“They’re coming,” Darius said gravely.
“About time,” Azal muttered.
“Uh… you have a plan or anything?” Johannes asked, nervously.
“Yes,” the chirean said. “Of course.”
“It’s quiet,” the leader of the squadron, a chirean named Adam, murmured. “You’d think we’d have seen them by now.”
“Hah,” someone chuckled behind him. Without turning, he knew it was that timor, Anya. She was always an annoyance, but an undeniably good warrior. Timors, male or female, were already stronger than any living thing had any right to be, and Anya was a particular exemplar of that sort of strength. “They’re just hiding. The bloody cowards…” she said, disdainfully.
‘That’s a dangerous assumption,’ Adam wanted to say, but before he could, someone else spoke.
“Actually, I don’t think you’re quite right,” the person said. Malte – a fellow chirean, and a longtime friend of Adam. Someone Adam knew he could rely on. “Haven’t you noticed something odd?”
“Except for the fact that our enemy’s nowhere to be seen?” Anya said. “Can’t say I have.”
“No one is anywhere to be seen,” Malte pointed out. “Doesn’t that strike you as unnatural?”
“Well, of course no one’s around,” Anya explained, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We decided to take the least populated route. Or did you somehow forget that?”
“Of course I haven’t,” Malte said, exasperated. “But-“
“But even the least populated route should have some people,” Adam finished, catching on. “This isn’t a small city. We shouldn’t have been able to evade everyone. Not normally, anyway.”
A silence settled on the group as they all realized what that meant. They hadn’t been picked haphazardly, after all, and they were all smart enough to figure it out. Even Anya, so arrogant, still knew.
“We’re being led into a trap,” she finally whispered.
“Yes,” Adam said, simply. “And you understand what that means, right?”
“If they’re doing this, the rebels are more organized than we thought,” Malte said. “We cannot afford to drop our guard. This will be harder than anticipated.”
“Indeed,” Adam nodded. “Everyone, be cautious.”
They proceeded forward. They had to stamp out the rebels now if at all possible, after all, and so, even if it was at a trap, they had to advance.
Johannes stood at the front of the mob and shouted, even as nervousness bubbled inside him.
After kicking this whole thing off, Azal had immediately taken steps to ensure the newest members of the Bloodhorns were obedient to him. He asserted his authority quickly, putting himself firmly into the role of their leader. It had seemed to work – certainly, from what he had last seen, the people seemed to follow Azal more or less without question, at least for now.
Johannes was… unsure as to whether he approved of Azal’s decisions on that matter. He couldn’t help but feel like it was a hypocritical move – like he was trying to make himself a dictator right after imploring the people to revolution. Dictator of the revolution, perhaps, but still a dictator. And yet, when Azal had explained his reasoning, Johannes couldn’t help but agree. After all, Azal had been right – the people needed guidance; they needed a strategic mind behind them. No simple disorganized mob would ever be able to destroy the Council. Order was necessary, and at the start of this, at least, the only way to have order was to make sure the people had a leader they obeyed. Until everything settled down a bit, who knew what they would do if left to their own devices?
It made sense. Azal was right – without tactics, without strategy, they would be crushed. And neither of those things could exist without some sort of leader. So it was quite reasonable for Azal to try and take power the moment he started the revolution, just to make sure he got his position before the mob got too volatile to accept him.
But still. It felt wrong.
Never mind that, though. Johannes couldn’t afford to think about that right now. Azal had sent him off with part of the mob, and told him to take up position here. He’d given him one instruction, and left it at that. Of course, he hadn’t actually told him his plan. He was still Azal, after all.
Johannes just hoped it was good.
There was a small, choked noise, and then it stopped, so quickly that Adam wasn’t even sure if he’d really heard it.
“What was that?” Malte said, alarmed. Adam couldn’t help but be a bit relieved. Good. He wasn’t going insane.
Though, on second thought, he suddenly realized that the noise being real was quite a bit more worrisome.
“Is everyone alright?!” he shouted, whirling around, his eyes suddenly wide. He counted the demons alongside him.
One less than he’d had before.
Not good. Not good at all.
“Someone’s missing,” Malte hissed, quietly.
“Yeah, I got that,” Anya said, agitation in her voice. But even she was talking quietly.
Adam gritted his teeth. “Dammit,” he said. “We’re being hunted. Everyone, to me!” His people clumped up around him.
“Stay close,” he commanded. “And make sure to look all around you. We can’t let ourselves be picked off like this.”
Darius smirked, standing over the corpse of the dead aeadite. He’d fallen behind from the group, he’d let himself fall into a false sense of security, and he’d paid the price.
He left the body behind and ran ahead. He wouldn’t get an opportunity like this again, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his ways.
And while that was happening in the land of the demons, something else was happening elsewhere.
Somewhere in Verta – more specifically, a small village in Paleland, the Kingdom of Sand – Jacob the blacksmith hammered away at a piece of iron. Sweat poured down his face, and he had to force himself to focus on his work, to not get distracted.
And then a scream sounded from somewhere, and Jacob looked up.
Someone was running down the street, a woman, hollering in fear. Jacob tracked her with her eyes, and when she passed out of sight, he turned to look for whatever she was running from. That’s odd, he thought. What could be happening in a place like this?
He caught sight of what the woman was afraid of, and gasped and dropped his hammer, stumbling backwards.
Someone – no, something, something like a mockery of a human, with red skin and horns – was walking through the street. Casually. As if it owned the town. Somewhere in the back of Jacob’s mind, he realized what the thing was. It was a demon. Which was unthinkable. It couldn’t have been a demon. They hadn’t invaded Paleland in so long now, and even when they had, there was always an army waiting to stop them. He couldn’t have been seeing a demon. It was impossible.
It was what was happening, and Jacob couldn’t do anything but glare at the thing, frozen.
More demons stepped behind it. But that first one… Jacob couldn’t tear his eyes away from it. There was something in its glare. Each of the demons standing behind it looked cruel, intimidating, terrifying… but that one in the front was the worst of all. Behind its eyes danced evil itself, as if it was merely waiting for an opportunity to do something cruel to present itself.
That demon looked at Jacob, and smiled, and nodded.
Another demon stepped forward and Jacob cried out and ran and the demon caught up to him and kicked him and approached again and reached for his neck and then there was nothing.
Woosh. And then an impact, and a few yelps.
Adam stopped, suddenly, and turned his head to the side. One of his demons lay dead on the ground, a knife sticking out of the side of his head. The demons near him had stumbled away from the corpse in shock, and as the rest of the squad realized what was going on, they all stopped.
“Damn it,” Adam cursed. “Damn it.”
“What are we going to do?!” Malte asked, alarmed.
Anya hissed. Adam knew she didn’t want to admit weakness – he knew she didn’t want to drop her confident image, she didn’t want to acknowledge that these rebels might actually be worth worrying about. But he knew her well enough to know that she would anyway. Arrogant she might have been, but she was still practical when she had to be.
“We might be able to find whoever’s doing this,” she said, her voice tight. “But I’m not sure. If it’s just one person, they’ve got a lot of ways to hide.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. “And we can’t get caught up in the search for this person. Remember why we’re here.”
“To beat the rebels, yeah,” Anya said. “But we won’t be able to do that if we’re all dead.”
“True,” Adam admitted. “But as you said, if it’s just one person, it’s a tossup if we’ll even be able to find them. And if we can’t, we’ll just have wasted time.”
“And besides,” Malte interjected, “if the person doing this is good enough to already have done this much damage, do we really want to approach them? It feels like if we go looking, we’ll just give our assailant more chances to strike at us.”
“Ugh… you’re right,” Adam said. “Damn it. This isn’t going to be as easy as we’d hoped.”
Anya sighed. “Of course it isn’t.”
“Well… we don’t have any options, not really,” Adam said, grudgingly. “Malte’s right – trying to seek this person out would be stupid. We need to move. But avoid open spaces as much as you can, and stay clear of any potential hiding spots.”
“Yeah,” Anya said, and the group rushed ahead.
“Shit,” Regina hissed, retrieving a short sword from its hiding place in her backroom. It’d been given to her by her family when she was young, and it’d been intended for self-defence against robbers and brigands. That had been as far as her training had gone, too. She could fight off untrained people just looking for an easy mark, but… these demons, whoever they were, were raiders. They were prepared for a fight. And Regina knew she wouldn’t be able to deal with that. “Shit, shit, shit.”
The sword didn’t even fit right, not anymore. How long had it been since she’d last held it? She didn’t know, but it didn’t feel like it should’ve in her hand anymore. It felt awkward, unfamiliar. But it was the only tool she had.
Of course, even ignoring that, there was the simple question of whether or not she’d even be able to match any of these demons in a fight. It had never been seen as proper for women to wield weapons, so no one had ever particularly wanted to train her – and, to be perfectly frank, she hadn’t exactly wanted that sort of training, either. She’d always been interested in other things. Now, she found herself regretting that.
But her skills were what they were, and they were all she had. Well, not all she had – there was still her trump card. But would that even help?
She didn’t know, and she couldn’t worry about that right now. Some part of her wanted to just hide in the backroom until it all blew over, but she knew better than to think that would work. At the very least, it’d be stupid to just assume the demons would leave this place alone. But more than that, she had a feeling that she was the reason they were here – after all, she was the only one here who’d even had any contact with a demon in recent times. And if that was true, this would be the first place they’d search.
So, no. She couldn’t hide. She’d get herself killed that way. The only way to get out was to run, run, run away.
And if she had to cut her way out… well. She just prayed it wouldn’t come to that.
It took longer than they’d like – so much longer than they’d like – but finally, Adam caught sight of what he had been expecting.
He stopped at the corner and motioned for the rest of them to stop, too. The alley around the corner led to one of the big, open areas in the city. There, gathered at one end of that square, the mob they had all expected was gathered.
Reaching this spot had taken far too long. But it was necessary. They’d had to take the least exposed routes possible, and that meant detours. Their path was one of the slowest ones possible – but at least it had stopped them from getting killed on the way.
Well, most of them. Adam didn’t have any bloody clue how they’d done it, but their mystery assassin had still caught a few of his demons as the group passed some of the few vulnerable points in the route. But it had only been three, which meant that, in conjunction with the first two, the assailant had taken out five of his men in total. Not good, especially when he had so few people in the first place. But… not disastrous.
Still, it was all going to be decided now. The assassin wouldn’t have any good chances to attack during a big battle, so they at least wouldn’t have to worry about that. And at first glance, the mob before them looked disorganized, ill-equipped – something they would have no trouble dealing with.
But Adam knew better. The enemy had already shown itself to be resourceful, skilled, and, most importantly, highly organized – how else would they have been led into this sort of situation? So whoever the rebel leaders were, they wouldn’t just leave this sort of mob for them to fight.
“They’re around that corner,” Adam whispered to his team. “It’s a mob. Looks disorganized, at first glance. I’m willing to bet anything it’s not what it looks like, though.”
Malte looked doubtful. “You think they had the time to train an actual fighting force? Or the capabilities?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Anya quietly hissed. For a three-meter tall timor, she could be surprisingly quiet when necessary. “They’ve got an ambush in wait.”
“Wait, what?” Malte looked surprised. “How do you know?”
“She doesn’t, unless I’m significantly underestimating her,” Adam said. “But it’s what’s to be expected. We’ve been led here, to a very specific point. And considering the sort of things these rebels have done so far… a full-on ambush seems like the sort of thing they’d try. There’s probably another alley that connects to that square where they’ve got a bunch of people stashed in reserve. When we advance, that group charges forward and we end up surrounded. Simple, but undeniably effective.”
“Damn it,” Malte spat, though he still kept his voice down. “What do we do, then?”
Adam hesitated. “We don’t have any mages or archers or anything like that. We don’t have any choice but to advance.”
“But if we do, we’ll be surrounded,” Anya said through gritted teeth. “And even if we’re up against untrained peasants, we’ll still be outnumbered and in the enemy’s midst.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. “Which is why we’re not going to just let them encircle us.
“We’ll strike, cause as much chaos as we can quickly, and then retreat. Hopefully, the mob will be too agitated by that for whoever’s leading this to be able to stop it, and they’ll give chase. That way, they’ll be forced out of position, and we can dispatch them like any other chaotic mob. But on the off chance they hold their ground, we’ll still be out of there before the second group of rebels ambushes us, and they’ll both be in front of us rather than one being behind us. In that case, we’ll probably still hold the advantage.”
Anya frowned. “I suppose.”
“Malte?” Adam asked. “Sound good to you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Probably the best thing we can do in this situation.”
“Alright,” Adam said. “Let’s do this, then.”
Azal stood in front of his contingent of the mob, the one that was poised to ambush the enemy as they approached. He absentmindedly wondered if that enemy knew what he was planning. They almost certainly did, he decided.
Ah well. He still had a few cards up his sleeve.
Regina put her ear to the door out of her backroom and listened, trying not to make any noise. There was definitely a fight going on out there. Well, a ‘fight’ might be generous – from the sounds, it seemed like everyone unlucky enough to be in the tavern was just being slaughtered by the demons.
Sweat poured down her forehead. Damn it. She’d hoped she’d at least be able to get out of the tavern before it got overrun. Then, she’d at least have a chance to run, to hide. Now, she’d just have to hope the demons would leave this room alone… and if they didn’t, she’d have to fight.
She tried her best not to think about the fact that doing so would almost certainly result in her death.
She took a deep breath and swallowed nervously. Guilt bubbled up inside her, guilt and shame at hiding out here while her patrons got murdered. But… she wasn’t a hero. She wasn’t going to risk her life for them.
There was a shout from outside, and footsteps. More footsteps, fast footsteps, louder and louder, approaching her door.
Her eyes went wide. They’d figured out she was hiding here. No, no, no. This was bad. This was horrible. She thought she might’ve been able to at least stay here until they got done with the tavern, but… but now…
Trying not to tremble, she leaned against the wall next to the door. Damn it. Damn it. Everyone in this town thought of her as someone mysterious, someone beyond them. Sometimes, she felt like they all thought she was invincible, and that thought made her feel invincible herself, too. But now, that illusion had been shattered. For all the knowledge she held, for all the skills she possessed, she was just going to die a scared girl.
There was the sound of a shoe hitting wood and the door flew open and a demon stepped through. And before Regina even had any idea what she was doing, she drove the sword through him and pinned him to the very door he’d just kicked open.
A strangled gasp escaped him. Regina had never killed anyone before but that didn’t matter right now. She just tore the sword from his body and ran outside as fast as she could.
The demons stared at her in shock for a moment, a few even suddenly stumbling as they realized who they were looking for. Damn it. That meant they really were here for her. But that little instant sent hope into her heart. For just a moment, they were too frozen to do anything. If she could just make it out in that time…
One of them moved to block the door, suddenly remembering what was going on. But his dagger wasn’t held at the ready and she stabbed him through the heart, or at least she tried, but though his weapon was down at his side he moved it upwards with adrenaline-fuelled speed and deflected her blow.
She didn’t have time to fight him, and she didn’t think she’d win either, so though she’d have liked not to reveal it yet, she used her trump card.
With a swift movement, she thrust her hand forwards, fingers splayed. A small, yet forceful gust of wind shot forth, throwing the demon off balance. He would’ve recovered quickly – she didn’t have much power, and she had to conserve what little she had – but Regina didn’t let him. With a swift thrust, the blade of her sword pierced his heart before he could bring his dagger around once more, and as he froze in shock, she threw his body to the side. He wasn’t even dead yet, just dying, but Regina didn’t care. She pushed open the door and sprinted out of the tavern, her breathing heavy.
She was exhausted already. She’d had less than a minute of action, and she wasn’t that unfit, but the terror and the stress had gotten to her – she’d never been in a combat situation before, much less used magic in one. Her muscles were burning, and sweat poured down her forehead, and she couldn’t help but gasp for breath as she ran. But she couldn’t stop. She had to get away.
Adam and his company sprinted out into the open, weapons drawn, towards the horde of rebels. This wasn’t exactly standard procedure for dispersing a mob, but Adam didn’t care about that anymore. Considering what the rebels had done so far, he wasn’t willing to consider this a simple suppression of dissent. This was a military operation.
The mob stared in disbelief for a moment, looking shocked. And then, grins appeared on their faces.
Oh, for the Great Powers’ sake, Adam thought. They thought there were going to be more of us, didn’t they? Just what he needed. Even the bloody mob was mocking him. And if the theory was right, this wasn’t even the one that was supposed to fight them – it was just the bait. The bait was mocking him.
Never mind. He had a plan, and he couldn’t let himself get angry now. That would be stupid. He just needed to do what he was here to do.
The distance was crossed, and the first skirmish commenced. Adam let Anya and the one other timor among them go ahead, and he smiled as he saw the effect it was having. These people weren’t expecting a timor, and many of them scattered. They were no trained force, after all – just normal people the leaders had picked out from the streets. They didn’t know how to deal with this.
Soon after, the rest of the company followed. None of them did as much damage as the timors, but they did enough. Keeping at the front, not letting themselves be absorbed into the crowd, they were more or less invincible. The peasants didn’t have the training or equipment to hurt them, not unless they surrounded them – and they couldn’t. The mob started falling back, just barely not breaking as Adam’s soldiers slaughtered them.
But. Adam knew what was coming.
With a quick signal to the rest of his group, he turned and fled. They couldn’t afford to be here when the ambush came.
And then, there was a shout, making them all stop. “Please, help me!”
As Adam looked around, eyes darting desperately, a descendant dashed out into the open. He was dressed in white and gold, his face slim and elegant – but his clothing was dirtied, like he’d been dragged along the ground, and a look of desperation was on his face.
“They’re- they’re going to kill me!” he yelled. “Please, you’ve got to save me! You can’t leave me here!”
“We’ll see what we can do,” Adam rushed to say, trying to get this descendant out of his way, “but we can’t promise-“
And his brain caught up to reality.
That expression on the descendant’s face – that desperate, fearful expression – did not look genuine in the least.
No. Damn it, no. They couldn’t have fallen victim to a delaying tactic. Even if it only cost them a few seconds, that was the one thing that could ruin them. That was the one thing they couldn’t allow to happen. But, damn it, he’d just let it happen. Now what did he do? What could he do?!
There was a rushing sound from a nearby alley as feet ran on the ground.
As the chirean in front of him stepped back in shock and signalled to his group, and they began running once more, Johannes finally let out the smile he’d been supressing during that brief conversation. And then, he turned and vanished into another small side alley. Darius was waiting for him.
“I see it worked,” Darius said, a grin on his face.
“Quite well,’ Johannes said, almost beside himself with pride.
Regina darted away from the main street. This wasn’t a big town. She just had to get out of it. There was a forest nearby – she could go there. The demons couldn’t find her. Not there. And then… and then she’d have to vanish again. Reappear somewhere else, with a new name and a new identity, and never, ever talk about what had happened here. It would be daunting, if not for the fact that she’d done it once already.
But first she just had to get out. She ran around the side of her tavern, and then fled behind the series of buildings alongside the street. Hopefully, the demons would stick to the streets for now. It’d be only natural. If it was so, that’d buy her time, and a tiny bit of time was all she needed…
Something slammed into her from the side as she passed through the gap between two buildings. She stumbled and gasped and nearly fell but somehow she managed to regain her balance and continue running but there were footsteps behind her now and they were getting closer and oh gods, there was someone chasing her now and she couldn’t escape…
She turned quickly and slammed another wave of wind into the demon behind her without even looking at them, but he flung out his own hand too, and passed through the spell as if she hadn’t even cast it. In fact, Regina felt something hit her instead – another gust of wind.
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open and before she could even think she turned and ran. Oh god, she realized. He’s a mage. And a much better one than her, too. More powerful, at least.
Another blast of force caught her feet and she tripped and fell.
No, no, no. This was bad. She couldn’t fall down. If she did, if she let him catch up… actually, what had she been thinking in the first place? Why’d she think she could run from a mage?
Desperately she scrambled to get up, but the demon – an aeadite with an insane grin on his face, dressed in some sort of black light armor with odd patterns of red and orange on it – stepped forth towards her, and she froze. She couldn’t help it. She knew she had to get up, to run, to at least try to fight him off. But she knew that doing so would be certain death.
So what? she thought. It wasn’t like the fate she’d face if she stayed would be any more pleasant. If anything, she thought it would be worse. But her body wouldn’t move.
“Well? Go on,” the demon said, expectantly. “Hit me with everything you’ve got.”
She stared up at him, barely comprehending his words. What did he… mean…?
He spread his arms. “Really?” he asked. “A mage, giving up so easily?”
Her hands trembled. Damn it. She hated to admit it, but he was right. What was she doing, just giving up like this? She was a mage, damn it. She had power. She couldn’t just… just surrender to some bloody raiders.
With a hoarse scream, she thrust her hand forwards, putting all of her power into the blast. She didn’t know what sort of effect it would have, but she knew it should stun him, at least for a moment. Then she could run, she could get out of this cursed place. She could get away from these… from these barbarians. What were they even here for? She didn’t have the first clue about that.
That didn’t matter. She just fired a gust of wind at him, as powerful as she could make it. But as he saw her hand moving, he thrust his hand forwards, and her heart sank.
She still made the attempt, but it wasn’t even a contest. His blast overwhelmed hers easily, and a force like a sledgehammer struck her square in the chest, driving her back down to the ground. She screamed. She’d probably cracked a few ribs.
“Oh, wow,” the demon drawled in disbelief. “You’re that weak, huh?”
She couldn’t answer. She could barely manage not to sob through this pain.
A hand grabbed her by the hair and pulled her upwards. She was forced to her knees, and then he let go of her hair and grabbed her by the throat instead. He pulled her up the rest of the way, causing another sharp spike of pain, and slammed her against the wall of a house.
“Y-you…” she managed. “Wh-why are you here…? What do you want with me?!”
He didn’t answer, just stared her coldly in the eye and placed his finger upon her chest, right on the ribs his blast had cracked. She knew what was coming, she knew how much it would hurt, but when he pressed down her vision still went white and she still screamed. She couldn’t even fall to the ground – he was still holding her up.
“I don’t really think you’re really in a position to ask me that,” the aeadite said, voice dripping with barely restrained satisfaction. “Or ask me anything, for that matter.”
He considered her for a moment. “You know,” he said, leaning in, “my masters want me to bring you to them. They want to ask you questions, to talk to you. To make you tell them everything.” His eyes sparkled. “They even promised me I could… have some fun… with you if I got them what they wanted.”
Her breathing stilled, and her eyes went wide. But there was no fear anymore. There was too little hope of escape for there to be fear. There was just despair, and resignation.
“But,” the demon continued, “when I look at you, all sobbing and screaming and all pathetic like that… I don’t think I can bear the thought of someone like you existing in this world for one. Moment. Longer.” He grinned. “It’s not like they won’t believe me if I told them some of the others killed you in the chaos.”
Tears streamed down her face. “Who… who are you?!” she managed.
“The name’s Letholdus,” he said in that arrogant voice of his. “Don’t worry – you won’t need to remember it.” He drew a long, jagged blade with a gentle curve.
Regina was dimly aware of the sounds of screaming and fighting and chaos all around her as the demons lay waste to the village. But none of that mattered to her anymore. To her, the only thing that existed now was that steel edge.
Letholdus swung it once, and there was another jolt of pain, and she felt something hot at her throat.
She fell, and she could barely remember what that red liquid leaking onto the ground was.
With a thunderous roar, another crowd of rebels, this one so much larger, poured out of a small alley. Adam and his company ran, they ran as fast as they could, but there was someone at the front of the mob, directing them, and he made them go to block off Adam’s escape route. Desperately, he looked around, searching for another way out – any way out. But before he could even find another place to run, the two mobs surged forth.
The descendant, whoever he was, had done his job well. Their retreat had been delayed, enough so that the second contingent could surround them as planned. And now they were trapped, in the midst of a deadly crowd that outnumbered them immeasurably and would undoubtedly want nothing more than their deaths. Skilled they may have been, but they couldn’t fight this. No one could.
“Damn it,” Adam hissed. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”
…and then it was all just screaming.