Chapter 24: The Second Trial

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“It’s time, then.”

Ihab’s murmured statement was really just a confirmation of what was already known. After all, it was obvious by now that the battle was about to begin. Behind him and Katherine, the Council’s army was already gathered and prepared for battle. And in front of them, on the other end of the hilly, rolling plains, the rebels’ army stood, weapons drawn and armor glinting in that dull light that seemed to permeate Aead despite coming from no visible source.

“So they’ve managed to get proper equipment while we were coming,” Katherine muttered. “Not unexpected, considering the alliance.”

The two armies stood, staring at each other. Neither side had given the order to attack, not yet. Ihab and Katherine were taking a moment to assess their enemy, figure out any last-minute changes that needed to be made to their plan. As for the rebels, Ihab could only guess at what they were doing, but if he was right – and he felt like he probably was – they were probably waiting for the Council’s force to make the first move. That way, they could retreat and lure them to a better battleground.

“They won’t attack,” Ihab said, voicing his concern. “They want us to attack so we can be lured into a pursuit. But we won’t accomplish anything by just standing around here, either.”

“What about the issue of discipline?” Katherine asked. “They’re simple rebels. If we just wait, it’s likely they’ll get impatient and attack prematurely.”

“Doubt it,” Ihab said, shaking his head. “I don’t know about the discipline of their army itself, but I doubt they’re all going to get overly excited before the fighting’s even started, and as for the commanders… well, we know the leader of this rebellion was pragmatic enough to ally with humans, and that the humans who allied with him were, in turn, pragmatic enough to ally with demons. When we’re dealing with people like that, I doubt they’ll make a strategic blunder just because they got impatient.”

“What should we do, then?” Katherine asked.

“Attack, probably,” Ihab said. “If we’re lucky, all cohesion will break down in the chaos and the enemy won’t be able to execute their plan. If we aren’t lucky and they try to draw us into a pursuit, we’ve just got to not take the bait. And if worst comes to worst and it’s our army that loses discipline and pursues the enemy… well, we still won’t be at a complete loss for options.”

Katherine’s lips thinned. “That seems like a dangerous plan.”

“It is,” Ihab agreed. “But we aren’t accomplishing anything by just standing here. If we’re driven back and forced to retreat again, then sure, that’s not good – but it’s not like the outcome of this battle will decide the war or anything. We’ll still have another chance even if we fail here, so it’s no use being too careful.”

“Very well,” Katherine said, clearly still a bit doubtful. “I will follow your lead.”

“Got it,” Ihab nodded. “In that case… charge!”

Ian stood at the front of the army as the enemy charged to meet them. The plan Azal had given him was a simple one – meet the enemy here, fight them until it seems like they’re committed, then retreat and move to a much more favorable battleground. Once that was done, he would try to obliterate as much of the enemy’s army as possible – the situation was no longer as it had been before, and now, a decisive battle was within their grasp and preferable to merely driving the attackers off.

From that point on, Ian had been given command of the army while Azal sat in his tower. That suited Ian fine. The demon rebel was shrewder than Ian had expected, but with such an act of cowardice, he’d given Ian all the ammunition he’d need. Once he got back from this battle, all it would take would be a few letters passed between him and Queen Lily and he was sure he’d be able to take control of the rebellion.

Of course, that was once the battle was over. Until then, he was perfectly willing to do his best to help the rebels out. Losing here would be bad for anyone on the rebels’ side, and that included him. That, too, was another reason Ian was glad Azal wasn’t here – as much as the rebel was rather sharp, he still had no military experience to speak of, while Ian had led a few successful campaigns in his time. He was sure he would be able to direct the flow of the battle better than Azal possibly could.

The enemy army approached, and Ian went over the plan in his head once more. He’d told his army to stand their ground before the start of the battle, and fortunately, it seemed they were at least willing to obey that order. From there, he couldn’t be sure what would happen – he knew the human part of the army would follow his orders, sure, but he couldn’t vouch for the demons – but with any luck, they would be able to pull off the trap. Really, that was the only thing that mattered.

Ian drew his own sword as the enemy army approached. It was a large, heavy greatsword that looked almost too unwieldy to seriously use – a notion of which all of Ian’s opponents were swiftly disabused. Even if it was impossible to match the dexterity and finesse of a lighter sword with such a weapon, that didn’t mean it didn’t have its own benefits.

As the two armies collided, Ian waited for just one moment as the battle began to burn around him – and then, he charged forth alongside his troops, his greatsword at the ready.

Ihab’s sword sliced through the air, easily dwarfing the weapons of most of his opponents. A quick glance at the enemy army told him that the rebels had managed to get a couple timors on their side, but the vast majority of their ranks were other types of demons, ones that could not hope to stand against Ihab’s sheer might.

The enormous blade slammed down onto the head of an enemy soldier. The soldier stepped back in response and held his own sword above his head, blocking the initial blow, but Ihab just pressed down until the enemy was forced to his knees, and then, with a single, powerful motion, wrenched the weapon out of his hands, letting him take the soldier’s head off with the next strike. That done, Ihab didn’t even pause for a moment. He waded further into the fray, smashing one of the enemy soldiers in the back of the head with his gauntleted hand as he passed and crushing that demon’s brain. He brought his sword around and swept through the horde of enemies, the enormous mass of his blade proving nearly as deadly as its sharp edge as it smashed through the rebels’ armor and sent them to the ground. One ducked under the blow and slashed up at him, but his armor absorbed the blow, and Ihab simply smashed the demon’s head with a quick strike with his fist.

A grin spread across his face as he pressed forth once more, swinging his sword in a wide arc once again. But this time, the initial blow was blocked by one of the enemy’s soldiers, so Ihab disengaged and quickly struck from the other side, cutting through the enemy just as before. The soldiers surrounding him stumbled away, clearly awed and terrified by his sheer might on the battlefield.

He couldn’t blame them, though he knew he wouldn’t have felt the same way were he in their place. But that was simply because of who he was. He was a rare sort of man – one born for the battlefield, to whom the clash of steel and the spilling of blood was the greatest song of all and who lived for the rush of adrenaline that came from crossing blades with a deadly enemy. Of the soldiers before him, he knew very few of them were like that. By and large, they were normal people serving their lord and country, or whatever they were loyal to. To them, risking their lives was a means to an end, and a means they’d rather never utilize if at all possible.

Ihab was different. To him, risking his life was the end.

Still, he couldn’t blame the soldiers for shrinking away before his fearsome visage. He’d always known he was… unusual, to say the least.

Having waded into the midst of the enemy army, he took a glance behind him. The rebels’ frontline was breaking, their soldiers being pushed back under the Council’s advance. Or at least, that was what it looked like, but Ihab knew better. More than likely, they were letting themselves be forced back on purpose – trying to make the retreat they were planning look more convincing. That was interesting, because if the enemy could give those sorts of orders and have them followed, that meant the rebel army was more disciplined than Ihab or Katherine had given them credit for.

Still, that didn’t matter for now. He knew the enemy was planning to call a retreat, but they hadn’t done so yet, and while they hadn’t, he was planning to make the most of it.

Ihab rushed into the fray once again.

“Retreat!” Ian yelled, turning away and running from the battle over the hilly plains. The frontlines, where he’d placed the troops whose discipline he had the most confidence in – the humans who’d served under him for the longest time – followed his action and rushed away from the fighting, and the rest of the army followed suit, albeit a bit sluggishly and hesitantly.

Ian knew that such a hasty retreat would be costly, but it was necessary. In any case, they couldn’t win a fight on this terrain, so it would definitely be less costly than if they’d stayed – and if things went well and the enemy followed them, they’d be able to make it to the battlefield where plans had already been set into motion and all was already prepared for the foe’s defeat. If they just made it there and the enemy followed them into the trap, it wouldn’t matter how many troops Ian lost.

They ran over the small hills, trying to get away from the enemy as fast as possible.  Even if losses were unavoidable and, in this case, necessary, that didn’t make them a good thing, so it was still best to get away quickly so as to minimize them. The bumpy terrain hindered them, but it would prove just as problematic for their enemies, so Ian didn’t mind it.

The army ran towards the point that had been planned earlier – a place to the east of this spot where the small hills rose taller and the bumpy ground became a maze of mountains and narrow passages, where any invading army would be a perfect target for a prepared defender. That was where they would win this fight. Ian knew that Azal had sent another, much smaller force there – one led by the demon known as Darius – to prepare an ambush for the enemy, which would be sprung after Ian had lured them into the tight quarters of the passes between the mountains and begun to engage them. Once the ambush was sprung, the enemy army would be stuck fighting Ian’s army on one front and Darius’ force on the other, all while being trapped in a narrow space where their numbers would barely be an advantage. If the plan worked, it could nearly annihilate the Council’s army here and now.

Ian fled, hoping the foe would decide to pursue them.

“Stop!” Ihab yelled over the din of battle. “Don’t chase them!” The people closest to him – the only ones who could actually hear him right away – ground to a halt, and as he proceeded to shout the order a few more times, with Katherine joining in and the word quickly spreading through the army, the rest of the army followed suit and came to a rest.

Ihab looked out over the hills, where the enemy was frantically rushing away. They were disappearing from sight quickly, heading towards the vague outline of the huge mountains to one side of the battlefield. As he’d expected. He’d known they would try to lead his forces there, and he was glad he’d figured it out – if he’d let himself be lured to that place, he didn’t expect it would end well. Over there, numerical advantage would be practically useless, and the defender would hold all the cards. If the rebels had succeeded in luring his army there… honestly, it wasn’t much of a stretch to say that they’d be able to annihilate the entire army.

“And there they go,” he sighed. “Good thing we didn’t fall for that…”

“What do we do now, Counci-“ Katherine caught herself midway through the word. “-Ihab?”

“Well, their plan has failed, and with how frantically they’re running away, I don’t think they’ll realize it’s failed right away,” Ihab said. “We’ve got the enemy army out of the way, and we’ve got a clear shot right at the rebels’ capital. I say we take it.”

Katherine narrowed her eyes by his side. “A city is easily defensible, especially the inner city of Redgate. We may have been able to get this army out of our way, but isn’t it likely the enemy would still leave a force to guard the city of Redgate itself? If they have, trying to attack the city head on would be stupid.”

“I doubt it,” Ihab said, shaking his head. “You’ve seen the numbers of that force, right? True, they didn’t match us, but the difference wasn’t as huge as you’d expect. And the rebellion’s only been existing for, what, a month or two now? If they threw a force that large at us, they probably don’t have much left to defend themselves with. Even if they’ve got an ally to rely on, no country would send over that many troops to a rebellion barely a month old.”

“True,” Katherine said, deep in thought. “Still, would it not be best to be cautious? Attacking the city only to be stopped and then ambushed by the army behind us would be nearly as bad as being trapped under those mountains.”

“Right,” Ihab admitted. “But we’ve got to move quickly, before that army figures out its plan failed and goes back to fighting us. We can figure out a plan on the way.”

“That seems reckless,” Katherine commented.

“Maybe it is,” Ihab said with a shrug. “But you can’t deny that we do need to move quickly. So unless you’ve got something better, I say it’s about time for us to go.”

“Very well,” Katherine said. “I shall do as you say, Ihab.”

And so, the army marched onwards once again.

It didn’t take long for Ian to realize that the plan had failed.

They’d already made it to the mountains by then, though that wasn’t unexpected – they were relatively nearby, and by the time the army had made it to them, chaos was still largely reigning. Only when everyone had gotten into position and prepared for battle and started waiting for the Council to take the bait did someone realize that no one was following them.

Ian hissed in frustration. This plan had been their greatest hope for success – it’d been what Ian had relied on. But now, it had failed, and there was nothing to fall back on.

Someone descended down the mountain, moving lithely like a snake, and Ian recognized Darius, the demon who’d been sent to lead the ambush force. “The plan failed,” Ian told him, though it was obvious.

“I noticed,” Darius said. “Listen, we don’t have much time to waste. If they didn’t take the bait, they’re going to be advancing to the city right about now. I know Azal has a force back there to guard it, but it’s pretty damn small, so the Council’s not going to have much of a problem smashing through it. We need to get over there and help them out.”

“Yes,” Ian nodded. “We will attack the Council’s force from the back as they face off against the city’s guards. Hopefully, the surprise attack, together with the fact that they’ll be surrounded, will be enough for us to emerge victorious.”

“Right,” Darius said. “I… still sort of doubt we can win a straight-up battle like that, but it’s probably the best shot. I’ll take my men and go with you.”

“Very well,” Ian said. “Follow me, then.” And with that, he took his army and marched back out of the mountains, heading to the city of Redgate.

The army spread through the city, rushing through its streets like blood running through veins. But there was no resistance to be found, no one that tried to stop them – only citizens, and most of those had hidden away in their homes from the army’s advance. Katherine was glad for that. They had committed no crime, not unless happening to live in the city the rebellion had started in counted as a crime, but she knew it would still be difficult to ensure her army would leave them alone. She had attempted it as best she could, and thankfully, as far as she knew, most of the citizenry had gone undisturbed – but there were still reports of some incidents, of her soldiers cutting down people simply for getting in their way. Those reports horrified her, and those responsible would be punished for it appropriately later, if she found them, but for now… for now, she was just glad the civilians had the good sense to stay inside. At least then, they’d be safe.

But still, the lack of resistance was odd. Even considering what Ihab had said, even considering the fact that these rebels probably did not have many soldiers at their disposal, there should still have been some sort of defense around the city. And yet there was none. The rebels had left the bulk of the city utterly unguarded.

Which could only mean one thing. The defense was concentrated entirely on the inner city.

That thought made Katherine sick to her stomach. All of the rebels’ crimes so far… they had seemed distant, far away, like something so grave she couldn’t even quite comprehend it. This? This was different. The leader had pulled all of the city’s defenses back to the very centre, knowingly and intentionally leaving everyone outside defenseless while he and his closest followers sat, safe and sound, in their tower. The citizens had been lucky it had been her in command of this army – if it had been someone less scrupulous, they would have no way to defend themselves against the tide of soldiers that would sweep over the city and tear them to shreds just because their leader had only thought to defend himself.

That was the last proof Katherine needed. Whatever else these rebels were, they were evil. No good person would ever do something like that – leave their citizens defenseless just because they desperately wanted to guard their own life like a coward. She hadn’t been particularly hesitant about it before, but this action of theirs struck the last traces of hesitation from her mind. These rebels had to be destroyed.

She only prayed that the few reports she’d gotten about the incidents connected to her army would be the end of it. The civilians here didn’t deserve to suffer this kind of fate. One way or another, she would have to make it up to them eventually… if such a thing was even possible. What reparations could possibly be made for a life extinguished?

But that would come later. What she needed to do now was defeat the rebels, and to do that, she needed to get into the inner city. A place surrounded by an imposing wall, only a few gates around its perimeter permitting passage inside – and a place that would surely be surrounded by all the guards that the rebels could still muster.

First off, she needed to meet up with Ihab. They’d split up when they’d entered the city, but now that it was time to figure out a plan to get past the wall, they needed to be able to talk to each other, and she knew he would feel the same way. She set off in search of him.

It didn’t take long before she found him, along with a large contingent of his army, standing in one of the city squares. “Hey, Katherine,” he said, waving a huge hand towards her as she approached.

“Hello, Ihab,” she said with a small nod. “It appears there are no guards or soldiers throughout the bulk of the city.”

“Yeah,” Ihab agreed. “Which means they’re all gathered around the centre, probably guarding the wall.”

“I believe so, yes,” Katherine agreed. “What would be the best way to get past them, in your opinion?”

“Well… just smash through them, probably,” Ihab said. “We’ve got the numbers for it to work. It definitely won’t be nice, and there’ll be more losses than I’d like, but… again, we’ve got to do this fast. Before the army gets back here.”

Katherine considered that for a moment. “Respectfully, Ihab, I… I disagree,” she said, a bit hesitantly. She knew Ihab herself had told her to do it if she had to, but the idea of so openly disagreeing with a Councillor still felt wrong to her. “You assume we have to invade the centre before the army reaches us, but that is not necessarily true. We can turn our attention to the army first and drive it off or destroy it, and then proceed with the mission without having to hurry.”

“Thanks for giving your opinion, Katherine, but I’m afraid that won’t work,” Ihab said. “Even if we do drive the enemy army off, they’ll just come back later when we don’t expect it. And if it looks like we’re starting to win, it’ll be easy for them to just flee again and regroup to ambush us once more. We’ve got to just do this quickly, before they get to us.”

“Not necessarily,” Katherine said, shaking her head. “I have a plan.”

“What is it, then?” Ihab asked, curiously. She explained her plan to him, and his features spread into a grin.

“Hmm,” he murmured. “Yeah, that… that might just work. No, I’m pretty sure that will work.” With a small laugh, he slapped Katherine on the shoulder, which nearly knocked her to the ground. “Well done, Katherine! I’ll get the preparations ready.”

“Yes. I will do my part as well,” Katherine smiled. “We’ll destroy these rebels, right here.”

Ian rushed forward, Darius beside him and his army at their back. The formation was as before – the more experienced and more disciplined humans Ian had brought with him to Aead at the front, all the rest of the troops behind them. There was no complex planning to be done or traps to be laid, not right now. By this point in time, the enemy would have surely already reached the inner wall and was probably now fighting its defenders. They had to do something before the wall fell, so they would just do the one thing they still could – strike at the enemy from behind while they were preoccupied with the defenders and hope that the element of surprise and the fact that the enemies would be surrounded would be enough for them to win.

As they ran through the city, it was oddly quiet, and that worried Ian. On one hand, that made sense – all the fighting would be concentrated towards the centre. But still, battle was loud, and if one was ongoing, there was a good chance they’d be able to hear it from here. So what was happening…? Had Ian simply misjudged the distance, was it just that he was still too far away to hear the din of battle? Or was the fighting simply already over by now? Had the enemy already broken through the defense, pierced the wall, and penetrated into the centre?

If that was true, then they were already too late, and nothing they could do would save the rebellion. So there was no point planning for that eventuality. All there was to do was advance until they sighted the enemy and then attack them with all their might, and hope that that would be enough.

Ian proceeded onwards. And soon enough, he caught sight of the wall. And, putting to rest his initial worries, he saw a company of demons, still gathered around it.

Good. So they hadn’t broken through yet, and they hadn’t seemed to have noticed him and his army yet. Which meant that now was the time to strike. If they could make this surprise attack work, they might still have a chance to win.

There was no time for hesitation. All that was left was action.

“CHARGE!” Ian shouted, rushing forwards at the enemy army with its back turned to them. His own army rushed after him, the beat of metal on the ground suddenly turning the quiet into a raging din throughout the city. Swords were readied and cries of battle were shouted, and the army approached the enemy like a tidal wave.

But the foe did not turn around in a panic, unprepared and surprised.

The moment Ian uttered the word, the enemy army turned as one, already prepared for battle. Ian didn’t even have time to realize what was happening before the foe charged right back at him and his army, meeting them in the middle of a wide street. This attack, he realized an instant too late, hadn’t been a surprise. The foe had been prepared, and now, it would come down to a simple battle.

But. There was still one more thing of which Ian was unaware.

Suddenly, a noise sounded from the side, and Ian turned his head, trying to make out the source amidst the fighting. There, in a street off to the side, he saw-

Ian’s heart sank.

There, waiting in that alleyway, another contingent of the enemy army was now rushing forward, aiming to join the battle from the side. Ian looked to the other side, and his fears were confirmed – there, too, there were a number of soldiers rushing towards them, the two formations smashing the rebels between them like a crab’s pincers.

And behind them, too, there was a sudden sound, and Ian realized the truth far too late

From the start, the enemy had held all the cards. Ian’s idea to attack them while they were distracted with the wall’s guards hadn’t been a clever idea that still had a chance to let him win this battle – it had been exactly what the enemy had expected him to do. And so, they must not have engaged the guards at first, choosing instead to wait for Ian’s army to arrive – and in the meantime, they spread themselves out through the city, forming a circle around where they knew Ian would arrive.

From behind, the last portion of the circle closed around them, trapping them within a ring of enemies. The instant that happened, Ian knew with a cold certainty that there was no way to win, not anymore. The guards could not make any move to help them – the only reason they would have stood any chance against the Council’s army in the first place was due to their defensive position, so if they abandoned it, they would simply be slaughtered. Nor would there be any help coming from outside – Ian knew what sort of resources the rebellion had at its disposal, and he knew that the army he currently commanded was the only one there was. Besides the guards around the wall, Ian and Darius’ combined force was the only fighting force the rebellion had left – and it was currently trapped, encircled by a numerically superior and better trained and equipped enemy.

Even now, before the battle even truly began, Ian saw what would happen. Here, now, in this single battle, any chances the rebellion had of winning would be extinguished. After all, he had enough military experience to know that sometimes, reality was harsh.

And in this case, he knew that the harsh reality was simple – the enemy had outsmarted them, and they had lost.

Johannes shifted his feet nervously, watching the battle unfolding before him. At his back, there was a small contingent of soldiers – part of the force that had been ordered to guard the gates around the inner walls. But they hadn’t had a chance to act yet. The enemy had simply ignored them, and even Johannes realized that trying to initiate the battle themselves would be suicide. He and his men were under strict orders from Azal to stay put, and he could see why.

But… from the start…

He bit his lip. Even from the start, Johannes hadn’t liked the plan. The way it was, Johannes and his men could only defend the inner city – the citizens outside would be completely defenseless. What Azal had said about it – that the outer city didn’t have a wall, so defending it would be more or less impossible anyway – was certainly true, but… he still couldn’t quite believe Azal had ordered him to not even try. Who knew what the Council’s army would do to anyone unfortunate enough to be outside the inner city if there was no one to stop them…?

Maybe this was why Azal hadn’t put Johannes in charge of much before, and had only even put him in charge of this because there was no one else. Because he was too soft-hearted, too concerned with the good of the people rather than the good of the rebellion. But could he seriously say, with a straight face, that that was a bad thing?

Still, Azal had been right. Going out there, without the safety the wall and their defensive position provided, would be tantamount to suicide.

But if Ian’s army fell here… that would be it. The rebellion would end here and now, its entire fighting force smashed and the Council free to advance to the centre. Could Johannes really just… just stand by and watch that happen? After all, any amount of losses would be better than the entire rebellion falling… right?

Yes. Surely, Azal would have done something in Johannes’ place. After all, if he did nothing, that would be it. So he had to do something. Anything he could possibly do would be better.

And besides, Johannes was pretty sure Ian would’ve met up with Darius’ force first before trying to attack the enemy. Which meant that Darius was one of the people in the surrounded army.

And while his feelings towards Azal were… confused, to say the least, there wasn’t even a bit of doubt in Johannes’ mind that he considered Darius a friend. And he wasn’t going to just leave his friend to face his fate.

Behind him, Johannes could hear the guards nervously fidgeting and chatting among themselves, clearly just as nervous about this as Johannes was – and, he thought, just as eager to do something.

It didn’t matter what Azal had said. Johannes had to do something. And his men agreed.

“We need to help them!” he yelled. “Attack!”

General Katherine turned around, facing the new threat that had come from behind. The outer edge of the army turned with her, heading to fend off this attack from the gate while Ihab and his men took care of the bulk of the fighting.

What are they doing? she thought. Didn’t they know that they wouldn’t stand a chance if they went on the offensive?

No, it didn’t matter. Maybe they were planning something, and that made her somewhat nervous to engage… but she needed to. She needed to drive them away so she could get back to the main fight.

But the rest of the troops already seemed to have that well in hand. The attack, though Katherine had to admit it was a valiant effort to save the encircled army, was utterly futile. It hadn’t even taken a minute of fighting for the imbalance to become obvious. Steel met steel, blades clashed, and the noise rang out through the air – and with only a few exchanges, the force that had attacked them from behind was already falling. Before Katherine could even issue any orders, the guards that had just attacked them were already falling back, unable to truly fight them.

Katherine set her sights on the descendant in the front, the man who was most likely the commander of this force. She rushed forward, slashing at him with her broadsword. His eyes widened, and he blocked the attack, but it was clear he was an amateur when it came to combat. It would’ve been easy for her to kill him, but… if he was the commander as she suspected, it was likely that he was one of the rebel leaders. If so, he’d be more useful alive.

As their two blades locked, Katherine punched him in the face, wrenched the sword out of his hand, and shoved him to the ground.

She looked around. The force of guards that had gone to assist the surrounded army was completely broken now, retreating as they realized they didn’t truly have any chance. The surrounded army itself was slowly being cut down. And now, she had just captured one of the rebel leaders.

With a small sigh of relief, Katherine realized that really, there was no reason to worry anymore. That first loss had been a fluke. Now, the rebels would be crushed, right here and right now.

And Katherine would be able to sleep peacefully again.

Johannes looked around in despair, scrambling away from the female descendant in front of him. His eyes searched for his sword, and he lunged for it desperately, but a heavy kick hit his face almost as an afterthought, and he fell to the ground again.

No, he thought. No, it can’t end like this. But his plan, such as it was, had failed. The guards that had tried to attack the Council from behind had been driven away. Their initial tactic had been defeated utterly. And now, the Bloodhorns’ only army was being slaughtered like cattle, unable to break through the circle strangling them like a python.

And he himself was at the enemy’s mercy.

He looked up, his eyes glassy. Only a day ago, he’d been full of hope and excitement, thinking of how great it would be when the Council was brought down and demonkind had a just ruler once more. He hadn’t even considered the possibility of them losing – he’d always felt like they would be able to overcome any obstacles that got in their way.

But now, in a few moments, those dreams had been shattered. Though a desperate hope still burned in his heart, he knew that really, there were no reinforcements coming, no last-second desperate plans that could still be executed. All that was left was the slaughter.

So, he thought… this was what losing felt like.

Azal looked out of the window of his tower, gritting his teeth. Damn it, damn it, damn it. The plan had failed, and the enemy had won. The guards could still hold them off for a while, perhaps, but that would be all. Soon enough they would break into the centre, and then into the tower, and then it would be his turn to die. If only he’d been there himself, leading the army, then he could’ve come up with something, figured out a backup plan to use when the first one had failed…

But if he were to be captured or killed, it would be too devastating of a blow to the Bloodhorns. So he’d stayed here and sent Ian out. But that man hadn’t been up to the task, and now, thanks to him…

He growled in pointless anger. But it was over. There was nothing left to be done about it. The Council had won.

And there was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing he could do about it.

That simple fact, that simple truth, was enough to make Azal angry. He’d gotten used to being in control of everything, to being on top of things. Now, to fall like this, seeing the end but unable to do anything about it…

“Hey.”

Azal turned around in surprise. What…? There couldn’t have been anyone else in this room.

But right there, sitting in Azal’s chair, was a young human wearing golden armor and a blue cloak, his hair yellow like gold.

He smiled and crossed his legs, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “Looks like you need some help.”

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