Chapter 39: Darkest Hour

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Alexander looked up, staring at the black tower. The tower of Redgate, the tower that had once belonged to Baron Amar, the tower that had been their palace for the entire war… now had the enemy’s banner flying from its walls once more.

Yes… once more. After all, that had been how it had been in the first place. Before the rebellion had begun, this city belonged to the Council… and the meaning of the banners now upon the walls of the great tower was clear: now, it belonged to the Council once more. All the rebels’ efforts had been for naught. The Council had retaken what had once been theirs, and this time, Alexander knew they had no intention of giving it up again.

Even from this far away, Alexander could see the top of the wall around the inner city – and he saw that now, it was bristling with spears and swords and gleaming with the shine of metal, the Council’s defenders gathered atop it. It had looked like that once before, back at the last battle of Redgate… but back then, the men up there had been the soldiers of the Bloodhorns, the men and demons who had decided that the Council had to fall. Now, that very Council’s forces were in control of the wall.

The wall made for a very defensible position. Alexander knew that from experience. Before, they’d managed to fend off the Council’s army for a long time upon that wall, long enough to buy Janus the time he needed to defeat Ihab and win the battle for them… and that was when the defenders had been hopelessly outnumbered. Now, if they attacked, they would be the ones outnumbered – and the defenders would truly hold all the cards.

From what he saw, too, it seemed like the Council had also endeavoured to get as many of the civilians in the city into the inner city as quickly as they could. That was the best explanation for the empty streets, the unlit torches and candles, the locked doors, the deserted houses. The entire city looked dead, an imposing, lifeless fortress with no reason for existence other than to block the way of those who tried to assail it.

Of course, Alexander knew that the real reason the Council had done that was nothing that sinister – they had simply wanted to spare the common people from the effects of the fighting (something that, he couldn’t help but notice, Azal hadn’t bothered to do). But that didn’t lessen the effect. The city, normally full of life – even if less than welcoming even at the best of times – now looked like nothing but a steely wall, a cold, icy bastion standing in monument to the Council’s might.

And he knew, too, that it wasn’t just that that was the issue. The Council had gathered as many people as it could inside the inner wall – and that was a danger of its own. The Bloodhorns hadn’t been unpopular – there were many people who were truly loyal to them – but they’d never been fully approved of, either. There were still many people, Alexander knew, who would love to see them fall and to see the Council retake control – and the Council had just almost certainly gathered many of those people inside the inner wall, where they would be nervous, confined, twitchy, itching to do something… and the one thing that there would be for them to do would be help achieve what they’d long desired in any case. He didn’t know if all of them would fight – when it came down to it, far from everyone would be willing to risk their lives in battle, and he knew the Council too well to think they’d try forcing them to – but many of them would. And that would be enough to give the Council even more of an advantage… as if they needed it.

Yes, certainly, there would be many loyalists to the Bloodhorns trapped inside the walls too, and perhaps they could have an effect. Perhaps they could disrupt the Council’s operations enough to give the Bloodhorns a chance; an attack from the inside at the right time, in the right place could be devastating, especially if it came as the city was under siege from outside. But would that happen? From the start, the trap had been an all-or-nothing plan: nearly all of the Bloodhorns’ soldiers had been participating in it, with the exception of a tiny force left behind to defend Redgate – but that had been intended to defend the city against a sudden uprising by pro-Council groups, not from something like this. Those soldiers were now all probably dead or captured, and of those people left who were loyal to the Bloodhorns, Alexander had to imagine none of them had any real military experience. Would they be able to perform the sort of surgical strike that could turn the tide? Would they have enough initiative to think of that in the first place, and if so, would they even know where and when to attack? And even if they did, would they be able to execute such an attack well enough for it to work?

There was a chance. But, Alexander knew, they wouldn’t be able to rely on it. There were many things he disagreed with Azal about, but there was one thing about which there was no doubt the chirean was correct – it was stupid to rely on things that could happen. A plan that relied on possibilities would be ruined simply by something not going exactly the way it was supposed to. If there was no other option, Alexander supposed it was better than not having a plan at all – but it was something to be avoided if at all possible. And they weren’t quite that desperate yet.

They would have to retake the city, and they wouldn’t be able to count on help from the inside. They would have to do this on their own, one way or another.

Alexander looked sideways at Azal. “So. Do you have a plan?”

Azal stared up at the tower, a cold anger in his expression. It seemed he wasn’t even that concerned about losing Redgate. He simply looked frustrated about it… and he looked like someone ready to do whatever it took to get it back. There was a steely determination in his eyes – the simple refusal that giving up was even an option, the will to keep going as long as even the smallest chance of victory existed. He was a man who would never surrender, not even if he had lost everything. To him, as long as there existed even the slightest chance of victory, it was a chance worth taking.

Alexander had to admit, it was impressive. He knew many men who would have seen this as a loss – in fact, he himself numbered among them. But to Azal, there was no such thing as a loss until it was all over. Until he had tried every avenue, attempted every attack, he would never concede defeat.

“I believe so, yes,” the chirean said. “But I will need time.”

“And I don’t suppose you would be willing to tell me what it is…?”

Azal shook his head. “No. I do not know how deep the Council’s influence goes. As long as there is even the slightest chance that they will know of it, I cannot tell anyone of my plan.”

“Somehow, I expected that,” Alexander said. “You saw what happened last time, right?”

“It would not have happened if not for the loss of discipline among the men,” Azal replied, sounding somewhat frustrated at his soldiers’ failure. “But… yes. My mistake was assuming that soldiers would always do exactly as they were supposed to, and placing them into a position where it was easy for discipline to disintegrate. But I have learned from that failure. I assure you, Alexander, I can retake the city.”

“I hope so,” Alexander said, a mild tinge of disapproval in his voice. What Azal was doing was dangerous. By keeping his plan entirely to himself, he forfeited the advice of anyone else – and to Alexander, who had actual military experience, that was especially annoying. If he’d simply consulted with him, Alexander could’ve pointed out the issue with the trap right away. But he hadn’t, and now, they were paying the price.

And yet… somehow, Alexander could not help but be convinced. Azal was not speaking particularly passionately, and he certainly wasn’t speaking with the sort of charisma and conviction that one would normally associate with being able to convince others, but… there was something else in his voice. It wouldn’t be right, precisely, to call it “confidence”. “Confidence” implied an acknowledgement that there was a chance for the plan to fail – and a belief that that chance could be avoided. But Azal’s tone contained something more like certainty. He was certain that this plan would not fail.

Of course, he’d been just as certain of the trap. But there was another thing that Alexander had to admire about Azal – he was a man devoid of pride, a man who would never believe himself to be greater than he truly was. Azal had claimed that he’d learned from his failure, and Alexander had expected as much from the very start. Where others were blinded by their own pride, unable to perceive that they even had made a mistake – much less what it was or how it could be improved upon – Azal analyzed each of his losses with even more care than he did his victories, always thinking about exactly what he’d done incorrectly, and how he could avoid doing it the second time. The chirean never made the same mistake twice.

And Alexander had to admit, the trap had been a rather good plan. The issue of discipline had been a large problem, one that had caused the entire plan to collapse… but it had also been, at least as far as Alexander could tell, the only problem. Azal was still relatively new to being in command, and he must not have been used to the idea that his subordinates were not fully controlled by his will. Now that he’d learned the error of his beliefs, Alexander knew he would not make that mistake again. And if he didn’t…

For all that he didn’t like how secretive Azal was being, for all that the odds were horrifically against them, for all that it seemed trying to force a direct battel now was suicide, Alexander couldn’t help but think that, somehow, by some miracle that he couldn’t begin to guess at, Azal’s plan would work.

He himself found it strange how easily he believed something like that… but more than that, he was surprised by how hard it was not to believe. Azal had a plan, a plan that he knew would work… and somehow, Alexander couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t.

“Alright,” he nodded. “I can’t say I like it, but… I’ll go with it. What do I have to do?”

War, by its very nature, demanded sacrifices.

No matter how great a commander, no matter how one-sided the odds, no matter how seemingly brilliant a plan, almost no large battle could end without both sides suffering losses. And the only exceptions were those that barely qualified as “battles” at all – surprise attacks against an enemy who was completely unprepared, utilizing the environment or the power of mages or both to in some way defeat an opponent without their armies even coming into contact with yours… those sorts of things. But all those were fundamentally different from what was happening now. In a simple battle like this, no side would get away without its people dying.

Of course, there was a distinction to be made between “light” and “heavy” losses. Of course, it was entirely possible for one side to suffer so few losses that, in the grand scheme of things, it would barely matter. But… was that really true? It was a question Alexander had reflected on quite a few times over the course of his long life. No matter how light the losses, no matter how few people died, there were still always people who had died. There were always families that would never be whole again, friends that would never see people they had known for nearly their entire life again, and tears and anguish and pain. And the cut-off dreams, the terrifying black void that was death, the lost future… the men themselves suffered just as much in their final moments. It was only natural that no living being wanted to die. So it made sense that to many, knowing they were about to die and being helpless to stop it would be the most frightening thing in the world. There were a few exceptions, of course – men and women like Councillor Ihab or General Katherine, or, Alexander supposed, probably Azal, to whom death held no terror – but of the common soldiers… surely almost all of them were terrified, scared and frightened and simply afraid, afraid for their own lives. And yet commanders and generals sent them off to fight against the enemy, sent them off to take part in their plans and tactics – knowing all the while that they were sending those men to their death, to that merciless dark abyss.

It always happened. But it was always the only way. Many commanders didn’t truly understand the horror of it all, whether because the sorts of people who generally became commanders were more likely to be those rare exceptions who didn’t fear death or because they simply didn’t understand the truth of war well enough to truly comprehend how many people they were sending to their death… or perhaps, like Alexander couldn’t help but feel he himself had, because they had simply grown accustomed to death a long time ago. But however horrifying it was… it was as he’d learned a long, long while ago. War, by its very nature, demanded sacrifices.

Still, Alexander could not help but feel conflicted about what he was doing.

Was it the first time he’d felt this way…? Certainly not. But that didn’t make what he was about to do any easier.

Azal’s instruction had been simple. Keep them occupied. All Alexander had to do was force them to defend the walls with all they had – to force them to be unprepared for whatever Azal planned to do. He did not have to worry about winning the battle, about achieving any objectives, about defeating the enemy’s army and plans. All he had to do was attack, and keep the attack going for as long as it took.

And in the process, he would be throwing away hundreds or thousands of lives on a hopeless battle.

Sending his men to a battle where they could win, where they could triumph and drive off their foes… that was one thing. This was different. This was sending them straight into a slaughter, where they would have no hope of victory – merely of surviving until Azal did whatever he was planning. Their fates would be entirely in the hands of another. If Azal’s plan failed, his men would all die – they wouldn’t have a chance of defeating the Council by themselves, after all. And they would all die for nothing, and for them, it would be futile to even try and fight for their lives.

And yet… he’d already made his choice. He’d already decided to trust in Azal’s plan. Now that some time had passed, he no longer felt quite as confident as he had before… but that didn’t matter. He’d made his decision. There was no choice now but to stick to it. All he could do was believe that Azal’s plan would work… and if it did, then his men’s deaths wouldn’t be futile after all.

“Let’s go, men,” he said. “It’s time to bring them down.”

There was no time to build any sort of complicated siege engines. But then, it would have been a futile effort anyway. It didn’t matter how well-prepared for the siege they were – they simply could not defeat the Council’s forces, not while they were both outnumbered and forced to attack a fortified enemy. Their only hope was to do what Alexander had planned on – keep them occupied until Azal’s plan came to fruition.

So it didn’t particularly matter that they didn’t have advanced siege engines. That didn’t matter. Victory wasn’t their objective. All they needed was to force the enemy to defend the walls – and that could be done perfectly well without a single catapult or trebuchet.

After the Council had beaten them to Redgate and taken the city with almost no resistance, the Bloodhorns’ army had paused for a while, so the Council had had some time to rest and recuperate. But, Alexander quickly saw, that hadn’t lulled them into complacency. The moment they began to approach the walls, the Council’s army was already on the move, and soon enough, even though it would still be a while before they’d reach the inner city, the Council’s men had assembled and were ready for battle. Even from this distance, just by observing their movements and actions, Alexander could see the men standing on the wall were, by and large, not fighting for the same sort of reason the Bloodhorns’ forces were. Azal was excellent at provoking outrage – that had been what started this entire rebellion, after all, and that was what had driven his men, again and again, to fight the Council’s forces. But General Katherine’s skill lay elsewhere. In her men, she instilled a sense of duty, a sense that they were working for the greater good of all demonkind and that victory would mean that all demons would prosper – and that giving up would be tantamount to betraying uncountable number of demons who relied on them.

And while they were both valid approaches, it just so happened that, for this situation in particular, General Katherine’s method was better.

Outrage produced vicious fighters – it produced people who would be willing to fight tooth and nail against what they saw as the trespasses of their oppressors, who would be willing to tear through enemies without remorse on the battlefield. But it produced just that – fighters. Those fuelled by outrage were unstoppable on the field of battle – but the moment they were out of battle for even an instant, all too often, one of two things would happen. Either they would recklessly rush back into the fray, striving to cut down those they despised before their commanders could have any say in the matter; or, as had happened during the failed trap, the boiling fire would leave them and they would flag, their formation losing steadiness and order and leaving them ripe for an enemy attack.

But that sense of duty Katherine had created did something else. If Azal’s men, fuelled by their hatred of and rage against the Council, were a raging fire, Katherine’s men were the stone wall that held the flames in check. They didn’t have the same unbridled aggression and bravery on the battlefield that those fuelled by rage did, but they had another advantage. Those sorts of men would need barely any encouragement to maintain order. To them, it was their duty to always be prepared to face the enemy, to never be off their guard for even a moment. Once the idea was properly instilled into a man, he would never even think of breaking formation or of dropping his guard when the enemy was anywhere nearby – no, he would stand there with weapons in hand, prepared to fight, waiting for the foe for as long as it took. If it took hours for the battle to begin, then those men would wait hours, and they would be just as ready to fight then as they would have been if the battle had commenced immediately.

Of the two options, there was no question which one was better for a defending army.

Granted, of course, those were both idealizations. In truth, there was no such thing as an unstoppable warrior or a perfectly disciplined soldier; and while there were people who were close, they were far from common, even in the Council’s army – and much less so in the Bloodhorns’. In general, a warrior in either army was, more than anything, a nearly normal person – a nearly normal person who just happened to have to fight a war. But still, even if those two extremes of the raging whirlwind and the immovable shield were nothing but ideals, they were useful images to keep in mind. After all, even if almost no soldier was even close to one of them, just about every soldier was leaning ever so slightly towards one of them – and given the amount of men involved, even just that slight inclination could produce large results if enough of the men in an army shared it.

Of course, Alexander reminded himself… that wasn’t exactly relevant now, was it?

As they approached, there was a great noise above them, and Alexander looked up. All around the walls, the archers had loosed their arrows – and now, the sky above them was a great sea of grey, the arrows falling onto the advancing army like the wrath of a god.

So… it seemed the battle had begun.

Alexander smiled.

He’d seen the wrath of a god before. He’d seen it quite a few times, in fact. It wasn’t as impressive as everyone made it out to be.

“Men… charge! Go, take what’s ours back from those bastards!”

The last few arrows smashed and impacted and clanged all around Alexander, several dozen discordant sounds of stone and flint and metal striking throughout the army. Fortunately, even now, there was still one advantage the Bloodhorns had over the Council – superior equipment. When Ian had arrived with his men, he’d brought steel with him – and when Melthar’s additional assistance arrived later on, they’d brought even more of the stuff. In comparison, the Council’s forces, for all their superior numbers, had no choice but to use abros, the weaker metal of Aead. Of course, they had access to some steel, and Alexander had no doubt they’d come across some of it here – but the majority of their army was outfitted in something weaker.

That said, even that wasn’t as great an advantage as it seemed at first glance. Even with the assistance from Sagnir, the Bloodhorns hadn’t managed to get nearly enough steel – or men who could work with it – to equip all their soldiers with it. They had a considerable amount, yes, but there were still a lot of troops among them who were forced to use abros.

Fortunately, Alexander had taken that into account. So, he’d put the steel-clad troops in the front. That way, they were the first to come into the archers’ range, and that made all the difference. Against abros armor, an abros arrow could punch through rather easily given a powerful enough bow and a somewhat fortunate shot – against steel, it had no chance. The enemy’s arrows had smashed harmlessly against the approaching tide of demons, and they had done nothing to slow them.

Well… nearly nothing.

Even with high-quality armor, nothing was ever a guarantee. Even steel armor had weak points – and since the Bloodhorns had never had a high supply of steel in the first place, those weak points were particularly plentiful in this case. Although most of the men had made it through unscathed, Alexander heard a few arrows strike true and sink into flesh, and he heard a few choked screams and the sound of bodies dropping to the ground as he ran forth. The first casualties of this battle.

And then, they were at the wall. For just a moment, Alexander found himself deliberating, thinking whether or not he should ascend the ladders himself. On one hand, it seemed insulting to do otherwise – to tell all his men that they would have to risk their lives in a hopeless struggle against the Council and not do so himself – and besides, it would improve morale. On the other, Azal was right – it was never a good idea to expose the leader to unnecessary danger. The loss of a few men was nothing, but the loss of a commander could be fatal.

With that one moment of hesitation, the choice was taken away from him before he could make it. The men around him surged forth, racing past each other to ascend the ladders, and soon, he was lost in the tide. At that point, he doubted he could’ve made it to the ladders even if he tried.

Well… he just hoped there wouldn’t be too many casualties. He didn’t want his men to be slaughtered while he stood down here twiddling his thumbs.

Of course, then again, how many casualties there would be would be contingent on just one thing. Azal… how long will this plan of yours take?

He looked up at the wall, trying to work out in his mind if he could try and use magic to help his men out. He had regained most of his energy since that fire, so pure power wasn’t a concern. The situation, though… the situation was bad for it. If he tried to just shoot magical force at the top of the walls from down here, he would scatter his own men just as well as those of the Council. Granted, it was true that he would probably do more harm to the Council than he would to his own troops, but… he couldn’t intentionally hurt his own men. And anything more complex would require more concentration than he’d be able to get while the men surged and rushed forth around him.

So, he simply watched the battle.

As he looked on, the first flashes of dancing steel lit up the air, and the slaughter began.

It was difficult for the Council’s troops, with their inferior weapons, to penetrate the Bloodhorns’ steel – but neither did they need to. At first, at least, they simply pushed the men off the wall as they came, sending them plummeting down – and taking several others with them at the same time. The fall was high, but the city of Redgate’s layout worked in their favor – stone roads had only been built to the gates of the wall, and as they weren’t near one of them right now, the soldiers fell onto Aead’s relatively soft soil. Even then, and even with the steel armor’s protection, it wasn’t an entirely harmless fall, but it generally didn’t cause any real injuries.

But it wasn’t long before the Council started figuring out what the Bloodhorns already knew – that their weaponry wouldn’t be able to penetrate steel armor, not if they struck directly at it. So, they began to strike elsewhere.

As the next few men ascended, most of them were simply tossed off once more. But in one place, Alexander saw the Council try something else. A soldier batted aside the weapon of one of the Bloodhorns’ attackers and, with a quick swing, struck at the arm, where the armor was weaker. This time, the blade struck true, and blood flew from the wound. With brutal efficiency, the man pinned down the Bloodhorns’ soldier, ridded him of his weapon, and thrust a short sword through his eye. He twitched twice and stopped moving, and as the weapon was withdrawn, a spurt of blood poured from his eye socket as his limp body rolled off the wall.

Then, the men that had previously been nearer the back got to the ladders – the men who didn’t have steel armor. They rushed up the ladders, swarming up like a rising wave… and, like a rising wave, they broke upon the shore.

Before, the Council’s retaliation had been stymied by the attacker’s armor. Now, that was no longer an obstacle. The Council cut through the rebel forces ascending to meet them with ruthless speed, chopping them down as they clambered onto the wall, before they’d even had time to draw their weapons. The tops of the ladders became fountains of blood as the Council sliced and slashed at the ascending rebels, and their bleeding bodies fell to the ground almost the instant they came up.

Of course, Alexander hadn’t been idle all this time. He’d been getting more siege ladders set up, more points of entry for the Bloodhorns’ army. But it was useless. The Council had the manpower to cover all of them. As Alexander’s men set up more ladders, the Council’s forces simply spread out a bit more to defend against every point of attack – and even as they did, he didn’t see even a slight drop in their efficiency. Even as they rearranged themselves, they continued slicing through the approaching rebels just as quickly as they had been before, still not letting even a single one onto the wall for more than a moment. And even though their forces were being spread more thinly, they could afford it. They had so much manpower that, even if the entire wall was surrounded with ladders, Alexander had a feeling the Council would still be able to hold it just fine.

But he had no choice. He just had to keep this going. Though… his men were doing that on their own well enough.

More and more of his men ascended up the ladders, and again and again, they were cut down. Before, back when they had been the ones defending the wall against the Council, it hadn’t been long at all before the lines had started showing cracks and enemy forces started getting onto the wall itself. But now, nothing like that was happening. Most likely, it was due to the enemy’s superior discipline – but whatever the reason was, not a single breach had opened up in the defense, even with all the lives that had been thrown at it. The enemy remained as steady and solid as they had always been, a wall of steel atop the one of stone – and against a mountain like that, the waves of the rebels could do naught but crash harmlessly against the shore, painting the soil beneath them red.

Alexander looked around. Already, he could see that his men had taken considerable losses. It wasn’t fatal, not yet – but they couldn’t keep this up for much longer. They just didn’t have the manpower, or, he suspected, the morale. If the Council kept going like this, how long would it be before the Bloodhorns’ army simply broke and refused to attack?

Well, in the long run, it didn’t matter. Even if every single man here threw away his life to strike at the Council, it wouldn’t help. They couldn’t dislodge the Council’s forces. That was simple mathematics. The Council outnumbered them – and that was even before taking into account the enormous advantage they got from a strong defensive position. Winning this battle was, simply speaking, impossible.

But nevertheless, the men kept going.

More and more of them swarmed up the ladders, like ants swarming up the slopes of their anthill – and again and again, they were cut down. Not a single rebel was allowed to remain on the wall, and no matter what the Bloodhorns’ forces tried, they couldn’t change that. Nearly every single man who ascended the ladders died – and while the Council had also taken a few losses, thanks to a few lucky hits from the lucky few who had managed to stay on the wall for more than an instant, they were miniscule in comparison. At this rate, his men would all be annihilated, and the Council would barely-

Something caught Alexander’s eye, and he looked up.

A small dot of light shot up into the sky, somewhere within the inner city’s wall. It took a moment for him to realize it, but it was a flaming arrow, probably sent up from the roof of one of the buildings within the inner city.

It was dim in the grey light of Aead, and it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared – but Alexander’s heart leapt up into his throat anyway at the sight of it.

A flaming arrow… a signal.

It had been fairly dim. Alexander was nearly certain that none of the soldiers themselves had seen it – they had been far too caught up in the chaos of battle. And even the fact that he himself had seen it was simple luck. If he hadn’t happened to have been looking at just the right spot, it would’ve escaped his notice completely. Most people, he was sure, wouldn’t even realize anything had happened. The only sort of person who could be certain of seeing it… would be one who was looking for it.

Of course, Alexander knew what it meant.

Azal… what do you have in mind?

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