Chapter 41: God of War

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The secret passage, of course, wasn’t quite as simple as that.

It had two portcullises that could open and close independently of each other, and of which both had to be opened for anyone to pass. One was opened using a winch in a corresponding secret location in the inner city, one Azal had also ordered to be build in a hidden location. The other was opened with another winch, one that was just as concealed as the previous one, but the location of this one could only be accessed from inside the tower itself. If either of them were closed, the portcullis would bar the way down the tunnel and prevent anyone from using the passage to enter or exit.

It was the best security system Azal could think of. All he had to do was keep the tower gate closed and the city gate open most of the time, and then have them switched whenever he planned to be away from the tower for a long time – such as when he’d left to lead his army. It was a perfect arrangement. If he was in the tower, or in a position where he would be able to access it, and he suddenly had to flee for whatever reason, he would simply be able to open the second portcullis from within the tower – he knew the location of his own winch, after all – and run away using the tunnel. If he wasn’t, and he needed to get into the tower instead, then most likely, the gate that had to be opened from the tower itself would already be open – so all he had to do was signal his accomplice in the inner city to open the other one. That way, he was always free to use the secret passage whenever he wished to, and on the other hand, no one who simply stumbled upon it by accident would be able to pass through it, not unless – by some dark miracle – they also managed to find whichever of the winches they needed at the time.

That was the reason for the complicated ritual he’d had to go through before he could execute his plan. Aya had received instructions from him a while ago, telling her what to do if something like this ever happened. She was one of the few people who knew the location of one of the winches – considering her idealism and admiration, even Azal had a hard time believing she would betray him, which, naturally, made her trustworthy – so she’d been a nearly indispensable part of the plan (there were a few others privy to the information – a few people who weren’t important in any other way, but did display an unmatched amount of loyalty to Azal and the Bloodhorns – but he didn’t trust them to do as they were meant to without messing up, so while they could be used as backups if Aya failed for whatever reason, Azal would rather not). He’d allowed her to see his silhouette atop the old tower to signal to her that she needed to open the tunnel – and the flaming arrow after that was a signal that she’d done so. Then, all Azal had had to do was get his contingent of the army to the secret tunnel and march them through it.

Azal was rather proud of it all, really.

His army marched behind him, following him through the dark tunnel. The light his torch cast was rather bright, but the tunnel itself was very dark, and it was also rather narrow, which, in turn, meant his army was forced into a tight column – and so, even though he only actually had a contingent of the whole army with him, the light still didn’t quite reach the men at the back of it. Ordinarily, he’d have been a bit worried about the impact on morale and troop cohesion something like that would have – not to mention the idea of marching through a dark, unsettlingly empty tunnel in the first place – but right now, he doubted he had to worry about that. The men were excited, and it wasn’t hard to see or to understand. They were marching through a secret tunnel none of them had even heard of before, discovering one of their leader’s hidden plans, and that had to be exciting all on its own – but even beside that, by now, these men had to have realized what was going to happen once they got to the end of the tunnel. And that

Well, even Azal was excited about that.

Eventually, the tunnel opened up into another chamber like the one they’d entered from. Azal stepped into it, and the army filed in after him. He took a quick look around. He didn’t have any idea where or how he could’ve possibly lost any men – or, for that matter, how anything unexpected could’ve happened on the way here – but there was hardly any harm in checking, even if the chance was miniscule.

But there was nothing unexpected. The army was exactly as it was supposed to be.

Good.

Azal turned back towards his men, drew his dagger from his cloak, held it up, and smirked. They readied their weapons in response, and he could feel the army’s excitement grow with each passing moment. Excellent.

A single demon stepped out from the ranks and walked towards Azal. Unlike the rest of them, he wasn’t wearing the standard armor of a soldier of the Bloodhorns, nor was he bearing the standard arms. Instead, he was clothed in simple, light armor, far more concerned with nimbleness and maneuverability and lack of restriction than with protection. And he carried no shield or spear, and the sword hung at his hip wasn’t the standard blade of a soldier – rather, it was a long, curved scimitar, elegant like a crescent moon. Everything about him marked him out as special, but, at least at first glance, he didn’t look particularly intimidating as such.

Azal knew better, of course. Janus, the legendary swordsman, did not have the powers of Melthar or Alexander or even Aya – but he was still nothing to scoff at.

Azal nodded to him slightly. Disrespecting someone like this would probably not go well, one way or another. Even if Janus himself was alright with it – which, Azal felt, he probably would be (though he wasn’t quite certain enough of that to take any chances) – he was a legendary figure among the demons. Even if he didn’t mind, Azal had a feeling the men certainly would.

“So,” Janus said. “They know what to do?”

“They’ll know well enough,” Azal responded. “It’s hardly as if what I’m planning is particularly complicated. And since the enemy will be unprepared, we shouldn’t have many problems.”

Janus smiled. “So, you haven’t told them anything, have you? Well, that’s fine by me. I don’t really care.”

Azal raised an eyebrow. “Hm. Truly?”

“I’ve already said this,” Janus said, “but not to you, so… I guess I might as well say it again. I’ve never been in this rebellion for the rebellion itself. I’m here because Melthar’s here… and because, being the Legendary Swordsman and all, I can’t say I’m averse to a bit of adventure and strife for its own sake. Granted, Ihab already gave me a better fight than I ever could’ve hoped for, but…” He looked down for a moment, and then shook his head as if trying to get rid of an unpleasant memory. “Well, never mind. I’m not in this for you or your rebellion, so I don’t particularly mind what sort of decisions you make. But as long as you lead, I’ll follow.”

He smiled. “So, how about it? Lead on.”

“Very well,” Azal nodded, and Janus stepped back into the ranks.

“Men… let us take back what is ours!”

A cheer went up, and Azal turned in a whirl of black and rushed up the stairs that led into the tower.

Even as he ran, and as his army rushed up behind him, Azal drew his dagger and slammed it into the ceiling where the stairs seemed to go to a dead end. The blade sank into the stone, and with a quick push, a small area of stone shattered, revealing a rectangular hatch.

Unfortunately, the tower had no convenient space like the old basement to hide its end of the passage – at least, no convenient spaces they could be reasonably sure the enemy wouldn’t know about – nor had Azal had the time or manpower required to install a new secret hatch or mechanism into an already-built structure. So, he’d settled for something a bit cruder. He’d simply had a patch of stone weakened, driven to near its breaking point – a patch of stone right at the top of the stairs he’d secretly built under the ground. From there, it had been as simple as driving his dagger into the weak point and applying a bit of pressure, and the stone had shattered.

It wasn’t the most subtle method, but the noise wasn’t overly loud either – and knowing how people generally acted, Azal fully expected it to be passed off as nothing important and ignored, especially in this chaos. And while it was obviously single-use, and it would obviously have to be repaired later, Azal would have plenty of time to worry about that once the war was won.

They emerged into a corridor. It was one of the larger ones in the tower – it would have to be just to be able to have a hatch like that – but still, just a corridor. That had been done intentionally. In rooms, people tended to suspect things, to wonder if perhaps there was something going on – and even if they didn’t, people still tended to congregate in them, and they still tended to walk around and touch things randomly and perhaps occasionally apply a bit too much pressure to the wrong places by complete accident and ruing things. No one paid a second thought to corridors.

And besides, while there was a relatively limited number of actual rooms in the tower, there was a rather disproportionate number of corridors and stairs (Azal had a feeling the old Baron had done that to make it look taller, more imposing, and more complex, but obviously, that was just a guess. Then again, he struggled to find any other explanation). Considering just how many of them were in this place, the chances of anyone stumbling onto this one in particular were rather low.

And, just as one would have predicted according to that, there was nothing to greet them when they stepped out onto the floor.

Azal looked around, just to be careful, but, just as they’d expected, there was not a soul there. In fact, Azal wasn’t sure if they’d find anyone in the tower. It held no real use other than as an administrative building, or perhaps a storehouse – and since the two generals would be out there leading their armies rather than in here, there was no reason for anyone to be in the tower. It was entirely possible the whole place would be deserted.

But that was fine. In fact, it was good. The tower had never been their objective in the first place. Even if the generals were here, and even if the Bloodhorns killed them, it wouldn’t do anything relevant. Oh, certainly, it would be an enormous blow to the Council in the long term – but here and now, the Council’s army would have no choice but to keep fighting regardless, with or without its commanders. The outcome would be the same. The Bloodhorns outside the wall simply didn’t have the numbers to defeat the Council’s army on their own, even if the enemy was disorganized.

Therefore, they needed to do something more decisive.

Azal had had numerous plans to be used in this exact situation – if the Council took over the tower. He’d thought about sabotaging the walls from inside, collapsing them and turning the siege into an encirclement which would be highly unfavorable to the surrounded Council – but given the situation, the Council would surely have men watching the inside of the walls, protecting against that exact strategy. He’d considered trying to plant spies among the Council’s army, signalling them at a critical point and having them cause a fatal amount of chaos among the defenders as the attackers pushed forth – but he hadn’t had a chance to prepare anything like that in this case, and obviously, trying to do it now would just be stupid. There were some other plans he had too, some other tactics which, if used, Azal was sure could bring down the Council’s forces from inside…

But every single one of them would probably be unusable in this particular situation. There was some circumstance or other which prevented him from using any one of them. And that meant that there was only one thing left to do.

It was the simplest of all plans. But in this case, in the situation Azal had created… it would be enough.

“Let’s go, men,” Azal said, and rushed through the tower.

Azal had been right. The tower was deserted – and it wasn’t long at all before they came to the exit, and the army rushed out into the inner city.

That was the instant they started seeing some actual opposition.

Two guards stood posted just outside the tower’s gates, watching from any intruders from within the inner city. They weren’t looking towards the gates, of course… but they would have to be deaf not to hear the sound of them being thrown open and hundreds of soldiers in armor pouring through them.

The two guards gasped in shock and turned towards the gates, hastily readying their weapons… but they never got a chance to do anything more.

Azal slammed his dagger into the neck of one of them as he rushed out, and near the head of his army, Janus quickly drew his sword and killed the other guard with a single, swift stroke. Azal tore the dagger free, Janus sheathed his sword and stepped back into line, and the column proceeded onwards with no interruption, and with no guards raising the alarm.

Of course, that couldn’t last for long. An entire army – or even just a contingent thereof – couldn’t be concealed inside such a relatively small area as the inner city, especially not when the enemy had men specifically scouring the area for anything untoward. They would be discovered soon enough.

But that was fine. They were past the part of the plan where stealth was required. Now, there was only one thing they needed.

Speed.

“Spread out, men,” Azal said. “We’ll have to hit them from the inside everywhere at once.”

The men hastened to obey, gathering themselves into a loose circle around the tower. Azal didn’t like it – there were definitely some things that could go wrong as they ran towards the wall if they spread out now – but it was better than the alternative. Trying to get them into a ring once they reached the wall itself would slow the plan down far too much. And right now, there was just one thing they needed to do – strike them down, as fast as possible.

If the enemy army got a chance to respond to the attack, the entire plan would fall down.

As the men spread out, Azal motioned Janus to come to his position, in front of the tower’s gates. The aeadite obliged, stepping into line beside him.

“Now, go!” Azal yelled. “Get to the walls and tear them to shreds, and kill any of them that get in your way!”

And the ring gathered around the base of the tower rushed outwards, the men of the army running straight towards the walls around them.

Azal reached the wall.

This was the frustrating thing about having spread his army out so early. He, and the men with him, had all reached the wall – but what of the others? Had they reached the wall yet, or were they still not there? It wouldn’t be fatal if the attack wasn’t all at the same time, but it being staggered too much could still give the enemy the time they needed to figure out what to do. If that happened, everything could still end up being for nothing.

But there wasn’t time to think about that.

He rushed forth, his men beside him. There was one last obstacle they needed to get past – the men around the wall. The Council had expected that rebel sympathizers inside the inner city could try to sabotage the wall from inside, and had set up guards to prevent that from happening. Now, those very guards were their last obstacle to getting onto the wall.

But they had been ready to fight loose mobs of perhaps a few civilians whose loyalties didn’t lie with the Council. They hadn’t been expecting an entire army.

Under ordinary circumstances, Azal would never have gone into the fray of battle himself. It was simply too dangerous when his death could cause the entire rebellion to dissolve. But… these weren’t normal circumstances.

He himself wasn’t sure what drove him to do it. Was it simply the excitement of being so close to destroying the Council’s army once and for all? Or was it desperation, the realization that if these guards got the chance to raise the alarm, the plan could still be ruined?

Whatever it was, before he even knew what he was doing, he had already drawn his dagger and rushed forth alongside his army.

But perhaps his usual caution was unnecessary in any case. After all… it could scarcely be called a “battle”.

They’d moved fast, fast enough that word hadn’t quite managed to spread – especially not while nearly all the Council’s attention was focused on defending the wall. It wasn’t that the guards hadn’t been aware they were coming – they were – it was just that they hadn’t received the information soon enough. By the time the army was upon them, they were still just beginning to frantically organize and get ready for battle.

Of course, they never got the chance to finish.

In any case, the difference in numbers was staggering in the first place. The guards’ unprepared state merely eradicated any semblance of equality still left. They were swept away like pebbles by a flood, scattered by the Bloodhorns’ army as it approached the walls. It was over so fast that Azal’s contingent had barely even slowed down.

And then, they were, at last, where they needed to be.

What Azal had been planning from the start was finally about to take place. After this final strike, there could be no more resistance. The Council would be crushed, here and now.

That much, Azal was certain of. This would be the final great stratagem – the one on which he would stake everything.

And to Azal, if he meant to stake everything on a single attack, that only meant one thing. That no matter what, no matter how heavy the cost, that attack had to succeed. There were no alternatives.

Victory or death.

It was a way of thinking that Azal would have scoffed at at any other time. But as it was now, those truly were their only two options.

He rushed forth.

Alexander watched it happen.

It was almost surreal, the way it all happened. He saw it coming – he saw the soldiers climb up the walls from the other side, the soldiers not dressed in the Council’s armor but in that of the Bloodhorns, the soldiers about whose purpose they could be no doubt. Like time had slowed down, he saw them get atop the fortifications and draw their weapons, and as if in a dream, he saw the enemy’s rear realize what was happening, turn to respond – far, far too late. Or was it only an instant too late? Whichever it was, it didn’t matter.

In fact, the soldiers up there – his soldiers, the Bloodhorns’ men fighting the deadly wall of the Council – surely saw it coming even before. Alexander didn’t know how Azal had slipped behind the walls in the first place, but however it was done, at least some of the soldiers up there surely must have caught glimpses of the army as it moved through the inner city. The Council’s lines formed a wall of metal, but even so, a man atop the wall would surely have at least some opportunity to look down into the inner city. There, they would have seen their allies approaching, coming to their rescue – and yet seeming to come so slowly, and in such easily-detectable numbers. It must’ve seemed like eternity to the soldiers up there – taunted with the tantalizingly close possibility of rescue and yet not knowing if it would ever come.

But for all that, for all that it seemed like a brash, unconcealed move to those looking in from outside… Alexander knew the Council had been none the wiser. They couldn’t have. They simply could not have spotted the Bloodhorns’ army, even as it approached behind them from the inner city – even as it stood at the foot of the wall itself. No matter how ill-concealed it was, the Council hadn’t caught on, and they couldn’t have caught on.

They were simply facing the wrong way.

It was such a simple, basic truth. And yet the truth was what it was. Every man on those walls, every single man, was concerned with only one thing – the battle in front of him. They had to be – that was the only way they could survive. And he was willing to bet General Katherine – and whoever, if anyone, was leading this army alongside her – wasn’t much different. They should’ve been keeping an eye out, should’ve been keeping watch to make sure that something just like this didn’t happen – after all, remaining calm even in the midst of chaos like this was one of a commander’s duties – but Alexander wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t. After all, they, too, had to know this would be the final true battle. To them, it must have seemed certain that this would be the day they would finally triumph, finally destroy the rebels once and for all… and yet, he knew that even then, they knew that there was still the chance that everything would change in an instant. In circumstances like those… would anyone be able to avoid being swept up in the chaos of the battle?

Even at the beginning, Alexander had realized one thing – if Azal was ordering him simply to attack, simply to keep the enemy occupied, there could only be one reason for it. He hadn’t known what it was back then, exactly, but he’d already known Azal was planning to do something he couldn’t let the enemy know about – something that had to be hidden from their eyes. And the best way to do that was to distract them, to give them something else that they would have to focus all their attention on. So, he’d reasoned, that was the purpose of his attack.

He’d been right… but he hadn’t realized before now just how right he’d been. It wasn’t simply that the distraction was an additional measure Azal was taking for the sake of stealth – it was the only measure he’d been taking. But then, if his plan had been to sneak an entire army behind the enemy… what other measures could he have taken? There was no way to conceal something so large, not when everything was taking place in such a confined space – the very notion was absurd. So if concealment wasn’t an option, the only choice he’d had was to make sure the enemy just didn’t notice. And what better way was there to do that than to force them to defend themselves?

So, Alexander had been ordered to attack the wall. Not with any hope of overcoming the defenders or of taking the fortification (though he’d known that from the start) – merely so that the Council’s forces would have something to focus on.

And while they were focused on that, Azal would win the battle.

From the start, that had been the plan. And before his eyes, Alexander saw it work.

It wasn’t simply the advantage gained from an attack from two sides, though that was a considerable advantage. Nor was it simply the Bloodhorns’ superior equipment – the forces Azal had taken with him did have a higher proportion of men equipped with real steel, but if that was all it took to win, Alexander’s attackers could’ve breached the wall on their own. Nor was it just the combination of those two things, though together, they would make for a quite possibly critical advantage.

But the true force that tore the Council’s army to pieces was the simple, sheer surprise.

They hadn’t been prepared. They hadn’t been ready, not in the least, for an attack from the rear like this. As far as they’d been concerned, it was impossible. And now, they were paying the price for that.

The Council’s army disintegrated.

Alexander had seen a similar situation before, all too recently. Back when Azal had sprung his trap, back when the Council had responded with a concentrated strike at the circle’s weakest point, the effect had been much the same. Back then, unprepared and caught off their guard, much of the men had fallen without so much as managing to put up even a bit of resistance against their attackers. What was happening now was much the same thing… only on a far grander scale.

Azal hadn’t had a large force to begin with, and he’d spread it out very thinly indeed so as to attack at every place on the wall at once. But that just didn’t matter, not in this case.

The moment Azal’s men climbed onto the fall, the Council’s men started to fall. Those at the rear didn’t even have time to ready their weapons or get into proper formation – or, for that matter, even turn around. They were simply slaughtered, cut through like a scythe cut through grain, mere pebbles in the way of the tide that was Azal’s army.

And at the assault, the other men in the Council’s army paused for a moment, and turned around in shock, trying to figure out what had just happened – and, perhaps, to give what help they could. That was their fatal mistake.

The Bloodhorns’ men had frozen at the sight too, for just an instant. But the moment that instant passed, they attacked once more, suddenly regaining all the spirit and will and morale they’d lost in their failed attempts – and in that moment, in that one, fatal, moment, the Council’s troops were still distracted by the sudden attack from behind.

That was all the Bloodhorns needed.

As the Council’s frontline exposed itself to attack, the Bloodhorns fell on them with the viciousness and brutal efficiency of a wild predator. In an instant, they swarmed up the ladders, striking the distracted foe down where they stood. The men at the front, their attention suddenly stolen by the attack, were annihilated just as quickly and easily as those at the back.

It took a minute at most before the Council’s army’s front and rear were both completely obliterated, and the walls, impenetrable just a minute or two ago, crawled with the Bloodhorns’ forces.

In an instant, the numerical advantage – the numerical advantage that had, until just now, been so firmly on the Council’s side – was turned the other way. The Council had lost a large portion of its army in mere moments – and the Bloodhorns’ army had barely suffered any losses to do it.

And now, the remains of the Council’s army were trapped between the two pieces of the Bloodhorns’ army, squished together into a line along the centre of the wall with their foes bearing down on them from either side. The Bloodhorns saw their chance, and they took it before their enemy had a chance to recover.

The twin armies swallowed the Council’s forces, and the sounds of chaos and bloodshed carried down from the wall.

Alexander smiled, drew his sword, and, with a blast of wind, launched himself onto the wall.

“Dammit…! Form up, men!”

General Katherine’s voice was lost amidst the chaos.

The fighting had broken apart, descended into a hundred small skirmishes or duels or brawls. All semblance of order, any remnant of the wall of shields that had protected the wall was gone. All of a sudden, it was simply a chaotic, unorganized brawl, every man fighting to survive on his own, a dozen desperate struggles coming together on the top of Redgate’s wall.

But it couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. They’d come so close. So close to ending the rebel threat once and for all, to restoring peace to the demons, to saving Aead. Why now…? Why now, of all times, had this happened? Why was it now all being swept out from under her feet?

It was like… like…

No. No, dammit. She couldn’t allow that. She’d already lost one person she cared about. She couldn’t let the rebels take more from her. No matter what it took, she couldn’t allow that.

It was selfish. It wasn’t the reason she should have been fighting. She wasn’t thinking about the Council, wasn’t thinking about demonkind, wasn’t thinking about what the rebels would do if they won. She knew it wasn’t the way she should have been thinking.

Right now, that didn’t seem to matter in the least.

She’d never liked General Leonid, not really. He’d always been too sceptical for her tastes, too cynical, too unwilling to believe. But he was still a loyal servant of the Council, and even if she’d never connected with him on the same level she had with Ihab, she still cared about him. She had to. Besides Ihab, she couldn’t think of the Councillors as her “friends”, not really. She believed in them, she knew that they were the best leaders she could ask for… but still, they were her superiors. They were on another level to her. They couldn’t be her “friends”.

So Leonid was the only one she had left.

She wouldn’t lose him too. She couldn’t.

Nor would she let the men she’d brought here all die for nothing.

Her eyes flickered to the side as she saw an aeadite wearing the rebels’ armor come at her. In a heartbeat, before she even knew what she was doing herself, her sword was already drawn, and in an instant more, she’d already shoved his sword aside with a single, decisive strike. The second strike struck him down.

She hissed out a breath. She couldn’t get lost in her thoughts, not now. There was a battle to fight.

And if she couldn’t get her men back in order… if she couldn’t get them to put up a proper defence once more… then she’d just have to help them however she could.

Immediately, a skirmish in the corner of her vision caught her eye, and she whirled and cut down a rebel moments before he would have slain one of her men. Without an instant’s pause, she rushed forth, running at the next rebel in sight-

And he simply stepped back, avoiding her attack with what seemed like no effort whatsoever.

She paused for a moment.

This one… didn’t look like the rest. He wasn’t wearing their usual armor, and he didn’t have their usual weapons. The only armor he was wearing was light, flexible, made for mobility rather than defence… and his weapon was a long, curving blade, an utterly foreign thing in such a battlefield.

He could’ve used the moment to advance, to try to cut her down. He didn’t. He simply stood there, as if inviting her to try and attack.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

The aeadite smiled. “Right. I guess you wouldn’t even know that, would you? Never really thought about how little information you guys have about this all, really…” He shrugged lightly. “Well, my name’s Janus. You might’ve heard of me.”

Katherine’s jaw dropped for a moment. “Janus…? You mean…?”

“The very same,” he nodded. “Now, come on. You want to defeat the rebels, don’t you?” He flourished his sword with a grin, an intentionally exaggerated motion, and held it calmly.

For some reason even she couldn’t comprehend, she believed him.

It was impossible. It was utterly impossible that Janus, the mythical Legendary Swordsman, would be standing before here now. But somehow, she couldn’t not believe the man standing there.

She didn’t know how or why. Maybe it was simply how casually he’d avoided her blow, how easily and unconcernedly he’d stepped back. Maybe it was his general stance and bearing, the complete confidence with which he held himself. Maybe it was how distinctive he was among the rest of the army. Or maybe it was something else entirely, just some instinct which somehow recognized how dangerous he was.

But whatever the reason, she had no doubts. The man standing before her now was Janus, the Legendary Swordsman.

The instant she realized that, a cold truth settled into her gut. She couldn’t win.

She wasn’t a terrible swordfighter. Far from it. And yet nevertheless, she was a leader, not a duellist. Her skills with the blade were more than enough to overcome most people, but… against Janus? She couldn’t win.

Maybe she could call on her men, try to overwhelm him. Assuming he didn’t have any mystical powers (and after that golden man, she wasn’t willing to assume anything about legendary figures), it would work. Even the greatest swordsman couldn’t fight an entire army at once.

But they were all occupied, all engaged in their own struggles of life and death. Somehow, though General Katherine didn’t know how, the two of them had ended up alone in an oasis amidst the chaos, a single area of perfect calm in the raging battle. Even if one of her men could assist her, they were too far away. She’d just be cut down.

So she had no choice. She had to fight.

Victory was impossible.

Then she’d just have to do the impossible.

She dashed forward, sword ready. She didn’t dare let him attack, didn’t dare force herself to try and defend against the onslaught. The only way she could stand even a chance was if she struck first and never let up.

Her sword swung through the air, a vicious crescent of steel. And, seemingly without any effort on Janus’ part, his sword was there to meet it.

Katherine pushed on it. She was a descendant, and that afforded her a somewhat greater amount of physical strength than most demons had. It wasn’t a large advantage, but she’d often found that it could be of critical importance in a battle such as this. And Janus, for all his skill, was an aeadite. She knew she should be stronger than him.

And she was. His sword was shoved to the side, he staggered under the force of the blow, and her blade came forth to cut him down-

And, so smoothly it had to have been planned from the start, he turned his stagger into a crouch, letting Katherine’s sword sail straight over his head – and the blade which had just been shoved aside came back and sliced straight at her.

There wasn’t time to block, wasn’t even time to think. Janus was just too fast, and she’d left herself open for just an instant. She knew that would be enough for him.

The blade cut through her armor as if it wasn’t even there, and, with a single flick of Janus’ wrist, a few droplets of blood shot forth from her palm.

Instinctively, before she could even think about what she was doing, she dropped her sword and clutched at the cut. It was shallow, far more shallow than it should’ve been. He could’ve cut her hand off then and there – or, for that matter, he could’ve gone for the head. So why had he just…?

“So, that’s your style,” he said with a satisfied tone, flicking blood from his sword. “Overwhelm your opponent with sheer power. Not a bad strategy, but… easy to counter when you see it coming.”

She glared at him.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Janus said. “I killed Ihab because that was the only way out at that time… and besides, he was good enough that I just couldn’t try to disable him nonlethally. But I wish it could’ve been different. He wasn’t a bad person, not really – he was just fighting for what he believed. Just like you are. It’d be a shame for demonkind to lose someone else like that.” With a casual motion of his wrist, he pointed his sword straight at her throat. “Look… I’m sorry, but we’ve got to destroy this army. At this stage, it’s just the only thing that makes sense. But I’m letting you go.

“So…” For a moment, his grip wavered. “Please, take this chance. I don’t want to have to kill you too.”

Abandon her men…?

Abandon the Council…?

Never.

She ducked down and grabbed her sword once more, ignoring the sudden spike of pain that shot through her palm as she did, and-

And she heard a footstep behind her.

And before she could rise, before she could turn…

Something pierced the back of her neck.

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