She was going to die.
Katherine knew that from the moment it happened. From the moment she felt the sudden coldness of the blade, from the moment she felt the warm blood trickle down the back of her neck, she knew that she was about to die.
She tried to get up, hoping that maybe, she’d at least be able to take her killer down with her. But she was hoping for too much. Her legs gave out from underneath her, and she fell face-first onto the hard, merciless stone.
Her sword slipped and clattered out of her hand. She reached for it, trying to grasp its familiar handle, even though she didn’t know why. But her fingers only barely brushed against it before it rolled just a few centimeters away, and suddenly, it was out of her reach.
She tried to turn her head, to at least see who it was who’d struck her from behind. But she couldn’t even manage that much.
Damn it… she thought. I… I’m sorry… I’ve failed you…
All around her, she could see it happening. The Council’s forces were collapsing. They couldn’t fight back, not when the enemy had struck like this. She hated herself for not seeing it coming, for not doing something to stop it, for not saving all those people’s lives. She should’ve realized the rebel leader would do something like that. She should’ve never let her guard down.
And now it would all fall… all because of her… all because she’d failed them. They’d put their trust in her, and she’d failed them.
It was over. She didn’t want to believe it. But it was over. This had been the Council’s final attack, the attack that was supposed to end the rebel threat here and now. Instead… they’d turned it around on them. The rebels were going to win this battle. They were going to destroy the army. And then there would be nothing left to stop them.
And she wouldn’t be able to help anyone. Not anymore.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. You did your best, Katherine.”
She looked up, even that simple motion draining, exhausting. A spike of pain shot through her neck. “I-Ihab…?”
He was standing there, as tall and strong and powerful as ever, with that same casual lack of concern she’d come to associate with him. He smiled down at her, as if she hadn’t doomed them all. As if she wasn’t a failure.
She was just seeing things. She knew she was. Ihab was long dead now. He couldn’t be here for her, not anymore.
But… even if it was only for just a moment… she wanted to believe…
“Ihab… I… I’m sorry…”
He chuckled. “Nothing to be sorry about. As I’ve said… you did your best.” He held out a hand to her. “Sorry it had to end this way. But… at least you fought for what you believed, right until the very end. That’s more than I can say about most people.”
She reached out, trying to take his hand. “I-Ihab…”
Her eyes watered for a moment, and the ghostly image wavered and faded, and her arm collapsed to the ground.
She was dying.
But maybe… she didn’t know what the afterlife was like, she didn’t know if there even was one, but maybe, just maybe… if she’d be able to be with Ihab again…
Maybe it wouldn’t be s
Janus looked down at General Katherine’s body, a slight tinge of sadness on his face. Then, he looked at Azal, standing over her. “You didn’t have to do that, you know.”
“She would have kept fighting us,” Azal said. “Even if we destroyed the army, even if we took over Aead, she would still keep fighting us. Someone like that is far too dangerous to leave alive.”
Janus looked at him for a moment, lost in thought. “Well…” He paused for another moment, and then shrugged. “Yeah. I guess.”
Azal’s eyebrow twitched upwards. He’d expected to have to be somewhat more convincing than that.
Janus must’ve noticed it – or, more likely, he noticed something else, something from which he could read Azal’s surprise just as well. It wasn’t a big thing – even now, when his guard was comparatively down, Azal would never let himself react in any major way to anything – but subtle body language was more than enough.
“Look, I’ll be honest… I’m not much for all this morality stuff,” Janus said. “I mean, you want someone to talk to you about right or wrong – though I feel like you probably don’t, but still – go to Melthar or someone. Or Alexander. Me? I’m just a swordsman. I fight people. That’s what I do. Don’t expect anything else from me.”
“Very well,” Azal nodded, and looked around at the battle. Although… calling it a “battle” at this point was somewhat of a stretch.
The fighting had devolved into mindless chaos the instant the Bloodhorns had scaled the wall from behind… but the chaos had ended almost as soon as it began. The main body of the fighting was over in minutes as all the combatants slaughtered each other, their normal defensive structures forgotten – and more often than not, it was the Bloodhorns’ men who were victorious. That was the effect of striking from two directions at once, especially when the enemy was as unprepared for it as they had been here.
Now, an odd sort of peace had settled over the wall. Or rather… most of the wall. There were still pockets of fighting, seas of bloodshed and slicing steel where the fighting still continued every bit as fiercely as before, where the Council’s men still fought their desperate, desperate battle – for their ideals, for their leaders, or for simple survival, Azal did not know. The only thing he did know was that none of them would win. And all along the rest of the wall, they had already lost. Except for those few areas, those few places where the fighting still persisted with its previous fierceness, corpses already littered the wall’s surface – and there was not a living man of the Council’s army to stand upon them.
It had been a perfect attack. Here and now, they had won. They had won the battle… and they had won the war.
The Council’s forces had been broken. They had no more capability to defend themselves, not anymore. Oh, certainly, at least some of their men had escaped the slaughter – but it would be nowhere near enough. The only thing left for the Bloodhorns was to march to Merdrun and take the capital.
And yet, standing over the field of corpses, Azal could not help but feel… empty inside.
He knew that a normal person would feel pity, terror, sadness for all the lives that had been lost here, for the massacre that had taken place. But he was not a normal person. Even now, even as he looked on the gruesome pictures war and battle painted, he felt… nothing. No horror, no pity. But…
No, that wasn’t quite right.
He didn’t feel anything. Anything.
He knew that if he had simply stayed behind as he always had before, if he kept himself out of danger and let his generals command the army… well, for a start, this victory wouldn’t have happened in the first place. But if it somehow had, he knew he would feel joy about it. Perhaps not joy in the same way most people thought of it, but even if Azal was more quiet and reserved than most, he still felt emotion. In another circumstance, he would have been happy to finally have triumphed – to finally have what he had always strived for within his grasp.
But now, standing atop the fruits of his victory… he felt nothing. Nothing at all.
He was simply… numb.
That was the only word to describe it.
Given the stakes, any price was worth victory. Yes, the Council wasn’t a group of monsters – yes, they were composed of demons just like him, demons who surely thought that what they were doing was every bit as just as Azal believed his own rebellion to be. And yes, the men who served them didn’t necessarily approve of the things they did, or even know of them – they were merely soldiers doing their jobs. But there was a reason he’d started this rebellion in the first place. The Council’s attacks on the realm of Verta had simply been pushed back, again and again and again, and with every attack, they provoked the mortals. If they kept doing it, if they weren’t stopped, the mortals would eventually strike back – and that would be the end of demonkind.
Which was why anything was acceptable to achieve victory. That village… he’d done his best to evacuate it before he burned it down. But one family had refused to leave, especially since Azal had refused to tell them what it was for… so he’d simply burned it down anyway. Most likely, he’d killed them. But what was the fate of a single family compared to the fate of all demonkind? As a leader, he’d always had no choice but to do everything in his power to defeat the Council, whatever it took. The fates of individual demons… were of no importance.
Or at least… that was what he’d thought before. Now…?
Now… he didn’t know.
He turned to Janus. “And were there any other leaders? I told the men to report to you if they saw one of the Generals or the Councillors. Did anyone report anything?”
“There were a few people who saw General Leonid,” Janus said. “Judging by just how many of them there were, I think he probably was here. But he got away.”
“I see,” Azal nodded. “No matter. After this, it won’t matter.”
Azal turned and walked towards Alexander. “How much longer will it take your men to clear out the rest of them?”
Alexander looked around grimly. “Not too much longer. Those who are still holding on are holding on as much as they can, but… there’s only so much they can do.”
“And how many of them got away?” Azal asked.
“More than you’d expect,” Alexander said. “Apparently General Leonid was here too. He managed to get a decent amount of them into some semblance of order again and organize a decent retreat. But still, there weren’t enough to really matter. As far as we’re concerned, we destroyed their army.”
“Very well,” Azal nodded. “Clear the rest of them out. And then, we’re done here.”
“Azal,” Alexander said.
Azal looked up from his seat, where he’d been glumly staring down at the table until a moment ago. Alexander stood in the corner of the room, his arms crossed and what Azal thought was a stern expression on his face. But with the angel, it had always been hard to tell.
“Alexander,” Azal said. “I really would like it if you were to use the door.” Having Melthar appear in his room without warning was bad enough – knowing that this angel spent, and wasted, time specifically looking for Melthar just so he could get teleported into the room too was… something else.
“I’ve been thinking,” Alexander continued, completely ignoring Azal. “I still don’t know how you got your troops into the inner city, but I can guess. The secret passage, right?”
“Technically, you aren’t supposed to know about that,” Azal said.
“If you tell me to blast a bunch of rocks out of the way underneath the tower, and you refuse to tell me what it’s for, the rest isn’t exactly hard to guess,” Alexander said. “I’d guess everyone who’s worked on it knows what it is, whether or not you actually told them.”
“Mm,” Azal nodded. Alexander was right, but then, Azal had never really expected anything different. The people he’d had working on the secret passage were the ones most loyal to the rebellion, the ones he trusted the most (well, and Melthar and Alexander, but the additional speed they could provide to the construction was simply too much to pass up), and it was for specifically that reason. He hadn’t told any of them what the passage was for, but he was just as sure as Alexander was that most of them had figured it out a long time ago.
“Anyway,” Alexander continued, “as I said, I’ve been thinking. The secret passage… well, I guess it was obviously meant to get you out of the tower in case of an emergency. But knowing you, you never make anything with only one purpose. And thinking back to it, you didn’t seem particularly upset to see your trap fail…” Alexander looked at him. “Azal. How long ago did you have all this planned?”
Ah. So that was what it was.
“The trap failing was not intentional,” Azal said. “But I expected it might happen. As you’ve surmised, this was always the secret passage’s intended second function, and using it had been my backup plan ever since I’d come up with the trap in the first place. I’d guessed the Council would head towards Redgate at the first opportunity.”
“Right. They’d think shattering your power base and properly occupying the area where you had the most support would do more good in the long run than just defeating your army.” Alexander looked out of the window, a contemplative expression on his face. “But… I assume you had a plan for if they did decide to attack too, didn’t you?”
“One with a much lower chance of success, but yes,” Azal nodded. “I’m glad I didn’t have to use it.”
“Hm,” Alexander murmured. “Not bad, Azal.”
“It would’ve been foolish to rely entirely upon one plan. A single plan can always go wrong – the trap proved as much. The only way to even come close to guaranteeing victory is to plan for as many situations as possible.”
“Heh… it took me quite a while to learn that lesson,” Alexander said. “But then, I suppose I’ve never been as pessimistic as you.”
“There can be no such thing as being too cautious,” Azal said.
“That wasn’t an insult. I have to say, you’ve done better than I thought you would. For someone who’s barely got any experience with this so far… I’m impressed.”
Azal shrugged. “Thank you.”
“Then there’s just one more thing I have to discuss with you,” Alexander said.
“Yeah,” another familiar voice said from behind, and Azal turned around to find Melthar standing next to the door. “About that village…”
Leonid marched back from the city of Redgate, deep in thought.
His army followed behind him… or at least, what remained of it. In a single strike, the rebels had almost entirely destroyed the Council’s army. What was left consisted of Redgate’s guards, a few troops scattered around Aead… and the men Leonid still had with him. From there, a simple calculation told him the rest.
They simply didn’t have the numbers to fight the rebels, not anymore. Until that last battle, they’d been the ones with the numerical advantage – but now, that had been turned around. The rebels’ army stood strong, the equal of the armies of some of the smaller mortal kingdoms, and it would get even stronger as they advanced… and the Council was barely hanging on by a thread. They could mount a last stand at Merdrun, force the rebels to lay siege to the walls, defend them to their last breath… but it wouldn’t be enough.
The Council would fall. That was all there was to it. They’d had their chance, and now it was gone. The rebels would be the winners of this war.
And, he supposed, that made some sense. After all, it had already happened once before.
But there was something else he couldn’t help but find his thoughts coming back to. And that was… the rebels themselves.
Back then… back at the wall…
He remembered it clearly. He remembered dozens, hundreds of men rushing up the wall to their deaths, slamming against the wall of steel only to be repelled over and over. He remembered the bloodshed, the desperate attack, the amount of blood his men had spilled in the name of the Council… and more than anything, he remembered how the rebels just wouldn’t stop coming. No matter how many of them fell, no matter how much it seemed like their spirit should’ve broken, they just kept coming. Again, and again, and again – and they hadn’t eased up on the assault all the way until the other rebel troops had arrived from the back.
It wouldn’t be right to call them disciplined. They hadn’t been organized, or cautious, or tactical in their attack. They’d just kept coming, a tidal wave of men – but a tidal wave that any competent army would be able to stop, at least unless they were simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers. But that was the important thing – however little discipline they may have had, however untrained they seemed, they had always kept coming.
The importance of that couldn’t be understated. The Council, or at least some of their number, had always seen the rebels as nothing but traitorous monsters, trying to seize power for their own sake… but Leonid had never considered that a likely possibility. And what he’d seen just now more or less confirmed it.
He didn’t know what. He didn’t know why. But that sort of willingness to throw their own lives away… that sort of unbreakable morale, the sheer rage and aggression with which they’d attacked…
These rebels were fighting for a cause. A cause that each and every single one of them believed was just – and a cause in the way of which each and every single one of them believed the Council was standing.
Of course, that, by itself, wasn’t enough to prove anything. Propaganda had always been a common tactic, and from what he’d seen, it seemed the rebel leader was good at it – no one inspired that much loyalty without embellishing things, no matter how just their cause was. It was entirely possible that what he was seeing wasn’t demons fighting for a just cause – just ones who believed they were, while all the while, their hidden masters plotted how to use their deaths for their own benefit. And yet…
Propaganda was one thing. But to inspire this level of loyalty…? He wasn’t willing to believe that it was all a lie. No one could lie that well. No doubt, the rebel leader had made himself out to be greater than he truly was… but if it had worked that well, Leonid couldn’t help but think there had to have been a grain of truth in all those lies. Perhaps a rather large one.
Of course, he wasn’t sure of anything. Not yet. But he’d always thought that perhaps, these rebels weren’t as bad as the Council made them out to be… and what he’d seen in that battle seemed to confirm it.
Though in any case, it wasn’t like they had much of a chance. The Council… they weren’t idiots. Even Leonid, as much as he doubted them, didn’t think they were stupid. But in that battle just now, an enormous portion of their army had been shattered. They’d been dealt losses just as bad as the ones they’d dealt the enemy a long time ago, back during the First Battle of Redgate… but for them, there wouldn’t be any assistance from outside forces. They’d be on their own, against an enemy that now vastly outnumbered them… and against that, whatever the Council had to bring to the table, Leonid didn’t think it would be enough. They would be able to mount a last stand, force the rebels into a final battle that would, undoubtedly, take its toll on them… but they wouldn’t be able to win. The war was as good as over, and all that was left now was for the curtains to close.
Leonid only hoped that, perhaps, the Council could be made to see sense. If these rebels really were fighting for some cause, if they did have something noble driving them, it wasn’t impossible that some sort of deal could still be made. He was sure the people who had allied themselves with the rebels wouldn’t be happy about it, but… from what he’d figured out, it seemed the rebel leader was a pragmatic man. And even now, the Council had some things to offer the rebels that they couldn’t get if they simply destroyed them. Perhaps, perhaps, there was still a chance for this to come to a resolution that wouldn’t end with the Council’s fall.
But if not… Leonid could only hope that whatever cause drove the rebellion’s soldiers, the rebel leader truly did hold it dear to his heart.
So… that was what it was.
“It was necessary,” Azal said. “We drove the Council out of Redgate, yes… but that does not mean we did it without a cost. You have seen what the people think, have you not? Many cheer us as their saviors, but… at the same time, many are beginning to doubt us. After all, we failed to protect them, did we not? And in any case, we were lucky the Council treated the people here as well as they did. I would hardly have been surprised if they started murdering everyone here simply for being in the same city as us – and even then, they’ve caught a number of the people who had actually supported us, and many of them have already been executed. We managed to drive them out, to keep casualties low… but from the beginning, it would have been far better to keep it from getting to this point in the first place.”
“So you burned down a village,” Melthar said. “Right.”
“I told them to leave,” Azal said. “Some of them didn’t. It was their own fault.”
“And I don’t suppose you told them why they were supposed to leave their homes and go somewhere else?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I did not,” Azal said. He couldn’t help but find himself getting… uncharacteristically annoyed at Melthar’s pressing. He knew it had been necessary, of course, but normally, Melthar disagreeing with that wouldn’t agitate him like this. He should have been able to just say whatever he had to to appease Melthar, to just go through this like any other conversation. What was happening to him…? “If I had, you can imagine what would’ve happened. I can assure you, the residents would not have bene happy. There would’ve been protests. The people would’ve started acting out against me. Even more of them would’ve refused to leave, and even more of them would’ve died. This was the best course of action.”
Alexander scoffed. “And you haven’t wondered why all that would happen? And what, perhaps, that says about the strategy as a whole?”
“You followed along with it,” Azal said.
“Yes! Because I thought you would make sure everyone was already out before you did it!” Alexander snapped. “And besides, at that point, the damage was already done. I’ve had experience with this, Azal. There’s one thing I’ve learned, and I’ve learned it through painful, bloody experience – if someone higher up messes up, and you try to go against them, the chaos you cause will do more damage than the original decision ever could. But that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to just go along with a terrible decision… especially not one like this.”
Azal sighed. “Fine. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I… perhaps I went too far. But you know what will happen if the Council is not stopped. I told you as much myself. It may take a decade, a century… but it won’t take too much longer now. Eventually, demonkind will be destroyed. The only way to stop it is to stop the Council. So yes, I will do whatever I have to to make sure they are stopped.”
Melthar shook his head. “I have a question, Azal. If the demons have to live under a ruler like this… if they have to live under the heel of someone who thinks nothing of sacrificing them for an advantage, if they have to live with the constant threat that their own rulers could turn on them in an instant… is that really better than being dead?”
“Yes,” Azal said.
“Then perhaps the old king had the right idea.”
Azal began to answer… and stopped.
He’d read about the old king. All the books had been vague and uninformative on the subject of who, exactly, he’d been… but they’d told him enough about what he’d done. A man who treated his subjects like nothing more than tools, or even entertainment. A man who to whom nothing in the world held a shred of value but himself. A man who was no leader, no king – merely a power-hungry, vile thug who had somehow gained control of demonkind.
Azal was no idealist. He knew many of the ideals people would often aspire to were foolish. There was no such thing as an ideal anything, and anyone who believed otherwise was simply deceiving themselves. But even if there could never be any realized ideals, even if the paradise people strove for would never be anything more than a myth… that did not give the rulers the right to simply give up.
Azal did not believe in ideals. But he believed in responsibility. He hated the Council, because they shirked their responsibility to their people – they put them all in danger merely to achieve some lofty dream they had. And he hated the old king for much the same reason – only he was even worse. At least the Council did, at least to some degree, what they believed would be best for their people… even if their belief was a foolish one. The old king had never even bothered pretending.
To throw away his own people’s lives merely to accomplish his goals… was he becoming just like the old king…?
The ends justify the means…
“The ends justify the means…” Melthar said. “Is that the idea you wish to live by?”
Of course the ends justified the means. If the end itself was just, if everything ended with a better outcome… why did the means used to achieve it matter?
Or at least, that had been how he’d thought for a long time. Until that battle… until he’d seen the corpses of all those men, lying dead on the cold stone, killed for a cause none of them would ever see realized. Until he’d seen General Katherine die before his eyes, until he’d looked at her face and watched the life slip out of her eyes, until he’d killed her himself merely for fighting for what she believed in.
It still made sense. It made sense that, in a situation like this, the ends would justify the means. But… could anything that felt so wrong really be right?
“I…” He hesitated. “I… don’t know.”
“You’d better find out,” Melthar cautioned. “And you’d better do it soon. You’ll win this war soon enough… so when you have control of the demons, do you want to control them? Or… do you want to lead them?”
And with that, he touched Alexander’s arm with the tips of his fingers, and the two of them vanished.
“What is it, Inquisitor?” Cain asked.
“We’ve… found something odd,” the Inquisitor said. “Most of the barrier is solid. It’s a nigh-inescapable cage of magic, like you’d expect for something made to hold something like that. A lot of it, we still don’t understand. But…”
Cain’s eyes narrowed. Whatever this was, he couldn’t help but be worried. “What?”
“There’s something strange we’ve found, sir,” the Inquisitor said. “We’re not sure, but it looks like… a weak point.”