Three days earlier, Baron Amar had been killed, his death a spectacle that instilled in everyone’s minds fear and respect for the Bloodhorns. Since then, Azal had worked tirelessly, establishing himself as the supreme ruler of this city. It had worked well – not only had the city mostly come under his control, much of the surrounding area had been brought under his rule as well, thanks to Redgate being by far the most influential city in the region.
Now, at last, the Bloodhorns had a proper base of operations. They had territory to call their own. And with Azal now in control of the city, anti-Council sentiment had started rising to the surface. What was before discussed only in dark corners and musty taverns was now being openly shouted on the streets, and as even the Council’s most staunch supporters had their trust in it shaken, more and more people were starting to be loyal to Azal instead – though, admittedly, that may have been more because he’d killed the Baron than anything else. No one liked the Baron.
Still, whatever the reason, the fact was that the Bloodhorns were in a good position. They had real power, now; they could start actually building themselves up as a nation, creating a real army instead of just rallying a mob to fight their battles, establishing contact with the nations of Verta. Already, this was turning out far better than anyone had expected.
So what was this sinking feeling in Johannes’ gut? Why was it that he couldn’t help but feel anxious, even worried about the future? Why wasn’t he proud of these accomplishments? He’d always hated the Council – why was he now finding himself questioning the very people who sought to overthrow them?
The answer was obvious, of course. Azal. It was because of Azal.
Johannes had no problems with rebellion. He fully believed that the Council needed to fall. And he didn’t have many issues with what Azal had done so far, either. While some of his choices were questionable, all that he’d done had been in service of the Bloodhorns. And yet, he still couldn’t help but feel that the idea of Azal ruling over them felt… wrong.
Why? Because Johannes knew Azal better than anyone, save for Darius. Because he’d seen how he came to decisions, how he planned and plotted. And almost everything Johannes had seen so far worked to confirm the suspicion he’d been having for a while – Azal was willing to do anything for the Bloodhorns. He wasn’t the sort of rebel leader Johannes had imagined – brave, strong and compassionate. He was ruthless, thinking of nothing but the good of the rebellion itself, not sparing a single thought for the lives of the citizens or for anyone who wasn’t on his side. Of course, he wouldn’t be cruel needlessly – he wasn’t evil, after all. But… how far would he go? What would he be willing to do for the good of the rebellion?
Yet even if Johannes found it distasteful, Azal was the only hope they had. Because as much as Johannes hated that fact, it was still true that that sort of ruthlessness would be needed to defeat the Council. After all, the Bloodhorns had very few advantages – they would need to seize any potential new ones they could get. And that would require sacrifices. Their ruler, then, needed to be someone who would be willing to make those sorts of sacrifices.
But that was only for now. If they eventually succeeded, if they eventually became the rulers of demonkind… would Azal just continue doing what he had been doing before? Because that thought was terrifying.
And yet, there was nothing to be done about it. For now, at least, it was far too early to be thinking about things like that. Yet Johannes couldn’t help but be worried.
A person walked along the red soil.
She looked, at least at first glance, like a normal human – not very young, but not too old either. Her hair was long and brown, and while she was by no means beautiful, it would be hard to call her ugly either. But her features were hard and firm, like someone who had experienced battle time and time again, and she was clad in a suit of heavy armor with a sword hanging at her belt.
And her eyes were a blazing orange, marking her out as a demon – more specifically, a descendant.
General Katherine marched forth, and her army marched behind her.
She knew what had happened. The Council had sent a small squad to suppress the rebels, but they hadn’t come back yet. Not all the Councillors agreed on what, exactly, had happened to it, so it wasn’t Katherine’s place to speculate – but whatever had happened, the Council had decided to call on her to take her army and exterminate the threat more decisively. She knew the order hadn’t come immediately – even when Councillor Ihab had made the decision, he’d still ended up agreeing to wait a while longer before issuing the order, to appease the rest of the Councillors – but now, here she was. Heading north, alongside her army, to stamp out the rebels and put their leaders to the sword.
Even now, hatred burned inside her. These rebels were insane – they had to be. What sane person, she thought, would turn against the Council? They had worked for the betterment of demonkind – they had pursued the lofty dream of finally being free of this dreary world. Even now, they still tirelessly worked to pursue their ideals. And these… these ungrateful dogs thought they knew better? They thought they had the right to decide whether or not the Council should have been ruling? Ridiculous.
When she’d received the order to hunt down the rebels, Katherine had, admittedly, been quite happy. She’d thought it would be nice to remind these rebels of their place – that it would be satisfying to show them what sort of consequences their actions would have. She knew, of course, that those weren’t the sort of thoughts she should’ve been having as a General of the Council, but she couldn’t help herself. But now… now, as she’d thought about it more, the sheer hatred had burned all of that away. All she could think of was of how… how utterly arrogant these rebels were being. By now, she could barely even stand thinking about it.
Now, she just hoped she’d get to them soon. Her original excitement hadn’t survived, true, but there was still a burning desire within her to put these idiots in their place – and she knew she wouldn’t be able to rest easy ever again until that desire was fulfilled.
Azal sat in the Baron’s old room, deep in thought.
Frankly, he hated this room. It had clearly been designed for nothing more than the Baron’s entertainment – it was lined with books, most of which had no practical value, and there wasn’t a single thing that would actually help with the running of the city. No maps, no places to store documents (unless one wanted to use the bookcases for that purpose), seemingly no security considerations… it was frankly awful. But Azal could worry about redesigning it later. For now, there were other things to do.
He knew they didn’t have much time, not anymore. Even the Council, for all its stubbornness and refusal to change its views, must’ve noticed something was up by now. Really, it was a miracle no second attack had come so far. But it would come soon, and when that happened, Azal would have to be prepared.
How large would it be? That was the main issue Azal was faced with, and he didn’t have an answer. The Council could go either way, here. They could underestimate the rebellion again, decide that something like this isn’t worth wasting much effort on – or, alternatively, they could decide they need to stamp this out now, and send a massive force to try and crush them with overwhelming numbers. Azal had no way of knowing which of those they would decide, and without that information, he couldn’t plan properly.
But it would be best to plan for the worst possible scenario. Azal was far from certain that the Council would consider this a serious enough threat to send a large army, but he needed to plan for that possibility anyway. If they did that and he wasn’t ready, that would be the end of the Bloodhorns.
But how could he plan for that?
Getting his mob turned into an actual, competent fighting force would be helpful, if he could do it in time – but he didn’t have anyone to train them, and besides, even if he did manage to turn them into an army, they’d be outnumbered. So perhaps it would be best to not confront the Council in direct combat, and instead try to hide and chip away at them, always retreating before they could counterattack. That could work – but would he be able to get his mob to actually do something like that? It was just as likely that they’d rush out and try to fight head-on, tactics be damned. Maybe this tower could be used as a formidable defense structure – at the very least, it’d reduce the advantage the Council’s numbers gave them – but it had almost no supplies stored inside. If they tried to hide out here, the Council’s troops could starve them out easily.
So what could he do? The idea to avoid direct confrontation seemed the most promising, especially when he had Darius at his side. But even then, would they really be able to force back the sort of army the Council could bring to bear?
Maybe not. But it was the best chance they had.
Still, Azal didn’t like it. They’d accomplished a lot in a short time, but they were still nowhere near powerful enough to stand up to the Council. If it all burned down here, if all of Azal’s work turned out to be for naught…
But if that happened, it wasn’t like whatever Azal did afterwards would matter. So it wasn’t useful to plan for that possibility. All he had to worry about was how to win this. And yet, his mind couldn’t help but wander to what would happen if he lost.
Because that possibility was looking all too likely.
The fact was, Azal’s faction was at a huge disadvantage. In numbers, for one thing – but that was far from their only problem. They had no real infrastructure. Their ”armies” weren’t even slightly trained. They didn’t have any archers or mages or anything like that among them – just peasants armed with whatever they could find nearby – which meant that they didn’t have a single way to attack from range. Strategies were difficult to execute, because Azal didn’t even know if his men would follow his orders. And of the demons that composed the Bloodhorns, most of them were the simpler, more common varieties – as far as Azal knew, they didn’t have any timors, or any of the even rarer kinds of demons that had various odd powers – whereas the Council had easy access to whichever demons it needed for any particular tasks. No matter what Azal did, it was going to be an uphill battle – and, honestly, it was one he didn’t think he could win.
At least, not as things stood now. But this wasn’t the end. There was still one card he had up his sleeve that he hadn’t used yet.
He’d need someone else to help him with this, though. And out of the two demons he trusted, there wasn’t even a bit of doubt about which one would be better suited to this task.
Azal started to make arrangements to meet with Johannes.
Somewhere in Verta, a dark alleyway surrounded by stone buildings. The kingdom was Sagnir – the Red Kingdom, the Land of the Dragon. It was a warm night, and the sky was cloudy, not letting the light from the stars down to the earth. The time was exactly 23:14, and the streets were quiet.
A man huddled in a corner, flinching away from the vague shadows surrounding him. “Please!” he stammered. “I-I swear, I won’t do anything like that again! I-it… it was just a joke! I didn’t mean anything by it!”
One of the shadows stepped forward, and as it came closer, it slowly resolved into a more definite form. Another man, much taller and more muscular, clad in steel armor and carrying a long polearm. “Really?” he asked, mockingly. “Yeah. I’m sure the Queen will let you go if you just tell her that.”
“N-no!” the man shouted. “L-look, I know what’s going to happen to me, alright? I-I know she’ll just kill me if sh-she finds out! So… so please, just leave me alone! Just d-don’t tell her, and I promise I won’t do it ever again!”
“Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works,” the other shadow said, stepping forward as well. It was another watchman. “You talk like that about Queen Lily, you know well enough what awaits you. Should’ve thought before you spoke up.”
“B-but… you can’t just… you can’t just kill me for something like that!” the man protested. “That’s stupid! A-all I d-did was s-say something!”
“As a matter of fact, we can,” the first watchman said. “But don’t worry – we won’t. I’m feeling nice today, so I’ll just bring you to the Queen. Maybe she’ll decide to let you go! But I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“N-no!” the man yelped in panic. “L-look, y-you can’t… You, you don’t actually think th-this is fair, do you? You can’t really believe this is right, can you? I-I just said something. Sh-should I really be killed for that?”
The second watchman narrowed his eyes. “Maybe. Maybe not. But we don’t make the rules. Not our job. Fair or not, we’re just here to do as the Queen wills. And what I know is that she wills you to be brought to her.”
“NO!” the man shouted. “I-I can’t- sh- she’ll…!”
One of the watchmen clamped a hand over his mouth, and, with a bit of effort, the two of them pulled him to his feet. They started pulling him along, having to resist his struggles all the way – struggles like those of a cornered animal that knew its life was over, and was just gambling everything on one, last, desperate attempt to escape.
Because that was exactly what was happening. The moment Queen Lily had made the decision to arrest the man, his life had been over. All that was left was to turn that subjective reality into an objective one.
The two guards dragged the man to the castle. They would present him to Queen Lily, tell her she could do as she liked with him. Of course, that was just a formality. They all already knew what the Queen would do.
Johannes sat across the table from him. It wasn’t the most extravagant of arrangements – the table itself (Azal was thankful that the room at least had one – he wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t, which spoke to the place’s overall quality) was so dusty it was like it hadn’t been used in years, which probably wasn’t far off, and not only did the room only have one chair, the entire tower didn’t have a single other chair with the sort of flair that would be expected from one of the top figures of the Bloodhorns. The Baron, it seemed, wasn’t the sort of man that liked the prospect of anyone but him having anything remotely extravagant. Thus, Johannes ended up stuck with a simple wooden chair pulled from one of the rooms in the tower. It was nowhere near what someone of his status in the Bloodhorns should’ve had, but at least it looked sturdy and wasn’t crudely made. That already set it ahead of most of the chairs in this place.
Really, Azal was just glad there was no one else here. This wouldn’t do for a public image to project. Azal would have to figure out how to do something about that, and soon. But that wasn’t the most pressing issue right now.
“Azal,” Johannes greeted him. Truthfully, Azal would’ve preferred a bit more formality – something like that would solidify his followers’ loyalty to him, and create a greater sense of order – but for now, at least, this was alright. Besides, it wasn’t like Azal even had a proper title yet, so there was nothing for Johannes to call him even if he wanted to be more formal.
“Johannes,” Azal nodded back. “I am certain you know what sort of danger we face in the near future, yes?”
“The Council,” Johannes responded. “They’re… going to send an army after us, obviously. Or something like that, at least.”
“Yes,” Azal said. “And I am sure you realize that if that happens now, we will not be able to fight them off.”
Johannes’ lips narrowed. “Y-yes. I’ve… been thinking about that myself, actually,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know how many people the Council’s going to send, so I’m not sure if we’ll be outnumbered or not, but… even then, we’ve just got a bunch of random demons off the streets. They’re not trained or disciplined or… or even properly armed. The Council’s just going to crush us if it attacks now, won’t it?”
“Yes. And that is the issue we face,” Azal stated, his voice remaining impassive. “We have achieved much already, but that will all be for nothing should the Council shatter us here. It will be the end of the Bloodhorns, and we will not have achieved a thing.”
“Then… what do we do?” Johannes asked, his face oddly pale. Azal wasn’t sure what that meant – he didn’t know how to read human faces, and thus, he couldn’t read descendant faces either – but he figured it was fear.
“I have one trump card left,” Azal said. “Even before the start of all this, I knew it would be almost impossible to defeat the Council on our own. Charisma can only do so much. Even if we gather so many people to our cause that we outnumber all the Council’s armies, that will not help if we do not have the sort of trained, disciplined soldiers it would take to defeat them. A mob is effective on a smaller scale, but in a large-scale conflict, it will lose every time. And even disregarding that, we are starting from nothing, and we are facing a powerful opponent. Accomplishing something like this on our own would be nearly impossible.
“That is why,” he continued, “before all this, with Darius’ help, I snuck into the Portal near Redgate and went to Verta.” Johannes’ eyes widened, but Azal kept talking. “There, I have endeavored to find information. As I am sure you know, the mortal races do not like the Council. If we do this right, we could have the support of many of their nations by the end of this.
“However, for now, we cannot rely on anything like that. You see, the simple fact is, the vast majority of mortal nations will not be willing to lend us our aid at this moment. The chances of our success are, from an outside perspective, simply too small – helping us would be too big of a risk.
“And yet, from what I have learned, I am led to believe that, despite the risk, there is one nation that would, perhaps, be willing to assist us. One kingdom that, if we were to speak with its queen, could give us the aid we so desperately need. That is the one thing that can save us now.”
Johannes’ eyes narrowed. “And because I’m the most humanlike demon you’ve got, you want me to go talk to them?”
“It is a reasonable choice,” Azal shrugged.
The descendant looked to the side. “That’s not going to be an awkward talk or anything.”
Azal sighed. “Really? Is that what you’re worried about?”
For a few moments more, Johannes was silent, still as the grave as he looked at nothing. Then, finally, he turned to Azal once more. “Alright,” he said. “This seems a little stupid to me, I’ll be honest, but… I don’t think we have any other options. Go ahead. What do I need to do?”
Azal clasped his hands in front of his face. “Allow me to explain.”
Queen Lily Crimson, the Red Lady, she of the Red Helm (though she didn’t actually have a red helm), descendant of the ancient King Jonathan Crimson, and supreme ruler of the nation of Sagnir sat on the ornate throne in her throne room, her legs crossed, and tapped her hand on the arm of the throne impatiently.
A messenger had already brought her the news that the man she’d been after had been captured. There had been no news of him escaping, or of anything of that nature happening. He was caught, and all that was left was for her to wait for him to be delivered to her. But that was taking so, so long…
She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, taking care not to disturb the blood-red crown that sat on her head (it wouldn’t do to not have it on for something like this). Patience, she told herself. Have patience. Everything will go fine. Just have the good sense to wait a little.
Yes. Patience. She needed patience. Lately, she’d noticed, she’d been lacking that. She’d started demanding that things be done quickly, that everything happen now. She knew she couldn’t be like that. It was simply stupid to think the sorts of things that needed to be done could be done quickly.
Perhaps she was a tyrant – Lily herself, for her part, gladly accepted that title. But let it never be said, she decided, that she was stupid.
But still. This was getting to her.
Of course, the task she’d assigned couldn’t have been easy. No doubt the man knew what was coming, and because of that, there was no doubt he’d struggle with the ferocity of a cornered animal. It’d take a while to get him here. Until then, she’d just have to relax and wait.
She leaned back into the throne, locking the annoyance out of her mind, and let herself get lost in her thoughts.
It didn’t take long before she completely lost track of time, sitting there like that, so she couldn’t be sure how long it was until, finally, two watchmen pushed open the door and led in a man, struggling and screaming desperately.
As her eyes fell upon him, Lily smiled. Ah, she thought. I see my wait was worthwhile.
She stood from her chair, the sound of rustling fabric punctuating the movement. Today, as she often did, she wore an elegant – if scarcely decorated – dress of black and red that covered everything from her neck down except her hands. Her feet were covered with simple, but incredibly crafted shoes – the color just as dark as the pitch black of the dress – and on her head rested the usual crown of the King (or Queen, in this case) of Sagnir. Somewhat oddly, the crown could frankly be said to be the least beautiful part of the outfit, but that wasn’t unexpected – the crown of Sagnir was far less extravagant than that of any other kingdom Lily knew of, and only it’s bright red color allowed it to stand out. If she had to be honest, she didn’t like it, but it was tradition, and so she wore it anyway.
“Ah, my dear friends,” she said in a gentle voice. “I see you have brought me the traitor. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.” She bowed to the watchmen.
“It is our duty to serve you,” one of them responded, and the two of them threw the traitor forward. “Do with him as you please.”
“But of course,” she said, and a cruel smile crept onto her face.
Oftentimes, kings and queens such as her would send anyone who spoke against them off to be executed. They would have them carried off in chains to the dungeon and have them rot in there until their turn came, and then they would have their head chopped off by a merciless executioner, either in a dark, lonely chamber or on a great stage surrounded by people. It was cruel, simple and merciless. All the monarch had to do was give the word, and someone’s life was forfeit.
But that had never been Lily’s style.
The man crawled away from her, trembling. “P-Please don’t kill me.”
“Come now,” she said, her voice sweet as honey. “If you had not wished to shatter our friendship, you should not have said those wicked things about me. But… I understand why you would. You were unhappy with me, were you not? You handled it poorly, true, but I can understand you. It is only natural that you would lash out at me if you were not satisfied with how I ruled.”
“I-I didn’t lash out at you,” he stammered. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, of course,” she smiled. “I know. You merely spoke. What sort of world would we live in if one could be punished merely for voicing their thoughts? Who would decide, then, which thoughts were acceptable and which were not? Would it not be akin to an invitation to tyrants – an easy way for anyone who wished to rule absolutely and uncaringly to do so?”
There was silence, the words taking a moment to get through to the man. He looked up, his eyes teary, his face still stained with fear. Lily knew he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “Y-You mean…” he stammered, nervously, “you mean you’re not going to kill me?”
Lily didn’t answer. She just walked over to one of the windows and laid her hands on the windowsill, as if in thought. For perhaps a second or two, she stayed like that, silent, and the rest of the room fell into silence alongside her. Finally, she turned her head to look back at the other people in the chamber, her hands still laid on the window frame. “My dear friends,” she said, clearly addressing the watchmen, “please, take your leave now. Do not fear – I will arrange for your compensation shortly. And I am truly sorry for this, but… even someone like me needs some privacy, occasionally.” She smiled sardonically, yet somehow, the smile still shone bright as the sun.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” one of the watchmen said, and the pair of them bowed to her. With that, they turned around and, with practiced steps, marched out of her room.
At last, Lily breathed a small sigh and stepped away from the window. No more threateningly than a gentle breeze, she walked over to the man, who was still sitting on the floor of her throne room. She knelt down next to him, bringing their eyes level with each other.
“All of what I said was true,” she said, and for the first time, her words gained a bit of an edge to them. They were still sweet, and they still sounded friendly and genuine – but if one listened closely, one could, at last, hear a sliver of steel hidden beneath that gentle curtain. “A world such as that – a world where one could be punished simply for speaking out of turn, simply for saying what they believed was right – would be no more than an invitation for tyrants. There would be nothing to stop one from seizing ultimate power, from doing as they liked with the kingdom they ruled with no one to keep them in check.
“And yet, that is the world we live in, is it not?” Her voice sounded almost genuinely curious, but it was obviously a rhetorical question. The distant, musing note her voice carried confirmed that. “And indeed, it is as I have said. In this world, any sort of power allows one to become a tyrant. In this world, once one has enough influence, they need not worry about what the people under them want or need – only about what others at that level think.
“No king has to provide for his subjects’ happiness. No king has a duty to ensure the peasants are well-fed and cared for properly. No king must be certain his people are treated fairly and with justice. That is not the world we live in. Pragmatically, all that matters to someone at that level is their station among their fellows – and few of their fellows care about how those lower down are treated.
“And do not get me wrong – there are those rulers, those people in power, who nevertheless do all they can to make sure their subjects are happy. There are those who, purely out of the goodness of their heart, do more for their people than they have to. They are, perhaps, the greatest beings of all – to treat even their inferiors with such respect and genuine love. And yet, they are not the ones who prosper. They are not the ones who gain glory, power and prestige.
“Why? Because it is easy, so easy, to achieve one’s goals when one is willing to throw away all else to achieve them. Caring for one’s subjects’ happiness is a burden, and carrying it will inevitably force one to move slower, with less confidence. That is why in this world, those who prosper are those willing to throw away everything – even the wellbeing of the very people they are supposed to care for – to achieve some goal. And when someone throws away even their own subjects just to achieve their own goals or desires… truly, what can that person be called but a tyrant?”
Queen Lily smiled. But it was not like her previous smiles, the sweet ones from before. There was something else in that smile, this time. “And I’m sorry… but a tyrant’s throne room is where you currently are.”
The man’s eyes widened and he scrambled away, desperately. But with an easy confidence, Lily took a few steps towards the door, took a key from her dress, inserted it into the keyhole, and gave it a twist.
At once, the man froze.
Lily turned around and her gaze shifted, but it just passed by him. Instead, she looked towards her throne. No, she wasn’t looking at the throne – she was looking just to the side of it. There, against the side of the throne, leaned an object. A long halberd, its blade stained a pale red by dried blood.
Indeed, it had never been Lily’s style to send anyone who displeased her to the executioner. It was far too impersonal.
Rather… well, suffice it to say there was a good reason this particular throne room hadn’t had a carpet for a long time now.