The army charged forward. And Ian Sabrin watched it go.
He knew what the plan was. Azal hadn’t told him, of course – the chirean would never tell him any more than he had to – but it was rather clear. They would encircle the burning town, trap the enemy between a rock and a hard place – force them to decide between staying in the deadly flames or rushing out into the Bloodhorns’ force. Whatever they picked, the next few hours would take a terrible toll on them. If they stayed, many of them would be trapped in the fire and burned or crushed, and if they attacked, they’d be forced to rush through narrow streets and alleys, where they’d be unable to use their numbers to their full extent – and they’d be running straight into the circle of soldiers surrounding them.
Ian had to admire Azal. It had been a simple trap, but it had worked, exploiting the enemy’s own beliefs and ideals to trick them into going exactly where Azal needed them – and then, when the trap snapped shut, it left the enemy in a position without a winning move. It was an impressively clever move.
But, of course, Ian wasn’t supposed to be involved in it. He’d been told to stay behind, to keep an eye on Redgate and the rest of the rebels’ territories along with a few other people Azal had left behind. Of course, Ian had no illusions about the real reason for that. It had nothing to do with where Azal believed his talents would be best used. It was simply because Azal didn’t trust him to be on the same battlefield as him.
And, well… he was right to think that.
Honestly, Ian didn’t know what had possessed the leader to walk out onto the battlefield himself when he’d always stayed behind in safety behind – perhaps, he supposed, Azal had simply decided he couldn’t leave this in anyone else’s hands – but it would be helpful. That one decision… if Ian had his way, it would be, quite literally, Azal’s fatal mistake.
He had his bow strapped to his back, a quiver with a few arrows near it. All it would take would be a single good opportunity.
He wasn’t happy about this, he had to admit. He did have a certain respect for Azal – he possessed a savviness that, Ian found, was all too rare among most people. But at the end of the day, from the start, he’d had just one thing planned for this rebellion. This was a chance for Ian to become the ruler of all demonkind, to change the world forever – and it was not a chance he would waste.
No matter how distasteful the methods necessary might be.
The army approached the town. As it did, the line at the front curved, the outer elements going further forward as they went – and then, they reached the burning town. The very ends of the army turned and closed in, forming the entire army into a circular formation. And at the middle of it all, trapped inside the deadly circle, was the burning town where their enemies were.
The maneuver had been executed remarkably well, though perhaps that was not surprising. From the start, it hadn’t been the most complex of tactics – and besides, Azal had placed Melthar and Alexander in the outer wings to coordinate them. True, the two of them were too exhausted already to be much help in a fight, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t command.
The army settled down around the town and waited.
Azal felt a small grin growing on his face. The trap had worked perfectly. Quite frankly, he’d almost expected something to go wrong… but then, he supposed that it was that very expectation that was the reason the current reality was so satisfying. For once, something had gone right, and Azal was the one who had come up with it. He knew it was a bad idea to get overconfident, and he knew hubris was the greatest toppler of empires… but, for just a moment, he allowed himself a moment of gratification.
But there was no time to bask in his own glory. There were things to do.
The front line of soldiers readied their arms, settled into a fighting position, and continued to wait. It wasn’t long before the first few came.
A few enemy soldiers rushed towards the ring.
They must’ve been separated from the rest of their army in the panic – presumably, as the fire had been fanned and rose once more, they’d sprinted off in terror and abandoned the rest of their men. That was exactly what Azal was counting on. With such a setup, he thought he’d have a good chance of defeating the Council’s army even if all of them attacked at one point – the alleys would massively reduce the advantage their numbers gave them – but… Azal had never been one for fair battles. The more enemy soldiers got separated and ran off on their own into the ring of death, the better.
The smoke and the flame stopped the running demons from realizing what awaited them outside the city until it was too late. It barely took a few seconds. There were a few quick flashes of steel, a few men took a few steps into the city to chase down the one who had managed to turn around, and then, their dead bodies lay on the ground. The men stepped back into position with self-satisfied efficiency, not wasting a moment.
The brief defence had only killed a few enemy soldiers – a negligible amount. But how many of them would there be? All around the ring, Azal knew the other soldiers would be fighting similar engagements – and it would happen again and again as more of the enemy got separated from the army and wandered off on their own. And to add to that, he was sure the fire would claim many victims on its own. The more the enemy delayed, the more they would be slowly bled by the flame and by Azal’s formation… and if they tried to force a decisive battle, they’d get it – only in such a situation, Azal somehow doubted the outcome would be what they would hope for.
Azal smiled to himself. Excellent. All was going according to plan.
“Clever bastard,” Melthar muttered to himself. “You clever freaking bastard, Azal.”
The demon fell dead at his feet, the blade of Melthar’s sword having cleaved him so easily it had felt almost like slicing air. Granted, that was only because of the demons’ poor armor – against proper steel, even a sword enchanted by Lein would have at least some trouble when it had been so long since the enchantments had been touched up – but that was good enough here.
Melthar noted with a small note of worry how easy it had become to think about Lein, and about the fact that he was gone. It shouldn’t have surprised him, he supposed, not really. Living beings didn’t spontaneously stop functioning for weeks and weeks just because their friends perished. Sure, sometimes it felt like that was how it should’ve been, but… that would hardly be evolutionarily prudent, would it? And besides, Melthar had gotten used to death, in all the different forms it took. True, losing Lein was a harsher blow by far than most of the deaths he’d been forced to witness, but… that mattered surprisingly little, in the grand scheme of things. Melthar had already gotten used to seeing people disappear.
Which, he mused, could explain why he found it so easy to kill these demons. Perhaps that was a bit worrisome.
Azal was a good propagandist. A rebel leader had to be – and Azal had done an excellent job of convincing the demons under his rule that the demons serving the Council were nothing more than monsters, cruel sociopaths who desired nothing but to crush the rebels under their heel and make them suffer. (What, Melthar wondered, did he plan to do about that once the war was won? If he didn’t do something, his own followers would become crueller tyrants than the Council had ever been…) But Melthar hadn’t been caught up in any of it. He knew demons too well – knew that they were every bit as much normal people as humans, or alkites, or deirae, or Great Powers… or the rebels. So when he thought about it, it was quite worrying just how easily killing them came to him. As long as he didn’t spend too long thinking about it, he didn’t even really feel anything at all.
Well, then again… he’d just answered his own worry, hadn’t he? He’d simply grown used to death. Whoever’s death it was.
Melthar cleaned the blood from his sword with a quick swipe and a small effort of will, teleporting the blood to the side and letting it fall down to the ground. Normally, such a fine manipulation of space would have been far beyond his capabilities, but it was as he’d told Councillor Ihab a while ago – this sword was something he’d used for so long that even he couldn’t quite remember when it was first forged. With all that time, he’d learned quite a long time ago to recognize and interact with its… “signature” in space, as it were, to a far greater degree than that of anything else. Cleaning the blood off it had been as simple as moving everything in that area of space off to the side and specifically excluding the sword.
He settled his gaze back on the burning town. Then, a thought came to him, and he took a quick look behind him, looking at the lines of soldiers – but discipline was holding, at least so far, though Melthar was quite sure some of them looked impatient. He could sympathize with them. After all, he’d actually gotten bored enough to go off on that mental tangent, which probably wasn’t a good sign for how the troops had to be feeling.
“Hey! Stand up straight, men! To attention!” he barked, trying to restore order to the lines. A sudden wave of surprise ran through the men as they were all snapped out of their daydreaming, and they stood up ramrod straight. Melthar sighed with intentionally exaggerated annoyance and turned back to the burning city.
For gods’ sake (and no, Melthar didn’t care that him using that expression was weird when he was, in a way, a god himself). This… would not be easy. He had to stop himself from fidgeting impatiently. It wouldn’t set a good example for the men.
He was starting to see a potential problem with this plan.
Alexander’s men dashed into the city, swarmed the approaching demons, and stepped back again with practiced efficiency. He nodded at them. “Good work, men.”
Azal had kept them all in the dark about the plan until the battle had almost begun, and as much as Alexander disapproved of that, he had to admit it was a good plan… at least, in theory. If the men held their positions and did as they were supposed to, this plan would be able to defeat the Council here and now.
But, in truth… Alexander couldn’t help but be worried.
He’d been in a lot of battles, after all. And he’d been in enough battles to know that that was quite a large if. It was never a good idea to force soldiers to wait, prepared for battle but not doing anything, for long periods of time – especially in situations like this, where there was little danger. In another circumstance, the men would at least have anxiety keeping them alert as they worried about what would happen in the next engagement. That wouldn’t be good either, but at least it would be better than the current situation – as it was, many of the men were simply growing bored and inattentive. They knew that, when the enemy came, they would be little threat – at this point, the battles had become more like a chore. And that was bad. For now, it was working alright… but what would happen when the enemy struck out at the line in greater force, and the men weren’t ready for it?
Alexander had tried his best to mitigate the issue, which was why he’d set up his troops as he had. Throughout his section of the siege, the troops stationed nearest the city all had a few things in common – they were humans from Sagnir rather than demons, and they were ones who’d had at least some military experience. Few of them could truly be considered “veterans”, as such, but Melthar’s recruitment, for all that it had brought in a lot of manpower, hadn’t brought in that much good manpower, so he’d done the best he could with what he had. Granted, the manpower it had brought in was quite good compared to the rest of the rebel forces – the vast majority of the actual demons in the Bloodhorns’ army hadn’t had a bit of military experience before joining the rebellion, which was why Alexander’s forces nearest the town were all humans – but still, not good as a whole. Still, they were better than the rest, so he’d stationed them nearest the town – that way, hopefully, they wouldn’t start dropping their guard quite as fast as the rest of the troops, so they’d at least be able to keep this going for a while.
Still, he had a feeling this wasn’t sustainable. Yes, Azal’s plan had been clever, there was no debating that… but it couldn’t quite work when the realities of the battlefield were taken into account. Granted, they probably would be able to inflict significant losses… but eventually, the other shoe would drop. It was just a matter of “when”.
When that happened, Alexander could only hope Azal had another plan.
The plan continued to work.
Even from all the way out here, Azal could hear the screams of those trapped inside the fire, hear the sounds of stone falling and bones breaking as the flames themselves took their toll on the enemy. And when some of the enemy tried to escape, they were dispatched, just as swiftly and efficiently as the first few had been. It was a perfect trap. If the enemy stayed, they would burn to death. If they attempted to flee, they would be killed by his men.
Azal watched idly as another small group of enemies approached, some distance away from where he was standing in the circle. He didn’t even have to signal his forces. They simply surged into the town, eliminated the foes, and came back to the circle.
The flow of enemies had dried up somewhat since the circle had first closed – it seemed the Council’s forces must’ve gotten their troops back under control and made them stop panicking as much. Still, even what they’d done so far was already rather noticeable. Perhaps they hadn’t inflicted critical losses, not yet, but they’d done a lot – and that wasn’t even taking into account whatever the fire had done to the enemy. There was no accurate way of figuring out just how much damage the flames had inflicted, but Azal didn’t particularly need to know that. All he needed to know was that they were doing what he’d intended them to do – and if the screams he was still periodically hearing were any indication, they were.
Azal smirked, watching his handiwork. And the trap held.
More and more minutes passed, and still, the trap held. There’d been a few more engagements, a few more incidents of panicked foes trying to run outside only to be met with the Bloodhorns’ forces – but they had gotten much less frequent. Still, that didn’t matter too much. The trap held.
And more time passed, until even Azal lost track of just how long it had been. And the trap held.
And then, Azal heard a different sort of screaming.
His head whipped to the right, towards the source of the noise. And there…
His eyes widened. There, an enormous force of the Council’s troops had gathered together, presumably their main army – and, like a battering ram, they’d smashed straight into the Bloodhorns’ lines. It was a disadvantageous situation for them, with the relatively narrow alleyways limiting their numbers, and they could only take full advantage of their numerical superiority if they managed to get out onto the open field – and yet, that was exactly what they were doing. The Bloodhorns’ troops, the troops that were supposed to rush into the city and meet the Council’s forces head on, were instead shattering under the assault.
It took Azal a moment to realize what was happening. But it was a simple problem, really – the troops hadn’t been ready. They’d gotten used to only facing small groups of foes that presented no real danger. So when the Council’s entire army had arrived, they weren’t prepared for it…
No, that didn’t matter, not now. His mind shifted to more useful things.
This was still salvageable. They still had one option left to them. He looked around quickly. All around him, his men were staring wide-eyed at the scene, shocked and dismayed. Their formation had broken completely, and they resembled a loose mob more than an army. But that was just because of shock. It’d just take a quick command to get them back in order, and then-
Azal opened his mouth to shout, and then, he saw someone who should not have been here.
There was no time to process the drawn bow, the arrow pointing straight at him, the cold gaze in the man’s eyes. Azal just threw himself to the ground.
The arrow slammed into his arm, and the men erupted into chaos.
“Dammit!” Alexander yelled. “Men, go! Stop them!”
He frantically directed his men, indicating the breach. He’d figured something like this would happen. Eventually, the Council’s forces would try to escape, and the Bloodhorns’ army was in no state to stop them, not after what Azal had had them do. The lines had broken in an instant, the soldiers there not prepared for a real battle, and panic had shut down any possibility of resistance. There was only one way to stop the enemy now – reinforce the attacked area and use the ring of men around the town to surround them. But would he be able to do that in time…?
His men rushed towards the breach, hastily preparing themselves for a fight, and Alexander ran with them. He still doubted he was in any shape to cast any significant magic after he’d lit that fire, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t fight… and in any case, seeing him there, fighting alongside his men, would help with morale, whether or not he actually contributed anything of value. And morale, he had a feeling, was about to be in short supply.
Alexander couldn’t see the battle well from this far away, especially when his view was being obscured by so many soldiers, but he thought he could make it out well enough to get an idea of how it was going. The fighting, such as it was, was fierce. Even now, many of the Bloodhorns’ men were simply being cut down while they were still unprepared for a fight – but those who had managed to get themselves ready in time were fighting tooth and nail, making the Council pay for every meter they advanced, slowing them down bit by bit. They must have known, after all. They must have known that this was their one and only chance – their chance to end this war once and for all, the tactic that, if it worked, could finish their enemies then and there. And they must have known that if it failed, they would not be able to defeat the Council in a direct battle. If they fell here, it would be the end of the Bloodhorns – and then all of their futures would be severed.
And so, they fought. They could do no more than delay, stall the Council’s forces for mere moments – but in these circumstances, even mere moments could turn the tide. If the Council’s forces were encircled, if the ring around the town gathered together around them, there was still a chance. Packed into a formation that tight, they would barely be able to fight even on an individual level, much less make full use of their numbers. The Bloodhorns’ soldiers must have realized that, at least on some level – or at the very least, they knew that if they just held on for long enough, there would be men that would come to their aid. That was what was motivating them to fight their hopeless fight, to do everything they could to slow the Council’s escape, even if it was only by a few seconds.
Alexander could see, even now, that it would all be futile.
He saw it as the last shards of resistance in the ring shattered, and the Council’s force poured forth out of the town. As they went, some of the men turned and slammed into the circle from the other end, clearing the path for the ones that were still coming – and so the stream turned into a river, and with every man that escaped, the Council’s forces began to escape faster and faster. Every man that broke out of the trap made it easier for his fellows to break out. It was a tide that could not be stemmed, not anymore.
At this point, going into the fight would just be suicide, but the angel didn’t even have to yell a command – the men all saw it too, and they froze in shock. Acting, he was sure, purely on instinct, they all turned as one to the plains outside the city, where the Council’s force was now pouring into. And as they watched, more men came, and more, and more. It was a force that seemed impossibly large, almost endless, and it seemed as though it was so utterly superior to the gathered rebels as to make the idea of a battle almost laughable. Of course, Alexander knew that wasn’t quite true – the Bloodhorns’ forces were still spread out around the perimeter of the town, giving the impression that they were more badly outnumbered than they actually were – but the damage was done. After seeing that spectacle, what man would willingly go to fight that endless tide?
And the Council’s forces did not turn to face them. They merely marched on, rushing away from the town, rushing onwards with single-minded determination… rushing, Alexander realized, straight towards Redgate.
“Azal…” he breathed, “I hope you planned for this too…”