The vanguard trudged through the gates to the sound of cheering and elation. The townspeople applauded them as the gates closed behind them. The men of the vanguard laughed and waved, their faces crowned with disbelief at what they had accomplished. Those who had family found themselves swarmed by their loved ones. Prei, Lily and Victoria, however, remained apart from the relief. The battle was over, but the siege had not yet ended. Victoria quickly climbed the stairs to the watchtower, intending to confer with the lookout. Prei tapped Lily on the shoulder.
“Mother, I’m going to go check on Tate.”
“Go. She did well. Tell her to take a rest, but make sure she’s ready to create the barrier again at a moment’s notice. We’re not in the clear quite yet.”
Prei acknowledged this and ran toward the center of the town. Meanwhile, Victoria had finished confirming the situation and was descending the stairs. She came up to Lily, and the two women stood to the side, speaking quietly, excluding themselves from the happiness that flowed through the returning soldiers. Lily spoke first.
“Well? Are they advancing again?”
Victoria shook her head.
“No, they retreated to their base. From what we can tell, they’re treating their wounded. We should, too.”
She glanced over to one particular part of the concourse. Not all the soldiers were engaged in happy revels. Some were on the ground, groaning, clasping hands over wounds or cupping some severed stump of an arm. The medical corps were flitting about them, dressing their injuries and administering treatment, but these soldiers would not be fighting again in the near future. It was rather strange, to see the soldiers who fought side-by-side thus juxtaposed – the safe ones celebrating their return, the injured ones suffering and nursing their wounds. It struck Lily as almost insensitive.
“Does it bother you?”
Victoria seemed to pick up on Lily’s discomfort. Lily shook her head.
“Not really. It does pique my curiosity, though. After fighting through a battle as brothers-in-arms, how can they celebrate with such joy even though their fellows are suffering from grievous wounds? It strikes me as odd, and I’ll admit I’m not as familiar with demon culture as I’d like.”
Victoria watched Lily out the corner of her eye. A smile played upon her lips.
“Oh? Remind me to lend you some of our records when this battle is over, then.” Victoria turned to regard the soldiers with a motherly gaze. “We demons, well, we’re no strangers to combat. Our history is filled with conflict and violence. When our ancestors were first exiled to their cold prison, food and water were scarce. Infighting was prevalent. They lived each day in fear, because they didn’t know if they would perish the next day, from hunger, or thirst, or violence. As a sort of… coping mechanism, if you will, we stopped mourning the dead.
Each demon is taught from a young age that their life is their responsibility. If we lose our lives, it is either because we were irresponsible, or because our time had come. We live each day expecting to die the next, and none of us want to be mourned. We know that each moment spent in mourning is a moment not moving forward, and that is not a fate we wish upon the living. What you’re seeing here is an extension of that.
Our injured soldiers don’t want their fellows to worry too much about them, they want their fellows to be happy while they can. At the same time, their uninjured friends, understanding this wish, make sure to celebrate with vigor, allowing their injured friends to share vicariously in their joy. Perhaps it’s not a mindset a human can understand, but that’s how we are.”
Lily rubbed her chin.
“You might be right. I see the logic in this mindset, but at the same time, a part of me still thinks it odd. Perhaps I’m more human than I thought.”
“Nay, what you did on that battlefield, that’s not the work of a human. That was the work of a monster.”
“Well then, call me a monstrous human.”
They shared in laughter, before turning to more serious matters. Lily spoke first.
“How many casualties?”
Victoria bit her lip.
“One hundred and ninety-seven. Twenty-three of them could have been avoided if I had been paying closer attention.”
Lily stayed silent for a moment. She felt a desire to comfort her friend, but she knew better: Victoria wasn’t blaming herself in some moment of emotional weakness. She was not one to indulge in such thoughts. If she said she was responsible for twenty-three deaths, that meant that they were objectively her fault. Nothing Lily could do or say would serve any purpose in this case. Instead, Lily watched Victoria’s fists. When they began to unclench, Lily took it as a cue to continue speaking.
“And of our progress? Did we meet our targets?”
Victoria’s grimace turned into a grin.
“Oh, yes. We certainly did. I couldn’t really get a good view, but I estimate we’ve taken out a good thirty percent of their army. Their mage division especially is in shambles, and most of their cavalry is either dead or lost their horses.”
“Ah, so we all met our goals. Very good. Meaning if they charge again, we can all focus on the infantry.”
“Yes. If we’re lucky, however, they’ll decide to cut their losses here and bypass our city.”
“Mm. Seeing their strength for myself, I must say it’s not very impressive. They were certainly stronger than average humans, stronger and faster. But nothing unmanageable. I think each was only operating at twice the normal capacity of a human? Makes me wonder how the other cities fell.”
Victoria stared at Lily and spoke with a dry tone.
“Part of that might be because of the fact that the other cities didn’t have you and Prei. Seriously, your strength defies comprehension. It’s almost unfair.”
“I suppose, though I had to work quite a bit for my strength. Prei, though, that’s the real unfairness. Can you believe she was born that powerful?”
“Hm. I’ll admit that her magical ability falls in the realm of unfairness. But her martial prowess – she worked hard to attain that. Though I’m sure you’re aware of that.”
Lily thought back to the early days in their home, where Prei would wake up at the crack of dawn every day to train. She nodded. She knew very well how hard Prei pushed herself. Lily shook her head free of the reminiscence, returning to matters of the present.
“Anyway, having experienced their strength, I’m actually tempted to say that completely wiping out that army might be possible. The only problem is…”
Lily cast her thoughts back to their brief skirmish. Vessel’s strength equalled her own, except she seemed to be able to increase it even further via prayer. Did this increase have a limit? They did not know. The full extent of Vessel’s power was unknown, and that which was unknown was dangerous. Even if Lily, Prei and Victoria were to completely annihilate the human army, Vessel might be fully capable of levelling Riasode on her own. The question, then, was why she brought an army in the first place. As Lily and Victoria both considered this line of thought, Victoria remembered something Lily had mentioned.
“Early you mentioned that Vessel attacking the city directly would go against the wishes of her god. What did you mean?”
Lily folded her arms and explained her hypothesis.
“A guess. She’s clearly strong enough to carry out this campaign on her own. So why did she wait to amass an army? Why did she need such a large human army? What is her goal? She mentioned that she was a vessel of a god. If we take that as truth, then we can take her actions to be the manifestation of that god’s will. We know that the gods banished the demons in the first place, so that establishes the motivation for this entire invasion. However, from what I know of the gods, they are committed to the progress of the human race – how I know this, I’d rather not say. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to view the elimination of the demons as a milestone for the human race to achieve. If the human race were to perform this task, it would serve to help them develop and grow, while simultaneously eradicating the enemies of the gods. Furthermore, sending a divine figure to lead them would do wonders for their faith, which would in turn bind them more strongly to the gods’ will. As such, I believe that this invasion is meant to be a milestone for the human race, perhaps the first time humans from all backgrounds have banded together to address a common threat.
However, in order for this result to come to pass, the act of invasion must be performed by humans. The finishing blow must be dealt by humans. If Vessel were to directly destroy a city without the help of the humans, the humans would lose an opportunity to band together and fight against overwhelming odds. The act of destroying the demons must be an act of humans, not of gods, and that’s why I guessed that Vessel might not wish to interfere so directly with the accomplishment of their goal. It was just a hypothesis, but considering that she called for retreat rather than lend her assistance to tear down the barrier, it might hold some weight as an explanation.”
Lily and Victoria lapsed into silence as Victoria digested Lily’s theory. Meanwhile, Lily looked to the sky. It was beginning to darken. The day was ending. What awaited the city next? Would the enemy attack again? Would they strike at night? She had no way of knowing. All she could do was wait, just as they had waited the previous night. Such was the life of one under siege.