Chapter 21: A World Continuing to Turn

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Azal had no idea, of course.

How could he have?

How could he possibly have known that one of the Great Powers, the gods that the mortal races had worshipped for millennia now, had perished just minutes ago? How could he possibly have known that an event that would change the world and shake all who lived on it to their core had just occurred? How could he possibly have known that he lived in a time when something that had not happened in untold millennia until now had just occurred?

None of that mattered to him right now. Because, of course, he didn’t know. The event was something that should’ve shook the world, something that should’ve shocked the greatest of men and left all living things reeling. That was how it seemed, anyway. But the reality was different. No matter how important an event was, even if it was something that changed the world itself, no one would hear of it immediately. Perhaps later, when the news got out and the word spread, the reaction that, it seemed, should have happened would, indeed, happen. And then, all of Verta and Aead would feel the shock that such an event merited.

But for now, the world continued to turn, regardless of how much it had just changed.

Azal sat at the long table, drumming his fingers on the wooden surface. This wasn’t his room at the top of the tower – rather, this was a room lower down, a (relatively) large one that he’d since repurposed into a meeting chamber. Of course, up until now, there hadn’t been much need for something like that – his only major collaborators had been Johannes and Darius, and he could talk with them easily enough up at the top. But now, Ian and possibly Aya had just been added to that list, and if Azal were to have his way, it would expand further soon enough – after all, something like a rebellion was far too large for one person to run, so the more people there were to share the load, the better. Which meant that now, a larger chamber was required where they could all meet at once. This one, Azal had figured, would serve well enough. It wasn’t perfect, but there was nothing “perfect” in any way about the old Baron’s tower. Azal was just glad he’d found something good enough.

Of course, right now, he sat there alone. There were no meetings to be called, not right now, and no major matters to be discussed. In fact, that was the exact issue Azal was contemplating. For the first time since the Council’s initial, small attack, Azal was left without a clear purpose in mind. There was nothing they needed to rush to do, no big battle for which they needed to prepare. For once, the Bloodhorns had some time to themselves. What was the best way to use it?

The first order of business, of course, had been getting his mob of demons turned into a real army. Azal, admittedly, didn’t have the first clue how to do that, so he’d passed the task off to Ian – and, as far as he could see, it was going quite well. By the time the next battle came around, he’d have a formidable fighting force at his command, one that could at least stand against the Council’s army – and, more importantly, one that he could properly command. The only thing Azal was concerned about was having Ian and his men as the recruiters – he wasn’t sure what his supporters would think about having humans be the ones training the army. But it was the only option, so if negative consequences arose from it, Azal would just have to deal with them.

In either case, that was, at least for now, more or less taken care of. But… what else was there for Azal to do? Of course, expanding their territory and getting allies was high on the list of priorities, but both of those would be much easier once Azal had his army – and until then, attempting to do either would be difficult at best. Azal was sure that he could find some use for Johannes and Darius and Aya, something the three of them could do while Ian was busy assembling the army, but… he had some difficulty figuring out what, exactly.

Simply put, Azal couldn’t really make his move until he had his army. It seemed like an easy enough thing to figure out, but it was still frustrating, and Azal couldn’t help but wish that there was something he could do. But for now, it really did seem like there was nothing to do but sit tight and wait for Ian to make more progress. The best thing to busy himself with, for now, was coming up with a plan as to what to do once he did have his new army.

And when it came to plans, Azal noted to himself with a small touch of amusement as he remembered what Darius had told him a while ago, it was always best to have a second opinion.

It seemed the meeting room would be seeing use sooner than Azal had anticipated.

“That man…” Councillor Gerhardt mumbled under his breath, looking at the massive seat that should’ve been Councillor Ihab’s. But there was no one there now, no huge timor to occupy the seat. Because he’d headed off to personally lead the charge against the rebels, not caring a single bit about the risks.

Gerhardt was torn. On one hand, he couldn’t help but admire Ihab. That sort of courage, that sort of initiative, and that sort of will to fight… they weren’t something that could be found in every demon, but they were traits that every demon should have had. In this way, Ihab was the perfect exemplar of everything the Council stood for. Looking at that from that perspective, the rest of them should’ve been ashamed that they hadn’t done the same thing.

But on the other hand, what would happen if he did die or get captured? It seemed like a stupid thought, and Gerhardt’s mind almost refused to accept the possibility of Ihab being defeated by simple rebels – but it was a possibility, much as he hated to admit it. If Councillor Ihab was eliminated, if they lost one of the members of the Council… then what would happen? Since the days when the old king had fallen and the Council had taken control, they had been what demonkind looked up to, the stoic anchor that guided them through change and chaos and hard times. If such a blow was dealt to it now… what would happen to demonkind? What would happen to their faith, their belief in the Council?  And without the Council operating at full efficiency, with the damage and chaos that a Councillor dying would inevitably cause hindering it… would any loss of faith not be justified? Would the demons under their rule not suffer? Without a strong, unhesitant group of leaders at the helm, what would happen to Aead?

In that light, Ihab’s actions seemed, if anything, simply selfish. Like he was simply a man going off to chase glory without a single regard for what harm it could bring.

He should’ve known, really. He’d known Ihab for a long time, and as much as he’d always liked the timor, he’d always seen that roguish streak in him. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been surprising that Ihab would decide to make such a bold, stupid move. Back then, back when Ihab had made the proposal that he should lead the army and the Council had erupted into chaos, Gerhardt had been the only one to argue for Ihab from the start – the only one to claim that such courage and will were something to be celebrated, that the rest of the Councillors were cowards for immediately thinking of all the bad things that would happen.

But now that Gerhardt thought about it himself, how right had he truly been? Perhaps, in hindsight, it would’ve been better for him, too, to try and stop Ihab.

Not that it would’ve helped, though. Ihab had been utterly determined to go out there himself. If even the other four Councillors couldn’t stop him from doing as he liked, what difference would one more adding to them make?

This sort of defiance was one of the things Gerhardt didn’t like about Ihab. He’d seen, firsthand, the horrors of the previous king – he’d been one of the people who’d liberated demonkind and decided to rule a new way. And he’d witnessed the change the Council had created, the people it had uplifted. All of demonkind owed everything they knew to the Council. And yet Ihab still went against it just because of a little whim he’d happened to have…?

“In hindsight, we should’ve known,” Councillor Daniel said in a neutral tone. “Councillor Ihab has always expressed interest in going out to the battlefield once more ever since we took over as the new rulers, and we’ve been denying him that all that time. Considering his personality, it shouldn’t have been a surprise he’d eventually decide to just leave and do what he wanted, whatever we said.”

“Of course he would,” Councillor Mia hissed. “That disloyal dog… of course he’d think he can defy the rest of us just because he decided to. I told you – I told all of you – that he shouldn’t have been allowed on the Council in the first place, and you let him on anyway – and look where it’s gotten you. He’s just a warrior, not good for governing anything. What were you thinking when you let someone like him rule demonkind by my side?!”

Councillor Adrien narrowed his eyes at her. “Your side, Councillor Mia?”

“Yes, my side!” she snapped. “Because it’s clear to me now that I’m the only one here who’s got the tiniest shred of competence. Ihab, I don’t even need to explain – he just went and did… that. But you, Adrien? You’re always hesitant, always doubting me and never taking any risks. You think demonkind will ever reach glory like that? And you, Gerhardt – you love the people too much. I’m sorry, you child,” she said harshly, and Gerhardt’s eyes snapped open in shock, “but sometimes, you’ve got to make hard decisions. Just because you want all your lovely little subjects to stay safe doesn’t mean you get to sacrifice the country’s integrity just for them!

“And you, Daniel! You think too much, and you’ve got the same problem Adrien does. You never take any risks, never do anything which might carry the slightest chance to turn out poorly. Well I hate to break it to you, but sometimes, you’ve got to do things like that if you want the nation to succeed. And you’re the exact same, Yulia! You’re all pathetic dogs who don’t have the first idea how to run a nation! I’m the only competent one here!”

Stunned silence permeated the Council Chamber.

Gerhardt took a moment to process what he’d just heard. Councillor Ihab’s act of defiance had been one thing, but that hadn’t been too bad. This, though? This was different. Councillor Mia had just denounced the rest of them in the midst of their own chamber, called the Council – the Council – a bunch of idiots. Blasphemy like that… it was unforgivable.

His face twisted in anger. “Councillor Mia, that will be enough,” he roared. “You should be removed from the Council for that!”

“Hah! Then I hope you enjoy being torn apart by those rabid dogs you call the rebels!” she laughed. “It’s not like you’ll be able to fight them without me, after all. Or are you even too stupid to realize-“

“Councillor Mia, Councillor Gerhardt… please,” Councillor Adrien said in a smooth voice, raising a placating hand. Something so simple as that shouldn’t have had the power to stop the chaotic mess the Council Chamber had suddenly become… but something about Councillor Adrien made the two of them settle down. “Or do you want the Council to tear itself apart before the rebels even get here? Right now, my friends, we stand at a precipice. More than anything, we cannot afford to fight each other, not now. We will stand against this danger to our existence, and we will succeed… but we can’t do that if we can’t agree on things first. Sometimes we’ll have to compromise, and sometimes one of you will have to let something go that you don’t agree with – but trust me, something like that is much better than tearing the Council to pieces with your power struggles. Please… be reasonable.”

Councillor Gerhardt settled back down in his chair.

“Councillor Adrien is right,” Councillor Yulia interfered. “We cannot afford to have these sorts of conflicts between us, not now.”

Yes. He was right. Gerhardt saw that, now, and he was suddenly ashamed of his previous outburst. He stood by his opinion, of course, but… not now. Certainly not now. Now was not the time for anything like that.

And as he looked at where Mia was sitting, he saw that she, too, was sitting quietly in her seat. She was clearly seething with anger, and aching to make some other outburst… but for now, at least, it seemed she was willing to play along. It seemed even someone like her… no, that was the wrong way of thinking. Councillor Adrien had said as much. For now, he couldn’t think of his fellow Councillors as his enemies. No matter how much they didn’t get along normally, for now, they had to be united. Otherwise, they would just be handing the rebels victory on a silver platter.

It seemed Councillor Mia shared that opinion, or at least respected its truth enough to avoid conflict for now. That was good. Right now, more than anything, they needed to treat each other with respect, because that was the best way to make sure the Council didn’t tear itself apart. So if Mia was willing to do that, Gerhardt would do the same, whatever he thought about her personally.

In hindsight, perhaps it was just as well that Ihab had gone off to fight in the war. If he’d been here, Gerhardt doubted he’d agree to do anything but say what was on his mind.

“Indeed,” Councillor Gerhardt nodded. “I apologize for my outburst, my fellow Councillors. Councillors Adrien and Yulia are completely correct. We must stay united.”

“…fine,” Councillor Mia half-sighed, half-hissed. It was good enough for Gerhardt.

“I am glad you agree on this,” Councillor Yulia said. “In that case, we must discuss what to do now, yes?”

There was silence in the room for a few moments. No sound but a soft noise coming from Councillor Adrien’s seat as he fidgeted, clearly wanting to say something.

“Councillor Adrien?” Gerhardt prompted. “Do you have something to say?

“Yes,” Adrien said, clearly a bit nervous about saying whatever he was thinking. “Why don’t we just do what we’ve done before and… stay out of the army’s way? I know it feels wrong, I know this is a major issue and it seems like we should be involved with it ourselves, but the army’s the army for a reason. General Katherine’s good at what she does, and so is Councillor Ihab. Why don’t we just… let them take care of it, for now?”

Before Gerhardt or anyone else could even react, another voice spoke up. “Councillor Adrien is absolutely right,” Councillor Daniel stated, “though he left out the most important reason. Simply put, none of us except Ihab have the relevant experience or expertise. If you will recall, during our rebellion, the majority of military matters were left to Ihab – and since then, Generals Katherine and Leonid have handled all such things. None of the other Councillors, and thus none of the people present here, have the experience to match them. If we were to try and get involved in the management of this conflict directly, we would likely harm our own side.”

Gerhardt considered that for a moment. His initial gut reaction was one of objection – how could they just leave their men to fend for themselves, and how could they just ignore the rebel threat until the armies got back to them? But what Councillor Daniel had said made sense. It was true that the people currently in charge of the army marching towards Redgate were much more experienced in these matters than anyone present here, and it was true that they would likely only hinder the army’s efforts if they were to get involved.

“Yes, Councillor Daniel,” Councillor Gerhardt nodded. “I suppose you are right.”

“Indeed,” Councillor Yulia said. “He is correct.”

Mia sighed. “Alright, I guess,” she muttered and returned to quietly seething.

“Very well, then,” Gerhardt said. “It is decided. We will, at least for now, not interfere in the army’s operations.”

Councillor Ihab gave Katherine a light pat on the back, which sent her stumbling for a bit and almost knocked her down, though fortunately she managed to regain her balance before actually falling. That would’ve been embarrassing.

“C-Councillor Ihab…!” she objected when she managed to get back on her feet. “I know you are my superior, but…”

“Actually, that’s exactly what I’ve been meaning to talk about,” Ihab said. “And sorry, that was… supposed to just be a pat on the back. But anyway, that’s the issue here. You keep calling me “Councillor Ihab”, keep deferring to me, keep asking me for my permission on your decisions. And just in general, you keep acting like I’m your superior and someone you’ve got to treat with the utmost respect all the time. That’s not how it works out here, lady.”

“W-what?” Katherine asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ihab sighed. “Look. I don’t care that technically, I’m one of the Councillors and you’re “just” a General. I don’t care that normally, you have to follow my orders and whatever I say goes. It’s not like that here. Here, we’re just both commanders, leading an army together. Technically, I have my contingents, so I have the final say over those, and you have yours, which you have the final say over – but at the end of the day, we’ve both got the same objective and we’re both taking command to achieve it. And it’s not like one of us is obviously better or worse at military tactics than the other. So for now, we’re equals, and I’d like it if you were to act like that’s the case.”

“S-sir…” she muttered, “I’m… I’m not sure what you’re talking about…”

“What I’m trying to say, Katherine,” he said, “is that you’re being overly… well, submissive, I guess, for lack of a better term. You shouldn’t just be blindly obeying everything I say and acting as if my opinions are the gospel truth, especially not in these circumstances. I can make mistakes, just like everyone else, and if you listen to what I say even in those cases… well, I don’t think I need to tell you what’ll happen. So don’t just do nothing but listen to me, because if you do that, we might as well have not brought you along in the first place. Discuss things with me. Talk to me. And keep it in mind that I can do stupid things to, and when I do, it’s your job to call them out – or just not do what I tell you to. You can rest assured that I won’t mind even the latter, assuming you’ve got a good reason.”

Of course, that was only part of the real reason Ihab was trying to convince her to act on her own a bit more. Some of it was to make sure his own mistakes didn’t ruin the war effort, yes – but really, he was aiming for a more general issue. Because for all that Katherine was skilled, and courageous, and in general just incredibly competent… she always obeyed the Council, no matter what. On everything. Ihab was pretty sure she’d never even thought, not even once, that the Council’s decisions could possibly be wrong.

And no matter how he looked at it, that just wasn’t healthy.

Katherine looked up at him. “I… see what you are trying to say, Councillor Ihab,” she said. “But I am afraid I cannot agree. If it is a simple matter of a request or something of that nature, then yes, I am willing to discuss it with you if I think it is… not the best choice. But I will not defy an order, even if I may think my judgement is better – I have no right to. The Council has – you have – uplifted demonkind from centuries of suffering and freed us from the rule of a tyrannical king, and since then, you have always strived to achieve the dreams that so many of us thought impossible. And you saw fit to allow me the honor of being your greatest servant. Repaying that with absolute loyalty is the least I could do. I will follow the Council even to the skies or the depths of the earth if that is where it wishes to go. So I am sorry, Councillor Ihab, but… no. I cannot disagree with an order.”

Ihab smiled. “You talked back to me. Good. You’re finally growing a backbone.”

At that, Katherine’s eyes widened a bit. “N-no, Councillor Ihab, I didn’t mean to-“

“Oh, quiet,” Ihab sighed. “I’m perfectly fine with what you did. I’m happy with it. So please, don’t apologize for it. And stop calling me “Councillor.””

“Very well, Cou- I mean, Ihab,” she said, bowing her head slightly.

“In either case,” Ihab said, “I’m glad you’ve finally got the courage to openly disagree with me – but unfortunately, your logic’s really flawed. For a start, consider this: you say you’re loyal to the Council, yes? But if I were to make a poor decision during this war and you were to carry out my orders regardless, it could easily mean the Council’s destruction, all because you followed an order you shouldn’t have. Have you thought about that?”

“I… I have not,” Katherine admitted. “But…”

“I can tell you’re having some trouble saying what you want to, so I’ll say it for you,” Ihab said. ““How would I know that that will be the case?” Right?” It wasn’t some sort of trick of psychology or cleverness that had allowed Ihab to predict her so accurately. He just knew Katherine very, very well.

“I… yes, I suppose that is what I would like to ask,” she said. “And even if I were to identify such a situation, what would I…”

“First off, of course you can’t know that something like that’s going to happen,” Ihab said. Admittedly, this was starting to test his patience a little. He’d wanted Katherine to grow a bit of a backbone – to learn to do anything but just obey the Council – for a long time now, and this seemed like the best moment to try and get it to happen, but… she was still proving rather difficult. Not that he’d expected anything different. “But you’ve got a brain, Katherine, and it’s a smart one. You just don’t tend to use it that often. Think, girl. Whenever I ask you to do something, think about it, and think about how it’ll probably go. And if it looks like it’s going to be bad for the Council, then don’t do it. Bring it up with me, if you’re able, but if for whatever reason, that’s not possible, then just don’t do it. I’ll understand.”

“I…” she murmured.

“Look, Katherine,” Ihab began, “what’s more valuable – one Councillor, or the other five of them?”

She looked down at the ground. “…the five, I suppose,” she said, hesitantly.

“Then if you’ve got to disobey the one to save the five, do it,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re basically going to be completely useless.”

“Mmm…” she murmured to herself. “I… very well, Counci- Ihab. I’ll try my best.”

“Thank you, Katherine,” he said. “And one more thing, if I may?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“You’re loyal to the Council because of all the things they’ve done for demonkind, right? You want to see demonkind rise as far as it possibly can?”

“Of course,” Katherine replied without even a tinge of the hesitation that had plagued her just a bit earlier.

“Then it’s not the Council you should be loyal to,” Ihab said. “It’s demonkind. They’re not one and the same.”

And on that note, the army marched onwards, its two commanders at the head.

Queen Lily folded her arms on the railing of the balcony and looked out over the city.

It was a beautiful sight. The manors rising up into the sky, the grand monuments of marble and stone… even, in a way, the undisturbed nature that still shone through the coating of civilization. All of it was beautiful. Some people would’ve said that they could look at it for years and never grow tired of it. Some of them would’ve even really meant it.

But Lily hadn’t really been able to enjoy this sight for a long time now. She still certainly appreciated it, that much was true, and she valued its beauty. But it didn’t bring that sense of wonder it had once brought her a long time ago, and it definitely wasn’t something that she could stare at for hours or anything like that.

It wasn’t because of the landscape itself. That had committed no crime. No – it was simply because that was the kind of person Queen Lily was. For her, something static and calm like the landscape she could see from her window… it just wasn’t enough, not for long. She wanted excitement – she needed excitement. To someone like her, just standing at the balcony and looking at the city could never be satisfactory. She needed more.

And right now, she was bored.

She’d expected getting involved with the demons’ rebellion to give her life that bit of spice she so desperately needed, to throw everything into chaos and let her watch the changes that unfolded. In hindsight, that had been a stupid expectation from the start – demonkind hadn’t interacted with mortals in a long, long time, possibly even all of history, in any way other than trying to fight them. And while demon invasions weren’t uncommon, they weren’t that regular either, and there was no serious, formal “war” going on. By and large, Verta and Aead were completely disconnected from each other. So of course she, up here on Verta, wouldn’t really be able to notice any fallout from a rebellion in Aead for a good while. But even understanding that, it was still disappointing.

And that meant her principal issue was still unsolved. She was still bored. Even the pastime of weeding out dissent and meting out, ahem, appropriate punishment (well, she wasn’t deluded enough to think it was really appropriate in any way, but…) had lost its charm a good while ago. She was still going to continue doing it, of course, but… that by itself was nowhere near enough for her anymore. She needed something more.

Which, of course, raised a question. Well, it was a question that had been raised for a long time, but that thought had brought it to the forefront of Lily’s mind.

When would her advisor return?

Well, that wasn’t quite right. Calling Cassius Aeron her advisor, while technically correct, didn’t come even close to describing what she really thought about him. Oh, it was true – he was her advisor. After all, Lily would be the first to admit that she sometimes did stupid things in the name of her own amusement, so someone to keep her in check before she did something too stupid was necessary.

But more than that, Lily liked Cassius because he was the one person who could keep her entertained. Oh, she’d had a lot of friends over the years, but she’d grown tired of most of them quickly – people were often predictable, and she was the sort of person who could easily figure out exactly how a person would act in any given situation given just a little time, at which point interaction with them lost all its lustre. (Admittedly, thinking like that was probably a sign that something was massively wrong with Queen Lily… but it wasn’t like she didn’t know that already.) Cassius, though, was different. Even now, while she could predict him in a general sense, she never quite knew exactly what he would do or what trick he would pull. And that was why she so longed for his company, even as she spurned the company of any others.

It wasn’t that she loved him or anything. He was just… someone who was entertaining to her, and thus her closest friend. It wasn’t anything more than that.

A small blush appeared on Lily’s cheeks at the mere thought of that.

Okay, she admitted to herself. Maybe she was a little in love.

Well, regardless of that, unfortunately, Cassius still had a job to do, and no matter how quirky and unpredictable he was, he was still very competent and he did actually care for the kingdom. So, though it had been with a heavy heart, she’d been forced a while ago to send him out on an important diplomatic mission, mostly at his own request. She could see the reasoning behind it, yes, and she could see how it would improve Sagnir’s standing among the nations of Aphage, but… ugh. She just wished she could have Cassius back already.

In due time, she reminded herself. She still couldn’t be impatient. That would be silly. She had to wait for it.

And while she was doing that, she could find other ways to amuse herself. She went back inside from the balcony, sat down at the magnificent table in her private chambers, took a scroll of parchment, and began writing something down. When she was done, she called for a servant and passed him the scroll.

“Take this to the Redeyes,” she told him, and couldn’t help but notice the slight narrowing of his eyes at the name. “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but don’t read it, or we’ll have problems.” And with that, she sent him on his way.

The Redeyes were the name for the group of people within her kingdom who were, for whatever reasons they had, willing and able to carry out any of her orders without complaint or question, and without letting anyone else know. A group like that wasn’t normally necessary, but considering Queen Lily’s… unique… tastes, having something like that was quite important for her. In fact, they were some of the very few people who even knew about the sort of things Lily would occasionally do. Those things were the reason the Redeyes were composed primarily of people who were, at least to some degree, insane – they were the only kinds of people who’d ever agree to do things like that

Lily preferred to keep direct contact with them to a minimum, instead communicating with them through servants and messages, because honestly, they scared her. But they were willing to do as she asked, and for her, people like that were valuable, so they were kept around.

And as for that scroll, written on it were instructions to start a fire in a major town near the centre of Sagnir.

Just for kicks, really.

As for Cassius Aeron himself, he rode through the plains with a small escort of guards, heading back to Sagnir. He was a pale-skinned man dressed in an all-white fancy outfit befitting a noble – white jacket, white trousers, white shirt… it was all immaculate, perfectly clean and perfectly smooth and perfectly tailored. But though he dressed like a perfect noble, the casual smile on his face went against that image. It wasn’t on purpose, though, and it wasn’t because he was particularly happy about anything at the moment. It was just the sort of expression he generally wore.

“So,” he murmured in satisfaction, “looks like we’ll be there in a day or two, eh, Jacky?”

“Y-yes, Sir Cassius,” Jack the guard mumbled back, bringing another smile to Cassius’ face. He couldn’t help it. He liked making fun of them sometimes. Their reactions were amazing. And besides, he supposed it was a habit one couldn’t help picking up if they were to hang around Queen Lily for a while.

“Now, let’s hope nothing goes wrong on the way,” Cassius smiled. “’Course, now that I’ve said that, something’s gonna go wrong. So… just be ready for it when it happens, eh?”

“Very well, Sir,” another of the guards hesitantly replied. None of them seemed to know what, exactly, to make of him. Good. Cassius was quite happy about that.

And so they rode on, ending up passing by a series of small thicket on their way to the kingdom. As Cassius had already said, he was fully expecting an attack, and this would be the best place for someone to stage one. So he wasn’t at all surprised when he heard a rustling of the brush and the sound of weapons being drawn. He just smirked, commanded his guards to hold, and stepped down from his horse and drew his sword. It was a thin, slender thing – not quite a rapier, but it certainly looked similar, even though it was really intended for slashing just as much as thrusting

Sure enough, enemies sprang forth from the nearby thickets. They just weren’t exactly the sort of enemies Cassius had been expecting.

He grinned a bit wider. “What – demons, here?” he asked rhetorically. “What are you, Cult of the Burning Eye?”

“Right,” one of the demons surrounding the group of them replied. “If you know that much, I’m sure you know what’ll happen to ya, right?”

“Do I know what’ll happen to me?” Cassius asked. “Or do I know what’ll happen to you if you attack us?”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” the demon replied.

“Well, it doesn’t need to,” Cassius cheerfully said. “Anyway, you really feel like doing this? I’m a mage, you know.” It was true. It’d once been something Cassius had tried to hide, but he’d figured out it was a useless endeavour fairly early on, so he’d been pretty open about it ever since.

“Good,” another voice said, emerging from another one of the thickets. Now, Cassius didn’t really know demons all that well, but he’d know this one anywhere – though he seemed to have lost an arm somewhere in the time since Cassius had last seen him. Letholdus, that sadistic little git who seemed to live for nothing but murder. (Of course, considering who Cassius worked for, he could hardly criticize Letholdus for that, could he?) “As of recently, I’ve got quite a bone to pick with mages in particular.”

Cassius smiled at that. He knew Letholdus was a mage, too. So…

“I see, I see. So, a battle between mages?” he asked. “Well, maybe not – can’t really see ya casting too many spells with an arm missing like that. Still, this ought to be fun.” He readied his sword and settled into a fighting stance, grinning at his opponent. “Have at you, then!”

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