Katherine walked into the enormous chapter, stepping into the middle of the circle of thrones that stood inside. She knelt there. “My lords.”
“Rise, Katherine,” a demon said impatiently. Councillor Ihab. She obeyed the order without hesitation.
“Do you know what’s been happening up north?” Ihab asked, not wasting a moment. She turned towards him as he spoke. He was a timor – a massive sort of demon, easily twice her size, his skin a rough, pale red, like an aeadite’s. Also like an aeadite, his eyes were yellow and feline, but unlike them, he lacked any sort of horns, and instead had fangs in his mouth and claws on his fingers. Often, timors were considered intimidating, and Katherine supposed she could see why. But after so long serving one, she no longer even saw anything unusual about it.
“I am afraid I am unaware,” she responded, inclining her head slightly.
“Don’t bow,” Ihab muttered, waving his huge hand dismissively. “Daniel, tell her.”
Councillor Daniel – an aeadite – leaned his head sideways and a look of annoyance crossed his face, but he spoke anyway. “There has been talk of a rebellion,” he said without preamble. “Much of Redgate appears to be turning against us, though its surroundings are largely untouched.”
Katherine’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”
A small smile passed over Ihab’s face. “Didn’t you hear what he said?”
“I-I heard,” she said. “But… this is unbelievable.”
“Oh, I know,” Councillor Mia said from the side, her silky-smooth voice drifting through the air. “I know, my dear General. It’s quite unbelievable.” Katherine’s eyes shot over to her, and though she couldn’t read a chirean’s face easily, she could tell the Councillor was trying her hardest not to scowl.
Ihab shrugged. “Mm.”
“I will make this right,” Katherine said, determination burning through her. “Give the order, and I will ride there and stamp out these… these tra-“
The timor held up a placating hand. “Do let us speak, please, Katherine,” he sighed.
She lowered her eyes, suddenly ashamed. Of course. She’d gotten ahead of herself. There was no excuse for that – no excuse for not listening to the Council. Her station merely meant she was one of their most trusted servants. She should not have thought that she could make their decisions for them. That was arrogance. Sheer arrogance.
“I… am sorry, my lord,” she said, because there was nothing else to say.
Ihab rolled his eyes. “Oh, don’t be sorry,” he barked. “Nothing bloody wrong with being eager to help us. Just, you know… maybe don’t interrupt us in the future.” He hesitated. “Unless you think we’re being stupid. Then you can interrupt us.”
Katherine stopped for a moment. She… didn’t know how to respond to that. Ihab had told her, a few times, that she should think for herself more, but… never quite like this. But whatever Ihab thought, she couldn’t betray her duty to the Council. Whatever they ordered, she would do. It was not her place to question them.
But if a Councillor himself was telling her to question them, then… then what was she supposed to do?
“Uh…” she stammered, because she had no idea what to say.
“Councillor,” Councillor Yulia said matter-of-factly. “I believe we were speaking about something?” Yulia was a verdos, a rare sort of demon. She was stick-thin, and her skin was pitch black, though it lacked the sort of leathery quality of a chirean’s. Her mouth was unsettlingly wide and filled with fangs, and her eyes were like those of an insect. Long claws sprung from her fingers, like from Ihab’s. Her most distinctive feature, however, was the pair of wings sticking out from her back. Verdoi still did not have true flight, but those wings did allow them to glide softly down from most any height, and they could even float in the air for short periods of time.
Of course, none of that was relevant now. Here, she was a Councillor, and that was all that mattered.
“Yes, the rebels. Those troublesome things,” Ihab nodded. “Quite the issue.”
“What would you have me do?” Katherine asked, mindful not to get ahead of herself again – and relieved that she didn’t have to think about what Ihab had said.
“You, personally? Nothing,” Ihab said. “I know you want to fight them yourself, but we need you more elsewhere. The reason I brought you here is because… well, you’re one of our Generals. I figured if anyone would have any suggestions about how we could deal with this, it’d be you.”
Katherine hesitated. “If it were up to me,” she said, “I wouldn’t devote too much attention to this.” The words tasted like ash in her mouth. It felt wrong, so wrong, to say that traitors to the Council were not something worthy of concern – to show any sort of leniency to them. But… it was true. They were not the most pressing issue. “If we have not heard of this yet, they could not have built up that much power. It is important to stamp them out before they grow, of course, but there is no need to send a large contingent of troops for something this base.
“I would send a trained squad of soldiers. Most of the rebels will not have any training or equipment, so we don’t have to worry about matching their numbers. All we need is enough people to cut through a disorganized mob. I’d suggest we pick out skilled demons for this – it may not be a difficult task, but it could get chaotic, and it would be easy for those we send to lose their lives if they do not know how to handle the situation. Our soldiers dying for something like this would be unacceptable.
“But assuming the people we select are good enough to get this done without being trapped in the confusion, it should be easy. Most of the so-called rebels should turn and flee when we cut down a few of their number. Those that stay and fight may present a small issue, but they still shouldn’t have access to proper equipment, so we shouldn’t have much trouble slaying them. And assuming our men have good armor, the traitors should not even be able to harm them.
“Once we break the mob and kill those who still try to fight, we need to find the leaders. Then we torture them to death. Grisly, perhaps, but it is what they deserve. And more importantly, it’s the only way we’ll deter anyone else from trying to do this again.”
There was silence in the room. Councillor Mia smiled a wide grin, the expression stretching her batlike features into something grotesque. “Oh, I like that plan,” she said.
“It seems like a good idea, yes,” Councillor Gerhardt – one of the only two Councillors that Katherine hadn’t heard speak at this meeting yet – said. “But what if it fails? We need to destroy the rebels, and we need to do it now. We can’t afford to just send a few troops in there and hope for the best.”
“We can,” Councillor Daniel said. “If this first strike fails, that merely tells us this is a threat to be taken seriously. Only sending a small amount of soldiers ensures that if they are lost, the loss will not be particularly great, and if that happens, then we will know what we must do next.”
“Exactly,” Councillor Mia grinned. “Who really cares about a few demons going missing? When they joined our armies, they swore they would die for us. If this is how it happens, why should they complain?”
“I find your willingness to throw our people to their deaths disturbing,” Gerhardt said.
Ihab shrugged. “I don’t like it either,” he said, “but Daniel is right. We can only spare so many men, so as much as it pains me to say, I’m hesitant about the idea of just crushing them with overwhelming numbers. If they prove to be a credible threat, then yes, that may be the best thing to do. But for now, there’s no reason to think Katherine’s idea won’t work.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Gerhardt asked. “Are you alright with throwing our men to their deaths?”
The timor sighed, a long and exasperated sound. “Gerhardt…” he said, slowly, “shut. Up.”
Katherine’s eyes widened, and Councillor Gerhardt suddenly sat up very straight. She could hardly believe what she’d just heard. To say something like that to a member of the Council… it was treasonous. Almost sacrilege. She should’ve cut off the head of anyone who did that.
But the person who’d done it was a Councillor himself. What could she make of it then? She knew Ihab was always considered somewhat odd by his fellows – she knew some people described him as a ‘rogue’, said he was a wild thing that had no place in something like the Council. Even personally, she’d met him often, and she knew he’d always been somewhat of a free spirit. But for him to actually say something like that in a meeting of the Council… it just wasn’t done.
Except, apparently, it was.
“Yes, I get it,” Ihab said, his voice annoyed. “I know you’re worried about those demons we send dying. That’s fair enough. But you know as much about our situation right now as I do. You know how limited our resources are. So think about this question before you answer it – what would you do?”
“I-“ Gerhardt said, and fell silent.
For a few, long moments stillness reigned, and then Ihab said, calm once more, “…Thank you for your advice, Katherine. You can go now.”
She bowed, once more, and left the room, shutting the door behind her.
There was another bit of silence, and Mia broke it first. “So, how do you think it’ll go?”
“Logically, they should beat the rebels, kill the leaders, and we should all be fine,” Ihab responded. “Of course… somehow, I doubt that’s how it’ll go.”
“Why?” Councillor Adrien asked, surprised.
Ihab shrugged. “Call it a hunch.”
“Those are worthless,” Daniel said dismissively. “Do you have any actual reasoning to back up your claim?”
“No. Guess not,” Ihab said.
“Then I see no reason why we should get ahead of ourselves,” Daniel said. “We have no cause to expect that this force will not be successful.” He hesitated. “Though, of course, it would still be wise to prepare for that eventuality. But it is not a pressing issue.”
“You’re not wrong,” Ihab shrugged. “But… I don’t know. It’d be… almost disappointing if it was really this simple, you know?”
Gerhardt turned towards him. “Councillor!” he almost shouted, scandalized. “Don’t tell me you’re sympathizing with these fools?”
The timor smiled. “Call me a romantic if you wish, but…” He spread his arms. “Maybe I just miss my old life.”
Mia, the chirean (one of them, anyway), smiled. “Do you now, Ihab?”
“Your thinly-veiled threats will not work on me, Mia,” Ihab sighed with a roll of his eyes. “Even you wouldn’t quite be insane enough to murder a fellow Councillor.”
“Are you calling me insane?” she scowled.
“And what would you call it?” Ihab asked.
“I merely do what has to be done,” Mia said. “I make sure people get what they deserve. So what if I enjoy doing it?”
Ihab chose not to answer that. He’d brought up the issue of Mia quite a few times in the past, and everyone always refused to do anything about her. Instead, he just said “You know, you seriously creep me out.”
Her face darkened. “Is that any way to speak to a Councillor?”
He chuckled. “Is that?”
She growled and sank back into her seat, and Ihab leaned against the back of his chair.
“But, yes,” he said. “I admit it. I can’t help but feel a little pang of nostalgia when I think about those rebels up there. Come on, now – you can’t seriously tell me you don’t miss our past days at least a bit, can you?”
“I rather think I can,” Adrien said.
“Same here,” Mia said. “It’s nicer having power. Though… I can’t deny it was fun.”
There was a brief pause, and just when Ihab thought no one else would answer, Gerhardt said “I must admit, that time had its charms.”
“Well, whatever all of you say, I really do miss those times,” Ihab said wistfully, a grin on his face. “It’s almost nice to be reminded of them like this.”
Adrien smiled hesitantly. “Come now,” he said. “You aren’t starting to feel sympathetic for the rebels, are you?”
Ihab shrugged. “And why not? We were rebels once upon a time too, remember? Just because we’re going to be fighting these guys doesn’t mean we have to think of them as monsters.”
“That was different!” Gerhardt snapped. “We overthrew a tyrant. These… these ungrateful fools seek to overthrow us! Us, who have only ever worked for the betterment of demonkind!”
Councillor Ihab bit down on the obvious response to that, and instead simply rolled his eyes and sat back.
Still, Gerhardt must’ve realize what he was implying, because he turned towards him with a look of disbelief on his face and said “Unless you seriously mean to say…”
“I don’t think we’re talking about this anymore,” Ihab interrupted.
“Really?” Mia said. “You think you can get out of this that easily?”
“Actually, yes,” Ihab stated. “Unless you mean to say that it’s now a punishable act for a Councillor to express their views?” At that, Mia growled but said nothing.
Ihab looked around the room. He knew most of the other Councillors were somewhat distrustful of him. Back before all this – back when they, too, had been rebels, fighting to overthrow a king under whose heel demonkind suffered – he had been their greatest warrior, the man they would put on the frontlines to lead the charge. Since then, he’d been put on the Council for the same reason the rest of the Councillors were – because he had been one of that original Rebellion’s leaders. But he had always known that the other Councillors weren’t too happy about that. They saw him as a man whose only value was on the field of battle, and who didn’t know the first thing about running an actual nation.
Still, he’d been accepted to the Council, because everyone agreed it’d seem too unfair to exclude one of their leaders just because of something they assumed about him. Which was somewhat of an odd thought, now. At this point, Ihab wasn’t even sure if some of the Councillors even remembered what ‘fair’ meant. He’d thought for quite a while that a few of them had let the power get to their heads. Mia, in particular, but Gerhardt and Daniel too, and… well, perhaps not Yulia. She’d always been ruthless, even when she’d just been a rebel. But still, he sometimes felt like he himself and Adrien were the only two people left who remembered what normal morality was.
Of course, Ihab himself didn’t really care about it that much, either. Oh, he understood good and evil well enough, but that didn’t change the fact that if it were up to him, he’d gladly continue trying to take over Verta like the Council was doing right now, right or wrong be damned. So, he supposed, Adrien was really the only sane one left.
Heh. It was pretty funny, when he thought about it that way. They were just a merry bunch of madmen, all stumbling over themselves in their efforts to actually act like the leaders of a nation. Sometimes it felt to him like none of them really had any idea what they were doing. Well, except Yulia, maybe.
Ihab didn’t feel any sort of disdain for the rest of them for that, though. After all, he was every bit as odd as the rest of them – the only difference, as far as he could tell, was that he embraced it, whereas the rest seemed to prefer to delude themselves into thinking they were sane. But did that really make him any better? Or did it just make him even worse?
Well, if Ihab had ever cared about those sorts of questions before, he wouldn’t be the sort of person he was. And he saw no reason to start caring now.
All he really knew was that he couldn’t help but hope that this first strike failed. Because if it did… that would be when things got fun.
It’d been far too long since Ihab had felt the glory of battle.
“General Katherine,” Leonid nodded to the descendant as he passed her in a hallway.
“General Leonid,” she nodded back, acknowledging his existence, and walked onwards.
“One moment,” he said, and she stopped and looked back over her shoulder at him. “Have they told you yet?”
“About the…” She hesitated for a moment, trying to find a less respectful word for it (or so Leonid assumed), and then gave up and said “rebellion?”
“Yes,” Leonid said. “I suppose they have, then.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Did you have need of me?”
“No,” he responded. “I just wanted to make sure you were informed. Please, carry on.”
“Thank you,” Katherine said, and continued walking to wherever it was she was going.
Leonid just leaned against the wall, and sighed. So, a rebellion. Frankly, he’d suspected something like this would happen for quite a while, now. And still, he couldn’t help but be dismayed when he thought about it.
It had been bad enough when all the Council had been doing was telling him to send demons to their deaths against the mortals. At least back then, they were fighting enemies. It was nothing more than a bloodbath, of course, and the slaughter of the demons involved was still utterly senseless. But at least back then, they were fighting others. They were fighting for a cause – they were fighting to claim the lands of Verta, to finally break free of this prison of red and grey. At least there was that.
But now? Now, he could only imagine what would happen. Demons would be sent to fight demons. Friend would slaughter friend, because they happened to be on different sides. And the worst part was… Leonid couldn’t even say the rebels were in the wrong. He was loyal to the Council, of course, but… he could see why the people wouldn’t want them to rule. He could understand them.
There would be no ‘good side’ or ‘evil side’ in this conflict. Merely two ideas, both valid, both with their own good and bad sides, both unable to coexist with the other. And all that would decide the side any one particular person took here was which of those ideas was closer to their heart – and just for that reason, they would kill everyone with the other idea, because the two ideas would be at war. No one would be slaying the forces of evil, here – all anyone would be doing was murdering the people who thought differently from them.
Because that would be all they could do. After all, was that not what war was?
Leonid only hoped it would blow over quickly. If he was particularly lucky, perhaps he would never have to get involved at all. That would be nice.
And so the forces of the Council rode forth under its banner, and they headed north.
“Then the Council considers this a serious threat,” a vaguely feminine voice said in the dark forest, sounding satisfied.
“Good,” another voice responded. “Good. This is the perfect opportunity, then, is it not?”
“Not yet, Odilon,” the first voice said. “Not yet. But… soon. When the pretenders are disorganized, and those who would take their place are shattered as well… then our time will have come.”
“And until then, we must prepare, yes?” a third voice asked hopefully, the words thick with anticipation.
There was a pause, and then, the first voice spoke once more. “But of course, Letholdus,” the voice purred. “That will do excellently.”
The third voice sounded incredibly pleased. “Thy will be done,” it said, half-mockingly.