“Heh… so, I guess you’ve finally done it.” Melthar smiled, though there was something to it that Azal could see. Regret, he supposed. “Well done, Azal.”
“No,” Azal said. “It’s not done yet.”
“Right. The “contingency…” or, if we’re going to stop beating around the bush, the Archdemon.”
“Not just the Archdemon,” Azal said, shaking his head. “I’ve won the war… but that’ll only be the first part of the struggle. The Archdemon was hated throughout all of Aead, but the Council was different. Many demons loved them. And those demons won’t accept me as their leader so easily.”
“Well, that makes sense,” Melthar said. “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you were wrong to do what you did. You had a reason, and it was a good one. But the Council wasn’t a bunch of tyrants. They were self-destructive, and lacking in foresight, and overly idealistic… but all in all, they tried their best. Even if it would’ve inevitably lead to disaster eventually, they were doing their best to ensure that demonkind would have prosperity… or their version thereof, anyway. And aside from the constant, senseless war, aside from the sacrifices of thousands of demon soldiers – and the deaths of just as many mortal ones – aside from all that… you can’t deny they weren’t bad rulers. It’s not surprising that they would be beloved… and nor, I dare say, is it unreasonable.”
“Hmph,” Azal grunted. “No need to play coy with me, Melthar. I understand what you’re trying to say.”
“Then I suppose I may as well cut to the chase,” Melthar said. “You’re right. I’m talking about you. During all their reign, during the centuries they’ve ruled over demonkind, the Council has never lost sight of its ideals. Sure, they did some pretty stupid things to fulfill those ideals… but the fact is, they never abandoned them. They never lost sight of what it is they took over for in the first place.” The god’s brilliant blue eyes pierced Azal with a sharp gaze. “Now, my question is…”
“Can the same be said of me?” Azal asked.
“Hah. I see you’ve already seen the issue, then.”
“Yes,” Azal nodded. “I know. I’m all too aware. I didn’t realize it until recently, but… you’re right. Whatever reason I started this rebellion for… I’ve lost sight of it.”
“Well, that makes this easier,” Melthar said. “But just because you’re aware of the problem doesn’t fix it. I supported you all this way, because I knew that if the Council was allowed to keep on doing what it’s been doing all this time, it’d inevitably lead to demonkind’s destruction – and if they did somehow survive, it would be at the expense of the mortals. Whichever way it turned out, that wouldn’t be something I want. That’s why I decided to help you. But just because I helped you get this far, don’t think I consider you my master in any way. I am a Great Power, Azal. Do not forget that I helped you of my own will, because I wanted to. Now that I’ve achieved my goal… there’s nothing tying me to you anymore.”
“You know, you could’ve said that in a much simpler way.”
“Hmph. So you’ve figured out what I’m saying again? Well, don’t get too proud of yourself. That one was easy.”
“Yes… I understand,” Azal said. “You didn’t want the Council to keep ruling demonkind. You wanted a better ruler for them. But just because I deposed the Council doesn’t mean I’ll be a better ruler. And if I’m not, you’re fully prepared to depose me and install someone else on the throne.”
“Yeah… that’s more or less it,” Melthar said.
“As I’ve said before… you’re right,” Azal said. Though he knew Melthar really would kill him if he proved to be just another tyrant, this time, he wasn’t simply saying whatever was necessary to preserve his power. This time, he spoke with absolute honesty – and with a cold, resolved tone. “I started this rebellion for the same reason you decided to help it. Because the Council’s actions would lead to the annihilation of demonkind. But at some point along the line, I ended up simply wanting more power. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten my original reasoning… it had simply become irrelevant, somewhere in the depths of my mind. The people around me became nothing more than pawns for me to use to overthrow the Council, nothing more than pieces on a gameboard. It was necessary, because with how much of a disadvantage we were at compared to the Council, we had no choice but to do everything in our power to win… but at some point, I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be something distasteful in the first place.
“So you’re right. At some point, I have become just as bad as those whom I’ve overthrown. But… that’s because I lost sight of why I was doing this in the first place. Because I lost sight of what this all was supposed to be. But…”
Azal looked up at Melthar. His deep blue eyes, normally so casual and relaxed, coldly bored into him with a merciless gaze. It was the face of a judge standing before the judged – the face of one whose mind was already deciding another’s fate.
Not too long ago, that would’ve scared Azal. Not that he would’ve shown it, of course. But it would’ve scared him. He would’ve known that this was not someone he wanted as an enemy. And so, he would’ve said whatever Melthar would’ve wanted to hear – whatever would’ve kept him on his side.
He was past that now. Back during that final battle, he’d realized something. When the Council’s last line of defenses had simply fallen, trampled by the relentless tide of the rebels… when Councillor Yulia had thrown away her own life for the sake of a future for demonkind… when the Council had collapsed under the force of their attack without so much as a hope of survival… that was when Azal had realized that he’d become just like those he despised. Not the Council, though – Azal had never been like them, and he knew he never would be. He had become just like the one who had been even worse than them, the one whom both he and the Council had known as the definition of evil. He had become just like the old king.
And after that, he’d had to make a decision.
Continue doing what he’d been doing all this time. Build his kingdom. Become the king that would lead demonkind to greatness, that would turn what the mortals saw as nothing more than pests constantly plaguing them into a power to match the mortals’ greatest nations. Gain power, gain influence, gain wealth, and do it all as safely as possible. And do it all at the expense of his subjects. Do it all without sparing a moment’s thought for whomever he hurt, for the feelings or thoughts or dreams of anyone but him.
Or… stop. And become the sort of ruler demonkind needed.
It had been an obvious choice.
He wouldn’t become the old king. And he wouldn’t lie about what he was anymore, either. After all, if he’d already made up his mind… there was no more need to lie anymore.
“I am no idealist, Melthar. I have never believed in lofty dreams or grand ideals. But I believe in something else. I believe in what is here. I believe in all the things around us, all the things we can see and touch and feel and sense. And I believe in one truth, the truth that perhaps all the world’s simple folk believe in – that a great ruler can only be one who rules for his subjects.
“If I were to continue doing what I was doing before, I would not become like what I had fought. I would not become like the Council. I would become like the old king. And considering what I have just said… that is the one thing I will do everything in my power to avoid. Will I be able to avoid it? I can’t know. Not yet. I know the sort of person I am, now. It’ll have to be a lifetime of constantly keeping myself in check, of constantly looking over everything I’m doing again and again and again, making sure I’m not subconsciously doing the very things I thought I’d never do. But I can tell you one thing – no matter what, I’ll try. Whatever you may think of me, Melthar, I assure you that being like the old king is not something I want. And… I think you know me well enough to know what happens when I don’t want something.”
For just an instant there was silence, and then, very slightly, Melthar smiled.
“Heh. So, that’s your defence, then?” he said. “Well… I guess it’s the best I could really hope for. If you really do hold yourself to your words, you could be the exact sort of ruler demonkind needs right now… but of course, that’s still an if, isn’t it? But… I’m willing to give you a chance.”
“Thank you,” Azal said. “And there’s one more thing I want to ask.”
“The Council’s “contingency…” or, as you said, the Archdemon. The old king,” Azal said. “By now, we both know just how powerful he is. And we know how much of a threat he could easily be. He is the one obstacle we must still overcome before we can truly consider this war won. So… are you with us?”
“Oh, that’s all you wanted to ask?” Melthar asked, a coy tone in his voice. “Well… let me put it this way. You know how… hm, actually, you probably don’t. You know anything about mortal creation myths?”
“Well, back at the very beginning, we, the Great Powers, were the first things to come into existence. But of them, I was the first to be born. Lein and Avylia came into being just a bit later, making me – even if only by a little bit – the oldest creature in existence,” Melthar said. “Or, well… that’s how the story usually goes. But really, there was one other Great Power – one other one that was born at the same instant I was. I won’t say his name, but… well, you’ve probably guessed it already, but you know him as the Archdemon.
“And for a long, long time… we were close. I was far closer to him than I was to the other two. We considered each other brothers. But despite that, I never noticed it when he started to feel differently than all the rest of us… or perhaps I just didn’t want to notice. In any case, when he started growing more power-hungry, when he started thinking that our powers meant we should be ruling over the people, I didn’t notice it until it was too late. Eventually, having had dominion over the realm of Aead, he took the angels and, with a single, enormous spell, turned them into new, twisted creatures – creatures totally obedient to him. Demons.
“Or, well… that was the plan. Of course, for anyone else, anything remotely similar would’ve been totally impossible. But aside from Aead, his domain as a Great Power was power over people. So, with those two dominions combined, his great spell worked… sort of. It twisted the entire realm of Aead, yes. And it turned all the angels unlucky enough to still be there at the time into demons, just as he’d intended. But even someone as great as he was could not enforce absolute obedience in an entire race just like that.
“But, of course… that wouldn’t stand. And at the end of the day, he didn’t need the spell that would make demons obedient to him. Not really. It would’ve made things easier, yes… but since it had failed, he saw no problem with simply moving on to his backup plan.”
“Taking control by force,” Azal said.
“Precisely,” Melthar said. “And the rest is history. So you see now, don’t you? If I’d stepped in a bit sooner, if I’d admitted to myself what I was seeing, if I’d been willing to intervene and stop my brother… we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. The Archdemon’s rule turned the demons into something the mortals feared – and that was why, when the Council took over, they thought had no choice but to keep being enemies with the mortals. If I’d acted sooner, if the Archdemon’s rule had never happened… well, even I can’t know how different things would’ve been. But at the very least, it would’ve never gotten to this point.
“So do you see?” he asked. “I failed to stop this whole mess from starting… but at the very least, I can lay it to rest, once and for all.” Melthar nodded slightly. “Yeah. I’m with you.”
“Thank you, Melthar,” Azal said. “Then we can’t waste a moment. We must prepare.”
“Heh heh heh… so, this is what has happened, hm? This is what has become of my old kingdom… hm hm hm.” The Archdemon laughed. But there was something just behind that amusement, something twisted and dark and roaring and raging – something that was just waiting to be let loose, to be unleashed upon the world. Something that terrified those who heard it, something that spoke louder than words ever could. It didn’t matter how good-naturedly the Archdemon seemed to be taking this. It didn’t matter how much he chuckled or laughed as if he himself was amused by the changes that had occurred.
Inside, the King was furious.
If it was deep inside, that would’ve been fine. But it wasn’t. It was a hot, boiling anger, burning just beneath the surface, visible in every single small motion he made and audible in every single syllable he spoke. He laughed and chuckled and made light of all that had happened, because that was the only way he could keep the rage contained for even another moment.
And, of course, it went without saying that he wasn’t keeping it contained out of the good of his heart. He was merely waiting for the right moment – the right moment to unleash the full force of his wrath.
That was what terrified the man beside him most of all. The knowledge that, at any moment, the Archdemon’s rage could boil over… and if that happened, there wouldn’t be a thing the man could do about it. There wouldn’t be a thing anyone could do about it. They would all simply burn to ashes.
It would seem like common sense that the man’s terror would be shared by everyone else in the Archdemon’s company. But that was far from true. Oh, certainly, there was plenty of fear Ian could see – all of it suppressed, of course; the Archdemon would punish any sign of weakness without hesitation. But it was all near the fringes of the group the Archdemon had gathered as he’d marched across the demons’ lands, pressing any he found “worthy” into service and killing everyone else. Each and every of the demons surrounding them would die if they displeased the Archdemon even slightly… but only slightly over half of them seemed to be even slightly fearful.
Of course, that wasn’t odd at all. After all, all the rest didn’t have any will with which to be fearful anymore.
The Archdemon acted somewhat sparingly with his power over the minds of others. The man couldn’t be sure why, but… he supposed even he had some sort of limit. Even the Archdemon could not forcefully control too many people at once… though, of course, the man would never dare so much as imply that in spoken conversation. Even considering that the Archdemon might have some sort of weakness would be met with instant death.
Then again, the man thought, perhaps that would be better. Once the Archdemon got a proper base of operations again, he wouldn’t stop at simply killing those who displeased him. Perhaps it would be better to simply get himself killed before then and spare himself the inevitable pain.
The man’s name was Ian Sabrin.
After he’d made his attempt on Azal’s life, he hadn’t dared to go north. That was the territory of the Bloodhorns, after all, and he’d seen just how ruthless Azal could be when the situation called for it. He couldn’t be sure the information about his attack had even made it back to Redgate by that point, but… he couldn’t risk it.
So instead, he’d fled south, hoping to pass through uninhabited territory and get to a Portal. From there, he’d be able to get back to Verta and flee back to Sagnir. At that point, his scheme to steal control of the demons had almost certainly been unsalvageable already, but he’d still be able to just get back to his previous life as if nothing had happened. As far as he was concerned, that would’ve been perfectly fine. After all, there was never any guarantee a gambit like his would pay off. Simply getting off scot-free would’ve been good enough for him.
Unfortunately, he’d had no such luck.
He’d managed to make it a decent amount of distance without being spotted, but before he got all the way to the portal, he’d gotten unlucky. Some guardsmen from a small village who were loyal to the Council had spotted him and realized he was a human, and, after they’d gotten over their initial shock, had gone out and captured him. He’d tried to get away, but their knowledge of the geography had been far superior, and he’d had no luck.
Only at that point, it seemed, had the men involved realized that there was no procedure for dealing with something like this, and so, they’d had no idea what to do with him after capturing him. In the absence of anything else to do, they’d decided to take him to the Council – or at least, to someone closer to them – and get some instructions. But just as they’d been planning to do that, the rebels had attacked Merdrun and taken it, and the news had reached the group’s ears. Realizing that they could hardly go to Merdrun now, the group of demons had decided to flee south, Ian still in tow, and figure out what to do once the rebels were defeated (they’d seemed to have no doubts that that would eventually happen).
That was when they’d run into the Archdemon.
The demons that had captured him had been utterly loyal to the Council, and had refused to serve the Archdemon. The Archdemon, not seeing them as worthwhile enough to waste energy mind-controlling, had slaughtered them all. Ian, of course, had had no such compunctions.
Though now, he couldn’t help but find himself halfway wishing he had. Some part of him thought that death would have been preferable to this – to living in constant fear, knowing that every moment, an unstoppable force far beyond his wildest imagination could simply decide to kill him, and there wouldn’t be anything he could do to stop it… but even then, most of all, Ian simply wanted to live. This was the most horrific thing he’d ever experienced, the greatest terror he’d ever felt, and the most powerless he’d ever been… and yet, though many would curse him for it, and he himself was tempted to do the same, he still found it preferable to dying.
If the price for continuing to live was serving this mad king’s every whim… then, though he hated himself for it, it was a price he would pay. If only he had more courage, if only he wasn’t this afraid of death, he could’ve simply angered the Archdemon and ended his suffering. But he couldn’t. No matter how much his mind objected to it, no matter how much his dignity or pride or conscience – whatever conscience he still had – railed against it, his heart could not help but simply do whatever the Archdemon said. He was too terrified to do anything else.
The Archdemon had forced Ian to tell him everything about what had happened in Aead recently, and it seemed like that was the part that had enraged the mad king more than anything else. He had already hated, of course, the fact that his kingdom was being ruled by someone else… but it seemed the thought that he had been overthrown by rulers too weak to even stop their own people when they rose up against them was what made him the most furious. And, of course, he hardly had any love for the new wave of rebels, either.
Ian dreaded what would happen when the Archdemon eventually, inevitably, overthrew the Bloodhorns. Even though he’d planned to betray Azal from the start, even though he’d always been using the rebellion just for his own personal gain, there had been nothing personal about it – and in a way, he had even liked Azal, just a little. He didn’t want to see what the Archdemon would do to them.
Of course, knowing the Archdemon… it was rather likely he wouldn’t just stop at making Ian watch. More likely, he’d make Ian himself carry out their punishments. And Ian knew that he would obey.
Damn it all, he thought to himself. Damn me… and damn those rebels… and damn this cursed Archdemon!
The Archdemon’s stride didn’t change, not even a bit, but his eyes that blazed like flame turned, just slightly, in Ian’s direction.
Ian’s heart leapt up into his throat, and his mind froze.
The Archdemon had the power to control minds. Did that mean… did that mean he could even hear Ian’s thoughts…?
The Archdemon smiled slightly.
And he walked on.
Ian forced down the scream that had nearly torn itself loose from his throat. He wanted to run away. He needed to run away. The group wasn’t that big, not yet. And besides – for some reason beyond his understanding, though probably just a whim – the Archdemon had placed him at the front. If he tried to flee, he’d be outside the reach of the ring of demons within seconds. And then he’d be free, free of all this. He’d need to run far to be sure they couldn’t reach him, but he could do it.
No. He couldn’t do it.
He would’ve been able to do it if it was an ordinary person leading this group.
But the Archdemon would just kill him in the blink of an eye.
He forced himself to march onwards alongside the Archdemon, trying not to think about what would happen when he inevitably tired of him.
“Right now…? It’s not good. A lot better than it could’ve been,” Alexander said, “but not good. After a rebellion like this, it should be obvious that there’s going to be dissent. The army’s been spending all its time supressing it. We should mostly have Merdrun under control, along with the immediate surroundings, but… I can’t guarantee any more than that. And, for that matter, if we get the army to start doing something else, I can’t even guarantee that.”
Azal supressed an exclamation of annoyance. Granted, it wasn’t much worse than he thought it’d be, but… that was still bad enough.
“And yet we need the army,” Azal pointed out. “And we need them ready. And we need them now.”
“Yeah. We do,” Alexander agreed. “That’s exactly the issue. We can’t pull the army back now, not if we don’t want unrest to tear us apart… but we have to.”
“Perhaps we could stall for a while?” Darius suggested, his voice uncharacteristically serious. “If we managed to delay the battle until the area was more controlled, we wouldn’t have to worry as much about unrest.”
Melthar shook his head. “No. You don’t know the Archdemon like I do. Trust me: he’s going to march straight to Merdrun, and he’s not going to let anything stop him. And he’s not going to let anything delay him either. We’ll just have to be ready to fight him whenever he arrives.”
“What do we do, then?” Azal said. “We cannot simply ignore what will happen if we refocus the army’s efforts.”
“We have to,” Melthar said. “Unrest, chaos, protests… we can deal with all of that later. We cannot allow the Archdemon to take Merdrun. If he gets a base of operations to work from, we won’t be able to stop him.”
“Why not?” Darius asked. “The Council did.”
“When the Council had faced him, he was at a fraction of his current power,” Melthar said. The entire time he’s been sealed away, he’s simply been practicing his magic, perfecting it further and further. Back then, he wasn’t that much stronger than a particularly powerful normal mage – no real threat to an entire army, not by himself. Now… now he’s in an entirely different league.
“Right now, he probably doesn’t have many men with him. Certainly, he’s been recruiting throughout southern Aead, but he wouldn’t focus too much on that before he’s taken Merdrun back. After all, knowing him, I’d be willing to bet he thinks he can take on our entire army by himself… and he might not be wrong.”
“Hang on, now,” Darius said. “Didn’t you say even you wouldn’t be able to do that?”
“I wouldn’t be able to even come close,” Melthar said. “My powers work excellently against single opponents, even powerful ones. But the Archdemon is different. He is a fearsome fighter in a duel, yes, but it would be against hundreds of weak foes that his power would truly shine. Our unique abilities as Great Powers are nice and all, but for sheer destructive power, with the possible exception of what Lein could do, there’s really nothing that can match simple, normal magic with enough power put into it.”
“Damn it…” Darius muttered. “Well, what do we do, then?”
“As for that, I have an idea,” Azal said. “After all, Melthar, you yourself just said your powers were good against single opponents, didn’t you?”
“Exactly,” Melthar said. In normal circumstances, Azal would’ve expected him to react to how he’d just guessed what he was thinking, but… these were hardly normal circumstances. “We’ll have the best chance of victory if I face the Archdemon myself… and besides, it’ll give me a chance to finally settle the score. But I can’t do that if whatever demons he’s gathered so far keep harassing me as I fight. That’s why we’ll need the army, Azal.”
“Yes,” Azal said. But still, he hesitated for a moment. The Archdemon was a threat, yes, but… couldn’t unrest and rebellions bring down a ruler just as well as an outside threat? If they couldn’t find a way to keep the people in check while the army was busy, wouldn’t they be destroyed just as surely as if they didn’t prepare for the battle against the Archdemon in the first place?
But if he defeated the Archdemon and was deposed afterwards, then at least the new ruler would still, most likely, have demonkind’s best interests in mind. At the very worst, it’d be as if he hadn’t started this rebellion in the first place.
He didn’t like the thought of that. But it was far better than what would happen if the Archdemon won.
“Very well,” he said. “I will have them prepare.”
“Good,” Melthar nodded. “The answer to this one is probably “no,” but… do we have any information on where the Archdemon is right now?”
“No,” Azal said. “I sent Aya out to see if she could find them, but…”
“Ah,” Melthar said, cringing slightly in his chair. “Damn it…”
Azal closed his eyes. He had to admit, even though he’d tried not to get too attached to any of his followers… he had liked Aya. She’d reminded him of something long lost to him. Thinking about what had probably happened to her was… painful.
But there would be time for that later. For now, they needed to prepare.
“Alexander, get the troops ready,” Azal said.
Aya trembled, on her knees. She couldn’t help it. She’d sworn to herself that she’d serve Azal no matter what, that she’d never back down from any enemy, that she’d face any trial without fear… but… this man…
This man was terrifying. That was all there was to it. No matter how much she told herself to stay calm, how much she told herself that she had to be loyal, that she had to be brave… she couldn’t stop trembling.
“I-I don’t care what you do,” she stuttered out, holding back tears. “I’ll never betray Azal! Never!”
“Hmph. A little rat like you showing such loyalty…?” the man – she thought she remembered Azal calling him the Archdemon – said, cold scorn in his voice. “Then again, I suppose for a master like that rebel, a servant like you is only appropriate…” He turned away, muttering to himself disinterestedly. “I should never have allowed creatures like you to exist in the first place…. that was a mistake. From the start, I should have been the only one allowed to have such powers…”
“Y-you! W-what… what do you want from me?!” Aya yelled, as much to assuage her own fear as anything else. At least if she knew, if she knew what he was planning… maybe it’d be easier to prepare for.
The Archdemon smirked and placed a hand on her forehead.
And, though she couldn’t describe the feeling, she felt something happen.
“Now then… rise.”
And, without even thinking about what she was doing, she stood up.
“Hmph…” He looked over her coldly. “You still dare to wear that pathetic disguise? Return to what you truly are, mongrel.”
And, against her will, her body began to change. The human form she had transformed herself into twisted, shrunk, began to turn back into the tiny form of a shadow…
H-he’s… c-controlling my mind…
He’d use her. He’d use her in the same way she’d served Azal, only worse. He’d use her to get close to Azal… and when the time was right, he’d make her…
He’d make her…
She’d be forced to… to kill… Azal…?
Anything else. He could do whatever he wanted with her. But… she would never betray Azal! Never…!
No matter what.
The transformation stopped and reversed, and she turned back into her human form. The Archdemon recoiled and pulled his hand away, shocked.
She didn’t pause to think. There was no need for her to think about what she was doing.
She just punched the Archdemon in the face.
“Agh!” he screamed. “You… you bitch…!”
Without a moment’s hesitation, without a moment’s thought, she charged forward.
The Archdemon recovered and extended a hand, a nigh-insane scowl on his face.
In that moment, Aya knew.
She was about to die.
Better that than betraying Azal.
…and then she only felt fire.