Azal stood on his platform in the middle of the square, and no matter how he tried, he couldn’t help but feel nervous.
This was where it all truly began. Before, they – the Bloodhorns, as Darius had decided to call them – had been doing nothing more than exchanging whispers and saying quiet words to each other. It was necessary, of course, and the preparation was absolutely required for something as big as what they were planning. All those little whispered conversations had been utterly crucial for what was about to happen. But that didn’t change the fact that everything they’d done so far was very… well… safe.
It felt odd to think of it like that. After all, if they were heard – if the Council knew what they were planning – they would all face consequences, and it would not be pretty. More than likely, they’d be executed, their heads severed and dropped into a basket. But until now, as long as the Council didn’t hear – and the only way they could’ve heard was if there was a traitor among the plotters – there was no danger. They could be assured that they would still see another day.
Now, that all changed. When Azal did this, there would be no if about it anymore. The Council would hear. Would they react immediately? He didn’t know. But if he did start getting support, then the Council would move soon enough. And then… then it was out of his control what happened. His paranoia had kept him and his allies safe until now, but once the rebellion truly started, paranoia wouldn’t help much. It would all come down to the field of battle – and the field of battle was a woefully unpredictable place.
He swallowed. Would they even have enough support? This was massive, after all, and they were asking anyone who sided with them to make a massive decision. It was always possible that they simply wouldn’t get the amount of support they needed, and then, when the Council’s armies descended, the Bloodhorns would have nothing. If no one was willing to fight for them, they would simply be crushed, and all who sided with them would die.
With a brief start Azal realized that if this went wrong, his days would be numbered, and there would be nothing he’d be able to do about it.
Even after all his dedication, even with all his determination to overthrow the Council, the thought of death still scared Azal. He knew no revolution was without risk, but still, he couldn’t help but be… terrified, frankly. What if the Council struck before they were ready? What if they never managed to get ready enough? What if the people turned against him immediately and just beat him to death?
For a moment Azal felt his resolve waver, and the instant he realized that, it all came back to him, sheer defiance now fueling him.
No, he decided. He had spent so long planning and plotting against the Council. He would not fail now. He would do this. And if he died in the process? Then that was just the risk he had to take.
He consigned his cowardice to oblivion, and stood up straight, and forced his eyes to stop darting around. He looked down at the crowd.
Before he’d even said anything, demons had started to congregate. Not that many, of course, but it was still quite the crowd – people realized he was about to say something, and they were curious what it was. (And besides, he’d had Johannes drop a few hints.) Azal briefly wondered if any of them had already guessed he’d be speaking out against the Council. It wasn’t unlikely – the circumstances around his father’s death were well known, and no doubt, many people thought he bore the Council a grudge for it. Though, really, he didn’t – the rebellion was not an idea born out of any personal attachment. It was merely the best option.
Or was that entirely true? Perhaps his father’s death had influenced him, subconsciously. Maybe, somewhere in the depths of his mind, that truly was why he was doing all this.
But never mind that.
Azal saw Johannes in the crowd, near the forefront. He’d seen to that. It was all a show, of course – Johannes already knew where Azal stood. But seeing him here, listening to the speech, and seeing him be affected by it – or, well, be ‘affected’ by it – would be a massive influence on those he was popular amongst. And he was quite popular – even now, Azal could see a few people pushing through the crowd to greet him, and many more simply staring at him in dumbfounded amazement, as if they couldn’t believe he was really here. All those people, he was willing to wager, would end up siding with him when they saw what side Johannes had chosen.
As for Darius, Azal didn’t see him. Of course he didn’t – Darius would never put himself out in the open like that. But he knew just the same that Darius was somewhere nearby, and he’d be listening to every word out of Azal’s mouth – and every word out of the people’s mouths, too. He was not the type to miss out on something like this.
But that was enough thinking. Thinking could come later. Now, Azal simply had to do what he was here for.
He took another deep breath. At least, he reasoned, he had a decent start already. Even before any of this had happened, the Council had never been popular around here – Johannes had seen to that. Convincing the people to actually re-
Actually, no. Never mind. No more stalling.
One more deep breath.
“People,” he announced, stilling the whisper of conversation making its way through the crowd. “Demons. Friends. I am here today to tell you that there exists a real and ever-present danger to your wellbeing – to your freedom – to your life itself.”
A few eyes widened. Someone murmured something. The crowd focused on him a bit more.
“I am sure you know the Council’s thoughts on mortals,” he continued. “It is their belief that we are trapped in this world, and that we deserve Verta, too – that we deserve the land of the mortals. It is for this reason that they send army after army into their land – attack them over and over, in a desperate hope that one day, they will be able to win.
“And yet, look around you!” he shouted. “Are you not still in Aead? The Council has been in power for centuries, and throughout its existence it has tried again and again to attack the mortal nations. And all the time, their efforts have ended in the same way. In failure.” Azal didn’t mention the fact that that wasn’t strictly true. It wasn’t something the people needed to hear.
“Do any of you understand what this means?” Azal said, gesturing at the crowd. He paused for a moment, letting a low mutter spread through the group. “The Council tells us that it is powerful,” he said. “It tells us that we have nothing to fear, that one day, we will be free of this realm.
“And yet everything they have done – everything they have tried to do – has shown the lie in that. The Council is weak.” Not precisely true, either. But a good fiction to ensure the people wouldn’t fear siding with him. “And yet, again and again, they attack the mortals. In their foolish, naïve hopes, they strike at those more powerful than them. And every time they do so, they anger the mortals.”
Azal stopped for a moment. When he spoke again, it was in a quieter, more solemn voice. “If they continue… what do you think the mortals will do?”
Again, he paused for a moment. Let them realize it, he thought. Let them come to the same conclusion as he had.
And they did. He saw a few demons freeze up, suddenly realizing what would come. He saw eyes widening, and frantic whispers spread throughout the people. He even saw Johannes’ mouth fall open, his face suddenly shocked. Of course – he hadn’t told Johannes why he was rebelling, after all.
“Ladies. Gentlemen,” he finally said. “It is simple. If the Council continues on its path, none of us are safe.
“Perhaps you may think it would be more right to blame the mortals, and perhaps you would be right. But that does not matter,” Azal said, letting his voice regain some of its former volume, its former force. “The mortals do not care who you blame. And whoever is truly to blame, it is the Council’s duty to keep us safe – and by angering the mortals, they have failed in it. And every single time they attack them, they fail us once more. No, more than that – they show us that they do not truly care about us. When they attack the mortals, they do not think for a moment about the retribution that will fall upon us. They care only about themselves, only about their own glory.”
He took a moment to breathe. “And if this continues, we are all in grievous danger. Every provocation is another invitation for the mortals to swoop in and destroy us all. Whenever the Council makes a move against them, they fill them with a great and righteous anger – and when that anger boils over, they will strike. And make no mistake – when they do, none of us will be spared. If we are lucky, we will end up under another race’s heel, ruled by another people. If we are not, they will simply slaughter until there is nothing left to slaughter.
“And the worst part is, they would not be in the wrong,” Azal said. After all, he had to make sure the crowd ended up angry at the Council, not the mortals. “The Council has wronged them time and time again. If we do nothing about it – if we let this continue – are we not just as guilty? Are we not guilty of supporting a government that cares for nothing but its own glory and a vague dream that it has no hope of achieving?
“We stand at a precipice. The Council has shown that it does not care about us – if they had, this would have stopped long ago. They care nothing, even, for the demons that are sent to fight and die in the armies – why would they care about people like us? So they will not listen to us. They do not care what we think. They do not care if we all perish from their actions. There is only one choice.
“We must stop them,” he announced. “Unless you wish to burn and die as a result of the consequences of their actions – unless you wish your friends and family to feel those same consequences – there is only one path you can take. The only way we can save ourselves – the only way we can save demonkind – is to stop the insanity of the Council, and to put our fates into our own hands.
“That is the only path.” He looked at the crowd – at the stunned, wide-eyed crowd – and, just slightly, bowed. “Thank you.”
And with that, he turned and walked off, disappearing into a small alley.
He didn’t even notice when Darius slipped into step beside him. At least, not until he said “So, that went well, huh?”
Azal’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know.”
Darius shrugged. “They certainly seemed impressed enough.”
“Mm,” Azal muttered. “Maybe they did, but… will they actually side with me?”
“I see what you mean,” Darius said. “You’re worried you didn’t push it far enough, aren’t you?”
“I suppose,” the chirean conceded.
“No, this is better,” Darius said. “If you’d explicitly tried to get them to rebel… they’d get nervous. They’d see it as dangerous. A few of them would decide to join up, sure, but most would prefer to do nothing. You wouldn’t get many supporters that way.”
Azal shot a quick look at him. “And this way, you think more of them will ally with me?”
“Yes,” Darius simply said. “The way you did it, you told them why they should be angry, why they should be afraid – and you left them to stew on it. When they come up with the idea of rebellion on their own – and they will – they’ll feel proud. They’ll feel like they’ve thought on it on their own, like it’s them, and not anyone else, inciting them to do this. They’ll have the sort of righteous anger you’ll need from them. Then that idea will spread, in the dirty, dark corners of the land, and it’ll spread like wildfire. When the time comes and it all boils over, they’ll have to pick a leader – and they’ll turn to the very person who started all of this. You.”
For a few seconds, Azal considered this. Some part of him thought Darius was being overly optimistic, but what he was saying did make sense. Him telling the people to rebel would, indeed, merely have made them feel like they were being ordered around. Letting them come to that conclusion on their own… well, he still wasn’t as sure as Darius that they would, indeed, come around. But if they did, he would have himself a driven, loyal following whose hearts burned with a true, unquenchable rage. After all, it was only natural for a person to want to stick to any idea with which they came up with themselves, even if it may not be the best one.
“Perhaps you are right,” Azal admitted.
Darius sighed and rolled his eyes. “Really? Perhaps? Maybe you should cheer up a bit. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite sure I am right. No ‘perhaps’ about it.”
“Optimism can be a dangerous thing,” Azal cautioned. “We still do not know how this will turn out.”
“I’m quite sure we do,” Darius said. “What you’ve said… do you really think they’ll forget that anytime soon? There’s a reason fearmongering is so effective – nice job on using that, by the way – and it’s because fear hounds people. You’ve planted the seeds of paranoia in their minds, and I don’t think they’ll be able to convince themselves that you’re wrong, even if they want to. You gave them your arguments, you told them what was happening, and now they’re going to be afraid. They’re going to be afraid for their lives, and fear drives people to do insane things.” When Darius phrased it like that, Azal almost felt bad about it. But… still. There was something that had to be done, and he needed support to do it, and he was willing to gather that support in whatever way worked.
“As insane as what we’re planning?” Azal asked.
“If they believe it’s the only way? Absolutely,” Darius stated confidently. “And they will believe it’s the only way. You’re the first person to expose most of them to this issue – your view of it is their first impression of it. Do you have any idea of how powerful first impressions are?”
Azal scoffed. “Of course,” he said. “And yes – I don’t doubt that many of them will think it’s the only way. I’ve made sure to convince them of that much, and besides, it’s true. But even then, would they really rise up?”
“I think it’s much more likely than you think,” Darius told him. “Remember, this isn’t the end of it. Johannes is going to be doing his best to sway public opinion in your direction, and with how popular he is, I don’t doubt that he’ll be a huge influence. And besides, you’re not starting from nothing, either – even before all this, Johannes has been speaking out against the Council for a long time, and now, a lot of the people here don’t like them already. And now that you’ve given them a reason to think the Council may actually be putting them at risk… well, I rather suspect that’ll be the boiling point for many of them.”
Azal closed his eyes. “I hope you’re right,” he said.
But as the days passed, even Azal couldn’t help but admit that Darius was, by and large, absolutely correct about what would happen.
Azal had made sure to stay out of sight, at least for now. He didn’t quite know what his next step was, and until he did, it would be safer to make sure no one saw him. If he made one wrong move now, it could throw everything off balance.
Yet though he was staying out of sight, he was still making sure to gather what information he could, and the trend he was seeing was encouraging. All around Redgate, all around the city that he had lived in for his entire life, the dark alleyways and seedy taverns had started coming to life with whispered conspiracies. The word was spreading, more and more people growing ever more paranoid of the threat the Council was bringing down upon them – and ever more furious at the Council for doing so. Azal was quite happy about that part, in particular – he’d done everything in his power to ensure the demons’ hatred would be directed at the Council, not the mortals, and it seemed his efforts had paid off. The demons were quickly growing to despise their leaders.
Would it be enough to kick off the revolution that Azal was hoping for? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. But it was looking more and more likely, and that was already better than what Azal had feared – and somewhat thought – would happen.
Now, what was his next move? That was the difficult question. He had Johannes spreading his message, turning more and more demons to his side. Darius, he trusted, was doing his fair share too, spreading rumors and whispering things to people in some hidden corners of the land. Frankly, he wouldn’t be surprised if Darius had taken to telling outright lies to get people on his side – which, he had to admit, would be a good tactic, even if the risk of those lies being discovered would be quite dangerous. All in all, he was gathering support rapidly, at least within the city – and while Redgate may not have been a massive city, it was still the biggest one anywhere nearby. Frankly, he was in a quite advantageous position, even if the cynic within him stubbornly refused to believe it.
So what did he do with it? Azal had been contemplating that for a while now, and he still wasn’t certain. Oh, in theory, he knew what he had to do, at least in vague terms. He had to show himself once more, unite the people under his banner, make them into a fighting force. Then he could take this city, and with the city in his control he could easily take much of the surroundings, establishing the Bloodhorns as a real threat to the Council. From there, he’d have all sorts of opportunities. Once he had some actual territory over which he ruled, he could start doing things properly. He could start training his people, turning them into an actual army instead of a disorganized mob. His success, he hoped, would embolden any other demons across Aead with similar thoughts, and galvanize them to take action. And once he had that sort of proof that he actually stood a chance, he could act on Regina’s advice and turn to Sagnir, request aid from them. From there… it was simply going to be war.
Or at least, that was the theory. But there were holes in the plan, at the early stages in particular. He’d have to unite the people under him – but how? When was a good time to make his move? And once he did, would he really have enough support to take the city? Perhaps – the city itself hardly even had a guard – but really, how could he know?
He couldn’t, he realized. Though he wanted to be cautious, though he wanted to take as few risks as possible, there was only one way to figure out how many people would follow him to revolution – and that was to announce his intent and see how it went. From that point on, whatever happened, he’d be committed. There would be no going back. He’d simply have to take however many people decided to support him and do whatever he could.
It would be incredibly, stupidly risky.
It was a risk he had to take.
Well, several days had passed already since he’d first made his speech. Since then, his influence – or at least, the influence of his message – had been growing constantly. But that wouldn’t last. If he took too long before doing anything else, then what he’d said would fade from the people’s minds, and all his work would be for nothing. He had to strike before then.
Now seemed as good a time as any.
Once more, Azal stood on his platform, and this time, the square around him was swamped with people.
From the moment he’d stepped out into view, people had recognized him. Well, not him, as such – none of them had seen his face. But they recognized his black cloak and hood. In fact, Azal suddenly realized, the cloak – the cloak he had previously worn for no other reason than because he liked it – would actually be quite a useful symbol. It stood out from the rest, gave the people something to remember – and thus, gave them something to rally to.
Perhaps it would be useful to make the cloak something like a symbol of his authority, he thought. But that could come later.
Now, he stood upon the platform in the city square, and all around he could see more demons than he could count. He saw a lot of aeadites, demons of the same sort of Darius – which made sense; they were the most common type, after all. Besides those, he saw other chireans, too, and descendants, and other sorts too. They were whispering among themselves, some of them occasionally gesturing towards him. He assumed those were the people who’d heard his first speech, and were now pointing him out to the rest.
That was good. He clearly had the public’s attention, and if they were willing to listen, he imagined they were sympathetic to his ideas. All he had to do was take that sympathy and turn into something more – turn into the willingness to follow him to revolution.
Easier said than done. But he had to try.
“My fellow demons,” he started, quelling the noise. “I have stood here once already, and I have told you my thoughts. Some of you were here to hear that – to hear about the neglect with which the Council treats its’ citizens, about the foolhardiness with which it charges into battle after battle without thought for the consequences. Many of you were not – but still, I am sure that, however you heard about it, you know how I feel. That is why you are here, after all, is it not? Then I will get to the point.
“Since I have last spoken to you good people, I have been thinking. I have thought about the danger that faces us, and I have thought about how we may best combat it – how we may best save ourselves, our families, and our friends from destruction.” That wasn’t true. He’d had all those thoughts in his head for a long, long time, since long before that first speech. But saying it like this made sure he seemed like someone down-to-earth instead of some distant, untouchable plotter. “The conclusion I have come to… it is a grave thing, and it weighs heavily on my heart to so much as think about it. But there is only one way that we can save ourselves. There is only one way we can have justice for the disdain the Council has shown us.
“No longer will we merely stay here, content to do whatever the Council says while they waste their time and risk their people’s lives for some unreachable dream. No longer will we meekly sit around and wait for destruction, letting the Council do whatever it wants simply because we are too afraid to stop them. No. That ends now. We must take a stand!
“We will rise up! We will show the Council that they cannot simply do as they please! We will make them pay – we will make them pay for the lack of concern they have shown for us, and we will make them pay for every single demon whose blood has been spilled on their pointless wars! …We are the Bloodhorns. And we will stop them from dragging us all to our graves.
“Whatever it takes.”
There was silence from the crowd. They looked at him nervously, almost anticipatorily – as if they thought he was just joking, as if they thought that at any moment he would tell them what he really wanted them to do. He could understand that. The crowd was here to hear his speech, to be outraged at the Council, or to get something to scare their friends with. None of them had expected to be called to rebellion.
But that was what he was doing. And now, he was making it obvious. Now, all his cards were on the table. And he was about to know what the people would do with them.
“If any of you think this is a stupid idea,” he said in a heavy voice, “I understand. But you know what will happen if the Council is allowed to continue its ways – what will happen if they are allowed to continue agitating the mortals. Those of you who would expose your friends and family to that horror… you are welcome to leave.”
That was the coup de grâce. Now, fear for themselves was not the only thing that motivated them. It was fear for those they cared about, now – and that brought with it shame. A powerful motivator. Azal merely hoped it would be enough.
For another few moments there was silence.
A flutter of fear rose inside Azal. Was it all for nothing, then? Would no one take up his cause? Would the flame of rebellion simply sputter out, no one willing to bear its torch?
…and then, somewhere in the crowd, someone said “…You know what? Fuck it.” And a cheer went up.
Emboldened by that one demon who had chosen to take his stand, someone else cheered. And someone else. And more, and more, and more-
The cheer spread through the crowd like wildfire, and Azal smiled.
Someone ran through the streets.
Melissa sprinted away, darting between grey buildings and through dark alleys. Has the world gone mad? she asked herself, as she rushed to get out of Redgate, she couldn’t help but feel like it had.
A day ago everything had been fine. A day ago she’d been talking and gossiping with her friends, like anyone would. A day ago there was nothing threatening her life, nothing threatening to tear away everything she’d ever known and stamp out her voice.
And now what was happening? Now there was talk of… of rebellion. It seemed unbelievable – it seemed stupid. But that was what was happening. And… and to her horror, there was actual support for it. Support for it!
She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t fight something like this. She didn’t have the first clue where she’d start. There was just one thing she could do.
She had to tell the Council.