Chapter 8: With Bated Breath

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It had been too long, now. Far too long.

Ihab knew that, according to the plan, the squad they’d sent out should’ve been back already. In fact, they should’ve been back far earlier. By now, even the celebrations and all that – if this was even worth something like that – should’ve been over and done with, and life should’ve been back to normal. After all, this wasn’t a mission that was supposed to take long. As far as anyone knew, shattering an unarmed, unarmored mob would be easy, and quick too – and finding the leaders would only take a little bit of extra time after that was done. Someone would certainly be willing to rat them out.

But none of that had happened. Not only had the squadron not come back yet, not only had they not received any news of the rebels being smashed, but they hadn’t received any news at all. They were completely in the dark as to the squad’s progress, and they had been for a while already.

Some of the other Councillors were still in denial. But Ihab knew well enough what that meant. Whatever the others said – however much they claimed it was impossible, however much they desperately hoped that this was just some unforeseen delay and that the people they’d sent would return soon – Ihab knew that the only way this could’ve happened was if the squad had failed. And since they hadn’t received any news about it, that could only mean that every single one of them was either slain or captured. But the rest still couldn’t accept that.

Well, no. That wasn’t quite true. Ihab sort of wished it would be – he’d like the satisfaction of being the only person on the Council to recognize the truth – but it wasn’t. Adrien had come to the same conclusion a while ago, back when even Ihab himself was unsure. Daniel had backed the two of them up, too, though he was oddly calm about the issue. Really, the only people who didn’t believe it yet were Mia, Gerhardt, and Yulia – and frankly, Yulia didn’t so much not believe it as she was just deciding to hold out hope for a little while longer. So, just Mia and Gerhardt were really in denial.

Still. That was two people too many.

But no one had been able to convince them otherwise, and Ihab doubted anyone would be able to. They were just too sure of themselves, too sure that their beliefs were right, to listen to anyone else.

As he thought about it, Ihab had to fight down the urge to sigh. The worst thing was, a long time ago – back when their reign was still young – Gerhardt had claimed that they were so much better than the mortal races because the mortal races were divided and squabbled with themselves – never managing to unite, never managing to get past their differences. Even back then, Ihab was quite sure that demons wouldn’t be much different, and, well… here they were.

Though, he was more or less certain that if he asked Gerhardt about it now, he’d still insist that demons were strong, united and lived in perfect harmony, never fighting one another. Never mind the fact that the very existence of the rebellion put the lie to that idea – Gerhardt would conveniently forget about it the moment doing so would reinforce his beliefs. Gerhardt always did that, and Mia too. Although the two cases weren’t quite the same – Mia would forget about it intentionally, in order to avoid admitting weakness, whereas Gerhardt was just deluded enough to actually, genuinely forget about it. Ihab wasn’t really sure which case he hated more.

Well, anyway. It might’ve been a fool’s errand to convince those two that their strike team wasn’t coming back, but… Ihab had decided to try anyway. And that was what he was going to do.

“Right then,” he said, starting off their meeting. “First things first. There’s a pressing issue we need to discuss.”

Mia stared at him with narrow, angry eyes. “Is this about the squadron again?” she snarled.

“Yes,” Ihab responded simply.

“Stop talking about that,” Mia firmly ordered. “I don’t know what’s going on in that brain of yours that makes you so desperate for the worst possible situation to be true, but what you’re proposing is stupid.”

“It is not,” Ihab said. “Your team is not coming back.”

“Yes, they are,” she said. Her voice was cold, but it had a tinge of satisfaction and anticipation to it too – like she already knew she was right, and she just couldn’t wait for the moment she’d get to rub it in his face.

Ihab sighed. Yeah. This would not be easy or pleasant.

Cain sat at his table, the official black robe over his body, the hood pulled up over his head. The silver pin of the Inquisition shone upon his breast, and his arms were folded on the wood in front of him. He sat alone in the room, his table the only one there, standing upon a raised podium. The room was rather simple – there were no decorations, just a red path that led towards him – but still, it was grand. The walls and floor and ceiling were all of beautiful marble, and behind him, on the wall, there was the Inquisition’s symbol, crafted out of silver.

This was the room of the Head Inquisitor, supreme leader of the Inquisition.

Frankly, he couldn’t say he liked it. It was too… isolated for his liking. He’d have preferred to be among his subordinates, mingling with them – he didn’t like the idea of standing above everyone else just because he happened to be of higher rank. This place made him seem like some sort of untouchable nobility who could and would have someone executed just for speaking out of turn, and that wasn’t the image he wanted.

But the fact was, he needed somewhere where people who wanted to contact him could be directed, and he needed somewhere to call people when he needed to give out orders. So even though he didn’t like it, the place existed, and it was necessary.

The huge double doors at the other end of the red path from Cain creaked open, and someone stepped through. An Inquisitor, human, male, not young but not too old either, his hair black, a little hint of a beard on his chin.

“Inquisitor Lindholm,” Cain nodded. He knew this man well. The rest of the Inquisition had unofficially decided that he’d be one of their messengers – the person to send running to Cain whenever something needed his attention. He wasn’t exactly sure how that choice had been made, but what his Inquisitors decided among themselves was – usually – none of Cain’s business.

“Head Inquisitor,” Lindholm said with a small bow – more a nod of his head than anything else. Cain appreciated that. He didn’t like formality much.

“I presume you have something to tell me?” Cain asked.

“When do I ever not?” Lindholm said with a tinge of sarcasm to his voice. A small smile formed on Cain’s lips, and an amused breath escaped his mouth.

“Never,” Cain said. “You’ve still yet to tell me why, exactly, everyone decided you’d be the messenger.”

“Ask them,” Lindholm shrugged. “No one’s told me either.”

Cain sighed, a smile on his face. “Never mind,” he said. “I assume you have an actual reason to be here.”

“Yes,” Lindholm said. “It… may be a rather grave matter, in fact. We’re not certain yet, but…” His voice had suddenly turned grave, and Cain’s face hardened in response.

“I see,” Cain said. “What is this matter?”

“The Cult of the Burning Eye,” Lindholm began, “has recently attacked a village known as Nortryn.”

Cain’s eyes narrowed. “The Cult, hm?” he said. “Not an uncommon occurrence, though tragic. I presume there is more to this, then.” The name Nortryn sounded familiar, but Cain couldn’t quite remember where he’d heard it…

“There are several factors that have led Inquisitor Ermok to believe this may be of considerable notice,” Lindholm said, matter-of-factly and professionally. The seed of worry in Cain’s mind grew. If the Cult was doing something unusual, that was already bad enough – but if Ermok thought this was a threat? Ermok had been a member of the Inquisition for a long time, and Cain trusted him. If he, of all people, thought this was a major threat, it was almost certainly indeed a major threat.

“First,” Lindholm continued, clearing his throat, “the attack on the village of Nortryn does not follow the pattern of how the Cult normally attacks their targets. As you know, when the Cult attacks a town, it usually captures or kills as many of the people as it can and takes any valuables or things it may have a use for, then leaves without causing much unnecessary damage.”

Cain nodded. He did, indeed, know all that already. But protocol dictated that it be repeated whenever it became relevant.

“In this case, however, the Cult caused significantly more destruction than usual,” Lindholm stated. “Furniture was found thrown about. Some items were shattered entirely. Even some entire houses were destroyed. But the oddest part is that this sort of destruction only continued for a certain part of the village. Beyond a certain line, the damage caused was significantly closer to what the Cult normally does.”

The Head Inquisitor held up a hand, motioning for Lindholm to stop. He took a moment to process the facts. “Then they were looking for something specific,” he said. “They tore everything down in their search for it, then they found it, and from that point on they just ransacked the rest of the village like they would usually.”

Lindholm considered it for a few seconds. “Possible,” he stated.

“I would say it is the most likely explanation, given this information,” Cain said. “They do worship that demon god of theirs, after all. Perhaps they thought the village contained some sort of holy item of theirs?”

“It seems dangerous to draw conclusions with so little evidence,” Lindholm cautioned. “Though I do agree – that seems like the most likely possibility.”

“Yes, of course,” Cain agreed. “We do not know any of this for sure. For now, it is mere speculation.”

“The second unusual thing, though this may be merely a coincidence,” Lindholm continued, “is that the attacked village is rather close to the Portal to Aead in Paleland.”

At that Cain’s eyes widened, and he froze for a few moments. Then, he clasped his hands in front of his mouth in thought. “Normally, I would dismiss this as a coincidence,” he said. “But combined with the unusual pattern of destruction…” He thought for a second or two.

“Inquisitor Lindholm,” he asked, “do you know if there has been any recent unusual activity in Aead?”

“No,” Lindholm replied. “There has been nothing of the sort.”

Cain raised an eyebrow. “Do you mean that there have been no unusual events, or that there have been no reports?”

“No reports,” Lindholm clarified. “But there does not seem to be any significant change in the Council’s activities, from what we can see.”

Cain furrowed his brow in thought. What Lindholm had said really meant very little. The mortal races of this continent – the mortal races of Aphage – had almost no information about what was happening in Aead at any given time. More than those on any other continent, probably, since – as far as it was known – Aphage was the only continent to have any Portals on it, but still, information was very scarce. The demons did not like mortals intruding onto their world.

The Council’s activities on Verta were really the only way mortals could possibly make any inferences on the situation in Aead. But even those meant very little. Even if Aead was in utter chaos, Cain wasn’t sure the Council wouldn’t just continue its aggression. It may have been the only indicator the mortals usually had, but it was still a poor one.

But. The Cult was composed of demons itself. They would have a much easier time getting information from Aead.

“I would not be so certain,” Cain said. “If the Cult is taking attention to a village near a Portal, and in such an unusual way, too, it is likely because they have noticed something happening in Aead. And I do not need to even say that they would know better than us.”

“That is true, yes,” Lindholm mused. “Still, it is not certain.”

“Nothing is certain so far, Inquisitor Lindholm,” Cain reminded him firmly. “But we must try our best to figure out what is happening regardless.  Thus, we must make inferences from what little we do know. Yes, of course we can’t be assured we are right – but having some sort of idea, even if it’s just a possibility, is better than having no clue at all.”

Lindholm considered it for a moment. “I suppose you are right,” he said. “Still, it feels wrong to speculate with so little information…”

“Mm,” Cain muttered noncommittally. “Perhaps you are right, but it’s the only option we really have.” He thought for a moment. “…Inquisitor Lindholm, I believe we would be better able to discuss this elsewhere. Would you follow me?”

“Of course,” Lindholm said.

“Thank you,” Cain said, and rose from his chair. He stepped down from the podium, walked past Lindholm, and opened the doors leading out of his chamber.

“I think I need to ask the question we’re all thinking,” Darius said. “How long do we have?”

Johannes raised an eyebrow. “How long do we have? Until what?”

“Until the Council strikes back,” Darius clarified. “They’re not just going to let this go.”

“We may have longer than one would anticipate,” Azal said. “Unless we have missed one, every single member of the strike team sent to exterminate us has been slain. The Council should therefore not receive any news of what has transpired. Of course, they will work it out themselves – after all, the strike team won’t be returning – but that may take a while.” He let a small smirk creep up his face. “The Council is notoriously stubborn.”

Darius looked at him sceptically. “I’m not saying you’re wrong,” he said doubtfully, “but shouldn’t we plan for the worst anyway? We can’t just hope the Council will take a long time to come to any decision.”

“Of course,” Azal said. “We cannot. I still plan to continue our work as fast as possible. And regardless, the next phase of the plan must be accomplished whether or not the Council attacks.”

Johannes looked at him. “Next phase?”

“You do not need to know,” Azal responded, dismissing Johannes’ question.

Darius sighed. “Okay, Azal,” he said, “this is getting a little ridiculous.”

Azal narrowed his eyes. “Would there be any purpose in letting Johannes know of the plan?” he asked. “It would merely be a liability.”

“Advice,” Darius shrugged. “A second opinion. Suggestions on how it could be improved. Not every idea you have is going to be perfect, Azal, and the only way you’ll be able to improve them is through other people’s advice. And how can we give you advice if we don’t even know what you’re planning to do?”

“If you knew, I am sure you would agree that what I plan to do is the best course of action,” Azal said, starting to get agitated. “I cannot risk any of my plans being made known to the Council.”

“Why?” Darius asked.

That question took Azal aback.

For a few seconds he just looked at Darius with wide eyes, like the aeadite had gone insane. Of course he couldn’t risk his plans being discovered. What sort of fool would be unable to understand that? Information was important. If the enemy knew what was being planned, the enemy could work against it. But no enemy could defend against something they did not know was coming. If he kept his plans a secret to everyone until the very last moment, there was no possible chance the enemy would discover them prematurely – and thus, no chance they would not be caught off guard. That would be one of his few advantages in this war. What sort of stupidity would it be to throw it away?

“Because the enemy cannot guard against that of which they are not aware,” Azal said, his voice shocked and annoyed in equal measure. “Why would you even ask that question? If our foe knows what we are planning, they can work against it. But if they don’t, then whatever we do, they will be caught off guard.”

Darius narrowed his eyes. “There are… several problems with what you’ve just said.”

Azal’s eyes widened again. “Bu-“ he sputtered, and then sighed. “Very well. What issues do you see, then?”

“First off, just because the enemy knows we plan to do something doesn’t mean they can work against it,” Darius said. “I assume whatever you’re planning next, it’s going to take place here, in this city. In that case, what can the Council do about it? Their troops aren’t here yet. Even if they have the information, they won’t be able to do anything with it.”

“…hm,” Azal grunted. It didn’t seem right, but… he supposed what Darius was saying made sense. Still…

“Second, just because they don’t know what we’re planning doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t figure it out,” Darius continued. “It doesn’t exactly take a genius to guess that your next step is to consolidate the Bloodhorns’ power. Do you really think the Council won’t be able to infer that much?”

Azal’s mind worked to find a response, but before he could, Darius continued. “And third,” he said, “you’re implying that if you tell us, that creates a large risk of the information getting to the Council. How, pray tell?”

“Not a large risk, necessarily,” Azal protested. “But any risk is too much.”

“That’s plainly untrue,” Darius flatly said. “At some level, a risk becomes too small to be even slightly worrisome. After what the two of us pulled during that battle… do you really think we’re going to betray you now?”

Azal gritted his teeth. “No, of course not,” he said. “But if you’re captured…”

“The Council hasn’t even made it to Redgate yet,” Darius interrupted. “Don’t you think it’s a little early to be worrying about that? By the time that becomes an issue, I feel like you’ll most likely already be done with this particular plan.”

A small frown touched Azal’s face. But still, he said nothing.

“And besides,” Johannes said, “there’s a little thing known as trust. Ever heard of it?”

Ihab steeled himself. He may have already accepted that it was basically impossible, but he still had to try. The longer the rest of the Councillors kept refusing to do anything, the longer the rebels would have to build up power – and that was dangerous. It was far too dangerous for him to just sit back and do nothing. (Even if, admittedly, he couldn’t help but privately hope the rebels ended up getting powerful enough to be a worthy enemy.)

So, though he knew it most likely couldn’t be done, he’d decided to keep trying to convince the rest of them to accept the fact that they needed to do something.

Right. Mia was the first person to challenge his opinion, so she’d be the first one he’d try to convince. That, at least, he thought he might be able to do. Gerhardt, on the other hand… even the thought of trying to convince him was daunting. So Ihab was glad to be able to put that off till later.

“And what would that opinion be based on, exactly?” he asked her. If she was going to tell him the team was coming back, he was going to challenge her on that. Trying to present his own evidence would be a fool’s errand – more than likely, she’d just ignore it, or shoot it down with the flimsiest of logic – so he had to make her trap herself instead.

“Simple. The fact that the people we sent would never lose to some stumbling, idiotic mob,” she said, sounding annoyingly self-assured as always. “Unless you seriously mean to tell me taking down a bunch of unarmed peasants was beyond their capabilities?”

Ihab sighed. “Again, Mia, you’re assuming things. Unarmed, yes – but who’s to say they were just a mob? A rebellion doesn’t happen without someone to rally behind, and the sort of person who gets the people to rally behind them like that probably isn’t stupid. So who’s to say that the leader of this rebellion doesn’t have a good grasp on tactics? With a good battleplan combined with their superior numbers, it’d be entirely possible for even a bunch of “unarmed peasants” to beat our team.”

“Really, Councillor Ihab?” Mia asked. “You think these rebels used tactics? First off, anyone who’s dumb enough to rebel against us wouldn’t have the brain for that anyway. And second, you really think they could get the rabble to go along with their ideas? Those people are rabid dogs, nothing more. They wouldn’t follow a plan.”

“Baseless assumptions, Mia,” Ihab said. “You think an idiot would be able to get the people behind them? Well… maybe, perhaps they could, if they were charismatic enough. But an intelligent leader would be more likely. And as for your other point – rabid dogs? Again, perhaps, though I wouldn’t be so sure about that. But not every individual one of them would need to know the plan and be willing to follow it. All you really need to do for a good ambush is to put one part of an army at the end of a path, the other part somewhere to the side so they’ll only see the enemy when they charge, and tell both to attack when they see the enemy. It’d work even if every single individual soldier was just a raging berserker. Who’s to say our rebels didn’t do something similar?”

Mia gritted her teeth. “You give them too much credit.”

“No, you don’t give them enough,” Ihab told her. “Shouldn’t we be cautious of an enemy like this? Something like this – an attack from inside our own lands – could destroy us oh so easily if we let our guard down. So why, pray tell, are we doing exactly that?”

“They’re just rebels,” Mia said, her voice darkening. “They. Are. Not. Worth. Worrying. About.”

“And why not?!” Ihab shouted.

There was silence. Ihab slowly settled back into his chair. He’d lost his temper. But he found it hard to care. He was right, and if the rest of them refused to accept it, he wasn’t going to apologize for getting angry about it.

Mia seethed with anger. “You think they are? You think we should be concerned about these… these pathetic dissidents? They’re nothing more than little fleas, arrogantly thinking they stand a chance of doing anything to us. But they don’t. They’re just pathetic little worms who’ll go scurrying back into their holes the moment we show them the consequences of their actions. You’re concerned about THEM?!”

Once more, there was a pause. One that went on for a long time, while Ihab tried to calm his temper before he did something that would probably get him kicked off the Council.

Finally, he realized. He had been right from the start. He wasn’t going to get through to her with logic, or with emotions, or with anything like that. She was far too convinced of their superiority to ever listen to something like that.

But, by that same token… there was one thing Ihab could think of that might change her mind.

He smiled a sardonic smile. “Maybe you’re right,” he said, his voice thick with anticipation. Honestly, he really couldn’t wait to see what was about to happen. “I’m sure the rest of the Council would agree with you. Right?”

A pause. For a few seconds that seemed to go on forever, a pause.

Adrien smiled, a tiny little smile, though Ihab could tell he was trying to supress it. “Actually, what she’s saying seems, quite frankly, ignorant.”

Mia looked at him suddenly, her eyes wide. Her face was shocked, like she couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. No, more than that – like she had thought she already knew what she would hear, and couldn’t believe she wasn’t right. Her little world had just come crumbling down around her in an instant.

But before she could protest, another voice made itself known. “Agreed,” Daniel said, his voice devoid of emotion.

Her attention turned towards Daniel, her expression somehow even more dismayed. Ihab knew what was going on in that head of hers well enough. As he’d said his cue, she’d already known, in her mind, that everyone would, indeed, back her up – the notion of them doing anything else was simply incomprehensible to her. But now that it wasn’t going as she’d thought it would, she didn’t have the first clue what to do.

“Yes,” Yulia said, too, her soft voice barely above a whisper. “Perhaps they may still return, but… enough time has passed that we must plan as if they have, indeed, been slain.”

Again, Mia’s head swiveled, and she sunk back into her chair. She thought, Ihab was willing to bet, that each and every one of these Councillors were insane. That they were all stupid, all silly to not believe that she was right – after all, she couldn’t possibly imagine that she was wrong. She thought these events unfolding right now were horrific – the steps leading up to a disastrous decision.

Well. She could think that all she wanted. It wouldn’t change the facts.

There was another few moments of silence. Ihab spread his arms and said—

“As much as it pains me to say it, Ihab is right,” Gerhardt said before Ihab could speak, and Ihab’s eyes widened a bit. Of all the people to support him, he didn’t think Gerhardt would be one of them. “Even if these rebels are really no threat – even if it is stupid to think they could defeat our strike team – them defying the Council is not something we can overlook. This must be dealt with swiftly and harshly.”

Mia looked around desperately, looking for someone, anyone who would support her. But the chamber had fallen silent, and everyone bore a serious, indomitable look on their faces. Well, except for Ihab, who was just grinning like a madman.

“Well, Councillor Mia?” he asked. “It appears that the rest of that Council you think is so great has made its decision. Will you still argue your point?”

She gritted her teeth and hissed “You’ll all regret this.”

“So, no objections?” Ihab asked, and she just hissed again.

“Well, in that case, I suppose it’s settled,” Ihab said. “We’ll send some more troops to deal with these rebels. And since we really should try to do this as decisively as we can…”

His eyes sparkled. “I propose we send General Katherine.”

In the middle of the courtyard stood a great monument. At the very center there was a massive stone bowl, a fire lit inside it – and thrust into it was an enormous sword, one that would only be fit for some sort of giant. The symbol of the Inquisition, on the grandest scale it had ever been reproduced on.

Around it stood three great statues. One, of a man in plate armor that covered everything but his head, a sword in his hands. One, of an old woman in a simple robe, a long and gnarled staff in her hand. One, of another man, this one in a decorated jacket and trousers, like some sort of noble, a thick tome at his hip. All three bore serious expressions, staring outwards from the symbol at the center like a ring of guardians.

Those statues were the three Great Powers, the gods that had created this world. The swordsman was Melthar, the Creator, who had first brought the universe into existence. The woman – Avylia, the Grandmother (or the Great Druid), who had birthed the first spark of life. The man with the tome – Lein, the Worldsoul, by whose hand the earth and the seas had been crafted. Those three, represented in their forms of stone, stood guard over the Arcane Temple – the ground where the Inquisition was based, from where it carried out its sacred duty.

Or, well, that was the theory, anyways.

Frankly, Cain wasn’t entirely certain that the three even existed. He had certainly never seen any of them, nor had he seen any evidence to imply that they were real – barring, of course, the things that they were claimed to have created. But even those could be explained in other ways. And when there was that little proof that they existed… what reason was there for Cain to just assume they did?

But still, he’d had the statues erected. He knew that many people truly did worship them, and the Inquisition, though young, was a major and influential organization. It would not do to have them seen disrespecting the Great Powers. And so, the statues had been built.

“So, Lindholm,” Cain said. “There are a few questions I have for you.”

“Yes, sir?” Lindholm said, stopping. This had been the place Cain had meant when he’d said they could discuss the matter better elsewhere. Though, frankly, that had been a bit of a lie – Cain just really wanted to get outside, and besides, this place would (hopefully) be free of interruptions. Which, Cain supposed, meant it really did have some advantages.

“First off: Was Letholdus present?” Cain immediately asked. Letholdus was one of the few demons among the Cult whose name the Inquisition knew, and he was a notorious one. Even among the Cult, who were all brutal and merciless raiders, his sheer sadism stood out – he seemed to delight in nothing more than causing suffering, and he did so often. Even worse, some reports claimed he was a mage himself, and while their accuracy was uncertain, the thought was still worrisome.

“Ermok claimed to have caught sight of him, yes,” Lindholm responded. “I did not personally see him, however.”

That was good enough, then. Ermok’s word was good. And if Letholdus was there, that meant something really was probably going on.

“I see,” Cain nodded. “Second, then: To your knowledge, was there anything or anyone in the village that could interest the Cult?”

“Not as far as I am aware,” Lindholm said. “The village was, by and large, ordinary.”

Cain grunted in acknowledgement. “Third: Did Inquisitor Ermok tell you what he planned to do about this before sending you here?”

“The demons had set up a camp in the nearby forest,” Lindholm said. “Ermok said he would attack them and try to free the prisoners they had taken.”

“I see,” Cain said. For a few moments, Cain considered it, his head lowered in thought. Finally, he said “Thank you for your information, Inquisitor Lindholm. I believe this is a serious matter indeed. The Cult has always been dangerous – to see them acting this oddly is worrisome.

“As such, I will investigate this further myself.”

Azal clasped his hands in front of his face and sat silently with his head down, deep in thought.

He did not like the idea of telling anyone else of his plans. He felt secrecy was a precious thing, and that it was best to maximize the chances of taking the enemy by surprise. He knew that for every person he shared his secret with, the chance of it being discovered went up. The more people knew, the greater the chance that someone would let something slip.

But… Johannes was right. Trust was important, if for no other reason than to build loyalty. If none of his followers knew what he was planning – if they were left in the dark as to what he was really doing – would they continue following him? Or would they start suspecting that he was plotting something darker, that he was really no different from the Council? Azal knew that if he was in that position himself, he would start being suspicious.

And the loyalty of his allies was crucial. They were all he had. If they betrayed him, he would be left with nothing.

Secrecy was still important, of course. But making sure his allies trusted him was even more important. And… what harm could letting two people know really do?

“Very well,” he murmured, and both Johannes and Darius’ expressions grew shocked. Clearly, they didn’t actually expect him to tell them. “I will tell you what the next stage of my plan is.

“As I am sure you have figured out, we must consolidate our power. And we need a base of operations.” He looked up, and his expression turned serious. “For our next move, we must take over this city.”

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