“Gerhardt, I must speak to you.”
Gerhardt turned. “Councillor Yulia. What brings you here?”
“What else, of course? The things going on right outside our door.” She smiled slightly.
Gerhardt’s eyes narrowed. “…why are you smiling?”
She closed her eyes. “Ah. It’s… amusing, that’s all.”
“Merely… that this would be the kind of person to cause my downfall. Gerhardt, you remember what happened back at Inferus, right?”
Gerhardt thought back to what she was talking about… to what had happened a long, long time ago.
Back when they hadn’t been the Council. Back when they had just been a group of rebels, and not a powerful one, either. Back when… back when they had been in the exact same position that their enemy was.
Inferus was a city that had existed back then, one that had been near the southernmost edge of Aead. It had existed, because during the course of their rebellion, it had been destroyed. Utterly.
It had been destroyed at the behest of Yulia.
It had happened during the relatively early stages of the rebellion. It had happened back when they had lacked power, lacked influence… lacked everything, really. Unlike the current rebels, they hadn’t had the advantage of starting as a cohesive splinter group in a large city. They had just been a loose alliance of like-minded people, spread out across several small villages in the South. Unlike the present rebels, they hadn’t had any good way to gather enough people to make a strong first move. They’d given their speeches and rallied the masses and gathered their mobs, of course, but… it had all taken place in the villages. They hadn’t been able to reach anywhere near the same amount of people that these rebels had.
And they couldn’t go to Inferus itself and start spreading their message, either, because – thanks to what had been, in retrospect, a horribly reckless attitude – word of their dissent had spread by then, and while there had been nothing quite concrete enough for the king to spend his time and effort trying to track them down and stop them, there had been more than enough to ensure that they would be watched if they tried entering one of the major cities. They would’ve never been able to talk to anyone like that.
So taking over Inferus had seemed to be out of the question. It had been something that they simply couldn’t do, not as things had stood. But nevertheless, they had all held out hope. If they could just find an opening, if they could sway the people of the city to their side, they would’ve been able to get a massive boost to their efforts.
Yulia had seen it differently.
To her, Inferus had been a lost cause. She had been more certain than anyone else that it would’ve been impossible for them to take it over. And she had also realized that, if the king were to decide that they were a threat, Inferus’ presence nearby would’ve made it easy for him to strike at them. And besides, as long as it was nearby to watch their every move, they wouldn’t be able to do anything major.
So, although the rest of them hadn’t given in easily, she eventually convinced them all that there was only one reasonable course of action – destroy the city utterly.
And that was what they’d done. They’d gathered their people – those people who had been fanatically loyal to them, but hadn’t yet done anything to come under the king’s particular attention – and they’d sent them into the city. And they’d had them set fire to it.
Inferus had burned. And so had all its people with it.
Even now, Gerhardt still didn’t like it. It had given them the space, the freedom to move and act that they had so desperately needed, and it had convinced people that maybe, just maybe, they would be able to do something. It had helped their efforts massively. But… that didn’t change the fact that it had been murder. Senseless, indiscriminate murder of anyone who’d happened to live in that city.
“Yes, Yulia,” Gerhardt said. “What of it?”
“Hm… I’m surprised you haven’t realized it yet. It’s simply that… I cannot help but see something of myself in this foe we are facing. Two rebels, two demons who wished, above all else, to overthrow the current order… and who would be willing to do anything to achieve that goal.”
Ah. So that was what it was.
Gerhard had heard Leonid’s report, of course. He’d heard of what had happened in the North… of the village that the rebels had burned.
They’d destroyed their people’s homes, even – as far as Leonid had been able to tell – killed some of their own people. And they’d done it all merely to gain an advantage for themselves in the war.
Almost like what had happened in Inferus.
And, Gerhardt realized, Yulia had been the first to propose the idea of releasing the old king from his prison…
Yes. Gerhardt supposed that… the two of them really were alike.
“Why are you telling me this, Yulia?”
“I can’t pretend anymore, Gerhardt,” she said. “We’ve done everything we could. I’ve done everything I could. It wasn’t enough. We’ve lost.”
Gerhardt’s gaze hardened. “…there is always a chance.”
Yulia sighed. “Do you truly believe that, Gerhardt? Or… is that merely what you want to believe?”
“I… cannot answer that, Yulia. I cannot be certain anymore. But… no matter what, we cannot give up. Even if there is no hope remaining.”
For a few moments, Yulia didn’t speak. She just looked down at the floor, thinking.
“Hm. Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at such an idea. But… now, I suppose it makes no difference in any case.” She looked up at him. “Very well, Gerhardt. Do as you please. Do whatever will bring you closure. But… allow me to tell you one thing.”
“What is it, Yulia?”
“At this point… there’s still time. There’s not much time, but there’s time. Whether or not you remain here and fight, the outcome will be the same. But… you still have time to flee. It may feel wrong, but trust me – it will not change anything. And at the very least, you will still be alive.”
Gerhardt looked at her suspiciously. “…why are you telling me this, Yulia?”
“Ah. You think it odd that I would be concerned about your life, do you?” She smiled. But there was a sad tinge to it. “I… have never let my concern for individuals dictate my actions before, true. I have always believed that the whole is more important. But now… it is as I have said. The whole will collapse anyway, regardless of what we do. So… I thought, if it doesn’t matter anyway… perhaps, at least one of us might survive.”
Gerhardt shook his head. “No, Yulia. You know I cannot. I could never simply flee and abandon my men to their fate.”
“I see,” Yulia nodded. “That is… what I expected.”
“And you, Yulia? You still have time to leave too.”
“You… are right,” she said. “But I have no intention of fleeing either. I’ve already made up my mind on that.”
“What will you do, then?”
She turned and began to walk down the corridor. Walk… down the direction that would lead her, eventually, to the doors of the Turrim Tenebris. Down the direction that would lead her right into the enemy’s path.
“Where are you going…?” Gerhardt asked, suddenly concerned.
“I… am going to meet my fate.”
The battle had been over in instants, though perhaps that should not have surprised Azal. Well, not much, anyways.
At an initial look, it seemed absurd. Now, at the end of it all, the stakes were at their highest. The Council was cornered, with nowhere left to go, nothing left to do but fight. If they failed here, they would fall, and the rebels would be the winners of the war. It seemed obvious that now, of all times, the Council’s men would fight their hardest.
But the Council’s men were still nothing but demons… nothing but people. And simple will and grit and tenacity conferred no supernatural powers. They had been unprepared for Azal’s attack when it had come, and they had been horribly outnumbered. Those two things combined into a nearly insurmountable disadvantage, no matter how much one didn’t want that to be true.
Of course… perhaps Azal wasn’t one to talk there. After all, he himself had overcome insurmountable odds several times now.
But just because he’d managed to be the exception several times in a row didn’t mean the reality had changed. The Council could put all its forces, all its resources into driving them back, do everything in their power to ensure that they would not fall here, or at least to make sure their last stand would be a thing of legend… but that wouldn’t change the truth of what was happening.
The real world was cold and cruel. It cared not for will or determination. There was only one thing it recognized: power.
And right now, Azal held all of that.
Which made sense. After all, this was the situation he’d always aimed for, wasn’t it? He had never been one for things like honor or glory. To him, there had always been only one thing that mattered. Victory… by any means necessary.
This was merely the natural culmination of that.
And besides, the real fight would come next. Azal and his men had scattered the Council’s men as they’d tried to make their stand in the city… but that would not be the place where their true last stand occurred. That would be inside the Turrim Tenebris itself.
Which was why it was time to strike at it… to take the fight to the Council one last time.
Azal rushed forward, and, together with his men, they barged through the doors of the Turrim Tenebris.
They were greeted with glimmering steel.
In front of them, across the great hall, the Council’s armies had assembled, one last time, to defend the great palace to their last breath. And at their helm stood… someone Azal recognized.
He’d never seen her in person before, of course. But he’d seen paintings of her. Anyone with any amount of culture had.
There, at the helm of the army gathered to make the Council’s last stand, stood Councillor Yulia.
And as Azal watched, she stepped forward. “Halt,” she called, and her voice echoed loud and clear throughout the room.
She looked across the room. “I wish to speak with the rebel leader.”
Azal looked around suspiciously. His army stood prepared for battle, seemingly unnerved by Yulia’s request… and, of course, he could understand why. It was not difficult to imagine that she had some design.
But… all the things Melthar had said to him before echoed in his mind.
If he merely slaughtered all opposition, if he suppressed everything that didn’t agree with him without even looking at it first… could he possibly claim to be standing for demonkind? It would be a risk, perhaps… but in this situation, it wasn’t as if Azal was defenseless. And after all he had done, he supposed the least he could do was hear the Council out.
“Step forward, then,” Azal said.
He expected some sort of resistance to that request. But Yulia stepped forward calmly, walking away from the protection of her army – and even dropping the short sword she’d been holding.
Azal turned his head to the side and nodded once. Janus and Melthar detached themselves from the army, came to his side, and walked forward alongside him.
After a few seconds, seconds throughout which the room was permeated with a silence as still and anxious as that of the grave, they stood face to face. Azal stood just behind his two bodyguards. Even if he’d decided to hear her out, he still didn’t trust this Councillor.
Especially not after what he’d hear about her.
“Hm,” Yulia said. Verdoi like her were a rare sort of demon, and Azal couldn’t help but be unsettled by looking at her. She was thin, thin like an insect, and that mouth of hers seemed far too wide for her face… not to mention the unnatural, pitch black skin, or the insectoid eyes, or the long claws sprouting from her fingertips. The nearly skeletal wings coming from her back seemed almost to be the least disturbing part of her appearance.
“And here you are,” she said. “I cannot help but realize that even after all that has happened, I still know nothing about you. What your name is, what inspired you to do all this… before this moment, I didn’t even know what sort of demon you were. But then, none of that’s really important.”
Even if her appearance was unsettling, she spoke with a calm, educated tone… and there was more to it than that, too. In a normal person, one could always detect some sort of uncertainty to their words, some things said more on impulse than anything else. With Yulia, it was different. She spoke as if every word had been carefully picked out – and yet, she did it with no hesitation at all.
Azal could respect that.
“Then what is important?”
“At this point? Just one thing,” Yulia said. “Who are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you believe? What do you want? Why did you do all this?” She glared at him, her gaze fierce – completely at odds with the situation. “After all you’ve done, I can’t help but respect you somewhat, so I’d like to imagine you aren’t just thirsty for power… but if that’s not the reason, then what is? Clearly, you don’t like us for some reason… so tell me. What is it?”
Azal frowned. But then again, he should’ve expected the question. Even if this wasn’t taking quite the direction he’d thought it would, he would’ve been foolish not to expect that to be asked at some point.
“It’s simple,” Azal said. “You… the Council… are all foolish dreamers. You strive and strive for your dream, for your wish to break free of Aead and live on Verta. In a way, it’s admirable. But…
“You forget one thing. You aren’t the only ones you’re responsible for. You are responsible for every single demon in this world, for every single person in your nation. Chasing an impossible dream is… fine. It’s not something I’d ever do, but, in a way, I suppose I can understand it. But you aren’t merely chasing your dream. You’re forcing every single demon, every single person here to chase it with you… and you’re forcing them to share whatever price you end up paying.”
“…I’d hope you’ve heard of this before,” Yulia said, a note of doubt entering her voice, “but the army is made up of volunteers. The men who pay the price are those who choose to.”
“I know,” Azal said. “But it isn’t that simple. It’s not merely the wars, though I can’t say I like the fact that you throw away thousands of lives on something so unattainable. But you’re right – those who perish there are those who have chosen to risk their lives. But they aren’t the only ones who you’re hurting.
“At the end of the day, though, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you wouldn’t realize. After all… that’s exactly what my problem with all this has been from the very start. You’re obsessed with your dream, obsessed with your endless war against mortals… and you’ve forgotten about everything else in the process. Have you seen what Redgate looked like before I took it over? The Baron was a fool, a tyrant, and a madman… and yet he was allowed to run free and do as he pleased, because you were all busy thinking about your war. All over Aead, dozens of cities and villages live barely under your supervision, governed not truly by you but by whoever happens to rule there… and sometimes, those people are good people, and the people who live in those places are lucky. But all too often, that isn’t the case…. and you never do anything about it, because you’re too busy thinking about your war.
“It’s consumed you. You can’t even be called the rulers of a nation anymore… merely the rulers of an army. You’ve put everything into your war, into your beautiful and yet oh so unachievable dream – and you’ve forgotten about your own people in the process. They deserve better, Yulia. They deserve better than a Council which barely even thinks about them. And if the price of that is to give up that dream… it’s a price I’ll gladly pay. Aead isn’t as bad as you seem to think it is.
“Oh, and… one more thing. You’ve learned, again and again, how large the difference in power between you and the mortals is. So let me ask you one thing – what happens when the mortals lose their patience? When that happens… what do you think will happen to demonkind? Do you think they will be merciful?”
Yulia stood with her arms folded, her eyes closed. Azal looked at her, waiting for her response.
Finally, she smiled.
“Hm. You know… a long time ago, I was very much like you,” she said. “From the start, I’d disagreed with the Council’s dream. From the start, I’d thought that they had to concentrate on what they had before they could possibly turn their thoughts elsewhere. But… I suppose I didn’t believe that with as much conviction as you do. It didn’t take them all that long, in the end, to convince me. Well… at first, I just went along with it because I realized I wouldn’t be able to change all their minds. But I supposed somewhere along the line, I began to believe in it myself.”
“Then, you agree?”
“Well… let me put it this way. It’s as you said. A dream isn’t a bad thing. But when you devote yourself to it to the exclusion of all else… when your dream becomes an obsession, when those who depend on you are left to suffer because that dream is all you can think of… you’re right. At that point, can you truly be a leader? Not even close.”
“I see,” Azal said. “Still, you are a Councillor. You understand that even if I try and negotiate with you, my people will never accept it.”
“Yes… you’re right,” Yulia said. “You’re exactly right.”
“Then why speak with me in the first place?” Azal asked. “If you knew I could not negotiate, why come out and talk anyway?”
“Because I knew your people would never accept negotiation,” Yulia said. “Because even though I didn’t know what you wanted until now, even though I didn’t know who you were… I knew what rebellions were. I’ve been in one, after all. You’ve riled your people up into a frenzy… and now, they won’t calm down easily. They’ll demand blood. And the only way you’ll be able to get it all into any semblance of order is if they have what they want.”
Wait. If they have what they want…? What is she…
“You don’t mean…” Azal said.
“I do,” Yulia said. “It’s not in my nature to do anything for my enemies, but… even I have to face the truth at some point. All of us do. Well…” She smiled slightly. “No, perhaps not. I suppose you would probably continue fighting even at this point, wouldn’t you? But… I am hardly that confident. And at this point, the Council has already lost.
“Which means it isn’t about them. Not anymore. Now… the only thing left to think about is demonkind. And if your rebels are going to be the next ones to lead us… if they’re placed in charge without being given a chance to get what they’ve wished for all this time first… they’re just going to tear themselves apart. And they’ll take demonkind with them.
“And the only way for them to be satisfied is for them to watch a Councillor die in front of their eyes.”
Azal stared at her.
“Hmph.” She smiled. “What is it, rebel? Are you of all people feeling sorry for me now?”
“…perhaps… perhaps you are right, Yulia,” Azal said. “But… you are more right than anyone would hope. So far, I’ve been able to keep them in check. But if they get their hands on a Councillor… I don’t know what they will do to you.”
“Neither do I,” Yulia said. “But if I must be the sacrifice to ensure that demonkind can maintain order… then so be it.”
They both looked at each other.
Azal waited for a moment, waited for her to look away. She didn’t.
“I see,” he said. “Then… you are determined?”
“I wouldn’t have told you all this if I wasn’t.”
“Farewell, then, Yulia,” Azal said. “Thank you.”
“I’m not doing this for your sake. But regardless… I must leave the rest in your hands. The fate of demonkind is now under your control.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. “So… you had best lead them well. You’re the only one they’ll have now.”
“I will,” he said. “That much… I can swear to you.”
“Then I suppose that is enough.” She turned and took a single step before looking back, one last time. “And one more thing… what is your name?”
“Azal,” he said, nodding to her.
He expected some sort of response. But instead, she just turned away once more, said “I see,” and walked back to her men.
Azal turned and did the same.
As he returned to the front lines, his men raised their weapons.
He didn’t see what his men did to Yulia.
Perhaps that was for the better.
She was dead. That much was for certain. The battle hadn’t taken long, but it had been chaotic and hard-fought. The Council’s forces had refused to give in easily, and it showed. All around him, the ground was littered with corpses, nearly every single one of them having fought to the very last, weapons clutched in their hands even as they fell. In such chaos, there wouldn’t have been any opportunity to take prisoners.
And in any case, Yulia had been right. Regardless of whether or not it was possible, it wouldn’t have happened anyway.
This was the price of rebellion, Azal now saw. Perhaps, in the end, his path would be better for demonkind… but it would be a path paved with bones, surrounded by blood. And not all of those who died would be those who had to die. It wasn’t because of any cruel intention of his, or because he particularly hated the Council, or, for that matter, because of anything he had done. It was merely a necessary consequence of stirring up the people to rebellion. Once it begun, it was nearly impossible to stop until all those the people saw as “enemies” were dead and gone.
Yulia had been an “enemy”. But she hadn’t had to die. Azal knew that if she had to, if she saw that the Council didn’t have any hope left of winning, she’d have worked with him. Perhaps she’d have even prevented more unnecessary bloodshed… and once it was all over, she certainly would’ve been able to help him. After all, he was under no illusions. After chaos like this, ruling would not be easy. Having an experienced Councillor to help him out would have been an enormous help.
But, of course, she’d been an “enemy”.
So there’d always only been one possibility.
And now, that one possibility had come to pass. She’d died at the hands of the mob, in some way Azal didn’t particularly care to imagine. It had been her sacrifice, her way to allow Azal’s people to have the satisfaction of striking back at their “oppressors”… and, quite possibly, the only reason Azal would be able to get his men under control once all this was over.
Well… it was too late to go back now. He’d made his choice, and he’d committed to it. He couldn’t back out anymore.
“Go, men!” he yelled as he sprinted further into the Turrim Tenebris. He didn’t know what fraction of the Turrim’s defenders his men had killed in that initial battle. At this point, it had quite possibly been over half. But of course, he couldn’t really make any guesses like that. He had no way of knowing.
All that he knew was that he had to keep going.
They rushed through the castle, storming through the hallways and rooms and chambers. He didn’t know the exact layout of the place, but he’d heard that the Council Chamber was supposed to be somewhere around the center. So the only thing he could do was head towards the center.
He pushed through doors upon doors, rushing through the castle. The sooner this was all over with, the better.
As he opened one of the doors and stepped through into what looked like some particularly wide hallway, he heard something behind him. He stopped, turned, and saw the Council’s men crowding around the door. As his own men ran in, the guards of the Turrim Tenebris turned and closed in on them, trying to use the surprise and attack them from both sides at once. It wasn’t a half-bad tactic, really. Nothing extraordinary, certainly, but it was a move that could’ve worked.
Of course, the difference in numbers was now simply too large.
It was ironic, in a way. Just a short time ago, he had been the one to be horribly outnumbered, to have to struggle to secure a victory even in a circumstance where he had all the advantages. Just a short time ago, he and his Bloodhorns had been the underdog, trying desperately to fight off the Council which was so much more powerful than them. Just a short time ago, a situation like this would have seemed like a dream come true, a chance to finally topple the oppressors that had caused them so much harm and trouble.
But now, he was the one whose forces hopelessly outnumbered the enemy. He was the one with an overwhelming advantage. The Council he was fighting against was now the underdog – and, unlike him, it didn’t seem like they had the capability to overcome their disadvantage. All he was doing now was finishing off an already-defeated opponent.
And Azal simply… found himself unable to derive any satisfaction from something like that. Even though this situation would have seemed ideal just a scant few days ago, now that he was the one actually carrying out this finishing blow… he couldn’t help but feel that he understood all too well how the Council must have been feeling at the moment.
Not just in the sense that he understood how it felt to be defeated like this – though he did. But rather… he felt he understood what the Council believed. He understood how much they felt – they knew – that they were in the right, that the rebels were the evil ones… just as much as the rebels knew that they were in the right, and that the Council was evil.
Which of them was right? There was no way to tell. Though, in such a situation… did something like being ”right” even exist?
For as much as their attack had been a good one, for as much as they fought bravely and without fear… the Bloodhorns cleared out the Council’s men within but a few minutes. Within the crowd, Azal thought that, just for a moment, he saw a face he recognized – a face that he recalled from the portraits he’d seen again and again. The face of Councillor Daniel.
Was he really here, or was it just Azal’s eyes playing tricks on him? More likely the former, Azal decided. After all, there would have to be someone leading the group of men. In a situation such as this, a Councillor seemed like the most likely candidate.
Assuming Azal was right, he already knew what had happened to him. He’d been killed, killed without ceremony or dignity. Simply run down by the vast mob of rebels.
And even if he wasn’t… well, it would happen soon enough anyway. It would be the same thing that would happen to all the Councillors.
From there, it wasn’t much longer until Azal made it to the Council Chamber itself. Inside, as he’d expected, he found himself greeted by an army. The Council’s last defenders, all gathered together for a single, desperate, last stand.
At the front of the army stood Councillors Gerhardt and Adrien.
“So, you’ve arrived,” Gerhardt said, looking coldly at Azal and the Bloodhorns.
“Yes,” Azal nodded.
“Know that we will not make this easy for you,” Gerhardt said. “If you wish to rule, then we will fight to our last breaths to stop you.”
“I know,” Azal said, a small frown on his face.
And just one battle later, the throne of demonkind was his.