by, January 5th, 2017 at 12:55 PM (312 Views)
Originally written for Milbunk's 2016 Fanfiction Contest.
Just a bit over 20k words, estimated reading time about 1 hour 20 minutes.
-=The First Night=-
Sion took a deep breath as she stepped out of the car, tasting the fresh mountain air of Solociano for the first time.
The town, a small mountain village with a population of only a thousand or so, was nestled quite snugly among the mountains of northern Italy. It had very little connection to the outside world, with only a single road leading into the village and not even so much as a radio to be found. According to her sources, there had been attempts to modernize the village by the Italian government in the past, but such attempts had met with strong resistance from the villagers themselves.
The lack of technology gave the village a somewhat exotic feel, as if it was some sort of reenactment of Italy's past. The brilliant sunlight washing over the old stone houses gave a picturesque view that was somewhat reminiscent of a museum. No doubt, this village would likely prove to be a tremendous resource to those studying pre-modern Italian architecture and culture.
Of course, Sion's plans were not quite so mundane. As she swept her gaze over the town, her assessment of its cultural value sat quietly in the back of her mind as more urgent matters took the forefront. Landmarks, population, how the streets wound their ways through the town, the atmosphere around the residents, indeed even the weather - all of these things she took in in the span of a breath and catalogued away. This place could become a battlefield in no more than a few hours, and every scrap of information she could get her hands on was another weapon.
Of particular note was the lack of night-time lighting. It seemed this village went to sleep early, as the number of lanterns that would serve to light the streets at night was alarmingly small. Naturally, with no electricity, those would have to be lit by hand, so it wasn't particularly feasible to have a large number of them, but it would make their work all that more challenging if they had to fight in the dark.
Marking the spots of the few night lanterns she could see, she nodded her thanks to her driver and made her way into the heart of the town. As had been planned before, her escort did not stay any longer than was necessary, and in short order Sion heard the sound of the vehicle drive away down the road it had come in on.
It had been one of her instructions as the leader of this operation - that they would strike at their target with as few people as physically possible. To anyone else, that may have seemed tantamount to suicide, but to Sion it was the obvious course of action. The Curse fed on rumors, uneasiness, and the stresses of common people. Adding trained soldiers with who knew what fears and traumas to that population would only make it stronger.
So, to cut off the disaster that would surely happen from sending in an entire contingent of Knights and Alchemists, Sion ordered that their task force be limited to as few people as humanly possible. Of course, there was a small strike force of Knights set up a healthy distance from the village that they could call in an emergency, but that would truly be a last resort tactic. Besides, defeating a single vampire didn't take numbers - it took skill. And if the best of Atlas and the Church working together couldn't do it, then there was little hope that adding more underlings would make a difference.
Walking through the town, Sion took the twists and turns that would theoretically lead her to the town's central square. While she had never been to Solociano before, and reliable maps of such a small, backwater village didn't really exist, it was easy enough to figure out that the village was constructed around a single central point by the way the buildings and roads were aligned. Probably a water source of some description.
As she walked, she quickly noticed something...odd, amongst the villagers.
Many gave her curious looks, which was to be expected. She even got a handful of friendly smiles and waves. But there was something missing - normally, such a closed off community tended to be very wary of outsiders. But in this case, while they were obviously curious about her, she didn't detect any negativity at all. There was nothing but warm welcomes in their mannerisms, which was the exact opposite of what Sion had expected to be greeted with.
As she made her way towards the center of the town, this realization caused her to grow ever more uneasy. If her predictions were reliable, then from their perspective, there should have been an unprecedented influx of outsiders coming to their village over the past few days and weeks. But rather than generate concern among the townspeople, they seemed to just...brush it off. They were curious, but not interested. For such a rural, shut-away people, that was beyond strange.
She supposed that was to her benefit. The less uneasy the people were about her, the more freedom she would have. While she wasn't happy about not knowing the reason, it was always something she could investigate later.
An unfamiliar voice stopped Sion mid-stride. Turning to look behind her, she was greeted by a warm smile from a middle-aged woman. Judging from her dress and accent, she seemed to be a local resident. She was built rather solidly, but it was more the muscle of a hard-working mother than that of a fighter - the chances she was an agent of the Church were slim to none.
"Would you happen to be Miss Eltnam?" With no response from Sion, the woman continued. Sion's grasp of Italian was elementary at best, and the woman's very rural rendition of it made it even more difficult to understand, but even in that unfamiliar accent, she recognized her own name very easily.
"I am," she said somewhat cautiously, one part due to her lack of fluency in Italian and another because this complete stranger happened to know her name. While it caught her off guard, she supposed it wasn't all that unlikely. If anyone had said 'there is a foreigner named Eltnam coming to the village soon,' anyone could connect that person to her. The most obvious question would be then, who had told her that she was coming?
"Ah, great!" the woman exclaimed, clapping her hands in satisfaction. "Father Idoni asked that if we saw you, we should lead you to the church!"
And that answered that question suitably. In hindsight, it was pretty obvious she supposed - if she was working with the Church, it would probably make preparations for her arrival. She supposed it also explained why she had been shown a considerable lack of antagonism from the villagers - they had actually been expecting her. And if they were expecting her as a friend of the Church, then they would no doubt welcome her with open arms.
The woman laughed apologetically, saying something in Italian that Sion couldn't quite catch. With a friendly clap on the shoulder, she took Sion by the hand and spoke very slowly, "Follow me."
It seemed the woman had mistaken her hesitation for lack of understanding, but that suited Sion just fine. With a smile and a nod, Sion allowed the woman to gently pull her through the town, all the while keeping a somewhat cautious eye on her surroundings. As they walked, the woman continued to chatter on excitedly, speaking in a way Sion had no hope of understanding. The church had been fairly close by, situated in a central courtyard that, as Sion had predicted, housed a large well.
The church itself was fairly small, maybe two or three rooms at most, and didn't look like it could hold much more than a tenth of the town's population. It made Sion wonder if there were actually more churches throughout the town, but with the placement of this one, it certainly seemed to be the town's central social hub. Pushing open the solid wooden door of the church without hesitation, the woman lead Sion inside and called out in a loud voice.
In short order, a small, grey-haired old man came out of one of the inner rooms. Peering quizzically at the pair of women through his dirty glasses, he almost jumped when he finally saw Sion. The old man, a priest judging by his garb, quickly scurried his way over, all the while exchanging rapid-fire words with Sion's guide.
Sion began to wonder whether she might have been better off turning down the invitation when the woman suddenly turned and gave Sion a hug. Unsure of how to react, Sion stood frozen, but before her lack of response became awkward, the woman let her go, gave her a wink and a pat on the shoulder, and with a few more unintelligible words, exited through the door they had come in.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sorry!" the old man suddenly spoke up, futilely rubbing his glasses on his equally dirty priest's robe. "Oh! Uhhh...English? Do you speak English?"
"Ah, yes, English is fine," Sion replied with an awkward, yet grateful smile. English wasn't her first language, but as a member of the Atlas Institute, it was a language she had to be fairly comfortable working in.
"Great, great!" The old priest replied, relief obvious on his face. "My name is Adriano Idoni. Most, uhm...most of the villagers call me Father Idoni. A pleasure to meet you!"
"The pleasure is all mine," Sion replied, her smile much more genuine than before. The old man, somewhat shorter than she was, spoke as if he had just recently been brushing up on his English, and Sion had a good idea as to what had prompted him to do so.
"Mother Riesbyfe informed me you would be arriving in Solociano today, so I took it upon myself to, uhh...to tell the villagers you were coming. I...I didn't want them to get, spooked. It's so very not common to see outsiders, you see!" The man wrung his hands apologetically, as if his attempt at courtesy in preparing for her had been offensive.
"Thank you," Sion replied with a small nod, "I appreciate your hospitality. I have to admit," she continued, trying to change the subject a little, "I'm surprised Mother Riesbyfe has contacts all the way out here."
Idoni gave a scowl and a hum as he started to make his way back into the church, motioning Sion to follow him. "Well, actually, I hadn't met her myself before...oh, when did she come? Maybe three days ago? Maybe four?"
That startled Sion. "Wait, Mother Riesbyfe came here personally?"
The old man turned to give her a quizzical look before replying. "Didn't you come here to meet her?"
Sion smiled apologetically, mind racing for an excuse as if she had been caught in a lie. "Well, I knew I was meeting someone from the Church. I didn't know Mother Riesbyfe herself would be meeting with me." In the end, the truth won out. There was no value in hiding things from the priest. As long as he didn't ask what she was doing here...well, hopefully 'Mother Riesbyfe' had managed to sate that curiosity for him.
"Yes, well, Mother Riesbyfe is truly an outstanding individual. Maybe, uhh...maybe it's not my place to say this, seeing as I've only known her for a short time, but she doesn't seem like someone who is satisfied to delegate."
"Is she still in the village?" Sion continued. If Riesbyfe herself was here, that made things...complicated. While it certainly seemed to be helping in the short term with setting up and getting a foothold in the town, working with such a VIP from the Church in the field could prove difficult.
Rather than answer her question, however, the old man simply smiled and, approaching a small wooden door in the back of the sanctuary, opened it wide. Sitting casually on the other side of that door dressed in full armor and lazily toying with what looked like the carrying case for some sort of large musical instrument, was Riesbyfe Stridberg herself.
After a short exchange with Riesbyfe outside of Sion's hearing, Father Idoni had rather hastily left the two alone in what looked like a private study of some sort.
"Long time no see," Riesbyfe greeted her with a patronizing grin. "Glad to see you are doing well."
"It's a pleasure to see you again," Sion replied with a flat expression. "I must admit I'm curious why you didn't mention that you were going to be here personally at our last meeting."
Riesbyfe gave a short laugh. "To be honest, I came here just to take a look around, but after spending a few days in the village I decided it would be best if I got involved too. It looks like this is going to be a pretty serious case, and you did ask me to send the best I could afford. Besides, if the next head of Atlas is going to participate, it would only be fair if we sent someone of equal calibre, right?"
Sion gave a quiet sigh. She and Riesbyfe had first met a month or so prior, when the Church officially contracted the Atlas Institute to help with exterminating a particularly tenacious vampire. For...personal reasons, she had volunteered to head the operation, but through all of the negotiations, 'Mother Riesbyfe' had never showed the slightest inclination towards participating in the hunt herself. Sion had, apparently mistakenly, believed the 'Head of the Knights' was a largely bureaucratic position. Judging by the armor she now wore, it was quite obvious that that wasn't the case.
"If things move according to your calculations," Riesbyfe spoke up, changing the subject, "then the real danger begins tonight, doesn't it?"
Sion nodded. "Right. As long as everything remains on schedule, we should see some movement shortly after sundown. And everything will be over by the end of our...well, my third night here."
"What an annoying vampire," Riesbyfe said with a sigh, leaning back in her chair. "I've been here for three days already, and now it's going to take another three just to find the stupid thing?"
"Less find it, and more wait for it to exist," Sion said.
Their target - the Night of Wallachia.
A vampiric Curse that, in most cases, did nothing. It didn't even really exist. But, when the situation was right, when all the conditions were met, it would manifest in a single night of carnage and destruction, devouring all who lived within its effective range. It was a centuries old curse, and having successfully predicted where it would appear this time, the Church had finally made a move to put an end to it once and for all.
Sion herself had spent the last month intensively researching all records held by the Atlas Institute, the Church, and even her personal records of the Eltnam family, for any information she could glean about the Curse. Unfortunately, while the research hadn't exactly been useless, it didn't provide her with any practical knowledge about defeating it. Sure, she understood the theoretical framework it operated on, and she could probably even predict its next few appearances within a negligible margin of error. But the nature of the Curse itself prevented any records of its combat abilities from being reliable.
The way the Curse operated was deceptively simple - it would latch on to rumors spreading about a given area, and as it collected power, it would manifest those rumors as apparitions. As a vampire intent on feeding, it tended towards the more destructive and dangerous rumors - serial killers, monsters, and the like. These apparitions would sow terror and fear throughout the town, thus feeding the Curse even more. When it reached its full power, it would manifest itself as the most powerful rumor circulating, and for a single night would lay waste to everything in its surroundings.
Stopping that final incarnation was their goal. Theoretically, if that could be defeated, the Curse would end for good.
Of course, the actual mechanisms and conditions were a little more complicated than that, but for their purposes, this was effectively how it functioned.
Taking a glance at the clock in the small room, Sion nodded to herself. "About 2 hours until sunset. Shall we start getting ready?"
Riesbyfe gave what could almost be called an excited smile, motioning to a desk in the corner of the room. "I've made some maps of the town and surrounding area, complete with my own personal notes. Would you like to take a look?"
Sion raised an eyebrow in surprise. She supposed Riesbyfe had been here for three days, but she didn't really strike Sion as the...careful planning type. She wasn't going to complain about having more information, though. Walking over to the desk, she surveyed the maps and notes Riesbyfe had prepared. Most of the notes were very combat-centric - 'large open space,' 'poor night lighting,' 'narrow entryway,' and more than a dozen places marked with 'hiding spot.' Were those for them to hide, or the enemy?
This was exactly the kind of information Sion was looking for. Though she had already started, and would continue, compiling her own personal notes on the town as a battlefield, having these maps labelled with Riesbyfe's appraisal of the individual areas was a great foundation for her to build on.
Sitting down at the desk, Sion motioned Riesbyfe to join her.
"Two hours until we head out," she said, turning to face the desk as Riesbyfe pulled up a chair beside her. "And lots of planning to do."
Sitting down with a heavy thud - surprisingly loud, until Sion realized it was probably just the weight of her armour - Riesbyfe retrieved a handful of pencils from inside the desk and placed them on the table.
"Let's get started."
Sion took a deep breath to settle her nerves.
She and Riesbyfe had been patrolling the streets of the small village for a little over two hours, and with the sun comfortably below the horizon, shadows hid most of the small town from sight. The sparsely arrayed lanterns were lit, but with the distance between them, they did little except blind their eyes to the moonlight.
Sion had briefly considered snuffing the lanterns and working with only natural light, but she had quickly dismissed the idea. The moonlight wasn't strong enough for them to operate, and while it would be better than nothing, having the option to lure any enemies they came across near the lanterns to fight was more useful.
Riesbyfe, clad in her black combat uniform, made a striking figure in the dark. Her white hair and silver armor made her somehow easy to find yet difficult to see in the weak light. Between the lanterns, she became almost ghostly monochromatic, and Sion couldn't help but wonder if that was the intent behind the design. Her instrument case, which Sion could only assume held some sort of weapon, was still slung on her back. It appeared by Riesbyfe's bored demeanour that Sion was the only one who felt the tension of the situation.
The window of opportunity they had to work was very narrow. This was the first night on which the Curse would be strong enough to physically manifest, and in two or three days time, it would be gone. That meant they needed to draw out its core and destroy it within - at best - three nights.
Thanks to Riesbyfe's intelligence gathering efforts on the town's layout and Sion's own research about the Curse, they had made a strong start, but it would be difficult to maintain that pace for three nights straight.
Without a word, Riesbyfe suddenly pulled her instrument case off her back, and began opening it.
"Something wrong?" Sion asked, keeping her eyes on the environment around them. They were perhaps a 5 minute walk away from returning to the church where they had begun their investigation, if they maintained their current cautious pace. Riesbyfe gave a grunt in acknowledgement before tossing the empty instrument case on the ground by the closest lantern.
"Smells like death up ahead."
Sion frowned. It didn't make sense for there to be something naturally occurring up ahead, as it was a place they had already investigated. No matter how close they got, however, Sion didn't detect any smell at all.
As they continued to press towards the source of Riesbyfe's anomalous smell, Sion quickly appraised the Knight's weapon. It was difficult to make out the details in the poor light, but it was evidently some sort of shield. It was strapped to her left arm so she could wield it without tying up her hands if needed. On the tip of the shield, a sharp spearhead-like point protruded out of the shield, giving it a pile bunker-like appearance.
It was an interesting design, but she suspected that it was more than just an 'interesting shield.' There was no way the head of the Knights would go into battle without some form of holy relic, and considering the plain, utilitarian look of her armor, she suspected this was it.
As they broke into the clearing marking the town center, Sion armed herself as well. Pulling a sleek black handgun out from the holster at her waist, she triple checked the ammo cartridge and disengaged the safety. Taking one last look around the clearing to make sure there was no immediate danger, she closed her eyes and brought a hand to her left temple.
Accelerated Thought Process: Initiate.
Divided Thought Process: Open.
With those words, time seemed to stop. As if the world had ground to a halt to wait for her, the sound of fire flickering in the lanterns, the sounds of Riesbyfe's footsteps, the sounds of the wind between the stone houses - everything stopped. In that one moment of serene silence, something hidden deep in Sion's mind began to awaken. As if trading away her emotions, her mind became a computer designed for perfect analysis, perfect calculation. With a sensation like an old CRT monitor being turned on, the circuit was complete - and the machine was turned on.
Opening her eyes, a volume of information that would put even computers to shame flowed into Sion. Everything she saw before her was suddenly no more than math - the movement of the Head Knight, the flickering of the lanterns, the breath of the wind, everything was a formula, everything was a number.
Unfazed by the flood of information, Sion completed her ritual with a deep breath, lowering her hand back to her side. Staying atop the flood of information - staying human while your brain turned into a machine - was not a simple task, but it was the trademark of Atlas alchemists. The threat of being dragged under was nothing new to her, and it was a threat that had lost its bite long ago.
With the mental shock of unlocking her analytic capabilities passed, Sion once again swept her gaze over the clearing.
Riesbyfe was heading to the church. No doubt, she was worried that the source of the smell was there, and that the priest was in danger. Incorrect, though.
The wind was blowing from behind them. Any natural smell should have been carried away from them, but Riesbyfe's approach indicated she thought it was getting stronger. Not a literal odour, then.
No, the thing that caught her attention - a curious hum coming from the opposite direction of the church.
The town well.
A sound like static, barely audible over the sound of the breeze - probably unnoticed by Riesbyfe, but with her enhanced cognition, no tiny fragment of input would be lost to her.
"Riesbyfe," Sion called out in a low voice. As Riesbyfe turned to look at her, Sion nodded towards the well. It was just barely outside the optimal range of her handgun, and far out of Riesbyfe's combat range if she planned to engage in melee.
Taking the hint, Riesbyfe sank into a battle ready stance and placed herself between Sion and the well. Slowly, she began advancing forwards, eyes carefully trained on her target. All the while, Sion continued to keep an eye on their surroundings.
As they approached the well, the soft static sound stopped with an abrupt snap. Then, as if on cue, an odd-looking figure popped up a few centimeters above the edge of the well.
Before Sion could say anything, Riesbyfe stopped and held her shield combat-ready. The poor light coming from the lantern behind them made it almost impossible to see any detail of the figure, but they could at least see a faint glimmer in what looked like eyes.
"I thought vampires didn't like water," Sion called out cautiously. "What's this one doing in a well?"
"Oh, don't worry little girl," a raspy voice answered her. "I'm no vampire. I just want to play." It was like listening to someone filing a piece of iron.
"Come on over, then," Riesbyfe spoke up, her voice somehow a mix of playful and hateful. "We'll play with you all night."
As expected, the creature only laughed, sinking slightly deeper into the well. "Oh, but you are so scary. I just want to play with the purple one. Why don't you send her over?"
The situation became decidedly awkward. It seemed the creature was somewhat intelligent, as evidenced by its ability to speak. But it also seemed like it wasn't interested in leaving the well. Of course, Sion wasn't stupid enough to get anywhere close to the well, but there didn't seem like very many more options to get it out in the open.
"Well, I guess one well is a small price to pay for killing such a disgusting smelling beast," Riesbyfe said to herself as she began approaching the well. Sion slowly repositioned herself around her, gaining a clear line of sight to the well. Raising her gun, she approached just close enough that she could confidently land a hit.
"Oh, I can't let you do that," the creature's raspy voice sounded somehow more sinister, having lost it's playful edge. "You see, I am the guardian of this town's well. If you try to harm it, I'll have to drown you."
"Oh please," Riesbyfe called back, maintaining her cautious forward movement. "What kind of 'guardian spirit' smells like corpses?" The creature didn't reply, sinking below the mouth of the well and becoming completely obscured. Riesbyfe approached the well, now within five meters, before stopping. Making eye contact with Sion, they exchanged nods.
As Riesbyfe returned her attention to the well, she suddenly leapt forward - and the trap was set.
It was almost too perfect. As Riesbyfe leapt forward, a bird-like talon rose out of the well and struck down on her like a hammer. Riesbyfe of course had been counting on the preemptive attack, and had already raised her shield above her head. A sound like a tuning fork flooded the clearing as the bizarre appendage slammed into the shield, causing the Knight's legs to buckle momentarily, dropping her to one knee.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. As possibilities played out in her head like a movie theater, Sion had already begun to move. The sound of gunfire overlapped that of Riesbyfe's shield as Sion made three quick shots towards the well. At the same time, Riesbyfe dropped her shield, reached up, and grabbed the monster's leg that was still trying to crush her. As the three bullets raced past the Knight, she threw her entire body into a forward roll away from the well.
The bullets shortly after hit the rim of the well, ricocheting downwards into the darkness where the creature was hiding. The sharp sound of bullets ricocheting off stone was followed by the dull sound of them impacting wood, and for the briefest moment, Sion had thought she had missed. However, Riesbyfe's roll - still holding on to the creature's leg - tore the hissing beast from it's hiding place and heaved it over into the clearing.
In a little more than a second, the entire situation was different - the as-yet unidentified creature was now forced into the open. With Riesbyfe between the monster and the well, and flanked by Sion on the other side, it had no where to run or hide.
As the creature righted itself after being thrown face first into the flagstone of the city square, Riesbyfe did likewise, jumping backwards and taking up her shield again. In one fluid motion, she rearmed herself and threw something from her belt towards the creature. After the sharp sound of metal striking stone, the object erupted outwards, filling the clearing with an almost blinding white light, at last illuminating the monster between them.
It looked like something that truly belonged in a well. It's body seemed to be little more than a piece of misshapen wood, embedded in which were two unevenly spaced eyes and a jagged gash containing rows of razor-like teeth that could barely be called a mouth. Out of its wood-like body, four spindly legs, easily three meters long each, supported the creature as it stood in the city square. Despite the bird-like talons, its movement and bearing were more reminiscent of an insect.
Three bullet holes showed where Sion's distracting shots had struck home. It didn't appear to be significantly injured from the shots, but the unexpected injury had succeeded in causing the beast to lose its grip on the well's interior, allowing Riesbyfe to hurl it into the open street.
"Huh, so it really isn't a vampire," Riesbyfe said, disappointed. "I was hoping I'd get to test out how effective these UV flares were, but apparently that'll have to wait for another day."
"Be careful what you wish for," Sion said all the while tracking the creature's movements. It stood cautiously, tensely, watching the two of them. It seemed to understand that despite being almost twice her size, Riesbyfe was not going to be easy prey. Which meant, its next move would obviously be-
-with an unearthly howl, the creature leapt backwards, directly towards Sion. Spinning in the air to face its new target, one of its huge talons smashed into the ground, slicing through the air Sion had occupied only a breath before. Sion, having rolled forward close enough she could reach out and touch the creature's main body, rose to one knee and leveled her pistol at the creature's face. Two quick shots relieved the creature of its eyes, earning Sion a violent screech as the creature lurched backwards in pain.
Without taking the time to confirm, Sion kicked hard off the ground, rolling out from under the monster. Riesbyfe's shout signaled that she had made the right choice, and she was just able to right herself in time to see the knight bury the point of her shield-spear downward into the creature's defenseless back, driving it hard into the ground. With a roar every bit as terrifying as the well monster's, she then lifted the impaled creature over her head and slammed it face first into the flagstones behind her.
The well monster scrabbled weakly at the stones for a few moments, a painful gurgling sound coming from its wooden body, before its limbs went limp. Without another sound, the bizarre creature seemed to melt into a black mist, burned off by the waning light of Riesbyfe's flare.
The entire fight hadn't even lasted 15 seconds, but as she scanned the area to confirm their safety and came out of her combat trance, Sion felt the tension of hours leave her limbs. With a deep breath, Sion brought her advanced thought processing to a stop, and the constant flood of information pouring into her head slowed to a trickle - returned to human levels.
"Well, that was a lot easier than I had expected," Riesbyfe quipped as she watched the lingering bits of dead wood melt off her shield. "You seem pretty used to this, as well."
Sion holstered her weapon as she joined Riesbyfe in watching the 'corpse' melt away into the night. It was somewhat like watching a cube of sugar dissolve in slow motion. Ignoring the veiled question behind Riesbyfe's compliment, Sion spoke.
"So as expected, this was no doubt an apparition of the Curse. If it had been an actual...thing...it wouldn't disappear like this."
"What was it, out of curiosity? Certainly not undead, despite the fact it clearly smelled like one."
Sion gave a thoughtful hum. Her knowledge of Italian mythical creatures was pretty shallow, as she had only begun investigating them after receiving a call to arms from the Church. "There is a myth of a well monster, called the Marabbecca, that supposedly originated in Sicily. I guess it makes sense there would be a similar story here."
"Just your typical 'don't fall in the well' fairy tale, I suppose," Riesbyfe spoke under her breath, losing interest as the last of the creature's remains vanished into the night air. "Well, not much point in gloating now, is there?"
Sion nodded in agreement as she mentally collated what they had learned. Effectively, that was 'almost nothing,' but at least they had managed to put down this monster. It had been located in a spot that would have been incredibly dangerous to the local population, so it was a good thing they managed to eliminate it shortly after it appeared.
Also, she had a new lead. That bizarre, static-like sound would no doubt prove to be a recurring sign for the appearance of apparitions in the future. While not hearing it didn't mean they could let their guard down, it would certainly be a useful hint.
Either way, the night was young. After one last scan to make sure the area was clear, and that there were no lingering effects of the Marabbecca's presence, the two vampire hunters headed back into the night.
-=The Second Night=-
Riesbyfe gave a light sigh as she adjusted the straps on her armour.
In the end, after destroying the well monster the night before, they hadn't run into any other problems. And while the altercation had been brief, it was certainly eye-opening for her.
Specifically, in regards to the Alchemist that was her partner. She had no problems admitting that she had been a little concerned when she first met Sion. At Atlas' request, she had handed over leadership of the operation to them, and they had repaid that faith by sending a single teenager as their entire combat force. At their request, Riesbyfe had also come with minimal reinforcements, and had left them outside the city proper, but there was a difference between following instructions and liking them.
Her biggest concern was that, no matter how good she was on paper - which Riesbyfe knew as an Atlasia she was no doubt one of Atlas' best - a girl her age would not be able to handle the rigors of a real combat situation. She had been pleasantly surprised to learn that her fears were unfounded. Whether she was actually experienced in combat or just incredibly level-headed under pressure, her conduct during their brief scuffle had been more than acceptable.
While Riesbyfe had provided most of the muscle for the encounter, things had been exceptionally easy for her thanks to Sion's support. One had to wonder if it was just a fluke that things had gone so well, but with the cold precision that Sion acted, and the way that even as the monster was practically breathing on her she didn't hesitate for an instant...it seemed almost as if everything was a part of the girl's plan.
In any case, it was encouraging to see that her partner was not so green as to be unreliable. That being said...
"You know, I'm starting to have second thoughts about...this."
Riesbyfe spoke uneasily, earning a curious look from Sion.
"Oh? About what?"
Stopping herself moments before she blurted out 'working with you,' she opted for a more political response. "These 'plans' of yours seem pretty risky for all involved, that's all."
Sion blinked a couple times, as if confused. "Of course there's risk. We're hunting a vampire."
Unsure of how to respond, Riesbyfe settled with a sulky grimace. It wasn't that she thought there wouldn't be risk involved, just that she was sort of expecting the risk to be coming from the enemy, not her partner.
The two walked down of the back streets of the town, a fair distance away from the town center. After spending a large majority of the day sleeping and interrogating Father Idoni, they had set out at nightfall to continue their patrol for apparitions. They also had had a brief 'strategy meeting' before heading out, but that had consisted mostly of Riesbyfe being lectured.
While she had been thoroughly scolded by Sion for her recklessness the night before - namely, dropping her shield in the middle of a fight - it turned out the real danger was in the questions that had come after. They had started out innocent enough: How many flares do you have? How heavy is your equipment? What kind of martial training have you had?
The questions soon took a turn for the questionable, however. How much weight can you lift? How fast can you run? How far could you throw that shield? What kind of punishment can that shield take?
But of course it didn't stop there. What's your opinion on mind control? How would your shield hold up to gunfire? How about your armour?
'Are you asking me if it's okay to shoot me?'
'Not really. I'm just curious how you would handle being shot.'
At that moment, Riesbyfe learned something very important - she couldn't trust her partner. No matter how much she was an Atlas Alchemist, no matter how much a tactical genius, no matter how much her plans were probably 'bullet proof,' if she was left to do as she pleased, Riesbyfe wouldn't be making it out alive.
She briefly considered whether this was supposed to be some sort of scare tactic - force Riesbyfe into acting more cautious, put her on guard from Sion herself, to make her think of her own safety. Whether that was the case or not, Riesbyfe wasn't willing to take that gamble. Her goal had become clear - defeat the vampire before Sion had a chance to act. If the vampire was dead, Sion would have no reason to put her crazy plans into action.
The two continued patrolling the town, Riesbyfe mulling over Sion's apparent desire to bring her as close to the brink of death as possible, and Sion no doubt thinking about more ways to do so. How hypocritical could she be, scolding her for being reckless, all the while thinking about how safe it would be to shoot at her own partner?
A sudden wave of unease brought Riesbyfe to a stop. Quickly, she scanned their surroundings. The street was narrow and dark, most of the light coming from the stars overhead. This feeling, this unease, was unfortunately familiar to Riesbyfe. She had felt the same thing the night before, and countless nights before that. It was a reaction, she had learned long ago, from Gamaliel itself.
Gamaliel was a shield, both in form and concept. As much as it excelled as a physical barrier, its true strength lay in its conceptual power - an impenetrable barrier, a conceptual fortress that preserved, protected, and enforced God's perfect order.
Naturally, it could deflect any physical attack short of heavy explosives, and even through those the shield would probably survive even if the bearer did not. But it also served to protect the wielder from evil, from spiritual corruption, from untold numbers of heresies that sought to tear down God and his children.
This unease, this apprehension - it was a reaction from the shield. Even though it obviously had no real consciousness of its own, it still spoke to her loud and clear:
Time to work.
A quick glance at Sion showed that she was also on alert. Whether she was just reacting to Riesbyfe, or she had noticed something was off as well, she had her gun in hand and was scanning their surroundings much like Riesbyfe was. Bringing a finger up to her temple and muttering a few words under her breath, Sion's expression changed rapidly from one of mild alertness to one of cold analysis.
"Let's move. We're at a disadvantage here in the dark." Sion's voice had an almost mechanical edge to it. Nodding in agreement, the two of them wasted no time, and broke into a full sprint down the narrow street.
In the worst case, Riesbyfe still had her flares, so they could really fight anywhere. But in this situation, as Sion had described earlier to her, it was better to save them. Pick their own battleground and draw the enemies into it, rather than simply make do with what they had. As long as the townsfolk kept to the curfew, the apparitions should be drawn to the two of them wandering outside, so it was more effective to draw the enemies into a more open environment.
As they rounded a corner, and a street lantern finally came into view, Riesbyfe suddenly stopped. The uneasy, apprehensive feeling Gameliel was giving her earlier had...stopped. Like a switch had been turned off somewhere. Her mind immediately went into emergency mode - the only time the warning from Gamaliel stopped was when the enemy had been destroyed. Stopping completely like this, with no discernible reason was too strange.
Noticing Riesbyfe's sudden stop, Sion turned around, and in one swift motion raised her gun. Before Riesbyfe even had the time to speak, Sion pulled the trigger. Instinctively, she tried to dodge the bullet, but with no warning there was no way she could do so.
Of course, the bullet wasn't aimed at her - as Riesbyfe dropped low, she could hear the bullet zip by over her head and impact into something soft. Wasting no time, Riesbyfe whirled around, swinging her shield blindly like a sledgehammer. Sure enough, though she couldn't see what she was hitting, the solid feedback of hitting something and knocking it away reverberated up her arm. A sickening thud resounded as whatever she had hit slammed into the stone wall of a nearby building. Taking it as her cue, Riesbyfe once again broke into a sprint towards the light of the lantern.
"What was that?!" Riesbyfe said as Sion took up pace beside her. It took only a handful of seconds before they reached the relative safety of the lantern's glow, illuminating just enough to see they were in a sort of T-junction, with their backs to a large stone wall.
"I couldn't really see," Sion said, turning to once again scan the darkness for movement. "Its eyes were glowing in the lantern light, even from that distance...maybe some sort of cat?"
Riesbyfe similarly watched the darkness, flexing the muscles in her left arm to make sure she was uninjured. "It was pretty heavy, maybe as heavy as a person. Would that mean like... a lion or something?"
"A lion or a tiger would have killed you even after I shot it with its weight alone," Sion replied after a brief moment. "Even so, as heavy as a person would be twice as big as any wild cat that lives in Italy..."
The sound of padded footsteps and a low growling interrupted their conversation. From each of the three streets leading off of their protective lantern, an unreasonably large canine slowly approached them, each with teeth bared.
"Those aren't cats at all," Riesbyfe muttered under her breath, earning a snort from Sion.
"They also look much heavier than just a person," she retorted. Sure enough, they seemed more comparable in size to cattle than to any dog Riesbyfe had ever seen. As Sion had said, if one of these had lunged at her, she'd have a lot more than a sore arm to show for it.
"These are apparitions of the Curse, right?" Riesbyfe said, keeping an eye on the closest wolf. "I'm not getting a 'vampire' vibe from them at all."
"I'm also somewhat surprised," Sion replied, slowly inching back towards the wall behind her. "I expected the apparitions to be more...vile, like last night. These seem almost like they could be real animals."
"Except twice the size," Riesbyfe said with a wry smile.
"...except twice the size," Sion conceded. "Are you ready?"
Eyeing the approaching wolves as they crept ever closer, Riesbyfe lowered herself and brought the spearhead of her shield to bear against the closest wolf. Being the one on their left, it would be difficult for her to contend with it and defend Sion from the other two, but complaining about it wouldn't do her any good. All she could do was forge ahead, and trust Sion's tactics to carry them the rest of the way.
"After you, captain."
The instant Riesbyfe finished speaking, Sion burst into action. With mechanical precision, Sion swung her pistol around and fired three quick rounds. At the same time, the three wolves - and Riesbyfe - lunged forward.
Riesbyfe briefly noted the sound of bullets striking home before her focus narrowed in on the wolf in front of her. She aimed to impale the wolf cleanly through the chest with her first thrust, but the animal unexpectedly bounded sideways, towards the wall. This had the odd effect of putting both of them in relative safety, as the wolf was now out of the path of the thrusting shield-spear, but had maneuvered so that the shield was still between the two of them. Paying no mind to the shield in its way, the wolf lunged forward from its new angle.
The wolf seemed to realize it wouldn't be able to reach her, as it opted for a tackle rather than a bite. The force of the impact drove Riesbyfe several feet backwards, but the instant her feet were steady, Riesbyfe swung her shield around in an attempt to throw the wolf off. While she was able to clear the shield, the wolf was too heavy for her to knock away, so she only managed to push it back up onto its hind legs for a brief moment. The wolf came down again, this time fangs bared.
Using the momentum earned from swing her shield and throwing off the multi-hundred pound wolf, Riesbyfe brought a gauntleted right fist forward in a straight punch, catching the unsuspecting wolf in the teeth. The fist struck like a hammer, the weight of the gauntlet adding as much to the thrust as any muscle Riesbyfe could throw behind it, and was rewarded by the sound of teeth and bone cracking and snapping. The wolf gave a pitiful cry, claws raking uselessly against Riesbyfe's armor before it staggered backwards in pain. As it did so, Riesbyfe brought her shield-spear to bear once more, and this time had no trouble driving the head of the spear through the stunned animal's skull.
As the corpse of the beast began to melt away into a familiar black mist, Riesbyfe turned to check on Sion. It seemed her first barrage of shots had ended the first wolf before it could cause any trouble, its corpse melting away where Riesbyfe had last seen it. She continued turning, coming around just in time to see Sion casually empty three rounds into the back of the final wolf's head, which appeared to have its snout and front legs bound together by an invisible rope. Seeing the animal begin to decay as the others, Sion flicked her free wrist, and whatever invisible bindings that had held the wolf were released.
The two shared a nod, confirming they were both unharmed.
"Wow, you two are really something!"
Riesbyfe and Sion whirled to face the new speaker weapons ready, standing a few steps behind the body of the central wolf. Standing there was what looked like a perfectly normal boy, no more than ten years old, dressed in the same 18th century clothing that characterized the rest of Solociano. At first glance, he seemed to just be a normal civilian boy that had broken the curfew. But the instant Riesbyfe laid eyes on him, she knew that wasn't the case.
In part, because as soon as he had made himself visible to them, Gamaliel's warning returned in full force.
But maybe more obviously, was the enormous bear that was lumbering along behind him. Easily twice Riesbyfe's size, the enormous beast looked right past the boy, and stared at the two vampire hunters with bloodthirsty eyes.
"No no, not tonight!" The boy said with a laugh, casually swatting at the bear's face. "It's just getting interesting now, we can't kill them yet!"
"Who...are you?" Sion asked hesitantly. For some reason, even with the massive bear staring them down...the real threat seemed to be the boy himself. Instinctively, Riesbyfe felt this, but it seemed by her demeanour that Sion had come to the same conclusion.
The boy laughed again. "If you don't know that much, how can you hope to win tomorrow?"
"What's tomorrow?" Sion pressed, strangely intent on getting information out of him. The boy, meanwhile, gave a sinister grin.
"Seriously, if you don't know that much, why are you even here?"
Riesbyfe immediately placed herself between Sion and the boy, raising her shield in a fighting stance. It was clear - this was their target. Even though he appeared to be no more than a little boy, this...thing, was the target they were hunting. This reaction from Gamaliel was unmistakable - this was the vampire they had come here to slay. This had to be the core of the Curse.
"Oh, don't worry, I'm just here to watch tonight," he continued with a cheerful voice. Despite the danger Riesbyfe felt from him, he honestly sounded like no more than a little boy.
"Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time," Riesbyfe replied, her voice confident despite the uneasiness she felt. "You'll have to die tonight."
The boy replied only with a condescending smile - amazing, how a ten year old could look condescending - but before he could speak, Sion put a hand on her shoulder. Riesbyfe turned to look at her briefly, but Sion just shook her head, motioning to the roof tops.
On top of the single-story buildings flanking the boy and his bear, two pairs of eyes flickered, reflecting the light of the lantern. From here, they could see clearly they were some kind of cat - as Sion had predicted earlier, a kind of lynx or bobcat, though certainly much larger than any breed Riesbyfe knew of. As she noticed the cats watching them with careful eyes, the sound of growling once again returned to their ears.
From their right and left sides, a pair of wolves as enormous as before slowly stalked up towards them. They were completely surrounded, and hideously outnumbered. Riesbyfe grit her teeth before taking a deep breath to calm her mounting frustration. Their target was immediately in front of them, but it seemed like it was going to take a miracle just for them to get out alive.
"Oh don't worry, you can leave here tonight. I don't mind letting you go. Tomorrow night at midnight everything will be over, though, so stick around until then, okay?"
Riesbyfe breathed deeply again. Surely, with Sion's accuracy, she would have no problem killing the vast majority of the creatures staring them down before they were in any danger. But, thinking calmly, she realized that wasn't realistic.
Firstly, Sion hadn't reloaded - after already firing six shots, chances are she wasn't in a good position to fight this many opponents at once. Secondly, and more importantly, conventional firearms would be useless against a vampire. While the animals seemed to die to bullets just fine, there was no guarantee that the boy could be harmed by them at all. And if Sion unloaded her gun into them and they got tied up fighting the vampire, and more animals came...
No matter which way she looked at it, there didn't seem to be any escape. The boy seemed like he was planning on letting them go, but Riesbyfe wasn't exactly in the business of trusting vampires.
After a considerable silence, the boy gave a low hum. "I'm pretty surprised, though. I expected that white haired lady to have killed herself by now trying to get to me. You Church types are a lot smarter than I thought!"
As he spoke, the wolves began to move again. Riesbyfe and Sion braced themselves for action, but it seemed they were actually moving around them, circling at a safe distance. The wild cats on the roof also moved back, joining back up with the boy and the bear.
"I'm glad, though," the boy continued. "That will make tomorrow even more exciting!"
With that, the boy turned and, together with his menagarie of animals, retreated into the darkness behind him. Before he completely vanished from view, he threw one last look at the pair of vampire hunters.
"Oh, and don't worry, I won't kill anyone tonight. I've had fun playing with you, but the real game starts tomorrow night, so go ahead and have a nice sleep, okay?" With a chuckle at the consternation on both of their faces, the boy turned back and vanished into the night.
-=The Third Night=-
Sion breathed a sigh of exhaustion as she looked out over the town from her seat on the edge of the town well.
It wasn't physical exhaustion. She had made sure both she and Riesbyfe were well rested and wide awake by the time evening came. No, what she was dealing with was a mental exhaustion - fatigue brought on by the stress of an entire day feeling helpless.
She knew, that the Curse fed off of local rumors and legends. And of course, the best way to learn about local rumors and legends was to ask the local people. But even if she spent the entire day canvassing the town, her inability to actually communicate with the locals meant that there was virtually nothing she could learn.
Unfortunately it seemed Riesbyfe was in a similar situation. While she could communicate with the priest at the local church, there was only so much one man could know. Having a single source of information greatly increased the likelihood of that information being untrustworthy.
While Riesbyfe worked on gathering that information, whatever it was worth, Sion did her best to sort out the information she did have.
The previous night, they had been attacked by numerous forms of wildlife. They were much larger than one would expect, and their bodies dissipated when killed, so there was no doubt that they were apparitions brought about by the Curse.
Knowing that, there were any number of possible rumors that the Curse could be exploiting to create them. Maybe someone had gone missing, and the people blamed the wildlife. Or maybe someone had actually been attacked by a bear, or wolves. If the appearance of the Marabbecca was any indication, it could just be that parents warned their children to not stray outside the village for fear of being attacked by something.
The exact nature of the rumor wasn't really all that relevant once they knew the result the Curse would draw from it. All that was important was that they could expect a large number of dangerous animals - wolves, wild cats, bears, and the like - to complicate things in their fight against the vampire.
Sion grimaced as she was brought back, once again, to the point where her logic was blocked. Their main goal was of course to slay that vampire, and put an end to the Curse. But they had no information as to what exactly that vampire was capable of. It looked like a little boy, which might give the impression of weakness, but it was plainly obvious that the creatures attacking them the previous night were under his control to some extent.
Was that because of his latent abilities as a vampire? Or only because they were apparitions created by the same Curse? Was he even controlling them, or did they act out of some sort of hive mind? In the end, they just didn't have any real information on the vampire, and thus it was incredibly difficult to plan any sort of countermeasures against it.
"I'm surprised you're willing to sit here after a couple nights ago." Riesbyfe greeted Sion with a nod as she sat down beside her, faint traces of something bitter showing through her playful tone.
"Just the opposite," Sion replied with a wry grin, "we killed the monster that lives here. That makes it one of the safest places in town."
"I like the way you think," Riesbyfe said, giving a much more honest sounding laugh.
Sion turned to Riesbyfe with an expectant look, who fell silent, her previous good humor evaporating in an instant. As if deciding how to broach a difficult subject, Riesbyfe stared at the ground by her feet with a bitter expression. After taking a deep breath, she turned to Sion again.
"There's some good news, and there's some bad news. And to save you the trouble of making the decision, I'll tell you outright: the good news is just that I figured out what the bad news is."
Sion cocked her head to the side slightly. "Well, all things considered, that is pretty good news. It's better to know than not, after all."
Riesbyfe shrugged. "I suppose. That doesn't make the bad news any better." After another deep breath, she continued.
"As I've been told by Father Idoni, there was a legend in a nearby village that had reached its way to Solociano. According to the legend, a mother once gave birth to triplets. Two of them were stillborn - as the legend says, the remaining child had stolen their life force for itself. Of course, there was much mourning over the two children lost, but at least one survived, right? Well, apparently that wasn't so great either. Because," Riesbyfe rolled her eyes as she spoke in an exaggerated tone, "the child naturally grew up to be a vampire."
Sion simply nodded in response. A child that ended up as a vampire seemed consistent with the apparition they had witnessed the night before. It was a little off, in that according to Riesbyfe the child 'grew up' into a vampire, while they were still dealing with a child, but there was a solid enough connection that it seemed realistic.
"Sadly, the story doesn't stop there," she said with a sigh. "About ten years ago, a mother in Solociano gave birth to triplets. And, as you might have guessed, two were stillborn."
Sion's expression darkened as Riesbyfe continued. "There was some concern about keeping the surviving child, as the legend was fairly well known by that point, but in the end they decided against giving in to superstition, and the child was raised normally. And everything was fine, until about a couple months ago."
Riesbyfe paused, taking another deep breath. "The boy's health started turning downwards. He grew pale and weak, and eventually began coughing up blood. The village doctor, of course, told the family they needed to rush him to a real hospital, where he could be treated properly. The rest of the villagers, however...decided that it was just the legend coming true. If he was coughing up blood, that must be because he was eating blood, right?"
Riesbyfe spat, as if she found it repulsive even to say the words. "In the end, the boy's parents sided with the mob. A number of weeks ago, the boy 'mysteriously' disappeared."
Sion frowned. Of course, the situation Riesbyfe was describing was unpleasant. Stories of children being murdered by their parents weren't exactly fun. But Riesbyfe's demeanour wasn't one of disgust or contempt. Sure, she spoke disparagingly of the parents, but otherwise her tone was much more...concerned. Which meant...
"As you've guessed," Riesbyfe said with a wry grin, "the story doesn't stop there. Though the town calmed down considerably after the child vanished, exactly one week to the day that he disappeared...so did his mother. There was an extensive search of the surrounding wilderness, but her body was never found. Then, a week after that, as they were on the verge of giving up searching for her, the father disappeared."
Sion felt a distinct sinking fear in her stomach. This was starting to sound like a bad horror story...and that's exactly the kind of thing the Curse fed on. With three disappearances in exactly 7 day intervals, a small town like this would fall into hysteria in no time. Wild and preposterous rumors would abound.
Sion grimaced. "And let me guess. Today is 7 days since the last disappearance?"
Riesbyfe nodded grimly.
In a way, as Riesbyfe said, this was certainly bad news. On the other hand, it explained the strength the Curse had displayed the night before. With this level of hysteria to support it, it was no wonder that it had managed to manifest a veritable army of wild creatures to attack the town.
It also explained the puzzling fact that it hadn't attempted to directly attack any of the villagers over the past couple days, despite clearly having the capability to do so. Not to mention why it allowed the two of them to survive the previous night. It was waiting for the 7 day cycle, withholding its ability to intervene to feed on the mounting panic among the townsfolk.
"So now, the townsfolk are convinced there is some sort of curse on the town, from the murdered boy, as part of his revenge. They believe he really was a vampire, and now they are being punished. Not only do they believe people will continue disappearing every 7 days at midnight, but they also seem to think the rate at which they are disappearing will increase. And it will only stop when everyone in Solociano is dead."
Sion couldn't help but give an ironic smile at that. Of course, the child really had nothing to do with it, but the villagers were in fact right. There was a curse over the entire town, and it did in fact intend to kill as many people as it could. And just to make the illusion complete, it would be at the hands of an apparition that was born from the village's memory of the boy.
A few moments of silence passed between the two of them. This information, while better to have than not, didn't seem to open too many options for them. They didn't know the exact strengths and weaknesses of the vampire they would be fighting, but they at least could guess at the scope of its power by looking at the rumors that gave birth to it. That, combined with their experience from the previous nights, showed a disturbing fact that they could no longer ignore.
They were completely outgunned.
No matter how her mind raced, now matter how many plans she thought through, all of them reached the same conclusion. They didn't know enough about their target to exploit its weaknesses, and even if they did, the difference in numbers would likely prove to render any advantage they could find moot.
No matter what calculations they did, they always had the same result.
There was no hope.
There was no plan she could make that would give them a realistic chance at victory.
"So," Riesbyfe spoke up, prompting Sion to turn and face her.
"What's the plan, boss?"
Sion was struck speechless. Not by her words, but by her expression. It was as if her previous mood had vanished into thin air - her apprehension at the strength of their enemy, her anger at the people of the town, even her playful exasperation at the cliche nature of the rumors feeding the Curse. Instead, what Sion saw - in her eyes, her tone, her body language - was confidence.
Not in herself. Not in their weapons, or their abilities, or even their chances.
But in Sion.
No doubt, someone as experienced in fighting vampires as Riesbyfe would realize in a flash that their chances at victory were basically zero. Going to fight a vampire without a surefire way to defeat it was suicide. But even so, she trusted Sion implicitly. The Head of the Knights of the Inquisition of the Holy Church, an elite among elites. A leader who, at one word, could send an entire army of Knights to certain death, and could trust that her order to do so would be obeyed without question.
That Riesbyfe was looking to her, trusting her to find a path to victory.
Sion frowned, bringing a hand to her forehead as if to stave off an impending headache. There had to be something she could do. Something she had missed. Some avenue of advance for them. Some way they could even the odds...
"...oh." Looking at Riesbyfe, Sion blurted out almost unconsciously.
She had been thinking about this the wrong way the whole time.
She was trying to find a way for the two of them to win against impossible odds.
But there were more than two of them, weren't there?
"Riesbyfe, how many Knights did you say you have stationed outside the city?"
Riesbyfe scratched her cheek as she replied. "Hmm...maybe around two dozen?"
Looking up at the rapidly sinking sun, Sion nodded to herself. They had a couple hours at most before sunset. They would need to mobilize quickly. "Call them in. We'll need every fighter we can get."
Riesbyfe sighed in mock relief. "And here I thought you were about to tell me there was no plan." Pulling out a small cellphone from her pocket, she dialed as she gave Sion a playful grin.
Briefly impressed that she even had reception, Sion replied with a raised eyebrow. "Oh don't worry, there's a plan. It's awful, but it's a plan."
Riesbyfe rolled her eyes with a smile as she stepped away to give instructions to the Knights waiting outside the city.
As much as she said it as a joke, in reality it was the truth. To be honest, she wasn't even sure it really qualified as a 'plan.' They would call in all the Knights they could to even the odds against the more mundane apparitions, like the wolves and bears. Then, she and Riesbyfe would simply roll the dice.
It was a frustrating place to be in, as an alchemist who specialized in reading the future. Sure, she took calculated risks all the time. But those were calculated. This would be a pure gamble, a blind guess - she had no idea what the odds were, and no way of influencing them.
But either way, it was their only chance. With time rapidly running out, their only hope for victory was to get more information - and the only way to get more information was to face the vampire head on.
While the other Knights held back the other apparitions, Sion and Riesbyfe would confront the vampire, find its weakness, and do everything they could to exploit it.
And if they couldn't...well, they could cross that bridge when they got to it.
An uneasy silence had settled over the town square.
It was a few hours past sunset, and nothing had happened yet. No apparitions, no fighting, nothing.
Sion checked her equipment for the umpteenth time as she continued to watch the darkness. She of course had her pistol, safety already off. Four clips of ammunition, plus another 'special' clip. Her Etherlite was of course wound and ready. And lastly, she had a UV flare she had borrowed from Riesbyfe. It was more supplies than she was used to carrying, but not so much that it weighed her down.
Standing within arms reach was Riesbyfe, her face a picture perfect example of the term 'focus.' She barely even blinked as she watched the streets leading up to the town center, only breaking her silent vigil every half an hour or so to stretch.
Arrayed around them, taking up defensive positions at the entrances to the square, were no less than 22 Knights of the Church. Each of them wore armor similar to, yet slightly heavier looking than Riesbyfe's. Each of them carried a spear slightly longer than their own height, gold engravings of noteworthy scripture decorating the otherwise starkly silver weapons.
It had taken only twenty minutes for them to reach the town after Riesbyfe called them in, and she had wasted no time in briefing them and setting up a perimeter in front of the church and around the town square. And perhaps most reassuringly, they had brought a large number of portable lanterns, filling the town square with a comfortable light.
Sion found herself feeling strangely calm. Unlike her first night here, where she had been tense and nervous, she was much less on edge now. Perhaps it was because of the fact she had already come into contact with the Curse's apparitions twice now.
She was certainly fairly confident after the previous night that she could handle any single apparition that came after her, barring of course the vampire that she knew nothing about. Fortunately, with the vast bulk of the apparitions just being large animals, her gun was remarkably effective - as long as her aim was good.
In the time since Riesbyfe had called for support, Sion had managed to shake off the feeling of helplessness that had harassed her all day. Though she didn't know the properties of the specific vampire they were fighting, Riesbyfe was basically a professional vampire hunter, so she could give her more general information. Using that, she had managed to come up with a strategy that she hoped would be effective.
All they had to do was survive long enough for the window of opportunity they needed to open.
"Guards up! Here it comes!" Riesbyfe broke the silence with a sudden shout. Before she had even finished speaking, the Knights raised their weapons into fighting stances. Sion did likewise, raising a hand to her temple and preparing to fight, but as she scanned the darkness she still couldn't see anything.
Accelerated Thought Process: Initiate
Absentmindedly, she wondered how exactly Riesbyfe always knew when the enemies were about to arrive. She had detected the monster in the well before Sion did the first night, had shown alarm the night before shortly before being attacked, and now despite her constant vigilance, Riesbyfe knew the enemies were nearby despite her still not being able to see anything.
Divided Thought Process: Open
The familiar flood of information helped to ease the rising tension in Sion as she scanned the surroundings for attackers. As she had expected, though, she first noticed the approaching threat with not her eyes, but her ears.
A faint buzzing sound filled the air. It wasn't the static-like hiss that signaled the birth of a new apparition, but instead it sounded like...insects?
Sion soon spotted the source of the noise. Over the rooftops, a sort of insect had indeed flown into the clearing. And another. And more. A few seconds after she had first spotted them, hundreds of bugs flew over the rooftops and began congregating at the nearby well.
"Hold your ground!" Riesbyfe shouted again. "Keep watching the streets!"
The insect swarm, which in the light of the clearing Sion could now tell were locusts, gathered around the well...and began coalescing into a human shape. In less than ten seconds, the locusts were gone, and taking their place was the small boy they had seen the night before.
With a curious expression, the child looked around the clearing at all of the Knights present, turning to face Sion last.
"Wow, what an audience," the boy said in a dry voice. "I'm honestly flattered."
Sion wasted no time in replying, raising her pistol and firing a shot. The startled boy didn't have time to do more than be surprised as the shot hit him in the forehead, knocking him backwards into the well. Just as he fell under the lip of the well, his arms shot up and grabbed the sides. Pulling himself up, he awkwardly flopped over the edge and landed on the ground with a thud. Sion barely registered his furious expression as she inspected the damage she had caused.
As expected, that damage was very little. The small bullet hole in the boy's forehead didn't bleed, but interestingly it also wasn't healing. Sion tucked that piece of information away for safe keeping as she exchanged a look with Riesbyfe, signalling the start of the next phase of their assault.
"I was trying to be polite, but it looks like you just want to hurry up and die," the boy said angrily, lurching to his feet with a huff. Before he could so much as a raise a hand, he once again froze with a look of surprise on his face as Riesbyfe charged at him.
Unfortunately, the distance between them proved too much for Riesbyfe to cover before he could react, and he did so by jumping backwards. Gaining tremendous height from his jump, he neatly put the well between him and his assailant, buying him the extra two seconds he needed to shout.
"Kill them all!"
The boy's shout was answered immediately by a cacophony of roars and howls from the darkness. In short order, shouts from the knights positioned around the square indicated they had made contact with the coming apparitions, but Sion didn't have the freedom to watch and see if they could hold their ground. As Riesbyfe finally rounded the well, the boy once again was forced to jump back, keeping himself out of the range of her shield. Sion raised her gun and squeezed off two shots while the boy was still in the air.
This time, he was able to react before the shots landed, but since he was already in the air from his jump, he could do little more than turn his body. One bullet took him in the chest as he span to face her, inflicting minimal damage, but the other shot landed right on target, destroying his left kneecap. With his leg ruined, he was unable to make a stable landing, and rolled messily as he hit the ground.
The rounds Sion was using were simple, everyday handgun bullets. They had no conceptual strength or enchantments, so their limit was at inflicting physical damage. While a vampire wouldn't be killed by something like organ damage or blood loss, if Sion was able to hit critical joints or bones, she could still heavily restrict his movement.
This time, thanks to the vampire being unable to stand, Riesbyfe was finally able to get in range with her shield. Leaping forwards, she drive the spear point on her shield into the boy with her whole body. A split second before the shield made contact, the boy scattered into a swarm of locusts, which flew away in a chaotic mess.
Riesbyfe whirled her around in a brilliant flourish as they scattered, attempting to swat the locusts out of the air with her shield. Though the swarm had mostly dissipated by the time she reached them, a handful of the insects spontaneously burst into blue-white fire as the shield made contact with them.
With the swarm of locusts having vanished into the night sky, Sion took the chance to check how the other Knights were holding up. All 22 of the Knights were engaged, working in teams of three or four, to take on similar numbers of giant wolves. Two of the groups were contending with massive bears. They seemed to have suffered a number of injuries, but to their credit, none of the Knights had backed down yet, and they seemed to at least be holding their ground.
Sion fired a few opportunity shots into the fake beasts, ricocheting shots off buildings where she didn't have line of sight, to thin the swarm of animals slightly and relieve some of the pressure on the Knights. As Riesbyfe came up beside her and took a defensive stance, she too returned to searching for the vampire.
She didn't have to look for long, as following Riesbyfe's gaze to the rooftops, she saw the swarm of locusts reassemble itself on a building nearby. The vampire, face contorted in fury, fell clumsily as he reappeared from the swarm. Sion checked a few more boxes on her mental checklist - can divide himself into a locust swarm, but recombining into his humanoid body didn't recover the damage he had taken.
Sion considered taking a few more shots at him, but decided against it. At this range, though she could confidently hit him, she wouldn't have the precision necessary to hit important joints. Instead, she satisfied herself with firing another two shots into a newly approaching bear, killing it mid-charge.
Taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, the boy did his best to stand up again, putting all his weight onto his healthy right leg. Face returning to some semblance of calm, the boy surveyed the situation below him before once again returning to a swarm of locusts.
"For a vampire that plans on wiping out the entire village, he's awfully defensive," Riesbyfe said, her voice low enough that only Sion could hear it. The two of them watched the locust swarm descend from the rooftops...into the swarm of animals attacking the other Knights. Sion was about to call out for the Knights to pull back away from the approaching swarm, but she was interrupted by a wolf's panicked yelping.
The cries of pain lasted for only a moment before the swarm ascended back into the sky and out of sight.
"What happened?!" Riesbyfe's commanding shout was met with an instant response from the Knights.
"Ma'am, the bugs just ate one of the wolves! Even the bones!" Though he shouted, his voice was controlled and level. Their status as elites seemed to be well earned, being able to watch a sight like that without getting rattled. As Knights of the Church, she supposed they had all probably seen a lot worse.
Sion returned her attention to herself and Riesbyfe. She had been right, the boy's defensive nature seemed strange if he was actually as strong as she had predicted. As she turned to speak to Riesbyfe, she noticed the Head Knight suddenly snap her gaze upwards.
Without waiting for the warning, Sion rolled backwards. Before she had even returned to her feet, she felt the impact of something incredibly solid smash the paving stones where she and Riesbyfe had been standing a moment before. As she gained her footing, she immediately raised her pistol and fired two shots.
As she had predicted, the impact had been caused by the vampire himself. He must have reformed himself in the sky above them trying to take them by surprise. Luckily, Sion had managed to abuse Riesbyfe's uncanny ability to detect the vampire to guess where the attack was coming from at the last possible moment.
Unfortunately, the boy was also prepared to act immediately after landing, and easily dodged under Sion's two reckless shots. Before he could attack, however, Riesbyfe struck with her shield-spear, forcing him to evade away deeper into the clearing.
As the fighting once again descended into a brief lull, Sion returned to her mental checklist. Turning into a locust swarm, the boy had devoured one of the animals, and a cursory glance showed his previous wounds were completely gone. Though it was by no means a convenient or efficient method of healing, in a situation like this where Sion couldn't even guess how many animals he had to feed off of, efficiency was likely not going to be an issue.
A glance also showed the paving stones where he had landed after his aerial attack were completely smashed, forming a shallow crater. Despite his small stature, he was clearly physically formidable. A single blow would likely be the end of a normal human like Sion, though Riesbyfe could likely fend off a few hits with her shield before the impact shock inflicted significant damage to her arm.
Also, whether predictive or not, his reflexes were incredible, being able to dodge two gunshots from only a few feet away. The shots had been aimed for his face, making it a relatively easy dodge, but that was still a feat far beyond any human.
In the slow motion of her Accelerated Thought Process, Sion weighed their options carefully. As far as they had seen, this vampire's special properties seemed tailored towards defense. In that case, their best option would be to continue pressing the attack, to try and push that defense to the limit.
"Plan C," Sion spoke quietly, earning a nod in response from Riesbyfe. As Riesbyfe slowly moved into action, Sion smoothly replaced the magazine in her handgun. The previous magazine had had a single shot left, but wasting one shot was a small price to pay for being fully equipped and ready.
Riesbyfe approached the vampire slowly, keeping her shield between her and her target, as Sion moved around to get a good line of sight. The boy had calmed down considerably, but it seemed like the talkativeness had been beaten out of him. With cool eyes, he watched the two of them get into position without a trace of worry. Sion raised her gun and took aim as she saw him drop his hips, ready to jump, but once again he proved faster than she was.
Launching himself forward towards Riesbyfe, he hammered a fist hard into her shield, causing a sharp, almost melodic sound to fill the clearing. Riesbyfe managed to hold her ground, only being pushed by a couple feet by the impact.
"Wrong answer," Riesbyfe said with a venom Sion had never heard from her before. As she spoke, the vampire immediately leaped backwards, panic clear on his face. Using his left hand like a blade, he cleanly sliced his own right arm off at the elbow, just as the hand and forearm burst into a brilliant white-blue fire. Just like the locusts, it seemed even touching that shield would be tantamount to suicide for a vampire of his level.
Attempting to take advantage of the distraction of losing a limb, Sion fired three shots, aiming for the throat and each kneecap. Thanks to the considerable distance between them, however, her target was able to react and dodge out of the way before they hit their marks. A feat that should have been nearly impossible, Sion noted in the back of her head, considering her pistol fired shots faster than the speed of sound.
Paying no mind to his self-inflicted injury, the vampire switched targets and lunged at Sion with unearthly speed. Just like before, once their opponent had determined Riesbyfe's shield was too big an obstacle, they immediately went after Sion. Fortunately for Sion, this was exactly the movement she had predicted, so she had already started moving.
Jumping to the side, Sion flicked her wrist behind her, leaving a loop of Etherlite in the air behind her. The invisibly thin cord twisted itself into a makeshift noose, and as the boy sped by her, unable to change his direction, it settled into place comfortably over his head and around his neck. Giving the cord enough slack that the force of his landing didn't rip off her arm, the instant he had stopped moving she pulled the Etherlite back in and heaved with all her might.
While the boy was certainly many times stronger than her when it came to muscles, she was far from out of shape, and with the body of a ten-year-old, even Sion could pull him off his feet. He let out a choked shout of surprise as he was flung by his neck onto his back by a rope he couldn't see. The sound of his body impacting the ground was matched by the sound of metal striking stone, and before he could react, the flare Riesbyfe had thrown erupted into a brilliant white light.
Sion felt a little silly using a Mystic Code as advanced and powerful as the Etherlite as a common rope, but it was hard to argue with results. As the UV flare filled the clearing with blinding light, the vampire let out a blood-curdling screech. It seemed it was having the desired effect.
Sion turned, releasing the Etherlite's hold on the vampire in case he righted himself and bolted, and fired two shots from her pistol at the vampire's face. Due to the fresh flare, it was difficult to aim properly, causing one of the shots to miss and bite into the vampire's shoulder. The other, however, landed on target, handily gouging out one of the vampire's eyes.
Before the boy could once again split into a swarm of locusts, Riesbyfe charged in and brought her shield down, punching the spear point through the vampire's chest. With a wide flourish, she spun and, lifting the boy off the ground, drove him into the wall of a nearby building, pinning him in place.
As Riesbyfe's motion came to a halt, her shield began to glow with a faint light, almost invisible in the blinding light of the flare. The light flared up for a moment before disappearing as white-blue fire raced over the vampire's body. But as the light grew stronger, as the mangled body of the ten year-old vampire rapidly started to turn to dust...
With his lungs punctured and his body rapidly vanishing, he couldn't speak a word. But as Sion watched, the boy looked up to the sky and gave a victor's smile.
In a final flash of scouring white fire, all traces of the vampire were annihilated.
It was done.
Sion turned to scan the surroundings, a cautious disbelief keeping her optimism in check. The Knights were being pushed back by the onslaught, but they had managed to hold their ground long enough. Most of them were now sporting heavy injuries, but none would be fatal if treated promptly. The final incarnation of the Curse had been destroyed, and no one had died. It felt almost too good to be true.
Sion looked to Riesbyfe to confirm she was uninjured, and at her nod, the two of them turned to watch the apparitions of the Curse disappear from around them.
...but they didn't.
"Wait, we killed it, right?" Riesbyfe spoke cautiously, starting to move in position to assist the ailing Knights. "Why aren't they disappearing?"
Sion's curiosity as to the persistence of the apparitions quickly turned to concern, followed by outright fear. With the Curse defeated, the apparitions should have been disappearing. Instead, it seemed like the onslaught was getting more severe.
A sinking fear overtook Sion as the light of the nearby UV flare began to wane. With a clean white light gone, the clearing didn't retake the warm orange glow of the lanterns. Instead, everything was tinted...red.
In disbelief, Sion raised her gaze to the sky, where the vampire had looked in his last moments. In the sky, hovering directly over the center of the village, was the moon - shedding a sinister, blood-red light.
As the sound of static filled her ears, Sion had a terrifying realization.
There was no doubt that the vampire they fought was an apparition of the Curse. And, without a doubt, it had been entirely annihilated. But as she was seeing with her own eyes, the Curse was not defeated.
Just as both Riesbyfe and she had noticed, that vampire had been far too weak. While it certainly could have wreaked incredible havoc if left alone, it hardly gave the impression of a vampire that would destroy cities in a night.
No, in her fear from the confrontation with the vampire the night before, and the seemingly endless number of monstrous beasts, she had forgotten one of the most important properties of the Curse.
The core, the central intelligence behind the Curse would manifest apparitions throughout the city to spread disorder and chaos before it descended itself. And it would always incarnate as the most powerful, most dangerous, most deadly rumor that had taken over the town.
And it would do so only on the final night.
Having seen the vampire boy control the beasts, she had immediately assumed that he was the core of the Curse given form. But that was wrong. The Curse wouldn't take form until the third night. So what was the actual true form that the Curse would take?
Was there some rumor even greater than that of the vampire boy that they had failed to discover?
Sion's eyes widened in shock as the second wave of realization hit her. The true fear, the true terror that had spread over the town...it wasn't of the boy vampire at all. As far as the villagers were concerned, the boy was dead. He couldn't hurt them anymore.
No, what they actually feared...was his curse.
The curse he left behind to destroy Solociano.
With her accelerated thinking and information processing, Sion could calculate the time faster than she could read a clock.
If Riesbyfe's report was correct, then the boy's curse would strike the town at midnight. Which meant, in less than forty minutes, the Curse would fully incarnate and the town would be annihilated.
They had been fighting the entirely wrong battle.
The sound of static snapped off, bringing Sion back to the present. No doubt, a new apparition had appeared nearby. It didn't take long for Sion to find it, the boy vampire once again sitting smugly on the edge of a nearby roof.
Looking back at the melee occurring in the city square, Sion did her best to quash the fear mounting even through her normally emotionless advanced thought processing. Riesbyfe had turned back to see the vampire reappear, and seemed to be preparing to engage it again. Meanwhile, the Knights scattered about the courtyard were being pressed hard, and were on the verge of buckling.
Their mission was falling apart around them, and surrounded as they were, there seemed to be nothing they could do but hope they could survive long enough that the Curse itself killed them.
Sion slapped herself on the cheek. That kind of pessimistic thinking wouldn't help anyone. What they needed now was a plan of action. Except this time, the goal was different. They didn't have to slay the vampire, or break the Curse, or anything like that.
They just needed to escape.
They just needed to survive.
It was the worst case scenario, but as much as it broke Sion's heart to do, the mechanical nature of her advanced thought processing told her loud and clear that their only hope was to abandon Solociano as lost and spend the next few years preparing for the next appearance of the Curse.
"We need a new plan, chief!" Riesbyfe shouted over the din of the surrounding battle, keeping her eyes locked on the child vampire.
"The new plan is to get out of here, any way we can!" Sion said, attempting to map out the best escape route in the back of her head. Riesbyfe turned to face her, shock and disbelief evident on her face. "We messed up, Ries. No...not even that. From the very beginning, this wasn't an opponent we could fight!"
"We can't give up just because we were wrong!" Riesbyfe shouted back. Even with the challenge evident in her voice, Sion couldn't help but note her use of 'we.' Even in this situation, where Sion was clearly the one making the decisions, even as Riesbyfe was trying to chastise her, she wasn't blaming her.
"It's not about giving up," Sion said, keeping a careful eye on the battle lines. The first would collapse in less than a minute. They were going to have to move fast. "We were wrong about the final incarnation of the Curse. It's not the vampire boy at all, it's his curse! It's going to incarnate as a curse that wipes out the whole village - that's not something we're equipped to fight against!"
Riesbyfe growled in frustration, but otherwise made no more objections. "Everyone form up! We're leaving!"
Her command was met with little visible response. With the Knights pressed as they were, if any of them pulled back, the clearing would instantly fill with beasts. It was unbelievable how many animals they were fighting, and even harder to believe how many they must have successfully put down to survive this long.
Riesbyfe looked to Sion once more. As always, her eyes showed no signs of fear or regret - only determination. "Alright. Take us home!"
Sion broke into a full sprint towards one of the streets. Firing a few shots off to relieve the other teams of knights, she emptied the rest of her clip forwards, clearing the way slightly for them to advance out of the city square.
With a speed Sion didn't think was possible, Riesbyfe rushed past her. In response to a shouted command, the Knights in her path parted instantly, opening a path for her. Her shield flared a bright white as she punched into the pack of wolves that were waiting beyond, and in short order an explosion tore through the rank of beasts, scattering them with the smell of burning fur and blood.
As if that was a signal of some kind, the defensive lines set up by the Knights collapsed as one, and they formed up around Sion and Riesbyfe, setting up a spear wall to fend off the wolves and bears that had pursued them into the square.
As they rapidly retreated from the town square, a swarm of locusts blew past them, forming up into the boy vampire in the middle of their escape route.
"Could you stick around for just one more hour? Pretty please?" The boy spoke in a mocking tone, but as before, neither Sion nor Riesbyfe had any desire to play along with his cheap taunts.
In one smooth motion, Sion replaced the magazine in her pistol and fired two quick shots, ricocheting them off the buildings in hopes of taking the vampire at an angle he couldn't read. That seemed to be hoping for too much, however, as he casually stepped forward out of the path of the incoming bullets.
He was quick to dodge backwards again, however, as Riesbyfe charged forward. From behind the boy came a massive bear, but another bullet through its skull ended the threat before it reached the Head Knight. Using her whole body to fling the still dissipating corpse aside, Riesbyfe stopped in her tracks as the vampire blew past them again as a swarm of locusts, this time appearing in the road a short distance behind them.
"Take point!" Riesbyfe shouted to no one in particular, "Sion and I will keep the vampire busy!" The Knights formed up again, making a multi-layered triangular formation around Sion, with a flat edge to the rear and a point to the front. From this distance, Sion was made painfully aware of how heavily injured most of the Knights were. They had so far managed to hold off the beasts, but it was costing them terribly.
Despite Riesbyfe's instructions, Sion didn't have much she could do against the vampire at this range. He had proved time and again to be fast enough to dodge around her bullets, so instead she turned her attention to clearing the way in front of them. Her ability to quickly calculate bullet trajectories was invaluable in a situation like this, where she had no direct line of sight to the approaching enemies.
Despite the constant flood of animals slowing their pace, they actually were making reasonable progress. As Sion emptied another clip and exchanged it for a fresh one, she felt a cautious optimism - at this rate, they might just barely manage to escape.
Once again, Sion dodged forwards without waiting to see what the warning was for. Before she could turn to see, she felt a tremendous impact on the ground behind her, as well as that of numerous fragments of stone peppering her back. In the back of her mind, she chided herself. This was a tactic she had seen before, she should have been able to see it coming - and probably would have, if she hadn't been so focused on their forward advance.
As Sion made to dodge the follow up attack, she hesitated. Out of the corner of her eye, she could barely see the boy...and he was turning away from her. As she realized what was happening, she tried to raise her gun, but was too slow to get any shots off as he leapt outwards, bowling through the ranks of Knights who had been focused on holding the rear...
...and directly into Riesbyfe.
Even through the sound of the battle in front of her, Sion could clearly hear the sounds of bones crunching as the vampire passed through the rear guard. Riesbyfe, who had been taken by surprise, had been sent sprawling almost ten meters backwards. As the vampire turned to deliver the finishing blow, however, she rose to one knee and swung her shield like a hammer.
The startled vampire scattered into a swarm of locusts, which vanished once more into the night sky.
With their formation broken and their leader injured, the Knights hesitated. They had lost a full third of their numbers in one blow. Sion had to applaud their tenacity in lasting this long before losing a single member, but tenacity could only take you so far against unlimited enemies of superior strength and speed.
"Go!" Riesbyfe shouted, a painful cough interrupting her. "Get her out of here!" Her voice was wracked with pain, but even so, using her shield to support herself she unsteadily turned to face the horde of wild beasts fast approaching from behind.
Sion wanted to scream, to object...but she couldn't. She couldn't bear to leave Riesbyfe behind, but the machine in her head brought her only the cold, hard truth - if she stopped to help, they'd all die. Even if they just had a free run from here out of the city, in her injured state, Riesbyfe still wouldn't make it out before midnight.
The Knights around her exchanged a look charged with meaning Sion couldn't read. For an instant, the space of a single breath, everything seemed to stop. An illusion of silence fell on them as the Knights took a deep breath as one. Then, the moment passed.
With a roar rivaling even the great beasts they were fighting, the Knights shouted a battle cry and charged. Half of them charged forward, spears first, plunging into the thinner ranks of enormous animals in front of them. The other half, eyes brimming with righteous fury, charged backwards, towards the encroaching horde of beasts bearing down on them from behind.
For an instant, Sion was frozen in awe. In that brief moment before they charged, there was no fear in their eyes. No panic, no worry, no apprehension. Only determination...and trust.
Those charging back, entrusting the mission of escorting Sion out safely to their comrades in the front.
Those charging forward, entrusting the mission of protecting their leader to those in the rear.
Their hesitation was not out of fear or apprehension. It was simply the last good-bye they could afford. After exchanging that one look, they each charged into impossible odds.
Taking one last look back at Riesbyfe, Sion resolved herself at last. Just as these Knights who were protecting her were doing, she would trust the others behind her to take care of her. The chance they would survive was literally zero. The machine that was her mind wouldn't give her any other answer. But even so, even if it was just for one night, even if it was just for one hour, Sion resolved herself to adopt the faith that the Knights had in each other.
Though the Knights had left her behind in their charge, it was little effort for her to catch up to men and women charging in plate armor. With the light of the moon growing steadily brighter and redder, Sion's range of vision had increased considerably, and she put that to use by taking completely unreasonable sniping shots with her handgun.
The biggest issue was the bears - the wolves and wild cats were tough, but they relied on their numbers to get around the wall of spears the Knights raised. The bears, on the other hand, could simply throw their enormous weight forward and crush anyone in front of them. Making ricochet shots even she didn't expect to land, she did her best to pick off the bears before they could get in range to attack the Knights.
The Knights' charge continued as they tore through the rapidly thinning horde of wolves and wild cats. All defense had been abandoned, and it showed quickly - one by one, a pack of wolves, or a hiding lynx would manage to pick off one of the Knights on the edges of their formation. Sion shifted her attention to trying to cover these flanks, but she could only move her gun so fast between them.
On the other hand, their suicide charge tactic was working - they were gaining ground at an incredible pace. In the span of a few short minutes, the edge of the town came into sight - only a little farther and they would be beyond the village boundary. Beyond the range of the Curse.
Of the six Knights that had made up her impromptu bodyguard, only two remained. Sion emptied the last of her current clip into the final row of beasts. The remaining Knights roared triumphantly as they cut through the last wolf, and broke into open territory. Now, the only threat was from the animals behind them.
Instinctively, with victory this close, Sion ran through the possibilities of what could still go wrong - and immediately threw her eyes upward.
"Above you!" Sion practically screamed as the worst possible result appeared before her eyes. Just as she looked upwards, the locust swarm had finished reforming into the vampire immediately above her remaining bodyguard, and with an incredible speed plunged downwards.
One of the Knights jumped backwards, clearing the area in time, but the other didn't make it - or rather, didn't try. Instead, he raised his spear skywards, aiming for the falling vampire.
His plan was about as successful as one could expect. The vampire impaled itself handily on the spear, but with no actual upward force to stop his fall, he continued downwards, crushing the Knight below in a spray of dirt, blood, twisted metal, and shattered bones.
The final Knight didn't so much as hesitate, driving her spear with two hands through the vampire's facing and pinning him to the ground. Sion stood frozen, a sick feeling rising in her stomach as the battle ended exactly as she predicted. The vampire, thoroughly maimed and pinned, reverted to a swarm of locusts and attacked the Knight attempting to pin him to the ground.
Sion desperately reached for the UV flare Ries had given her, but she was too slow. Before the Knight even had time to scream, she was gone, reduced to a pile of clothes and armour by the vampiric locusts.
Time once again seemed to slow to a stop as the machine that was Sion's mind sped up. Shutting out the brutal deaths she had just witnessed, she focused everything on surviving the current situation.
There were two possibilities, two courses of action the vampire could take, which each required a different response from Sion. The problem was, with her gun empty, she didn't have time to react - she would have to preempt him.
If he attacked her as the swarm of locusts, all she had to do was ignite the flare in her hands and run. But if he reformed into a humanoid shape, the flare wouldn't be enough - even weakened by the flare, he would likely be more than strong enough to kill Sion if she was alone. She would have to use the brief moment of pause as he transformed to reload her pistol, and then take out his kneecaps before he could charge her. Naturally, if she attempted to reload her gun and he didn't transform before attacking her, her gun would be useless and the locusts would kill her in a heartbeat.
So the question became, which did she pick: the flare or the gun?
For the smallest fraction of a second, Sion hesitated. She didn't know. She tried to calculate the odds, but the information was too sparse. By the time she had the numbers, by the time she could make an informed decision, it would be too late. If she hesitated any longer, she would die anyway. She had to pick now.
So she acted.
She had decided already, that she would trust her comrades, even if it was just at the end.
She would trust Riesbyfe to protect her.
She would trust the Knights to escort her out of the village.
So all that was left...was to trust herself to make the right decision.
Without another thought, Sion tore the pin from the flare and threw it straight upwards. As it floated up into the air, she reached for another clip for her pistol.
Before she had even released the flare, the locust swarm struck, swarming over her before she could so much as blink. Paying no mind to them, she continued loading the pistol.
One bite. Three. A Dozen. Two dozen. Sion felt the sting of the locusts biting into her skin, tearing at her with jaws like razors, and injecting her with their vampiric essence. But just as they reached her throat and face...the flare ignited.
Brilliant white light washed over Sion, scouring away the locusts. Under the harsh light of the flare, the locusts instantly turned to ash and scattered, as if washed away by a wave of holy fire. Sion didn't even stop to confirm she was okay as the clip she had retrieved slid and locked in place.
Turning around, she pointed the gun behind her. As expected, there were three wolves hot on her trail, with countless more pouring out of the streets behind her. Even if she had enough bullets for all of them, there was no way she could fire fast enough to keep them at bay. Which was why she hadn't loaded normal bullets into the gun.
This clip was special. It held only a single shot, and she only carried one such clip on her at all times. This clip was actually a type of Mystic Code. It's function was solely to unlock the final function of her pistol - the Black Barrel Replica.
Firing it in this mode would be like firing a bomb from a handgun. Nevermind the chance that you would be caught in your own explosion, the recoil from it would send a small car flying, let alone a girl her size. Normally, she would use her Etherlite to anchor her in place, allowing her to fire it without killing herself.
But in this case, that recoil was what she wanted.
Without a second of hesitation, she braced herself and pulled the trigger.
As she had predicted, the recoil of the Black Barrel Replica firing in released mode hit her like a train. As the blast incinerated the approaching wolves, it flung Sion herself dozens of meters backwards, and after an impressive flight time of no less than four seconds, she hit the ground hard, rolling and sliding another twenty or thirty meters. As she slid to a stop, she struggled to sit up through the combined pain of the locust bites and being fired like a cannonball.
The sky was...dark. She could still see the blood red moon, but its sinister light only covered the village. She had made it outside.
She was bleeding in a hundred places, her clothes were filthy and torn, and she wasn't sure if she would even be able to walk. But she was outside the village. She was outside the range of the Curse.
And she was alive.
Sion struggled to her knees and turned her eyes back to the village. The moon's red light coated the town like a dense fog, actually making it more difficult to see inside. As Sion watched, she slipped out of her advanced thought processing, unable to maintain it under the intense pain she was feeling.
As her more human senses came back to her, the sensation of the poison injected in her by the vampiric locusts became agonizingly clear. She had hoped that, being just an apparition of the Curse, it wouldn't have the power to transform her. Or that its transformative power would disappear when she left the effective area of the Curse. Evidently, she had been wrong.
Sion felt the world start to shake around her as she was overcome by a migraine-like headache. Clutching her head in her hands, she couldn't even scream...but even though it wasn't hers, screams still reached her ears.
A mournful, howling wail rose over the town. It lasted for only a few moments, but for Sion, it felt like an eternity. With the pain of her injuries, the corruption from the locust bites, and now this headache, she quickly found her consciousness fading.
Unable to hold on, Sion slipped into unconsciousness to the final sound of a man's distant, maniacal laughter.
Hours later, Sion awoke.
The first thing she was aware of was the pain of dozens of locust bites, mixed with the various aches and stings from rolling across the ground during her last desperate stunt.
Turning to look at the village, she could feel the death emanating from it. As tears welled up in her eyes, she was forced to look away. She had no desire, nor need, to confirm that the villagers - and the Knights - were dead.
Sion didn't bother to stop the tears from falling as she stood up. There would be no false consolation for her. The Knights, and Riesbyfe, were dead. Sion had only known her for a short while, but she felt like they had become rather close in that time. Riesbyfe's death had not been in vain, though. Thanks to her, and her Knights, Sion had made it out alive.
They deserved so much more - a proper funeral, a proper burial, a proper sendoff - but Sion had no way of giving that to them.
As she turned her thoughts inward, she became vaguely aware that she was...different. No doubt, the effects of the locust bites were similar to those of a vampire. In that case, did that mean she was becoming a vampire as well? She had figured that any sort of vampiric curse on her would disappear with the apparition that caused it, but she supposed the Curse itself was technically a vampire. Did that mean she was now a vampire descended from that Curse?
Sion shook her head with a self-deprecating smile as she slowly started walking down the road away from the village. Here she was, waking up in the middle of the wilderness, , half dead, and beside a village full of corpses. There were more important things to do than figure out which vampire her 'parent' was.
The idea of being turned into a vampire frankly disgusted her, and even more importantly, would be very problematic. The Atlas Institute wouldn't put up with a vampire, especially one from the Eltnam family, and the Church would purge her on sight. Life was going to be...difficult, from now on. At the very least, the transformative power seemed to be fairly weak. While she would be institutionally rejected, as long as it remained at about this level, she should be able to suppress the poison and prevent herself from completely turning.
Her mind still working slowly from the lingering pain of her countless wounds, Sion started walking away from the village. It would take maybe a day or two to reach the next settlement, so she needed to start as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, that would give her plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to plan.
While her more immediate goals would likely pertain to curing herself of this vampirism, there was a lot more at stake here than her own life. In three years, in the far off country of Japan, the Curse would appear again. When it did, Sion would be ready. She would use the information Riesbyfe and the other Knights had given their lives for, and she would end the Curse once and for all.
Or she would die trying.
Riesbyfe breathed a sigh of relief.
Everything hurt. It took all she had to stay up on one knee, and even that was only possible thanks to having Gamaliel to lean on.
She had really been outplayed. By following the vampire around, she allowed herself to be separated from the formation, and in her haste to rejoin it, the vampire had struck. With one leg shattered and most of her ribs broken, to say nothing of the numerous gashes caused by the twisted metal of her damaged armor, it took all she had just to keep breathing.
She had still managed to get off pretty well, she thought. She figured the fact the vampire had had to plow through seven other Knights to get to her played a considerable part in why she was alive at all. They had likely died instantly from the impact, but considering what it had done to their bodies, they were probably better off that way.
Even in this hopeless situation, Riesbyfe still couldn't help but feel relieved. Because only half of the surviving Knights came to die with her.
She had been terrified that they would abandon their charge of defending Sion when she was injured, but a full half of the survivors turned and charged, escorting Sion further away. Together with that girl, surely they would be able to find a way out. She still felt like it was somewhat of a waste with how many of them came to protect her - they must have known she wouldn't be able to move. As they engaged the horde of beasts, it was clear at a glance they would be quickly overrun. They couldn't actually help her at all. All they were doing was delaying the inevitable.
No, with these injuries, Riesbyfe would probably die even without the apparitions.
She wouldn't have the chance to bleed out, though. With midnight only a few minutes away, she wouldn't have long to suffer before the Curse fully manifested, snuffing out her life along with the thousands of others in this village.
Riesbyfe had often felt the sensation of time seeming to slow down, especially when fighting. Now, she felt the opposite sensation. With her mind growing hazy due to the pain and her vision starting to blur, it felt like time was speeding up, that the world was leaving her behind as it moved ahead.
Well, that's fine.
The world would go on without her. She lived to serve God, so if God wasn't going to protect her, that must mean that her service was over. As long as Sion made it out, she would find a way to end the Night of Wallachia. The lives of twenty some odd Knights and a couple thousand villagers might have seemed an expensive price to pay, but if it resulted in Sion returning to kill the Curse once and for all, then it would be worth it. After all, how many thousands - how many millions of lives would be saved by doing so?
After as deep a breath as she could manage, she decided to go for one last prayer.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Many people in this case would pray desperately to be saved, but that wasn't Riesbyfe's style. If God was willing to save her, she trusted He would save her whether she begged Him or not. So, as she watched over the Knights dying around her, she decided for something a little more...cliché.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Actually, the truth of the matter was she didn't know all that many verses to quote in her last moments. She had always believed in the proverb "God helps those who help themselves," so she preferred to go out and do things rather than sit at home and study. As a result, her repertoire of suitable verses to die with was fairly small.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
That being said, it was one of her favourite psalms. When she was younger, it had really stood out to her, and she had continued to cling to it in her early days as a Knight. Looking back, she remembered wishing so hard that she would be able to become like the psalmist - so perfectly trusting, so sure in his own safety within the grace of God.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Riesbyfe smiled despite herself. Here she was, literally moments away from death, watching her subordinates get torn apart one by one, and just as she had wished, she was completely unafraid. It seemed before she knew it, she had become the person she wanted to be.
She watched as the last of her self-appointed honour guard fell to a massive bear. Even as the bear's jaws closed around his neck, his spear punched through the bear's throat, slaying the beast only moments to late to spare his own life. Riesbyfe couldn't help but feel proud of them, despite their meaningless sacrifice. They had done a splendid job, each Knight felling scores of beasts before finally being overwhelmed.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
And now, just like her, they were released from their duty. Surely, if one could earn their way to Heaven, these men and women had done it many times over.
Through her muddled senses, Riesbyfe could faintly hear an explosion far off in the distance behind her. She was well beyond being able to accurately gauge how far away it was, but if anything was happening at all, that must have meant Sion was okay. Riesbyfe nodded in satisfaction. That was confirmation enough for her.
Riesbyfe felt the ground start to shake beneath her. The horde of beasts was close enough for her to touch, but instead of brutally mauling her as she had expected, they froze. Each wolf, each wild cat, each bear turned its head upwards and howled.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...
Riesbyfe tried to laugh, but instead was subjected to an agonizing coughing fit, almost enough to make her lose her grip on consciousness. It seemed like, thanks to her bodyguards' efforts, she had survived to see the descent of the Curse's true incarnation.
Following the beasts' example, Riesbyfe raised her head to face the moon. It almost seemed like the moon was breaking apart, but it was hard to tell anything at all thanks to the virtually opaque red light on top of her failing vision.
Bathing in that sinister red light, she gripped Gamaliel tightly as she at last closed her eyes. In moments, she felt herself drift off into the darkness to the mournful cries of a hundred wild beasts.
...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.