The knife slammed into the traitor’s body again and again, each thrust burying it right up to its hilt as it tore his internal organs to pieces, each thrust delivering an oh-so-satisfying jolt of impact up Mia’s arm as he gasped and coughed in pain, as drops of blood flew from his mouth and his eyes grew wide like a dying fish’s. She tore it free from his flesh again, only to drive it into him once more, grinning widely as the blood spurting from his body splashed onto her face. With each strike he choked and squirmed in pain, already too far gone to even scream, and it was music to Mia’s ears.
This man… this man… this man was one of the rebels. This man was one of the rebels who had killed a Councillor, who had forever defiled the Council’s glory, who had dared lay their filthy hands on the rulers of demonkind. It did not matter whether this man had done any of that himself. She would kill him. And when she got to the rebels’ cities, she would tear them to shreds and kill whoever dared to so much as live inside. When it came to those rebels, no one who associated with them was innocent. They would beg her for mercy, they would plead and claim innocence, they would tell her that they weren’t helping the rebels, they just happened to live there… but that didn’t matter. If they could tolerate the rebels’ presence, if they could simply live peacefully while that cancerous growth took root in their city, they deserved to die just as much as the rebels themselves. And when they did, she would enjoy their screams to the very end.
For now, she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t get her hands on all the vile filth who allied themselves with those rebels. But… at the very least… she could take out a bit of her anger on this man. She could make him suffer like he deserved to suffer. She could kill him like he deserved to die.
The Councillors had told her not to do it. They’d told her he was too valuable. They’d told her they could use him to get information on the rebels, to find out how to best strike at them. They’d told her there was no point in killing him now.
They were cowards. All of them. And whatever those fools said, it didn’t matter. This man had no right to live in the same world as her.
She ripped the knife free once more and struck upwards, driving it through the descendant’s skull. He stiffened suddenly, and then, as she withdrew the blade, he went limp in his restraints, his brain torn apart by the blade.
Mia unlocked the shackles and detached the man’s corpse from the wall. He dropped down, his legs giving out and dropping him to his knees, and then, the rest of his body collapsed to the floor. And he lay dead on the ground where he belonged, and Mia gave the corpse one last kick before walking out of the cell.
“So, how does it look?” a familiar voice asked. Azal didn’t even turn around from where he was standing. He just continued looking out the window as Melthar spoke.
“With their leader dead, the army we pushed back won’t be able to get themselves organized enough to do anything,” Azal said. “But that won’t protect us forever. As you know, I’ve sent out my men to track down and kill as many of the small groups the army dissolved into after the battle as possible, but many of them managed to escape nevertheless. Most likely, they will retreat to the capital, and once there, they will simply fall under the command of another and become a threat once more.”
“Right,” Melthar said. “Though, I’m not sure that’s what we should be worrying about. We killed a Councillor. Somehow, I doubt the Council’s going to just let that slide… and I can’t see them waiting for that army to return before trying to get back at us.”
“That is also true, of course,” Azal said. “I do not know how much manpower the Council has at its disposal, so I cannot say for sure how much of a threat they will be until the army comes back, but… it is likely we are in great danger.”
“Hmm. Well… I don’t know for sure either,” Melthar responded from behind him, “but I don’t think the Council has as many men as you think. We’ve still got a problem on our hands, definitely, but… if I were to guess, I’d say that that big army they sent to take us out was a good third of their manpower or so. Maybe more, probably a bit less, but somewhere around that.”
“Could you not obtain a more precise estimate?” Azal asked.
“Doubt it,” Melthar said. “I could try to use my space powers to sneak in and sneak out and do that sort of stuff, but I don’t think that’ll work as well as you’d think. The Council’s a surprisingly paranoid bunch, and teleportation isn’t quite the be-all-end-all power you’d think it is, especially when you haven’t actually seen the place you plan to teleport into in the last few centuries. I doubt it’d work that well.” He sighed. “I mean, honestly? For all that I played up my mystique to Janus – not that you’d know about that, but anyway – I really only found about this rebellion from rumors in Sagnir. If you hadn’t sent someone there, I probably would never have known that this was even happening.”
“I see,” Azal said, a slight note of annoyance in his voice. “Then how would it be possible to get more information on the Council?”
“Well, I can predict them, to a point,” Melthar said. “I knew them a long time ago, since before they were all so secretive, and I learned quite a bit about how they think back then. But people change, and even disregarding that, a mind’s an awfully complicated thing, so… I wouldn’t rely too much on that.”
“Very well,” Azal sighed. “Then what would be more reliable?”
Melthar hesitated for a moment, seemingly considering it. “Well… the Council’s secretive, but as long as you’re here in Aead, you’re bound to be able to find some things out. The Council does it’s very best to keep its cards close to its chest, but it’s impossible to keep all of one’s secrets perfectly secure. Some things are bound to slip out, at least in the forms of rumors among the nobility – and if you can put a spy into the capital, you can get a fair bit of information that way.”
“I see,” Azal said. “Although… if the Council is truly so secretive, would being close to simple nobles really be enough to obtain any truly important information?”
“For the most part, not really,” Melthar admitted. “But something’s still better than nothing. You might not get anything concrete, but you’ll probably be able to at least get something.”
“I see.” Azal considered it for a moment. “Then… yes. I think I have an idea…”
“Well,” Melthar chuckled. “Now I’m a bit worried…”
General Leonid hadn’t been sure what to expect when he’d been recalled from the war on Verta and told to come to the Council as soon as possible. Or rather, he had actually expected it to be some news relating to the rebellion – it seemed like the most probable reason he’d be pulled away from his usual duties. But other possibilities danced around his mind too – it was still possible, he’d thought, that he was simply being sent elsewhere, to attack a Portal that seemed less defended than the others at the moment (although from experience, he knew that even if that was the case, it probably wouldn’t help). Still, the rebellion had been his main suspect from the start.
But he had not expected the news he’d received.
Councillor Ihab was dead.
When he’d heard it, that single pronouncement had thrown everything he’d thought he’d known about the rebellion into doubt. From the start, he’d quietly assumed that it’d be nothing more than a brief annoyance for the Council – there was just no way a simple rebellion could get enough power to defeat all the armies of the Council, so it was just a matter of time until it was brought down. In a way, he’d admired the rebels for standing true to their beliefs and for continuing to fight their hopeless war – in fact, he even couldn’t help but think that in a way, they had a point. But still, up until that moment, he’d thought – or rather, not so much thought as simply subconsciously assumed – that it was a foregone conclusion that the rebellion would fail.
That one sentence, however, had changed his mind.
He didn’t know how they’d done it – apparently, the Council hadn’t seen fit to tell him that information, at least not yet. But the rebels had killed a Councillor. A Councillor, one of the six people who had been ruling over Aead ever since the previous king’s downfall, one of the six people who were almost like gods to the populace at large… was now dead, and it was at the rebels’ hands.
And if that was the case, they couldn’t be taken lightly anymore. Suddenly, Leonid had realized that it was entirely possible that they would win – that they would be able to overthrow the Council. After all, the Council had done the same to the previous king themselves, hadn’t they? So the idea of a rebellion among the demons overthrowing demonkind’s current ruler wasn’t something new or unprecedented – it had already happened. And while, at first glance, the current rebellion seemed nowhere near as big as the rebellion that had overthrown the old king… what good were first glances, really?
With that thought, a chilling realization crept up Leonid’s spine. It was entirely possible, he now saw, that the rebels would win. He didn’t know how probable it was yet, but that didn’t matter – it was possible, and it was plausible. There was a chance – even if a relatively small one, still a big enough one to matter – that the rebels would win, that they would overthrow the Council and impose their own rule on Aead. And if that happened, then…
Leonid didn’t know, and that was what worried him. He had many bad things to say about the Council, but at least he could be assured that, at least in intent, they had demonkind’s best interests in mind. And, to a degree, he had a rather good idea of what the Council thought demonkind’s best interests were, and how they would go about trying to achieve them. But with the rebels…? He didn’t know anything about the rebels other than whatever was relevant to the ongoing war. If they won, he had no idea what they would do – what their rule would be like. He, and all the other demons throughout Aead, would end up at the mercy of a shadowy ruler about whom they knew nothing – and if he turned out to be cruel, there would be nothing they could do but simply accept it.
He didn’t claim that the Council was great as far as leadership went either. But at the very least, they were good enough – and Leonid could trust them to be good enough. Perhaps they wouldn’t ever achieve anything exceptional, perhaps they would continue their fruitless campaigns on Verta and continue throwing their soldiers’ lives away – but, to give them credit where it was due, the army was composed strictly of volunteers, of people who were willing to give everything for even the slightest chance of achieving the Council’s dream. And the ordinary citizens? Perhaps the Council was not a perfect ruler for them, but at the very least, with the Council leading them, they could be assured of a decent life. Yes, the poor were poor and the rich were rich, and yes, the rich often treated the poor like dirt or worse. Yes, there were still widespread issues, and yes, many of the towns nearer the ends of Aead were in a state of disrepair unless they had a good Baron. But at the very least, the Council itself did not treat its citizens poorly, and they did try to fix as many of the problems as they could. They were far from the best at it, and many of the issues that now plagued demonkind had been there for centuries, still present despite the Council’s best efforts – but at least the Council tried, and at least it did its best not to add to them.
Whereas the rebels? Leonid knew nothing about the rebels. Yes, there was a chance they would be better rulers than the Council – but what if they weren’t? Would he really be willing to take such a risk? The Council were, if more than a little ineffective and indecisive, at least well-intentioned. What would life be like under a truly tyrannical ruler? He knew the answer to that question – he’d been alive when the old king had reigned, after all – and it wasn’t pretty. To live under a tyrant was to live in constant fear, to know that whenever he wished, the king could and would have you executed or worse for whatever petty offense he took issue with. It was to never have any hope, to never so much as think about standing up for yourself – after all, the potential fates anyone who tried to do so face were more than enough to freeze anyone’s spine cold. It was to live your entire life according to the whims of someone else, to forever lack anything that made life good and to know that if you complained, if you tried to change something, it would simply get worse.
Could he really just trust that the rebels wouldn’t be like that? Could he really take that sort of roll of the dice – especially when he was wagering not only his own fate, but those of all the demons that lived across the lands of Aead?
No. No, he could not.
From the start, he hadn’t wanted to fight in this civil war. He’d remained a General for the Council not because of any particular attachment to the title – in fact, there were many times when he’d wanted to just resign, to just walk away from all the bloodshed and death – but rather because he, himself, was the only person he could trust to try and minimize casualties as much as possible. He found even the wars against the mortals on Verta distasteful, at best – but he kept leading them anyway, because he knew that if it were anyone else leading the armies, it would be worse. So he didn’t enjoy the thought of now having to fight demons – having to fight his own kin and to force his soldiers to do the same. Which was why, at first, he’d been glad the Council had chosen to leave it to General Katherine. She, he knew, would be happy to crush any rebellion that dared disrespect the Council – so as long as that was true, what reason was there for him to get involved instead of her?
But now, things were different. Now, the rebels had a chance of winning. And while he still couldn’t say he didn’t sympathize with them… letting them do as they liked would simply be far too much of a risk.
Now, it was no longer a question of whether or not he wanted to be involved in the civil war. Even ignoring the fact that he’d now been ordered to get involved, even ignoring the fact that he couldn’t disobey the Council’s commands… that no longer mattered. It was his duty to do all he could to stop the rebels.
Not for the Council’s sake. But for the sake of all demonkind.
“Although, I have to say… color me surprised, Azal,” the aeadite smiled. “Didn’t expect you to invite me up here.”
“The meeting room is somewhat pointless for a meeting involving only two people, wouldn’t you say?” Azal said in a perfectly flat voice. “Besides, this is somewhat more private. And I’d rather make sure no one overhears this.”
“Well now,” the demon said. “I’d say “This must be important, then” or something like that, but… honestly, you’re paranoid about everything anyway, aren’t you?”
“Spare me your humor, Darius,” Azal said. “Unless you seriously mean to suggest there would be a benefit to not being cautious?”
“At the very least, it would certainly make working with you a lot easier,” Darius said. “Well, whatever. It’s not like I’ll change your mind on it anyway. So, why am I here?”
Azal hesitated for a moment before continuing. “As of now, your affiliation with the Bloodhorns is still not known to the Council. Correct?”
“Well now… suddenly, I feel like I have an idea of where this is going,” Darius sighed. “And yes, it shouldn’t be. Key word there being shouldn’t – at this point, just about everyone who actually lives in this city knows, and I’m sure a lot of the people in our more recently-acquired territories do too. And even if none of them told any of the Council’s forces intentionally… well, trust me, Azal; I know better than a lot of people just how fast gossip can spread.”
“Regardless, they will likely not be able to recognize you instantly,” Azal said.
“True,” Darius said. “Anyway, enough with the vagueness. Drop the game and tell me: who or what do you need me to spy on?”
“I want you to gather as much information as you can in Merdrun, the capital,” Azal said, acceding to Darius’ request.
For just a moment, Darius paused. “…well. That’s… more ambitious than I expected.”
“You mean to say it would not be beneficial?” Azal countered.
“Ugh… I’m getting really tired of you talking like that,” Darius sighed. “I mean… yeah, of course it could help us. If we could make it work.” A small smile crept onto his face. “But then again… I suppose making things like that work is what I’m best at, isn’t it? Alright, Azal. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” Azal nodded. “You may go, then.”
“Now hold on just one moment,” Darius said, and suddenly his eyes narrowed. His expression turned grim, and Azal’s eyes narrowed in response, too. He had a feeling Darius wasn’t just planning to ask a clarifying question. “I’ve got just one more thing to ask.
“What about Johannes?”
A sudden spike of worry shot through Azal, but he carefully stopped himself from reacting as he clasped his hands in front of himself. “What about him?”
“Ever since he’s been captured, you’ve done your very best not to talk about him,” Darius said. “You haven’t mentioned him whenever you talked to me, or any of your other people. You haven’t talked about any plans to rescue him. For the Great Powers’ sake, unless I’m missing something, you haven’t even informed everyone about his capture yet.”
“I think you’ll find I’ve taken reasonable steps to inform the citizenry of the recent events,” Azal said, carefully keeping his voice neutral.
“And then taken far more steps than reasonable to immediately make sure no one remembered it?” Darius asked. “Look, I’m going to need an answer here. What are you planning to do about Johannes?”
“If it is possible, he will be rescued, of course,” Azal said. “But you must remember that if he was captured by the Council’s forces, he was likely taken back to Merdrun. We cannot advance fast enough to offer him any assistance in the near future, and by the time we arrive, I fear it will likely be too late.”
“Well, that’s assuming you need your whole army over there to get him out,” Darius said. “What about Melthar? Surely it would be a simple matter for him to teleport in, grab Johannes, and teleport out.”
“I have spoken to Melthar about the extent of his abilities,” Azal countered. “He cannot teleport somewhere unless he has already seen that place and has a good idea of its location in his mind. And he has not been in the Council’s palace for centuries, now. Today, it barely resembles how it looked when Melthar last visited.” Azal paused for a moment before remembering something. “And before you say that what I am saying is pure speculation and there would be no harm in simply trying, I should inform you that I have spoken with Melthar about this, too. He himself has also stated that he would likely find it impossible to teleport to a specific location within the palace.”
“Alright, so he can’t get him out in one jump,” Darius said. “But I fail to see the problem there. Even if he can’t get into the dungeons of the Turrim Tenebris right away, what’s to stop him from just teleporting in somewhere and looking around for it? I mean, it’s not like he’ll be caught. A bit difficult to catch someone who can teleport at will, wouldn’t you say?”
“Assuming you believe Melthar to have infinite stamina, yes,” Azal replied. “Darius, I have assessed his abilities as thoroughly as I was capable, and I can assure you that that would be impossible. The act of teleportation is taxing, even for someone like him. It would be impossible for him to do it that many times in such a short time frame.”
“And yet he could take an entire contingent of men with him without any issues?” Darius said.
Azal shrugged. “As I have said, the act of teleportation is taxing. But it is, in effect, simply folding an area of space up and sending its contents through a channel to another area of space. Simply increasing the size of the area affected is a comparatively unnoticeable effort in relation to the energy required to open the channel up in the first place.”
“Well… I understood basically none of that, but alright, I get it. If he’s doing it anyways, it’s not as hard to increase the amount of stuff he takes with him,” Darius said. “Right?”
“Correct,” Azal nodded. “Now do you see the issue with your plan? Even for Melthar, it would be impossible to retrieve someone from the Council’s dungeons that easily.”
Darius sighed. “Alright. So Melthar can’t do it. So, is that it? Are you not even going to try to rescue him just because the most obvious options don’t work? I thought you were supposed to be clever, Azal.”
Azal’s mind raced, and he kept his face perfectly free of any sign of agitation or worry, even as, deep inside, he realized that his control over the rebellion could very well depend on how he steered this conversation.
Rescuing Johannes would be a significant effort to recover an ally who was practically useless, but if that had been the only issue with it, Azal would have gladly gone ahead with it. Going to such trouble to save a comrade’s life would increase his popularity immensely, and make many of the common folk far more loyal to him – whereas, on the flip side, simply leaving Johannes to his fate could have disastrous consequences on that front. And besides, though he wasn’t going to let it impact his judgement, he had to admit he was somewhat fond of Johannes.
However, the issue was that it would be more than a significant effort. In fact, as far as Azal could see, it would be close to impossible – and any methods he could think of that would have a chance of success carried far too much risk with them. For instance, he could try and install a spy into the Council’s palace and have them rescue Johannes, but there was every chance the spy in question would be caught, especially considering the fact that he barely had any competent spies, let alone any good ones – and when one had as little resources as Azal had, even just a competent spy was an invaluable asset. It would not do to lose one of them on something like this.
And of course, that was not the only option. But Azal had gone over his choices in his mind, and the simple fact was, there was no way to rescue Johannes that had a high chance of success – and all the methods he’d come up with would incur a terrible price if they failed. A price that they could simply not afford to pay.
And that meant that trying to rescue Johannes was a risk they could not afford to take.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. After all, he knew that to the common people, this would be more than just a matter of strategic advantage. They wouldn’t see it that way. They would see it as Azal abandoning an ally in need. Darius was living proof of that – and, after all, Azal could not deny that that was entirely true. And that was something he knew the people would not accept easily, no matter how much of a good idea it was.
So he’d needed a way to divert their attention, to… not keep them from noticing, necessarily –lying to his people outright would be too large a risk – but to keep them from thinking about it too much. And so far, he’d been successful. Technically, he had informed the populace… but he’d kept it as quiet as he could, and in the meantime, he’d celebrated his recent victory as loudly and distractingly as was possible without making people suspect something. And it’d worked – the people had been too caught up in the joy of victory to pay attention to the comparatively small matter of Johannes.
But really, Azal should’ve known from the start. How could Darius not notice something like that? It must’ve been obvious to him from the very start. Azal assumed he’d only even waited this long to confront him about it because he still had some amount of trust in him – because he’d hoped that there was something he wasn’t seeing, something that meant the situation was something different from what it looked like to him.
Of course, there wasn’t. And now, Azal had to explain himself to Darius. And he knew that if his explanation wasn’t satisfactory, Darius wouldn’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and telling the people – and if he did, their loyalty to Azal would disappear immediately. If they realized that he’d deceived them, that he’d covered up the fact that he’d left one of his own men to die… he wouldn’t remain in power for another week. And that was being generous.
Azal stood up from his seat and walked to the window, from where he could overlook the whole of Redgate. “Darius. When you look out of this window, what do you see?”
“I need an answer, Azal,” Darius said, stubbornly remaining in his chair. “I’m not going to let you trick me like you tricked all the others. Really, did you expect you could fool me that easily?’
“If that is what you feel I have done, Darius, I apologize. It was never my intention.” It was a lie that, in any other circumstances, Darius would see through in an instant. Azal knew that much. But Darius wanted to trust him. Azal hoped that would be enough to sway his opinion. “Please… come here. There is something I must explain to you.”
Darius sighed. “Alright, sure. Guess I’ll humor you.” He walked up beside Azal, looking out the window at the city that sprawled beneath the tower.
“Thank you, Darius,” Azal said. “Then, look out the window and tell me… what do you see?”
He shrugged. “A city. Bit more labyrinthine than a city rightly should be, and pretty big as far as Aead’s cities go, but… a city all the same.”
“What I see down there,” Azal said, “is the fruit of the labors of countless demons, of countless people who have spent their lives living here, who have dedicated their all to the creation of this place. Think, Darius – how much effort did the construction of even one of those buildings you see require? And now look across the city and see how many of them there are. Hundreds, at least. The product of countless hours and days and weeks and years of work, of toil… of determination to see this city rise. What I see down there, Darius, is something people have created, something people have forged from the red wastes – and something that those people now trust to protect them. What I see is the souls and the spirits of all the demons in this city, all their wishes and dreams and minds and lives. That is what I see.”
“Uh-huh,” Darius nodded, doubtfully. “And your point is?”
“Do you remember why I started this rebellion?” Azal asked.
“Because if the Council keeps attacking the mortals, they’ll get angry eventually,” Darius recited, “and if they do, they’ll come down here and slaughter all the demons in Aead. Right?”
“Precisely,” Azal nodded. “These lands – this world houses more demons than I can possibly comprehend. Every one of them has a soul and a will – every one of them has their own desires and hopes and dreams. This city is proof of that. These demons are what brought this great civilization into existence – they are the reason we can live like this today. And yet the Council’s actions put them all in jeopardy. The demons trust the Council to keep them safe, to protect and guide and help them – and yet all it’s doing is playing dice with their very lives, gambling with their souls at stake without having ever asked them about it. And the only ones who can stop them, the only ones who can put an end to their fevered dream before it results in something happening that can never be undone, are us.” He looked at Darius. “So do you see? Do you see what will happen if we fail? If we fail… all these demons lose their chance at salvation. If we fail, we sentence them all to death.”
Darius frowned. “That’s assuming the mortals act like you expect them to.”
“Perhaps they won’t, not yet,” Azal conceded. “But the Council won’t just let their rule end with their deaths. They’ll find successors – successors who will gladly continue the work they’ve started. And all the while, the mortals will grow less patient, less willing to just wait and accept the demons’ attacks.” He paused for a moment. “Perhaps the mortals will not attack just yet. Perhaps they won’t attack soon. But that won’t matter. If someone doesn’t do something, then it’ll all just keep happening… and their anger will keep building and building and building. Eventually, it’ll burst forth… and that will be the end of all demonkind.” He turned to Darius. “You cannot think merely about the here and now, Darius. There is a future. There will be generations upon generations after us. And if nothing is done, one of these future generations will be the people who will pay the price.
“And we are the only ones willing to do something.”
The aeadite said nothing. He just looked at Azal, a hesitant expression on his face.
“Do you see now, Darius?” Azal said. “We cannot fail. The fate of all demonkind rests on it. And to that end… yes, I will do whatever I have to. Trust me – I do not like it any more than you do. But the alternative… the alternative is far, far worse.”
Darius let out a breath.
“…yeah,” he said, his words still a bit hesitant. “I guess you’re right.”
“So. We’re doing it, then?” General Leonid asked.
“Yes,” Katherine nodded. “These rebels will pay.”
For an instant, Leonid hesitated. But he’d made his decision.
“Very well,” he nodded back. “I’ll prepare my men. We set out in the morning.”