There’d been many things the two of them had been prepared for. They’d expected an ambush. They’d expected an odd absence of the enemy. They’d expected a feigned retreat, some sort of an attempt to lead them elsewhere. In fact, although both of them had dismissed it as extremely unlikely, they’d even prepared – just in case – for the event that the enemy would simply choose to meet them on the field of battle. In short, they’d been ready for every trick the rebels could possibly have tried.
Except, it seemed, this.
Leonid stared blankly at the spectacle unfolding in front of him, his mind processing what he was seeing. Although, he had a feeling he knew. He knew what had happened… and he felt he knew exactly what the rebels hoped to achieve.
Fire licked the skies, dancing through the air like so many serpents of ethereal orange and red, mingling with each other with an odd grace. Fire lit up the red plains like a great torch, a blazing beacon in the midst of the dull grey light. Fire writhed in the air, a symbol of chaos rising in defiance to the Council’s forces, the rebels’ mark on the landscape of Aead.
And at the base of it all, it roared up from a town.
From what Leonid knew, they’d passed into the rebels’ territory a short time ago, so they were currently near the outskirts. So, in other words, this town was under the rebellion’s control – and while Leonid supposed it could be a coincidence that a fire had just so happened to start there, he doubted it. It was almost certain, he thought, that the rebels had started the fire intentionally.
He felt he knew why. Although he hoped, desperately, that he was wrong.
Of course, buildings in Aead were largely built of stone, so they weren’t flammable… but that didn’t mean a fire wasn’t dangerous. Because while the stone was impervious to fire, it wasn’t the only thing Aeadean buildings were made of. Almost all buildings used various other materials too, whether simply to hold the stone together or to provide greater protection from the climate, or for another reason entirely – and many of those burned perfectly fine. It was far from impossible to make a building that would be completely impervious to fire, of course, but it wasn’t an issue of possibility: it was an issue of cost. In a place like, say, the centre of Merdrun, Leonid would’ve been surprised to see even one building that would have a chance of falling to a fire like this – but here, it would’ve surprised him to see just one that wouldn’t.
Even as Leonid watched, he saw a house collapse, one of the walls giving out and collapsing, the heavy stone – still largely undamaged, though charred – falling to the ground in a thunderous roar. It was a chain reaction. The roof fell next, no longer held up by the wall that had just fallen, and as it collapsed, so did the other walls, there no longer being anything to support them. What had once been someone’s home collapsed inwards, shattering and breaking into nothing more than a pile of rocks, much of the material still blazing in the mound.
If anyone had been in that house when it collapsed, they would’ve been lucky to die instantly from the impact of the falling rocks. Otherwise, they would be burned alive, their skin and flesh charred by the flames and the unbearably hot stone and soil – and if, by some miracle, they survived that, they would still be buried, trapped under an immovable dome of stone with little air and no food or water. They would desperately hope for help, pray that someone would arrive before death inevitably took them… but sadly, it was unlikely. They were in the rebels’ territory, where no one associated with the Council would go with anything but hostile intent – and yet they were on the outskirts of that territory, where there would most likely be no one else close enough to help. Any help that could arrive would never arrive in time.
Silently, Leonid cursed the rebels in his mind. Of course. Leave it to them to come up with something like this…
“They’re… burning their own towns…” Katherine muttered behind him, in disbelief.
“Not quite,” Leonid said, shaking his head. “I’d be willing to bet this is the only one we’ll find like this… then again, maybe not.”
Her eyes hardened. “There might still be someone trapped there. We have to save them.”
“Yeah,” Leonid said. “I’d bet that’s exactly what they thought we’d decide.”
Katherine’s eyes snapped open wide in shock. “You mean…” She gritted her teeth. “Of course. This is a trap. What else would it be?”
For a few moments more, the two of them stared silently at the burning town. Every moment spent doing nothing was a moment wasted – every moment spent doing nothing was an additional moment the fire could claim another victim, another moment when someone that could’ve been saved could be lost. But… how were they supposed to do something quickly when they didn’t know what to do at all? After all, if Leonid was right… there was no good choice here.
Katherine looked sideways at him, and though Leonid knew she’d never admit it – and she’d do her best to hide it – he saw uncertainty in her expression. Uncertainty… and anxiety. “General Leonid… what do we do?”
Leonid gritted his teeth. “I’ll give them this… they’re bloody clever.” He sighed in frustration. “The worst part is, there’s probably no one in there. Why would they kill their own people like that? But…”
“If there are people trapped there…” Katherine said, finishing his thought. Her face was cloudy. Leonid knew she was thinking the same thing he was. “That isn’t a chance we can afford to take.”
Leonid nodded, tension evident in the motion. “I’ll go with a few of the men. Go ahead with the rest.”
Katherine frowned. She had to have known, Leonid knew. She had to have known exactly what he was thinking.
“And when they spring the trap?” she asked. “We cannot afford to lose you.”
“Would you trust the men to do as they should without a commander around?” Leonid asked. “It’s technically rebel territory, after all. And if we take more people to serve as a guard, that just increases how many people they can kill when they attack.”
Katherine gritted her teeth. “I… We lost Councillor Ihab already,” she said. “I won’t allow you to throw your life away on something like this.”
“Ugh… dammit,” Leonid muttered. “Katherine, be reasonable.”
“I am,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose you. Not over something like this.”
Leonid growled in frustration from between clenched teeth… but the worst part was, she was right. If one of the Generals fell here, then all tactical issues aside, what would it do to the army’s morale…?
And still the city burned, a constant, maddening reminder that with every moment he spent in thought, time passed. With every instant the two of them debated what to do, the fire raged. If there even were any people trapped inside, then the longer they stood here and did nothing, the more of them would die.
Leonid tried to shut that fact out from his thoughts, tried to just think logically, to keep his calm and to do what would be best. After all, if the Council fell, it wouldn’t matter what happened to one town. All of demonkind would be under the rebels’ rule, and who knew what would happen then? Surely, preventing that was more important than saving a single burning town.
And yet… and yet… who were they to decide something like that? Who were they to walk up to a town, to see it burning to ash in front of their eyes, to know they would easily be able to help, to imagine the cries of help and the prayers for salvation the inhabitants would surely be uttering – and do nothing? Who were they to decide those demons would be better off dead than under the rebels’ rule?
Leonid’s chest felt tight, so unbearably tight. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do.
But… he knew one thing.
If he was in that town, at that moment… he’d want someone to save him.
They’d been standing around there for a few minutes, by now. More than enough time for the fire to have claimed another victim, for someone to have died because they valued some war over saving people’s lives, for their inaction to have killed someone, for someone’s death to rest on their shoulders…
Leonid arrested the train of thought before it could drive him too far off the path of reason.
But he couldn’t just leave them to die.
And he couldn’t waste any more time thinking about how to help them. If he spent too long doing that, it would all end up meaningless in any case.
“Never mind,” he growled, his throat tight with worry. It was entirely possible that his next decision would lose the war for the Council. But… he couldn’t not make it. “Never mind that, Katherine. Let’s go.”
He rushed forward, and his men rushed after him. A heartbeat later, Katherine and her contingent followed in his wake.
They didn’t need all their men to come with them. Of course they didn’t. But there just wasn’t time. There was no time to prepare, to figure out who would go and who wouldn’t. People were burning and dying now.
He’d had his plans. Katherine had had hers. This time, they hadn’t just charged blindly into the rebels’ territory – they’d had tactics and strategies to use, information about their enemy, backup plans in case the initial ones failed. Both of them had thought that they’d win easily – and that even if they didn’t, they’d at least give the rebels the fight of their lives. It had been foolproof.
And with a single trick, the rebels had torn it all to shreds.
If it had been some other sort of trick, Leonid would’ve been admittedly rather impressed that their plans had been undone so easily. As it was… he felt nothing more than a dark hatred for the rebels deep inside his gut.
He just hoped that maybe, maybe, the rebels were only expecting to trap a small contingent of the Council’s forces, and being faced with such a large amount of them would be more than they could handle. It was a long shot, admittedly. But… it was the only one he had.
It wasn’t long before Leonid heard the screams.
The instant he did, his heart leapt into his throat.
He’d already assumed that it would turn out the town was already empty – nothing more than a trap for the Council. He’d already assumed that even the rebels wouldn’t be willing to just kill their own people like that – that the town had been evacuated long before and they were simply betting that the Council would nevertheless be unable to simply pass it by. That was why he’d paid more attention to staying safe to sweeping the town quickly. Granted, he was still making all possible haste – but if he’d been certain someone really was in danger, he would’ve had his men look for whoever it was to the detriment of all else. As it stood, he and his troops were still moving in formation, weapons drawn, shields ready, and eyes and ears alert for any attack. He didn’t feel good about potentially taking such a risk with someone’s life, but… in the first place, the chance that there really was anyone at all in the town was nearly nonexistent. So this just made more sense.
Or at least… it had been nearly nonexistent.
The first time he heard it, it was barely audible over the background noise of the fire crackling and the buildings still collapsing here and there. It was nothing more than a small, soft garble of noise, barely distinguishable from the roar of the fire. It sent shivers down Leonid’s spine, but he paid it no mind. Yes, he’d been the one to decide on searching the town in the first place, but… surely the enemy wouldn’t actually burn their own people to death. Right…? It must have been just a trick of his ears.
The second time was a scream.
There were still no words to it. There could hardly be when the raging fire drowned out nearly all sound, and stone still fell and crumbled around them every few seconds. But there was no mistaking it. There was no mistaking that shrill, high-pitched sound – there was no mistaking the sheer, simple terror, the primal fear for one’s life, that that one noise contained.
At that, Leonid stopped, his jaw dropping slightly open, his breathing involuntarily stopping for just a moment. He looked around hastily, his eyes darting around the ruined city, trying to identify where the sound might have come from.
Finally, he heard it the third time.
“H-hey! Y-you, out there! H-help me, please! I don’t want to die!”
It should’ve been impossible for any words to carry over the noise of the fire. It should’ve been impossible to make oneself clear and understood in that sort of pandemonium, not from that far away.
But sometimes, the simplest of instincts – the desire everything alive had to live, to survive – could overcome even such things as impossible when they were in the way.
Leonid and Katherine had split up a while ago – it simply wasn’t practical to march their entire army through a single alleyway of the ruined city. He just hoped she’d heard it too.
As for him… there was only one thing he could do now.
“Men, spread out!” Leonid called. “Find whoever that was and get them out of the city as fast as you can!”
He darted further into the blaze, and behind him, he heard the sound of frantic footsteps as his men dashed in every direction, racing through every alley and street of the city. He was acutely aware that now, if the enemy attacked, they were virtually guaranteed to take heavy losses.
But all his men had volunteered to serve the Council’s army, to put their lives at risk. Whoever was trapped in this fire… Leonid was damn sure they hadn’t volunteered for anything.
Katherine froze in her tracks, trying to make out the source of the scream. But it was impossible. Over this fire, over the sound of rubble falling and of buildings collapsing, it was a miracle she’d heard it in the first place. And now that she had, there was only one thing left to do.
“Spread out, men!” she barked. “There’s a survivor! Get them out of here!”
Without waiting for a response, she, herself, dashed into the burning city.
Really, she should have known. She should’ve known the rebels would do something like this. Why wouldn’t they? They’d spat in the face of the Council, the very Council that had overthrown the old tyrant and given them their lives and safety in the first place. They’d allied with mortals, the very same mortals who had killed more demons than could be counted and who had always stood in the way of the Council’s dream. And they’d… they’d…
They’d killed Councillor Ihab.
…no, perhaps it was irrational to blame them for that one. That was the nature of war, after all. He’d been their enemy. And besides… he must’ve known something like that would happen one day or another. Katherine thought… she thought it was how he’d have wanted to die.
But the rest of it still stood. The rebels… they’d never shown any concern or respect for anyone’s life before. Why would they start now? Even if that anyone was their very own citizens…
So of course they’d do something like this. It was the best way to lure the Council’s forces into an area where they could easily be ambushed, after all. What was happening now was proof of it. And if a few of their civilians died because of it… well, what did it matter to them? To Katherine, such casual disregard for demons’ lives seemed unbelievable, but… to the rebels, surely it would seem like a perfectly good idea.
And it was an idea that left them with no choice but to walk directly into an ambush. With that in mind, there was only one thing left to wonder…
Where was the enemy?
The trap hadn’t been sprung yet, which meant the rebels were waiting for something. Which meant Katherine and Leonid had at least a bit of time left. Would they be able to find any survivors and get out in that span of time? It wasn’t impossible. But Katherine didn’t think it was probable.
But that didn’t matter. She would still try to do it. After all, she was not going to leave even a single demon here to die if she could help it. And she wouldn’t lose to the rebels, either. And if accomplishing both goals at once seemed like an impossibility… well, as much as she hated to admit it, the rebels had overcome seemingly impossible situations before. So what reason was there the Council wouldn’t be able to do the same?
Leonid dashed forwards, running through the burning alley with just a tiny contingent of his men – ten or so people who’d gone in the same general direction as him (he was too frantic at the moment to count properly) – to protect him in the event something went wrong. Though then again, he supposed it wouldn’t matter. If something went wrong, they’d have to gather the troops together anyway – otherwise, they’d have no chance. It wouldn’t be easy in this sort of chaos, but then again, he supposed the rebels’ own attack could end up pressing them into one area anyway when the time came. It wouldn’t be good, but-
He stopped short, quickly gesturing to his men to do the same. They decelerated to a halt beside him.
He smelled blood.
Perhaps one would think that, being a General with many years of experience on the battlefield, he would be desensitized to the smell. In a way, he supposed, that was true. It spoke volumes by itself that the smell didn’t bother him, as such. He certainly found it unpleasant, yes, but it didn’t disturb him as it would most people anymore.
But no matter how little it bothered him, no matter how used he grew to the stench, it was something one never stopped noticing. No matter how often one was near it, no matter how used one was to it… none of it mattered. The smell of blood, the smell of death, was never something that could simply be overlooked. Even after Leonid had grown used to it, even in the middle of this burned city that smelled of smoke and flame, that fact remained true. The smell of spilled blood stuck out like a sore thumb.
He looked at what lay ahead of him. There, the road curved at a right angle, turning a corner to his right. It was impossible not to realize that that was where the smell was coming from.
Cautiously, Leonid stepped closer to the wall of a building – not actually touching it, of course, not when the town was burning, but close enough to at least hopefully offer him some measure of concealment – and looked around the corner.
Corpses lay there. Corpses of the Council’s soldiers. Four in total – one had had his throat slashed, two had been impaled through weak points in their armor, and one that looked to have been bludgeoned to death. The way they’d fallen, it looked like two of them had died before being able to offer any resistance at all. He was less sure about the other two, but it looked like they’d at least struggled for a bit before being slain.
And yet, all the blood on the ground was their own. They hadn’t hurt their assailants, whoever they were.
And those assailants… they had to have taken them by surprise, to kill them so efficiently. Leonid hadn’t even heard them scream, a testament to how quickly the slaughter had taken place. And there had to be multiple – a single person could not possibly kill four soldiers so quickly, no matter how much of an advantage stealth granted them.
And that meant a mobile group was unlikely – it wasn’t easy for multiple people at once to move about undetected, especially in an area as brightly lit as the town currently was. So, most likely, they’d been hiding out here, waiting for someone to attack… or at least, that’s the conclusion Leonid would normally have come to. But this was a burning town. What madmen would try to wait in ambush in a place like-
No. They hadn’t been waiting in ambush.
There was a far simpler explanation.
Leonid’s throat suddenly felt very, very dry.
“That man…” he whispered to himself.
The trio ran through an alley. The head of the group, a chirean, looked at the two people following her. She didn’t know either of them, but they’d both decided to go the same way she had, and she was fine with it. Just from what she’d observed of them, they both clearly wanted to save whoever was trapped here just as much as she did. That was enough for her.
There was a sound like a blade cutting flesh, and the chirean’s eyes widened in sudden surprise – but before she could react, another followed on its heels. The chirean let out a gasp of shock and turned around. The enemy? But… they couldn’t be here yet. Could they?
She saw two demons, short blades in hand, standing in the alley. At their feet, the two people following her were dead – and the blades were bloodied.
For a moment, sudden fear registered in her mind. She hastily brought her sword into position, looking nervously at the two demons. How had they-
There was a flash of blue in the corner of her eye.
And a moment later, there was a blade of cool steel through her heart.
The group appeared again.
Two of the enemy soldiers died in instants, killed by blades from behind before they could even notice the intruders, much less react. Of the other two, one of them turned hastily, his sword at the ready – but before he could, Melthar appeared behind him and skewered him with a quick thrust. The blade had been enchanted by Lein – another of his parting gifts – so there was no need to even aim for a weak spot. It simply pierced the enemy’s armor almost like it didn’t even exist.
Melthar rushed at the fourth one, sword in hand. There were a few flashes of light on steel, blades moving in quick, practiced motions – and then, Melthar sliced once and stepped back, and the demon fell dead.
Against an opponent who had had literal eternity to practice his swordsmanship, there was quite little that could really be done. Well, Melthar mused… except by the truly exceptional. Janus, for instance, was his superior in a direct swordfight.
But these demons… they couldn’t even come close.
“Well done, men,” Melthar nodded, trying to keep his voice down. It wasn’t like being discovered was a threat to them, but there was still no reason to advertise their position. “Unfortunately, I’m not doing that great myself anymore. As I’ve said… I can’t teleport too much in too short a timeframe.”
One of the demons nodded. “Right. So, we’re leaving?”
“It’d seem so,” Melthar said. “In any case, it should be nearly time for the main event by now.”
“Very well,” the demon nodded. Melthar stepped up to them, placed a hand on their shoulders – it wasn’t necessary, but it did make it easier – and, in the blink of an eye, they stood outside the burning city.
Melthar turned his head to the right. He’d had his problems with the plan from the start, and he still did, but he had to admit one thing… it had done its job, and it had done it well. The Council’s forces were still inside the burning town…
And, to the north, he could see Azal’s men approaching, already nearly at the site of battle.
“Well,” Melthar smiled. “Time to go meet up with the men.”
He took off at a sprint towards the approaching army, and the two demons followed him.
Leonid closed his eyes for a moment. He steadied his breathing, forced the fear out of his mind, and tried his best to make himself stop shaking. Only then did he dare open his eyes again and step around the corner, to where his men were gathered in the centre of the town.
It hadn’t been easy to gather them all together here in the first place. In fact, Leonid had to assume that at least some of them were still out there in the town somewhere… but at the very least, the vast majority of his fighters had been assembled here.
He traded a silent look with General Katherine and stepped into the midst of the army, where they wouldn’t be able to be easily recognized. That was important. After all, not being recognized was the only way they could avoid the golden man’s wrath.
He took a deep breath.
“Men,” he said. “The rebels have proven cleverer than we expected. But they have shown something else to us too, this day. They have revealed themselves for who they really are – cowards and traitors. Traitors to the Council… and traitors to their own people.”
“You see what is happening here,” General Katherine said. Leonid looked at her in surprise for a moment, but he didn’t object. She’d probably be able to get the point across better than he could anyway. “You see what these rebels have done. They have destroyed their own lands, consigned their own people to death – and for what? Merely so that they could avoid fighting fairly. Now, look around at this town and think about what you see. Do you want to live under the rule of a ruler like that? Do you want to live knowing that, at any time, you could be sacrificed by the will of the ruler, and no one would speak out against it? Do you want to live knowing that your life is the king’s to spend as he sees fit?
“No? Then make your stand, men. We are trapped – if we do not move, we will be encircled, and the rebels will not allow us to move. But will we allow that to stop us? This is what you have prepared for, men. The golden man has made his move, and he has surely exhausted himself in the process. The rebels approach, surely fast on the heels of his attack – but you have seen them for what they truly are. They are monsters, monsters and cowards. You have seen what they have done, so ask yourself one thing: Could you live with yourself knowing that you could have stopped them here, and di not? And also… do you understand that if you fail here, this will be the fate of all demonkind?
“Men… you may think we are doomed. But I assure you, we will not be broken so easily. So I urge you – stand and fight. Stand and fight against this tide of monstrosity, against these traitors who wish to destroy all that we have worked so hard to build. Stand firm, and do not retreat. This day is when the fate of demonkind will be decided… and when the smoke clears, we will be the ones standing at the helm.
“And do not fear. It may seem impossible. It may seem like this is a battle we cannot win. But if there is one thing I can say with certainty, it is this: I will never surrender, and I will never give up. Do not think it is hopeless. I assure you of one thing – I still have more than a few tricks in reserve. And I will – no, we will win this battle yet.”
There were a few moments of silence. Katherine, Leonid had to admit, had never been among the most charismatic of people. But her conviction was strong and true, and she was always confident, no matter what happened. In a situation like this… perhaps that would be all that would be required.
There was no sudden cheer, no cries or chants of triumph or excitement. But the silence took on a new quality. Until now, there had been a few slight, background sounds constantly audible among the men – feet shifting anxiously, soldiers swallowing nervously, a few people fidgeting to keep the worry at bay. Now, those were gone. It was a solid, unbroken silence, a perfect stillness like cold steel.
The army was ready for war.
Azal frowned as he marched onwards, approaching the town. The sound of heavy footsteps, of armored feet striking the ground, filled his ears and made them ring, but he tried to keep his thoughts clear nevertheless. It wasn’t overly difficult.
Melthar had gotten back to them just a bit ago. It seemed they’d misjudged the timing a bit, and the enemy army had arrived earlier than the Bloodhorns had expected. Still, Azal had planned for the worst possible scenario, so it didn’t matter too much. Their army had had a bit longer to march to get to the town than he’d have liked, but thankfully, according to Melthar’s report, the enemy was still inside. That was enough.
Still, he would need to make his move soon. If they hadn’t already suspected it was an ambush (which was unlikely), Melthar’s attack would surely have told them as much, so they would surely try to get out. That would be the only reasonably move in their position – and it wouldn’t take them long. Azal expected they would insist on staying in formation as they did, but even then, it would not take them long to escape the town.
Fortunately, that wouldn’t matter too much. After all, they were already in range for the next step of Azal’s plan.
Melthar’s string of assassinations hadn’t really been meant to inflict actual significant losses. They were meant to harm morale. If every enemy soldier knew that, as long as he remained with the army, there was a possibility he would be next – there was a possibility he would be killed without the chance to so much as see it coming, much less defend against it – Azal doubted they would be able to fight anywhere nearly as confidently as otherwise.
However, that had only been the first part of the plan. Now, it was time to start the true battle.
Azal turned to the person at his side. “Alexander?”
Alexander turned towards him, a smile on his face. “Yes, Azal?”
Alexander smiled, turned, and extended a hand. And the burning town exploded into light.
The theory of it was simple. Mages were rare, and rarer still among demons – but Alexander was one of the very, very few people in existence who was not only a mage, but had enough power for it to be useful on a battlefield. And yet no matter the power of the mage, no matter what sort of being the mage was, there was always a single method of attack that was preferred – sheer, raw force. In the chaos of a battle, where speed was everything, nothing could beat that sort of simplicity.
In this case, it wasn’t quite in the midst of a battle, and speed wasn’t necessarily of the essence. But that simplest of all spells would still be more than sufficient.
Alexander’s magic forced a wide sheet of air forward, enveloping the entire town in a gale wind – a roaring current of air that fanned the flames, bringing the dying fire back to its full, deadly intensity. The rising tendrils of flame twisted and writhed, bent by the unrelenting force of the wind, until, like the breath of a great dragon, the fire blew to the south, reaching tendrils of some great fiery beast. The fire that had been starting to stagnate began once more to devour the town, tearing through the buildings like a tiger ripping into its prey.
And then, Alexander thrust his palm upwards, and the wind stopped – and instead, the air over the town began to turn and swirl, a slow cycle at first, but rapidly accelerating until, soon, the air became a great cyclone of fire, spreading the flames faster and faster, lighting the entire town aflame anew.
The cyclone dispersed as suddenly as it had appeared, and Alexander dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. Azal turned to him.
“That took a bit out of me,” the angel panted. “Still… not bad, Azal. That was a clever idea.” He looked at Azal (or, at least, so Azal figured – it was difficult to tell when he didn’t have any eyes). “I’m afraid I can’t be much more help. You can do the rest on your own, right?”
“Indeed,” Azal nodded. “Thank you, Alexander.”
He set his sights on the blazing town. It was time.
Time to decide this war.