Oredin, being the loyal retainer he was, could not stay put any longer.
“Sire, I will send for the medical team immediately!” the Hoplite commander spoke quickly.
“But still,” Zaelro responded without thinking, “we have more severely wounded brothers to tend to, don't we?”
“Please allow me, sire, it seems that this young lady has received an injury no less than our Hoplites,” Sir Jonathan promptly spoke as he threw a glance of deep concern at the fair maiden, signifying one rare occasion when the English lord and Oredin's thought coincided. In approval the Greek nodded, along with a reactive shrug – Sir Jonathan's motives were more obvious than the midday sun, with his gaze fixed at the steady stream of blood oozing out of her waistline anxiously.
But it was not before Takashi threw him a stare of both pleading and distress, biting him no less than the tingling pain around his physical injury that Zaelro was finally persuaded.
“Alright then,” Zaelro leaned against a nearby tree tiredly. “Mr. Kaledon, please summon your best medics here. But try not to leave our own soldiers unattended.”
“I trust my experience in dealing with these emergencies, sire,” With the supreme commander's approval, Oredin replied with fortitude, before quickly flagging for the 25th Valhallan Regiment's medics, arriving in just a minute through the now-common warp gates.
Needless to say how awed Takashi was at the sight of a team of half a dozen men in Victorian-era doctors' garment, each with a briefcase presumably filled to the brim with curative medicines and medical equipment, teleporting into the quiet lakeside surrounding with whizzing, time-and-space-distorting warp gates. The bleeping noises of warps opening and closing simultaneously shredded the silent night, and to an everyday student who never knew of the existence of such things, their appearance meant more threat than promise. His eyes rolled at the medics in sheer confusion and fright as they approached him, or more like it, the lady he carried in his arms, tentatively. His horrified look was as if he could have actually ran away, had the weight of the woman not stopped that thought dead in its track. Or he could have actually took all he had into his hand and proceed to attack them preemptively like a wild beast, had Zaelro's trustworthy eyes not convinced him otherwise.
“Who are these... people?” Takashi finally turned to the English commander-in-chief rather frantically, figuring out that to be the best option.
“Worry not,” Zaelro coolly replied. “These are my, err, friends as well.”
“We have been entrusted with the medical care of wounded soldiers throughout the ages, sire,” said the seemingly senior doctor standing in front. “Please pay us no mind – we come to save lives, not to take them.”
The head doctor then signaled Takashi to leave the girl in their care. The teen was rather reluctant, for good reason. But then, her immense bleeding suggested that there would be no better way than letting the professional take care of it. With extreme care, he laid her across a nearby stone bench, before turning to the medical practitioners with a pleading, rather pessimistic look in his eyes. The pessimism was explainable, as the young woman was still bleeding non-stop as she laid on the bench, eyes closed, breaths weak, almost lifelessly pale in complexion.
“I don't know what to say, but,” he said, perplexity and anxiety lining his expression, tinted by hints of disbelief as well, “please save her. I... I really don't know what else to say, but...”
“We'll try our best, sir,” the doctor told him. “Rest assured – she will be fine.”
The medics quickly set to work. Quickly split into two detachments of one and five respectively, the medical practitioners instantly proceeded to patch up their two patients, their commander-in-chief and the bleeding girl. As much as Takashi looked at the doctors in disbelief at first, his attitude quickly changed when it came to them how efficiently and effectively the medical wizards armed with what appeared to be antiquated 19th century herbs and tools healed the wounded. The result: Fifteen minutes and a good amount of bandage and medicine later, both of the patients had significantly recovered. Zaelro no longer felt any clear pain, being now able to move his arm about freely as before, and his dizziness faded away rapidly. Meanwhile, Florine had stopped bleeding, and her face returned to normal, colored and healthy in look once more. What the doctors did, Zaelro and Takashi were in no position to know. All what they needed to know was that it worked miraculously well.
“Sire, danger has passed for the woman,” the head doctor said, after tying up the last sterile strip around her waist. “Although, even I am not sure how she had taken such a blow and survived. What injuries she had sustained could possibly send a healthy adult Indian white elephant to the grave.”
“Is it?” Zaelro lifted his eyebrow absent-mindedly, as if not giving a least bit about the discovery, followed by a shrug of dismissal. “Still, I thank you for your timely service. You are dismissed.”
Florine Silverlance's stabilized breathing came into the surrounding as a sign of relief as the squad of field medics departed from the zone, one by one. They had, apparently, done their job perfectly well, and what started out as a blood-loss-induced coma ended as an all-too-normal, everyday sleep for the young lady.
The young-but-wise English commander's next order was rather incomprehensible – with prompt speed and determined voice he dismissed General Peshkov back to base no sooner than the last medic vanished from the background. As a matter of course the general wasn't too happy with the option, and from the look on his face as he turned away Zaelro actually felt sorry for him.
“I hope I haven't insulted him too much,” Zaelro thought, his scrambled mind somehow still clear enough to be decisive. “But it is for each's best interest that he and Taka-chan stay away from each other for the time being.”
He didn't have much time to think though. No sooner had the last fragment of dizziness faded from his system and General Peshkov's silhouette became a fading shadow disappearing from the surroundings than Takashi Minamoto's peering eyes focused on him, widely opened. Looking at those eyes, glaring with curiosity and inquisition in its purest form, Zaelro could tell for certain that he owed his friend a sound explanation just as much as Takashi had much to explain himself. Yet, the overwhelming lot of revelation to be made by either side was such that both of them ended up staring at each other, never once losing eye contact, but not a word escaping their lips. There were so much to ask and answer that neither knew where to begin.
“Err... Nice armor you have got there,” Takashi finally said, after a fair struggle as of what to ask first.
“This thing has a long history, it'd take a whole day to just narrate the tale,” Zaelro replied “Anyway, it isn't exactly normal for you to stay out of home this late.”
“Well, urgent call, it was, really,” the Japanese blushed as he explained his situation. “Something unexpected popped into my agenda in the middle of things.”
“Is that responsible for your ditching class this morning as well?” with a light-hearted voice Zaelro joked. “Our head teacher would be far less believing, you know. Even less if he knew that you hadn't been at home yesterday evening as well.”
What Zaelro said last was a wild guess, from the anxiety visible across the face of the Minamoto servant back in the afternoon. He was apparently correct this time, and Takashi immediately lowered his head, bending his neck apologetically as he heard the last sentence, almost making Zaelro resent his rather accusing speech. His face turned slightly rosy as his visage were slightly hidden beneath his hair. Whatever kept him from school must be something he would not want to admit, for fear of trouble or unfavorable gossips in its wake. Yet, the way he stuck around Florine Silverlance for the entire duration of the encounter, as well as the anxious look on his face as she collapsed was more than revealing itself.
“Is it because of,” Zaelro paused a little as he turned his neck to the figure slumping on the stone bench, “her?”
“It's a little too obvious, right?” Takashi breathed out. “I have to admit, yes.”
“You have any idea who she is?” Zaelro questioned rhetorically.
“I have some, but not much,” Takashi said, seemingly puzzled. “The tale is long, but, in a nutshell, she stopped me in the street just yesterday afternoon.”
“To ask for help?”
“Ask is an euphemism in this situation. Yes, she did demand help, and believe it or not,” smiled the Japanese schoolboy with some degree of relief. “she actually threatened to take violent resolves if I didn't comply, but, well, as I stayed close to her I saw that,” he stole a glance at her peacefully sleeping figure on the bench, “she was the type of person who would want nothing less than violence.”
“Even though she is a vampire?” Zaelro spewed out his own knowledge, which, needless to say, amazed Takashi to a maximum extent, such that he was struck silent for a good moment.
“You... you have already know about that?” finally he said, not making any attempt to conceal the jaw-dropping astound, after which he purposefully switched topic with haste. “She doesn't look anything like one, though.”
“With all the vampire incidents as reported by popular rumors around town recently and the cops being able to do nothing more than watching like sitting ducks,” Zaelro shook his head in disbelief, “if you stick around with a vampire for a whole day either you are crazy or retarded, which I am sure you aren't.”
“I thought so at first as well, but then, with the time we spent together since then,” answered his friend, “if she had wanted to have a piece of me I'd have been a carcass drained of blood by now. But here I am, still as healthy as ever.”
“Don't tell me that you spent last night with her,” Zaelro rolled his eyes, and although he had tried his best to keep the accusation tone to the minimum, his disbelief still spewed out in a rather harshly astonished voice. The reply was a foregone conclusion, with his friend's slow and reluctant movement of the neck downwards, clearly a nod. The English teen's response to that might have been a little more dramatic than his friend would like – his eyebrows almost tearing themselves from the eye, and his mouth opened wide in a big gasp.
“It... it is not like you think!” Takashi hastily corrected, his face now turning redder than ever before, as if all of the blood vessels over his face had burst in a second's notice. “We didn't... do anything wrong!”
“You are lucky I am not Nataka-chan, or you would be in a huge mess when you go back to school, indeed,” Zaelro shook his head, dismissing it as a joke. “But seriously, for all what is holy, you have no reason to actually... stay with her for that length, did you?”
“You heard the doctors, didn't you?” Takashi silently spoke.
“She apparently been hit by something with such powerful force that she could have been sent six feet under several times,” paraphrased Zaelro. “Are you related to it in any way at all?”
“Yes. I am the one who... did it to her,” Takashi confessed, his head still kept low, only to throw up and stared at Zaelro with some degree of desperation in the next speech. “I won't be surprised if you don't believe me, but I kind of... sliced her into halves, and she had to use all of her reserves just to heal herself, leaving her completely defenseless.”
“I believe in everything and anything with a sound explanation,” Zaelro shook his head, hiding away the astound of the moment with a neutral, cautious speech. “Just how could you have done it?”
“I know this is as unbelievable as the moon blowing up, but,” Takashi spoke too sincerely to be responded with disbelief or doubt, “she is among my two victims in the slaughter in the central park last Friday. Again, you may or may not believe it, but it is the truth.”
That statement rang a bell to the English teen, as the imageries of a horrifying footage of carnage returned to his mind with the needed shock effect. And the image of the girl collapsing in a pool of blood as Sergeant Vassiliyevich charged to his death was highlighted as the soundest of proofs in this case.
“In this case I can but believe,” Zaelro said at last. “There is nothing I know that can disprove it.”
“And so, well, it was kind of an obligation,” Takashi went on. “She appeared to be in genuine need of help, and I thought it would be better if I just lend a hand.”
“Nice,” Zaelro said, stomping his amazement into the ground with all his might – when had an asthmatic patient possessed by an evil spirit fond of slicing both friend and foe into thin bite-size pieces be useful in physical combat engagements, after all?
But then, Zaelro's amazement stopped abruptly when he realized that his dream sequence meant anything but good in that situation. In his dream, she was being hunted, and if anything, the event in the hotel just now confirmed the predicament with a hundred percent confidence. It could even suffice to say that the murderous demon's primary purpose in coming there and commit that atrocity was to look for her. In other word, the innocent lady sleeping peacefully near them was passively responsible for all those deaths and destruction.
“Anyway, this looks more serious than it may seem,” Zaelro concluded his thoughts with a bent neck and a hand propping his chin, “From what I knew, her life would be in danger if she just stay in this place, let alone walk around like she was doing.”
“Well, what do you know?” Takashi returned the question.
“Quite a few. I know her name, her identity, at least partially, and the fact that she would get herself killed quicker than a flying arrow if she just stay here,” Zaelro replied.
In the next fifteen minutes Zaelro narrated his dream on the very first day he set foot on Japanese soil, clearly explaining how he got to know of her existence, her familial tragedy, how her retainer traded his own life and wealth for her safety, and how she barely got away from doom a couple of hours before the hammer fell. He specifically mentioned his own speculations – the town was literally crawling with lurking vampires and their undead minions just waiting for a good chance to grab Florine Silverlance by the neck and hand her to their supreme leader. Takashi nodded to each and everything Zaelro said, with increasing amazement with each nod – apparently their tales fitted perfectly and doubtlessly.
“Just how could so much coincidence be there?” he finally gasped. “Your account was anything from a retelling to a mild paraphrasing of what she told me. Just that she almost cried when she spoke, and you didn't.”
“I vote against such dramas,” Zaelro snickered, “But that means that logically she was you telling the truth.”
Takashi smiled as he breathed deeply in the cool evening air, releasing his stress with the rhythmic cleansing of the lungs.
“There have been a lot of surprises tonight, haven't there?” he said with a sound exhalation, to which Zaelro replied with a look of agreement across his smile. “But it was your presence that most surprised me of it all,” his next sentence backfired the question fully. “Where did you get that armor, those soldiers and become involved in that fight?”
Zaelro nodded as his friend threw a careless look around the place where his four generals stood guard. If he were him, living a peaceful life in a peaceful town without much suspense until suddenly one beautiful day his good friends turned into superheroes of sort, wearing fancy clothes and wielding fancy gadgets into a battle of unprecedented brutality he would have reacted the same. Yet, the sheer amount of information he had been poured with over the past week was nothing he could share, at least, not fully – its volume was as forbidding as its content. And he didn't feel like lying in this case.
“Now I must beg your forgiveness for further puzzling you,” Zaelro finalized his puzzle in a restricted revelation. “I am, in a way, on a massive treasure hunt. This armor is part of what I have to collect, and these soldiers,” he glanced at each of his generals, “has been dispatched to help me on that hunt. And, well, we are supposed to be snatching those stuffs from vicious vampire hands, and thus the huge army. Neat, I say.”
“Mmm,” Takashi listened attentively. “So how have you been along with the collection?”
“I'm supposed to collect six,” Zaelro shrugged, “and now only one is in my hands. However, the mission is supposed to be very secret,” he rhetorically lowered his voice, “so that is all I can tell you.”
“I understand,” Takashi nodded. “We all have our own little secrets, don't we?”
Zaelro blinked in approval. After all, Takashi had far from revealed everything he knew to him, and even though quite a lot had happened since they met, they were far from close enough to share the most secretive and decisive of information. Especially when so many things were at stake.
There was a bit of silence as both speakers turned from each other to face the tranquil evening lake. The soothing air was uniquely stress-relieving, and the frequent cricket chirping in the bushes took their mind away from the current events for some time, as the fresh scent slowly replaced the deathly smell of caked blood poisoning their mind during the battle.
“Anyway, as I said,” Zaelro eventually whisked back on topic with a deep breath, “what are your plans now? Florine Silverlance would endanger both herself and everyone around her if she stays in this town, in all logic.”
“We've been discussing this since this morning,” Takashi stated. “And Florine wants to stay in town, even if she will have to run around indefinitely. She hopes that one day the Black Emperor Reglay will come here himself, so she could personally deal with him.”
“As if she could,” Zaelro said with pure doubt. “Her 500-year-old retainer was completely and thoroughly owned by just a detachment of that vampire lord's forces, if I am to trust my dream. She is, one, weakened, two, inexperienced, three, has limited capabilities, and finally, likely to be clouded by rage which is anything but good. She'd make an excellent punching bag for the opposing faction, or even the Sankaku Police Department if they feel up to it, in this shape.”
“Not that she can leave, can she?” Takashi said, his voice slightly depressing, “It may be a little too emotional, but she doesn't seem to have another place to go to. Home gone, family destroyed, father's friends slaughtered to the last, herself being on the run ever since then...”
Takashi then moved next to her sleeping form, gazing down on her beautiful, slender body, his eyes fixed on the stray strands of gilded hair, though disheveled, flowing freely in the wind, covering a good portion of her fairy-like splendor with a thin, gentle curtain of gold. His eyes showcased a combination of both admiration and empathy as they trailed along her mastercrafted features.
“Your reaction now can very well be misunderstood, if that is the case, partner,” Zaelro said with a lightened tone, at which Takashi immediately and reactively turned away from both Florine and Zaelro, as if hiding his offending crimson cheeks.
“Just kidding,” Zaelro finally watered down the tension, before turning serious again. “But you should really find a place to put her up. Her abnormally gorgeous beauty alone would draw half the town to her location before the vamps could roll in to have a look if she keeps wandering all over the place. Which means trouble, and a lot of it.”
“Now that is where the problem was,” Takashi leaned against the bench as he resumed gazing at Florine's lovely features once more. “I could think of nowhere. My own home is large, but there are way too many people for convenience. And her previous hideout had been found out by her pursuers, and is no longer safe.”
“Let me see,” Zaelro dug his forehead into his right palm as he thought hard, before the regular clattering of Oredin's heavy bronze armor entered the quiet surrounding, ringing him a bell.
“Mr. Kaledon!” he called out in rejoice, to which the bronze-armored Greek warrior advanced to his location with due haste. “We need to put up a young lady somewhere accessible. Do you think the Regiment headquarter would fit this purpose?”
Contrary to his belief, Oredin's face turned red out of embarrassment as well, visible even through the full helmet he wore. From the way he awkwardly stood his spear on the ground and the echoing sound of his bronze hoplon hitting the ground shortly thereafter, Zaelro was certain that his most trusted general had been caught in a fit of both extreme abashment and unprecedented perplexity.
“Sire, that... that is impossible!” Oredin finally summoned enough spirit to speak, although the restricted, choppy voice he spoke in was as atypical of Oredin Kaledon as it could be.
“Why the amazement?” Zaelro asked. “Was there something wrong, Mr. Kaledon? I believe that there is plenty of space back at HQ...”
“Space is not the matter, sire,” the general spoke in the most genuinely apologetic and ashamed tone possible, as if he had been hit squarely where he was weakest and had to account for the defense failure, or confronted by a moral problem of questionable solution. “I cannot guarantee her safety if Lady Silverlance stays with us in our base.”
“Tell me why,” Zaelro rolled his eye, half astonished, half annoyed. “Unless you are not the righteous army that you claim to be, which I would least expect.”
“Sire, however you may view us, there is one thing that would likely never change,” Oredin lowered his voice, resonating within the vicinity of his helmet into a sunken echo. “We are soldiers. Men enlisted into the armies of our respective time from all walks of life, devoting our lives to war and the glory that the battlefield brings about. Yet we are humans, have been humans in our past lives and now will stay human even when ascended.”
“So?” Zaelro asked impatiently.
“We need female companionship as well, sire,” Oredin spoke even lower than before, as if disclosing a terrible secret. “More or less, we need that which had always been dismissed by poets and historians alike as an unnecessary luxury of war.”
Zaelro could hear a large gulp on Oredin's behalf, as if he just had to swallow whole an oversize, bitterly sour piece of putrid morsel.
“But alas, our deaths and ascension, as glorious and splendid as they were, effectively deprived us of that necessity for all eternity. Some of us have gone along for centuries and millenia without even seeing a single woman,” the Hoplite's speech was cloudy and doubtful, naturally. “And... such a beautiful woman like Lady Silverlance would definitely rack up some serous troubles in camp should she stay with us for even a day. The least would be distracting our soldiers in the important time of our campaign. The worst would be some of the men, or precisely my men, may, against all codes of honor and military discipline...” he gave a long, dreadful pause as he gazed at both Zaelro and Takashi. “You get the picture, sire.”
Oredin's rhetorical pause was powerful indeed – it almost made Zaelro jerk as he “got the picture”, while Takashi's complexion turned white as a sheet as he imagined the worst case scenario.
“Shoot, I totally forgot that,” Zaelro facepalmed as soon as the sense of the situation entered his system, before looking at his general apologetically in response to that realization, “That would be a bad case of scandal, I see. Mt apologies, Mr. Kaledon. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusion like that.”
The Greek did not answer, but rather bowed deeply, before recovering his ornate hoplon and slowly backed off. His face still hadn't recovered from the blush as he withdrew, a sign that made Zaelro feel odd as much as it upset him and fed him with more knowledge. On the positive side, it made him realize one important difference between a real-life Hoplite and a Real Time Strategy Games Hoplite, albeit a little late. The real one is made of flesh and blood, not pixels, and had desires and wants that were every bit as down-to-earth and unknightly as every other battle-unready city dweller, and nowhere similar to a pixilated and rigid movement and emotionless electronic command response when this was concerned. Failure to recognize that would bring about certain disasters, which Zaelro almost had to learn the hard way.
“Nope,” Zaelro shrugged. “If that wouldn't work as well, where else safe we can let her stay for the time being?”
A moment of dire silence reigned across the location as the duo sat down on the grass, thinking. Often, group thinking produces far better results than working alone – this being one such instance. No later than five minutes since they took their seat than idea made itself available to one of them.
“Wait a second,” Takashi almost leaped up, struck by a most timely discovery. “I have the perfect place in my mind!”
It turned out that the first official investigators to arrive at the crime scene after the Valhallan Regiment made their exodus were not uniformed detectives with badges, notebooks, professional cameras and a plethora of other sparking clean and shiny evidence-gathering tools. Instead, the messy scene caused by Zaelro's holdout was first tend to by a shadowy, three-man squad, arriving just a couple of minutes after his army had successfully evacuated. The broken automatic door crumbled to the ground as the two men and one woman moved into the scene, behind it the scene of unspeakable destruction.
From the way they approached, professionally silent and with tentative thoroughness, they had come there to do exactly what the police were expected to – investigate. The woman, small and agile, walked briskly into the premise, and the two others, a hulking, muscular mustached man of remarkable height and size and a bright youth with eyes flaring with attentive observance trailed after her. It would be quite the mistake to dismiss these 'investigators' as uniformless, because each of them wore a large, leather trench coat, without any insignia or badge, but clearly imposing and unmistakable. For the two male members of the squad, that garment didn't seem too out-of-place, but to the one female member, the apparel clearly swallowed the majority of her petite shape, as if wearing an inappropriate hand-me-down. In the wind gushing in through the shattered gateway their cloaks fluttered, adding even more to the already baleful sight of death and ravage that was spreading before their very sight.
It didn't take too long for them to realize that they had arrived far too late to actually save anyone. The scent of death hung heavily in the air as they entered – the piles of chopped-up corpses of those unfortunate enough to be caught in the serial killer's way and the various splashes and pools of blood across the hall finally took their toll. There were no less than a dozen dead bodies, many of which dissected into so many fragments it would be difficult to even identify. Not even the most psychopathic of killers would normally commit such atrocities – it was almost as if the killer was grossly fascinated with dismembering his each and every victim. The dead were extremely diverse, judging from the remaining fragments of their apparels. Old, young, businesspeople, hotel registrar, teenagers on an evening out, even children. Apparently the killer did not think twice of who he killed – he just proceeded to slash everyone in his path to pieces.
Between the gushing, strong smell of violent death were the instances when the putrid, burnt stench of semi-incinerated bodies. The ground had charred quite well by powerful, bringing with it a significant portion of body parts. Those most deformed of remains were littered with fragments of granite tiles, stripped from the ground by powerful explosions and chargrilled to perfection. No sooner than that atrocious sight had made itself fully known to the group than winces and grimaces of disbelief and disgust appeared on the features of the two male members of the group.
“This is... gross,” the large, bulky man said, as he glanced around the room, trying to find an inch square not splashed with blood, finding none. “Who could have done this?”
The woman did not answer. Instead, she approached the nearest pile of mashed remains, gazing at the semi-homogenous nauseating dump for a long time. Her eyes fixed completely upon the last remnants of the unfortunate, at the jagged, serrated wounds of some and the smooth, clean slices of others, from all angles around, as if her own eyes would make do quite well for a professional camera. All the while, the two men stood frozen in place, having apparently been grossly awed in a disgusted way. Never had they seen that much death before, and never to them had death appeared so utterly bestial and barbaric as it did now.
“It must be him,” the woman raised her voice upon finishing her painstaking surveillance. “No other vampire could possibly both possess the strength to rip a living man's head off and take great enjoyment in doing so.”
“As much as this crime is beyond the ordinary, young commander,” the large man said in disapproval, “I, for one, don't believe that vampires could have done this. This is so... unorthodox.”
“Uncle Jan, I didn't say that an ordinary, run-of-the-mill vampire was responsible for this,” the 'young commander' shook her head, her face stiffened in dire seriousness. “Even the elite of their kind would not possess a scent this strong. It was distinctive of a Chaos Vampire. A failed Vampire Lord. A rabid beast in humanoid form.”
“What?” the older man gasped. “How illogical! If this entire mobilization owes to the Black Emperor Reglay von Gendamme, then there is no way a Chaos Vampire could join the fray!”
“Well, as illogical as it is, all available proofs point to that conclusion,” the woman propped her chin conclusively. “Besides, I know just the kind of... monster who could do this and derive the most twisted of enjoyment from it.”
“This is no mean business, commander,” the large man snapped. “If a Chaos Vampire is here to complicate things up we are in for a real mess.”
“True. Our situation here would be even more pessimistic if a Chaos Vampire has joined Reglay regardless of reason,” she lowered her voice back down, as she threw her glance randomly across the room “But then, that was apparently not the only thing worth noting in this ruined place.”
“I see it as well, Commander Mina,” the younger man said. “Scorched tiles, broken railings all across the stairs and long balcony, shattered paint and all that... a battle must have taken place here. And also, look at those.”
He then pointed at the monumental remains of Zaelro's longbow barrage just some minutes ago. English longbow arrows were littered all across the hall, some pinned on the ground, other broken into halves and laid trashed on the floor, still more piercing the wall, lying amidst the splintered jars and statues or stuck in the curtains. Not to mention a large number buffeting the grand picture of the hotel founder, a sight as shocking as it was humorous. And that was not all. Shards of broken Spartan shields and long spears also lay strewn all over the place, a sign foreign to both vampires and vampire hunters, even more so to the bumbling police should they come. Had it not been for the modern setting they were in, the investigators would have been forced to believe a medieval battle had taken place there rather than a one-sided vampire massacre as they had been informed of.
“Arrows,” the woman said dryly.
The sheer number of those broken equipment were such that it overshadowed even the scorched ground, the broken granite tiles and the incinerated earth beneath those stripped tiles. And for good reasons as well – ever since any of them began their vampire hunting duty, they had seen plenty of death and destruction by magic, both dark and elemental, but never once seen bows and arrows and other classical weapons playing a dominant role in any vampire-related incident.
“There must be hundreds, no, thousands, no, tens of thousands of them,” remarked the young man. “Since when did vampires use bows and arrows and spears and shields and all of those so-old-history-had-forgotten stuffs to do battle?”
“The nearest equivalent is an axe,” Uncle Jan said in an attempt to crack a joke. “Only the weirder vamps in Eastern Europe use them, but those fascinated with it are aging and getting out of commission in droves.”
Mina said nothing – after all, the older vampire slayer's joke often were dull and uninspiring. But that was not the only reason, for in all honesty, she had her own share of anxiety over the seemingly insignificant items on the battlefield. From the way she looked at the arrows strewn all around the war zone, she was definitely anxious for unknown reasons. Immediately she strolled to the nearest wooden shaft, picked it up, removed the metal tip, and, with a hand slightly trembling, produced a similar item from her jacket pocket – another arrow head. As she compared them she gasped slightly. The two objects, though found in two totally different scenarios, were identical in both shape, size and design. The look in her eyes in the next couple of seconds was that of both disbelief and disappointment for reasons unknown as she stood there, mysteriously speechless.
“Commander? Are you alright?” the young man said, his bronze-colored hair almost stood on end as he gazed at her with both curiosity and anxiety.
“Yes... I guess,” Mina said, snapping out of what she was thinking. “By the way, Suuichi, would you mind checking the first floor for survivors? And Uncle Jan, please take care of the second,” her voice returned to a commanding, decisive tone quickly thereafter, “I'll take the ground. As much as the chance is minimal, we must take the initiative.”
“Roger that!” the young man replied heartily as he zoomed up the stairway, and the older, large man followed suit, leaving only Mina on the ground floor. She hesitated a little, before gazing down at the two arrow heads in her hand.
“Zaelro Fastoff,” she said to herself, rather unconsciously. “After all, are you a friend or an enemy?”
She also had her own share of searching as she thought. Although, judging from the devastation and the termination of human life with extreme prejudice as she had seen, she could not help but believe that if the search went on, she would find anything but survivors. Trudging among the broken ground and the bloodied, charred tile, if anything, she only managed to discover more corpses as she gazed along the destruction's edge. If her foresight and sixth sense served her well, the one responsible for all the atrocious murdering was supposedly the most infamous of vampirekind of all, in terms of extermination.
Fifteen minutes, two dozen corpses and a multitude of trailing bloodstains later, it was clear that the worst had happened. Like normal, the culprit had been thorough and relentless in leaving no survivors. She was supposed to get going soon as well – like all other unconventional investigators, if the decreed, official ones came by, her very presence in the red zone would reap nothing but trouble.
Then it struck her that the unconventional battle had left more than a truckload of arrows and debris all over the horizon. As she walked along the western wall back to the entrance, the vampire hunter realized that something was blatantly abnormal with the decorations, or rather, what left of them. She was quick to notice what it was - There, on the wall some distance from her, a disc-shaped object was fixed into the wall in the most unnatural way possible, protruding from it diagonally downward, defying all senses of aesthetics. It was basically suspended at least ten feet from the ground, after taking off from a relatively wide angle, now hanging above the bloodied hall, direly looking down on the scenario as if being a silent witness of the unspeakable terror. Half-sunken into the wall like a crossbow bolt lodged into the flesh of an unfortunate victim, the object must have been forcefully flung at it from below, before colliding against it with such force that an entire slab of brick and cement had been well displaced from its natural place. Whatever the object was, it must have been tossed there as a result of the undefined battle. But why?
Mina bit her nail as he gazed at the plate. No human strength could possibly have such force as to deliver such a magnificent throw, not even a standard, rank-and-file soldier of the Black Emperor's army. Yet the creature most likely to accomplish the crime himself, the Faceless One, as the infamous vampire lord wannabe driven insane by his own ascension ceremony, didn't have the habit of throwing frisbees as she recalled. Not even the lightweight shurikens appealed to that beast – it was general knowledge that his murderous pleasure was explicitly derived from gripping a prey by the neck and literally tear its head from the trunk. There was only one way to find out – by removing it from the orifice.
The job was harder than Mina thought. So deeply entrenched into the neighborhood of the wall in such an awkward height the disc was that even when she had leaped to its height, her pull was nowhere near the level needed to remove it. She would have been able to remove it had it not been at such a height – without a feet support there was no way she could exert the pull she needed. Three successive attempts were three successive failures, one worse than the last, with the last time climaxing with a heavy fall that would have badly maimed a normal person, to which Mina responded with a mild grimace as she stepped back and gazed at the plate with visible frustration. It was high time the business was done, nice and clean.
Her attention shifted to the various bulges on the belt across her shoulder, what appeared to be a standard issue, military ammunition belt. She was no soldier, but the purpose of the apparel was no less explicit. As she carefully opened one compartment and unloaded the content on her arm, a confident smile bloomed across her face, as she raised and examined them at eye level. A handful of strangely colored vials reminiscent of random, highly volatile chemicals in any mad scientist's Tesla-coil rigged lab was what the compartment concealed. Their purposes came to the eye sooner than enough, when Mina stepped backwards with careful, measured steps, before whipping her hand carelessly upwards, sending the vials flying towards the disc. What happened next was firework – pure awesomeness packed in a good number of flashy explosions in a chain reaction-like series around the offending artifact's location. Mina covered her head a bit as up to a dozen clustered blasts resounded above, throwing even more debris around the surrounding, as well as a good amount of smoke, as if there hadn't been sufficient of their kinds in the surrounding already. Even among the sound of explosions settling down and various bits and pieces of splintered bricks collapsing on the ground, Mina could hear the confirmation of success in the lines of a solid, metallic clang of a heavy item falling onto the ground, bounding up once or twice, before settling down with a softer, nevertheless still significantly loud, series of rattles and clatters.
And as the smoke finally dispersed, before Mina lay the prize of her painstaking efforts – a pitch black kite shield with an ominous raven wing decoration, ever generating a similarly black aura around its origin. At the first sight, Mina's reaction was a sigh of dismissal – one she would always give at the sight of any artifact of the night that the malignant vampire race utilized. She would take no more interest in something that they used to harm people except for throwing another vial of holy water at it and watch, with a grin of reprisal, as the sacred liquid do its job. Her prejudice was even more so in this case, as even as strange as it was, clearly the Faceless One had used the object – his stench of corruption of the mind and body was distinct all over the object. Thinking so, she opened another compartment on her belt, dragging out another vial, this one crystal clear and sparkling with the blessed sanctity of holiness, and haphazardly tossing it on the object, waiting for a sizzling disposal.
She was wrong.
As much as the vial had landed on the shield, instantly bubbling to work perfectly, as it sizzled on the surface and evaporated, the only thing the sacred holy water could do was to wipe off the foul smell of the corrupted Chaos Vampire. The raven shield, to Mina's dismay, was still lying there, seemingly immune to the water's purgatory effect. Astounded, Mina began to throw more vials on it, with increasing astonishment and growing anxiety as she whipped her hand. The result was a foregone conclusion – the water just splashed off the surface of the plate, just like ordinary water.
Only then she gazed at the object with more attention, noticing, with astonishment growing into almost ardent fear, that what power it held within its fabrics was far more than any other dark artifact she had come across. More than, but different from - As if the pure darkness itself, the neutral darkness, tainted by neither evilness nor malice, housing neither demons nor malignant spirits, carrying neither evil curses nor deadly enchantments, that of the solemn and quiet, starless sky and just that alone, had manifested within that two-feet-by-three metal plate.
Its black aura was still there, both inviting and imposing, at a degree Mina had never known, promising both unknown power and untold darkness to whoever taking it up and wield it in battle. Whether it was a blessing or a curse to the wearer, Mina didn't know as she picked the object up and stared at it with utmost perplexity. The artifact was anywhere from ghostly to demonic in appearance, yet if her senses was correct, its aura, now free of the Faceless One's stench, even though pitch black and consuming, was nowhere near the damned temptation of Black Vampire demonic artifacts that she and her comrades had demolished in droves in the passing years. And yet the darkness in its very texture was so imposing and vast that she dared not wield it. She had dismissed her own darkness. There would be no way she would take it back again.
And yet, so tempting the artifact was that the vampire hunter could not simply discard it. Instead, she whipped out an oversize cloth sheet from yet another compartment in her standard leather uniform, wrapping the heavy shield in a couple of layers, as if afraid of the darkness within, before lugging it along. At least, the officials at the church could tell her what it was, and how it came into existence.
But that was work in the future – as her conscience came back to the everyday common sense, she realized that the bumbling, questioning Sankaku cops who neither knew of nor believed in tales of supernatural creatures came into the scene. Hurriedly she called out to her comrades, noticing them of the need for departure. Their coming back to the hall were marked with shakes and shrugs of dismissal – apparently there were no survivors, not that they'd expected any. Nevertheless, it was not the time to linger on any longer.
The three shadows left the building shortly after just in time – no sooner than the three leather cloak-clad vampire hunters had departed from the piles of debris and corpses than the all-so-familiar sirens sounded in the surrounding as half a dozen police patrol cars braked to an unneeded arrival.