Not long after Eryn came back, Cornelius and other lords arrived at the scene to assess the situation.
The citizens that came out, convinced that no harm would befall them, grew in number. From tens to hundreds, the central square that we were standing around was filled with people. Still, it seemed rather sparse compared to the size of the city.
Apparently, they had been hiding all around the City of Lodz, holed up in their homes and waiting to bludgeon anyone that tried to enter. However, the sight of a devilishly strong enemy marching through the streets, unaffected by the explosions, caused them to shrink back in fear.
“My barrier kept me comfortably cool in those blasts. Why wouldn’t I just walk through them?” Eryn said blankly.
I looked away with my palm covering my face. “Can someone look cool while standing ‘in’ an explosion? I thought you were supposed to walk away while not looking at them?”
Eryn simply gave me a weird look, while Saki was obviously drooling as she pictured ‘Cool Eryn’ amongst a background of pyrotechnics. At least, our silly banter served to humanize us in the eyes of the cityfolk.
Turning back to the topic at hand, the citizens all told of a similar story. The Empire had taken all of the children away in hopes of ‘protecting’ them from the invaders. The remaining citizens, mostly people that couldn’t fight or move quickly, were left to their fate.
Every man and woman that was able to fight had already retreated north, where a large wall separated the Empire’s capital territory from the outlying areas. Much of Purnesia’s military and technological strength lay beyond that border.
As a result, only a husk of a ghost town remained, those that had nowhere to go. When Sistina’s Army was approaching, the military apparently only had enough time to evacuate the children. That was the official story.
However, they became shocked when they heard that the children were not sent to the safety of the capital, but rather, holed up in a fortress at the edge of Lodz. There was no meaning in keeping them there, if Sistina was presumed to take over the entire city. Cornelius confirmed through Hal that she could see children loitering in the courtyard of the fort, as the remaining Purnesian soldiers continued to guard the surroundings.
“We were told to fight and slow down the invaders to give them time to evacuate the children!” one man claimed. Several grumbles of protests fell along the same lines.
Fortunately, Eryn and I had arrived alone first. Since I managed to defuse the tense atmosphere, they realized that we weren’t as bad as the Empire made us out to be. If the army had busted into the city first, there was no doubt that no one would be able to see eye-to-eye in the chaos. The fear of being attacked threw out all attempts to compromise. I sighed as Eryn’s hastiness had saved us from any unnecessary bloodshed of the civilians.
Now realizing that the Empire had gone back on their word, they next turned to us.
“They have no reason to keep the children there. The city has surrendered, all but that fortress. Still, what plans could they possibly have for them?!” one woman cried out to us.
“Calm down, Citizens of Lodz. We will place all of you under our care, now that you have surrendered. As such, we will listen to your pleas. You have my word as Sistina’s commander. Given that Fort Lodz has not waved the white flag, I fear that they are using them as hostages to keep pressure on us,” Cornelius inferred from the information that she had gathered.
“Hostages?” A few people in the crowd looked horrified at the prospect.
“For now, we need to discuss our next course of actions. Please, if you’ll excuse us…”
Cornelius led a small group to a private room, where we could talk in private. That was for the best, as there was a mixture of conflicted expressions at this turn of events. In particular, Eryn looked incredibly antsy as we settled around a table to lay bare our thoughts.
I tried to contact Katalina about her opinion through the communicator, but she never answered. The last message she left me said that she was en route to Fort Valga with Ludmila. I probably caught them as they were riding a levi-board while portal jumping, the fastest method of transport. It was best not to answer calls while in motion, even with the lack of traffic laws here.
For that reason, Cornelius, Eryn, Saki, and I joined a few of the front-line lords to discuss what to do next. After several minutes of brainstorming, it came down to chasing after the retreating army or letting them regroup while we saved the children. While some of us wanted to maintain our momentum, we would have to deal with the remaining soldiers anyway.
“They must need more time to retreat or set up something, so they’re throwing us distractions to keep us from charging for their capital!” Eryn growled. “However, is that what we should do? Play into their petty schemes? Why not just strike while they are still unprepared? We have no reason to delay ourselves here.”
I turned to Eryn with a look of concern. “Wait, are you really saying… that we should abandon them? You can’t possibly mean that, can you?”
“What else could I mean? We have no obligation to help the enemy out!”
A few of the lords nodded in agreement. “Sparing resources to help out a nation at war with us is naïve,” they pushed back on those with softer hearts. While I understood that, it felt hard to simply disregard the people in this city. They had been taken advantage of and abandoned, so it would leave a bitter taste in my mouth for us to do the same.
A frown was plastered on my face as Eryn spoke words that slowly ticked me off. “Besides, this whole setup seems a bit fishy to me. Kidnapped children? The elderly and weak being abandoned to slow us down? What does Purnesia hope to achieve by throwing sob stories to us at this point?”
“How can you say that? You’ve always been the type to help someone in need. What’s gotten into you lately?!” I interrupted, my voice slowly grew in intensity with each word.
However, Eryn simply returned my accusations with her own, laced with a venom in her voice.
“What do you mean, me?! What about you?! Don’t think I didn’t overhear your little conversation with the Oracle!”
My heart froze. Cornelius and Saki looked at me, wondering what she meant. I tried to mouth out the words, but all I could do was look down with a pained expression. I tried to keep it a secret from Eryn, but she had known from the beginning. Likely, she tailed me after noticing that I had left her side.
“Tell them! That we don’t have much longer to fight! That our cores are so sick that we could fall soon! That we… we have a doomed future unless things are settled here and now! If we drag out this war, there is a chance that we succumb to our own powers and become a threat ourselves!” Eryn screamed at me, sending flickers of flame dancing across her body.
The others in the room, ignorant of our situation, turned pale as a ghost.
“W-What, Eri-, Marchioness, how, how could this be?” Cornelius was the first to say. Yet, even her longtime friend was ignored, as Eryn continued to speak to me.
“I thought it was strange, but we’re connected, right? Your worries, your hesitation, your doubts – I thought they were my own at first, but now, it makes sense. They were bleeding over to me from you. But all this time, you stayed silent. But then, I finally understood. You were protecting me, like you always do.”
Eryn got up, walked right over, and stared into my face, tears running down her own. Her crimson eyes trembled with a sense of sorrow as she spoke.
“You don’t like fighting, especially when people die, right? Then, I’ll take on that burden. I won’t force you to come. I’ll tear down the enemy myself, so that you won’t fall any further. I’ll bear it all. That’s why I have to keep moving forward. I can’t let anything stop me. I don’t have the time for it. Not if we want true peace for ourselves where the danger of being demons is gone.”
Slowly, she moved back. I stared wide-eyed at her resolve. Her willingness to keep me safe. That had not been my intention at all. Though I forced myself to stand on the battlefield by her side, I wanted to. Even if it made my heart hurt, even if I felt the darkness – I told myself, ‘If it was for Eryn, I’d do it anyways.’
But that had been a mistake. It only served to drive her into a corner. I had no idea what to do, faced with this situation where all paths lead to doom. But Eryn decided it for me. She was already halfway out the door by the time I looked up.
“I’m moving on. Towards the capital. I’m going to strike them first, so they have no time to prepare. You, you can stay here and save whoever. Duchess, please take care of him in my stead.” Eryn bit her lip before stomping away. The sound of the door banged as it closed behind her.
Too stunned and with no words to convince her otherwise, all I could manage to do was to turn to Saki and beg her to chase after Eryn. “Please, keep her safe.”
With a quick nod, Saki bolted out the door. I knew that Saki would protect her, even at the cost of her own life. In my worried state of potentially turning into a demon in the future, I once asked her this:
“If it came down to killing me or Eryn, who would you choose?”
Her answer was, “You, of course. You’re competition.”
Despite how much it stung to hear that with so little hesitation, I was glad that, at the very least, I wouldn’t have to worry about Eryn.
After the footsteps faded from earshot, the room was left with a solemn atmosphere. A dreadful silence hung between the rest of us. But that was natural. It was the first that anyone else, besides Cornelius, had heard of the darkness that lingered around my core. Since things had calmed down after Willingham’s demise, there wasn’t a need to mention it.
But I had always known. Something continued to stir deep inside. I merely kept it bottled up, like I always tended to do. I thought that it was my worry alone, and that involving others would just bring unnecessary drama. The eyes of the other lords cast a painful atmosphere upon me.
“So… why didn’t you say anything earlier? You were not upfront with Marchioness Faulkner, and this is the result. I did warn you, did I not?” Cornelius spoke with a serious tone, uncharacteristic of her. Though her comments were purposefully vague due to the current audience, I knew exactly what she was implying.
“You did… I was just… stupid, I guess.” My head sank down onto the table, depressed that things turned this way. I couldn’t just tag along now and chase after Eryn. It would only anger her. For now, I simply hid my head under my hands with my forehead pressed against the wood surface.
Meanwhile, Cornelius requested for the other lords to move ahead and join Eryn in the assault, with her leading the charge. Since the main forces were parked outside the city, Cornelius and I would remain here to hash out a rescue plan. Only a small force was needed for that task. And hopefully, achieving something that aligned with my interests would settle the turmoil in my heart.
After they left the two of us alone in the room, Cornelius let out a long sigh. She turned to me while shaking her head.
“The hearts of maidens are a fickle thing. As a man, one must fully expect the trouble capturing one may bring.” Cornelius wagged her finger at me.
“Guess you know the best of both worlds,” I jested in response, though even that statement felt weak in my deflated state.
“Indeed. Let us allow her to do what she needs to for the time being. As you have been tossed from the vanguard, let us use our time wisely and save those children, shall we?”
“Is that sound advice from a maiden?”
Cornelius looked somewhat hurt by that quip. “Surely, you do not question my gender any longer?”
I snorted at the thought. “Your gender, no. Your state of mind… as long as you hold feelings for Eryn, you’ll still feel like that guy I have to watch out for.”
I heard a scraping of a chair as Cornelius stood up from it. Hearing a set of footsteps circle behind me, a shiver ran down my spine when I felt her bend down and wrap her arms around me, resting her body on top of mine.
“Hmm. Someone to watch out for… surely, you don’t mean in this way?”
I could see the jokester chuckling in my mind’s eye. As much of a genuine gesture it felt like, there was always a catch with her. I let out a sigh as I lightly banged my head on the table. “Of course not! Your tricks are too obvious, you know!”
I stood up from the chair, shrugging Cornelius off. It was apparent that she was trying to cheer me up in her own way. For that, I was thankful.
She stepped back and let go of me. Heading for the door, I missed the smirk that she gave me, only hearing the words, “I suppose…” dance from her lips.
I had no time to waste either if I was going to get this task done, before crawling my way back into Eryn’s good graces. She was bound to forgive me if I finished this task and raced to her afterward with an apology. ‘No more excuses or secrets.’ I just had to steel my resolve and quickly bring forth an era of peace.
Eryn was right. If we didn’t settle this issue with Purnesia, then it would just eat away at us, even if we were off the battlefield. I just needed to hold on for a little longer.
Heading outside, I found the group of people where we left them, anxiously waiting for our response.
“Sorry to keep you waiting! We’re going to do it! We’re going to charge in and bust them out!”
I felt a hand on my shoulder, keeping me from blurting out anything else.
“Let’s not be hasty. It would do us no good to have the army storm in and risk the hostages. Therefore, we must mount a secret operation.” Cornelius gave me a wink as she said that.
Somehow, I didn’t like the sound of that. Most of the time, ‘Corny plans’ involved throwing me under the bus in some way. The only solace I could find was that usually things would fall into place… eventually.