Chapter 22: Preparation

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“Sir Azal,” Ian nodded as he entered the meeting chamber. He was here before any of the other people Azal had called. Of course he was. He’d want to impress Azal, and, more importantly, Queen Lily. Both were fruitless endeavours, of course, but Azal saw no reason to tell Ian that. If he thought he was getting closer to his goal by simply doing his job well, maybe he wouldn’t try any more severe measures, at least not for a while.

“Greetings, Lord Sabrin,” Azal said, not moving even slightly in his chair. “Have a seat.”

“Thank you,” Ian said and did as Azal had told him, taking a seat as close as possible to the head of the table where Azal sat. It was a thinly-veiled power play, to the point where Azal didn’t think Ian had had any intentions of concealing it in the first place. It was a bold statement to make, conveying something along the lines of “I’m planning to seize power, and I don’t care if you know about it.” Not surprising – Ian had to have known nearly from the start that Azal knew about his plans – but worrying. Someone with that sort of confidence was either dangerous or foolish, and Azal doubted Ian was the latter.

“I see you are a punctual man,” Azal mentioned. It was a pointless motion of politeness, a shallow compliment for no reason but to uphold the rules of etiquette – and, if possible, to give Ian the impression that Azal was more easily manipulated than he truly was. But Azal didn’t really think Ian would fall for it. “As expected from a noble of Sagnir.”

“Don’t mention it,” Ian said, waving the compliment away. He seemed vaguely satisfied – could he have fallen for the ploy after all? “Where are the rest of your co-conspirators?”

“It seems they are taking a little longer to arrive,” Azal said. “It is not an unreasonable delay.”

“I suppose,” Ian murmured, and sat back in his seat. Both of them realized at that moment that the conversation was over, and Azal was happy to let it end. And so they sat in silence for what ended up being around two minutes until the door opened, and two demons walked in. Darius and Johannes, of course.

“Sorry I’m late,” Darius said, walking over and taking a seat before Azal could even prompt him to. Johannes stood awkwardly in the doorway for a few moments, forcing Azal to motion him over and indicate that he should also take a seat.

When they were both seated, Azal clasped his hands in front of his face. “It appears we are all present, then.” He looked between the three of them. “Lord Sabrin, I understand that your work to create an army out of our supporters is a difficult job that requires much time, so I will try to keep this brief.”

“Oh, there is no need,” Ian said. “I will do my best to serve you for as long as my Queen wills it. If that requires delaying the creation of the army for a small period of time, that is alright. There is no great need for urgency at this moment.”

“I am happy you feel that way,” Azal said. “Still, I will do my best to ensure you may return to your work quickly.”

“You have my thanks, Sir Azal,” Ian said.

“Aya’s not here?” Johannes interjected.

Azal had to supress a sigh at that. The obvious reason Aya wasn’t here was because she was inexperienced, but he could hardly just say that in front of Ian. That man would take any ammunition against Azal he could get, which meant speaking that frankly about his subordinates would be an awful idea. He’d hoped Johannes would have the good sense not to even bring that up, but… it seemed that had been too much to wish for.

“Unfortunately, the situation wasn’t right, and Aya was unable to attend,” Azal said. It was a vague excuse, but hopefully it’d stop anyone from looking too deeply into it. “Rest assured that she is still a valued comrade, and we value her opinions. It is simply that she was unable to be here this time.”

Johannes frowned at that. “I… see,” he said, clearly unconvinced, but he didn’t question it any further. And thank goodness.

“Now that that is taken care of, I believe it is time to discuss the matters we are gathered here to discuss – namely, those pertaining to the war. Even with Lord Sabrin’s force on our side, the Council is still more powerful than us,” Azal said, and it was true. If anything, it was an understatement. “We will have to rely on our wits and strategy if we are to be victorious. As Lord Sabrin has the most military experience out of all of us, I believe it would be wise to give him the chance to speak first. Lord Sabrin?”

Azal wasn’t entirely happy at letting Ian go first like this, but it was a good idea. Partly for the reason he’d just stated – Ian really did have more experience than any of them – but partly so that Ian could feel like he was already succeeding in influencing Azal. If he thought things were already going his way, there was less of a chance he’d try something drastic, and him trying something drastic at this stage of the rebellion could destroy the Bloodhorns outright.

“Thank you, Sir Azal,” Ian replied with a small bow. “I would like to direct your attention here.” He retrieved a scroll from his person, laid it on the table, and unrolled it to reveal a map of Aead. Azal had given him it a while ago, so that he could better understand the terrain where the war would be occurring.

“While I will admit my knowledge of Aead was limited before I was called to assist this rebellion, I have been studying it for a while now,” he said. “Therefore, I believe I can make some predictions based on the terrain, as well as the locations of major cities and other landmarks. The first thing to consider is where the next battle is likely to take place, something that will be decided by several factors. First off, we must consider the issue of our own territory – if we wish to fight a true war, we must begin to turn our minds towards expansion. If we manage to claim any land before the next large battle, we will have more choice as to where we meet our opponents.”

Azal nodded. What Ian was saying was certainly right, and expanding quickly would not be a particularly difficult task, either. Here, near the edges of Aead, the Council’s influence was only felt shallowly – turning people to his side would not be difficult, and even if that failed or (as it was likely to do) proved too slow to be practical, few places around here had much of an “army” to stop him if he just decided to march in and conquer them. It was something of a product of the Council having never really faced a true war before – its military was very densely packed in one or a few spots, with no thought given to stopping potential attacks anywhere else. After all, that had never been something the Council had had to worry about before.

Still, he doubted it could be done that quickly, and in either case, it was best for now to direct his full attention towards defeating the Council. Expansion would most likely have to wait until after the next battle – but after that, it would not be terribly difficult.

“Second, of course, we must consider the terrain itself,” Ian continued. “Assuming the situation does not change massively, I imagine the enemy will attempt to engage our army somewhere around here.” He pointed out a section of large, open flatland near Redgate. “It is fairly close to our center, so they will not have a difficult time luring our armies there. Further, the open terrain will largely negate any advantages we would get from being the defending side, while allowing the Council’s forces to take greater advantage of their superior numbers.” As before, all of what Ian was saying sounded right to Azal. But none of it was helpful. Knowing where the enemy would attack was, by itself, useless. They needed to know how to defeat the enemy’s plan.

“Therefore, I believe we must not allow the battle to take place here,” Ian said. “Rather, we must lure them to a more favorable battleground. If what I have heard is true, then General Katherine, the leader of the enemy’s army, possesses a strong hatred for us, which should make luring her to our battlefield of choice relatively easy. As for where to take them, I propose this place.” He indicated another spot on the map. It was a hilly area with a few larger mountains rising into the sky, and it was near the aforementioned flatland. “It isn’t an ideal location, but it is better for us than attempting to fight them on the flatland would be, and it’s the best place we can lure them to without them getting suspicious.”

At that, Azal raised a hand. “Not quite.”

“Oh?” Ian asked, turning towards him. There was a bit of surprise in his voice. Clearly, he hadn’t expected to be interrupted – but the fact was, he’d overlooked one critical thing.

“Indeed, it would seem that that is the best battleground we can lure them to without the risk of tipping them off,” he admitted. “However, that is only true if you follow a faulty assumption – namely, that the battle has to start on the flatland where the enemy plans to fight, and we must lure them elsewhere from there. However, in truth, it is also an option to have our armies ride out and challenge the enemy before they even get to that area. If we do this, we will have significantly more choices as to where to attempt to lure them.”

Ian narrowed his eyes. “Hm,” he muttered under his breath, his voice slightly unhappy. “Very well, then. Assume we follow that plan. Where would you have us lead the enemy?”

“If I may have the map, Lord Sabrin…” Azal asked, and Ian slid the map over to him in response. “Thank you. Now, if you would all listen, I believe this would be the best course of action…”

Ihab sat on the soil, dark red as usual, facing General Katherine. “So, Katherine,” he said in a serious tone. That was unusual in and of itself.

“Yes, my l-“ she began, and caught herself before she finished the word. “I mean, Ihab. What is it?”

“We’re going to get to the rebels’ territory soon,” he stated. “I figure it’s about time to figure out what we’re planning to do once we get there.”

“The best place to fight a battle would be on the flat expanse near the city of Redgate,” Katherine said. “We won’t be able to spring any surprise attacks there, but we won’t need to. We almost certainly have superior numbers, and the field will allow us to make the greatest use of them. Further, it will nullify most of the advantages the enemy would otherwise get from being the defending side. However…” She glanced to the side, a troubled look passing over her face.

“It’s a bit too perfect,” Ihab finished for her. “The rebels aren’t stupid, and they’re going to know that we’ll most likely try and attack there. So they’ll plan for it.”

“Exactly,” she nodded. “They will most likely expect an attack there. But would that even allow them to win? It is a highly beneficial battleground for us, and one on which it would be hard to carry out any complex plans. They would still be at a great disadvantage.”

“Unless they try to force us to fight somewhere else,” Ihab said. “I’m certain they’ll know just how bad it would be for them to have to fight us in the open field, so it’s reasonable to think they’ll do their best to avoid that situation entirely.”

“Yes,” Katherine said. “They will likely attempt to lure us to a more favorable battleground. Since they are the defenders, it will not be difficult for them to decide when the fight begins, so they will have an advantage when it comes to selecting the terrain.”

“And there’s the issue,” Ihab murmured. “As long as we’re the ones attacking them, we can’t select the battlefield. They’ll have the choice of where they want to make their stand, and that could be an issue – it won’t be easy to fight them when they’ve got that human army on their side and they’ve got free rein to choose where the fight’s taking place. I still think we outnumber them by quite a lot, sure, but that might not be enough.” He scratched his chin in thought. “We could try to give them a taste of their own medicine – try to lure them over to a battleground that’d be favorable for us – but I’m not sure that’ll work. We need to be ready to fight them wherever they try to make their stand.”

“Do we?” Katherine wondered aloud. “I don’t know anything for sure about the rebel army’s discipline, but I doubt it will be particularly high. Further, there is no reason the battle has to happen now. If we simply wait at a more favorable battleground, and try to merely contain them rather than immediately attempting a decisive battle, I find it likely they will get impatient soon enough and rush in, favorable battleground or not. I have no guarantee the plan will work, but there’s no reason not to try it, especially when the alternative is letting the enemy select the terrain.”

Ihab bit his lip. “You’re right,” he murmured. “It would be foolish not to even try. But as long as that plan has a chance of failure, we need to have an idea of what we’ll do if it fails. We need to be ready to fight the enemy on their field of choice, even if we’d rather not do that at all.”

“I… suppose that is true too,” Katherine conceded. “Then… hm.” She took a map from somewhere on her person and unrolled it on the ground. “Where would the rebels want the battle to occur? Most likely, it would be somewhere around here…” With a finger, she pointed out a particular location on the map.

“Yeah, that seems right,” Ihab said. “That would be a good spot for them. But…” He considered it for a moment. Thinking about the terrain there, and what sort of advantages it would give the rebels… “Damn, that is a good spot for them. I’m not sure what we could even do if we were forced to let the battle occur there.”

“We have a few options,” Katherine said. “None of them are perfect, but the situation is not a wholly impossible one, either.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Ihab admitted. “Still… let’s hope that place doesn’t come into play.”

Katherine nodded. “Yes. Let’s.”

“I believe that is a satisfactory plan?”

Azal looked around at the three other people sitting at the table. Johannes looked interested, and Darius made no move to respond whatsoever, but he hadn’t been worried about the two of them in the first place. What he was more curious about was how Ian would respond.

But Ian merely clasped his hands in front of his face and grunted. “Yes,” he admitted, though it was obvious he didn’t want to say it. “That is a good plan.”

“Thank you, Lord Sabrin,” Azal said. “Does anyone else have anything to say about this?”

“No,” Darius said. “It’s good.”

“No,” Johannes said. “I wouldn’t have the first idea about any of this in the first place, so…”

A mild tinge of annoyance passed through Azal’s mind as Johannes said that. It was true, certainly, but did he really have to say it in front of Ian? Any unnecessary information they gave to that man was dangerous, more so if it concerned the three of them – and even more so if it concerned their weaknesses.

“Very well,” Azal said. “This meeting is concluded, then. Lord Sabrin, I trust you have issues to attend to, yes? Then you may take your leave. And the rest of you may go too, of course. And do allow Lord Sabrin to exit first – I am sure he has much to do.”

“Thank you,” Ian nodded and stood up, just as Darius and Johannes did the same thing. As Azal had instructed, he was the first out of the door, and Johannes followed after him. But Darius didn’t leave the room. Rather, he stopped just before the door and turned around.

“You wanted us to stay, didn’t you?” he asked Azal, though not before waiting until the other two were out of earshot.

Azal sighed. “It seems Johannes didn’t get the hint.”

“He’s too honest for his own good,” Darius said, closing the door and sitting down at the table once again. “So, what’s this about, then?”

“Ian is a dangerous man,” Azal said without preamble. “Even now, he is attempting to seize power for himself, and he is frighteningly skilled at playing the game of politics. We need his troops, so we need him – but that means we are constantly at risk.”

“Which is why you didn’t tell us to stay behind,” Darius said. “You don’t want him to know you’re meeting with us privately if you can avoid it, and you definitely don’t want him to know you’re specifically excluding him.”

“Exactly,” Azal nodded. “As long as he is here, and as long as he continues his attempts to seize power for himself – and I cannot imagine he will ever stop – we cannot rest easy.”

Darius pondered that for a moment. “Does he know that you know about his plans?”

“I imagine he does,” Azal said. “At any rate, I cannot imagine that someone as intelligent as him would not have figured it out yet.”

“Hm,” Darius murmured. “Well, I suppose your paranoia paid off for once.”

“As you can imagine, I would very much like it if he didn’t succeed in his endeavour,” Azal said. It was an obvious fact, but still. “Which is why I wanted you to stay behind. We must consider how we are to stop him.”

“In that case, it honestly might be a good thing Johannes isn’t here,” Darius commented.

“Perhaps,” Azal conceded. “Still, any information or plans we come up with here must be delivered to him.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Darius assured him. “That’s the sort of thing I’m good at.”

“Ah, yes,” Azal said. “Sometimes I forget about that. But regardless, we can worry about that later. For now, the most important question is “What do we do about Ian?””

“Well, it doesn’t seem like a difficult question to me,” Darius responded. “Give him as little information as possible, especially when more confidential matters are involved. Make sure he doesn’t figure out we’re concealing things from him, and have a good reason prepared in case he does figure it out. And make sure we’re all on our best behaviour when it comes to him – don’t want to give him additional ammunition to use against us.”

“Yes, of course, that is the very least we must do,” Azal said. “But I already knew we had to do that. Any other ideas?”

“Not at the moment,” Darius admitted. “But I’ll keep it in mind. I’m sure there’s something I can do, so I’ll make sure to think on it more whenever I have a free moment.”

“Very well,” Azal nodded. “I suppose that is enough, for now. You may go.”

“Alright,” Darius said, standing up from his chair. “I’ll make sure this all gets to Johannes.”

“Get it to Aya, too,” Azal commanded.

“Sure,” Darius nodded and walked out of the chamber, leaving Azal alone once more.

Cassius, of course, didn’t hesitate. He was a man who tended not to do that.

His guards had all leapt down from their horses by now, going to confront the other Cultists. That wasn’t his business, though. For him, there was only one opponent – the demon Letholdus, standing right in front of him.

His slender sword darted for Letholdus’ heart, and Letholdus batted it away with a quick swing of his own, brutish blade. It was a quick and precise motion, even though Letholdus was, by necessity, performing it with his left hand – but that was the extent of Letholdus’ skill. Even with that very first blow, Cassius saw that Letholdus had overcommited, that he’d left himself vulnerable in his haste to block Cassius’ first blow.

Unfortunately, the Cultist’s blade was heavy and his strike was forceful, and Cassius’ blade was batted too far to the side to take advantage of the opening. The demon leapt back, clearly too much of a coward to fight Cassius head-on, and charged as Cassius recovered from his attack. But he wasn’t even nearly fast enough, and Cassius batted the blow away and thrust at Letholdus once more. In response, the Cultist jumped back again, but Cassius advanced before he could try anything and struck again.

Two swords clashed, and then again, and again, and again. With each blow Cassius advanced – with each block and parry, Letholdus was forced to retreat. It shouldn’t have been that way – Letholdus was stronger, and had a heavier sword to boot. And sure, he only had his left arm, but it was clear that he was at least somewhat accustomed to it by now, so it shouldn’t have been a major issue. But it seemed the difference in their skills was simply that large.

Letholdus saw that too, of course. That was why he kept trying to get away, trying to get to a range where he could drop the sword and turn it into a battle of magic – or at the very least, trying to get away from the relentless assault so that he could go on the offensive instead. Of course, Cassius wasn’t planning on letting him do either of those. That was why he kept dancing towards Letholdus and lunging at each new opening as it presented itself. Each time he attacked, his sword was shoved away, but that didn’t matter. Cassius’ sword was light, and he himself was fast, and his style made sure he could keep up a relentless offense. Letholdus could parry Cassius’ blade as many times as he wanted – Cassius would always just bring it back in time to attack again before Letholdus could do anything.

And then, without warning, while he was parrying another one of Cassius’ blows, Letholdus kicked at his chest and sent him tumbling. He fell to the ground and rolled a few times before coming to a stop, ending up with a face and clothes covered in dirt and staring down at the ground, though he still managed to keep his sword

That had been unexpected. Most swordsmen didn’t even think of doing something like that, much less risk actually trying it in the middle of a swordfight. But when Letholdus had been that desperate, maybe Cassius shouldn’t have been surprised.

Anyway, there were more pressing things to focus on right now.

He stood up hastily and blocked the next strike as it came, but his sword and his arm trembled as he was pushed back, and this time it was his turn to back away under the enemy’s assault. Now, Cassius realized he’d misjudged one thing – Letholdus wasn’t bad at sword fighting, as such. He was far from great, but he wasn’t terrible either. It was simply that he used a highly offensive fighting style, so when forced onto the defensive, he didn’t have any idea what to do.

Unfortunately, it was the same with Cassius himself. He’d been fine back when he’d been the one attacking, but now that it was the other way around, Cassius was beginning to feel the brunt of Letholdus’ blows. Each one was forceful and powerful, and Cassius could feel the weight of the sword in his enemy’s hand.

However, while Cassius and Letholdus were both users of an offensive fighting style, there was one key difference between them. Letholdus’ style focused on power and aggression, overwhelming and overpowering the opponent with countless heavy blows. On the other hand, Cassius’ style was more subdued and reliant on speed and technique, and it relied only on poking away at the opponent until an opening presented itself. And while it wasn’t that one of them was “better” or “worse” as such, in this sort of situation, Cassius’ style held the advantage. All he needed was the right opportunity to turn things around.

That opportunity came soon enough. Letholdus went for a wild, powerful swing, aiming to cut Cassius in half. But instead of blocking it like Letholdus had surely expected, Cassius merely stepped back, and that was when Letholdus’ mistake became clear. Unable to regain his balance quickly enough after the failed blow, he was left open for just a moment, and Cassius seized the opportunity instantly. But it wasn’t quite enough of an opening, and instead of being skewered on the spot, Letholdus was merely forced back onto the defensive once again.

“You…!” he growled as he blocked a quick thrust and barely dodged an equally quick slice, now completely unable to attack. Cassius pressed forward, his sword dancing through the air and lunging for Letholdus’ vitals. Every strike could be lethal, and it was only by abandoning his own offense that Letholdus could avoid a swift death.

Well, that was just fine by Cassius.

But before the duel could continue, the sound of steel moving rang out, and a halberd thrust past Cassius’ shoulder, forcing Letholdus to block that too. Another attack came from the side, and Letholdus retreated further. But before he could even catch his breath, someone else stepped beside him and struck again, and Letholdus only barely managed to step away from that attack.

Cassius looked around. All around him, the other Cultists Letholdus had had with him lay slain, killed by Cassius’ guards. And now, all those guards were standing at Cassius’ side, ready to skewer Letholdus where he stood.

“You… you assholes…!” the demon shouted. “I’ll… I’ll kill you for this! I’ll kill you all!” And with that, he turned and started running.

It was quite amusing, really. The demonic bandit who’d ambushed them and threatened them just a few minutes ago was running like a panicked girl, almost stumbling over his own feet as he sprinted over the earth. Cassius was rather fond of the sight.

“Should we pursue him, Lord Aeron?” one of the guards asked.

Cassius smiled crookedly. “No. I can’t be bothered.”

The guard looked warily at the escaping Letholdus. “Letting him get away may have dangerous consequences,” he warned.

“Well, let him do what he feels like,” Cassius shrugged. “Somehow, I doubt he’ll be able to do much to an entire kingdom.”

And besides, he quietly added to himself, I have a feeling the sort of “dangerous consequences” it’ll invite will be exactly the sort Lily’s going to like.

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