Chapter 18: Beginnings of a True War

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“My lord,” General Katherine said, standing before Councillor Ihab. Her voice had an odd tone to it, a tone Ihab had rarely heard from her before. It almost sounded like she was… hesitant. Even nervous. “I… I failed.” She knelt down in front of him and looked at the ground, shame evident in her face.

“Yeah, I guessed that much already,” Ihab murmured. He’d insisted on meeting Katherine when she came back, so that he could be the first to talk to her – he was worried the other Councillors might’ve said something… stupid. He’d ridden out for that purpose, so they weren’t in the Council Chamber – for that matter, they weren’t even in the capital. They were just outside it, talking in an empty area of the rolling hills without anyone around to hear them.

“Never mind that,” he said. “What happened?”

“The initial attack went well,” she said. “We shattered the rebels easily. But there was a wall around the centre of the city, where the rebel leader was hiding, and… in my indecisiveness, I hesitated to try a frontal attack.”

“Because it would result in too many losses,” Ihab said. “Right?”

“Yes, my lord,” she replied, that tinge of anxiousness and… regret… still clearly audible in her voice.

“Then don’t worry about it,” Ihab reassured her. “You did the right thing.”

Katherine swallowed nervously, still looking down. “We… started to prepare to breach the wall,” she said, clearly trying her best to remain dignified in the face of the shame and the emotions that were filling her mind. It wasn’t working very well, but Ihab certainly wasn’t going to point that out. “But our efforts were stymied. They had… some sort of group on their side, some society of assassins, perhaps, that kept picking off our troops whenever they were vulnerable. We couldn’t do anything without a risk that the people sent to do it would be killed.”

“Mmm,” Ihab nodded. That style of warfare, then? It was certainly effective at fighting a numerically superior enemy, especially in one’s own turf. If the rebels were smart enough to do things like that, there was every possibility that this would get very interesting indeed…

“We tried to persevere in the face of these attacks,” Katherine continued, “and for a while, we made progress. Even under this threat, we managed to set our plans in motion. But… again, I was weak. I decided that the risk this group’s existence posed was unacceptable, and so, I decided to take the time to hunt them down before proceeding with our operations.”

“And how did that go?” Ihab asked.

“We were unable to find them, unfortunately,” Katherine said. “We… we never got the chance. It seems the rebels had made some sort of alliance with the mortals. Before we could find this group, a large group of human soldiers entered Aead, probably through the Portal near the city. We were trapped, cornered with the wall at our backs. And so…”

Ihab’s eyes widened. “An alliance with the mortals?”

“Yes,” Katherine said, a bit of disbelief in her voice. “They allowed mortals in Aead and had them fight for them.”

There was silence for a few moments.

And then, Ihab laughed.

Katherine finally looked up from shock, her eyes wide. “M-my lord?”

“Ha ha ha!” Ihab roared. “I see, I see! I had been wondering how the rebels had been planning to survive in a battle against us, but… an alliance with the mortals? I must confess, that had never crossed my mind. I must commend the rebels for that – even I did not expect them to do something like that!”

“C-commend?” she asked, sounding distressed. “B-but, they…”

Ihab grinned. “Well, it worked, didn’t it? And in a war like this, you do whatever you need to do to win. To think our enemies were clever enough to pull that sort of stunt, though… yes, I believe this will certainly be interesting!”

“Councillor Ihab…?” she said, her voice a bit hollow. It was like she couldn’t believe what Ihab was saying. Well… actually, that was probably true.

“Oh, never mind,” Ihab said. He wasn’t willing to get into a debate about that right now, especially not with Katherine. “So, how did you get out?”

She looked down again. “They left an escape route for us,” she said, her voice back to its previous sorrow. “It seems they didn’t want to commit to a decisive battle yet.”

“And so, you returned here?” he asked.

“…yes,” she said, almost choking the word out.

Ihab sighed. “Alright,” he said. “First things first…”

“If you wish to punish me, I understand. And I apologize for my incompetence,” Katherine chided herself. “I… I should have realized they were trying to delay us. I should not have failed to defeat simple rebels like this. The blame rests solely on my shoulders.”

To anyone who hadn’t known her for a long time, it would’ve been easy to see Katherine’s actions as an attempt to garner sympathy. The way she constantly blamed herself for everything, the sheer sorrow in her words… it really did sound like she was just trying to make Ihab feel bad for her. It would’ve been easy to see the entire spectacle as an appeal to emotion, an attempt by Katherine to get out of any sort of consequences by acting too pitiful for Ihab to be willing to actually punish her.

But Ihab knew better. He knew that her regretful tone, the way she insisted she was to blame for it all… they weren’t fabricated. She wasn’t just trying to make Ihab feel bad – she genuinely felt like she’d failed him. And Ihab knew this, because she’d always been like this. From the start, she’d been one of the most loyal people the Council had ever had. To her, the Council were the greatest of rulers, and as she was one of their Generals, it was her duty to carry out their will and ensure their plans proceeded as they willed. So when she failed in her duties, she didn’t just feel like she’d failed; she felt like she’d betrayed the trust of the Council, the people she’d spent her whole life admiring to a… frankly unhealthy degree. Thinking of it like that, it was easy to see why she always beat herself up like this whenever things went wrong.

Honestly? Ihab couldn’t stand it.

He liked Katherine. Sure, she was a bit too obedient to the Council, and she idolized them a bit too much – Ihab honestly found it a bit unsettling – but still, she was smart, she was competent, and she was a great leader. And more than that, she valued the lives of the demons under her command, which was honestly more than could be said of some of the Councillors themselves. All in all, she was a good person, and someone without whom the Council would never have gotten anywhere near the reputation it had. So when she sat there, dejected, blaming herself for something that had been completely out of her control… Ihab couldn’t help but just wish he didn’t have to see it.

“First things first,” Ihab said, “cheer up a bit.”

The reaction, and the change in the atmosphere, was immediate. Katherine blinked, and her eyes widened, and she looked up. “Uh… w-what?”

“Look, Katherine,” Ihab said, not bothering with the formal title, “you’re one of our best people. Scratch that – you’re our best person. There is no one, not a single demon, who has done more for the Council than you have, except perhaps for the Councillors themselves – and even that’s debatable. So when you sit there like a kicked puppy, feeling guilty about not foreseeing something no one could’ve foreseen, I don’t exactly feel good about it.”

“Uh…” she muttered. Clearly, she didn’t have the first clue what to make of what Ihab was saying. That amused Ihab, more than it probably should’ve.

“What I’m trying to say is,” he continued, “you had no way to predict that they’d have allies, much less among the mortals. And even if maybe it’s true that you should’ve realized they were just trying to delay you, I can see how that would be easy to mistake for them just trying any desperate thing they could to keep you away for just a bit longer. What happened wasn’t your fault, and it’s not like it was that big of a loss either. All the decisions you made were good – you only lost because of something you couldn’t have seen coming. You did well, Katherine.”

“I… but…” She looked up at him, the faintest hint of a smile on her face. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, happiness and unmistakable relief – and even a bit of sudden pride – in her voice. It made Ihab smile too.

He looked down at her, kneeling there on the ground, her fiery, orange eyes looking right into his own. It was so nice when, for at least a moment, she stopped blaming herself for everything. Seeing her actually happy like this… Ihab liked it. She deserved to be happy.

Though, there was still one little problem that needed to be addressed.

“And would you stand up already?!” Ihab asked.

“S-sir Azal, I’m here!” a cheerful voice said from the other side of the door to Azal’s chamber. Azal sighed, walked over, and opened the door. Just outside his room, there was what looked like a human woman, her face almost childlike in its excitement, her eyes bright, a wide grin on her face.

“You must be Aya,” Azal said. He’d never actually met her before – all he’d known of her before now was what Johannes had said about her – and now that he saw how she looked as she stood outside his door, his heart sank. Admittedly, that sort of enthusiasm did make even Azal think she was probably trustworthy, but… he could tell it would be hard to work with her.

“Y-yes!” she said. “I… uh, I know you probably don’t care, but… I just want you to know, I really admire you. W-what you’re doing… I don’t know, I just think it’s so noble. You know?”

Azal sighed. This was useful, theoretically – she would likely be very loyal to him if she thought that highly of him and the rebellion. But this was going to make things difficult. For a start, Azal didn’t know how well his sanity would hold up in the presence of someone like this – but more importantly, if she was this enthusiastic about the rebellion, Azal couldn’t help but see that as a sign of naïveté. And if she was that naïve, he found it hard to believe she’d had much experience with things like this in the past. Most likely, his new ally was someone completely inexperienced.

But he couldn’t turn her down just for that. Ordinarily, he would’ve, or at least he would’ve just sent her to fight as one of his troops – but this was a special case. She was a shadow. That was huge, especially since, as far as Azal knew, no one on the Council’s side knew the Bloodhorns had a shadow on their side. True, her special ability wouldn’t be as useful as it would’ve been if they’d been fighting against mortals, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful. Her human form could easily be mistaken for a descendant, so it could be used for spying – and while it was true that an actual descendant could do the same thing, her ability to quickly transform into her tiny natural form provided an easy escape route in case she was caught. Further, if the rumors he’d heard a long time ago were true, some of the most noble demons closer to the capital owned mortal slaves – which Aya would be easily able to masquerade as. And that wasn’t even getting into how good of a fighter she could be, given proper training – the ability to shift between two forms in the blink of an eye could be deadly if used correctly.

All in all, he needed her on his side. She was just too valuable of an asset to pass up. If she was inexperienced… well, that would just have to be fixed.

“Thank you, Aya,” he said. “Please, come in.”

“Uh, y-yes! Of course!” she quickly stammered out, following him into the room. Azal, as usual, took the one actually ornate chair the old Baron had owned, leaving Aya to take the significantly plainer one. She didn’t seem to mind, though Azal hadn’t expected her to in the first place.

“I assume you understand why you’ve been summoned here?” Azal asked. His message to her had been delivered through Johannes, so he wasn’t entirely sure what impression she’d been given, but in any case, he figured the fact that she’d been called here in the first place was probably explanation enough. Still, he had to make sure.

“Uh… b-because you want me to help you?” she said, sounding a bit anxious.

“Yes,” Azal said. “Your abilities are very unique, and if used properly, they could be a great boon to our efforts. We need you on our side. Your assistance could be crucial to successfully overcoming the Council. With that in mind, would you be willing to provide it?”

She grinned. “Of course.”

“Excellent,” Azal replied. “In that case, there is something I must mention first. As useful as your powers will be, they are hampered by one thing – your lack of experience. After all, would I not be correct in saying that this would be your first experience with anything like this?”

“Uh… y-yeeeah…” she muttered, the wind suddenly taken out of her sails.

Azal nodded. It had really almost been a rhetorical question – just from her behavior, he wouldn’t have believed for a second that she’d actually had prior experience. But the additional confirmation was still useful. “As expected. As you may imagine, that is an issue – this is war, after all, and we cannot risk sending someone like you out on important duties. It is true, of course, that everything you’ve done so far speaks to your abilities, and I acknowledge that you have already performed some impressive feats – but I trust you will understand if, at least at first, you are only given tasks of relatively low magnitude. That will not be an issue, yes?”

“Yeah,” she said, a bit sadly. “That’s okay. I know I’m still not that experienced with this… b-but! I swear, I’ll prove myself to you! Just give me a chance, and I’ll do whatever you require of me!”

“Your enthusiasm is encouraging,” Azal said. It could easily end up being a problem too, but he left that part out. “Make no mistake, Aya: if you gain the skills you need, your contribution to our effort will be great indeed. You may end up being one of our most valuable allies.”

She beamed at that, pride and unbelievable joy radiating off of her. “Thank you, sir Azal! I’ll… I’ll do my best!”

“I am certain you will,” Azal smiled. “And I will call on you when I require your assistance. For now, you may take your leave.”

“Th-thank you!” she said again, stuttering over her words. “I-I look forward to it, sir!” She rose from her chair and walked out the door, a spring in her step and a grin on her face.

Azal was just glad she didn’t actually skip out of his door.

General Katherine sat alone in her home, holding her forehead in thought. She knew Councillor Ihab had said she couldn’t have foreseen it, she knew he’d forgiven her for her failure… but it still ate away at her. It wasn’t just the normal sting of failure, though that was painful enough. This was something deeper. To her, it didn’t just feel like she’d failed the Council – it felt like… something deeper. Like she’d done something far more unforgivable than any of her previous losses had been.

At first, she’d thought it was just because she’d lost to rebels, of all things – and in such a way, too. To dishonor the Council by failing to stamp out a simple uprising… of course it would gnaw at her. Failing against the mortal nations was understandable, at least – as great as the Council was, war was war, and it was an unpredictable business by its nature. And besides, even she had to admit that the mortal nations had many advantages. But this was different – this time, the Council had failed to defend against an attack from within, an attack where it had all the advantages. And that stain on its honor would be there forever.

Of course, the Council hadn’t really failed – she had. But because she’d failed, everyone would see it as the Council having failed. So, for a while, she’d thought that was why she felt so awful. Because this time, her failure hadn’t just been her own thing to deal with – in her failure to do something as simple as defeat a bunch of rebels, she’d dragged the Council’s reputation through the mud too. She’d forced them to suffer for something she’d done – and it stung especially bad because what she’d done had been so stupid. If she’d just done something a bit differently, if she’d just been more aggressive, if she’d foreseen the possibility of an attack from outside… but she hadn’t, and because of that failure, the Council had to endure the humiliation of losing to simple rebels.

So, for a while, she’d thought that that was the reason she felt like there was a sinking pit in her stomach, the reason the guilt kept clawing at her. But eventually, she’d realized that had never been it. What was causing her guilt – and, more than that, what was causing what she now realized was fear – was something far worse.

Losing wasn’t uncommon for her. She’d been driven back often when she went to attack the mortals at the Council’s behest. Of course, she didn’t mind – she’d keep at it as long as it took, if that was what was necessary for the Council’s dream to be fulfilled. But those losses had all had one thing in common – in the grand scheme of things, they didn’t matter. The loss of their people was awful, of course, and it would be horrible to dismiss their deaths as inconsequential, but… in the long run, none of the Council’s previous losses had seriously affected it. The mortals were mostly content to just drive them off and then go back to whatever they’d been doing before, so the Council could always simply regroup and try again.

But this? This was different. She didn’t know much about the rebels, but if they were rebelling at all, there was one thing that was nearly certain: they plotted to overthrow the Council. A loss against them wasn’t just a loss – rather, every time she failed to break them, her failure brought the Council just a little bit closer to destruction.

And that thought terrified her.

That brought a bit of shame to her mind, because she wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything. And she definitely wasn’t supposed to be afraid of some rebels that barely had the slightest chance of victory. But no matter how small the chance, no matter how unlikely it was… the thought of the Council falling scared her. It was raw, primal fear, sheer terror that numbed her mind and turned her gaze blank and her eyes glassy.

If these rebels won… if they gained power… what would they do? What sort of future would it be, ruled by these demons that so hated the Council? Would all those still loyal to the Council be hunted down, sent to a dungeon and executed – or worse? What would happen to her? Surely, they wouldn’t let her go – and nor would she abandon the Council, not even as they fell. But what would they do to her? The thought of a future filled with abstract tortures and horrors filled her mind, though she couldn’t bear to think of it in any more specific terms. If the rebels won… what would happen to her? They would hate her. And she doubted they would be merciful.

The thought of her fate if the rebels won was terrifying. But it would just be the beginning.

What would happen to the rest of demonkind? What would these rebels do once they obtained power? She didn’t know. She didn’t know their ideology, what they believed in, what they wanted to do… anything like that. But it wouldn’t be anything good, would it? If these rebels won, demonkind would suffer – that much, she was almost certain of. What would happen…? Would they remain stuck in this desolate land forever, living under a ruler lacking the ambition or the bravery to try to ever break out? Or would it be even worse? After all, if a rebel came into power, he’d be paranoid that another rebellion could break out. Would all dissent be suppressed, the expression of one’s opinion punishable by imprisonment or death? Would the new ruler allow no questions, nothing but the most absolute obedience? Or… or…

Possibilities rushed through her mind. There were an infinite amount of variables, an infinite amount of ways an Aead ruled by the rebels could look. But… the Council were good rulers. They had ambition, they had will, and they wanted demonkind to break free of this world of grey stone and red soil. And she’d always been satisfied, living under them. Were they perfect? Even she wouldn’t say that, but… she liked them. As long as they ruled, things would stay good. And as long as they ruled, the hope of breaking free of this world and settling in the verdant green of Verta remained alive.

Whereas if the rebels seized power… she didn’t know what would happen. She would be completely at their mercy, all of demonkind would be completely at their mercy, and she didn’t know what would happen.

That scared her.

That scared her.

If the rebels won, if they started tearing this world down and replacing it with their own twisted vision, General Katherine would be powerless to stop it. That was why they couldn’t win. Because the thought of a world where she had to sit and watch as a cruel ruler did whatever he wished, knowing that she didn’t have a single chance of stopping him, knowing that his attention would turn upon her soon enough… it was too terrifying to consider.

But what if they did win? What if she couldn’t stop them?

Then that future would come to pass. And it would be her fault.

It hadn’t happened yet. And, if she had any say in the matter, it would never happen. But even just imagining it made her want to vomit.

That had been the true reason for the gnawing feeling in her gut.

…but… that… that wasn’t important. General Katherine pushed the thoughts out of her head. None of it mattered. The rebels were going to lose. Anything else was inconceivable. (And too terrifying to consider besides.) The difference in power was simply too great. (And it would just be wrong if they won, so wrong she couldn’t bear it.) Sure, they’d won once. (So it was possible they could win again.) But that was just a fluke, a coincidence. (Or that was what she told herself.)

She would win. She couldn’t not win.

But she knew that until the moment the rebels were shattered, until the moment their last supporter was brought low, that fear would always pursue her.

That night, General Katherine would barely be able to sleep.

Azal looked out of his window, pensive.

Many important things had happened recently. Their first real threat. Their first real victory. The arrival of their allies. The revelation that General Katherine was already one of their enemies, and that they had a shadow among their allies. But as important as all of that was, it all paled before one other fact.

He had a proper army now.

That didn’t just mean Ian’s army, either. Having a military man by his side was a useful thing for several reasons, and it wasn’t just because he had his troops with him. Now that he had Ian by his side, he had someone who could train his demons – his messy, disorganized mob – and turn them into a real, disciplined army. Not only could Ian himself do it, Azal had been assured that there were at least a few people within his ranks who were able and willing to provide that sort of training.

And it wasn’t like there was much training needed. Azal knew that he wouldn’t be able to have any sort of elite units or anything like that – that required far more time than he had. But if he just wanted to have a fighting force he could use against the enemy, not much was required. Really, all they needed was equipment, a bit of basic combat training, and enough discipline to follow orders.

Now, they would be able to get all three.

In other words, from now on, this wouldn’t be the same thing as it had been before. This would no longer be a simple revolt – a bit of civil unrest. This would be more, now.

With an army by his side, Azal could truly begin the war against the Council.

Ihab strolled into the Council’s meeting chamber. He already knew what course of action he’d propose.

First, there was the matter of Katherine. He didn’t care what the other Councillors thought – Katherine hadn’t done anything wrong. And he’d defend that position, come what may. That was the first thing on his agenda.

But second, and – as much as he hated to admit it – more important, was the matter of the rebellion. No – it wouldn’t be just a rebellion, not anymore. What he would discuss was the matter of the war.

Yes. War. The thought brought a bit of a smirk to his face.

He wasn’t exactly sure how he planned to fight this war, not yet. But he knew one thing for sure. This wouldn’t be like the normal battles the Council fought all the time. This would be different – a matter of life and death. The loser would fall, shattered and lost to the annals of time – and the winner would end up as the ruler of all demonkind.

Back when the Council had been a band of rebels themselves, back when they’d overthrown the old king and taken power, Ihab had been their general. He had been the one who’d commanded their armies and defeated the enemy on the field of battle. Since then, the Council had decided that now that he was a Councillor, it would be too dangerous to send him out into the field again – and so, he’d been more or less stuck in the capital for the last few centuries, never fighting on the front lines even as the Council waged battle after battle.

But now? Now, it would be different. In a war that meant this much, Ihab didn’t care what the other Councillors thought – he wasn’t going to just sit on the sidelines or command his men from high up.

If it was going to be like this, then he would go fight the enemy himself. The Council could say whatever it liked about the risks – but he’d already made his decision.

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