First off, if half the things Melthar had said about him were true, the idea of the Council intentionally releasing him was idiotic from the beginning.
Nevertheless… a “contingency.” That was what the Council reportedly had. And if it was something so powerful that the Council sincerely believed it could turn the tide in such a situation, and more than that, if it was something that the Council was so hesitant to use that they had put it off until now…
Before, Azal hadn’t had any knowledge about any “contingencies” the Council possibly had. Now, he not only had the information that they had one, he also had at least one guess as to what it was. A good guess…? Perhaps not. If the Council had managed to overthrow such a being in the first place, they would have had to be insane to not simply kill him there and then – and if they had proceeded with the idiotic plan of sealing him away, unsealing him afterwards would be the height of stupidity. It would mean the end of the Council’s rule.
Then again… would the Council even know of the true extent of the Archdemon’s powers? From the way Melthar had told it, the majority of their rebellion seemed to have consisted of battling the Archdemon’s forces, not the Great Power himself – and when he eventually was incapacitated and sealed, it had been due to a surprise attack while he had been distracted by a simultaneous massive attack on his capital. Considering the circumstances, it was entirely possible that no one who the Council would take seriously had even witnessed the Archdemon’s powers in the first place. True, they must have known he was a powerful mage – it would be impossible to not become aware of that at some point, and besides, if they didn’t know at least that much, they wouldn’t have tried using him like this – but it was entirely possible the true depth of his powers was wholly unknown to the Council.
And besides, the account of the Archdemon’s powers Melthar had given him was from Lein’s last moments – from what, according to Avylia, was a complete account of Lein’s final battle, derived from the psychic link she shared with the other Great Powers (Azal had wondered whether they could not simply use that ability to find out whether the Archdemon was free, but apparently, the barrier had been in place for so long that the link to him was now almost certainly gone). During that battle, the Archdemon himself had said his powers had grown – and Lein had seemed surprised by just how much they had grown. It clearly had not been an insubstantial change. And yet, the Council would only know of what he had been like before being sealed away – back when, quite possibly, he had been far weaker than he was now. Seen in that light, the Council’s decision to do something like this seemed… still foolhardy, certainly. But nowhere near as improbable as Azal would have considered it otherwise.
Of course, it was still just a theory at this point. And yet… it was a terrifying one. An enemy who wielded magical power unlike anything seen on this world (or on Verta), who could subjugate demons to his will whenever he wished, who would surely be able to build up at least some sort of an army made up of those who would end up being too terrified to oppose him… fighting such a foe would be a daunting task. Even Melthar, whose powers were more suited to one-on-one combat, could prove deadly on the field of battle. A Great Power whose command of magic was perfectly suited to destroy large droves of soldiers at once… would it even be possible to fight such a monster?
The implication was clear. Theory or not, unconfirmed or not… it was a distinct possibility. And as long as that remained true, Azal would have to prepare.
But… that could be done later. The barrier that kept the Archdemon contained was in Altermin, a nation in Verta. Some quick calculations had told Azal that the Council would never be able to get even a single person there in the short amount of time Azal needed to transport his troops with Melthar’s help. Even if it was true that their contingency was the Archdemon, they would not be able to release him until quite a while after Azal’s troops were already at Merdrun’s walls.
And that meant that until the Archdemon arrived, Azal still had time. Time to finish what he had started… to finally tear control of demonkind from the Council’s hands.
It was time to take Merdrun.
It was the second time Azal had carried out a siege. Of course, the first time, the entire siege had been a farce – merely a distraction from Azal’s true plan. This time, there was no “true plan.” This was exactly what it seemed like. A battle pitting the Bloodhorns’ army against the walls of Merdrun, pitting the will and ferocity and fury of the people against the unyielding might of the stone citadel that had ruled these lands for centuries. A battle of sheer force and will.
So this time, Azal had made sure to be prepared.
He hadn’t had much time. Of course he hadn’t. Melthar could accelerate the movement of troops massively, but that also meant there was far less time for preparation before the battle began. But then, he’d had to move as fast as he possibly could before the Council could recover – and if he had to sacrifice some preparation to do that, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make at this stage.
But what time he had had was put to as much use as he could possibly manage.
Siege engines had been built. Steel equipment scavenged from battlegrounds had been refitted and reused, equipping Azal’s army with as much high-quality equipment as possible. Arrows had been produced. Azal had had Melthar take the most experienced troops to the battlefield first and used the time to give the less experienced ones some last-minute instructions. And in addition to transporting the troops, Azal had also had Melthar scan the Council’s capital from above, finding out as much about his defences as he possibly could. It was all far from an ideal amount of preparation, perhaps… but Azal had done the best he could have. For once, he had the advantage in this war. It would have been stupid to not use it for all it was worth.
And the geography of Merdrun had provided them some additional advantages as well. The city lay near a range of mountains, the towering peaks rising into the air like a great throne for the city itself – no doubt something the Archdemon had considered when deciding where to build his capital, and something the Council had merely inherited from him. Ordinarily, the mountains would have blocked off any attempts to enter the city from that side and served as a decent natural defence, at least making sure any enemy who tried to attack would have to attack from one direction only… but it seemed that centuries of being the sole rulers of Aead had made the Council complacent. There was a pass through the mountains, near the edges of the range – and it was completely undefended. Which meant that all of a sudden, the mountains had gone from an impenetrable defense to an excellent way for Azal to conceal his troops.
They were set up already, all sitting in a camp on the other side of the mountains and just waiting for the order to be given. And recently, Melthar had finished his final run, transporting the last few elements of the army over to their destination – and, finally, he had also transported Azal himself there, making sure he would be able to oversee the battle (the other relevant leaders of the Bloodhorns – Alexander, Janus, and Darius – had already been transported earlier). Now, it was time for that order that the men had been awaiting.
Azal turned to Alexander, who nodded once. “So, we’re going?” the angel asked.
“Of course,” Azal said.
Alexander smiled slightly. “Very well.”
The concealment part of the strategy, at least, had clearly worked just as well as Azal had hoped it would.
As they approached Merdrun’s walls, even when they were still quite a distance away, it was clear what they were seeing. The Council wasn’t ready. They must have been expecting Azal’s troops to march to their capital the old-fashioned way, a journey that would’ve taken at least a week and a half, and probably more. To them, it would’ve seemed impossible for the Bloodhorns to be here already.
The Council hadn’t seen the troops gathering on the other side of the mountain range, so as far as it had been aware until a moment ago, they still had nothing to fear for a while. They had thought they would still have time to prepare, to make sure their remaining troops would be prepared. But Azal had given them no such luxury.
They rushed through the mountain pass as fast as they possibly could. They’d had to sacrifice some coherence and order to do it, but if they could reach the walls before the Council was ready, it would be worth it. If they attacked the walls before the Council could even start defending them, they’d be able to get into the city with nearly no resistance whatsoever. If they could do that, they would be able to bypass the most difficult part of attacking a major city entirely. Everything after that would be easier.
The gambit paid off.
By the time the Bloodhorns’ troops came near the wall, the Council’s forces were still only just getting onto the wall themselves, surprised and unprepared for battle… and, of course, now quite outnumbered. But whether or not the enemy was outnumbered, it made no sense to Azal not to use every advantage he could possibly get.
He signaled the catapults.
Enormous stones flew forth at Merdrun’s walls, shattering the rock they were built of. Nearly any Vertan capital’s walls would be able to withstand such an attack, but that was the Council’s problem – they had grown complacent a long time ago. The Archdemon hadn’t bothered with walls in the first place, trusting his armies and his own power to strike down any attackers. The Council had built them, attempting to pre-emptively defend against any potential mortal invasion… but after centuries had passed without such an attack, the Council, it seemed, had entirely forgotten about the possibility. Even as Vertan defenses had (according to Melthar) gotten stronger and tougher over time, progressing to the point where catapults had become nearly useless, the Council’s defenses had merely stayed the same, stagnating – and even deteriorating due to the fact that, for a long time now, no one had truly cared enough to put serious work into maintaining them. After all, the Council ruled all of Aead, and the mortals had never tried to attack before. Why bother with defense?
Time and time again, Azal had seen what that sort of thinking had done to the Council’s capability to resist attacks. It had begun at the very start. No self-respecting Vertan ruler would allow any city to be as poorly defended against attack as Baron Amar had made Redgate. The walls had been shoddy at best, the tower itself was a horrid defensive structure, the men defending it had been more or less ceremonial and had barely had any real training… the entire city had barely had any defenses at all before Azal had taken it over. And after that, too, so much of what the Council did spoke of just how complacent they’d gotten. They’d sent almost all of their forces to crush the rebellion, a decision that had allowed the Bloodhorns to nearly destroy the Council’s capability to fight by just winning a single battle – and they’d done it because they had gotten complacent. After all, if there were still another enemy which could have attacked, the Council would never have sent all of their troops away; they would have kept at least a decent amount of them in Merdrun, to make sure it was defended. And besides, if they had faced more challenges over the years, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so sure of their army’s ability to defeat the rebels in the first place.
If the Council hadn’t been so complacent, Azal probably wouldn’t have been able to start this rebellion in the first place. Nor would he have ever obtained the chance that he had now – the chance that he had only gotten because he had been able to obliterate almost all of the Council’s army in a single battle. And even if he had gotten that chance, he wouldn’t have been able to tear through Merdrun’s walls so easily, nor would he be faced with such an unprepared enemy. But they had been… and that had been enough for Azal’s rebellion to succeed.
It was ironic, in a way. The Council had always dedicated themselves fully to their impossible dream, always done everything they possibly could to get a foothold on Verta. In that sense, they were some of the most dedicated, determined people Azal had ever known of… and yet in their rush to accomplish that one goal, they had forgotten about everything else. Including the simple matter of defending themselves.
A long, long time ago, the Council themselves had stood in Azal’s shoes, fighting to overthrow their own leader – the old king, the Archdemon. But now, those who had once been rebels fighting for a righteous cause had themselves become what they had sworn to never be. Now, the Council themselves had become a blight on demonkind, a group of rulers that could think about nothing else but their impossible dream – and, worse still, one that would continue throwing away demon lives and putting the future of demonkind itself in jeopardy just for the smallest chance of achieving it. Now, it was time for them themselves to be torn down.
A long time ago, the Council had fought the First Battle of Merdrun here, facing off against the armies of the Archdemon.
Now, it was time for the Second Battle of Merdrun to begin.
Dust and vague noise was all Azal could make out from the battlefield. But that told him enough. The catapults had done their job, and the Council hadn’t even managed to get its men into position quickly enough to so much as stall them, much less actually stop them. By now, Azal couldn’t tell what was happening nearer the wall, but he knew what would be happening anyway. He knew that, even though the cloud of dust still hadn’t settled, even though the ruined wall had still not finished its collapse, his engineers would already be setting up ramps, ensuring that the Bloodhorns’ troops would be easily able to climb onto the walls’ ruins. It would be far faster than attempting to use ladders would have been, and it would defeat any attempt to use the walls as a defensive structure… though, Azal supposed, the catapult barrage had most likely done that already.
The sounds of battle reached Azal’s ears, the repeating clash of steel on steel and the sound of blades ripping flesh. Somewhere inside the cloud, his men had come into contact with what Council forces had managed to get here in time… but that didn’t matter. There could only be one possible outcome of such a battle. The Council was unprepared, underequipped (at least in comparison to the Bloodhorns), and outnumbered. They could not win this battle.
Their time was over.
At last, the dust settled down enough for Azal to see, and what he saw confirmed his predictions. The last bastions of the Council’s defense were falling before his men. Even as he watched, the walls were breached, his men overran the few enemies who had attempted to put up a fight, and the remainder of the Council’s forces withdrew, presumably trying to stall for time and try to figure out a way to defend the city itself.
Azal strolled forward through the carnage. As he walked, he looked ahead, and he saw the shattered corpses of the Council’s men. He couldn’t help but note that those men had almost certainly believed in their own causes and their own loyalty every bit as much as Azal himself did, and as those loyal to him did. To them, Azal had surely been the evil one. And yet, they had fallen. And they would continue to fall.
Of course, not all that long ago, Azal would never have taken any notice of something like that. But then, that had been before he had seen what battle did. That had been before he had walked across the walls of Redgate, before he had seen how the aftermath truly looked… before he had seen the corpses littering the wall, more bodies than he could possibly count piled up on the cold, merciless stones, cold and bleeding and mauled and dead.
That, he supposed… had given him somewhat of a new perspective on things.
Indeed… now, he could not help but find it regrettable. The men his men were slaying were, themselves, good men. That was not to insinuate that he now believed that he was the villain, or that his men were evil. They were good men as well… but they were good men according to their own definitions and values, and the enemy was composed of those who were good men according to theirs.
And that was all it took.
That was all it took to get those good men to slaughter each other. Simply because they had different perspectives, simply because they had different beliefs and thoughts and opinions – simply because they had ideas that, to the other side, had to appear evil – they were willing to tear each other to pieces. The men on the Bloodhorns’ side of the conflict believed that the Council was evil, and that all its followers were merely supporters of its tyranny. The men on the Council’s side believed that the Council was good, that the rebels were trying to overthrow them for simple power, and that all its supporters were power-hungry, remorseless killers. And he had to admit…
From a certain point of view, both points of view were correct.
But that did not matter. Not right now. It was regrettable, yes… but from the start, he had been fighting for his beliefs. Even if he had begun to doubt himself somewhat, his beliefs themselves had not changed. And at this stage… there could be no other conclusion. He would have to finish what he had started.
He looked at the city of Merdrun through the cloud of dust, seeing the great black palace rising up from the center. The Turrim Tenebris… his goal. The Council’s seat of power, the castle out of which they had forced the Archdemon and from which they had taken control themselves. He knew, by now, of the Council’s pride. So he could be sure of one thing: Even as the Bloodhorns approached, the Council would not flee their palace. He would find them at the center of their dominion… and there, like they had done to the old king so long ago, he would cast them down.
Of course, even if they were to try and flee… Azal had no intention of allowing that.
With the walls shattered, the Council’s last true line of defense had fallen almost without a fight. It was satisfying, though, in a way, oddly sobering at the same time. There would be no great final battle, no last triumph for the rebels’ army. That had all been back at Redgate. Now… the Council’s forces were already shattered. Azal’s surprise attack had easily swept away their final plan. At this point, all that was left were the formalities.
But in any case, it was time. Time to, at last, do what this had all been leading up to from the very start.
“Let’s go, men,” Azal said. He didn’t shout, or even raise his voice that much. But his words resonated through the silent air, and at once, his men readied themselves.
Azal marched forwards, the army of the Bloodhorns behind him, to bring an end to the Council.